31 March 2011

IABD: A brain malfunction and FOUR books to give away

Recently when blogging about International Anita Brookner Day, I mentioned that I was going to be reading A Closed Eye, the last of AB's 24 novels left for me to read. Much to my chagrin, I just realized that I forgot about the fact that I just read it in November. Not only is this troubling because it makes me feel a little senile, but it also means that I have no AB novels left to read. On the other hand I have 24 to begin re-reading. And I plan do so chronologically.

In other news I am giving away not one, but four AB books in preparation for IABD.  All you have to do is cut the following and paste it in a comment with your order of preference.
Thomas, I don't have an AB novel to read for IABD and would love to get one so I can read it by July 16, 2011. My prize preference in order is...1...2...3
Please specify your order of preference or whether or not you have no preference. I will ship anywhere in the world. Entries must be posted to my comments no later than midnight Eastern Daylight Time April 15, 2011.
And remember, all you have to do for IABD is read one AB novel between now and July 16, 2011 and then tell us about it either on your blog or in the comments on my blog or Simon's blog.

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

Julia and Paul Child
Do the French dream about living abroad as much as the rest of the world seems to dream about living in France?

Much has been written in the blogosphere about this book since the movie and "Julie and Julia" hit the big screen. I probably won't break any new ground in this review as I loved it as much as every other sane person on the planet. What is not to love? It works on so many levels. Not only does the book allow us to vicariously live in France and eat amazing food but we also get a chance to hang out with one of the most enthusiastic, life affirming humans to ever walk the planet. I have loved Julia since I was a child. And she was the subject of an early post here on My Porch.

Back in the late 1990s as I approached my 30s, I read Appetite for Life a biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch. The most important thing I took away from that reading was that Child, a revolutionary force in American food, didn't start cooking until she was in her early 30s.  This gave me the added boost I needed to leave behind a fun, well-paying job to go back to school for another Master's degree. And now here I am in my early 40s and am again inspired by Child's late bloomer success and absolute lust for life.

Like I said I don't have much new ground to cover on this well reviewed book so I won't say too much more. There were two literary connections in this book that I found fascinating. One was that Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) makes a few epistolary appearances in the text. Canfield Fisher, author of one of my favorite novels The Home-Maker, was friends with one of Child's cookbook collaborators and played an early, cameo role in the development of their magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And the second, perhaps even more impressive literary connection is that Judith Jones, the editor who finally brought MAFC to print was an editorial assistant who convinced her boss to reconsider his decision to not buy the US rights to publish Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Jones sure knows how to spot a gem.

Unless you are a cranky, life-hating, mistanthrope who doesn't like to eat, you will love this book.

29 March 2011

The Magnificent Spinster Giveaway Results

I said I would give away a copy of the wonderful Mary Sarton novel The Magnificent Spinster. After additional thought, however, I couldn't figure out why I shouldn't give away two copies. It still leaves me a wonderful hardcover edition for myself.

So I chose two random numbers. I couldn't figure out if all commenters were actually asking to be included in the giveaway so, with the exception of Susan in TX who declined explicitly, I put everyone's name in the hat.

The winner of the newer trade paperback edition (shown here) is: Mother Etc.

The winner of the older mass paperback edition (the one that I actually read) is: Rachel of Book Snob.

So ladies, send me your mailing addresses via email to onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com.

Tho those who didn't win, I have another giveaway going on and another one to be announced very soon.

27 March 2011

Sunday Painting, Manic Postings, and FOUR books to GIVE AWAY

I should have spaced all these postings out. But I couldn't wait. Like a kid on Christmas morning. So here is my Sunday Painting feature, followed by:

1. A give away of four very English books.

2. My Borders Loot.

3. Some great book pairs.

4. Bliss.

And now here is a little Gene Davis to restore some order to my frenzied mind.

Untitled, 1969
Gene Davis, (1920-1985)
The Kreeger Museum
By the way, The Kreeger Museum is a great art collection in a modernist mansion here in DC designed by Philip Johnson. Pictures of the museum if you follow the link in the caption.

Must. Give. Away. These. Books.

I found three of these four books yesterday at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Used Book Sale. This was the first time I have been to the annual sale and I was quite happy as you can see in this other post. I have copies of each of these but given the rock bottom prices ($2 a piece) I couldn't pass up buying them. Especially since I know it is hard for many of you to find them.

So, I am giving them away.

Here are the rules:
  1. Simon T. gets first dibs at one of those Provincial Lady books. I know it is one of his favorite books and he may not have this edition. Simon: The multi-colored one has a dustjacket, the lavender one does not. Oddly enough, the one with the DJ is white not lavender. If Simon decides he doesn't need another copy, I will give it away to someone else.
  2. Sign up for the random drawing by making a comment on this post letting me know which one you most want and a second choice.
  3. I will ship anywhere in the world except for the UK. These titles are too easily available there.
  4. Deadline to sign up is Monday, April 4, 2011.

Borders Loot

I know a lot of you have already made your trek to the Borders Books in your neighborhood to pick up a few bargains during their liquidation. I finally made my way over there. I think 40% list is as low as you can let it go if you want to get anything decent. As you can see I did fairly well.

A Quartet of Duets

Yesterday at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Used Book Sales I came up with these lovely pairings. Trust me, they weren't displayed as pairs, after combing through tables and tables of books they managed to re-introduce themselves to each other in my rather large, heavy bag.

I don't really collect Wodehouse, but would you pass them up?

I've always wanted to read The Old Wives' Tale. And now I can get even
further into Bennett's head.

First I found the great vintage Penguin of  a book I already own in
two editions. Then I stumbled across my very quick glance at the history tables.

I already own a very well worn and much read copy of this one.
I still couldn't pass up what appears to be a US first edition
and a great old paperback.





25 March 2011

Bits and Bobs + Seen on the Subway

The Blogger Lunch
Last week in the midst of a visit by my sister, brother-in-law, and niece, I was able to have lunch with a New Hampshire-based blogger who was in town for a few days. A frequent visitor to DC throughout her life, Margaret Evans Porter was willing to give up a few hours exploring the city to meet up with me at the delicious cafe of the National Museum of American Indian at the foot of the Capitol. I think I originally came across her Periodic Pearls blog via Nan's Letters from a Hill Farm. Margaret is a true Renaissance woman. A novelist with 13 published works and a former member of the New Hampshire legislature, Margaret has lived and travelled all over the place and really seems to embrace life long learning. And she has two of two of the cutest dogs on the Internet.

Buying Books
I have already chronicled my delightful Persephone Triple Play, but in the past couple of weeks there have been other book buying binges including a discount bookstore going out of business where I got 9 books for $18. And then I finally made my way to the Borders liquidation where I brought home a big stack about which I will blog in due time.  And then this weekend is the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School used book sale. I have never been but I have high hopes.

Salman Rushdie is in love with his own celebrity (a personal account)
We have friends visiting from out of town who recently attended a dinner party with Salman Rushdie. Seated around the table were a bevy of university academics all set to engage in deep conversation with the literary giant only to be quietly mystified that the only thing Rushdie wanted to talk about was popular culture. One of my friends was seated next to him and is no slouch when it comes to popular culture. But he was surprised when it became clear that Rushdie's only interest in popular culture was as it reflected on his own celebrity. The conversation was a one-sided litany of Rushdie's many celebrity friends and the many terribly interesting things they said to him. The way my friend tells the story, it seems a little tragic that such an old geezer was trying so hard to be hip.

Seen on the Subway
Since there was a whole week when I didn't commute I haven't had as much opportunity to spot people reading. Add to this the fact that I was too into my own reading to look up much means I only have one example to offer this week.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

The Reader: The interesting thing about this reader is that I spotted him several weeks ago reading the same book and I am not sure he is making much progress. Even more interesting is the fact that both times I have spotted him he has actually been walking down the street reading the book. I would say he was mid-twenties with a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) bag.

The Book: Since this walking reader had the front cover of his book folded back I could only catch a little triangle of a saturated blue. And the back cover and spine was the palest green. I instantly recognized it. The pale green was certainly a Penguin and the blue cover was the blueprint motif of Penguin's edition of Gravity's Rainbow. I have never read the book, but I never forget a cover.

The Verdict: I have been tempted in the past to give Pynchon a go, but lately I have come to understand that his style of writing is probably not for me. So I have put him, at least temporarily, in the Joyce-Faulkner pigeonhole of authors to avoid.

24 March 2011

Book Review: The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

This review contains a giveaway.

One of the best reading chances I ever took was to buy a stack of May Sarton books without knowing anything about her. I had seen her name over the years but knew absolutely nothing else. Then in 2008 we were in a very cute used bookshop in Woodstock, Vermont back when I spied this stack of May Sarton paperbacks in old Norton editions and for some reason decided it was time I check her out. But I didn't just buy one, I bought the whole stack. That was one of the best reading gambles I ever took Three years later I have read many of those volumes and added several more to my collection. Sarton wrote wonderful journals and wonderful novels. She also wrote poetry but I haven't looked at that yet. In both 2009 and 2010 her books made it into my top 10 for the year.

So what did I think of my latest Sarton experience? It was fantastic.The Magnificent Spinster was the kind of book that I didn't want to put down, but even more important it was the kind of book that I actually relished reading slowly. I tend to be too results oriented to ever slow down my reading too much--I feel I need to finish things--but with this book, I really did enjoy going slowly.

In The Magnificent Spinster, 70-year old Cam decides to write a novel about her 50-year friendship with Jane Reid who has just passed away. I haven't done the research, but my guess is that the novel is based more than a little on the book's dedicatee, Anne Longfellow Thorpe (1894-1977). Before each chapter there is a nonfiction-style (but fictional) prologue that sets up the fictionalization of Thorpe's life in the guise of Jane Reid. But Cam's prologues become just as much a part of the Jane Reid story as the chapters themselves. It kind of reminded me of the layered narrative structure in The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, but I don't even want to make that comparison because the Sarton wonderfully readable and so full of joy and life in a way that the Lessing is not.

The Magnificent Spinster is cosy, cosy, cosy, but with feminist, political twists and some somber earnestness that elevates it to something more profound. Parts of it reminded me of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but it also had a Pepysian quality as WWI, the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the McCarthy Communist witch hunts and Vietnam all scroll through proceedings. And these aren't really Pymsian spinsters. As much as I love Pym, the women in The Magnificent Spinster would never be as complacent or docile as Pym's excellent women.

You should read this novel if any of the following things appeal to you:
  • Stories of deep, abiding friendships
  • Idyllic summers on an island in Maine
  • A multi-generational story told through the lens of the women
  • Lots of great housekeeping details (linen changing, bath drawing, travel arranging, brownie baking, flower gathering, etc.)
  • Career minded women living against gender expectations in the early 20th century
  • Warm, gregarious characters determined to live full, exuberant lives
  • Pre-Stonewall Lesbians (just a few, although they all might have been)
It isn't often that I get tears in my eyes when I read a book, but the scenes where Ruth, Cam's partner of 20 years dies was so beautifully rendered. (This is not a spoiler, the fact of her death is mentioned very early on.)  There is so much about this book that made me love it. If you haven't read any Sarton, I think this would be a good place to start. It is a wonderful combination of her novels and her journals.

And, for one lucky random person who posts a comment there will be a free copy of this book. As a result of all my Sarton book buying, I appear to have acquired three copies. I not only have two old Norton editions (the one I read was a paperback, but it turns out I also have the hardcover edition) but I also have a more modern Norton edition. It is the newer one that I am prepared to send anywhere in the world to someone who wants to read it (not just collect another free book). This is for the reader in you, not the bibliophile...

23 March 2011

I'm a failure

Why does March have to be so darn long? With only 8 days until April 1st and the end of the TBR Dare, I threw in the towel this morning. I actually made the decision to give up last night, but it wasn't until this morning on the Metro that I took the leap and started reading a book that was not in my official TBR pile.

You may recall that when I first accepted the dare, I had over 300 books in my TBR pile. You may also recall that I subsequently decided that that was too easy and so I further limited my choices to the 40 or so books in my nightstand TBR pile.

And for the most part the TBR Dare has been wonderful. I finally got around to reading some truly wonderful books that would have gone unread for a much longer time if not for the dare. So what went wrong? It wasn't the lure of other books so much as it was boredom of going back to the same pile of 40 books which had been whittled down to only 23. As I read the wonderful May Sarton novel The Magnificent Spinster last week I started to worry about what would be next. I just knew that there were no books in my nightstand TBR pile that would fit my mood when I finished the Sarton book. And then I realized that my despair over lack of choice was making me slow down my reading. And I don't need any more reason to watch TV.

So last night, not in the mood for any of the four books that I have partially finished and somewhat bored, I decided I needed to choose something that wasn't in my nightstand. But no biggy, my nightstand restriction was self-imposed and wasn't part of the focal TBR Dare. I could go down to my library and choose from the 300* books in that TBR pile. Or at least that could have been the case. But this morning when I went in to choose something for the morning commute I was immediately drawn to a book that is not part of my TBR pile. A few weeks ago I got about 6 books from my book club. I was going to wait until April 1st to dip into them, but there was one that leaped out at me this morning. And I just knew that it was the one to fend off my impending reading slump. I wanted fun. I wanted American. And I wanted something that I knew, without qualification, I would want to devour in one fell swoop if I could.

So the culprit in aiding my downfall in the TBR Dare is also my saviour, and made me truly happy from page one: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme.

So do I feel bad about my failure? No.

(*I just noticed that my first post about the dare I say that I have 400 books in my TBR pile. In my second post I say 300. I wonder which it is?)

22 March 2011

A Persephone Triple Play

Since I first started buying and reading Persephone editions I have been keeping an eye out for books by Persephone authors in secondhand shops. In particular I have been looking for Dorothy Whipples. There is a reason Persephone is doing the reading world a service--the authors they publish are pretty hard to find otherwise. And since I buy too many books but don't want to deprive myself of shopping for books, I have been focusing on finding literary needles in haystacks rather than more easily available fare. So I hunt for the hard to find. But don't get this confused with antiquarian books. I don't have much time for expensive books that have already been "discovered" and shined up by booksellers. I like finding the forgotten copies.

Last week when we went out to see the beautiful ocean, we stopped at Unicorn Bookshop along Route 50 in Trappe, Maryland. Lo, and behold, I found not one but three Persephone authors.

Find of finds. A Dorothy Whipple on this side of the Atlantic.

Once I found it I got greedy and wished it was a Whipple title that
Persephone doesn't publish. Still, I wasn't going to pass it up.

I loved, loved, loved the Persephone edition of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's
The Home-Maker so I couldn't pass up this one either.

FHB isn't as hard to find in the US as Whpple but this one was still a must have.

Not in perfect condition, but I can't wait to read it.

20 March 2011

The Most Expensive Souvenir of All Time

When John and I were in London back in November you may remember that I went a little crazy collecting all 100 of Penguin's Great Ideas books. Well, that was nothing compared to the other purchase we made while we were there. Since we moved into our house last May, we have been looking for library chairs that would be comfy for both reading and dozing. I am six foot two and need a fair amount of lumbar support, so finding the right chair that would be cushy but still offer support for my back is no easy task. On top of that, the door into our library is only about 25 inches. You would be surprised how few chairs fit through that kind of opening.

Anyhoo, we had checked out all the usual local sources for chairs and were coming up with nothing. We thought since we were in London we would check out George Smith. Both of us had been a fan of their classic look for years and we knew their quality was second to none. Mind you, we only went into LOOK. We had no intention of buying. That is of course until we went in the store, sat down ,and realized that we would never find a more comfortable library chair.

So many, many pounds (and even more dollars) later we had purchased two chairs and a large ottoman. And then lickty split, only four months later (!) our chairs and ottoman made their way through the narrow library door (thank god) and have become my favorite place to sit in the house.

I wasn't going to post this picture because the rest of the room isn't really up to snuff yet. We have put off painting the walls until the windows are finished. And the window work may require replacing the less than pretty shelves sooner rather than later. And it is clear there isn't much insulation in the walls, and the fireplace flue needs to be replaced...did I mention that I love my chairs?

IABD: Anita Brookner's 24 novels (so far)

When I first announced that Savidge Reads and My Porch would be hosting International Anita Brookner Day (IABD) blogger Verity at The B Files asked me if I would supply a reading list and/or recommendations. I can certainly give you a reading list but I hesitate to give recommendations. One of the reasons is because--and I know this may bother some when I say it--her novels are so similar in theme and tone that it is a little hard for me to keep them straight. Perhaps closer readers with better recall can more easily differentiate one from the other, but I really can't. I know that Hotel du Lac, besides being a Booker winner is the one that takes place at a hotel in Switzerland. But beyond that I am hard pressed to give too many details for the rest of Brookner's novels.

For those of you who have yet to read Brookner you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. If all of them are similar why bother right? You should bother because each of her novels, regardless of plot, is a perfectly wrought gem of introspective genius.  And once you discover that you love one of them, you have 23 others still to read.

Okay, so they are introspective, but what else? Most are set in London. Many include trips to (or plans to go to) the continent, (usually France or French speaking Switzerland). The protagonists often have an academic bent. I think without exception all are upper middle class, usually with a financial legacy that makes employment unnecessary. Almost all are female but Brookner has written a few male leading characters. You might assume that her heroines tend to be spinsters but they just as likely, or perhaps even more likely to be widows. And for some reason I imagine them all wearing lots of beige and cantaloupe-y colors. Maybe because all of the 1980s US first editions from Pantheon are in beigy, mauvy tones.

I realize as I wrote that last paragraph that although the thoughts are mine, I may be subconsciously cribbing the general outline from Peta Mayer's fabulous blog dedicated to all things Anita. Not only will I be referring to Peta's blog from time to time over the coming months, but she has agreed to write something about AB especially for My Porch.

So, without further ado, here are Anita Brookner's 24 novels. I have included year published. Since I am not giving any recommendations, I thought I would include how each title scored in my ranking system, but when I went to look at my list all but one ranked a 9 (Loved ). Only (and perhaps oddly) Hotel du Lac got less than a 9. It got an 8 (Almost loved). No single Brookner title achieves a perfect 10 (All time favorite) but her fiction as a whole does indeed garner a 10 on the My Porch scale.

1981  A Start in Life (US title: The Debut)
1982  Providence
1983  Look at Me
1984  Hotel du Lac (Booker Winner)
1985  Family and Friends
1986  A Misalliance
1987  A Friend from England
1988  Latecomers
1989  Lewis Percy
1990  Brief Lives
1991  A Closed Eye (The ONLY one I haven't read.)
1992  Fraud
1993  A Family Romance (US title: Dolly)
1994  A Private View
1995  Incidents in the Rue Laugier
1996  Altered States
1997  Visitors
1998  Falling Slowly
1999  Undue Influence
2001  The Bay of Angels
2002  The Next Big Thing (US title: Making Things Better)
2003  The Rules of Engagement
2005  Leaving Home
2009  Strangers

Some of you have already told me which Brookner novel(s) you have in your TBR pile and plan to read for IABD. For those of you who don't have one at hand, in my experience they are pretty easy to find in secondhand shops and in public libraries. You can also find newer hardcover remainders fairly often as well. So, no excuses.

18 March 2011

Who knew? This is just over three hours from my house.

Well, John knew. He is always trying to get me to take jaunts out of the city on weekends but I almost always say no. And of course I knew that the ocean was only about 3 1/2 hours away (in good traffic), but near DC, I had only ever been to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware which is way too busy and commercial to feel very special to me. Plus they have those awful little planes with banners advertising things flying over the beach. So it was quite a surprise yesterday to discover a beach so beautiful so close to DC. The March weather meant that the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland was pretty quiet.

Assateague is famous for the wild horses that live there. They are often down
by the beach, but this is the closest we got to them when they were on the bay
side of the barrier island.

The road from Berlin, Maryland, the nearest town.

Berlin, MD

16 March 2011

176 Points!

That's right folks, 176 points for one word. My sister and her family are visiting from Arizona and this was our third game since Sunday. And the fact that the word was "cardigan" made the moment even more special. (Remember my post about the Cardigan Mafia?)

The breakdown:

14 points for the word (including one double letter score for the "D".

I got to triple the word twice because it fell on two Triple Word Scores. (We verified this scoring with the official rules on the printed in the box.)

And then, because I used all of my seven tiles I got an additional 50 points.

Needless to say this is the highest score I have ever gotten for one word in Scrabble. Too bad the word didn't have a "Z" or "Q" in it.

15 March 2011

Book Review: This Secret Garden by Justin Cartwright

To quote Simon T. completely out of context: "Meh".

I bought this memoir of Oxford because, well, c'mon, it was about Oxford and because the edition could not be cuter. Plus I have read about 3 or 4 of the other titles in this "The Writer and the City" series. I had never heard of Justin "One of the finest novelists currently at work" Cartwright. He may indeed write amazing novels but after reading this somewhat tedious memoir I am not so sure. I wonder if one could interpret that quote from the Guardian quite literally by defining the word "currently" very narrowly as the exact second the quote was written. How the Guardian writer knew that Cartwright was working at that exact moment, I don't know.

I started off liking this memoir but then he seemed to go on about Oxford folk I had never heard of, which wouldn't necessarily be off-putting, but he didn't make it interesting enough for me to care. I think this might be a better read for someone who has studied at Oxford. He says next to nothing about the city of Oxford.

I have many other quibbles with this book, but I think the biggest problem happens when Cartwright goes on a bit about the Brideshead myth. I understand the reference to the wonderful Evelyn Waugh book but then Cartwright makes a fatal error. He refers to the fictional Lord Sebastian Flyte's teddy bear as "Algernon". Algernon?! Now anyone worth their salt knows that Sebastian's bear's name was Aloysius. I mean come on.

Cartwright, game over.

One more thing, why the title This Secret Garden? I mean I understand why he would want to call it that, but he didn't think it sounded too much like another book? Was he hoping someone might confuse it with The Secret Garden?

13 March 2011

International Anita Brookner Day Button is Ready for Use

Simon of Savidge Reads will join me in hosting International Anita Brookner Day in honor of her 30 years of writing fiction. As I mentioned before, just read an Anita Brookner novel between now and her 83rd birthday on July 16, 2011 and then let us know what you thought about it, or you can post your own Anita Brookner-related post that day.

I think I finally managed to come up with a button that is worthy of IABD. Pleae feel free to use it on your own blogs to spread the news.

12 March 2011

Seen on the Subway

Loot and other stories by Nadine Gordimer
The Reader: An African woman wearing a purple knitted hat who works at the World Bank.

The Book: South African Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. This collection was published in 2003. The description of the title story in the New York Times using phrases like "whimsical allegory" makes me unsure if I would like it. I don't do well with allegory. Even this description confuses me:
...death is a treasure, the mirror of the self. Set in the aftermath of an earthquake so strong that it ''drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken,'' ''Loot'' describes a world of lost things revealed: ''People rushed to take; take, take.'' One among them, a retired man, long divorced, joins the crowd in search of a single unknown and unnamed object. It turns out to be a mirror, and even as he seizes it, he is drowned.
The Verdict: I read some Gordimer not long after she won the Nobel. I am not sure I was ready for it but I always meant to go back and read more. Seeing this one reminds me that I need to do that. I am not sure, however, if I would choose short stories.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen
The Reader: A gentleman with longer than normal (for Washington) dark, curly, hair. He wasn't very far along in the book and had a fidgety look on his face that suggested that he either didn't read much or didn't feel like reading at the moment. It was rainy this morning so he was wearing a really bright yellow rain slicker over a thick sweater. Now, it may not yet be balmy here in DC, but I was hot just looking at him in what must have been a very warm sweater. There is a disease here in DC that makes folks dress way too warmly despite what the weather is doing. Rain makes people think they need to bundle up. But if the temps aren't that cool, and if the Metro car is toasty, why all the clothes? A variation on this is when, usually in the spring or fall, it is quite chilly in the morning but warms up significantly during the day. Yet, despite the warm afternoon weather they still put on the scarf, gloves, and hat for the commute home as if it was still cold out, apparently unaware that those items would easily fit in a bag or briefcase.

The Book: I don't really like crime fiction but this one sounds kind of amusing. Man thinks he has killed his wife. Rather than come back from the dead and have him prosecuted, wife decides with the help of another to make her husband's life unravel. The Washington Post thinks the characters could have been written by Evelyn Waugh. Somehow I am skeptical.

The Verdict: I have seen Hiassen's books over the years, but, judging them by their covers, determined they weren't for me. After reading the synopsis of this title I am inclined to think I probably made the right call.

Fresh Air Fiend by Paul Theroux
The Reader: Tall, skinny guy with glasses and an orange rain jacket. His copy was pretty battered and he was headed into the homestretch of this 422-page book.

The Book: Thank god for the powers of Barnes and Noble's search engine because I only managed to see the first two words of the title and no author. Turns out it is a collection of travel essays and articles. From Maine to Hong Kong.

The Verdict: I read Paul Theroux's novel The London Embassy years ago and kind of liked it. But I really have to be in the mood for this kind of episodic travelog. The man in the organge jacket reading it looked like he was ready to grab a backpack, get on a plane, and follow in Theroux's footsteps.

10 March 2011

Time to get ready for International Anita Brookner Day

The Case 
Thirty years ago next month, Anita Brookner had her first novel, the aptly titled A Start in Life (or The Debut in the U.S.) published at the tender age of 53. An art historian by profession and author of works of nonfiction, she has managed to produce an additional 23 novels since that first one. So in 30 years Brookner wrote 24 novels, that's 0.8 books per year including the 1984 Booker-winning Hotel du Lac. In my humble opinion each one is brilliant in its own quiet, often depressing way.

The Plan
On July 16th (Brookner's 83rd birthday) I will be hosting International Anita Brookner Day.* I don't quite have the details worked out and more importantly I have yet to come up with a cute, clever button to go along with it. But it is going to be great. Expect prizes.

The Intent
My hope is to get more people to pick up at least one of her 24 novels and give it a try. I know some of you have already read some Brookner, but it seems like there are many more of you out there who have always meant to read something by her and just haven't. Well now is the time. Brookner may not be for everyone, but you have to find that out for yourself.

The Ask
No big commitment. Just read at least one Anita Brookner novel between now and July 16th. Then either come to My Porch on July 16th to tell me what you thought of the book you read or post a link to your review or other Brookner-related post.

***SPECIAL REQUEST: If you are a blogger submitting, please when you submit the link to your review/music post via email, can you also copy and paste the HTML draft of your review/musing in its entirety in the body of your email. I know in Blogger when you are editing a post you can click on the "Edit HTML" tab and then copy every single bit of info there and past it into the body of your email. Hopefully other blog platforms allow you to do likewise. This will greatly help streamline getting your post up on the IABD website.***

Bloggers, once I have my clever graphic ready I am hoping some of you will help me spread the word even if you don't plan to participate yourself.

*As a citizen of the world I felt it was completely appropriate for me to declare July 16, 2011 International Anita Brookner Day. Simon Savidge may be cohosting, he was the one who first put the idea in my head.

13 March - UPDATE
Simon Savidge will indeed be cohosting International Anita Brookner Day. And, I finally came up with a button that I think is worthy of the day. Hopefully you will agree and use it liberally.

09 March 2011

Book Review: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

In Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather tells a story of Quebec in the 1690s. As I consider what to write about this book, three things immediately come to mind. The first is how well Cather evokes different places and different times in her novels and how she piques my interest in uniquely North American experiences that wouldn't necessarily be of much interest to me. No surprise to regular readers of My Porch, but I get a little fixated on Western Europe and the genteel, urban Northeast of the U.S. But whether writing about the prairies, the Southwest, or the early days of French Canada, Cather not only holds my interest in these places, but also creates a real enthusiasm for them that makes me want to experience them first hand.

The second thing that comes to mind is what a great book this would make for kids. I don't have kids so maybe I am off base. Maybe there is a theme or two that may not be appropriate for young eyes, but then again maybe not. The action centers around a young Cecile and her widowed father. The two lead a pretty happy life that put me in mind of the book Heidi. I think Shadows on the Rock is more complex and sophisticated than Heidi, but Cecile reminded me of Heidi's joy and zest for life. Cecile and her father have the perfect relationship. Caring father and doting daughter, each taking good care of the other and so clearly happy with each other's company.

The fact that the father and daughter rely so much on each other brings me to the third thing that jumps out at me when thinking about Shadows on the Rock. They have to rely on each other because of the long, often harsh winters, but also because of the frontier isolation of  Quebec in 1697. The book begins in October just as the last ship of the season leaves for France, cutting off the city from the rest of the world until things warm up again in the spring. Quebec's only link to the rest of the world during the winter was via the rarely used overland connection to the English colonial port in New York which stays open throughout the year. I don't tend to read much historical fiction so I am always a little in awe when an author manages to immerse me in another world. And, as a North American, I am also in awe of the fact that there is a North American story that is as old as the 1690s. I know intellectually that Europeans were active in North America much earlier than that, but I don't think I ever really took onboard what that would mean in real terms. I am probably also stunted by my upbringing in the Midwest which has a history that doesn't really get going until the 19th century. And when it comes to the East Coast, my mind doesn't really check-in until the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. So I guess Cather manages to chip away at my decidedly limited conception of North American history.

I am not sure if Shadows on the Rock is a good candidate to represent who Willa Cather is as a novelist, but it is a darn good read and is rather uplifting, and to a certain degree lighthearted. I think it would a be great try for someone who isn't quite sure if Cather is their cup of tea.

06 March 2011

Things to look at on a rainy Sunday

1. My review of the Booker Prize winning Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald.

2. My Sunday Painting.

3. My post on neglected literary classics. I want to hear what you think. And I did a random draw and Claire from Paperback Reader won my extra copy of As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. Maybe I should send it with delivery confirmation since she only has three months from reciept of the book to read it and write a review...that was the deal Claire, no backing down. (Oh, and can you email me your address?)

4. My latest intallment of Seen on the Subway.

Sunday Painting: Pot with Chives by Vincent Van Gogh

Pot with Chives, 1887
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Book Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

I think these may be the wrong kind of
boats, but the picture conveys the
feel of the setting better than
the pretty edition I own
Penelope Fitzgerald fills the 141 pages of Offshore with an odd assortment of Londoners living on boats moored on the Battersea Reach of the Thames during the swingin' sixties. It is not so much that each of the boat dwellers is odd, but taken as a whole they make for an odd assortment. And in a way, even the most conventional among them seem a little eccentric based solely on the fact that they have chosen to live on the Thames despite the practical and emotional complications imposed by doing so. For some, living offshore makes them quirky, for others being quirky makes them want to live offshore.

Richard kind of steals the show for me. In some ways he is the archetype former military character that pops up so frequently in British popular culture. Doesn't there always seem to be a fussy colonel or major tucked away somewhere in so many books?  And it is no surprise that the control freak in the book is the one that appeals to me. Sure I was touched by single(ish) mom Nenna and amused by her lively, resourceful daughters Martha and Tilda. And yes, Maurice the rent boy was as amusing as he was tragic (although I unfortunately kept picturing John Inman from "Are You Being Served"). Compared to the others, Richard's demons and desires seem much less dramatic, but set against his own reality they are no less consequential. Here Fitzgerald introduces us to Richard:
All the meetings of the boat-owners, by a movement as natural as the tides themselves, took place on Richard's converted Ton class minesweeper. Lord Jim, a felt reproof to amateurs, in speckless, always-renewed gray paint, overshadowed the other craft and was nearly twice their tonnage, Just as Richard, in his decent dark blue blazer, dominated the meeting itself. And yet he by no means wanted this responsibility. Living on Battersea Reach, overlooked by some very good houses, and under the surveillance of the Port of London Authority, entailed, surely, a certain standard of conduct. Richard would be one of the last men on earth or water to want to impose it. Yet someone must. Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment. Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.
And from time to time Richard's inability to cope with anything but the most straightforward and linear makes him seem a little vulnerable. There are repeated, rather humorous references to his need to block out anything extraneous to his line of thought at any given moment.
On the whole, he disliked comparisons, because they made you think about more than one thing at a time.
Offshore is by no means Richard's story. Nenna is really the focus of the book. And the other characters are more than just bit players. Fitzgerald packs a lot into a short book. Compared to other Fitzgeralds I have read, I think Offshore is less introspective and more accessible than The Bookshop but defintely more emotionally sophisticated than Human Voices. Not surprising that this is the one that won her the Booker Prize.

04 March 2011

Seen on the Subway

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
The Reader: Early thirties guy with a shaved head who looked like he should be on the tube in London. He had on a very nice herringbone coat, and one of those gigantic tie knots that are much more prevalent in the UK then they are here. He also was wearing a wedding ring on one hand and a thumb ring on the other. And, he wore his watch on right wrist rather than his left. Does this mean he is a lefty?

The Book: A classic novel that is on the Modern Library's Top 100 List. From the B&N synopsis: "On a single, fateful day in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, 1938, a former British consul wrestles with his demons as his wife tries to rescue their marriage from his drinking problem."

The Verdict: Since I am making my way through that top 100 list I will definitely get to this one sooner or later.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Reader: Twenty-something woman with a camel colored 3/4 length trench coat and a thermal mug of coffee which she drank from illegally. The Metro system here in DC is one of the cleanest in world because it is against the law to consume food or beverages anywhere in the system. Of course the law is not always obeyed but they occasionally hand out tickets for those who break the rules so people tend to abstain. You can carry the beverage or food, you just aren't suppose to consume it until you leave the station.

The Book: What can I say about this one that doesn't give too much away? Written by the author of The Remains of the Day.

The Verdict: I read and enjoyed this book. I look forward to seeing the film.

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriquez
The Reader: When I first saw this woman she wasn't even reading anything, but she looked like Claire from Paperback Reader. And she had the tell tale signs of a reader like a Barnes and Noble tote bag. I must admit I followed her on the platform at Gallery Place to make sure we got on the same train car. It paid off when she pulled out a book (and even had a bookmark from a public library that read "Live, Read, Love"). And after all the effort to see what she was reading I had to include it here even though it is nonfiction.

The Book: The subtitle fills in what the title leaves out and makes it pretty self-explanatory: "An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil."

The Verdict: Seems kind of fascinating but not enough to make me pick it up.