Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday - Books on my Spring TBR list

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

The topic for today is books on my Spring TBR list.

Assuming I finish War and Peace this month, and it's highly likely as I am beyond the point of no return (aka past the half way mark), here's what I am looking forward to reading:

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier - the GoodReads group True Book Talk is reading this in April, and I am thrilled. I watched the movie a few years ago and loved it, and got a copy of the book and it has sat on my shelf since then. The movie is set in England, while the novel is set in France, but I think the plot is pretty much the same.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver - I'm a Kingsolver fan and have heard good things about this novel.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon - another bookclub book, this time with the JASNA Denver/Boulder reading group.

Before I Grow Too Old: A walk from John O'Groats to Land's End by Pat Jilks - my daughter read this, enjoyed it, and lent it to me as she knows how much I want to do this walk and how much I love reading about walking journeys.

Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman - my husband just read this, and recommended it. We are celebrating our 35th anniversary in May with a trip to a birding festival, and this will be perfect prep for the vacation. Incidentally, we had planned to go to Lake McConnaughy in Nebraska to see the sandhill crane migration, but cancelled because of the Bombogenesis storm that knocked the socks off of Colorado and is causing massive flooding the Midwest. 

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather - speaking of Nebraska and eastern Colorado, I am eager to read this classic and hope to get to it this spring.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

February - it's a wrap!

Wow, only one post in February. It's not that I haven't been reading, but I write so much in my day job that I need a break from it.

Nevertheless, blogging is a habit I'm not ready to break.


I belong to the fabulous Denver/Boulder region and our February meeting was devoted to discussing two books we decided to group read. I read both before the meeting, and it was such a treat to return to my beloved Austen world.

What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullan - really enjoyable, although the title is a bit misleading. It's not that Mullan explains twenty plot issues that have puzzled readers. Instead he answers the question, what matters in Austen, with the simple declarative, Everything! In other words, whatever Austen takes the time to describe matters in terms of understanding how the novel and its themes and characters and worldview work. The weather matters, the distance between place matters, the complexion of a woman, the cut of a man's coat. Unlike most authors, Austen's details aren't there to help fill in a world, they are there to communicate important information about that world and its stories. I gave this book five stars--loved it and will reread it. Here's a short interview with the author, who is as charming as the book he wrote.

Jane Austen at Home, by Lucy Worsley - also very enjoyable. Essentially a bio of Austen, but with an emphasis on where she lived and what it was like to live where she did and what it meant about her family's socio-economic status at any given time to inhabit the houses, rooms, neighborhoods that they occupied. I've read a fair number of Austen bios so the most interesting part of this book for me was the time she spent in Southampton after her father died and before she went to Chawton. The cramped quarters, the damp, the near squalor were eye-opening to me and this is a time in her life that is often skimmed by. At one point, she was in a household of 8-9 women, including servants, with barely enough beds for everyone to lie down at night. Another excellent book and one I'm glad I read.

Our JASNA region is starting up a bookclub that meets on alternate months from our regional meetings, so I have a lot of Austen/Regency books to look forward to in the coming months.

Audio Treats

Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail, by Ben Montgomery - I heard about this book on the wonderful blog Shelf Love, and knew I had to read it. Thankfully my library had an audio copy that I downloaded. I love to hike and walk and have dreamed of hiking at least part of the Appalachian Trail since the first time I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. 

Emma Gatewood, at age 67, became the first woman to through hike the 2000+ miles from Georgia to Maine. She did this in sneakers, without a backpack or sleeping bag, and minimal provisions. She sought shelter in farms and houses along the way, but occasionally ended up sleeping rough on picnic tables, haystacks, etc. Not only that, she hiked the AT two more times, and walked the Oregon Trail from Independence, MO to Portland, OR...in her early 70s. She received incredible notoriety, and helped establish hiking trails in her home state of Ohio.

Montgomery does an excellent job of telling Emma's story and backstory and I liked the idea that he ultimately gave to her desire to long-distance hike alone--it was her way of taking back and owning her life. As an abused wife who nearly died at the hands of her horrible husband many times, when she finally broke free she was determined to live life on her terms. Truly inspiring.

I just got a guidebook for the Harper's Ferry section of the AT and am hoping to visit next year for a week or so to hike and explore the part of the AT that most appeals to me.

Boar Island, by Nevada Barr - I'm about 10 minutes away from finishing the audio book of another Anna Pigeon, NPS ranger, mystery. I have been reading Anna Pigeon mysteries for decades now, and enjoy them so much. This one takes place briefly in Boulder, CO - my stomping ground - and Acadia NP in Maine, which is near the top of the NPs on my bucket list. It's good, interesting, a bit coincidental at times, but still a fun book.

War and Peace

I decided in December that 2019 was going to be the year that I finally read War and Peace, by Leo TolstoyThe idea initially was to read two books per month and that would get  me through most of the year. The problem with that plan is that it is so good, I just cannot stop. Now, I'm thinking that I can finish it in March and then treat myself to the Andrew Davies mini-series in April.

The battles are a bit challenging to read about since I know virtually nothing about the Russian part of the Napoleonic Wars, so I have to keep on referring to Wikipedia for info on places, people, events, etc. Luckily I am reading the Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Gibian, whose notes are exceptionally good and relevant with regards to history and Tolstoy. And they are at the bottom of the page so I can read them and not have to flip to the back.


Almost done with the second season of Medici - I had watched the first couple of episodes of season 1 last summer on the way to Paris, and then devoured it when we got home. So, I rewatched season 1 before embarking on season 2. I have to say, I think season 1 was the better of the two, but I just cannot get enough of the Tuscan countryside, the Duomo, and seeing the Renaissance art being created before my eyes. Definitely a fun way to get through the final (I hope) days of winter!

Happy March--looking forward to warmer days (it's been snowing all day today!), budding trees, crocuses, daffodils, walks after dinner and before breakfast, and lots of great books!

Sunday, February 03, 2019

January Reading Wrapup

Cold winter months mean lots of reading time. When the trails around my house are icy and snowpacked, the garden is tucked away, and night comes early, I love curling up by the fire and reading.

Here's a look at my January books.

Circe, by Madeline Miller - absolutely wonderful. I loved Miller's Song of Achilles, and this was also terrific. The story of the witch/goddess Circe, daughter of Helios, one of the Titans and the sun god of Greek mythology. I loved so many things about this book, starting with the gossipy world of the gods, their jealousies, rivalries, passions, and pastimes. I loved how Circe was born immortal but had to learn witchcraft--I loved how she was able to use her magic to protect her son, her island, and their lives. I loved seeing Odysseus and his odyssey through her eyes, and that of Penelope.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography by Marion Meade - another winner. I have long admired Eleanor and reading a complete bio of her was a treat. It was both scholarly and easy to read, not a mean feat. Having been published in 1977 it's a bit dated. How I wish one of the many cable/network companies would make a mini-series of her life. We're saturated with the Tudors, although I do plan to watch The Spanish Princess on Starz, about Katherine of Aragon. How could I not?

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson - Atkinson is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary authors. This novel is about Juliet Armstrong, a woman typist who works for MI-5 in London during WWII, helping them spy on the British who were Nazi sympathizers or collaborators--she types up the transcriptions of the meetings that MI-5 tapes.  After the war, she works for the BBC Radio, and her past comes back to haunt her. Such a fascinating story, giving me a view into an aspect of the war that I knew nothing about. Atkinson is incredibly skillful in building the tension of the story, as she oscillates between two primary time period, giving clues and building tension with each transition. The ending really walloped me--I did not see it coming.

 O Pioneers, by Willa Cather - tremendous, an instant favorite, and first in the Great Plains trilogy

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte - a disappointing classic but my first book in the 2019 Back to the Classics challenge.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

I know so many people absolutely love Anne Bronte and Agnes Grey in particular, but sadly I am not one of them. I am a fan of Victorian literature and have been reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for decades, but I was bored by Tenant of Wildfell Hall and annoyed by Agnes Grey.

Here is what I didn't like about Agnes Grey.

I found the first-person narrator to be sanctimonious and self-righteous without a spark of humor. I always assumed poor Agnes to be forced to become a governess, but this was entirely her choice. Yes, her father risked and lost their meager family funds and they were strapped financially, but her parents and sister repeatedly told her she needn't go off and be a governess since they could see she wasn't well-suited to it. But, she spent years miserable, lonely, and bitter about the thankless job. She was very snarky and judgmental about the children she was employed to teach and their parents, and I have to believe that she set herself up to be marginalized. I know I am not being fair, but the constant sniping by Agnes got on my nerves.

Anne Bronte didn't tell a very compelling story. The characters were either good or bad--that is, Agnes and her parents and sister and Mr. Weston, the curate she falls in love with, were all good, and the children and parents and their friends were uniformly bad. No shades of gray, no backstory to explain the manifold flaws of the gentry Agnes forced herself to work for, and definitely no growth. I was hopeful that Miss Rosalie would show some growth after she came back into Agnes's life as a married woman who regretted marrying for money alone, but no, she was still selfish and deceitful. And the main character showed absolutely no growth or development or enlightenment in the course of the story. She had no personal hills to climb, she had only to endure being around people she didn't like and who didn't like her.

So the plot was non-existent, the characters were cardboard, and the tone was supercilious. Why then did I give it three stars on GoodReads? Good question--I think I was swayed by the lovely description Bronte gave of the sea coast where Agnes and her mother go to live at the end of the book. I am always a sucker for good nature writing, and this stole my heart and made me want to return to the Yorkshire coast again.

Not the best classic to begin my Back to the Classics 2019 challenge, but now I have a check mark next to Classic by a Woman Author category.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Oh, Pioneers

I just finished my first classic of 2019, Willa Cather's Oh, Pioneers. It is the first in what is termed her Great Plains Trilogy, which also includes Song of the Lark and My Antonia. I plan to read all three books this year, and this first book reconfirmed this plan.

Oh, Pioneers was simply marvelous. The writing was superb--strong, clear, deceptively simple, just like the story Cather told in the novel. The heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is the daughter of Swedish immigrants who settle in Nebraska around 1900. Alexandra's father dies early in the story, leaving his level-headed daughter in charge of the family farm in lieu of her brothers, whom he doesn't feel have the right stuff to manage the farm and the family's finances. Alexandra proves him right, and manages to bring the family through hard times to prosperity.

The novel spans several decades and we see the family evolve along with the west. There is joy and sorrow, tragedy and triumph as the Bergsons farm the land, participate in the melting pot community of immigrants who are also trying to build a new home on the American prairie, and seek to take advantage of the educational opportunities that America provides.

The story is a richly detailed account of life on the prairie before WWI changed the world, both the incredible harshness of the land and the beauty and vastness of it.

An excellent start to my classic reading for this year.

Not going to peg this for the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2019 as I have other books in mind for the categories into which it would fit.

Monday, January 07, 2019

A Piece of the World

I have loved Christina's World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth, since I was little. My older brother gave my parents a copy of a coffee table book on Wyeth with this picture on the cover one Christmas, and I was intrigued by the painting and spent many hours flipping through the book, looking at the pictures.

Hence, it was natural for me to want to read A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline, which is a novel about Christina Olsen, the woman Wyeth used as a model for his most famous painting. It was my last book of 2018, and it did not disappoint.

I honestly don't know how much is known about Christina, apart from the fact that she was crippled and Wyeth and his wife, Betsy, stayed with Christina and her brother Al during the summer on their Maine farm in the mid-1940s. Hence, I don't know how many liberties Kline took with their story as she fictionalized it, but that sort of doesn't matter. For example, I have no idea whether the love interest is based on a real person in Christina's life, but in terms of Christina's story arc I think it is a vital element.

I thought Christina a very realistic character--she is frustrated by her physical disability, proud and determined to live life on her own terms, hardworking, resourceful, at times petty and perverse.

I also loved reading about Andrew Wyeth and how he approached his work. I am fascinated by the creative process, and Kline did a wonderful job with her portrait of a painter and the legacy he wrestled with as the son of a famous artist.

Here's an excerpt from the Prologue that I think is just splendid. A perfect opening to a wonderful book.
People think the painting is a portrait, but it isn’t. Not really. He wasn’t even in the field; he conjured it from a room in the house, an entirely different angle. He removed rocks and trees and outbuildings. The scale of the barn is wrong. And I am not that frail young thing, but a middle-aged spinster. It’s not my body, really, and maybe not even my head.
He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me. (There are many ways to be crippled, I’ve learned over the years, many forms of paralysis.) My ancestors fled to Maine from Salem, but like anyone who tries to run away from the past, they brought it with them. Something inexorable seeds itself in the place of your origin. You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Back to the Classics - 2019

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting Back to the Classics again in 2019, and I cannot resist signing up. I have most of the categories filled in, with a couple of open slots for mood-strikers.

1. 19th Century Classic: Can You Forgive Her?, by Anthony Trollope
I meant to read this in 2018, but never got to it--the first in the Palliser series. Cannot wait!

2. 20th Century Classic: The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton
Unfinished, so I hope that won't bother me too much. I watched the mini-series years ago and always meant to read the novel.

3. Classic by a Woman Author: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte
Ended up quite disappointed with this one, but I still gave it three stars for the nature writing at the end. No much plot, no interesting characters, just a lot of whining.

4. Classic in Translation: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
At last, this is the year of W&P - at 15 books and two epilogues, I haven't quite worked out a good reading schedule for this, but I intend to take most of the year to read it, savor it, and live in it.

5. Classic Comic Novel: TBD
Waiting for the right book to strike my fancy--will be depending on reading reviews from others in this category.

6. Classic Tragic Novel: Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy
You can always count on Hardy for a good tragedy!

7. Very Long Classic: Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
Since I decided to skip Felix Holt after trying it and being bored beyond belief, this is the last of Eliot's novels I have yet to read for the first time. I've heard it's great!

8. Classic Novella: TBD
Another category in which I'm waiting for inspiration.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean): A Diary of Dixie, by Mary Chesnut, or Roughing It, by Mark Twain
I need to read both of these to complete the Classics Club challenge this year. I had wanted to venture south of the US, but I do want to finish up the CC roughly on time.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania: Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay
I have wanted to read this for years and it just qualifies for the 50-year mark, being published in 1967. I might include it in my October spooky reading.

11. Classic From a Place You've Lived: Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
This was a Colorado Book of the Month book in November, and much as I wanted to read along, I just didn't get to it. Sounds wonderful. The only place other than Colorado that I've lived is Birmingham, England, and since I was a baby at the time and I can't think of any classics set in Birmingham, I went with Colorado.

12. Classic Play: St. Joan, George Bernard Shaw
I have only read Pygmalion and since I visited Rouen last August and ate dinner across the plaza from where Joan was burned, I figured this would be a good play to read. I like to watch plays while I read them, so I wonder if there is a faithful film of this one.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Wrapping up Holiday Reading

First, Happy Solstice everyone--I am thrilled that we've turned the corner and the days will start getting longer again. I crave the sun.

I can hardly believe I haven't posted since December 1, but work has been crazy busy, prepping for Christmas takes time, and what's left goes into reading to keep me sane.

Here's what I read for the holidays this year:

The Twelve Clues of Christmas, by Rhys Bowen - my friend Rae gave it 4 stars on Goodreads and she is very sparing with her stars. It was a fun bit of English Christmas set in the 1930s and featuring an impoverished young lady, 32nd in the line of succession. Nothing deep or meaningful, but I liked the premise, a serial murderer who planned the murders around the Twelve Days of Christmas song.

The Nutcracker, by E.T.A. Hoffmann - read with the Goodreads True Book Talk group. This was my second encounter with the story that provided the inspiration for Tchaikovsky's incomparable ballet (I listened to Christopher Plummer read a version of this years ago), but I still think the ballet is better than the story. The best thing about the book, and I'm not disparaging it, were the illustrations by Maurice Sendak. I would love to see a production of the ballet that uses his set design. The introduction that he wrote about his work on the production was quite good.

Winter Solstice, by Elin Hilderbrand - the fourth in the Winter Street series about the Quinn family, set on Nantucket, Boston, and New York. I love this series and am sorry that this is the last book--I enjoy the food, the clothes, the traditions, the restaurants. I find myself looking up places for the next time I go to NYC, and now Nantucket is on my bucket list of places to visit...though not in summer, I think! Hilderbrand has scads of summer novels, but they don't appeal to me. I like the winter setting. When is Hallmark going to adapt these? They would be perfect.

The Holly-Tree Inn, by Charles Dickens - the complete 1855 Christmas number of Dickens' periodical Household Words. This is the first Dickens’ Christmas number that I have read that had multiple authors, and the editor provided an excellent introduction as well as terrific notes and good biographical notes on the various authors. The stories themselves were mostly grim, with the exception of Dickens’ The Boots, but the whole was very satisfying. This is a terrific addition to my Dickens collection and well worth reading--short but not all the Christmasy, actually.

The Ghost of Christmas Past, by Rhy Bowen - I stumbled upon this title in someone's blog (sorry, I don't remember where) and it appealed to me. Another easy mystery, this time featuring Molly Murphy, and set in NYC in 1906. I love novels set in NYC, and easy is good right now! Just started it today.

Happy Holidays...Happy Reading!

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Wrapping up Fall Reading

I'm just wrapping up my Fall reading before diving into Holiday books, so here's a quickie look at what I read this Fall.

I Am the Chosen King, by Helen Hollick - read this one with the GoodReads True Book Talk Group. November was historical fiction month, and while this wasn't the book I voted for, I really enjoyed it. It's about Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who was defeated by William the Bastard in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. Having visited Bayeaux last summer and viewed the Bayeaux Tapestry and listened to the French side of the story, it was a story fresh in my mind and was cool because I had visited many of the places in Normandy mentioned in the book. It was well-written and detailed and covered a period of history that I want to learn more about.

An Infamous Army, by Georgette Heyer - this was my second time listening to the audio version of this incredible book. It is a mashup of a Regency Romance and a very detailed narrative of the Battle of Waterloo, with definite overtones of Vanity Fair. I really need to read it next time with a map in hand because listening to it in the car means I can't research all the place names. Thoroughly enjoyable, though.

Varina, by Charles Frazier - an exceptionally creative and well-written novel about Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the African-American child who was part of her household during the Civil War but who was taken from her when the Union Army captured the Davises after Richmond fell. Varina reminded me of Frazier's Cold Mountain in that both books are journeys--in Cold Mountain, Inman is going home after the Civil War whereas Varina is fleeing Richmond and trying to reach Florida so she can escape to Cuba. One of the best books I read this year.  Now, I am very eager to read A Diary from Dixie, by Mary Chesnut, who was one of Varina's closest friends before, during, and after the war.

To Die but Once, by Jacqueline Winspear - the most recent (#14) in the excellent Maisie Dobbs series. I love these books, always listen to them as the actress is so good who reads them. It's set during the Dunkirk evacuation, and is an absolutely first-rate mystery. Loved it!

The Caves of Perigord, by Martin Walker - I really wanted to visited the Dordogne region of France on my trip last summer so I could go to the Lascaux caves, but I just couldn't fit it in. So, I did the next best thing...read a novel about the region. Martin Walker writes lovely mysteries set in the Dordogne region, but this one was a stand-alone that bounced between pre-historic times when the cave paintings were done, WWII (when British, American, and French soldiers were prepping for D-Day and encounter the caves), and modern-day (when a fragment of one of the paintings is part of theft). It was okay--I loved the pre-historic story about how the paintings were done, what they meant--all conjecture, of course, but fun to read. The WWII part was also good, but the modern-day was pretty weak in terms of story and characters.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson - another second listening of this favorite book. All about how the stuff we take for granted--light, toilets, kitchens, essentially everything in a house including its structure--came to be.  I love listening to Bryson read his own works.

Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon - I'm 75% done with this reread, which I am doing while watching season 4 of Outlander. I'm a fan of the whole series and never tire of reading about the adventures of Clarie and Jamie and their family that literally spans the centuries. Gives new meaning to the term "extended family."

Now, on to Holiday reading!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Classics Club Spin #19

UPDATE - the lucky number is 1, so I'll be reading Agnes Grey by end of January.
Actually I might wait until January 1 to start it so it can count for a Back to the Classics 2019 (assuming Karen at Books and Chocolates runs that marvelous challenge again next year!).
I've never done a Classics Club spin before, but since I am done with my Back to the Classics challenge for the year, I might as well!

The drawing will be held on Tuesday, November 27 and the deadline for completion is January 31.

Since I only have 10 books left and the drawing is from 1-20, I have listed each twice.

  1. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
  2. A Diary from Dixie - Mary Chesnut
  3. No Name - Wilkie Collins
  4. Daniel Deronda - George Eliot
  5. The Art of Eating - M.F.K. Fisher
  6. The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
  7. Can You Forgive Her - Anthony Trollope
  8. Roughing It - Mark Twain
  9. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  10. The Buccaneers - Edith Wharton
  11. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
  12. A Diary from Dixie - Mary Chesnut
  13. No Name - Wilkie Collins
  14. Daniel Deronda - George Eliot
  15. The Art of Eating - M.F.K. Fisher
  16. The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
  17. Can You Forgive Her - Anthony Trollope
  18. Roughing It - Mark Twain
  19. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  20. The Buccaneers - Edith Wharton
The only one I'm hoping doesn't get picked is The Art of Eating because I am already reading a few non-fiction books, and am ready to sink my teeth into a good story. Even though the Mary Chesnut diary is technically non-fiction, I am definitely hoping that one wins!