23 April 2014

A Reading Revolution?


On this week's episode of The Readers, Simon and I responded to a question that a listener named Sue posted on the podcast's group message board on Goodreads. Sue asked us how we find good books that don't get hyped and may be flying under the proverbial radar. In her question, Sue rightly points out that many book bloggers, have become the tools [my words, not hers] of the publishing industry and don't necessarily provide insight to the 'little' books out there.

We tossed around a few ideas--probably the sanest and least helpful of which was personal recommendations--but then Simon had had a brainstorm and decided he was going to start a Reading Revolution. He charged us all to go spend some time at the library and check out as many overlooked books as our lending limit allowed. In my case, the DC library system does not have a limit on how many books you can take out so I limited myself the number of books I could comfortably carry home.

As I combed through the shelves looking for books that might have flown under the radar three things occurred to me:
  • With my penchant for older books, would I even know if a recent book had been neglected?
  • What is the line between forgotten and overlooked? What if something came out two years ago, had a bit of a buzz, or at least enough initial interest that people checked it out, but then it had been ignored on the shelf for a couple of years? Is that forgotten, or overlooked?
  • Without having read any of these books, how could I know if they were good books or merely good enough to find a publisher?
How did I attempt to pluck under the radar gems off the library shelves?
  • I realized I wouldn't know they were gems until I tried reading them, so I just put that worry out of my mind.
  • I skipped any author I had heard of or who had multiple titles on the shelf.
  • I skipped any novel that was represented by more than one copy on the shelf.
  • I looked for small imprints and presses.
  • I looked at the date due stamps to figure when it was last checked out (if at all). This turned out to be an inexact science as the date due stickers could have been replaced and for some brilliant reason the DCPL has decided not to stamp books with due dates any more--they simply tell you what the due date is. I think this is lame for multiple reasons, but don't get me started.
While I contemplated the choices, roughly following the rules above, I noted the following:
  • There are a lot of books with titles following this construction: THE [POSSESSIVE NOUN]'s NOUN such as: The Professor's Niece or The Dog-Groomer's Second Cousin, etc. I am wildly biased against such books. It just seems a little too cute, really lazy, and drafting off the success of other novels with similar titles.
  • So many contemporary books--over the last ten years or so--seem to be really interested in giving the reader some sort of hook--and usually something of the earthshattering variety. Like clickbait on the internet where headlines are constructed to get people to click on fairly mundane stories. These are the anti-Pyms and anti-Brookners.  They don't even equate to good plotting, they merely seem to suggest that every new author is the result of some MFA program that drills it into their students that there needs to be some crazy twist or no one will want to read the book.
  • A lot of authors seem to be hell bent on providing Oprah-level "A-ha" moments.
  • There is a fair amount of historical fiction out there. Part of me thinks that may be a function of the DC system catering to a non-fiction biased reading public, but part of me wondered if those kind of books require less imagination for authors. I'm not knocking historical fiction by any means, but it seemed like finding some historical character and coming up with some fantastic or dark or touching or unbelievable thing that could have happened to them in ye olde times might be easier than coming up with a story from whole cloth. 
It will be interesting to see which, if any, of these nine books might be considered hidden gems. Or if I can even finish all nine or any of them.

Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley
Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Miss Fuller by April Bernard
I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne
Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Are any of these popular enough as to disqualify them from being under the radar?

P.S. While I was at the library I couldn't help picking up two Eric Ambler mysteries. I recently asked on Twitter for ideas about old fashioned mystery / spy novels and Ambler's name was mentioned. But those are too old and probably too popular to fit the #ReadingRevolution.

22 April 2014

Did Wilkie Collins come back from the dead to write spam?

Tell me that this lightly edited spam email I got today does not sound like Wilkie Collins could have written it. Imagine this being written with a quill, folded up, sealed with wax, and dispatched by messenger.

Dear Friend,

Greetings in the name of God, Please let this not sound strange to you for my only surviving lawyer who would have done this died early this year. I prayed and got your email ID from your country's guest book which I have been with my late husband and liked to visit once more if God will in his infinite mercies.

I am Mrs Glory Douglas from London. I am 58 years old. I am suffering from a long time cancer of the lungs which also affected my brain, from all indications my condition is really deteriorating and it is quite obvious that, according to my doctors they have advised me that I may not live for the next two months, this is because the cancer has gotten to a very bad stage.

I was brought up from a motherless babies home was married to my late husband for twenty years without a child. My husband died in a fatal motor accident. Before his death we were true Christians. Since his death I decided not to re-marry. I sold all my inherited belongings and deposited all the sum of (10 million dollars) with a First Inland Bank.

Presently this money is still with them. The management wrote me, as the true owner, to come forward to receive the money or issue a letter of authorization to somebody to receive it on my behalf since I cannot come over because of my illness or they get it confiscated.

Presently, I'm with my laptop in a hospital in Switzerland where I have been undergoing treatment for cancer of the lungs. My doctors have told me that I have only a few months to live. It is my last wish to see that this money is invested to any organization of your choice and distributed each year among the charity organization, the poor and the motherless babies home.

I want you as God fearing person, to also use this money to fund churches, orphanages and widows, I took this decision, before I rest in peace because my time will soon be up.

As soon as I receive your reply I shall give you the contact of the First Inland Bank. I will also issue you a letter of authority that will prove you as the new beneficiary of my fund.

Please assure me that you will act accordingly as I stated herein. You are requested to send to me the following information to enable me use it to write a Letter of Authorization on your behalf to the bank so that they will release the money to you as my new next of kin.

Hoping to hear from you soon.

Waiting for your reply

Thanks And God Bless

Mrs. Glory Douglas

21 April 2014

Pushing these reviewlets out of the nest

The Affair by C.P. Snow
If you have any interest in the minutiae of the faculty hierarchy at Cambridge then C.P. Snow is the author for you. He does for academia what Anthony Trollope did for ecclesiastica. Not surprising then that he also wrote a biography of AT.  Most of Snow's fiction forms a series of interrelated books that focus on intellectuals at university and in government.  Both of the titles I have read, The Masters and The Affair were set at Cambridge, but the latter had a story line that was connected to Whitehall.  In The Affair, a young master is accused of academic fraud and the entire book is about the office politics of giving him a fair hearing. I like this milieu so I liked this book.

The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy
Although The Groves of Academe was published in 1951, eight years before The Affair, and it also deals with a kind of academic fraud, its themes and setting seem decades apart from Snow's old fashioned work. There are women on the faculty, students are part of the story, there is sex, language and manners are modern, and you don't even for a second expect anyone to be wearing a bowler. McCarthy's story focuses on a lecturer at a progressive school in the U.S. northeast whose contract is not going to be renewed. He gets the faculty on his side by lying about his wife's health and the reason for his dismissal. I almost stopped reading this when his lie was found out thinking the novel had nowhere to go after that. But it did. My second McCarthy novel, not as good as The Group but enjoyable. (And stay tuned, I have since read another of her novels which I am going to review for real in the coming days.)

Tove Jansson in 1956
Fair Play by Tove Jansson
A series of linked short stories about an artist and a writer in their 70s. If you have read The Summer Book you will be happy that the little, solitary island makes appearances in this collection. Jansson's work is atmospheric without being ambiguous. Each story is more of a vignette with each adding up to something akin to a novel. In general I like Jansson's work, some of which I find quite lovely, but overall I must say I just like her, not love her.

The Widow by Georges Simenon
Tati, a French widow with furry mole on her face invites a complete stranger to live with her to help with her small farm. Turns out Jean is not just a stranger but a convicted murder. She sleeps with him, she sleeps with the father of her dead husband, Jean sleeps with the dead husband's niece. A bit of farming, family jealousy and greed...it doesn't end well. I mean it ends well, a very good book, but not for the characters.

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr
If you like food and/or Julia Child you will enjoy reading this bit of food history. Food writer (and novelist) M.F.K. Fisher's grandnephew writes about the fall of 1970 when Fisher, Child, and James Beard hang out in Provence. I like the insight into that delicious, somewhat cozy world, but Barr's thesis about that fall being some turning point for the protagonists as well as food culture in America doesn't seem very well supported.

MFK Fisher
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
The writer of The Devil in the White City looks at the life and work of the American Ambassador to Germany in the lead up to World War II. Interesting to have this bit of history filled in but I wasn't blown away by it. Perhaps his wife didn't play much role in any of the relevant events, but I really think the author could have given us a better taste of who she was. We certainly hear lots about the rather trampy daughter. There are times when I find narrative non-fiction a little more speculative than it should be--but I guess that is what makes it narrative non-fiction. So once I accept that the author is taking some poetic license, I don't want to feel like I am reading a recitation of facts. I think Larson could have used a better editor. Some scenes seemed to be included just because the information was available without concern to whether or not they were interesting or advanced the story.

A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron
Tea, 1917, short. Should have been a fun, quick read. Well it was quick, but it wasn't much fun and  was pretty predictable and one-dimensional.

14 April 2014

Bits and Bobs

Last week Teresa from Shelf Love tweeted about the big Stone Ridge Book Sale just outside of DC, linking to a story about how this year was to be the last for the annual spring event. Filling three gymnasia over four days, one is hard pressed to resist. Last year I went for the first time with Teresa and Frances (Nonsuch Book) and we had a great time gossiping and browsing and of course buying. This year I am trying not to acquire books since we are in temporary quarters and spending all our spare cash on the house project. But my need to have something to do outweighed those concerns so I grabbed a couple of bags and headed out to the sale.

After packing up my library in January my book buying interests have shifted. I used to cast a pretty wide net at these sales, snapping up hard to find titles or editions just because they were hard to find. It didn't always matter whether or not I had any notion of reading them. But after weeding 20+ bags of books this winter I have a much more narrow focus when it comes to acquiring more.

Even though I did indeed limit myself to things I think I might actually want to read, and even that is within the more limited universe of harder to find titles, I still managed to fill a bag.

I can reasonably say that I am interested and reading all of these. And with an exception or two I tried not to buy anything that I could get easily at the library.

From top left

I enjoyed one Tove Jansson book and abandoned another. At a hundred pages in a pretty NYRB Classics edition, I thought I should give her one more chance with Fair Play.

Recently Simon Thomas got me hooked on an online geography quiz where you have to try and name (type) 196 countries in less than twelve minutes. After two days of practice I was able to name all of them with eight seconds to spare. One that is too small to appear on the map and therefore easily overlooked was Andorra. I've already started reading Andorra by Peter Cameron and will have a few words to say about it in the near future.

I've started watching The Forsyte Saga when I do my ironing and Simon Savidge and I recently talked about it on The Readers as one of those classics we hadn't read but wanted to.

Always interested in finding Virago editions but trying not to buy stuff I won't read, I was on the fence about None Turn Back by Storm Jameson. In the end I decided in favor of it because I wanted to read more about the 1926 general strike.

I read A Girl from Yamhill a memoir by children's author Beverly Cleary years ago and loved it.

I tend to like Doris Lessing when it isn't The Golden Notebook. Plus I always like when a serious author's work has been packaged to look like trash.

For better or worse I am a Tom Wolfe fan. I almost didn't buy this because I could get it at the library and the dust jacket has sun damage, but eh, what can you do.

My recent interest in old fashioned spy novels prompted me to pick up CIA Spy Master by Clarence Ashley.

For my collection of UK related non-fiction I bought London Nights by Stephen Graham a collection of studies and sketches of London at night. The illustrations aren't very good and it seems like it might be a little too chummy, but I like the fact that it is a contemporary look life in London from 1926.

I like Mary McCarthy's work so Birds of America (a young man goes to Paris) was a natural. Plus it is a nice hardback with dust jacket in mint condition.

Tea, 1917, short. Should have been a fun, quick read. Well it was quick, but A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron was pretty predictable and one-dimensional.

I am drawn to non-Maigret Simenon. Plus I love that the title character in The Widow is named Tati.

I've only ever read one Alexander McCall Smith books and thought The Unbearable Lightness of Scones might be something good to read during a slump. Plus I like the title because it pokes fun of Kundera's uber serious novel and it reminds me of my blog post Zadok the Scone.

Part of me thinks I have already read When the World Was Steady...damn, I just checked my list, I have indeed read this. The cover art messed me up. I should have known better.

Love me some Elizabeth von Arnim and I just saw The Caravaners reviewed by The Indextrious Reader.

06 April 2014

What I discovered when I took a break from Facebook

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a mini-break from the internet. I realized that I had become paralyzingly addicted to wasting time with the help of my laptop. But to understand why, I need to add a little background.

As many of you know, I have been without a job for almost a year now. The project I was working on had been having its budget slashed year over year and it finally caught up with my position. I have done a few freelance projects but for someone with my professional background (urban planning and historic preservation) and at my experience level, job opportunities aren't exactly thick on the ground. Especially in a region so dependent on federal spending. Thankfully, we are nowhere near destitute thanks to John's hard work, but it does mean that I have oodles of free time.

But what is the quality of that free time? At first the days seemed to be limitless. Unprogrammed hours just vibrating with potential. But over time that morphed into existential angst about my place in the world. Feelings of guilt that I am not pulling my weight at home or in society at large. Then mundane tasks began to fill my time in a way that they would not have if I were working. I don't mean that I started to add housekeeping tasks because I had additional time, but rather the same tasks I did before began to fill more and more time. Or, if not the tasks themselves, the whole downward spiral that is procrastination wherein I am neither doing what I should be, nor doing something more fun and interesting because I am thinking about what I should be doing.

And that is where the digital double-edged sword comes into play. The internet can fulfilling and it can be deadening. But let me break down the villains in this festival of procrastination.

Dramatis Personae
Facebook - Love that it keeps me in touch with friends and family in a way that I think is very positive. Hate that I find myself repeatedly refreshing the page hoping my working family and friends will say something to amuse me or respond to something I have posted.

Twitter - Love that I have connected with so many wonderful bookish people around the world. Hate that I find myself scrolling and scrolling and scrolling looking for what?

New York Times, Washington Post, and The Daily Dish - Love the fine reporting and commentary in each of these online news organs. Hate that I reflexively look at them throughout the day when FB and Twitter don't satisfy. Also, really hate how they can get me incensed about the state of the world and feeling frustrated that there is little I can do about anything.
Simon Savidge and I have chatted a few times on our podcast The Readers about the internet's impact on our reading habits. We talked about how great it can be for bookish fulfillment, but we also talked about how it can be a big time waster and keep us from actually reading books.

As I have had such a slow reading year, I thought I would give myself a partial break from the internet to see if I could reconnect with reading. So a week or two ago I decided to go five days without looking at Facebook, Twitter or any news website or blog. I didn't rule out my blogs, or other book blogs, and I didn't rule out email. Not only do I not consider those to be time wasters, they have actually been neglected in recent months because of my addiction to the others mentioned above.

So what happened during my media moratorium?

1. I realized that checking Facebook, Twitter, and news sites was so reflexive that I found myself wanting to check them after about every two pages I read in a book. I had no idea I was interrupting my reading that much for social media. HUGE revelation.

2. Oddly, I also watched less TV. I think because when I watch most TV I have my iPad in front of me and the two things together just put me in a media coma.

3.  I was more productive around the house. I discovered that BBC Radio 4 has lots of fun and interesting programmes to listen to while ironing and doing other chores.

4. I got more exercise.

5. I realized that people assume Facebook is a fail safe way to contact me. Even though I said I would be gone for a while I still got messages on FB that required answers from me. I didn't see any of those messages for five days.

6. I realized I could happily do without reading or hearing the news. In addition to avoiding news websites during this time I also avoided NPR news on the radio. Blissful. I missed nothing. Does this mean I will forever be ignorant about what is going on in the world? I doubt it, but it did prove the maxim that ignorance is bliss.

7. I felt more isolated. John was out of town and I began to feel a wee bit lonely. I realized I only have about four people in the world who wouldn't find a phone call with me to be unusual.

8. The experience made me totally rethink my recent decision to get a smart phone. I shouldn't do it in the first place just because of the expense, but I was close to taking the plunge. But now I think I really don't need or want that kind of time sucking potential to be at my side 24 hours a day. To anyone who thinks smart phones are indispensable, I get it. They can be extremely helpful and handy and fun. I know at some point I will get one, but I hope to god it doesn't become the crutch it has become to so many users.

No one will convince me that everyone needs to be connected to everything all the time. You don't. You just don't. No, I know that, but you really don't. You aren't that important. None of us are. And I will be annoyed and offended if you and I are sitting together and you need to check whatever feeds you are following. Why don't you just go somewhere else and be with your phone. You don't need me for that. And if I am so boring that you would rather be doing something else, please, by all means, go do it.

Unoriginal and not really surprising final thoughts on the experiment?
Everything in moderation.

31 March 2014

The Ghost of April Fools' Past

Today marks the last day of the TBR Triple Dog Dare. This is the annual dare that James throws down at the end of each year. The point is to dedicate the first three months of the year to reading only those books in your possession by midnight of December 31st of the preceding year. Over the three or so years I have accepted the dare I have done pretty well even if some years were a little failure adjacent. And no matter how you define success I have enjoyed how the dare encourages me to dig up long neglected books and actually read them. Over the years I have discovered some real gems hiding on my shelves. Although this year I haven't really discovered any gems. (I did read some gems by Brookner, Graham, and Pym, but they were by no means languishing in my TBR so I can't credit the Dare for those.)

As many of you will know, this year I decided to extend my participation in the dare through the end of November when our house project will be done. The point was to not bring any more books into our temporary apartment. I was trying to keep things light and perhaps even get rid of some books. I haven't been particularly successful. I accepted an ARC (which I didn't like and didn't finish) and I have purchased one or two titles that I have already read and three or four more that I can imagine I will read before the end of November. I guess this means I haven't been particularly successful this time around, at least by the letter of the law. On the other hand, I have focused on my TBR and will continue to do so for the remainder of the year despite any slip ups here and there. After all, of the 13 books I have read so far this year 11 of them were from my TBR.

As most of you know, I have been having a slowish reading year. Or have I? I decided to go back at look at my reading progress for the first quarter of each year dating back to 1994 when I first started keeping records. The data confirms that it has indeed been slowish.

It was 2004 when I really began to focus on keeping my reading above 52 books a year. If I look at that 10-year period this year is the third lowest. The lowest was 2012 when I read a measly six books during the first quarter, but at least then my excuse was I was in the process of researching and writing a book.

Since the number of books read per year ranges from 3 in 1994 to 111 in 2013, I thought it would be interesting to see how my first quarter progress stacked up as a percentage of total books read in one year.

In order to calculate the average I tossed out the 67% and 10% outliers. The result was an average of 28%. Using that average I can extrapolate that I will read 46.4 books this year. That is unacceptable. I am going to have to get reading. If I fall below 52 for the year, it will be a dark day indeed.

19 March 2014

Weekend in New York

John and I spent this past weekend up in New York. His fabulous cousin Judith (more like auntie) lives in a great old townhouse in the West Village so as usual we had a great time catching up and had a wonderful place to stay.

A few highlights...

We had lunch with John's cousin Alex (daughter of the auntie-cousin) and her friend Mia at Miss Lily's. The restaurant was plenty busy so they put us at a table in Miss Lily's Variety next door. A kind of Jamaican record and gift shop. Among other things we talked about our trip to Hawaii and their trip to Morocco.

John's cousin and her friend are avid readers so a stop at the fabulous independent bookstore McNally Jackson was in order. They categorize their fiction by region which can be a fun way of looking at the fictional world.

The weather was gorgeous so we didn't stay too long, but long enough for Alex to buy me a copy of Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne.

Then we continued to wander. Ending up at Il Laboratorio del Gelato for some really fantastic gelato. Peer pressure kept me from eating as much as I wanted to.

While in the East Village the rest of the group were in one of the three side-by-side John Derian home goods stores while I was out on the curb enjoying the nice weather. I looked into the front door of one of the shops and there stood a very familiar person. A college friend of mine who I haven't seen since 2000. It was a wonderful little reunion. I will let one of his sketches stand in for a picture of him.

And on our way back to Judith's house we had to stop in at my favorite NYC bookstore (new books) Three Lives and Co. which I have blogged about before.

Then for dinner that night we went with Judith to the always lovely Wallse. (Sounds like vall-say) A wonderful, elegant, restaurant serving really fine Austrian food and wine. Duck with brioche dumplings...spaetzle...

Sunday we had a nice sleep-in which was just fine because I think the temperature was about 20 degrees colder than Saturday. When we did venture out we hopped on the subway and headed way up to to 156th Street to the American Academy of Arts and Letters which has just installed the studio of iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives. Originally in Redding, Connecticut, the studio has been recreated with all of Ives' effects. Including his upright studio piano which was restored under the supervision of Steinway. Apparently when approached to do the restoration Steinway said that they only do Steinways. Understandable, they make arguably the best pianos in the world. But they relented when they found out it was Ives' piano. So they found a restorer in Queens who did the work under their supervision.

Ives' family wanted the studio to go to the Academy because his wife had donated the royalties from his compositions to them to fund scholarships and awards for composers. Seems like a good fit. The exhibition will be there permanently but is only open for a few months while the Academy has their invitational going on.

Incidentally the Academy shares a complex of Beaux Arts buildings with The Hispanic Society of America which has some wonderful collection of art. If you feel like you have seen everything in New York, head up here some time.

For dinner on Sunday we headed out to Park Slope where my desire to eat at Talde coincided with my desire to see another college friend who I haven't seen for almost 20 years. (And if it weren't for Facebook that may not have happened.) Anyhoo, we had a great time catching up and I ate my body weight in Asian fusion cuisine. The place was created by Top Chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Dale Talde and is one of his three restaurants which are all located in Brooklyn.

Crispy oyster and bacon Pad Thai. Really, really, yummy.

And then on Monday we dodged all the drunk green people roaming the streets and Penn Station.

14 March 2014

Shakespeare juvenelia

Mine that is, not Shakespeare's.

Here is a newspaper I made for a class assignment in 9th grade. I was such an Anglophile at the time.  [Edited 3/15] I just had a glance at the first story. This was roughly 1983 and I was obsessed with Princess Diana. Also, you can click on these and then make them bigger and easier to read.

Notice the want ad placed by Christopher Marlowe for a male companion to share his lodgings. I was one year shy of coming out of the closet but I was already being cheeky.

The ad for Clarkin Coffin Company (after my bestie Michelle Clarkin) refers to the death of Shakespeare's 11-year old son H.S.

10 March 2014

A whole lotta somthin

You would think having read so few books this year that I would have more time for reviews/reviewlets/blurbs about what I have managed to read. But I guess the same thing that was keeping me from reading was keeping me from jotting down my book thoughts as well. To rectify that situation here is an update on those books I have read so far this year but have yet to write about.

I put them in order of how much I enjoyed them from most enjoyable to least.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
Photo credit: A Captive Reader
It will be no surprise to regular readers that I loved this Pym novel. It was the first thing Pym wrote and published after she was rediscovered in the mid-1970s. It is definitely darker than her other work but it is still full of her charm and wit and every sentence is a joy to read. The more I read and reread Pym the more I think she may be my favorite author.  Four office mates, two male and two female, are nearing retirement age and trying to figure out what that means. If you are new to Pym, I wouldn't recommend starting here, but if you have liked Pym I don't think you will find this to be an exception. My favorite read of the year so far.

Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson
Summerhills by D.E. Stevenson
I am lumping these two together because I enjoyed them almost the same amount with Still Glides the Stream slightly edging out Summerhills. As with all other Stevenson that I read, it hardly matters what the plots are. Just expect chaste romances, inheritances, devoted servants, and houses being put right. Perfect escapist reading.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas
If you like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo you will like this much, much, slimmer Dumas tale with maybe 50% less swashbuckling. Political intrigue and tulip piracy in 1670s Holland. What more could you ask for?

Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham
Last winter on vacation I read Allingham's The China Governess, like this one, an Albert Campion mystery/thriller. As I mentioned before there is something about an old green covered Penguin mystery that seems to beg to be taken on vacation. Although I didn't dislike TCG, I think I actually did like Sweet Danger. Unknown European royal line, pretenders to a title, secret messages, crazy doctor, red herrings, and a minimum of blood. Mainly because no one seemed able to hit their target. If it had been today rather than the 1930s, it would have been a blood bath.

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I think everyone knows this tale. It certainly is a part of popular culture. I knew all about it without ever having read it or seen the film version. Definitely one of FHB's children's books. So while I enjoyed it, there is only so much I can enjoy something written for that reading level. No offense to 12-year olds.

08 March 2014

Succeeding by failing

As most of you know I have been in a terrible reading slump so far this year. Not getting much of anything read. I have definitely been doing much better since we hopped on a plane to Hawaii for a little rest and relaxation. And then I had a moment at the newstand/bookshop at the airport on our way from Oahu to the Big Island. With about ten unread books of various flavors I wasn't in the market for anything more. And this particular shop had a small and less than enticing selection, I was just in there to buy some highly sugared treat. But then this caught my eye:

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
A gossipy tell-all book by a guy who had spent years working in hotels. Could there be a better beach read? One of those books you know you can finish in a day if you choose to. I had no intention of buying it. After all I still have a month to go on the official TBR Triple Dog Dare and about nine months to go on my self-inflicted decision to extend the dare until we move back into our house sometime in late November. Of course under the rules of the Dare, I was not prohibited from buying the book, I just wasn't supposed to read it until the challenge was over.

But this was a book I wanted to read now. And so I failed at the TBR Triple Dog Dare--although I intend to continue it, this was just a momentary blip--but I succeeded at getting lost in a book. After purchase I went to the gate area to read and found myself so engrossed that I kept reading as I walked down the jet-way for our short flight to Kona. (On the runway I was temporarily distracted as I got to watch fighter jets and a big refueling tanker land at close range, but then, back to the book.)

Heads and Beds can be broken down roughly into four main themes: 1) Jacob Tomsky's personal and professional coming of age; 2) gossipy bits about guests famous and not famous; 3) tales of the crazy stuff hotel staff do  when no ones looking; and 4) insight into how the hotel biz works and why your stay has been awful or wonderful. Of these four I was most interested in numbers 1 and 4 and then part of 3 also interested me.

1) Tomsky's personal story boils down to him falling into the hospitality industry after realizing that his Philisophy degree wasn't very marketable.

2) The gossipy bits are a necessary part of this kind of book, but stories about people too famous to name always leave me disappointed. I want to know who acted that way. And the stories about the non famous were interesting and added color but none of the activity described really surprised me--although I am sure it will surprise many.

3) I didn't care so much about staff hijinks undertaken merely to relieve boredom, but I was fascinated by all the ways hotel staff show appreciation and disapproval of guests and hotel management. And that part leads into my favorite parts of the book...

4) How the hotel biz works. Hotel lost your reservation? Given a terrible room or a fantastic upgrade? It's all here and pretty fascinating. It should come as no surprise but being a dickish customer will never get you anything good in the hotel industry. You may think you have extracted some benefit, but hotel employees have way of exacting revenge in ways that aren't always apparent.

Besides being nice, want to know how to be treated well in a hotel? Tip. Oh yes, you should also tip. Did I mention tipping? The parking valet, the doorman, the bellman, and, if you want the upgrade you hand over a twenty (minimum) to the front desk agent upfront. You don't wait until he has done something for you, you pay him upfront and hope for the best. May not get an upgrade, but you may get a late checkout or a bottle of wine.

And a word about the bellmen. They really want to take your bags up for you. Even if you have wheels on your luggage. Sounds stupid but this was a revelation to me. I always felt a bit ridiculous as an able bodied person with a wheelie bag getting "help" with my luggage. Apparently 98% of people checking in feel the same way,  but that bellman really, really wants your tip.

Speaking of tipping, to my recollection Tomsky is silent on tipping housekeeping staff. He talks about tipping "housemen", the guys who deliver the roll-away bed or things like that. He says if you tip them they will bring you anything you desire. But I don't think he mentions tipping housekeepers. I could have missed that part--and I don't doubt for a second that he would advocate tipping them.

If a lot of this sounds like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for hotels, that's because it is a lot like that. I didn't mind for a minute. I enjoyed KC when I read it eons ago. The tone of this book is perhaps a little more cynical than it needs to be--sometimes you wonder if the author is describing a cynical world or if he himself is a really a bit of a dick himself. I realize that is twice I have referred to dickishness--but I can't think of any other descriptors that convey so perfectly and succinctly much of the behavior (guest and host) described in this book.

A fun, quick read, with lots of tidbits to think about when dealing with hotels.

P.S. I worked for six months at a lovely, 21-room hotel in Chelsea (London) in 1992. Some of what Tomsky writes about is familiar to me from that experience, but I wasn't in the business long enough or at a big enough hotel to encounter the world he describes.

04 March 2014

Bits and Bobs (the Aloha edition)

Best t-shirt I have seen so far on this vacation.
And given that it was the Kingdom of Hawaii before US sugar barons overthrew the monarchy I think the coronet is certainly very fitting.
Currently I am spending my mornings walking the streets of Honolulu visiting old haunts while John is busy with a work conference. After these long walks (3+ hours) I come back to the hotel for a little beach or pool reading. Not a bad life.

Leaving books on benches
On my walk this morning I took a walk through the University of Hawaii Manoa campus where I got my first master's degree. I took along three paperbacks to get rid of. I left them on various benches and hope someone will pick them up before they get thrown in the trash. I kept looking for nerdy book types hoping they would take the bait. With the ratty old copy of Under the Volcano that I chucked into the recycling yesterday my luggage is getting lighter and lighter.

Do you think one of these stock-photo kids at UH will pick up one of my books?
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Definitely my least favorite Wolitzer, but I am not sure I hated it as much as some of you. Still on my scale of 10 I would probably give it a 5, which means I am ambivalent.

Tossed another one aside
Started to read Keeping Bedlam at Bay at the Prague Cafe by M. Henderson Ellis and dispensed with after 30 pages. My experience with Under the Volcano has me way too impatient these days to make it to page 50 unless I am enjoying it. One of the blurbs referenced the kooky protagonist in A Confederacy of  Dunces. But what it should have said that Ellis is trying to create a memorable character like that.

Casting for Mapp and Lucia
The Mapp and Lucia Facebook page has been a frenzy of speculation about the BBC's decision to film the beloved Benson series. The latest has been dream casting for each of the characters. I think I am stumping for unknown actors to fill all the roles. How anyone could hope to top Geraldine McEwan at Lucia, Prunella Scales as Miss Mapp, or Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie is beyond me.

Isn't this a lovely building?
If anything could entice me to become a Christian Scientist it would be this lovely church in Honolulu. The stone is lava rock.
Photo credit here.

03 March 2014

Modernist literature is awful

Flirt by the late, great Helen Frankenthaler
I don't mind abstraction in my art, but I hate it in my books.
When will I learn my lesson? I vowed once before that life was too short to spend time reading some books. Yet what do I do? I pick up the already twice-tossed aside Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. And, as you may have read in my last post, things were going pretty well. I had gotten to page 100 and was finding that I was enjoying the journey. After reading about 30 more pages tonight, I decided there were a few plot points I wasn't getting so I looked up the synopsis on Wikipedia. Holy cow, you would think I was illiterate. The number of things I missed, misunderstood, misconstrued, or was just plain mistaken about could fill a book. Even the first chapter which I thought I read really closely held secrets about which I was utterly clueless.

So guess what? Never again. Never, never again. No more Conrad, no more Lawrence. Faulkner and Joyce you will remain dead to me. Ford Madox Ford and yes, even Virginia Woolf, just leave me alone.

Depending on which superficial online source one consults E.M. Forster, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald are also considered modernist writers. That may be the case for reasons unknown to me, but I have never read anything by any of those authors (and I have read a lot of their books) that comes even remotely close to the tedious, scattered, bullshit stream of consciousness that makes me hate modernism so much. Oddly, those same superficial sources list modernist characteristics that seem an awful lot like post- modernist characteristics.

Ezra Pound said "Make it new." I say, make it make sense.

I am linear, here me roar.

Ugh. I feel like I need to wash my eyeballs.

Better luck with the rest of my stack of travel books.

02 March 2014

I think the reading slump is over...

Nothing like an 11-hour flight to get one reading again. Before we left DC for Hawaii I finished up a D.E. Stevenson romance. Always an enjoyable thing, but this time it made me hunger for something with a little more meat. I first picked up Great Expectations. My friend Roz, knowing I am not a Dickens fan thought I should try it. Less than a page into it I realized I had seen a TV adaptation and wasn't keen on the plot. The criminal in the marsh holding it over Pip. Too much anxiety for me. Who knows I may pick it up in the future, but this wasn't the moment.

I am reading a real version, not an e-book.
So then I picked up Under the Volcano. Even though I blogged last time about taking this one on vacation I had already put it back on the shelf thinking I would never read it. But after my two paragraphs of Dickens it began to call my name from the other room. So I read a few pages before going to sleep. And, although I have given up on this one twice before, it quickly became clear to me that third time would be the charm. The trick was to read it slowly and to really think about what was written. This was not going to be a quick read. I was almost immediately taken in by the setting and the story. So when I picked it up on our flight today I was astonished and happy that I read about 100 pages, about 1/4 of the book. For something as dense as this 100 pages in one day was pretty impressive for me. And, contrary to what I wrote before, there is no way I read to 100 when I tried this book before. I probably stopped at 20 or so. As I moved along reading it today on the plane, it was clear I hadn't gotten very far on my previous attempts.

I also picked up and read Ella Minnow Pea from cover to cover. As I said on Goodreads, a cute idea looking for a story. Meh.

So, first day of vacation and I have already made gonzo progress. Here's to more of that.

22 February 2014

Am I really taking 15 books to Hawaii?

In a word: no maybe.

But you can bet I will be taking far more than I need to take for ten days. I will probably end up taking nine in total. When I travel I like to take editions that I don't mind getting damaged or leaving behind. So the pile of mass market books on the right is all likely to go--except I will only take one of the V.S. Naipaul novels--so that is eight books right of the bat. And I'll take at least one of the trade paperbacks, more likely two. Except while I was just typing that sentence I thought "What if I took them all?" Hawaii is easy to pack for, I can carry this many books. I realize this makes me certifiable. But my normal tendency to worry about not having a good selection of books on a trip is amplified because of my recent difficulties finding things I want to read. It was that same worry that made me decide to add the trade paperbacks. I thought I might need something more contemporary to break any potential logjams created by the pile of ratty old vintage paperbacks.

The thing about this vacation is that John will be working for half of it. He has a conference in Honolulu for the first part of the trip that will keep him busy during the day and in the evening as well. So I will have lots of time to myself. And even though I lived in Honolulu from 1995 to 1997, I know very few people there.  Plenty of time to read. And, our flight from DC is almost 11 hours non-stop. Usually we connect in San Francisco which breaks up the flying time.

So let me break it down.

In a Free State - V.S. Naipaul OR
The Mimic Men - V.S. Naipaul
My experience with Naipaul has been a bit mixed. In my younger days I found him a little dry and somewhat challenging to read, but there was something about his books I liked. More recently, in 2006, I read A House for Mr Biswas and found the experience more enjoyable. I think I am also drawn to him because his books take me out of the US and the UK. My reading can be dangerously limited geographically.

The Black Tulip - Alexandre Dumas
I've had this one for a while. His other books have been quite quick and enjoyable reads despite being a gazillion pages each. This one is short and about tulip industry intrigue. I have high hopes for it.

Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
There is something about a trip that makes me think I should take along a green Penguin. Maybe because they are mystery/thrillers and most people find those escapist and good vacation reads. I don't necessarily feel that way, but am going to try again nonetheless. The last time I read a green Penguin (The China Governess also by Allingham) I was also on vacation. Although now that I say that, I did read one late last year (Nest of Vipers by Tod  Claymore) and didn't really enjoy it. So then my twisted thought process moves to "Well, if I get this one out of the way it will no longer clog up my TBR."

Heritage - Vita Sackville-West
Her first novel. Expecting to enjoy this one.

Those Barren Leaves - Aldous Huxley
For me there are two Aldous Huxleys. The one who writes books I have enjoyed Point Counter Point, Brave New World, Chrome Yellow) and the one who writes books that I had too hard a time getting into (Antic Hay). I'm hoping this one falls into the former category. If not, another one off mys shelves.

Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
I have read the first hundred or so pages of this TWICE. For some reason, despite taking my 'life is too short' pledge a while back, I am going to start this one over and see if I can't make it all the way through. If I try and it is a no go, I will forever remove it from my TBR.

Scarred - Monica Dickens
I know I should love Persephone author Dickens, but I am not sure that I do. And I am not even positive this is the same Monica Dickens. We will see.

The Groves of Academe - Mary McCarthy
I loved The Group and am excited read something else by McCarthy. I only paid 48 cents for this ratty copy yet it is the one book in this pile I am somewhat anxious to leave behind while travelling. I don't see her titles around much and I begin to think maybe I have the last existing copy.

When it comes to the trade paperbacks I only know that everyone seemingly loved Ella Minnow Pea and I am a little intrigued to find out how he does it; I tend to love Meg Wolitzer; and Mary Gordon has given me some good reading moments. Don't know anything about the other two, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be annoyed by the Ellis.

16 February 2014

Bart, we would like you to see a special talking doctor...

With these words, Marge Simpson convinced Bart that he should talk to a psychiatrist. I could use that right now.
My streak of not being able to finish books continues. For some reason it doesn't feel like a typical reading rut. It feels more complicated than that. I have some thoughts about why I am having such a difficult time.

I have too many books started. Normally this isn't an issue for me, but for some reason when I think about picking up one of the books I am currently reading I am overwhelmed by the need to make progress which paralyzes me somewhat.

I took on too many worthy books. Middlemarch and Out of Africa are both good, enjoyable books, but their literary 'importance' has fooled my brain into thinking they are challenging. Like telling a kid that a food they would otherwise love is good for them. Suddenly they don't want to finish it.

I accepted an advance review copy that I no longer care much about reading. I almost never accept advanced copies of books from publishers. The only one I have ever accepted was a Maggie O'Brien novel. In that instance I couldn't wait to read the book and ended up loving it. But then recently I was approached by a publicist for a Real Housewife of New York. Being a RHONY fan and the novel being written by Carole Radziwill, easily the most intelligent of all the Real Housewife shows--I know that is a low bar, a really low bar--I thought I would find it a bit of a romp. Candace Bushnell gave it a blurb. I figured it would be an easy read in any case, and it is, but just the fact that I am somewhat obligated to read it makes me a little nutso.

The TBR Triple Dog Dare is kind of kicking my butt. Even though I have over 300 books to choose from, I think my participation in the TBR Triple Dog Dare has me feeling somewhat trapped in my reading choices. I think I need to shuffle my stack and pull out something that makes me squeal.

I'm having a bad reaction to last year's competition to read 100 books. Last year the contest with my friend Roz to see who could read 100 books first is haunting my reading pattern this year. Since I am racing no one this year, I think I have gone to the opposite extreme.

Life is happening. I have been busy for the past month and half, but I'm not sure that is much of an excuse.

Now that I have all that out of my system I see two ways out: Either 1) choose one book that I have already started and put the rest away until it is finished; or 2) go find something fabulous that I know I will enjoy and put the rest of them away.

Thanks for listening. The patient always has the cure within.

14 February 2014

The most overrated author opines about overrated authors

If you are annoyed by Jonathan Franzen as much as I am the short video that Steerforth links to on his blog The Age of Uncertainty will drive you around the bend. What a pompous idiot.

Click here to be annoyed.

05 February 2014

Giving up on books

Thirty-six days into 2014 and I have only finished three books. I can't remember the last time I was doing this poorly with my reading plans at this time of the year. Normally January and February are very productive months. I do feel like I have a bit of an excuse. Getting ready for our house renovation has been a fairly time consuming series of tasks. (For those interested in such thing, you can keep up with house progress on Lucy's Forever Home.) But still, three books? It isn't like I don't have anything to choose from.

Low lighting conditions and a shaky arm make for a bad photo. This is the giant stack
of books I have for my TBR for the next year. With no book shelves they will remain stacked on
top of boxes of other books while we live in our temporary apartment.

Even packing most of my library into boxes and having taken up the TBR Triple Dog Dare is no excuse. I kept out at least 300 books out of storage and that is certainly enough to choose from for the next year or so. Part of my problem are the books that I am reading.

Books I just don't want to finish
Normally if I get past page 50 and still want to read something I see it to the end. But lately, eh. I have three books that I feel are just weighing me down and for no good reason.

Solar by Ian McEwan
I am hot and cold on McEwan. For a good hundred pages of this book I was hot. Then in the closing pages of Part One I just didn't like the turn it took and almost instantly lost interest in continuing. So great was my change of heart that I didn't even feel bad tossing it aside.

Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford
I am starting to think that I don't like Nancy Mitford as much as I thought I did. I thought The Pursuit of Love was pretty delightful. The follow up Love in a Cold Climate was just okay for me. Don't Tell Alfred started out really strong but then it started to dawn on me that the narrative was turning into a succession of madcap situations about which Fanny couldn't dare tell her husband Alfred. After 134 of 223 pages I decided that this one was taking me way too long to read and what was far worse is that I just didn't give a crap.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
I read Michael Chabon's first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when it was first published (when I was in high school). I think the only reason I persevered then was the promise of a gay character at a time when they were few and far between in the literary world. Since then I have never been able to get into any of his other books. This 131-page novella seemed like it was a chance to break that streak. Wrong. Forty pages in not only don't I care about the plot, I just don't find his prose enjoyable to read. His is the kind of writing that isn't difficult but I still find myself constantly rereading paragraphs because nothing sinks in.

Books I am reading slowly but enjoying

Middlemarch by George Eliot
I have always meant to read this novel and I have a  lovely copy of it but what finally got me to pick it up was seeing Amanda's progress in reading it. Her Goodreads progress kept getting posted to Facebook and that made me think it was time. I am enjoying it, but I haven't picked it up in a few weeks.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixon)
I've wanted to read this one since we visited Kenya in 2008. Quite enjoying it. But given my somewhat distracted state of reading these days: is the narrator a male or female?

Books that are helping me over the hump
On the last episode of The Readers Simon and I discussed at length his challenges finding time to read with a new full-time office job part of his life and no good commuting time for reading. One of things I suggested to him was to read nothing but books he knows he will love (in his case, Agatha Raisin mysteries). My theory is that if he can find time to read those than he really does have time to read he just doesn't want to read what is in front of him. Well, I have been relying on trusted authors to add some brilliance to my otherwise dull reading of late. D.E. Stevenson's Still Glides the Stream I gobbled up in no time and I am loving every word of Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn. If you ever wanted to read Anita Brookner with a sense of humor, Quartet in Autumn is for you. So bleak, but being Pym, still so delightful.

02 February 2014

What a Super Bowl!

I posted this on Super Bowl Sunday in 2011. Seemed like a good time re-post it. 

If you are like me you couldn't care less about football and the Super Bowl. So I thought I would try a different kind of super bowl Sunday. Also check out this week's Sunday Painting, and my TBR Dare update.
Footed Bowl by Frances Palmer

Hammered Stainless Steel by Simon Pearce

Ceramic bowl made by a friend.

Urchin Bowl by Element Clay Studio

A bowl in the spa at our hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Basalt bowl by Wedgwood

Ancient Celtic bowl

Beautiful, simple ironstone bowl found on Faded Plains

Lots of bowls at John Derian

And how could I forget hotty Jeremy Northam holding this golden bowl from
the movie adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl

25 January 2014

Stuff is happening to My Porch's porch

For those of you who haven't noticed, I have started a new blog devoted to the year-long house project that we will be embarking on in the next few weeks. It will have lots of fodder for people who are house and garden junkies. And lots of Lucy photos. In fact, the new blog is called Lucy's Forever Home.

So if you are the kind of person who likes this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you will like (nod to Gertrude Stein Muriel Spark).

Not our house. Inspiration.

19 January 2014

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

When Simon Savidge's book-loving Gran passed last year, many of her fans joined in Simon's month-long Greene for Gran tribute. I had previously read three Greene novels (Our Man In Havana, The Heart of the Matter, and Travels With My Aunt and they all ended up getting really high ratings--8, 9, and 9 respectively) but it had been a while since I had read any of his work. In fact, if it wasn't for Simon's tribute to his Gran's favorite author, I'm not sure when, or if, I would have gotten back to him.

For Greene for Gran I picked up The End of the Affair and thought it was absolutely amazing in so many ways. It ended up getting a 10 on my 10-point scale. I enjoyed it so much that I picked up quite a number of Greene novels that I came across at various used book sales since then. (Thankfully Greene's work is quite easily available here in the U.S.) One of those books I picked up was The Human Factor which turned out to be a smart, somewhat sad, page-turner of a spy novel and it easily ranks a 9 on my scale.

Maurice Castle who works for the British Secret Service during spent years working for the service in Apartheid South Africa where we met and married one of his informants, a Bantu woman named Sarah. Since his affair with her broke the race laws in South Africa, Castle and Sarah flee the country one step ahead of he South African police. Seven years later Maurice is working for 'the Firm' but now at a desk job in London when a possible security leak is discovered in his division.

About halfway through the narrative, what I thought was a whodunit turned into a whydunit and a how will it enddunit. Throughout my read I found myself wanting to turn off the TV and computer and get back to the action, but when it got to the whydunit phase I become slightly more obsessed. I ended up staying up until 2:00 am to finish it. Without going back and looking at my list of books read, I can't remember the last time I found a book that compelling.

In the world of thriller/mystery type books, of which I read very, very few, I definitely lean toward the cerebral as opposed to the action filled or violent and I definitely like one with a good spy angle. But Graham Greene's writing and emotional depth transcends any attempt to plug this book into a genre. And I think his range as an author also keeps him out of any genre even though much of his work is set in a similar spyish milieu. At least that's how it looks to me having read only five of his 26 novels.

I'm so glad Granny Savidge's favorite author was Graham Greene because now he is one of mine as well.