Archive for the ‘Una L. Silberrad’ Category

Another year done and another list of excellent books to share.  2022 was a wonderful year for me: I returned to Europe after a three year break, my work situation stabilized, and our family grew in as my brother and his wife welcomed another daughter in November.  (For those keeping track, yes, that is four kids in just under five years – almost as regular as these annual lists!)  And I have had so much fun planning what I’m going to do in 2023, which I’ll talk about more in the coming weeks.

My reading continues its shift towards newer books (mainly due to Covid-related delays/closures that impact the inter-library loan system), though other trends remain similar to past years: an average showing for male authors and a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction.  Delightfully, I have my best ever performance by Canadian authors: four of this year’s books are by Canadians.  Here are my ten favourites for the year, ruthlessly ranked as usual:

10. Are We Having Fun Yet? (2021) by Lucy Mangan
I have enjoyed Mangan’s writing for years but this Provincial Lady-inspired diary of modern middle-class middle age had me weeping with laughter so intense it was almost silent.  Anxious Liz’s attempts to corral her two wildly different children, avoid smothering her affectionate but oblivious barrister husband, and manage her work life are exactly the legacy that E.M. Delafield deserves.

9. The Trials of Topsy (1928) by A.P. Herbert
Being introduced to the enthusiastic (if rather illiterate) Lady Topsy Trout was a clear highlight of 2022.  Originally published in Punch, the adventures of the young socialite are recounted faithfully in letters to her friend Trix as Topsy embraces Bohemia, the poor, journalism, and politics, with various adventures and lovestruck swain to enliven daily life amidst these serious pursuits.  An absolute joy to read.

8. Moon Over the Alps (1960) by Essie Summers
Thankfully, there is no requirement for this list to consist of great literature.  I enjoyed discovering Summer’s New Zealand-set romances in 2021 (the closest I could get to travelling there at the time) and read them even more avidly this year.  Moon Over the Alps is one of her earlier titles and, from my reading so far, one of the best.  It has all the usual elements – a hero and heroine who are clearly kindred spirits and are forced to spend lots of time together in a domestic setting while a misunderstanding keeps them from admitting their feelings, lots of outdoor adventures, and epic amounts of home cooking – and I love it all.

7. Desire (1908) by Una L. Silberrad
I loved this Edwardian novel about a young woman who refuses to depend upon others when she is left without an inheritance after her father’s death and instead reinvents herself as a bookkeeper.  The equality in the romance, where a friendship evolves into both a business partnership and love, was especially satisfying.

6. Memory Speaks (2022) by Julie Sedivy
I have always found language fascinating and this look at how the memory processes multiple language gave me lots to think about.  But what made it so very special is how Sedivy blends memoir with science, considering her own experiences as someone who lost her mother tongue (Czech) and then sought to relearn it in adulthood and, with the language, a greater connection to her heritage.

5. All My Rage (2022) by Sabaa Tahir
This YA novel about two Pakistani-American teens in a dead-end Californian town blew me away when I read it last spring.  Both a tragedy and a love story, Tahir tells the story of two bright best friends eager to move beyond the town where neither feel they belong but constrained by family ties and too little money.

4. The Republic of Love (1992) by Carol Shields
A book that came into my life at exactly the right moment.  I started 2022 with this love story about a radio host and a folklorist whose overlapping friends and colleagues make their eventual meeting inevitable in close-knit Winnipeg.  The joy they find, and the ripples it causes among those close to them, felt so true and plausible.  Most importantly, Shields captures the thoughts of her mid-thirties heroine perfectly.

3. Ducks (2022) by Kate Beaton
This graphic memoir has made many “Best of 2022” lists and with good reason. Beaton’s chronicle of her time working in the oil sands of Northern Alberta is clearly told and quietly devastating. The strange unreality of camp life, where people are far from home, women are rare, and everyone is earning huge salaries with few places to spend them, creates a bizarre culture and Beaton captures this with extraordinary clarity and sympathy, even though these are the conditions that resulted in her own sexual assault.

2. The Naked Don’t Fear the Water (2022) by Matthieu Aikins
After spending years reporting from Afghanistan, journalist Aikins set off in 2016 to travel along the refugee route to Europe with an Afghan friend.  The result is an absorbing and detailed look at the mechanics, economics, and emotions of leaving, as well as a consideration of what it means to be able to pass as Afghan (Aikins is half-Asian) while being able to pull out his Canadian passport if things got too dangerous.

1. We Don’t Know Ourselves (2021) by Fintan O’Toole
I love history books but when history is combined with memoir, it’s an unbeatable combination.  Born in 1958, O’Toole looks at how Ireland has changed over his lifetime and the result is a brilliant and personal look at period of extraordinary political and cultural upheaval.

Previous lists can be found here.

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When I had Covid earlier this year, I went down hard.  Racked with a cough that settled in my lungs, scarily familiar to the pneumonia I had some years ago (when my brother lovingly described me as sounding like a dying hippopotamus), and dazed with fever, I was in no mood to read.  But when the worst had passed, leaving me weak but relieved, I settled down with a book I’d been meaning to read for the last few years: Desire by Una L. Silberrad, a New Woman novel from 1908 that was one of the very first titles reissued by Handheld Press (and is still available as an e-book).

When Peter Grimstone meets Desire Quebell, she is a sparkling young figure in London society – stately, clever, and a master of light social gab.  For Peter, somewhat timid in the city where he hopes to establish himself as a writer, she is impressive but impossibly distant – until she reaches out with an unusual proposal.  Having just learned that her fiancé has a woman who has loved and supported him, and a child with her, she is determined to do the noble thing and drive him back to her.  Recognizing Peter as a discrete and trustworthy accomplice, she engages his help as a decoy suitor, during which time a legitimate friendship emerges between them.  Peter doesn’t agree with Desire’s plot and doubts the man will reacts as she plans, but while that doesn’t dissuade her, it does cause Desire to begin examining her actions and those of the people around her in more detail.  Peter does not understand why Desire cannot address the cad head on but for Desire it is unthinkable:

…custom and common sense always demanded of the people among whom she lived to tread lightly among the deeps of emotions if by any chance they had to be touched; one should always laugh at things even if it were sometimes for fear one should cry.  Desire had assimilated the lessons more completely than most…

Their friendship is disrupted when Peter’s father falls ill and Peter gives up his London literary dreams to return to his parents and run the family potteries.  Shortly after, Desire’s own path alters radically when her father dies and his estate is left entirely (and against his intentions) to her cold step-mother, with nothing for Desire, his beloved but illegitimate child.  Independent and extreme as always, Desire strikes out to live on her own and earn her way, disappearing entirely from her circle of friends.

When Peter and Desire find each other again, they do so as equals.  He’s struggling with the grindingly tedious business-side of the potteries and she has discovered a talent and passion for bookkeeping, making her perfectly positioned to help.  She soon takes over the bookkeeping, managing the potteries alongside Peter and moving into the family home, where she forms a particularly warm bond with Mrs. Grimstone and begins to shed the protective layers that were so much a part of her London persona.  Here she has the freedom to care about her work – which she does, passionately – and people in a way she never has before.  She blossoms with a new sense of purpose and industry, in a role that suits her many talents that she was unable to use in London drawing rooms:

…she listened and asked questions, showing [Peter] almost entirely the man side of her versatile self.  There was very decidedly a man side to her, a man with some of the great financial adviser’s characteristics, shrewd, far-seeing, accurate in perception of essentials, with a judgement for mass rather than detail: a person who brought the ways of the big world to the problems of Grimstones, and saw them in quite another light from what Peter did.

The company thrives under the joint leadership of Peter and Desire, as do they.  Working and living alongside one another, they become increasingly close until one day Desire realises this is much more than just friendship (though, wonderfully, that is the heart of their unique relationship).  However much she has softened, she has still not learned how to deal with all her emotions and so she flees.  It takes a very melodramatic twist featuring Peter’s ne’er do well brother to bring her back but all ends well and it is just wonderful.

I am predisposed to love a novel about a woman asserting her independence and learning to support herself, but it is the friendship between Desire and Peter that makes this book so special.  Desire is clearly the stronger personality, but Peter is able to disagree with her and make her reconsider things (sometimes), and he is willing to defer to and trust her with a business his family has built and relies on.  The companionship between them grows steadily and warmly and I loved it all so much.

This has gone firmly on to my shelf of favourites and I look forward to reading it again in sickness but also in health.

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