Monday, March 31, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Let's Play Dolls

I have a large doll collection. Well, "collection" is a really tame word for what I have. I have a mass of dolls. All kinds and sizes. Dolls from my childhood, and dolls I've acquired since I've been old enough to know better. Hoping that Will Rogers would forgive the misquote, let's just say I never met a doll I didn't like.

Most of my dolls are in storage now, patiently awaiting their chance to come back out and see the light of day once again. For ten years or more, I was an active collector, living in a frenzy of doll shows, doll auctions, doll books, and doll web sites.

Alas, that all had to end when I realized that if I brought one more doll into the condo, the two humans living here were going to have to find a new home.

This photo was taken a few years back, when I was in the process of filling up a new display cabinet with some of the dolls. Ostensibly, I was dusting and arranging; in actuality I was just having a great time playing with my dollies.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Reading Challenges

Didn't get as much reading done today as I would have liked. It was a good day for it – really still a bit too cold to want to be outside for very long, but not depressingly gray or anything. And we didn't have a full day's supply of errands to run, so there was plenty of time to devote to curling up with a good book.

My problem was staying awake. I was groggy this morning from being up late on Saturday night, reading. So I've found myself taking little involuntary naps all day long. Fortunately, M did the driving when we were out and about today – kept us from ending up being another Beltway statistic.

The book that had me up so late, and the one I've been finishing up today was/is Susan Cooper's young adult fantasy novel, Over Sea, Under Stone. It's the first book in her series The Dark Is Rising (named for the second novel in the series), and it's a ripping good yarn about three kids who have to save the world from the forces of evil – and about which I'll have more to report in a day or so. I've really enjoyed the book; but even though I've been intrigued by it for years now, I probably wouldn't have read it if I hadn't signed up for the Once Upon a Time II reading challenge.

Internet reading challenges have been a pleasant discovery for me recently. I was skeptical at first – well, I had doubts that simply joining a group would make any difference in my reading habits. Or non-reading habits, I probably should say. Because after a lifetime of being a terrible bookworm, I had recently almost stopped reading completely. Well, I read magazines and the Internet. But no books. As I've said before somewhere on this blog, in 2006 I read fewer than a dozen books. And the year before that, I'm not sure I read any books at all. Quite a come-down for someone who used to read at least a hundred books a year. (I know that's not an exaggeration – I have lists!)

Also, I'd begun to realize how little I was getting out of the reading that I was doing. I used to read quite a lot on the way to/from my job in the District of Columbia. I had a relatively long commute – about an hour and a half each morning and each evening. So I had time to read, if I could stay awake to do it. And going through our books during some recent re-shelving, I've found many books that I read during that period. I know I've read them because the pages are frequently dog-eared (OK, I know that's a no-no), and they all have an expired Metro pass stuck in them somewhere as a bookmark. But, except for a very few, if I had to come up with a summary of any one of them, I'd be embarrassingly hard-pressed.

Well, obviously something had to be done. And I think the reading challenges are getting me back on track. They seem to be encouraging me to keep reading, when I normally might be surfing the net or anesthetizing my brain with TV's vast wasteland. And writing reviews of the books is (I hope) helping me retain what I read, and forcing me to think a bit more deeply about the books as I read them.

I know there's really no reason it should make such a difference. But somehow just making those lists of books to read for the challenges, and then posting them on my blog gives me just the little push I needed.

And seeing the enormous number of books read and reviewed by other challenge participants gives me another little nudge. It's also making me think I shouldn't have been so skeptical of those Evelyn Wood speed-reading lessons everybody was taking back in the '60s.

So now I just need to get busy and write up a few reviews, and then start another book!

Link: The Sunday Salon.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Cover-Up

This week's BTT topic:
While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

I think I can safely say that the design of a book hardly ever affects my reading enjoyment. Well, maybe if the typeface is too small or hard to read. Otherwise, unless it's an art book or a book about design, once I start reading a book, I don't pay that much attention to its design; certainly not to the cover. In fact, I frequently use protective book covers or those "book sox" thingies on the books I'm reading, so I don't even see the actual covers.

That said, although I don't think I ever ultimately judge a book by its cover, of course the design of a book does play a part in how much I'm attracted to it in the first place. That's a whole different matter. There are certain things that really attract me and certain others that repel.

I notice several people have said they don't like movie or celebrity "tie-in" covers; and I dislike those, too. Given a choice, I'll always opt for the edition without Tom Cruise or Cate Blanchett or Oprah on the front. I don't like those "chick lit" illustrated covers, either – although I don't mind that variety of illustration in magazine ads.

And generally I prefer covers with pictures or photos on them to ones with just words. Some sort of nice visual always attracts me more than just big block letters screaming, say, "Philip Roth!" or "Saul Bellow!" or "Judith Krantz!". This was not always the case. In my youth, I loved the covers on J.D. Salinger's books – and, except for the original edition of Catcher in the Rye, they were mostly just text.

I was also in love with the covers on the Signet Classics paperbacks – they were frequently details from Victorian paintings, and sometimes didn't have anything to do with the story inside. But they looked wonderful (still do). And Dover paperbacks, too – I remember buying Dover books that I had absolutely no intention of reading ("Writings of the Early Church Fathers" or "History of the Sufis" or something similar), just because of the attractive cover art.

Hardcover or paperback doesn't really make much of a difference with me. But I do like illustrations in a book – I guess that's why I'm so fond of children's lit. I wish adult novels were still illustrated. One thing that will always attract my attention to a book is illustrations or cover art by Edward Gorey. I have no idea why I'm so attracted to his designs, and it's actually slightly embarrassing. But he's been a best-seller with me since I was a child and found his Haunted Looking Glass at our local toy shop (ah, Ann & Tom Brown's Toys - but that's a subject for another post on another day).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Once Upon a Time There Was Another Challenge

I probably shouldn't do this (don't I always say that?). But I regretted missing out on the Once Upon a Time Challenge last time around, so I just can't pass it up this time.

Hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings, the challenge runs through June 20th, which seems like ages from now. But I'm still going to be cautious (first time and all that), and choose the "Journey" option, which means I'll only be committing to (at least) one book.

It took me quite a while to make up my mind, but I've finally settled on Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper. I've been trying to find a reason to read it for the longest time, so that feels like a good choice. But I'll hope to add more titles later on.


Well, I've finished Over Sea, Under Stone. Picked it up to "look it over," and ended up reading straight through. Loved it. Will get a review up in a day or two [See Review].

And since I've always enjoyed reading fantasy so much, I think I'm going to go ahead and embark on one of the Quests. I'm not sure I'll have time to read A Midsummer Night's Dream in June, and I'm not very good at separating books into genres, so I guess I'll choose Quest the First and read five books from a mix of the categories (but mostly fantasy). Haven't nailed it down completely yet, but this is my list of possible titles:

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (or is this too sci-fi?)
The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper (might as well continue with the series)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J.K. Rowling [See Review]
Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke (looks good, but it's such a BIG book!)
The King Must Die, by Mary Renault
The Mennyms, by Sylvia Waugh
The Thief of Always, by Clive Barker

Now if I can just narrow it down to five, I'm ready for the quest.

To see all the links to reviews by Challenge participants, go here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Family Group

Looking back over my family history files, I noticed that my great-grandfather died March 22, 1942 – sixty-six years ago this month. I never met him or my great-grandmother (my father's grandparents); they both died before I was born.

This is a (not very clear) photo of the two of them with all their children, taken sometime around late 1905. Most of the pictures I have of my father's family are copies of copies of copies, so not the best quality.

My g-grandfather, Frank Grohman, is the one with the mustache, on the far left. His wife, Mary Anna, is in the middle with their youngest child on her lap (that would have been Great Uncle "Veste," short for Sylvester – yes, that's a boy).

My grandmother, Emma Mary Grohman, is standing in the back, second from the right. She would have been about 22 at the time and probably pregnant with my Aunt Emma, her second child. She had married my grandfather in 1902. Her youngest daughter, my Aunt Ella, looked just like her; and so does Ella's daughter Jane. And the older I get, the more I'm starting to resemble her, too. Strong genes, I guess.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Parade

Easter Sunday. I have very mixed emotions about Easter Sunday. First of all, there's the fact that my mother died on an Easter Sunday. Also, I'm not terribly religious, and M and I don't generally go to church on Easter anymore. And these days we live far away from all our families, so we no longer get to indulge in the ritual of dressing up for church and then spending the day visiting relatives and stuffing ourselves with Easter goodies.

And even though this year Easter comes right at the beginning of Spring, and all the flowers and trees are blooming again, I'm feeling very nostalgic. So I'm putting up a photo of myself and my cousin on Easter Sunday, circa 1952, I believe. She'll probably murder me for doing this.

But weren't we cute?

I was the oldest (still am!), so that's me on the left, and my cousin MLB on the right. As usual, I had my eyes closed. Notice the white gloves - even on my 2-year-old cuz (although it's hard to see). Well, we were always quite a fashionable pair. I wonder if our mothers ever got the grass stains out of all that organdy.

Happy Easter, everybody. And Happy Spring.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Random Notes

If you haven't yet found Blogtations, you might want to check it out. It's a new web site maintained by "Musing Woman" (aka Jeannette), that's a collection of funny, pithy, and downright weird quotations from blogs all over the Internet. Thoroughly entertaining (and I'm not saying that just because I got quoted there). One of my favorites is a quote by "Amalah":

If you have not yet dropped your iPhone in the toilet, consider NOT dropping your iPhone in the toilet.

Good advice, even if your cell phone is not of the "i" variety.


And speaking of interesting quotes, especially about blogging, here's something from a recent edition of The London Review of Books:

A blogger can have an unedited post up on the web and available to readers within minutes of the idea popping into his head. A blog is non-linear, always unfinished, ever open. It can be indefinitely added to, rewritten, cut from, commented on. But more than that, a blog should be dense with hyperlinks, sending the reader off into the blogosphere and the rest of the internet along a chain of endlessly forking paths. That may well sound like your idea of a nightmare, which is just one of the many reasons the internet isn’t going to make books obsolete anytime soon. – Thomas Jones, "Short Cuts," London Review of Books, 1/24/2008 [Read the entire article here]


And since I seem to have become one of those dreaded book bloggers, I was interested to read what Richard Schickel and Michael Rogers think of all this book and film reviewing being done by all of us non-experts. Basically, they think we shouldn't be trying it at home, folks. Richard Schickel's article is titled "Not everybody's a critic," and appeared in the L.A. Times. The Michael Rogers article, "Bloggers vs. Reviewers" is at For the record, I may be a book nerd, but I do not own a single cat – at the moment, anyway.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Winter Reading Challenge 2008: Recap

When I decided to take part in InkSplasher's Winter Reading Challenge, I really had some doubts that I'd be able to finish the five books I'd chosen in the set amount of time. I'm a slow reader, and really didn't do all that well last year, in the number-of-books-read department. But that was the main reason I wanted to try the challenge – to force myself to read more. And in that, the challenge was a huge success for me.

It also nudged me into reading a couple of books that I wouldn't normally have chosen (especially the Garcia Marquez), and it gave me a reason finally to tackle one or two titles that had been on my "to read" list for a number of years.

The challenge also introduced me to a huge number of interesting books and blogs (and bloggers) that I hadn't known existed. I want to thank Karlene for hosting, and all the other challenge members for taking part – I've really enjoyed reading all the wonderful reviews and I've picked up quite a few titles that I want to check out for my future reading adventures.

Here's a list of the books I read for the challenge, with links to my reviews:

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

If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Civil To Strangers; but then I'm a terrible Pym fanatic. However, I enjoyed all the books and don't regret choosing any of them.

So the challenge of winter is over, spring is here, and now it's time to start a new book! Happy reading, everyone.

Booking Through Thursday: The End

This week's BTT topic:
You've just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’re going to read? What?
(Obviously, there can be more than one answer, here–a book with a cliff-hanger is going to engender different reactions than a serene, stand-alone, but you get the idea!)

Well, since I'm almost never reading just one book at a time, I guess I'm a diver – finish one book, and I've already got the next one started. Especially since I've gotten myself involved in all these darn reading challenges!

But I usually do try to take the time to go back over each book as I finish it, see if I've made any notes or marked any passages I want to remember, and maybe write down a few quotes. And if it's a book that I've really enjoyed, I like to go back and read the opening chapter or first few pages again – just to make sure it's stuck in my memory.

Of course, if I had a dog to take for a walk, or kids to take to the park, I'd definitely take a book along.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review: Deadly Nightshade - A Martha's Vineyard Mystery

Written by Cynthia Riggs
Published by Signet Books, 2003

She stood up to see better, holding the back of the deck chair. She could feel the same thrill she'd felt as a girl. She hadn't been here for more than a half century. Surely it wasn't three-quarters of a century? A century had once seemed an eternity. Now she'd almost lived through that eternity. How short a time it had been! . . . She could see the tree line beyond the big house, stunted scrub oak and pine. It looked exactly like the tree line of her childhood. She recalled two large trees that rose above the other trees, their configuration looking like an elephant. . . . The elephant was still there, unchanged. The island was enchanted. Time had stopped for it, while she continued to pass through days and months and years. [p. 108]

Cynthia Riggs's Deadly Nightshade is the first book in her series of mystery novels centered around Victoria Trumbull, a 92-year-old poet who lives with her 30-something granddaughter Elizabeth, on Martha's Vineyard. The book begins with Victoria hearing a scream and a splash in the water. She investigates, along with Elizabeth and the harbormaster (Elizabeth's boss), and discovers a dead body floating in the harbor. Of course, she has to get involved and eventually manages to help solve the mystery, trap the killer, and see that everyone gets his or her comeuppance. And all the while, she still manages to take in the sunsets, work on her poetry, and cook her traditional Saturday night baked bean suppers for guests. What a gal!

Seriously, Victoria is a wonderful creation – intelligent and fun-loving and feisty (do you have to be over 80 to be "feisty"?), she's very believable and (as the blurb says) "unforgettable." Unfortunately, I can't say that about the rest of the characters or the plot. Not a terrible book, just not very remarkable.

The story seemed a bit trite (local fiscal corruption with a little drug trafficking thrown in), and didn't really make much use of the Martha's Vineyard locale – as far as I could tell, it could have been set in Corpus Christie or Nags Head or any other beach community. The characters, aside from Victoria, were mostly just unattractive and annoying. I'm not sure what we were supposed to make of Victoria's admiration for Domingo, the harbormaster – she seemed to think his manner was "courtly" even though he treated her granddaughter like a lackey and addressed all women as "sweetheart" or "you." And, aside from curiosity, there really wasn't any compelling reason for Victoria to get involved in solving the murder in the first place.

I suppose I was expecting the book to be more of a "cozy" – that's how it's advertised. But I think a lot of elements kept it from qualifying as a traditional cozy mystery. For one thing, some of the violence was a little too gruesome for a cozy. And some characters who turn out to be important to the plot aren't introduced until midway through the book. Also, I found the presence of the harbormaster character a little off-putting. Domingo is an ex-NYC police detective, and therefore about as hard-boiled as you can get. He's definitely not cozy material, and his prominence brings aspects of police procedural to the story that aren't very appropriate to the cozy genre.

OK – I guess I've made my point that the book didn't live up to my expectations. Even so, it wasn't one of those books I dislike so much I can't finish them. It was a nice fast, relaxing read – probably would be perfect for the beach. And, while I've never been to the Vineyard, I love Cape Cod, so a mystery series set in that part of the world is a welcome discovery. Although I might not try another book in this series right away, I can't say I'll never return to it – the character of Victoria is so attractive, I think it would be only right to give her a second chance. After all, aside from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books, how many mystery novels are likely to feature heroines older than I am?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Kayla

OK, I know this is weird. But I have a travel doll, who goes with me on most of the trips I take. She's tiny, so she fits in any purse or suitcase quite easily. And she's always a very enthusiastic traveler, as you can see. Her name is Kayla, and she's a member of the Barbie family.

She always wears the same outfit, whether she's at the beach or in the mountains, or relaxing in a big city hotel room. Sort of like Waldo in the "Where's Waldo" books. She has a tiny pair of black-rimmed eyeglasses, too, but she's always losing them.

I think here she was on her way to or from Chicago, a few years back. Wasn't it nice of Amtrak to provide a cup that was just her size?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Reading Jane Austen's "Emma"

I'm happy to say that I got a bit more reading done today than I did last Sunday – even though the day was beautiful and sunny, and the outdoors beckoned. However, once I got out there, a wintry wind came screaming through the parking lot and nearly whipped me off my feet. So as soon as all the grocery-buying was done with, it was back home to curl up with a good book (locked away from the front room where M was scarfing down popcorn and watching Houston cream the Lakers).

Must confess I haven't done any reading for the last day or two – since plowing through Love in the Time of Cholera the other night. I needed a bit of a break after that marathon. But finishing that one marked the conclusion of my first online reading challenge (the Winter Reading Challenge, hosted by Karlene over at InkSplasher), and I was determined to get all my chosen books read on time. I'm nothing if not obsessive-compulsive.

So it was nice to be able to devote a little time to Emma Woodhouse this afternoon. I've started Emma several times in the past, and always given up on it before I got too far along. It's not that I find the book boring or too difficult. No, it's the character of Emma herself that's always stopped me. I just get too irritated with her to keep reading. By the time she's "taken up" Harriet Smith, I'm usually saying "that's enough of that." Obviously, I've never gotten very far into the story.

But I've made up my mind to finish the book this time, irritating heroine or no. Besides, in my reading today I found something that made me realize Emma and I have a lot more in common than just being irritating types. She was a list-maker! This is Mr. Knightley complaining about Emma to Mrs. Weston when Mrs. W. tells him Emma means to use her new friendship with Harriet to induce them both to read more:

Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through – and very good lists they were – very well chosen, and very neatly arranged – sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen – I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. . . .

Yes, I know all about making lists of to-be-read books that somehow never get read. And my lists are always wonderfully elaborate masterpieces of enumeration – sometimes even alphabetical!

I'm so glad to have found this common bond. And although I don't really know much about Jane herself yet, I'm hoping to find out that Miss Austen was a keen list-maker, too.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

Written by Gabriel García Márquez
Translated from the Spanish by Edith
Published by Random House/Vintage Books, 2003, 348 pp.

Originally published in Colombia, 1985

Winter Reading Challenge 2008

Life would have been quite another matter for them both if they had learned in time that it was easier to avoid great matrimonial catastrophes than trivial everyday miseries. But if they had learned anything together, it was that wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good. [p. 26]

Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera is one of the most popular and celebrated novels of the last half of the last century. It's been reviewed and reviewed, and summarized and analyzed to pieces – especially since Oprah Winfrey discovered it and added it to her book club choices.

The basic plot is really fairly simple. A unprepossessing young man (Florentino Ariza) falls deeply in love with an attractive schoolgirl (Fermina Daza), several years younger than he is. Knowing her father will disapprove, Florentino contacts Fermina by sending her a love letter and they manage to conduct a sort of secret love affair by correspondence, meeting very briefly only once or twice. This epistolary relationship lasts for several years until Fermina, now a young woman, decides she doesn't really love the young man and puts an end to it. She marries a well-to-do doctor (Juvenal Urbino) and they have a good life together until the doctor dies many years later. Florentino has many love affairs after he is rejected by Fermina. After her husband dies, Fermina is reunited with Florentino who has maintained his love for her over all the years.

Of course, that's a very bare bones description. The novel as a whole is much more complicated and rich with lush detail (in fact, lush is a good one-word description of the novel's style). The writing is very beautiful – mesmerizing, in fact; and the characters seem very human and multi-faceted. The story wanders back and forth in time and place, and follows many different points of view at different times. The themes of love as a sickness or plague (like the cholera of the title), aging and death are woven throughout the novel's twists and turns. Much of the story is very sad.

This was the last of the books on my list for the Winter Reading Challenge; and I must admit that, while I recognize that it's a beautiful book, I'm not sure I would have finished it without that Challenge connection. Since I read for pleasure, I usually don't stick with books that make me work too hard to get through them. After reading the last page, I was glad I stuck with it, but getting to that last page was a struggle sometimes.

And for that reason, I think the challenge has been a huge success for me. It's kept me reading and inspired me to branch out into subject matter I wouldn't ordinarily have chosen. I want to thank Karlene for hosting and all the other challenge members for taking part – I've really enjoyed reading all the wonderful reviews and I've picked up quite a few titles that I want to check out for my future reading lists.

Addendum (Sunday, 16 March): One thing I forgot to include in the above – my favorite character in the book was the parrot. Wish he hadn't disappeared so early in the story.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Playing Editor

This week's BTT topic:
How about a chance to play editor-in-chief? Fill in the blanks:
__________ would have been a much better book if ______________________.

Hmmmmm. What a question! OK, I'll play:

War and Peace would have been a much better book if the war had been about 300 pages shorter.

Moby Dick would have been a much better book without all that boring stuff about whales.

Anna Karenina would have been a much better book if Anna had pushed her husband and her lover under the train instead of jumping.

My first novel would have been a much better book if I'd ever finished writing it. (Or maybe not!)

Review: The Concord Quartet

Written by Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006, 246 pp.

Winter Reading Challenge

Although the people who hallowed it were all called away, the village of Concord was – and remains – a shrine to the life of thought.

Samuel Schreiner's The Concord Quartet is a brief portrait of the group of early 19th Century Transcendentalist writers and academics who called Concord, Massachusetts, home during the period of the "American Renaissance" in arts and letters. The book focuses on four major figures: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Schreiner weaves together the individual stories of these four friends and neighbors to produce an interesting look at the intellectual life of the time and place.

This book is a good overview of the subject, not an in-depth examination. I enjoyed it, but its concentration on Emerson left me wanting to know more about the other members of the group. Well, maybe not Thoreau – the picture painted of Henry David makes him seem like a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, but I think that's probably a pretty accurate portrayal (Mark Edmundson was exactly right when he said that "sometimes it appears that Thoreau disapproves of everything, except the drinking of cold water"). Nathaniel Hawthorne gets a bit less attention than the others, but he wasn't really resident in Concord for much of the period covered in the book. Unfortunately, he seems to be the most intriguing of them all.

I have to admit, I chose this book mainly because I'm interested in the women associated with the Concord group. Bronson Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott, one of my early favorites. And Sophia and Elizabeth Peabody were strong influences on the group – Elizabeth published some of their earliest works, and Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne. One of the books I'm determined to read this year is Megan Marshall's rather monumental history, The Peabody Sisters, and I think Quartet should serve as a good lead-in for that work.

Samuel Schreiner was a writer for Reader's Digest, and sometimes The Concord Quartet comes across a little like one of those condensed books put out by the Digest. What's there is interesting, but you keep wishing you could have seen what was left out.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Keep on Dancin'

Reading the Arts & Letters Daily today, I came across this nugget in an article ("Keeping Your Brain Fit") by Christine Larson, published in U.S. News & World Report, posted back in January --

A 2003 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, found that people over 75 who danced, read, or played board games or musical instruments also had a lower rate of dementia.
. . . the Alzheimer's Association recommends any activity that will keep you curious and learning: reading and writing, attending lectures, taking classes, even gardening.

See!!!??? It's perfectly OK for me to spend my days lost in the pages of a book (even though I still have a few years to go before I reach 75). After all, I'm doing it for my health! But maybe I should get up and shake my booty now and then, too.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Random Photo Monday

Sunset, Shenandoah National Park, July 2007.
I must be getting vacation fever again.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sunday Salon

I just recently discovered The Sunday Salon and signed up yesterday, so this was my first official Sunday of salon-ing, and naturally it turned out to be a day when I wasn't really able to get much reading done. Must try to do better in the future.

I did spend some time reading a lot of other people's blogs, and I've really enjoyed sampling those. Otherwise, my reading activity today so far has been confined to the New York Times Book Review during breakfast. But later tonight, I'm hoping to finish up The Concord Quartet, which I've been reading as part of my Winter Reading Challenge line-up – and for pleasure, of course.

Sunday is usually our "errand" day, and reading gets put off until after dinner. But it was a great day for being out and about, so I can't complain. Still cold out – definitely still winter here in Northern Virginia. But we had lots of sun today, especially with this being the first daylight-savings day. I love daylight savings time – wish we could go on "saving daylight" all year long.

While we were out running around, I noticed the forsythia is finally starting to bloom. And this morning, two purple finches, male and female, came and hopped around on our balcony for a while, poking into the empty pots and baskets out there. Last year we had a pot of dried-up ivy plants on the balcony, and the finches came and harvested nesting material from it. Could these two possibly be remembering that stash from last year? That would make them an old married couple – a nice thought even if a ditsy one.

So spring is on its way, even though it seems to be slow in coming this year. Soon, the cherry blossoms will be out – right on time, this year, so the predictions tell us. And then the swallows and the tourists will swoop back in, and it'll be summer before I know it! Wow, here I was thinking the year was just getting started and it's already nearly over!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

NBCC Awards

The National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced this week. Winner of the fiction award was The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz.

I was sort of pulling for Joyce Carol Oates's The Gravedigger's Daughter, which was one of the finalists. I've skimmed bits of the Oates book and it's on my to-read list for this year (as it was for last year!) – I've enjoyed the parts I've read so far. I've always admired JCO, even though I haven't read as much of her stuff as I'd like to – she's so wonderfully productive!

Other winners:

Autobiography – Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat

Biography – Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa's Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal

Criticism – The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

Nonfiction – Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet Washington

Poetry – Elegy, by Mary Jo Bang

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Hero

This week's BTT topic:
Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

Well, it would be impossible to choose just one. Of course, I'd have to list Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, and Rhett Butler right off the bat, wouldn't I? Although, when I read Gone With the Wind back in the Pleistocene Era, I was just as much in love with Ashley Wilkes as Scarlett was. They're dashing and romantic and brooding and handsome and virile and all those things a 13-year-old girl is looking for in a man. Come to think of it, I guess they're all those things a 60-year-old girl is looking for in a man, too.

Problem is, the men in most of the books I've read in my adult years haven't been all that admirable (think of the guys in novels by Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, or even Philip Roth). So it's a little hard to pick favorites.

As an enthusiastic mystery reader, I've always loved Sherlock Holmes, of course (except for that nasty cocaine habit). And P.D. James's poetry-writing detective Adam Dalgliesh is a great creation – intelligent, strong and reliable, but sensitive, too.

Larry McMurtry's wonderful ex-Texas Rangers Captain Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, who run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium in Lonesome Dove appeal to my Texas roots. Their personalities are direct contrasts, but they live by the same frontier code. Romantic and brave. Capable and strong. But also gullible and not too bright. I like that in a man.

I guess my earliest literary "heroes" were Tom Sawyer, and then Huck Finn. I loved the books as a kid, and still do. Both boys had trouble with authority, and the hypocrisy and straight-laced morality of their time. They were early anti-heroes for the pre-teen set.

Addendum on Friday:

Just one more thought about this week's BTT topic. And that's it – I promise. But how could I forget Philip Marlowe? Probably my absolute favorite hard-boiled private eye. Raymond Chandler's famous sleuth is the main character and narrator of half a dozen or so novels, and has been portrayed on the screen by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Elliott Gould, and James Garner. He has a lot of faults, but he's mostly honest and true-blue, and doesn't usually do violence to anyone who doesn't do violence to him first. Certainly as a male lead character, he's unforgettable – which is why I'm so annoyed that I forgot him.

Marlowe is constantly spouting wonderful quotes you remember long after you've finished the books, like these from Farewell, My Lovely:

The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.


"I'm afraid I don't like your manner," he said, using the edge of his voice.
"I've had complaints about it," I said, "But nothing seems to do any good."

Ah, Marlowe – what a guy!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review: Miss Rumphius

Written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Published by Puffin Books, 1985, 30+ pp.; ages 4-8

Originally published by Viking Penguin, Inc., 1982
Young Readers Challenge

The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way. I know. She is my great-aunt, and she told me so.

Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, winner of the 1983 American Book Award, is the charming story of little Alice Rumphius who lived in a seaside city, where "From the front stoop she could see the wharves and the bristling masts of tall ships."

Alice's grandfather is an artist and woodcarver who carves figureheads for ships, and paints pictures of ships and faraway places ("When he was very busy, Alice helped him put in the skies."). In the evenings, Alice sits on her grandfather's knee and listens to his stories about the places he's traveled. When she grows up, says Alice, she wants to live the same life her grandfather has lived – to travel to faraway places and then come home to live by the sea. And her grandfather tells her that there is a third thing she must do – she must do something to make the world more beautiful.

Alice grows up. People call her Miss Rumphius. She moves to a city far from the sea and works in a library ("dusting books and keeping them from getting mixed up, and helping people find the ones they wanted"). And just as she had hoped she would, Miss Rumphius eventually leaves her library and travels the world, meeting new people and having adventures. Then she comes back and finds her home by the sea.

And finally, she discovers a way to make the world more beautiful, as her grandfather had said she must, many years before. All one summer she wanders the fields and country lanes around her home, scattering lupine seeds to the wind (because she's always loved lupines the best). And that's how she comes to be called "The Lupine Lady" – although some people just call her "That Crazy Old Lady," which shows that even the best intentions can go unappreciated.

Somehow I managed to miss out on Barbara Cooney's books when I was a child. Though she illustrated more than 200 (she was twice awarded the Caldecott Medal), this book was my first experience of her work. And I've certainly been missing something. Her illustrations are wonderful - the misty watercolor-like pictures are perfect for the book's seaside settings. And the story of Alice Rumphius is a great example of how one person can find a way to make a real difference in the world.

Barbara Cooney died in March, 2000 at the age of 82. Toward the end of her life, she admitted that Miss Rumphius was the book that was closest to her heart. As she worked on the book, she said, Alice Rumphius came to seem like her alter ego. And that seems utterly fitting for an artist whose illustrations brought so much loveliness into the world.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Oceanids

One more photo from last summer's beach week.
This time – water nymphs with cameras.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hi, ya'll!

Happy Texas Independence Day! Are the bluebonnets out yet?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Happy Saint David's Day