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Hello, long-lost friends! I’ve missed the conversations we’ve had over the years, here in this corner of the internet. It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post, and my goodness, the world has changed a lot since then. My love of reading has stayed steadfast, and I’d be very interested to hear your recommendations. What have you been reading in recent weeks—or years? What books do you turn to in times of uncertainty?

Here are a few highlights from among the books I’ve read recently.

Central Park

One of the books I enjoyed most in the summer, during a weekend trip to New York City with my daughter, was Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. I had read the brilliant first essay, “The Way We Live Now: 11-11-01; Lost and Found,” several times, and the ending always moves me to tears: “The twin towers still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time. They are a part of the city we carry around….”

But I hadn’t yet read the whole book, and now, long after I finished reading it, lines from the last essay are still echoing in my mind: “When you talk about this trip, and you will, because it was quite a journey and you witnessed many things, there were ups and downs, sudden reversals of fortune and last-minute escapes, it was really something, you will see your friends nod in recognition. They will say, That reminds me of, and they will say, I know exactly what you mean.”

At the very end, Whitehead talks about flying out of New York and the way “the city explodes into view with all its miles and spires and inscrutable hustle,” and the feeling that even as “you try to comprehend this sight you realize that you were never really there at all.”

My daughter and I visited several bookstores (no surprise there), including Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, which we both loved. We’re already planning our next trip.

In mid-October, Juliette Wells, Professor of Literary Studies in the Department of Visual, Literary, and Material Culture at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, came to visit Nova Scotia as one of the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Traveling Lecturers. She spoke in the English Department at Dalhousie University and at the Halifax Central Library. In preparation for her visit, I re-read her book Reading Austen in America, a persuasive account of the way readers on this side of the Atlantic contributed to the international fame of a novelist who is often thought of as quintessentially English.

My favourite chapter is the one on Christian, Countess of Dalhousie, one of Austen’s early readers, whose husband founded Dalhousie University. To give just one example of Lady Dalhousie’s engagement with Austen’s novels: in a diary entry in 1818, she recorded that she read Persuasion while on board ship, sailing from Halifax to Mahone Bay.

Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, at twilight. In the bottom photo, you can just make out the spires of the famous three churches.

Juliette writes that though the hero of the novel, Captain Frederick Wentworth, “was a naval officer, not an army man like Lord Dalhousie, Austen’s positive portrayal of the British military post-Waterloo would certainly have resonated with the countess.” Lady Dalhousie might also have appreciated Austen’s portrait of the intrepid Mrs. Croft, who has joined her husband the Admiral on his naval journeys back and forth across the Atlantic and to the East Indies, and who claims that “Women may be as comfortable on board, as in the best house in England.” Mrs. Croft also protests, famously, that “We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days” (Persuasion, Volume 1, Chapter 8). Lady Dalhousie had a similar spirit of adventure: “In the most daring act recorded of her,” Juliette says, “she was the first person, male or female, to walk the length of a just-finished suspension bridge between Ottawa and Hull, over the Rideau Canal,” in 1827.

Juliette’s new book, A New Jane Austen: How Americans Brought Us the World’s Greatest Novelist, will be published next year by Bloomsbury, and I’m keen to read it. In the lecture she gave at Dalhousie, she spoke about early Austen scholars, including Oscar Fay Adams, Austen’s first critical biographer and critical editor. She shared this lovely image of him alongside a photo of Cecil Vyse, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1985 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. A perfect match, right?

As 2025 approaches, Juliette is serving as guest curator for a special exhibition at The Morgan Library that will mark the 250th anniversary of Jane Austen’s birth. (Another great reason to plan a trip to New York….)

I love the film adaptation of A Room with a View and had just watched it earlier in October with my sister and brother-in-law when I was visiting them in Bonn, Germany. My sister does a particularly good imitation of Mr. Beebe’s response to the “Miss Honeychurch. Piano. Beethoven.” scene: “If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays it will be very exciting, both for us and for her.”

I borrowed my sister’s copy of Beethoven: His Life and Music, by Jeremy Siepmann, after she and I had visited the house in Bonn where Beethoven was born, and I liked it so much that I ordered my own copy after I got home. Maybe I’ll write more about Beethoven and Bonn in a future blog post; for now I’ll just quote Siepmann: “Among the many things which make Beethoven’s music unique is its extraordinary capacity to inspire courage. … In some ultimately mysterious way, he makes us feel, through his example, that we can confront reality without fear.”

(I accidentally left my glasses case on the plane when I flew from Halifax to Frankfurt, and was happy to find a case featuring Joseph Karl Stieler’s portrait of Beethoven in the gift shop at Beethoven’s House.)

Not long after Juliette’s visit, I attended two other fabulous and memorable literary events in Halifax. The first was the launch of Renée Hartleib’s book Writing Your Way: A 40-Day Path of Self-Discovery.

Renée invites readers to make time for quiet reflection and writing, promising that even just a few minutes a day of listening to “the inner, truest version of you” can be enough to change our lives. While reading Writing Your Way, I was often reminded of one of my favourite quotations from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which the heroine, Fanny Price, says “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” Renée suggests that writing can help us find our way to a “better guide” within—she says “Some might call it your soul, your spirit, or your essence”—whether we’re seeking answers about creating art, making changes in our lives, working to make the world a better place, or all of the above.

The second event, Booktoberfest, was organized by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia and held in our beloved Halifax Central Library. Forty-four authors participated in a celebration of books they had released during the first two years of the pandemic, when in-person events were, for the most part, cancelled. Several authors read from their work, and all were available to sign copies of their books.

I came home from Booktoberfest with two new treasures (I could easily have bought many more), including Lauren Soloy’s picture book Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem. I love the imagined conversation between Etty and her famous scientist father about science and the imagination, during their walks on The Sandwalk, the “thinking path” he created near their house.

I also bought Stephens Gerard Malone’s new novel The History of Rain, about a veteran of the Great War who finds consolation in work as a landscape gardener, and I had a chance to chat with Stephens about our shared love of historical fiction.

“I say give the earth your rage, young man, and she’ll give you flowers.”

At the moment, I’m switching back and forth between reading The History of Rain and a new biography by Devoney Looser called Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës.

Thanks for reading to the end of this long post, and please do send book recommendations!

I’ll end with a photo of the anchor at the entrance to HMCS Stadacona in Halifax, along with a photo of nearby Admiralty House (now the Naval Museum of Halifax). Jane Austen’s brother Francis lived in Admiralty House when he was in Halifax in the summers of 1845, 1846, and 1847 as Commander-in-Chief of the North American and West Indies Station.