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This is my dream of the perfect guest room.  Except your guests may stay far longer than you want; I certainly would.

We’ve all changed in some way as the world has changed around us since March. Maybe you’ve taken up baking or running or oil painting. I’ve not done anything so productive (although…matter of opinion?). I’ve turned my back on a lifetime of frugality and started buying books with reckless abandon.

Alright, my reckless abandon over the course of six months doesn’t compare with what some of you can manage in a single afternoon but it’s all comparative.

Here’s what I’ve accumulated:

In the spring all I wanted to do was garden so it’s no surprise that I worked just as devotedly on building out my library of gardening books.

The Five Minute Garden by Laetitia Maklouf – published this spring, I love Maklouf’s sweet little book (based on her popular series of Instagram tips) of little jobs sorted by season. For days when you just can’t be bothered to do anything ambitious this is the perfect inspiration. And, as with everything, five minutes a day really does help you make progress.

Good in a Bed and Better Against a Wall by Ursula Buchan – two collections of Buchan’s gardening columns for a variety of papers. I’d read some of these before when I borrowed the first volume via inter-library loan but I’m so happy to have them readily to hand.

Rootbound by Alice Vincent – Vincent has established herself as an enthusiastic gardener with her popular Instagram account and newsletter, neither of which I was familiar with before reading this. I’m interested to hear about any other garden-loving millennials and read this as soon as it arrived. It was a disappointment for me and I might eventually find the energy to expand those thoughts into a full post but, in short, Vincent is a bit too self-absorbed and self-pitying (being a millennial is not that hard – or that different from what others have experienced before. Oh my god, get a grip).

Thoughtful Gardening by Robin Lane-Fox – like with Buchan, I’d borrowed this previously from the library.  Lane-Fox can set my teeth on edge every so often with his casual chauvinism but my interest in his topics and my enjoyment of his writing overrides that. I’m delighted to have this now to dip in and out of.

Cheerfulness Breaks In and Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – such disappointments! I pre-ordered these as soon as I saw Virago was reissuing them but I was devastated to see the green spines when they arrived. The covers are lovely and match the rest of the Thirkell titles Virago has been reissuing but these spines are so jarring against the others and I’m really bothered by it. I had also ordered Peace Breaks Out but it was so badly water damaged when it arrived that it went straight into recycling (I was able to get a refund).

Abigail by Magda Szabó – Pure whimsey on my part. As soon as my local bookstore reopened in late spring (only 3 people at a time in the store) I had to visit to show my support, naturally. And how better to show support than with a purchase? I trust the NYRB Classics series and had been hearing only good things about this so it seemed like a safe purchase.

Business As Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford – Is there anyone who hasn’t loved this book? I read a library copy back in January (I will eventually review it, really!) and was delighted to add it to my own shelves when the Handheld Press reissue came out in the spring.

British Summer Time Begins by Ysenda Maxtone Graham – as a devotee of Slightly Foxed and social histories, I’ve loved Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School and Terms & Conditions. Here she looks at summer holidays from the 1930s to the 1980s. I’m saving this one for dark, long nights when I need a taste of summer.

With the libraries now reopened my buying has slowed back to normal rates (almost exclusively Slightly Foxed new releases) but it was fun to comfort myself with new books during the most uncertain months of the year.  It looks like we’re headed into an excellent winter for reading (all winters are excellent for this but one with prescribed social distancing makes it especially so) so I’m happy to have well-stocked shelves.

It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

photo credit: Alexander James (via House and Garden UK)

This room manages to have plenty of space for books but I hate the feel of it.

After some very intensive reading on my recent holiday, I couldn’t find anything to settle down with and was casting books aside as quickly as I picked them up.  This can be a frustrating cycle so to break it I reached for something familiar and always entertaining: More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern.

Back in 2013 I read Speaking of Jane Austen, Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first collection of essays about Jane Austen.  It was a complete joy – what Austen fan wouldn’t want to spend hours reading enthusiastic, educated, and whimsical pieces about her books? – and just rereading my review makes me want to crack it open again.  This follow-up volume isn’t quite as sparkling but it is still a pleasure to return to.

Trading back and forth, Kaye-Smith and Stern present the reader with twelve different essays in which they muse on various Austen-focused topics.  Both are excellent writers but I find Stern especially delightful.  She brings such lighthearted energy to all her pieces and clearly had great fun sharing her love of the books.  Kaye-Smith is far from stodgy but she doesn’t manage the same magic.

My favourite essay (one of Stern’s, naturally) was focused on the health and appearance of Austen’s characters (entitled “Her fine eyes…were brightened by the exercise”, of course).  She looks at how Austen chooses to describe her characters, detailing their health and vitality more often than their attractiveness and is especially attuned to the height of Austen’s heroes.  She has fun in reviewing everyone’s appearances but it is all merely a set up to allow her to speak about her favourite of all Austen characters: Mr Woodhouse, that terribly healthy hypochondriac.  There is a lengthy digression when she focuses on the true conflict of Emma: that between Mr Woodhouse, loyal follower of Mr Perry, and Mr Wingfield, the London doctor in whom his daughter Isabella has recklessly placed her trust:

…with little Bella’s throat, we enter upon a saga which to my mind has not its equal in all Jane Austen: the saga of Mr Woodhouse at war with Mr Wingfield.  True, it cannot be said that this is exactly the leading theme in Emma, but we feel a little deprived when mere lovers occupy the scene.

Stern again has great fun in “Seven Years Later”, in which she imagines the fates of the characters seven years after Austen ends their stories.  Fond of Mrs Dashwood, younger and more charming than anyone in Sense and Sensibility ever seems to acknowledge, Stern gives her a happy second marriage while General Tilney has turned into the most doting of grandfathers.  Her vision of Emma’s future is perhaps the least happy, strangely given that Emma is her favourite of the novels, not because of any mismatched lovers but from the strain of Emma and Mr Knightley remaining with Mr Woodhouse at Hartfield.  Stern disposes of a character (but of course not her beloved Mr Woodhouse) and domestic arrangements are neatly handled.  With Persuasion she is quite assured of Anne and Captain Wentworth’s future happiness so she turns her mind to what might become of the minor characters.  I had to laugh when she considered mournful Captain Benwick’s future:

He will go to sea; he will come home again; he will find women to listen while he reads poetry aloud…he will begin to write poetry himself.  A slim volume will be published – and not read by any save his brother-in-law Charles Musgrove, who might try out of sheer kindness; but he would be sadly put to it to discover what it all meant…And presently he would toss it aside, and ask Captain Benwick if he would care for a ratting expedition.

I think Austen would certainly approve of that, don’t you?

Reading this made it clear what book I must pick up next: all of the mentions of Northanger Abbey reminded me of its charms and its most charming heroine and that it had been far too long since I last read it for myself.  Both Kaye-Smith and Stern have nothing but praise for both Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney and, for my part, I have always thought theirs one of the marriages most likely to run smoothly and happily from the start (the Knightleys and the Martins in Emma being the only others I am equally confident about).  They are kind and communicative, and they are both young and honest enough to make anything work.  And, as Stern reminds us, they have an excellent example of a good marriage and exemplary parenting from Catherine’s own parents:

…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 […] 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 the selection of a wife.

What this book does best is remind you of how wonderful Austen’s books are and all the reasons you should reread them.  There are romances to be revisited, and minor characters to laugh over, and jokes to be caught, and just a thousand small joys to be rediscovered.  Unless it’s Mansfield Park.  Even Kaye-Smith and Stern can’t muster too much enthusiasm over Fanny Price.  But who among us can?

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

It’s finally happened: after more than six month, my local library branch is now open for browsing.  They opened yesterday and, no surprise, I made a point of going there on my lunch break just to embrace the joy of being back in familiar surroundings.  I am so thankful the library has made it possible to pick up holds over the last few months and to browse at other branches but there is so much comfort in having this branch reopened.

And of course it makes it even easier for me to comfort myself with many, many books.  Here are some of the new ones I’ve picked up:

What did you pick up this week?

via House and Garden UK

Perfect for those who think best in the bath and need to be able to quickly dash to write down their thoughts?

via Savills

I’m in the middle of reading September by Rosamunde Pilcher (which is a perfect holiday book) and this room seems exactly right for that genteel world.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

I’m on vacation this week and computer time has now been replaced entirely by books.  It is glorious.  I sleep, I hike, I swim, and I read.  Repeat.  Here are some of the titles (both new to me and rereads) I have checked out to help keep me entertained:

Indiscretion by Jude Morgan (Book Depository)

The German Heiress by Anika Scott (Book Depository)

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore (Book Depository)

The Summer of Kim Novak by Hakan Nesser (Book Depository)

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke (Book Depository)

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively (Book Depository)

September by Rosamunde Pilcher (Book Depository)

Come from Away by Genevieve Graham (Book Depository)

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes (Book Depository)

What did you pick up this week?

via AirBnB (home in Istanbul)