Monday, January 30, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me: Vol. 1

Welcome to my new feature!  I thought I'd start out with some books from 2011 that I never got around to posting about for one reason or another--hope you find something to enjoy!

A Powell's Books Indiespensable selection in 2011, Bright Before Us had many components that should have made it a good fit for me:
  - a descent into paranoia & disillusionment
  - the idea of lost soul mates & the complexity of marriage
  - navigating trauma in adults and children

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work for me, mostly because the main character really bugged me.  I didn't sympathize with him, and wasn't curious about his story at all.  Additionally, the beginning was confusing to me--somehow I didn't realize that there were actually 2 female characters.  Whoops.  It all made SO much more sense once I realized that the dude's wife wasn't also his childhood sweetheart.  Duh.

Right, so...if the above ideas sound interesting, if you keep in mind that Francis' wife is not Norah, and you don't mind the occasional irritating character, check this new author out!

About a year ago, The Weird Sisters hit the shelves, and I was excited about the prospect of reading a story about a family of readers.  The girls were named after Shakespeare characters for goodness' sake--it's got to be good!

My issues?  1: The pov didn't work for me.  I've enjoyed plural-first-person in other books, but this one had too few characters & it was awkward.  2: I guess I really don't have any idea what it's like to have sisters, because the cattiness really got on my nerves.  3: The ending was a bit too tidy--I didn't think that it was wrapped up entirely realistically, and that made the characters seem more like tools than people.

BUT, if you are in the mood for a sweet little read about some modern women with Shakespearean names and don't care to get all critical like me, then give it a shot.  A good vacation read methinks.
With The Bride's House,  I had to wish a one-time favorite author farewell.  We simply don't see eye to eye any longer.  Perhaps we've both changed, but the heartwarming-heartbreak that I enjoyed in her earlier books has evaporated.

Part of the problem here was the number of main characters.  The story line is meant to revolve around the house, (interesting idea,) so the fact that we see 3 generations pass through it should further that idea, not detract from it; but I was left feeling that none of the characters were fully developed.

Actually, I take that back.  I loved the first character and was really stinking irritated when she only got 1/3 of the book.  I didn't give a flying flapjack for the other two girls.  I wish I could request a rewrite.  Ms. Dallas probably wouldn't appreciate that very much though, would she?
A Pulitzer Prize winner in the Fiction category for 2005, Gilead is a book that I was supposed to like.
  • Pulitzer?  (check) 
  • Character driven? (check)
  • Reflective/Introspective? (check)
  • Beautifully & Skillfully written? (check)
So what went wrong?  I was bored.  Everything took so looong (which was actually pretty realistic since it was narrated by an old man.) The parts I like the most were quotes like this:
There should be a law to prevent recipes for molded salad from appearing within twenty pages of any article having to do with religion.
Funny, right?  Or, maybe, more funny because the rest of the book was so even keel.  It was interesting and poetic, but we didn't connect.  In some ways made me think of Tinker (a more recent Pultizer Prize winner) except that Gilead took me longer to read.  Much longer.  So in the end, was alright.  Well-written, but just okay.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Serious Poetry/Fun Poetry

I've come to realize that poetry is yet another area in my life where I don't necessarily conform to the mold.  Much current poetry does nothing for me--and what is the point of poetry if not to move you in some way? Still, I think that the trick is to keep looking, keep reading, and sooner or later I'm bound to find more things I love.

One collection I read last year and never talked much about was Leavings by Wendell Berry.  In general I enjoyed it, although (in this collection at least) much of it tended to be a little too enviro-centric for me.  He does have a way with language, however, that made him easy to appreciate...especially when he talked about life and family.  I look forward to comparing his fiction to his poetry at some point.

Over the Edge

To tell a girl you loved her--my God!--
that was a leap off a cliff, requiring little
sense, sweet as it was. And I have loved 

many girls, women too, who by various fancies 
of my mind have seemed loveable. But only 
with you have I actually tried it: the long labor, 

the selfishness, the self-denial, the children 
and grandchildren, the garden rows planted 
and gathered, the births and deaths of many years. 

We boys, when we were young and romantic 
and ignorant, new to the mystery and the power, 
would wonder late into the night on the cliff’s edge: 

Was this love real? Was it true? And how 
would you know? Well, it was time would tell, 
if you were patient and could spare the time, 

a long time, a lot of trouble, a lot of joy. 
This one begins to look--would you say?--real? 

Short poems tend to be my thing, and I'm always up for a bit of humor, so Austin Kleon's Newspaper Blackout has been a fun poetic diversion for me.  This book not only takes you through the story of how he came to create poetry with a black marker, but gives you some pointers on creating your own and gives you some samples of other people's creations as well.  Some are simple, some are funny, all left me wanting to do some myself.

children play to keep sane

The Ninja's Chauffeur

Which would you rather

kill something ninja
with a family
yr destined to avenge

the ninja's
trusty chauffeur.

who is
quiet, hard-working,

known to date
a lot
more girls?

Although I enjoyed this collection, I ended up feeling that perhaps I was sold on the idea of these poems more than on the actual poems themselves.  There was a small handful that I loved, but most lacked the punch that a short poem needs.

This is the first collection of poetry I've finished reading this year, and the others I plan to read are also single-author-collections.  I'd like to put an anthology in the queue, though...any suggestions?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What It's Like to Read a Classic

How large is your vocabulary?  Do you find that the more you read, the larger it grows?

Do you remember reading a Classic for the first time and having to trudge your way through the vocabulary and sentence structure?

Like most people, I read some classics in high school.  Like most people, I didn't enjoy them as much as I could have.  But then time passes, and wonder of wonders: I somehow got used to reading the more complex language that is often found in those older books.  The first time I read Pride and Prejudice it took some work.  Then I watched the film, and amazingly, the language began to make sense.  So much has to do with your familiarity, doesn't it?  If you know the story, the language is easier to absorb; if you know the language, the story is easier to absorb.

Here's an entertaining example:

It really isn't that the classics are always so much more difficult, it's that they are often unfamiliar territory.  (True, they do stir up the grey matter a bit more, but that's a good thing isn't it?  Move those brains!)  This is why, if you are just getting started with the Classics, it can be immensely beneficial to pick something with more accessible writing (Gone With the Wind, The Good Earth, To Kill a Mockingbird) or with a story you are familiar with (A Christmas Carol, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan).  This is also why I have no problem watching an adaptation first--get familiar with the story line, and then jump in and enjoy the story-telling.

Once you get past that first hurdle, you may be surprised to find that reading the classics is more a matter of taste than difficulty.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Q's Legacy, Helene Hanff

This book was a beautiful idea--which is actually just a twisted way of saying that I was intrigued by my own misconceptions.  From something I'd read, (helped by the subtitle "A Delightful Account of a Lifelong Love Affair with Books") I was under the impression that I was going to get some details about how Helene Hanff (author of the delightful 84 Charing Cross Road) discovered and learned about literature.  

Alas, that was not to be.  Why must Expectations be such a powerful destroyer/maker of dreams?

What Q's Legacy actually is (which is easily discovered, apparently, by reading the back cover or any synopsis on the web you may happen to run into--who knew?) still has its own charm--never fear.  It is a memoir of her career as a writer, for the most part, dipping into her visits to London as well.

While I deeply wished that she and I had spent this read browsing dusty shelves in old libraries, discovering wonderfully obscure yet extremely useful tidbits of information, Helene is a charming person doing perfectly mundane things as well.  In some ways, this book did nothing to satisfy my curiosity about her; in others, I feared that if I knew more she'd become irritating (sad but true...eccentric personalities are called such for a reason, I'm afraid.)  If you've read 84 Charing Cross Road (and if you haven't, you really should!) and it left you wanting to know more about Helene, then this is a perfectly good place to go next.  In fact, it's part of a trilogy about her life, leaving only The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (which I haven't read) in between the two.

So maybe I didn't get what I wanted, but that's hardly Helene's fault.  And besides, it knocked a book off my TBR shelf, so who am I to complain?  Have you enjoyed anything by Helene? Please tell me you loved 84 Charing Cross Road...

My favorite quote--from page 97:  
The whole book was so full of outraged capitals that reading it was like being continuously shouted at. When you finished you were just worn out.

Friday, January 20, 2012

On Chesil Beach, Or: How I Came to Forgive Mr. McEwan

I haven't formally blogged about Atonement--mostly because I read it 4 years ago and wasn't book-blogging at that point--but I have made a few comments here and there about the bitterness it caused me to cultivate against Ian McEwan.  I liked Atonement, until the end (I won't get into details, but it made me feel that the author was aiming derision towards the reader that completely turned me off) at which point I swore I was no longer interested in reading anything else by the author.

Of course, he's an author that pops up fairly regularly in my Google Reader.  Technically, I'm supposed to like him, you see.  He writes the kind of stuff I like to read about in a style of writing I enjoy.  There was just this grudge thing getting in the way.

So when Sam talked about On Chesil Beach, and how it was pretty much wonderful, & recommended to anyone who has ever felt awkward, (love that! Who hasn't felt awkward?  Just typing awkward is awkward.) I decided I'd be magnanimous and give McEwan another chance**.  

On Chesil Beach is a small book... The-Best-Presents-Come-in-Small-Packages sort of small, and Wow--what a read*.  It's rare to find an author with the ability to so perfectly put you inside the thoughts and emotions of a couple with seemingly simple language (reminded me of Revolutionary Road in that sense).  Florence and Edward, a couple confined by their own sense of politeness, are engaged and married in the early 1960s.  Now, I haven't been to London in the 1960s, and I haven't been British, but I have experienced the awkwardness of a relationship suffering from lack of communication.  Who hasn't?
"And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all."
I loved how McEwan sped up and slowed down the passing of time, as well as how he sort of zoomed in and out of the details, showing the big picture as well.  I cringed through their wedding night, reminisced about their childhoods, got to know their families, and cried (yep, actual tears) upon looking back on what might have been.  How did McEwan manage to see so much depth in these two characters, and then--on top of that--relate the whole thing in such a small amount of print?  Color me impressed.

*Mr. McEwan, please accept my apologies for having held a grudge against you for so long.

**Sam, thanks for a great recommendation!

(By the way, this one is best saved for a time when you can immerse yourself in the story--reading the first half in bits and pieces didn't work so well for me.)  (Also, this book counts for my Wishlist Challenge! Yay me!)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Look at Some Unbridled Books

Are you familiar with Unbridled Books?  I wasn't, until Safe From the Sea won the ndie Lit Award for Fiction last year.  In fact, that is what really opened my eyes to small publishers in general.  Are there any small publishers that have caught your attention or earned your loyalty?  Often, though the books they publish aren't all the same, there is a noticeable quality or characteristic they share--making each read a new, and yet familiar, experience.
"Unbridled Books is a premier publisher of works of rich literary quality that appeal to a broad audience. We want to be able to continue our longtime discussion about what allows a novel to touch our hearts and our minds at once. And we want our readers, booksellers, and reviewers to trust that when they pick up an Unbridled book, we’re inviting them to enjoy that rarest of pleasures, a good read." (from Unbridled's site)
My experience with Unbridled Books isn't as broad as I'd like--I've only known them for a year--but I have plenty of their books loaded on my Nook, and plenty more I'm interested in.  This year, I've read a handful of their books that I'd like to mention.

First, as I mentioned, was Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye.  (see my review here)  It's a little father/son estrangement/reconciliation, a little bit of history and life on the water, a little bit family/marriage and infertility, all mixed into spare, vivid writing, realistic characters, and a plot that keeps you reading.  I was impressed out how balanced the book was, in the writing, characters, and plot.  It really would appeal to wide audience & is one that I plan on re-reading soon.

The next book I read of theirs was After Hours at the Almost Home by Tara Yellen, a title from their backlist (2008).  It interested me partly because it sounded like an interesting combination of humor, quick-paced plot, and introspective character study.  It was indeed a quick read, taking place in a few hours at a bar.  We peek into the lives of all the employees--scattered pieces that add up to a full and complete story, reminding us that there is more to each of us than may initially meet the eye.  If you appreciate some depth to a story, but are in the mood for a quick read, this is a perfect pick.  As with Safe From the Sea, this is deceptively simple, quick to read, full of good writing and realistic, flawed characters.

After my second success with Unbridled Books, I was thrilled to receive Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb by George Rabasa from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. (see my review here)  This is one of those incredibly unique books that tells a serious, heavy, story in a lighthearted, humorous way, and manage to balance the two perfectly.  Again, the writing is easy to read yet unique and beautiful, the characters have a depth that has made them occasionally pop into my memory as real people (takes me a minute or two to remember they were characters.)  He explores how we define mental illness, family, and our part in society.  Highly, highly recommended.

The only book I've read from my Nook books so far is Small Acts of Sex and Electricity by Lise Haines.  This was the first time in a long time that I've dipped into a book so relational.  I was a little nervous, to be honest, to read about a girl who steps into her best friend's life (husband and kids included) after the flaky lady skips town.  It was a little more romantic and drama-oriented than what I prefer, and yet the level of writing elevated above the common fare I expected.

I have many other books of theirs that I'm looking forward to reading, and they seem to be coming out with new must-reads all the time.  They seem to pick books that bridge the gap between simple and complex--they are like guilty pleasures, and yet they make you think and feel--making them a perfect choice for someone who isn't used to literary fiction, as well as those who are used to it.  Perfect vacation reading for me--treat yourself to an Unbridled Book today! (and no, I'm not affliated. just a fan!)

I'd love to know what small publishers (or imprints of larger publishers) that you love and trust--or maybe just keep your eye on...what has impressed you about them?  Who should I look into?

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

One of the wonderful things about book-blogging (as many of you know) is finding new favorite titles & authors that would've been difficult to discover otherwise.  Maggie O'Farrell is a blogger-find for me.  I wish I could remember where I first saw her mentioned...if you've blogged about her in the past: thank you!

I ended up picking The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox for my Book Club to read in November.  Because of the time of year, we needed a book that wouldn't take too long to read, but also had plenty of discussion points.  I scrolled through my shelves and my GoodReads wishlist and finally settled on this one, fully expecting a straightforward, simply written story of a bygone era.  What we found was so much more.

I found the premise interesting: A city called Edinburgh, an owner of a vintage clothing shop named Iris, and an unexpected phone call regarding her great-aunt Esme (whom she never knew existed) being released from an asylum after 60 years.  Though they are basically strangers, Iris finds herself wrapped up in Esme's story nonetheless.  It reminded me of The Secret Scripture, (a book I enjoyed,) and the cover of this edition was too lovely to pass up.

Esme was intriguing, her world magical--and we are offered a glimpse of it due to O'Farrell's sparse yet poetic writing.  Did Esme have mental issues, or was she just different?  How much would her life have been different if she'd been raised in a different time or family?  Aren't all of our brains just a bit different in how they process things? Can't any normal behavior be twisted to look abnormal?

There is a rhythm to O'Farrell's writing that is captivating, making it one of those books that--once you get into the swing of its cadence--you don't want to put down, for fear that the world you've been enveloped in will dissipate and recede.  This is a book to be quoted in paragraphs, rather than in sentences or pretty turns of phrase.

from page 58:
She flips back through time. 1941, 1940, 1939, 1938. The Second World War begins and is swallowed, becoming just an idea, a threat in people’s minds. The men are still in their homes, Hitler is a name in the papers, bombs, blitzes and concentration camps have never been heard of, winter becomes autumn, then summer, then spring. April yields to March, then February, and meanwhile Iris reads of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbours, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floor, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere. Of husbands at the end of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become, of fathers who insist, over and over again, that she used to be such a lovely little thing. Daughters who just don’t listen. Wives who one day pack a suitcase and leave the house, shutting the door behind them, and have to be tracked down and brought back.
Beautiful.   I'll certainly be seeking out more of O'Farrell's works.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Anna Karenina Wrap-Up Post

Oh RIGHT! THAT'S what I was forgetting--my final Anna Karenina post!  I totally left the good old blogging hanging on that one--did I love it? hate it? finish it??  The last time I posted was before I read the last quarter of the book (meaning: yes, I did finish it...did you really doubt me, dear blog?) and then I didn't post because, well, the holidays were raging, and I sped through the end of the book so quickly that I finished it before the read-along ended and then felt a teensy-weensy bit guilty.

If you've read any of my prior posts on the book, you may remember that Anna Karenina is actually a re-read for me [technically]  although the fact that I read it in highschool (some 17 years ago or so) means that I don't remember much except for hazy pictures of unhappy people in big houses in the middle of Russia.  And trains of course.

This was my 2nd read-along (the first being last spring for Villette--also with Wallace) and it was also a very good experience.  I work well with deadlines, I suppose, so the schedule works for me.  Also, it's a great way to digest a classic: periodic discussions aid in understanding and appreciation.  So read-along=thumbs up, & hoping for more in 2012.

In Week 1, I delighted in Tolstoy's humor as well as the wonderful translation.  Also, it was crazy to realize that most of the main characters are not more than 34-35 years old.  When I was a teen that sounded ancient, now it seems oh-so-very-young. ;)

Week 2 was all about adding layers: the characters and the plot both start to become more complex as the picture starts to fill in.  Tolstoy continues to do this throughout the novel, which is one of the things that made it feel so real and intriguing to me.

Anna starts working herself into a corner in Week 3.  We see a little more of the social life in the upper class, and also some hints that the times are a-changing.

Week 4 is quieter.  We see Kitty's time abroad and Levin's observations on farming.  We are left to ponder the important things in life.

It's crunch-time in Weeks 5-7: so many things are starting to come to head and the characters' faults are showing.  I began to dislike many of the characters here, and yet was captivated by the story.

Ah, Weeks 8-9.  How many angles of love we see here.  There's the newlywed bliss and stress, there's the deluded justification of a broken marriage, there's the sad acceptance of a lesser love.  Dolly's circumspection here really touched me.  She realized that she did have love--which was good--but it wasn't the kind or the quality that she yearned for.  (sigh*)

The last quarter of the book shows Anna & Vronsky falling apart, Kitty & Levin grow stronger, Dolly and Stiva find a way to hold it together.  Seeing Anna crack up was pretty intense.  Tolstoy ended the book on a philosophical note rather than on drama and plot--something that felt very Tolstoy to me.  At first, since I'd been so enraptured in the story, I had a hard time switching back to philosophy.  In the end, though, I found that it not only allowed the story time to settle and soak in, but it also really brought all the plot points and themes together.

Tolstoy went through some major life changes while writing this book.  He struggled, as Levin does in the book, with what the meaning of life is & how he should be living.  While in the beginning Tolstoy was excited about writing what he viewed as a proper novel, in the end he was sick of it--had changed it so many times and just wanted to be done with it.  And yet the result is still wonderful.  I love that you can take so many different messages away from the book: since Tolstoy is mulling over all the issues himself, the book feels more like an invitation to mull over it along with him rather than being a vehicle to deliver his agenda.

This has solidified Tolstoy as one of my very favorite authors.  The mix of insight and action, poetry and wit are melded into perfection for me here.

[some of my favorite quotes:]

p. 236: ...She understood that she had deceived herself in thinking that she could be what she wished to be.

p. 260: Hard as Stepan Arkadyich tried to be a solicitous father and husband, he never could remember that he had a wife and children.

p. 427:  “I’ll begin from the beginning: you married a man twenty years older than yourself.  You married without love or not knowing what love is.  That was a mistake, let’s assume.”

p. 608: ...They all fall upon Anna.  What for? Am I any better? I at least have a husband I love.  Not as I’d have wanted to love, but I do love him, and Anna did not love hers. How is she to blame, then? She wants to live. God has put that into our souls. [...] I might have loved and been loved in a real way.

p. 614: “When you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.”

p. 729: Children? In Petersburg children did not hinder their father’s life.  Childen were brought up in institutions, and there existed nothing like that wild idea spreading about Moscow - as with Lvov, for instance - that children should get all the luxuries of life and parents nothing but toil and care. Here they understood that a man is obliged to live for himself, as an educated person ought to live.

p. 780: “Yes, as a tool I may prove good for something.  But as a human being I am a wreck,” he said measuredly.

p. 817: [last paragraphs]  This new feeling hasn’t changed me, hasn’t made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed - just like the feeling for my son.  Nor was there any surprise.  And faith or not faith - I don’t know what it is - but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul.
    I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray - but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Reading Goals

I'm not planning on going Challenge crazy this year.

Well, I wasn't planning on it at least.  Turns out, I'm simply not going crazy on signing up for challenges.  I've still got plenty of personal goals.  I've updated my Current Challenges page to reflect my hopes and dreams, (go there to look at specific title lists,) but here's the overview:

Willa Cather Chronologically:
I hope to read 4 more books in 2012, which will put me at a total of 8 out of 19.

Newbery Medal Books:
I'm currently at 33/90, and I want to read at least another 5 in 2012.

Pulitzer Prize Winners:
I've read 14 of the 85 Pulitzers in the Fiction category, and I want to up by another 5 this year.  This may be a stretch.

Reading from my To Be Read Shelf:
Meaning books that I've owned for over a year and still haven't read...I want to read 10 books, excluding those that qualify for other challenges.  That certainly ought to be doable, right?

Reading Short Stories and Poetry:
Since this is something I want to put a conscious effort towards, I may as well keep track of it.  My goal is to complete 3 collections of each type.

Reading From my Wishlist:
Since I've been whining about not getting to read books on my wishlist, what better way to make sure I do it than to challenge myself to do it?  Lucky for me, then, that just such a challenge is being hosted over at Leeswammes' Blog!  This challenge is for 12 books, 1 each month (the list is on my current challenges page.)

The Back to the Classics Challenge:
I wasn't going to do this for 2012, but there are some books that I want to read that seem to fit into the categories, (plus, I love how Sarah has set up the Linky posts for this year!) so I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. (again, categories and tentative choices are on my current challenges page.)
Spring into Junior Fiction Challenge:
I have a lot of Junior Fiction that I'd like to get read, and since The Art of the Novella Challenge worked so well for me last year, I thought I'd do a month-long Junior Fiction challenge this year.  It'll likely be in March or April, I'll keep you updated.

Art of the Novella Challenge:
In August I'm going to attempt to complete the remaining 14 titles in the collection, and perhaps the 5 new titles as well.  This was a great experience last year, let's hope it's great again!

New Features:
It's become obvious to me this year that I need to find a way to streamline how I write reviews.  There are SO many books (brilliant ones, even!) that I read in 2011 and never talked about. (pout*)  Here's the plan:
  • It's Not You, It's Me will be a new monthly feature where I get to chat about all those books that I can't bring myself to write a complete review of for reasons of ambivalence or general ennui.  They may be perfectly lovely books, but for one reason or another a complete review is beyond me.
  • Reading Roundup will be a place for me to collect mini-reviews...mostly of Junior/Teen Fiction or Nonfiction, although it is perfectly possible that other genres will need to be contained here as well.  This may happen at irregular intervals, just depending on how my reading goes.
Now, FINALLY, let the New Year begin!  Happy Resolutions, everyone!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Up and Down Stairs

Subtitled, The History of the Country House Servant, Up and Down Stairs is exactly what it puts itself out to be.  From the medieval days to the present day, this book gives you an overview of the the time period and the servant's role in it, as well as how the changing lifestyles in turn affected architectural design.

I've always been interesting in the behind-the-scenes, operational side of a large home.  I remember longing, as a child, to be able to see the kitchen and work rooms of an historical estate.  Even now, seeing what's "Behind the Green Baize Door" [title of chapter 4] and getting a glimpse of how it all works is more intriguing to me than seeing the formal rooms.

That's why I love Gosford Park and Downton Abbey.  That's why one of the best parts of staying at the amazing Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland, was the opportunity to go to the kitchen and make scones.  I've no idea why this interest is embedded in me in the first place, but Up and Down Stairs certainly helped fill that thirst for knowledge.  It also made me want to know more, which (I think) reflects on the writing quite admirably.

Two vital aspects in writing nonfiction are organization and writing fluidity, and Jeremy Musson seemed to accomplish both effortlessly.  The book begins with the castles of medieval times, and ends with the modern day, spending the most time in the 18th and 19th centuries: the high point for large country estates.  Also included were pictures and quotes (from both servant and master) spanning those time periods--a nice addition that helped to keep it from bogging down.

I had to read aloud to my husband the duties of a valet--boy is he ever jealous.  I think that acquiring a valet just went on his bucket list (or perhaps it was already there!)  Whether you empathize with the working conditions of some of the servants or pine for the life of the master, if you've ever wanted to know more about Britain's grand estates or those in domestic service that kept them running, you'll find something to love in this book.

A critical factor [after the war] was the inability to recruit new servants, not merely to look after the landowner’s family personally, but also to maintain the contents and fabric of the house. The loss of the ‘odd man’ who had once swept the gutters and cleared the drains was in many ways as significant as the loss of a steward or a butler.

Where to go next?  I have a copy of Keeping their Place: excerpts from servants' writing about life in domestic service, and have an inclination to finally read some Wodehouse...and off to watch the new season of Downton Abbey!  Some days, I must admit, it sounds awfully nice to have a scullery maid to do the washing up.

Announcing the Short Lists for the Indie Lit Awards!

The first of the year means that the Indie Lit Awards have announced their short lists! I'm excited to read and discuss the titles in the Fiction category with the rest of the team: Aths (Reading on a Rainy Day), Carrie (Nomad Reader), and Meg (Write Meg).  We won't be posting reviews until the winner is announced in March, but that doesn't mean we won't be busy reading and discussing.

Here's our list:

  • Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney (Syracuse University Press)
  • Cross Currents by John Shors (Penguin Group: NAL Trade)
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group)
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
  • The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene (Penguin Group)
Have you read any of these? I'm looking forward to some new discoveries.

Interested in the categories? Here are their short lists:

Biography/ Memoir
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin) 
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books) 
  • I Pray Hardest When Being Shot At by Kyle Garret (Hellgate Press) 
  • Little Princes by Conor Grennan (William Morrow) 
  • Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch (Harper) 
  • Well With My Soul by Gregory Allen (ASD Publishing) 
  • Swimming to Chicago by David Matthew Barnes (Bold Strokes Books) 
  • Songs of the New Depression by Kergan Edwards-Stout (Circumspect Press) 
  • Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender by Nick Krieger (Beacon Press) 
  • Huntress by Melinda Lo (little brown books for young readers) 

  • Missing Daughter, Shattered Family by Liz Strange (MLR Press) 
  • The Cut by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/LIttle, Brown) 
  • A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (St. Martin’s Press) 
  • The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes by Marcus Sakey (Dutton) 
  • Fun & Games by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland Books/Little, Brown) 

  • Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe (Putnam Adult) 
  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (Crown) 
  • Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper) 
  • Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku (Doubleday) 
  • The Social Animal by David Brooks (Random House) 

  • Beyond Scent of Sorrow by Sweta Vikram (Modern History Press) 
  • Catalina by Laurie Soriano (Lummox Press) 
  • What Looks Like an Elephant by Edward Nudelman (Lummox Press) 
  • Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems by Ramos, Emma Eden (Heavy Hands Ink) 
  • Sonics in Warholia by Megan Volpert (Sibling Rivalry Press) 

Speculative Fiction
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Candlewick) 
  • The Magician King by Lev Grossman (Viking) 
  • 11/22/1963 by Stephen King (Scribner) 
  • Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor Books) 
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011: Full List and Stats

Stats and graphs are just part of the fun here. This is also where I list all the books I read by [general] genre, and declare my Top 5 reads of the year. I may be silly, but I looove this stuff. :)

How many books read in 2011?
126 (6 more than 2010, but only because I decided each novella is a whole book)

  • 18/126 - nonfiction (14%)
  • 107/126 - fiction (86%)
    • 37/126 - classics (30%) (three cheers for classic novellas!)
    • 26/126 - junior/teen (20%)
    • 45/126 - adult fiction (36%)
Male/Female authors?
  • 61/126 – female (48%) 
  • 65/126 – male (52%) 
  • OLDEST? the bible, then Miguel de Cervantes: The Dialogue of the Dogs, 1613
  • NEWEST? Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot, 2011
  • WRITTEN BEFORE I WAS BORN? 51 (23 more than last year, and 18 were 100+ years before I was born)
  • WRITTEN THIS YEAR? 20 (9 more than 2010)
  • Longest book read? the bible (1613pp) and then Gone With the Wind at 959pp
  • Shortest book read? The Duel by Heinrich Von Kleist at 50pp
  • Number of "chunksters" (450+ pages)? 10 (same as 2010)
  • Any in translation? 16
Best/Worst Reading Month?
  • Best--August @ 30 books! (gotta love those novellas)
  • Worst--December @ 3 books (it was an insanely busy month)

TOP FIVE of 2011: (excluding recent re-reads, notably O Pioneers! and Persuasion)
A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (beautiful language)
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (fabulous insight and philosophy)
Tales of Belkin by Alexander Pushkin (what a storyteller!)
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (vivid writing)
The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald (evocative setting)

and a comparison chart just for the fun of it--notice how much more balanced my reading is becoming! yay me!  I'd like to fit a bit more NonFiction in next year, but pretty happy otherwise.

LISTED BY GENRE/RATING: (except for the bible, because how do I categorize that??)

Nonfiction: 14% (average rating 3.56) [2010: 21% (average rating 3.74)]
4.5 stars:
  - If There is Something to Desire, Vera Pavlova
  - The Illustrated Elements of Style, Strunk & White
4 stars:
  - At Home, Bill Bryson
  - The Stolen Village, Des Ekin
  - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
  - The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, Justo Gonzalez
  - The Western Lit Survival Kit, Sandra Newman
3.5 stars:
  - Nine Horses, Billy Collins
  - The Boat and the Sea of Galilee, Lea Lofenfeld Winkler
  - Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle
  - Leavings, Wendell Berry
  - Townie, Andre Dubus III
  - Choosing to See, Mary Beth Chapman
3 stars:
  - The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, Myra Calvani
  - Beautiful & Pointless, David Orr
2.5 stars:
  - A Kidnapping in Milan, Steve Hendricks
2 Stars:
  - Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

Classics: 30% (average rating 3.74) [2010: 10% (average rating 4.04)]
5 stars:
  - Persuasion, Jane Austen
  - Villette, Charlotte Bronte
  - Mathilda, Mary Shelley
  - Tales of Belkin, Alexander Pushkin
  - The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  - O Pioneers! Willa Cather
  - Anna Karenina
4.5 stars:
  - Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  - The Duel, Heinrich Von Kleist
  - The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
4 stars:
  - The Dialogue of the Dogs, Miguel de Cervantes
  - The Duel, Giacomo Casanova
  - Lady Susan, Jane Austen
  - Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich Von Kleist
  - Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville
  - The Eternal Husband, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  - The Devil, Leo Tolstoy
  - The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett
  - The Duel, Joseph Conrad
3.5 stars:
  - The Troll Garden and Others, Willa Cather
  - Alexander's Bridge, Willa Cather
  - First Love, Ivan Turgenev
  - The Lifted Veil, George Eliot
  - The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, Mark Twain
  - The Horla, Guy de Maupassant
3 stars:
  - Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson
  - Adolphe, Benjamin Constant
  - The Girl with the Golden Eyes, Honore de Balzac
  - How the Two Ivans Quarrelled, Nikolai Gogol
  - A Simple Heart, Gustave Flaubert
  - A Sleep and a Forgetting, William Dean Howells
  - The Lesson of the Master, Henry James
  - The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  - Lolita, Vladamir Nabokov
2 stars:
  - Benito Cereno, Herman Melville
  - The Beach at Falesa, Robert Louis Stevenson
  - Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Adult Fiction: 36% (average rating 3.81) [2010: 30% (average rating 3.38)]
5 stars:
  - Safe From the Sea, Peter Geye
  - The Lover's Dictionary, David Levithan
  - Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, Winifred Watson
  - Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
  - The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
  - A Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry
4.5 stars:
  - The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  - Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
  - The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry
  - Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson
  - Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb, George Rabasa
  - The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O'Farrell
  - On Canaan's Side, Sebastian Barry
4 stars:
  - True Grit, Charles Portis
  - Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier
  - The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Banks
  - How to Be Good, Nick Hornby
  - After Hours at the Almost Home, Tara Yellen
  - Ghost Light, Joseph O'Connor
  - Beloved, Toni Morrison
  - The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice
  - The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
  - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
3.5 stars:
  - Great House, Nicole Krauss
  - C, Tom McCarthy
  - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson
  - Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
  - Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  - The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard
  - That Night, Alice McDermott
  - Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  - Small Acts of Sex and Electricity, Lise Haines
  - Hotel Angeline, asstd. authors
  - Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante
  - The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton
  - The Sea Captain's Wife, Beth Powning
  - After the Quake, Haruki Murakami
3 stars:
  - The Bride's House, Sandra Dallas
  - Tapestry of Love, Rosie Thornton
  - Bright Before Us, Katie Arnold-Ratliff
  - The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
  - Bright's Passage, Josh Ritter
2.5 stars:
  - Expiration Date, Sherril Jaffe
  - The Ballad of Tom Dooley, Sharon McCrumb
1 star:
  - Remember Me, Deborah Bradford (I should really have stopped reading this right after I read this sentence: Sam was so hungry he could eat a bear!  My mistake.  Lesson learned.)

Junior/Teen Fiction: 20% (average rating 3.5) [2010: 39% (average rating 3.64)]
4 stars:
  - Dragon Flight, Jessica Day George
  - Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry
  - Dragon Spear, Jessica Day George
  - Elske, Cynthia Voigt
  - Newes From the Dead, Mary Hooper
  - The House at Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne
  - The Giver, Lois Lowry
  - The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
  - Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick
3.5 stars:
  - The School Story, Andrew Clements
  - Flipped, Wendelin Van Draanen
  - Adam of the Road, Elizabeth Janet Gray
  - The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
  - From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
  - If I Stay, Gayle Foreman
  - Journey to Jo'burg, Beverly Naidoo
  - The Whipping Boy, Sid Fleischman
  - Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Betty MacDonald
3 stars:
  - The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli
  - Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Cohn & Levithan
  - Magic in the Park, Ruth Chew
  - Dragonspell, Donita K. Paul
  - Dolphin Treasure, Wayne Grover
  - The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
  - Nothing But the Truth, Avi
2.5 stars:
  - The Iron Dragon Never Sleeps, Stephen Krensky

Wow that list sure seems long, doesn't it?  Too long for me to even dream about linking to my reviews--sorry about that!  Thank you so much for making 2011 a year full of wonderful book discussion.  Let's do it again, shall we?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Curious Incident of an Unplanned Read

I suppose I've gotten so used to planning out my next few reads that a sudden divergence from the predictability becomes blog-worthy.  Not sure how I feel about that, but nonetheless here we are.

When Mark Haddon's The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time hit the shelves around 2003ish, it was one of those immensely popular titles and nothing that anyone said could convince me to read it.  Not even the fact that my husband started reading it and kept telling me interesting tidbits.  It took me organizing and clearing my shelves some 8 years later for me to flip through it and hear myself think, "Hm. This looks interesting."

Those of you who've read it already know that it doesn't take long to read, which certainly helped to convince me to pick it up on a whim.  The problem was (apart from its ├╝ber-popularity) that the topic just didn't sound interesting to me.  It isn't that I find the subject of learning-differences boring, it's that I had never read a book that made it so easy to understand and empathize with such a character.  That all changed before I'd read more than a few pages of Haddon's book.

One of the really fun parts of the book is the inclusion of drawings and diagrams.  The books is set up as if it is a journal of sorts--one that could eventually become a book.  I appreciated how the narrative voice belonged fully to the main character, and loved the combination of humor and heartache.  All those raving reviews that had me rolling my eyes and sighing in 2003, are actually right on the money, and I'm glad I allowed myself to be sidetracked from my chores long enough to discover that.

And.  Hopefully I'm getting a little bit better about reacting so strongly to outside influences! 8 years is just a little silly.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

End-of-Year Bookish Survey

Finally I have access to a computer!  I always seem to forget that my kiddos dominate the computers when we are away from home.  December seemed so non-bloggy...hoping January is different!

For some reason, when scrolling through this year's list of books I've read, I felt rather ambivalent. I'm hoping that will change as I begin to answer some of these questions. I know I read some incredible ones...

2011 in Review: 125 books read

Best book?  Without a doubt, A Long Long Way (Sebastian Barry).  One of the best books of all time.  In total, I rated 11 books as 5 stars (9%) and another 12 books as 4.5 stars (10%) for a total of 19% amazing reads.

Worst book that I actually finished?  Remember Me (Deborah Bradford) Why oh why did I read the whole thing??  I thought I'd learned better than that. It was a standout though, since I only finished 6 books that I ended up rating 1 or 2 stars (5%).

Most disappointing? Lord of the Flies! I thought this was a classic...meaning I'd be able to find something to appreciate, right???  Yeah, no. This is one of the 5% I was just talking about.

Most surprising (in a good way!) Apart from many of the classic novellas I read in August, I'd say either The Art of Fielding (Harbach--a sports book enjoyable? amazing!) or The Sea Captain's Wife (Powning--for a book that took place mostly on the ocean, this was surprisingly pleasant)...or maybe The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (O'Farrell--I was expecting standard fare and got something written in a unique, effective voice.)

Favorite new authors I discovered? Sebastian Barry, Maggie O'Farrell, Alexander Pushkin.  I want to read more of all of them.

Most thrilling, unputdownable book? Tales of Belkin, Alexander Pushkin.  There were more, of course, but this one actually had me out of breath a some points!

Favorite Cover?  I can't pick just one, I like the modern stuff and the vintage stuff...

Most memorable character? My first reaction was to say Christy Moran and Willie Dunne from A Long Long Way, but I also loved Mike Schwartz from The Art of Fielding, of course Anna Karenina was filled with them, and then what about Miss Pettigrew when she lived for a day?

Most beautifully written? A Long Long Way (Sebastian Barry) Incredibly amazing.  Filled to the brim with beautiful language.

Book that had the greatest impact on me? A Long Long Way (Sebastian Barry) Like I said, incredibly amazing.

Book I can't believe I waited until 2011 to read? The Giver probably wins this award.  Everyone seems to have read it when they were young except me.

Book that had a scene in it that had me reeling? A Long Long Way (Sebastian Barry) In a book that basically kept me reeling throughout, there were a few stand out scenes as well.

Book by an author who should be more well-known? Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)  While the characters may be frustrating, his writing is fresh and unique, even decades after it was first published.

How many re-reads? 4: Persuasion, O Pioneers! Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby

Book I read in 2011 I'd be most likely to re-read in 2012? Safe From the Sea (Peter Geye) and  A Long Long Way (Sebastian Barry).  The first because I feel like I read it too fast the first time, and the second because it has taken me weeks to get over the feeling that it was the only book I ever wanted to be reading.

Most books read by one author? 3: Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture, A Long Long Way, On Canaan's Side and Leo Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Devil, Anna Karenina, and also Willa Cather: April Twilights, The Troll Garden and Others, O Pioneers!

Favorite Passage/Quote?  Serious? WAY too many!  But since I've been gushing about A Long Long Way, (and goodness just re-reading the quotes is making me teary!) here's a taste of that beautiful writing:
Like an old ash-tree he feared he would slowly hollow out, the rot taking him inwardly ring by blackened ring, until the winter wind came and blew him down.
and one more from the same book:
Since the things he had wished for were no more, he wished for nothing. He breathed in and out. That was all. That was where the war had brought him, he thought.