Books I Haven’t Finished Lately

So here I am again, haphazardly writing about random books that I haven’t quite finished yet… As I said in my last post (months ago!), I have problems finishing books. Well, I still do. I finished more books when I blogged about them regularly, so maybe I will try that again and see how it goes down….

(As a sidenote, I am such an INFP in the Myers-Briggs personality thing. My feelings and my thoughts about those feelings are ALL OVER THE PLACE but only inside my head. Also I have a lot of grand plans for the writing down of feelings and thoughts and the reading and writing of stories, but I don’t always achieve those goals. Don’t judge me! I am still a nice person even if I am not a finisher of everything!)

So these are the books that I haven’t finished recently:

Mansfield Park: yes I blogged about it last time and then I never finished it — I just hate it when everyone tries to force Fanny to marry Henry! Plus also her going back to her family in Portsmouth isn’t really fun times either.

Pride & Prejudice: I’ve already reread this once this year but The Lizzie Bennet Diaries had me on a big P&P high and it is so funny, I just started it as a comfort thing one evening and then I couldn’t stop… until Elizabeth gets to Pemberley and Darcy is all nice. The jokes stop there! (And then Lydia gets a load of slut-shaming and I now think, post LBD, that maybe that’s not such a good thing. She’s just a kid, right? Wickham is the true villain.) And then I lost interest. And I finished rereading Emma instead because 1. Emma never stops being funny, and 2. the worst thing that ever happens is a bad picnic and since I hate horrible things happening to the characters I love, this is good for me, and actually pretty funny in and of itself.

Les Miserables: I haven’t seen the movie yet (don’t judge me! I was going to and then my husband hates musicals and then I thought maybe it would be too sad and then… I just bought the book instead because it looked pretty), but I did really like the first 100 pages of the book. Victor Hugo is definitely an idealist and I love his complex view of French history that goes into how the French Revolution affected everything that happened in the 19th century there and I love how he just made me care so much about two characters, the priest and Jean Valjean, through so much layering on of details about them. I’ve read other classic French authors (Proust, Zola, Flaubert, as well as attempts at Balzac and Stendhal and Laclos) and they’re usually always so pessimistic and cynical and everyone is horrible (Proust is the exception, but then I think part of why I love his meandering, long-drawn out, huge book of memories is because he must be an INFP like me) but then! I discovered Victor Hugo and he’s trying to write to better society, not just to mock it and for me at least one section of French literature was redeemed. So far as I can tell, he seems like a blend of Tolstoy and Dickens and that’s pretty alright by me. So I was really liking it, but then I got stuck on this one part that has all this history thrown at my face and endless explanatory notes and it seemed like too much work to keep going. :/ I wish I could just skip that part; my book says Hugo added it on later and I wish he hadn’t. Or I could skim it? Anyways.

Sense & Sensibility: I was trying to enjoy a different Austen and trying to like Elinor more instead of Marianne for once. My new fun literary game is to try and guess the personality of every Austen character, so I think Elinor is an ISFJ (they’re called the protectors, so yeah, just try to prove me wrong) and Marianne is probably an ENFP (called the champions and come on, when is she not championing her favourite romantic ideals? I didn’t think she’d be an extrovert at first, but then I decided that no introvert would be that annoying about forcing everyone to listen to all of her melodramatic notions All The Time). My personality is closer to Marianne’s (I’m just more introverted and therefore less obnoxious) but ugh I have complicated feelings about her. Sometimes I like that she’s true to her feelings and other times she drives me crazy. Also she’s too much like my overly emotional, overly childish mom and that’s not entirely a good thing… So I know Elinor is the more admirable sister of the two, but I also know that I’m just not exactly like her and never will be (although a beloved aunt of mine is and I’m so glad to have someone like her in my life) and ughh I keep rereading this book trying to solve this conundrum for myself of sense vs. sensibility and where I stand on that and how it’s best to live and maybe I overthink it but I do come back to this book often so it seems to have some deep meaning for me, but I’m always torn when I read it over which sister holds my allegiance or which way of life I think is better to follow or something. It’s hard to put into words even. But right now I am taking a break from that because it’s emotionally tiring and also I wanted to read something newer for a change!

(Side note: if anyone wants me to go into more detail about my opinions on other Austen characters’ personalities, just let me know! I have made lists about this and I keep randomly thinking about it at odd moments and having mental debates with myself.)

Also I am slowly rereading Jane Eyre right now (partly because of The Autobiography of Jane Eyre on youtube right now, which I am enjoying!) and I looove it more than ever, partly because I now think Jane is another INFP like me! Yays.

And I’ve also recently decided to read some mystery novels again, after giving them a break for a few years for being too disturbing. But then this year I’ve gotten really into the tv show Elementary (are there fans out there? It is such a lovely show, don’t be a Sherlock snob and avoid it! Jonny Lee Miller is my current British actor crush because oh he’s just a doll on this show) and then my husband got me watching Hannibal (scary! But also there is Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen and pretty, gothic imagery, so sort of okay…) and other mystery shows and then we watched LUTHER on Netflix (oh my goodness Idris Elba! and Ruth Wilson!! I am taking a break from it because the first season was so intense but oh that’s a really good BBC show, guys) and then I just wanted to read a mystery and not just watch one. So I picked up In the Woods by Tana French because I remember hearing good things about it around the book blogosphere and I’d always been curious about it. So as of this morning I’ve read half of it and was really liking it (I’ve also experienced childhood trauma that I couldn’t remember, so I liked that being in a book) but then I had an unavoidably strong urge to read the end and then that made me sad. I had my suspicions about the killer all along, so that wasn’t it, but oh why Rob and Cassie why? (I’m being deliberately cryptic here so as not to spoil it but if you’ve read it, please come and talk to me!) Anyways, so now I’m not sure about finishing it either.

And now I’m going to end this post before I ramble any further. Thank you for joining in. (Also in my personal life, I’m now finished my medical transcriptionist course and will hopefully soon have a job at a hospital! So I’m pleased on that front. And I continue to buy too many books that I then don’t read right away, so what else is new.)

thoughts on how I like to read and Mansfield Park

So it’s been almost a year since I’ve last written here, but tonight I made myself a cup of chamomile lavender tea (due to reading a passage from Proust about tea) and thought of this blog again (the title Lavender Tisane is a bit of a reference to Proust, even though he talks about lime blossom tisane, not lavender. Close enough.).

I’ve been taking a break from book blogging because I was tired of feeling forced to read all the right books that everyone else was raving about. Sometimes it’s nice to be challenged to read something new and different, but personally, I have to feel free to read whatever I want, whenever I want, and to not feel guilty about being myself when I read.

Last year I read a lot of fantasy, for teens, adults, and kids, including four different takes on the Beauty & the Beast fairy tale (my favourite is Beauty by Robin McKinley), and I went back to The Lord of the Rings because I loved The Hobbit movie. I also read some adorable kids books, like The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (the third in the Penderwicks series, which are about four sisters and are the absolute BEST, so read them if you want modern-day Little Women homages and general nostalgic the bestness). I also read lots of my lovely Jane Austen, as usual, and more Georgette Heyer. What I didn’t do was force myself to read a ton of books I wasn’t completely into. I didn’t even finish 50 books last year! I just felt sick of putting so much pressure on myself over something that’s supposed to be a fun, relaxing hobby.

One thing about my reading style is that I start a lot of books that I just don’t finish. I have tried to resolve that I will finish more books, but if I’m not in the mood for them, then it’s just not going to happen. I started Little Dorrit last year in the fall (at a very stressful family wedding out in the Maritimes–I finally got to see the Anne of Green Gables museum and all that at Prince Edward Island, but my husband wasn’t able to come with me and there were crazy family times) and had to take a break from it because it was making me too depressed. I picked it up again this year, but the same thing happened. Will I ever finish it? Who knows, hopefully, but I’m not going to push myself. Part of the reason is because I already have depression and don’t need what I do for fun to make me feel worse. I want to read to feel better. Other people have different motives for reading and that’s good too, but I no longer want to feel pressured into copying whatever everyone else is doing.

In the past, I’ve read the entire Twilight series because I enjoyed it. I’ve also read the entirely of In Search of Lost Time, also because I enjoyed it. I love variety in my reading, as long as it’s something I chose and that I’m enjoying.

Anyway, now that that reading manifesto or rant is out of the way… I’m currently rereading Mansfield Park. I love Fanny even if she’s not the most exciting Austen heroine (I’m very fond of all of them and can relate in different ways to all of them too), but I find it hard to read about her struggles with Mrs. Norris and the like because I’ve also been super shy and overlooked or looked down on and didn’t always know how to speak up for myself. I’ve never been a big fan of the Crawfords, although it varies with each reading how more or less sympathetic I feel towards Henry Crawford.

When I read it last year, I felt bad that Edmund couldn’t see Fanny’s beauty sooner, as Henry Crawford does. I wanted Fanny to be with someone who loved her passionately, like Henry does. But this time, all I see is how selfish Henry’s love is. He’s all excited that he’s going to raise poor little nobody Fanny to a position of importance due to his power and of course she will be eternally grateful to him and since she’s so gentle she’ll never have her own opinions but always do whatever he wants, blah blah. He never stops to consider if she actually loves him or if he’s worthy of someone as good as she is, he simply assumes that because he’s rich and charming she’ll be thrilled. Mr. Darcy also assumed that Elizabeth would jump at him for his money and whatever else (certainly not his charm), but when she proved him wrong, he went out and CHANGED for the better. He didn’t try to manipulate her, he actually listened to her and became a better person because of her. 

(Sidenote, I’ve been watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on youtube and very much enjoying them, although I hate waiting for the next one! I don’t know if other book bloggers are watching them, but hopefully some are so we can talk about it!)

So I am reading Mansfield Park slowly, because I have to stop to feel sad for Fanny and worry about the next drama coming her way via Mrs. Norris and the Crawfords, whether it’s an unwanted and pressured marriage proposal or a difficult day out cutting roses in the sun! I’m sensitive enough that a lot of conflict in books gives me grief. I also enjoy just savouring Jane Austen’s writing and not rushing through it. There are other books I want to read after this, but I like taking my time to really live in Austen’s world.

I read Pride & Prejudice before this (due to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the 200th anniversary of P&P) and also read it slowly. The language and dialogue of Pride & Prejudice especially is so familiar to me, so iconic, that I didn’t want to just rush through it and only enjoy the wit on the surface, I wanted to see beneath to the real characters and their motivations. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries really helped me to see the story in a fresh light, when sometimes in the past it’s felt a little stale to me, and I was intrigued by the story of Elizabeth and Darcy and seeing them not just in a romantic light, where all their fights are ooh so sexy, but looking at them as people still growing up and finding themselves and how they influence each other and change each other.

Well, I think this is enough for now. I don’t know how often I will write here in the future and I certainly don’t plan on getting involved in reading challenges and whatnot, I just wanted a place to share some of my thoughts about the books I read.

Strolling on a Sunday

Hopefully this will be a short stroll today, but we’ll see what happens.

For starters, despite my complaints about Anna Karenina in my last post, after I wrote my review of it, I began rethinking it and also Tolstoy’s view of spirituality in the final chapters. Despite my complaints about how Tolstoy portrays women (and how he treated his own wife at times, see a bit of Sophie Tolstoy’s diary quoted by Danielle at A Work in Progress here), I must admit that I began to contemplate exploring my own spirituality again.

Those who have been following my come-and-go attempts at book blogging for the last few years may know that I grew up in a very strict charismatic (you’d think that was an oxymoron, but no) Christian home, where I felt pressure and guilt all the time to be the perfect little christian girl and also experienced physical and emotional abuse from my mother for not being perfect enough. Eventually in university, I ended up in a huge depression and was very close to a suicide attempt because I’d pushed myself way too hard to be that perfect christian girl, without allowing myself any space just to be myself and enjoy life without judging myself all the time. So since then while I’ve been muddling my way through trying to get out of depression, I became very bitter towards christianity.

And oddly, Tolstoy’s simplified approach to Christianity (he didn’t believe in miracles, thank goodness, since I’m sick of excessively showy displays of faith healing and that sort of thing, which is what I grew up on. He also didn’t like smug religious people who thought they had it all worked out either.) was the first time in a while that I found it appealing. Tolstoy was far from perfect, but he tried very hard to live for something more than himself, to do better than the average aristocrat of his day. I began to consider that the point of Christianity is not about trying to be self-centeredly perfect on your own (Tolstoy’s failures were also about his ego getting in the way too much, I think. Despite his faith, he was terrified of death, of the cessation of his all-important self. Realizing that about him helped me see that in the past I’d also been trying to go about it in the wrong way, to impress God with my goodness), it is about accepting grace and love in the midst of failure.

I don’t intend to become extreme with my faith anymore, since for me, that way leads to depression. I’ve been quietly thinking these things through for about a week now, looking for books to inspire and encourage me on this new path (the first thing I do whenever I have a new interest is head to the library!) and trying to be gentle with myself in the midst of these changes. So I’m happy for an inner spring renewal just as it’s starting to warm up outside and have had some lovely walks this week, full of fresh spring air.

As for what I’ve been reading, Ana’s review (at things mean a lot) of Geek Girls Unite by Leslie Simon intrigued me, so I zipped through it last Sunday afternoon. As she says, it’s more written in a magazine style for teens who are trying to figure out where they fit in geekdom and to be supportive of any sort of geeky (she defines this as being passionate about any specific thing) interests. That said, it’s not without its flaws — for one, I’m a literary geek, but I’ve never longed for my husband to look more like Jonathan Safran Foer! And I far prefer 19th century chunksters to contemporary hipstery writers like Foer or David Eggers, etc etc. Actually, the all-too-brief history she gave of women in writing left me appalled — she completely skipping over THE BRONTES, GEORGE ELIOT, and other amazing women writers of the 19th century that writers today are still only a pale copy of, and jumped straight to the 20th century and the likes of Dorothy Parker (who’s not bad, but she’s no Charlotte, Emily, or Anne!), saying something like, well there wasn’t really much going in with women writers before…. Excuse me??? British women writers of the 19th century were amazing! She does give Jane Austen a consolation prize/mention later on, so that was covered, but honestly. I’d rather read Jane Eyre and Middlemarch over The Bell Jar any day. For one thing, those women made their own happy endings, despite their lack of Sylvia Plath’s more privileged education.

And overall, for a book supposedly about geeks, it had a lot of rather hipstery recommendations going on, especially in the movie, music, and book sections. The point of being geeky is not to become cool, it’s just to like what you like. You like musical theatre or ancient history, great. Be passionate about that and who cares if you like the right kinds of art, like Wes Anderson movies and music by Patti Smith.

I do like this book for reminding me that at times I’ve tried too hard to be cool to impress literary book snobs, etc, and forgot to keep in touch with what I actually like. And at other times, my strict religious approach to life led me to throw out geeky things I really loved. I think that because I denied who I really was at those times, I now have a harder time remembering what it is I really love now. So I’ve now made a list of things that I’ve been passionate about over the years to re-explore some of them and rediscover my passion again and I don’t intend to abandon those interests (and ultimately myself) anymore. I’ve gone back to listening to the christian group Jars of Clay since I used to like them in my teens, but I also see a lot of spirituality and meaning in Harry Potter too. So it’s all a balance.

And I also just finished reading A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz today. Claire’s review (at The Captive Reader) of it last year got me interested and I finally got it out from the library in February. I actually read most of it then and it was what prompted me to go back to Tolstoy in the front place. For starters, I loved it, it’s such an insightful look into what Austen had to say about life and how we can constantly learn something new from the everyday of our regular lives. There were so many good ideas there, about learning to grow in love, instead of fall in love (from Sense & Sensibility) and learning how to grow up and take responsibility for your actions, but also to stay young and open and curious in your approach to life (Northanger Abbey). His focus on what you can learn from Jane Austen helped me to go into Tolstoy with the same approach, with ultimately good results. I could say more, but since most of the book isn’t fresh in my mind anymore and since this has been long enough already, this is going to be it for now!

As to what I’m reading next… after realizing that there don’t seem to be that many christian authors who just write really well (if anyone can think of any, please recommend them! As it is I will probably rely mostly on my 19th century favourites who were also christians in their own varied ways, aka, Austen, Gaskell, Bronte, Tolstoy, the usual suspects. I may also reread the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books the next time I get into fantasy again. There is also Madeleine L’Engle and since I love A Wrinkle in Time and reread it for comfort just late last year, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books), I thought I’d do an experiment. I was going to put this off until next year, but I decided that if the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of War & Peace was on the shelf at my local library when I went there yesterday, then I’d read it this year. And there it was. So obviously I am still more than a little bit into Tolstoy! I also found Gilead by Marilynne Robinson on the shelf and since Rachel recommended that to me a while back, I’m giving it a go too and really enjoying it.

And yet again, another long post/stroll. Oh well, off to enjoy a book and a walk on this beautiful spring day.

Back to Book Bloggery

So. Here I am again. After disappearing for about six months from the book blog-o-sphere, I got the itch to come back.

But first, I might as well tell you (if there is any of ‘you’ left to read this!) what I’ve been up to lately. My husband and I moved out to Regina, Saskatchewan at the end of August (after my baby brother’s gorgeous wedding). As soon as we got to Regina, my husband went into the hospital with more Crohn’s related health problems and I was left to unpack (along with my very helpful in-laws) in about a week before going back to school. My husband ended up having another surgery at the end of September, but since Saskatchewan has great health care, it finally seemed to work better than all his other ones and he’s now over his stomach infection and doing much better. But for about a month there, he was on IV antibotics 3 times a day, 2 hours every time. So it was very difficult to sleep with the constant beep of his machine and I’ve had sleeping problems ever since. Also, our car was broken into on my first day of school and wrecked enough that it was a write-off. We got a nicer second-hand car and… the first day we were out driving in it together, an old lady rear-ended us. And it was a write-off too. (And that’s not the end of my tale of woe either… but I’ll stop for a paragraph break.)

Perhaps by now it’s becoming apparent why I had no time for book blogging for a while? One good thing that happened in the midst of all the kerfuffle of moving and hospital times was that while I wasn’t sleeping at nights, I started writing creatively again. But it started to worry me because I’d be up for hours in the middle of the night, writing almost manically and unable to stop and just rest, even though I was exhausted. So I finally went to a counselor and began to seriously face my mental health problems. I’m now on anti-depressants and they are helping. I’ve been depressed to varying degrees all of my adult life and I had high anxiety when I was younger too, but I was always scared to go on medication for it. But it’s only helped me. They aren’t an instant cure but things are getting better.

I’m also taking a course in Office Education, something basic and practical (I am now a whiz at spreadsheets and business report formatting). I had intended to use it to go on to medical transcribing, since as a sensitive, depressed introvert, I’d really like to work in a quiet office by myself! But I’ve since discovered that I also enjoy accounting, of all things! My dad is a Chartered Accountant, but I always thought I was too much into the arts to be able to handle that. Now it seems I’m not as scatterbrained as I thought I was. So I might end up taking more accounting classes instead, I keep changing my mind between the two. I felt like a misfit taking this course, since I already have a university degree, and my first semester there was lonely and awkward. But I’ve made friends with another shy girl, who, when I admitted I liked British books, asked me with a light in her eye: have you ever seen North & South? So now we have Jane Austen movie days together. 😀

One nice thing about living in Regina is that our apartment is a 15 minute walk away from a big bookstore and a library! So we go there very often. Where we continue to indulge in buying more books and Starbucks beverages than we should… (My husband and I both love salted caramel mochas there, btw. So so good.) And I got to go to Toronto for the first time this Christmas, to visit my husband’s sister and her family, where I spent lots of time reading by the fireplace in a conservatory (! glorious), petting kittens. So there have been good things with the bad. I have also developed a cough that won’t quite go away and mild eczema on my hands, both due to the extreme dryness of a prairie winter (even Alberta wasn’t this bad!), which is irritating, but at least spring seems to be finally on its way.

As for the reading I’ve been doing, I’ve indulged in many kids books (The Penderwicks and sequels by Jeanne Birdsall are adorable, about a family of four sisters) and some chick lit, as well as a biography of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress in 18th century France. She had gorgeous clothes, but by the end of the book I was rather disgusted with all the excessive spending in the French court that helped set up the downfall of the monarchy in the French Revolution several decades later. Also I was personally pissed off with her because she tried to get involved with politics by getting Louis to ally with Austria instead of focusing on fighting the British to keep their North American colonies — aka, that’s partly why I now speak English instead of French… Sigh. She was very good at staying in power for a very long time, they called her the unofficial ‘prime minister’ even when she hadn’t slept with the king for decades. So I enjoyed my time reading about the decadent 18th century, but was glad to leave it when the book was over.

I also enjoyed Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe, which featured the unusual love lives of Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth von Arnim, Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister), Winifred Holtby, and several others. I liked spending more time in their early 20th century world, marveling at all the shenanigans they got up to and how being a writer didn’t always make them more clear-sighted about their own romantic difficulties.

2011 was also the year I began to read Diana Wynne Jones, a delightful British children’s fantasy author. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first and Fire & Hemlock was next, but over the winter, I’ve also come to love House of Many Ways (a sequel of sorts to Howl’s Moving Castle, although with a different main protagonist), Charmed Life (my first introduction to Chrestomanci), and Witch Week. They are all so varied — this is part of her charm, that you never know what will come next, but it also makes it harder to read her books in a row when you just want something exactly like what you just read. Even if there are some of the same characters from one book to another, the tone is never quite the same. 

Howl’s Moving Castle and House of Many Ways are tied as my favourites (and I made sure I got both of them for Christmas!) and both have a lovely cosy atmosphere of people learning to be friends in the midst of odd situations (specifically odd houses, that either have many strange and unexpected rooms depending on which way you turn the doorknob, or a castle that bounces about at will). Wizard Howl does show up in House of Many Ways in a fantastic disguise (I love him as Twinkle!), along with Sophie, who is still scolding him. It’s so rare that authors bring characters back after the happy ending, so that was lovely to see their married relationship. And that book features a great main character in Charmain, who is constantly reading, even while she eats, until adventures and magic and a volunteer job in the royal library and a little white dog begin to intervene…

However, I wasn’t sure if I liked Charmed Life much until I read the last page and burst into tears. (While on the airplane, flying back from Toronto. Usually I get claustrophobic on planes and can’t wait to get off, but I forgot to be worried while I was reading, so perhaps I was enjoying the book before the last page…) The tone of the book isn’t as happy as the other ones I’d read, despite the introduction of Chrestomanci, of whom I’d heard so much of (he’s an exquisitely dressed enchanter, with a different embroidered dressing gown for every day of the year), but that’s mostly because of the truly horrid Gwendolen who is determined to become powerful, even at the cost of her family. Her brother Cat Chant suffers some chillingly unexpected losses at her hands, but as I say, the ending makes up for it.

And Witch Week is about the horrors of a bad British boarding school with lots of bullying in a world mostly similar to ours, but where witches are still being burned to death. Unfortunately for the students, witchcraft seems to be breaking out everywhere, so they have to call Chrestomanci in to fix things up. This one is my least favourite out of what I’ve read of her work so far, but it’s still thought-provoking and entertaining, with some funny bits.

And I haven’t even mentioned that I’ve finally found a definite favourite out of Jane Austen’s novels… yes, Emma. I’d been leaning towards it for a long time, but last fall yet another reread cemented the deal. I even had to buy the lovely edition at the right just to appreciate it even more. 🙂 Now I have three copies of it, as one should for one’s favourite Austen. To me, the story and comedy and cosy homeyness of it never gets old. It always seems fresh and so funny. I know Emma herself can be annoying, but oh the social misadventures she gets up to! The Christmas Eve party at the Weston’s is very high on my list of favourite literary scenes ever, from John Knightley’s complaints about an inch of snow, to Mr. Elton’s hideously botched proposal. I’m laughing now just thinking about it. I used to think there wasn’t enough romance in the book, but the new BBC miniseries of it with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller gave Emma and Mr. Knightley plenty of romantic tension under the surface in the midst of all their little tiffs, and I now just adore those two together so much. They are old friends and I love couples who start off that way. It’s fun to notice the little details in the book of where their feelings for each other start to show.

So I guess this is enough of my rambling for a while, hopefully I’ll keep this up more often now! I have a personal reading project I’m thinking of that I might share next time. Oh also, in the midst of my non-book blogging months, I have been happily discovering tumblr. My blog there (Lemon Rose) is mostly full of pictures of period dramas, 19th century paintings, and flowers, etc, but I occasionally write about what I’m reading, so if I disappear again, that’s where I’ve gone to. Salut for now, bookophiles!

Jane Austen & the bad girls

Midsummer | Leonie Adams

This starbreak is celestial air
Just silver; earthlight, dying amber.
Underneath an arch of pallor
Summer keeps her brightened chamber.

Bright beauty of the risen dust
And deep flood-mark of beauty pressed
Up from earth in lovely flower,
High against my lonely breast;

Only before the waters fall
Is Paradise shore for gaining now.
The grasses drink the berry-bright dew;
The small fruits jewel all the bough.

Heartbreaking summer beyond taste,
Ripeness and frost are soon to know;
But might such color hold the west,
And time, and time, be honey-slow!

It’s not midsummer anymore and I’m already beginning to see the traces of autumn in the trees, unfortunately, which is why the last line, begging time to move slowly, was in mind today. And also because I’m moving in a week and there still seems so much to do!

I’ve packed up most of my books (though I made the grave error of thinking I could do without Jane Austen and Harry Potter and other comfy favourites during this stressful time and had already boxed them up! Luckily I’d labeled the boxes when I needed to raid them… a move is never a good time to try Anna Karenina for a little light reading!) and today got about half (or a third, he has a real mountain of them, more than me) of my husband’s books packed up too. My husband can’t help with the move much at all, since he’s got an open wound in his stomach that we’re hoping will heal up soon or the doctor thinks he may need a skin graft… and I have an old foot injury that’s been hurting again. So I am panicking a bit, although hopefully everything goes smoothly.

I watched the Pride & Prejudice mini-series today and that was soothing while I packed. I’d been telling myself that Jane Austen is just moralizing wish-fulfillment for passive good girls (sanitized Regency-era Disney fairy tales) and that I ought to read other, more modern things, so last night I tried a few of Chuck Klosterman’s ‘low culture’ essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and while some of them were insightful — he writes about the concept of ‘fake love,’ where people get their ideas and expectations of love from movies and music and so are never satisfied when the real thing comes around — overall they were too cynical and just meaningless and left me in a grumpy mood. But sometimes, when the opening lines of Persuasion make you cheer up after other books just make you feel worse, then Jane Austen it is.

I began to think today that some of Austen’s scheming bad girls actually end up doing ok, especially the manipulative Lucy Steele in Sense & Sensibility who marries more money than the saintly Elinor in the end! Austen supposedly offers the reader two choices: Marianne’s doomed wild passion or Elinor’s dutiful, slightly dull common-sense. Both women marry respectable good men who can provide for them in the end, even if they too are a bit dull (although interestingly Marianne’s censured romantic and unconventional behaviour gets her the richer husband than her sister’s who always does the right thing and loses his inheritance over it). But there is a third marriage at the end of the book, a third young woman who’s been scheming for a husband and takes action to look after herself, although she’s poorer and less accomplished than either of the Dashwood girls. As a rector’s daughter Austen of course couldn’t officially condone such behaviour, but I’m sure she was highly amused while creating such outrageous strong-willed women like Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Elton, Isabella Thorpe, and Lucy Steele, who won’t take no for an answer!

Come to think of it, Jane Austen herself had to be rebellious enough to write and to believe in her writing enough to persevere to get it published and to reject a comfortable but loveless marriage. She valued her self-actualizing independent CAREER! She sought money for her work, something most respectable women (certainly not middle-class clergymen’s daughters hidden away in the country, famous women writers before her like Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney had exciting public lives, Behn as a government spy who also wrote a novel exposing slavery and Burney as a member of George III’s court and a friend of many famous writers, among other things!) didn’t do then. Even the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire dabbled in writing, but never pursued it single-mindedly as its own end. Most women with a talent in the arts only saw it as a hobby, a pretty little accomplishment to boost them up on the marriage market. (Austen makes fun of Mrs. Elton for saying she’ll give up music now that she’s married, now that its use is fulfilled.) She must have felt that entertaining herself and other women with her stories wasn’t just a cutesy grab a husband side-show, it had worth and meaning and serious artistic merit. Even if she didn’t have any famous male writers encouraging her or any other writer friends at all. She put value in what she accomplished with her brains, she wasn’t willing to be an unpaid slave wife and mother, forever pregnant like her own mother or diddling about with embroidery like empty-headed Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park. Even while living with her family who thought one of her brothers should be the famous writer. And her early teenaged writings are quite saucy and unconventional, even including an anti-heroine mother in Lady Susan… which I might have to read now!

Growing up with a mother who is obsessed with studying the bible, I inadvertently learned to read literature very closely, to read between the lines, to consider context, time period and the language it was first written in. I also inadvertently learned to study what I read for a useful moral lesson, a guide on how to live my life. I tend to pass judgment on books based on whether or not I approved of the ideas they seemed to promote, I find it hard to read something just to enjoy the story, language and characters alone. If a book is too dark (even if, my husband the horror fan points out, it also has its own dark morality), I tend to feel quite uncomfortable.

So for a long time, even since leaving chrisitianity, I have seen Jane Austen as my moral compass through life, reading her closely for instructions on how to be a good person and how to have good relationships with others. She’s especially good at the friendships between women, sisters, mothers and daughters, older women who mentor younger ones (or try to), friends, frenemies… there’s often an unequal balance, with one woman trying to exploit her superiority over the other. This fascinated me because I’ve often experienced it in my own life, starting with my mother and in the past moving on to some of my friendships. I’ve looked to Jane Austen to show the balance of how to mature in order to be a better friend, but also the signs to look for in who is a good friend to confide in.

That said, I don’t always want to be the good girl who only reads Jane Austen! I want to read a broader range of women and men to learn other perspectives about love and sex and relationships and life. Occasionally I want to feel liberated and read about bad girls who don’t do everything right and yet are still ok in the end. As mentioned in my last post, Colette is my newest discovery who is great at this. But there have to be more women writing about bad girls (who don’t die off or get punished either!) or just independent girls who don’t stay home and wait around for life to happen to them! Or women in healthy relationships who also manage to have an independent strong sense of self?? I love reading about love and romance and all that (I am married after all, I don’t demand that women must always shun men and go off on their own to be fully self-actualized), but I also need to know that it’s ok to not be perfect all the time. I have to know that my needs are important too, even if my husband is having three surgeries this summer. I can’t always live by the Jane Austen rules (I’m just not self-sacrificing Elinor Dashwood hiding my feelings to hold my family together!) — unless they are the Jane Austen writing rules of having faith in my words, my voice, my ideas, my sense of humour, my stories, even if they’re unconventional — I am my own person with my own story to live and my own stories to write.

So, recommendations for books about (non-self-destructive) bad girls? I just started thinking about Gone With the Wind‘s indomitable Scarlett O’Hara and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which I’ve heard is a great feminist teen book, and there’s Vanity Fair too with notorious social climber Becky Sharp. And funny girls too, why is it girls aren’t supposed to be as funny as boys? I certainly enjoy being funny and doing more than just listening to men tell jokes. Jane Austen embraced her sense of humour instead of hiding it and used it very pointedly. (I’m beginning to remember a previous rant about why aren’t there any books with adventurous girls too!) Perhaps I’ll be back at the library soon, even though I once had the silly idea of not reading much while I was busy moving… at any rate, getting a new library card in our new city will be a top priority!

Tea with Proust and the Pink Carnation

I know April is poetry month, but I want Proust instead. (He partly inspired my blog name, thanks to the following passage from Swann’s Way.)

… 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. I refused at first and then, I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though 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 tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant wen 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, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its diasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, 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.

… suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray… when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime blossom.

And it is still wintery here (more snow, just when it had finally begun to melt! Yesterday I had even been able to walk across the lawn on mostly bare grass) and now I want a cup of chamomile lemon tea. (Err, here is the image credit for that lovely picture of tea cups which I now want to drink soothing liquids from!)

I finished Mansfield Park last week (one prefers never to desert Jane Austen) and still feel a bit sorry for Henry Crawford. Which I never did before and which I certainly don’t for Willoughby, let alone Wickham (John Thorpe is right beyond the pale, Frank Churchill doesn’t need my sympathy and well ok I like William Elliot a little, again because he genuinely appreciates Anne and was played by Sam West that once…) It’s possible he wouldn’t stop being naughty even with her, but at least he honestly loves her and actually sees her as a grown woman. Edmund seems such a passionateless creature in comparison, Fanny is only his consolation prize, even though even he hasn’t behaved considerately to her all the time either. In any events, it’s nice to refresh my memory of Jane Austen and not think I already know everything about her books from past rereadings.

I’ve also started reading the Pink Carnation books by Lauren Willig. The adventure and romance hook me, although sometimes I’m a bit annoyed at her main mode of humour, which is exaggeration. This is mostly the case with her present day character, Eloise, who’s a history grad student in England to investigate a series of spies in the manner of the Scarlet Pimpernel who thwarted Napoleon from invading England. I certainly wouldn’t mind having her life, but the chick lit-esque sections of her parts of the book do grate a little so far, as Eloise overthinks every male encounter now or in the past five years and sometimes somehow thinks she ‘shouldn’t go out of the house without a muzzle on’ — what??! I don’t exactly find that type of self and women bashing humour funny… But the historical stories are enjoyable. There are various mysterious spies, good and bad, sneaking about to be discovered and/or rescued and lots of fun kissy bits too.

The first book (The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) takes the characters to Paris, where they attend Josephine’s salon in the Tuileries, which I quite enjoyed (may have to read more about Josephine now). Amy, the heroine of the first book, is a bit too bouncy for me and wears too many smelly disguises (I love beautiful old clothes and want more descriptions of those instead), bouncing right on over into obnoxious from time to time. Luckily Henrietta in the second book (The Masque of the Black Tulip) is more sensible and can also sing beautifully and spends more time trying to escape from overly flirtatious gentlemen in black waistcoats with silver snakes embroidered on them (he even carries a silver snake headed cane and quotes Milton’s Satan!! I was definitely thinking of Lucius Malfoy.) and also endearingly falls for her brother’s oldest friend while trying to find a deadly French spy in London.

I’ve now got the third book lined up (The Deception of the Emerald Ring) but have to take a bit of a break between each book, as I tend to read them almost completely in one day, just racing through once I start. In between I’ve daudled through parts of the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser (because I love the movie, but find the book likes to throw more foreshadowing about, which makes it more depressing, as well as all the confusing endless list of names and titles of royals and courtiers surrounding her. I tried to read it last year and didn’t finish either) and a little bit of The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, because I’ve found myself oddly longing for more Trollope after reading him for the first time last year. And the Victorians still hold a very dear little corner of my heart. (I’m currently debating if I ought to pull out some Dickens for the Classics Circuit Dueling Authors thingie, with Jane Austen vs. Charles Dickens. Of course I prefer Jane Austen, but I never finished Our Mutual Friend last year and A Tale of Two Cities, which I also never finished, would fit well with this late 18th/early 19th century frolic I am on. And of course I keep meaning to read more George Eliot too, and did start rereading Middlemarch earlier this year, I just got distracted. By spies and the 18th century and Napoleon and things.)

I’ve also requested a large pile of more historical fiction at my big city library (including the Josephine B. books by Sandra Gulland and some Regency and Victorian mysteries and romances mostly) and am thrilled to finally be reading and enjoying more of it again, after sort of looking down on it a bit for a few years. And last night I bought another Bloomsbury Group book, Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson. I’ve only read one of the Bloomsbury books so far, Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, which is an adorably funny look at WW2, but I can’t help collecting them, they are so pretty!

I was also thinking it could be fun to explore historical fiction actually written in the 19th century, like War & Peace or some Alexandre Dumas or A Tale of Two Cities, as mentioned above. I would just need a bit more time to do that and firmer dedication. In the meantime, I have plenty of books to choose from…

Evelina by Fanny Burney

O my dear Sir, in what raptures am I returned! Well may Mr. Garrick be so celebrated, so universally admired — I had not any idea of so great a performer.

Such ease! such vivacity in his manner! such grace in his motions! such fire and meaning in his eyes! — I could hardly believe he had studied a written part, for every word seemed spoke from the impulse of the moment.

His action — at once so graceful and so free! — his voice — so clear, so melodious, yet so wonderfully various in its tones — such animation! — every look speaks! (27-28)

I’ve been romping in the 18th century with Fanny Burney (who was a fan of David Garrick obviously). Evelina is her first novel, about a young girl off to London to hopefully find her real father and along the way running into a satire of the society of the times and a whole lotta unwelcome loving. Evelina is so gentle and kind and submissive and also excessively beautiful that any men, high, low and fop, who see her are suddenly obsessed with her and begin to call her ‘most charming of thy sex’ or just Angel. She has to fight them off repeatedly! And to keep reassuring the grave and gentlemanly Lord Orville that really, things aren’t everything they appear to be… She makes several beginner mistakes at dances, accepting a dance with Lord Perfect Orville there after already turning down a tiptoing negligently imperitnent young fop! Jane Austen has already taught me that just isn’t done, so I was wincing for our shy little country manners heroine in advance. She later claims to be already engaged to dance with Lord Orville in order to avoid another grabby young man, named Sir Clement Willoughby, who keeps showing up again and again to protest his love for Evelina and never stop grabbing her wrists.

But somehow I couldn’t stop reading this, even while rolling my eyes and protesting aloud. It has a cosy classic feel to it, that reminds me of other female authors I enjoy, like Jane Austen of course, who was influenced by Burney (although Austen allows her women to make up their own minds about marriage, instead of requiring elderly fussy old men to guide them) and also Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s not perfect, but I’m glad I read it and it gives a vivid picture of English society in 1778, from the high life in London to the shenanigans at a country home (a sea captain playfully abducts a Frenchwoman) and the placidity of the resort town of Bristol (which was only slightly less poplar than Bath at the time and also had hot springs and mineral waters I think).

We have been to the opera, and I am still more pleased than I was on Tuesday. I could have thought myself in paradise, but for the continual talking of the company around me. We sat in the pit, where every body was dressed in so high a style, that, if I had been less delighted with the performance, my eyes would have found me sufficient entertainment from looking at the ladies.

…When the opera was over, we went into a place called the coffee-room, where ladies as gentlemen assemble. There are all sorts of refreshments, and the company walk about, and chat, with the same ease and freedom as in a private room. (40)

I’ve since been skipping around Mansfield Park, happy to be reading Jane Austen again and the one novel of her’s which I’ve actually avoided for five years now. It is somber, but the writing style is more mature than her earlier books. I can relate to Fanny, being rather shy and sensitive myself (and very religious too, in my earlier years) and my heart sinks for her, even as I shake my head over her extreme earnestness. There’s no other word for it. The problem is, I now have a stack of library books from the big city and simply want to start devouring them! I’m at Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny and wishing that he was just a bit better of a person, since he does admire her for her, not just for her principles, as Edmund never fully seems to… Dilemmas!

(Also, yes I have blogged at a few of my favourite books, now I am going to try blogging here, because it feels more casual. I’m going to keep it more open here, blogging about books, but anything else that catches my fancy, so likely more of an inconsistent jumble of all my latest enthusiasms. Also the picture in this post is on the cover of my edition of Evelina, it’s an engraving of Vauxhall Gardens.)