Month in Review: January 2017

This month I’ve been bridging the old year and the new, sharing my favorite reads from 2016 and wrapping up the Reading New England challenge with a giveaway, while also looking forward to some new challenges and other projects.

I also shared my intention to post a bit less often for a while, with just one or two posts per week. This was supposed to allow me to get some other writing done, but at the moment I’m completely distracted by the bizarre antics of our dysfunctional government, and our now clearly deranged head of state. Reading still remains my lifeline, and as long as I am able, I will still be reading and sharing my thoughts with you.

I have also decided to start a real-life book club in my area to bring together people who want to try to understand and meet the challenges of our time. I hope to have our first meeting next month (reading The Unwinding, reviewed below), although who knows what else will have happened by then. As Robert F. Kennedy put it, “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”

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Reviews

  • I found Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale to be the best kind of fairy tale fiction.
  • For a readalong hosted by Hibernator’s Library, I read The Unwinding by George Packer, trying to understand the situation we find ourselves in now. Many, many thanks to all who took the time to read this post and share their own comments as well.
  • I read Britannia Mews for Jane’s Margery Sharp Day, an annual event to celebrate.

Other Books Read

  • Soul Music, Hogfather, and Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett
  • Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy – Review to come, Mount TBR
  • The Great and the Good by Michel Deon – Review to come
  • Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • War Diaries by Astrid Lindgren – Reading All Around the World
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – Reread
  • Midnight Is a Place by Joan Aiken – Reread, Mount TBR
  • I Was a Stranger by John Hackett – Reading All Around the World, Mount TBR
  • The Lord’s Prayer and Rudolf Steiner by Peter Selg
  • Carry On, Mister Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham – Mount TBR

 

Other Features and Events

 

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer, the Month in Review linkup at The Book Date, and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews

Margery Sharp, Britannia Mews (1946)

For the third year in a row, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a birthday celebration in honor of the author Margery Sharp, to encourage everyone to read and enjoy her witty, entertaining novels. As Jane notes in her announcement post, for the first time in quite a while many of these are now easier to find (at least for those of us with e-readers) since ten of them have been released as e-books by Open Road Media. I took advantage of this fact to snag the only one that wasn’t already checked out from my library, Britannia Mews. It turned out to be the perfect book to beguile me for a few wintry hours, immersing me in the titular London neighborhood and its colorful cast of characters.

Though not a long novel, it takes us over a span of many years, from the Victorian age to the second world war, following the life of the central character, Adelaide. From a sheltered young girl who defies her parents with an ill-advised elopement, she evolves into a strong woman who has weathered many ups and downs of life, and learned one of its most essential lessons: there’s no use in trying to escape, because you always take yourself with you. With such a theme, it’s appropriate that the book is named after the run-down former stable area that Adelaide’s upwardly mobile family once moved away from, but that drew her back and would not let her go. Accepting her fate leads to some unexpected transformations, both in Adelaide and in the Mews.

The latter part of the book leaves Adelaide in the background to focus on her niece, Dodo, who is coming of age in a very different era leading up to the Second World War. Still, the need to find a sense of integrity is timeless, and Dodo goes through her own process of growth. Along the way she discovers some (but not all) of the secrets that lurk in her family cupboard, as Sharp slyly makes us question which truths really matter.

The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves.

I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far. What’s yours?

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Trying to Understand Part 1: The Unwinding

George Packer, The Unwinding (2013)

This post is part of a series based around the New York Times’s list of “books to understand Trump’s win.” Rachel of Hibernator’s Library suggested doing a readalong of these six books, and I thought it was a great idea. So did several other people, and I hope that we’ll see some interesting and enlightening discussions coming out of this dark time.

Right at the outset I would like to say that my purpose is much larger than just understanding a single election or political movement. Forces are at work that are pushing humanity in directions that are ultimately self-destructive, and we need to stand up against them. How did we come to this point, and where do we go from here? How can we penetrate through the delusions that pit us against one another? How do we see clearly the sickness that lives within our culture and each one of us, and learn to speak a language that heals rather than divides? Voters of all persuasions are welcome here, as long as the discussion can be civil.

The first book on the list was The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which tells the story of disintegrating social, political and economic structures in America from the 1970s to today. It’s a gigantic and unwieldy topic, but Packer deals with it brilliantly, focusing on a few individuals and places whose stories encapsulate common experiences of decay, hope, disillusionment, betrayal, and rebellion. There’s a lawyer and sometime Washington politico, a working-class single mother from the Rust Belt, and a “think-and-grow-rich” entrepreneur — ordinary people whose hopes and mistakes and achievements and failures can cause us to think about the shape of our own lives and how it fits into the biography of our country as a whole.

We also spend some time in Tampa, Florida, where rampant real estate speculation and banking fraud are destroying a city; in Silicon Valley, where eccentric, antisocial tech millionaires plot how to save their own skins while playing the world like a video game; and on Wall Street, where the initially inspiring Occupy movement fizzles to a disappointing end. Interspersed with these ongoing narratives are brief profiles of prominent figures — Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, and Oprah, for example — who bring out key aspects of American life during this period. Unlike the more lengthy portraits, through which we get to know the subjects from the inside, these are biting and critical, which brings a jolt of piquancy that helps to enliven the complex and lengthy narrative (though sometimes they seem a bit unfair).

The Unwinding was all the more fascinating to me because it covers pretty much exactly the span of my own life. During this time boredom and disillusionment have caused me to avoid politics and economics as much as possible, with the result that I’m massively ignorant in these realms. It’s embarrassing to admit how many people and events in this book I knew next to nothing about, but Packer’s storytelling method made learning about them effortless. I’m still not sure what I can personally do to counteract huge disasters like the housing bubble or the corrosive influence of big money in Washington, but knowledge is perhaps the first step to action. Certainly, remaining in ignorance can’t do much good.

Packer’s narrative is so well-constructed, and feels so sweeping and comprehensive, that it’s easy to see it as the definitive word on the subject. But however much one puts into a book like this there’s still even more that has to be left out. Packer’s focus was very much on money, on the quest for dollars as the American dream. Some of his people have lots of money and are showered with even more, some lose the little they have, some go through cycles of riches and bankruptcy, but money is always there, defining and shaping their experience. Whether they are haves or have-nots, their ideals are cramped by it, their higher purpose is lamed by it.

This made me realize that to the extent that money is all we Americans really care about, Trump is actually the perfect president for us. He is a golden idol, a god for his supporters, a fetish that they touch in the hope that they will acquire what he has — though even if they became billionaires overnight it would never be enough, for this is a lust that feeds on itself. Those of more moderate or even progressive views are not immune from it either. Even if we campaign for a socialist utopia, with free health care and higher education for all, isn’t it still worldly comfort and material prosperity that we seek?

But what is the deeper meaning of this obsession? What is the real hunger that is masked and obscured by it? What do we truly value, and how do we stop mistaking the symbol for the thing? Packer doesn’t overtly touch these questions, but I think we have to start asking them, or our nation will continue to cannibalize itself and go on to devour the world. We cannot look wistfully back to the age of postwar middle-class prosperity, as Packer tends to do — that growth was built on the spoils of war and the rape of our natural resources, a Ponzi scheme that cannot continue indefinitely. America cannot be great “again” if we’re always looking back to a golden age that never really was. We have to move forward into something truly new, which is what terrifies those who cling to the old order of things.

But as a start, it’s good to look with clear eyes at where we’ve been, and for me reading The Unwinding was a first step on that path. I hope you will read it too, and please let me know your own thoughts.

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New Release Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

I opened The Bear and the Nightingale with great anticipation and not a little trepidation; since the trend for fairy-tale fiction exploded some years ago, there have been some brilliant entries in the genre and some derivative duds. Katherine Arden’s debut novel looked promising, with its half-magical, half-historical Russian setting and an enticing cover, but what looks good doesn’t always turn out to be so in the reading.

Fortunately, from the first pages I was entranced, as Arden quickly led me into a truly wonder-full world, in which the time-honored motif of the mistreated stepdaughter gains new strength and richness through her multi-layered telling. There’s so much to discover and enjoy that I’d like to encourage you to just pick it up and explore it for yourself … but to name a few favorite aspects, I especially appreciated how elements of folklore and myth were treated in a way that brought them to life for modern readers, while feeling both genuinely atmospheric and psychologically true. At the same time, the historical setting — a medieval land of wooden huts, wandering monks and tribal machinations — is economically but convincingly developed through telling details of life and language.

Toward the end, I found that Arden’s storytelling weakened a bit. The villains became more one-sided and less interesting, and the battles with monsters started to feel too much like a video-game slugfest for my personal taste. I’m hoping that in the sequels (and yes! there will be sequels!) she’ll carry the skill she shows so amply in the buildup of this story through to the very last pages. I will definitely be watching for her next effort with great interest, and confidence that this time my expectations will be rewarded.

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What books would you like to bring back?

DiscussionNEW

In the three years that I’ve been blogging, it’s been quite inspiring to see how in their capacity as enthusiastic and articulate readers, bloggers really do have the power to influence publishers. In particular, there have been several instances where books were brought back into print largely due to bloggers’ support. Several novels of Margery Sharp were made available as e-books this year by Open Road Media (thank you, Beyond Eden Rock and Genusrosa). Heavenali’s championship of the novels of Mary Hocking ended with her being asked to lend her copies to Bello Books for scanning, and they’re now available as e-books and print-on-demand. And Furrowed Middlebrow now has its own imprint at Dean Street Press, bringing back handpicked twentieth-century British fiction and nonfiction by women.

So here’s what I want to know: if you had this kind of power, what books would you like to see back in print? What titles would you select if you could have your very own [Insert Blog Name Here] imprint?

I should keep better track of the lost books that have crossed my path, in case such an opportunity should ever arise. I feel as though there have been dozens, but I can only think of a few, mostly thanks to other bloggers.

  • I’ve been hunting for The Growing Summer/The Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild since I read this review at Girl with Her Head in a Book.
  • The even more obscure The Children Who Changed by David Fletcher was brought to my attention via A Gallimaufry.
  • Strongholds (aka Persephone) by Lucy Boston would seem a natural choice for Persephone, the publisher — as suggested by Howling Frog Books.
  • Leaves and Pages has gotten me hankering after The Visiting Moon by Celia Furse — which in its turn would seem to be a perfect choice for Slightly Foxed Editions. If I can’t have my own imprint, I can try to offer some suggestions to the publishers that do!

What obscure gems would you want to bring back — either because you’ve already read and loved them, or because you’re dying to have a chance to do so?

Backlist Reader Challenge

The Backlist Reader Challenge

 

Another challenge! Okay, I know I said I was going to post less in 2017 but I just had to get these set up first. Lark created the Backlist Reader Challenge to try to help us focus on those books that have been on our TBR lists for a while, and I certainly do have some of those.

I have some books left over from last year’s list of Ten Books I Want to Read in 2016 — I did read six of them, but these four are still left:

  • Excellent Daughters
  • The Sixth Extinction
  • Kindred
  • An Unnecessary Woman

 

 

I’m going to add another half-dozen children’s books that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, to make up a new list of ten:

  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker-Bradley
  • Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Little Grey Men by B.B.

 

Thanks, Lark for the incentive! However many of these I get to, I know I’ll enjoy the challenge.

Discussion challenge

In the flurry of year-end events I neglected to wrap up my Book Blogger Discussion Challenge participation for 2016. It’s always interesting to look back and see what topics I tackled each month, so here they are:

 

The challenge will be back next year (hooray!), and I’m definitely participating again with one discussion per month. Thanks to Nicole and Shannon for bringing it back, and be sure to check out the sign-up post for more information. Looking forward to lots of great discussions in 2017!

A New Blogging Year

Birthday Bouquet by Florine Stettheimer – source

It’s the first day of the new year and also my blogiversary — ECBR is three years old today! To help me celebrate, I hope you’ll enter the Reading New England giveaway, which is still open for a few more days. You do not need to have been a challenge participant to enter — although I hope you’ll take the opportunity to explore some of the posts that have been linked up during the year.

These three years have been so full of wonderful books and blogging connections, and I’m very grateful to all who have visited and commented. The chance to get to know all of you and share our love of books and reading is what makes this whole enterprise worthwhile to me.

For at least the first half of 2017, I’m going to be blogging a bit less. I’ve been doing three posts a week, sometimes more, but I’m going to try to cut that down to one post a week (on Sundays) with an occasional extra. This is to try to use some of my limited time for some other writing projects — which I hope to let you know more about if they pan out.

I’ll still be doing my monthly wrap-up post, a monthly discussion post for the Book Blog Discussion Challenge (now starting its third year – yay!), and a classic book review each month, plus another review or other post. I also still plan to host Elizabeth Goudge Day in April, and of course Witch Week in October/November.

Elsewhere, there’s also Jane’s Margery Sharp Day to look forward to in January, as well as Nonfiction November, Adam’s Classic Book-a-Month Club, and many other events that will tempt me along the way.

As I’ve unsuccessfully resolved in earlier years, I’m going to try to cut down my requests for ARCs and thus will do fewer reviews of new releases. Though I’ve enjoyed discovering new books and authors this way, I find the deadline pressure a bit overwhelming. I’m going to try going more at my own pace, and getting new books from the library — which may be a few years old by the time I get to them. I’ve found that my reviews of classic books get by far the most response here anyway, so I don’t think this will be a huge disappointment to anyone. (If you disagree, do speak up.)

In my reading goals, I’m hoping to make a serious dent in my towering TBR pile with the Mount TBR Challenge, I’m continuing with the Classics Club and the Back to the Classics challenges. I would like to read more books from or about other parts of the world, so I’m joining in with the Reading All Around the World project.

I’d like to read along the Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win with Hibernator’s Library, and in general read more challenging and serious books that will help expand my view of the world and the difficult times we face. I may or may not blog about these, but I feel a duty to get more informed and active. If you have recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them.

What are your plans and hopes for 2017?