Ramblings

Tea Totaling

Why Loose Leaf Tea Matters…

Loose Leaf Tea

If you love tea, you might wonder, what’s the big deal?  Here it is in a nutshell: Loose leaf tea is generally a higher quality–they save the bits and ends to put in bags, so using loose leaf gives you a better flavor.  If you don’t want to use a strainer, try getting a tea pot with a basket or a filter built in.  I found this one at a flea market for $2.00.

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Still not sure?  Give it a try, I think you will be able to taste the difference.  The tea I am drinking today is a Coconut Oolong from The Spice and Tea Exchange in San Antonio Texas. I put a slice of lime in just for fun, and it’s delicious!

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Basically, this is a love letter to librarians, so I was definitely in. Moyes tells the story of the pack horse librarians of the Depression through a set of brave and likable female protagonists. Alice married Bennett Van Cleve after whirlwind courtship in her native England while he was on holiday, only to come down to earth in rural Kentucky where  she and her husband still live with her domineering father-in-law. Margery O’Hare is a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own during a time when that quality is not universally admired. (Has it ever been?) Izzie has suffered from polio and the social difficulties produced by it. Sophia is a highly educated African American woman whose brother was wounded in a recent mining accident. She has trouble fitting in anywhere, but the library provides her peace and purpose. Coal is king, and the Van Cleves own the mines. Alice doesn’t realize until most of the way through the novel that her family is literally living on the back-breaking work of the poor families in town.

The Giver of Stars touches on many issues which are still relevant without being heavy-handed.  The characters are warm and complex–even the villains. There are some unexpected turns, both good and not so good.  Happily, as most librarians would wish, knowledge and enlightenment triumph over ignorance and venom.

This would make a good discussion for book clubs.  Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Which of the four librarians do you identify most with?  Why?
  2. Did you guess the departed Mrs. Van Cleve’s true plight before it was revealed? What were the clues, either looking back after you knew or that tipped you off?
  3. What would you say is the theme of the novel?  What supports this idea?
  4. Who do you think the “Giver of Stars” in the title is?
  5. Why do you think the pack horse library program came to an end?  What are some modern equivalents to the idea?
  6. Put yourself in 1935 Kentucky. Would you have volunteered to be a librarian given the risks involved?  Why or why not? 
Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

A Secret Sisterhood by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

Full disclosure:  I bought this book because of the subtitle:  The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.  I should have known that I wouldn’t like it from the lack of an Oxford comma in the subtitle, but I pressed on.  The authors are academics, and there are endnotes and lists of sources, so it appears their research was extensive.  However, I found the chapters about Austen to be highly speculative and therefore, disappointing. Based on a few letters, which they read in a particular way, the authors build a whole “unknown” friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, the governess for Austen’s niece Fanny Knight. While it is true that Sharp did work for the family, and there appears to have been some interaction, and even some exchange of letters–most of those letters did not survive and Midorikawa and Sweeney read a lot into the ones which do, including some interactions between Cassandra and Anne after Jane’s death.  I think more work needs to be done with the sources they used and perhaps more searching for additional sources to verify their suppositions before their thesis, at least in terms of Jane Austen and Anne Sharp, can be addressed. Deirdre LeFay says it better than I do in this article.

The authors argue that these four women writers had mostly unknown relationships with other women which served to inspire and/or support their writing. The problem is that the evidence is pretty thin for them even being friends, at least in the case of Austen and Sharp, and nonexistent to show that if their friendship did exist, it provided any kind of support for either of them writing. I cannot speak to the other three authors discussed in the book, since I did not finish reading the book, but other commentators who knew about Woolf have written in reviews that there was really nothing new in this book. 

I would have to call  this a disappointment and I could not recommend it for those with an interest in Austen. Save your money for Janine Barchas’s new book instead.

Tea Totaling

Need a tea time treat? Try this…

Tea Brack made from the recipe at King Arthur Flour, here. The only changes I made to the recipe were to add lemon zest from one lemon and use Jack Daniels Tennessee Apple Whiskey instead of Irish Whiskey. It’s delicious and a wonderful addition to your afternoon tea. The Harney & Sons Paris Tea from World Market is fantastic–slightly floral scented Black Tea. Give both a try with your latest book!

Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

The Regency Years by Robert Morrison

The full title is The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern. Morrison’s book is highly readable and engaging, while maintaining a level of scholarly rigor not often seen in works marketed to a lay audience.  For those interested, there is a wealth of endnotes and reference lists. I will be investigating several as soon as possible. Hats off to Norton for including them.  I am happy to see academic historians, such as Morrison seeking to write accessible history that still adheres to the standards of the discipline.

Morrison’s main argument goes something like this: The Regency, though only a decade (~1811-1820), was a time of many world altering events and an explosion of creative output in almost all areas, including literature and the arts, science, engineering, and even politics throughout the world, but particularly in Britain.  Because of these events and the outsize personalities of many of the creatives, the Regency is where we should look for the roots of modernity, rather than the Victorian era. He gathers evidence from areas as diverse as sport and other forms of entertainment, sex, and landscape design. He manages to include the words of several women, albeit mostly of the upper classes, as well as evidence from the lives of free people of color. Although the scope is Britain, he makes the effort to take into account different perspectives, such as North Americans, including native people, and views from other colonized areas and people. He does not flinch from taking a hard look at from whence the prosperity of the Regency arose–often the backs of the working classes along with colonial expansion and exploitation. He uses the contradictions of the Regent himself–an urbane supporter of the arts who could also be crude and gluttonous for more than just food and drink–as a symbol of the contradictions of the Regency–a time of glorious literature and great advancements in science during which the wealth gap became ever wider and whole swathes of society lived in abject poverty and filth. 

At several points he seems to be using the Regency as a warning to us in the present;  the struggles for political representation and fairness engaged in by the working classes mostly ended badly, such as the Peterloo Massacre, because of the government’s overriding fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain. During much of the Regency, Wellington is fighting Napoleon somewhere. The warning isn’t that the people will be defeated, but that they have a point and that protest can lead to positive change without violence. 

During the Regency, radical orators, politicians, novelists, satirists, caricaturists, philanthropists, poets and journalists assailed the entrenched hierarchies of Church and State from every available angle, and focused in particular on the trumped-up, tricked-out Regent as a symbol of all that was wrong with Britain. Their strategies loosened the grip of Regency intolerance. Their courage and insight remain as inspiration to those who seek to carry on their work… (63).

While I enjoyed the book immensely and would highly recommend it for learning more about the Regency period, I am less certain that Morrison’s argument that the Regency is the root of modernity is completely convincing.  I don’t disagree, and he has more than enough evidence for the first part of his argument about the Regency as a watershed politically and creatively, it is difficult to trace the origins of a concept such as modernity. To be fair, Morrison is does show convincingly that the Regency era marks the beginning of realistic novel writing as opposed to Gothic/Romances (NOTE: this usage of Romance is the more classical meaning of a genre in which a hero has a quest), but he also rightly points out that the most popular novelist at the time was Walter Scott who situated his works squarely in the Romance category, albeit the newish genre of Historical Romance.  Even though Scott and the Regent admired Austen’s works, they never achieved the popularity of Scott’s during her own lifetime. In retrospect, Austen’s reputation outstripped that of Scott (for more about that read this recent article by Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser–you may recognize the license plate!), but this makes the case for realistic novel writing as a “movement” of Regency rather less sure. 

Likewise Morrison’s tracing of protest movements.  Though he argues successfully that they existed and that ideas about nonviolence may be traced to some stars of Regency protests, ultimately there is no indication that anything actually changed as a result. Even Peterloo did not really bring about any desired change. “Liverpool’s government was unrepentant. It tried, convicted, and imprisoned several radical leaders…It passed the notorious Six Acts, which introduced harsh measures of control over assembly, the popular press, and the bearing or arms” (56). Morrison is continuing the conversation about the significance of the Regency which will likely continue as more evidence is discovered, sifted, sorted, and analyzed.

Morrison’s use of a core cast of Regency characters lends continuity and a sense of intimacy to his work. He draws heavily from Byron, Leigh Hunt, Austen, The Wordsworths, Scott, two sets of Lambs, and Hazlitt among others.  By using evidence from these luminaries in each chapter, the reader gains a sense of the familiar that serves as a throughline for the book as it describes wide ranging aspects of the Regency. Morrison, not unsurprisingly, uses evidence most frequently from figures he has written about before in his other works.  This is both a strength–because he knows them well–and a weakness, because it limits the evidence. However, it is not a serious weakness and his conscious decisions to look for representations from all classes and types of people offsets any real criticism for sticking with his cast of Regency characters. It would be impossible not to limit the evidence somehow or else risk a book too long to read comfortably.

I recommend Morrison’s work to those with an interest in the Regency period–it is entertaining and informative, as well as being methodically sound. Enjoy!

Austenalia

Austen in Austin

Book Sculpture by Mike Stilkey

Yesterday, we had our regional Jane Austen Society of North America regional meeting–it was a great way to start off the year. We heard a wonderful talk by the president of JASNA entitled, “Jane Austen, Working Woman,” followed by a visit to the Harry Ransom Center to view the “Austen in Austin” exhibit, a part of a larger exhibit, Stories to Tell. Our tour was lead by Janine Barchas, UT professor and the curator of the Austen cases. Unfortunately, the exhibit closed today, but Janeites should know that the HRC owns the Austen family copies of her works–with annotations made by Cassandra. The photo below shows one of the annotations, but it is very faint. It is in a copy of Persuasion, and it reads, “Dear Jane, these words should be written in letters of gold.”

Another hidden gem from the exhibit is an association copy of Persuasion owned by T. H. White. White penned a locked room mystery based on Austen’s characters in 1932, “Darkness at Pemberly”, which was also adapted for a Radio BBC program. I will be looking to see if I can find a recording, but in the meantime, you can read the story here at project Gutenburg.

More Austenalia to come soon!

Austenalia

New Year, New Look…

Last year I began the Year of Reading Dangerously to celebrate the theme of the 2019 JASNA Annual General Meeting, which was focused on Northanger Abbey. It was great fun and I plan to continue reading and commenting on more Gothic fiction this year. However, it is a new year, and I have decided to broaden my scope and include a category of posts entitled Austenalia, which will be related to all things Austen and Regency. You can still see the Year of Reading Dangerously by clicking on the tag for that, but those posts will also be in the Austenalia category for anyone who would like to begin at the beginning. I have almost finished Robert Morrison’s book, The Regency Years: during which Jane Austen writes, Napoleon fights, Byron makes love, and Britain becomes modern, and it will open the series later on this week.

Until then, happy new year and happy reading and teatotalling to all!

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

First, a Shout-out to a local Austin writer–yay!  This novel combines a few of my favorite things: spies, intrigue, and literature, oh my! I am sure other reviewers have pointed this out, but I would also like to make sure everyone notes the irony of the author’s first name being the name of the main character in the novel that this book is about, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I think there might be some backstory there.  

The Secrets We Kept conjures up the early days of the CIA, when Ivy League frat boys dreamed of a world without communism and thought that they could win the propaganda war with the Soviets. The office girls were mostly typists and secretaries, but a few worked their way up–I have made a note to myself to do some research on early CIA work–there have been a rash of new histories and biographies coming our telling the stories of women we never knew about from the files, now that they are being declassified. I have found it inspirational lately that there are more writers and historians telling women’s stories.  Women who had previously been footnotes have been getting more press; some like Hedy Lamar, are even getting long overdue recognition. So I appreciate Prescott’s novel for going behind the scenes from a woman’s point of view.

The story follows a group of women who work in the typing pool of the CIA offices, when they were located on E Street in D.C, before Langley. The point of view changes as the story unfolds, with different women, some main characters, others bit players, but this is one of the best tools Prescott uses.  The shifting first person narrative lets the reader know more than any one character knows, so even though the reader is not omniscient, she almost feels that way. Parallel plots unfold. The first fictionalizes the circuitous route Boris Paternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago took–smuggled out of Russia and published first in Italy, then throughout the West.  This plot includes the now well known tale of its publication in Russian by the CIA and distribution to Soviet citizens attending the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Read more about that here. Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As is often the case, the women in Pasternak’s life, including his inspiration for Lara don’t fare so well.  You’ll need to read the book. The other plot in the novel concerns a second generation Russian immigrant, displaced by the turmoil of World War II when her mother fled to the United States and her father was grabbed by secret police just as they were about to board a ship. Irina gets a job at the fledgling CIA as a typist, but is marked out early for “other work” because of her Russian background, fluency in the language, and various talents. 

The Secrets We Kept has much to recommend it. The characters are interesting and Prescott uses the chapter titles to track their growth and change over the course of the novel. Suspense abounds, especially in the scenes at the World’s Fair and the Italian publisher’s party, but neither gratuitous violence nor action derails the plot.  The reader sweats bullets when Irina is dressed as a nun trying to convince Russians to take the little book back to the USSR, read it, and pass it on. Prescott does a wonderful job evoking the period; the clothes, the manners, the way the men treat the women, it’s all there. In addition, the reader is treated to a different look at Boris Pasternak–he is a genius, but he had help, as so many geniuses do from the women in his life, who largely went unacknowledged. It is the Mistress’s story that gripped me the most.  She suffered for his art more than he did, at least in this telling.

This is a quiet novel, which will give the reader much to think on.  It successfully threads the needle by presenting the past without nostalgia and without harsh judgement by modern standards.  It is a story of struggle, love, and hope for the future. It is also the often untold story of women in history and literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which character was your favorite and why?
  2. Do you think books can change the world? Why or why not–give examples.
  3. What do you think were the secrets referred to in the title?  How does the title have multiple meanings?
  4. Does this book make you want to read Dr. Zhivago?  Why or why not?
  5. Can you think of other examples where the history we know is not the whole story? 
  6. How can we make sure that “the rest of the story” is told moving forward?
  7. There are a lot of sacrifices in the novel–Irina’s mother and father, Pasternak’s mistress. Which characters in the novel do you think suffered the most? Which sacrifices were the most meaningful?  Can you think of any real life examples of sacrifices like the ones in the novel?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Once again I will be out of sync with the consensus.  I really hated this book, in fact, I was angry when I finished it because I felt like I had wasted my time.  I read it because my book group was reading it and because several people had told me it was wonderful–it also had glowing reviews in most of the usual places.

Well friends, they were all WRONG. Spoilers follow, so if you want to read the book and not know what is going to happen, stop reading this review now.

The idea that a little girl could raise herself in the swamp is just one of the many ridiculous plot devices readers are supposed to swallow. Since I did not see evidence that we were engaged in magical realism, I assume the writer meant for us to to think the story could have happened the way she describes. I won’t belabor it too much, but I would like to point out that it is possible to create characters who are damaged and have interesting backstories without making them objects of abject neglect and abuse by a WHOLE TOWN. (See Gillian Flynn or Louise Doughty) But then magically, a boy teaches her to read so she turns into a wildlife writer. Wait, maybe it was supposed to be magical realism after all, there is not really another explanation. Hmmmm…

She’s lonely, so of course she enters into a sexual relationship with someone she KNOWS to be unreliable, that makes total sense.  Also, the identity of the murderer was no surprise, she telegraphed it all the way through. Owens does get points though, for the poems.  They were interesting and added a dimension to Kya’s character. The mother. Come on–maybe you leave, but you walk off and leave a 5 year old child with an alcoholic abuser? I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy that NOT ONE of the siblings ever so much as considered taking Kya with them when they left or even checking on her until 20 years later. Please.  Consider the limits of my credulity exceeded.

So, I am not going to post any discussion questions for this one.  If you liked it, you can find questions on another site. I am still a little piqued that I wasted valuable reading time on this book. 👿

Book Reviews/Discussions

Book Discussion: Golden Hill by Frances Spufford

Golden HIll is an interesting niche novel, for those who enjoy older forms of writing, including a self-conscious, slightly intrusive narrator.  While I enjoyed the writing immensely, I will have to confess that I found the plot a little lacking. The book is set in 1746 New York. Richard Smith arrives from London mysteriously bearing a bill of exchange for an immense amount of money by New York standards, which he promptly presents to a local merchant.  Speculation about Smith’s purpose in New York runs rampant from the beginning, and where Spufford excels is the finely drawn characters and the web of connections between them, of which Smith is at first ignorant, but comes to know all too well by the time he leaves New York.

Perhaps this is why I was ultimately disappointed.  The writing is wonderful, the pace a little slow, but enjoyable, and the characters are all interesting, with backstories eked out gradually by Spufford for the most part.  However, when Smith’s errand is ultimately revealed, it seems to be a little anticlimactic–the clues to his true identity are still somewhat murky. One can’t help feeling let down, having read the whole book, that the end is not really an ending.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave one wishing for a sequel, although that could be its purpose. It feels more like Spufford ran out of steam and decided to just write the ending already. This reader wanted to know more about Smith, and why Tabitha has the reaction she does to him at the close of the novel. 

I am fully aware that this may have been a conscious decision by the author, but to this reader, too much was left unexplained at the end, and there was a hint of deus ex machina, again perhaps intentional.  Motives were not fully revealed, and actions that didn’t make sense occurred with too much frequency toward the end of the story, and many, many loose ends were left dangling.

If you choose to read this book anyway, and I probably would, because the positive aspects outweigh the negative–the clever asides and author to reader jokes alone are worth it–do so in the full knowledge that you may be left with a vaguely unsettled feeling at the end and not a full understanding of what just happened, which may in fact have been the author’s intent all along.

Here are some discussion questions for your book group:

  1. What historical aspects of the story did you find the most interesting? What were you unaware of, historically speaking, before reading this novel?
  2. Did you find Richard Smith a likeable character?  Do you think he was meant to be the hero of the story, or was someone else?  Explain.
  3. There was a lot of political maneuvering and spying in the novel. How do you think this works in the narrative? Does it reveal or obscure? Does it propel the main plot, or is it a subplot? Explain.
  4. Why do you think the author chose to reveal so little of Richard’s backstory?  What do we know versus what do we guess to be true about him?
  5. Which characters would you like to know more about?  Are there other characters whose stories you would like to see in a follow up novel? Which ones and why?