30 June 2011

IABD: I know you can read 200 pages in 16 days

For most of us reading 200 pages is like a walk in the park. We aren't like those sad people who only manage to read a book a year.

So, there is nothing (and I mean nothing) to keep you from participating in International Anita Brookner Day:
  • I don't think any of her 24 novels are over 200 pages. If they are over 200, it can't be by much.
  • Her books are pretty darn easy to find in second hand shops and in libraries.
  • You have 16 whole days to read one and then write something about it in time for Brookner's 83rd birthday on July 16--and in this, the year that marks her 30 years of writing ficiton.

And here is food for thought:
  • I know Brookner will not be everyone's cup of tea, but I have been amazed by some of the reactions I have gotten so far. One blogger wrote to tell me that she meant to sit down and read 20 pages in her first attempt to read a Brookner novel. Instead she had to pull herself away from it 130 pages later so she could eat something.
  • Perhaps even more amazingly, another blogger tried one Brookner novel and couldn't finish it. But then, somewhat reluctantly tried another one some weeks later and ended up loving it (hope I didn't put that too strongly). 
  • And then there is the blogger who reads mainly non-fiction who took IABD as a reason to read her first Brookner and she was very glad she did.
So what are you waiting for? Sixteen whole days to read 200 pages.

There are prizes!

You can include your pet!

There are almost no rules!

You don't have to be a blogger!

Be a part of Internet history! There is a dedicated website where your review, pet photo, or other Brookner-related posting will live on in perpetuity (or at least until Blogger ceases to exist). It will be the most comprehensive place on the web for blogger and blog reader reviews of Brookner's novels.

And if you have a blog, this is a perfect time for you to exhort your readers to be part of the fun.

29 June 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

We all love a good library picture. And I am guessing I am not the only one who likes scanning pictures of bookshelves in magazines to see if there is anything interesting. Usually one can't see many of the spines clearly but yet we no doubt see a few that we recognize by color/size/design even without being able to read the titles.

And then along comes this picture. I tore it out of a magazine quite a while ago so I don't remember where it came from. You would think that with so many books visible I would have fun combing the stacks as it were. But it doesn't take long to realize this is not a library worth browsing. At least not to me. In the first place the picture is staged, and poorly staged at that. Those piles do not look the least bit organic. In the second place, and this is the important part, there are so few books shown that I would even consider reading, that there might as well not be any books in the picture.

I can see a few that would keep me from getting entirely bored. The Sherlock Holmes boxed set in the foreground and the Jon Stewart book on the topo shelf.  In a pinch I might pick up the two Harry Potters in the collection. I would probably scan the Suze Ourman book because I love reading about saving money, but I sure wouldn't pick up the Wally Lamb, Bridget Jones or Smilla's Sense of Snow again. None of them warrant a re-read. And while Empire Falls is a good book, I was a little bored by it and didn't finish it.  So after that, what are you left with? Tons of Patterson, Steele, Brown, Baldacci and Grisham.

Has this ever happened to you: you see a full boookcase and think "oh fun". But as soon as you scratch the surface you realize it is all crap?

If you want a closer look at the boring books
click the picture to make it larger.

28 June 2011

IABD: Faulty Memory

Florence taken by jgcastro on Flickr
He has lots of other great shots of Italy
There appears to be a gap between the way I remember first encountering Anita Brookner and the way it actually happened. The mythology that I have built up around my first meeting with the work of Ms Brookner is that I came across her novel Altered States on a bookshelf in my bedroom in a cheap but charming pensione near the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in October 1998. I remember it clearly because my friend Kevin who had never been to Europe before thought I was stealing the book, whereas I was operating on the international traveller's principal of take one leave one. (Although, in retrospect perhaps I did steal it. I just consulted my Books Read list for that time period and there is no way I had any of those books with me, let along left any of them behind. Unless maybe I left a book that I didn't finish reading, but that doesn't seem likely either. I guess I need to find that pensione again and replace the paperback I stole 13 years ago.

Lest you think I am a liar as well as a book stealer, I should note that the above did indeed happen. What is incorrect about this supposedly clear memory of my first Brookner, is that this stolen novel wasn't actually my first Brookner. I had actually read her novel A Friend From England in May of that year.

So why the faulty memory? Who knows. As I sat and puzzled it out tonight it occurred to me that rather than stumble across my first Brookner in Florence, I no doubt picked up my first Brookner A Friend from England at a used book store in Minneapolis because it had the word "England" in the title. My reading choices were pretty haphazard back in those days and I certainly didn't have a good handle on how to effectively slake my thirst for all things English so I needed such obvious cues to help me along. And I suppose that I had visions of what a book with the word England in the title should be like, and while Anita Brookner may be very English, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Part of the memory of my first Brookner novel was that I had a love/hate relationship with it. I remember thinking it so depressing and dreadful but also somehow compelling and enjoyable. But my overall impression was "no thank you, I don't need to read her again." But then of course something did indeed make me read her again. And once you get Anita Brookner, you get Anita Brookner. And that book from the pensione in Florence, although my second not my first Brookner, was the one that convinced me that I got Anita Brookner. And within a year of that second Brookner I read four more of her novels and continued on into the new century reading her back list with some speed.

So Florence may not be the city where I first met Anita Brookner, but it is certainly where I first began to appreciate her. Do you have any memories that you have a hunch may not be accurate?

26 June 2011

Book Radio

When we bought our car in 2005 we had Sirius satellite radio installed. We bought the life-time membership which is a good thing, because I don't think we ever would have kept paying the monthly fee after we had actually used the service.

We don't spend enough time in the car (thankfully) to really make such a service worth it. Add on top of that the fact that the sound quality is really quite bad. Most of the talk stations sound like AM radio in a tin can. The music stations are better but not as good as broadcast FM stations. I know it is not the stereo system in the car or the speakers because regular FM radio and the iPod sound brilliant.

But then there is all the variety. John heads straight for the 70s or 80s whenever he has control of the dial. That can be fun, but I like to explore the less mainstream options like the CBC and the BBC. I find the CBC in particular to be quite fascinating. For some reason it seems so much more foreign to me than the BBC. Maybe because it is more Canada-focused whereas the BBC is more global in its approach.

Of course I do remember the halcyon days of living within reach of Minnesota Public Radio, which is, in my humble opinion, the best public radio network in the country without question. One station devoted entirely to classical music and one to news and information. Back in the 1990s, before satellite radio and the Internet, MPR would broadcast both the CBC every night and the BBC World Service. (I was in college at the time and didn't have cable TV either.) To have these two exotic streams of information every night was a revelation and it made me feel so smart and cosmopolitan. And I think it really appealed to my nascent wanderlust inclinations. (I'm having a seriously groovy moment right now thinking of those days. Sigh.)

Oh  yeah, the title says Book Radio. Maybe I should get to that part.

The other day I was in the car trying to avoid listening to the news and not caring for the insipid, pedestrian, overplayed, classical music chestnut that was on broadcast radio, I flipped over to the Book channel on satellite. Despite the tinny audio quality I was immediately enchanted by the book. Which is odd for me because I don't really do audio books. But there it was: English accent, check. Cosy theme, check. But then it suddenly stopped. I guess it was time for them to change programs but the abrupt stop was, well, abrupt. To make matters worse, they didn't even follow it up with "You've been listening to..." Oh yes, they eventually did, but all they said was "You've been listening to the Penguin Book Hour" or something like that. Yes?! And what else?! What is the BOOK being read, you idiot?! And then they played all these loud, promos for other Sirius stations.

Okay, Thomas, don't panic. Google will save the day, just pop in some of the key words that you heard in the text...

"club lunch"--so many guests arriving at various times that lunch would be serve yourself

...his inkwell was dry which made (some woman's name) wonder what else in the house wasn't up to scratch...

Cardiff Castle...


Oh god, not even Google is going to help this time. The main problem is I didn't know how to spell Ulrich, wasn't even sure I heard it correctly. But I was wrong, Google is amazing. With that little information it actually did find the right book. (I had, surprisingly, already found out the book name on Sirius' website where they actually had a detailed program schedule. But I still did the Google test and was still surprised that it found the right info.)

Turns out the book was Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. I have never read any of his books and have been turned off by the double whammy or their immense size and the fact that they tend to be popular. But after hearing this bit of the book, I may actually pick this one up.

I used a foreign language
edition image because
all of the English ones
are ugly and are the type
of covers that make me
not want to red Follett.
I am a book snob,
no doubt about it.
So back to Book Radio. Like all things on Sirius it generally sucks. I think they have some original programming, but most of the schedule appears to be simply them playing existing audio books. No intelligent chatter, just canned announcements and promos between audio books that don't really give much information. Plus the choice of books and flashy razzmatazz of the promos are meant to appeal to a reading public that is somewhat, shall we say, more mainstream than my own tastes.

Like cable TV, there is so much potential for cultural programming. But instead it gets dumbed down to be almost as banal as everything else. Too bad I can't read and drive at the same time. Then again I have only listened to about 6 minutes of Book Radio, maybe I will give it another chance on the drive up to Maine this summer.

[Since writing this post we travelled down to Richmond, Virginia for a wedding and I listened to more Book Radio. My estimation of it improved slightly but only slightly. They played Gaskell's North and South but then also seem to have a regular show on comic books. Not graphic novels mind you, but comic books.]

24 June 2011

Seen on the Subway

My Antonia by Willa Cather

The Reader: Forty something petite Chinese woman wearing a rather chic black cotton shirt-dress with black flats and a clear, see through backpack.

The Book: Everything Cather writes is pretty brilliant but this is definitely one of her major works and rightly so. Life on the prairie was never more compelling and touching.

The Verdict: I have read it before and I know I will read it again.

Story and Structure by Laurence Perrine

The Reader: Forty something balding white guy with dark grey suit, pink shirt, and a bow tie that had yet to be tied.

The Book: Apparently this is an all-time bestselling introduction to literature. Certainly falls into the text book category, the prices certainly reflect the extortionate nature of text book pricing. The edition being read by the man on the train was $77.00 on Amazon. Yikes.

The Verdict: When I first saw this book I just assumed it was some kind of theory book about some field. Didn't realize, despite its title, that it might be about literature. But even then I probably would have thought that it was on the theoretical side. But the description of the book on Amazon makes it sound like a pretty straight forward intro to the study of literature. I might actually keep my eye out for this one. Having had no post-high school course on lit, I could use the assistance.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

The Reader: A cute-as-a-button little boy, maybe about 10 years old wearing a soccer camp t-shirt (most likely on his way to soccer camp) and shorts. And because he was a little kid it was easy to see the title as he had it propped up on his lap as kids will do with books. Good eyesight I guess. He was with dad who was reading something on an iPad, and his grandmother  who had some kind of hardcover bestseller mystery from the library. Clearly the family that reads together, stays together.

The Book: Normally I would not feature this kind of book. But the little boy was so intent on reading it despite the early hour and the fact that every other kid seems to be playing some sort of electronic game. "This twenty-five-year-old science fiction classic has been repackaged for younger readers. Unlike many hard-core science fiction titles, this book is particularly appropriate for a younger audience, for its protagonist, Ender Wiggin, is just six years old at the novel's beginning and still a pre-teen at its end."

The Verdict: I will not be reading this book.


23 June 2011

It's been 5 years!

It just occurred to me that it has been five years since I started blogging. In fact, my five-year blogiversary was last week. I completely stumbled into starting My Porch in the first place. After filling in my information when I was making a comment on another blog, Blogger asked me if I wanted to start my own blog. And then I just walked through the very easy steps to do so and the rest is history. 

You will notice from my inaugural post (reposted below) that my blogging interests were pretty broad when I first started. Although I always wrote about books it wasn't until late 2008 that I really started to focus on books. I did so not only because that is what interested me most, but because all of you showed up and started engaging me in a very satisfying way.

My original post is a little pompous but not entirely unrelated to how I conduct my blog five years later.

The Inaugural Post from June 14, 2006

In thinking about the kind of online discussion I wanted to initiate, I kept coming back to the idea of a place where people would engage each other. A place that would serve as an antidote to banal office conversation and the anonymous interactions that characterize most of our lives. Despite the absence of a physical location, the internet has done more to connect people with each other than anything else since television and suburban sprawl first disconnected us back in the 20th century. Sprinkled among the wasteland of post-World War II development, one can still find places like this--town squares, corner stores, and front porches--they just don't get used much anymore.

Although I may end up ranting and raving from time to time, I want My Porch to be a place where the basis for every discussion is respect. I want us to disagree and argue like mad, but to remember above all that we are neighbors and have to live with each other. (Assuming someone other than me actually reads this...)

Topics of particular interest to me that will be featured in posts to come include, politics, urban planning, travel, TV (the great and the trashy), classical music, art, books, and about a million other things.

I take my inspiration from Samuel Barber's (1910-1981) nostalgically beautiful Knoxville Summer of 1915.

"...It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by..."

Based on the opening section of James Agee's A Death in the Family (which I haven't read), Barber's piece for soprano and orchestra opens in a rather peaceful, lilting way that never fails to remind me of some happy, yet undefined and fleeting moment from my childhood in small town Minnesota. A feeling rekindled during my graduate school sojourn in Ithaca, New York from 2000-2002. You know the feeling, one of those summer evenings at twilight with warm gentle breezes and crickets.

If you think I am living in a fantasy world you are partly right. It is a fantasy about living in a place where people care for other people and the world around them, and live honest, positive, engaged lives. It might actually be a great place. Let's give it a whirl.

22 June 2011

Would I like Mary Wesley?

I noticed over at Time's Flow Stemmed this morning that there is a website where you can plug in an author's name and it will map out other authors who are similar. The closer together two authors are, the more similar they are--supposedly. I first put in Margaret Atwood, it had pretty much every big Canadian author you can think of (Laurence, Davies, Findley, Shields, Hoffman, etc.) which I found kind of dubious.  But then I noticed Margaret Drabble (an author I quite like) and clicked on her which took me to a map centered around Drabble. From there I clicked on Anita Brookner. While I like many of the authors who showed up closest to Brookner I couldn't particularly figure out what their similarities might be. But that may be my fault, after all if a bunch of my favorite authors show up in a clump they must have something in common. Although I kind of fear that 'English lady' might be the common denominator.

One of the closest names to Brookner was Mary Wesley--a novelist I have never heard of. So I go look up Mary Wesley and her work sounds pretty interesting. I noted that one of her hits is The Camomile Lawn--which, oddly enough I just noticed the other day on Netflix as a film adaptation Felicity Kendall. How cool is that.

But the real question is, given what you know about my reading tastes, will I like Mary Wesley? And as for that matter, Anthony Powell was real close to Brookner as well. What would I think of him?

19 June 2011

The CSA got more interesting this week

For those of you not interested in fresh produce and the cooking thereof, you may skip down to my latest post on The Geography of Literature.

Although I have enjoyed all of our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce since it started for the season on May 12th, this past week's pick-up really made my eyes light up and my mouth water. It was also the first week of our fruit share.

Besides the usual salads and such, I've had a lot of fun playing with the produce this week. I made fava beans with mint that was delicious and made me wish I had gotten more favas. And then yesterday I made a fantastic warm German pototato salad using the new potatoes, the onions, and some of the dill from last week. I used the same dressing to wilt the radicchio. Yummy.

Organic unsweetened applesauce, two kinds of lettuce, a bulb of fennel, broccoli, salad greens
new pototatoes, fava beans, onions, head of radicchio, mint, cherries.

The Geography of Literature

How many times do you read a novel and then pull out an atlas? I do it quite often. I love to be able to visualize the geography of the story I am reading. This is particularly true with novels that take place in London. I keep a London A to Z close at hand so I can look up particular parts of London as they appear in the books I read.

The novels of Anita Brookner provide abundant opportunity to explore London. I think all of her 24 novels take place at least in part in London. And her characters spend a lot of time walking around. I have always had it in my mind that I wanted to document Brookner's London. Now that I am starting to re-read all of her novels in chronological order, I realize I have the perfect opportunity to construct a sort of Gazetteer of London place names in Brookner's fiction. I am also tempted to chart the places out of London, or out of the country (mainly France and Switzerland) that Brookner's characters visit. But her books are so London-centric, that I think the spirit of her characters live in London regardless of their temporary forays outside the metropolitan area.

For instance in The Debut/A Start in Life, the main character Ruth details one of her walks:

From Edith Grove (where she lives)

down to the river [presumeably following Cheyne Walk and the Chelsea Embankment] to Chelsea Old Church

to Victoria Station

turning back to Sloane Square

then following the King's Road to Fulham Road where she catches a bus back to her flat on Edith Grove. 

It isn't clear where she connects with Fulham Road from the King's Road but using Google maps, this "walk" is about five miles.  I know many other Brookner characters take similar walks. I am looking forward to see where their perigrinations take them.

For a full list of the London places that appear in The Debut (and eventually all of Brookner's novels) check out this link.

Bits and Bobs - the reading groove edition

Not being able to think of a good illustration for this post, I did a
Google search on "bits and bobs". Little did I know there is a British
puppet duo of that name. Seems like as good a picture as any for this post.
Although we all love to read, it is still wonderful to find oneself in a true reading groove. You know, the exact opposite of a reading funk. The kind of mood where everything you pick up is splendid and you just want to consume as much as you can.

You know what gets in the way of such a reading groove? Blogging.

Because I want to stay in the groove as long as possible, I am eschewing reviews for a bit and switching over to list mode:

After posting about my Virago haul recently, a few of you were desirous to know which 17 VMCs I managed to snag. Unfortunately I had already mixed them in with my existing VMCs and with a few exceptions I don't remember which are new to me and which I already had. So we all miss out on that fun list and picture. I will do better next time.

I just finished Carol Shields' novel Small Ceremonies. It was a re-read for me. I love Shields' work and have decided to re-read all of her novels. As I did the first time I read it years and years ago, I enjoyed Small Ceremonies quite a lot. But it also reminded me that I often have quibbles with Shields' endings. For some reason they leave me wanting something different. Not so much so, however, to make me not want to read her books. She was a wonderful writer. I wish she was still around to write more for us.

I also just finished Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton in a beautiful NYRB edition. I must say I didn't enjoy it the way that most bloggers have. I understand why it is a good book. And I liked the beginning and the ending, but the middle had way too many trips to the pub and drunken nights to hold my interest. It got kind of tedious in that regard.

And this evening I just finished a re-read of The Debut (A Start in Life) by Anita Brookner. For those who have not been living under a rock, you will know that I am gearing up for International Anita Brookner Day on July 16th. And since I have read all of her novels already I have decided to start over and read them chronologically. I loved all of her novels the first time around, but I really got so much more out of The Debut this time around.  I look forward to reviewing it for IABD.

After I finished the Brookner tonight I wasn't quite sure what to move on to. So I did what I often do when looking for my next read. I comb through my TBR piles and pick up a handful of books and give them a good look over to see if any of them rise to the occasion. Tonight I picked up Life and Death of Harriet Frean by May Sinclair, A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor, Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple, Butcher's Crossing by John Williams, Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, Vanity Fair by William Thackeray, and Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope.

Usually when I play this game I read the openings of each of the books and decide which one speaks to me most at the moment. I started with the Trollope. Then I moved on to two of the others, but I had this irresistible urge to go back to the Trollope. So I didn't even make it through my stack. Trollope won the day. Not a total surprise given how much I like his other work. And since a I finished the Barsetshire series a few years ago I have been wanting to begin the Palliser novels. Still I was a little surprised how quickly and thoroughly Can You Forgive Her? pulled me in.  So I need to quit blogging and get back to reading. After all, it is only midnight.

16 June 2011

What in the world am I thinking?

You may recall I was on the fence about buying the whole set of Melville House Publishing's Art of the Novella series. 42 volumes (not 37 like I thought).  I thought I was safely past feeling like I needed to have the complete set when Frances comes along and throws fuel on the fire. Next thing you know it my Paypal password is being entered and 42 books and tote bag are now winging their way my direction.

Crazy Frances (that is her new name) has created a reading challenge to read as many of the Art of the Novella series as possible in the month of August. She plans to read all 42! I am going to join her challenge, but I think I am only going to shoot for 9 during August--which puts me at the level of "Passionate". I am not sure I can make it up one more notch to the 15-novella "Mesmerized" level. Because of course I plan to read other things that month as well.

And Frances notes that the good folks at Melville are sponsoring prizes for those who participate.

14 June 2011

IABD: Winners get to choose their prize!

We are just slightly over a month away from International Anita Brookner Day on July 16th. For those of you who have yet to begin the very, very easy challenge of participating in IABD, this is meant to be a kick in the pants. Remember all you have to do is read one novel by Anita Brookner by July 16th and then post about it on your blog or send me your thoughts/reviews and I will post them on the official IABD website.

All winners will get the paperback of their choice from the huge selection at The Book Depository.

Remember, you don't have to have a blog to participate and win.

One prize will be given for each category:

Best Review

Best Brookner Related Musing (non-review)

Best Picture of your pet reading Anita Brookner (this can be interpreted loosely)

Participation Prize (random draw from those who didn't win any of the other awards)

The fine print:
  • Prizes will only be considered for those who submit their writing/picture or link to their blog post to my email address: onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com. This is the only way I can ensure that everyone who wants to be included is.
  • You must notify me no later than 11:00 PM U.S. Eastern Daylight Savings Time in order to be eligible.
  • All entries will be posted on the official IABD website.
  • Co-host Simon of Savidge Reads and I will be the judges.
***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.***

What are you waiting for?  Get reading.

12 June 2011

Winners Galore

1. No Name
The winner of the my extra copy of No Name by Wilkie Collins is:

 Ti at Book Chatter

2. Where in the world?
I have to say, I really enjoyed the Where in the World? picture I put up this week. It was fun to think of clues, but it was even more fun to see how smart and worldly my readers are. I think Claire is right, I did underestimate you all. I love that Stu knew the Gehry reference, Read the Book knew the Russalka reference, Margaret used the Czech name, and Simon had similar mattress issues in Prague. And I even love that Sel shared the clues with her/his brother to get the answer. I think I am going to do something like this again. But I can see I am going to have to make the clues much harder. The winner, who gets to choose the book of her/his choice of paperback from The Book Despository, and was randomly selected from 13 correct answers, is:

Mad Bibliophile

3. Book Lust
The winner of the Book Lust giveaway is:

Brenna at Literary Musings

For you non-winners, better luck next time. For you winners, please email your mailing address to onmyporch [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday Painting: House and Park by Nick Schlee

House and Park
Nick Schlee (b. 1931)

This week from the CSA

Getting a share in a Community Supported Agriculture group was one of the best things I have ever done. Each wednesday we go pick up a mystery box of fresh, local, organic produce. So far this season we have had lots of greens but that appears to be transitioning into things like zucchini and beets. Can't wait for tomato season. We also bought a fruit share, which won't begin until this coming week.

There are some CSAs here in the DC area that are quite sophisticated, they let you go online each week and order what you want. But I chose a CSA that offers the mystery box because otherwise I end up buying the same thing every week. Plus I am finding that I enjoy the challenge of figuring out tasty ways to use everything in the box. I also seem to enjoy the challenge of not letting any of it rot. When I get produce from the grocery store I feel like I often end up throwing half of it away.

So here is this week's box.

From back left: collard greens, curly endive, lacinato kale, dill, spring onions,
zucchini, mushrooms, portabella mushrooms

11 June 2011

Book shopping proclivities

Recently Cornflower asked her readers if they were given unlimited resources would they go on a binge and buy everything they wanted for their library or would they take a more piecemeal approach. No sooner had I responded that I enjoyed the hunt and would not get much pleasure from buying everything I wanted at once, when I was faced with two book buying opportunities. As I mentioned in a post last week, I am really tempted to buy the complete 37-volume Melville Publishing Art of the Novella series at 30% off. If I really was the onesy-twosy book hunter that I claim to be, I don't think I would be consider buying this whole set. I highly doubt I would be interested in all 37 volumes, but my god the completeness of the purchase would be stunning. And then in a comment on my post I have CB James egging me on, for the right reasons mind you, but egging me on nonetheless.

And then I went to a book sale at my local library (Frances: that would be the Chevy Chase Library, not the new Tenley Town branch) and came away with 17 books. Granted the total haul only cost me about $25 but I must admit I was a bit indiscriminate in my choices. Not really finding anything that I really had to have at first, I started to grab every Virago I could see. I don't feel bad about this. While not impossible to find here, Viragos are much rarer in the US than the UK. And who knows which of these Viragos will turn out to be undiscovered gems for me? It was only after I got home that I actually read the back covers and determined that most of these seem right up my alley. So it seems like I didn't buy anything I shouldn't have.  And there was one that was a true find: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. Her novel The Skin Chairs turned me into a fan so I can't wait to open up this one.

I guess the lesson for me is that while I wouldn't find it interesting to buy a whole library worth of books in one fell swoop, I certainly can't claim to be the restrained book buyer that I may have thought I was.

Seen on the Subway

The Visible World by Mark Slouka

The Reader: A rather petite twenty-something blond woman wearing a very tasteful and fashionable combination of white blouse, black skirt, shiney gold flats, and a bright purple leather purse. She was close enough to me on the crowded train, and I am probably a foot taller than her so I could see that she had beige pumps in her Sephora carrier bag.

The Book: "...an evocative, powerfully romantic novel about a son's attempt to understand his mother's past, a search that leads him to a tragic love affair and the heroic story of the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi by the Czech resistance."

The Verdict: This book sounds good to me. But unless someone tells me it is good and I should read it, I don't think I will make the effort to get my hands on a copy of it. I mean The Glass Room was such a great Nazi-occupation novel, this one would have to be pretty amazing to not be disappointing.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Reader: Slightly pudgy thirty-something guy wearing Dockers and what appeared to be fancy brown bowling shoes. (You know, the goofy looking American kind.) Funny thing about him is that I caught him trying to see the title of my book. I rather nonchalantly made it easy for him to see the cover of my Heart of Darkness.

The Book: An autobiographical novel about an 18-year old student who falls in love with a 32-year old divorcee while working at a radio station that produces a half dozen soap operas a day and buys scripts by weight from writers in Cuba. Set in 1950s Peru.

The Verdict: I am on the fence on this one. Reading a book set in Peru and one about a young scriptwriter kind of pique my interest, but the satirical look at soap operas, not so much.

The Help by Kathryn Sprockett ( x 2!)

The Readers: At the bus stop this morning there was a woman reading a hardcover edition of this novel. Since it is a bestseller, and now a movie, I wasn't going to write about it. But then after we both got on the bus, another reader got on with a paperback edition. One woman was white, the other African-American. Given the plot I thought that was kind of interesting. I would like to get them together and hear what they have to say about it.

The Book: I don't really need to explain this one do I?

The Verdict: I tend to not like reading novels that have considerable amounts of any kind of dialect. Not a hard and fast rule, but when I picked this one up last year I wasn't in the mood for it. I don't think I will read it.

10 June 2011

Where in the world?

A prize for the person who can figure out in which city this lovely hotel room is located.

  • I stayed there in 2002 as part of a month-long trip around Europe to hear opera.
  • The bed was too short for me. And because there was footboard similar to the headboard, I had to put the mattress on the floor in order to be able to sleep.
  • A Communist may have been responsible for the phone.
  • Mozart and Frank Gehry have both made their mark on the city.
  • Although Russalka would feel at home here, I heard Cosi Fan Tutte and Aida.
  • If the city makes you think of Vin Diesel I wouldn't hold it against you.
Put your guess in the comment section. In the event there is more than one right answer, I will draw randomly. Winner can be anywhere in the world and will receive the paperback of their choosing from The Book Depository. Deadline for entries will be Sunday night (June 12th).

Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

One of the so-called greats of the western canon and one of the Modern Library's Top 100, The Heart of Darkness, for whatever its merits, was such a slog for me. Its 96 pages might as well have been 996. This is the kind of book that sours students on literature for a lifetime. I can't exactly put my finger on the reason why I found this book so difficult to get through. Whether it was sentence structure, or word choice, or transitions from scene to scene, I often found myself confused and needing to re-read whole paragraphs.  It was as if Conrad wanted to convey the disorientation one feels in the heat of the jungle. If that was his intent, then well done.

There were moments when I was actually engaged in the story but they were brief moments. I worry that my aversion to this book is an indication of what I might feel when I attempt Lord Jim, Nostromo, or The Secret Agent. All of these are on the Modern Library Top 100 list, and I am attempting to read that whole list. I have made pretty good headway, I am at 62 at this point, but I have already decided I am not reading the multiple Joyce and Faulkner titles on the list. Am I going to have to add Conrad to that "no chance in hell am I going to read them again" file? (Not to mention that Philip Roth might not be too far behind in joining that company.)  I get it, they are all authors with important things to say and they do so in brilliant ways, but I guess my mind isn't up to the task. The good news is I am not going to lose sleep over my inability to understand these important authors.

I have Chinua Achebe's An Image of Africa (from the beautiful Penguin Great Ideas series) which is a critique of Heart of Darkness. While I think Conrad successfully challenged the imperial orthodoxy of his day, I am interested to see what an African thinks of the book.

Book Review: The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane

This was another of the Europa Edition books I picked up cheap at the Border's going out of business sale. And like Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy (which I really enjoyed), front and center in Marouane's tale is an unreliable author. If we take Mohamed Ben Mohktar (aka Basile Tocquard) at his word, he is desperately wanting to break free of his domineering mother, his devout younger brother, and their expectations of religious orthodoxy. At the age of 40 despite having a well paying job in Banking, Mohamed still lives at home and is still a virgin. In the opening pages Mohamed has a singular focus: to get his own apartment in Paris so that he can pursue his delusions of sexual grandeur.

I actually quite enjoyed this book as long as it seemed like a straightforward narrative. But the author had something much more clever in mind that eventually had me scratching my head. You see I love stories of people finding themselves and forging their way in the world. And this one had that quality until it began to dawn on me that perhaps Mohamed's story was not as it seemed. And now that I have looked around on the Internet, I understand what the author was up to. A re-read would be a semi-fulfilling thing to do, but time marches on and I must move on to the next book.

This review by Emma Garman at Words Without Borders explains it much better than I can.

08 June 2011

Inside my brain (and Wigmore Hall)

I listen to a lot of BBC Radio 3 online.

Recently on a live broadcast from Wigmore Hall they played a recorded program (programme) during the extended intermission (interval) about the history of the hall. The jewel-box recital hall is celebrating its 110th birthday this year. With about 540 seats and a small stage it is the most amazing place to hear solo recitals and chamber music concerts.

It looks like the kind of place that Helen Schlegel might have frequented.

It started off as a recital space/showroom for Bechstein pianos. (You really should follow that link, they have a beautiful flash intro page.) The same anti-German sentiment at the outbreak of World War I that caused the Hanover/Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sitting on the British throne to change the Royal Family's name to Windsor, also caused Bechstein Hall to be renamed Wigmore Hall.

Bechstein is still one of the gems of the piano world (along with Steinway, Bosendorfer, and Fazioli). For a charming, wonderful read on the world of pianos, you really should check out one of my favorite books The The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.

I have spent many a happy hour at Wigmore Hall enjoying all kinds of wonderful recitals. Back in 1997 during an open house I even got the chance to take my place on stage. For a minute I made believe that my undergraduate minor in vocal performance had turned into a life of international concertizing.

07 June 2011

IABD: A website for all of your thoughts and reviews


I thought it would be great to have a central repository for all of the posts that you all are going to create in honor of International Anita Brookner Day on July 16, 2011.

I know that some of you have already posted some things that would be great additions to the IABD website. I would love to cross-post your entries, please let me know that you are interested. You can email me at onmyporch [at] hotmail [com]

And I know that some of you don't have blogs and would like to participate. You can email me at onmyporch [at] hotmail [com]

For all of you who are going to wait until July 16th to post your IABD thoughts and reviews, I would also like to cross post all of those on the dedicated website as well.

Next week I will announce
the prizes and prize categories.

05 June 2011

Book Review: Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple

Thanks again to Rachel at Book Snob for the photo.
I couldn't believe my luck in getting a copy of this out of print Whipple. I thought that I would hold onto it for a while--save it for a rainy day if you will--but I think I had it for only about a week before giving in. As with all Whipples, Because of the Lockwoods is a wonderful book and a wonderful read. I ended up staying up to almost 2:00 AM (on a work night!) to finish it.

The story centers around the Hunters (mother and three children) and their diminished circumstances after husband/father passes away. The Lockwoods, the Hunters' previous neighbors, appear to be, and certainly think of themselves as a benevolent force in the lives of the Hunter family. Mrs. Lockwood insists that Mr. Lockwood help Mrs. Hunter make sense of her husband's estate. In the process Mr. Lockwood perpetrates a swindle upon Mrs. Hunter that further diminishes her circumstances. The swindle, however, is not appartent to Mrs. Hunter and she lives her life in perpetual gratitude and obesiance to the Lockwoods. With very few resources to fall back on, the two eldest Hunter children are eventually forced into accepting jobs they abhor because the seemingly munificent Lockwoods insist that they have no other prospects. But Thea, the youngest, manages to pursue her dreams both despite and because of the Lockwoods. In the process she finds herself a social pariah and her hopes for the future dashed. That is until working class neighbor Oliver Reade manages to provide opportunities for the upper class Hunters that they never would have expected or contemplated.

As much as I love them, there is a certain deus ex machina aspect to most of Whipple's novels. Chapters and chapters of privation are wiped clean with a fairly quick succession of fortuitous events. Perhaps this tendency in her fiction is one of the reasons Whipple never moved beyond being just a popular--and now largely forgotten--author. While my literary expertise falls squarely into the "I know what I like" school of thought, I think if one is going to critique Whipple's fiction one certainly has to at least acknowledge her joyously ham-handed approach to making everything turn out. Having said that, while things end up looking rosy for the Hunters there is in the final pages of Because of the Lockwoods perhaps the darkest thread that I have yet to find in Whipple. I don't count too much on the darkness in Someone at a Distance because the characterizations in that novel just don't ring true to me as they do in her other works.  (In fact the more distance I have from Someone at a Distance, the less I like it.)

Still, I loved Because of the Lockwoods. I am chuffed to note that I have a copy of Every Good Deed coming from an ebay buy in Australia and that Persephone will be reissuing Greenbanks soon.

And by the way, has anyone else noticed a superficial similarity between Because of the Lockwoods and Barbara Comyns' The Skin Chairs? Diminished circumstances, telling off the snooty folks who were supposedly their benefactors, the self-made man rescuing the family from drudgery?

Book Review: Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

I am not sure I ever would have picked up this book if not for the fact that Simon at Stuck In A Book raves about Tove Jansson's work. And a good thing too. These are brilliant, beautifully written short stories that make me look forward to reading Jansson's longer fiction.

I am always at a loss as to how to review a book of short stories--and this collection of Jansson's stories seem particularly hard to capture by an amateur such as myself. Although Jansson's writing is fairly straightforward, there is something kind of otherworldly about these stories. As I reflected on the collection, I was thinking that its other worldliness had to do with the words themselves. I started to remember her writing as poetic. But then I looked back and sampled some of her prose and realized that it was not the source of the other worldliness. On a superficial level there is something very European about the stories that feels otherworldly to me, but that doesn't seem to be the source of it either. I think what it really comes down to is that each of the stories, no matter the details, feels infused with a contentment and restlessness that seems only knowable through the lens of old age. There is a perspective that either rises above, or rebels against, the mundane details of life.

Among the varied stories included in this collection their were a few that I particularly liked. A couple alone in a little cottage on a gull-filled island. An old man who arrives at his destination only to forget where he is staying. A woman unhinged by the death of an acquaintance. An old man (another one) in a silent skirmish over a park bench unwittingly makes a friend.

As it is for me with many short stories, there were a few that made me scratch my head a bit, wondering if I really understood what was going on. I think sometimes my way of thinking requires a single answer, one correct, officially author-authorized way to interpret a story.  The obsession for clarity abates with a little discussion, but sometimes when I am in the middle of such abstraction it makes me wonder why I don't get it. But alas, that says much about me, and not much about these stories.

Now I can't wait to see what Jansson does with a novel.

03 June 2011

What's not to like?

I pulled this out of a magazine (the now defunct Domino, I think) back in 2008 before I knew anything about Persephone or the Penguin Great Ideas series, or the Art of the Novella series from Melville House. I just thought it was a fantastic page full of...bookish eye candy. I recently unearthed it as I was doing some sorting and was struck by how so much on this page has become a part of my life.

UPDATE: I just noticed when I went to the Melville House link I provided that they are offering all 37 of their novella series at 30% off plus a tote bag. But that still comes to $300. I am so tempted but I can't figure out if I really want the books or it is just my OCD kicking in.

How much is that doggie in the window?

There isn't enough money in the world.

Dear old digitalis...

Can anyone guess in which film (and presumably which novel) Aunt Julie utters the line "Dear old digitalis."

UPDATE: Karen's comment made me go off to the Google and I couldn't find the answer. I wonder what search terms she used. What I did find out was that Aunt Julie is actually Aunt Juley. It has been decades since I read the book, but I have seen the film a million times. And, as Karen says, Googling is cheating.

And here is another quote from Aunt Juley in the same film/book:
All the [insert family name] are exceptional. They are British to the backbone, of course, but their father was German, which is why they care for literature and art.

02 June 2011

What a difference a year makes (with before and after)

It has been a year since we moved into our house. We have finally gotten to the point where the money we are pouring into it is starting to actually be visible. For so many months nothing we did made the place actually look better. In some cases, like pipe replacement that required tearing out parts of a ceiling, work actually made the place look worse. Nothing like spending money to make your house look bad.

In the past year we have:
  • removed a giant tree
  • restored all the windows
  • added new, working shutters
  • put on new gutters
  • fixed the slate roof
  • had the electrical updated
  • had two chimney flues lined
  • replaced the AC
  • replaced the washer and dryer
  • had the main floor painted
  • refinished the floors
  • ripped out old galvinized pipes
  • replaced two toilets
  • replaced the water heater
  • ripped out all the old ivy and seeded the yard
I am sure there is more that I am forgetting. In the end the thing that has really helped us turn the corner is the window project. Makes it look like a million bucks.

We are looking for a bit of a respite before we embark on anything else. My tiny, barely functioning, ugly kitchen remains.



Book Review: Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

When I picked up Stones for Ibarra, all I knew about it was that I had seen the title many times over the years and it was only $1.50. Now I look, and the googles tell me that Stones for Ibarra was Harriet Doerr's first novel; that she wrote it at the age of 73; and that it won the National Book Award. Even more fascinating is that she went back to college after a 30-some year absence to get a Bachelor's degree in history at the age of 67.

Originally written as short stories, Stones for Ibarra tells the story of Richard and Sara Everton who move from San Francisco to Mexico in the 1960s to revive a family copper mine that has been out of use since 1910. While somewhat episodic, and despite its beginnings as a few short stories, the novel hangs together and has more of an arc then you would normally encounter in a book of linked short fiction. Early in their struggle to bring new life to the old mine Richard is diagnosed with leukemia. Told from Sara's point of view, their struggles and those of the people and the world around them is described with straightforward but rather atmospheric and somewhat abstract detail. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but Doerr's writing has a poetic quality that doesn't compromise comprehension. It offers enough detail that one doesn't scratch one's head wondering what is going on.

The reader is told early on that Richard and their efforts to revive the mine only make it six years past his diagnosis. Those years, autobiographical on the main points, are described by Doerr like a memoir that is as grateful as it is elegiac. Doerr's writing brings impoverished rural Mexico to life and looks at the humor and frustration of being a fish out of water. Although sympathetic to the culture and the plight of the community around them, there is a certain amount of the colonizer evident in Doerr's tale.

I am glad I picked this one up not knowing much about it. I tend to veer toward novels that are comfortable and Euro-centric so it is always a happy surprise to read about something out of my comfort zone.* I enjoyed the descriptions of ways of life that are so foreign to mine. Not just the foreigness of the lives of Mexicans, but the lives of Richard and Sara as they embark on a rather difficult adventure and confront a fatal illness. (knock on wood)

*I have become so confused about when to use the British 's' and when to use American 'z' in words like cozy/cosy that I almost went back and changed 'zone' to 'sone'.

01 June 2011

Book Review: No Name by Wilkie Collins

I am convinced that my interest in the work of Wilkie Collins has something to do with all the letter writing involved. Of course there is also intrigue and suspense and all sorts of other goings on that make his novels page turners. But I love the fact that despite the fact that the action of the books clip along at a quick pace, if you think about how it would have played out in real time, it would have been like watching paint dry. Imagine trying to get to the bottom of any mystery without the aid of the telephone, car, email, Internet, forensic science and any number of other methods of investigation. And think about it on a personal level. Have you ever had something that you needed answered immediately and the time it took to get an email reply, even though it may have just been minutes, felt like an eternity? Imagine if you had to wait 14 days to get an answer via mail from Zurich. That would certainly slow down your plans wouldn't it? And it is all those furious letters and documents and meetings with solicitors and trusting interviews with landladies, coach drivers and servants, that make these "detective" stories so enjoyable for me. I am willing to suspend my disbelief for these Victorian mysteries in a way that I cannot for more modern mysteries.

Like other of Collins' sensation novels No Name takes place on the fringes of propiety. Those ruffled edges of polite society where perfectly moral people teeter on the edge of social oblivion due to some technicality that turns them into pariahs overnight. This is my third Wilkie Collins novel and my fourth sensation novel (Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret) and they all rely heavily on the fact that women had so few independent rights at the time. How awful to be in a position to not be able to earn your living because a man is going to take care of it and then something happens to the man and you left with nothing and no way to do anything about it.

In No Name Magdalen (18) and her sister Norah (22, I think) find out after losing their parents that they are technically illegitimate children and are now destitute thanks to an evil uncle and cousin. So for six hundred pages the plots thicken and thin and then thicken again, the letters fly, and in the end it all comes up roses. Most, of Collins' novels were written as serials so verbal economy is not the order of the day. For anyone who has ever liked a costume drama but wants to read something a little more racy than Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins is your man.

When looking for an image to include with this post, at the bottom of the tenth page of a Google image search using the terms "no name wilkie collins" one stumbles across a picture of Rachel from Book Snob. That photo led me to Rachel's much more complete (and well written) review.

I have an extra copy of No Name to give away. Just let me know in the comments if you are interested. (US only please, the older Dover edition I have to give away is kind of heavy.)