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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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

May 1, 2019

Thank goodness!



Yet, as one is setting out to speak the truth, one must own that there are certain books which can be read without the head and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.
from The Common Reader, by Virginia Woolf

April 29, 2019

In April, I was reading ...




2018
Victorians undone: tales of the flesh in the age of decorum,
by Kathryn Hughes

2017
Wives and daughters:  women and children in the
Georgian country house
,
by Joanna Martin

2016
Night and day,
by Virginia Woolf

2015
The enchanted April,
by Elizabeth von Arnim

2014
The late scholar,
by Jill Paton Walsh

2013
Bath tangle,
by Georgette Heyer

2012
The children,
by Edith Wharton

2011
A discovery of witches,
by Deborah Harkness

2010
The mapping of love and death,
by Jaqueline Winspear

2009
The last Dickens,
by Matthew Pearl

2008
The various haunts of men,
by Susan Hill

2007
Beatrix Potter,
by Linda Lear

2006
How Elizabeth Barrett Browning saved my life,
by Mameve Medwed

2005
Murder at Union Station,
by Margaret Truman

2004
Pride and prescience:  a Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery,
by Carrie Bebris

2003
Blessings,
by Anna Quindlen

2002
A shilling for candles,
by Josephine Tey


{The painting is by Janet Hill.}

April 14, 2019

Middlemarch in 2019



The first time that I read Middlemarch, about seven years ago, was not very satsifying.  Not the book -- I loved it -- but the way I read it.  I joined an online reading group where we read one of the eight books every few months, and it was just too drawn out. I found myself losing the thread of the story.

But along with Queen Victoria, 2019 is the bicentennial of George Eliot's birthday, and there's a new readalong, organized  by University of  London Professor Ruth Livesey, where we'll read one of the eight books every month, from April to December.  That seems much better; it's manageable, about 100 pages a month. And we'll be reading the book in the same eight monthly installments that readers received in 1871-1872.  I've always thought it would be so interesting to read one of these long Victorian novels in the way that it was read when it was first published. I won't have the same sense of suspense, because I know how it ends, but I already have the same sense of anticipation. :)

I just finished reading/listening to Book One, 'Miss Brooke.'  {I'm a little disappointed that my Kindle edition doesn't sync up with my audiobook, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, but I can work that out. I wouldn't want to miss her reading.}  I've been reintroduced to our heroine, Dorothea Brooke, her kindly uncle Mr. Brook, her sister Celia, and a lot of inter-related residents of Middlemarch. We've met Edward Casaubon, the much older scholar and clergyman who asks Dorothea to marry him. It was interesting to read their growing professions of love for each other {again having read this before}, and to see their emerging relationship, before we know what will happen later.  Even with so much discouragement from other charactrers, it seems hopeful!

Other characters have also also introduced -- Dorothea's other suitor, Sir James Chettam; Casaubon's nephew, Will Ladislaw; Fred Vincy and his sister Rosamond, the town's new doctor, Tertius Lydagate; and plain, 'steadfast' Mary Garth. 

Wonderful again, so far, and it won't be long before Book Two arrives :)

March 30, 2019

In March, I was reading...



2018
Greenbanks, by Dorothy Whipple

2017
Chelsea Concerto, by Frances Faviell

2016
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

2015
Falling in Love, by Donna Leon

2014
Jambusters:  the story of the Women's Institute
in the Second World War
, by Julie Summers

2013
Middlemarch, by George Eliot

2012
Clover Adams:  a gilded and heartbreaking life,
by Natalie Dykstra

2011
What there is to say we have said:  the correspondence of
Eudora Welty and William Maxwell,
edited by Suzanne Marrs

2010
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

2009
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

2008
Water like a stone, by Deborah Crombie

2007
Jane and the barque of frailty, by Stephanie Barron

2006
Anyone but you, by Jennifer Crusie

2005
Cold service, by Robert B. Parker

2004
Playing with fire, by Peter Robinson

2003
Revenge of the middle-aged woman, by Elizabeth Buchan

2002
Claire Marvel, by John Burnham Schwartz


Hmmm... there's a book on this list that I had noted was wonderful, though now I don't remember anything about it, and another book on this list that might be one of my favorite books of all time. And there's a March when I read two books and a March a year later when I read 21. Twenty-one. How in the world did I manage that?

March 18, 2019

20 years of Persephones



Getting the Persephone Post in my inbox in the middle of a busy afternoon at work feels a little bit like pouring a metaphorical cup of tea as I spend a few minutes daydreaming about books and reading and those endpapers and how happy these things make me.

I just read that Persephone Books is celebrating 20 years of publishing this week.  I wish I could pop into the shop for 'smoked salmon sandwiches, cake, tea, and champagne and a rather special ‘going home’ present' but in lieu of that, I think this calls for a lovely year-long spurt of reading the ones I haven't gotten to yet. {And maybe even repainting a room in Persephone gray, but probably not.} Going to the shop, though, is still on my list. :)

Happy anniversary and congratulations!



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