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!

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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.