Here are 10 great classics that I have loved reading. Special thanks to the wonderful photographer Cath Muscat for the stunning photos on this month’s post.
‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Allen & Unwin) The name of this book can be tricky to remember, but its idiosyncrasy is crucial to how the fictional society was named. Set on the English Channel Island, Guernsey during WWII, this book is as much about the history of this island as it is about friendships and the joy of reading. I didn’t know that Guernsey was occupied from 30th June, 1940 – 9th May, 1945, that it had no contact with the outside world, that their children were evacuated to England and that food boxes were sent to them. Fascinating! I loved the references to many books such as ‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens lifting one of the character’s spirits, another character’s comments on the Brontë sisters’ father, Roman Seneca’s philosophies, ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens being serialised, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being ‘one of the greatest love stories ever written’, Mr Rochester in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Daddy Long Legs’. Themes such as the joy of reading, how books connect people, ‘Now he had books to talk about…- and friend to talk to’ and how people were ‘joined by their love of books, of talking about books, and of their fellow readers’ were all music to my ears. Barrows stepped in to finish the book when her aunt Shaffer’s health declined and she later died.
Wallpaper background ‘The Cranes’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens (Penguin) Was it ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens or ‘Charles Dickens’ by David Copperfield? This was a question often asked between friends when I was at school; the reversal of initials DC and CD was confusing! Apparently when asked about the reversal of initials Dickens was surprised and said he hadn’t realised it. This is probably Dickens’ most autobiographical novel and he refers to it as his favourite. As Dickens’ first book to be written in the first person from a child’s perspective, it’s about an unhappy and impoverished childhood where Copperfield is orphaned with a cruel stepfather. As he makes his way in the world and becomes a writer he encounters a range of people who change his fortunes in very different ways. Some of Dickens’ memorable characters including Copperfield’s childhood nurse Peggotty, his eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, the creepy Uriah Heep and the comic Mr Micawber (who was based on Dickens’ father) are highlights in this book.
Wallpaper background ‘Japanese Floral’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
‘James and the Giant Peach’ by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Puffin; Penguin) Dahl had an amazing imagination! This classic story is about a miserable boy who has an unhappy childhood living with his mean aunts. Then one day a peach grows and grows on the tree at the bottom of the garden. An intrigued James enters the peach….This is a story of imagination and escapism. The characters are carefully depicted and the pace of the novel is quick and entertaining. Blake’s magical illustrations capture the characters, excitement and movement perfectly. Blake became the first ever Children’s Laureate in 1999. Apparently this book was originally named ‘James and the Giant Cherry’, but Dahl changed it because he said that a peach is ‘prettier, bigger and squishier than a cherry’!
Wallpaper background ‘The Egrets’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
Read the interview with Quentin Blake here.
‘The Hare With the Amber Eyes; A Hidden Inheritance’ by Edmund de Waal (Vintage; Random House) Art, Paris, Vienna, Japan – what’s not to like? I loved re-reading this book – basically it’s the true story of a collection of 264 netsuke (small ivory and wooden toggles carved by Japanese craftsmen) that were collected by an art connoisseur living in France in 1870s, given to his cousin in Vienna as a wedding present around the turn of last century, inherited by his son who lived in Tokyo then inherited by his nephew the author; a renowned potter. De Waal traces the netsuke’s history and, in turn, his family’s history. I have often read about the story of the painter Manet being paid more than he thought he was going to be paid for his painting ‘A Bunch of Asparagus’, so he painted a single asparagus and sent it to the buyer with a note ‘This seems to have slipped from the bundle’. Reading this book I was delighted to discover that the buyer was De Waal’s relative living in France c. 1870. This same relative is also the gentleman in the top hat at the back of Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’! Apparently many of the Manets, Degas and Monets paintings in in the Jeu de Pomme have a sign ‘coll. C.Ephrussi’ as they were left to the museum in memory of this relation by his niece. The netsuke then went on to become an important part of De Waal’s great-uncle’s childhood when his mother (who had been given these as a wedding present) let the children play with them whilst she talked about them and made up stories when she was dressing for parties or dinner in her dressing room in Vienna. When artworks were confiscated during WWII, 30 of the paintings in the house were declared immediately ‘museum-worthy’. The netsuke were hidden by a maid who took them from the shelves by hiding them in her pockets. This maid then gave them back to the daughter when they were reunited. The daughter gave the netsuke to De Waal’s great-uncle who used to show them to the author one afternoon each week when De Waal would visit him when he was living in Tokyo. A really fascinating book!
Wallpaper background ‘Geometric G’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen (Penguin) Dark abbeys, locked rooms and mysterious men are not usually themes that get me rushing to read a book, but Austen writes in such a wonderful way that all is forgiven! Parodying popular gothic novels of the time with their intrigue and mystery, the heroine of this book, Catherine, loves to read this type of novel and lets her imagination run wild. This book is about jumping to conclusions which in turn create misunderstandings and miseries. Through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, Catherine learns that she must research and discover things for herself to form her own opinions, not always rely on others for facts and information.
Wallpaper background ‘Tortoiseshell stripe’ by Florence Broadhurst (FBW-RF127) courtesy of Signature Prints.
‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott (Penguin) Four very different sisters living with their mum at home help whilst their father is away at the American Civil War; the limited number of characters and locations produces a study of family relationships and personalities with each sister facing her own challenges. First published in 1868, this book is based on Alcott’s childhood with her three sisters. There are basically seven female characters and three male characters in this book. Themes such as the usefulness of work and occupation are championed throughout the book; ‘work was the panacea for most afflictions’ as well as the role of women, social conscience and peace; ‘she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy’. Set between one Christmas and the next, this is a year in the life of the March sisters; the problems they faced and how they resolved them. A great insight into American history at the time with lessons that are still relevant today.
Wallpaper background ‘The Cranes’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
Watch my discussion about ‘Little Women’ on the Penguin Book Club here.
‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ by Mark Twain (Penguin) I was keen to re-read this book after reading ‘Brief Encounters’ by Susannah Fullerton describing Twain’s humour. It didn’t disappoint; I could hear Twain’s long drawn-out Southern American drawl through his wonderful dry, dry sense of humour. Twain said that most of the adventures in the book were drawn from his experiences or his friends from school and that Tom Sawyer is a combination of three boys he knew; throughout the book I liked to wonder which ones may have been Twain’s experiences! Opening with the fence white washing scene where Tom cleverly cons his friends one by one into doing his job for him and paying him for the pleasure of it, we are introduced to the cheeky main character, his friends and the town inhabitants. Twain seems to have fun writing this book, describing Tom’s auntie who was always keen to try out new remedies; ‘When something fresh in this line came out she was in a fever right away to try it; not on herself, for she was never ailing; but on anybody else that came handy’. When a young girl doesn’t want to listen to something Twain says ‘She tried to go away, but her feet were treacherous, and carried her to the group instead’. When Tom is confused and upset, ‘Tom’s tongue had lost its function’ and when Tom arrives home to his aunt, ‘Tom arrived at home in a dreary mood, and the first thing his aunt said to him showed him that he had brought his sorrows to an unpromising market’. There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments, although themes of racial segregation, honour and community are also addressed throughout the book.
Wallpaper background ‘Japanese Bamboo’ by Florence Broadhurst (FBW-RF110) courtesy of Signature Prints.
‘Agnes Grey’ by Anne Bronte (The Modern Library; Random House) The story of Agnes Grey was drawn from Anne Brontë’s own experiences as a governess between 1830-1845 in England. As the only respectable employment for an unmarried woman in the nineteenth century, Brontë describes the hardship, loneliness and humiliation Agnes Grey experiences whilst working with one family and the trying personalities of the next family she works with. Brontë relates the precarious nature of being a governess, what it entailed and how it affected a young woman. When reading the book you can empathise with the young Grey and the challenges she faces with her charges, position in society and opportunities. This was the first book Anne Bronte wrote; what talent!
Wallpaper background ‘Japanese Fans’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ by J.K.Rowling (Bloomsbury) I first read this book when it was first published and have recently re-read it. My eldest daughter is a big Harry Potter fan and over the years we have been on two of the Gleebooks Harry Potter launches with steam trains to unknown destinations to pick up the newly-released books by 9am on Saturdays, all the while being entertained by wizards, quizzes and Harry Potter related food and drinks. There have been various dress-up days complete with their own wands and capes made by beloved grandpa and grandma and even Harry Potter in Latin; ‘Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis’. I love the wonderful references in this book to other books such as Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ with the fabulous range of lollies available on the train to Hogwarts, Filch owning a mean cat called ‘Mrs Norris’ (could this be a reference to the aunt in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’?), the moving, bickering chessmen ‘Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him’ and the riddles about which bottles to drink and which to avoid as in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and the invisibility cloak as in ‘The Hobbit’. The joy of friendships is celebrated; ‘“Are all your family wizards?” asked Harry, who found Ron just as interesting as Ron found him’ and ‘“Go on, have a pasty,” said Harry, who had never had anything to share before or, indeed, anyone to share it with’. Teachers enjoying teaching were explored; ‘He (Albus Dumbledore) was beaming at the students, his arms open wide, as if nothing could have pleased him more than to see them all there’ as well as the power of love, faith, family and the importance of friendship and morals.
Wallpaper background ‘Yvans Geometic’ by Florence Broadhurst courtesy of Signature Prints.
Watch my discussion about Harry Potter at the Bloomsbury Harry Potter Night here.
‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ by Charles Dickens (Vintage; Random House) This was the NSW Dickens Society book of the year last year so we had many interesting talks and discussions about it. Produced in instalments from 1840 – 1841, with his usual creative and intricate character descriptions, Dickens introduces us to a range of charming and villainous characters. Dickens said that his characters all remained alive to him and were quite real to him which means he must have had a busy time juggling all those carefully described individuals! Nell lives with her grandfather (whose name is never revealed) and together they work towards a better and more stable life. This is a story about great love, deception, money and stability and Dickens says he suffered and, indeed, was exhausted by writing parts of this book. At the time of its writing the instalments of this books were incredibly popular; it’s rumoured that people waited on the docks of New York for the last instalments of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. I was interested to read that this book is the second-highest seller of all Dickens’ books, surpassed only by ‘The Pickwick Papers’.
Wallpaper background ‘Solar’ by Florence Broadhurst (FBW-RF138) courtesy of Signature Prints.
Special thanks to the wonderful photographer Cath Muscat for the stunning photos on this month’s post.