I have just started reading Bleaker House by Nell Stevens and the basic premise for the book has my mind spinning in the most wonderful ways.  The book, a memoir, is about the months Stevens spent living on a remote and desolate island in the Falklands.  She was there to remove herself from the distractions that she felt made it difficult for her to write and to embrace the solitude she though necessary for writers.

And it was all funded by her MFA program:

A generous donor has made it possible for us to send most of our students abroad after they complete their degree requirements.  Global Fellows in Fiction may go to any country and do there what they wish, for a typical stay of up to three months.  The Global Fellowship adventure is not only intended to help Boston University’s MFA candidates grow as writers, but also to widen eyes, minds, and hearts – from which better writing may eventually flow.

This is a staggering and completely wonderful use of university funds.  And, on a cold Sunday afternoon, I have found a lovely way to pass the time: thinking of the destinations I would choose if I were in such a program.

Being me, I’d probably want to roam about Central Europe – there is nothing I enjoy more than insurmountable language barriers and echoes of the Hapsburg Empire.  I got a little taste of such a trip this year but the effect was sadly diluted by too much time in Italy.  I would go back in a heartbeat to do it right.

My second favourite empire, the Ottoman Empire, is also alluring: a trip that somehow encompasses Turkey and the Balkans with a possible stop in North Africa sounds pretty perfect (although subject to political and military turmoil, in which case scrap everything else and stay on a beach in Croatia, I suppose).  And there are always possibilities for writers in such politically fraught, historically rich regions.

Where would you dream of going on such an adventure?


After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief 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.

Bleaker House by Nell Stevens – not about Charles Dickens!  A much-praised memoir about Stevens’ time living (and writing) on a remote island in the South Atlantic.

Happy as a Dane by Malene Rydahl – a slightly smug list of the 10 things that make Danes the happiest people in the world.  Particularly interesting to read in light of a recent conversation with one of my Denmark-dwelling cousins, who loves his adopted home but finds certain elements of the society frustrating.

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley – a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – hilarious comedy about the Apocalypse.  Always worth reading (and rereading and rereading…)

Negroland by Margo Jefferson – this memoir of growing up in a privileged Black family was highly praised when it came out a few years ago and looks to be very interesting.

The Art of Flight by Fredrik Sjöberg – I know nothing about this but was intrigued by the blurb: Fredrik Sjöberg – collector, romantic, explorer – spends his life tracing the smallest details of the natural world. In these two beautifully wrought tales he meditates on the joy of little things, childhood memories, long-forgotten Swedish entomologists, earthworms, wine-making, the National Parks of the United States, the richness of life and the strange paths it leads us on.

What did you pick up this week?

I’ve been flicking through More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern this morning, a companion to the equally perfect Speaking of Jane Austen.  I marked some favourite passages when I first read it a few years back and it was those I was going through this morning, enjoying anew the joy Kaye-Smith and Stern took in talking about their favourite author and her works.

One of my favourite passages was Stern’s musings on Austen’s most able parental unit: the Morlands:

…I am certain no one can dispute that as parents, Mr and Mrs Morland are without serious rivals; they are, in fact, the only important mother and father in Jane Austen where both emerge coupled in unselfishness and good sense; we find them disposed to indulge their large family where indulgence can do no harm, yet to check any tendency towards bad manners, sulking or affectation.  We are not allowed to see much of the Rev. Richard Morland, though we are assured he was “a very respectable man: and not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters; our good opinion of him is chiefly based on the fact that when his wife acts sensibly (the word must recur often in any description of Mrs Morland), she is apparently not in any fear of opposition from her husband.  Most of us, as children, were told somewhat sententiously that people are likely to judge our parents according to the way we behave…to which we gave our shoulders an impatient shrug and muttered inaudibly: “Don’t believe it.”  The older I grow, the more the truth of this comes home to me: Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, displays so much honesty and spontaneous politeness in her conduct, as well as a genuinely modest measurement of her own claims to notice, no tiresome shrinking nor constant need of reassurance (can I again be thinking of Fanny Price?), that she reflects the greatest possible credit on her mother’s upbringing and her father’s judgement in selection of a wife…

Later in the essay (entitled “Always be Contented, but especially at Home”), she does mark them down a little for not investigating Isabella Thorpe as soon as their son becomes engaged to her but it’s a small matter in the scheme of things.  For my part, I know they are the Austen parents I would pick if I had a choice!

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief 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.

It’s been ages since I last posted about my loot but there is much to share!  Three months away from my library has made me even keener than usual to use it and I’m reading at a spectacular pace right now.  Here’s some of the things I’ve got out, both read and unread:

Diary of a Wartime Affair by Doreen Bates – Sarra Manning recommended this back in January and I am always up for wartime diaries.

Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson – billed as a “groundbreaking account of how Britain became the base of operations for the exiled leaders of Europe in their desperate struggle to reclaim their continent from Hitler” there was never any chance I wasn’t going to read this.  Also, just about every review I’ve come across has mentioned that it includes the story of John Hackett’s time being sheltered by the Dutch resistance.  His memoir of this, I Was a Stranger, was my favourite book last year so that was definitely a draw here, too.

Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre – a very readable history of the founding of the SAS.  Doubt I’ll review this in full but the founding story can be summed up as “Absolute Crackpots with Guns: A Desert Adventure.”

Fire and Fury by Randall Hansen – FANTASTIC look at the Allied bombing of Germany.  The best overall summary I’ve found, particularly in how it distinguishes between the missions of Bomber Command and their American counterparts.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck – a moderately good novel about the post-war lives of a group of women whose husbands were killed for plotting to kill Hitler.

The German War by Nicholas Stargardt – those with good memories may remember having seen this social history of Germany during WWII here several times before.  It falls into the category of “books I am too excited about to actually get around to reading in a reasonable timeline.”

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly – I will give anything Austen-related a shot.

The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn – ditto anything food-related.

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively – Excellent collection of short stories by one of my favourite writers.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – I’ve just discovered Tyler and am really enjoying her writing.  Here, she looks at the stories of several generations of a Baltimore family.

Schadenfreude: A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman – a memoir about Germany!  Do you know how few of those there are?  It’s ridiculous.  Very fun and yet still quite annoying, so much so that I will probably have to write a review about it at some point.

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak – breezily written story with an excellent gimmick: a family forced to be together for seven days at Christmas when the eldest daughter is quarantined on her return from Africa after working with victims of an epidemic.  A fun and entirely unbelievable (every melodramatic plot twist you can imagine is used) read.

The Sages of Icelanders – a mention in Michael Dirda’s Browsings reminded me how interesting these sagas are.  Always fun to dip in and out of.

Walking Away by Simon Armitage – as my walking adventures are done for the year, it’s time to read about the journeys of others.

The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop – I recently read a rather disappointing book about women’s roles at Bletchley (by Michael Smith) so am interested to see how this compares.

What did you pick up this week?