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There comes a point in the life of a classic literature fan where – while you may not have completely worked your way through “the canon,” such as it is – you start looking for the different, the less-known, the forgotten.  I’ve always felt a strong connection to classics by women – your Jane Austen, your L.M. Montgomery, your Edith Wharton, your Bronte sisters, your Elizabeth Gaskell, etc. – so it was only a matter of time before I discovered Persephone Books, an independent publishing house based in London which has built a following through its dedication to printing long-neglected classics by mostly women writers, many of whom I’d never heard of before discovering these lovely dove grey volumes.  Any new convert to the Persephone way learns that there are two authors in particular who enjoy a spot atop the pyramid of Persephone’s stable of authors – Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski.

I’ve read one Whipple – Greenbanks – and loved it, so I thought I’d better give Laski a go.  One thing about Laski is that no two of her books are alike.  They vary in subject, tone and style.  So I suspected that I might like some better than others, and decided to start with The Village, which seemed a likely success for me – and it was.

In the opening scene of The Village, victory has just been declared in the European phase of World War II.  The war, of course, was still raging in the Pacific, but for the residents of Priory Dean, V-E Day effectively meant the end to hostilities.  Refugees would be headed back to London – if they weren’t already – the threat of German bombs was over, and deployed local boys would soon be straggling home, if they had survived.  On the first night of peacetime, there’s no curfew, there are bonfires and dancing in the streets.  And as the celebrations whirl through the village, Wendy Trevor and Edith Wilson wend their way to their night’s watch.  There’s really no need for them to scout through the evening, since the war is over.  But both women are oddly reluctant to let their wartime duties go.  They come from different stations in life – Wendy belongs to impoverished gentry, and Edith to the working class, lacking in social graces but better funded than the Trevors and their like.  Edith used to “do for” the Trevor family, and she and Wendy both know that their friendship, forged in the crucible of wartime, is now going to have to end.  Edith will be sticking with her kind, and Wendy with hers.  But they both crave one last evening of companionship before returning to their respective stations in life.

Wendy said with a half-laugh, half-sob, ‘Listen, the dance music’s stopped.  Edith,’ she sad, mopping her eyes, twisting her handkerchief in her hands.  ‘I don’t know how to apologise.  I don’t know what came over me, making an exhibition of myself like that.’

‘There’s nothing to apologise for at all,’ said Edith.  ‘We’re all of us that tired and overwrought these days anyway, and if you can’t have a good cry here tonight I don’t know when you can.’  She added almost casually, her face half-turned away, ‘I lost a baby too, you know.  A little girl, mine was.  It was my first, too.’  She sat down beside Wendy, and again the two women sipped their tea, talking now in soft relaxed voices of the children when young, of their husbands, their parents, remembering the little things that had made up their lives, made them what they were.  Neither had ever talked like this to anyone before and never would again.

At last Wendy glanced up at the window and it was light.  On a single impulse they both got up and went to the door, looking out at the village in the early morning light, at the Norman church and Dr Gregory’s long Georgian house on the north side of the Green, the dark cedars that spread over the wall from Miss Evadne’s garden on the short side, at the ugly new shops flanking the village hall and closing the triangle around the Green.  The air was cool and sweet and no one was about.  It was the first day after the war.

Unbeknownst to Wendy and Edith, however, they’ll soon be thrown back together.  The Trevors – Major Gerald and Wendy – have two daughters, for whom they have scrimped and sacrificed to provide the best education.  Margaret, the eldest, is concluding school and the education seems to have been wasted on her.  She dreams of marriage and motherhood.  Unfortunately, the only son of the local gentry, Roger Gregory, is covered in acne and made even more unattractive by his unpleasant attitude.  After an embarrassing rejection at a local dance, however, Margaret finds herself back in the orbit of her childhood companion, Roy Wilson, with whom she used to play when his mother – Edith – cooked and cleaned for the Trevors.  Roy and Margaret drop back into their easy companionship and – I’m sure you see where this is going – are soon in love.

‘Oh, Roy,’ said Margaret, in an anguish of longing, and he demanded fiercely, ‘Margaret, you must marry me.  Say you’ll marry me.’

‘Oh, Roy,’ she repeated, and then he bent his head to hers and they kissed in bliss.

At last, he lifted his head and looked into her eyes.  ‘I love you,’ he said despairingly and Margaret sighed, ‘Oh, Roy, I love you too.  I love you,’ and he kissed her again, but this time they clung together for fear of loss and kissed in desperation.

When this kiss ended, their lips were trembling and their faces troubled.  ‘Oh, Margaret, I need you so much,’ whispered Roy.  ‘You’re what I’ve always wanted, we could be so happy–‘  He buried his face in her neck, the touch of his lips bringing to both a warm excited content.

Tentatively Margaret’s hands began to touch his neck, to stroke his hair.  ‘Let’s go on pretending,’ she said softly, ‘do let’s go on pretending.  Tell me about the rest of the house.’

He dragged himself upright and leant back against the tree, pulling her against him so that she leant on his shoulder, his arms around her and his other hand playing with her hands.  ‘There’d be a hall with a barometer,’ he said, ‘and I’d tap it to see if I was going to dig in the garden or go off to the pub.’

‘I’d come to the pub with you,’ said Margaret tenderly.

Roy and Margaret attempt to keep their romance secret, but in a small village, no gossip stays secret for long.  When the village gentry learn of Margaret’s affection for Roy and the young couple bravely declare their intention to marry, the Trevors are properly horrified by this unprecedented intermingling of classes.  Wendy, expecting her night’s watch companion to be as unsettled by the union as she is, appeals to Edith to help her minimize the damage.  To Wendy’s chagrin, Edith insists on being baffled as to what’s so shameful about marrying her upright, kind, gainfully-employed son.  And so the union between the daughter of impoverished gentry and the son of the upwardly mobile working class becomes the first test of a new social order.

There’s a lot in this book.  My one complaint was that the book’s central theme was sometimes a bit unsubtle.  It did feel, on occasion, as if Laski didn’t trust her readers enough to draw their own conclusions, and instead she felt the need to beat us over the head with her social theories.  The result was that the action was sometimes predictable.  But it was easy to overlook the occasional ham-handedness of the narrative because the village and its denizens were so alive.  There were a number of side plots that I haven’t addressed at all, and my favorite was the collective aneurysm of the gentry when a successful shopkeeper sells her business, buys a home in the “nice” section of town, and starts wearing tweeds:

To Miss Porteous’s immense surprise, Miss Moodie, when she came to the door, was seen to be wearing a tweed suit.  Miss Porteous had never through of it that way before, but tweed suits, in Priory Dean, were definitely gentry-wear.  In the past Miss Moodie had always been seen in the unnoticeable stockinette dress and cardigan of the respectable tradeswoman; she might, indeed, in these days even have worn a skirt and a hand-knitted jumper; but never, Miss Porteous obscurely felt, a tailored tweed jacket.  Why, now, with her smooth grey hair in the neat bun above this unassailable uniform, she looked just like anyone else, not even very unlike Miss Porteous herself, and it was the confusion she was feeling that led her, without thinking, to cross the threshold when Miss Moodie said, ‘Do please come in, there’s really a nip in the air today.  You’d hardly think it’s really June,’ and then to walk into the sitting-room when Miss Moodie turned the oxydised copper handle on the oak-grained door.

It’s the well-drawn village and the living, breathing characters that takes The Village from a heavy-handed tale of social upheaval to a classic.  I loved the peeks into the kitchens and drawing-rooms of another age, I was righteously angry when Roger Gregory (twice!) snubbed Margaret Trevor, and I cheered for Margaret in her new-found strength to defy her social circle and marry the man she loved – with the encouragement of an unlikely source, and I’m not going to tell you whom, because you really should read The Village.

This review is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for August, 2018

Fables, Vol. 8: Wolves, by Bill Willingham – It had been quite some time since I read any installment of Fables, but I stopped by the comics shelf at my library branch and there it was, looking like just what the doctor ordered.  In this installment, Mowgli has been dispatched to find Bigby Wolf, who Mayor Prince Charming believes is the only Fable who can successfully deliver an ultimatum from Fabletown to the Adversary.  (What about swashbuckling assassin Little Boy Blue? was my question.)  Meanwhile, Snow White is still living on the Farm, raising their cubs with help from her sister Rose Red, and the North Wind.  Fables was one of the first series I picked up when I started reading comics, and I still love it – it’s literary, witty, and so much fun.

The Village, by Marghanita Laski – I’ve been meaning to read Laski, who is one of Persephone’s top two authors (the other being Dorothy Whipple, whose book Greenbanks I loved) and The Village looked like a perfect place for me to start.  The novel opens on the day that peace in Europe was declared after years of fighting World War II.  For the residents of Laski’s village, that means the war is basically over – and they now have to figure out what life is going to look like in the aftermath.  During the war, social conventions were upended, but now that it’s all over, can they go back to what was normal before?  While we meet a number of characters on either side of the tracks, the book focuses on two families in particular – the Trevors, who are upper middle class gentry, but impoverished, and the Wilsons, working-class but doing well financially and on the rise.  When the Trevors’ daughter falls in love with the Wilsons’ son, battle lines are drawn.  I’ll have a more thorough review coming soon, but I really enjoyed this.  At times it could be a bit heavy-handed and overly expository about class distinctions, but the characters were so real and so well-drawn that it was a delight to read.

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, by Marti Olsen Laney – I’d been reading this one on my phone for months, and I liked that the sections were so short that it could be read in snippets.  It was an interesting book with a fair amount of science, but I was underwhelmed by it.  I’ve read a fair amount of books about introversion at this point, and this one didn’t really add anything new for me, and it annoyed me that the author kept referring to introverts as “innies” and extroverts as “outies.”  Excuse me, but I am a person, not a belly button.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones – After reading one of Jones’ earlier novels, The Untelling, and thinking it was fine but not outstanding, I was worried about this one.  An American Marriage was so heavily hyped, and I waited for months on the library holds list to get it, and I was really dreading being disappointed.  I needn’t have worried, because the hype was totally valid in this case, and I thought the book was just wonderful.  An American Marriage tells the story of the unraveling of the titular marriage.  Roy and Celestial have been married only eighteen months when the police kick down the door of the motel room they’re staying in while visiting Roy’s parents, and arrest Roy for rape.  Roy quickly learns that being innocent of the crime (he was with his wife the entire time that the rape occurred), and having a clean record, are no help, and he is convicted and sent to prison for twelve years.  At first, Celestial dutifully visits him, but soon finds herself chafing under the pressures of being married to a wrongfully convicted man and falls into a relationship with her childhood best friend, Andre.  When Roy is unexpectedly released after five years instead of twelve, Celestial has to decide if she wants to save her marriage or seek her freedom.  An American Marriage was incredibly compelling, and the characters were living and breathing.  I loved the different perspective on the criminal justice system – I don’t think I’ve ever read a story told through this lens before – and I was on the edge of my seat, furiously turning pages to find out what happened.  My only complaint is that Jones never explains exactly what it was that got Roy released early – there’s a mention of prosecutorial misconduct, but I’d have liked more details about what the legal arguments were that led to his freedom.  (Was there new DNA evidence?  Other physical evidence?  What was the prosecutorial misconduct?  Inquiring lawyers wanna know.)  But I think that’s probably a complaint that is rooted in my being an attorney, and non-lawyers wouldn’t think twice about it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston – This one has been on my to-read list for years, and I am so glad that I finally got around to it, because it was absolutely gorgeous.  The dialogue was written in dialect, which was a bit hard to get into, but once I got it, I found it easy enough to read – and the non-dialogue was just beautiful, and the story compelling and wrenching.  I reviewed it in full for my Classics Club list here.

Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire, by Bill Willingham – After Bigby Wolf has delivered Fabletown’s message to the Adversary (and a very destructive message it is), the villains of the Homelands convene a council of war to discuss their response.  The Snow Queen proposes waging a wildly dramatic war, complete with plagues that will wipe out all of civilization on Earth, and she’s pretty gleeful about her idea.  (Elsa!  WHY???)  But Pinocchio successfully dismantles the Snow Queen’s plan, explaining why it can’t possibly work, and Fabletown is safe for the moment.  Meanwhile, Bigby and Snow are finally back together, raising their family at Wolf Manor – but then Snow tells Bigby that she wants them to take the cubs for a family visit to Bigby’s estranged father, the North Wind.  Obviously, there is no way that could end badly!  This series continues to be pure delight.

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead – Lila Mae Watson is the first African-American woman in the history of her city’s Department of Elevator Inspectors, and so she is more than an elevator inspector; she’s a symbol of progress and inclusivity.  She’s also an Intuitionist, one of a minority of elevator inspectors who are able to simply meditate and sense any problems with an elevator (as opposed to the more methodical Empiricists, who visually inspect the elevators and their parts).  The Elevator Inspectors’ Guild is in the midst of an election season, and an Intuitionist is running against an Empiricist.  When an elevator has a catastrophic freefall on Lila Mae’s watch, she suddenly finds herself at the center of the storm, racing against time to find a “black box” – a perfect elevator design – hidden away by the founder of Intuitionism.  So, I enjoyed this once I gave up on understanding what was going on, or even really following it.  Magical realism isn’t my thing, and it was definitely at play here – but the story was compelling and Lila Mae was a wonderful character.

Portage: A Family, A Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life, by Sue Leaf – I so enjoyed this lovely, ruminative, expansive look at a lifetime of paddling.  Sue Leaf is trained as a zoologist, and she is a passionate canoeist, as are her husband and their children, who grew up paddling the lakes and rivers of the upper Midwest.  Portage is a hard book to describe – it’s part memoir, part history, part nature journal, part sports book.  Leaf begins the book by describing how she came to canoeing at age 10.  The rest of the book is organized into chapters or essays about various canoeing excursions she has taken with her family – everything from an afternoon’s paddling on an urban Minneapolis stream to two weeks canoe trekking the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.  In each essay, she muses on the natural and human history touching the river in question; gleefully describes the avian life she saw there; writes touchingly about parenthood, marriage and aging; muses about climate change; and more.  I read it at a slow pace and enjoyed every moment.  I’m a kayaker, not a canoeist, and I am used to paddling different waters, but Leaf’s joy in time spent on the water and the pleasure she takes in her paddles splashing in and out of a lake or river were very familiar to me.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson – I’ve been meaning to read this one for awhile, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t first attracted by the gorgeous cover.  But the book is a joy to read as well as to hold.  It’s one of those stories in which nothing really happens, but the clarity and elegance of the prose make it pure pleasure to read.  The Summer Book tells the story of six-year-old Sophia, recently bereft of her mother, and her summer pursuits on a small island off Finland with her Grandmother.  Sophia and Grandmother wander the island, build a miniature Venice, trespass in a neighbor’s house, brave a storm and a day of danger, and more.  Sophia was a completely realistic six-year-old (and I should know, because I have one of those) and her relationship with Grandmother was sparkling and heart-wrenching.  I marked so many passages of gorgeous writing to which I want to return.

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol – I saw this graphic novel on Instagram (specifically, on Colin Meloy’s stories) and ordered it immediately.  It’s a lightly fictionalized, but mostly pretty realistic, graphic memoir of the author’s time at a summer camp for Russian kids.  Vera feels different and set apart from her American friends – her mother, a single mom of three, can’t afford expensive dolls or fancy summer camps.  But when Vera learns of a summer camp for Russian kids, she figures she’s finally found a place where she’ll fit in.  Of course it’s not that simple, and Vera learns lessons about friendship and popularity over a summer of trying to carve out a niche for herself even at Russian camp.  Oh, and a chipmunk bites her.  I just loved Be Prepared, and I blew through it in one sitting.  It was sweet, a little bit sad, and really, really funny.

Canoeing in the Wilderness, by Henry David Thoreau – The last of my vacation reading, if you can call it that, since I started the book about one hour from home on the journey back, Canoeing in the Wilderness is Thoreau’s account of a paddling expedition in Maine with a number of companions, over one summer week.  In classic Thoreau language, he describes portages, campsites, and the vistas of rivers and lakes.  I really enjoyed it, but my twenty-first century sensibilities were bothered by his descriptions of the Native American guide the group hired to conduct them through the wilderness.  Although the man has a name – Joe Polis – which is given early on, Thoreau mostly refers to him as “the Indian” or even worse, “our Indian.”  Thoreau seems fascinated by Polis, as if he is another specimen of wildlife, and some of his descriptions of Polis’s directional capabilities, physical traits, and language really set my teeth on edge.  Throughout the book, when Thoreau would recount their conversations, I found myself hoping that Polis was trolling Thoreau and his friends with the intent of laughing at them later.

Pretty good August in books, if I do say so myself!  Eleven this month, including two comic trades and a graphic novel/memoir, which provided some of the highlights.  Other highlights: the absolutely gorgeous Their Eyes Were Watching God and the lovely The Village have to be up there, and I was really impressed with An American Marriage.  I also enjoyed some blissful vacation reading, and Portage especially was a joy.  On to September – I picked the book club book this month, which is a favorite re-read of mine, and I also have some other fun reading on deck.  Check in with me next month for more short book reviews.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic of American literature, Southern literature, African-American literature and culture and thinking and – it’s just a must-read.  I’ve had this one on my list for years, and I finally got around to picking it up.  Better late than never.

A brief synopsis: Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of a woman’s journey from adolescence to middle-age, through the lens of her three marriages.  We first meet Janie as a middle-aged woman preparing to tell the story of her life, but she quickly takes us back to peer in on herself as a blooming teenager, kissing a man over a fence.  All the world is possibility in that moment:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was a marriage!  She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.

Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, sees her kiss the young man and quickly moves to stamp out any ill-advised romance.  Nanny informs Janie that Janie must marry a man who can provide for her; it is this eventuality that will mark the culmination of Nanny’s hard work and sacrifices – and she has just the man.  He’s much older than Janie, and Janie doesn’t love him – nor he, her – but no matter.  He means security.  Janie, complacent, marries and is shocked to discover that she can’t fall in love with her husband; she’d just assumed that love would follow marriage naturally and without any prodding from her.  So she’s easily tempted to run off when a new man, Joe Starks, appears on the scene.  Joe – or Jody, as Janie calls him – promises to keep her in the style in which she, as a shockingly beautiful woman, ought to be kept.  On his arm, as Mrs. Starks, Janie enters the town of Eatonville, where she will spend most of her life.  Joe strides into town and immediately takes the community in hand, getting himself elected Mayor and setting up a thriving business.  But Janie struggles against the bonds in her new life – working in Joe’s store, covering her lustrous hair upon his orders, and staying silent instead of joining in the life of the town as she longs to do.  After twenty years of serving as Joe’s adornment, she is widowed and free for the first time.  And then Tea Cake appears on the scene.

All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake.  She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association.  But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again.  She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her.  He looked like the love thoughts of women.  He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring.  He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps.  Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took.  Spices hung about him.  He was a glance from God.

Tea Cake is younger than Janie – by about fifteen years – and the town speculates that he’s after her money.  He’s not, though.  When Janie finally agrees to marry him, they quickly come to an understanding (after he finds and spends her secret emergency stash – I wasn’t too impressed with him in that scene) that she’ll live on what he provides.  If they’re hungry, they’ll be hungry together.  And she works alongside him – not grudgingly, as with her first two husbands – but because he wants her with him and she wants to be there.  They struggle and strive and fight sometimes, and it’s a gloriously even partnership – and gorgeous to read.

The book culminates with a hurricane and its tragic aftermath, and some of the most compelling writing I’ve ever experienced, including the passage from which the title comes:

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time.  They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His.  They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

It’s a slim volume, and completely absorbing, so it makes for a quick read if you’re inclined to steam through books, which I certainly am; I finished it in a day.  But I did try to slow down and appreciate Hurston’s gorgeous writing, and to make sure I didn’t miss the dialogue, which Hurston writes in dialect – which takes some getting used to, but once you’re accustomed it enhances the texture and the atmosphere of the story.

I won’t spoil the ending, because everyone should read it for themselves – on the edge of your seat, if you’re anything like me.  I can certainly see why Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic, and I’m sure I will be revisiting it.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for July, 2018…

Slightly Foxed No. 58: A Snatch of Morning, ed. Gail Pirkis – It’s always a red-letter day when the latest issue of Slightly Foxed arrives on my doorstep!  This quarterly journal has brought me so much joy since I stumbled across it a couple of years ago now.  The latest issue was the same hodgepodge of delightfulness – this time around, there were essays on E.M. Forster’s great-aunt (which I really enjoyed, as I was reading Howards End at the same time); beards; Englishness; and Jane Austen’s favorite poet.  There’s nothing quite like an issue of Slightly Foxed for curling up with – gigantic cup of tea optional but desirable.

Howards End, by E.M. Forster – Here’s one that’s been on the TBR for ages, which I finally picked up because (1) there’s a new adaptation and I wanted to watch it but I really wanted to read the book first; and (2) I got a pretty hardcover copy from Hodder & Stoughton.  The story of the clashes and intersections between the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcox family were absorbing from beginning to end – and, predictably, I identified with Margaret and found Helen mildly exasperating.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown – I’m not sure if lately there are more memoirs about the experience of living as a woman of color, or if I’m just more aware of them, but I’ve read several now and this is a standout.  Brown writes compellingly about names, identity, work, religion and more.  The section in which she details the microaggressions of a typical workday was really eye-opening and made me all the more determined to be a good ally.  (My friend Zan also read this book last month, although I don’t think we were aware that we were reading the same book at the time.  Go check out her thoughts on the book here.)

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell – Another one that I’ve been meaning for a long time to read.  I picked this up while in the first shock of grieving for a loved one who had enjoyed this book, and it was the only thing that made me feel better.  Asked to describe it midway through the reading experience, I said it was “Pride and Prejudice and labor unrest,” and I hold to that elevator pitch – but man, it is SO good.  For some reason I’d had it in my head that Elizabeth Gaskell would be a difficult read, but that can’t be further from my experience.  I’ve now read two of her books – the other being Cranford – and loved both.  I can’t wait to wend my way through the rest.

Summer, by Edith Wharton – Sometimes described as “the hot Ethan,” Summer tells the story of young Charity Royall’s awakening during an affair with the cousin of a neighbor, visiting from the city.  Typical for Wharton, the writing is spare and elegant and the scene-setting is atmospheric.  I enjoyed it all the more for having just been in Lenox, where Wharton had her country estate, earlier in the month.  (The Mount has long been on my to-do list.  I must make it happen sooner than later.)

The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah – I picked this up because it was described as a “classic of urban literature” and was recommended on PBS’ The Great American Read.  But man alive, how I hated it.  Winter Santiaga is the spoiled eldest daughter of a Brooklyn drug kingpin, but her world comes crashing down when her father is arrested.  Winter decides she is going to do whatever she has to do in order to survive, but surviving for Winter appears to mean finding a man to take care of her, or alternatively, coming up with her own crime schemes to get money quick so she can buy designer clothes.  For a short time she comes within the orbit of Sister Souljah, a Harlem activist who comes across as completely self-righteous and sanctimonious.  Midnight, the only man Winter can’t get, and Rashida, one of Winter’s acquaintances at a group home she resides in temporarily, are the only characters I found at all worthwhile in the book.  For awhile I tried to equate Winter with other unsympathetic anti-heroines – namely Scarlett O’Hara – but it didn’t work.  Scarlett at least had something she loved outside of herself – Tara, her father’s plantation – and her schemes were all centered around her purpose of saving and keeping Tara.  Winter was only interested in Winter.  But I plugged away at it and finally finished, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been so glad to be done with a book.

Slightly Foxed No. 5: A Hare’s Breath, ed. Gail Pirkis – After the 400-page miseryfest that was The Coldest Winter Ever, I needed some quick comfort, and fortunately I had a few essays left to read in the fifth volume of Slightly Foxed (as I am reading my way through the back issues at the meditative pace of an essay or two a night, unless I need a palate cleanser from a terrible reading experience).  I think I should read through more quickly, though, because the essays at the end, when I was steaming along, made more of an impression than the earlier essays I read in snatches.  Particular highlights were an introduction to a princess who followed her Decembrist husband to Siberia, and a meander through the gardening literature of Vita Sackville-West (which is already on my Amazon wish list).

News from Thrush Green (Thrush Green #3), by Miss Read – I was still in need of comfort reading after finishing the Slightly Foxed issue described above, and there’s nothing like Miss Read for that.  I’d been saving this third installment in the Thrush Green series and I happily dove right back into that world.  In this one, marital problems abound.  Nelly Piggott leaves her husband Albert after he grouses about her cooking one too many times, and a newcomer arrives in the village with a sweet son but no husband (!!!!!) which, naturally, sets tongues wagging.  There are other domestic disturbances, too – the Baileys host an irritating family member for an extended visit and Dotty Harmer has kittens to give away.  Thrush Green is a sweet, slow-paced world where the problems are slight and you’re guaranteed that everything will turn out fine in the end.  Just what the doctor ordered.

I definitely did more reading in July than in June – I suppose I was making up for lost time.  And so many classics this month!  Time spent over Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster and Miss Read is always a delight, as is any moment I am able to snatch with an issue of Slightly Foxed.  I always end a month feeling more satisfied with and comforted by my reading if it’s included plenty of classics, and July was no exception – I guess I know what I like.

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Well, it’s only August!  The summer is flying by – as usual – and it just occurred to me that I haven’t done a “top ten books of the year so far” post.  I’ve been seeing similar posts pop up on other blogs over the past few weeks, so maybe we’re all running late?  In any event, completely unscientifically and vaguely in chronological order, here are my ten favorite books read in the first – errrrr – seven months of the year.

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, by Gwen Raverat – Steve and the kids gave me an absolutely gorgeous edition of Period Piece for my birthday in 2017, and it was a lovely reading experience to start off the year.  Raverat grew up as Gwen Darwin, granddaughter of Charles, in Victorian Cambridge, before becoming an woodcut illustrator and marrying Jacques Raverat, himself a well-known artist.  Raverat is one of the first professional female artists to gain reknown, and Period Piece, her charming memoir of her childhood, is illustrated with her own work.  I love woodcut illustration, and I love Victorian childhood lit, so basically I was here for all of it.

Consider the Years, by Virginia Graham – Graham was a genteel, upper-class lady, married and moving in the best social circles, when the world came crashing down in the form of the Blitz.  Consider the Years is her collection of poetry from the beginning of World War II to just after the war’s end.  It’s beautiful, sad, sometimes funny (oh, Nanny!) and altogether wonderful.

Behind the Lines, by A.A. Milne – Somehow, despite reading his Winnie-the-Pooh books more times than I can count, and despite being well aware that Milne also wrote many books for adults, I’d never read any of his work not set in the Hundred Acre Wood.  That is – until I saw Behind the Lines on another book blog and scrambled to obtain a copy for myself (it’s out of print).  Milne’s Home Front poetry is witty, funny, poignant and delightful – much like When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, except with newspapers and barometers.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff – People have been telling me to read this book for literally years and I finally got around to it (and in great style, in the form of a fire engine red Slightly Foxed Edition – so pretty).  Hanff is a Manhattan bibliophile who writes to a London bookstore in search of some inexpensive used books to complete her self-assigned course of education and personal enrichment.  She gets the books – lots and lots of them – but something better as well: cross-Atlantic friendships with the store’s entire staff, all of whom write to her at various points.  The letters they exchange are hilarious, chatty, and sometimes sad as Hanff details the financial woes that prevent her from coming to London and having a cuppa with all of them in person.

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente – Eurovision in space?!  What’s not to love?  Valente is one of my go-to preorders; I think she’s one of the most original authors writing today.  Her latest novel was such a fun romp.  Decibel Jones is a washed-up and aging glam rocker who finds himself in the unusual position of being the only hope for the survival of humanity after a blue birdlike alien arrives and informs everyone that unless Decibel and the remnants of his long-dispersed band manage not to come in dead last in an intergalactic singing competition, Earth will be obliterated.  No pressure, D!

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen – My choice for the first read of my new book club wasn’t very popular, sadly.  But Northanger Abbey is one of my favorite Austens, and every time I read it I remember just how much I love it.  I adore naïve Catherine, sweet Eleanor, handsome Henry, and even the clueless Mrs Allen.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas – I’d have picked this one up for the cover alone (I mean, does it get more beautiful?) but I had read and loved Lukas’ debut novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, years ago and was eagerly awaiting his sophomore effort.  This didn’t disappoint – it was just as richly imagined, gorgeously written, evocative and absorbing as its predecessor.  I got it from the library, but I might need to buy a copy, because I loved it so much.

Brensham Village, by John Moore – The second volume of the Brensham trilogy, a lightly-fictionalized memoir about English country life from the Edwardian days to World War II, was a definite highlight.  (I also read the first volume, Portrait of Elmbury, which was excellent, but included one very jarring paragraph with a couple of racist sentences.  I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but Brensham Village pulls ahead by being more charming in every respect and also, no racism.)  I have copies of each book in the trilogy in gorgeous blue and green Slightly Foxed Editions, and I look forward to returning to the world of cricket on Brensham Green, followed by pints in the Horse Narrow, very soon.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown – I have been trying to stay abreast of the important memoirs about the experiences of people of color, and while there are many standouts, I’m Still Here has been my favorite.  Brown’s writing is elegant and compelling, and her life experiences well worth reading about.  I devoured it in a day.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell – This classic is a must-read that has been on my list for a long time, but I finally picked it up to get me through the grief of losing a loved one too soon.  The family member we lost had loved this book and encouraged me to read it, and now I finally have.  The first few chapters may be a bit splotchy with dried tears, but I was able to close the book with a smile and think to myself, you were absolutely right, of course.

Some good reading so far this year!  I always gravitate to classics, but I did so this year more than most, as you can probably tell from this list.  There’s just something so comforting about a big cup of tea, a warm woven blanket, and a classic novel when the winter winds are howling outside (or really, anytime throughout the year, although I might pass on the blanket in the August heat).  I also think that as the world outside gets scarier and more unpredictable, my bookshelves become more and more of an escape.  Everything else is moving so fast – I just want to take things slowly and keep it simple at home, and that probably shows in the reading I most enjoyed in the first half-ish of 2018.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for June, 2018…

The Explosive Child, by Dr. Ross Greene – Always looking to add to my arsenal of parenting knowledge.  I took a long break from parenting books, though, because at best I found most of them unhelpful (with the exception of The Happiest Baby on the Block, which is a miracle) and at worst they made me feel like a rotten mother.  This one was decidedly meh – I didn’t throw it across the room – but I also didn’t take much from it in the way of practical tips.  The book sets forth a method for dealing with “chronically inflexible, easily frustrated children” – well, I have one of those, but I didn’t learn much about how to relate to this particular kid, at least, not in a way that I think would be effective.  So all in all, not much help.

Slightly Foxed No. 4: Now We’re Shut In For The Night, ed. Gail Pirkis – No issue of Slightly Foxed ever disappoints!  I’m gradually (but enthusiastically) working my way through the back issues of the quarterly, while keeping up with the current issues as well, and it’s almost hard to find anything new to say because they’re so consistently delightful.  Even when I’m not inclined to rush out and buy a copy of the book that a particular essayist is profiling, the writing in the essays is invariably delightful and I can just sink into one happily.  It really is a perfect literary magazine.

Scenes of Clerical Life, by George Eliot – I’ve read Middlemarch twice, but had never read anything else by Eliot, so I decided it was time to change that.  To be honest, the cover attracted me to this one (this is the edition I have) and I also can’t resist a Victorian clergy novel.  Kryptonite, I tell ya.  Anyway, this is actually a collection of three novellas featuring clergymen and their families.  I enjoyed the second – The Love-Story of Mr Gilfil – most, but all three were good reads.  (And on more than one occasion I found myself in tears over a character and a bit befuddled by that, because I didn’t realize I cared that much!  George Eliot, you sly minx.)

Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles – I think I noticed this one in the Shelf Awareness newsletter, or else on some other new release list.  The premise is: Cameron Harris, Iraq vet, has been paralyzed and wheelchair-bound since coming home from the war – until one day when, in the parking lot of a convenience store, he stands up and walks.  Cameron’s seemingly impossible recovery becomes big news and soon the Vatican investigator descends, followed in short order by a reality television crew.  So – I enjoyed this, but I bogged down in it a little bit, which was probably a function of reading it against a library deadline and not because it was what I was really craving at the moment.  It was good, but also reminded me a lot of The Jesus Cow, which I liked better.

Quite a light month in June.  One literary journal, one classic, one new release and one parenting book.  It was a doozy of a month – busy at work, slammed with personal worries and projects, two family emergencies and one death in the family.  There was a lot of worrying and tears, and not a lot of reading or fun.  Midway through July, my attention is still just shot, so expect another short list in a few weeks.  Here’s hoping for things to look up from here.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for May, 2018

The Untelling, by Tayari Jones – While I wait (and wait, and wait) for my library hold to come in on An American Marriage, Jones’ new release, I picked up The Untelling from her backlist.  The Untelling is the story of Aria, a young woman whose family was torn apart when her father and baby sister died in a car accident when Aria was a young girl.  Aria, her mother and her sister survived the accident.  Now in her twenties and working as a literacy instructor, Aria believes she has put the past behind her and found a way to uneasily coexist with her remaining family members.  But when she discovers that she may be pregnant, wheels are set in motion that will eventually bring a reckoning for everyone.  Well – The Untelling was beautifully written, but left me a bit cold.  It may be library deadline reading, which is never a great way to read.  But I felt that the plot was a bit contrived – the only way to have a book was to have Aria make a long string of terrible and illogical decisions, and it began to feel farfetched.  I mean, no one makes that many insane choices.

Second Class Citizen, by Buchi Emecheta – I’ve been trying to read more classic African writers, and I’d never read anything by Emecheta – plus this immigrant narrative looked really interesting.  The story focuses on Adah, a resourceful young Nigerian woman who is driven by a dream to live in England.  Adah will do anything to make her dream come true – even marry a gigantic jerk.  She does make it to England and, of course, finds that the immigrant life is much harder than she expected.  Adah is strong and could probably have thrived even in the very foreign London of the 1960s, had she a partner who was deserving of her.  But her husband Francis is a cruel and lazy man, who insists on Adah single-handedly supporting the family even as she has baby after baby.  Spoiler alert, and warning: don’t read this if you need a tidy ending.  By the end of the story I was very invested in Adah getting away from Francis and becoming her own woman, and the end was singularly unsatisfying.

Sailing Alone Around The Room: Collected Poems, by Billy Collins – I’ve been reading this collection in snatches (on my phone) for a couple of months now, and meh.  I didn’t really like it.  Some of the poems were quite lovely and thoughtful, but a lot more were just Collins drinking orange juice, listening to records and thinking about naked ladies.  I know that he has quite the fan base and was the poet laureate of the United States, but Collins just didn’t do it for me.  I like my poetry touched with the sublime, and this collection was just too mundane for my taste.  I have heard that it’s not his best, and that there are better examples of Collins’ writing out there.  Maybe at some point I will seek one out, but I don’t see that happening soon.  I’m more content to wander hedgerows with Betjeman or charge through Camelot with Tennyson.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas – Finally, four books in, I hit on a May read that I just loved.  This was totally expected, because I adored Lukas’ first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, but I’d have been crushed if The Last Watchman of Old Cairo was disappointing.  Happily for me, it was even better than its predecessor.  Lukas can spin a tale, no doubt, and he does so here – following three sets of characters through three time periods – Ali al Raqb, the first watchman of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo in 1300 AD; two sisters from Cambridge who travel to Cairo to save priceless documents that are being looted from the synagogue’s geniza in 1875; and Yusuf al Raqb, the son of the last watchman of the synagogue, who has just passed away and left his son with a mysterious scrap of paper and a lot of grieving to reconcile.  I loved every second of this gorgeous story and have been telling everyone I meet to go read it immediately.  So I will tell you: GO READ IT.  IMMEDIATELY.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward – I’d been waiting months to get the latest from Ward; the library holds list was a mile long.  (I live in a city of readers, which I love, even if it does mean that I sometimes have to wait for the anticipated new release.)  Ward tells the story of Jojo, a young boy on the cusp of manhood; Leonie, Jojo’s tormented mother; and Richie, a ghost.  When Leonie learns that Jojo’s father is about to be released from prison, she packs up Jojo and his sister and drives with a friend up to collect him.  Perspectives switch back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, and eventually Richie, in a sad and spellbinding story.  So – this was not a comfortable reading experience, especially the Richie parts.  My aunt picked it up after she asked me what I was reading and I told her and she texted me a few chapters in: “Is it this depressing the whole time?”  The answer is yes, but it’s also beautiful.

To Die But Once (Maisie Dobbs #14), by Jacqueline Winspear – World War II has officially begun, but when the latest installment in the Maisie Dobbs series opens, London is in the throes of “the Bore War” – the early days, before the Blitz, when most of England just baked in the sun and stewed with apprehension, wondering when something (anything!) would happen.  (Eventually, something does: the Dunkirk evacuation, which catches a few of the characters up in it.)  Maisie and Billy are investigating the disappearance of a neighbor’s son who was apprenticed to a painting company working with untested flame-retardant paint in a top secret location.  Meanwhile, Maisie is working on formally adopting her orphaned refugee, Anna, and trying to be present for Billy and Priscilla as they worry about their sons, who are old enough to go to war.  The Maisie novels keep getting better, and I tore through this one as usual.

Brensham Village (Brensham Trilogy #2), by John Moore – The second installment in the Brensham Trilogy (of lightly fictionalized memoirs about the market town where Moore grew up and the constellation of villages and hamlets that surrounded it) was a dream to read.  I loved Portrait of Elmbury, and Brensham Village was, if anything, even better.  The book opens with Moore and his three friends (“the young varmints”) discovering Brensham Hill, which rises above its namesake village about four miles outside of Elmbury (where Moore lives).  There is a folly on top of the hill, complete with hermit, and there are “lolloping” hares and a mad Lord (who was one of my favorites amongst Moore’s cast of delightful characters).  Having conquered Brensham Hill, Moore looks down over the thatched rooftops of the village and dreams of being part of the life there – and as a young man, he fulfills that dream by joining the cricket team and being informally adopted as one of Brensham’s own.  He trades jokes with the landlords of the Adam and Eve and the Horse Narrow pubs; plays darts and scampers over the outlying areas in search of insects with his old Latin teacher, Mr Chorlton (a beloved character from Portrait of Elmbury), mourns with the villagers when a freak frost destroys their fruit crops, and shudders at the shady Syndicate that is quietly buying up land around the village.  Brensham isn’t a real place – it’s an amalgamation of villages around Tewkesbury – but in Moore’s hands, it breathes and teems with life.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon, by Robert Kurson – There are a few books that I just can’t resist, and “dad books” about the golden age of space travel are in that category.  In Rocket Men, Kurson covers Apollo 8 with aplomb.  I thought I knew pretty much what there was to be known about Apollo 8 after reading Lost Moon (which was retitled Apollo 13 after the movie came out) but there was a lot more to tell, it seems.  Kurson digs up every interesting, funny, hair-raising or disgusting anecdote he can find (and I kept stopping Steve in whatever he was doing so I could read them aloud).  My favorite was definitely the anecdote about Bill Anders flipping the bird at a Soviet flight while stationed in Iceland, and the Soviets’ months-delayed response.  This was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed every minute.  (It would also make a great Father’s Day gift for the nonfiction-inclined dads out there.)

Pretty good May in books, if I do say so myself!  There were some excellent highlights – The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, the new Maisie, Brensham Village and Rocket Men all come to mind.  I had a couple fall a bit flat, but them’s the breaks, sometimes.  Looking ahead, I have a few books on the go already now, at the start of June, and I think it’s going to be another good reading month.  Tootle pip!

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