28 November 2011

Shelf Esteem No. 5


Cozy Factor: The cool, bright white makes it hard to call this one cozy. But I can imagine being very happy here.

The Books: Mainly fiction from what I can see. Paul Auster Mr. Vertigo, Tom Wolfe A Man in Full, James Joyce Ulysses, Don Delillo Libra, Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky, Paradise Lost, Tropic of Cancer, a lot of men on these shelves...he has the same exact old paperback of Death in Venice that I have...Leaves of Grass (a favorite of mine), Sister Carrie (a great old American classic) and then finally we get to the obligatory The Bell Jar. But then I spy a little Carol Shields, Iris Murdoch, and even Anita Brookner.

The Shelves: I would be plenty happy with these. I like the way they go over the door and that there is plenty of capacity.

Is this person a reader? Yes. I don't think he reads as much as he would like to, but he honors books enough that not one of them here looks decoratrive.

The book would I read if I had to choose one: I think I spy a copy of Villette which I own but haven't read yet.

Book Review: The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski


25 November 2011

Book Review: Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Miss Ranskill Comes Home is a book that could have gone a lot of different directions. Miss Ranskill is lost at sea on a pleasure cruise in 1939. She winds up on a desert island being cared for by a working class carpenter who is also stranded on the island. The book begins four years into Miss Ranskill's ordeal and we find her digging a grave for the recently departed carpenter. Not long after this opening scene she is rescued by a British convoy headed back to England. While convalescing on a destroyer Miss Ranskill learns that England has been at war for four years but nothing she learns on board prepares her for what she will encounter when she gets back to England. She comes back to a country deep into the deprivations of war. She is confused by rationing, almost mistaken for a spy, and unable to find her place in the new world order.

I kind of wanted this novel to be gut-wrenchingly sad. There were certainly moments when it could have been but I found them soon and often interrupted with moments of levity. I didn't mind the levity and found the book overall to be enjoyable and heart-warming. But there was a part of me that wanted it to be the serious tragedy it could have been. Four years living with a man and they not only never, ahem, got busy, but they didn't even call each other by their christian names. The confusion when she first returns to England could have ended up with Miss Ranskill in prison as a spy or in an asylum. Her money, inherited by her sister who thought her long dead could have been gone. I should say that not all in this novel was humorous. The book does indeed touch on some of the tragedy of the story and the special perspective Miss Ranskill has on life and class and what's important.

There was one section of the book when I thought I was going to be unhappy with my reading experience. When she first gets back to England and ends up at the front door of her school friend's house in ill fitting clothes and no shoes and yet her friend doesn't slow down enough to find out what happened to her. And worse, Miss Ranskill doesn't say "Hey! I have been stranded on an island for four years and I am in crisis!" I know that it is stupid of me to ask for such plot-killing clarity. But that kind of confusion reminds me of all those bad, mad-cap sitcoms of my childhood where all the kerfuffle could have been avoided if only someone had spoken up before things got out of hand. Thankfully that kind of craziness didn't go much beyond that early scene in Miss Ranskill.

Definitely an enjoyable Persephone with a unique plot.

24 November 2011

Book Review: Arkansas by David Leavitt

This collection of three novellas by David Leavitt was the perfect book to follow my re-read of the bleak and rather depressing, but brilliant As For Me and My House.

The title Arkansas doesn't have much to do with any of them but rather refers to an Oscar Wilde quip quoted at the start of the book. But the book is chock a block with references to E.M. Forster. I don't think they would get in the way for those unfamiliar with Forster's work but they are fun to spot for those of us who are.

The first, and by far the best novella in the collection, The Term Paper Artist is a hilarious send up of Leavitt's own problems with plagiarism. For those who are familiar with Leavitt's better known works (like The Lost Language of Cranes) you are probably aware that Stephen Spender accused Leavitt of plagiarizing parts of Spender's memoir in his novel While England Slept. The hero of the novella (written in the first person) is Leavitt himself. He has moved in with his father in LA temporarily to escape from all the hoopla over the plagiarism case. Not quite able to focus on his next novel he ends up wasting a lot of time purportedly doing research in the UCLA library. I think my favorite laugh out loud moment is when he goes to the literature section, finds his books on the shelves, and autographs them. Leavitt eventually ends up writing term papers for good looking, straight, male undergraduates in exchange for sex. The novella is not without its steamy sex scenes but it is ultimately more humorous and even sweet than it is sexy.

The second novella, The Wooden Anniversary, takes place in Tuscany and has a kind of Will and Grace quality to it. You know, those episodes of W&G where their relationship was creepily co-dependent with gay Will unable to have healthy relationships with gay men because of his dependence on Grace. I hated those parts of W&G because the underlying message seemed to be that gay men can only expect fulfillment by aping the constructs of straight relationships--and with a straight woman no less. In the case of this novella, the straight girl who never gets over being in love with her gay best friend.  Not unenjoyable to read, but nothing to write home about.

The third novella, Saturn Street, is a late 80s AIDS story is not without poignancy, and better than The Wooden Anniversary, but ultimately forgettable.

Overall, this collection was an enjoyable quick read, but the first novella is the only one really worth seeking out.

21 November 2011

20 November 2011

Shelf Esteem No. 4


Cozy Factor: Very High. Like Def Con 5 cozy. Comfy furniture, warm wood shelves, nice warm light, a ladder(!), and a mishmash of books that enourage browsing.

The Books: At least three books by Bill Cosby, at least three about gambling, at least three Atwoods (Robber Bride, The Handmaid's Tale, and Alias Grace), Roth, McMurtry, Grisham, Tolkein, Le Carre, Doctrow, Tolstoy, Poe, Byatt, McEwan,  two editions of Bastard Out of Carolina on different shelves, White Noise, Snow Falling on Cedars, Gail Sheehy, Alice Adams, Frank McCourt...

Also seems to have a few books on books (e.g., Bookmen's Bedlam), a couple of bios (Genet and Michael Caine), Folio Society editions, about 9 Granta issues...

The Shelves: I like the look of them and the quanity of them. They appear to be adjustable, and the ladder is every book junkie's dream.

Is this person a reader? Probably, but a few things make me think maybe not as big a reader as one would think at first glance. First, these are definitely catch-all shelves. Old French grammar books, guide book to colleges, Folio Society editions and some pretty sets that seem like they may have been purchased to fill some space. Plus a smattering of anthologies and other books that one typically gets in college days. On the other hand the general disorganization suggests that the books are being read rather than arranged for effect. I think this person does read, but doesn't necessarily have very defined tastes. Do we think the guy on the ladder is the guy who does the reading in the house?

I would say he is a Bookstore Reader. Someone who goes to a bookstore without something specific in mind and comes away with something off of one of the tables, generally some bit of popular fiction.

The book I would read if I had to pick one: Victorian Illustrated Books by Percy Muir.

18 November 2011

Will Claire Share With Verity?

Some of you may remember back in February when I created a list of 10 largely forgotten novels that would be good reads for the Cardigan Mafia.  I was so enthusiastic about those books that I even gave away a spare copy of As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. Since this book is rightly a giant in Canadian literature, the giveaway wasn't open to Canadians who don't have to walk far to find a copy. I was so hoping to expand the audience for this neglected gem that one of the other qualifiers for the giveaway was that entrants had to read and review the book within three months of receiving it.

So, happy day, Claire of Paperback Reader won the copy and it was duly posted to the UK.

But then Claire appears to have gotten stimulating, full-time employment that, while great for her, is bad for those of us who would like to hear more from her. Yes, that is right, I will just come out and say it: Claire, your job is interfereing with your blogging. Where are your priorities? I think your employers, in addition to paying you, should compensate the blogging world for our loss.

Worn out from work, Claire despairs the tyranny of blogging.*
So, here is my thought...I know you UK bloggers don't all live in the same little village (although I would love to visit that village if you did), but perhaps you could lend the aforementioned book to Verity who was also very interested at the time of the giveaway. Not to mention the fact that her voracious appetite for books is truly mindboggling.

Verity voraciously reads while waiting for her train on the Oxford Underground.**
Or if Verity is unwilling or unable to take the book off your hands temporariliy maybe you could lend it to Simon T who also showed an interest. But then again his TBR pile has no doubt left his floor joists sagging dangerously, so any blogger you know who might be interested in reading the book would work.

Simon's TBR pile.***
And I won't even suggest that the person you pass it off to should blog about it. They can just read it. If they find it half as good as I do, then the spirit will move them to do the right thing.

What is the reason for this slightly insane public pleading? I just re-read As For Me and My House for the first time in about fifteen years and it is everything I remember and more.

So Claire, what do you say?  My review of my re-read follows...

* Not really Claire.
** Not really Verity (and Oxford doesn't have an Underground).
***Not really Simon's TBR pile. His is much bigger.

Book Review: As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross

I have talked up this book so much since I first read it about fifteen years ago I was a bit afraid to re-read it. There was a time in my reading past where I had a few friends whose reading tastes I trusted without question. I was so impressionable that their favorites became my favorites. What would happen if 42-year old Thomas didn't agree with 27-year old Thomas? Not a big deal in itself, but I have gone on about this book to so many people with such hyperbolic flair over the years that I began to worry I might be damaging my book recommendation credibility.

So when I pulled As For Me and My House off the shelf this summer to give it a re-read I was troubled over my initial inability to get into it. After about 30 pages I set it aside. And there it sat for months until, as part of my nightstand TBR pile clean-up I gave it another go. I fear that if it hadn't been part of my clean-up efforts I might have just put it back on the shelf thinking I didn't like it as much as I used to. And that would have been a tragedy.

I found this book as haunting, beautiful, depressing, and brilliant this time around as I did the first time. What is amazing is that, although I liked it just as much as the first time, it could have been a different book. There is so much that I didn't remember about this 162-page novel it was like reading for the first time.

Here are some random thoughts:
  • Imagine On Chesil Beach meets The Grapes of Wrath meets Main Street meets Anita Brookner.
  • Smalltown, dust bowl-era Saskatchewan.
  • Thirty-something, poor preacher (and frustrated artist) and his long suffering wife.
  • There are no two dimensional characters in this short book. Everyone who walks across the pages is a nuanced, fully formed human. Some are good and some are evil, but none purely so.
  • Written in diary format from the point of view of the wife. I think Ross does an amazing job capturing the female voice, especially for 1941. Granted, I only see this through my own male lens, but I read so much fiction by females I do feel somewhat qualified to comment. I think he paints an accurate portrait of how enforced gender roles made (and make) for some pretty miserable circumstances.
  • I have harped a lot over the years about epistolary novels that include too much quoted dialogue. And in comments about other technical annoyances in a Julia Glass novel a commenter here on My Porch told me that I probably wouldn't have noticed the technical faults if the book had been better. I think As For Me and My House proves that point. It is so well written that I didn't even think about the dialogue quoted in the diary entries until after I had finished and was reading the introduction to edition I read. Ross does use quoted dialogue in the entries, but they didn't bother me one bit.
  • Although this a pretty darn quiet novel, there are plot points I had forgotten that really blew me away.
More people need to read this book.   

15 November 2011

Bits and Bobs (Again?)

I've never done two Bits and Bobs back-to-back before. But since it has been 10 days since I last posted it seems like I might be forgiven.

Game night recap
Christy, Frances, Teresa and I had a wonderful time getting together back on the 6th. I must admit the Penguin game was not all I hoped for. We all enjoyed the bookish questions but the other requirements of the game like loosing or gaining turns or book pieces was kind of distracting for me. But of course all of it was just an excuse to get together and gossip. Christy and Frances were much more timely in posting their accounts of the evening. Apparently Teresa is too caught up in her win to find time to blog about the get together. :)

John and I spent a long Veteran's Day weekend visiting my family in Phoenix. We had a nice time and the weather was lovely but two days back and my nose still feels like like I have tumble weeds up there. The weather in DC was so wonderfully fall-like both when we left and returned that we decided we needed to leave our Phoenix visits for January, February, or March. Fall is too nice here in DC to miss any of it. Although there is much to be said for the brilliantly blue skies of Arizona. A trip to the desert botanic gardens, the consumption of many tortillas (but only one DQ), and a room with six dogs rounded out our long weekend away.

Parlor Talk
My parents are discovering some classic fiction these days. They both recently finished Jane Eyre. My mom really liked it. When I asked her why she talked about liking all the twists and turns. When the subject of Jane Austen came up I suggested that she might not find Austen as interesting. I was trying to explain to her why I thought that when my dad chimed in and said "there's an awful lot of parlor talk". He nailed it. I know many of us like parlor talk (although I prefer Trollopian parlor talk over Austenian) but I think you have to admit that if one doesn't like it Austen could be quite a boring slog.

Why I think Alan Bennett and Calvin Trillin are two peas in a pod (and other reviews)
You may recall my attempts to clean up the long languishing books in my nightstand. I am happy to say that I have polished off four of those volumes including the ginormous Dumas.

Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
This novella is part of the Melville House Art of the Novella Series which many of us tackled in August. I was 2/3rds of the way through this one when the August challenge ended and was so giddy to read something that wasn't a novella that I kind of dropped this one like a hot potato. Overall I enjoyed it, but the delay in finishing it definitely detracted from the experience. All you need to know about the plot: "...a Yiddish musician whose fame set off a kind of pop hysteria in the shtetl."

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Another book I started in August, this one was much easier to get back into after an extended delay. Like War and Peace it has so many characters with names that don't resonate easily in an English speaking brain that one needs to keep looking at character maps too keep them all straight. Also, like War and Peace, Dumas could have chopped off 300 pages and no one would have known the difference. Unlike W&P, Monte Cristo was often a page turner that has one on the edge of one's seat. This is my second Dumas and I think I like The Three Musketeers better.

If Wilkie Collins had been French, he could have written this.

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
Bennett has written so many wonderful things that I was quite excited to read this collection of autobiographical sketches, diary entries, and essays. But I think Untold Stories suffers a bit from too much of a good thing. I enjoyed much about this book and I still love Bennett's work, but I must say I found him a bit tedious by the end.

Family Man by Calvin Trillin
Like Alan Bennett, Calvin Trillin is one of those clever writers who is so good at turning a wry, witty phrase that one begins to consider a pact with the devil in exchange for the ability to write like him. Also like Bennett, Trillin is a master of capturing the essence of a cultural moment and can spin everyday encounters into something that is far more than the sum of its parts. And, like Bennett's brilliantly funny and imaginative The Uncommon Reader, Trillin's novel Tepper Isn't Going Out is one of my favorite books of all time (and Simon liked it too).  Having said all of that, this collection of essays on family life only partially captured my interest.

05 November 2011

Shelf Esteem No. 3

With this, my third installment of Shelf Esteem, I worry that regular readers may start to just skip over these posts. Even the best features can become boring over time. But then I think about the voyeuristic, bibliophonic, mania that impels me to do the feature in the first place. And like our often shared tendencies to love book lists and piles of books and collecting book sets just because they exist and rearranging our libraries just for fun, I realize that there is probably a pretty eager fan base out there for Shelf Esteem. And I love dissecting the photos so much that I couldn't keep myself from posting them now if I tried. So I guess I should quit worrying about boring you all--at least as it relates posting photos of bookshelves.

I had a little incident this week where I beat the crap out of my malfunctioning scanner/printer. It is a pity that electronics' manufacturers (and consumers) think that one needs to have extra features to justify higher prices. I would be happier paying more money for fewer features if it meant higher quality and reliability. But those aren't really words that fit into the disposable, just try and get it fixed, world of consumer electronics. Thankfully, I scanned all of my Shelf Esteem images a few weeks ago so I have plenty of images to share until I find a scanner/printer that won't cause me to go nutso.

Cozy Factor: High. I don't necessarily think that clutter equals cozy, but in this case it does. And even without a place to sit, I still find this one very inviting. I can imagine myself sitting on the rug combing the shelves.

The Books: Lots of art books, and midway down on the bottom shelf, those look like they might be auction catalogs. I love how the one book in the second bay is on display by sitting on top another book shoved in below. I am curious about the giant, red Graphic Dictionary of Mexico City sitting on the floor in its own handled carrying case. The stack at the very left in the photo has the autobiographies of both Bill and Hillary Clinton. Among the non-fiction on the shelves I spy Martha, Inc (a tell all about Martha Stewart) and The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. The fiction I can see includes Ragtime, White Noise, Queenie, and The Witches of Eastwick. And one called The White Hotel by DM Thomas. Wikipedia says this about it:
The book's first three movements consist of the erotic fantasies and case-history of one of the novelist's conception of Sigmund Freud's female patients, overlapping, expanding, and gradually turning into almost normal narrative. But then the story takes a different course with the convulsions of the century, and becomes a testament of the Holocaust, harrowing and chillingly authentic. Only at the end does the fantasy element return, pulling together the earlier themes into a kind of benediction.
The Shelves: Good, basic, white painted wood. They look sturdy and allow for different size books. I would probably want them up to the ceiling, but then that  wouldn't allow for all the junque on top. (I would also choose different junque and framed pieces, but the overall feel is right.)

Is this person a reader? I think so, but when it comes to fiction s/he seems to have stopped buying hardcovers in the 1980s.

The book I would read if I had to pick one: I think I would choose The White Hotel. I am not interested in women's erotic tales, but it sounds kind of fascinating. Parts of it are also epistolary, which you know I like.

Bits and Bobs (followed by Shelf Esteem)

Tomorrow is the day
I got my hands on The Great Penguin Bookchase back in July and have been dying to play it. Unfortunately it is difficult to find folks in the flesh who are interested or who read enough to be worthy opponents. So I knew that my only chance for a meaningful game was to get some local book bloggers over for game night--which is much harder than you might think. Turns out bloggers are busy people and finding a mutually convenient time to play is not easy. But tomorrow is the day. So barring any last minute cancellations, I will finally get to crack open the cellophane wrap on the box of questions and sit down to a spirited game with Frances, Teresa, and Christy.

Trying to do a year-end clean-up
In general I try not to set strict rules for myself when it comes to what I will read next, but I am really feeling the need to focus my reading energy between now and the end of the year. I have nine books that I currently have underway. Two of them (not in the photo below) I will finish this weekend. But I have seven more that were started so bleeding long ago, I don't even remember when I first picked them up. So even though I have piles and piles of other books just dying to be read, I really feel like I can't read anything until I clear the decks of these nine books. I don't think my OCD will allow me to start 2012 with these books cluttering up mind and nightstand. Must....finish....them....

Persephone blurbed me again
Happy to get the latest issue of the Persephone Biannually and even happier to find inside an excerpt of my review of the wonderful The Fornight in September.

02 November 2011

Book Review: Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn is the second volume of the six-volume Palliser series by Anthony Trollope. Just as the  Barsetshire series is Trollope's extended depiction of life in and around the church, the Palliser series is his extended look at the political milieu at the time. I am a huge fan of the Barsetshire books, but it is still too early to say what I think of the Palliser books. I quite liked the first volume: Can You Forgive Her? (I could and I did), but overall I was much less enthusiastic about Phineas Finn. It has all the tell-tale signs of a Trollope novel: social intricacies, matrimonial machinations, and lots of talk about how much people live on per annum. Truth be told, the discussions about the incomes of various characters is probably the thing I like best about Trollope. Like a Victorian era spread sheet in narrative form. I love the details.

Yes, but what does this have to do with Casey Kasem?
And of course as with many a Trollope novel issues of income invariably also deal with issues of the plight of women and their state-forced reliance on men. I wonder if Trollope is an accidental feminist or if he really did ponder the gender inequity of his day? Although, how archaic and interesting this week to read that the Commonwealth has finally voted to change the line of royal succession. If ratified by each of the member countries the British line of succession will finally allow the crown to pass to the eldest child of the monarch regardless of gender. This would take Anne, the Princess Royal from being 10th in line to being 4th in line (after Charles, William, and Henry). Which makes me want to imitate Casey Kasem..."this week in the countdown, the Princess Royal moves up to the number four spot which brings us to our long distance dedication of the week...

Casey Kasem
In the end, Phineas Finn, was not as enjoyable for me as the Barsetshire series because of the politics. It was just old enough and foreign enough to me that I often found myself confused. After a time of trying to figure it all out I just decided that part didn't matter and I should just focus on the relationships and who makes what. Even then, I had a hard time really believing in Phineas' professed love for the woman he eventually marries. It didn't quite fit for me. I am, however, looking forward to see how it turns out in the fourth volume which is called Phineas Redux.

It you haven't read Trollope start with the first of The Warden, the first
of the Barsetshire novels.

This is the set I own.

01 November 2011

Happy Adoption Day Lucy!

A year ago yesterday Lucy came to live with us. I don't know what we would  do without her. If you are thinking of getting a pet, go to a shelter...lots of great dogs and cats are waiting for homes.

Not only are her ears soft and big, but that is where the love is.

Relaxing after a play session.

Lucy trying to steal Lucy's stick. It just so happens that Lucy's
best friend in the neighborhood is also called Lucy.

Speed racer.