Archive for October, 2011

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s female-centred retelling of the Odysseus myth, began its run at a local theatre this week and tonight my mother and I went to see it.  I was enthralled while my mother was a bit uncertain about the whole thing.  I read The Penelopiad as a book when it first came out and admired its echoing of classical Greek drama structures with Penelope’s monologues and her wronged handmaidens’ as the chorus.  This made it the perfect book to adapt for the stage but, at the same time, it was those classical conventions that my mother found too experimental.  She missed the dialogue and interaction between characters, considered the staging excessively minimal, and just thought everything was rather odd (which, to be fair, it kind of is and I was much better prepared for that than she).  But I loved, loved, loved it.  I loved Penelope’s wry sense of humour, the actress’ excellent delivery, the haunting repetitions by the handmaidens, and, most of all, the incorporation of beautiful songs into a number of the scenes.  Penelope singing to her son or with her handmaidens, sailors telling of Odysseus’s adventures…all the songs were excellent and cleverly incorporated into the show.  I had no idea there was going to be any music at all so it was a delightful surprise. 

And what made it all even better was overhearing people say, as we were leaving the theatre, ‘I can’t wait to get home and start rereading The Odyssey.’

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Europe Trip: London

My visit to London was amazing but also, looking back, exhausting.  When we arrived, I was already starting to get sick and, after two weeks of incessant travelling, also a bit tired of being constantly on the go.  But it was my first visit to London in three years and there was so much I wanted to fit in to my few days there that I decided to just ignore my tiredness, drug myself to deal with my cold, and soldier on, knowing that in a few days I’d be on a plane home and could be as sick and tired then as I liked.  Generally not the smartest strategy but one that worked nonetheless.

We arrived into London on a sunny afternoon and, for once, I was on a plane that didn’t end up doing endless loops in a holding pattern over the city and which actually arrived at Heathrow on time.  I can still hardly believe that happened.  After finding our way to Pimlico and checking into our hotel, my mother and I hit the streets.  After the grey, cement-bound streets of Vienna it was such a pleasure to walk along tree-lined roads and through shaded parks.  We walked past Buckingham Palace, through Green Park, and then wandered through the residential streets of Knightsbridge and South Kensington.  After a few hours, we wound our way back towards our hotel, searching for somewhere that would feed us and provide my mother with copious, well-earned amounts of white wine.  Our delight when we walked into the dining room at The Queen’s Arms was immense.  Cozy and comfortable, it was the perfect place to relax after a long day of travelling.  We walked the few blocks back to our hotel arm-in-arm, the very picture of contentment.  Except when my mother had to figure out which way to look when crossing the street.  She gets stressed about that at the best of times in the UK, never mind after a long day and three glasses of wine. 


Our second day in London was the only one I’d actually planned.  And by ‘planned’, I mean that weeks before I wrote out an agenda that set out our movements from seven in the morning until six at night, accounting for every minute in between.  But, to justify my insanity, it did all go perfectly.  Neither my mother nor I had ever visitedSt. Paul’s on any of our previous trips, so we decided to start the day there, walking over to the City from our hotel.  We, of course, walked along the Embankment most of the way and I got to have a nostalgic moment at Cleopatra’s Needle, which was the meeting point when I used to come up to London on school trips from East Sussex.  Ah, such happy memories of a hundred exchange students waiting in the rain for our coach buses to arrive. 

St. Paul’s was absolutely amazing.  We spent several hours there and were thrilled the entire time (except when we went up to the whispering gallery.  Then I was just terrified).  Having done A LOT of gallery, museum, church and abbey touring recently, I was also incredibly impressed by the quality of audio guide St. Paul’s offers.  It incorporates videos and pictures as well as the normal audio tracks and was remarkably thorough – very important for history buffs like me!  And, after using the public washrooms in the crypt many times on previous trips, it was rather exciting to finally see the rest of that floor. 

From St. Paul’s, we took the underground to Charing Cross and made our way to St. Martin in the Fields.  We had lunch in the café in the crypt (surprisingly excellent) before heading up to the church for a beautiful lunchtime concert.  Afterward, refreshed, we walked across the street to the National Gallery and plunged into those amazing rooms.  We concentrated on the post-1750s works, particularly the Impressionists.  My mother is mad for Monet and I am just as enchanted by Renoir’s At the Theatre (La Première Sortie) as I was when I saw it for the first time when I was twelve.  After several hours of art appreciation, we reached the end of the plan for the day, walked back to the hotel through St James park (where photos were taken, including an amusing one of birds terrifying a woman on a bench), and promptly collapsed.


The following morning, after heavily drugging myself with cold medication, we set off for Bloomsbury and the British Museum.  Mummies, the Rosetta Stone, the Lindow bog Man, even a few Haidi totem poles to remind us of home…there was so much, all of it so amazing.  It is a place I definitely plan to revisit on future trips.  And then, after downing some orange juice in the vain hope that vitamin C would suppress my cold for a few hours, I went to the London Review Bookshop to meet Simon!  We spent a lovely afternoon trolling through bookstores and I learned what inadequate book buying skills I have, though I did pick up four that day.  We were both fighting colds so I can only imagine what damage we could have done had we been at full strength!  And then we met up with my fellow Canadian Darlene for dinner inBloomsbury.  Having only ever met one other blogger in person before, it was surreal to get to meet two of my favourites on the same day, together!  It was a wonderful day and definitely one of the highlights of myLondon trip.  And my mother was very happy when I came back to the hotel, thrilled to be proved incorrect in her suspicions that my online friends were in fact white slavers. 

And, gratuitous library shot, look where my mom went while I was off buying books.  It’s a corner of the member’s library at the University Women’s Club in Mayfair.  Isn’t it lovely and cozy?


On our last day in London, we shopped.  We walked from our hotel up to Oxford Street and played around in Marks and Spencer for several hours, buying lovely coats but also trying on impractical hats for no reason other than to laugh at ourselves.  Further walking lead us to Bloomsbury and bookstores.  The patience of my non-bookish mother throughout this exercise was amazing.  Persephone Books was actually closed when we first went past with something go on inside so, taking that as a sign, we headed for Bea’s of Bloomsbury.  The sweet tea was delicious and very generous (and pretty).  Definitely sufficient fuel for my very satisfying browsing at Persephone!  (If you missed it the first time, you can find out what I picked up here.)

And then the next morning we left for Amsterdam.  Whew.  It was a busy couple of days and only reminded me of all the amazing things London has to offer that I didn’t get to see.  Just think of all the bookstores that went unvisited!  Time to go back, obviously.

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I bought Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple back in May 2010, infected by other bloggers’ enthusiasm for Whipple.  Since then, I’ve added The Priory and They Were Sisters to my Persephone collection but I’d never actually read a word Whipple had written.  Until now.

I stared Someone at a Distance last night and am now halfway through and loving it.  I was so terrified that I was going to be disappointed, as is always the case when I start reading a much-praised author, but that is absolutely not the case and I needed to share my relief and excitement with those who would understand it best.  And the best thing is knowing that, once I’ve finished this, I still have two more Whipple novels already waiting on my shelves.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Marg has the Mr Linky this week!

Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer – Despite being a huge fan of Heyer’s Regency novels, I’ve never read any of her mysteries.  In fact, I generally don’t read mysteries at all but for Heyer I will, obviously, make an exception. 

Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden by Judith B. Tankard – I’ve had this on hold for months – since it first showed up in the library catalogue ahead of publication – and I’m so excited to finally have it and to be able to flip through it at will.

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeymi – I’ve heard great things about Oyeymi and though I’m honestly more interested in reading her most recent book, this was the one that was available.

And then we have the cook books, since I do love to spend a cool autumn night curled up in front of the fire reading recipes:

Essentials of Baking (Williams-Sonoma)

Real Food by Nigel Slater

The Vicar’s Wife’s Cook Book by Elisa Beynon

What did you pick up this week?

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I have no way to adequately express the delight I experienced while reading A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay.  From the first page to the last, it was a book that made me remember how exciting, how entertaining reading can be, how one story can deliver all the adventure, romance and intrigue that have been missing from my recent reading in an intelligent, captivating way.  An introduction in late August to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series reminded me of my youthful passion for fantasy, a genre I’d weaned myself off of over the years though the temptation is always great when I walk past the shelves at the library.  Back when I used to read it, more often than not, I ended up disappointed by so many of the fantasy books I tried.  Fantasy writers as a whole seem to be big on ideas, not always so brilliant with characterization or plotting.  So, being now determined to reintroduce quality fantasy into my reading diet, I knew I had to start with Guy Gavriel Kay, having heard almost universal praise for all his novels.  And I was not disappointed.

Arbonne, where the northern mercenary Blaise finds himself as the novel begins, is an idyllic medieval kingdom centred on the romantic ideals its revered troubadours sing of, that its Court of Love celebrates.  Unlike neighbouring kingdoms, including Blaise’s native Gorhaut, Arbonne values its women, many of whom hold the highest positions of authority, and revolves around a goddess-centric theology.  When the lovers and poets, singers and priestesses of Arbonne find themselves in conflict with the war-bent king of Gorhaut, they seem ill-prepared to face the harsh northern invaders, particularly with Arbonne’s two most powerful nobleman still caught up in a decades-long conflict of their own. 

The book covers four seasons, from spring to winter, from Blaise’s arrival in Arbonne to the final battle between the armies of Gorhaut and Arbonne.  Each section is wonderfully plotted, moving between characters and locations with ease, all sections of equal interest.  There’s nothing worse than having storylines with uneven allure, the kind that always make you want to rush through the boring bits to get on to the characters you do like, but there was none of that here.  I found Blaise’s point of view just as interesting as that of his sister-in-law Rosala or the singer Lisseut.  What’s most impressive about that is that I didn’t even particularly like Lisseut, but I still love her sections.  The characters develop but mostly they do so in a quiet way, without needing to share all their innermost thoughts and struggles with you.  You see their behaviours change: as Blaise takes on unthinkable responsibilities, as Rosala chooses a path that will force the war between two nations, as Lisseut…no, not really sure what happens to Lisseut.  She does a lot of emotional flip-flopping that seems very human, particularly given how emotionally manipulative stressful situations are, but I found it rather irritating.  Still, as a vehicle for delivering plot and insight into other characters, she was extremely valuable and always readable, despite my personal dislike of her. 

The female characters were one of the things I liked best about the novel, though that’s not to say that the male characters weren’t excellent too.  Blaise is a compelling, sympathetic hero, though set in a very predictable hero mould.  His companions, Valery, Rudel, and particularly Bertran, provided just the right level of counsel, moral ambiguity, and comic relief.  But the women really stood out.  Signe, the aging ruler of Arbone whose daughter prompted the feud that has plagued the country for twenty-three years, is a perfect balance of soft and hard, romantic feeling and political cunning.  Ariane, the queen of the Court of Love, is equally intelligent and, what’s more, is presented as someone with is sexually liberated without ever making her appear cheap or manipulative, and is easily able to earn the respect of both her bedmates and the reader.  And then there is Rosala, whose flight from male dominated Gorhaut to Arbonne instigates the war between the two nations.  But she was brave enough to flee, while heavily pregnant, to seek out a new life on her own and then to bear the events that followed. 

War and politics, with a bit of romance and mystery thrown in, this was truly the perfect reading experience for me.  After I finished it, I wandered about the house and the library listlessly, looking for something that could equal it – the inevitable hangover that occurs after finishing a much-enjoyed book.  I already have more of Kay’s books on hold at the library and can’t wait until they come in!

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When I finished reading Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge at the end of August, one of the notes about it in my reading diary, sandwiched between passages of praise, reads ‘not necessarily the most memorable or impactful book.’  And in some ways that is true.  The characters no longer stand out in my mind, nor do I remember much of what limited plot there was.  But even a month and a half later, I’m still marveling at the thoughtful, well-written chronicle of one family’s progression over two decades. 

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.  Once the children start arriving – first Audrey, then Adam, then Bill – they quickly take up all her time and the years fly by, full of little moments of happiness and lots of worries about money and the children themselves.

There have been various discussions in the book blogging community about how marriage is presented in books and which novels do the best job of accurately representing that state.  The young, dewy-eyed newlyweds of Greenery Street are perennial favourites but, showing a more mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together, as in any strong marriage:

They had come to admire each other.  They had both hated their jobs, but they had stuck to them until miraculously, they had come not only to like them, but to be unable to do without them.  By the same process they had come to really need and like each other; somehow a real friendship a real need for each other had grown up behind their differences and disappointments.

But this is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of.  There is the example of Catherine’s sister and her children held up throughout the novel as what not to do – one that Catherine certainly learns from.  But even though Catherine knows what she must not do, that doesn’t make it easy for her when Audrey makes it clear that her mother’s guidance is no longer needed (also made clear in this passage is Cambridge’s passion for ellipses): 

‘Darling,’ she said. ‘I love you so much if you’d only leave me alone.’

Catherine thought…I always imagined I had…but she had the sense not to say it.  How right after all, how natural and salutary that Audrey should withdraw herself from the person who had combed her hair and trimmed her finger nails, cleaned her teeth and edited…in biting language…her table manners.  How right…and how disappointing. 

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones.  I already slightly regret not picking up a copy of my own when I was in London last month but I had enough to bring back as it was

A note on the copy I did read: I borrowed a first edition from the university library and found several delightful things.  First, the book plate of the original owner: H.R. MacMillan.  MacMillan was a prominent British Columbian businessman, who made his fortune in the forestry industry but who is remembered for his philanthropic contributions (including the city’s space centre and the theological library at the university).  Several of the Angela Thirkells I’ve borrowed also came from him so, clearly, he was a man of excellent literary tastes:

Second, the book still had its card tucked into the back pocket.  I love knowing who checked out books before me (the electronic age has destroyed one of my main pleasures as a library user by getting rid of cards) but I really love knowing who checked the book out 60+ years ago:

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London is for Book Buying

When my mother and I began planning our Europe trip, I added London to the itinerary entirely because I wanted to go shopping, primarily for books.  Yes, I was looking forward to revisiting the city and, yes, I was hoping maybe to get to see some other bloggers but, let’s be honest, I went there to shop.  I love many things about Canada but our book prices are quite high compared to other countries and I am always staggered by how cheap used books are in the UK.  And, of course, I had to make my pilgrimage to Persephone Books for the first time. 

There will be more detail on my London trip later this week – including my visit with Simon and Darlene – but I really couldn’t wait any longer to share the 15 books I picked up while I was there.  This was probably a few more than I should really have got (this was quickly realised a few days later on Amsterdam public transit while buckling under my backpack’s weight) but limiting myself to even this many was a chore.  For the first time in my life, I went into Waterstones and didn’t take advantage of the 3 for 2 deal.  Weeks later, I can still hardly believe my restraint. 

Bloomsbury Ballerina by Judith Mackrell – I’d been looking at this at the London Review Bookshop before I met up with Simon and, lo and behold,  it was at the first used bookstore we visited.  That, my friends, is what we call a sign. 

The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson – From the rather magnificent Notting Hill Book & Comic Exchange.  I picked this up just because it was a mint condition Virago, skimmed and was delighted by the blurb, and then, belatedly, realised that I already have the first of the three books contained in this volume (Love’s Shadow).  But three books are always better than one!

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim – von Arnim is one of the first authors I look for works by when I’m in any bookstore and I was thrilled to find this novel in excellent condition at Ripping Yarns

Love Always and The Love of Her Life by Harriet Evans – classic airport purchases, bought when I realised that a) there was a sale on, b) I had pounds left and c) I was about to leave England without having bought any chick lit.  Since Evans is one of the authors I can’t consistently find over here, in these went to my basket.

Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith – I was inevitably going to buy this, so why not save my pennies and buy it in the UK (where it was made even cheaper by being discounted by £4 at Waterstones)?

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell – I loved this book when I read it over the summer, having got it out from the university library, and am thrilled to now have my own copy. 

And then there are the lovely, dovegrey Persephones.  Two of these, wonder of wonders, were picked up second-hand while the remaining six were bought at the shop (where I was very kindly given a free book bag with my purchase). 

Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper – Simon spotted this one at the Notting Hill Book & Comic Exchange and passed it on to me, for which I was very grateful since it is one of the titles I had been planning to buy on this visit anyways! 

Julian Grenfell by Nicholas Mosley – spotted at Skoob while trolling the biographies.  There is nothing that grabs my attention quite like one of these distinctive covers. 

And now the books picked up at the store:

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

Gardener’s Nightcap by Muriel Stuart

It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson

I didn’t get to visit every bookstore that I’d hoped to but, given how my bag was straining at the seams and how my bookshelves are bending in the middle, that’s probably for the best!

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Library Lust

The Library of Thorval Boeck by Harriet Backer

A very traditional room this week painted by Norwegian artist Harriet Backer (1845 – 1932).

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Right, so when I was telling you all about my time in Vienna, I forgot to include anything about my morning spent at the Hofburg complex, which included a visit to the Austrian National Library Prunksaal.  Because, clearly, I thought book bloggers would have no interest in a library.  Yep, spaced out on you all there.

It’s a gorgeous hall and is admirable as a library alone.  But it is also a museum now and, strangely enough, I came away far more impressed by the exhibit I saw than by the room.  The display was on the lands and people of the Hapsburg empire and included sketches and paintings of the regions and people as well as more detailed information on the ethnic make up of each region.  I’ve been fascinated by this stuff since childhood so finding the exhibit when all I went to see was the hall was an absolute delight!   Who doesn’t want to know the percentage of Romanians living in Hungary in the 19th Century?  (Completely meaningless poll: Romania or Rumania, which do you prefer?)

It was also really nice to be in a highly decorative library that was still serving a practical purpose.  The libraries at Melk and Strahov were beautiful but it just seems so wasteful to have huge rooms like that unused except as the subjects of tourist photographs.  But even the shelves at the Prunksaal showed signs of use – there were plenty of empty spaces with cardboard markers where books had been removed.  It was quite heartwarming.

Hope you enjoy the (belated) photos!

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg and myself that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

A nice big library haul this week, picked up on Saturday morning.  Such a wonderful way to start off the long weekend!  As the weather gets colder and wetter, the days shorter and darker, I’m wanting to read more and more and now I certainly have enough material to keep me busy through many an evening.We the People: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague by Timothy Garton Ash
What is not to like here?  We’ve already established that I’m a huge fan of Garton Ash and this lovely, slim volume counts towards the Eastern European Challenge.  Win-win.

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates
I’ve never read anything by Bates but I’ve been told by several people that this is their favourite of his works.  Kim at Reading Matters is particularly enthusiastic about it – check out her wonderful review.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay
Arbonne and Gorhaut—two lands as different as the sun and the shadowed moon.

In the south, the olive trees and vineyards of Arbonne flourish, and the troubadours fill the air with songs of love and desire. To the north, the history of harsh Gorhaut has been forged with blood and fire, and now a corrupt king and his ruthless advisor seek to conquer the warm, fertile lands of Arbonne. The troubadours and courtiers of the south are soft—or so they appear. But for all their devotion to music and passion for beauty, the people of Arbonne will fight when invasion comes.

Inspired by the glorious world of the troubadours, A Song for Arbonneis Guy Gavriel Kay’s love song to medieval Provence.Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton
The first Jane Austen sequel, this novel, written in 1913, brings together major and minor characters from all six novels. 

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay
This book is everywhere I go these days, displayed in many a shop window.  You know how much I love history, particularly World War Two-era, and Bletchley Park and the work done there is always an exciting topic. 

Oxford Revisited by Justin Cartwright
This is a Nancy Pearl recommendation, which is reason enough to pick up any book, and it’s about Oxford.  How could I resist?A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel
I’ve adored my two past encounters with Manguel (The Library at Night and A Reading Diary) and am really looking forward to this collection of essays. 

Ruined by Reading by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
A book about books, picked up for that reason alone. 

Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham
Earth and High Heaven was such a delightful surprise that I had to pick up Graham’s other major work. 

What did you pick up this week?

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