One can never have too many books.

So – finally remembered to take photos of the books I procured when I visited England and then when I somehow ended up at the Friends of the Library Book Sale the other day.

Exhibit one: England trip.

(And yes: the photos are on the washing machine. It was late yesterday and that had the best light for the camera…)

From bottom to top:

* Bedfordshire – Simon Houfe. (A history of the county where I grew up in England and now am really interested in. Looks a bit *serious*, but we’ll see. Sneaked from my mum’s bookshelves.)

* Dry Rot and Daffodils: Life in a National Trust House – Mary Mackie. (A NF about one year living in a stately home in England.)

* Shadows of the Workhouse – Jennifer Worth. (NF about history and experience of kids in the workhouse.)

* The Victorians – A. N. Wilson. (NF. Self explanatory.)

* The Secret Life of Bletchley Park – Sinclair McKay. (This whole operation happened not far from where I grew up and there was always whispering about it, but nothing concrete. Til this.)

* Loving and Giving – Molly Keane. (F.)

Exhibit 2: the Book Sale haul.

From bottom to top:

* A Home-Concealed Woman: The Diaries of Magnolia Wynn LeGuin 1901-1913. The journal of the inner life of a Georgia farmwife and the life of agrarian poor. Some of the reviews mention lots of God references, so we’ll see how that goes.

* Death at the Priory: Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England – James Ruddick. (A true whodunnit in Victorian times. Swoon.)

* Plain and Simple – Sue Bender. (A lovely memoir about a woman who goes to spend time with the Amish. My copy keeps getting lent out and has a hard time finding its way back sometimes, so this is a back-up copy.)

* All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot. Yes, I know it’s old, but I have been wanting an old-ish light read for a while and I kept missing the one at the library.)

Oh, Hemingway – let me count the ways….

I had been itching to read Hemingway’s memoir-ish “A Moveable Feast” after having seen it mentioned and positively reviewed on more than one of the blogs I follow. When the library finally got it in and it was my turn, I anticipated a good read. However, it was not to be.

I just don’t like Hemingway’s writing style. Or his content. Or his misogyny.

I have read quite a bit of Hemingway through graduate school and various readings since then, so I did have an idea of how he wrote in lots of staccato sentences with alcohol, gambling, and women playing leading roles. However, for some unknown reason, I thought this time it would be different. (Definition of Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.)

I think that this topic, in different hands, would have been good – perhaps in the hands of a good travel writer or similar. There are lots of things to see and describe in the City of Light. However, with Hemingway writing and looking back over a good few years to his younger days in Paris, I was just annoyed with him and his laissez faire attitude to life and his marriage (to Hadley).

Yes, there were some lovely descriptions of Paris in the rain, in the cold… But I grew increasingly impatient with his loser lifestyle: drink, write, sleep, drink some more, have sex. (Can you say “hedonist”?) I can’t see any redeeming qualities in this life at all, and so the book lays unfinished and waiting its return to the library.

Yes, Hemingway is part of the Western canon of “literature”, but I really think that I have given him a fair try and enough is enough. Sorry, Ernie. Better luck next time.

In the meantime, learning all about the genetic history of the dog and catching up with two brothers in Ethiopa which is much more up my alley. (Or is it “down my alley”?)  (See side bar for clues.)

Catching Up Time…

Have just got my self back to being fairly human after my trans-Atlantic visit. My, I don’t remember jet lag being so tough before, so perhaps I am getting old after all. This assertion (of getting old[er]) is also supported by the fact that I was incredibly stiff after sitting in my plane seat for about 9 hours. (My knees were killing me.) However, all that to say that I had a lovely trip to Old Blighty and enjoyed seeing everyone and everything.

Now for the books:

My original thought had been that I would get loads of reading completed on holiday, both during the journey and then when we were hanging around various ports of call whilst we were there. However, this was not to be. I did manage to visit loads of wonderful bookshops and charity shops (with books in them), so all was not lost with regard to bookish-ness. I quite restrained myself in the Purchasing category, and only
bought 5 or 6 new (and new-to-me) titles so that was quite good. I could quite easily have gone crazy with the amount of titles that I found, but was trying to keep it down to reasonable levels.

Reading-wise, I finished up a couple of quite good reads, and I only classify them as “quite good” due to the fact that my timing was off and I was tired when I read them. I think in other more perfect circumstances, they would have been classified higher. Aah well. The joys of reading.

I finished up “Ms. Hempel’s Chronicles” by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (2009), a short book of inter-linked short stories (more vignettes really) about a central character, Ms. Hempel, who is a new middle school teacher. This was really well written, and it was clear that Bynum had been through the engine of graduate school creative writing. (Not that that is a bad thing, by any means, but just to say that there is a certain style that goes with that.) Additionally, several of the stories were also originally published as short stories in and of their own right and printed in prestigious literary journals. (So – yes, she definitely made a successful completion of the Grad School machine.) This had really good dialogue, and it was obvious that Bynum has had experience as a teacher because some of the situations that her central character goes through are very true to life (as least to me). I am not usually a big fan of short stories, but this book worked for me, as there was a common thread running throughout each story. A good read, but not outstanding. (But again, it may have been just the timing for me.) (Plus another one off the TBR pile.)

The other book which I finished was “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Andrey Niffennegger (2009). I kept hearing good things about this, and had enjoyed her first novel (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”), so picked this up with good hopes. I really enjoyed this, and read a good portion of it in a great bed and breakfast in Brighton and the rest on my way to London where I would, among other things, be wandering around Highgate Cemetery which is one of the main locations in the novel. Niffennegger is a visual artist, and so it’s to be expected that there will be some “artistic” things about the book. The one main artistic-y thing I truly appreciated was that at the start of each chapter, someone (the author, perhaps?) had used a really good font for the title of the chapters – a gothic ghosty sort of feel to it that really fit the story line. I love it when authors do little touches like that.

(It’s also quite humorous to me that the title is a verbal pun (in an English accent): Symmetry and Cemetery. Tee hee.

The plot revolves about two sets of twins, one set being identical twins who have moved apart, had children, and then something has occurred to make them not talk to each other for years. The other set are the identical twin daughters of one of the twins, except these two are mirror twins. So lots of twin stuff which, of course, I enjoy (being a twin myself). I do think that Niffenegger had done her research well in regard to the twin
theme, and I appreciated that.

One of the adult twins (the aunt) dies and in her will leaves the two younger mirror twins her flat in north London; however, it is only under certain conditions (which the twins obey) and by introducing the twins into the old building, it’s a chance to meet the other building inhabitants and learn how (and why) the two adult twins had behaved as they
had. It’s a bit of a convoluted story in places, and I don’t really recommend this book as a pick-up-and-put-down venture; I do think you need to have a good chunk of time to really get into the plot and learn who is who, character-wise. (It’s not like War and Peace nutty, but it can get a bit confusing if you’re sleepy!)

The plot is set in and around Highgate Cemetery, and what was particularly interesting about this was that I was actually walking around that very same cemetery for some of the time that I was reading the book and could recognize details that were mentioned in the novel. (And it was a perfect day for that: overcast, a bit chilly, a bit damp)…

In reviews of the book, I have read that this is “a haunting ghost story”, but I think that that description sells it a bit short as it is much more than that, really.  It’s more of a familial drama, with some ghosty bits put in it.

In preparation for this, Niffenegger had studied the cemetery enough to become an official guide, and this knowledge is really showcased in the novel’s descriptions (without crossing the border of becoming obnoxious of showing just how much knowledge she had.) I learned quite a bit about this Victorian cemetery from the book, and as you know, I loves me a Victorian anything.

And then the ending – goodness gracious me. What a plot twist that I actually had to read it a couple of times to make sure that I had it correct. I love HUGE twists of plot like that, so it really worked well and ended up as a satisfying read. I actually enjoyed this novel more than her earlier one.

One interesting factoid: Niffenegger was given a five million dollar advance on this book. Wow.

A good read and one more off my TBR pile. Yahoo.

And when I came back from UK and saw the remaining pages left in Peter Hessler’s China travelogue, I realized that I had had enough, got the idea, and so left that one unfinished.

Farewell Victoria – T. H. White (1933)

I had not heard of this book before, but when I saw what my Mum was proffering me from a shelf of elderly second-hand books in a market in Brighton, I was intrigued. It was about Victorians, about Queen Victoria, about changing lives and changing times… All things that I loved, so although it was not a book with which I was familiar, I bought it anyway. (Plus my mum is usually very good at picking out good books to read.)

So I started reading it when we sat down for a cup of coffee, in between tramping around Brighton’s lanes. It turned out to be a poignant and loving description of a life well lived during a time of great change. Mundy, a groom, lives in a village and works for the Master at the big house. He has grown up in a rural area and is very much attuned to the rhythms of the country side – the seasons, the natural cycle of life.

However, just as the seasons revolve and change around him, Mundy has to live in a time of rapid evolution – from a world of horse and cart to the noisy and unreliable motor car; from a time of personal pleasure to a time of pleasure engaged in public and in groups, a shift from the pronoun “I” to the pronoun “we”…

Although Mundy does nothing wrong (except perhaps to fail to adapt to progress), he gets left behind and unable to keep up his place in the modern world around him.

A sweet but sad book about the role of progress and how it can affect human life. Absolutely delightful descriptions of Victorian country life (reminiscent in many ways of Laurie Lee’s “Cider with Rosie”) and a poignant description of a man left behind as the world grows and changes around him.

It also provided a nice foil for reading “Her Fearful Symmetry” as there is a Victorian aspect to that as well.

I had not read T. H. White’s work before, although knew that he had written the Arthurian book “The Sword in the Stone” and was noted more for his Arthurian scholarship. So this was a tiny gem tucked in his backlist. Not much written about it on the web, but a gem all the same.

Packing my Bags…

Off to England tomorrow, where I plan to be busy catching up with friends and family, drinking lots of cups of tea and coffee, and refilling my Englishness supply again.

Not too sure about access to the blog over there – not bc of a lack of internet, but due to being busy doing other things.

Will report back upon my return Stateside.

Adieu for now!

Diary of a Provincial Lady – E.M. Delafield (1930)

Another book that I can’t believe I waited until now to read, despite it being on the bookshelves for at least a decade prior to this. Sigh. Still, pleasure denied can sometimes be pleasure increased. This Virago edition of A Diary of a Provincial Lady (and including three other vols as well) was absolutely exquisitely hilarious, caustic and dry. Delafield has developed a winning character with the nameless protagonist with a subversive sense of humor who writes about her everyday life in Devon between the wars.

The book is written in the format of a diary (of course), and includes such gems as this one:

“Robert, this morning, complains of insufficient breakfast.
Cannot feel that porridge, scrambled eggs, toast, marmalade, scones, brown bread and coffee give adequate grounds for this, but admit that porridge is slightly burnt…”

Almost every diary entry has a witty comment or dry observation about her life: the troubles with the all-powerful Cook, the unpredictable Mademoiselle, Robert (hubby who is usually asleep behind the newspaper), and the two children. The Provincial Lady is one character who I would LOVE to meet: she is charmingly ordinary, endearingly normal, and really funny. This is not a book that lets you put it down every now and then; every diary entry pulls you in and it is very easy to think “just one more page”…. Her ongoing financial battles, the politics of the village, the stress of finding
(and keeping) good help, the onerous Lady B…

According to Wiki, Delafield had become friends with one of the editors of a magazine called “Time and Tide”. When the editor wanted something light to fill space, Delafield agreed to think of something to write, and The Provincial Lady was born. It is quite autobiographical, according to various websites, so will have to check this when/if I can track down a biography or autobio of Delafield. The original volume of “The Diary of a
Provincial Lady” was so well received, that she went on to write The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and the Provincial Lady in Wartime, each of which covers later portions of her life (and are also hilarious as well). My edition also happened to include each of these, which was a very nice bonus.

Really truly funny read. Highly recommended.