30 November 2009

Quick Intro to Upstairs Downstairs

After my recent post about Upstairs Downstairs, it seemed that many of you have never seen this wonderful show, and would probably like it. So I found this clip from from the 2007 Bafta awards that gives a quick glimpse of what Upstairs Downstairs was all about. The laugh track is absolutely awful, the director/producer of the Bafta show should be ashamed. Although the show had its humorous bits, none of the clips shown here and overlaid with laugh track fall into that category. Also, based on the delivery of some of the casts' lines at the award show, they meant this whole thing to be funny. I don't know why. It's like a bad episode of Jonathan Ross--oh wait, every episode of Jonathan Ross is a bad episode of Jonathan Ross. The audio is also a bit off from the video, but despite all of this it is still worth a look.

29 November 2009

Sunday Painting: Vincent Desiderio

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You really have to see this painting in person, or at least see it in larger format in a book, to fully appreciate it.  When you see the detail of the art books scattered on the floor (can you spot the Vermeer pearl earring picture?) it is easy to understand why it took Desiderio ten years to complete this large canvas.

Cockaigne, 1993-2003
Vincent Desiderio (American, b. 1955)
Copyright: Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Book Review: My Latest Grievance

My Latest Grievance
Elinor Lipman

If you are looking for interesting, smart, well-written, popular fiction Elinor Lipman is an author you need to know. Although her books tend to be quick, fun reads with likeable characters, they are by no means without substance. My Latest Grievance is narrated by Frederica Hatch, a precocious teenager who has grown up in a dormitory at a women’s college just outside of Boston, where her parents are professors and live-in houseparents. The professors Hatch have always treated their daughter like a mini-adult, so very little is kept from Frederica’s ears and she, in turn, is quick to insert herself into any conversation. The result is amusing.

The action centers on Frederica’s discovery that her father had been married before he was married to her mother and the subsequent arrival on campus of said ex-wife. Needless to say the arrival of Laura Lee causes a bit of a domestic stir in the Hatch family and sets into motion a string of events that changes everything. Despite a few tragedies, moral and otherwise, along the way, the tone of My Latest Grievance is always light and mostly humorous.

Being the third Lipman novel that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, I feel like you could probably pick up any of her books and enjoy them. No doubt some may be better than others, but my guess is they are probably all worth a read. Especially if you are looking for something fast and fun.

24 November 2009


Since I will be out of blogging range for the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought I would leave you with this image of what passes in my family for an inside joke and heirloom all crocheted into one kitschy little turkey. Affectionately known as Helmut due to his helmet-like red cap, he somehow made the jump from childhood tchotchke to cherished family member. At some point when I was in college or graduate school my mother was getting rid of stuff from the basement and decided to send me Helmut as a bit of a joke. Being away from home at the holidays, I actually appreciated this vestige of past family holidays. And despite John’s good taste and keen eye for good design, he has also taken a shine to Helmut on his yearly Thanksgiving appearance.

So, happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

For those of you bored with football or shopping this long weekend (or those of you outside the US who don’t give a fig for Thanksgiving), I thought I would give a few suggestions.

On Bookish Things
You can peruse my reviews of The Year of the Flood and The Queen of the Tambourine.
Check out this fantastic classics-only bookstore/salon in San Francisco.
Read about the film Helvetica and my love of fonts.
My 2008 reading wrap-up gives a glimpse into My Porch before it turned its focus to books.
Or maybe just some cool pictures of a used bookstore in Chicago.

Travel to the Beach on My Porch
Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia a few years back.
Pacific coastline in Big Sur, California.
Pink sands of Bermuda.

Travel to the Mountains on My Porch
Whistler, British Columbia, home to the 2010 Olympics.
Grand Tetons in Jackson, Wyoming.
And, or course, the recent trip to Switzerland.

Paying Tribute to The Womenfolk
For those that haven’t seen it, you should really check out my tribute to The Womenfolk, a fabulous folk group from the 1960s. It still gets lots of page hits and it even led to an article about me in the local press.

Or what about my "Best of" series?
Best Chip Dip Ever
Best City in the USA
Best Whoopie Pie in America
Best Bar in the World
Best Book Ever

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

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The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction to describe her latest novel The Year of the Flood (and her other works like it). Some might be hard pressed to understand the difference, but perhaps the distinction may be that Atwood speculates about the future based on our current trajectory rather than making up a new universe out of whole cloth. Not having read much science fiction over the years, I am not going to weigh in too much on this one. Suffice it to say that Atwood calls it speculative fiction. And since she is a goddess among us, I will defer to her wishes.

All of the speculative oddities included in The Year of the Flood seem less crazy not only because one can see the roots of the idea in what is happening in the present, but also because Atwood is a master prose writer and draws the reader effortlessly into this world. She doesn’t hammer these ideas home, she gently, in bits and pieces, introduces the reader to this dystopian future. Like all of Atwood’s novels, the characters are interesting and nuanced and don’t necessarily need the setting to make them so.

This story of survival, in the most trying of ecological and societal circumstances, is at times as whimsical as it is an overwhelmingly sad prediction of our future. A religious sect interested in bringing the biblical peaceable kingdom to fruition on earth attempts to get the lion and lamb to lay down together by genetically engineering “liobams”. The thought being that these lion/lamb hybrids would make such peace possible. However, as Atwood notes in the novel, the results were less than vegetarian. But this is only the tip of the iceberg (which don’t seem to exist in the future). In The Year of the Flood Atwood creates a complete world full of creatures and circumstances that are fascinating and yet seem entirely plausible after a few chapters.

This brings me to another aspect of Atwood’s great talent/skill. In addition to her writing ability, she knows so much about so many subjects or at least does the research to make it seem like she does. Like other great writers she is adept at weaving in deep layers of religious, mythological, psychological, philosophical, scientific, and cultural references. She also doesn’t shy away from sex, drugs, and violence, and writes about them in a way that makes you forget that she just entered her eighth decade.

One aspect of the story I found disappointing was her depiction of gender roles. Atwood’s future contains all kinds of advances in science but it doesn’t seem to include any evolution of male/female roles and attitudes. It is possible that this was a conscious choice on her part. Maybe she thinks the future doesn’t look bright for gender equality, or perhaps in this dystopian world where physical survival is paramount and weapons are hard to come by, gender roles devolve to something a little more Neanderthal. But I got the feeling that at least some of it suggests that Atwood’s personal outlook on gender--which doesn’t seem to grasp that men frequent spas--is stuck somewhere in the past.

There is definitely an environmental message here. About global warming, genetic engineering, the promise and danger of technology, and the effects they all will have on life as we currently know it. At no time does it come across as a political tract, unless you are one of those folks who believe we can do whatever we want to the planet and not suffer any consequences. If that is you, you will hate this book. As depressing as Atwood’s future world is, it kind of helps me cope with the stress of feeling powerless to do much about the enviro-political greed and stupidity we must deal with these days. Of course it is a fatalistic kind of relief. As in, won’t the planet be a better place without us? And personally, the idea that death means donating oneself “to the matrix of life” is quite comforting to me.

Finally, some of you are going to ask if you need to read Oryx and Crake first. The answer is no. It might enhance certain aspects of the book as some of the characters do reappear, but the book is fabulous enough to stand on its own.

Other views (if you have reviewed it, let me know and I will link):
Boston Bibliophile
Shelf Love
Books - Sliced and Diced
Savidge Reads
The Mookse and the Gripes (This reviewer hated it so much I wasn't sure we read the same book.)

Book Review: The Queen of the Tambourine

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The Queen of the Tambourine
Jane Gardam

Even though I read this book before I read The Year of the Flood, I wrote the review of TYOTF before this one, and I don’t appear to have much steam left.

Winner of the Whitbred Prize for Best Novel of the Year,  The Queen of the Tambourine is a funny and poignant book about Eliza Peabody, a housewife whose sense of reality isn’t what it should be. The entire book is written as a series of letters to her friend Joan. I don’t want to go into my love/hate relationship with epistolary novels again. Suffice it to say this one starts off very well in that regard, with each of the letters seeming very believable, but they eventually stray into pretty conventional narrative posing as letters.

I enjoyed this book, it was humorous and kind of satirical, but with the right amount of sentiment never far from center. Sympathetic and villainous characters, twists and turns, tension and resolution, etc. The whole nine yards as it were.

This is the kind of book that is good to pick up if you run across it somewhere. But, even though I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone to go hunt it down.

22 November 2009

Sunday Painting: Hans Holbein (maybe)

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This striking painting is at the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, The Netherlands. This is the same museum that has the Vermeer painting that inspired the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. It isn't a huge museum, but has plenty wonderful things to see, including really beautiful abstract painted ceiling panels over the main stair. It is one of the places you can see yourself visiting on a regular basis if given the chance.

Portrait of a Young Woman
Formerly attributed to Hans Holbein, the younger. (1497-1543)
Don't ask me who it is attributed to now.


I stayed up until 2:00 AM reading Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. Woke up this morning at about 8:30, and grabbed it off of my nightstand as soon as I could see clearly enough to read. Didn't put it down until I finished. As I if I needed more proof of Atwood's genius. What an amazing book. I will review it sometime this week hopefully.

20 November 2009

Upstairs Downstairs

12/18/09 UPDATE:  Welcome People of Finland! I am not sure what's going on in Finland these days, but I am getting lots of site traffic for Upstairs, Downstairs from the land of Sibelius. Please leave a comment or two. I would love to hear from you. Why so much interest in Upstairs, Downstairs?

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The first four in the back row Left to Right are Daisy, Ruby, Edward, and Rose. The two ends of the seated row are Georgina and James (see picture below).

My recent reading of Ivy Compton Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant made me think more than once about the fabulous Upstairs Downstairs. They aren't all that related, but there were hints here and there.  I was trolling around the Interwebs when I stumbled on this story and photo from the Evening Standard. It was great to see the picture below from 2007 with some of the cast members. I think the most amazing thing is how well Jean Marsh (number 8) looks. March played Rose on the show and was one of the show's creators along with Eileen Atkins. Not only does she look really good full stop, but she is actually the oldest person in the photo. If I look that good at 73 I will be very happy. And if she has had work done she has a very good plastic surgeon. (I also just noticed at IMDB that she did an episode of Love Boat. That would be fascinating to see.)

I have heard some rumors online that they are going to remake UD with Jean Marsh's involvement. Since the 1970s' sets and film quality are a bit lacking by today's standards, I would love to see that. But I am not sure how I feel about other actors playing any of the roles. But then again, who am I kidding. This would be great to see.

In character: 1. Edward Barnes 2. James Bellamy, 3. Thomas Watkins, 4. Hazel (Forrest) Bellamy, 5. Georgina Worsely, 6. Daisy (Peel) Barnes, 7. Sarah (Moffat) Watkins, 8. Rose Buck, 9. Ruby Finch.

Go here for a "where are they now" update.

19 November 2009

Trying not to finish an author's back catalog too quickly

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The reading room
Jayne Dyer, 2007

My recent read of another novel by Nevil Shute got me thinking about authors whose novels I like so much I worry about running out of their work. For those that have passed on already the dilemma is already clearly delineated. For those authors still among the living, there are wishes for a long, long life and speedy, speedy writing.

This is slightly different than favorite authors. For instance I love Hermann Hesse, but I doubt I will ever read The Glass Bead Game. I will, however, read every work of fiction by these authors (if I haven't already):

Margaret Atwood
Elizabeth Bowen
Anita Brookner
Willa Cather
Margaret Drabble
Timothy Findley
EM Forster
Ward Just
Sinclair Lewis
Penelope Lively
W. Somerset Maugham
Ian McEwan
Cheryl Mendelson
Iris Murdoch
Anne Patchett
Barbara Pym
Muriel Spark
Carol Shields
Nevil Shute
Anthony Trollope (I don't think I will live that long.)
Edith Wharton
I am sure I have forgotten some.

Thank god some of these authors wrote (or are still writing) a lot. I have sadly finished Forster and Shields and neither are around to write more. And there are others like Brookner and Atwood who I have almost caught up to their output. And then others whose work I am rationing so as not to finish too quickly.

Who are yours?

18 November 2009

Cool Cover(s) of the Week (kind of): Blue Vein and Red Threat

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 I didn't have time this week to scan in a cool cover. But I have had this image ready, just waiting to put in a post.

A few years ago the New York Times ran this picture which I thought was fabulous. This image isn't as good as I would like because the copy of the picture that I scanned has gotten a bit beat up in my files over the years.

In looking for information on this art installation I came across this great article about color coded shelves. From that article:
Even The New York Times Magazine's style section recently featured the home of art collector Andy Stillpass, which houses a number of site-specific works by leading contemporary artists in a wide variety of media, including Stillpass's own books, which were rearranged first by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster to form "The Blue Vein" in 1993 and then further juggled by Rirkrit Tiravanija to form "The Red Threat" several years later.

16 November 2009

Book Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

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Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Julia Strachey

(Aside: Don't you love this portrait of Julia Strachey by fellow Bloomsbury-ite Dora Carrington? And the cover painting "Girl Reading" by Harold Knight shown below is also pretty darn fabulous.)

It is a good thing I included this title in my November Novella Challenge, because I have been having a hard time deciding which of my fabulous first twelve Persephones I should read first. One would think diving into that stack wouldn’t really be an issue, but the existential angst over which to read first was killing me. Then again, who am I kidding, now I just have existential angst over which to read second.

I liked Cheerful Weather for the Wedding less than Simon at Stuck In A Book, but I liked it more than Nicola at Vintage Reads. And I felt a bit like Bride of the Book God when she writes:
The word that kept on springing to mind as I read this was brittle; not a criticism as such, but the story struck me as being one of those bright and witty pieces produced by many in the twenties and thirties, some of which were much more successful than others.
Frankly, in my mind the bride probably looked about as happy on her wedding day as dear old Julia Strachey does in her portrait.

This novella is only 118 pages but it took me until about page 60 before I started to really feel the rhythm of the book and get over my urge to quit reading it. I know that makes it sound pretty dire, and it isn’t as bad as that by any means. I actually think I would enjoy the first 60 pages much more now that I have finished the whole thing. It is kind of like the brilliant TV series Extras with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I only truly appreciated the first season after I finished the second season and the finale show. I agree with Simon that the humor in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is funny and charming—especially the green socks thread (no pun intended). I think I was just worried that I hadn’t really caught on to an actual story by page 60. But then after page 60 when one finally starts to feel like something is happening, it all starts to fall in place and feel right.

I think it is also the kind of book that would benefit from a real face-to-face book club discussion. A little back and forth banter with others who had read it would help put it into perspective for me. It was worth reading, but perhaps an inauspicious place to start my Persephone experience.

UPDATE: Apparently I was channeling Paperback Reader's May review of this book when I compared Simon's review to Nicola's.

November Novella Challenge: 3 down, 1 to go.

15 November 2009

Sunday Painting: Four More by Jon Schueler

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This week for Sunday Painting, I chose four more works by American Abstract Expressionist Jon Schueler. Even though my first post also featured his work, the Sunday Painting feature won't always be about Jon Schueler--I will branch out at some point. The images are just so striking that I couldn't resist sharing.

He was a prolific painter and these images don't even begin to scratch the surface.

The Sea and Yellow Sky, Clamart 1958
Copyright: Estate of Jon Schueler

Snow Cloud Over the Sound of Sleat, New York 1959
Copyright: Estate of Jon Schueler

The First Snow Cloud, Mallaig Vaig 1958
Copyright: The Estate of Jon Schueler

Forgotten Blues II, 1981
Copyright: Estate of Jon Schueler

14 November 2009

Kenya a Year Later

One year ago today we hopped on a BA flight out of Heathrow and landed in Nairobi, Kenya for an amazing week of Safari. We are lucky to get to travel a fair amount but nothing will ever compare to our week in Kenya.

UPDATE: If you want to see more pictures, you can go back into the My Porch archives from December 2008 to see them. After clicking on the link just scroll past the first few posts  to see all the photos from the Safari.

13 November 2009

Book Review: Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

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Pied Piper
Nevil Shute

For those of you who have never read a book by Nevil Shute, now is the time. No special anniversary that I know of, it’s just that you are missing out on a really great storyteller. I attach some qualifications to this recommendation, but nothing that even comes close to diminishing my enthusiasm for his work. Some of Shute’s novels use some appallingly dated racist language, but I chalk that up to the era in which they were written, and I have my fingers crossed that the man himself wasn’t actually racist. There is also a certain corniness to some of Shute’s dialog. It sometimes sounds like it comes straight from one of those fast talking, black and white films from the 1940s. And his novels tend to be the kind where if every line doesn’t move the plot forward, your foreshadowing alarm should go off. Although there is usually a romance of some kind that is part of the mix, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that his books are shot full of testosterone-laden adventures. But interesting and suspenseful enough to enthrall even someone like me who likes a lot of “old lady” books.

Pied Piper is the story of John Howard, a retired Englishman who is on holiday in France at the outbreak of World War II. Reluctantly agreeing to take two small English children back to England with him, Howard ends up finding it increasingly difficult to make his way home with the Nazis rolling into France with much more speed than anyone anticipated. During the journey home Howard comes across five more children that need his help escaping France. Since the story unfurls as a flashback, I won’t be giving anything away by mentioning that Howard makes it back to safety. I won’t say whether or not his young charges were as lucky--but have you ever seen a movie with a child character whose stupidity ends up getting folks in trouble? ‘Nuff said about that. The fact that book was published in 1942, long before the end of the war, gives one a different perspective on the tale as well. With the war not yet won, personal heroism (and more than a tinge of Commonwealthism/nationalism) have to take the place of a larger WWII victory narrative.

There is always enough non-fiction in a Shute novel that most of them have me racing to the Internet or some reference material to investigate further some aspect of the story. Pied Piper is no exception. As I made my way through this page turner, I pulled out my big map of France to follow Howard’s progress, which made the story all the more exciting.

Shute was born in England in 1899, worked as an aeronautical engineer, and, upset over the direction England was headed, emigrated to Australia with his family in 1950 and died in 1960. Although I have enjoyed other Nevil Shute novels, it was the recent reissue of four of his books in these great Vintage Classics’ covers (available in the UK) that made me pick up Pied Piper. Vintage has other Shute titles available without the cool covers, but I think many of his 23 novels are out of print. But they can be fun quarry while book hunting at garage sales, charity shops, and secondhand bookstores.

Other Shute books I have read include:

On the Beach (1957)
This was the first Shute I ever read. I was in high school and sobbed like a baby for the last 30 pages. I could barely read it through the tears. Atomic war has wreaked havoc on the northern hemisphere. Shute chronicles life in Melbourne as they wait for the radioactive fallout to reach them. Also made into a good movie with the young (and very handsome) Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame.

Times Square at Night, c. 1955* by Bedrich Grunzweig
(*I love the image on this postcard and the fact that On the Beach is on the marquee makes it even more special to me. But I just realized that the estimated date of the photograph on the card is wrong. On the Beach was published in 1957, and the film came out in 1959, so it couldn't date from '55.)

In the Wet (1953)
This is probably my favorite Shute because of the subject matter. Another “flashback” novel (this time to 1980!), it tells the story of a biracial Australian airman who finds himself in very interesting circumstances. As England trends towards socialism the royal family face the possibility of exile. But the Commonwealth comes to the rescue! The Australians and Canadians agree to build and operate a two-craft fleet of super cool De Havilland jets, for the sole use of the royals. The fleet is soon put into use to shuttle the Queen and her consort to various Commonwealth countries around the world as they escape from England until things settle down a bit. I loved this book because of the hardware component (I am a sucker for airplanes) but also for its Royal fantasy element—in the same way I liked Alan Bennett’s alternate universe in The Uncommon Reader.

Ordeal (1938 – or What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK):
Also hugely enjoyable. How one family survives when Southampton is bombed and sickness and disease are causing all kinds of shortages and quarantines. The Corbetts live on their little sailboat, skirting the coast of England trying to stay outside the quarantined areas and survive.

A Town Like Alice (1950):
Aside from Pied Piper, this was the most recent Shute I have read. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of my favorites even though it is one of Shute’s most popular. A couple meets while prisoners of the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II. They meet later in Australia where the heroine is determined to create a successful community in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Pastoral (1944):
I enjoyed this one but I don’t remember too much about it. Life and love in and around an aerodrome in southern England during World War II.

Nancy Pearl, in More Book Lust (a follow-up to the much more fantastic Book Lust) says that Nevil Shute is "too good to miss". And she is right.

My Favorite Bookmark

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I have had this bookmark for at least ten years. It was a free one from a Border's books in Uptown Minneapolis. It has gotten much use over the years but I took it out of rotation a few years back so it wouldn't deteriorate any more than it already has. The worst part is that there is no photo credit or description of any kind so I have no way of tracking down the image.

I love it because:
  1. I wish this grand and fabulous yet cozy library belonged to me.
  2. It would be so much fun to dig around in those piles and on the shelves and see what everything is.
  3. I would love to bring some order to that chaos. Tidying that library would be my idea of a great vacation.
Do you have a favorite bookmark? Why is it your favorite? Do you fantasize about tidying other people's libraries? Do you ever tidy the shelves while you browse at a bookstore or library? (I do.)

UPDATE: Thanks to Lethe, I now know where this image came from: André Kertész. It can be found on p. 56 of his book On Reading (reissued 2008) and is titled "André Jammes, Paris. November 4, 1963".

I LOVE the  Internet!

11 November 2009

Homage to the Women Unbound Challenge

I won’t be participating (at least not officially) in the Women Unbound Challenge being hosted by Aarti at BookLust, Care at Care’s Online Bookclub and Eva at A Striped Armchair. I am trying to limit any book challenge participation in the next year to books that I already own. I have lots of books by and about women, but I didn’t feel like I had the right ones to really do the challenge justice. Over the years I have read a fair amount of what would be considered women’s studies texts, both fiction and non-fiction, that range from profound and enlightening to unsophisticated and solipsistic. And although, my TBR pile is full of books by and about women, just finding eight books that only sort of fit the bill just didn’t seem right to me.

From about the age of 13 all the way through my undergraduate days, my friends were almost exclusively female—a direct result of not being like the other boys. I was always a little ashamed and embarrassed that all my friends were girls. It wasn’t until I started college that I realized how ridiculous and wrong it was to be ashamed of my fabulous female friends. This was the end of the oppressively retrograde Reagan 80s and the women in my social sphere were decidedly feminist and had a huge influence on my personal and academic world view. (I remember plowing through The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood and feeling more than a little affinity with the protagonist.) In the years since then I have never really lost that sensibility and it has definitely influenced my reading.

As I looked through my TBR pile, I was hoping to find eight appropriate books so I could achieve the “suffragette” level in the challenge. (The word suffragette always makes me think of my trip to the Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, NY where Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.) I found many books that would probably work for the challenge, but not having read them there was no way of knowing for sure. I was worried that many of them might fall into the category of being by a woman, but not being terribly relevant, or even antithetical, to the spirit of the challenge. Plus, in my mind Women’s Studies taken as a whole should be inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. And I gotta admit, my TBR pile right now is pretty darn white.

So instead of being an official participant in the Women Unbound Challenge I pulled together a list of four literary pairs that may or may not turn out to be appropriate for the challenge. Each of the four pairs is based on a biographical work of a female author, each of whom, I think blazed some trails for women writers. And then I paired each bio with a work of fiction by the same author. In most cases the works of fiction aren’t necessarily the best representations of the author’s feminist proclivities. And in the case of Barbara Pym, her feminist proclivities are still up for debate. But, hey, it’s what I have in my TBR. In any case, here are my four literary pairings:

Willa Cather (pictured)
Non-Fiction: Willa Cather, The Emerging Voice by Sharon O’Brien
Fiction: Collected Stories

Fanny Trollope
Non-Fiction: The Life, Manners, And Travels of Fanny Trollope by Johanna Johnston
Fiction: Widow Barnaby

Edith Wharton
Non-Fiction: A Backward Glance (autobiography)
Fiction: The Glimpse of the Moon

Barbara Pym
Non-Fiction: A Lot to Ask, A Life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Holt
Fiction: Excellent Women

So what do you think? Is this a worthy list for shadowing the Women Unbound Challenge?

10 November 2009

Book Review and Cool Cover of the Week: The Old Man and the Sea

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The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway

What can be said about Hemingway that hasn’t been said before? It is like “reviewing” Jane Austen. What is the point?

What I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Old Man and the Sea. Essentially a fishing story with layers of meaning about life and getting old, and a plot that makes one want to read it in one session. Which I did.

November Novella Challenge: 2 down, 2 to go.

Book Review: The Bookshop

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The Bookshop
Penelope Fitzgerald

This was actually my second time reading The Bookshop. When I first read it back in January of 2002, I think I expected it to be some cozy little tale of a woman opening a bookshop. Florence Green does indeed open a bookshop in a small village in England, but Fitzgerald’s story never comes close to being cozy. The first time I read it I was so discombobulated at having my expectations challenged, that I really didn’t take much of it in. Since then I have had it in my head to re-read this one to see what I might have missed. When I stumbled across a copy at a charity shop in late September I considered it a sign and bought it. When I culled my TBR pile to see what I could include in the November Novella Challenge there sat The Bookshop just waiting for me.

I am glad I took the time to re-read it, but I also see why I was disappointed the first time around. In essence it is a tale of a failed experiment (the opening of the bookshop), the limitations of the woman who opened it, and the petty jealousies of the small town crowd who made trouble for her along the way and ultimately got her booted off of her property.

As other reviewers will point out, there is a lot going on in this 123-page novella, but ultimately for me, not enough to make me fully like this book. I kind of like it, but I had a hard time suspending my own personal animus at Florence’s inability to run the shop properly. I wouldn’t have held her failure against her if she had done everything right and failed, but her lack of managerial talent was more than my over-organized brain could handle. Slow to make decisions, sloppy with the accounts, and without proper focus, Florence’s bookshop doesn’t last long. I enjoyed reading it, and some of the characters and scenes in the book will stick with me. But I can’t really muster much in the way of enthusiasm.

November Novella Challenge: 1 down, 3 to go.

08 November 2009

Walt Whitman in a pair of Levi's

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Even in a Levi's commercial Walt Whitman is a genius. Normally I don’t watch commercials. I end up fast forwarding through all that noise. But last night I was in the kitchen when this Levi's commercial came on. I was stunned to hear the insistent words of Walt Whitman calling from the other room.

It sounds stupid, but this Levi's commercial was a transcendent moment for me. I feel Whitman’s poetry deeply. To me it represents the best of what humans can be and what these United States can be. It may be a commercial to sell jeans, but frankly I think the montage in the commercial actually catches the lust and energy, and the youth and promise in Whitman’s poetry. I don’t care if it was created to sell, sell, sell. We could use more Whitman in popular culture.

Hearing “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” performed in this commercial sent me to iTunes to try and find a recording of Whitman’s poetry. In general I have very little interest in audio books, but I do like some spoken word recordings. Unfortunately, most of the Whitman available on iTunes is truly abysmal. I could read his poems better than the people who made these recordings. Then I came across this fabulous 1957 recording. As I sampled the tracks I realized that the “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” on this recording is the same as the Levis commercial. What a happy discovery. Thanks Levi's.

And it turns out there is another one, that, if we are to believe the Interwebs, is actually the voice of Whitman on an old wax cylinder.

Sunday Painting: A Yellow Sun by Jon Schueler

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This week: "A Yellow Sun" by American Abstract Expressionist Jon Scheuler who spent much time in Mallaig, Scotland where this was painted.

A Yellow Sun
Jon Schueler
National Galleries of Scotland
Copyright: Jon Schueler Estate

Book Review: Old Books in the Old World

Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad
Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine B. Stern

Imagine transatlantic crossings on the Holland America Line, spending a month and half each summer digging through antiquarian books in the capitals and countryside of Europe, buying hundreds of old books to ship back to the United States to resell for a profit. My own interests in books do not run to the antiquarian side of things, but given the chance I would gladly immerse myself in such excursions. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were business partners, friends, and companions for 60 years. Beginning in 1942 the pair became partners in their rare book firm in New York and spent a chunk of their summers traveling to Europe to buy stock. Both were Columbia University educated literary scholars, and considered themselves literary sleuths. In addition to writing five books on the antiquarian book trade, their achievements include a major discovery about Louisa May Alcott. The following passage is taken from a wonderful tribute to Stern at louisamayalcott.org:
Miss Stern was enormously proud of the fact that she and her dear friend, business partner, and companion “literary sleuth,” Leona Rostenberg, helped bring to light Louisa May Alcott’s unknown tales of intrigue, murder, adultery, suicide -- and as Miss Stern put it, “thuggism, feminism, hashish, and transvestitism” to boot.

“One of our greatest thrills,” Miss Stern wrote in 1997, “was our discovery of the double literary life of America's best-loved writer of juvenile fiction. The revelation that the author of Little Women was also the author of clandestine sensational shockers was our blood-and-thunder story.”
The reminiscences in Old Books in the Old World are taken from Rostenberg and Stern’s diary entries from their book buying trips to Europe between 1947 to 1957. After most entries the authors include retrospective epilogues that provide perspective on their experiences as well as dishing the details on where some of their book finds ended up and how much they sold them for.

I love books of all kinds. But the world of antiquarian books is one that I doubt I will ever enter so I don’t know much about it. Old Books in the Old World gives a wonderful glimpse of what goes on in that world. These are seriously old books on seriously old topics. Sixteenth and Seventeenth century manuscripts, books, pamphlets and other ephemera on politics, science, history, geography, religion, philosophy and other topics written in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, and other languages. Rostenberg and Stern knew what they were doing but often bought things on a hunch, not really knowing what they had in their hands until they get it back to the U.S. to study it and figure out where it fit into the antiquarian universe.

Until I read Old Books in the Old World I never really wondered where universities and libraries got their rare book collections. Not the ancient universities of Europe, those probably grew organically over hundreds of years, but some of the more “recent” universities in the New World like Yale, Columbia, and Cornell. And institutions like the Newberry, Folger, and Library of Congress. And in some cases, books that they bought and overseas and shipped back to New York were eventually sent back across the Atlantic where they found homes at places like the British Museum and the University of Basel.

Besides the tales of treasure hunting for good deals and great books (which of us aren’t drawn to that?), Rostenberg and Stern also give a fantastic firsthand account of post-war Europe. Traveling through England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Austria they provide many details of everyday life that are so often missing from World War II histories. I knew about rationing and food shortages in Britain following the war but didn’t realize that a piece of bread could be considered one of the courses in a three course meal at even the nicer restaurants in London. Or another instance where Rostenberg refuses to sit at a table of Germans at an antiquarian conference in Austria. It is hard to imagine what those relationships would have been like so soon after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Throughout their travels between 1947 and 1957 the duo also heard firsthand accounts of how some of their bookseller friends, Jewish and otherwise managed to survive the war. And with each bookbuying trip they see improvements as England and Europe eventually return to normalcy. They also see the prices of books rise as antiquarian treasures become harder and harder to find.

Old Books in the Old World would be great for anyone with even a passing interest in the antiquarian book trade or for someone interested in a little post-war social history or gossipy European travelogue.

November Novella Challenge

I have been meaning to write this post for several days now. And since I am already halfway through my challenge list, I figure it is now or never.

Bibliofreak is hosting a reading challenge this month based on novellas that looked pretty interesting. Too often I get interested in challenges but then don't want to follow through on them once I have made my list. However, I knew I could complete this challenge just by taking things from my TBR pile. I tried to keep them under 150 pages (some sources say 120 pages is the top end of the novella range) and was only able to come up with four titles. So I guess that means I will only make it to Level II. If I come across others I won't hesitate to shoot for Level III (eight novellas) before the end of the month, but I doubt that I find four more lurking somewhere in my collection.

So here are my four:
The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

07 November 2009

Book Review: All is Vanity

All is Vanity
Christina Schwarz

Ah, the struggling writer trying to get published. All is Vanity is one of those books. I actually tend to enjoy this kind of storyline, but wonder to myself while I am reading them whether or not the author will ever be able to write about characters who do something other than try to be writers. I think about Ann Patchett or Margaret Atwood or any other writer who really knows how to create fictional worlds that are more than just embellished autobiography.

Perhaps I am so aware of this kind of writing because it is probably all I would ever be capable of. When I attempted to write fiction it was all very autobiographical. I figured if I made the main character something other than a writer I could get away with it without ever having to admit borrowing heavily from my own life. A popular method for lazy or unimaginative writers. Another parallel between All is Vanity and my own feeble attempts at writing a novel is the fact that Schwarz’s main character is a thirtysomething writer who decides to skip over taking classes, or starting with short stories, or any other activity that might actually help her become a writer. Like I did, she also thinks that it is just a matter of applying yourself. Sit down and write. It will come. Margaret’s delusional goals, however, are different from mine in that she thinks she is going to actually write a great novel with all kinds of layered meaning and profound imagery. I never thought I would even try to do that.

But enough about me. I enjoyed All is Vanity but there is much that annoyed me as well. The basic plotline is that Margaret ends up using long emails from her best friend Letty as the basis for the novel she is writing. She takes whole scenes from her Letty’s life and writes them up as fiction without telling her. What’s worse is that she actually encourages Letty’s profligate behavior in real life to make the “fictional” Lexie more interesting. You can see where this one is going from about a mile away. You know at some point, that Letty is going to find out, blah, blah, blah. Kind of writes itself from that point on. All is Vanity also included lots (and lots) of epistolary material (email) that include a fair amount “quoted” dialogue. Regular readers will know that this is one of my pet peeves. People just don’t write emails that way.

Schwarz does do an amazing job showing through Letty how so many Americans have gotten themselves into such deep financial sh*t. The interesting thing is that Schwarz wrote about it about five years before the housing market meltdown made it impossible for folks to ignore their mountains of debt.

But finally, to show you just what a class act Schwarz is (although it might be her publisher’s fault) I am going to quote, in full, the author blurb inside the back cover of the book:
Christina Schwarz is the author of Drowning Ruth, a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and optioned by Wes Craven for Miramax.She lives in New Hampshire.
Wow, where to start with that illuminating biographical sketch? Let me try, this could be translated to:
I sell lots of books, no really, I sell a mother lode of books, the numbers would make you blush, and by the way it might be made into a movie so I will eventually sell even more books. Oh, and I live in New Hampsire (big house, lots of land).
All really is vanity.

05 November 2009

The Persephone Eleven

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At some point in the past eight months or so I became aware of a publishing house called Persephone Books. Although I don’t remember exactly when it happened, and I certainly don’t remember what bookish terms I punched into The Google, but I do believe that Simon T at Stuck in a Book was my gateway into the world of Persephone. From his blog I clicked my way through a whole new world of links to book blogs. It is not like I hadn’t seen book blogs before, but this particular corner of the Interwebs was chock full of people who had reading tastes remarkably similar to my own. And so many of them were raving about Persephone Books.

Right off the bat I recognized the aesthetic allure of this small publishing house and almost as quickly was drawn to their list of mainly neglected works by authors who are (to a large degree, but not entirely) female and British. Although very curious to see the goods for myself, it wasn’t until I requested and received the Persephone catalog that my interest really began to pick up. I found myself pouring over the beautiful catalog in the same way my partner pours over seed and plant catalogs during the winter months.

As I am prone to do, I went into organization mode, got out a black Sharpie and began to mark up the catalog. For those shocked that I would deface my catalog, I knew I could always get another copy if I needed to. And besides, prioritizing my interests in the books was key to figuring out which to order first. After reading a description of each book I put between one and five dots next to the title. I judged each book individually. In this first round I made no attempt to choose one title over another. Once I had gone through and rated all 82 of them (there are now 86 available) I compiled a list of all of the titles that garnered five dots (indicating a high degree of interest). It came out to about ten books. Since we had a fair amount of travel coming up I forced myself to hold off ordering them until we finished so they wouldn’t arrive when we were out of town. This was probably back in July, and it meant I had to wait until about October 13th before I could place my order. By the time I did get around to filling out the online order form my priority list had shifted somewhat, and grown somewhat. Persephone gives a little price break for every three you order so I had to make the total a multiple of three. Which of course forced the number up to 12 rather than down to 9.

Unfortunately one of them is still missing in action (hence the Persephone Eleven) but here are the twelve I ordered (with the descriptions from the Persephone Biannually):
And for those of you who haven’t seen one in person, they are softcover books with matching dust jackets and beautiful endpapers. The bookmarks that come with each book if you order directly through Persephone match the endpapers. You can look at my collection of bookmarks below to get a better idea of what I am talking about.
No.2, Mariana by Monica Dickens
First published in 1940, this funny, romantic first novel describes a young girl’s life in the 1930s.

No.29, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A wonderfully entertaining 1901 novel about the melodrama after a governess marries a Marquis.

No.32, The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
A 1965 mixture of biography and social history which very entertainingly describes Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s life in Chelsea.

No.35, Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
A delightful, very funny 1925 novel about a young couple’s first year of married life in a (real) street in Chelsea.

No.37, The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart
Victorian novel for children and grown-ups, illustrated by Gwen Raverat.

No.38, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
A funny and quirky 1932 novella by a niece of Lytton Strachey, praised by Virginia Woolf.

No.40, The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
A much-loved 1939 novel about a family, upstairs and downstairs, living in a large country house.

No.49, Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton (the missing 12th volume)
An excellent 1932 novel by a very popular pre- and post-war writer, chronicling the life, and marriage, of a hard-working, kindly London architect over thirty-five years.

No.61, A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes
A classic memoir, written in 1934, about an ordinary, suburban Victorian family in Islington, a great favourite with all ages.

No.71, The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A 1907 page-turner about Rosalie Vanderpoel, an American heiress who marries an English aristocrat, whose beautiful and enterprising sister Bettina sets out to rescue her.

No.72, House-Bound by Winifred Peck
This 1942 novel describes an Edinburgh woman deciding, radically, to run her house without help and do her own cooking; the war is in the background and foreground.

No.81, Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson
A middle-aged woman writes a novel, as ‘John Smith’, about the village she lives in. A delightful and funny 1934 book by an author whose work sold in millions.
I haven’t read any of them yet. I am not sure where to start. I think I will probably read No.32 first as part of the November Novella Challenge. But who knows.

I am participating in the Persephone Secret Santa over at Book Psmith.

You might also be interested in checking out the Persephone Post which is a great place for a little visual inspiration.

This Cannot Arrive Soon Enough

I just got an email today from Penguin UK noting that this incredible box of 100 postcards is finally available. Since Penguin UK won't let me order off of their site, I headed right on over to The Book Depository to order mine. And, let me tell you, it can't arrive soon enough. Hmm, I could get on a plane at 5:00 tonight, arrive at Heathrow by 6:00 am tomorrow head into London to buy the "book" and get back to Heathrow in time to get the 4:00 plane home.  Let's see, that fare right now would be $2,046, plus the cost of the Heathrow Express, plus the cost of the book...or maybe I could just pay $19.95 and wait for my delivery from The Book Depository.

03 November 2009

Book Review: Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her

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Dame Iris Murdoch, 1919-99
Tom Philips, 1984-6
National Portrait Gallery, London

Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her
A.N. Wilson

I’ve only read one other book by A.N. Wilson (his history of London) and didn’t really know much about him. What little I know now I picked up by reading his personal reflection of Iris Murdoch. Early on I took a dislike for Wilson. I am not sure what it was, but there was something about his attitude that annoyed me enough that I had bit of an anti-Wilson chip on my shoulder for the rest of the book.

Partly I was a little confused by the blurb on the front flap of the book: “Fifteen years ago, Iris Murdoch asked A.N. Wilson to be her biographer.” Ooh, sounds portentous. “This book is a tribute to the novelist he knew for thirty years.” Hmm, does that mean he turned her down, or is this book supposed to be that biography? After reading the whole book I still can’t answer that question.

The second thing that kind of rubbed me the wrong way is that Wilson seems to be, or has been, miffed at the two books Murdoch’s husband John Bayley wrote about her descent into dementia. It made me feel like a bit of chump for having been moved by Bayley’s account about the real life struggle of Alzheimer’s disease portrayed in both his books and in the film "Iris". Wilson seems annoyed either because the film depicted the filth in which the aging couple lived or because it didn’t explain why they lived that way. But after reading the whole book I still can’t answer that question either.

By the end of the book I do understand some of the reasons Wilson is upset that Murdoch became a figurehead for Alzheimer’s awareness. She probably would not want to have been remembered that way. And perhaps it is a little unfeeling toward Murdoch’s legacy that a chair was endowed at Oxford in her name, but not for philosophy or literature but for Alzheimer’s. I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. But on the other hand I feel like no one has control over their own legacy and there was perhaps an opportunity for good to come out of her terrible situation. And frankly, I think that a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer’s has as much right to the story as the afflicted. Wilson seemed upset by the frankness with which Bayley tells the story. That it somehow took away Murdoch’s dignity. But I don’t buy that at all. I think Bayley’s books, although at times unflinching in their portrayal of the situation, were never gratuitous or inappropriate in their detail.

In this way Wilson gives the impression early on that Murdoch deserves better. One begins to think that his intent is to buff away all of Bayley’s smudges on Murdoch’s image. Yet there is much in Wilson’s book that does the opposite. He spends a lot of time talking about his mentor Bayley and a fair amount talking about himself. And what he says about Murdoch doesn’t add up to a particularly flattering portrayal. But he seems of two minds. He proclaims her genius now and then and talks about what a wonderful person she was, yet the overwhelming feeling I developed about Murdoch is that I don’t really like her much. And maybe I don’t like her books as much as I thought I did. Maybe the real issue is that Wilson is annoyed with Bayley showing Murdoch in an unflattering light because Bayley essentially beat Wilson, the “official” biographer, to the punch? Or maybe because Bayley sold a lot of books, yet I found Wilson’s for $1 on a “please take these books” cart parked outside the bookstore. You know, the kind of sale cart where the shopkeeper doesn’t even care what impact the weather might be having on the merchandise.

I didn’t hate the book but I also didn’t find it all that interesting. There is some insight into Murdoch’s reading likes and dislikes.
The Lord of the Rings she read and reread, enjoying detailed conversations about it with its author, or with Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son. She loved the Hornblower stories and the Patrick O’Brian sea stories, though she deplored the love interest and felt that Stephen Lefanu’s infatuation with Diana Villiers was soppy stuff which spoilt the excitement of the adventures. At mentions of the works of Olivia Manning, Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Rhys, let alone Penelope Lively or Margaret Drabble, she would merely smile or shake her head. She spoke, always, with love and respect of Elizabeth Bowen, her mentor, and A.S. Byatt, her disciple and interpreter, but she spoke of them as ‘beloved beings’. Bowen herself dissected the novels of contemporaries, read them closely, remembered what she admired about them. IM never spoke in this way about the work of female contemporaries.
I am not sure how enlightening this is about Murdoch’s tastes in fiction. It seems to speak more about what Wilson may not have known despite his 30-year friendship with Murdoch. He also tells us that Bayley loved Barbara Pym and read and re-read her frequently, but he didn’t seem to have much interest in, or praise for, Murdoch’s books.

I finished the book rather bored and unimpressed with Wilson. Unfortunately, I also finished it liking both Murdoch and Bayley less than I did when I started. If that was Wilson’s intent, then job well done. Thankfully it won’t keep me from reading the rest of Murdoch’s novels.

02 November 2009

Cool Covers of the Week AND Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

After the cool covers, my review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson

Always late to jump on the bandwagon, this one has been reviewed a lot in the blogosphere...

During the past month or so, I kept seeing these great Penguin covers on blogs across the Interwebs. I believe Penguin (in the UK at least) is using this general design for a range of modern editions, but the ones I kept seeing were for Shirley Jackson titles. Unfortunately, the copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I stumbled across at a charity shop was an ugly American edition (as opposed to an ugly-American edition). For some reason Penguin thinks that we Americans can’t handle good graphic design. (Of course they may be right, but that is the subject of another post.) Despite its lame cover art (see below), I bought the book anyway. I figured I needed to discover myself what all the Shirley Jackson hubbub was about.

The only thing I knew about this book before I read it, was that it was a bit macabre, something good for Halloween. So I picked it up this weekend to see if I would get scared. At a slim 214 pages, WHALITC does manage to build quite a bit of suspense. I am glad I didn’t read the plot teaser on the back of the book. It wouldn’t have spoiled the book by any means, but not knowing the premise made the narrative all the more suspenseful in the opening chapters. The book opens with Mary Katherine (aka Merricat) Blackwood running errands in the small village near her family’s estate. But it is soon clear that, for Merricat, running errands is more like running a gauntlet. She goes about her business rather skittishly, hoping no one will notice her, plotting her route to have as little contact as possible with the townsfolk. Frankly, it reminded me a bit of when I was in junior high and would plan my day, in and out of school, so as not to come within shouting distance of anyone just waiting to call me a fag. And like my junior high days, Merricat is only partially successful in avoiding the teasing and vituperations cast her direction.

As the story unfolds we learn that Merricat lives an isolated life with her sister Constance and their invalid Uncle Julian. We also learn that Merricat is highly superstitious, burying objects all over their property and silently incanting “magic” words in the hopes of keeping them all safe. It isn’t long before we find out why the Blackwood’s are so isolated from society. Even though the back of the book would tell you, I am not going to. You will have to read it. Even once their secret is out to the reader there is much that is mysterious and just plain weird. The climax is brought about by the appearance of a long lost cousin whose presence threatens to upset the order of things for Merricat and presumably the others. Some things aren’t as they seem, but you wouldn’t be alone if you guessed ahead of time what secret still remained hidden.

At its essence WHALITC is a family drama with quirky characters, lots of dark secrets and denial, and an angry mob thrown in for good measure.

Ugly cover: