Five Favorite Books About Books

Today, I’m joining in the fun of A Month of Favorites with the topic, “Five Favorite Books by Theme.” For us bookaholics, what’s even better than a great book? A great book about books, stories, or reading! Here are five of my personal favorites.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
While he was in hiding from those who would have murdered him for writing The Satanic Verses, Rushdie produced this rollicking, pop-culture-sprinkled comic fantasy. Centered around a quest to save the very source of storytelling itself, it is a moving tribute to the life-giving power of words and language.

Possession by A.S. Byatt
An astonishing feat of literary ventriloquism, as well as an absorbing historical mystery and a double love story, this book concerns two Victorian poets and the modern scholars who are trying to discover the truth about them.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
If you’ve only seen the movies (especially the horrible later ones), please read the real thing! When a lonely child escapes his troubles by means of a magical book, he must learn the true meaning of heroism before he can save the world within its pages — as well as his own.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Another historical mystery, this time set in a medieval monastery, where secrets, lies, and old manuscripts are turning deadly. If you find Eco’s esoterica too baffling, there’s a little booklet called “The Key to The Name of the Rose” that is very helpful in navigating this huge and complex novel.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
When his home planet is destroyed, hapless Englishman Arthur Dent must take to outer space with only the eponymous guidebook to help him, encountering the craziest denizens of the universe along the way.

Honorable Mention:

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The recent read that got me thinking about this theme — not quite up there with my faves, but worth a mention nevertheless. The fate of an unnamed Persian Gulf state hangs in the balance when a hacker comes into possession of an ancient, mysterious book of stories that may hold the key to the ultimate computer code. Will it lead him to freedom — or destruction?

Do you have any further variations on the theme? I’d love to hear about them!

Witch Week Day One: Fire and Hemlock (Guest Post)

Diana Wynne Jones book
US hardcover, Greenwillow

To kick off Witch Week, we’re taking a look at Fire and Hemlock (1984), a book in which today’s date plays a very important role. It begins (after a brief prologue) when ten-year-old Polly accidentally stumbles into an ominous Halloween funeral at a nearby manor, and makes a life-changing connection to a man named Tom Lynn; and it ends on the same date nine years later, after Polly has learned much more about Tom and the sinister significance of that event. Not a retelling, but a sort of variation on themes introduced in the ballads of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” it brilliantly but unobtrusively mines the depths of folklore and myth while telling a very modern story, one in which the act of storytelling itself is central.

I believe Fire and Hemlock to be Diana Wynne Jones’s masterpiece — and Ana, who shares my high opinion of it, is here today to share her story about how she first encountered this marvelous and multi-faceted book. Ana is a UK-based reader and blogger. She works for a large public library system and has a particular interest in reader’s development work with young people. She writes about fantasy, children’s literature, non-fiction, cult TV and more at Things Mean a Lot and also contributes to Lady Business. Welcome, Ana!

Fire and Hemlock is my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, and one of those books I know would have been hugely important to me no matter when I discovered them. But as it happens, the circumstances in which I came across it for the first time made it even more special. Fire and Hemlock was also my first Diana Wynne Jones, and although normally I’d be inclined to suggest that starting with an author’s best work is setting yourself up for future disappointment, there was no such risk in this case. First, because as much as Fire and Hemlock may be my favourite, it’s not like the rest of DWJ’s work isn’t amazing; secondly, because Jenny’s Law applies: DWJ is always better on a reread. Suddenly I knew they existed, all these marvellous books I could read and then read again; suddenly my world had grown in small but meaningful ways.
botanical illustration plant
Poison Hemlock (source:

I remember the day I got my copy of Fire and Hemlock well: it was the end of the summer when I was nineteen, and I was about to start my second year of college but still living at home. My literary diet that year had consisted of copious amounts of Discworld and Sandman, two series I still love. They shaped my sensibility, and I’m immensely grateful for that — but at the time they were the limits of what I knew, and I wanted more. That summer I’d also been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, which as I’ve mentioned before did more to raise me and form my tastes than any other single source I can think of. That was where I came across Diana Wynne Jones’s name for the first time.

When I was a teenager, my life was empty of a lot of things I almost take for granted now. This was before blogging and ease of access to endless sources of recommendations; before I had access to a public library service, let alone worked for one; before the post-Harry Potter market boom that started to make the kinds of books I wanted to read widely available in my country; before there were any sizeable bricks and mortar bookshops in the town where I lived. This was a time when even shopping for books online was a challenge — there were no magical words such as “Free Worldwide Delivery”, and not having a credit card made things incredibly difficult. (I remember, for example, that to gain access to the last few Harry Potter books without having to wait at least six months for a translation I had to ask a friend who had permission to use his parents’ credit card online to order me a copy along with his. At the time Amazon was not an increasingly evil monopoly — it was, for someone like me, something that gave me unprecedented possibilities.)
The day I bought Fire and Hemlock, I had gone with my parents to take my brother to the airport. He was, if I remember correctly, going to a scientific congress in Poland, his first big one, and all day I was filled with a vague longing for travelling adventures of my own. I hadn’t been anywhere much, not yet, and as much as I was happy for him I also wanted it to be me. My brother was going to be gone for less than a week, but I went along to the airport because I’d extracted a promise from my parents to stop at the Big Bookshop in the large city with the airport on our way back. The Big Bookshop wasn’t actually that big by most standards, but at the time it, too, represented possibilities beyond what was ordinarily within my reach. I kept hoping it would eventually surprise me with a wonderful find — and that one day, it did.
Tam Lin illustration
The White Steed, from Tam Lin by L.J. LeRolland

I found Fire and Hemlock, along with The Homeward Bounders, inside a bargain box of slightly tatty books in English. They were, I believe, €2 each — an astonishing thing in and of itself, before second-hand bookshops and library sales had become part of my world (books were expensive, easily more than €15 each, and thus had to be rationed). I recognised Diana’s name from Neil Gaiman’s blog and immediately pounced on them. And suddenly there it was: a small everyday miracle, a book I’d love more than I could possibly imagine, an unprecedented set of possibilities. There’s something about the mood of Fire and Hemlock that perfectly matches how I felt that summer. I desperately wanted my world to grow; Polly gave me that, in a way. Diana Wynne Jones’s reworking of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” was, among many other things, a story that saw me. It was about a bookish girl who vaguely wanted more, who learned that magic has sharp edges, who in the end fought for what she wanted to keep. It was, beyond any doubt, a narrative centred on this girl’s experiences. That mattered to me in ways I couldn’t yet pinpoint.

Many years later, when I read DWJ’s Reflections On the Magic of Writing, I came across an essay she wrote on writing Fire and Hemlock and on her growing desire “to have a real female hero.” It was a long, convoluted journey from that summer to where I am today, aware of feminism and representation issues and of how not really seeing ourselves in stories affects how girls like me make sense of the world. I wasn’t yet read to articulate any of this back then, but I recognised something in Fire and Hemlock. In many of Diana Wynne Jones’s stories (and Ursula Le Guin’s, another discovery from around the same time), girls get to be messily, gloriously human. I needed that desperately, and I’m glad I had these stories to keep me company during the years it took me to work out why.

Thank you, Ana, for starting off our week so beautifully with your journey of discovery. If other readers have a story about your first encounter with Diana Wynne Jones, I’d love to hear it (mine is here). If you haven’t yet read her, I hope that this week you’ll find a place to start. 

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll look at an early but very accomplished book, Power of Three, which again considers how the power of words and language can be used for both good and evil. And watch for the Witch Week giveaway, which starts at midnight tonight.

Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (Morrow, 1959)

Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree (Morrow, 1962)

Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (Morrow, 1963)

Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic (Morrow, 1964) 


Mary Stewart romantic suspense

It’s always a great pleasure to discover an author whose books have somehow passed you by, especially if there are plenty of them. Such is the case with Mary Stewart, whose romantic suspense novels just never swam into my ken until now.

Fortunately, good books never go out of date. This summer I read four Stewarts in quick succession and found them effortlessly readable yet refreshingly literate. With exotic settings, independent heroines, and tricky plots, they make perfect vacation reading. And in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Gudrun’s Tights, here are some thoughts that I hope will interest those who haven’t yet discovered this wonderful author, as well as those who know and love her.

Each of these four books starts with a young woman, usually alone, making a journey to some beautiful, rather remote spot (Corfu, Northumberland, Alpine France, Crete) where she expects to settle into a holiday or a new job. She then finds that there is something unsavory going on (smuggling, treason, identity theft, attempted murder, kidnapping) and becomes involved in trying to defeat the villain(s). Serious dangers to life and limb ensue, as she tries to rescue the victim/find the treasure/puzzle out the crime, but naturally she comes through in the end, with a new love interest with whom she has made a connection in the midst of all the mayhem.

While the novels do follow a certain pattern, they are not formulaic. Each one is written in a distinctive voice and with precise attention to detail, which makes you feel as though you have really been to the places she describes. They also are pleasantly literary: This Rough Magic centers around an old house inhabited by a Shakespearean actor obsessed with The Tempest; Nine Coaches Waiting takes its title and organization from a quotation from The Revengers’ Tragedy; The Ivy Tree is named after an old song and has a strain of ancient folklore running through it. And while they are certainly suspenseful, they are not gratuitously violent or exploitative. Sympathetic characters and intelligently constructed plots appeal to our hearts and minds, as well as our wish to be thrilled and excited. These books create miniature worlds that live in our imaginations after the entertainment has finished, and leave us satisfied rather than empty.

The main quibble I have with Stewart is that I wish she would develop her romances more gradually. There tends to be a “boom” moment of falling in love without much apparent reason behind it, based on an acquaintance of mere days or even hours. I found this element required more suspension of disbelief than did some of the improbable and extreme situations.

Still, I enjoyed so much about her books that this was a minor issue for me. Now, for Mary Stewart Reading Week, I need to pick which novel to read next. I’m thinking of Touch Not the Cat (telepathic romance on an English estate), My Brother Michael (“a mysterious car journey to Delphi in the company of a charming but quietly determined Englishman”), or Airs Above the Ground (Vienna and Lipizzaner horses). Any recommendations?

Review copy source: Print books from library

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

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (Broadway Books, 1998)

Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012)


At about the same time in the mid-nineties, two very different people — a successful, 44-year-old author and family man, and a 26-year-old aspiring writer “with a hole in her heart” — decided to take a hike: a long hike, using two of the longest footpaths in the country. Through their accounts, published almost 15 years apart, we learn about the transformative power of simply taking a walk. By relinquishing the possessions that usually weigh us down, we have an chance to experience nature and ourselves without intermediaries. Even in our tech-obsessed culture, this is clearly a topic that fascinates us — both books were bestsellers and are currently being made into Hollywood movies. What’s the draw?

Bryson is well known as a humorist, and A Walk in the Woods is most often remembered and recommended as a funny book. There are indeed many hilarious moments, often involving his not-exactly-fit friend Stephen Katz. Katz is not perhaps the person one would choose to take along on such an adventure, being prone to throwing away important items from his pack to lighten it, getting lost, and being completely dismissive of the serious danger of bear trouble, but as he bumbles along he becomes dear to us. In his struggle to throw off an addiction, he reminds us that small acts of bravery can be meaningful, and that sometimes facing our demons means just putting one foot in front of the other. Since these are two middle-aged men traveling together, this emotional subtext is not overtly displayed, and never becomes annoyingly maudlin, but it adds poignancy and purpose to the book. (Bryson dedicated it “To Katz, of course.”)

In addition to making us laugh, A Walk in the Woods also lives up to its subtitle Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, bringing us insights into the history, geology, and ecology of the area covered by the trail, as well as the past, present and future of the trail itself. It’s not always a happy story, since human exploitation and greed are decimating the forests Bryson walked through to such an extent that they may soon be gone. But it’s information everyone should know, and when it’s delivered in such a lucid, readable way, there’s no excuse not to.

Bryson never set out to be a “through hiker,” though he memorably describes some of the many who attempt this achievement and the few who actually accomplish it. After a section describing the all-important gear acquisition phase and the first weeks on the trail in Georgia with Katz, the narrative breaks up somewhat, as Bryson has to return home to family and work obligations. He does short hikes or day trips to other sections of the trail, mostly alone, and brings in more of his research and reflections. At the end the pair team up again to try to make it through Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness, but the spell has  somehow been broken. Some have found the book disappointing on these counts, but that’s just the way circumstances shaped the experience, and to me doesn’t detract from its interest.

Having myself struggled up a near-vertical mile or so of the AT this summer, without even having to carry a load, I’m quite impressed by what Bryson and Katz managed to achieve in midlife, even if they hiked only a fraction of the complete trail. And I’m definitely in awe of Cheryl Strayed’s walk of over 1000 miles with a pack nicknamed Monster. (Ever the humble one, she says, “If I could do it, anybody can.” Um…maybe.) Wild starts in mid-journey with an arresting image: Strayed losing one of her boots as it accidentally falls off a mountain, and angrily flinging the other after it. How did she get to this point and how on earth is she going to get out of it?

To answer this question, Strayed moves back and forth between descriptions of her months on the trail, and the circumstances in her life that led up to her decision to pack up Monster and go. Hammered by the sudden death of her mother from cancer, the collapse of her marriage, and a nascent heroin addiction, she took up the trail less as the result of a conscious decision than through a blind instinct for the kind of experience that would enable her to move forward in life. Without training or any particular aptitude as a long-distance hiker, and with a much-too-heavy pack and too-small boots, she nevertheless keeps going through her own doubts, fears, and ineptitude as well as external dangers. Wild is definitely not a how-to manual for walking the PCT — unlike Strayed, one might want to learn how to read a compass first, and not be quite so cavalier about the dangers of a woman hiking alone — but I found it funny, harrowing, and heart-wrenching by turns.

Even as both narratives are grounded in very practical matters — finding food, avoiding bears and rattlesnakes, what to do when your boots make your toenails fall off — there’s something in this picture of staying on the trail because one has no other choice, because one has to in order to survive, that is true to a very profound aspect of the human spirit, and to all of our journeys whatever form they may take. No wonder these books resonate with so many readers. I’m grateful to both writers for taking us along with them on their walks, and sharing their trials and triumphs; even if I never spend a month or a week on the trail, I feel as though I learned something important there.

Review copy source: E-books from library

Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen, Part Three

Austen Folio Heritage LEC

After a brief hiatus, we’re back to Jane Austen with the third part of a series looking at different illustrated editions of her six novels. (Click here for Part One, and here for Part Two.) Today’s volumes under consideration are not as striking as some of the others, but they have a quiet charm of their own.

The Folio Society edition of Mansfield Park is part of a complete set illustrated with wood engravings by Joan Hassall. This set remained Folio’s standard edition for quite a while, as it was first published in 1960, reset in 1975, and reprinted numerous times since then (mine is the tenth printing, from 1991).

I resisted buying this edition for a long time because I was not so impressed by Hassall’s Austen illustrations. While finely crafted, they seemed to me to lack the wit and verve of Austen’s prose. However, I find that they go quite will with the quieter, more inward drama of Mansfield Park. I am most impressed with the illustrations that play with light and shadow, such as the ones shown below. The lighting of a nighttime interior is very finely rendered in a challenging medium, and the stark black-and-white images point to the moral underpinnings of the story.

Austen Mansfield Park spread

The font, Monotype Fournier, is a 1924 version of a typeface originally cut in 1742. It’s a squarish, compact font that gives an old-fashioned feel while being perfectly readable. The page layout is very simple, with no headers, centered page numbers, and continuous running text interrupted by the chapter headings, which lend a touch of visual interest through the different ornaments used to set off the chapter numbers. Together with the similarly ornamented spine and the pretty wallpaper-like pattern covering the boards, this gives it a feminine, domestic quality, more appropriate perhaps for Fanny Price’s unambitious nature than for some other Austen heroines. I find it a very pleasant volume to hold and to read, although a whole set would be a bit monotonous.

Austen Mansfield cover title

The Heritage Press took a completely different approach with Persuasion, Jane Austen’s final novel. With its bright green cloth binding decorated with an Art Nouveau floral design, it seems to be trying to break out of its era into some alternate reality.

Austen Persuasion cover title

The illustrations by Tony Buonpastore (about whom I could find no information) are a bit cartoonish, which sometimes works to their advantage, and sometimes not. Sometimes the sketchy pen-and-ink vignettes appear refreshingly naive; sometimes they just look amateurish. The full-page “color” illustrations, including one double-page spread for Louisa Musgrave’s critical fall, are in fact monochromatic, with one wash of color for each image (various sober tones of ocher and gray-green) drawn on with black ink and highlighted in what looks like white chalk. Here again, the drawing style takes some getting used to. There is more freedom and less fixity than with the carefully composed Hassall engravings; this edition seems to be trying to bring Austen into the modern age by loosening up some of the conventions that have accrued to her works. It’s an admirable attempt, though it doesn’t always work for me.

Buonpastore color Austen illustration


Austen Buonpastore Heritage

Care has been taken over the typography, with some nice details. The display font, Elizabeth, is the only one we’ve met so far in this series that was designed by a woman — Elizabeth Friedlander, in 1938. As a modern interpretation of calligraphic tradition, it has a pleasant blend of the traditional and the innovative. The text is set in Bembo, yet another classic book font. It has a particularly elegant, delicate look that harmonizes well with the decorative initial caps, which are daringly indented to the center of the page, directly under the chapter numbers which are rendered simply as Roman numerals. Balancing this are the page numbers and running footers, which are justified to the left and right margins. This gives a more dynamic feel than a purely centered layout, while retaining a classical balance. Although the illustrations are perhaps the weakest among my six editions, the beauty of the presentation redeems this volume.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series; I certainly have, and taking a closer look at my Austen acquisitions made me appreciate them even more. Each different treatment brings out some important aspect of the novels, so as a whole my collection helps to represent the range and depth of this great author. I would love to hear your thoughts about these or any other editions; please let me know if you have a review and I’ll gladly link to it.

Summary of book details:

Mansfield Park
Published by the Folio Society, London, 1960, reset 1975 (1991 printing)
Introduction by Richard Church
Illustrations by Joan Hassall
Set in Monotype Fournier
9 x 6 inches, 378 pages
Printed on Bulstrode Wove paper and bound in buckram with printed paper sides designed by the artist

Joan Hassall’s Austen Illustrations on Jane Austen’s World 

* * *

Published by The Heritage Press, Norwalk, CT, 1977
Introduction by Louis Auchincloss
Illustrations by Tony Buonpastore
Set in Monotype Bembo with Elizabeth display
10.25 x 6.75 inches, 241 pages
Printed on cream-toned antique stock and bound in cloth with a stamped design

Top Ten Classics You Might Not Have Heard Of

Broke and Bookish meme

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is “Top Ten Classic Books,” or variations thereof. My favorite classic books don’t really need any more publicity from me (e.g. Great Expectations, Twelfth Night, Leaves of Grass), so I decided to make a list of classic books I love that aren’t so well-exposed. If you discover any of these marvelous under-the-radar reads through my list, I’ll be very pleased.

Elizabeth Gaskell novel classic

1. Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)
Though her star has been eclipsed by Victorian giants such as Dickens and Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell’s wise, compassionate novels very much hold up to scrutiny today. This, her final — and alas, unfinished — work of fiction, starts in fairy-tale fashion with a man who marries the wrong woman, meaning her to be a mother to his young daughter.

2. Flatland – Edwin Abbott (1884)
A funny and thought-provoking mathematical satire, which describes how A. Square, resident of the two-dimensional Flatland, has strange encounters with other geometrical entities from a world of three dimensions. 

3. Indian Summer – William Dean Howells (1886)
This Jamesian comedy of love found in middle age is perhaps most enjoyable when one has reached the age of reason oneself. 

Andrew Lang fairy tales

4. The Chronicles of Pantouflia – Andrew Lang (1889/1893)
The editor of the famous Rainbow Fairy Books wrote two original stories which draw on many of the themes and motifs in the tales he knew so well. 

5. The Odd Women – George Gissing (1893)
Although not entirely successful in its characterizations, this novel offers a penetrating analysis of the social and economic plight of “odd” (that is, surplus or unpaired) women in the late nineteenth century. Gissing’s vision is bleak, but has a touch of dark humor. 

6. Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight – Elizabeth von Arnim (1905)
Von Arnim is best known for The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but here’s another charming story about a princess who tires of pomp and wants to be ordinary (but finds this is not so easy as it may seem). Incidentally, I found this title through Girlebooks, which is a great source for classics by women.

Hope Mirrlees fantasy classic 
7. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees (1926)
A slyly humorous story of how “fairy fruit” invades and transforms a respectable town. This beautifully written fantasy lapsed into obscurity for many years until interest was revived recently by admirers including James Blaylock and Neil Gaiman.

8. The Corn King and the Spring Queen – Naomi Mitchison (1931)
With its insights into the magic-saturated, often barbaric mindset of ancient cultures from Greece to Egypt, this massive historical novel offers a fascinating imaginative window into the past. 

9. Mio, My Son – Astrid Lindgren (1954)
This lesser-known fantasy by the creator of Pippi Longstocking is a poetic tale about an unloved boy transported from our world to a new destiny as the son of the king of Farawayland. Sadly out of print, it deserves a campaign to bring it back.

10. The Pooh Perplex – Frederick C. Crews (1965)
A must for all English majors, this priceless parody examines the Pooh books from a variety of critical angles. You’ll never look at Freudian analysis in the same way again. 

Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen, Part Two

This is Part Two of my series covering different illustrated editions of the six novels of Jane Austen. For Part One, click here.

My earliest Austen acquisition was the 2007 Folio Society edition of Emma, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat, which I purchased as part of my membership renewal. This is one of three matching Austen novels issued in that year, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion being the others. I’ve always wondered why there were no more — was the series never intended to be completed? Did the first volumes not sell well enough to continue? Was the artist too dissatisfied with his own work, or have a disagreement with the publisher? I am not in a position to know, but I’m curious.

To return to the book at hand, Emma is a pleasantly compact volume, with a medallion motif encircling the title on the spine, echoed in the publisher’s logo below and a gold-framed oval portrait of the title character on the front cover. This is set off by the wallpaper-like striped paper that covers the boards. The typeface is Bell, a more rounded and open font than Baskerville (which readers of Part One will remember as a popular choice for other Austen editions). It’s a friendly, appealing book, one that promises us a mannered domestic drama with pretty costumes. This suits the popular conception of Austen’s work, and is true to one layer of it, but misses some of the deeper levels.

Emma Puttapipat


Seven full-color illustrations were meticulously done in pen-and-ink and watercolor by the Thailand-born, London-based artist. In this gallery he has posted some of his sketches with notes, which are fascinating; among other tidbits of information he lets us know that he was only really happy with one of the drawings from the book, and dissatisfied with his Austen illustrations overall. I actually find his sketches much livelier and more engaging than the finished illustrations. Of these, the parts that I find most interesting are not the highly detailed figures, but the portions that he allows to be more empty and ambiguous: for example the background of the frontispiece, in which Knightley chastises Emma for her behavior on Box Hill. I admire the illustrations’ technical prowess and find pleasure in exploring all the meticulously drawn details of costume and deportment, yet they seem to lack some inner spark of life.


Austen Emma novel Puttapipat


Austen Box Hill Puttapipat
Puttapipat’s illustrations of animals (many of which can be found in other sections of his gallery) are absolutely stunning, but his carefully posed compositions do not quite succeed in capturing the complex human drama of Emma. I find myself wondering whether if he could allow himself to use a freer, more sketchy style it would help the characters to breathe more. He has said that he wishes he could have another go at Austen’s work, and I would love to see him make the attempt.
Jane Austen Clarke Hutton


Another strikingly striped volume on my shelf is Northanger Abbey, issued by the Limited Editions Club in 1971. This is the largest Austen I own, ironically as it’s her shortest and in some ways slightest novel. I think a smaller size would be much more suitable, not just for this reason, or to make the book easier to handle and read, but because it would be more appropriate to the story. Northanger Abbey is a light comedy that one wants to keep close for easy enjoyment, not a weighty tome to keep on one’s coffee table for show. The binding of unusual multicolored striped satin, which the publisher chose as worthy to be “draped over the windows of the finest hall of Northanger Abbey,” I would also find more amusing if only there were less of it.



I do greatly appreciate the beautiful custom-made heavy paper and luxurious letterpress printing within. The typeface again is Bell, and its friendly, open feel is better suited to the comedy of Northanger Abbey than to Emma, which is a more serious and mature book. I find the curved ligatures used for “st” and “ct” to be a bit much, however. Especially when they occur in clusters, as with the example above, they give me the impression of a visual hiccup. I’m also not fond of the display type, Fontanesi, used for the title and for initial caps for each chapter. As far as I can discover, it was designed in the 1950s as a “retro” style, unlike the genuine 18th century Bell and Baskerville. I suppose this was meant as a nod to the mock-Gothic pastiche of the novel, but it ventures too far into circus territory for me. As for the swash capitals used for the page headers — who thought this was a good idea? Well, I suppose for 1971 it all seemed quite restrained.


Jane Austen Clarke Hutton


Jane Austen Clarke Hutton


The highlight here is the abundant illustrations, with twelve color plates in addition to the black-and-white drawings scattered throughout each chapter. The artist, Clarke Hutton, has a fluid and lively drawing style that lends a light comic touch, while in the paintings his strong yet subtle use of color and lighting brings the Gothic elements of the story to the fore. Hutton spent the first ten years of his career in stage design, an experience that shows in his dramatic compositions. I’m glad he put his hand to Northanger Abbey, a book that (though I may wish it were two-thirds of the size) I will certainly enjoy for many years.

I hope you’ll join me for the last post in this series, in which I’ll look at Mansfield Park (Folio Society, 1960; reset 1975; 1991 printing), and Persuasion (Heritage Press, 1977).

Summary of book details:

Published by The Folio Society, London, 2007
Introduction by Deirdre Le Faye
Illustrations by Niroot Puttapipat
Set in Bell
9 x 6.25 inches, 432 pages
Printed on Abbey Wove paper and bound in cloth with Modigliani paper sizes blocked and printed with a design by the artist

More about Puttapipat’s Austen illustrations on Austenprose 

* * *

Northanger Abbey
Published by the Limited Editions Club, New York, 1971
Introduction by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Illustrations by Clarke Hutton
Set in Monotype Bell with Fontanesi display
11 x 7.5 inches, 210 pages
Printed on eggshell-finish paper custom-made by the Mohawk Paper Company and bound in
satin-finish fabric with a leather shelfback label printed in gold

Review on Books and Vines (with much better pictures than mine)

Beautiful Books: Picturing Jane Austen, Part One

fine Austen editions

In my book collecting this year, I went a little nuts. I already owned Jane Austen’s Emma in the most recent Folio Society edition (illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat), but a few months ago the FS published a new edition of Pride and Prejudice with fabulous illustrations by Elena and Anna Balbusso and I just had to have it. Now I would have two oddly assorted Austens on my shelf. What if I could find completely different illustrated editions of each of Austen’s other four novels, breaking the mold of the traditional uniform set? Would the result be pleasingly varied, or just weird?

I had great fun seeking out these different editions, and except for my first two splurges, none of them set me back more than $20. Here follows my take on each book’s binding, typography, and illustrations. I didn’t find any of them completely successful across the board, but there is something that I love about each one, so I would call the project a success.

Going into detail about all six books was making my post too long, so I’ve split it into three parts. Today, I’ll be considering the 2013 Folio Society edition of Pride and Prejudice, and the 1957 Heritage Press edition of Sense and Sensibility.

First up is my new baby, Pride and Prejudice. With a swashy binding design and glittery gold background (hard to capture with my camera — take my word for it, it’s GOLD) this is a book that’s aiming to make a statement. It’s a bit too flashy for me, and I don’t think it suits the book; with all his wealth, Darcy is not one to spend it in an ostentatious way, and Elizabeth is not a princess swanning around in foamy lace and diamond tiaras. I think that a plain matte color would have been more appropriate, and fewer swashes would not hurt.


Austen Balbusso


Fortunately, this flashiness does not extend to the book’s interior. The typography has nothing outstanding about it, but is quiet and respectable, allowing the text to speak without distraction. The eight full-page, full-color illustrations, printed on textured paper, are the main attraction. I wrote last month about the Balbusso sisters and their work, and what I said then definitely applies here: “The Balbusso sisters bring a bold, stylized approach to the problem of illustrating fiction, which is the question of how to bring out both the visual and the psychological aspects of the story, the outer and the inner.” Figures are carefully positioned for maximum dramatic effect, almost like a staged tableau, while contrasting natural forms and visible brushwork lend life and movement. The Balbussos’ formal sense of composition and careful use of color lead the eye through the image to “read” the narrative embedded within.


Folio Pride and Prejudice


Through each page conceived as a whole, we see Elizabeth’s discomfort when dancing with Darcy, her archness when playing the pianoforte in his hearing, her consternation on reading his letter. It’s a masterful visualization of a book that has been interpreted in so many ways by so many artists — on page, stage, and screen — that it might seem impossible to look at it afresh. Yet the Balbussos succeed, and brilliantly.

A quite different and very unusual approach was taken by Helen Sewell with her illustrations for the 1957 Heritage Press edition of Sense and Sensibility. She was the only Austen illustrator I found who seriously departed from a naturalistic portrayal, and who did not try to make her subjects look pretty. I find this highly appropriate for Austen, who, however much we may think of her as a creator of colorful costume dramas, was actually writing about some of the uglier sides of human nature, and — unlike her imitators — spent very little time describing what anybody was wearing.




Sewell’s stark, dramatic images, printed in somber dark green ink, are not comforting eye candy. They can be strange and startling, and some readers may dislike them for that reason. I found them a interesting attempt at portraying what few artists have dared to approach: the disquieting truths and uncomfortable emotions that lurk within Austen’s novels. After all, Sense and Sensibility contains some thoroughly unlikeable characters, and its central struggle between passion and prudence is not quite satisfactorily resolved. Sewell’s primitive, monumental figures lend both gravity and a quirky kind of humor to this edition, suitable for what Stella Gibbons in her introduction calls “a tragi-comedy.”


Austen Sense Heritage Press


Sense and Sensibility is also outstanding for its typography. The classic Baskerville typeface was chosen for the text, while a engraving-style calligraphic display font elegantly evokes the period. After the first chapter with its monumental drop capital, chapter headings are pleasingly inset just the right amount, with perfectly proportioned small caps for the first few words. Traditional design elements are infused with a clean, modern sensibility, an excellent foil for the illustrations. These are usually incorporated into the text in various ways rather than being segregated on their own separate pages — as with the top spread above, which portrays Edward’s musings about his choice of a profession (or rather lack of one) in graphic form directly below the appropriate text.

Pride and Prejudice also uses Baskerville for its text, an unexceptionable choice, but has boringly centered chapter headings and page numbers, which are enlivened only by some generic swashes (again). It’s a less sophisticated, less subtle design. Although Austen’s heroines are always striving for balance, it’s not an easy path, and does not involve equally weighted choices; Sense and Sensibility‘s asymmetrical, slightly off-kilter page layout reminds us of this, without saying a word.


Austen Heritage Folio
Sense vs. Pride: Pleasingly asymmetrical vs. boringly centered.


The binding design for Sense and Sensibility could have been more imaginative; I would love to have seen an artistic design rather than a drab printed paper that seems to have nothing to do with the period or the book. However, I love the typography of the spine, which is again simple, elegant, and perfectly proportioned. I was very happy to add this fine book to my library.

I hope you’ll join me again for more in this series. Future posts will cover Northanger Abbey (Limited Editions Club, 1971), Mansfield Park (Folio, 1975/1991), Persuasion (Heritage Press, 1977), and Emma (Folio, 2007).

Summary of book details:

Pride and Prejudice
Published by the Folio Society, London, 2013
Introduction by Sebastian Faulks
Illustrations by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Set in Baskerville with Trajan display
9.5 x 6.25 inches, 352 pages
Printed on Abbey Wove paper and bound in buckram stamped with a design by the artists

Folio Society page
More images on the Ispot



Sense and Sensibility
Published by the Heritage Press, New York, 1957
Introduction by Stella Gibbons
Illustrations by Helen Sewell
Set in Baskerville, display type unknown
9.5 x 6.5 inches, 324 pages
Paper unknown; bound in cloth with printed paper sides

Review on AustenOnly


My life in bookstores

Robin McKinley’s author bio in her early books used to say that she kept track of her life according to what she was was reading in various locations; she traveled around quite a bit as a child because her father was in the navy. I didn’t have such an exotic upbringing, but I find that I have strong memories associated with the bookstores located in the places where I’ve lived. Here are some of my favorites. Please share yours!

Island Books Etc., Mercer Island, WA

bookstore Mercer Island
Just like I remember it from the 1980s.

This was the only bookstore in the suburb where I lived from third grade till college, so I spent a lot of time there. It had (and still has) a pretty good general book selection, cool magazines, paper goods and greeting cards, and a nice children’s department. It was just around the corner from my dentist’s office and I got to go there frequently for a non-cavity-causing treat after dental work. Another memory: when I was about ten they had a contest to name their new children’s book department. I don’t remember what my entry was, but I’m sure it couldn’t be more boring than the winner: “Children’s Books Etc.” Oh, please.

University Book Store, Seattle and Bellevue, WA

bookstore Seattle University

The U-district was the place to go when I was a teenager, and no visit was complete (for me anyway) without a trip to this mecca run by the University of Washington. The office and art supplies were an attraction as well as the excellent selection of general, children’s, SFF, and scholarly books. The Bellevue branch store opened at some point in those years as well, and I worked there in the pre-Christmas season for a few years, learning useful gift-wrapping skills. One year absolutely everybody was buying Possession in hardback and the pre-Raphaelite cover is engraved on my brain.

Powell’s City of Books, Portland, OR

bookstore Portland

Okay, I never actually lived in Portland, more’s the pity, but it was worth the three-hour trip just to go to the massive Powell’s. If you can’t find it here, you’re not looking. By the way, if you use the “Search at Powell’s” function on this site and buy anything from them, I’m an affiliate and get a small percentage, which I will spend on more books from Powell’s. Support independent bookstores!

Carleton College Bookstore, Northfield, MN

bookstore Northfield Minnesota college
Carleton’s Sayles-Hill Campus Center

I mostly bought textbooks and sweatshirts in the basement during my four years at Carleton, but the upstairs general books department was always good for a browse. I remember eyeing the Penguin paperbacks of Robertson Davies’s novels there for years and then finally buying Tempest-Tost when I was a senior — the start of a long love affair with that wonderful author.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Seattle bookstore Pioneer Square

When I moved back to Seattle after college, I could take the bus or even walk downtown from my Madison Park house, and I would frequently end up at this Pioneer Square landmark. As well having a fantastic store and cafe they also hosted author readings and visits practically every other day. I saw Ursula K. LeGuin and Denise Levertov here, among others. The historic neighborhood went severely downhill, however, and a few years ago they decided they had to move or die. I haven’t yet visited their new Capitol Hill location, but I do hope it keeps them afloat.

The Sunbridge College Bookstore, Chestnut Ridge, NY

Waldorf bookstore New York
Sadly, this sign is no more.

I probably spent more time in this store than in any of the others combined, because I worked there part-time for seven years while attending Waldorf teacher training at Sunbridge College and then the eurythmy training at Eurythmy Spring Valley. My manager, who took over the store the year I arrived, was an eccentric but brilliant woman who tripled the size of the store and turned it from a dumpy corner of the Threefold Auditorium building into a jewel-toned, artfully arranged oasis. In quiet times when she was not around I got to spend many happy hours perusing the small but carefully-chosen stock of books on spirituality, education, the arts and crafts, and more. Another casualty of the internet age, after I left it had to drastically reduce its stock and move into Meadowlark Toys and Crafts, the end of a brief but memorable heyday.

Books of Wonder, New York, NY

children's bookstore new york

There are lots of great bookstores in New York, of course, but I was a fan of Books of Wonder before I even moved to the area. For a while I was a member of their collector’s club, and always loved perusing their catalog of used and rare titles. As well as being one of the best children’s bookstores you’ll find anywhere, for several years they collaborated with the William Morrow publishing house to bring some classics back into print including works by E. Nesbit and L. Frank Baum. These are sadly now mostly out of print, but they still offer the complete Oz series in hardcover, which I’ve had my eye on for some time.

Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH

bookstore Peterborough New Hampshire
Don’t let the rather unprespossessing exterior put you off.

A year ago I moved to what some friends rather uncharitably called “the boonies,” but with this super independent bookstore just 15 minutes away, what more do I need? There are two other locations in the Toadstool mini-chain, in Keene and Milford, but this one is my favorite. It has a large used book department as well, and I pretty much never leave the store without buying something there. My latest score was the first U.S. edition of The Neverending Story, with its unusual two-color printing that identifies the two parts of the story (in our world and Fantastica). I’m sure I’ll find many more treasures there in the years to come.

Have you been to any of these? What did you think? What are your favorite bookstores?

From Austen to Atwood: The art of the Balbusso sisters

Eugene Onegin
The Handmaid’s Tale

The artwork of Anna and Elena Balbusso first caught my eye in the Folio Society catalog, with their stunning illustrations for two very different books, Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin and Margaret Atwood’s modern dystopian nightmare The Handmaid’s Tale. Then I noticed that they were the cover artists for two other books on my TBR list, The Goblin Emperor and Hild. And then I saw that they were illustrating original fantasy stories  for, and producing a new edition of Pride and Prejudice for Folio…quite a range right there.

Pride and Prejudice

What all these illustrations have in common is their formal sense of composition, attention to positive and negative space (often making use of silhouettes), and masterly use of color. Often they mix strong, simplified shapes with brushy passages that bring movement and liveliness to the image.


The Too-Clever Fox

The Balbusso sisters bring a bold, stylized approach to the problem of illustrating fiction, which is the question of how to bring out both the visual and the psychological aspects of the story, the outer and the inner. To this end, they play with the juxtaposition of diverse images, frequently combining human figures with elements from the natural world. Their ability to blur the lines between two realms, while keeping each one crystal clear, is one of their most compelling talents.


Who are these amazing twin illustrators of everything from Austen to Atwood? You can find some answers in this Folio Society interview. (I like the part where they explain how they started working together — it seems that it was just too confusing for their clients to interview identical twins separately.) As they are based in Milan, much of their work has appeared in European publications. This includes several more illustrated editions of classic English novels (such as Northanger Abbey) for a language-learning line, which ironically are not available in English-speaking countries, though I dearly wish they were.

Northanger Abbey

In a time when so many loud and fast-moving images are competing for our attention, it’s refreshing to find artists who can create a perfectly composed page that is arresting in its quietness. I’ll be looking forward eagerly to their next production, whatever it may be.

You can find many more beautiful illustrations by the Balbusso sisters as well as news and information on their website.