Those Gorgeous Georgians

I’ve been drafting my next blog post in my head for what seems like weeks now, so I’ll try to keep it short so I don’t keep putting it off! (I have made it up with British literature, if you’re wondering. I reread North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell for the third time, after my brief dip into Chinese books.) After that, I ended up watching Ballet Shoes one night on Netflix after feeling rather down and thoroughly enjoyed it (I so wish I’d seen it or read the book by Noel Streatfeild when I was younger as it encourages girls to have ambition and to work hard to do what they love, whatever that may be and also has so many great strong female characters in it, who like a lot of different things, from dancing and acting to math and flying airplanes), which got me thinking that instead of feeling I must only ever strive to read the most difficult and punishing books so I can prove what a smart person I am, I could try to read what I love for a bit. And by that I didn’t mean the recent British comfort books I’ve discovered this past year through blogging, I meant my first book love, stories with ‘romance and adventure’ as I’ve always thought of it, or what they mostly were, historical fiction.

I got a stack of books from the library and ended up finally reading my first Georgette Heyer (The Corinthian) and there it was again: that romance and adventure. I was so teased by my brother for reading what he called ‘soppy romance novels’ when I was a teenager and later after taking advanced English in high school and then studying English in university I wanted to learn more about the classics that I often regretted ‘wasting’ my teenage reading years on these christian historical novels, when I could have been reading Austen or the Brontes or Dickens or even Dostoevsky as I’ve heard others brag of. But the thing is, much as the classics truly are great books and profoundly worth attention… I also like what I like. My experiences have shaped me and it seems foolish to ignore that, to deny myself the type of books and reading experiences I still yearn for (and the kind of books I’ve always secretly wanted to write, which is historical fiction, with romance and adventure!). I’m tired of the elitism which seems to go on, where ‘thinking women’s fiction’ is judged better than ‘feeling and emotional women’s fiction’ — why do women put other women down at all? This was the only problem I had with the Heyer novel, the heroine who’s particularly boyish puts down a more girly romantic character. Is this necessary in books or real life? Why is acting more like the male stereotype, being less emotional and focusing more on the intellect, automatically better? Why is it I’ve always felt ashamed of being romantic and emotional and tried to hide it behind proving I was smarter than the boys (not that difficult since smart boys are often just giant nerds who like having fun and don’t feel bad about it, much more difficult are all the other girls trying to seriously prove themselves too)? Why not feel ok reading both types of books (if that is one’s inclination), blending thought and emotion, and not like I have to justify myself like this?

Georgiana, with her crazy fashion hat

Anyways, past all that, I discovered something. The Regency era, which I’d previously viewed with some distaste due to all those crazy Jane Austen fans (so not like me, I’d tell myself, since I like her for her great writing not just the romance and the spin-offs and movies!), was actually quite fun to read about. There was lots of wit and humour in Heyer, which is also one of the things I like most about Jane Austen and there was an emphasis on fancy clothes, which I’ve realized I have a weakness for in books. I also thought the 18th century might be worth checking out, since I’ve always thought Jane Austen was most a product of the rationalism and satire of that time and not of the romanticism of the early 19th century. I ended up reading the biography Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (which the movie The Duchess was based on) and now I really want to learn more about the 18th century. The Georgians are a bit crazy and many of them gambled horribly (Georgiana was never able to clear all her debts in her lifetime or to fully stop gambling for decades, if ever), but they’re just more interesting and colourful to me than the Victorians. Their clothes are prettier! I may have found something I like for myself and not just because others like it. My interests in Jane Austen, Marie Antoinette and the age of sail all collide at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th in a way I hadn’t considered before.

So I’ll see what comes of this but hopefully I can finally settle down with a time period long enough to be able to research and write about it. The interesting thing about Georgiana’s biography was how much the movie had made her life only about sex (cold Ralph Fiennes of a husband scares her in bed, she meets sad friend who then sleeps with cold husband, but cold husband must produce an heir and then she finds true love Dominic Cooper only to have to…) when really, she was a remarkable woman in so many other ways, mostly for her involvement in the Whig (liberal) party politics. She kept the party together by hosting many meetings at her house and through close friendships with different leaders when male rivalry and ambition threatened to destroy it. Not only did she set fashions for decades, but she used her popularity for what she believed in, canvassing strenuously for the Whig leader, Charles Fox and as Foreman says, “should be credited with being one of the first to refine political messages for mass communication. She was an image-maker who understood the necessity of public relations, and she became adept at the manipulation of political symbols and the dissemination of party propaganda.” She was a very close friend of the Prince of Wales and often tried to keep him from doing anything too stupid. She was also a writer who published an anonymous novel as well as some popular poetry and songs and she even experimented in chemistry and mineralogy later in life. She also lived in Europe for a year or so during the French Revolution (while giving birth to an illegitimate child), not an easy feat!

I’ve now jumped into Fanny Burney’s Evelina and understanding the time period more (it’s an epistolary novel and as Georgiana herself wrote hundreds or thousands of letters to many friends which are quoted throughout the biography, it becomes easy to see the popularity of that form for many early novels then — with no phones or telegraphs the communication between friends seems to be much richer for all the letters written — could blogging now be a way to recapture that?) finally helps me to get past the first few slightly dull pages to what inspired Jane Austen herself.

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Elizabeth Bowen & What to Read

Here’s a young Sylvia Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 (Plath used this time as inspiration for The Bell Jar), in May Sarton’s home incidentally! May Sarton and Elizabeth Bowen had some kind of relationship/affair also (here’s a Paris Review interview with May Sarton where she talks about Bowen, writing about her and her house in Ireland, Bowen’s Court). Such interesting literary links as I’ve been looking for Elizabeth Bowen photos and articles the past few days.

I’m thinking an Elizabeth Bowen read-along may work better than a reading week, since there seems to be enough excitement for her (and reading weeks are honestly exhausting to host!). When would work for those interested, the beginning of March or April or later? I will be going on holidays to Florida in two days (!! I’m not ready yet) for two weeks and will be trying to take a blogging break then, but let’s plan for something further down the road. The other question is, what do we read? I thought perhaps it could be fun to pick a date and then each post about whichever book of hers we chose, so there’s some variety, but if everyone wants to read the same book together, then we could discuss it more closely. Let me know what you think, Bowen fans, and if there is a book of hers you recommend reading or really want to read.

She’s also written a lot of short stories, as well as 11 novels (here’s the wikipedia page), so if you wanted to join in you could post about a story or two. (I read one yesterday that was rather terrifying, The Cat Jumps. Now I am a bit scared of her!) From what I can tell, her masterpiece may be The Death of the Heart (1938; “a story of adolescent love and the betrayal of innocence” the back of my book says, certainly it’s the book that made me like her so much), but you may have a different opinion! Her other most famous novels are:

  • The Last September (1929), about precarious position of the Anglo-Irish on the eve of the Irish War of Independence and the decisions a girl on the verge of womanhood has to make. (My review here.)
  • To the North (1932), which Darlene has just reviewed, saying “I was blown away by her writing and examination of the human psyche” and comparing the ending to Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.
  • The House in Paris (1935), about two young children waiting for a day in a house in Paris, it also examines what has happened in the past, how the past of the parents affects the children (and is introduced by A.S. Byatt in my edition).
  • The Heat of the Day (1949) is set during World War Two and examines a love triangle, with a woman trying to protect the man she cares for by becoming involved with a spy.
  • A World of Love (1955) may not be one of her most famous novels, but it is mentioned in Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson, because the plot revolves around finding a packet of love letters from a soldier who died in WW1.

So there’s a few to choose from, plus she has earlier and later novels that may grab your interest. Right now I’ve got to choose some books to take with me to Florida — last time I actually brought two full bags of books on the plane with me! Perhaps only one bag this time. I actually began book blogging last year while I was in Florida (my in-laws live there, hence the annual pilgrimage), but this year I’m going to try to just have a holiday and enjoy the sun and the beach (and maybe a bookstore too) and stay away from the computer for two weeks! I’ll also be thinking about how I blog and maybe making some changes when I get back. I would like to start writing more regularly again and I don’t think I can do that and blog so often either, so I may have to cut back to a simpler approach here.

I haven’t managed to finish most of the books I’ve picked up this past week, I’ve been rather restless and depressed lately. I know reading is important to me, as I wrote in my last post (partly for my sanity and independence), but now the topic of what do I read presents itself. The classics everyone agrees upon? The books my friends like? I want to find my books, the ones that matter deeply to me, that speak to my heart, if you will. I know other people read for different reasons, to broaden themselves as people, for comfort, entertainment, escape, knowledge, but somehow I need to find the authors that don’t stifle and overwhelm me, I need to find echoing encouragement. Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, these are some of the writers who make me feel I am not alone.

I am a picky reader for these reasons, I don’t find it easy to get into many books. I also stop reading many books if it feels boring or just not something that resonates with me. I don’t know if this is a problem, if I need to force myself to keep going (I was only 100 pages from the end of The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai when I put it down for good, unable to stand such unrelenting misery, even if it did win the Booker) — somehow I can’t force myself (unless it was for a university class, which always enriches the experience anyways), my reading has to be for me. It’s not about how many classics can I stuff down my throat to look more impressive. I am all for reading the classics for enlightenment, but lately I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available to me as a reader and also the pressure in such a highly literate community of book blogging that I read ever more more more, more quickly. I’m just not a fast reader it seems or else perhaps I’m too easily distracted or I like to do other things, like thinking and journaling and talking with my husband… I don’t know how it is exactly, but some of you manage to read stacks in a normal full month, whereas I read 6 books in January while living out in the country with no job and plenty of time! I’m often torn between wanting to read more and write more and don’t do either as much as I’d like. (What am I doing, I’m online. Hence questioning continuing with book blogging the way I have been, but I do love the community here. It also shows me that I am not alone. I don’t know if full on artistic solitude is what I need either. Or is it, I’m scared to try.)

I did go into Edmonton, the nearest city, on Sunday and bought Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, based on lectures he did at Harvard. It starts, “Novels are second lives.” I also got a purple library card (! something I didn’t even know existed so that I could wish for it!) — the Edmonton library seems quite good at branding itself, but there were fewer books on the shelves in prettier displays than the over-stuffed stacks in Calgary. I was able to find a few books I wanted (one Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor each, a few Muriel Sparks), but not nearly the stack I’d find in Calgary, where they still carry many of the old green Virago Modern Classics, even if they are becoming quite battered. Did Edmonton used to have a better selection and just get rid of them in their drive to turn the library into a bookstore or do I have some librarian somewhere in the past to thank for taking the time to order in rare British books for the Calgary library?

One good book I have picked up lately is The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, which was sent to me last year by the NYRB Classics people for participating in the Spotlight Series Tour for them. I didn’t think I was interested in reading it then as the book was sent unsolicited, but suddenly pulled it off the shelf and it’s this fresh American coming of age story set in the ’20s that I know nothing about, but somehow the landscape and characters feel more familiar than those in British books and it’s a breath of fresh air in my reading. There’s a longing for adventure in the characters, they are not chained to small British towns and duties. So I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more NYRB Classics, they seem to have found books that have great writing but like the ones republished by Virago and Persephone, somehow fell through the cracks. The joy in discovering them is that here is a book that is completely new and unspoilt, you know nothing of it culturally and yet it is a gem, not the brightest and the blandest of the bestseller and prize winning lists. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a few more of them in Florida, and may read another American book while I’m there, perhaps East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Any holiday book recommendations? I’ve found reading a book in the country where I’m visiting works well (Dickens in London, Proust in Paris were my honeymoon reads), but despite going to Florida I don’t like ‘beach books’, something that is thoughtful but not too dense tends to work well, ie, Mrs. Dalloway is better reading at the beach than Middlemarch, in my experience! I was also sent a copy of The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton, so may bring that too. Maybe I could try some May Sarton for the Elizabeth Bowen connection.

This may be my last post for a while, who knows. I’ll see you tomorrow or in two weeks!

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!

Why I’m beginning to love Virago Modern Classics

I’ve been thinking of how to express everything this week has meant to me, all the new insights into literature and life and being a woman that it’s given to me. I want to write about three different posts at once, to review Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann which I finished very late last night and very much enjoyed, I want to write about how Jane Austen can be seen as a feminist and of course, I want to just express my new love and appreciation for Virago books!

So here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about. We’ll start with the ‘how I became a feminist’ part and then move on from there.

I grew up in a very christian (think of the documentary Jesus Camp here, loud modern American christianity that is still very conservative and militant) and sheltered home, on a farm on the Canadian prairies. I found old books lying around and read them, I discovered more in libraries. I’ve read the entire Bible, more than once. Old books aren’t that hard for me to relate to, in some ways, I was raised like a girl in a 19th century novel, without the corsets, but with plenty of ignorance about what the world at large was really like. I went to Bible College for a year after high school and it was jokingly called bridal college. My mom expected me to become a teacher because as far as she knew, women could either be a teacher, nurse or secretary, end of choices. That or get luckier and be someone’s wife. (She wanted my sister, the one who’s now a brainy scientist, to be a pastor’s wife.)

But I had a way out of that — books. I wanted to go to university to study them and finally worked up my courage to do so. I discovered Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse was the best literature I read in all of university, the stream of consciousness style and the focus on the thoughts of women a revelation), although more often than not, male authors were the main focus. In my third year, I took a class on the history of the world wars. And I discovered feminism at last when I wrote my paper on women joining the army for the first time in WW2 (mostly to take the desk jobs so more men could fight). I found that women had to face a lot of sexism, if they were in uniform, as they were often seen as just being there to sleep with the soldiers. I talked to my great-aunt, who had joined the Canadian navy and traveled the country performing in recruitment drills. She said she’d be felt up on trains because she was in uniform, while other civilian women weren’t. I read feminist historians, beyond just listening to testosterone driven lectures of how many troop ships and planes had been sent to Japan.

I finally felt a rage about my own sexist christian upbringing, that because I was a girl who happened to be born first in my family, I was constantly told I couldn’t be bossy. I could take care of my brothers as babies when I was only four years old myself, but I couldn’t tell my siblings what to do or they’d hate me forever, my mom said. My drive to be a strong woman pushed underground, my personality bent into a more compliant form. That my sister and I had to do chores while my brothers did not (we were being trained to be wives, after all!); that only men could be leaders in church, could preach and tell everyone what to do; for my mom’s expression that the husband was the head of the house and the wife just the neck — then she’d chuckle and add, the neck that turns the head, and I’d think, you want to be only a brainless muscle?? I finally started thinking for myself.

I still didn’t read many feminist books though, I stuck to Jane Austen and the 19th century because that was still all I knew. I eventually read some Anais Nin, shook off some of my excessive innocence and soon after met my husband (I didn’t want to party in university, but reading the sexy books is the way to meet boys in bookstores!) but there was such a dichotomy in my mind between Jane Austen and Anais Nin, the one a virgin, the other almost a whore, between what I was expected to be as a woman, saintly wife and mother or sexy man-catcher. I had grown up with horror stories of my aunts sleeping around and the dangers of abortion and adoption that had awaited them. I didn’t see the link between these women writers, I just saw, you can try to be all good or you must be all bad.

Last year I began book blogging and felt a little lost at first, until I discovered Persephone Reading Week and all the great people who loved these nostalgic, more innocent books. I had found a book home. (And here’s my post from that week about ‘why I’m beginning to love Persephone Books‘.) I soon began to hear about Virago books too, since the same people loved both. And as Persephone books were expensive to order online and impossible to find elsewhere, I began collecting a few Viragos as surrogate Persephones. They’ll be just about the same, I thought, just as innocent and cosy. The first Virago I bought was actually Dusty Answer (and here’s my post about it), I thought it would be sweet and nostalgic. What I didn’t know was that it was actually a sexual coming of age story. I felt unsettled by what I read in it and set it aside.

That continued to happen throughout the year, I’d begin various Viragos, hoping to be able to join other bloggers in raving about them, only to stop. They weren’t safe. They showed life as it really was, un-sugar-coated, unromanticized. I didn’t like reading books like that. I wanted the moral certainties of Jane Austen or at least the lush sensuality of Anais Nin. I didn’t want… reality. Facing the reality of women’s lives, in realistic marriages, being slighted and overlooked, or horrors, remaining unmarried, rather than the perfect fantasy of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Big.

I finally made myself finish one Virago and while it wasn’t happy, it was good. True. I thought a whole Virago week might give me the motivation to read more, to finish all the Viragos I’d started. I didn’t imagine I’d end up hosting the week, as I wasn’t even a fully converted fan yet, just curious enough to want to try more.

Now to return to Dusty Answer, that sexual coming of age story I shied away from last year. This year I found that it provided the link for me between Jane Austen and Anais Nin. It showed that women are allowed to have sexual feelings and experiences, not as a virgin or a whore, but as human beings. Girls are allowed to grow up, to develop, not to become servant wives and mothers who are just as ignorant as ever, but to become women. Adults. Aware, knowing. Thinking for themselves. Seeing the truth about life.

Near the end of the book, the main character finally realizes that the man she’s been obsessed with since childhood “had not once, for a single hour, become a part of real life. He had been a recurring dream, a figure seen always with abnormal clarity and complete distortion. … She had tried to make a reality out of the unreality… She seemed to wake up suddenly. [He] himself had been passing in the street outside. She could have seen him, and, instead, her eyes had not wavered from his reflection. A shadow laid on a screen and then wiped off again…” She’s been in love with an illusion, with her own romantic illusions.

I realized the glass of illusions we bring to romantic relationships. I say my husband is like Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey, but really — he’s only himself. I need to learn to see more clearly, see through my happy romantic fantasies to the reality of other people. Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel also definitely showed me that, this week. I cannot stay blind or short-sighted as Angel was, also caught (that time for life) in her romantic, false and harmful view of life. These books have woken me up. Shown me how to be an adult as a woman, a writer.

I don’t want to spend another year just reading ‘comfort books.’ I don’t want to close my eyes to the reality of other women’s (and men’s — as Jonathan Coe notes in his introduction of Dusty Answer, all of the men are realistic!) lives. I don’t want to live in a safe imaginary world of romance and fantasy forever, where everything’s ok if we only just believe. That sounds just like the christianity of my childhood, and believe me, everything was not all ok. I was physically abused by my mother when I was five and she had a nervous breakdown over having four children in five years living out in the middle of nowhere, with only her in-laws to judge her for not being a good enough mother. That’s my story. A dominating mother still trapped in her Bible and in her own past, trying to keep her daughter from being strong or ever growing up. That’s the reason I wanted to hide from life, to read nice books, to avoid conflict. But Virago tells the stories of women like me. They aren’t pretending life is magic and we’re all princesses. And I can’t hide from reality if I want to get better.

I am excited to read more Virago authors this year, to keep seeing more clearly, to take down my illusions. I have a reading project in mind now, to read honest, unromantic books. I need to leave the 19th century behind in some ways and come into the change and growth of the 20th century (and maybe eventually even the 21st!) Sometimes I need to leave safe comfy British books behind and read about my own country and continent. Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Angela Carter, Winifred Holtby, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Margaret Laurence, George Eliot, Barbara Comyns, Barbara Pym, Molly Keane, Zora Neale Hurston, Muriel Spark, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert and more. Because that’s how I’ll grow strong and learn to survive.

Thank you everyone, for your participation and enthusiasm in Virago Reading Week and for helping me find and learn to love such great eye-opening books!

Snowed in with Virago books

Here’s our teensy cottage (a bit smaller than the Dashwood’s cottage!), which is being slowly covered in ever more snow — right now it’s about up to my knees. (And for those of you who worried about our not having a bathroom or kitchen, my parents’ house is right next beside us, so not to fear. We do have to trudge back and forth a lot, but that’s part of the adventure…) I put on my snow pants and boots (and scarf, hat, mitts, etc) and went out for a walk in the snow today with Thomas (that’s the husband, may as well use his name and save time since all the nicknames I’ve considered seem a bit silly), fresh in the face exercise. We talked about how nice it would be to be snowed in until spring, then we’d have more time to read! Except we don’t have any salted pork stored up for the winter…

Besides reading, I’ve finally finished the complete list of Virago Modern Classics alphabetized by author, here! I’ve worked from this list, which is organized by publication date, so if there are any flaws in my list, that’s why, let me know and I can fix it. Rachel and I have finally got a date for our Virago Reading Week, which will be the last week of January, the 24th to 30th. I hope you all join us!

As I’ve worked through retyping their list and also looking up each author, to provide a link for many of the lesser known among them (I’m still working on that), the variety of what Virago chose to publish in their Modern Classics collection is truly astonishing. For those who are new to the Virago Modern Classics like me, there are more accessible books — they published their own editions of Jane Austen, the Brontes, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Daphne du Maurier, some Louisa May Alcott, early Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, and Joyce Carol Oates; one of the earliest women writers and a 17th century playwright, Aphra Behn (she wrote novels too); a few lesser known works of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, and Katherine Mansfield and the list goes on!

There are also book blogger favourites Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West (and even Mae West, who knew!), Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim, Barbara Comyns, some early Ivy Compton-Burnett; I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (if you haven’t read this what are you waiting for), Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, The Group by Mary McCarthy, The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, even The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin for some feminist science fiction!

There are lesser known Victorian authors, like Margaret Oliphant, George Gissing, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Meredith, there’s even one H.G. Wells and one George Bernard Shaw each. There are authors also published by Persephone Books (including Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Women’s Novel 1914-39) and NYRB Classics and authors from so many different backgrounds, even a Canadian prairie suffragist I discovered tonight, Francis Marion Beynon. Virago was also the first to publish Pat Barker, as her early books about working class women were not accepted anywhere else.

Look through the list, I’m sure everybody reading this owns at least one book from the Virago Modern Classics, even if you don’t know it yet.

The book was thick and black and covered with dust.

Hello again! Over the last week (which has felt so much longer) I’ve finished cleaning, packing and finally moved to our temporary new home in a little cottage (with no bathroom or kitchen) on my parents’ acreage (out in the tiny hamlet of New Norway, Alberta, Canada for the curious). I’ve also survived visits from and to various overly chatty relatives and a trip back to Calgary, to get my husband’s medication and on that trip, we also survived spinning our car around on the ice several times in the middle of a busy highway. So life has been a bit chaotic lately, we still have clutter lying about our little place (literally two rooms and no more), the only tidy spot is these bookshelves! Somehow I didn’t think I could post sooner until I had a good bookshelf picture to share…

I’ve been busy rereading an absolutely wonderful book, that is becoming even more of a favourite than ever. If you want to know what it is, the opening sentence is my post title and it’s missing from its proper spot on the bottom shelf… I’ll write more about it when I’m finished, but I will say that The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller, my last read of 2010, helped me understand the Romance and fairy tales and all the things that went into it so much more (I admit to skipping a few parts on my first reading, but no more!) and all I want to do is relax into such a rich book, which I simply grabbed off the shelf on New Years’ Eve, but there are so many other things it seems I have to do, even on holidays.

I’ve also been putting off making a post until I could think up some sort of clever best books of 2010 list, so forget that, here’s a simple top ten, in order of when I read them:

  1. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  2. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (both read pre-blogging)
  3. Henrietta’s War, Joyce Dennys
  4. Miss Buncle’s Book, D.E. Stevenson
  5. Marie Therese:The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter, Susan Nagel (two partial reviews there)
  6. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
  7. Villette, Charlotte Bronte
  8. Tea With Mr. Rochester, Frances Towers
  9. Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill
  10. The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller (not properly reviewed yet)

What most surprises me about this list is that it has three non-fiction titles on it, one biography, a literary memoir and a mixture of literary memoir, biography and criticism. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction (although 7 this year is more than usual) but all were fascinating and well written in their different ways. I was also surprised that as I pondered my list, I finally decided Villette belonged on it more than any of the three more comfortable Elizabeth Gaskell novels I read (and loved, let it be added) this year. (The only author I’ve read more of this year is Jane Austen at four novels and again, none of them are on the list either, they’re too familiar now.) I found Villette difficult going, it reminded me too much of a very depressing and lonely summer in university, it was not at all comforting like the Gaskells and Austens. But I also found myself thinking of it more than those other books, long after I had finished it, not about the story, but the overall richness of the language and the power, strength and raw beauty in it. It has made me want to read more rich books and not just stick with what is comfortable, like Jane Austen’s sparkling social comedies. In fact, this year I want to reread Austen less often (or finally read a biography of her instead) to make way for more reading and rereading of other favourite authors I might get something new out of. Charlotte Bronte is definitely on this list, along with George Eliot (despite my best resolutions I never did read her in 2010), Oscar Wilde, L.M. Montgomery, E.M. Forster, A.S. Byatt and more.

Related to that, the reading challenge I got the most out of in 2010 was a personal one: to read more deeply, specifically, to read authors that I’d really admired from one book of theirs but had gone no further with. I didn’t get to all the authors I originally thought of, but I did read 2 Virginia Woolfs this year, 3 Gaskells, 1 Bronte, 1 Wilkie Collins, 1 Sarah Waters, 1 Elizabeth Bowen, 1 Nancy Mitford, 2 Frances Hodgson Burnetts, 2 Dorothy L. Sayers, and 2 Anthony Trollopes, whom I’d never read before and wanted to finally try. I also decided to reread more books this past year (20 all together) and found a lot of pleasure in that, so I will definitely continue both of those reading habits, along with focusing on anything Victorian: novels from the time period and historical fiction, even poetry and maybe plays; also fantasy and fairy tales and the type of imaginative literature inspired by fairy tales, like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.

It’s going to be an exciting and magical year for books, I’m already feeling more passionate about my reading and less dutiful. I ended up reading 71 books in 2010, this year I’ve thought of trying for more or alternately, less, so that I focus more on quality and worry less about numbers, but all I really want is reading experiences that are rich and that matter intensely on a personal level. No more following reading trends just to be like everyone else — actually, moving from a big city library to a very small one has relieved me no end, I finally can just read from my shelves with no pressure to rush to check out all of the latest books everyone is raving about (in fact, when I left my job at the library, one of the shelvers joked that with me gone, their circulation stats would go down drastically!). I want to take the time this year to read the longer books I tend to avoid, the harder ones that are deservedly satisfying classics, instead of filling up on so many sugary lightweights. My favourite unfinished book of 2010 is Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, what richness there as well and how I would like to finish it, perhaps this year. I’d like to finish more of what I start this year in general (I have a whole list of books abandoned last year) and focus more on one book at a time, rather than frantically trying to read it all at once. I want to read more personally or closely I might say, thinking less about how I will write the review and more about the art of the language, the way the symbols echo through the book, what it means to me. I want to read books not as a competitive sport but as a meditation, holding them close to my heart, hearing the music sing on inside me.

A Ridiculous Amount of Book Talk, Despite My Need To Do Other Things.

Okay, okay, several facts: I said I was too stressed for book blogging, which is still true. I also feel guilty for posting about my bookshelves after that and not replying to all my comments and etc. Life is stressful, book blogging in moderation helps. I’ve spent the morning reading through all your wonderful blogs and it has cheered me up, so thank you and thanks for continuing to read my blog, even though I will likely be on again off again for the rest of the year.

Also, confession: I have requested a massive stack of Virago books from my library to prepare for Virago week in January, but now… I can’t seem to settle on reading (or finishing! I have a list of books I’ve abandoned this year and it’s long and rather shameful) anything. I also have a Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) and a Trollope (Can You Forgive Her?) that I’d like to finish this year and sometimes they’re perfect, funny, hearty, other times it’s too much with the Victorian men. I’m thinking I may have to try something lighter, since I just don’t have the mental energy to focus so hard right now. I’m thinking of trying a few good memoirs like Howards End is on the Landing, funny, heartfelt, not too heavy, about topics I’m interested in. I picked up Paris to the Moon last night to that end, which I enjoyed a chapter or two of, but again, may not continue with.

Ridiculously, I keep worrying about how many books I’ll be able to finish this year, alongside the state of my husband’s health and getting this move organized, etc. I’ve read 64 books this year, which is good for me since I’ve been consistently reading about 50 a year since I left university. Book blogging has helped me find more books I enjoy, but I’ve also found more books I mean to read, but for some reason or other, just can’t concentrate on at the moment and so never finish. I know many people read fewer than 64 books a year, but so many book bloggers read so much more! It’s an ungainly dumpling of a number, I had hoped to get to 70 or 75. But unless I fill my time with teen fantasy (something I am considering as I rather enjoyed City of Bones by Cassandra Clare earlier this year and may go back to the second one), I’m frankly too stressed to concentrate for the amount of focused time it takes to read a book, especially Dickens, much as I am starting to enjoy him. (See Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s movie with Matt Damon the psychic, where he listens to Dickens on audio book as a way to escape — he goes to London to see Dickens’ house and hears Derek Jacobi reading Dickens, it was so moving and helped me see all the merits of Dickens, of why a person could love him, how it could provide solace. I picked up Our Mutual Friend where I’d left off earlier this year and enjoyed it all the more.)

I’ve also been thinking about changing how I blog here. As much as I love books, I do have other interests, in fact, one of my obsessions a few years ago was more obscure British actors, such as Tom Hollander, Rufus Sewell, Toby Stephens, Sam West, Damian Lewis, etc etc. (Watch the BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies to see many of them in their glory!) I have exercised serious self-control not to mention them or any movies here, but now I don’t quite see the point. I thought book blogging was a very regimented, regulated thing, but now I’m realizing many of my favourite bloggers also write about their life and crafts, baking, book related jobs, travels, whatever. I’d like to write a bit more about my life here (although I often wonder where to draw the line on that, since I do find it a bit shy-making writing so publicly) and about movies and actors sometimes. (Cambridge Spies, Cambridge Spies, go watch it! It covers pre- and post WW2, the Spanish Civil War, British dealings with Russians and Americans, and it all really happened!) When Claire of the Captive Reader and I met, we very quickly jumped into discussing adaptations of our favourite British books and after I mentioned that I’ve always thought Fanny Price in Mansfield Park should have ended up with Tom Bertram instead of Edmund (he is more exciting as a reformed bad boy, but part of my argument rests with the wonderful actors who’ve played him, James Purefoy and James D’Arcy), she encouraged me to watch James D’Arcy in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, which was wonderful and got my husband and I enjoying some gentler mystery shows for a while. It’s certainly easy to love obscure British books like those republished by Persephone when I was already so fond of a good BBC miniseries!

So all that aside (yes also: I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and I Loved It. The only comparable excitement after coming home from watching it was putting up the Christmas tree weeks too early!), I was easily tempted away from attempting to start packing by this bookish meme found at A Room of One’s Own.

1. What author do you own the most books by?

It’s a tie between Jane Austen and Marcel Proust, although about three each are doubles! (I had to try Proust in several translations before settling down with the newest one put out by Penguin and surely more than one copy of Jane Austen needs no explanation??) I have the most non-doubles of Elizabeth Bowen.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?

Pride & Prejudice — an Oxford edition, an old Everyman edition found in a used bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London, and a movie tie-in edition (from yes! The version with Keira! I actually like it a lot. I bought myself a nice hardback with Colin Firth and what’s her name on the cover, the same edition featured in You’ve Got Mail but somehow it felt too formal and I gave it to the Firth fanatic friend who introduced me to Jane Austen.) One of my only movie tie-in books, except for my battered copy of Howards End with Sam West on the cover!

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

Ahh, I didn’t even notice.

4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Harry Potter, at the moment. Long term, with Henry Tilney (some library friends and I watched Northanger Abbey together over Remembrance Day and obviously a lovely time was had by all as we laughed over filling the stereotype of library types who love Jane Austen) and I’m going to have to throw Mr. Thornton from North & South in there too. Also Mr. Knightley from Emma a little… (I can’t help it, I keep thinking of Jeremy Northam when I reread the book!)

5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?

Pride & Prejudice, followed by The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys and Sense & Sensibility — I keep hoping somehow Colonel Brandon will become more Alan Rickman-like, sadly it never quite happens…

6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

Swiss Family Robinson. They live in a tree house and a cave! They ride ostriches! I climbed trees and explored the countryside (complete with little red wagon for snacks) with my sister and cousins, I loved adventure books then (and still quite enjoy The 39 Steps and Treasure Island) — why aren’t there more adventure books with girls in them, I wonder?

7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?

Sadly, With Violets by Elizabeth Robards, about an imagined affair between the painters Manet and Berthe Morisot, set during one of my favourite time periods, the Second French Empire. The romance was not convincing and it just felt painful. Best left to the imagination!

9. If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?

I would just get everyone to read a good book at all. Anything they liked, just to get them hooked. In the library I see parents trying to force their kids to read this or that type or level of book and I think, why can’t it be something you love and feel comfortable with?? That’s the only way to raise life-long readers I think.

10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

I honestly don’t care. It seems to have become more about nationalist politics for some than about the books themselves, Americans complaining their quite well known writers are being overlooked in favour of little known Europeans (which secretly makes me laugh) — if I wanted to get nationalist I’d say Margaret Atwood. 🙂

11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

The Lost Garden! (by Helen Humphreys, give it a read already) I think it would make a gorgeous movie, set at a deserted English country house during WW2, taken over by Canadian soldiers and the Women’s Land Army nearby, with beautiful gardens, forbidden love and tinged with sadness at Virginia Woolf’s recent suicide.

12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

Books always need publicity! Although personally, Breaking Dawn gets my vote. I read Twilight and secretly enjoyed it, but there’s no need to take it any further with the girl wishing she could die apart from Mr. Sparkles. He may be partly inspired by Mr. Rochester, but she is no Jane Eyre.

13. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

Can’t remember any.

14. What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?

There is some romance set in an archeological dig in Egypt I vaguely recall reading one summer during university when all my roommates were away and I was completely lonely and had nothing to do except read whatever they’d left in the house! (The concept of going to the public library obviously not occurring to me at that moment.)

15. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, over a two year period. It’s what led me to discovering book blogs, since I was desperate to find someone else who’d read it! Proust came to feel like a close friend by the time I was done.

16. What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?

The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford-upon-Avon, where my friends and I were sitting on the edge of our seats, hanging over the edge of the balcony in excitement! It was an absolutely fantastic production, set in the jazz age.

17. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

The French. Proust, Zola and Flaubert especially. I loved Anna Karenina when I read it a few years ago, but the Russians just seem a bit too darkly moralistic. (Clearly I prefer the darkly immoral.)

18. Roth or Updike? 19. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Ugh. I’m just going to skip all these and pretend they never happened. I’m not a fan of any of them.

20. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Shakespeare! (And if you like Shakespeare and anything about the theatre, I highly recommend Slings & Arrows, a Canadian tv show (but don’t let that put you off) with Paul Gross (obviously as it’s Canadian) about a Shakespearean theatre company. They do monologues from his plays in the show! How do more people not know about this? Rachel McAdams is also in the first season, which is about Hamlet. Go find it, it’s moving, it’s Shakespeare!)

21. Austen or Eliot?

Getting difficult… I’ll have to say Jane Austen, as much as George Eliot is also fantastic. She’s just a bit harder to read.

22. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction (1960s-1980s especially), but I don’t consider that embarrassing. I also don’t really stray much from European (or North American) authors, but that’s really because I’d rather be in Europe (England specifically), so… Can’t say I’ve gotten through any 18th century novels either, although I have studied medieval literature, Greek theatre and Shakespeare in university, so those are all covered.

23. What is your favorite novel?

This is a question that secretly haunts me! I can’t decide! It used to be Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read it so often some parts feel a little worn through. But I can’t find anything as romantic and funny and comforting to really replace it either. In Search of Lost Time is too long and neither Persuasion, Emma nor Northanger Abbey have quite the right mix of desired qualities. Perhaps North & South one day… (although it’s not really a book full of laughs) — you see my problem???

24. Play?

Contemporary: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, partly inspired by listening to an audio version with Rufus Sewell, Sam West and Bill Nighy! Older: Hamlet.

25. Poem?

The Circus Animals’ Desertion by W.B. Yeats.
(“…Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”)

26. Essay?

The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde. It’s really a hoot and written in a dialogue format, so just like his plays!

27. Short story?

I just read Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm out of the Virago Book of Christmas and it is so so funny I almost cried, each detail of the comic misery of their lives before Flora Poste comes just builds and builds (they put coffin nails in their Christmas pudding and Adam tries to dress up as Santa with three red shawls and some turnips). Perfectly seasonal reading!

28. Work of nonfiction?

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

29. Who is your favorite writer?

Still Jane Austen.

30. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

I don’t care. I hate that a few big bland books are being promoted over many smaller more unique ones, but in general I’d rather get worked up about why people spend more time watching tv than reading anything at all.

31. What is your desert island book?

Um um, In Search of Lost Time would last me the longest, but I’d need a complete set of Jane Austen and some Elizabeth Gaskell and some Persephones to truly be set! (Susan Hill allowed herself 40 desert island books in Howards End is on the Landing, that seems more fair!)

32. And … what are you reading right now?

Don’t even ask.

My bookshelves

Now before I lose my nerve (and put it off for some more perfect time), here are my bookshelves! This is my favourite shelf (my dad made it) and as it sits near the tv, I look at it from the couch quite often. So all my favourite books (and movies) that I most like to look at go here, naturally! I’ve tried various schemes of organizing by time period, country, and small press, but right now I’m just going with alphabetical. And there also is our cat, Edgar (since Edgar Allan Poe has written a short story called The Black Cat), who wanted to pose in all his nearly invisible majesty for you.

And here’s my second shelf, that I can look at from the computer desk, with my mostly more serious books, the ones I do want to read, but get overwhelmed looking at all the time! I’ve also got a few tea cups, nostalgic Nancy Drews, small poetry books and reading guide/list books up there, plus my catch-all for wandering papers, packets of flower seeds that have never been planted and bookmarks.

The rest of my books are somewhat haphazardly organized in our front hall closet (pictures below) and a few may already be packed away. I’ve spent a fair bit of time this year trying to thin out my books somewhat, to get rid of those I thought I ‘should’ read and only keep what I actually treasure and truly want to read. (Well, I’m still debating if I actually want to read Balzac and Henry James, but I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of them yet either! They’re classics I keep saying to myself, you’ll want them someday. That logic didn’t work for D.H. Lawrence though… I guess there are more reasons than that they are simply classics: Balzac is part of my 19th century French collection, along with Zola, Flaubert, Stendhal and sort of Proust, and annoyed as I might get with their pessimism, I still want to read them all someday. And I had an English professor who read out the first few sentences of The Golden Bowl, to compare Henry James’s style with Hemingway’s and James won for me by a long shot. And I’ve been trying to finish that book ever since!)

And here are the rest of the front hall closet books, mysteries, history books, writing guides, memoirs, extra copies of some of the classics that I’m planning to pass on to my mom, poetry, anthologies, some kids books, and so on and so forth. This space used to be double packed and stacked with many more books, before I took so many to used bookstores and got a few in exchange that I liked better. I would love to own more books (but only ones I really like, not just books for the sake of books), but the ones I really want to collect, like Persephones and Viragos, are expensive to order and/or not widely available in Canadian bookshops. And since I do work in a library, I’m always saying it’s cheaper just to get it at the library. (sigh) Somehow I have this reasoning that it’s better to invest in a classic book than one I might read once in passing, be momentarily entertained by, but then have no interest in rereading or even in thinking very deeply about. I have trouble collecting fun books sometimes (or even in finding many books I consider fun!)

In contrast, my husband has a much larger collection of books than I do (here’s his reading nook, which usually has a comfy chair too) because he’s been working in bookstores and getting that wonderful deadly 30% off books for longer than I did and he’s not as picky about what he buys either, he makes endless lists of authors to try and if he likes them, he’ll collect all their books. Our tastes overlap mostly in mystery, we’ve both read and enjoyed Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Sherlock Holmes, but also in a bit of sci-fi, as I share his interest in William Gibson, and also old fashioned spooky horror writers H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. He’s also stolen my copies of Madame Bovary, Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover so there’s some bookish cross-pollination going on here! We’ve tried putting our books all together in the past (after reading, book blogging and book shopping, reorganizing books is a favourite hobby of mine), but we each prefer our own separate styles of organization and to look at a nice comforting shelf of books that’s all our own.

On the actual reading of books front, a nice stack of Virago books came in for me at the library, so I’ve put Trollope aside and am already halfway through A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor. How nice a short book is sometimes for my very easily distracted mind!

Review: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

First off, I’ve been thinking about how a very positive or a very negative review affects my reading. Something that gets a negative review makes me cautious of reading it (for example some people on the Guardian complained a while back that Sea of Poppies was very difficult to read, so I let a copy of it on the library sale table float by me), even if later someone else reviews it positively (as Eva of A Striped Armchair has just done for Sea of Poppies, calling it an ‘India’s answer to Wilkie Collins’.) On the other hand, even positive reviews are not without a downside…. for me at least. I read a book someone else has glowingly recommended and I like it. But I don’t love it forever. Would I have liked it more if I’d found it on my own, without already thinking it of someone else’s book of the year is what I wonder. I feel a bit detached when I read on a recommendation, where an internal debate goes on inside: do I like it as much as they did? Why or why not? How do I say anything unique about it? Rather than simply engaging with the sheer pleasure of the book itself.

I thought these things as I read The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, but at the same time, I was sucked into the writing from the first page and read it in two days, which is unusually quick for me and contemporary fiction. Not only is the writing exceptionally imaginative and unique, but as someone who’s studied some acting, theatre history, playwrighting, etc I loved the life as performance metaphor she used throughout the book. The whole book has a very theatrical feel to it, scenes where you don’t know if they are being acted or if they are ‘real’, where stage directions and lighting cues are given in the middle of what had seemed a normal music lesson, where characters openly say what they think in something more like dramatic soliloquy than normal conversation. My coming to the theatre was the first time I felt a part of a true community, standing backstage watching the show, waiting for an entrance, whispering to friends, changing together in one large and messy dressing room… I’m no longer a part of that world, but I love books that recreate it for me (A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden is one that combines history and theatre to beautiful effect).

But despite my pleasure in the theatre references, no finished performance is shown in the book (that was a disappointment, as I love to relive the dramatic thrill of performance through reading about it). It is all a rehearsal towards an unfinished play, towards life.

‘Mrs Bly,’ she says, “remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after. Remember that it’s in her best interests for everything to go wrong. It’s in her best interests to slip up now, while she’s still safe in the Green Room with the shrouded furniture and the rows of faceless polystyrene heads and the cracked and dusty mirrors and the old papers scudding across the floor. Don’t wait until she’s out in the savage white light of the floods, where everyone can see.

The other fascinating way the theatrical metaphor is used in the book is to examine the way character and personality differ or stay the same as everyone else, emphasizing how the mothers of the teens can all be seen as interchangeable, as one actor playing all the parts, how girls in the first year of acting school, too young yet to play women, are all auditioning for the same “beautiful… glossy and svelte” role, while “the boys were here to audition for ten different character parts”. She shows how self definition is still in flux in the teen years and how everyone jostles so hard not only to fit in, but also to achieve a unique role within the group.

… each student was carefully carving out a place within the context of the group: those who variously wanted to be thought of as comic or tragic or eccentric or profound began to mark out their territory, fashioning little shorthand epithets for themselves and staking claim to a particular personality type so that none of the others would have a chance. … The other students all said, ‘Ester is so funny!’ and ‘Michael is so bad!’, and just like that each won the double security of becoming both a person and a type.

Stanley wasn’t sure what marked him out as a person. He hung back at the beginning of the year and let the other boys claim the roles of the leader and the player and the clown, watching with a kind of uncertain awe as they worked to recruit admirers and an audience. He guessed he wanted to be thought of as sensitive and thoughtful, but he didn’t pursue the branding actively enough and soon those positions were taken. He found himself thoroughly eclipsed by several of the more ambitiously moody boys, boys who were studied in the way they tossed their hair off their forehead, thin boys with paperback copies of Nietzsche nosing out of their satchels, boys wearing self-conscious forlorn looks, permanently anxious and always slightly underfed. Whenever these boys began to speak, the class would peel back respectfully to listen.

This notion of branding yourself, your personality, is seriously discussed by serious bloggers, anxious to capture the necessary audience. But even without that oh so capitalist terminology, as if we were all just a product and an advertisement for the product all in one (I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere recently, maybe this book?), this striving to find a unique role within the group is something I remember and as I said at the beginning, something I still wonder about. Will I rave about this book as others have done, I wondered, or assert my individuality by pointing out all its minor flaws that somehow let me down?

When a roommate of mine who was also in the same acting program as me introduced me to Jane Austen, she endlessly raved over Colin Firth (she also ended up taking a role and a boy that I’d wanted — there is a camaraderie in acting, but also a great deal of competition especially between similar types of people, all up for the same roles. The same goes for life in any group…) Not to be completely outdone and despite liking Pride and Prejudice just as much as every other old fashioned romantic idealist at heart, I focused my attention and admiration more strictly on Jane Austen herself and on the sarcastic humourous rational side of her, rather than the much raved over romantic bits. (I grew up with a sister I was closely and unfavourably compared to, hence my deep desire for some individuality in my interests, a semblance that I’m not like everyone else.)

Hence my questions. Would I have liked this book more if I’d found it first, if it was just me and the book in a private dialogue instead of me and the book and all its other fans? Maybe yes. But then I might have simply overlooked it and never known. All I can say is, it’s a amazing new way of writing that Eleanor Catton has developed, infusing prose with new life through the language of the theatre and it’s a fascinating character study of the way teachers interact with and attempt to influence students, the way girls feed off secrets… ahh, if any of this has at all peaked your interest or even curiosity, read it, it’s one of the best new books out there.

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.