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The Tatty Cover

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books. ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Biography

Back in the Saddle

I am getting back into the swing of things. After more than a year’s hiatus from my beloved Tatty Cover, I am back. I didn’t stop reading during that time. In fact far from it. I finished all of Shakespeare’s work, which I set out to do at the beginning of last year; finished the WV Reads 150 (again), in honor of the state’s birthday; and am now taking park in a new book club being offered by the Kanawha County Library called the 12×12. The goal is to chose a book based on a prescribed topic every month. My personal goal to to read what I already own–books that have been sitting on my shelves for years–and in doing so kill two birds with one stone. Here’s a look so far at my selections:

January (A book by an author that’s new to you); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

February (A book someone else loves); White Dog Fell From the Sky, E. Morse

March (A book with a title or name that shares your first or last name); The Gravity of Birds, Tracy Guzeman

April (A book with a one-word title); #GIRLBOSS, S. Amoruso —-LOVED THIS!

May (A book set in a different country); In a Strange Room, D. Galmut

June (A book about an artist or musician); A Rockwell Portrait, D. Walton

July (A book about a hero); Our Daily Bread about Norman Borlaug, N. Vietmayer

August (A book that’s the first in a series new to you); Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock, C. Keene

Here’s the rest if you would like to join along:

September (A book on a subject you know very little)

October (A book with a title or author’s name that begins with O)

November (A book about an animal)

December (A book set at least 25 years in the past)

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Yeats’ Castle

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I, the poet William Yeats,

With old mill boards and sea-green slates,

And smithy work from the Gort forge,

Restored this tower for my wife George.

And may these characters remain

When all is ruin once again.

I got the chance to visit Yeats’ castle, Thor Ballylee, in County Galway several years ago. I love the tower house, which is set in such a peaceful, serene location on the Streamstown River . I especially love the dedication to his wife that is set into the castle stone. Only a poet….

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Meeting on the Roof of the World

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“Our business was to fight the mountain, not to worship it.”

It’s no secret I’m a huge George Mallory fan. And its through reading about him that I’ve come to have a great appreciation for all of the early British explorers, including John Baptist Lucius Noel. A mountaineer, photographer and filmmaker, Noel in 1922 and 1924 captured Everest in photographs and motion picture at heights thought impossible. For the 1924 expedition, he bought all photographic rights from the Everest Committee at a staggering £8,000, helping to fund the trip.

The British Film Institute last year restored and re-released Noel’s incredible 1924 documentary, ‘The Epic of Everest.’ Filmed in the coldest, highest and harshest of circumstances (-30 degrees at 23,000 feet), the documentary chronicles the fateful exploration where Mallory and Sandy Irvine lost their lives. It’s an up-close look at the conditions on Everest and one of the first looks on film at Tibet. Seeing the dramatic Everest footage is amazing. Seeing Mallory in motion picture is, well,…swoon…

In anticipation of the movie’s arrival, I read Noel’s book, ‘Through Tibet to Everest,’ written shortly after the 1924 expedition.  Noel first traveled to Tibet in 1913 and was able to get as close as 40 miles near Everest before being forced at gunpoint to leave–a feat in that day since it was not legal for foreigners to travel within the country. Tibetans lived their lives according  to horoscopes, superstitions, demons and gods. They shunned outsiders, technology and progress (an earlier explorer who trailed a telegraph line behind him told the locals it was string for him to find his way home, so they would not destroy it). They worshiped Everest as the Mother Goddess of the World. In Noel’s book, he talks about the merging of the Tibetans and British explorers with the 1924 expedition: “This was the country and these the people among it whom we wished to penetrate with a scientific expedition,” said Noel. “The inert East and the inquisitive impertinent West were there to meet on the roof of the world.”

Noel’s is a fascinating read and incredible documentary. I highly recommend both.

Christmas Loot

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For me, the best gifts are books. And I got some gems for Christmas. Can’t wait to start reading😊.

Tying Up Loose Ends

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I’m tying up loose ends, finishing books I have been lagging on or either putting off reading completely. I recently realized the year will be done before we know it and I had some reading to check off my list (Gretchen Rubin would be proud) before I could sing Auld Lang Syne. And, as all good things must come to an end, so, too, do library renewals.

When I set out at the beginning of the year to read a multitude of books for the WV Reads 150 program, I made a list of books I’d been neglecting. For the self-improvement category I included Rubin’s ‘The Happiness Project.’ While I did pick up some useful tips from her on leading a more productive, uncluttered, happy life, the book was just ok for me.  To be honest, I was turned off by her constant fight not to nag her husband and her incessant need for “gold stars.” As far as self-improvement books go, I much prefer reading the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Suze Orman or even Emily Post. I know, apples and oranges, but these books play more to the way I think.

I finally finished David Robertson’s ‘George Mallory’ after picking it up and putting it back down for months. Robertson was Mallory’s son-in-law. And although he never met Mallory, he had complete access to all the family letters and papers. Robertson’s is considered the definitive biography on Mallory, but to me it was too academic.  Mallory wrote a lot in his life: letters, papers, lectures, articles, etc. And it seemed it was all included, but no other voices–just Mallory’s. And while it is a great resource to have, there was no personality in the biography. I would think being that close to the family there would be more insight and stories, but instead it read like a one-dimensional textbook. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have it on my bookshelf, but for me, David Pye’s (a close friend to the Mallory’s) biography was much more compelling with personal stories and anecdotes. Although, I have to say toward the end of the Robertson book, I found myself wanting to go to it more. I don’t know if that’s because I was having Mallory withdrawal or because my only other option was the Gretchen Rubin book.

I am almost done with ‘A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:1599,’ by James Shapiro. This one just couldn’t hold my attention. There were interesting bits here and there, but not enough meat about Shakespeare (understandable since very little is known about the man) to keep me interested in the huge tome of a book. It was more about the year 1599 and what was happening in London and around the world. Instead, I really enjoyed ‘Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,’ by Stephen Greenblatt, which I read earlier this year. While also built on facts and anecdotes, Greenblatt’s book had more personality and kept me engaged.

Maybe Rubin’s book did me good after all. Patience and task completion were definitely in order for me on some of these reads. I guess I can say I get a gold star. 🙂

So… Getting Back to Mallory…

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                “I have never known a man so entirely dominated by the spirit within him.”

– Everest 1924 expedition leader Teddy Norton on George Mallory

With the UK re-release this month of the Epic of Everest, a documentary filmed by John Noel during the 1924 Everest expedition, I can’t stop thinking about the early pioneers of mountaineering, nor hoping the film makes its way to the U.S. (if you hear of it, let me know). In both 1922 and 1924, John Noel captured the mountain in video and photos at elevations never thought possible; he developed film at heights unheard of. And it was Noel’s lens that caught the signals further up the mountain that climbers George Mallory (37) and Sandy Irvine (22) were lost.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Mallory fan, but after reading more works either written by or about the other early British expedition climbers, I’m so much more endeared to all of the men that comprised the three Everest expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924.  ‘Into the Silence’ by Wade Davis is a brilliant account of the men and these expeditions. Completely different from climbing Everest today, in the 1920s it took months just to get there. They traveled from Britain a month by ship, then had to take a train from Calcutta to Darjeeling, and then go on a 300-plus mile trek by foot and mules just to reach the mountain. Since they were forbidden in Nepal, it took months to circle all the way around Everest. In 1921 they didn’t know how to get on the mountain, they had to survey and explore for months. They were literally walking off the map.

Enter Oliver Wheeler who, as a Canadian member of the British expedition, did the first topographical survey of Everest in 1921. Wheeler fascinates me. He spent weeks at a time isolated and alone on Everest surveying the area. His maps, the first ever of the area, were so thorough, for hundreds of square miles, that they were within seconds of latitude and longitude and 50 feet of exact height calculations. His maps were so perfect they are still being used today. It was Wheeler who also found the way onto the mountain after weeks of Mallory and others trying.  To me, Wheeler is quite the unsung hero of Everest.

The same with Everest climbers Noel Odell, Teddy Norton, Howard Somervell and the many other explorers (I especially recommend Norton’s and Somervell’s autobiographical accounts). It was Odell who spent days going back and forth between the highest camps on Everest searching for Mallory and Irvine. He spent 12 days at heights above 23,000 feet, mostly without oxygen, which defied science at the time. Twenty of the 26 men fought in WWI (which, explains Davis, drew them to Everest) and most all of them never returned to Britain after their Everest expeditions.

Not only did these mountaineers obtain heights never before reached, they lived on Everest and in its shadow for months in nothing more than tweeds and sweaters. They didn’t have any of the modern clothing and gear that climbers enjoy today, much less oxygen on many of their climbs. But it was Mallory alone who went on all three of the expeditions. He had a compulsive drive that others didn’t to conquer the greatest mountain ever. And whether he did or didn’t, his efforts, along with the other early explorers, made it possible for future mountaineers.

These early explorers had ambition and grit and when Davis’ book ended, I was sad to see them go.

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Mallory & Norton on Everest

Mrs. Kennedy and Me

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This is one of the first books I read this year as part of my participation in the WV Reads 150 program. I don’t know why I didn’t read it sooner. As with many people, I find the Kennedys, especially the Camelot years, mesmerizing.  But, to me, this is a love story, plain and simple.  Secret Service Agent Clint Hill’s love for Jackie Kennedy comes across in every page he penned. They shared a special closeness–at first out of shear proximity since he was her private agent, and then out of trust and friendship–that I doubt they shared with anyone else in their lives at the time.

Before Pres. Kennedy took his oath of office until a year after his death, Hill was with Jackie eight or more hours a day. He was with her during both the good and bad times–from White House star-studded events to private times with the children, from trips around the world to her preferred solitude in Middleburg, Va., from her miscarriages and death of her newborn son to leaping to her rescue on the car that fateful day in Dallas.

What makes this book so special is how personal and detailed it is. Hill was in the know–he was on the scene every day of Jackie’s life for four years. Most of it was a time of privilege, glamour and globetrotting. And not just for Hill. Most of the Kennedy detail were in their 20s and 30s. And most paid the price with failed marriages and a disconnect with their children. I can’t imagine being that young and thrown into that lifestyle.

It was Hill, though, who was spending an extraordinary amount of time with the most sought-after woman in the world. Intelligent, educated, beautiful, stylish–Jackie had it all. But, this book is a portrait of the woman behind the image.  A fiesty woman who loved to dance in Italian nightclubs, smoke cigarettes, ride in fast cars with foreign princes, jet ski and ride horses. One who cherished her private time with family and friends and who tried to inspire her secret service agents to appreciate art, poetry and opera. It’s an up close and very personal, behind-the-scenes account of Jackie during the White House years seen through the lens of someone who deeply loved her.

Oh, those Brontes…How did they do it?

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‘Jane Eyre’ is one of my favorite books. EVER. I’ve read and reread it, as well as have watched any film adaptation I can get my hands on (the Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens in my fav) so many times that its starting to become a joke in my house. I’m not a huge fan of ‘Wuthering Heights.’ It took me two tries picking it up and getting through a few pages before I actually had the wherewithal to finish it.

Earlier this year, I read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by the lesser known Bronte, Anne. I liked it a lot. As with her sisters’ novels, it was a mystery and a romance. It was not a fairytale, happy book, per se, but then what Bronte book is? Their writing was influenced by the world and time in which they lived, which included a lot of illness, family deaths, sternness at home by their minister father and aunt, and deplorable school conditions (to the point that the two eldest sisters suffered from hunger and sickness while away at school, which ultimately contributed to their deaths from TB). Hmm…, sound familiar? Charlotte’s  Lowood School in ‘Jane Eyre’ was probably taken from that experience. Sadly, the longest-surviving sibling, Charlotte, only lived until age 38–all died of TB. It is said that all the girls suffered from depression.

Throw into the mix a brother (Branwell), who was addicted to alcohol and opiates, couldn’t hold a job, was in significant debt and in constant envy of his sisters’ publishing success. It has also been suggested that he was bipolar. Earlier this year, I read Daphne du Maurier’s biography of him, ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte,’ which painted such a sad portrait of his demise. His sisters adored their brother, but the stress of his topsy-turvy life wore on them deeply.

I so admire the Brontes and what they accomplished in their short lives. Not only did their writing bring attention to the deplorable school and social conditions of the time, mental illness and a woman’s inferior station in the world, they made the reader delve deeper to see inherently broken men as lovable and the cold, wet  English moors as romantic. Interestingly, most of their work was written from overhearing village gossip about other people’s lives. Emily, for example, was a known recluse who rarely left the Haworth parsonage.

Yet, their writings felt real. Take for example this poem by Emily about a lost love, a longing I’m sure most of us have felt at one time or another in our lives.

If grief for grief can touch thee,

If answering woe for woe,

If any ruth can melt thee,

Come to me now!

I cannot be more lonely,

More drear I cannot be,

My worn heart throbs so wildly,

‘Twill break for thee.

And when the world despises,

When heaven repels my prayer,

Will not my angel comfort,

Mine idol hear?

Yes, by the tears I’ve poured,

By all my hours of pain,

O I shall surely win thee,

Beloved, again.

My Bedside Table This Fall

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When I began the WV Reads 150 program earlier this year, I tasked myself with diversifying my bookshelf. While I try to read all genres, if I don’t watch myself I can fall right back into that comfort zone of biographies and historical fiction.

I created a list in January of the types of books I wanted to read, including a number of biographies/autobiographies, historical fiction and non-fiction, as well as some of the classics. I also added letters, plays (from others than Shakespeare–are there any others?), poetry, current events and world affairs and self-improvement.  And, of course, the frivolous, tawdry chic lit novel every once in awhile.

So, here is what I’ve got on my bedside table this fall. Yes, I know I’m probably the only American who hasn’t yet read The Happiness Project, but bear with me. And if you have reading suggestions, give me a shout.

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