29 September 2013

Atwood's Hat-trick


I am so glad I went back and reread Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood before I sunk my teeth into MaddAddam. I think each of them can be enjoyed on their own, but I got so much out of reading all three of these novels back-to-back. It was wonderful to go back and re-experience the first two. I loved them both the first time, but I got so much more out of them the second time around. Being able to finish one and pick up the next immediately was the best kind of binge reading.

For those of you who think you wouldn't like this kind of speculative, dystopian future, you need to summon all of your will and give them a try. Atwood is such a gifted writer that you soon forget about the novelty of the situation, the characters, and the animals (sheep that grow human hair for one) and just get swept up in the story.

I am not going to try and give a synopsis. Not only am I never very good at that, but in this case I know it would be next to impossible. Atwood provides the right amount of character development and description to make her world feel three dimensional, but she also keeps the plot chugging along in a way that makes it hard to put down at night. Indeed I read all three of the books over the course of five days. MaddAddam doesn't necessarily tie everything up with a bow, but it does resolve enough to make it seem like a good place to stop.

I also won't try and describe the world Atwood creates in these three books, but a few things in MaddAddam I found particularly interesting. For instance I love the idea of a creature that "purrs" over people when they are ill. It sounds so comforting--and unlike, hmm religious purring--so non-judgmental. I also got a chuckle out of Toby's (and eventually Blackbeard's) requests to the Crakers to stop singing. But more than anything I really loved the Pigoons in this book. I wish I could say more about the Pigoons--just think really smart pigs--but I don't want to give anything away.

It has been about four days since I left the post-plague, climate changed, deserted planet Earth of MaddAddam but I find myself thinking about it a lot. Not the connection between current human activity and the possibility of Atwood's dystopia coming true, but rather the characters, human and non-human. I really kind of enjoyed hanging out with them.

Photo credit: Canadian Press / Rex Features
One thing about the whole trilogy that gave me pause--and this isn't really a criticism, more an item for discussion--was the portrayal of gender roles and the absence of people of color and gays. Set in some near future period I felt like gender roles were a bit retrograde. I think that may have been Atwood's point in many cases, but I wonder. It is possible as well that any number of characters could have had undescribed brown skin, but since Atwood does describe someone as Black in MaddAddam, it kind of makes one assume that everyone else is presumed white. And gays were either non-existent or "gay" was referred to in a way that felt very 20th century.

Quibbles. Only quibbles. Go read these books. (And I would say read them in order. Go back and start with Oryx & Crake. In many ways I think it is the best of these three brilliant books.)

Here is what I thought of The Year of the Flood when I first read it back in 2009. In skimming it myself, I notice I made a similar comment about gender roles back then.

As for Oryx & Crake, I wasn't book blogging when I finished reading it, so I have no review to link to.

23 September 2013

My top 105 most enjoyable novels by men

Auster, Baldwin, Benson, Bram
Collins, Cunningham, Durrell, Forster
I had so much fun making my list of my favorite novels by women, that I decided to make one of novels by men. As I did with the women's list, I included all the novels that ranked at least an eight on my ten-point rating scale. I was surprised to see that my male list was 25 books longer than my female list. Perhaps it shouldn't have been such a big surprise given the ways of the publishing world and society in general, but I thought my list would be skewed a little more to the female side. As it is, of the 185 novels that I ranked an eight or above, 43% were written by women. That is almost (but not quite) in line with the general population distribution.

Were the men given special treatment?
As I went through my books read list I was surprised at how often the male authors seem to have benefited from being rated when I was a decade younger and felt like the grand works of old men deserved higher marks than my enjoyment level would have allowed. At the time I was really trying to plow through the Modern Library list which was stuffed with white men. While some of them were truly spectacular reads, I still feel like I gave them higher marks because their literary importance, rightly or wrongly, had been codified in the Modern Library list. To make up for that, as I went through my spreadsheet for this list I downgraded 20 books that I know in my heart I didn't like that much and so they don't appear on this list.

Committee of one redux (with similar caveats galore)
As with the women's list, I didn't try and consider any sort of literary importance. I decided that I would simply list my favorite books by men. To do so I looked to my spreadsheet of books that I have read since 1994, sorted them by rating, and then removed all the women. Keep the following in mind as you peruse the list:
  • I removed anything that wasn't a novel. *With the exception of Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. I love this piece of non-fiction so much I refused to exclude it here. Although, in retrospect, I should have then not excluded 84, Charing Cross Road, or Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris both of which I find so delightful they make my head spin. Unlike those two, however, the Carhart is much less known by bookish types, so I feel the need to sing its praise here.
  • Besides separating them into three broad categories, they are otherwise listed in alpha order by author. Thus #1 does not necessarily equate to being my all time favorite book etc.
  • These are books I enjoyed--who am I to rank anything according to literary merit?
  • My rankings are a reflection of how I felt when I read the book. I realized as I compiled the list that my feelings have changed somewhat.
  • Being a committee of one, the list is most impacted by the fact that it only relies on the 1,000 or so books I have read since 1994. 
An odd thing happened when figuring out my favorites
I pretty much used math to figure out who my favorite female authors are. The more books on the list, the more likely they were to be considered one of my favorites. There ended up being 16 of them. For some reason this doesn't feel as genuine with the men. For instance, there are some that appear multiple times on this list, but I have a hard time considering them a favorite. However, as I thought about it, I realized that the same could be said for my women's list, but for some reason it didn't bother me. Anyhoo, my favorites boil down to these 17: Auster, Balwdin, Benson, Bram, Collins, Cunningham, Durell, Forster, Hesse, Just, Leavitt, Lewis, Maugham, Shute, Trollope, Waugh, and Wolfe. 

Hesse, Just, Leavitt, Lewis
Maugham, Shute, Trollope, Waugh, Wolfe

Books achieving a 10 (All time favorite)
1. Bennett, Alan - The Uncommon Reader
2. Brown, Todd - Entries from a Hot Pink Notebook
3. Carhart, Thad - The Piano Shop on the Left Bank*
4. Ford, Robert - The Student Conductor
5. Forster, E.M. - A Room with a View
6. Forster, E.M. - Howard's End
7. Gallico, Paul - Flowers for Mrs. Harris
8. Irving, John - A Prayer for Owen Meany
9. London, Jack - Martin Eden
10. McEwan, Ian - On Chesil Beach
11. Ross, Sinclair - As for Me and My House
12. Shute, Nevil - In the Wet
13. Trillin, Calvin - Tepper Isn't Going Out
14. Waugh, Evelyn - Brideshead Revisted
15. Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
16. Williams, John - Stoner

Books achieving a 9 (Loved it)
17. Auster, Paul - The Brooklyn Follies
18. Baldwin, James - Another Country
19. Baldwin, James - Giovanni's Room
20. Baldwin, James - Go Tell it on the Mountain
21. Banks, Iain - The Wasp Factory
22. Barnes, Julian - The Sense of an Ending
23. Benson, E.F. - So far all of his novels that I have read
24. Boll, Heinrich - The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
25. Carey, Edward - Observatory Mansions
26. Carr, J.L. - A Month in the Country
27. Chatwin, Bruce - On the Black Hill
28. Coetzee, J.M. - Disgrace
29. Collins, Wilkie - The Woman in White
30. Crichton, Michael - The Andromeda Strain
31. Dickey, James - Deliverance
32. Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
33. Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
34. Duplechan, Larry - Blackbird
35. Fearing, Kenneth - The Big Clock
36. Ferris, Joshua - Then We Came to the End
37. Fitzgerald, F. Scott - Tender is the Night
38. Flaubert, Gustave - A Simple Heart
39. Forster, E.M. - A Passage to India
40. Frayn, Michael - The Trick of It
41. Greene, Graham - The End of the Affair
42. Greene, Graham - Travels with My Aunt
43. Hemingway, Ernest - The Sun Also Rises
44. Hesse, Hermann - Pretty much all of his novels (except Steppenwolf)
45. Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
46. Isherwood, Christopher - A Meeting By the River
47. Jenkins, Herbert - Patricia Brent, Spinster
48. Joyce, James - The Dead
49. Koestler, Arthur - Darkness at Noon
50. Lamb, Wally - She's Come Undone
51. Lebrecht, Norman - The Song of Names
52. Lewis, Sinclair - All of his novels
53. Lodge, David - Changing Places
54. London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
55. Maugham, W. Somerset - Most of his novels
56. McEwan, Ian - Sweet Tooth
57. Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita
58. O'Brien, Darcy - A Way of Life, Like Any Other
59. Peck, Richard - London Holiday
60. Priestly, J.B. - Angel Pavement
61. Selvadurai, Shyam - Funny Boy
62. Sherriff, R.C. - A Fortnight in September
63. Sherriff, R.C. - The Hopkins Manuscript
64. Shute, Nevil - The rest of his novels not listed above
65. Soehnlein, K.M. - The World of Normal Boys
66. Stegner, Wallace - Crossing to Safety
67. Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
68. Stephenson, Neal - Cryptonomicon
69. Uhlman, Fred - Reunion
70. Vonnegut, Kurt - Slaughterhouse Five
71. White, Edmund - Hotel de Dream
72. Wolff, Tobias - Old School

Books achieving an 8 (Really liked it)
73. Auster, Paul - Sunset Park
74. Baldwin, James - The rest of his novels not listed above
75. Bowles, Paul - The Sheltering Sky
76. Bram, Christopher - Surprising Myself
77. Constant, Benjamin - Adolphe
78. Cunningham, Michael - Most of his novels
79. Doctorow, E.L. - Ragtime
80. Durrell, Lawrence - All four of the Alexandria Quartet
81. Fforde, Jasper - The Eyre Affair
82. Findley, Timothy - Most of his novels
83. Forster, E.M. - Where Angels Fear to Tread
84. Gide, Andre - Strait is the Gate
85. Gide, Andre - The Counterfeiters
86. Gide, Andre - The Immoralist
87. Hemingway, Ernest - The Old Man and the Sea
88. Hoeg, Peter - Smilla's Sense of Snow
89. Howells, William Dean - The Rise of Silas Lapham
90. Huxley, Aldous - Point Counter Point
91. Just, Ward - All of his novels
92. Leavitt, David - Most of his novels
93. Mackail, Denis - Greenery Street
94. MacLaverty, Bernard - Grace Notes
95. Mawer, Simon - The Glass Room
96. Miller, Merle - The Warm Feeling
97. Orwell, George - Burmese Days
98. Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
99. Sinclair, Upton - The Jungle
100. Stegner, Wallace - Angle of Repose
101. Trollope, Anthony - All of his novels so far
102. Waugh, Evelyn - The rest of his novels not listed above
103. Wenzel, Kurt - Lit Life
104. Williams, Conrad - The Concert Pianist
105. Wolfe, Tom - All of his post-1960s novels

22 September 2013

Parenthetical Reviews

I have been reading like a madman lately and just realized I was way behind on my insightful review nuggets.

Instructions for a Heatwave (in a country with no A/C)
Maggie O'Farrell
I love Maggie O'Farrell. Each one of her books is worth reading. She knows how to write plots and characters. In this case three adult children face the disappearance of their father and the Valium-induced confusion of their mother. But this is nothing compared to the messy lives the three kids live. My only challenge with the book is that I didn't find the details surrounding the youngest daughter Aiofe's illiteracy believable. My father volunteered for years teaching adults to read. I am not sure O'Farrell gets that part right. Still only a quibble. Go read this, and everything else by Maggie.

I think O'Farrell is the one on the right.
Patience and Sarah (sisters are homesteading for themselves)
Isabel Miller (Alma Routsong)
This shortish piece of historical fiction is about two women in the early 1800s who fall in love and set up house together. Written in 1969 and self published as A Place for Us, the story follows a painter and a tom-boy as they fall in love, weather discovery by their families, and ultimately begin life together on a small farm in rural New York. If you can't find a paper copy this one is available on Kindle. Highly recommended. Highly believable. Sad and uplifting. Absolutely rife for a television adaptation.

And Then There Were None (the tale with the ever changing title)
Agatha Christie
In this American edition the island is called Solider Island and the poem is about twelve little soldiers. In the less-PC British version, the island is Indian Island and the poem is about twelve little Indians. Does that mean that the island in the original was really called N***** Island? And the poem? Yikes. Was this Rick Perry's island? A quick, enjoyable mystery that doesn't insult ones intelligence. Makes me think I may try more Christie.

A Suitable Boy (reviewing 1400 pages in 14 words)
Vikram Seth
Epic tale of India in the 1950s. Loved Lata's story best. Ending didn't satisfy.

Of the Farm (this is pie country Jerry)
John Updike
I think this may be my first experience with Updike. I really have no idea what the rest of his work is like, but I really enjoyed this short novel. A thirty-something Manhattan executive tries to convince his ailing mother to move away from the Pennsylvania farm that she doesn't really farm anyway. Updike draws interesting characters and a situation that is wrenching in its realness. I also really appreciated a nostalgic rush. Published in 1965 (four years before the advent of me) I enjoyed wallowing in images of rural Pennsylvania in the 1960s. The rivers and air may have been dirtier compared to today, and the Vietnam war was in the near future, but the end of times angst of global warming al-Qaeda apocalypse were unheard of. (Hat tip to anyone who gets the pie country reference.)

You Are One of Them (who might like this book)
Elliott Holt
It is so rare that I read anything in the year it was published, but then somehow I came across DC author Elliott Holt on Twitter and began to follow her just as Penguin was about to publish her first novel. A story of two young American girls who write to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. One of them ends up being invited on a goodwill tour of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Years later the girl who wasn't invited makes her own trip to the newly open Russia (I hope I am remembering this right) and finds out all kinds of surprising things. Definitely an interesting read but I think it left me somewhat unconvinced.

My Cousin Rachel (saves me from blogger isolation)
Daphne du Maurier
I am infamously known as the one who didn't like Rebecca. Won't try and defend it. Just didn't work for me. My Cousin Rachel on the other hand I found quite enjoyable. I found the characters way more believable and in the end gave it an eight out ten. Good enough to land it on my top novels by women authors list last week. Still, this is my third du Maurier and I find the underlying, kind of depressing Gothic-ness of them all to be not quite my thing.

Not Now, But Now (or then, then, then, and then)
M.F.K. Fisher
Food writer Fisher's only novel is really four related novellas. Each one stars a woman named Jennie who one can't help but root for despite her insanely selfish modus operandi in each story. Jennie is incarnated in England, Europe, and America and she shows up in 1928, 1947, 1927, and 1882. I didn't expect this kind of mean, wanton hussy from Fisher's pen. Fascinating stuff.

My Mother Was Nuts (in a good way)
Penny Marshall
Although the first few chapters were perfectly acceptable, I never really begin enjoy celebrity bios until they get around to talking about their ascent to celebrity. Didn't know what Laverne had done before she became Laverne. Forgot that she had been married to Meathead from All in the Family. Didn't realize how many blockbuster films she had directed. Shouldn't have been surprised at tales of drug use in Hollywood. Loved finding out the behind the scenes stories of Laverne and Shirley.

(Collins' brilliance not found in) Hide and Seek
Wilkie Collins 
I am beginning to think that any Collins novel under 500 pages may not be up to snuff. Armadale and The Woman in White? Giant door stoppers of sensation reading greatness. The slimmer Hide and Seek and No Name? Eh, not so much. Apparently Hide and Seek was Collins' third book but his first real mystery so I guess I can cut him some slack. In fact, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't the page turner that his other books are. Plus it had a circus in it. Man, I hate circuses.

The Quiche of Death (the first, and my last, Agatha Raisin mystery)
M.C. Beaton
London PR exec retires early to live life in the idyllic Cotswolds. Not a fan of mystery was hoping this might be at least cozy crime. But Agatha is rather misanthropic and miserable. A bit of an Edina Monsoon, but not nearly as funny. Sprinkle in some implausibility and some jarringly dated gay stereotypes (hell, it was 1992, not 1982 when Beaton wrote the book) and you have yourself...well, I am not sure what you have.

The Old Man and Me (was not for me)
Elaine Dundy
I am all for dark stories but there is something about Dundy's novels that just leave me bored and wishing they were different kinds of books. Like The Dud Avocado I really had to push myself to finish this one. Honey Flood heads off to London to try and get her inheritance back, by killing the the literary celebrity who has it. Yawn.

Charlie and the Great (boring) Glass Elevator
Roald Dahl
I read this to fill a year in my Century of Books when something else didn't seem palatable. Actually had a copy in the house (from John's childhood) and it was blessedly short. And blessedly boring. There is a reason this is a children's book, because cranky adults shouldn't read them.

18 September 2013

My top 80 most enjoyable novels by women

Atwood, Brookner, Cather, Drabble
Fitzgerald, Lively, Murdoch, Patchett
This morning I stumbled across a top 50 list on For Books' Sake that was posted earlier this year. Jane Bradley and her colleagues were rightly annoyed by a list of literature's fifty key moments compiled by Robert McCrum at the Guardian newspaper. Not surprisingly, that list was, as Bradley put it, "a total sausage-fest". To right this wrong, For Books' Sake came up with their own list which sought to outline the top 50 influential books by women. In response to the backlash against his original list in the Guardian, McCrum came up with a list of 50 influential books by females that I think is actually better than the one at FBS.

As I looked through all these lists, I couldn't help creating my own.

Committee of one (and caveats galore)
Unlike the Guardian and For Books' Sake, I didn't try and consider any sort of literary importance. I decided that I would simply list my favorite books by women. To do so I looked to my spreadsheet of books that I have read since 1994, sorted them by rating, and then removed all the men. Keep the following in mind as you peruse the list:

  • I decided that anything that rated an 8 or higher on my ten-point scale deserved to be included. This is why the list is longer than 50.
  • I removed anything that wasn't a novel.
  • Besides separating them into three broad categories, they are otherwise listed in alpha order by author. Thus #1 does not necessarily equate to being my all time favorite book etc.
  • These are books I enjoyed--who am I to rank anything according to literary merit?
  • My rankings are a reflection of how I felt when I read the book. I realized as I compiled the list that my feelings have changed somewhat.
  • It appears that my favorite female authors are: Atwood, Brookner, Cather, Drabble, Fitzgerald, Lively, Murdoch, Patchett, Piercy, Pym, Sarton, Shields, Spark, Stevenson, Wharton, and Whipple. 
  • Being a committee of one, the list is most impacted by the fact that it only relies on the 1,000 or so books I have read since 1994. 
  • The list misses a lot of brilliant books that just didn't score high enough on my likability scale. Just because my brain registers that a book is brilliant doesn't mean it makes it into the top categories. This list is about what satisfies me emotionally. (Men are ranked the same way on my spreadsheet, so the big important books by dudes don't necessarily end up at the top.)

Piercy, Pym, Sarton, Shields
Spark, Stevenson, Wharton, Whipple
Books achieving a 10 (All Time Favorite) 
1. Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid's Tale
2. Atwood, Margaret - The Robber Bride
3. Benary-Isbert, Margot - The Ark
4. Canfield Fisher, Dorothy - The Home-Maker
5. Cather, Willa - The Professor's House
6. Drabble, Margaret - The Seven Sisters
7. Fitzhugh, Louise - Harriet the Spy
8. Murdoch, Iris - Under the Net
9. Pym, Barbara - No Fond Return of Love
10. Sarton, May - As We Are Now
11. Sarton, May - The Magnificent Spinster
12. Spyri, Johanna - Heidi
13. Stevenson, D.E. - Miss Buncle's Book
14. Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
15. Wharton, Edith - The Age of Innocence

Books achieving a 9 (Loved it)
16. Atwood, Margaret - Oryx and Crake
17. Atwood, Margaret - The Year of the Flood
18. Brookner, Anita - All of her 23 novels
19. Buck, Pearl - The Good Earth
20. Cather, Willa - The rest of her novels not listed above
21. Chopin, Kath - The Awakening
22. Cooper, Lettice -The New House
23. Crompton, Richmal - Family Roundabout
24. Fielding, Helen - Bridget Jones's Diary
25. Fraser, Laura - An Italian Affair
26. Kennedy, Margaret - The Ladies of Lyndon
27. Lipman, Elinor - The Inn at Lake Divine
28. Lively, Penelope - Consequences
29. Macauley, Rose - Dangerous Ages
30. Mendelson, Cheryl - Her Morningside Heights trilogy
31. Miller, Isabel - Patience and Sarah
32. Mitford, Nancy - The Pursuit of Love
33. Murdoch, Iris - A Fairly Honourable Defeat
34. Murdoch, Iris - The Sea, The Sea
35. Patchett, Ann - All of her novels
36. Piercy, Marge - Most of her novels note listed above
37. Pym, Barbara - The rest of her novels not listed above
38. Sarton, May - The Education of Harriet Hatfield
39. Sharp, Margery - Cluny Brown
40. Shields, Carol - All of her novels
41. Simonson, Helen - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
42. Spark, Muriel - The Driver's Seat
43. Stevenson, D.E. - The rest of her novels not listed above
44. von Arnim, Elizabeth - The Enchanted April
45. Wharton, Edith - Ethan Frome
46. Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
47. Whipple, Dorothy - All of her novels

Achieving an 8 (Really liked it)
48. Ashton, Helen - Bricks and Mortar
49. Atwood, Margaret - The rest of her novels not listed above
50. Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
51. Bowen, Elizabeth - The House in Paris
52. Burnett, Frances Hodgson - The Making of a Marchioness
53. Cannan, Joanna - Princes in the Land
54. Chevalier, Tracy - Girl with a Pearl Earring
55. Cleage, Pearl - What Looks Like Crazy
56. Comyns, Barbara - Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
57. Comyns, Barbara - The Skin Chairs
58. Delafield, E.M. - The Provincial Lady in America
59. Drabble, Margaret - The Ice Age
60. du Maurier, Daphne - My Cousin Rachel
61. Ferguson, Ruby - Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary
62. Fitzgerald, Penelope - All of her novels
63. Gardam, Jane - Old Filth
64. Jenkins, Elizabeth - The Tortoise and the Hare
65. Laski, Marghanita - Little Boy Lost
66. Laurence, Margaret - A Jest of God
67. Lively, Penelope - The rest of her novels not listed above
68. McCarthy, Mary - The Group
69. O'Farrell, Maggie - All of her novels
70. Phillips, Marie - Gods Behaving Badly
71. Piercy, Marge - The rest of her novels not listed above
72. Porter, Katherine Anne - Ship of Fools
73. Spark, Muriel - The rest of her novels not listed above
74. Tan, Amy - The Kitchen God's Wife
75. Tartt, Donna - The Secret History
76. Taylor, Elizabeth - Angel
77. Tessaro, Kathleen - Elegance
78. Todd, Barbara Euphon - Miss Ranskill Comes Home
79. West, Rebecca - The Return of the Soldier
80. Wharton, Edith - The rest of her novels not listed above

13 September 2013

The best blog you're not following


Well, some of you may be following it. After all I stumbled upon it a few years ago no doubt from some other blogger's blogroll. It certainly seems to get lots of traffic, but if any of you are paying attention to it you must be lurking because I don't notice you leaving comments.

The Age of Uncertainty is written by a man who goes by the name Steerforth, sells books for a living and lives in East Sussex. A book seller of one sort or another for most (all?) of his adult life, one of the jobs he had recently was working for a business that culled saleable volumes from bins of books on their way to being pulped. For those of us who love rooting around in piles of old books, can you imagine something more fun than that? (Although, like everything in life, I am sure it begins to feel like a job at some point.) In the process of executing his duties Steerforth discovered lots of wonderful things which he shared on his blog.

In addition to books, music, art, culture, and travel, Steerforth has some great posts about the world of selling books, crazy vintage covers, things found in used books, and a multi-part series on the diaries of a man named Derek.

In recent months his posts have been less about books and more about life in general, but his writing is so good that all of it is compelling. I commented recently that I think his writing is a lot like Calvin Trillin. Smart, witty, a tiny bit snarky--but never mean--all with an economy of prose that makes him a writer not just a blogger.

In his most recent post, Steerforth visits the tiny island of Lundy located in the Celic Sea just outside Bristol Channel. A barren and magical place with no phone, no TV, no Internet, and no electricity from Midnight to 6:00 am. I would love to spend a few days in such a place.

In addition to a wonderful narrative describing his mini-break on Lundy, Steerforth also posts a wonderful video he made during his visit that I find quite transporting.

Just two examples of the old photos he has come across over the years.

Steerforth posits that D. Greaves might be the oldest 13-year old of all time.

Lots of great illustrations.

Funny book covers.

He also writes the odd post, usually with great YouTube videos, about classical music.

I think Steerforth is roughly the same sage as me (mid-forties) and many an observation hits squarely in our age cohort.  Some of you kids may not understand why this quote (from this post) is funny:
The problem with Concorde is that there weren't enough people who wanted Phil Collins to play two concerts on each side of the Atlantic on the same day.
As I combed through older posts on The Age of Uncertainty to come up with some of the images here, I was again struck by the rich diversity of blog topics and just how funny it is. It really would be worth your time to go back to 2010 or 2009 or whenever and just have a look around.

10 September 2013

Bits and Bobs (the 'say whaaat?' edition)


I'm finished
No, don't get excited, I am not giving up blogging. But I am finished, finally, with Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. They is much to enjoy about this epic tale of India told in an epic 1,471 pages. What's my take on it? It really is a wonderful book, and for someone who wants a broad sweep of Indian historical fiction this is a good thing. But, like the amazing War and Peace, losing 500 pages would not have harmed this novel. I mainly cared about the story line of Lata finding a suitable boy to marry. After all that reading, I was NOT pleased with her outcome. Phooey.

I've Kindled
As most of you know, I have been avoiding e-books for a billion reasons. Well, in the past three weeks or so I have read four, yes four, books on Kindle for iPad. Now before some of you start jumping up and down, just know that I am still not a fan and don't plan on making it a habit. What happened is this, as I strove to finish the final books of my Century of Books, I really became impatient. One night around midnight I decided I was in no mood for my choice for 1939 (Katherine Anne Porter's incredibly short Pale Horse, Pale Rider) so I needed something else from that year. Minutes later I decided it would be my first Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None. But what is a boy to do at midnight? Click, click, click, by 12:10 I was reading Agatha. Same thing happened with the three other titles I read on Kindle. Instant gratification.

And by the by, Kindle thinks that page 102 of 185 is 49%. It isn't. It's 55%. Are they counting words?

I've already changed my RIP list
I seem to love modifying lists as much as I like making them. After about 15 minutes with the Mulisch on my RIP VIII list I tossed it aside. Was reaaallly not floating my boat. So I need find a book to replace it. That shouldn't be too hard because...

I caved to peer pressure (a bookstore story)
John is out of town this week and I had been feeling the need to root around in piles of used books. I thought of driving out into the wilds of Maryland to have a fossick at the three locations of Wonder Books, however, I balanced that with the fact that I really don't need to be buying any books at the moment. But then the day dawned all grey and cool and it began to feel quite bookish. But still, I wasn't going to go. And then Amanda posted the following on Facebook: "I tried to resist, but I cannot do it. I have to go to the used bookstore. I need old book smell and green Virago spines."  Who could resist that? I couldn't.

With this cover, I won't be reading it in public.
So off I went. There are three locations of Wonder Books. Hagerstown, Frederick, and Gaithersburg. I decided to go to all three. I drove the 70 or so miles to the furthest (farthest?) one in H'town then work my way back toward DC. Wonderbooks is a place that essentially buys your books by the pound, except they don't weigh them, they just take a look at your bag and say $3 cash or $5 trade. I was a little taken aback by this. Did they really not want to comb through my titles first to see what amazing things I was selling? And then I thought, who cares. Probably wouldn't get much more if I did.

But then I went into the store and was reminded that their prices are really quite high despite that the condition of their stock isn't exactly stellar and especially since they aren't paying city rents, nor are they paying much of anything for their stock. In fact, I probably had 20 books in my bag that comes out to twenty-five cents per book. And that is on the trade price, it would be fifteen cents per book on the cash deal. So anyway I start to have a look around in their paperback section and was startled to see that all of their mass market paperbacks were $2.95 no matter what condition they were in. 

But when you find something you want, what can you do? I discovered later that the H'town store is my favorite of the three locations. It seems to be the biggest and it has stock that seemed to have a different mojo then the other two stores. They have tons and tons and tons of old mass paperbacks. Thankfully they break those down by Lit, General Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Sci-Fi, etc. In the Lit section it really feels like they must get a ton of old student-owned copies. Not only did they have about 50 copies of Howards End, but they had lots of old, very cool, editions of it. Some reminding me of my college days 20 years ago and many more 30 to 50 years older than that. But then again, I wasn't in the market for Howards End. I have two copies already.

So what was I looking for? These days it is pretty easy to find whatever book I want. Even obscure ones can be had from an Internet seller as long as I am willing to pay. I decided to be very focused. I wanted to look for more non-Lucia Bensons, more DE Stevenson, and maybe a book or two that might fill in the gap on my RIP VIII list.

Very long story short: One mass market paperback non-Lucia Benson, a few old green Penguins, Dr. Jekyll, and Dracula to help fill in the empty spot on the RIP list, and best of all, I managed to come up with one mass paperback DE Stevenson that I don't own. 

Compared to some other book-buying excursions this is a somewhat anemic result, but finding the one needle in the three-store haystack, the Stevenson, made the day a complete and total success. 

New episode of The Readers is available
Thanks to everyone's kind comments about my debut as Simon's co-host on The Readers podcast. I am having so much fun doing it. Simon keeps me giggling pretty much the entire time. Our newest episode is out in which we discuss what it means to be a discerning reader and what our reading habits are. If you don't subscribe on iTunes you can always follow this link and stream it from the website.

05 September 2013

Didn't I just finish a challenge? (My first RIP)

For many years now I have watched other bloggers join in the RIP challenge each fall. R(eaders) I(mbibing) P(eril) is on its eighth go around and I am finally getting around to joining in. It kind of comes at a good time for me because I just finished the challenge to end all challenges and the relief in finishing that one has me giddy thinking of all the reading possibilities open to me. Sure I look forward to reading whatever I feel like, but since this one only requires me to read four books by the end of October, I figure I won't be locked into anything too demanding. (I still need to finish the last 600 pages of A Suitable Boy before I begin...)

My recent conversations as Simon's new co-host on The Readers podcast has me in the mood to try out more mysteries--something I normally avoid.

And, of course, I love a list. I decided to go for Peril the First which requires reading four books between now and October 31st.  Here are the ones I am planning on reading. (Three of them are in my TBR which makes me quite happy.)

Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins
Shouldn't every RIP list contain at least one Collins? Despite being his third novel, this one is apparently his first attempt at a mystery. By Collins' standard a quick read at 356 pages.

My Cousin Rachel by Rebecca du Maurier
Wikipedia assures me this is a mystery-romance. And other bloggers assure me it is du Maurier's best book.

The Procedure by Harry Mulisch
I am not sure I have read anything by Mulisch that wasn't dark in one way or another. This one involves a sixteenth century golem, a stillborn baby, and it's Dutch. Sounds dark to me.

The Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton
The first of the Agatha Raisin mysteries. At first I thought it was a self help book about heart healthy foods. Not liking this one could mean the end of my tenure on The Readers.

02 September 2013

Thank god that century is over (plus riddle)

In early 2012 I decided to join Simon at Stuck In A Book in his quest to read one book from each year of the 20th century. Unlike Simon, I did not finish in 2012. I just finished today. I am pretty quick to walk away from reading challenges, but there was something about this one that I could let go of.

How the list became the list (folly)
Many of you have watched me enjoy and struggle with my A Century of Books List over the past 20 months. Some of you wondered why I actually made a list. Why not just fill it in as you go? If I had done that I never would have finished the century. I think my reading would have naturally clumped up during some period (maybe in the 1940s?) and other decades would have been untouched. Plus, finding books for each year of the 20th century was not exactly easy. Wikipedia, Goodreads, and that 1001 Novels to Read Before You Die book helped, but since I was trying to focus on books I already owned, those resources were only so useful. Not to mention that those resources don't necessarily catch anything fun to read--lots of serious reading, and, in the case of Wikipedia lots of fantasy and sci fi.

So I combed through my library and in the end read 72 books from my TBR pile. I looked in each unread Virago, my shelf of unread NYRB Classics, and of course, my Persephone pile. And so, the list was born. It has changed many times since I first made it. As some of the books weighed me down I decided the list needed to be lightened up even further. I did also make some purchases since there were several years that were completely unrepresented in my library.

How I finished it (desperation)
I didn't cheat. The rule was to read a book from each year. I did that. But, I sure did get creative with my list, especially as I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. By the time I got to the final three books I was really desperate to be finished. It became clear that I wasn't going to be able to read anything over 200 pages. And even then those 200 pages had to promise quick reading. I became so goal oriented that I found it incapable of enjoying books I know I would enjoy if not for my desire to finish the challenge.

What I learned (enlightenment)

  • It was kind of fascinating to see how this challenge educated me about trends in writing styles and content. This especially became noticeable when I began to read in chronological order.
  • Most of my favorite reads were on the lighter side. Kind of hard to lump them with better or weightier tomes, but I guess that says a lot about my reading tastes.
  • Surprisingly the 1970s seems to be my favorite decade. With all but one title ending up in the top three rating categories. The 1940s and 1950s tied for second place with eight titles in those top three tiers.
  • My favorite books were pretty spread out through the decades. Three each in the 1940s and 1970s, Two each in the 1900s, 1930s and 1980s, and then one each in all the other decades.
  • Despite that two of my favorites were from the 1900s, a whopping six titles from that decade bored me to tears.
  • I was most ambivalent about the 1980s.
  • Modernism, I don't like you.
  • Kids books bore me, no matter how good.
  • I only have the dregs (the most painful) of the Modern Library's Top 100 List (ML100) left yet to read. Based on this experience, I think I may forget about the rest of them. 
  • I am never doing this again.

The most enjoyable books of the century (joy)
1904 - Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse
1909 - Martin Eden by Jack London
1918 - Patricia Brent-Spinster by Herbert George Jenkins
1921 - Dangerous Ages by Rose Macauley
1930 - Angel Pavement by J.B. Priestly
1937 - Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson
1944 - Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
1945 - The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
1946 - Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple
1958 - A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym
1966 - The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson
1970 - 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
1973 - After Claude by Iris Owens
1978 - The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym
1983 - Look at Me by Anita Brookner
1984 - Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner
1999 - Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Books that I really liked (happy)
1913 - T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
1919 - Consequences by E.M. Delafield
1920 - Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
1923 - The Ladies of Lyndon by Margaret Kennedy
1929 - Passing by Nella Larsen
1927 - Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards
1934 - Burmese Days by George Orwell
1938 - Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
1940 - Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
1947 - Not Now, but Now by M.F.K. Fisher
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
1954 - Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
1956 - The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch
1957 - Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
1964 - The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
1968 - Sarah's Cottage by D.E. Stevenson
1971 - Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller
1977 - The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
1979 - The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
1981 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (ML100)
1989 - Summer People by Marge Piercy
1989 - Passing On by Penelope Lively
1991 - The Translator by Ward Just
1993 - While England Sleeps by David Leavitt
1994 - The Longings of Women by Marge Piercy
1997 - Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty

Books that I merely liked (content)
1902 - The Immoralist by Andre Gide
1908 - Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson
1912 - The Charwoman's Daughter by James Stephens
1917 - Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
1928 - Quartet by Jean Rhys
1931 - The Square Circle by Denis Mackail
1935 - A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
1939 - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
1943 - Gideon Planish by Sinclair Lewis
1948 - The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
1949 - Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
1959 - The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley
1960 - The Bachelors by Muriel Spark
1965 - Of the Farm by John Updike
1967 - My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof by Penelope Mortimer
1969 - The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble
1974 - House of Stairs by William Sleator
1975 - Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1976 - The Takeover by Muriel Spark

Books about which I am ambivalent (ennui)
1925 - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (ML 100)
1932 - Year Before Last by Kay Boyle
1933 - Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson
1941 - The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge
1953 - Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
1980 - The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
1982 - Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
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
1990 - Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman
1995 - Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
1996 - Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Books I might have liked if I had been in a different mood (bored)
1900 - Claudine at School by Collette
1901 - Claudine in Paris by Collette
1903 - The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
1905 - The Duel by Aleksandr Kuprin
1906 - Young Torless by Robert Musil
1910 - Clayhanger by Arnold Bennett
1936 - The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West
1942 - Clark Clifford's Body by Kenneth Fearing
1955 - The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
1963 - The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy

Books I almost didn't hate (surprised)
1907 - The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (ML100)
1914 - Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1915 - The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
1916 - Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
1926 - Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
1972 - Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl
1992 - Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells
1998 - The Book of Lies by Felice Picano

Painful, just painful (resentful)
1911 - Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (ML100)
1922 - The Judge by Rebecca West
1961 - Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (ML100)
1962 - A Clockwork Orange by A. Burgess (ML100)

My most hated book of the century (tortured)
1924 - Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford (ML100)

What one word do each of these images represent?