The Anchoress (Robyn Cadwallader, 2015)

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I liked the sound of this very much; a novel about a 17-year-old English girl in 1255 who chooses (as real medieval women did sometimes choose) to be walled up in a church, to live a life of solitary prayer and fasting and contemplation, supported by the local community and devoted to praying for that community’s spiritual welfare. It is fascinating that so many women chose to do this — 123 of them in England alone during the 13th century — and I was eager to read Cadwallder’s imaginative evocation of one such woman. Unfortunately, instead of a book which explores the relentless strangeness of the past, Cadwallader wrote a novel that uses its historical setting as a stage set for modern young people coming of age. Both Sarah, the teenage girl who becomes an anchoress, and Ranaulf, the priest who eventually becomes her confessor, could be transplanted to a (not very good) contemporary YA novel without missing a beat. Sarah’s reasons for becoming an anchoress have little to do with relationship to a personal deity, or a desire to enter into a larger spiritual reality by giving up the outside world; she is instead fleeing her own sexual desire, which she is terrified will lead to death in childbirth just as it did for her sister Emma. Ranaulf is a sulky teenage boy (however old he is actually supposed to be) who wants everyone to just leave him alone with his manuscripts, rather than having to go engage in the duties of pastoral care that his priesthood entails. They go through the motions of relationship, and eventually come to the end of the book larger, wiser, more mature people, all against a picturesque backdrop of stone walls and willow trees and self-starvation that leads to symptoms easily mistaken by those foolish medieval people for mystical experiences.

I am sure my mild contempt comes through; it is born of disappointment and frustration with the limits of Cadwallader’s vision. I have read numerous reviews of this novel, all of which enthuse over its psychological realism, its attention to details, its beautiful language. Yes, they admit, it is slow-moving, there is not much plot, but oh, how very relevant it is to our modern day! Even Cadwallader uses the term — in this interview with an Australian newspaper she discusses how her editors felt that the novel was “remarkably relevant” in talking about “issues we can all think about today.” All right, but when I read a novel set in 1255, I want to experience the interiority and perspective of people living in 1255, a time so distant and different from our own that it might as well be an alien world. Cadwallader seems to think 1255 was remarkably like 2015, except perhaps more thatched huts and less rights for women; an utter failure of imagination. This inability to respect the past comes, perhaps, from Cadwallader’s starting place; according to that same interview, when she first read about anchoresses she was “absolutely horrified, fascinated, really thought it was just a terrible, terrible thing.” She is, of course, welcome to feel as she feels, but to write a novel out of horror and fascination without questioning the assumptions which underlie those reactions destroys the respect an author must have for their material. Rather than exploring the beliefs, values and perspectives of people in 1255, Cadwallader writes like a bad anthropologist, coming up with modern explanations for everything she finds uncomfortable. The result is a very frustrating, unsatisfying novel, and I do not recommend it.

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Spinster (Kate Bolick, 2015) / Live Alone and Like It (Marjore Hillis, 1936)

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Many months ago one of my brother’s girlfriends was reading this Bolick book, so I picked it up, and inspired by this LA Review of Books article read it together with the Marjorie Hillis. In the end, the Hillis was much more interesting to me; it is a guide for women living alone in the 1930s, and provides the dual joys of strange cultural assumptions and gritty practical advice about how to enjoy solitude when possible and, when not, how to make the best of it. Hillis takes it for granted that most of her readers have been taught to define themselves by men, and sets about arguing that this is not only unnecessary but counterproductive for women who, by choice or necessity, are going to be living alone. She tells her readers to develop passionate interests in things (not people) outside themselves, finding one hobby they can do within their own home, another which will be certain to take them outside of it; after all, Hillis says, “the more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you will be.” She has no pity for women who mope, or who single-mindedly chase after the married state, but she does not assume that a woman living alone will be devoid of male companionship; she presents time with men as a choice, possibly pleasant, but simply one more option amongst many. I loved her insistence on both self-care and self-discipline and her belief that solitary women can live rich, fulfilling lives, discovering that they “are more of a person” than they may have once thought. It is a short, fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.

As for Spinster… well, I found Bolick to be an interesting author, and I enjoyed some aspects of her search for self-identity, but much of it was quite frustrating, the sort of book where I want to sit down and have a long talk with the author about all the things she seems to be missing. As best as I can tell, Bolick’s “spinster wish” that inspired the book is simply the desire to be a fully adult person, self-sufficient and competent, able to ride out the emotional challenges of her life without falling apart. A noble goal, certainly, but Bolick’s struggle towards adulthood is not inherent in being female, despite the many ways in which contemporary U.S. society still infantalises women; it is instead a problem that lies at the intersection of her whiteness, her upper middle class background, her family that has enough wealth and leisure to support her emotionally and financially whenever she wishes it, and her sense of entitlement that underlies her belief that her life must satisfy her in all ways or is otherwise flawed. I was floored by Bolick’s enthusiastic approval of Floyd Dell’s essay “Feminism for Men,” in which Dell argues that women should be allowed to work and be self-supporting so that men will have no responsbility for children and can thus live unfettered lives of adventure. People are, of course, complex, and everyone has values that they do not live, but for Bolick to sing the praises of this viewpoint while returning home to live with her father after a failed relationship is not just ironic, but signals a self-absorption which mars the book for me. Bolick seems unable to connect her emotional ambivalance about modern womanhood to the broader feminist struggles which have been going on for centuries. Women have not only fought for hundreds of years to live without the support of men, but to survive alone when forced by necessity to do so, and to have their lives respected as fully meaningful no matter how they end up living. To be a spinster does not have to mean (as Briallen Hopper puts it in that fantastic LARB essay I linked to above) being “a kind of dream girlfriend for Nathaniel P–type Brooklyn boys: exactly as man-oriented as every other girl, except maybe less interested in commitment.” It can be about living in a lesbian commune, or being asexual, or deciding that celibacy is the way to meet other goals, or it can be a bitter disappointment of never finding anyone interested, or anyone who interests you — and that is just the merest sampling. Women can live a thousand different ways, and for Bolick to position herself as the voice of spinsterhood without considering how unrepresentative her white upper-middle-class urban experience is annoys me to no end. If the book had been titled ‘My realisation that I can have a boyfriend whom I don’t live with’ I might have enjoyed it much more. As it is, I can only hope that the fuss around her work demonstrates to publishers that there any book about actual spinsterhood will have no problem finding an audience.

High Fidelity (Nick Hornby, 1995)

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Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity came out in 1995, when I still resolutely read only genre fiction, and thus although I heard of it as a popular novel that was being made into a movie and so forth, I never read it. I have finally done so, and while it was interesting, I did not enjoy much about it. It is very much of its time, a sort of ‘lad lit’ about men who refuse to grow up, men for whom women are alien creatures to be manipulated into providing sex and companionship and validation. Rob, the protagonist, reminds me of many men I knew in the mid-90s; he wears all black, works half-heartedly at running a record shop, and is an obsessive fan of ‘good’ pop music — that ‘good’ is in the quotes because it is not as though Rob has an aesthetic which is shared with the reader, he knows what he likes and he uses his opinions as ways to judge who is worthy and who is not. The unworthy he mocks; the worthy he half-befriends, but he is always waiting for them to fall from grace, and even more so he is always waiting to fall from their grace. For Rob and his friends, what a person consumes is who they are, taste is self, and those with bad taste are inherently bad people.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Rob navigates his life based entirely on these kinds of judgements. Reviewing his various failed relationships, he claims that people “run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.” That certainty that people are commodities, objectively comparable with one another and able to be labelled and traded around, is at the heart of the book, and while Hornby makes some effort to question it with an excellent dinner party scene in which Rob really enjoys spending time with a couple only to discover that they have terrible taste in music, on the whole this view is allowed to stand. Indeed, when we finally hear Laura, Rob’s most recent girlfriend, speak at some length, she shares the same point of view; she is dating Rob not for who he is now, but because he has “potential as a human being,” and she hopes “to bring it out.” It is perhaps not an unusual worldview, but it makes my skin crawl.

The novel is not without its pleasures; Hornby is a funny writer, and I did have the sense now and again that he realised how limited his narrator was, that he was telling a story about Rob rather than voicing his own cultural point of view. When the women in the novel begin to speak it is more interesting, although I have my doubts about Hornby’s sense of women’s interiority. Still, in the end I found Rob to be yet another privileged white boy throwing little tantrums because he feels entitled to pleasure without effort, and while there is nothing amiss in writing a novel about such a person, I have known enough men like this in my own life that I do not gain anything by reading about one.

Tiny Pretty Things (Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton, 2015)

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I am always in the middle of a dozen books, but I can never resist picking up the ones that the rest of my family is reading & seeing what I think — so when my young sister brought Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton’s Tiny Pretty Things home from the library, I read the first few pages — and then a few more, because with a point-of-view character named Cassie, how could I not? Then Cassie vanished from the narrative, and I kept reading to discover what happened to her, and soon I did not want to put the book down; I ended up devouring it over the course of a few days, reading at all hours the way one does with a guilty pleasure — although I hate that phrase, why the guilt? This is not at all the sort of thing I typically read, a fast-moving novel about ballet students behaving badly, and it is somewhat poorly constructed at the end, but still, it was definitely a pleasure and has stayed with me afterwards, so I have been musing the last few months about why.

Tiny Pretty Things has three viewpoint characters, all students at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, who is white, June, who is half-white, half-Korean, and Gigi, who is black. I did not know about the diversity going in to the book, but I am delighted by it, and that the novel approaches race in a way which is realistic without being didactic. Both June and Gigi are aware that no matter how well they dance, they will always meet prejudice for failing to conform to the pale, blonde ideal of their Russian instructors — the ideal that Bette achieves with seeming ease. When one of the white male dancers tells Gigi that he likes how different she is from the other students, she can only hear it as being about her race, knowing “that being different can be a code word for being black, for something that isn’t white.” June, meanwhile, contends with being “the only half-Asian ballerina,” feeling that she is “not quite right anywhere.” Yet while each of these young women is aware of the difficulties she faces, the novel firmly avoids letting the white characters fix it; as June notes, “no one wants to talk to the most privileged boy at school about the stuff nonwhite girls face in ballet.” For June and Gigi racism is an elephant in the room, an enormous obstacle which must be silently navigated around, and I found the contrast between their awareness and Bette’s anxious, angry entitlement heightened my own awareness of how power and privilege were playing out in the narrative.

While I admired the nuanced way the authors focused attention on race, and enjoyed the diverse cast, I think what I loved most about this book is that it shows the characters working. In my own teen years I loved to read novels about actors or dancers, singers or musicians, but very few of them were ever shown practising — that was something mentioned in a sentence now and again, but only shown on-screen when something dramatic would occur to interrupt the rehearsal. Charaipotra & Clayton, however, have chosen to foreground the sheer, unremitting labour of studying ballet at this level. Bette, Gigi and June all spend hours upon hours practising each day, and the authors use this time in a number of narratively clever ways. Each young woman approaches practise differently, and their characters is developed in the details of how they choose to work, when and where, and what else they do with the time — planning for the future, secret rendezvous, a chance to break down and cry, or occasionally simply losing themselves in physical motion and the joy of dance. Yet all this time spent in scenes of practise increases the narrative tension; I could never forget that each young woman is just one mis-timed leap away from an injury that would interrupt their careers for months or years. I loved to see the authors respecting the reality of hard work while making narrative use of it; it gave the book a solidity that so many stories of artists lack.

I have read many reviews which call this a ‘soapy’ book, and I still can’t tell if that is meant as a compliment. The ballet school is an intensely competitive environment; each student is not only trying to outdo her rivals, but also to better her own performances, as each moment of perfection simply creates higher expectations in the adults who have the real power. I found it quite understandable that all the students would constantly watch one another, trying to measure success and failure, judging who their toughest competition is — and some of them go the next step, strategising how to eliminate rivals. Yes, I think the rapidity of revelations, the number of secrets, the timing of events, all of these things push the book towards melodrama, but I found the emotions underlying these things quite realistic both in their high pitch and in their ebb and flow. Some of these young women have suffered real trauma, and Charaipotra & Clayton show that as a factor without allowing it to be an excuse for the bad behaviour. I also liked, very much, the treatment of female sexual desire; it is so rare that a book celebrates the female gaze, where women of any age are shown as partially motivated by physical desire which stems from themselves rather than in response to a man who is soliciting it. There is sexual violence in the book, but there is a great deal more pleasure; desire is depicted as risky, perhaps, and distracting, but also as deeply enjoyable, and none of the three viewpoint characters ever questions her right to feel it.

I mentioned at the beginning of my review that this book is poorly constructed towards the end — it does not really end, or even stop, it just keeps going until suddenly there are no more pages. I am not certain whether Charaipotra & Clayton were already contracted for a sequel, but even if they were, it is poor writing in my mind, and I wish they had troubled to do better. Yes, life does just keep going like that, but narrative is created and controlled, and there did not seem to be any reason to keep moving forward except to entice readers towards the next book — which was unnecessary, this book was strong enough that most readers will want more regardless. I will certainly read the next one, but I hope they will take the time to structure the plot more elegantly; there is so much I like in what they write, I would like to be able to praise their work without reservation.

Death at Wentwater Court (Carola Dunn, 1994)

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Is it possible to write a cosy murder mystery set in a country house in the 1920s without inviting comparisons to a host of earlier authors? Perhaps if one is lucky in one’s readers — but I am afraid that Carola Dunn’s Death at Wentwater Court, the first of her lengthy series featuring the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, had very bad luck indeed when it met me. As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, and of interwar women’s fiction in general, I am the reader who stops and stares at the page when the chambermaid in Dunn’s novel calls something “wizard.” Why is the chambermaid using public school slang? Does she secretly read Tom Swift novels when not cleaning bedrooms? Does her use of schoolboy slang to a guest indicate something about the lack of control the young wife of the Earl has over her household? Or does it say something about the servants’ attitutdes towards Daisy? After all, Daisy is not quite a proper guest; she is visiting Wentwater Court in order to write a magazine article about the home and family. There are endless possibilities, but alas, the truth is that Dunn is simply making one of her many mistakes in tone, the sort of mistake that most readers will never even notice, or notice and brush aside — but here I am, the wrong reader for this book, assuming it all means something.

Unfortunately, even when Dunn is not mis-using slang or littering her descriptions with brand names in an exceptionally modern way reminiscent of the Gossip Girl novels, her book is not a success. The plot is all right, the characterisation one-dimensional but at least consistent, but her prose — well, it is very… prosy. When she wishes the reader to know that Daisy is unused to people being sympathetic about her fiancee’s death, she tells us that “Daisy was unused to wholehearted sympathy.” When she feels the need to remind the reader that, for some unknown reason, everyone confides in Daisy even if they have no reason to do so, she writes, “Daisy decided it would be untactful to tell him that he was by no means the first to confide in her.” And so it goes, for pages upon pages; it is like reading a story written by an extremely young person who is not sure that the audience will understand, so everything must be repeated again or again. When my son does this to tell me about his day at school I find it charming, but I prefer novelists to trust my intelligence and to realise that I am actually paying attention to their book & thus do not need salient points repeated. Indeed, I prefer novelists to construct their books so that the protagonists do not need to have a magical ability to inspire confidences from strangers in order for the plot to function, but I am willing to forgive much for enjoyment. This book did not quite outstrip my ability to forgive, but it came close.

So yes, clearly I am the wrong reader for this book — and yet I am frustrated, because if only Dunn wrote just a little better these would make excellent Silent Pleasures for the autumn. Alas, I peeked in at the second novel, and it is just as bad — another round of Daisy being confided in for no good reason except that Dunn cannot discover any other way to do exposition, so I think I must give up on these books; it is not as though I am in any danger of running out of things to read. But if any of you, my readers, are fans of Dunn’s novels, I would love to know what it is you enjoy in them.

Dare Me (Megan Abbott, 2012)

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If I treat literature as a landscape to explore, it is inevitable that I will stumble into some bogs now and again — and unfortunately, I found this to be one of them. So much so, in fact, that I did not finish the book, which one might argue would disqualify me from writing about it. But if I do not analyse the books that fail me, how will I ever come to know what it is I value in fiction?

I first heard about Dare Me online, and then found it at the library. Having seen it described as “cheerleader noir,” I think I was expecting an adult take on the Cheerleaders series that I read with such fascination in the 1980s — teenagers behaving badly towards each other, but with real consequences rather than the softened edges of those long-ago YA novels. This book has some of that, certainly, but really it is about adults behaving badly towards teenagers, who are quite realistically so confident in their own agency that they do not realise that they are being made use of.

Dare Me is narrated by 16-year-old Addy, whose already troubled relationship with her best friend and enemy Beth is strained towards a breaking point by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach, Colette French. French expects the girls to take themselves and their training seriously, and the girls eagerly accept the challenge — except for Beth, who resents authority, resents the entrance of an adult whom she cannot control, resents the end of the cheerleading squad as her own empire. Yet Beth is also the only one of the girls who sees how French is using the squad, and particularly Addy, to meet her own emotional needs. As French invites the girls to her home, gets drunk with them, and begins to treat Addy more as a companion than a student, Beth watches with anger and jealousy, warning Addy over and over that things are not as they seem. The craft of it is fascinating — Abbott does some very interesting things with Beth as the voice of truth who cannot be believed because in all other ways she is so untrustworthy — but I simply could not enjoy it. Pleasure is not the only thing I read for, but it must be in the mix somewhere, or why bother? Abbott’s structure and story were good, but I disliked her prose so much that I kept putting the book aside, and at some point past halfway I gave up altogether.

My difficulty with Abbott’s prose is in her use of imagery. She is capable of writing competent sentences, and she has a very distinct sharp-edged authorial voice, but her imagery is often confusing to the point of dysfunction. For an example, at one point Addy says that the girls share a “yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.” Well, all right, is it deep (which is under) or is it over? And pinions are feathers — if the yearning is deep, then why is it a feather (something external and protective) over their hearts? If I think of something over my heart, I think of it just beneath my skin, very close to the surface, so not deep — perhaps she misremembered the meaning of pinions and was going for something more like pinning, the yearning imprisoning the heart? Or did she mean pinions in the sense of gears, so that this yearning is what drives the girls? But again, if the pinion-gears are driving, would they be above the heart or within it? It is entirely possible Abbott knew exactly what she was doing, that there is a reading of this which is very precise to her, but in my mind what makes imagery such a valuable tool for a writer is the way that it evokes numerous associations that colour the book as the reader continues forward. A complex metaphor is fine, but if the reader is expected to put some long thought into puzzling it out, it needs to be built upon again and again so that there is reward to it, so that it is a foundation of the work rather than a grace note. In Abbott’s case, what might have been an engaging story was lost in the writing, and all her structural skills could not keep me interested enough to finish the book.

Silent Pleasures of August

This life continues to be unbearably busy, as each member of my family (including myself) has taken a turn being sick, and schedules keep shifting, and each weekend is filled with a hundred tasks. Through it all I am keeping a thread of time and space to myself by reading; I have always used books to carve some order out of the surrounding chaos. Here are six of my silent pleasures in August:

Zen Pencils Volume Two: Dream the Impossible Dream (Gavin Aung Than, coming in October 2015) — An ebook graciously provided by the lovely people at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, this is a — well, what is it? A graphic novel, I suppose; Gavin Aung Than has taken various bits of writing he finds inspirational from a wide range of authors and turned each piece into a little illustrated story. Some of them are quite effective, such as Kevin Smith’s argument for taking all artists seriously, or Amy Poehler’s words on moving outside one’s comfort zone — both of which are imagined as child-focused. Others did not work as well for me; the Camus in particular I found laboured, his lyrical writing is not improved by art. And why take the words of Margaret E. Knight, a 19th century inventor, and illustrate it as a story about wrestling? The truth of her story is inspiring enough, and unlikely to be known to Than’s readers. It was an amusing book, but perhaps most suited to early adolescents, who might take to heart some of the advice to follow one’s own dreams despite discouragement.

The Artificial Face (Fenja Gunn, 1973) — I have a soft spot for amateur social histories, the sort of book in which someone who is not a scholar collects various anecdotal detail from earlier works and weaves it together into an interesting (and often false) narrative. This book on the history of cosmetics in England seems to be precisely that — at least if Gunn is a scholar I find no evidence of it — but it was marred by the author’s misogyny. Why would someone who dislikes “feminine vanity” and believes that fashions make “a mockery of nature” choose to write a book about cosmetics? I cannot recommend it, although it did interest me enough in the subject that I am planning to read Lisa Eldrige’s Face Paint: A History of Makeup, when it comes out in October.

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Gloria Steinem, 1983) — This book has been sitting on my shelves for at least 15 years, but it wasn’t until I heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Steinem (on the fantastic CBC Writers and Company podcast) that I finally picked it up to read it. Steinem has a strong voice, and many of her pieces are still relevant — some of them frighteningly so; she predicted the legislative extremes some parts of the United States have gone to around pregnancy and the personhood of embryos. I wish the collection had been somewhat more varied, and that the pieces which are more statistics than narrative had been omitted, but it is a fascinating look back at a particular stage in the feminist movement, and certainly both informative and inspiring to read as a feminist today.

Simple Confession (Baird Leonard, 1930) — I discovered Leonard through some very early issues of The New Yorker, which I am slowly reading week by week starting at the very beginning — an infinite task, as the magazine comes out faster than I read, but a pleasant one. She published two light sketches mocking high society in 1925, and went on to contribute a large amount of humorous verse of the next few decades. This is the only book of hers in my library system, and given the title I was hoping for an autobiography, since I am quite curious about her life. Instead it was a collection of humorous verse depicting the life of a bright (but perhaps not very young) thing in New York in the 1920s. I found it entertaining reading, especially right before bed, but not the sort of thing which stays in the mind.

Mr. Fortune Speaking and Case for Mr. Fortune (H. C. Bailey, 1931 and 1932) — More Bailey; these are two volumes of his Reggie Fortune short stories, and contain some of my favourites of them. Bailey still has his irritating authorial tics, but taken slowly the stories are entertaining, and I appreciate Mr. Fortune’s desire to pursue justice without inflicting needless suffering.

Etcetera Etc. (Sibella Court, 2009)

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I have spent the last several weeks helping my daughter settle into her new school, while finding my own way through the changed structure of the days, and I am tired of words. What better time to browse lazily through Sibella Court’s Etcetera etc., with its pages upon pages of images? Even as a physical object the book is a treat; despite being a recent volume it has that delicious smell of library stacks, and the paper is thick and heavy, with occasional translucent sheets used to good effect. Inside it is mostly pictures, of rooms Court has styled, filled with objects she finds beautiful, fabrics and tarnished silver and wooden pencils and straw hats — the gathering of a self-confessed “bowerbird” who loves to collect things which catch her gaze and create new ways to use them as decor. I do not share Court’s aesthetic, which is very textural, objects piled in layers upon layers, and to my eye unpleasantly cluttered, but some of the individual objects she features are quite beautiful, and I like several of her colour palettes.

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As for the words — well, it is like reading a document from an alien world. I cannot imagine bestowing so much time and attention upon objects. Finding them, arranging them, changing them — when would I read, or cook, or garden? Court loves her objects, she loves display, believing that “a home is like a museum without the signs saying ‘Please Don’t Touch’” and so she styles rooms with a multitude of things for visitors to investigate and examine. After all, she asks, “what’s the point of possessing beautiful and meaningful things if you can’t show them off for the world to see?” This theatrical approach extends through the book; she suggests that readers should imagine their “interiors as sets where objects, art and furniture can be moved or interchanged, and old objects easily moved to make way for new pieces of a different mood.” It is, I think, the precise opposite of what I wish; I want my home to be stable ground from which I may launch myself out to explore, rather than a place “forever changing and evolving” to enhance my “mood, lifestyle, and current obsessions.” My moods and obsessions satisfy me as they are; I cannot imagine trying to make the rooms I live in reflect them.

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I find it curious and fascinating, this living focused upon the external gaze, this sense of the home as a place which is on display. Home as stage set, the opposite of home as sanctuary. I would find it deeply uncomfortable to live in, but as an author I am captivated by trying to imagine the people who would choose such a way of living, what stories I might tell about them, how they would move, speak, think, feel — and what, also, these spaces would be like, to move through, to live in. How would I wake up, if my bed was on the floor and my shelving provided by a ladder? What kind of work would I settle to do, if the walls were covered with stamped linen and my shelves overflowing with boxes and fabric and old playing cards? A book like this is a feast for my imagination, and the perfect antidote to hours spent tracking down school uniforms and filling out volunteer paperwork.

Vicarious Herb Gardening

I am lucky enough to have a large garden — not the one in the picture above, alas — which, mostly, I shamefully neglect in favour of reading and writing. Still, it is there and I am very fond of it, and despite the terrible drought that we are in the midst of, it more or less flourishes. I took the two books pictured below from the library with the intention of growing more herbs in my garden, especially some of the obscure ones I find in Elizabethan recipes, such as lovage and borage — but as the drought worsened I thought better of it, and decided to read aspirationally instead, planning for a future when there is once again rain.

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Charles W. G. Smith’s The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs is a slender paperback featuring 26 different herbs; this is a conveniently sized book I can imagine actually carrying outside with me for reference while planning a garden. The herbs are listed in alphabetical order, with a small photograph of each one — I would not have minded more, as it is good to see the plants in different stages, some change a great deal when they flower or go to seed. Smith gives a brief history of every herb, advice on planting, harvesting, and preservation, and some suggested culinary and medicinal uses. Between each of the individual entries are recipes, grouped by method, ranging from standards such as baking and sauces to more unusual ideas such as making herbal salts and sugars. I was a little frustrated that these in-between sections are not listed in the Table of Contents, but the individual recipes are all included in the index, so it is possible to find a specific item without too much difficulty — and given the slimness of the book, flipping through looking for a particular section is not overly onerous.

Growing & Using Herbs & Spices by Don Burke is a much weightier book, quite literally; it is in the heavy coffee-table style, with full page photographs carefully styled and shot. Like Smith’s book, the entries are alphabetised, with information on how to grow, harvest, and use the various herbs and spices — although Burke is very clear when there is not scientific support for medicinal claims. Many of the entries include a recipe as well, although not all; a pity, as while I do not need more uses for common herbs such as basil, I would have loved to see recipes for nettle or marigold. Unlike Smith, Burke includes spices, while acknowledging that most of his readers will be unable to grow such tropical plants as clove trees and vanilla orchids. I liked the playfulness of including these; it is interesting reading how vanilla pods are harvested even if I will never do it myself. All in all this is a marvellous book to daydream over; the beautifully styled photographs were quite evocative, and the recipes sample from Thai, Indian, and Indonesian cuisines as well as the usual French and Italian. If I were going to buy just one of these books it is this one I would buy — but the glory of the library is that I may enjoy them both.

July’s Silent Pleasures

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The act of reading is, of course, usually itself a silent pleasure. But most of the time my enjoyment is increased by the discussion afterwards, which is one reason these posts, this blog.

Some books, however, leave me with almost nothing to say. Often these are not very good books. They may be engaging, enjoyable, pleasurable… but not well-crafted, not works of artistic merit. There is pleasure in the moment of reading, but not so much looking back; they do not take up residence inside my mind. Sometimes they have compelling plots, stories that push me along so I stay up late to find out what happens next. At other times they are indulgences, books set in idealised pasts that I enjoy visiting while knowing full well that the reality would be incredibly unpleasant. I could approach these books as I did in university, reading closely, teasing out unspoken assumptions, being the cultural scholar — and I do enjoy that very much, it is why I did my degree so. But sometimes I wish enjoyment without analysis — a silent pleasure.

Six of my silent pleasures in July were:

Life Among the English (Rose Macaulay, 1942) — I read her first two novels earlier this year and enjoyed them. Based on the title, I expected this to be a sharp-tongued commentary on life in England in the 30s and 40s with lots of photographs. It is instead a quick skimming of England’s social history, fairly wry, mostly whole good-natured. I enjoyed it while reading it, and now do not really remember it.

The Shadow on the Wall (H. C. Bailey, 1934) — I am in love with Bailey’s detective fiction despite his flaws as an author, so much so that I am eventually going to do a proper post about his two very odd detectives. This particular volume is the first novel featuring Reginald Fortune, a physician-turned-detective who began appearing in short stories in 1920. It is a fairly well-made story, with Bailey’s usual tics, but I enjoy the company of Mr. Fortune so much that I can easily put up with repetitive dialogue tags and other such authorial shortcomings.

Tooth and Claw (Jo Walton, 2003) — Walton’s fourth novel, a re-imagining of Trollope’s Frameley Parsonage… if everyone were dragons. It sounds a gimmick, but it works nicely; yes, these landed gentry really do devour the poor, and the women really are visibly tainted for life if a man gets too close. I enjoyed it, but it does not go beyond its concept; the literalising of metaphors is clever, the story tidy and well-made, but it did not shed any light for me on the human (or dragon) condition.

What Makes This Book So Great (Jo Walton, 2014) — A collection of essays Walton originally wrote for Tor.com about books she was rereading. These are energetic descriptions of what she finds memorable and exciting about particular books, very enthusiastic but without much depth. I found them charming, but they are so clearly ephemera, made to spark discussion, that I ended up frustrated that I could not join in on the years-old conversation.

The Sullen Sky Mystery (H. C. Bailey, 1935) — This novel features Bailey’s other detective, a lawyer for the underworld, Joshua Clunk. I enjoy Fortune’s company more than Clunk’s, but they are both interesting and have that 1930s flavour that I am so fond of. It was quite good, the best novel by him I have read so far — which is something of a pity, since Wikipedia claims it is his strongest, so there is less to look forward to.

The Holiday Round (A. A. Milne, 1912) — Milne is, of course, best known for having created Winnie the Pooh, although some mystery fans remember his single detective novel, The Red House Mystery. But he was also a playwright, a poet, and a writer for the humour magazine Punch, and this volume from 1912 contains a collection of his light pieces. Some are still very funny today, others are obscure or confusing, but all in all I liked having this to dip into now and again.