Archive for December, 2014

Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

Top Books 2014 - 3

10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

Top Books 2014 - 2

7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

Top Books 2014 - 1

4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.


1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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Library Lust

Home of Andrea Anson (via New York Social Diary, 14 March 2014)

Home of Andrea Anson (via New York Social Diary, 14 March 2014)

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Merry Christmas


Christmas Day

I love Christmas day. Christmas Eve is our big celebration (family dinner, gifts, etc) but today is devoted to lounging about, eating leftovers from Christmas Eve dinner (fish and potato salad make an excellent breakfast) and sneaking Christmas cookies. What? The cookie plate is empty? No idea how that happened.

After a leisurely start to the morning (cocooned in a blanket, I finally read the Winter 2014 issue of “Slightly Foxed”), there was a family walk to take advantage of the glorious weather.  Now, congratulating ourselves on being so active, we are content to hole up at home for the rest of the day.  There are books to be read, movies to be watched (“Little Women”, I am thinking), and, for dinner, a delicious little duck to be cooked.  And, best of all, there are three more days without work stretching ahead of me after this.  Bliss!

Merry Christmas, everyone.


Christmas Eve


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the siren yearsA week before the rest of my presents will be unwrapped, Simon presented me with what might turn out to be my favourite gift of the holiday season: his review of The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie.

Charles Ritchie was a Canadian diplomat – I suspect this is the point where 50% of you will stop reading entirely – but, most importantly, he was a superb diarist.  He published four volumes of diaries, following him from his Oxford days in the 1920s to his final diplomatic posting in the 1970s.

The best of these is The Siren Years, which records his experiences during the Second World War when he was working in London at Canada House.  For fifteen years, this has been my gold-standard for wartime diaries.  As I said back in 2012 (when I picked it out as one of my favourite books of the year):

No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.

It is wonderful to be able to share the books you love with people who enjoy them and so I read Simon’s review with complete delight.

If you are interested in learning more about Ritchie, check out my thoughts on all four volumes of his diaries:

An Appetite for Life (Oxford, 1924-1927)

The Siren Years (London, 1937-1945)

Diplomatic Passport (Europe and America, 1946-1962)

Storm Signals (Washington and London, 1962-1971)

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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.

Library Loot 1A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Us by David Nicholls

How To Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

Library Loot 2Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively

What did you pick up this week?


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Library Lust

via Ciao Domenica

via Ciao Domenica

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Thursday Night Musings

Laid Down Woman, Sleeping by Felix Vallotton

Laid Down Woman, Sleeping by Felix Vallotton

After a twelve hour day at work (and the promise of a ten hour one tomorrow), my enthusiasm for writing a review tonight has disappeared entirely.  Best to quote someone who I know would understand my current sentiments:

I reviewed a book the other day.  It is not often I do this, because before one can review a book one has to, or is supposed to, read it, which wastes a good deal of time. – A.A. Milne, The Sunny Side

Because my weekdays are so busy, my weekends have been crammed full of reading lately.  Despite devoting the daylight hours to other activities, I try to devour several books between Friday and Sunday nights.  On one recent Sunday, I read the last six hundred pages of The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye (a bit of a disappointment, if I’m honest, after years of looking forward to it), one of Loretta Chase’s romance novels, and Hilary Boyd’s not awful but also not recognizably good Tangled Lives.  A good day’s work.  Last weekend I tried to balance my books across the days but lost some efficiency in doing so, only finishing two short novels and getting a third of the way through Claudia Renton’s Those Wild Wyndhams (which I can’t wait to jump back into this weekend).  This binge-purge cycle isn’t ideal but it’s all I have right now so I will take it!

I do try to read some during my commute, but that only seems to work in the mornings, when I’m able to get a seat on my bus.  I’ve been keeping to very, very light books, which are cheering in a way and certainly an undemanding start to the day but they do make me long for more substantial fare.  Still, hard to face footnotes that early in the morning.  The most dangerous side effect of my morning reading this week is that I finished a Paris-set novel feeling entirely bitter that I have not been there in almost eight years and, worse, have no plans (as yet) to visit soon.  I really love my work and my city but I do sometimes envy my friends who live in Europe for the ease with which they can access such places.  If I lived in London or Amsterdam, you can bet where I would be headed tomorrow night.

The retail world seems to be signalling that Christmas is approaching, so at some point I should also look into that.  My baking is partly done at least (2 Christmas cakes and 400 cookies down, about 250 cookies to go), but I suspect my family might also appreciate some presents.  Christmas at our house is very low-key (aside from the handing out of outrageous numbers of tiny cookies to all and sundry) so, though I’m dreading what shopping I need to do, I am very much looking forward to the holidays – and to having a couple of days off!

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Rick-Steves-Postcards-from-EuropeBack when I used to pretend to be cool (a ten-minute period back in 1997), I couldn’t imagine anything more embarrassing than using a guidebook while travelling.  If I’m honest, I still refuse to pull out guidebooks in public places and prefer to consult my maps in out of the way places where no local will dare offer to help me find my way.  Presumably this stems from the belief that if I don’t do these obviously touristy things, I will be mistaken for a local.  This has never worked outside of a select group of countries (the joy I feel when presented with a completely incomprehensible menu in Dutch or Czech is immense) but I persist in thinking it will.  But I am wandering off topic.  My point is that, while preferring to use them covertly, I love my travel guidebooks.  I study them religiously before going on trips, memorize the city maps they contain and any suggested travel itineraries, and, as a result, have a marvellous, stress-free time once I arrive at my destination, well-prepared to embark on my adventures.  And, though no guidebook is perfect or comprehends everything that you want to know, Rick Steves’ books are my favourites when it comes to planning my European holidays.  After years of reading his books and watching his travel shows on PBS, I knew much about Steves’ philosophies (for example, his passion for Travel as a Political Act) but very little about his background.  So, when I heard about Postcards from Europe by Rick Steves, first published in 1999, I picked it up eagerly.

The book follows Steves as he makes his way across Europe, meeting up with old friends, rediscovering favourite places, and marvelling about his luck at turning a love of travel into a full-time job.  Through the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, he relates stories from his many years as a travel guide and from his own early adventures in Europe, first on a staid but eye-opening family holiday and then on the “Europe Through the Gutter” he and a friend took after graduating from high school.  It is a nostalgic journey, as Steves examines how he has changed over the years and what his influence has been on changing some of the places and people mentioned in his guidebooks.

For me, the best part of the book was learning more about Steves’ past.  How he came to love Europe and how he basically fell into the travel industry by giving talks (which turned into classes) to raise money for his upcoming European holidays.  The early years of the tour group business sound a little sketchy (stays in hostels and tents, rides on the top of the coach bus, torrid love affairs among clients, guides, and bus drivers, etc) – a particularly funny juxtaposition if you’ve ever come across a modern-day organized Rick Steves tour while travelling (average age seems to be mid-sixties, though that might be generous).  But maybe I am being overly censorious; perhaps the seniors are getting up to equally remarkable (and legally questionable) high jinks today.  I rather hope so, especially since they are of an age to have been some of Steves’ original clients back when he started conducting tours.

Every so often, there was an anecdote or joke that took me completely aback.  There was nothing crude or offensive, just a little racier or saltier than my PBS-sanitized mental image of Steves.  These were memorable stories (a young mid-Westerner’s encounter with a particularly enterprising female thief in Rome stands out in my mind) but left me shamefully embarrassed – for myself, not Steves.  It’s that same sort of shock as when you first hear your parents make a dirty joke.  It takes a while to recover and to realign your universe.

Amsterdam (2013)

Amsterdam (2013)

As usual, Steves make me long to go to the places he talks about in the book.  Most are old favourites – the Netherlands, the Rhine Valley, Munich, the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland, and, of course, Paris – but others I still long to visit.  His enthusiasm for Venice is infectious – even if I hadn’t already been longing to go, I’m sure reading this would have sent me running to the library for more books on that watery city.

Lauterbrunnen Valley (2014)

Lauterbrunnen Valley (2014)

Most of all, I appreciate how liberal he is with jokes about national stereotypes.  If there is one thing I love, it is sweeping generalizations about the characteristics of nations (think Letters from England or Switzerland for Beginners).  There are many particularly good zingers about Americans here (Steves is, after all, on a quest to broaden the minds of his fellow countrymen), one of my favourites being:   “Babies, ancient astronomers, and Americans think the universe revolves around them.”  But there is one joke, supposedly told to Steves by some Dutch friends, that I have joyously shared with all my friends and family and which comes at the expense of us otherwise adorable and inoffensive Canadians: “Canada could have had it all: British culture, French cuisine, American know-how…but they messed up and got British food, French know-how, and American culture.”  We are working hard on righting this, but how true!

Reading this was like, after years of admiring but never really knowing someone on the edge of your circle of friends, finally sitting down with them for a few hours and learning their life’s story.  It was an informative, fun, and more than a little surprising experience that, in this case, left me even fonder of Steves than I was before.

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Library Lust

credit: Commune Design (via Desire to Inspire)

credit: Commune Design (via Desire to Inspire)

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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.

Library Loot 1

The Darkest Hour by Barbara Erskine

Seize the Fire by Adam Nicolson

Tangled Lives by Hilary Boyd

Library Loot 2

The Sun and Other Stars by Brigid Pasulka

The Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Library Loot 3

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe

Marrying Anita by Anita Jain

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Library Loot 4

Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Mulock Craik

What did you pick up this week?


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