Archive for the ‘Bookish Thoughts’ Category

The Pakenhams on their wedding day in 1931

I am having a simply marvelous time reading The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford this week.  I’ve been looking forward to it since learning a bit about Longford while reading her daughter Antonia Fraser’s memoir My History but it’s even better than I’d hoped for.

More ponderously known as Elizabeth (Harman) Pakenham, Lady Longford, she had just the sort of life I like to read about.  Born in Harley Street in 1906, her parents were both doctors (though her mother did not practice) and she grew up in a family where ambition was not limited by gender.  She studied at Oxford and became involved in politics very young, standing as a Labour candidate while still in her 20s.  She was a dedicated social reformer (a passion she shared with her husband), an enthusiastic mother of eight, and, eventually, a biographer.  In short, she is the center of the Venn diagram that charts my interest in 20th Century Britain: she knew all the literary, social and political figures I find most interesting.  Neville Chamberlain was her cousin, Nancy Mitford was a friend, Evelyn Waugh said both horrible and lovely things about her…it is all very, very wonderful.  And, not surprisingly, very, very quotable.

I had to interrupt my reading to share this particularly enjoyable note Hugh Gaitskell scribbled to her while they were at Oxford and which she, deeply amused when writing about it 60 years later, described as ” a gallant effort to raise my spirits”:

Here is an incident to be recorded – On the way home on Saturday night I met [John] Betjeman drunk who having discovered where I had been asked me if I had met a beautiful girl called Elizabeth Harman.  You have such a lot on your side – you ought to make more of it.  Love Hugh.

P.S. This letter appears sinister.  Consciously it isn’t but you never know.


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Young Boy Reading by Henri Lebasque

Reading through Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel, there were almost endless quotes I wanted to write down and share with you.  Some I’m saving for my review but others, like this, demanded to be shared immediately.  I love Manguel’s description of his school library as a place without order, rich for exploration and exciting discoveries.  That is what every school library should feel like to a child.

My earliest public library was that of Saint Andrews Scots School, one of the several elementary schools I attended in Buenos Aires before the age of twelve.  It had been founded as a bilingual school in 1838 and was the oldest school of British origin in South America.  The library, though small, was for me a rich, adventurous place.  I felt like a Rider Haggard explorer in the dark forest of stacks that had a earthy smell in summer and reeked of damp wood in winter.  I would go to the library mainly to put my name on the list for the new Hardy Boys installment or a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.  That school library, as far as I was aware, didn’t have a rigorous order: I would find books on dinosaurs next to several copies of Black Beauty, and war adventures coupled with biographies of English poets.  This flock of books, gathered with no other purpose (it seemed) than to offer the students a generous variety, suited my temperament: I didn’t want a strict guided tour, I wanted the freedom of the city, like that honor (we learned in history class) that mayors bestowed in the Middle Ages on foreign visitors.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Our shelves currently (after a massive clear-out)

As I’ve mentioned, I’m in California right now staying at our family’s holiday home.  Between the swimming and the hiking and the general relaxing I have, naturally, had lots of time for reading and lots of time to consider our collection of books.

There is a certain uniformity to the oddness of any holiday home’s book collection and ours in no exception.  Which lead me to some musings on how that comes about…

1. Ideally, begin by inheriting a collection of books. These should be books on topics you have absolutely no interest in, primarily published during an era you have no interest in, and take up lots and lots of space on the bookshelf, leaving you little space for your own books.

2. Accumulate books abandoned by guests. Because you are a generous sort of person, you invite friends to visit you. Hopefully these are friends are literate and bring their own books.  However, even literate people chose ridiculous things to read on holiday and, once done, generally realise how ridiculous their choice was and so abandon it with you before they go home.  Watch your library grow with bad thrillers, mysteries, and other airport books in this deeply unsatisfying manner.

3. Watch your favourite books disappear. The majority of guests won’t bring enough books to last the length of their holiday.  If they had to fly to reach your place, they will inevitably need something to read on the flight home.  Equally inevitably, they will not pick something as trashy as what they contributed to your library.  No, they will pick one of the books you have carefully snuck into the shelves to ensure you have something to read.

4. Absorb the tastes of your family members.  Odds are, your close family are your most frequent visitors.  If one of them is a book-lover, be prepared for their tastes to begin to dominate your collection.  For some people (ahem), vacations are a wonderful time to browse bookstores and rejoice over library book sales.  You will inevitably be gifted books as a result of these.  Pray that your tastes align with your family member’s and hope for the best.

5. Get rid of nothing. You are on holiday when you are here, why would you want to spend that time sorting out books instead of reading them or doing vacation-y things?  A clear out every fifteen to twenty years is permissible.

Our shelves pre-clear-out – more soapy sagas, American bios, and books on early 1990s Russia

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As I mentioned last week, I have fled south in search of sunshine, warmth, and, since they also like these things, my parents.  I have to say it is a nice change to see sun each and every day!  I am already deeply tanned after only a few days, chlorine-soaked from all the swimming, and slowly starting to relax into proper vacation mode.

And, as we all know, the best way to relax is with lots of books.  Most importantly, I did not leave my Kobo on the plane this time (like I did when headed to Croatia last June) so I have plenty of e-books and a few physical ones to keep me busy – in addition to the healthy but rather eclectic book collection that resides here at my parents’ condo.

Easing into holiday mode requires lots of light reading for me.  Which is why I’ve been dashing through romances, polishing off Alyssa Cole’s much-praised new release, the first book in a new series from Loretta Chase, and a collection of Georgette Heyer’s short stories.

But, because this is me and I can’t entirely forgo substance, I’ve also been reading a fascinating comparison of the Nordic societies and America (hint: America does not look great in comparison) and a beautiful, thoughtful book from Alberto Manguel about his relationship with his personal library, Packing My Library, with his customary digressions into the fascinating, obscure, and learned corners of history and literature.

Also entertaining me has been the audiobook of The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley, one of my favourites of her novels.  I do a lot of walking down here (or anywhere, for that matter) and it’s a delight to have such a good book to keep me company on my strolls.

I’m a bit stalled as to what to read next.  Do I go with one of the many e-books I borrowed from the library?  Anne Tyler could be perfect right now, or maybe the early adventures of Eric Newby.  Or do I defer to one of the physical books I’ve brought along?  I only brought three (see what restraint is forced on me by harsh airline carry-on rules?) and, with the Manguel read, now have a history-rich travel book about the Byzantine East and a cosy-sounding wartime novel about a vicar’s wife awaiting me.

Life is good when these are biggest decisions I need to make.

My holiday books

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex by Charles Ginner

This is a slightly ironic post title since, thanks to the glorious weather we had yesterday, I haven’t actually done that much reading this weekend.  But I am happily dipping in and out of things in between my outdoor adventures (and sometimes during) so I thought I’d share a bit of what is making me happy this weekend.

I’ve been busy catching up on magazine and newspaper articles (perfect short reading) and really enjoyed the following:

They Just Want to Meet the Nice People – inspired by the musical “Come From Away” (which in turn is inspired by what happened when international flights were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11th), theatre-goers are booking trips to Newfoundland in search of the kindness and community-spirit depicted in the show.  Which, in Newfoundland, is frankly never too hard to find.

In Solitude What Happiness? – is loneliness the last taboo?

Fifty Ways to Avoid Readying Your Garden for Spring – now that the freakish dump of snow we received last week has finally melted and I can see my garden again I need help thinking of ways to avoid working in it.

The Misunderstood Byzantine Princess and Her Magnum Opus – really interesting piece about Anna Komnene and a recent reassessment of her place in Byzantine history

The Reason Why Comfort Food is No Longer Comforting – exploring why processed foods, though designed to make us feel comforted with their blend of salt, sugar, and fat, never actually hit the spot.

Bookwise, I am adoring The Fear and the Freedom by Keith Lowe, a history of how the Second World War helped shape the modern world.  It’s thoughtful and entertaining and extraordinarily wide-ranging.  And if I hadn’t already thought Lowe was brilliant he would have earned my undying devotion for the very first section of the book, which challenges the reader to reconsider all the archetypes we’ve been presented with (heroes, villains, victims) and think more deeply and in a more informed way.

However, it’s a rather serious topic and doesn’t suit all moods so I’ve been alternating it with some lighter reading.  I breezed through Jenny Colgan’s new novel, The Endless Beach, and finished it convinced that all the romantic pairings are doomed to give the women involved the maximum possible emotional stress.  Not a particularly satisfying end, to be honest.

What is far more satisfying has been the arrival of The Year of Less by Cait Flanders.  Flanders is a Canadian writer whose adventures in personal finance I have been following on her blog for several years now (this is the sort of exciting thing I do to feed the professional financial planner side of me you rarely see on this blog).  After having gotten a hold of her debt, she challenged herself to be more mindful of her casual spending by implementing a year-long shopping ban.  This book is a chronicle of that year but also a memoir of how she got to that place in her life.  I picked it up from the library yesterday afternoon, strolled over to a nearby park bench, and immediately started reading.  It’s not a how-to guide, rather it’s a very personal account of one woman’s relationship with her money and her spending habits.  And it’s good (which explains why it has been recommended by the NY Times and Vogue).

Finally, I have Four Gardens by Margery Sharp all ready to go.  I’ve read the beautiful prologue and can’t wait to get further into this lovely-sounding novel.

And that’s it for me now!  Off to enjoy another day.  Happy Sunday, everyone.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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A Slow, Snowy Sunday

It’s an unexpectedly wintery day here.  All our spring flowers – our daffodils were this close to opening – have been covered in a blanket of snow and it’s all very unseasonal.  But I am ready to embrace it.  For one thing, the sun is shining!  That’s been a rare sight here this winter and should be celebrated regardless of how slippery and cold it might otherwise be outside.

After spending a few hours tramping about in the snow this morning, I have now settled down for a quiet, domestic day.  I’ve got good music on, good food ready to be cooked (the peerless minestrone soup from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking), and many good books standing by for me to read.

This eagle was very unimpressed with his newly-snowy perch

After hitting a bit of a reading slump earlier this month I seem to have got my stride back.  Nothing I picked up seemed capable of holding my interest through to the end.  Adam Gopnik’s At the Strangers’ Gate (which I had been so looking forward to) was beautifully written but not enough to engage me with its main focus, a topic of absolutely zero interest to me – the 1980s arts scene in New York.  However, if that is something you’re interested in it would be a fabulous book.  Even I made it three quarters of the way through purely on the strength of Gopnik’s writing.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson, which I started during the Persephone readathon, has also proved incapable of holding my interest.  I know it’s a favourite among many Persephone fans but its just not grabbing me the way the best diaries do.  And perhaps I’ve just read so many wartime diaries that pedestrian ones like this don’t have much ability to impact me any more.  I haven’t precisely abandoned it but I’m not racing to finish it either.

What has got me excited about reading again is one of my NetGalley books: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley.  I love Kearsley’s historical novels and, though initially skeptical about the supernatural elements in many of her novels (ghosts, inexplicable time travel, etc), she won me over with her excellent writing and superb attention to historical detail.  I adored her last novel (A Desperate Fortune) so was thrilled when I heard she had a new book coming out this year.  It won’t be released until April and I’ll write in more detail about it then but it is definitely up to the standard of her best works (in my opinion, A Desperate Fortune, The Firebird, and The Shadowy Horses).  And, unlike those favourites which deal with European history (Jacobites in Russia, France and Italy, and a Roman legion in Britain), this book looks at the Seven Years War in North America, fought between the French and English and their respective colonists (and various First Nations groups).  It’s very, very good and exactly what I needed.

I’m now bouncing between romance novels, Canadian plays, and World War Two histories, happy to be back in my very eclectic reading groove! 

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you). 

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I need a pipe to recover from this…

There I was, happily reading The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters (between former schoolmaster George Lyttelton and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis) and enjoying all the literary gossip when suddenly my favourite of all names popped up: A.A. Milne.  It was 1 February 1956 and Milne had died the day before.  Lyttelton, remembering Milne vaguely from their overlapping years at Cambridge, wondered if his younger publishing friend has ever encountered Milne – as he seemed to encounter everyone else – while sharing his own memories of the author:

Did you know A.A. Milne?  I met him twice at Cambridge half-a-century ago, but cannot remember his saying anything at all; he was extremely shy.  I liked his Punch things, though of course the lighthearted “Rabbits” belong to a long dead world, and all our John Wains and Amises would bury them deep in the lumber-room whose door bears the fatal damnation “Escapist”.

If you weren’t around during 2012, you may not know of my love for the Rabbits, a group of young people whose adventures Milne chronicled over the years as they caroused, married, and reproduced.  It is a deep and abiding love and if I ever go into publishing the first thing I will do is bring out a single volume collection of all the Rabbit stories. (Or, if you are in publishing already, feel free to steal this idea and save me a great deal of effort and expense.)  This is how much I love them.  Understandably, I was feeling quite well disposed towards Lyttelton after that (he being decidedly against the John Wains and Amises of the world, though that might not be clear in the above) and the book in general.

But then Hart-Davis replied:

I can’t say I knew A.A. Milne, though I met him sometimes at the house of his father-in-law, Martin de Selincourt, and saw him quite a lot at the Garrick.  Not a likeable man, I should say.  On top of great natural shyness he cultivated a deep grudge – against life, I suppose, though I can’t imagine why.  The combination rendered him pretty well unapproachable…

Gone was my trust in Hart-Davis.  To have found Milne unlikeable – particularly in later life when he was haunted by the success of his children’s books – was common enough but I had hoped Hart-Davis was more discerning than that.  From there on I read with narrowed eyes, skeptical of his every judgement.

Apparently, I can be a little over sensitive when it comes to my literary heroes!

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