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Archive for November, 2011

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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!

After weeks and weeks of only checking out a few books at a time, it was time for a truly extravagant library trip.  So on to the bus I got, rolled down to central branch, and then stumbled out several hours later with more books than I could easily carry (this became very clear while walking to my bus stop).  Such a joyous day!  As much as I enjoy the neatness of only getting three or four books at a time, it’s awfully boring.  I love having piles and piles of new books about me – all those options of what to read next!  All for free!

With the end of the year approaching, that also means I’m coming to the end of a couple of my 2011 reading challenges.  I’m well behind my goal for the Eastern European Reading Challenge but my loot this week definitely reflects my hope that I will catch up before the end of December!

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – I’ve loved the first four books in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I only started reading at the end of the summer, and can’t wait to read this most recent volume, though it might have been smarter to pace myself since who knows when the sixth book will come.

The Adventures of Sinbad by Gyula Krúdy – “What you have loved remains yours.” Thus speaks the irresistible rogue Sindbad, ironic hero of these fantastic tales, who has seduced and abandoned countless women over the course of centuries but never lost one, for he returns to visit them all—ladies, actresses, housemaids—in his memories and dreams. From the bustling streets of Budapest to small provincial towns where nothing ever seems to change, this ghostly Lothario encounters his old flames wherever he goes: along the banks of the Danube; under windows where they once courted; in churches and in graveyards, where Eros and Thanatos tryst. Lies, bad behavior, and fickleness of all kinds are forgiven, and love is reaffirmed as the only thing worth persevering for, weeping for, and living for.

Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy – …young Eveline leaves the city and returns to her country estate to escape the memory of her desperate love for the unscrupulous charmer Kálmán. There she encounters the melancholy Álmos-Dreamer, who is languishing for love of her, and is visited by the bizarre and beautiful Miss Maszkerádi, a woman who is a force of nature. The plot twists and turns; elemental myth mingles with sheer farce: Krúdy brilliantly illuminates the shifting contours and acid colors of the landscape of desire.

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr – Exquisitely observed, Four Seasons in Rome describes Doerr’s varied adventures in one of the most enchanting cities in the world. He reads Pliny, Dante, and Keats — the chroniclers of Rome who came before him — and visits the piazzas, temples, and ancient cisterns they describe. He attends the vigil of a dying Pope John Paul II and takes his twins to the Pantheon in December to wait for snow to fall through the oculus. He and his family are embraced by the butchers, grocers, and bakers of the neighborhood, whose clamor of stories and idiosyncratic child-rearing advice is as compelling as the city itself.

Beyond This Dark House: Poems by Guy Gavriel Kay – I have loved the poetry in Kay’s novels so was intrigued when I found out Kay had published a volume of poems.  Though I usually stick to prose, it’s always fun to read a little outside of my comfort zone.

Debutante by Anne Melville – In 1939, the last London Season before the War, young debutantes await four months of dances, parties, Ascot and opera. Ronnie delights in watching her charismatic brother is chased as the Season’s best catch. Peggy would rather go to Oxford, but concedes to her parent’s wishes. Isabelle feels like a Frenchwoman and resents having to spend the summer with her awful English mother. Lovely Anne feels like an outsider among aristocratic relatives and would rather remain in the country and paint. All four debutantes find the Season entertaining yet constraining. At the Season’s end, Europe faces a world war, threatening all their future dreams in Anne Melville’s engaging novel Debutante.

Indian Summer by William Dean Howells – One of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer tells of a season in the life of Theodore Colville. Colville, just turned forty, has spent years as a successful midwestern newspaper publisher. Now he sells his business and heads for Italy, where as a young man he had dreamed of a career as an architect and fallen hopelessly in love. In Florence, Colville runs into Lina Bowen, sometime best friend of the woman who jilted him and the vivacious survivor of an unhappy marriage. He also meets her young visitor, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham—lovely, earnest to a fault, and brimming with the excitement of her first encounter with the great world.

Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler – One of the finest American poets of the second half of the twentieth century, James Schuyler was at the same time a remarkable novelist. Alfred and Guinevere are two children who have been sent by their parents to spend the summer at their grandmother’s house in the country. There they puzzle over their parents’ absence and their relatives’ habits, play games and pranks, make friends and fall out with them, spat and make up. Schuyler has a pitch-perfect ear for the children’s voices, and the story, told entirely through snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere’s diary, is a tour de force of comic and poetic invention. The reader discovers that beneath the book’s apparently guileless surface lies a very sophisticated awareness of the complicated ways in which words work to define the often perilous boundaries between fantasy and reality, innocence and knowledge.

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi – It is 1900, give or take a few years. The Vajkays—call them Mother and Father—live in Sárszeg, a dead-end burg in the provincial heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Father retired some years ago to devote his days to genealogical research and quaint questions of heraldry. Mother keeps house. Both are utterly enthralled with their daughter, Skylark. Unintelligent, unimaginative, unattractive, and unmarried, Skylark cooks and sews for her parents and anchors the unremitting tedium of their lives.  Now Skylark is going away, for one week only, it’s true, but a week that yawns endlessly for her parents. What will they do? Before they know it, they are eating at restaurants, reconnecting with old friends, attending the theater. And this is just a prelude to Father’s night out at the Panther Club, about which the less said the better. Drunk, in the light of dawn Father surprises himself and Mother with his true, buried, unspeakable feelings about Skylark.  Then, Skylark is back. Is there a world beyond the daily grind and life’s creeping disappointments.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton – When Ana reviewed this back in the summer of 2010, I put it on my TBR list.  Since then, I’ve read countless other rave reviews, but it was always checked out just when I would want to read it.  But finally, both it and I were in the same library at the same time and I was able to snag it!

Café Europa: Life After Communism by Slavenka Drakulić – Today in Eastern Europe the architectural work of revolution is complete: the old order has been replaced by various forms of free market economy and de jure democracy. But as Slavenka Drakulic observes, “in everyday life, the revolution consists much more of the small things—of sounds, looks and images.” In this brilliant work of political reportage, filtered through her own experience, we see that Europe remains a divided continent. In the place of the fallen Berlin Wall there is a chasm between East and West, consisting of the different way people continue to live and understand the world. Little bits—or intimations—of the West are gradually making their way east: boutiques carrying Levis and tiny food shops called “Supermarket” are multiplying on main boulevards. Despite the fact that Drakulic can find a Cafe Europa, complete with Viennese-style coffee and Western decor, in just about every Eastern European city, the acceptance of the East by the rest of Europe continues to prove much more elusive.

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić – Hailed by feminists as one of the most important contributions to women’s studies in the last decade, this gripping, beautifully written account describes the daily struggles of women under the Marxist regime in the former republic of Yugoslavia.

Homestead by Rosina Lippi – Each life has its place, and every variation ripples the surface of the tiny alpine village called Rosenau. Be it a mysteriously misaddressed love letter or a girl’s careless delivery of two helpless relatives into Nazi hands, the town’s balance is ever tested, and ever tender. Here is a novel spanning eighty years — years that bring factories and wars, store-bought cheese and city-trained teachers — weaving the fates of the wives, mothers, and daughters in this remote corner of Austria.

How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Source of Children’s Books by Joan Bodger – Simon received this for his birthday and I immediately put it on my TBR list, enticed by the beautiful cover and descriptive subtitle.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay – clearly, I don’t believe in restraint when it comes to enjoying a new favourite author!  I loved A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and can’t wait to start this.

What did you pick up this week?

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Baking with Eva

There needs to be an Eva Ibbotson companion cookbook.  Really.  All of her books are full of the most delicious sounding meals and sweets, many of which I have not the slightest idea how to recreate.  The snow-white meringue swan from A Countess Below Stairs? The unnamed but lovingly described Brazilian delights from A Company of Swans and Journey to the River Sea? No idea where to start. But, thankfully, when it comes to one of her most frequently mentioned treats, vanilla kipferl, I know exactly what to do. Theoretically. I mean, I’ve eaten enough over many Christmases that I should know exactly what to do! In practice, they’re not quite as I had remembered them but they are very, very close (I used store-bought vanilla sugar rather than homemade, which I think is difference I’m tasting and I had a lot of trouble making them as small as they really should be).  Ibbotson’s are always made with almonds whereas our family recipe calls for walnuts but I’m willing to overlook her misguided preference (not that almonds wouldn’t also be delicious).  For now, these are the perfect accompaniment to my reading of A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories.

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Archive Raid

Graduate students argue the question of Mr Knightley’s sex appeal as if he had made them a proposition.  Gossip, like novels, is a way of turning life into story.  Good gossip approximates art; criticism of novels is mostly gossip. 
Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels by Rachel M. Brownstein

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Library Lust

I love this bookish little corner.  It’s so pretty and so peaceful.  And what reader doesn’t dream of having a cosy fireside by which to relax (especially in winter) with a favourite book?

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My first encounter with Mrs Oliphant and her Chronicles of Carlingford series was not a resounding success.  I had not completely ruled out the idea of sampling some of her other books eventually but nor had I gone searching for them.  And then on Tuesday while trolling through the programmes on BBC iPlayer (because this is what I do), I saw that the dramatization of Miss Marjoribanks, originally broadcast several years ago, was available and so I started to listen.  It is wonderful!  I have had such fun listening to it and Lucilla Marjoribanks is an absolute delight.  So capable, so clever, so determined!  Do give it at try: you can find all four parts here, but, since programmes are only available from a week after airing, listen soon!  Part One will only be up for three more days, Part Two for four, and so on.

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I really wanted to love Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson.  So many other bloggers had assured me I would and, after adoring my encounters with Stevenson’s Mrs Tim, I was certainly excited to finally meet Miss Barbara Buncle for myself.  But my excitement faded as I started reading.  Stevenson had impressed me before with both the warmth and wit of her characters and the humourous intelligence of her writing.  Very little of that was apparent here in this rambling, rather forgettable book.

The idea though is a charming one: Miss Barbara Buncle, a middle-aged spinster who is struggling to make ends meet, writes a fanciful novel featuring thinly veiled versions of her village neighbours and publishes it under a pseudonym.  Her portraits of them are unerringly accurate and when her book becomes a surprise hit, the outraged citizens who unwittingly served as inspiration – especially those whose negative traits were highlighted – set out to discover who the author is.  But who among them would suspect the dowdy, quiet, not particularly intelligent Miss Buncle?

It’s an excellent premise, isn’t it?  It vaguely reminded me of one of my favourite films, Theodora Goes Wild, about a woman (played by the excellent Irene Dunne) who writes a racy bestseller which has her conservative small town up in arms and her attempts to keep them from discovering that she wrote it.  And when have I ever turned down a book about an author or, more importantly, a book about village life?  But with meandering, plodding prose and lifeless characters, it was difficult to enjoy this book, hard as I tried.  It was fine, just not very good or memorable.

Mostly, I just kept wishing that some other, more skilled writer had taken up this story.  Stevenson took a half-hearted attempt at skewering the villagers but the result was neither affectionate nor amusing, just rather dull.  E.M. Delafield, Angela Thirkell, E.F. Benson…it was hard not to think of those excellent writers and what they have done so brilliantly when dealing with provincial life that Stevenson failed to do here.  Miss Buncle’s Book is diverting enough as a form of brief, light entertainment but there was nothing special in it, no moment that ever charmed or delighted me.  There was no grace to the storytelling and so many of the ideas and sentiments had me remembering other books and other authors who had phrased it much more cleverly or succinctly.  Still, the story is diverting and some of the characters are quite entertaining, however two-dimensional they may be.  It is a fine book to pass an afternoon with and I am sure I will be reading Miss Buncle Married sometime soon.

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Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader 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!

Cold weather, dark days, long nights…definitely time for a few comfort reads!  Actually, my real problem right now is limiting it to just a few. I want to read all my favourites: Ibbotson, Trollope, Heyer, Austen, R.F. Delderfield, Gaskell and any number of Persephone books.  I feel overwhelmed with choice just looking at my bookshelves, nevermind the library ones!  For now, here’s what I’ve picked up and am quite excited to start on:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson – After loving The Dragonfly Pool and enjoying Journey to the River Sea (reviews to come), I’m very much looking forward to reading another of Ibbotson’s children’s novels.  This Austro-Hungarian adventure tale sounds absolutely ideal!

A Glove Shop in Vienna and Other Stories by Eva Ibbotson – more Ibbotson!  I’ve read a few but not all of these stories before.

A Little Folly by Jude Morgan –  I’m actually rereading this for the second time this year (and maybe this time I’ll actually get around to reviewing it too).  I enjoy all of Morgan’s Regency novels and this is my favourite of the lot.  Perfect for those moments when you want a light, witty Regency tale but wish for something a little calmer than a hijiinks-filled Heyer novel.

What did you pick up this week? 

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I love reading about restoration projects, the grander and odder the building, the better.  Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett about the author and her husband’s experience restoring a Welsh castle fit the bill perfectly.  Now, I have simple needs.  I am content with a few anecdotes about trades people (troublesome or terrific), the discovery of the building’s charming/money-sucking quirks, and the stresses of an ever dwindling bank account.  But this book had so much more than that!  It had ghosts, tetchy tourists, trans-Atlantic treasure hunts and the Prince of Wales.  I defy you to ask for more.

Let me make this very clear: if I knew Judy or her husband Peter personally, their high ideals and indifference to any kind of financial security or physical comfort would drive me wild.  But at a distance their wildly impractical flights of romantic fancy can seem quite endearing:

We harboured a dream of one day buying a ruinous old mansion and renovating it as accurately as possible and living in it without electricity or any concession to modern life.  My dream was to wear a chatelaine round my waist, and keep wolfhounds and tend bees in some quiet corner of a walled garden.  I had a strong sense of the Gothic in me, and neglected houses, in particular, appealed to something deep within my psyche.  Peter said he would be happy to fall in with anything, provided the house was pre-1670 and had held Royalist allegiance during the Civil War; living in a Parliamentarian house was out of the question.

While still in their twenties, Judy and Peter purchase the sixteenth-century Gwydir Castle in North Wales.  Part ruin, part disastrous mid- 20th Century renovation project, the castle needs work.  Lots and lots of work.  Particularly since Judy and Peter’s aim is not just to make the building liveable but to restore it to its former glory – very former: the two want to recreate the original conditions, so it’s back to the 16th and 19th centuries respectively, depending on which wing you’re in.  They want it:

…to look as Sir John Wynn remembered it, when Good Queen Bess was upon the throne.  So if, at a moment’s notice, he were to step over the petal-strewn threshold, there would be no jarring anachronisms to raise an eyebrow.

For me, the best part of any renovation story is figuring out just how it was accomplished.  And, usually, that means how it was financed.  Judy and Peter exhausted their savings to purchases the castle in the first place so generating cash flow throughout the project was vital.  By any means.  From cashing in on the tourists and locals who were already coming to gawk, to running a B&B using the best rooms and the guest house , to hosting weddings and large receptions, to writing this book, they are impressively resourceful.  They are private people not terribly excited about always having strangers about – when the visitors would ring the bell, everyone would run in the opposite direction to avoid having to tour them about – but their commitment to the project forces them to make nice in order to keep their dream alive (at least until they were able to hire someone else to manage the guests – a very happy day).  And when it comes to buying back the castle’s original features that were earlier sold off at auction, they gracefully abandon their natural reserve in order to beg money from the Welsh heritage service and also give interviews to the media in hopes of someone somewhere hearing what they’re doing and being able to help them track down more the of the castle’s historic pieces.

As befits any castle, there are ghosts.  Some are relatively harmless – a ghostly hound, for instance, who plays with Judy and Peter’s own dogs – while others are much more sinister.  Judy’s tales of her encounters with the malicious ghost Margaret form a chilling chapter.  I don’t generally read ghost stories but I am apparently quite susceptible to them, as I found out while reading about Margaret one dark and stormy night when I was alone in the house.    I kept reminding myself that I don’t believe in ghosts but it was much easier to remember that the next morning, in the light of day.

An excellent, wide-ranging chronicle of a massive and fascinating project and of the two young optimists mad enough to take it on in the first place.

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When I was a child, my grandmother brought me back The Legends of Prague by František Langer when she returned from one of her trips toPrague.  Though she had been telling me Czech myths and legends for years, this was the first time I had seen any written down – and in English no less!  But while I loved to look at Cyril Bouda’s spirited illustrations, I rarely read the stories themselves.  After all, I had a real live storyteller at my disposal for years – what did I need a book for?  But ever since I was back in Prague this September I’ve been thinking of all the beautiful books I saw in the stores there, full of the country’s beloved fairy tales and legends, all of which were in Czech.  There is nothing more frustrating that spotting a book you want to read but not having the education to be able to do so.  Since I’m not likely to suddenly learn Czech, I decided to seek out for the first time in years this slim childhood book with its eight lovingly told legends.

It has been years since my babi used to terrify me with tales of the Vltava’s vicious water sprites but I have never forgotten them.  So I was rather surprised when the book began with a trio of quite friendly water sprites.  Now, most water sprites are a bit sinister, just waiting for children or fishermen to flounder in the water (occasionally helping them along the way) so that they can then collect the souls of the drowned.  Not so these gentlemen.  All three featured sprites save rather than take lives and even enjoy communing with other Praguers on dry land in local pubs, theatres, and tobacconists.  After hundreds or thousands of years in the river, all three also decamp to dry land, taking up more conventional jobs and assuming roles as pillars of their communities.  The stories are very nice and charming, and really quite funny but there is something very wrong with kindly water sprites!  I did love the third tale, of the water sprite Mr. Henry, who has spent two thousand years accumulating a vast library in his underwater home, preferring to sit and read his books rather than do his appointed work (his wife is deeply unimpressed with such delinquent behaviour).

These are modern legends, the author having realised that “if I myself did not take a hand in the creation of folklore” the many worthy stories “would be interpreted for all times in the most implausible manner or, at least, in a way unworthy of…old Prague.”  Originally published in 1956, they deal with events that are said to have taken place in the relatively recent past: from the 1840s to the 1940s.   St Ludmila worries about ugly war memorials being erected in front of her church, the children of Prague find and hide away the St Wenceslaus sword from the occupying Germans, and one of the stone godfathers of Charles Bridge watches proudly as his goddaughter becomes a heroine of the 1848 uprising.

A note of explanation about these stone godfathers: as the citizens of the island of Kampa have sworn to maintain Charles Bridge, so have the statues on the bridge sworn to look over the children of the island.  Each time one is born, one of the statue figures assumes the unknown role of godfather, looking after the child throughout his or her life from afar.  There is the strong litter carrier whose godson becomes a champion weight lifter.  There is the Turk whose ensures that not only his godson but his godson’s descendents are well provided for.  And then there is the brave knight who is horrified to find himself godfather to a little girl.  A little girl who grows up into an unremarkable young woman who works at the dye works until, bringing despair to her godfather each time he sees her until one day, during the 1848 uprising she shows unexpected bravery when delivery food to the student fighters, rallying the flagging legion who would otherwise have been overrun by Austrian troops.  Forever afterwards, even as the girl returns to a distinctly unmemorable domestic life, her godfather remains delighted with her, remembering the brief, pivotal moment when his legacy to her helped protect their beloved city:

He had a good view of her that time from his position and he was happy that when he could not himself descend from his pedestal to assist Prague, he was so ably represented by his godchild.  Whenever she passed over the bridge afterwards, his chest would swell with pride and he would raise his knightly sword in greeting and look boastfully about at the other statues.  Of course it was hardly likely anyone else would notice and, if they did, they would have been most surprised that he so highly honoured the wife of a stove-fitter, later a plump mother, who led her children over the bridge in mortal fear of them being run over by a horse and cart or a hackney cab.

The translation is a bit awkward at points but the stories still have a lovely flow to them.  All the legends are related in a very warm, confiding, conversational tone.  The stories from 1939 and 1940 are particularly patriotic and sentimental, reminding children that though the darkest days have not yet come (for, as everyone knows, in the darkest days St Wenceslaus and the Knights of Blanik will return to destroy the enemies of the Czech Lands) they must “grow well and grow strong and be of good stature so that you are brave and of firm resolve when your time comes.”  Oh yes, I teared up.  While these stories are definitely friendlier and less bloodthirsty than the ones I adored as a child, they captivating and delightful.  And they do what any book about Prague should do: bring the magic of that city to life, allowing the reader, regardless of age, to take as a matter of fact that normal Praguers share drinks with known water sprites and headless horsemen, that statues act as godparents, and that saints still shape the city as they wish to see it, regardless of the bureaucrats’ intentions.  Because if it could happen anywhere, it would be there:  “Do you understand? Prague is a vision, a dream, an enchantment.”

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Woman Reading

This photo showed up in my Google Reader feed today from the tumblr site Women Reading and I liked it so much that I was sure some of you would too! 

English woman in Women’s Auxiliary Air Force uniform reading a magazine with her gas mask beside her. Photograph by David E. Scherman. London, September 1941.

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