2022 in Books: Top Ten

(^Blast from the past! My living room is a bit more crowded these days…)

This is always a hard post to write! Over the course of a year, I average more than one hundred books – actually, I can’t remember the last year when I read fewer than 100 – and many of them are very, very good. How to pick the top ten? It’s never an easy task. And then this year, I added to the difficulty and decided to actually rank my top ten in descending order. I could go on about what a challenge it was to narrow down all the great books I read in 2022, let alone rank them, but – well, it would just be complaining. Let’s get to the books.

10. Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office, by Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman. One of the first books I read in 2022 was also one of the best. Anyone who was a fan of The Office would love this, but for Dunder Mifflin super nerds, it’s an absolute must.

9. Call Us What We Carry: Poems, by Amanda Gorman. Amanda Gorman shot to national superstardom when she read her spectacular poem, The Hill We Climb, for President Joe Biden’s inauguration. That poem is in her first collection, Call Us What We Carry, but there is so much more. I am not exaggerating when I say that when I finished this book, I hugged it.

8. Death in Captivity, by Michael Gilbert. Considering how many mysteries I read, I am kind of surprised I don’t have more on my top books of the year list. So that goes to show how excellent Death in Captivity is. It has everything – a murder, of course, but also an adventure/escape plot, lots of humor, and a poignant look at a World War II POW camp. And I didn’t guess whodunit. Definitely will be re-visiting this one.

7. Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford. I’m fascinated by the Mitford sisters, and Jessica might be the most interesting one of them all – she certainly broke farther away from her family than any of the rest of them, even Nancy. Her memoir was riveting, and the writing was outstanding too (and so evocative – I loved her description of Nancy as looking like “an elegant pirate’s moll” and I’ll never be able to see Nancy any other way).

6. Four Hedges, by Clare Leighton. Leighton’s garden writing is beautiful, but what really sets this book apart is the stunning woodblock illustrations. I could stare at them for hours.

5. Just William, by Richmal Crompton. Sometimes you want to read a book and howl with laughter. Richmal Crompton’s collection of linked short stories about possibly the world’s most mischievous little boy, and the scrapes he and his friends get into, will be just the thing.

4. The Armourer’s House, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Manderley Press is a new small publisher that is reprinting classics that are especially evocative of a sense of place, and The Armourer’s House, the second volume brought out by the press, takes you right back to Tudor London. I am a big fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing, and this was an especially good one. Just like her Dolphin Ring series (republished by Slightly Foxed, if you’re interested), The Armourer’s House puts you right in it. I would’ve liked it to have been three times as long.

3. Delight, by J.B. Priestley. This 75th anniversary edition of Priestley’s essays about things that delight him is a total joy to read. In addition to the writing – in essays like “Cosy Planning,” which had me nodding along – the book is beautiful and is a delight in and of itself.

2. War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944, by Iris Origo. Iris Origo was a really exceptional person – an Anglo-American writer married to an Italian nobleman, she and her husband Antonio sheltered refugee children and Allied soldiers, and provided guidance and sustenance to a string of Jewish refugees, anti-Fascist partisan fighters, and escaped Allied POWs – at great personal risk to themselves. When Nazi soldiers took over their idyllic farm, Origo courageously led a string of sixty refugees, including elderly grandparents and tiny babies, through heavy fire to safety in Montepulciano. Her diaries are riveting reading, capturing what it was like to live through history and make some of it for yourself.

1. The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy. In a year of fantastic reads, this was the standout of all standouts. The Feast opens with a tragedy – a cliff has collapsed on a hotel in Cornwall, and everyone inside the hotel was killed. But not all of the guests were inside, and the plot rewinds to seven days before the disaster, when you see the ill-fated hotel guests arriving. The seven guests killed represent the seven deadly sins, so as the reader gets to know each of the guests and their foibles, it becomes a fascinating intellectual exercise to work out who the victims will be and who will survive (I guessed right on all counts). I was riveted from the very first page, and will read this again and again in coming years.

Whew! I can’t believe I actually did it – my top ten books of 2022, actually ranked in descending order. It was a wonderful year in reading – as they all are, of course. And now, one more lookback post for 2022 before it’s time to turn my readerly attention fully to 2023. Next week: the silliest post of the year, in which I give high school superlative awards to the books I read last year. It’s utterly ridiculous!

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2022 in Books: By the Numbers

Well, January has rolled around again and it’s that time – time for a bookish look-back at 2022! I don’t do too many New Years-themed posts anymore – gone are the days of painstakingly going through the previous year’s resolutions and setting new goals, intentions and words for the upcoming year. But I do still enjoy looking back at the year in reading – and especially at this post, where I break down the year’s worth of books and totally nerd out on data. Let’s get to it, shall we?

First of all, let’s look at the big picture. According to Goodreads, I read 112 books in 2022, for a grand total of nearly 29,000 pages read. Yowsa! So… that’s not entirely accurate, for a couple of reasons. One, I got credit for one book I started at the tail end of 2021 and finished on New Year’s Day. Two, I was mid-way through two books at the end of 2022 and finished those on January 1, 2023, so they’ll count toward this year’s totals. And three, as always, I’m not precious about the edition I record on Goodreads, so some of the page counts might be inaccurate. But I think it all comes out in the wash, and this was a good year of reading indeed.

The longest book I read was The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, which clocks in at 704 pages. (That’s a doorstopper. I read it on my kindle.) And the shortest book – also a kindle book, interestingly – was The Wimsey Papers, by Dorothy L. Sayers – just a little collection of letters between Wimsey family members and friends during World War II; a great read if you’re a fan of the Lord Peter mysteries.

On average, according to Goodreads, my books were around 258 pages. I’d say that’s pretty standard.

The most popular book I read in 2022 was Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart. I’m heartened to see how many other people shelved that one this year – gives me hope for humanity. But on the flip side, only eighteen other people shelved Diplomatic Passport – now that’s a travesty; y’all are missing out on a wonderful read. Go pick that one up immediately.

All right – time to get really nerdy. Who’s ready to dive into some data?

First of all, zooming in a little on the books I read this year, just over half – about 56% – were fiction. I’m usually around 50/50 fiction and non-fiction, so this is slightly more heavily weighted to the fiction side, but not by much. On the other side of the equation, I read eight volumes of poetry this year, which is a lot for me – but I think I can explain it. I usually have a poem-a-day anthology going, but this year I read my way through four seasonal anthologies – A Poem for Every Winter Day, and so forth. So that’s four titles where I’d normally have one. And finally, journals – which really probably belong in the non-fiction category but I’m not re-doing this chart – were a little light this year. I usually read each of the four quarterly issues of Slightly Foxed and possibly a few back issues, but I haven’t gotten to the winter issue yet.

Zooming in a bit more, this time on the fiction genres: 2022 was heavily weighted toward classics; my classics count was more than double the count of the next-biggest chunk (mysteries). And that’s not even accounting for the fact that many of the mysteries I read are classics in their own rights. I’ve always been a big classics reader, so this is no surprise. What is a bit of a surprise: I usually have at least a few good handfuls of other genres, but 2022 was very light on pretty much everything else – only two general fiction titles, two historical fiction, and three literary fiction – no sci-fi or fantasy at all. Perhaps it’s just that as life gets busier and more hectic, and the news on the front page gets worse, I tend to gravitate toward my comfort zone. I do like to challenge myself – don’t get me wrong – but some years I just want to read what I want to read, and that means more Bronte and less speculative fiction, ya know?

Non-fiction was a bit more varied, but with three major categories. I always read a lot in the books about books genre; my totals are creeping up year over year in the nature-and-gardens category, and I love a good memoir. This year, my biography and memoirs title is slightly inflated by diaries – I read at least three.

All right, let’s zoom back out to the total and look at the sex of the authors I was reading. No surprise here – I am heavily weighted towards female authors. This isn’t unusual at all, and I think if anything male authors might be better represented on 2022’s list than they were on previous years’ lists. (The guys probably have Stephen Moss to thank for that. I think I read four of his books in 2022?) I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not seeking out more non-binary authors; there might be some on here, and I just don’t know about it, but I definitely didn’t read any specifically last year. (Various authors accounts for collections in which both men and women were represented.)

As for the source of the book – i.e. where I got it from – this chart has flipped almost on its head from previous years! Starting in 2020, I really began to try to read more books from my own shelf (with an ultimate goal of reading every book I own – which is going to take me a few more years…). I did pick up a few books from the library, but the vast – vast – majority of my 2022 books came from my own shelves. (And by shelves, I mean not only my physical bookshelves but also the virtual shelves on my kindle and my Audible app.) Oh, and I did borrow two books last year, not from the library, so I have to give shouts to Steve for loaning me Invisible Man, and Peanut for letting me borrow and read Yummy: A History of Desserts. (Can I say, you guys? Borrowing a book from Peanut for the first time was a Bookish Mom Moment for me. Heart flutters.)

In 2023, I think I’ll see the library slice of this pie grow a little – largely because I have a list of books I want to read soon (for a reading challenge I have set myself) but don’t want to buy. But I’ll still mostly be working through my own shelves and I’m happy about that.

While we’re zoomed out, let’s discuss the format of the book. This is one area – perhaps the only area – where I definitely did diversify in 2022. While the bulk of my reading was still in physical book form, I hit ten eBooks and nine audiobooks, a definite change from years past. The eBook total was driven up by all of the traveling I did last year – between business trips and family travel I was on planes almost every month in 2022, and I prefer not to carry physical books with me. The audiobook total is new though, and represents a conscious effort I made to listen to more audiobooks in 2022. I cleared out my podcatcher and started alternating between listening to an audiobook and then going back to the podcatcher and listening to the episodes that had stacked up in the meantime, and, well – you can see the results. (Will this continue into 2023? I hope so, and I hope for even more audiobooks in next year’s version of this post. But I should note that Steve activated my Spotify account, so music is creeping back into my listening, too – not that I’m complaining.)

Finally, one more chart – always a fun one to look back on – settings! My 2022 books were heavily weighted toward England. I mean, WOW. Almost 60% in England alone, and the rest of the world has to duke it out for the remaining 40-ish%. Usually, England and the USA are roughly equal on my list, often trading back and forth, but there was no contest this year; I read six times as many books set in England as in my home country. In fact, the second largest category was books that had no setting (poetry, journals, and things like advice books or essays that were not geographically grounded in any country). Seven were set in continental Europe and/or Scotland; ten had more than one setting that was equally important to the narrative (like Patsy, where the action was divided 50/50 between the United States and Jamaica), and Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were not well-represented. (This is due largely to my reading so much from my own shelves, and the fact that most of the books I own happen to be classics of English literature. That’s a fault in my own shelves, but I am trying not to buy many new books until I’ve read more of the ones I already own, so it’s going to be the way things are for awhile yet. In the meantime, I often choose diverse authors and settings when I do go to the library, which I think I’ll do a bit more in 2023. So – no goals around this, but I’m tracking on it.)

Whew! That’s a lot of numbers and a lot of information. 2022 was a good year in reading, measured by the only stat that really counts – whether I enjoyed myself or not, and I certainly DID. What did your 2022 in books look like?

Next week, my top ten! Check in with me then.

My 2022 Christmas Book Haul

As you all know, I love a book haul post. I especially love to read posts about other people’s book hauls, since those give me good ideas for what to add to my own wish list – wink, wink. And while I rarely share any book hauls of my own (because I don’t usually see books entering my house in waves… it’s more of a constant trickle, fam) Christmas is, of course, an exception to that.

2022 was actually a relatively modest book haul by my usual standards. The reason is that I am planning a big adventure this winter (read on) and most of my Christmas list was devoted to specialty gear for that trip. But there are always books – and to be honest, after last year’s stack started swaying dangerously when I tried to photograph it, this year’s more moderate pile was probably better. Even if it is still ridiculous abundance. Here’s what I added to my library:

First of all, Christmas always includes mysteries – right? And not just festive mysteries for Advent! Steve and my mom are great at ensuring I have murderous reads all year long. This year, Steve gave me the Harper Collins special edition of And Then There Were None, which completes my collection of those editions – at least until the next three drop this summer. And he also delivered bigtime with the new Marple, a collection of brand new Miss Marple stories by authors currently writing in the crime and detective fiction genre, including big names like Lucy Foley and Elly Griffiths. And then my mom always gets me “a Christie for Christmas” and this year I asked for some Miss Marple mysteries in the new paperback editions with the floral covers – they’re gorgeous. I opened A Murder is Announced and A Pocket Full of Rye, both of which I’ve read but not for many years, so I’m looking forward to revisiting them in these new editions. (And it was a very Miss Marple Christmas, now that I’m thinking about it.)

Steve also presented me with some gorgeous historical non-fiction, including The Windsor Diaries 1940-45: My Childhood with the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, which was the very top of my wish list. I’m reading it now and it’s so good and transporting me right to Windsor during World War II. And then there were these two pretty hardcovers of historic guidebooks – The Cathedrals of England and Sussex, Kent & Surrey 1939, which I wanted based at least 50% on their covers. But I am really excited to read them – especially the Sussex, Kent & Surrey book, which I expect will be a fascinating time capsule of that beautiful region of England right at the beginning of World War II.

I was also so excited to unwrap this new edition of Persuasion, one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, which is stuffed with thoughtfully presented ephemera. I have Little Women in the same edition, and they are such cool, beautiful books.

Here’s my miscellaneous pile, for lack of a better word. Steve bought me Images and Shadows, Iris Origo’s memoir, which I was very excited about. I read Origo’s World War II diaries this fall and found them absolutely captivating, so I can’t wait to dig into her memoir. And Steve also found this stunning anthology of writing about birds, beautifully illustrated with pen and ink drawings – so I’m really looking forward to reading that one too. And then finally, my mom got me Michelle Obama’s latest book, The Light We Carry, and the latest (I think?) Isabel Allende, A Long Petal of the Sea. Both look wonderful!

Also from my mom, and should have been in the pile above but I forgot and left it upstairs – The Office BFFs: Tales of The Office from Two Best Friends Who Were There, by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey – this is exciting stuff, people! I am a huge fan of The Office and got the audiobook version of this – read by the authors, of course – but was really wishing for the hardback, since I figured it probably had all kinds of cool behind-the-scenes photos in it (spoiler alert: it does). I’ve already finished this, and it was a total joy to read from the first page to the last. And will go great alongside Tales of Dunder Mifflin: The Complete Oral History of “The Office”, which I got last Christmas. Spoiled? Yes.

Another one that deserves its own photo: Nugget bought this copy of the fifth Percy Jackson book at the Scholastic Book Sale, but wrapped it up and gave it to me on Christmas morning. Isn’t he sweet? I can’t accept it, though. I’ll sneak it back onto his shelf and suggest that we can “share it.” Funnily enough, I gave him the first Percy Jackson – which he didn’t have – for Christmas.

Last, but not least…

Remember that big adventure I keep mentioning? My mom got me a guidebook to help me prepare. Yes – Steve and I are going to Antarctica this winter! I am beyond stoked to see the seventh continent. This is going to the top of the pile, because embarkation day is ticking nearer and nearer.

Whew! Even though I opened lots of cold weather gear to pack in my luggage for Antarctica (and Patagonia, can’t forget about that part – which will also be epic) I definitely was still spoiled with reading material. How was your Christmas in books? Did you find anything especially exciting under the Christmas tree? And what did you read over the winter holiday break?

A Very Murdery Advent

Years ago, back when Peanut was a wee baby, I started a tradition of buying a few Christmas-themed books at the beginning of Advent, with an eye to building a holiday library for her (and later, her brother too). When I was growing up, my mom had a huge stack of children’s Christmas books and it didn’t feel like the holiday season until she pulled them out of storage. (My favorite was The Littlest Angel, although it always made me well up.) Eventually, the kids’ library got pretty extensive, but I’m still buying Christmas books at the beginning of the season and reading them in the lead-up to the holiday. It’s just that – these days – they’re for me.

The Advent 2022 additions to my Christmas library, as it turns out, are rather murdery. I ended up adding four mystery novels to the Christmas shelf. Is it better or worse that this was completely unintentional? Recently I discovered that I could get my hands on the Harper Collins special edition Agatha Christies, and I snagged all three holiday-themed volumes – The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Midwinter Murder (a collection of short stories – always fun at Christmas) and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I also added The White Priory Murders to the stack; it was the October entry into my British Library Crime Classics subscription, but it’s a classic country house Christmas mystery involving footprints (or a lack thereof) in snow, etc. There’s just something about a Christmas murder mystery.

Actually, it appears this is something of a theme – see last year’s stack (at least, the ones I didn’t get to – hopefully this year). Which one is not like the others? Well, The Faber Book of Christmas is actually not a murder mystery, thank goodness there’s at least one nonviolent entry in my Christmas reading. But I did pick up Thou Shell of Death and The Case of the Abominable Snowman, both from The Hatchards Library (they’re just gorgeous), as well as Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel – unpictured here because I managed to read it last year. And I always add at least one BL Crime Classics per Christmas; last year it was The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories. These are all on the TBR for this year – we’ll see how many I manage to knock out this month.

In short, I don’t know what it is about Christmas reading that makes me feel extra mysterious, but clearly I’m leaning into it. I’m well prepared for the season; knowing every possible festive way to bump someone off, I’m on high alert and confident I’ll survive this holiday.

Season’s readings! Do you like a murder mystery at Christmas?

Bookshop Tourism: Parnassus Books, Nashville TN

I love visiting indie bookstores and will try to duck into one (and buy a book – or several!) anytime I am in a new city, or even familiar stomping grounds like my much loved previous neighborhood of Old Town Alexandria. Of course, as a reader and a traveler and a lover of bookshops, I have a running list in my head of famous indies I’d like to get to someday – Powell’s in Portland; Tattered Covers in Denver; the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC, and so on. And Parnassus Books, the famous Nashville indie founded by Ann Patchett, was definitely on that list. So when my team at work decided on Nashville for one of our periodic weeklong offsite meetings, my first order of business was to scan the schedule and figure out when I could squeeze in a visit to Parnassus. Monday afternoon ended up working out the best – I arrived in Nashville on an early flight, put in some time working at our downtown corporate office, and then, with a couple of hours left before the rest of my teammates arrived and we reunited for a late dinner, grabbed an Uber down to Parnassus.

I was surprised to find the legendary bookshop a nondescript storefront at the cusp of the suburbs – all the more magical, then, knowing that there were treasures inside.

First view when you walk into the store – did I do a little dance? Yes, yes I did. I’d left myself a good hour and a half for browsing; this was my one planned solo activity of the week. Cue excitement.

They had two shelves dedicated to bookseller recommendations and books “picked and penned by Patchett.” Now that I am looking at this picture, I’m really regretting not picking up one of those gorgeous hardcover editions of Bel Canto. Well, next time.

The children’s section was in the back, suitably reached through this cute little door with miniature Grecian columns – a playful nod to the name of the bookstore. There were a few little kids who gleefully ran under the portico as I browsed. Adorable… I wished I had my own anklebiters with me, because they’d have loved it.

Suitably for Nashville, they also had a big and well curated music section. Not sure if it was the twinkle lights, the star lanterns, or the general vibe, but the whole place seemed to sparkle.

Now, to what I know you all want to know: what did I buy? Enough that I needed this cute tote bag to carry it all. Don’t mind if I do. Here’s (most of) the haul:

A pretty good haul indeed, don’t you agree? After making sure I took in every shelf in the fiction, poetry and children’s sections, I picked up:

  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor – I’ve already read this and had my eye on collecting the Virago editions of Taylor’s books, but I couldn’t resist this NYRB Classics edition (I’m starting to build up quite a collection of those).
  • The Windsor Knot, by S.J. Bennett – This mystery starring a sleuthing Queen Elizabeth caught my eye awhile ago; it looks cute, and I was still feeling a little weepy about the Queen.
  • Theater Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild – Another one I’ve had my eye on for awhile. Kathleen Kelly recommends “the shoe books” and we all know Kathleen Kelly is never wrong. (Yes, I know she’s not real. Don’t harsh my mellow.)
  • How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons), by Barbara Kingsolver – I had no idea Kingsolver wrote poetry! After flipping through this at the poetry shelf and reading a few selections, I decided I definitely needed it for my own.
  • Unlock Your Storybook Heart and Flower Crowns and Fearsome Things, both by Amanda Lovelace – Every time I go into my favorite indie, Old Town Books, I find myself browsing Lovelace’s poetry. It was time to finally pick some up for my shelf. Flower Crowns and Fearsome Things is not pictured above because I’ve already finished it and now I can’t find it. It was gorgeous; highly recommend.
  • Still Life, by Sarah Winman – This just caught my eye with its striking cover; I don’t know much about it other than that it’s about World War II and art and portions of it take place in Italy during and after the war. Historical fiction isn’t my usual jam, but this one sounds good!

What fun to visit Parnassus and treat myself to more than an hour of book shopping! I don’t think I’ve gone to a bookstore and just puttered around for a long time in ages – probably not since COVID. It felt good. And whet my appetite for more bookshop visits to come.

Have you been to Parnassus Books?

The Week(s) in Pages: August 1, 2022

Well, look at that – I flaked on you again last week. Sorry about that. Everyone is fine here, in good health and spirits and all that; I just got busy and blogging went out the window. That tends to happen more in summer than the rest of the year, I’ve noticed, so I appreciate your indulgence.

Anyway, even though this is two weeks of reading here, and not the usual one, as you can see – it’s a pretty short list for me. Again, more of a summer thing, but this is just not a heavy reading season for me and really never is. Either I’m traveling, or just rushing around managing the usual chaos of life but without the benefit of a school routine to keep me grounded. The past two weeks were a little of both of those: first, a week of re-entry after Steve and I returned from our non-vacation week of diving and working remotely from Roatan, Honduras (pictures and stories to come!), followed by a week in Seattle (just for me this time – business trip). The re-entry and business travel combined left almost no time for reading, but somehow I still got through five-ish books over the two weeks.

Five-ish. Right. So, first up: after reading The Wimsey Papers in Roatan, I wanted to spend more time with Lord Peter & co., so I picked up Clouds of Witness. I’ve read many of the Wimsey mysteries, but have skipped around in the series, so I’m now gradually reading my way through in order, and this was one I’d never gotten to before. (I’m going to try to continue to read in order, although Have his Carcase is calling me and that would definitely be out of order for where I am in this read-through of the series. Such a perfect summer read, though. We’ll see.) After Clouds of Witness I was still looking for something light and fast to read over the rest of the week – knowing I was going to be traveling again soon I didn’t want to start a big chunkster. So I picked up The Wren: A Biography. Stephen Moss’s books usually take about a day to get through, for me – and a very enjoyable day at that – and this one was no exception. Finally, with the clock ticking down to the next flight, I grabbed the very slim Edinburgh: Pictorial Notes, recently republished by Manderley Press (new indie publisher alert!). I loved the last Manderley Press title I read (The Armourer’s House, by the fabulous Rosemary Sutcliff) but this one fell a little flat for me – Stevenson’s writing was a bit too dense for the attention levels I had to offer at the time. I’ll have to revisit it when I’m not distracted by an impending business trip and see if I get on better.

These days, I don’t travel with a stack of books anymore, so my next read came from my library of kindle downloads. And here’s where I get the “five-ish” number, because I picked up Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham (better known as the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore) and haven’t finished it yet. Partly that’s because I should not be allowed to choose a new read before coffee – I’m sure Lorelai would agree. I fired up the book while waiting for caffeine at about 6:00 a.m. at Dulles Airport, and I mistakenly thought it was Graham’s memoir (Talking as Fast as I Can). It’s actually a novel about an aspiring actress in New York City – fun, light and frothy, but not what I thought I was getting. And I should emphasize that the disconnect was entirely on my end, but yeah – don’t start this if you’re looking for a memoir. But you know how when you’re not quite feeling a book, it’s hard to motivate to pick it up? Combine that with a business trip keeping you super busy, plus almost no sleep due to an extremely noisy hotel… so, I barely read all week. And I still haven’t finished Someday, Someday, Maybe – saving it for the next plane flight.

I got home from Seattle late Thursday night and decided to devote my weekend reading time to something I was more excited to pick up – The Feast, by Margaret Kennedy. The recent reissue (from Faber & Faber – the cover is gorgeous!) was under the Christmas tree for me in 2022 (thank you, Steve!) and I’ve been saving it for this season because the action takes place over a hot summer week at a seaside hotel in Cornwall. I’m about three-quarters through now and absolutely captivated. I heard so many good things about the book going in, and it’s lived up to every expectation.

I’ll probably finish up The Feast tonight or tomorrow, and am not entirely sure what’s up next. Likely Father, by Elizabeth von Arnim, which I’ve heard is another good summer read – but I could change my mind in the moment and decide I’m feeling something else more. (The benefits of shopping my own shelves and not being tied to library deadlines right now!) And at some point soon I’ll get back to Someday, Someday, Maybe, because I hate to leave a book unfinished for no good reason.

The weather was glorious in Seattle last week!

What are you reading this week? What’s on the rest of your bookish summer agenda?

Themed Reads: The Patriarchy Sux

I mostly try to avoid talking politics on this little blog about books and travel and small joys. But I do have opinions that I’ve occasionally been unable to keep in. This past week has been a hell of a week – I think that’s probably not a controversial statement, right? (I hate it in this timeline, by the way. How do we leave?) Whether you’re happy with the rulings that have come out of SCOTUS over the past seven days or not, it’s been an onslaught of news and think pieces and I am exhausted. What it all boils down to, for me, is this: the patriarchy sucks and must be smashed. In the meantime, here are some books about how terrible the patriarchy is, if you needed to be reminded. Solidarity, sister.

Everyone already knows how boundary-pushing Charlotte Bronte was – Jane Eyre is recognized as one of the foremost pieces of feminist literature of all time, and Shirley, which I am reading now, features a protagonist who unashamedly calls herself “Captain” and occasionally uses masculine pronouns. (Yes, really!!) What is not always recognized is that Charlotte’s younger sister Anne Bronte was just as boundary-pushing, maybe more. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, my favorite Bronte novel of all, features a woman who escapes an abusive husband in a time when divorce was unheard-of. It’s a moving, galvanizing, unsettling read.

Again, everyone already knows about The Handmaid’s Tale and its profound, maybe (hopefully not) prophetic influence. Less well-known is Margaret Atwood‘s fictionalized account of a real-life murder case: Alias Grace. In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper were victims of a gruesome murder. Two of Kinnear’s other servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime – but the evidence against Grace was flimsy and based on unreliable recollections and narratives. Alias Grace is Atwood’s re-imagining of the crime, during the writing of which she revised her opinion of Grace Marks and her story. It’s a deeply alarming account of what happens when women are not believed.

For something more recent, the brilliant Natalie Haynes explores a group of people whose voices have been silenced for millennia – the women of Homer’s epics Iliad and Odyssey. A Thousand Ships is a tragic, violent, often gruesome, sometimes inspiring but usually devastating, look at the quiet background characters who were ignored in favor of Achilles’ tantrums and Agamemnon’s bloodlust and Odysseus’ refusal to pull over and ask directions. Read it with a box of tissues. Because the patriarchy sucked then and it sucks now.

DOWN WITH THE PATRIARCHY.

Themed Reads: Epics Made Modern

Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice (short) nature poem as much as the next girl. But sometimes you want to get stuck deep in an epic, right? Just me? But I don’t read Ancient Greek and – frankly – Ye Olde Englishe is a foreign language, too. Enter some absurdly talented translators who have made it their business to take the greatest epics and update them for the rest of us.

First of all, if you missed Seamus Heaney‘s swashbuckling translation of Beowulf from 1999, what are you waiting for? It has everything you didn’t know you wanted to read about – mead halls, Grendel, Grendel’s totally badass mother, making this a weirdly appropriate Mother’s Day gift too – but it’s legit readable. Will you want to throw a mug of grog at a dragon? Yes, you will, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Emily Wilson is the first woman to translate Homer’s epic The Odyssey, and she does a bang-up job of it. I read it on the heels of an older translation of The Iliad last spring, and this version – which really moves – was a breath of fresh air after that. Pair with A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes, if you want to get the women’s perspective (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty).

Not sure if this counts, but The Owl and the Nightingale is a honking long poem (1,800 lines) from an indeterminate time in English literary history – there are references to King Henry, but which King Henry, there have been so many? It’s bawdy and a little rude, and kind of ridiculous – an owl and a nightingale endlessly debate which of them is better and which of them is a useless pile of… well, you know. Simon Armitage presents a new translation with sumptuous illustrations and ALL of the Medieval potty jokes.

If you’re looking for something with which to celebrate National Poetry Month, and you’ve had your fill of the Romantics, I do encourage you to delve a little deeper into literary history. With Seamus Heaney, Emily Wilson, and Simon Armitage to guide you, how can you go wrong?

What’s your favorite modern translation of an epic poem?

2021 Reading Tally – Superlatives

You didn’t think I’d forgotten, did you? How could I forget the silliest, most pointless, and maybe most fun post of the year? Because it absolutely makes total sense to give high school yearbook awards to the books I read over the course of a year.

Brainiest. She’d be devastated if she wasn’t valedictorian, so I have to give this year’s award to bookish, awkward, good-hearted Mary Bennet. Janice Hadlow gives Mary the happy ending I think we all rooted for, and it’s lovely to read.

Best Looking. It’s unfair to have so many good-looking people in one family, but the Mitford sisters have to take this one. I know Diana was viewed as the most conventionally beautiful, but I can’t really get away from her politics. Nancy was a beauty, but Deborah Devonshire, the youngest of the family who eclipsed them all by becoming a Duchess, is just gorgeous.

Best Friends. You have to be really good friends to go into business together, especially a business you know nothing about (like running a small hotel!) and come out of it still friends – Verily Anderson and her wartime partner-in-crime, Julie, have what it takes. At least when it comes to friendship. They suck as hoteliers.

Class Clown. Nancy Mitford will always take class clown. She’s the kind of clown, though, that will make you snicker while also wondering, a little uncomfortably, if she’s laughing at you.

Biggest Jock. It’s a group award this year, and it goes to all the women who make their way down an overgrown path to swim at the Hampshire Ladies Pond – especially those intrepid souls who dive in all year round.

Teacher’s Pet. Who wouldn’t want to be Madge Bettany’s pet? Well – her sister, Jo Bettany, would rather forge her own path at the school that Madge founds in the Austrian Tyrol.

Biggest Nerd. Inspector Alan Grant isn’t usually a nerd, but when he’s laid up in hospital, recovering from a leg injury (sustained while chasing a criminal, so add that to the not-nerdy side of his ledger) he dives way deep into solving the historical mystery did Richard III murder the Princes in the Tower, and if not, whodunit? It doesn’t get much nerdier than a British Library-powered obsession with a three-hundred-year-old cold case.

Most Creative. Every so often you come across a project that really knocks your socks off, and Amber Share‘s tour de force through the U.S. National Parks, as experienced by their “least impressed visitors,” is that. So creative, and such a complete delight.

Most Opinionated. If you have a question – or a topic of conversation – or just a random thought… Mr. Mulliner has words for you, lots and lots and lots of words, and a story about one of his relatives to make his point clear. Sit down. He’s telling a story.

Most Likely to End Up in Hollywood. A windswept Scottish island, a terrifying peat bog, and a high fashion wedding collide in a totally gripping, completely wild story that is just screaming to be made into a movie. Will I see The Guest List if it ever does hit theatres? Probably not – too scary.

Biggest Rebel. When your fiance is arrested for murder, you’re supposed to sit quietly and wait for him to be vindicated according to the normal workings of the law. Right? Not according to Emily Trefusis, and thank goodness, because she is the only person in The Sittaford Mystery with any sense at all. And she has enough sense not to depend on social institutions to clear her beloved’s name. That’s being a rebel with a very good cause.

Biggest Loner. If you can be alone in the middle of a loud, raucous family and a bunch of rowdy neighbors, Gerry Durrell is – but he has his menagerie of animals, so he’s good.

Prom King. There was a contingent that tried to stuff the ballot box as a joke this year and throw this vote to Captain Ahab, but fortunately they were caught and foiled and the right man won. Jean-Benoit Aubery, better known as “the Frenchman” (swoon, ladies) is clearly the only choice for 2021’s prom king. That is – if he shows up. It’s 50-50, because social events aren’t exactly his thing. But then he might come to claim his crown just to bother the jocks.

Prom Queen. There’s no one like Lily Bart for sheer audacious vivacity, and that’s really what we need in a prom queen. Where did she get her dress? Wouldn’t you like to know.

Cutest Couple. I’ve been shipping Queen Beatrice and Teddy since American Royals, and in Majesty what was supposed to be a marriage of convenience deepens into something more real. Did I enjoy the romance I predicted way too much? Yes, yes I did.

Most Likely to Succeed. It’s gotta be the first woman to hold national office! Kamala Harris shares her incredible life story and it’s wonderful – I saved it to read during Inauguration Week.

What high school yearbook awards would you give to your 2021 reads?

Themed Reads: Magical Austria

I love planning travel – dreaming of destinations, digging into the adventures to be had, and always, always reading. And although the pandemic has really harshed my mellow, I’m back to dreaming and scheming trips to take in the next few years. Austria and Switzerland are both high on my list, and I’m tentatively targeting summer 2023. I can already see the blue gentians waving and smell the Alpine meadow grass… Who knows if it will happen? I hope it does, and until the day I finally board that plane, I can dip into my stash of books set in Austria.

Crossed Skis, by Carol Carnac (a lesser-used pen name of E.C.R. Lorac) follows a group of friends, acquaintances, and some last-minute fill-ins as they depart for a skiing holiday in the Austrian Alps. Unfortunately, back in London, a corpse has turned up with a bewildering connection to a skier, and the entire holiday party – off enjoying sun and crisp snow on the slopes – find themselves suspects. The book ends with a thrilling chase on skis. Read this with cocoa, ideally in a cozy mountain chalet somewhere.

Speaking of chalets, The School at the Chalet, first in Elinor M. Brent-Dyer‘s classic children’s series, is full of them. An English brother and two sisters, recently alone in the world, hit upon the idea of starting a school for young girls in the Austrian Tyrol. (Because why not?) You have to suspend a lot of disbelief here, but it’s worth it for the luscious descriptions of Austria and the rollicking school life at the immediately, impossibly successful Chalet School. There are wildflowers, good food, and mountain adventures. What’s not to like?

If you’re more of a city type, perhaps I could suggest Magic Flutes, by Eva Ibbotson. (Ibbotson is another one who requires some suspension of disbelief, but I’m really good with that.) Magic Flutes tells the story of an Austrian princess who runs away from her fairy-tale castle to follow her opera dreams in Vienna. It’s pure confection, but such fun. (On this theme, I have Ibbotson’s A Glove Shop in Vienna on my to-read-soon stack…)

This stack might not be as good as being in the Tyrol, or even the next best thing, but until I can get there myself it’s what I’ve got. Any Austrian book recommendations for me?