Snapshots // Midsummer

“I wish I could find words—serious, beautiful words—to describe it in the afternoon sunlight; the more I strive for them, the more they utterly elude me.”

I’ve been having a lovely summer so far, with friends and warm nights. The quote above is from one of my favorite books I Capture the Castle, a book my sister made me read when I was a young teenager. It’s still one of her—and my—favorite books. Summer and spring always make me happier and feel more alive and more at peace, and this year, I’m looking forward to new beginnings, new challenges, new adventures, and putting into motion some big things so I can get some goals met. It’s scary, but I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ve been filled with anxiety this year because of a job, so finding some days and moments to do what I love and be with people I love means the world to me. Here’s what I’ve been up to lately.

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My Favorite Books: 'I Capture the Castle'

This post is less of a review and more of an opportunity to gush. I recently re-read one of my top 10 favorite books of all time, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. You may know her as the author of 101 Dalmatians, but Smith’s first novel is nothing short of literary magic. My sister first introduced this book to me when I was a very young teenager; now, I read it during the springtime, because it inspires in me the same feeling that spring does: that feeling of magic and new beginnings, of everything bursting into bloom.

457340This is the story of the impoverished Mortmain family in the 1930s, living in a moldering old castle in Suffolk. I love every aspect of this novel, from the themes of growing up and getting to know oneself, to falling in love for the first time and experiencing both intense elation and the deepest heartbreak. The best part of this novel is the narrator: sparkling, charming, intelligent and self-aware Cassandra Mortmain, our 17-year-old heroine whom JK Rowling called “the most charismatic narrator [she’s] ever met.” I completely agree.

Cassandra records everything that happens in the castle in an attempt to “capture” it, hence the title. The novel is populated with these larger-than-life characters, like Cassandra’s father, a former bestselling author who hasn’t written anything in over a decade; Cassandra’s stepmother, an artist’s model named Topaz who regularly wanders around their land completely naked; and Rose, Cassandra’s older, luxury-obsessed sister who is also gentle, honest and loving.

But the best part of this book is Cassandra’s voice. She’s both very naive and very mature, and through the course of six months, her entire world is turned upside down when she and Rose meet two American men, Simon and Neil, who have inherited their estate. I love this quote from the beginning of the novel:

Rose: Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice—when Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.

Cassandra: Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent.

Cassandra and Rose start spending a lot of time with the two men, and Rose schemes to marry the elder, Simon, so she can escape genteel poverty. Cassandra helps, and it looks like everyone’s dreams have come true when Rose and Simon become engaged and Rose finds herself also, fortunately, in love with the man she said she’d marry whether or not she loved him. That is, until Cassandra falls in love with Simon herself.

Cassandra describing and experiencing her first—unrequited—love is the heart and soul of this book. I always feel her joy and her pain so acutely, especially when she says things like, “Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known” and “Perhaps watching someone you love suffer can teach you even more than suffering yourself can.” Everything feels so much stronger and more intense for Cassandra because she’s in some ways extremely naive and a blank slate, and it’s made so much worse by the fact that she’s in love with her older sister’s fiancé. But you’re also very much aware that Cassandra knows her own heart and mind, that what she feels for Simon is real and not just puppy love, which makes Cassandra’s pain so much harder to bear.

“Even a broken heart doesn’t warrant a waste of good paper.”

Reading this book is like opening a window into the soul of a very kind, very funny, very warm-hearted young girl, and it’s also like reading your very own diary. Her soulful thoughts leap off the page, and I could fill up this entire post with just direct quotes from the book. My favorite is when Cassandra visits an empty church to find solace and thinks, “I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.” Cassandra is deep, brilliant, childlike, noble, funny and kind, and she’s made this novel one of the best I’ve ever read.

So I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.”

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May Reads & Recs

The month of May, my favorite of the year, requires some great books as an accompaniment to beautiful weather and long warm nights. Here’s what I’ll be reading this month.

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1. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith — this book is on my Top 10 Favorite Books list, and it’s my sister’s favorite book. She pushed it on me when I was about 11 years old, and I didn’t read it in full until I was about 17. It’s a true classic, written by the author of 101 Dalmatians. It’s about a 17-year-old girl, Cassandra Mortmain, whose eccentric family lives in an old castle ruin in Suffolk, England. It’s a coming-of-age story about falling in love and finding yourself. Utterly poetic and breathtakingly beautiful. This book personifies spring for me. This is a re-read, for the third time, at last count.

2. Forever, Pete Hamill — this book was also on my December book list, but it fell through the cracks. I revisit it for the third time this month. It’s about an immortal man living in New York throughout the centuries. New York + history = magic!

3. Trilby, George du Maurier — the classic story of Svengali and Trilby, which spawned the popularity of the “trilby” hat (hey, fashion!) and coined the term “Svengali” as a controlling older man.

I tend to pick books based on the time of year and how I feel at the moment. I want to read about magic and love, and apparently, mind control…? 😉 How do you pick books to read?

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#WCW: Romola Garai

I don’t know what it is with Romola Garai, but she has managed to play the main character in the film adaptations of six of my favorite books. And in her other movies she’s equally as fantastic. She’s just ugh–amazing.

I Capture the Castle

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A young Romola Garai plays Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a refurbished castle in the 1930s in England. She writes about her quirky family and about falling in love for the first time. This book reminds me of a meadow of flowers, in the best way. It’s Austenesque. And Cassandra is an insightful narrator and wonderful character.

Angel

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A dark-haired, vampy, ridiculous Romola Garai brings a new level of sympathy and childishness to one of my favorite literary antiheroes. Read the full review of one of my favorite books here.

The Crimson Petal and the White

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NEED I SAY MORE. She plays the dry-lipped, brilliant young prostitute I fell in love with many years ago. The Crimson Petal and the White is probably my favorite book of all time, and when I learned Romola Garai would be playing Sugar, I screamed a lot. It was an emotional day.

Atonement

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Okay okay, she’s the supporting actress to Keira Knightley’s top billing but still, Briony Tallis is equally as important in this novel, and much more complicated. She resurrects her bob in this movie, to my delight.

Vanity Fair

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Also a supporting actress in this one but again, she brings a level of complexity to a frankly annoying character. She plays the motherly Amelia Sedley, a kind of clueless companion to the devilish Becky Sharp, who is one of the best and worst characters in literature, and an amazing antihero.

Emma

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Yes, she played the handsome, clever, rich Emma. Romola Garai is truly the best blessing of existence. She’s also a dab hand at Shakespeare adaptations.

Check her out. I think I’ve seen 90% of her movies, and that’s modest considering how much I love her.

My Ideal Bookshelf

I recently read this great blog post and decided to compile ten of my favorite books of all time. The original post didn’t give a limit but I liked the idea of a “Top 10 Favorite Books” category and the exercise really made me stop and think about the books I’d read both recently and in the past that have influenced me and changed my life. In no particular order:

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book I read again and again: This novel is my favorite of JK Rowling’s magical oeuvre, and I read it so often that my copy is well-worn by now. It still reminds me of being eleven years old and making my mother drive me to Waldenbooks first thing in the morning so I could pick up the book on the release date. It also conjures memories of growing up with Harry Potter and how the novels instilled in me not just a love of reading, but also the desire to become a writer.

Pride and Prejudice, the one I love the most: This one is a no-brainer. I love everything about it, from the sarcastic way Lizzy’s father treats the women in his family, to the absolutely abhorrent Mr Collins and how much I love laughing at him, to the perfect story arcs of Elizabeth and Darcy. So many people adore the love story but this book is about so much more. Not only does Austen indict the social strata that make Elizabeth and Darcy’s ultimate union difficult, but she also weaves into the narrative arguments about the tension between conservative and liberal politics and allows the reader to form an opinion without even realizing they’ve done it. Austen takes a normal subject—love—and manipulates the story in such many layered ways that there is something new to learn each time.

Wuthering Heights, my favorite book: This book gets me every time. Love the characters or hate the characters, no one can deny the charisma of Heathcliff, the beauty of the moors, the overwhelming atmosphere of mystery and danger, the way you kind of want to shake Catherine and tell her to stop screaming but you root for her anyway, and the way you kind of hate the Lintons for no reason. The love of Catherine and Heathcliff forms the basis of every obsessive love story ever told and ever hated, but this love isn’t supposed to be healthy: it’s supposed to consume, overpower, even poison you. Wuthering Heights is the ultimate catharsis and it’s always a pleasure.

Angel, the book that changed my life: This novel is a forgotten little gem by the less famous Elizabeth Taylor. It tells the story of a young romance writer in the early 1900s, Angel Deverell, whose arrogance and dissociation from reality result in her ruin and isolation. The character of Angel is meant to be an allegory for those authors of Taylor’s time whose florid prose and shallow plotlines made instant bestsellers but whose books were vacuous and insipid. Angel thinks she’s the best writer to have ever lived and is completely blind to criticism, insisting all others are jealous of her wit and brilliance. Taylor is fierce and unapologetic in her harsh treatment of Angel, and the book reads like a sharp and insightful social commentary. I’d say Elizabeth Taylor read a lot of Austen and took good notes.

The Crimson Petal and the White, the best book I’ve ever read: I’ve mentioned before how much I love this book. I love Faber’s direct address to the reader, his bold and brave descriptions of prostitutes and dirt and death, his four-dimensional depiction of late Victorian London, and most of all, his unbelievable, believable characters. Sugar, a fiercely intelligent young prostitute with a reputation for granting any wish or desire, is one of the most indomitable characters I’ve ever met, and one of the most emotionally complex. William Rackham, an easily cowed man with unearned pride, is at times both pitiful and fearsome. Agnes, Rackham’s wife, will make you want to go back in time and give every Victorian woman some feminist literature. There are so many more characters who make this book live and breathe every time I crack open the cover.

East, the book that made me who I am: East isn’t your typical YA novel. Based on the story East of the Sun and West of the Moon, East also borrows from Beauty and the Beast: it tells the story of a Norwegian girl whose faith in her family fails after she learns her superstitious mother has lied to her all her life about her “birth direction.” Birth direction is a spiritual belief that the direction in which one is facing at birth determines his or her fate. Furious with her family, Rose takes the opportunity to leave when an enchanted bear offers her family riches in return for kidnapping Rose. The character of Rose and the northern setting instilled in me a love of the North that has not abated since my early teen years. It has also inspired me to learn about Norse mythology, which has indelibly affected my writing and my interests.

Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke is my favorite poet, save perhaps for Tennyson. This collection houses all of his major works, from The Duino Elegies to selections from his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This book has so many tabs sticking out of it from my years of reading and marking my favorite passages and lines that nearly every page is marked by now, and as an added bonus, this is the best translation of his work I’ve ever read.

I Capture the Castle, the book that makes me cry every time: Dodie Smith also must have read Austen. The plot mirrors Pride and Prejudice in subtle ways but with deliberate differences: two sisters meet two brothers (whereas P&P features close friends) and the ensuing love triangles and unrequited loves form the backdrop of a larger narrative of one girl’s coming-of-age. Cassandra Mortmain, the protagonist, is the younger sister of a close-knit, eccentric British family living in an old castle in the late 1940s. Cassandra is a charming and naïve narrator, yet she shows a strength and courage that are inspiring. During the novel, she grows in ways that are familiar to any woman who has experienced the joy and despair of falling in love for the first time.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The nearly definitive Anne Boleyn Bible. Eric Ives is a meticulous biographer and holds no [discernible] bias for or against Anne, but lets the facts speak for themselves. From his book, not only do I have an in-depth account of Anne’s major life events and a rough sketch of her complicated personality, but I also know exactly how much she spent on clothing, what the toddler Elizabeth I wore, and what her wardrobe expenditures would have totalled had she reigned for a lifetime rather than for her three short years. This book is a testament to the strong, intellectual force Anne truly was and does the best job in dispelling the “femme fatale” persona that Anne Boleyn has fallen victim to repeatedly.

A Room With A View, my favorite book: My favorite books seem to be populated with strong female characters, albeit the character of Lucy was not always so in my favorite Forster novel. Really, this book is a romp. The British Lucy Honeychurch and her stodgy old chaperone visit Italy intending to enjoy a prim, proper, tour-guided vacation and instead stumble upon a thoroughly uncouth George Emerson and his absolutely appalling father. George falls in love with Lucy and kisses her most inappropriately; Lucy, upon her return to England, finds it impossible to forget the dashing yet shy George Emerson and finds that Emerson has kindled desire within her. Just thinking about this book is enough to make me sound like the author of a comedy of manners, but that’s what this book is. It’s a book about stodgy old England and how Italy makes us lustful. And it’s a novel about defying societal expectations and following your heart.

Runners-up: Ella Enchantedwhich I read when I was nine years old; Inkheart, also a YA I read as a teen with a great protagonist and a lot of bookpornThe Virgin Suicides, which still haunts me every day; and Lolita, enough said.

So what’s your ideal bookshelf? Give it a try, and you can post a link to your own ideal bookshelf below.