To fill up and live

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t read. Some of my earliest memories are of trips to the Victoria Public Library when I couldn’t have been much more than three years old. My parents were both fervent believers in the importance of reading and took us to the library every Saturday morning, until we were old enough to get there on our own. I remember the thrill of graduating to an adult card, and the hours I spent perusing that section of the library, often settling into a carrel to start reading a book even before I checked it out.

When we came home from our weekly library excursions, I tucked myself away wherever I could find a quiet spot – not always easy in a house that was often a bit too small for the ever-growing size of our family – took off my glasses and read and read and read. I read on my bed, on the living room couch, as I brushed my teeth, in the bathtub. If I was awake, there was a good chance I was reading. As soon as I opened my book, the rest of the world disappeared. Perhaps author Annie Dillard was thinking of me when she wrote:

“She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.”

Still reading after all these years

I feel the same sense of excitement now when I have a fresh batch of library books as I did when I was a kid, even if now those books are often on my tablet, and I put glasses on to read instead of taking them off. Almost every room of our house contains at least one but more likely two or three bookcases. While the bathrooms don’t have bookshelves, they are well stocked with magazines.

We buy, borrow and trade books. We take them out of the public library and pick up and drop off books from the Little Free Libraries that now dot our neighbourhood.

In the before times, I did a lot of my reading while I was on the road: in trains, planes and hotel rooms. In the now times, I have no such opportunities, and have had to work to create intentional time to read because – good times or bad – read I must.

I have long been a fan of mysteries and political thrillers for my recreational reading; mostly books that are set in the present day or recent past. However, I have kind of lost my taste for current times over the past several months. I may not feel quite as gloomy as a friend’s recent email sounded, but I am close:

“There is nothing I can think of in terms of contemporary writing that I’m remotely interested in reading now or in the foreseeable future.  We are living in terrible times on any number of fronts.” 

My reading over the past eight months seems to reflect this disenchantment with the times we live in. Virtually every novel I have read has been set prior to 1970, most of them set in the 1920s and 1930s.

I am woman, I am strong

I have especially enjoyed three series, all of which feature strong women as the main character: women who are not afraid to step outside their accepted place; women who take risks in their personal as well as their professional lives. There is comfort in reading about such women, even if they are fictitious, in a time when many of us feel like we are floundering to find firm ground under our feet. All of these series also explore social and political issues of their day, so I am finally learning the history I did not pay attention to when I was in school.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is set in 1920s and 1930s London, England, with frequent forays into Kent. Maisie is a psychologist and investigator with a very interesting backstory (you will have to read the books to find out what it is), whose cases often take her into the underbelly of English society and politics in the years between the two world wars. I am about halfway through this series of 18 books and am hoping madly that more will be forthcoming.

Lane Winslow is a young English woman who moves on her own to a spot outside Nelson, British Columbia, after WW2, during which she was a British spy. Created by Canadian writer Iona Wishaw, Lane is an adventuresome woman who stumbles over dead bodies at an alarming rate, given the tiny village where she lives. Naturally, she plays a significant role in solving the mysteries associated with these deaths. There are eight books in this series, and I have read them all.

Sujata Massey’s two-book (so far) series features Perveen Mistry, a lawyer in Bombay in the early 1920s. As a woman, she can work only as a solicitor and not as a barrister, so she does a lot of fairly tedious work for her father’s law firm, in the course of which she stumbles upon legal situations that require a “women’s touch.” Like Maisie Dobbs, Perveen has a rich backstory that informs the kind of woman she has become.

I have found it heartening in a time when so much is disheartening, to live vicariously through Maisie’s, Lane’s and Perveen’s rich lives as women ahead of their times.

And, as the cold weather arrives, I look forward to wrapping myself in a blanket, making a cup of cocoa, and continuing to escape through books, so share your recommendations.

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