A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Reminiscences.

The Regal Rules for Girls by Jerramy Fine

regal rulesI picked up The Regal Rules for Girls:  How to Find Love, a Life – and maybe even a Lord – in London by Jerramy Fine because I figured it would be a fun book, especially since as a young girl I had fantasies of being whisked off to Balmoral by the Prince of my dreams and even kept pictures of eligible royal bachelors scotch-taped to my bedroom wall:  Prince Andrew and Prince Edward of the UK and Crown Prince Felipe of Spain.  Yes, I always wanted to be a Princess and truth be told I still do despite the fact that I now know that the fairytale is an illusion and more bother (perhaps) than it’s worth.  There’s more to being a Royal than fabulous hats, tiaras, and riding horses.

The cover is cheesy to say the least but includes some amusing tips.  Ms. Fine explains how to begin making your dream of meeting the royals and the aristocracy come true.  Rule number 1 you need to go to the UK, specifically London, to hang where you are most likely to rub elbows with the Castle Crew.  Rule number 2 one must learn their manners and the rules of etiquette.  Manners is something which unfortunately gets short-shrift in the US but is absolutely essential in the UK.  It goes on about what to do if one is introduced to the Queen, how to dress, how to RSVP to a wedding invitation (hand-written please), where it is appropriate to wear hats, to avoid anything other than the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, and the ins and outs of the British Season.  Most importantly:  Do not fake a British accent!

She advises American girls who want to nab an Englishman, royal or not, that it is good to brush up on one’s history.  It’s probably a good idea to know that Queen Victoria is Prince Harry’s great-great-great-grandmother if you plan on walking down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.  I think that if you don’t even know this commonplace detail you are not worth your Wellies.  I found myself giggling over this book and how it brought back memories of all my lovely fantasies of becoming royal.  I was amused right up until she answers the question, “Why are Roman Catholics excluded from the line of succession?” I nearly lost it!  This book states that this exclusion dates to the time of Henry VIII’s failed attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and his eventual establishment of the Church of England when the Pope would not grant what he wanted.  This is not true; not by a long-shot.  Henry VIII’s daughter Mary Tudor  reigned after the death of her brother Edward VI and was a Catholic.  She was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” for her penchant of persecuting Protestants.  Catholics were not formally excluded from the succession until the passing of the Act of Settlement in 1701.  Thanks, James II (look it up, it’s riveting history).  Up until that time it was preferred that no Catholic ascend the throne but they were not officially excluded.  She adds further insult to injury by suggesting that one read The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory to gain more insight into Henry’s break from Rome.  Really, she actually suggests that an American girl read an historical fiction that takes severe liberties with “actual” events to learn about royal history?  This is ghastly advice!  We, Americans already have a bad rap when it comes to historical knowledge and this recommendation of the well-meaning author is too much to be borne.

Listen, young ladies, I am not professing that one stop dreaming of becoming a royal, it is fun to fantasize (I, myself, still have delusions of grandeur) but if you want to become knowledgeable about British and royal history pick up a history book.  The real stuff is so much more interesting than the fiction.  And even if you don’t bag a Prince you’ll be amazed at how impressed Englishmen can be when a cute American girl is informed about English history.  I recommend reading a biography of Henry VIII while practicing your curtsy.  Ms. Fine insists that you keep your heels, head, and standards high.  I agree but those high standards should also be directed to the books you use to gain knowledge.  Trust me, even if Prince Harry is not impressed by your knowledge of his family history you can bet your future father-in-law and Harry’s grandmother will be.standards high

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The Public Library: A Sanctuary since ca. 1974

Library_ShelvesI just read Five Times A Library Changed Me by Rachael Berkey about the mental, emotional, and spiritual growth libraries provide her.  I silently chuckled reading about the pride she had in getting her first library card, riding her bicycle to the library and attempting to bring home a shelf-load of books, the competitiveness of school reading challenges, and the complexities of navigating her college library mostly because I have many parallels in my own life.  It was a bit uncanny.  We love, crave even, the company of books and we live with the idea that the library is a home away from home.

I was inspired to write of my most potent memories and reflect on how a library was an important entity in my formative years.  Thanks Rachael for the idea:  imitation is, afterall, the sincerest form of flattery.

First Memory of a Public Librarylibrary-pockets

My first memory of a library is of my mother taking me on a very wet and dreary day, it was after a swim lesson, my belly full of pizza and myself physically exhausted [and probably cranky].  The building was diminutive, the exact size to inspire interest without being overwhelming to a 5 year old. It was divided into two wings, one side held the Juvenile books and the other the Adult books and in the middle overseeing all was the Librarian’s desk with all her pretty cards and stamps.  What a haven of serenity.  I received my first library card here.  What source of power, this simple manila heavy card stock, possessed.  I was left to roam the shelves and pick the books I wanted to check out.  I remember the smell of the books, a scent recollection so stimulating that the remembrance of it brings back floods of happy thoughts.

There were so many books!!  How was I to choose?  I couldn’t and boy, was my mother shocked by the small tower of books I had decided upon.  She didn’t flinch however as she guided me to the Librarian to have them checked out.  Thanks Mom for understanding the stirrings of what would become my lifelong affair with the written word and even encouraging it.

I Can and Will Read More Than Youreading medals

Yes, that sounds obnoxious but blame the philosophy of a late 70s and early 80s educational system.  It has established in me that reading for mere enjoyment and interest alone is not enough; that it can, and is, a competitive sport.  That practice, begun in grammar school, continues with Goodreads and their annual reading challenge.  I am currently at 29% of my 2013 reading goal having finished 26 books of the 90 I intend to read.  Cool right?

I remember my first official reading challenge.  The local library called it The Reading Olympics and depending on how many books you read you could earn a bronze, silver, or gold medal.  It won’t take too much stretch of the imagination to know what medal I not so secretly coveted.  I remember taking home the log sheet in which we were to write the books we had completed with the start and end dates.  The mostly self-inflicted pressure was intense but like any well-trained athlete I was sure that I had what it takes to win gold.  I paced myself, slow and steady will win the race, gradually picking up the pace until I had filled out that sheet.  I was so proud when I handed in my sheet knowing I had won gold exceeding the 25 book minimum.  A few weeks later I received that medal and reveled in all its shiny plastic dazzle.  [cue Olympics Theme music now]

Mom’s Library at Collegepaper-chase-lecture

When I was about 7 or 8 years old my mother began her collegiate academic career.  This was awesome for many reasons but mainly because on days when we had to accompany her Mom would leave us at the campus library with the strict orders that we were to behave.  We always did.  Nothing was cooler and it was from this moment that I knew I wanted to go to college too.  When you are in 5th grade and a veracious reader there is nothing like it.  I roamed the stacks for hours never getting bored pretending that I was a college student like those in the television show The Paper Chase.

I once had to do research for a class project.  We were studying medieval Europe and I decided I wanted to do my presentation on heraldry.  I looked up books in the card catalogue, pulled the necessary books from the shelf, and spent every dime I had photocopying a small forest worth of pertinent literature.  Mom even checked out books for me.  I don’t remember what grade I received but I sure do remember having lots of fun doing the research.

Libraries are wonderful places, temples of wisdom and bastions of human intellect.  I love to go to my local library and look at the books and I always inadvertently walk out with an armful of books to add the myriad others I have not read.  Oh well, it only helps me with my Reading Challenge goal!

It’s National Libraries Week (April 14-20) so get out there, get your library card, and start 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!

The Best of Read Alouds

Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear from Uncle Remus, His...

Image via Wikipedia

The days are getting shorter and there is a hint of crispness in the air.  Soon, too soon, the languid days of summer will be over and autumn will be here.  Naturally, my mind has begun to turn towards preparing my son for his inevitable return to school.  Its been a flurry of clothes and supplies shopping, arranging for after-school, and the return to routine.  Once again, I will begin to mandate a time for reading, both alone and together.  Ever since he was a baby he’s been read to and although my son will be entering the 5th grade this year we will choose and put aside books especially to be read aloud.

Presumably one would think he’s too old to be read to, that it’s too babyish.  I disagree.  An article at the website Education World (Reading Aloud: Are Students Ever Too Old?) corroborates my belief.  Not only does reading aloud to your child promote reading literacy but it’s also great bonding time.  Some of my greatest childhood memories were of my father reading to my sister and I.  My Dad was a master of reading with character voices, he had the wonderful talent of becoming a persona; I remember with great fondness his reading, in the vernacular, the adventures of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and his interpretation of Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi made real for me the epic life and death battle of the stalwart little mongoose with the evil snake Nagaina.  The latter so fondly remembered that a few years ago while reading aloud with family I coerced my Dad to read, once again, one of my favorite stories.  And for a moment, at the age of 40, I was able to relive a wonderful childhood memory.  I don’t think he truly understood what a wonderful gift he gave me that summer evening.  (Dad:  If you’re reading this now, Thanks).

I too, want to give this gift to my son.  I try very hard to do voices; my pirate voice is pretty good (but I recommend having a glass of water on hand) and some of my very favorite characters to read have been those of Roald Dahl.   It feels so good to become the deliciously bratty Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the sinister Grand High Witch from The Witches.  I suppose I must be doing something right because my tween still looks forward to laying in bed listening to Mom’s interpretation of stories, bad accents and all.  At least, I haven’t yet had any complaints!

A Brief List of past, present and future read-alouds

  • Rudyard Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
  • Roald Dahl, The Witches
  • Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Roald Dahl, The BFG
  • Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Edward Eager, Half Magic
  • E.B. White, Stuart Little
  • Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
  • Walter D. Edmonds, The Matchlock Gun
  • Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
  • C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
  • Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

In Which Henry David Thoreau confirms a place-name

There is a wonderful place in Maine where the loons call and the water laps against the shore, and the smell of earth, pine and cedar permeate the air.  It is a place absent of electricity and plumbing and it is, to me, the best place on earth.  It is the absolute best place to read; whether indoors sitting in front of the large fireplace with the wood crackling, sending up sparks or outside on the back porch with Borestone solemnly rising in the distance, a gentle breeze rippling across the lake, and the promise of a breathtaking sunset.

It is here a few summers ago I decided to undertake the reading of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, an interesting read if at times a difficult one.  It is a slow-moving book and took me a good deal of time to complete.  Thoreau’s writing is devoid of poetry and is very matter-of-fact and dry.  Despite this, his descriptions left an indelible hold on me and like those places he describes the book forces one to slow down, to stop and smell the flowers.

One of the things I liked most was Thoreau’s care and attention to detail, painstakingly describing the places, documenting the flora and fauna, and the Native American words for things.  I was delighted to find one of these terms, pokelogan.  There is a spot here that the family have always called pokelogan, a marshy, damp spot awash in lily pads, and occasionally covered in coarse grass where moose have been occasionally spotted.  The origins of the name were sufficiently lost in recent memory (at least to me); that’s what the place was called and I never thought to question why.  As a kid, trying to get the canoe around “Poky Logan”, when the water was low, was near impossible and the word “poky” apt because of the sluggish struggle to paddle through.  I always assumed this was the origin of the name and never wondered who or what “Logan” was.

The words of Thoreau  brought enlightenment, given the following passage:

“They [the moose] were particularly numerous where there was a small bay, or pokelogan, as it is called, bordered by a strip of meadow, or separated by from the river by a low peninsula covered with coarse grass, wool-grass, etc., wherein they had waded back and forth and eaten the pads.”

Of course, I probably could have asked the older generation of aunts and uncles and cousins to find the origin of the place-name but that would not have given me the pleasure of discovering it for myself.  The realization that my great-great-grandfather most likely read the posthumously published (1864) Thoreau tome, and may have chosen to use the native term to describe our “pokelogan” is a powerful one and doubly so because “my discovery” resulted in  feelings of closeness to him despite the span of generations.

The Curious Case of Artemus Ward

Artemus Ward, from book Wit and Humor of the A...

Image via Wikipedia

“The village from which I write to you is small.  It does not contain over forty houses, all told; but they are milk-white, with the greenest of blinds, and for the most part are shaded with beautiful elms and willows.  To the right of us is a mountain to the left a lake.  The village nestles between.  Of course it does, I never read a novel in my life in which the villages didn’t nestle.  Villages invariably nestle.  It is a kind of way they have.”  (Affairs Around the Village Green)

Waterford, Maine

I have returned to the village, Waterford, Maine, in which my grandmother was born and where I lived when I was born.  Albeit, the elms are now gone, a victim of Dutch Elm Disease, but it is still a “small and nestling” place.  I climb the mountain and swim in the lake.  It is a village my family have returned to practically every summer.  My grandmother lived there year-round as does my sister now.  I am drawn to it as a migratory bird is drawn back to its nesting grounds.  It is a place that renews my soul and the one place I truly feel is home.

Birthplace of Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne)

Ever since I could remember, there has been a sign on the common which mentions the founding of the village, when it was incorporated, and the fact that it was the birthplace of Artemus Ward (April 26, 1834–March 6, 1867).  As a snot-nosed kid, this fact did not mean much to me but one day I discovered a book, Works by Charles Farrar Brown, amongst the shelves at my grandparents’ home.  As I was flipping through it I found that the author of the stories wrote under the pen-name of Artemus Ward.  That large house across the common was where this once anonymous person was born.  Funny, who knew?  I hadn’t.

Charles Farrar Browne or Artemus Ward was a humor writer and a very popular one, apparently.  He was widely read in the United States as well as Great Britain and was in England, on a reading tour, when he became very ill and died at the age of 32.  He was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite writers and it is alleged that he read to his cabinet one of Ward’s articles before getting down to the business of presenting his Emancipation Proclamation.  Artemus Ward was also said to have inspired his contemporary, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

One of the stories in that book I stumbled upon, “Affairs Around the Village Green”, was particularly interesting because Artemus Ward perfectly describes the place that has meant so much to me.  That the little hamlet of Waterford had changed so little since his time, my grandmother’s time, and my father’s time gave me a sense of continuity and connection, one I could never have in New York.  And one day I will return there for good…it is a wonderful thing!

“Why stay in New York when I had a village green?  I gave it up, the same as I would an intricate conundrum and, in short, I am here.”

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