I Capture the Castle (1948) came to my attention as a novel recommended for aspiring writers. The Austenesque plot features a quirky, down-on-their-luck British family in the 1930s. A thwarted novelist father languishes at the helm while the oldest daughter pursues a loveless marriage to save the family fortunes. Her intended is the wealthy young heir of a nearby estate.
The heir has recently returned from America with his brother, who is enamored with the American West. Thus the narrative straddles not only the 19th and 20th centuries but the Atlantic Ocean, flanked by British venerability on one side and American innovation on the other.
My husband and I read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow together some twentyyears ago. In my memory we started it during a 2003 visit to Turkey, which coincided with a late February snowfall. Clearly this is the power of suggestion at work, as it recently came to my attention that the English translation was published in 2004.
Whatever our setting or the weather, I found the book’sethereal narrative almost as enigmatic as the facts of publication now reveal my memory of its reading to be. But a brief return to Istanbul last year renewed my interest in Pamuk’s works despite their, to me, elusive quality. An enchanting three-day sojourn in Istanbul left me wanting to read something that would reflect the ethos of our travels. A few days later I stumbled upon The Black Book in a Dushanbe bookstore, one of only a few titles available in English.
It proved to be even more perfect choice than I realized at the time. Billed as a mystery, I naively expected something along the lines of conventional detective fiction. Granted, the protagonist, Galip, is the loving husband of the missing person rather than a dispassionate investigator. But the farther I read the less I could make of Galip’s relentless criss-crossing of Istanbul in his search for his wife.
I don’t recall where or what I first heard about this book, but as the last in a long line of Mrs. Birds and the author of an epistolary work in progress, I had to investigate. Likewise elusive is the memory of any book that so utterly delighted me with its unadulterated charm, where goodnatured families, kindhearted friends, and generous stangers prevail. Unabashedly optimistic, Dear Mrs. Bird labors under no grim modernist necessity of adhering to stark realism.
Well, yes, there is a war going on in 1940 London, where Emmeline Lake is a volunteer in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Throughout the first half of the book, lulled into near complacency by Pearce’s lilting wordcraft, her mastery (as near as I can tell) of WWII-era British diction, and Emmy’s relentless good cheer, I felt an occasional twinge of guilt. Should I really be enjoying this so much? After all, people are losing lives and livelihoods right and left in the Luftwaffe’s nightly bombing raids. Are Emma, AJ, and I all in a state of denial?
As a teen I read and re-read the Anne of Green Gables series, puzzled over the brooding Emily of New Moon trilogy, and rejoiced upon discovering Along the Shore and Chronicles of Avonlea–more L.M. Montgomery to be read. When Wonderworks released the definitive three-hour Anne movies in the 1980s, my high school friends and I reveled in Anne teas and Anne sleepovers, swooning over Gilbert and worshiping at the feet of Meghan Follows.
How, in all this Avonlea infatuation, I never stumbled across The Blue Castle is a mystery as deep as Barry’s pond–admittedly shallow, as bodies of water go. Likely my fixation limited my vision to works concerning she of Green Gables. But in the end I came to Montgomery’s 1926 novel (published five years after the last–known–Anne installment) at just the right time. My fifty-first January proved an ideal season for The Blue Castle’s mix of melancholy, mystery, unexpected romance, and reverence for nature in all its seasons.
At twenty-nine, Valancy Stirling still lives with her mother and the aptly named Cousin Stickles. Valancy holds to the unshakable belief that, not only is she unloved by any of her tribe of dour relations (mother included), she has never truly lived.
Having heard Anne Tyler’s name for years, reading a selection from her prolific and successful oeuvre seemed overdue. Vinegar Girl, it turns out, was an excellent, not to mention entertaining, place to start.
Despite my research prior to choosing a title, it somehow escaped my notice–or I forgot–that Vinegar Girl is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The choice seemed serendipitous, given my reading earlier this year of a modern rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (read the review of Jane of Austin here).
The movie version of The Neverending Story was first introduced to me in the late 1980s by Anja, the German exchange student who lived with us during my junior year in high school. I didn’t realize at the time–though I should have–that the book behind the movie was originally written in German. And it wasn’t until my South African mom friend gave copies of the book to our mother-daughter book club this past Christmas that I acquainted myself with Ende’s now-classic 1979 work.
Confession: I didn’t love this book, though not for any easily identifiable reason. I didn’t find it objectionable. I simply suspect that, like Geoge MacDonald’s Phantastes, the somewhat meandering and seemingly haphazard nature of the narrative (particularly in part II) didn’t hold my interest.
However, I did love the discussion Ende’s novel engendered in our mother-daughter book club. The layered symbolism, moral dilemmas, and sometimes puzzling plot provide much to ponder, question, and debate. Given that The Neverending Story originated in the land of philosophers and fairytales, its success on these points isn’t too surprising.
Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.
The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.
My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.
We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).
Several years ago my daughter and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946), said to be a childhood favorite of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Goudge’s mix of whimsy, fantasy, and light-handed moralism intrigued me, as did her blend of Catholic and pagan imagery (not unlike C.S. Lewis’s employment of Greek mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia). Seeking more, I discovered Goudge (1900-1984) had written almost twenty adult novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.
I decided on The Rosemary Tree (1954), a novel set in post-WWII England. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the protagonist is a mild-mannered minister–a kindhearted soul who doesn’t quite have a handle on family life. When a native son, back from the war, wanders onto the scene, John befriends him. Before long we learn this lost soul was once engaged to John’s wife.
About ten years ago a good friend, a Baylor honors professor, spoke of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) as “the most nearly perfect novel ever written.” Intriguing. I was compelled, of course, to read it.
My initial response? “Huh.” I was not so much disappointed as mystified. In what, precisely, lay the perfection? And what was it really about? I concluded my education had not properly prepared me to appreciate it.
Many people, I have since learned, respond similarly to a first reading of Brideshead. When another friend told me, three or four years ago, that she was reading it alongside a Close Reads discussion podcast, I decided to give it another go. This time, whether thanks to the Close Reads commentary or my own heightened awareness of where the book was heading, I got it.