Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I'm a finalist in a book-collecting contest!

I have a really exciting announcement to make!  I submitted a (sizeable) portion of my personal library to the Duke Library Book Collecting Contest, and I've just been informed that I'm a finalist!

I spent a lot of my winter break putting together my application, which included a short one-page essay - and believe me, the enforced brevity made it far more difficult! - an annotated bibliography, and an annotated wish list of five books I'd most like to add to the collection.  It took a long time, but it was a really fun experience and I learned several things in the process.

First, being a book blogger really helped.  I'm accustomed to writing about the books I read and thinking about how they relate to each other, to my research, and to my personal life.  And it was nice to look back on my past reviews to refresh my memory when writing my short paragraphs on each book.

Secondly, I was amazed to discover just how cohesive my collection is.  While I didn't submit everything I owned - the point of the contest was to pull out a set of books related to a single theme - I hadn't realized just how similar many of my books are.  It would seem that the fiction I've started preferring since I began reading classics tend to have a lot of the same themes (not to mention the same nationality).

And finally (and perhaps most usefully for my comfort with taking time away from graduate work to read fiction), I was shocked to realize how much the fiction I've been collecting connects to my research.  I'm work with 16th-century English sacred music in its context of religion, politics, and national identity, and I have a real interest in understanding how these overarching themes played out in the lives of ordinary individuals.  How do everyday people experience the communities they live in?  How did women's experience differ?  Turns out, these are the same ideas I find compelling in fiction!  My fiction and my research are extraordinarily similar despite the gap of several centuries.

Plus, I may have convinced my husband that my book-buying has had a purpose...  :-)

I don't want to say too much about my essay itself - I'm fairly sure the contest would frown on that - but I do want to share a few of the details.  My collection is titled "'It is only a question of choosing one's parish and fitting into it': The Individual Experience of Community in English Fiction."  I selected 42 of my books for this set (and could easily have added more), including Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, E. M. Delafield, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Margaret Kennedy, Vita Sackville-West, Anthony Trollope, and Mary Webb, to name a few authors.  The next step is to select a representative sample of these books and present them at the upcoming collection showing event along with the other finalists.  Oh, choices choices!

I've no idea if I've got a shot at winning, but I'm excited that I will have the chance to talk about these books to an interested audience, and perhaps convince someone to try one of my new favorite authors.  It's been a marvelous experience, one that has made me feel really confident about my ability to purchase fabulous books selectively.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: One Fine Day

One Fine DayMollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker through World War II, and throughout the war and the years following, was extraordinarily sensitive to the experiences of everyday, normal people trying to live their lives.  She immortalized these experiences through non-fiction (her column Letters from London ran for over forty years) and fiction.  My first encounter with Panter-Downes was her novel One Fine Day (1946).  After reading the marvelous reviews by Rachel and Claire, I was sold; it became one of the books I gifted to myself over winter break.  Their reviews are wonderful, very insightful, and beautifully written.  I highly recommend them, and am not sure that I have much to add for myself, other than to add that my reading of One Fine Day was less about Laura, the main character, and more about all of the other people she interacts with.

This novel takes place entirely in the course of a single day, as we readers get to know middle-class couple Laura and Stephen Marshall.  It is shortly after WWII is over and Stephen has returned home to a disintegrating house with no servants and a daughter he no longer really recognizes.  His wife is older in both body and spirits, and together they must adapt to a world that has changed.  Their life is now full of uncomfortable unfamiliarity and has an uncertain future.  With the servants all gone to factories, Laura struggles to keep up the house and garden, which in their disrepair represent the passing of an era.  But for most of the book, Laura is outside her home, meandering through the town running errands and, finally, taking some time for herself.

To my mind, One Fine Day reads like a series of character sketches.  I didn’t even realize until the end that it’s a quest narrative – one with nearly no plot.  Laura walks through the town, meeting her friends and acquaintances and reflecting on what their lives have become.  She ends up at the top of the Barrow Down, the nearby hill overlooking the town and countryside, and has an epiphany there in which she realizes that England is really at peace, that everything is going to be all right, and how astonishingly unique it is that she and Stephen are still happily married and still living in their family home, when all around her are widows, divorcing couples, and families forced to move because they can’t keep up their houses.  All of the people she encounters on this single day’s journey face different challenges, but the ultimate tone of the book is a hopeful one.