Introducing the Sunday Stroll

Since the Sunday Salon membership is full, I thought I’d start something a little different for myself: the Sunday Stroll. It’s inspired by the French flâneur — a stroller, lounger, saunterer, loafer, through a city in order to experience it rather than to arrive at any specific destination. This is how I often tend to read, I pick up a lot of books I never finish, although I’d still like to discuss them, since they still have impact and meaning for me. So on Sundays I can recount the strolls I’ve taken through books and/or the bookish world. (Ie, how many trips did I make to the bookstore this week…)

Ever since the end of January when I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman (which I really enjoyed, with its references to Harry Potter & Narnia, as well as relating to the thing about having trouble being content with life as it is, but which also really made me rather sad thanks to the disillusioning ending), I have not been able to finish a book. I have kept trying to find favourites to reread and then giving up and moving on to the next one. I’ve tried Harry Potter, Wives & Daughters, North & South, Anne of Green Gables, even Emma! I got furthest with Emma, but since I only just reread it last fall, I was lured away from it as well. None of my typical comfort reads were working, they all just seemed a little bit too safe and (gasp) boring — they are all essentially coming-of-age stories, as well as romances, they are all about young girls (or boys, in Harry’s case), while I am now into my early 30s and I realized with a start that maybe I am occasionally wanting to read something more mature. (I’m not saying Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell are at all immature, just that I can read beyond young girls growing up and experiencing idealistic romances!)

So I picked up The Age of Innocence since I’d been thinking of rereading it at some point as the first step before embarking on more Edith Wharton reading, as I did like her before, I just found it too sad and knew that if I kept reading her books, more sadness awaited. I found her beautiful style of writing and American perspective to be a breath of fresh air. I’m now over halfway through, but the sadness is building and once again, I’ve slowed down to a halt. Henry James (of all people) is partly to blame, along with my idea for a new reading project that developed from starting on Wharton.

For years I’ve been fascinated by the Second French Empire of Louis-Napoleon III, between 1852 and 1870, and I’ve tried to find books to read about it. Emile Zola in particular of the great 19th century French authors sets most of his novels in that time period, to show the corruption of Napoleon III’s regime. (I reviewed his novel The Kill here on my old book blog.) Flaubert and others were also writing then, but the thing is just that the French are so darn pessimistic. And due to my ongoing depression, while I want to challenge myself with their work and love learning about French history, I just can’t always take it. (Especially when the main female characters keep dying at the end of the books for their horrible transgressive sexuality!) I’ve tried reading the Goncourt brother’s diaries of the time as well and found them sexist and pessimistic (but more because they weren’t getting famous enough) too. And there isn’t a lot of historical fiction written about the period either, sadly. (Although Helen Humphreys, my favourite Canadian author, just released one called The Reinvention of Love, which I received for Christmas and haven’t read yet, about Victor Hugo’s wife and the literary critic she has an affair with.)

So, all that to say, reading The Age of Innocence, which is set in the 1870s of Wharton’s New York childhood, even though it was written decades later, made me think that maybe I could try reading any books from or about the latter half of the 19th century, set in any European or N. American country, preferably among the upper classes. One of the things I absolutely love about these types of books are the clothes. Yes, maybe it’s shallow, but I swoon over the ball and opera gowns described in Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence, as well as in A.S. Byatt’s Morphio Eugenia and Zola’s books. They all end badly but at least they were pretty while it lasted! (On my tumblr I’m also collecting pictures of paintings and reproductions of dresses from the period, which are so so lovely.)

Which leads me back to Henry James. My local bookstore currently has a large quantity of this edition of The Golden Bowl, which I’d been eyeing for a while, before finally giving in and getting it. (The painting is so pretty, I couldn’t resist! I never used to care much about pretty books, this is all your fault, book blogging!) And then because it was so pretty, I actually started reading it, even though The Wings of the Dove is my book nemesis (I so want to read the whole thing and somehow never can). And then I actually found it interesting and readable! For a few chapters at least. Maybe Wharton helped me get in the mood for James. At all events, now I am yet again adrift in a sea of books, not sure what to pick up or go back to next. I do still want to finish The Age of Innocence and tell you all about it (especially the clothes!), I just have to work my way back there. I occasionally enjoy bookish trips to New York, but most of the time, my reading is firmly entrenched in Europe. And now that I’m back over there, I’m debating something else…

See, there’s a new movie of Anna Karenina coming out this fall (directed by Joe Wright) and even though Keira isn’t my favourite actress for period dramas (although she was surprisingly good in A Dangerous Method), I’m still super excited because I love the book. And now I’m debating a reread. I’ve tried that before and failed, but maybe now I’ll have more motivation? I have taken out the chunky Pevear & Volokhonsky translation from my library today, just in case I decide to go for it. (I think I’ll give it another go, just because. Anna. Karenina! I’m excited and a bit obsessed with pictures from the various film versions.) I read the older Constance Garnett translation my first time because it was the one I liked the best then, but it seems a little too dated this time. Of course the story is also sad, but at least there will be lots of great clothes and glamorous scenes at balls and train stations and horse races! (And also lots of farming and hunting with Levin, which I found awfully dull before, but maybe I’ll like him a bit more this time? Some people find Anna annoying, but I was fascinated by the romantic melodrama of her story last time. I just wish there was more of a balance between how earnest and good Levin is and how exciting Anna is…)

I will keep you posted on how it goes and hopefully I won’t flake out on every book I start for the rest of the year or even for the rest of the month. (Any suggestions on how?) I have nearly finished A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, so that’s something and I do have a whole week off from school now, so maybe I can power charge through a few of these books! I live in bookish hope. Or maybe I can just enjoy wandering my way through literature, without worrying about needing to prove how much I’ve read and reread. (Although part of the reason I came back to book blogging was to try to challenge myself to finish more things…) I’m also considering posting quotes from books as I read them somewhere, either here or here.

And that’s your Sunday stroll through the way my brain picks up and puts down books, bibliophiles. If anyone wants to sway me on which of these three books to read/finish first (out of Anna Karenina, The Age of Innocence, and The Golden Bowl), you’re perfectly free to! Especially if you want to read along with me.

PS. Also I have been debating rereading Mansfield Park. And I read a chapter or two of The Warden by Anthony Trollope a few days ago, just because it’s so easy to download random things onto my kindle. Stop it, brain.

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Report from Florida

I am breaking my self-imposed no blogging while in Florida rule here to share a few of my adventures so far. As you can see, it’s lovely and sunny at the beach and I am so glad to be away from snow, but it’s not quite warm enough to do without a cardigan all the time! My husband and I have been busy hitting up all of the local bookstores at our usual holiday rate of one (and sometimes two) a day and I’m happy to be able to visit Barnes & Noble again. (We tried to find good used bookstores here last time. They were mostly in crummy old buildings full of crummy old books. We’re not going to keep that game up this year!) I’ve managed to find four Virago Modern Classics, all in other editions (mostly NYRB Classics — I am actually trying to control a new mania to collect more of those!), but still thrilling none the less. I am considering reading more American authors, and am starting to be drawn towards reading about New York in particular. (Any recommendations there?) Edith Wharton and Truman Capote are two I’m wanting to explore further and it’s nice to see more of their books in stock here beyond their most famous.

I’ve also been skipping between about eight different books so far on this trip! I don’t know why I can’t focus on any of them (I do want to finish all of them eventually), but here’s the list:

  • A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf — read a bit of this on the plane, with pencil in hand. I finished Mrs. Dalloway in the car on the way to the airport (absolutely fantastic this time around, so glad I read it a second time) and wanted to bring some more Virginia with me to keep that happy floating lyrical alive feeling inside. I love the feminist angle of this essay and have some more thoughts of my own on the topic, but it’s not quite the same thing as Mrs. Dalloway.
  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf — I haven’t read this since university and have been meaning to reread it eventually. I gave it a go our first night in Florida, but even it didn’t feel quite as joyful and light as Mrs. D (although isn’t as sad either) and I couldn’t quite handle reading about the old fashioned views on being a woman, as a big mother to all men, that Mrs. Ramsey holds. (I know those ideas aren’t embraced by Woolf herself, she’s just realistically portraying people as they are, but it’s too close to the way I was brought up.)
  • Someone at a Distance, Dorothy Whipple — to my delight this was waiting for me in Florida! I won a gift certificate from last year’s You’ve Got Mail reading challenge (thank you again, Stacy!), for the American Amazon, so had this sent ahead to my in-laws to meet me here. I was delighted with the first chapter, reading it our first day on the beach, but soon found the characters — the self-sacrificing mother, the demanding mother-in-law, the scheming frenchwoman, the daughter who loves her pony and her mummy so much, the noble brother in the army — to be slightly, well… unsurprising? I know so many of you love this that I will continue with it eventually, but for now I’ve skipped on.
  • The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim!!! This was my first book bought here (my husband found it for me) and when I began reading I breathed a huge mental sigh of relief. Wisteria and sunshine, holidays, yes every virtuous woman deserves holidays, I nodded along with the characters, smiling and sharing all their feelings. The problem is… I want to savour it! Especially for colder days when I’ll need more of an escape, when I’m no longer around palm trees and sunny skies and sand myself.
  • A Game of Hide and Seek, Elizabeth Taylor — I had brought this along for the trip, a fresh new Virago, and I breathed another sigh of relief on starting it. It starts with a fresh summer evening and young love, but quickly develops into a deeper and sharper examination of everyone’s motivations, just as I’ve come to expect from Elizabeth Taylor. It’s just a bit sad since things don’t seem to quite work out for the young couple.
  • The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy — another one of my VMC finds here. For the first chapter or so I wasn’t quite sure about it, but I’ve really come to love it. It’s the story of an American girl in Paris in the ’50s and she acts like Holly Golightly while talking like Philip Marlowe, with her hilarious use of American slang and catch phrases all her own. I’ve been reading out bits to my husband and really, I think I’ll just solve my problem and come back to this one.
  • Bliss and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield — I always want to read more of her since I always like her when I do, so this was a noble attempt the other night before bed to get on with it. Perhaps it’s just not a good mix of author and my current location at the moment and I’m better off sticking with my amusing American friend above.
  • The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton — phew! I got this one out today from the library to get into this whole New York thing, but maybe it feels a bit too slow and old fashioned for the beach, even with social schemers named Undine Spragg… Oh my bookishly wayward heart!

Speaking of New York-ish books that are ridiculously slow, this quote was in my head today:

It was New York mourning, it was New York hair, it was a New York history, confused as yet, but multitudinous, of the loss of parents, brothers, sisters, almost every human appendage, all on a scale and with a sweep that required the greater stage; it was a New York legend of affecting, of romantic isolation, and, beyond everything, it was by most accounts, in respect to the mass of money so piled on the girl’s back, a set of New York possibilities. She was alone, she was stricken, she was rich, and in particular was strange…

From The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. (I do want to finish it and have never quite managed to. Talk about a book nemesis!)

Besides the new books, the wonderful thing about this trip is that I’ve started to write a few short stories. While thinking about feminism and what the act of reading means for women (it can be seen as a selfish act, since there are so many more useful things she could be doing — or this was how I was made to feel as a teenager when I was reading sprawled out on the soft instead of in the kitchen helping my mom and sister out. Reading Virginia Woolf’s essay earlier this week I was thinking, women need a room of their own just to read and think in privacy, just for their own peace of mind!), I came across this article from Bitch magazine a few years ago, about ‘women, writing and the problem of success.’ That women aren’t encouraged to be that ambitious as writers (let alone in math and science, etc!), that they need to downplay their creations as ‘this little thing’ so they won’t be so rejected. It challenged me to own up to something:

I want to be a writer. A Novelist. That is all I’ve wanted to be for years. I know it’s impractical, I know I need a back-up job (believe me I’ve been looking for a good one that will give me lots of free time and low stress with enough money for books and shelter), but it is all my heart longs for. And as it’s not at all harmful to anyone and will actually improve my mental health, I’m going to stop being ashamed of telling people this, as if it’s some pathetic little copycat secret.

I watched the first episode of Any Human Heart on PBS Sunday night, watched as a rather self-absorbed inexperienced British boy waltzed his way into writing a bestselling novel, thanks to timely encouragement from Hemingway and a supportive girlfriend at his side. My brother-in-law also wants to be a writer (of plays, not novels, so we’re still friends) and what has he done, oh he’s taking it seriously, he got an MFA impractical as it is and writes every morning two hours a day, plus looks everywhere for related jobs, he’s taught writing at summer camps and for juvenile delinquents. Me, I’m too terrified to even apply to a single creative writing class. (I have taken playwriting and screenwriting classes in university, but only because they were the kinds of writing I didn’t want to do, so it was fine if I failed.) I finally got up my courage to begin working on a novel a few years ago, but it began to go in scary directions (after sleeping around with various inappropriate people, my main character had a baby which was supposed to solve all her problems and her marriage, but then she didn’t want the baby after all or the happy safe ending I was determined she have and I was venturing into more realism and also postpartum depression than I was prepared to handle at that point) and I stopped. There’s another great essay by Virginia Woolf called Professions for Women (that’s a link to the whole thing, it’s quite short and definitely worth reading), where she talks about women writers and even herself, holding back their imaginations because what they have to say about their bodies and passions and experiences seems too dangerous. I could have cried when I read that.

So I am determined to write again. Even if it’s not ‘good enough.’ Maybe “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body” could have saved Virginia Woolf? There is still time for me though. As long as I’m alive, I can be ambitious, I can tell the truth of my own experiences. I don’t need to keep silent anymore, I don’t need to listen forever without speaking up. I can model myself after the many great female authors I love and revere. I began to write a short story on the beach the other day, modeling it after Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (and Virginia Woolf’s novels!) and what they’ve taught me. I used to freeze up from just writing something, anything, thinking that unless I could be as stoic about it as Hemingway, a stand up soldier at the typewriter, I wouldn’t succeed. But there are as many different ways to write as there are people and I have my own voice to find and deliver.

I’ll be blogging less (only once a week) so I can focus on my writing more and I may not reply to every comment, but I do value them and all of you reading so much. In fact, I know that it’s because of my new-found confidence in writing here (via Virago reading week and Virago Press giving so many women a voice, lighting a fire in me) that I’m able to start writing other things again too. When I listen to waves on the beach, I hear Virginia Woolf describing the sea, I feel the tone of a Katherine Mansfield reverie, I remember how Elizabeth Bowen shaped her stories, and words, memory, invention, comes splashing back.

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.

what the boy reads

Thanks for everyone’s warm comments yesterday — my husband is already home from the hospital because the surgeons were on holiday (??) and will have to wait a little longer for his surgery. At least he’s home with me, which is a relief.

In honour of that, I think I will write about my husband’s reading interests for a change! He manages a bookstore and has more books than I do, although our tastes don’t always overlap.

[Or first, the final answers to the first lines of my favourite books quiz.

1. For a long time, I went to bed early. ~ In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, as identified by Atla at Book to Book.

3. What can I say about love? ~ The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, identified by Rachel at Book Snob.

6. That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. ~ The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, again identified by Rachel.

10. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. ~ The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, as guessed by Allie at A Literary Odyssey.

I’ll have to write more about these books later, especially Proust!]

My husband is rather obsessive about book lists, for a start. He is often madly scribbling out a new list of his favourite 10 authors or genres and loves to read book lists also. He loves what he terms ‘transgressive literature’ and ‘literary genre’ — anything from Bret Easton Ellis to James Ellroy to William Gibson to J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs. If it’s a bit disturbed, he likes it. He recently read The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek and loved it and right now he’s rereading his favourite Chuck Palahniuk, Choke. He also loves mystery novels (Elmore Leonard), science fiction (Philip K. Dick) and horror (Clive Barker), as well as philosophy (Jean Baudrillard) and poetry (Sylvia Plath, Arthur Rimbaud).

What I love so much about his reading is the way he combines what is considered high and low literature, enjoying David Foster Wallace and Star Wars novels at different times, but equally. I genuinely like reading the classics, but he’s helped me to become more open minded about trying a lot of different things in my reading. I used to love reading Nancy Drew as a kid and Agatha Christie too when I was a teenager and then stopped for almost ten years until I met him. Now we both read Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler, although most of our other mystery tastes differ.

I’ve also read some science fiction since I’ve known him (William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is set in the present day but has a futuristic edge and deals in part with online communities, it is so terrific) and even a few horror novels too (not that I like being scared, but once I start I can’t stop…! And H.P. Lovecraft is absolutely glorious old fashioned ridiculous spookiness.) I’ve also started to read a few graphic novels and even comics (the Buffy season 8 ones) since he loves Alan Moore and Superman and and and so much. 😉

I love having literary discussions with my husband (he’s picked up Henry James, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence under my influence) and constantly reorganizing and reassessing our combined library! It’s our favourite lazy afternoon kind of shared activity. I feel lucky to be with a partner who shares my love of books (and one who had to read Jane Austen in university and liked her!)

First Lines

I’ve decided to post the answers to my little identify the first lines of my favourite books quiz today and write a few reasons about why I like each book so much.

I’ll start with the ones that were identified first…

2. ______, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

This is Emma by Jane Austen (the blanked out words are of course ‘Emma Woodhouse’), as correctly guessed by Atla at Book to Book and Nicola at Vintage Reads.

I can’t seem to quite decide if I like Emma or Persuasion more, but that day it was Emma! Which is I think the cosiest of Austen’s novels and always gives me warm family feelings. As Atla recently wrote, the books you read three times or more do become a part of you and all of Jane Austen is definitely in that category for me.

4. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, as guessed by Atla and Nicola again.

I don’t think I’ve read Jane Eyre in years and now I’m wondering if I’ve even read it three times, but it has impacted me and I’m so glad I read it at 20. The example of someone shy and yet so strong willed and determined to be her own person and value love over religion made it for a while more of a personal favourite even over Jane Austen!

5. _____ had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

Middlemarch by George Eliot, as guessed by Helen at She Reads Novels, with the blanked out words being ‘Miss Brooke’.

I read Middlemarch in my last year of university, after thinking it must be terribly dull and musty (a bad experience with Silas Marner in junior high is the only excuse I can give!) Instead, I found so much to relate to. Dorothea Brooke is excessively idealistic and almost ruins her life trying to pursue a great and worthy cause. In the end, she finds happiness in a more simple life that is balanced with love and shows how living a good and regular life is as important as becoming famous for some great and noble deed. It also shows how a good or a bad influence in life, can turn a person in a direction they didn’t originally set out to go in, for good or bad. I’ve never managed to quite reread it all the way through (there’s so many other characters) but I highly highly recommend it, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte (and Wilkie Collins!) are by far my preferred Victorian authors (over ahem, Charles Dickens…)

7. I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, as guessed by Nymeth at things mean a lot.

I only discovered this small nostalgic gem of a book a few years ago, but on rereading it this year, I’ve deemed it one of my comfort books and will likely be returning to it in the future. For starters, it’s much better and slightly more bittersweet than the movie. Also it is so short, a one sit read! I can relate to Holly’s ‘lopsided romantic’ mode of life, it’s somewhat how I lived parts of my 20s (with sadly less glamour) and something I still long to go back to somedays. It definitely speaks to the nostalgic romantic in me.

8. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, as guessed yet again by Atla.

I love the drama of this book. It’s not really my idea of the perfect romance (I prefer slightly less conflict on that front), but for characters caught in emotional conflict, it can’t be beat. I’m not such a fan of Tolstoy’s earnestly good alter ego Levin, but everything to do with Anna was such great reading. There are so many great scenes too, the ball, the train in the snow storm, the horse race…. I kept making furious notes throughout on each new development. The first time I read it I was driving down a highway, having just taken it out from the library and being too intrigued to stop reading! (Uh, I don’t usually do that, ever…) I loved the Constance Garnett translation and for years looked for it, being unable to enjoy any other version (Modern Library publishes it), but I’m sure others prefer more modern versions of it.

9. ‘The Signora had no business to do it,’ said Miss ____, ‘no business at all.’

This is A Room With a View by E.M. Forster, again as guessed by Nymeth. The blanked out name is Bartlett.

This book is pretty short and was again a comfort reread this year. I’m sure my enjoyment of it is coloured by the wonderful Merchant Ivory film of it, but that’s no bad thing since it introduced me to Forster and Howards End too. More than the scenes in Italy, I like the cosy Honeychurch home and family at Windy Corners and the happy innocent side of Edwardian life it portrays, while encouraging people to take risks on what really matters in life, true love over convention.

And now… I think I will wait one more day to reveal the unguessed other four opening lines! Here are a few hints though…

1. For a long time, I went to bed early.

This is a surprisingly quick start to what is one of the longest books in world literature (in fact maybe the longest book in French literature, period). It also has ridiculously long sentences, which sometimes meander daydreamily over memory, the past, nature, sexual jealousy and high society and are sometimes quite comic in their portrayal of a wide varying of characters. This author is not literally a neuroscientist, but he may change your life.

3. What can I say about love?

By a lesser known Canadian author, this book (with a title bearing close allusions to Frances Hodgon Burnett’s most famous children’s classic) is about a London girl going to work on a British country estate in WW2 to help the Women’s Land Army grow potatoes and dig for victory. It’s a very poetic portrayal of a woman who’s long lived without love and what happens when she thinks she’s found it, along with a garden that’s been hidden perhaps since the last war… Absolutely gorgeous and I wish more people read it!

Here’s a further quote, just because:

Can words go straight to the heart? Is this possible? Can words be as direct as the scent of roses?

I only discovered this book five years ago (it was released in 2002) and have reread it at least four times since and already the pages are starting to come loose at the bottom! Another short gem.

6. That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.

(Oh dear, yet another of my long posts!) This book is by a lesser known Anglo-Irish early 20th century female author (and I have already reviewed one of her books and mentioned this book in the review), who was friends with Virginia Woolf. This book is about a naive girl going to live with her step-brother and the cracks that come when no one knows how to deal with her, or worse yet, are falsely charming to her.

10. Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

Lastly, a late 19th century classic by another author who is famously overfond of long and difficult sentences, although he is an American writing from Europe, about imaginary Americans being taken advantage of by those wily and so much more experienced Europeans… There are a lot of beautiful scenes in this book, from the opening with tea on the lawn of an English country house to a charming and worrisome Roman villa with roses in the garden. As well as writing dense and often impenetrable novels, this author has also written various novellas, including a famous ghost story, but this novel is one of his most accessible, being written in his ‘Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary stage’, as one reviewer put it.

That’s it! [Edited for one final hint: 3 of these books are shown in the photo header of my blog as well… ;)]

(ps: I’ve often found that if I write about what I’m currently reading I jinx it and lose interest. Does anyone else ever feel that way or am I just strange here?)