Library 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.
War Diaries, 1939 -1945 by Astrid Lindgren – have you ever known me to turn down a volume of wartime diaries? No, no you have not. The added appeal of these is, of course, that they are by the creator of Pippi Longstocking. I haven’t read widely about what life was like in Sweden during the war so I’m very interested to get a new perspective.
Squirrel Pie by Elisabeth Luard – I first came across this a few months ago at my local bookstore and was intrigued but not enough to purchase it. Library to the rescue! Sounds like a wonderful cross of my two favourite topics: travel and food writing.
The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski – I saw this mentioned somewhere recently and then found it while browsing in the library last week. Kismet! It’s a fascinating-looking social history of 20th Century women’s fashion in American.
My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl – freshly finished with Reichl’s excellent memoir Tender at the Bone, I’ve turned to this recent cookbook. I checked it out a while back, shortly after it first came out, but never had a chance to try any of the recipes. Hoping to remedy that this time.
Where the Peacocks Sing by Alison Singh Gee – my weakness for memoirs about cross-cultural romances continues.
Italian Neighbours by Tim Parks – I’m tired of winter and snow and work so a little literary escape to Italy sounds quite perfect right about now.
What did you pick up this week?
There are plenty of things to be excited about in 2017 and, for me, one of those things is this lovely pile of books I accumulated just as 2016 ended. None of these actually made it under the tree at Christmas as they were delayed in transit but it was rather nice to get Christmas presents the week after Christmas – a way to prolong the holiday, if you will. And they were certainly worth waiting for.
Here’s what I got:
Miss Bunting, Marling Hall and The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell – the most recent Thirkell reissues from Virago. All three are favourites but I’m particularly delighted to finally have my own copy of The Headmistress – I think it’s the best of Thirkell’s novels.
The Marches by Rory Stewart – I love Stewart’s writing and to say I’ve been looking forward to this book for years is no joke as the publication date was pushed back time and again. But now it is here and I am so looking forward to reading about the journey Stewart took with his father along the border between Scotland and England.
Dashing for the Post edited by Adam Sisman – If there is one thing I have learned over the past few years it is that you always need a little more Patrick Leigh Fermor in your life. This collection of his letters promises to be full of extraordinary anecdotes, classical allusions I will not remotely grasp, and (given that it is PLF) probably a little too much purple prose. I can’t wait.
The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding – a unique history of Germany from the 1890s to the 2010s, told through the lives of five families linked by a lake house they each lived in.
Clearly 2017 is going to be a great reading year!
At a time of year when everyone is talking of resolutions and dreaming of self-improvement, I can think of no better book to read than For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton. I picked it up on January 1st and did not put it down until late in the evening when I’d finished the last page. I needed a large box of tissues to get through it all but it is the perfect book to inspire with resolutions that truly matter. Ignore the advertisements urging you to make 2017 the year you get rich or thin or ultra-fit. Make it instead the year you become a passionate, committed, generous person. Make it the year you become more like the book’s subject, Eric Liddell:
Valorous lives like his – which must be calculated in terms of value rather than length – encourage us to make our own lives better somehow. In his case that’s because everything he did was selfless, each kind act bespoke for someone else’s benefit. He believed entirely that those to whom “much is given” are obliged to give “much in return” – and should do so without complaining about it. In adhering to this, he never demanded grand happiness or great comfort for himself. He grasped only for the things that mattered to him: worthwhile work and the care of his family. He’d once – on that hot July evening in Paris – grasped for an Olympic title as well, knowing nonetheless even as he won it that the glory of gold was nothing in his world compared to the glory of God.
For those who do not remember the film Chariots of Fire (the famously-scored 1981 Oscar-winner about British runners competing at the 1924 Paris Olympics), a brief introduction: Liddell was in his last year of a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Edinburgh when the games were run. The son of missionaries and planning to go into missionary work himself, he believed the Sabbath was a day for God and not for running. At the Paris Olympics, the events for his signatures distance – the 100 meters, both individual and relay – involved running on a Sunday. Despite pressure from the British Olympic Association and the press, he instead chose to run the 400 meter individual “only because no other replacement distance was feasible for him.” It was a distance he had little experience with but he ran it gloriously and won. It is a wonderful story but, as Hamilton makes clear, it was by no means the most dramatic or admirable episode in Liddell’s eventful life.
Eric Liddell was born in China in 1902 and died there a short – but extraordinarily full – 43 years later. His father, a missionary, and mother, a nurse, arrived there just as the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion began. The first few years of their married life were ones lived in fear, knowing how vulnerable they were: more than 250 missionaries, Hamilton reports, were killed in the conflict, along with more than 30,000 Chinese Christians. The situation in China would not noticeably improve during their lifetime or that of their second son, Eric. And yet the family was devoted to their work there.
Eric and his elder brother Rob were sent to England to attend boarding school when very young and went years without seeing the rest of their family. But despite the separation, the family remained remarkably close, all looking forward to the day when they would be reunited in China. From the age of eight or nine, Eric knew he wanted to be a teacher-missionary and follow in his father’s footsteps.
What made Liddell so inspiring throughout his life was his concern for others. Although he was deeply competitive when race time arrived, even as a very young man he took time out before races to put those around him at ease:
…there are countless anecdotes of his sportsmanship toward fellow competitors that sound a bit like the brightest boy in class allowing everyone else to copy his homework. In competition he’d lend his trowel, used to dig starting holes, to runners who lacked one. He once offered to give up the precious inside lane on the track, swapping it with the runner drawn unfavorably on the outside. On a horribly cold afternoon he donated his royal blue university blazer to a rival, freezing in only a singlet and shorts – even though it meant shivering himself. On another occasion he noticed the growing discomfort of an Indian student, utterly ignored before an event. He interrupted his own preparations to seek him out; their conversation went on until the starter called them both to the line. This was typical of Liddell. He’d engage anyone he thought was nervous or uncertain, and listen when the inexperienced sought advice on a technical aspect of sprinting. He’d share what he knew before the bang of the pistol pitted them against each other.
When success came at the Olympics in 1924, it came with countless opportunities. But rather than appear in advertisements or make paid appearances, rather than put out a book or write a newspaper column, Liddell rebuffed the offers that came his way. All except the offers to speak. Liddell had started preaching while at university, his sporting successes bringing in audiences who might otherwise shy away from religious meetings, and his Olympic success made it possible for him to pack the largest halls available. To these listeners, in an easy, conversational manner he could share his Christian belief and the virtues he believed we must all work towards each day: “patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, gentleness, and sincerity.” He believed in striving for perfection, in faith and in sport, and that there was honour in doing your best even if you didn’t achieve what you had been striving for.
With a university degree and an Olympic medal to his name, Liddell was happy to leave Scotland behind and return to the country he always considered his home: China. Here, he began his work as a science and sports teacher at the Anglo-Chinese College in Tientsin (now Tianjin). Though logically he knew the move to China had put an end to his competitive running, he continued to train and occasionally competed in smaller meets. But there would be no more Olympics for him. From now on, his life was devoted to God and China and, with time, his wife and daughters.
China in the 1920s and 1930s was a perilous place to be. The country was divided in a bitter civil war and further torn apart by the Japanese invasion. Millions died, anti-Christian feeling was high, and no place outside of the cities seemed safe. Liddell lost close friends to absolutely pointless violence and fellow missionaries were killed for their religion. Which is why, when Liddell finally was offered a rural missionary position after years at the college, the missionary society decided his wife and children could not come with him. It was work he loved, saying “I have more joy and freedom in the work that I have ever experienced before”, but the separation from his family was bitter. He could still see them when he came into town for supplies but it was hardly the partnership he and his wife had hoped for. When his wife became pregnant with their third child in 1941, they decided it was too dangerous for her and the children to remain in China and so she and their daughters left for Canada, hoping one day Eric would join them. That day never came.
Liddell lived the last years of his life in a cramped internment camp. As was typical of him, he became the most depended on member of the community, the one who would do anything and who had time for anyone. As Hamilton describes it, “Liddell was officially the math and science teacher. He was unofficially everything else.” He was particularly loved by the children at the camp, who called him “Uncle Eric”, and for whom he organized sports days – including races he would run in (with a considerable handicap, to give the other runners a chance). And it was at Weihsien camp that he reconsidered his position on the Sabbath: to help keep the children from getting into trouble on Sundays (with no other ways to channel their energy they had begun fighting), he agreed to organise sports on Sunday afternoons. This was the so-called “Continental” half-day Sabbath that the British Olympic committee had tried in vain, so many years before, to convince him made it acceptable for him to run the 100m on a Sunday. As one of the boys from the camp remembers “everything he did was for the greater good, including that”.
There were many ways to die under the Japanese during the war but Liddell’s end was not of their making: he developed a brain tumour that triggered a series of strokes. He died in early 1945, at the age of 43, surrounded by people who loved him and after a lifetime of service to others.
Hamilton has done a wonderful job telling Liddell’s story and it is one that deserves to be known. I don’t share Liddell’s faith but you do not need to in order to recognize his value and his exceptional strength of character. He was a man who was rare in his own times, who is rare still, and who should always serve as an inspiration.
2016 was an entirely adequate year for me. I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves. Well done us!
And, of course, there were lots of books. Here are the best of the best:
10. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!
9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.
8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.
7. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.” A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness. His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter. Really very wonderful and touching.
6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.
5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.
4. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.
3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.
2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.
1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish. A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.
Posted in Annual Review, Book List, E. Nesbit, Edith Nesbit, Eleanor Perényi, Eowyn Ivey, Eugenie Fraser, Furrowed Middlebrow, Guy Gavriel Kay, John Hackett, Kathleen Thompson Norris, Luisa Weiss, Mark Woods, NYRB Classics, Slightly Foxed | 22 Comments »