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Archive for the ‘Edith Nesbit’ Category

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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I have incredibly fond memories of reading Edith Nesbit’s books as a child.  Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, and, of course, The Railway Children (which Simon reviewed not that long ago) were all favourites.  But I had never read any of her adult books so when I saw that Girlebooks had The Incomplete Amorist available, I thought I would give it a try.

Published in 1906 (the same year as The Railway Children), The Incomplete Amorist is not at all what I, as a fan of Nesbit’s children’s books, had been expecting.  The tale of a stupidly complicated love quadrangle between four equally dull (though in very different ways) lovers, it is disappointingly melodramatic and not in the fun way of, say, The Shuttle, which at least has a wonderful heroine to redeem the more outrageously dramatic twists.

Though most of the story takes place in Paris, it begins in England when the eighteen year old Betty, bored out of her mind by the monotony of her country life, meets Eustace Vernon, a thirty-something painter and world-class flirt.  At this point, the book seemed promising.  Nesbit writes the most wonderful description of Betty’s calculating and egotistical mother, who some years earlier had

…died resentfully, thanking God that she had always done her duty, and quite unable to imagine how the world would go on without her.  She felt almost sure that in cutting short her career of usefulness her Creator was guilty of an error in judgement which He would sooner or later find reason to regret.

And even Betty’s efforts at self-improvement made her seem quite sympathetic, as she tried to fill her days with something other than the parish duties that are expected from her as the vicar’s (step)daughter:

At eighteen one does so pathetically try to feed the burgeoning life with the husks of polite accomplishment.  She insisted on withholding from the clutches of the parish the time to practise Beethoven and Sullivan for an hour daily.  Daily, for half an hour, she read an improving book.  Just now it was The French Revolution, and Betty thought it would last until she was sixty.  She tried to read French and German – Télémaque and Maria Stewart.  She fully intended to become all that a cultured young woman should be.  But self-improvement is a dull game when there is no one to applaud your score.

But no, Betty is revealed as very, very dull and so is almost everyone she comes across.  When her secret (though, at least on her part, relatively innocent) meetings with Vernon are discovered, her father is horrified.  Thanks to the intervention of her worldly and quite wonderful aunt (the only interesting character in the whole book), Betty soon finds herself in Paris, studying art.  At first she is there under the chaperonage of an eminently respectable woman but before too long Betty finds herself on her own and it just so happens that is when Vernon re-enters her life.

It has only been a few months since they parted in England but, true to form, Vernon has filled that time with more love affairs.  In Paris he is already renewing his acquaintance with an old lover, Lady St. Craye, but Betty – more confident and more focused now that she has experienced independence and her art is improving – catches his interest.  She also catches the interest of his much more respectable and forthright acquaintance, Robert Temple, though Temple also wonders if he might not be in love with Lady St. Craye.  They are all entirely useless, though Lady St Craye and Vernon gain the additional honour of being entirely unsympathetic.  Betty and Temple are stupid enough to deserve some of our pity; Lady St Craye and Vernon are far too calculating and their view of love as a game of tactics is repellent (as is Nesbit’s inclination to let us know all of their very repetitive thoughts).

I think I could have forgiven the book its painfully dull characters and predictable final pairings if it had had a sense of humour.  Sadly, aside from a few arch remarks in the first part, this is a book that takes itself altogether too seriously.  What fun someone like Elizabeth von Arnim could have had with this concept!  There is a happy ending and there are some rather sweet scenes towards the end – particularly the sentimental reconciliation between Betty and her loving but distant stepfather – but The Incomplete Amorist in no way lives up to the excellence of Nesbit’s children’s books.

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