30 August 2013

Heard anything good lately? (or iThomas on iTunes)


If you have ever been to My Porch before, you have also probably been over to Savidge Reads. Simon Savidges's blog was one of the first blogs I stumbled across as I began to discover the book blogging world. Well, Simon is a busy, busy boy and has about a million bookish endeavors going on at any given time. Among his more impressive efforts has been his ongoing podcasts. One, called You Wrote the Book, has Simon interviewing all sorts of interesting authors (including the wonderful Maggie O'Farrell).  The other, called The Readers, is a cavalcade of book based banter with book blogger Gavin.

That is until now.

Gavin has decided to take a bit of a podcasting sabbatical. Into the gaping breach, yes, that's right, Simon asked me if I would join him in his fortnightly podcast.  So last week was the first episode of The Readers featuring yours truly (episode 81). I had a ton of fun recording it with Simon and can't wait to record the next one. Hopefully listeners will have fun as well.

Yours truly recording my first episode of The Readers.

You can listen online here.


You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

23 August 2013

Clever title

Clever introduction.

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
I continue my exploration of Stevenson with yet another fabulous, chaste, Scottish romance, this one from 1964. (If not for the presence of baby Scots one might think all romances in Scotland are chaste.) Like many a Stevenson novel we find:

  • a recently widowed, middle class, heroine without much money
  • a cottage in the countryside
  • children (in this case a teenage stepson and two younger bairns of her own)
  • loyal, salt of the earth, servants
  • an unexpected inheritance (this time for the stepson)
  • a knight in shining armor who is present from early pages but doesn't sweep the heroine off her feet until she has managed to stand up on them  (a little proto-feminisim?)
And like all Stevenson novels, I loved it. As one reviewer says on Goodreads: "Old timey comfort read".

No Highway by Nevil Shute
This summer I have developed a mini-pattern where I plug in fun, comfort reads in between weightier tomes. As I have mentioned before, Nevil Shute is a D.E. Stevenson for boys (or engineers). One look at the dramatis personae for this 1948 novel will give you a good indication of the fabulously old fashioned timbre of Shute's work.

  • Theodore Honey
  • Dr. Dennis Scott
  • Marjorie Corder
  • Monica Teasdale
  • Captain Samuelson
  • Elspeth Honey
  • Shirley Scott
Of course the men all call each other by their last names which makes it extra fun when one of Theodore's colleagues says something like "Pass me that slide rule, Honey".

Like all Nevil Shute novels, Honey and Scott solve an important, potentially life threatening, problem using brains, logic, and more than a little moxie. Sandwiches are cut, planes are flown, and women are helpful. And since this is a Shute, you can rest assured that the hero and the prettiest of the helpful women will fall in love.

Can't go wrong. Loved it.

Friend of the Rich (Mid-Victorian) by E.F. Benson
This is the first non-Lucia Benson I have ever read. It is a shortish, Pygmalion sort of affair with a heroine who covers her bills by befriending the nouveau riche and helping them enter old money, aristocratic circles. She gets kickbacks for referring her friends/clients to antiques and art dealers and gets lots and lots of free meals. In this case (perhaps in every case?) the friends/clients, now established, turn on their creator and cast her aside.  An amusing, but not necessarily funny, enjoyable read. Makes me excited to dip into all those Bensons I bought last week. Looking for a publishing date (1937) I discovered that this is part of a four part series Benson wrote called Old London. I now need to go find Portrait of an English Nobleman (Georgian), Janet (Victorian), and The Unwanted (Edwardian). Given how brilliant this one is, I am dying to see how Benson describes these three other Londoners.

The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
Mystery and mayhem surrounding a King Tut-like exhibit at a British Museum-like museum. Like all Fitzgerald this is a short, taut, novel that isn't as quick to read as you might expect. For someone who doesn't go in much for mysteries this one really hit the spot.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively
My other favorite literary Penelope. (If I didn't specify "literary" I would have to add Penelope Keith.) A sort of "Sliding Doors", well no, scratch that. There is no alternate reality in this one. More like a "Butterfly Effect" or whatever that M. Knight Shamalama Dingdong film is called. Except without the in-utero suicide.  Okay it isn't much like that either.  What does happen is that an old woman being mugged has a ripple effect on the lives of those around her and those around them, etc. Her daughter, her daughter's employer, her daughter's employer's niece, her daughter's employer's niece's lover, her daughter's employer's niece's lover's wife. You get the picture. And like most Livelys it is interesting, and well written and enjoyable to read.

Clark Gifford's Body by Kenneth Fearing
I loved Kenneth Fearing's book The Big Clock. I didn't love Clark Gifford's Body. It was kind of interesting and I liked the first 25 pages or so, but ultimately I just found it tedious. The book jumps back and forth into the past and future, takes place in made-up, nameless countries, and follows the political ramifications of an unnamed, made-up war. For me it just became a jumble of circumstances that I couldn't or didn't want to follow.

The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West
Ugh. I might have enjoyed this if I was "stranded" in a remote cottage somewhere near the Mediterranean without a car, TV, or the Internet. This is a similar feeling I got from the recently read Year Before Last by Kay Boyle but I liked that one much better. As I mentioned last week, I am one novel away from giving up on Rebecca West.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
I have had this on my shelf for ages but only picked it up now to honor Simon Savidge's Gran who recently passed away. She was a wonderful presence on his blog and she had a love of Graham Greene.

So far I have read four or five Greenes and I have yet to really figure him out. I enjoyed Our Man in Havana years ago as a kind of funny satire of cold war espionage and government incompetence. Oddly, although I don't remember one thing about it, I gave The Heart of the Matter a 9 out 10.  I loved Travels With My Aunt, but I think this may be one of the least characteristic of his novels.

After reading The End of the Affair (1951) I feel like I still don't know who Greene is, but I really liked it, perhaps even loved it.  Set just after WWII, the novel is said to be somewhat autobiographical. Maurice Bendrix bumps into Henry, the husband of his former mistress Sarah. Over a drink in the pub Henry confesses that he is thinking of hiring a private detective to find out if Sarah is cheating on him. When he discards the idea as dishonorable, or perhaps because he doesn't want to know the answer, Maurice, who is consumed with jealousy over Sarah, decides to hire the private detective anyway.

At first Maurice gets information from the detective that supports the notion that she is having another affair. In a scene that is so cruel and pointless, Maurice presents the information to Henry who doesn't want to know about it. At this point I really began to hate Maurice. He was just being a dick. Not long after this, the detective gets his hands on Sarah's journal for the period that covers her time with Maurice. Reading Sarah's journal Maurice discovers that she is still in love with him. He tries to get back together with her but by this time she is in the throes of converting to Catholicism.

None of this does justice to the superbly written exegesis that Greene develops on love, jealousy, guilt, atonement, faith, and the existence of God. A fine book.

After Claude by Iris Owens
Published in 1973, After Claude is still a little shocking. Bitchy, funny, off-balance, and a little dark. Harriet goes back to New York after five years living in Paris. She crashes with one friend until that friend boots her out. Lives for another six months with Claude, the frenchman who rescues her from the  friend who just kicked her out. Then she ends up at the Chelsea Hotel where she hooks up with some sort of sex-guru cult figure. Much in the book is hilarious. But you have to be ready for more than a few jarring moments.

I think a summary of the author's own background that I found on Tony's Book World kind of sums up the feel (minus the explicit pornographic writing) of After Claude.
Iris Owens had an interesting background.  After graduating from Barnard, she went to Paris with her heroin-addict boyfriend and became a writer of erotica for Olympia Press.  Using the pen name Harriet Daimler, she specialized in rape fantasies.  The pornography she wrote for Olympia Press is still available at Amazon with such titles as “Darling”,  “Innocence”,  and “The Woman Thing”.  She had such a brutal caustic wit, she was the only writer that Olympia Press, specialists in this kind of material, told to “tone it down”. 


18 August 2013

Bits and Bobs (the birthday edition)

A boatload of Benson
Yesterday for my birthday I decided I wanted to go have a rummage around at a local charity bookshop that had all of their fiction on sale at 50 percent off. The bookstore is in Georgetown so it seems to get a fair amount of estate-type (read old) books as donations. It was here that I picked up a bunch of Pyms last time I was in. This time I got a bunch of old novels by E.F. Benson. Until recently I had only ever read his Lucia books so I am kind of excited to see what else he wrote.

The Climber (has a character Lucia, but I don't think it is the Lucia)

Messy desk

Does anyone know anything about The Grampian Quartet by Nan Shepherd?
I came across Nan Shepherd's The Grampian Quartet in an omnibus edition and for some reason decided to give it a try. At $3 it seemed like not much of a risk. But I really know nothing about the four novels: The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, A Pass in the Grampians, and The Living Mountain. Have any of you read any of them?

Dave Eggers was right*
For some reason I decided that I was in the mood for Norman Mailer's 1979 epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the execution of murderer Gary Gilmore. I had The Safety Net by Heinrich Boll on deck to read for my 1979 A Century of Books choice, but for some reason I just felt like it wasn't the time for it. I like Boll's work, but it isn't the kind of stuff one should rush through, and these days, as I try to finish up my century of books, I always seem to be in a rush. For some reason I thought that the 1,109 pages of this true crime account would go faster than the 313 pages of Boll. Now that I have read the Mailer in about four days, I would say that my assumption was correct.

When I picked up The Executioner's Song at Politics and Prose the clerk said Mailer needed an editor. After reading it, I concur. It did read quickly, and Mailer's intent was obviously to really flesh out all of the players and capture the whole zeitgeist of the Gary Gilmore execution circus, but he still could have used an editor.

*He said: "It's the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know."

I finished the Mailer in 4 days, yet am stuck on A Suitable Boy at 714 pages, only half way done.  ASB is very good, just not something to rush through. Still, I do need to get moving on it.
Rebecca West is starting to bum me out
The first Rebecca West I ever read was The Return of the Soldier. I loved it, so I assumed I would love other West novels. It is starting to become painfully clear that West may not indeed be my cup of tea. I have read three others, Harriet Hume, The Judge and now The Thinking Reed. Each of them have been tedious in their own special way. Book Snob Rachel tells me there is at least one more I should try before I give up on West entirely. If only I could remember the title. 

Summer garden interlude

Bug love

Lucy checking the crops

After a tough day in the garden

11 August 2013

Bits and Bobs (the video book edition)

I am one of those people who thinks that listening to audio books doesn't count as reading the book. I know, we could get into all kinds of discussions about why that may or may not be a fair statement. How about we agree to disagree? Lately I have been thinking about getting an audio book. For me though, for that audio book to then make it onto my books read list, I was thinking I would have to sit with the book and follow along verbatim. I think this actually might be quite interesting. I was thinking maybe I get an Anita Brookner. Since I have read all of her novels, I thought it might be interesting to hear how a trained voice reads it. Plus if I followed the words on the page it really would be reading it a second time. This idea may have to wait a while however. I am re-reading her novels in chronological order and I am several novels away from finding an AB novel that is available in audio book format.

I have been reading a lot lately. I just don't have anything particularly bookish to write about. So I thought I would pretend like all the TV and film I have been watching were analogous to audio books. I know, I know, even an audio book snob like myself recognizes that there is nothing analogous about the Real Housewives of Orange County and War and Peace on audio book. Except maybe that there is less fighting in the latter. But hey, I needed a hook for this edition of Bits and Bobs.

The Audience
Many of you have already seen this at a cinema near you. The National Theatre in London has a series of their productions that have been, or will be, shown live or recorded at cinemas around the world. The Audience is a  wonderful play by Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen and much more) and is wonderfully acted by Helen Mirren who reprises her role as HM and cast of other characters who play various Prime Ministers who have met with the Queen once a week during her long reign. It really is brilliantly done. The script is funny and poignant, the staging is very well done, and unlike filmed versions of plays that used to make it onto the small screen, the camera work and makeup allows one to forget it is a filmed play.

I am guessing that Mirren doesn't want to spend the rest of her life playing QEII, but I will continue to stump for her to bring Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader to the screen. PLEASE!

Yes, there were real corgis on stage. This is a picture of one that was apparently fired for ignoring Mirren on stage.

Orange is the New Black
For those of you with Netflix, you really must watch Orange is the New Black. I suppose it isn't for everyone, there is strong language, nudity, violence,etc. But for the non-squeamish among you, this is a wonderful drama. Engaged to be married, upper middle class WASP, Piper finds herself heading to federal prison for a bit of illegal activity she did ten years previously when she was dating a drug dealer--who just happened to be a woman. Based on a true story, each episode follows Piper as she gets used to prison life, but more interestingly, it introduces us to a cast of fascinating, scary, funny, and very human characters who are also doing time.

Perhaps one of my favorite scenes is when some of the inmates are chosen to interact with some juvenile delinquents as part of a "scared straight" program. One of the characters, Suzanne (or Crazy Eyes) who tried to make Piper her "wife" in an earlier episode, volunteers to participate so she can get a chance to act. So when the kids show up and the inmates are let loose to verbally intimidate them, through the din of all the yelling one sees Crazy Eyes up in the face of one of the young girls performing/yelling a scene from Shakespeare. I love Crazy Eyes.

I know I am prone to hyperbole, but this show is probably the best written and acted TV drama I have ever seen.

Main character Piper (left) and the wonderful Suzanne (Crazy Eyes)

Jean and Lionel are the only two who don't piss me off
If  you live in America and watch PBS, by now, no doubt, you can recite dialog from As Time Goes By from memory. It is on so often. Yet I still end up watching it. Even weirder is that the only two characters that I like are Jean and Lionel. I can't stand the rest of them. I find Judith spoiled and sulky and just plain whiny. Sandy is such a wishy-washy wet blanket. Alistair is easily one of the most annoying characters in television history. I hate Lionel's parents in the same way I hate rapping grannies--"Oh look at the old people acting like young people, isn't that hilarious?" No. No, it isn't. I should say that I do like Penny and Stephen. Incidentally, for true Britcom fans, you may recall that the actor who plays Penny also played the wife of JJM managing director Andy on The Good Life.

Which brings up a good point. Why does PBS play endless repeats of As Time Goes By and Are You Being Served when there are so many other fantastic older Britcoms they could be showing us like Sorry! with Ronnie Corbett and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin with the brilliant Leonard Rossiter and a young Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer).

The kitchen scenes are the only thing that keep me watching this show. I have often said that I would watch anything that has British people buttering toast or otherwise preparing tea or breakfast. Nothing cozier than Jean and Lionel in the kitchen. Setting the table, getting trays of tea ready...remember the episode where Penny meets Lionel for the first time and Jean and Lionel go into the kitchen to prepare a tray of strawberries and cream? Perfection. I do love mundane minutiae. 
Leonard Rossiter as Reggie chatting with Ponsonby.
A young Geoffrey Palmer playing Cousin Jimmy on The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

Project Runway / Top Chef / Great British Bakeoff
I have loved Project Runway from day one some 11 years ago. I love watching folks with real talent and creativity conjure up something out of nothing. The same reason I love Top Chef and the Great British Bakeoff. Although to be fair, I think the GBBO contestants get a fair heads-up and what their challenges will be. By the by, GBBO starts back up on August 20th.

This season's cast of Project Runway. No predictions yet. Well I do have some, but too early to share.
The current show is actually Top Chef Masters which has different hosts and judges but I love it anyway. Here we see the wonderful Gail Simmons, the guy from Saveur Magazine who I find annoying, some woman I don't know in red, the hunky Aussie Curtis Stone, and the goddess of food writing Ruth Reichl. If you have haven't read her memoirs Tender to the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires, you are really missing out. They are glorious.
The GBBO crew. Hooray, can't wait for the new series.
And who could forget the infamous GBBO squirrel?

The most delusional character on reality TV
I am sure all of you are watching Princesses Long Island. What a cast. Sheesh. Ashlee is 30 going on 13. She is bossy and mean and unpleasant and then sobs to mommy or daddy about how everyone is mean to her. My favorite part is when she wanted to take a jet to go from one part of Long Island to another because everyone was being mean to her.

Right before Ashlee had to be rushed to the hospital to take a Benedryl. (Crying on the phone to daddy about everyone being mean to her. Send the jet!)