30 August 2010

God Bless the BBC

My friend Steve posted this link on his Facebook page. It is a collection of British novelist interviews from the BBC Archives now available for listening online.

Forster, Bowen, Huxley, Wodehouse, Woolf, Murdoch, Isherwood, Spark, Drabble, McEwan...

I can't wait to listen to these. Check them out here.

8/31 UPDATE: So far I have listened to Maugham, Bowen, Forster, Wodehouse, and Isherwood. They are fascinating, not just because of who is being interviewed, but the formats vary quite a bit as well.  And for Spinal Tap fans you might notice that the volume control on the BBC media player goes to "eleven".


29 August 2010

Sunday Painting: The Hermitage at Pontoise by Camille Pissarro

Last year at this time we were driving around the Loire and the Luberon, and while this painting of Pontoise is not in either location it reminded me of our trip. Plus a final look at summer seemed appropriate as we speed into September.

The Hermitage at Pontoise, ca. 1867

And I had to post this picture just because it reminds me of that trip a year ago. A scene light years from the eight hours I spent this weekend pulling about a decade's worth of ivy.

27 August 2010

Powell's City of Books

I have been talking about Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon for some weeks now. And have been talking about Portland itself for a years. Back in 2006 I crowned it the best city in the USA and four years later I feel the same way. I might amend that to say best small city, but for whatever Portland has or doesn't have it is such a pleasant urban experience made all the more fantastic by lots of green and fresh, cool, clean-air. And it is just a stone's throw from the home of some of the world's best Pinot Noir wineries. Yum. We were too busy enjoying the city to take many pictures or Portland itself, and none to compare to the great snaps we got on the Oregon coast so I am not going to post any of those. But I think we also realized that Portand is more of a feeling and experience and it doesn't necessaryily photograph well. It is all about a hundred little details that make it so pleasant.

But back to the main event! Before I get around to showing you some of the books I purchased at Powell's I think I need to give you some idea of the scale of the place. It takes up an entire city block. But I will let the store map tell the story...


26 August 2010

Book Review: Coronation by Paul Gallico

For anyone that has seen my comments out in the blogosphere, I love Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris/Flowers for Mrs. Harris by Paul Gallico. It is one of my all time favorite books. I was much less charmed by Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, but still enjoyed it. When I saw this old, slightly damaged hardcover at Powell's in Portland I couldn't resist. I was hoping for a cozy, quick fictional account surrounding Queen Elizabeth's coronation in June 1953. Indeed that is exactly what I got, but it was also a bit of a disappointment. Dedicated to his god-daughter, Coronation feels a little too much like a children's book to make me truly happy. I think children's books can sometimes be satisfying for adults but other times they can just seem a little too simple to really please an adult mind. (The beautifully illustrated Persephone edition of The Runaway was also disappointing in that way.) And as far as kids books go, I am not sure there are many kids today who would be terribly entertained by this story either. I am sure there are still kids who would be excited to see the Queen in her golden coach or to see the various military regiments on parade. But, *spoiler alert* what it would take to appease today's children if their hopes were shattered would be nothing like the little crumbs that satisfied little Johnny and Gwendoline.

This paragraph is going to spill the pot of plot beans so get ready for spoilers. Coronation is the story of the Clagg family who have decided to trade in their annual two-week trip to the seaside in order to go to the coronation. Just picture that in 2010: a family of five giving up their only two weeks of vacation in exchange for one day--not even overnight--in London to see a coronation. They manage to get tickets to view the parade from inside a mansion at Hyde Park Corner that includes breakfast, lunch and champagne. Sounds wonderful right? It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out they are screwed when the 25-guinea tickets only cost them 10. Never occurs to Pere Clagg that that might be too good to be true. And indeed it is. They show up and the address shown on the beautifully printed tickets turns out to be nothing but a bombed out vacant lot. Now this is where one starts hoping for, perhaps even expecting, a Gallico miracle. But alas it doesn't really happen. By the time they realize the swindle it is too late to get close enough to the parade route to see anything. Did I mention it was raining most of the morning and they were all soaked through? Little Gwenny is ultimately satisfied by being hoisted up on policeman's shoulders where she may have (but probably not) actually seen the Queen in her carriage. And then older brother Johnny, who knows all the regiments (domestic and foreign) that will be in the parade, is satisfied when a policeman hands him a regimental badge he found in the gutter. All it takes for Gran to be happy is the fact that she will be able to hold it over her son-in-law until the end of time. Mom's day is saved when she is able to taste champagne for the first time on the train ride home, and Dad is pleased as punch when an article in one of the afternoon London papers mentions his name in a story about folks being swindled by fake ticket scams.

I know I was supposed to feel something different when I read this. I was supposed to be charmed at how a seeming disaster of a day was rescued by small gestures and simple pleasures. No doubt Gallico was out to teach cynics like me a lesson. But good god, it didn't work for me. It just pissed me off. I wanted serious harm to come to the forgers--like these rat-bastards on the Internet who are hell bent on spreading viruses or swindling hapless users out of their life savings. Death to them all. Perhaps not the message Gallico wanted me to take away from Coronation.

23 August 2010

Book Review: The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble

The action in The Radiant Way begins on New Year's Eve 1979. A perfect moment to begin this novel that is all about the major cultural/economic/political shift that began in Britain at the end of the 1970s, in most cases due to, or at least coinciding with, the ascension of the Iron Lady to the right hand of God, err, I mean the position of British Prime Minister. I am not a scholar of late 20th century British politics but that won't stop me from putting in my two cents (pence) worth.

But before I get to all of that I want to quote at length the opening passage of the book. I think Drabble brilliantly captures how this New Year's Eve party, and indeed any party, no matter how homogeneous the guest list, is at best a collection of competing personal agenda and mundane practical concerns.
New Year's Eve, and the end of a decade. A portentous moment, for those who pay attention to portents. Guests were invited for nine. Some are already on their way, travelling towards Harley Street from outlying districts, from Oxford and Tonbridge and Wantage, worried already about the drive home. Others are dining, on the cautious assumption that a nine-o'clock party might not provide adequate food. Some are uncertainly eating a sandwich or slice of toast, in front of mirrors women try on dresses, men select ties. As it is a night of many parties, the more social, the more gregarious, the more invited of the guests are wondering whether to go to Harley Street first, or whether to arrive there later, after sampling other offerings. A few are wondering whether to go at all, whether the festive season has not after all been too tiring, whether a night in slippers in front of the television with a bowl of soup might not be a wiser choice than the doubtful prospect of a crowded room. Most of them will go: the communal celebration draws them, they need to gather together to bid farewell to the 1970s, they need to reinforce their own expectations by witnessing those of others, by observing who is in, who is out, who is up, who is down. They need one another. Liz and Charles Headleand have invited them, and obediently, expectantly, they will go, dragging along their tired flat feet, their aching heads, their over-fed bellies and complaining livers, their exhausted opinions, their weary small talk, their professional and personal deformities, their doubts and enmities, their blurring vision and thickening ankles, in the hope of a miracle, in the hope of a midnight transformation, in the hope of a new self, a new, redeemed decade.

And so the party, and the 1980s begin for successful psychiatrist Liz Headleand. The complex associations evident during the party and one bombshell are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will happen with Liz and her family and friends in the first half of the Thatcher 80s.

If you haven't read Drabble, I would call her books intelligent and intellectual chick-lit. I shouldn't do so because I neither want to narrow her reach nor offend Drabble (or chick-lit) lovers. But I had to ask myself if it was even appropriate to think in terms of the author's gender and what that might mean for the characterization of the novel. Would I refer to a novel by a man as "intelligent and intellectual dick-lit"? Well, I think I would, or should actually. I think Philip Roth definitely writes smart dick-lit, and Sophie's Choice I would also count as intelligent dick-lit. (Of course this is also the reason I prefer Drabble to Roth. I much prefer the female point of view in literature.) In any case Take Margaret Atwood, subtract the dystopia and add in a healthy dose of Iris Murdoch and I think you start to get the idea. Then again, the Thatcher/Reagan 80s are considered by many to be dystopic so maybe Drabble's story is closer to Atwood than I thought.

In 1980, at the tender age of 11, my knowledge of Britain was fairly non-existent. And for many years after that consisted mainly of an obsession for the Princess of Wales and the Royal Family. But any self-respecting history major is hardly allowed to get a degree without knowing a little more about Britain than that. Even so my knowledge of late 20th century British history could be is limited to a very nebulous, oversimplified summary: In the 1970s nothing was working, everything was gloomy, Labour and labour were hamstringing the country and the economy. In the 1980s everyone but the rich and the climbers were gloomy, socialism became a dirty word as the poor got poorer and Maggie realized that warcraft was the only stagecraft she really need worry about (Take that, Argentina!). In the 1990s a kinder, gentler John Major got the country prepped for a Tony Blair's Third Way and the dawning of a new millennium. The Radiant Way doesn't necessarily contradict my oversimplifications, but it does add nuance to them that was personally enlightening.

Aside from the political and social history themes that run through The Radiant Way, the book focuses mainly on Liz and her friends Alix and Esther from her days at Cambridge.  These are the parts of the book I like most. Each of them go through a crisis or two as the friendship among the three of them continue to ebb and flow as they have for 20-some years.

If you are looking for your first Drabble, I highly recommend Seven Sisters. If you know and like Drabble you won't be disappointed.

22 August 2010

Sunday Painting: Elizabeth II by Pietro Annigoni

Since we just made the decision to spend five days in London in November, I knew my Sunday Painting this week had to have a British connection. I love the National Portrait Gallery and I have always found this portrait of the Queen fascinating. A realistic depiction, but she seems to be rising out of the ocean or perhaps a post-apocolyptic Britain.

If you haven't already commented on my previous post What should I do in London?, I would love it if you would scroll down and let me know what you think.

Elizabeth II (1969)
Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988)

21 August 2010

What should I do in London?

Since 1989 I have probably spent a total of about a year of my life in the UK, with most of that time in London. So I know the city pretty well. Which is part of my problem. John and I will be spending about five days there in November and would like to see some new things rather than just visit old favorites.

We will be staying with good friends who have just moved from the US to Richmond-on-Thames. Our first time staying in the suburbs. We haven't been to London since November 2008 when we stopped over there on our way to and from Kenya. Of course John would prefer to take this trip when the gardens would be more interesting, but the timing is what it is so we can't do much about that. Of course being off season also makes it more difficult to see certain things.

Things I will definitely do:
Go to evensong at St. Brides.
Visit the Persephone Bookshop for the first time!

Old favorites I might revisit:

Places I haven't been in a long time and might revisit:
The (old) Tate
The gift shop at the Transport Museum
The Cabinet War Rooms
Sir John Soane Museum

Something I would really like to do:
Meet a few UK book bloggers in or, within an easy day trip of, London...I would write to you many of you and suggest a meeting, but I am shy of rejection and don't want to put you on the spot. So, if any of you have any interest at all, please let me know either via email or in the comments.

I need your help...
So what do you think I should do while I am there? Could be a day trip, could be a museum, a neighborhood, a restaurant. Try to make it off the beaten path since we have both beaten the path a lot.

I am particularly looking for a tea shop that: 1) has great scones with clotted cream and jam; 2) is not fancy, I have gone the fancy route before, not interested in doing it again; 3) is cozy; and 4) isn't a mob scene.

Phrases I wish I never had to hear again.


I blame popular usage of all of these phrases on House and Garden TV and all the other home "improvement" or decorating shows on TV. You know the kind of shows that end with a couple walking into a room and screaming "oh my god" as they bring their hands up to their mouths.

If you want to get mind-shatteringly plastered just choose one of these phrases and then watch any HGTV program. Each time they use the phrase take a drink of your favorite beverage. Unlikely you will still be sober as they cut away to the first commercial break.

pop of color

take it to the next level and its sibling kick it up a notch

focal point

wow factor

art piece
If you have to add the word 'piece' after 'art' then it sure isn't art, but it probably is a piece of crap. Art is not something that happens for the sake of interior decoration. Art happens for its own reasons.

19 August 2010

I don't usually do this, but I couldn't resist.

I generally don't participate in memes, but I had so much fun reading the answers on Fig and Thistle and Scobberlotch that I thought I would join in.

1. Favorite childhood book?
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

2. What are you reading right now?
The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble
Coronation by Paul Gallico
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

3. What books do you have on request at the library?

4. Bad book habit?
Buying too many.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Nothing (see #4)

6. Do you have an e-reader?
No, and I never will. I love the look, feel, and smell of real books. I have said on more than one occasion that if they stopped publishing real books I would still have a universe of books that I could pass the time with until I died.

And speaking of e-readers: The other day on the Metro the woman sitting next to me (in her 60s or so) was reading from an e-reader. I looked over to see if I could see what she was reading. And there, right at the top of the "page" in type MUCH larger than anything in a real book I saw the following: "He had a huge cock." I quickly look away lest one of us get embarrassed.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I read more now. I remember more now since I am writing reviews of most every book I finish. And I read fewer bad books now. Mainly because I have found kindred spirits in the blogosphere that help me weed through the chaff.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
Almost impossible to answer. For the most part naming a least favorite would reflect too poorly on what are pretty much all good books. But, I guess I would say the Penguin English Journeys series in general. I tried to read all 20 of them in April and the concentrated nature of the task it made them all seem rather tiresome.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
Also very hard to answer. Stoner by John Williams and The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Fairly often, but I have a pretty broad comfort zone. Although I guess looking at my books read some might disagree. Themes that I almost universally hate are sports, magic, circuses, well, almost anything supernatural.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
I have a sub-section of my comfort zone I call the cozy zone. That would focus on genteel, British ladies drinking tea. The broader comfort zone includes all kinds of literary fiction that aren't afraid to be mundane. I particularly like coming of age stories, independent women finding themselves, job-related stories,  and of course bookish characters/settings.

13. Can you read on the bus?
Subway, yes. Bus, sometimes. It makes me a bit motion sick.

14. Favorite place to read?
Haven't found it yet. But generally in bed.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
As I fetishize books more and more as objects I am finding it harder to lend them out.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
Only when it is a mass market edition that is falling apart.

18. Not even with text books?
Text books are different (and a long time ago).

19. What is your favorite language to read in?

20. What makes you love a book?
Such a difficult question. If I had to pick what one theme is most likely to make me love a book I would say characters who undergo a positive, radical (at least for them) transformation.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
In real life I don't do much recommending. On my blog I tend to get enthusiastic about many books but try to give enough description to give my readers the chance to make up their own mind.

22. Favorite genre?
Literary fiction.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
Definitely non-fiction. I almost never read it. I like my reading life quite a lot, so I don't with this one too much.

24. Favorite biography?
A Girl From Yamhill a memoir by Beverly Cleary

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Do diet books count? The South Beach Diet. I used to work at Barnes and Noble years ago and every time someone came in with a list of self-help titles they were looking for I always wanted to walk them over to fiction. I think one learns much more about oneself and how to cope with life from fiction than from self-help.

26. Favorite cookbook?
I find that most cookbooks have only a handful of recipes I ever try. I may want to try more, but I seem to get stuck on just a handful. Like travel guides I never find the perfect one, because it doesn't exist.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

28. Favorite reading snack?
As much as I love eating I tend to not do it while reading. Too messy.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson. I found it just okay.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
Traditional professional critics? Almost never.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I have only ever accepted one ARC so I don't feel beholden to any author or publisher. Sometimes I edit my true thoughts down a bit to not offend some of my favorite bloggers. Yes, peer pressure is alive and well at age 41. But frankly there are some wonderful bloggers out there with whom I don't want to pick a fight. It doesn't mean I don't say what I think I just am less negative than I may want to be. On the other hand if I am not worried about that I would have no problem going after a book I thought was a piece of crap.
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
Anything by Faulkner or Joyce.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
Anything Faulkner or Joyce.

35. Favorite Poet?
Without question, Walt Whitman.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
Zero these days. When I used to be in library mode I would say about 7 to 10 at a time.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
About 30% of the time.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Tepper from Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin

39. Favorite fictional villain?
Widow Barnaby in Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
I choose editions that are cheap enough that I can leave them behind to make way for other things in the suitcase.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
I don't understand the question.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
The Divine Comedy by Dante. I found it kind of interesting, and I know there are larger lessons to be drawn from it, but the fantastical world created in it just kept reminding me of the hocus pocus aspects of organized religions that can turn the less rational among us into willing, believing, participants in a dogmatic, supernatural magic show.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Undone chores.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
A Room With a View (the 1985 Merchant-Ivory production, not the more recent travesty of an adaptation)

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The recent big screen version of Brideshead Revisited. I love the book too much to have it distilled down into anything less than greatness. (Greatness had, of course, already been realized for this book in the early 1980s television series.)

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I am not going to answer this one, but it was on my recent trip to Powell's in Portland.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
Ususally I just read a few lines here and there. I don't think it would count as skimming.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
I do Nancy Pearl's rule of 50, so I tend to put losers down at page 50. But sometimes they sneak through anyway. I have no trouble leaving a book behind if it starts to feel like my life is slipping by and I am stuck reading an odious book.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Yes, but I also like to reorganize and reorganize just for fun.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
Not really because I only focus on the ones I am looking forward to reading.

52. Name a book that made you angry.
Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. In a crime of bait and switch, Hill's interesting premise was undermined by the fact that she either ignored it or was unable to deliver the goods.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
The Brontes Went to Woolworths

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Anything by Nevil Shute or Elinor Lipman


18 August 2010

A Week on the Oregon Coast

Manzanita, Oregon. What a great place to spend a week in August.

Oregon, meet John and his camera....

My better half has green fingers and knows how to capture his passion on camera. He was in heaven as everything seems to grow so well in Oregon. It was all so vibrant and fresh and healthy looking. There seemed to be bright blossoms around every bend. Most of these shots were taken in and around Manzanita and Cannon Beach.

Bookish Oregon

Of course Oregon is the home of Powell's City of Books, but I didn't get any pictures of the hours I spent there. I will be showing you a few of my Powell's finds in the near future, but for now here are a few shots of me finding my natural habitat on the Oregon coast.