31 March 2010

One day soon these shelves will be mine...

Thanks to all who left such kind comments on my last post. We definitely feel lucky to have found a house that has what we dreamed of at a price we could afford. We are both in our 40s, are first time homebuyers, and have been looking (in some despair) off and on for the past six years. So we definitely feel like our time has come.

As we did our home inspection today, I couldn't help but notice that the seller has pretty good taste in books, and while, not seemingly a bookaholic, has more volumes than your average American home. The owner definitely dabbles in the classics, (Shakespeare, Dickens, Wharton, Cather), but also seems to listen to Oprah and the bestseller lists. But nothing looked too frivilous. Two copies of Wolf Hall and one of my favorites The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman.


30 March 2010

My Porch is Finally Getting a Porch!

Things in my reading/blogging world have been a little slow lately with work, an overseas guest, and the fact that we are finally (finally!) buying a house. The last time we tried to buy a house was in 2005 at the peak of the housing bubble. So, five years later we have finally found something that will work for us that we can afford. We still have to get through the home inspection and the appraisal, but hopefully there won't be any challenges there.

Bottom line is, I am finally getting my porch (which we will turn into a screened porch), and...wait for it...a LIBRARY. It actually has a separate room with nothing but bookshelves.

28 March 2010

Sunday Painting: The Works of Carrie Crane

A few weeks ago we were at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. (Don't worry, no one is sick.) Mayo has a pretty extensive art collection scattered throughout the clinic campus. These particular works by Carrie Crane really stood out for me. I even crossed a room to get a closer look. I like the boldness of them and the pastoral landscape subjects. To me, they have a bit of a Grant Wood quality.

Nestled Barn
Carrie Crane, American
Collection of Mayo Clinic
Reproduced with permission of Artist

Bolton Orchard
Carrie Crane, American
Collection of Mayo Clinic
Reproduced with permission of Artist

Stone Bridge
Carrie Crane, American
Collection of Mayo Clinic
Reproduced with permission of Artist

26 March 2010

Four Women Who Rocked the 60s and Changed the World

NOTE: I wrote this post back on June 25, 2006. Although I read tons of fiction by women, I haven't made any nod yet to this being Women's History Month. So I am recycling this old post on these four fabulous women (who all happen to have been authors among other things).


The recent deaths of writer and urban planning iconoclast-turned-icon Jane Jacobs and feminist godmother Betty Friedan has me pondering how four women altered the contours of American life. I realize that the conversations I have had about these four women and this post are not particularly original thought, but bear repeating anyway.

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
When journalist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 she helped pull the urban planning profession from its darkest days of “slum” clearance and the worst excesses of 1950s urban renewal. Originally decried by planners of the day, Jacobs’ view of what constituted the components of a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city is the standard by which they are still judged today. Jacobs’ description of her Greenwich Village neighborhood and the ways in which it nurtured its residents provided a powerful example in favor of mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods that are the mantra of virtually every municipal planning department today. Like the other three women discussed here her work is not without its flaws. But, like the others, her clarion call woke up a sleeping nation and defined the terms of discussion for going on fifty years now.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
The marine biologist/zoologist, professor, and author’s 1962 book Silent Spring stood the US and the world on its ear about the connection between chemical pesticides and the degradation of the environment. Her book woke up America and kicked off the modern environmental movement. Of course she has her detractors even today (not being a scientist I am not going to try and wade through the arguments), but the fundamental truth is her work put environmental issues firmly on the policy table and in the minds of the American public.

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
The 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern feminist movement. Despite the book’s somewhat limited perspective of the white, college-educated, middle class woman (i.e., the typical Smith graduate), the notion that the sexist, conformist expectations of the times had trapped most women into a life of unfulfilled potential had near virtual universal application. (One could also argue that suburban sprawl contributed greatly to the imprisonment of women in the 1950s, but that is the topic for another post.) Friedan’s writing and her co-founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) set the U.S. on an unstoppable path toward the as yet unfulfilled equality of women in America.

Julia Child (1912-2004)
When I was a child in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the TV on Sunday afternoons to watch The French Chef with Julia Child on PBS. We never made any of her recipes but we sure liked watching. Her show, which began in 1963, and her contribution to the popularization of TV cooking shows is not the most impressive change she brought to American life. Julia introduced Americans to recipes and ingredients that were anathema to the post-World War II salt, pepper, and paprika school of American cooking. When her show began Americans were gorging on TV dinners and canned vegetables. Thanks to Julia and others in her circle or under her influence, we have so much to choose from today when we head to the grocery store. Not all of the “food” created by scientists but those fabulous ingredients that no one had heard of thirty years ago.

24 March 2010

Bookstores in Odd Places

If you don't know the amazing blog Book Patrol you should really check it out.  Today it features a really wonderful story on the London Library in St. James Square. It is a private lending library that I had never heard of and it looks like a brilliant place. And last week it had a post on the El Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires which is in a splendid old opera house.

Well, that post put me in mind of a bookstore I recently came across in Rochester, Minnesota. It is a Barnes and Noble that has been retrofitted into an old cinema. It isn't half as grand as El Ateneo, but with its mock medieval interior it sure makes for an interesting place to browse. (All photo credits except for the exterior shot go to J.M. Wetherington.)

How many Barnes & Noble have a lobby, let alone one that looks like this?

This old cinema was no doubt saved from the wrecking ball to become a bookstore.

The mock medieval interior makes for some interesting views.

The old proscenium arch provides a wonderful entrance to the fiction section.

The escaltors up to the second (more spectacular) floor.

All photo credits except for the exterior shot go to J.M. Wetherington.

23 March 2010

Book Review: The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

The Hand That First Held Mine
Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is the master of weaving together seemingly disparate storylines that eventually come together in ways the reader doesn’t expect. As I read O’Farrell’s latest, there were more than a few times I thought for sure I knew where things were headed only to find out I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was. In The Hand That First Held Mine there are fifty years separating the two storylines of two unmarried mothers. Lexie Sinclair is a journalist finding her way through 1950s and 1960s London while Elina Vilkuna is a Finnish-Swedish artist living with her boyfriend in the same city a half century later.

Following Elina’s story, I was a bit worried at first that this was going to be a “baby” novel—one of those books that make those of us without a functioning uterus (or access to one) begin to yawn as we suffer through endless stories about how we can’t understand X, Y, or Z because we have never been a parent. But Lexie’s early, childless story kept me interested until Elina’s gave way to something more interesting (to me at least) than the emotional and physical aftermath of her life-threatening C-section and the colicky unhappiness of her screaming baby. But then again, I am a sucker for a coming-of-age story and Lexie’s story certainly qualifies in that category, so it is no surprise that I was more drawn to her as a character. (UPDATE: perhaps coming-of-age is somewhat misleading, given that she has already been at university when the action begins, it might be better described as a coming-into-her-own story...) In some ways Lexie’s story has some superficial resemblance to Jenny in the wonderful Oscar-nominated film An Education. Like Jenny, Lexie is a promising young student who seemingly gives up her chance at success when a fascinating older man comes along to deliver her from the genteel tedium of her middle class life.

Even if I didn’t hate writing plot synopses, I wouldn’t give you one here. O’Farrell’s fascinating story has too many twists and turns making a spoiler-free synopsis almost impossible. The characters are believable and interesting and developed enough that, with perhaps one or two exceptions, they all elicit empathy at one point or another. And the art world that O’Farrell describes is fascinating and name droppy without seeming even remotely forced or pretentious as can be so often the case with such attempts. And any disappointment that I may have felt when the comeuppance that I was so looking forward to didn’t really happen, was supplanted by a rather joyous final scene that was much more interesting.

If you haven’t read anything by Maggie O’Farrell you really need to. And if this particular O’Farrell sounds good you are going to have to wait until April 12 in the US or April 29 in the UK to get your hands on a copy. But it will be worth the wait.

***I have never before accepted an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) for any book. But I had been so taken with O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us that I was hard-pressed to say no when the folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offered to send me this one. And since then I have also read O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I also enjoyed and which added to my high expectations for The Hand That First Held Mine. In some ways though, having accepted the ARC I had a big chip on my shoulder. I was worried that I might lose some objectivity--not wanting to bite the book hand that had fed me this particular novel. I spent the first hundred or so pages trying desperately to find fault with the book. It was like my brain had been hard wired to dislike it, just because some folks at HMH were hoping that I would like it. But after a while O’Farrell’s easy prose and compelling story telling got the better of me and I found myself unable to put it down.***

22 March 2010

I'll be spending the month of April on an English Journey


From the moment I first saw a few of the volumes in this Penguin English Journeys series I knew I had to own the whole set. I loved the art work, I loved that they were all about the English countryside in one way or another, and perhaps most appealing of all was that they were part of such a well coordinated set. That really appealed to my anal retentive (in)sensibilities. My husband was able to buy me all but one of the 20 volumes through The Book Depository.

One, A Shropshire Lad was on back order and over the course of several months never came back into stock. Which is where Cornflower and her reading club member Jill came to the rescue to help me get the final volume to complete my set.

So for a while now I have had all 20 volumes sitting in my TBR pile. I have toyed off and on with the idea of reading them all at once. I always knew I would read them sequentially, even though the sequence seems to be based solely on alphabetical order. But since none of them are very long, I finally decided that it would be interesting and a fun spring activity to go on a vicarious English Journey during the month of April. So I have decided to read these twenty books during the month of April. And I will, of course, read them in order. I am anxious to start now, but I am going to force myself to wait until April 1 to begin.

Voices of Akenfield – Ronald Blythe

The Wood – John Stewart Collis

From Dover to the Wen – William Cobbett

The Pleasures of English Food – Alan Davidson

Through England on a Side-Saddle – Celia Fiennes

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and other poems – Various

A Shropshire Lad – A.E. Housman

Cathedrals and Castles – Henry James

Walks in the Wheatfields – Richard Jefferies

The Beauties of a Cottage Garden – Gertrude Jekyll

Country Churches – Simon Jenkins

A Wiltshire Diary – Francis Kilvert

Some Country Houses and their Owners – James Lees-Milne

The Clouded Mirror – L.T.C. Rolt

Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens – Vita Sackville-West

One Green Field – Edward Thomas

English Folk Songs – Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd

Country Lore and Legends – Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson

Birds of Selborne – Gilbert White

Life at Grasmere – Dorothy and William Wordsworth

I am terrible at doing reading challenges, even ones that I create for myself. So why in the world I am setting myself a challenge for April? I don’t have the answer to that. Maybe I will know at the end of April.


21 March 2010

Sunday Painting: Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan by Paul Cézanne

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This is kind of how DC looks right now, things on the ground are greening up and some of the early bloomers like the tulip magnolias are starting to bloom, but most of the trees are still sticks.

Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan, 1885-86
Paul Cézanne, French, 1839-1906

20 March 2010

Book Review: Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

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 Reality and Dreams
Muriel Spark

As usual, Dame Muriel Spark in her 1996 novel Reality and Dreams creates a quirky, dysfunctional, yet highly believable cast of characters. At the center of all the action is aging film director Tom Richards who, by the nature of his profession, has the god-like ability to create whole new worlds, to transfer what is in his head to the screen, indeed to turn dreams into reality. With the opening line Spark foreshadows Tom’s position in his personal universe:
He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.
But just as humans have the free will to diverge from their assigned roles in God’s dreams, so too do the characters surrounding Tom have the tendency to operate freely and independently while maintaining just enough piety and obeisance to keep Tom happy. And he is perhaps much more manipulated than he would ever suspect. The other characters swirling around him include his wealthy wife Claire with whom he shares an open marriage full of his-and-hers infidelity, their grown daughter Marigold who disappoints them in many ways, Tom’s beautiful grown daughter Cora, a taxi driver-confidante, various in-laws, and a few flaky actresses.

The book looks at the blurry lines between reality and dreams from many angles and on many levels, both obvious and subtle. Tom's movie plots are not just dreams turned into “reality”, but they also take real life events and turn them into cinematic dreams. I also think in some ways that Tom’s reality is more of a dream than he would like to admit.

Reality and Dreams is satirical and often humorous and, like many an Iris Murdoch novel, has lots of mix-and-match bed hopping. The brilliance of Muriel Spark is her ability to create characters and plots that are crazier than most of us encounter in our own lives, but not so crazy as to make them unbelievable. Similarly, we don’t end up liking these characters in the sense that we would want to know them personally, but we do love to watch them and live out some of our darker thoughts and personality disorders vicariously. A kind of safety valve to keep us all from becoming miserable bastards.

For other views:

Novel Insights
His Futile Preoccupations

19 March 2010

Help me find Shakespeare (in paperback)

Does anyone know of a complete edition of Shakespeare's plays in paperback? I'm not talking about an omnibus edition, but rather one where each play is a separate paperback volume and they all have a uniform appearance?

17 March 2010

Book Review: Dr. Wortle's School by Anthony Trollope

Dr. Wortle’s School
Anthony Trollope

I am not sure where I picked up this little honey of an edition, but it has been sitting in my TBR for quite some time. In the world of Trollope, this almost 300-page book is practically a short story and it is full of all of the clerical intrigue that one comes to expect from this Victorian master. If the opera Aida could have just as appropriately been called Amneris after the mezzo-soprano role (or if Barber’s opera Vanessa could have been called Erica after that mezzo role), so too could Dr. Wortle’s School have been called Mr. Peacocke’s Secret. It is, after all, the revelation of Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke’s secret that put Dr. Wortle and his school to the test. The Peacocke’s have come to work at Bowick School and soon become indispensible to its success, but it turns out they are hiding something.

Early in the novel Trollope lets us in on the secret so I will not feel bad about revealing said secret here. But I guess I should officially issue a spoiler alert, although I don’t think knowing the secret will lessen the interest of anyone wishing to read this book in the first place. While teaching classics at a university in the USA Mr. Peacocke marries Mrs. Peacocke thinking that her abusive, drunkard, deserter husband has been killed, thus freeing her to remarry. Sometime after they are married Mrs. Peacocke’s husband reappears very much alive. So, rather than put her back in the hands of the abusive husband, the Peacockes move to England and take positions at Bowick. Well you can imagine what the society folks of 1882 think of the Peacockes once the secret gets out. Even worse is that Dr. Wortle decides to defend the couple, putting the reputation of his school and its very existence on the line.

What I won’t tell you is if Dr. Wortle’s school or his soul are saved.

This isn’t the most fantastic Trollope of all time, but it might be a good intro for someone who has never read any of his prodigious output. It certainly provides a cozy read and a forward momentum that makes it a bit of a page turner. And the rather racy nature of the secret, at least by Victorian standards, makes it a little more risque than one normally expects from Trollope.

Book Review: The Assault by Harry Mulisch

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The Assault
Harry Mulisch

In 1945, in the final throes of the Nazi occupation of Haarlem, Anton Steenwijk’s parents and older brother are killed in retaliation for the murder of a Nazi collaborator that happened on the street in front of their house. From the event itself and the immediate aftermath The Assault is broken down into chapter “episodes” that chronicle Anton’s life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. We follow him as he alternately gets on with his life, love, and career while dealing with the remnants of his haunting past. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is how Anton comes across various people who had connections to the events that led up to his family’s death. When we, and Anton himself, least expect it, another piece of the puzzle gets put into place helping not just to explain what happened that night, but also showing different dimensions of Anton’s emotional state and his capacity (or incapacity) to forgive and forget.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the politics of the times. Although I remember the nuke-crazy, Reagan 1980s with its frightening scepter of imminent Soviet attack, a lot of geo-political water has gone under the bridge since this book was published in 1982. With the current state of world affairs and the fact that our planet is perched precariously and perhaps irreversibly on the brink of environmental ruin, it is much more difficult to remember the emotion and fear of those times. Even harder to comprehend for those of us who were too young to remember, is the fear of the “Commies” in the aftermath of World War II and the saber rattling in the early days of the Cold War. For those around the world who marched en masse to try and head off the ridiculous Iraq War, the futility of the anti-nuke marches of the 1980s, like the one Anton attends in the final episode, is much easier to understand.

Mulisch’s prose is pretty straight forward but it rarely fails to draw the reader into circumstances and emotions that most of us can thankfully hardly imagine.

15 March 2010

Book Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Maggie O'Farrell

Months and months ago, a book club friend of mine had fantastic things to say about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. And our reading tastes are generally quite in line with each other. But for some reason I just couldn't get into it. But then back in January when we were in Thailand I stumbled upon O'Farrell's The Distance Between Us in the library of our resort and ended up loving it. So when I came across TVAEL in a secondhand bookshop in Philly last month I decided I needed to give it another chance.

In a nutsell the story is about vintage clothing store owner Iris Lockhart finding out that she has a great aunt named Esme Lennox she didn't know about. More startling to Iris than the fact that no one in her family had ever mentioned this great aunt, Esme has spent the past 60 years in a mental health facility. But Iris' incredulity is stretched to the limit with the knowledge that she is Esme's only blood relative still alive. After some hesitation, Iris starts to do the right thing and takes responsibility for Esme.

I wanted this to be a warm, uplifting story of the the two women discovering themselves as they discovered each other. And especially to see Esme discover the real world after 60 years of incarceration.But alas, this tale is a shade or two darker than that. I won't say more about the plot so as not to spoil it for anyone.

(For about seven years now, I have been associated off and on (and most recently back on) with the redevelopment of a large, disused, historic mental health facility campus. Some aspects of TVAEL really made me stop and think about the thousands of souls, both sane and insane, who have lived there).

I enjoyed reading the book and it certainly gives food for thought. But in the end I think my expectations about the book's plot got the best of me. I think TVAEL is probably a better book than The Distance Between Us from a literary standpoint, but I enjoyed the latter much more than the former.

10 March 2010

Mothering Sunday


Persephone Books sent out an email this week with a special deal in honor of what is known in the UK as “Mothering Sunday”. Originally a pagan observance, it later turned into a Christian holiday when believers would make a pilgrimage to their mother church or the nearest cathedral. In the UK it is now synonymous with Mother’s Day as it is known here in the USA. Although I think the name “Mothering Sunday” sounds a bit corny, I kind of like the name better than Mother’s Day. “Mothering” with all its verbish suggestions of action rather than just a state of being opens the door to varied interpretation. Perhaps anyone who provides a little mothering to someone in need could be honored on Mothering Sunday regardless of their gender or reproductive ability.

Last weekend in Philadelphia we stumbled across a plaque right in front of City Hall that honored Anna Jarvis the West Virginia native who campaigned to establish Mother’s Day. According to Wikipedia it was started in response to Jarvis losing her own mother, but according to the plaque it came into being in response to the rise of feminism. John Wanamaker, the department store impresario became a big supporter and it was eventually recognized by Congress in 1914.

This notebook will be on its way down under...

I almost forgot to do my drawing for this lovely travel notebook. Well, this is one travel notebook that will be doing a little traveling itself because Mae of Mad Bibliophile won it. She is librarian (yay)and she lives in Melbourne. A lovely city if ever there was one. We had a lovely time there in 2007. Thanks to all who entered the drawing.

07 March 2010

Sunday Painting: My Parents by David Hockney

It is a total coincidence that I chose this David Hockney painting called "My Parents" this morning, when my parents just happen to be in DC staying with us.

My Parents, 1977
David Hockney

06 March 2010

Me, London, the Proms, and Dame Kiri

After my post about A Room With a View and the Puccini aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” the fabulous Architect Design and I exchanged a few personal recollections about soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. When I mentioned to him that I had pictures of Te Kanawa that I had taken in 1992, it occurred to me that my loyal readers might enjoy the tale of my summer at the Proms. For those who don’t know, the Proms is shorthand for The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC. The Proms is an eight-week classical music festival held at Royal Albert Hall in London. With over 70 concerts each year, the Proms is an amazing place to hear the world’s greatest orchestras, conductors, and soloists.

On my first trip to London in 1989, I managed to get to a concert by the venerable Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust with Anne-Sofie von Otter, Jose van Dam and conductor Sir Georg Solti. It was a fantastic concert but what always seems to pop up from my memories of that night is the fact that before the concert I tripped and fell flat on my face in front of hundreds of people. Thankfully I was unhurt and I never saw those hundreds of people again.

In 1992 when I was working in London I got a half-season pass for the Proms so I could go to as many concerts as I wanted to over the final four weeks of the eight-week period. The thing about the Proms is that they have two rather large areas for standing room, the entirety of the circular main floor and the very top gallery. Those who want the main floor (the Arena) stand in one queue, and those that want the gallery queue in another. At the time the cost of a single Promenade ticket was about £2—a steal even by 1992 standards. The other thing to know about the Proms is that various self-selecting groups among the rabble who take standing room places on the floor and gallery often breakout with witty comments that they annunciate loudly to the rest of the auditorium before the concert and during the interval. Unfortunately, I think I only ever understood what they were saying once. They also make sound effects whenever the grand piano is raised up onto the stage.

Over the course of the season I heard an amazing array of concerts by an even more amazing array of orchestras, Cleveland, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, London, Royal Phil, BBC, City of Birmingham, BBC Welsh, and the list goes on. But the cultural highlight of the season, if not musical highlight, is the Last Night at the Proms. The program is heavy on light music with a decidedly British emphasis and rowdy renditions of “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen”. Thankfully this American knew the words to each of these patriotic chestnuts and was able to join in with just as much enthusiasm as the Brits and Commonwealthers who surrounded me. I found out later from those watching on telly that I was on camera a fair amount. Years later I managed to procure a video of that evening and I am indeed quite clearly on camera singing my heart out, but looking rather grim at the same time.

So what does all of this have to do with Kiri Te Kanawa? Well the Last Night of the Proms always features a vocal soloist and in 1992, that turned out to be Dame Kiri. I was in the equivalent of about row seven so I had a fantastic view of her. It was kind of a full circle moment for me. One of the earliest manifestations of my Anglophilia was getting up at 3:00 AM when I was 12 years old to watch Charles and Diana get married. As I am sure all of you know, Te Kanawa sang at the wedding and so began my fascination with her career. That twelve year-old boy in Elk River, Minnesota sitting alone watching the wedding in the wee hours would have never imagined that eleven years later he would actually be living in London seeing Kiri Te Kanawa in person at the Royal Albert Hall.

If you don’t have at least a half-season ticket to the Proms, you have to enter into a lottery to gain entrance to the final night. Since I had a half-season I cleared that hurdle. But then you still need to queue up the day of the concert to make sure you get a good spot (or get in at all). I arrived at 6:43 AM and placed my name on the queue list, which allows you a certain amount of freedom of movement throughout the day without losing your place in line. This is a fuzzy, pre-digital photo, but here is the list where I am number 130.

Here I am with my Union Jack at the start of the Arena queue.

The hall before the performance.

The hall once everyone got inside.

Kiri in dress number one – in which she sang arias from operas by Massenet.

Kiri in dress number two, decidedly showing her commonwealth and Kiwi pride. She sang the verses on Rule Britannia.

The post concert aftermath.

03 March 2010

A Room With A View: The Book, the movie, the soundtrack ( x 7)

Regular readers of My Porch will know that I love, love, love the book and film, A Room With a View. But I also love the soundrack. I first heard the aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's one-act opera Gianni Schicchi in the fantastic Merchant-Ivory adaptation of A Room With a View. New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa does the honors with a beautiful translucence and purity. This video captures the magic of the film, the aria, and the performance by Te Kanawa.

One of the many great things about YouTube is the ability to listen to the same aria sung by many different singers. And what a way to while away the hours when you could be doing something more productive. "O Mio Babbino Caro" is one of those little chestnuts that most every soprano sings at some point in her career and often as an encore in a solo recital. So there is a lot to chose from.

The sound quality on this 1981 recording of Leontyne Price with the Boston Pops isn't so good, but her high notes are flawlessly pure.

The cherubic Lucia Popp has a wonderful silvery shimmer in her voice. No actual video here, but the recording is too beautiful not to share.

Not only is Angela Gheorghiu beautiful, but her voice is lovely with lots of kick and spin that must make it thrilling in person.

Some of Anna Netrebko's vowels on the low notes seem a little under water, but her voice has lots of beautiful color. I would love to hear her live.

This is kind of an odd, uneven performance, but there are parts of it that show some of the nicer qualities of Sumi Jo's voice.

And how about this violin version from Joshua Bell. With all his money and talent he never seems to come up with a decent haircut.

There are tons more where these came from including train wreck versions by Callas and Battle. Long in the tooth versions by Tebaldi and Caballe. And many, many amateur versions, which I did not screen for this post.

Now that I have listened to so many different versions, I am not sure I want to hear it again for a while.

Book Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

The Unnamed
Joshua Ferris
I know the book world is divided on this, but I LOVED Joshua Ferris’ first novel Then We Came to the End. I thought it was a wonderful mash up of Austen, Trollope, and “The Office”. And it has, in my humble opinion, one of the best opening lines of all time: “We were fractious and overpaid.”

Well, Ferris’ sophomore novel The Unnamed, is nothing like Then We Came to the End, but it is still a really fantastic book. Some professional reviewers have dinged him because the two books are so dissimilar in style. But I think professional reviewers, as a rule, suck. I prefer the uninformed ramblings (like mine) of people (and blogs) I trust.

The Unnamed tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a successful lawyer in Manhattan who has an unusual malady that defies diagnosis. His unnamed affliction compels him to walk (and walk and walk). We aren’t talking about a nice stroll through Central Park on his lunch hour kind of walking, but the kind that takes him across bridges to other boroughs, across state lines, through all kinds of weather and with the inability to stop until his body/mind decides it/they is/are ready to stop.

This is a compelling, kind of fast read that had me tearing up from time to time. His condition seems totally implausible in most ways, but the emotion, fear, and uncertainty that it illustrates feels very plausible and frightening. And it is somewhat of a paean to unconditional love, although a kind of sweetly sad paean (is that possible?).

I enjoyed reading it, and it made me love my husband a little more than I already do.

02 March 2010

Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women
Barbara Pym

There are three things that make Barbara Pym’s world foreign to me. Not the English part, I have been inhaling all things England since I was 11. And not the clerical milieu, I grew up next door to a parsonage and became very familiar with the life and work of a protestant clergy family (despite having been raised Roman Catholic and having spent lots (and lots) of time at an RC church across town).

Now that I think about it, the three foreign things are kind of related to the two mentioned above. First, food. Perhaps it is the 1950s setting of Excellent Women that has our heroine Mildred Lathbury eating sad little meals because of lingering food shortages in the wake of World War II. And the War experience at least in my mind, is quintessentially British, so that might all be part and parcel of the whole English-ness of the book. (Don’t worry, I’m not using British and English interchangeably…)

Second, and this I guess must also relate to post-war circumstances, housing shortages. I have lived in some pretty, er, Bohemian settings over the years, but none of them ever required sharing a bathroom with another apartment—College dormitories don’t count. The fact that grown adults in the industrialized world had to consider such housing arrangements is indeed foreign to me.

Third, religious intolerance. Granted religion and other aspects of familial, civic, and political life have always mixed in a rather unholy way. But I think I must have grown up in an ecumenical atmosphere. Personal animus related to religion was not really an acceptable position either at home or next door at the parsonage. And whenever my parents would talk about the old days when marrying outside one’s faith was a huge deal that had broken up families, etc. it was always in the context of thank goodness we’re not like that. I don’t think Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women is intolerant, but she certainly is surrounded by lots of parochial thinking that is as off putting as it is foreign to me.

In essence Excellent Women is about those excellent women who keep things moving. They make tea, they comfort, they volunteer, they are trustworthy and can be depended upon. But they don’t get married. And, as in Mildred’s case, they often get taken advantage of by the coupled and the male. More than once I wanted Mildred to flip them all the bird and tell them to do it themselves.

Excellent Women is vintage Pym with some darker overtones than earlier works like Some Tame Gazelle (which remains my favorite Pym). And having recently read a bio of Pym certainly heightened my enjoyment and understanding of the work.