Archive for November, 2017

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.

It’s been ages since I last posted about my loot but there is much to share!  Three months away from my library has made me even keener than usual to use it and I’m reading at a spectacular pace right now.  Here’s some of the things I’ve got out, both read and unread:

Diary of a Wartime Affair by Doreen Bates – Sarra Manning recommended this back in January and I am always up for wartime diaries.

Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson – billed as a “groundbreaking account of how Britain became the base of operations for the exiled leaders of Europe in their desperate struggle to reclaim their continent from Hitler” there was never any chance I wasn’t going to read this.  Also, just about every review I’ve come across has mentioned that it includes the story of John Hackett’s time being sheltered by the Dutch resistance.  His memoir of this, I Was a Stranger, was my favourite book last year so that was definitely a draw here, too.

Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre – a very readable history of the founding of the SAS.  Doubt I’ll review this in full but the founding story can be summed up as “Absolute Crackpots with Guns: A Desert Adventure.”

Fire and Fury by Randall Hansen – FANTASTIC look at the Allied bombing of Germany.  The best overall summary I’ve found, particularly in how it distinguishes between the missions of Bomber Command and their American counterparts.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck – a moderately good novel about the post-war lives of a group of women whose husbands were killed for plotting to kill Hitler.

The German War by Nicholas Stargardt – those with good memories may remember having seen this social history of Germany during WWII here several times before.  It falls into the category of “books I am too excited about to actually get around to reading in a reasonable timeline.”

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly – I will give anything Austen-related a shot.

The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn – ditto anything food-related.

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively – Excellent collection of short stories by one of my favourite writers.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – I’ve just discovered Tyler and am really enjoying her writing.  Here, she looks at the stories of several generations of a Baltimore family.

Schadenfreude: A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman – a memoir about Germany!  Do you know how few of those there are?  It’s ridiculous.  Very fun and yet still quite annoying, so much so that I will probably have to write a review about it at some point.

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak – breezily written story with an excellent gimmick: a family forced to be together for seven days at Christmas when the eldest daughter is quarantined on her return from Africa after working with victims of an epidemic.  A fun and entirely unbelievable (every melodramatic plot twist you can imagine is used) read.

The Sages of Icelanders – a mention in Michael Dirda’s Browsings reminded me how interesting these sagas are.  Always fun to dip in and out of.

Walking Away by Simon Armitage – as my walking adventures are done for the year, it’s time to read about the journeys of others.

The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop – I recently read a rather disappointing book about women’s roles at Bletchley (by Michael Smith) so am interested to see how this compares.

What did you pick up this week?

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There is a special place in my heart, in the hearts of all readers I suspect, for books about books.  They are the tangible equivalent of a book blog, where we share our love of all things bookish with one another.  We are the writers and the readers – an uniquely insular tribe that cleaves tightly to one another, always eager to share a new favourite title or expound on the joy of a newly discovered bookshop.  And the best testament for a book about books is not just how much pleasure you gain reading it but how many new titles it adds to your to-be-read list.

Judged by that standard, Browsings by Michael Dirda is one of the best of the genre.  And judged by any other standard I can think of it, it still remains one of the best.

Dirda is well-known for his works of literary criticism and has published a number of volumes of criticism (none of which I’ve read though I hear they are rather dry).  However, this book brings together the more casual columns he wrote for The American Scholar.  They reflect on his readings, general bookish topics, and really anything that takes his fancy.  They are warm and friendly and just what personal writing about books should be, chock full of obscure titles he loves or has just unearthed in one of his frequent book-buying jaunts.  His personal crusade is “…to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”  I am always ready to be enticed by books, making me the perfect audience.

Dirda is a book-buyer par excellence and there are many enjoyable accounts (and rationalisations) of his fruitful browsings in used bookstores.  One of my favourite images is from a memory of a long ago book buying trip in upstate New York, where he found a bookseller’s office that was “half book barn, half gentleman’s study, and completely wonderful.”  It turns out that accounts of other people buying books is just as interesting as going shopping yourself (something, I think, many book bloggers have already discovered).

Most importantly, Dirda is a reader who knows himself and what he likes: “What I like to see on bookcases or steel shelves is lots of pre-World War II fiction, most of it looking just slightly better than shabby.” He has a particular interest in Science Fiction, a genre I’m not terribly familiar with but am now eager to explore, and loves adventure novels so much that he created and taught two fantastic sounding courses at the University of Maryland: “The Classic Adventure Novel: 1885-1915” and “The Modern Adventure Novel: 1917-1973”.  The reading lists make them sound like the most fun you could possibly have at school, including gems like King Solomon’s Mines, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lost World, These Old Shades and The Princess Bride.  (I feel like this could also be Kate’s dream course.)

I ended up with an amazing variety of books to add to my to-be-read list when I finished this.  Volumes of diaries, biographies of obscure historical figures, Science Fiction short story collections, and, my favourite, travel memoirs.  His recommendations will keep me busy for a long time to come.

Books about books are only satisfying when you and the author have some common ground.  With Dirda, I found someone who loves many of the same books I do, enjoys the same bookish pursuits as me, and is just generally a kindred soul.  And, more importantly for this reader, his enthusiasm transfers wonderfully onto the page, making for one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

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Library Lust

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Library Lust

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As I’ve said before, one of the great pleasures of reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe has been learning Plum’s thoughts on books and other authors.  I’ve shared how he loved Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street and came to a belated but deep enjoyment of the works of Anthony Trollope.

But now we reach the critical stuff: his opinion of my adored Angela Thirkell.  In November 1945, after staying away from her works for years out of a sense of loyalty to his friend Denis Mackail (Thirkell’s younger brother), Wodehouse finally discovered her charms – and even dared to write to Denis in praise of them:

Talking of books, as we so often do when we get together, ought I to be ashamed to confessing to you a furtive fondness for Angela Thirkell?  You told me once that she bullied you when you were a child, and for years I refused austerely to read her.  But recently Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers have weakened me.  I do think she’s good, though if we are roasting her I will add that August Folly was rotten and I couldn’t get through it.

He’s clearly wrong about August Folly (who doesn’t love the the awfulness of Richard Tebben?  And the excessive number of Jane Austen allusions?  And a village that puts on Hippolytus as casual recreation?) but I can forgive him that for otherwise seeing the light.

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When I shared one of the letters from P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe a couple of weeks ago (when Wodehouse wrote to Denis Mackail to praise the newly published Greenery Street), I mentioned the book was full of Wodehouse’s comments on authors who were his contemporaries.  What I’d forgotten until I found myself flipping through the book again this weekend was that Wodehouse’s reading was wider than that!

In June 1945 Wodehouse was living in Paris when he discovered the genius of that most British of authors, Anthony Trollope.  Trollope had been recommended to him by his old school friend, Bill Townend, and it was to Bill that Wodehouse wrote to share his excitement:

[…] In one of your letters you asked me if I had ever read anything by Trollope.  At that time I hadn’t, but the other day, reading in Edward Marsh’s A Number of People that Barrie had been fascinated by a book of his called Is He Popenjoy? I took it out of the American Library.  I found it almost intolerably slow at first, and then suddenly it gripped me, and now I am devouring it.  It is rather like listening to somebody who is long-winded telling you a story about real people.  The characters live in the most extraordinary way and you feel that the whole thing is true. […] Anyways, I think Trollope is damned good and I mean to read as much of him as I can get hold of.

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Library Lust

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I am currently reading A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson, a memoir/biography of seven generations of women in her family.  It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time, having only heard good things about it (it was shortlisted for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize in 2016) and I can confirm it is excellent.

The bulk of the focus is on the famous side of the family, the Sackville-Wests.  Juliet Nicolson’s paternal grandmother was Vita Sackville-West, the author and gardener, and so her grandfather was Harold Nicolson, one of my very favourite diarists and letter writers.  A few years ago I read The Harold Nicolson Diaries (edited by his son – and Juliet’s father – Nigel Nicolson) and was especially charmed by a letter he wrote to the newborn Juliet.  One of the pleasures of A House Full of Daughters has been getting to see that relationship through Juliet’s eyes as she remembers him as “a marvellous grandfather, a blueprint for grandfatherhood.”

One of the points Juliet makes is that in her family it was often the father who was the more affectionate, involved parent.  Harold was certainly one such father (as his affectionate letters to his children show) and was a delightful playmate for his grandchildren when they arrived:

‘Can I join you in the paddling pool?’ he would ask as he stepped, without waiting for an answer, straight into the water, wearing his shoes and socks.  ‘May I offer you a light?’ he would suggest, footman-solicitous, as we placed a sugar cigarette on our lips while he flicked a match to the red-painted end.

He also delighted in games that held just the right amount of danger for his energetic grandchildren (Juliet and younger brother Adam):

There were dares known as courage tests. ‘I dare you to jump off the top of the tower steps with your eyes shut.’  Or, ‘I dare you to climb to the top of the wall on the lower courtyard.’  The long drop from the top of the tower steps to the lawn below required our small legs to be courageous, but the Bagatelle urns that Victoria had given Vita from her Wallace Collection legacy, and now planted with sweet-smelling viburnum, acted as hand steadiers.  The wall was a great challenge.  A fragile, crumbly Elizabethan affair, it was sturdy enough to support a fully bloomed Madame Alfred Carrière rose but hardly robust enough for the combined weight of the two boisterous grandchildren.  My mother would appear and shout, ‘Oh, Harold, I have asked you not to endanger the lives of my children.’  ‘What about my wall?’ he would replay as he gestured for us to climb higher, his moustache rising up his face and expanding with his smile.

It is a joy to read about such affection.



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Library Lust

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