Introducing the Sunday Stroll

Since the Sunday Salon membership is full, I thought I’d start something a little different for myself: the Sunday Stroll. It’s inspired by the French flâneur — a stroller, lounger, saunterer, loafer, through a city in order to experience it rather than to arrive at any specific destination. This is how I often tend to read, I pick up a lot of books I never finish, although I’d still like to discuss them, since they still have impact and meaning for me. So on Sundays I can recount the strolls I’ve taken through books and/or the bookish world. (Ie, how many trips did I make to the bookstore this week…)

Ever since the end of January when I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman (which I really enjoyed, with its references to Harry Potter & Narnia, as well as relating to the thing about having trouble being content with life as it is, but which also really made me rather sad thanks to the disillusioning ending), I have not been able to finish a book. I have kept trying to find favourites to reread and then giving up and moving on to the next one. I’ve tried Harry Potter, Wives & Daughters, North & South, Anne of Green Gables, even Emma! I got furthest with Emma, but since I only just reread it last fall, I was lured away from it as well. None of my typical comfort reads were working, they all just seemed a little bit too safe and (gasp) boring — they are all essentially coming-of-age stories, as well as romances, they are all about young girls (or boys, in Harry’s case), while I am now into my early 30s and I realized with a start that maybe I am occasionally wanting to read something more mature. (I’m not saying Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell are at all immature, just that I can read beyond young girls growing up and experiencing idealistic romances!)

So I picked up The Age of Innocence since I’d been thinking of rereading it at some point as the first step before embarking on more Edith Wharton reading, as I did like her before, I just found it too sad and knew that if I kept reading her books, more sadness awaited. I found her beautiful style of writing and American perspective to be a breath of fresh air. I’m now over halfway through, but the sadness is building and once again, I’ve slowed down to a halt. Henry James (of all people) is partly to blame, along with my idea for a new reading project that developed from starting on Wharton.

For years I’ve been fascinated by the Second French Empire of Louis-Napoleon III, between 1852 and 1870, and I’ve tried to find books to read about it. Emile Zola in particular of the great 19th century French authors sets most of his novels in that time period, to show the corruption of Napoleon III’s regime. (I reviewed his novel The Kill here on my old book blog.) Flaubert and others were also writing then, but the thing is just that the French are so darn pessimistic. And due to my ongoing depression, while I want to challenge myself with their work and love learning about French history, I just can’t always take it. (Especially when the main female characters keep dying at the end of the books for their horrible transgressive sexuality!) I’ve tried reading the Goncourt brother’s diaries of the time as well and found them sexist and pessimistic (but more because they weren’t getting famous enough) too. And there isn’t a lot of historical fiction written about the period either, sadly. (Although Helen Humphreys, my favourite Canadian author, just released one called The Reinvention of Love, which I received for Christmas and haven’t read yet, about Victor Hugo’s wife and the literary critic she has an affair with.)

So, all that to say, reading The Age of Innocence, which is set in the 1870s of Wharton’s New York childhood, even though it was written decades later, made me think that maybe I could try reading any books from or about the latter half of the 19th century, set in any European or N. American country, preferably among the upper classes. One of the things I absolutely love about these types of books are the clothes. Yes, maybe it’s shallow, but I swoon over the ball and opera gowns described in Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence, as well as in A.S. Byatt’s Morphio Eugenia and Zola’s books. They all end badly but at least they were pretty while it lasted! (On my tumblr I’m also collecting pictures of paintings and reproductions of dresses from the period, which are so so lovely.)

Which leads me back to Henry James. My local bookstore currently has a large quantity of this edition of The Golden Bowl, which I’d been eyeing for a while, before finally giving in and getting it. (The painting is so pretty, I couldn’t resist! I never used to care much about pretty books, this is all your fault, book blogging!) And then because it was so pretty, I actually started reading it, even though The Wings of the Dove is my book nemesis (I so want to read the whole thing and somehow never can). And then I actually found it interesting and readable! For a few chapters at least. Maybe Wharton helped me get in the mood for James. At all events, now I am yet again adrift in a sea of books, not sure what to pick up or go back to next. I do still want to finish The Age of Innocence and tell you all about it (especially the clothes!), I just have to work my way back there. I occasionally enjoy bookish trips to New York, but most of the time, my reading is firmly entrenched in Europe. And now that I’m back over there, I’m debating something else…

See, there’s a new movie of Anna Karenina coming out this fall (directed by Joe Wright) and even though Keira isn’t my favourite actress for period dramas (although she was surprisingly good in A Dangerous Method), I’m still super excited because I love the book. And now I’m debating a reread. I’ve tried that before and failed, but maybe now I’ll have more motivation? I have taken out the chunky Pevear & Volokhonsky translation from my library today, just in case I decide to go for it. (I think I’ll give it another go, just because. Anna. Karenina! I’m excited and a bit obsessed with pictures from the various film versions.) I read the older Constance Garnett translation my first time because it was the one I liked the best then, but it seems a little too dated this time. Of course the story is also sad, but at least there will be lots of great clothes and glamorous scenes at balls and train stations and horse races! (And also lots of farming and hunting with Levin, which I found awfully dull before, but maybe I’ll like him a bit more this time? Some people find Anna annoying, but I was fascinated by the romantic melodrama of her story last time. I just wish there was more of a balance between how earnest and good Levin is and how exciting Anna is…)

I will keep you posted on how it goes and hopefully I won’t flake out on every book I start for the rest of the year or even for the rest of the month. (Any suggestions on how?) I have nearly finished A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, so that’s something and I do have a whole week off from school now, so maybe I can power charge through a few of these books! I live in bookish hope. Or maybe I can just enjoy wandering my way through literature, without worrying about needing to prove how much I’ve read and reread. (Although part of the reason I came back to book blogging was to try to challenge myself to finish more things…) I’m also considering posting quotes from books as I read them somewhere, either here or here.

And that’s your Sunday stroll through the way my brain picks up and puts down books, bibliophiles. If anyone wants to sway me on which of these three books to read/finish first (out of Anna Karenina, The Age of Innocence, and The Golden Bowl), you’re perfectly free to! Especially if you want to read along with me.

PS. Also I have been debating rereading Mansfield Park. And I read a chapter or two of The Warden by Anthony Trollope a few days ago, just because it’s so easy to download random things onto my kindle. Stop it, brain.

Adorable Anne

For the first time in decades, I reread Anne of Green Gables. I just adored it, perhaps more now than I ever did as a girl. I devoured most of L.M. Montgomery’s books largely between the ages of 10 and 13, but I must admit that lately, I’ve looked down on them just the tiniest bit as being not the most literary thing I could have spent my time on. When I read Proust, I noticed that he and Montgomery both write very movingly of nature (which I’m sure helped to develop my life-long love of trees and flowers and all that), but of course I snobbily wished I had been reading Proust in my formative years instead of what I thought of as Montgomery’s overly sentimental stories. Now I see that while Proust is quite well and good and I think I’ve racked up enough snob points in just reading the whole thing, but L.M. Montgomery is home for me. And I do not say that lightly, as those of you who may remember me writing about how I longed for a sense of a literary home know. There just aren’t that many Canadian books that I really love, that capture my experiences of living in and loving my home country movingly and well, so I usually turn to British books instead. Now Prince Edward Island may be on the other side of Canada from Alberta (incidentally, both provinces are named for British royals though — Alberta for Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter Princess Louise Caroline Alberta who later married a Governor General of Canada and P.E.I. for Queen Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, fourth son of King George III), but that doesn’t matter. I spent my childhood reading about it, even though I’ve never been there and it reminds me so much of what I love about my country, the rural beauty, the kindness of the people, and my own growing up years (on a farm too) that this story of an overly imaginative orphan finding a home has jumped straight to the top of my list of favourite books. (You’ll see in the photo, that shelf of books is for my favourite authors!)

One of the many things I enjoyed about Anne is that she sees her imagination as a gift and is always insulting people who have no imagination and reveling in places that have ‘scope for the imagination.’ I also have a vivid imagination (as a child I would often daydream like Anne, the main difference between us being that she is a massive chatterbox and I was horribly shy as a child and am still quite an introvert), but as I grow up and try to navigate the difficulties of practical life, finding a job in a time when marriage and a magical outlook on life isn’t enough to keep a girl in books let alone clothes, I’ve come to undervalue my imagination and to wonder what’s the use of it. I turned to Anne when I was feeling very down and she did cheer me up and help me see the good in who I am. She made me long to daydream again, as I once used to do so innocently. And I smiled so often over how much Anne longs for romantic occasions — not the kind with men, but the kind inspired by poetry — beauty, emotion, something sublime and touching. I too have always secretly looked for moments like that. And I love the importance of friendship in the book, not just with Diana, but the growing relationship Anne has with Marilla, the much older woman who reluctantly adopts Anne. Marilla, with her sarcastic asides and hidden laughter at Anne, offered some much needed ballast to Anne’s airy flights of fantasy, and the slow opening of her heart to Anne was truly touching. I did indeed laugh and cry and feel a whole lot better in the process.

I also grew up watching the Anne miniseries (my dream wedding was one like Diana’s for years) and have begun watching it again with my mom. She’s become a more recent Anne devotee and even took a trip to P.E.I. a few years ago (bringing back the mug in the photo), so it’s fun to share that. I also bought a biography of L.M. Montgomery (Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio), since I love the portrayal of late Victorian Canada in the books and miniseries. The clothes, the teas and picnics, the simpler kinder life… I know it’s nostalgia (and that real life wasn’t always as good, not even for Montgomery herself) but who cares when it’s this adorable. Hopefully I’ll get to P.E.I. one of these days! If anyone has recommendations for more books to read set at some cosy point of late 19th century Canadian history beyond Montgomery, I’d be thrilled.

Since odds are slim on that, I thought I might explore some late 19th century American authors and history too and settled on Edith Wharton’s biography by Hermoine Lee, of all things. Wharton’s claustrophobic and deadly correct high society New York is not nearly as simple and idyllic as Anne’s world, but does have its own glamorous allure and the book is very easy to get sucked into, despite how absolutely massive it is. I generally don’t like biographies that much since they start with all the boring bits of birth and parents, but Hermoine Lee does a great job with the beginning. I don’t know if I’ll finish it, since I’ve also just done one of my periodic reorganizing of my books and even packed a few (ok three boxes) up for temporary storage since I just have too many for such a tiny place and have now found about four other books I’m now interested in reading! And I’ve got a number of books on hold at my big city library too… (more lesser known Montgomery novels of course! My dad just downloaded The Blue Castle onto his brand-new Kindle for my mom and I, which used to be my favourite of her books, so we’ll see how Anne fares then. Of course, having a Kindle in the house is definitely inspiring a desire for one of my own, lost in daydreams of how easy it would be to read more George Eliot when I didn’t have to carry any heavy books around! My sister just read Middlemarch at long last on her e-reader, so…)

And at last, some descriptions of spring:

Spring had come once more to Green Gables — the beautiful, capricious, reluctant Canadian spring, lingering along through April and May in a succession of sweet, fresh, chilly days, with pink sunsets and miracles of resurrection and growth. The maples in Lover’s Lane were red-budded and little curly ferns pushed up around the Dryad’s Bubble. Away up in the barrens, behind Mr. Silas Sloane’s place, the Mayflowers blossomed out, pink and white stars of sweetness under their brown leaves. All the school girls and boys had one golden afternoon gathering them, coming home in the clear, echoing twilight with arms and baskets full of flowery spoil.

Spring certainly is slow here, with plenty of snow still hiding in the shadow of buildings, slowly slowly melting away. I did see the first grey soft pussy willows though, going for a walk down our country roads a few days ago and heard ducks and frogs in a nearby pond. And yesterday we had an Easter family get-together at my grandma’s, here are the three ladies in purple! (My adorable niece up to all kinds of mischief, as usual. No one in my family expected my youngest slacker brother to be the first to have a baby, but we’re all completely thrilled with her.)

A huge cherry-tree grew outside, so close that its boughs tapped against the house, and it was so thick-set with blossoms tat hardly a leaf was to be seen. On both sides of the house was a big orchard, one of apple trees and one of cherry trees, also showered over with blossoms; and their grass was all sprinkled with dandelions. In the garden below were lilac trees purple with flowers, and their dizzily sweet fragrance drifted up to the window in the morning wind.

It’s a sweet and simple enchantment that not even Proust can match.