A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Month: January, 2012

Killing Time…in a bookstore

I found myself with a couple of hours to kill before picking my son up from Chess Team, and not enough time to go home, so I decided to haunt my local (Park Slope, Brooklyn) Barnes and Noble.  This can be a very dangerous thing to do but with no spare cash I decided it would be harmless to peruse the books and snap them on my mobile phone; an easy illustrated want list.

1) I love to eat; therefore I love to cook.  So how can I resist The Great American Cookbook?  It has regional recipes from all 50 states and a must have even if it includes a recipe for “Long Island” Clam Chowder.*

*Most New Englanders (myself included) refuse to believe there is any such thing; to add tomatoes is unholy.  There is only one kind of “chowdah” and the sobriquet “New England Clam Chowder” is superfluous.

2) Since its publication I’ve been dying to read this tome,  The Autobiography of Mark Twain:  Volume 1.   He is the quintessential American humorist and this book demands to be read despite its daunting size.

Now I’ve moved to the History shelves…

3 & 4) 2012 is the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, so both, Mr. and Mrs, Madison’s War:  America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence and Knights of the Sea:  The True Story of The Boxer and The Enterprise and the War of 1812 are probably necessary reading (at least for me and one other person, Dad).  The War of 1812 is usually glossed over in history classes and needs to be re-examined.  My understanding of this war is weak but it seems to me that this war ended in a stalemate because both the US and Britain were not fully prepared for this conflict; the US being a fledgling nation and Britain’s preoccupation by the shadow of Napoleon’s greater threat to the British Isles.

5, 6, & 7) Of course, this led me right to the section of English history.  Explorers of the Nile:  The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure intrigues me because of the very “English” ideal of exploration and empire.  The romance of Mr. Henry Morton Stanley finding Dr. David Livingstone in their quest to discover the source of the Nile is still potent and one defined by folly, courage, heroism, and endurance.  Ghosts of Empire:  Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World shows the rise and fall of Britain’s once mighty empire and how its policies and its inconsistencies shaped the problems of the modern world from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Hong Kong (to name a few).  And combining American and British history, Tories:  Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War.  This is particularly interesting to me because as a child touring all those [American] historical places (Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Boston) I was intrigued by the loyalists and always felt an affinity for them, so much so that Dad believed I would have been tarred and feathered.

8) Partially because of my Downton Abbey obsession, The Beauty and the Sorrow:  An Intimate History of the First World War.

9) My son’s dentist has been trying to get me to read this for years so I’ve added it to the list:  A Thousand Splendid Suns by the author of the Kite Runner.

10) Any book by Isabel Allende is a treat and a joy to read so Island Beneath the Sea is included.

11 & 12) And full circle back to food again because one cannot live on books alone:  Feeding the Dragon:  A Travelogue Through China with Recipes (I am half Chinese and love Chinese cuisine) and The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame) because how does one cook fennel and braising greens?  A dilemma I’ve brought home because of the vegetables acquired from my farm share.  Although, disappointingly, does not discuss kohlrabi.

I must have realized time was up...time to go.

Five-Fold Happiness

恭喜发财!  Gong Xi Fa Cai! Wishing You Prosperity in the New Year!

It is the Chinese Lunar New Year and I would like to share with you two books that have proved very helpful to me in understanding the Chinese part of my culture and will help celebrate this most auspicious of holidays.

Five-Fold Happiness: Chinese Concepts of Luck, Prosperity, Longevity, Happiness, and Wealth by Vivien Sung and Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz, & The Children’s Museum, Boston

The celebration of the Chinese New year is marked by parades, firecrackers, and dragon and lion dances but the underlying traditions and rituals have a far more profound meaning. The holiday takes place in the first lunar month, generally falling between January 19 and February 23. It begins on the new moon and ends 15 days later with the full moon. Traditionally known as the Spring Festival, it is celebrated annually by billions of Chinese.

It is a time of throwing out the old and welcoming the new and the days leading up to the holiday are busy.

Wishing you Luck, Prosperity, Longevity, Happiness, and Wealth!

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: A Novel of a Chinese-American Experience

The novel Shanghai Girls is ultimately about two women who must survive their new reality in America while remaining grounded in their Chinese origins. The story is divided into three themes important in Chinese society – Fate, Fortune, and Destiny – each representing a phase of struggle and renewal in their lives.

The Theme of FATE

It is Shanghai 1937 and two sisters, Pearl and May, have their world turned upside down. Two “beautiful girls” who pose for artists who depict them exuding the energy, excitement and beauty of the modern Chinese woman. Their lives are changed overnight when their father loses all his wealth and he, in an effort to save the family, sells the girls into arranged marriages to Gold Mountain Men — American-Chinese husbands. The truth is far darker when they discover that it is not ordinary debts which have thrown these two women back into a feudal age but poor judgement and dealings with the dreaded crime syndicate the “Green Gang”. All this as Japanese bombs begin to fall decimating the city the girl’s know and love. They escape the city, traversing the Chinese countryside witnessing first-hand the cruelty and atrocities of the conquering armies.

The Theme of FORTUNE

These women manage to make it to Hong Kong and passage to Los Angeles where they arrive at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the west”. Here Pearl and May learn that prosperity is not so easy to gain and the streets of America are most definitely not paved in gold. For the next 20 years these resourceful and strong women maintain their dignity as they endure blatant racism and government-sanctioned discrimination. The years find them ever loyal and supportive to one another as they carve a niche for themselves and their families while constantly straddling the two divergent cultures of China and America. Pearl and May cope through WWII carrying special registration certificates proclaiming they are “members of the Chinese race”, and selling war bonds to prove they are loyal Americans.

The Theme of DESTINY

It is the 50s and the women see Congress finally repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act but at the same time the Communist threat once again enmesh them in a world that does not trust them and does not want them. Their future is to be forever part of the American experience, never to return to China. Pearl and May strive to raise the American-born generation to be American but find themselves dismayed when that generation doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities of traditional Chinese culture.

The novel which depicts emotionally difficult subjects common in the Chinese-American experience is not an effortless book to read but Lisa See develops each character with a deep understanding of the Chinese psyche that obliges one to read on. Ms. See portrays these extraordinary women in an unsentimental way and yet one is compelled to like them and even care for them. She does not embellish them with grand heroic acts or self-martyrdom; instead these women are portrayed as real in all their selfishness, suffering, forthrightness, petty jealousies, rivalries, and mostly love for one another.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (New York: Random House, 2009)

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James

P.D. James who is better known for her mystery novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, a poet policeman, has written a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. 

I have to say I don’t love this offering.  It did have some high points but despite re-introducing favorite characters it lacks a certain appeal.  The characters never come to life as they do in the original.  Darcy is broadened as an individual but Elizabeth is relegated to a secondary character; no more is she the charming and witty young girl of Jane Austen’s novel.  With every turn of the page I am expecting her former personality to reveal itself and it never does.  It’s almost as if marriage has made her dull.

P.D. James states in an interview that she had been dwelling on combining her two great enthusiasms, the novels of Jane Austen and writing detective fiction, that she longed to write of Elizabeth and Darcy happily married, with children in the nursery, and everything going well and peaceful and to disrupt such orderliness with a ghastly murder.  Sounds like a great premise except the murder is trite, there is unnecessary commentary on the Napoleonic wars, a plot-line with a character which is introduced and ended in a very unsatisfactory manner, and there is a very forced and unimaginative explanation for the murder.

The only parts that were of great interest were the scenes taking place during the inquest and during the trial in the courtroom.  P.D. James is clearly comfortable writing these and it is here that the narrative gains momentum.

Bravo for P.D. James for her attempt but in the end it wasn’t the best “sequel” I’ve ever read.

One Cannot Live By Books Alone!

Alas, this is the sad truth!  As much as I would like to be able to sit around and read the day away, it’s not possible.  There is work, childcare, and simply, LIFE.  And unfortunately, even bluestockings age and need to take certain steps at maintaining health and fitness.  So today I began acting upon one of my new year’s resolutions:  to exercise and eat better.  I went to yoga and interval trained (walk/run) for 5K.  I am tired and my muscles ache but I feel good.

In an attempt to eat better I purchased The Big Book of Low-Carb.  It is chock-full of wonderful recipes that are low in carb and high in protein; absolutely perfect for weight loss and not so over the top healthy that my son won’t eat any of it.

I am determined to meet my goal of a lean, mean, and strong body.  But because I refuse to give up the things that make me happy, once I reach my goal, I will treat myself to the purchase of Eat, Drink, and be Gorgeous: A Nutritionist’s Guide to Living Well While Living It Up because I want my cake and to eat it too!  And I will.

I’ll let you know when I can fit back in my skinny jeans and am not afraid to put a bikini back on.

Downton Abbey Inspired Reading

Downton Abbey

Image via Wikipedia

Today the New York Times published the article, If You’re Mad for ‘Downton,’ Publishers Have Reading List which describes the phenomena of “Downton Fever” and how booksellers and publishers hope to cash in with Downton-related books convinced that viewers of the program are likely to be great book readers as well.

I am one of those mad people who when I become obsessed with something I tend to run out and devour every book I can lay my hands on, whether it be history, fiction, or pictorial.  I enjoy reading the contemporary authors of the time.  The period covered in Downton Abbey is an especially fruitful period in English literature with such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Ford Madox Ford, James Barrie, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne leading the pack.

But the books I really love to read are the books on the history of a certain period.  I religiously buy or borrow books to enhance my experience of a work of fiction or film or to learn more.  For example my shelves are filled with books on the Regency because of my love of Jane Austen and I read any book that crosses my path on Tudor history because of my admiration for Elizabeth I.  Downton Abbey has had a similar effect with one small twist; I already own many books about the period.  Of course, I can always use more and I have recently placed on my “to-get” list:  Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey:  The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by the Dutchess of Carnarvon, Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, Parade’s Endby Ford Madox Ford, and The Great Silence:  Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson.

Inspired by the article in the Times I thought it would be fun to share some of the books from my personal library that I think will bring enjoyment and understanding of the society, politics, and history of the period inhabited by the characters of Downton Abbey.

The Proud Tower and The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman are two tome-like volumes which wonderfully describe the world during the years 1890–1914 and the years during World War I.  They are highly readable despite their daunting size and I recommend them highly.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson is a well-written history of the English summer of 1911 before the world changed forever with the advent of World War I.

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997 by Piers Brendon a book which describes how after the loss of the American colonies Britain rebuilt itself to become one of the greatest and most diverse empires the world has ever seen.  It is the Empire that the aristocratic families of the Downton Abbey era would have known and would have believed to be unassailable in world authority and power.

The Long Week-End:  A Social History of Great Britain 1918–1939 by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge is a book describing the social history of Britain between the wars.

The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley is about the brief but golden period during the reign of Edward VII (r. 1901–1910).  It was an era of stellar personalities, social and political change, advances in technology, and flourishing literature and music.  A perfect back-drop to Downton Abbey.

The Polite Tourist:  Four Centuries of Country House Visiting by Adrian Tinniswood recounts the history of tourism to England’s country homes.

The history of housekeeping in a large country house is the topic of Behind the Scenes:  Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses by Christina Hardyment.  Many of the details in this book would be quite familiar to Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Anna and the other servants of Downton Abbey.

The conventions of country house lifestyle and culture fill a few very informative chapters in British Tradition and Interior Design by Claudia Piras and Bernhard Roetzel.

And for an enticing smorgasbord of beautiful images and information about Seasons 1 and 2 of Downton Abbey and its era The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes is a must!

Happy Reading!

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World is Claire Harman’s straightforward and satisfying contemplation of Jane Austen’s larger than life appeal nearly 200 years after her death. Ms. Harman does not delve into the oft-repeated litany of biographical references but rather focuses on Jane Austen as writer. She focuses on the woman who wrote of “three or four families in a Country Village” and how she became a figure of such immense impact in the 21st century.

By a Lady

Ms. Harman contends that “part of the reason [Jane Austen] pleases us so much now is that she was, for years, pleasing only herself.” Jane’s early writings were for her and her family’s amusement; private musings that were carefully kept and returned to. But this is not to say she wasn’t ambitious and motivated for more than her family’s praise. She was disappointed when in 1797 the publisher Thomas Cadell declined an early version of Pride and Prejudice. And further rejections of her work did mortify her.

But she maintained her determination and the rejections allowed her to re-write, describing to her sister, Cassandra, the editing of Pride and Prejudice “I have lop’t and crop’t so successfully, however, that I imagine it must be rather shorter than Sense and Sensibility altogether.” The delay in publication allowed her to be bolder and more experimental and the end result are the novels that are so popular to this day.

But finally she did publish, albeit anonymously, and in letters she expressed a sense of accomplishment and pride. Not only was she in print but she was earning money. But “her children” Sense and Sensibility followed by Pride and Prejudice were gaining quite a following and her brother Henry could not help but divulge her name to those who remarked on the books. The publication of her next books, Mansfield Park and Emma were looked forward to with anticipation. Despite this she only had moderate success in her lifetime and gained very little personal fame or fortune.

Mouldering in the Grave

After her death, the Austen family preferred to focus on Jane Austen’s sisterly fidelity and domestic pursuits. Although her death notice acknowledges her writing and mentions all four published novels, her tombstone in Winchester Cathedral fails to mention her writing. A glaring wrong and one that led to bewilderment to the hapless verger when inquired of by Austenite pilgrims in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1818 the posthumous publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey as a set accompanied by Henry Austen’s Biographical Note sold well. Sales declined and the remaining copies were pulped in 1820. She remained out of print for 12 years. Then in 1832 all six novels were published in a handsome illustrated edition. Jane has never since been out of print.

Divine Jane to Jane Austen ™

Her fame steadily grew. As the members of the Austen family who intimately knew her died off, letters and manuscripts became available and were highly sought, especially by Americans. Her popularity grew more so after the publication of the biography by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870.

In the early 20th century Jane Austen’s books were read and admired as a chronicle of what life was like in a less turbulent time. Her books were soothing and were recommended as appropriate reading material for shell-shocked soldiers from the trenches of WWI. Despite having been written during the Napoleonic Wars, Jane’s books never broach the subject.

Her fame has grown exponentially. Now nearly 200 years later, one can peruse the book shelves of any bookstore to find a variety of Jane Austen books; biographies, the novels in various editions, scholarly analyses, and graphic novels. She has even inspired a whole industry of sequels, spin-offs, soft-porn literature, and even film. She is translated into every conceivable language. Her appeal seems endless and with internet sites devoted to her Jane-ites can have all Jane, all the time.

Ms. Harman has written a biography sure to satisfy the cravings of Jane Austen’s devoted fan base. She writes truthfully that “the further Jane Austen recedes from our time the closer she feels to us”. This seems a truth that can be universally acknowledged judging by current state of mass intimacy the world has with Jane Austen.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009)


My Dictionary is Bigger Than Your Dictionary!

No, really, it is.

I picked up this lovely baby at my son’s school.  They had to find a good home for it because the elementary school is too small and they do not have a library to keep it.  It’s beautiful and the moment I laid eyes on it I was in love and offered to take it off their hands.

It is an unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (Second Edition) from 1956.  So now it’s in my apartment with no real place to call home (it lives on the dining room table).  But I figure one day I’ll find a used library stand at a yard sale or thrift shop.

I love my new (to me) dictionary.

The King’s Library at The British Museum

Bookcases in the King's Library, The British M...

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George III (1738-1820, reigned 1760-1820) was by no means an intellectual monarch but through a well-rounded education he developed an appreciation for learning. As Prince of Wales, heir presumptive, he was tutored in a broad range of subjects. He became well-read in literature, both English and non-English, spoke many languages, was interested in theatre, music, architecture, astronomy, and agriculture. Not only did he read and study these things but also contributed to various periodicals of the day, especially on topics of husbandry.

Upon ascending the throne in 1760, George III discovered that there did not exist a royal library. There had been an ‘Old Royal Library’ that had been added to since the 15th century but since the late 17th century was largely neglected. It had been given to the British Museum in 1757 by his grandfather George II. Almost immediately upon coming to the throne George III began an intense policy of collecting.

George III: Book Collector and Building the Collection

Bust of King George III outside of the King's ...

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George III sought to found a Royal Library following a very distinct protocol. He did not just want a library of self-aggrandizement of his reign but one that followed the principles of Enlightenment, a ‘universal library’. He sought a collection which transcended genres, languages, periods, and subjects and through the study of its books would add to scholarship and not constrain or restrict.

The King spared no expense and working with his librarians sought the best from all over Europe and England. Early in his reign he acquired with the intent to build up the collection and did so without a disciplined approach. Still, some very important additions to the Library were made at this early stage of collecting. In 1762 he acquired the Thomason Tracts, a series of broadsides and pamphlets made during the Civil War and Commonwealth periods (1640-60) and in 1763 acquired from the collection of the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, many printed editions of Italian literature and history. Besides printed material, the King also collected drawings, prints and paintings.

The Enlightenment Room of the British Museum, ...

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By 1767, the adding to the Royal Library was approached in a more methodical manner. Intending the Royal Library to be a working library, the King avoided the mundane list of written material and instead sought English literature, early English printing, philosophy, and the classics, Italian, French, and Spanish literature, geography and topography, architecture, painting, and sculpture. Two magnificent acquisitions at this time were the Gutenberg Bible produced in Mainz, c. 1455 and Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed in Westminster, c. 1476 the first book to be printed in England. The King also included books on subjects which interested him personally, including agriculture, astronomy, and the natural sciences.

It was also a well-known fact that the King was advised by Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who met with the King at the Library in 1767. He suggested material in the classics, literature, law and topography. He also advised against the purchasing of whole library collections thus preventing the unnecessary acquisition of duplicates. It is a testament to Johnson’s knowledge of the world of letters that his advice for the collecting of material for the King’s Library was heeded.

Sir Frederick Augusta Barnard (1742-1830), the King’s librarian after 1774, was given the task of scouring the booksellers of France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, in addition to the purchases being made in the London book trade. By 1769 the collection kept at Buckingham House (the future Buckingham Palace) numbered over 10,000 books.

The Use of the Collection

As the Royal Library was established as a working scholarly library, it admitted those whose genuine credentials as scholars to use the collection. George III was especially generous by allowing even those he did not particularly agree with to have access to the library. Two such figures were the scientist Joseph Priestley (1773-1804) whose radical ideas of theology and politics were opposed to those of the conservative King and his former enemy, the American revolutionary and founding father, John Adams (1735-1826). Adams was deeply impressed by the Library and exclaimed his disappointment that he didn’t have more time to read in it.

Gift to the Nation

The King’s Library was built up solely from George III’s upon his own resourcefulness and solely with funds from his won privy purse but always with the intent to its use as a ‘national resource’ as a scholarly universal library. By the time of George III’s death in 1820 the library consisted of over 65,259 printed books, supplemented by periodicals, pamphlets, prints, drawings, musical scores, maps and topographical drawings, as well as coins and medals.

His son and heir, George IV (1765-1837, reigned 1820-1837), made it known that he wished to present the library to the British nation. On January 15, 1823 George IV wrote to the Prime Minister stating his intentions and the stipulation that it be housed at the British Museum and the library was to be ‘kept entire, and separate…in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.

The British Museum found its original building to be too small to accommodate the collection. A building project was undertaken. The King’s Library was the first wing to be designed and built by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867). It was completed in 1827 and is the core of the familiar Quadrangle building.


King George III library at British Library

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The King’s Library Today

The King’s Library has been housed since 1997 at the British Library at St. Pancras. It inhabits its own space at the heart of the building called the King’s Library Tower. It still maintains its function as a working library.

The rooms built for it at the British Museum are now used as a gallery space, still called the King’s Library, and houses the permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century.


Jefcoate, Graham. “‘Most curious, splendid and useful’: the King’s Library of George III”, Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London, The British Museum, 2003)

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