On My Bookshelf: Jane Eyre

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I will be very honest here: I tried to read Jane Eyre as a high schooler and failed. I never made it past the Red Room. This is a common theme in my life, and in recent years I’ve revisited classic books that I either didn’t like or couldn’t finish (or couldn’t finish because I didn’t like) when I was forced to read them in school. Jane Eyre was no exception; I originally started reading it at summer camp because it was on my summer reading list.

But many of my friends love this book, and when Tracy at Fanserviced-B recommended it on Instagram, I decided it was time to revisit it (incidentally, I think I’ve loved every book recommendation I’ve gotten from Tracy). So I went to find it for Kindle, as most of my reading time happens in the dark after putting the baby to bed. And it turned out, I’d actually attempted to re-read the book a while ago because it was already on my Kindle (no, Amazon is not yet so creepy that it can predict that I’d be getting around to re-reading Jane Eyre soon… I don’t think).

Anyway, the book. If you are concerned about spoilers for a book that was written over 150 years ago, well, you probably should leave now. Yes, I recognize that not everyone has read the book, and some people might be genuinely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot, but really, elements of the plot have become commonly-referenced literary tropes (ones that I’ve referenced even when I’d never read that far in the book).

The story follows the life of Jane Eyre, an orphan who was sent to live with her aunt and their three children, including their oldest, John. After being neglected and abused until the age of ten, she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is infamous in it’s poor treatment of its charges. While there, she befriends a girl who later dies of consumption, and a teacher, who doesn’t. She makes her way through the trials and tribulations of the school, eventually becoming a teacher there, and then leaves at 18 to take a position with a man who is looking for a governess for his young ward.

Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to find a motley assortment of characters, including her pupil, a very silly French girl named Adele, who may or may not be her employer’s illegitimate daughter. She eventually meets her elusive employer, Mr. Rochester, when his horse throws him while passing her in the street. Their relationship is very reminiscent of the Disney “Beauty and the Beast” montage of Belle and the Beast. All the while, there are strange goings-on, including a fire from which Jane saves Mr. Rochester, all of which Jane attributes to the servant Grace Poole, whose job is not made immediately obvious, and who apparently has a taste for strong drink.

After Jane saves his life, Mr. Rochester starts to act more warmly towards Jane, and she starts to wonder if she might be falling in love with him. But shortly after, he brings in a pretty heiress who is speculated to be a potential new wife for him. Jane is jealous, which Mr. Rochester can sense, and uses this jealousy to get her to admit her feelings for him, at which point he proposes marriage to her and she accepts. But the strange events escalate, with a mysterious woman coming into Jane’s room to rip her veil apart one night. And during the wedding ceremony, a man arrives to announce that Mr. Rochester cannot marry Jane because he is already married, though his wife has a congenital disorder that results in erratic behavior and has been imprisoned in the attic of the house. It is therefore revealed that Grace Poole’s job has been to guard her, and they mysterious incidents are the doing of Mrs. Rochester when she escapes.

Despite Mr. Rochester confirming his love for Jane and offering to live with her as husband and wife in another country, Jane refuses him and leaves. At this point, I realized that I didn’t really know all that much about the book, since I never really thought about the fact that there was plot outside of the “mad wife in the attic” reveal, but it was here that you see Jane’s character start to anneal and become stronger. While her early life is certainly hard, it is almost entirely the result of other people doing horrible things to her. At this point, she makes a decision for herself, and chooses not only to leave Thornfield Hall, but to leave it immediately, with little preparation and no notice to anyone else.

And she is immediately beset with surprisingly realistic troubles. While she has a little money and brings along a bundle of belongings, her money does not get her as far as she had hoped, and she ends up losing her belongings on the coach she takes away from Thornfield Hall, so she finds herself sleeping rough on the moors, nearly starving. She manages to find a village, where she is generally refused by the inhabitants of the houses she approaches, but eventually finds the house of the local clergyman and is rescued. Once again, she has a new life into which to settle, until she learns that her elusive uncle, who never knew of her ill treatment at the hands of his wife and children, had previously found her at Thornfield, and later died and left his sizable fortune to her. Not only that, but the clergyman and his sisters, with whom she has becoming close, are her cousins. She shares her new fortune with her newfound cousins and continues to live with them.

But eventually, her cousin the clergyman thinks that she would make an ideal clergyman’s wife, and proposes marriage to her, despite being in love with another. Jane refuses him at first, but when she considers accepting, she mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice echoing over the moors saying her name. In the one moment of “deus ex machina,” Jane returns to find that Thornfield has been burned to the ground, and Mrs. Rochester died by suicide while it burned. Mr. Rochester has been gravely injured, and though he still loves her, he fears his injuries make him too hideous for her. But, in a moment of impeccable sass, when he asks Jane if she finds him hideous, she replies that he is, of course, as he always has been. And thus, the two lovers, neither particularly pretty, are together in the end.

I love this book because Jane is flawed and impulsive and naive and makes mistakes, but is ultimately led by a strong moral compass. Though I don’t necessarily share her faith or morals, I admire how she doesn’t compromise them, even to achieve happiness. She also has a strong need to care for other people, but tries her hardest not to lose herself in the care of others, as evidence by her interactions with her cousin St. John when she knows he is proposing a loveless marriage for the sake of having a useful wife on mission with him.

But I think the best part of this book, and one that is supremely overlooked in pretty much all of the film and television adaptations, is that both of the romantic protagonists are explicitly said to be not very attractive. While the story is told from Jane’s perspective, so it could be excused as overmodesty on her part, it is referenced by other characters. And Mr. Rochester’s coarse appearance is also commented upon throughout his parts of the story, which gives the story more of its “Beauty and the Beast” feeling. But while Rochester is aloof, he doesn’t cross the line into abusive or cruel, even alleviating Jane’s jealous virtually as soon as he learns of it. And when they reunite, it is clear that it is Jane’s choice to be with him and care for him.

I love the agency that Jane has, despite having some real tribulations befall her. While she is somewhat forced into some very nasty situations, she neither despairs nor blames fate and instead chooses to make her own way as best as she can. It’s a remarkable book and one that I’m sad that I never read sooner. Like many “classic books” that I was assigned to read in high school, I feel like it is the kind of book that benefits from the insight of age. I highly recommend everyone try to re-read a few of the books that you hated when you were forced to read them in school. You may find some new insights.

On My Bookshelf: Luster

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I want to start this post by saying, up front, that I bought this book because I knew the author when she worked in my office. While I appreciated how good she was at her job there, I’m thrilled that she’s moved on to bigger and better things. This is not the kind of book that I would typically buy, largely because it is firmly in the “literary fiction” camp (how could it not be when the prose very rightly feels like it was written by a poet?) and it is firmly a modern, non-fantastical story.

I was expecting to finish it, and maybe even enjoy it. I was not expecting to devour it and feel it working it’s way into my mind for days after. As I mentioned in an aside before, the writing style in Luster, by Raven Leilani, is deft. The main character, Edie, is a painter who has lost the drive to paint, and I think similarly to how Raven describes Edie’s process of crafting a painting, from reconstituting dried-out paints to mixing colors to create a face, she also creates her scenes and emotions from the words she chooses. It is no surprise that her words feel poetic because she has previously published poetry in some of the most prestigious outlets.

But what surprises me most is that for such an obviously well-written book by someone who understands that the point of literary fiction is to communicate humanity, I never find the book annoying or overwrought, like I’ve found so many other literary fiction books. There is something about the loveliness of the mundane that makes the store engaging and intriguing without ever feeling like Raven is gloating over her intellectual superiority or artistic skill.

One warning: This is probably not a book you can talk about at the office. This is a book that will leave you biting the edge of your lip and glancing around to see if anyone else notices the heat rising up the side of your neck as you read Raven’s accounts of Edie’s sexual encounters and fantasies. Somehow, she captures the awkwardness of actual sex without losing the appeal of some of her more erotic scenes. And I find Edie’s asides about her sexual misadventures endearing, to the point where you almost root for her to get some every time she does.

But it’s not all sex. To my first read, it didn’t even really read as being mostly about sex. The sexual relationship that initiates the plot turns out to be the least important part of the actual story. There are so many intriguing relationships in the book that I somehow feel it is a disservice to talk about it like it is the story of a women becoming a part of a man’s open marriage. Edie’s relationships with the two women in the family far outshine her relationship with any man.

So I guess all of this was a lot of words that never really told you what this story is about. And, well, a lot of that is by design. You see, the story is mostly about being a human being with a body and needs and a socio-political place in the world, whether it is as a millennial or as a woman or as a Black person or as an artist. Edie explores her identities both in terms of who she is when she’s by herself and who she is when she’s with others.

If you like books, I am not promising you’ll like this book. But you should definitely try it.

(If you’re wondering about the drink in the photo, it’s a cocktail inspired by Raven and her book. It’s 1.5 oz. Hendricks gin, 1.5 oz. lavender kombucha (y’know, for probiotics), and topped with Rare Tea Company TeaLady Grey cold brewed in sparkling water, with a lemon wedge because I didn’t have limes)

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Tea Together Tuesday: Time Traveling Tea

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share a tea that transports you back to a specific moment in time. Now, while I have many, many tea-related memories, I was reminded of the one I’m going to share this week when I was filming my video this weekend on Tea with Catherine the Great. I made an offhand reference to how I was fascinated with the Russian practice of drinking strong tea with a lump of sugar held in the mouth.

I used to sit in my family’s tattered old wingchair, curled up with a book, sipping tea out of my very first thrifted tea cup, with a sugar cube. I would dip the cube at first, sip a little through the cube, and then eventually usually give up and toss a whole sugar cube in my cup of tea without bothering to stir, so I would get a gradient of flavor, similar to the idea behind East Frisian tea.

So today, I made myself a cup of Georgian black tea with a lump of sugar (homemade because I can’t simply run to the shop right now), and curled up in my own wingchair. I was instantly transported back to reading Crime and Punishment in my old chair, in our living room, a rather more formal room than our recreation room, with the comfortable sofa and the television. Our living room had a fancier sofa that my mother would sit on at the same time, just across the room, reading her own book. I remember spending hours like this, occasionally looking up to chat for a moment, or to go and get the telephone (the cord stretched all the way to the sofa). There was a window with some lace drapes by the chair so I had natural light as well as whatever lamps we had on. I could read here for ages, until I was fairly peeled up from my seat for a meal or some other responsibility.

And I read Crime and Punishment for fun when I was going through my phase of being fascinated by Russian culture. It was more of an aesthetic fascination, I think, before that was really something that was put into words. The dark atmosphere and gritty realism that it seemed permeated a lot of these works appealed to a privileged teenager just exploring rebellion and ennui. And of course, it went well with a cup of tea that was bitter at the top and sweet at the end.

Of course, I could re-read Dostoyevsky while I sip my time travel in a teacup, but instead I’ve opted to curl up with a book I have yet to finish. Enchantments was recommended to me by a coworker who has since moved on to another job, and I still haven’t gotten more than a couple chapters in. But perhaps the memories of afternoons spent absorbed in my childish concept of this mysterious foreign culture will inspire me to find the time to read the rest. If not, at least I will have a nice cup of tea.

NB: Tea was provided by Georgian Tea Limited in exchange for tasting, which I shared previously in my Tasting Tuesday series. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

Tea Together Tuesday: Revisiting Rooibos

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Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share a tea or tisane that you did not used to like but now do. Of course, I knew I had to share my difficult relationship with rooibos.

I probably first discovered rooibos tea at Teavana in the 90s, so it was likely flavored and sweetened. Looking back, one of the most popular flavorings for rooibos is vanilla and I generally dislike vanilla-flavored teas, since the artificial-vanilla-scent reminds me of vanilla notes in perfume, which I also dislike (I prefer my scents based with wood, moss, or vetiver). Rooibos was just one of those things that I Didn’t Like. I even said as much when I was first contacted by brands offering me review samples and I quit my first tea subscription after accumulating nearly a dozen rooibos blends that I had no interest in trying.

But then I read the incomparable Henrietta Lovell’s book Infused and was enchanted by her description of the farms where she sources wild rooibos in South Africa. I’ve talked before about how reading her book certainly infused me with a desire to try all of the teas she discusses, and led to a somewhat large-ish order from the Rare Tea Company, including a pouch of the wild rooibos. After re-reading Henrietta’s book and chatting with some friends, I realized that I likely had never had rooibos steeped as strong as it needs to be. So when I received my tea, I steeped it strong, boiling it in water for five minutes, before straining into a mug. And I was floored by the woody complexity of flavors. It reminded me more of an Islay whisky than the cloying blends of my past.

That started a new habit of making either plain rooibos or rooibos boiled with spices every evening after dinner. It made a rich and comforting evening cup, without any caffeine. And soon, I had finished the 50-g packet that I had initially been concerned about buying since it seemed so large for a tea I probably would not enjoy. Now I had to buy more.

Since I had newly rediscovered my love of rooibos, I decided to try another company. I had long been intrigued by the principles of sustainability, stewardship, and conscience behind the company Arbor Teas, so I decided to include some of their organic rooibos in an order. And while I no longer drink it every night, I particularly like it on chillier evenings when most relaxing herbals feel a bit cooling. The brilliant auburn color and warm, woody texture make the perfect nightcap.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Tuesday Tasting: 2019 Elemental Bulang Sheng Puerh from Crimson Lotus Tea

Yesterday, I posted to Instagram that I had been reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Well, that gave me a wild craving for sheng puerh, so I decided to dig out my Crimson Lotus Tea Elemental Puerh sample set. I’ve heard good things about this Bulang Sheng Puerh dragon ball, so I went for it.

I used one 8g dragon ball in my 150-ml classical flowers porcelain gaiwan with 99C water. I warmed the gaiwan and didn’t get much aroma off the dry leaf, just some light dried fruit and maybe honey. I rinsed it once and got a warm, sweet aroma off the wet dragon ball.

The first infusion I let go for fifteen seconds, after which I didn’t notice much aroma, just that same faint warm, sweet aroma as I noticed after the rinse. The liquor was a very pale champagne color and had little to no flavor or aroma. So I went on to the second steeping for twenty seconds, after which I started to notice an aroma that I can only liken to cheap sunscreen, although not in an unpleasant way. The liquor was a slightly darker champagne gold and had a light henna and fruit aroma. The mouthfeel was very smooth and honey-like with a slight sweetness.

The third steeping was for twenty five seconds. The wet leaf gave off aromas of dried apricots and honey. The liquor was darker gold, like a Tokaji wine, and smelled faintly of honey and spice, like a honey cake. The flavor took on some bright, citrusy bitter notes with a smooth, clean mouthfeel. I also noticed what I called “some sassy energy” from the tea in my notes. At the very least, I felt gregarious and a little mischievous while drinking it.

The fourth steeping was for thirty seconds and had that same sunscreen aroma on the leaf, with a pronounced grapefruit peel bitterness in the flavor. It was inducing saliva and the aftertaste was almost savory, rather than sweet like I’m used to with sheng puerh. It also made me hungry, so at this point, I paused for some lunch.

After lunch, I went for a fifth steeping, for thirty seconds again. Despite not having any taste of my lunch left in my mouth (I had some black tea with lunch to rinse my mouth), I found that the bitterness had all but disappeared, leaving a silky-smooth, almost oily-textured liquor with a citrus sweetness that danced on the tongue. It was almost like a hot lemonade, but somehow rich, like a soup. And it induced some lovely salivation, which tasted even sweeter.

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The sixth steeping, for forty seconds, resulted in a lighter leaf aroma with a small amount of bitterness, but mostly that same lovely, slippery, rich mouthfeel and some minerality. There was a tingle on the tip of my tongue. After the seventh steeping, for fifty seconds, I was still smelling sunscreen on the leaf and made a note that I’m curious what this tea will taste like in ten years. It was still silky, slightly oily. It gave me the impression of a whisky, if not the exact same flavor. The eighth infusion, for a minute, was more of the same. At this point, I decided to adjourn to sip the rest of this tea grandpa-style from my favorite mug and continued to enjoy it far into the day.

The “spent” leaves before I threw it in my mug were gorgeous with a mix of olive green and plum purple shades. There were some noticeable buds and beautiful slender whole leaves with fine serrations. After writing up my notes, I decided that I ought to buy more of this tea to keep around so that perhaps I will remember to taste it again in ten years.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in reading why I switched from reviews to tasting notes, read this post. For more information about collaborating with me, click here.