Archive for August, 2011

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 week from now I will be on a plane, headed for Prague.  So, of course, I quite logically decided to check out books that I desperately wish to read but have no hope of finishing before I leave.  All of these are from the university library and I’m still a bit dazzled by the access it has given me to titles I have long wanted to read, like The Rector’s Daughter, but have been unable to track down.  Even though I won’t finish all of these before I leave, there is certainly comfort in having now seen them for myself and in knowing that they will all still be available to me when I come back.

The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor
This is one of those Virago titles that seems impossible to escape, with people praising it online, in books, and in newspapers.  It was one of the first books I added to my TBR list after I started blogging in early 2010 and now, finally, I’ve got my hands on a copy!

The New House by Lettice Cooper
Almost the first thing I did after gaining access to the university library was cross reference its catalogue against the Persephone list.  I know almost nothing about this book but such is my faith in Persephone that I picked it up and am intrigued to try it.

Ayala’s Angels by Anthony Trollope
Trollope!  Except the edition I have (not the one pictured) is tiny, about half the size of a normal book and I’m finding the smallness of the print incredibly difficult.  I can see it clearly enough but it’s just too stressful to focus for long periods of time on such tiny font.  I may have to set this aside until I can find a better edition. Summer in the Country by Edith Templeton
I knew absolutely nothing about this book or this author when I stumbled across this in the stacks.  But I saw that it was a Hogarth Press book and anything that promises a country setting will earn a second glance from me.  And with that second glance I discovered that the countryside in question is not in England but Bohemia.  How providential since, as I mentioned, I’ll be there this time next week! 

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
Okay, this Persephone I do know something about (unlike The New House) and was thrilled when I discovered the university had a copy (though their copy is a first edition, not the Persephone one pictured).  I started reading it immediately and am loving it. 

A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild
My only experience with Streatfeild so far has been Saplings, which I found promising but ultimately forgettable (and which I will one day get around to reviewing properly).  But I did like her writing style and am interested to read more of her work, starting with this autobiographical novel, the first of three volumes about her childhood.

What did you get this week?

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As much as I love discovering forgotten and neglected books, sometimes the fact that they are so very obscure when there is no earthly reason they should be makes me incredibly frustrated.  Such is the case with Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham.  Published in 1944, the book not only won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction (Graham’s second – and she was only 31) but it was also the first Canadian novel to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list.  And yet I had never heard of it or Graham before this June, when I stumbled across it while making up my booklist for the Canadian Book Challenge V, and I’m willing to guess that most of you hadn’t either.

Taking place in Montreal over the summer of 1942, Earth and High Heaven details the relationship of Erica Drake, a twenty-eight year old editor of the newspaper’s women’s section, and Marc Reiser, a thirty-three year old lawyer.  Meeting at a party at the Drake’s house, there is immediate interest on both sides but Erica is from an established Anglo family while Marc is Jewish, distinctions which certainly mattered in 1940s Montreal.  The novel is the story of how their relationship progresses in the face of their families’ objections and their own prejudices.

Erica’s family immediately discourages her interest in Marc, even before the two make contact again after their first meeting (admittedly, this takes them a while as both are very conscious of the issues confronting them).  The Drakes’ protests, while not the violent or hate-filled rants polluting Germany at the time, are of a more common, insidious form of racism, the kind found among those who consider themselves tolerant, well-educated and liberal.  There is a concern about the lack of shared culture and beliefs, of different values and aims, and the knowledge that, if married, the pair would not fit easily into either of the social spheres from which they came:

‘I don’t want my daughter to go through life neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring, living in a kind of no man’s land where half the people you know ill never accept him, and half the people he knows will never accept you.  I don’t want a son-in-law who’ll be an embarrassment to our friends, a son-in-law who can’t be put up at my club and who can’t go with us to places where we’ve gone all our lives.  I don’t want a son-in-law whom I’ll have to apologize for, and explain, and have to hear insulted indirectly unless I can remember to warn people off first.’

The Grants’ arguments have nothing to do with Marc himself – they refuse to meet him – but with the exile he represents for Erica, the stigma that an alliance with him would attach to her.  Marriage, both sets of parents say, is difficult enough without bringing in these kinds of stresses, stresses which Erica and Marc can do nothing to alleviate.  As Mr Reiser tells Marc,

‘You think you could compromise and somehow you’d manage, but sooner or later you’d find out that you can go just so far and no farther.  You’d get sick of compromising, and so would she, and some day you’d wake up and realise that it wasn’t a question of compromising on little things any more, but of compromising yourself.  And you couldn’t do it, neither of you could do it.  Nobody can do it.’

Erica’s own racism colours her views, even after she has fallen in love with Marc.  To her, Marc is simply Marc.  He is an entirely unique and fascinating person who happens to be Jewish.  But she still seems to think of him as the exception.  Her racism is unconscious, which she realises when listening to Marc describing his brother David and finds herself waiting to hear some sort of defining Jewish characteristic in his description, surprised by her surprise that David sounds just like any Gentile:

Evidentially it was not going to be anything like as easy as she had thought; you could not rid yourself of layer upon layer of prejudice and preconceived ideas all in one moment and by one overwhelming effort of will.  During the past three weeks she had become conscious of her own reactions, but that was as far as she had got.  The reactions themselves remained to be dealt with.

She had counted too much on the fact that her prejudices were relatively mild and her preconceived ideas largely unstated…

Erica is a much more forceful presence in the novel than Marc.  Marc is rather resigned, beaten down by the world and himself.  And yet he is still interesting and quietly competent and forceful, despite this rather melancholy description of him:

There was a lurking bewilderment in his eyes, as though, in spite of all his common sense and most of his experience of living, he still expected things to turn out better than they usually did.

Above all, when that smile went out like a light, his appalling vulnerability became evident, and you began to realise how much strain and effort had gone into the negative and fundamentally uncreative task of sheer resistance – resistance against the general conspiracy among the great majority of people he met to drive him back into himself, to dam up so many of his natural outlets, to tell him what he was and finally, to force him to abide by the definition.

I found Erica incredibly sympathetic and appealing.  At twenty-eight, she has a successful career and is generally respected and admired.  But she has no particular interest in working, despite having a talent for it, only having started at the newspaper after her fiancé died when she was twenty-one.  What she wants most is a family of her own, though her life seems to have been remarkably romance free prior to the arrival of Marc.  But most importantly, she has an incredibly close bond with her father, Charles.  They are confidents and best friends, as well as father and daughter.  She brings out the best in him and, we see as the novel progresses, the worst.  The violence of Charles’ reaction to Marc has more to do with his terror of losing the person he loves most than with any deeply held anti-Semitic beliefs.  The fight scenes between him and Erica are harshly realistic and almost unspeakably cruel – no holds are barred and they each know just where to strike to make it hurt the most. 

Graham’s dialogue among Erica’s coworkers was equally well-written, though significantly lighter and quite humourous, reading like something straight out of a screwball comedy.  These moments of levity blended well with the otherwise serious tone of the book, since even in the office serious topics are never far off, with the war never far from peoples’ minds.  It is always fascinating to read books written and published during the war that deal with issues related to it and Graham touches on almost anything you can think of.  Anti-Semitism, clearly, is the main issue discussed, with Marc’s insistence that racism in North American has gotten significantly worse over the past decade, that even as people were ignoring Hitler’s militaristic aims they were listening and sympathizing with his racial slurs.  But there is also much said about French-Canadians and their attitudes towards the war and in Miriam, Erica’s younger, divorced sister just arrived in Montreal after years in London, we see the effect of witnessing the war up close and the way the first-hand knowledge of death has made her pursue physical passion at the expense of emotional love and intimacy. 

The entire time I was reading this, I kept thinking how Persephone-like it felt in tone, quality and themes.  And, really, could there be higher praise than that?

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Another sunny weekend, another day spent cavorting about like a tourist, brand new camera in hand.  Can you tell I’m happy to be back in Vancouver?  I adore this city and am determined to get my fill of it before I head off on my European adventure (and goodness knows I’ll be too busy next weekend packing and freaking out over last minute details to do much wandering about just for the fun of it). 

Sunday’s excursion was to the Stanley Park seawall, a pedestrian and cyclist path that runs along the waterfront perimeter of the park.  It is always busy, even in August when most of the city is empty, full of both locals and tourists, walking, running, rollerblading and cycling.  So much of the fun of walking it (the section we covered is just under 9km) is not just admiring the familiar, beautiful scenery but trying to figure out where everyone else is from.  There were lots of Germans, Brits, Aussies, and French tourists out this morning while we were there, with a few Russians thrown in for good measure.  I was also able to admire their tourist fashions, always a practical concern when trying to figure out what to pack for my own trip. 

Here are a few shots from the walk:

Just starting out, admiring the Vancouver Rowing Club and the Coal Harbour marina

Looking across to the downtown

"Girl in a Wet Suit"

Siwash Rock

English Bay

Fountain at Lost Lagoon

I read nothing at all, all weekend, and certainly hope to do better during the week but what a lovely weekend it was!

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Mountains of Books

Truly stunning amounts of books (by my standards anyway) have entered my home over the past three or four months and I’ve neglected to mention their arrivals.  But that just means I get to share them now all at once and awe you all with volume, if not variety. 

High up on the list of things I learned about myself this summer is that I love Julia Quinn’s Regency romance novels.  Unfortunately, my library either doesn’t have many or doesn’t catalogue them (they don’t assign full catalogue information to all their trade paperbacks, which is all sorts of inconvenient) so I was forced (yes, forced, I tell you!) to purchase them for myself.  My first reaction was to try and search them out in local used bookstores but they could not be found anywhere.  Most of these were bought used online (I think three of them were purchased new) and I chose to go with the UK, chick-lit-esque covers rather than the US hardcore romance novel-style ones, which are both ugly and do not do justice to the character-driven romances Quinn writes.  I read them all, usually within a day or two of arrival (my postman, delivering books almost daily for a while there, grew to hate me), and regret nothing. 

I purchases these four Oxford World’s Classics editions of Gaskell ages and ages ago – possibly as far back as May, certainly no later than June.  Since reading Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Gaskell, I’m only more excited to read these.

It is possible that I let my enthusiasm for Trollope on the strength of having read only one of his novels run a little wild on Amazon.  And there are still more in the mail.  But I love these Oxford World’s Classics editions and I know they’re reissuing the Palliser novels with covers that, I think, are far less appealing, so obviously I had to act now.  And get a lot of other titles while I was at it. 

Certainly the oldest titles in my library, these are also the newest additions, just purchased on Saturday morning.  I had a credit at my favourite local (new) bookstore and had been considering these editions for some time and today all the stars aligned and here we are.  I am also always happy to add anything by Alberto Manguel to my library. 

Another useful store credit was used to purchase these two lovely Thirkells, this time at my favourite local (used) bookstore.  It is difficult to find any Thirkell in these parts, nevermind editions in good condition, so I was quite pleased with these (and, as is always the case with Thirkell, excited to read them).

My shelves may now be groaning under the weight of these new additions, but I am convinced they are happy cries of joy rather than a sign that the shelf is about to collapse.  And goodness only knows what they will do when I (hopefully) come back with yards of books after my visit to London…

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Library Lust

photo credit: Keith Scott Morton

Another bedroom as library (or should that be library as bedroom?).  The only features I’m not quite sure about here are the framed prints hung on the shelves, in front of the books.  Usually, I adore this look and, in my experience, it doesn’t really make it that difficult to get at the books, but I just think it’s a bit too busy in this case.  But everything else is perfect.  A blue and white room with books?  Heaven.

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Friday Potpourri

credit: House & Home

Important planning update: after reading Sakura’s thoughts on afternoon tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury, I am now desperately trying to figure out how I can fit in a visit while I’m in London.  It would seem to make for a perfect afternoon if paired with a trip to Persephone Books.

Boys and Reading – Is There Any Hope?…boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.

20 Celebrities with Stunning Home Libraries – when is a photo gallery of libraries ever unwelcome?  Nigella Lawson’s is my particular favourite.

Three Books, Two Centuries, and One English Regency – Stephanie Barron picks three books that, for her, best represent the nine years of the English Regency (1811-1820).

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When I started to read The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant, the first two novels in Oliphant’s “Chronicles of Carlingford”, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d never read anything by Oliphant before and had really heard very little about her.  I’d heard her work compared to that of Gaskell and Trollope and, with such praise, thought I’d best try her for myself.  After all, I love domestic novels about village life.  Surely she would be a perfect fit with my usual reading?  In theory: yes.  In practice: not quite.

The Rector is a rather somber, instructive little story (at less than 40 pages in the VMC edition, I can hardly call it a novel) whose style and occasional bursts of energy and humour made me very hopeful indeed that I could come to like Mrs. Oliphant.  Mr Proctor, the new rector, is a gentleman of fifty who has been cloistered in a university college for the past thirteen years and is singularly unsuited for the realities of his new position.  He is completely ill-at-ease with anyone other than his delightful old mother, a woman who has embarked on her second youth with great determination:

His mother was, let us say, a hundred years or so younger than the Rector…Mr Proctor was middle-aged, and preoccupied by right of his years; but his mother had long ago got over that stage of life.  She was at that point when some energetic natures, having got to the bottom of the hill, seem to make a fresh start and reascend.

To his credit, Mr Proctor took up the position of rector in order to provide his mother with company and a comfortable home in her final years.  Mrs Proctor is as socialable as her son is introverted, as forthright as he is timid.  What an excellent heroine she would have made!  The kind but inept Mr Proctor feels his shortcomings deeply and, miserable after his first true failure in his position (when he proves unable to counsel and comfort a dying woman and must step aside in favour of those who, apparently effortlessly, are able to succeed where he did not), he returns to his old college and the security it offers.  But, the narrator reveals, even there he is not happy, knowing that he is taking the coward’s way out of a difficult situation rather than facing his limitations and forcing himself to conquer them.  The ending is pathetically saccharine (I would have been so pleased if he had just disappeared into depressed obscurity) and far too neat and hopeful.  There is a strong and off-putting moralizing tone that emerges and I find it difficult to palate.

And then there is The Doctor’s Family, which is also rather gloomy but significantly longer and, with its put-upon, self-sacrificing heroine, rather explains why Oliphant must have appealed to Virago.  It begins in a promising, if stilted way, but greatly disappointed me in the end.  Doctor Edward Rider is sullenly putting up with his wastrel elder brother Fred imposing on his home and hospitality when Fred’s unheard of wife, three children, and sister-in-law suddenly appear, come out from Australia to track him down.  Mrs Fred is just as useless and resentful as her alcoholic husband and it is her younger, energetic sister Nettie who finds them lodgings nearby, who sees to it that there is food on the table, that the landlord is paid, that the children are respectably clothed.  Nettie’s entire life revolves around this useless, thankless family.  They are her life’s work and her sense of responsibility for them, and the sense of purpose they give her, is so great that she cannot imagine any life of her own.  She jealously and proudly guards her responsibilities, refusing Edward’s rather pathetically small attempts to help, and when she is suddenly no longer needed, she becomes completely lost:

The work she had meant to do was over.  Nettie’s occupation was gone.  With the next act of the domestic drama she had nothing to do.  For the first time in her life utterly vanquished, with silent promptitude she abdicated on the instant.  She seemed unable to strike a blow for the leadership thus snatched from her hands. 

The ending is shockingly unsatisfactory.  Nettie is a sad shadow of herself and the concluding events, so eagerly anticipated for much of the novel, seem manipulative and exploitative given Nettie’s weakened spirit.   

Between the two novels, there was really only one character I came away liking: Mrs Proctor, that charming, spry septuagenarian.  And when I can’t like the characters, I really do find it difficult to like the book (particularly when unworthy characters are rewarded with relatively happy endings).  I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.  Clearly, I was not won over.

Dear Readers, does she improve with other novels, does her style develop, her characterization gain depth?  There was enough of merit here that I couldn’t quite abandon this book as I was reading it, enough promise (never quite fulfilled) that made me hopeful.  If she is worth pursuing, if you can assure me there is still hope, then pursue her I shall.

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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!

With only two weeks left before I leave on my trip, I’m doing my best to work through all my old loot.  But, even with such practical aims in mind, I couldn’t resist picking up a few books this week, just to flip through rather than studiously devour (at least this time). 

Gardening with Old Roses by John Scarman – Florence mentioned this book a few weeks ago and it’s absolutely wonderful.  I am certain this will be one of those titles I check out time and time again. 

Secret Gardens: Revealed by their Owners, chosen and edited by Rosemary Verey – for inspiration and the pleasure of pretty photographs. 

Rosemary Verey’s English Country Gardens – ditto.

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Archive Raid

Dorothy Reading by Mischa Askenazy

Young women like to read about heroines in fiction so as to rehearse possible lives and to imagine a woman’s life as important – because they want to be attractive and powerful and significant, someone whose life is worth writing about, whose world revolves around her and makes being the way she is make sense.  The reader can see a heroine of a novel and be her, too, as she wishes she could simultaneously be and critically see herself.

Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels by Rachel M. Brownstein

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Scenic Sunday

After getting the day off to a good start with some early morning baking, I ended up heading out on a scenic Sunday drive with my father up the Sea-to-Sky highway (vastly improved after all the much-needed work that was done in preparation for the 2010 Olympics).  Having scenery like this in easy striking distance is one of the reasons I moved back to ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ (though Alberta, despite my dislike of Calgary, is quite spectacularly beautiful in its own, ocean-less way). 

View down on Howe Sound and the town of Squamish

Oceanside view from Squamish of Shannon Falls

The Chief - beloved of rock climbers

Wild snapdragon

Tug boats

View of islands, heading back down Howe Sound towards the city

And now I’m off for dinner and a movie with my best friend of twenty years.  We’re going to see “One Day” and plan to mercilessly ridicule it for its inferiority to the book.  Life is good. 


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