White Washed Walls

I have had the opportunity to read Jane Eyre three times. Once, begrudgingly, in high school, again, slightly less begrudgingly, in college, and now. Thankfully, after all the drudging I did to get through the volume the last few times, I’m very much enjoying the novel this go around. (Perhaps because this time I didn’t have to write an essay after.)

If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, you might not ever feel the need to, but Charlotte Brontë had admirable motives for birthing this work. These are revealed in a line from her introduction to the second edition. She writes:

The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered (i.e. those discussed in Jane Eyre), for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make eternal show pass for sterling worth – to let white washed walls pass for clean shrines. 

I’m sure some literary critic, or expert on the 19th century novel, might come along to correct me, but I understand these lines as a critic of the treatment of the poor by the rich. I am reminded of Mrs. Reed (Jane’s first benefactress) locking her up in the red room, the poor conditions that Mr. Brocklehurst allowed at Lowood School, and the actions of Mr. Rochester, perhaps not to Jane, but to his wife. While the rich, synonymous with pretenders and hypocrites, live on pedestals, the poor and oppressed take the brunt of all punishment and scrutiny. These same poor who are, as Jane often states, only trying their best and are generally genuine and kind. It’s not a wonder why this revelation would upset people in the mid-1800s (or even today!).

I am enjoying this story by means of a 1943 reprinting of the second edition. The publisher, Random House, produced a large number of these volumes, so they are pretty easy to find. I came to possess this particular edition through my mother, who received it as a gift from a neighbor many years ago. Particular to this reprinting are the wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg. It is always nice to have illustrations breaking up long runs of text. These illustrations are done in a somewhat exaggerated style, that is almost caricature-ish. They do an excellent job at communicating the cold snobbishness and perceived righteousness of the upper class, the solemn acceptance of the poor, and the sweeping romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester.

Below are a few shots of the illustrations. Thank you for reading!

Front Cover (Pupils of Lowood)

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Cover Page

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Mr. Brocklehurst Reprimanding Jane with his Wife and Daughters (in Full Pomp)

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Kind Mrs. Fairfax

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Jane and Mr. Rochester

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The Aspern Papers by Henry James

One of my favorite authors is Henry James (when he’s not writing from a woman’s perspective that is). He definitely has a way of setting the scene, of building suspense, and of either gratifying his reader with the perfect conclusion or plummeting his reader into a chasm of disappointment. The latter is exactly what he does to us poor readers in his short story (some might say novella) The Aspern Papers. 

I remember reading The Aspern Papers for the first time in college. The story completely engrossed me, as I sat surrounded by the dinginess of my dorm room. I was transported to a dilapidated Venice buzzing with expectation and exasperation, a place so hot I imagined the canal water might boil. 

The story is about an un-named historian ( perhaps James entended us to insert our own names) who goes in search of letters a famous, ficticious author wrote to a lover in his youth. Aspern’s lover, who is now ancient, is named Juliana and she lives with her niece, Tita, in an old gray and pink palace. The palace has a garden attached, which gives the protagonist the perfect excuse to go bother the women, who have decidedly shut themselves away from the world. He secures a room in the palace (only after forking over a large amount of rent money) and then the waiting begins. His hope was to befriend Juliana or make Tita fall in love with him, and then snatch the papers (those letters the deceased Aspern wrote to Juliana) from them or, perhaps in his wildest dreams, be given them. Without spoiling much of the ending, it doesn’t work out well for this nameless fellow. 

After my original Dover edition got lost in a series of moves I made after college, I bought James’ complete works on Kindle… I can’t help but think that reading this story from a physical book was so much better. And that wouldn’t a first edition be all the more appropriate. 

A quick look at Abebooks revealed the there is a first edition for sale, with a beautiful blue cloth cover adorned with silvery gilt. According to the bookseller’s description the volume was published in England in 1888 and is in fairly good condition. You can check it out here. My excitement was high until reading the price tag ($475!!). I’m not surprised. I guess in this case I’m a lot like the un-named protagonist, despairingly close to the object of my literary desires but forever barred by some insermountable keeper. My Juliana is money. 

Thank you for reading!! 

My Grandmother’s Book of Sonnets

My grandmother grew up on a cotton farm in Greer County, Oklahoma. Her father was the first to use irrigation in the county. She was the middle child of three. She attended the University of Oklahoma in Norman where she studied literature and met my grandfather. She worked as a secretary for many years before becoming a home maker.

Though my grandmother appeared to live a life typical of her time, she carried progressive ideals that have transferred down through three generations. My grandmother believed in being educated and in being well read, despite being a woman born in 1925. (She was also an advocate of bilingualism and wanted her children to learn French. Though her children never secured this chance, my sister and I did because of the importance she placed on being bilingual.) These ideas are immortalized in an old book of hers that rests stiffly on a stack of much newer titles in a small wooden cabinet.

The book is sheathed inside a decaying gray dust jacket, taped at various points in its life. The front and back cover of the book are dingy, but intact, with only some fraying at the corners.  It’s obvious she read the entire volume, as she left notes throughout in an extinct antique cursive. The publisher is The Peter Pauper Press, the city of publication is Mount Vernon. There is no date accept for a handwritten note on the flyleaf of the book that reads Wanda Sue Smith Feb 46. (What a name, right?!)

A quick look at the publisher’s website revealed that, in 1928 at the age of 22, Peter Beilenson began the printing company in his father’s garage. According to Beilenson’s son, the printer produced books “that even a pauper could afford,” despite being very finely crafted, displaying the work of many “acclaimed artists,” and being printed on hand-made paper (Quote source here). In fact, the last page of my grandmother’s book claims that the text is printed on “specially-made Peter Pauper Press Paper.”  This “discount edition” seems to resonate with my grandmother’s modest rural upbringing and lofty literary ambitions. In 1935, the Peter Pauper Press was moved to Mount Vernon. Between this time and 1946, my grandmother’s volume of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was born. (All information about the publisher can be found here.)

In 1972 my grandmother died of lung cancer (scarcely 26 years after her first read of Shakespeare’s Sonnets). She had been a smoker all her life. She left behind her three children, one of which was my mother (only 17 at the time). Her book of Sonnets connects her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to a deeply private inner life, one that kept the gravity of her illness a secret until the very end. It is a treasured family relic, that I am honored to inherit.

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Hidden Castles and Rare Books

The Preston School of Industry’s Gothic style administration building lords over the squat, rolling hills of Amador County and dominates the small town of Ione, California. A short trip out of Sacramento, south down highway 99 and east on highway 104, will land the traveler in eye’s reach of the spectacular red brick building, a vigilante whose authority is both ominous and unassuming.

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Its now dilapidated structure beckons the supernatural investigator and historian alike to discover its past under the jurisdiction of the California Youth Authority and the mysteries of its occupants once the antiquated building was replaced by an updated neighboring facility. Though the building, only part of the expansive grounds of the original school, creates a tangible connection with the past, a more exhaustive and intimate way to experience Preston School is through its archive.

My interest in the school, a correctional facility for youth operating between 1890 to 1960, began about 7 years ago when I happened to watch an episode of Ghost Adventures (a show most notable for demonstrating how ridiculous people can look when their afraid.) I was struck by the architecture and history of the place. So, with a few friends, I went to check it out. By the end of the tour, I was fortunate enough to discover that the Preston Castle Archives had been collected into a beautiful book composed by John Lafferty, a man dedicated to the preservation of the The Castle’s history and an inspired librarian.

My senior year of college, I was again blessed with the opportunity of writing a paper about the archive (a brief excerpt of which appears here) and was able to interview John Lafferty. As a person who loves books, it’s awesome to communicate with an author equipped with the academic stamina John Lafferty possesses. Below is a picture of the front cover of his book and a shot of the signature I secured from the author on my copy’s flyleaf. Not many of these books were printed, but the information they contain illuminate forgotten episodes in California’s history.

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I treasure this particular book because of the story behind how I stumbled upon Preston Castle, a somewhat hidden (and controversial) gem stuck into the rock of California history. The Castle’s presence and history are enough to romance just about anyone. I also love books attached to particular places, especially one as haunting as this.

If you live in California or might one day visit, I would highly recommend visiting Preston Castle. Here is the website where you can sign up for a tour: http://www.prestoncastle.com/

Here are also a few of the photos I’ve taken of the site. Thank you for reading!! Follow my blog for other cool book stories like this one.

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Found Connections and Making Reading Meaningful

I love the show Chopped on the Food Network. The vicarious adrenaline rush. The weird ingredients. The chef’s emotional back stories. In my opinion, it’s entertainment at its best.

Recently, my mom and I marathoned the 5 part Chopped Grill Masters series filmed on an Arizona ranch. We plod on (fists clinched and white knuckled) through 3 appetizer rounds, 3 main course rounds, 3 dessert rounds, and 3 winners until finally reaching episode 4. The chef introductions tumble across the screen, a deeply blue-eyed, wide- brimmed hat-wearing chef debuts. His name is Kent Rollins. He is a cowboy. A specimen of iconic Americana traveled up into the 21st century. Like a character from a Larry McMurtry novel. His accent, background, and code of ethics provide the proper authenticating measures.

“Wait,” my mom says, “did they say he’s from Hollis, Oklahoma?”

I rewind a bit.

“He’s from Hollis. That’s where your cousin lives!”

We root for Kent Rollins throughout episode 4. He makes it to the final episode! He makes it into the final two competitors! …he gets taken out in the final round. Nevertheless, it was awesome to see a chef from my cousin’s hometown make it so far. He was amazing to watch!

The story doesn’t end there. Turns out, my cousin, her husband, and Mr. Rollins are all friends. My mom recently went to visit my cousin and expressed her amazement and pride at seeing a chef from Hollis appear on national television. My cousin relays that my mom and I are fans of Chopped and enjoyed cheering Mr. Rollins on. He responds by giving my mom and I a signed copy of one of his cookbooks!

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What a gracious gesture! Connecting with the author of a book, no matter what the book is about or how distant the connection, makes reading all the more meaningful. Sometimes we stumble on these connections by accident (like in this case) or we seek them out by connecting with authors on social media or going to signings. Either way, it really makes the reading experience personal. It also reminds us, as readers, that books are living documents, representations of the authors who dedicated their time and heart to producing them. Though the morbidity of life often inhibits this, bringing a book back to the hands who created it is truly humbling and exciting all at once!

So for the remainder of the summer, you can find me reclining under the lone tree in my backyard, reading my favorite westerns, and enjoying some delectable ranch recipes!

Thank you for reading!