the sound of waves

I’m back in snowy Canada now, but here’s a picture of my last day at the beach, reading To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf was at the start and end of my trip, I finished Mrs. Dalloway on the way to the airport two weeks ago (and got so much more out of it this time) and then finished To the Lighthouse on the plane coming back. In between I also loved The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (it’s strawberry sweet) and The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (quirky fun).

And I went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando! It was thrilling, magical and at the same time just a bit too commercialized.

Aside from that, I’m just trying to recover from so much sunshine and excitement and noise — I didn’t even unpack today (and likely won’t be joining in Persephone Reading Weekend), I set up a LibraryThing account instead, here! I’m wanting to settle into some quiet old fashioned reading (Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell maybe) or may do some very rare once yearly baking, I found a recipe for black forest brownies that’s rather tempting.

The whole mass of the picture was poised upon that weight. Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses. And she began to lay on a red, a grey, and she began to model her way into the hollow there.

That was one of the quotes I remembered from reading To the Lighthouse in university.

Report from Florida

I am breaking my self-imposed no blogging while in Florida rule here to share a few of my adventures so far. As you can see, it’s lovely and sunny at the beach and I am so glad to be away from snow, but it’s not quite warm enough to do without a cardigan all the time! My husband and I have been busy hitting up all of the local bookstores at our usual holiday rate of one (and sometimes two) a day and I’m happy to be able to visit Barnes & Noble again. (We tried to find good used bookstores here last time. They were mostly in crummy old buildings full of crummy old books. We’re not going to keep that game up this year!) I’ve managed to find four Virago Modern Classics, all in other editions (mostly NYRB Classics — I am actually trying to control a new mania to collect more of those!), but still thrilling none the less. I am considering reading more American authors, and am starting to be drawn towards reading about New York in particular. (Any recommendations there?) Edith Wharton and Truman Capote are two I’m wanting to explore further and it’s nice to see more of their books in stock here beyond their most famous.

I’ve also been skipping between about eight different books so far on this trip! I don’t know why I can’t focus on any of them (I do want to finish all of them eventually), but here’s the list:

  • A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf — read a bit of this on the plane, with pencil in hand. I finished Mrs. Dalloway in the car on the way to the airport (absolutely fantastic this time around, so glad I read it a second time) and wanted to bring some more Virginia with me to keep that happy floating lyrical alive feeling inside. I love the feminist angle of this essay and have some more thoughts of my own on the topic, but it’s not quite the same thing as Mrs. Dalloway.
  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf — I haven’t read this since university and have been meaning to reread it eventually. I gave it a go our first night in Florida, but even it didn’t feel quite as joyful and light as Mrs. D (although isn’t as sad either) and I couldn’t quite handle reading about the old fashioned views on being a woman, as a big mother to all men, that Mrs. Ramsey holds. (I know those ideas aren’t embraced by Woolf herself, she’s just realistically portraying people as they are, but it’s too close to the way I was brought up.)
  • Someone at a Distance, Dorothy Whipple — to my delight this was waiting for me in Florida! I won a gift certificate from last year’s You’ve Got Mail reading challenge (thank you again, Stacy!), for the American Amazon, so had this sent ahead to my in-laws to meet me here. I was delighted with the first chapter, reading it our first day on the beach, but soon found the characters — the self-sacrificing mother, the demanding mother-in-law, the scheming frenchwoman, the daughter who loves her pony and her mummy so much, the noble brother in the army — to be slightly, well… unsurprising? I know so many of you love this that I will continue with it eventually, but for now I’ve skipped on.
  • The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim!!! This was my first book bought here (my husband found it for me) and when I began reading I breathed a huge mental sigh of relief. Wisteria and sunshine, holidays, yes every virtuous woman deserves holidays, I nodded along with the characters, smiling and sharing all their feelings. The problem is… I want to savour it! Especially for colder days when I’ll need more of an escape, when I’m no longer around palm trees and sunny skies and sand myself.
  • A Game of Hide and Seek, Elizabeth Taylor — I had brought this along for the trip, a fresh new Virago, and I breathed another sigh of relief on starting it. It starts with a fresh summer evening and young love, but quickly develops into a deeper and sharper examination of everyone’s motivations, just as I’ve come to expect from Elizabeth Taylor. It’s just a bit sad since things don’t seem to quite work out for the young couple.
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy — another one of my VMC finds here. For the first chapter or so I wasn’t quite sure about it, but I’ve really come to love it. It’s the story of an American girl in Paris in the ’50s and she acts like Holly Golightly while talking like Philip Marlowe, with her hilarious use of American slang and catch phrases all her own. I’ve been reading out bits to my husband and really, I think I’ll just solve my problem and come back to this one.
  • Bliss and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield — I always want to read more of her since I always like her when I do, so this was a noble attempt the other night before bed to get on with it. Perhaps it’s just not a good mix of author and my current location at the moment and I’m better off sticking with my amusing American friend above.
  • The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton — phew! I got this one out today from the library to get into this whole New York thing, but maybe it feels a bit too slow and old fashioned for the beach, even with social schemers named Undine Spragg… Oh my bookishly wayward heart!

Speaking of New York-ish books that are ridiculously slow, this quote was in my head today:

It was New York mourning, it was New York hair, it was a New York history, confused as yet, but multitudinous, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, almost every human appendage, all on a scale and with a sweep that required the greater stage; it was a New York legend of affecting, of romantic isolation, and, beyond everything, it was by most accounts, in respect to the mass of money so piled on the girl’s back, a set of New York possibilities. She was alone, she was stricken, she was rich, and in particular was strange…

From The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. (I do want to finish it and have never quite managed to. Talk about a book nemesis!)

Besides the new books, the wonderful thing about this trip is that I’ve started to write a few short stories. While thinking about feminism and what the act of reading means for women (it can be seen as a selfish act, since there are so many more useful things she could be doing — or this was how I was made to feel as a teenager when I was reading sprawled out on the soft instead of in the kitchen helping my mom and sister out. Reading Virginia Woolf’s essay earlier this week I was thinking, women need a room of their own just to read and think in privacy, just for their own peace of mind!), I came across this article from Bitch magazine a few years ago, about ‘women, writing and the problem of success.’ That women aren’t encouraged to be that ambitious as writers (let alone in math and science, etc!), that they need to downplay their creations as ‘this little thing’ so they won’t be so rejected. It challenged me to own up to something:

I want to be a writer. A Novelist. That is all I’ve wanted to be for years. I know it’s impractical, I know I need a back-up job (believe me I’ve been looking for a good one that will give me lots of free time and low stress with enough money for books and shelter), but it is all my heart longs for. And as it’s not at all harmful to anyone and will actually improve my mental health, I’m going to stop being ashamed of telling people this, as if it’s some pathetic little copycat secret.

I watched the first episode of Any Human Heart on PBS Sunday night, watched as a rather self-absorbed inexperienced British boy waltzed his way into writing a bestselling novel, thanks to timely encouragement from Hemingway and a supportive girlfriend at his side. My brother-in-law also wants to be a writer (of plays, not novels, so we’re still friends) and what has he done, oh he’s taking it seriously, he got an MFA impractical as it is and writes every morning two hours a day, plus looks everywhere for related jobs, he’s taught writing at summer camps and for juvenile delinquents. Me, I’m too terrified to even apply to a single creative writing class. (I have taken playwriting and screenwriting classes in university, but only because they were the kinds of writing I didn’t want to do, so it was fine if I failed.) I finally got up my courage to begin working on a novel a few years ago, but it began to go in scary directions (after sleeping around with various inappropriate people, my main character had a baby which was supposed to solve all her problems and her marriage, but then she didn’t want the baby after all or the happy safe ending I was determined she have and I was venturing into more realism and also postpartum depression than I was prepared to handle at that point) and I stopped. There’s another great essay by Virginia Woolf called Professions for Women (that’s a link to the whole thing, it’s quite short and definitely worth reading), where she talks about women writers and even herself, holding back their imaginations because what they have to say about their bodies and passions and experiences seems too dangerous. I could have cried when I read that.

So I am determined to write again. Even if it’s not ‘good enough.’ Maybe “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body” could have saved Virginia Woolf? There is still time for me though. As long as I’m alive, I can be ambitious, I can tell the truth of my own experiences. I don’t need to keep silent anymore, I don’t need to listen forever without speaking up. I can model myself after the many great female authors I love and revere. I began to write a short story on the beach the other day, modeling it after Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (and Virginia Woolf’s novels!) and what they’ve taught me. I used to freeze up from just writing something, anything, thinking that unless I could be as stoic about it as Hemingway, a stand up soldier at the typewriter, I wouldn’t succeed. But there are as many different ways to write as there are people and I have my own voice to find and deliver.

I’ll be blogging less (only once a week) so I can focus on my writing more and I may not reply to every comment, but I do value them and all of you reading so much. In fact, I know that it’s because of my new-found confidence in writing here (via Virago reading week and Virago Press giving so many women a voice, lighting a fire in me) that I’m able to start writing other things again too. When I listen to waves on the beach, I hear Virginia Woolf describing the sea, I feel the tone of a Katherine Mansfield reverie, I remember how Elizabeth Bowen shaped her stories, and words, memory, invention, comes splashing back.

These are the stories

Thinking further about why I read. In my own experience, there was one great reason from the beginning: to escape. I remember as a child feeling so afraid, standing in my room, knowing that most people didn’t feel this way, but that I was afraid of what people would do to me. I read whatever I found on the shelves in the basement of our farmhouse, Swiss Family Robinson, Sherlock Holmes stories, an old book about heroic horses and dogs (I loved that book) and even The Cross and the Switchblade — yes, New York gangstas finding jesus in the ’70s! I have a poem I copied out from kindergarten, it was The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, that one just enchanted me (‘The owl & the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat’) and I also copied out the story from one of those Mr. Men books about Mr. Tickle! I made up stories in my head too, largely romantic nonsense, but all mine.

In many ways, my mom showed me how to be a close reader. She has endlessly studied her bible over the years, not just telling us the stories fit for children, but getting us to read the whole things ourselves. We would discuss translations and different interpretations of a passage or word and how the translation in this or that version affected the meaning. When I finally came to read In Search of Lost Time, I felt at home with a long complex story like that, debating which translation to read, which edition to buy, I felt I had found a book to absorb me for years, just as my mother had. The other handy thing about so much of the bible learning was that in university, I’d be the only one to catch every biblical reference in books. The professor asking, what significance is there in this character (from To the Lighthouse actually) throwing his bread on the water? Up went my hand. It’s from the Psalms. As Michael Dirda has noted, the bible definitely is one of the patterning sources for Western literature.  (And certainly has many gruesomely entertaining stories that I enjoyed as a kid!)

The other thing my mother does is talk and talk. Endlessly and usually about herself. Her own stories, her past. I grew up a listener, while telling myself my own stories inside. As I grew older and began to find great English teachers, one of whom introduced me to The Secret Garden, I clung to books more and more. They were a silent place for me alone. I didn’t have to listen, I could join the story. Mary Lennox’s story in the garden could be my story, in an inner secret garden, safe where no one else could be, in my imagination. My mother’s stories were narcissistic, they kept everyone out, at an admiring or pitying distance. But books let me in, to some place better. I could play with the sisters in Little Women and the Boxcar Children (I read absolutely loads of those books, I suppose an American version of Enid Blyton maybe!) and explore bravely with Nancy Drew.

Books were what gave me a self. They gave me friends who understood and the hope that someday I would meet better people like that. I wasn’t taught to be autonomous or independent or strong, it was all about self sacrificing and clinginess. But books gave me different ideas, they gave me thoughts of my own, dreams, they gave me such richness. In high school when my teacher talked about going to university to study English, I felt lit up. That is what I want.

In the years at university, trying too hard to become something I wasn’t (a school teacher), I gradually let books go. I had to study, there wasn’t time. I felt lit up again studying To the Lighthouse, but my marks weren’t high enough, I had to stop reading for fun. (I don’t ever ever recommend doing this in university, by the way!) After eventually falling into depression, I finally remembered the books. And thus had begun my long climb out of my past. Facing the darkness and sorrow of my childhood, looking for a way to tell my own story, looking for the people who shared it. I found them in books, Portia in The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Dorothea in Middlemarch. Jane Eyre, of course. Young girls and what happened when they tried to grow up.

Books have been my salvation. They’ve given me a soul, a chance to be myself. They give me space, they let me grow. They’ve shown me how to grow stronger and wiser. They’ve shown me that my story and my voice matter, even just written on a page for myself. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters, even as it changes. They don’t try to hold me back. Through books I learned and continue to learn how to live, how to be. I left behind the stifling confines of The One Book written in commanding men’s voices, to find the many books by women and men that were open and accepting, that showed many views of life, that welcomed me into the great conversation of the ages.

Now I read to be comforted, I read to learn, I read for enlightenment, to laugh or be changed, I read for inspiration, I read to find the people and stories who will see me through. I read to heal. I read to meet the most original people, authors, creators. I read to think deeply. I read to feel my independence, my freedom, to pick what I want. I don’t read from a bible reading plan, with its ordered days by chapter and verse. I read to be myself, to keep my insides alive. I read for life.

Also, today I found a way to continue with Virginia Woolf. Last year I tried reading her more quickly, just to be able to get through The Waves and not drown in the poetic excess of it. But today, perhaps because it can still be ‘short story Saturday’ from time to time, I read a few short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, who helped me to figure out the right pace in which to read Woolf (they were friends), the way to pay more attention. To read closely, slowly, alertly. I was inspired to pick up my copy of her Collected Stories by 20th Century Vox and her post on Bowen’s WW2 stories called The Demon Lover. Demon lovers, not really my thing, but then I reread my favourite story of hers, called ‘Daffodils.’ It reminds me a bit of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill.’

A gust of wind rushed up the street, whirling her skirts up round her like a ballet-dancer’s, and rustling the Reckitts-blue paper round the daffodils. The slender gold trumpets tapped and quivered against her face as she held them up with one hand and pressed her skirts down hastily with the other. She felt as though she had been enticed into a harlequinade by a company of Columbines who were quivering with laughter at her discomfiture; and looked round to see if anyone had witnessed her display of chequered moirette petticoat and the inches of black stocking above her boots. But the world remained unembarrassed.

… Miss Murcheson remembered that her mother would be out for tea, and quickened her steps in anticipation of that delightful solitude. The silver birch tree that distinguished their front garden slanted beckoning her across the pavement. She hesitated, as her gate swung open, and stood looking up and down the road. She was sorry to go in, but could not resist the invitation of the empty house. She wondered if tomorrow would fill her with so strange a stirring as today. Soon, in a few months, it would be summer and there would be nothing more to come. Summer would be beautiful, but this spring made promise of a greater beauty than summer could fulfil; hinted at a mystery which other summers had evaded rather than explained.

… She was bewildered by them; could not fathom the depths of their cinema-bred romanticism.

… They had awaited a disclosure intimate and personal. The donor of those last year’s daffodils had taken form, portentous in their minds. But she had told them nothing, given them the stone of her abstract, colourless idealism while they sat there, open-mouthed for sentimental bread.

Sigh. Now I wish I could have Elizabeth Bowen week, to get you all reading her! She’s on those 1001 best of lists and a few of her books are still on the shelves even in western Canada, but I haven’t found many ardent fans of hers, what’s up with that? Clearly she needs some love. Maybe there is an Elizabeth Bowen group I could join, internet help me out! Or maybe I’ll just copy Laura’s Musings and create my own Favourite Authors page for her and other worthy members, where I may wax lyrical about their many wonders!

Emma & new shelves

Thank you all so much for your many kind comments on my last post! I’ve told my husband about them and they brought a smile to his face too. He is on a lot of antibiotics to clear up his abscess and infection, instead of a surgery, which is always nice and he may even be home today. I’m just waiting to hear about that. They’re inserting some kind of more direct IV thing into him, so he’ll have to come to the hospital and continue to get infusions of antibiotics every day, but at least he’ll be able to be home again.

Yesterday I picked up some of Claire’s bookshelves as she is moving this week, with my practical sister along to help park the car in the snow (I would have got stuck) and to fit three bookshelves into the car! Here they are in my place now, although I’ll be moving them soon too. The small shelf holds most of my minimalist collection of the only books I’ve kept, the rest are already at the cottage at my parent’s place, waiting for me. You may notice I’ve mixed my favourite movies in with my books, just for something different. The second shelf holds some of my husband’s movies and books and I’ve got a few library books up top, including a very huge biography of Elizabeth Gaskell! I absolutely love these shelves, Claire, so peaceful and orderly and well worth all the pushing and tugging to make them fit in the car yesterday!

I’ve also gone back to reading Emma again (you can see my beautiful clothbound edition first on my shelf) and since watching the lovely new miniseries of it, am enjoying it all the more. Despite often thinking of Jeremy Northam as Jeremy Knightley, Jonny Lee Miller, who seemed very miscast as Mr. Knightley initially, has done a wonderful job with the role too and I now often find myself torn between them! Miller brings such warmth and understated humour to the role. He’s not tall, dark and brooding with stately grace like Northam, he’s “not a gallant man, but he is a very humane one”, as Emma herself says (at about page 208). “I know no man more likely than Mr. Knightley to do the sort of thing — to do anything really good-natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent.” Miller makes the character less romantic or intimidating and more like the best friend you’d always overlooked. He softens Mr. Knightley and makes him more sensible (I especially love his pleasure in walking) yet approachable. Mr. Knightley has always seemed too much of a scold before (see Mark Strong in the role, or better yet: don’t) and really, so much older than Emma, that he just wasn’t as attractive as an Austen hero as some, but with this gentler version of him in mind (and really, there’s nothing saying what he looks like or that he is even tall and intimidating! Mr. Darcy is described that way, but Mr. Knightley is far kinder from the very beginning) I’m liking him more and more.

As usual, I also get a kick out of John Knightley, his younger brother, and the way he complains over everything, especially over having to go out to parties on Christmas Eve! Emma has the best Christmas scenes of all the Austen novels, with Mr. Woodhouse’s fuss over an inch of snow when he’s away from home and his older daughter Isabella’s determination to walk home in the snow to get to her children despite her general overconcern over everyone’s health and of course, Mr. Elton’s botched proposal to Emma. It’s such a wonderful comic piece, I do hope you have time to revisit at least that little corner of Highbury on your holidays!

Here’s one of my favourite phrases in all of Austen (italicised), at the end of this quote:

He was too angry to say another word; her manner too decided to invite supplication; and in this state of swelling resentment, and mutually deep mortification, they had to continue together a few minutes longer, for the fears of Mr. Woodhouse had confined them to a foot pace. If there had not been so much anger, there would have been desperate awkwardness; but their straight-forward emotions left no room for the little zigzags of embarrassment.

Thoreau, Emma, Effie and Virago Classics

I didn’t mean to go a whole week without posting, but with my husband back at work, I’ve been trying to get out of the apartment more myself, so this past week has seemed busier than usual for me. I also wound up with possible food poisoning yesterday, so spent most of the day napping in between sips of water and trips to the bathroom, ugh. I’ve written up many posts in my head though, I just haven’t known where to begin!

First, I’m sort of joining in NYRB Reading Week (hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons): I bought the NYRB edition of Thoreau’s Journals in Florida earlier this year, since I’ve been meaning to read Walden for a few years now, love the idea of snooping in other people’s diaries and love keeping them myself (hence obvious love of blogging) and also would like to enjoy more nature writing, poems especially, but any really that reminds me of the joy and beauty of being outside. But as such a long diary (it covers the years 1837-1861) with more random observations than strong narrative, I have trouble focusing on it or finishing it in one week. So the plan is to post one of his November journal entries for each day this week. We’ll see how it goes.

November 4, 1852. Autumnal dandelion and yarrow.

Must be out-of-doors enough to get experience of wholesome reality, as a ballast to thought and sentiment. Health requires this relaxation, this aimless life. This life in the present. Let a man have thought what he will of Nature in the house, she will still be novel outdoors. I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me.

My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.

This past week I read about half of Emma, until Frank Churchill annoyed me too much to keep reading! (At least for now.) I can’t stand how he lies by omission and as nice as he is, doesn’t even visit his father until he has more selfish motives to do so. It was absolutely wonderful to read it in my new clothbound edition though, especially with the ribbon bookmark that I never had to worry about losing.

I was also distracted from it by this review at I Prefer Reading about Effie: A Victorian Scandal by Merryn Williams, the story of the woman who annulled her marriage with John Ruskin, one of the great Victorian art critics, on grounds of unconsummation.  Although my library doesn’t carry this book, it led me to start thinking about marriage in the Victorian era and to making lists of novels and history books that describe what it was like to be in an unhappy marriage you couldn’t escape, as divorce was very expensive, reputation ruining and for women, very difficult to obtain: while men only had to prove infidelity, women had to prove that plus bigamy, incest or extreme cruelty.

However, instead of any Victorian reading like I’d planned, I next jumped to The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins in a Virago edition, which I heard about this summer, but was drawn to now because of this autumnal opening paragraph:

The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer’s a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, and of the kind known in country districts as a “harvester.” Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.

This beautiful writing evocatively describes the interior life of a weak willed woman who hero worships her older husband, even as he is drawn towards another woman: an older one… Despite reading over half of The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West and a chapter or two of Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann and Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, this is the first Virago that really felt like my kind of book. Now I’m wanting to know: has anyone thought of organizing a Virago Reading Week?? I need a little boost to read more of these early 20th century forgotten classics, as clearly Virginia Woolf was far from the only great female author in that time period.

And continuing my interest in early 20th century literature, along with the small publishers reprinting them, I bought my first Capuchin Classics book this week, Love in Winter by Storm Jameson.

I’ve also got Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill on inter-library loan, so lots of good reading possibilities!

Proust’s Lilacs

I’m going to visit my parents for a few days, so I might not be around much. Here is Proust going on about lilacs in Swann’s Way (Lydia Davis translation) as I can’t find the poem I’d thought of posting.

… we would leave town by the lane that ran along the white gate of M. Swann’s park. Before reaching it, we would meet the smell of his lilacs, coming out to greet the strangers. From among the fresh green little hearts of their leaves, the flowers would curiously lift above the gate of the park their tufts of mauve or white feathers, glazed, even in the shade, by the sun in which they had bathed. A few, half hidden by the little tiled lodge called the Archers’ House, where the caretaker lived, overtopped its Gothic gable with their pink minarets. The Nymphs of Spring would have seemed vulgar compared to these young houris, which preserved within this French garden the pure and vivid tones of Persian miniatures. Despite my desire to entwine their supple waists and draw down to me the starry curls of their fragrant heads, we would pass by without stopping because my parents had ceased to visit Tansonville since Swann’s marriage…

We stopped for a moment in front of the gate. Lilac time was nearly over; a few, still, poured forth in tall mauve chandeliers the delicate bubbles of their flowers, but in many places among the leaves where only a week before they had still been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, a hollow scum now withered, shrunken and dark, dry and odorless.

Tea & A Good Book

This is the photo that I use as my profile picture and one I could also use to show my reading tastes, if only a picture with books had been allowed in Simon’s version! I love old books, some of these were found in some distant family member’s collection and given to me, while the bottom one is actually a 1913 copy of Pride & Prejudice that I bought at a used bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London, in memory of 84, Charing Cross Road. So that one’s pretty special to me. I also love beautiful china tea cups and that one, as well as a few others, was inherited from a great aunt who recently passed away. I remember as a child seeing a set of Royal Albert Old Country Roses tea cups in a cupboard and wanting to have something so beautiful. I didn’t have tea parties as a child or acquire a taste for tea until I was older (I used to think it was too watery), but now my husband and I are both very keen tea drinkers. (He went to school in England, so he’s a bit obsessive about it being exactly the right way!) I usually prefer herbal teas, with six different kinds of chamomile tea in the cupboard, two kinds of mint and various others, as well as Earl Grey occasionally. I change my mind about what kind of tea I’ll drink about as often as I change my mind about what kind of book I’m going to read, that is, fairly often! I tend to follow my whims and enjoy subtle variety.

The sea shells in the cup are from Florida (my husband’s parents live there), but they also represent my love of water. And interestingly, the old watch, which I just placed there because I liked how it looked, represents my interest in the past.

And just to keep things literary, here are a few of my favourite tea related quotes:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not — some people of course never do — the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.

This is from the opening of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and I certainly think it’s one of his more accessible books (although Daisy Miller is shorter). I try every now and again to read The Wings of the Dove, but never manage to get through it… My first year English professor read the first few sentences aloud in class, in comparison with a few from Hemingway, just to show differences in style, and I immediately became intrigued by old Henry. I’ve collected a number of his books but certainly haven’t read them with any great speed! Nevertheless, the story of Portrait of a Lady is intriguing.

…when the white cloth was spread upon the grass, with hot tea and buttered toast and crumpets, a delightfully hungry meal was eaten, and several birds on domestic errands paused to inquire what was going on and were led into investigating crumbs with great activity. Nut and Shell whisked up trees with pieces of cake, and Soot took the entire half of a buttered crumpet into a corner and pecked at and examined and turned it over and made hoarse remarks about it until he decided to swallow it all joyfully in one gulp.

The afternoon was dragging towards its mellow hour. The sun was deepening the gold of its lances, the bees were going home and the birds were flying past less often. Dickon and Mary were sitting on the grass, the tea-basket was repacked ready to be taken back to the house, and Colin was lying against his cushions with his heavy locks pushed back from his forehead and his face looking quite a natural colour.

…’I’ve seen the spring now and I’m going to see the summer. I’m going to see everything grow here. I’m going to grow here myself.’

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My teacher read this aloud to my class in grade six, except she changed all references of magic to ‘Holy Ghost’ (I told you I went to christian schools!)… I think I was the only one who knew, since I’d already read the book before. I recently reread it earlier this year and so enjoy the simple healing that comes for several lonely children in an abandoned garden.

And of course tea and Proust go together (did you guess that might be coming? ;)):

… one day in winter, as I returned home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. … She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of another sad day to follow, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me… It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me… acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.

This revelation over his tea cup and cake is the beginning of memory, pulling him back into his childhood in the country, in search of lost time… Oh what a cup of tea can do, giving hope, pleasure and relaxation, and recalling us to a true sense of ourselves. Good literature can do all these things as well.

Autodidacts unite!

Thank you for everyone’s kind thoughts on my last post. My work stress is diminishing (I had to give a few presentations to large groups of school children about the library’s summer reading program. I wore my crossword Converse (at left) to give myself a little boost! Needless to say, I’d rather be blogging for anyone to read than speaking in front of an audience! After all my fear and worry, it went alright — the kids would start to cheer whenever I’d show them any kind of movie tie-in book. On the one hand, we want them reading through any means, especially over the summer when if they don’t read, they lose some of what they’d learned, but… it makes me wonder if books are no longer seen as pleasurable for the sake of stories, imagination and language, but merely a means to continue to live in the fantasy world of the movie. Hopefully books like this will help kids eventually love reading or at least find it less of a struggle.)

That aside, I’ve been thinking of ways to make this blog more my own and move it away from trying to be just like everyone else’s book blog.

For starters, I’ve had an idea for a while to write posts about books that I’ve read in different genres. I like understanding the appeal behind these different types of stories and since my husband has a sci-fi bookshelf (with also graphic novels and comics), a horror bookshelf and we share a mystery bookshelf (all of them tall, black and skinny in the gothic corner where he keeps his Wonder Woman action figure and a bust of Frankenstein), we discuss them often!

I’m also thinking of writing shorter reviews sometimes at least. (I do worry that I’ll have my right to book blog called into question if I don’t post reviews some of the time!) I also thought of an unofficial way to join in on interesting challenges, by only reading one book on the topic instead of ten or even three. Nymeth’s 1930s Challenge was great this way because there was no signing up, just reading even one book. I ended up reading 3, simply because there was no pressure. Whereas all my other challenges started to weigh heavily with their longer lists of required reading.

This reminds me of a rare nonfiction book that I absolutely adore (I only have three books in this category): The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey. It’s probably not easy to find but read it, oh readdd it! I read it several times in university, the first time showed me there was something I could do besides getting a proper career, something like reading and writing my life out, and the second time through helped me see that it wasn’t impossible. She writes about getting yet another required reading list in high school and realizing that what she’d rather do, instead of going to college for more endless required reading, is to skip all that, stay at home and read the books of her choice. Crazy, but then she goes on to write about all the other famous people who’ve done it (Tolstoy, Milton), who have been autodidacts, that is, self taught. She also goes on to write about how she reads the Greeks and Romans and whatever else catches her fancy and starts to write a novel, a play.

This is part of what drives me to take my reading seriously, to push myself to read the difficult important books. I didn’t learn everything I wanted to in university and there’s still an endless amount more to know about people, life and stories within the pages of a good book. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (the second of my absolutely adored nonfiction books) is also indirectly about discovering the classics on your own, without a teacher or a class to guide you, and finding the ones that speak to you. Obviously I think these will vary from person to person. Helene Hanff loves John Donne. I like Marcel Proust and Jane Austen (and have never studied either in university although I often wish I could).

Anyway. Here’s something on ‘required reading’ from The Day I Became an Autodidact (quote taken from here since I unfortunately don’t have my own copy):

I read (rarely skimming) everything school tells me to from the middle of September to the middle of June, but the summer is mine. And being told what to read during summer suddenly made me realize that I don’t really like being told what to read during the fall, winter, and spring either.

I do want a little motivation to read some more George Eliot this year (but I’ve already read more Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen than I’ve read in years!), but apart from that, I’m looking forward to finding more books that are intelligent while also being enjoyable to read instead of stressing over all the classics I haven’t read yet.

Reading in bed or bath…

Simon at Stuck In A Book has asked, “can you post a picture which sums up your reading taste, or a section of it? I’m looking for a picture which doesn’t include a book in it, or a character from an adaptation, or anything like that.”

I thought of this picture, which portrays various aspects of my reading taste: I like books about introverted characters and about the interiors of thought and emotion. I also like delicate, sensitive, poetic, sensual writing. I love detailed descriptions of flowers and gardens, beautiful clothes and rooms. I like books that make me feel calm and long for those I can sink into. To me, this picture very much represents In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: it was written in bed and best read in bed too! And here’s another lilac quote from Proust, the ultimate flowery meditative author:

…hanging there in the foliage, light and supple in their fresh mauve dresses, clusters of young lilacs swaying in the breeze without a thought for the passer-by who was looking up at their leafy mezzanine.

~ The Guermantes Way, Marcel Proust

If you can think of any books that remind you of this picture, please recommend them to me!

Also, I’ve been giving my mom some of my Jane Austens to read, along with a few other 19th century classics I thought she might like (her favourite books include Anne of Green Gables, Lord of the Rings, the Bible and christian novels) and the other day on the phone she told me…. she’d read Middlemarch! She stayed up three nights in a row until 4 a.m. to finish it!! This is wonderful and we proceeded to talk about how great it is, the broad scope of George Eliot, a bit about her life and philosophy, I never expected to have a conversation like this with my mother (she’s the one who reads the least in our family, or at least used to). She said she thought Middlemarch was better than Jane Austen, ahh music, music to the ears. 😉 (I don’t know that I agree, they’re both good in different ways, but simply the fact that we can discuss more than one author I like!) I told her, scanning my bookshelves as we talked for more she might like, that clearly the next step was for her to read War & Peace and after I explained Tolstoy’s search to be a better person and so forth, she said, yes, I do like morals and conflict in a book, I’ll try it! Awwwwww.

I also got my husband to read my favourite Edgar Allan Poe story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, yesterday (when we first started dating, I wanted him to read it immediately but he wanted to start at the beginning of the book of Poe stories I gave him. Needless to say, ‘The Balloon-Hoax’ didn’t keep his attention long enough to get further into the book!)

And another reading delight — enjoying a bit of Agatha Christie in the bath yesterday. I’ve found reading classic mysteries in the tub (usually they’re short enough to finish in one long soak) to be very relaxing and exciting, at the same time. Murder at the Vicarage is the first Miss Marple novel and I enjoyed it so much I think I’ll start reading more of them again.

I’ve got a few books sitting around unreviewed and I’m having difficulty finding the motivation to write about them (one being The Waves by Virginia Woolf, her writing often provokes such personal responses in me that I find it difficult to share them. Another is a negative review that I’m dreading, justifying why I didn’t like it.)

I’ve also been debating what my ‘reading theme’ for the month of June will be. Usually my reading is fairly random, but partly because of all the reading challenges I’ve signed up for now, I thought it could be fun to have a theme for my reading each month. For June I’ve debated things like classic love stories or all French novels and generally feel all around unsure of what book I want to be sucked into next. Do I want to reread more Proust? Or join in with Jane in June? Any suggestions?

London Calling

I’m proud to say I bought my first Virago Press book today! It’s Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, which I’ve been hearing is a cosy coming of age story similar to I Capture the Castle and Mariana by Monica Dickens. Now that I know to look for the green Virago spines, I’ve seen lots of them at my local secondhand bookstore. Here’s the opening two sentences:

When Judith was eighteen, she saw that the house next door, empty for years, was getting ready again. Gardeners mowed and mowed, and rolled and rolled the tennis-court; and planted tulips and forget-me-nots in the stone urns that bordered the lawn at the river’s edge.

My husband and I have been talking about how much we’d love to go back to London — it’s all the British reading we’ve been doing bringing on the nostalgia. For me it was Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, she writes London so well in general (in Mrs. Dalloway too), it brought my previous trips there in the spring back again.

What books bring back a place you’ve been or evoke a place you want to go to?