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.




22 June 2014

Bits and Bobs (the holy moly you are lazy edition)

With house guests, being busy with the house project, and having to deal with insane jackhammer noise in our temp quarters, I haven't been much of a blogger lately. Lots of clean-up to do.

Went to get a copy of The Night Guest for the summer read along (see below) and ended up walking out with a Messud-she isn't my favorite, but good enough to keep trying; A Cathleen Schine novel which is turning to be perfect summer reading; and the latest from Kathleen Tessaro who does wonders incorporating fashion into wonderfully readable, smartish, rom-coms.

A funny thing happened at the dry cleaners (or The Ark by Margot Benary Isbert)
Some of you may recall me blogging about this book in 2011. It was a favorite from my childhood. It's about a WWII-era refugee family in Europe who make their home in an old railroad car and includes a pet goat named Rachel.  I love this book. The other day I was in our neighborhood dry cleaners and I saw three books on the window ledge that looked like they were some sort of lost and found pile. It just so happened that this hard to find book, one of my favorites, was sitting right there and free for the taking. The dry cleaner was more than happy to let me have it.

A happy story for sure, but it turns a little bittersweet. The book is a discard from the Chevy Chase Library just across the street from the cleaners. I wondered if maybe it was the same one I checked out in 2011. When I went back and looked at my post from that re-read, I realized that the copy that I now have in my possession was the same exact copy I checked out in 2011. It was the only one in the DCPL system, and now, sadly, it has been discarded. Never to be read by another young mind. Big sad face. On the other hand, the book found its way to me, one of its biggest fans.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
Is an unreliable narrator the same thing as a crazy narrator? I think in the case of this novel the answer is probably yes. One of those situations where you find yourself rooting for the main character and then you begin to realize she may not be worth rooting for. A twenty-something woman who decides to start living her life boldly like the characters in Treasure Island which she has just read for the first time. Turns out she is a bit of a misguided, mixed-up, lazy, nutter. It's funny and frustrating. Reminded be a tad bit of After Claude by Iris Owens.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
I am a big fan of Patchett and there were moments in this collection of mostly previously published essays that I enjoyed. I particularly liked the essay about opening her bookstore. But overall I often find collections like these a tad boring because I feel like they aren't quite as topical as when they were written. Many essays don't age very well, or they seem less interesting or important because the heat of a particular issue has long since faded. This is really no knock on Patchett, there are many authors and essayists of grander stature who have bored me in this way. But I guess if this compilation gives her more time to work on her next novel I surely won't complain.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After I read and loved Americanah I went out and bought all of Adichie's other books. Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in the years leading up to and during the Nigeran-Biafran civil war. It is a brilliant novel that definitely takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster. This is not melodrama, however, it is just really good writing about a really civil war where millions of civilians died. Adichie is good with plot, characterization, pacing, language, and believe-ability. She deserves to be a superstar.

I might be giving up on...
Joshua Ferris' most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. His first novel Then We Came to the End is one of my favorites of all time. His second novel I found rather conventional but still enjoyed it very much. This one? I'm about half way through and I really am not very interested in going back to it. And I even bought it in hardcover.

Summer Read Along
Some listeners to the podcast The Readers were on Goodreads clamoring for a summer read along. Somehow Simon Savidge said yes, a consensus was formed, and I had to go find myself a copy of The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. On page 56, I am glad I forced into reading this one. It is pretty fascinating and enjoyable. And it is nice to read something that takes place in Australia. If you want to join in pick up a copy and read it by August 20th. Then send any questions or comments for the discussion to me here or check out the topic on The Reader's Goodreads message boards. Simon is going to be in DC at the end of August so we may end up recording it in the same room.
The much more interesting UK edition of The Night Guest from Simon's blog.

Background to Danger by Eric Ambler
I could give you an outline of the plot, but if I haven't convinced you yet to pick up the highly enjoyable Eric Ambler, I probably never will.

07 June 2014

Is it wrong to read everything you like all at once?

  
The other day my friend Ron and I were in Barnes and Noble killing a bit of time. Since I loved Americanah so much, I looked to see what other Adichie titles they had (only one Purple Hibiscus), and then I noticed the new novels by Michael Cunningham and Joshua Ferris. I had all of these in my hand and was ready to go to the cashier when I realized that I should be buying them at my local independent instead. This may not seem like such a revelation to most of you, but I buy so few new books I often forget the fact that Politics and Prose, probably the best indie bookstore in the DC area, is in my neighborhood. And it just so happened that we had plans for that night to go out to dinner just a few doors down from the store. So while we waited for our table at Comet Pizza I made a beeline for Adichie, the new Cunnigham and Ferris novels, and for good measure, I looked to see if they had any Eric Ambler on their shelves.


It isn't often that every single book I buy in one trip is a book I can't wait to sink my teeth into. Usually I pick up a few thing that I feel I might get to at some distant point in time. My dilemma is: is it wrong to just go ahead and plow throw these seven books? Have a bit of an orgy of enjoyable reading. I've already started the Ferris and am having a great time with it? Should I ration these or should I make up time that I lost earlier in the year to less than enjoyable books that I forced myself to read and others I gave up on?  If I toss in the three D.E. Stevensons I bought a month or so back I could really go on a fun book binge.

Hmm. It is summer after all. Why not? It is possible I will want to throw something else into the mix along the way. I have about two stories yet to finish in a Doris Lessing collection, and I still have 3/4ths of the 800-page Forsyte Saga to go. And it would be nice to read and review a novel or two that are still in hardcover. I know a few of you couldn't believe that I got to Americanah so soon after publication.

What would you do?

01 June 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Several months ago I was browsing at a local independent bookstore with Frances (Nonsuch Book) when I decided I needed to inject my reading with some new, recentish, books. So I went a little crazy. I think I bought about five new hardcovers and about as many paperbacks, knowing almost nothing about any of them save what was written on their covers. My success with the books I bought that day has been less than stellar. Beautiful Ruins: Did Not Finish. Dissident Gardens: DNF. At The Bottom of Everything: Really Disliked. And there might be one or two others that faced similar fates.

And then I picked up Americanah. What a fantastic book. The main character's voice and Adichie's easy, smart prose drew me in from the get go. When I was in the middle of enjoying this novel I saw someone Tweet about how she was struggling with getting into the book. It was one of those moments when you think that a person must be crazy. I suppose I could give that Tweeter a pass if there were things about the book that weren't her cup of tea, but to struggle with it? Some people.

Although it is both a relationship book and a coming of age story, Americanah is so much more. As Ifemelu navigates through her school days, her relationships, and becoming an independent person, she does it all while transitioning from the life she has known in Nigeria to a new and very different life in America. And Adichie does it so well. There is lots of humor, there is much that one can identify with on a personal level, there are observations about US and UK culture that I found highly insightful, and there is a fascinating look at life in Nigeria.

It is too easy to reduce Africa to that single word 'Africa' and call it a day. As with many things that I am not actively studying, I have had a murky understanding of most aspects of life on that enormous continent. I have a good friend from college days whose family emigrated to America from the west African country of Liberia, I spent a week on safari in Kenya, and I have another good friend who is a white South African, but all of my other notions about Africa were highly jumbled and taken from little bits and pieces of history and news headlines. My recent time-killing exercise of learning how to name all 196 countries in the world in less than 12 minutes actually turned out to be quite a good thing. Being able to place the countries in Africa on a map has been immensely helpful in understanding the continent and how the different countries that make up that jigsaw puzzle relate to each other. Reading Americanah was a wonderful way to help fill in one of the many gaps in my database.

But as the title suggests, Americanah is also a book about America. I was astonished how frequently I found myself chuckling and agreeing with Adichie's insight into American culture. And not just in an "oh, look at how different things are between Nigeria and America" kind of way. Adichie certainly offers that kind of commentary, but just as often it takes America on its own terms.

Easily one of my favorite books for the year.


25 May 2014

"...an award-winning author." - Simon Savidge, The Readers, Episode 100

   


I listened to the fantastic 100th episode of The Readers the other day. It was a supersize episode with three hosts, not two, and it seemed to go on and on forever covered so many interesting topics. One of the things host Simon Savidge talked about was a fascinating history of a Victorian mental asylum. Apparently, like the amazing novel Stoner or the fabulous works of Barbara Pym, this history has been out for a while, but it is only now garnering the attention it so rightly deserves.

 
 

Published about a year ago, St. Elizabeths Hospital: A History, was recently fêted at an awards ceremony at Constitution Hall here in Washington, DC. In front of an audience of thousands about 500, author Thomas Otto accepted the Mayor's Award for Historic Preservation Excellence in Public Education. At the awards ceremony a image-rich video was played describing both the history of the hospital and Otto's process. If you're impatient (or an inpatient), you can fast forward to 1'22".



The best part about this history is that because it only exists in PDF format, it is available for free online, and, with no printing budget limitations, the book is chock-a-block with historic photos that can be enlarged to show otherwise hidden details.  If you want to read the book or just look at the pictures, you can follow this link.



For much of its history, St. Elizabeths was as much village as it was hospital. Sitting on a hill overlooking Washington, DC, it was home to patients and staff for over 150 years. Opened in 1855, the hospital was the first federal facility for the mentally ill and was often at the forefront of the field of psychiatry. Hundreds of boxes of archived documents, photos, and plans tell the story of this hospital where staff lived among patients, patients helped maintain the hospital farm, and the hospital farm kept them both fed. Now that history comes to life in this full-length history of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

You can read the history here. (15MB pdf file)





16 May 2014

Three British women and one rogue male

 
I have been very lucky in my reading choices lately, loving eleven of the twelve most recent books that I have read. This is particularly gratifying since I have had such a difficult time getting out of my reading slump this year.

This is not how I pictured the characters.
Linden Rise by Richmal Crompton
I know that Crompton has written about 4,000 William books, but that is not how I know her. Never having read any of those, my only experience with Crompton has been with her fantastic novel Family Roundabout republished by Persephone. Recently when I was about to make a purchase of three vintage D.E. Stevenson books from an independent online bookseller based in the UK, I noticed he also had a Crompton for sale. Impossible to find in the US, I snapped it up without hesitation.

Like Family Roundabout, I loved, loved, loved, Linden Rise. Although it isn't as nuanced or complex as Family Roundabout, both novels focus on families of adult children headed by widowed (or eventually widowed) matriarchs. In this case, the action centers around young Matilda Pound a 15-year old who enters service for the first time at a country cottage called Linden Rise. When she first arrives the house is about to be leased by the Culvertons looking to escape London for the summer. (Or was it some other city? One forgets.) Tilly, as Matilda is known, is one kick-ass housemaid who eventually becomes cook and housekeeper. Tilly knows her place for sure, but that doesn't keep her from intervening with one or two family members when they are being pills. And she does it fabulously in ways that make you want to cheer. She is like an action hero without the super powers or violence. In fact, she deserves to be made into an action figure. That would be awesome.

I finished Linden Rise about ten days ago, but I could sit down right now and read it all over again. It was such an enjoyable read. If only some publisher would reissue all of Crompton's adult fiction. Prices for some of her books are really crazy expensive. If you are ever out book shopping and see one of Crompton's adult novels for less than 20 pounds, just buy it.

The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens
Dickens is another Persephone author, but unlike Crompton, my first experience with Dickens, her novel Mariana, left me somewhat ambivalent.  I enjoyed it, but couldn't muster much enthusiasm. My "review" was only one sentence followed by some visual analysis of the fantastic Persephone cover.  Having now read another of Dickens' novel, I am inclined to go back and re-read Mariana to see if I would like it more now.

In The Happy Prisoner, the center of attention is on Oliver North (no Americans, not the Iran-Contra felon), a wounded WWII soldier convalescing at his family's country home. And it literally centers around him in the ground floor study that has been turned into his hospital room. The entire novel is set in those four walls with action outside of it being described by the family and friends who come in and out of the room. There could be a little more omniscience that I am forgetting at the moment, but this could easily be dramatized on stage without the need for any set changes.

I liked The Happy Prisoner only slightly less than Linden Rise. It also had shades of D.E. Stevenson as multiple marriages ensue and everyone comes up smelling like roses in the end.

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym
Typical Pym, this. Which means it's bloody brilliant. Unlike the two wonderful novels already mentioned in this post, Pym's work is easily a cut or two above. They are deep, and clever, and humorous in ways that push her from mere author into the genius category. The novel is full of the usual cast of Pym characters, academics, and clergy, and librarians, and so many excellent women. Catherine Oliphant is a writer living with her anthropologist boyfriend. He begins an affair with another woman, an anthropology student and eventually Catherine begins to move on, developing an interest in an older anthropologist. One can imagine Pym sitting in the corner with a pad and paper taking notes on the mating rituals of this tribe of British anthropologists.

As enjoyable as it was, Less Than Angels, is not my favorite Pym. But that is a pretty high bar.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
I have a giant stack of NYRB Classics that I bought just because they are such beautiful books. When it comes to this publisher I tend to err on the side of buying every one of them unless the blurb makes it absolutely clear it isn't going to interest me. It was wonderful then to pick this one out of my TBR and realize how perfectly it fit with my recent interest in mid-century spy/crime fiction. In this case an Englishman in the 1930s attempts to assassinate an unnamed European despot (it's really Hitler) and finds himself fleeing back to England where he continues to be hunted by the multiple parties who want him captured. This book is pure adrenalin and suspense. Published in 1939, it is fascinating to see how hard it is for someone to disappear in 1930s England. One would think it would have been easier to disappear back then, but apparently not. This book is one part Ambler and one part Shute. A fantastic book.



05 May 2014

I've become a counter-revolutionary


Photo credit: John Schiffmayer for Lit Reactor
Remember a few week ago when Simon Savidge threw down the gauntlet and challenged us all to be a part of a Reading Revolution? In a quest to find novels that were under the radar and relatively undiscovered, he suggested we go to the library and take out a stack of recent-ish titles that didn't get much in the way of popular notice. I dutifully went off my local library and checked out nine novels that fit the bill. I found it all very exciting at first. And then I started to read them.

Niccolo Amaniti's I'm Not Scared may have gotten praise from some of my readers, and I recognized it was well-written, but when the kid didn't tell his parents he found the body of a dead boy, I was just annoyed and didn't feel like reading it. I had better success with Miss Fuller, an historical novel by April Bernard that explores the life and early death of the writer Margaret Fuller who was part of the Transcendentalist movement. But then I moved on to Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith and things really started to go bad. I only read about the first five pages. It is such a piece of crap. I was prepared for the fact that it was science fiction--a (gay) man, working for the government, builds a time machine--but I wasn't prepared for how bad it wold be. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the time travel bit, but I was unwilling to suspend my disbelief for how clueless Smith is when he writes about the world of top secret government projects or even the scientific process. If he was so sloppy with reality, how lame would his fantasy be? Ugh. It really pissed me off. I dipped into other books, and well, I found them all to be trying a little too hard and I decided to abandon the rest of them.

You may be thinking I gave up too soon. I probably did. But, at the same time I was trying to read through that stack, I was also reading two books by Eric Ambler that I picked up on that same trip to the library. The difference is that Ambler's work has not been under the radar and I didn't pick him up randomly, but rather he had been recommended to me. This just reinforced for me that the best way to find something good to read, under the radar or otherwise, is from personal recommendations. The interesting thing about this recommendation is that I didn't get it from someone I actually know. I got it from a knowledgeable book seller.

Several weeks ago, contrary to type, I was in the mood for some old fashioned crime or spy novels and had this exchange on Twitter.


So when I made my trip to the library for the Reading Revolution I couldn't help looking to see if they had any Ambler on the shelf. They had two of his novels at my local branch and I checked them both out. The first I read was State of Siege which is not so much a spy novel as, hmm, maybe just suspenseful. An Englishman who is about to return home is caught in the middle of a coup attempt somewhere in Southeast Asia. It was written in 1962 and had a exactly the kind of old fashioned vibe I was looking for. I loved it.


And then I moved on to Kind of Anger which I loved even more. Written in 1964 it is a tale of confidence tricks and international espionage. An Iraqi exile gets murdered in his Swiss home, a magazine journalist is under huge pressure to find a story on the case which the police have all but given up on, and he ends up getting caught in the middle of way more than he bargained for. But he also goes rogue on the assignment and hopes to make some serious cash by getting a little too involved with his subject. Not only does it take place in the south of France but there are land record offices involved, land lines, messages at hotels...just the kind of thing I was looking for.

I can't wait to read more Ambler. The curious thing is, I don't really know the man who recommended him. I somehow follow John (aka @johnnie_cakes) on Twitter, but I don't have a clue why I first decided to follow him. I certainly don't know enough about his reading tastes to know if I should trust him. But, being the good indie bookseller that he is, he sure knows how to recommend books. He is a the publicity manager for Murder by the Book in Houston, (@murderbooks) and I must say he does his store proud. (Hmm, I wonder if they have any Ambler on their shelves...) My only trips to Texas are to visit my brother-in-law in Austin, but if I ever do make it to Houston I am putting Murder by the Book on my itinerary. I am intrigued by the possibility that I may like mysteries more than I have always thought--at least as long as they are the right kind.

Photo credit: John Schiffmayer for Lit Reactor
You can, of course, follow John and/or Murder by the Book on Twitter, but John also has a great book blog.

Personal recommendations: 1
Reading Revolution: 0


28 April 2014

My literary doppelganger


Since I loved Mary McCarthy's novel The Group and liked The Groves of Academe, I couldn't pass up this lovely hardcover edition of  Birds of America that I found recently at a book sale.

It's 1964 and Peter Levi, an American with an intellectual Italian father, a classical musician mother, and more than a few step parents, heads off to Paris to study for a year at the Sorbonne. Although student riots and the escalating Vietnam War form a part of the story they are by no means the focus of this fairly humorous but very thoughtful coming of age novel. One of the things I appreciated so much about this book is that it is a contemporary account. One doesn't have to wonder whether or not the author got the historical details correct. Some of the details and message seem so familiar to me I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1965. This was especially the case when Peter predicts the legalization of pot and more or less describes the car sharing programs that are in so many cities today. Although in his formulation, use of the cars would be free.

As much as I loved Peter's life in Paris, it was nothing compared to how I felt about his life in the US which makes up the first third of the book. He is an old soul and he loves New England and was old fashioned even for 1964. He is a nerd and more than a little OCD. In other words he is a character after my own heart, and indeed I felt a very strong connection to his weird ways.

I have trouble asking questions unless it is a forum for questions, then I can't ask enough. But in the real world, either because I don't want to disturb people or out of fear of embarrassment, my inclination is not to ask for help. Here is Peter's take:
Except in the classroom and of people he already knew outside it, Peter loathed asking questions. When he was little, he could not bear to have his mother stop the car and call out to a native for directions. "They won't know, Mother! Please go on!"
John and I talk about retiring in the northeast and would love the opportunity to pull out a map and choose a spot. After divorcing her second husband, Peter's mother decides they should leave Berkeley, California and move east. She let's Peter choose where they will live. A romantic notion for sure, but I am also charmed by their pre-internet research and the possibilities and pitfalls that entailed.
She got the state guidebook out of the college library and looked up Rocky Port; she found the name of a real-estate agent in a directory of realtors and sent off a letter with their specifications, asking about schools and transportation.
When they get to Rocky Port on the Massachusetts coast, they set out to live their idea of America--chock full of nostalgia, and full of so many of the things that make me want to transplant myself to a small town in New England.
She had her own notions of what was American, going back to her own childhood. Reading aloud to children in the evening, Fourth of July sparklers and fireworks, Easter-egg hunts, Christmas stockings with an orange in the toe, popcorn and cranberry chains on the Christmas tree, ducking for apples at Halloween, shadow pictures on he walls, lemonade, fresh cider, picnics, treasure hunts, anagrams, checkers, eggs goldenrod, home-made cakes, muffins, popovers, and corn breads, fortune-telling, sweet peas, butterfly nets, narcissus bulbs in pebbles, Trillium, Spring Beauty, arbutus, lady's-slippers, cat's cradles, swings, bicycles, wooden ice-cream freezers, fishing with angleworms, rowing, ice-skating, blueberrying, hymn-singing.
The move also compels his mother to abandon her interests in cooking international food to focus on the foods of America. Peter's worries that a diet consisting solely of American food will quickly become monotonous are soon laid to rest.
They had pot roast and New England boiled dinner and fried chicken and lobsters and scallops and bluefish and mackerel and scalloped oysters and clam chowder...They had codfish cakes and corned beef hash and red flannel hash and chicken hash (three ways), spoon bread and hominy and Rhode Island johnnycake and country sausage with friend apple rings and Brown Betty and Indian pudding and pandowdy and apple pie and cranberry pie...The rules of the Rocky Port kitchen were that every recipe had to come out of Fannie Farmer, had to be made entirely at home from fresh--or dried or salted--ingredients, and had to be, insofar as possible, an invention of the New World. Pennsylvania Dutch dishes were permitted, but gnocchi, they sadly agreed, although in Fannie Farmer, did not get under the wire...A dish, his mother decided, did not have its citizenship papers if it had been cooked in America for less than a hundred years--discriminatory legislation, Peter commented.
In the days when foodies like Julia Child were just beginning to change how Americans approached food and ingredients, Peter and his mother scoured the town for old fashioned things like beanpots. They also found it surprisingly hard to come by fresh fish even in a fishing village.

Like the curmudgeon that he is, Peter believes that tourists should have to pass an entrance exam before being allowed to see certain things like the Sistine Chapel. This is exactly what I said when we went on safari in Kenya. I want tourist spots preserved for me. The rest of you should stay home. He also laments his mother's choice of phonograph player. "Does it have to be stereo?" Even in the details Peter and I share a lot in common, both of us favoring "The trumpet shall sound" from Messiah for the solo trumpet part. I listened to that endlessly as kid.

Feeling that Peter was a kindred spirit and enjoying the description of his world was the icing on a very thoughtful and funny cake. I think it may even land a 10 out of 10 on my reading scale which would make it an all time favorite.

25 April 2014

The Geography of Books

   
(The real) Andorra
I don't have much interest in reading travel writing, but I do like the experience of place when I read novels. But what do I mean by 'the experience of place'? As an urban planner, the notion or feeling of 'place' is very much on my mind, yet it is so often a difficult thing to explain. As I sat at my desk trying to come up with a way to explain it, I went through a series of mini epiphanies that ended up surprising me a bit. The first is that, while I definitely prefer a book with a discernible geographic setting, not all locations can induce this feeling of experiencing a place. For instance, for as much as I love Forster's sunny Tuscany, the grey streets of Anita Brookner's London, the bucolic Scottish countryside in D.E. Stevenson, or any number of other places described in various much loved novels, the settings of those books don't necessarily trigger an actual emotional reaction. As I pondered this, it seemed to me that I only feel the setting of a book when I haven't already been there. But then I realized I have read lots of books set in places I haven't been that don't give me this feeling. I've loved the worlds that Rushdie and Naipaul and others have introduced me to, but they don't necessarily make me feel the place on a visceral level.

So what in the world is it that makes me actually feel a place in a novel? What do books like Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (Egypt) and Peter Mayle's Anything Considered (Monaco) and even Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy) have in common? Ah ha! the Mediterranean. That's it, they are all set on the Mediterranean.  But then I realized that for as much as I hated Lowry's Under the Volcano (Mexico) the one thing I really did like about that book was the feeling of place I got in the opening chapters. But that is nowhere near the Mediterranean. What could it be, what could it be? I'm not entirely sure I have it figured out, but I think has something to do with an older, European-settled, urban place in a warm climate. A place with long lunches at outdoor cafes, national alcoholic beverages playing the triple role of coolant, social elixir, and emotional anesthetic, siestas, swimming, grand old hotels, linen trousers, trains, telephones, handwritten notes, newspapers, luggage, late dinners, cobblestones. Yes, yes, yes. Somewhere once grand, maybe still so, somewhat remote, or at least set apart from everyday life. Hmm. Places with no TVs, no internet and where the International Herald Tribune is always a few days old at best. Oddly, Katherine Anne Porter's brilliant novel Ship of Fools--set almost entirely at sea between Mexico and Germany--also gives me this feeling of place.

Alexandria, Egypt in 1930
So is it really place I am experiencing or is it some sort of time warp travel fantasy? Maybe both.

Andorra by Peter Cameron
Whatever it is, I felt it from the very beginning of Andorra by Peter Cameron. I picked up the novel at a book sale a few weeks ago almost entirely because I had recently been spending a lot of time online trying to name all 196 countries in under 12 minutes. After some study, I was eventually successful in doing so, but one of the countries that often eluded me was the tiny country of Andorra, landlocked between France and Spain. It isn't big enough to be seen on the map when doing the quiz so I often forgot about it. So when I saw this book on the sale table I couldn't pass it up.

The odd thing about the Andorra of Peter Cameron's Andorra is that it isn't in the right place. Cameron apparently wanted to set his book in a tiny country on the Mediterranean so he made up a country so located and then decided to call it Andorra. Why he didn't just make up a name rather than move an existing country about 200 km closer to the sea, I do not know. But, once I got over this geographical oddity, I realized how much I liked this book, and how it induced that experience of place for me. Published in 1997 the book is just old enough to suggest the time warp nostalgia trip I described above. Alex Fox checks into a grand hotel hoping to leave something from his past behind him. He meets a woman at an outdoor café, he takes naps, people leave notes for him at the hotel, he walks the streets exploring the capital of this tiny nation, there is beach, espresso bars, boats, old families, everyone knows everyone's business, the outside world doesn't really exist.  You can see how this one tripped all my triggers.

The fake Andorra? (Banyuls-sur-mer, France, about 200 km from the real Andorra.)
There are various little mysteries along the way, and some big secret Alex is holding onto, but this is no whodunit. I kind of guessed the big secret half way through but there were still times I wasn't sure I was right.

This book is unlikely to change your life but it is enjoyable and interesting. Definitely worth a read.

23 April 2014

A Reading Revolution?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 April 2014

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



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

Dear Friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hoping to hear from you soon.

Waiting for your reply

Thanks And God Bless

Mrs. Glory Douglas

21 April 2014

Pushing these reviewlets out of the nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 April 2014

Bits and Bobs

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

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

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


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

From top left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





06 April 2014

What I discovered when I took a break from Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened during my media moratorium?

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

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

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

4. I got more exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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