30 October 2013

A baker's dozen of reviews (minus the two I dropped)

My reading life has been good lately. Not only have I read eleven books over the past 30 days, but I have enjoyed most of them and even loved some of them. As is the fashion these days on My Porch, my reviews will be on the short (but delightful) side. Coincidentally, the first three of these are about World War II.

Trapeze (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky) by Simon Mawer
The story of a woman who volunteers to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France for a top secret mission. Overall this was an enjoyable read BUT the fact that our heroine kept divulging her secret mission to just about everyone she knew made it a little hard to believe in the story. It was so glaring to me (and to Teresa) that I was shocked Mawer could be so sloppy. Especially after having read his brilliant The Glass Room which I thought was nuanced and layered and so much better than Trapeze. Still Trapeze is worth it if you find a cheap copy or pick it up at the library.

HHhH by Laurent Binet
I only picked this one up because Simon Savidge kept mentioning it. He and Gavin and Rob and Kate read it and discussed it on the inaugural episode of their podcast Hear...Read This. I really, really enjoyed this book which tells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heinrich, Himmlers right hand man who was also in charge of the Reich in Prague. Not only is the story fascinating in itself, but the way Binet tells it is also fascinating. Essentially he tells the story while also talking about the process of writing a historical novel. I just loved it. The four co-hosts of Hear...Read This have a wonderful discussion about the book which I listened to only after finishing reading it.

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt
Two couples meet in 1940 in Lisbon as they wait for the SS Manhattan to arrive to shuttle stranded Americans back to the USA. I really wish I could say I liked this book but I found it really clumsy and not very believable on so many levels. Leavitt, who has written many things I have liked did a much better job pulling off the period in his flawed by likable novel While England Sleeps.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I thought this book was charming and funny and a wonderful, quick read. Young man in San Francisco takes a job in a very odd bookstore. And then lots of stuff happens. It is like a nerdy love fest. Books, computers, typography, archaeology, a yarn museum, and a dozen other things that will appeal to your inner nerd. This book was also part of the first episode of Hear...Read This. Two of the four co-hosts hated it. I can understand their critique, but I don't agree with it. They rightly point out that everything happens a bit too conveniently. Resources, clues, money, and romance all appear exactly when they should with not a lot of tension. But I loved it anyway. I liken it to a Nevil Shute novel or a DE Stevenson novel where everything turns out hunky-dory and you know it will the whole way through.

Supposedly the hardcover glows in the dark. I'm not sure if my paperback version does.

Fletchers End by D.E. Stevenson
And speaking of Stevenson, this one was like at the non-Buncle rest. Chaste romance, some sort of dwelling being set right, and likable servants whose only goal in life is to make their employers happy. I love all of her books, but I will admit that this one was perhaps one of the weaker ones.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
I have been a big fan of Wolitzer since I read The Wife several years ago. In The Interestings we have the story of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in Massachusetts in the 1970s and remain close well into their adult lives, in fact for the rest of their lives. One night when I was reading it one of the characters nostalgically makes up an address for their former summer camp where he can be reached. The thing that struck me was that the address included a zip code. Being a bit of a U.S. Mail nerd I was intrigued that Wolitzer had included a zip code. So, at 1:00 am I found myself writing a letter to the address to see what would happen. Not surprisingly the letter was returned as undeliverable. Unfortunately the days of the postal service stamping the envelope "return to sender" are over. Instead a sticker is affixed to the envelope largely covering the address. Luckily the sticker is removable so I was able to remove it and place it elsewhere on the envelope. After all the only reason I sent the letter was so that I could Tweet a picture of the returned envelope to @MegWolitzer. Happily she retweeted.

The letter I wrote at 1:00 AM

The returned letter.

Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers
A few weeks ago I asked the Twitterverse which newish, readable novels in paperback by authors I may not have heard of I should read. I got four responses for which I am grateful. One was from Teresa at Shelf Love who not only recommended Dancing Backwards, but also gave me a copy. It is a shipboard tale of a woman sailing from England to New York where she plans to meet an old friend she hasn't seen for decades. On the voyage she wrestles with the baggage associated with this relationship. When I first started reading I was a little distracted by some details that didn't ring true to me and there were some plotting elements that didn't ring true to me either. Still, I totally enjoyed reading the book and got totally lost in it. Just what I had wanted.

If I had seen this at a bookstore, the cover image would have kept me from even picking it up to read the blurb.

A Time to Dance and other stories by Bernard MacLaverty
So far I have enjoyed everything I have read by MacLaverty. Nothing that makes me want to jump up and down and tell people about him, but he does write thoughtful books with sympathetic characters using very good prose. Some of these stories in this collection are on the dysfunctional family side of the spectrum but still enjoyable.

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
So far my favorite of the Palliser series. Shallow, climber, opportunist young widow decides that her dead husband's family diamonds belong to her not to his estate. Unlike the other Pallisers I have read so far this one is low on politics.

The Fur Person by May Sarton
The perfect little book for people who love cats or May Sarton.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I first read this book so long ago that I couldn't remember much about it except for the fact that it was set in New York. Before I included it on my list of ten books that represent the USA I thought I best reread it to make sure it was as brilliant as I remember. And it is. When I first started rereading I was struck by how much religion is in the book. I knew it had that element but I started to feel there was too much of it. In the decades since I first read the book my views on religion and faith have changed dramatically. I began to think I no longer liked the book because it was so heavy on the religious aspect. But I am so glad I stuck it out until the end because the book is still as brilliant as I remember. And it packs an emotional punch that rewards those who stick through to the end. I realize this makes it sound somewhat unreadable, which it is not, I was just impatient with some of the content.  But what is it about? A semi-autobiographical tale, young Black man in 1930s Harlem deals with family, religion, and being gay. But don't be fooled, the gay theme is never acknowledge but is, instead, just an undercurrent that resonates for those who recognize it.

25 October 2013

Going crazy at the bookstore

Recently I got together with Frances from Nonsuch Book for coffee.

Since I needed to make room on my shelves for new books, I brought Frances a few duplicates to satisfy her Barbara Pym cravings (and an EF Benson to boot). 
Given that the cafe where we met is in the basement of the area's best independent bookstore, more than hot cocoa was purchased. My reading tastes and my penchant for combing through used bookstores, means that I don't often I buy new books. But lately I have had a hankering for books published this century.

All this is to say, I had a big itch to scratch. And boy did I scratch.

Even crazier, is the fact that I bought so many hardcover books. But I really wanted some recent stuff so I had to take the plunge. And I should mention that at least four of the HCs were remainders and cheaper than their PB editions.

(In order, beginning with the stack on the left.)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I bought this one because it is one of the two books discussed on the recent inaugural episode of the podcast Hear...Read This. I am going to wait until I read these books before actually listening to the podcast.

The Bookstore by Deborah Merler
Not surprisingly, I bought this because it has the word "bookstore" in the title. No more to say about that.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
I remember looking at this book several months ago and thinking I may like it. This was way before I heard of The Luminaries. More recently Frances said she was going to read this one as a warm-up to The Luminaries. But it wasn't until Frances pointed it out to me at the bookstore that I realized that they were the same book.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
I think Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, and perhaps Nevil Shute's In the Wet are the only two books I have read that get the current royal family right in fiction. Oh, and Peter Lefcourt does a good job in Di and I.  Emma Tennant really gets it wrong in The Autobiography of the Queen and Mark Helprin really got it wrong in Freddy and Fredericka. Where will this one land I wonder?

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
First the cover got my attention then the blurb "...rocky patch of Italian coastline..." how could I not pick it up. Oddly "Jess" is a man. I am guessing it isn't short for Jessica.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I hadn't even noticed this book until Frances pointed it out. I think she was skeptical because of the Oprah endorsement, I was skeptical because the title is so god awfully cute. In the end we both bought it. At least I think Frances did as well. I was sold on "...small English village..." on the back cover.

The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt
I've liked pretty much everything Leavitt has written so I picked this one up without even reading the dust jacket flap. Now that I open it and take a gander I can see I made the right choice. Two couples wait in Lisbon in 1940 for a ship to take them back to the U.S. I might have to start this one soon.

HHhH by Laurent Binet
This is the second of the books on the first episode of Hear...Read This. I have already started reading this one and finding it pretty fascinating. A tale of Nazi mastermind Reinhard Heydrich but the story is told in a pretty interesting and unconventional way.

The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon
I have moderately enjoyed other Gordon novels so this seemed a good choice from the bargain table.

The Good House by Ann Leary
I've seen a few friends bring this up on Goodreads and I love a New England setting.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
This one was on the bestseller list at the bookstore. Daughter moves away from her communist mother in Queens to Greenwich Village. The title helped push me over the edge as well.

The Bottom of Everything by Ben Polnick
Also a bestseller at the bookstore and it appears to be set in Washington DC which doesn't happen too often.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Aichie
The story of a Nigerian woman studying at Princeton and dealing with life as an African in the US (in contrast to being an African-American). Sounds fascinating and my reading list is way too white.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
I like Drabble a lot and since I was buying so many books, one more didn't seem like a bad idea.

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes
I have never read anything by Holmes and this one is on the longlist for the Green Carnation Prize.

The Infatuations by Javier Marais
Frances said this was excellent and it takes place in Madrid. I think I have spent more time in Spain (ten days) than I have read books set in Spain. Doesn't seem very worldly of me does it?

Have you read any of these? Do you want to?

22 October 2013

How would you sum up your country in 10 books?

That's right, those are amber waves of grain.
On the most recent episode of The Readers podcast Simon Savidge and I each came up with a list that we thought summed up our respective countries. He made a list of the ten novels which he felt represented Great Britain and I came up with a list of ten novels which I felt represented the U.S. Rather than try and sum up our countries by theme or national characteristics, we decided to represent our countries geographically. (Not surprisingly, doing so did indeed illuminate a national or regional characteristic or two along the way.)

Given the incredibly vast size of the USA I had quite a difficult time narrowing it down to just ten titles. But, since this was my personal list based on my own reading history, I eventually got over the notion that I would even come close to doing AmLit any justice. The other thing that was paramount in my mind as I selected my list, is that I did not want to choose anything too obvious, and I specifically tried to stay away from those grand classics of American literature that every Tom, Dick, and Harry might rattle off the top of their heads. I also made a conscious effort to include "newer" things. A quick glance at my list will show that I didn't do too well on this front. I think only two of them were written this century.

If you want to here more about why I selected the books I did, you will have to listen to the podcast. But my question to you is: If you had to come up with ten books that you think best represent your country, what would they be?

New York - Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin
Photo credit Stuck In a Book
New York - Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

New England - The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

Washington, DC - Echo House by Ward Just

The South - Deliverance by James Dickey

Chicago - Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Midwest - Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Southwest - The Professor's House by Willa Cather

Southern California - A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien

Northern California - Tales of the City by Armisted Maupin

12 October 2013

Bits and Bobs

Looking backwards and forwards at American novels
On last week's episode of the The Readers podcast, Simon Savidge and I discussed American novels. It was fun discussing AmLit with my British co-host. During the discussion, Simon had the brilliant idea that each of us come up with a list of 10 novels that represent our countries. Being a big fan of BritLit, I can't wait to see his list, and may I just say, I have had a blast coming with my own top ten for the U.S. We haven't recorded the episode yet but it should air on Tuesday, October 22nd. The only thing I will say about my list is that it doesn't have all the usual suspects on it. No group of august scholars would come up with these ten titles.

Bloggers go a huntin'
The other Simon, Simon Thomas, made his inaugural visit to the U.S. this week to hang out with his best pal Lorna who moved to DC recently. Sadly, all of the amazing free attractions in DC were closed because of the government shutdown, but happily he had lots of time to go book stores. Yesterday Simon and Teresa from Shelf Love piled in the car and made our way to northwestern Virginia to go huntin' for books.

Our first stop was to a library book sale in near Winchester where the selection was pretty good and the prices couldn't be beat (mass PBs were 50 cents, trade PBs a dollar, and HCs a dollar). It might not have been worth the hour and half drive from DC but it also gave us a chance to check out three used book shops in the area. Simon, being wary of his ever expanding luggage was quite restrained while Teresa and I didn't really try to hold back. You can see her stack here.

Add caption
I couldn't resist the cover. And only $2 for a hardcover.

Have no idea if this is any good, but that is Maine through the window. 

I enjoyed the Tales of City series back in the day, but I couldn't resist this cover.
I love the illustration by Gregg Kulick.
The road trip also gave Simon the opportunity to have his first buttermilk biscuit...

and his first Dairy Queen...

Simon had some sort of Blizzard. Regular readers might recall that I am a huge fan of the DQ. As such I can never decide between the simplicity of a plain vanilla cone or something more elaborate. So when all was said and done I ended up having a small vanilla cone, a small Oreo Blizzard (but I had them add two scoops of chocolate that they use for dipping cones which gets all hard and crunchy when cold--it makes it like a chocolate covered Oreo Blizzard), and then finding Teresa's strawberry sundae irresistible, I went back up to the counter and got myself a small strawberry sundae. Yum.

Whilst the three of us were out and about Simon T. said something about a novella reading weekend. Since the discussion topics were coming fast and furious from all of us, I didn't have a chance to follow up but from what I understand, sometimes Simon will spend a weekend reading nothing but novellas. I think he does it occasionally to try and put a dent in his TBR. When he mentioned this I vaguely recalled some sort of novella challenge from a few years ago. Looking back at my blog from November 2009 I participated in a November novella challenge hosted by Bibliofreak J.T. Oldfield. (When I try and follow the link to Oldfield's blog now it takes me to a spam site.)

In any event, this got me to thinking I might want to do a novella read in the near future. I'm in the mood to do it now, but I figure that wouldn't be fair to my friend Roz who is currently in a race with me to get to 100 books this year. I think I may be in the lead, but reading a bunch of 150-page novella's may not endear me to her. So do I wait until one of us reaches 100? Do I wait until the new year? Although I like the sound of Novella November, I also like the idea of starting 2014 by knocking out 20 books in short order.

Or maybe the urge to read novellas will pass.

07 October 2013

Book adaptations

There was a meme going around a week or two ago where bloggers listed the ten books they would like to see adapted to the screen. I couldn't resist, I think of this stuff all the time. Unlike most of the other blogposts about this, I don't have many recent books on my list. I know, that isn't much of a surprise.

Here are my ten. Keep in mind, all are fabulous books and deserve to be read even if they don't make it to Hollywood. (Which makes me think, I am not sure I want Hollywood making these films. They usually really screw it up. But I am sure we could find enough Ang Lees and Merchant/Ivory's to make these all work.)

In no particular order...

1. Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico. 
This would be not just the feel good picture of the year, but also a visual stunner. Imagine a meticulously made period piece full of Christian Dior post war fashions brought gloriously to the screen. A kind of 1950s The Devil Wears Prada meets, oh I don't know, who is the sweetest, most uplifting female character you can think of? [Stefan reminds me in the comments below that this has already been made into a movie with Angela Landsbury. I knew this in the back of my brain somewhere, but still want it (re)made into a film.]

Dior in 1957 right before his death. Mrs. Harris was published in 1958.

2. The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
Both novelists and filmmakers have a really hard time making enjoyable products about classical music that don't either dumb it down or make it so name droppy you want to strangle the writer for his/her pretensions. However, in The Student Conductor Robert Ford has created a fascinating, well written novel about life in the music world in Germany around at the time of reunification. And Ford is a playwright, so I am guessing he could really come up with a good screenplay.

I couldn't decide on just one young conductor.
(l to r) Kevin Griffiths, Oliver Zeffman, Han-Na Chang
3. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart 
Only in Paris would one find a piano shop that is essentially open by invitation only--you have to know someone who purchased a piano there before they will let you in. Thakfully they let Carhart in because it inspired to write this wonderful book the shop and pianos in general. I don't think I want this one fictionalized. How about just a really good documentary based on the book?

Possibly the actual shop.

4. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
A powerful, beautifully written novel written about an extremely dramatic period of South Africa's history. My only request is that they hire South African's to play the roles. That's a hard accent to nail.

The cover on the right is more indicative of the content, but the cover on the left is so wonderful I couldn't resist.

Bam. I was looking for cover art and came across this. Apparently the film has already been made.
Check out Literary Kicks for more on that.
5. Tender at the Bone and Comfort me with Apples by Ruth Reichl
Two memoirs of a life loving food writer would make a wonderful fictionalized adaptation. It could be like Julie and Julia meets Augusten Burroughs meets Under the Tuscan Sun. Reichl has such a joie de groove it is hard not to be swept up in her life.

6. The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff
The best part about turning this one into a film would be to not update anything. The novel is a WWII-era story of the moon on a collision course with Earth. It would be no fun if the film used 21st century technology to track and deal with the problem. I want the film to be just as cozy and old fashioned as the book. My review is here.

An alternate title.
7. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
This is perhaps not the novel that is most representative of Cather's writing, but it is such a wonderful book. Just imagine Little House on the Prairie meets Anne of Green Gables, except it doesn't take place in the Midwest or the Maritimes, but Quebec. My review is here.

8. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
I've said this one a million times before. Helen Mirren needs to reprise her QEII and turn this most delightful book into screen magic. My ecstatic review is here.

This rather uncomfortable photo could be a before image. As in before QEII discovers the pleasures of reading.
9. The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
There are so many bad scripts that get turned into really, really expensive films. Why not take these three fascinating, expertly written novels, turn them into three excellent scripts without dumbing anything down, and then spend about a billion dollars filming all of them. I want epics! I want to see liobams and pigoons and those "living" chicken breasts and perhaps above all, I want to see the mo'hairs. But here is a question: Do the Crakers run around naked in the film? Do we get to see the giant blue penises? My review is here.

10. All of Barbara Pym's novels
 I left this one for last so those who are tired of my Pym cheer-leading don't write off this whole post. Unlike Murdoch or Brookner whose works deal so much with what is going on in a character's head, Pym's characters' mental tics are easily translatable to visual expression, physical action, or sensitive stage dressing. As I have said many times before, I think I would start with Some Tame Gazelle and then just film them all in the order they were written. I've written about Pym in many places, here is something about bringing her work to the screen.