Companion Reads: ‘A Circle of Sisters’ and ‘The Children’s Book’

soulmatebooks
Sometimes you come across books that are just soulmates — they complement each other so that each is heightened by the other and you can’t imagine reading one without the other.

I discovered a pair when I read Judith Flanders’ A Circle of Sisters earlier this year. A wonderful biography of the Macdonald sisters (wives and mothers to various famous men of Empire), Circle of Sisters paints an incredibly intimate and detailed portrait of an ever-expanding British family in the late Victorian age.

Grandly sweeping through decades and themes, Flanders takes her time and revels in all that is perfectly ordinary about the Macdonald sisters. In the end, the fact that they married well or that they birthed poet laureates and prime ministers almost doesn’t matter. It becomes more interesting that these women were not exceptional — for how rare is the biography of the average person?

Somewhere in the middle of A Circle of Sisters, I recalled a faint echo of something familiar. Generations of one British family? The arts and crafts movement? The coming war? It didn’t take me too long to make the connection to A.S. Byatt’s wonderful The Children’s Book. (more…)

February 26, 2015 at 7:31 am 2 comments

Library Loot: Week of February 23

I am outlandishly excited about the Library Loot I got in this week from my beloved Nantucket Atheneum: Letters to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries by Ander Monson (recommended by NPR) and The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre (mentioned by Book Riot in their great piece on characters who are removed from film adaptations of their books).

letters-future-lovermoon-and-sun

Indeed, I am so ensorcelled with the aesthetics of Letters to a Future Lover — That cover! The perfectly slim and clean proportions! The matte finish! — that I may just buy it, content unseen. We’ll see. I really hope the inside lives up to the outside (not to mention that rhapsodic reviews it has been getting).

Also, I don’t think there is any more relevant book for Library Loot than Monson’s. From what I understand, it’s essentially a philosophical love letter to libraries. Yay!

I’ve been a bit bogged down in Simon Garfield’s (fine, but not amazing) Off the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, so I’m hoping one of these beauties will kick-start a reading binge.

What did you loot from your local library this week?

February 25, 2015 at 1:00 pm 4 comments

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

thSo, we all know that Michel Faber is a master of strangeness. My favorite book of his is The Crimson Petal and the White, but there is no denying that his sci-fi work is genius. Under the Skin, the story of an other-worldly woman who disguises herself as human to lure single male hitchhikers, is haunting and terrifying and deliciously unlike anything else I’d ever read.

This turned me on to Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter Leigh, a minister and former drug addict, is chosen by a large global company to bring Christianity to a community of humanoid people on a plant called Oasis, where the company has built a base. Peter leaves his wife, Bea, behind, and as he becomes more and more wrapped up in his work on Oasis, it becomes clear that Bea’s world is literally crumbling without him. And not just her world — the whole world.

The fact that “Peter” means “stone” or “rock” is not a coincidence. Peter is a touchstone for Bea, who finds herself somewhat crazed without him, questioning God and humanity and faith and everything good in the world, falling apart physically and emotionally. Meanwhile, the Oasans have found their rock in Peter, building him a church and buying wholesale into the promises of Christianity.

(more…)

February 23, 2015 at 10:19 pm Leave a comment

Living without my books

IMAG0470Once upon a time, not too long ago, there lived a girl who believed that living without stuffed bookshelves was a form of intellectual and interior design death. She silently judged apartments that had no bookshelves and flushed with happiness at ones that barely had room to walk amidst the piles of books and teetering shelves.

Then, reality check: the girl moved to a small island and left behind 80% of her belongings, including all her books, in a storage unit on the mainland. This was considered a temporary and distressing situation and the girl firmly believed she would be reunited with her beloved books in three months’ time.

Well, I’m here on the other side of nine months to tell you that that didn’t happen and I, the girl who couldn’t imagine living without books, have been doing so with surprising contentedness for that whole time. I don’t have any bookshelves in my current space, nor did I in any of the other places I’ve lived since moving to Nantucket, and I keep what few books I do have on the mantlepiece in my bedroom.

Those mantlepiece books are a collection of favorites that came with me from New York and a random assortment I’ve acquired or been given since moving here. There are only about twenty books in all, some of which I’ve read and some of which are still on the TBR list, and I find that I don’t miss the rest of my collection at all. (Or, at least, very rarely. And usually when missing a very particular tome rather than the collection as a whole.)

In living apart from most of my books, I’ve discovered that there are actually benefits to doing so:

1. I use the library so much more.
Without the pressure to read all the books I already own, I’m freer to read anything. And what better place to read anything at all than the library? This is my favorite side effect by far and the idea that I can read any book I want FOR FREE has yet to get old. I don’t have to worry about cost, space, or even aesthetics: any book I want to read is in and out of my life with no hassle at all except the lovely walk to and from the stacks.

2. Moving is much easier.
I’ve moved eight times since I came to Nantucket in May 2014. Believe me, making moving easier is now a vital part of my life. So not having 20+ boxes of books to pack and unpack is a big plus.

3. Book acquisition is a much more serious endeavor.
Whereas before I would buy books with fairly gay abandon (pocketbook allowing, of course), I am now much more thoughtful about what I need and want to own. Why hello, disposable income!

I’m not going to lie to you and say that I don’t still drool over interiors packed with books. Nor can I honestly say living without books is my long-term life plan. Far from it! When I finally settle somewhere, I intend to be as surrounded by the written word as is humanly possible.

But, at the same time, I’m really enjoying trying out this more minimalist approach to books. My ability to adapt to it has surprised me and the unanticipated side effects are proving pretty great.

So how about you, dear readers? Do you live amongst books or in a relatively book-free zone?

February 19, 2015 at 7:06 am 9 comments

The Cormoran Strike novels

cuckooIn an attempt to kick-start my reading habits after my January of readerly apathy, I recently turned to an old favorite genre: mystery. I used to read mystery novels constantly, starting with the Amelia Peabody books as my gateway drug and veering from there off into Arthur Conan Doyle, Anne Perry, and Sharon Kay Penman. These books were, for me, the equivalent of a movie as far as pastime went: entertaining, unchallenging (mostly), and quick.

I haven’t read mysteries in a while, so I forgot how purely enjoyable they could be. They are the most satisfying kind of “comeuppance stories” — the villains are inevitably caught by our intrepid and intelligent heroes and heroines, who, in turn, live happily in the satisfaction of a job well done with another adventure to look forward to. (For mysteries are, almost without exception, series. There is something irresistibly serial about a mystery solved well.)

The past few weeks, I expanded my scope a little bit and moved into from my comfort zone of historical mysteries into the contemporary mystery/thriller genre. The last time I delved down this particular path, I came away rather disappointed and a little disgusted (somehow contemporary mysteries really favor the more gruesome and the hyper-violent). So this time I hedged my bets a little by going to a familiar and favorite author for my dose of contemporary crime: J.K. Rowling, albeit writing as Robert Galbraith.

I read both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the only two books in Rowling/Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series thus far, and found myself rather enjoying them. Even though there was very little on-paper to appeal to me about the series (both books are about a wounded war veteran-turned-private detective and his eager secretary trying to outsmart the police and everyone else), book Cuckoo and Silkworm were somehow better than their loglines might suggest.
(more…)

February 16, 2015 at 7:17 am 8 comments

‘The Culture Clash’ by Jean Donaldson

IMG_20150114_192837
While I didn’t read that much in January, I did work my way through a pile of dog-related books, the best of which was undoubtedly Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and domestic dogs.

My little furry friend, Millie, (shown above and below!) has recently developed the quite noisy habit of barking whenever anyone enters the house. Millie was almost 100% silent prior to this, so I was at a bit of a loss as to how to deal with her new-found voice. To the books!

While other books provided a more step-by-step training approach, Donaldson’s The Culture Clash offered so much more beyond basic training tips. (Although the basic training tips were certainly helpful.) Methodically dispelling anthropomorphized notions of dog training, Donaldson passionately makes an argument for effective training methods predicated on humans better understanding their dogs’ thought processes and motivations. (more…)

January 29, 2015 at 6:30 am 4 comments

Things I didn’t read in January

Courtesy of Book Splendour

“Janvier,” Alphonse Mucha

As seems to happen every year, January was a graveyard of unread books for me. I’m not sure why, but this month is annually my Worst Month Ever when it comes to reading. Something about the dreariness of the post-holiday season? I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I swear every January, I just can’t get in to reading.

This year’s January of Reading Doom was helped and hindered by my on-going interlibrary loan addiction. I ordered so many books this month. And I read probably one. Flipped through a few. And, of course, mentally promised to re-order and read them at another time, in another mood. Probably in springtime.

So what didn’t I read this month? Here are the highlights:

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
On the plus side, I love Sarah Waters. Fingersmith is genius. On the negative side, divided reviews from friends (one liked it okay and one hated it — hardly a reassuring consensus). Anyone out there care to break the stalemate? (more…)

January 27, 2015 at 6:59 am Leave a comment

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