12 in 12 Books

This time, the books version.  No pretty mosaic, but there will be reviews and links and you might just find a few things to put on your list. (Like #9)

After feeling that I hadn’t read much in 2009, I knew I wanted to read more.  And not just more, more that stretched me a bit.  More that woke me up a bit, made me work a bit, more that reminded me that I adore learning and challenges.  So back in January, I wrote this:

I want to read 12 books this year.  Parenting, crafting,and  homeschooling books don’t count.  Neither do fluffy reads.  At least 6 of those are going to be biographies, either fiction or non-fiction.  I’d originally thought I’d do 12 biographies in 12 months.  But I don’t have a lot of time to read and biographies tend to be weighty tomes.”

It turned out, as I hoped it would, that I did have more time to read than I thought I did.  Just by reminding myself that it was important, I found ways to find time.  This is tricky for me.  I fall asleep around 10 pm.  It’s like I just shut down the way a computer set to go into sleep mode makes a little noise and gently tucks itself away. After a busy evening with family, that means I have approximately 10 minutes of useful time to read in bed before I am drooling and the book is falling over.  And in a day full of homeschooling and all the child-wrangling and housework that implies, it’s hard to make space for hobbies.  And I’ve got hobbies that take time.  Running (and this year triathlon) and knitting give me a lot, but they take time.  Reading got short shrift.  What kind of role-modeling was that?

I had a mini-goal of reading 6 biographies.  I believe that if you know a person, you know the time.  What choices faced them?  What constrained them?  What did they long for?  What confronted them?  Know a person and you understand a place and an era.

I have read 45 books so far this year, and the year isn’t yet done.  My 12 in 12 goal is met, though, so here’s a recap:

1.Acacia: Book One: The War with the Mien and Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England

These two I counted as one.  Both were books that I’d begun in the fall and were languishing unfinished on our window seat.  Acacia was powerful and a new approach to fantasy.  I enjoyed it and yet it was terribly intense. While the sequel is out and we own it, Rainer’s reaction to it makes me wonder if it’s too grim for me.  I have an extremely low ‘grimness tolerance’.  A little violence in the name of adventure or justice I can manage, but extended trips into horrid human minds…well, I feel like they make my mind a less pleasant place to spend my days.

Eleanor was a good book, but not a book that swept me away.  It was a careful book, careful to stay within the documentation, careful to balance and consider.  That’s important and I’m glad I read it.

2. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

I enjoyed this one a lot less than I expected.  I thought I’d be getting sassy and satiric; instead I got political and obscure.  Not a bad read, but certainly not something I’m grateful to have discovered.

3. To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa

What a book!  Sometimes the shelves of my dowdy public library surprise me.  This story of a European girl sold into slavery  to be raised in a harem, rescued at her auction by a Victorian Englishman, is fantastic in the original sense of the word.  It would seem ludicrous if it were fiction.  Her spirit, her intelligence, her strength are all incredible.  The story of their journeys in to Africa are astounding.  The image of this woman, an elderly lady in a country home, unfolding her full story to a relative for the first time as she lay sick still stays with me.  It’s not a big moment in the book, and yet the idea of her family confronting the idea of her slavery and harem life for the first time seems so fraught that I still mull it over.   I also felt that I came away from this book with a sense of why Victorians felt entitled to walk into Africa and take over, a position I never expected to have any sympathy for whatsoever.

An extraordinary story that deserves to be better known.

4. Wolf Hall

Big, detailed, hefty.  A tome.  A fascinating literary approach to biography.  A good read.

5. Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson’s Bay Company

Recommended by my father.  Canadians are horrid at telling our own stories; we ‘aw-shucks’ our way into having no heroes, no legends, no epics.  They are there, though.  This biography sets out a magnificent drama.  George Simpson’s travels on this continent outdid even Lewis and Clark in many ways and yet the tale is practically a footnote in North American history.  Simpson was larger than life, a character.   If you are interested in history, particularly of the 19th Century or of North America, you’ll find a treasure in this biography.

6. Mistress of Nothing

Highly recommended. I may have to eat my hat. Didn’t I say that all Canadian literature was grim or boring or both, and that award-winning Canadian fiction was worse? Then Rainer brought this home for me.

Two women leave Victorian London for Egypt. One is a dying Lady hoping the dry, hot air will buy her time; the other is her loyal maid. They leave behind a world of coldness and rules and enter a place where they make their own way. The story is told by the maid, Sally, and explores the ideas of freedom, loyalty, and love. With a culture-clash and a gender-clash and a class-clash all set up, this could have easily tipped into the realm of ‘sweeping saga’ and ‘tumultuous epic’. Instead it remained small and beautiful. Reading it was like watching the unfolding of a flower.

7. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Quirky but with a bite. Usually I’m not one for mysteries, so reading this was meant to nudge me outside my comfort zone. I was happy I did. A smart girl with a passion for chemistry.  The kind of upbringing I can only imagine in country Britain.  A nasty crime and an unfolding puzzle of tangled histories.

8. Wuthering Heights

I reread this in horrified fascination.  Heathcliff’s grinding hatred was implacable in a manner that I found truly frightening.

9. The Lies of Locke Lamora

I have no idea how I stumbled across this one, but it is probably my favourite of the 12.  How could it be better?  1) It’s a heist story; 2) set in a city teeming with complexity and reminiscent of Renaissance Venice; 3) with great characters and better dialogue; 4) and then there’s just a hint of magic.  Rich, complex…and it’s a heist story.  Awesome.

10. Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

I’m married to a librarian who is also a medievalist, and I’m always happy to be noodling about in the Middle Ages with my reading.  I read this one because I’d already read The Last Knight: The  Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Dawn of the Modern Era, which is a cracker-jack of a read about John of Gaunt, and I do like to team up biographies whenever possible.  Swynford set England on its ear by marrying her lover, John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men ever to walk Europe.  Not that he walked.  He was a knight, a power, a ridiculously weathly man, and walking isn’t something I picture him doing much of.  This a love story. (Side note: I loved reading the lists of gifts he makes her.  Oak?  Check.  After all, it’s not quite a cash economy and he’s got lots of land and she’s renovating her keep because she’s having yet another of his bastards.)   It’s a great glimpse into the lives of the elite. If you’re like me, you wonder what it was really like – what was the texture of their days? how did they manage this, that, and the other?  Weir does a great job with this woman.

11. Henry: Virtuous Prince

12. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII

I’ll do these two together since, like Swynford and Gaunt, they go together.  I really enjoyed Starkey’s bio of Elizabeth I and it made me want to read about her father.  What was going on that he married so many times?  Why would he rend Europe in two over religion?  What is going on here?  And when Tudors came out and mesmerized everyone, I had even more motivation to get the facts straight.  The Henry bio is just the first of two, and I look forward to reading the second.  This one dealt with young Henry, the bonny, athletic, charismatic king and his upbringing.  A good read.

Six Wives was even better. It was huge, even by biography standards, and a part of me groaned that I’d picked this to read as the year ticked to a close.  It turned out that the story of each woman was so compelling that I needn’t have worried – I tore through this.  Catherine, the wife Henry divorces, has an incredible story and it was so good to get things straightened out.  Anne Boleyn, again, a fascinating examination of a fascinating woman.  The rest were more or less interesting, depending on what is known about them, but I was pleased to have ‘met’ them.


What’s next?  Well, I want to keep following the rabbit-trail of Tudor history.  I like pairing my biographies and I want to read about Napoleon and Josephine.  (Do you know any good ones?)  Red Seas under Red Skies, the sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora, is certain to make its way into my hands as well. Jane Eyre and The Eyre Affair beckon.   The Demon’s Lexicon has been caught in my peripheral vision ever since I read a great review of it over at Abby (the) Librarian.


One thought on “12 in 12 Books

  1. Annie says:

    If you’re going to read Jane Eyre and just read WH, you should also pick up Anne Bronte’s masterpiece, the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to complete the picture of life for a woman on the moors. Reading the three together fascinated me– that three women, raised in the same household, could paint such amazingly different portraits of love.
    Also, on the biography front, check out Amazing Grace, Wilburforce’s biography. Also, think about Waiting for Snow in Havana, a memoir of leaving Cuba. It’s outstanding.

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