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.)

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...