On Books and Reading… And Writing: Mary Stewart

A good book is hard to find. So hard, in fact, I have taken to re-reading all the good books I have read once before. I find this to be comforting in the same way watching an old movie is comforting or looking at old photo albums is comforting. And while re-reading might sound like going backwards or even just plain blah, it is anything but, it is almost revelatory.

As a person who also likes to write, I am finding that stepping back and taking the time to re-read some of those novels which moved me, inspired me and made me want to write  stories myself, is also an act of discovery. I realize that what I remember about each book is the feeling it left me with. I may or may not remember the character’s names and my memory of the settings and even the plots are fuzzy, like a Monet painting. In re-reading, I am rediscovering the language and the technique of some of the twentieth century’s master story tellers.

Right now, I am re-reading Thornyhold and My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart. I suppose Mary Stewart was considered to be a  middle brow novelist, yesterday’s version of chick lit, but as I re-read these books, I am discovering she was much, much more.

Here is a passage from Thornyhold:

“Now empty your mind as best you can, and look. Without hope, without fear, without memory, and without guile. Just look”

I looked.

My own face, small and distorted. The running light of the river. A flash or blue, the kingfisher. A shoal of black streaks, like tadpoles, but I knew from the screaming in the sky that they were swifts, skimming the tree-tops. Another shoal, white, sailing, tilting, silent as a snow-storm; a flight of doves or pigeons, wheeling and dipping, like a cloud of snow in an old fashioned paperweight. Then crystal, grey as mist, reflecting my eyes and the crimson of my school blazer and the tiny trees behind me.

Isn’t that lovely? When I read some of the contemporary popular fiction written today (and I don’t mean literary fiction or Booker Prize winning fiction) I do not seem to find very much of this sort of careful description. It is hard to pin point exactly, hard to describe without giving multiple examples, but there seems to be almost too much clever dialogue in contemporary offerings. Witty this, witty that. Conversations carefully crafted like a romantic comedy screen play. Fun, but highly unlikely. Description is what seems to be missing in newer fiction. We have become so fast paced, we can’t stop for even a moment to observe the minute details or to simply be quiet and let an author write without having the characters talk so much.

Every critic seems to scream these days what seems to me to be an over interpretation of Henry James’ admonition to “SHOW! Don’t tell!” And yet, the first thirty-eight pages of Thornyhold are just that, telling, she is telling a story. One long flashback, a brief, yet effective summary of the main character’s life, how she arrived at the central location of the novel, which she does not even get to until chapter five. As I read along, I find myself thinking, “I wonder what a writer’s workshop would say about this? Would they criticize for lack of dialogue? Would they say, “this is a flashback, it is good information for the author to know, but the reader  does not need to know any of this…it is important to get right to the story…”

Maybe, just maybe, the past is important to the present.  Maybe it is permissible to spend thirty-eight pages on what happened before. After all, it is what got us here in the first place.

Anne Bronte: Woman of Mystery

Anne Bronte could have been a literary force

Janeites beware. The Brontes are coming to town. After a solid decade of all things Jane, it seems Hollywood and the publishing industry are running out of ways to hook themselves to Jane’s genius and they are going to attempt to launch the same sort of love affair with the Bronte sisters.

Apparently, according to Flavorwire and California Chronicle – several movies are in the works. And just yesterday while strolling the aisles at Barnes and Nobel – I noticed several Bronte knock off offerings on the paperback table. One, By Jude Morgan , is a fictional account of the Bronte’s lives. I have read Juliet Barker’s huge and absorbing biography The Brontes and don’t feel the need to read a fictional account. Although, I may have to read it to see where the general path seems to be leading.

Yet, all this ramping up to all things Bronte leaves me cold just as all the Jane knock-offs did. As a life long lover of both Jane Austen and the Brontes, I have mixed emotions about this. I appreciate the fact that these attempts to blend Jane into the 21st century might expose her to a wider audience and for that reason alone, I say well, hurrah. But, I was not one who of those who enjoyed the immensely popular Lost in Austen series. I thought it was, to put it simply, stupid. So, I stopped watching. As for the Jane Austen sequels, while I admire the authors who can carefully mimic the writing style of Jane Austen ( it obviously can’t be done by a dummy) I have never been able to finish even one.

My interest in Jane lies more in the area of her letters,the  biographies written about her  (I have read at least five and made a list) and the investigative scholarship which abounds concerning her novels. (My favorite Jane bio is Claire Tomalin’s.) The movies and BBC series have all been equally delightful. As an ex-costumer I was entranced. Again, hurrah.

So, it won’t seem odd if I say I like all the same sorts of things about the Brontes, the movies and the biographies etc. As for the novels themselves, I prefer Charlotte and Anne’s fiction to Wuthering Heights. Emily’s poetry is glorious, wrenching and lovely.

Over the years, I have come to love Anne Bronte perhaps the best of the three. She is the most mysterious of the three sisters. Only five of her letters remain extant – why? And trust me, they are really nothing letters. More like finding a thank you note from my wedding. What was contained in the ‘gone forever’ letters of this innocent, obedient sister and daughter that required they all be destroyed?

The Branwell Bronte factor is not to be over looked either, he was a force to be reckoned with in their lives. I try to put myself in their shoes and realize how enervating he must have been, the toll HIS presence in their life took on all of them. Anne was closely aligned with Branwell’s fortunes, working in the same household as the Robinson children’s governess while Branwell was a tutor. Goodness, where did The Tenant of Wildfell Hall COME FROM? I am one of those readers who thinks large swaths of Agnes Grey is semi-autobiographical.

Anne at 13

Of the three sisters, Anne was the most self sacrificing and the most responsible. Had she lived, she would have been a Bronte force. Charlotte was, as it happened, the last one standing and yes, Jane Eyre is eminently readable and wonderful and goodness knows, I love it as much as the next girl. Charlotte, however,  crafted Anne’s image and down played her success as a writer. Survival of the fittest. What was wrong? Was it subconscious jealousy? Now, that would make a great mystery book, a great knock off. The missing letters. Maybe I will write it.

And so, while Hollywood and the publishing industry will blandly focus on the ubiquitous Jane Eyre (don’t get me wrong, I love it, but really, enough is enough) and the never done quite right Wuthering Heights, I think they are all missing the boat.

Anne is the jewel in the rough, the uncharted waters, the hook…

Ephemeral, Incorporeal Books

I even made my own illustration for the book!

I just finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was a great book and if you want to know how I really felt about it, here is a great little article. I could not agree more and I could not have said it any better.

Anyway, I loved it so much, I marched right out and bought the next one … oh no, that is not how it happened. I loved it so much, I hit a few buttons and ordered it wirelessly and had it delivered to my Kindle and started reading it immediately at 11:30 PM.

When I first announced in a status message on my Facebook page how much I wanted a Kindle, my friends’ responses were surprisingly disapproving. The hue and cry was a decisive ‘no!” The general feeling seemed to be a protectionist stance, a kind of defensiveness for books, beloved books. “I will never give up books!” one told me. “I love the way a new book smells when I open it,” declared another.

I was a little bemused and found myself defending my love of books. I saw the Kindle not as a repudiation, but as a way to access MORE books. I knew I would never give up my love of the physicality of books, the spine, the end boards, the paper in between. I remember writing, “I have books scattered on nearly every surface of my house!” which was part of the reason a Kindle intrigued me so. I am literally running out of space. Books are my guilty pleasure and while I could resort to only using the public library, as an amateur writer I decided years ago I wanted to support the publishing industry by being a consumer. So, I buy a lot of books. Unfortunately, I began to see that I will run out of room eventually. Fortunately, Kindle came on the scene.

At first, I wanted a Kindle because it holds thousands of books and they are less expensive to buy. Now that I have one, I love it for it’s compact size. It is light weight and has revolutionized reading in bed. No more bulky book to hold, no more having to take my arm outside of the warm covers to turn a page because with the Kindle, I just a click the button and the next page appears. I also love the built in Oxford English Dictionary and the book marking ability. Plus, I never lose my place since Kindle remembers where I stopped reading.

It seems, however, that I am an oddball in all of this. According to this article, it is primarily men who are attracted to e-readers. Older men. Baby boomer men.  The only criteria I fit for all this gadgety reading is the fact that I am a baby boomer. I have thoughts about this. I truly believe reading is not a priority for most of our children, I think the true readers, the reading public, if you will, is aging. Books are becoming less necessary. I know people will squeal when they read that (IF they read that!

Now, I have taken a look at the iPad. It is sleek and lovely, like all Apple products. When the iPad was announced and I saw the way the e-book components worked, I was sorry I had not waited for the iPad. But, I have visited the Apple store and determined the iPad needs to become lighter and smaller for comfortable book reading. In my opinion, Kindles and Nooks are superior for truly dedicated book worms. Having a Kindle has not made me love books any less. I still buy real books. There are MANY books that are not available to read on Kindle.

We live in an e-world. Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers are just another option, not a replacement for traditional books. If anything, Kindle just makes room for more. The way I see it, you can never have enough books … especially if they are incorporeal.

The Children’s Book – Not Just for Kids Anymore


I think a truly great book is one you can re-read and enjoy as much the second time as you did the first. I don’t re-read many books because there are so many new books to read. I feel I should spend my reading time reading new novels and biographies. Sometimes, it seems there is a dearth of new material and I flop around, fish out of water like, wanting a book that gave me the same expereince as such and such a book. It was during one of these unsettled in-between-a-good-book times I re-read ‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt. It was every bit as satisfying as if reading it for the first time. 

Byatt’s novels can be very challenging. I have to admit, I have not read all of them. I was stumped in ‘The Virgin in the Garden’ by the brilliant boy, Marcus,  who sees what I can only assume is geometry, “He saw intersecting cones, stretching to infinity … he saw that he was at the, or a, point of intersection, and that if it could not pass through it would shatter the fragile frame to make a way.” Being able to see math or geometry in my head is certainly one of  my deficiencies. I can barely add and subtract mentally and when I do, it never turns out well. When I was reading the passages concerning Marcus, my eyes crossed trying to imagine what this child was experiencing and because I was working on a masters at the time, I decided I would have to save the Frederica books for another summer, winter, whatever…  

But I have read Byatt’s short stories and the two novellas in ‘Angels and Insects’ and I must say …ooo … they are very interesting and enjoyable in a voyeuristic, sometimes creepy kind of way. Those crazy Victorians! Imagine what they would do with the Internet! ‘Possession’ remains my favorite Byatt book.

She has written a new book and it sounds like she has returned to the novelistic form more similar to Possession than her more recent books. The reviews about ‘The Children’s Book’ appeal to my rampant Anglophilia. It takes as it’s subject the latter decades during the Victorian period leading up to World War I. This stretch of British history  is the decisive period where many of our ideas concerning idyllic childhood came from. It was also the time when fairy tales became required childhood reading.  It is a romantic time, but like so much of life, it had a seamy underbelly. I am torn between loving the romance and tradition it created and being enlightened and horrified by the untold secrets people kept. It is reminiscent of  my love of fashion plates. The engravings are idealized renderings of the fashions of the time. The reality was actually muddy hems, ruined shoes and little variety in the average woman’s wardrobe. The women portrayed by the fashion plates were a minuscule percentage of the female population. I know this and while I am comforted by the ideal, intellectually I am fascinated by the reality.

The bottom line is – I must have this book! It will not be released in the U.S. until OCTOBER! I can’t wait that long, so I am ordering from Amazon UK today, here is a link if you would like to read it now as well.  This is shaping up to be a great reading summer. So many books! So little time.

Last Night I Dreamt I Went to Manderly…


Daphne Du Maurier
Daphne Du Maurier

I recently finished reading Justine Picardie’s novel Daphne. I hesitated before ordering it with the gigantic Barnes and Noble gift certificate I get for Christmas from my work buddies each year ($500!!!!) because I hate it when I order a book that disappoints. That’s why I usually save my certificate for purchasing sure things like hard backs of books I have already read and want to add to my permanent library. How stupid is that?

Anyway – I took the plunge, entered my gift cert number and hit the button … I then foolishly began perusing Amazon reviews and started to doubt myself. So, when the book actually arrived, I didn’t dive in, I glanced at it out of the corner of my eye as it sat next to my bed for two weeks. Then, I moved it around with me wherever I went, leaving it on my mother’s writing desk where I read in the mornings for two days and the coffee table which is piled with books for another week.

I decided to read two warm up books, The Seance (good) and The Ghost Writer (creepy good) both by John Harwood. During all if this, I was still working away on biographies of Emily Dickinson, Emma Hamilton and Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire. I am almost finished with Emily, 3/4’s finished with Emma and 1/4 with Georgiana.

So, I finally started Daphne on a dark and rainy evening. I LOVED IT. I read it while stirring sauce, running bath water, letting the dog out. It was completely gift certificate worthy. It is basically a a fictionalized account based during the time Daphne DuMaurier was writing her biography about Branwell Bronte in the late 1950’s. The story shifts back and forth from Daphne, her correspondence with a disgraced former Bronte curator, Alex Symington and a fictional character who is contemporary.Therefore it qualifies as my favorite kind of book: a back-n-forth book. For informational purposes and clarity, both DuMaurier and Symington were actual people. The plot concerning the fictional modern character cleverly mimics Daphne’s greatest novel, Rebecca. This young woman is researching Daphne for a Phd thesis and comes across the correspondence between Daphne and Mr. Symington. She is slightly obsessed with Daphne, but you don’t feel as if she is round the bend. It really is atmospheric and well written and if you like a good literary mystery, while the mystery part is fairly low key, this is a good read. I read it during a rainy week, so that was even better.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Some caveats: I may have loved this so much because I knew a lot about Daphne. But don’t let that stop you. You can do some fun research. I understood the back story which is kind of alluded to in the novel but not really clarified to for purposes of brevity, I am sure. I have read almost all Daphne Du Maurier’s novels ( not the Branwell Bio – which I plan to add to my stack) and I have read the definitive Biography about her by Margaret Forster. This biography, if you like biographies, is excellent. Also, another very helpful thing to know is the gist of the story surrounding J.M.Barrie (Peter Pan)and the children who were his models for The Lost Boys. Actually, it is one of the saddest tales of family tragedy. As it happens, Peter Pan was Daphne DuMaurier’s first cousin. Being someone who has close cousinly relationships, I was very sympathetic to Daphne’s relationship with Peter. I was propelled into research about J.M. Barrie after watching Finding Never-land. This excellent website will give you heaps of background information and if you don’t feel incredibly sad after looking at all of the pictures, you aren’t well and I would suggest you stop taking your anti-depressants.

Anyway – WONDERFUL BOOK. Have a go…