25 January 2014

Stuff is happening to My Porch's porch

For those of you who haven't noticed, I have started a new blog devoted to the year-long house project that we will be embarking on in the next few weeks. It will have lots of fodder for people who are house and garden junkies. And lots of Lucy photos. In fact, the new blog is called Lucy's Forever Home.

So if you are the kind of person who likes this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you will like (nod to Gertrude Stein Muriel Spark).

Not our house. Inspiration.

19 January 2014

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

When Simon Savidge's book-loving Gran passed last year, many of her fans joined in Simon's month-long Greene for Gran tribute. I had previously read three Greene novels (Our Man In Havana, The Heart of the Matter, and Travels With My Aunt and they all ended up getting really high ratings--8, 9, and 9 respectively) but it had been a while since I had read any of his work. In fact, if it wasn't for Simon's tribute to his Gran's favorite author, I'm not sure when, or if, I would have gotten back to him.

For Greene for Gran I picked up The End of the Affair and thought it was absolutely amazing in so many ways. It ended up getting a 10 on my 10-point scale. I enjoyed it so much that I picked up quite a number of Greene novels that I came across at various used book sales since then. (Thankfully Greene's work is quite easily available here in the U.S.) One of those books I picked up was The Human Factor which turned out to be a smart, somewhat sad, page-turner of a spy novel and it easily ranks a 9 on my scale.

Maurice Castle who works for the British Secret Service during spent years working for the service in Apartheid South Africa where we met and married one of his informants, a Bantu woman named Sarah. Since his affair with her broke the race laws in South Africa, Castle and Sarah flee the country one step ahead of he South African police. Seven years later Maurice is working for 'the Firm' but now at a desk job in London when a possible security leak is discovered in his division.

About halfway through the narrative, what I thought was a whodunit turned into a whydunit and a how will it enddunit. Throughout my read I found myself wanting to turn off the TV and computer and get back to the action, but when it got to the whydunit phase I become slightly more obsessed. I ended up staying up until 2:00 am to finish it. Without going back and looking at my list of books read, I can't remember the last time I found a book that compelling.

In the world of thriller/mystery type books, of which I read very, very few, I definitely lean toward the cerebral as opposed to the action filled or violent and I definitely like one with a good spy angle. But Graham Greene's writing and emotional depth transcends any attempt to plug this book into a genre. And I think his range as an author also keeps him out of any genre even though much of his work is set in a similar spyish milieu. At least that's how it looks to me having read only five of his 26 novels.

I'm so glad Granny Savidge's favorite author was Graham Greene because now he is one of mine as well.

17 January 2014

Book Review: Family and Friends by Anita Brookner

One of the best reading ideas I ever had was to re-read all of Anita Brookner's novels in chronological order. My challenge in writing reviews for these re-reads is whether or not I dare to try and put each of them into context with all the others. Given that Brookner has written 24 novels (so far, fingers crossed for 25...) to try and do so would be foolish for someone of my limited critical abilities. Twenty-four books is a lot to try and keep straight and seeing as I started reading them about 15 years ago, I certainly don't remember each of them as if I read them yesterday. Of course I often couldn't even tell you what I actually did read yesterday so you start to see my challenge.

Published in 1985, Family and Friends was Brookner's fifth novel and her first to focus on an entire family rather than her more usual focus on a single individual. To be sure, matriarch and widow Sofka Dorn is the center of the book and the actions of each of her four children are presented in relation to Sofka's dominance and needs, but unlike so many Brookner novels, these kids actually go out and live their lives. That is, at least two of them do. It is debatable whether or not the other two do. Oldest son Frederick isn't all that much interested in running the family factory and begins to place much of the burden on his 16-year old brother Alfred. Oldest daughter Mimi, is more beautiful than her younger sister Betty, but being the much more serious of the two, she seems destined to be the sad Brookner heroine we fans have grown to expect (and love). Meanwhile Betty takes life by the horns and refuses to let go until she has things just as she wants them.

As with most Brookner novel's Family and Friends is set in London, but unlike most of her works, the action takes place in years leading up to World War II. Here and there Brookner gives just the slightest sense of the political winds on the Continent. There may be refugees working in her kitchen and neighbors from the old country needing help, but they are really just background, or they show up to help define the main characters. In fact this is one of the brilliant things about Brookner in general. Her books are such fantastic studies of emotions and personalities that the rest of the world barely exists. She doesn't waste a lot of time creating a world outside her characters' heads but she does that so well one doesn't miss it. It's a kind of writing that requires a fair amount of cultural fluency. To be honest, the first time I read this book I missed much of that background.

Each of us to some degree is influenced by our family. But some families constitute a more closed ecosystem than others. Not surprisingly, Sofka has created--but is ultimately unable to maintain--a world that seems to kits her children out to be nothing else than their mother's children. The boys were tutored at home and the girls given a governess. "They wound up with numerous accomplishments but no real education."

"To Frederick [Sofka] is an oasis of sanity in a world peopled by increasingly difficult women."  Even today, I bet each of us can point to at least one man that fits that bill--no woman can serve him as well as mama did.  "To Alfred Sofka is quite simply a deity ... He knows no one as beautiful as Sofka ... she has seen to it that his life never will escape her ... " Frederick ends up marrying Evie, someone quite unexpected and perhaps exactly the kind of difficult woman his mother was not. The two of them move to Italy to run a hotel owned by Evie's family. Alfred, on the other hand, never leaves his mother but also seems subconsciously to be punishing her for imprisoning him. He has mistresses under his mother's nose, takes up a weekend house in the country she doesn't entirely like with a cook she doesn't approve of, and even moves them into a very masculine flat with rooms the color of cigars.

But what of the girls? Mimi, thwarted in love by the younger, less pretty Betty decides to lead a nun-like existence until she marries the much, much older major domo of the family business. (I read this book while in the early pages of Middlemarch and I couldn't help but see some slight similarities between Mimi and Dodo.) Betty, meanwhile decides to stay in Paris rather than continue her journey to Switzerland for finishing school. She dances on the stage for awhile before marrying a movie producer and moving to California.

Ultimately Mimi and Alfred stay by Sofka's side until the end while Frederick and Betty don't even bother come back to visit. Not ever. Not even when she is dying.

Although Family and Friends has far more action than a typical Brookner novel, one doesn't read Brookner for action. One reads her for her ability to develop a character and describe them with great nuance and economy. Instead of being painted by a famous painter, I would love to be described by Anita Brookner. I'm sure I wouldn't like it, but I would love the way she said it.

For those who haven't read Brookner before, I think this would be a good one to ease into her style and the sadness that pervades much of her work. In fact there were moments of Family and Friends that actually seemed joyful.

This review is cross posted on the blog for International Anita Brookner Day. You can also check out my eventually exhaustive list of London locations featured in Brookner's novels.

11 January 2014

Bits and Bobs (the bits and bobs edition)

It seems like all I do these days is Bits and Bobs posts. Some swirl of being busy and being lazy has kept me from anything more ambitious. But then, if you are like me, you prefer bookish gossip to most other forms of book blogging anyway, so maybe there is nothing...

(a) ...about which I should feel bad


(b) ...to feel bad about.

Is (b) really wrong?
Wouldn't you agree that 99% of us would finish our sentences that way? Is (a) betterer (sic)?

Slow start
Last year I read like a champion, finishing 111 books when all was said and done. This year is off to a much slower start. I finally finished my first book of 2014 last night (Brookner's Family and Friends). Granted, I have two other books in progress at the same time (Middlemarch, and Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred), but still, this doesn't bode well. I have certainly been preoccupied, nay busy, with our house renovation. Not only have I been working on contractor negotiations, sub-contractor visits, and getting the financing all lined up, but I have also been busy packing up our belongings ahead of our temporary move.

A library of Sophie's choices (but oddly no Sophie's Choice)
One of the biggest challenges in packing up the house has been dealing with all of our books. I am determined to squeeze all of our stuff into our two-bedroom rental. This means that all of my books except for my extensive TBR pile (see picture below) will be tucked away in boxes and hidden in closets. So even though our temporary quarters has tons of closet space, it still seemed like a very good time to weed the collection.

The once packed shelves looking considerably diminished.

Some of the boxes of books that will remain in hiding for almost a year.
The books still on the shelves next to the fireplace represent the books in TBR that I will have access to. Everything I will read in the next eleven months is on those shelves.

Getting ready to move I had to figure out whether or not to keep the turntable and my collection of mainly classical records. Haven't used the turntable for about seven years. Once I put a few of them on I knew I couldn't get rid of them. They sound so good.

Vintage Leontyne waiting for her spin on the turntable.

As the available book boxes filled up, I made remarkably little process emptying the shelves. It was the bookish equivalent of Willa Wonka's everlasting gobstopper. So I began to get aggressive with my book cull. So far about 12 shopping bags of books have been donated to the Friends of the Library. A good thing, I know, but some of them were hard to let go. Especially as I contemplated the volunteers not knowing that they had treasures in their hands. I began putting sticky notes on some of the more esoteric books that I thought needed a little explaining so they didn't get tossed in the pulp pile just because they were old and unknown. And then came the collections and sets...

A conversion on the road to Hay-on-Wye
(If Saul became Paul, will I become Rhomas?) As I ruthlessly tossed out old friends and asked the hard questions about what to keep, I tried not to notice the various collections and sets that were tucked away here and there. These were books that I just had to have. Some combination of bibliophilia and the need to shop. Books that I was quite sure I would never read, but I felt the need to possess them. Beautiful covers, numbered spines, editions that were limited, collectors, or special. What to do, what to do? I have noted before that I much prefer reading copies of books over other more special editions. Ratty old paperbacks please me far more than the shiniest or rarest hardcovers. And I had already decided some months ago that I really didn't need four HC editions of Oryx and Crake (one Canadian first, one US first, and two UK firsts). So it seemed time to not only cull the collection of collections, but it also made me realize I was a bit foolish to buy them in the first place. I know I got pleasure out of them for a while, and if our house was nothing but room after room of books, I might have continued to get pleasure out of them, but I certainly wasn't like to read many of them. So I think my days of buying a book just because I want to possess it are over. Unless I am truly intent on reading something, it just doesn't make much sense to me to keep buying books as objects.

Some of the casualties
Some collectible books may indeed have some monetary value, but unless you are willing to sit on them for months or years while you try to sell them online, it is highly unlikely that you get much of anything for them. Most shops that are buying books pay next to nothing. I am not sure what a typical mark-up is in the antiques trade, but in used books it seems to be somewhere in the 1000% range. So handing something over for 50 cents in store credit doesn't really feel so good. And selling on e-bay is not much better. Giving them away to charity can make one feel good but I think, as I mention above, that many of those books can end up pulped because they are too old and esoteric for the charity to bother with them. It was in doing this math, and realizing that even giving books away can be difficult that helped push me toward my no collecting conversion. I know many of you would love to possess some of my cast-offs, but you all live a million miles away and postage is a bitch.

I ran around London collecting all 100 of the Penguin Great Ideas series seen on the top shelf.

Seems a fitting title for realizing I need to stop buying "collectible" books. They are just beautiful, but I am never going to read them and they take up too much space. Tried to sell them at on ebay, but when I saw how low the bidding was and how much I loved them still, I took them off the market. Then one of the bidder's, who happens to live locally, contacted me with a really good reason why she wanted them and with a decent offer. So I feel good about letting them go.

I had so much fun collecting these wonderful old Signet Classics. They have lovely, fun, interesting covers, but really ugly spines. I found a former lit major in my neighborhood who is now the proud owner of these 60 volumes.

Sending a book a page at a time
Well it isn't really a book, but it looks a bit like a book. And they aren't pages so much...yes, even my collection of 100 Penguin postcards was culled. It is true, I could easily have kept this volume on my shelf for ages and it wouldn't have bothered me one bit. But I began thinking about my post late last year about letters and such. And I know many bloggers over the years have bemoaned the lost art of letter writing. And then an idea began forming in my head. But no, could I really give them up? But yes, that would be quite fun. What to do? So I took the plunge.  I emptied out the lovely book-like box that the postcards came in and shipped it to another blogger with just one postcard inside with the note "Keep. This. Box." written on the back. I think you can figure out what is going to happen at least 99 times.

Whatever sadness I feel at giving up this treasured possession is ameliorated by the fun I am having writing postcards to Amanda. And I know that she will enjoy the cards not only as fun, bookish surprises showing up from time to time in her mailbox but also as pieces of correspondence. One of the added benefits is that I keep the stack of postcards on my desk and find I am getting more pleasure looking at whatever card is on top of the pile at the moment, than I would have if they stayed tucked away in their box. Thankfully I don't have to write all 100 postcards at once.
Amanda's picture of the box and first of 100 postcards to make its way from DC to Georgia.

The rest of the cards providing visual interest on my desk while they wait their turn.

04 January 2014

Give my regards to Russell Square...

Was looking at Google maps tonight of London. Came across this view of Russell Square.