Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top ten favorite new reads of 2013

Here we are, my ten favorite new reads of the year!  Mostly English novels, plus one that's American and one that's Japanese.  And a YA novel too - I'm definitely not the only one to be singing Elizabeth Wein's praises this year.  These are in order of when I read them, because goodness, it was hard enough picking only ten without having to rank them too!

The Constant Nymph - I Capture the Castle meets Elizabeth von Arnim meets modernist arguments about the value of music, with a beautifully-characterized family and a tragic end to an unorthodox love triangle.  I know this sounds like a ridiculous mix of literary elements, but it somehow comes together to a cohesive and awesome whole.  Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph was the bestselling English novel of its decade, but is sadly unknown today.  I highly recommend it, and you can read more of my thoughts at my original review here.






Silas Marner - I ran out of books on a trip to Chicago, and picked this one up at a Barnes and Noble so I'd have something to read on the airplane home.  I'm ever so glad I did!  Silas Marner is a beautiful, ethereal fairy tale full of Christian symbolism about a man whose life is changed by adopting a daughter.  After this first taste of George Eliot, I'm dying to get to Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, both waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.






Cluny Brown - Cluny is a plucky young lady without appropriate ideas of what's proper, so her overwhelmed uncle, a plumber, sends Cluny off into service as a Tall Parlour Maid.  We then get to follow Cluny's coming of age as well as the marital travails of the young heir to the house.  I loved this one so much that I promptly ordered my own copy after reading the library's!  An upstairs/downstairs tale, it's the perfect recommendation for anyone pining after Downton Abbey.  I've been trying out some other books by Margery Sharp, but have been sadly disappointed after the charm of this one.





The Warden - The first in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles, The Warden isn't quite so epic as the next few (or so I'm told), but this quiet story about uproar caused when the meek Anglican priest Septimus Harding is publicly criticized for his substantial income (which he spends on musical endeavors!).  The real villains in this story are the other priests, led by Hardin's son-in-law, the Archdeacon, who attempt all sorts of machinations to foil the legal proceedings.  I adore stories about noble priests, and the advantage Harding has over the Bishop of Digne in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is that while the Bishop is overwhelmingly good from start to finish, Harding really has to struggle to figure out what the right action is, and then decide whether he'll take it, for no matter which way he decides, somebody is going to be financially and emotionally harmed.  It's a tremendously moving story.

Miss Buncle’s Book - An unmarried spinster writes an anonymous novel about her village (for Barbara Buncle holds fast to the maxim "write what you know").  When her neighbors start recognizing themselves in the characters, mayhem ensues, and a surprising number of the events Barbara predicted come true.  No one will be the same, not even the author herself.  Pure fun, from the first page to the last!







Code Name Verity - The only YA book on this list, Code Name Verity is here among my favorites for good reason.  Not only is it a compelling page-turner - I finished it in one day, unable to tear away from the book despite the homework waiting - but it is a masterfully-written, haunting story of an English spy captured and tortured by Nazis.  Because Verity's diary is meant to be read by her captors, nothing is straightforward, and readers must constantly question what they know.  The second half is narrated by Verity's pilot, and the deep friendship between these two women makes up the heart of this novel.




Deep River - Four Japanese tourists in India find spiritual discoveries on the banks of the Ganges River: a man whose wife recently died of cancer, a man still haunted by his experience as a solder during the war in Burma, a man who recently survived a life-threatening illness, and a cynical woman who encounters in India a Christian man whose faith she delighted in breaking many years ago.  Like all of Shusaku Endo's books, this one is beautifully written and translated, deeply philosophical, deeply theological, and impossible to really get at first reading.  I need to read this again (and perhaps again and again) to figure out exactly what he was doing here, what vision of Christianity he was portraying, and how come this devoutly Catholic author spoke so positively of pantheism.  A really good book leaves you thinking; this one was by far the most thought-provoking novel I read all year.


The Squire - So many of my friends are having babies!  I read this book, largely the musings of an Edwardian gentlewoman expecting her fifth child, in order that I might have some idea how pregnancy and motherhood might be experienced and explained.  It is a truly lovely, introspective novel as much about mortality as it is about maternity, and it unfolds just as slowly and peacefully as Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent (one of my favorite books last year).  I was delighted to be recently given a copy from my sister, along with another of Enid Bagnold's books, The Happy Foreigner - I hope this one is as good!




The Alteration - One of two alternate universe books I read to accompany my independent study on Tudor and Jacobean England this semester.  Both books asked, "What would twentieth-century England look like if the English Reformation had never happened?"  I liked Kingsley Amis's The Alteration a LOT better than Keith Roberts' Pavane (even though Pavane is apparently a highly-lauded example of alternative science fiction).  In Amis's take, the English Reformation never happened because Martin Luther agreed to go to Rome.  Luther became Pope Germanian I, meaning that no reformation movements gathered steam.  The novel was a fascinating view of society, culture, and politics, had the European world remained Roman Catholic.  Governments remained religiously-oriented, class divisions grew even starker, and science and technology lagged to the point where the book's setting in 1970s England still feels much like the medieval period - electricity is banned, so the world is still lit by candlelight.  And oddly, apparently if the reformations never happened, Mozart wouldn't have died early, but would have gone on to write over 800 compositions, including a second Requiem!  Most of the greatness of this book is exploring the world, but the plot and characters are engaging enough.  The "alteration" in question is the decreed castration of a highly skilled boy chorister, which would enable him to keep his beautiful voice and sing for the glory of God at the pope's chapel.  When young Hubert decides he doesn't want to undergo the procedure, he finds himself in a hopeless struggle against church policy and cultural expectations.

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey's debut novel is an exquisitely-crafted and hauntingly beautiful retelling of a Russian fairy tale, in which a childless married couple longs so hard for a child that they may well have dreamed her up out of snow.  I loved the hints of magic, I loved the setting in 1920s rural Alaska, I loved the friendship that Mabel and Jack struck up with the neighboring family, and I loved the ethereal snow child Faina herself, so unearthly that conversation with her has no quotation marks, so that Faina's words themselves blend into the surrounding snow.  It's the perfect winter novel, but be aware that it's hard to put down, and hard to avoid a few tears.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Look at this thing I have made!

I'm really absurdly proud of this!  I'm far from skilled at sewing, but have hemmed enough pants this year to feel confident tackling a case for my Kindle.  This way, I can shove it in my schoolbag without worrying that it might get banged around or the screen might get scratched.  And I made it all (mostly) myself!

I made this from two layers of fabric - an old sheet and a piece of felt (for extra padding) - plus a button from my box of all the miscellaneous extra buttons from clothing that comes with a spare.  I can't claim any credit for the design; it comes from my husband.  If you want a walk-through, I'll gladly provide it, but there are so many guides for sewing Kindle cases online that it's probably easier just to look up one of those if you're interested.  Husband assures me that the button isn't annoyingly off-center, but fun in a hipster sort of way.  It's not terribly well-finished (if you look closely at the inside of the flap, you can see that the side edges are raw), but this case is perfectly functional and, I think, rather adorable.


And doesn't James Joyce look so wonderfully angsty in this screensaver?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

200 books, or, who do we read for?

Today I hit 200, as in, 200 books read in their entirety this year.  This was very exciting, and I wanted to share, and then, being an academic, I started thinking about why I wanted to share.  Why is 200 exciting - simply because it's a nice big, round number?

So now I'm thinking about the difference between quality and quantity.  My husband pointed out that this total means I finished a book more frequently than every other day all year.  Is that excessive?  Is that indicative of a failure to choose difficult, long, substantial, and therefore culturally-edifying books?  I worry that in advertising "I read 200 whole books this year!" I might be implying that I've been reading for the sake of numbers rather than content.  And yes, I can make the disclaimer that about 50 of those books were hard-core academic texts on things like political uses of Beethoven's 9th symphony or the credit-based economy of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England.  But on the other hand, is a disclaimer needed at all?  Should I give one; should I feel a need to?

Do we read for others, or for ourselves?

Why can't it be a mix of the two?  I read a lot of children's books this year - about 100 - and this was just because I wanted to, because I knew that they would be a nice break from the constant higher-level thinking I'm asked to do as a graduate student.  But at the same time, reading this children's lit provided some interesting topics of conversation throughout the year, most notably at a recent dinner party, during which we all discussed childhood favorites.  That evening even led to a personal request from one of my husband's professors for recommendations for YA fiction that would serve as a nice gift for his wife.  Reading so much children's literature has meant that I talk about it more frequently, and as it turns out, many in our society LOVE talking about which kid's or young adult books they still think about.  Reading kid's books for myself has resulted in a whole lot of opportunities for others to share their own experiences with me.

Conversely, I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy this year specifically because these books were a big deal and it seemed like everyone was raving about or criticizing them.  I wanted to know what everyone was talking about and be able to participate in discussions - and indeed, I've had a few conversations about them since.  But while I read those books for others, I unexpectedly found that they sparked my own contemplation of origins, reception histories, and incomplete consumption of related works meant to be received as a whole - ideas that have carried through into my academic scholarship.  In both of these examples, then, my reading ended up being both for me and for others.

How do we navigate the reality that our private reading has public results?  (I don't actually have any answers for this, but it's been interesting to think about.)

In the meantime, I'll choose to be excited that I read 200 books, all of which impacted me in some small way, and many of which led to really fascinating conversations.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Is my search function working?

Hello folks, I'm puzzled and hoping for some help.  Is my search function working?  It's not working for me - it just jumps down the page without actually giving me any results.  If you've got a second, could you give it a try?

Is this error just my computer?  Or is this a problem you've confronted before?  Any ideas what I should do?  I'm not all that proficient at computers or websites, but it would be nice to be able to look up my past mentions of books, especially if I didn't write a full review.

Many thanks!  And I hope you are all having a wonderfully merry Christmas (because after all, Christmas is a season which we get to celebrate until January 6!)

Also I made these brown butter orange cardamom spritz cookies, which my husband likes so much that he's hoping we'll make them a family tradition.  Just wanted to share the fun!


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Favorite re-read books of 2013

Because I did so many re-reads this year, I can't just list my favorite new books; I want to give some love to my old favorites too (and perhaps pass along a few recommendations!)  I thought this would be a little list of all of my favorites from the year, with some quick descriptions, but it turned out that I had a lot to say - so instead, I'll save my favorite new books for another post.

Favorite re-reads:

Mariel of Redwall - I must've read all of the Redwall books (those that were out anyway) about a thousand times when I was a kid - to the point where I actually had to get new paperback copies of a few because they wore out!  This one definitely went through at least one copy in my house.  Mariel of Redwall, the fourth in Brian Jacques' Redwall series, was the first (and still one of the only) to feature a female protagonist - and what a mouse she is!  Mariel is still one of the feistiest female heroines I've ever come across, and her knotted rope one of the cleverest signature weapons too!  And her friendship with Dandin was awesome; they made the greatest adventuring pair, especially in the sequel, The Bellmaker, when they didn't even have to talk to lay out their battle plans because they knew each other so well.  The best part about their friendship is that it didn't have to get romantic.  Jacques let them stay friends, and unless he clarifies in a later book, the last I've heard of them is that Mariel and Dandin went off to continue adventuring together, saving lives and fighting the baddies.  (Although in this latest reading, now that I'm an adult, I wonder if it was because Mariel broke so many of Jacques' own gender stereotypes that the author never allowed her to get married.  Hmm.)  And pirates!  And ships!  As a little girl determined to grow up to be an intrepid seafaring marine biologist, this book was completely inspirational, and is still one of my favorite ever books.  If you've never read the Redwall series, why not give it a try?  It's worth starting at the beginning, to get a feel for how Jacques' world works, and you don't have to read all 22 (I'm still working on it myself).  But make sure to read far enough that you encounter the marvelous Mariel!

I Capture the Castle - A favorite for many of us in the book-blogging world, I Capture the Castle needs little introduction (except to the poor people who've never had a chance to read it - and if you're one of them, do yourself a favor and find a copy!  I've already given away two copies of this fantastic book, and am always on the lookout for it at thrift stores so I can keep spreading its magic.)  On this re-read, I found myself struck by Dodie Smith's identity as a playwright.  This book reads like a series of scenes, with a lot less description than many books.  Which is a pity, because my very favorite moments come right at the beginning as Cassandra explores the decaying castle that is her home, and explains the dysfunctional yet loving relationships between her quirky family members.  I wish there'd been more of that.  My copy has this cover, functional yet unexciting (though I did just notice that it does perhaps have resonances with the Barbara Pym covers...next time I read it, I'll have to see whether there are any other similarities between Smith and Pym!)

The Little Prince - I think of this as a children's book mostly because I first read it as a child.  This story of an alien prince who crash-lands on earth and then tells a pilot about his adventures is simplistic in its prose but deeply philosophical in its content.  I own both my mother's (?) old English-language copy as well as the original French-language version, heavily highlighted and marked up because my high school French 3 class read it aloud in its entirety as a group project.  While I can no longer read the French, I still love that copy, especially because the phenomenal illustrations are in color.  I'm also really coveting this t-shirt from Out of Print!



Daddy Long-Legs - Jean Webster's lovely bildungsroman was on my favorites list last year too!  I picked this one up right around the end of the semester, and it was a fantastic break from writing term papers.  Here's what I wrote about it last year (for all of these observations still hold): "This is a darling gem of a book that I wish I'd found ten or fifteen years ago so that I could grow up with it. An epistolary novel (swoon!), this book is a series of letters written by orphan and would-be author Jerusha Abbott to the man who has anonymously sponsored her college education. Judy, as she decides to call herself, is spunky and thoughtful, and absolutely delighted to encounter a whole new world of education: 'I didn’t know that Henry the Eighth was married more than once or that Shelley was a poet. I didn’t know that people used to be monkeys and that the Garden of Eden was a beautiful myth. I didn’t know that R.L.S. stood for Robert Louis Stevenson or that George Eliot was a lady. I had never seen a picture of the Mona Lisa and (it’s true but you won’t believe it) I had never heard of Sherlock Holmes.' Absolutely enchanting."  It was the perfect book to re-read while I was stressing out over schoolwork, because Daddy Long-Legs is a reminder that education is a wonderful and world-opening gift.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013 in books

It’s always fun at the end of December to evaluate what I’ve read.  Reading occupies so much of my time that in a way, a look back at the books is a look back at my life for the last year.

So here's 2013 by the numbers:
Total fiction: 149 (no doubt I’ll bump that up to at least a round 150 by the very end of the year)
Total non-fiction for fun: 4
Total academic books for classes or quals: 44 (and that's just the ones that I read cover-to-cover!)
Total re-reads: 35
Total children's books: 98
Total read aloud: 1 (I do wish my husband and I had more time to read together)
Total read on my new-to-me Kindle: 57 (definitely the best 20 bucks I spent all year)
Total books read: 197 (wow!)

I did a lot more re-reading this year than last year, when I started my blog.  I'm still eager to read new-to-me recommendations (my list has swelled to over 300), but it had also been a few years now since I revisited some old favorites.  It was lovely and I don't regret any of that time - re-reading old favorites is like sinking down into a chair that has been perfectly broken-in.  Many of these re-reads were children's books, which brings me to my second observation...

I read a lot more children's books this year too, and I really do mean a LOT.  This year I revisited Redwall, Tamora Pierce's books, Dear America diaries, the Animorph series, the Madeline books, the last few books in the Artemis Fowl saga, and a whole host of miscellaneous others.  In the end, about 2/3 of all the books I read this year were children's or young adult fiction - and I don't regret any of that time either.  I spent my summer days learning Latin and studying for my upcoming qualifying exams, and I spent my fall semester reading and critiquing several entire academic books each week for my independent study.  After all that brain-work, I desperately needed enjoyable, easy books to read.  Easy, however, is only meant in the sense of the reading level.  Many of these books explore terribly difficult moral dilemmas and societal problems, like the Animorph series, which constantly forces its child protagonists to question how far they'll go to defend humanity from a war it really has no chance of winning, or Among the Hidden, which ponders differing responses to totalitarian government, or Tamora Pierce's novels, which criticize sexism, racism, animal cruelty, and marriage inequality.

Where I'm disappointed is in the lack of national variety.  Perhaps influenced by Simon (who recently completed his dissertation on English interwar middlebrow fiction – congrats!), I’ve enjoyed lot of English middle-brow books – these are good fiction, but not the canonical greats, which means they are much easier to read and enjoy.  It’s not too surprising that I read a lot of English lit, seeing as I study English music professionally and am even planning a trip to England this summer (more on that later!), but it’s perhaps a little sad that my reading horizons are so limited.  I only read a few new books that really felt like they heralded from outside of Britain, giving me a taste of a different culture (including my own American one):
  • Edith Wharton, Glimpses of the Moon and Summer (American)
  • Italo Calvino, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italian)
  • Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson (Swiss)
  • Shusaku Endo, Deep River (Japanese)
  • Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child (American)

This year, I didn't abandon any books!  Perhaps I should have, though.  There were a few books I didn't much enjoy reading, but by the time I realized this, I was over halfway through and so I struggled on to the bitter end.  Unfortunately, half of these are the aforementioned non-British books, which says to me that I really need to make some better choices.  I'd love recommendations!
  • Maureen Duffy, That’s How It Was
  • Italo Calvino, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler
  • Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson
  • Isabel Colegate, Statues in a Garden

Soon, perhaps tomorrow, I'll post a few thoughts about my favorite books of the year.  For now, let me leave you with a photo that in an odd way, illustrates my life as a graduate student perfectly!

What do you do when you have this many books to return to the
library at the end of the semester?  Build a book fort, of course!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas and children's books for December

This entire month is incredibly full of academic reading!  I'm currently finishing up my last term paper, a historiographical survey of  English Reformation musical scholarship, but when I turn that in, I'm not really on vacation, since I need to get back to studying for my doctoral qualifying exams in January.  My paper included not only a survey of over twenty musicology books, but also perusal of perhaps thirty more historical or literary books on similar genres in order to suggest further research directions.  It sounds a little overwhelming, and perhaps it has been, but at the same time, it's been quite a luxury to spend two full weeks thinking only about the English Reformation!  Here's a sample of my reading material for this project: all of these books came in for me at the library in a single day last week!


I'm one of those odd graduate students who, when confronted with a lot of reading, likes to do even more of it in my free time.  My brain is awfully full of academic thinking, so recently, I've been craving children's and young adult fiction, especially my old favorites, the science fiction and fantasy genres.  Silly me, it took me several days of longing for children's fiction but being unwilling to order it through ILL (I make those poor people work hard enough, bringing in obscure theology and history books!) before I finally remembered that we do in fact have a public library!  So here's the source of my ongoing happy dance (and much joyful, relaxing, nostalgic reading):
In case the titles are hard to see, I have the sixth through eighth books in the Artemis Fowl series (I've never read the last one, which just came out this year, and am really looking forward to it!), Tuck Everlasting, Shannon Hales's highly acclaimed Princess Academy (with thanks to Amy at Sunlit Pages for the recommendation!), Harriet the Spy, three of the Dear America diaries, Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic quartet, and Among the Hidden (the first in the Shadow Children series, which I loved as a kid but only ever managed to read a few).

And of course, it's just about to be winter break, which means it's almost time for my annual winter break Bronte novel - one can't study constantly, after all!  And since some of you lovely bloggers have been posting great seasonal recommendations, I checked out a few wintery and Christmassy books too.  Finally, I've been dying to reread The Lord of the Rings, and while it won't bother me at all to put it off until next year, I pulled out my copy just in case it caught my eye this month.
In this pile is the aforementioned LOTR, Agnes Grey (time to finally give Anne Bronte a try!), G.B. Stern's Ten Days of Christmas, a collection of George Herbert poetry, Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding (though it may not actually have much to do with Christmas; I can't recall the review), Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child (thanks to Simon for introducing this novel to us), and finally, Alice Thomas Ellis's The Inn at the Edge of the World, which Jenny at Shelf Love wrote about way back in 2011 - Jenny, it's been on my to-read list ever since and I'm delighted to read it this Christmas season!

I've actually already read a few of these children's and Christmas books - such an exciting stack of library books couldn't go untouched for long.  I hope to post a batch of short reviews soon.  In the meantime, I wonder: what are you reading this December?  Have you picked out any great seasonal books to try?  Are there some reading traditions you always stick to at this time of year?  Have you ever read anything drastically out of its season?  (I did that once - I read Jove Jansson's The Summer Book in the dead of winter, shivering under a blanket on my couch, and loved its ability to transport me to a different climate.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The nostalgia and charm of Madeline

Last night, I was between fiction books, so I pulled my old Madeline books off my to-read shelf and spent a wonderful half hour filled with charm and nostalgia.  I don't actually remember reading these books as a child, though I do vaguely remember the movie.  But I distinctly remember how much I loved them, and so many of the words and illustrations were comfortably familiar that I'm certain I read these over and over when I was very small, perhaps when I was first learning to read with my mother.  And speaking of my mother, her presence is on these pages - literally!  On the inside front covers, my mother wrote my name or my sister's name.  We owned four of the six Madeline books, and I guess my mum gave each of us half of them.  According to the names, my sister owned the first and fourth, and I got the inner two.  (My dear sister, if you ever read this, do let me know if you have any objections to my having your two!)

I don't know if these books are so defining for everyone, but for me they played a huge part in my childhood.  What beautiful illustrations, what stunning backdrops of Paris, what gorgeous colors!  Who hasn't heard the iconic first few lines, "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines"?  And what little girl doesn't identify with Madeline, the smallest of the twelve and the only named girl, who is independent-minded and adventurous, and prone to getting into trouble?

I am by no means an expert in children's literature, but I think Bemelmans really understands kids, and gives them a lot more credit than most children's authors.  There is a familiar adventure in which the girls befriend a heroic dog, but then lose her and have to search throughout the city, but there is also a story in which Madeline has to be rushed to the doctor to have her appendix out...and the story doesn't end there.  Half of the first book is about Madeline's recovery in the hospital.  When the other girls come to visit and are struck by the apparent glamour of it all, they all end up wanting their appendixes out too!  In the third book, the son of the Spanish Ambassador moves in next door, and while he fools his parents and the girls' teacher, Miss Clavel, the girls can all see that Pepito is a "Bad Hat," cruel to animals and to them.  Despite her dislike, Madeline saves the day when one of Pepito's schemes goes wrong and the boy is terribly injured (and of course, Pepito and the girls end up becoming fast friends).  The book never states it outright, but gives tremendous credence to the the girls' intuitions, not only validating the truth of their own experiences but acknowledging that sometimes, children can see things that adults cannot.

If you've never read these books, you should!  They're very short, but it's worth spending a little bit of extra time reading them so you can savor the pictures.  As for me, I've got to find the fifth and sixth books in the series - I'm insatiably curious to find out what happens to Madeline next!

Also, I have a confession to make: my choice to read the Madeline books over again wasn't entirely random.  Out of Print Clothing just came out with a new Madeline t-shirt, one I'm dying to have.

Isn't it gorgeous?  You can find it on their website, http://shop.outofprintclothing.com.  It or any other of their wonderful shirts would make a fabulous Christmas present for a bookish loved one!