Thoughts on "A Christmas Carol"

Well my first thought is always, is Bob Cratchit played by Kermit the Frog in this version? Every year I read聽A Christmas Carol in preparation for Christmas, and I’m always surprised and pleased by the richness of the narrative in its original, undiluted by hundreds of renditions and yes, the odd Muppet here and there (that’s also my favorite movie adaptation, because of course).聽A Christmas Carol聽is a chilling thriller as well as a heart-warming tale, full of commentary on greed, financial disparity, controversial Malthusian theory, and the spirit of Christmas. In the words of the gigantic puppet who played the Ghost of Christmas Present in聽A Muppet Christmas Carol, Christmas “is the summer of the soul in December.” (I also like the singing mice 馃檪 )

Photo Dec 26, 5 07 01 PMA Christmas Carol is also about聽the terror that comes with realizing you’re mortal, and the consequences of living not just an immoral, but an ungenerous life. In this era, we’ve learned to treat charity and good works as something unnecessary and sometimes onerous, something that other, better people do. Normal people can’t do things like join the Peace Corps or donate huge amounts of money to charities, and more often than not, the concept of charity either slips our minds, or we hold it in contempt.

A Christmas Carol makes it clear that it is everyone’s duty to care and provide for others, regardless of what you have. It is not only the rich that should give back; everyone has the means to help others, and not just with donations of money or goods. The Ghost of Christmas Present spreads good cheer among the poor and rich people of London, sprinkling water from a handy cornucopia that causes people to stop bickering, makes them stop and count their blessings, makes them more likely to treat their fellow man, in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, as “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” That’s the true spirit of Christmas: compassion for others.

Good works often don’t mean money. It means kind words and actions, it means shifting the focus of your day from yourself to others, often in the most seemingly inconsequential ways that could make a world of difference. It means staying positive and spreading that positivity to others. It’s about helping others unselfishly. And it’s easier than it seems.

But back to mortality. I find it very interesting that the terror of death forces Scrooge into kindness. True, after his encounter with The Ghost of Christmas Past, it’s the introspection that follows the reliving of his difficult childhood that softens him up, but Scrooge’s moment of repentance occurs because he’s so terrified of experiencing Jacob Marley’s cruel afterlife, to be “captive, bound, and double-ironed,” doomed to聽want to help others but have no means of doing so. He’s horrified by death (which is right around the corner for Scrooge) and turns to religion, so to speak. He is quite literally a deathbed convert, and Dickens knows this. He could have made Scrooge a much younger man, but the protagonist’s age makes it clear how much contempt Dickens has for those who waste their lives in youth and only grow kind because they’re afraid of death and consequences in the afterlife. It’s hypocritical. Still, it’s not a pessimistic tale: for Scrooge, it’s never too late. He becomes the epitome of the spirit of Christmas, and truly. It just took an encounter with death to wake him up.

So that’s it. Just some thoughts on this little novel that has become so woven into Christmas culture. It’s wonderful to sit and read it.

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My Christmas Lit & Fashion Haul

As you can probably expect, I got plenty of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and聽books for Christmas. Not too shabby:

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I love the print on this skater skirt, and the slight steampunk vibe of the statement necklace.

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Gilmore Girls on DVD, and some great books I’ve been salivating for:聽The Lowland, The Valkyries, The Alchemist, Neverwhere, Bellman & Black,聽and聽The Moonstone. January will be a month filled with great reads, so stay tuned!

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shoes from ModCloth and Jeffrey Campbell! Evangelina mesh booties, Flair-y Tale Boots, and Haute on Your Heels Booties

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And the coat from Modcloth I was waxing poetic about just a few short weeks ago…

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Haul ^ I’m ready for a long, cold winter filled with reading by the fire, plenty of scarves and boots, and some great hot chocolate!

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fashion: you're makin' me blush

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Blush pink is one of my favorite colors, and I love the bat sleeves on this blouse. You might recognize these shoes from a post I did a while back–they’re actually solid tan boots covered in fabric! They were really fun to make.

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shoes DIY (click here for the tutorial) pants Charadenecklace聽Joyce Leslietop聽Charade

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Madame Bovary, Bovarysme, Heartbreak (and me)

If I could sum up my review of聽Madame Bovary聽in six words, it would read: “holy sh*it, I loved this book.” It broke my sad little heart, and for entirely the wrong reasons, I swear. I’d like to discuss this book in terms of sympathy, the character and portrayal of Emma, and the concept of “bovarysme,” a crime of which I am entirely guilty. I hope, however, not to the same extent that Emma is. Oh, Emma. You broke my heart.

Madame-Bovary-reviewEmma Rouault is a passionate girl who believes her life should resemble the plot of a romance novel. When she marries Charles Bovary, a dull doctor who takes Emma to live in rural Normandy, Emma finds herself confined by a middle-class wife’s life and grows to hate her boring husband. Bred on the high drama of the romance novel, she believes only in romantic love. When she marries Bovary, she endeavors to “find out what precisely was meant in life by the words聽delight, passion, and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Emma filters her experience through the novelistic tropes of stories, and when real life does not measure up, when she grows to despise her husband, she conducts love affairs with disastrous results.

First there is the grand Rodolphe Boulanger, a player if there ever was one. While he is interested only in an empty affair, Emma fancies herself in love with him and they plot to elope, even though Rodolphe has no intention of following through with the scheme. Then there is L茅on, a young lawyer’s clerk helplessly besotted with her. But even this affair ends badly, as Emma becomes overbearing and controlling. Both men renounce their previous devotion to Emma. She falls deeply into debt due to her preference for luxury and finery, and ends up taking her own life by ingesting arsenic.

When reading this book, I didn’t know whether I wanted to hug Emma or throttle her, or maybe both. A country girl, Emma has been bred on dreams and the drama of the romance novel. This is the way Emma initially reminded me of Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland; both allow themselves to believe their lives resemble novels (in Catherine’s case, it’s the gothic novel) and fail to perceive reality.

Forgive this rather lengthy block quote from the last third of the novel; it so clearly explains Emma’s emotional state and her philosophy, and the prose itself is gorgeous and poetic. Really, I had the e-book version on my iPhone that was the original translation, but my physical book was the new translation by Adam Thorpe, and I do think the newer translation is much more elegant and finely worded.

She wasn’t happy, had never been so. From where did it come then–this deficiency of life, this instantaneous decay of everything she leaned upon? But, if only somewhere there were a manly and handsome being, valiant by nature, full of both high spirits and breeding, a poet’s heart in the guise of an angel, lyre strung with bronze, sounding its elegiac epithalamia to the heavens, why might she not accidentally meet him? Oh, impossible thought! Nothing, anyway, was worth the looking for; everything lied! Each smile concealed a yawn of tedium, each joy a curse, every pleasure its disgust, and the finest kisses left you nothing on the lips but the unattainable desire for a voluptuousness still more sublime. (339)

This is the emotional state that coined the term “bovarysme,” a tendency toward escapist dreaming in which one fancies herself the heroine of a novel and rejects everyday reality. The difference between Catherine and Emma lies in genre: In Northanger Abbey, a comedy,聽Catherine is treated with humor and light-hearted sarcasm; Emma’s story is thoroughly tragic. She believes she will only find true happiness with the next man or the next, relying on their devotion and hollow emotion to feel fulfilled. Obviously, she is constantly disappointed.

As a lover of stories and a dedicated reader of novels, I understand how it sort of becomes hardwired to perceive real-life events as simply plot points. Reading novels makes you a romantic, and it does have the tendency to separate you from reality as if by a veil. Looking for a resolution while reading a novel makes you look for that similar resolution in real life, a happily-ever-after of sorts. I’m not the only one to think like this, I’m sure, but it’s a slippery little trap. Catherine Morland escaped from this way of thinking; Emma did–and could–not.

Gustave Flaubert famously said of his main character, “Emma Bovary, c’est moi.” A man who loved romance, exotic tales, beauty, and art, Flaubert treated Emma with a deft hand of both sympathy and indictment. She’s absurd and ridiculous, incapable of true, genuine emotion, yet she is a product of her time and her environment. It’s not a crime to love art; it’s a crime to let art paint over reality. Flaubert knew this, even as he said, “Life is such a hideous business that the only way to tolerate it is to avoid it…by living in Art.” But one cannot live in art, because art is not life, and to think otherwise is to render yourself incapable of experiencing life without the obscuring veil of “art” constantly pulled over your eyes.聽Emma not only did not remove the veil, she never noticed it was there at all. Art and life were, for her, inseparable and indistinct.

Woven in the narrative is the concept of the ideal life, something that smacks so violently of the American dream that it left me reeling. Emma is a bourgeois wife. She aspires to the life of a lady and what she sees as the ideal mode of existence. She destroys herself and everyone else to get it. She wants the French, 19th-century equivalent of the white-picket-fence and the suburban perfection. But she can never have it–it’s always out of reach. She can never achieve the ideal. It’s chilling.

The writing itself is the reason why 19th-century literature is my favorite to read. At each finely wrought sentence and poignant turn-of-phrase I found myself mouthing “shit, shit, shit, this is gorgeous” (clearly my own thought processes are less pretty). There’s a reason why Flaubert described聽Madame Bovary as a poem.

The ending is ironic in the worst way. When Emma dramatically eats arsenic and dies a slow, painful death, she leaves behind four men: Rodolphe and L茅on, her lovers, are indifferent; all their loving words, all their promises mean nothing anymore. Then there is her husband, Charles, who is afflicted with a grief so deep it contributes to his death. He literally wastes away, even though he discovers her infidelity. It’s ironic that Emma strove her whole life to be loved like that, to be loved by a man who could not live without her, who adored her despite her frailties and absurdities, and that this man turned out to be her husband whom she hated more than any other (except perhaps Lheureux, her debtor). Charles was Emma’s key to transporting love, social advancement, finery, and all that she desired, if only she could have been practical and level-headed enough to work within the confines of her life, instead of moving clandestinely beyond it.

Finally, there is Justin. A young assistant to the pharmacist, Justin falls desperately in love with Emma, but she never notices. One of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel occurs after Emma’s death, when Justin lies prostrate on Emma’s grave, completely distraught over her death:

On the grave, between the pines, a child wept on his knees, and his breast, made sore with sobbing, heaved in the shadows, under the pressure of an immense regret gentler than the moon and more unfathomable than the night. (406)

Emma never notices his affection, but if she had, would never have returned it because he is not “a manly and handsome being, valiant by nature, full of both high spirits and breeding, a poet’s heart in the guise of an angel” but a low-born, rustic person. Emma’s definition of “love” proves that what she desires is not love at all, but the appearance of it. Her pursuit of love is really the pursuit of riches and a certain standard of living. Yes, she’s lonely, but she’s not self-aware enough to recognize this uncorrupted emotion. All she knows is the material, the appearance of happiness and love, not the things themselves.

The most horrible irony, the immense tragedy of the story, is that all of Emma’s lofty aspirations and her overwhelming desire to be rich and grand left her child poor and penniless, without even the possibility of the least social advancement. When Charles dies, there are “twelve francs” left to transport little Berthe to her grandmother, where she will spend her youth and probably all her life working minimum wage in a cotton mill. This is the trap of the bourgeois, of striving to be richer and more important and sacrificing your morals and those you love in order to achieve a material ideal.

Yet, it is not just Emma who acts thus. Most of the middle-class characters in this novel are just as materialistic and ambitious as Emma–but she is a woman. Many times in the novel Emma expresses the wish to be a man, to be free to move in the world as she wishes, to travel and to love like a man (read: have sex like a man). It was qualities like these that made me ache for Emma, even as I wished to slap her across the face. She’s a victim; not just a victim, but a victim nonetheless. She’s the victim and the villain, and ultimately tragic.

References

Flaubert, G. and Adam Thorpe (translator). (2011)聽Madame Bovary. New York, NY: Random House.

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fashion: we grow up all at once

Wednesday

I love unusual color combinations. I wish the lighting on these pictures were better, but it was 7AM and still pretty dark out, and 20 degrees!

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Photos courtesy of my long-suffering sister. Her house is very festive nowadays, hence the Happy Holidays pillow!

skirt from Urban Outfitters tights Betsey Johnson blouse from Garbage necklace borrowed

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The quirky Michel Faber and "The Courage Consort"

I’ve come to realize that Michel Faber is really ****ing weird, and I love it. My third Faber adventure, after聽The Crimson Petal and the White and聽The Fire Gospel聽is his collection of three novellas entitled聽The Courage Consort.聽I liked it much better than聽The Fire Gospel and can see how his wit and his sense of the strange and surreal influenced the writing of聽Crimson Petal.聽These three novellas are witty, ironic, sometimes downright ridiculous, and unexpectedly poignant at times. The three are “The Courage Consort,” “The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps,” and “The Fahrenheit Twins.”

The Courage Consort ReviewThe Courage Consort” begins this collection. It tells the story of an a cappella group named, appropriately,聽The Courage Consort.聽Their group is christened such both because their founder’s surname is Courage and also for the old Wesleyan adage,聽“sing lustily and with much courage.” Roger and Catherine Courage are a married couple in the Consort who live for weeks in the Chateau de Luth, practicing a modern piece for a concert. The dynamic of the five members of the consort figure prominently in the narrative, as does the mental state of Kate, who suffers from depression. Kate has fantasies of suicide and is unhappy in her marriage. She also hears an ethereal, anguish-filled child’s cry every night during her sleep. Kate is the main protagonist of this story, as she navigates her awkward, sexless marriage; her relationship with the only other woman in the consort, a sexual, confident mother named Dagmar; and the kinship she feels with bulky, overweight Ben Lamb. It’s an interesting story of character development and the way these very different people manage not to rip each others’ hair out. When tragedy strikes the consort, they must examine their principles and begin new lives.

The Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps” takes place in the UK town of Whitby, the same setting as聽Dracula, a gothic setting for a less-than-gothic novella. It does have touches of the dramatic, however:

She closed her eyes, longing to trust him, longing to rest her head in the pillowy crook of his arm, but at the last instant, she glimpsed sideways, and saw the knife in his other hand. Her scream was gagged by the blade slicing deep into her throat, severing everything right through to the bone of her spine, plunging her terrified soul into pitch darkness.

Thus this novella begins, with a thirty-something archaeology student named Si芒n on a dig of a monastery in Whitby. Since her arrival in Whitby, Si芒n聽has been plagued by the same murderous dream night after night. A shy, idealistic woman, Si芒n聽meets a fit jogger named Mack, a Londoner in town to handle his late father’s affairs. The two are attracted to each other but find themselves constantly butting heads on issues of religion, antiquity, and faith. Si芒n聽believes strongly in the virtue of the medieval monks and priests, in the truth and nobility of history, in a higher power. Mack, a cynic, tries to disabuse Si芒n聽of her long-held notions and comes across, to me, as obnoxious and self-serving. When Mack discovers a message in a bottle in his father’s estate, he enlists Si芒n’s help with interpreting its contents, hoping for a grisly tale of murder. What they find plays with the readers’ expectations of the gothic genre and sheds new light upon the nature, and sometimes contradictory nature, of religion and faith. A great, quick read with solid, interesting characters and a satisfying ending.

The Fahrenheit Twins” was my favorite of the three stories. It’s set on an island near the North Pole and follows the lives of young twins聽Marko’cain and Tainto’lilith as they make sense of their bleak, desolate world around them. The twins are the children of ethnologists who are conducting research on nearby aboriginal communities on the island. Marko’cain and Tainto’lilith, who are probably around ten years old, were born on the island, possess impressive survival skills, know nothing of the outside world, and together, piece together little bits and pieces of facts they write down in a book. Their banter and wit and they way they finish each others’ sentences lend this story a touch of levity in an otherwise bleak novella. Bleak, because their ethnologist mother dies, and their alleged father (it’s implied that an aboriginal man is actually the twins’ biological father) sends them on a deadly expedition from which they must find their way back. Because of my love of the North, the lively little characters, and the dry humor of this piece, it was easily my favorite.

Faber is an interesting writer for the way he infuses his stories with a bit of surrealism and the fantastical without explaining anything; for example, the nightmares Si芒n has echo the murder she discovers in the bottle’s message; and Kate in聽“The Courage Consort” never discovers the source of that eerie, unearthly child’s cry. I liked those elements of unexplained, otherworldly events. They add a touch of surreality to the narrative and do much to explain the characters’ mental states.

Next on the Faber agenda: the short-story collection聽Some Rain Must Fall. Stay tuned!

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fashion: sunshine in my sky

After a huge snowstorm here in New York, we’ve finally got some sunshine! Monday-One

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Monday-two

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I love the bow detail on the back of this blazer, and I’m obsessed with these shoes! I got them half off from a seller on Poshmark. It was really bright out today, so my apologies for the bright images!

pants Charadeshoes Jeffrey Campbell Park Avenue heels

top Forever 21necklace聽Urban Outfitters

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"The Gargoyle" and redemption

The Gargoyle is a story about redemption. It’s disgusting and awful at times, explicit in others, and yet this book contains some of the most beautiful stories of love and fate that I’ve ever read. The story begins with the narrator remembering his brutal, gruesome car accident that left him with third- and fourth-degree (yep) burns all over his body. During a drug-fueled car ride, our narrator hallucinates a volley of burning arrows plummeting to earth toward his car. He swerves, nearly hitting a truck, swerves again into a ravine, and the car catches fire, slowly cooking our narrator alive before help comes to save his ravaged life.

The Gargoyle ReviewIn the hospital, the unnamed narrator toggles between recounting the sexual and drug-filled escapades of his pre-accident life and his excruciating medical procedures in the hospital. With his father a deadbeat and his mother dead in childbirth, he was raised by his indifferent grandmother. When she dies as well, he ends up living with a trio of meth addicts, before they die in a meth lab explosion. Sensing a pattern? Our narrator eventually becomes a very active porn star, before founding his own porn company. Clearly, he hasn’t been winning at life.

The graphic descriptions of his medical procedures are fairly revolting.

The doctors removed my wasteland exterior by d茅briding me, scraping away the charred flesh. They brought in tanks of liquid nitrogen containing skin recently harvested from corpses. The sheets were thawed in pans of water, then neatly arranged on my back and stapled into place…There I lay, wearing dead people as armor against death.

Awful, right? And that’s pretty tame compared to all the gruesome details the narrator chooses to include in this backward, near-perverted bildungsroman. He even had a penectomy, aka surgery to remove his charred penis. His malformed body has turned him into a living gargoyle, a grotesque lump of flesh instead of a man.

The combination of the narrator’s previous life and his revolting medical procedures in a hospital make for feverish reading. It’s like a car crash, you know? I just couldn’t look away, even though I found myself hating the narrator. But still, there was a humanity within him that was sensible in the text. Completely morally bankrupt, planning a careful, gruesome suicide, the narrator still evoked in me some nuggets of compassion. I wanted him to be able to start over.

Enter Marianne Engel. A few months into his stay at the hospital, a young patient from the psych ward floats into the narrator’s room with a bevy of astonishing tales. She has known him for 700 years. He’s been burned twice before. The last time they knew each other, he was an injured mercenary and she, a denizen of a German monastery called Engelthal, nursed him back to health. The face of the narrator’s salvation is a beautiful young girl, slightly off her rocker, a sculptor of grotesques, a believer in fate and reincarnation, in love and redemption. The narrator must allow himself to believe not only in her stories, but in her, and in himself. It’s engrossing, and it just keeps getting better.

As disgusting as the first section of the novel is, that’s how much beauty is present in the rest of it. Marianne Engel continues to visit the narrator, regaling him with stories of their past lives and all the ways they’ve been separated from each other throughout the centuries, in different locations and different eras. Borne along the waves of Marianne’s lush narration, we visit medieval Germany,聽Japan, Italy, and a Vikings-era Iceland. Marianne Engel is a positively magnetic personality, a character full of faith, quirks, enchantment, and full of profound truths–a character that I easily fell in love with. I even came to admire the narrator, as he puts his trust in Marianne and begins to heal not only his body, but his distorted soul. His transformation is spellbinding.

As are the stories themselves. This genre-bending novel is part romance, part historical fiction, part fantasy, and each story (within the story) is executed with precision and grace, researched to the point of exhaustion, and built so beautifully my senses came alive at each reading, and re-reading, of a sentence. The settings themselves become characters, and my heart ached with longing to visit each. It’s a novel of immense, overwhelming beauty, enough beauty to match its ugliness and smother the disgust I felt while learning about skin grafting with the remains of corpses.

You are mine, I am yours; you may be sure of this. You’ve been locked inside my heart, the key has been thrown away; within it, you must always stay.

I’ve heard many people complain that this book was over-hyped, that Andrew Davidson can’t write, that it’s overwrought, that they can’t believe a $2 million advance was paid for the manuscript, etc., but when I read this book, all that criticism falls away. No, it’s not perfect. It’s annoying at times and at others the love story seems ridiculous, but in some ways you have to suspend your disbelief–somewhat like the narrator did when he met Marianne Engel–and fall in love. It’s a novel about fate, love, and the always-present possibility of redemption. The way this book is written and the message it conveys about love and faith is one of the reasons I fell in love with reading and with stories in the first place. It’s both frightening and comforting at the same time.

Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.

Amazon, Goodreads, IndieBound, B&N

References

Davidson, A.聽The Gargoyle. (2008). New York, NY: Doubleday.

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By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept

Paulo Coelho’s heart wrenching little book is one of the best books I’ve read this year, or maybe ever. I’m on the verge of gushing here. After I read this book I went on a Goodreads adding spree and discovered I want to read every single thing Coelho ever wrote. I’d dig through his house for his credit card slips, if need be. New favorite author. Poetic, spiritual, this book hugs your heart and soul. There is so much love in a deceivingly skinny package. It’s not just an immense and powerful love story, but an immense and powerful life story. It’s breathtaking in scope and spirit. It’s also highly quotable, almost to the point where I wanted to copy and paste every [other] page.

But ultimately there is no good reason for our suffering, for in every love lies the seed of our growth. The more we love, the closer we come to a spiritual experience. Those who are truly enlightened, those whose souls are illuminated by love, have been able to overcome all the inhibitions and preconceptions of their era. They have been joyful 鈥 because those who love conquer the world and have no fear of loss. True love is an act of total surrender.

By The River Piedra ReviewAnd that’s just in the introduction. Read More 禄

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Outfit of the [Snow] Day

It’s snowing up a storm here in New York, and it’s beautiful. I hope it keeps up until Christmas–there’s nothing I love more than a white Christmas.

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On Tuesday I enjoyed a snow day from work and spent the evening decorating the Christmas tree with my family, which is one of my favorite traditions and one of the best days in my Christmas season. Here’s what I wore out in the falling snow:

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I really love this weird reindeer top I got from Camden Market in London. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s just a regular deer (sticking out his tongue no less), but I thought it matched well with the skirt and my Christmassy mood!

topCamden Market;聽skirtH&M;聽bootsForever 21;聽scarfgift

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In other news, this week I’m reading聽Madame Bovary for the first time, and it’s awesome so far–Emma kind of reminds me of a non-ironic portrayal of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.聽Can’t wait to read it all and share my thoughts!

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all those celebrating! Hope you’re celebrating the Christmas season with lots of books and creamy hot chocolate by the fire, or maybe a spiked spiced apple cider!

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