28 February 2010

Sunday Painting: Vase with Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem

  
This weekend we took a road trip up to Philadelphia for the annual flower show. I thought it only fitting then that this week's Sunday Painting be of flowers. This beautiful still life is from the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, which we visited back in October.

Vaas met bloemen / Vase with flowers c. 1670

Last weekend looked something like this (or, Willa Cather slept near here)

   
Last weekend we took a spontaneous trip out into the hills of West Virginia to visit friends of ours who have this lovely, lovely cabin. There was lots of snow on the ground, but it wasn't actually snowing while we were there. It was a great place to and hang out with friends.

Only after our return when I began reading a biography of Willa Cather did I realize that Cather's Virginia roots (which I knew about) were in the town of Gore, not far from the West Virginia line and our friend's rustic weekend retreat. We were within miles of her birthplace and didn't know it. Next time we visit these friends I am definitely making a pilgrimage to Gore. (Actually when Cather was growing up there the town was called Back Creek but was later renamed after her aunt Sidney Gore.)


27 February 2010

The Best Evensong in London: St. Bride's Fleet Street

   

You don’t have to be a Believer to enjoy Choral Evensong. Without going into lots of detail, Choral Evensong is a service of evening prayer in the Anglican Church that is almost entirely sung. In the English cathedral tradition, the choirs have traditionally been made up entirely of men and boys. Since my first trip to the UK in 1989 I have been to many a Choral Evensong in the Cathedrals of Canterbury, Coventry, Ely, Gloucester, Lincoln, Salisbury, Wells, Winchester, Worcester, York, and St. Paul’s in London as well as St. George’s Chapel Windsor, and King’s College Chapel, in Cambridge. The combination of a good choir, good music, and amazing acoustics made each of these experiences special in one way or another.

But in 1992 while I was working in London I was working the day shift one Sunday at the front desk of the Sydney House Hotel in Chelsea trying to figure out where to go to Evensong that night. I had been to St. Paul’s a number of times, but I was a little tired that day and wanted something that started a bit later so I could take a little nap between work and Evensong. So I decided to take advantage of the somewhat later starting time at St. Bride’s. Just down the road from the enormous edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Bride’s is a lovely little church tucked in between a few office buildings. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, St. Bride’s has a tiered spire that is said to be the inspiration for the tiered wedding cake. Located just off of Fleet Street, St. Bride's has traditionally been the journalists’ church.

When I walked into St. Bride's for the first time I was surprised at the interior. It looked brand new and was set up so that the entire body of the church looked like the “choir” section of a large cathedral. What I found out later is that the church had been badly bombed during World War II and that the interior looked so new because it had been rebuilt after the war.

The next thing I noticed was that the choir (the group of singers, not the architectural feature) was made up of men and women not men and boys. And the sound that issued from that small group of maybe 12 singers was one of the most amazing things I have ever heard in my life. The strong, clear sound of the choir and the incredibly bright acoustics of St. Bride’s made me feel like my body was soaring up among the barrel vaults of the church along with the music. Since that first experience at St. Bride's I haven’t even wanted to check out Evensong at other churches. I even arrange my trips to the UK so I can be in London on at least one Sunday evening just so I can go to St. Bride's for Evensong. There is something to be said about hearing one of the great cathedral choirs in the spacious acoustic of a great cathedral, but the choir and space at St. Bride’s provides a magical experience that is a must do for anyone with a predilection for choral music.

Here is a recording of the choir at St. Bride's. It is a lovely recording, but it doesn't begin to do justice to hearing them in person.



And here is a short video that shows the interior of St. Bride's.

25 February 2010

Notebook Giveway

     
I realized after I posted about John Hughes' notebook collection that I am not the only one fascinated by notebooks. So, since I have two of these fabulous Wanderlust Travel Journal notebooks, I would give one of them away.

It is about 5 3/4" by 8" in size. Has lots of great travel-related images like the ones on the cover dotted throughout the notebook. Most pages are unlined, some are graph paper, some are lightly colored. There is a section in the back for phone numbers and addresses. Overall it is a wonderful object, whether you plan to use it or not.

So, just leave me a comment letting me know you are interested by midnight (GMT + 6) March 7, 2010, and you could be the lucky winner. I WILL SHIP ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD (AND A FEW PLACES ON THE MOON.)


        

The Notebook Club

   
In the March 2010 issue of Vanity Fair they have a story on the late great film director John Hughes. His films Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles helped summarize and define the adolesence of so many American teens in the 1980s.

Here is a fantastic photograph of his collection of notebooks.

23 February 2010

Book Review: A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym

  
A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym
Hazel Holt


I read my first Barbara Pym novel back in April 2002. It was Crampton Hodnet and I must admit I remember nothing about it. I remember that I enjoyed it in a mild kind of way. Later that year I followed it up with A Glass of Blessing and then again in 2004 with Jane and Prudence. In each case I remember enjoying them but not being able to remember a blessed thing about any of them. It wasn’t until this past August when I picked up Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, that I really understood the brilliance of Barbara Pym. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Some Tame Gazelle, but I actually remember what happened and think of various scenes from that book with some frequency and with more than a little amusement. So when I came across this copy of A Lot to Ask I couldn’t pass it up.

Hazel Holt, Pym’s friend, colleague, and literary executor has pulled together a short life of Barbara Pym using extensive excerpts from Pym’s diaries, correspondence, and published works. The result is a somewhat choppy, episodic narrative that nonetheless delights because it is rich with the same kind of detail that one finds in Pym’s novels. As I am with most biography, I was bored with the details of her childhood, but once Pym heads off to Oxford my interest started to quicken. And by the time she gets to writing novels I was completely enthralled. What becomes clear is how much of Pym’s fictional output is pulled from real life. Not necessarily autobiographical, but it does seem like Pym’s novel are repositories for a vast catalog of observations, experiences, and collected stories (gossip) that she picked up and recorded in her diaries over the years.

Not surprisingly I was particularly taken with passages that detail Pym’s interest in various authors and books. Her shared love of Ivy Compton-Burnett with her friend Jock led them to correspond with one another in the style of ICB. In practical terms this meant clever, funny letters with lots of dialog that read more like scenes from novels than correspondence. She also writes more than once of her love of Anthony Powell’s, six volume magnum opus, A Dance to the Music of Time. (I have the complete set and Pym’s encouragement from beyond the grave is moving them ever higher in my TBR pile.) And I am dying to find out more about Denton Welch, an author with whom Pym was “besotted”.

Perhaps the most difficult time in Pym’s life was the period in the 1960s and 70s in which her work was unpublishable. Having had six novels published between 1950 and 1961 Pym was devastated when her publisher, Jonthan Cape, declined to publish An Unsuitable Attachment. Even in her despair Pym recognized that the literary landscape had changed with the popularity of such work like William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as well as the works of James Baldwin and others. Indeed it is hard to reconcile the dissonance of the era with the quiet challenges of a typical Pym story line. Recording everyday life observations in her notebook she bemoans the unfashionable quality of what she loves to write:
Mr Claydon in the Library – he is having his lunch, eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, a glass of milk near at hand. Oh why can’t I write about things like that any more – why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?...What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticized The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?
It wasn’t until 1977 when the Times Literary Supplement included a feature on underrated authors in which both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil pronounced Barbara Pym as their favorite, that Pym’s career got back on track. Not only was her reputation (and publishing) revived but she achieved sales and accolades like never before. It was, however, a bittersweet revival given that Pym died of cancer only three years later in 1980 at the age of 66.

For anyone who likes Pym this is a must read. It has certainly put me in a Pym mood. I have already started on Excellent Women and am finding the experience all the more rewarding for having read A Lot to Ask.

21 February 2010

Sunday Painting: A Woman's Work by John Sloan

  
Back in January, Linda over at Under the Gables did a blog post about the romance of laundry. She posted a bunch of wonderful images depicting the act of doing laundry. As most of you know I destest doing laundry, but I kind of like hanging laundry out on a clothesline. And I love depictions of clotheslines in art. When Linda first blogged about these images, somewhere in the back of my brain I recalled that I had post card of a great painting of a woman hanging clothes on a line, but I couldn't remember where I put it. Last week I finally uncovered the card and decided to make it my Sunday Painting for the week. I haven't posted a Sunday Painting since before we went to Thailand so it is about time I get back on schedule and return to this regular weekly feature.

The title of this painting is particularly appropriate since Linda's blog is "Dedicated to Discussion of Women and their Work."



A Woman's Work, 1912
John Sloan, American, 1871-1951
  

19 February 2010

My English Journey Set is Complete Thanks to Jill and Cornflower

A few months ago in a post about the books in my nightstand I wrote about how I had 19 of the 20 volumes in Penguin's English Journey series. The one that was missing was AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad which was out of stock at The Book Despository. At the time I blamed Cornflower because her book club had just read the book so what else could I conclude? Months later the book is still out of stock and the Penguin website won't sell these to the US. I was beginning to get worried that I would never be able to complete the set. So I thought I would appeal to Cornflower to see if anyone in her book club had a clean copy they were willing to part with. Within no time, Jill from Victoria, Australia came to my rescue and offered to send me her copy.

In exchange I offered to buy the book of her choice that would cover the cost of the book and shipping. Jill's choice was Henrietta's War. Since she had done me a kind turn, and because the price of Henrietta's War didn't seem enough to make up for the effort and expenditure on Jill's end, I decided that I would send her a few of my favorites in addition to Henrietta. Since Jill lives in Australia, I decided I would send her something by American authors so I chose The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman and The Professor's House by Willa Cather. Two of my favorites for very different reasons. I hope she likes them.

Yesterday I got this cute package in the mail from Jill. She not only sent me the Housman I needed to complete my set but she also sent me a copy of A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey-an "Australian Classic"
Born in 1894, Facey lived the rough frontier life of a sheep farmer, survived the gore of Gallipoli, raised a family through the Depression and spent sixty years with his beloved wife...


The long awaited volume...Now that the set is complete I am toying with the idea of reading all 20 of them over the course of a month. None of them are very long so I don't think it would be too difficult to do.


Here are the rest of them just waiting for A Shropshire Lad.

16 February 2010

I've Been Tagged by Nadia

 
Nadia over at A Bookish Way of Life tagged me as a Kreativ Blogger. To accept this lovely, gracious tag, I am supposed to list 7 random things about me.

1. I wish Merchant-Ivory had made a film that consisted of 2 hours of British people in period dress buttering toast and eating scones.  (I couldn't find a picture of the scene from Howards End where Margaret, Helen, and Tibby are having tea and scones when Mr. Bast arrives out of the rain so we will have to make do with the picture above from A Room With A View with two of my favorite British legends and the moderately decent actress who broke up Emma Thompson's marriage.)

2. I am always worried that someone is going to be ahead of me in line.

3. I don't like exclamation points.

4. I don't want my cremated remains to be sprinkled in the "South" so I specified in my will that they be sprinkled in a state or territory that fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War.

5. When I think about time travel, I always think about going backward.

6. I would like to be a weekend guest at Martha Stewart's house, but I know I would probably have a better time at Ina Garten's.

7. I wish I was in a choir that never performed. Why can't we just practice?

15 February 2010

Happy 85th: The Top Five Reasons I Love The New Yorker

  
Since I first picked up The New Yorker back in the early 1990s I have been a huge admirer of the weekly magazine. And I don't even remember the glory days before Tina Brown "ruined" it. Since the magazine just published its 85th Anniversary issue I thought I would give you my top fice reasons why I love The New Yorker (in no particular order):

1. The covers. Every week for the past 85 years The New Yorker has commissioned fantastic cover art. Sometimes profound, sometimes satirical, many times witty, they never fail to catch my attention.

2. The cartoons. The magazine is full of some of the best cartoons going. And over the past several years they have been having a caption contest on the last page where readers can send in their suggestions for the perfect caption.



3. The articles. I pretty much never read non-fiction books. The non-fiction in The New Yorker tends to be just the right length, using as many or as few words as necessary to tell the story. Very accessible but always intelligent. I have read and enjoyed articles on every conceivable topic: books, art, music, math, science, economics, politics, biography, communities, architecture, pop culture, you name it.

4. The articles are continuous. You know how most magazines get you started on an article and then make you flip to the back of the magazine to finish it off? Not The New Yorker. Once you start an article you just have to turn the page for the continuation, no flipping around. This sounds a little silly, but I find it hugely annoying to have to flip back and forth.

5. It was my link to the real world for two years. From 1995 through 1997 I lived in Honolulu, Hawai'i. Our 50th state yet one of the remotest chain of islands in the world geographically, Hawai'i has a way of feeling both very familiar and rather foreign and remote at the same time. I moved to Hawai'i for graduate school without ever having even visited it before. Needless to say I was more than a little discombobulated by the 10,000 mile move. In those early days of the World Wide Web, The New Yorker was my link to the East Coast of the U.S. Not only did I love the long stories and the smaller current events bits in the "Talk of the Town", but I also enjoyed living vicariously through the arts listings, imagining myself spending the afternoon at a gallery before heading to a concert at Carnegie Hall or a performance at the Met.

And the continuous articles mentioned in number four above made it perfect beach reading. Since I was doing so much reading for school and working 30 hours a week on top of it, The New Yorker was my weekly treat. It would show up on Tusdays. I would page through it and read all of the cartoons and get a sense of what was in each issue, but I wouldn't really read it until I got to the beach on Saturday. Although there is much to do in Hawai'i, when the weekend rolled around, without fail, I would head off to the beach and invariably read my New Yorker. It was the best of both worlds, I would immerse myself mentally in the changing seasons of New York (natural and cultural) while basking in the everpresent Hawai'i sun on a beautiful beach.

So it was with some sadness that I gave up reading The New Yorker a few years ago. Unwilling to give up TV (or blogging), I found that I didn't have enough time to read books when I had The New Yorker showing up on my doorstep every week. I still enjoy the magazine immensely, but alas, I made my own Sophie's Choice (does she actually choose?) and forsake one of my literary interests for another.

Here is me in the glory days of my love affair with The New Yorker. O'ahu 1997.

What I am not reading

I took along Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can't Happen Here on the plane to Austin, Texas this weekend. But I  think I may have left it on the plane. I  can't say I am too upset. I am a huge fan of Sinclair Lewis, but  this one wasn't really doin' it for me. He published the novel in 1935 and he imagines an anti-semetic fascist on the left winning the Democratic nomination over FDR. For those that think this sounds familar might be thinking of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America which had a similar set-up (published fifty some years after the Lewis book, this is the only Roth book I actually like). I  think the lack of subtlety is what made me get kind of bored with this Lewis novel.

So, losing this particular book did not upset me much.

I highly recommend Sinclair Lewis. Just not this title. Go for one of his truly great books like Main Street, Arrowsmith, Dodsworth, or Babbitt.

12 February 2010

Book Review: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

 
The Diary of Provincial Lady
E.M. Delafield

So many folks have read, reviewed, and loved this one, that I am not sure what I can add. It is the first time I have read anything by E.M. Delafield and I certainly enjoyed it. Written entirely in diary form, Delafield chronicles the life of this provincial lady (do we ever learn her name?) in a way that humorously describes all the little details that add up to a life. The diary entries brilliantly capture the episodic, shorthanded cadence so typical of how one thinks about things. Not always in lovely complete sentences, but short bursts of thought, like thousands of brain synapses firing directly onto the page. There is much that made me chuckle in this book. And of course I love a good bit of domestic detail and this book does not disappoint on that account.

The Diary of a Provincial Lady has all the hallmarks of the upper middle-class (lower upper-class?) in 1930s Britain where appearances trump everything from budget to happiness. And the inevitable shortage of servants and overdrawn bank account. One of the more amusing reoccurring themes is the tendency to talk about things one knows nothing about: exhibitions not seen, places not visited, and most of all books not read.
Am asked what I think of Harriet Hume but am unable to say, as I have not read it. Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it.
Although I enjoyed reading this very much, there was a huge part of my middle-class, American, OCD brain that kept wanting to “fix” what was wrong in the lady’s life. First, her inability to remove herself from social situations that are unpleasant. The constant struggle to impress Lady B, the friends who invite themselves over to stay for a few nights, etc. Just say no dammit. Then her inability to live within her means. It is no different than the legions of people today who live a life of economic lies. Buying things and going into debt for a lifestyle that can’t be supported. Here is an idea, take Robin out of school, put him in the local grammar, get rid of Mademoiselle and take care of your daughter yourself, (and maybe let her go to school as well so that she doesn’t end up unable to make her own living one day) and quit wasting money on bulbs and bulb supplies. Little things add up and you can’t afford it. And for goodness sakes take that 500 pound windfall and pay off as many of your creditors as possible, why should the hard work of tradespeople go uncompensated just to support you in your lofty lazy life?

BUT, I know this is not in the spirit of the book and I shouldn’t really apply today’s reality to yesterday’s fiction, but therapy can only do so much to cure me of wanting to fix people.

Looking for a light, fun, Anglophilic romp of a read? This one is for you.
 

Book Review: As We Are Now by May Sarton

 
As We Are Now
May Sarton

This short book takes the form of a journal written by Caro Spencer, a retired 76-year old teacher who has suffered a heart attack and has been put in an old folks' home. It is a chronicle of one woman’s attempt to stay sane, engaged, and human in an atmosphere that is devoid of the comforts of home and the associations and artifacts that one builds up over a lifetime. Unmarried and without children Caro’s only link to the outside world is her 80-year old brother and his much younger wife who tried having Caro live with them after her heart attack but the experience proved to be an unhappy one for all involved. A situation Caro later realizes wasn’t so bad.

Although there is a blazing streak of defiance and an occasional description of joy, As We Are Now is devastatingly sad. Caro’s journal not only describes the poor living conditions that lack humanity but it also reflects the gradual slip of Caro’s mental state. The small joys she experiences during visits from the local Methodist minister and his high school age daughter are more than swallowed up by the Caro’s sad living conditions and the hateful treatment shown by Harriet and Rose, the mother-daughter team who run the home.

Perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of Caro’s situation is that after 76 years of living, forging her way as a single woman with a career, and living life in full, she finds herself not only alone and without any of the associations that made up her life, but also effectively stripped of her identity by her keepers. The home is located in a rural area about 100 miles from where she lived so she has very little opportunity for interaction with others. And she finds that the life of her mind, so well developed over the years is not enough to sustain her sanity. She not only misses her house and her books, but more importantly she misses physical sensation. Fresh air and sunlight are sometimes available to her but clean smelling laundry, good food, the smell of flowers all become increasingly harder to come by. The touch of another living thing is what seems most absent in Caro’s life. Pansy, the house cat is one of the few things left to her.
In some ways, As We Are Now is a primer on how to better treat old people facing the end of their life in an institutionalized setting. The basics of physical surroundings and physical care are fairly easy to remedy given a little thought but would probably only add to the already astronomical cost of long term elder care. What is more difficult is figuring out how to interact emotionally and intellectually with old folks that doesn’t make light of their condition with phrases like “Oh, you will outlive us all” or some other nonsensical thing that we say when we don’t know what to say. Caro wants to hear about the lives of others and what is going on in the world, but when it comes to her condition and her inevitable decline, she doesn’t want someone with a false cheery world, she just wants someone to listen and to believe what she says.
She has round golden eyes. I have been told categorically that she must not get up on the bed. But occasionally she manages to sneak in late at night and climb up, first curling into a tight ball, then later, when I stroke her, uncurling to lie full length, upside down, sometimes with one paw over her nose. It is hard to express the joy it gives me to stroke this little creature and feel the purrs begin in her throat. Those nights I sleep well, a lively sleep rather than a deathly sleep. It makes all the difference!


It sounds like a depressing read, and in many ways it is. But there is much to think about in these 127 pages and it is sadly beautiful. Writer, poet, and teacher, Sarton published eleven of her own journals over her lifetime including one after she had a stroke and one in her 80th year of life before dying of breast cancer. Although I have read and loved some of her earlier journals like Plant Dreaming Deep, I haven’t read any from her later years. It will be interesting to compare them to this fictionalized account of Caro’s written in 1973 a good thirteen years before Sarton’s stroke and some twenty-two years before her death.

This won’t be for everyone. But well worth the read.
  

10 February 2010

Today Leontyne Price Turned 83

 
Here is the diva in her early days. Sorry I don't have a date on this recording of "O Patrica Mia" from the opera Aida by Verdi.


In 1978 at the White House singing "Ride on, King Jesus"


Here she is in 1982 at age 55 singing "Chi il bel sogno" from Puccini's La Rondine.


And here she is in 2001 at age 74 singing God Bless America. I say God Bless Leontyne Price.


Would you believe most of her beautiful voice is still there in 2008 at age 81?

09 February 2010

I love a drinks cart/table

 
My better half found this post on Habitually Chic a blog that he frequents. I am not much of a drinker. Pretty much red wine with a meal is about the extent of my interest in alcohol unless it is some frothy, girl-drink served poolside. But I LOVE drinks carts/tables. Not only as aesthetic fetishes but also because of what they imply: hospitality.

Habitually Chic has many more images where this came from.


Two Awards and the Tale of a Naughty Blogger

 
First the two awards:


Too long ago, Amanda over at The Blog Jar gave me this award:


Which I only remembered because recently Matt at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook gave me this award:



Now, the Tale of the Naughty Blogger:

I never followed up on the responsibilities of winning an award with Amanda months ago, and I can tell already I am probably never going to get around to living up to the expectations of Matt’s award. My reasons could probably be summarized in one word (laziness), but they also have more than a casual relationship with my twin quirks (mental defects) of not wanting anyone to tell me what to do, and fear of rejection. So rather than play by the rules of the respective awards, I am just going to tell you what I like about each Awarder. This means I am not going to tag others for either award (that is where the fear of rejection comes in…). The tagging part also troubles me because there are sooo many blogs that I love I don’t like choosing and from time to time I do recognize other blogs on My Porch in relation to a specific topic.

Amanda at The Blog Jar
Not only do I love Amanda because she reads interesting fiction with a focus on the classics, but also because she really tells it like it is. On books and on life you always get an honest take on things with a lot of natural, unforced humor. I also find her enthusiasm for life—even when things aren’t going perfectly for her—refreshing. And she has creativity in her bones. Here is the bridal bouquet she made for herself for her recent wedding:


I know it is easy in the blogosphere to assign probably inaccurate personalities to people you have never met, but Amanda strikes me as someone who I would love to sit and have a cocoa with (I hate coffee) and we would end up laughing our heads off.

Matt at A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook
Right off the bat I was drawn to Matt’s blog because I love Moleskine notebooks of every shape and size. I think I probably have about seven of them around here. In fact, I can see three of them from where I am sitting right now. I have this dream that I will fill them with interesting and artistic things. The only problem is that these days most of my interesting things are memorialized on this blog or in some other digital form. And I have terrible handwriting so it feels like I am defiling the lovely Moleskine products. Matt on the other hand has amazing handwriting (and that avocado sandwich looks good as well):


Beyond the title of Matt’s blog I am impressed with its organization and his book review rating system: [Read/Skim/Toss] and [Buy/Borrow]. But none of that would matter if I didn’t enjoy his point of view and the fact that we have some reading interests in common including Forster, Waugh, Isherwood and GLBT fiction, which, frankly for me at least is really just G. I’ve read a bit of L in my life but I have never read any B or T that I know of. Many of the popular G he has been reading lately is stuff I read a long time ago, so it is great to get reacquainted with them. And then of course there is classic G which Forster, Waugh, and Isherwood would all fit into to various degrees. (I think Waugh’s uber-Catholicism was a big ol’ pile of repressed homosexuality, but that is a topic for another post.)

So hopefully my Awarders Matt and Amanda won’t mind that this Awardee couldn’t play by the rules.

Book Review: A Way of Life, Like any Other by Darcy O'Brien

 
A Way of Life, Like Any Other
Darcy O’Brien


Writer and sometimes college professor Darcy O’Brien was the son of movie stars George O’Brien (whose films span from silent pictures in the 20s to 1964) and Marguerite Churchill (who was John Wayne’s first leading lady). Don’t worry, I had never heard of them either until I looked them up on Wikipedia. And speaking of Wikipedia, raise your hand if you think this phrase is missing a comma:

…the couple had a son, Darcy O’Brien in 1939 who would become a successful writer and a daughter, Orin O’Brien who…
When I first read it I thought it was a clever way to say that Darcy O’Brien had had a sex change.

At any rate, back to the book. A Way of Life, Like Any Other is an autobiographical and funny novel of a kid trying to cope with faded movie star parents who have become caricatures of faded movie stars. Eccentric, sometimes bitter sometimes nostalgic husks of their former selves. For their son (whose name I entirely forget at the moment, maybe the reader is never told), is a childhood and adolescence of riches and rags and back to riches before returning again to rags just in time to go off to college. Intertwined with the broken family’s economic fortunes are his serial monogamist divorcee mother’s alcoholic and mercurial behavior, and his father’s unrequited love for his ex-wife channeled into constant fest of nostalgia, ever-increasing devotion to his Catholicism, and a flirtation with the John Birch Society which is to politics what the Flat Earth Society is to science. The dysfunction in the family reminded me a bit of a more benign version of Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs. Except that O’Brien’s novel is much more a piece of literature than Burroughs’ David Sedaris-like regurgitation of his childhood. Plus O’Brien isn’t gay, which I only mention now because his attempts at wooing females and his quest to get laid are pretty comic.

(And by the way, my husband tells me that the Slim Aarons cover photo of C.Z. Guest is in Palm Beach, not Los Angeles.)

Book Review: What's to Become of the Boy by Heinrich Böll


What’s to Become of the Boy or: Something to Do with Books
Heinrich Böll


A few years ago I read The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll and really enjoyed it. Both the story and the style of writing really appealed to me. I followed that up sometime later with his book The Clown which I liked but not as much as Katharina. So when I was combing through a second hand bookstore in Pennsylvania right after Thanksgiving and came across this short memoir of Böll’s childhood I snapped it up immediately.

Böll was the first German to win the Nobel Prize for literature since Thomas Mann won it in 1929. His childhood in a liberal Catholic, pacifist family in pre-WWII Cologne provides the backdrop for this memoir. The book follows Böll as he and his family deal with the ever-more invasiveness of the Nazi Party in their daily lives. It also shows the ways in which the angst and joys of a bookish adolescent still manage to exert themselves in spite of the family’s near poverty and the fascist trajectory of Germany at the time. He is a boy whose future is not only clouded by the oncoming war but also by his vague notions of wanting to do “something with books”. But he does have his priorities straight. In an atmosphere where books were burned not just for political reason but also for fuel, he regularly used his scarce spending money toward the purchase of books.

Overall Böll’s memoir was only mildly interesting. Too many of the many German cultural references in the book were unknown to me which made it difficult to really get into the groove of the story. If you are going to read Böll, and I recommend you do, try The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.

07 February 2010

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

Stoner
John Williams

Our hero, William Stoner grew up dirt-poor on a farm about 40 miles from Columbia, Missouri. In 1910, at the age of 19, he is sent off to the state University in Columbia to study agriculture. Two years into his studies, however, he discovers literature and decides to give up studying agriculture in favor of becoming a scholar. In due course he earns his Ph.D., stays on at his university as instructor, becomes an assistant professor, and teaches there for forty years until he retires and soon after dies.

There are so many themes in this book worth exploring, it is hard to know which ones to focus on or even mention here. Perhaps the first one that becomes apparent is Stoner’s challenges in living in two worlds. His poor parents, with no education beyond the 6th grade, know nothing of his intention to study literature and not return to the farm until he finally confesses to them after his undergraduate commencement. And for about six years of his education he lives with distant relations remaining caught between his old and new lives as he earns his keep by working on their farm.
He became conscious of himself in a way that he had not done before. Sometimes he looked at himself in a mirror, at the long face with its thatch of dry brown hair, and touched his sharp cheekbones; he saw the thin wrists that protruded inches out of his coat sleeves; and he wondered if he appeared as ludicrous to others as he did to himself.
By the time he finishes his degrees and begins teaching he is fairly well-acclimated to his new world. The novel is not really about Stoner being a fish out of water. In fact his years of study are somewhat compressed in the overall arc of the narrative. The novel also deals with his troubled marriage. His wife waging a forty year war on her husband who she seems to hate, often using their daughter as a weapon against him. It is hard to know exactly what is going on with his wife, but she certainly seems bipolar to me. Many of the challenges in their relationship are exacerbated by their inability to communicate anything that is important. Imagine the paralysis of communication that takes place in Ian McEwan’s brilliant book On Chesil Beach and dial it back about forty years with all the associated differences in social and sexual mores and you start to get the idea.

Equally engaging was Stoner’s life at the University and the political intrigue and fighting that seems to be unavoidable in the hierarchy of an academic department. It is true that I love a book with an academic setting, but I am not sure I have ever been pulled into that milieu in such an emotional way. There is one scene in the book where Stoner fairly and firmly confronts a student and a colleague during oral exams that had me so wound up that my heart was literally racing. And the fact that Stoner wins the battle but ultimately looses the war makes it even more heart wrenching.

There is certainly joy in Stoner’s life, including a well-deserved love affair, but overall his life sometimes seems like more of a trial then anything. In an interview, author Williams, however, warns against taking this view of Stoner.
A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important…
It is hard for me to do justice to this book given my limited ability in literary criticism, but it really is a great book both in style and content and is definitely worth a read.

The Dogs of the Snowpocalypse

 





Snowpocalypse 2010: Our Neighborhood

I always like it when four wheels have to give way to two legs.












Snowpocalypse 2010: I Stayed Inside

We find forced air heating oppressive so we tend to keep the temperature in our apartment very cool. The result is that you need to bundle up sometimes.

This is me trying to figure out what to read next.




A scene from the guest room.

Birds taking refuge under the hydrangea on our terrace.

05 February 2010

Wuthering Heights

Recently I was reminded of this Monty Python classic where they perform Wuthering Heights in Semaphore. I find it especially funny when the flags get bigger when Edgar begins to yell.

There is a bit of animation at the beginning. The Wuthering Heights bit starts at about the one minute mark.

Book Review: The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

 
The Priory
Dorothy Whipple


First it was the not-so-small band of book lunatics—I mean bloggers—who were constantly raving about Persephone. Not being one to miss out on book lunacy I got the catalog, ordered 12 of them, joined the Pesephone Secret Santa, got the Persephone logo tattooed on my shoulder…okay I really didn’t do the last one but it does have a certain appeal, the logo would make a good tattoo.

Then I began to notice that the Persephone Pack was raving about one Persephone author more than any other. It was all “Dorothy Whipple this”, and “Dorothy Whipple that”. And the Persephone catalog did seem to have a lot of Whipple in it. Being a sucker for an anachronistic sounding name, I felt myself being drawn in and wishing I had a Whipple to read. When lo and behold, I realized that I had actually included a Whipple in my original Persephone order.

By the way, I defy any American to claim that they don’t think of Charmin toilet paper when they hear the name Whipple. And even for those outside the US who use toilet roll rather than toilet paper and have no idea who Mr. Whipple is, thinking of Ms. Whipple just might make you think of some sickly sweet dessert with a ripple of something running through it. And if there are any fans of "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" out there you can probably even hear Reggie (brilliantly played by the late Leonard Rossiter) talking about Sunshine Desserts latest flavor, Strawberry-Lychee Ripple.

But I digress. The real question is, how do I feel now that I have read my first Whipple? Did the Whipple Wing of the Persephone Pack lead me astray? Let me put it this way, I have had to hide all the credit cards lest I go on a Whipple buying spree.

The Priory was an amazingly good read. Its 528 pages joyfully flew by. A book where you are dying to see what happens next but at the same time you don’t want it to end. The plot revolves around the decaying Saunby Priory somewhere in the British Midlands and the decaying lives of the cash poor family who inhabit it. In the make it, invest it, and lose it progression of wealth common in so many moneyed families, the Marwoods are deep into the third stage and don’t have a clue what to do about it. Widower Major Marwood lives for cricket. His young twenty-something daughters have never bothered to move out of the nursery and are not equipped for much of anything (life, work, or love) outside the expansive grounds of Saunby. The somewhat potty aunt who spends all her time painting despite not having an ounce of technique or talent. And then there is a cast of servants, outside elements are introduced into the story, the focus shifts, etc. I am not going to say much more about the plot, except that there is a lot of it and that it is fascinating and compelling.

And like most good novels, the characters have dimension and never fall strictly into hero or villain categories. Just when you think one of the characters is bad they show some redeeming quality that makes one not hate them after all. I have a little quibble over one part of the story line that never gets fully developed (Penelope refusing to have kids), and the fact that the novel’s wrap up leaves Penelope’s fate somewhat unknown. But when I said it was a quibble, I meant it was a quibble. This is a fantastic book.

My joy in reading The Priory was accompanied by a desire to see it dramatized for TV or the big screen. Which made me think of all the great books that would make for great TV or a great film. Which, in turn, started to annoy me a bit. I mean do we really need 172 filmed versions of Emma? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good period Austen film, but c’mon, there is a world of literature just waiting to for period costumes and Emma Thompson. (Given Ms. Thompson’s current age, I would probably cast her as Anthea or Aunt Victoria, but neither role seems meaty enough.) But I guess that doesn’t matter too much. Movie or not, you will enjoy The Priory.

See what other members of the Whipple Wing of the Persephone Pack have to say about Ms Whipple:
Bloomsbury Bell
A Book Sanctuary
Book Snob
Dovegreyreader Scribbles
The Literary Stew
Paperback Reader
Skirmish of Wit
Stuck In A Book

04 February 2010

If you don't know Nina Simone, you should


In 1964 Nina Simone put the brakes on her burgeoning career in the US for all the right reasons. Having already achieved a certain amount of popular success prior to that time, Simone reacted strongly to the death of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of a black church in Alabama by writing the song “Mississippi Goddam”. It was the beginning of Simone’s involvement in civil rights and the end of little old racist white folks enjoying her version of jazz standards. Still, she made over 40 recordings and died a music legend in 2003 at the age of 70.

Mississippi Goddam. Sorry this is just a still image, but the audio is good.



Four Women. Again no video but the lyrics--which are amazing--scroll through the video.



Ain't Got No. Finally some actually video of Nina Simone.