Looking Forward and Back

A Janus coin

When I started blogging a year ago, I didn’t really have any particular goals in mind, other than to start posting and see what happened. Looking back, there are some things I’m really pleased with and would like to continue into 2015, and some things that I’d like to work on.

For more goals and resolutions from other bloggers, see this week’s links at Top Ten Tuesday.

Accomplishments in 2014

Kept to my intention of posting at least once a week, with a review every Friday.

Made a good start on my Classics Club list.

Read quite a lot of nonfiction books (for me anyway), and found many more that I want to read next year, thanks to Nonfiction November.

Joined in some great events, including Mary Stewart Reading Week and Willa Cather Reading Week, and hosted my own Witch Week. I’m looking forward to more of these, and plan to host an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week in April as well as Witch Week II in October/November.

Sprung for a new blog design that I absolutely love.

Goals for 2015

Keep better track of what I’m reading, with notes at least on the title, author and date finished. I’m amazed by the detailed statistics some bloggers keep, but am not sure I’m up to that.

Do a monthly wrap-up post that includes books that didn’t get a full review, but are worth mentioning.

Request only ARCs that I know I will read — like many new bloggers, I got overexcited and now have quite a few review copies that I know I just will never get around to.

Read at least one book from all twelve categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Read more from some genres that I neglected in 2014, including fantasy, children’s books and new releases.

. . . And just read more in general. I spend too much time looking for books to add to my list when I have plenty on there already! My personal “Put the Library on Hold” challenge in January (which anyone else is welcome to join) should help a bit with getting me to actually read books I already own.

What about you? What was your year like? What are you looking forward to in 2015?

Back to the Classics Challenge

I heard about the Back to the Classics challenge too late to join last year, so I was glad when Karen of Books and Chocolate decided to host it again. Visit the sign-up post for the full rules, but basically the idea is to read and post about 6-12 classics (pre-1965) in different categories during the year. Participants who complete the challenge will be entered in a drawing for a $30 gift card, but everyone can share in the rewards of reading and discussing great books.

Here are my current ideas about what I would like to read, but that may change during the course of the year. For economy’s sake, I’ve overlapped with my Classics Club list and other events wherever possible — hey, it’s not against the rules!

A 19th Century Classic: Armadale by Wilkie Collins

A 20th Century Classic: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

A Classic by a Woman Author: The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

A Classic in Translation: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

A Very Long Classic Novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A Classic Novella: The Aspern Papers by Henry James

A Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope

A Humorous or Satirical Classic: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

A Forgotten Classic: Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

A Nonfiction Classic: Three Houses by Angela Thirkell

A Classic Children’s Book: An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

A Classic Play: The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder

Are you participating in this or other challenges? What are your reading plans in 2015?

A Visit to Barsetshire: The Brandons

Angela Thirkell, The Brandons (1939)

Angela Thirkell Barsetshire

After reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, I was curious to read some of the novels that Angela Thirkell set in the same (imaginary) county of Barsetshire. Starting in 1933 and extending through World War II and into the 1950s, she chronicled the lives and loves of several interlinked circles of characters in provincial England. I wondered how these much-loved comedies would compare to Trollope’s acerbic satire, which I appreciated but couldn’t fully warm to.

Strangely, my library only had one of the multitudinous books in the series, The Brandons, so it was there that I began. In this early, pre-war novel (though published in 1939, it contains not a hint of Hitler), the rich and cantankerous Miss Brandon’s last bequest brings excitement and some surprises into the placid life of a Barsetshire village. Meanwhile, the lovely widow Mrs. Brandon continues to inadvertently attract the adoration of men of various ages, and becomes interested in the plight of her elderly relative’s poor companion, who is harboring a romantic secret of her own. Eventually everybody ends up with the right person, in a spirit somewhat reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mrs. Brandon as a gracious and happily Oberon-less Titania ruling over them all.

I was interested to note how Thirkell explored some Trollopean themes and characters in a decidedly lighter manner. Instead of the inheritance causing greed to pit family and friends against one another, the Brandons honestly don’t care what, if anything, they inherit, and an outsider coming into money actually pleases them. An expatriate Englishwoman who spouts Italian phrases and rhapsodizes about “her” Calabrian peasants comes across as ridiculous, but in an amusing rather than a repulsive way. A clerical quarrel between “high” and “low” churchmen has caused grief in the past, but peace is restored by an act of forgiveness.

Thus, though The Brandons doesn’t carry the weight of social criticism that Barchester Towers does, it goes down more pleasantly, like a refreshing sorbet after a heavy stew. Though it’s light, it’s not fluffy. Thirkell shows great skill in how she handles her characters and narrative, as when Mrs. Brandon listens — or rather, doesn’t listen — to her scholarly admirer reading her his manuscript on John Donne, a scene that reminded me of the best of P. G. Wodehouse. Full of witty phrases and sly allusions, Thirkell’s writing bubbles with the comedy of life. We laugh at her characters, but we love to be with them; “charming” is a more accurate description than usual with that over-used adjective.

And so, charmed by Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, I’ll surely be back, and I’ll be reading more Trollope too. These two very different writers balance and complement each other to create a marvelously full picture of an imaginary place.

Classics Club List #45


Post No. 101: Favorite posts from ECBR’s first year

Northanger Abbey, by the Balbussos

The Emerald City Book Review is just about one year old, and I’ve done 100 posts! To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to look at the archives and see what have been the ten most popular posts in my first year of blogging (giveaways excluded). Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also happen to be some of my personal favorites. If you haven’t yet seen these, I hope you’ll take a look. Here they are, in order of appearance (or click here to see a handy preview all on one page):

 Beautiful Books: The Dark Is Rising

From Austen to Atwood: The Art of the Balbusso Sisters

My Life in Bookstores

Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen (a three-part series)
Part OnePart TwoPart Three

Top Ten Classics You Might Not Have Heard Of

Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

Two from the Trail: A Walk in the Woods and Wild

Witch Week Day One: Fire and Hemlock (Guest Post)
…plus more wonderful Witch Week posts can be found here

Nonfiction November: Unconventional Biographies

Five Favorite Books about Books

What were your highlights of 2014, in reading or blogging?

The Immortality of Love: Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-9)


What makes Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women immortal, when as a nineteenth-century moral story for the young it should properly have been forgotten long ago? A portion of the reading population might like to forget it, as Elaine Showalter points out in her illuminating introduction to my Penguin Classics edition: “in male literature. . . Little Women stands as a code term for sentimentality and female piety. . . . In a typically dismissive critical judgment of the 1950s, Edward Wagenknecht declared that Little Women ‘needs — and is susceptible of — little analysis.’ ” Yet it is still read and loved, at a time when the mores of American society have changed almost beyond recognition from those of Alcott’s day. Clearly, more is at work here than mere “sentimentality and female piety.”

As a child, I was simply entranced by the adventures of those four wonderfully realized characters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. When Alcott decided to draw on her own life to create the moral tale her publisher requested, she feared the result would be dull. The reverse was the case, as the homely details of family life are what lend the story its irresistible charm and vitality. Who can forget Jo selling her hair, Amy bringing forbidden pickled limes to school, Meg succumbing to the temptation to dress up in “frills and furbelows,” or Beth’s joyful reaction to the gift of a piano? The girls’ idiosyncrasies and foibles are described with a wry humor that saves the narrative from becoming overly sweet, and their relationships with one another are spiced with realistic quarrels and quirks as well as love and tenderness.

When I went back to Little Women as an adult, I did find the moralizing aspect to intrude somewhat, but not as much as one might expect. With her unfailing perception and equanimity, Marmee is an idealized quasi-divine mother figure whose words of wisdom bring each episode to neat closure, especially in the first half of the book, which explicitly takes its theme and direction from the Christian precepts of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet the undogmatic, sensible nature of most of these lessons saves them from being only examples of that dreaded “female piety.” The underlying message is to be true to one’s inner core, and to find value in the lasting treasures of life: integrity, self-knowledge, human connections. Though the trappings of time and culture may change, this moral journey is universally valid, and surely a key to the book’s continuing relevance.

Meanwhile, the marvelously unconventional character of Jo, Alcott’s own alter ego, also plays a large part in its enduring appeal. With her exuberant speech and behavior, disregard of propriety, and literary creativity, she points toward a later time when women would be able to more fully express themselves and their potentialities. For modern readers, it can be disappointing when Jo’s youthful urges and artistic ambitions, along with those of her sisters, are partly squashed in favor of the ultimate female consummation of marriage and motherhood. But her spirit remains unquenched for readers and writers who have found in her a soul-sister, an inspiration and a companion when “genius burns.”

Opposite to Jo is gentle Beth, whose death is one of the other indelible experiences of reading Little Women in childhood. Saccharine Victorian death scenes are notorious, but Alcott’s sincere depth of feeling born of her own sorrow and loss gives this one a poignant simplicity, and I still cannot read it without sobbing. “Love is the only thing we can carry with us when we go,” Beth says. For me, this “belief in the immortality of love” is the gift and the legacy of Little Women, one for which I am forever grateful.

Classic MG/YA Challenge


Gems of 2014

It’s time for an end-of-year roundup! With this post, I’m introducing the Emerald City Book Review Gem, to be awarded to my favorite books of the year in various genres and categories. (Note that books were read and reviewed, but not necessarily published in 2014.) Click on each title to be taken to my original review, or click here for a page that lists all of them. Visit Top Ten Tuesday for many, many more best-of-2014 lists.

2014 Releases: Fiction: Hild   Nonfiction: In the Kingdom of Ice

Rereads: Witch Week

Fiction: My Brother Michael

Classic Fiction: Barchester Towers and The Brandons

Historical Fiction: The White Witch

Fantasy: The Islands of Chaldea

Children’s: All-of-a-Kind Family

YA: A Solitary Blue

Memoir/Biography: Strings Attached and My Life in Middlemarch

Nonfiction: The Age of Wonder

Do you have a Best of 2014 list? Please share it in the comments!

A Christmas Gift: I Saw Three Ships

Elizabeth Goudge, I Saw Three Ships (1969)


Just in time for Christmas, the wonderful folks at David R. Godine, Publisher have reprinted their edition of Elizabeth Goudge’s story I Saw Three Ships. In this brief tale set in the West Country of England a couple of centuries ago, we are introduced to the irrepressible orphan Polly, who knows she has heard angels climb the stairs on Christmas Eve; her very proper maiden aunts, Dorcas and Constantia, who yet harbor secret dreams and longings; and three wise men of a rather unexpected sort. How they all come together is Christmas magic of the very best kind.

As fans of Elizabeth Goudge may expect, there is a marvelously evoked historical setting, with a lovably mischievous child character, adults of varying degrees of eccentricity, and a contented cat. There is charm and mystery and humor, and a hint of something beyond the everyday world. At appropriate moments, the old English carol named in the title enlivens the text with its jaunty tune — a different one than most Americans may be familiar with, so it’s good that words and music are included at the end. The numerous pen-and-ink drawings by Margot Tomes capture the early-nineteenth-century atmosphere perfectly, and Godine’s usual fine production values enhance the book’s appeal even further. A small paperback (about 5 by 7 inches large and 60 pages long), with a heavy, durable matte cover and French flaps, it would slip nicely into a large stocking. If you’re looking for a gift for an older child — or adult! — who enjoys historical fiction by the likes of Joan Aiken or Leon Garfield, this would be a fine choice.

For those who already know and love the books of Elizabeth Goudge, or would like to discover a splendid but often sadly underrated author, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be hosting an Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week from April 24 to 30. Keep your eye on these pages for further details in the New Year, and enjoy whatever you choose for your holiday reading.


Remember Them in Bonds: Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Willa Cather, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)


Willa Cather’s quiet, elegaic final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, is the only one of her novels set in her birthplace of rural Northern Virginia. Taking up events and characters from the author’s own family history, it gives us a window into a time and place where, not long before the Civil War, slaveowners and those with abolitionist sympathies co-existed uneasily.

The title characters are Sapphira Colbert, wife of a prosperous miller and daughter of a longtime slaveowning family; and Nancy, the mulatto daughter of the slave Sapphira has brought up and trained to be her personal maid. Sapphira has taken a dislike to Nancy because she unjustly suspects that she is dallying with her husband, and eventually an escalating sequence of events causes Nancy to leave for freedom in Canada. The final scene, one taken from Cather’s own memories and so the seed of the whole narrative, is of her return 25 years later.

This makes the plot sound much stronger and more unified than it is; in fact, it moves in a meandering fashion, with many detours, and nearly loses momentum altogether toward the end. What would seem to be the most interesting portion of all — how Nancy makes the huge transition from South to North and becomes a free woman — is skipped entirely, and the ending is rather anticlimactic. With a lesser writer, this unsatisfying trajectory would no doubt have bothered me much more. But I was so caught up in the scenes and characters that Cather portrayed with such compassion and insight that I didn’t mind much at all.

Many different viewpoints on the central issue of slavery are represented, even within a single character, creating a complex and multi-faceted picture of this moral dilemma. Henry Colbert, perhaps the novel’s moral center, is deeply conflicted: he personally does not wish to have slaves, yet accepts them as part of his wife’s heritage and tries to treat them as honorably as he can. He searches for answers in Scripture:

Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. — And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?

Sapphira’s attitude toward Nancy is hard to understand or forgive, and yet even she cannot be seen as wholly evil, but as one who has not managed to escape the limitations of her upbringing and culture. At the end, though, she does break through to an act of reconciliation that suggests change is possible. If we are all in bonds, Cather suggests, we are all working our own way to freedom. Wrong as it is to think that we can “own” another human being, it is equally wrong to imagine that this outer form of slavery is the only kind. Is our task perhaps to transform our bonds of intolerance and distrust into bonds of love?

The language of the book will be somewhat startling to a modern reader, as it freely uses terms that have become derogatory when applied to black people — not only in the mouths of the characters, which makes sense for historical accuracy, but also in the narration, which does not seem so necessary. Certain remarks are also made that apply stereotypical judgments to people of color, and it’s not clear whether these embody the prejudices of the author or only of her characters. Certainly, they are mild in comparison to the opinions held by most people during the time of the novel’s setting and even during the time of its writing, yet they still strike a discordant note that I regretted.

In spite of this, once again Cather has impressed me with her rich portrayal of character and setting, and her thought-provoking approach to questions of the heart and spirit. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is perhaps not the strongest of her works, but it is still a rewarding read. Thanks to Heavenali and the Willa Cather Reading Week for inspiring me to pick it up.

Classics Club List #29


Words and Pictures: A Lost Lady

He did not think of these books as something invented to beguile the idle
hour, but as living creatures, caught in the very behaviour of living,
— surprised behind their misleading severity of form and phrase. He was
eavesdropping upon the past, being let into the great world that had
plunged and glittered and sumptuously sinned long before little Western
towns were dreamed of.

Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (1923)

Image: Man Reading by John Singer Sargent