Thursday, December 31, 2009

Good-bye, 2009

I won't make excuses or whine. I did not use time wisely. I did not come close to finishing The Metamorphoses of Ovid. I read only two more works of nonfiction and two more classics than I did in 2008. Once again, I did not read Ulysses.

I did not curtail my book purchases, I did not cut down on time spent on the internet, I did not meet my expectations in any shape, form, or fashion.

I survived the madness, however.

And that's good enough.

Favorite books of 2009

My sole criteria for determining what goes on my favorites list each year is this: do I finish the book with the feeling that I will want to read it again? If the book then holds up to a second reading it becomes regarded as an all-time favorite, an exalted estimation that it's become most difficult for a book to achieve since I've fallen into the habit of not re-reading very much. I must mend my ways and do justice by these deserving books.

This year the two books that left me most sure that they will be re-read were A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

Byatt has a tendency to be hit or miss with me, but we were definitely in sync this time out. I would have happily read about these characters and their interests in a book twice as long. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this with my friend W., too; there was certainly enough in the book to warrant our daily discussion phone calls.

Wallace flat-out blew my mind. Infinite Summer was such a valuable resource and now I will have to read everything else he wrote before I circle back around to Infinite Jest.

The only first novel that made my favorites list in 2009 was Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. I loved this tale of a 12-year-old cartography genius and his journey east to the Smithsonian in D.C., and all his maps and drawings that filled the margins (no mere marginalia either, but an integral part of the story) of this gorgeous book that was immediately placed behind protective glass in the secretary once I turned its final page.

Why wasn't this book a bigger hit in book blogging world?

Other favorites were Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, and Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler. Moore and Tyler are, of course, a couple of my favorite authors, so no surprises there, but I didn't expect to be as taken with the story of an imaginative Scottish boy and the quantum mechanics that Sputnik Caledonia concerns itself with. I was sidetracked from reading Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship this year, but once I do, I will be re-reading the Crumey, which references it greatly. Buddenbrooks was so wonderful that I immediately bought a copy of Doctor Faustus and thought that maybe I'd enjoy a re-read of Magic Mountain--if I read the John E. Woods translation,.

Other books read this year that will lead me to read other books by their authors include Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite (I reread a great deal of this one immediately after finishing it because I figured out late in the book what she was doing with the mystical element and was in total awe); Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout; Josh Weil's The New Valley; and Stefan Zweig's Post-Office Girl.

And while I ordinarily don't bother with a list of books I dislike--because I know we all have our own tastes, because I usually abandon a book I don't get along with rather than finish it--there were two I read this year that I can't chalk up to taste and do think I should warn everyone against: Kaye Gibbons' The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster and Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Instead of outlining my reasons here, I think I will save my thoughts about these books for another post in a week or so.

Happy New Year! I'm looking forward to reading everyone else's lists of favorites!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

End of year stats

Where does the time go? Shouldn't it still be early November or something like that? That's the only reason I can come up with for why I should have failed to remember to buy a new calendar while at the mall this afternoon.

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

I guess not.

Anyway, I'm reading Can You Forgive Her? and The Master and Margarita this week, and there's no chance I'll finish either of them before midnight tomorrow, so it's time to post my 2009 reading stats.

I read 101 books this year! I'd not managed triple digits since 2001 and would not have not read near that many this year were it not for the 17 books I completed in October, thanks in large part to those pulled muscles in my lower back--and truth be told, I'd rather never reach 100 again if it means my back won't hurt.

The stats break down thusly:

Nonfiction: 15

Novels: 79

Books of short stories: 7

Library books read: 48

Newly-acquired books read: 32

Newly-acquired books stockpiled for later reading: 140

Free e-texts read: 5

Books just published in last year or so: 55

Works I consider classics: 10

Works written prior to 20th century: 7

Books written by women: 55

Authors I read multiple books by: Anthony Trollope (4); A.L. Barker (2); A.S. Byatt (2); Richmal Crompton (2); Amy Hempel (2); Susan Hill (2); Patrick O'Brian (2); and Dan Simmons (2).

Re-reads: Zilch

Poetry: Zilch

Plays: Zilch (at least I did go to see Hamlet, so there's that)

Have I ever gone a year without re-reading something? This may be a first. I'm also disheartened by the fact that I'm reading more library books while simultaneously acquiring more books than ever before. Even R. turned on me this week and called me a hoarder when I hesitated on donating a duplicate copy of Don Quixote to charity--so if anyone ever complains that we're down to only the Grossman translation, it's her fault, not mine.

Stats/favorites from previous years:

2008: Favorite books and reading stats

2007: End of year stats

2006: End of year reading stats

2005: A look back, a look ahead

2004: It was a good year for reading

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Priorities, people!

The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading.

--Norman Rush


Happy holidays, everyone. See you next week when maybe, just maybe, the sentiment above may have a fighting chance in some of our lives.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I had an ocular migraine for the first time ever this afternoon.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Literary DNA

. . . if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA.

--Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

Friday, December 11, 2009

Last stack of books of 2009

I expect--I hope--these will be last books for quite some time. I really need to make some headway in what I already own.

From the top:

Novel on Yellow Paper. Stevie Smith. For the Slaves of Golconda group read at the end of January.

The Hopkins Manuscript. R.C. Sheffiff. Science fiction a la Persephone!

A Suitable Boy. Vikram Seth. I debated getting this from the library, but I assume my daughter will want to read it as well.

The Semantics of Murder. Aifric Campbell. Review copy.

The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club. A bound galley. The book goes on sale in March next year. I've never read Binchy before, but I've given her books to my mother-in-law.

The Glass Room. Simon Mawer. Review copy. I haven't read Mawer since Mendel's Dwarf, so I'm looking forward to this.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Harriet Reisen. Review copy. Danielle wrote about the Reisen last week; sounds good.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. The new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. I haven't read Ivan Ilyich since college; I'm thrilled to have this review copy.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

You loved his person

'We none of us know what even the people nearest us are really like,' said the old woman slowly. 'We don't even know what we're like ourselves. A set of children playing Blind Man's Buff, that's what we are. . . . Oh, I know he deceived you, but he deceived himself first and last. Make-believe! He wasn't much worse than most. You've all tried your hand at it. . . . Her up at the Hall. She kidded herself, didn't she? Maybe she didn't know she was doing it but she did it all the same. And that Mrs. Tenby. Her person's so wonderful that no one's got to think of anything else while they're with her. And that Miss Cradock had her person, too,' She turned her deep-set eyes to the Vicar. 'You've seen it in your own house, haven't you? Those great girls turning into babies as soon as they got inside the gate.' Her eyes moved remorselessly to Miss Bullimer. "You've had your person, too.'

Miss Bullimer bend her head and her lips took on a tight tortured line.

'I loved him," she said.

'You loved his person,' said the old woman. 'You didn't love him. I'd have warned you if I could.'

Miss Bullimer lifted her head jerkily.

'I'd have loved him anyway,' she said.

The old woman shook her head.

'No, you wouldn't,' she said.

--Blind Man's Buff, Richmal Crompton

Friday, December 04, 2009

Good wishes from Richmal Crompton

One of my favorite books this year has been Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout, which I read on vacation at the beach back in July. Persephone brought back Family Roundabout, originally published in 1948, a few years ago; 40 additional Crompton adult novels, written between 1923 and 1960, remain out of print and difficult to come by, particularly in the U.S.

I managed to acquire a copy of Frost at Morning that wasn't too pricey nonetheless, and realized that beyond that I'd have to content myself with an occasional ILL.

Elaine's post last month on her Crompton collection and her link to an article on Crompton prompted me to put in an ILL request sooner rather than later, and I now have--for a very brief time--the one and only U.S. library copy of Richmal Crompton's 1957 novel Blind Man's Buff. I was sure my request would be turned down and I'd have to find a novel that wasn't as scarce as this one before a library would be willing to part with it, so I was quite gratified to find it lying on my desk chair when I went in to work yesterday.

And I was thrilled to open the book and discover Richmal Crompton's signature within.

And on top of that, a quick google told me that Fred Bason, the book's former owner, was no person of inconsequential import himslf. "[B]loody bookworm" Fred Bason sold books, and collected autographs in order to sell them, and published his diaries detailing the process:

Had lunch with John Drinkwater today and he autographed five of his books which I've had in stock three or four years. I put it to him squarely: they "won't sell unsigned, but if you'll autograph them I can sell them in New York next week. Like a good pal he obliged, and a nice lunch thrown in as well . . .

Why do I feel as if I've hit the jackpot?

Thursday, December 03, 2009


(photo by David Castor at Wikimedia Commons)

So my daughter is in India, riding elephants and gazing upon the Taj Mahal and assorted World Heritage sites, and heading to Nepal in a few days so that she and a friend can make a trek up to Everest base camp and, if the airlines cooperate with their plans, wind up back at home late Christmas eve. And I, who dutifully tried not to bend over for a full six weeks so my back would heal, ruined all the progress on Sunday by mopping the kitchen and now have awful radiating pain shooting through my hips again. Why didn't I go out and have adventures before I got so old and decrepit?

I don't want to have the same regrets where my reading is concerned, so I'm putting together a reading strategy for the coming year, including reading titles from the Fill in the Gaps Project list I put together last spring, and a lot of the books from recent newly-acquired stacks. I'm going to try not to buy near as many new books next year (I bought around 120 in 2009), and I started Susan Hill's Howards End is On the Landing last night with an eye on using it as a guidebook of sorts to keeping me focused on the books already at hand.

Yeah, I know I've said this sort of thing before.

This time I mean it.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Classics Circuit: The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

'What precious thing lies hidden in this paper?' he asked, producing the letter, and smiling as he opened it. 'Surely there must be something besides writing--some inestimable powder, or some bank-note of fabulous value--wrapped up in all these folds?'

The Dead Secret, Wilkie Collins' fifth novel, opens at a high pitch--a strong-willed former actress, whose underlined and annotated acting prompt books surround her on her deathbed, makes theatrical allusions to Hamlet before dictating a last minute confession to her reluctant lady's maid. She intends for the signed confession to be given to her husband as soon as she dies, but what with threatening to "come to you from the other world" if disobeyed and exacting down-on-the-knees hand-on-the-Bible promises from the poor young woman not to destroy the letter, or to take it from the house if she should leave, Mrs. Treverton winds up dying before the maid swears to do just that.

And of course, once Sarah, the maid, sees the now-widowed Captain Treverton comforting the little crying daughter in the nursery, she knows the secret contained within the letter should not be revealed. Fortunately, the story is set in an enormous mansion, Porthgenna Tower, situated on the west coast of Cornwall and there's an entire wing to the house that's never used, with tons of rooms, so that the superstitious Sarah can hide the letter in one of them and hope that maybe Mrs. Treverton won't haunt her from beyond after all.

Then, after a detour to the church graveyard, Sarah --who I forgot to mention has preternaturally grey hair to symbolize some as-yet-unspoken-of shock or sorrow--vanishes.

And the story picks up 15 years later, with the marriage of the Trevertons' daughter to her childhood sweetheart--now blind--who has inherited Porthgenna Tower from his father, who bought it from Captain Treverton, who was too sad to live there after his actress wife died. Rosamond is beautiful and kind, a little too friendly with the servants sometimes, and her husband is honest and kind, a little too snobbish not to remind her not to be so familar with the hired help. You can't help but like them.

And you can probably see where this is going, and who's going to find the letter, and who it may concern, and that's okay, because that isn't a secret Collins wanted to keep from his readers, much to the distress of some of his earliest reviewers.

And you can probably tell from my tone that I found this all a little over the top. I kept imagining how the elements--the feminine subversions, the transgressions of class and position, the significance of illegitimacy in society, the mental illness--would be handled if the book were written today, and thinking how I must have instinctively known I wouldn't do well with his books or, considering the number of people I know who adore him, I would have gotten around to him sooner. I don't do so well with Charles Dickens, either. George Eliot and George Gissing and, as of this year, Anthony Trollope are the Victorians for me. I'm willing to give Collins another chance or two at some point, but the books will be started more out of a sense of obligation than delight.

Oh, well.

The Dead Secret is regarded as a transitional work in Wilkie Collins' career, the last novel before he hit the big time, his first "sensation" novel and one that thematically prefigured The Woman in White.

Published in a 23-part series in 1857 in Dickens' Household Words under Collins' first byline in the journal (previously he published only short anonymous pieces written in the the house style), The Dead Secret was also serialized in the United States and republished in a two-volume set later that year.


(My apologies to anyone coming over from the Classics Circuit with their hearts set on a review of No Name. I notified the Circuit back in October that I'd be without my Kindle, therefore my copy of No Name, until Thanksgiving since it had been left behind on a trip to visit family, and thought I ought to switch to another title so that I would actually have time to read it. I went with The Dead Secret since no one had signed up for it, and, more importantly, the library had a copy.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Hidden by Tobias Hill

He saw that they had been very kind to him. They had let him into their circle. They were strange children, elder children, who had let him play a game he had never quite understood. There had been rules which no one had explained to him, which he had never really grasped. He had not been grasping, after all. He had never asked much of them. He had asked them questions, but somehow never the right questions. He had put up with Jason's bigotry and Max's stubborn hostility, but most of all with what seemed to be his necessary ignorance. He had needed them, needed to be with them, more than he had wished to know what they kept from him. Even in Pylos, when he had finally demanded answers, he had been content with half-answers. He had cherished his contentment. It had been enough to be with them, even if he wasn't one of them, not really, not one of Us.

As you might gather from the excerpt above, the main character of Tobias Hill's The Hidden, Oxford archaeology student Ben Mercer, is lacking in the attributes usually assigned to the hero of a thriller. For that matter, Hill's novel fails to meet many of the conventions of the thriller genre, as well, so let me say right up front that whoever decided to market this book as a thriller made a big mistake. This is literary fiction with gorgeous descriptive writing that builds to a thrilling climax and the book deserves to reach an audience that's more amenable to that kind of approach.

In other words, this is a book for the likes of me.

The aforementioned Ben Mercer, who's irredeemably mucked up his marriage and taken himself into self-exile in Athens, takes the first stopgap job he's offered, out at a meat grill in a suburb called Metamorphosis. When Eberhard, a former Oxford classmate who "had a measuring way of looking at the world, where Ben only ever measured himself against it," inexplicably shows up at the restaurant, Ben learns of an archaeological dig taking place on the fringes of Sparta. Ben has been compiling notes towards a thesis on ancient Sparta and is quick to make the appropriate phone calls to get himself hired on to the excavation, despite the classmate's obvious reluctance to have him join the group.

These notes of Ben's, including the transcript of a lecture Eberhard delivered the previous year at Oxford, are interspersed throughout the novel. The notes provide both a fascinating history of Sparta and insight into the ongoing situation at the dig.

The international group Ben longs to be befriended by has styled itself after the Crypteia, a circumspect band of young terrorists who kept the helots, the captive foes of Sparta, in a state of subjection and fear for hundreds of years. While Ben is included in a few of their ritual activities, and seemingly finds acceptance after he shoots a jackal in a secret nighttime hunt, his position is much more naturally that of a helot than a "real Spartan" like the rest.

The Spartans were warriors; the helots did all the rest of the work. The helots and their descendants were the state's merchants; Ben's family has "always been selling something" and Mercer itself means merchant. Names are important in The Hidden and Hill drops many a clue about his characters through them.

As Ben learns more of the group's true purpose and the excavation exposes some unsavory facts about the ancient Spartans, the reader sees the parallels between the terrorism of the past and that in the present. Events and asides and portents from earlier in the book gather import and resonance.

Did the Spartans fear the world outside? Did they guard against its jackals and wolves? Their wall-less city claimed fearlessness. The Spartans had faith in themselves until the day they were destroyed. And yet their faiths themselves--their gods--are full of flashes of terror. If it was not the world without they feared then what was it, unless themselves?

I read The Hidden as part of the TLC Book Tour. Check out the other reviews; I'm disappointed that I'm the only one who's enjoyed the book so far. Perhaps your tastes will align more with my own.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Latest tower of books

I realized yesterday that I need to read just one book a week for the rest of the year and I'll reach 100 for the first time since 2001. A shamefully small number for many book bloggers, I know, but one that makes me happy nonetheless--particularly since I have not cut back on internet useage at all. Whatever happened to my resolution last January to use time wisely?

But I do intend to cut back on book purchases so that I'll have time to work through some of my stockpiles--particularly since I may need to downsize the collection considerably if we move. No more giving myself a pass to buy a book because it's available in the UK and not in the US--my alma mater's libraries routinely add the British titles even more quickly than I can manage to, and, if we move, I'll live close enough to check out great swathes of them.

But the new books that have squeaked in before I officially change my nefarious ways:

Outliers. Malcolm Gladwell. Borrowed from my daughter.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters. Review copy.

A Handful of Dust. Evelyn Waugh. From a sale table at the Strand.

Under the Glacier. Halldor Laxness. Ditto.

Hindoo Holiday. J.R. Ackerley. Because of a mention at Like Fire and because my daughter's going to India next month.

The Story About the Story. J.C. Hallman, ed. Because of Dorothy.

Miss Herbert. Christina Stead. Because I'm collecting Steads and the Strand had it.

Sunflower. Rebecca West. Because it finishes my West fiction collection and the Strand had it.

Half Broke Horses. Jeannette Walls. Because I loved The Glass Castle.

The Lacuna. Barbara Kingsolver. I've not read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle yet, so I'd have felt too guilty to purchase yet another Kingsolver in hardback if not for the Amazon/Wal Mart price war.

Under the Dome. Stephen King. I'm not much of a horror reader, so I've read only a couple King novels in my life, but I always enjoy reading about him, and then this one sounded all appealing and was already on my wishlist to read before the Amazon/Wal Mart price war made me click the buy-now button.

The Complete Stories. J.G. Ballard. Thanks to the balance left on a gift card, I was able to snare this for $2.56. Woo hoo.

No more books for me for awhile.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Green Books Campaign: Small Beneath the Sky

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 100 bloggers are reviewing 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. Our goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. This campaign is organized by Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website.


This ache, this country of wind and dust and sky, is your starting point, the way you understand yourself, the place you return to when there's nowhere else to go. It is the pared-down language of your blood and bones.

Canadian poet Lorna Crozier, born in 1948, grew up in Swift Current, a three-block-long downtown of a city in Saskatchewan. Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir is her recollection of that time, that place, and her family and friends' particular experiences then and there.

Starting with and then interspersed between the peopled stories are prose poems that hinge on Aristotle's notion of the First Cause--"something beyond the chain of cause and effect, something that started it all," Crozier explains. Such a conceit grants Crozier license to forefront gorgeous descriptions of animals and insects, grasses, wind, horizon, and light instead of keeping them in the background. (These nature-centered brief chapters might be seen as reason enough to include Small Beneath the Sky in any green campaign, but it earns its place in the Eco-Libris tour due to its paper: "acid-free paper that is forest friendly (100% post-consumer recycled paper) and has been processed chlorine free." )

Even the stories themselves are often akin to poetry; Crozier expands her poem "Fear of Snakes" into a four-page chapter, "tasting the air," describing how her brother rescued her from a gang of neighborhood bullies who then proceed to nail a hapless garter snake to a telephone pole. (I found the prose version even more affecting than the poem, but perhaps that's because I read it first.)

Despite growing up in poverty, with a father's alcoholism to keep hidden, Crozier has not written a memoir to showcase her family's dysfunction. Although her family members' weaknesses are exposed, this is more a celebration of connections, characters, and countryside, all the elements that worked to shape and inform the individual she'd become. Even a friend who becomes pregnant, then married, at 15 doesn't follow the typical path for one who finds herself in that position; indeed, she later becomes Crozier's connection to royalty.

I'm glad the Green Books Campaign brought Small Beneath the Sky to my attention. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have already added Crozier's The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems to my wishlist.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Real life distractions caused me to forget to post this blogiversary weekend. So I'll post it now on, ah, Caturday!

(Please note the John Marsden retelling of Hamlet in front of Ellie. My daughter and I will be seeing the Jude Law Hamlet on Broadway next weekend. Squee!)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The early morning readathon post

Wow, I had no idea I quit posting so early last night. I settled on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall, and read on and off until about 10 pm and went to bed, intending to get about four hours or so of sleep. Instead, I slept till 4:30, and resumed reading then. I knew by staying up late Friday to read Her Fearful Symmetry that I was going to be too tired to last long on Saturday. Oh well.

Anyway, I've just finished the Holding. Nicholson, our most devious cat, has been pushing books off the end table with her nose, trying to get me to go feed her. I'm not supposed to bend over for six weeks, though, due to pulled muscles in my back, so L.'s been feeding the cats, since it involves lots of bending over. I may take this as a sign to go back to bed until someone else is up around here to feed the cats and pick the books up off the floor.

What an excuse, huh?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Read-a-thon Post


(8:25 am)

Happy Read-a-thon Day!

I started an hour early, since I was awake and was eager to finish Her Fearful Symmetry, which I had been unable to resist starting late yesterday afternoon (I came home from work early). I've now read the final 73 pages and am trying to decide what I want to read next.

I'm going to update this post throughout the day instead of having several different posts on my progress.

(8:40 am)

A first hour meme:

Where are you reading from today?
My reading chair in Charlotte, NC, with expectations that some of the reading will take place with me on the treadmill.

3 facts about me …

Today's my birthday.

Pages Turned is five years old today.

I stayed up too late reading last night and will no doubt suffer for it now that the read-a-thon has officially started.

How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours? I couldn't wait, so I've already read two of them--Lynn Freed's The Servants' Quarters and Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry. I think that leaves five from the official stack, but there are literally hundreds more in the house to chose from if those don't feel quite right.

Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)? Nary a one.

If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time? Have fun!


12:23 pm

Just finished A.L. Barker's The Haunt. A strange little book with an odd assortment of characters.

I think I shall turn my attention to Dave Eggers' Zeitoun for awhile.


4:43 pm

Just dropping in to say I am loving Dave Eggers' Zeitoun. I've finished parts I and II and am now taking a break to look at a friend's wedding registry.


6:42 pm

Finished Zeitoun. It was fantastic. Trying to decide what I'm in the mood for now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Turn it on, turn it up. . .

because it's Dwight Yoakam's birthday! And Dwight's birthday is always the start of an annual three-day celebration around my house, because I'm fortunate enough to have a birthday the day after my favorite musician's and the day before my favorite author's. I was bummed for years that I'd missed sharing a birthday with Anne Tyler by a day, but then Dwight came along and I realized just how perfect it was that I nestled down between the two of 'em.

So anyway, a trip to YouTube this morning clued me in that I've missed some great concerts this year (somebody ought to stop snubbing North Carolina). Above, Dwight segues from Elvis to (You Don't Know What It's Like) To Love Somebody, and below, he interjects a Gordon Lightfoot quota into what's probably the encore. He sounds rather hoarse, but gorgeous all the same.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New books

I only bought one of these! The rest are for tours or reviews or, gasp, my birthday!

Small Beneath the Sky. Lorna Crozier. A memoir by a Canadian poet for a tour next month. I may find myself dipping into this one during the Readathon this weekend.

Howards End is On the Landing. Susan Hill. The one I bought. I preordered it back in July. I'm hoping it will provide encouragement next year when I really need to read from home, instead of buying books at a merry clip. Because if we move for my husband's new job (he's got employment!), I going to need to weed what I already own anyway.

Things We Didn't See Coming. Steven Amsterdam. A galley of nine connected stories set in a dystopian world. I'm trying to wait until closer to the publication date before I dive in, but I'm really looking forward to starting this collection.

The Greatest Show on Earth. Richard Dawkins. A birthday present. Dawkins was in town last week, but I didn't learn he was coming until after tickets were sold out. Bummer.

The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood. Another birthday present.

Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel. I won this from Frances at Nonsuch Book. Thank you, Frances! I'm a huge Mantel fan and I'm glad she won the Booker.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.

--Virginia Woolf

Monday, October 19, 2009

“Look,” I said, sloshing out the last of the wine, some of which actually made it into my glass, “there is simply no question that by any objective standards, Dickens is a better writer than Dan Brown. That ought to be obvious even to a moron in a panic.” I wagged the admonitory finger. “It’s not elitist to say so. It’s not snobbish and it’s not a criticism of your choice of beach-read. I’m just saying…”

“…you’re just saying that hating every word of Little Dorrit would do me more good than enjoying The Da Vinci Code.”

I paused. I don’t like to be interrupted. It makes me cranky.

“Oh, go and boil your-hic-your head,” I told my mother. And having delivered that witty rejoinder, I slipped unconscious under the table just as the groom stood up to make his speech.

Very cool Mark Bastable article on reading the classics at BibloBuffet.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Readathon Stack

I've decided on the books I'm most likely to draw from during the readathon on the 24th.

From the top, and with their opening sentence:

Zeitoun. Dave Eggers.

On moonless nights the men and boys of Jableh, a dusty fishing town on the coast of Syria, would gather their lanterns and set out in their quietest boats.

The Servants' Quarters. Lynn Freed.

If every family chooses someone to punish, I was the one chosen by mine.

The Blank Wall. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

Lucia Holley wrote every night to her husband, who was somewhere in the Pacific.

The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jon Ronson.

This is a true story.

The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon.

We were sitting on the porch at the Fork--it is where two creeks meet--after supper, talking about our family reunion.

The Haunt. A.L. Barker.

When the Griersons moved from Wimbledon to Cornwall it was more a flight of fancy than a leap in the dark.

Her Fearful Symmetry. Audrey Niffenegger.

Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.

Monday, October 12, 2009

L'Hippocampe de Jean Painlevé (1934), Parts 1 & 2

Filming for L'Hippocampe begain in a Parisian basement, where Painleve and [Andre]Raymond [cameraman] set up a studio equipped with vast glass tanks draped in seaweed. The main protagonists of the film, pregnant male seahorses, had been brought in unceremoniously from the coast in rusting metal buckets. Once the seahorses with their stretched round bellies were installed in the miniature watery film set, Painleve settled down to eagerly await the moment of birth . . . . Painleve constructed a device mounted on his hat that administered a small electric shock to wake him up whenever he nodded off. Such extreme measures paid off, and Painleve finally got the footage he wanted.

The next scenes were shot in the Bay of Archachon on France's Atlantic coast, where Painleve crouched on the seabed a few meters down, armed with an enormous waterproof box, his camera peering out through a thick glass plate. Capturing wild seahorses on film for the first time was an arduous task. At that time, the only way Painleve could spend time underwater was to gulp air through a rubber tube tethered to a hand pump at the surface. . . . To make matters worse, his camera held only a few seconds of film requiring frequent trips to the surface to reload.

--Helen Scales, Poseidon's Steed

New York Times discovers Nina Sankovitch, who's reading a book a day and blogging about it at Read All Day.

(Naturally, she has a cat.)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Hey FTC!

I'm already in the habit of mentioning whether a book I've received or discussed in some capacity is a review copy, but if I need to "conspicuously disclose" after Dec. 1 that my opinion has been swayed and my integrity has been all compromised because I read a free book from a publisher instead of a free book from the library, I thought I'd put into effect the Bellowing Elk Alert System Trump-card (BEAST).

Obnoxious, no doubt, but Mr. Shiftlet (Elk 99's real name) is totally trustworthy.

He told me so his own self in goldplated words.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Latest stack of books

I have a nagging feeling that there's a book or two that's missing from tonight's stack of new books, but perhaps it's just that I expected a couple more of my preorders to have arrived by now. The Book Depository cancelled one of them over the weekend and refunded my money--after emailing me last Thursday to tell me the book was ready to ship. Since the book is showing this week as being available again, I've ordered it once more and am hoping for the best.

I've definitely placed my trust in Rebecca West since I've purchased four A.L. Barkers. John Brown's Body was shortlisted for the Booker in 1969, The Gooseboy won the Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1988, The Haunt was Barker's last published novel; and A Heavy Feather was the one West herself was so taken with.

Notwithstanding is Louis de Bernieres' just published collection of short stories--stories of a vanished England, according to the dust jacket.

The Blank Wall and The Innocent Mrs. Duff by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Two novels of suspense in one back to back binding.

More short stories: Clifford Garstang's In an Uncharted Country and Long Story Short, a collection of flash fiction from North Carolina authors edited by Marianne Gingher.

I won Norah Labiner's German for Travelers: A novel in 95 Lessons in a BBAW giveaway at Amber Stults' blog. Thank you, Amber, and I hope you enjoyed your vacation at Topsail!

Generosity by Richard Powers and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. These are two that are making me regret all the reading commitments I have lined up for the next several weeks. Whatever happened to read at whim, I wonder?

Monday, October 05, 2009

The enigmatic Nikolski

This enigmatic book assembles, under the anonymity of a single binding--or what's left of it--three destinies once scattered over various libraries, or even over various garbage dumps. Which leaves outstanding the question as to what sort of twisted mind could have conceived of such an amalgamation, and to what end.

Or, as the unnamed narrator of a scant third of the narratives (I thought of him as Ishmael, given that the first line is My name is unimportant) in Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski helpfully identifies the fragments of the Three-Headed-Book, that coverless one-of-a-kind book won in a Tel Aviv poker game by the seafaring Jonas Doucet: a portion on treasure islands, a treatise on pirates, and a biography of a desert island castaway.

Confused? Don't be. While Nikolski is a fragmented text, the overarching story is easy to follow: scattered relatives of Jonas Doucet converge for awhile in the Little Italy section of Montreal but live tangentially, unaware of any family connections. Doucet's coverless book, already well-traveled before it came into his possession, will make its way into the hands of each relative, a sort of familial currency for three young people seeking their way in the world.

The unnamed narrator is truly a sort of anti-Ishmael--content to travel through second-hand books, particularly travel guides, in the Montreal bookstore where he's worked since he was 14. He treasures a cheap child's compass, his only link to the father he never knew, a man who'd struck out in the world at the age of 14. The compass is off-kilter, pointing not north, but as he figures out, through the last-known address of his father: Umnak Island off the coast of Alaska, or "more specifically, on Nikolski, a minuscule village inhabited by thirty-six people, five thousand sheep and an indeterminate number of dogs."

His half-brother Noah, tired of the nomadic childhood spent with his Chipewyan mother, who'd lost her right (as well as her desire) to live on the reservation due to a short-lived marriage to a white man, comes to Montreal to attend college ("An island," was all she bothered to mumble" when he opened the acceptance envelope). He arbitarily selects archaeology as a major, then realizes an affinity for trash archaeology. As his radical professor and academic advisor tells him:

. . . the truth is, we're ahead of our time. Archaeology is the discipline of the future. Every time an old IBM finds its way to the dump, it becomes an artifact. Artifacts are the main products of our civilization. When all the computer experts are unemployed, we'll still have millions of years of work ahead of us. That is the fundamental paradox of archaeology. Our discipline will reach its peak at the end of the world.

In the meantime, Noah and his professor are stuck studying indigenous prehistory, an irony not lost on Noah, due to the conservative climate of the university. Instead, it is his cousin Joyce who spends her nights dumpster-diving for treasure. Joyce has grown up in Tete-a-la Baleine, an isolated village on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence reachable only by air or water, and has wanted to follow in the footsteps of her maternal forebears and become a pirate. Inspired by a news article about a presumed female relative who's been arrested for heading an internet ring of pirates, Joyce runs off to Montreal and learns to build her own computers from parts she's found in the trash and eventually begins to ply her nefarious trade.

Recipient of several literary prizes after its 2005 publication in Quebec, Nikolski, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler, was published in the U.S. by Shambhala back in May. I'm glad I didn't get around to reading my review copy until now since I wouldn't have experienced such a hightened frisson of connection with my other recent reads: Quebec and trash figure as well in Infinite Jest; remote Canadian villages and identity theft and South America figure as well in Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply; Noah isn't navigating by compass in the latest Anne Tyler; and reaching further back, cartography's found as well in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys an amalgamation of the unexpected in their fiction: marine biology, secondhand bookstores, islands off the coast of Venezula, flooding basements, dinosaurs evolving into hummingbirds, perfectly preserved heads of lettuce found by drilling down a garbage dump to where the flow of time has slowed.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

I'm not one to understand the appeal of jumping off bridges, but this is a photo of my daughter a couple days ago at Lake Taupo, having her version of a lot of fun. She thinks we should all move to New Zealand where her brother could take up raising sheep or llamas.

She's in Australia now, avoiding jellyfish. Or so she tells me.

Lucky duck.

Excuse me while I return to my Janet Frame.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Readerly intentions

I've signed up for Dewey's Read-a-thon! What better way to celebrate my 50th birthday and the blog's fifth anniversary than by excessive reading on that very day, right? Of course I am operating on the assumption the extended family will want to celebrate on Sunday this year instead of on the 24th or else I may have to go missing for several hours during prime reading hours. Such is life.

I've held out hope all year that I would manage to read 100 books by December 31--I've not reached triple digits since 2001--and I'm feeling devious enough to finagle that by putting several short books into the queue for this fall. In fact, I read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop last night (just 123 pages) and I am now over the misguided notion I'd had for years that I would not like her books. But I also intend to participate in the Kristin Lavransdatter Readalong with Richard and Emily and everyone else who signs up as well as tackle Wilkie Collins' No Name for Rebecca's Classics Circuit, so there will be some long-term commitments mixed in with one-nighters.

And then there are the library books and the pre-orders that will continue to trickle in through early November and all the older books on the shelves that are wondering when I'm going to make the time to pay some attention to them. . .

Must get to reading before I psych myself out.

Booking Through Thursday - Would You Lie?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?


Well, not unless you want to count the time I didn't read The Grapes of Wrath in 12th grade English, relying on Cliff's Notes instead to get me through the test or paper or whatever was required to prove that we had actually read it. I didn't get around to The Grapes of Wrath until some twenty years later, despite the fact that Steinbeck was one of my favorite authors in high school and my steadfast refusal not to read this one did not appear to be hinged on any reason other than I was feeling surly and contrary and by God, no one was going to make me do anything I didn't want to do (plus, I'd already been admitted to college through early admssions). And, best I can remember, the not wanting to read Steinbeck period ran concurrently with the period that I was going around telling my friends that if at the end of the year I didn't win the English award, which, by God, everyone knew I deserved, I was going to burn. down. the English building. And, fortunately, this was pre- (by 20 years) instead of post-Columbine, so instead of being turned in to the police and inflicting all sorts of embarrassment on my poor dad who was the chief of the volunteer fire department and would not have appreciated having an arsonist for a daughter and needing, all these years later, to write this response by hand from some sorry prison cell, my friends let me continue to vent obnoxious fumes up unto the point when I won the award and could shut up already with the crazy talk.

They were patient with me that way.

Otherwise, I cannot remember ever lying about reading a book that I haven't.

The flipside of this question is that I was telling my son about David Lodge's game of Humiliation just last night, which devolved into an argument over whether Hamlet is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but I'll spare you the play-by-play on that since you've already been afflicted with another one of my long-winded stories about high school. Thank you for suffering through it.

Booking Through Thursday

Monday, September 28, 2009

The popular fear of what a reader might do

But not only totalitarian governments fear reading. Readers are bullied in schoolyards and in locker-rooms as much as in government offices and prisons. Almost everywhere, the community of readers has an ambiguous reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. Something in the relationship between a reader and a book is recognized as wise and fruitful, but it is also seen as disdainfully exclusive and excluding, perhaps because the image of an individual curled up in a corner, seemingly oblivious of the grumbling of the world, suggests impenetrable privacy and a selfish eye and singular secretive action. ("Go out and live!" my mother would say when she saw me reading, as if my silent activity contradicted her sense of what it meant to be alive.) The popular fear of what a reader might do among the pages of a book is like the ageless fear men have of what women might do in the secret places of their body, and of what witches and alchemists might do in the dark behind locked doors. Ivory, according to Virgil, is the material out of which the Gate of False Dreams is made; according to Sainte-Beuve, it is also the material out of which is made the reader's tower.

--Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading

See also Manguel on Forbidden Reading, posted three years ago this week

Stephen Maturin's literary side

'I have written a good deal at sea,' said Stephen, 'but unless the weather is tolerably steady, so that the ink may be relied upon to stay in its well, I usually wait until I am ashore for any long, considered treatise or paper--for the peace and calm of a country retreat, as you say. Yet on the other hand I do not find that the turmoil of a ship prevents me reading: with a good clear candle in my lantern and balls of wax in my ears, I read with the utmost delight. The confinement of my cabin, the motion of my hanging cot, the distantly-heard orders and replies, the working of the ship--all these enhance my enjoyment.'

'Sir,' said Stephen, 'I read novels with the utmost pertinacity. I look upon them -- I look upon good novels -- as a very valuable part of literature, conveying more exact and finely-distinguished knowledge of the human heart and mind than almost any other, with greater breadth and depth and fewer constraints. Had I not read Madame de La Layette, the Abbe Prevost, and the man who wrote Clarissa, that extraordinary feat, I should be very much poorer than I am; and a moment's reflection would add many more.'


'As for an end,' said Martin, 'are endings really so very important? Sterne did quite well without one; and often an unfinished picture is all the more interesting for the bare canvas. I remember Bourville's definition of a novel as a work in which life flows in abundance, swirling without a pause: or as you might say without an end, an organized end. And there is at least one Mozart quartet that stops without the slightest ceremony: most satisfying when you get used to it.'

Stephen said 'There is another Frenchman whose name escapes me but who is even more to the point: La betise c'est vouloir conclure. The conventional ending, with virtue rewarded and loose ends tied up is often sadly chilling; and its platitude and falsity tend to infect what has gone before, however excellent. Many books would be far better without their last chapter: or at least with no more than a brief, cool, unemotional statement of the outcome.'

--Patrick O'Brian, The Nutmeg of Consolation

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seahorse courtship

Right now, somewhere in the world, early-morning sunbeams pierce through shallow water like spokes of a wheel and cast quivering pools of brightness on the seagrass meadow below. The night shift has ended and diurnal creatures begin to emerge from sleeping hideaways: grazing rabbitfish, bucktoothed parrotfish, and feisty damselfish tending their farms of algae. Two tiny silhouettes come together like a pair of knights on a chessboard. The seahorses greet each other with a nose-to-nose caress and, wrapping their tails around a single blade of grass, they begin a seductive dance, spiraling round and round each other. Blushes of orange and pink give away their emotions and for a moment the seahorses let go of their holdfast and swim together, heads tucked down, tails entwined. A gentle humming and clicking from the male is the sound track to their flirting.

--Helen Scales, Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality

Even if you don't think an entire book about seahorses will float your boat, be sure to check out Helen Scales's NPR interview.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Not a particularly interesting story

Can I say you punched me? I ask.

Can I say it taught you a lesson and you're going to shape up? he asks.

Thwarted, I'm stuck with the truth: I rubbed my poor allergy-ridden eye and its environs so hard during the night that I gave myself the black eye.

The only cure for that is a free reading day, I suppose.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A culture thing

So a student comes to the desk, asks if we have Homer's Iliad. She has no preference as to translation, says she just needs to read the Iliad for her western cultures class and doesn't want to have to read it online. I look up the call number for the Fagles, write it down for her and explain to her which floor of the library she'll find it on.

And what is her response?

"Jesus Christ."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Burning out on blogging

weekly geeks
My first Weekly Geeks post! I couldn't resist this week's topic: bloggerly burnout/why we blog.

This past week wrapped up Book Blogger Appreciation Week, in which I'm sure many of you participated. In two weeks will be Banned Books Week, in which I'm sure some of you also will participate. I'm also sure that many of you participated, and will participate, with at least a post per day, if not more, on your respective blogs.

Personally, after such weeks, I feel almost burnt out and think, "Why am I doing this? I'm not getting paid for this." Do you ever feel the same way after weeks like the ones mentioned above? If you do, what do you to counter it? How do you keep going? Do you take a break from posts after that, or do you just "soldier on"?

Or if you don't feel burnt out after such weeks, why not? Also why are you a book blogger? From what I've seen and experienced, it's certainly not the fame or the glory that you get. So what is it? Why? Why? Why?

I didn't experience any sense of burnout from BBAW. But then, I wasn't involved in organizing or running the event; I simply wrote a couple of posts, visited new-to-me blogs listed on various Mr. Linkys or touted by other bloggers as their favorites. I entered a few giveaways although I've apparently won nothing but a slot on some publicist's mass mailing list. I didn't take the awards portion of the week seriously enough to get upset when my choices didn't win; I came to grips a long time ago that my tastes are outside the mainstream. Plus I had a day's break from all computer activity due to working at the polls last Tuesday and by focusing on book blogs instead of obsessively checking in with all the political sites the way I ordinarily do the rest of the time, last week probably lowered my blood pressure thereby improving my health. So yay Book Bloggers Appreciation Week! I appreciate you greatly.

But as for burnout in and of itself, I admit that I've been feeling a low-grade version for longer than many have been blogging and I seriously thought about throwing in the towel earlier this year.

Next month Pages Turned will turn five; I had a mostly-reading journal at LiveJournal for more than a year prior to that. My daughter was responsible for setting up the LiveJournal; I could never figure out how to post images there and Pages Turned was created originally as a vehicle that would allow me to post some of the vacation pictures we'd taken the previous summer, although I knew from the outset that I'd use the blog as a reading journal and a commonplace book. I admired the LitBloggers who posted reviews and analysis of professional quality, but I wasn't assembling clips and contacts for future employment; in fact, I regarded my own blogging as not writing. Writing was dialogue and character development and plot; blogging was goofing off with other people who loved and recommended books. Book bloggers in general seemed an accommodating bunch--links, quotations, full or capsule reviews, bookish chitchat--and the bloggers I connected with certainly were what they seemed. And we were all united against the professional reviewers who thought us as a bunch of pooters with 18 cats.

But then the publishers and publicists and authors began to take book blogging seriously, and while that is a change for the good, the tenor of the community changed in the process. I now felt somehow obligated to abide by the as yet unspoken but somehow understood Neighborhood Covenants even though these standards hadn't been in existence when I'd put my key in the lock and my books on the shelves. I would postpone writing about books until I had the time to do a full review instead of a quick mention--and lose any desire to write about the book at all. I would hold back on linking to interesting articles--because isn't microblogging the province of Twitter now? Why bother routinely nudged aside oh, this would be cool to post.

Burnout City.

Then in the spring, after a slew of articles and discussions by publishing insiders on how to write a proper review, how to properly request review copies, a book blogger with quite a lot of prestige twittered that bloggers who kept reading journals were pretending to be what they were not, that there ought to be a way for people--presumably those in charge of distributing the freebies--to differentiate between those deserving of ARCs and those who aren't. And, because real life was particularly real and raw at that point, instead of snorting through my nose and thinking Isn't that rich coming from someone who maintains she isn't in it for the free books, and keeping that person's opinion in the proper perspective, I dwelled on it, burning out even more thinking, Well, if this is the direction book blogging's going in, ferreting out the commie slackers among us marching to our own drummers, I don't want to be a part of it anymore. You superbloggers can take your full-fledged reviews and your networking with the stars and you can--

Except there are enough bloggers who don't get caught up in these positioning games at all, or who bow out of them when they realize that's all they are instead of getting out of blogging altogether. There's no reason to read the review copy before you tackle Proust if Proust is what you're in the mood for; it can wait on the shelves with the rest of your books. There's no reason to think no one will be interested in reading a book you love unless you spend hours on a review; I'm more often intrigued by a mere mention of a book by someone whose readerly sensibilities I value or know are aligned with my own; when I was an Amazon associate I saw how I sometimes sold obscure books by merely listing them in the sidebar in my year's reading and not writing one word about them.

It is truly a matter of keeping a proper perspective, of following one's own instincts and inclinations, of not turning reading or blogging into a competitive sport, that can put the joy back into an activity you've burnt out on.

And it certainly helps if this is your theme song, to listen to it on a regular basis!

Monday, September 21, 2009

A.L. Barker

Has anyone read anything by A.L. Barker?

I'd never heard of her before yesterday. I brought Women Writers at Work: the Paris Review Interviews home from the library last Friday so that I could read the one with Rebecca West. West, 89 at the time interviewed, pulled no punches when asked her opinion of various authors: Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Maugham, Forster, all received a thumbs down. She called contemporary novels, on the whole, boring. "Somebody told me I ought to read a wonderful things about how a family of children buried Mum in a cellar under concrete and she began to smell. But that's the sole point of the story. Mum just smells. That's all that happens. It is not enough."

Well, there's also incest, but still: Take that, Ian McEwan!

Iris Murdoch and Ivy Compton-Burnett met with her qualified approval, as did Colette, but the only two West raved on were Doris Lessing ("the only person who absolutely gets the mood of today right, I think. An absolutely wonderful writer") and A.L. Barker.

Calling Barker "the best novelist now writing," she said, "She really tells you what people do, the extraordinary things that people think, how extraordinary circumstances are, and how unexpected the effect of various incidents." She described an incident from The Heavy Feather, the most recent Barker novel at that time, saying it was "so good I can't believe it."

Needless to say, just on the strength of West's endorsement, I ordered used copies of The Heavy Feather and another Barker novel this morning, and ILLed a short story collection in the afternoon. Because, naturally, except for a couple of her books, Barker's out of print.

But then I discovered that Faber is in the process of reissuing Barker's entire oeuvre; print on demand at a very reasonable cost--except for shipping. Perhaps Book Depository will come to my rescue here.

According to Kim D. Heine, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 14:

In 1946, shortly after her stories began to appear in British periodicals, A.L. Barker was offered (but declined) the British Atlantic Award in Literature. The following year, Innocents, her first collection of short stories, won her the first Somerset Maugham Award. Subsequently, Barker has written plays, poetry, several short-story collections, and five full-length novels, and she has contributed to several periodical publications. She wrote the screenplay for Pringle, a play based on one of her stories, and several other stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC. In 1962, Barker received the Cheltenham Festival Award and in 1970 was given the Arts Council Award for her continued contributions to literature. Barker does not reveal herself in her work. Although most of her fiction is firmly set in her familiar English surroundings, her alienated, insular characters, improbable conflicts, and surrealistic episodes seem removed from her personal experience. Barker's tense, unemotional style, while it lends her work precision and control, sets a tone of authorial detachment.

The themes of Barker's work are the isolation of the human personality, the impossibility of communication, and the ambivalence of love. Throughout her fiction, Barker explores the world of social and psychological outcasts: the ill, the poor, the lonely. Her subjects do not represent deviations from the norm as much as intensified examples of the unfortunate or the misunderstood. They are people who have sat out their lives in constant disappointment, who have formed the habit of self-delusion. In Barker's stories the strong protagonists are selfish and cruel, and the weak are self-pitying victims. Yet her ironic detachment renders her work not oppressive but strangely comic. Through caricature and understatement, Barker infuses her work with humor. She has a penchant for horror and the macabre, which ironically lightens the tone by lifting the weight of unrelieved realism.

I searched for Barker's name using the handy dandy Book Blogs Search Engine that I learned about during BBAW, but turned up nothing but that she was among those shortlisted one year for the Booker. I'm assuming someone read her prior to starting their blog; surely West wasn't being serious when she said she was the only one who admired A.L. Barker?

The sensation of life

The living philosophy which really sustains us, which is our basic nourishment, more than any finding of the mind, is simply the sensation of life, exquisite when it is not painful.

--Rebecca West

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Damn it all. I've lost my header. You know where you are, right? Because it might take me days to either find the old one or get the new one to post.

Water on the brain

Claudius is rather scandalized by this method of drinking. While he's definitely a fan of fresh running water, he also believes in maintaining his dignity while doing so, and, he says mournfully, this cat has no shame.

(Don't tell Claudie, but I have a major crush on this cat.)

Edited to add: And it's talk like a pirate day at Library Thing! There's no dignity left in this world! Arrr, mates!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Latest stack of books

I think I still have seven books preordered that should show up in the mailbox between now and the middle of November. I'm feeling the draw of older books, though--both classics and newer titles that have simply been on my shelves unread for too long--so I suspect and/or hope the stacks of new material become less frequent. (Yes, I know I've said this before.)

Pictured above:

True Murder. Yaba Badoe. I'm not sure where I originally heard about this one, but Amazon in the UK continued to recommend it to me until I broke down and ordered it from the Book Depository.

Reading by Lightning. Joan Thomas. Heard about it in a thread at Book Balloon. I like reading Canadians.

The Thing Around Your Neck. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had a gift certificate to Borders and this was the book that cried out for me to take it home.

Blood's a Rover. James Ellroy. A review copy. This will be my first Ellroy and I chanced upon a rat torture scene while flipping through the pages so unless I grant myself permission to skim certain parts it may be my last. I'm such a Winston Smith.

Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace. My own personal copy! Squee!

The Last Western. Thomas S. Klise. Because of this post at Infinite Summer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some people will be happy, I guess

So I understand that Dan Brown has a new book out this week. Robert Langdon returns, this time to undercover a lot of nasty stuff about the Masons in a plot that will be loaded with cliffhangers and car chases and conspiracy theories.


I got an offer for a review copy of The Lost Symbol a couple weeks back (I bet you did, too!), but The Da Vinci Code was the worst book I read in 2003, and I'd rather the worst book I've read this year remain in that position instead of being substantially elevated by the Brown, so thank you very much, Dan Brown people, but no.

So what I thought I'd do, since Brown is no doubt recycling his plot, is recycle what I had to say about The Da Vinci Code elsewhere back in September 2003:

A. foisted The Da Vinci Code off on me last week when I gave her The Time Traveler's Wife and I took it with me to the polls Tuesday. M. came in to vote, saw that I had it, got all excited, and said she wanted to discuss it with me after I'd finished. At that point I was still reading the [Jon] Krakauer.

Her excitement, plus not wanting to make L. bring me other reading material, kept me going. God, I hate the best sellerese writing style. I know most people would much rather read a poorly written thriller than the [Julie] Hecht and [Nicholson] Baker I'd just finished in which nothing really happens, but the pet duck in A Box of Matches and the unnamed narrator in The Unprofessionals are going to stay with me. What's there to remember about Dan Brown's characters besides an absurd Mickey Mouse watch on a Harrison Ford stand-in and the realization that the lovely burgundy-haired/olive-eyed Sophie is actually the inbred descendant of Jesus Christ himself. (And how fitting is it that the "divine wisdom" of Sophia has devolved into Sophie, who sheds brain cells rapidly in order to keep the plot going. As do they all. Ah, well. At least her hair manages to smell alluringly throughout. And eventually the plot requires them to figure things out. But never until long after the reader's done so.)

The premise and the theories were the best part, although I understand most of Dan Brown's research came from only one or two hotly-contested sources and he managed to distort lots of actual history to suit his plot. Or because he was lazy. Any time the lectures in a book are the most interesting thing, you know your time would be better spent reading other material.

The elevating of Disney movies into a subversive celebration of the goddess was hilarious. (I wonder if Disney's already optioned this one? Maybe that's why whatshisface wore a Mickey Mouse watch?)

C. said the book reminded her of Cold Comfort Farm with all its "I saw something nasty in the woodshed" hoohah. I wonder why Brown couldn't write a better female lead for a book that's supposed to pique a reader's interest in the female divine.

Oh, well.


I was wrong about one thing: the inevitable movie was made by Sony.

BBAW Reading Meme

Alexandre Charpentier color lithograph

I'm blatantly ripping off LitLove in the way I answer the questions in today's meme, so make sure you read her brilliant responses from last week. For those of you following Mr. Linky from the BBAW blog who are new to pages turned, I'm the blogger who prefers commonplacing to writing my own content any day of the week.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?

To avoid wasting a precious half-hour, I used to take bread and chocolate with me and ate them openly at midday in the reading-room. Around me other readers, shame-faced and short of money, were also eating bread, but breaking off the pieces in their pockets. Twelve noon was the signal for a vast chorus of munching.

--Henry de Montherlant

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

[Your books] take on something of your personality, and your environment also--you know a second-hand book sometimes is so much more flesh and blood than a new one--and it is almost terrible to think that your ideas, yourself in your books, may be giving life to generations of readers after you are forgotten.

--T.E. Lawrence

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

Personally, as long as the book in question belongs to me, I have little restraint about dog-earing corners.

--Mikita Brottman

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?

"I read," I say. "I study and read. I bet I've read everything you've read. Don't think I haven't. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, 'The library, and step on it.' "

--David Foster Wallace

Hard copy or audiobooks?

The sight of the cover of a book one has previously read retains, woven into the letters of its title, the moonbeams of a far-off summer night.

--Marcel Proust

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?

One reads at one's own speed, in short snatches on the subway or in long, voluptuous withdrawals from the world. One proceeds through a big, complex novel. . . .like an exceptionally well-heeled tourist in a foreign landscape, going slowly or fast depending on the roads, on one's own mood and on the attractions along the way. If one loses something, one can always go back to pick it up.

--Vincent Canby

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?

All my life I've looked at words as thought I were seeing them for the first time.

--Ernest Hemingway

What are you currently reading?

The organized soul has one book beside his bed. The glutton sleeps with a New York skyline lurching an inch from the bed.

--Charlotte Gray

What is the last book you bought?

If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying. No book is worth anything which is not worth much; not is it serviceable until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armory; or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store.

--John Ruskin

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?

Usually I read several books at a time--old books, new books, fiction, nonfiction, verse, anything--and when the bedside heap of a dozen volumes or so has dwindled to two or three, which generally happens by the end of one week, I accumulate another pile.

--Vladimir Nabokov

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?

Early morning was a time he enjoyed reading. His mind was alert, the attention span seemed to continue indefinitely, right until he remembered about having to go to school. It was a nice time, a peaceful time. There was something about giving your best to the things you liked the best.

--James Kelman

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?

A sequel is an admission that you've been reduced to imitating yourself.

--Don Marquis

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?

People seldom read a book which is given to them.

--Samuel Johnson

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)

Your house, being the place in which you read, can tell us the position books occupy in your life, if they are a defense you set up to keep the outside world at a distance, if they are a dream into which you sink as into a drug, or bridges you cast toward the outside, toward the world that interests you so much that you want to multiply and extend its dimensions through books.

--Italo Calvino

Monday, September 14, 2009

Tomorrow's election day! Or, at least it's election day here. And since the Board of Elections is expecting next to no turnout, I may actually get some reading done while at the polls.

Unless I change my mind between now and 5:25 a.m. tomorrow, I'll be taking with me:

Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses from Myth to Reality by Helen Scales

Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Hammett is one of the choices for the Slaves of Golconda's next read, but since voting at this point favors Susan Hill's The Woman in Black I thought I'd read it for the R.I.P. challenge and knock another one off the Modern Library list.

BBAW - Celebrating and Appreciating Book Bloggers


It stands to reason with the book blogging community having grown so rapidly in the last couple of years that most of us will never cross paths with one another unless an event such as My Friend Amy's brainchild, Book Blogger Appreciation Week or its accompanying book blogging directory (which isn't online yet, as far as I can tell), serves as a central hub. I was happy last week to see that a few of my long-time favorites had made the short list and I quickly added a handful or more new blogs to the old google reader. But I must confess to hoping that next year's short list might include a British blog or two, or an option to vote for "None of the Above" in the Best Book Published This Year category, and that, instead of vanishing into the ether, the long lists might be left online as a resource for those of us whose preferences seemed underrepresented in the short lists.

My personal list of bloggers who are worth their weight in gold would have to include:

A Work in Progress
Book Girl's Nightstand
Book Puddle
Box of Books
Classical Bookworm
Eve's Alexandria
Girl Detective
Kate's Book Blog
Magnificient Octopus
Mental Multivitamin
Naked Without Books!
Necromancy Never Pays
Of Books and Bicycles
Shelf Life
Shelf Love
So Many Books
Tales From the Reading Room

And I would also like to celebrate my wonderful readers, who aren't always necessarily bloggers, some of whom recently recommended their favorite historical biographies:

Margaret WV at Surface-Mined --Edward Rice's Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography

Jane GS at Reading, Writing, Working, Playing - Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time; Jenny Uglow's Elizabeth Gaskell; James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

Kathleen at Boarding in My Forties - David Herbert Donald's Lincoln

Becky - Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Fay Sheco at Historical/Present - Mary S. Lovell's The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family

Stefanie at So Many Books - Herodotus' Histories

Sherry at Semicolon - David McCullough's John Adams

Lauren - Mary V. Dearborn's Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant

Elizabeth at Charlotteville Words - Stephen B. Oates' With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

Bryan C. - Anna R. Hayes' Without Precedent: The Biography of Susie Marshall Sharp

Ann S. - David McCullough's Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt; Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty: The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay; and Reeve Lindbergh's No More Words: A Journal of My Mother

Both Lesley at Falling Into Words and Stephen at Eskypades - David McCullough's Truman

Melissa at Mental Multivitamin - Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Mike B. at Liquid Thoughts - Richard Norton Smith's Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation; Walter Issacson's Benjamin Franklin ; and Charles Nicholl's The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Thanks, everyone. For being there and for being you.

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...