Recommended Reading: The Pinecone, by Jenny Uglow

What drew me to this book was its subtitle: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. I thought to myself, “why haven’t I heard of this person?”

Pine Cone image courtesy of cbenjasuwan /

Pine Cone image courtesy of cbenjasuwan /

Sarah Losh (1785-1853) was part of a large and prosperous family who lived in Wreay, in Cumbria (northern England). As I learned from Ms. Uglow’s history, Sarah never married, but enjoyed a full and exciting life of the mind, traveling and working with her sister Katharine (her closest friend, like Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra). She consistently stood up for and helped the poor and the vulnerable in her community, and after her death the townspeople planted a tree in her honor, the tribute they thought would be most fitting.

Sadly, Sarah ordered her own papers and letters to be destroyed, so Ms. Uglow reconstructs her history by painting a picture of her extended family and the cultural milieu of Cumbria in particular and late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England and Europe in general.

Sarah’s crowning achievement is the unique (to say the least) village church at Wreay, which she redesigned herself, choosing everything from the stone to the timber to the glass. She even helped to carve the baptistry and the candlesticks. The church features lecterns in the shapes of an eagle and a stork; images of ammonites and other fossils, pinecones, lotuses, and even bats! I did wish the book’s pictures were in color so that I could get a better sense of the church’s tone — I rather doubt I’ll be in Cumbria any time soon.

A few odds and ends that I loved (and which made me realize that, for books like The Pinecone, I should really invest in these):

  • The Bishop of Carlisle, Dean Milner, wore wigs, which, according to his granddaughter, “were known in the family as ‘Highty, Tighty, and Scrub; the first for London and State occasions; the second for official appearances in Carlisle; and Scrub for home wear'” (72).
  • Sarah’s father John belonged to a club, and the men, over a very long sitting, would each drink three bottles of port, except “‘On rare occasions, wrote Lonsdale, ‘such as a victory by Nelson or the dashing Cochrane, the fourth bottle to each man was held to be the right mode of rendering the fact historical'” (74).
  • One thing that struck me was how forcefully and effectually Sarah’s uncle, James Losh, advocated for the education and intellectual advancement of his nieces, and his admiring praise for Sarah’s many accomplishments. (For instance, she studied Italian and French, could sight-read Latin, and she studied ancient Greek three hours every day until she could translate it almost at sight; Ms. Uglow compares her to Eliot’s Dorothea [78]).
  • A book that was popular in the nineteenth century and so good that Byron “allegedly wept with jealousy when he read it” (209): Thomas Hope’s Anastasius. I just looked for it on Goodreads, and there isn’t a single rating or review.
  • Instead of gargoyles, Sarah’s church features a crocodile, a cross between a snake and a plesiosaur, a winged turtle, and a dragon. The dragon’s mouth spouts smoke from the boiler in the church below. Seriously. Her church has a fire-breathing dragon.
  • I love the profusion of treatises with unassuming titles in the nineteenth century. Ms. Uglow does an excellent job of showcasing some of those titles, as well as the nineteenth century’s numerous amateur societies that discussed and spurred advancements in the arts and sciences. I wonder, do blogs today take up some of these societies’ functions? Are we a dispersed Society for the Advancement of Reading?

Full of interesting anecdotes and offering a sweeping overview of this fascinating period in English history, The Pinecone is an excellent foray into reviving the memory of an extraordinary woman.

Have you read any great nonfiction books lately? Do you know of any forgotten female figures in need of a revival?

Recommended Reading: Shift, by Hugh Howey

When Dust comes out this August, I’ll be first in line to buy the complete Silo trilogy, without even reading the last one first. These books are just so fun—suspenseful, inventive page-turners.

My practice is never to reveal spoilers, and I won’t start here. So really, I can’t say too much about the plot because you must read Wool first. Shift answers some of Wool‘s questions and will leave the reader with many more to ponder before the final installment comes out.

If anyone out there has read Hugh Howey’s other novels, I’d love to hear what you thought of them!

Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.

Recommended Reading: The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The plot of Louise Erdrich’s amazing novel concerns a boy’s search for the man who attacked his mother, while his father searches for justice despite the twisted web of federal, state, and tribal laws that stands in his way.

It sounds simple, but The Round House is the work of a master-storyteller, each detail bringing daily life on the reservation into focus. Joe, the narrator, is a funny, honest companion through the often-horrifying story, and through his eyes we see all the best of late-boyhood friendships in his adventures with Cappy, Zack, and Angus, as well as the worst in men.

The raw anger and frustration that this book made me feel was balanced by admiration for Ms. Erdrich’s stunning language and deft way of shaping her characters. One of my favorite passages is Joe’s relation of the boys’ love for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The boys all want to be Worf, but admire Data immensely. (Also, the chapter names are often taken from the names of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes.)

I finished reading The Round House last Wednesday, and I’m thrilled that I’ve finally had the chance to recommend it.

Recommended Reading: Wool, by Hugh Howey

Each year, our town library chooses an all-town summer reading book, and then hosts events related to the book in the fall. I love summer reading, and I love talking about books with other people, so I’ve been looking forward to checking out this summer’s book.  Two years ago the book was Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam (a great memoir, which later became October Sky, one of my favorite movies), and last year the town read To Kill a Mockingbird.

This year, I’d never heard of the book, but only a few display copies were left out, so I asked a reference librarian about it. She said the seventy-five copies the library had ordered flew off the shelves so fast that they’d had to buy another thirty, of which only six were left the next day.

The book is Wool, by Hugh Howey. Here’s part of what Jill, a reference librarian at the WFPL, has to say about it:

Why have you probably never heard of it?  Because it was a self-published work by an unknown author. That means it was not in most libraries or bookstores, there were no print ads for it in magazines, and review attention was sparse at best.  Yet this novel managed to gather an army of loyal readers who passed it on, one copy at a time, to family, friends, and co-workers, slowly building it into a New York Times bestseller.  That all of this took place outside the confines of the traditional publishing model is testament to the direct relationship that now exists between the writer and the reader.

I was a little skeptical at first, but I liked the title, liked the idea of reading some sci-fi, and liked the heft of the paperback (I love paperbacks), so I started it that night.

Holy cow. This book is scary.

I had to force myself not to read ahead: that’s how suspenseful Wool can be. Howey’s pacing is spot-on, the short chapters enhancing the uneasiness of the frightening world he’s created. No spoilers, as usual, but praise is due to Howey for his tough, and admirable, female characters. Highly recommended, whether or not you’re a fan of sci-fi.

Recommended Reading: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

If you love Arrested Development, you’ll love this book. And there’s no way it won’t be made into a movie in a hot minute.

Maria Semple wrote for (perhaps still writes for?) AD, and her hilarious send-up of Seattle upper-middle-class culture both makes me want to move there and also makes me feel better that I don’t live there already.

I’d like to tip my hat to my friend Katie, who mentioned a few weeks ago that she was reading a book she took out from the library, at which I thought: “Hey! The library! Not just for Elmo videos!”

So, the next time we went in for Elmo videos, which are next to the new (read: 2012 and forward) releases, I picked the book with the great title and decided to run with it.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is nearly epistolary, with occasional interpolations by the narrator, Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, and that alone makes my heart sing. I love a good epistolary novel. The Coquette, one of the earliest American novels (1797, if my first year in grad school serves me well), is a great read, and if you haven’t read Griffin and Sabine, go immediately to your nearest bookseller and take it home with you.

Anyway. I don’t want to give away the plot, as usual, because, as the title indicates, it’s also something of a detective novel. Positively delightful, fast-paced, witty, and with enough talk about Antarctica that I heartily recommend it for the beach this summer.

Recommended Reading: Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

A few weeks ago, I cracked open a book that a friend gave me years ago, a “continuation” of Pride and Prejudice. It’d been sitting on the shelf for four years, and, in the midst of spring cleaning, I thought I’d give it a try to decide whether or not to keep it.

Turns out, it was fan fiction. Wait. Make that fan erotica.

It was cringe-worthy, awful, with no sense of the characters’ personalities or voices. So bad that I’m withholding the author’s name. Needless to say, we had a dramatic reading, with friends, of some of the funnier bits. And then the book left our house.

[Sidebar: How does stuff like this get published?]

So let’s agree that I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to “continuations,” and I was prepared to abandon P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley at the first sign of nonsense.

Happily, I knew as soon as I read Ms. James’s modest and charming prefatory note that I wouldn’t find nonsense in her novel, which takes place five or six years after the last events in Pride and Prejudice.

While respecting Jane Austen’s signature style and her literary creations, Ms. James crafts a  novel all her own with excellent period detail (negus, anyone?), new but not out-of-place characters, and a more-than-plausible mystery storyline. Readers expecting a great deal of romance between Darcy and Elizabeth will be disappointed (though there are a few instances of hand-pressing), but there’s plenty to enjoy in Ms. James’s astute speculations about familiar figures like Colonel Fitzwilliam and Charlotte Lucas. Furthermore, be on the lookout for delightful “cameos” by characters form other novels in the Austen universe.

Highly recommended for a spring afternoon, especially if consumed with teacup in hand.

Fast Read: Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook

My husband and I have been out together, sans bebe, a grand total of once this year, and it was to see Silver Linings Playbook. We were surprised that Bradley Cooper can really act (though we shouldn’t have been — he’s hilarious in Wet Hot American Summer) and agreed that Jennifer Lawrence is pretty rad.  As we left the theater, we talked about how we felt like we’d seen a good movie; not a flick, not an art-house piece (we like those too), but a good solid movie.

So we bought the book.

I zipped through it in about two and a half hours on Saturday night (can you tell we have a toddler?). It’s different from the movie, of course; Pat Peoples is more disturbed and more interesting the book, but I think the other characters—particularly Pat’s father and Tiffany—are fleshed out more in the movie.

Still, the book is an engaging picture of mental illness and the glories and lows of fandom, with some very funny passages to boot. Lit geeks will love Pat’s short reviews of classic American novels. My favorite:

Maybe Puritans were simply dumber than modern people, but I cannot believe how long it took those seventeenth-century Bostonians to figure out that their spiritual leader knocked up the local hussy. [. . .] I know we were assigned Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter back in high school, and if I had known the book was filled with so much sex and espionage, I might have read it when I was sixteen. (Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook, 57)

A quick read, with short chapters; might be perfect for beach season, especially if you’re taking turns chasing a toddler.