29 January 2012

Shelf Esteem No. 9

Cozy Factor: The warm wood and the well-worn look of the books certainly give it some cozy, but it is hard to tell without seeing the rest of the room. I have hunch it may be a loft space so it may not have the coziness of a library but I bet the shelves add to the overall cozy of the room. I think the wood floors could use a rug.

The Shelves: I think they are beautifully made and are a nice warm color. They look like they adjustable which is kind attractive to me. Stacking books horizontally (as I do in some cases) might be difficult given the fact that the vertical members only up half way.

The Books: Lots of philosophy, lit crit, and poetry on the shelves. Very few discernible novels. The books stacked on the floor look like stuff that she picked up while aimlessly browsing the tables at her local Barnes and Noble. Three by Anthony Bourdain, an picture book of ironically bad hair cuts, the book Rats which I have read and has some fascinating information among the filler.

Is this person a reader? Well she appears to be reading right now...assuming this is her library, I would say that she is a reader, but her reading has changed. My guess is she was philosophy major and perhaps even got a Master's degree before going to law school. Now that she is safely on the partner tract at work she is only now starting to read again after a decade's hiatus. All the new books arranged in the foreground suggest that her current reading tastes are not as lofty as they once were.

The book I would read if I had to pick one: Mongo: Adventures in Trash in which author Ted Botha explores the world of trash in NYC and those who collect and reuse objects discarded by others.


27 January 2012

My OCD also applies to kayak rentals

Often when we are on vacation John suggests renting something: bikes, scooters, kayaks, canoes, etc. and it makes me crazy. Why? With the exception of scooters (riding in traffic on a tin can with a lawn mower motor, no thanks), these are things I actually like to do. So why do I resist? Because while he is thinking of the result (having fun) all I can think of are logistics.

I just started to make a list of the logistical details that overwhelm me and any desire I may have to have fun, and I am embarassed at how petty and inconsequential they are. Yet they often keep us from doing things. How has John put up with this for almost 10 years? There is also an inherited trait that keeps me from asking simple questions that could clear up some hesitation--it stems from a desire to not bother people and to not look like I don't know what I am doing. How foolish is that? And then, to cap all of this off is my need to get places. I have a hard time enjoying journeys. Why can't everyone understand that getting to point B is the point of everything. You can see how taking scenic drives are sometime lost on me. No John we can't stop at that scenic overlook because we have somewhere to be...even when we don't.

All of this means, that in every facet of my life, my initial reaction to EVERYTHING is "no". I am getting better at keeping this "no" to myself. This is especially important since often times the "no" turns to "yes" in a matter of seconds or minutes. And if I don't immediately articulate the "no" it gives me a chance a second or two later to not be a stick-in-the-mud. I am getting to the point where I almost seem spontaneous (almost) when we travel.  One of the ways I deal with it is to plan all the bits that are controllable to allow more space in between for spontaneity and things that are out of my control. But perhaps even more importantly is that I try not to worry about long strings of details that need to be dealt with in order to do something. Instead, I have gotten much better at just taking things one detail at a time. It's not to say I don't still visualize the whole arc of things that need to happen for a successful result. That, after all, can be a very good trait. But it does mean that I don't obsess that every one of those things is going to go wrong and therefore we shouldn't even bother trying.

Although I know John would agree that I have gotten much better about these things, I am guessing that he probably thinks I have some work to do.

Day Three
I took John back to Lanikai beach which is easily the nicest beach on O'ahu, and because of its location in a residential neighborhood is not subject to tour buses. The sand is fine and soft, the water is always perfect (except on the occasions when Portuguese men o'war are present), and the view is unbeatable. It is on the windward side of the island so it gets more cloud and rain than the Honolulu side of the island, but when the weather is nice Lanikai is the best.

And, WE RENTED A KAYAK.  There is a wonderful company called Hawaii Beach Time that not only rents kayaks, but they also rent chairs, umbrellas, coolers, and other beach equipment and they deliver to (and pick-up at) any beach on O'ahu.  It was brilliant.

We had a two-person kayak and paddled our way out this bird sanctuary off the coast. It was amazing. The water was gorgeous and the island was beautiful. I would do that again in a heartbeat.
This is a little grainy since it was taken on an iPad.
The island on the left is the bird sanctuary we kayaked out to.
Absolutely gorgeous.
After we were done at Lanikai we went back Honolulu via Makapuu and stopped more than once at scenic overlooks. In one case I even turned the car around to take a look at one. Progress.
Makapuu Beach Park
It was a spectacular final day on O'ahu capped off with an incredible meal at Town, a farm-to-table restaurant in the Kaimuki neighborhood.
Among other things Town had amazing bread and the best foccacia I have ever had.
And who knew that butter IN a pool of olive oil would be so delicious?
Photo credit: Pursuing Wabi

Book Review: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

At last.

Midnight's Children has been in my TBR pile for about a hundred years. Back as far as 1999 I owned a mass market edition that I tried to start but I didn't really make it past the first page. In one of my many moves since then I got rid of that unread copy thinking I probably wouldn't go near it again. But then sometime in the last year or so I found a cheap used trade paperback edition and thought that I really should give it another try. And I did, and maybe got to page three. I almost got rid of the book for a second time, but something made me keep it around and then I made the really bold move of putting it into my TBR Dare pile.

I have said it before and I will say it again, CB James' annual TBR Dare is one of the most brilliant book-blogger creations around. I know there are other "reading from my TBR pile" kind of memes, and challenges, and personal goals all over the blogosphere but I think he has found the perfect balance. One, it only runs for 3 months. No one has to face the daunting prospect of a whole year. Two, it starts at midnight on December 31st so one gets to capitalize on the whole new year, start fresh, get it done, resolution angle. Three, there are no prohibitions against buying or otherwise acquiring books during that period. One can shop shop shop (to use a Rushdian construction) and still participate. And four, it really is quite effective for focusing one's attention on books (good and bad) that deserve to be brought to the floor for an up or down vote rather than languishing in committee. (No idea why that metaphor popped into my head. I guess I have been in DC too long.)

And so here I am, having finally picked up and finished Midnight's Children. You know how sometimes long ignored (or dreaded) books finally just pop into your head and say "now is the time to read me"? One can try a book over and over and not get into it, and then one day, you just know that the time has come. And so it was with Salbass...er...Salman Rushdie (hat tip to Seinfeld).

This is no easy read at times. Not only is the book chock-a-block with Indian names, place names, and cultural references that aren't exactly a part of my lexicon or frame of reference (think of all the names in War and Peace), but then add to it Rushdie's writing style and large curry-scented gobs of magical realism.
Between the walls the children green the walls are green the Widow's arm comes snaking down the snake is green the children scream the fingernails are black they scratch the Widow's arm is hunting see the children run and scream the Widow's hand curls round them green and black. [sic--the whole damn, run-on sentence--sic, sic, sic]
Granted this passage is a fever-induced-dream sequence, but it isn't so far off from some parts of the narrative that one doesn't know its a dream for about a page and a half. That makes for some tough going. But working through the narrative it is hard not to find the novel fascinating, and compelling and quite enjoyable.

The basis of the plot is that our main character Saleem Sinai is a Muslim from Bombay who was born at the exact moment (midnight, August 15, 1947) that India achieved it's independence. And like the other thousand or so children born in India in that first hour of independence he has a special power, he can read minds and telepathically communicate with others. It is through this telepathy that he discovers at age 10 that there are about 400 other surviving Midnight Children that have other powers. I won't tell you any of the other powers because that is part of the fun of discovery in the book.

Exactly as old as his newly formed country, the events of Saleem's life are not only intrinsically entwined in events of the struggling, newly independent India, but there might also be some cause and effect between his actions and the trajectory of the national chaos. I have a strong desire to learn more about the history of India and Pakistan after reading this book. (Not to mention and overweening desire for a good curry.)

There is plenty of food for thought in this book--a perfect novel for a group read. So many things that bear discussion. It is easy to see why it is on the Modern Library list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th century it is an epic tale told in a fascinating (though challenging) way.
How does this happen?
Rushdie and his now ex-wife Padma Lakshmi.


26 January 2012

Book Review: The Flight From the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch

For all of its faults, I have the Modern Library's list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th century to thank for turning me onto the work of Iris Murdoch. Since 1999 I have read 15, well now 16, of her novels. Some I definitely like better than others but all of them are eminently worth reading. I am particularly fond of her early work. The first Murdoch I read was her first novel Under the Net. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember feeling an instant affinity for the book and Murdoch's writing. Published in 1956, her second novel The Flight From the Enchanter brought back the same feeling of discovery and excitement that I felt when I read Under the Net thirteen years ago.

I have often said that Murdoch's novels are like soap operas for literati. While grounded in unexceptional circumstances and familiar settings, her novels tend to have casts of characters that think long and hard about art, and politics, and morals, and god, and love and principles and then somewhat implausibly act on their convictions. They are full of high melodrama covered in a cloak of philosophical musings. Her characters rarely have affairs on the basis of mere lust. But they do have affairs, lots of them--especially in the later novels. But I am making observations, not judgements. I love this world of high stakes sexual politics. When I read her books I am always left thinking that the civil service and academia in Britain is nothing if not a steaming cauldron of sexual antics.

I realize I haven't said much specific about this particular Murdoch novel. Well to quote the back of the book it is "elegant, sparkling and unputdownable..." I couldn't agree more. Set in 1950s London, Enchanter follows a group of people, Rosa Keepe in particular, who adore and abhor the enigmatic Mischa Fox. As I read the book I tried hard to think of a contemporary example in real life, TV, film, or literature of a group of acquaintences who would choose someone "to be their god".  I think that the hero worship Murdoch writes about in Enchanter may not be relatable taken as a whole--as a life-organizing force, but I do think we all have moments of lunacy and bad judement based on such worship.

25 January 2012

Dumbing it Downton

God knows I love a costume drama. And, although I thought there were some flaws in the plot, I also enjoyed the first series of Downton Abbey.  But now that I am caught up on the second series I must say, I think it's really kind of lame. I won't catalogue the things that made me roll my eyes like I did when I watched the terrible film version of Possession because that film was acres worse than Downton. Besides the often clumsy plotting, blocking, and writing, the thing that most annoys me is that it seems like the writers got out the big bag of WWI-era English costume drama tricks and decided to use a little bit of everything. Even that would be okay if they actually broke some new ground. But they don't.

You can rent a pretty house and dress up a lot of pretty actors but if your script is lame the result will not be quite so pretty.

24 January 2012

Strolling Down Memory Lane in Honolulu

When I moved to DC the first time I was in my early 20s, had a degree in History and no real idea what I wanted to do with my life. I eventually decided that a graduate degree in Historic Preservation was what I wanted. Historic Preservation is an academic field that rarely stands alone--at least that was the case in 1994--some programs are in planning departments, some in architecture, some in history, econmics, geography, and American Studies. For reasons which are no longer clear to me, I decided I wanted an HP program within an American Studies department. Even more confusing to me now is why I chose to apply to the programs I did. I can, however, honestly say that I applied to the University of Hawai'i at Manoa based on what the HP program offered. I was not one of those people who fantasized about living in Hawai'i or other sunny clime so it wasn't the allure of the islands that prompted me to move, sight unseen, to the remotest populated islands in the world.

Being someone who has a healthy appreciation for a cloudy day, cool weather, and seasons, it isn't surprising that I found myself frustrated from time to time with life in Hawai'i. Being so far from all my friends and family and missing my East Coast lifestyle I never considered staying longer than the two years it took to get my degree. I also realized halfway through my American Studies degree that I really should have been getting a degree in planning (which I did about six years later at Cornell).

Depsite my many frustrations with living in Hawai'i (and all the twentysomething angst I experienced while I lived there) there is something wonderful about it that has stuck with me over the past 15 years. The thing I remember most fondly are the trade winds that are almost always blowing across the islands. They make for the most amazing evening breezes that give me such a groove I can't really explain it.

Much of the built environment in Honolulu is actually quite ugly, lots of cinder block buildings and a hodge podge of ramshackle old cottages and not very attractive high rises all mixed together. Yet I look at that urban landscape now and I find myself really loving it. I think it has to do with the layers of history that haven't been wiped away like they have in most other U.S. cities.

The food is interesting and diverse, and although it can feel isolated and provincial (sometimes very provincial) there really can be a wonderful sense of Aloha.  I hoped on this trip that John would see Honolulu through my slightly rose-colored glasses. In the past he has liked other, more picture-postcard parts of Hawai'i, but I wanted him to like Honolulu and the rest of O'ahu. Thankfully he did.

Day Two
We started the day early by heading off to Leonard's to get the best damn malasadas in the world. A malasada is a Portuguese raised sugar donut with no hole and they are so, so, so delicious. They are slightly eggier and chewier than a typical raised sugar donut. They are pretty much made to order and most people like them when they are still warm, but I must say I like them on the cool side. John disagrees with me on this but that was okay because it meant that I got to finish them off later in the day without having to share. It also meant that we went back on Day Three for more.

I wish I had one (or six) of these right now.

From Leonard's we drove through the University then deeper into the Manoa Valley to see Lyon Arboretum. I had a roommate when I lived in Honolulu who was always going there but I never went once in two years, my only interest then was the beach. But since John is a gardener I figured we should give it a go. We were really lucky because the Monoa Valley gets lots of rain (hence the lush plants) but it was perfectly sunny while were there.

After the arboretum we went downtown to have lunch with two of my former colleagues. Downtown Honolulu is not Waikiki, they are actually a mile or two apart. The former is workaday Honolulu and the latter is where a whole lot of tourists spend all of their time. Honolulu has the oldest Chinatown in the U.S. and has lots of great hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurants.
That is me with the bad posture.

Vietnamese Pho. Or what's left of it.

Live abalone.

And finally, after our trip downtown we stopped off at Ala Moana Beach Park which is kind of halfway between downtown and Waikiki--and across the street from a huge shopping mall.
Would you believe there is a Neiman Marcus about 200 yards from this?

While all the tourists hang out on the crowded beaches of Waikiki there is all of this beach at Ala Moana.
Granted, Ala Moana has a reef that keeps the beach from getting any waves and keeps the water shallow,
but it is still a great place to plop on the sand and splash around in the water.
The buildings in the midground are in Waikiki with Diamond Head in the background.

Do you want to see 1,212 pictures of Hawai'i?

Probably not, but that is how many pictures we (well, John) took while we were in Hawai'i for 8 days. You can imagine that a pretty smallish precentage of those are keepers. Often when we I get around to posting vacation pictures I get a little overwhelmed by the vast quantity of photos to choose from. So much so that I usually end up dumping lots of pictures without much in the way of explanation. But this time I really want to slow myself down so I can take some time to write about our experience in Hawai'i. As I have mentioned before, the first of my Master's degrees (American Studies/Historic Preservation) is from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. And because I lived in Honolulu from August 1995 to September 1997 I have a certain affinity for the place that visitors may not appreciate. I know that that is the case with John. This was our first trip to Hawai'i together, but he has been there about six other times, once on O'ahu (Honolulu) and the other trips on Maui, Lana'i, and the Big Island of Hawai'i. For many who visit O'ahu they see the crazy hustle bustle of Waikiki and all the traffic on the island and don't appreciate all there is to see on the island.

Knowing that John was less than excited to spend four of our eight days in Hawai'i on the island of O'ahu I told him ahead of time to think of it not as going to Hawai'i, but rather as going to see my old stomping grounds. Somewhere I spent two years of my life. And it worked. Thankfully the stars aligned and I was able to show him the full beauty and variety of O'ahu and we had a wonderful time there. (We also had a great time on Kaua'i which was a new island for him, but that is another story.)

Day One
On our first full day on O'ahu we had a very full schedule. We started with a morning drive across the pali (cliff) on the old Pali Highway stopping at the Pali Lookout on the way to the windward side of the island.

Our first stop was Lanikai, my favorite beach on O'ahu. We didn't stay too long but we did come back later in the week (will have more pictures later). One of the great things about Hawai'i is that there is no such thing as a private beach. Every inch of shore line in Hawai'i is public up to the high tide mark and regular public access to the beach is required in even the toniest of neighborhoods.

Then we headed past Kailua and Kaneohe on our way to the North Shore.
The Byodo-in Temple built in 1968 using no nails.
A lovely place nestled up against the pali.

Leaf graffiti at the temple.

Chinaman's Hat seen through the trees.

A fruit stand near Kuhuku.

The legendary Sunset Beach on the North Shore which has winter swells that keep all but the most experienced surfers out of the water. Otherwise broken bones and death await the idiots.
Surf was definitely up that day.

Waiting for a lull to paddle out to the distant surf.

Surfer, Ron Paul...it must have to do with pot laws.

This gives some idea of how inviting the water looked that day.
Doesn't the color of that water remind you of a wonderful, giant jacuzzi?

Double click on this one to make it bigger. Those are two young boys
and their boogie boards being launched in the air.
If the angry surf doesn't keep you from going in the red flag should.

And then back to Waikiki for drinks and pupus.
The evening view from our hotel room lanai.

Also the view from our hotel room. Waikiki is a very dense, urban place.
Definitely hard to find peace and quiet, but it has other charms.

I was going to say this was our first sunset from our hotel room, but it was actually our second.

23 January 2012

Book Review: Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson

It has been so long since I posted an actual book review that I feel like I don't remember how to do it. Plus, I finished reading Love's Shadow twenty-two days ago...it's a good thing my "reviews" don't cleave to any particular format or quality standard. That way I can't go wrong. Right?

This is the first of the brightly colored Bloomsbury Group reissues that I can say that I loved. I quite liked Miss Hargreaves but had my reservations. I was confused and semi-annoyed by The Brontes Went to Woolworths. And I was a little bored with Henrietta's War. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up this hot pink volume. But I needn't have worried, Love's Shadow is a fantastically fun book and a good read.

According to the back of the book Oscar Wilde once called Ada Leverson "the wittiest woman in the world". I am not sure I would go that far, but Leverson certainly is witty and gives Wilde himself a run for his money when it comes to droll one-liners and word-play. The story is loosely centered on Edith and Bruce Ottley but almost as much attention is to devoted to others in, and adjacent to, their social circle. Civil servant Bruce and his unshakable faith in his own theatrical talent provided some of the funniest bits of the book. His decision to make loads of money writing a hit play despite having no discernible writing talent, prior experience, or plot ideas made me picture him as a sort of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster kind of character.

Having finished this about three weeks ago, I certainly don't remember the details of the plot, but I am not sure it matters too much. The genius and fun of Love's Shadow is in the journey rather than the destination. In fact, now that I think about it, the other Bloomsbury Group books I mention above are similar. Perhaps if I had let myself enjoy the ride more, and surrendered to their slightly kooky premises, I might have found them more satisfying. That might be worth exploring in future re-reads.  In any event, Love's Shadow was a perfect way to ring in the new year and make quick progress on my sixty-odd book TBR Dare pile for the first three months of 2012.

21 January 2012

One does not need 2,800 pages for 12 days

Me not buying books at Talk Story on the island of Kaua'i.
(More on that later.)
It will be no surprise to any of you, either because of my previous idiocy, or because of your own habits, but I tend to pack way too much to read when I travel.  Believe me, I never actually think I am going to read so much in two weeks that I need 2,800 pages of reading, but I do worry that I won't have the variety of reading material to satisfy the unknown reading whims that may crop up while away from home. I mean what would happen if I were to get bored with the book I am reading and I still have four or five hours of flying time? That would be awful.

So for 8 days in Hawaii and 4 days in San Francisco I decided I needed:

The Flight From the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch (read all 286 pages)
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (read 359 of 521 pages)
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (read 5 of 860 pages)
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (read 0 of 609 pages)
Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman (read 0 of 307 pages)
According to Mark by Penelope Lively (read 0 of 217 pages)

It is true that the complexity of the Rushdie slowed me down considerably. If I had moved on to the Lipman and the Lively after the Murdoch, I would no doubt have read more. Still, the next time I contemplate carrying around 2,800 pages in my carry-on bag (over 6 legs of flying) I need to remind myself of the following:

1. Unless I am travelling to a non-English speaking country, I don't need to pack my entire library.

2. If the longest single flying leg is only five hours, I really don't need six books to ward off possible boredom with any one tome. Two books of different style or content would be enough variety for that long of a flight. I can always fall back on listening to music, looking at trashy magazines, watching movies, sleeping, eating, and talking to John.

3. It might actually be fun to have read something I found at one of the five great bookstores I visited while we travelled.

4. John and I are usually active enough that I don't have hours and hours and hours of reading time. Even on the two week trips to Maine I don't usually have as much reading time as I think I am going to.

5. If worse came to worse and I ran out of things to read I could alwasy download something on my iPad. But really hate reading in that format, so I will never not take actual books on a trip.

Many travel and reading related posts coming in the days ahead. I can't believe it is January 21st and I am only now making my first blog post of the year.