The Quest for the Perfect Birthday Books…

So this is meant to be a very fast post (I hope!), just to occasionally dip my oar into the wonderfully stimulating world of book blogging.  I’ve been working for three weeks as a medical transcriptionist in the pathology department in a hospital (I’ve now typed up autopsies! which are intriguing and also sad) and am starting to settle in there a bit.  I’m going to be learning things there for years about medical terminology and all the quirky things doctors do, trying to decipher their written scrawls and their verbal mumbles!  It’s not exactly my dream job, but it’s also very far from the worst job I’ve ever had and I definitely like having a desk of my very own and the ability to put on my headphones and just type without having to smile or be friendly or do any customer service at all.  For an introvert, it’s a very refreshing change.

Anyways, on to the book discussion!  I’ve found that when I’m at home, since I’ve been staring at a computer screen all day at work I don’t really want to go online in the evenings, I’d rather read.  This is all for the good for my book-loving soul, but my tumblr has now joined this blog in a state of general neglect.  But since I am reading more in the evenings or at least thinking about books more, maybe I’ll try to occasionally blog here on the weekends, as I am now.

I’ve been trying to think of a few very special books to get for my birthday later this month and going over to my favourite cosy book blogger The Captive Reader to get ideas.  She got me lusting for the new Georgette Heyer editions that are coming out later this year (featured here) – I finally read The Grand Sophy earlier this year and found it absolutely wonderful, so I need my own copy of that soon, plus more of hers.  But then I found out those new Heyer editions wouldn’t come out in Canada until September, so then I began considering getting some more Persephone Books.

I just reread Miss Buncle Married (by D.E. Stevenson, one of my favourite British interwar Persephone Books authors) last weekend and oh how much I enjoyed it.  (Here‘s my review of it the first time I read it.)  It’s so utterly adorable and cosy and safe and sweet.  I know not everyone, especially in the grand and progressive era of the 21st century, wants safe and sweet anything, but I love those qualities.  It’s why Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel too.  I long for books that give me a feeling of home and security (since I lost my childhood home in the countryside when I was young and had some childhood traumas as well) and safety, a feeling that all will be well, to overcome, even for a little while, my endless fears that all will go wrong.  I don’t need to read a book to get worked up, I have an overactive imagination to do that for me, all the time!  I don’t quite understand the desire to read sad books either – if I want to have a good cry I can just think about some of the things that have happened to me and how difficult it is to get over them.  I want to read to feel better, not to feel worse!  To use books as anti-depressants in my own form of bibliotherapy.  All that to say, Miss Buncle and D.E. Stevenson and cosy British books that are gentle and calm featuring lovely peace and quiet and ‘real friendly love’ are exactly my cup of chamomile tea.

I want more Persephone books so I can keep endlessly caressing their lovely smooth grey covers and getting lost in their cosy adorable worlds, but they’re also rather expensive to order all the way from England, so I began hunting about for a few cosy books closer to home.  I’ve also been craving a slightly gothic story or two set in Cornwall, in the tone of Daphne du Maurier or Susanna Kearsley and then my thoughts turned towards Mary Stewart, who wrote a lot of romantic suspense novels in the 1950s.  Many of her books have recently been re-released in adorable editions and oooh I just want an atmospheric (and yet still slightly cosy and reassuring) story set in England or Scotland!  So I may indulge in a book or two of hers for my birthday… (I keep an eye out for her whenever I’m in used bookstores, so I now have two in old editions, but the new covers are so adorably retro!)  I also recently finished reading the Miss Marple collection of short stories, which do feature a few slightly gothic little mysteries set around Cornwall and the moors, but they’re too short to really satisfy my craving!  For a while I thought I was really getting smart because I was figuring out every mystery ahead of the solution, until it occurred to me that I’d probably just read them years before.  Sigh.

And then of course there are so many other beautiful and entertaining books that I’d just love to collect (although living in an apartment does limit one’s ability to store all of the books one wishes to acquire, especially when one is married to a fellow book lover who has an even bigger book collection than one’s self…) that it makes the task of finding the perfect birthday books a rather difficult challenge.  Perhaps I’ll go for one Mary Stewart and one Persephone and one something else that is yet to be determined…

As a sidenote: I’ve currently been reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke and while I love the book lover’s atmosphere it conveys and how clever it is about books, featuring larger-than-life characters with wonderful names like Dustfinger (an ambiguous fire-eater) and Capricorn (despite this being a kids book he is legitimately scary to me and I really don’t like his run-down village run by thugs in southern Italy!) that have come to life thanks to the magical reading abilities of one man called Silvertongue (who works as a bookbinder by day) and also featuring a stand-off between an author and the characters he’s created and his fear when he realizes he can’t control his own creations… but it is also so suspenseful and even sad and dark at times.  (And yes, that was one long crazy run-on sentence.  I am quite good at them.)  It’s not as safe and cosy as my adored Miss Buncle books, that’s for sure, but oh I’m just pulled in by the atmosphere of it and have to find out how it ends!  The opening sentence enticed me:  “Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.”  And since then I just can’t leave it, I have to see the story through!  So here I am, reading a book that isn’t entirely sweet or safe, but definitely enticing, perhaps strangely bewitching?  Oh how I love all the worlds I can visit through my endlessly delightful books!  Sometimes I get exhausted thinking of all the books I ‘should’ read and how I’m never reading fast enough to read all the books I want to and how I’m always buying more books than I can keep up with (which is why I gave book blogging a break), but then it’s books like Inkheart that remind me of the heady delights and the endless magic that books offer.

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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.

Literary Heroines, Round 2

Okay, here’s the next five in my top ten favourite female characters:

6. Miss Matty in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. I adore this sweet old lady who seems at first like she’s wasted her life as a spinster, living under her bossy older sister. But throughout the book Miss Matty comes into her own and shows how the simple love and friendship she shares with the other people of Cranford is something to cherish. I wish I had a Miss Matty in my life. (The closest I’ve ever come is an English teacher in junior high who I gave a hug to every day.)

7. Elinor Carlisle in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. Elinor is quietly passionate but the guy she’s in love with prefers ice queens, so she hides who she really is for him (they discuss the Wars of the Roses, she’s always liked the red rose of Lancaster side, while he likes the white of York and I really had no idea who had what colour flowers until I wikipediaed it just now, but it’s nice imagery to show their differing styles of romantic attraction). Later when he likes another girl and then that girl ends up dead, Elinor fears that somehow she’s killed her (with a set of bad fish paste sandwiches for tea). I can relate to that whole hiding who I really am to impress people thing and the excessive guilt thing and Elinor’s red roses have always stayed in my mind since I first read it at 18.

8. Mary Lennox in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Mary is a lonely little brat when she first comes to Misselthwaite Manor, but as she begins to take long walks in the gardens and relish in the fresh moor air, she becomes healthier and happier and learns how to make friends and enjoy life. I read this again this year, just longing to be transformed like Mary from my sometimes grumpy self by a little robin and a secret garden.

9. Ginny Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I feel slightly silly about this one, but I really like how despite Ginny’s crush on Harry, she learns to be herself around him. And she’s funny and brave and good at sports and her patronus is a horse. And that’s as far into fan talk as I’m going. 😉

10. Nancy Drew. The Nancy Drew yellow hardcovers are some of the first books I picked out to read for myself, before that my sister and I were given nice good little pre-approved boxsets of books for good old fashioned girls (I’m not saying I don’t like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie and Chronicles of Narnia, I’m just saying I didn’t chose them for myself.) Nancy Drew was not a child, she had adventures as a single woman and was smarter than everyone else and also more resourceful. The mystery genre has since been a comfort that I periodically return to (with Miss Marple being another favourite heroine), partly because of Nancy showing me that a girl only needs brains and bravery to get in on all the action.

Who are your favourite literary heroines? Anything good I’m missing out on?

In other bookish news, I’m sort of wanting to join in on the Madame Bovary read-along that’s happening right now. I read it just last year and while I found its realism to be a refreshing antidote to the excessive sugary romance in certain books and movies (and in plenty of cultural expectations shoved at women that life is always full of pink fluffy things), I also found it pretty depressing. And I figured now was not a good time for that. But the first round of posts about it are up and I’m so intrigued with all the insights everyone is writing about it that I missed last year! Plus it’s an absolutely gorgeous new edition that I actually held in my hands at a bookstore the other day (and sounds like a great translation too), but didn’t want to spend on the hardcover. Woe.

And then I’m also sort of wanting to join in on the War & Peace year long read-along too… I read 400 pages of it last year, hoping it would be just like Anna Karenina. It isn’t, quite, there’s more war than romance, perhaps not surprisingly. Still, classic literature calls to me! I’ve been unpacking several boxes of books I’d packed up (which was how I sprained my wrist in the first place, which is now obviously getting better enough to type with again) in order to find my copies of Swann’s Way (translated by Lydia Davis, who’s also just done Madame Bovary) and The Red & the Black by Stendhal. I don’t know if I’ll read any of the books I’ve just mentioned right now (I’m currently enjoying Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, one of Jane Austen’s precursors filled with lots of late 18th century London high life), but I like to think and talk about them.

Next up, my top ten literary heroes (or do I need to do some rereading before I can really commit to all ten?) or maybe something else, like my top ten literary settings. Really, I have a list.

What do Agatha Christie & Nancy Mitford have in common?

I’ve had two scrumptious reads in the last few days, so I thought I’d pop over for a bit of a write-up fresh from the oven, as it were. (That does make me wish I could be eating some lovely fresh buns just now!)

First off, The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. I am so loving Miss Marple and somehow luxuriated in this one even more than Murder at the Vicarage, although both are delightful. Christie based Miss Marple on her grandmother and on other older women like her, as Miss Marple says at one point, she’s a Victorian and she can imagine the worst of everyone. She also mentions in Vicarage how she’s a student of human nature, and I was very much reminded of Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice and could see how she could become like Miss Marple (who is also possibly like Jane Austen herself), a contented and never bored single woman, with observations of her neighbours to amuse her.

Also, this bit from Miss Marple may have tipped my Anglophilia past the point of no return:

Miss Marple turned on him. She spoke with animation, “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and a pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course–I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable–that’s what a girl of–of our class would do.

“A well-bred girl,” continued Miss Marple, warming to her subject, “is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion. I mean, however hot the day was, a well-bred girl would never turn up at a point-to-point in a silk flowered frock.”

Somehow it made me think of the Mitfords and beautiful movies like Gosford Park and now I just want to read more lovely British books.

So I began making up a little stack next to my bed and putting more holds at the library and the first one I picked up was Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, I’d been wanting to read it since I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love two years ago, but found it a bit harder to get into. Perhaps understanding the time and place a bit more since all of my very British 1930s reading lately (both The Body in the Library and Love in a Cold Climate were published in the 1940s, but neither mention WW2 at all, in fact, Mitford’s book is clearly set in the early ’30s and I suspect Christie’s is as well) and also reading Hons & Rebels, a memoir of the Mitford childhood by Nancy’s sister Jessica, helped.

Now I am not going to write a proper review because I’m becoming a lazy blogger lately, but it’s lovely and amusing and I will definitely be reading more of Nancy Mitford. Here’s some quotes from one of the younger characters (I bet anything based on Jessica Mitford herself):

‘It is unfair–I suppose Fanny’s going to tell Polly now. Well, back to the medical dictionary and the Bible. I only wish these things didn’t look quite so sordid in cold print. What we need is some clean-minded married woman, to explain, but where are we to find her?’

‘Don’t tease, Fan, I intend to be a novelist (child novelist astounds the critics) and I’m studying human nature like mad.’

‘You are so lucky to have new friends, it is unfair, we never do, really you know, we are the Lady of Shalott with our pathetic lives we lead.’

I also managed to get a few more old Virago Press books during some more secondhand book shopping, Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (I saw the recent movie of it with Romola Garai, which is admittedly odd, because you expect a story of a writer to be all ra-ra creativity, but instead it’s a satire of someone who constantly lives in a sentimental fantasy, writes books that are inaccurate, doesn’t read, becomes quite popular… it seems a bit more true to life than we’d sometimes like to admit.) and The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann (again because of a movie: The Heart of Me was based on it and I remember really liking that. Has Helena Bonham etc and Paul Bettany, about two sisters involved with the same man). Also picked up Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel The Hotel and The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. Hoorah lesser known early 20th century Brits! (Perfect blend of good writing and relaxation.)

Reading in bed or bath…

Simon at Stuck In A Book has asked, “can you post a picture which sums up your reading taste, or a section of it? I’m looking for a picture which doesn’t include a book in it, or a character from an adaptation, or anything like that.”

I thought of this picture, which portrays various aspects of my reading taste: I like books about introverted characters and about the interiors of thought and emotion. I also like delicate, sensitive, poetic, sensual writing. I love detailed descriptions of flowers and gardens, beautiful clothes and rooms. I like books that make me feel calm and long for those I can sink into. To me, this picture very much represents In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: it was written in bed and best read in bed too! And here’s another lilac quote from Proust, the ultimate flowery meditative author:

…hanging there in the foliage, light and supple in their fresh mauve dresses, clusters of young lilacs swaying in the breeze without a thought for the passer-by who was looking up at their leafy mezzanine.

~ The Guermantes Way, Marcel Proust

If you can think of any books that remind you of this picture, please recommend them to me!

Also, I’ve been giving my mom some of my Jane Austens to read, along with a few other 19th century classics I thought she might like (her favourite books include Anne of Green Gables, Lord of the Rings, the Bible and christian novels) and the other day on the phone she told me…. she’d read Middlemarch! She stayed up three nights in a row until 4 a.m. to finish it!! This is wonderful and we proceeded to talk about how great it is, the broad scope of George Eliot, a bit about her life and philosophy, I never expected to have a conversation like this with my mother (she’s the one who reads the least in our family, or at least used to). She said she thought Middlemarch was better than Jane Austen, ahh music, music to the ears. 😉 (I don’t know that I agree, they’re both good in different ways, but simply the fact that we can discuss more than one author I like!) I told her, scanning my bookshelves as we talked for more she might like, that clearly the next step was for her to read War & Peace and after I explained Tolstoy’s search to be a better person and so forth, she said, yes, I do like morals and conflict in a book, I’ll try it! Awwwwww.

I also got my husband to read my favourite Edgar Allan Poe story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, yesterday (when we first started dating, I wanted him to read it immediately but he wanted to start at the beginning of the book of Poe stories I gave him. Needless to say, ‘The Balloon-Hoax’ didn’t keep his attention long enough to get further into the book!)

And another reading delight — enjoying a bit of Agatha Christie in the bath yesterday. I’ve found reading classic mysteries in the tub (usually they’re short enough to finish in one long soak) to be very relaxing and exciting, at the same time. Murder at the Vicarage is the first Miss Marple novel and I enjoyed it so much I think I’ll start reading more of them again.

I’ve got a few books sitting around unreviewed and I’m having difficulty finding the motivation to write about them (one being The Waves by Virginia Woolf, her writing often provokes such personal responses in me that I find it difficult to share them. Another is a negative review that I’m dreading, justifying why I didn’t like it.)

I’ve also been debating what my ‘reading theme’ for the month of June will be. Usually my reading is fairly random, but partly because of all the reading challenges I’ve signed up for now, I thought it could be fun to have a theme for my reading each month. For June I’ve debated things like classic love stories or all French novels and generally feel all around unsure of what book I want to be sucked into next. Do I want to reread more Proust? Or join in with Jane in June? Any suggestions?