Comfort Books (that I actually finished!)

Look, I am blogging again! Maybe a week since last time instead of two months later! I am proud of my accomplishments.

Blogging here last time seems to have helped me get out of my leaving-books-unfinished-left-and-right slump, so now I am returning to blog about my victory. I managed to finish two books in the past week (and for me that’s a big deal, ok): The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Hooray for cosy early 20th century books! I haven’t read any in a while, since I’ve been busy experimenting with many other types of books like kids and teen fiction and fantasy and whatever else. (Side note: three good teen fantasy books I read last year are Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, and The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges. The last one is set in 19th century Russia with necromancy and zombie armies and a werewolf and magic and it might not be as popular as the Laini Taylor, but check it out, it’s glamorous and exciting!)

I used to take out piles of Agatha Christie (mostly featuring Poirot) from the library as a teenager, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started reading (and loving) the Miss Marple books in my earlier book blogging days (here’s my appreciation of The Body in the Library at my old book blog). Except after my husband’s stressful surgeries that year (where he got a huge infection and ended up having about four surgeries in total when it should have been only one and we had to move back to my parents’ for a bit because he couldn’t work, etc), I stopped reading mystery novels because the death and violence in them, even in cosy mysteries, had begun to upset me too much. In retrospect, I think it was because I was very scared of my husband dying and I just didn’t want to read anything that made me think about that at all. (And also when we moved out of my parents’ place my mom got rid of all the mysteries I’d left there for safe keeping until I could come back for them. So annoying to lose my small collection of Louise Penny and Agatha Christie books!) But now my husband’s doing better and we are back on our feet again mostly (at least we have our own apartment again!) and so now at last I can enjoy a lovely little cosy mystery again courtesy of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. The ending of The Mirror Crack’d still managed to be a surprise to me, even though I was sure Christie didn’t have me fooled this time. I was suspicious of the murderer at one point, but didn’t have enough clues to figure out exactly what he/she was up to. I also recently bought the complete short stories of Miss Marple and I’ll either buy or borrow the rest of her books in time. I love Miss Marple so much more than Poirot — I can pretend she’s my cosy and smart little grandma! — but eventually I’m sure I’ll reread the Poirot books as well. Years of reading pleasure await!

Yesterday I was wanting to finish one more book at the end of April and as I was reorganizing my books (something I just have to do from time to time), I picked up my copy of Cold Comfort Farm. I’d read it years before and enjoyed it enough to buy my own copy of it, but I’d never gotten past the first few chapters when I tried to reread it before. But this time I just flipped it open to the middle, meaning only to glance at it in passing, and before I knew it, I was completely sucked into the hilarious story once again. I read it all the way through to the end and then flipped to the beginning and read that all the way to the middle. 🙂 Unconventional, but highly entertaining nevertheless. I also have a great Penguin Deluxe edition of it with funny drawings all over the cover and flaps, so that added to my enjoyment.

I’ve been feeling a bit down lately (that is what happens with depression most of the time) and Cold Comfort Farm helped me to laugh my blues away for a few hours. In some ways, Flora Poste’s meddling in the lives of her pathetic farming relatives in Sussex reminded me of Emma’s meddling in Harriet’s love life (and then there’s the fact that Kate Beckinsale has played both Flora and Emma), but Flora is much more successful at it than Emma and all of her clever plans for improving the lives of those around her succeed brilliantly, perhaps because she relies on ‘the higher common sense’ rather than sheer imagination as Emma does. How she succeeds in gently persuading her bizarre relatives into sensible happiness is where the fun lies. A lot of the humour also comes from Stella Gibbons taking the piss out of writers who glamorize the ‘earthy soul’ of the poor working class by out-purple-prosing them all in hilarious asterisk marked passages. Altogether a very lovely book and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it again someday when I need to be reminded to forget my troubles for a little while and just look on the bright side of life!

Today when I started to feel down again, I constructed a blanket fort under my desk and read some Anne of Green Gables down there for a while. These books are balm for the soul.

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.

VRW: Elizabeth & Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

I was moved to immediately begin reading this lovely book at last by Danielle’s sensitive and moving description of von Arnim’s sequel to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, The Solitary Summer. (And now I want to read that one too, because Elizabeth and Her German Garden was over all too soon!) But I’ve had a bit of a hard time thinking about how to write this review. I absolutely adored the first half or two-thirds (or maybe it’s three-fourths?) of this book, so much so I even considered typing them up to keep forever as my very own because I’m only reading from a very tattered library copy. I love flowers and gardens, even though I am definitely not a gardener, they are my safe place and I’ve always felt that trees and flowers were my friends, just as Elizabeth does. And she mentions all my favourite flowers (lilacs, sweet peas and roses) and it was idyllic and so relaxing and private, describing just the sort of place I’d love to live in (with my very sweet and lovable husband however, not the Man of Wrath!)

There were a few feminist bits, actually, she sees peasant women who’ve just given birth and then go back to work that very same day and feels sorry for them (and definitely doesn’t agree with her husband, the Man of Wrath, who argues that it does women good to be beaten, oh my word!!) but then in the last bit, she has two women come to visit, one of whom she and the other guest make fun of extensively. This girl’s from Britain and keeps taking out a notebook just to jot down whatever strange things these Germans talk about or do, in order to throw them together in a little book, which would get annoying I suppose, especially as she is oblivious to their hints to stop it.

Perhaps it’s the whole making fun of obnoxious Britishers at travel (looking down at everyone else, because of their bigger empire? This attitude of course, provoking Germany in particular which eventually led to a lot of trouble), which E.M. Forster also does in A Room With A View (Forster was, incidentally, the tutor of von Arnim’s children!) and especially the British travel writer type, like his sentimental novelist, Eleanor Lavish. But the thing is, both Elizabeth von Arnim and E.M. Forster were writers themselves and writers about the Englishman abroad too, what gives them the right to criticize their fellow travelers and fellow writers? Von Arnim at least actually lived in Germany, but she’s the one who’s actually written what seems like a rather autobiographical novel about the people around her, did she steal all her copy from them? (As they keep teasing the girl in the book.) Do they make fun of writers in their books to distract the reader from thinking of them as the same kind of writers? I’m not sure, but I found it an odd ending to such an otherwise delightful book and I definitely want to read more of her books now, The Enchanted April too. What a great wealth of richness this reading week has given me!

Here are some lovely bits:

On some very specially divine days, like to-day, I have actually longed for some one else to be here to enjoy the beauty with me. There has been rain in the night, and the whole garden seems to be singing — not the untiring birds only, but the vigorous plants, the happy grass and trees, the lilac bushes — oh, those lilac bushes! They are all out to-day, and the garden is drenched with the scent. I have brought in armfuls, the picking is such a delight, and every pot and bowl and tub in the house is filled with purple glory, and the servants think there is going to be a party and are extra nimble, and I go from room to room gazing at the sweetness, and the windows are all flung open so as to join the scent within to the scent without; and the servants gradually discover that there is no party, and wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit — it seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself — but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only they are — dumb.

(Lovely lilacs, how I should love to have a house full of them!)

But while admiring my neighbour, I don’t think I shall ever try to follow in her steps, my talents not being of the energetic and organising variety, but rather of that order which makes their owner almost lamentably prone to take up a volume of poetry and wander out to where the kingcups grow, and sitting on a willow trunk beside a little stream, forget the very existence of everything but green pastures and still waters, and the glad blowing of the wind across the joyous fields.

Oh how I can relate! I’m afraid I’m much less organized than many book bloggers and much prefer being spontaneous, I try to finish more books to keep up with all of you speedy readers and then just wish I could do more wandering about, reading randomly! (I’m an INFP in the Myers-Briggs personality scale, if you were ever wondering, just that kind of daydreamy idealist.)

In the summer, on fine evenings, I love to drive late and alone in the scented forests, and when I have reached a dark part stop, and sit quite still, listening to the nightingales repeating their little tune over and over again after interludes of gurgling, or if there are no nightingales, listening to the marvelous silence, and letting its blessedness descend into my very soul.

This reminded me of a summer I spent working in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, at Lake Louise near Banff, a glorious deep green blue lake with the mountains all behind it and such stillness in the air at times, especially in the evenings, with the moon overhead — go if you are ever in the area (and then visit me too!), it will take your breath away. The air there is so fresh and pure, like glaciers and pine trees, I am always longing to breathe it in again.

Go read Claire’s review from earlier in the week if I’ve got you longing for more from this delicious book! And then read it and smell flowers and breathe deep and enjoy the last day of Virago Reading Week!

(I will admit I’ve read two Elizabeths this week, Taylor and von Arnim, partly because in Nancy Pearl’s book Book Lust her first entry is all about recommending authors whose first name is Alice. I began musing last year, after adding Elizabeth Gaskell to my list of favourite authors which also includes Elizabeth Bowen, that surely there must be more Elizabeth authors I would love! My first official Virago read last year was Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare and that made me think more Viragos would be worth reading. And these two have been great novelists I’m glad I’ve finally read, with Elizabeth von Arnim sure to become a firm favourite. Any other Elizabeths you can recommend to me?)

Rachel will be doing the round ups today and tomorrow and then we’ll have to announce our prize winners, she’s got one for the person who can convince her that their favourite Virago is most worth reading, I have the photo contest so I can see all your lovely Viragos, and we’re both going to be picking one of our favourite reviews each for two more awards and then we’re thinking of the last award for one overall great participant, that’s the hardest one to choose as you’ve all joined in so heartily this week and it’s been such a pleasure.

Howl’s Moving Castle & Possession

Firstly (yes I have been avoiding book blogging despite living in a cosy half-snowed in cottage with nothing to do but read and play with my kitten and husband — I wanted to get more reading in and have even started a bit of writing again! A Victorian Woman in White and Jane Eyre inspired story…)

Ahem, secondly: (yes, I’ve now finished Jane Eyre from last year and ended up loving it again. Phew. For a while I wasn’t sure about Mr. Rochester there, but he and Jane did bring a tear to my eye in the end and Charlotte Bronte is allowed back on my list of favourite authors, in fact I’m becoming quite taken with her and managed to acquire, from a grocery store no less since there is no decent bookshop in the nearest town, A Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, a historical novel about the Brontes! Move over, Jane Austen.)

So now it’s thirdly: just read Diana Wynne Jones already, you at the back who have not yet done so. I finally finally got around to Howl’s Moving Castle yesterday and hand on my heart, what a treat. I must of course thank Jenny enormously for the book recommendation, that got the book off the library shelf and into my hands a few weeks ago and yesterday into my brain, heart and many smiles too. It reminds me most of The Princess Bride (my favourite movie as a teenager), a funny fantasy with romance and wonderful adventures along the way. I loved the camaraderie of all the characters living in the castle together, Calcifer the talking fire demon, Michael the wizard’s apprentice, Howl the vain wizard himself (he’s in his bathroom several hours a day and always comes out smelling of flowers) and of course Sophie, who’s been bewitched to look like an old woman. I may have pulled a different Diana Wynne Jones book off the shelf at random last year and thought it a bit silly and odd too, but from the first sentence of this I was hooked:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

I’m also the oldest (of four luckily, one sister and then two brothers) and as a not-domineering oldest (honestly! My mother wouldn’t let me be!), I could so relate to Sophie and loved her journey of learning to have confidence in herself.

I’ve also reread Possession by A.S. Byatt, my first book of the year and finally got through all the pseudo-Victorian poetry that I only skimmed last time and while I enjoyed each part of the book, all the letters and biographies cramming lives of the mind from past and present together, I so wanted the present day story of the two scholars discovering a surprising literary secret about the poets they study to keep unfolding, that all the other stuff, the poems and so forth, were sometimes an unwelcome obstacle. The framing story of the scholars is written as a mystery and I love to fly through mysteries but then there was all this other stuff, invented primary sources about her two invented Victorian poets, that I had to stop for and wade and ponder through, before being able to get back to the flying Roland and Maud parts (I still like them better for reasons below, despite the more heightened romance of the older story). It was a bit annoying, even though I learned to appreciate the poems — really an amazing achievement of Byatt’s — this time around.

There’s so much to think about in Possession that I definitely took my time over it, as I say, the (err, sometimes long-winded?) primary sources out of the past, the diaries, letters and poems of her poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash and their friends and then all the fascinating secondary sources, bits of biographies and literary theories that now overlay them from the scholars’ perspective, seeing these Victorians through Freud, Lacan and lots of liberated sex.

Just in case, primary and secondary sources were terms used in my history classes to denote the material that’s actually from the past versus scholarly speculation about it since then, that builds up over time. You can see the difference between a novel of Elizabeth Gaskell or Charlotte Bronte, actually written in the Victorian era versus a historical novel written about that time now, like Possession or The Crimson Petal and the White, which may be well researched but has a different feel, a more modern sensibility about the past. Then there’s also Charlotte Bronte’s poems and novels and letters versus Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her, which was still written in the Victorian time period, but is also a secondary source, with the necessary speculation and reputation boosting, about Bronte. But perhaps a primary source about Gaskell, hmm… Perhaps this is just a nerdy side-progression here, but I love how Byatt has used both forms to tell her story, creating a distinct voice for her Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash through his letters and poems and also creating another voice for his obsessively lost in the details biographer, instead of just telling it all in streamlined single authoritative point of view as most historical fiction does. It really shows how academics have to work, picking between the original writing of the person they’re studying and everything that’s been written about them since, gradually covering them in a plaster mold that hardens over time into certain unquestioned stereotypes — Jane Austen the fussy old maid, the Brontes wildly bounding over the moors. Byatt shows her Victorian characters fresh and alive in the moment and also stiff and stuffed inside the cultural labels they are later given, their literary remains slowly dissected or decaying. She reminds us that all these acclaimed biographies and theories are still only just speculation next to the real life once breathed.

I also liked the section of Christabel’s feminist fairy tale poem about Melusine, a fairy fish or serpent thing somewhat like a mermaid and who actually exists in mythology and wanted to be able to read more of Ash’s epic poem Ragnarök (inspired by Norse mythology, as were Lewis and Tolkien) as well. Even though it doesn’t exist outside of the sections A.S. Byatt wrote for him.

And I loved the echoes of Victorian fairy tales that continue to bounce around in the scholars’ world and the quieter love that develops between the modern day couple, in contrast to the passion of the past. I could so relate to Roland and Maud feeling absolutely overwhelmed by all of the sex that surrounds every aspect of our culture, even literature, and wanting to find a simpler connection with someone, that is meaningful but also gives them privacy, respect and calm without it being drenched in the cultural layers of passionate demands and analysis. She implies that our being so aware of sex and everything it can mean, every moment, can stiffen and mold us into mere sexual stereotypes as we are still living, we can become lost in analysis of every sort instead of creating art, something new and original, out of the mess of the subconscious. Byatt wonderfully juxtaposes the imaginary poets wanting to break free of society’s restraints to find passion with the modern academics who want to break free of society’s sexual madness to find something more personal.

They were children of a time and culture which mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language… They were theoretically knowing…

They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a bench, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it. On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Bliss. I don’t have a white bed, but I do have a white view as the snow continues to come down in thick flakes.

Merry Bookmas!

Merry Christmas all, first off! My husband is finally out of the hospital, so that is my main Christmas present. 😀 We also went book shopping last night, our own Christmas tradition, where we set a limit and pick out what we want within that, rather than trying to guess about what the other might really want. We’d rather get the books we want together than be surprised! I picked out Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories and poems, Fragile Things and the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake, a gothic fantasy classic that I’ve been curious about, but then found both books a bit too dark for Christmas reading and was feeling low until I remembered I had a copy of Little Women from the library and that it opens at Christmas.

And although I haven’t read it in about 15 years and had been avoiding it because it seemed too darn moralising, this morning I absolutely loved it. I cried and laughed and felt at home once again with the four good hearted March sisters. I loved Jo, the tomboyish bookworm (I used to like Amy best when I first read it and now can’t imagine why, what a little twit) and treasured sweet and quiet Beth. I had to stop when AMY BURNS JO’S BOOK AND THEN THE MORAL IS JO IS SUPPOSED TO FORGIVE HER. Oh my goodness, I wanted to slap Amy or worse. She’s not punished for what she does! Obviously I’m still a little irked at the preachy tone, especially their father telling them to be ‘good little women’ — I’ve heard that women tend to have depression more often than men because they try to be too internally perfect rather than focusing on outward goals and achievements as men do and Jo wants to, was echoing through my mind — but the reminder to be happy with what I have was also good. Our apartment is very bare this morning since most of our things have already been moved off to my parents’ place and we’ve been having internet tribulations trying to get it working on my laptop and then trying to use the library computers (all full), so now we’re at an internet cafe, but we have each other and our cat. And we’ll be with my family for Boxing Day and perhaps in Florida before the new year!

I’ve loved getting to know so many of you this year and will properly reply to comments at some point when I have normal internet again, for now though, Happy Christmas one and all.

Emma & new shelves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospital Reading

My husband is back in the hospital again — he’s had an infection and an open wound in his stomach since his surgery this summer and it’s just not healing properly, so they’re finally doing tests on him and have him in an isolation room (I have to wear a gown and gloves when I visit) because he’s got a rare hard to vanquish infection that they don’t want spreading in the hospital. He’s not feeling too bad, given the circumstances, and the room is spacious (and private, hoorah!) and even cosy in a brand new part of the hospital and it was fun to spend the day together, sitting on his bed with our hospital gowns, watching tv and talking. He’ll probably be having another surgery tomorrow for an abscess somewhere in his stomach area and we’re still not sure how big it will be or how quickly it will heal. (Something of a concern since we’ve already given our notice on the apartment!)

I started reading Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett yesterday (it’s the perfect book to go to after Trollope, similar British comfort blend but less of a struggle) and have been snickering on the inside ever since. I’m very glad to have found something so light-hearted and just plain fun at this time. I took it with me to Florida this April but was too busy swanning around with Proust and Virginia Woolf to really get the humour at the time. But I started thinking of some of the jokes again and thought I’d give it another go. Quite glad I did. Growing up in an extremist christian home (where of course the book of Revelation and ‘end times’ were discussed in minute detail) means I can thoroughly enjoy two such talented and playful authors make gentle fun of everything I grew up hearing about. And yes, I was reading the book with surgical rubber gloves on, which is an odd sensation (mostly clammy) and not one I recommend.

I’m quite tired now, as I wasn’t able to sleep well last night (my husband and I are very rarely apart, so when he’s in the hospital I generally have to fall asleep with a movie on), so now it’s time for a cup of hot chocolate and perhaps Sense & Sensibility. The snow has begun to fall here again and everyday I keep hoping my Persephone book from my Secret Santa will have arrived, I’ve plugged in the Christmas tree, but this is not my favourite time of year to be at the hospital. (I can’t even go book shopping to let off stress since we need to save money for our move and just visiting at the hospital is expensive, with parking and meals.) Thanks in advance to all of you whom I have never meet, in this community we create together, for taking the time to care. I don’t know when I’ll be online again, but the support you’ve given in the past means a lot to me.

Tea With Miss Buncle

Eep! I’ve just found out two of my reviews were quoted in Persephone Books’ Autumn & Winter Catalogue Reader Comments section! (check it out here) This is such a thrill, as both reviews were for books I’ve adored and that have greatly enriched my life this year: Miss Buncle’s Book and Tea With Mr. Rochester (links to my original reviews in full).This definitely inspires me to order more of their books soon. Any recommendations for more cosy, cute and romantic Persephones?

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

So yet again I have reasons for not blogging or replying to comments… I have now sprained my wrist and can only do some kind of one handed typing shuffle. So this will be brief, but I just wanted to say, Elizabeth Gaskell is my new favourite author of the year. I absolutely adored Cranford, which I finished about a week ago. It starts off slowly, with even a few sad bits and more of a comic, gentle vignette feel than a strong narrative, but by the end a plot has arrived, involving the misfortunes of one of the sweet gossipy ladies of the small town of Cranford and the way everyone gathers together to help was very touching. (I cried, more than once.) The story is simple and the characters fuss over appearing genteel on very limited budgets (‘elegant economy’ they phrase it) and are rather gullible, but they also show such kindness and goodness of heart. I’ve rarely been so touched, it was the perfect balm for the stressful times I’ve been going through lately. (My husband is healing up quite well, but now with both of us half out of commission it is proving rather difficult to get the chores done!)

I’ve since picked up Mary Barton but first I am rereading North and South, which is even better than I’d remembered. It’s so wonderful to find a new classic author that I want to rush out and read all in one year! This hasn’t really happened since… well, since Jane Austen. And as one commenter said here earlier this year, Gaskell is the closest thing to a Victorian Jane Austen.

Now back to Mr. Thorton and Margaret, where I can imagine the wonderful theme music from the mini-series playing in the background as I read it!

Comfort Reading

I will admit I’ve been avoiding blogging here (for almost a month now), mostly because of the stress and busyness that’s been going on with my husband’s recovery from surgery. He was in the hospital longer than anticipated (two weeks instead of one), but luckily he’s back home now and things are slowly returning to normal, although he still won’t be able to return to work for over a month. I’ve only been back at work for a week now and with the return of my old routine, started to think about returning to book blogging as well.

Every fall I like to read something seasonally appropriate, whether it’s Persuasion by Jane Austen, a lot of poetry (especially by Keats and Yeats), or even the first part of Lord of the Rings one year. This year I began to want to read more classics from the 19th century, so I started rereading Anna Karenina, but after about a hundred pages, found it too sad for the circumstances and eventually moved on to Our Mutual Friend in an effort to read more Dickens. It’s actually the best Dickens I’ve yet tried (I’ve finished Bleak House and stumbled about halfway through both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities) — it’s funny, imaginative and big-hearted, just like my grandpa who also loves Dickens (one of my reasons for continuing to try to read his books I admit), but again, after about 300 pages, the manipulative characters began to get to me and I put it down as too stressful also.

Finally, I said forget all this, I’m rereading Jane Eyre. But… remember her depressing early childhood? Yes, that also was too much for me. (And now maybe you see why I haven’t been blogging lately!)

I finally indirectly found a book I could finish through a visit to a new bookshop in my neighbourhood. They had Mariana by Monica Dickens on the shelf! A Persephone book that isn’t Miss Pettigrew! I was touched and despite having already read it this year (and I admit, having mixed feelings about it), my husband urged me to buy it, knowing quite well how much I do love my Persephone books. Bringing it home and deciding where it would go on the shelf brought up the secondhand copy of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey I found this summer and I quickly proceeded to read it, sitting on the floor next to the bookshelf! I had been putting off reading it since all the blog reviews said there was a bittersweet edge to the story, but by this time, I was simply happy to be immersed in another cozy early 20th century British fictional world. The details in this charming little novella were what made it so soothing for me, the descriptions of flowers in every room, rooms laid out for tea, country girls inexpertly wearing makeup and the apparent caddishness of wearing emerald socks at a wedding. I wondered in the end at people who could be so little aware of their own feelings but it had a more thoughtful, than depressing, tone and all in all, it reaffirmed my desire to continue collecting and reading everything Persephone Books brings back into print.

I’m now back in the 19th century with Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is sweet and gently comic, about the only thing I’m up for right now! I’ll probably finish it soon and then may reread North and South or Bridget Jones’s Diary and I also have Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski from the library, another Persephone with a compelling cover!

Any suggestions on other comfort reads of yours would be very much appreciated.