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Archive for the ‘Bookish Thoughts’ Category

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?

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Where in the World?

I have just started reading Bleaker House by Nell Stevens and the basic premise for the book has my mind spinning in the most wonderful ways.  The book, a memoir, is about the months Stevens spent living on a remote and desolate island in the Falklands.  She was there to remove herself from the distractions that she felt made it difficult for her to write and to embrace the solitude she though necessary for writers.

And it was all funded by her MFA program:

A generous donor has made it possible for us to send most of our students abroad after they complete their degree requirements.  Global Fellows in Fiction may go to any country and do there what they wish, for a typical stay of up to three months.  The Global Fellowship adventure is not only intended to help Boston University’s MFA candidates grow as writers, but also to widen eyes, minds, and hearts – from which better writing may eventually flow.

This is a staggering and completely wonderful use of university funds.  And, on a cold Sunday afternoon, I have found a lovely way to pass the time: thinking of the destinations I would choose if I were in such a program.

Being me, I’d probably want to roam about Central Europe – there is nothing I enjoy more than insurmountable language barriers and echoes of the Hapsburg Empire.  I got a little taste of such a trip this year but the effect was sadly diluted by too much time in Italy.  I would go back in a heartbeat to do it right.

My second favourite empire, the Ottoman Empire, is also alluring: a trip that somehow encompasses Turkey and the Balkans with a possible stop in North Africa sounds pretty perfect (although subject to political and military turmoil, in which case scrap everything else and stay on a beach in Croatia, I suppose).  And there are always possibilities for writers in such politically fraught, historically rich regions.

Where would you dream of going on such an adventure?

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After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

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I’ve been flicking through More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern this morning, a companion to the equally perfect Speaking of Jane Austen.  I marked some favourite passages when I first read it a few years back and it was those I was going through this morning, enjoying anew the joy Kaye-Smith and Stern took in talking about their favourite author and her works.

One of my favourite passages was Stern’s musings on Austen’s most able parental unit: the Morlands:

…I am certain no one can dispute that as parents, Mr and Mrs Morland are without serious rivals; they are, in fact, the only important mother and father in Jane Austen where both emerge coupled in unselfishness and good sense; we find them disposed to indulge their large family where indulgence can do no harm, yet to check any tendency towards bad manners, sulking or affectation.  We are not allowed to see much of the Rev. Richard Morland, though we are assured he was “a very respectable man: and not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters; our good opinion of him is chiefly based on the fact that when his wife acts sensibly (the word must recur often in any description of Mrs Morland), she is apparently not in any fear of opposition from her husband.  Most of us, as children, were told somewhat sententiously that people are likely to judge our parents according to the way we behave…to which we gave our shoulders an impatient shrug and muttered inaudibly: “Don’t believe it.”  The older I grow, the more the truth of this comes home to me: Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, displays so much honesty and spontaneous politeness in her conduct, as well as a genuinely modest measurement of her own claims to notice, no tiresome shrinking nor constant need of reassurance (can I again be thinking of Fanny Price?), that she reflects the greatest possible credit on her mother’s upbringing and her father’s judgement in selection of a wife…

Later in the essay (entitled “Always be Contented, but especially at Home”), she does mark them down a little for not investigating Isabella Thorpe as soon as their son becomes engaged to her but it’s a small matter in the scheme of things.  For my part, I know they are the Austen parents I would pick if I had a choice!

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As I’ve said before, one of the great pleasures of reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe has been learning Plum’s thoughts on books and other authors.  I’ve shared how he loved Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street and came to a belated but deep enjoyment of the works of Anthony Trollope.

But now we reach the critical stuff: his opinion of my adored Angela Thirkell.  In November 1945, after staying away from her works for years out of a sense of loyalty to his friend Denis Mackail (Thirkell’s younger brother), Wodehouse finally discovered her charms – and even dared to write to Denis in praise of them:

Talking of books, as we so often do when we get together, ought I to be ashamed to confessing to you a furtive fondness for Angela Thirkell?  You told me once that she bullied you when you were a child, and for years I refused austerely to read her.  But recently Wild Strawberries and Pomfret Towers have weakened me.  I do think she’s good, though if we are roasting her I will add that August Folly was rotten and I couldn’t get through it.

He’s clearly wrong about August Folly (who doesn’t love the the awfulness of Richard Tebben?  And the excessive number of Jane Austen allusions?  And a village that puts on Hippolytus as casual recreation?) but I can forgive him that for otherwise seeing the light.

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When I shared one of the letters from P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited by Sophie Ratcliffe a couple of weeks ago (when Wodehouse wrote to Denis Mackail to praise the newly published Greenery Street), I mentioned the book was full of Wodehouse’s comments on authors who were his contemporaries.  What I’d forgotten until I found myself flipping through the book again this weekend was that Wodehouse’s reading was wider than that!

In June 1945 Wodehouse was living in Paris when he discovered the genius of that most British of authors, Anthony Trollope.  Trollope had been recommended to him by his old school friend, Bill Townend, and it was to Bill that Wodehouse wrote to share his excitement:

[…] In one of your letters you asked me if I had ever read anything by Trollope.  At that time I hadn’t, but the other day, reading in Edward Marsh’s A Number of People that Barrie had been fascinated by a book of his called Is He Popenjoy? I took it out of the American Library.  I found it almost intolerably slow at first, and then suddenly it gripped me, and now I am devouring it.  It is rather like listening to somebody who is long-winded telling you a story about real people.  The characters live in the most extraordinary way and you feel that the whole thing is true. […] Anyways, I think Trollope is damned good and I mean to read as much of him as I can get hold of.

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I am currently reading A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson, a memoir/biography of seven generations of women in her family.  It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time, having only heard good things about it (it was shortlisted for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize in 2016) and I can confirm it is excellent.

The bulk of the focus is on the famous side of the family, the Sackville-Wests.  Juliet Nicolson’s paternal grandmother was Vita Sackville-West, the author and gardener, and so her grandfather was Harold Nicolson, one of my very favourite diarists and letter writers.  A few years ago I read The Harold Nicolson Diaries (edited by his son – and Juliet’s father – Nigel Nicolson) and was especially charmed by a letter he wrote to the newborn Juliet.  One of the pleasures of A House Full of Daughters has been getting to see that relationship through Juliet’s eyes as she remembers him as “a marvellous grandfather, a blueprint for grandfatherhood.”

One of the points Juliet makes is that in her family it was often the father who was the more affectionate, involved parent.  Harold was certainly one such father (as his affectionate letters to his children show) and was a delightful playmate for his grandchildren when they arrived:

‘Can I join you in the paddling pool?’ he would ask as he stepped, without waiting for an answer, straight into the water, wearing his shoes and socks.  ‘May I offer you a light?’ he would suggest, footman-solicitous, as we placed a sugar cigarette on our lips while he flicked a match to the red-painted end.

He also delighted in games that held just the right amount of danger for his energetic grandchildren (Juliet and younger brother Adam):

There were dares known as courage tests. ‘I dare you to jump off the top of the tower steps with your eyes shut.’  Or, ‘I dare you to climb to the top of the wall on the lower courtyard.’  The long drop from the top of the tower steps to the lawn below required our small legs to be courageous, but the Bagatelle urns that Victoria had given Vita from her Wallace Collection legacy, and now planted with sweet-smelling viburnum, acted as hand steadiers.  The wall was a great challenge.  A fragile, crumbly Elizabethan affair, it was sturdy enough to support a fully bloomed Madame Alfred Carrière rose but hardly robust enough for the combined weight of the two boisterous grandchildren.  My mother would appear and shout, ‘Oh, Harold, I have asked you not to endanger the lives of my children.’  ‘What about my wall?’ he would replay as he gestured for us to climb higher, his moustache rising up his face and expanding with his smile.

It is a joy to read about such affection.

 

 

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