On Being a Spinster

Websters dictionary defines “spinster” as an unmarried woman of gentle family, especially one past the common age for marrying. I suppose that by that definition, I’m heading into spinster territory.

Well, sort of: I’m not sure if I’m “of gentle family”. Nothing against my family, they’re wonderful and I love them. But I’m not sure that “gentle” is the first word I’d use for them. I’m also not all that far “past the common age for marrying”. After all, people get married at all ages. People get marries in their 80’s! I am past my late 20’s though and that seems to be the age when a lot of people get married. That was the age when I started getting asked “when’s your turn?” at weddings. Now it seems like when I meet people my age there’s roughly a 50/50 chance that they’re married. I’m sure those odds will change over the next few years though.

Am I a spinster by choice? Sort of. I haven’t met anyone that I particularly want to be married to, and I don’t see any reason to get married until I do. Would I like to fall in love and get married? Sure. But if I’m not marrying the right person, I’d rather be single. I’m not actively looking for love right now, because I’ve got a lot of other things on my plate. Maybe that’ll change at some point, maybe not.

But is “spinster” an “archaic” word as the dictionary claims? I don’t know. I do know that in the past couple of years I’ve found myself explaining why I’m still single more than I used to. For most guys in their early 30’s it’s not really much of a question. It becomes more of one later on, but less so than with women.

51rewp1rail-_ac_us218_I recently finished reading Spinster: Making a Life On One’s Own by Kate Bolick. It’s sort of a memoir/exploration of the idea of “Spinsterhood”. In her book, Bolick looks at how our society and past societies have viewed unmarried women. She also looks at the subject through the lens of her “awakeners”;  women of the past century who have inspired Bolick. These include essayist Maeve Brennan, writer/artist/social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, columnist Neith Boyce, and novelist Edith Wharton. Were all of these women incredibly accomplished? Absolutely. Were they all spinsters? Surprisingly not.

Actually they all had different experiences of marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was married at the age of 24, separated at 28 and divorced at 34. Edna St. Vincent Millay was married for 26 years but she and her husband both had other lovers throughout. Edith Wharton married at the age of 23 but her husband was mentally ill and Wharton traveled extensively without him.  Maeve Brennan was married at the age of 37 and divorced five years later. Neith Boyce married at 27 and had an open marriage. So were these women “spinsters” or simply women who had unusual/nontraditional experiences of marriage? And to what extent did this impact other areas of their lives?

Bolick could have found role models in women who never married. Just sticking to writers, there’s Jane Austen, Emily Dickenson, Harper Lee,  and Louisa May Alcott. And that’s just off the top of my head! So why does she pick women whose romantic lives and married lives varied so widely? I think because in spite of what the title of the book says, it’s because Spinster-dom has never meant living life alone. Bolick’s “awakeners” illustrate that for women with fewer options career wise, marriage didn’t necessarily mean babies, suburbs, and domesticity. Nor did it mean love. But most of the “awakeners” had rich, fulfilling lives full of friendship and love, regardless of what kind of love that was and whether or not it took place in the context of marriage.

For contemporary women it’s the same, despite the fact that we have more choices. People today get married for many reasons. Some of those reasons are great. Others are no so great. But  there’s an assumption that if a woman is unmarried by a certain point she’s doomed to a life of loneliness. That’s absolutely untrue. Bolick’s “awakeners” prove that there are all kinds of marriages out there. Happiness and love may be found in the institution in different ways. Or it may be found outside of the institution of marriage altogether.

So let’s stop asking women why they’re single once they hit thirty. And let’s adopt the same policy for men, while we’re at it. Being single doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. It doesn’t mean they’re doomed to a life of loneliness and misery. There are many reasons for someone not to get married. And there are many ways to live a happy and successful life.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Settings I’d Love To Visit

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 5: Ten Bookish Settings I’d Love to Visit

I decided to keep this list to bookish settings that actually exist. So much as I’d like to visit Narnia, or Hogwarts, these can all be found on a map or globe. Also I decided it to limit to places where I’ve never been (yet).

1. Prince Edward Island, Canada as seen in the work of LM Montgomery– I’ve loved the work on LM Mongomery since I was a child and Prince Edward Island is a character that is consistent in her work. It sounds beautiful. It looks beautiful based on the pictures that I’ve seen. It’s definitely on my literary travel list!

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“…the Lake of Shining Waters was blue — blue — blue; not the changeful blue of spring, nor the pale azure of summer, but a clear, steadfast, serene blue, as if the water were past all modes and tenses of emotion and had settled down to a tranquillity unbroken by fickle dreams.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

2. Scotland as seen in the work of Diana Gabaldon, The Lymond Chronicles by  Dorothy Dunnett, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Lady of the Glen by Jennifer Roberson,  the  Too Deep for Tears trilogy by Katheryn Lynne Davis, Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware- I’ve read a lot of books set in Scotland, that draw on the rich history and beautiful landscape. My third grade teacher was Scottish and had what sounded like the coolest accent to me at the time. In some ways it seems that Scotland is an enchanted fairy land more than a real place to me! But I do know people who have been there and assure me it’s real, and that while there are certainly the fantasy places that are described in books, there are many normal places too.

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“The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness”
― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

3. Cornwall, England as seen in the work of Daphne DuMaurier– The cliff-side mansion in Rebecca. The smugglers hideout in Jamaica Inn, the pirates of Frenchman’s Creek. Cornwall is a place of mystery, danger and romance in my eyes, thanks in large part to Daphne DuMaurier.

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“The peace of Manderley. The quietude and the grace. Whoever lived within its walls, whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Manderley could not be broken or the loveliness destroyed. The flowers that died would bloom again another year, the same birds build their nests, the same trees blossom. That old quiet moss smell would linger in the air, and the bees would come, and crickets, the herons build their nests in the deep dark woods. The butterflies would dance their merry jug across the lawns, and spiders spin foggy webs, and small startled rabbits who had no business to come trespassing poke their faces through the crowded shrubs. There would be lilac, and honeysuckle still, and the white magnolia buds unfolding slow and tight beneath the dining-room window. No one would ever hurt Manderley. It would lie always in its hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.”

4. The Yorkshire Moors, England as seen in the work of the Bronte sisters, and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgden Burnett

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‘And what are those golden rocks like when you stand under them?’ she once asked.

The abrupt descent of Penistone Crags particularly attracted her notice; especially when the setting sun shone on it and the topmost heights, and the whole extent of landscape besides lay in shadow. I explained that they were bare masses of stone, with hardly enough earth in their clefts to nourish a stunted tree.

‘And why are they bright so long after it is evening here?’ she pursued.

‘Because they are a great deal higher up than we are,’ replied I; ‘you could not climb them, they are too high and steep. In winter the frost is always there before it comes to us; and deep into summer I have found snow under that black hollow on the north-east side!’

-Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

“Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,” she said. “You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.”
Mary did not know what “wutherin'” meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house, as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

5. Paris, France as seen in Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens- Yes, I am very aware that these are books that depict very different era’s in Paris’ history. Of the three the Paris in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is probably most like the Paris I’d visit today. But I also know that the Cathedral de Notre Dame , still stands, with it’s gargoyles even if Quasimodo isn’t hiding among them. And there are still shades of the reign of terror that Dickens depicted.  I’ve read about Paris in a lot of other books too. Books set in occupied Paris during WWII. Books depicting la belle epoque. In some ways that convergence of beauty and violence is what makes the city seem so appealing to me.

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“Admirable, however, as the Paris of the present day appears to you, build up and put together again in imagination the Paris of the fifteenth century; look at the light through that surprising host of steeples, towers, and belfries; pour forth amid the immense city, break against the points of its islands, compress within the arches of the bridges, the current of the Seine, with its large patches of green and yellow, more changeable than a serpent’s skin; define clearly the Gothic profile of this old Paris upon an horizon of azure, make its contour float in a wintry fog which clings to its innumerable chimneys; drown it in deep night, and observe the extraordinary play of darkness and light in this sombre labyrinth of buildings; throw into it a ray of moonlight, which shall show its faint outline and cause the huge heads of the towers to stand forth from amid the mist; or revert to that dark picture, touch up with shade the thousand acute angles of the spires and gables, and make them stand out, more jagged than a shark’s jaw, upon the copper-coloured sky of evening. Now compare the two.”

-Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out…”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

6. Barcelona, Spain as seen in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon- The Barcelona seen in this novel is a twisty, Gothic place full of hidden secrets. In other words, it’s the kind of place I could really go for! Sure Zafon claims that some locations from the novel such as the rambling Hospice of Santa Lucia or the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books are fictional, but it seems like the kind of place where one might turn a corner and unexpectedly find something strange and beautiful.gothic-quarter-barcelona

“Before we knew it, we were walking along the breakwater until the whole city, shining with silence, speak out at our feet like the greatest mirage in the universe, emerging from the pool of the harbor waters. We sat on the edge of the jetty to gaze at the sight.

“This city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it.”

-The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

7. The Greek Islands as seen in The Magus by John Fowles- The book’s setting, the island of Phraxos, is technically fictional. But the author based it on his time on the real Greek island of Spetses, so I think it still counts for this list. The island that Fowles describes is beautiful and mysterious and isolated. It’s the kind of place where it’s easy to be overwhelmed and see menace hidden in the beauty. That’s certainly what happens to our narrator, Nicholas Urfe, in the novel. But since his sanity is open to debate, I think it’s also the kind of place where I might enjoy going and getting away from it all.

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“The lifeless sea was ruffled here and there by a lost zephyr, by a stippling shoal of sardines, dark ash-blue lines that snaked, broad then narrow, in slow motion across the shimmering mirageous surface, as if the water was breeding corruption.”

-The Magus by John Fowles

8. India as seen in The Far Pavillions by MM Kaye- Actually, I think that parts of this novel also take place in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. While it’s set in the 19th century the beautiful mountains stand out to me as a strong setting. It’s what I remember most about the book, and what I’d most love to see if I ever visit that part of the world. 10717253

“They rode out together from the shadows of the trees, leaving the Bala Hissar and the glowing torch of the burning Residency behind them, and spurred away across the flat lands towards the mountains…
And it may even be that they found their Kingdom.”
― M.M. Kaye, The Far Pavilions

9. Egypt as seen in The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif- When I was a kid I think I imagined Egypt as being desert, pyramids, sphinxes, and mummies walking around wrapped in toilet paper (in retrospect I think my childhood perception of Egypt might have been largely based on an episode of Scooby Doo). The Egypt that this book depicts has none of that. Well, we do see desert and pyramids, but  we also see cities and the Nile. It makes Egypt seem like a vivid place that’s almost breathes and has a pulse.

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“Fields and more fields on either side of the road.From where they are it looks as if the whole world were green.But from higher up,from a hill-if there were a hill in this flat country-or from a pyramid(one of the many that two thousand years ago lined this route from Thebes to Memphis,from the Delta to the Cataract)or from an aeroplane today,you would be able to see how narrow the strip green was,how closely it clung to the winding river.The river like a lifeline thrown across the desert, the villages and the town hanging on to it, clustering together, glancing over their shoulders at the desert always behind them.Appeasing it,finally,by making it the dwelling of their head.”
― Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

10. Ireland as seen in the novels of Maeve Binchy, Cecelia Ahern, Marian Keyes, the Exit Unicorn series by Cindy Brandner, The Mermaid’s Singing by Lisa Carey- In some ways I think if Ireland in a way similar to Scotland; full of myths and lore. But I’ve also read enough Irish work set in contemporary times to have a better sense of what it is today. I’d still like to go, because I think that the richness of the lore pervades a place.

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But the sea, despite its allure, is not our destination. For we seek land- a land of myth and madness, of poets and politicians, rebels and raconteurs, of blood and brotherhood. A land unlike any other, half legend, half truth, wholly and terribly beautiful.

We fly through the night, until we see a line on the horizon, and we feel the relief of homecoming after such a very long voyage, after the faceless ocean undulating eternally beneath us. And so here we arrive, to the edge of a country of limestone cliffs, soft-faced with moss and nesting gulls . In we fly across a patchwork quilt of a thousand shades of green and low stone walls, with sheep dotting the dawn’s landscape. But do not let this enchantment fool you, for this is a land that has known much pain, whose fields are watered well and deep with blood. This is an old land, and our people have lived here long, some saying we were the small dark ones that dwelled in the trees, before the coming of the Celts, but we are older even than them. We knew this land before man, before God, before light.

-Flights of Angels by Cindy Brandner

11. Florence, Italy as seen in The Light in the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer, A Room with a View by EM Forster- Florence in these books seems more alive than other places. It’s a place where people are able to get away from social notions of respectability, and really get in touch with their feelings.

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“It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”

Top Ten Tuesday: My Winter TBR

For The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

This week’s topic is pretty self explanatory!

51lsmzwntfl-_ac_us218_1. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton– This has been on my TBR for a while. It’s about a young man who goes to New Zealand in 1866 to word in the goldfields, but he and his coworkers get caught up in a series of mysterious events. It definitely seems like the kind if thing to tackle over many a cold evening, curled up in my pajamas with a cup of tea!

 

51q2yi-diil-_ac_us218_2. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin– I like the premise of this one: if you knew the date of your death, how would that inform the choices that you make in life? This book is four siblings who learn when they’ll die. It follows them as they try to live the rest of their lives with that information.

 

 

61sxhqmwaql-_ac_us218_3. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman– This is a prequel to Practical Magic. Enough said! Actually I think of Practical Magic as a “fall” book but I can imagine reading this on a snowy day and getting a warm magical glow.

 

 

 

51wxqincjul-_ac_us218_4. The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch-  This is another one I’ve really been looking forward too.  I loved Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, and I’m very curious to see how she does with historical fiction. Plus, the Russian setting seems very wintery to me.

 

 

51los6asx-l-_ac_us218_5. The Cage-maker by Nicole Seitz–  This novel is about a 21st century blogger who inherits an exquisitely detailed birdcage from an unknown relative. In a hidden compartment in the birdcage she finds letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles that tell the story of her family. It’s a bit love story, a bit gothic thriller, a bit historical fiction, and it definitely seems like the perfect read for a cold night.

 

61jrknqrsel-_ac_us218_6. A Column of Fire by Ken Follett– This is the third Kingsbridge book, and a follow up to Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. It’s set in  and around the same Cathedral in the sixteenth century. At 927 pages, this seems like a good book to take into hibernation.

 

 

 

51p5mwk1-hl-_ac_us218_7. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone  by Olivia Laing- I think more attention is being paid to being alone lately, which is good. In some ways it’s a new thing. I don’t mean feeling alone. That’s existed for about as long as people have! But more people are opting not to marry and have families, or putting that off for the future. That leads to more young people physically being alone. This book looks at loneliness through the lives of iconic artists. It also addresses how technology factors into all this. Does it allow us to connect to the outside world, or trap us behind our screens, and keep us from interacting? To me winter has the potential to be a lonely season. You’re indoors keeping warm, rather than in public space. So this seems like a great read to keep me company.

617j4awgzul-_ac_us218_8. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich– A friend of mine recommended this very highly. It’s told from multiple perspectives and is about a woman whose husband is losing his memory. As his mind fades, she becomes increasingly interested in finding out what happened to his first wife. In some ways I see winter as a season where things fade or are buried by snow. For that reasons it’s also a time when people don’t see things or only see parts of them. So it seems like this would be an appropriate book for a season where things are so uncertain.

51njfgrvqcl-_ac_us218_9. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden– This is a retelling of Vasilisa the Wise, a Russian fairy tale. It’s set in Russia in the 1300s, which I definitely picture as a sort of deep winter world, where people huddle together to stay warm. I imagine them telling stories to pass the time by the fire as they do that (I’m sure the real fourteenth century Russia was a lot less pleasant than I’m imagining it!). This would be one of the stories that they tell.  It’s the first in a trilogy called the “Wintersnight trilogy” so I think I’m on the right track here.

51dyrlatcxl-_ac_us218_10. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey– This series has been recommended to me over and over again. The initial trilogy (later books continue the story in another generation) is made up of three big books set in a vivid, complicated world. Perfect for a season when you’re trapped inside by a snow storm and want to escape somewhere else.

I’ve Been…

  • Spending Thanksgiving with my family. Catching up with people, celebrating the new jobs, engagements, etc. I have a suspicion that holidays are a lot like social  media: people present the best of themselves. They leave out all the rest.
  • Watching about a million reruns of Friends on Black Friday. I’m not much of a shopper, and shopping in crowds is definitely not my thing. I’d much rather spend the day digesting my food, and chillin’ with Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey. I’m breaking up the Friends watching by joining my mom in an occasional old movie like Don’t Bother to Knock and The Lady Eve.
  • Reading A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick. I definitely recommend Chadwick to any historical fiction lover, though I’m not sure this is the one I’d recommend first.  It’s not very fast moving. I’m on page 189 (of 491 pages) and I feel like the plot has just been set in motion.
  • Sleeping. A lot! I didn’t realize how tired I was or how hard I was working until I had a chance to stop. I’m glad I did, because I was more run down than I realized. I’m definitely going to try for more balance going forward!
  • Demanding that the FCC maintain Net Neutrality!

Hoping that everyone has had a great holiday weekend!

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books I’m Thankful For

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

November 21: Top Ten Books I’m Thankful For (Happy Thanksgiving week in the USA!)

I’m thankful for books period! I can’t imagine my life without them. I can’t imagine myself without them. But if I had to narrow it down to ten, these would definitely be on my list:

41qaj1ebj3l-_ac_us218_1. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion- A little less than two years ago I lost a loved one. I found that a lot of the books out there about grief ultimately ended with platitudes, with cliches and saccharine reassurances. But Didion’s memoir of her husband’s death (while their daughter was in a coma fighting for her life!) felt honest and real to me in a way that other books didn’t. It confronts the absurdity that we feel in the face of such a loss; the sense that things seem normal but they’re not supposed to be.  Then we go into the the grief- the violent waves of feeling, and mourning, is what happens in the meantime, the general sadness as we try to put ourselves back together again.

 Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.                                                        The question of self-pity.
Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.
For a long time I wrote nothing else.
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.

51vrv0hceml-_ac_us218_2. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi-  This really showed me how subversive and liberating the act of reading can be. It made me more thankful for my ability to read, and to do so without restriction.  The author, Nafisi, was a professor of Literature at the University of Tehran.  In 1995 she resigned her position because of increasingly repressive policies that grew even worse as time went on. But for two years, she had seven of her best female students come to her house every week, to read and discuss forbidden Western literature. This forum allowed the women to speak their minds about the political, social, cultural, and religious implications of living under strict Islamist rule. This gives the reader and understanding of revolutionary Iran. But what this book club really did was give women a chance to connect to a world they might never know otherwise. It allowed them confront different ways of thinking and accept them, reject them or modify them. In other words, it’s about how art helped these women to survive, to connect and to understand themselves in an extreme situation.

There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom,”

51swo9un1-l-_ac_us218_3. Emily of New Moon by LM Montgomery– I love Anne dearly. I would never want to give her up. But something about Emily spoke to the creative in me at a very young age. It’s that connection that I’m specifically thankful for. Unlike Anne, who was an orphan since she was a baby, Emily, lost her beloved father as a tween and was sent to live with relatives. That gives Emily a sort of melancholy right off. She knows what she’s lost.  Writing for her is a form of survival. It’s a way of communicating with her father. Initially, that’s a literal communication; she writes him letters. But it becomes more abstract as she gets older. I can relate to Emily’s desire to express certain ideas and feelings that don’t readily lend themselves to words.

“It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside– but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond– only a glimpse– and heard a note of unearthly music.”

51bkx0sulel-_ac_us218_4. Ramona the Pest by Beverley Cleary- Ramona taught me so much as a kid. I saw so much of myself in her. I tried to do the right thing, to understand what people wanted of me, but sometimes I fell short. It was nice to know that the same could be said of this character. Not only does Cleary have obvious sympathy for the misunderstandings that cause Ramona to be called a pest, but she also sees it as a tool for empowering a character who doesn’t have a lot of other resources. I liked the idea that what other people found annoying could be my way of getting what I wanted! This is definitely one of the books that first made me fall in love with reading.

“People who called her a pest did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little bit more stubborn in order to be noticed at all.”

41appkv7zjl-_ac_us218_5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood- I’m horrified that we live in a world where this novel is increasingly relevant. But if we must live in a world like that for time being, I’m thankful that it exists. It’s a warning and a call to arms in one volume. I read it for the first time in high school. At the time, I was just starting identify what being a feminist meant to me, as opposed to how other people perceived it. Before I read this book I tended to think of it as  equal opportunity for education and employment. I saw it as the idea that I didn’t need a man to survive, and that my value wasn’t defined by my male partner. I still believe all of that. But this book really illustrated how much physical autonomy is a part of it. Women’s bodies are seen by our society as a sort of common ground. From there it’s a very slippery slope. Men start feeling qualified to make decisions about women’s health, their sexuality.  In so many ways this has ceased to be speculative fiction, and become frighteningly realistic. But there is one way that the United States is different from Gilead. We can read what we want. And that might be the best reason to read this book. It’s why I’m so thankful that it exists.

“But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.
Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”

51pwjyt4e0l-_ac_us218_6. Beauty by Robin McKinley- When I first started college, I had a question for one of the girls in the dorm room down the hall from mine (don’t ask me what it was, I honestly don’t remember!) When I opened the door, she was sprawled on her bed reading this book. Immediately we started talking about fairy tale retellings! So this book helped me make one of my first friends in college. Actually that’s not the only friend that I’ve made due to Beauty and the Beast retellings (but that’s another story…)  But it also was one of my first exposures to fairy tales retold for older readers. It allowed me to see a familiar take in a new way, and turned me on to so many other fairy tale retellings! Later, writers like Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Cunningham showed me that fairy tale retellings can also be literary, or shocking, or subversive.

“Would it help perhaps if I told you that, had your father returned to me alone, I would have sent him on his way unharmed?”

“You would!” I said; it was half a shriek. “You mean that I came here for nothing?”

A shadowy movement like the shaking of a great shaggy head. “No. Not what you would count as nothing. He would have returned to you, and you would have been glad, but you also would have been ashamed, because you had sent him, as you thought, to his death. Your shame would have grown until you came to hate the sight of your father, because he reminded you of a deed you hated, and hated yourself for. In time it would have ruined your peace and happiness, and at last your mind and heart.”

51vp6vchi4l-_ac_us218_7. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- I feel a little odd being thankful for this book, because it’s hard to stomach in many ways. It discusses abuse and trauma that are almost too horrible to believe. In one way you could read it as saying that there are things that can happen to a person that are just too terrible to endure.  But I didn’t read it that way. Thankfully, I read it at a time in my life where I was able to take it as an affirmation of the power of friendship and love. It’s about the beauty of the struggle through life. By the end of the book, a character who has lost so, so much, is left with compassion.  To me that’s a really beautiful notion.

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

51fm3ylbgvl-_ac_us218_8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith- I definitely identified with the heroine of this book. Her name was Francie, mine was Fran. She loved to read, and I loved to read. She lived in Brooklyn and I… well I’d lived there for a year when I was a baby, and so I’m pretty sure that we have that in common too! I think I was about twelve the first time I read this. I read it again in college and was stunned to discover how much I missed, how much went over my head on that first read!  It’s harsh and realistic; poignant and bittersweet.

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

51c3wnrodsl-_ac_us218_9. Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen- Let’s face it: historically speaking Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday (to say the least!). That’s one reason I look at it as a time to be with my family and take stock the people and things I’m grateful for, as opposed to honoring a largely fictional story of the pilgrims. Even as a child I read enough to know that the happy, friendly version of the Thanksgiving story that we were given wasn’t the whole story. So I was grateful to discover this book, about an immigrant girl who feels uncomfortable in the US. When her teacher has the class make pilgrim dolls for Thanksgiving, Molly and her mother make a doll that looks like them; a Russian Jew who comes to America fleeing religious persecution (like them). This teaches Molly’s classmates that a pilgrim isn’t only someone who sailed on the Mayflower. It also proves that by coming to the US for religious freedom, Molly, an immigrant, is just as much an American as some of the first settlers. That’s something that a lot of contemporary Americans should consider when condemning immigrants, and people who practice religions that aren’t Christianity.

“Pilgrims came to this country from the other side,” I said.
“Like us,” Mama said.
That was true. “They came for religious freedom,” I added. “They came so they could worship God as they pleased.”
Mama’s eyes lit up. She seemed to understand.

51anzhy5btl-_ac_us218_10. Fairy Tales from around the world- This might be cheating since it’s really more of a category than a single book, but fairy tales shaped my childhood in a way that nothing else did. They shape what I write now. They taught me the important things in life: that sometimes things aren’t what they first appear to be, that a good heart is never completely unrewarded, that you can’t get something for nothing, and that magic will only save you if you use it wisely.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.”

~Albert Einstein~

I’m also thankful for

  • Parents who read to me all the time, taught me to read for myself, and encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on!
  • The books, fiction and nonfiction, that taught me something new, let me look at something with new eyes, and changed or influenced my perspective in some way.
  • All of the books that I can’t list on here that took me to a different time or place. That gave me an escape from reality when I need one, or even simply, a friend when I needed one.
  • All the wonderful people I’ve met this year through this blog; and the wonderful books that they’ve helped me discover!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Want My Future Kids to Read

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday

November 14: Top Ten Books I Want My Future Children to Read (Or nieces and nephews, Godchildren, etc.)

Well, I don’t have children. In theory I’d like one or two someday, but we’ll see. I’m not ambivalent, so much as overwhelmed at the enormity of a parent’s job! But I do love kids. I have students. I’d want them to read these. I’d want any future godchildren I might have to read these. And if I do have children I hope they read them too! Books have contributed so much to making me the person that I am. I think that these had really positive impacts.

51igzsbi-ul-_ac_us218_1. Matilda by Roald Dahl– As a kid, I liked this book because it was funny. I still like it for that reason, but I see more to it now. Matilda Wormwood is a character whose identity was largely formed by what she’s read. I believe that this gave her a strong sense of justice. Matilda hates a bully, and she’s surrounded by them. But while many children with abusive adults in their lives grow up to be abusers themselves, I don’t see this as Matilda’s fate. Her avid reading gave her a sense of the world. Her intelligence allowed her to understand the implications of what she read. The combination gave her a sense of right and wrong (certainly she’d never have gotten that from her parents!) and fueled her to become a person who doesn’t stand idly by while people are suffering. I think that’s an important lesson for any child.

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.

61bwr8sfvhl-_ac_us218_2. Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards– I remember reading the “about the author” page of this, and being shocked and delighted that it was indeed written by that Julie Andrews! But Oscar/Emmy/Grammy winning author aside, it’s a beautiful story about an orphan who finds an abandoned cottage not far from the orphanage.  She fixes it up and makes it truly hers. Eventually this cottage leads her to find a family and a place where she belongs. I see this book as being about the creation of a family. It’s not one that Mandy is born into but rather one that she makes for herself.  I think it shows that whatever circumstances you’re born into, you can create a place for yourself. It might not be lavish or fancy. The people around you might not be perfect. But that’s not necessary for happiness.

“Mandy tidied the weeds and pulled out some of the summer flowers. It saddened her to do so. She was parting with beloved friends.”

51viyzpfqtl-_ac_us218_3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hogsdsen Burnett– In some ways, this is probably similar to Mandy. It’s about an orphan creating a home and her family for herself. But the orphanage where Mandy lives isn’t hostile. It’s just not meeting her emotional needs. On the other hand, Mary Lennox finds herself in a house full of strangers, on the bleak moors of England (after having spent most of her life in India). Her guardian, her Uncle Archebold is a man who still actively mourns the wife he lost ten years earlier. He closed away the garden she loved after her death, and hides the son to whom she died giving birth. Uncle Archibold isn’t evil- he believes that he’s doing this for the boy’s delicate health. Nonetheless, he’s created an environment where it’s impossible to breathe. He’s buried his pain, but in doing so he has also buried the things that can help to ease it. It’s only once Mary opens the garden and brings her cousin outdoors that this family can begin to heal. Because it’s unhealthy to keep the past buried. Especially when it’s painful. Because then it festers and grows. Sometimes to only way to heal is to open up. It may be more painful at first, but the healing is genuine.

“One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live… surprising things can happen to any one who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.

51srrilel-_ac_us218_4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott– I remember the first time I read this book. I  loved all the characters but I wanted to be Jo. I remember sobbing at Beth’s fate. And unlike many readers I remember being sort of glad that Jo turned down Laurie’s proposal. Even at ten I saw that they made great friends, but as life partners they’d be disastrous. But this is really a beautiful depiction of family life. At home and at a distance. Jo has a pretty happy home environment, but she’s not satisfied until she exposes herself to more of the world. A happy childhood with a loving family is a wonderful foundation in life. But most of us need to spread our wings at some point. If we’re lucky, we can do that, knowing that home is always a place where we can return when we need to, and that family will be there for you no matter what.

I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end.

51dxbewzuil-_ac_us218_5. Anne series by LM Montgomery (as well as Montgomery’s other work, but Anne is non-negotiable!) I’ve mentioned my Anne obsession before in this blog. She was my first literary kindred spirit. I felt like I grew up with her. As a younger kid there was Anne of Green Gables, as I grew a bit older there was Anne of Avonlea, and so on. Anne’s optimism always stands out for me. I try to be optimistic, but I find it very hard! Anne has every reason to expect the worst, but still manages to see what’s good, and beautiful around her. Her romanticism can get her into trouble sometimes, but it also makes her wonderfully resilient. That’s a good lesson for any kid to learn.

“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.”

Anne of Green Gables

512350qjy9l-_ac_us218_6. The Sneetches, The Lorax, Horton Hatches the Egg or The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss- I think that Dr. Seuss is great. I love the stuff that’s pure silliness a la The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. But I’m always impressed by his ability to teach a lesson in rhymes and colorful pictures. He illustrates the tragic absurdity of racism and war in The Sneetches and The Butter Battle Book respectively. He illustrates the heartbreaking shortsightedness that polluters show in The Lorax. And Horton Hatches the Egg proves that it’s love and care, rather than just biology, that truly makes a parent. I can’t choose just one because I think that these are all important lessons for kids to learn.

“But now,” says the Once-ler, “now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

The Lorax

51iosghk0l-_ac_us218_7. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling– I know so many kids who fell in love with reading thanks to this series. Even if I didn’t think it was a great read (which I do!) it would be worth putting on for that reason alone. But though JK Rowling writes about kids and for kids in this series, she doesn’t talk down to them. The reader is able to grow with the characters. The first few books are shorter with narratives that are seemingly self contained. But as the series progresses (and the readers and characters get older) the books become more involved. We start to see a much larger story arc being built.  It grows darker. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed for all the characters. But it also shows a world where elves, ghosts, wizards, and witches coexist. There are struggles, but those struggles teach empathy (who hasn’t felt bad for a house elf now and then?). In fact, some studies have shown that Harry Potter fans are more likely to be empathetic people. I believe that empathy, and the ability to act on it, is one of the things that then world desperately needs.

“Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

c1ohnstw6ts-_ac_us218_8. The Fudge Books by Judy Blume– Choosing just one book by Judy Blume is a close to impossible task. You can check out a little essay I wrote for Girls at Library a while back discussing how she’s impacted me as a reader. I chose this series for a few reasons. I loved a lot of Blume’s “pre-teen girl” books like Are You There God It’s Me Margaret (the book which made me think that menstruation was going to be the most fun thing ever, and led to some significant disappointment a few years later) But not every reader is a girl. For the record I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a boy reading a book intended for girls. If anything it can combat ignorance. But my first exposure to Judy Blume was simple fun. I read Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing with my dad several years before I was actually in fourth grade. But I loved it. I loved the Hatcher family. I loved Fudge. I loved Turtle (who happens to be a dog), and Sheila the Great, and Peter. I read a few of these to my students over the years and they loved them too. Sometimes it’s nice to have something that just makes kids enjoy reading.

“I wanted them,” Fudge whined.
“I know you did. But we can’t buy everything you want.” Mom told him.
“Why”
“We don’t have the money to buy…” I could tell Mom was having a hard time explaining this. She thought for a minute before she finished. “…just for the sake of buying. Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“I know it doesn’t grow on trees,” Fudge said. “You get it at the ATM.”
“You can’t just go to the ATM whenever you want money,” Mom told him.
“Yes you can,” Fudge said. “You put in your card and money comes out. It works every time.”
“No. You have to deposit money into your account first,” Mom said. “You work hard and try to save part of your salary every week. The cash machine is just a way to get some of your money out your account. It doesn’t spit out money because you want it. It’s not that easy.”
“I know, Mom,” Fudge said. “Sometimes you have to stand on line.”
Mom sighed and looked at me. “Got any ideas Peter?”
Double Fudge

61wniu1hbzl-_ac_us218_9. The Henry, Beezus, and Ramona books by Beverley Cleary– Henry Huggins lives on Klickitat Street alongside  Beezus and Ramona Quimby. We follow these characters as they bond with animals, build clubhouses, prove themselves worthy of jobs, deal with annoying siblings, and try to behave like grown ups. I found these characters easy to love because they thought like kids. They saw the world as kids do. They understood parts of what they experience, and what they didn’t understand their minds filled in, often with hilarious results. I put these on here, because childhood is often confusing. Kids get all kinds of mixed messages, from adults, from the media, from their peers. Sometimes it’s helpful to have some literary friends who, like you, are just trying to figure it all out.

“Ramona could not understand why grown-ups always talked about how quickly children grew up. Ramona thought growing up was the slowest thing there was, slower even than waiting for Christmas to come.
She had been waiting years just to get to kindergarten, and the last half hour was the slowest part of all.”

Ramona The Pest

51cbwb1nmql-_ac_us218_10.  Fairy Tales– I think I’ve shared one of my stranger childhood habits on this blog before: I used to go to the library and take out as many versions of a given fairy tale as I could find. Then I’d compare and contrast. “In this version the stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the glass slipper” vs. “In this version they just try to shove their feet in.” Then of course there was Cinderella’s fairy godmother doing her favors vs. her mother’s ghost. And no, I did not just limit myself to Cinderella.  But my own childhood weirdness aside, I think  that fairy tales and folklore have a lot to teach us. They speak to something really primal in us. I believe that’s why we see the same themes appear in so many stories from around the world. That’s why they inspire so much of my own writing. They address the child’s fear of not being loved and cared for (whether it’s through inadequate, or absent parents), the fear of being lost in the woods, without resources. They look at the hope that we have when we make a wish, as well as the risk that comes with getting something for nothing. Some of our societies greatest artist in a variety of fields, from Neil Gaiman, to Stephen Sondheim, to Anne Sexton, have been inspired by these stories and the warnings and lessons therein.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman (Coraline)

51mv1xuuql-_ac_us218_11.  Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown– (am I allowed to do this? Because just 10 won’t do in this case!) Yes this is a book for very young children. But I loved it. There was something so reassuring about it. The predictability, the consistency. I remember that my parents would read it as a bedtime story, and afterward, I’d say. “goodnight” to the things in my room. I think that there is something lovely about taking stock of your surroundings, even if they’re nothing particularly remarkable, and just acknowledging them.

“Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.”

As I look at this list, I notice that a lot of these are books by white writers, featuring white characters. I think part of the reason for that is the fact that when I was a kid there was even less diversity in publishing than there is today. But I wouldn’t want my hypothetical kids/godkids/whatever to only read books that reflect only a small portion of humanity. In terms of children’s books featuring POC I’d encourage them to read many books including The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Come on Rain by Karen Hesse, My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvitis, Esperenza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. I realize that by tacking this on to the bottom of my list it seems like I’m just doing it to be PC. I’m not. I really believe that’s its important for children to see their own experiences reflected in literature. This books on my list reflect my experiences to an extent. But having read about other ways of life, other kinds of families in different parts of the world, has been a huge factor in giving my an appreciation of the diversity of human experience. I think that’s important for every kid to have. I wish I had time to go into more about why the books I mentioned are good but I don’t.

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Literary Leaders

For The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday

November 7: Ten Characters Who Would Make Great Leaders (Leaders of what? That’s your decision. Who could lead a country, an army, a book club, a classroom, etc. Or maybe characters that would be trendsetters?)

This week I decided to make things difficult for myself and go for ten fictional books about real life leaders.

51mlcvfodel-_ac_us218_1. Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George– This novel, told in Cleopatra’s own voice, begins with a memory of the three year old Cleopatra witnessed her mother’s death. But the story really starts when the twenty year old Queen of the Nile, sets her sights on Julius Caesar; the most powerful man in the world. She survives his loss, and the defeat of Mark Antony, the only other man she loves. What destroys her, is not these losses. Rather it’s her own pride. She’d rather die by her own hand that be a symbol of someone else’s victory over her. This book combines history with legend so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell which is which. Some of the more outrageous events are factual!

“I realized then how odd it must seem to them to be summoned by a woman. Roman women were at home quietly minding their business or else doing what wives were known to do in joke and song: boss, nag, forbid. As a foreign queen I was the only woman who was their equal and had the power to summon them, question them, and advise them on matters other than domestic details. I thought that a pity; there should be others.”

51lptm9h-zl-_ac_us218_2. Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross– Did she really exist? I have no clue. But she certainly makes a great story! Joan rebels against medieval society’s prohibition against educating women. Following her brother’s death, Joan takes on his identity and takes his place at a monastery. As “John”, Joan distinguishes herself as a scholar and healer, and eventually, is drawn to Rome. As I said, I have no idea if there is any truth to the “Pope Joan” legend, but the novel is definitely historical fiction. There are several scenes in this one, where Joan is about to be discovered and is saved from discovery just in the nick of time, in true soap opera fashion. But if you can overlook that, it’s a really fun read.

“As for will, woman should be considered superior to man for Eve ate of the apple for love of knowledge and learning, but Adam ate of it merely because she asked him.”

51qrr9xoysl-_ac_us218_3. Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund- As many of us know, Marie Antoinette was only 14 when she left her home in Austria to become the wife of the Dauphin of France (who was all of 15 at the time). She came of age in a very public environment and had a seemingly good relationship with her husband, though his inability (or unwillingness) to consummate their marriage made what both Marie Antoinette, and the people of France most wanted; an heir to the throne. This book shows her disappointment, eventually leading to isolation. Thus she remains ignorant of the many problems that plague her country. Marie Antoinette comes off as frivolous in the early portions of the book, but as things take a darker turn, and tragedy nears, the use of foreshadowing (and the fact that the story is based on historical events and the reader knows what’s to come) the book instills a strong sense of dread in the reader. It’s a tension that’s only really resolved when the inevitable finally comes to pass.

“I feel only sorrow that I have failed to please. Sorrow-and not resentment-for my mother says that resentment is the most readily visible of all the sinful emotions, but sorrow can enhance one’s sweetness and appeal. Resentment, the empress says, is like a snake that nests in the bosom, and it can turn and strike her who harbors it.”

51h87duc9il-_ac_us218_4. The Sunne in Splendor by Sharon Kay Penman– Shakespeare (who wrote under a Tudor monarch) portrayed Richard III as a bitter, twisted, hunchback who murdered his nephews to secure his throne. Five centuries later, Sharon Kay Penman portrays a very different King Richard. Her Richard was raised in the shadow of his older brother, King Edward IV. When Edward dies at 40, Richard is put in the position of Protector, and he is the target of various conspiracies from those he trusts and those he doesn’t. He “usurps” the throne from his nephews because he believes it to be the best course of action for England as well as the best way to protect the boys. Much is made of the fact that Richard had nothing to gain and much to lose from their murders. In Penman’s eyes, Richard III is a man born into a world of lies, betrayal and manipulation for which his was never suited. He was a man who tried to live honorably while surrounded by deception, and ultimately loved too deeply to survive its loss.

“Richard, might I ask you something? We’ve talked tonight of what you must do, of what you can do, of what you ought to do.But we’ve said nothing of what you want to do.Richard, do you want to be King?”
At first, she thought he wasn’t going to answer her. But as she studied his face, she saw he was turning her question over in his mind, seeking to answer it as honestly as he could.
“Yes,” he said at last. “Yes…I do.”

51x5chc9f7l-_ac_us218_5. Katherine by Anya Seton– This book introduces us to several “leaders”. Some are obvious. John of Gaunt is the Duke of Lancaster, son of King Edward III and uncle to Richard III. There are appearances by Geoffrey Chaucer (Katherine’s brother in law) and a fictional encounter with the saint Julian of Norwich. But I see Katherine herself as leader in a way. An orphan, Katherine finds herself in a loveless marriage to Hugh Swynford, a knight. She bore him two children and helped him to run his estate. After Swynford’s death, Katherine’s path crosses that of John of Gaunt. John falls deeply in love with Katherine and she with him. He cannot marry her for reasons of state, but their affair produced four children who were later legitimized. Their descendants went on to found the houses of York, Lancaster, and Tudor. Even Queen Elizabeth II is one of their many descendants. In Seton’s novel, Katherine herself is a leader with an independent will. She breaks societies strictest taboos to follow her heart, and gives up all she loves when that threatens her conscience.

“Presently comfort came to him, and he thought the she had always given him of her strength though he had never quite realised it until now.
Glory had passed him by; fame too perhaps would not endure; it might well be that the incalculable goddess would decree ill fame as his due. Perhaps there might not be included in his epitah the one tribute to his knighthood the he knew he deserved “Ii fut toujours bon et loyal chevalier” (He was always good and loyal knight)
But whatever the shadowed years might bring, as long as life should last, he knew that he had here at his side one sure recompense and one abiding loyalty.”

51pebgfjasl-_ac_us218_6. The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory– I have mixed feelings about Gregory as an author. I’ve really enjoyed many of her books, but there have been many I’ve disliked too. I decided to forgo the more popular ones like The Other Boleyn Girl or The White Queen (though I do like both of them) because this fuses together the Plantagenet and Tudor series.  We all know that Henry VIII changed a great deal over the course of his life. In his youth, he was a handsome, charismatic, intelligent, athletic young king. As he aged, he became paranoid, tyrannical, and homicidal. Many historians believe that this change was due to the Kells blood group antigen, inherited by his maternal great grandmother, Jaquetta Woodville, (the main character in Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers. In this book, Jaquetta, who is a bit of a witch, cursed the Tudor line)  which caused impaired fertility. This paired with McLeod syndrome both caused infertility (or at least very limited fertility) and eventually psychotic changes in personality. The way that  Jaquetta’s curse plays into contemporary historical speculation  is discussed in this blog.  This novel deals with Margaret de la Pole, a deposed royal with a unique view of the deteriorating Tudor court, that eventually led to the toxic, paranoiac atmosphere of the court we see in Gregory’s later installments in the series such as The Boleyn Inheritance and The Taming of the Queen.

“Life is a risk, who knows this better than me? Who knows more surely that babies die easily, that children fall ill from the least cause, that royal blood is fatally weak, that death walks behind my family like a faithful black hound?”

51rs3pyqdel-_ac_us218_7. The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier–  Yes this book is definitely fantasy. But like many of Marillier’s books, it’s got a basis in fact. This book opens Marillier’s Bridei trilogy (followed by Blade of Fortriu and Well of Shades). It deals with the young Bridei, who was king of the Picts for about 30 years in the sixth century. The first novel in the series tells of Bridei’s education under Broichan, the king’s druid. One night, when he is still a small boy, Bridei discovers a baby, left by the Fair Folk (that much is likely fantasy!)  whom he names Tuala. As they grow together, Bridei and Tuala form a bond that is threatened as they both come to terms with the destinies.

“Tales within tales. Dreams within dreams. Pattern on pattern and path beyond path. For such short-lived folks, the human kind seem determined to make things as complicated as possible for themselves.”

51fjvdesonl-_ac_us218_8. The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley– This is another historical novel, dealing with real leaders that ventures into the realm of fantasy. In 1556, Queen Catherine de Medici is trying to obtain an ancient, cursed object, known as the Master of All Desires, rumored to have the power to grant any wish. The Queen has a few wishes, but first and foremost is getting rid  of her husband’s mistress. However, Sybille Artaud de la Roque, a young poet, has recently come into possession of it, and is tempted to us it for herself. Only Nostradamus, the Queen’s seer knows that terrible things happen to those who use it. With France on the verge of civil war, he must stop both women, before they inadvertently destroy all of France!

“Poverty is the curse of ancient but numerous lineages.”

51c5lkxcvwl-_ac_us218_9. The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogridis– Most of us have heard of the poison-happy Borgia family. As screwed up as they were, they were certainly influential. The family patriarch was the pope! Sancha of Aragon was also pretty powerful;  a princess of the royal house of Naples. She married Jofre Borgia for political reasons, and soon begins an affair with her brother in law, Caesare Borgia.  But as far as this family goes, Adultery is pretty tame! Sancha’s bigger problem is that her sister in law Lucrezia has a thing for Caseare (yes, her brother), and has a tendency to poison her rivals. So Sancha will have to be sneaky enough to outwit this family at their own games.

“How could you ever have loved a man so cruel?’
Trusia lifted her chin at that, and regarded me intensely; her voice held a trace of indignance, and I understood that the depth of her love for my father transcended all else. ‘You speak as though I had a choice,’ she said.”

51wox42dwvl-_ac_us218_10. The Many Lives and  Secret Sorrows of Josephine B by Sandra Gulland– I’ve never thought of Napoleon as much of a romantic lead. A leader, yes, but not very romantic! In this book (the first in a trilogy) we meet Josephine, born in Martinique, as a Creole girl named Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher. An arranged marriage brings her to France, where she and her children managed to survive the Reign of Terror. She is widowed, and then meets Napoleon, who she marries as a favor to a friend.. This book ends with their marriage, but the trilogy continues through the years of their marriage and their eventual divorce. Rose, whose name is later changed to Josephine, is a character who we like. And we end up liking Napoleon more than we might expect to!

“He calls me Josephine. He says I’m an angel, a saint, his good lucky star. I know I’m no angel, but in truth I have begun to like this Josephine he sees. She is intelligent; she amuses; she is pleasing. She is grace and charm and heart. Unlike Rose; scared, haunted and needy. Unlike Rose with her sad life.”

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant”: Joan Didion and I

I hate following trends. Often an author will become trendy suddenly. Occasionally it happens with a debut novel, or with a film/television adaptation of that author’s work.  Sometimes it’s because the author did/said something particularly notable. But Joan Didion is different. She’s been a literary presence in the US since the 1960s. She’s got novels, essays, memoirs, and screenplays to her credit. But in recent years it seems like everyone and their illiterate cousin is naming her as a favorite.  This happened to coincide with my discovery of her work, so I have to confess that I am a Didion Fangirl.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” -The White Album

I discovered Joan Didion about a year and a half ago. I’d heard the name before, and was vaguely aware of her, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. But when someone close to me passed away, someone recommended I read The Year of Magical Thinking. I was skeptical. A lot of memoirs about grief, and books about death tend to end in platitudes and cliches. But when I read the book I felt like Didion was articulating a lot of what I felt. She wasn’t sugar coating anything. I didn’t feel like she was trying to “sell” her family’s deaths, or milk her grief for artistic material. It seemed like she had to write about the death of John, her husband of nearly 40 years, in order to understand it. Though The Year of Magical Thinking covers mostly her reaction toward her husband John’s death, her daughter, Quintana, was in a coma when he died. Quintana eventually died a little less than two years after her father. Didion writes about that in her follow up Blue Nights.  Though that book also deals a lot with aging, I again felt as though certain passages seemed to define my feelings perfectly.

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I began to seek out Didion’s other work. I read the essay collections Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and The White Album, both of which feature Didion’s explorations of America in the 1960’s.  I also read South and West: From A Notebook, which is essentially Didion’s notes on a trip through the American south in the 1970’s as well as her feelings about her home state of California.  It amazed me how she was able to recognize and articulate vast cultural divides in America back then, when many people only became aware of it fairly recently. I haven’t read many of her novels yet, but I have read Play It As It Lays, which is, perhaps her most famous. It was written in 1970 and adapted as a film about two years later.  It alternates between the internal monologue of the main character, short first person reminiscences from other characters, and a third person narrator.  The main character, Maria Wyeth, is a B list Hollywood actress, recovering from a nervous breakdown. We learn about Maria’s life, how she got to be the person she is, and what Hollywood looked like in the 1960’s (it was as bleak and grim as it was glamorous).

And Joan Didion knows about glamour. She moved to NYC at the age of 20 to take a job with Vogue. She married John Gregory Dunne, a writer for Time magazine, and they moved to California. They picked up work from book publishers and magazines and traveled together on assignments. John’s brother was Hollywood producer, writer, and investigative journalist Dominick Dunne. His children include actress Dominique Dunne, and actor/director/producer Griffin Dunne.

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With Griffin and Dominick Dunne at the Broadway opening of the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking.

It was her nephew, Griffin, who produced and directed The Center Will Not Hold, a Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. It’s sometimes jarring to be reminded that Didion’s life is very glamours, given that she seems to have very little pretense. Her prose is not flowery at all. It’s clear, observant, and nuanced. But the people who talk about her life in this documentary include friends like Harrison FordTom Brokaw, and David Hare. One of her dear friends, Vanessa Redgrave, starred in Didion’s stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking in 2007. Two years later, in 2009,  Redgrave’s daughter, actress Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident. In  one heartbreaking scene Didion and Redgrave look through a photo album of Redgrave’s daughter Natasha Richardson’s wedding to Liam Neeson (Joan Didion was a guest). Redgrave comments that she understands The Year of Magical Thinking differently now, having lost her own child.  There’s an unspoken mutual understanding in this scene. These are two women who have lost an adult child. There is no need to articulate their shared grief.

I suppose that’s one of the things I find interesting about Joan Didion. She didn’t grow up among the rich and famous. Her father was in the army, and her family traveled a lot due to his work. But she started rubbing elbows with them early in her twenties. This never seemed to faze her. She doesn’t seem to worship celebrity and glamour, not does she hold it in contempt. It’s simply part of her experience of the world. She connects to other creative people on the basis of shared emotional experience. She connects to the general public in a similar way. People have so many different perceptions of her, and no single one can sum it all up. The internet erupted in 2015 because the literary giant had commercialized herself by appearing in a Celine ad campaign. But I like that she doesn’t hold herself above appearing in the   campaign, but she doesn’t seem to think it very impressive either. When asked why it caused so much commotion, she simply said “I don’t have a clue”.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Halloween Freebie

For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday:

October 31: Halloween Freebie! (Happy Halloween! Let your creativity run wild with a themed post to celebrate!)

For obvious reasons, most of these are creepy. Some are horror, some are psychological thrillers, ghost stories or fantasies. A few are some combination of the above. Some are set during Halloween, while others prove that weirdness is a year round thing.

51blghuph3l-_ac_us218_1. Down A Dark Hall by Lois Duncan- Apparently this is being made into a movie, something I didn’t know until just now! I look forward to it. The book is about Kit Gordy, a girl who is accepted to an exclusive boarding school. But something strange is happening at Blackwood Hall. Why have only four students been accepted to the school? Why are their letters to their parents getting lost? As the four students begin to suddenly develop extraordinary talents in science, math, and the arts, they begin to have bizarre dreams. By the time they learn the truth about Blackwood Hall, it may be too late for them to save themselves.

“For some reason it seemed to Kit that they were not covering any distance. The house stood above them still, no closer than it had been when they turned in at the gate. It was an illusion, she knew, something to do with the curve of the driveway and the angle at which they were approaching, but the car itself did not seem to be moving. It was as if the house were growing larger, reaching out its great, grey arms to gather them in. She could not move her eyes from the glowing windows, dancing before her like a hundred miniature suns. Kit shivered with the sensation of an icy wind blowing across her heart.”

51kdyehsspl-_ac_us218_2. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill- This has been adapted a lot. It was a popular stage play in London, as well as a 1989 made for TV film and a 2012 feature film starring Daniel Radcliffe. All of the adaptations make subtle changes to the story, which is chilling on its own.  Arthur Kipps is a solicitor, who must attend to the funeral and estate of his firm’s client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, who live alone in the secluded Eel Marsh House, which is cut off from civilization by marshes and sea frets. At the funeral, he sees a woman in black, who is being watched by a group of children. After the funeral, a high tide traps him at Eel Marsh House for several days, where he endures strange noises (a carriage accident, a child’s screams) and several sights of the Woman in Black. The locals seem reluctant to tell him anything about either Alice Drablow or the Woman in Black. But Arthur’s investigations have already put him, and everything he cares about in grave danger.

“No, no, you have none of you any idea. This is all nonsense, fantasy, it is not like this. Nothing so blood-curdling and becreepered and crude – not so…so laughable. The truth is quite other, and altogether more terrible.”

61r5owovtul-_ac_us218_3. Ghost Story by Peter Straub– Once again there is also a film version of this novel, that changes quite a bit. Check out the book first. Five old men who call themselves The Chowder Society, are lifelong friends. They gather occasionally to reminisce, and tell ghost stories. When one of these men dies, the others start to have dreams in which they also die.  They soon realize that one story is coming back to haunt them. Something they did many years ago could never be completely buried. Now it may be time for the Chowder Society to pay it’s debts.

What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me… the most dreadful thing…”

517tnjizool-_ac_us218_4. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons- Siddons isn’t usually know for creepy stories like this one, but it’s definitely a successful departure from her usual work. It was made in to a TV movie in 2006, but I haven’t seen that. Colquitt and Walter are a young couple living happily in an Atlanta suburb. When construction starts on a vacant lot next door, they are mostly concerned about having less privacy. But as people move in they realize that something is happening. Something a lot worse than diminished privacy. They know the house can’t be haunted. It’s newly built! But it seems to strengthen the weaknesses and destroy the good of every person who moves into it.

“The room was bright and white and still and silent, but soundless sound roared and howled in it.”

51mysyx8uvl-_ac_us218_5. The Witches by Roald Dahl– I remember reading this with a sort of fascinated horror as a kid. My reaction to the film was similar.  It’s scary right from the beginning when we learn that the seven year old protagonist’s parents were killed in a car accident. At least that scared me, when I read it when I wasn’t all that much older. He goes to live with his grandmother who tells him about witches, people who look normal but are actually creatures who seek to kill human children. She used to hunt them, until an encounter with a witch cost her her thumb (which also terrified me when I was younger). When the grandmother gets ill, she and the boy go to  a hotel on the southern coast of England where she can recover. There, the boy encounters the yearly gathering of England’s witches, and is trapped in the hotel ballroom, where he overhears their plan to kill more English children. What follows is a tale that made me fear teachers and sympathize with mice. Unlike most children’s books the ending isn’t all happily ever after, either.

“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.”

51xtyclkg2l-_ac_us218_6. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones– Polly Whitacker has two sets of memories. In one set, everything is normal. In the other, her life is tied up with that of cellist, Thomas Lynn. When the second set of memories begins to overpower the first, Polly realizes that someone has been trying to make her forget about Tom, whose life is at risk from supernatural forces. It’s a retelling of the Tam Lin legend (that is set on Halloween and features a pretty kickass heroine) as well as that of Thomas the Rhymer.  The last chapters are (intentionally, IMO) ambiguous, so don’t expect everything to be tied up neatly here.

“Mr. Lynn gave her one of his considering looks. “People are strange,” he said. “Usually they’re much stranger than you think. Start from there and you’ll never be unpleasantly surprised. Do you fancy doughnuts?”

51yxavao4l-_ac_us218_7. The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donoghue–  Ever since he almost drowned in the ocean three years earlier, ten year old Jack has been terrified to go outdoors. He spends most of his time at home, drawing monsters. He often slips into trances when he does this, and  he has terrifying nightmares. His mother, Holly, hears strange sounds coming from the ocean at night. His father, Tim, wanders the beach, searching for a vision he once saw. Jack’s only friend, Nick, becomes entangled and obsessed with the power of Jack’s monster drawings. Only Jack knows the truth of what happened that day when he almost drowned, and why he can’t stop his drawings.

“In the dream house, the boy listened for the monster under his bed.”

41oplfqimil-_ac_us218_8. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters– Hundreds Hall has been home to the Ayers family for a generation. Once grand and impressive, it is now decayed and crumbling.  Dr. Faraday’s mother once worked there as a parlor maid. When he returns to the Hall, thirty years later, to treat a servant, he finds Mrs. Ayers, the matriarch, her son, Roderick, a wounded RAF airman who now oversees the family farm, and Caroline, her daughter, whom the locals call a natural spinster. Dr. Faraday becomes obsessed with all of them. After Caroline’s usually gentle dog, Gyp, attacks a visiting child, bad fortune seems to follow the Ayers family, as they are visited by fire, suicide, and worse. You could get into a debate with another reader about whether this is truly a ghost story, or a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. I’m of the belief that it’s a bit of both.

“The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let’s call it a—a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop—to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy and malice and frustration…”

41-kxlbhnl-_ac_us218_9. The Other by Thomas Tryon– Holland and Niles Perry are thirteen year old identical twins. Holland is spirited and mischievous while Niles is sweet and eager to please. When the boy’s father dies in an accident, their mother takes to her room, buried in grief. This leaves her sons to run around unsupervised. As Holland’s pranks become more dangerous and sinister, Niles begins to realize that he can no longer excuse his brother’s actions. There are several twists in this tale. One will probably not come as much of a surprise to contemporary readers. But keep reading, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a film adaptation that wasn’t bad, but the book is (of course) better, so go for that first. Then, check out the film, if you enjoy it.

“Things cannot ever be the same again. Not for any of us. Not any more. We sometimes reach a point in our lives where we can’t ever go back again, we have to go on from there. All that was before is past now. It went too far. Everything has gone too far. It must stop, do you see? Now–it must–stop.
No more game?
No. No more game.”

51ryt4thtnl-_ac_us218_10. Danse Macabre by Stephan King– In the fall of 1978, Stephen King taught a course at the University of Maine, about “Themes of Supernatural Literature”, which ended up being at least as enlightening for the teacher as it was for the students. At that point, King had already established himself as a major writer of horror. Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and  The Dead Zone, had all been released to acclaim and sales.  In this book, King explores why anyone would pay good money to buy a book that they know will make them frightened and uncomfortable. More than that, they will be angry if they aren’t scared/disturbed/grossed out. Why? In this book, King attempts to answer that question, with characteristic intelligence and humor.

“We fall from womb to tomb, from one blackness and toward another, remembering little of the one and knowing nothing of the other … except through faith.”