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Archive for February, 2011

Library Lust

Oh.  Oh my.  It’s just so, so pretty.  Why, why would you ever leave this room?  It even has a ladder.  What more could you want?

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Claire and Verity’s Persephone Reading Weekend is finally here – hurrah!  I’m so looking forward to reading more about Persephones both old and new from all the participating bloggers.  I was still a relatively new convert to the Persephone cult last year during the reading week and it did so much to introduce me to titles I hadn’t yet thought of trying and to increase my enjoyment of the books I was familiar with through discussions with other fans.  I’m sure this year will be every bit as engaging and enjoyable!

House-Bound by Winifred Peck was not a Persephone I’d read much about prior to purchasing it.  I knew it was set in Edinburgh (loosely fictionalized as ‘Castleburgh’ in the novel) and that it was about a woman who, unable to find domestic help during the Second World War, firmly resolves to take on these duties herself.  This all sounded quite charming to me.  The opening lines both intrigued me and put me on edge:

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairweather suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was.  Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society.

Was this going to be a novel full of unhappy housewives, women feeling stifled by their domestic chores, humourlessly moaning about their tyrannical husbands, viewing their houses as prisons rather than homes?  If so, I wanted no part in it.  Happily, House-Bound proved to be a most delightful, thoughtful, and quietly amusing book, absolutely what I was in the mood for!

Rose Fairweather, by the time we are introduced to her as a middle-age matron, has led an interesting but generally unremarkable life.  After being widowed during the First War, Rose married Stuart, her cousin’s widower and the father of her darling Mickie, who Rose had been raising alongside her own daughter Flora since his mother’s death.  It was a marriage of convenience but a relatively contented one.  It is not a life of passion but of compromise, of subdued but content emotions.  In time, a third child Tom was added to the family, the eternal philosopher and peacemaker as the other members – particularly the petulant Flora – drift further and further away from one another.  But while family dynamics and emotional encounters do eventually come to form the crux of the book, it begins simply with a woman in need of a few maids and a cook struck by the revolutionary idea of assuming their work herself in light of the wartime labour shortage.

Rose does struggle courageously with her newly assumed housekeeping tasks, as would anyone taking on the chores of three maids with no experience either cooking or cleaning!  Even with the invaluable aid of the indomitable Mrs. Childe, who trains Rose for three hours a day in the basics of housekeeping, and the irrepressible Major Hosmer, who admirably exemplifies American efficiency and straightforwardness, guiding Rose not only in her housework but in her emotional development, Rose’s life becomes consumed by her house.  She works and works but is never done, never able to live up to the standards she expects of herself, and becomes so caught up in her new concerns and new routine that she doesn’t even want to leave her house, happier to stay and work there than to venture out to volunteer meetings or social obligations, happier to live in this world of her own creating, under her control, as war drives the outside world mad.  For her, her home is as much a fortress as it is a prison, a universe she understands and controls even if she can’t quite manage it as well as she might wish.

What ‘house-bound’ really comes to mean for Rose is the emotional rather than physical isolation of the self:

More and more it seemed to her that every human being was in some sense of what she herself was literally, nowadays, house-bound, tethered inexorably to a collection of all the extinct memories, and what the Major would call inhibitions, with which they had grown up, bits of mental furniture which they dusted and inspected daily.  ‘And we all have our kitchens too,’ she thought with the erratic fancifulness of fatigue, ‘where we hash up our motives, and warm up our own opinion of ourselves, and hoard all the goods we’ve inherited or got hold of instead of wishing to share them.  And there are barriers between us all, or most of us.  Stuart couldn’t get into the Major’s house.  I’m not really at home in Stuart’s!  And as for poor Flora.  All her doors and windows are locked and shuttered, and I’ve never been inside since she was a baby.  Oh dear, oh dear, how are we all to get out?’

Her family has come to barely know one another: yes, the boys are alright, but Rose, Stuart, and Flora live so much within themselves that the others are little more than strangers.  Her resentful daughter Flora selfishly views herself as the tragic victim of her mother’s neglect, cast aside by Rose in favour of her step-brother Mickie and Rose’s husband Stuart, never openly affectionate or demonstrative, seems to have drifted further and further away until Rose has no understanding of him, of what he thinks or feels.  What the book really focuses on is the breaking down of those walls that allows Rose to see her family anew, of the revelations about the characters of those closest to Rose that are unfortunately brought about by tragic turns of events (almost too much tragedy – indeed, it stretches the imagination that so many awful things could happen so quickly in one family).

There is a strong warning though this latter part of the novel that the old conventions, the codes of conduct which required stoicism and the bottling up of emotions, the full laying of the dinner table complete with flowers and useless accoutrements every evening, have no place in the world being shaped by the on-going war.  Major Hosmer exemplifies the spirit of openness which Peck seems to imply we must strive for: the future must be bright and energetic, with no emotional baggage or pointless traditions to weight us down.  We must have the courage to face our failings, to share our thoughts and emotions rather than keep them to ourselves while pushing others away.  We must confront our fears and rise to them, however much we may rather hide from them within ourselves, alone but protected.

In terms of writing and characterization, this is a good novel but certainly not a great one.  Published in 1942, it paints a fascinating picture of mid-war life, both in terms of daily domestic life and social conventions.  However, its greatest virtue must come from its willingness to confront what Peck certainly viewed as her society’s damagingly antisocial conventions of human behaviour, the isolation of the self that leaves so many people to struggle alone just when they need the warmth of human understanding most.

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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!

I am happy to report that I seem to have shaken my reading blues.  Writing my review of Unhooked last week and working all that angst out of my system was a huge help, finally clearing my mind and allowing me to return to my every-growing pile of library books.  Time to take a break from the really depressing stuff!  Although I’m currently devoted to reading my lovely little grey books in preparation for Claire and Verity’s Persephone Reading Weekend (February 25 – 27) I know I’ll have these to enjoy once I’m done:   

 

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood
Atwood musing on debt, her topic of choice for her CBC Massey Lectures in 2008:

An investigation into the idea of debt as an ancient and central motif in religion, literature, and the structure of human societies.  By investigating how debt has informed our thinking from pre-literate times to the present day, Atwood shows that the idea of what we owe one another – in other words, “debt” – is built into the human imagination and is one of its most dynamic metaphors.   

 

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis
I couldn’t resist picking up another CBC Massey Lectures book after grabbing Payback, not when it was right there! 

A profound celebration of the wonder of human genius and spirit as brought into being by culture.

 

Made in America by Bill Bryson
While I patiently wait for my turn at At Home (good news!  I’ve moved up to position 114 in the hold queue) I thought I’d try one of Bryson’s less familiar works.  I’ve read and reread his travelogues but never tried this history of American English:

Bryson de-mythologizes his native land – explaining how a dusty desert hamlet with neither woods nor holly became Hollywood, how the Wild West wasn’t won, why Americans say ‘lootenant’ and ‘Toosday’, how Americans were eating junk food long before the word itself was cooked up – as well as exposing the true origins of the G-string, the original $64,000 question and Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame.

Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson
Reloot, first checked out many, many months ago but never started.  I do love both Ferguson and travelogues though so I’ll keep checking this out until I finally read it!

Offbeat and charming, and filled with humour, insight, and a wide array of eccentric characters, Beyond Belfast tells the story of one man’s misguided attempt at walking the entire Ulster Way: a 560-mile path that circles Northern Ireland, from the city walls of Derry to the moorland heights of the Sperrins, from the green glens of Antrim to the Mountains of Mourne.

Arranged by Catherine McKenzie
A bit of a strange pick, based solely on a positive magazine review I read while at the dentist (in Chatelaine, I think?).   Sounds light and a bit odd but I’m always up for a book about an arranged marriage!

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels – A Love Story by Ree Drummond
I know some of you have read this already with mixed results but I had to try it for myself and am quite looking forward to it.  Books by bloggers are hugely fascinating to me and I can’t resist a real-life love story.  I have to admit that I don’t follow The Pioneer Woman very closely online but I visit The Pioneer Woman Cooks section often enough to appreciate Ree’s humour and energy (and truly mouth-watering recipes).

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What to read?

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes over the weekend!  I had a wonderful celebration with my family on Saturday evening after having spent the day outside enjoying the gorgeous weather.  What could be a better way to cap off a birthday than with a feast of Indian food and a joint cake for my brother (his birthday was last Monday – yes, he’s a Valentine’s Day baby) and me?  So far, twenty five feels remarkably like twenty four but I’m definitely in a happier, healthier frame of mind than I was this time last year as a result of my move back to Vancouver.   

For everyone who wanted to know what books I got, the answer is brief: none.  My family knows me well enough to give me cash and book tokens rather than presume to pick books out for me.  I’ve already placed an Amazon order and am very much looking forward to spending some of my birthday money at Powell’s next month when I visit Portland!

The chatter about what to read for the upcoming Persephone Reading Weekend (hosted by Verity and Claire) seems to have started up and of course I had to join in!  I’d been planning to try the much anticipated Miss Buncle’s Book and to finally give Whipple a whirl with Someone at a Distance but neither seem to fit my current mood.  I’m excited to read Manja but wonder if I ought to save it for a time when there is not a deadline hanging over me and I can savour it.  Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is under serious consideration as a starting point as are House-Bound, Making Conversation, and The Winds of Heaven.  Basically, I have no idea what I’m doing.  Advice?  Are any of these particular favourites of yours?  Any of them ones you think have been under-represented on blogs and would like to see reviews of?    

Even better, what are you planning to read for Persephone Reading Weekend?  Perhaps some of your choices will help inspire me!

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Archive Raid

The Blue Pool by Augustus John

It takes discipline to remain curious; it takes work to be open to the world – but oh my friends, what noble and glorious work it is.

What Now? by Ann Patchett

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Library Lust

A special birthday edition of Library Lust: I’m twenty five today!  In honour of that, I thought I’d celebrate by posting my five favourite libraries, all previously lusted after:

from Perfect English by Ros Byam Shaw

 

credit: Alejandro Erickson

 

Eklund Stockholm New York

 

credit: Francisco Costa

 

credit: Sköna hem

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Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both by Laura Sessions Stepp is what started me on my current reading slump.  It is an impactful, enlightening book about a disturbing cultural trend that I absolutely think people should read but it was too on the nose to be anything but depressing.  Perhaps for people with more distance from the subjects it would be an easier read but as a young twenty-something who grew up in precisely the environment where the hookup culture began (among affluent, white, over-achievers at private schools or elite universities, though it is by no means confined to this group any more) it brought back all the anger I had towards my friends – male and female – who accepted and perpetuated the hookup culture and of how incredibly frustrating it was to witness the emotional turmoil and emerging cynicism brought on by these casual, careless encounters.  It was basically 269 pages of reminders of why the whole university experience was so disappointing.  Bad flashbacks to the torturous bar scene in my university town and to early mornings spent counseling my friends of both genders on their mistakes of the night before.  Yes, cheering stuff.    

As a quick introduction to the topic, here is Stepp’s definition of ‘hooking up’ (emphasis mine):

Hooking up can consist entirely of one kiss, or it can involve fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse or any combination of those things.  It can happen only once with a partner, several times during a week or over many months.  Partners may know each other well, only slightly or not at all, even after they have hooked up regularly.  A hookup often happens in a bedroom, although other places will do: dance floors, bars, bathrooms, auditoriums or any deserted room on campus.  It is frequently unplanned, though it need not be.  It can mean the start of something, the end of something or the whole of something.  Feelings are discouraged, and both partners share an understanding that either of them can walk away at any time.  (p. 24)

Sounds special, doesn’t it?  Look, I’m going to be bitter and slightly jaded throughout this entire review so consider yourself forewarned.  This is a topic that I feel passionately about and that I can’t pretend to be objective towards.  It makes me both unbearably angry and unspeakably sad.  I went to an all-girls school from the ages of twelve to eighteen.  There was no radical feminist agenda, no claims of the superiority of women over men, just a firm expectation that we would mature into confident, respectful, equal members of society.  And I think that made a huge difference to how we approached life after we graduated and what made the contrast with the other young women we encountered so upsetting.  From conversations with high school friends, it seems that biggest shock of university for most of us was trying to decipher what the female sexual script was.  Hooking up was part of that script and while we heard a lot about safe sex from our residence don and from university advisors there was never any discussion about good or meaningful sex.  It seemed right from frosh week that we were expected to be having random, drunken hook ups, as if this were a key part of the university experience not to be missed.  The drunken part is important and perhaps partially explains why the thought processes that must take place before a hook up will always escape a teetotaler like me.  Without alcohol, as Stepp notes, there would be no hook up culture:

Of the hundreds of young women I interviewed about hookup experiences, less than a half-dozen said they were sober at the time.  Some drank for the exhilarating high, others because everyone around them was drinking, others to relax and still others…to quiet the cautionary voices in their heads. (p. 115)

Stepp’s analysis of the issues that form the basis of the hook up culture were particularly resonant.  These arrangements thrive in work-hard, play-hard environments that prize achievement while discouraging emotional sincerity or attachment.  So much of the focus has shifted onto the individual and his or her personal achievements, first academic and then career-related, that these young men and women feel lost when it comes to figuring out where a spouse or partner fits in to all of these plans or how to handle a long-term relationship once it arrives.  Hook ups are easier.  They are instant gratification with no commitment.  They are an illusion – all the physical manifestations of a relationship without any of the work or emotional risk (or reward).

But this mindset has to come from somewhere and Stepp is happy to place some of the blame on the parents who have spent countless hours training their child to succeed academically, to expect her dedication and commitment to studies, sports and countless extracurricular activities, but who shy away from discussions about emotions or relationships, leaving their daughter with no expectations of how she deserves to be treated (or how she should treat her partner) in a healthy relationship: Because kids hear and participate in so few adult discussions about love, and rarely see examples of love among the adults they know, they come to believe that the sex they see around them is love (p. 180).  Neither Stepp nor I can stress how important a factor this is.  I see so many friends – particularly of divorced parents – who base their relationship fantasies on what they see on television or read about in books.  Without a real-life example in front of them, without parents who openly talk about both the struggles and rewards of long-term commitment, they seemed doom to chase after a non-existent fairy tale with the earnest belief that the perfect guy really does exist and that no one else is worthy of them.  My parents lament how many of their thirty-something colleagues – warm, intelligent men and women with so much to offer – are still single even though they admit to desperately wanting to get married.  This is why.  Part of the university experience used to be learning how to date, how to have serious relationships.  That is no longer the norm and hooking up establishes a holding pattern that people may not know how to break, even once they feel ready to.  In the words of Robert Blum at Johns Hopkins:

It’s one things to say relationships can wait when you’re twelve.  It’s something else to say ‘I’ll wait until I’m thirty to get my personal life in order.’  If you do not have experience with forming relationships earlier, your likelihood of entering into a relationship later that can sustained over time is at risk.  It’s like taking an exam assuming you’ll do well without experience in the subject, lots of studying and lots of practice.’ (p. 247)

Stepp focuses, quite rightly, on how hookups affect young women but she also gives brief insights into a few male subjects, showing how difficult these arrangements are for them emotionally.  Stepp repeatedly stresses the importance of female friendships and the emotional connections that ground girls as they flit from hookup to hookup.  Stepp’s female subjects have male friends but they never seem to be close ones, just potential hook up partners, making it presumably that much easier to objectify and use men than if they actually took the time to talk honestly with them and to discover how similarly both genders feel about the situations they find themselves in.  After moving out of residence after first year (the norm at my university), I shared a house with four old floor mates: one girl and three guys.  After living with guys for so long, seeing them fall in love and get their hearts broken, seeing them wander around in confusion after hooking up with a girl they really liked but who now ignored them, seeing them try to have relationships with girls too scared of getting hurt to ever risk opening up to even the most faithful partner, it’s difficult to imagine viewing their gender as simply and as disdainfully as these girls do.     

I loathe the hook up culture because it emblemizes the carelessness and insincerity that have become societal norms.  Sarcasm rather than wit, meaningless promises rather than honest actions, board meetings with furtive under the table text messaging rather than open discussions at family dinners.  We demean ourselves by undervaluing both our bodies and our emotions and then wonder that we feel lost and alone: welcome to your Quarterlife Crisis!  Not so long ago:

There were generally accepted rules back then about what to do and not do sexually.  These standards restricted young women more than young men, by no means a fair deal, but they at lest allowed women time and space to consider what kind of partners they wanted to love and what love should look like.  The guardrails have vanished, except among certain religious communities, and in their place is an increasingly sophisticated marketing industry pushing sex-toy workshops and T-shirts that read “Juicy” and “Cunning Linguist”. (p. 180)

What did we really establish by trading in the old conventions and timelines for this brave new world of unlimited options and undefined but overwhelming (and increasingly unrealistic and unfulfilling) expectations?

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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!

I’m having a lot of trouble settling down to a book, any book, these days.  Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire novels have proved the only exceptions but even with these it seems there can be too much of a good thing.  Even a visit to the library this weekend proved oddly uninteresting; no titles jumped out at me and there was none of the usual temptation to bring home more than I could carry.  The three books I did pick up are my idea of comfort reads so we’ll see how I do with them, if they can tempt me back in a reading mood.  Until then, I’m rather happily spending my spare time rewatching all my Battlestar Galactica DVDs.  Because I’m a geek and this is the sort of thing I do. 

The Blythes Are Quoted by L.M. Montgomery
From Grades Three to Five my main purpose in life was read as much of L.M. Montgomery’s works as possible.  Truly.  All those short stories that are almost identical?  Read them.  Several times.  From what I understand, The Road to Yesterday was an abridged version of this book but, for the sake of thoroughness, I feel I ought to read this too.  

Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse
Wodehouse!  Psmith!  What could be more delightful?

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill
Having recently finished Dearest Vicky, Darling Fritz (which I enjoyed, depressing as their lives may have been, but am still working up the energy to properly review) it only felt right to check out this volume on Vicky’s rather more famous parents, particularly as it’s been on my TBR list since 2009.

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Archive Raid

The Reader by Frank W. Benson

Specially selected for Valentine’s Day:

I think reading at the very least intensified my hesitation to plunge headfirst into the heterosexual-female plot that culminates in marriage and children.  Shy types like me tend to be drawn to solitary activities like reading, but reading also bolstered my predilection for solitude.  I hated dating.  Given the choice, I’d always opt for staying home and reading a book rather than going out to a bar or sitting winsomely on the ‘Rocky’ steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a favourite Sunday-afternoon pickup spot during the years I lived in Philadelphia.  “Mr. Wonderful isn’t just going to knock on the door,” a girlfriend said, chiding me.  “Why not?” I thought.  That’s the way people often meet in books – effortlessly, without guile or strategizing…however all of these literary heroines were created by mediocre looking but brilliant single women who were, undoubtedly, spinning out for their own comfort a fairy-tale fantasy of being chosen by Prince Charming.

 – Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan (p. 95)

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Library Lust

I love bookshelves in hallways or stairwells.  It’s such a good use of dead space and makes the area so much more interesting.  Of course, I’m sure I’d get distracted on simple trips going up and down the stairs if this was my home!

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