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Archive for the ‘Eowyn Ivey’ 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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to-the-bright-edge-of-the-worldIt has been a long time since I have been as wholly consumed by a book as I was by To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey when I read it earlier this year.  It felt like kismet, to find a book so beautifully written, so wonderfully imagined and so, so perfectly tailored to my interests.  I do not think you could have pried it out of my hands when I was reading it and yet I read so slowly, so carefully, not wanting to miss a detail and desperately wanting to prolong the experience.

The book tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester and his wife, Sophie.  Newly married, the two are separated when Allen is charged with leading a small expedition into a wild, unmapped region of Alaska in the winter of 1885.  Sophie, originally keen to join her husband on this great adventure, instead finds herself confined to the stultifying military barracks in Vancouver, Washington, pregnant with a long-for child.

Separated, the two keep diaries with an eye to sharing them once reunited.  It is through these journals that we learn their story, supplemented by a few letters between them, the writings of other members of Allen’s expedition, and the contemporary correspondence between Walt Forrester, Allen’s great-nephew, and a young Alaskan museum curator to whom he is sending all the documents.  Yes, it is my favourite of all literary techniques: the epistolary novel.  And rarely have I seen it used to better effect.

Allen quickly finds himself in a completely foreign world as he journeys up the Wolverine River Valley with his men (the same setting used in Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child).  Their expedition is poorly planned and badly provisioned so they are forced to rely on the help of those they encounter: a few white men but mostly native communities.  And even as he finds himself stunned by the harsh magnificence of the places he travels through, Allen finds himself deeply unsettled by the stories he hears and the things he sees in this unbelievable land: beasts who turn into men, a woman eternally shrouded by fog, and a man who sleeps in trees, perched like a raven.  As starvation and illness take hold, the wild world seems firmly in control and Allen and his men powerless to resist long enough to ever get home.

Sophie, meanwhile, faces a struggle of her own back in Vancouver, feeling alone without any news of her husband and ill-suited to the gossipy socialising of the other army wives.  She retreats into herself and into her new hobby: photography.  Already a keen naturalist, she finds herself trying to capture the living world even as, far away, her husband finds himself in daily conflict with it.

I hardly know where to start in my list of what makes this book so extraordinarily satisfying.  Part of it is certainly that it is a tale of the North.  There aren’t a lot of those anymore (I’m not sure there ever have been in American lit, though the North is a CanLit obsession) and there certainly aren’t many with this level of thoughtfulness or cultural detail.  Ivey weaves in First Nation tales beautifully and even the eeriest among them are comfortingly familiar to the stories I’ve heard since childhood.  Through these stories, she keeps reality suspended in the most magical way.

But without Sophie and Allen the book would just be a beautiful shell.  They are its heart.  They are both strong and intelligent people, capable of demanding our respect, but, having found one another, are touchingly vulnerable in their joy at having someone else to love so completely.  The separation is a burden to them both, perhaps especially to Allen, who, having married late in life, is delighted by the thought of becoming a father but heartsick knowing he will not be returning before the birth.  But Sophie is isolated in a way that Allen, facing daily peril, is not and her quieter, inner struggle is no less powerful.

Oh, writing this has made me remember how much I love this book.  I want to read it all over again.  It is an adventure story, a haunting suspense story, and a quiet, steadfast love story.  It is, in short, everything you could want in a novel.  I cannot recommend it highly enough and you can be certain it will appear on my list of favourite reads at the end of the year.

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