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Archive for December, 2017

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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Library Lust

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Fun and World War Two history books don’t always go together.  Happily, in Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson they do.  Olson, always an entertaining writer with a talent for unearthing entertaining tidbits, has written widely about the war before, including books on Polish airmen, Churchill’s ascent to power, and American support for the war (prior to their belated joining).  Now, I think she has found her most interesting subject to date: the contributions made (and too often overlooked) by occupied countries to the war effort.

Olson focuses on the countries with, from early in the war, London-based governments in exile.  These countries are (in order of Nazi occupation): Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.  While much has been written about Poland, France, and, to some extent, the Netherlands, it’s wonderful to see some of the smaller countries examined in detail and to have the focus shifted to not just what was done to them and for them but by them.

Olson begins the books with stories of escape, telling how governments and monarchs fled as the Nazis poured into their countries.  It is stirring stuff and I was in tears multiple times in just the first 50 pages of the book over the angst of patriotic King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands who hated leaving behind their people, knowing how they would suffer.   Queen Wilhelmina had to be tricked into leaving the Netherlands, so determined was she to stay.  I don’t envy the men who were tasked with that job.  After all, she is the woman of whom Winston Churchill remarked “the only man on earth I fear is Queen Wilhelmina!”  She sounds deeply formidable and exactly the right woman for the time.  But while she may have struck fear into Churchill’s heart, she loved and was equally loved by her people: whenever a Dutch citizen escaped to England, she insisted on meeting them and often invited them to have tea at her home.  And her people at home did what they could to reach out to her, too.  When John Hackett, a British parachutist who had been captured after the Battle of Arnhem but was rescued by the Dutch resistance (a story told in beautiful detail in his memoir, I Was a Stranger, and recounted here by Olson), escaped and returned to Britain, he brought with him a letter for the queen from the three elderly Dutch women who had risked their lives to shelter him.

Both those monarchs and their governments were welcomed to London; other heads of government fared less well.  Edvard Beneš, who had been Prime Minster of Czechoslovakia until he was forced to resign after the British-signed Munich Agreement, had been living in exile since the Nazis invaded his country in 1938 and quickly established a London-based government in exile.  However, it took until 1941 for the UK to recognize the government.  And as for Charles de Gaulle, one of the most entertaining things about this deeply entertaining book may be the many references I group under the title “Everyone hates de Gaulle” – a rich and fruitful vein.  My favourite, and too good not to share, was: “His unofficial motto, in the words of one observer, was ‘Extreme weakness requires extreme intransigence.’”  De Gaulle grew into his role and proved useful eventually but was never well-liked.

The tangible contributions made by each of these occupied countries varied.  The Norwegians had been able to get most of their fleet to Britain and it was these ships – more than 1,000 – that helped ferry food across the Atlantic to keep Britain fed.  The Czechs, whose military strongholds had been taken over by the Nazis in 1938, had little to contribute but 5,000 servicemen did manage to escape, first to Poland, then to France, and finally, after it too fell, to Britain.  Along the way they joined almost 30,000 Polish servicemen.  Seasoned after fighting in Poland and France, and significantly older than the new British recruits, it was the Polish airmen who would soon become the toast of London after their spectacular performance during the Battle of Britain:

…it was the Poles, with their hand kissing and penchant for sending flowers, who won the greatest reputations as gallants.  John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries, once asked a woman friend, the daughter of an earl, what it was like to serve as a WAAF driver for Polish officers.  ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘I have to say “Yes, sir” all day, and “No, sir,” all night.’  The head of a British girls’ school made headlines when she admonished the graduating class about the pitfalls of life in the outside world, ending her speech with ‘And remember, keep away from gin and Polish airmen.’

What emerges strongly is the incredible contributions made by the Poles.  Anyone who has read about the Battle for Britain or codebreaking is probably already aware of the vital role Poles played in these areas but Olson goes deeper and her discussion of the value of the vast and trustworthy Polish intelligence service is excellent.  Intelligence had been one of the country’s priorities prior to the war – a history of being fought over between Germany and Russia had taught them the importance of knowing their enemies’ plans.  An estimated 16,000 Poles were involved in intelligence gathering in occupied Poland and, in addition to that, more were active outside of their country as well, sending information to London from: Austria, Germany, France, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Balkans and North Africa.  And as Poles, classed as sub-humans by the Nazis, were sent to work as slave labour in the Reich, they sent intelligence reports from the factories there as well, giving the Allies valuable information about munitions production.

The problem then became how intelligence was used.  The chilling incompetence of British intelligence during the war is a story I have come across many times before but is always horrifying.  The way agents were run in occupied countries can only be called reckless and the siloing of information was ridiculous, with SOE running each nation’s network independently – of both other departments and the nations’ exiled governments.  The Poles, thank god, along with the Czechs were the only exceptions and were allowed to:

Operate their own training establishments, codes, ciphers, and radio networks without MI6 control, with the proviso that they pass on all intelligence relevant to the Allied war effort.

The Poles and the Czechs were often parcelled together in the minds of their British hosts, despite having very little in common.  (By the way, Olson’s frequent reference to them as “eastern European nations” is the only thing that jarred me in this book.  Once and for all everyone: they are in central Europe.  If in doubt, look at the goddamn map.  End rant.)  More importantly, they each KNEW they had nothing in common with their neighbour:

The romantic, emotional Poles tended to disparage the Czechs for what they perceived as their neighbours’ dullness and industriousness.  “The Czechs seem to the Poles solid, heavy people, much like liver dumplings,” A.J. Liebling noted in the New Yorker in 1942.  For their part, the Czechs regarded the Poles as arrogant, foolhardy, autocratic, and suicidally reckless.

The “sober, sensible, middle-class” Czechs viewed themselves as “focused on hard work” and, unlike their Polish neighbours, “shied away from flashy heroics.”  Poles, on the other hand, were “polar opposites…hotheaded and rebellious by temperament, they repeatedly rose up, particularly against the Russians and just as repeatedly were crushed.”

What they did have in common was the complete irrelevance of their futures to the Western allied powers.  Russia, who absorbed a shocking 95% of the total wartime casualties suffered by the Big Three (UK, USA, and Russia), needed to be appeased.  Churchill, to his credit, did feel some guilt at signing Poland over to Russia – Roosevelt felt none.  The Czechs, who had never had any ties to Russia but were afraid of being handed over in the same way as the Poles, tried to make a deal of their own, which backfired spectacularly even before the war was done:

Acting more like conquerors than liberators, [the Russians] treated the Czechs, their supposed friends and allies, in much the same ruthless manner they were now treating the citizens of the collapsed Third Reich.  Eyewitness accounts reported widespread rape and drunkenness, wholesale looting, and wanton destruction of property.

Beneš was never forgiven by his people for making that deal, but it is difficult to see any better outcome.  Although the Allies benefited hugely from the contributions of the central European countries, they never learned to value or respect them.  Britain, always suspicious of Europeans, remained so even as those Europeans did all they could to win the war.  Field Marshal Montgomery, hero of North Africa and the man in charge of all land forces on D-Day, exemplified the typical disinterest of his nation:

Montgomery, whose command included thousands of European troops, was particularly noted for his lack of knowledge of and regard for them.  Once, during a visit to a Polish division in his army, he asked its commander whether Poles spoke to one another in Russian or German.  He was stunned to learn they had their own language.

What Olson does so well here is manage to illustrate how difficult it was for the British hosts to imagine, nevermind respond to, the challenges facing occupied Europe.  In the occupied countries, people were murdered and starved, millions were left homeless, infrastructure was destroyed, and all sense of individualism, the ability to chose your future was taken away.  In Britain (and even more so in Allied countries outside of Europe), it was a mildly dangerous but primarily thrilling event taking place at some distance:

To the Europeans, World War II was a cataclysm that must never happen again.  To the British, who had suffered neither invasion nor occupation, it was one of the proudest periods of their country’s history – a “moment of national reconciliation and rallying together, rather than a corrosive rent in the fabric of state and nation.”

In too many history books (and especially novels), this is still the case.  Olson lays bare the incompetence and xenophobia that greeted the leaders of the occupied nations in London, shows how they were ignored and distrusted despite their contributions, and, ultimately, forgotten in favour a narrative that focused on the official Allied saviours and conveniently swept aside those allies (Poland, in particular) sacrificed for “the greater good”.  But she manages to make it wonderfully enjoyable along the way, a true accomplishment and tribute to the men and women whose achievements should be remembered.

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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.

Linda has the Mr Linky this week

Happy unproductive-week-between-Christmas-and-New-Years everyone!  We have a snowfall warning here today so I’m feeling particularly happy that I’ve stocked up on library books.  I want to cry when I look outside (snow has that effect on me, which is why I live in the least wintery place possible in Canada) so it’s much better that I keep my nose in a book today.

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel – this generated enthusiasm from some very trustworthy sources (Lynne at dovegreyreader and Rachel at Book Snob) and looks like a wonderful and deeply fascinating book to end the year with.

Dead Now of Course by Phyllida Law – a brief little book full of anecdotes from Law’s long acting career (she is also the mother of Emma Thompson).

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – I mentioned this last week on my list of 2017 new releases I wanted to get to in 2018.  Happily, my library hold came through faster than expected!  This Russian-set fantasy should be the perfect book for a snow day.

What did you pick up this week?  Or did you find so many books under the Christmas tree that you don’t need to supplement with library books?

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The receipt in my copy of The Marches by Rory Stewart reminds me that I bought it a year ago today.  It took me almost a year (a very strange and hectic year in my defense) to read it but one year from purchase to reading is hardly my worst record.  I had been looking forward to this book for a long time (it was announced years ago but the publication date kept getting pushed back and back and back – I can understand why, having read it) and wanted to have the time to savour it.  It was completely worth waiting for.

The book is subtitled “A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland” and is based on Stewart’s walks through the borderlands – first along Hadrian’s Wall and then from Stewart’s home in Cumbria to his father’s home in Crieff, Scotland.  Only 44 years old, Stewart has already led a fascinating life and walked through some precarious places.  Currently an MP, he has been: a lieutenant in the Black Watch, private tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry, a diplomat serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, a deputy governor in two coalition-held provinces in southern Iraq, the founder of a NGO in Afghanistan, and a professor at Harvard.  He also, in 2002, found time to walk across Afghanistan (among other places) and wrote a fascinating book about it (The Places in Between).

I picked this up because I was feeling the urge to encounter someone out of the ordinary – both eccentric and a bit old-fashioned (at least in their ideas of duty and service), which I knew Stewart to be.  What I didn’t realise is that there was someone who fit that description even better than Stewart: his father, Brian, who is the most perfectly eccentric person I have come across in years.  And he is the heart of the book.  What starts as a journey to understand, in advance of the Scottish independence vote, the differences between the people on either side of the border becomes a tribute to the life of Brian Stewart, proud Scotsman and lifelong British public servant.

We meet Brian in book’s opening paragraph, immediately discovering he is a very involved older father (he was in his fifties when Stewart, the first child of Brian’s second marriage, was born) and a rather unique one:

I was five years old and it was just before six in the morning.  I walked into my parents’ room and poked the shape on the right-hand side of the bed.  My father’s head emerged.  He rolled himself upright, retied his checked sarong, pushed his white hair flat on his head, and led me back out of the bedroom.  Once we had dressed, we marched to Hyde Park for fencing practice.  Then we marched back to the house and laid out toy soldiers on the floor to re-enact the battle of Waterloo.

Throughout the book, Brian is a huge part of both Stewart’s daily life (in the average month he would write his son emails totaling 40,000 words and they check in by phone regularly during his walks) and his memories.  A former soldier, diplomat and British Secret Intelligence Service officer (the second-most senior one, in fact) who invariably called his son ‘darling’, Brian had much practical advice for Stewart when he was establishing his own diplomatic career and working in places (like Indonesia) well known to his father.  The casual helicopter parent of today had nothing on Brian Stewart.  My favourite anecdotes were the ones describing how Brian descended on his son’s new postings and, with characteristic energy and focus, immediately started in on projects:

When I left the Foreign Office to set up a charity in Afghanistan, he was eighty-four.  This time it was nine months before he came to visit me.  When he did, he flew through the night to Kabul, came straight up to our office, laid out his sketchpad and began designing a formal Persian garden.  An hour later he began an essay title ‘You know more Persian than you think.’  By supper he was standing in the kitchen, training the cooks.

How terrifying and how absolutely wonderful.  And how excellent that his son appreciates the father he has and the legacy Brian has given him: “not some philosophical or political vision, but playfulness and a delight in action.”

But the book is not entirely about Brian (though his spirit dominates).  It is also about Stewart’s inquiries into the identity of those who live along the border and what that may tell us about the future of both Scotland and England – a debate that is particularly relevant to him, as a Scotsman who lives in England and has, like his father, devoted a good portion of his life to public service.

He begins by walking along Hadrian’s Wall, more a border of imagination than reality, reflecting on the Roman occupation.  He does a superb job of making that strange place of uncertain purpose come alive, a place where foods imported from across the empire were eaten by soldiers, merchants, and slaves from Syria and North Africa and a dozen other places.  And he marvels at how it all disappeared – of how little remained in Britain after the Romans left.  For him, the parallels with the collation occupation of Afghanistan are clear and fascinating:

…while archaeologists seemed to want to insist there was a rational, practical purpose to the wall, which could be read from its architectural design, I sensed absurdity.  The wall was cripplingly expensive to build and maintain.  It failed to prevent incursions from the north, that devastated the economy and society of southern Britain.  Over the course of the occupation, tens of thousands of Romans and hundreds of thousands of Britons were killed and indigenous cultures were smashed forever.  And in the end nothing sustainable was left behind when the Romans departed.

Later, as he walks north to his father’s Scottish home, he considers the artifice of local “heritage” and identity.  The border should an “irrelevance” but as long as the people on either side think of themselves as different they remain different.  In what was once a Welsh kingdom, then the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, he now finds three distinct “countries”: the area north of the Scottish border, the area south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the area between the two.  His observations are excellent and this entire section is just a superb piece of travel writing.  In particular, his comments on how southern Scotland has co-opted highland culture, embracing traditions (Gaelic, tartan, etc.) that have no ties at all to the region, are especially interesting.

In the end, Stewart’s journey comes to an end and the book comes to its inevitable conclusion: Brian’s death at age 94.  From the structure of the book, from the importance of Brian’s presence throughout, it was clear that this was a tribute to him as much as it was an exploration of a specific region.  It would have been an excellent and fascinating book without Brian; with him, it is unforgettable and incredibly moving.

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Library Lust

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When I went to Croatia in June, I went prepared for a lazy beach and hiking holiday, looking forward to having hours to spend reading in the sunshine.

Well, I had hours and I had sunshine.  What I didn’t have by the time I reached Split were any books to read.  For the first time in my life, I had dared to travel with only my e-reader.  So, of course, this was the first time I lost my e-reader (I forgot it on my third and final flight and it was stolen from there).

What I did have was a smartphone with my Kobo app, giving me access to all the books in my Kobo library.  It wasn’t ideal but it was something.  I couldn’t read on the tiny screen as often as I would have liked so it turned into a selective reading holiday focused primarily on one author: Richmal Crompton.

I’d read a few of Crompton’s books before and enjoyed them, Leadon Hill being my favourite before this year.  But the more I read, the more I realise that she, like many prolific authors (looking at you, P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer) liked to repeat the same plot over and over again.  From Crompton, it’s about a group of children (generally siblings but sometimes not) and watching them grow from childhood to (inevitably) unnecessarily warped adulthood.  If you’ve read Family Roundabout from Persephone, you’re going to find Frost at Morning, Quartet, and a host of other titles very familiar.  For my part, I think Quartet is the most enjoyable of this template but then I haven’t read them all.  Do I even need to read them all?  Probably not.

That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of writing different stories.  She was and was in fact very good at it as Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes show, but again the stock characters and scenarios tend to creep in.

And then there is Felicity – Stands By, which is so entirely not what I expected from Crompton and so thoroughly fun that I could hardly believe it.

Felicity – Stands By is a collection of stories written during the 1920s about the escapades of Miss Norma Felicity Montague Harborough, commonly known as Pins.  In the opening story she is sixteen-years old and has just left school.  She has managed to give her adult escorts the slip and is feeling very congratulatory as she boards the train to go home – treating herself to third-class seat rather than the socially-approved first she is usually forced to take.  And her adventure is rewarded with the making of a new friend: Mr. Franklin.  Darling Frankie, as she soon christens him, is a delightful young man who, since the end of the war, has been struggling to find work to support both him and his widowed mother.  He would love secretarial work but, having been unable to find any, is on his way to take up the post of valet to Sir Digby Harborough – coincidentally the grandfather and guardian of his new friend Felicity.  His term as valet is short-lived and within a few breathless pages Frankie has proven his worth by foiling a thief, had his ancestors and education (Harrow) approved by Sir Digby, and been elevated to the post of secretary.  With Frankie now installed in the house as Felicity’s friend and confidant, we are ready for her adventures to begin.

In addition to Frankie and numerous servants, Felicity shares her home with her beautiful but chilly sister Rosemary (with whom Frankie, like all men, instantly falls in love), her stiff Aunt Marcella, and her grandfather Sir Digby.  The youngest of five orphaned siblings, Felicity’s eldest brother and sister are both married and living in London while her favourite brother, Ronald, is in the guards and devoted to a rather jolly life of pleasure.  They all make appearances in the stories but in mostly superficial ways.  It is only the relatives with whom she lives that we get a good idea about, Sir Digby in particular who is just the kind of curmudgeonly, illustrious grandfather I like to come across in fiction:

Sir Digby Harborough suffered from the Harborough gout and the Harborough temper.  Aunt Marcella was proud of both the gout and the temper.  She would have felt ashamed of any elderly relative of the male sex who did not possess both the gout and the temper.  Common people might be immune from such things.  Not so the Harboroughs.

Being of a far better temper than her grandfather and possessing indefatigable energy, it doesn’t take Felicity long after leaving school to get caught up in enjoyable antics.  She excels at coming to the help of others: when Ronald is in need of cash, she takes up with an acting troupe for an afternoon in order to earn money for him (and ends the day with the much needed four hundred pounds).  When a friend’s father is in danger of being ensnared into marriage by a horrifying woman, it is Felicity once again to the rescue.  She rescues a friend’s love-sick writings from a past amour who won’t give them up and is instead joyfully sharing them with his new loves and, in possibly my favourite act of social good, artfully converts a friend’s hypochondriac spiritualist aunt into a hearty outdoorswoman.

And, occasionally, she entertains herself by running off an unwanted governess with the loan of a few exotic animals from a passing zoo-keeper, indulging in socialist-inspired acts of generosity, impersonating Russians, and sampling a life of pleasure.  It is this last which she finds most difficult to do, perhaps because it is the only one she must disclose to her family before attempting.  She does eventually find a suitable escort for an evening of dissipation (dancing, cocktails, cigarettes) in her dry brother-in-law but Aunt Marcella is not easily won over, despite Felicity’s succinct explanation of how young ladies are now launched on the world:

“I mean nowadays you don’t come out with a bang like you used to.  You unfold gradually like a flower.  It’s much more poetical.  I read somewhere the other day that nowadays girls begin to go out to dinner when they’re fifteen, and when they’re sixteen they begin to go to dances and night clubs and drink cocktails, and when they’re seventeen they do all those things till they’re simply sick of them, and when they’re eighteen someone gives a dance to mark the fact that life has no further experiences to offer them.”

Despite finding no pleasure in her evening of excess, the book ends with Felicity entering formally into the adult world.  Schoolgirl no more, she appears before her family as a beautiful, composed young woman ready to take society by storm.  They are all saddened for a moment at the loss of the impish girl in braids and holey stockings – until they look at her face.  The apparel may change but the irrepressible girl within does not.

I have a weakness for cunning optimists who will brazen their way through any situation and come out composed and ready for more.  It’s why I love Wodehouse’s Psmith, Angela Thirkell’s Tony Morland, and, now, Felicity.  These stories aren’t the best things Crompton ever wrote but they are fun and charming and I wish there were a dozen volumes more in the adventures of Felicity.

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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.

It’s holiday reading time!  For some, this means books with Christmas or winter themes, for others it’s the time to pull out big door-stopper Victorian sagas.  For me, it means continuing with a rather varied selection.  But regardless of what we pick, it mostly means lots of time to read!

Enthusiasms by Mark Girouard – one of those books about books that has been on my radar for so long that I’ve forgotten how it got there in the first place (possibly Simon’s 2012 review?).  I’ve already started this and am quite enjoying it – though an essay on the Sackville-Wests made me completely livid.

Roam Alone: Inspiring Tales by Reluctant Solo Travellers edited by Jennifer Barclay and Hilary Bradt – as I mentioned yesterday, 2017 has been not just a year of travel for me but a year of travel reading (no shock to anyone who has been monitoring my Library Loot posts!).  Though my travels are done, my love of travel books lives on.

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber – I love a foodie memoir and was instantly intrigued by this one after I read about it in Ruby Tandoh’s Guardian column.

Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen – I’ve been seeing this on lots of “Best of 2017” lists and am intrigued.  Hansen, a journalist, spent years living in Turkey and travelling in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.  In this book, she recounts her experiences and how encountering anti-American sentiment forced her to reexamine her view of America.

An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn – Another book making it’s way onto lost of “Best of 2017” lists about the relationship between Mendelsohn and his father and how it changes when Mendelsohn Sr. enrolls in Daniel’s Odyssey seminar at Bard College.

The Riviera Set  by Mary S. Lovell – the subtitle surely captures the appeal: “1920-1960, the golden years of glamour and excess.”  Scandal and sunshine make for the perfect Christmas book!

Rhapsody in Green by Charlotte Mendelsohn – in the depths of winter (we have snow here!  why!?!) I often turn to gardening books.  I find them soothing to read when I know there is absolutely nothing I can do in the garden, no matter how inspired they may make me.

A Tour of Mont Blanc by David Le Vay – I checked this travel memoir out a while back but didn’t have a chance to read it.  There are so few walking memoirs of anywhere other than Spain (dear everyone who is ever going to walk the Camino: please don’t write about it) that I am excited to hear about Le Vay’s experiences in the alps.

When the Children Came Home by Julie Summers – I hated Summers’ book about the British WI during the Second World War (Jambusters) but am hopeful I’ll enjoy this more.  And if not, well, that’s why I go to the library rather than buy books!

What did you pick up this week to read over the holidays?

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The theme of 2017, for me, was travel.  This was reflected in the three months I spent in Europe, obviously, but also in my reading throughout the year.  I read books to help me plan, to inspire me to visit new destinations, and just to enjoy learning about people doing things I haven’t the slightest interest in doing.  Some of the books were helpful, others not, some were well written, and others were absolutely cringe-worthy.

The best of the bunch was The Way of Wanderlust by Don George.  So much so that as soon as I finished reading it I went back and read through my favourite bits again.

As someone who haunts the travel section of my local bookstore, George’s name was vaguely familiar to me from his work as the editor of countless collections of travel writing but that was it.  I knew nothing of him as a writer or a traveller in his own right but just flipping through this book’s table of contents and seeing the variety of places he wrote about convinced me I needed to try this.  Croatia, Japan, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Jordan all beckoned.

This is a collection of George’s best works and they range over his lifetime as well as over the globe.  Separated neatly into three sections (pilgrimages, encounters, and illuminations), he writes about youthful adventures in Europe and Africa, family life in rural Japan, spiritual encounters in the Outback, how it feels to stand in front of a beloved painting in Paris, and so many more things that aren’t necessarily obvious subjects.  But in George’s hands, they are not just worthy of attention – they are precious.

His writing style changes from subject to subject and with time but he is always engaged, empathetic and fully present in each story.  I loved how confident he was regardless of his tone, able to make fun of himself but also to feel awed and humbled by the things he encounters.

One of my favourite stories, “Conquering Half Dome”, is about a vacation he took with his wife and children to Yosemite National Park in California.  Despite a lifetime of travel and moderate outdoor adventures, he finds himself terrified by the cable route up Half Dome.  His account of it definitely falls into the humorous category:

I’d read before the trip that the path slopes up at an angle of about sixty degrees.  In my mind I had pictured that angle and had mentally traced a line along the living room wall.  That doesn’t seem too steep, I had said to myself.

Beware estimates made in the comfort of your living room.  From the plushness of my couch, with a  soothing cup of steaming tea in my hand, sixty degrees hadn’t seemed too steep – but in the sheer, slippery, life-on-the-line wildness of Yosemite, it seemed real steep.  I looked at the cables, and I looked at the sloping pate of the mountain – and I thought, This is a really stupid way to die.

I could cheerfully read an entire book written in that vein, but this is not that book.  In my other favourite piece, “Japan’s Past Perfect”, the beauty of his opening paragraph shows just how well he can set the mood and how beautifully he can describe a scene:

I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a succession of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars.  Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes.  No other houses are visible.  The only sound in the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch.  The faint scent of charcoal from last night’s hearth rides on the air.  I feel as if I’m in the hermit’s hut in a 17th-century ink-and-brush painting.

There are 33 stories in the collection and all are fascinating.  The foreword he includes for each piece is also wonderful, giving the reader some context around both the place described and George’s life.  George shares a lot of himself in each story but these forewords provide even greater intimacy.

Really good travel writing isn’t necessarily about making you fall in love with a certain destination; it’s about making you fall in love with the entire world and feel that exploring it is a great and wondrous adventure.  And in this wonderful collection that exactly what Don George does.

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The Ones That Got Away

In any given year, I have a lot of reading aspirations.  In years past, these used to manifest themselves in the numerous reading challenges I would sign up for and then drive myself crazy trying (and often failing) to complete.  Even without challenges, I am compelled to compile lengthy reading lists of books that catch my fancy.  It’s rare that those books are new but in 2017 a rather shocking number of new releases made it on to my to-be-read list.  Which is where most of them have remained.

As we approach the end of the year, here are ten of the 2017 titles I really hope I’ll get to read in 2018:

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill – This is Hill’s second volume of bookish musings, after Howards End is on the Landing, which I loved.  I am 99% certain I will find this under the Christmas tree and so it might be polished off before 2018 starts.  Simon loved it, which is an almost certain guarantee that I will too.

Joining the Dots by Juliet Gardiner – one of my very favourite historians looks “at the changes to women’s lives since 1940, told with examples from her own life” in a book described as a “brilliant account of feminism over the last 6 decades.”  It appears to combine so many things I love that it may end up being one of those books I am too excited to read once I actually get my hands on it.  Or not.

Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt – a few years ago, I read and enjoyed Hunt’s book Walking the Woods and the Water, an account of his adventure tracing Patrick Leigh Fermor’s famous trek across Europe.  It was also had the distinction of being the only book my father read that year since he picked up my copy and read it straight through with delight.  In Hunt’s new book, he has an even more interesting challenge: wind walks, following four different European winds across the continent.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – more than 30 years after its initial publication, Alexievich’s groundbreaking oral history of the active role Soviet women played in the Second World War is finally available in English.

Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd – This appears to combine three of my great interests (travel, Germany, and the inter-war period) so my urgency to read it should come as no surprise.

The Fear and the Freedom by Keith Lowe – in Savage Continent, Lowe examined in devastating detail the chaos of post-WWII Europe.  Here, he looks instead at how the world was changed by the innovations and movements that sprung up as a result of the war.

Auntie’s War: The BBC During the Second World War by Edward Stourton – it’s impossible to read about WWII, whether in fiction or non-fiction, and not hear about the importance of the BBC.  This history promises to be full of interesting anecdotes and just generally looks like a great compliment to my other reading.

The Arrangement by Sonya Lalli – something a little lighter!  A romantic comedy about a young woman whose ex re-enters the picture just as her family is starting to arrange a marriage for her.

At the Stranger’s Gate by Adam Gopnik –The author of Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate, Gopnik now casts his mind back to the 1980s when he and his wife first moved to New York.  I don’t necessarily understand the allure of New York but I do understand the allure of Gopnik writing about it.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – just released this month, I am so excited to read the second book in the trilogy that started with The Bear and the Nightingale.  I was completely enchanted by the first book and Arden writes just the kind of fantasy books I like best.

And, as a bit of a cheat (since it is out in Europe but not North America), I have an 11th title to add to the list:

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively – described as “partly a memoir of her own life” and “also a wise, engaging and far-ranging exploration of gardens in literature” this sounds absolutely perfect.  I adore Lively’s writing and anything garden-related is always a winner with me.

The challenge, of course, is that there are more great books coming in 2018.  And I may have committed myself to something that will leave very little room for new releases of any kind…but more about that in January!

What 2017 books do you still want to read?  Or which ones did you love so much you think everyone else should read too?

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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