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When I went to Croatia in June, I went prepared for a lazy beach and hiking holiday, looking forward to having hours to spend reading in the sunshine.

Well, I had hours and I had sunshine.  What I didn’t have by the time I reached Split were any books to read.  For the first time in my life, I had dared to travel with only my e-reader.  So, of course, this was the first time I lost my e-reader (I forgot it on my third and final flight and it was stolen from there).

What I did have was a smartphone with my Kobo app, giving me access to all the books in my Kobo library.  It wasn’t ideal but it was something.  I couldn’t read on the tiny screen as often as I would have liked so it turned into a selective reading holiday focused primarily on one author: Richmal Crompton.

I’d read a few of Crompton’s books before and enjoyed them, Leadon Hill being my favourite before this year.  But the more I read, the more I realise that she, like many prolific authors (looking at you, P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer) liked to repeat the same plot over and over again.  From Crompton, it’s about a group of children (generally siblings but sometimes not) and watching them grow from childhood to (inevitably) unnecessarily warped adulthood.  If you’ve read Family Roundabout from Persephone, you’re going to find Frost at Morning, Quartet, and a host of other titles very familiar.  For my part, I think Quartet is the most enjoyable of this template but then I haven’t read them all.  Do I even need to read them all?  Probably not.

That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of writing different stories.  She was and was in fact very good at it as Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes show, but again the stock characters and scenarios tend to creep in.

And then there is Felicity – Stands By, which is so entirely not what I expected from Crompton and so thoroughly fun that I could hardly believe it.

Felicity – Stands By is a collection of stories written during the 1920s about the escapades of Miss Norma Felicity Montague Harborough, commonly known as Pins.  In the opening story she is sixteen-years old and has just left school.  She has managed to give her adult escorts the slip and is feeling very congratulatory as she boards the train to go home – treating herself to third-class seat rather than the socially-approved first she is usually forced to take.  And her adventure is rewarded with the making of a new friend: Mr. Franklin.  Darling Frankie, as she soon christens him, is a delightful young man who, since the end of the war, has been struggling to find work to support both him and his widowed mother.  He would love secretarial work but, having been unable to find any, is on his way to take up the post of valet to Sir Digby Harborough – coincidentally the grandfather and guardian of his new friend Felicity.  His term as valet is short-lived and within a few breathless pages Frankie has proven his worth by foiling a thief, had his ancestors and education (Harrow) approved by Sir Digby, and been elevated to the post of secretary.  With Frankie now installed in the house as Felicity’s friend and confidant, we are ready for her adventures to begin.

In addition to Frankie and numerous servants, Felicity shares her home with her beautiful but chilly sister Rosemary (with whom Frankie, like all men, instantly falls in love), her stiff Aunt Marcella, and her grandfather Sir Digby.  The youngest of five orphaned siblings, Felicity’s eldest brother and sister are both married and living in London while her favourite brother, Ronald, is in the guards and devoted to a rather jolly life of pleasure.  They all make appearances in the stories but in mostly superficial ways.  It is only the relatives with whom she lives that we get a good idea about, Sir Digby in particular who is just the kind of curmudgeonly, illustrious grandfather I like to come across in fiction:

Sir Digby Harborough suffered from the Harborough gout and the Harborough temper.  Aunt Marcella was proud of both the gout and the temper.  She would have felt ashamed of any elderly relative of the male sex who did not possess both the gout and the temper.  Common people might be immune from such things.  Not so the Harboroughs.

Being of a far better temper than her grandfather and possessing indefatigable energy, it doesn’t take Felicity long after leaving school to get caught up in enjoyable antics.  She excels at coming to the help of others: when Ronald is in need of cash, she takes up with an acting troupe for an afternoon in order to earn money for him (and ends the day with the much needed four hundred pounds).  When a friend’s father is in danger of being ensnared into marriage by a horrifying woman, it is Felicity once again to the rescue.  She rescues a friend’s love-sick writings from a past amour who won’t give them up and is instead joyfully sharing them with his new loves and, in possibly my favourite act of social good, artfully converts a friend’s hypochondriac spiritualist aunt into a hearty outdoorswoman.

And, occasionally, she entertains herself by running off an unwanted governess with the loan of a few exotic animals from a passing zoo-keeper, indulging in socialist-inspired acts of generosity, impersonating Russians, and sampling a life of pleasure.  It is this last which she finds most difficult to do, perhaps because it is the only one she must disclose to her family before attempting.  She does eventually find a suitable escort for an evening of dissipation (dancing, cocktails, cigarettes) in her dry brother-in-law but Aunt Marcella is not easily won over, despite Felicity’s succinct explanation of how young ladies are now launched on the world:

“I mean nowadays you don’t come out with a bang like you used to.  You unfold gradually like a flower.  It’s much more poetical.  I read somewhere the other day that nowadays girls begin to go out to dinner when they’re fifteen, and when they’re sixteen they begin to go to dances and night clubs and drink cocktails, and when they’re seventeen they do all those things till they’re simply sick of them, and when they’re eighteen someone gives a dance to mark the fact that life has no further experiences to offer them.”

Despite finding no pleasure in her evening of excess, the book ends with Felicity entering formally into the adult world.  Schoolgirl no more, she appears before her family as a beautiful, composed young woman ready to take society by storm.  They are all saddened for a moment at the loss of the impish girl in braids and holey stockings – until they look at her face.  The apparel may change but the irrepressible girl within does not.

I have a weakness for cunning optimists who will brazen their way through any situation and come out composed and ready for more.  It’s why I love Wodehouse’s Psmith, Angela Thirkell’s Tony Morland, and, now, Felicity.  These stories aren’t the best things Crompton ever wrote but they are fun and charming and I wish there were a dozen volumes more in the adventures of Felicity.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief 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 holiday reading time!  For some, this means books with Christmas or winter themes, for others it’s the time to pull out big door-stopper Victorian sagas.  For me, it means continuing with a rather varied selection.  But regardless of what we pick, it mostly means lots of time to read!

Enthusiasms by Mark Girouard – one of those books about books that has been on my radar for so long that I’ve forgotten how it got there in the first place (possibly Simon’s 2012 review?).  I’ve already started this and am quite enjoying it – though an essay on the Sackville-Wests made me completely livid.

Roam Alone: Inspiring Tales by Reluctant Solo Travellers edited by Jennifer Barclay and Hilary Bradt – as I mentioned yesterday, 2017 has been not just a year of travel for me but a year of travel reading (no shock to anyone who has been monitoring my Library Loot posts!).  Though my travels are done, my love of travel books lives on.

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber – I love a foodie memoir and was instantly intrigued by this one after I read about it in Ruby Tandoh’s Guardian column.

Notes on a Foreign Country by Suzy Hansen – I’ve been seeing this on lots of “Best of 2017” lists and am intrigued.  Hansen, a journalist, spent years living in Turkey and travelling in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean.  In this book, she recounts her experiences and how encountering anti-American sentiment forced her to reexamine her view of America.

An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn – Another book making it’s way onto lost of “Best of 2017” lists about the relationship between Mendelsohn and his father and how it changes when Mendelsohn Sr. enrolls in Daniel’s Odyssey seminar at Bard College.

The Riviera Set  by Mary S. Lovell – the subtitle surely captures the appeal: “1920-1960, the golden years of glamour and excess.”  Scandal and sunshine make for the perfect Christmas book!

Rhapsody in Green by Charlotte Mendelsohn – in the depths of winter (we have snow here!  why!?!) I often turn to gardening books.  I find them soothing to read when I know there is absolutely nothing I can do in the garden, no matter how inspired they may make me.

A Tour of Mont Blanc by David Le Vay – I checked this travel memoir out a while back but didn’t have a chance to read it.  There are so few walking memoirs of anywhere other than Spain (dear everyone who is ever going to walk the Camino: please don’t write about it) that I am excited to hear about Le Vay’s experiences in the alps.

When the Children Came Home by Julie Summers – I hated Summers’ book about the British WI during the Second World War (Jambusters) but am hopeful I’ll enjoy this more.  And if not, well, that’s why I go to the library rather than buy books!

What did you pick up this week to read over the holidays?

The theme of 2017, for me, was travel.  This was reflected in the three months I spent in Europe, obviously, but also in my reading throughout the year.  I read books to help me plan, to inspire me to visit new destinations, and just to enjoy learning about people doing things I haven’t the slightest interest in doing.  Some of the books were helpful, others not, some were well written, and others were absolutely cringe-worthy.

The best of the bunch was The Way of Wanderlust by Don George.  So much so that as soon as I finished reading it I went back and read through my favourite bits again.

As someone who haunts the travel section of my local bookstore, George’s name was vaguely familiar to me from his work as the editor of countless collections of travel writing but that was it.  I knew nothing of him as a writer or a traveller in his own right but just flipping through this book’s table of contents and seeing the variety of places he wrote about convinced me I needed to try this.  Croatia, Japan, Pakistan, El Salvador, and Jordan all beckoned.

This is a collection of George’s best works and they range over his lifetime as well as over the globe.  Separated neatly into three sections (pilgrimages, encounters, and illuminations), he writes about youthful adventures in Europe and Africa, family life in rural Japan, spiritual encounters in the Outback, how it feels to stand in front of a beloved painting in Paris, and so many more things that aren’t necessarily obvious subjects.  But in George’s hands, they are not just worthy of attention – they are precious.

His writing style changes from subject to subject and with time but he is always engaged, empathetic and fully present in each story.  I loved how confident he was regardless of his tone, able to make fun of himself but also to feel awed and humbled by the things he encounters.

One of my favourite stories, “Conquering Half Dome”, is about a vacation he took with his wife and children to Yosemite National Park in California.  Despite a lifetime of travel and moderate outdoor adventures, he finds himself terrified by the cable route up Half Dome.  His account of it definitely falls into the humorous category:

I’d read before the trip that the path slopes up at an angle of about sixty degrees.  In my mind I had pictured that angle and had mentally traced a line along the living room wall.  That doesn’t seem too steep, I had said to myself.

Beware estimates made in the comfort of your living room.  From the plushness of my couch, with a  soothing cup of steaming tea in my hand, sixty degrees hadn’t seemed too steep – but in the sheer, slippery, life-on-the-line wildness of Yosemite, it seemed real steep.  I looked at the cables, and I looked at the sloping pate of the mountain – and I thought, This is a really stupid way to die.

I could cheerfully read an entire book written in that vein, but this is not that book.  In my other favourite piece, “Japan’s Past Perfect”, the beauty of his opening paragraph shows just how well he can set the mood and how beautifully he can describe a scene:

I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a succession of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars.  Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes.  No other houses are visible.  The only sound in the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch.  The faint scent of charcoal from last night’s hearth rides on the air.  I feel as if I’m in the hermit’s hut in a 17th-century ink-and-brush painting.

There are 33 stories in the collection and all are fascinating.  The foreword he includes for each piece is also wonderful, giving the reader some context around both the place described and George’s life.  George shares a lot of himself in each story but these forewords provide even greater intimacy.

Really good travel writing isn’t necessarily about making you fall in love with a certain destination; it’s about making you fall in love with the entire world and feel that exploring it is a great and wondrous adventure.  And in this wonderful collection that exactly what Don George does.

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?

When I found The Coast of Bohemia by Edith Pargeter in a used bookstore in Nelson, BC last summer, I gasped audibly and then spent the rest of my visit with the book clutched firmly to my chest.  No one was going to part me from this book, which I had been longing to add to my Czech collection for years.

Never heard of The Coast of Bohemia before?  Or Edith Pargeter?  Fair enough, though you might have heard of Pargeter under her pen name of Ellis Peters.  As Peters she wrote the best-selling Brother Cadfael mystery series.  Lesser known are her translations of a rather marvellous variety of Czech works, ranging from beloved 19th century tales to political memoirs to post-war classics.

Czech is not a language you pick up easily.  But for Pargeter, who became fascinated by the country after befriending Czech servicemen during WWII, it was a labour of love.  The country, the language, and the people all fascinated her.  In 1947 she made her first visit to Czechoslovakia and then returned for three months in 1948, the trip which she recounts in The Coast of Bohemia.  She would continue to visit the country regularly but it was only this early trip in the hopeful post-war years that she chronicled in this wonderful, enlightening travelogue.

Pargeter arrives in Prague in the midst of the 1948 Sokol slet.  The Sokol movement was based on gymnastic exercises but involved a whole ideology (see Wikipedia for more detail) and the slet was a mass exhibition that drew in people from all over the country, as well as foreign spectators.  For Pargeter, it set just the right festive mood for her stay.

Pargeter roams widely in her travels but Prague is her base and her love for the city flows throughout the book.  I particularly loved this passage about the view towards the castle, perhaps because it is so much how I feel when I am there:

I have many great things still to see, but so far I know of no prospect which lifts up my heart and stops my breath as this does.  Gothic towers have always a quality of tugging one towards heaven as in a rising whirlwind, and here the towers are themselves the culmination of an upward rushing of roofs, palaces, gardens and orchards, all climbing with an equal impetus of flight from the level silver calm of the river, and the counter-balance of bridges.  I can see it twenty times a day, and never without an answering leap of the heart; at the end of a close daily acquaintance with it for three months it is as new as at the beginning, yet coming back to it has every time something of coming home.

Because she has so much time to explore, she also takes delight in discovering Prague’s “subtler serenities” and “less accessible charms” which come only “to those who have time to appreciate them.”

Much of the pleasure of her visit comes from the fact that she is not alone.  She spends most of her time with Czech friends who squire her about to show off their country but are also happy to just spend quiet evenings in discussion.  By slipping so easily into family life, she really gets to know the people and the country in a way that the vast majority of travellers never do.

And she sees places most travellers never see, even today.  She goes on daytrips from Prague into the countryside or along the river, visits nearby historic sights (including Terezin, the former concentration camp), spends some time in a famous spa town, and relaxes in the mountains.  I read this back in June, knowing that I was only weeks away from going to Europe but with no plans to stop in the Czech Republic while there.  It was torture.  As things turned out, I did get to spend almost two weeks there (split between Prague and a Moravian spa town) and so I was able to stop being so jealous of Pargeter.

Because she has close Czech friends, Pargeter gets to ride along on family visits to friends in the countryside outside of Prague.  There she is rather amazed to see the family’s son, the elegant and sophisticated Honza, comfortably helping out – something she can’t imagine British city-dwellers being able to do:

It seemed to us that in Czechoslovakia there was no such gulf between the townsman and the countryman as can often be found in England.  You could take any apparently typical young Praguer […] and find that he had firm roots somewhere in the soil and a very close knowledge of country matters.  The link not only exists, but is close and strong.  We discovered during the war how completely ignorant many town-born English people could be of the most elementary facts of country life.  Jaroslav and his family would go off during the summer holidays to help with the harvest on his brother’s farm in Sumava.  Honza, when he talked about his childhood, often trotted out incidental anecdotes about the hop-fields, and his uncle’s draught oxen.  Shop-gazing in the streets of Prague, or forking manure and casually shepherding animals here, he fitted into the picture equally securely.

Whether this is universally true, I can’t say, but it certainly remains true in my family.  Connecting with the land is important to Czechs – after all, the national anthem is a love song about the country’s beauty.  Combine that with a love of physical activity and you have a nation that can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend the weekend than foraging for mushrooms, building a friend’s cabin, or, joy of joys, getting together a small group to slaughter and process a pig.  I doubt this is uniquely Czech but it is certainly more common in continental Europe than in the UK, both then and now.

Pargeter’s love affair with the Czechs was only beginning when she took this trip and wrote the book (it came out in 1950).  Her Czech was minimal (only around 50 words she estimates) so her ability to grasp all the nuances of the Czech character are limited.  While she is delighted by all the visitors come to Prague for the Sokol slet, dressed in their regional costumes, her Prague friends view them with condescension, explaining to her that “most of these […] were Slovaks.”  Slovaks are never to be admired, even as picturesque peasants.  And when a Czech man she meets on a train very neatly explains the national character to her as “everyone smiles, but has a sorrow in his heart” she is not quite sure how seriously to take him.  In time, I’m sure she learned just what an accurate description that was.  In fact, even by the end of this trip she was well on her way to understanding why the Czechs were different:

The Czechs seem very like us, we say – and indeed I believe they are – why do they not think as we do?  The answer is on the map.  They simply cannot afford to. […] She looks back on a history of unending troubles, wars and wrongs, all because she made the mistake of being the very antithesis of an island, the core and crossroads of a continent.

Pargeter is an excellent and enthusiastic observer of the Czechs and, more than anything, a fond one.  The book reads like a particularly erudite love letter to the country and the people, and is a wonderful reflection on both.  I think any traveller (or armchair traveller) with an interest in the Czech Republic would enjoy this but for Czechophiles it is a true delight.