Unplanned Plans

I had started the year without any specific reading plans or lists because I knew I was not a good one for keeping to pre-planned plans when it comes to reading. I prefer to do my reading at whim.
So, I thought it was probably futile to have one and was not quite inspired to make any.
But then something changed.
And now, I think I do have one, and it’s one that I am quite excited about and feeling rather determined (or hopeful!) to see it through.

What happened was this.
I started an Instagram account sometime in December, after discovering the delights in being able to feast my eyes on a regular dose of book porn, through the various bookstagrammers’ feed out there. I was actually amazed to find that there are so many talented book lovers (cum photographers) out there who can effortlessly make books look so desirable as objects.
Creating the account was intended to mainly facilitate my ease of accessing to these feeds on a regular basis.
But when the new year started out on an unexpectedly rough note for me, I soon found myself in desperate need for a diversion of sorts.
As it happens, there was a book challenge hosted by some bookstagrammers that was taking place for the month, called the #AtoZbookchallenge, whereby one is to post a photo a day for each of the alphabets, relating to either book titles or themes or authors that goes with the particular alphabet each day.
Preferably, it should be books that are already on one’s existing physical TBR shelves.

I thought that sounded diverting enough.

And that’s how my unplanned reading plans came to be.
Here’s the A to Z of it.

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A¬†for Ali Smith, one of my favourite writers. I have been collecting a fair few of her works and reading my way through them over the last ten years. Still a couple of unread ones on the shelves, so I guess it’s high time I pick another.

 

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B for Bennett. Arnold Bennett’s masterpiece, ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ has been sitting on my TBR shelves for long enough. Its time has come, I think.

 

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C for Charlie Connelly. Years ago, I was fascinated with Connelly’s idea for his two travel writing books – ‘And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2000 Years of British And Irish History’, and ‘Attention All Shipping: A Journey Around The Shipping Forecast’. It’s strange how both these ‘fascinating’ books are still sitting unread on my shelves after all these years. :p

 

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D for Don Quixote. The sheer size of this tome is daunting for sure, but I really do want to have a go at it. Besides, I really love this Harper Perennial edition…. French flaps and deckled edges are my favourite combinations in a book. It also helps that Edith Grossman’s translation is so very readable (from the little that I’ve sampled).

 

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E for E. M. Forster. I had this packed along with me during my trip to Italy three years ago, thinking how good it would be to read this in Florence, where the book is set. Sadly, I ended up with not much reading done, but at least it was great fun setting up this shot with my friend at the hostel we were staying at, in Florence! ūüôā Time to take care of the ‘unfinished business’ this year.

 

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F for Father Brown. G. K. Chesterton’s endearing Father Brown makes for a rather unlikely, but certainly not unlikeable, mystery solving ‘Sherlock’. I love the cover designs and colours of this Penguin Classics set. Am actually in the middle of the red one, The Wisdom of Father Brown, and I can safely say that it’s as good as it looks!

 

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G for Geert Mak. ‘In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century’ is one of the books I am quite determined to get read this year. It’s an account about the year long journey Mak took back in 1999, across the European continent in his quest to trace Europe’s twentieth century history, before the world slipped into the twenty-first.

 

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H is for my favourite travel writer, H. V. Morton. Travel writing has always been one of my favourite genres, and not many can do it as good as Morton, I’d say. His writing is evocative of the old world charm and of a bygone era, brought vividly to life for the reader. It’s a pleasure to ‘see’ the world through his lenses.

 

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I is for ‘I Capture The Castle’. I have long heard of the many good things that fellow readers love about this coming of age modern classic, but have somehow still not gotten around to reading it for myself yet. It’s about time I ‘capture this castle’ too!

 

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J is for James. “When a man has neither wife nor mistress and leads a life which is both orderly and prudent, he does not invite the conventional biographical approach. Henry James was such a man. The richness of his life lies in his words and his relationships.” – Miranda Seymour. These lovely Konemann classics should be good enough incentive to finally get me started on some Henry James. Time to get acquainted with the man through his own words, as suggested.

 

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K is for Kate O’Brien. “O’Brien exquisitely evokes the harem atmosphere of (Irish) convent life, the beauty and the silence, the bickering and the cruelties…… If novels can be music, this is a novel with perfect pitch.” ~ Clare Boylan. Having loved Antonia White’s Frost in May (another coming of age novel with a convent school setting) when I read it some years back, I have been meaning to read O’Brien’s ‘The Land of Spices’ for some time now.

 

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L for The Lost Carving: A Journey To The Heart of Making, by master woodcarver, David Esterly. “Awestruck at the sight of a Grinling Gibbons woodcarving masterpiece in a London church, Esterly chose to dedicate his life to the craft – its physical rhythms, intricate beauty, and intellectual demands.” I have been saving this on the TBR shelves, waiting for just the right moment to savour the journey. I think I should wait no more.

 

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M for The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters. Having collected a fair few of the sisters’ (Nancy, Diana, Jessica and Deborah) individual memoirs, biographies, correspondences and writings but without having read any in proper yet, maybe this would be a good place to start getting acquainted with this extraordinary family!

 

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N for Nabokov. I have decided that this will be the year I read my first Nabokov. And it’s gonna be a toss between The Luzhin Defense, and Pnin. Probbaly The Luzhin Defense….. am in the mood for some chess, I think. These Penguin Classics editions are my favourites. Such beauties to hold and behold, don’t you think?

 

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O is for Orlando. Once described as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’, this was Virginia Woolf’s¬† playfully ingenious tribute to her intimate friend and one-time lover, Vita Sackville-West. This has been biding its time on my TBR shelves for some years now. Thanks to this challenge, some of my sadly neglected books are being brought back to the fore!

 

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P is for Pollan. Michael Pollan’s ‘A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams’ tells the inspiring, insightful, and often hilarious story of Pollan’s quest to realize a room of his own – a small, wooden hut in the forest, ‘a shelter for daydreams’ – built with his own admittedly unhandy hands. It not only explores the history and meaning of all human building, but also demonstrates architecture’s unique power to give our bodies, minds and dreams a home in the world….. Don’t we all need a place like that?

 

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Q is for Q’s Legacy, by Helene Hanff. After reading and loving Hanff’s 84, Charring Cross Road some years back, I immediately went about tracking down her other works too, and was more than happy to net this omnibus of hers which holds four of her other memoirs (as well as Charring Cross Road). Q’s Legacy tells of how a library copy of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s series of lectures On The Art of Writing, became the foundation upon which her own writing career took shape. This is a tribute to her mentor whom she had never known except through the printed page.

 

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R for Rainer Maria Rilke. I was thrilled to find these two beautiful hardback Vitalis editions of Rilke’s work at what was once Kafka’s cottage but is now a books and souvenir shop along the Golden Lane in Prague, six years ago. I know I should have brought home a Kafka or two with me instead, but these happened to be in the bargain bin that day….. and I happen to prefer Rilke to Kafka, anyway. :p

 

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S is for Sarton and solitude. “May Sarton’s journal is not only rich in the love of nature, and the love of solitude. It is an honorable confession of the writer’s faults, fears, sadness and disappointments…. This is a beautiful book, wise and warm within its solitude.” ~ Eugenia Thornton. Solitude has always been a subject that is close to my heart. Can’t wait to read this.

 

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T is for A Treasury of Mark Twain. I found this lovely Folio edition in almost pristine condition at a second hand bookshop in Paris five years ago. I’m ashamed to confess that it’s still ‘almost pristine’, sitting patiently on the shelf waiting to be taken out of its slipcase to be read. Will need to rectify that soon!

 

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U is for Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages in Literary London 1910 – 1939. The seven pairs featured in this volume are H.G. & Jane Wells, Vanessa & Clive Campbell, Radclyffe Hall & Una Troubridge, Vera Brittain & George Caitlin, Katherine Mansfield & John Middleton Murry, Ottoline & Phillip Morrell, and Elizabeth von Arnim & John Francis Russell. These couples are said to have triumphantly casted off the inhibitions of the Victorian age while pursuing bohemian ideals of freedom and equality. Time to take a peek at how it’s done back then, I guess.

 

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V is for Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith. This doorstopper of a biography may look daunting, but from what I’ve read (the first two chapters), it is highly readable and a very engaging one, too. I just need to try harder to not let the other books distract and detract me from staying on course! Hoping to also get around to reading some of his letters too.

 

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W is for Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop is one of my favourite poets, and it’s time I start reading one of the many volumes of correspondence I’ve been collecting. Just realized that this photo has another three Ws that can fit the challenge too…… Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk, Deborah Mitford’s Wait For Me, and a volume of Woolf’s letters. Looks like I’m really spoilt for choice!

 

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X is for Michael Dirda’s Bound To Please: An eXtraordinary One-Volume Literary Education. Yes, I know it’s abit of a cheat but it’s the closest ‘X’ I have on my shelves. :p This lovely collection of essays were responsible for introducing me to many a great writer and their works. Dirda’s enthusiastically persuasive essays made me want to read almost every book that is recommended. A great book to dip into, but a very ‘bad’ one for the TBR shelves!

 

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Y is for Yates. “Richard Yates was acclaimed as one of the most powerful, compassionate and accomplished writers of America’s post-war generation. Whether addressing the smothered desire of suburban housewives, the white-collar despair of office workers or the heartbreak of a single mother with artistic pretensions, Yates ruthlessly examines the hopes and disappointments of ordinary people with empathy and humour.” High praise indeed, but I have to confess that it was mainly the fabulous cover that sold the book to me!

 

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And lastly, Z for Zweig. I have read and loved Stefan Zweig’s short stories and novellas, but have yet to read any of his full length novels in proper. Think I’ll start with this one. “In this haunting yet compassionate reworking of the Cinderella story, Zweig shows us the human cost of the boom and bust of capitalism. The Post Office Girl was completed during the 1930s as Zweig was driven by the Nazis into exile, and was found among his papers after his suicide in 1942.”

 

Not sure how long it will take for me to complete this A to Z reading list, being the slow reader that I am. What I do know is that right now, I’m feeling pretty enthusiastic about it, and that’s a good start!
Let’s just hope that I won’t be stuck at ‘D’ for a long, long time…….

ūüôā

The Art of Losing

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The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’

I am not¬†a good poetry reader and usually am only able to appreciate it better when it rhymes. But¬†recently, I came across two particular pieces from two different books that I was reading at the same time (Ali Smith’s Artful & Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal), that really spoke volumes to me and made me a much more appreciative reader of the art.

In Winterson’s memoir, poetry is described as the language that is powerful enough to say¬†how it is, when life gets tough. For her, it was T.S Eliot who first gave a voice to her painful teenage years.

“When I read him that day, gales battering me within and without, I didn’t want consolation; I wanted expression. I wanted to find the place where I was hurt, to locate it exactly, and to give it a mouth. Pain is very often a maimed creature without a mouth. Through the agency of the poem that is powerful enough to clarifying feelings into facts, I am no longer dumb, not speechless, not lost. Language is a finding place, not a hiding place.”

Later on though, during another major low point in her life, it was Thomas Hardy’s poetry that came to the rescue.

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrows dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon.

Never to bid goodbye,
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

(excerpt from Thomas Hardy’s, The Going)

After reading that piece of brilliance from Hardy, I have definitely found renewed¬†interest and determination in reading more Hardy, both prose and poetry. I may well be a latecomer to the beautiful art of poetry, but¬†I guess it’s¬†better late than never.

And oh,¬†just to share¬†a bit of bookish serendipity, as I was reading the Winterson memoir, Ali Smith did pop by for lunch¬†(in the book, of course!)¬†and offered some helpful advice¬†regarding¬†the affairs of the heart to Winterson. Yeah,¬†that was a nice surprise.¬†ūüôā

A Tattoo With A Twist

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The next night I tell you I’ve decided that I’ll only have a tattoo done if you choose what it’s going to be.
Right, you say, I know exactly what.
You go to your bookshelves (this is before we’re living together, before we do the most faithful act of all, mix our separate books into one library) and you take down a slim volume of Jane Austen, open it and flick through it till you find what you’re looking for.

From there, you say, to there.
I didn’t know there was an earlier Jane Austen than Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. This is from something I’ve never heard of called Jack and Alice. I read it:

{The perfect form, the beautifull face, & elegant manners of Lucy so won on the affections of Alice that when they parted, which was not till after Supper, she assured her that except her Father, Brother, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins & other relations, Lady Williams, Charles Adams & a few dozen more of particular freinds, she loved her better than almost any other person in the world.}

Okay, which bit do you want? I say.
All of it, you say, from The to world, and I’ll expect your tattooist to spell beautiful like Austen does, with two l’s, and friend like the young Austen did, with its i and its e the other way round, f r e i n and d. Or you’ll need to get yourself a new skin because nothing less will do for me if you’re so determined to have a tattoo. Okay?

All of it? I say
Lucky for you the ands are ampersands, you say.

Ali Smith, Artful.

Just so you can see why I’m loving the book.

The Loot (part 2) & A Proper Farewell to 2013

IMG_0778aIt¬†has been¬†fun¬†checking out on what bookish goodness other bloggers¬†have been¬†getting under their Christmas trees this year. And as usual, I got none under mine. Yeah, it’s kinda¬†DIY over here for me, when it comes to books. :p

Hope everyone is spending many happy book-filled hours at their own corner of the world. And as promised, here are the rest of the loot (a.k.a¬†“my Christmas presents to myself”!).

I just love this cover for Ali Smith’s Artful. Isn’t it so very ‘artfully’ done?
Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form, from ancient cave painting to 1960s cinema musicals…..¬† it also reminds readers of how great literature‚ÄĒof Shakespeare, Lawrence, Hopkins, Ovid, Plath, Rilke, and Flaubert‚ÄĒrequires them to reorient their line of vision. Nothing‚ÄĒSmith shows her reader‚ÄĒforces such reorientation more than violating conventional boundaries, often in dangerous ways. These most unlecture-like of lectures deliver the thrill of perilous border crossings.¬†

I was happy to come across a copy of Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with The Old, and although I have yet to read my copy of I Capture The Castle, I am anticipating good things from this one.

Mark Twain once said of Jane Austen, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” And then there’s George Bernard Shaw on the Bard: “With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare.”¬† This is just a taste of some of the ‘literary invective’ found compiled in Gary Dexter’s Poison Pens. Here’s one by Samuel Butler on Thomas Carlyle which I find particularly amusing,¬†“Yes it was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.” :p

On The Origin of Tepees: Why Some Ideas Spread While Others Go Extinct by Jonnie Hughes, sounded really interesting and fun, so into the bag it went.

Italo Calvino’s Why Read The Classics?¬†is a ‘posthumous collection of thirty-six literary essays that will make any fortunate reader view the old classics in a dazzling new light.’
I love to read essays, and if it happens to be on the subject of books and reading, then all the better!

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings.
“The English language is a battlefield. Since the age of Shakespeare, arguments over correct usage have been bitter; often they‚Äôve had more to do with morality, politics, and the values of the age than with language itself. Peopled with intriguing characters such as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Lenny Bruce, The Language Wars is essential reading for anyone interested in the contemporary state of the English language, its contested history, and its future.” Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor.
I have been aware of this book, and had in fact listened to part of it in¬†audiobook, some time back. The premise of the book, which¬†‘aimed to tell the history of humanity through the stories of one hundred objects made, used, venerated, or discarded by man’, sounded very intriguing, and since I couldn’t make it to the exhibit at the British Museum where these 100 objects were shown, getting the book would be the next best thing, I guess.

I have been collecting Claire Tomalin’s books over the past few years, being convinced that I would love them (even though I have yet to read one in proper!). So naturally, this copy of her take on Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life¬†had to come home with me.

The British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century by Jeremy Black “….. considers not only the standard destinations of France and Italy but also the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland and the Balkans. The modes of transport are described in detail, along with the range of accommodation, the food and drink, the pleasures and hazards of travel, ranging from sex and sensibility to debt and dysentery, as well as the effects of the French Revolution on the British tourist. Included are extensive quotes from 18th-century tourist correspondence, particularly hitherto uncited manuscript collections, to build up a vivid and frequently amusing picture of travel experience of British aristocrats on the Continent.” Another good one for doing some armchair travelling¬† √† la 18th Century style.

David St John Thomas’s Remote Britain: Landscape, People and Books¬†“…. relishes the ever-changing landscapes of Britain and the people who grow out of them.” It is described as a¬†thinking traveller’s tour of some of Britain’s most out-of-the-way places. I have his earlier volume of Journey Through Britain: Landscape, People and Books, which sounded just as promising as this one, sitting on the shelves waiting to be dipped into. I do¬†intend to get to it, sooner than later.

IMG_0782cThe Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Vare.
Isn’t that the most heavenly title, ever? I had no idea such a lovely book existed. I have never heard of the writer before, and to find such an exquisite title in the form of a Penguin Modern Classics edition (one of my all time favourite editions), was truly icing on the cake.¬† So what’s the story about? ‘A foreign bachelor living in Peking’s Chinese quarter finds himself guardian to the young daughter of an Italian railway worker……. Set against the mysterious and turbulent backdrop of Peking with its disparate inhabitants in the early twentieth century, “The Maker of Heavenly Trousers” is a charming, and at times tragic, story of love and family.’

Elaine Showalter’s¬†A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx is ‘an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to the present.’ Among the 250 women writers included here are Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O‚ÄôConnor, Toni Morrison and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Glaspell.

What Caesar Did for My Salad: Not To Mention The Earl’s Sandwich, Pavlova’s Meringue and Other Curious Stories Behind Our Favourite Food by Albert Jack.
… Albert Jack tells the strange tales behind our favourite dishes and drinks and where they come from (not to mention their unusual creators). This book is bursting with fascinating insights, characters and enough stories to entertain a hundred dinner parties.”¬†This should be a fun one!

Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love is an account of the passionate love affair between two brilliant intellects, Voltaire and the physicist Emilie du Chatelet. Their affair is said to be a meeting of both hearts and minds, bringing scandal to the French aristocracy and provoking revolutions both political and scientific with their groundbreaking work in literature, philosophy and physics.

I had been coveting John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk In The World: A Pedestrian In Paris ever since its publication a couple of years ago. Finding the one and only copy of this at the sale was therefore, pure bliss.

IMG_0794bI just love the cover of this Abacus 40th Anniversary Edition of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. I have also read many good things about Jane Gardam and have been wanting to get to this one for some time. Am really looking forward to reading ‘the book that made the stiff upper lip tremble‘.

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge is a “…. compassionate and discerning exploration of the complex relationship between the server, the served, and the world they lived in, Servants opens a window onto British society from the Edwardian period to the present.”¬†Might be a good one to dip into when Downton Abbey withdrawal symptom sets in.

I was able to also pick up two lovely Penguin English Library Editions of Trollope’s Barsetshire series (Doctor Thorne & The Last Chronicle of Barset) and one copy of¬† George Gissing’s New Grub Street. I have only read The Warden so far, and would like to continue reading the rest in the series in the right order, eventually, so picking the two Trollopes was the natural thing to do. As for Gissing, I still want to read his¬†The Odd Women first before getting to this one.

Next are the two Penguin Classics I found, Isabelle de Charri√®re’s The Nobleman and Other Romances and Dickens’ Great Expectations (yes, I am ashamed to admit that I have yet to read this great classic till now). The de Charri√®re is considered to be “the only available English translation of writings by an Enlightenment-era Dutch aristocrat, writer, composer-and woman.” And her writing is described as ‘not unlike Jane Austen’. That should be quite something to look forward to. Has anyone read her?¬†

One of my last and most unexpected find from the sale turned out to be Lara Feigel’s The Love Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in The Second World War. To see why this was such an exciting find, do take a look at Jane’s excellent review of it.

IMG_0783aI also couldn’t resist to splurge, that is if paying RM40 or the¬†equivalent of USD12 for both¬†the¬†lovely coffee table books above – Culinaria Italy and Small Towns and Villages of The World, can even be considered a splurge and not a rather wise investment, *cough*!¬†¬†The Culinaria Italy is actually much much¬†more than a coffee table book,¬†being generously and profusely illustrated with¬†spectacular photography and abundantly peppered with authentic recipes. This is¬†definitely a treat for both the mind and the palate. And the eyes too,¬†I must say.

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The cover photo on this one had me at ‘hello’. Not just because it is a lovely piece of photography in itself, but more so because it is a scene that I could recognise and relate to. I knew this place.

Alberobello. It was the last stop from my recent trip to Italy this summer just past.

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In case you were wondering how the inside of one of these ‘houses’ (known as ‘trulo’) looks like…..
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It’s really quite cosy, actually.

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Looks like this post is turning into quite a visual feast, after all the bookish talk. Well, since we are at it (and hopefully no one is complaining), I might as well share with you some of my favourite book covers from the entire loot too.

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Did I mention that I really love this cover of Ali Smith’s Artful? I have actually started reading it, and am glad to say that I’m loving what’s between the covers just as much, if not more.

 

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Aren’t these lovely, too?

And with that, I think I had better wrap up this post. But not without first wishing all you a very Happy New Year!

I know I have been quite rubbish at keeping up with this blog for most parts of this year, and my reading has also been plagued with a somewhat stuck-in-a-rut kind of feeling. It has been a very trying year for me in many personal aspects, and I have exhausted much energy in the process of learning to let go of something that has been an important part of my life for the past seven years or so, but has now taken on a different form.

And so, it has been a year of learning, of persevering, of adapting to, and of growing up. I do want to look forward to the new year with renewed hope and refreshed aspirations, though.  

Here’s to¬†2014 …… may it be¬†our best year yet! ūüôā

What April left behind …….

IMG_7417aApril came and went, but not without first leaving behind a stack of newly acquired books in its wake. As usual, my efficiency in buying books far exceeds my efficiency in reading books. And as a result, more books have been added to the already towering TBRs in this past month. If you are interested to take a peek at them, here’s a bit more on what has¬†managed to sneak¬†its way onto the stacks.

Let’s start with the latest batch bought just over the weekend at a books clearance sales. I managed to bring home the above stack for only around RM15 (that’s about 5 USD). Except for the Isak Dinesen, the rest were new and unfamiliar writers to me. But what a lovely surprise to realize what potential gems these might be!

Toru Dutt – The Diary of Mademoiselle D’Arvers¬†(translated by N. Kamala)
This is the work of the first Indian writer to have ever written a novel in French (the original version of this book). Dutt was also acknowledged to be the first Indian woman writer to have written a novel in English (Bianca or The Young Spanish Maiden). And all this accomplished in just the span of the 21 years of her short life! As much I am interested in the book, which is set in the second half of the nineteenth century France and described as ‘a novel of possibilities and limitations; of love, marriage and domesticity, and the heartaches and joys of growing up‘, I am just as interested to learn more about this talented young woman (she was a translator and poet as well) whom E.J. Thompson wrote about as “…. one of the most astonishing women that ever lived, a woman whose place is with Sappho and Emily Bronte.”

Ugo Foscolo – Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis
‘For most passengers who travel on the London Underground from Heathrow to Victoria Station, Turnham Green is only one of a number of stops on the way. But for the classically educated Italian that name immediately evokes the powerful memory and prophetic verse of one of our greatest poets. This was Ugo Foscolo, who died there, alone and completely forgotten, after harrowing torments, on the 10th September 1827, at the age of forty-nine.’
This introduction was enough to ensure that the book was coming home with me. Of course it didn’t hurt to have it come in the form of a lovely Hesperus edition, as well.

Isak Dinesen – Anecdotes on Destiny
‘These five rich, witty and magical stories from the author of Out of Africa include one of her most well-known tales, ‘Babette’s Feast’, which was made into the classic film. It tells the story of a French cook working in a puritanical Norwegian community, who treats her employers to the decadent feast of a lifetime.’
Sounds delicious, no? ūüėČ

Lindy Woodhead – War Paint: Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein – Their Lives, their Times, their Rivalry.
The title of this one got my attention as I had initially thought this was the book of the same name that has been getting good reviews around the blogs recently (the one about women artists during the war). Anyway, clearly this is not the one, but this ‘war of the cosmetic industry’ between these two women who ‘wrote their names in lipstick across the world’ sounds pretty good too!

Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song
Never heard of this one before, but this first in a trilogy (A Scots Quair) is said to be loved all over the world by readers since its first publication in 1932, and regularly voted as the favourite Scottish book of all time in its home nation. Now if that doesn’t seal the deal for you, maybe the story of ‘young Chris Guthrie who comes of age in the harsh landscape of northern Scotland, torn between her passion for the land, her duty to her family and her love of books, until the First World War begins and the landscape around her changes dramatically’, will. An introduction by my favourite Ali Smith was an added bonus. ūüôā

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And this was the stack that arrived sometime earlier in the¬†month. I think I will have to put the ‘blame’ for this stack on Vicki¬†at bibliolathas for suggesting that I might like Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank and Liane de Pougy’s My Blue Notebooks at the end of her glowing review of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. So, in order to make good of the flat rate shipping fee, of course I¬†had to bulk up the order and grab a few others as well, don’t I? (I think this is an excellent excuse for justifying some ‘guilt-free’ book buying activities!) :p

I have been keeping an eye out for Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art for some time now, ever since reading Michael Dirda’s excellent review and most convincing recommendation of the book in his volume of essays in Bound to Please, which in itself¬†gives¬†much pleasure. I recommend it highly, but would have to leave a note of warning as well, that reading the book would highly likely push your TBR stacks to dangerous levels, if they are not already so (where mine are!).

Although I have only read one of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories so far, I liked it more than enough to make me want to read more, if not all of her other stories. Am more than thrilled¬†to find¬†this collection¬†arriving in a lovely hardcover edition¬†and in great condition. Can’t wait to dip into it.

Lucinda Holdforth’s True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris¬†looks very promising as well, as the title suggests. I first got to know of this book from a review on Alex in Leeds, and have been looking forward to getting hold of it ever since. And guess what? This particular used copy came with the added surprise that it’s actually a signed copy with a short message from the writer to the¬†original owner of the book. Now if only I was called Brenda, that would have been perfect…..

After reading so many wonderful reviews of Ann Bridge’s Illyrian Spring in the past one year, I finally caved in and plonked down the money for a brand new copy of the book while making good of a 10% discount voucher from The Book Depository. I can’t seem to resist these small temptations that booksellers use as baits. They seem to know that all we need is just a little nudge in the right direction and off we go tumbling down…..

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If the above stack was mainly Vicki’s ‘fault’, then this stack here would have to be credited to Eva of A Striped Armchair. It was after reading her review of Emily Carr’s Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist that piqued my interest in her works. I had never heard of her up till then. And upon further ‘googling’ on the internet, I felt convinced that I needed to start reading and collecting her works. Maybe learning the fact that she has an old caravan named The Elephant and that she goes camping in the woods every year with just her dogs, rat and monkey for company, has something to do with it. Anyway, I’ll just¬†get myself acquainted first with Ms. Carr¬†through this journal of hers as well as her Growing Pains: An Autobiography and¬†Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings.

As¬†explained earlier with regards to maximizing the benefits on collective shipping (although in this case, it’s more for the¬†bookseller’s¬†savings rather than for me since it’s free worldwide shipping), to make up the bulk for this order I decided to also¬†drop into the basket¬†M.F.K Fisher’s The Measure of her Powers¬†and a three-in-one volume of her collected journals, correspondence and¬†short stories,¬†From the Journals of M.F.K. Fisher. I really love journals¬†and correspondences, can you tell? ūüôā

Another writer whose journals and correspondences I have been¬†(and¬†still am) in the process of collecting, is Janet Flanner. I first came across Flanner’s Paris Journals when I found a copy of it while browsing at the¬†Borders bookstore one day, when it¬†first opened here in¬†Malaysia back in 2005. I didn’t bring the book home with me that day, but her name stayed with me all these years (although in¬†the more dormant regions of my brain) and was suddenly revived back during my trip to Paris last September. I found her books in a few of the bookshops over there and would have loved to bring them home with me, but¬†I wasn’t ready to pay the 20 Euros¬†per book then (or now).¬†And so, ever since¬†coming home from the trip I have been hunting down the more affordable copies of her books over the internet. I am hoping that Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner¬†by Brenda Wineapple would make a¬†great companion reading to her journals and correspondences.

The Anita Brookner was bought from a local book sales event and was just thrown into stack¬†for presentation purposes (for this post). I have only read one Brookner (The Bay of Angels, which I had liked) so far, but have been slowly snapping up¬†whichever available copies of her books whenever I come across them at the various¬†sales. Her¬†rendering of “…. the stoic, muted lives of lonely people” appeals to me much. Maybe this is because I¬†have always considered myself to be something of a loner. But that is not to say that I do not enjoy being alone (more time for reading!). And looking at the¬†rather pathetic¬†amount of reading I seem to be able to get done lately,¬†I am clearly not getting enough time alone! :p

Anyway, I do think there is a difference between being alone and being lonely.

Okay, back to the books. Anyone here familiar with any of the above loot in particular? If so, I would love to hear what your thoughts are.
And if some of them are¬†as new to you as they are to me, I hope your interest would have been somewhat piqued after reading this. ūüėČ

Happy reading, everyone!

The Long and The Short of Muriel Spark

I have just managed to finish a novel and two of Spark’s short stories today, and hopefully will be able to write something worthy of a post here in participation of the Muriel Spark Reading Week.

The full length novel which I had picked for this Reading Week is A Far Cry From Kensington, Spark’s eighteenth novel which is considered to be one of her most liberating, liberated and meditative novels, according to Ali Smith in her introduction to my 2008 Virago edition of the book. It is also noted that the wry, calm, witty and sharp voice of Curriculum Vitae (Spark’s volume of autobiography) is very close to the voice of the narrator in A Far Cry.

Mrs Hawkins, the narrator of the story, started off as an overweight twenty nine year old widow who works in the publishing industry as a proof-reader cum editor, and lives in a shabby but decent rooming- house in Kensington. The story is told from the point of view of the narrator some thirty years down the road, as she reflects back to the time when the events that took place all those years ago.

This is a fiction about what happens when one chooses to speak the plain truth out loud and how one is to survive the consequences of that. It is also about the damage that happens to those who are taken in or convinced by, the opposite of truth. “It asks us not just to sense that we are being watched, but more to watch ourselves and like Mrs Hawkins, to be ready for change, to change our own bad habits, to put ourselves blithely to rights.” Ali Smith.

Spark’s wry humour and wit comes across clearly in passages such as these :

‘Oh, I’m all right. It’s only that you look different, if I may be personal.’
‘Yes, I’m losing weight.’
‘Oh, dear. Shall you be thin?’
‘No, only normal, I hope.’

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

‘I must say, Mrs Hawkins, you’re looking very well.’
‘Thank you, Mr Wells. I hope everything’s fine with you?’
‘Everything’s fine. And I must say, Mrs Hawkins, if you’ll pardon my saying so, you look ten years younger than the last time I saw you.’
I was twenty nine. This meant I must have looked ten years older the first time.

And here’s one of my favourite passages, where Mrs Hawkins is giving her advice to someone on the matter of enhancing a person’s concentration. This will probably strike a chord too with all you cat lovers reading this. ūüėČ

‘For concentration,’ I said, ‘you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?’
‘Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.’
So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from the lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

A Far Cry From Kensington is my third Spark novel since discovering her last year. The first had been The Girls of Slender Means followed by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, both of which I had quite enjoyed reading and listening to. Of the three, I would say that A Far Cry is thus far, the favourite of the lot for me.

As for the two short stories I just read, one is titled ‘The First Year of My Life’ and the other is ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’.

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled. I was known as the baby whom nothing and no one could make smile….. My autobiography, as I very well perceived at the time, started in the very worst year that the world had ever seen so far.

Thus, begins this creative piece of writing that combines both the elements of fact and imagination, as Spark narrates the events and her earliest memories of that first year of her life, as a baby. Here are some of examples of her ‘sparkling’ genius in weaving out a seamless narrative.

I was about ten days old when Russia stopped fighting. I tuned in to the Czar, a prisoner, with the rest of his family, since evidently the country had put him off his throne and there had been a revolution not long before I was born.

Red sheets of flame shot across the sky. It was 21st March, the fiftieth day of my life, and the German Spring Offensive had started before my morning feed.

In the fifth month of my life, I could raise my head from my pillow and hold it up. I could grasp the objects that were held out to me. Some of these things rattled and squawked. I gnawed on them to get my teeth started. ‚ÄėShe hasn‚Äôt smiled yet?‚Äô said the dreary old aunties. My mother, on the defensive, said I was probably one of those late smilers. On my wavelength Pablo Picasso was getting married and early in that month of July the Silver Wedding of King George V and Queen Mary was celebrated in joyous pomp at St Paul‚Äôs Cathedral. They drove through the streets of London with their children. Twenty-five years of domestic happiness.

As for the second short story ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, all I am going to say is that I had enjoyed the tone and setting of the narration right from the start. That is until I reached the last two lines of the story, in which Spark managed to pull the carpet from right under my feet, causing me to make a full 180 degree turn from my initial fondness for the story. And that is all I have to say, lest I spoil it for you.

All in all, while I do enjoy the experience of reading Spark’s works to a certain extent, I know I am not ready to say that I love her. Well, not yet, anyway. Maybe it’s due to the somewhat disturbing feeling that is sometimes left behind like an aftertaste, long after the pages are turned and the words have evaporated. But what I can say though, is that I am certainly looking forward to reading more of her in the months and years to come.

The Plan (or something like that….)

Looking at how my TBR pile is getting way out of control, I think it’s time I come up with a plan of some sort. I have never really had the habit of making lists of books that I plan to read, but I feel that it might be a good idea to do so now. It will¬† probably help me to have some kind of a structure whereby manageable “reading goals” can be better met, I think. So this year, here’s to giving it a try!

First In First Out or Last In First Out?

If it’s gonna be FIFO, then I should be well reading these few oldest occupants on the shelf :

  • The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
  • The Accidental by Ali Smith
  • Stiff by Mary Roach
  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton
  • Fresh-Air Fiend by Paul Theroux
  • My Sergei : A Love Story by Ekaterina Gordeeva

But if it’s LIFO (and you know how it is with current fascinations, you just can’t wait to dive into them), then this would be the stack to tackle :

  • Violet to Vita : The Letters of Violet¬† Trefussis to Vita Sackville West
  • The Secret Self : Short Stories by Women
  • In Tearing Haste : Letters Between Deborah Devonshire & Patrick Leigh Fermor
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
  • All Passion Spent by V. Sackville West
  • Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephan Benatar
  • The Reader by Ali Smith
  • On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad (bought on account of Danielle’s high praises)

And while I am deciding between the two, here’s also the ‘already-planned-to-read’ stack :

  • Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
  • The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
  • The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
  • a couple from the Bronte sisters’ collection
  • The Hound of The Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Then there’s also the ‘already-started-and-stopped-but-need -to-get-back-to’ pile :

  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
  • Three Weeks With My Brother by Nicholas Sparks & Micah Sparks
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • In Europe by Geert Mak
  • Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell

 

There are also a few tomes which I plan (& hope) to be dipping into regularly :

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  • Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker
  • Words In Air : The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell
  • Classics For Pleasure by Michael Dirda
  • Bound to Please by Michael Dirda
  • Seeing Further : The Story of Science & The Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson
  • The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

And last but not least, the stack of gems I am most looking forward to reading :

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  • The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
  • Prague Tales by Jan Neruda (already started)
  • Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (highly recommended by Stuck in A Book’s Simon)
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
  • The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner (already started)
  • I’ll Stand By You : Letters by Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland
  • In Tearing Haste : Letters Between Deborah Devonshire & Patrick Leigh Fermor
  • Wait For Me by Deborah Devonshire

Just realised there’s two of them (The Odd Women & In Tearing Haste) which had appeared in one of the earlier stacks too. Guess this makes them definite must-reads, no? ūüėČ

So¬†there you have it, that’s the plan ……for now.