A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Pop Culture

My Bookish Year in Review: 2013

Marilyn Monroe, 1954, by Eve Arnold (reading series)I keep track of my reading on Goodreads, a social-cataloging website for readers. I can scan my books; the books I am reading, want to read, and have read. I can keep track of my reading progress [currently I am at page 74 of 199 (37%) of The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith]. I rate and review the books. I share with my friends, via social media, what I am reading because there is nothing better to make feel super-smart.  At the end of the year one can appraise the year’s reading.  I admit this makes feel somewhat smug.

This year, so far, I have finished 89 books, a total of 29,566 pages. Back in January I set the goal of reading 90 books in 2013. I will most likely surpass that number by midnight on December 31. The longest book I read this year was the tome-like The Bröntes: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters by Juliet Barker at a whopping 1,159 pages. Only 12 books were rated with 5 stars. I highly recommend these books. They are:

1776 by David McCullough
Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Shakespeare by Michael Wood
Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England by Juliet Barker
Crispin’s Day: The Glory of Agincourt by Rosemary Hawley Jarman
John Adams by David McCullough
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Dave McKean)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis

In 2012 I read 84 books (a total of 31,456 pages). I hope to read 100 books in 2014. If Santa brings me the books on my list I could make a very good start.

I wonder if I could start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for my reading. Hmmm?  If only I wasn’t so busy reading.

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That Which Interrupts Our Reading Makes Us Grumpy

Recently I watched an episode of The Middle that really spoke to me.  Well, actually the youngest son in the family, Brick, spoke to me.  Brick is my favorite character and the one I find most endearing.  He is advanced beyond his years, easily distracted, somewhat awkward, and a big reader.  In this particular episode, Brick is disquieted by the prospect of having to partake of the public school ritual of watching the required sex-ed film amusingly entitled, “What’s Going on Down There.”  Long story short, his not very helpful big brother Axl decides to explain the facts of life to his brother and analogizes Brick’s love of books to the feelings he will one day come to possess for the opposite sex.  I thought that was a promising correlation to make.  But the moment of sincere and clear enlightenment, the moment when I laughed myself silly because the question Brick asks of the school nurse after viewing the film hit, in a way, too close to home.  His question?  “When chicks want it, do they want it right away, or can I finish my book first?”  Ah, something to really think about.  After all, can’t things just wait till I finish my book?

The Middle: episode 5 The Hose

How I learned that sex, indeed, does sell at a JASNA AGM. No, not like that!!

“It’s a very select Society, an’ you’ve got to be a Janeite in your ’eart … You take it from me, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place.”
“The Janeites,” by Rudyard Kipling

The 2012 Jane Austen Society of North America AGM (annual general meeting) is over.  And on a cold and wet Sunday, having changed into my comfy new Jane Austen t-shirt, lying curled up in my bed, I took immense pleasure in my reminiscences of the past weekend, like Cinderella after the ball.

This was my first-ever AGM, an annual gathering of a like-minded mix of academic and non-academic followers of all things Jane.  I sit writing with my “Jane Austen’s Regency World” pen, sifting through the myriad postcards, flyers, refrigerator magnets, and bookmarks, while recollecting the lectures, banquet, Regency Ball, and all the wonderful people who I met.  I can’t help but feel sad that it’s over, the camaraderie, the vast amounts of information, the books for sale (that could possibly put me in a poor house), and the immeasurable satisfaction of being around so many who understand the obsession.  There was no eye-rolling (except perhaps when I chose to read from Fordyce’s Sermons aloud), no bored stares or incredulous looks, just others who wanted to gush about our favorite author, the ubiquitous Jane Austen.

I am still savoring the high of giving my first break-out lecture.  This is one of the highlights of my life.  I had been a bundle of nerves in the weeks leading up to this moment.  I am insecure when it comes to this kind of thing and even more so because I do not have an academic background in English Literature, therefore feel some inferiority and lots of fear that I will make a fool of myself in front of those who can claim extensive credentials.  I am a frustrated wannabe academic and I so yearn for acceptance and praise from those I consider to be “real” scholars.  This, compounded with the fear of suddenly forgetting my material, not being able to answer questions and looking like an idiot, and worrying that the sound of my voice (which I personally loathe) would be grating to others put me in a near state of panic.  It further did not help when I learned that I had one of the biggest groups (132) signed up for my lecture.  But I need not have worried.  My little talk “Fallen Women of the Regency:  Mistresses, Courtesans, and Prostitutes” was very well received (see sex does, indeed, sell even at Jane Austen themed events) , the questions asked were insightful and thought-provoking, and I was told that my presentation and handout were very interesting and that I had a very good speaking manner by no less an author whose books I admire.  High praise, indeed.  This wonderful experience has left me wanting more and I am already thinking of my next paper proposal for next year’s AGM celebrating the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice.

The Banquet and Regency Ball was so much fun!  For five hours I ate, drank, and danced the night away like I was at the Netherfield Ball.  There were so  many beautifully dressed people and the music was lively and fun.  I spent a good deal of the time admiring the general splendor of it all.  I did find myself having to loosen my stays if I wanted to keep up with the highly aerobic Regency-era dancing.  Thanks, mom, for my ballet training!

Another highpoint of the weekend was the author book signing.  Bleary-eyed and exhausted from the previous night’s exertions I lugged the books that I had carefully chosen, by the authors I was desperate to meet.  To speak with those who have written some of the most well-informed and wonderfully written books about Jane Austen was akin to meeting (for me) rock stars!

What a memorable weekend!!  I can’t wait for next year in Minneapolis, MN (and the year after that, Montreal, and the year after that, Louisville, KY).

Clearly the subject matter of my talk went to my head!

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!

A Book: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

It has been several days since Christmas and the flurry of paper and string and bows have had time to settle, candy canes have been eaten, the tree has become a tinder box, and finally I can settle down to read the books I received as gifts.  I love receiving books (or money so I can purchase them on my own).  I remember at a young age being thrilled to find books in my stocking; even once reading a tome in its entirety in the wee hours before waking my mother at a more civilized hour.  Yes, my sister and I were quite courteous on Christmas morning!

This year, without fail, I found a few books under my tree and in my stocking.  My loved ones certainly know that diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but there is nothing like a book to make this girl’s heart skip a beat.  So, here it is my Christmas books and with any luck I’ll be engrossed in one of these as the ball falls in Times Square to ring in 2012.  (Hint:  It will most likely be the P.D. James).

Firstly, everyone knows my obsession with Jane Austen so it wouldn’t truly be a MERRY Christmas without a little Jane.  Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is a wonderful re-working of Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan.  I have read this before (I borrowed it from the library) and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to be read by my Jane Austen reading group.  I suppose Santa thought I should have my own copy.  I also received from a friend, who occasionally leaves offerings of books, the recently released murder mystery by P.D. James Death Comes to Pemberley.  Clearly he understands that goddesses (or undervalued administrators) need to be kept happy.  Thank you so much, it is much appreciated.

A very fun book which will have pride of place on my coffee table is The Word Made Flesh:  Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide.  All I have to say is WOW!!  Were I to get a tattoo (read lack of bravery here) it would definitely have to be something literary inspired because I have never seen anything so cool.

Cover of "Tinkers"

Cover of Tinkers

Because everyone should read a Pulitzer prize winner and it was my pick from the Christmas book swap I have Tinker by Paul Harding.  Flipping through the pages it promises to reaffirm my love of the written word.  This is a first novel, and a seemingly powerful one.  The first line is staggering, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”

I also received and already finished The World of Downton Abbey.  There isn’t really much to say here except the book is a wonderful companion piece to the television series.  I love this book.  Just turning its pages brings me much joy and happiness.

My obsessions with Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are mediocre compared to that with good penmanship.  I am always cursing the decline of the art of writing (with a pen and paper); for crying out loud they don’t even teach children cursive writing anymore in schools!  It is an abomination.  Needless to say I am obsessed with handwriting.  I practiced for hours as a child and pride myself on my penmanship to this day.  I insist on using fountain pens and writing (almost daily) in my Moleskine journal and handwriting notes and cards.  I am quite snobbish about this so it is with great delight that I have received Script & Scribble:  The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.  Kitty Burns Florey is a kindred spirit in that she too professes to be a “penmanship nut”.

And because a girl cannot live on books alone I will get frequent use from reading my 2012 Zagat Guide for New York City.

Truly, books are the gift that keeps on giving!

HELP! Should I read or watch, first, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film)

I have just watched an HBO First Look about the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre and am immensely intrigued.  The story seems so fascinating and the acting so superb that not only do I want to see the film but I also want to read the book.  I vaguely remember the television mini-series in 1979 that starred Alec Guinness and an even vaguer memory that perhaps one or both of my parents read the book.  I do remember that at the time I had absolutely no interest in the mini-series or the book.  Spy thrillers are not my favorite genre; they are too modern, too slick for my “stuck in the 19th century” sensibility and besides, Alec Guinness was Obi-Wan Kenobi and my child’s mind despaired of seeing him portray anyone else.

So here’s my dilemma, do I read the book first or see the film while it’s still in theaters?  Normally, I am a stickler for reading the book.  Mostly because the book is always better but also because I do not want to be influenced by another’s vision of the story.  This was not always the case.  As a child, I was mostly introduced to books after watching the film or Masterpiece Theater adaptation.  Films such as The Lord of the Rings (1978), Brideshead Revisited (1981),  A Room With a View (1985), The Razor’s Edge (1984), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981), and Out of Africa (1985) were all seen before I read the book and were my introduction to authors I had never heard of.  Looking back,it is apparent that the film adaptations of the late 70s and early 80s shaped my literary interests.  I devoured the books that had been adapted and influenced my interest in other books by the same authors (Maugham, Tolkien, Forster, Dinesen, Lawrence) which further led me to other writers, mostly English.  Masterpiece Theater was literally very English-oriented and my Anglophilia may have developed at this time or been enhanced by it.  I rarely deigned to read American books or contemporary literature and instead dived into the worlds of Dickens, the Brontes, Greene, and Doyle.

As I developed my literary interests I became fastidious about reading the book first.  If I knew a film based on a book (I was interested in) was to be released I would rush to the library to check out the book and race to finish it.  I was always very disappointed in the films.  No screen re-working of a novel can perceive the nuances of the written work.  Although as I have matured I realize that choices are necessary when making a book into a movie and that sometimes a film can be very successful despite not being accurate to the book but capture the mood, atmosphere, or character of the book.  I appreciate this now and enjoy contemplating the screenwriter’s choices.

Cover of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

Cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

But all this does not answer my initial question, should I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or watch it?  I am leaning towards reading it first, old habits die very hard and I am somewhat inflexible on this.  But I also think that in this instance, it being a genre that I am not overly fond of, that seeing the movie first may pique my interest and enhance my reading experience.  I can’t make up my mind!  So I will ask you, reader, what should I do??  Read or watch??

The cast of Downton Abbey visit New York and I was there

Highclere Castle

I was one of 25 lucky facebook winners to attend a very special PBS hosted, season 2 screening of Downton Abbey and cast Q&A.  I was shocked that I had won (I never win anything) and was excited, very excited.  On December 15th I attended with my 10 year old son, Edward.  I was slightly worried that he wouldn’t have fun, that this would be one of those things that children get dragged to and are miserable the entire time.  I have brought him with me to Jane Austen events and he’s always behaved admirably but lacked a certain enthusiasm, understandably so.

We have watched several costume dramas together with middling success.  He has seen a few episodes of season 1 of Downton Abbey with me but I never noticed any great enthusiasm for the show.  He usually played with his Legos at the same time and I found it hard to discern if he paid any attention.

Apparently he was!  He was excited, to say the least to attend this once-in-a-lifetime event.  His favorite character is the Dowager Countess of Grantham, deliciously played by Maggie Smith.  He thinks her witty and sarcastic one-liners incredibly funny.  He despises all the wrong sort (Thomas and Mrs. Bates) and loves all the right sort (Anna and Matthew Crawley).

The event, itself, generated a lot of excitement and anticipation and my son enjoyed himself immensely.  While partaking of the hors d’oeuvres and beverages he very comfortably discussed with two very nice young ladies his interest in science.  Upon hearing this, they stated that they worked for GE and that perhaps if he worked very hard and did well in school he could work for GE as an R&D scientist one day.  My son was being recruited at the age of 10!

Once seated in the auditorium, the room darkened and the familiar theme music announced the start of the screening my son began applauding enthusiastically.  And as the view of Downton Abbey came up on the screen my son leaned into me and asked, “Mom, wouldn’t it be fun to live in that house?”  I smiled and had to agree with him that it undoubtedly would be very fun.  I believe he enjoyed the screening as much as I did.  Afterwards, he remained engaged during the Q&A, clapped and chortled and shivered with excitement.  All I could think was how watching costume dramas when I was his age on Masterpiece Theatre fueled my obsession with all things English and how funny that these kinds of things can be passed to younger generations just through exposure.

Afterwards, we patiently waited in line to meet the stars of our favorite show, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, and Joanne Froggatt.  They were gracious and generous with their time and were genuinely impressed that Edward was a fan.  While waiting on the line, PBS cameras asked if they could interview him (he was the only kid present).  He handled it like a champ!  He answered their questions intelligently and with the unaffected enthusiasm of a 10 year old.  I was amazed by his poise (I certainly never had his self-confidence when I was his age).  Afterwards, he told me how nervous he was; I told him he handled it like a pro.

All in all, this was an amazing experience on so many levels.  It was nostalgic because PBS has always been a favorite television station of mine, I was overwhelmed with feelings of infectious joy and camaraderie, and the connection with my son over a mutual interest is incomparable.

Here he is in the edited footage from that evening:

Period Drama Men // Sharp Dressed Man

Modern men take notice:  these gentlemen had a room full of women absolutely swooning.  Clearly we are starving for more than the man-boy look so prevalent today.  It would go a long way if you gents would make more of an effort.

Downton Abbey

Ah, if there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.  If there’s a remedy for this, I’ll run from it.  Think about it all the time; never let it out of my mind.  Cause I love Downton Abbey.

For those not familiar with it (have you been under a rock?) it is an English costume drama set on an aristocratic estate and follows the trials and tribulations of the fictitious Grantham family and their servants in the early 20th century.  Season 1 begins in 1912, April 15, 1912, to be precise and the family is shocked to have learned that the male heir to the entailed (all Jane Austen fans will know what this is) estate has died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  This throws the household into a dither because the next in line to inherit is in “trade”.  This is very hard to stomach by the three unmarried daughters who are not entitled to inherit.  The season ends as war is declared against Germany on August 4, 1914.  It has a stellar cast, beautiful clothes, exquisite manners, and a stunning country house.  It spotlights the last hurrah of the British upper classes before the devastation of war.  Right from the start, I was hooked.  I’ve always been a sucker for this type of entertainment and no one does this form of drama like the Brits.

Poor little rich girls

So now I’ve been watching Season 2 on my laptop.  It is not something I do normally and usually am against watching anything on such an inadequate screen.  But for this I made an exception.  It could not be helped; it simply had to be done.  And I have not been disappointed.  Season 2 takes place during the years 1914–1918 when Britain is torn apart  by the brutality of trench warfare and English society, class structure, and way of life changed forever.  I cannot wait for the PBS airing in January so I can watch it properly.

Maggie Smith (a real scene stealer) as the Dowager Duchess, Lady Grantham is delicious!

 It is a soap opera and a well done one despite a few too convenient and shoddy plot lines.  So no, I do not want a cure for this obsession with Downton Abbey.  There are few pleasures in life and this is an extraordinary one. 

Quote of the Day: Groucho Marx

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”  Groucho Marx, 1890-1977

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