A little note to say that I’m taking a hiatus from writing about the books that I read here. I’m not sure if it’s a break, or if I’m through with my written musings — but right now I wish to concentrate on my Life During Wartime Challenge (I plan to do it for 2015, too!). I feel like I have so much to say about sustainability, frugality, making, and doing, and want to spend what time I have to write musing about those subjects.
I’m still a voracious reader (to put it mildly), and will continue to write bits about what I’m reading on twitter — I hope you’ll consider being my twitter friend!
Thanks for reading throughout the years! xoxoxoxoxo
image: Vanessa Bell’s painting, Interior with artist’s daughter, 1935-1936. ❤
Last week, I had an overwhelming desire to re-read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. ‘Tis the season, yes?
I’ve spent the last few days clutching my throat, reading wide-eyed late into the night. Although I loved the book the first time I read it, I loved it even more after another read. It was just as eerie and chilling as my first time, but the element of surprise was replaced with a superior sensation: that of wrestling with Kostova’s overarching themes. History: what and who makes it? Power. And what about scholarship — this obsession with books and chasing ideas across countries and centuries, and how it intertwines with history and the present. Evil and Good (and the grey, the blur, between). East and West. What a heady, rich stew of ideas!
The characters and settings are so well-drawn. You smell each place. You eat there. You know the characters’ habits and clothing and quirks. They become very real, and very dear.
Without giving anything away — I think the next to last chapter is one of the most mysterious, spectacular, spine tingling things ever written! The part in the not called the Rosenbach museum in the book, but actually the Rosenbach in Philadelphia if you’ve read it – !!!
Although the book was written in 2005 and takes place mostly in the early to mid 20th century, it feels much older. That’s a compliment — and speaks to the characters’ world views as well as the style. That you believe the characters have a world view is also a compliment.
Gosh I think this is a fantastic book! A new entry on my special read again and again and again and again shelf.
image: Vlad Tepes. This drawing is said to be a copy of an original drawing of him done during his lifetime. Chills!
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is one of the page turning-est, excruciatingly suspenseful books I’ve ever read. It is also one of the books most filled with minute, painstaking detail. It also made me blush. I loved it! I devoured it. It was over too quickly. Again, please.
It is after World War I and England is a different place. Fathers and sons are dead, or back from the war with no prospects and much anger. Gentility is crumbling. The middle class are going places they’ve never been before. Things are different for women — do you keep your old role or bob your hair? Things are different for everyone.
I am so moved by the way Waters shows not tells. A thousand tiny details. Reading by the dying light to save electricity, the mends mended in Frances’ underthings, red hands from too much housework. The father’s faux Jacobean furniture showing all you need to know about how he lived his life. Lillian’s fluff and feathers. The accused’s teeth.
I also appreciate my — unsureness? of the motivations and inherent goodness of every single character. The complexity is refreshing and very, very human. It’s been a week since I’ve finished the book and have been mulling over Frances and Lillian, and I still find certain of their actions inscrutable — in a good, rich, intense way. Like life. Life-like.
The book also asks some hard questions about World War I — about those who gave their lives, and those who were left to pick up the pieces. About responsibility.
It is also a book about freedom and life. Who gets to live? Who gets to live the way they wish to?
Like I said before — again, please. I know I turned the pages too quickly, my heart in my mouth. Bravo, Sarah Waters. Thank you, Sarah Waters.
At Home with Madame Chic: Becoming a Connoisseur of Daily Life — the title really does say it all. In her latest book, Jennifer L. Scott exemplifies how to revel in the art of everyday living. She’s not writing about grand dinner parties, telling you to do a $20,000 renovation of your kitchen, or pushing you to buy anything. Rather, she advocates mindfulness, appreciation, and grace whist straightening clutter, emptying the dishwasher, and gathering your loved ones for a meal. Her message is one I can get behind wholeheartedly: make your home life a priority.
Scott argues that how you do the things we think of as mundane can set the tone for how you do everything. I must say that my experience leads me to agree — I have the best days when I know things are in their place, I look presentable, I have a nutritious lunch packed and ready to go, and I’ve thought about what we’re having for dinner and know we have the ingredients in the house. I then feel centered and free to wholeheartedly engage in the work of my day, whatever it may entail. Scott outlines how you can accomplish this not by spending all your time slaving in the house, but by setting a few simple routines, having a minimal, put together wardrobe, and a good attitude. Her book is full of inspiration, tips, and tricks. There are recipes for everything from cake, a 10 item wardrobe, to homemade vinegar cleaner.
I’m a Feminist-with-a-capital-F and consider myself more concerned with what’s going on inside of people than outside, but this is very much a subject I am passionate about. I feel that we’ve lost so much as a culture by working too many hours, not breaking bread with those we care about, and treating one’s home — HOME — with all of the loaded connotations that holds — as sacred, as a sanctuary, rather than a pit stop or dumping ground. I am so happy to read a book by someone who feels the same way, and who is exploring this topic with insight and flair.
I also really like the design of this book. It’s just a little bigger than your hand, and is organized so that after you read it, you can easily flip to a section that you need at the moment. For example, I re-read the chapter on throwing a tea today because we’d like to have a tea for our student worker who is graduating in December. Scott offers such delightful ideas for making a gathering that is special and do-able. I look forward to returning to little snippets in this book again and again — just the bit I read today had me feeling calm and smiling! Thank you Jennifer Scott! I am so happy to consider you a bird of a feather 🙂
Reading Our Mutual Friend was An Experience for me — I looked forward to coming home each night so I could read. I thought about what I read throughout the day. I felt intimately connected to the characters, and sometimes had to pinch myself as a reminder that these are not actual people I know! I was so deeply involved in this book that I couldn’t bear to read anything else until I finished the last page.
There is so much to talk about with this book that I’m hardly able to say anything in this space! I find myself wishing I was one of the people who read this serialized, and had everyday people to talk about each episode with as we went through The Experience of reading it. Not only because it’s a great story with compelling characters, but the themes it ruminates on are topics we are still hashing over presently. Fantasy: talk over Our Mutual Friend at work instead of Orange is the New Black (am I the only person On Earth that watched an episode and had to turn it off. Not funny. Vulgar in a bad way. Absurd in a bad way. Frown!).
Class. Society. Money. Charity. What does it truly mean to be a lady or gentleman (the last chapter makes it clear what Dickens thinks. I hugged and kissed my cat so much after I read the last chapter!)
(And – an aside: pet peeve alert! Think before you use the word classy — as in “That bag is so classy.” No. When you use the word classy, you are actually invoking social class, particularly the British social class that Dickens is talking about — and skewering — in this book! You are implying that positive qualities are associated with the amount of money and/or status one (something) has, and not the behavior and/or inherent qualities one (something) displays. Better words? Elegant. Stylish. Well-made. Well-mannered. You get the idea. I think this replaces my former biggest pet peeve of the current usage of “curated” — but I digress).
Redemption. Dickens uses water not only as a symbol of death, but of rebirth. And it works. Both.
Lest this sound schmaltzy — it’s not. The overwhelming tone of the the book is sardonic. Dickens is so darkly funny and mocking — and weary and cynical too. The sweet and satirical come together to make SUCH a book. It’s like David Copperfield on steroids.
“And O there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And O what a bright old song it is, that O ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love that makes the world go round!”
“We are thankful to come here for rest, sir,” said Jenny. “You see, you don’t know what the rest of this place is to us; does he, Lizzie? It’s the quiet, and the air.”
“The quiet!” repeated Fledgeby, with a contemptuous turn of his head towards the City’s roar. “And the air!” with a “Poof!” at the smoke.
“Ah!” said Jenny. “But it’s so high. And you see the clouds rushing on above the narrow streets, not minding them, and you see the golden arrows pointing at the mountains in the sky from which the wind comes, and you feel as if you were dead.”
The little creature looked above her, holding up her slight transparent hand.
“How do you feel when you are dead?” asked Fledgeby, much perplexed.
“Oh, so tranquil!” cried the little creature, smiling. “Oh, so peaceful and so thankful! And you hear the people who are alive, crying, and working, and calling to one another down in the close dark streets, and you seem to pity them so! And such a chain has fallen from you, and such a strange good sorrowful happiness comes upon you!”
Her eyes fell on the old man, who, with his hands folded, quietly looked on.
“Why it was only just now,” said the little creature, pointing at him, “that I fancied I saw him come out of his grave! He toiled out at that low door so bent and worn, and then he took his breath and stood upright, and looked all round him at the sky, and the wind blew upon him, and his life down in the dark was over!—Till he was called back to life,” she added, looking round at Fledgeby with that lower look of sharpness. “Why did you call him back?”
“He was long enough coming, anyhow,” grumbled Fledgeby.
“But you are not dead, you know,” said Jenny Wren. “Get down to life!”
Mr Fledgeby seemed to think it rather a good suggestion, and with a nod turned round. As Riah followed to attend him down the stairs, the little creature called out to the Jew in a silvery tone, “Don’t be long gone. Come back, and be dead!” And still as they went down they heard the little sweet voice, more and more faintly, half calling and half singing, “Come back and be dead, Come back and be dead!”
!!! Do you know what she means? I know what she means. I want to paste this on the door of my studio ❤ Gosh, I think I may have saved the best for last. It’s official: this is my favorite Dickens.
Dickensian. What does it mean to you?
Some people think it refers to the social conditions or characters referred to in Dickens’ novels. Others would add sentiment. There was a recent Paris Review essay that spoke about the term since it was batted around so much after the release of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — Sherrill describes the various permutations of what he feels Dickensian means, and goes on to argue:
Of course, we confer a special kind of canonical status when we adjectivize an author’s name. It’s an acknowledgment that his or her work has broadened the collective cultural imagination to the point where a new way of seeing or describing the world needs to be monumentalized in language. But in time, these coinages inevitably obscure or diminish a writer’s achievement. Regardless of how sophisticated one’s sense of Dickens’s oeuvre might be, the popular use of Dickensian conjures, whether we like it or not, shivering orphans, cloying sentimentality, fortuitous coincidence, and virtue rewarded.
At the same time, and more interestingly, it delimits and cheapens the work of the alleged Dickensian. Donna Tartt does salt The Goldfinch with references to very specific Dickens novels, at which moments she might as well be proleptically writing the headlines of The Goldfinch’s reviews. But to lean on Dickensian is to deflect attention from, for instance, the horrific realism with which Tartt treats the central violent trauma of The Goldfinch, and the fallout of its psychic afterlife. In this specifically, she departs from Dickensian models, which more often than not promise recoveries and prosperity for his formerly unlucky protagonists. Dickensian denies, then, as it must, a certain amount of Tarttness.
With this, I would disagree. What Sherrill and the criticism circulating in popular culture are overlooking is the Dickensian that I, and I would argue Donna Tartt, value: the gorgeous, long sentences that almost defy grammatical sense (but never do of course). The vocabulary. The heavy description. The extreme anthropomorphization. The repetition. The perception. The darkly funny.
I daresay that when critics called her novel Dickensian, Donna Tartt did not feel her accomplishment was in any way cheapened, but rather was over the moon with happiness! Who wouldn’t be when compared with a writer they most admire?
I say, let’s not abolish these adjectival name-terms. Let’s get to the heart of them! I hereby challenge everyone to read Our Mutual Friend (or Bleak House, or Hard Times, or even Great Expectations) and then tell me what you think Dickensian means! A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist do not count (although wonderful). David Copperfield is extra credit (and a joy!). Dickensian. How would you define it?
…whose imagination was captured by Jenny Wren:
Like so many girls, Jenny Wren could sing
But a broken heart, took her soul away
Like the other girls, Jenny Wren took wing
She could see the world, and it’s foolish ways
How, we, spend our days, casting, love aside
Loosing, site of life, day, by, day
She saw poverty, breaking all the home
Wounded warriors, took her song away
But the day will come, Jenny Wren will sing
When this broken world, mends its foolish ways
Now we, spend our days, catching, up on life
All because of you, Jenny Wren
Aw, I must have something in my eye 😉 And they accuse Dickens of sentimentality 🙂
I was listening to Revolver (on Mono vinyl. I know) last night and was thinking She Said, She Said could be about Jenny Wren, too (I know what it’s like to be dead/I know how it is to be sad) but alas its about some acid trip and Peter Fonda and such.
Yes, I’m still reading, and over the moon!!!! with Our Mutual Friend.