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Archive for February, 2015

Library Lust

credit: unknown (via booklover.tumblr)

credit: unknown (via booklover.tumblr)

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Letters from ItalyIn 1923, the great Czech writer Karel Čapek published his first travel book: Letters from Italy.  Having greatly enjoyed Letters from England (1924) and being now in the midst of planning my first trip to Italy, this seemed like the perfect time to read about Čapek’s travels there.

Good news about my upcoming trip: there will be fewer fascists (I hope) than Čapek encountered.  Needless to say, they were not the highlight of his trip.  Čapek spent much of his career speaking out against dictatorships and fascism in particular, which does make one wonder why he decided to visit Italy so soon after Mussolini came into power.  On the other hand, it is Italy.  I can understand how its charm would outweigh any feelings of disgust for its vile Prime Minister.

Čapek starts in Venice (as I plan to do – how cunning of him to mirror my own itinerary!).  The famously confusing streets befuddle the traveller almost immediately:

I, who flatter myself that I have the sense of direction, strolled round a circle for two hours yesterday.  I left St. Mark’s Square for the Rialto, a good ten minutes’ walk: after two hours I finally reached St. Mark’s Square.  These Venetian streets decidedly remind me of the East, clearly because I have never been in the East, or of the Middle Ages for perhaps the same reason.

Paragraphs like this are the reason I love Čapek so much.  Unfortunately, there are very few of them in this book.

Čapek moves on to, well, just about everywhere.  For a brief trip, he covers a lot of ground.  He moves comfortably through the country, despite speaking no Italian – perhaps, as he believes, because he speaks no Italian:

Undoubtedly in international hotels you can always make yourself understood in French: but there are places more interesting than all the hotels in the world, and there you have such a cosmopolitan babel that you cannot inquire or make yourself comprehensible or ask anyone for anything; there you rely upon people to provide you with food, drink, and lodgings and take you somewhere – how and where, that is of course in their powers and not yours, but you trust yourself to them as a dumb, helpless creature incapable of choice, self-defence, or insult.  And so they give you food and drink, protection and lodging; you accept everything with a thousand-fold more gratitude than if you ordered it in a lordly, comprehensive way.

On he travels but, to be honest, he moves too quickly to really observe any place very well.  It’s fun to say “oh, that sounds like somewhere worth visiting” but that is not what I look for in this sort of book.  I want to be charmed and entertained and, mostly, I want him to be funny in his criticisms of Italy and the Italians.  He did this brilliantly in Letters from England but obviously had not quite found his style yet with this book.  And what a shame – I’m sure he could have been quite devastatingly clever if he’d let loose (there are flashes of this at times).

The book ends in Bolzano, which Čapek views with relief.  After sunshine and arid hilltowns, palaces and museums, it is unbelievably cheering to come to a familiar landscape of mountains and forests and to see people who, until only a few years before, had been part of the same Empire as he.  Travel is broadening but never more delightful than when you encounter the familiar after weeks of feeling like an alien.

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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 Dancing Bear by Frances Faviell

Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day by Doug Mack

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Library Loot 2

Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Library Loot 3

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse by Alida Nugent

What did you pick up this week?

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The Summer of the Great GrandmotherBack in late 2012, Lisa reviewed The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle.  Familiar with L’Engle’s children’s books, I had not known until then she had written any non-fiction, never mind four volumes of very personal “Crosswicks Journals”, focusing on her own life.  I almost immediately read and adored Two-Part Invention, the fourth Crosswicks book, but The Summer of the Great-Grandmother remained on my To-Be-Read list.  Until now.

Published in 1974 (14 years before Two-Part Invention), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is L’Engle’s record of the last summer of her mother’s life, spent at Crosswicks, L’Engle’s Connecticut home.  L’Engle’s mother is ninety and suffering from dementia.  Though a doctor friend assures L’Engle at the beginning of the summer that her mother is not likely to die soon (not, in the circumstances, a particularly comforting message), she only lasts a few months.  It is a rapid and far from graceful decline but, perhaps thankfully, one that she is not entirely present for.  L’Engle, spending a summer with four generations of family under one roof (not to mention the young friends brought in to help care for her mother), is caught between moments of delight – a family wedding, the joy of having her granddaughters with her for the summer – and the exhausting duty of watching the sharp, engaging mother she knows fade away.

This is not a distressing book.  Not in the way Two-Part Invention was, certainly.  In that book, L’Engle struggles to make sense of her husband’s cancer diagnosis and – within a few months – his death.  But the death of a parent, particularly one in her nineties, is the most natural thing on earth.  That doesn’t make it cheerful, exactly, but L’Engle spends most of the book thinking about her mother’s life and the family members who came before, remembering the stories she was told as a child that her mother, robbed of her memory, can no longer tell.  Memories are important, something that is shown all the more clearly by the loss of them.  This book is L’Engle’s way of ensuring that her mother is not forgotten, even if L’Engle herself should one day start to forget:

How many people have been born, lived rich, loving lives, laughed and wept, been part of creation, and are now forgotten, unremembered by anybody walking the earth today?

And yet it is not a biography – it cannot be.  L’Engle, whose memory of her mother is “the fullest memory of anybody living”, knows that even she only has a partial portrait of the woman who her mother is and was:

I am trying to take a new look at my mother’s life and world, and I find that I can do this only subjectively.  I can look objectively at Mother’s life only during the years before I was born, before my own remembering begins, when I did not know her; and even they my objectivity is slanted by selectivity, my own, hers, and that of friends and relatives who told me stories which for some reason Mother had omitted from her repertoire…

But there attempts at objectivity fall apart, and biology makes me subjective, and this is the other strand of the intertwined helix, my very subjective response to this woman who is, for me, always and irrevocably, first, Mother; and second, her own Madeleine.

How long does family memory last?  For how long will our descendents remember us?  Two generations, certainly.  But three, four?  By the fifth, what will your great-great-great-grandchildren know about you, other than that you must have existed?  Will they even know your name?  They almost certainly won’t know anything of the family you came from, all the family stories you heard growing up, the legend of uncle so-and-so, the scandal of great-aunt whatshername.  That small fraction of their lives that we know will be forgotten, just as the facts of our own lives will be forgotten.  It is natural – our memories are not that long and we, already bent under the weight of expectation loaded on us by living (or still remembered) relatives, certainly don’t need to feel that umpteen generations of ancestors are judging us as well.  But we would not be human if we did not, even while embracing logic, long to be remembered, to leave our lasting mark on the world.

That is what this book is: a record of L’Engle’s mother, a determined effort to ensure her life will be remembered, as well as the lives of her parents and grandparents.  And what lives they were.  Full of breathless brushes with danger, moments of tragedy, and far too many women named Madeleine, L’Engle’s family tree is full of fascinating characters.  In fact, the more distant ancestors – with their encounters with a pirate and a empress , not to mention flights from flaming cities – rather take over the book, edging out L’Engle’s mother much of the time.  And that is a pity because she sounds like a fascinating woman who, particularly in early years of her marriage, lived an excitingly cosmopolitan life.  It was an extraordinarily well-lived life and this book is a beautiful, loving testament to it.

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As is tradition here at The Captive Reader, I am celebrating my (29th) birthday today by sharing my five favourite libraries from the last year of Library Lust posts.  Enjoy!

via the pink pagoda

via the pink pagoda

via Lonny

via Lonny

credit: Architectural Digest (designer: Thomas Jayne)

credit: Architectural Digest (designer: Thomas Jayne)

credit: Architectural Digest (designer: Sally Sirkin Lewis)

credit: Architectural Digest (designer: Sally Sirkin Lewis)

Country Traditional Library via Lonny

If you’re interested, you can also check out past birthday editions from 20142013, 2012, and 2011.

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Lovely Craftsman house in Laurelhurst with snowdrops galore!

I spent last weekend in Portland (Oregon, in case some of you might have thought I was very ambitious and had popped across to Maine for a couple of days).  Portland is just far enough from Vancouver to make any visit there feel special (I take the proximity of Seattle for granted so much that I’ve never actually visited) and it more than rewards its visitors with wonderful neighbourhoods, excellent restaurants, and, of course, one of the largest book stores in North America.

Thanks to a long weekend in BC, I was able to spend three nights in Portland and packed quite a lot in to the visit.  I visited neighbourhoods I had never seen before (Laurelhurst made me nostalgic for the way Vancouver used to look – and for the prices we used to have!), stood in line with hipsters for twenty minutes at Salt and Straw for ice cream (a scoop of Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper that was actually worth the wait), revisited favourite restaurants, attended the very enjoyable Italian Style exhibition (on loan from the V&A) at the Portland Art Museum, and visited Powell’s bookstore.  Twice.

Let’s be honest: book buying is half the attraction of visiting Portland.  I’m not as practised as some of my fellow bloggers but I came home with what, for me, is a large haul:

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Dr. Wortle’s School by Anthony Trollope – it is never a bad thing to grow one’s Trollope collection.

The House by the Dvina and A Home by the Hooghly by Eugenie Fraser – I was reading a library copy Fraser’s wonderful memoir The House by the Dvina just before we left for Portland and had to pick up a copy of my own.  And I couldn’t resist her second memoir either, about her married life in India

Anthony Trollope by Victoria Glendinning – Audrey has been reading this and sharing wonderful excerpts from it.

Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek – an interview of Czechoslovakia’s first president by one of its great writers.  I’ve been meaning to add this to my collection of Czech books for years.

The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by William Maxwell – STW is possibly the best letter writer I’ve ever come across.  A collection edited by Maxwell – a close friend and equally devoted correspondent – promises to be good.

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners a wonderful collection (and one of my favourite books that I read in 2014).

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan – Hazan is frequently mentioned by many of my favourite food bloggers and, having fallen completely for the few recipes of hers that I have tried, I knew I had to add this cookbook to my collection.

Now to find somewhere to put these books – my shelves were already overflowing!

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Library Lust

credit: NY TImes (Italian Palazzo of Dan Blagg and Francesco Bianchini)

credit: NY Times (Italian Palazzo of Dan Blagg and Francesco Bianchini)

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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.

Just back from a quick weekend trip to Portland and catching up on many things (including everyone else’s blog posts), so the briefest of loot posts today.  Some exciting picks though, including a comic, a graphic memoir, two books about Italy, and an absorbing study of the pressures facing modern families.

Library Loot 1 Library Loot 2

What did you pick up this week?

 

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Library Lust

via desire to inspire (designer: ds Architecture and Design)

via desire to inspire (designer: ds Architecture and Design)

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