Tag Archives: books

October Reading Recs

For various reasons this has not been my best year for reading, but the situation seems to be improving of late. Today I have two books to recommend, and though they don’t have that much in common, they both celebrate female relationships.

A Secret Sisterhood synopsis: Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Bronte; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always–until now–tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.

If you know me at all, you understand how thrilled I was to hear about this book! I was especially delighted to learn that the co-authors have been close friends for years. That said, it took me a little while to sink into their narratives. Part of this stemmed from their “creative” approach — Midorikawa and Sweeney often convey details through reconstructed scenes, which I found a bit jarring at first. (When I reached the footnotes, however, I saw that all these “scenes” were carefully annotated.) Another challenge was balancing my expectations with what I already knew about the featured authors.

For instance, I’m a passionate fan of Jane Austen and feel like I know her characters well, but I haven’t yet read the author’s letters or a detailed biography. (I promise to read Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre le Faye, very soon! And doesn’t this book look good?). As I delved into the first chapter, I think I had unrealistic expectations regarding Austen’s friendship with the family governess, Ann Sharpe. As it turned out, their acquaintance was not as enthralling as I’d hoped, perhaps because the facts were a bit sketchy and for the most part originated from the journals of Jane’s young niece, Fanny Knight. I was glad to learn that Jane knew another writer, and of course I’m always interested in governesses — especially those who “scribble” — but for me this was the least fleshed-out friendship in the book.

On the other hand, I already knew a great deal about Charlotte Brontë’s relationships with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor from reading biographies and letters (I particularly recommend Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters), so the details revealed in the second chapter, though compelling, were mostly familiar to me. Your mileage may vary, but for me the first two “Secret Sisterhoods” were entertaining but not particularly revelatory.

That said, I truly enjoyed and learned much from the chapter on George Eliot/Marian Evans’ friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Middlemarch ranks among my very favorite novels, but I never knew that much about its author and now feel compelled to find a good biography. (Perhaps I’ll start with My Life in Middlemarch and see which biography Rebecca Mead recommends?) Stowe was a vivacious personality and, lo and behold, an avid Spiritualist (much to Evans’ dismay). Though I don’t yearn to read her fiction, I think it might be interesting to read more about Stowe’s life.

The authors’ take on Virginia Woolf’s complicated relationship with Katherine Mansfield was perhaps my favorite part of the book. I’ve read To The Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own and have always felt intimidated by Woolf’s intellect, but Midorikawa and Sweeney presented her in a very accessible way. No longer will I automatically think of her as the tormented genius who drowned herself, for I have replaced that default image with one of a younger Virginia painstakingly setting the type for her Hogarth Press publications. Katherine Mansfield was the least familiar to me of all the published authors featured in the book, but she was such a vivid character in this chapter that I do intend to explore her short stories and perhaps read her letters and journals.

Now I turn to you, dear reader — can you recommend collections of letters or journals by favorite authors? I own and still need to read Dorothy Sayers’ letters, and I know there are multiple volumes of L.M. Montgomery’s journals to be had. What else?

Bonus book recommendation: The War I Finally Won

The sequel to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life (which I recommended in this “tea and a book” blog post) was such a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t read the first book, but the wartime setting is even more compelling in this book, especially because we learn more about Lord and Lady Thornton and are introduced to a new character who boards with Susan, Ada, and Jamie. All the clichés apply: I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down, I didn’t want it to end, and though it all wraps up in a satisfying way I would love to have MORE. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels giddy about the book, for it has received umpteen starred reviews and is an Amazon and NYT bestseller. HOORAY!

Friday Favorites: It started with a photograph

A couple of things to share today, and though it may seem like a stretch, they actually are related.

Favorite thing #1. More than thirty years after first seeing it, I re-watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), starring the late David Hemmings.

I first saw this film as a child during a weekend visit at my dad’s house. Dad had that wonderful new invention called “Cable TV” and through its magic I was introduced to all sorts of interesting movies, current and classic. Unfortunately I didn’t catch Blow-Up from the very beginning, but I managed to tune in at a critical moment — Hemmings’ character, an arrogant and affected photographer (parodied delightfully in Austin Powers years later) wanders London with his camera and ends up taking photos of a couple embracing in a park. The woman approaches him, agitated, and asks for the film back. But when she comes to his flat later, he gives her the wrong film. He then develops the actual roll from the shoot, and through a series of blow-ups, discovers that something sinister may have happened at the park.

The scene depicting his discovery is so beautifully shot and compelling, but the resolution (or lack thereof) was incredibly frustrating to me as a kid. I thought maybe I’d missed something at the beginning of the film, and I’ve been wondering for decades what it all meant. Well, in re-watching it this past weekend, I realized the film really isn’t about the mystery of a possible murder. Rather, it is a fascinating character study. Roger Ebert described it best:

The film is about a character mired in ennui and distaste, who is roused by his photographs into something approaching passion. As Thomas moves between his darkroom and the blowups, we recognize the bliss of an artist lost in what behaviorists call the Process; he is not thinking now about money, ambition or his own nasty personality defects, but is lost in his craft. His mind, hands and imagination work in rhythmic sync. He is happy. (See the entire review here.)

As a kid (who really wasn’t old enough for the film anyway) I wanted the story to be about the mystery, and I desperately wanted that mystery to be solved. 30+ years later I appreciate the film for its ambiguity.

Favorite thing #2, in which we come to the related topic (yes, really!) of Ghostlight and the fact that ARCs are out in the world!

First of all, Weeeeeee!

Now to the connection . . . we have a film for adults (considered nearly pornographic in its day — take it from me, those scenes are the least compelling element) and a book for middle grade readers (& up). What could these two things possibly have in common? Well, somewhat like in Blow-Up, the mystery in Ghostlight starts with a photograph. This photograph features something it logically shouldn’t, which leads to a project, a betrayal, and, ultimately, an investigation. Though this “clue in a photograph” idea is not particularly unique, I know the seed for it was planted in my brain all those years ago when I watched Blow-Up and really wanted that mystery to be solved. Also, strangely enough, I think one of the characters in Ghostlight was probably, subconsciously, inspired by the main character in Blow-Up. Julian Wayne isn’t quite as reprehensible as Thomas (though he was darker in earlier incarnations of the story). He is similar, however, in that he’s arrogant and obsessive and grows pretty impatient with people who don’t appreciate his passion for filmmaking.

And look here — we have official flap copy!

Isn’t that creepy image of the window SO COOL? Please allow me to type out the plot blurb, in case you can’t quite read it in the image:

Nothing ever happens on Avery’s grandmother’s sprawling farm, where she and her brother spend the summers. That is, until Avery meets Julian, a city boy with a famous dad, whose family is renting a nearby cottage. When Julian announces his plan to film a ghost story, Avery jumps at the chance to join him.

Unfortunately, Julian wants to film at Hilliard House, a looming, empty mansion that Grandma has absolutely forbidden her to enter. As terrified as Avery is of Grandma’s wrath, she finds the allure of filmmaking impossible to resist.

When the kids explore the secrets of Hilliard House, eerie things being to happen, and the “imaginary” dangers in their movie threaten to become very real. Have Avery and Julian awakened a menacing presence? Can they turn back before they go too far?


So there you have it! I no longer have to ramble nonsensically about the premise of this book, for that sums it up pretty nicely. Perhaps I’ll give one of these ARCs away before too long? Stay tuned! And HAPPY FRIDAY!!!

Hedgehog in the Fog

One thing that really grabbed me during the spectacle and whimsy of the opening ceremonies in Sochi was the reference (during the Cyrillic alphabet intro) to “Hedgehog in the Fog.” What a phrase! I had to know more. Steve did a quick google search and read from the YouTube description:

This is a story about a little hedgehog and his friend bear cub. The two would meet every evening to drink tea . . .

Needless to say, I had to watch. It is delightful! Perhaps nobody has time anymore to watch a ten minute video clip, but I really do encourage you to check this out. It’s a lovely short film — sweet, magical, and even a little Gothic!

My favorite line? “What a weirdo.”

Also regarding the opening ceremony — I think I’m ready to read War and Peace now.

ETA: Oh! My dear friend Michelle located a picture book version of HEDGEHOG. Here’s a blog post about it. And here’s the Amazon link. I must have this!

The autobiography of a reader

Thank goodness for the Brontë Blog — it keeps me informed of all sorts of lovely Brontë-related things, including this book recently released in the UK:

How to be a Heroine: or What I learned from Reading Too Much
On a pilgrimage to Wuthering Heights, Samantha Ellis found herself arguing with her best friend about which heroine was best: Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. She was all for wild, passionate Cathy; but her friend found Cathy silly, a snob, while courageous Jane makes her own way.

And that’s when Samantha realised that all her life she’d been trying to be Cathy when she should have been trying to be Jane.

So she decided to look again at her heroines – the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas of the world and how to live. Some of them stood up to the scrutiny (she will always love Lizzy Bennet); some of them most decidedly did not (turns out Katy Carr from What Katy Did isn’t a carefree rebel, she’s a drip). There were revelations (the real heroine of Gone with the Wind? It’s Melanie), joyous reunions (Anne of Green Gables), poignant memories (Sylvia Plath) and tearful goodbyes (Lucy Honeychurch). And then there was Jilly Cooper…

How To Be A Heroine is Samantha’s funny, touching, inspiring exploration of the role of heroines, and our favourite books, in all our lives – and how they change over time, for better or worse, just as we do.

Sounds great, right? Here’s a positive review from The Telegraph for your consideration, too. I hope this book will be available in the U.S. soon! (Oh, and Danielle kindly pointed me to a dicussion with Samantha Ellis on BBC’s “Open Book” — you should be able to listen through iTunes. Starts around 16:00 — very jolly!)

I do love the idea of tracking one’s development through the books one has read and re-read. (What would be a good term for this?) It brought to mind another book, Erin Blakemore’s The Heroines’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I recommend. Also, there’s Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which I found to be a fascinating memoir/contextual study of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, though I don’t share Miller’s depth of disillusionment.

Can you think of other memoirs centered favorite books? I feel like there should be multiple titles springing to mind, but . . . no.

If you were to write a reading memoir, which books would you HAVE to include? I blogged about this once in terms of which authors I “blame” for my being a writer, but here’s a longer (though surely incomplete) list:

Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell Hoban
Knight’s Castle, by Edward Eager
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
All the Laura Ingalls Wilder books
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers
Possession, by A.S. Byatt
Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros

How about you?