Archive for December, 2013

What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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A Time of GiftsAfter countless starts and stops, 2013 was the year I finally read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor from start to finish.  On previous attempts, I’d made it up to PLF’s arrival in Vienna  – yes, attempts plural.  This book and I have a bizarrely long history of me starting it, loving every single word, falling completely in love with PLF, and then, for a variety of reasons, having to abandon it before reaching then end.  But not so this year!  I have triumphed and discovered that the second half of the book is just as wonderful, if not better, than the first.

In 1933, when Patrick Leigh Fermor was eighteen years old, he set off of the first of what would be a lifetime of travel adventures, wanting to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul).  The story of this journey spans three books (A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and, just published this year, The Broken Road), with the first detailing PLF’s experiences from Holland to Hungary.  For me, this book is not just a beautiful example of travel writing but also a reminder of places I know and love, though they have changed in many ways since the days when PLF saw them as a young man.

I am, I am sure it will surprise none of you to hear, a romantic at heart.  Sometimes my romanticism is cloaked in stubborn practicality but it is nonetheless there, the legacy of romantic Mitteleuropean ancestors whose most romantic exploits became family lore.  At eighteen, indeed even now at almost twenty-eight, I can think of nothing more alluring than setting out as PLF did to travel on foot across Europe.  But it is much better that he was the traveller and I merely his audience since a) he writes so beautifully about his journeys, and b) I suspect modern Europe would be significantly less hospitable to a penniless traveller, however charming a guest he/she might be.

PLF outlines his background in a delightful introductory letter but what it comes down to is this: by eighteen, he had been thrown out of schools both conventional and experimental, had toyed with joining the army, and finally had found himself living among a set of older friends in London whose means far outweighed his own.   At this point, dependent on an allowance provided by his father in India, PLF decided to begin his journey, presumably on the basis that it is less depressing to be poor and travelling than poor and staying put.

It is an overwhelming thing, to set out on foot across Europe.  For all the people PLF met along the way, a large portion of his time was spent along and I loved reading his descriptions of those periods.  I especially enjoyed the image of him entertaining himself on these solitary marches:

Song is universal in Germany; it causes no dismay; Shuffle off to Buffalo; Bye, Bye, Blackbird; or Shenandoah; or The Raggle Taggle Gypsies sung as I moved along, evoked nothing but tolerant smiles.  But verse was different.  Murmuring on the highway caused raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity.  Passages, uttered with gestures and sometimes quite loud, provoked, if one was caught in the act, stares of alarm.  Regulus brushing the delaying populace aside as he headed for the Carthaginian executioner, as though to Lacedaemonian Tarentum or the Venafrian fields, called for a fairly mild flourish; but urging the assault-party at Harfleur to close the wall up with English dead would automatically bring on a heightened pitch of voice and action and double one’s embarrassment if caught.  When this happened I would try to taper off in a cough or weave the words into a tuneless hum and reduce all gestures to a feint at hair-tidying.  But some passages demand an empty road as far as the eye can see before letting fly.  The terrible boxing-match, for instance, at the funeral games of Anchises when Entellus sends Dares reeling and spitting blood and teeth across the Sicilian shore – ‘ore ejectantem mixtosque in sanguine dentes’! – and then, with his thronged fist, scatters a steer’s brains with one blow between the horns – this needs care.  As for the sword-thrust at the bridge-head that brings the great lord of Luna crashing among the augurs like an oak-tree on Mont Alvernus – here the shouts, the walking-stick slashes, the staggering gait and the arms upflung should never be indulged if there is anyone within miles, if then.  To a strange eye, one is drunk or lunatic.

How wonderful to have had such an education and such a memory!  I will sing or recite things to myself on long walks (you can only go so many hours in silence) but my repertoire is sadly pedestrian compared to PLF’s.

As PLF journeys on, he is buoyed along by chance encounters and charmed introductions.  He finds himself holed up for a couple of nights with two teenage students, Annie and Lise, in an adult-less apartment in Stuttgart (surely every teen boy’s fantasy?) before moving on to even more enchanted digs, as letters of introduction furnished by a contact in Munich help him to find shelter along his route in charming schlosses with minor aristocrats:

The word “schloss” means any degree of variation between a fortified castle and a baroque palace.  This one was a fair sized manor-house.  I had felt shy as I ploughed through the snow of the long avenue late that afternoon; quite baselessly.  To go by the solicitude of the trio at the stove-side in the drawing room – the old Count and his wife and their daughter-in-law – I might, once again, have been a schoolboy asked out for a treat, or, better still, a polar explorer on the brink of expiring.  “You must be famished after all that walking!” the younger Gräfin said, as a huge tea appeared: she was a beautiful, dark-haired Hungarian and she spoke excellent English.  “Yes,” said the elder, with an anxious smile.  “We’ve been told to feed you up!”  Her husband radiated silent benevolence as yet another silver dish appeared.  I spread a third hot croissant with butter and honey and inwardly blessed my benefactor in Munich.

As PLF notes, “there is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster, and then back again.”  The contrast is no doubt good for the soul but it is the providers of the four-poster beds who supply PLF with a truly extraordinary education, giving him access to their libraries and engaging him in intelligent and absorbing discussions on all manner of subjects.  PLF recalls fondly the civilizing affect of one of his most extraordinary hosts:

Yet, without any effort, he exerted an emancipating and de-barbarizing influence similar to the mood that radiates from a few exceptionally gifted dons: liberators, that is, whose tact, insight, humour and originality clear the air and store it with a new oxygen.  He resembled a much-travelled Whig aristocrat – a friend of Voltaire and Diderot, perhaps – who, after enjoying and exhausting the intrigues and frivolities of half a dozen European courts, had retired to his books in some remote and well wooded shire.

Can you imagine?

It is impossible to read this book without feeling some (or, in my case, immense) nostalgia for the Europe PLF travelled in but which had vanished completely by the end of the war.  I am not sure that the loss is entirely a bad thing but I am so happy that here we have a record of what now seems like an enchanted journey through an enchanted and very long-ago land.

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Christmas at High RisingI almost didn’t manage to read the only holiday book I own over the holidays.  I woke up Boxing Day morning with the horrible realisation that after months of anticipation, I hadn’t yet picked up Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  I immediately cast aside the book I had been reading (Maeve’s Times, a really delightful collection of Maeve Binchy’s writings for the Irish Times) because, as you should know by now, nothing will stand in the way of me reading a Barsetshire-set book (except my shoddy memory).

Just published by Virago in November of this year, Christmas at High Rising is a collection of short stories written by Thirkell in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  It is a very slim book with only eight pieces, five of which focus on the residents of High Rising.  The remaining three – a story of a Victorian Christmas, a rather un-Thirkell-like piece about an art show, and an enjoyable essay entitled “Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out” – are well enough but it was the Barsetshire-set stories that delighted me most.

Tony Morland is perceived with varying levels of joy by Thirkell’s readers.  I know some readers would like nothing more than to see his mother’s fears realised, with Tony thrown off his bicycle or horse and his neck broken so that they may be spared his condescending speeches and general interference.  I, on the other hand, adore him.  There is no such thing as too much Tony and my only major quibble with Thirkell is that she hid adult Tony so effectively from her readers in her later books.  Yes, she reports that he is grown into a responsible, even conventional man but how cheated I feel for not being able to witness that myself!  But that is an argument best saved for another review.  Here, there is more than enough Tony to delight, as he struts through High Rising with the “devil-may-care attitude of a man of the world”, sparing every so often a “glance of passionless scorn” for the imbecilic adults in his life.

And some of the adults are imbecilic.  George Knox has never been a great favourite with me and, though there is comic value in his winding, long-winded speeches, they are too winding and long-winded for me.  I am also deeply offended by his referring to the divine Donk as Tony’s “friend with the un-Christian name, that sphinx in whom silence probably conceals total vacuity.”  How dare you, sir (even though that is a neat turn of phrase).

Tony’s mother Laura is present – or as present as her habitually abstracted state allows – and, as usual, terrified of the trouble that Tony might get himself into.  I remember reading The Demon of the House (a collection of Tony-focused stories) a couple of years ago and sympathizing so much with Laura in that book’s first episode, when she frets that Tony will manage to get himself run over by a car while bicycling.  In this volume, she has the added worry of horseback-riding lessons, though the groom comforts her by saying that though Tony is an awful rider he is the sort of person who will “never learn to ride, not if he was to ride all his life, but he’ll stick to the horse somehow.”  That seems as good a description as any of the enthusiastic and tenacious young Tony, though his mother will (as mothers do) continue to fret even after such assurances.

There was a sad lack of Dr. Ford, whose encounters with Tony are some of the most pleasing exchanges Thirkell ever wrote (even when the dialogue is limited to “shut up” – such blissful words when directed at Tony).  Yes, he appears but never frequently enough for my tastes.

After a near miss, this really did make for the perfect holiday reading.  I am so please that Virago published these stories and I can only hope they find more to print in years to come (a reissue of The Demon in the House might be a nice place to start).

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The Wry Romance of the Literary RectoryI have decided to put my Christmas day to good use and what better use could there be than the contemplation of wonderful books?  I hope some of you may have found The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory by Deborah Alun-Jones under the Christmas tree or perhaps already have it in hand because, to my way of thinking, it is a rather perfect book to spend the holidays with.  Alun-Jones combines two of my favourite reading topics – families and the clergy – in her entertaining survey of writers who lived in rectories.  Some were the children of clergy, some were clergymen themselves, and some were drawn to rectories by the romantic connotations they hold.  In Alun-Jones’ hands, all of their lives are interesting.

There are certain authors whose lives are so closely entwined to their rectory(/parsonage/vicarage, etc) upbringings that even the most disinterested reader is aware of them.  Alun-Jones mentions Jane Austen and the Brontës in her introduction but, much to her credit, does not focus on either family.  Much (too much) has already been written about their lives already.  Instead, she focuses on a selection of authors both familiar and unfamiliar, most of whose lives (with the exception of Dorothy L. Sayers) I knew very little about beforehand.

While I enjoyed most of the chapters (the weakest, to me, were the final two, which focus on rectories where more than one author has lived), I was truly delighted by the sections on Alfred Tennyson, R.S. Thomas, and Sydney Smith.  I am not sure I had ever heard of R.S. Thomas (a Welsh poet and clergyman) before reading this but I was absolutely fascinated by his domestic life at Manafon Rectory in the Welsh borders. And I loved learning about the Tennysons growing up at Somersby.  I was especially delighted to hear that Alfred and his brothers went around wearing “long flowing capes and dark sombreros” as young men.  Their eccentric habits (and their vicious, unbalanced father) would have made them awful neighbours but they are absolutely fascinating subjects.

But best of all was Sydney Smith, the essayist and diarist.  Smith’s diaries have been on my to-be-read list for a while now and, after reading what Alun-Jones has to say about him, I am so much more eager to read them.  Smith sounds wonderful.  His home sounds wonderful.  His family sounds wonderful.  So many other writers she profiles had awful parents or were bitter misanthropes or impractical romantics who I could never identify with.  Smith, on the other hand, is described as someone who did good work as a clergyman but, more importantly, who was deeply loved by both his family and his large circle of friends.  He sounds entirely delightful and this brief portrait has only reinforced my desire to become better acquainted with him.

The portraits of Dorothy L. Sayers growing up in her father’s rectory and of Rupert Brooke’s lodgings at the now immortalized Old Vicarage, Grantchester are both excellently done.  I was less enamoured of the chapters discussing George Herbert and now Vikram’s Seth’s time at Bemerton and the rectory in Lincoln inhabited by the Benson family and, later, the de Waals.  The pages devoted to the Bensons are very well done but these chapters do not fit as well with the rest of the book.  I am also frankly skeptical of the de Waals’ literary credentials.

The Old Rectory, Farnborough (photo credit: Paul Barker)

The Old Rectory, Farnborough (photo credit: Paul Barker)

The whole book is beautifully and generously illustrated, with photographs, drawings, and paintings of the homes, churches, surroundings, and people Alun-Jones describes.  The chapter on R.S. Thomas is particularly interesting, with illustrations by his wife, the artist Elsi Eldridge (who sounds like a far more interesting person than her husband).  All of these illustrations helpfully allow the reader to do some superficial comparisons between the rectories and I must say that John Betjeman’s home at the Old Rectory in Farnborough looks to me to be the nicest of all the rectories surveyed.  But, as Alun-Jones points out, these rectories were often built by cash-strapped clergymen and what may have looked nice outside was cramped and barely habitable inside (at the Old Rectory, water had to be fetched from the village pump well into the 1950s).

All in all, a rather wonderful book.  I find that so many authors struggle with the kind of brief biographical sketches this book is made of; Alun-Jones does them very well indeed.  I, being someone who is fascinated by all things clergy-related, was the perfect audience and I was certainly a very appreciative one.

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2010 White House Christmas Tree (credit: Mary Katz)

2010 White House Christmas Tree (credit: Mary Katz)

Merry Christmas to all!

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P1080059Life is good.  Work has been busy but interesting, I have baked 1000 cookies in the past week (very small cookies, but still that was a lot of work), we had some beautiful (if inconvenient) snow here yesterday, and, most excitingly, my brother was accepted into a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, which means that not too many years from now I’ll be able to call him Dr. Phillip.  And we’re only a few days away from Christmas (and two precious days off work for me).  Life is very good indeed.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief 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.

Today I have the pleasure of introducing Linda from Silly Little Mischief as my new Library Loot co-host! She has been an active Library Loot participant for years and I am delighted to be sharing hosting duties with her.  We had decided to take a two week Library Loot break over the holidays so Linda’s first day hosting will be January 8th, 2014.

With all things Christmas taking up my non-working hours, I have not been reading a lot recently and I miss it.  I’ve generally stayed away from the library but here are a few of the books I’ve picked up recently:

Library Loot

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett –  Patchett’s most recent book, a collection of personal essays.  For the short periods I do have to read (i.e. my commute), this is perfect.

The Honeywell File by H.B. Creswell – This title might be familiar to anyone who has looked through this winter’s edition of Slightly Foxed Quarterly (which, by the way, is a particularly excellent issue).   A comic epistolary novel from the 1920s about the building of mansion, I am very excited to start this one.  At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if I should hold on to it until January 1st so as to count it for A Century of Books (which I am wildly excited about doing again).  So many difficult decisions…

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith – The less said about this the better.  I was attracted to it because it was set in Portland and the protagonist is a librarian but it turned out to be too much like what you would think a book about a twenty-something Portland librarian would be like…I understand that sentence might not have made sense, but oh well.  If you have hipster leanings, this is the book for you.  If you don’t, you will probably spend all your time rolling your eyes and thinking of mean things to say about Portland and its hipsters.  Though that is also a fun way to pass the time.

What did you pick up this week?

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The Rosie ProjectI first read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion back at the beginning of June.  I loved it then and, after rereading it again this weekend, I love it still.

Melbourne-based genetics professor Don Tillman is about as socially awkward a human being as you could hope to find.  He has never had a romantic relationship and, when the book begins he has only two friends: Gene, a fellow professor whose real life work is trying to sleep with a woman from every country, and Claudia, Gene’s psychologist wife whose tolerance for her open marriage is wearing thin.  Though Gene and Claudia are more socially adept than Don, their attempts to help him find a partner haven’t yielded much:

Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem.  Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences.  I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor.  Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women.  In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing. 

In the animal kingdom, Don might succeed.  In Melbourne, not so much.  Seeking a solution, Don comes up with The Wife Project.  This involves a detailed questionnaire meant to weed out any unviable candidates, unviable in this case meaning anyone who is a vegetarian, who is unpunctual, who smokes, who does not have a graduate-level education…the exacting list goes on.

But when Don meets Rosie, who is the exact opposite of the woman he is hoping to find with The Wife Project, things begin to change.  Logically, it makes no sense for him to spend time with her.  She is not a viable candidate for marriage (being a perpetually late vegetarian smoker, among other things) and yet he still finds himself enjoying the time he spends with her, though his interactions with her throw the rest of his carefully scheduled life into chaos.  And when he discovers Rosie is trying to discover who her birth father is, what could be more natural than Don, a geneticist, offering his assistance?  So begins The Rosie Project.

This is just such a sweet book.  It is funny and quirky but it is the tenderness with which Simsion treats his narrator that makes it so special.  As I said, I’ve already read it twice this year and you can be sure that I’ll be rereading it many times in the years to come.

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Library Lust

via skeppsholmen.se

via skeppsholmen.se

A book-lined mezzanine surely trumps all other mezzanines.  And, to be honest, I am always fond of half-height bookshelves, no matter where they are placed.

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Library Lust

credit:  Jayne Design Studio

credit: Jayne Design Studio

This weekend calls for a library with a fireplace. It is unusually cold here this week (it is minus 10 outside as I am writing this, an improvement over yesterday morning’s minus 18) and all I want to do is stay inside, wrap myself in blankets, and read. Instead, I have much to do but this is where I will dream I am spending the weekend.

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