The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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December 5, 2018

December 1, 2018

Hot milky drinks and boiled eggs



... it's easy to see why she occupied such a relatively obscure niche for so long. Barbara [Pym] specialized in a minor-key world located well back from fiction's cutting edge, with a gentle stream of irony running quietly below the surface. Her mild-mannered heroines are often found musing on their favorite lines from Anglican hymns or making Ovaltine at moments of late night crisis. When Barbara sets a scene in a bedroom, there's generally a book of Victorian poetry nearby and a nice cup of tea. ('Life's problems are often eased by hot milky drinks.') Yet these are women who can skewer a narcissistic male with wit so deft he barely notices, and their hilarious, finely tuned perceptions light up every page. Her admirers regularly evoke Jane Austen, and she shares territory with Anthony Trollope as well; but she was up against a postwar literary canon that didn't have a lot of patience with Ovaltine. Critics seemed embarrassed to praise her work even when they loved it. Reviewing Barbara's second novel, John Betjeman said many people would surely find it 'tame,' what with all the church bazaars and the the boiled eggs. He added, almost apologetically, 'To me it is a perfect book.'
. . .

      Barbara was mystified when people talked about the unhappy lives of the women she invented. One reason she loved them was for the pleasure they took in all aspects of the ordinary. She herself went through life that way, with an  unlimited capacity to be fascinated bu whatever passed in front of her. ... But perhaps the most overlooked theme of her novels --the motif that tells us again and again that these are women with a passion for life -- is the delight they take in food. Intensely curious herself about what people were eating, whether they were characters in books or real people sitting across the table from her, Barbara was always disappointed when novels and memoirs left out the culinary details. Hence she made a point of embedding them in her own fiction. Bad food, good food, other people's food, the food on their own tables. Barbara's narrators are captivated by all of it.  How could so many discerning critics miss this glorious proclamation of faith?


from What she ate:  six remarkable women and  the food
t
hat tells their stories, by Laura Shapiro






October 28, 2018

The Library Book



I'm a devoted library person {that's an understatement}. I belong to two wonderful public library systems {Massachusetts is generous that way}. I can walk to one from home, and another from work, so I often do.  I have borrowing privileges through work to the university libraries and all their riches, and I even belonged for a time to Boston's venerable and quirky Athenaeum. (That was something I had always wanted to do, and I miss going there, but it's hard to justify the membership fee when I can find almost everything there ... except the atmosphere, a few Persephones and Slightly Foxed ... at the college library. But I'm still tempted to rejoin, and I know I'll give in,)

So, for me, this new book was heartbreaking, fascinating, and very, very hard to put down. It focuses, in part, on a devastating fire at the central Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, which destroyed or damaged more than a million books and caused the building to be shut down for more than five years. Ranging out from that event, the author writes about Harry Peak, the young man suspected of setting the fire (he was never charged, and later investigations cast doubt on whether arson was committed) and the process used to salvage water-damaged books {they're frozen for two years, to prevent mold from growing, then dried}.  But there's much more:  Orlean traces her childhood memories of going to the library with her mother, and her family's relationship with borrowing and owning books, and the history of the LAPL, as it grew and changed along with the city/ She writes about the people who worked and work there, and goes behind the scenes to see how the library works today, 

These story lines intersect and move back and forth between chapters, so this is the perfect book to dip into now and again, but that might be hard to do.  It's very readable, and very engaging, and will definitely be on my list of favorite books for this year.


The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Borrowed from the Boston Public Library

October 18, 2018

For Helen Ashton, on her birthday



Today, according to Jane’s wonderful Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, is Helen Ashton’s birthday, a date I definitely wanted to have on my calendar. This would have worked better if I had actually had it on my actual calendar, but I noticed it again in time to at least start reading one of her books, and it’s been making my bus ride to work and my bus ride home very lovely this past week.

The book I chose is Parson Austen’s Daughter, published in 1949, in a dusty old copy from the college library. It’s probably not hard to guess what it’s about, but it’s almost a little harder to tell that it’s a novel and not a biography. {The hints come here and there, such as when we’re told, in a very un-Lady Catherine de Burgh-ish way, that there’s ‘a prettyish kind of a little wilderness’ in the grounds of the Austen’s house at Steventon.} Ashton has borrowed other little bits from the novels, and other things I’ve remembered reading in biographies, and put them into different situations and voices, but it’s fun to notice them. There are scenes that she imagines, such as a visit that Cassandra and her ill-fated fiancé, Tom Fowle, make to a retired general to try to find out if it safe for him to go to the West Indies as a military chaplain. She also adds a lot of details; this morning, it was the ‘coquelicot’ ribbons that were the fashion in Bath, and how pretty their poppy-red color looked against Jane’s brown hair. I’ve read most (or maybe all) of the major biographies of Jane Austen, and from what I remember, at least as as far as I’ve read in this book, she’s not inventing events in Austen’s life, just re-creating them.

I was introduced to Helen Ashton for the first time when I read (and greatly enjoyed) The Half-Crown House, and I’ve noted several other books of hers that I would like to read. This book might not turn out to be one of her best, but it’s charming, and spending my commutes with the Austens couldn’t ever really be a bad thing, could it?

Parson Austen's Daughter, by Helen Ashton
Collins, 1949
Borrowed from the college library



October 9, 2018

Persephone no. 119: Long Live Great Bardfield



I hope, dear reader, that you may be one of my descendants, but as I write a German aeroplane has circled round above my head taking photographs of the damage that yesterday’s raiders have done, reminding me that there is no certainty of our survival. If you are not one of my descendants then all I ask of you is that you love the country as I do, and when you come into a room, discreetly observe its pictures and its furnishings, and sympathise with painters and craftsmen.
I had {as I too often do} high hopes and great plans for participating, voluminously, in Jessie's recent Persephone Readathon; in the end, I did read one book — this one — and it was lovely.

Tirzah Garwood, who lived from 1908 to 1951, was an artist who painted and also worked in woodcuts and marbled endpapers. {We learn in the book that she was christened Eileen Mary, but was soon called Tirzah by her siblings, either because of a biblical character with that name or because one of her aunts referred to her as Tertia because she was the third child in her family). As a young art student, she met Eric Ravilious and married him. I admit that I was drawn to her story because of my growing fondness for his work, but after reading this book I've grown even fonder of her.


{The Wife (1929)}

Garwood began writing her autobiography  when she was 39, and facing breast cancer for the first time. {I knew about this going in, and wondered whether it would be hard for me to read about it, but she is so matter-of-fact — and, in those oh-so-very different days, was actually given a mastectomy without ever being definitely told that she had cancer.}

There are moments that are poignant, but many others that are funny or just ordinary. In some, there's a great sense of what people experienced in the homefront during World War II {I had not known that Eric Ravilious died working as a war artist, when the plane he was flying to Iceland in was lost and never recovered). In others, there are infidelities (hers and his), and artists, and friends with their own troubles, and eccentric aunts. As I read, I often found that it was hard to remember who the people were that came and went, but that didn't really matter. Tirzah was talented, and imperfect, and brave, and it was spending time with her that kept me reading.


{One of Tirzah's decorative papers, in the Victoria & Albert Museum}

Thank you, Jessie, for organizing the Readathon; I have been wanting to read this Persephone ever since it was published. I'm so glad I finally did, and I'm piling up more books to read about this group of artists.



{Two Women in a Garden, by Eric Ravilious.
I have a coffee-table book about the artists of Great Bardfield, that
I'm sure I bought because this picture is on the cover.}


Long live Great Bardfield:  the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood
Persephone Books, 2016
From my bookshelves


September 27, 2018

I'd Rather Be Reading




Having all your library reserves come in once. {Today's pile: 7.} Not being able to fit all of the books you just checked out in your tote bag. {It was fine. This morning I folded up my biggest tote bag and carried it in my other tote bag.} Living (literally) right next to the library. Not living right next door to the library any more. Having friends you trust for book recommendations. Listening to someone you don't know tell other people they must read a certain book, because they would all love it, knowing that she's talking about the book you just finished and absolutely hated. Re-reading books you've loved even though you have 819 books you've never read on your Goodreads list.

This is us, my friends. :)  After JoAnn added the book to her Goodreads list (see 'friends you trust,' above) I found the audiobook on Hoopla {does your library have this service?  I think it's amazing}; since it was read by the author, it was even more like spending time with a very, very kindred spirit.


I'd Rather Be Reading: the delights and dilemmas of the reading life, by Anne Bogel 
Baker Books/Mission Audio, 2018 
Borrowed from the library

September 20, 2018

Making plans...



I'm inspired by people who make reading plans, and keep them.  I make reading plans, too, but as for keeping them, not so much. :)   Back in July, I actually starting putting together a reading calendar, with a list of what I would read each month for the rest of the year; so far, I have kept exactly one appointment, which is probably an improvement over the last time I started putting one together.

{I did just read The Prime Minister with JoAnn, one of the best reading buddies a person could have, and we even stayed in sync for almost all of it ... so that should count, even though I never had a chance to put it on the aforementioned calendar.}

I think I will try to resurrect my most recent attempt at a calendar, because there were a lot of books I'm looking forward to on it. But for now, I'm happily looking forward to Jessie's next Persephone Readathon, which runs from tomorrow through the end of the month. (And happily, I need a new book for the bus tomorrow morning.)

I have a few possibilities ...





and will probably decide at the last moment, as I'd really like to read all four of them. :)

Are you joining in?  What are you going to read?







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