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.

17 January 2014

Book Review: Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

One of the best reading ideas I ever had was to re-read all of Anita Brookner's novels in chronological order. My challenge in writing reviews for these re-reads is whether or not I dare to try and put each of them into context with all the others. Given that Brookner has written 24 novels (so far, fingers crossed for 25...) to try and do so would be foolish for someone of my limited critical abilities. Twenty-four books is a lot to try and keep straight and seeing as I started reading them about 15 years ago, I certainly don't remember each of them as if I read them yesterday. Of course I often couldn't even tell you what I actually did read yesterday so you start to see my challenge.

Published in 1985, Family and Friends was Brookner's fifth novel and her first to focus on an entire family rather than her more usual focus on a single individual. To be sure, matriarch and widow Sofka Dorn is the center of the book and the actions of each of her four children are presented in relation to Sofka's dominance and needs, but unlike so many Brookner novels, these kids actually go out and live their lives. That is, at least two of them do. It is debatable whether or not the other two do. Oldest son Frederick isn't all that much interested in running the family factory and begins to place much of the burden on his 16-year old brother Alfred. Oldest daughter Mimi, is more beautiful than her younger sister Betty, but being the much more serious of the two, she seems destined to be the sad Brookner heroine we fans have grown to expect (and love). Meanwhile Betty takes life by the horns and refuses to let go until she has things just as she wants them.

As with most Brookner novel's Family and Friends is set in London, but unlike most of her works, the action takes place in years leading up to World War II. Here and there Brookner gives just the slightest sense of the political winds on the Continent. There may be refugees working in her kitchen and neighbors from the old country needing help, but they are really just background, or they show up to help define the main characters. In fact this is one of the brilliant things about Brookner in general. Her books are such fantastic studies of emotions and personalities that the rest of the world barely exists. She doesn't waste a lot of time creating a world outside her characters' heads but she does that so well one doesn't miss it. It's a kind of writing that requires a fair amount of cultural fluency. To be honest, the first time I read this book I missed much of that background.

Each of us to some degree is influenced by our family. But some families constitute a more closed ecosystem than others. Not surprisingly, Sofka has created--but is ultimately unable to maintain--a world that seems to kits her children out to be nothing else than their mother's children. The boys were tutored at home and the girls given a governess. "They wound up with numerous accomplishments but no real education."

"To Frederick [Sofka] is an oasis of sanity in a world peopled by increasingly difficult women."  Even today, I bet each of us can point to at least one man that fits that bill--no woman can serve him as well as mama did.  "To Alfred Sofka is quite simply a deity ... He knows no one as beautiful as Sofka ... she has seen to it that his life never will escape her ... " Frederick ends up marrying Evie, someone quite unexpected and perhaps exactly the kind of difficult woman his mother was not. The two of them move to Italy to run a hotel owned by Evie's family. Alfred, on the other hand, never leaves his mother but also seems subconsciously to be punishing her for imprisoning him. He has mistresses under his mother's nose, takes up a weekend house in the country she doesn't entirely like with a cook she doesn't approve of, and even moves them into a very masculine flat with rooms the color of cigars.

But what of the girls? Mimi, thwarted in love by the younger, less pretty Betty decides to lead a nun-like existence until she marries the much, much older major domo of the family business. (I read this book while in the early pages of Middlemarch and I couldn't help but see some slight similarities between Mimi and Dodo.) Betty, meanwhile decides to stay in Paris rather than continue her journey to Switzerland for finishing school. She dances on the stage for awhile before marrying a movie producer and moving to California.

Ultimately Mimi and Alfred stay by Sofka's side until the end while Frederick and Betty don't even bother come back to visit. Not ever. Not even when she is dying.

Although Family and Friends has far more action than a typical Brookner novel, one doesn't read Brookner for action. One reads her for her ability to develop a character and describe them with great nuance and economy. Instead of being painted by a famous painter, I would love to be described by Anita Brookner. I'm sure I wouldn't like it, but I would love the way she said it.

For those who haven't read Brookner before, I think this would be a good one to ease into her style and the sadness that pervades much of her work. In fact there were moments of Family and Friends that actually seemed joyful.

This review is cross posted on the blog for International Anita Brookner Day. You can also check out my eventually exhaustive list of London locations featured in Brookner's novels.

11 January 2014

Bits and Bobs (the bits and bobs edition)

It seems like all I do these days is Bits and Bobs posts. Some swirl of being busy and being lazy has kept me from anything more ambitious. But then, if you are like me, you prefer bookish gossip to most other forms of book blogging anyway, so maybe there is nothing...

(a) ...about which I should feel bad


(b) ...to feel bad about.

Is (b) really wrong?
Wouldn't you agree that 99% of us would finish our sentences that way? Is (a) betterer (sic)?

Slow start
Last year I read like a champion, finishing 111 books when all was said and done. This year is off to a much slower start. I finally finished my first book of 2014 last night (Brookner's Family and Friends). Granted, I have two other books in progress at the same time (Middlemarch, and Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred), but still, this doesn't bode well. I have certainly been preoccupied, nay busy, with our house renovation. Not only have I been working on contractor negotiations, sub-contractor visits, and getting the financing all lined up, but I have also been busy packing up our belongings ahead of our temporary move.

A library of Sophie's choices (but oddly no Sophie's Choice)
One of the biggest challenges in packing up the house has been dealing with all of our books. I am determined to squeeze all of our stuff into our two-bedroom rental. This means that all of my books except for my extensive TBR pile (see picture below) will be tucked away in boxes and hidden in closets. So even though our temporary quarters has tons of closet space, it still seemed like a very good time to weed the collection.

The once packed shelves looking considerably diminished.

Some of the boxes of books that will remain in hiding for almost a year.
The books still on the shelves next to the fireplace represent the books in TBR that I will have access to. Everything I will read in the next eleven months is on those shelves.

Getting ready to move I had to figure out whether or not to keep the turntable and my collection of mainly classical records. Haven't used the turntable for about seven years. Once I put a few of them on I knew I couldn't get rid of them. They sound so good.

Vintage Leontyne waiting for her spin on the turntable.

As the available book boxes filled up, I made remarkably little process emptying the shelves. It was the bookish equivalent of Willa Wonka's everlasting gobstopper. So I began to get aggressive with my book cull. So far about 12 shopping bags of books have been donated to the Friends of the Library. A good thing, I know, but some of them were hard to let go. Especially as I contemplated the volunteers not knowing that they had treasures in their hands. I began putting sticky notes on some of the more esoteric books that I thought needed a little explaining so they didn't get tossed in the pulp pile just because they were old and unknown. And then came the collections and sets...

A conversion on the road to Hay-on-Wye
(If Saul became Paul, will I become Rhomas?) As I ruthlessly tossed out old friends and asked the hard questions about what to keep, I tried not to notice the various collections and sets that were tucked away here and there. These were books that I just had to have. Some combination of bibliophilia and the need to shop. Books that I was quite sure I would never read, but I felt the need to possess them. Beautiful covers, numbered spines, editions that were limited, collectors, or special. What to do, what to do? I have noted before that I much prefer reading copies of books over other more special editions. Ratty old paperbacks please me far more than the shiniest or rarest hardcovers. And I had already decided some months ago that I really didn't need four HC editions of Oryx and Crake (one Canadian first, one US first, and two UK firsts). So it seemed time to not only cull the collection of collections, but it also made me realize I was a bit foolish to buy them in the first place. I know I got pleasure out of them for a while, and if our house was nothing but room after room of books, I might have continued to get pleasure out of them, but I certainly wasn't like to read many of them. So I think my days of buying a book just because I want to possess it are over. Unless I am truly intent on reading something, it just doesn't make much sense to me to keep buying books as objects.

Some of the casualties
Some collectible books may indeed have some monetary value, but unless you are willing to sit on them for months or years while you try to sell them online, it is highly unlikely that you get much of anything for them. Most shops that are buying books pay next to nothing. I am not sure what a typical mark-up is in the antiques trade, but in used books it seems to be somewhere in the 1000% range. So handing something over for 50 cents in store credit doesn't really feel so good. And selling on e-bay is not much better. Giving them away to charity can make one feel good but I think, as I mention above, that many of those books can end up pulped because they are too old and esoteric for the charity to bother with them. It was in doing this math, and realizing that even giving books away can be difficult that helped push me toward my no collecting conversion. I know many of you would love to possess some of my cast-offs, but you all live a million miles away and postage is a bitch.

I ran around London collecting all 100 of the Penguin Great Ideas series seen on the top shelf.

Seems a fitting title for realizing I need to stop buying "collectible" books. They are just beautiful, but I am never going to read them and they take up too much space. Tried to sell them at on ebay, but when I saw how low the bidding was and how much I loved them still, I took them off the market. Then one of the bidder's, who happens to live locally, contacted me with a really good reason why she wanted them and with a decent offer. So I feel good about letting them go.

I had so much fun collecting these wonderful old Signet Classics. They have lovely, fun, interesting covers, but really ugly spines. I found a former lit major in my neighborhood who is now the proud owner of these 60 volumes.

Sending a book a page at a time
Well it isn't really a book, but it looks a bit like a book. And they aren't pages so much...yes, even my collection of 100 Penguin postcards was culled. It is true, I could easily have kept this volume on my shelf for ages and it wouldn't have bothered me one bit. But I began thinking about my post late last year about letters and such. And I know many bloggers over the years have bemoaned the lost art of letter writing. And then an idea began forming in my head. But no, could I really give them up? But yes, that would be quite fun. What to do? So I took the plunge.  I emptied out the lovely book-like box that the postcards came in and shipped it to another blogger with just one postcard inside with the note "Keep. This. Box." written on the back. I think you can figure out what is going to happen at least 99 times.

Whatever sadness I feel at giving up this treasured possession is ameliorated by the fun I am having writing postcards to Amanda. And I know that she will enjoy the cards not only as fun, bookish surprises showing up from time to time in her mailbox but also as pieces of correspondence. One of the added benefits is that I keep the stack of postcards on my desk and find I am getting more pleasure looking at whatever card is on top of the pile at the moment, than I would have if they stayed tucked away in their box. Thankfully I don't have to write all 100 postcards at once.
Amanda's picture of the box and first of 100 postcards to make its way from DC to Georgia.

The rest of the cards providing visual interest on my desk while they wait their turn.