24 January 2015

Context is everything

The other day when I was snuggled up in bed reading while the rain pattered on the roof, I came across a line that made me laugh with delight. So much so, I Tweeted the line and posted it on Facebook.
Far-off on the hill a sheep coughed.
After I posted it on Facebook and said that it was the best line ever, my friend Barry--in fact the same friend who I mentioned in my last post--wrote: "Are you being sarcastic? It sounds to me like a line written by a 10-year old who has hopes of becoming a novelist."

When I saw this response I was a bit taken aback. Barry was right, but the author who wrote the line is one I revere and the book I was reading was one that I really liked. Although the line struck me as funny when I first read it, it didn't strike me as bad writing. But out of context I can't blame my friend.

In context I think the line works, and while still funny, doesn't seem like bad writing. In fact, it reminds me of when John and stayed in a farmhouse in the Cotswolds and we enjoyed listening to the sheep bleating on the distant hillsides each evening. I don't remember any of them coughing, but that's not to say they didn't. Here is the full context, the scene is a large, remote country house in Ireland in the early 1950s.
Sally came up from the dark kitchen stairs into the house, empty, still, and flooded with sunlight. Charles and Violet had gone out of course; Violet would be in the walled garden examining the ruins of the roses with Cammaert [the gardener]. With something like relief, with a tremor of fear, Sally thought, I'm all alone here. She stood on the threshold of the library as if waiting for some decision which would take her inside, to her grandfather's desk. Far-off on the hill a sheep coughed.
What do you think? Bad writing? Okay, but not great? Middle brow? 1950s chick lit? Does it matter? The writer is my beloved May Sarton and the novel is A Shower of Summer Days. Her work pleases me so much and this novel ranks in the upper middle range of all the novels of hers that I have read.

But what about the book?

Violet and Charles, a 50-something couple returns to the wife's ancestral home in Ireland after Charles is pushed out of his industrialist position in Burma. Soon after they return Violet's estranged sister who lives in America sends Sally, her college-age daughter, over to stay with them in the hopes she forgets about her actor boyfriend.

I can't say too much more without giving too much away. I will say that I think that there is a gay subtext that comes really close to pushing through in a few places that would make the novel make more sense than the more abstract issues Sarton focuses on. The subtext is independent of the quasi-Lesbianic idol worship that Sally has for Violet. Or is it? I don't really know. But I do think if Sarton had felt more comfortable being open about the subtext the story might have made more sense. Without doing so meant that much of the book's climax and resolution was based on some fairly opaque conclusions that I am not sure someone as literal-minded as I am can be happy with. This would seem like a fairly big flaw, but I still enjoyed the book quite a bit.

17 January 2015

Imagine if these shoes were books

Back in November I came across this story about a shoe store that was frozen in time. Somewhere in the U.S. a family inherited a building that just happened to have a shoe store in it that hadn't been touched since the 1960s.

In true Internet style the story appears to have been a retread (sorry) of something that happened at least a year earlier, but the pictures are real enough.

I was mesmerized by the photos and shared them on Facebook with a caption about how I wish it had been a bookstore frozen in time. A friend who is a reader but not a book junkie commented that he didn't think a bookstore would be as interesting as the shoe store. It was only when I started to write a response that I began to really think about how cool a bookstore frozen in time could be. Let's just assume the discovered shoe store was from 1963. Based on some of the truly old fashioned shoes and a lack of more modish stuff I think the store must have been early 60s. So let's say 1963. Imagine what you could have found in a bookstore frozen in time in 1963.

It was in the U.S., so there probably weren't many vintage Penguins.

But there probably would have been more than a few Signet Classics paperbacks.

Although these are probably older than the 1960s, there may have been a few Vintage paperbacks on the shelves as well.

But what about some books that were actually newly published in 1963?

After doing A Century of Books, the 1960s was not exactly my favorite decade. If you factor out D.E. Stevenson and Margaret Drabble, I didn't have much luck with the 60s. Especially if you consider that the loathsome Catch-22 and A Clockwork Orange were likely on those shelves. I probably would better appreciate a store frozen in time a decade or two earlier. What would be your dream year?

09 January 2015

Doing everything on this list might make me crazy

All of these are sane on their own, but taken together? Might be a little nuts.

1. Blog at least once a week. I really got off track last year. Granted, I did the blog about our house project (which I haven't updated in a while), but I didn't have a job until mid-September so that ain't no damn excuse. (grammar police look the other way) In some ways not posting very much on My Porch last year made me feel a little disconnected from the online reading world.

2. Read 100 books. I've done it a few times before but last year was not such a good year. I had tons of time on my hands. Too much I guess. I only made it into the low 60s. And as of the 9th day of 2015 I've only got one under my belt. I better get busy.

3. Keep up with my blog reading. Oy, I've been bad about this recently. By the time I get around to catching up there are so many posts to look at I ended up shutting down and ignoring way too many interesting posts.

4. I'm stealing this one from Simon Savidge who noted on episode 116 of The Readers that he plans to look at no screens after 10 pm. That means no TV, no computer, no phone, no iPad, etc. I'm not sure if he plans to do it on the weekends as well, but I am going to limit my limit to Sunday through Thursday nights. So far I have managed to do this but it takes being a little conscientious for sure. When I am about to press play on something on the DVR I have to look at the time to see if it will finish by 10. So far, so good.

[I interrupt this list to note that I just went to Google something about reading challenges for 2015 and came across a blogger who is, I'm sure a lovely person, but has a blog so cloyingly annoying (clannoying?) that I feel compelled (but will not) leave a snarky comment on her blog. Consider this editorial aside to be a sort of safety valve in that regard.]

5. Read all of Anthony Powell's 12-book, 4-volume series The Dance to the Music of Time. Annabel is bound and determined to do it this year and I am going to try and join her. The most challenging bit is that I don't feel compelled to read them yet. You know how you can have something on your shelves for years and then one day you just feel like it is the right time to give it a go? I feel that in my head right now, but I don't feel it in my gut. Stay tuned.

6. I think I have have participated in James' TBR dare ever year that he has done it, save one. And I was late in signing up, but since I haven't broken any of the rules yet, I figure I still qualify. This one may turn out to be easier to do this year since I am now reunited with all of my books unpacked and in one place and so I have a lot of unread books to choose from. More than enough to keep me happy.

7. Go to a movie once a month. This may sound easy, but, much to John's chagrin I don't see many movies these days. For the 11 months we lived in our temporary apartment we lived only 3 blocks from a multi-plex and we only went once.

8. Finish sending Amanda the rest of those Penguin post cards I started sending a year ago. I thought for sure I would send all 100 over a year, but I still have about 30 or 40 yet to send. Now that we are settled back into our house, I might find that easier to achieve.

The pile of postcards last January. I really should take an updated photo with at least half the stack gone.

The box and first post arrived in Georgia last January.

9. Participate in at least one of the two Dewey's Read-a-thon weekends. I'm not a fan of all the cheerleading and memes and such, but I still love the event and the wide range bloggers who participate.

....looking back at the list, and thinking of no other items to add I'm beginning to think I may actually accomplish all of these. The only one I am doubtful of is the Powell.

01 January 2015

The library that is, the year that was

The row of grey Persephone books mark the end of the fiction. The two rows below that are various non-fiction books that have yet to be organized. I ran out of time.
There is so much that is overwhelming about moving back into a renovated house after eleven months away and with just five days to go until Christmas. Certainly much to be happy about but also much that is stressful and discombobulating. The holidays, work, impending appraisal and mortgage closing, aggravating punchlist items, frustrating utility providers, and the list goes on.

All of this makes it a little hard to get motivated to blog about the fun stuff, like organizing my new and improved library, and recapping my favorite reads for 2014. To aid my efforts, I have decided to use two handy crutches: photos and lists.

Top Five Yawns of 2014
Some of these titles had some redeeming qualities, but the overall impression they left was boredom, especially when viewed through the lens of a year-end recap.

Same fireplace when we first moved in and were thinking about a grey paint for the library.

After over a year of living with those color swatches on the wall, I decided just go ahead and paint the library even though it would be torn up in a year. It was also a good experiment in what turned out to be a color and color direction we really didn't want to go in the new library. The shelves to the right of the fireplace were not replaced. I gained some additional shelf space elsewhere in the library, but I will miss this odd bit. It's where I kept most of my TBR.

Looking the same general direction showing a bit more of the shelves. We ended up going with a much warmer grey with a little more brown and green in it.
Top Five Pleasant Surprises of 2014
All of these novels were written by authors who were new to me. Three of them were recommended to me and two (Leary and Cameron) were just ones I thought I would give a go. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed all of them quite a lot.

All of the books had already been put on the shelves, but they weren't in any order. It took me most of a day to just get the fiction set right.

I haven't read any of the stories in these Everyman collections, but their covers have been too darn pretty to pass up. 

The end wall shelves are deeper and will house mainly art, gardening, and coffee table books.

Early in the process. I was still on the Bs.
Five Books I Knew I Would Like
With all the upheaval in my life in 2014 it is no surprise I sought out some comforting authors to get me through it all. The Brookner was part of my re-read of all her novels while the rest are authors I have been able to rely on when I need a good, cozy read. Big surprise, all are British and all are women.

Another 'before' picture for comparison. I'll admit this is looking pretty cozy.

Five Favorite Spy/Thriller/Intrigue Novels of 2014
There have been many years when I wouldn't even have a single title that could fit this category. But this year I got a bit of a bug and a good tip off on Eric Ambler. What they all have in common is they are a bit old fashion and don't have much, if any, violence. I unequivocally loved all of these.

One of the challenges I faced as I organized the fiction was whether or not to keep certain well-loved editions of books together or integrate them in alpha order with all of the other novels. In the end I kept the Persephones together but the NYRB and Viragos were split up.

Top Five Reads of 2014
In no particular order.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I picked this one up with a bunch of other new hardcover fiction to get a bit more current stuff into my TBR. In the end this was the only one I ended up liking and I really ended up liking it. It made me go out an buy all of her other books.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A wonderful, if often tragic novel.
  • Birds of America by Mary McCarthy. Best known for her novel The Group, McCarthy has lots of other novels that are well worth reading. I took a particular shine to this one. I loved the main character and I love the fact that I picked it up by chance at a second hand book sale.
  • Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym. Not surprising a Pym makes the list. Full of Pym's amazing character observations and witty prose but with a rather bleak outlook. Think of Brookner with a sense of humor.
  • The Human Factor by Graham Greene. Easily the best of the thriller type books I read this year and a close second to The End of the Affair which I read in 2013.

This has nothing to do with the library but everything to do with cute.

07 December 2014

My bookish but not so bookish Thanksgiving

It’s well known I love choosing books to take on trips. As I contemplated our Thanksgiving trip out to San Francisco (the East Bay) my joy was somewhat dampened by the fact that I was going to have to do some work on the trip, not to mention the fact that our time was going to be pretty busy with family and friends and trips to Loard’s for Peppermint Stick ice cream. Still, I popped three books in my bag: The Dinner by Herman Koch, Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, and Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth. But then, even with all these great things to read, I was distracted by two things: 1) Our plane had about 50 movies to choose from. I ended up watching American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks, and 2) John bought The Andy Cohen Diaries at the bookshop at Dulles which immediately made me want to read something really fun like that. I ended up being rather bored by the flashback scenes in Saving Mr. Banks so I read bits from the Andy Cohen book while I waited for Emma Thompson to come back on the screen. (By that time John had put the book down to watch Boyhood.)

Despite being pretty busy once we landed I did manage to finish The Dinner by Herman Koch. It was quite disturbing for sure, but I loved it. Apparently it is often mentioned in the same breath as Gone Girl and indeed Gillian Flynn has a blurb on the front cover of the paperback. I understand why people make the connection but the Koch book is so much better written and provides way more food for thought than Gone Girl. I was smitten enough with Koch to buy his latest book Summer House with Swimming Pool at Book Passage in the Ferry Terminal on Small Business Saturday. I wasn’t sure I would necessarily like other work by him but a quick read of the opening paragraph had me instantly hooked. I also ended up buying Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Normally I wouldn’t buy a Booker winner in hardcover, but Simon has had so much good to say about it that I couldn't resist. And since he was the one who put The Dinner in my hands when he visited in August, I thought I might be able to trust him. At least this once.

Although I wasn't really in the market for any books and only bought two on this trip, I did poke my head into three book stores.  In addition to the above mentioned Book Passage, I also had a look at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

I couldn't go to Alcatraz without getting a picture or two of the space that used to house the prison library.

Looking at the scale model of Alcatraz while we waited for the ferry.

On our last day in the Bay Area we visited friends who I don’t get to see more than once a year. John has been friends with his friend John since they were about three, and with John’s wife Pamela since they were all students at Berkeley in the mid-80s. Of course it was fun to catch up and share some laughs, but I also had the unexpected pleasure of being able to sit down and have a good chat about books with Pamela who is an avid reader. Now, I know you all have had those holiday visits where you come across another reader who automatically starts recommending books willy-nilly—most of which you know you will hate. But with Pamela this was not the case. In fact, now that I think of it, I might have been the one who was recommending more than I should have. During the course of our conversation she pulled out a magazine called Bookmarks. Yes, an actual, printed, hold in your hand and turn the pages, kind of magazine. And it’s all about books. How have I never heard of this magazine? From what I could see it takes a lot of cues from its readers in terms of what it covers and how it compiles various lists of what to read next. One thing that particularly interested me was a feature on science fiction. Kind of a beginner’s guide to exploring the genre. As most of you know sci-fi isn’t necessarily my thing, but my recent reading of The Sparrow piqued my interest, so that kind of quick guide was just the ticket.

After all this book chat with Pamela, and right after I pronounce my dislike for Joseph Conrad, I find out that not only was John an English major, but he wrote his thesis on Conrad. That’s me, always putting my foot in it. Thankfully John hasn’t devoted his life to the study of Conrad so I don’t think the (paper)cut went too deep.

23 November 2014

Something for everyone: Truly random thoughts

1. My brother and his family got two new puppies recently.

2. United's merger with Continental has done no favors for us here in the DC market.

3a. I wonder how much of Audible's sales are attributable to erotica?

3b. Speaking of Audible, it is amazing how much a part of my "reading" life audiobooks have become. So much of my anti-audiobook bias has fallen away. I am even tempted to start counting them on my "books read" list because the feeling when one finishes one is pretty much the same.

3c. I love the way Tim West pronounces the word "club" in his Trollope narrations. The guy reading my current Nevil Shute isn't quite as plummy when he says it.

4. I kept trying to replace a comma with a period. Then I realized it was gunk on my screen.

5. I need your banoffee pie recipes. As I asked my FB friends to discuss their favorite pies, a British ex-pat friend of mine living here in DC bemoaned the lack of good banoffee pie available here in the US. I was actually surprised it was available at all. She has challenged me to make one from "a proper British recipe" and with biscuit, not pastry crust. I've been looking around online and can't decide if I have found anything acceptable. Do you have a favorite recipe for it? Mary Berry says that today's condensed milk packaging with the pull tops make it inadvisable to do the boiled can method, so I don't think I will try that--although I would love to.

6. I wouldn't mind if Ted Talks disappeared.

7. Since I've gone back to work in September my sleeping schedule has been decidedly old mannish. I don't seem able to sleep past 6:30, even on weekends and then I want to be in bed by 10 pm. And I've always been a  night person. Plus it is wreaking havoc with my reading time, much of which used to happen after 10.

8. Going to northern California for Thanksgiving next week. Always fun to choose reading for a trip. But I fear my free time while we are out there is going to be taken up with work, as my previously scheduled trip is now in the middle of an unexpected deadline.

Helmut the crocheted turkey posing at the San Francisco airport last Thanksgiving.

Helmut wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving
9. I'm amazed I made it to #9 without mentioning our house. We move back in in 26 days. Not only am I really looking forward to filling up those shelves, but John and I have kind of given up on this apartment. Our interest in keeping the place tidy has reached a nadir.

10. I've noticed that the book blogging world is like a college newspaper in the way that old ideas/issues are brought up every so often as if they had never been addressed before. After I graduated from college and after I worked in London for six months, I ended up in a job at the University of Minnesota Hospital so I was back on the campus of my alma mater five days a week. I continued to read the school's newspaper and couldn't help notice that both news and feature articles seemed to be retreads of ideas and issues that had cycled through once or twice during the four years I was a student. I guess one can't blame each new crop of students has to hash things out for themselves in an endless loop.

16 November 2014

Old news : Old books

I have been so bad at keeping up with my blog feed. It has been about 30 days since I really looked at it and I had about 500 blog posts to look at. Actually, as I write this I still have about 390 yet to go through. I'm just now hitting all the readathon posts, and you all know how long ago that was.

I also just came across Simon's post about the man who got locked in the Trafalgar Square Waterstone's. This is also a topic we have chatted about on The Readers. For those of you who haven't heard the story, a man accidentally got locked in the store and Tweeted about it and it was a big, fun, hullabaloo, especially for us bookish types.

The thing is, I actually wouldn't find that at all interesting. Well, let me qualify that, the only way I would find it interesting is if the store was a secondhand bookshop. I would find a new book, bookshop realllllllly boring. Here's why: I would be too keyed up to want to read anything and there are no surprises in a new bookshop. I pretty well know what I would find, so short of reading, there wouldn't be much that would interest me. Whereas in a used bookshop, the whole night could be spent rooting around for hidden gems. I never have enough time in a used shop to really comb the shelves and dig through the many layers books stacked here and there.

And, as an added bonus, I would have the time to organize and clean the store. This is a fantasy of mine. I would love to be let loose in a messy store in need of alphabetical rigor. I once spent 20 minutes at the main public library putting all their Trollope in proper title alpha order. It was fun and in the process I found five copies of the book I was looking for. (Of course, you are probably wondering why in the world the library shelves were out of order, but alas, that is the state of the sad DC public library system.)

Once on vacation I visited a great used bookstore in Nyack, New York. It was a store I had spent some time in about five years previously. It was clear that in the intervening years the owner had given in to his obvious hoarding tendencies and couldn't keep up with the mountains of books he was acquiring. I told John I could spend the rest of my vacation just organizing that store. If only.

But in a new bookstore. Oh look, there is Atwood. Oh look, there is Dickens.  Oh look, there is...see what I mean? No surprises, everything in order, yawn.

Places I would like to get locked in:

1. A cathedral with a giant pipe organ. I can't actually play the thing, but I would like unlimited time to play around with the stops and see what does what with no time constraints. John once bought me an hour with the organist of the National Cathedral here in DC which was almost as good.

2. A grand old English house like Chatsworth, but also preferably one that hadn't been kept up too well. I want to see all the rooms that the public doesn't get to see like attics and such.

3. The Cabinet War Rooms in London. They are set up just like they were during World War II. So many files and push pins and typewriters. It would be fun to play around.

4. Buckingham Palace. For a similar reason to number two above, but also because I would love to comb through the Queen's collections of jewels and clothes. See what's on her bedside table, etc.

5. The V&A. Of all museums, I think this one would be the most fun. Again, lots of attic-fossicking action.

6. The library at Sissinghurst. Not only because it is a library, but because it is chock full of early 20th century fiction. No doubt I would find some gems there. Would also like access to Vita's study up in the tower which also is lined with books.

7. The library at Blenheim. I've noticed when I have been to Blenheim, that not all the books in the library are ancient. Plus there is a pipe organ and really comfy furniture.

8. The food halls at Harrods.