31 March 2014

The Ghost of April Fools' Past

Today marks the last day of the TBR Triple Dog Dare. This is the annual dare that James throws down at the end of each year. The point is to dedicate the first three months of the year to reading only those books in your possession by midnight of December 31st of the preceding year. Over the three or so years I have accepted the dare I have done pretty well even if some years were a little failure adjacent. And no matter how you define success I have enjoyed how the dare encourages me to dig up long neglected books and actually read them. Over the years I have discovered some real gems hiding on my shelves. Although this year I haven't really discovered any gems. (I did read some gems by Brookner, Graham, and Pym, but they were by no means languishing in my TBR so I can't credit the Dare for those.)

As many of you will know, this year I decided to extend my participation in the dare through the end of November when our house project will be done. The point was to not bring any more books into our temporary apartment. I was trying to keep things light and perhaps even get rid of some books. I haven't been particularly successful. I accepted an ARC (which I didn't like and didn't finish) and I have purchased one or two titles that I have already read and three or four more that I can imagine I will read before the end of November. I guess this means I haven't been particularly successful this time around, at least by the letter of the law. On the other hand, I have focused on my TBR and will continue to do so for the remainder of the year despite any slip ups here and there. After all, of the 13 books I have read so far this year 11 of them were from my TBR.

As most of you know, I have been having a slowish reading year. Or have I? I decided to go back at look at my reading progress for the first quarter of each year dating back to 1994 when I first started keeping records. The data confirms that it has indeed been slowish.

It was 2004 when I really began to focus on keeping my reading above 52 books a year. If I look at that 10-year period this year is the third lowest. The lowest was 2012 when I read a measly six books during the first quarter, but at least then my excuse was I was in the process of researching and writing a book.

Since the number of books read per year ranges from 3 in 1994 to 111 in 2013, I thought it would be interesting to see how my first quarter progress stacked up as a percentage of total books read in one year.

In order to calculate the average I tossed out the 67% and 10% outliers. The result was an average of 28%. Using that average I can extrapolate that I will read 46.4 books this year. That is unacceptable. I am going to have to get reading. If I fall below 52 for the year, it will be a dark day indeed.

19 March 2014

Weekend in New York

John and I spent this past weekend up in New York. His fabulous cousin Judith (more like auntie) lives in a great old townhouse in the West Village so as usual we had a great time catching up and had a wonderful place to stay.

A few highlights...

We had lunch with John's cousin Alex (daughter of the auntie-cousin) and her friend Mia at Miss Lily's. The restaurant was plenty busy so they put us at a table in Miss Lily's Variety next door. A kind of Jamaican record and gift shop. Among other things we talked about our trip to Hawaii and their trip to Morocco.

John's cousin and her friend are avid readers so a stop at the fabulous independent bookstore McNally Jackson was in order. They categorize their fiction by region which can be a fun way of looking at the fictional world.

The weather was gorgeous so we didn't stay too long, but long enough for Alex to buy me a copy of Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne.

Then we continued to wander. Ending up at Il Laboratorio del Gelato for some really fantastic gelato. Peer pressure kept me from eating as much as I wanted to.

While in the East Village the rest of the group were in one of the three side-by-side John Derian home goods stores while I was out on the curb enjoying the nice weather. I looked into the front door of one of the shops and there stood a very familiar person. A college friend of mine who I haven't seen since 2000. It was a wonderful little reunion. I will let one of his sketches stand in for a picture of him.

And on our way back to Judith's house we had to stop in at my favorite NYC bookstore (new books) Three Lives and Co. which I have blogged about before.

Then for dinner that night we went with Judith to the always lovely Wallse. (Sounds like vall-say) A wonderful, elegant, restaurant serving really fine Austrian food and wine. Duck with brioche dumplings...spaetzle...

Sunday we had a nice sleep-in which was just fine because I think the temperature was about 20 degrees colder than Saturday. When we did venture out we hopped on the subway and headed way up to to 156th Street to the American Academy of Arts and Letters which has just installed the studio of iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives. Originally in Redding, Connecticut, the studio has been recreated with all of Ives' effects. Including his upright studio piano which was restored under the supervision of Steinway. Apparently when approached to do the restoration Steinway said that they only do Steinways. Understandable, they make arguably the best pianos in the world. But they relented when they found out it was Ives' piano. So they found a restorer in Queens who did the work under their supervision.

Ives' family wanted the studio to go to the Academy because his wife had donated the royalties from his compositions to them to fund scholarships and awards for composers. Seems like a good fit. The exhibition will be there permanently but is only open for a few months while the Academy has their invitational going on.

Incidentally the Academy shares a complex of Beaux Arts buildings with The Hispanic Society of America which has some wonderful collection of art. If you feel like you have seen everything in New York, head up here some time.

For dinner on Sunday we headed out to Park Slope where my desire to eat at Talde coincided with my desire to see another college friend who I haven't seen for almost 20 years. (And if it weren't for Facebook that may not have happened.) Anyhoo, we had a great time catching up and I ate my body weight in Asian fusion cuisine. The place was created by Top Chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Dale Talde and is one of his three restaurants which are all located in Brooklyn.

Crispy oyster and bacon Pad Thai. Really, really, yummy.

And then on Monday we dodged all the drunk green people roaming the streets and Penn Station.

14 March 2014

Shakespeare juvenelia

Mine that is, not Shakespeare's.

Here is a newspaper I made for a class assignment in 9th grade. I was such an Anglophile at the time.  [Edited 3/15] I just had a glance at the first story. This was roughly 1983 and I was obsessed with Princess Diana. Also, you can click on these and then make them bigger and easier to read.

Notice the want ad placed by Christopher Marlowe for a male companion to share his lodgings. I was one year shy of coming out of the closet but I was already being cheeky.

The ad for Clarkin Coffin Company (after my bestie Michelle Clarkin) refers to the death of Shakespeare's 11-year old son H.S.

10 March 2014

A whole lotta somthin

You would think having read so few books this year that I would have more time for reviews/reviewlets/blurbs about what I have managed to read. But I guess the same thing that was keeping me from reading was keeping me from jotting down my book thoughts as well. To rectify that situation here is an update on those books I have read so far this year but have yet to write about.

I put them in order of how much I enjoyed them from most enjoyable to least.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
Photo credit: A Captive Reader
It will be no surprise to regular readers that I loved this Pym novel. It was the first thing Pym wrote and published after she was rediscovered in the mid-1970s. It is definitely darker than her other work but it is still full of her charm and wit and every sentence is a joy to read. The more I read and reread Pym the more I think she may be my favorite author.  Four office mates, two male and two female, are nearing retirement age and trying to figure out what that means. If you are new to Pym, I wouldn't recommend starting here, but if you have liked Pym I don't think you will find this to be an exception. My favorite read of the year so far.

Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson
Summerhills by D.E. Stevenson
I am lumping these two together because I enjoyed them almost the same amount with Still Glides the Stream slightly edging out Summerhills. As with all other Stevenson that I read, it hardly matters what the plots are. Just expect chaste romances, inheritances, devoted servants, and houses being put right. Perfect escapist reading.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas
If you like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo you will like this much, much, slimmer Dumas tale with maybe 50% less swashbuckling. Political intrigue and tulip piracy in 1670s Holland. What more could you ask for?

Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham
Last winter on vacation I read Allingham's The China Governess, like this one, an Albert Campion mystery/thriller. As I mentioned before there is something about an old green covered Penguin mystery that seems to beg to be taken on vacation. Although I didn't dislike TCG, I think I actually did like Sweet Danger. Unknown European royal line, pretenders to a title, secret messages, crazy doctor, red herrings, and a minimum of blood. Mainly because no one seemed able to hit their target. If it had been today rather than the 1930s, it would have been a blood bath.

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I think everyone knows this tale. It certainly is a part of popular culture. I knew all about it without ever having read it or seen the film version. Definitely one of FHB's children's books. So while I enjoyed it, there is only so much I can enjoy something written for that reading level. No offense to 12-year olds.

08 March 2014

Succeeding by failing

As most of you know I have been in a terrible reading slump so far this year. Not getting much of anything read. I have definitely been doing much better since we hopped on a plane to Hawaii for a little rest and relaxation. And then I had a moment at the newstand/bookshop at the airport on our way from Oahu to the Big Island. With about ten unread books of various flavors I wasn't in the market for anything more. And this particular shop had a small and less than enticing selection, I was just in there to buy some highly sugared treat. But then this caught my eye:

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
A gossipy tell-all book by a guy who had spent years working in hotels. Could there be a better beach read? One of those books you know you can finish in a day if you choose to. I had no intention of buying it. After all I still have a month to go on the official TBR Triple Dog Dare and about nine months to go on my self-inflicted decision to extend the dare until we move back into our house sometime in late November. Of course under the rules of the Dare, I was not prohibited from buying the book, I just wasn't supposed to read it until the challenge was over.

But this was a book I wanted to read now. And so I failed at the TBR Triple Dog Dare--although I intend to continue it, this was just a momentary blip--but I succeeded at getting lost in a book. After purchase I went to the gate area to read and found myself so engrossed that I kept reading as I walked down the jet-way for our short flight to Kona. (On the runway I was temporarily distracted as I got to watch fighter jets and a big refueling tanker land at close range, but then, back to the book.)

Heads and Beds can be broken down roughly into four main themes: 1) Jacob Tomsky's personal and professional coming of age; 2) gossipy bits about guests famous and not famous; 3) tales of the crazy stuff hotel staff do  when no ones looking; and 4) insight into how the hotel biz works and why your stay has been awful or wonderful. Of these four I was most interested in numbers 1 and 4 and then part of 3 also interested me.

1) Tomsky's personal story boils down to him falling into the hospitality industry after realizing that his Philisophy degree wasn't very marketable.

2) The gossipy bits are a necessary part of this kind of book, but stories about people too famous to name always leave me disappointed. I want to know who acted that way. And the stories about the non famous were interesting and added color but none of the activity described really surprised me--although I am sure it will surprise many.

3) I didn't care so much about staff hijinks undertaken merely to relieve boredom, but I was fascinated by all the ways hotel staff show appreciation and disapproval of guests and hotel management. And that part leads into my favorite parts of the book...

4) How the hotel biz works. Hotel lost your reservation? Given a terrible room or a fantastic upgrade? It's all here and pretty fascinating. It should come as no surprise but being a dickish customer will never get you anything good in the hotel industry. You may think you have extracted some benefit, but hotel employees have way of exacting revenge in ways that aren't always apparent.

Besides being nice, want to know how to be treated well in a hotel? Tip. Oh yes, you should also tip. Did I mention tipping? The parking valet, the doorman, the bellman, and, if you want the upgrade you hand over a twenty (minimum) to the front desk agent upfront. You don't wait until he has done something for you, you pay him upfront and hope for the best. May not get an upgrade, but you may get a late checkout or a bottle of wine.

And a word about the bellmen. They really want to take your bags up for you. Even if you have wheels on your luggage. Sounds stupid but this was a revelation to me. I always felt a bit ridiculous as an able bodied person with a wheelie bag getting "help" with my luggage. Apparently 98% of people checking in feel the same way,  but that bellman really, really wants your tip.

Speaking of tipping, to my recollection Tomsky is silent on tipping housekeeping staff. He talks about tipping "housemen", the guys who deliver the roll-away bed or things like that. He says if you tip them they will bring you anything you desire. But I don't think he mentions tipping housekeepers. I could have missed that part--and I don't doubt for a second that he would advocate tipping them.

If a lot of this sounds like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for hotels, that's because it is a lot like that. I didn't mind for a minute. I enjoyed KC when I read it eons ago. The tone of this book is perhaps a little more cynical than it needs to be--sometimes you wonder if the author is describing a cynical world or if he himself is a really a bit of a dick himself. I realize that is twice I have referred to dickishness--but I can't think of any other descriptors that convey so perfectly and succinctly much of the behavior (guest and host) described in this book.

A fun, quick read, with lots of tidbits to think about when dealing with hotels.

P.S. I worked for six months at a lovely, 21-room hotel in Chelsea (London) in 1992. Some of what Tomsky writes about is familiar to me from that experience, but I wasn't in the business long enough or at a big enough hotel to encounter the world he describes.

04 March 2014

Bits and Bobs (the Aloha edition)

Best t-shirt I have seen so far on this vacation.
And given that it was the Kingdom of Hawaii before US sugar barons overthrew the monarchy I think the coronet is certainly very fitting.
Currently I am spending my mornings walking the streets of Honolulu visiting old haunts while John is busy with a work conference. After these long walks (3+ hours) I come back to the hotel for a little beach or pool reading. Not a bad life.

Leaving books on benches
On my walk this morning I took a walk through the University of Hawaii Manoa campus where I got my first master's degree. I took along three paperbacks to get rid of. I left them on various benches and hope someone will pick them up before they get thrown in the trash. I kept looking for nerdy book types hoping they would take the bait. With the ratty old copy of Under the Volcano that I chucked into the recycling yesterday my luggage is getting lighter and lighter.

Do you think one of these stock-photo kids at UH will pick up one of my books?
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Definitely my least favorite Wolitzer, but I am not sure I hated it as much as some of you. Still on my scale of 10 I would probably give it a 5, which means I am ambivalent.

Tossed another one aside
Started to read Keeping Bedlam at Bay at the Prague Cafe by M. Henderson Ellis and dispensed with after 30 pages. My experience with Under the Volcano has me way too impatient these days to make it to page 50 unless I am enjoying it. One of the blurbs referenced the kooky protagonist in A Confederacy of  Dunces. But what it should have said that Ellis is trying to create a memorable character like that.

Casting for Mapp and Lucia
The Mapp and Lucia Facebook page has been a frenzy of speculation about the BBC's decision to film the beloved Benson series. The latest has been dream casting for each of the characters. I think I am stumping for unknown actors to fill all the roles. How anyone could hope to top Geraldine McEwan at Lucia, Prunella Scales as Miss Mapp, or Nigel Hawthorne as Georgie is beyond me.

Isn't this a lovely building?
If anything could entice me to become a Christian Scientist it would be this lovely church in Honolulu. The stone is lava rock.
Photo credit here.

03 March 2014

Modernist literature is awful

Flirt by the late, great Helen Frankenthaler
I don't mind abstraction in my art, but I hate it in my books.
When will I learn my lesson? I vowed once before that life was too short to spend time reading some books. Yet what do I do? I pick up the already twice-tossed aside Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. And, as you may have read in my last post, things were going pretty well. I had gotten to page 100 and was finding that I was enjoying the journey. After reading about 30 more pages tonight, I decided there were a few plot points I wasn't getting so I looked up the synopsis on Wikipedia. Holy cow, you would think I was illiterate. The number of things I missed, misunderstood, misconstrued, or was just plain mistaken about could fill a book. Even the first chapter which I thought I read really closely held secrets about which I was utterly clueless.

So guess what? Never again. Never, never again. No more Conrad, no more Lawrence. Faulkner and Joyce you will remain dead to me. Ford Madox Ford and yes, even Virginia Woolf, just leave me alone.

Depending on which superficial online source one consults E.M. Forster, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald are also considered modernist writers. That may be the case for reasons unknown to me, but I have never read anything by any of those authors (and I have read a lot of their books) that comes even remotely close to the tedious, scattered, bullshit stream of consciousness that makes me hate modernism so much. Oddly, those same superficial sources list modernist characteristics that seem an awful lot like post- modernist characteristics.

Ezra Pound said "Make it new." I say, make it make sense.

I am linear, here me roar.

Ugh. I feel like I need to wash my eyeballs.

Better luck with the rest of my stack of travel books.

02 March 2014

I think the reading slump is over...

Nothing like an 11-hour flight to get one reading again. Before we left DC for Hawaii I finished up a D.E. Stevenson romance. Always an enjoyable thing, but this time it made me hunger for something with a little more meat. I first picked up Great Expectations. My friend Roz, knowing I am not a Dickens fan thought I should try it. Less than a page into it I realized I had seen a TV adaptation and wasn't keen on the plot. The criminal in the marsh holding it over Pip. Too much anxiety for me. Who knows I may pick it up in the future, but this wasn't the moment.

I am reading a real version, not an e-book.
So then I picked up Under the Volcano. Even though I blogged last time about taking this one on vacation I had already put it back on the shelf thinking I would never read it. But after my two paragraphs of Dickens it began to call my name from the other room. So I read a few pages before going to sleep. And, although I have given up on this one twice before, it quickly became clear to me that third time would be the charm. The trick was to read it slowly and to really think about what was written. This was not going to be a quick read. I was almost immediately taken in by the setting and the story. So when I picked it up on our flight today I was astonished and happy that I read about 100 pages, about 1/4 of the book. For something as dense as this 100 pages in one day was pretty impressive for me. And, contrary to what I wrote before, there is no way I read to 100 when I tried this book before. I probably stopped at 20 or so. As I moved along reading it today on the plane, it was clear I hadn't gotten very far on my previous attempts.

I also picked up and read Ella Minnow Pea from cover to cover. As I said on Goodreads, a cute idea looking for a story. Meh.

So, first day of vacation and I have already made gonzo progress. Here's to more of that.