Archive for the ‘Bookish Thoughts’ Category

Sometimes, I find myself stalked by certain books.  No matter how I attempt to evade them, they follow me around, enticingly overlapping with my other reading and everyday life until it is impossible to ignore them.

Over the past few weeks, War and Peace (a novel I dearly love) has been creeping stealthily into my life.

It started naturally enough.  One cold and rainy Sunday afternoon (and there have been plenty of those to choose from these last few months), I picked up my copy, read for an hour or so, and then happily put it back on the shelf and went on my merry way.

But it was not done with me.  Not even close.

A short while later, I was reading Eva Ibbotson’s A Company of Swans, set in 1912, and the War and Peace references were plentiful.  Our heroine, the daughter of a Cambridge professor, joins a touring Russian ballet company about to embark on a trip to Brazil.  Her name, Harriet, being deemed not Russian enough for the ballet, she is given the stage name Natasha since, as one of the other characters observed, she has ears just like Tolstoy’s heroine.  Harriet is entirely delighted by her new name but not entirely delighted by all of Tolstoy’s characters:

‘I used…oh, to be Natasha, for years and years.  It made me so angry with Prince Andrei.’

‘Angry!’ Dubrov glared at her.  ‘What are you saying?  Prince Andrei is the finest portrayal of goodness in our entire literature.’

‘Goodness?  How can it be good to get someone so ready for love and for life…so absolutely ready – and then just go away and leave them?  Like setting them some kind of good conduct exam!’

Speaking of that “good conduct exam”, there is in fact an entire Broadway musical about it.  “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is all about Natasha’s brief and disastrous infatuation with Anatole and is playing right now on Broadway.  It’s definitely not a traditional musical (so much more electronica than I can handle – which is to say more than none) but it’s a fun one.  I’ve been listening the cast recording for a while and I’d certainly love to see this current production.

To cap it all off, the Spring 2017 edition of Slightly Foxed edition arrived and, no surprise, my favourite piece in it was “Moments of Truth” by Christopher Rush, in which he muses about War and Peace.

And there you have it.  I cannot seem to get away from War and Peace but, then again, if I had to pick a novel to haunt my days, I’m not sure I would chose any differently.


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Shoe Rows by Wayne Thiebaud

Shoe Rows by Wayne Thiebaud

I am rereading a book that, when I first encountered it several years ago, gave me arguably the most practical piece of advice I have every received from a novel.  I use it constantly and share it whenever possible, so, without further ado, I give my lady readers the secret for arriving at meetings in walk-up offices with elegance and poise:

I took off my shoes to tackle the three flights of stairs better, and paused halfway up the last flight, so I could replace them and catch my breath before arriving in elegant calm.  No point in looking unfit and at a disadvantage.

Thirty years of life surrounded by intelligent, elegant career women – not to mention six years at an all-girls school – and I had to learn this from a book.  But so happy to have learned it!  It is from Hester Browne’s The Little Lady Agency, the first of a very fun trilogy of books.  And Browne’s good advice does not end there.  It is scattered throughout all her novels, most especially The Finishing Touches, about the attempt to revive a finishing school for the 21st Century.

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the-romanovsI started reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore yesterday afternoon and it is, as every single reviewer assured me, wonderful.  But, like all things Romanov-related, it is also rather overwhelming:

The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambitions, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughters; here are fashion-mad nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian ménages à trois, and an emperor who wrote the most erotic correspondence ever written by a head of state.  Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty.

The sheer level of violence is extraordinary and the drama of the dynasty is completely absorbing.  I fell into the book for a few hours and emerged able to think of nothing else but the blood-thirsty early Romanovs and their supporters.

n33964With impalements by the dozen fresh in my mind, I decided something a little – a lot – gentler was needed before bed.  I wanted something that was all the things the Romanovs were not: peaceful, good-humoured and non-homicidal.  But I wasn’t quite ready to leave Russia so I turned to that most comforting of authors, Eva Ibbotson, and her first adult novel, A Countess Below Stairs.  Its fairy-tale like beginning was the perfect antidote:

In the fabled, glittering world that was St. Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.

It was back to The Romanovs this morning but, I suspect, it will be back to Ibbotson tonight.  A perfect balance.

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Recent Duds

Sometimes, for whatever reason, a book just falls completely flat.  It doesn’t outrage or even entertain, it just drifts in and out of your life and leaves absolutely no trace whatsoever.  Generally, I let these books drift off without a fight and they leave no mark on this blog.  However, because there have been so many of them in my reading this year, I thought I’d take a moment to catalogue a handful of them:

Nightingale WoodNightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons – this was to have been my book for the 1938 Club.  It’s been on my shelf for five or six years now and I’ve tried starting it more times than I can count, which should have probably clued me in that I wasn’t going to love it.  I laboured through the first half, more out of interest in participating in the 1938 Club than interest in the book, before finally giving up.  There is a reason Gibbons is only remembered for Cold Comfort Farm.

EligibleEligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – a retelling of Pride and Prejudice by an author I usually enjoy should have been a sure thing.  It was not.  There is something doomed about “The Austen Project”, which challenges popular authors to write contemporary updates of Austen’s novels (see previous duds from Joanna Trollope, Alexander McCall Smith, and Val McDermid) and this was no exception.  Set in modern-day Cincinnati, anything you might once have liked about the Bennets has been stripped away.  Lizzie, who is judgemental and gossipy in the original but young and charming enough to pull it off, is in her late thirties here and really not even remotely charming.  But there are so many other characters vying to be the most irritating that Lizzie fades into the background.  Jane, perfect Jane!, has never learned to function as self-supporting adult, which is most distressing, and Darcy is turned into a surgeon, surely the most obvious cliché in a novel full of them.  I have nothing good to say about this one except good luck to whatever doomed souls attempt the remaining books in “The Austen Project”.

summer before the warThe Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson – probably the least offensive of the duds I’m talking about here and one I might even be convinced to revisit eventually.  Simonson is trading on the current interest in WWI-era stories, which I would usually view as a good thing.  However, I have clearly over-indulged in the era and had no stomach left for this rather slight and predictable tale.  If you’re looking for good WWI home front drama, get your fill with the BBC’s ambitious and absorbing radio program.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal – the most hipster thing I think I have ever read (even as  – especially as? – it pokes fun at hipsters).

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow loved this and hooked me with a comparison to Angela Thirkell.  Unfortunately, I did not see the resemblance.  It’s a simple story of a young woman who comes to stay with a relative and her companion while working as a secretary for a crotchety older gentleman.  As you do in books published in 1957.  There are two eligible young men floating around and a very pale secondary romance.  Told without humour or any literary competence, it is utterly and completely forgettable.

not workingNot Working by Lisa Owens  – After leaving her job with no plans except the vague idea that there must be something better out there but with no real inclination to determine what that is, Claire Flannery does absolutely nothing.  For the length of the entire book.

where isWhere is Emma Butler’s Life Plan? by Julia WilmotHarriet was charmed by this simply told story of guardian angels trying to sort out the mess they’ve made of a woman’s life.  I found it a little too simple (even for poolside reading while I was on holiday), though it did bring back pleasant memories of other novels that use the same concept of heavenly or at least otherworldly observers but with more fleshed out characters (Marian Keyes’ The Brightest Star in the Sky being a prime example).

The Wild GirlThe Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth – I really wanted to like this novel about Dortchen Wild, who grew up next door to the Grimm brothers, shared stories with them for their collection, and eventually married Wilhelm Grimm.  Instead, it felt like bad young adult fiction.  I found it full of awkward dialogue that tried to shoehorn political discussions into unnatural situations (do you want to hear about Napoleon on every other page?  No?  Tough luck), an abuse storyline that felt manufactured solely to add darkness and the illusion of depth, and very flat characters.  There is a lot of telling and not a lot of showing when it comes to the storytelling, which is never enjoyable.  And really just so much about Napoleon, which usually I would view as a good thing but not this time.  I still like the concept but found the execution lacking.

The good news is there have been lots of wonderful books to make up for these duds and hopefully I’ll find the time to talk about them soon.  There have been fascinating memoirs about growing up in Russia before the revolution, finding love in Italy, and walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and absorbing novels about a fun loving woman trying (and largely failing) to be respectable for her daughter’s sake, a family trying to keep their home intact by opening it to the public in post-war England, and a young woman navigating the world following her mother’s sudden death, assisted by her impractical aunt and a host of retired admirals.

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All my decisiveness has been left in 2015.

I have been struggling since the new year started to settle into a book.  I managed to read two last weekend but since then I have been picking a book up, reading a hundred pages with absolutely no engagement whatsoever, and then abandoning it as I go off in search of something better.  Such restlessness is very unlike me and very frustrating.  I just want to find a book I can read with pleasure for hours at time – this should not be a difficult task! (Especially given the 30 or so books I currently have checked out from the library.)

I’ve just started Curiosity by Alberto Manguel and it seems very promising…but not as a work-week book.  There is such a thing as too much philosophy for my 7am commute.  No, I’m going to need to find something lighter for the week and I’m convinced it is going to be one of the books above: Corduroy by Adrian Bell, Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken, or Notes from an Italian Garden by Joan Marble.  Or, if things go well, all of them.

On the other hand, I am delighted with and devoted to my current audiobook: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley.  It’s a story I love and there is nothing nicer than escaping into it during my lunch hour walk.

Happy reading!


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credit: Six Mile Ranch

credit: Six Mile Ranch

In 1934, a Stanford-educated real estate broker turned cowhand named Rich Hobson met cowboy Pan Phillips on a ranch in Wyoming.  Both in their mid-twenties, they longed for ranches of their own and, perhaps more importantly, for adventure.  They found it and, in three wonderful books, Hobson wrote about their experiences establishing the Frontier Cattle Company in the remote interior of British Columbia.

I started reading Grass Beyond the Mountains, the first book, again last night and, despite having read it so many times, found it just as thrilling and inspiring as I did when I was twelve.  May we all approach 2016 with the same spirit of adventure!

“Those maps show all that is known of the south top of a country as big as Wyoming with Montana thrown in.  There’s reports of a grass country in there some place that reaches as far as the eye can see…”

“Here it is,” I thought. “That new frontier.”

Pan took another long drag from his cigarette and continued.

“I talked to a guy this winter who got as far as the Chilcotin country in British Columbia, a big cattle country, rimmed in by a high uncharted mountain range to the north of it.

“Chilcotin is grass country, he said; it’s frontier ranch country, cattlemen creepin’ their herds back further all the time.

“But those Itcha Mountains – they don’t know what’s over the other side.  Maps don’t show.  Ya see, Rich, I sent to the B.C. government for maps and any pointers they got about the country.”

The Wild Horse stooped over and picked up one of the maps.  He packed it over to the bunk I was sitting on and spread it out between us.  I turned the lamp wick up.  The room brightened.  I looked at Pan.

“When are we leaving?”

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A Reader’s Weekend


A winter morning on the Fraser

Christmas at my house is and has always been a low-key affair. Even more so now that there are no children involved. So with shopping done, decorations up, and baking largely complete (more may or may not be done) I was free to enjoy a completely relaxing weekend – which, given the harried masses I’ve seen rushing around town this weekend, does not seem to be the norm.

I had a vacation day remaining for the year so, since my colleagues with children will be taking time off over the next couple of weeks, I took Friday off and made a long weekend of it. Nothing is nicer than a random long weekend when other people are working. On Friday, I ran errands (thrilling stuff), went for a walk in the woods, and saw the new Star Wars movie (meh).  But the best part of a long weekend is that when Saturday comes around you realise you have an entire weekend remaining.  Joy!

I made the most of my weekend by reading most of Saturday afternoon and evening.  It has been so long since I’ve been able to read uninterrupted for any stretch of time.  I finished Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans (marvellous), read all of History’s People by Margaret MacMillan (wonderful – the perfect holiday gift for any history fiend on your list), and started Their Finest Hour and a Half, also by Lissa Evans.  I also read the newest edition of Slightly Foxed cover-to-cover; the wonderfully eclectic essays always leave me with a warm, cosy feeling that all is right in the bookish world (and always add countless titles to my library list).

20151220_113935Slightly Foxed has been much on my mind recently: I renewed my subscription for another two years and, as a reward for finishing my recent exam, placed a (for me) large book order.  I bought:

Corduroy by Adrian Bell

Country Boy by Richard Hillyer

Portrait of Elmbury by John Moore

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (already a favourite)

Marrying Out by Harold Carlton

Silver Ley by Adrian Bell

They’ve just arrived and are so beautiful.  My only worry now is which to read first.

Off to a baroque Christmas concert now but have every intention of returning to my books this evening.  A very social week lies ahead of me – not to mention three and a half days of work – so best to get as much reading in today as I can!

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