Portable Magic

That's what Stephen King called books.

I enjoyed my Christmas movie spreadsheets so much (which is a thing I meant to share about here, but didn’t, so now you know,) I started making book ones. I made two separate lists, but I think since I have a couple others in mind, they’ll all just end up as individual sheets under a Book List heading.

The first is ongoing mystery series I follow. Two are probably concluded, but I added them anyway, in hopes of more and to be tidy. I’m also probably going to start two more this year: Inspector Rutledge and Commissario Brunetti. I took a screenshot of the authors, Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 10.43.59 AM
and also of how the whole thing looks. Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 10.46.18 AMThis list is alphabetical by author’s first name, since it’s largely online reading, but also from used book stores.

The second is books I am reading/wish to read this year. That’s ordered traditionally since they’re more likely to come from the library. I might make other sheets for my reference books and textbooks, and cooking and gardening books, or etc.
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I love buying books, but I have more books than shelves, currently, even though I gave away a couple hundred before our last move. It is not ever good to have more thing than places for thing. There are nine plastic bins in the basement full of books I couldn’t give up, and a couple of my bookcases are a little overcrowded.

Also, and this isn’t wholly unfortunate, I have much more reading eagerness than money, currently. So if I do buy some, they are from the used bookstore, where I trade others in for credit at the same time, only keeping books I’ll read again or that one of my daughters will want someday. This way, I spend very little, and don’t materially add to the collection.

As much as I like holding a book in my hands, and arranging them on shelves, collecting each series would take up far too much space. So I buy at full price books by nine or ten of the authors on this list for my Fire tablet, or at a discount through my Audible subscription. They take up no space, but I can enjoy them again if I like. The costs of those books range from 3.99 to 14.99, and books from the other series come from Kindle Unlimited or the library, or at a bargain price below 3.99. It’s not easy to average, but altogether with subscriptions and purchases, I spend about $30 a month currently to read whatever I like. If I need to reduce that further this year, well, we have two terrific library systems here. But reading is my favorite leisure pastime, so other cuts continue to come first.

This year, I set a goal to read at least two non-series books each week from contemporary authors, and those I’m finding strictly at the library. I’m seeking books that are not written in first person, super tired of that, and to ensure minimally good prose, I look to make sure the pages are not populated with the word “had.” I’m going to write a short review for each of them, and post them at Goodreads. They’ll encompass a broader variety of fiction, and likely include a few biographies and/or historical topics.


Quiet Girls Will Bloom

For my first “books from childhood” reminiscent post, I read Bright Island on Tuesday, and Going on Sixteen the day before. These two books feel so essential to my past, though I couldn’t have said why before, other than a vague “I related to the characters and found romance in their situations.”

This is 1513 words and an 8 minute read, according to wordcounttools.com. I read recently that the best length for a blog post is 1500 words, but I figure I'll hold future ones on this topic to 1200 or less, and they won't be as serious and "instructional," for sure.

These two books greatly differ from each other, though both are about teen girls in a past time I know mainly from watching classic films. In fact, realizing that for the first time as I read them again this week gave me pause. Bright Island is set in Maine in the late 1930s and Going On Sixteen, set in Pennsylvania, was written just after World War Two. No hint of world concerns flavor either story, but it’s impossible to read Bright Island now without wondering about it all.

In Going On Sixteen, Julie is a quiet, but well-adjusted high school freshman who lives alone with her widower father on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. She has a few friends and a fairly content life, but as she enters high school, she realizes the other girls are ready to grow up, and seem to have gained miles on her in confidence, interest in dress, and the desire to think of boys as something other than “part of the gang.” Julie’s friend Dick, who helped her father on the farm, is suddenly seen as a desirable date by her friends, and Julie feels confused and left out of their new social whirl.

In the meantime, she and her father are raising pedigreed pups destined to become show dogs, and Julie soothes her days by drawing them at play. She’s inherited her mother’s artistic talent, but it goes unnoticed by her busy hard-working father, and holds no interest for the girls at school, who’ve begun to leave her out of their chatty world, which causes her to become even more withdrawn. You know, that whole story.

We follow Julie through three years of high school and watch her develop into someone who can stand up for herself, take more ease in social situations, and share her talents with others who’ve learned to appreciate them, including her father. There’s a secret trip to the City, which in this case is Philadelphia, a school musical, dances, and several interesting events at home on the farm along the way.  In the end, Julie knows who she is and how she wants to make a start in life, and has learned more about what motivates her friends as they are also maturing to varying degrees. It’s fun to watch them all emerge as people, and it’s fun for me now to imagine how the author envisioned them taking their place in the broader world. I love the casually good-mannered world they inhabit, and details such as the kind of wall paint they’d use and how they behave at the school dance.

Bright Island is another take on the high school story altogether. First, the protagonist Thankful has grown up on an island with her parents, grandfather, and four brothers. She’s never been to school and hasn’t spent much time on the mainland. She also has a longtime male friend, Dave, who helps out on the family farm, but knows almost nothing of the world outside her home except through her mother’s excellent home school instruction. Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 10.43.30 AMThankful learns she is to attend school on the mainland and rebels against it, as it will mean being under the thumb of her supercilious sisters-in-law. And she just doesn’t want to leave the island. She has a sailboat her grandfather made for her, she works hard to prove her value to the family in the hard work she does, and she wants nothing more from her life. But to school she must go; and through a surprising circumstance, it is a school for highly privileged students.

She’s so awkward, at first no one is certain she’s up to the work, but her mother’s teaching proves itself and she earns a place in the upper class with relative ease compared to earning a comfortable place with her peers. She seeks out the sea and finds a companion there. And, inadvertently almost, she begins to make friends. The story takes place over only about ten months of Thankful’s life, but there’s a lot packed into it.

The biggest difference between this book and Going On Sixteen is the prose. Bright Island is filled with rich literary descriptions, while the other relies more on the everyday thoughts of a shy but otherwise fairly typical teenage girl. That’s not to say it’s a lesser effort. It’s a different effort. You leave Going On Sixteen feeling you’ve just walked away for a little while, and the characters’ll still be there when you get back. Bright Island has a vigor and an atmosphere to it which is harder to place in our own context, but as I said, realizing the great changes in store for the world as it stood in 1937 makes for a lot of reflection.

Both books are about isolated girls who learn to find a place for themselves in broader society. Happily, neither is forced to become something unnatural to herself, instead, she’s given the opportunity to learn how to grow in a community, fitting in and reaping the benefits of it without losing her individuality.

In this respect they are very, very of and for their time. The unique 1950s culture we’ve grown up looking back on in TV, music and films has lead many people to believe in an ideal that did not exist before the war. Pre-war culture was progressive and aggressive in attempts to shape society by smoothing the edges of the rugged individual, and giving him or her a place in a forward-thinking culture that would depend on each member doing their bit for the whole. The essential component was community. After the war, though, easy prosperity lead to a different kind of thinking; each man was the product of his own success, standing alone with his loving family crowded around with smiles and gratitude for his efforts. It would be useless to tell him he was not in fact an 1880s cowboy settling the west purely by his own grit and wit, but the product of an economy shaped by wartime innovation and military and defense contracts.

So I think about that now while reading books like Bright Island, wondering how the characters’ lives would have continued if war and sacrifice and so much abrupt change did not intervene. I wonder that too, because these authors were part of what I’m learning was a marvelous new cultural wave; women with educations and the means to do something with them. Women in this culture who wrote books for girls wanted to show their readers the choices open to them. Yes, marriage and family and a steady home when desired, but with eyes open, with an understanding of what else could be gained through education and finding your place in the community at-large. You can be yourself, but your self is so much more than you realize.

Of course, I thought about almost none of this when I was reading these books as a girl. I just loved reading about Girls of Other Eras, what they did and wore and ate and said, and I was also generally envious of their simpler quieter cultures. I still am.

This took a far different direction than I’d originally intended, so here are some notes I took while reading Going On Sixteen, which probably make no sense now. I didn’t save any from Bright Island, because I got to just reading. 20161020_100435
And I realize I wrote the descriptions somewhat obliquely, as though you intend to rush right out to find copies of your own. Well, you might do worse than trying to. Bright Island is a book I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys slice of life fiction set in the not-too-distant past. Going On Sixteen is more of a “girl book,” but it’s not remotely girly, and might be entertaining for someone interested in looking back at high school days. For the kids, ten and up.

PS: here's something I read while looking into the teen books written in this time period. It's another angle on the whole thing. But while I remember reading Seventeenth Summer, I don't remember it making the impression on me that others did. For what it's worth. I do remember reading and enjoying another Betty Cavanna book with more "teen romance," called The Boy Next Door. If I run across it, I'll read it again.
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“In reading we must become creators.”

Madeleine L'Engle said that.

And I'm off on a new project.

The first thing to understand is that my mother bought nothing new. Nearly nothing. At some point in my school career, new books were necessary to my existence, and I was allowed to own many of them, but always there were very old ones as well, from garage sales and what used to be called junk shops.

Mom went “junking,” in the early 70s, and we had a lot of interesting things around our house. 18th century farm implements, old school desks, old baskets, Depression glass, a few very old pieces of furniture, etc. A few years later, junking became known as “antiquing,” and all the prices were raised, plus, people began trying to pass off junk as antique; an absurd irony. It changed the landscape and cut out a lot of the long time participants, including my mom.

But throughout my childhood she brought me lovely little pieces of china from several areas of the world, which I collected in an antique metal trunk. I used an antique metal lunchbox in 6th grade, til other kids made fun of it. I had old dolls and other toys. And I had all those books. Besides a fairly complete collection of the 60s/70s versions of the Bobbsey Twins, I had all the Trixie Beldens, most of the Nancy Drews, Encyclopedia Brown, and lots of books from the 40s onward from the Scholastic Book Service and other low cost paperback lines from the big publishers. These books were about girls learning to navigate school and friendships, and finding out who they were. Most of them were what you’d now call “progressive,” because they showed girls figuring out how to think for themselves while still fitting into the big picture around them.

That was important for me, because I didn’t fit in anywhere. I still don’t, but I’m generally okay with that now. It’s confusing when you’re a kid, though. But these were not exactly girls like me; they were just in circumstances they had to negotiate in order to move along in their lives. And I admired them for how they did it.

The second thing to know is that while I was a highly precocious reader, alternating between Agatha Christie and Caroline Keene, and following Watergate intently all while I was in third grade, I never stopped reading kids’ books at all, just picked up more adult ones. So I can’t say if I was 7 or 11 or 14 or 38 when I read many of my favorites, though for a few, there are concrete memories to go along with them, which indicate the likely year. Also, and this sounds like a humble brag, but it isn’t, I got to reading well over 100 pages in an hour, I don’t know how much more, and so I’d just consume books like potato chips and thus have read far too many to have any idea of the scope of it all. These days, I do not let myself read so fast, though it’s still easy to get going at a ridiculous clip. Savoring is so much better than just consuming.

Today I’ve chosen five of my favorites in this narrow category to reread and share thoughts on here. I still own two of them, in ragged condition having been bought used and read many times over the years, and have ordered two of the others. I’m hoping to find the fifth one at the library, but I might order it, as well.

A Girl Called Chris by Marg Nelson, 1962
Bright Island by Mabel L Robinson, 1937 (Mabel Robinson sounds like some kind of literary hero)
Mary Jane by Dorothy Sterling, 1959 (Here is an obituary for Ms Sterling; she sounds entirely awesome.)
Going on Sixteen by Betty Cavanna, 1946 (Such interesting women these are!)
Just the Beginning by Betty Miles, 1976
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Oh, but there are just so many more! So many favorites. Thus, I’m also going to start talking about other books I read as a child and teenager, and I think it will be a good way to talk about me as a young person, which I believe will be enjoyable or interesting to most of the people who know me online.


My brother gave me the 19th century to love

I graduated from high school believing I hated English Literature. And wasn’t that fond of the Americans, in terms of what was considered classics. I was mainly stuck on Sinclair Lewis, and everyone else except Harper Lee came up short (or very, very long,) and dull. It was disappointing for someone who likes to read pretty much all the time. My brother, who was about 24 just then, told me I’d just been reading all the wrong books. He suggested, among others, Jane Austen.

I realized it’s customary on the internet to wax on about having begun reading at three, to have read Jane Eyre at age eight, and Pride and Prejudice at eleven, and therefore having been absorbed in it all from the beginning, but I didn’t begin reading until six, at eight I was reading Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, and at eleven, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Judy Blume. I read all the 1970s YA there was, and all the murder mysteries, and quite a lot of horror about child ghosts haunting old houses and wells and things.

People are just as shocked to learn I began in such a paltry way as they are to learn I have no college degree. But for me, it was not paltry. It was a young life steeped in reading what I found around me. I can assure you that in the 1970s and early 80s, no child was reading classic Regency and Victorian literature unless they had a fairly unusual set of books on their shelves at home, or a rather enlightened relative to show them the path. It was not ordinary at that particular time to stumble over Wuthering Heights, which is a book I still loathe, but that’s another topic.

Those girls read Frances Hodgson Burnett, I read Ian Fleming, in a set of cheap hard cover books Mom kept in the little bookcase with the sliding doors at the bottom. I did love Louisa May Alcott, and if I’d known how much more sickly sweet prose on the order of Eight Cousins had been written in the late 19th century, I’m sure I’d have covered it all. But I did not, until much later on.

So my brother told me to read Jane Austen. I didn’t know quite where to begin, but where I ended up first was in a tree in Loose Park in Kansas City, with a bag of almond croissants and a new copy of Emma, bought at an overpriced bookstore on the Plaza. I was captivated. And then by Pride and Prejudice, as well. I just read Emma first because I liked the cover better.

When I learned I could see a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring the divine Greer Garson, I sought it out eagerly, and was subsequently deeply disappointed. It was all wrong, strange and anachronistic and parodical. Of course Miss Garson was good in it, as was Laurence Olivier, an actor I’ve always only uncomfortably liked, but then, that too is another topic.

Later on, I learned to appreciate that 1940 adaptation as a Thing of Its Own. I learned the action was deliberately pushed forward thirty years, which explains the sets, costumes, and dances. I knew more about how movies were made in that era, and that this one was meant to follow on the heels of the hugely successful Gone With the Wind. Realizing all this, it stands well on its own terms, and even the story changes mostly make sense. There’s a long, long absurd scene near the end that keeps the movie from being a great, though highly adapted story. But I’ve made my peace with it in a way I have yet to make peace with the 2005 adaptation or any adaptation of Mansfield Park, another Jane Austen novel.

At first I loved only Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I liked, but did not love Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I wanted to like but struggled with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Persuasion just needed me to grow up a bit more before it became one of my favorite novels of all. And Emma Thompson taught me to love Sense and Sensibility by writing a perfectly edited version of it for her 1995 adaptation. Turns out there’s nothing wrong with Austen’s original version that a confident red pen couldn’t fix.  

I learned to appreciate Mansfield Park by championing Fanny Price as a worthy heroine, against people, even Jane Austen herself, who found her too good to be liked. I kept rereading it so I could defend my position, and found much more to appreciate in it.

I understand Northanger Abbey for what it is; a very well done pastiche of the gothic novels that were so popular in Austen’s own youth, but I’ll never really like it.

Eventually I read all the Brontes, but see only sister Charlotte as a literary friend. I’ve read Gaskell, Dickens, James, Trollope, who is my 19th century Sinclair Lewis—more able to be satisfied with how it all goes along, though—and quite a lot more from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. I still like morality plays only when they are accompanied by a strong dose of humor. I’ll never appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville, but I learned that when a Russian wrote the same sort of story set in the same general period of time, I usually enjoyed it. 

I like the concept of Sherlock Holmes far more than the execution.

My shelves are filled largely with Golden Age detectives and with Wodehouse, and many favorites from my youth, but there’s one set aside for Austen and Trollope. That love began with a fairly earnest recommendation from my brother, and was birthed in a big old tree in one of my favorite spots in the whole world, over thirty years ago. I’d have still discovered Louise Penny, my favorite current author, without the benefit of first reading Austen, but it’s less certain I’d have found appreciation for Joanne Harris and Margaret Atwood and a few others.

Even still, in looking over the lists of what other people consider quite important to have read, there are whole swaths I could never put checkmarks to, because I was never assigned them in 300 level literature classes or introduced to them in ways that induce my interest. There are so many people floating about loftily proclaiming a person cannot be well-read without having delved into them all. But I get the sense these are still the same people who talk of having begun reading at three and quit Mensa at nineteen, and they make my head tired. Maybe if they could convince me they also loved The Clue in the Jewel Box, Ellen Tebbits, The Summer Jenny Fell in Love, and anything by Ellen Conford or M.E. Kerr, then they could convince me my life is incomplete without having finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, but for sheer volume of books consumed they’ll never touch me, and I feel fine about that. Plus, old favorites need annual attention between discoveries of new ones. Today is a good day to read Emma again.


and very good lists they were—Very well chosen, and very neatly arranged...

Yesterday at Google Plus, +Murphy Jacobs made a very good post about the composing of book lists, setting the parameters at 30 physical books you'd bring with you on a trip through time and space. "Because you are a smart person, and it's going to be a very long trip, you decide to take 15 books you know and love, and 15 books you've wanted to read but just haven't read yet."

The lists I saw from other people were all very good and interesting, so I thought a lot about it, then spent three hours last night composing my own. I wrote them on paper, because I think better that way, then took phone pix of the pages.

If you'll recall my last blog post, I mentioned wanting to make some goals for edification. One goal is to reread some books I didn't get enough out of the first time long ago. Another is to work in a more dedicated fashion on my French, which I've been doing, then take up Italian in the fall. I'm learning the Habanera aria, just for kicks, and working very hard on eating better. But last night, I got back to my book list making. I ended up with only 12 new books to read. However, one of them is actually 7 volumes, and so I imagine that's all right.

I take book lists as seriously as Emma Woodhouse always means to. 20140422_211401
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So now I'm going to read these books. It might take the rest of the year since I won't do it all at once and have always other books to reread, and various series to follow. Probably I'll save the Proust for autumn. But I am commiting myself to posting something about each one in its turn.

Yes, I think a personal record was broken for use of the word "very." But this isn't to be edited; it's time to move on to folia, and life.


Oh, books, you know

2014 book series release dates to look forward to. There should be links but there are not. I will (no, really) add some in soon.

Flavia De Luce—Alan Bradley January 16
Sebastian St Cyr—C. S. Harris March 4
Molly Murphy—Rhys Bowen March 4
Charlotte and Thomas Pitt—Anne Perry March 25
Gaslight mysteries—Victoria Thompson May 6
Her Royal Spyness—Rhys Bowen August 5

I'm also looking forward to more from Louise Penny, my favorite current writer; head and shoulders above most of the rest (one exception is Alan Bradley, who is also a big fan of hers,) Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia series, and Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series. Raybourn has been writing stand-alone stories; I'll probably get to checking those out when they're discounted a bit. I hope there is another Captain Lacey book by Ashley Gardner (Jennifer Ashley) in the offing.

I keep meaning to have a look at Charles Finch's Charles Lenox series. He's terribly young to have written so many books, and I'm slightly jealous.  

I'm sure I've left some out. I wish Diana Gabaldon would write another Lord John Grey book, but she tends to be busy with her 1100 page Outlander cliffhangers. Oh, and Cara Black's Aimée Leduc, only up to 2010 with her.

I'm working through Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood right now. Uneven, but kinda fun. Only today I suddenly had that "must read at least back half of Gaudy Night" sensation that comes around regularly.


Tu m'enivres...

I thought I'd muse a bit about a book I read fairly often which I was enjoying last night before sleep: Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. It's the final book she wrote about the adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey, though there are a couple later short stories, and this is both good and bad. 

People say she was too in love with Lord Peter. Or they did at the time; I seem to remember Margery Allingham, who wrote Albert Campion stories, criticizing her of this. The thing is, you just can't not be in love with Lord Peter. If you like to love men, that is. (And perhaps are of a somewhat intellectual bent...) So this book, besides being a very clever story, is a summation of his mystifying and ever-so-slightly awkward glory. The first section of the book is a prologue (Prothalamion) told in epistolic (letters and diary entries) form, and just to read that without ever reading the story itself is like having really exquisite foreplay, knowing that whatever follows will supremely consummate the long time longed-for love. But then...that's it. Where else could the tale go? Yet I always wish it would just carry on and give me more.

But Dorothy L. couldn't have him, of course. She'd made him up. So she gave him to Harriet Vane, which was as close as she could get, and then began focusing on theology instead of mystery stories. 

I've done the same thing in my own stories, but I want to rework it. Initially, I wrote Jack D'Abruzzo like a brother I wished for, and when I realized I was wishing in the wrong direction, I gave him to my rather absurd fictional twin, Violet. Because you can't draw down the moon and conjur reality just by writing it all down. But it's nice to think you can come pretty close.

Il arrive toujours le moment où l'on apprend à distinguer entre embrasser et baiser...


more stuff that needs relinking

September 12, 2003

i forgot to mention the really great way Jim Kerr pronounces 'r.' it's the Scottish thing, i imagine. it makes me happy.

here are some book characters i've fallen in love with at various points in my life, and what's so special about them:

Calvin O'Keefe from A Wrinkle in Time and subsequent stories by Madeline L'Engle. he was a poor kid with a talent for basketball and math. and i loved him from the first time i read his description, when i was eight years old.

Archie Goodwin from Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout. i first read Nero Wolfe stories at about age ten, and Archie is still dreamy to me. he's Wolfe's right-hand man, a man-about-town, and has a way with words that could melt any smart girl's heart. the descriptions of him in the early books are not of my dream man, but that's okay, because Archie's inner qualities transcend the faults of light-colored hair and not-enough nose. plus, now that there's been a TV show of the stories, i can just picture him looking like Timothy Hutton, and that's a happy thing.

Mr. Knightley from Emma, by Jane Austen. he's just perfect. really. i first read Emma at the age of seventeen, and i thought how perfect the world would be if only Mr. Knightley would appear when i jumped down from the tree i was reading in at Loose Park in Kansas City. he'd be, interestingly enough, about the age i am now, but that would have done my precocious heart good then, i think. he owned land but was kind to those who worked it for him, and he was well-educated and refined, yet down-to-earth. when i learned he was going to be portrayed by Jeremy Northam i probably fainted. The Gwyneth Paltrow Emma is not perfect otherwise, but that's okay.

Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. this love followed on the heels of the previous one. he's not quite as perfect as Mr. Knightley, but he comes close. he has an inner passion that speaks to my soul, and a quiet spirit that belies the fire burning beneath the gentlemanly surface. Colin Firth was as nearly perfect to play Mr. Darcy as Mr. Darcy is for me. poor guy, i guess he's never lived that part down.

Harry Dresden from Storm Front and others in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Harry is my latest book love, as i only discovered him this summer, but i'm sure we're soul mates. Harry is a tall, lanky wizard who uses his magic for good, yet finds himself in trouble with dark forces on a regular basis. he lives in Chicago and has trouble making ends meet. if i lived in the fictional world of the Dresden Files i would sell articles, run a catering business or manage a bar if i had to, so that Harry could go on fighting the forces of darkness with no financial woes, and whenever we both had time off we'd spend it cuddled up before the fire in his basement apartment.

finally, i should put in a word for Lord Peter Wimsey, of stories by Dorothy L. Sayers. i'm not really in love with him, but holodeck possibilities definitely come to mind.