Saturday, December 29, 2007

Challenged To Read

Been looking back at my reading history for 2007 and found that I only read 20 books this year. That's a rather disappointing number – not even two books a month. But it's even more disappointing to find that I read fewer than half that many in 2006!

I'm not generally the competitive type, but in order to spur myself on (and force myself to turn off the TV and READ, darn it!), I've decided to sign up for my first reading challenge. There are so many interesting ones out there, but I'm going with InkSplasher's 2007/2008 Winter Reading Challenge – mainly because it has the most flexible design: Choose any number of books, on any subject or in any genre you like, between now and March 19; post your list; write a recap at challenge end. And reviews are encouraged but not mandatory.

Piece of cake, right?

Well, maybe not when you read as slowly as I do.

Anyway, here's my list (all books I've been trying to get around to for quite a while):

1. Civil To Strangers (Barbara Pym) [see review]
2. The Flanders Panel (Arturo Perez-Reverte) [see review]
3. The Grand Complication (Allen Kurzweil) [see review]
4. Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) [see review]
5. The Concord Quartet (Samuel A. Schreiner Jr.) [see review]

Adding and subtracting titles is allowed, so my list is subject to change, but at the moment I feel pretty good about it. Not too many books to get through in that amount of time, and a fairly diverse line-up. Now if I can just tear myself away from this computer screen and open a book!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007

First Snow

We had our first snowfall of the season yesterday. The weather gurus had been predicting it for days, so we knew it was coming; but it ended up being a little more formidable than they'd expected. We got about four inches, a bit more than the "trace" they warned us about. Not a huge weather event, as weather events go, but enough to make us all realize winter is coming on fast. Kind of a shock after the nice long, mild (albeit somewhat colorless) autumn we've had this year.

I've never learned to love snow. It's gorgeous on Christmas cards and in old movies, but in reality it's just hell to deal with. The wife of one of M's colleagues back in Louisiana used to say "How many beans make a mess?" – a little Southern whimsy. Well, that's a question that could be applied to snow – and it doesn't take much snow to make a mess around here. With the appearance of the first snowflake, the Washington DC area goes completely to pieces. You'd think they'd never seen this nasty white stuff before. And yet it snows here every winter.

We lived in Chicago during one of the worst winters they experienced in the last century: ten feet of snow covered the ground for months. But the city kept going. Roads were cleared, people got to work on time, businesses and schools remained open. Humanity soldiered on.

But just the hint of snow is enough to bring the DC area to a complete standstill. Traffic snarls. And so do the commuters. The metro system becomes hopelessly backed up and bogged down. Electrical systems fail. Tempers flare. And everyone rushes out to stock up on – you guessed it – water, milk and toilet paper. Something else I've never understood – why is it that so many people don't buy toilet paper unless there's snow on the ground? What are they using when it's not snowing?

Of course, when I was growing up in Central Texas, snow was a rarity and a real treat when it showed up, every ten years or so. As a kid, I loved reading books with snowy landscapes in them – the Bobbsey Twins and the Happy Hollisters were always having snowball fights and building snow forts and going ice skating on frozen ponds. I never went ice skating – but I watched a lot of Sonja Henie movies and always coveted those outfits she wore with the short skirts and cute little coordinating caps.

The matching hat and mittens I'm wearing in the photo are the closest I ever came to Sonja's sartorial splendor. They coordinated with the red boots, too. This was during the Big Snow of 1950-51, and the really amazing thing about the photo is that my one-year-old cousin is wearing what appears to be a snowsuit. And why anybody possessed a snowsuit deep in the heart of Texas in 1950, or where they got it, I could not possibly guess. Well, our mothers had obviously been reading those Bobbsey Twins books, too.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Scary Stuff about Halloween

Well, Halloween has come and gone and I've definitely learned my lesson this year. No more trick-or-treating at our place, I'm afraid.

This year we had exactly 11 trick-or-treaters, down from about 17 last year and a whopping 24 the year before. I always enjoy handing out the treats and getting to see all the kiddoes in their costumes, but an abundance of leftover candy is not something I want to deal with. The M&Ms are OK – they won't go to waste. But I just can't say the same thing about all those gummie treats.

And speaking of Halloween costumes, there was an interesting article in the Washington Post the other day ("Preteens Trading Fairy Wands for Fishnets"). Apparently the new trend in Halloween attire, for girls anyway, involves miniskirts, bare midriffs, and fishnet stockings. And not just for pre-teens – sexy costumes are being made in sizes to fit 5- and 6-year-olds. The costumes have names like "Sexy Super Girl," "Playboy Racy Referee," "Funky Punk Pirate," and "Fairy-Licious Purrfect Kitty."

OK, I have to say it: What's the world coming to? I feel like I fell off the sled back there, about 500 years ago. Whatever happened to clowns and ghosts and hobos?

Well, almost all our trick-or-treaters this year were girls. But none of them looked particularly racy, thank goodness. Even the vampire craze of the last few years seems to have waned. This year they were mostly princesses of one sort or another. And the only short skirt was a pink tutu on a four-year-old ballerina.

I think the closest I ever came to a sexy costume when I was a kid was when I was about eleven or twelve and dressed up as a gypsy. I wore one of my aunt's old peasant skirts and a lot of her costume jewelry. I tied a scarf around my head and wore lipstick, too – possibly for the first time. I thought I looked tremendously exotic.

Of course, the whole effect was completely spoiled when the weather that year turned cool and damp, and my mother insisted I cover everything up with a very un-exotic wool cardigan. So even if I had been sporting a bare belly button or leather bustier, no one would have known it.

Generally, my Halloween costumes were less elaborate, store-bought (probably flammable) outfits like those in the photo here, circa 1956 or so. The one in the clown mask is my cousin. I'm in the cat costume, sharpening my claws on her 6-year-old body.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Back In Time

I've been neglecting my blog again. Shame on me. Real life keeps getting in the way. Amazing how it does that sometimes.

M. and I spent last weekend visiting Colonial Williamsburg. After living in Virginia for over 20 years, I thought it was time we made the pilgrimage. We've been planning a trip for years, but always managed to talk ourselves out of it at the last minute.

M. has never been particularly enthusiastic about the place. I think he was afraid the staff (the "reenactors"?) would try to jolly him into participating in some of their merry activities – sort of like a cross between an over-zealous social director on a cruise ship, and one of those creatures who roam Disney World dressed up like Mickey or Pluto or Snow White.

But his worries turned out to be unnecessary. The inhabitants of the Historic Area go about their daily routine, wearing their 18th Century garb, pretty much ignoring the tourists unless the tourists interact with them. The closest we came to being forced to perform or party was when one of the tour guides demonstrated bows and curtsies and asked us all to try "bending the knee."

My first destination was the print shop and book bindery, across the sidewalk from one another, and just in back of the post office. Both turned out to be very interesting, as expected. The master binder even had a very authentic British-American accent and a slightly superior air. I was surprised to learn that book binders in the Colonies would have made most of their money by selling blank books, for record-keeping. Also learned they didn't produce most of their own paper, but instead imported it from England. On reflection, of course, that makes sense – the paper was made from rags (i.e., old clothing) and the Colonists didn't have a lot of those to spare.

All in all, it turned out to be a very pleasant, educational trip. Lots of walking, though – in August heat, although we were there in October. I would definitely recommend wearing comfortable shoes and taking the shuttle to and from the Visitors' Center. The Center is a huge modern complex of buildings with air conditioning and gift shops and rest rooms, and has a rental shop where kids can get themselves all kitted out in 18th Century gear. And the sight of all the little ones running around looking like refugees from an American Girl Doll catalog turned out to be one of the most memorable (and adorable) parts of the experience.

Nobel Notes

What a nice surprise – Doris Lessing has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Finally someone I've actually read! But it's been more than twenty years since I discovered Martha Quest and The Summer Before the Dark. Never got around to The Golden Notebook, so maybe I'll put it on my Autumn reading list.

And I suppose Al Gore was a natural choice, after "An Inconvenient Truth" caused such a sensation. Now if he'd just come down out of his splendid tower and RUN!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Moving On

J: ― "Tonight I'm having the last gin and tonic of the summer."
M:― "So that means no more gin and tonics?"
J: ― "No, it just means that now I move on to the gin and tonics of the fall."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday, Mid-September

Lovely lazy weekend. Gorgeous early autumn weather. Reading Annie Dillard's The Maytrees – one of the last books from my summer list. Not exactly a fast read for such a short work. Only about a third of the way through, so I don't want to make any snap judgments, but I think it's just possible that Annie should be encouraged to stick to non-fiction in the future.


Something new to me – reading challenges. Well, blogging in general is pretty new to me. I've known about reading challenges for school kids, but hadn't run into the adult version until very recently. Something to consider for the fall? The idea certainly sounds intriguing. Maybe a way to keep myself from backsliding into spending too much time in front of the TV. Have to give it some thought.


And speaking of TV-gazing – we're certainly enjoying the new series of Inspector Lynley mysteries on PBS this month. But someone really needs to do something about Havers' hair. She's beginning to look like a bag lady. In fact, Lynley and Havers both need a good scrub down and a troop of wardrobe and makeup personnel to look after them. I know they do these British series on a very low budget, but surely they could spend enough to keep their stars from looking like homeless people. I'm convinced the real Scotland Yard doesn't let its inspectors go around looking that scruffy – even in the provinces. Adam Dalgleish and his team are always very attractively turned out.

Friday, September 07, 2007

I ♥ a Book Sale

Finally made it to the Daedalus Warehouse sale last weekend. Daedalus Books, the discount book seller, has a big warehouse in Columbia, Maryland, as well as a new store (well, relatively new) in Baltimore. And in all the many years I've been getting their catalogue, I've intended to drive over and check out the warehouse, but never managed to get around to it until last Saturday.

It's quite a trek from our part of Northern Virginia, and with all the Labor Day weekend traffic, and missing cut-offs and exits, it took about an hour to get there. But it was worth all the travel. Seemed like just about everything in the building was on sale for $4.98 (or less).

Appropriately enough, I bought Penelope Fitzgerald's The Book Shop, which always sounded interesting to me. Haven't read any of her books yet, but I have to admire such a late-bloomer. She published her first work at age 58, which gives us all hope.

Also picked up several "literary nonfiction" works.

Nicolas Basbanes' A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. I'm about halfway through his A Gentle Madness, and really enjoying it.

The Friar and the Cipher, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, about the mysterious Voynich manuscript. The Goldstones have written a slew of books about books and book-collecting, but this is the first one for me.

Book Row, by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador: an "anecdotal historical memoir" about the antiquarian book trade in New York City, from the 1890s to the 1960s. Most of that world is gone now, of course, and I really only got to glimpse just the very end of it back in the mid-1970s. So I'm looking forward to finding out more about it.

And finally, Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries. Well, what blogger wouldn't be intrigued by a book about the many ways people document their everyday lives? Of course, it was published just before the blog phenomenon got started. Maybe Mr. Mallon needs to bring out a revised edition.

So, all in all, it was a pretty successful and very enjoyable field trip. M. didn't buy anything. But that's not too surprising, since he's a man and really doesn't understand the whole concept of shopping.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Random Notes

Spent most of yesterday evening watching the U.S. Open Quarter Finals on TV. Jelena Jankovic worrying Venus Williams a bit, and looking very pretty in pink while doing it. But Venus was just too strong in the end (no pun intended – but those short shorts were really awful). Then Andy Roddick against Roger Federer. Jimmy Connors there – still coaching Roddick – all dressed up with a tie and everything. Andy looked very good – he's learned a lot from Jimbo. But "the Fed" made short work of him – finished him off in straight sets, while barely breaking a sweat. Well, I always pull for the Americans in the Open, so I was hoping this might be Roddick's year. But Federer may be the greatest player ever, and I guess it's silly to expect anyone to beat him this year. He's certainly a treat to watch.
"I was a fantastic student until ten, and then my mind began to wander."
Grace Paley (1922-2007)

"Money is like manure, it should be spread around."
Brooke Astor (1902-2007)

"Geez, I coulda sworn that ball was outta here!"
Phil Rizzuto (1917-2007)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Wednesday After Labor Day

You drop your guard for an instant and first thing you know, the seasons have gone and changed. There doesn't seem to be any way to adjust the default on the way the system works.

After growing up in south Texas, and living in that part of the world for many years, it seems very odd to me when people up here in THE NORTH are stricken with this autumn fever at the end of August and beginning of September every year. Back home, the summer season is so long and fades so gradually into fall – really there's little difference between the weather in August and the weather in late September – you hardly notice the change.

But you certainly notice it here. Everybody goes on vacation in August – gets out of town. And after Labor Day, everybody comes back and gets back to work and the new season begins.

Just like that.

And this year, it's especially irritating because we're still having lovely warm summer weather, even though Labor Day has come and gone. Still, you can see fall coming on. The pace has picked up. The crowds of tourists are thinning out in DC. Fashions are changing. And when he got back from his walk today, M. said the leaves on the maple trees are already beginning to turn from green to pink and gold.

Traffic around here definitely increases after the August break. The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Virginia Department of Transportation calls the day after Labor Day "Terrible Tuesday." People are back from vacation, schools are back in session. Thousands of school buses hit the roads, and so do thousands of parents in their cars.

Ah, to think that this time just last week, I was basking in the sun and dipping my toes in the surf on the Delaware coast. And here I am this week, already leafing through the Fall 2007 L.L. Bean catalog. Oh, and another Rite of Autumn has occurred. I picked up the September issues of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar the other day at Border's, and regretted I hadn't brought along a wheelbarrow to help get them out to the car – they get more massive and more ridiculous every year. But fun to read, if you don't take the fashion silliness too seriously.

What else? Well, our outdoor pool is closed now - the lounge chairs all neatly stacked, awaiting storage - the bikini-clad lifeguards all returned to Charlottesville and Pittsburgh and Dubrovnik. Most years, our condo association gets talked into stretching the season a bit and leaving the pool open for "just one more week" after its official day-after-Labor Day closing date. And every year, it always turns cool and rainy and nobody gets to enjoy the pool during those extra days. This year, of course, they were adamant about closing on time, and naturally we're having gorgeous summer weather this week – perfect for swimming and sunbathing. Go figure.

Monday, September 03, 2007

After the Beach

And we got what we were hoping for - an absolutely perfect beach week!

Morning on the Beach
Delaware Seashore
Late summer 2007

Friday, August 24, 2007

Heading for Rehoboth

Next week is beach week! Hoping for better weather this year.

Morning on the Beach
Rehoboth, Delaware
Late summer 2006

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Reading Review, Part Two

My little cousin in Fort Worth has just finished up her "summer break" after her first year of teaching school.

OK, I probably shouldn't refer to her as my "little cousin." She's all grown up and married now and taller than I am. But her mother and I are first cousins and have always been close. And since I was the first-born cousin in the family, they'll both always be my little cousins to me.

But I digress, as usual.

As I said, she's already heading back for her second year as a middle school teacher, after having about a minute and a half of vacation time. And even though I know the faculty always return to class a week or so before the student body, it still seems like her summer vacation was terribly, almost tragically SHORT.

Whatever happened to those long, long, long, three-month breaks with a seemingly infinite amount of unconstructed time stretching out into the sunny, sultry distance? I guess those days are gone, for teachers and students alike. I know that where I live in Virginia, the summer vacation for most school districts is only a few weeks long, and they're talking about the real possibility of year-round classes in the near future.

Which makes me wonder – when do today's school kids (and their teachers) do their summer reading? Especially now with all the schools issuing lists of required summer reading – when do kids get a chance to explore new authors and new ideas and new literary experiences of their own choosing, at their own pace?

For me, that used to be one of the most marvelous things about summer vacation – the chance to vegetate in the sun or the shade with a stack of books that I could read just because I wanted to. Or not read, if they didn't hold my interest. No book reports due. No gold stars to earn. No reading comprehension tests at story's end.

Just me and the Brothers Grimm. Or the Happy Hollisters. Or Louisa May Alcott. Or J.D. Salinger.

Summer vacation is when I discovered Tom Sawyer and Stephen Dedalus and H.G. Wells and Agatha Christie. Summer is when I read Gone With the Wind and The Turn of the Screw and To Kill a Mockingbird (that was before it was assigned as a text in every school in the land). Browsing at the library one day, I picked up The Once and Future King by T.H. White and that led to a whole summer spent exploring the legends of King Arthur and his court, which in turn whetted my appetite for medieval literature and history.

During one particularly industrious summer, Nancy Drew and I discovered: the hidden staircase; clues in the diary, the crumbling wall, the old album, and the jewel box; secrets of Red Gate Farm, the old clock, and the wooden lady; as well as the ghost of Blackwood Hall, the whispering statue, the message in the hollow oak, and the password to Larkspur Lane. We were exhausted but triumphant at summer's end.

And even more exciting than actually doing the reading every summer were the long Saturday afternoons spent at our local library, choosing the books – especially after I finally reached the lofty age of 12 and graduated to an adult's borrowing privileges. After that, I could wander through all the rooms, sampling anything that tickled my fancy. One summer I found Marjorie Morningstar during one of those browses. It was really too advanced for me and took me all summer to wade through. But it started my addiction to the BIG summer novel – a work offering a brand new world I didn't know existed that I can really explore and spend some time in. An addiction I've never been able to shake, to this day.

Well, I know times change and kids these days are very different beings from the Boomers I grew up with. Today's 12 year old would, I'm sure, much rather play computer games, or watch daytime TV, or just hang out at the mall. Summer reading is probably not even on the agenda. So maybe it's not such a tragedy after all, that long summer breaks are gone with the 20th century wind.

Fortunately, I'm still enjoying MY "summer break," and it's time I got back to my reading.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Long Live the King

I guess it's impossible not to know that today is the 30th anniversary of Elvis's death. It's been in the news for weeks now, making the day itself seem sort of anticlimactic. But he was the King, so I think it's entirely appropriate to mark the day.

As a child, I was a huge Elvis fan. In fact, my mother was a huge Elvis fan, too. She helped me put together my extensive Elvis scrapbook, with page after page of clippings, photos, and memorabilia. That book might be worth a bit on eBay these days. I'll never know, of course, because Mamma promptly threw the scrapbook away after my passion waned and then refocused on the Beatles, later in the '60s. She was a great believer in clearing out.

I remember when I heard the sad news back in 1977. It was a hot, humid evening in Shreveport, and we were getting ready to grill some steaks on the hibachi out on the back patio. I was drinking a gin and tonic as the national news came on, and I think I had a second one after the announcement about him leaving the building.

And thirty years on, it seems to me that's a good way to honor the King. Well, Pepsi might be more fitting, but doesn't have the same zip. So I'm having a nice tall G&T tonight, and singing a few bars of "One Night With You." Might even watch "Viva Las Vegas" on TCM later on (at least we've still got Ted Turner).

The King is dead . . . .

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Summer Reading Review

Well, we're already a whole week into August now – time to take stock of the summer reading situation. For some reason I always seem to do more reading in July and August than during the other months of the year. Curling up with a good book (or stack of books) by the pool, or at the beach, or just on the sofa with the air conditioning humming in the background – that's my idea of a perfect way to spend a warm summer day.

As I look at the list of titles I'm reading, or have read, or fully intend to read this summer, I realize these are mostly books I've had on my "current reading" shelf for quite a while. (Actually, they've been piled up on the coffee table, but that sounds so disorganized.) At the beginning of June, my summer "to-read" list included:

The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas
The Ladies' Man, by Elinor Lipman
The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard
The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards
Message in a Bottle, by Nicholas Sparks (well, I had never read anything by him and everybody else in the world has)
The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield
Three Junes, by Julia Glass

And a clutch of mystery novels:

The Body in the Transept, by Jeanne M. Dams
Booked to Die, and The Bookman's Promise, by John Dunning
The Celtic Riddle, by Lyn Hamilton
A Murderous Yarn, by Monica Ferris

Quite an ambitious list for just a few months of reading, at least by my standards. Will I make it? And which books will get tossed off the list, or added on? Well, there've already been a couple of replacements and changes. Susan Minot's Evening got dumped early on because it seemed just too depressing for a summer read. (I'm beginning to have doubts about the Kim Edwards book, too – that one may have to wait for cooler weather.) And I've added The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt, because it sounds like such a perfect summer book and because it's set on Cape Cod which is one of my favorite places.

Naturally, I started off with the mysteries. Haven't gotten through The Celtic Riddle yet, but I finished off the other four pretty quickly.

A Murderous Yarn was something of a disappointment. Well, not a disappointment, really – just not what I was expecting. I'm not a passionate needle worker or quilter, but I have enjoyed doing a bit of cross stitch in the past. So Ferris's "Needlecraft Mysteries" sounded interesting. But there was very little needlecraft in this particular book, and I got bored very quickly with the antique car race plot, and learned much more about Stanley Steamers than I needed to. I'll probably give the series another chance, though – if I can find a book that centers more around needlework.

Jeanne M. Dams' The Body in the Transept was recommended to me by another Hazel Holt admirer. With its English village setting and its spunky middle-aged amateur sleuth, it sounds like it should be right down my street. It won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1995 and was a nominee for the Macavity Award, so it might just be that my expectations were a bit too high. I enjoyed it, but thought it was a little predictable – not the page-turner I was hoping for. But I did like Dorothy Martin, the main character, very much; and her situation as a transplanted American living in a small college town in England appeals to the Anglophile in me. So maybe I'll give this series a second try, as well.

I'm a sucker for a book about a book. So when I discovered John Dunning's Cliff Janeway mystery novels, I knew I'd found something of interest. Janeway is a Denver homicide detective turned rare book dealer who still gets involved in solving crimes. And after reading the first two novels in the series, Booked To Die and The Bookman's Promise, I think I'm hooked. They're a little more "hard-boiled" and Chandler-esque than I usually like. For instance, in the "cozies" I usually read, I'm very unlikely to run into lines like this one where Janeway is describing the soothing effect of his apartment with its wall-to-wall books:

"I've been collecting books for a long time. Once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect."
[Booked To Die, Chapter 1]

One of the nicest things about the novels is the added literary chat and book lore you're treated to, along with the mysteries themselves. Take, for instance, a passage early in the first novel:

It was a quiet day on Book Row. At Seals & Neff a few customers had come and gone and the day was quickly settling into its inevitable, uneventful course. There was a young woman in the store, who had brought in a bag of books. Bookscouts, like dealers, come in all sizes, colors, and sexes. This one was a cut above the others I had seen, at least in the category of looks, but it was clear from what was being said that she had more than a smattering of ignorance when it came to books.

Neff was explaining to her why her as-new copy of Faulkner's The Reivers wasn't a first edition. "But it says first edition," she protested. "Right here on the copyright page . . . look. First edition. How much clearer can it be than that? Random House always states first edition, right? You told me that yourself the last time I was in here. Now I've got a first edition and you're telling me it isn't a first edition. I don't know what to believe."

"Believe this, honey," Neff said. "I don't need the grief. If you think I'm trying to steal your book. . . "

"I didn't say that. I'm not accusing you, I just want to know."

"It's a Book-of-the-Month Club first," Neff said, enunciating each word with chilly distinction. "It's printed from the same plates as the first, or maybe the same sheets are even used; that's why it says first edition. But the binding is different, there's no price on the jacket, and the book has a blind stamp on the back board."

"What's a blind stamp?"

"A little dent, pressed right into the cloth. Look, I'll show you. You see that little stamp? That means it's a book club book. Whenever you see that, it came from a book club, even if it's written 'I'm a first edition' in Christ's own blood inside. Okay?"

She sighed. "I'll never learn this stuff. How much is it worth?"

"This book? Five bucks tops. There are eight million copies of this in the naked city."

[Booked To Die, Chapter 6]

So that just about takes care of the mysteries. I've started The Celtic Riddle, but got side-tracked by The End of Mr. Y, and The Ladies' Man (more about those two shortly), and The Shadow of the Wind. Oh, and Message in a Bottle, too. That one didn't take long to get through – entertaining, if you like romantic tear-jerkers (which I don't usually). But not something I'd recommend to anyone.

OK, back to my reading. I know it would be much more efficient to finish one book before starting a new one. But life is just too short to read books one at a time.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My Top Ten List of 59 Favorite Books

Yesterday I spent some time browsing the lists of "Ten Favorite Books" on the book blog website. And, as I've always been a bookworm (and I'm easily influenced), I was inspired to create my own list; but I found I had trouble limiting myself to ten titles.

So I expanded the number to twenty-five.

And then to fifty.

And finally ended up with fifty-nine "top" reads. Quite a few are the usual, predictable works that seem to show up on just about everyone's list, but there are some more obscure, quirkier entries, as well.

The books are listed alphabetically, by author's name, and are not ranked in order of preference, with two exceptions: I've put my absolute favorites of all time at the head of the list. Both represent a degree of cheating, I suppose, since I have a great deal of trouble choosing only one title by each author. But, after all, I'm not doing this for a grade. It's MY list and I can cheat if I wanta.

Carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. As far as I'm concerned, these are equally great and interchangeable. If I were having to flee the planet, and could take only one book with me, it would be one of the "Alices."

Pym, Barbara. A Few Green Leaves / Quartet in Autumn. Just about anything by her would qualify, but especially these two. And if I couldn't take an "Alice" with me on my Earth evacuation flight, I'd take Dear Barbara.

Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Loved the play, loved the movie. Played Martha in high school acting class. I was brilliant.

Barth, John. Giles Goat-Boy. Read this one in the late '60s, while in exile in Pampa TX. Really made me homesick for UT at Austin. Could have been written about the UT campus.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions (Ficciones) / Labyrinths. OK, I know this is cheating again, but it's hard to choose between them. If I had to do so, I'd take the one with the "Library of Babel" story – Labyrinths?

Bradbury, Ray. The October Country. Winner of a close contest with Dandelion Wine.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. I think I read this for the first time when I was about 12. I think I bought it because of the "wuthering" in the title. Never did figure out exactly why the heights were "wuthering," but I became a big fan of the Brontes for a while. Especially after I found out about the tiny books they created.

Clark, Nancy. The Hills At Home. Just read this last year. And I could read it again and again. Full of wonderful characters and funny, unpredictable events.

Clark, Walter Van Tilburg. The Ox-Bow Incident. Probably the best "Western" novel ever written. Westerns are one of my guilty pleasures.

Clarke, Pauline. Return of the Twelves. Bronte stuff. Toys coming to life. Kids out-smarting grown-ups. How could I resist it?

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Complete Sherlock Holmes. Another instance of cheating, I suppose. But I did actually first read Conan Doyle in a "Complete" edition, so it's very hard for me to choose any single story or collection. I guess if I had to, I'd pick "Hound of the Baskervilles."

Cuppy, Will, and William Steig. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. I bought a paperback copy at the grocery store. I was about 11 or 12 and must have thought of it as a children's book. It was one of the funniest books I've ever read and actually taught me a lot about history.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I just love Joan Didion.

Didion, Joan. The White Album. See above. I was very sad when John Gregory Dunne died. I've always secretly thought of my husband Michael and myself as a sort of Didion-Dunne duo. Without all the – you know – best-sellers, of course.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. Wonderful book – almost turned me into an "outdoor" person. Made me re-read Thoreau, which can't be bad.

DuMaurier, Daphne. Rebecca. I read this after seeing the Hitchcock film on TV – I was probably about 13 or so. Very into gothic romances at the time. But I've re-read it several times since then, and find that it still holds up.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. The only thing by George Eliot I could ever finish. I think she must have had it ghost-written.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Another case of "choose one." I've enjoyed everything I've ever read by Fitzgerald. Even though he was such a beast to Zelda.

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant's Woman. Time travel back to Victorian England.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of Anne Frank. Read for the first time when I was about 11 or 12. I thought it was fiction and had a hard time believing there ever was a real Anne Frank. Or rather, that a young girl could have written such a book.

Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey. Mostly for the art work, I think.

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger In a Strange Land. Read it at the height of my "hippie" period. Just before my "Star Trek junkie" period, during which I had some matchbooks printed with the inscription "I Grok Spock." Well, I guess you had to be there.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Yes, just like everybody else in my generation.

Hesse, Hermann. Magister Ludi. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the game is, but the book is fascinating.

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Just the scariest book I've ever read. Perfect basis for one of the scariest movies.

James, Henry. The Aspern Papers. Henry James is best read in short works, and this is one of the best of those. I think I read this for the first time because of the movie "Lost Moment," which is based on the James story. It's one of my all-time favorite romantic films from the '40s. I've been looking for a reasonably priced video or DVD for years.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Probably his best-known short work. Again, I think I read this for the first time because of a TV or film version I had seen. I remember the first time I read it, I wasn't exactly sure why the ghosts were so interested in the children. So that was a LONG time ago.

James, P.D. The Dalgleish novels. Pick any one! Although I think I prefer the early ones because they generally feature more Dalgleish and not so much of his "team."

Kerr, Jean. Please Don't Eat the Daisies. You don't hear much about Jean Kerr these days, but she is (was?) absolutely one of the funniest American writers. This was a big best-seller back in the '50s, and I was always a list-watcher, even as a kid.

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Went through a period of reading everything I could find by Kundera, back in the '80s. He was very good to read on the bus and metro going back and forth to work in Washington DC.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it when it first came out. Loved it then. Love it now. Just a great, great read.

Lewis, Hilda. The Ship That Flew. I don't know how I found this book. Think it may have been a Scholastic or Weekly Reader book club offering. Read it for the first time when I was about 12 and really enjoyed the time travel aspect. But the English setting also appealed to me. Guess I was an Anglophile, even as a kiddo.

Lovecraft, H.P. Tales. I think I've read just about all Lovecraft's shorter tales, and they've all sort of melted together in my mind. But I'm a sucker for "nameless horror" fiction.

McMurtry, Larry. Lonesome Dove. If you're from Texas, you have to love it. We all like to believe we had Texas Rangers in the family.

Millhauser, Steven. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. Magical. This book was such a find, at the time. I forced it on everyone I knew.

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. OK. I admit it. Just like every other 14 year old girl of my era, I got swept away on clouds of crinoline and magnolia.

Morris, James. Oxford. Read this for the first time after spending several months in Oxford while my husband was teaching in a summer program there. Loved the town AND the book. Not sure why James wanted to become Jan, but we won't go into that now.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. This was one of the first truly "adult" books I ever read – I think I was around 13, just about the age of Lo herself. At the time, I thought it was hysterically funny.

Orwell, George. 1984. What can I say? We're there, folks!

Perez-Reverte, Arturo. The Club Dumas. Just discovered this last year. Read it in translation, of course. Again, because of the movie tie-in. But the book is so much richer and deeper – even Roman Polanski doesn't really do it justice.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Collected Works. I'd have trouble singling out any one story. As Poe himself would be the first to admit, each one is perfect. So I'm just going to choose his entire oeuvre and not look back.

Powell, Anthony. A Question of Upbringing. A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement – actually, it's hard to pick amongst them, but since this is the first book of the triad, I'll use it. All the other books in all the other "movements" are worth reading, but I think the first three are the most impressive. Actually, I've never read an Anthony Powell book that I didn't like.

Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus and Other Stories. Another book I discovered while living in Pampa TX for a year, with nothing else to do but read and watch Star Trek. I had only recently discovered there was a "Jewish school" of writers, and was busy reading a lot of Bellow and Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman and Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer.

Rowland, Sid. Ludwig the Tomato. Sid Rowland is a poet I happened onto when I was co-editing Poet Magazine back in the '90s. He's self-published several works, but "Ludwig" is my favorite. Some of the most original and funniest material you'll ever read. And Ludwig IS actually a tomato.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. I identified so closely with Franny at the time, I went around for weeks repeating her Jesus prayer over and over to myself.

Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. I've always found the stories much more interesting than The Catcher in the Rye. Always thought Holden was a bit of a jerk, actually.

Seuss, Dr. And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Other favorites: On Beyond Zebra, and Horton Hears a Who. "Mulberry Street" was the first Seuss I read, so it definitely goes on the list.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. I think this was the first Shakespeare play I read all the way through. For a speech class in high school, as I recall. I was supposed to read Julius Caesar in junior high, but got by with a friend's notes and the Shakespeare entry in the World Book Encyclopedia.

Spark, Muriel. Memento Mori. Such a strange idea for a novel. And you never quite find out what's really going on. Another toss-up here: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is also a favorite.

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Read this in installments, when it first appeared in Rolling Stone. I was living in a commune in Austin, TX. And I'm sorry to say that Thompson's frenetic tale of drugged-out escapades on the edge of reality seemed familiar and almost homey to me at the time.

Thurber, James. The Thurber Carnival. I discovered Thurber in high school – his short, hilarious tales were perfect for speech contests. Today, I think I'm even more in love with the drawings than I am with the stories.

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. This came out when we were living in Shreveport, and of course everybody in Louisiana had to read it. One of the funniest books I've ever read. Used to have a first edition, but it disappeared sometime back in the '80s.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. OK, this should probably go up at the top of the list, with the Alices and Pyms. My mother read an abridged version to me when I was about 6 or 7 – everyday at naptime, one summer. It put her to sleep quite efficiently, but I was riveted. And I've re-read the full novel on my own many times since. I own a lot of different editions – none of them rare – some with illustrations, some without. It gets my nomination for Great American Novel, hands down.

Uris, Leon. Exodus. I read this at a very formative period in my life and it made a huge impression. At the time, I had probably never actually met a Jew.

Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds. Read it first when I was about 10 or 11, and it scared the pajamas off me.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. I was 12 or 13 and in love with Richard Burton, who was doing "Camelot" at the time. So I was interested in anything about Arthur and his knights. Checked this out of the local library and instantly fell in love with the eccentric fantasy. And my love of the book has long outlasted my crush on the gorgeous Welshman.

Wilson, Angus. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Great academic mystery tale about an archaeological find in England.

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test / The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. I read these at the same time, together. They may not have been in a combined volume, but I always think of them that way.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. It DOES embarrass me to admit that, although I greatly admire her writing, I've never really enjoyed reading Virginia Woolf. Except for Orlando, which I discovered at about age 17. Bought a copy at the Northstar Mall Waldenbooks in San Antonio TX, mainly because it had a great cover. I think it may have been a Signet paperback, or something similar. And in this case, apparently, it was perfectly acceptable to judge a book by its cover.