Proust’s Lilacs

I’m going to visit my parents for a few days, so I might not be around much. Here is Proust going on about lilacs in Swann’s Way (Lydia Davis translation) as I can’t find the poem I’d thought of posting.

… we would leave town by the lane that ran along the white gate of M. Swann’s park. Before reaching it, we would meet the smell of his lilacs, coming out to greet the strangers. From among the fresh green little hearts of their leaves, the flowers would curiously lift above the gate of the park their tufts of mauve or white feathers, glazed, even in the shade, by the sun in which they had bathed. A few, half hidden by the little tiled lodge called the Archers’ House, where the caretaker lived, overtopped its Gothic gable with their pink minarets. The Nymphs of Spring would have seemed vulgar compared to these young houris, which preserved within this French garden the pure and vivid tones of Persian miniatures. Despite my desire to entwine their supple waists and draw down to me the starry curls of their fragrant heads, we would pass by without stopping because my parents had ceased to visit Tansonville since Swann’s marriage…

We stopped for a moment in front of the gate. Lilac time was nearly over; a few, still, poured forth in tall mauve chandeliers the delicate bubbles of their flowers, but in many places among the leaves where only a week before they had still been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, a hollow scum now withered, shrunken and dark, dry and odorless.

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.

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?

the mother tongue of my imagination

There are a few things I’ve been thinking about for a while since I’ve started book blogging, so I thought I’d address them and then maybe get around to why I love Proust in the bargain.

This post by Nymeth at things mean a lot is one of the things that has been making me think for weeks now and wondering how to write about it. She writes about how non-readers may become defensive around readers, saying they just don’t have the time to read and that if you read, you really must not have a life. I haven’t had too much of a problem with that, perhaps because I’ve worked in a bookstore and a library in the past few years and was in university before that (with other muckier jobs in between), but what I do notice and worry about is this:

I worry people (online or in real life) may find me an unapproachable snob because I like reading the classics. I had one slightly defensive comment on my blog a while back, about how people who only read the classics and dismiss every other kind of book can be ‘snooty’ and need to branch out into ‘new and better’ reading experiences. I have often wondered since if other people feel this way about my blog in particular or just in general. I know the classics can seem intimidating and some people write about them in a very forbidding academic highblown style and so I try to write about the classics here in a balanced and approachable way, I hope.

I have had experiences with the literary hipsters from working in an indie bookstore and while I shared an interest in some of the same books, I found that it often became one big subtle competition over who had read the most and by which difficult big deal make you look smart authors. Also, reading for fun didn’t really seem to be in their vocabulary. (Unless Catcher in the Rye is fun? ;)) On the other hand, I also had a bookstore friend who was a fan of historical romances who seemed to want me to change my taste to become just like hers and seemed to get defensive that I was a picky reader.

So this is a sensitive topic. All kinds of judgments seem to be made about what kinds of books you read and what that means about you. As I have said before, the kinds of readers I most admire are those who read high and low literature, not being afraid of either. To me the classics have endured for a reason and can offer life changing experiences when you take the time to hang out with the great minds of the past. But making room for pleasure, release, escape, relaxation in your reading, that is also important. There are times when I’ve become burnt out from so much ‘all the right literature’ (in order to further impress ‘all the right people’ I admit!) that I would take a month to gorge myself on as many mystery novels as I could get through. I’ve also dabbled in teen fantasy, chick lit, sci-fi and horror. I can’t say I’ve became a devotee of any of those genres (yet, though I keep meaning to read more science fiction) but I feel my understanding of people, books and the world increases the more widely I read.

So with all those things said, I keep feeling that I need to defend or at least explain why I love the classics and why, for me, they are more accessible than contemporary ‘literary fiction’.

A lot of this has to do with my upbringing. I grew up on a farm in central Alberta, Canada among conservative christians. (I do not label myself as a ‘christian’ anymore but did for a long time) The books that were available to me were old fashioned, to say the least. Swiss Family Robinson was my favourite, but I was also given the box sets of Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie and the Narnia books. I liked the Narnia books the best, feeling a slight resentment that I was expected to be like Anne or Laura in the other books when I didn’t closely relate to them on some mysterious deep girl bonding level. We also didn’t have a tv until I was about ten. So I played outside, I made up stories in my head and I read anything I could find (including such classics as The Cross and the Switchblade!)

As soon as we moved to a city, I went to the library or bookmobile every week, coming home with piles of Nancy Drew yellow hardcovers and anything else interesting off the paperback spinners like the Boxcar Children (the actual bookshelves full of the more approved children’s literature seemed too intimidating to my eleven year old self!) I went to private christian schools and remained pretty sheltered overall, my teachers read us books like The Secret Garden and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and we went to church more than once a week.

In junior high, at another new school in a bigger city, I took solace in my school library, which was full of old classics like everything Louisa May Alcott ever wrote and christian historical fiction like The House of Winslow series, following a noble christian family through American history. I also read the Saddle Club books (and had a set of horse crazy friends) and some of the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High.

In high school my family moved again and I was suddenly and without much warning thrown into public school. It was a shock to go to a much larger school and one full of cultural references I’d never heard of. I had only gone to a movie theatre twice in my life at that point and had no idea what most of the people around me were talking about as they debated which movie to see in class. In the end I came to love that school and my friends there far more than the close minded autocrats of many of my previous schools who’d kept so much knowledge of the world and my own culture from me (obviously my parents who had also been raised in very sheltered environments and the churches we went to played a part in keeping me so culturally inept).

By the end of high school I was sneaking out of the house to go to movies and borrow teen magazines and Beatles cds from the library, desperate at last to educate myself on all the pop culture I’d been missing out on. I tried to learn as much about movies as I could, simply to have something to relate to people about. I knew I’d always be introverted but I thought if I at least knew something more current than Narnia, I’d be more likely to make a few friends.

Eventually I made my way to university (after a year of homeschooling when my family moved yet again, a year of bible college and a year of acting school…) My advanced English class in high school had given me a desire to study English literature in university some day and I had back of my mind inklings that I wanted to be a writer, if only I dared to try. University was such an enlightening and wonderful time for me. I finally found great literature I could relate to (Lord of the Flies in high school didn’t quite do that for me) in Virginia Woolf, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare and others and finally began to define myself as a feminist, which led to no longer wanting to be part of a sexist religion that puts women firmly under men.

In the midst of a very strict religious upbringing, my love of books gave me a sense of self, showed me people who had a self that hadn’t been completely given over to endless christian self sacrifice. Books and literature were what saved me from the mind numbing conformity my church and family wanted to impose on me and the world. They gave me a curiosity about stories and about the world, to look further, to know more.

At the same time, I remain a person ill at ease in my own culture. I still feel like an outsider because of my closed upbringing and have difficulty relating to a lot of literature set after the 1950s. I’ve read the entire Bible twice through as a teenager, I grew up on a lot of old books, I simply feel more comfortable with old fashioned language and style, odd as that may sound. Also, as someone who wants to be a writer, I continue to feel a desperate need to catch up on all the great literature I missed living in the christian cave. I see the great writers of the past as my ‘tribe’, people like George Eliot who struggled with religion vs art herself, I relate to the struggles and stories of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte more than to the media numbed consumerist ennui of the present.

Perhaps now you’ll all be telling me I need to branch out to some new and more current reading experiences! But in the midst of all of my mental and physical moving about as I grew up (losing my beloved childhood home on our farm in the process), I also feel that the old books are my home:

…such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them.
(The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot, quote found here as I haven’t read it yet).

Literature feels like the one thing that is mine, that defines me (especially growing up around a younger and more talented sister, all I could continue to repeat under my breath was ‘as long as she doesn’t like books I don’t care what else she’s good at’) and I will always want to know more about it.

Well this is long and personal and all I can say further about why I love Proust and In Search of Lost Time is that he is nostalgic as I am and daydreamy, a nature lover, and someone who’s imagination always does one better than real life where he is often disappointed when reality finally comes. He’s poetic and sensitive and obviously not for everyone (just like Ulysses by James Joyce isn’t something I can ever see myself finishing) but I love that he was completely himself, stopping to admire a flower even if people thought he was odd and writing such a huge book about his own thoughts and feelings and past and…. I’m going to stop now because this is long and my head hurts. That’s me and Proust in Paris.

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?)

Why I’m beginning to love Persephone Books

I am quite enjoying Mariana by Monica Dickens, but not at all wanting to race through it! Parts of it remind me of my own childhood (Mary and her cousins all sit on the Swing Tree and hurl insults at their nannies, while my siblings and I would all stand in our ‘airplane tree’ and shake the branches, pretending to fly it!), it seems so true of people I’ve known, including a rather disagreeable child like this:

Margaret had inherited this sticky trait from her mother but did not confine it to her father. She was always flinging herself on people, clinging round their necks with limp reptilian arms, and saying, ‘Auntay,’ or ‘Un-kerl, I want to speak chyou. D’you like me?’ If she got a snub, she would creep away and commune with her conscience, which was more than life-size. When she had no sins of her own to fret over, she would fret over somebody else’s. She would be a ‘good woman’ when she grew up, you could see it coming miles away.

It starts off in rather a Proustian way, the first chapter introduces Mary as an adult alone in a small country cottage during a storm, waiting to hear about her unnamed husband. As she lays in bed, unable to sleep, she starts to think about her past (just as In Search of Lost Time begins in the confusion of darkness and sleeping and long lost memories slowly rising up) and then chapter 2 starts with a memory of the smells of her past (just as Proust writes about too, in fact this reminded me of his ecstasy in Swann’s Way over smells “homey, human and enclosed, an exquisite, ingenious, and limpid jelly of all the fruits of the year that have left the orchard for the cupboard”), where I was hooked by this:

It was the smell of clean sheets that reminded Mary of what, when she was a child, she called the Charbury Smell. It was the first thing you noticed as you went in at the front door of Charbury; an indefinable pot-pourri of all the fragrant things in the house — roses, wood-smoke, polished floors, bread, and lavender-kept old linen. You were only conscious of it when you first came down from London. Once you had been there some time, it became a part of your country self, like the ragamuffin clothes you wore, and the grazes on your knees, and waking on Saturdays to the sound of the gardeners sweeping the gravel drive with brooms.

I grew up on a farm and so definitely had a ‘country self’, complete with old clothes the better to explore the woods in and scraped knees from learning to ride my bike on gravel.

One of the reasons I am beginning to love the Persephone books so much is that they speak to this earliest side of me, the country child self that learned to cross stitch and quilt and bake with my grandmas, that played in the trees and gardens, picking raspberries and fresh peas, that learned to read on old books lying around the farmhouse before I ever watched tv. I’m only 30, but I grew up in a rather old fashioned way and these lost old classics speak to me, to my first self.

In other Persephone news, I found a Dorothy Whipple novel at my library! She seems to be quite the favourite among Persephone readers, only the one I found has not been published by them yet… it is Every Good Deed. The beginning looks good, so I’ll probably start that after I’m done Mariana.

Also, I’ve been thinking of a plan to collect all the links to the various Persephone reviews around the internet and put them all in one place somewhere, perhaps on a separate page of my blog. It could become overwhelming, but I thought there’s so many of these books that are terrific but that you’ve never heard of, it’s hard to know what you’d like until you read a quote or review and then it would be easier to find all that info in one place. I feel like I’m caught in a whirlwind, going from review to review just now, plus looking over last year’s Persephone Reading Week too! Just an idea as of yet, but I’m already collecting links for one book at a time. What do you all think, would this be a good idea and where would it best be hosted?

a little light holiday reading…

I’m going to be joining in on the Classics Circuit tour of Paris in the Spring, covering many of the novels of Emile Zola! I read The Kill by Zola last year and am looking forward to contributing a review of it on April 23, baby book blogger though I am!

(The one complication being that currently I am on holiday in Florida and my copy of the book is all the way back in Alberta on my shelf at home. But I saw a copy at Barnes & Noble yesterday and I’m sure something can be arranged in that direction…)

I’m looking forward to getting involved with more reading challenges as the year progresses and as I set more things up here, but I really wanted to jump on with this one first. Zola is not my favourite French author, but he is definitely intriguing and I love the time period (the 1850s-60s of the Second Empire in France) that he writes about.

And since I am on holiday right now, I think I’ll write about the dilemma I have every time I go somewhere: what books do I take with me?

On my honeymoon almost two years ago, I read Bleak House by Charles Dickens in England and some of Proust in Paris and those were both absolutely perfect books to read in those cities. Although it makes for a lot to carry around (I made my husband carry my copy of Bleak House in his bag when we went wandering through Hampstead Heath for the day and didn’t read it once…) and both my husband and I tend to overpack on books, so as not to run out and to have enough variety and then also, of course, buy more books!

(My husband manages a bookstore, I work in a library, we are not able to control our urges. The smart choice would be some type of e-reader, but an innocent little $20 book here and there seems so much cheaper and prettier…)

Then, when we went to Florida last year, I ended up trying to reread Middlemarch on the beach, which, while being one of my favourite books, is not a good beach book. At least not once past the first part about Dorothea, she’s the best of it.

On our summer holidays, I took a book of 19th century French history, along with Dangerous Liaisons and A Tale of Two Cities. After a while, that got awfully dull and I gave up on all those.

This year going back to Florida, I’ve been considering what I’d bring with me for months. Something fun for once, I kept telling myself. Holidays seem like a great time to catch up on the classics I’ve been meaning to get to, but if it’s not my kind of book, I’m tired of wasting my holiday reading time on it! I’ve found mysteries work well for traveling and so packed a few Harry Potters in my bag for the plane flights, as well as about… uh,… ten other books. Just to be safe. And brought them all in my carry on bags.

I ended up sitting next to someone who asked me about all my books, turns out she works in a library too! So we had a great time comparing library policies on such fascinating topics as membership fees and fines (no really, I enjoy that kind of thing!) And then, I wanted to read Virginia Woolf. And Proust.

So I guess you never know with books. For the past month or so, I’ve been reading a lot of teen fantasy stuff really quickly (Harry Potter, City of Bones, Uglies, Sucks to Be Me) and was starting to want something more substantial that wouldn’t just feel like yet another jumped up race through a series of increasingly meaningless attempts at a real catchy big seller.

Today I read more of Swann’s Way next to the pool and while it’s not always completely attention grabbing, it’s beautiful and insightful and funny and so personal and thoughtful. Reading this for the second time, I see the humour in the characters that I missed the first time. I also see the heartbreak, from lives lived a certain way and not another, knowing how Proust meticulously follows them their whole life long. The first part of this volume, about his childhood vacation home in Combray, was one of my favourite parts of the whole novel. The beauty of the countryside, the flowers, I loved it. Now I’m entering the second half, Swann in Love, and was almost wanting to skip it and move on to more of the nature stuff in some of the later volumes. But it didn’t seem right and now I’m finding that even the society half of the book offers so much to think about.

This one paragraph has stuck in my mind since reading it the other evening (it reminds me of many of my own social anxieties, online as well as in person):

Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to answer someone, whether the person addressing him wanted to make a joke or was serious. And just in case, he would add to each of his facial expressions the offer of a conditional and tentative smile whose expectant shrewdness would exculpate him fro the reproach of naĂŻvetĂ©, if the remark that had been made to him was found to have been facetious. But since, so as to respond to the opposite hypothesis, he did not dare allow that smile to declare itself distinctly on his face, one saw an uncertainty perpetually floating upon it in which could be read the question he did not dare ask: “Are you saying this in earnest?” He was no more sure how he ought to behave in the street, and even in life generally, than in a drawing room, and he could be seen greeting passersby, carriages, and any minor event that occured with the same ironic smile that removed all impropriety from his attitude in advance, since he was proving that if the attitude was not a fashionable one he was well aware of it and that if he had adopted it, it was as a joke.

Proust packs so much into the fictionalized version of his life, it’s hard to remember and share it all (hence why it is my Ideal Desert Island Book!), I can only keep on reading and remembering again.

What are your favourite books to take on holidays?

Welcome to A Few of my Favourite Books!

Hello and welcome to my book blog! I’m nervous and excited to be starting this.

First off: my name is Carolyn and I work in a library.

Second: I love a lot of classic novels (Marcel Proust and Jane Austen are my favourite authors), but lately I’ve realized that genre fiction is a lot of good fun as well. So I like to mix it up and read a lot of everything. Last year I had a mystery binge in the spring and a poetry extravaganza in the fall.

Over the last two years I’ve also read all of In Search of Lost Time (by the lovely and neurotic aforementioned Marcel Proust) and I’m with Henry James on this one, it is a case of “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine”! But, as I say, I love Proust anyway and have already started rereading Swann’s Way, the first volume. (I’ve also been rereading the Harry Potter books at the same time and in their own way both books are comforting friends.)

My first memory of loving reading a particular book is when I was 10, curled up in my bed that was built into the wall (with the roof sloping down above me and the cubby hole at my feet) in our old farm house, reading a book I’d found in on one of the basement library shelves, about heroic horses and dogs. It had a tattered spine and a plaid cover, with a horse and a dog in cameo frame. I was stirred and moved by the story of Alexander the Great’s horse going into battle against the elephants in India and Chips the war dog going after a machine gun nest.

Soon after I went on to read The Swiss Family Robinson and was thrilled with the tree house, the boy riding an ostrich in a race! I read everything I could find after that and when we moved to the city, went to the library on my own every week, coming back with my arms full of yellow Nancy Drew hardcovers. When I was 20, a friend introduced me to Jane Austen and I was scandalized that no one had ever mentioned her in all my high school English classes.

I went to university shortly after and decided on a multi-major in English, History and Drama. (Literature is what I love most, but I’m also intrigued by all the fascinating stories out of the past in History and I love the creative community in theatre. So I couldn’t quite go for only literary studies, although I’ve often had second thoughts about that choice and would love to go back for more English courses.) I wanted to get high grades (the intention was to get into the Education program and actually have a sensible career), so I told myself no reading for fun was allowed. I was introduced to the wonders of Virginia Woolf and many other things that filled my mind with exciting and jostling ideas, but by the time I was accepted into the Education faculty and then began student teaching, only to find that it really wasn’t for me, I was deeply depressed and stressed.

I took time off from university and after a few frantic months, realized I had to stop with the success planning and do something I loved: read. For fun. That summer I began going to the library, looking for comforting and happy books that could help me through. I also started keeping reviews of those books in a notebook. I’ve always loved writing university essays (and writing in general) and so the reviewing of the book, discovering and sharing my opinion of a book, even if only with myself, is almost as enjoyable as actually reading.

A few years later, someone told me about blogging and I was instantly excited. I had finally gone back to university to finish my degree in a more relaxed way and I found the online community to be so supportive as I finally started taking a few writing classes and continued to read for fun. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to stay away from blogging. And I don’t ever want to stop reading for my own personal enjoyment again!

So thanks for reading and welcome. I look forward to meeting you and to writing about a few of my favourite books.