8

Books I read so you don’t have to

This time last week, I thought that I was nailing this Non-Fiction November business.

I read and loved Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, then Forty Autumns, and I finally got to Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which, in hindsight, feels like an important and timely read.

But I also stumbled a little and today I want to talk about those.

First up: The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING Or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off the Dog by Jen Lancaster.

The first time I read one of Lancaster’s memoirs (Bitter is the New Black), I remember laughing hysterically in the bathtub. It was one of the first times that I realized that non-fiction could be funny. I became a devoted fan.

Some of her fiction efforts, however, have fallen flat and I’ve recently sworn them off altogether.

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Still, her non-fiction titles haven’t been an issue so I was excited to find a copy of The Tao of Martha when I was in Portland recently. The Tao of Martha is about Lancaster’s efforts to live more like Martha Stewart for a year as a way of boosting her own happiness after a difficult year. Her beloved dog, Maisy has been fighting cancer for a couple of years and that, along with a number of other personal issues, just seemed to be wearing Lancaster down. She decides to follow Martha’s edicts on how to have a beautiful home, cook, clean and entertain.

And it was kind of funny. I definitely cried reading about Maisy.

But somewhere in the middle I just got really irritated. It just felt so indulgent, especially those chapters about gardening and how the roses weren’t just right. I understand that Lancaster has worked really hard to have the life that she has. And I admire Martha’s hustle, I do. I just couldn’t get over how privileged it felt. It wasn’t what I wanted to be reading.

It could be me and the fact that I’ve recently read some really great non-fiction that challenged me a little more. Or maybe that I’ve just outgrown Jen Lancaster at this point, something that would be kind of sad.

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And now, I’m about 60 pages away from finishing Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins. It’s subject matter should be fairly self-explanatory: it looks at England during Jane Austen’s lifetime. At what people wore, ate, where they lived, what they did for fun, how they travelled, what the laws were, how they worshipped etc.

And I appreciate that it actually manages to look at what life was like for the everyman – once upon a time I read a book that promised to look at every day life in the Tudor era but was really just about how the wealthy lived. I let it go because at that time, of course it would have been difficult for the everyman to keep a record of his daily life as most didn’t read or write.

But Jane Austen’s England is…stuffy. It started out strong but quite quickly became bogged down into excessively long quotations. Honestly, if you took out all the passages that were paragraph length quotes, I think the book would be half as long. It’s also maybe not the best time to be reading about at time when women were barely legal people, subject to the rules and laws of men.

I would stop reading it, but I’ve come so far, spent so much time on it already. To stop now would feel like a waste of all that time.

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15

‘Eligible’ for my love

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve spent the last 20 years in a love affair with Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I need a break from the world, when my reading mojo needs a jump start. I spent an entire summer re-reading it over and over when I didn’t have any other books with me. I didn’t have to go to class in grade 12 English when we studied it because I already knew it so well.

For almost the same amount of time I have more or less shunned any derivative of P&P retellings, spin offs or stories “inspired by.” There have been exceptions: I did really enjoy Darcy’s Passions, Death Comes to Pemberly was well done and of course Bridget Jones’ Diary is a classic in its own right.

But generally, I’m not a fan.

So I was apprehensive about reading Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld (who was mentioned in my recent love, The Name Therapist!). I’d recently been burned by a modern retelling of Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (who generally is one of my favourites) and wasn’t so excited about that happening with my #1 favourite book of all time.

And yet, what I had read about Eligible was positive.

I spent an entire day with this book, unwilling to leave it.

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Elizabeth Bennet lives in New York but is summoned home to Cincinnati after her father has a heart attack. She and Jane come back to help look after the family and the house and make sure that their dad eats less meat and more greens. While she’s there, Liz meets Darcy and Jane meets Bingley and the classic story spins out much as expected.

My big issue with McCall Smith’s modern Emma was that Emma was an asshole. She was shallow and not that clever and really just wanted to cook and clean a house her husband bought for her. There was nothing modern about her! Sittenfeld manages to jump this hurdle with aplomb. Liz is very much a modern girl – she has a successful career writing for a magazine; she enjoys her work. And far from being a pathetic spinster, she’s had a series of relationships, always returning to one less-than-ideal situation with one Jasper Wick, our Wickham.

While Sittenfeld definitely moves the story through certain P&P plot points, a lot of it is shed in order to make the story more modern. Lydia doesn’t run off with someone shady, she dates someone who is Transgender. Kitty and Mary are more fully formed characters than they ever were in the original,Mr Bingley was basically The Bachelor and Sittenfeld has no problem introducing sex into the relationships. None of the characters’ ultimate goal is marriage (except for Mrs Bennet, but would we recognize her if she wasn’t obsessed with marrying off her daughters?) so even Charlotte doesn’t run off and get married within an hour of meeting Mr Collins though she does move in with him quite quickly.

A couple of things about this admittedly did bother me. I didn’t see that Charlotte needed to be so overweight, as the only reason someone didn’t want to marry her. In a world where she was professionally successful, couldn’t she just not have met the right person yet? I also hated that our heroine was called Liz. In the original, she’s Elizabeth, Lizzie or Eliza. Ample choices to prevent the use of Liz.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I think that Jane Austen herself would get a kick out of Eligible. Sittenfeld has managed what many other imitators have not: she has created a comedy of modern manners. In this way she has kept the spirit of the original while creating a truly sharp, clever story all her own.

21

Books and Places: The Tag

Chelsea @ Chels and a Book tagged me to participate in the Books and Places tag. The idea is that you pick ten books and then tell the story behind where you read the book. This tag couldn’t have come at a better time actually, since I knew I needed to post something but had no idea what to post since I’m still reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. So thanks Chelsea!

When I was reading Chelsea’s post I was struck by just how well she knew the stories behind when and where she read her books. I wasn’t sure that I could do the same thing for the books sitting on my shelves. But then I went over to pick the books for this post and was surprised by how many books do have a story attached to them for me. Here are the stories of my books.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. If you’ve been around here for any length of time you know this is my absolute favourite. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times at this point. But I do remember one time, when I was in the Netherlands for the summer visiting my father. He lives on a farm in a village and he and my stepmother worked all summer. I didn’t really have anything to do and I’d only brought 3 or 4 books. I’d already read whatever chicken soup for the teenaged soul I was reading at the time and I think I also brought Candace Bushnell’s 4 Blondes and something else. Pride and Prejudice was the only book I could read over. I read that book many times that summer. I would sit outside in the (weak Dutch) sun on the picnic table, finish the book, sit and think about it for a minute and turn it over and start again. All summer. When a book is a companion like that, you never get over it.

Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster. A friend messaged me on Facebook to say she had just read this book and she thought I would love it. That the author’s voice kind of reminded her of me. I was intrigued and basically ran right out and got it. I ended up running a bath and reading it in the tub. I was giggling in the tub within minutes and didn’t stop the whole time I was reading this book. It was the first time I’d ever read any non-fiction that was funny and I didn’t know that that was allowed to be a thing! Lancaster’s footnotes in this book are legendary, running the gamut from “fucking loser” and “Yes. She finally ended it last month. Whore.” to See? I’m not a total shrew.” This whole book is a profanity-laced delight and I loved it. Lancaster and I are very different people but I appreciate her so so much.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (and Curt Gentry). I credit this book with introducing me to my husband. I was reading this book when I met him and talked to him about the failed police investigation. He’s a police officer and he said later that it was refreshing to talk to a girl who didn’t ask him if he’d ever shot his gun. I went home and spent the whole next day in bed reading this book waiting for a text from a certain red-head. We almost had a table called Helter Skelter at our wedding but didn’t know who to seat at it…

Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger. This is my favourite book of hers, even over The Devil Wears Prada. Possibly because of the reading experience that went along with it. I had just started working at a bank, my first grown up job. And on my lunch breaks, I would walk over to the bakery down the street which was owned by my friend’s parents. I would get lunch and a brownie – they made the most amazing brownies that had walnuts in them (before these brownies, I never ate brownies that had nuts in them) and were iced with the greatest frosting. I would sit in the back of the cafe with my brownie and read about Bette making her way in PR in Manhattan. To date one of my favourite ways to read.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. About two months after I met my now-husband, I was leaving to study abroad in Amsterdam. He came to the airport to see me off and brought me books because he already knew how much I loved to read. The Poisonwood Bible was one of the books (Marley & Me was another – he was intent on making me cry). No one had warned me about this book! I brought it to Spain with me and read poolside in the blazing hot sun. And then cried my damn eyes out because the book was so sad and I missed this lovely, thoughtful guy so much already.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling. When the Harry Potter books first came out, I thought Harry Potter was the author. I vividly remember Christmas shopping when the first three were out and they were in all the bookstore windows everywhere. The summer that the 4th book came out, I had just got a job working in a fairy store. Yeah – they sold fairy merchandise but it was mostly a base at which to hold fairy birthday parties for kids. The owner wanted me to get familiar with everything they sold and told me to read the Harry Potter books if I hadn’t already. The store was always dead (not a huge market for fairy stuff) so one day I decided to actually read them. I picked The Chamber of Secrets because the first book was only in paperback and I didn’t want to warp the spine if they still wanted to sell it. I spent maybe a half hour leaning over the counter reading it before I realized that I couldn’t start with the second book. I needed to buy these books for myself and read them. And that’s how I came to fall in love with JK Rowling.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Bachman is a more recent read than most of the others on this list. I read it late last year. I hadn’t intended to read it at all but it kept popping up in my life. I probably read most of it on the bus (it is where I do most of my reading) but I finished it late at night in bed with my little night light on so as not to disturb my sleeping husband. As I was nearing the end I was crying so hard but trying to cry silently so as not to wake my husband. I finished it and just lay there with tears streaming down my face, completely devastated by this little book.

The Birth House by Ami McKay. I had a day off from work and school and picked this book up, meaning to just casually read a little of it before getting on with whatever I had planned for my day off. I ended up just sitting in the corner of the couch for hours, devouring it. I only moved to get food or go to the bathroom and by the time my then-boyfriend came home, I had finished it and done nothing about maybe getting dinner started.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. I brought this book with me to Portland last fall. We had a little bit of down time in the hotel room and I cracked it. But I never seemed to get very far with it while we were in Portland. But then we had a 6+ hour drive back home and it was pouring rain. Pouring. I sat happily tucked in the passenger seat and let Toibin tell me the story of Nora Webster trying to find her way after the death of her husband. There’s nothing better than reading on a road trip, especially with such an absorbing book.

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. This book is something like 900 pages. Of non-fiction. So there’s no one story of reading it. I toted this beast around with me everywhere while I was reading it and frequently cried on public transportation while I did so. This book can be incredibly difficult to read. It can also be uplifting and hopeful and beautiful. I just remember sitting on the bus, crying all the time when I was reading this. Sometimes they were tears of joy, reading about families who had embraced their children’s differences and other times they were tears of sadness or frustration reading about families that just couldn’t handle them. One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.

Alright, there you have it. Ten bookish stories. I’m not going to call out anyone specifically, but if you want to do it and you are in need of a post idea, feel free to jump in!

17

Reading One By One

For the first time in months I’m only reading one book.

And it’s heaven.

I’ve tried to be one of those people that can multi-task their reading. I see and hear about fellow book bloggers juggling two, three, four and five books at any given time and I envy that. I can’t do it. I’ve tried to do it before and found myself doing that for the past several months.

Reading two books at once was bad enough but then I added Persuasion to the mix and I thought I was going to lose my mind. I finally sat down and finished the last 150 pages of The Count of Monte Cristo and the day after that I sat down and finished Persuasion and then I only had one book left and it FELT SO GOOD.

I keep trying to be the kind of person that can read more than one book and keep the characters and narratives straight; the kind of reader that has no problem jumping from post-Revolutionary France to Regency England to modern day Switzerland and back again.

But I can’t do it. I’m not that kind of reader and I will contribute much more to my own happiness if I just accept that and stop trying.

I love that I can focus all my attention on one book now. I feel lighter and freer.

My TBR list stands and I will read them all, one at a time.

24

Bookish Birthday!

Today is my birthday, peeps. I’m 30.

I’m not one of those people that gets really stressed about turning another year older. I think I’m finally starting to catch up to the mental age I’ve always been, actually. It’s much more acceptable to stay home and Netflix on Friday night when you’re 30 than it was when I was 25.

Not that that stopped me.

But it’s a milestone birthday so I wanted to mark it with some words of wisdom.

Except now that I’m 30 I know that I actually don’t know sh*t.

Here’s what I do know:

  • Life is too short for books you don’t love.
  • A great book is always worth re-reading.
  • The only constant is change.
  • Bookish peeps are the best kind of peeps.
  • We all need to be kinder to one another.
  • Love is love.
  • Jane Austen is the bomb.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a birthday to celebrate.

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11

#PersuasionReadalong – Chapters 9-16

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Holly and Amanda from Gun in Act One decided to host a little Persuasion Readalong and asked me if I’d be into doing it with them and I was like “obviously” so here we are. If you missed the first post, go read it to catch up. We’ll wait.

Ok. Good?

If you haven’t ever read Persuasion, I feel like I should tell you that there will be lots of SPOILERS in this post. Yes, despite the fact that the book has been around for nearly 200 years, I’m warning about spoilers…

So after Captain Wentworth is back in the picture and so cold to Anne, things kind of find a new equilibrium. The Musgroves are really into Captain Wentworth, finding him everything that is gentlemanly and good (see also: rich) and soon he’s spending a lot of time at Uppercross. Henrietta and Louisa are fighting for Wentworth’s attention when their cousin, Charles Hayter, comes back on the scene and he’s all “um, what’s the deal with this Captain Wentworth fellow, Henrietta?” because she’s basically all but engaged to cousin Charles and he’s not so thrilled that she’s spending all this time with the Captain. Wentworth had no idea that there was another fellow on the scene and he just starts spending more time with Louisa instead (apparently sisters are completely interchangeable). This whole situation makes for some fantastic Austen-esque quotes on courtship like “Mr and Mrs Musgrove, either from seeing little or from an entire confidence in the discretion of both their daughters, and of all the young men who came near them, seemed to leave everything to take it’s chance.” They are totally fine to let it all work itself out – fairly laissez faire for parents of the time. Even better is Charles and Mary trying to work out how it’s going to shake out: “Charles gave it for Louisa, Mary for Henrietta, but quite agreeing that to have him [Wentworth] marry either would be extremely delightful.”

The fact that now everyone is all for Captain Wentworth left Holly feeling pretty outraged: How about Mary going on about how cousin Charles is a poor catch for her sister, in comparison to the esteemed Capt. Wentworth: “She has no right to throw herself away. I do not think that any young woman has a right to make a choice that may be disagreeable and inconvenient to the principal part of her family, and be giving bad connections to those who have not been used to them.” Well, that seems to have come full circle from seven (is it seven?) years ago?

It was eight, but the point stands.

So now that the whole Henrietta/Wentworth/Louisa thing seems to have been sorted, Captain Wentworth decides that it’s time for him to head to Lyme and visit with some old Navy friends. And all the young Musgroves are like “oooooh let’s all go, we’re dying to go to Lyme!” They all decide to head out which made Holly point out that this really marks it as a book of it’s time:  I feel like a modern author writing about this group of family/friends taking an overnight excursion would have included 100 details about the logistics of how to make that trip happen without cars or phones, but Jane was just all ‘this is how we roll’ and off they went. 

They go to Lyme and are having the best time ever, Captain Wentworth’s friends the Harvilles and poor Captain Benwick (poor because his fiancee died right before he was  about to get leave to go and marry her – she was related to the Harvilles and they have taken him in to nurse him through his broken heart) are the loveliest people ever. Captain Benwick has taken a shine to our heroine because she is a great listener, is smart, and the cold wind in Lyme has totally brought the bloom back to her cheeks so she’s looking pretty great. While Anne and Mary are out for an early morning walk, they meet a good looking guy in mourning and he looks Anne over and obviously likes what he sees. Later the group thinks that the gentleman may be the Elliot relation that is set to inherit Sir Walter’s title. But they can’t know for sure because his servants didn’t tell the hotel servants anything. It’s their last morning in Lyme but everyone wants to go back one more time to the hills overlooking the ocean and then they will head back. The group is kind of paired up and Captain Wentworth is walking with Louisa who has the Captain jump her down this particularly tricky, steep part of the walk. She does it once and loves it so she makes him do it again. He’s like no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea, let’s not but she makes him do it anyway and she falls and hits her head! “There was no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death.”

I think Amanda shares your surprise at the violence of this Jane Austen book: the action! The drama of the head injury! So different than escaping to Gretna Green. 

Knowing what we know about the group it should come as no surprise that no one is able to do anything right – Anne comes to the rescue with her pragmatism and her practicality and soon has things sorted. They bring Louisa back to the Harvilles who will not hear of anything but nursing Louisa themselves. Wentworth feels that someone should stay with her and since Henrietta can’t even be in the same room as her and Mary is an idiot, he thinks it should be Anne – “if Anne will stay, no one so proper,so capable as Anne”. WELL Mary hears about this and she loses it: “When the plan was made known to Mary, however, there was an end to all peace in it. She was so wretched and so vehement, complained so much of the injustice in being expected to go away, instead of Anne; – Anne who was nothing to Louisa while she was her sister and had the best right to stay in Henrietta’s stead!” And Mary, of course, gets her way.

Louisa ends up being fine, just needs to rest and eventually she returns home, still kind of weak but mostly OK. But that’s for the last section and post…(see also: foreshadowing!)

Can we just take a second to talk about the fact that when a crisis hits, Wentworth feels like the only person that can handle things, the only person that he trusts enough is Anne? I think things are thawing a bit.

And that marks the end of Anne’s stay with Mary. Lady Russell is thankfully returned home and Anne prepares to go to her. She stays a short amount of time before she heads to Bath, hated Bath. There she finds her father and sister completely unchanged (still jerks) and Mrs Clay worryingly closer to the family. She actually overhears Elizabeth tell Mrs Clay the morning of her arrival that there is no need for Mrs Clay to leave now that Anne has arrived because no one cares that Anne has arrived and things will basically be just as they were. For Amanda, trading Mary for Elizabeth bodes well: I’m looking forward to Elizabeth’s outright nastiness more than Mary’s whining.

Guess who else turns out to be in Bath? The Mr Elliot who is set to inherit the baronetcy. He was the man that they saw in Lyme and Mr Elliot soon marks Anne out as his favourite, sitting with her and sharing her opinions, especially as to the dangers of Mrs Clay.

And that’s kind of where we leave things. Amanda and Holly both agree that Persuasion is different in tone to JA’s other work – the excitement of the head injury for one but also Anne as a heroine compared to say Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse. She’s definitely more reserved than either of them but she’s also a good five to seven years older. She’s been disappointed once and has spent the intervening years at the mercy of family that are almost cruel. I definitely have the advantage of knowing what happens in the end so I was curious how Wentworth was stacking up as a romantic JA hero. Holly is a fan of Captain Benwick’s while Amanda isn’t sure about Wentworth. She doesn’t think that his having been disappointed eight years ago is a good enough excuse for his behaviour now.

We all agree that Mr Elliot is up to no good.

If you’re still reading this, well done! That was lengthy. Next week’s the last post – still time to join us. Persuasion isn’t long. Amanda is writing the final post and it will be posted on Gun in Act One!

10

#PersuasionReadalong – Let’s Do This

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Yeah I’m not sure how it got to be March so quickly either. BUT since it is, that means that it’s time to start reading Persuasion so that you can join Amanda and Holly from Gun In Act One and yours truly as we (re) discover the charms of Jane Austen’s criminally under-read book Persuasion!

This might sound like a lot of work, but it’s not. You can TOTALLY read this at the same time as all the other books on your TBR list that are demanding your attention. This can be your vacation read. We will be discussing the first 8 chapters next week, chapters 9-16 the week after that, and the final 8 chapters in the last week of March. In my Vintage Books version, that’s 82 pages this week.

You can do that.

Still not convinced? Then let us tell you a bit about why we want to read Persuasion.

Amanda
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that nearly everyone has read -by choice or by force– Pride & Prejudice.

I love Pride & Prejudice and have reread it often.  Usually when I love one book by an author I compulsively track down all others and devour them, yet for some reason I’ve held back with Austen.  I have read all kinds of Austen related books, yes even Pride & Prejudice and Zombies.  So with the 2015 TBR Challenge as my inspiration I added Persuasion as my next Austen to start.  I am really excited to see where Anne and Wentworth’s romance goes!

Holly
I would like to point out that I put Persuasion on my 2015 TBR Challenge list first, so therefore, Amanda’s inspiration came from me. I have only ever read Austen’s P&P. My sister counts it among her faves, and my husband loathes it. Thankfully, they get along quite well, Austen-aside.

Anyway, I got excited to read Persuasion after reading For Darkness Shows the Stars, a YA, post-apocalyptic novel by Diana Peterfreund that I thought was just lovely. Even though I wasn’t familiar with the story, I could definitely see the Austenian influence in the story of Elliot and Kai, and I was intrigued to read the original. In much the same way, I’ve been meaning to read Emma since 1995, thanks to Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. Maybe that will be on next year’s list.

Eva

I’ve been addicted to Jane Austen for nearly two decades. I think for most Austen addicts, P&P is the gateway drug and I’m no exception there. It took me until I was in my 20s to finally read Persuasion. There is no way that I would have appreciated this late-blooming love story nearly as much when I was a teenager so I’m glad I waited. I’ve re-read at least one Austen book every year since forever and it’s Persuasion‘s turn. When Holly and Amanda both put it on their TBR Challenge lists they decided to host a readalong and asked me if I wanted to participate. Just as it is “always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage” so too is it unthinkable that I should refuse to participate in a Jane Austen reading challenge.

Convinced?

Let’s chat next week!