Thursday, December 18, 2014

Postal Reading Challenge: Final Links & Finishes

Okay, so I've been a terrible Challenge host over the last few months. Thanks to those who are still reading along... I've added the final linkup here below. You can add any of your postal reads that you haven't linked up, as well as your wrap-up post if you're all done. Please do comment to let me know if you made it to the level you had planned on. 

Big announcement (which I'm sure will shock no-one)... I have decided not to run this challenge next year...not that my interest in epistolary fiction has changed, but I've found that challenge host is just not the role for me. 

BUT. On to the linky bits

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Literary Gardens, Quotable Quotes

I can't believe how fast time is going... I've missed being on my own blog, and visiting anyone else's over the past month. I don't like being overly busy, or using "I'm so busy" as an excuse for anything, since I do make a conscious effort not to be too *busy* in my life. However, I've both been busy and feeling a distinct lack of blogging mojo lately...thankfully I've had two books to read in the meantime that have hit the spot of being both entertaining and easy on a scattered brain.

The first, The Writer's Garden : how gardens inspired our best-loved authors, by Jackie Bennett (and photos by Richard Hanson), is a beautiful coffee table book on the gardens of a select group of British writers. Featured are authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Jane Austen to Rudyard Kipling to Virginia Woolf -- twenty in all. Although the book is set up to include only a minimum of text on each of the writers, and does most certainly not include scandal or gossip, there is enough of interest to read as well as look at. Bennett shares a list of books written while the author was in residence alongside each garden, and updates the current status of each (many are now National Trust properties).

Imagining these writers in their gardens, building and tending their gardens, really made them feel like regular folk, concerned with dirt and bugs and blooms. I enjoyed flipping through this one, examining a different garden each time, and seeing all of the beautiful English landscapes. It features large and lovely colour photos, on good paper, and makes for a really nice reading experience.

I am really an armchair gardener; I tend to like looking at gardens much more than actually planting or tending them, and this was a perfect blend for me (as it was for some of the featured authors, who used hired gardeners and simply enjoyed the results!)

This would be an amazing book for a Christmas present for a gardener, if you are still looking for last minute picks... it should inspire throughout the winter ahead, and provide some visual relief when a reader is just so tired of all the white snow outside the window! For a more thorough review by a real reading gardener, check out Stefanie at So Many Books' thoughts.

The second read is one I received from a small press, Ulysses Press. I first heard of them when they sent me a recent book on animal mandalas that I thought was really pretty, and a great activity book for adults.

This book, though, is called Daily Zen Doodles, and it's just the thing when you're tired and suffering from brain drain at night. Each page has a simple sketch that can be coloured, or doodled on or within, allowing you to take a relaxing moment for yourself.

There is also an inspirational quote on each page, which you can read and then meditate on while you colour. I am a quote junkie -- I love a pithy sentence -- so this was my favourite thing about this book. 365 quotes! And many that weren't familiar to me. It's great because even if you do eventually colour in all of the doodles, you can still enjoy the quotes and of course your own great artwork ;) This would also be a nice Christmas gift for someone who likes to take a little quiet time for themselves -- wrap it up with a pack of nice new pencil crayons and it's a little shot of self-care all in one.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Between the Acts

Between the Acts / Virginia Woolf
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1974, c1941.
152 p.

This was another book that I read during last month's Readathon, and one that I've had to think about. Something odd happens when you spend a whole day reading many books -- the unusual, unexpected links appear between them, little things that you wouldn't notice otherwise. For example, in another book that I recently reviewed, One Foolish Heart, the main character Selina is in love with a tall, handsome blond man from the wealthy classes, but ends up marrying a stolid, dark regular kind of man. In Between the Acts, Isa is married to a wealthy, handsome blond man, and yet has a covert passion for the dark, stolid gentleman farmer down the road.

Isa Oliver is the wife of the local gentleman, Giles Oliver, and as such, is responsible for overseeing the community fete and pageant that is being held on their grounds that afternoon and evening. Woolf begins the story with the family and visitors to Pointz Hill, looking at their various relationships and behaviours. The delicate lines of expectation and resentment, of proper social behaviour as opposed to the internal desire to do something else, are all drawn just as delicately as you'd expect. Isa is the centre; all the others are connected to her in some way, and we see the faint lines of connection tugged at and shaken throughout the story.

But Woolf quickly moves into the day of the pageant. And to do so, she intersperses the original characters and their concerns with long descriptive passages, detailing the pageant as it is being acted out -- the other characters serve as audience. And this pageant is a long, long one; it aims to cover the history of England, using numerous villagers to act it out. Using this structure really brings into focus the interplay of history, culture and identity; how much does our emotional or physical reaction to events shape history, or shape ourselves, for example. It feels as if the circular structure of one act after another, and the interplay of audience between the acts, sets up echoes of meaning. And is it the large, "pageant-able" moments that make up a life of meaning, or those that come 'between the acts'?

Woolf's characters, besides those of the Olivers, are also intriguing. The pageant's director, Miss LaTrobe, is a highly keyed up woman who is trying to control and manipulate her audience's response to the various set pieces -- the key is to bring them to a certain level of appreciation so that all her efforts will be truly understood, so that the audience "gets it". To me, this rather brusque, solitary woman in charge of the entire artistic effort felt like a strong metaphor for Woolf herself (or at least, for Woolf as writer). Her focus was to finely tune all of her work, to resonate with the emotions and senses of the reader, and as we know this doesn't work with all readers.

But I found lots in it to admire, to reread and to enjoy. Woolf's focus on the interior, sense experience is still strong in this novel, even though it feels different from her other work. Her conceit, of an internal audience who is receiving and interpreting the pageant, highlights how we as the reading audience are perceiving the book as a whole. She is able to colour, to influence, our own reading of this particular book.

However, I did find that the sections that are simply pageant begin to drag on a little. They are very detailed and specific -- interesting but there are a lot of them! In an introductory note to this novel, Leonard Woolf explains that this is one of Virginia's drafts, not a final project, but the last one before she died. It seems likely she would have still polished this one up just a bit more if she could have.

Anyhow, despite any reservations, this is still a valuable book to encounter, and it is well worth reading. The images, the sensations, the specificity of the language, all make this a joy to slowly read and sink into.

Further Reading:

Reading this reminded me strongly of Margaret Atwood. There is some similarity in style when compared with this particular Woolf book. Try Atwood's Penelopiad -- while Woolf allows her rather campy pageant to sprawl out within her framing story, Atwood retells the myth of Odysseus and Penelope, complete with chorus, to us as the audience without a fictional audience as intermediary. It's another brief book with many layers to it.

In the basic setup of the storyline, that of a summer fete occuring at a country house, with various people compelled to help out, who wander to and fro sharing their thoughts during the long day, I was reminded of Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow. Though Huxley is much more satiric and funny about this situation, there are similarities in the sense of the taken-for-granted expectations of English country landowners at the time, and the general malaise of the country house inhabitants and their visitors.

Monday, October 27, 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle / Shirley Jackson
New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1991, c1962.
214 p.

This is one I just had to read, especially at this time of year. It's a spooky and wonderful story -- a tale of two sisters in a relationship that is first just a bit off... then a lot off.

Sisters Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood live in a big old house on the outskirts of a small, Steven-King-like village of hostile inhabitants. The residents don't like Constance, or Merricat for that matter -- there's a rhyme that the children repeat:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no,said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

This kind of taunting and hostility comes from fear of these Blackwood sisters: six years previously, the rest of the Blackwood family was murdered, with arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was charged with the crime, but not convicted, for lack of evidence. This hasn't stopped anyone from believing her guilty, however. The only two who escaped death were Merricat, 12 at the time, who had been sent to bed without supper (again), and Uncle Julian, who was disabled but not killed by the poisoning. He still lives with Constance and Merricat in the old Blackwood home.

Into this fragile balance comes Cousin Charles, who is convinced that there is a fortune to be had in the house. His cruel streak and his smarmy courting of Constance, trying to turn her against Uncle Julian and Merricat, both made me feel as if he was the true evil in this story. He is one nasty piece of work. But Merricat responds with equal vehemence to his behaviour.

This is a classic of New England gothic fiction. It is creepy, with mysteries and strangenesses embedded in the story. There are frightening outsiders, and violence. But it also has strong relationships and sisterly love, and an original vision, mostly based on Merricat's narration. 

I won't say too much about it, since reading it "fresh" is its own pleasure. I enjoyed this one -- it's short, and I read it all in one swoop during the recent Readathon. Reading it all at once it recommended; you can sink into this strange story and really get the feel for the characters and the ominous setting. Jackson had a particular ability to write stories like this, which are Gothic yet also maintain a sense of reality and of lightness. 

While I still prefer The Haunting of Hill House just a little bit more, I am glad I've also read this novel now, and one or the other would always be a great choice at this time of the year.

Further Reading

The Sister by Poppy Adams (published as The Behaviour of Moths in the UK) is similarly set in a creaky old family home, and features the relationship between two (older) sisters. The facts of the story only come together slowly, and so there's as much uncertainty about the true story of their past as there is in Jackson's story.

Ki Longfellow's Houdini Heart is a spooky, chilling read with a narrator whose edge of madness colours her perceptions... She tells her story from her current vantage point, alone in a room in an aging Vermont hotel, slowly filling in the truths of her tragic past. The reader will not want to put this book down until they figure out just what the heck is going on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

One Foolish Heart

One Foolish Heart / June Wilson
London: Hodder & Stoughton, c1948.
316 p.

I've had this one on the shelf forever, so decided to read it for the Readathon this year; it's also part of my Century of Books challenge. I knew I wanted to read it both because it's midcentury -- somehow I find reading from the late 40's to the 60's very odd and intriguing -- and because it covers the whole of a woman's life. I like stories that follow one character from youth to old age; sometimes they are great, sometimes not so much, but I am always interested in how it's done.

Plus, here is the first line of this novel:

It was in the autumn of 1863 that Selina was born; to be more precise, it was October 15th at three o'clock in the afternoon.

Since I dipped into it pre-Readathon to check it out, and it happened to be October 15 when I did so, I knew it was a good choice!

Anyhow, on to the book. Selina Campion is born, her mother dies, and she's brought up by a loving father, and a nursemaid, the same one who'd brought up her mother and will eventually bring up Selina's children as well. They are an English country family, and when Selina is nearly six they visit her grandfather in his home, Monksfield. For Selina, it's love at first sight -- not for her cranky grandfather but for Monksfield. And when she's 9, her grandfather dies and her father inherits. Selina moves to Monksfield and never leaves it afterward.

In order to stay at Monksfield, the one true love of her life, she has to make some hard decisions, and give up other things that she may have wanted. But her decision, once made at age 17, is never altered. The book then carries us through the remainder of Selina's life -- her marriage, her children, her distance from world events, her decisions on how to maintain and pass on Monksfield, and so forth. The book is about Monksfield and its past (and future) as much as it is about Selina herself.

One thing that I liked about the narrative was how the narrator was omniscient, looking back at this story from a current perspective. A chapter would begin with a list of what was happening in the world, but then narrow in on the individual, Selina, who was unaware of the undercurrents of world events that are so obvious to the present-day reader. It might have become a hokey effect, but it actually turned out to be quite charming overall. Selina's not always a charming person herself, but she is real, and she is definitely of her time. Her husband Paul is not so great; he has a few moments in the book in which he is shown to be a man of his times as well -- telling Selina what she can and can not do, insisting that he is the one that makes the decisions in this family, etc. It fits with the story, both in the time period in which it is set, and in the date that it was written. But as a reader today, I was irritated by Paul. Other characters, however, despite their quirks, didn't annoy me so much.

It's a sweeping story, across 80 years of a woman's life. It looks like a small, constrained life -- Selina doesn't do very much in the world but she is passionately connected to Monksfield and lets that passion shape her life. Yet in that small life, how much emotion, how much concern (and how much needlework -- Selina seems to be picking up her embroidery every five minutes in this book!) To Selina though, it is just life. As the author has one of the characters think near the end of the book:

I suppose it's like that -- you can never get far enough outside your own life to see it as a story, something that is romantic or tragic or strange. It goes along with you all the time and you don't know the pattern of it any more than you know the sound of your own voice.

This was a gentle read, a fairly straightforward one, with some nice elements; a touch of social history, some engaging characters, a beautiful Cotswolds setting, and enough dysfunction to keep it interesting! It's a light read but one that still kept me til the end, with enough quotable writing to satisfy me.

Further Reading:

For another English story focused on a motherless only child who becomes fascinated with a house, and that has elements of the war included, try Tryst by Elswyth Thane. It has the same quiet. omniscient style as this book, but with a bit more unexpected content...

If you're looking for another strong-willed child-to-girl-to-woman who is irrevocably linked to her house, read L.M. Montgomery's Pat of Silver Bush and its sequel Mistress Pat. Pat's decisions and choices in life as as controlled by Silver Bush as Selina's are by Monksfield. They are written within decades of one another, so still have some of the same tone in the telling as well.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Readathon: After Thoughts

So, I did The Readathon yesterday. And I had a great time. Honestly, it didn't feel that much different than a normal weekend, except that it went on a lot longer! I usually spend my Saturday with breakfast and tea and a few hours of reading. Then some more reading in the evening. So this was just a more sustained effort. And I was very pleasantly surprised than I was able to read until the wee hours, and made it to Hour 19.

This is how I did --

Finished 5 books!

  • Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
  • One Foolish Heart by June Wilson
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Three-Legged Horse by Ann Hood
  • After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

And started 2 more that I want to finish right away:

  • Faith Fox by Jane Gardam
  • Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

And then I ate quite healthily too, with premade good food for breakfast and lunch, lots of tea, some healthy daytime snacks....then I crashed with pizza for dinner, and chocolate with more tea throughout the evening! It was very enjoyable though.

I was also pleased that I could blog and tweet along, and both discover and rediscover other bloggers and readers. Definitely worth giving this event a try even once, so if you're on the fence about the idea of reading for 24 hours, try this sometime -- it runs both in April and October so there are regular intervals to be thinking about it. I had a great time, and got some great books in. And isn't that what it is all about!

Readathon: Packing It In Update, Hour 19

Well, kids, it's been a great Readathon. Just like previous attempts, it seems that Hour 19 is where I hit the wall. I'm too cross-eyed to keep reading, but I must say that I've really loved my hyper-focus on reading for the past 19 hours. No guilt about neglecting everything else! My husband even got in on the act this afternoon with a few hours of reading alongside me, finishing up a Pynchon novel he's been working on.

I've had fun with the reading and with all of the online updates and postings that have been going on the whole time too. What a smoothly oiled machine this 24 Hour Readathon is -- thanks to all the organizers for the massive work you've all put into it.

Here is my final update, that makes me wish I could power through another few hours even while I give in...

Title of book(s) read since last update:

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys -- completed
Faith Fox by Jane Gardam -- halfway done
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym -- just begun

Number of books read since you started:

5 completed; 4 dipped into

Pages read since last update:

121 p.

Running total of pages read since you started:

1243 p.

Amount of time spent reading since last update:

1 h 45 min

Running total of time spent reading since you started

13 h 35 min


I'm really happy that I had the chance to join in with this massive reading project once again. I just can't make it for the whole 24 hours, but this was a pretty good run for me! Looking forward to checking in with everyone tomorrow for all the recaps. Good luck to anyone still going...