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Archive for the ‘Book Talk’ Category

How is it already July, and the first half of 2019 is over?  Seriously, where does the time go?  I didn’t even realize how far we were into this year until I read Katie‘s blog post on her top ten favorite books of the year (so far), and it occurred to me – whoops, I’m overdue to share my list!  So, in no particular order, here they are:

Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope – I continue to love and savor Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire.  Doctor Thorne, the third in the series, has everything – love, social comedy, and (spoiler, but this is Trollope, so…) a happy ending.  I’m working my way through Trollope slowly so as to ration, but they’re all so good.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie – Somehow, I am still not sure if I’d ever read Roger Ackroyd before or not.  But either way, I’ve read it now – and WOW.  While I guessed who the murderer was, that never takes away from my enjoyment of a mystery (on the contrary, I like patting myself on the back) and it was such fun.

Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days that Changed Her Life, by Lucy Worsley – I hadn’t read anything by Worsley before (although I am being a terrible book friend and sitting on a copy of Jane Austen at Home that belongs to my friend Susan) but clearly I was missing out.  I loved this creative take on biography and will definitely be seeking out more of Worsley’s work.

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls – This book has it all!  Women!  Pregnancy!  Witchcraft!  Medieval towers!  No, seriously, this book has it all.  I was completely captivated – and especially after I learned that it was based on a real witch trial and that all of the main characters in the book – Richard and Fleetwood Shuttleworth and Alice Grey – were actual people.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good, by Helene Tursten – I had it in my head that this was going to be unpleasantly violent and gory, but it wasn’t.  Although I enjoyed every story, my favorite was the story of the elderly lady disrupting her former flame’s late-in-life wedding plans, via a little murder, of course.

The Glimpses of the Moon, by Edith Wharton – I’ve been on a Wharton jag for months, which probably hasn’t gone unnoticed.  It was hard to choose just one, but I did really love Nick and Suzy Lansing’s comedy of errors love story.

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – A re-read, read for book club and in preparation for the (awesome!) adaptation, I enjoyed Good Omens just as much as when I read it years ago.  It’s just as funny, just as touching, and just as delightful a read as ever.

The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson – I first encountered Wilson’s work through the delightful Ms. Marvel, and loved Alif the Unseen when I read it last year.  The Bird King confirms: everything Wilson touches turns to gold.  I’ve got to seek out her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, next, and I can’t wait to see what she does with Wonder Woman.

Another Self, by James Lees-Milne – Having never read anything by Lees-Milne, but knowing he was a prolific and witty diarist during World War II and in the years after, I wanted to read his memoir of early life first – and I was lucky enough to score an out of print Slightly Foxed Edition.  It was such a good time, and I especially loved his description of a mistaken communication he received while manning the radio while serving in His Majesty’s Forces during the war.

1939: The Last Season, by Anne de Courcy – Sticking with British history (because obviously) I devoured 1939 and loved every page.  The denial, forced gaiety, and desperation to cling to tradition comes through so clearly, and is especially jarring as de Courcy juxtaposes chapters about society functions and cricket matches against chapters describing the increasingly frantic machinations at 10 Downing Street.  I love non-fiction about England in the first half of the twentieth century, and this was just my sort of read.

Not a bad first half of the year, indeed!  I can’t wait to see what the second half holds – hopefully more great reads.

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Lit Bits, Volume IV

Random thoughts about books and reading…

I currently have 36 books checked out of the library.  The maximum that a patron can check out at any one time is 50, so I am well over halfway to the max.  The pile is so tall that the North Carolina whelk shell that lives on top of my library checkouts is just barely clearing the underside of the kitchen cabinet.  Now, just to be clear: this is not all my doing.  The kids have contributed to the excessive library stack.  But – still.  Ridiculous.  (N.B. This is no longer true, as of the date of publication of this post.  It’s way down now.  But it was true when I started the post, and is still ridiculous.)

It’s funny how a book that you thought was just a good time can surprise you with a message.  A few weeks after finishing Time’s Convert, I was driving along on the highway (taking the kids to the Udvar-Hazy Center to meet up with a school friend) and the thought popped into my head that Time’s Convert had a lot to do with consent.  A vampire novel could easily slip across an invisible line, but Deborah Harkness’s vampires are very concerned with consent.  They don’t always seek it, especially while hunting, but the more modern vampires in particular are very uncomfortable with the idea of “feeding” without it.  There is a scene in which Miriam produces a woman to feed Phoebe, and Phoebe finds the whole scene distressing.  She finally mumbles “thank you” and the woman – who is perfectly aware of why she’s there and what Phoebe is supposed to be doing – congratulates Miriam on how well-brought-up her vampire “daughter” is.  And when the vampires actually create a new one of their number, they have a long speech they go through to make sure the human in question knows exactly what they are getting into and is 100% on board.  (It doesn’t always work, because what human actually believes they are about to be made into a vampire?  But they try.)  I found it fascinating that the vampires were worried about consent, and tried to obtain it, and I wish that they always did.  I’m still not sure that Harkness handled the issue as well as I would have liked, but it was just interesting that a book I thought was purely a fun read could have prompted this line of thinking weeks later.

Apparently everyone knows I have a problem?  My BFF, Rebecca, recently urged me (again) to read a book by her favorite author, Susan Fletcher.  She also said: “I was going to loan you my copy, but I decided if I did, you’d never read it.  I figured I’d let you get it from the library instead, and then maybe you’ll actually read it.”  Point taken.  Point taken.  I’m a library junkie.  And I guess everyone knows.

Steve and I watched the adaptation of Good Omens together.  As expected, he loved it.  But he still hasn’t read the book.  I keep pressing it on him and telling him he’d love it (and to be fair, I don’t push books on him unless I’m sure he would really enjoy them; no one is telling him to read Cranford).  He says he’ll get to it after he’s done with his current Patrick Rothfuss doorstopper.  So – next year sometime?  I’m on record as saying I don’t mind being married to a non-reader, because HELLO, more bookshelf space for me.  But still, I want him to read the books I want him to read.  Is that normal?  I’m a complicated lady.

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The Seven of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

My garden is planted – not in the ground, but in pots, again.  I’ll be tending it over the rest of spring and throughout the long, hot northern Virginia summer.  And I’ve planted hopes in here along with the tomatoes, herbs, butter lettuce, berries.  Hopes for a bountiful harvest – both of fruits and vegetables and of memories as I tend these pots with my littles.  Hopes of faces puckered with the juicy tang of a fresh cherry tomato, of the wonders of blueberries growing right on our patio, of blessings blooming in this home all year round as I’ve bribed the goddess with the lavender by my garden gate.  And of bountiful harvests of food and connection to you, my friends.

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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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