In Which I Read Michener, Eventually!

There is a distinct thread running through my childhood memories, and it is this: both of my grandmothers were major bookworms. My maternal grandmother, who I called Grandmama, had wide-ranging and catholic tastes, and liked nothing better than to stretch out on a lounge chair in her Long Island backyard, with a glass of lemonade (or wine) and a mystery novel or memoir with which to while away the afternoon. Grandmama had small bookshelves all over her house, and I used to saunter past each one, running my finger along the spines of the Harry Potter novels lined up by the front door or the travel books in the guest bedroom. She was a hardcore Anglophile and I definitely inherited my love of English literature from her.

My other grandmother, who I alternately called Grandma or Grandmother (she preferred Grandmother, but I too often forgot) was just as much of a bookworm, although her reading tastes were different. Grandmother introduced me to Anne Shirley, still a beloved bookish friend, but in general her preferences skewed toward meaty non-fiction (especially about the American Revolution) and historical novels – the longer, the better, and there was no such thing as too much detail. She loved it all. Grandmother kept most of her books on a tall, skinny shelf in the hallway between her two impeccably decorated guest bedrooms. And while I meandered past the shelf plenty, always on the hunt for something to read, I invariably came away with her blue and white copy of Anne of Green Gables in my hands. It was the most appealing thing on her shelf. (In my twenties, I discovered an 1890 edition of one of my favorite books – Jane Eyre – but it wasn’t on the shelf; it was on a sunroom table. Grandmother pressed it into my hands and it’s still one of my most treasured possessions.)

James A. Michener was one of Grandmother’s favorite authors. She had a line of his books – I remember Alaska and Hawaii for sure, those doorstoppers – and they always caught my eye, if for no other reason than they were just so extravagantly long. (I wonder if she ever read Poland? Being such a Michener fan, and so proud of her Polish heritage, I find it hard to believe that she would have missed that one, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning it, nor do I remember seeing her pull it out of her bag at the lake or spotting it on her shelf. It must have been there, though.) Anyway, Michener’s ability to churn out thousand-page novels at an apparently lightspeed clip fascinated me; as a young reader I subscribed wholeheartedly to C.S. Lewis’s views on long books. But for whatever reason, I never gave any of them a try.

A year or so ago, though, Chesapeake was on major discount on the kindle store. (I tend to buy ridiculously long books for my kindle; it’s a holdover from my days of commuting on Metro, when long books were only an option if stored digitally.) It seemed like a golden opportunity to finally try out one of Grandmother’s favorite authors, on my home turf. I downloaded the book and then saved it for the right time – pulling it out while relaxing in a camp chair on the side of a marsh (while camping in Chincoteague) seemed like the perfect fit. So I started Chesapeake on the Fourth of July, while the Assateague Island lighthouse blinked at me from across the marshy bay.

And I read. And read. And read. And read and read and read and read and read. The fourth of July turned to the fourth of August and I wasn’t even halfway through the book. It was engaging – following four Eastern Shore families (the Steeds, Paxmores, Turlocks and Caters) through the centuries. Chesapeake presented a broad tapestry of the entire sweep of American history from the first settlers during Elizabethan times, all the way to the environmentalists of the 1970s. And in order to do that – it was so. damn. long.

Not to say I didn’t enjoy it; I did. It was – as I said – engaging and interesting. I never really bogged down in it; every chapter held my attention, and some held my fancy. (The one from the perspective of migrating geese!) But it was just so long. Just so long. I like a long book; the longer the better, usually. But I found myself craving something shorter – anything shorter, really. I took a few breaks to read through library books before their return deadlines, but I kept coming back to Chesapeake, and each time I returned to the pages, I was more and more fatigued. And more than a little sad that my beloved grandmother’s favorite author had defeated me.

All this to say – I did finish, eventually! As July turned to August, I recommitted to the read and forbid myself any other books until I finally completed this journey. (Which in retrospect isn’t the best way to read, but it does work sometimes.) In the end, it was an odd reading experience. I found something to like on every page. Every chapter was interesting. And by the end, I was heartily sick of it all – turning with gratitude to Stella Gibbons’ The Swiss Summer, which my Grandmama would have loved.

I expect I will read Michener again – someday. I’m intrigued by Hawaii. But I’m going to need a very long break and a string of very short books before I pick up that one.

Have you ever read James A. Michener?

Themed Reads: A Mythological TBR

There’s something about September that makes me want to dive into myths, folklore, and all things woodsy and weird. Maybe it’s back-to-school season and that compulsion to learn something new and interesting, which never seems to go away no matter how many years pass since my own school days. Maybe it’s the slow approach of wild autumn nights and everything they bring with them – crunchy leaves, woodsmoke, Halloween costume shopping, steaming brews of hot cider… Either way, I’m pausing in front of my folklore books more and more often these days. Here are three I’m hoping to get into this fall.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves – This one has been on my Classics Club TBR for years; it’s time to get to it! I love Greek mythology and can’t wait to read Graves’ classic compilation. Bonus for the Rick Riordan introduction. I’ve been avoiding this because it’s sooooooo long (and I need a break from doorstoppers after Chesapeake, TBH, so it probably won’t come around on deck until later in the fall) but my eye is on this one.

Treasury of Folklore: Woodlands and Forests, by Dee Dee Chutney and Willow Winsham – This pretty volume (in person, the yellow is a metallic gold – gorgeous) caught my eye a few months ago, along with its sister volume, Treasury of Folklore: Seas and Rivers, which is still wending its way to me as of this post. But that’s okay, because the Woodlands and Forests version looks more autumnal in spirit, and it’s waiting on my shelf.

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies, by Robert Kirk – I got this slim little volume for Christmas a couple of years ago, and it’s so short there’s really no excuse for my not having picked it up yet. (Plus it was featured on The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room!) I don’t know much about it, other than that it is a collection of wild stories about woodland folk. Very September! I’m going to get to this one soon; I’m committing.

Do you crave mythology and lore at the beginning of the school year? Any recommendations for me?

The Life Library: One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty

Last month, when I told you about my first encounter with Jane Austen, I mentioned my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Stone. English was my subject, and I loved all of my teachers – Mrs. Way, in tenth grade, and Mr. Thornton, in both eleventh and twelfth. But Mrs. Stone was special; she was a bookish kindred spirit with impeccable taste and high standards. I adored her, and no “A+” meant as much from any other teacher. (That’s mostly because they were harder to come by in her class than in any other.) For years, even after graduating from college and law school, my standard for reading choices was: would I feel proud to show this book to Mrs. Stone?

(About law school: I do kind of blame her for that. For one assignment, she required us to read real case materials and then write our version of a Supreme Court decision on a contentious issue. With my A grade came the comment “Don’t become a lawyer unless you intend to write Supreme Court decisions.” I zeroed in on the “become a lawyer” part; still haven’t written any of those Supreme Court decisions.)

One Writer’s Beginnings is Eudora Welty’s memoir-slash-meditation-on-writing. I had never heard of Eudora Welty until my mom came home from a back-to-school night or teacher conference with a scrap of paper and “One Writer’s Beginnings – Eudora Welty” written on it. “Mrs. Stone told me I have to get this book for you,” she explained. We promptly drove to Barnes & Noble and found it. And I was shocked at how engaging a book about writing could be – as you can tell from the creased cover, I’ve read it a few times now.

I inhaled the three sections of the memoir – “Listening”; “Learning to See”; and “Finding My Voice” – and then promptly fell down a Eudora Welty rabbit hole, devouring first her short stories, then The Optimist’s Daughter and Delta Wedding, which became one of my favorite books of all time (and still is). In fact, I think Welty was more formative than Mrs. Stone even intended. Already, I had an affinity for the American South – brought on by family vacations every year – and a premonition that I would make my adult home south of the Mason-Dixon line, which I have. Eudora Welty spoke to that affinity; I didn’t feel compelled to the Mississippi Delta – my leanings were more to the Tidewater, and Virginia – but something in her languid, rich Southern prose confirmed for me: I may have been born in New York, but this is home.

What book evokes a sense of belonging for you?

A Bookshelf Tour (Part 2 of 3)

Back to the bookshelves! (I always enjoy creeping other people’s shelves, so I hope you’re liking getting a glimpse at mine. Fair’s fair.)

When we left off I had shown you my reading spot (above) and my primary bookshelves – and hinted several times that I need another shelf, which I do. I’ve got a bit of overflow shelving in place, but it’s filling up quickly. Starting with the little wooden bookshelf over on the right.

I wanted a bookshelf that looked like a (small) tree, but it turns out that’s not a thing that really exists – or at least, not in the size and price point that I wanted. I found this modern tree-inspired shelf on Amazon, and Steve kindly put it together for me… but I’ve already pretty much filled it up. From the top: some vintage books (D.E. Stevenson, Elinor Brent-Dyer, and Mrs. Miniver) and some vintage-looking Beverly Nichols that didn’t fit on the nature and travel shelves but don’t appear too terribly out of place here. And then two shelves crammed almost-full with Dean Street Press books. These are going to need their own shelf soon. I’ve enjoyed every one of these mid-century middlebrow novels that I’ve read.

Immediately under the Dean Street Press books – a hodgepodge of books, mostly recent acquisitions (relatively – within the last year anyway) that I just stuck here until I could organize them better. Some NYRB Classics, 3/4 of Melissa Harrison’s seasonal quartets, a handful of Handheld Press books I want to read soon, Diana Cooper’s three-volume memoir, and more. I guess the unifying theme here is that these are mostly cozy reads, with the exception of Black Narcissus?

Finally, the bottom shelves are mystery overflow: some Agatha Christie, some Ngaio Marsh, and a shelf-full of British Library Crime Classics. Someday I’m going to have an entire bookcase full of classic crime. Things are really trending in that direction.

Opposite the other bookshelves (behind the couch, ish) I have a poorly organized cupboard full of candles and other overflow book storage. It’s mostly hardcovers – some new and some vintage, plus a stack of golden age mystery novels I’ve had since high school, and another stack that I borrowed from my friend Susan and need to return. There are a few treasures in here, though – namely my early Elizabeth von Arnims, first edition L.M. Montgomery novels (and one Edith Wharton novella), and a beautiful gilded copy of Tales of the Alhambra that my grandmother bought for me in Spain, years ago.

Finally, the coffee table – which used to be styled, what do you think of that? – has turned into piles of books that don’t fit on the shelves where they belong. There’s Birds of Virginia (which I usually keep by the kitchen window, so I should put it back there sometime), a stack of vintage children’s novels from Girls Gone By, more classic crime and a few other Dean Street Press books waiting to be read soon. Don’t mind the kids’ books, which they never clean up.

You can see that I really do need another bookshelf! Or maybe a few more bookshelves. And a dedicated library to put them in. I’m low maintenance, guys! Next week: the family bookshelves, which (spoiler alert) are mostly mine, although I have generously granted Steve a couple of shelves to store the books he almost never touches.

My Top Ten Books From The First Half Of 2021 (And Then Some)

Every year, it seems, I forget to round up my top ten books of the first half of the year until late July or early August, so I guess this is par for the course? Let’s not even pretend I remotely have my act together anymore. In any event, I’ve had a great six (actually seven) months of reading – and plenty of good writing ahead of me for the rest of the year, of course. In no particular order, here are my top ten highlights of the year (as always, this list covers books read this year, not necessarily published this year) so far.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson – I have a feeling that 2021 is going to be my Year of D.E. Stevenson. It took me way too long to get to her most famous character, Mrs. Tim Christie, but when I did I was enchanted.

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton – Gorgeously written, lushly evoked, and frustrating for being so avoidably tragic, The House of Mirth might be Edith Wharton’s masterpiece. I still love The Age of Innocence most, but any Wharton is going to end up on my best-of list for the year, it’s basically guaranteed.

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell – If you’re looking for something to scratch a travel itch and make you scream with laughter, look no further. I literally laughed until I wept, and then looked up flights to Crete.

Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and their Least Impressed Visitors, by Amber Share – I’ve written on here before about Amber Share’s work and what a huge fan I am. Her first book – featuring some of her best known pieces from social media, but a bunch of new parks too, juxtaposes iconic national park images with idiotic nitpicking criticism and is absolutely hilarious and the pinnacle of irony. Let’s all just crown Amber queen now.

Rhubarb, Rhubarb: A Correspondence Between a Hopeless Gardener and a Hopeful Cook, by Mary Jane Paterson and Jo Thompson – I flew through this, but loved every second. Thompson and Paterson exchange breezy notes, recipes, gardening tips, and life updates. There are beautiful illustrations and photographs and it’s utterly lovely.

Spring Magic, by D.E. Stevenson – See, didn’t I tell you it was going to be my year of D.E. Stevenson? I thought of leaving the charming Spring Magic off this list because Mrs. Tim was already on here, but I couldn’t. I just loved every second of this delightful book.

Mango and Mimosa, by Suzanne, Duchess St. Albans – Give me all the eccentric expat childhood memoirs, please.

Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden – Not a comfortable reading experience (like most of the other entries on this list were), but Black Narcissus was lush, eerie, gorgeously written and quite frightening. I couldn’t put it down.

A Winter Away, by Elizabeth Fair – Elizabeth Fair is a new-to-me discovery this year and I’ve already read two of her six novels (the other being Landscape in Sunlight, which just narrowly missed this list). These are charming, cozy, comfortable comedies of village life and I am here for them all. (And this one had the added benefit of not being completely obvious who the heroine would end up with – I did guess at the final romantic coupling, but only about 25 pages before the end.)

Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, ed. Melissa Harrison – I’m reading my way through this series this year, and I’ve read both Winter and Spring. Both are lovely but I enjoyed Winter just a bit more – perhaps because I like winter better than spring in general? Either way – everything from the cover to the last page was just lovely.

What have been your favorite reads of the year so far?

A Bookshelf Tour (Part 1 of 3)

You know what I realized? Since moving into this house, setting up my bookshelves, and recommitting to reading my own books (which is going swimmingly, by the way, are you interested in hearing more?) I haven’t shown you around my bookshelves as they are currently configured. Shall we change that?

Starting with: the above. Here’s where I do the bulk of my reading, usually after the kids go to bed or in the morning over my first cup of coffee. I’d like a rug to cozy up this space, but we’re renting and I don’t know what my next reading nook will look like, so I’m resisting temptation. Other than the chilly toes, I like this spot very much. You can’t see them, but there are three skylights almost right over the couch, letting in lots of natural sunlight. And I do love this view: this is my “priority” bookshelf, where I house most of my favorites, and I think the books on these shelves best represent who I am as a reader. Take a closer look? Well, sure. From the top left corner:

Literary fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. I don’t spend much time over here, to be honest. The top shelf houses my tiny lit-fic collection, some of which I plan to keep but others of which are just on the shelf until I get to them (if I love them, I’ll keep them; otherwise, they’re headed to the library donation once I’ve read them). There is also a small stack of bird-related books; ignore that, it should be on a different shelf. Next shelf: another small collection, of science fiction and fantasy, just my favorites. Tolkein (I have gorgeous Folio Society editions, thank you Steve!) and Lewis; Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series (still have to read the last one); more Valente (can you tell she’s my favorite modern SFF author?); some YA Lumberjanes novels; my treasured and much re-read collection of Outer Banks ghost stories and lore; Nimona.

Non-fiction and poetry. Next shelves down are a bit more in my wheelhouse. The upper shelf houses narrative non-fiction arranged in roughly chronological order, except that the left third of the shelf is all Churchill. (Behind Nugget’s first birthday invitation is a boxed set of A History of the English Speaking Peoples. #nerdalert.) On the lower shelf, I’m roughly evenly divided between memoirs and poetry – although poetry is starting to take over and might need its own shelf soon. The struggle is real.

Hardcover classics and oversized books. Ooof. These two are a bit of a mess, aren’t they? (The router isn’t helping matters.) On top – overflow hardcover classics, mostly from Penguin Clothbound Classics, MacMillan Collector’s Edition, Imperial War Museum Anniversary Editions, and Hodder (you can’t see them, they’re behind the college pennant, but I’m working on E.M. Forster). Underneath, I have larger coffee-table style books, omnibus editions of classics (left over from my high school days), and family albums, all sort of cascading together in an unholy mix.

Comedy and Slightly Foxed Quarterlies/Books About Books. Moving on to the second bookcase from the left! The top shelf contains comedies, but this is about to be broken up, because I’ve decided Barsetshire needs its own shelf – Trollope and Thirkell will be keeping company soon. (I’m sure Anthony would be disgruntled and Angela delighted.) Underneath, I have a complete (!) collection of Slightly Foxed quarterlies, alongside a handful of books about books. This shelf, too, is due for a reshuffle. I want to get the quarterlies all into slipcases, and they’re starting to encroach on the books-about-books’ space.

Slightly Foxed, Persephone, and NYRB Classics. More that need a tidy! The top shelf houses my Slightly Foxed and Plain Foxed Editions, Foxed Cubs, and Slightly Foxed Paperbacks (and a square glass vase with bookmarks). This shelf is getting too big for its own good and needs to expand. And below – most of my Persephone books (including Persephone Classics) and NYRB classics, but not all – and my Persephone collection has some significant holes, so this is another group that is crying out for more space. (As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the common refrain is: I need another bookshelf. But where to put it?)

Penguin Drop Caps and Children’s Hardcover Classics. Here are a few mostly neat shelves! Upper level: Penguin Drop Caps, which I collected a few years ago. (I don’t agree with every selection for this set, but it was unthinkable not to have the complete alphabet, as I’m sure you’ll understand.) On the lower shelf, a mix of childhood favorites and newer acquisitions (mostly of childhood favorites in nicer editions). Winnie-the-Pooh; the Little House books; the Puffin in Bloom collection; several Folio Society editions of children’s classics I read for the first time as an adult; and some miscellaneous. And my Willow Tree figurine of a mother and baby, which I got around the time of Peanut’s first birthday to remind myself of the squishy newborn months.

The Victorians. Moving right along to the next bookcase – it’s the Victorians! Can you even handle it? We have Jermone K. Jerome’s classics of vacation hilarity (Three Men on a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel – both fabulous); the Folio Society’s editions of five of Gaskell’s novels (why didn’t they include Cranford with this collection?!?!); Lark Rise to Candleford and The Pick of Punch (both of which may be Edwardian? sorry) and my grandmother’s complete set of Dickens, bound in green leather – a true treasure.

Jane Austen. Speaking of treasures, Jane Austen gets two shelves almost completely to herself (at least for now – one of these is probably going to get repurposed as a Barsetshire shelf by fall). I love the Folio Society editions of her novels and letters, but I also love the Penguin Clothbound Classics set – how is a girl supposed to choose? The rest is mostly Austen-adjacent history and criticism; over to the lower right is Trollope, though. I have always thought he and Jane would get along. Ullathorne could have been in Highbury.

L.M. Montgomery and Harry Potter. Last two shelves on this bookcase: one crammed to within an inch of its life (literally) with L.M. Montgomery’s journals and novels (including my cherished Emily paperbacks and my beautiful Anne editions from the Folio Society – I will never stop lobbying them to finish the series). And underneath, the Harry Potter books (including the illustrated editions that have been published thus far and the start of my next collection – the Ravenclaw versions).

Travel and Nature and Nature and Travel. Last bookcase! The top two shelves are a hodgepodge of travel and nature; there’s a little of both on each shelf. I should organize them better and make room for my bird books. One of these days.

Paperback Classics. I’m honestly surprised I only have two shelves of these; clearly I’ve been very restrained. There are a few holes here – I think I have one more book to make a complete set of the Sourcebooks D.E. Stevensons, and I’m working on that Thrush Green collection, which is still in its infancy. But I love the Maud Hart Lovelace series, and I am beyond excited about the gorgeous Elizabeth Jane Howard set (which was just reprinted, is a new acquisition, and hasn’t found a permanent home yet – send wine).

Mysteries. Last shelf! (For now: more to come next week.) This is part, but not all, of my classic mystery collection. Some (but not all) of my Hodder editions of Dorothy L. Sayers; some (but not all) of my British Library Crime Classics collection. I do have a complete collection of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, which I love – have to get to the final two, though – and now I have all of the Josephine Tey editions that Folio Society has published in its most recent collection, a great achievement. I need to read The Red House Mystery soon.

Everything is a bit crammed together right now; I really do need another bookshelf but don’t know where it would go – that’s the only thing standing in my way. I’ll show you some of the overflow situation next week, and then the family bookshelves (most of which are also my books) the week after. As for the question everyone asks when they see my bookshelves: how many of these have I read? I think about 60%, roughly. And knocking more off every week, thanks to my renewed commitment to reading from my own shelves.

Themed Reads: A Literal Summer Reading List

My reading may slow down in the summer months, but that doesn’t mean I stop reading altogether! I still love turning pages, and I love reading seasonally. In the summer months, books about birds and gardens give way to narratives of long hot days and summer adventures. And sometimes the easiest way to find the next summer read is to pick up a book with the promise right there in the title. Here are three that are on my reading list this season:

The Swiss Summer, by Stella Gibbons – I bought this back in the winter (when it was first reprinted by Dean Street Press) and it’s been on my shelf waiting for a long hot day ever since! I’m trying to decide whether to bring it with me to the Adirondacks (since it seems like a good summer mountain reading choice) or save it for the dog days of August.

Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer, by Molly Clavering – Another new release from Dean Street Press (actually even newer than The Swiss Summer; this one just landed on my doorstep last week), this seems like an enchanting and funny family comedy of errors. I’ve never read anything by Molly Clavering before, but Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer is reputedly loosely based on her friendship with her next door neighbor, D.E. Stevenson – of whom I am a big fan. So I’m excited about this one.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Cider With Rosie #2), by Laurie Lee – Speaking of being a big fan, I’ve loved Laurie Lee’s writing for years. His most famous book, Cider with Rosie, is a lightly burnished account of his childhood in the English Midlands before and after World War I. The sequel, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, follows Lee through his young adulthood – when he literally walks out of his hometown, one midsummer morning, and spends the next several years wandering in Spain (by way of London, for a little while). Slightly Foxed recently republished this, and it was the perfect excuse to pick up a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

Three books with summer right in the title – how can you beat that? Honorable mention to British Summer Time Begins, which I read and loved last month, to my current read, Noel Streatfeild’s Holiday Stories (holiday as in vacation, of course) and to two other summer reads also on my list: The Summer of the Royal Visit, by Isabel Colegate, and The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. It’s going to be a good season of reading.

What are your favorite summer reads?

Books, a Beastly Complication

Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, uncle-in-law to Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire

I have got to page 652 in C and there are only 741, what shall I do when it’s finished, I really never will read any more beastly books they are only an extra complication to one’s pathetic life.

~ Deborah Cavendish, later the Duchess of Devonshire, in a 1944 letter to her sister Nancy Mitford.

Oh Debo. Girl. Don’t I know it? Books – they are an absolutely beastly complication to one’s pathetic life, and yet… we can’t stop reading them. Can we.

The Life Library: And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

When I was in the fifth grade, I tried out for the middle school play, Little Miss Christie and landed a spot in the chorus. I remember very little about the play, other than:

  • It was a mystery story starring a girl, Christie, who was a huge fan of Agatha Christie. The only line I recall was something to the effect of that Christie’s parents were fans, but “Christie – she’s a fanatic.”
  • There was a song called “And Then There Were None.” I don’t remember the song, other than that the chorus was just a repetition of the song’s title, sung in very chipper voices.

It was probably that school musical, and the song “And Then There Were None,” that put into my head that And Then There Were None would be a good place to begin with Agatha Christie. (And Then There Were None is the third published title of the book; the first two titles were very dated and offensive and I can’t bring myself to type them out.) In any event, at some point in middle school or high school – can you tell these memories are very hazy? – I sought out And Then There Were None at the library.

At the time, the local library occupied two rooms in the town hall. (It has since been expanded into its own large and beautiful building.) Because space was so limited, the selection wasn’t great at the time. (Again, vast improvements have since been made.) But there were a few authors that were well-stocked, and the Queen of Crime was one of them. The library owned what seemed to me to be a complete set of her works – it may not have been, since she was so prolific, but there were a lot of books on the Ch. shelf, and certainly all of her major novel were there. They were lined up on the shelf in puffy black leather covers with gold lettering.

It took me a few years to read through that shelf. I remember bringing one of those black leather volumes on vacation with me one year in high school; it fell off the balcony of our rented beach house and landed in the sand. I rushed down to retrieve it and furtively, guiltily, brushed the sand off the cover; the President of the Library Board, my dad’s closest friend, was on vacation with us and I knew I’d get static if he knew I had dropped the book on the ground. And for years, I added an Agatha Christie to my Christmas list – sometimes one of my favorites from the library, like Murder on the Orient Express, so I’d have my own copy, and sometimes one I hadn’t read yet, like Cat Among the Pigeons. One year, I received Sleeping Murder, starring Miss Marple, and that was the first mystery novel for which I figured out the “whodunit” before the denouement.

I’ve been reading mystery novels consistently since those first Agatha Christies. I’m partial to golden age crime – Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and especially Agatha Christie – and I’m enjoying discovering new names, like Carol Carnac/E.C.R. Lorac, and Anthony Berkeley, through the British Library Crime Classics series. I’ll pick up a mystery from a modern author, too, although I prefer historical settings (and a minimum of gore) – Jacqueline Winspear, Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Peters and Rhys Bowen, among others, all have their places on my reading list. It all flows from the Queen of Crime, though, and from that first time I cracked the cover of And Then There Were None.

Are you a golden age mystery fan?

Themed Reads: Quotidian Novels

There are 365 of them in a year, and an untold number in a life – days. And as many days as there are, that’s how many cliches there are about them. They’re long, but the years are fast. Saturday and Sunday go too quickly; Monday through Friday drag. And so on and so forth. In the space of a single day, there is plenty of room for all sorts of action – even an ordinary, not particularly eventful, day. I love to read quotidian novels – novels that take place over the course of one day – I love to sink into them and be swept along on the tide of hours as the characters move through their rhythms, living from moment to moment and reminiscing on past experiences and encounters. Here are three favorites:

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is perhaps the definitive quotidian novel. The novel opens in the morning; Clarissa Dalloway is out shopping and planning for a party to take place later that day. As the day unfolds, Mrs. Dalloway reflects on life, marriage, motherhood, and the impending transition from middle to old age. I’d read several Virginia Woolf novels before attempting Mrs. Dalloway, but never felt like I really “got” them. But as I was swept along with Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf finally started to make sense to me, and I found myself absolutely loving the book.

Mollie Panter-Downes’ classic of post-war England, One Fine Day, is as beautifully written, and as captivating, as Mrs. Dalloway. In One Fine Day, the Second World War has just recently ended, and Laura and Stephen Marshall are looking ahead to an uncertain future. As Clarissa Dalloway tremulously confronts the senior years, Laura is similarly tentative in looking ahead to the new post-war world (and there are some poignant meditations on individual aging in One Fine Day, too).

I saved the most fun for last: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, is pure delight from the first page to the last. When the novel opens, the titular Miss Pettigrew is dispatched from an employment agency to a job interview. An indifferent nanny, Miss Pettigrew is ground down by life and circumstances – but all of that changes, at least for the day, when Miss Pettigrew crosses paths with her potential employer, nightclub singer Delysia LaFosse. Miss LaFosse is a sparkling confection of a person, and Miss Pettigrew finds herself tumbling from scrape to scrape as Miss LaFosse careens through her day – occasionally stopping to pinch herself and reflect that this, indeed, is “Life.” I loved every moment of Miss Pettigrew’s day.

What are your favorite quotidian novels?