Thursday, April 25, 2013


Despite hearing good things about it, I'd never read any of Emma Donoghue's work, largely because the subject matter of her most well known novel, Room, seemed too harrowing for my taste. Then I picked up the short story collection Astray and got my first taste of her writing.

All of the stories in the collection deal with the theme of being unmoored in some way. Each is centered around characters who are about to leave their homes, in transit between two places, or just arriving somewhere new. They're all short works of historical fiction, set in time periods that span from the 1600s to the 1960s. Donoghue's brand of historical fiction takes the phrase a bit more literally than some authors might. She doesn't just pepper her stories with period details of a specific time and place, but basis the circumstances of each of her stories on events that actually transpired. She follows each story with a short explanation of the historical facts that inspired it. In some cases, it's a fairly well known incident involving famous figures like P.T. Barnum or Charles Dickens. In others, it's a piece of local news that was unearthed by some obscure historical record or newspaper clipping. In all cases, it's clear that Donoghue has a passion for digging through history. The stories she creates from her findings give new life to all but forgotten bits of the past.

The opening story, "Man and Boy", is my personal favorite in the book. Its first few pages are quite disconcerting, with the narrator addressing the reader in the second person. Slowing you realize that the narrator is the elephant keeper at a London zoo, and the "you" he's addressing is his charge. A surprisingly touching story unfolds as the one-sided dialogue--relatable to any pet owner--reveals the affectionate bond that exists between the elephant and the keeper, who's an otherwise hardened curmudgeon. Most of the stories in Astray provide interesting reading, and I'd highly recommend this one if you only have time for one or two of them.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Today the award for favorite recently baked treat goes to Heidi Swanson's oatcakes, from her cookbook Super Natural Everyday. According to what Swanson writes in the recipe, oatcakes are apparently quite common in San Francisco bakeries. Although they look like muffins, their texture is closer to that of an oatmeal cookie. Their slightly sweet flavor and interesting texture perfectly compliment one another, and they're just healthy enough to justify eating them for breakfast. 

This is a must-try recipe (and it looks like you can find it here). 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Little Folly

Going into A Little Folly, the Regency era novel by Jude Morgan, I thought the book could go either way for me based on the fact that it's drawn comparisons to both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Obviously I love the former, but the only novel I read by the latter didn't necessarily leave me clamouring for more. Then I read the opening sentence of A Little Folly and was reassured. "Sir Clement Carnell's ruling passing, until the very last moment of his life, was his passion for ruling" sets a tone of gentle, ironic social observation and commentary that's very much in the vein of Austen herself.

As the start of the novel, Sir Clement Carnell has just died. During his life he was strict to the point of cruelty, closely controlling every aspect of the lives of his son and daughter, Valentine and Louisa. Now, at their own disposal for the first time, the siblings decide to start to "live life". Small acts of independence, like removing an ugly screen from the sitting room, soon lead to bigger ones, like rekindling relations with London relatives who were estranged from Sir Clement and, eventually, making an extended visit to London, where they quickly become swept up in the bustling social scene. Although both siblings are equally inexperienced, Louisa is the more cautious and sensible of the two, and she soon begins to realize that some of the "little follies" she and Valentine have caused have the potential to permanently harm their social standing.
The strength of this novel seems to be the way in which it makes nod to elements from predecessors like Austen's novels, but takes those elements in new directions that feel fresh, not predictable. This is especially true when it comes to romantic entanglements. Present among the cast of characters is the Carnell's stern and aloof neighbor, who also happens to be handsome and wealthy; Valentine's slightly older best friend, who exudes good sense and sarcastic humor; and a brooding but charming solider. It's not surprise that all three are set up as potential matches for Louisa. What is surprising is that I had a hard time predicting which one would prevail until at least about two-thirds of the way through the story. Morgan (which is actually the nom de plume of Tim Wilson!) certainly seems to know how to craft an intriguing romantic plot.
Are you a fan of Regency novels? Have you read anything by Jude Morgan?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday Fancies

I've been uninspired to do Friday posts for the past couple of weeks. I'm tempted to blame the arrival of spring and the extra hours of light for making me want to spend as little time as possible looking at a computer screen, but I'm pretty sure I've said the same thing about summer, fall, and winter at one time or another. Instead, I'll just try to beat the blahs with this group of links that I've collected over the past few weeks.

(image via here)

This food and literature blog is worth a look. (Thanks for the tip, Lara!)

A cute article and video about Etsy's dog-friendly office.

These Jane Austen postcards look pretty enough to frame.

A collection of covers of The Great Gatsby

On a related yet entirely different note, here's what happens when The Great Gatsby meets Arrested Development

And I'm not sure I've ever linked to a funny animal video before, but this one is kind of worth it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Backward Glance

Edith Wharton's autobiography, A Backward Glance, couldn't be more aptly named. While many biographies can be said to offer a long, close stare at a particular subject, this one truly is just a glance. Wharton doesn't try to present the full story of her life. Instead, she compiles a (not always chronological) collection of memories, and can often be found saying something along the lines of, "I won't go into detail about...." this or that part of her life. This kind of cursory treatment isn't without its problems. It tends to be a bit uneven, and much of the middle third of the book gets bogged down with anecdotes about her various acquaintances. This is interesting when the person in question is Henry James, but less so when she goes into detail about people who are no longer commonly known figures. She also barely alludes to her separation from her husband, an aspect of her life I would have been interested in hearing more about. These are minor quibbles, though, and can be easily remedied by reading a more comprehensive, impartial biography of Wharton. On the whole, I think A Backward Glance is an interesting read for anyone who has enjoyed Wharton's books and knows a bit about her life already.

In the spirit of Wharton's meandering style of reminiscing, the following is a random collection of some of the more interesting facts I learned from the book, along with a couple of quotes that I thought were particular gems.

Wharton opens the book with her philosophy on aging, which is that "in spite of illness, in spite even of the arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways".

Wharton's famous home, The Mount, was named after the country home owned by her great-grandfather, located in what is now...Astoria, Queens!

One of the biggest influences throughout Wharton's life was the long stretch of her childhood years that her family spent living abroad, a situation that was brought about as a way to economize after American currency depreciation after the Civil War.

Wharton's parents weren't particularly literary or intellectual themselves, but they did stress proper English usage to their children and didn't allow them to read children's books by authors who used "bad" English (including books by Louisa May Alcott!). Knowing this, it's easy to see how an emphasis on precise language choice shows itself in Wharton's novels.

And finally, the importance Wharton places on finding pleasure in the small things in life is one of the biggest themes that recurs through the book. She closes her memoir with a quote that eloquently revisits her opening theme: "Life is the saddest thing there is next to death; yet there are always new countries to see, new books to read, a thousand little daily wonders to marvel and rejoice in".

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jane and Prudence

It's been nearly two weeks since I finished Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym and I've been dragging my feet about blogging about it ever since, not because I didn't love the book, but because I can't think of much to say about it that isn't just a glowing reiteration of the warmth and wit of Pym's writing. I liked it so much that--just like with novels by Jane Austen, to whom Pym is often compared--I don't want to impinge on my pure enjoyment of them by thinking too critically about things like theme or character development. So instead of any groundbreaking insights, you'll have to settle for a quick description of the main characters and one of my favorite moments from the novel.

Jane and Prudence are a pair of intelligent, well educated women who met at Oxford when Prudence, a student, was tutored by Jane, a slightly older graduate, and have kept up their friendship ever since. When we meet them in the novel, Jane is married to a vicar and has a grown daughter just starting her own first year at Oxford. Prudence, now 29, lives in London, working as a research assistant to an academic and flitting from one misguided romance to another.  It can be argued that neither one is especially well served by her lofty education in her current life. Prudence's dull job only interests her as a means of spending time in the vicinity of a boss with whom she fancies herself to be in love. Her stylish appearance, her cozy apartment, and her ability to entertain are greater sources of pride and importance in her life. Jane, for her part, couldn't be more unsuited for the role of a vicar's wife. Dreamy, given to flights of imagination, and slightly socially awkward, Jane is more likely to be seen quoting the poets she studied as a student than fitting into the activities of her husband's parish. A series of minor but engrossing dramas ensue when both women make attempts to find an ideal husband for Prudence.

Now, for the favorite moment I alluded to, which is actually a scene that has no direct bearing on either Jane or Prudence, but refers back to some characters from Excellent Women. In that novel, the ultimate fate of main character Mildred Lathbury is left slightly open to interpretation. During one scene in Jane and Prudence, an acquaintance of Jane's recounts the gossip from a letter she's received. She asks Jane something along the lines of, "And remember So-and-So's sweet little friend Miss Lathbury?", and then proceeds to give news of Mildred that clears up any lingering questions from Excellent Women. I was so delighted when I discovered that Pym had her novels talking to each other in this way. Although I've only read three of her works so far, I'm starting to suspect that collectively they're the literary equivalent of a small English village, with familiar faces popping up where you least expect them. Because of this, I've decided to read the rest of her novels in the order in which they were written, which means that Civil to Strangers will have to be next on my list.

P.S. Pym fans- has anyone heard anything about this Barbara Pym cookbook?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book Sale Recap, Part 2

As promised, here's the recap of the hardcover books I found at the book sale:

First there's Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen and an edition that combines two of Elizabeth Gaskell's works, Cranford, which I already own, and Sylvia's Lovers, which I hadn't heard of before and made it worth the purchase.

Then I couldn't help but get a copy of Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, plus a collection of some of his other writings. Although I had mixed feelings when I recently read Essays of Elia, to a certain extent I feel a kind of obligation to be a proponent of his work in whatever little way I can.

A copy of When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne was too sweet to pass up (especially for the price of $0.25!).

And finally, I have a soft spot for used books that have inscriptions written in them and I found two at the sale. The first was in a pretty edition of Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour, a collection of stories by Vita Sackville West, which was dedicated to Edgar Park from his wife in 1932.

The second inscribed copy was a colorful and highly illustrated edition of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.

Although it's not really a book I'd be interested in in its own right, the 1953 Christmas gift inscription from a mother to her son in Uppsala, Sweden just appealed to me.

The fact that it was one of the final days of the sale also meant that it was half price day. My grand total was 24 books for just $21.75! 

Needless to say, I was pretty happy with my book loot. Don't let the small size of the bags fool you--my arms were about to break off!

I'll definitely be looking to make this an annual event in years to come.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Book Sale Recap, Part 1

As I alluded to last week, I spent one of my days off from work paying a visit to the largest and longest running book sale on the East Coast.

Not only is it the largest used book sale, but it turns out that it's also one with a really interesting history. Begun in 1931, the Bryn Mawr-Wellesely Book Sale started as a way to raise scholarship money to help girls attend college during the Great Depression. The tradition continues on today with alumnae from both schools running the sale and donating proceeds to their respective scholarship funds. It's a week long event that's held at a fancy day school in Princeton, NJ. 

I took it as a good omen when I saw this statue outside the school building on the way in.

Filling two large rooms, the sale was well organized and, surprisingly, fairly empty, which translated into about two hours worth of leisurely but intense browsing.

I can't help but be struck by the fact that so many of the books I found at the sale were ones I may not have even noticed if it hadn't been for reading other book blogs and discovering some of the lesser known authors who are now among my favorites. The treasures I came away with included a bunch of vintage orange Penguins, Virago classics, and even a Persephone edition. Here's the full recap:

There were a lot of Penguins to be had and my selections included the nonfiction books A Narrow Street by Elliot Paul and One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens, which I was thrilled to find after recently finishing her wonderful novel Mariana. The novels in the group included The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh, Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, and Girl with Green Eyes by Edna O'Brien.

For the times when I want to get lost in a really fat novel, I picked up Camilla by Fanny Burney as well as two titles from Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Although I've yet to read anything by Trollope, I have a copy of The Warden waiting on my shelf and have a sneaking suspicion I"m going to want to continue on with his works.

Even though it's not the most attractive edition, I couldn't pass up owning a copy of Olivia Manning's The Balkan Trilogy after enjoying it last year. I was even more excited to find another out of print novel by Manning called The Play Room and, of course, didn't even stop to read the title when I saw the signature grey of a Persephone edition--it went right into my bag. (Turns out it was An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43, who is described as an adult counterpart to Anne Frank.)

Then there was an early novel by Booth Tarkington, two Muriel Spark novels, books by Rosamond Lehmann, E.M. Delafield, and Anita Brookner (none of whom I've read, but all of whom I've heard great things about), and another addition for my growing Barbara Pym collection

And those are just the paperbacks! Check back tomorrow for a look at the hardcover editions I found.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad was an easy addition to my Classics Club reading list. I had liked it when I originally read it for a British Modernism class in college, but I couldn't remember exactly why. I was interested in revisiting it to see if my first impressions held up. Now that I've finished it for a second time, I'd say it's the kind of book that's improved upon by an interesting class or group discussion, and one that can be appreciated more than enjoyed.

Title character Adolf Verloc, proprietor of a shabby and shady London shop, is employed as a secret agent by a foreign government. Although certain members of the British police have knowledge of Verloc's allegiances, they turn a blind eye to them and ostensibly accept his nondescript existence and placid home life that revolves around his wife, Winnie, who is devoted to Verloc because he unquestioningly provides for her mother and her mentally disabled brother, Stevie. After years of quietly observing and reporting on the revolutionaries and anarchists that he involves himself with, Verloc is suddenly called to the foreign embassy that employs him, where his contact urges him to spearhead an act of terror that will shake the British public to its core. Shortly after this, we learn that a bomb has been set off at the Greenwich Observatory, claiming the perpetrator as its victim.

Up to this point, the story is pretty slow moving, largely comprised of long, obliquely veiled conversations between various combinations of revolutionaries, police officials, dignitaries, and politicians. Intended to set the backdrop of Verloc's secret world, they feel a bit endless, interesting only when Conrad throws in little gems of character descriptions, like "a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer". These moments were few and far between, however, and the first half of the novel left me puzzled as to what I had originally liked about it. Then, once the bombing occurs, the pacing of the plot tightens and suspense quickly builds. Through the eyes of various parties, beginning with the police, we start to piece together what actually happened, coming to realize that Verloc's act of terrorism will actually have greater repercussions within the private sphere of his family than for the public at large. These events, and the issues and themes that they raise, are thought provoking enough to make the first half of the book worth slogging through, but only just barely.

And to end on a very frivolous note, I actually discovered a connection between The Secret Agent and the movie Bridget Jones's Diary. The bibliography in the back of my copy suggests a book by the critic F.R. Leavis as further reading. This name rang a bell when I randomly glanced at it. After thinking a minute, I realized that F.R. Leavis is the (long dead) critic who Bridget pretends to be talking to on the phone at work when Daniel Cleaver catches her in the middle of a personal call. File that away in your store of romantic comedy trivia!


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