12 Days & 12 Books for Xmas – Is a Partridge in a Pear Tree?

No pleasure is for me as long lasting as the joy of reading. Words are how the world works.

Today we need to use any means at our disposal to take time out to enjoy the experience of reading and, by extension, life itself.

This year my list of twelve (12) books are gleaned from those I have read over a very long period of time and impacted on my life. They are listed in chronological order.

At many points in my life the act of reading has been for me both saviour and friend; in sickness, and in health, books have been a panacea for my ills, as well as provided boundless pleasure.

During my lifetime I have devoured a great many books, especially when bedridden; at times when life itself seemed too hard or too fast.

Then there was those times, when endeavouring to surmount challenges, they helped me find solutions, keep myself motivated and always moving forward.

My list of twelve are all books that made a point, made a difference; helping me to expand my knowledge and galvanize my ability to think clearly. They didn’t have all the answers, but they sure helped.

You may find some of them on other people’s lists, while some you may be hearing about for the first time. Some have been short and sweet, others entirely memorable and yet others were long illuminating texts, hard to put down.

Sadly I cannot include stories like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery published in 1908, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell from 1939, Lorna Doone by Richard Doddrige Blackmore published in 1869, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, all the stunning Jane Austen’s novels as well as those by Sir Walter Scott. although they were all impressionable and completely significant during my teenage years.

Then there were stories my brother and I encountered in books first and then on screen every Saturday afternoon at the Boomerang Picture Show, Coogee Beach.

Reach for the Sky by Paul Brickhill was an extraordinary tale about Douglas Bader the great Aviator, who lost both legs and yet stayed at the cockpit of his spitfire, teaching us what real heroism was all about.

Great war stories such as these are still resonating today. Monuments Men, Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M Edsel is soon to be a movie to remind us how important it was that an allied group were tasked with saving great works of art and other important cultural artifacts before they could be destroyed

Many of the books I have read stimulated the asking of questions you never knew that you even wanted to ask at the time. You then found yourself in a position where you desperately needed to know the answers.

They often kick started you along yet another path. What they all had in common was helping me to expand my knowledge and enjoy experiences by going in directions that I never thought I would take.

This was not an easy list to compile.

During my childhood between the ages of 10 – 15 at the local library I read so many books, including a great many of the classics, that I thought I would never be able to remember any aspect of them at all. Yet today when I revisit passages of some they trigger my memory of remembered key phrases and passages. Constantly memories flood back of the indelible impression they made at the time, and why.

Relating well to Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra and how she must have felt when big Julie (Julius Caesar) set fire to her great library at Alexandria, destroying the works and wisdom of ages already past, I now know why she was so upset.

My own library was built to a considerable point by the time I was teaching and made available to students I was working with over a thirteen-year period (1992 – 2005. They also found solace and sustenance in their pages. Selling it off to downsize was pretty gut wrenching stuff. While I have not really been ever attached to ‘things’, my books were always like part of me, old friends who often gave me more than I bargained for. Today I am down to three bookcases, with a few over.

Reconstruction of the Library at Alexandria

We are singly blessed as human beings to have outstanding public library facilities around the world to draw upon. So many incredible depositories have since replaced that long lost library of wisdom at Alexandria, which has interestingly been rebuilt again

In many ways we have become almost too complacent about their presence and survival, so perhaps we have become their biggest threat. However, what we need to do is to make sure that in the future others may have the joy of such amazing collective knowledge at their disposal too.

Experts like renowned Australian literacy consultant Mem Fox author of the book for parents ‘Reading Magic’ tells us children need 1000 stories read aloud before they learn to read for themselves. She says Governments are realising that ‘by providing attention, time and funds to promote early literacy, later less of their budgets will need to be spent on illiteracy, crime, depression, unemployment and welfare’.

As books as we know them, in printed format come under the threat of extinction, we need to think long and hard about how to preserve the words and deeds of our ancestors. Many were gathered at considerable cost not in monetary terms, but on the scale of human endeavour and human life.

We constantly need to revisit and revalue what they mean to us all locally, nationally and as part of a truly global society. Here is my top twelve, one for each day of Christmas.

1. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

This is the fabulous tale by Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) of four friends Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger.

It was the first book my teacher in fourth grade read aloud to her students. It was entirely profound with its simplicity and whimsicality, a true literary wonder and winner.

Grahame explained friendship in all its purity; where no one friend is superior to another and each of them are able to benefit from each other’s unique gifts, because of their unbreakable and strong bonds of companionship.

It is a joyous tale. Dear Mole worked hard to spring-clean his house. When he took time out he met a delightful ‘water’ rat [anyone who saw Disney’s Ratatouille knows rats can be ‘delightful’]. Dear Ratty took Mole on his first picnic and they enjoyoed an adventure together in the Wild Wood.

Lost in the snow they found shelter with Badger, who turned out to be the epitome of hospitality and wise counsel. The three tried hard to teach the irrepressible adventurous madcap Toad of Toad Hall, whom they had all befriended, about being humble and modest. He led them into all sorts of danger, requiring them to be sensible, with hilarious results.

This fabulous story is all about teaching children about the joys of true camaraderie. About how friendships are formed and forged in time, as well as valued.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that a friendship could be called perfect not because the friends are perfect, but because its very existence makes possible their own moral perfection.

Friendship according to Grahame is a calling, one of grace and privilege. Wind in the Willows is a good place for children to start to absorb the lessons we all have to learn in life. It explores all the human emotions; fear, fun, nostalgia, awe and adventure, all the while getting to the heart of the matter.

The end highlights the morality of the tale that it is good that always triumphs and that we all need friends in our lives in order to flourish and be happy.

2. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

At the heart of this timeless tale, of the boy who refuses to grow up and lives in a never never land where he doesn’t ever want to face up to his responsibilities as an adult is really more about a lonely child missing his mother and her wonderful and true love.

Always loved the way J.M. Barrie started…All children, except one, grow up.

They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!”

This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.

You always know after you are two.

Two is the beginning of the end …because in the end Wendy let Peter Pan and her daughter Jane fly away together, our last glimpse of Wendy shows her at the window, watching them receding into the sky until they were as small as stars.

As you look at Wendy, you may see her hair becoming white, and her figure little again, for all this happened long ago.

Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland, where she tells him stories about himself, to which he listens eagerly. When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.

3. Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl

Reading this diary would change my life forever. Its about losing one’s innocence of the reality of the world around us.

Being born in the final year of World War II, and growing up in my early years in a family that queued for rations, I had two much older sisters living in London helping to rebuild its economy after it had been bombed to bits. My eldest sister sent this to me when it was published in England.

It seems that all my young life I was acutely aware of the war to end all wars and its disastrous effect on so many lives.

Hollywood and the British film industry started making its stories into movies the moment they could get writers to put them down and cast and crews assembled to make them. This book came first, quickly followed by the movie about Anne Frank, the girl whose family faced the prospect of being gassed to death in an oven or interned in a prison camp.

Some years later when my own children were in their formative years on my first visit ever to Amsterdam the first place I made a pilgrimage to was the house where Anne had hidden with her family.

It was all about my endeavouring to understand what it must have been like for a young girl on the cusp of womanhood to feel such desolation. A heartbreaking, harrowing true tale of the Jewish victims of the holocaust. Lest we forget.

Horace Walpole in his Library at Strawberry Hill, painted by Muntz

4. Letters of Horace Walpole

My first encounter with the world of antiques happened when I was in my mid twenties, encouraged by a lovely dealer now long passed, who recommended the small volume of the letters written by the Earl of Orford, the man whose father was 1st Prime Minister of England

An aristocrat, Horry Walpole enjoyed like so many of his generation, travelling on the continent on his Grand Tour, having adventures both in real life and in style. While being carried across the Alps on a sedan chair his small dog was carried off by wolves, highlighting the hazards of Grand Tour travel and making the point that wolves (of any type) do not respect your title or rank in life.

Horace Walpole, 4th Earl Orford (1717- 1797) was indeed a ‘prince’ of letter writers. He and his peers were seen as both arbiters of taste and style. They were well recognised by authors such as Jane Austen and most especially by the burgeoning middle classes who wished to emulate them.

The eighteenth century was a no nonsense robust time, one in which an archbishop could keep a mistress and appoint his illegitimate son a chaplain, while on the other hand providing no such advantages for those ‘downstairs’. No wonder so many sought to go into the church.

Horry Walpole's famous House, Strawberry Hill Today

A small man, slim in figure, Horace Walpole absolutely adored women of all ages, constantly craving female companionship, because it was in their presence that he could most relax and be his confiding and creative self.

His friendships with the chosen men of his acquaintance were equally happy. According to his biographer, Brian Fothergill although some he considered Walpole foppish, he was not homosexual, but rather suppressed, hiding his true nature, whatever that meant.

Pray mind” Horace once told Sir Horace Mann when describing how he was roused from sleep by an earthquake tremor in 1750, “Pray mind, I lie alone”.

Horry’s correspondence was vast. His letters throw a great deal of light onto the many facets and fancies of a complicated character. The nature of his various relationships with people were completely fascinating. Some were influenced because he was such an acknowledged arbiter of taste. The rest had a unique interest in that they were the lucky ones who received letters from him.

Horace Walpole was the first man to systematically assemble visual evidence of English history and much of his collection is now held at Yale University in New Haven, New England in America.

For me his letters were all about experiencing and enjoying life as it happens a valuable lesson to learn. He embraced the concept of carpe diem, seizing the day and making the best of it.

5. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

Interestingly Wilde got me through my three pregnancies. When I couldn’t sleep at night I would read one of his essays, or his letters, poems in prose or marvellous plays and stories. In 1895 the Prince of Wales was un-precedently present at the first night of his new play ‘An Ideal Husband’, ensuring his social success.

My volume published in 1948 was compiled and introduced by his son Vyvyan Holland.

Oscar loved portraiture because it was able to capture the fleeting beauty of youth and hold it captive for all time. Wilde was also renowned for his ‘conversation’, spontaneous, polished, soothing and surprising.

Winston Churchill, England’s great ‘war’ Prime Minister when asked once whom he would most like to meet and talk with in the after life replied without a moment’s hesitation ‘Oscar Wilde’. Well Winston, I am with you.

Wilde was a man who always stood on his principles, even going to jail for a friend where he passed through two long years in pain in ‘ruin and public infamy’. He acknowledged that he was incomplete, imperfect and learned the meaning of ‘sorrow’.

His words and works today still transcend time and place.

6. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.

I was given a copy of Gibran’s The Prophet for my 40th birthday, a perfect time really for me to read and absorb its wisdom. It’s almost impossible to put into words, as eloquently as he does, how profound his thoughts were and his wisdom was at such a young age.

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.

The Prophet and its story about the sage Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who stood centre stage of this Gibran’s most famous written work, is something I reach for and read very often, especially on days when life can seem at its most overwhelming.

Its wonderful philosophies and passionate passages never fail to revive me, or to my raise my spirit of optimism. It is certainly a wonderful gift to give a friend or colleague who may not have encountered such a work of true and profound spirituality.

Almustafa, the chosen and beloved

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) is one of those rare geniuses in history, who may have slipped entirely through the cracks of our civilization, had it not been for those that surrounded him surmounting many challenges so they could provide the level of support that he needed to shine. They did it without seeking a reward.

Not a robust person, Gibran died at what we would consider a very young age, but not before leaving a legacy of magical words that illuminate, inspire and nurture everyone who reads them

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

You just have to read them for yourself… The Prophet is available FREE on Project Gutenberg

Jeanne Louise Henriette Campan

7. Marie Antoinette by Mme Campan

This extraordinary memoir (in two volumes) turned up in an antiques auction sale I was viewing, in a box of books knocked down to me for $10.

They turned out to be first edition copies in two volumes of a work penned by Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan (1752-1822), who was the personal maid (1st Lady in Waiting) to the Queen of France, the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.

Madame Campan was an educator way ahead of her time, proposing that women be taught more than reading and writing. She wanted them to learn modern languages as well as science, history, geography, and mathematics.

Her attitude toward punishment of children, maintained that the punishment should neither be excessive nor often repeated. She impressed the Emperor Napoleon so much with her fine reputation as a teacher and as head of the Institut in Saint-Germain that he appointed her director of the school founded in 1806 at Écouen for female relatives of members of the Legion of Honour.

This memoir was written about the period from 1774 – 1792 when she was lady in waiting to the Queen, which led up to the French revolution and the jailing and beheading of her mistress.

Queen Marie Antoinette with her children - by Vigee Le Brun

She says in her introduction “Considering the rank and situations of the persons I have named as capable of elucidating by their writings the history of our political storms, it will not be imagined that I aim at placing myself on a level with them; but I have spent half my life either with the daughters of Louis XV, or with Marie Antoinette. I knew the characters of those Princesses; I became privy to some extraordinary facts, the publication of which may be interesting, and the truth of the details will form the merit of my work”.

This work is rare and its honest words are also historically available FREE on Project Gutenberg.

This memoir moved me a great deal because it offered a rare understanding of the woman who was yet a child when she was first thrown into the milieu at the court of France, where innocence and naivety were not admired traits and injustice often prevailed.

What Marie-Antoinette endured in prison listening to her children suffer still brings tears to my eyes and makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck with distress at the position she found herself in.

Damned if she didn’t, as well as damned if she did, scurrilous individuals attributed words to her she never uttered, words unthinkable for a woman of her kindness and sensibility.

8. Authentic Décor by Peter Thornton

An unusual book perhaps for many to find on a top twelve list. Nonetheless, this beautifully assembled book had a big impact on my life because of its information and the nature of its enquiry, the history of interior design.

As a designer I loved every page because it presented information gathered by the author from amazingly valuable sources not easily available to an Australian who didn’t have the benefits of being able to go to the sources.

I was indeed grateful to the author, for documenting how the ‘parlours and bedchambers of our ancestors’ used to look.

9. The Georgians at Home by Elizabeth Burton

If Peter Thornton told readers how it was, Elizabeth Burton told us why it was and, in an erudite, amusing expose of the most interesting and elegant years of British art and craftsmanship

Loaded up with wonderful anecdotes and witty passages, this is a useful, informative, invaluable, enjoyable and very readable book that’s certainly fun to read and easy to learn from.

10. Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

Nigel Slater of the Observer described this as ‘not only my book of the year: it is my book of the decade‘. This simply marvelous compilation has at the core of its collection of short stories, a moving family memoir.

Published in 2005, this is an emotional, witty and sometimes outright funny recollection of the English playwright’s childhood…. and of his father who ‘never drove to church because Mam thought the sacrament might make him incapable of the return journey’.

Bennett argues that access to a book-lined haven is still as important as it has ever been to him, and it’s easy for me to understand how he feels. My life has been spent surrounded by books and my only wish has always been to finally rest in a room lined with them.

Alan Bennett said in an article on libraries of a lifetime for the London Review of Books‘I have always been happy in libraries, though without ever being entirely at ease there. A scene that seems to crop up regularly in plays that I have written has a character, often a young man, standing in front of a bookcase feeling baffled. He – and occasionally she – is overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that has been written and the ground to be covered

…Couldn’t agree more. The amount we know always remains a pinhead in size on what there is to know and it should keep us all humble.

11. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin.

This is an extraordinary writing achievement, a multiple biography and tour de force by a Pulitzer winning historian one that completely knocks your socks off.  It offers far ranging and perceptive insights into the time and place, the man and the people who surrounded him as well as the journey he embarked upon.

It concentrates on that period in Lincoln’s life when he was attempting to reconcile conflicting personalities and political factions, while endeavouring to bring about the abolition of slavery and being victorious in the Civil war by uniting all the American states.

Keeping his enemies close, Lincoln however brought them all on board, proving his greatness in recognizing they all had unique abilities and service to give. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) rose from being a prairie lawyer to prevail and become president of the United States.

He provoked men to act, to confront their fears and inspired them to reach for the stars so that they could help to make the world a better place.

Team of Rivals is not just about the American dream, but the dream all humans on earth share, for that of being treated equally and with respect.

12. William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man by Duncan Wu

This engrossing biography has at its core the idea that the modern age began with the age of Romantics and Revolutionaries and that William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was the movement’s most articulate spokesperson.

As a review in the Guardian put so well “Hazlitt fascinates not least because of the strength of his passions. A biography must confront his capacity for viciousness if he is not to lose his compelling humanity”.

William Hazlitt was renowned as a supreme communicator, an imaginative man who explored the possibilities of the human spirit to such an extent his findings are considered profound.

Politicians, poets and philosophers all came under his gaze at a time when such brilliant men of letters as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and William Wordsworth abounded, all of whom were wordsmiths of enormous courage and great depth.

Duncan Wu manages to marry profundity to prejudice, wisdom to anecdote and reveals all in an easy-going style that relates observation to reflection.

He has produced a work that lays bare William Hazlitt’s genuine passion for the rights and liberties of mankind, despite him being a high minded intensely egocentric misogynist.

This is an amazing work, enduringly alive about a man whose views and words still resonate loudly in the modern era.

Well, there they are my top twelve to date.

They certainly helped me to learn that the drummers are still busy drumming, the pipers are preciously piping, the lords are loudly a leaping, the ladies dancing wildly while the maids are busy a milking, the swans a swimming on the lake and the geese a laying in time for our Christmas feast.

Do you know something about those five blessed gold rings, the Coolly birds, the French hens, the Turtle doves, and let’s not ever forget that frustrating damn partridge up there in that ever growing, plump fruit bearing golden pear tree? Perhaps you would enlighten me.

All I know is they first appeared as lyrics in a child’s book Mirth without Mischief in 1780.

Many people have tried to decode their meaning, including saying they were about aiding the art of memory for Christians during the Middle Ages. However it is all speculation really and the whole verse is all about fun, which is a good thing.

Enjoy your festive season. I do hope you get lots of books and enjoy lots of happy hours reading.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

Note: Versions of all these books can be found on www.bookoffers.com.au

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