Books That Matter

penguin books


I still remember the copy of Alice in Wonderland. It was a paperback, red, with a torn cover.  The cover had a pebbled effect which I thought felt interesting.  I was very small, maybe three or four, and these things mattered.  I had paged through the book often because I liked the pictures and I desperately wanted to know the story that went with them.  I begged and begged my mom to read it aloud but she was a bit reluctant.  She thought, understandably, that it was a little over my head and that I wouldn't have the patience to listen to it.  Finally, I wore her down and she agreed it could be our next read-aloud book.  To be honest, I don't remember much after that.  Did I like Alice and her adventures?  Did it live up to my expectations?  I don't remember.  What I do remember is the wanting, the desperate desire to know the story, the feeling that inside that book was something important.

I think that is what all readers feel.  That books hold secrets, they hold knowledge, they hold stories, and stories matter. Through our lives as readers, there are books that have an impact.  That impact is not always because they are our favorite books or because they are meaningful books that teach us something but because they develop our reading life in some way.  Little Women was another such book for me.  It did become a great favorite but when I stumbled across it on my second-grade teacher's book table all I knew was here was a familiar story.  I was horrified to realize that the copy I owned was a condensed version and I immediately knew that I had to read the whole thing.  I had to argue with my teacher in order to convince her I could read it. This was totally out of character since I was a very shy, quiet child but it was necessary.  I needed that book.  It was the start of a life-long hatred of condensed books and a similarly life-long belief that children should be allowed to read what they want to read.  Little Women also taught me that old books are full of great stories and that big books are worth the trouble.

Sometimes it is not the story that pulls us in but the words.  When I was just a bit older, maybe nine or ten, I pulled a copy of one of Shakespeare's plays off the bookshelf.  I think it was The Taming of the Shrew. I didn't really intend to read it, I was just bored and convinced my mom was never going to get off the phone so I could ask her whatever absolutely necessary question I thought I had.  So I picked up a book.  I knew I wasn't following it all.  I knew parts of the story were going over my head.  But I also knew I liked the rhythm and flow of the language.  I liked the sound of it even though I wasn't completely sure what it meant.  I plowed through the whole thing feeling slightly confused but as if I was on the edge of something amazing.  To be honest, that is still the feeling Shakespeare gives me.  He taught me that words are not simply the vehicle for a story but also a source of beauty in their own right.

Not all of my reading epiphanies occurred in my childhood.  Just a few years ago, I discovered book blogs and, as a result, discovered One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes.  I love that book.  It is lyrical in its writing, the story is quiet but enthralling, and it is set in England.  What more could I ask for?  That one book led me to Persephone Books which led to an expansion of my reading to British authors of the mid-twentieth century.  Authors like Dorothy Whipple, Monica Dickens, Elizabeth Bowen, and Elizabeth Taylor.  Wonderful writers, all of them, but I probably would not have discovered them if I hadn't discovered Mollie Panter-Downes first.

That is the amazing thing about books.  They change us.  And that never ends.  Twenty or thirty years from now I will be able to look back and pinpoint more books that matter to me.  More books that changed who I am as a reader.  More books that I love.

What books have developed you into the reader you are today?

Book Review--Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer by Jane Brocket

cherry cake and ginger beer

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Last month I wrote a post about food in books.  Several people commented and suggested I read Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer.  I immediately went online and ordered a copy, then I completely forgot I had done so.  Yes, I do that a lot.  No, I don't really mind.  It leads to surprise books in my mailbox and I am sure we will all agree that there are few things better than that. When the book arrived I meant to only flip through it for a few minutes. However, I immediately got pulled in and spent a good portion of the rest of the evening driving my family a little crazy with my enthusiastic comments about favorite books and recipes that are included.

I now know how to make pickled limes.  This is important information.  I first read Little Women when I was about seven years old and I have wondered ever since exactly what Amy March's favorite school treat tastes like. Pickled limes sound like such a strange thing.  But, should I be so inclined, I now have a recipe and I can make them myself.

I also have recipes for Marilla's raspberry cordial, Paddington's marmalade buns, and sugar on snow from the Little House books.  Can you imagine how happy this makes me?  There are also recipes taken from many children's books that I am not as familiar with.  I have recently come across several references to the Chalet School books.  I haven't read them but if I want to make an apple cake mentioned in them I can.  Milly-Molly-Mandy also seems to inspire a lot of nostalgia in people.  A recipe for her Little Patty-Pan Sultana Cakes is included.  There are also a lot of recipes from the Famous Five books which makes my daughter very happy.  She is a huge fan and already has plans to search out more from the series when we are in London in a few weeks.

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer is wonderful.  I dare you to read through it without immediately wanting to go into your kitchen and cook.  I also dare you to read it without pulling books from your shelves and rereading favorite excerpts.  We won't even talk about how it has added to my reading list.  I feel a definite need to fill in some gaps in my childhood reading.

I also loved her "Recipe For Hunger" pictured below.  Doesn't it make you happy just to read that?

recipe for hunger

So, go, buy this book.  Just be prepared to gain a few pounds, to spend a lot of hours in your kitchen, and to find it necessary to purchase a few books.  I don't see a problem with any of that, do you?

And, did I mention there is a recipe for the molasses candy featured in Daddy-Long-Legs? I have alway wanted to have a taffy pull....


In Defense of Fluff

georgette heyer novels


Well-written literature is a wonderful gift.  There is nothing like closing the cover of a book and knowing you have read something truly great.  Whether, for you, that is a Dickens novel or a modern classic that feeling is unmistakeable.

But sometimes you just want to read fluff. A cozy mystery, a Regency romance, a detective novel, chick lit, whatever your fluff of choice is, we all need it sometimes.  But all too often, we feel like we need to apologize for it.  "Well, I wouldn't usually read this but...." or "It was fun for what it is but...."  There is always that "but", that implication that the fluff isn't good enough.

I am writing this in defense of fluff.

I am a firm believer that a bit of chocolate contributes to a well-balanced diet and that a bit of fluff is essential for the well-balanced reader.  We all need to escape sometimes.  We all are tired sometimes.  We all occasionally want to retreat to our childhoods and read old favorites. We need to shut off our brains and read the story and not analyze the writing.  Why do we apologize for that? If cozy mysteries set in an English village full of doddering spinsters and handsome vicars are your thing then read them and preach their wonders from the rooftops.  And please, send them on to me when you are done.  No, they may not be great literature but did the book engage your interest?  Did it pull you into the story?  Most important of all, did you enjoy it?  If you answered yes, then it was worth reading.

There is a difference between poorly written books and fluff.  I have less and less tolerance for poorly written books.  If the writing is too pedestrian and I find myself editing the book as I go I am unlikely to read it.  But that is not fluff.  Fluff is just what it sounds like, light and fun and not too demanding.  And there is a lot of well-written fluff out there.

Georgette Heyer is one of my favorite writers of fluff.  Actually, she is what inspired this post.  I read a review of one of her books--I can't remember where--and the whole thing was a disclaimer.  "I don't read romances"  Yet, the blogger enjoyed it.  And in the comments, everyone else was saying "I don't read romances" yet they were going on to recommend other Heyer novels.  So they do read romances.  They feel it is something to be apologized for.  Just don't.  Don't apologize for reading Heyer and don't ever apologize for reading something you enjoyed.

Because that is why we read. We enjoy it.  Of course, there are a lot of other benefits.  We broaden our horizons, we develop empathy, we learn, but the main reason we read is because we love it. We love books.  We love stories.

Sometimes, the stories we love are fluff and that is perfectly okay.

Preach its wonders from the rooftops.

On Being Alone

woodland path


I love my family, I really do.  My kids are great (when they aren't driving me crazy) and my husband is wonderful.  We have been married  for twenty-six years and I would marry him all over again.  But sometimes, just sometimes, when they all walk out of the house in the morning I breathe a huge sigh of relief.  Because I love that hour when I am all by myself in the house, the hour before I have to run around like a mad person and get ready to leave myself.

I love being alone.

I love the silence-no one talking, no one stomping through the house, no one...breathing?  Is that going too far?  There is a different quality to the silence when the house is empty.  Even if everyone is quietly busy there is still the potential for noise and somehow that makes it less quiet.

I love being able to do exactly what I want for a few minutes even if exactly what I want is just to sit on the couch and stare out the window while drinking a cup of tea. There is no one to complain because they ate all the groceries in twenty-four hours. There is no one asking all the "mom" questions. "Where are my gym clothes? What's for dinner?" There is no one for me to nag.  "Clean your room.  Take out the trash.  Do your homework.  Eat your vegetables."

There is just me and the thoughts in my head which sometimes are overwhelming but frequently are just things that get lost in the everyday chaos of life.  It is good to let them bubble to the surface again and feel like I am connecting with me and not just the mom who usually inhabits my body.

I like being alone.

But I also like it when everyone comes home again.  I like when my house is full of noise and conversation and laughter--I am not such a fan of the bickering but you have to take the complete package.  The thing is, there is a huge difference between being alone and being lonely.  Alone is good.  Alone is enjoying your own company and relishing the peace and quiet.  Lonely is having no one to talk to and feeling overwhelmed by the peace and quiet.

We live in a world where we are seldom alone but we are frequently lonely.  Many of us don't have the communities, the nearby families, and the life-long friendships of past generations.  We can struggle to make connections with people who don't quite "get" us.  We try desperately to align schedules with friends from our past in a frantic bid to not lose complete touch.  We can spend our lives surrounded by people but somehow still feel slightly lonely; not in any soul-destroying, cry-into-your-pillow way.  Just in a quiet "something is missing but I'm okay" type way.

If we are fortunate, we have a family we love, a family that makes us happy.

But sometimes, just sometimes, it is nice when they all go away and it is possible to enjoy being alone.  Because that kind of alone, the few stolen minutes out of a busy life, is not lonely.