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Archive for October, 2015

Library Lust

via New York Social Diary

via New York Social Diary

Despite all those nice, neat libraries I post pictures of, this is actually what my house looks like most of the time. More books piled on top of tables, chairs, dressers, and the floor than on the bookshelves.

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Bath TangleI read Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer last weekend.  If there is one author I know I can depend on to entertain and distract me when I’m feeling down or tired or just in need of entertainment and distraction, it is Heyer.  She is witty, stylish, romantic, and, above all, an immaculate historian.  What is not to love?

I believe I first discovered Heyer in 2004.  It was a week or so before I started university and I was visiting my grandmother in rural Ontario.  She had just picked up a box of books (a box!  The luxury of it!) from a library sale and there were five or six Heyer titles in it, all in lurid Pan Books paperback editions.  With little else to do each afternoon when the humid August days inevitably gave way to thunderstorms, I started reading.  Despite a lacklustre start (These Old Shades – a book I still hate), I kept reading (there were a lot of thunderstorms that week) and eventually moved on to Bath Tangle.  It didn’t make a huge impression at the time but it, along with Arabella, was enough to turn me into a devoted Heyer fan.  I nicked my grandmother’s copy of Bath Tangle and as soon as I arrived at university, the first thing I did was check out more of Heyer’s books from the library.

Lurid Pan Books edition

Lurid Pan Books edition

While I’ve read and reread Heyer with pleasure in the years since that first encounter, I think I only reread Bath Tangle once: in 2006, when I had a Heyer marathon the summer following my grandmother’s death.  It’s not that I thought it bad, it just didn’t stand out in my memory the way Heyer’s best books (such as A Civil Contract, The Grand Sophy, and Sylvester) do.  I remembered a combative hero and heroine and that was about all.  Returning to it now, I was delighted to discover what an entertaining, absorbing story it is.

The novel begins shortly after the death of the Earl of Spenborough.  He has left behind a young widow, Fanny, and an unmarried daughter, Serena, who has the peculiarly awkward position of being several years older than her step-mother.  Despite their unusual relationship, the two young women get along very well.  The bold, energetic Serena may not understand how her stepmother could be content with a quiet life spent organizing a household but then neither could sweet, docile Fanny understand how her stepdaughter could find such pleasure in political debates and daily gallops that would quite terrify most women.  Still mourning the man who united them, they decide to settle in Bath for a time.  But the arrival of two young, beautiful women cannot go without notice and it is not long before they are surrounded by friends and suitors, new and old.

One of the things I certainly didn’t appreciate the first time I read this book was Fanny’s passionate reaction to the news that a young neighbour – a girl of seventeen – is engaged to a man in his late thirties.  The girl herself knows exactly what she is getting from the match – a title, riches, an estate, an impressive position – and is smugly pleased about it – to a point – but to Fanny it is too much a reminder of how her own family pressured her into marriage.  Spenborough was a kind husband and a good man but not one Fanny would have chosen for herself, had she been in a position to do so.  She was pretty and biddable and her mama was looking for a brilliant match.  She did not consider what her daughter’s romantic fantasies might have been; when an Earl offered, Fanny was offered up, never mind that he was older than her own father.  In doing so, Fanny’s mother made her meek daughter into a champion romantic – someone who believes love should conquer all, no matter the obstacles.

Serena does not share her stepmother’s sensibilities.  Having fancied herself in love twice before – once at nineteen with a young soldier, Hector Kirkby, and then again in her early twenties, with a close family friend, Ivo Barrasford, the Marquis of Rotherham – she knows better than to put too much faith in romance.  Indeed, imagining herself in love she’d actually gone so far as to become engaged to Rotherham.  She’d broken off the engagement, scandalously, but never repented of it.  Rotherham had remained a close friend and frequent sparring partner, being one of the few people with a tongue and mind as sharp as Serena’s.  But her arrival in Bath and the surprising reintroduction of Hector Kirkby into her life makes Serena wonder if perhaps she should reconsider her views on love and marriage.

I loved the friendships in this book.  Serena and Fanny, though so different from one another, care immensely for the other’s happiness.  It is difficult to imagine a household that could please both of them completely –indeed, I doubt such a thing could ever be managed – but they compromise as best they can.  Serena tries not to scandalise Fanny too much with her fast ways, free opinions, and vulgar friends while Fanny values the confidence and protection she gains from having Serena as a companion.  Without Serena standing guard, Fanny knows she would fall victim to her scheming mother’s ways once more and that is something she is determined, in her own quiet way, to avoid.

But most of all I loved the friendship between Serena and Ivo.  Heyer excelled at writing combative couples as well as friendly couples.  Here, she combines the two and the effect is excellent.  Having known each other for ever, Ivo and Serena interact with a familiarly usually only seen within families.  They are as happy to chat as to fight and view both activities as good sport.  They use one another’s first names, they scandalise poor Fanny with their love of political gossip, and they look out for one another.  Intellectually and emotionally, they match.  The most painful moments of the book are when they hurt one another or – and this is what makes them such an appealing match – are hurting for the other.  Both become engaged to absurdly poor mates during the course of the novel and I think the most emotionally resonant part of the novel, for me, is Serena’s reaction when she learns of Ivo’s engagement.  She is not admitting she loves him and is not feeling sorry for herself; she is absolutely distraught for him and the bleak, unequal future she sees for him with the silly, shallow girl he has engaged himself to.  This level of love and friendships on both sides is what makes their final happiness so satisfying.

Bath Tangle isn’t quite up there with Heyer’s best but it certainly rests higher up on my favourites list now than it did before.

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Europe Trip: Siena

View from my bedroom in Siena

View from my bedroom in Siena

I started my holiday this year in Siena and I can’t imagine a better introduction to Italy.  I’d spent years saying I wasn’t interested in Italy, spending my holidays further north instead, away from romantic languages and sun-drenched landscapes.  Even once I started planning this holiday, Tuscany held no particular appeal.  However, the walking tour that worked best with my itinerary was based in Tuscany so to Tuscany I went.  I had one night between arriving in Europe and the start of my tour so I decided to spend it in Siena.  It made for a long trip (Vancouver to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Florence, Florence to Siena with no sleep at any point – I hit that really fun weepy/giddy no-sleep stage during my four hour layover in Amsterdam.  Good times) but was absolutely the right choice.  As soon as I arrived in Siena, I feel in love with it.

The Campo at Night

The Campo at Night

I arrived just before dusk, giving me enough time to enjoy the stunning view from my hotel before the sun set.  After tidying up a little (there is nothing so wonderful as a hot shower and a change of clothes after 24 hours in transit), I went out into the streets and found them alive with locals out for their passeggiata evening stroll.  I spent two hours just walking, seeing the Duomo lit up at night, watching children race around the gently slopped Campo (Siena’s famous clamshell-shaped square) while parents and grandparents chatted nearby with neighbours, and just generally taking in the atmosphere.  By the time I sat down to dinner, I was thoroughly enchanted with the town.  The seemingly endless number of (sometimes bizarre) events taking place around town only added to my enjoyment – Siena may be small but that doesn’t make it sleepy!

CampoThe next day I had to join my walking tour group further south but not until the evening.  The weather was stunning, so I climbed the tour on the Campo, enjoying the fantastic views of the city and the surrounding countryside.  After that, I just wandered, enjoying the slow pace of a sunny Sunday in Siena.  It’s been a busy and stressful year for me and this was the perfect break from that to get me into proper, relaxed holiday mode.  I walked empty streets and thronged ones, through building-lined squares and tree-lined parks.  I had a leisurely lunch in the sunshine and licked a gelato while wandering later in the afternoon.  And then, revived and excited to start my Italian adventures, I left.Siena

But I came back!  Later in the week, as part of my walking tour, we had a free day to explore Siena.  It was pounding rain (making me very happy I’d made the most of my sunny day there) but that made it the perfect day to explore the Duomo – which had been closed for Sunday service my first day there.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been as comfortable in a cathedral as I was in Siena’s stripped, pattern-mad Duomo.  It’s an extraordinary space and I spent hours exploring it and the rest of the cathedral complex before venturing out again into the wet streets.  The best thing about rain is that it gives you an excuse to duck into shops and cafes.  I had a lovely, leisurely lunch in one of the restaurants on the Campo, bought beautiful marbled notebooks at Il Papiro and, later in the afternoon, was revived by a visit to Nannini, the city’s famed bakery. Duomo

My two weeks in Italy were wonderful but, for me, Siena was the highlight.  Yes, Venice was magical, Lake Garda was breathtaking and the Tuscan countryside was like walking through every Renaissance painting you’ve ever seen.  But Siena was perfect and my time there was too short.  It was a wonderful taste of a city I can’t wait to visit again and already I am plotting how and when I can return. Siena 2

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Library Lust

Two views of one absolutely lovely room:

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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

As the Romans Do by Alan Epstein – thought my reading about Italy would end once I got back from Italy?  Me too.  But now I understand why all those expats want to move there so I feel compelled to read their memoirs – like this one – about those moves.  It’s the next best thing, really.

Curry Easy by Madhur Jaffrey and Jamie’s Comfort Food – Autumn means more time at home and more time for cooking.

What did you pick up this week?

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VignoniI am back after a wonderful two weeks in Italy.  I strolled through vineyards, forests, and countless hill-towns in Tuscany, admired palm trees, snow-capped mountains and German tourists on Lake Garda, and found unexpected quiet on Venice’s twisting, charming streets and canals.

To be frank, I am not particularly excited to be home.  I would much rather be sitting somewhere in the Veneto with a glass of prosecco or visiting a spa in Merano or maybe discovering the ancient glories of Rome.  Instead, I am back at home where it is cold and wet and I am expected to work for a living for another thirty or forty years.  Most unsatisfactory.

the-road-to-little-dribbling-115989452My wanderlust is something I live with the whole year round, though my vacations are limited to three weeks a year.  I am already plotting where to go next year.  Italy again?  My beloved Germany, perhaps?  Croatia, finally?  Dare I pluck up the courage for India?  I thought I had it narrowed down but then yesterday I read Bill Bryson’s newest book, The Road to Little Dribbling, and now, of course, I am desperate to go back to the UK.  One of the delights of the UK, as Bryson never tires of pointing out, is how crammed full it is of fascinating people, places and history.  London alone has more cultural sights than many countries but there are thoughtful, original museums and galleries scattered across the rest of the nation with infuriating frequency.  I am ready to go NOW and spend three or four weeks (months?) roaming about, visiting museums and galleries, walking the South Downs and the Yorkshire Dales.

What I shall actually do is stay here, work, study for a demanding upcoming professional exam, and, perhaps, occasionally remember to update this blog.  I do miss regular blogging but have been so busy this year that I’ve barely had time to read, never mind reflect on my reading.  It is something I miss and I hope in the coming months I’ll be able to make blogging part of my regular schedule again.

Though I didn’t read much, and certainly not deeply, I did come across some excellent books this summer.  Girl at War by Sara Nović, about the impact of the Serbo-Croatian war on a young girl, was excellent; Uprooted, a light, undemanding fantasy novel from Naomi Novik, was a fun distraction from my other concerns; and Man Overboard by Monica Dickens was a nice, light romance about an unemployed naval officer that reminded me of how well Dickens writes from the male perspective and had unmistakable similarities to the writing of my dear Nevil Shute.

Sofia Khan is Not ObligedBut the most delightful surprise of this summer was Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (of which Kate has already written an excellent and far more detailed review).  Sometimes, books appear that so perfectly match my dream book wish list that I can barely believe they are real.  This was one of those books.  Sofia Khan is a young British Muslim woman, working in the publishing industry in London (much like her creator).  Like many young women, she is looking for love but not prepared to compromise too much.  She wants someone who shares her faith, is close to his family (though not too close – living with the in-laws is a step too far for Sofia), and believes in her feminist values.  If he happens to be gorgeous and brings the banter, so much the better.

Through Sofia and her friends, Malik looks with humour and sympathy at the way young, educated, devout, modern Muslim women approach romance.  One friend is in love with married man and, as the novel begins, considering becoming a second wife.  Another is in a relationship with a black man, something her family and community would certainly not approve of.  Sofia isn’t quite sure who she wants but she knows she wants love and marriage and a family of her own.

As someone who has never been able to connect with alcohol- and regretful hook-up-driven Chick Lit novels (or television shows, like Sex and the City), Sofia Khan is Not Obliged was a welcome change.  It offered a cheeky, intelligent, fallible heroine who, although I may not share her faith or culture, I could identify with more easily than most of the other protagonists in the genre.  Once I started reading, I could not put the book down – it’s the only thing I’ve read this year that kept me up past midnight (on a weekday, no less).  I read it thanks to NetGalley and can’t wait for the paperback to come out in January (it is available now as an e-book).

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