Archive for the ‘Book Talk’ Category

Children, It’s Spring

And this is the lady
Whom everyone loves,
Ms. Violet
in her purple gown

Or, on special occasions,
A dress the color
Of sunlight. She sits
In the mossy weeds and waits

To be noticed.
She loves dampness.
She loves attention.
She loves especially

To be picked by careful fingers,
Young fingers, entranced
By what has happened
To the world.

We, the older ones,
Call it Spring,
And we have been through it
Many times.

But there is still nothing
Like the children bringing home
Such happiness
In their small hands.

~Mary Oliver

Of all the wonderful things about kids, one of the best is the joy with which they approach life.  Everything is new for them, and seeing it through their eyes, the world is new for us too.  We didn’t pick any of these bluebells – so this wasn’t a case of bringing happiness home in their small hands, as Mary Oliver would say – but I know they remember these fairy bells and look forward all year long to this one day of glory.  And if there’s a chance to stomp in puddles and get covered with mud at the same time, well, so much the better.

Do you have a favorite spring memory from your childhood?


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I’ve been reading James Lees-Milne’s memoir, Another Self (in preparation for, I hope, picking up his diaries very soon) and came upon a passage near the end, which made me laugh so hard I spit out the wine I was drinking – JL-M would have been horrified.  Ordinarily I’d read it aloud to Steve, but he’s in the middle of a video game and I can’t get his attention.  So – I take to the blog.  Here’s Lees-Milne talking about his days fighting for His Majesty during World War II:

I had spent barely a month at the training barracks at Lingfield, when I was posted to Dover.  The Battle of Britain was in full swing.  Hitler’s invasion of England was expected at any moment.  We lived on the alert.  Day and night an officer was kept on duty awaiting from some higher intelligence the warning code signal, ‘Oliver Cromwell.’  When this ominous name came down the telephone the officer knew that the invasion was on the way.  He must instantly without wasting a second ring through to the Colonel and arouse the whole battalion.  At 3 o’clock one morning it was my turn to be on duty.  Rather drowsily I was reading Barchester Towers.  The telephone rang.  I picked up the receiver.  ‘This is Higher Command QE2X speaking,’ came from a rather cissy voice a long way off.  ‘I say, old boy, sorry to tell you – Oliver Cromwell!’  ‘What?’ I screamed, my heart in my boots.  ‘Are you sure?  Are you absolutely sure?’  I had no reason for questioning the man’s words beyond the utter horror of the announcement.  ‘Well, I may have got it wrong,’ the voice said affectedly.  ‘Then for dear Christ’s sake,’ I pleaded, ‘do get it right.’  There was a pause, during which I had my finger on the special telephone to the Colonel’s bedroom, as it were on the pulse of England.  ‘Sorry, old chap,’ the voice came back again.  ‘It’s only Wat Tyler.  I get so confused with these historical blokes.’  ‘Wat Tyler,’ I said sharply, ‘was a very different sort of bloke indeed.  He didn’t unleash hell and damnation like the other.  No doubt he would have liked to.  But he was strung up by the Lord Mayor before he got a chance.  You deserve no less for giving me the fright of my life.  So good night to you, or good morning, or whatever it is!’

We have James Lees-Milne to thank, largely, for the National Trust, for writing twelve volumes of witty and slightly rude diaries that I can’t wait to read, for being singularly unimpressed by Princess Margaret, and for causing me to choke on my sauvignon blanc.  That is a contribution to the arts and letters indeed.

Have you ever read Lees-Milne?  Do you happen to know if he’s related to Christopher Robin?

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Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

~A.E. Housman

What better poem to celebrate cherry blossom season?  We don’t go to the Tidal Basin every year because the crowds are always ridiculous, but this year – we just felt like taking in the blooms from the prime spot.  Housman’s poem is a little melancholy, it’s true, but it speaks to the fleeting glories of spring.  We all take them in when we can, don’t we?

Is there a must-do spring activity in your part of the world?

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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 know that I post this poem every year at this time, but it’s my favorite, so I’m just going to keep right on sharing it over and over again.  I love everything about it: the carefully chosen words, the beautifully constructed images, the rhythm of the lines as they roll on.  I’ve said plenty of words about this spare set of verses, so this time I’ll just urge you to read, read again, and enjoy.

Happy National Poetry Month!

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(No spoilers ahead!)  I expect most avid readers have this experience at one time or another: the distinctly unsettling inability to recall whether or not one has read a particular book.  There’s the feeling that you probably have read it, at some point or another – but before you joined Goodreads or Library Thing, so it’s impossible to verify.  You dread it coming up in conversation, because you’ll have to confess your uncertainty: you might have read it, but then again, you might not have.  If the confession is made to other bookish folks, odds are they’ll understand.  But the general public is less likely to make allowances.  They’ll either assume it was a forgettable book, or they’ll think you scatterbrained.

For me, the book was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  I went through my early adulthood assuming I’d read it.  You see, the library in my small town was correspondingly small when I was growing up.  It has since expanded into a huge, beautiful building and added to the collection – happily for my town.  But when I was a kid, the library was housed in one or two rooms in the town hall, and the collection was fairly limited.  Once I’d tornadoed through the middle grade books and moved on to books for adults, choices were somewhat restricted.  Two authors the library had near complete collections of were Pearl S. Buck and Agatha Christie, so I worked my way through both of them.

Since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Christie’s earliest books and also one of her most famous, I’m sure the library had a copy of it, and I’ve been equally sure I read it in high school.  But somewhere, along the way, I started to have some doubts.  Whenever I heard Roger Ackroyd mentioned – in conversation or on podcasts – the speaker would invariably marvel at the surprise ending.  The more I heard about Roger Ackroyd, the more I started to think I couldn’t have read it after all.  Although I’ve forgotten the ending to every Agatha Christie I’ve ever read (except for Murder on the Orient Express, which is both extremely memorable in its own right and is also a movie starring Lauren Bacall, who I love) I figured if the ending to Roger Ackroyd was that shocking, I’d have remembered it.  So I must not have read it after all.

Torquay, home of Agatha Christie

After hearing The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which I enjoyed, compared to Roger Ackroyd, I decided it was about time I read this classic crime novel I’d somehow – clearly – missed.  I spent the first half of the book enjoying myself immensely and completely convinced I’d not read it before.  Then somewhere after the midpoint, I started to harbor doubts about a particular character, and by about the third or fourth chapter from the end, I was distinctly suspicious.  Several pages before Hercule Poirot’s big reveal, I confidently declared “Oh! So-and-so did it.”

I was right.

I don’t usually guess the endings to mystery novels, least of all those crafted by the Queen of Crime.  One of the things I love about Christie is that she keeps me guessing until the end, and when all is unveiled, she never fails to surprise me – but once I know whodunit, I can easily go back and see the clues laid out for me, plain as day, and marvel at the construction of the mystery.  (My mystery novel pet peeve is when authors conceal a clue until the big reveal.  It’s only an ingenious puzzle if the pieces are there in broad daylight, to be assembled if you can.)

So why was I able to figure out the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?  I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. I’m smarter than I thought.
  2. I’m getting better at this mystery novel thing.
  3. I’ve read it before.

At least now I know for sure that I have read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  In 2019.  The proof is on Goodreads.  But had I read it before?  I don’t think I’m ever going to know the answer.

What books are you not sure you’ve read?

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for February, 2019

Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope – Finally continuing my sojourns in Barsetshire; getting back there is like taking a big breath of fresh air that smells like country walks and old churches and a cream tea with scones all at the same time.  I won’t go too much into detail, because I reviewed Doctor Thorne at length here, but will just say that it was everything I have been needing right now, and may be my favorite Barsetshire novel (Trollope or Thirkell) yet.

The Lost Vintage, by Ann Mah – No matter what I read after Doctor Thorne, it was going to suffer in comparison, and The Lost Vintage did.  But you shouldn’t let that stop you from reading this novel, which was actually quite fun.  The story alternates back and forth between modern day sommelier Kate, visiting her family vineyard in Burgundy and maybe rekindling an old flame, and a long-buried secret about Kate’s family, told through the World War II journal of a relative Kate didn’t know she had.  There’s history, adventure, and LOTS of wine.  It reminded me of Steve’s and my visit to Burgundy, and made me want to go back to France immediately.

The World As It Is, by Ben Rhodes – You can tell it was a stressful February (between work, school drama and snow days) because this Obama staffer memoir took me almost a week to read, when I would normally have burned through it in a few days.  I don’t regret the extra time spent with Rhodes and Obama, though.  As I’ve come to expect from everyone who was connected to the Obama Administration, Rhodes’ memoir was smart, thoughtful, insightful and fascinating.  I learned a ton about foreign policy, and brushed away tears thinking about how much I miss President Obama and the bright, caring people who staffed his Administration.

Time’s Convert, by Deborah Harkness – Here’s what Time’s Convert is not: great literature.  Here’s what it is: a fun addition to the world of the All Souls Trilogy.  If you’ve enjoyed spending time with Diana, Matthew, Marcus, Miriam, Sarah, Ysabeau, Marthe and the gang, you’ll be glad to see them again.  This book mostly focuses on Marcus, which I enjoyed because he’s one of my favorite characters from the trilogy.  Marcus’s human love, Phoebe, is about to be made into a vampire (terrifyingly, Miriam is her vampire mom, which, I think I’d stay home) so that she and Marcus can be together for eternity.  Time’s Convert tells the story of Phoebe’s transition, interspersed with flashbacks to Marcus’s own early days as a vampire after Matthew plucked him from the battlefields of the American Revolution.  Also, Diana and Matthew’s toddler son gets a familiar, and hijinks ensue.

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey – Harvey has been described as this generation’s Virginia Woolf, and I suppose I can see the parallels in writing style (I hope her life is longer and happier than Woolf’s) but The Western Wind didn’t really speak to me.  Normally I would be all over a murder mystery set in medieval times and starring a priest, so maybe it was a case of right book, wrong time?

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks – Helen Macdonald (of H is for Hawk fame) called The Shepherd’s Life “bloody marvelous” and I’d have to agree.  Rebanks weaves in a bit of everything here – lots of memoir, some real talk about life on a farm, a history of the Lake District, and a poignant musing on how the people who were native to the landscape were erased from the region’s story when the Romantic poets and backpackers descended.  It was a short, quick read, but I loved it.  And it made me yearn for another rainy hike around Buttermere.

The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While, by Catherynne M. Valente – Let this beautifully-written, vibrantly-imagined standalone short story stand as a testament to the fact that everything Cat Valente does is perfect.  The story of how Mallow, also known as the Empress (she has a hat!) came to rule Fairyland “for a little while,” was vintage Valente.  Her writing can be an acquired taste, but here’s the trick: you have to give yourself over to her imagination, let her take you where she’s going to take you, and bask in the gorgeous, glowing language.  I did, and I loved every moment.

Only seven books this month, but it was a short month, with a heavy workload, several snow days, and a lot of school drama.  (These days, snow days mean chasing two kids with cabin fever as they bounce off the walls and trying desperately to squeeze work in around their shenanigans – not relaxing with a cup of tea and a good book, alas.)  But there were some good ones in there.  Doctor Thorne was the highlight of the month, of course.  But The Shepherd’s Life was wonderful, and The World As It Is was fascinating.  And I read TWO books that took me back to adventures past, which is always a delightful thing.  So – a good month.  Now onward to March, to buds on the trees, hopefully no more snow days, and the beginning of spring reading.

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Lit Bits, Volume III

Random thoughts about books and reading…

I’m playing library roulette.  It occurred to me that I am living dangerously when it comes to library renewals.  I like to wait until the last possible day to renew my books – to give myself more time with them, you understand.  But if someone puts a hold on a book and I can’t renew it, I’m beating myself at my own game.  Lately I’ve started checking a few days in advance of a library deadline to see if there are any holds, any other copies circulating, etc. – but that inevitably leads to more strategizing.  There aren’t any holds but all the copies in circulation are checked out; should I renew early and cut off three days (or what have you) from my time with the book, or should I wait?  I realize this isn’t exactly what most would call living dangerously, but I’m just speaking my truth.

Speaking of the library, we tried out a new babysitter recently – the children’s librarian from our local library branch.  (Why had I never thought of this before?)  She was sweet and lovely and did a great job, although the kids made a point of letting her know that she was not their beloved regular babysitter, Bre.  Anyway – she told me I had the best home library she’d ever seen and that the kids owned books that she used for storytime at the library but had never seen in a kid’s personal collection before.  Winning!

Oh, and Nugget has a favorite library book.  He has checked out a book called Dirt Bikes twice now.  He knows exactly where it is in the stacks and he goes right for it.  Steve said that he used to do the same thing; he remembers a book about military jets that he borrowed from his elementary school library on multiple occasions.  Like father, like son…

Library luck is good, but my Amazon luck is bad lately.  I’m really trying not to buy too many books this year, so it’s especially frustrating that the books I do buy keep showing up damaged.  I had to return A Vicarage Family because the top half of the spine was crushed, and A Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year because the cover was visibly dirty (and I tried to clean it; the spots wouldn’t come off – am I the Lady Macbeth of books?).  What the what?  It’s so weird, how this keeps happening to me.

The Folio Society New Year’s Sale is almost over, guys!  I think there’s just a few days left, and stock is pretty low.  The selection is pretty good this time, so do go take a peek if you’re a Folio Society devotee.  The Folio Society semi-annual sales are exceptions to my general book-buying rule, and I make use of the exception.

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