28 July 2013

How is this for catching up?

As most of you know, a while back I decided to stop writing full reviews in favor of much shorter blurbs about each of the books I completed. At the time I had totally run out of steam and found I wasn't writing anything about anything because I felt all the unfinished reviews piling up. And lets face it my idea of a full fledged review would hardly getting me printed in the local Pennysaver let alone the New York Times. So I decided to just write enough of a blurb so that the future-me could refer back to it and remember what a particular book was about and how I felt about it.

Somewhere along the way I even got too lazy to even do the blurbs. So today's post is going to be an avalanche of blurbs.

Witty diary of genteel British lady
The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield
This is the third PL book I have read, and while I have enjoyed them all, I think was the first time that I just accepted the PL for who she is and enjoyed her much more because of it. I could never quite tolerate her inability to balance her cheque book and to extricate herself from a whole lot of unpleasant/annoying social situations. But I guess third time is the charm. This time I just found it all rather amusing and only once or twice did I think how she may have handled something better.

Her trip to DC also had me thinking about giving someone the PL tour of Washington DC. Granted there isn't a lot on it, but it might still be fun.

The tragedies of imperialism
Burmese Days by George Orwell
A novel of a very small British ex-pat community at a remote station in Burma in the waning days of the empire. Flory, our tragic hero despairs of his life in Burma but realizes that after ten years he can't imagine living back in England. He hopes to marry the newly arrived niece of another ex-pat but then the realities of life in Burma set in and the divide between the two becomes too wide to brook. An enjoyable read despite a surfeit of tragedy. There are so many victims of circumstance it is hard not to feel sorry for them all.

This illustration makes Burmese Days seems much more happy-go-lucky than it really is.
Marrying a castle
The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Who doesn't love The Secret Garden? And I certainly loved an old copy of T. Tembarom I found and of course the Persephone edition of The Making of a Marchioness, but something about The Shuttle made me like it a lot less than those other two FHB novels. Basically, The Shuttle is a fictional account of the rich American heiress marrying a penniless British aristocrat. And of course he is a spendthrift asshole. It was fun enough to read a bit shallow and not all that compelling.

The ultimate comfort read by Buncle author
Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson's non-Buncle novels are not nearly as clever as her claim to fame. But my goodness they are fun to read. Total, wonderful, escapist, chaste, romance. Anna is widowed at 40 and left with very little money. So what? She up and moves from London to Scotland against all advice from solicitor, family and friends who all think she can't make it outside London society. I really don't need to tell you anymore. It writes itself.

Who wouldn't want to save a dying town?
Kindling (US) / Ruined City (UK) by Nevil Shute 
Nevil Shute is the master of male romance. Plenty of can do attitude, chivalrous adoration of females, and usually with more than a little engineering of some sort. (Of course Shute can also be master of racist language but that is another story.) In this case a wealthy financier resurrects a moribund ship building town in Northumberland before anyone knew WWII was on the way. Loved it.

Atmospheric, Mediterranean travels with tubercular poet boyfriend
Year Before Last by Kay Boyle
There were moments when I really didn't like this book, but overall I was quite taken with it. Boyle does a wonderful job evoking the lives of a woman who has run away from her husband to be with her poet lover who is in the pentultimate year of TB. Think late 1920s, southern Europe, living hand to mouth, love conquers all kind of travelogue.

Epic tale of WWI-era poet, his wife, his boyfriend and the scholars who care
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
I really wanted to like this book. I was quite please for the first 100 pages or so. But then, like I did with The  Line of Beauty, I got really bored and didn't really care about anyone in the book. Unlike The Line of Beauty, I actually managed to finish this one. I've liked early Hollinghurst but these days, I just don't care.

Cronin's most famous (but not best) tale of a provincial doctor
The Citadel by A.J. Cronin
A friend of mine who is head of English at an ex-pat British school recently had a student ask him to oversee a paper for her. (I'm no expert on the English ed system so I am sure I am about to say something incorrect.) She plans to be a doctor one day so she wants to write her paper on Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and The Citadel. Both are about doctors and both of those doctors pursue scientific studies. I'm not sure what my friend thought of Arrowsmith (I think it is a brilliant book) but I know that he wondered how the heck he would advise about The Citadel because it had next to no literary merit and he couldn't figure out what she could say about it from a literary criticism point of view. Since I stumbled across The Citadel while we were in Jackson earlier this month, I thought I would give it a go. I certainly enjoyed reading it. I am far from an expert on literary merit, but I could see what my friend meant when he said it didn't really have any. I also had to pause at some of the medical scenes described. Like the infant who goes 30 minutes without breathing while the doctor attends to saving the mother's life. Miraculously the infant is brought to life. Fine, but surely the baby must have had severe brain damage after 30 minutes without oxygen.

Growing up gay and Black in 1986
Blackbird by Larry Duplechan
This was another book I picked up at a great used bookstore in Jackson, WY when we were there earlier this month. Despite the pile of books I took with me I had a hankering to not be so constrained in my reading, a little free form if you will. Plus I wanted to support the bookseller who had unusually good stock that seemed to be selected just for me. Lately I have also had a hankering to re-read some of the gay fiction I read when I was in high school and just discovering what it meant to be gay (see also below for Dancer from the Dance). I had never read this one but thought I would give it a whirl. Blackbird is a wonderful, funny, romantic coming of age tale. Didn't matter that the protagonist was Black, I could understand quite well most of what he was going through. This was definitely a good, unexpected find.

When I was in high school these St. Martin's Press Stonewall Editions were like manna from heaven.
Plume also provided more than a few gay reads for me in those days.
What must a 16-year old think of this?
Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran
I first read Dancer from the Dance when I was in high school. As a fairly isolated gay youth in the mid-1980s I looked to any port in a storm to identify with people who were like me. In Dancer from the Dance and so many other gay novels of the time what I found was lots of graphic sex and social mores that even today I don't really understand. What in the world did I think of this at 16? I really don't remember. I will say that children reading adult scenes (smut) doesn't necessarily mean they are going to say, "hey cool, let me try that". If that were the case I would have been one oversexed, depraved high schooler. Unlike Blackbird (see above) this one doesn't really offer much to youth other than a primer on the racy, pre-AIDS gay scene in New York in the 1970s. Other gay novels like those of Ethan Mordden introduced me to the notion of kept boys and house boys and other things to really aspire to.(!) And then of course there was the cavalcade of AIDS novels that, while many had many redeeming qualities, had the net effect of convincing 16-year old me that I would be dead by 30.

One of the interesting things about reading Dancer from the Dance this time around is that I began to wonder what gay dance/club music was like in the early 1970s. I thought it was too early for disco, so what could it be. Well Holleran sprinkles this novel with the names of songs that his characters danced to. Thanks to the magic of the Internet and Spotify I was able to find most of these songs and get a sense of what propelled them all to the dance floor. To my surprise the music was very much disco. I guess it started 5 to 10 years earlier than I thought. And his favorites that he includes were pretty much exclusively by African American artists.

Kind of lovely and kind of boring
Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson
If this one hadn't been to fill a year for my Century of Books list, I probably would have sent it packing. There were parts that I found quite charming. Young girl is interested in sailing and birds and eventually boys. The story follows her and a few other local families. In a different mood I think I would have liked this one more. As it was I had to force myself a bit to finish.

24 July 2013

Will it take me a century to finish A Century of Books?

Here I am 19 months into Simon's 12-month challenge to read one book for each year of the 20th century, and I still have 12 books to go.  In January I had 38 left to read. If I had any kind of discipline I would be done by now. After all I have read 61 books already this year. But I found that that kind of discipline is nothing but an invitation to reader's block for me. Back in 2012 I limited myself to the ACOB list and it really cut back on my desire to read. This year mixing the list up with whatever catches my fancy has been a much better recipe for progress.

Here are the 12 books I have left to read:

1934 - Burmese Days by George Orwell
1936 - The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West
1939 - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
1942 - Clark Clifford's Body by Kenneth Fearing
1947 - Not Now, but Now by M.F.K. Fisher
1963 - The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy
1965 - Of the Farm by John Updike
1971 - Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller
1972 - Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl 
1973 - After Claude by Iris Owens
1977 - Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
1979 - The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Would I be foolish to say that I am going to try and finish these by the end of August? Probably, but maybe I will say it anyway. I am, after all, unemployed at the moment. Should be a breeze right? Since about January I have been reading the list in chronological order. I wonder if I Should I stick to that? It is kind of fun to see how style and content evolve or how some books are either ahead of or behind their times. But forcing myself to read them in order does sometimes slow me down as well.

Here is the whole list. It is amazing how much the books have changed since I posted the very first iteration. When I finish the whole century I plan on doing a bit of a comparison to show how the list evolved as I jettisoned some titles in favor of others that were more readable.

[Updated 09/02/13]

1900 - Claudine at School by Collette
1901 - Claudine in Paris by Collette
1902 - The Immoralist by Andre Gide
1903 - The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
1904 - Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse
1905 - The Duel by Aleksandr Kuprin
1906 - Young Torless by Robert Musil
1907 - The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (ML100)
1908 - Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson
1909 - Martin Eden by Jack London
1910 - Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett
1911 - Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (ML100)
1912 - The Charwoman's Daughter by James Stephens
1913 - T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1914 - Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1915 - The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
1916 - Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
1917 - Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
1918 - Patricia Brent-Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins
1919 - Consequences by E.M. Delafield
1920 - Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
1921 - Dangerous Ages by Rose Macauley
1922 - The Judge by Rebecca West
1923 - The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy
1924 - Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford (ML100)
1925 - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
1926 - Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
1927 - Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards
1928 - Quartet by Jean Rhys
1929 - Passing by Nella Larsen
1930 - Angel Pavement by J.B. Priestly
1931 - The Square Circle by Denis Mackail
1932 - Year Before Last by Kay Boyle
1933 - Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson
1934 - Burmese Days by George Orwell
1935 - A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
1936 - The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West
1937 - Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson
1938 - Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
1939 - And Then There Were None  by Agatha Christie
1940 - Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
1941 - The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge
1942 - Clark Clifford's Body by Kenneth Fearing
1943 - Gideon Planish by Sinclair Lewis
1944 - Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
1945 - The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
1946 - Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple
1947 - Not Now, but Now by M.F.K. Fisher
1948 - The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
1949 - Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
1950 - Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
1951 - A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
1952 - The Far Country by Nevil Shute
1953 - Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
1954 - Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
1955 - The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
1956 - The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch
1957 - Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
1958 - A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym
1959 - The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley
1960 - The Bachelors by Muriel Spark
1961 - Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (ML100)
1962 - A Clockwork Orange by A. Burgess (ML100)
1963 - The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy
1964 - The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
1965 - Of the Farm by John Updike
1966 - The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson
1967 - My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof by Penelope Mortimer
1968 - Sarah's Cottage by D.E. Stevenson
1969 - The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble
1970 - 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
1971 - Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller
1972 - Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl 
1973 - After Claude by Iris Owens
1974 - House of Stairs by William Sleator
1975 - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Crucial Conversations by May Sarton
1976 - The Takeover by Muriel Spark
1977 - Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
1978 - The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
1979 - The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
1980 - The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
1981 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (ML100)
1982 - Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
1983 - Look at Me by Anita Brookner
1984 - Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
1985 - Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
1986 - Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
1987 - Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher
1988 - The Temple by Stephen Spender
1989 - Passing On by Penelope Lively and Summer People by Marge Piercy
1990 - Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman
1991 - The Translator by Ward Just
1992 - Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
1993 - While England Sleeps by David Leavitt
1994 - The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy
1995 - Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
1996 - Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
1997 - Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty
1998 - The Book of Lies by Felice Picano
1999 - Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

19 July 2013

My Book


For all of 2012 I was paid to research and write a history of St. Elizabeths [sic] Hospital, an old mental asylum in Washington, DC. Each day I trundled off to the National Archives to comb through the hundreds and hundreds of linear feet of hospital records going back to 1852. It was a fantastic experience. In comparison the months of writing were a little less fantastic but still very rewarding.

One of the challenges with this project was that there are big potholes in the historical record which didn't really allow me to follow a nice long narrative arc. Not every story in the history gets a beginning, middle, and end. And because the work was done for a government agency I had to edit out much of my personality. Still, I think it is very readable (thanks in part to Teresa at Shelf Love), and I am very proud of the fact that everything I put in the document can be traced to a source. So much that has been written about St. Elizabeths in the past relied on fuzzy or non-existent sources and leads one to wonder what's accurate and what isn't.

I think in the end the history turned out quite well and illuminates much about this fascinating hospital that would be otherwise buried in the National Archives.

The book has been "published" in pdf format and is available online. The nice thing about that is that without having to worry about a printing budget, I was able to include as many photos as I wanted.

You can read the history by going to this blog and clicking on the link.

Patient about to undergo hydrotherapy.

Bakery in 1915 (the ovens are still there)

Patient room (this would have been for a less disturbed patient)

Patient day room

15 July 2013

Help me choose a title for this post

I gave up trying to choose an appropriate title for this post about The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton and about Sarton in general. After you read this post, maybe you can let me know which one you think is most appropriate. The contenders are:

  • May Sarton is a goddess
  • Want to read a book about opening a bookstore?
  • If you don't believe me just ask Rachel
  • The best author you only kind of know about
  • If you don't try May Sarton we can't be friends
  • Your next favorite author with a long back list
  • Cosy, literate, New England Lesbian seeks readers for mutual fulfillment
  • You don't have to be a Lesbian to love this Lesbian

I have said much on My Porch about how much I love May Sarton. I waxed so rhapsodic about The Magnificent Spinster that I convinced Rachel at Book Snob to give her ago. And Rachel, as it turns out, loved it.

Still not convinced? Try this on for size: sixty year old Harriet whose wife of 30 years passes away and leaves her a legacy. With the money she decides to open a women's bookshop. Harriet knows she is going to lose money at least for the first few years, but she opens it because she wants a place where women from all walks of life can gather and meet each other. This is not only a fun topic for those of us who love books and bookstores, but, having been published in 1989 it hearkens back to the day when opening a bookstore didn't seem as crazy as it does now. Although Sarton is silent on the matter, this was a time when the Barnes and Noble juggernaut was steaming its way across the country. Remember how worried we were about independent booksellers back then? We were right to be, the big boxes certainly did their damage to the little guys. But now those days seem positively golden compared to the e-book and Amazon nightmare we are now embroiled in.

Upping the nostalgia factor, Harriet opens a women's bookstore like the kind so perfectly satirized on the TV show Portlandia (see video below). For me this conjures up my early college years when Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For followed a group of women whose lives were often centered around Madwimmin Books. Incidentally, when I was in college in the late 1980s the women's bookstore in Minneapolis was actually called Amazon Books believe it or not. It was a wonderful shop, wonderfully located across the street from an urban park in the heart of the city which was also the heart of the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival very June. These were the days when my roommate Becky and her girlfriend Kristi bought me a button that read "Honorary Lesbian". (I used to always comment to them on how I preferred the Lesbian personal ads over the gay men's ads.)

Okay, back to Sarton's book: with her dog as companion, the recently widowed Harriet opens her bookstore in the a diverse blue-collar neighborhood of Boston. She meets wonderful people and she is confronted by a animus from a less than understanding neighborhood that thinks she is peddling smut and providing a safe haven for homos. She is also forced to confront her grief over the loss of Vicky and her own identity. That is, having spent 30 years in a Lesbian relationship but being old fashioned enough to never have really thought of herself as Lesbian.

Sarton's novel also shows how much the LGBTQ landscape has changed since 1989 (in fact, in 1989 the BTQ's existed but weren't really part of the discussion in the way they are today).

I loved, loved, loved this book. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it so made be want to know Harriet and her customers and to sit for a while in one of the comfy chairs in her store.

Other posts about May Sarton
How I discovered her and a review of her journal Plant Dreaming Deep
My review of The Magnificent Spinster
My review of he sad and wonderful As We Are Now

And just in case you are wondering what else she has written (from Wikipedia):

Poetry books[edit]

  • Encounter in April (1937)
  • Inner Landscape (1939)
  • The Lion and the Rose (1948)
  • The Land of Silence (1953)
  • In Time Like Air (1958)
  • Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine (1961)
  • A Private Mythology (1966)
  • As Does New Hampshire (1967)
  • A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971)
  • A Durable Fire (1972)
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1973 (1974)
  • Selected Poems of May Sarton (edited by Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Brynes) (1978)
  • Halfway to Silence (1980)
  • Letters from Maine (1984)
  • Collected Poems, 1930-1993 (1993)
  • Coming Into Eighty (1994) Winner of the Levinson Prize
  • From May Sarton's Well: Writings of May Sarton (edited by Edith Royce Schade) (1999)


  • I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959)
  • Plant Dreaming Deep (1968)
  • Journal of a Solitude (1973)
  • A World of Light (1976)
  • The House by the Sea (1977)
  • Recovering: A Journal (1980)
  • Writings on Writing (1980)
  • May Sarton: A Self-Portrait (1982)
  • At Seventy: A Journal (1984)
  • After the Stroke (1988)
  • Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (1993)
  • At Eighty-Two (1996)


  • The Single Hound (1938)
  • The Bridge of Years (1946)
  • The Return of Corporal Greene (1946)
  • Shadow of a Man (1950)
  • A Shower of Summer Days (1952)
  • Faithful are the Wounds (1955)
  • The Birth of a Grandfather (1957)
  • The Fur Person (1957)
  • The Small Room (1961)
  • Joanna and Ulysses (1963)
  • Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)
  • Miss Pickthorn and Mr. Hare (1966)
  • The Poet and the Donkey (1969)
  • Kinds of Love (1970)
  • As We Are Now (1973)
  • Crucial Conversations (1975)
  • A Reckoning (1978)
  • Anger (1982)
  • The Magnificent Spinster (1985)
  • The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989)

Children's books[edit]

  • Punch's Secret (1974)
  • A Walk Through the Woods (1976)

For extra fun, check out this clip from Portlandia.

09 July 2013

A different kind of Persephone (and the best croissant in the USA)

I  only wish I had had a Persephone book with me to read while I sat stuffing my face full of croissant at Persephone Bakery while we were in Jackson. Not only is the place as charming as it gets, it had what John and I both consider to be the best croissant in the USA. They were so flaky and tender and, well, just perfect. We could have been in Paris. But I don't think Paris has the Grand Tetons.

A very scenic airport

The walk from the plane to the terminal in Jackson, Wyoming is pretty darn spectacular.

More pictures of Jackson

The local elk drop their antlers every year. 

Someone's laptop.

Getting back in the swing of it

Between Pym week, an unexpected trip to the Netherlands, expected house guests, and fantastically fun trip to Jackson Hole, I haven't had much time or inspiration for blogging.

I have some bookish blog ideas swirling around. But first, the vacation photos.

John's older brother and his family live in Jackson, Wyoming. I think there should be a rule that all relatives live in beautiful places. At 6,000 or so feet Jackson gives me a bit of altitude problems but that didn't keep us from driving up 1,500 more feet and then climbing another 1,000. Let's just say we were wheezing a bit.

A very refreshing dip at the top of our hike (and only halfway to the car).