Archive for June, 2011

I am slowly becoming a gardener.  As a child I always helped in the garden, always weeded and watered and fertilized as directed but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started taking an active interest in gardening.  Even when all I had was my little balcony in Calgary, how exciting it was to choose my plants!  To plant and care for them!  Even dead-heading became a sacred occupation, and I picked wilted petunia blossoms off with unrivalled discipline and care, snipped off browning roses with manic zeal.

And now that I have a real garden to work in – and a climate that doesn’t feel the need to have frosts in July and August – my enthusiasm has only grown, along with my anxiety.  I read The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (a good Czech and friend of my great-grandfather and, yes, I’m bragging about that because it is pretty darn cool and I’ve relatively few connections to literary figures, aside from Alice Munro) in early June, just as the garden was coming to life and oh, what a perfect book and what a perfect time to read it!

The Gardener’s Year is a selection of humourous essays on a year in the life of a gardener.  It is very much about the gardener and his stresses and joys rather than the garden itself, which is what makes it so very enjoyable and timeless.  Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously:

…nobody knows how it happens, but it occurs strikingly often that when you step on a bed to pick up some dry twig, or to pull out a dandelion, you usually tread on a shoot of the lily or trollius; it crunches under your foot, and you sicken with horror and shame; and you take yourself for a monster under whose hooves grass will not grow.  Or with infinite care you loosen the soil in a bed, with the inevitable result that you chop with the hoe a germinating bulb, or neatly cut off with the spade the sprouts of anemones; when, horrified, you start back, you crush with your paw a primula in flower, or break the young plume of a delphinium.  The more anxiously you work, the more damage you make; only years of practice will teach you the mysteries and bold certainty of a real gardener, who treads at random, and yet tramples on nothing; or if he does, at least he doesn’t mind. (p. 51)

As June has progresses and I’ve watched unusually savage rains beat the petals off my snapdragons and cosmos and cold snaps stunt my roses, I’ve often thought back on Čapek’s gardener’s prayer (and repeated it, to little effect):

If it were of any use, every day the gardener would fall on his knees and pray somehow like this: ‘O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but, you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak it; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthemum, lavender, and the others which you in your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants – I will write their names of a bit of paper if you like – and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on spiraea, or on gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron), and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.  Amen.’ (p. 82-83)

The illustrations by Josef Čapek are no less delightful than the text, particularly the ones featuring the gardener as contortionist, hunched and bent and stretched entirely out of shape in order to service each unreachable corner of garden. 

Whether he’s lamenting the weather, lampooning the holidaying gardener’s instructions to his substitute or considering the traitorous and unpredictable nature of the garden hose, Čapek is always light-hearted, charming and, above all, affectionate.  He is able to recognize and brilliantly capture the ridiculous habits and mindsets of gardeners but he can only do it with such skill and accuracy because he is one himself and thinks as they think, feels as they feel.  Or, I suppose I should now say as a gardener, however amateur, as we think, as we feel:

Let no man think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation.  It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart. (p. 13)

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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 made another pilgrimage to Central Library over the weekend.  I love it so much.  I love making up my list in advance of going there, love consulting the map on the ground floor to determine which floors I’ll need to visit, and love running about, neatly plucking each item off the shelf before checking it off my list.  And it was a most productive trip, yielding a number of books I’ve had on my TBR list for years but have never gotten around to checking out:


Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes by Fiona MacCarthy
Fiona MacCarthy and her fellow ‘debs’ were taking part in one of the final rituals of aristocratic power. The system had been in operation almost unchanged since the eighteenth-century. It was a female rite of passage, an elaborate initiation ceremony marking the emergence of the virgin out of the schoolroom and into society at the marriageable age of seventeen. But that year, in 1958, it was drawing to a close. Under pressure to shine – not least from their mothers – the girls were somewhere between teenagers and clones of the Queen herself. Still the focus for newspaper diarists and society photographers, these young women participated in a party season stretching for months among the great houses of London and the Home Counties. Yet behind all the grandeur lay anxiety and making-do, as many families struggled to maintain the splendour of former times. Filtered through some of its most colourful and eccentric inhabitants, from Lady Caroline Lamb in the eighteenth-century to Princess Diana in the twentieth, Last Curtsey is a riveting portrait of Britain as both empire and the customs and certainties of the old order came to an end.

In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment, and Motherhood by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt
Faced with the pressure of finding true love on the edge of her fertility, Lehmann-Haupt traveled around the world and into the heart of America to explore the many new choices available to women in the twenty-first century—egg freezing, single motherhood, and instant families—while also grappling with her own ambitions, anxieties, and personal values.  A witty, poignant, and profoundly honest account of one woman’s efforts to reconcile modern love with modern life.

A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman
This does seem to be required reading among the VMC and Persephone sets and, even if it weren’t, the topic is endlessly fascinating. 

Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener by Dominique Browning
When a retaining wall in Browning’s New York suburban garden collapsed, she was forced into action. Paths of Desire is the enchanting, amusing, and moving account of making a garden.

The Gardener’s Bed Book by Richardson Wright
First published in 1929, The Gardener’s Bed-Book is a much beloved gardening classic by the renowned editor of House & Garden magazine in the 1920s and ’30s. Each of its 365 perfectly sized little essays is meant to be read in bed at night after a long day’s work, either real or imagined, in the garden. A charming and mischievously funny companion to curl up with, Wright ranges comfortably—and lyrically—from giving gardening advice to meditating on such topics as antique collecting and travel, great literature and architecture. He is an addictive delight, as memorable describing the challenges of growing plume poppies as he is the simple pleasure of hanging up the dish towel once the housework is done.

Letters from the Country by Marsha Boulton
Winner of the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour (1996).  What happens when a city woman takes up rural roots and becomes a shepherd?  Journalist and broadcaster Marsha Boulton has made the leap that so many urbanites can only fantasize about.  In this enlightening and humour collection, Boulton examines her experiences “Down on the Farm”.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson
This was on NPR’s Summer Reading List last year and I’ve been eager to read it ever since.  It sounds like the perfect summer novel, full of adventure and excitement. 

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
It’s 1959, the USSR is on the brink of utopia. Red Plenty is about a moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would outglitter Manhattan and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending. It’s history, it’s fiction. It’s a comedy of ideas, and a novel about the cost of ideas.

Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady
Everything about this book intrigues me.  Barnaby Gaunt is an orphan, spending the summer on a Canadian island with an uncle who is plotting to murder him.  How could you not want to read a book about “two ordinary children who conspire to execute an extraordinary murder- and get away with it”? 

And, finally, I went on a bit of a L.M. Montgomery kick, the combined result of having recently reread The Blue Castle and having also read Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, which, though about Laura Ingalls Wilder, did nothing so much as make me think of my own favourite childhood author:

The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly

Harvesting Thistles: The Textual Garden of L.M. Montgomery: Essays on Her Novels and Journals, edited by Mary Henley Rubio

Making Avonlea: L.M. Montgomery and Popular Culture, edited by Irene Gammel

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I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books when I was young but I didn’t live them, certainly not in the way Wendy McClure recounts in her wonderful The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.  I saved that intense experience for L.M. Montgomery’s books.  McClure may have imagined what she would do if Laura suddenly showed up in her world (befriend her and show her around, obviously) but my childhood years were spent desperately wishing I could usurp Diana Barry’s role as Anne Shirley’s bosom friend.  I clearly lacked McClure’s imagination since I never even considered the wonderful possibility of what to do if Anne ended up in my world, my fantasies focusing primarily on what I would do in hers (teaching in a one room school house sounded hugely appealing).  All this to say, I have the literary fan girl background to understand McClure’s on-going fascination with the books that were such a large part of her childhood and her grown-up attempts to recreate ‘Laura World’, complete with hand-churned butter, hand-ground wheat, and pilgrimages to Ingalls and Wilder homes immortalized in the books. 

Even in elementary school, I loved learning biographical information about my favourite authors.  This lead to a.) my infamous argument with the librarians about why I wasn’t allowed to take out adult biographies at the age of ten and b.) a series of themed oral presentations given to my elementary school class, focusing on my female heroes (primarily authors like L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder but eventually stretched to include Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale, among others) that probably I alone remember fondly.  Almost as soon as I started reading Wilder’s books, I wanted to know more about her life.  Laura World, for me, was never really real but that wasn’t a problem.  Even then, truth seemed better, richer, than fiction.  It was somehow reassuring to know even before I finished the series how Laura and Almanzo’s lives turned out.  For McClure however, Laura World seemed very real throughout her childhood and it wasn’t until she began this project as an adult that she appears to have started reading about the real woman behind the fictional Laura. 

Strangely, I found McClure’s experiments at doing things the way Laura or ‘Ma’ would have done them as described in the books (churning butter, grinding flour, all the little domestic chores that seemed so exotic and appealing to my nine-year-old self) the least interesting parts of the book.  Except when McClure and her partner Chris show up for a weekend of homesteading demonstrations and find themselves surrounded by religious, End Days survivalists.  That could hardly fail to be entertaining.  What I really did enjoy were her trips to Laura sites and her exchanges with and commentary on the other fans, seeing how people view the real world of a woman they believe they know from her fictional books or, better yet, a cloyingly sweet television show.  I’ve never actually watched the television show, so I couldn’t really sympathize with its fans when McClure came across them but I loved hearing about them nonetheless.  I loved all the pop culture tidbits (there is in fact a blog called “WTF Little House on the Prairie” that recaps the more outrageous television episodes) and McClure’s encounters with fervid Christian fans praising the books’ values shouldn’t really have surprised me but, yeah, they kind of did.  As McClure notes, it’s strange to see books you hold dear being used or viewed in a way you have never, in all your readings of them, considered.  I also really appreciated McClure’s attention toRose Wilder Lane– not necessarily a nice woman (or daughter) but certainly an interesting one, particularly memorable for encouraging and working with her mother on the books.

Everyone has their favourite books in any series, particularly a series like this that you reread countless times as a child, getting to the point where you just skip the books or sections you don’t like in order to concentrate on those you do.  I was no exception.  Right from the start, These Happy Golden Years was my favourite (followed very, very closely by The Long Winter).  Honestly, I never really liked the early books that McClure seems to adore.  Everything was too episodic and I never felt like the plot was building up to anything interesting.  The little details of pioneer life were interesting but, considering that most of my reading materials at that age were novels focusing on settling the frontier, not enough to sustain my interest.  I liked Mary more than Laura for an alarming length of time (interesting note: the books used to be referred to as the Mary and Laura books, rather than simply the Laura books as is common these days).  But as Laura grew up, as a coming-of-age narrative started to emerge, my interest was peaked.  (And The Long Winter is just thrilling, even though I spend most of it wanting to smack Ma and Pa for being so ill-prepared – I haven’t entirely forgiven them for surviving that winter, actually.  My sense of justice was deeply offended.)  So I was interested to read McClure’s opinion of fans like me who prefer These Happy Golden Years.  The parts she loves about it are the parts I love too and though I wouldn’t necessarily say I found Laura and Almanzo’s courtship ‘enchanting’ I definitely found it satisfying:    

It seems like there are two different kinds of Little House fans: those who claim their favourite book is These Happy Golden Years and those, like me, who don’t.  To be sure, I like the book, in which Laura embarks upon a slow, subdued courtship with Almanzo Wilder and marries him at the end.  But I love the other parts more – Laura’s stint teaching school out at the miserable settlement where she boards with crazed knife-waving Mrs Brewster; the treacherous ride home with Almanzo where both she and the horses risk freezing to death; the terrible and surreal summer storm they encounter on one of their buggy rides.  I get the sense that other people find Laura and Almanzo’s romance more enchanting than I do.  Almanzo’s a great guy and all, but he’s the inevitable guy, biding his time between blizzards and school terms, waiting for the engine of the book’s narrative to slowly wind down to the happy golden ending with the brand-new house with the fancy plastered walls and its pantry drawers full of silverware.  (Well, okay, I really like the part where she gets to have that pantry.)  But somehow there’s a feeling that the world gets smaller, narrowing down to the view out the front door where Laura and Almanzo sit at the very end of the book. 

Really, it’s just wonderful to read McClure’s thoughts on all of the books and to be able to instantly recognize what she is talking about even after all these years.  How could I have ever forgotten Laura’s brand new pantry, with its nifty little drawers for flour and sugar?  Who didn’t want that?  And what reader, what girl at least, didn’t find Farmer Boy the least interesting of the books on her first reading?  This wasn’t Laura World!  How boring the prosperous Wilders seemed compared to the always-on-the-move Ingallses.  But looking at it as an adult, looking at it with full knowledge of how Laura’s life turned out, how much she and Almanzo struggled, McClure gains a new perspective on the least-loved book in the series:

With all its over-the-top dinner scenes and constant allusions to the Wilder family’s good fortune, literal and otherwise, Farmer Boy wasn’t really the smug when-I-was-your-age sermon I’d originally made it out to be, but more a wistful dream conjured up by a woman who’d spent much of her life enduring deprivation.  It was a love letter to the original promise of success and prosperity that had so eluded her husband in his adulthood, when, like countless other settlers, he’d found out the hard way that the farming methods from back East were no match from the dry land of the Dakota territory. 

I feel an overwhelming need to reread some of the books now.  Not all of them – I still can’t bring myself to go back to the earliest ones – but certainly The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years and maybe even Farmer Boy, to make up for all the times I skipped it when rereading the series as a child.  McClure has crafted a wonderful, personal memoir that is fond without being sentimental and always entertaining.  Reading this book felt like rereading the whole series with a good, equally-obsessed friend who was eager to pour over all the details and unashamed to share all her fantastic Laura World fantasies (the kind I had but would have never dared reveal to my own friends, had any of them actually read the books).  It was the kind of reading experience I always wanted to have as a child but I’m thrilled and probably far more appreciative to have had it now as an adult.

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Archive Raid

Reading in Bed by Hermann Fenner-Behmer

I worry sometimes that it’s shallow to want to read about your own life and your own world all the time, but there’s always something pleasing and comforting about coming across a character or a situation you think you already know; it’s a validation of your experience.
So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson

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Library Lust

credit: unknown

How wonderful is this room?  I love almost everything about it, save for the mirror overtop the fireplace.  Lots of bookshelves and books, lots of natural light, and lots of white furniture: such a simple but fantastic formula for a great room.  The only thing it is missing to make it my perfect reading room is a nice table or desk but even I will admit that there isn’t space here for one.

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Friday Potpourri

UBC Rose Garden (photograph credit unknown)

Margaret Atwood: What I ReadThe question that is facing everybody is: how can we find out what we want to read? Sometimes it’s via friends–they say “you really have to read this.” Sometimes you pick up a book online and sometimes you read a review that makes the thing sound irresistible. Sometimes you read a review that’s so bad that you feel you just have to read the book, because you really can’t believe anything can be that bad. 

How to Give Away Your Books Giving books away: for the hoarders among us, it’s impossible, but for a lot of us, myself included, it’s rarely some kind of artistic or existential statement. If I think too deeply about the books I’m giving away, I have a sort of crisis. It’s got to be like ripping off a band-aid: I give them away quickly, and then I try to forget that I ever owned them.

Dear Book Lover: Literature that Grabs HoldHow I miss being grabbed by a line of a story and transported to another place and time. Do you think it’s only a function of age and maturity? Are the days of being bewitched by a story gone forever? If they’re not, who’s writing those stories?

Nancy Pearl Presents 10 Terrific Summer Reads –  Reading lists are wonderful.  Summer reading lists are magical.  And a summer reading list from Nancy Pearl?  Now that’s just completely irresistible.

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One of the strangest discoveries I’ve made since I started blogging is just how many people adore The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  For years, I’ve discarded The Blue Castle as one of Montgomery’s ‘other’ novels.  Like everything Montgomery wrote, I’ve read it a few times and mentally classed it somewhere above the endless volumes of repetitive short stories but far, far below the more memorable Anne and Emily books – on par with the forgettable Kilmeny of the Orchard, really.  But with both Eva and Rachel counting themselves as fans, I knew I had to reread it again as an adult and give it another chance.

The Blue Castle is the story of twenty-nine year old spinster Valancy Stirling, who has spent her entire life living under her family’s thumb in ruralOntario until, after visiting the doctor after experiencing chest pains, she receives word that she has only a year to live.  Her unexpected death sentence gives Valancy the confidence to rebel against her family.  She shocks them all by talking back, standing up for herself, and finally moving out to go and care for an ill neighbour, the daughter of the town drunk who herself had been ostracized for bearing an illegitimate child.  From there, Valancy’s acts of rebellion only increase, culminating in her proposing marriage to Barney Snaith, another unconventional local, hoping to grasp at least some happiness in her remaining months.  Living with him on his Muskoka island, she finally finds her dream home, theBlueCastle she spent all those long, lonely years building up in her head.      

To be completely honest, I opened this half hoping to fall in love with it, half hoping to find it exactly as I remembered.  My actual reaction to it fell somewhere in between.  The first part of the novel where we are introduced to Valancy, learn of her diagnosis and witness her rebellion is quite wonderful.  Sharp and funny, it is entertaining and ageless, some ofMontgomery’s best work.  But it also vividly captures Valancy’s sense of captivity and isolation, the smallness of her life and her world:

Reality pressed on her too hardly, barking at her heels like a maddening little dog.  She was twenty-nine, lonely, undesired, ill-favoured – the only homely girl in a handsome clan, with no past and no future.  As far as she could look back, life was drab and colourless, with not one single crimson or purple spot anywhere.  As far as she could look forward it seemed certain to be just the same until she was nothing but a solitary, little withered leaf clinging to a wintry bough.  The moment when a woman realises that she has nothing to live for – neither love, duty, purpose nor hope – holds for her the bitterness of death. 

And then she marries Barney (who was clearly John Foster so why even bother to pretend otherwise for so much of the novel and, yes, he really should be ashamed of those awful descriptive passages and edicts) and moves into her Blue Castle and that is where the book looses me.  Blissful happy endings are fine, to be encouraged even, but devoting so much time to domestic details (and in, it must be said, a rather sappy manner – Barney’s pet name for Valancy is ‘Moonlight’, need I really say more?) rather does away with any sympathy I might once have felt for the couple.  Things become a little too formulaic, too much like one of the magazine stories a teenaged Anne or Emily might have written.  For a book that had been so promisingly original at the beginning, it was a let-down. 

Rereading this definitely gave me a greater appreciation for it, particularly now that I’m of an age where I can identify with Valancy’s situation at the beginning of the novel, but it certainly has not become one of my true favourites.  Worth recommending, without a doubt, but not about to join in my annual rereading cycle of some of Montgomery’s other works.  I must also admit that I had to borrow this from the library since my own childhood copy is languishing in storage.  The cover illustration (not pictured here – I couldn’t find it anywhere online) was particularly vile, portraying Valancy as a sort-of undernourished, puckish ingenue.  Oh the indignity of it!  It did have some entertaining illustrations within the book though, which, in retrospect, I should have probably photographed to share with you all before I returned it to the library.  Sorry for that oversight!

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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!

As I mentioned yesterday, my reading of late has been a little unbalanced, tilting towards light romantic fiction while my other library books languish in an increasingly dusty pile.  It happens, however it does not prevent me from checking out my usual variety of titles.  If my reading mood does change soon, at least I’ll have lots of other options to turn to!

Fair Shares for All: A Memoir of Family and Food by John Haney
I continue to find memories by foodies irresistible. 

Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts: Delightful Treats and Games from Classic Children’s Books by Jane Brocket
This is worth checking out for the illustrations alone, never mind all the wonderful memories of childhood reading it brings up.  Brocket’s prescription for how to “Enjoy a Dark and Stormy Night” with A Wrinkle in Time as inspiration is particularly alluring. 

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Howard was one of the authors Susan Hill interested me in while I was reading Howards End is on the Landing and where better to start than with the first book in her Cazalets series?  Looks like perfect summer reading material. 

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley
Eva recommended Kearsley to me yesterday and, low and behold, this was at my local library when I popped by that afternoon. 

Otherwise by Farley Mowat
A memoir of the years between 1937 and the autumn of 1948 that tells the story of the events that forged the writer and activist. (McClelland & Stewart). 

Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel by Sebastian Faulks
I must be upfront and admit that I don’t plan to read this all the way through, but how could I resist any volume that contains essays on both Becky Sharp and Emma Woodhouse? 


My frenzied read/rereading of Fforde’s novels continues:

Wedding Season by Katie Fforde

Stately Pursuits by Katie Fforde

Flora’s Lot by Katie Fforde

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I have fallen down the rabbit hole into the addictive world of light romantic fiction.  Again.  This happens to me every few months when, no matter how many wonderful books I have out from the library, no matter how many months I have waited to read them, all I want to do is curl up with light novels featuring a twenty-something heroine, a well-matched hero and a happy ending.  I contented myself with Eva Ibbotson novels in the fall and early winter and have now fallen back on the ever-dependable Katie Fforde, racing through Love Letters, A Perfect Proposal, Flora’s Lot and Stately Pursuits over the last few days.  I’m not sure if this counts as simple escapism anymore or whether it has spilled over into desperate-flight-from-reality territory.

These are the books I have to hide from my family, my mother in particular who, if she ever spots me with one, will roll her eyes endlessly and explain – slowly, for my clearly addle minded benefit – that reading such fantasies is clearly a waste of my time and will only create entirely unrealistic expectations which have no basis in reality when I would be much better served by focusing on improving my self in various ways.  And yes, I have to admit I can see her point.  Novel reading can be dangerous, particularly when it is this kind of novel.  It can make you believe that all you need to achieve perfect career and personal happiness is a can-do attitude, a conveniently-timed relocation (preferably to an unspeakably idyllic abode in the countryside), and a inspiringly confident best friend.  All this and suddenly your life will come together perfectly, bringing you riches, the respect of friends and family, and your dream man.  It is a fantasy I love to escape into but I know it bears little resemblance to reality.  Well, most of the time I know.  There’s just a tiny bit of me that hopes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that yes, maybe sometimes it does work that way. 

When I was young, my maternal grandmother, a devoted reader, did her best to influence my reading habits and, when my reading material appeared to be a little too varied, to shame me into giving up the low-brow titles that had crept into my library.  Even my beloved L.M. Montgomery novels came under fire in these attempted purges though, admittedly, the bulk of her focus was on the second-hand Babysitter Club andSweetValleynovels I used to trade old my novels in for at a local used bookstore.  I worked very hard to stand up for the right to read whatever I wanted even though opposing my adored grandmother was the most terrifying thing I could imagine at that age.  She relented, but made it clear that I was rotting my brain by reading such inferior filth.  It is not really surprising then that for a few years I myself became a ridiculous book snob.  If it had a pink cover, I would not go near it.  If it was on a bestseller list, I would not touch it.  If it had the Oprah mark of approval, all it earned from me was a sneer.  Oh yes, I was delightful and not at all annoying as an adolescent. 

But then something changed, though for the life of me I can’t remember what.  All I know is that by seventeen I was happy to share chick lit novels brought along by other girls on road trips to weekend regattas, to attempt the fantasy novels my brother’s friends loved, and even, several years later, to try a romance novel, though the shame of even picking one off the very-centrally located library rack just about did me in, so certain was I that everyone in the library was staring at me and passing judgement.  To be honest, I still feel this way sometimes but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that embarrassment is a pretty weak excuse for not doing something.

Once I started blogging, my reading prejudices reduced even further.  I may never learn to love graphic novels, but I’ve now read some for myself and enjoyed them.  I may never become the kind of reader who keeps Harlequin afloat with weekly purchases, but I’ve learned to enjoy a few historical romance authors’ works (Mary Balogh and Lauren Willig in particular).  I’ve tried Neil Gaiman and Sarah Addison Allen, Orson Scott Card and Angela Carter – all authors I would have never have attempted without the encouragement of other readers.  I may not have always had huge successes with these reading adventures, but they definitely broadened my perspective and I hope they will continue to do so.

It is strange that the books I get the most comfort from these days, be they by Georgette Heyer, Katie Fforde, Eva Ibbotson or any other light romance writer, are books that I turned my nose up at so violently only a few years ago.  My prejudice against them lasted far longer than any of my other snobbish inclinations, right up until the last few years.  I had this mental image of the kind of women who read these books as either mindless housewives or desperate old maids, locked up with their books and their cats.  And there is nothing I am more afraid of in life than becoming one of those old maids – and not just because I hate cats, which seem to be a required accessory.  I read these books because they entertain me and make me happy and because, logically, I know that there is no single ‘type’ of reader for these books, not given their massive popularity.  But then my mother spots me with one of these books, reminds me that I am twenty-five years old and alone, and that the only one of those things that is going to change if I keep reading those books is my age, and the image of the old maid and her cats surges back into my mind.  But it is a vicious circle: the more my mother chides me for reading, the more I want the comfort and escapism books provide.   

I don’t really know how to conclude this.  As yet, there clearly is no conclusion for me.  I just (just!  Ha!) want my life to be a little more novel-esque – any meaningful plot development, any new characters, any romance would be an improvement over its current trajectory – but freeze when it comes to making any changes that would lead to such progress.  So, sometimes, I read instead, as a substitute for having new experiences of my own.  And I kind of hate that about myself.

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Archive Raid

Jeune Femme Lisant dans un Interieur by Henri Lebasque

I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.  They will wait for me till the end of my days.
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

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