Book Rec // ‘The Mistletoe and Sword’ by Anya Seton

Anyone who has read this blog before knows I am obsessed with historical fiction. It may be my favorite genre ever, and one that I have been reading since I was in eighth grade. I think that good, accurate historical fiction is the best way to learn history, and is also one of the most entertaining kind of novels because you learn more than you would from textbooks, and anyway, the romantic in me absolutely loves imagining and reading about previous eras. Who doesn’t?

And in keeping with this year’s resolution to shop a whole lot less, read more, and most important, read the books I already have, when I was given a whole, lazy Saturday at home one weekend, I reached into my shelves and drew out a book I bought in 2012, one that I hadn’t ever opened before, and one that is by one of my favorite authors: Anya Seton.

Anya Seton was a successful, bestselling historical fiction novelist in the 1950s, known best for her works Katherine and The Winthrop Woman. But she also wrote a slimmer, young-adult novel named The Mistletoe and Sword. At 250 pages, this book was the perfect size to devour in a day. Here’s what it’s about.
the mistletoe and sword
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‘Frenchman’s Creek,’ a romance novel by Daphne du Maurier

If you’re like me, then you know Daphne du Maurier from two things: her story “The Birds” and Rebecca, that freaky book you had to read in high school. But recently, I came across her romance novel!!!! in a secondhand bookstore in the city, and I had to have it. It’s called Frenchman’s Creek, and it will give you feels. I have to say, this has automatically become one of my favorite works of literature; it has almost everything I look for in a great story. Read more about this recommendation!

frenchman's creekWhat it’s about: Frenchman’s Creek is about a noblewoman named Dona St. Columb (a perfect romance-novel name, IMO), who feels stifled in her life in London. It takes place in Restoration England, and the entire narrative is a kind of flashback through the eyes of a modern-day yachtsman visiting the place in Cornwall where Dona flees to when she can’t take her life anymore. The framed narrative creates a spooky atmosphere that is definitely characteristic of du Maurier’s other works.

When Dona arrives in Cornwall at her house called Navron, with her two children in tow (but not her husband), she is consumed by a feeling of freedom she’s been craving all her life. Eventually, she meets and has an affair with a philosopher turned pirate named Jean-Benoit Aubéry, who teaches her that even though she craves escape, it’s almost impossible for a woman to have the same freedom as a man does. Their relationship becomes a metaphor for societal expectations placed on women, and the whole metaphor is couched in the language of a high romance novel with plenty of passion. Oh, and the writing is utterly breathtaking, so you don’t have to feel bad about reading romance!

Through her experiences with the pirate, she tests her strength, her courage, and finds herself outside of her constructed “proper” persona. She becomes her own person, someone whole and fulfilled in both life and love. She finds freedom and happiness.
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‘Candide,’ optimism, and laughing out loud

Oh, man. Candide is one of those books everyone should read once in their lives, if only for the laughs. Written by the genius wit Voltaire in the late eighteenth century, this slim satirical novel is basically an candideevisceration of the common “optimistic” ideology of the time that basically argued that tragedy (war, natural disasters, crime, murder) is no big deal, because evil serves a greater purpose: to bring good into the world. Voltaire HATED this philosophy, and so he wrote a funny little novel about it. (A funny little novel that cemented his status as one of the great genius thinkers of his time, and ensured his immortality in literature and culture.)

What it’s about: Candide is about optimism. Plotwise, it’s about a man named Candide who lives on a manor estate in Germany and who has been taught by a philosopher named Pangloss that the world they live in is “the best of all possible worlds.” Pangloss is a vehement Optimist, and instills in Candide the idea that tragedies happen for the best (for the greater good), and that the world they live in is the best it could possibly be. Right afterward, Candide and a dozen of other characters undergo a series of absurd, over-the-top, ridiculous sufferings, so that Voltaire can basically make fun of an ideology he abhorred so strongly.

I wasn’t kidding about the laughs! Everything each character goes through is so unbelievably exaggerated, like Pangloss being hanged, burned, and cut open, and yet at the end of the novel he comes rowing up to Candide like nothing ever happened. I read this mainly on audiobook, and I was laughing hysterically on my commute!

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A new favorite book: ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster

howards endToday, I finished one of the books I’ve been wanting to read forever, Howards End by E.M. Forster. Forster wrote one of my top 10 favorite books of all time (A Room With A View), and it’s clear from how effing amazing this book is that this is truly Forster’s masterpiece. It’s unique, endlessly poignant, surprising, and makes you go, “OH MY GOD THAT IS SO TRUE.” A new favorite, truly! Here’s what the big deal is all about.

What it’s about: It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Howards End is about, because it’s about so many things: women versus men, socialism versus capitalism, town versus country, the inner life versus the outer, and our relationship to the earth. It’s also about home, and has a touch of magic to it.

However, the actual plot centers upon two families: the cultured London sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, and the Wilcox family of cold and practical businessmen. These two families are complete opposites and frequently butt heads, and their meetings, fights, and unions are characterized by rich discussions about all of the Big Questions of life. It’s also an indictment of common English practices and rigid social classes.

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‘Vanity Fair,’ the novel without a hero…or heroine

Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

vanity fairThus ends William Makepeace Thackeray’s saucy, sarcastic, insightful novel about the citizens of Vanity Fair, a place of appearances, wealth, social status, and hypocrisy. The denizens of this part of Vanity Fair are the incorrigible Becky Sharp, the naive and kind Amelia Sedley, the steadfast and honorable William Dobbin, the vain Joseph Sedley, scoundrel George Osborne, and the dim-witted gambler Rawdon Crawley—among a host of others, a whole cast of vivid characters that the narrator, himself a character in the novel, eviscerates at every turn. I’ve written briefly before about my first impressions starting this novel, and now that I’ve finished, I have to say my biggest takeaway is my varying loyalties and sympathies to the two female characters in the book, who are extreme opposites: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley.

Rebecca Sharp is the ultimate female anti-hero: a social climber, manipulative, dishonest by default, a terrible mother, a gambler, and a cheat. Her most famous description/line is:

…Though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude…Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist…This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody…”

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Jason Segel’s ‘Nightmares!’ and the power of children’s books

A couple years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a panel at The BookCon featuring Jason Segel. The panel was to promote his new children’s book Nightmares!, and during that panel, he blew me away with his childlike attitude, his belief in the magic of stories, and his own anecdotes about his childhood filled with nightmares. I knew I had to read his book.

nightmares!Fast forward to now, way after I bought the children’s book. I spent too much time putting it off, because Nightmares! is exactly the kind of book I’d have read as a child, the kind of book that teaches children to love reading.

Nightmares! is about a 12-year-old boy named Charlie Laird, who is plagued with vivid, nightly dreams about a witch eating him. The nightmares are so real and scary that he’s gone weeks without sleeping, and has become surly and mean to his brother and father, and especially to his stepmother—whom he thinks is the witch herself. Charlie’s mother passed away a few years ago, and Charlie is angry with his father for marrying again so quickly, and he’s afraid of losing his remaining family to a new mother. His fears slowly eat him alive, until finally, Charlie’s nightmares carry him into the world of nightmares itself, called the Netherworld.

In the Netherworld, Charlie has to face his fears, find out the true nature of fear, and find the courage to save what he most values: his family.
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My favorite quotes from ‘Great Expectations’

Earlier this month I read Great Expectations, and previously, the only other Charles Dickens books I’d read were Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Recently, I’ve been making an effort to read the classics, and since this is where I talk about books, I thought I’d share some thoughts, highlights, and favorite moments from Great Expectations, a classic, beloved story (because clearly, “reviewing” the classics is utterly useless!).

great expectationsEven if you haven’t read Great Expectations, you probably know a little about the story: a poor little boy named Pip lives with his sister and her husband, and is set to be a blacksmith when he gets older. However, he has these wild fantasies of being a gentleman, and is ashamed of his poverty, his low status in society, and of his family, who are like him. His “great expectations” are to be a proper gentleman (and to come into money), and eventually, he gets what he wants—but not the way he thought he would.

Along the way, he meets people from all corners of society, and learns that social circles and maintaining status are difficult and superficial. There’s Miss Havisham, an old woman who has never changed out of her wedding dress (or thrown away the cake) since her groom abandoned her on her wedding day decades ago.

There’s also Estella, the adopted child of Miss Havisham, who was raised to be a weapon by which Miss Havisham can get back at men for what her groom did to her. There’s also Joe Gargery, the simple, proud, and loving father figure to Pip, whom Pip utterly abandons when he comes into money. And then there’s Pip himself, a man who has a good heart, but whose obsession with money and status makes him forsake the people who loved him unconditionally.

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Thoughts on the first few chapters of ‘Vanity Fair’

My second big bad classic that I’ll be audio-reading on my hellish commute is Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray. I attempted to read this book once before, when I was a junior in high school, and I’ve seen the movie half a dozen times, so I know the rough sketches of the characters, and I know (vaguely, since the movie changed bits) how it ends. So this book was sort of the perfect choice for my next audiobook, because despite the size of the book and the language, I can pay attention to it easily. Yay for multitasking!

5797In case you don’t know much about Vanity Fair, it was written in the 1860s and set in the Regency period. It’s a funny, sarcastic, critical, and scathing look at social norms and social politics at the time. At the center of the story are two women: the angelic and generous Amelia Sedley from a merchant’s family, and the shrewd and calculating Becky Sharp, a governess and social climber. Thackeray named this book the “novel without a hero” because every single one of his characters is ridiculous in some way, and their flaws are expounded upon and laughed at for chapters at a time.

But the thing I’ve found most striking about this novel so far is that even though Becky can be deplorable, he treats her with understanding and a sort of grudging respect. The narrator explains that Becky has had to be an adult since she was eight years old, and as an orphan, has to break societal norms in order to build the life she wants.

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Current Classics TBR

A long time ago, I spent a lot of money on Barnes & Noble classics—those pretty, multicolored paperback editions that tend to be dirt cheap and last forever. But as everyone knows, classics are hard to get into. Enter my recent audiobook obsession!

I’ve started listening to audiobooks on my absurdly long commute, and since it’s a lot easier than I’d thought to pay attention to a book while driving, I’m really excited to finally get around to some classics I’ve been wanting to read for a while:

classics

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A massive, fictionalized history of London!

Way back last year, I bought a bunch of Edward Rutherfurd novels that take place in a specific city/country and span centuries. These books, of which he’s written like ten, function as both amazing historical fiction and an ode to their respective places. Last August I read Paris and could not stop gushing over it. This year, I read London.

92160I know you’re probably sick of me talking about London, but hear me out.

I started this book in December, weeks before my trip to London over New Year’s, but since it was Christmas and I was really busy, I didn’t finish it until I returned from my trip in January, and reading this book ended up being the perfect bookend (pun intended) to a wonderful return to the city. This book made me get to know the city’s history, even as I wandered its ancient streets.

It begins in pre-Roman, Celtic Britain, and ends in 1997. Between those 1100+ pages, six families come to life over 2,000 years. In these pages, we get to know Londinium, the Roman city, with its amphitheatre, gladiators, and rampant money counterfeiting. We see William the Conqueror invade the city in 1066, and build the impressive fortress, the Tower of London, on the banks of the Thames. We see the plague rip through the towns, the Great Fire absolutely demolish the wooden houses, and Mayfair rise up from its ashes a century or so later. The same families appear in each chapter, and the author is tongue in cheek, knowing that the readers know so much more about each family’s history and ancestry than even they know.

I have always felt that historical fiction, provided it’s as accurate as humanly possible, is the best way to learn history. I don’t think history can really be learned from history books (if you’re anything short of a historian) and Edward Rutherfurd is not only a very detailed history writer; he’s also a masterful storyteller. Each chapter is rife with vivid characters, heightened tension, excellent plot development, and the perfect set-up for future characters—and future settings. It’s like two dozen novellas in one, or as if someone had dictated their family’s history to a talented ghostwriter.

“Each year, each age, leaves something. It gets compressed, of course, it disappears under the surface, but just a little of all that human life remains. A Roman tile, a coin, a clay pipe from Shakespeare’s time. All left in place. When we dig down, we find it and we may put it on show. But don’t think of it just as an object. Because that coin, that pipe belonged to someone: a person who lived, and loved, and looked out at the river and the sky each day just like you and me.”

A character says that to another on the very last page, two archaeologists walking through the Museum of London (which I was lucky to visit when I was first there, and it’s a must-see). I love that quote.

Some people will have trouble getting into this one; it is a slow starter. But it’s absolutely worth the effort.

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