The Joy of Letters

A lovely tender-hearted letter from you to me, from Rome, once the capital of the world and still capital of the Danesi ladies, came to me this last week. What joy. Bless the inventor of writing, be he Chaldean, Arab, or stone-cutter from prehistoric, shapeless scribes without known geography. By words we can write thoughts, we can write loves, hates, hopes, angers, memories, hungers of the soul and senses and make plans for a future.

Janet Flanner, ‘Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend’

 

I have always loved the idea of letters, be it in the writing or in the receiving of one. Sadly though, both these activities are scarcely happening nowadays (for me, that is.)

I just learned recently that February happens to be the official month of letters, and so was kind of inspired to read some, at least (yeah, I love reading other people’s letters!) :p
Do you?

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A mishmash of recent readings

IMG_7423aIt’s been quite a while since I last finished a whole proper book, the last one being Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy, which I did enjoy for the most parts of it (the boarding school setting, the coming of age tale, a murder mystery). I was just a bit let down with the last quarter of the book, especially with the character development of the main narrator of the story. Anyway, although it does look like I have nothing much to show for (in terms of completed books), I have however, been enjoying a very satisfying time dipping into a number of different (yet related in some ways) books at the same time.

I was really excited to dip into Women on the Left Bank and wasted no time diving into it. But I didn’t get very far into the first chapter before I was diverted to check out a Janet Flanner’s essay on Alice B. Toklas entitled Memory Is All, thanks to the thoughtful supply of notes included by the author in Women on the Left Bank. Flanner’s essay was a delight to read. It beautifully captured the poignancy of Toklas’s later existence after the death of Gertrude Stein, her companion for 38 years. It also has a mention about Toklas’s memoir What Is Remembered (which by the way, had just conveniently arrived in the mail during the week), so of course I had to take a look at that too, didn’t I?

IMG_7429 I really do find the subject of Paris and the lives of the many women who decided to make the city a place where they re-define themselves and carve out the kind of lives and possibilities that they seek and long for, to be endlessly fascinating. And I am finding Lucinda Holdforth’s True Pleasures to be indeed, very pleasurable reading. I am very much looking forward to continue exploring Paris with Holdforth, as she takes me along the footsteps of Colette, Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton, Marie Antoinette and Coco Channel (to name a few).  

IMG_7425When I did finally manage to tear myself away from Paris and her women, I made a hop over to Italy. And who better to take me there than my favourite traveller, H. V. Morton. On the smattering of knowledge I’ve managed to glean from Morton’s A Traveller in Italy thus far,  some of the more interesting facts include: that the Milanese walks twice as fast as the Romans and can tell a story or a piece of scandal without stopping or blocking the pavement; that Milan and Venice were well noted for their hairwashes, bleaches and dye during the Renaissance; and that a Scottish village exists in the Alps, north of Lake Maggiore where the men were found to be still wearing kilts up till the early 1900s. By the way, this was also a recent new arrival to the stacks, and I just love the shade of green that it’s in! Such a lovely used copy (almost pristine) and in a hard to find edition, too. Am so happy with this find. 🙂

 IMG_7430And while I am still making my way through Italy, I also managed to pop my head into Elena Kostioukovitch’s Why Italians Love To Talk About Food and got myself better acquainted with the Tuscan landscape, its food and also its people. This is quite a lovely volume to dip into, if you are interested to learn more about the Italians and their food culture (with a bit of history as background), as it is attractively organized according to region and colourfully designed with illustrations, maps, menus and glossaries. There is also an interesting foreword by Umberto Eco, for whom Kostioukovitch is better known as the writer’s Russian translator.

Weaving in between my time spent with the women in Paris, and those spent on the Italians and their food, I did also manage to read a rather creepy short story by Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now. It was my first taste of du Maurier’s short stories. I usually avoid horror stories at all cost, but I was curious to see what kind of horror du Maurier’s kind is so I decided to give it a try. I have only read Rebecca (which I had quite liked) prior to this, and I do have another collection of her short stories The Breaking Point, as well as a couple of her memoirs. I can’t say that I liked the nature of the story in Don’t Look Now (the ghost of a dead child following a couple’s visit to Venice) very much, but I did find the writing and the pace rather engaging. And since I have not been totally spooked out yet, I think I might just give her next creepy story another go. Let’s hope I don’t regret it. :p

Enough about me and my meandering kind of reading. What about you? What good stuff have you all been burying your noses into lately?
Do share. 😉

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? 😉

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. 🙂

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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? 🙂

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. 😉

Happy reading, everyone!