A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: General Reading

Books to read again, again, and again, ad infinitum.

Rainy Day in Brooklyn

It is raining, and not just raining but pouring!  Bucket after bucket of water pouring off the rooftops so loudly it sounds like a gentle roar on my apartment’s ceiling.  The spray as cars drive by, the individual drops off my fire escape sounds like a shower left to run.  Most people see a day like today as dreary and depressing, there are times when I do too, but on a lazy Sunday I am looking forward to reading.  I will roam from bedroom to living room and curl up on the bed or sofa and indulge myself in a good book.

Cover of "The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Stories"

Today I happen to be reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quartersa book of 17 short stories each introduced by the author.  It is a great read for a day such as today because an intense commitment is not necessary as with a novel.  A story can be finished, the book put down (albeit temporarily) after all one does have to eat.  And for some reason, rainy days have always been good days to read stories of fantasy, magic, and science fiction.  I don’t know exactly why that is but I like to imagine that as the rain cleanses the earth, stories that have a magical element cleanse the mind and open it up to possibilities beyond the mundane.  Too romantic, I know.

It is days such as this when I reflect on all the books too good to just molder on shelves, or in my case piled on floors in front of over-filled bookshelves, books that should be read again and again.  A few favorites come to mind, Jane Austen for example.  All her books (Juvenilia and letters) can be read over and over and never become stale.  There is not a year that passes that I do not reread one of her books (or more); one year focusing on plot, another on character, and yet another on the period in which the stories take place (things that Austen would have taken for granted that her reader’s would know).  Others include, Tolkien, Bronte, Doyle, Hardy, Shelley, and Lewis.  A rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is essential if only for its lessons on the wrongs of racial inequality and the integrity of its hero, Atticus Finch.  This is a book on how we should behave but seldom do.

My list has changed over the years, evolved.  When I was 16 I reread A Room with a View so many times that the cover is in tatters and now I barely give it a second glance; not because it isn’t a wonderful book, it is, but now with more decades under my belt than I care to admit it doesn’t speak to me in the same way as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn does.  That is the beauty of books, they evolve with the reader.  For example, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  First read when I was 12 or 13 1) because it was on a banned book list and 2) I was curious about sex.  When I first read it I was titillated by the frank descriptions of copulation and didn’t remember much beyond that.  I reread it again in my early 20s, now living with a boyfriend, and found myself bored by the book, my lack of innocence relegating the book to a place of stuffy indifference.  I recently reread it yet again, a middle-aged woman separated from her husband in the midst of divorce, and finally “got it”; understood what Lawrence was trying to convey in this story:  a wholeness of life is necessary in the pursuit of happiness.  Well, at least, that’s what I “got” from it.

Here are ten books that I believe should be read again, again, and again, ad infinitum.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  (because they are great stories)
  2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.  (probably one of the most perfect books in the English language)
  3. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.  (its themes of atonement and forgiveness)
  4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes stories and The White Company (great story-telling)
  5. Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (brilliant memoirs)
  6. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  and The Witches (because they are so fun to read aloud and make your kid laugh, especially when done with voices)
  7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (for its themes of feminism, mental illness, and existentialism)
  8. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Earthsea Cycle (because they are so wonderfully written and have a lot of themes to explore)
  9. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (a moralistic story about the over-fulfillment of modern man: a good narrative and appropriate for our time)
  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (a vivid and unromantic view of the fragmentation of the American Dream)

Wow!  That was harder than I thought it was going to be.  I am happy to say that my list has 6 women authors; is somewhat well-rounded, consisting of classics, fantasy, and science-fiction (Frankenstein); and has American and English (and one Danish) authors.  These are books I consider worth rereading and probably says more about me personally at this particular moment in time than anything else.  Your list may be different.  Reader, I would love to hear about the books you think are worth rereading and why.  Leave a comment, I would really like to know.

Okay, now I have to get back to reading!

Cultivation of the Earth and Mind

Today I visited The Brooklyn Botanical Garden (BBG) with my son and his friend.  I know that this doesn’t sound initially like it has anything to do with books or reading but bear with me.  It was the most beautiful day, the sun was shining and a delicious cooling breeze was blowing, I wandered through this most perfect of botanical gardens, watching the boys enjoy the delights of this place, I couldn’t help but think of how wonderful it would be to have a tract of land like this.  It has dozens of wonderful places to sit, be in nature, and read.  The scents of the plants, the flowers, the herbs and the gentle sounds of the rustling trees offer an idyllic landscape for literary pursuits. Today,the highlights were the Herb Garden and the Shakespeare Garden.

The Herb Garden is a magnificent planted prospect of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.  It had this city dweller dreaming of one day having a garden of her own.  The book, Designing an Herb Garden, published by the BBG will inspire my dreams.  But for now, I have to settle for potted herbs at the windows of my apartment, my local CSA, and farmer’s markets.  To this end, The Locavore’s Handbook:  The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget by Leda Meredith will keep me happy.

The Shakespeare Garden is a special place and pretty popular given the amount of people in this small garden today.  I suppose the Bard seizes people’s imaginations even in the heart of Brooklyn.  It is a cottage-style garden abundantly planted with over 80 flowers, herbs, shrubs, and trees that appear in Shakespeare’s works.  The beds, bordered by twig wattling, were lush on this late Summer day and had this reader thinking of the words that inspired such a delightful and magical place.

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantines.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, scene 1

Sex, Drugs, and MAGIC!

Ever since finishing Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians I wondered if another foray into the land of Fillory was possible.  And with the recent release of The Magician King my question and hopes have been answered.  I look forward to getting my hands on this book…I feel it will be a perfect read for crisp autumn evenings, curled up on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket with a nice dram of whisky.  That’s right, save the tea for Harry Potter!  If the first book was any indication, The Magician King, promises to be quite a wild ride.

The Magicians started off slowly with the angst-ridden Quentin Coldwater mysteriously stumbling upon a hidden school for magic and discovering he has an untapped knack for hoodoo. Comparisons to the Harry Potter series are inevitable but veer off jarringly with drinking binges, sex, and drugs combined with an extreme curriculum in spell casting. It devolves into the drug and alcohol induced seeking of wisdom; a quest much like that perpetuated by Jim Morrison, alarmingly so.  All this with the subtext that the childhood books so beloved by Quentin, a wonderful land of talking animals and mystical magic is actually a real place; a hard-core Narnia, if you will.

The first book dealt with forms of escapism, the destructive power of getting what one wants and not necessarily what one needs, and discovering that one’s fantasies can be dark and lurid.  And yet, when the “trip” is over, all of life’s obstacles (both real and fantasy) are still painfully present and personal responsibility must be acknowledged and reckoned with.

I have stayed away from reading any overviews or editorial reviews of The Magician King, preferring to come to the story fresh and unadulterated, but I presume it will be more of the same but different and better.  I look forward to settling down (with my whisky) and crossing into this not-so childhood fantasy.

Quote of the Day: Howard Pyle

Howard Pyle and daughter Phoebe (Johnston)

Image via Wikipedia

“The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression, and their author always has a niche in the temple of memory from which the image is never cast out to be thrown on the rubbish heap of things that are outgrown and outlived.”  Howard Pyle, 1853–1911

The List of Books I Want to Finish Reading Before the End of Summer (but won’t)

I am always very ambitious about my summer reading list and I always start out very strong.  The problem is that by the middle of the summer I’ve added books not on the original list.  For example, today I stopped into Barnes and Noble to pick up Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I’m not really sure why I must read that book NOW but I am guessing it has something to do with my son’s sleepaway summer camp experience and the photograph of him with war paint on his face and painted handprints on his stomach.  Go figure.  Simple, right?  It’s only one more book, right?  Wrong, because I also picked up two more books, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (I’ve seen two random episodes of the HBO mini-series and I am intrigued, besides I’ve heard good things) and Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  The latter is because I am Jane Austen obsessed and I just cannot pass up any new book about her.

So in addition to my three latest acquisitions, here’s the rest my summer book list (this does not include the books I’ve actually read) which I will not be able to finish before the end of summer.

  1. American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis
  2. Jane Austen:  The Critical Heritage edited by B.C. Southam
  3. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood by Alison G. Sulloway
  4. Sex at Dawn:  How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
  5. Jane Austen:  A Life by David Nokes
  6. Room by Amanda Donoghue
  7. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:  Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
  8. The Woman Who Could Not Forget:  Iris Chang Before and Beyond “The Rape of Nanking” by Ying-Ying Chang
  9. March by Geraldine Brooks
  10. Six Frigates:  The Epic History of the Founding of The U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

I think I need a 12 step program for book addiction.

A Book that Changed My Life

Siddhartha Buddha under Bodhi tree painting

When I was in my early to mid 20s I read a book that had a profound impact on my thought and attitude towards life. That book was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Before the age of 30 I was in grave danger of becoming world weary. I was disheartened and had no hope for mankind or for myself. This book helped to shake the lethargy from my brain; the simple story of Siddhartha, a young man who embarks on a journey seeking enlightenment, inspired me.

The book spoke to me as no other ever had. I took away from the story that happiness and enlightenment are not achieved by external factors but by self awareness; the acceptance of the world and self, the good and the bad. I am nowhere near the enlightenment and wisdom attained by Siddhartha but I still strive towards it.

“The world was beautiful when looked at in this way––without any seeking, so simple, so childlike. The moon and the stars were beautiful, the brook, the shore, the forest and rock, the goat and the golden beetle, the flower and butterfly were beautiful. It was beautiful and pleasant to go through the world like that, so childlike, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust.”

When I first read this book I vowed I would read it one day to my unborn child, to pass to him, in utero, what took me decades to comprehend. I am ashamed to say I never did. That beautiful boy is, on his own, showing an interest in the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and how he attained wise illumination through a contemplative life.

Perhaps, it’s not too late to read this book together, aloud.

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Currently Reading: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Cover of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A...

Cover of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel

I started reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand on Friday and because I’ve been so busy with, well…  life, I have been unable to read like I normally do.  Despite not having enough time over the weekend to curl up with this book, it has grabbed me right from the start and I have been reading voraciously on the subway and even, clandestinely, at work.  I absolutely love the character of Major Ernest Pettigrew.  Helen Simonson has wonderfully evoked an old-fashioned British military gentleman in the most traditional sense.  I imagine him with mutton-chop sideburns, chest pumped up, walking with a swagger, using his cane just so, a man used to a vast Empire, unchanging and staid.  But he is devoid of annoying pomposity exhibiting, instead, charm and gallantry.  He is a widower and is coping with the loss of his brother and an ingrate of a son.  He is lonely.

He begins an unlikely friendship with a Pakistani widow, Jasmina Ali, who runs the local grocery.  She is independent, clever, and well-read.  She is quietly struggling to find her own place within a culture that expects certain behaviors from women, especially widowed women without children, and get by in a Britain that does not easily accept her as one of them. 

The Major and Mrs. Ali come together and bond through their common loss of a spouse and a love of literature.    They meet for the first time at his home for afternoon tea to discuss, of all things, Rudyard Kipling!

Their story is attractive and sweet but not mawkish and I look forward to finishing the journey with them.

Always wanted to be a librarian?

Image representing LibraryThing as depicted in...

Image via CrunchBase

When I was a child I liked order.  This need for the well-ordered extended to my books, especially my books.  I always harbored the need to catalog and organize my books.  I used to put “library” cards in my books and assign them numbers.  I had stamps with dates and would play library for hours.  And now, even as an adult, I secretly long to organize and catalog.  Lucky for me that I have located a site that will allow me to do just that!

I discovered LibraryThing by accident and found it to be exactly what I require to indulge my inner librarian.  I even have a librarian’s endorsement for the site!!  So go ahead and catalog and organize all those books cluttering up your shelves (and your closets, floors, bathroom, tables, hallways), I know I will.

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