29 December 2013

Bits and Bobs (the new beginnings edition)

Roz and Layla about five years before they went mental with all-out reading mania.
(Photo credit: Helen Maybanks)

I wish the year was over so I could start my reading list over
I know that sounds stupid, but I am tired of adding to this year's list. I think it is because once I reached 100 books for the year back in October I didn't have a goal anymore. As much as I complain about how reading goals stress me out, I now seem to be stressed out because I don't have a reading goal.

Resisting the urge to bulk up my TBR
As I have mentioned before, I plan to participate again this year in the Triple Dog TBR Dare where for the first three months of the year, I can only read books in my possession as of midnight on New Year's Eve. Since John and I will be living in temporary quarters for 11 months, I decided to extend the TBR to a full 11 months. Essentially I am only going to read books from my TBR until we move back into our house and my new book shelves are in place. And that will be sometime in November (fingers crossed). I can see myself failing, at least after the initial 3 months are over, but still something to shoot for.

Roz and Layla throw down the gauntlet
In 2013 my friend Roz and I had a contest to see who could read 100 books first. For 2014 she and her wife Layla have challenged a whole group of their friends to do the same. Although I would certainly like to reach at least 100 again next year, I don't think I am going to officially participate because it makes me too bent on finishing books rather than enjoying books.

Just 5 authors for 50 years
Because it took me about 20 months to finish the 12-month A Century of Books challenge the first time Simon at Stuck In A Book hosted it, I will most certainly not be joining him again in 2014 when he attempts to do it again. I invite him to look at my ACOB list of books read with caution. Some of them were real stinkers.  I also took the liberty of filling out his list for the second fifty years of the 20th century with five fantastic female authors. No need to read anyone else Simon. I gotcha covered. You're welcome.

1950 - PYM Some Tame Gazelle
1951 - STEVENSON Shoulder the Sky
1952 - PYM Excellent Women
1953 - PYM Jane and Prudence
1954 - MURDOCH Under the Net
1955 - PYM Less Than Angels
1956 - MURDOCH The Flight from the Enchanter
1957 - MURDOCH The Sandcastle
1958 - PYM A Glass of Blessing
1959 - STEVENSON Still Glides the Stream
1960 - STEVENSON The Musgraves
1961 - PYM No Fond Return of Love
1962 - MURDOCH An Unofficial Rose
1963 - PYM An Unsuitable Attachment
1964 - MURDOCH The Italian Girl
1965 - MURDOCH The Red and the Green
1966 - MURDOCH The Time of the Angels
1967 - STEVENSON Sarah Morris Remembers
1968 - MURDOCH The Nice and the Good
1969 - MURDOCH Bruno's Dream
1970 - MURDOCH A Fairly Honourable Defeat
1971 - MURDOCH An Accidental Man
1972 - ATWOOD Surfacing
1973 - MURDOCH The Black Prince
1974 - MURDOCH The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
1975 - MURDOCH A Word Child
1976 - MURDOCH Henry and Cato
1977 - PYM Quartet in Autumn
1978 - MURDOCH The Sea, the Sea
1979 - ATWOOD Life Before Man
1980 - PYM A Few Green Leaves
1981 - BROOKNER A Start in Life
1982 - BROOKNER Providence
1983 - BROOKNER Look at Me
1984 - BROOKNER Hotel du Lac
1985 - BROOKNER Family and Friends
1986 - BROOKNER A Misalliance
1987 - BROOKNER A Friend from England
1988 - BROOKNER Latecomers
1989 - BROOKNER Lewis Percy
1990 - BROOKNER Brief Lives
1991 - BROOKNER A Closed Eye
1992 - BROOKNER Fraud
1993 - BROOKNER A Family Romance
1994 - BROOKNER A Private View
1995 - BROOKNER Incidents in the Rue Laugier
1996 - BROOKNER Altered States
1997 - BROOKNER Visitors
1998 - BROOKNER Falling Slowly
1999 - BROOKNER Undue Influence

25 December 2013

23 December 2013

Listening to audiobooks for free

Fiona Shaw
I've never really listened to an audiobook. I don't have a driving commute or other time of day where listening to the audio makes much sense. Being a child of television means that audio is something one has on when one is doing something else. And I think that listening to a book requires actual concentration so I don't think I would get much out of it if I tried to do something else. The other challenge for me is that I find spoken word recordings to have a lovely soporific quality and that seems to defeat the purpose as well.

But I have been intrigued lately with the idea of audiobooks. I will never belong to the camp who believes that listening = reading, but I thought it might be fun to listen to one while actually following along with the book itself. I thought of this particularly about Anita Brookner novels. I am in the process of rereading all of her work in chronological order and thought it would be fun to hear someone read it to me while I followed along.

It was in that mood that I clicked on Audible.com last night. I had never been to the website before but I had seen it mentioned on many a blog and Twitter feed. The first thing I did was type in 'Anita Brookner'. Was well pleased to see that there are ten of her 23 novels available in audio format. I first clicked on the sample of Prunella Scales reading A Closed Eye. I love Scales' voice, but didn't find it entirely suited the Brookner voice in my head. Then I went on to Anna Massey who reads two of them. This was much better. (Wasn't Massey in the film version of Hotel du Lac that I saw years ago and can't find these days on DVD?) Still, I wasn't convinced that this worked for me. So I clicked through to other things Massey recorded. This began an odyssey that kept me up until 2:00 in the morning.


  • Emma Thompson is wonderful reading Howard's End. I wish she would do more recordings.
  • I came across a dramatized version of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt that had a truly all star cast including Ed Asner, Ted Danson, Richad Dreyfus, Hector Elizondo, Stacy Keach, and Ed Begley, Jr.
  • Was intrigued by Claire Danes reading The Handmaid's Tale, but not sure if I actually liked it.
  • Elizabeth McGovern reading Alias Grace could possibly make me like that book which I didn't really care for despite reading it twice.
  • As I surfed around it seemed to me that some books work better than others. Nevil Shute novels seem to work particularly well in audio version.
  • I think Pym works well, but I am not sure I like the narrator doing a special voice when reading the letter from the archdeacon.
  • Then I stumbled across Fiona Shaw reading the letters of Jane Austen. Now that was a success. Fiona Shaw. How fabulous. And then to see that she also reads Brookner's A Family Romance. How did I miss that earlier? She is the perfect Brookner reader.
  • Penelope Wilton is amazing and should do more of these.
  • Penelope Keith is the bee's knees. She is an amazing narrator. Too bad almost everything she records is Agatha Raisin. She is so good though she might actually make me like Raisin.
  • Victorian literature seems well suited for reading aloud. Not sure I think much of contemporary books being read.
  • Paul Auster reads his own novels really well. Not surprisingly his voice is just right.
  • I love the various author interviews available.
  • Disappointed that May Sarton isn't represented. Need someone with a flintly but friendly voice with a mildish New England accent.
  • Lucy Scott who reads The Making of a Marchioness is wonderful.
  • Emilia Fox is fantastic reading everything Austen, Mitford, Christie, Archer, and she does it all justice.
  • The unknown narrators are usually better than the famous actors. Not because the actors are bad. but because I find myself distracted by the fact that I know their work.

As I listened on and on, jumping around sampling all sorts of my favorite books, struggling to keep my eyes open at 1:53 a.m., I realized something. I love listening to these wonderful voices reading wonderful books but I still don't think I could follow a whole book. This, added to the fact that I am trying not to spend money these days means that I probably will not become a member of Audible or other service (if there is any) anytime soon. I realized that I enjoyed the free sample recordings enough that it actually sated my desire for spoken word. And let's face it. If a four minute sample satisfies my urge, could I ever really sit through eight hours?

22 December 2013

One Sentence Reviews

Here are eight books I have read recently that I have yet to comment on I have placed them in rough order of how much I liked them. Best to worst.

Knulp by Hermann Hesse
Another sad, beautiful Hesse musing on life and death.

Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.
A brilliant non-fiction tale of a copper heiress who chose to spend the last 20 years of her life in a hospital despite owning four mansions.

Gerald and Elizabeth by DE Stevenson
Two parts Stevensonian romance, one part Nevil Shutian nose to the grindstone success story, one part Wilkie Collinsonian clear my name with the help of letters and anecdotes.

A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns
Kept waiting for Vicky to stop being so damn poor in this enjoyable autobiographical novella.

Minnie's Room by Mollie Panter-Downes
Definitely worth a read, but not as good has her wartime stories in Goodnight, Mrs. Craven.

Nest of Vipers by Tod Claymore
Old fashioned, green covered Penguin mystery with all the plot and logic leaps characteristics of the genre.

Smut by Alan Bennett
I don't need to read about perverted grannies.

Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
Better than Emma Tennant's lame attempt to fictionalize QEII making an escape, but miles away from the brilliance of Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader.

18 December 2013

The word was made flesh and dwelt among us

Like many of you, I am charmed by paper. I like the way it looks, smells, and feels. I'm charmed by ink as well. I'm a sucker for a good font, lovely handwriting, and everything from an intricate engraving to a lowly doodle. When you put paper and ink together you certainly end up with something that is (usually) more than the sum of its parts. For most of us, the pinnacle of this mash-up is the book (cue the spotlight and heavenly chorus). That amazing flesh and blood/paper and ink bundle of joy that will never be replaced by a circuit board and screen.

But books aren't the only printed matter than make me a little weak in the knees. Although many are cutting back their Christmas card habit, I am going the other direction. I love getting them (the newsier the better) so I figured I needed to give some to get some. (And how odd that in this day and age it took the annual Christmas card to find out that a casual friend who lives just miles from me is moving with his family to Thailand.)

The start of this year's collection. That would be Amanda being Merry and Bright.
Each year when the Christmas cards begin to arrive I start thinking wistfully of the days, not really that long ago, when getting the mail really meant something. I certainly love the immediacy of email and the ability of the internet in general to keep us all better connected than I ever could have imagined when I was in college, but there is something so nice about real mail.

When I was in high school, I fell in love for the first time--with a college boy. We met the summer before my Senior year of high school as he was getting ready to spend his Junior year of college abroad in Madrid. Not long after the school year started we began corresponding. Every day I would practically run home from school to see if there was one of those distinctive airmail envelopes waiting for me. Some weeks there would be multiple letters.

No relationship in the 1980s was complete without a mixed tape.
The 'liner notes' from a mixed tape he made for me in college.
We were still long distance, I was in Minneapolis, he was in Madison.
I have tried to make up for the fact that letters are a thing of the past by buying pretty paper and imagining all sorts of things that will never really happen.

I'm a total sucker for Moleskine notebooks. But with my poor handwriting and lack of artistic talent, I buy them and they sit empty. I recently gave a few of them away to Stefan at ArchitectDesign because I know that he will find a good use for them.

And what book blogger worth their salt can think of Moleskine without thinking Matt at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook?
While looking for images of Moleskine, I came across Matt Jackson, a gaming blogger who makes these wonderful maps. Just the kind of thing I wish I could do.
(Matt Jackson)

(Matt Jackson)

I've had better luck with this little lovelies filled with graph paper. Good for lists and for sketching out my dream kitchen.
And all of this reminds of S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst. Simon and I talked about it on the latest episode of The Readers. It is a book made to look like an old library book with loads of things (postcards, maps, clippings) tucked away in between pages and a marginalia conversation that is as important, perhaps more so, than the book text itself.

I'm not sure I would like the book, but I really want to own it.

I'm also a sucker for nice thank you notes. At least I use these.

02 December 2013

Everything about this book has grown on me

The Pure Gold Baby
Margaret Drabble

At first I didn't like the cover. I also wasn't so sure I liked the title. I'm not sure what I thought it referred to, but it evoked nothing for me. The anthropologically focused opening paragraphs left me wondering why I spent good money on a hardcover, something I almost never do. And although I like Margaret Drabble, I have discovered recently that my fondness for her work can't be universally applied to all of her novels.

So what happened? First I discovered that the pure gold baby refers to Anna, a sweet and well-loved developmentally disabled child. Normally I am one to feel uncomfortable around disability, but there is something about both Anna's sunny disposition and Drabble's unflinching honesty about her that made me embrace not only the pure gold baby, but The Pure Gold Baby as well.  Suddenly the title seemed brilliant and the cover of the American first edition came to life. (Had I even recognized that the seemingly bland cover art was the silhouette of a young girl?)

The novel is narrated by Eleanor, a friend of Anna's mother Jess. In fact, the story is less about Anna and more about Jess, her career, her friends, her lovers, and the world they inhabit over the course of fifty-odd years. Into the tale Drabble deftly weaves in the aforementioned anthropology, issues surrounding disability, institutionalization, changes in health care, aging, mortality, and even the meaning of life.

The product of an affair with an older married professor, Jess' love for Anna and the support of her friends (and the NHS) help soften the difficulties of being raised by a single mother. And each of her friends have offspring who are Anna's playmate and have their own potential for success and failure. Drabble's narrator inspires an optimism that makes me want to be a parent. (Indeed passages in this book are like antidotes to the despair that pervades Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child.)
Our children were so good, our hopes for them so high. Goodness seemed to be their birthright. [...] How could any of them go astray? The gap-toothed boy, the pure gold baby, the freckled fox girl, the dusky little despot, the white-faced flower, the luminous lamb, the lion charmer. [...] They were all beautiful, all good, all in bud. Even Andrew, subject as he was to spasms and to fits of incoherent rage, was beautiful, and full of undisclosed personal promise.
Of course nothing in life is as sunny as that and Anna and every other character in the book face challenges along the way.
Our little children, what becomes of them? They set off so innocently on their long journey. It is hard to bear, it is hard to grow old and see the children age and suffer. It is hard to see them grow bald, and estranged, and some of them lonely.
Knowing next to nothing about how the learning disabled learn, I was fascinated and grateful for Drabble's many little inclusions about such things. And knowing a bit about mental asylums (remember I wrote a book about one...), I was fascinated by her explorations of various institutions in England and the changes in how mental illness has been treated and mistreated over the years.

Fascinating for bibliophiles, Drabble also explores the lives of "problematic children in less enlightened times" including Jane Austen's brother George, Arthur Miller's Down's syndrome son, Kenzaburo Oe's disable son, Pearl Buck's daughter Carol and other authors dealing (or not dealing) with disability.

As much as The Pure Gold Baby is about any of these things it is also a long slow discovery of life. What we are all doing here, where we will all end up, and what it all means. Not only did I find much in this book profound, I was also taken by all of the mundane details of a life and society that is no more. This is kind of a "in the good old days" kind of moment for me, and I think, probably for Drabble. Not that everything in the good days is good, and there is certainly plenty in the bad old nowdays that is infinitely better.

When Simon and I contemplated our most recent episode of The Readers I was inspired by the early parts of The Pure Gold Baby. When I came across a description of the town hall in Islington I googled it to see how well Drabble did. Based on the image search I did, I would say pretty well. So full of interesting details and factoids, there were many moments I wanted (and did) look things up online. What I didn't realize is the importance that the the power of the Internet would play later in the book. As the characters age they find the Internet reconnecting them in ways they never could have imagined. Drabble also contemplates how the digital footprints of the notable people in the recent past (just before the Internet) are often more obscure than their older, equally (in)consequential peers. (Kind of like my 'discovery' of the designer of those Barbara Pym covers.) The narrator contemplates a poet Jess knew in her twenties.
[His] name seems to have faded from the literary record, his early promise unfulfilled. [...] he seems to have slipped away into obscurity [...] You can find his name through the web -- you can find almost anyone's name through the web -- and there are some early poems there [...] There is no surrounding integument of critical discourse, there are no links feeding his poems out into a living network. His work is islanded in the recent past. It has not yet hooked up with the expanding  interconnecting digital world. Minor Edwardian poets with their entourage of minor commentators and minor biographers and minor research scholars are better connected than he. He is in a limbo, in the land of the unreborn.
Jess herself would experience a fraught moment that was created and solved all with a bit of googling. A moment that would not have had the same immediacy twenty years ago before the Internet became what it is today.
Jess knows that she ought to google the Professor, to see if he is alive or dead. The depth of her terror at the thought of initiating this act, this investigation, scares her, and interests her. [...] She has procrastinated for so many years, and during these years technology has altered beyond any possible expectations. All she needs to do is to type in his name.
I know many of you are like me and like things a bit on the old fashioned side. We think longingly of card catalogs, rotary phones, and typewriters. So for you, I plucked out some of the more innocuous moments of the glorious past, and others from the inglorious present, that make appearances in The Pure Gold Baby.

  • Katie worked part time at Bush House for the BBC World Service, reviewing new poetry from the Commonwealth and chairing a poetry quiz.
  • Everybody was photographing everybody else with mobile phones, in the bizarre self-referential mode of the third millennium ...
  • Why had she never been back to Africa? She could have cajoled a friendly editor, in the days when there was easy money in print journalism.
  • That useful if vulgar and irritating little phrase, that journalistic, cheap-popular-psychology phrase 'comfort zone' hadn't existed in those early days ...
  • I tried Radio 4 and listend for a while to a soothing well-balanced programme about solar energy and wind farms, then moved to Radio 3 and wintry Sibelius. The natural world would survive us whatever we did to it. We could cement and tarmac it over and turn it into a motorway a mile wide, but it would break through in the end. That's what Sibelius was telling us.
  • Soon Jess and Bob and Anna will be in the Jacaranda Hotel, in reach of mobile-phone signals and texts and newspapers and news. What will have happened while they have been away? There has been time for births and deaths, scandals and revelations. The banks may have crashed, governments may have fallen. [...] But she was trying to put these irrelevant updates on the world out of her mind and to let it drift back over Africa.

The Pure Gold Baby is by no means a perfect book, but I found it full of wonderful prose, fascinating details, and much to contemplate in the days to come.