First Reads of 2017!

Brrrr, this is what I get for casually commenting on how I miss the snow back in Colorado Springs. As much as I would love to just stay indoors, buried under a blanket, I have books that I have to take back to the library, and two new ones I have to collect. Besides, I’ve trudged through worse winter weather, so I think I can brave fifteen minutes of wind and wet snowfall.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve enjoyed reading four books by four very different women. To begin, we have Public Library by Ali Smith. As a long-time lover of libraries and recently-turned obsessive book borrower, I can’t recommend Smith’s book enough. It’s a lovingly crafted short collection of stories, essays, and personal impressions from other authors about this beloved and endangered institution. Smith’s fiction does take a while to warm up to; I’ve only read Smith’s The Book Lover which is a compilation of short works and pieces by her favorite authors, so Public Library really is my introduction to her short stories.  While you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention of an actual library in the stories, Smith presents us with the connections people have with books and the people who write them.  It is a truly unique love letter of sorts to public libraries.

Upstream by Mary Oliver is probably the most meditative of the bunch, reminding me a bit of Tove Jansson’s autobiographical pieces in A Winter Book, especially when it comes to describing the landscape and experiencing the natural world. Oliver’s essays are contemplative, taking us gently through her reflections on nature, literature, and artistic expression. The section of the book that’s devoted to her influences such as Whitman, Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth is so interesting and absorbing, I immediately searched for their biographies as penned by her. I’m chastened and ashamed to admit that I’ve never read or studied Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ in high school, but after reading Oliver’s essay on this monster of a poem, I may give it a shot.

Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages was seriously fun to read. As someone who has worked in retail for nearly nine years, I found the book’s heroine Jane Carter easy to relate to and very likable, though I haven’t as much ambition, talent, and savvy to open my own clothing business as she does in the book. The story begins in 1912, in the English town of Tidsley, where Jane finds a job working in a draper’s shop. For next six years, she toils under the thumb of the shop’s owner, the pompous Mr. Chadwick, until a dear friend gives her the push she needs to strike out on her own.
I would have enjoyed this book to the fullest if it weren’t for the love story that comes in rather late in the game, and to be honest, I felt that when it happened, Jane quickly became a different person. I’m just thankful that Whipple wrote in plenty of other characters to follow and care about, such as Mrs. Briggs and Wilfrid. I’d say that after such a long time languishing on my To-Read list, High Wages definitely lived up to all its rave reviews. I enjoyed it a lot, but could have done without the romance.

Last but not least is V. H. Leslie’s supernatural tale, Bodies of Water. Okay, I actually finished this one on New Year’s Eve, just a few hours shy of midnight.  Please don’t leave, I really wanted to include it in the post.  In 1871, Evelyn is stepping off a carriage in front of Wakewater House, a thriving hydrotherapy establishment. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Evelyn is sent away by her father to Wakewater to be treated. In the present day , a young woman named Kirsten has just moved into her flat at the newly renovated Wakewater Apartments. Drawn to the calm of the Thames nearby, Kirsten believes being close to the water will help mend her wounded heart. Separated by time and space, both women have come to Wakewater House for its restorative waters, but soon find themselves haunted by same mysterious figure of a woman with long, dripping dark hair.

I do love a good, tightly-written novella, but this one came up short for me. Evelyn and Kirsten are our heroines, but I wanted to know more about Manon and her own personal encounters with the mysterious at Wakewater before Kirsten’s arrival. I also wanted a bit more on Wakewater House and the other doctor in charge, Dr. Cardew. Leslie wrote such interesting, yet fleeting supporting characters, I felt a bit let down when they weren’t mentioned again.
The dual narratives of Evelyn and Kirsten played well along each other, almost parallel but not quite. Both women come to Wakewater House for healing, both women encounter the same drowned specter. The vague similarities end as Evelyn’s narrative slowly reveals the nature of her secret hurt and the reason behind the ghost’s watery presence.

As far as fright factor goes, I would give this book a solid 7.0. It certainly inches up on you, like a cold whisper up the back of your neck. It also provides a fascinating and macabre glimpse into the Victorian Era’s male-dominated medical practices and the strange methods that had been employed at the time, particularly, to deal with so-called female ailments. I was intrigued when I read about the Anatomical Venuses, life-like dissectible wax models of women used in the 18th Century. All I have to say on the subject is Google with caution, folks. They are fascinating, beautiful even, but difficult to look at for longer than a minute.

I’m looking forward to the next batch of library picks currently sitting on the windowsill, and I have a growing list to reserve at the library. Oh dang it, almost forgot the two(!?) growing stacks of books beside my desk. I’m literally up to my knees in books! Gah!!!

Find rare and collectible first editions at AbeBooks

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