28 February 2011

Our day has come. A Ten Best List for the cardigan mafia.

     
There is a giveaway somewhere in this post.

It has been wonderful finding kindred spirits in the blogosphere. We relish our collective predilection for forgotten novels of the past and once popular authors finding new life thanks to Virago, Persephone, NYRB Classics and other smaller presses. And even though most of us are fairly broad in our reading we often feel a little left out by top 10 lists, or top 100 lists, or even top 1000 lists that don't seem to give appropriate consideration to the books we love. You know the lists, the ones where Philip Roth and Saul Bellow seem to be the only two authors on the planet.

And then, like a gift from Nancy Pearl, The Guardian runs a top 10 list of the best neglected literary classics. I clicked on the link quite skeptically, sure that it would be a lame list with all the usual authors. But much to my surprise the list was strikingly sympathetic to the likes of My Porch and my bloggy friends. No doubt this is still a list to be quibbled with. There are so many forgotten classics it would be hard to believe that any list of 10 could even scratch the surface let alone find the best 10. But at least this one is interesting (and different) with the likes of Barbara Comyns, FM Mayor, and Marghanita Laski. And I have actually read three of the novels, Olivia Manning's School for Love; The Wife, perhaps the best of Meg Wolitzer's enjoyable output; and one of my own personal NYRB breakout hits, Darcy O'Brien's A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I think the only author on the list who has any broad recognition is probably H.G. Wells.

I decided to come up with a list of titles that I would like to nominate to a top 10 list of the best neglected literary classics. I only chose books that I have read, and that I think don't get enough notice in the blogosphere. So even though some of these titles may be easy to find and some may not be that old, they all deserve more attention.

In no particular order:

As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross
Such a wonderful, sad, short novel that takes place in Dust Bowl-era Saskatchewan. This is a quiet book where there isn't much action, but it seems like so much happens. If you like this kind of book, have a blog, and are willing to read and review within three months of receipt of the book, I have an extra used copy of this hard-to-find book. Just include the following pledge in your comment: "I have a blog and am willing to read and review the prize book within three months of receiving it."  I will ship anywhere in the world EXCEPT for Canada. I love Canadians, but I feel like you owe it to your native son to find and read your own copy of this book.

Stoner by John Williams
I have talked about this one every chance I get and it has been getting a fair amount of notice in the blogosphere. But it is one that should definitely be more widely read.

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
Chatwin traveled widely in his life and wrote about his adventures including the rather famous Patagonia. But in this beautiful novel, no one goes anywhere. Identical twin bachelors spend their Spartan lives on a farm on the English-Welsh border.

Reunion by Fred Uhlman
Two German boys, one Jewish, become friends in the early days of the Third Reich. I really liked this novel and haven't really seen much about it elsewhere.

The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
Takes place in Germany in the time just before the wall comes down and one of the few books that I have read that expertly weaves in classical music without sounding pedantic or name-droppy. And so far as I can tell, the only novel by Robert Ford has written.

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
If Anthony Trollope had been an American and less verbose, he may have written The Rise of Silas Lapham. A tale of money and status in 1880s America. A bit of a rags to riches to rags story.

The Game of Opposites by Norman Lebrecht
Lebrecht has written two novels and is a rather well-known critic in England. His fiction doesn't get the attention it deserves. His first novel Song of Names won a Whitbread First Novel award.

I would have put Elinor Lipman's The Inn at Lake Devine, but I don't think the title is as forgotten here in the US as they may be in the rest of the world.

What would you like to nominate? And don't forget to enter the giveaway if you meet the criteria and are willing to take a solemn oath.

27 February 2011

Book Review: Two Stories by Mrs. Oliphant

   
As it happens the only Persephone in my TBR nightstand was The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Mrs. Oliphant. It is coupled with another story Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund.

I enjoyed both stories, but as I am still feeling unbloggy, I am going to let others speak for me. A rare occurrence indeed. (I will say that I caught the Brown reference in the Mrs. Blencarrow almost immediately.)

Hayley at Desperate Reader

Claire at Paperback Reader

25 February 2011

Feeling Unbloggy

  

The Return of Persephone [Reading Weekend]
Frederic Leighton
Just a few bits and bobs for a Friday. I am not in much of a bloggy mood right now.

Persephone Weekend
Last year I had a blast and a half participating in the Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire and Verity. This year they have winnowed it down to a more host-friendly weekend. I will do at least one Persephone review, but I think this year I will quietly enjoy everyone else's Persephone posts. (Is "else's" a word?)

Spy Fiction
I think I am giving up on John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I kind of like all of the British intelligence agency background detail, but at page 165 it doesn't seem to be much else. Even as I write this I am tempted not to give up. Early in 2010 I read The Arena which is a crime novel, but it had some elements of intelligence agency/international intrigue that kind of piqued my interest in the a spy novel so I asked around the blogosphere for recommendations and came up with TTSS. I don't think the recommendations were wrong, I just think my interest in this type of fiction is more limited than I thought.

A Clockwork Orange
Last night while walking Lucy, I got into a bit of a verbal altercation that probably escalated more than it needed to. I was totally in the right, but I let my OCD need to communicate exactly why the other person was wrong get the best of me. He was just so damn condescending (and wrong) that I couldn't let it go. The net effect is that I felt a little sick to my stomach afterwards. That makes it sound more ominous than it was. It really was just a garden-variety altercation. But I have made a lot of progress in NOT being the cranky person who just gets crankier and crankier as he realizes that everyone else is an idiot. I guess the occasional slip is to be expected. It is kind of like the aversion therapy in A Clockwork Orange. I have seen the crazy movie but not read the book, but in that story a violent hooligan is injected with an illness-inducing drug while being exposed to violent images. The effect is that he eschews violence lest he become ill. In a much, much more milder form, these days when I get all hot and bothered over something, I get a little queasy afterwards.

Fewer Lesses and More Fewers
Literacy is a never-ending journey. It wasn't until I was getting my second Master's degree that I began to understand that the words "less" and "fewer" were not interchangeable. Simply put, the word "less" applies to things that are uncountable and "fewer" applies to things that can be counted. So something may have "less fat" by virtue of having "fewer grams of fat". Once I fully took this concept on, I couldn't keep myself from correcting people (in my head) every time they used "less" when they should have used "fewer". But now I have gotten myself to the point where anytime anyone uses the word "less", even when it is being used correctly, I change it to "fewer" in my head. It is like it has become an OCD (ah, mentioned twice now in this post) Mad Lib game for me. The other day on TV I heard someone say "I am less concerned about that" and in my head I changed it to "I am fewer concerned about that". I've gone mental.


23 February 2011

Seen on the Subway

   
Earlier this month I wrote a post called Seen on the Bus about books that I had seen in the course of my commute. It was based on a feature that Karen, of the now shuttered blog Bookish NYC, used to do on a weekly basis. Based on all the encouraging comments I got on that post, I thought I would give it a whirl.

Here are my ground rules:
  1. I probably will not post weekly. I am too busy reading on my commute to get a glimpse of what everyone is reading. As soon as I have at least three sightings worthy of a noting, I will post them.
  2. In general I won't comment on anything to do with vampires, girl with the Steig Larsson books, or on blockbuster authors like Patterson or Koontz or other books too ubiquitous to be interesting.
  3. Even though I am calling this Seen on the Subway, I will post about books I see anywhere on my commute whether it is bus stop, bus, subway platform, or subway.
Since my Seen on the Bus post, I haven't really seen anything that trips my trigger in the same way that the previous post did. In fact it was hard work coming up with three books over the past 12 days. Just hard to catch titles sometimes. I was probably trying too hard.

So here goes the first installment.


Cutting for Stone by Abraham Veghese
The Reader: Twenty-something blond woman with briefcase and Lulu Lemon bag travelling on the Red Line. I must admit I actually had to follow this reader for a while before I could catch a glimpse of the title. I finally managed to catch it on the escalator. (We were both making the same transfer to the Green Line, so it isn't like I went out of my way. I am trying hard not to be a book reader-stalker here.)

The Book: Publishers Weekly summarizes: "Lauded for his sensitive memoir (My Own Country) about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences in a magnificent, sweeping novel that moves from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York City over decades and generations."

The Verdict: It sounds interesting especially since I am feeling a bit more international these days. But I don't think I will go out of my way to find this one.

All Other Nights by Dara Horn
The Reader: Rather nattily dressed man with round spectacles, tweed jacket, sweater, and a rep tie waiting for the Yellow Line at Gallery Place.

The Book: A novel about the U.S. Civil War from a Jewish perspective.

The Verdict: A fascinating topic (and one I had never before considered) but not one I am likely to want to read. I would however watch a documentary on the topic or see the film adaptation.

State of Fear by Michael Crichton
The Reader: Stocky guy with a Federal Highways Administration lanyard waiting for the Green Line.

The Book: This one appears to be a novel about how wrong the scientific community is about global warming.

The Verdict: I liked Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, and long before the disappointing films I liked Jurassic Park, but this one seems to be an attempt to discredit the notion of global warming. Certainly helps explain why he was a "science" confidante of George W. Bush. I have no interest whatsoever in reading this one.

20 February 2011

Sunday Painting: The City by Robert Delaunay

The European setting of Bernhard Schlink's Homecoming, which I reviewed earlier today, made this painting seem appropriate for my Sunday Painting.

Study for The City, 1909-10
Robert Delaunay (1885-1941)
Tate Gallery

Book Review: Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink

    
In my reading, Bernhard Schlink is now 2 for 2. I thought The Reader was amazing, and while I don't think the plot of Homecoming is as tight as The Reader, it is still a compelling, well-written novel that encouraged all the appropriate emotional reactions. And like The Reader, Homecoming deals with the Nazi legacy in Germany. Regular folks trying to deal with (or forget about) their individual or collective culpability in genocide. Unlike The Reader, however, Homecoming takes a more philosophical look at good and evil and never really broaches the details of Nazi barbarism explicitly.

In Homecoming Schlink weaves the tale of Peter Debauer who attempts to track down the ending of a novel. He has an incomplete proof copy of a novel that his Swiss grandparent's edited that is missing not only the ending but also any indication of author or title. Peter's search for the ending and the identity of the author lead him not only to find love but also to discover more than a few secrets about his past. (As Peter tries to track down people and publications all I could think about was how much easier it would have been if Google had been around. It was to the point where I found myself having a hard time imagining how he could even attempt his searches without the Internet. Amazing how the "old" ways can disappear so quickly.)

I am tempted to say that Schlink writes historical and legal fiction, but I am not sure if his work would really fit into those genre. It seems too readable for that. His writing is never pedantic nor pedagogical. The points of history or law introduced into his novels are expertly woven into the emotional, relationship-oriented drama. His characters and their motivations, while sometimes alien to the reader, are wholly believable. And you find yourself caring quite a bit about the characters. As I mentioned earlier, the plot in Homecoming wasn't as tight as it could have been. There are a few twists and turns that are too pat. And there are others that seemed rather clumsy. Like Schlink had too much he wanted to say. Still, there is nothing in this criticism that should keep you from reading Homecoming. There is much here that makes you think, and perhaps more importantly for a novel, makes you feel.

[It is hard to mention The Reader without mentioning the amazing film adaptation. I really thought that was a fantastic film. And Kate Winslet is easily one of the best actors of our time.]

17 February 2011

My love/hate relationship with big box booksellers

Not Borders.
Borders, the bane of so many small, independent bookstores has gone into full meltdown. Filing for bankruptcy this week, Borders plans to shutter most of its stores. I wouldn't be surprised if this were just the prelude to end of the chain's final demise.

Like many of you, my relationship with big box booksellers has been confusing to say the least. Having grown up in the far suburbs of Minneapolis the nearest bookstore (that I knew of) was a pitiful B. Dalton at Northtown Mall about 30 minutes from my home. I didn't know it was pitiful at the time. I loved the place. But in contrast to the big boxes that would emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that little B. Dalton was indeed pitiful. (Of course in retrospect the mall itself was, and probably still is, pitiful as well, but it was like Shangri-La to a kid from the sticks.)

Then in college I was exposed to independent bookstores in Minneapolis like Odegard Books and Baxter Books. And of course there was the wonderful (and new to me) world of used bookstores. The Book House in Dinkytown was a particular favorite. But then sometime around 1989 or so I went to my first Barnes and Noble in Roseville. Fifty thousand square feet of books. I couldn't quite believe how much fun it was.

Not long after this I began to understand the socio-economic-geo-politico-david-goliath implications of big box retailers in general and booksellers in particular. The two arguments most often heard from the independents were that the independents offered much better customer service and that the big boys would have a homogenizing effect on book publishing.  No doubt the big guys have had an impact on publishing but I have a hard time believing too much in the homogenizing horrors that were predicted. My access to small presses and esoteric books has never been better. (Of course that is thanks to the Internet, which has its own set of issues.)

And as for the smaller guys having better customer service, that hasn't necessarily been true in my experience. In fact, in late 1999 I took an evening job at the very same Barnes and Noble that I first walked into a decade earlier. It turned out to be an amazing experience. Not only did I love working in a bookstore, but I was really impressed with the book knowledge of my co-workers. We really knew our books. Workers had specialities for sure and weren't necessarily experts at everything, but it was truly wonderful how well our in-store network of knowledge worked for the customer.

This still doesn't mean that I am a total fan of big box booksellers, but they have been really helpful over the years. When I moved to Honolulu (sight unseen) in 1995, I was definitely missing the familiarity of my life back on the mainland. The one spot in town that made me feel at home was the Borders. It was a giant book oasis in a town that had pretty awful small bookstores. The fact that it was within spitting distance of the beach and gorgeous Pacific Ocean didn't hurt it much either.

Over the years I gradually moved away from the big boxes favoring either small bookshops, or more often second hand bookshops. And when I do favor the big boxes these days I much prefer Barnes and Noble. I also prefer Barnes and Noble online over Amazon. I like the fact the B and N is primarily about books as opposed to Amazon's we sell everything approach.

And let's face it, for those of us who can remember the lifestyle shopping center boom of the 1990s the demise of Borders can't be too much of a surprise. For those that don't know what I am talking about, retailing in the 1980s was all about the regional and sub-regional mall. Enclosed shopping centers with a few department store anchors linked together by chain stores. In the 1990s we started to see glorified and yuppified strip malls pop up. But instead of the mattress stores and beauty shops they had things like Borders, REI, Old Navy, Petco, Staples/Office Depot and even Tower Records. And the stores were big. And the Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Records seemed to be less about buying and more about browsing, meeting friends, having coffee, and experiencing the product in the store.

The fun and abundance of these wonderfully big mega book stores seemed to go perfectly, and ironically, hand in hand with the tech boom of the '90s. Everything looked rosy, people were making money hand over fist, the tech companies taught us that life and work were supposed to be fun, fun, fun. And the stores were everywhere. Every suburb seem to have its own giant Borders or Barnes and Noble or both. I could never go into to one without thinking "who reads all these books?" I did, but I knew I wasn't in the majority. So how were these stores staying open?

The original tech boom quickly went bust because the thousands of Internet start-ups knew how to have fun but didn't know how to make money. Now that Internet commerce has come of age, the bricks and mortar stores that thought that abundance and fun, fun, fun would help save them are feeling the death blow from the Internet and perhaps the advent of the e-book.

So am I happy or sad that Borders is going belly up? I don't know. I would be greatly depressed if brick and mortar book stores, whether big or small, become too hard to find. But then there is a part of me that thinks that secondhand shops will never disappear. But who am I to try and predict the future? I do grieve the loss of Tower Records a few years back. Far worse than small bookstores, small record stores, especially those who carry classical music, have become harder to find than dinosaurs. Tower was the only game in town if you wanted to see rows and rows of classical CDs. Sigh. I really miss them. Buying classical music on iTunes is a bit of a joke and going to CD retailers on line makes it much harder to discover new and unique classical music.

Which puts me in mind of the human cost. Back when Tower was open here in DC there was a manager there, probably in his later 40s at the time who used to be fairly knowledgeable about classical music. After Tower disappeared, he reappeared at the big Borders here in town. I just saw him in there the other day and wondered how long his job would last. And where a fifty-something man, who had obviously made his life in retail would find his next job. Starbucks?

15 February 2011

Book Review: The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

  
Huh. I am not sure where to begin on this one. Many people I respect really like this McEwan novel, but I don't. There were parts of the story line that I found interesting, but taking it all as a whole I thought it was a little contrived and some passages were downright tedious. I can only handle so many dream sequences, day dreams, imagined situations, and narrative ambiguity. I feel like McEwan tried too hard to weave together too many narrative strands to illustrate and generally reinforce the meta-theme of the book--which appeared to have something to do with childhood. The kidnapping of his child (that's not a spoiler), the breakdown of his marriage, his parents' relationship, his friend's career/mental health, a government subcommittee all employed to say something about childhood and apparently something about Thatcher's Britain.

And there were three scenes that I found stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief to the breaking point. Not surprisingly for my OCD mind, they weren't the quasi-ghost stories sprinkled here and there. It had more to do with details that I just didn't find plausible. The scene where Stephen thinks he has found his daughter would never have played out the way that it did. Even in the relatively innocent days of 1987 a strange adult would never have been allowed access to a nine-year old student even if in the presence of the headmaster. The scene where the Prime Minister comes to visit read like a bad Hollywood movie. And the scene where he hops a ride in the engine of a train. Yeah right.

I forgive anyone who finds me a bit thick for not getting this book. I am sure there is something important here. McEwan is a great writer and I have enjoyed many of his books, and indeed I found some parts of this book very compelling and enjoyable. But overall it was just a little tedious and precious. I am not prepared to say that I absolutely did not like it, but I came close.

13 February 2011

Sunday Painting: Landscape by Charles Sheeler


Landscape, 1930
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
The Museum of Modern Art
   

Book Review: End of a Mission by Heinrich Boll

    
For a short time there was a great little travel bookstore here in DC. What made the store unique is that they would tuck in amongst the travel guides and travel writing works of fiction representative of each country. It was there that I stumbled across my first Heinrich Boll, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. I ended up loving the rather spare, precise way that the story unfolded. Since then I have read two other Boll works and liked them less. And with this most recent title I am left wondering if I truly like Boll or just liked that one book. At only 206 pages I assumed that I would fly through End of a Mission. But that wasn't the case. Since I bought the book sometime back in 2009 it has been in my nightstand. There have been many times I thought I was in the mood to read it. I even took it on several vacations. Yet it stayed unread for a long time, always returning to my nightstand. Several months ago I finally got into the rhythm of the book and started to enjoy it. But even then I got distracted by some other book about half way through it and so it sat for at another couple of months until the TBR Dare made me face all of my nightstand reading with renewed committment.

So what is this book about? The whole of the narrative follows the trial of a father and son who have been arrested for setting fire to an army vehicle. I think part of my disappointment in the book is that I was expecting a different kind of book. I thought that there was going to be some great reason for their action and expected more of a plot. Instead End of a Mission is like a tableau of personalities. Taking place in a small village every character is truly a character. All of the quirkiness of village life and relationships are played out in the descriptions and actions of everyone from judge to bailiff, to lawyers, police, witnesses, innkeepers, observers, the press and of course the accused father and son. It also took me a while to realize that much of the book is meant to be humorous. Throughout the book Boll shows the somewhat absurd juxtaposition of a society that likes rules at the same time that it seems to be rebelling against them. Perhaps it is in the wake of World War II and the role of law and order in the Holocaust that prompts these small town Germans to want to thumb their noses at authority. But even then there is an almost orderly quality to their small acts of rebellion. Being at least one quarter German and one quarter control freak, I often feel an affinity for the stereotype of German precision and linear thinking. I had a history professor in college who abhorred any attempts to define a national character, either for individuals or for the collective society. But darn if it isn't satisfying to trade in generalities sometimes.

There were moments that I enjoyed, and there are many aspects that would make End of a Mission a good book for discussion. But not a book club discussion. I think it would do much better in a more academic setting, and one that was focused more on German post-WWII history rather than one specifically about literature. For these reasons I am wavering between giving this book a 5 (ambivalent) on the My Porch Scale or a 6 (almost liked it).

    
  

12 February 2011

Book Review: The Professor's House by Willa Cather

  

I first read The Professor's House by Willa Cather in 2003. At the time I was captivated by the novel and ranked it as one of my all time favorites. Since then I have recommended it widely and have been happy to see it crop up with some frequency on various book blogs. Most recently Karen at Books and Chocolate read it during Virago Reading Week. Reading Karen's review made me want to go back and re-read the book to see if my initial love of the book would stand. Thankfully I had a paperback edition of it in my nightstand so I could remain true to the TBR Dare.

In the latter days of his academic career at a small university on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Professor Godfrey St. Peter decides he isn't quite ready to leave behind his quirky old study when he and his wife are meant to be moving into their new house. He contemplates his career, his wife, his grown daughters and their husbands, and most significantly, his relationship with Tom Outland a protege who was much like a son to St. Peter and who was killed in World War I. After convincing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law to go off to Europe without him, St. Peter means to edit Outland's diary. As he prepares an introduction to the diary, St. Peter recounts Outland's life before they met. A major chunk of the book is about Outland's life in New Mexico, where among other things, he discovered a group of abandoned cliff dwellings. St. Peter's summer alone with his thoughts brings new clarity to his life, both past and future.

When I first read The Professor's House back in '03, I saw it mainly as the story of someone who wanted a little solitude. Being quite independent myself with a tendency toward being a loner, I really identified with that. Now seven years later, I can still see that in the book, but it seems like a minor detail given all of the other thoughts and emotions St. Peter processes. Through Outland's story St. Peter comes to terms with what his own life has turned out to be and how different it is from what St. Peter thinks is truly important. There is much that could be considered melancholy in this book, but I find that the overall feeling is really about hope and possibility. As the blurb on the book notes, St. Peter turns emotional dislocation into renewal.

I feel an affinity for St. Peter's intellectual and emotional outlook. He is someone I would like to know, or be. For that reason alone, The Professor's House is wonderful. But their is also something about the section on Tom Outland's life in New Mexico that I find breathtaking at times. Cather does a brilliant job evoking the beauty and spiritual timelessness of New Mexico. Several years ago I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico. While I was there I went up into the Gila National Forest alone and saw some cliff dwellings for myself. Set on a green wooded mountain, on a beautifully crisp, sunny February morning, I felt like I had been transported to another time, and not just in an intellectual and historical sense. There was something about the dry, clean air, the brilliant blue sky, and the amazing quiet that I found quite moving. The contemplation of geology and nature, and geologic time in particular, is perhaps the closest I come to any sort spirituality. I find something oddly comforting in the fact that my life is just an infinitesimal blip in the billions of years of geologic processes that happened before me and will happen after me. And that my body will become part of that geology. I should be clear that I am conflating Tom Outland's story with my own experience in New Mexico. Cather's text doesn't really strive to be so lofty, but it does say important things about what is truly ours and what is important in life. Having said that, one does not need to find or even want to find something spiritual in this book to thoroughly enjoy it.

There is one scene as Tom contemplates the cliff dwellings that reminded me of the A Month in the Country, the last book I read. In that book, Tom Birkin feels a certain connection to the the painter of a work he is uncovering five hundred years after its creation. Tom Outland's experience discovering the cliff dwellings is similar:
To people off alone, as we were, there is something stirring about finding evidences of human labour and care in the soil of an empty country. It comes to you as a sort of message, makes you feel differently about the ground you walk on every day.
      
For a interesting analysis of this book and some great photos check out Nearly Lucid.      

10 February 2011

Seen on the Bus

  
Before she ended her blog Bookish NYC, I used to love reading Karen's weekly post about the books she saw people reading on the subway that week. I have often contemplated doing something similar on my blog, but I know I wouldn't be as good as Karen was at describing the people who were reading the books.

And then part of me didn't want to do it here in DC because it seemed that most folks on the Metro here read either non-fiction, bibles/daily devotional books, or news periodicals. Non of which I find interesting enough to blog about.

But, since moving to our new neighborhood, I have been surprised to see people on my local bus to the Metro reading lots of interesting fiction. No "Girl with the Whatever" books, no vampire books. Instead I have seen things like Anita Brookner and Elizabeth Bowen and even a Barbara Pym. And sure, there are still plenty of people reading the previously mentioned stuff I don't feel like blogging about. But given the rather wonky make up of my new neighborhood (25% have bachelor's degrees and an additional 36% have graduate degrees) rather than the de rigeuer copies of The New Yorker or The Economist that are everywhere in DC, you see things like Meteoritics and Planetary Science. And, although it may be non-fiction I saw a young woman reading Mad World, the story of Evelyn Waugh and the writing of Brideshead Revisited.

I still don't plan to follow in Karen's footsteps, but on Monday on the morning bus I couldn't help but note the following:

Trim, tidy, forty-something gentleman with briefcase reading Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. If MT is anything like Dos Passos' USA trilogy, I wouldn't exactly call it light reading.

Casual thirty-something guy who looks like he has young kids and who usually has an e-reader had a wonderful. slightly ratty old Penguin Classics edition of V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas.

And then there was me with my copy of Heinrich Boll's End of a Mission.

Book Review: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

   
Tom Birkin, a Londoner, and a somewhat shell-shocked veteran of World War I arrives in Yorkshire to uncover a suspected wall painting in the village church. Written as a memoir, Birkin's story is equal parts country idyll, love story, and ethnographic sketch. Over only 135 pages, Carr's poetic writing conjures up so many moving, beautiful, and humorous images, I feel very clumsy writing about it.

Through Birkin's experience we meet the people of Oxgodby and are introduced to their various quirks and natural distrust of a city boy from the South. We learn the value of vocation and art for their own sake. And we see Birkin slip almost imperceptibly into the life of the village. He takes up Methodism despite working and literally living in an Anglican church, becomes close friends with Charles Moon a fellow WWI vet who has been hired to unearth the grave of the ancestor of an important local family, becomes an honorary member of the Ellerbeck family, and falls in love with the vicar's wife.

Passages like this transported me to Birkin's bucolic time in Oxgodby:
There was so much time that marvelous summer. Day after day, mist rose from the meadow as the sky lightened and hedges, barns and woods took shape until, at last, the long curving back of the hills lifted from the Plain.
And there are many scenes that beautifully describe connections to the past.
...their mother worked out how it was with me and usually sent a bit of whatever was being manufactured in her kitchen--rabbit pie, a couple of currant teacakes, two or three curd tarts. So, over the weeks, a splendid repertory of North Riding dishes was performed amanti bravura to an applauding Londoner, dishes Mrs. Ellerbeck had helped her mother bake, who had helped her mother bake who...Sometimes I'd share this bounty with Moon and it was he who suggested that we were eating disposable archaeology.
Similarly, both Birkin, in the course of his work restoring the painting, and Moon in his archaeological digging, contemplate the creators of the work they are unearthing. Here is Moon asking Birkin about the unknown artist:
"How are you two getting on together?" Moon would say, waving a hand at my wall. "Do you ever feel him breathing down your neck, nudging you--'Good lad, Birkin! Attaboy!' You must know him pretty well. Go on--tell me about him. who was he?"
Birkin contemplates how alien the idea of fame would have been to this unknown master.
And the idea that his work might be minutely observed five hundred years after his death would have been preposterous. In his day, buildings were being drastically remodeled every fifty years as fashions changed, so that my man would calculate his painting, at the longest would last no more than a couple of generations.
Not only would this unknown artist never have contemplated the immortal nature of his work, he certainly wouldn't have supposed that Birkin, five hundred years later could intelligently deduce that in addition to being right handed, likely a monk, and didn't trust his apprentice, the artist
...was fair-headed; hairs kept turning up where his beard had prodded into tacky paint, particularly the outlining in red ochre which he'd based in linseed oil. There was no mistaking it for brush hair which was recognizable from its length, an inch, never more than an inch and half. Sow's bristle for the rough jobs, badger's gray for precision.
He also surmises something about the unknown artist's end. But I don't want to give too much away. What has just occurred to me as I write this is that Birkin's restoration work, his contribution to history, as well as his connection with Oxgodby becomes similarly anonymous as it was for the original artist. It is enough for Birkin to have played his part in a continuum of human endeavor as well as to have had, at least for one summer, received so much from his time in Oxgodby.

This review is a little over wrought and under thunk. I warned you that was going to be tough to write about this little gem. I think it is a beautiful book and it gives me deep comfort about my place in the cosmos.

09 February 2011

Book Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

   

Fascinating book overcomes deep-seated reading quirks.

As regular readers of My Porch will know, in the pantheon of quirks related to my reading habits perhaps none is more stubbornly ingrained in my psyche than my inability to embrace (or even read) books handed to me by others. Don't get me wrong, I have read many, many, wonderful books recommended by friends and bloggers. But there is something about the act of someone actually handing me a book, and the expectations that go along with that act, that makes it hard for me to want to read the book. This knee-jerk aversion is almost entirely a function of deep seated control issues that makes "no" my initial response to almost everything. Thankfully I have worked hard on getting over that and even if I say "no" right off the bat, I will often quickly change course to "maybe" or even "yes".

Back in May we were visiting friends in Sonoma, California when we got to talking about books. One of our friends handed me In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and said that he thought I would enjoy it. Working against my natural inclinations, and trusting this friend's judgment, I cheerfully accepted the book and was intrigued with its premise. But then I get back to DC, the book gets added to my nightstand TBR* pile, and the reality of "no" starts to hover over the book. Not only is it languishing unread because of my control issues, but it is a collection of linked short stories. Normally, short stories are not my cup of tea, but last year I read a number of great collections that had me rethinking my dislike of the form. And there was still one other hurdle to overcome. The stories are set in Pakistan. Nothing against Pakistan, but my reading tastes tend to focus on North America, the UK, and parts of Europe. Xenophobic as it may be, I am just disinclined to go beyond that geographically and culturally narrow (but richly populated) band of reading material.

So, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders sat and sat until the TBR Dare prodded me to look at it in a new light and with some enthusiasm. Granted, I was thinking I would just read it to finally get it off of my plate, but at least I was going to read it. Imagine my surprise when I ended up liking it.

Each of the linked stories are wholly compelling. As I often discover when I read outside my comfort zone, I was fascinated by the contrast between the action and setting of the stories and my own comfortable life. Interwoven around a modern day feudal landowner, his family, his employees, and his servants, the stories run the gambit from the halls of wealth and power to the basest of living conditions. What was most surprising to me was the corrupt, wild west kind of mentality that pervades most of the stories. Either as background, or as a major component of the plot, and in every socio-economic strata, corruption is everywhere. And for so many of the characters, rich and poor, the corruption is both the reason for their situation as well as the avenue for escaping poverty or maintaining wealth. Some of it is garden variety greasing the wheels of justice and business with bribes, but in other cases it is violent and desperate. And as with women all over the world, the women in the stories are the ones most often at the biggest disadvantage, many resorting to sexual favors for survival. (Now that I reflect on it, I am struck by how well Mueenuddin writes about the plight of women.)

As gloomy as some of the scenarios can be, they are not without beauty and humor.  And Mueenuddin paints a vivid picture of life in Pakistan. One can almost feel the heat and smell the food. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a National Book Award finalist and it is easy to see why. I am glad I overcame my natural disinclination to read this book. Had I not, I would have missed out on a fascinating world and a well written book. And it will make me less resistant the next time someone hands me a book. (But don't do it until after April 1st when the TBR Dare ends.)

*TBR = to be read

06 February 2011

Super Bowl Sunday

   
If you are like me you couldn't care less about football and the Super Bowl. So I thought I would try a different kind of super bowl Sunday. Also check out this week's Sunday Painting, and my TBR Dare update.
Footed Bowl by Frances Palmer

Hammered Stainless Steel by Simon Pearce

Ceramic bowl made by a friend.
 
Urchin Bowl by Element Clay Studio

A bowl in the spa at our hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Basalt bowl by Wedgwood

Ancient Celtic bowl

Beautiful, simple ironstone bowl found on Faded Plains

Lots of bowls at John Derian


And how could I forget hotty Jeremy Northam holding this golden bowl from
the movie adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl

Sunday Painting: The Bronze Horses of San Marco by Charles Caryl Coleman

    
The Bronze Horses of San Marco, 1876
Charles Caryl Coleman (1840-1928)
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
   

05 February 2011

TBR Dare Check In

 

At just over a month into the TBR Dare, I am, for the most part, loving it. As you may recall, rather than reading from my full TBR pile of some 300+ books, I decided to narrow the dare down to the 42 books in my nightstand. Since I had such a wide range of books in my nightstand, I have been actually having a great time focusing on them. I also have the added satisfaction of moving through some titles that I have been avoiding or have been slow to warm to. With the exception of the Henry James and one book that I decided not to continue with, I have enjoyed even the ones that were previously hard to get into. It can sometimes be rewarding to be "forced" to read certain books.

This morning I was perusing my library and was struck by all of the books that I want to read. It was the first time since beginning the dare that I really had the desire to read something off limits. As I sometimes do, I started to leaf through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. In doing so, I realized that I have read two more of the 1001 since the last time I leafed through it (War and Peace and The Golden Notebook). I also began to notice just how many of the books in my TBR pile were also in the 1001 book. I have never consciously purchased books with the 1001 list in mind, so it is particularly interesting that so many of them are on my shelves. And thankfully 11 of the 42 in my nightstand are in the book. So instead of getting frustrated while leafing through the 1001 book, I realized just how good my nightstand TBR is and how it should be a cinch to get to April 1st without failing the TBR Dare. Plus, just think how many more titles in the 1001 book I will get to check off come April 1st.

I couldn't post about this without noting that, like all lists, the 1001 book is by no means perfect. They have a pretty good cross section but it is heavily 20th century, I guess critics don't read many classics. And in some cases I think they highlight some authors a little too much. Although I like Ian McEwan I think they list too many of his books especially when some great authors aren't included at all. And does any list really need that much D.H. Lawrence? Of course it has all the ones you expect by Lawrence, but it also has several I had never even heard of. I also think it has too many Amis, pere et fils.  I understand the list/book keeps getting updated since my 2006 edition, but I am not going to try and keep up with that. I am certainly not going to buy a new copy.

So, in a nutshell I am really finding the TBR Dare to be quite satisfying.


Of these books (my nightstand TBR pile), the following are listed in the 1001 book:

The Amis, Bowen, Cather, Coetzee (Petersburg), Eliot, Le Carre, both McEwan, both Mitford, and the West.

01 February 2011

Winners of Virago Giveaways

 
The winner of the random draw for my extra copy of The Lost Traveller by Antonia White is:

 Susan in TX

So email me your mailing address Susan. A little bit of Virago will be heading the Lone Star State.

The cover contest also turned into a random draw since everyone who sent me an email got all four titles correct. It must have been easier than I thought. How did you all do it? What was your technique?

Since Virago have agreed to fulfill the winner of this competition, I decided to pick two winners. Virago will take care of one winner and I will take care of the other. The winners can be found after the images of the mystery covers.





And the two winners out of 21 correct entries are:

Michelle Foong and Karen Librarian

Both of you have one week to email me and let me know which Virago currently in print you would like to have and where it should be sent.

Thanks to all who entered. It was a lot of fun.