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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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Grinding the gears on the way-back machine, back in August of 2013 (can it really be that long ago?) I joined The Classics Club.  The basic idea behind the Classics Club challenge is this: choose 50 (or more) classics – they can be books you’ve never read or old favorites that you want to re-read – and pick a date five years in the future, by which point you will have read and written about every book on the list.  Sounds fun, yes?  Well – in August of 2013 I was a stay-at-home mom with one easygoing baby, who slept regularly and was a breeze to care for.  I’m sure you see where this is going.

Why settle for fifty when I could read one hundred classics in five years?  It seemed perfectly doable.  I tend to read about 100 books per year no matter what I do – sometimes 102, sometimes 98 – and over five years, that would average out to 20% of my reading being devoted to classics.  Considering I love classics, 20% seemed easy.  And 2018 seemed so far away.

For whatever reason, I didn’t manage to pull it off.  My five year deadline is coming up, and I have barely scratched the surface of my classics list.  I’m not actually sure why not.  Over the course of new jobs, moves, another pregnancy and newborn days I’ve kept up a steady pace of reading, yet for some reason I haven’t read the books on the list.  I can’t explain it.  So I have to admit failure on this challenge.  But I love the Classics Club community, and I want to try again.  So here we go – a new list, targeted for completion by July 27, 2023.

  • Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope
  • Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope
  • The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope
  • The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope
  • The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
  • Sanditon, by Jane Austen
  • Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Sylvia’s Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  • A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
  • Washington Square, by Henry James
  • Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson (re-read)
  • Miss Mapp, by E.F. Benson
  • Lucia in London, by E.F. Benson
  • Mapp and Lucia, by E.F. Benson
  • The Worshipful Lucia, by E.F. Benson
  • Trouble for Lucia, by E.F. Benson
  • The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield
  • Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
  • East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  • The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves
  • The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Silas Marner, by George Eliot
  • Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
  • Romola, by George Eliot
  • The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
  • Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
  • The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
  • Everything that Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O’Connor
  • Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty (re-read)
  • The Iliad, by Homer
  • The Odyssey, by Homer
  • Three Men on the Bummel, by Jerome K. Jerome
  • The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte
  • Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte
  • Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (re-read)
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte (re-read)
  • The Floating Admiral, by the Members of the Detection Club
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  • Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
  • The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • Where Angels Fear to Tread, by E.M. Forster
  • The Priory, by Dorothy Whipple
  • The Village, by Marghanita Laski

And there it is!  Only time will tell whether this attempt goes any better than the last.  If only I could figure out where my roadblocks were for the past five years – it’s not like I haven’t read 100 books, or a bunch of classics.  Maybe I just picked the wrong one.  So – anyway – here goes nothin’.

Do you participate in reading challenges?  Which ones?  (Like I need more…)

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My Blog Name In Books

I don’t know how this got started, but I am seeing posts pop up all over the book-blogging world, listing book titles that spell out the blog’s name, and I think it’s such a fun exercise – naturally, I wanted to join in so I raided my bookshelves to see what I could come up with.  I’ve got a tough blog name to spell out, but I did my best–

C – Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.  This is my favorite Steinbeck, and I’ve actually been to Cannery Row!

O – Outer Banks Mysteries and Seaside Stories, ed. Charles Harry Whedbee.  Growing up, my family vacationed on Hatteras Island almost every summer, and one of my favorite vacation traditions was attending a campfire on the beach in which the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Rangers would play their guitars, sing songs and tell ghost stories from a series of books edited by OBX resident Judge Whedbee.  I loved the stories and collected the whole set of five books – for sale in the Hatteras Light gift shop – over multiple summer trips.

V – Village School, by Miss Read.  Miss Read is one of my favorite comfort authors and I’ve turned to her in good times and bad.  Village School was the first Miss Read I ever picked up, and it’s such a delight.

E – Emma, by Jane Austen.  There was going to be an Austen in here.  I’m on record as saying Emma is not my favorite of her books (and I know some view that as sacrilege) but any Austen is better than not-Austen.  And I do love me some Mr Knightley.

R – Rule Britannia, by Daphne du Maurier.  This is my old, somewhat battered, copy from high school, when I was on a serious du Maurier kick.  I still love her, and chose to spend my thirtieth birthday in Cornwall because of du Maurier.

E – Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery.  Another mandatory author!  Emily of New Moon was my childhood favorite book (so much so that I named my daughter after the heroine, although sometimes I joke that, had I known she’d grow up to be a redhead with a wild imagination and a fiery temper, I’d have named her Anne).  I still love it and re-read it regularly.

D – Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope.  I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s high on my list, because I loved the first two novels in the Barchester series (this is the third) and I’m itching to watch the television adaptation but won’t until I’ve read the book.  I hear great things and if it’s even half as good as Barchester Towers, I know I’m in for a treat.

I – It’s Hard To Be Hip Over Thirty, by Judith Viorst.  A recent purchase (and read), I did really enjoy this witty book of poetry about married life in the 1950s and 60s.  A bit sour sometimes, but then I’m a bit sour sometimes.

N – Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen.  Another Austen!  Can never have too many Austen novels, can we?  (If only there were more than six.)  Northanger Abbey is one of my favorites, and I recently made my book club read it.  Not everyone finished, but we all enjoyed trashing the Thorpes and drinking wine at the next meeting.

F – French Lessons, by Peter Mayle.  This is another one I haven’t read – I’m saving it, because I’ve read most of Mayle’s Provence books and I adore them so much.  I don’t want to live in a world in which I’ve run out of Peter Mayle books, so I am rationing.  I’m probably not going to be able to wait much longer to tear into this one, though.

L – Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Another formative childhood book.  I was obsessed with the pioneer life as a child (and even dressed as Laura Ingalls for two Halloweens in a row – I had a gorgeous costume, hand-sewn by my grandmother).  I know that there are some problematic elements to the Little House books, but I still love them for their spirit and vivacity and the picture of a bygone way of life that is so foreign to me.

O – One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes.  Another one I’ve not yet read, although I loved (and savored) Panter-Downes’ war correspondence in London War Notes.  I’ve heard wonderful things about this slim little volume and I can’t wait to curl up with it.

U – Under Wildwood, by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis.  I’m cheating a bit, because although I went through my bookshelves with a fine-toothed comb, I couldn’t find a book title beginning with U on there.  So this is my kindle, since I have Under Wildwood in electronic format.  (I’d like to collect the Wildwood Trilogy in hardcover, though.  All in good time.)

R – Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery.  Another Montgomery, of course!  I have a whole shelf dedicated to Maud, so it shouldn’t surprise you to see multiple picks on this list.  Rilla is one of my favorites of the Anne series (not quite at the level of the first three, but up there).  I have fond memories of lying on my stomach in my bedroom loft, (spoiler alert!) flooding the house over Walter.

There you have it!  COVERED IN FLOUR – in books!  That wasn’t easy – particularly the V and U.  (I’ve occasionally considered changing my blog name now that this is no longer a cooking blog, and maybe I should have.)  What books spell out your blog name?  Will you join in?

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The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Recently, my friend Susan and I were discussing the subject of mothers in Jane Austen.  I’m not sure how the particular topic of mothers came up, since our friendship is one extended conversation about all things Janeite – but it may have been that we both (independently) finished re-reading Northanger Abbey recently.

At some point in the conversation, I mused that I had been trying to suss out a theme in Austen’s portrayal of mothers.  It seemed a bit of a stretch, but the closest thing that I could find to a common thread was that none of Austen’s heroines can entirely rely upon their mothers for wisdom or guidance.  Some don’t have mothers in their lives at all; others have mothers somewhere in the deep background, but none of them are overly helpful to our heroines.  Witness:

  • Anne Elliot‘s mother is deceased.  She has a surrogate in Lady Russell, but that good lady’s advice isn’t always particularly good, since it was her meddling that drove Anne and Captain Wentworth apart originally; one wonders if, had Lady Elliot been living, Anne would have had her happily-ever-after when she first fell in love with Wentworth, instead of having to wait eight years.
  • Emma Woodhouse‘s mother is also deceased.  The closest to a mother that Emma comes is “poor Miss Taylor” – her governess, who becomes “poor Mrs Weston” and departs the house in the beginning of the book.  Mrs Weston plays a role in bringing Frank Churchill to Hartfield and is otherwise distracted by marriage and pregnancy – hardly available to guide Emma through her growing pains.
  • Fanny Price lives apart from her mother, under the arch eye of two unpleasant aunts.  Even from afar, Fanny can’t rely on her mother – worn down by poverty and a drunken husband, she’s just trying to get through the days.
  • Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have a living mother in the same household, and she’s generally okay, but not a particularly solid source of relationship advice – she thinks Willoughby is a delightful young man, after all.  (Which makes sense, because she’s basically Marianne, twenty years on.)  And she fails to recognize the distress that Elinor is in for most of the novel.  I may be a bit hard on Mrs Dashwood, but Elinor Dashwood is one of my favorite Austen heroines, and every time I read Sense and Sensibility I am frustrated anew at Mrs Dashwood’s enabling of Marianne’s diva tendencies and her demand that Elinor enable them too.
  • Catherine Morland has probably the best (most decent, non-embarrassing) mother in the Austen landscape, but even bustling and kindly Mrs Morland isn’t much help to her daughter – she is too distracted by the other members of her brood and, likely, by the demands of being a rector’s wife.  Catherine spends most of the book out of her parents’ presence – first in Bath with the Allens and then at Northanger Abbey, seat of the Tilney family – and the Morland parents are a benign offstage presence, mostly forgotten, for the bulk of the book.
  • Elizabeth Bennet, I saved for last, because I have feelings about Mrs Bennet.  She’s clearly meant for a comic character in the book (“You have no compassion for my poor nerves!”) and Jane slyly pokes fun at her repeatedly – but I’ll champion her.  Mrs Bennet is an excellent mother.  She had a hard job to do with very high stakes – marry off five daughters (five!) to ensure their comfort once their parents are no longer living.  (Austen is very clear about what happens to women who do not marry in her universe.  They become Miss Bates, ridiculed by her community and very probably at least a little bit hungry.)  Mrs Bennet has no choice – she has to marry those girls off, or they could legitimately end up miserably poor, and she has to do it without any help from their father, who it’s clear mismanaged their estate and takes no interest in his daughters’ future comfort.  And she succeeds – boy, oh boy, does she succeed.  Jane married to Bingley (rich); Lydia to Wickham (hey, she’s out of the house at least); and Lizzy married to Darcy (super rich, owner of a great estate, descended from aristocracy).  Kitty is “much improved” by spending more time with Lizzy and Jane after their marriages and makes a good match with a clergyman near Pemberley, and we are told that even Mary finds a man, eventually.  Mrs Bennet may be ridiculous, but you can’t argue with the fact that she has one job to do, and it’s a difficult job with a high cost for any failure – and she is wildly successful.  I’d make the case that Mrs Bennet is a far better parent than laissez-faire Mr Bennet (as much as we love his dry quips), that she’s much savvier than she gets credit for, and that her daughters’ comfort in later life owes much more to her than to their father.  Shouts to Mrs Bennet!

This does seem to be the common thread.  All of the heroines have to muddle through their young womanhood without much – or any – help from their mamas.  Some have sisters they can rely on (Jane Bennet is the best example, but Elinor Dashwood is a stand-up sister too and seems to take great comfort in her close relationship with Marianne, for some reason).  Others have female role models that they look to with varying degrees of success – Mrs Weston, Mrs Allen, and Lady Russell come to mind.  And poor Fanny Price just has to go it alone.  I wonder what that says about Austen’s view of mothers in general.  Superfluous?  Perhaps I’m biased – being a mom to a daughter – but I believe that a constant, steady, reliable mother figure would have smoothed the path of any of the Austen heroines.  Maybe that’s why all the mothers are in the background, if they’re there at all – it makes better reading when the heroine has to struggle, after all.

Who do you think is the best Austenite mother?  Would Lady Elliot have encouraged Anne to marry Wentworth to begin with?  And how underrated is Mrs Bennet?

Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends!  I hope you have a lovely day celebrating with the moms in your life.

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A bit of a departure from the past few weeks, but music is poetry too, and I can’t stop watching this video so I thought it would be a good way to wrap up National Poetry Month.  Just try watching it only once and without crying – especially the last verse: “I rest in the hope that one bright day / sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay / and old Gabriel’s trumpet and the voice of the Lord / will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.”  Go on, I dare you.

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WEATHER REPORT

The home thermometer last night
Went down to 4 and stayed,
Doing all this by Fahrenheit
And not by Centigrade;
Subtracting 4 from 32
One estimates with ease
We had a frost the whole night through
Of 28 degrees.

The war has spoilt a lot of things;
We’re full of “rights” and “wrongs;”
And almost everybody sings
The most appalling songs;
But what infuriates me most
Is simply that I’ve lost
The opportunity to boast
About my “second” frost.

For in the happy days of old
One scanned the news to see
If Littlehampton were as cold
Or Looe as hot, as we.
But now comparison is gone–
Not least of Hitler’s crimes
Is that he put the kybosh on
The weather in The Times.

Ah me! those spirited reports
(“Sunny A.M., but cool”)
From all the popular resorts–
E.g., from Pontypool.
How much allure a breakfast lacks
Unable to begin
With temperatures min. and max.,
Particularly min.

I crack the still unrationed egg,
I carve the rationed ham,
I know it’s cold in Winnipeg
And cold in Amsterdam.
I munch the sparsely-buttered toast,
I stir the tasteless tea,
But know not (what intrigues me most)
The min. at Brightlingsea.

The home thermometer went down
To 4; it really did.
Can Colchester or Camden Town
Produce a lower bid?
Thermometers at Heckmondwike
Of similar design–
Can they show mins. remotely like
This minimum of mine?

Penarth and Peebles, what of them?
They have their frosty spells;
And doubtless it is “cold A.M.”
At Troon and Tunbridge Wells;
It may be that Aldershot
A heat wave has begun.
I doubt it.  But it matters not–
The war has spoilt the fun.

So, just to keep the record right,
I’ll mention it once more.
The home thermometer last night
Went firmly down to 4.
Which 4 must stand alone.  Ah, me!
The triumph I have missed with
No hopeful 5 from Bridge of Dee,
No 6 from Aberystwyth!

 ~ A. A. Milne, 1940

I have been on a bit of a World War II poetry jag – if you can call two books of war poetry a jag.  One of the two was A. A. Milne’s Behind the Lines, a sort of memoir-in-verse of the first nine months of the war.  Milne structures the book as a book entirely of poetry, with some end notes – no more than a paragraph – after each poem, in case the reader wants to know what was on his mind when he was writing the verses in question.  (In the introduction, Milne helpfully points out that if one is in a hurry, one can skip the explanations.  Because sometimes you just HAVE to get to the next poem, amirite?!)  Anyway, “Weather Report” is my favorite of the bunch, because it strikes me as The Most English Thing Ever, to take things like rationing and blackouts in stride but to draw the line at not being able to engage in forecast-related one-upsmanship with the next village over.  Don’t worry too much about Milne, though.  In his notes after “Weather Report,” he gleefully notes that he has two thermometers that often show different readings (which he speculates might be due to one being closer to sea level? or newer?) so he is still able to talk temperatures with the gardener.  I know you were concerned.

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i am a little church

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
–i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church(far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature
-i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever:
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

~e.e. cummings

I’ve posted this before but I can’t resist posting it again, because it’s a favorite of mine, and it contains the line I love best of all the poetry I’ve read (which, admittedly, is not much): “i wake to a perfect patience of mountains.”  There are plenty of articles and books and blog posts that analyze this one; I’m not going to do that.  I’m just going to say that I think this poem comes closer to saying all that needs to be said than pretty much anything else ever written.

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