Proper Introductions: Summer Reading

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Frank Weston Benson,'The Reader'

There is something about the long, languid days of summer that begs for a particular flavor of reading, in my mind. I have said this before, but books have their own season for me as definitely as my clothes. I’d no more pull on my cabled wool ‘barn sweater’–so de rigueur for frosty winter mornings–in the middle of July, than I’d consider dipping into the pages of such familiar friends as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations when the temperature outside nudges above eighty degrees. And the hotter it gets, the lighter the fare that’s desired. In the dog days of summer, I eat salads and wear sundresses almost exclusively. And while I disdain ‘fluff’ in reading as in everything else, my summer book choices tend to lean decidedly on the frothier side.

Charlotte Mason warned wisely and famously against ‘twaddle’, and I consider it my duty, as writer and bookseller, never to misguide anyone along that line. But permit me to highlight a few volumes and authors which, if not particularly freighted with great moral themes and deathless prose, will at the least prove gentle companions for a slower, lazier time of year. Perfect for reading in a hammock, or tucked in a cool windowseat…

D.E. Stevenson

D.E. Stevenson is a gem. My book club calls her “Elizabeth-Goudge-Lite”, and she’s who we turn to at least once a year between weighty tomes like Eliot and Gaskell. She was a Scottish writer of the last century and a descendant of the great Robert Louis. And her books are simply charming. She writes of houses that remember their past and women who understand the art of being womanly. In D.E. Stevenson, you will find well-laid tea tables and rambles over the Scottish hillsides, not to mention engaging plots which are usually fashioned upon a frame of revered domesticity. And another joy of Stevenson is that once she takes the time to create a character, she doesn’t seem to want to put them to rest at the end of a book, or even a series. She wrote over forty novels, and the people you love in one book have a way of cropping up again in another character’s story, with a delightful sense of friendly recognition.

Celia’s House is the tale of a young woman who surprisingly inherits her family manor and endeavors to make it her own in the stern face of tradition and under the somber cloud of war.

Amberwell is about a manorial family in the Scottish Lowlands and how they and the community surrounding them both survive and overcome the devastations of WWII.

The English Air is a collectible volume that tells the WWII-era love story of a young German man and an English girl.

Music in the Hills is the sequel to the beloved Vittoria Cottage, but like her other sequels, stands on its own as the charming story of a young man who returns to Scotland and settles down to farming after his service in the army.

The Marriage of Katherine wraps up the story begun in Katherine Wentworth and tells of her new life as wife to a hard-nosed but tender-hearted solicitor and mother to three children.

The beloved English author, Miss Read, received a marked revival of popularity after Jan Karon confessed her a favorite and an inspiration. I love Miss Read’s books, not only because they are light and touching—and yet have a penetrating insight into human nature and manners that’s almost Austen-ish in it’s flavor—but because they were much-loved by my Anglophile grandmother. Most of her books are centered in the fictional Cotswold villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green, and tell the day-to-day stories of people who seem like real-life friends and acquaintances. Like Jan Karon, Miss Read wrote of the life she knew first-hand, and let the rest of the world see how charming it was without faltering into clichés or idealism. And as in D.E. Stevenson, the reader gets the chance to encounter beloved characters again and again.

In Village Affairs, Fairacre’s schoolmistress has to face the challenges of running her school under the terrible rumor that it is going to be closed.

Changes at Fairacre chronicles the encroaching effects of modern life on the village and its inhabitants, and celebrates the staunch fact that some things will never change.

The Battles at Thrush Green are over such matters of consequence as the management of the school and the plan for the neglected churchyard. Not to mention the return of an inhabitant that’s been gone for half a century…

Return to Thrush Green chronicles one family’s upheavals and another’s desire to settle down, all against the backdrop of a finely-rendered English spring.

No Holly for Miss Quinn is the story of a mysterious spinster and the interrupted Christmas that impacted the rest of her life.

In Village Centenary the one hundredth anniversary of the village school is celebrated with all due honors amid the usual turmoils and joys of Fairacre life.

Grace Livingston Hill

So, I’m curious—how many of you have heard of Grace Livingston Hill? She was another author that I first discovered on my grandmother’s shelves. I used to come home from her house on summer afternoons with my arms loaded, only to return them the next week for a fresh batch. They were my great-grandmother’s copies mostly, with the dates of her readings penciled carefully inside the front cover—many of them with second and third notations. From 1887 to 1948, Grace Livingston Hill was the author of over 100 books, most of which were written to keep the wolf from the door. Nevertheless, her stories are all different, even though each of them bears certain hallmarks that her readers came to trust and expect: every story highlights the constant, daily reality of good and evil, and every single of one them carries a message of grace. Her books are endearingly old-fashioned and romantic—chivalrously so!—and she delights with an immersion in period detail, from the cut of a dainty 1930’s frock to the setting of an elegant table on limited means. I still remember being enchanted with the account of a character whipping up a batch of fresh mayonnaise to garnish a salad for a special luncheon! And if Hill’s heroines are a bit idealized, they are absolutely lovely girls and a joy to keep company with throughout the duration of the book. Modern readers, accustomed to the requisite subtlety of our age, may smile over the overt Christian themes of Hill’s books. But I, for one, am an unabashed admirer, in great measure for the quiet delights I received at her hands as a girl and the sweetest dreams which they inspired. I really could (and perhaps will) write an entire post about Grace, but for now, I’ll reign myself in by saying that I may not have read every single one of her 100+ books, but I’ve definitely read enough to vouch for her. Grace Livingston Hill is light reading at its most decent and fine.

The 1916 story, A Voice in the Wilderness, has a young woman stranded in the Arizona desert with no one to help her but a stranger.

Bright Arrows is the sweet story of a girl fighting to preserve her inheritance from scheming relatives, only to find an inheritance that is even more valuable.

Happiness Hill sheds a gentle light on how one can be selfish without even realizing it. This is one of those “what do you really want” stories.

Spice Box is a doctor’s search for the identity of a young patient he saves in a snowstorm.

In Silver Wings 1930’s sophistication meets tragedy when a young pilot goes missing.

The Search is a WWI love story that crosses the class divide.

illustration from "The Trumpeter Swan", by Temple Bailey

In the 1920’s, Temple Bailey was one of the highest-paid writers in America. Yet another discovery among my great-grandmother’s books, I actually didn’t read any of Bailey’s books until fairly recently. But I do love her style. She has a voice that is completely unique, almost fable-like at times, and she manages to write on some very sentimental themes without sounding corny or hackneyed. Reading a Temple Bailey book is like watching a magic lantern show of the twenties and thirties—there is a certain gorgeousness that is never too much. She writes with a lighter hand than many popular novelists of her day, and manages to pull off some worthy morals without ever lapsing into preaching.

From the dust jacket of the 1928 Silver Slippers: “a dance in the moonlight, days of delight and disillusionment, and a day when Joan threw her silver slippers into the sea…”

In Little Girl Lost, a girl of 19 takes a year to make up her mind just which man she wants to marry…

The Gay Cockade is the 1921 collection of 14 of Temple Bailey’s enchanting short stories.

Well, there’s a start, at least, and a peek at four writers with whom one can while a gentle hour or two. (Or more!)

So, what are you reading this summer? I’d love to know.

Proper Introductions is a series dedicated to highlighting some of the titles that can be found on the shelves at Lanier’s Books.

Under the Omnipotence

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

I’ve made no secret of my heartfelt writerly crush on The Rabbit Room, and it is always an honor and a joy to get to chime in on the Great Conversation that’s going on over there. Most recently I’ve aired some opinions on one of the Inklings, Charles Williams, the man C.S. Lewis called his ‘dearest friend’.

He was the one running back and forth from the bar, keeping everyone supplied with ale and good cheer during the weekly meetings at the Eagle and Child (or “Bird and Baby”, to the seasoned Oxonian). He scarcely uttered a word, playful or serious, into which he did not thrust the intense vitality of his entire personality, for better or for worse. Largely self-taught, he couldn’t even boast of a degree (excepting the honorary MA Oxford eventually conferred upon him near the end of his life), though he sat at ease among some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. In terms of elegance and concision he was a terrible novelist and a largely unremembered poet.

C.S. Lewis esteemed him among the chiefest of his friends and lauded the deep spirituality of both his writings and his life. The wary Tolkien wasn’t so sure.

If you’re interested enough to find out what I thought, you can read the rest here:

The Inscrutable Inkling

Proper Introductions, Christmas Edition

Monday, December 6th, 2010

'On Christmas Day in the Evening' by Grace Richmond

Of all my Christmas loves, the books and stories that express the real joys of the season are among the sweetest. Over the years I have amassed a goodly circle of friends that take their indispensable places among the cherished traditions: from the short stories we like to read aloud in the weeks leading up to the blessed day to the sacrosanct pieces reserved for Christmas Eve, to the gentle novels from which I select the quiet reading for Christmas week. I am so excited to have a sampling of some of these best-loved titles in the shop this year.

It seems it just can’t be properly Christmas without Kate Douglas Wiggin. The Old Peabody Pew, A Christmas Romance of a Country Church is an early work, close on the heels of her wildly successful Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and tells the gentle tale of a wandering sheep and a faithful heart waiting at home. I loved the staunch New England setting and the spare beauty of the church, almost a character in itself, handled with such loving accuracy by the author.

The Romance of a Christmas Card, published in 1916, is a similarly tender story, albeit a more mature one in its treatment of the darker themes of estrangement and abandonment. When a minister’s wife innocently sends out Christmas cards that find their way to a couple of village wayfarers, depicting the homely radiance of the town and the people they have left behind, events are set in motion that bring everyone involved to a crisis of restoration and hope.    

The Birds’ Christmas Carol must simply be one of the most well-loved Christmas stories of all time. This one was a tradition in our home growing up, though no one wanted to be the one reading it aloud at the end, striving to steady their voice over those last beautiful pages.

There was flesh and blood in the message he gave them, and it was the message they needed.' ~ from Christmas Day in the Evening by Grace Richmond

My personal copy of The Fireside Book of Christmas Carols is growing rather loose at the hinges as it’s in constant service each year for the duration of the season. This is an absolutely marvelous collection of stories and readings that is really the nicest I have ever come across for sheer variety and content. It contains selections from such varied authors as Louisa May Alcott and Daphne DuMaurier and Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as the full text of The Birds’ Christmas Carol. Dickens’ immortal Scrooge takes his place alongside Sir Roger de Coverley and Henry Van Dyke. Silly stories lark among the more serious ones, and while I certainly can’t claim every tale in the book to be a favorite, or even a gem, I give that designation without reserve to the collection as a whole. My two favorite Christmas essays of all time were discovered within its pages: ‘Christmas in Our Town’ by Alice Van Leer Carrick and Alexander Smith’s thoughtful musings of a Christmas night in 1862.

Then of course there is Bess. Journey Into Christmas is a well-beloved sampling of the Christmas stories of Bess Streeter Aldrich, of which I have read and cherished every one. This dear book is a constant alternation between laughter and tears, and, always, a gentle celebration of the domestic graces that give such firm context to our traditions and celebrations.

Tasha Tudor is past-mistress of capturing the joys of the seasons in general and Christmas in particular. A Book of Christmas is a very special title in her holiday repertoire as it’s a charming three-dimensional experience from a uniquely Tudor perspective. It even includes one of Tasha’s famous Advent calendars right in the middle of the book!

I’m going to talk more about Temple Bailey down the road, but I simply must present So This is Christmas by saying that this new favorite of mine is a lovely introduction to her works. This Depression-era gem is a Christmas nosegay of seven lovely stories, all unique and every one bearing a message just as poignant as it is timeless. Bailey’s style is all her own, assuming at times an almost parable-like voice, and always treating the real beauties of everyday life with a reverent hand. If you like Grace Livingston Hill, this is a perfect choice for a lighter Christmas read with a genuine substance beneath. The Crystal Bowl is a slim volume containing one of the stories from this collection.

Christmas Day in the Evening by Grace Richmond

On Christmas Day in the Evening is the 1910 stand-alone sequel to Grace Richmond’s earlier On Christmas Day in the Morning. We meet the Fernald family as Richmond left them in the first book, gathered for Christmas once more at the old home in North Estabrook. Now that their own domestic rifts have been mended, the young Fernalds join forces to heal—if possible—a bitter division that has left their village church-less for over six months. I love this little book with its simple message and beautifully period illustrations.

Lloyd C. Douglas’ Home for Christmas is the rollicking story of how the five grown Clayton ‘children’ recapture lost joys and recover the essential things that have made them into the men and women they have become. Sentiment is laced with romance and humor and the whole makes for a delightful story and an excellent read-aloud. ‘A Christmas Story of Today, in the Spirit of Yesterday’, proclaims the back cover—and it’s as true in 2010 as it was in 1935.

I Saw Three Ships is a reprint of Elizabeth Goudge’s magical tale, originally published in 1969 and tells of a Christmas Eve visit that a little girl named Polly will never forget…

Christmas Days by Joseph C. Lincoln is a holiday story of old Cape Cod. A self-proclaimed ‘spinner-of-yarns’ Lincoln winds his 1938 tale over the Christmases of three nineteenth-century decades and the choices that affect an entire family, for good and ill. I confess, it was this book’s lovely cover that first attracted me, but I found what was inside to be charming as well, and a pleasant way to indulge a few hours by the fire.

In the Days of the Angels is a collection of Walt Wangerin’s Christmas essays and stories, and contains several original carols, as well. The author of The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of God, Wangerin is a profoundly gifted writer with a voice ‘like one crying in the wilderness.’ There’s no reading him with impunity, for with razor-precision he cuts to the heart and compels his readers to examine what matters most.

Shepherd’s Abiding by Jan Karon absolutely made our Christmas a few years back. Philip and I both enjoyed this story of a sacrificial Christmas gift and the operations of love and grace moving through a whole town. Father Tim always grants perspective in his distinguishing between ‘bustle’ and ‘huffing about’, and I love Karon’s honesty, poured out in the lives of characters that feel like real people I know.

I wish you all great joy in these Advent days leading up to Christmas, and I hope that they may be filled with all the good things you love best–including the best of books! :)

Proper Introductions is a series dedicated to highlighting some of the titles that can be found on the shelves at Lanier’s Books. If you care to take a peek at some of these Christmas books, remember to sort by ‘Date Added’.

Proper Introductions: When Knighthood Was in Flower

Monday, October 25th, 2010

"There lived a Knight, when Knighthood was in flow'r, Who charmed alike the tilt-yard and the bow'r."

You don’t have to spend much time around here to know that I am a Romantic of the old order. I love the tenderness of a well-turned phrase, the high sensibility of a love letter. My heart plunges and rises and plunges again with the pathos of a Chopin nocturne and I am always the one sniffling in the theatre at the end of a Jane Austen movie.

And I absolutely adored When Knighthood Was in Flower.

It was one of those books that you will always remember the time and the setting of your first reading: I was twenty-one and it was August and I spent several languorous summer afternoons in its thrall, sprawled across my bed with a plate of crisp apple slices and only occasionally coming up for air or a drink of water. I can still recall the breathless page-turning (how often do books really grant that pleasure in this distract-able age?) and the gasp and sob at a particularly poignant turn of events. (I even got choked up merely telling Philip about it the other night, all these years later…)

When Knighthood Was in Flower was written by Charles Major in 1898 and basically instigated an entire generation of historical romantic novels. It was #9 on the list of Best-Selling American novels in 1900, and has been adapted for the stage and several film productions, including Disney’s 1953 The Sword and the Rose.

It is the story of Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII and the courtly commoner, Charles Brandon, and is told in a charming first-person narrative from the perspective of a friend to both, Edwin Caskoden, the royal Master of the Dance. (Charles Major even went so far as to have written the book under the pen name of Caskoden, furthering the sense of authenticity to the events portrayed.)

It is truly a beautiful read, gilted with the pure, flashing gleam of chivalry and gemmed with passages fit to pierce the heart.

“…how rich is a man who has laid up such treasures of memory to grow the sweeter as he feeds upon them.  A rich memory is better than hope, for it lasts after fruition, and serves us at a time when hope has failed and fruition is but—a memory. Ah! how we cherish it in our hearts, and how it comes at our beck and call to thrill us through and through and make us thank God we have lived, and wonder in our hearts why he has given poor undeserving us so much.”

Charles Major, When Knighthood Was in Flower

Incidentally, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is another title by Charles Major and his second best-seller. It was published in 1902 and tells the story of an Elizabethan heiress, set against the harrowing history of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Proper Introductions is a series dedicated to highlighting some of the titles that can be found on the shelves at Lanier’s Books.

A Book’s Beauty

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

It’s easy to forget—or perhaps never fully realize in the first place—just what a treasure we hold in our hands in the form of a book.

Household Words, published by Charles Dickens

In times not too far past, books were solely the possession of the wealthy. As recently as the publication dates of many of my favorite nineteenth century novels, books were serialized in magazine format so as to be affordable to the common people. In some cases, whole villages would go in to purchase one copy for the local pub, from which a designated reader would enthrall the listeners in weekly installments. Charles Dickens was certainly a pioneer of such journals, and it was a profitable medium by which to introduce writers and their words to the middle classes. His now legendary publication Household Words was where equally legendary works like Cranford and The Song of the Western Men first saw the light of day. (Though I have heard tales of what a tyrant he could be when it came to word count—apparently that is why Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South ends so abruptly, as he basically told her to ‘wrap it up’.)

The history of books as we know them and the effects of industrialization upon their original craftsmanship is a fascinating one, and at times as fraught with peril and heroism as the best legends. Not only did the monks of the early Middle Ages preserve the written words in their keeping from barbarian invasions—often in the face of unimaginable violence—they established the criteria of true artisan standards in the bindings of the books themselves. From clumsy wooden boards encasing animal skin parchments, they progressed the work of bookbinding to a high art, to include elaborate tooled leather covers (sometimes studded with jewels) and meticulously-penned pages characterized by gilded illuminations and flourishing script. These books were so valuable—as irreplaceable as the lifetime spent crafting them—that they were secured with chains and heavy gold clasps (themselves often engraved with exquisite designs) within the monastery library. (I have to wonder at which modern developments they would be more amazed: the mass-production standards of industrial binderies or the cavalier treatment of library books!)

"Lucy! Lucy! What's that book? Who's been taking a book out of the shelf and leaving it about to spoil?" "It's only the library book that Cecil's been reading." "But pick it up, and don't stand idling there like a flamingo." ~ A Room With a View, E. M. Forster

The amazing thing is that not that much really changed in the binding of books from the monks’ early advances until the mechanization provided by the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of paper-making from the Far East in the tenth century opened new vistas of possibility and established the “signature”—or large sheets folded and cut to create smaller folios of standard page sizes—as the basic component of a book’s structure, a basic process that endures to this day. And under the stimulus of the Gutenberg press in the mid-1400’s, the creation of text leapt from hand-written pages or wooden block impressions, to the endless variety and availability of movable type. Book-making became the property of printers or the life trade of binders. And the concept of a ‘home library’ was born.

...A thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts of conditions. ~Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

Though it would still take several centuries to streamline the craft sufficiently to make books affordable beyond the confines of the wealthy, book-making preserved certain careful requisites over the years. The signatures were pierced along the spine edge and sewn together with fine linen thread, attached to cords in much the same way as the medieval bindings. In later interpretations, these were glued to a strip of tarlatan or English mull which was then glued to the boards while the cords were woven into the boards themselves for superior durability. This mull is the ‘webbing’ that is often visible in the cracked hinges of old books—a dignified, if ‘natty’ mark of good breeding on the part of the book itself. If you look inside the front and back covers of an old book, or a well-made new one, you can see the ghost of the mull beneath the endpapers. The spine itself was never glued to the binding—this is a modern contrivance. Instead, the book was built around a hollow back, through which the surfaces of the cords were visible. This is where we get the tradition of decorated panels between raised bands in spines—they are merely ‘faux cords’, built up to resemble the originals.

The replacement of the leather cords with cotton tape in the bindings, and the 1820’s innovation of starch-filled cloth coverings, both contributed to the leveling of the field—it’s interesting to consider how little such changes may have had to do with book-makers’ benevolence and how much with seemingly unrelated political and social events. At any rate, cotton and linen became an affordable choice for the middle classes, and the book industry grew with the demand.

The Industrial Revolution flung wide the doors and made books the possession of the masses. A triumph for literacy, but, unfortunately, a travesty for the art of the book itself. Literally thrown together by machines at a dizzying rate of speed, all the old loving, careful craftsmanship and most of the fine materials gave way to mass-production and popular prices.

There were some, even at that time, that thought the cost too high—the loss of an artisan skill and a market potentially flooded with twaddle. With astounding foresight and knowledge of the dangers of full mechanization of society, they championed a grassroots movement devoted, among other things, to the renewal of integrity in the book trade by way of small, private presses.

The man at the helm was one William Morris. And the movement was none other than Arts and Crafts…

Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris in 1891

to  be continued in Part Two…

Proper Introductions: Rumer Godden

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Rumer Godden, 1907-1998

At the gentle (and brilliant) suggestion of a reader, I have decided to act upon a notion I had back in the summer, before I even opened the Bookshop at Lanier’s Books, namely, a series of proper introductions to the authors and titles you will find on my shelves.  My  books are selected with great care and intention as it has been my ambition to create a space of trust and beauty and worth wherein my readers may peruse with abandon–without having to wade through what Charlotte Mason so endearingly termed ‘twaddle’. Granted, there is plenty of lighter reading amid my tomes, but that mainly of a nineteenth or early-twentieth century variety and, consequently, wholesome in tone and moral structure. The books in my shop are there for a reason, either by first-hand experience with the title itself or by a confiding trust in the author based on previous encounters with other works.

Basically, I am always hunting and selecting the authors I love and the books I love for the sheer joy of sharing them. Many have asked how I can bear to part with them–I must confess with a blush that many I already own. Mrs. Downs always said that a real book collector is bound to become a book seller one day or another out of sheer necessity! But even the ones which don’t reside in my personal library are a literal delight to pass on as I envision (and even hear of) the delight with which they are received.

I am hoping that these social pleasantries will aid you, not only as you cast your eyes over the titles and descriptions in my shop, but in making the acquaintance of these books and their authors in your own corners of the world.

And now, without further ado, I present Rumer Godden.

My first introduction to Rumer Godden came by way of a picture of the books on a bedside table of a respected writer. I didn’t have to know more than that to send me scurrying to the library to check out The Greengage Summer. The writing was not sparkling–it was shimmering, luminescent, by times restrained and luscious, filled with beauties that hurt and honesty that was painful at times. I’m not a big fan of ‘coming-of-age’ novels as they all seem to follow a rather predictable route with a lot of predictable and usually distasteful elements. Greengage broke that mold for me, and left me wanting more of Godden’s gorgeous prose. She reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Goudge, with her depth of perception and insistence upon prying beneath the surface of things, not to mention her obvious love of beauty. And though this particular novel did not reveal the deep spiritual vein that I was to encounter in other works, I knew, somehow, that it was there.

Rumer Godden was born in Sussex, England in 1907, and spent her childhood in Colonial India, returning to Calcutta to open a dance school in 1925. She died in 1998 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Much of her prose is flavored with the customs and conflicts of the British regime in India, and, later, with the devotion of Catholicism, to which she converted in 1968. She was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1993 and she wrote more than 60 works during her lifetime.

There are a number of Godden’s books on my shelves.

Kingfishers Catch Fire is the story of a single English mother making a determined way for herself and her children in the Eden-like Vale of Kashmir–against the best counsel of her friends and advisers.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy tells the agonizing story of Lise, a former prostitute who finds her vocation among a society of nuns in post-war Paris, and is a good example of how Godden can write of truly horrifying and heart-breaking things without being more graphic than is absolutely necessary.

China Court is a tale of an English country house in Cornwall and of the family who has lived in it for over 100 years. Drawing on the medieval Book of Hours, Godden intertwines the five generations with the ‘Hours’ of China Court, from Lauds to Matins.

The Creatures’ Choir is a lovely translation she made of the French nun Carmen Bernos de Gasztold’s Choral de Betes. An absolutely delightful collection of poems based on the prayers of 26 of God’s creatures, ranging from the swallow to the starfish, the peacock, the mother hen, the hedgehog and the flea.

In This House of Brede is personally one of my very favorite books. Here’s an excerpt from a review I wrote of it for YLCF:

From the very first pages of Brede I knew that this book was like nothing I had read before. It is the story of a wealthy and successful career woman who enters a Benedictine monastery in England in the 1950’s, and much of the detail of cloistered life was taken from Godden’s own experience of living in the gatehouse of an English Abbey for three years. Philippa Talbot’s story is woven amid that of the threads of the other nuns and novices in a tapestry as complex and beautiful as the richly-colored ceremonial vestments made with loving skill in the workrooms of Brede Abbey. It is a tale that is strangely gripping for its quiet setting of shaded cloisters and flowering parkland. But the real venue is the hearts of the women who inhabit the monastery, and the true drama lies in the choices they make whether or not to give Christ full sway in their lives. It is an absolutely gorgeous book, radiant with spiritual truth and written with a lovely starkness that only emphasizes the renunciations these courageous women have made. But it is a starkness that glows beneath with warmth and fire and godly love, and it rings with what Phyllis Tickle in her introduction calls a ‘bright sadness’.

I do hope that this helps a little if you have never met Rumer Godden. I think she’s well worth getting to know.

"The stitch of a book is its words." ~R.G.

Lilith

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Lady Lilith ~Dante Gabriel Rossetti

George Macdonald was the grandfather of us all. ~Madeleine L’Engle

Ten pages into George MacDonald’s Lilith I was thoroughly entranced—there’s nothing like a memory-haunted library and a mysterious visitant and secret doors to get this girl to sit up and take notice.

Twenty pages in I was right royally flummoxed. I found myself floundering and sputtering about as gracelessly as the book’s protagonist, Mr. Vane—and asking almost as many questions.

“How am I to begin where everything is so strange?” he poses to his new-found and utterly unreadable guide, Mr. Raven.

I wanted to know the same thing. Alluring as this new world was that he—and I—had been ushered into, I couldn’t quite find my footing.

But after another forty or so pages of exquisite bewilderment a light began to spread, like one of the incarnate moonrises in the book itself: I was supposed to be confused.

It was my journey as much as it was Vane’s and I had as much to be shocked and riveted by as he did. In short, I had as much to learn about living and dying and really living as the benighted hero stumbling about in a world that wavers behind the very thin scrim of this one.

For if Lilith is about anything, it’s about losing one’s life to find it indeed. There’s a hazy distinction that materializes slowly between the characters that are actually dead and the ones that have merely ceased to live. The latter are pitiable things, whether walking around in the prime of life or rattling naked in their bones. The former—those voluntary dreamers that Mr. Vane encounters early on in Mr. Raven’s ‘cemetery’—have merely found what life is all about.

“I am alive!” I objected, shuddering

“Not much,” rejoined the sexton with a smile, “—not nearly enough. Blessed be the true life that the pauses between its throbs are not death!”

Stoutly refusing his own invitation to exchange his image of life for the real thing, Mr. Vane embarks on a journey that is truly fantastical in every sense of the word. This culminating work from the very Grandfather of Fantasy is admittedly a wild ride, peopled with warring phantasms that knock each other to pieces and monsters so gloriously grotesque that I can’t help but think MacDonald secretly enjoyed describing them. But for every evil there is a beauty that dazzles and hurts with its flash of true and living fire. And as I watched Mr. Vane bumble along, tripping over his own efforts and misguided intentions, I couldn’t help but flinch at his stupidity. It just hit a little too close to home, all this workaday dullness to the unbearable realities of joy. With Lilith, I felt like Grandpa George picked me up by the scruff of the neck and gave me a brisk shake. And a kiss for good measure.

Weaving the Talmudic myth of Adam’s ‘first wife’, Lilith into a story about an ordinary person encountering the love of God is frankly something that only MacDonald would take on. I’m not even up to explaining how he did it. With his untrammeled imagination and wild faith in the goodness of the Giver of Life, he whisks us from the library of an ancient country house to the very feet of the Ancient of Days. And all with that impetuous joy that seems to wave back and hasten us along from the next hilltop he’s mounted, as much as to say, “Never mind all those loose ends and questions of yours—just wait till you see what’s ahead!”

“You have died into life, and will die no more; you have only to keep dead…”

84, Charing Cross Road

Monday, August 16th, 2010

"I'm almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboardy covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch." ~Helene Hanff, 84, Charing Cross Road

Quite candidly, I didn’t get the big idea.

A slim volume with an address for a title. (Albeit a London, address, lending a smidge of credibility.) Nondescript, by an American lady I had never heard of.

And yet, Mrs. Downs couldn’t keep it in the store. She was constantly tracking down first editions for people and they were downright giddy to receive them.

I never cared much for books of letters, preferring the flowery prose of my Victorian novels and classics. And certainly not a book of letters published in the unappealing epoch of the 1970s.

It just wasn’t me. I smiled at the enthusiasm of Mrs. Downs and her customers. And I always thought of it tenderly in connection with her. But not tenderly enough to tempt me.

And then I read it.

"Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND...i swear i don't know how that shop keeps going." ~H.H.

Marooned at home one day with a fever and not quite up to the thundering word-craft of Wuthering Heights on my bedside table, I dipped into a paperback version of 84, Charing Cross Road that I had picked up along the way in memory of my beloved Mrs. Downs. Philip came home a few hours later to find me sobbing into my pillow over it. He took it from me and read it in one sitting, dashing the tears from his eyes when he was done.

I saw now, as an adult, what I had been unprepared to see as a girl. I understood why Mrs. Downs and her compatriots loved this little book with such an undying loyalty. It was her story, and that of countless booksellers and booklovers the world over. It was no wonder that upon its publication it became an instant best-seller, going on to be produced as a play and later a major motion picture starring Anne Bancroft and the inimitable Anthony Hopkins.

84 Charing Cross Road is the correspondence between a brassy American writer and a gentlemanly English bookseller. Spanning two decades, it begins in the post-war days of the 1940s when English books were not only difficult to find in the States, they were prohibitively expensive. Especially for a poor free-lance writer and script reader living in New York City. A chance encounter with an ad in The Saturday Review prompted the first letter, an endearingly-blunt request with a five dollar bill enclosed. The friendship that bloomed almost instantly between Miss Hanff in her brownstone and Mr. Frank Doel in his London shop expanded to include fellow employees and even Frank’s wife, Nora. If Helene’s effusive camaraderie is disarming to the Brits, their loveliness of manner and graciousness begets a family-like devotion in her own heart.

For twenty years the letters—and books—fly back and forth across The Pond. And in that time one of the most heart-warming accounts of human friendship and kindness unfolds. There is an almost spiritual quality to the giving and the receiving that transpires, the careful love of old books and the tending of relationships. Our modern world seems to have very little time for such things anymore.

"Just a note to let you know that your gift parcel arrived safely today and the contents have been shared out between the staff..." ~F.P.D.

We watched the movie again last night, for the umpteenth time. It’s an absolutely brilliant adaptation, and for all 100 minutes of it the tears poured down my face in constant succession. This story has had my heart for so long—it conjures Mrs. Downs and the days working in her shop; my own experience with English bookstores and the cherished volumes I’ve carted home over the years; the passion my husband and I share for a lovely binding and a gilt-edged page and a smooth leather cover.

But I was suddenly encountering it on a completely different level. I’ve always identified with Helene, unwrapping her English treasures in her dingy apartment and running her hands over them with a lingering reverence. But this time I was the Frank in the story. The Mrs. Downs. The procurer and provider of the treasures. I saw the joy flicker over his face as he came across a title he knew she would love and the somewhat abashed happiness with which he received her overtures of friendship. I even got choked up over the scene of a shop girl wrapping up Helene’s first shipment of books.

I have seen the same kind of sympathy spring up right here in my own little shop, the same joy of kindred kindness extended to me in your notes, the heartfelt revelations of the faces behind the orders, the emails telling me that the packages have arrived safely at their new homes. I have been overwhelmed and humbled by your response and your joy. Thank you, kind friends.

There’s nothing quite like the love of books for the beginning of a friendship, is there?

Dreamer of Dreams, Part One

Friday, July 9th, 2010

I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines. ~Oliver Goldsmith

I have been waiting to write this post for a long, long time.

It was a deciding factor in the name I chose for this site. It’s been a steadily-brewing desire since the days I sat among the stacks and shelves of Katherine Downs’ shop and learned to love the weight of a well-made book in my hands and the feel of the thick, smooth pages between my fingers.

It’s been a vision I’ve cherished: not only to make the proper introductions between certain books and those I know would love them, but to provide the volumes themselves to any who might want to give them a home on their shelves. To offer beautiful, hand-selected old books for a good value and with the personal element of thoughtful reviews.

And so, it is with the greatest excitement that I wish to announce that Monday, the second of August, in the year of our Lord 2010, the Book Shop at Lanier’s Books will open its doors.

I’ll be hanging out the sign, by way of a discreet little link on the sidebar, and it will be a virtual open house. I only wish I could provide the tea for anyone who “stops by”. I can’t imagine anything nicer than sitting down with such kind and lovely readers and chatting the afternoon away over all the verities of life, like Mrs. Downs and I used to do in those days cherished of old.

Lanier’s Books

Antiquarian Gems and Gently-loved Jewels

Opening Monday, August 2, 2010

When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book. ~Christopher Morley

And you’ll notice that I’ve titled this post Part One. Look for more secrets sprinkled over the summer, my friends…

The Rim of the Prairie

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

The Rim of the Prairie, 1925, by Bess Streeter Aldrich

When a writer has a philosophy like Bess Streeter Aldrich’s, I know I’m in good company.

And when Jodi said that The Rim of the Prairie was her favorite of Aldrich’s books, I knew that I was in for a treat.

I want to begin this review by saying that one of the things I love best about Bess Streeter Aldrich is the very thing I love in so many of my favorite writers, namely, a sense of place so evocative, so intimate and alive that you as the reader are literally present in the story, every sense awake to the beauties and charms and idiosyncrasies of the setting. Elizabeth Goudge gave me the cobbles and cathedrals and gardens and houses of England; Prince Edward Island is Lucy Maud Montgomery’s lavish bestowal which I will be honored to carry with me all the days of my life. Daphne DuMaurier made Cornwall so vivid and touchable that when I first saw its jagged cliffs and shingle beaches and deceptively placid coves, a shiver of recognition, of revisitation, went through me and I all but cast a glance over my shoulder for a spaniel named Jasper scrabbling among the rocks behind.

And when I drove across Iowa for the first time on a still October morning just tinged with the maiden blush of dawn, I knew that I had been there before. Had seen a couple of nondescript graves covered with woodbine on a little rise of a churchyard and watched a solitary young man make his purposeful way over the golden sea of prairie grasses…

That was Song of Years, of course, my long-standing favorite of Bess’ children. And Suzanne, that idealistic companion of my youth, has always been my favorite of her characters. I was almost afraid to see her challenged by The Rim of the Prairie and this upstart of a Nancy Moore, howsoever endearing she might prove herself to be.

It hardly needs saying that Nancy won my heart, as did her story of a sweet youth ended abruptly by the rise of a dark shadow. Chic in a delightsome 1920′s way, charming, vivacious–and so winningly flawed that one can’t help but like her, it’s easy to identify with the characters she encounters, many of whom are predisposed to frown upon her teasing and her breezy ways and end up her devoted friends and admirers. Nancy is not perfect, and that’s what makes her real: that’s what makes her faults and her misplaced ambitions ring true to pitch. Jolly and designing, sunny and selfish, but altogether living and breathing and laughing–and even crying in secret.

And it’s the secrets that propel the story forward: hidden intrigues and painful questions that engather an entire community with the ‘tangled roots’ that Aldrich so evocatively describes, making of a small town a grove of trees that both beautify the wild landscape and stand as a respite and windbreak from the merciless elements. Images of cottonwoods and their growth are intertwined with the growth and interlacing of a community, where one’s standing influences another’s and the fall of a single tree could bring down an entire line.

I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the sweet sophisticate Nancy Moore: to learn the secrets about her that she herself didn’t even know; to be assured of the outcomes of those whose lives had become irrevocably intertwined with her own. To see how that last visit to the old farm where she was raised with which the book opens influenced the rest of her life.

I am resolute in not denying your enjoyment by giving away any more of a teaser than that. But I can promise you a setting so fresh with wind rolling over the prairie gold and alive with birdsong in the cottonwoods that only love of the deepest sort could have crafted it. And a living, breathing heroine that learns what it means to ‘put away childish things’. And a supporting cast of ‘tangled roots’ from which spring all the really fine things in life.

(But Suzanne is still my favorite. ;) )

This is obviously not the secret-bearing post that I promised last week. Tying up a few last details, but check back tomorrow!!