Archive for June, 2013

Library Lust

KEX Hostel in Reykjavik

KEX Hostel in Reykjavik

If I ever find myself in Reykjavik, this is the hostel I’m staying at!

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Betsy's WeddingBetsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace begins where Betsy and the Great World ended: it is September 1914 and Betsy is on a ship, coming back to America after having spent the last nine months touring Europe.  Waiting for her when she docks is Joe Willard, the boy she has loved since high school.  Their past quarrels are forgotten and, now assured on one another’s love, the two young people are only too eager to start their life together.  Less than a week later they are married and setting up house near Betsy’s family in Minneapolis.

The book covers the first few years of Betsy and Joe’s marriage, as Joe works and Betsy struggles to cook and keep house.  They have their family nearby and almost all of their friends have stayed in the area (Betsy has been reunited with her beloved “Crowd”, who she missed so much while in Europe) so most of the book is devoted to Joe and Betsy’s interactions with others.  This was my first introduction to Tacy, already married and, before the book is over, a mother of two, and to their other great friend, Tib, an outgoing German-American blonde whose speech is unnaturally peppered with German exclamations.  I suddenly felt very thankful that neither of them had featured in Betsy and the Great World.

After reading two other Maud Hart Lovelace books, I should have known not to expect any emotional depth but, even so, I was disappointed by how shallow this book was.  Betsy is full of resolutions when she gets married and, as she adjusts to married life, there are some fleeting reflections as she learns to adapt to life with Joe but, for the most part, any serious issue is ignored.  Betsy mentions a few times the desire for a child but, when none appears, no comment is made as to her disappointment.  Her writing career, which had been so important to her in previous books, is barely mentioned, except for when she turns down a writing job with the excuse “I already have a job…And it’s important, and very hard. It’s learning how to keep house.”  Instead of emotional development, we get an action-filled account of what is going on with Betsy’s Crowd.  Honestly, the two main challenges Betsy faces in this book are 1) learning how to cook (thank goodness she married a husband who knows how) and 2) finding a husband for her friend Tib, whose lack of interest in marriage shocks poor Betsy and Tacy:

“She isn’t even thinking about getting married!” Betsy cried.  “She goes out all the time but she doesn’t give a snap for the men.”

“When girls don’t marry young,” Tacy said profoundly, “they get fussier all the time.”

“That’s right.  You know the old saying about a girl going through the forest and throwing away all the straight sticks only to pick up a crooked one in the end.” Betsy looked wise as befitted an old married woman.

“There’s a lot of truth in that.”

“And Tib will soon be earning so much money that she won’t meet many men who earn as much money as she does.”

“That would be bad.”

“And then she’ll start driving around in her car, and getting more and more independent, and she won’t marry at all, maybe!  And then what will she do when she’s old?”

Lovelace is partially tongue-in-cheek here, but only partially.  There are dozens of things that mark this book as being of its time (1955) but none more than this.  If I had read this passage as an eight or nine year old, I would have thrown the book down in disgust and returned to the non-Stepford –esque heroines in my books from forty or fifty years earlier.

Having now read this, I think I can safely put my interest in the series to rest.  I have heard from a number of enthusiastic Betsy-Tacy fans since I started sampling Lovelace’s books but I am afraid I will never be able to count myself among their ranks.  Still, it was interesting to read a few books from the series and I had much more patience for them now that I would have if I’d come to them as a child.  I can at least understand their simple, nostalgic appeal, even if I don’t feel it.

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Library Lust

Saxon State Library

If everything has gone as planned, I should be in Dresden today so it seems only suiting that I show a library from there: this is the impressive reading room at the Saxon State Library.

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badge-4Library 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.

This week’s loot, since I’m currently travelling in Europe, is devoted to all the e-books I loaded onto my Kobo before I left.  I don’t think I’m going to run out of things to read while I’m on the road!
 Library Loot - 4

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Library Loot - Travel

The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, and Amanda Pressner

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Tout Sweet by Karen Wheeler

Library Loot - 5

Advice for Italian Boys by Anne Giardini

Never Shoot a Stampede Queen by Mark Leiren-Young

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Library Loot - Children's Books

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Library Loot - AP

The Ape Who Guards the Balance by Elizabeth Peters

The Falcon at the Portal by Elizabeth Peters

He Shall Thunder in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters

Library Loot - 6

Legend in Green Velvet by Elizabeth Peters

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

The Tale of Hill Top Farm by Susan Wittig Albert

Library Loot - AM

Sophomore Switch by Abby McDonald

The Anti-Prom by Abby McDonald

Getting Over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald

Library Loot - 7

Losing It by Cora Carmack

Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

Library Loot - Christie

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

What did you pick up this week?

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I picked up a few books just before I left for Europe, all of which I am very excited about:

Three Houses by Angela Thirkell – I haven’t read this yet but I am very much looking forward to Thirkell’s memoir of the homes where she grew up.  It sounds rather like the sort of book Slightly Foxed might have eventually gotten around to publishing if Allison and Busby hadn’t gotten there first.

In these beautifully nostalgic memoirs, eminent author Angela Thirkell recalls in rich detail the three houses in which she grew up and the childhood memories their walls contain. Focusing first on ‘The Grange’, where her grandfather, the celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, set the cultivated tone, Thirkell also reminisces over her parents’ home in Kensington Square and the Burne-Jones seaside retreat, where Angela’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, lived across the green. Her elaborate portraits of the three houses and the lives within provide an invaluable insight into late Victorian life, while the personal recollections of Thirkell’s famous grandfather reveal a loving family man behind the renown.

The Harold Nicolson Diaries, 1907-1964 edited by Nigel Nicolson – I have been wanting this for ages and finally broke down and bought it.  Only my concern over damaging the paperback cover prevented me from taking it along to Europe with me.  Once I’m back, you can bet this is what I’ll be picking up first.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – I borrowed this from the library, read it the same day, and then went out the next day to buy my own copy.  That is how much I adored this extraordinary fantasy novel.  I am already looking forward to reading it again and you can be certain that it will be high up on my “Best of 2013” list.

Alif has encountered three strokes of bad luck. The aristocratic woman he loves has jilted him, leaving him with only a mysterious book of fairytales. The state censorship apparatus of the emirate where he lives has broken into his computer, compromising his business providing online freedom for clients across the Islamic world. And now the security police have shown up at his door. But when Alif goes underground, he will encounter a menagerie of mythical creatures and end up on a mad dash through faith, myth, cyberspace, love, and revolution.

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Library Lust


I would love to have a house where the ceilings were high enough to put bookshelves above the doors.

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See the World

Today is the day: we fly out to Europe this afternoon. Thank you everyone who commented on my Planning for England post; you’ve given me lots of great ideas – more than I’ll ever be able to fit in! – and I am now more excited than ever for that leg of my trip.  I’ve prescheduled a few (a very few) posts for while I’m gone but a month is a long time so things are going to be quiet around here.  Keep yourselves busy, stay out of trouble, and I’ll be back with stories and lots of photos in mid-July!

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Library Lust


I love everything about this room.

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It is that time of year again, friends.  I am about to leave for Europe and, as usual, I am seeking your advice.

This year’s trip is covering familiar ground: we’ll start with family in the Czech Republic, as always, and then we’re off to Dresden and Amsterdam.  But after that we will be in the UK for more than two weeks and that is what I need some help with.  The bulk of that time will be split between London and Keswick, in the Lake District.


Now, London I’ve visited many times before but I would still love to hear your ideas for what I should see and do while there.  I’ll be there during the week, so weekend markets are not a possibility this time, but if you have a favourite gallery or museum or neighbourhood you think I’d enjoy, let me know!  Day trip suggestions would also be welcomed.  I’m longing to go back to Oxford for a day or maybe revisit the tacky delights of Brighton but it might be fun to consider somewhere that would be new to me.

via geography.org.uk

via geography.org.uk

As for the Lake District, our main interest there is to explore the many walks the region has to offer.  I would love to hear from any of you who holiday in the area and hear about your favourite walks or local sights!  Since we will be there for a full week, I am also looking for some day trip ideas.

I have found your help so useful in the past when planning these European adventures and I can’t wait to read your suggestions this time around!

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The Four GracesWhen I started The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson I was instantly charmed.  But Stevenson can be tricky: as delightful and promising as I found the beginning of the book, the second half let it down.  It is an excellent reminder of what makes Stevenson such an attractive and, at the same time, frustrating author.

The Grace family – four daughters and their widowed father – is wonderfully close and companionable, not to mention living in the nicest-sounding vicarage I’ve ever come across in fiction.  Their afternoon teas and evening chats in front of the fire perfectly sum up my (admittedly semi-Victorian) fantasies of domestic bliss.  They banter back and forth, teasing and advising one another, and I could not help but instantly feel attracted to this delightful family.  These times together are the highlight of the girls’ days and, for me, they were the highlight of the book as well:

“I look forward to this all day – sprawling and drinking tea and saying whatever happens to come into my head.  Heaven will be like this – not golden gates and harps.”

The four Graces are: Liz, the outgoing eldest daughter who is spending the war working on a nearby farm; Sally, the “serene and sensitive” homemaker; Tilly, the “shy and gentle” organist who, like Sally, spends most of her time at home; and Addie, the energetic youngest daughter who is out of sight for most of the novel, engaged in war work in London.  Mr Grace is a quiet but intelligent man who remains largely in the background while his daughters run their lives and his.  He is “perfectly capable of holding his own” against them (he does so at one point, rebelling against their use of slang with the perfect phrase “your uncouth idiom revolts me”) but does so rarely.  For the most part, he is left in the background, which seems a shame.

Set during the Second World War (though published in 1946), the action is mostly limited to the small village of Chevis Green where the Graces live.  Though Stevenson temptingly alludes to Chevis Green as “a modern version of Highbury” (which is why Sally counts Emma as one of her favourite books), there are no Highbury-esque supporting characters to entertain us.  Instead, Stevenson focuses on the sisters’ romantic entanglements and, for me, this is where the book started going wrong.

Two men enter the Grace family’s social circle over the course of the novel: Captain Roderick Herd, a rather flashy young officer stationed nearby, and the much quieter, older, and awkwardly large archaeologist William Single, who comes to lodge for the summer with the Graces.  William is very likeable but Roddy is so poorly fleshed out that he seems rather suspicious – not a good impression when you’re supposed to be happy about his marrying one of the heroines!  There are complications and confusions over who is interested in who and by the end I was not satisfied with either of the pairings.

The real problem with The Four Graces is that it is far too short.  If Stevenson had written a longer book and had time to develop each of the daughters (or at least the three who play major roles here), giving them distinct personalities and making the reader care for each of them, then I’m sure it would have been an immensely satisfying story.  While a fair amount of time is spent developing both Tilly and Sally, Liz is largely ignored; a confusing choice, given what an important role she plays in the romantic pairings.  And when attention is belatedly shifted over to Liz, Tilly is abandoned.  It is an unfortunate decision, since Tilly was the only character I had any real interest in, and the one who, early on, Stevenson devoted the most energy to describing.  The book begins with Tilly and discovering that she was not to get any special storyline herself was a great disappointment to me.  But difficulty in recognizing which characters her readers are most interested in seems to be one of D.E. Stevenson’s recurring problems.

Though I was ultimately disappointed by this book, I think I will always love it for the wonderful way it begins.  (Though I may never entirely forgive Stevenson for the way it deflates after such a strong opening.)  It is still a cosy, unchallenging and pleasant read but I really felt that, to do justice to the first half of the story, Stevenson would have needed a book two or three times as long.

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