Archive for the ‘Book Talk’ Category


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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As the dark day moves into darker evening,
and the pale pin-pointed lamps are lit in the street,
as the typists stand shivering by the bus-stop,
wreathed in their warm breaths, stamping their cold feet

on the greasy pavements – I seem to see manifested,
hanging like a foggy aura above their tired heads,
the word Home.  I feel the surge of their silent yearning,
all hearts turned toward fires and food and smooth beds.

This is the sweet hour of expectation.
Only a little while and they will have forgotten this;
only a little while and the day will be drowned
in the sound of a child’s voice, the touch of a lover’s kiss.

Their senses will be washed by music for the Forces,
the cheerful clanking of plates, the running of taps;
and they will sit talking, or nodding over a cup of tea,
with books and knitting and drowsy cats in their laps.

These are their wages, the true fruits of their labour;
vaulted above all things, above dreams or ambitions or
for a job can be lost, and another as easily forgotten,
but Home is carried tenderly, like a babe, throughout the

The darker evening moves into darkest night.
The typists change their attaché cases to the other hand;
and they turn up their coat-collars and sigh
they put their papers under their arms, and stand.

As the buses thunder by with lidded eyes,
the queues wait sombrely in their appointed places,
but I see the great lights that are lit for a homecoming
blazing like beacons on their patient faces.

~Virginia Graham, 1942

Some things never change.  I can relate so well to this “sweet hour of expectation” as I wait for the metro to take me home to warmly-lighted windows and two sweet babies, who are often in their pajamas when I walk in the door.  And I can relate to that ghost hour between work and home (well, for me it’s more like 35 minutes – my commute is decent) dissipating with the cacophony of children’s voices as soon as I get home – but that’s okay, because like the typists in Virginia Graham’s poem, this home contains my real wages, the riches that I work hard to earn every day.

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She went skipping round the corner of the little sheep-house and saw Elfine, sitting on a turf and sunning herself.

Both cousins were startled.  But Flora was quite pleased.  She wanted a chance to talk to Elfine.

Elfine jumped to her feet and stood poised; she had something of the brittle grace of a yearling foal.  A dryad’s smile played on the curious sullen purity of her mouth, but her eyes were unawake and unfriendly.  Flora thought, ‘What a dreadful way of doing one’s hair; surely it must be a mistake.’

‘You’re Flora – I’m Elfine,’ said the other girl simply.  Her voice had a breathless, broken quality that suggested the fluty sexless timbre of a choir-boy’s notes (only choir-boys are seldom sexless, as many a harassed vicaress knows to her cost).

‘No prizes offered,’ thought Flora, rather rudely.  But she said politely: ‘Yes.  Isn’t it a delicious morning.  Have you been far?’

‘Yes… No… Away over there…’ The vague gesture of her outflung arm stretched, in some curious fashion, illimitable horizons.  Judith’s gestures had the same barrierless quality; there was not a vase left anywhere in the farm.

‘I feel stifled in the house,’ Elfine went on, shyly and abruptly.  ‘I hate houses.’

‘Indeed?’ said Flora.

She observed Elfine draw a deep breath, and knew that she was about to get well away on a good long description of herself and her habits, as these shy dryads always did if you gave them half a chance.  So she sat down on another turf in the sun and composed herself to listen, looking up at the tall Elfine.

‘Do you like poetry?’ asked Elfine, suddenly.  A pure flood of colour ran up under her skin.  Her hands, burnt and bone-modelled as a boy’s, were clenched.

‘Some of it,’ responded Flora, cautiously.

‘I adore it,’ said Elfine, simply.  ‘It says all the things I can’t say for myself… somehow… It means… oh, I don’t know.  Just everything, somehow.  It’s enough.  Do you ever feel that?’

Flora replied that she had, occasionally, felt something of the sort, but her reply was limited by the fact that she was not quite sure exactly what Elfine meant.

‘I write poetry,’ said Elfine.  (So I was right! thought Flora).  ‘I’ll show you some… if you promise not to laugh.  I can’t bear my children to be laughed at… I call my poems my children.’

Flora felt that she could promise this with safety.

‘And love, too,’ muttered Elfine, her voice breaking and changing shyly like the Finnish ice under the first lusty rays and wooing winds of the Finnish spring.  ‘Love and poetry go together, smehow… out here on the hills, when I’m alone with my dreams… oh, I can’t tell you how I feel.  I’ve been chasing a squirrel all the morning.’

(From Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons)

Happy National Poetry Month from Flora Poste, Elfine Starkadder… and me!

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When you read a lot, and you identify as a reader, it’s almost certain to follow that you’re on the hunt for recommendations.  What’s the big new release that everyone’s talking about?  The under-the-radar sleeper that I need to pick up?  The classic author I’ve somehow missed?  The perfect-right-now next read that I should have on deck?

I’m no exception – I’m always looking for tips and recommendations for my next read.  I get them all over the place – from other blogs, bookish Twitter, bookstagram, podcasts and friends – and I’m invariably interested in hearing a quick summary of a recommended book, so I can judge for myself whether I might like it or not.  (I’m not one of those people who like to go into a book completely blind.  I have limited time in which to read and I’d prefer to know that there’s at least a chance I’ll enjoy a book before I pick it up and devote time to it.)

When you read enough book blogs, follow enough bookish accounts on social media and listen to enough podcasts, you get to know the book reviewing jargon that bloggers toss around in their reviews.  For better or for worse, there are some words that get used a lot, and that can actually be a good thing.  When we’re all speaking the same language, it can be easier to sniff out the books that have the most likelihood of success for a given reader.

But there’s one review word I absolutely hate, and if I hear it spoken by a podcast host, or read it in a review, it’s a guaranteed nope for me.  Doesn’t matter how great the book is.  If I hear this word – I’m done.  I won’t read it.


I recently realized that the word unflinching is a poison pill for me and books and at first I thought it was because I do tend to gravitate toward cozy reads and comfort books.  No one is going to call Miss Read, Angela Thirkell or Jane Austen unflinching.  They are fully flinching.  (Well, Austen is a straight shooter when it comes to the perils of spinsterhood in Regency and Georgian England.  But she manages to package it well.)

But actually – that can’t be it.  I’ve read plenty of books on difficult subjects.  Between the World and Me was no walk in the park, and The Underground Railroad and The Handmaid’s Tale were straight-up horrifying.  And I’ll give fair, active consideration to books that reviewers describe as “raw” or “honest” or “troubling” or “challenging” or any other number of words.  Certainly, I don’t shy away from the tough stuff.

I just really, really hate the word unflinching.  I feel like it’s a cop-out; it’s what reviewers say when they know a book is hard to read but they don’t want to put the time and emotional energy into explaining why.  Maybe they only have so many on-air minutes to devote to the book, or they’re just tired after a long day and don’t feel like typing another paragraph.  That’s fine – I get it.  I just can’t stand the word, and it’s a deal-breaker for me.

So, please, if I write a book review and I call something unflinching, punch me.  I promise I’ll flinch.

Is there a book review buzzword you JUST! CAN’T! STAND!?

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If you’re a Janeite, you probably remember your first Austen novel.  Mine was Sense and Sensibility.  My mom – seeing that I was ready for more “grown-up” reading material – bought me a copy when I was a high school freshman, and I devoured it.  I loved the writing, the restrained drama, and the feeling of being a grown reader.  Most of all, I loved that I could relate to this book that was written so long ago and had become such a classic.  I saw myself in practical Elinor, and I rolled my eyes at Marianne the way I used to do at a particular drama-loving friend.  I was used to identifying with book characters – bookish Elizabeth from the Sweet Valley series, for instance, or casual, green-leaning Dawn from the Baby-Sitters Club books.  But in Elinor Dashwood, I saw for the first time that I could identify with adult characters in classic literature, too, and it opened up a whole new horizon.

Over time, I read all of Austen’s books.  I have always been a character-driven reader, and Austen’s heroines spoke to me.  Sparkling Elizabeth Bennet – quiet Fanny Price – steadfast Anne Elliot.  I seethed at the treacherous antics of Lucy Steele and Mary Crawford, and I fell in love with secondary characters like Charlotte Lucas and Jane Fairfax.  I have read all of the books multiple times now, and I know them like the back of my hand.  And of course, I have my favorites.

This past Christmas, Steve gifted me with a veritable mountain of books, including the gorgeous (and much-coveted) Folio Society editions of my three favorite Austen novels: Pride and PrejudicePersuasion, and Northanger Abbey.  Yes – Northanger Abbey.  NOT Emma.

Some of you are cheering me right now, I know, and others have their hands on their hips and are getting ready to explain why I’m just wrong about Emma.  I have a good friend and fellow Janeite who adores Miss Woodhouse and can’t abide Miss Morland.  But here’s my thing: I’m a character-driven reader.  While I love a good plot (especially in a mystery novel) and I live for gorgeous nature writing (of the kind L.M. Montgomery does so beautifully) if the main character doesn’t capture my sympathy, nine times out of ten the book is ruined for me.  And I really, really don’t care for Emma Woodhouse.  She is vain.  She is snobbish.  She is selfish.  She is inconsiderate.  She believes herself to be superior to nearly everyone around her.  She meddles in other people’s lives.  I just think she’s a horrible person.  Nearly every time she opens her mouth, I want to shout, “That was badly done, Emma!”

I will say that Emma is one of the small minority of books that I still like despite the main character.  I love the village of Highbury and its denizens – especially the Bates ladies.  And Jane Fairfax is one of my favorite secondary characters in all of literature – I wish Austen had written the book about her.  And of course Emma gets a bit of comeuppance in the form of Mrs. Elton.  I know I give Emma a hard time.  After all, rich or poor, we all need to grow up and mature.  It’s just that most of us don’t get the indulgence of doing our growing up and maturing while leaving a wake of destruction behind us.

By contrast, I just enjoy Northanger Abbey so much more.  Rather like Emma, it’s a coming-of-age story.  Catherine Morland begins the novel as a silly young girl, just leaving home to see the world for the first time.  In Bath, she meets Isabella Thorpe, who introduces the two points of conflict in the book: the novels of Ann Radcliffe and Isabella’s brother John Thorpe.  Catherine then proceeds to let herself get swept away – unable to get out from under the thumb of the domineering John in Bath, and with a runaway imagination once she finally escapes John and heads to Northanger Abbey with Henry and Eleanor Tilney.  At Northanger, Catherine makes a series of dumb decisions – including the decision to go sneaking around the house and investigate Henry and Eleanor’s mother’s room because she believes (thank you, Ann Radcliffe!) that the woman must have been murdered or at least killed by neglect.  (In the “updated” version of Northanger, written by Val McDermid, Catherine is a Twihard, which sounds about right.)  Catherine embarrasses herself (“Remember we are English!”) and nearly loses her chance at happiness with Henry because of her foolishness.  But somehow, it’s more endearing than Emma’s foolishness.  Perhaps because it’s foolishness born of bookishness instead of snobbishness.

I’ve had quite a few debates about Northanger Abbey with a dear Janeite friend of mine.  It seems to inspire great argument and divisiveness even among Jane’s most devoted fans.  This friend considers Northanger her “sixth favorite” Austen novel – she may even dislike it.  (!!!)  She considers Catherine to be a flake (well, she is a flake) and Henry to be a mansplainer (that I don’t agree with, because mansplaining is when a man explains to a woman about something she knows better than he does; I’ve been mansplained plenty, and that’s not what Henry does).  Meanwhile, she loves Emma.  (She adores Mr. Knightley.  I’m quite happy to cede that point to her, as he is one of my favorite Austen heroes too.)

One of Jane Austen’s several residences in Bath.

Meanwhile, it seems there’s nothing you can say to so divide Janeites than to declare that Northanger Abbey is one of your favorites.  (For me, it clocks in at number two, because nothing could displace my dear Pride and Prejudice, which is the most perfect book ever written.)  I recently joined the “Drunk Janeites” group on Facebook (such a fun bunch) and we’ve had a few lively discussions about Northanger Abbey.  (All very polite.  They usually start with someone expressing an intent to read it for the first time, and the responses are about evenly divided between “OMGeeeeeee you’re gonna LOVE it TILNEY SWOOOOOON” and “Not my personal favorite, but I hope you’ll enjoy it!”)  Still, I thought it was interesting how Northanger seems to provoke more (friendly and respectful) disagreement than any other Austen book.  I do wonder why that is.

How do you feel about Catherine Morland and Emma Woodhouse?

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As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been on a bit of a book-buying bender since finishing Project 24.  It’s been a little insane, but I’ve decided to just strap myself in and enjoy the ride, since I’m sure it will even out eventually once the novelty of just being able to buy a book if I want it, wears off.  I’m particularly excited about the batch that trickled across my threshold over the course of January and February.  (Pictured above, with Valentine’s flowers from my boys and my girl.)

  • The Real Mrs Miniver, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Slightly Foxed Editions) – I have a recent love for SFE, and couldn’t resist this addition to the collection because of (a) the gorgeous color, and (b) the subject.
  • Look Back with Love, by Dodie Smith (Slightly Foxed Paperbacks) – Described as a delightful memoir of an Edwardian childhood by the author of I Capture the Castle, how could I possibly say no to this one?
  • The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley (British Library Crime Classics) – I’ve been slowly building up my collection of these forgotten mystery classics, and this seemed like a perfect addition for February.
  • English Country Houses, by Vita Sackville-West – This keeps selling out on Amazon.  Sackville-West was best known for her garden, Sissinghurst, and for having an affair with Virginia Woolf, but she also contributed a few novels and reams of classic home and garden writing, including this WWII home front morale-booster.

  • The English Air, by D.E. Stevenson – I saw this on a book blog (can’t recall which, now) and was intrigued by the story, and it came highly recommended as one of Stevenson’s best.
  • Mrs Miniver, by Jan Struther – Again, how could I resist?  This is a gorgeous 1942 edition with a “new” Mrs Miniver story.  I can’t wait to read it against The Real Mrs Miniver.
  • Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn, by Beverly Nichols – Books two and three complete the Merry Hall trilogy (I already owned book one), a loosely factual chronicle of Nichols’ adventures fixing up an old Georgian house and garden.  Can’t wait to dig into these – I think they’ll be perfect spring reading.
  • The Sunny Side, by A.A. Milne – Since no one has seen fit to grant my wish of a complete collection of Milne’s writing for Punch Magazine, I’ll have to be satisfied with this collection selected by Milne himself.

Yes, it’s been a good couple of months for book collecting.  I’m relishing the newfound purchasing freedom and gleefully anticipating some many hours spent with a big cup of tea and each of these books.

How about you – any good additions to your library lately?


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