Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Reading Books Of An Epistolary Nature


"While I would have always classified myself as someone who likes to read,
it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really devoted myself to
reading as a true pastime and taken on the self-proclaimed title of reader as
a main component of my identity. Along the way, I’ve let other hobbies fall
to the back burner with no regrets, and as one thing has led to another, I’ve
really let myself immerse fully into the reading life."⁠
NICOLE VIOLA BENNETT, THE ART OF SIMPLE


When the days get colder and crisper, I find myself burrowing into my all-time favourite pastime of reading. And like Nicole Bennett above, I tend to let other pursuits fall away with little regret as I immerse more fully into the reading life.

Last autumn, I read a handful of books that fall within what is termed the Epistolary literary genre. Although I'd never paid attention to it before, I had a vague idea the genre must have something to do with letters—the Dear Mary kind, not the alphabet—because what sprung to mind was the word 'epistle',  the word ascribed to several books in the New Testament which originally were letters written to the early church by people like Paul, e.g. the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.

According to Wikipedia, an epistolary novel is one that's written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings, and other documents are sometimes used. Both novelists and non-fiction authors use this literary genre with good success.

Whether it's a novel or a collection of someone's personal letters gathered in a book, I admit that the use of letters to tell the story creates a sense of being up close and personal to the characters or the author. It's a little like reading a box of old letters in an attic and finding yourself immersed in someone else's personal space, privy to comments and details of a life not available to just anyone. Letters create a bond between sender and recipient, and when letters are used to write a book they create a similar bond between a writer and her readers. What was it that John Donne once said? More than kisses, letters mingle souls. For thus, friends absent speak. 

I found an interesting article on Book Riot in which the author, Jesse Doogan, discusses her take on this literary genre and offers a great reading list of possibilities. If you are piqued, do check out 100 Must-Read Epistolary Novels From The Past and Present.

Now that I am more fully cognizant there's actually a genre for this kind of storytelling, I went in search of books and was duly surprised to find some epistolary novels and others on my own shelves. I share my finds below.


by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
“Dear Miss Ashton, My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin's Parish on Guernsey. I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you—the Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb. Your name and address are written inside the front cover.”
Being a person who reads books in her own time and space regardless of whether everyone else is reading it decades earlier, I admit to finally reading the 2008 New York Times bestselling novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I loved it and couldn't put it down. I then had the happy pleasure to watch the movie on Netflix and loved that too.

The novel is set in 1946 just after World War II. Writer Miss Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger living in Guernsey, UK. Through a series of letters, the compelling story unfolds of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and its members who lived through the German Occupation on the English island of Guernsey during the war.


by Helen Hanff
“I wish you hadn't been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you'd decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.)”
84, Charing Cross Road is the delightsome collection of a twenty-year exchange of letters (1949 to 1969) between Helene Hanff, author in New York City, and English bookseller, Frank Doel, of Marks & Co antiquarian booksellers in London, England. These two people who lived an ocean apart developed a lasting friendship based on their mutual love of books. They never met in person.

I first became aware of the book of letters after I saw the lovely movie based on it which starred Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Ann Bancroft as Helene Hanff. I've read and watched the movie so many times over the years, yet I never tire of it. Same with the book—sometimes it's just plain LOL delightful.


by Jean Webster
"It isn't the great pleasures that count the most; it's making a great deal out of the little ones—I've discovered the true secret of happiness, Daddy, and that is to live in the now. Not to be forever regretting the past, or anticipating the future; but to get the most that you can out of this very instant...I'm going to enjoy every second, and I'm going to know I'm enjoying it while I'm enjoying it. Most people don't live; they just race. They are trying to reach some goal far away on the horizon, and in the heat of the going they get so breathless and panting that they lose all sight of the beautiful, tranquil country they are passing through; and then the first thing they know, they are old and worn out, and it doesn't make any difference whether they've reached the goal or not. I've decided to sit down by the way and pile up a lot of little happinesses, even if I never become a great author."

Daddy-Long-Legs, published in 1912 by American writer Jean Webster, follows the story of young Judy Abbott who is about to be rescued from an impoverished life at an orphanage. A generous guardian pays for her education, complete with allowances for nice clothes, books and such, and in exchange for his anonymous generosity, she must promise to write him every month. And so she undertakes the task diligently, sending off lively and often humorous tales of school life, budding friendships, and other life enriching discoveries. She nicknames her benefactor based on a shadow she saw on a wall, and so many of her letters begin, Dear Daddy Long Legs. A charming coming of age tale that unfolds through a series of letters. 

I read the book for the first time just recently and enjoyed a delightful afternoon between its covers. I first saw the 1955 movie of it, the one starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The movie really doesn't follow the book, but if you treat each as separate entities, both can provide an afternoon of old-fashioned entertainment.



by L. M. Montgomery
"It's dusk, dearest. (In passing, isn't 'dusk' a lovely word? I like it better than twilight. It sounds so velvety and shadowy and ... and ... dusky.) In daylight I belong to the world ... in the night to sleep and eternity. But in the dusk I'm free from both and belong to myself...and you. So I'm going to keep this hour sacred to writing to you. Though this won't be a love-letter. I have a scratchy pen and I can't write love-letters with a scratchy pen...or a sharp pen...or a stub pen. So you'll only get that kind of letter from me when I have exactly the right kind of pen. Meanwhile, I'll tell you about my new domicile and its inhabitants. Gilbert, they're such dears. ..."
Anne of Windy Poplars—published as Anne of Windy Willows in the UK, Australia, and Japan—is an epistolary novel by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery. First published in 1936, this novel features a series of letters Anne sends to her intended, Gilbert Blythe. She writes of her experiences as the new principal at the high school in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and her head-on encounters with the proud Pringle clan.  The book is fourth in the Anne series.

I read all the Anne books when I was young, but I still enjoy reading them all these years later. If I ever decide to reread this one, I like to wait until Autumn, the season in which the story opens. I like letting Anne's descriptions dovetail with what's going on outside my own window.

***

Others books I want to read that I think fit in this category include:

The Diary by Eileen Goudge is the novel of two adult daughters who discover their mother's diary in her attic and are stunned to find out that her first true love was not their father. I read this book a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. The surprise ending made it completely worth reading. I have the novel on my growing pile of books I hope to read or in this case, reread, in 2020.


The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne's Frank's father, Otto Frank, was the only surviving family member. At the end of the Second World War, the group who hid Anne and her family presented Mr. Frank with notebooks and papers in Anne's handwriting. He circulated copies of Anne's diary to friends as a memorial to his wife and daughters. Urged to make it public, Mr. Frank had an edited version published in 1947, and over the years this book has been translated into more than thirty languages.

I admit that I have never read this book. I tried over the years, but I was always a little afraid to. Yet so many people love the book and quote from Anne's writings that I'm finally taking myself in hand—I plan to read it in the new year.


My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G.B. MacMillan from L.M.Montgomery. Edited by Francis W.P. Bolger and Elizabeth R. Epperly. Miss Montgomery was a keen letter writer and this book is a collection of her letters written to George Boyd MacMillan over their thirty-nine year friendship. In this epistolary autobiography you'll catch a glimpse of her wide range of interests, "from domestic concerns, her cats and gardening, to her professional literary career as best-selling author".

I read the book years ago when I was consuming all things L.M.Montgomery. I really enjoyed reading her letters—they made me feel close to her. I'm looking forward to dipping into it after all this time to see if the same spots I once underlined or starred still resonate.

There's a question I have for you! Do you find yourself being drawn to those same spots you marked when you read the book, say, ten, twenty or even thirty years earlier? I surprise myself quite often to find myself still drawn to the same spots. Some things just are 'forever', aren't they? Although there are other occasions when I see I'm not that person anymore. I realize I've grown up or changed how I view certain topics or ideologies. I find that an interesting discovery and was wondering if you do as well.


Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Reflections on the Intimate Dialogue Between Man and God by C.S. Lewis. Posthumously published in 1964, the book takes the form of a series of letters to a fictional friend, Malcolm, in which Lewis chats about various aspects and forms of prayer.

C.S. Lewis was always a favourite author when I was a young adult. I haven't read much of his work other than the odd Narnia story in more recent history, so I am looking forward to rereading this one too.

* * *

Well, dear friends, after working away on this most of the day, I look up to see that the afternoon is waning and snow crystals are fogging the air. It's going to be brrr cold tonight. I saw a little owl earlier sitting on our feeders. A complete surprise as I've never seen an owl so nearby. We think he might have been a Boreal owl but we're not sure. That's a first for us. Perhaps the frigid temperatures brought him forth for food. I know little mice dwell beneath the neighbour's shed which happens to be near our bird feeders, a spot where seeds freely fall. Perhaps his sharp eyes saw them scurrying about under the snowdrifts.

On that note, I wish you a pleasant rest of the day and a warm and cozy evening. Happy reading or whatever you are up to.

Hugs,
Brenda
xox




Monday, January 06, 2020

January Edition of Simple Woman's Daybook

Gabriele Münter, Breakfast of the Birds, 1934, National Museum of Women in the Arts
(permission granted for personal and non-commercial use)

"As long as I have a window,
life is exciting."
GLADYS TABER


Hello Beautiful Friends! I hope your New Year is off to a good start. The past few days have been quiet and restful for us. On this first Monday of the new year, I'm pleased to join up with Peggy for The Simple Woman's Daybook. I hope today's post will be worth your visit.   


* * *

For Today



Looking out my window...

I see skies of grey, red berries too,
magpies at the peanuts and jays so blue.
And I think to myself, my, those berries are bright today.
Temperatures are mild, the wind is not wild.
It's calm in these parts, but don't take it in stride.
For soon it will shift and you will feel that cold d-r-i-f-t.

(Quickly hum Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World
and you'll have the rhythm for the lines above )


I am thinking...

About how I enjoy that painting by Gabriele Münter and how well it goes with Gladys's lovely quote. I first came across it (the painting) in the January 1995 issue of Victoria magazine. I remember editor Nancy Lindemeyer musing how she was never more content than when she was safely tucked inside on a winter afternoon, gazing out on snowy branches from her windowed perch.

Oh yes, I completely relate! Every morning I love to sit down at my desk which overlooks our backyard and watch the birds, the sky, maybe the squirrel. It's the same view from day to day, season to season, year to year. And yet, for all its sameness, there's something new and beautiful every single day if my eyes are open to see. For instance, when I noticed not that long ago (a couple of years maybe) how the immature spruce trees I encountered on the street over when we first moved here had somehow matured into towering specimens fit for a forest. And, how delightful they have become to watch on these dark mornings when street lamps shimmer like stars amidst their tree tops as winds toss their green boughs back and forth. Twinkle, twinkle! For a moment I imagine that I'm looking out over the countryside, and even when the neighbours' chimneys come back into focus, the magical feeling remains.  


I am so thankful...

For those fellow travelers and bloggers who come alongside us, offering fine words of encouragement and hopefulness. Today I want to share one such writer: Joy Clarkson, a young woman who hails from the USA but lives in Scotland now. At the start of this new year Joy (@joynessthebrave) wrote some thoughts on her Twitter page. I wrote them into my journal because she put into words what I often feel myself. Such a courage-stirring reminder that we're not alone, every generation will have its terrible times, this is our turn to carry the torch, and we can choose to face our futures, whatever they are, with a stoutness of heart and mind. Because we're all in this together. And together we can make a difference. Make it beautiful for ourselves and for others.

I'm taking the liberty of sharing Joy's words here with the hope it buoys your heart as it did mine:
"The world has always been on the cusp of disaster, the globe shall eventually be consumed by the sun, and all men do die in their time. Don't let this knowledge paralyse you. Live a valiant life, love deeply, create beauty, seek the things that outlast death. Don't be afraid.
This is what I remind myself of when the news makes me anxious. We're all going to die eventually. You weren't promised an easy life. You can't control the times you live in, but you can live well in your complicated times. And I have a sneaking suspicion love outlasts death.
And then I eat fish and chips because life is short and little pleasures must not be eschewed."

I am creating...

Order out of chaos, again. I love the process of taming jumbles and unruly messes. I actually get a little lurch of pleasure in my stomach as I think of digging in and sorting things out.

Several Januaries ago I undertook a major cleaning of every square inch of my house. It took me weeks to go through everything, but when I was done, there wasn't anything in my house that I didn't love or need, and more importantly (for smooth household running), like items were stored with like and everything had a home. It stayed tidy and in order for a long time, because for the most part I'm good at putting things back. But time does eventually unravel things: a person gets lazy, buys new things and old items aren't discarded or recycled, papers and odd bits you don't know what to do start to pile up. So it all needs taking in hand and sorting out again.

It's gonna feel so good. And, if I do a thorough job, if all goes well, and if I work at putting things back when I'm finishing using them, I shouldn't need to do this major deep cleaning again until, say, January 2023. Wish me luck?


I am wearing...

Black leggings, red cotton tee shirt, flat soft-soled shoes, silver bracelets, lipstick, fragrance.


I watched... 

And loved, loved the new Little Women movie over the Christmas holidays. Miss Alcott's story has lived in my heart for decades, the 1994 version with Winona Ryder as Jo March was a favourite for years. Now I have another top favourite. I sat mesmerised from the first scene to the last, it was just so engaging, with so many wonderful lines and scenes. A friend asked which character was my favourite in this movie ... I couldn't pick one, truly, I thought each one was incredible. I loved how the creators made the old story fresh and alive and so beautiful.  


I read...

What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas. As noted in my previous post, I was just starting it and I was asked for feedback when I finished. In spite of the great reviews by well-known authors, I have to say it was not a favourite for me. I liked the read well enough about friendship and aging and getting on with it. But all the anecdotes between about the author's beloved dogs kept interrupting that narrative. It's not the dog stories themselves, I like dogs, but I couldn't stop imagining and feeling the mess and dishevelment of her home after reading how often her dogs shredded her quilts, peed in the house, chewed the last good pair of shoes, ripped up cherished books, keepsakes, and expensive first editions, not to mention hauling the phone off into some pile in the yard. I came away kind of grossed out, to be honest, and it's basically what I'll remember from reading this book. Sorry, Abigail.



In my kitchen...

Santa gave Hubby a copy of the cookbook Yum & Yummer by Canadian author Greta Podleski. He likes exploring new recipes and trying them out in the kitchen. More than I do these days. The truth, for me, is that I'm basically done with cooking. Haha, don't tell anyone that. I could quite happily live on scrambled eggs, sandwiches, Skip the Dishes (local restaurant take-out and delivery business). I used to enjoy cooking and trying new recipes but not so much anymore. I'd sooner hang out in my study, writing and working on my various projects. So, I am grateful for my live-in chef who never minds playing around with the pots and pans and scaring up beautiful suppers for us to try out. He's very modest when I praise him, he says he's just following the recipe. But that he's willing to follow one with such happy results, I just love him to pieces for that!


Shared quote...

"Every morning just before dawn, I rise, making myself a cup
of coffee, and sit quietly in a wing chair in the living room for
about an hour. Waking early without effort is one of the genuine
pleasures of getting older. Life has fewer days in it, but nature
compensates by allowing you to to greet them sooner."
PHYLLIS THEROUX

* * *
"He wakens me morning by morning,
He wakens my ear to hear as one who is taught."
ISAIAH 50:4 


One of my favourite things...

For me, is waking early without effort, without any pressure to have to be somewhere long before I'm ready to stir from my quiet reverie. It's one of the very best and good gifts of this season of my life. I like my day to start slowly and quietly with no need for speed or urgent. I never know if I should call myself retired, I mean, yes I am retired from any outside full-time or part-time work, but I'm not retired from life or from working on my own projects, which includes writing. I'm just no longer trying to squeeze my own work around working for someone else, whether professionally or voluntarily. My time is quite my own right now, and no, I never grow tired of my quieter, simpler life. Where I can do things in my own time, my own way, and without pressure from anyone. It was the lifestyle my soul longed for since I was a young woman. Yes, it's one of my favourite things and I'm most grateful for it. 


I am hoping...

January will continue in a quiet and peaceful way for this household. I'm hoping the rains will come to Australia and that many lives and homes will be preserved. I'm hoping that the new books I ordered from Indigo with my gift cards will turn out to be my next favourite reads. And I sure hope there's a little treat to go with tea this afternoon. 


I am learning...

A bit of French from Duolingo.com and a bit of history from Bill Bryson's interesting biography about William Shakespeare, Shakespeare, The World as Stage.



A moment from my day...

I made Dutch Apple Skillet Pancake for brunch yesterday. It's such a simple recipe with just a few ingredients, yet it tastes like you fussed. It's a perfect dish for company brunch or for just the two of you on a quiet weekend morning. Add a rasher or two of bacon or a couple of breakfast sausages and the meal rounds off perfectly. You'll find the recipe HERE.


Closing notes...

If you are looking for some other interesting reads, may I recommend the following:




(good even if you're nowhere near that age, unless maybe if you're only 20)


* * *

Before I close, I want to stop to remember and say a wee pray for the dear folks, wildlife, and land of Australia. Let the gentle but thorough rains come and bring with it renewed hope for better days ahead.

Happy New Year to you!

With love and hugs,
Brenda 
xox