Archive for October, 2011

It’s been more than three months since I read Saplings by Noel Streatfeild and I think that tells you something about my feelings towards the book.  I enjoyed it but, the moment I put it down, I forgot all about it.  I was neither disappointed nor delighted by it, but it entertained me well enough while I was reading it for me to want to discuss it here.

Saplings chronicles the destruction of a once happy family as the Second World War intrudes and interrupts their contented existence.  The opening pages as the family vacations on the beach at Eastbourne in the summer of 1939 make for one of the most intriguing introductions I can remember.  You instantly known the characters of the four children (Laurel, Tony, Kim and Tuesday), their parents (Alex and Lena), and their caregivers (Nanny and the governess Ruth).  The children’s perspectives, their anxieties and fears, their joy in having their father with them instead of at work, all seemed perfectly expressed.  Briefly but brilliantly, Streatfeild made the reader familiar with all aspects of the Wiltshires’ inner lives.

And then, slowly at first, their happy lives start to fall apart.  The children are evacuated to their grandparents’ house when the war begins, separated from their parents and, when school begins and the eldest children go off to their boarding schools, from each other.  Their comfortable, safe lives suddenly have no center and the stresses and tragedies of war only cause each child to drift more and more from the happy, stable childhood they had enjoyed before the war and from the happy, stable people they had once seemed destined to become. 

But it is not just the children Streatfeild considers, though they are the focus.  Their mother, Lena, is, for me, the most intriguing character of the novel.  She loves her well-ordered, pre-war life, with the children neatly taken care of by others, allowing her plenty of time with Alex.  From the opening pages, it is clear that Lena has no intuitive mothering side to her:

Lena, without looking up from her magazine, felt Alex leave her side.  He would have gone to the tent to put on his things.  When they were first married, or even a few years ago, she would have gone with him.  She would no have missed those seconds in the hot tent, the flash of passion that would have come from the closeness of his cool, naked body.  But he had got so self-conscious, always worrying about what the children were thinking.  She had faced that.  He wanted to switch things.  He wanted to be a family man, bless him.  The children were darlings, but she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on being just those things.

But the war takes all that happiness from her, leaving her devastated and unable to cope.  Just when her children need her to be strong, she falls apart.  The widowed Lena turns to alcohol and affairs to fill the void left by Alex’s death and, for me, she was the most consistently well-written, believable character as her carefully assembled perfect world crumbles around her: 

Lena was in an overwrought state.  She had attained happiness.  It had been a delicate matter to so balance her life that it reached near perfection, but with skill she had managed it.  The war had no use for delicate adjustments, it had torn most of her happiness to pieces.

A number of other readers have remarked on how authentic the children’s voices were but I found them strangely simplified.  The children evolve into bundles of neuroses and psychological clichés, too anxious and too articulate in their anxieties to feel real.  It’s fascinating to read about such self-aware children but not particularly believable when their entire character seems to consist of nothing else but these fears. 

Saplings is a very episodic book, which becomes a bit trying as you go on, jumping from one event to the next without preamble.  I also found it wildly uneven in its attentions to the children.  The eldest children, Laurel and Tony, are more examined than their younger siblings but, even though the focus is on them, they never seem to mature emotionally or intellectually, though the novel spans at least five years. Laurel becomes the bizarre focus of the final part of the novel, accused by a hysterical aunt of having had an affair with her husband, whoLaurel had innocently befriended and cared for and received a girlish pearl necklace from while he was recovery from illness at home. Laurel, at sixteen, is stupid enough not to understand the accusation.     

All in all, a very interesting examination of the psychological impact of the war on those far removed from the fighting but whose worlds are nonetheless changed.  I love reading social histories and memoirs about life on the home front during the war and this is a perfect fictional companion to those books.  The children’s reactions here are extreme but still fascinating and Streatfeild’s writing style is incredibly compelling, pulling me along even when I found some of her choices unbelievable.

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Oh, I do love a good rainy Sunday.  They are somehow my most productive days, even if my productivity is limited to the delightfully domestic, as it was today. 

The highlight was procuring and carving the Hallowe’en pumpkin.  All of the pumpkins on offer this year seem to be outrageously large, or maybe they all just seemed that way to me since I knew I had to carry it home.  Having lived in an apartment the last few years, this was the first time since graduating university that I’d carved a pumpkin and, I have to admit, I was a little out of practice.  However, since both the pumpkin and I came out of the experience in tact, I’m going to count it as a success.  I went with a very traditional design:

I also whipped up an amazing cranberry cake this morning, one I’d been wanting to make ever since I first came across the recipe a few weeks ago.  It is far and away the best thing I’ve baked in ages.  Moist but not too dense, tart with just a hint of sweetness, I am ridiculously pleased with it.  Now the hard part is going to be giving half of it away to my brother, as promised.  At least I know it will be going to an appreciative eater. 

All that’s left is to settle down with my book for the rest of the afternoon to make this a truly perfect day!

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What makes a children’s book a classic?  This is the question Lucy Mangan was considering in the Guardian last week and whenever Mangan is discussing books, I am always happy to hear what she has to say.  And, as usual, I found myself nodding my head in complete agreement as I read through the article.  But what surprised me the most was how few of the modern classics Mangan lists, with the exception of Roald Dahl, were part of my childhood reading.  I know the titles but the books of my childhood were, for the most part, the books of my father’s childhood and, in turn, the books of his parents’ childhoods: a steady, proven diet of Victorian and Edwardian children’s fiction.  As I grew up, I read more “modern” fiction: I fell in love with Kit Pearson’s Guest of War trilogy, breathlessly followed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s American adventures, and read hundreds of thrilling but forgettable children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton.  But few of them had the same impact as those earliest books.

I could easily come up with a list of a hundred books I consider children’s classics.  The Hobbit, Little Women, Kipling’s Just So Stories…there are so many obvious choices.  But which are my classics?  Here is my list of my essential classics, the books I consider absolutely vital to a child’s library, the ones I cannot do without even now:

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – growing up, my mother was very exclusive in her bedtime reading choices for us.  Fairy tales, Greek myths and assorted legends were all that were on offer.  I was indifferent to the myths, terrified by most of the legends (scary because of their supposedly factual basis) and enthralled by the fairy tales.  I loved them still and regularly reread my old favourites, particularly “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which can still make me cry). 

Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery – I love Anne.  I loved her when I was eight and I will love her just as well when I am eighty.  And as much as I love the undisputedly classic Anne of Green Gables, I love Anne of the Island more.  It introduced me to the inevitable fact that, no matter how happy you are in your childhood home, you are eventually going to have to leave it and create a new home of your own, whether you’re going away to university, like Anne, or getting married, like Diana. 

The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green – is there anything more romantic, more stirring, more inspiring than these classic tales of chivalry when you’re young?  Unsurprisingly, an obsession with Tennyson soon followed. 

The World of Christopher Robin by A.A. Milne – there is no book I love in the world more than this one.  None.  Truly.  My copy was a christening gift, has crayon scribblings all over the endpapers, and remains the only book I have ever attempted to memorize.  It is the first book I remember my father reading aloud to me and it is certainly the one we read the most.  I cannot see chrysanthemums without thinking of “The Dormouse and the Doctor,” cannot walk by Buckingham Palace without thinking of Christopher Robin’s Alice and her guard, and even now there are nights when I send myself to sleep whispering the stanzas of my favourite poem, “Disobedience” (James James/Morrison Morrison/Weatherby George Dupree/Took great/Care of his Mother,/Though he was only three.)

Beatrix Potter’s Tales – I wasn’t a child who had much interest in anthropomorphic animals but even I couldn’t resist the charms of Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, or the Two Bad Mice. 

 What books do you consider your personal essential children’s classics?

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Library Lust

credit: desire to inspire

When I saw this Australian home on desire to inspire last week, I was instantly smitten with the library. So many shelves! Such a comfortable-looking chair! And, most importantly, what a magnificent window seat, nice and deep with beautiful view into the garden. If any room were ever going to convince me that a library can be perfect without a desk, this would be it.

credit: desire to inspire

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Simon is at it again, spreading his meme about to the delight of bloggers feeling too lazy at the end of the week to come up with anything original of their own.  I loved this meme when he came up with it in the spring, had great fun doing it then, and certainly couldn’t resist doing it again now!

1.) The book I’m currently reading:

An Appetite for Life by Charles Ritchie – I adore Ritchie’s diaries and this is the earliest volume, covering the years from 1924 – 1927, and I haven’t read it in ages.  I am finding young Charles (age 17 – 21 here) absolutely delightful and am copying out scads of fabulous quotes as I’m going through. 

2.) The last book I finished:

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson – Well, I finally read it.  It has some charm but, honestly, I found it a bit rambling and entirely forgettable.  More than anything, this made me long for Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim – so much more entertaining than Miss Buncle or anyone she encounters – and Angela Thirkell’s novels, which handle both writers and gossipy neighbours with far greater style and humour. 

3.) The next book I want to read:

Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham – I’ve had this one out from the library for some time now but keep getting distracted by my own books.  However, I’m still eager to read this novel, Graham’s first, set at a girls’ boarding school in Switzerland in 1936. 

4.) The last book I bought:

The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope – The building up of my Trollope library continues and I now have all six of the Palliser novels.

5.) The last book I was given:

Mr. American by George MacDonald Fraser – My aunt gave this ‘riotous Edwardian caper’ to me on loan.  It’s one of her favourites and I’m quite looking forward to it.

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Archive Raid

Readers know that there are books for reading after lovemaking and books for waiting in the airport lounge, books for the breakfast table and books for the bathroom, books for sleepless nights at home and books for sleepless days in the hospital.  No one, not even the best of readers, can fully explain why certain books are right for certain occasions and why others are not.  In some ineffable way, like human beings, occasions and books mysteriously agree or clash with one another. 
A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel

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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’ve been reading a lot from my shelves this month, which has been delightful but has definitely decreased the volumes I’m bringing home from the library!


Beneath the Sands of Egypt: Adventures of an Unconventional Archaeologist by Donald P. Ryan
Apparently, my best friend’s life-long obsession with Egyptology has rubbed off on me as I now pick up books on Egypt without even thinking about it.  After twenty years, it was bound to happen!

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones
I placed a hold on this in July after reading the review in the New York Times

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
The very first Guy Gavriel Kay novel that I ever put on my TBR list (years and years ago).  I loved A Song of Arbonne and have even higher hopes for this. 

What did you pick up this week?

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Written in 1913 (and published in 1914), Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton is the original Jane Austen sequel, though not a particularly memorable one (but, really, are any of them? Though I know we all have high hopes for P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley). From Bath to London to, of course, Pemberley, Brinton focuses on the love lives of Colonel Fitzwilliam, Kitty Bennet, and Georgiana Darcy, matching them all up with familiar minor characters from other novels (and, not content with just these six, also busies herself pairing off extraneous others in the background).

As happy as I usually am to encounter Austen characters in sequels, Brinton over populates her novel, including people from all six novels. While it is satisfying as a fan to encounter all of these well-remembered characters again, it is also distracting, making it difficult for the reader to ever grow fond of one hero or heroine. And while some of Brinton’s pairing are delightfully intriguing (a marriage between Tom Bertram and Isabella Thorpe is an enchanting idea, sadly played off out of the reader’s sight), and others blandly inoffensive (James Morland and a subdued, much improved Kitty Bennet), the central romance between William Price and Georgiana Darcy is absurd. He has goodness and good looks, yes, but really nothing else to offer, certainly no position or fortune. Frankly, I cannot imagine a world where either Darcy or Jane Austen would condone such a match.

Generally, the characterization was surprisingly loyal, particularly for the Bingleys. Brinton’s Elizabeth Darcy has none of the wit of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet but I’ve come to expect that from most sequels. Our former heroes are almost entirely ignored or granted a few unmemorable remarks to prove they are still alive, except for Mr. Knightley who is apparently still energetically chiding Emma over her attempts at matchmaking. But there were some truly upsetting liberties taken with the character of Mary Crawford, robbing her of her energy and spark, leaving her as a virtuous but sad young woman, forced to put up with the advances of Sir Walter Elliot even though she has fallen in love with the (here) stupidly useless Colonel Fitzwilliam. I loved Mary as she was and this destruction of her spirits is unforgivable.

I was also frustrated by the scarcity of scenes with Kitty in them. We gets lots and lots of Georgiana (so much, people, so much) but Kitty, who appears charming and enthusiastic and generally quite winsome, is shafted into a corner with her naïve hopes and misguided dreams while Georgiana has a very trying romance awakening. If you’re going to steal Austen’s characters, why would you make them so dull and uninteresting and then centre the book around them? Why?

Despite my complaints, the book itself is actually not that bad (high praise indeed). Brinton obviously was trying to keep her writing style vaguely in line with Austen’s but no one before or since has ever written in quite the same eccentric style as Austen. Still, Brinton’s style of writing works, though she can be overlong. For the most part, the characters are as we know and love them and, even when they are not, most of the pleasure in these sequels comes from encountering familiar faces, regardless of how they may now behave. Certainly, if you’re looking for a sequel that offers a stunning volume of Austen characters, this is the one for you. Emma is the most under-represented book, with only the Knightleys appearing, but the other five all lend multiple characters. It’s fun, it’s silly but not too silly, and, if you’re the kind of person who reads Austen sequels, it’s a definite must-read if only because it is so thoroughly devoted to matching off every unmarried character Austen left behind.

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I love Amsterdam.  It is one of those city that, when I visit, I immediately feel comfortable in, which made it the perfect place to end our vacation.  When we arrived, we’d been on the road for more than two weeks, I was pathetically sick with my cold, and we were just generally exhausted.  Amsterdam was planned as our ‘free’ time, the place we tagged on to the trip because we had to go through Schiphol to get home anyway, so why not take a day or two there?  We had no agenda, no ‘must see’ places, and absolutely no commitments.  So, for the short time we were there, we wandered around, enjoyed the beautiful, crisp autumn weather, and took many, many photos.  We lounged in Vondelpark, cruised along the canals, browsed the flower market, peered through windows on residential streets at bookcase-lined sitting rooms, admired stylish bicyclists while contemplating what horrors would befall us if we tried to cycle those crowded lanes…it was bliss.

And that brings us to the end of the trip!  Obviously, I had an amazing time and I’ve loved sharing these photos with you all.  Thanks so much for all your comments, I’ve loved reading them.  But most importantly, thanks to my amazing travel companion/translator/partner-in-crime, my mom.  We live in the same house but, with both of us working, we don’t always get to spend the time together we’d like to.  Travelling, just the two of us, has become our tradition and it’s been an amazing way to get to know one another as individuals and adults, to become closer as friends as well as mother and daughter.  And as with any good tradition, I hope it’s one we’ll repeat for years to come.  We’ve already started planning for 2012!

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Library Lust

Malmo, Sweden

As much as I really do not miss living in a snowy climate, there are few feelings more perfect than being tucked up warm inside a library, surrounded by books, while the snow piles up outside.

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