Reading Recap: May 2018

At the end of every month, I take a look back at my reading journal and share the books and my thoughts on them here. The comments below are excerpts from my full reviews on Goodreads; you can always keep up with my reading in real time over there.

As you’ll see from my recent reading, I was still in the midst of my everything-England reading for most of May—including three nonfiction titles, which is unusual* for me—but then I wrapped it up with a new addition to my all-time favorites list. I’m also delighted to be reading an preview copy of Anne Bogel’s new book I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, which is available for pre-order now. If you like thinking about reading and talking about books, this collection of essays is for you. It’s charming, thought-provoking, and warm—just like Anne sounds in her What Should I Read Next? podcast— and it will make you want to read all the things. (Also like Anne’s podcast.)

*Do you think I chose fiction over nonfiction because I don’t spend enough time with real people?!

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart | 2 stars
This started out strong, and I was very into this story of an orphan who goes to an isolated French chateau to be a governess. There are spooky family relations, secrets, etc., etc. It starts with lovely gothic atmosphere and a sense of claustrophobia—and even some delicious references to Jane Eyre—but then it loses its way. And then there is some of the clunkiest romantic dialogue ever. And THEN it becomes a straight-up action-adventure chase story… before landing an ending that includes more terrible romantical dialogue. I wanted to be all in, but I just couldn’t do it. Sadly it wasn’t bad enough to be so bad, it’s good.

Favorite highlight: “She looked expensive, a little fragile, and about as approachable as the moon.”

The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz | 4 stars
This is an excellent companion to a more traditional Brontë biography because it provides a personal look at Charlotte, Emily, and Anne through their possessions—their dresses, personal writing desks, walking sticks, dog collars, hair jewelry, and more. It’s a fascinating context in which to learn about the girls’ daily lives, and they way they interacted with the world and objects around them. In addition to providing biographical info, this excellently researched and engagingly written book illuminated the Victorian era, weaving in stories of other authors and important figures, as well as fads and habits of the time.

Favorite highlight: “Books were not out of place in the kitchen. They read while watching over the cakes rising, and Emily, who made the bread for the house, could be found ‘studying her German out of an open book, propped up before her, as she kneaded the dough.'”

Ghosts and Gravestones of Haworth by Philip Lister | 3 stars
I picked this book up in a shop in Haworth, and it was really fun to read about the buildings, arches, and alley we visited while we visited them. The writing is a little clunky, but what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in weird factoids about the buildings, history, and graves of Haworth. It has very detailed descriptions of the headstones in the Haworth cemetery, which is spooky fun and always a little sad, too.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë | 4 1/2 stars
The story is pretty straight-forward: an orphaned girl with no prospects pulls herself up—time and time again—to be a teacher in a fictional French city called Villette. But don’t be fooled: This is a challenging and weird book. The whole time, I kept thinking, “You go, Charlotte! Fly your freak flag.”

In addition to the surface story of the plot, Charlotte—I feel like I can call her Charlotte because in my imagination, we’re friends tackles—addresses many issues of the time: Feeling vs. Reason, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, the infantilization of women to keep them in line, the limited roles of unmarried (and, therefore, unworthy) women… there is plenty to chew on when you’re finished wondering what little Polly is up to, what happened to Ginevra, and whether you should trust Lucy.

After reading several Charlotte Brontë bios and visiting the parsonage, it’s pretty clear that this novel is even more autobiographical than Jane Eyre, and that makes it a really interesting companion to biographies and The Bronte Cabinet. This will not replace Jane Eyre in my heart, but I’m very glad to have read it—and I’ll be thinking about the ending for a long time.

Favorite highlight: “No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

The Brontes: The Complete Novels in One Sitting by Jennifer Kasius | 4 stars
I picked this tiny book up at a gorgeous Waterstones (in the neo-gothic building of the old wool exchange) in Bradford, England—close to the village of Haworth where the Brontës lived and wrote their masterpieces.

The summaries of each of the novels—Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and The Professor—are tightly written and do a brilliant job of covering all the important plot points and including a few key quotes to get the mood of the work.

The best part is that it measures 3 X 3.5 inches—reminiscent of the tiny books the Brontës wrote to amuse themselves when they were children. It’s so cute!

The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell | 3 stars
I’ve read several other Brontë biographies— The Brontë Cabinet, The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors, Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart—but as this is the original, written at the request of Charlotte’s father Patrick, I thought I should finally read it. It’s a very subjective look at Charlotte’s life, and Gaskell inserts herself into the story quite a bit, but the descriptions of Haworth and the surrounding area of West Yorkshire, as well as quotes from plenty of Charlotte’s letters (and her friends), add a lot of life to the well-trod story. If you’re only going to red one biography of Charlotte Brontë, I recommend Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, but if you’re a big fan like I am, this is worth a read, too.

Favorite highlight: “If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I dare say despise me.” (Oh, Charlotte!)

I saved the best for last…

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles | 5 stars
This book… so f*cking good. I have a really hard time writing about books when I give them 5 stars because in person, I would just be sighing over and over because I love it so much I can’t make sentences. The best I can do is to say that I wanted to live in the world of the Metropol hotel with the Count and his friends—and, generally speaking, post-Revolution and WWII-era Russia was not a nice time… but the Count and the other characters—strong women, prickly but kind men, all interwoven in each others’ lives with vulnerability and fortitude… they would have made it worth living. I had a book hangover for the better part of a week after reading this wonderful story.

I have 30 passages highlighted in my Kindle; here are a few favorites:
“It is part of the human experience that we are constantly gripping a good fellow by the shoulders and wishing him well, taking comfort from the notion that we will hear word of him soon enough.”

“For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then a room that exists in secret can, regardless of its dimensions, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.”

“For centuries champagne has been used to launch marriages and ships. Most assume this is because the drink is so intrinsically celebratory; but, in fact, it is used at the onset of these dangerous enterprises because it so capably boosts one’s resolve.”

Feel free to share your best recent reads—or a book that made you want to throw it across the room—in comments!


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Reading Recap: March 2018

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  • Melanie says:

    I love these book recaps! I found A Gentleman in Moscow to be completely enchanting. The slight absurdity in some of the scenes really made the overall heavy situation delightful.

    I also read The Bronte Cabinet in May–I thought it was great. Such a great idea to use objects as jumping off points to the Brontes’ world.

    • The other thing I loved about the Brontë Cabinet is that it is so broad in explaining the norms of the Victorian era, not just the Brontës’ quirks. The writing desks and hair jewelry and fascination with ferns… all so fascinating.

  • Pita says:

    I feel I need to reacquaint myself with the Bronte books now, so interesting! If you like biographies of English writers, try Linda Lear’s Bio of Beatrix Potter. Super detailed and provides an insight into the life of an extraordinary woman who did so much more than just the Peter Rabbit books! And then you can plan a trip to the Lakes Disrtict and visit Hill Top farm with it all in your head.

  • Kathie Gray says:

    I love the Brontes books but I don’t think I’ve actually read much about them, maybe something to keep an eye out for. My reading was very slow this month, I finished Neverwhere and was still in a fantasy mood so I read “Windhaven” by George R R Martin and Lisa Tuttle which I really enjoyed. I just started re-reading “Interview with the vampire” by Anne Rice which used to be a favourite but I haven’t read for at least 15 years!

    • Must have been something in the air this month… I hit a big slump after A Gentleman in Moscow. But I think I’m out of it now 🙂 Ah, those Anne Rice books are so much fun!

  • Elysia says:

    I really enjoyed reading Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman recently… I am enjoying your reading recaps, thank you!

  • Hannah says:

    Thank you again Mel. I always get such inspiration from your monthly recaps and A Gentleman in Moscow is on my weekend shopping list. Apologies if I missed this, but have you read The Wide Sargosso Sea, which is a longtime favorite of mine? I also have The Madwoman Upstairs cued up next….

    On a different note, I made your snow pea recipe this weekend with mint and pistachios. My husband and daughter inhaled as did I. Your recipes rock!!

    • I have *tried* to read Wide Sargasso Sea, and it didn’t take the first time. I’ve been wondering if I should give it another go because it’s so highly recommended. Maybe… Hope you enjoy The Madwoman Upstairs!

      YAY! I’m glad you all liked the snap pea salad. I love the crunch of snap peas!

  • Sally says:

    A Gentleman in Moscow was my favorite book this year. When I finished it, I immediately started it again and reread it through. Then I read his other book, which wasn’t AS good but was quite good as well. Thanks for your great book suggestions!