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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June 17, 2019

Role model ...



That night after twelve o'clock Mary Garth relieved the watch in Mr. Featherstone's room and sat there almost through the small hours. ... There were intervals in which she could sit perfectly still, enjoying the outer stillness and the subdued light. The red fire with its gently audible movement seemed like a solemn existence calmly independent of the petty passions, the imbecile desires, the straining after worthless uncertainties, which were daily moving her contempt. Mary was fond of her own thoughts and could amuse herself well sitting in twilight with her hands in her lap, for having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact.  And she had already come to take life very much as a comedy in which she had a proud, nay a generous resolution not to act the mean or the treacherous part. Mary might have become cynical, if she had not had parents whom she honoured and a well of affectionate gratitude within her which was all the fuller because she had learned to make no unreasonable claims.
 from Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Book III)


June 11, 2019

Persephone no. 21: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day



And then, the minute I finished Because of the Lockwoods (this being a readathon, after all), I did something I don't do nearly enough anymore ... I sank into my favorite chair on Saturday afternoon, with a cup of tea and a book, and read the whole thing, sometimes too quickly, other times too slowly, almost cover to cover in one sitting.  :)

I've read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day before, and seen the movie, and remembered them fondly;  I have the Persephone Classics edition on my shelf but borrowed the gray-covered, endpapered version from the college library because I could.  But I hadn't remembered that it's not just charming, but very funny, or how much Miss P. lets herself get into the spirit of the situation she finds herself in.

I always like reading the prefaces in the Persephone books, but this one was especially enjoyable, with its story of how this book was discovered.  It immediately sent me to all the online library catalogs I could find in search of Winifred Watson's other novels, but sadly, no luck.


Thanks again, Jessie!

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson
Persephone Books, 2000 (originally published in 1938)
Borrowed from the college library

June 10, 2019

Persephone no. 110: Because of the Lockwoods




I had heard so much about Dorothy Whipple from blogging friends -- and then enjoyed Greengates so much -- that I have been slowly seeking out her other novels; Because of the Lockwoods, which I just read for Jessie's Persephone Readathon, is only my second, but it won't be my last.

At one time, the Lockwoods and the Hunters were neighbors in Aldworth, a town in northern England, and Mrs. Lockwood and Mrs. Hunter, mothers with young children, one married to a lawyer, the other to an architect, visit each other on almost equal terms. But when Mr. Hunter dies suddenly, leaving his family in precarious financial straits, everything changes.
      The Hunter children had rather an old-fashioned air.  The girls' dresses were made by their mother -- not a skillful needlewoman -- and Martin's supposedly short trousers were usually too long. Their appearance moved the Lockwood twins to scorn and giggles and Mrs. Lockwood to exasperation. Mrs. Hunter, she often said, had really no idea. She felt she herself, in Mrs. Hunter's place, would have managed so much better. In fact, Mrs. Lockwood talked as if having to manage on very little money was a most inspiring situation and one in which she almost wished herself, to that she could show what she could do.
      All the same, there was something about the Hunters, in spite of their clothes, that Mrs. Lockwood defined reluctantly to herself as 'distinction.' Why they should have it, where it came from and how it persisted in their circumstances, she couldn't think. Obscurely, it annoyed her. It made her wish, somehow, to keep them out of the way. She didn't quite want them to be noticed; especially not by their friends, Sir Robert and Lady Harvey.
The Hunters move to a smaller, meaner house; Mrs. Lockwood condescends to the Hunters, giving Mrs. Hunter her cast-off clothing and inviting the children to come see the presents she was bought for other people; and the Lockwood twins, Bea and Muriel, taunt the Hunter children.  But it's Mr. Lockwood who does the most damage:  pushed into managing Mrs. Hunter's financial affairs by his wife, he insists that Molly and Martin Lockwood leave school and go to work in jobs they are unsuited for, helps himself to what's left of Mr. Hunter's good cigars, and swindles Mrs. Hunter out of a piece of property that he had wanted to purchase himself.  All of the Hunters seem to have given up, except Thea, the youngest child, who finds a way to joining the Lockwood girls and a their wealthy friend Angela Harvey for a year at a finishing school in a provincial French town.

Thea is, for a while, the only one of the Hunters who is determined to rise above the social and financial constraints placed on her, but when she falls in love with a young Frenchman she is tutoring, she is sent home in disgrace.  She is willing to stare down the Lockwoods, who disown and humiliate her family, but she can't ignore Oliver Reade, the somewhat shady young man next door who finds ways to help the Hunters in order to push himself into Thea's life.

It's not even an especially uplifting story (though it has its moments) or one with very sympathetic characters (in the end, it's Molly, Thea's older sister, who seems to have found her way, though maybe I just liked her best because she bakes :). The events in the plot seem almost inevitable, but the people are so wonderfully drawn that I found myself wanting to keep reading and watch things unfold.

Thank you, Jessie, for organizing these readathons.  I'm already looking forward to the next one!


Because of the Lockwoods, by Dorothy Whipple
Persephone Books, 2017 (originally published in 1949)
From my bookshelves (Kindle edition)

May 31, 2019

... and in June, I'll be reading ...



It's perfect timing, since I'll be ready for a new book tomorrow. :)

As for what I'll read, perhaps ...






{I'll start with the top one, I think.  Three of the others would be re-reads, but they're very tempting. )


May 30, 2019

In May, I was reading ...




2018
The pedant in the kitchen,
by Julian Barnes

2017
Imagined London: a tour of the world's greatest fictional city,
by Anna Quindlen

2016
Mrs. Appleyard's year,
by Louise Andrews Kent

2015
Between you and me:  confessions of a comma queen,
by Mary Norris

2014
By its cover,
by Donna Leon

2013
The view from Penthouse B,
by Elinor Lipman 

2012
The technologists.
by Matthew Pearl

2011
North and South and 'Mr. Harrison's confessions,'
by Elizabeth Gaskell

2010
Lunch in Paris:  a love story with recipes,
by Elizabeth Bard

2009
The Gardner heist,
by Ulrich Boser

2008
Love walked in,
by Marisa de los Santos

2007
About Alice,
by Calvin Trillin

2006
My latest grievance,
by Elinor Lipman

2005
Everything she thought she wanted,
by Elizabeth Buchan

2004
Jane Austen:  a life,
by Claire Tomalin

2003
A presumption of death,
Jill Paton Walsh and Dorothy L. Sayers

2002
Instances of the number 3,
by Salley Vickers



May 16, 2019

Books and lives



Progress with Middlemarch continued slowly. By mid-March 1871 Marian moaned to her journal, 'It is grievous to me how little ... I manage to get done.' Yet by the beginning of June, Blackwood held the first part of Middlemarch in his hands and pronounces himself "intensely delight with Miss Brooke,' finding the novel 'filled to overflowing with touches of nature and character that could not be surpassed'. He expected she would repeat, if not excel, her previous triumphs. When he read the second part a month later, he worried that it introduced completely new characters but, as 'you beautifully express it, we never know who are to influence our lives'. She was, her publisher extolled, 'like a great giant walking among us and fixing every one you meet upon your canvas'.
from George Eliot:  Novelist, Lover, Wife, by Brenda Maddox

As you may know, I love to read literary biographies, so I was very happy to find this relatively short (230-page) but very readable and well-written one in the college library, so I could refresh my memory a little about George Eliot while I'm re-reading Middlemarch, and not risk too much distraction from reading the novel itself. I've actually just gotten to the part where she's writing Middlemarch -- in parts, the way we're reading it.  It was interesting to learn that George Eliot first started writing a story about Dr. Lydgate, then a separate story about 'a Miss Brooke,' before she decided to combine them into one novel -- and to read that the first installments of the book were published before she had written the final ones, and (unsurprisingly) that she felt the strain of 'composing the story whose outcome she had not yet decided in the knowledge of readers hoping (in vain) for the author to contrive the marriage of Dorothea and Lydgate.'

Meanwhile, it's still May, so I still have time to read Book 2. Maddox quotes George Eliot's wonderful description of Causabon's (ahem) 'stream of affection,' which I'm looking forward to coming across. :)
At the time of the book's appearance, the critics were rapturous. ... The Times waited until March 1873 to publish its four-column review by Frederick Broome, who raved, "There are few novels in the language which will repay reading over again so well as Middlemarch.' ...
... Even the New England poet Emily Dickinson wrote to a cousin, 'What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?'

George Eliot:  Novelist, Lover, Wife, by Brenda Maddox
Harper Press, 2009
Borrowed from the college library

May 5, 2019

Armchair traveling ...




Is Mormino Penna the prettiest street in Sicily?  In one of my guidebooks, the novelist Elio Vittorini is quoted as saying that Scicli is the most beautiful town in the world. Walking along this street, I think maybe he's right.  The buildings are a soft, monochromatic palette:  buttercream, sand, ivory, limestone, white. When I was little, I was taught that the streets of heaven were paved with gold. But this street must be as splendid because the smooth-worn stones gleam like pearls. Pink oleander trees and pale, human-scale palazzi line either side. How destructive that 1693 earthquake -- but what a fervor for beauty it inspired.  We stop at a bar just to catch up with our senses.  Men are reading the paper, a woman pulling a sweater over the head of her baby, the waiter wiping the counter. Just as if they didn't know they must be angels, because this is heaven, gilded streets or not.
I have to admit that I have the best commute.  There's a university shuttle that runs between two campuses, and I just happen to live along its route.  It's almost never crowded {except when half of the Harvard Band gets on, with their instruments}, and usually fairly quiet {same}, and best of all, except when I have the chance to visit with a friend or neighbor along the way, I can count on a good 15 to 20 minutes of reading time each way.  For the last two weeks, I've been spending them in small towns in Italy, and it's been a lovely way to sort of travel there.

Although I've greatly enjoyed all of her books about Tuscany, I wasn't especially excited about this one at first, but I'm so glad I kept reading. Mayes and her husband -- sometimes with friends, sometimes with their teenage grandson -- traveled to every region of Italy, visiting villages and small towns, looking at churches, visiting museum, staying in interesting hotels or country inns or farmhouses, going to wineries and markets, tasting wines, and eating glorious meals (though she's quick to admit when they have an occasional terrible one). I thought the food might be what drew me in (and it did), but I found that I looked forward to the times when she described the towns they visited.  I actually decided that I was glad that there were no pictures, because her vivid writing allowed me to imagine them. Especially whenever she described the colors of the buildings ('buttercream, sand, ivory, limestone, white'), and I found myself daydreaming about having a soft fuzzy sweater in each one.

See you in the piazza:  new places to discover in Italy, by Frances Mayes
Crown Publishing, 2019
Borrowed from the library

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