Archive for January, 2020

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford – As soon as I heard about this 1933 gem, I knew I had to read it.  It’s an epistolary novel about a young woman who, engaged to a doctor at home in Edinburgh but still a year away from getting married, moves to London and starts work in a department store library.  Handheld Press is reissuing it in March and it’s an absolute must-buy for me.  I adored it and will definitely be posting more about it closer to publication day.

Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt – Blog reader Pam mentioned rereading Voigt recently, which prompted me to seek this out.  It’s been 20 years since I read anything by Voigt but my vague memories are positive so I’ll be interested to see how this goes.

On Foot to the Golden Horn by Jason Goodwin – I can only go so long without reading about walking adventures!  In this case, Goodwin and his friends walked across Eastern Europe to reach Istanbul.

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake – On bicycle rather than on foot, I have been extraordinarily excited to read this chronicle of Cloake’s culinary cycling tour of France.  (Book Depository)

To Venice with Love by Philip Gwynne Jones – As always, I am certain to track down all expat memoirs, especially when one is set in my favourite Italian city.  (Book Depository)

When Miss Emmie was in Russia by Harvey Pitcher – A look at the lives of British governesses in Russia before, during, and after the Revolution.  (Book Depository)

What did you pick up this week?

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Searching about for something quick to read for this weekend’s mini Persephone readathon, I settled on How to Keep Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw.  It’s been sitting unread on my shelves since late 2011 so this was the perfect excuse to delve into it.

Published in 1949, this detailed housekeeping guide is targeted at the young housewife so I couldn’t help but think of my grandmothers as I was reading it.  Born in 1920 and 1921, they were both married at the time this book was released, running their own homes, and carrying for small daughters (and presumably a little bit for large husbands).  And I can confidently say that if they had read this book they would have a) laughed heartily at it and then b) throw it against a wall.

In terms of actual cleaning tips, the book has plenty of helpful suggestions that still stand.  It assumes complete idiocy so if you grew up in a hovel and never saw someone vacuum a room you would be well served by it.  However, idiots from hovels are not actually the target audience.  Smallshaw has a very clear idea of her readers’ upbringing, as she makes clear with assumptions throughout the book as to how her readers grew up:

Mother was not so far wrong when she insisted that all the rooms must be “turned out” every week.  Mother, however, had regular help.  She did the cooking herself and she had a washer-woman in weekly so that she could concentrate on housework alone.

This, clearly, is where she would have lost my grandmothers (actually, the upholstery whisk mentioned as a key piece of equipment might have done that.  But if they’d made it past that, this would have done it).  My Canadian grandmother grew up on a dairy farm.  Her mother decidedly did not have regular help and the cleanliness of the house was secondary to the cleanliness of the dairy.  My Czech grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in middle class comfort, with a governess, a chauffeur, a cook, and a cleaner.  She was never taught to cook, never mind clean, on the assumption that she would always have staff to do it for her.  You needed to know how to set a menu, not cook it.   More importantly, she grew up with the assumption that she’d be going to university and then getting a job – something that clearly never troubled the mind of Smallshaw’s ideal reader.

Both my grandmothers ended up having very different lives than their mothers but both were united in one attitude: to be houseproud is a sin when there are so many more important things in life.  Whereas for Smallshaw, it seems that being houseproud is a woman’s entire raison d’etre.  (See Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virgina Nicholson for a full portrait of this claustrophobic mindset.)

When Smallshaw sticks to cleaning basics, it’s not too contentious (except for her bold statement that it doesn’t matter if you dust or do the floors first.  This is madness – always dust first.  No arguments).  Her standards are insane and clearly meant to occupy a bored housewife by finding as many unnecessary things as possible for her to fill her day with.  Your home would in fact be sparkling but your mind would be screaming out for stimulation if you allowed yourself to be held captive by your possessions in this way.  She has helpful and deeply condescending tips to save yourself from the heavy work, such as “A clever wife induces the husband to regard the boiler as his special province!”  The exclamation point is a dagger to the heart.

While I trust her cleaning tips (but not the deranged schedule she recommends), I am less confident that following her cooking tips would yield good results.  Her idea to make efficient use of the steamers seems particularly unappetizing:

Use the bottom of the steamer for a light sponge pudding or batter.  The next compartment will take potatoes, and on the top, fillets of fish between two plates.

If my grandmothers had made it through the upholstery whisk, and miraculously through the assumptions about what their mothers had done, I know their contempt for Smallshaw would finally have peaked in the chapter on budgeting.  In “helpfully” guiding her simpleminded readers, Smallshaw advises:  You’ll be remarkably lucky if your estimated expenditure comes within your income!  At this stage, you and your husband will probably agree on the housekeeping allowance you can have…The idea that they would have let their husbands be involved in managing the money is the laughable one.  My Canadian grandmother broke free of the farm after high school and worked in a bank, where she eventually became assistant manager during the war.  Even without such formal training, it was the norm in many farming families for the wife to manage the money.  They usually had more education than their husbands (who often left school at the start of their teen years) and were more confident with numbers.  My other grandmother ended up in a dual-income house where, aside from doing the shopping and sometimes cooking Sunday lunch, households duties were pretty evenly shared.  The idea of him “letting” her have a portion of their shared income would not have gone over well – and I presume it would never even occurred to him.

Smallshaw concludes the book with a bit of an about face.  After extolling the virtues of obsessive cleaning, she then concedes that her readers may eventually have children, at which point standards collapse entirely.  If the reader had made it through to the end, perhaps this would have given them some hope.  It is a welcome acknowledgement of reality after many pages of fantasy.

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Library Lust

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Library Lust

via Wealden Times

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Ten Years

Ten years ago today, I started this blog.  It seems extraordinary that both so much and so little time has passed since then.

In January 2010, I was twenty-three years old and feeling very lonely in Calgary, the frozen wasteland I’d moved to right after university.  I enjoyed my job but the city felt entirely foreign to me, full of young people who knew their way to every bar but not to a single library, and I, raised to expect flowers and green grass in January, had no idea what to do in a place where I was literally snowed on every month of the year.

I’d been ill the autumn before with appendicitis and while recovering had stumbled across the world of book blogs.  I’d been silently lurking since then, amazed to find people who read books I loved, the kind of people I’d never found at university or in this strange city of cowboys and fast-talking oilmen.  Chief among these was Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Simon had been blogging for several years by then about books I either already loved or instantly wanted to read.  I loved seeing the conversations that emerged in the comments on his posts and wanted to be part of that.  Because not only was there Simon but there were Rachel and Darlene and Eva and Jane and Thomas and Harriet – in short, there was no end to all the people out there reading fascinating books.

And that is why I started a blog.  Because I wanted to be part of a conversation that I found (and mostly still find) impossible to have in person.  I had no real intention of writing many reviews myself, I just wanted to be somewhere on the edges.  (And, of course, my first comment was on one of Simon’s posts.)

I certainly had no idea that ten years later I would still be here.  But though my level of activity has changed over the years, the blog and this community has become an important part of my life.  I couldn’t imagine not being able to turn to all of you when I’m excited about something or when I’ve just thrown a book against a wall and need to rant about it.

When I started the blog, I was struggling and frustrated.  I was feeling isolated and like I would never fit in with the people around me (this was true. It was entirely the wrong city – culturally and climatically – for me).  As soon as I started writing, I was overwhelmed by a community that made me feel welcomed, who valued reading and understood the joy of old novels and obscure titles.  At a time when I was feeling timid (a first for me) and a bit lost, your support helped restore my confidence.  Feeling intelligent and capable, I then realised it was alright to admit that my Calgary experiment had failed; within a year of starting the blog I moved back to Vancouver for an altogether healthier and happier life.

So, after ten years, 1,609 books, 1,732 blog posts (including 429 photos of libraries), 12,539 comments, and a rather excessive 28 reviews of works by A.A. Milne (unequivocally a sign of Simon’s influence on my reading choices), THANK YOU.  It’s been wonderful and I’m sure the next ten years will be too.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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 is cold and snowy here, which is frankly ridiculous.  We do not live in Vancouver to be snowed upon in January.  The snowdrops were out and and the daffodils three inches out of the ground before this madness started.  Sigh.

But the positive of horrible weather is that it means I am not distracted by wanting to be outside and therefore have more time for reading!  Which is good because all my holds suddenly arrived at once (with more on the way for next week):

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas – IT’S HERE!!!  I love the story of Mulan and I adore Sherry Thomas’ writing, so this seems like an unbeatable combination.  Very, very excited to start on this.  (Book Depository)

A Half Baked Idea by Olivia Potts – I spend a fair amount of time perusing the Slightly Foxed website and noticed this on there (in the books from other publishers section).  Grieving after her mother’s unexpected death, Potts left her career as a barrister and retrained at Le Cordon Bleu.  How could I not want to read about that? (Book Depository)

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff – Slightly Foxed is reissuing this in September (my order is already placed) but I’ve been having so much fun rereading Sutcliff’s Roman books (The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch) that I couldn’t wait that long.  (Book Depository)

Eggs or Anarchy by William Sitwell – After reading A Green and Pleasant Land in 2019 (it was one of my favourites for the year), I finally tracked this down via interlibrary loan after having had it on my to-read list for years.  It’s a biography of Lord Woolton, the man who was tasked with keeping Britain fed during the Second World War.  (Book Depository)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss – I honestly don’t know much about this but I saw people enthusing about subsequent books in the series (can’t remember where – possibly Tor.com) that I thought I’d give it a try.  (Book Depository)

A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey – Praised by Kate Atkinson as a book that contains “more tension, more plot in fact, than any thriller”, I’m so looking forward to this.  It has also been published in the UK as The Lost Boys. (Book Depository)

Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters – A good rom-com is a very welcome distraction at any time of year but especially when it is absolutely vile outside and you want to forget everything else.  It’s been ages since I read a book in a single evening but I raced through this fun story about a young woman whose famous screenwriter client is months behind on his promised rom-com script.  To help inspire him, she sets about engineering meet-cutes of her own and reporting back on her progress. (Book Depository)

In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie – Sarra Manning put this on her best books of the year list back in 2016 (!!! How have three years passed so quickly?) and I’ve finally been organized enough to track it down via interlibrary loan.  (Book Depository)

Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie –  Another discovery on the Slightly Foxed website.  (Book Depository)

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

via Wealden Times

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Well Walk from New End Square by George Charlton

It’s been an absolutely beautiful Sunday here and, despite having been determined to do lots of reading this weekend, I have been weak.  Instead I’ve been enjoying the pale winter sunlight and the spring-like temperatures.  Sunshine in winter – especially in a Vancouver winter – always feels like a gift.  The more typical torrential rains will return soon enough (tomorrow, to be precise) so to waste such weather would have been unforgiveable.

Despite neglecting my books this weekend, I have managed to get some reading done already this year.  I’ve somehow managed four books, though none of them were very long or challenging.  Two were pleasant and forgettable but I’d thought I’d share a little about the two extremes: one which was very beautiful and one which turned out to be very bad.

My least favourite, and by far the most scarring, was Brief Flower by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.  Originally published in 1966 (and, as far as I can tell, never republished thank goodness), it is the story of Bunny’s adolescence, those last years of childhood as she matures into adulthood, told many years later by the adult Bunny.  Raised in squalor and hunger by Laurie, an unsuccessful author with a drinking problem, and the equally useless Madge on the Yorkshire coast, Bunny has no idea who her parents were and, when we meet her at the age of ten or eleven, doesn’t seem particularly to care.  She hates being cold and hungry and not having any clothes that fit her but loves her wild life at the farm and adores Laurie (despite him literally belting her when he’s had too much to drink).  But then her wealthy grandfather appears and Bunny goes away to live with him for a year, after which she must decide which home – and which set of loved ones – to stay with.  The story follows her for the next few years, though the “brief flower” of her youth, and I HATED it.  It’s so disappointing because Smith’s writing is good and her supporting characters are truly excellent, but the entire story is overwhelmed by bizarrely sexual overtones right from the beginning (when, let’s remember, Bunny is about 11).  And the ending was so off-putting that I feel sullied for having read it.  I’m not a particularly sensitive reader but this was such a jarring combination of factors that the end result was very disappointing.  If you see this one, pass right on by.

Far more successful was Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen.  I first became interested in the Arab poets of Andalusia when I read The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay’s books are infused with poetry and I loved the style of the verses.  It pushed me to read some of the works that had inspired Kay and ever since I’ve been happy to pick up any volumes that come my way.  This year, as I’m planning a trip to Andalusia for the autumn, I plan to be reading even more.

This is a slim book originally published in 1989 but its roots go back to the 1920s, when the versions the translations are based on were originally published by Emilo Garcia Gomez.  The poems themselves of course date back much further, to the 10th through 13th centuries when much of modern-day Spain was ruled by the Islamic Moors.

The poems are sensual and beautiful and my favourite was “Remembering Silves” by King Al-Mu’tamid of Seville, the 11th century “Poet King”, who was dethroned and lived his final years far from the home he loved:

Well, Abū Bakr,
greet my home place in Silves
and ask the people there
if, as I think, they still remember me.

Greet the Palace of the Balconies
on behalf of a young man
still nostalgic for that place.

Warriors like lions lived there
and white gazelles
in what beautiful forests
and in what beautiful lairs!

How many pleasurable nights I spent
in the shadow of the palace
with women of opulent hips
and delicate waists:

blonds and brunettes.
My soul remembers them
as shining swords and dark lances.

With one girl I spent
many delicious nights
beside the bend of the river.
Her bracelet resembled
the curve of the current

and as the hours went by
she offered me the wine
of her glance or that of her glass
and sometimes that of her lips.

The strings of her lute
wounded by the plectrum
caused me to shiver
as if I had heard a melody
played by swords on the
neck tendons of the enemy.

When she took off her cloak
and revealed her waist,
a flowering willow branch,
it was like a bud
opening to reveal a flower.

I’m not usually a poetry lover but how could anyone fail to love that?

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Library Lust

via Wealden Times

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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 New Year!  I hope 2020 is off to a great start for everyone.  Our family traditions here don’t allow much time for reading (lots of outdoor time to ensure the year gets off to a healthy start, followed by cooking time to ensure it also begins with lots of leftovers) but I’ve got plenty of books ready to go.  (So I am, of course, starting the year by reading something off my own shelves.  Oh well.)

Here’s what I’ve picked up most recently:

The Seine by Elaine Sciolino – I loved Sciolino’s last book, The Only Street in Paris, about the rue des Martyrs and can’t wait to revisit Paris in her company.  (Book Depository)

Brief Flower by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – I am happy to report that my interlibrary loan copy of this has no dustjacket and therefore no extremely creepy child.  I’m trying to track down another of Smith’s books (O, The Brave Music, which Simon raved about last year) but in the meantime thought I’d try one of her other books.  There’s a little info on it on Goodreads and I thought I’d give it a try.

Poems of Arab Andalusia translated by Cola Franzen – My big travel plan for 2020 is to spend a couple of weeks in Andalusia next autumn.  It’s a long wait so until then I’ll content myself by reading as much as I can about it.  The main reason I’m interested in going is the region’s Arab history so this volume of poetry seemed perfect.  It will also inevitably remind me of how much I need to reread The Lions of Al-Rassan (which I am 100% okay with).  (Book Depository)

Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali – In my last Library Loot post, I mentioned picking up a different YA book by Ali, which I haven’t actually read yet.  But at the same time I’d placed a hold on this, her newest release about two Muslim teens who meet in Qatar.  I read it just after picking it up and really enjoyed it.  And I don’t think I’d ever read something set in Qatar before! (Book Depository)

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion – Like everyone who read it, I adored The Rosie Project and can’t resist its sequels (even though I though the second book wasn’t very good).  Hoping for better things with this one! (Book Depository)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer – The time has finally come.  I have heard so many glowing, enthusiastic things about this novel from readers I trust that I am finally overcoming my completely illogical bias against Pulizter Prize-winners to give it a try. (Book Depository)

What did you pick up this week?

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