Friday, December 23, 2011

Advent with Austen: Wrapping It Up

Dear Helen, Dear John,

When I first decided to participate in Advent with Austen my goal was to participate 3-4 points worth. I've since read and watched my way to the highest level (7+).  I've never been good at doing things by halves and while I've tried to temper this over time, developing patience and a willingness to pursue my dreams in small pieces when I can't pursue them in any other way, that drive to do more is always there for me. Being willing to read in five-minute increments here and there got me started; wanting to keep a promise to myself kept me at it; and here I am, surpassing my original goal. It feels really good.

I needed that this month. It gave me something to think about other than being sick. I've had to stop doing so many things until my heart heals up from this last batch of episodes. It's discouraging, but by doing this challenge and signing up for the ones next year, it helps make this forced down time feel like an opportunity as well- a chance to expand my mind and my vision within the confines of my bed if necessary.
Marianne had been two or three days at home, before the weather was fine enough for an invalid like herself to venture out. But at last a soft, genial morning appeared- such as might tempt the daughter's wishes and the mother's confidence; and Marianne, leaning on Elinor's arm, was authorized to walk as long as she could without fatigue, in the lane before the house. (Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XLVI) 
This reminded me of the first time I was allowed to walk after my first heart surgery. The head nurse of the cardiac unit freaked out: "What are you doing?!" she called out as I was leaving my room. She reluctantly allowed me to walk a little after I told her that the doctor had told me to, with the stipulation that I was to "Walk close to the wall and stay where I can see you."
The sisters set out at a pace slow as the feebleness of Marianne in an exercise hitherto untried since her illness required... 
 I can't tell you how comforting it is to read lines like that at a time when I've been needing help to walk, or how good it feels to exercise in any way (slow and feeble though I may be) after being in bed for so long. Jane Austen captured in a few lines what I experience whenever I'm recovering: "My illness has made me think- it has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect." That is what I do.

This Austen challenge has given me a great deal to reflect on. Many of these reflections are difficult to express in words because they come from a place words don't touch... Words...

Something I enjoyed while reading Northanger Abbey was how words were used and misused by so many of the characters. The number of people who said what they didn't mean expecting to be understood or misunderstood as the case may be, stood out in bold contrast to Catherine who, unable to be anything but truthful and forthright herself, often missed the hidden meanings and insinuations of others.

So much of communication is separate from the words we use. In some respects that is likely a good thing, because deep emotions translated into words seldom come out right.  It's like those signs in English I saw when I lived in China that were close enough to give tourists the general idea, but off enough to give me attacks of the giggles: "Please keep your articles from losing." and "Somking, which may cause fires, is forbidden." Ever wonder why Jane Austen didn't tend to write word-for-word proposal scenes? It might be in part for this reason, to protect the men and women she would have us admire and respect from mockery because, let's be honest, how many of these speeches, when totally sincere, actually come out right?
In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter XXXIV)
We all know how well that one went over with Elizabeth.

Many of the villains of Jane Austen's stories are adept with words. Austen's characters (the noble ones), most often love each other not so much for what they say, though witty banter can be a part of their courtship, but ultimately for the actions they take that demonstrate the admirable qualities that are a vital part of who they really are. As Mr. Knightley says in his proposal to Emma, "I cannot make speeches, Emma... If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am." (Emma, Volume III, Chapter 13)

Even Henry Tilney, who is witty and quotable in almost everything he says, secures Catherine's affection and helps her to feel secure in his, not through the eloquence of his words, but through the eloquence of his actions:
Most grievously was she humbled. Most bitterly did she cry. It was not only with herself that she was sunk- but with Henry. Her folly, which now seemed even criminal, was all exposed to him, and he must despise her forever... could he ever forgive it? The absurdity of her curiosity and her fears- could they ever be forgotten? She hated herself more than she could express. He had- she thought he had, once or twice before this fatal morning, shown something like affection for her. But now- in short, she made herself as miserable as possible for about half an hour, went down when the clock struck five, with a broken heart, and could scarcely give an intelligible answer to Eleanor's inquiry if she was well. The formidable Henry soon followed her into the room, and the only difference in his behaviour to her was that he paid her rather more attention than usual. Catherine had never wanted comfort more, and he looked as if he was aware of it. (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 25)
I've found in my life that a good book leads to another. Each of Jane Austen's books that I have read this month have done that for me. I'm grateful for books, I'm grateful for writers, I'm grateful for libraries. This year I am also grateful for passionate bloggers who celebrate and promote reading and in the process, helped inspire me to read joyfully again. Jane Austen would be proud of all of us I think.

With sincerest regards and affection,


This post is part of Advent with Austen and the Sense and Sensibility Readalong.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My 2012 Olympic Challenge: Iceland

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I've been learning about Iceland over the past week. I've found pictures of the landscape (spectacular! especially in winter), listened to folksongs, watched videos of sheep congregating around geysers, listened as residents discussed the island tradition of knitting and heard a few snatches of the language spoken, ordered a book of Icelandic plays from the library which I'll be picking up later this week, and read two books set in Iceland by Bruce McMillan, illustrated by Gunnella. How the Ladies Stopped the Wind was one of them.

How the Ladies Stopped the Wind is a children's picture book that's a bit of silly fun. Having lived in a place for many years where the joke was that it was settled by pioneers who decided to rest there "just until the wind died down", I can totally relate to it. Having a German shepherd who chewed an apricot tree in our backyard down to the nubbins four or five times also made this story amusing to me. Bless that apricot tree! It never became more than a shrub and its fruit left much to be desired, but the blossoms in springtime were so beautiful! I admire that little tree's perseverance and determination to be beautiful no matter what its circumstances- but back to the story...

These women showed perseverance and ingenuity in the face of wind and gnawing animals as well. The animals were charmingly depicted in both word and illustration and I had a fun time hamming it up as I read the story to my mother one evening (you can't read this story with chickens dancing in the background and not dramatize things an eensy-weensy bit!).

Iceland seems ideal for people who love rugged landscapes and open spaces. It reminded me some of how Yellowstone used to be when I was much younger. I bet my dad would have loved to visit and take pictures there.

Shivering in climes quite a bit south from 65 00 N, 18 00 W,

Your armchair Viking,


Monday, December 19, 2011

Sisters: Where Sense and Sensibility Meets White Christmas

Dear Helen, Dear John,

When my sister was four, she ran into our room one day, slammed the door, leapt on top of the bed, and, burying her face in a pillow, sobbed her heart out. When I asked her what was the matter she said, "Blake told me he doesn't want to marry me anymore." Trying to comfort her, I told her that there would be other boys and that she was still very young. She shook her head with an emphatic "No!" before wailing, "Now I'm going to be an old maid like you!" 

It's no secret to you that next to being an only child, the thing I wanted most was to have a sister. It took three brothers and eleven years to get her, but she came at last and my life has been better ever since. We've always been extremely close but almost entirely different in temperament. I was a nurturer of babies, baby dolls, and stuffed animals as a child while she caught tadpoles and dreamt of Christmases that would bring her dump trucks. She's sparkling, spontaneous, scientific, and social; I'm quieter, a planner, with an artistic bent, and content to share my life with a few close friends. I was frilly-girly as a little girl outside of my propensity to climb trees, but went to jeans and sweaters and little makeup as I grew up. It took three brothers and two stepbrothers to teach her how to walk like a girl, but my sister went from tomboy to whistle-bait in her late teens and has never looked back.

Our mutual dating years have had strong resemblances to Elinor and Marianne's, which has made these last chapters of Sense and Sensibility painful to an extreme for me to read, but they've also reminded me of another sister pair who have a bit of the Elinor/Marianne dynamic in their relationship. Are you ready? Here they are: 

No matter that when Em and I do it we tend to perform it this way:

which I'm certain you find hilarious.

Now to some of the White Christmas/Sense and Sensibilty similarities:

Betty (Elinor) reprimands Judy (Marianne) for going against propriety, inviting Bob and Phil to come see them under false pretenses (writing a letter as the girls' brother and Bob and Phil's war buddy).

Judy and Phil hit it off right away:

while Betty and Bob are more cautious and restrained.

There is a slightly sharper, wittier Mrs. Jennings/Mrs. Palmer in the form of Emma, the housekeeper who listens in on telephone extensions and meddles for good in a loving way. And, be still my heart, there is a military man similar to Colonel Brandon in some respects, who wins my heart here in a big way- General Waverly. I would marry a man many years older than myself to be with someone like him. Digressing! Digressing!

No, the plots are not the same, but the close relationship of the sisters who do not view life in the same way and who do not always share what is closest to their hearts when love enters the picture still resonates. That, coupled with both girls ending up with the right fellow for each of them in the end, is perhaps where the similarities end. But it is Christmastime after all, and White Christmas is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I will let my thoughts and ramblings on the subject stand.

Dancing with Danny Kaye in my dreams, *happy sigh*


This post is part of Advent with Austen and the Sense and Sensibility Readalong.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Advent with Austen: Kandukondain Kandukondain

Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It) is a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. When the first character in this Tamil cinema production burst into song, I was taken aback. Sense and Sensibility: India, the musical? I wasn't expecting that. That first musical sequence was a little weird/different for me and I knew that I wasn't getting the symbolism of it, but by the third time members of the cast burst into song it started to feel natural and I was able to appreciate and enjoy the movie from then on. The dancing was amazing; the women incredibly strong and graceful; the clothes, beautiful.

I particularly loved how they adapted the storyline to modern-day India. The interactions between Captain Bala (Colonel Brandon), a war veteran and amputee, and Meenakshi (Marianne Dashwood); the "Dashwood" women and the selfish sister-in-law "Fanny"; and Sowmya (Elinor Dashwood) and her boss (Sir John), were deftly and brilliantly done- very believable and touching.

A musical, subtitled, and running over two-and-a-half hours, this isn't a movie I can watch with just anybody. It's a little exotic for most of the people I know, but it is one of those rare movies I couldn't stop thinking about, remembering, and pondering over once the movie was done, which puts it in a special class for me. I'm anxious to see it again now that I know better what to expect. I have a feeling this will be a movie I will gain from and see a little differently each time I watch it. I like that- a lot.

Something else I really liked about this movie is that it transported me from a state of slight culture shock and discomfort in the beginning to genuine appreciation of the music, language, and beauty of India and its people. Some of the kindest, most intelligent and humble people I have known have come from India. This movie made me miss them as I saw some of their qualities represented in the characters who captured my heart in this movie.

Kandukondain Kandukondain has made me want to learn more about India as a whole, and the Tamil region in particular.

poitu varen,


This post is part of Advent with Austen.

My 2012 Olympic Challenge

Dear Helen, Dear John,

The Olympics are coming this year to London! While it is unlikely that I will be able to be there in person (though stranger things have happened in my life), I've decided to be there in spirit by pursuing a challenge of my own making: I have decided to do something that better acquaints me with every country that will be participating in them.  It can be through books, songs, movies, plays, recipes, pictures, art, citizens or any combination of the above. The point is to learn and acquire a greater knowledge and appreciation for where the athletes come from before the games begin.

I brought down my globe that used to be my dad's this last week and played with it the way I used to when I was young: spinning it, closing my eyes, setting my finger down gently on it until it stopped, then opening my eyes to see where I ended up. I looked for the closest participating country to where my finger landed and wrote it on my list to explore over the next few weeks- not always a straightforward process since several of the countries have changed names and boundaries since this globe came into existence. After eleven spins I had a manageable list to start from.

Originally I had planned to write about each country only once, but because I am having to round up materials from a number of places and I never know when the library requests I've made are going to come, I've decided to write about what I am discovering in short posts along the way and labeling them by country as I go along.

Your armchair traveler,


The 2012 Chunkster Challenge

Dear Helen, Dear John,

You know I love wandering among library shelves and picking a wide variety of books that quickly become very heavy before I check out. Well, because of how sick I've been, it's actually been several months since I've done it. Advent with Austen has provided a great transition for me as I've started to get well. I've gone from being able to read for just a few minutes to well over an hour in a relatively short period of time and it has been a tremendous blessing.

Yesterday I returned to the little Friends of the Library alcove and picked up the pristine paperback copy of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that was waiting for me on the top shelf there. I've had dreams about that book each night since I saw it earlier this week and after reading a few thoughts people had on it, I decided this book was meant for me. I bought it for a dollar. With that purchase I didn't just buy a 1056 page classic for an incredible deal- I also decided that yes, I would participate at the 2012 Chunkster Challenge at the highest level- 8 or more books over 450 pages apiece, three of which are 750 pages or more. Of all the years of my life, I think this coming year is the ideal time to do it.

Here's the to-read list I have so far:

The 750 Page + Tomes:

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Smaller Chunkers:

Margaret Thatcher's Memoirs, two volumes, 600 pages + apiece ( I am not watching the movie The Iron Lady until I read both of these which means I will either read quickly (unlikely), or catch it on DVD (likely)!)

Waverly by Sir Walter Scott

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Most of these are books I have already committed myself to reading this year so if I win one of these challenges I will likely win them all. Is that motivation or what?

Ambitiously yours,


Friday, December 16, 2011

Advent with Austen: Jane Austen Tag Questions

Dear Helen, Dear John,

To celebrate Jane Austen's birthday I am answering Miss Dashwood's tag questions from Yet Another Period Drama Blog.

1 - What was the first JA novel you ever read, and who introduced you to it? Pride and Prejudice   Mary Kelly was horrified that I had never read it before and that I had no plans or intention to do so.  She immediately loaned me her copy. I took it hesitantly and skeptically. I had never heard of Jane Austen before. I walked slowly back to your house, John, while her praises of the book replayed in my mind. Grandma was out of town and I had the entire place to myself- such a luxury! I started to read, got caught up in the story, and read late into the night until the letters started bouncing all over the page and I could distinguish the words no longer- right after Lizzie finds out about Lydia and tells Darcy and he leaves- NOOOOO!!!! There was nothing more I could do- I slept fitfully for several hours, woke about six and turned on the bedside lamp to see if I could read once more. I could, I did, and I finished it early that morning. It is one of my favorite memories and has remained a joyful book for me.

2 - Which is your least favorite JA novel, and why?  (Everybody posts about their favorites... I want to know what's at the bottom of your list!) Northanger Abbey
  Jane's writing is witty in this one but I have consistently struggled to get into the story. I may feel differently after reading the book all the way through, which I am doing this time despite my difficulties getting into the spirit of the book and while trying to forget my first encounter with it (a film adaptation that I watched by myself late one night with a scene that totally freaked me out!). 

3 - Who do you think is the funniest character JA ever created? Lady Catherine de Bourgh

4 - Which JA villain[ess] do you love to hate? Caroline Bingley

5 - What's your favorite JA quote? This is my favorite part of Pride and Prejudice. Bingley, in his pleasant and good-natured way, makes it possible for Darcy and Elizabeth to be alone together with Mrs. Bennet none the wiser; teasing and encouraging his friend and future sister-in-law in the process. It's genius and I adore him for it.   
As soon as they entered, Bingley looked at her so expressively, and shook hands with such warmth, as left no doubt of his good information; and he soon afterwards said aloud, "Mrs Bennet, have you no more lanes hearabouts in which Lizzy may lose her way again to-day?" 
"I advise Mr Darcy, and Lizzy, and Kitty," said Mrs Bennet, "to walk to Oakham Mount this morning. It is a nice long walk, and Mr Darcy has never seen the view." 
"It may do very well for the others," replied Mr Bingley; "but I am sure it will be too much for Kitty. Won't it, Kitty?" 
Kitty owned that she had rather stay at home. Darcy professed a great curiosity to see the view from the Mount, and Elizabeth silently consented. 
6 - If you were to "start" someone on JA, which book would you recommend to them first and why? Pride and Prejudice  I believe it is the most accessible of Austen's works: the characters are vibrant, the pacing is quick, the language witty. 

7 - What is your absolute favorite JA film adaptation and why? Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility  
The script is amazing, the cinematography like a Vermeer painting, the music brilliant. I love the subtleties of the acting and the storytelling. This is one of the rare movies I prefer to the book. 

8 - If you could authorize a new film adaptation of one of JA's novels, which would it be and why? Mansfield Park if Emma Thompson would write the script for it because every adaptation of the novel I've seen tabloids the story and misses many of the tender, subtle, and thoughtful bits that make it thought- provoking and compelling. Henry Crawford is not a hopeless villain from start to finish. That's part of what makes his choices later on so devastating, because he could be genuinely tender and considerate, generous and wise. He had the capability to be a hero in the mold of Darcy had he chosen to focus on the honorable impulses he had, instead of acting out of pride and conceit.  Fanny is sickly, introverted, and timid but she is  also able to love deeply and purely (similar to Anne Elliot- who is also frequently undervalued by her family), appreciate beauty and reading (similar in some respects to Marianne Dashwood), notice and feel things that those around her often miss,  and stands firm in the face of considerable opposition because she will not marry merely to marry or to marry for position or money (a quality respected in the form of Elizabeth Bennet). 

9 - Which JA character do you most identify with? Anne Eliot

10 - If you could have lunch with JA today, what question would you most like to ask her? What is your writing process like from start to finish?

11 - Is there any one thing that you think could have been improved upon in one (or all) of JA's books?  What is it and why? I believe she had reasons for writing as she did and that they should be left as she thought was best. 

12 - If you could have lunch with one of JA's characters today, who would it be and why? Mr. Bingley (as he is written) because he is such a dear and charming person that lunch couldn't be anything but a pleasant experience with him.   

13 - (optional) Why is Miss Dashwood so fond of asking "why"? Because why questions get you the best answers!

I have loads more to tell you about what I've been reading, planning, and plotting so I will write more soon. Till then, I will be

Immersed in Austen,


This post is part of Advent with Austen.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent with Austen: Mansfield Park

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I finished Jane Austen's Mansfield Park at two o'clock this morning. I couldn't bear to finish it and have it end, but, in the end, I couldn't put it down.

In the early chapters I marked the passages that struck and moved me with a series of sticky-notes. Three chapters in, my copy of the book was quickly becoming a nest of thin colored papers, attached here and there in every possible configuration. The book was becoming unwieldy and prickly- something had to be done.

Remembering the early childhood chastenings I received when I used to mark my favorite books in various ways for later reading and re-reading,  I hesitated. Remembering how reading the lines from my favorite Billy Collin's poem, "Marginalia," makes me feel- joy bubbling up from a youthful spring deep within, ordinarily dormant and forgotten- I made an important decision. It is my book, after all. I broke out a fine-tipped watercolor pen and I marked Mansfield Park with purpose, recklessness, and delight.

That is how I discovered and read the exquisite that is Mansfield Park. Pride and Prejudice will likely remain the Austen novel I most enjoy reading with others, but Mansfield Park is the Austen novel I will most enjoy reading by myself. There is a complexity and depth, a truthfulness, that is unique to this story in the Jane Austen canon. The characters from this book, are people I recognize and know.

My copy of Mansfield Park is divided into three books. The first book is in many ways a documentation of the peer pressure, drama, flirtations, and wrangling for status and popularity that are common in middle school and high school. The second, the alteration of thoughts, feelings, circumstances, and relationships that are all a part of growing up. The third book, a continuation of the second, ending with a literary equivalent of a high school reunion, many years later. What happened to the person believed most likely to succeed? The prom king and queen? The shy, studious girl who barely spoke six words a quarter? As in real life, the results may surprise at first, but can usually be traced to a series of small, but consistent, choices.

In Mansfield Park, intentions matter. Even when doing your best at the time results in hurt and disaster, as is fairly common in the case of Sir Thomas, over time, a surprising number of things, under the circumstances, work out. Perhaps seldom in the way you originally envisioned them, but in some cases, better than you had originally foreseen or planned.

Choices have consequences. You cannot escape them. There is hurting in this book, but there is also some healing. At a time of year when family relationships are tested, lamented, and enjoyed in differing measures, it can be helpful to know that these experiences are common to the human condition. It can be awful. It can get better. People can drift apart. People can learn to better understand and appreciate each other. I loved this book. I loved how it illuminated and helped me reevaluate the story of me, the story of us.

My markings in Mansfield Park will likely puzzle any future readers. In time, they may puzzle me! But, oh! what a beautiful read it's been!

With special thanks for how you both softened your manner because you loved and valued me,


This post is part of Advent with Austen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent with Austen: Emma with Romola Garai

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I knitted and crocheted as I watched my favorite adaptation of Emma today. There are several things that make this adaptation shine for me. The interaction between Emma and Mr. Knightley is brilliant in showing two people falling in love for the first time. Emma's emotional reaction to not being able to leave her father while he still needs her and Mr. Knightley's response is deep and human, funny and beautiful. The way Mr. Knightley helps support and calm her as she tells her father of their engagement is one of the most romantic parts of the movie for me. I say one of, because Poppy Miller as Isabella Knightley steals the show for me. She and her husband are not always well-rested, cheerful, or happy (thank you for a realistic view of what marriage over time can be like- especially with a number of active children to care for) but in the end, there is no question that they love and are devoted to each other. She knows how to make him smile and feel wanted and important because she knows and loves him so well. I love her performance throughout the entire movie but I confess to skipping straight to the end on numerous occasions simply to watch her and her husband for an immediate shot of happy.

I think the opening sequence showing the similarities and differences of Emma, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill's situations after the death of their respective parents is exceptionally well done, with a simplicity and spareness that allows but does not force feelings. The relationship between Emma, Isabella, and their Father is sensitively and sympathetically portrayed here. This is not the only adaptation of Emma with something special to offer, but for me it is the gentlest one with a superb cast, beautiful music (I especially love the cello bits!), and an expansive, feel-good ending.

I have a great deal of knitting, crocheting, and reading to do so I will end here tonight.

With much love and a tad bit of anxiety about finishing my Christmas gifts on time,


This post is part of Advent with Austen.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent with Austen: The Real Jane Austen and Mansfield Park

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I watched The Real Jane Austen as part of Advent with Austen this morning. I was struck by the similarities of Austen's life to the circumstances of her characters in Sense and Sensibility: disappointed in love at a young age by a man who chose to marry for money, poor and dependent upon her brothers' goodwill and generosity after her father's death... The saddest aspect of her life to me however was something I had never known about her and her siblings before, and that is how their mother sent them out to be raised and cared for by others when they were very young until they could speak, reason, and take care of themselves. Two of them were raised by other families for the rest of their lives.  Mrs. Austen's attitude towards her children astonishes me and makes me pity her. To have children and not want to be actively engaged with them as they grow is to miss out on some of life's deepest and most lasting happinesses.

I did not want to end the day on that note. I hope to read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen's birthday this Friday while I keep on schedule for the Sense and Sensibility Readalong. I love how it begins:
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.
"...had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram." Captivate... what a delicious word. I've never thought of that word before in this context. Beware the power of suggestion one word can activate! This one is definitely putting ideas into my head!

Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are the only completed works by Austen that I don't recall having read all the way through before. There is a bookmark in Mansfield Park on page 135 that leads me to believe that, at least with this book, this is in fact the case. If I manage to read Mansfield Park in a timely manner, I may attempt to read Northanger Abbey before Advent with Austen is done. In the meantime I'll lay all other thoughts and worries aside for the next hour or two and allow the characters and story of Mansfield Park to captivate me while nurturing the hope that someday, I'll captivate someone else.

I am dreaming while reading (and smiling extra big for your benefit),


Friday, December 9, 2011

An Evening with Beethoven

Dear Helen, Dear John,

If you tipped the world outside my window upside down, it would look like deep drifts of snow. The entire sky is a solid mass of graying white. The cool stillness of it with the evening slipping in is the perfect setting to listen to my two favorite pieces by Beethoven: his Romance No. 2 in F Major (Op. 50)

and the Adagio of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, "Emperor" (Op. 73).

They are hauntingly beautiful pieces that I hope to be able to play well on the cello and the piano one day.

Quiet and contemplatively yours,


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent With Austen: The Heroism of Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility

Dear Helen, Dear John,

This time through Sense and Sensibility the character I've found the most heroic in the first twenty-two chapters has been Sir John Middleton. Perhaps this is because this is the first time I've read this book since my mother was widowed. Knowing the situation and circumstances we were in after my father died- who helped us and who didn't- and remembering some of the distressing encounters we had with people who tried to take advantage of our situation, Sir John's kindness and generosity to the Dashwood family was particularly moving to me.
His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter. Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him. He said much of his earnest desire of their living on the most sociable terms with his family, and pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home, that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offence. His kindness was not confined to words; for within an hour after he left them, a large basket full of garden stuff and fruit arrived from the Park, which was followed before the end of the day by a present of game. (S&S Chapter VI)
The contrast between Mr. John Dashwood and Sir John Middleton is stark. Both men are related to the Dashwoods but whereas John may talk of generous gestures and duties, Sir John (a more distant relative) fulfills them. His generosity isn't limited to family, those of his own age, interests, or class:
But Sir John's satisfaction in society was much more real; he delighted in collecting about him more young people than his house would hold, and the noisier they were the better was he pleased. He was a blessing to all the juvenile part of the neighbourhood, for in summer he was for ever forming parties to eat cold ham and chicken out of doors, and in winter his private balls were numerous enough for any young lady who was not suffering under the insatiable appetite of fifteen. (S&S Chapter IIV)
He is described as welcoming with unaffected sincerity (Chapter IIV). He genuinely likes people and is eager and able to see positive qualities in others. And while he is described tongue in cheek as "Benevolent, philanthropic man! It was painful to him even to keep a third cousin to himself." (Chapter XXI)- it was also true. Unlike John, Sir John is eager to share all the good things he has, and can devise and execute, with others. Whereas no amount of wealth and resources will ever be enough for John and Fanny to be content, I am certain that Sir John could be arthritic and penniless and would still be able to find a way to be cheerful and share with others.

Jane Austen writes that Sir John had a "total want of talent and taste" and little inner resources to entertain and occupy himself beyond hunting (Chapter VII), but I disagree. Sir John is not an intellectual to be sure, but he is willing to be friendly and warm with everyone, regardless of their rank, age, gender or the presence or absence of mutual occupations and shared interests- a rare and beautiful quality. He is also honest, forthright, flexible, and resourceful; such as when the trip to Whitwell had to be cancelled at the last minute after the sudden departure of Colonel Brandon to London: "When Sir John returned, he joined most heartily in the general regret on so unfortunate an event; concluding, however, by observing, that as they were all got together, they must do something by way of being happy; and after some consultation it was agreed, that although happiness could only be enjoyed at Whitwell, they might procure a tolerable composure of mind by driving about the country." (Chapter XIII)

Certainly his teasing could be vexing and his spontaneous offerings of hospitality, a trial to his wife (and some of their guests) at times, but by and large I believe that the world would be a better place if more of us would open up our arms and our hearts to others like Sir John.

Slowly... opening...,


This post is part of Advent with Austen and the Sense and Sensibility Read Along.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Selections for Two Classic Books Reading Challenges

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It's taken me ages, but I have finally decided on the books I plan to read for the two classic lit reading challenges I'm participating in next year!

Katherine at November's Autumn is hosting a challenge to read seven works of Classic Literature in 2012. Here's my list:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I loved following Kostya Levin's story in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and have wanted to read more of Tolstoy ever since. I've read some of his short stories, but I've held off on War and Peace... until now. Jillian announced recently that she is extending the deadline of her War and Peace Readalong to June of next year, so this coming year is the perfect time for me to be doing this!

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
A guy friend of mine gave me a copy of this book a decade ago so we could talk about it together and while I started it, for reasons I don't remember now, I didn't get very far. He's happily married and living with his wife in Singapore so while I won't be discussing it with him as he originally intended, I still have the chance to read and discuss it with others at Kate's Readalong this year. Happiness!

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Mister Rogers kept a quote from this book in his office. I studied French in high school and for one year in college, and always meant to read this in French. I may be reading it side by side with the English translation in order to understand it, but I am determined that I will read this in the original language this year.

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott
It was a character from my favorite Emilie Loring novel, The Solitary Horseman, that led me to read The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott. I loved it and I have never viewed life the same way since. I've read several of Scott's other works because of that experience, and while the others may not be books I will read again, I have always felt that they have been worth my time because I have grown so much by reading them. Waverley is regarded by many as the first historical novel. It was also Scott's first published work of prose fiction. Jane Austen said of it: "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. -- It is not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths.-- I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it -- but fear I must". All good reasons for reading it.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
I've had a copy of this book on my shelf for a substantial number of years. An unabashed Brit-lit fan, I'm much less familiar with American authors. It's time to expand my horizons a little.

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
I was a precocious reader growing up, but a little too young to read and understand this book at the time my father bought it for me while I was still in elementary school. I've seen the movie version with Spencer Tracy and I'm looking forward to feeling a special connection with my dad as I read it.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
I first encountered Elizabeth Gaskell through her book Wives and Daughters and enjoyed reading Cranford several years later. I saw the 2004 miniseries adaptation of North and South this year and am looking forward to a richer experience with the story by reading the book.

I will be using some of the books from this challenge to complete Sarah's Back to the Classics Challenge 2012, which I will also be doing this coming year. Her book requirements (with my choices in parentheses) are:
  • Any 19th Century Classic  (The Last of the Mohicans)
  • Any 20th Century Classic (All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque)
  • Reread a classic of your choice (A Room with a View by E.M. Forster)
  • A Classic Play (Cato by Joseph Addison)
  • Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction (I'm thinking a Nancy Drew if it will count, or a mystery by G.K. Chesterton or Baroness Orczy if it doesn't)
  • Classic Romance (North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)
  • Read a Classic that has been translated from its original language to your language   - To clarify, if your native language is NOT English, you may read any classic originally written in English that has been translated into your native language.  (War and Peace)
  • Classic Award Winner  - To clarify, the book should be a classic which has won any established literary award.  (I'm waiting to decide on this one)
  • Read a Classic set in a Country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime  - To Clarify, this does not have to be a country that you hope to visit either.  Countries that no longer exist or have never existed count. (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien)
It's ambitious but more than do-able I think, even with the other reading I'm planning on doing. I haven't done reading challenges or readalongs before this month, so this is a new experience for me that I'm enjoying immensely!

Joyfully yours,


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Month with Shakespeare

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Marianne Dashwood and reading and reciting poetry have been on my mind a great deal since I wrote you last. Perhaps it is because it was Kate Winslet's poignant recitation of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 in the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility, coupled with references to his works made by a steady stream of people I respected and admired around that same time, that led me to give Shakespeare another chance after a dismal first acquaintance with him in high school English classes.

I've since read, watched, and listened to a number of his plays, dragging some reluctant siblings to join me along the way. One of my favorite moments was walking past my teenage brother's room one afternoon and overhearing him confide to his best friend as I passed, "Melanie made me watch Shakespeare today, and I liked it!" That led to him and his friend watching a number of movies with me (some with subtitles even!) that teenage boys aren't supposed to be interested in or like, but that they did.

My pursuit to appreciate Shakespeare led my little sister to take a Shakespeare class in college with a fabulous teacher she still keeps in touch with today. One of our favorite memories together is the night she called me from halfway across the United States to ask me if I would read The Tempest with her that night, in its entirety, to prepare her for a big test she had on it the following day. We used our cell phones because that was the only way it wouldn't eat up her minutes, which made things challenging on my end because at the time, a three-foot span on the floor of her bedroom was the only place in the house where our calls wouldn't drop every three minutes. I grabbed my copy of Shakespeare's plays, plopped myself down on the carpet, and we divvied the roles between us in a way that would make the dialogue flow best in each scene. I was hoarse by the time we were through, but we both had a blast doing it and have read a few scenes from other Shakespeare plays together just for fun since then.

I still have loads more to learn and experience with Shakespeare, which is why I've decided to participate in the Shakespeare Reading Month this January. I watched the first episode of In Search of Shakespeare today, to increase my excitement for the event while I worked on Christmas gifts. I ended up learning a great deal about Shakespeare and his time that I did not know.  It turns out that there was a great deal of the Stasi about Shakespeare's time in England, though their massive files on everyday citizens were kept on parchment back then- parchment as in, what the Declaration of Independence is written on, parchment. The files have survived to this day. Incredible!

The sky is white, the wind is restless, and I? I am trembling with cold and on my way downstairs to boil some water.



Monday, December 5, 2011

Advent with Austen: Sense and Sensibility Read Along through Chapter Three

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I cuddled up with Sense and Sensibility and read the introduction and first three chapters last night, stopping afterwards to look up William Cowper (which is pronounced like Cooper, to my surprise) on YouTube and listening as several people read and recited his poetry while I knitted quietly. Listening to them, especially the reading of John Gilpin and The CastawayI could understand Marianne's lament about Edward's reading:
"O mama! how spiritless, how tame was Edward's manner in reading to us last night!... To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!...if he is not to be animated by Cowper! would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility." (S&S, Chapter III)
Cowper's poems do seem to almost drive you to express some excitement and emotion as you read them. Reading some of Cowper's poetry today, I think the following lines express Marianne and her mother's views on sensibility particularly well:
Hard is that heart and unsubdued by love
     That feels no pain, nor ever heaves a sigh,
Such hearts the fiercest passions only prove,
     Or freeze in cold insensibility.
Oh! then indulge thy grief, nor fear to tell
    The gentle source from whence thy sorrows flow!
Nor think it weakness when we love to feel,
    Nor think it weakness what we feel to show.
(On Her Endeavouring to Conceal Her Grief at Parting by William Cowper)
While personally my temperament in most respects is closer to Elinor's, I can relate to Marianne's desires to find a man who shares her feelings, interests, and tastes in the activities and pursuits that are important to her. I have also on more than one occasion sighed inwardly at the thought that, "...the more I know of the world, the more am I convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love."

Even as I enter my mid-thirties still single, I believe Mrs. Dashwood's counsel in this case is sound: "It is yet too early in life to despair of such an happiness."  My mother's mum found great love and happiness after decades of being incredibly lonely and sad, when she met and married, at the age of 87 or 88, I believe it was, a widower in his nineties.

Where there is life there are opportunities for love and happiness- it isn't limited to the teen and twenty-something set.  

I am yet hopeful,


This post is part of Advent with Austen and the Sense and Sensibility Read Along.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent with Austen: Sense and Sensibility Read Along

Dear Helen, Dear John,

It has been ages since I've really immersed myself in fiction. Last week was the first time in years that I've read a novel from cover to cover within twenty-four hours. I remember now why it used to be a ritual for me in college right before finals: I felt incredibly optimistic and mentally vibrant afterwards. Nearly all of my reading this past year, as you know, has been connected with research. Last week reminded me that I need to allow myself time to read purely for enjoyment as well. This month is the perfect month for me to do it.

Reading, fuelled by tea is hosting Advent with Austen. It's the 200th anniversary of the publishing of  Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility so that is the book I'm going to start with, joining the read along a tad late but with enough time to spare to enjoy it without stressing.

My book is waiting for me. I'll be reading the 1913 version Randy gave me several Christmases ago. The pages are yellowed with a delightful old British library aroma about them. It's dark, chill, and drizzly outside and I have two wool traveling rugs from Scotland to wrap myself up in.  In short, I have the ideal setting in which to begin. So I shall.

With delight,


Come to the Stable

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Come to the Stable is a movie you are both familiar with I am sure, especially since it stars Loretta Young. John mentioned once that Loretta Young reminded him so much of you, Helen, in the way she held herself, looked, and acted that I think of you both every time I see her. It should come as no surprise then, that she has become one of my favorite actresses.

And this is one of my favorite movies, especially at Christmas time when the weather gets cold and I feel more than a little frozen inside. My feelings this time of year are usually far from the bright, holiday sparkle variety because it can be all too easy for me to fall into focusing on what I miss, especially the people who are no longer here to share the holiday with me, than what I am blessed with now. Perhaps that is why I find this movie particularly comforting- set after World War II there are many in this story who are hurting and mourning too.

The focus of this movie is not on the hurting however, but on the healing that comes from taking difficult and painful experiences and using them as a springboard and a catalyst to help others. It is about people with little and people with much who all have something valuable to contribute to a great work, in this case, the building of a hospital. It is about exercising faith and hope while doing all that is within your power at the time. It is about being gracious both in victory and defeat.

I love the humor and humanity in this movie and I appreciate that while it runs just over an hour and a half, it progresses at a gentle pace. It's easy to get frantic this time of year. This movie is a perfect antidote and a calming influence on me. It is also a reminder of where peace amidst turmoil really comes.

The cast is excellent and while this movie is not a musical, music plays an important part in the story in precisely the way that music most often impacts my own life.

Some may be cynical about the story line but it goes right along with what I have experienced myself: kindness and generosity can be found in the unlikeliest of people and places. After all, it was the petty drug dealers next door to us many years ago who kept our house safe from vandals when we were gone, greeting us enthusiastically and with tremendous pride in their accomplishment when we returned.

I've been given a real tree as an early Christmas present which is prompting me to retrieve my pearl lights and seashell ornaments from the hidden recesses of my closet and use them again for the first time in four years. Knowing this was the givers' intention all along makes me both happy and slightly irritated at the same time. To have a personal idiosyncrasy known so well by others makes me want to plumb my inner depths and get mysterious on them in some new way that is still completely honest. Am I the only one who thinks this way or is the rest of the world holding out on me?

Ah, well either way I am yours as ever,