28 September 2009

Book Giveaway Winners

Due to a scheduling error on my part I closed down my book giveaway a day early and chose the winners tonight. Yes, winners is plural. I decided to give away two copies instead of one.

The winners of Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys, chosen randomly by the hubby are:

Kim at Books Sliced and Diced


Melanie at The Indextrious Reader

Congratulations to both of them. (Winners, if you haven't already, shoot me an email (address can be found on my profile page) and let me know where you would like the book sent.)

Thanks to all who entered. Stay tuned for more give aways in the future. And please, feel free to tell me what you are thinking by posting a comment when you visit MyPorch.

27 September 2009

Of Road Trips and May Sarton

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In the summer of 2008 my husband and I took a wonderful road trip up through the Northeast. Normally our travels mean we get on a plane and go explore some other part of the US or the world. And while the Northeast feels decidedly different than DC and the mid-Atlantic region, it is close enough that we were able to skip the flight and car rental formula in favor of packing up our car and hitting the open road. Having our own vehicle and not being beholden to any schedule or airline luggage restrictions meant we really did have the freedom to do what we pleased. For me this meant stopping in every secondhand bookstore we came across. After two weeks traveling through the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks, and Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts, rural Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, and a final stop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania we arrived back in DC with about 75 more books than when we left.

During our overnight stay in Woodstock, Vermont we came across one of the nicest little bookshops on the whole trip. Pleasant Street Books is in a converted barn behind one of the houses that line the main street through town. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon. It had a really nice balance between antiquarian books and good secondhand reading copies and had a friendly, helpful proprietor behind the desk. While we were there I came across a stack of books by May Sarton. I knew the name, and had a vague notion that she was someone I should read, but I didn’t know anything about her. I am not sure why I was initially drawn to these old Norton paperbacks stacked on the floor in front of the shelves. When I started to look through them I noticed they had all been owned by the same person and was intrigued by the notion that whoever Susie was, she liked Sarton well enough to own eight of her books. The descriptions on the back of the books indicated that Sarton had been a bit of a local, having lived for many years in neighboring New Hampshire. It seemed fitting that our Northeast road trip should be commemorated with the purchase of some native literature.

Back in June, Art Durkee over at Dragoncave posted a lovely entry about his pilgrimage to Nelson, New Hampshire to see Sarton’s grave. He has some very striking pictures of Sarton’s milieu that so nourished her over the years.

Among the pile of Sarton were some of her novels and a few of her published journals. I started off by reading The Small Room a novel from 1961 about an academic and administrative crisis at a New England girls college. The second one I read was Kinds of Love, a novel about a long married couple, their friends and family and their relationships in a small New England town. I liked both books quite a bit, although I think The Small Room appealed to me more. It has been about a year since I read them, but I remember them having a kind of cozy but somewhat austere New England setting where nature and the seasons, and small town life are as important as any of characters in defining the books. Later I moved on to a few of her journals beginning with Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea. I liked those two immensely but will talk about them in context of my most recent Sarton read.

May Sarton was born in 1912 in Belgium but was raised in the United States where she died of breast cancer in 1995 at age 83. Based on her tombstone, Sarton considered herself, above all, a poet. Indeed she published sixteen volumes of poetry but she also published eleven works of autobiographical non-fiction and journals, nineteen novels, and two children’s books.

Plant Dreaming Deep
May Sarton

It is unlike me to read things out of order, but so far I have been skipping around a bit among her autobiographical non-fiction. At first I could put it down to not owning all the necessary volumes to read them in order, but that doesn’t explain why I picked up Plant Dreaming Deep last week, instead of her first autobiographical volume. I can blame that on Wilkie Collins. After reading his fantastic novel The Woman in White, I needed something that was the exact opposite in style and content. Something based more firmly in real life. I needed to sweep up and clear away all of the Victorian drama and intrigue that was littering my psyche. I immediately thought of Sarton as the right tool for the job, and I skipped over her first volume of memoir because its detail was too much about dates and places and events. After so much plot, I wanted something that was pure description.

Plant Dreaming Deep was the perfect solution. It describes Sarton’s first home purchase in 1958 at the age of 46, her process of turning the house and 36 acres into her sanctuary, and her daily life and the people who became her neighbors and friends. This is the volume that begins to tell the tale of Sarton’s life in Nelson, New Hampsire and it was wonderful. This is essentially a poet writing about domestic chores and the joy and pain involved in her daily life. Like two other of her journals that I have read, Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea, Plant Dreaming Deep is a throwback to a time when the hum of an electric typewriter was considered noisy. She had books, and wood fires, and her garden, and a mailbox full of letters and cards, and friends who came to visit her, and all kinds of other things that makes me want to live in the past. But she also had to deal with drought, black flies, and woodchucks. And among the peace and quiet, as we learn in later journal volumes, she also suffered from debilitating bouts of depression.

With black and white photos sprinkled here and there, Sarton’s journals are perfect for people who love writing, reading, and gardening, or anyone who fantasizes about living a quiet life in a beautiful setting.

Where would you like to transplant yourself, and what do you want to do when you get there?

25 September 2009

Book Review: The Woman in White

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The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins

Back in July I came across Savidge Reads, a great blog all about great books. Written by Simon Savidge, the blog has a section that Savidge refers to as his Readers Table where he lists some of his favorite books. Among the titles listed there are some favorites of mine like Brideshead Revisited and On Chesil Beach but there are also lots of books I had never even heard of let alone read. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins was one of the latter. In the ensuing weeks as I traveled around the blogosphere, I kept running across mentions of Collins and The Woman in White in particular. I began to feel like I might be missing out on something. So when I was online buying a book or two, I decided to add The Woman in White to the list.

When the 600+ page book showed up I thought “My, that will make a great door stop.” The thing was huge. When was I ever going to pick that baby up and read it? Somewhat to my surprise I picked it up last weekend. I had just finished two very slim volumes and for some reason six hundred pages of Wilkie Collins began whispering to me from my TBR pile. The introduction in my edition (Barnes & Noble Classics) and the two prefaces by Collins’ himself almost made me put the book back on the pile. Not that there was anything wrong with them, I just feel sometimes like prefatory remarks can suck the life out of the main event. So I skimmed and skipped forward to the actual text of the novel and within a page and a half I was hooked in a big, big way.

The Woman in White is pure plot, every page is a turner and every chapter is a cliffhanger. Not surprising then to find out that the book began life as a serial. Beginning in 1859, installments of The Woman in White appeared in Charles Dickens’ weekly publication All the Year Round in Britain and in the U.S. in Harper’s Weekly. The first installment ran in the same issue as the final installment of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. (Dickens was a mentor of Collins and in 1860 Collins’ brother married Dickens’ daughter Kate.)

I have been accused from time to time of liking books without a whole lot of plot and that are very low on thrills and spills. In that regard The Woman in White is decidedly not a typical book for me. It is full of intrigue, mystery, and anxiety induced moments. A kind of whodunit, except often times the mystery at hand isn't who done it, but what "it" is in the first place. On the other hand, the period detail and the inclusion of letters, journal entries and other English bits and bobs put the book right up my alley.

I won’t even attempt to give a synopsis of the plot which is fabulously and plausibly implausible. It is way too complicated and too convoluted to make much sense of it here. It has lots of little peaks along the way with one or two big climaxes before you actually get to the final resolution. One could argue that some of the earlier plot climaxes could have easily, and perhaps appropriately, ended the book a couple of hundred pages sooner. But given that it was in Collins’ self-interest to stretch the serial out as long as possible, it is easy to understand why the book is as long as it is. But the book is interesting enough that you want it to last for 600 pages anyway.

Suffice it to say that The Woman in White is an entirely satisfying book. It is the kind of book that is hard to put down. The one that makes calling in sick worth it.

For other takes on The Woman in White check out these other blog posts on The Zen LeafA Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, The Critical Cynic, A Reader’s Journal.

Note on the cover image shown above.
A few editions of The Woman in White, as well as other novels use this striking image. It is James McNeill Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” painted in 1862. I have been lucky to see this painting in person many, many times since it lives at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington which is only about three miles from my house. And at almost 84 inches (213 cm) it is taller than my 6’2” frame. Pretty impressive. (The painting, not my frame.)

Sticking Out Like a Sore Thumb

Earlier this week I apparently cut my thumb under my thumbnail. I think it may have been when I opened a can of soda. The tab on the top slipped between flesh and nail. I didn't think anything of it because I am always nicking, scraping, and cutting my hands without knowing how, and in many cases without even noticing until a day or two later.

But this particular hidden cut is apparently a Leo and wanted lots of attention. My thumb started to hurt two days ago but I continued to ignore it. Not one to be ignored, this attention-starved injury decided to up the ante by making my thumb all hot and throbby and even sending some radiating pain into other parts of my thumb. Well now the little bastard had my attention. Trying to operate a zipper with my right hand was like a little trip to Pain Central and the throbbing kept me awake last night. In less pain this morning but not wanting to end up spending time in the emgergency room this weekend if things took a turn for the worse, I went to my GP to see what could be done. Some spray-can freezing solution, a little scalpel action, a moderate amount of oozing (which I won't describe in more detail), and  one prescription for a Dicloxacillin later, I feel like I can face the weekend without the fear of amputation or flesh-eating viruses.

The biggest annoyance at this point, other than having my dominant right thumb working at less than full capacity, is the fact that the Dicloxacillin not only has to be taken four times a day, but I have to take it on an empty stomach. So I am going to have to create an eating and medication schedule for the next 10 days. I guess the silver lining is that I love a good organization project...maybe I will do a spreadsheet...

23 September 2009

Ulf Puder

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One of the disappointing aspects of our very short stay in Freiburg was that most things were closed while we were there. There were lots of galleries and antique shops that looked wonderful, but were closed because it was Sunday. It certainly kept us from spending much money. But it also kept us from seeing some interesting looking art exhibits. One was for an artist named Ulf Puder. The name alone is interesting. But his paintings were cool as well. I like paintings with architectural or urban references.

22 September 2009

Book Review: Margaret Atwood Can Do No Wrong

Murder in the Dark
Margaret Atwood

I know I am prone to hyperbole, but sheesh, Margaret Atwood really knows how to write. I am always a little stunned to enounter avid readers who are lukewarm, or even dare I say, cold, to Atwood's genius. Her fiction is always interesting, sometimes disturbing, and in many cases substantively challenging, but it is all written in beautiful, clear language that is a pleasure in itself. Over at Savidge Reads Simon's Gran got it exactly right when she said that Atwood "isn’t one to be missed, even when I don’t like her".

Thanks to some ordering stupidity on my part, I won't be getting Atwood's newest novel The Year of the Flood until the end of October. So I have had to make do with Murder in the Dark, a slim volume of "short fictions and prose poems". One of my favorites was a piece called "Women's Novels" which isn't much more than a numbered list of observations, but it encapsulates all of Atwood's insight, humor, and clever writing. A few of my favorite bits:
Men’s novels are about men. Women’s novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men’s novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can’t have a women’s novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men’s novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women’s novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it’s the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it’s the sense of humour. It’s hard to have a sense of humour in a cloak, in high wind, on a moor.
I like to read novels in which the heroine has a costume rustling discreetly over her breasts, or discreet breasts rustling under her costume; in any case there must be a costume, some breasts, some rustling, and, over all, discretion. Discretion over all, like a fog, a miasma through which the outlines of things appear only vaguely. A glimpse of pink through the gloom, the sound of breathing, satin slithering to the floor, revealing what? Never mind, I say. Never never mind.
Another piece called “Happy Endings” is a kind of “choose your own adventure” tale about relationships. After offering six different endings to follow the phrase “John and Mary meet” Atwood ultimately concludes:

You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality. The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
On bread: “The bread they offered you is subversive, it’s treacherous, it does not mean life.” Subversive bread. Fabulous.

On writing:

The page waits, pretending to be blank. Is that its appeal, its blankness? What else is this smooth and white, this terrifyingly innocent? A snow fall, a glacier? It’s a desert, totally arid, without life. But people venture into such places. Why? To see how much they can endure, how much dry light?
The question about the page is: what is beneath it? It seems to have only two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing, you say, disappointed. But you were looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story.
I could continue to quote, but perhaps, for the sake of copyright laws, I should encourage you get a copy of Murder in the Dark and read it for yourself.

20 September 2009

Sunday Morning at the Farmers Market

Now that the hot summer weather has abated and soup season approaches, my thoughts turn to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. With delcious fruit and veg from neighboring Maryland and Virginia and nearby Pennsylvania and West Virginia all year long, you might ask why I would avoid the market during the height of the summer. Easy, I hate the heat. You add that to the pushy, Type A yuppies that DC is full of and it is a recipe for me being extremely unhappy. I wish I had a less lame excuse, but there it is.

So this morning I got my butt out there and came home laden with fresh veggies. Now the trick is to acutally use them instead of letting them rot away. Sometimes easier said than done.

Book Review: George Eliot Makes it Up

Amos Barton
George Eiliot

I have had this lovely Hesperus edition of Amos Barton, George Eliot's very first attempt at fiction, for a couple of years now. After reading my first Eliot earlier this summer (The Mill on the Floss), I turned to this little tome with renewed interest. This one is all about curates, money, housekeeping, and village gossip. The storyline is engaging enough (your basic poor curate and his family suffer the slings and arrows of gossip and hardship, suffer a loss, and ultimately resign themselves to the outcome) and the world that Eliot creates is interesting to live in for 94 pages. In our overstimulated lives it is hard to imagine living such a staid existence. In particular I loved this description of dinner party conversation that Eliot was no doubt mocking but which must have been all too common during her life:

Mr. Bridmain studied conversation as an art. To ladies he spoke of the weather, and was accustomed to consider it under three points of view: as a question of climate in general, comparing England with other countries in this respect; as a personal question, enquiring how it affected his lady interloctutor in particular; and as a question of probabilities, discussing whether there would be a change or a continuance of the present atmospheric conditions.

I don't know how the ladies could stand all the excitement.

There's a Hullabaloo about the Womenfolk

Ned Nickerson emailed me recently that he had put up some great footage of The Womenfolk on YouTube. This fabulous clip from Hulllabaloo from April 1965 has the ladies singing a wonderful snippet from "I'll Never Find Another You"  They come in at about the 1:41 minute mark, and in my humble opinion, they are the best of the bunch.

For those of you who don't know about The Womenfolk, you should check out my tribute to them and some of my other posts about these five fabulous folk singers.

Book Review: Auster in the Dark

Man in the Dark
Paul Auster

I am not sure I should  even try to recount what happens in Paul Auster's Man in the Dark. Not because I am afraid of spoiling some secret, but rather because so much happens in the 180 pages of this short novel I doubt I could do it justice. The gist of the story is that retired book critic, 72-year-old August Brill, while staying with his daughter while he recovers from a car accident, is having trouble sleeping. Trying hard not to think about his real life (wife's recent death, daughter's painful divorce, granddaughter's grief over her boyfriend who has been brutally killed), Brill passes his sleepness nights by making up stories. He imagines an alternate universe in which the World Trade Center is still standing but the contested Presidential election in 2000 led to a bloody civil war as the blue states seceded from the union. Auster's book isn't particularly political. It never really feels like anti-Bush screed, it seems much more measured than that. (Spoken like an anti-Bush blogger...) And the fictional alternate universe isn't really the point of the story anyway. In the end it all comes back to the love and loss in Brill's family--not necessarily a result of political consequences, but not necessarily immune from them either.

The fact that Auster manages to tie so many disparate ideas into this thin book without it ever feeling crowded is pretty impressive. And there are certain preternatural aspects of the story within the story that didn't bother this literalist in the way such things normally do. I even found myself enjoying the extended descriptions and analysis of classic films interwoven into Brill's relationship with his granddaughter. In many ways this is a book that I probably should not have liked given my preferences for linear storylines rooted in the possible and plausible. Yet for some reason, or perhaps many reasons, I really did like it.

17 September 2009

Book Giveaway

UPDATE:  When I set the date for this drawing I forgot about some other commitments that would make it hard for me to get the book to the winner in a timely manner. So, I am closing the drawing immediately and choosing the winner tonight.. However, I have decided to give away two copies instead of only one!

When I purchased this book directly from the publisher I ordered two for some reason. Since I can't remember who I was going to give the extra copy to, I am going to give it away here on MyPorch. And since the book is impossible to find in North America, I am going to limit participation to North America. (Although anyone else with a compelling argument as to why they should have it will be included in the drawing.) Simply leave a comment or send me an email by 30 September 2009.

I wrote about Henrietta's War earlier today. See below.

Book Reviews: Stiff Upper Lip and All That

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Henrietta’s War
Joyce Dennis

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I didn’t consciously plan to read these two books in quick succession, yet both of them are epistolary novels about coping with the trials and tribulations of World War II in the United Kingdom. In Henrietta’s War, the action takes place in 1941 in a small Devonshire village and is told through a series of letters from Henrietta to her childhood friend Robert who is serving in the British army. In the case of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the action takes place in 1946 and is described in a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, a journalist living in London, her friends and colleagues, and a group of folks who lived through the Nazi-occupation of Guernsey, a British territory in the Channel Islands just off the coast of France.

Henrietta’s War has been much reviewed in the blogosphere by a generally adoring fan base. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn’t necessarily sweep me off my feet. Perhaps I had read too much hype before I finally got to read it. In any case I won’t spend much time talking about it so you might want to check out reviews by Stuck-in-a-Book, Cornflower, Paperback Reader, Read Warbler, and Frisbee, to name just a few of the great reviews of the book.

TGLPPS has also been reviewed by a great number of folks like Savidge Reads, Letters from a Hill Farm, and Bibliophile by the Sea. But I found this book so delightful that I feel the need to wax rhapsodic about it. I love the book for several reasons. First, the characters come together over their love of literature and they “meet” through their letters. Shaffer and Barrows essentially create a scenario that is not unlike the communities of folks who blog about books and get to know each other by trading literary likes and dislikes on the Internet. The only real difference is that in 1946 the medium was ink, paper, stamps, and the Royal Mail. Which, frankly is another reason I love this book so much, I absolutely love letters. Back in high school I had about 30 pen-pals and I miss the day when people would put pen (or even typewriter) to paper.

The subject matter is also fascinating. I have an undergraduate degree in history, but I am not much of a fan of historical fiction. I am not sure if TGLPPPS would fall into the category of historical fiction, probably not, but it does a great job of describing what life was like in Nazi-occupied Guernsey. In 2005 Masterpiece Theater showed a fantastic British drama called Island at War, a fictional account of life in the occupied Channel Islands. The storylines are completely different, but the historical detail in Island at War and TGLPPPS complement each other rather well. And both of them make me want to visit the Channel Islands.

Another reason to love TGLPPPS is that it is a joy to read. I loved the characters, I loved the plot lines, and I loved the humor. And Shaffer and Barrows are quite deft at weaving the reality of Nazi atrocities into the story without minimizing them or being pedantic.

Occasionally, but not often, the language seems a tad too modern for the 1946 correspondence. But it is just a little whiff here and there, overall it seems very appropriate to the era. I was, however, quite disappointed with the introduction of what I think is a rather pointless reference to one of the character’s homosexuality. The information doesn’t really add anything to the story, unless the authors were just trying to prove that homosexuals existed during World War II. But what was truly jarring to me was the very unrealistic way in which the characters talk about the subject. The dialogue doesn't ring true for one second. In fact it was so stylistically and historically incongruous it was like having a Sousaphone player toot his way across stage through the middle of a Mozart string quartet.

Having said that, the book is wonderful and everyone should read it.

My only other quibble with both Henrietta’s War and TGLPPPS is one that I have with most epistolary novels. When people write letters they almost never include actual dialogue. In a letter (or email) one may write something like “Then he told me to shut-up and I told him to go to hell.” But it is unlikely that someone would write you a letter like this: “Shut-up!” he yelled. “Oh yeah, well you can go to hell!” I replied shaking my fist. And so on. Most people just don’t write that way. One of my all time favorite authors, Carol Shields wrote an epistolary novel with Blanche Howard called A Celibate Season that was so full of quoted dialogue that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. On the other hand 84, Charing Cross Road which is a series of actual letters written by author Helene Hanff that tell a wonderful story and is entirely free of quoted dialogue. In my opinion that is the way it should be. Otherwise epistolary novels are just lazy ways to describe settings or advance plots without needing to be clever enough to connect it all together. A bit of an overgeneralization, I know, but for OCD types like me, it just seems wrong.

16 September 2009

How Cute is This?

UPDATE: Major League Baseball is worried that a 9 second video of a dad and his daughter at a Phillies game might bring joy to someone's life without them getting a cut in the action. So they had the video removed from YouTube. Rather than delete this post, I decided to update it by saying MLB sucks.

The Devil Doesn't Seem So Keen On Prada

If you like fashion, or the movie The Devil Wears Prada, you will love the documentary The September Issue. It follows around Anna Wintour and her staff as they put together the giant September issue of Vogue. It is fascinating to get a peak into that world and see how they do what they do. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that that world looks and feels a lot like the one created in The Devil Wears Prada. Plus it is visually interesting. The 89 minutes fly by far too quickly.

But enough of all that, what's on TV?

With all this travel and book blogging lately some of you may think that I have forgotten how to watch TV. Fear not my friends. My love of good and bad TV is alive and well. The TiVo was humming away during the 16 days we were out of town so there has been a lot of catch up viewing over the past week. And being that it is still the summer season, reality TV takes up the lion's share of my time. In fact, only one scripted show even makes an appearance on this list

This dramedy on HBO continues to entertain. All of the characters seem to be on an upswing lately which I like much better than when things are going poorly. Turtle has definitely lost weight since last season. But you know, the show is so darn short. I think they could easily fill an hour or at least 45 minutes, heck how about a full 30 minutes. It seems like once you subtract out opening and closing credits the show is only 2o minutes. That may be fine for broadcast TV, but I want more from HBO.

Real Estate Intervention
Ah, the overinflated DC housing market is finally waking up to reality. Each week Mike Aubrey is the truth talking real estate agent that tries to set the record straight for desperate but clueless house sellers who think it is their god-given right to make money on their house, rather than just live in it. Mike is a breath of fresh air.

Project Runway
Finally, the creme of the reality crop is back on the air. After a legal battle between Bravo and Lifetime, the show is back on and as good as ever. I am not sure I like the move to LA over NYC, but it seems okay enough. Although it does appear harder for some judges to make it to the tapings. Michael Kors has been missing a few times, and the usually ever present Nina Garcia has even missed a show. But other than that the show continues to be a fantastic look at the creative process. I think the contestants are much better across the board this season. There are fewer, perhaps even none of the "I don't sew" or "I don't sketch" types this time around. And it is harder to decide who should go home because the bads just are as bad as they have been in past seasons.

Top Chef
The food version of Project Runway, it too has a much more consistent caliber of talent this season. Usually by the first episode you can pick who are going to end up in the top three. This time it is a little harder. Although if I were a betting man I would put it on the two brothers and the woman who works for Eric Ripert.

Real Housewives of Atlanta
Where in the hell do these women get their money? On the other housewife shows (excluding New Jersey, I didn’t really watch it and I am afraid to ask where they get their money) you can kind of see where they money comes from. On the Atlanta show, not so much. Newcomer Kandi is the outlier. You know where she gets her money, she is a grammy-winning singer/songwriter who used to be in the group Xscape and still writes for big names. She also seems like the only one in the bunch who has some manners and isn’t a big ol’ b****. So when completely talentless Kim or NeNe compare themselves to Kandi? Or in NeNe’s case try to question Kandi’s talent. Give me a break NeNe, the woman has gotten rich and won a grammy on her talent. What was it you do again? And Kim, has added a Bently to her Escalade, is dripping in diamonds, has an assistant and a nanny…and she pays for it how? Do her giant boobs generate electricity that she sells back to the power grid? Sheree, despite her financial situation, is still as clueless as ever and seems to spend money like crazy. Lisa sometimes seems sane, but usually not for long.
What is wrong with these women is what is wrong with this country. A bunch of shallow, self-involved, overspending people screaming about respect and disrespect while they clearly have no idea what either word means. Wouldn’t miss an episode.

Flipping Out
Everyone’s favorite OCD house flipper is back on. Except the housing market is in the toilet so he can’t flip at the moment and is doing renovation work. He continues to drive his friends and staff crazy, and he overreacts about many things. And no doubt, in real life he must be a huge challenge to be around. But at the base of it all he actually seems like a genuinely nice, upstanding guy. If you can tolerate his aggressive sense of humor and need to control everything.

House Hunters International
The international version of House Hunters is tolerable in a way that the original show is not thanks to the foreign locations. The show's formula and host can be just as annoying as the original program but it is fun to see what's for sale in Umbria, Bali, and New Zealand (to name a few) rather than the cookie cutter houses they seem to focus on in the US version. There was one beautiful, huge, Parisian style apartment in Buenos Aires for $175,000 that made me want to move to the Southern Hemisphere. And then we look at the house listings in DC and just get depressed.

14 September 2009

Book Review: Doris Lessing Teaches Me a Lesson?

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The Summer Before The Dark
Doris Lessing

In 2007 Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature, but until this month I had never read anything by her. I knew that she has written The Golden Notebook, but I didn’t know anything about it or Lessing. So when I came across a cheap pulp edition of The Summer Before The Dark, I thought it was time to acquaint myself with the Nobel laureate and it would be a good book to take with me on our vacation.

Written in 1973, The Summer Before The Dark is the story of Kate Brown, a married, empty-nester in her mid-forties. She finds herself alone for the summer as husband and kids scatter to pursue various interests. On short notice she is drafted to assist a friend of her husband who needs a translator for a month-long conference he is holding in London. Kate quickly proves adept at the work, makes herself invaluable to the organization without even trying, and gets paid a salary almost as big as her doctor husband after years of being a housewife.

Kate’s sudden and unexpected success in the workplace made me think that this was going to be a particular kind of story of positive transformation. A “housewife discovers hidden talents and surprises everyone” kind of story. And frankly, this is one of my favorite kind of tales. But alas, Kate’s transformation turns out to be much more torturous and complicated than that.

After helping organize a conference in Istanbul, she finds herself traveling through Spain with an American man about ten years her junior. Hoping to avoid the touristy parts of southern Spain, the American keeps pushing them inland only to end up seriously ill. Kate does her best to make do with the complicated situation but her facility in French, Italian, and Portuguese are of minimal help to her in rural Spain. And traveling with a man who isn’t her husband puts her at silent odds with the people in the small village.

As Kate begins to show signs of the same unknown malady as her traveling companion, she makes her way back to England where she checks herself into a Bloomsbury hotel rather than a hospital. Although never dangerously ill, she has a physical and mental meltdown that leaves her incapable of functioning for some weeks. Eventually she rents a room in a flat occupied by Maureen, an angst-ridden twenty-something who is confused about her own freedom and whether or not to get married. While she is living with Maureen, Kate makes her way back to a degree of normalcy and the book ends with certain amount of hope if not outright resolution.

One of the themes I found particularly interesting, because of my proclivity to whine about my own existence, was the way Lessing juxtaposes comfortable middle class life with others in the world who struggle merely to live. Kate works for a non-governmental organization that focuses on global food policy and she is startled by how much she and others in the organization are paid and how much money is put into conferences that might be of little value. Especially troubling to her when compared to economic conditions of the communities that they serve.

Similarly she sees her own issues relative to the natives she runs into in rural Spain, where they have not learned to overcome their moral qualms about the behavior of the rich tourists. The social mores in the small inland village in which she is stranded are at odds with her own life and her choices she has made and the situation leaves Kate feeling isolated. She compares her own freedom with that of the women in the village where there is “not a woman or girl in this place who was within a hundred years of such freedom.”

Perhaps it isn’t a major theme of the book but I identified with what I saw as Kate’s recognition of the self-indulgent nature of upper middle class ennui. It is akin to the moments on MyPorch where my idea of thoughtful introspection and self-awareness gets boiled down by my father (Ernie in Peoria) to self-pity or whining. He is not as blunt as that, but he is essentially right. Privilege breeds whining. The fewer real obstacles one has in life, the more petty the complaints are. I thankfully don’t have to battle illness, or worry where my next meal is going to come from, or worry about being killed by a missile, or not having safe drinking water. I get to sit at a computer and worry about whether or not my life’s dreams will be realized today or tomorrow.

One of Kate’s upper middle class struggles is finding out who she is now that she is no longer defined by her children’s wants and needs. When you think of the struggles in the world, this is ultimately a self-indulgent worry. But things in life are relative and it is hard to keep a healthy perspective. One of the things that struck me is that I am almost Kate’s age, but I haven’t raised a family and I have been free to pursue just about every avenue of interest that has popped into my head. The only task in my adult life has been to raise myself. My angst about where my life has been and where it is going seems even more self-indulgent when viewed through the prism of those who have children to care for. Am I trying to say that I should just shut up and quit complaining? Not really. I think it is too much to ask anyone to try and live too far outside of their own existence. And my existence is that of a middle class, childless, coupled, white, gay male in the richest country on Earth. I think a little more balance, keeping things in perspective, perhaps putting a little more of my altruistic tendencies into action, are important things for me to keep in mind. For someone like me who seems incapable of ever being able to decide what I want out of life, perhaps the only things that make the inexorable march toward the grave manageable is the quality of my relationships and the actual process of living. After all, the only finish line in life is death, so I’d better enjoy the run.

Looking Down on Freiburg

Throughout the center of Freiburg, in addition to lots and lots of really great cobbles and stone work pavement, they have this little gutter/canals that have clean water flowing through them. I am not sure why they have them, but the effect is quite nice. The reflection and the sound of the water really make for a pleasant atmosphere.

Freiburg im Breisgau

Since we were flying out of Frankfurt, we spent our final in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. Lovely little town. And we had perfect weather.

The Last Hike II: Can't Get Enough of the View

The Last Hike I: On the Trail to Mannlichen

Back Down the Hill: A Marathon?

When we got back down to Kleine Scheidegg we discovered that they were finishing up the Jungfraujoch Marathon. Imagine running a marathon in these conditions.

To the Top of Europe VI: Outside

A little lower than the main observation deck you can go out onto the mountain itself. Some folks ski, some go for hikes on the glacier, others go on dogsled. And others, like me, spend a lot of time sucking in as much fresh air as possible. Not just because it smells like a nice winter day in Minnesota, but because the air is so thin up there you feel light headed and very sleepy.

To the Top of Europe V: At the Top

Once the train gets to the top there is a whole complex with shops, restaurants, an ice palace, viewing areas etc. To get to the very top, you take an elevator from the train station up to the observatory.