07 September 2014

My slow reading year?

 

About ten years ago there was a book published in which the author decided to read 52 books in one year. I remember at the time thinking "That's nothing, I read more than 52 books in a year." Then I went to my 'books read' list and realized that the most I had ever read in one year was 37. So beginning in 2004, I decided I would shoot for reading at least 52 books a year. It wasn't too difficult to achieve that year and to continue to achieve over the years.

Just as my perception in 2004 that I read way more than 52 books a year was grossly incorrect, my current perception that I am one of those people who reads at least 100 books a year is somewhat faulty as well. I just crunched the numbers and it turns out that I have only broken 100 books for the year twice. Once in 2009 and again last year in 2013.

I guess I think a lot of myself.

When I first started this post this morning I was intent on writing about how it had been a slow reading year for me having just finished my 51st book for the year. Shouldn't that milestone been passed sometime back in July? But after crunching the numbers and comparing to previous years, my total so far for 2014 really isn't too bad. Over 18 years I have broken 50 ten times. But in only five of those years have I broken 65--and I will easily get to 65 this year.

Here is what my reading totals look like since 1995, the first full year after I began keeping a reading log.

I have a new job now that will have me commuting again on Metro so my reading output is likely to improve as a result. I could drive to my new job, but who needs that hassle, especially when the alternative is to be reading?

So I guess 2014 won't end up being such a bad year after all.

31 August 2014

How do books end up in your house?

  
I tweeted this morning that during the five days that Simon Savidge (@SavidgeReads) stayed with me here in Washington, DC, thirty-one books managed to find their way into my apartment. Borrowed, bought, given, and free, I somehow managed to acquire thirty-one books in five days. Sue Parmett (@SueParmet) wanted a list of the titles. That is just the kind of pesky question I would ask and it seemed liked a great topic for a blog post.

So here are the many ways that these 31 books found their way in.

Borrowed
In the lounge of the enormous apartment building we are currently living in there is a nice little lending library. When we walked by it one night, Simon and I went in and had a look. We ended up taking six books back to my apartment. Three of those were Simon's picks. I am not sure how he thought he would read three books in fewer than five days, but who am I to judge.  And I guess the nice thing about these six, is I can return them any time I want and they cost nothing.


I picked up The Bookseller by Mark Pryor because of the title and because Susan in TX (@readinginTX)  had mentioned the Hugo Marsten books recently. I'm 58 pages in and liking it. The Ambler I picked up because I can't get enough of him these days. The Carlos Ruiz Zafon was recommended by Simon. We will see how that turns out. The other three were Simon's picks. He read a bit of the one of the Vargas titles and found it wasn't to his taste.
Bought
Not surprisingly Simon and I spent a bit of time in a book store or two. Since he was worried about space in his luggage, he ended up buying next to nothing. I, on the other hand went a little bonkers, partially due to his urging. I was glad for the peer pressure as I have been trying to inject more contemporary novels into my reading.

Our first stop was the fantastic independent bookstore in my neighborhood (and the best one in the city), Politics & Prose. Two problems with this visit. 1) Too many people at Booktopia in Asheville has hyped it up to Simon so he was expecting something more than just a good indie store. 2) There was an employee who was downright and too audibly rude to a customer on the phone. Granted, it sounded like a really annoying, probably even someone with dementia, kind of customer, but it was really off putting. But, it didn't stop me from picking up a few things.


The top one is a about a Frenchwoman living in a small town working in a fabric shop when she wins the lottery. Plus the colorful cover was quite alluring. The Kerry Hudson book was a Simon, you must own this, pick. It has a hilarious, curse-filled opening line. The Lerner I bought because I am trying to learn Spanish and am looking for lit that has Spanish speaking settings. The Carol Shields is one of her earliest (maybe her first?), and to my mind one of her best. And it is perfect for those of us who like a literary romp. Largely overlooked, it is now back in print thanks to Open Road Media. The Koch sounds very interesting and was also a Simon, I've heard lots of good things about this one, kind of book.
The fantastic Capitol Hill Books, where you swear some of the book stacks are structural and holding up the Victorian townhouse. This place is chock full of reading copies, but frankly I think their prices are a bit high for such battered up stock. Linda W (@GrnArrowFanGirl) Tweeted that she thought she would go a little bonkers in this store because of everything there is to look at. I totally agree with her and when we first got there I kind of plopped on the floor and just stared at what was in front of me. It worked pretty well, that is how I found the three Monica Dickens you can see below.

I never pass up an Ambler I haven't read. Monica Dickens has never steered me wrong. I loved Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy so when Simon pointed this one out, I had to have it. The Chesnutt was published in 1900 and is about a light-skin African-American couple who decide to live as whites. The bottom one with part of the spine missing can be seen below.

No idea about this novel or the author, but with a cover like this, I couldn't pass it up.
 
One of the things I have been keeping my eye out for is books by people of color for Aarti's A More Diverse Universe reading week beginning on September 14th. I was ready to read a third Adichie for the year--and I am still planning on doing that--but I thought I should mix it up with some other titles. I managed to pick up three or four books that will fit the bill and that I think I can get to in time. In addition to the Chesnutt listed above, I also bought a couple at Busboys and Poets bookstore/café, and then picked up a free book, shown further down the page, that will fit the bill.

These are all from Busboys and Poets. The Gay and the Singh are for A More Diverse Universe. The top book is a Simon-encouraged choice about a young gay man in South Africa.

Given
Simon brought be two gift books from England that he has talked about on The Readers. One book that he won in a Yankee Swap at Booktopia in Asheville. And then a little New York guide that he didn't mean to leave behind.

Can you believe Simon got me to read Gone Girl? I can't. It was kind of clever and interesting but I have some reservations about it that I can't quite put my finger on.

Free
I've written before about the little libraries that have popped up in my neighborhood which are always a good source for free books, but I also found some at a café and in a box sitting on the street near Dupont Circle.

This one I picked up for free at Baked and Wired in Georgetown. They had a take one, leave one shelf. It is a graphic novel that I wouldn't have probably picked up but Simon kind of foisted it on me. Then I thought it might be good for A More Diverse Universe.

I've never read any DLS and this was in one of the Little Libraries in my 'hood, as was the E.H.Young, and I never pass up a Virago I don't have. The bottom three were all taken from a box of free books in front of a brownstone near Dupont Circle. Alice James was Henry James' sister. Again, I never pass up a Virago. And the bottom one appears to be a Portuguese version of Under the Tuscan Sun.

The whole pile

   

18 August 2014

The danger of waiting too long

 

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady
Loved, loved, loved, loved this CIA novel. Earlier this ear I watched the 1975 film Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford and loved it. When I saw the book Six Days of the Condor at a charity shop for $1, I thought it might be fun to compare. What I didn't expect was to be totally drawn into the book. I loved every minute of it. Couldn't put it down. This is the kind of spy thriller I like. Fits well into my recent fascination with Eric Ambler. I am going to have to see if I find Grady's other books as interesting.

Now that I have finished the book (in record time) I need to go back and watch the film again. I know for sure there are a few things that are different. I think the film may have taken place in New York. The book takes place in DC and is full of familiar locations without seeming name-droppy.

The Good House by Ann Leary
I've seen some lukewarm reviews for this book since it was published in 2012. I liked it way more than lukewarm. Story of a real estate agent in a small community on the Massachusetts coast. I almost thought I wasn't going to like the book. Her life is kind of unravelling. Business isn't doing so well, she had been to rehab but was backsliding. As I do, I wanted her to be getting her crap together and being successful. But I am glad I got over that because I really enjoy the story, the characters, the setting. It felt a bit like Marge Piercy meets Claire Messud.


Oh dear. I may have waited too long to write about some of these books. And I rarely keep notes. You know what that means? Bullet point reviews.

According to Mark by Penelope Lively
  • Biographer Mark gets involved with granddaughter of the (dead) subject of his latest project.
  • He's married already.
  • I love a Lively and I found I loved this Lively more than usual.
  • There were moments when I felt the book was very much akin with Barbara Pym's novels.

Hotel of the Saints by Ursula Hegi
  • A collection of short stories that was much better than my bad memory would have you believe. (I think.)
  • I liked the various settings (Europe, Mexico, the United States)
  • One or two stories were quite moving.

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
  • Given to me by Frances at Nonsuch Book.
  • Down on their luck but genteel family in 1912 England waits for house guests arrive for the weekend.
  • Then some other guests arrive.
  • I found the book pretty enjoyable, but I think it would have been more effective without the metaphysical aspect. (Big surprise for me, I know.)
  • I'm interested to read the other Sadie Jones novel Frances gave me.
Scarred by Monica Dickens
  • A Monica Dickens published in the 1990s thankfully feels a little old fashioned.
  • About a brilliant and caring plastic surgeon who is stalked by an unbalanced patient.
  • The patness of the story line has a bit of a Nevil Shute or DE Stevenson quality to it. But the tragic bits don't.




13 August 2014

Picture of the Week

 
I don't actually do a "Picture of the Week" feature, but I couldn't resist when I came across this photo. It shows a sadly decaying house in Detroit made over into to something fabulous by Tyree Guyton. The picture is taken from a great feature on best places for creative types in their 20s and 30s to live that aren't NYC and LA. As with all lists I don't agree with everything but it does make me want to be in my 20s and creative...


07 August 2014

A few moments in time

 
Bucks County, Pennsylvania (more pictures below)

We have been unlucky in the fact that our temporary apartment building is undergoing countless  different loud construction projects. Rather ironic that the place we are renting while our own home is under renovation should be almost uninhabitable during work hours. There have been moments when I have been at the end of my rope and have uselessly screamed at the top of my lungs for the noise to stop. My temporary insanity is known only to myself because the noise is so loud no one can hear me scream.

We have been extremely lucky in the fact that we have good friends who have a lovely farm house in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Lucy gets to run around, chase cats, stare at bunnies, and chickens and horses. John gets to talk gardening and sit by the pool with a glass of cold rosé. I get to chat, and eat and read. And believe it or not, I get to help mow the lawn. I love to mow lawn. We play bocce, watch birds, try to figure out the species of all the trees.

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This summer has been wonderfully mild. I've lost count of the number of nights, and even many days, that we have been able to turn off the air conditioning and open the windows. For DC in the summer this is unusual indeed. Even as the temperature has climbed occasionally into the 90s and the humidity ticked up a bit, we have yet to have a typical DC summer day. The kind that leave you sweating like a pig at 7:00 AM on your walk to the Metro.

On these cool evenings, with lovely breezes making Lucy's last walk of the night feel like a childhood summer idyll, it is hard not to feel a bit cozy. As I contemplated what to read on one of these nights, I trundled down the hall to the closet that is serving as my main book storage while we are displaced from our home. When I opened the doors it was like the smell of a hundred used bookstores had been concentrated into that 4' x 4' space. If it wasn't for the rather precarious stacks of books I would have crawled inside with a blanket and pillow and taken a little snooze.

A blurry picture of one of my temporary book closets.

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One of the books I am reading at the moment is Gladys Taber's My Own Cape Cod. It's been a few summers since we have been to Maine, and while I know that Massachusetts and Maine are not the same place, there are enough similarities that I'm letting the two places mix in my mind. Published in 1971, the memoir of Taber's life on the Cape reminds me a bit of some of May Sarton's journals. The book is arranged by season. I've gotten through spring and started summer. I love the way the book chronicles every day life and shows how the year unfolds through flora and fauna and weather. I've often wanted to keep that kind of journal. Taber seems a little obsessed with Vietnam and the arms race, but those are only minor, if frequent blips in the otherwise cozy and look at a seemingly simpler, quieter, less plugged-in time.





Lucy wants to help me mow the paddock.

Bocce ball


 












27 July 2014

Stephen Colbert told me to read this book

  
Such a cool cover.
I know most of you in the book reading world are aware of Amazon's crappy treatment of Hachette's imprints recently. They just happen to publish Stephen Colbert's books, so he decided to make Amazon's dickishness the subject of an on-air rant. He picked California, a first novel by Edan Lepucki as an example of who Amazon was really hurting and he encouraged his viewers to go to Powells.com and pre-order Lepucki's books since Amazon wasn't allowing people to preorder it. Within a week about 6,400 people had pre-ordered the book from Powells so Colbert decided he wanted to make it a NYT bestseller and encouraged us to order from an indie bookstore and listed some on the screen including Ann Patchett's Parnassus books in Memphis and my very own neighborhood Politics and Prose. So I dutifully went into PandP the next day and ordered my copy. Last time I looked the book was number three on the NYT list.

I probably never would have even heard of this book, let alone order it, let alone read it. But I am so glad I did. I loved it. Story of Cal and Frida, a husband and wife living on their own in the middle of nowhere after economic conditions and weather calamities have turned most of the country into a kid of Mad Max scenario. Then they become pregnant and the decide to try and live among others. This has shades of MaddAddam to it but it isn't half as futuristic and has nothing, sentient or otherwise, that doesn't already exist today. I could quibble with a few little details or plot points, but overall the writing is good enough and the story is good enough that those things are easily set aside. Although those who read a lot of speculative fiction might disagree with me (as well as any number of professional reviewers).

A real page turner and definitely worth picking up. Not only did Lepucki get lucky that Colbert chose her book to champion but we got lucky that California is such a good read.

22 July 2014

Wreview Wrap-up (Review Rap-up?)

  
The Levanter by Eric Ambler
My love affair with suspense writer Ambler continues apace. I wasn't sure I would like this one as much because it was written in 1970 and wouldn't have any of that pre-war patina. But I was wrong. Being born in 1969, 1970 feels a bit historic these days so I still enjoyed the period drama aspect of this novel. Syria, Palestine, Israel, bombs, espionage, it all seems a little too current. Loved it.

They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple
I love me some Dorothy Whipple. I particularly like The Priory and her book of short stories. But this one I thought was only so-so. I liked it plenty, but it left me somewhat ambivalent.  One of my issues was that Whipple's early foreshadowing of the crises to come was a little ham-handed and unnecessary. I could see the train wreck coming about 300 pages before it finally showed up. Another issue is that none of the characters was particularly sympathetic. I thought I loved Celia until she acted a bit uncharacteristically shallow when they moved into Field House. Still, worth your time if you like you some Whipple.

Photo Credit
A Man and Two Women by Doris Lessing
I started reading this collection of short stories way back in May. I really liked the first story--although even after going back and reading bits of it, I have no recollection what it was about--and I really liked the last story. But all of the others in between didn't thrill me too much. I may have tried to read them too fast. For well over a month the book sat almost forgotten in my nightstand with all but the final story read. And I wasn't really looking forward to finishing it. But since I only had one story to go, when I did pick it up, my mind was pretty focused and I loved it. And if you think abut it, my mind was pretty focused when I read the first story as well and I liked that one. It may be that I would like more of the middle stories if I read them again without feeling the pressure to read fast. The stories are largely relationship based and definitely fit into what you would expect for late 1950s early 1960s Britain. Think Iris Murdoch.

Fin and Lady by Cathleen Schine
Nancy Pearl told me to read Cathleen Schine. Nancy Pearl has never steered me wrong. (Repeat as necessary.) This is perfect summer reading and there were things about it that I kind of enjoyed, but I got pretty bored pretty early. Young boy goes to live with his largely unknown half sister in Greenwich Village after his mother dies. His sister, Lady, is about 24 and is intent on finding a husband but she also doesn't want to be tied down. Nobody puts Lady in a corner. A big fat so what from me.

Charlotte Fairlie by D.E Stevenson
Another chaste Scottish romance where everything turns out great. Stevenson clearly likes Scotland, well-behaved children, tidy houses, and God. But don't let any of that turn you off. I really enjoyed the first part of this book which takes place at a girls school where our heroine, Charlotte Fairlie, one of the schools "old girls", is the young, new headmistress. Not surprisingly there is an evil, petty, maths instructor who was passed over for the top job. Miss Pinkerton is right out of central casting for the mean school marm. I kept picturing the woman who played the awful Miss Treadwell in a few episodes of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. For me the book faltered when the action moved up to Scotland. Too much focus on the children and all their wide-eyed adventures. I found the main child character, Tessa, to be a precocious brat. See what Cath from Read Warbler has to say about it here.

Days From Seventy-Five to Ninety by Edward R. Hewitt
A slim memoir of a rather industrious, farmer/engineer/chemist, grandson of Peter Cooper who founded Cooper Union in New York, and son of Abram Hewitt "New York's notable reform mayor". Published in 1957 when Hewitt was 90 years old, I loved Part I which focused on his daily life including a list of all the magazines he reads on a regular basis (he never looks at TV). In Part II he opines on everything from hay yield to book mending to Japanese Saki deer. It would be interesting to see how much of his health/wellness related musings in Part III stack up to current scientific knowledge. Part IV is Hewitt's view of modern economics and his philosophy of life. Somewhere in one of these parts he writes about being invited by General Franco to improve something in Spain, but now I don't remember what. Was it hay yield? In any event he seems to think Franco is the bee's knees and just what Spain needs. (Later in the book he denounces Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, apparently Franco is the softer side of fascism.)  Part I is probably the only bit I found truly worth reading, but I think I will keep this book because I like the time capsule quality of it.

21 July 2014

Morbidly fascinating

   
Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the first landing of humans on the Moon. Of all the various stories and photos I have seen to commemorate this historic event over the past few days, none has fascinated me more than a photo of a document that historian Michael Beschloss Tweeted a few days ago. Beschloss is one of the more fascinating Tweeters I follow. With regularity he posts really amazing photos that usually have to do with some aspect of U.S. history and usually from the depths of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. If you are on Twitter and even remotely interested in U.S. history I strongly encourage you to follow @BeschlossDC.

The picture that has so fascinated me is this image of a document that President Nixon's speechwriter Bill Safire produced in the event of a disaster on that first manned landing on the moon. Although that mission was a success, it is an interesting reminder not only of what could have happened, but also of the sacrifice of space explorers who weren't so lucky.

A few things to think about as you read the document:
  • Bill Safire's writing and imagery are profoundly beautiful. Is it only in times of tragedy that politicians are allowed to sound poetic?
  • If you read the final two instructions, you realize that contingency plans of which this speech is a part, imagine that this particular tragedy is one where the astronauts are unable to leave the moon and return to Earth. Not an explosion, but something that keeps Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to knowingly face their demise.
  • I wonder if "wives of the astronauts" would have been a better term than "widows-to-be"?
  • I find it interesting and fitting that they refer to instructions for burial at sea.
  • To me, the single most chilling thing about this document is the notation "AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN". That there would be some point when NASA would decide to stop communicating with the astronauts and that the astronauts would be left with nothing but each other and silence. Surreal.

19 July 2014

Libraries are popping up everywhere

  
No doubt many of you have come across wildcat mini-libraries popping up in peoples' yards, in old callboxes, and any number of other places. Until recently, I had only seen these online. But then one day, walking with Lucy about six blocks from our temporary apartment, I ran into one in real life. A few weeks later I saw another one. And then a few days ago I saw a third one. And all within walk distance of our digs.

Of course each time I pass one I have to see what books lurk inside. For the most part I don't see much that interests me. And being here in DC, I also come across more non-fiction than I think is healthy. :) But the other day I saw a book I really wanted and so I took it. And not just "oh, that might be interesting", but rather "oh, I've been looking for this book, hooray". So this morning when I took Lucy out for her walk I filled up my messenger bag with books so I could leave some items in the two mini-libraries we would pass by.

This is the first little library I came across.

This was the situation when I arrived. Now I realize I missed that Vonnegut and it is one that I haven't read. Shoot.

My four additions (starting with Dissident Gardens and ending with A Cup of Tea). Is it wrong I only added books I didn't like? I do know, however, that each of those four have an audience and will be enjoyed by those who enjoy that kind of thing.

I was told by the keeper of the first mini-library, that this one, just a few blocks further down the road is an old medicine cabinet. And the owner apparently loves herbs.

The situation when I arrived. This is the place I found the Ambler pictured below.

The situation when I left. Normally I like Rose Macaulay, but this one not so much, plus I have a HC edition at home. Fin & Lady was just okay, the Messud is a duplicate, and Beautiful Ruins I didn't like.
 
This was the book I was so giddy to find. I've become a big Ambler fan this year and I haven't read this one yet.

Lucy helped.


 










07 July 2014

Ugh!

 
Many of you will know that one of my biggest pet peeves in fiction is inaccuracy in factual details. So far in my experience, the author Julia Glass seems to piss me off the most. Some of you have pointed out that if the writing is good enough one is less likely to notice such things.

And then came Michael Cunningham's latest novel The Snow Queen. I've liked every Cunningham novel I have read (and I have read them all). Granted, it took me a second try to warm up to Specimen Days, but, overall I like his work. After over 100 pages of TSQ, I just don't think I care enough to go on. I think I may be having trouble because it has a kind of searching, what's it all about, kind of vibe and I am just not in the mood for that right now.

But more than anything the thing I can't get over is that much of the imagery of the book is based on snow. Snow that supposedly happened on November 1, 2004 in New York City. Well, guess what?

It didn't freaking snow on November 1, 2004 in New York City.

I'm not a total nut job, I didn't go look that fact up just to look it up. I looked it up because it was the night before the Bush-Kerry election--which is also part of the story--and I remember distinctly what the weather was that day because I was knocking on doors in Cleveland trying to get out the vote for John Kerry. I know Cleveland and NYC can have different weather, but based on how the weather was that day in Ohio, I had a hard time believing there was snow in NYC. Not to mention the fact that snow that early in November is a rarity.

It just feels like Cunningham had a metaphor he was just dying to play out and couldn't be bothered to make it plausible.

Well, I can't be bothered to finish it.