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Archive for December, 2016

2016 was an entirely adequate year for me.  I earned my first professional designation after three years of hard work and study, went on some great trips (though, having stayed in North America all year, I really did miss my usual visit to Europe), and, the crucial difference from 2015, none of my loved ones died or seriously injured themselves.  Well done us!

And, of course, there were lots of books.  Here are the best of the best:

books-310. The Lark (1922) – E. Nesbit
This charming story of two young women and their attempts to support themselves is featuring on a lot of “Best of” lists this year and rightly so. And the best news is that it will be reprinted and easily available as of March 2017, thanks to Scott!

9. More Was Lost (1946) – Eleanor Perényi
An interesting and entertaining memoir about life in Central Europe in the late 1930s from a young American woman married to a Hungarian nobleman.

8. Classic German Baking (2016) – Luisa Weiss
Simply put, this is the cookbook I have been longing for all my life. The Christmas chapter alone – heck, just the recipe for Basler Brunsli cookies – would have been enough to earn it a spot on this list. As it is, the other chapters are equally wonderful.

books-27. Lassoing the Sun (2016) – Mark Woods
I feel rather guilty that I didn’t get around to writing about this wonderful book. A journalist based in Florida, Woods set out to spend a year visiting twelve of America’s national parks. Not the necessarily most beautiful or the most popular ones, but “each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.”  A fascinating project, but not the heart of what the year evolved into, as Woods’ mother passed away after a short and fierce illness.  His travels are tied up with his mourning for his mother, his lifelong memories of visiting the parks with his family, and the urge to share that same sense of wonder and discovery with his own daughter.  Really very wonderful and touching.

6. The House by the Dvina (1984) – Eugenie Fraser
This memoir of Fraser’s childhood in Russia (before, during and immediately after the Revolution) is richly and wonderfully told, taking you deep into a close-knit family and a vanished world. It feels very Slightly Foxed-esque and I can only hope it’s on their radar for possible reissue.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) – Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Speaking of Slightly Foxed, this wonderful history of girls’ boarding schools is one of the most amusing and original books I’ve read in years.

books-14. Saturday’s Child (1914) – Kathleen Thompson Norris
I first read this novel in 2015 and loved it then too but I think it made an even bigger impact on rereading. The perfect dose of both commiseration and inspiration at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and indulging, like the heroine, in a bit too much “woe is me”-ing and not enough productive action. It’s deeply reassuring to know that a hundred years ago young working women felt exactly the same way I do in 2016.

3. Children of Earth and Sky (2016) – Guy Gavriel Kay
The newest release from the master of historical fantasy, I loved this so much I read it twice this year.

2. To the Bright Edge of the World (2016) – Eowyn Ivey
A magical, enthralling tale of an 1880s expedition into the remote Alaskan wilderness. Beautifully told and deeply satisfying to read, I keep pressing everyone I know to try it.

new-i-was-a-stranger-bunkerbooks1. I Was a Stranger (1977) – General Sir John Hackett
In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.

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Library Lust

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terms-conditionsEvery December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school.  It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women.  There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia.  It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays.  It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.

This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979.  The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort.  Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.”  And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.

But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain?  Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.

I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:

…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills.  These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise.  These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers.  They thrived on obstacles in their way.  The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”

Delightfully put and full of truth.  My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.

In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools.  Some were miserable, some happy.  Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept.  We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.

I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools.  There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones.  The overachieving academic schools (school?  This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes.  The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:

Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above.  If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms.  The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county.  It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere.  Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out.  If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.

The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:

Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.”  “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”

You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world.  Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women.  Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied.  Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”

It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone.  British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level.  It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing.  The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.

However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:

There was an innocence about these establishments.  They were not all about self-advancement or money-making.  They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters.  As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results.  The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.

I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement.  But what I am not torn over is my love for this book.  It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.

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9780670068395Last May I was a basket case.  I was working too much and, when I wasn’t working, I was studying.  Occasionally I tried to sleep but I was so wired that I was getting by on four hours a night.

Into this mess came a ray of sunlight: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay was published on May 10th.  For a few days, I put aside my other concerns (and text books) and just read.  It was wonderful.  So wonderful, in fact, that I picked it up again on Christmas Day and reread it.

Kay writes historical fantasy with a focus on the historical and only a light sprinkling of fantasy (very light here).  My favourite of his books are inspired by Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne) and Tang-dynasty China (Under Heaven).  In Children of Earth and Sky, he takes his inspiration from Renaissance-era Europe, specifically focusing on the trading powers of Venice (Seressa) and Dubrovnik (Dubrava) and their complicated relationship with one another and the Ottoman (Osmanli) empire to the east.

Kay is fascinated by stories about borderlands – places where different groups of people overlap, where cultures and religions are in conflict, where anything might happen.  In other books, those people have been emperors and kings, individuals with the power to change and destroy lives.  Perhaps the most noticeable change about Children of Earth and Sky when compared to Kay’s other books is the relative anonymity of his characters.  These are not kings or generals but even their actions have consequences for the lives of many.

At the heart of the book are five characters: Leonora, the disgraced daughter of a noble family who has been plucked from the religious order where her family had left her to act as a spy for Seressa in Dubrava; Pero, a young and talented artist who, like Leonora, is being sent east by Seressa to  spy (in his case on the Osmanli grand khalif); Danica, a fierce young woman seeking revenge for the father and elder brother killed and the younger brother abducted by the Osmanlis; Marin, the youngest and cleverest son of a wealthy Dubrava family; and Damaz, a member of the elite Osmanli fighting force known as the djanni.  Each of their lives changes in ways they could never have imagined – and they in turn change the world around them in ways both big and small.

Kay seems even more philosophical than usual in this book, which is fine by me.  He is at his most lyrical when musing on fate or the fragility of life:

You lived your life in intimate proximity to its sudden end.  Prayers were more intense because of this.  Help was needed, under sun, moons, stars – and some reason to hope for what might come after.

Laughter was also necessary, and found, in spite of – or because of – these close and terrible dangers.  Simple pleasures.  Music and dance, wine, ale, dice and cards.  Harvest’s end, the taste of berries on the bush, tricking the bees from a hive full of honey.  Warmth and play in a bed at night or in the straw of a bar.  Companionship.  Sometimes love.

There were reasons to fear in every season, however, in every place where men and women tried to shape and guard their lives.

Maybe because of this interest, his secondary characters seem more developed (and plentiful) than usual.  The faded Empress of Sarantium, who has lost her empire, her husband and her son but not her wits or strength.  The proud, doomed pirates of Senjan who, loyal to their ruler, march inland to fight against the Osmanlis and meet their fate bravely and on their own terms.  The farm girl whose life is enlivened for a year by the arrival of a tall, handsome boy, giving flight to dreams of a life with him rather than the short, dull neighbour whose farm adjoins hers.  The aging fighter who has spent half his life roaming the countryside, fighting the Osmanlis who took his home from him.  Great or small, their stories are richly told and, whether they appear for a few pages or a few chapters, these characters lived for me.

It is a beautifully-told story and, with its focus very much on human emotions rather than grand events, a poignant one.  I revisited it with pleasure this week and I know I’ll reread it with joy in years to come.

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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.

Happy awkward week between the holidays!  If you are one of those amazingly lucky people who doesn’t have to work this week, congratulations.  If you are not, I hope your offices are well-stocked with leftover holiday chocolates and enough people are on vacation that your work is not too onerous (this is certainly what I’m hoping for).

There were not a lot of books under my Christmas tree this year so I found myself lurking at the library on Tuesday, trying to fill the void.  I think I did quite well.

library-loot-1

The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen – as far as I can tell, a guide to better living through all things Scandinavian.  Pretty much the opposite of Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People, which I really enjoyed earlier this year.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – a fascinating-looking memoir that is featuring on a lot of “Best of 2016” lists.

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner – don’t know much about this one but the promise of a multi-generational family saga set off the coast of Italy was enticing enough.  Looks like a good book to distract me from the snow and ice that have rudely accumulated here.

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The German War by Nicholas Stargardt – second time checking this excellent-looking social history out of the library.  Hopefully I’ll actually get a chance to read it this time!

For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton – a biography of Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary and athlete immortalized in Chariots of Fire.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl – I loved Comfort Me with Apples but somehow never managed to read this first memoir.

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

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Library Lust

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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

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

Shanghai Grand by Taras Grescoe

library-loot-3

Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

My Paris Dream by Kate Betts

library-loot-2

Will You Won’t You Want Me? by Nora Zelevansky

Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

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crosstalkWhen I picked up Crosstalk by Connie Willis from the library last week, it was a leap of faith.  Willis is an author who I always think I should like but, in reality, I find most of her books incredibly frustrating.  Of the five I’d read, the only one I’d really loved was Doomsday Book and, to be fair, I really, really do love it and spend a significant portion of my time trying to push it on unsuspecting acquaintances.  My love for it almost makes up for how disappointing I’ve found most of her other books.  I’m still disgusted with the lazy mediocrity of Blackout and All Clear, books that felt so promising and delivered absolutely nothing.

But I remain hopeful. And this time I am happy to say that my optimism paid off: Crosstalk was delightful.

Set in the near future, we meet our heroine Briddey Flannigan just after her boyfriend of only a few weeks has proposed they undergo the very trendy EED procedure, which purportedly allows couples to feel one another’s emotions and use this as the basis for building deeper, more emotionally transparent relationships.  It is, her gushing coworkers remind her, a very big and very romantic gesture.  Only C.B., the office tech geek and communications skeptic, seems to think it is a bad idea.

All too quickly, Briddey finds herself undergoing the procedure.  But when she wakes up, it is not Trent, her boyfriend, whose emotions she can sense.  It’s C.B.  And more than that, she finds they have a telepathic link.  But soon it’s not just C.B.’s voice she hears in her head and, rather than a blessing, the ability to hear other people’s thoughts quickly comes to seem like a curse that could drive her mad.

There are a few trademark weaknesses in the story.  It is overlong, like many of Willis’ books.  Some of the plot twists are so clearly flagged beforehand that you almost become impatient waiting for the reveal.  And it gets a little too wrapped up towards the end in the imaginary structures created by each of the telepaths (there is in fact no need to invite a fellow telepath over to explore your imaginary garden when you are both physically standing in the same room.  Just saying).

But those are minor quibbles.  The most important thing about Crosstalk is that it is gloriously fun.  Fast-paced and full of delightful banter, it is a wonderful romantic comedy wrapped in a sci-fi plot.  The best of all possible combinations.

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