Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Random Notes

Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings is showcasing some really amazing altered book art on his site (see: Book Week: Day Two). I know altered books are controversial with book people – if you love books, the idea of cutting them up or obscuring the text in any way can amount to wanton disfigurement, pure and simple. But some of Carl's examples are breathtaking. I don't think I would ever have come up with the idea of carving a book.

I'm sure everybody has probably discovered Weekly Geeks by now. It's a new kind of challenge hosted by Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf, and it has a different theme every week. It started off this past week with "Discover New Blogs Week," with the following guidelines:

1. Look through the list of blogs on the Mr Linky ... and see if you can find five that are new to you. If you can’t, find as many new blogs as possible and then some you don’t read super regularly.
2. Visit those new blogs. A comment would be nice; people like comments.
3. When you’re ready, at some point by Friday if you want to be included in the blurbs next week, write a post in your blog featuring those new blogs you visited.
4. Don’t forget to come back here and leave a link to your post, so that I can get it into the blurbs!

I haven't had time to do a lot of sampling, but I did find a few new book blogs that look interesting.

Mysteries in Paradise is devoted to reviews and talk about mysteries and crime fiction – one of my favorite genres.
Books & Other Thoughts has many fine reviews of children's and YA titles, and a nice inviting tropical design.
The Book Mine Set is owned by John Mutford. Well, technically this wasn't a new find – I've visited John's site before. He's Canadian and hosts the Canadian Book Challenge. His blog is a great way to learn a bit about Canadian literature, and there are always lots of amusing comments to read, too.

Well, I know that's not five, but I'm still exploring.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Another Challenge: 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats

I resisted this challenge for a while, but that kitty-on-a-book picture is just so cute! And it does sound like a lot of fun. Renay at bottle-of-shine came up with the idea. It's called the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Challenge (yes, there is an explanation for that title), and these are the basic guidelines (the logistics are a little complicated, but it's really pretty straightforward):

1. Make a list of ten books you love. That's the only qualification; you had to love (or at least like it) the books on the list. . . .
2. Share the list by posting it on your blog and then letting me have the link!
3. Browse the lists created by our other members. . . . There will also be a master list of books available when people actually makes their lists.
4. Read at least three books recommended by others between May 1st - November 30th, 2008. Of course, more is fine! Encouraged, even!
5. Write reviews of the books you read! . . . Three is just the minimum, in order not to scare off people who shall remain nameless that might be a member of 745,936,623 reading challenges.
6. Share the links to your reviews for the challenge. . . . All reviews will be collected in the reviews (link will exist soon) tag, and all participants will be listed in (who would've guessed), the participants tag.

The master list of titles is here. So far, it runs to over 400 books!

Here's my list of ten books. I checked the master list first, and tried to make sure I was choosing titles that weren't already there. I was a little surprised to find that Huck Finn and Through the Looking-Glass hadn't made it yet.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The Club Dumas, by Arturo Perez-Reverte
Edwin Mullhouse, by Steven Millhauser
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The Hills At Home, by Nancy Clark
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym
Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll
The White Album, by Joan Didion

Haven't decided on the three books I'll read for the challenge. Guess I'll wait till after the master list gets a little longer!

Random Photo Monday: Family Group

Not my family this time. This is actually a photo of the family of M's (maternal) grandmother - she's the tiny girl, third from the right, holding a large baby doll. She was born April 24, 1905, and would have been about 5 years old here.

Her mother, Louisa, is to her left. Her father, Henry Fest, stands in the center of the shot. The other young people are three of her four older brothers and her older sister.

The photo was taken around 1910, on their farm in San Antonio, Texas, on what became San Pedro Avenue.

M's grandmother is no longer with us, but if she were, I don't think she'd be too surprised that I'm a little late with my birthday tribute.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Samplings

I'm really having to tie myself down mentally to keep from starting out with another weekly weather report. There, see – I do it even when I say I'm not going to do it.

OK, start again.

(But it's raining again!)

Starting over. I haven't yet been able to settle down to any really steady reading today. Started out by sampling bits of Dorothy Parker's poetry, after a late-night viewing of Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle." What a depressing movie! Not a bad movie – Rudolph's films are always worth watching. But he made the Algonquin group seem more like a bunch of dysfunctional undergraduates than the witty, sophisticated literati I've always imagined them to be. I kept expecting Bluto and Boone and Otter and all the other boys from Delta House to show up and take a shotgun to a horse or snorkel Jell-o or something.

Well, I suppose Parker's life was more than a tad depressing, what with the suicide attempts and the men who constantly deserted her and the fact that she felt she never wrote anything worthwhile. But somehow I never thought of her and the "round table" group as being quite so inane as they were portrayed in the movie.

And, of course, some of the things she actually did write were wonderful stuff, and even the "fluff" pieces and doggerel are witty and memorable. I always especially liked her Résumé, which is probably her best-known poem (the one that ends "You might as well live"). It always reminds me of "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker." But that's Ogden Nash and a whole 'nother story altogether.

Also finished up another "cozy" mystery this morning: Mrs. Malory and the Delay of Execution. I'm trying to read all the "Mrs. Malory" series for the "To Be Continued" Perpetual Reading Challenge. I have several more books to go. Then I think I'll start working on Rita Mae Brown's "Mrs. Murphy" series – I've only read one of those, so there are a lot to choose from.

Other than that, I've just been leafing through my new books. Our local library is having a book sale this weekend, and M. and I stopped in yesterday. Two bucks a book – the days of 25-cents for paperbacks and 50-cents for hardbacks are gone, alas. I bought 6 books, and spent $12. All but one are hardcover, most look like they've never been opened, and they're all books I've been wanting to read – so I feel like I got really lucky. I'm thinking of reading one (Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey) for the Eponymous Reading Challenge. So I've been sampling that one this afternoon. Haven't gotten very far, but as soon as I picked it up and read the jacket blurb I knew it sounded like something that's right down my street: "A haunting, poignant story of a motherless young woman torn between the real world and the otherworldly companions only she can see." Now how could I possibly resist that?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Fill-Ins

Until now, I've resisted the Friday Fill-Ins phenomenon. But this one caught my eye. So here goes (my "fill-ins" are in bold type):

1. When I fell in love I was too young to know any better!

2. I thank the gods for the guy who invented air conditioning when the flowers bloom and it heats up outside!

3. Oh, no! The internet connection is down, I'll have to spend the rest of the day playing Spider Solitaire.

4. I don't watch enough current TV to know what is the craziest TV show ever. (But I'm sure it was on the Fox Network.)

5. Cheese and sardines make a great meal.

6. Except for the plants and the grasses and the bugs and the snakes and all the work involved, I love a garden.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to watching a DVD from Netflix and then getting some reading done, tomorrow my plans include attending a funeral and then getting some reading done, and Sunday, I want to sleep late and then get some reading done!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Springing

This week's BTT topic:
Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?
Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?

I'd like to be able to say that I'm well-organized enough to have a reading routine – light fiction in spring and summer, heavier stuff in the fall, Christmas books at Christmas, etc. That would be my ideal. But I'm much more apt to just read the first thing I grab from my "to be read" stack. And I think I read mostly the same sorts of things year-round, rarely venturing very far from just a few favorite genres, alas.

I believe that's why I've been so attracted to internet reading challenges – they’ve introduced a little more discipline and variety into my reading life.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review: Mrs. Malory and Death By Water

Written by Hazel Holt
Published by Signet Books, 2003, 248 pp.

Recently I found myself in need of an outfit to wear to a funeral. And, determined not to have to shop for anything new, I ended up burrowing deep into my closet, pulling out a couple of garment bags full of "wedding/funeral stuff," and spending an entire afternoon sorting and trying on. Well, about two hours into my quest, I suddenly realized what a very "Barbara Pym" scene it was. But then I thought no, not Barbara – more like Sheila Malory.

Sheila Malory is the fiftyish (or I suppose, by now sixtyish) amateur sleuth at the center of Hazel Holt's "Mrs. Malory" series of mysteries. Sheila is a widow who lives in the fictional English seaside village of Taviscombe. She's sensible and witty and erudite and self-deprecating, and she makes her own marmalade and scones. She has a grown son (who goes from university to law practice during the course of the series), a dog named Tris, and a cat named Foss. She is "deeply involved in local activities," always helping plan the annual Christmas Fayre, or rounding up jumble for a sale to benefit Help the Aged. She's also a writer of "the occasional volume of literary criticism – mostly about the more obscure Victorian novelists." And in her spare time (!) she solves local murder mysteries.

The Mrs. Malory books are "cozy" mysteries, so there's very little violence or overt nastiness. The deaths take place "offstage," and most don't even seem like murders at first – the victims are usually (but not always) elderly or ill, so that their deaths don't strike anyone as too surprising or suspicious. But once Mrs. Malory starts nosing around and putting two and two together, murder always outs (how's that for a nice chain of mixed metaphors or references or something?).

In Mrs. Malory and Death By Water (issued as Leonora in the UK), Sheila's dear friend Leonora Staveley, a legendary journalist and foreign correspondent now in her eighties, is found dead from drinking contaminated water. And although the cause of death seems surprising, Sheila at first accepts it as not unlikely – Leonora lived alone in an out-of-the-way country cottage, with a large assortment of domestic and farm animals roaming around the place. So a contaminated water supply doesn't seem out of the question.

But in her will, Leonora has left her voluminous library to Sheila. And once Sheila starts sorting through all the books and papers, she begins to see the death as suspicious – especially after a few questions arise about some of Leonora's other bequests. And then there's the fact that Leonora's brother Vernon was anxious to acquire her cottage so he could use the land for a real estate scheme he'd been working on. Sheila also finds out about a quarrel Leonora had with her neighbors, over the placement of a boundary wall between their properties. And then strangers begin to emerge from Leonora's past (well, don't they always?), leading Sheila to realize that her old friend may have had an even more adventurous life than anyone had imagined. After that, Sheila of course suspects foul play, and she's off and running. Well, not running – she's too dignified for that.

I suppose it's not surprising that I should think of Barbara Pym and Hazel Holt together – they were friends and co-workers for many years at London's International African Institute, and Holt later became Pym's literary executor and biographer. These days there are a lot of "Pymish" mysteries around, but in my opinion the Mrs. Malory series is far and away the best of the lot.

Oh, I did manage to put together an outfit for the funeral, and I didn't have to buy a thing. And after all the trying on, I had a nice cup of tea. I like to think Sheila and Barbara would have approved.

Reading challenges:
Eponymous Reading Challenge
To Be Continued Reading Challenge
The Suspense & Thriller Reading Challenge

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Perpetual Challenge: To Be Continued...

This looks interesting. The Printed Page is hosting a "Perpetual Challenge" for readers of series books. The web site is called To Be Continued, and the challenge has no time limit (that's the perpetual part). So far, these are the guidelines (but it's still evolving, so check the site for further info):

No books lists or sign ups; cross over books and challenges are welcome, actually encouraged
If not based on the main character central characters must play a prominent part throughout the series
All genres welcome – YA, historical, western, paranormal, mystery, police procedural, adventure, etc.
No trilogies please; only ongoing series (see Spotlight Series)

Many of the books I read are parts of a series, so I'll definitely be getting in on this one.

Review: Chatterton

Written by Peter Ackroyd
Published by Grove Press, 1988, 234 pp.

First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1987

Eponymous Reading Challenge
Man Booker Reading Challenge

In Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton, Charles Wychwood, a young 20th century poet, becomes obsessed with discovering the true history of another poet, Thomas Chatterton who supposedly committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 18. In an antique shop, Wychwood discovers a painting he believes to be a depiction of Chatterton in later life – much older than the age at which he is supposed to have died. Charles's interest in the painting leads him to a further discovery – a stash of Chatterton's manuscripts and papers still in existence in Bristol.

The tale of Charles and how his fascination with Chatterton affects both his professional and private lives is the main story in the novel. But there are also flashbacks to Chatterton himself, and the story of his rise to fame as a teenaged poet who faked a whole body of poetry supposedly written by a medieval monk. Then there's the story of the Victorian artist Henry Wallis who created a well-known painting showing Chatterton lying dead in an attic room. Wallis uses his friend, the poet George Meredith, as his model and is attracted to Meredith's wife Mary. And there's the elderly novelist Harriet Scrope, who employs Charles to help her write the memoirs she hopes will prevent her well-kept secrets from being revealed and ruining her reputation.

And all of these plots intertwine around the central core of Chatterton's suicide, and weave back and forth between past and present, and fantasy and reality, using both fictional and real-life characters and incidents.

Admittedly, that's an extremely abbreviated synopsis of a very intricate novel. Publisher's Weekly called the book "inventive" and "larky," and those are good descriptions. At first meeting, most of the characters appear eccentric to the point of lunacy. But gradually they come to seem almost too disturbingly real and familiar. I was particularly taken with the novelist Harriet Scrope and her friend, "the famous art critic" Sarah Tilt. It's worth reading the whole book just to get glimpses of their exchanges and brief escapades.

Chatterton was a bestseller in England when it first appeared in 1987, and was short-listed for that year's Man-Booker Prize. Even so, I had a little trouble finding a copy of it. Apparently it hasn't achieved the lasting popularity of the author's Hawksmoor. At least, not in the U.S. But it's definitely worth seeking out.

Earth Day or Close To It

Greetings, Earthlings!

OK, maybe it wasn't the exact day - but this photo was taken in April or May of 1970, back around the time of the very first Earth Day. And since we thought of ourselves as "children of the earth" back then, I thought it would be appropriate for today. Well, we looked pretty earthy, didn't we?

So there we were - M. and me, along with his two brothers and our sister-in-law. I'm the one out in front, flashing peace signs all over the place. Notice how the sis-in-law is trying to keep her distance. Well, she would have been pregnant with our niece at the time, so her maternal protective instincts must have been kicking in. Or just her normal better judgment.

Have a happy (green) day, everybody.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Wedding Day

I know this isn't a very good photo - it's a really old copy of the even older original. But it's clear enough to see that these two don't look very excited about having the photo taken. Probably had to hold that pose for many uncomfortable minutes.

This is a wedding photo of my grandfather and grandmother, my father's parents. They were married in April of 1902 - April 15th, so I missed the date by a few days. He was 20 and she was 19 at the time. And although they don't look happy here, they were married for 30 years (until his early death at age 50) and had eight children. She outlived him by 42 years and never remarried.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Sunday Salon: More Reading in the Rain

Yet another rainy Sunday – real rain this time, with lots of thunder and lightning. What's going on here? Have we been magically transported to Seattle? Or is it just the weather gods amusing themselves with a little springtime mayhem? I know I should stop reporting on the weather, and just get on with my reading (and blogging), but all this rain makes me feel more like napping (yawn).

So, getting on with it.

Today I finally managed to finish Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton. I've had it underway for much, much too long. Don't know why it's taken me such an embarrassingly long time to finish, because I quite enjoyed it. Now I just need to make myself do a little review of it while it's still fresh in my increasingly addled memory.

The only other reading I've done today (besides the newspapers) is from Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries. Haven't gotten very far into it, but I like what I've read so far. Diary- and journal-keeping is a subject I've always been interested in. I'm a diary-keeper myself – have been since I received my first diary at age 6 or so: pink leatherette with gold fleur-de-lis decorations and a tiny brass lock and key (although the key was lost and the lock broken long ago).

I recently went back and looked at a couple of my earliest journals, thinking what a wonderful walk down memory lane they'd be. What a disappointment it was to find my 7-year-old self penning immortal entries like "April 29th. Went to school." or "Feb. 13. I'm over my cold." or "June 12. Today was Thursday." And that last one was in the middle of June, ladies and gentlemen! Surely I was doing something on that searingly hot and humid Texas summer Thursday. But we'll never know if or what.

In his introduction to the book, Mallon takes up the questions of why people keep journals and diaries (he also establishes very early on that the two words are pretty much interchangeable), and whether or not they write with an implied reader, other than themselves, in mind. He believes "no one ever kept a diary for just himself," and though he admits that attitude "has provoked more disagreement than any other" he still believes that diary-keepers write with some reader (some "you") in mind:

Your "you" may be even less palpable than mine, but someday, like the one you love, he'll come along. "He" may turn out to be a great-great-granddaughter, one summer afternoon a hundred years from now, going through boxes in an attic – or the man to whom she's sold the house, without remembering to clean out the garage. But an audience will turn up. In fact, you're counting on it. Someone will be reading and you'll be talking. And if you're talking, it means you're alive.

Well, I'm not so sure I agree with all of that. I don't really envision anybody ever reading my journals except myself and possibly my husband. And if he survives me, M. has orders to burn all this massive amount of paper I've accumulated, journals included. So no great-great descendant will ever have the opportunity to slog his way through scintillating stuff like: "May 5. Dear Diary, Played a lot."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Random Notes: Catch-Up Reading

I'm always doing catch-up reading – reading last week's book reviews or last month's issues of the various magazines I try to keep up with. The same way I'm always shopping for swimsuits when the stores are putting out their parkas and earmuffs – but that's another sad story entirely.

Joe Queenan had a very funny essay ("There Will Be a Quiz") in the April 6th "New York Times Book Review," about trying to write the kind of "Questions for Discussion" that are sometimes included in the backs of books these days. He eventually finds that it's not as easy or straightforward as it seems:

. . . it became clear to me that seemingly off-the-wall questions were a staple of the genre, deliberately included to shake up the musty old world of literature and force readers to think "outside the box."

Realizing this, he figures he might as well come up with some "off-the-wall" material of his own to try to tempt the publishers. Something like the following, for an edition of Homer's Odyssey:

In describing a woman who can effortlessly turn a man into a pig, is Homer criticizing men in general? Or only sailors? Do you personally know any women like that? Are any of them named Brandi? What time does her shift end?


Michael Dirda had an interesting review of Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, in a recent issue (also April 6th) of the Washington Post's "Book World." Dirda starts off by discussing book collectors and their habits, and this quote made a real impression. I can definitely sympathize:

The newly acquired treasure is soon slipped onto a bookshelf or even, as the bookcases fill up, into a cardboard box stored in the basement or the attic or the American Self Storage in Kensington, Md. And once in a box, the book can never, ever be found when it's needed. Trust me. I know.

But Manguel seems to lead a perfect life, for a book person anyway:

. . . this superb all-around literary essayist, can actually find any one of his 30,000 books. As he tells us in The Library at Night, they lie readily at hand on dark wood shelves, in a building constructed on the ruins of a former 15th-century barn, adjoining a one-time presbytery, on a hill south of the Loire. That's in France. Not too far from Paris. A long way from American Self-Storage in Kensington, Md.

I love Dirda's reviews – they're smart and entertaining and witty, and actually tell you something about the book in question.

And what a wonderful job he has! As he says of Manguel:

Most of all, . . . he loves to read and read and read, and then to write about his reading and quote from it.

Well, we all love to do that, but these guys get paid for it.


And in the blogosphere, Ravenous Reader had a great post about notebooks the other day ("Notebookism," April 16). I think most book people are probably notebook enthusiasts, too. I know they're one of my obsessions. Well, for one thing, you need a lot of notebooks if you make a lot of lists, and I'm certainly guilty of that.

I tend to gravitate toward the lower end of the notebook spectrum – I'm more likely to pick up a couple of Staples spiral-bound books than a pricier Moleskine. I love them all, but the more expensive the notebook, the more intimidated I'd be about scribbling in it. Once you introduce acid-free paper and fancy covers into the equation, the notebook ceases to be a notebook and becomes a journal, with its own set of rules and pleasures.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Short Story Reading Challenge

Kate's Book Blog is hosting The Short Story Reading Challenge, to run through 2008. She's offering several options, including a "custom option" so "you can tailor your reading list to best meet your personal reading aspirations." That sounds perfect for me.

In the past I always enjoyed reading short fiction, but in recent years I've shied away from it for some reason. I think possibly because the emotional impact of a short story can be so much more intense than that of a longer work. But I believe now I'm up for the challenge.

I haven't yet mapped out a plan or list, but I'm thinking of sticking to one genre, rather than specific authors or collections. I have a couple of collections of stories by M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood I've been wanting to look into, which would be perfect. And even Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote some very good stories with supernatural elements. So I'm thinking of using that as my overall theme - ghost stories!

Booking Through Thursday: Vocabulary

This week's BTT topic:
I've always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

Yes, Nithin, a very interesting question. I'm a pretty good speller and I think I've got a fairly extensive vocabulary (well, reading vocabulary anyway), so I don't have the problem very often. But I guess if I come upon a word or phrase I'm truly stumped about, I usually stop and look it up right away, or "Google" it. I did editing work for years, and all that proof-reading probably left its mark on my reading habits (hmmm - is that a pun?).

Of course, if my husband is around when the question arises, I just ask him – as a former English teacher and classics major, he can usually figure out what just about any word or phrase means. Funny thing is – he's a terrible speller!

Later that same day:
J: "Are you upset that I wrote on my blog that you're a terrible speller?"
M: "No. I never care what people say about me as long as I'm the center of attention!"

Monday, April 14, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Siblings in Sepia

Last Friday would have been my mother's 87th birthday. This is a photo of her and (I believe) her younger sister, my Aunt Bette, taken around 1924. Since Bette looks to be about a year old, Mamma would have been around three. Check out those snazzy shoes.

Mamma had two sisters (my Aunt Linnie came along nearly five years later), and until my mom started putting on weight later in life, they all looked very much alike. In fact, in photos of the sisters in their teens and early twenties, if there's no note on the back, I sometimes have trouble figuring out which sister is my mom!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Random Reading

Another rainy Sunday. Well, not actually rainy – just sort of cold and damp. Where's this famous Spring I keep hearing so much about? Had some dental work done this past week, and my dear little dentist regaled me with his plans for visiting his summer place at the beach in North Carolina and his time-share condo in Aruba. And here I am in drizzly, dreary Virginia with nary a vacation or a beach in sight. Just gray skies and sore gums.

The nerve of some people!

But it is good weather for reading. And I've been doing a little today – just can't seem to stay with any one book for very long. I've read bits of Peter Ackroyd's Chatteron and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. I'm nearly finished with both of them, but it's taking me longer than it really should to get through them – neither is a particularly long read. But I keep getting sidetracked by other books. I read Hazel Holt's Mrs. Malory and The Delay of Execution this week – another great cozy mystery in one of my favorite series.

Also started the first Harry Potter book (HP and the Sorcerer's Stone). The first half went very quickly and I enjoyed it. But now that I've journeyed with Harry from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, all the way to Hogwarts, things are starting to bog down. I'm beginning to think maybe I wasn't cut out for an education in wizardry.

And, in addition, today I've been reading a few chapters in A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World, by Nicholas Basbanes – a really entertaining look at "book people, places, and culture." This is from Chapter 10: "Music of the Spheres":

When people gather today to talk seriously about "books of the future," the discussion inevitably is driven by what some see as the ubiquitous triumph of modern technology and the certain obsolescence of print. The book as we know it, in other words, if not dead, is certainly moribund. Curiously enough, this kind of debate is not especially new, and has been argued in one form or another for decades, often with great passion and conviction on both sides of the issue. . . . Johannes Gutenberg's introduction of movable metal type had three immediate effects on Western civilization, Elizabeth L. Eisenstein has demonstrated in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. . .: standardization of content, widespread dissemination of intellectual dialogue, and most important of all, fixity of the product. But a few observers hardened in the old traditions felt that printing would have an adverse impact on refined civilization, and some of them put up spirited arguments against its growing dominance.

Ah, I wonder what they'd have to say about the Kindle!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Suspense & Thriller Challenge

Mysteries (and suspense stories) are probably my favorite genre, so this is just an obvious choice for me. The Suspense & Thriller Reading Challenge runs through 2009, so even though it calls for reading 12 books, there's plenty of time to get it done.

Guidelines and a list of all the many types of mysteries/thrillers, etc. can be found on the announcement/sign-up page for the challenge. Here's how it works:

* Read SIX (6) different sub-genres of thrillers in 2008.
* Read SIX (6) different sub-genres of thrillers in 2009.
By the end of this challenge, you will have read 12 different sub-genres of thrillers. Don't worry about when you start this challenge. It officially ends on the very last day of December 2009. You have plenty of time!
You do NOT need to select your books ahead of time.
You don't need a blog to join in this challenge.

I haven't yet decided what I'll be reading, but my list-making mania is bound to kick in soon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Writing Challenge

This week's BTT topic:
Pick up the nearest book. (I’m sure you must have one nearby.)
Turn to page 123.
What is the first sentence on the page?
The last sentence on the page?
Now . . . connect them together….
(And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book–that’s cheating!)

I've been reading Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd, and the first and last sentences on page 123 make such a neat little duet, I don't think I need to do any more "connecting" at all. (Which is just as well - I've been to the dentist this morning and the Novocain is deadening my brain quite nicely.)

"One please," she said to the old man who was sitting there disconsolately. She saw a face which reminded her of a friend long dead, and then another, and another."

Since I haven't gotten this far in the book yet, I don't know who "she" is, or why the old man is disconsolate. But the seeing of the friends long dead sounds like typical Peter Ackroyd.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Reading Miss Read

This is not an official challenge – at least for now. My cousin MLB is starting a "personal challenge" to read the "Miss Read" books. You can find her post about the books here.

I read the first three books in the Fairacre series several years ago, and always thought I'd continue with the others, but somehow just never got back to them. I think I've got several more stored around here somewhere, in one of these massive "to be read" piles, so I just might dig one out and give it a try. It should be fun – there are no rules and no schedule to follow. As Cuzzie says:

I am going to challenge myself to begin the Miss Read books and see how far I go. If anyone would care to join me just let me know. There are no rules – rules aren't fun – just choose a book and have a go.

So if you want to join in, just let her know at Boyett-Brinkley.

Pulitzer Prizes

This year's Pulitzer Prize winners have been announced, and the fiction award has gone to Junot Diaz for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Probably not a book I'm likely to read, but I love the title. One of the other finalists might be interesting, however – Lore Segal's Shakespeare's Kitchen sounds like something to explore.

There were two award winners in the Poetry category this year – Robert Hass for Time and Materials, and Philip Schultz for Failure. Also, a special honorary award (or "citation," actually) was given to Bob Dylan "for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." How appropriate for National Poetry Month.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Review: Emma

Written by Jane Austen
Published by Penguin Books, 1996, 474 pp.

Eponymous Reading Challenge

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister's marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses . . . .

The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her. [p.7]

We all hate to admit when we're wrong about something, so I'm not happy to have to say I guess television isn't the complete waste of time I was beginning to think it is. Just when I'm ready to slap the "vast wasteland" sticker across the screen, PBS comes up with something like the Complete Jane Austen series they've been showing this spring. All my ranting and raving down the drain. Because without the PBS shows, I might never have had the pleasure of rediscovering Jane Austen's books.

Before I started reading Emma for the Eponymous Reading Challenge, I had read only one other Austen novel. In high school, I read Pride and Prejudice for senior English class, and had a terrible time with it. I'm not sure why. I had read other 19th century English novelists and enjoyed them. In fact, I was already a real Brontë enthusiast. So it seems like Austen would have been an instant hit with my teenaged self. But that was not the case. I found the doings of the Bennett girls and their families, friends, and foes indescribably silly and mind-numbingly tedious. By the end of the book, I was ready to throttle the entire lot of them, along with the teacher who was putting me through the horrendous ordeal.

Well, confession is good for the soul, right? In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny: What a maroon! But now I've come to my senses, and fallen in love with Miss Austen and her books, as any normal Anglophiliac bookworm should do.

Jane Austen published Emma late in 1815 (it's dated 1816), when she was 40 years old. It followed the earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. None of them were published under her own name. After she died in July 1817, her brother Henry oversaw the publication of two more books, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which were brought out together in December 1817. Henry included a "Biographical Notice," for the first time identifying Jane as the author of all the books. Since then, Jane Austen's novels have never been out of print.

Emma tells the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse, a young gentlewoman who lives with her widowed father at Hartfield, in the small English town of Highbury. As the book begins, Emma's governess and friend, Miss Taylor, has married a neighbor, Mr. Weston, and gone off to live on his estate, leaving Emma to her own devices. And since she fancies herself an expert matchmaker (she predicted the match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, after all), Emma soon gets herself into hot water.

In spite of the warnings of her friend Mr. Knightley, Emma befriends Miss Harriet Smith, a poor but genteel young woman of unknown parentage. Harriet looks up to Emma and is ready to agree to anything she suggests. And very soon, this worship on Harriet's part coupled with Emma's love of matchmaking and meddling in the affairs of others lead to near-disastrous consequences. Emma's attempts to influence Harriet's love life nearly ruin the poor girl's one real chance at happiness, and set up a few romantic mishaps in Emma's own life.

Emma is said to be one of Austen's most openly satirical works, and humor certainly plays a major role. So although circumstances may seem precarious at times, in the end everything is very neatly and satisfactorily worked out. And along the way, we're introduced to many other entertaining characters. There's Mr. Elton, the town's attractive and eligible Vicar; Frank Churchill, the even more attractive and eligible son of Mr. Weston – Frank has been adopted by a wealthy aunt and has taken her name; Miss Bates, a sweet and well-loved but constantly chattering woman who Emma finds most annoying; and Jane Fairfax, the beautiful but penniless orphaned niece of Miss Bates. To name a few. In fact, this is one novel in which the plot really does seem less important than the characters themselves.

Jane Austen's novels are not for everyone, of course. Not a lot of action, and the language takes a bit of work if you're not familiar with 19th century styles. But if you want a witty, beautifully written comedy of manners, Emma is a book you'll treasure.

Random Photo Monday: In Old San Antone

Thought I'd just put up a few photos from our last trip to San Antonio TX, back in 2006. My home town. Strange to be playing tourist in a place I once knew so intimately.

The first two were taken on the Riverwalk, which is a really lovely, colorful place to spend an afternoon or have a great meal - many restaurants and bistros to choose from. Also art galleries, shops, and historic sites. Nothing like it was when I was growing up in SA, back in the Dark Ages. Back then, the "river" was mostly just a large drainage ditch meandering through the middle of downtown. But after many years and many civic improvement campaigns, San Antonio is now the Venice of the Southwest! Who would have thunk it? Just shows what a winning basketball franchise can do for a town (Go, Spurs!).

The third photo is a shot of part of the old Main Library in downtown SA. At the time we took the picture, the library was all closed up – not sure what they've got planned for it or if it's still there today. Note the window-unit air conditioning and the fallout shelter sign. The quote carved above the door is from William Ellery Channing and reads: "In the best books great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours."

It was a great old building and an excellent library, and I spent many hours there, doing research for school projects and papers. They also had a surprisingly good selection of old phonograph records – I heard Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Ma Rainey for the first time on recordings borrowed from their collection. Wonderful place.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Sunday Salon: On a Gloomy Sunday

Suddenly, spring has gone away. It was gray and rainy and cold, all day. Even the forsythia looked dim and lifeless. Very depressing, especially for a day in April. Plus, all the cherry trees are shedding their blossoms now, and the drizzle is plastering them all over cars and sidewalks. Like flat pink snow. Very messy. And very depressing – but I think I mentioned that already.

I am very much affected by the weather and the amount of sunlight I get (yes, I know – sensitive plant and all that), so these dark, dreary days always get me down. And for some reason, it seems even worse when they happen on a Sunday – somehow I feel that Sundays should be endlessly bright, happy, and filled with amusing activities to provide amusing anecdotes for amusing blog posts.

Well, there won't be any of that today, folks. But I did manage to get a little reading done. Finished up my latest "cozy" mystery novel – Mrs. Malory and the Silent Killer, by Hazel Holt. I started reading the Mrs. Malory mysteries back in the 1990s, mainly just because Hazel Holt had been Barbara Pym's friend and colleague, and later her literary executor. But the books turned out to be so enjoyable that I've stuck with them and now have read almost the whole series (hope to get the rest of them read this year). They are indeed a charming portrait of English village life (I must be quoting someone there, but at the moment I don't remember who).

Also read a bit of Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd. I'm reading it for a couple of challenges, and so far it seems very entertaining. But I don't know about "unputdownable," which is what the jacket flap claims for it. I've actually put it down several times in the last week.

And that reminds me – aren't book jacket blurbs a wonderful study? The flap also calls Chatterton "ceaselessly entertaining, dazzlingly clever." Well, that's a good all-purpose blurb, if I ever heard one. Put that together with something like "absolute rubbish, not worth the paper" and you've got yourself covered, review-wise, with hardly any effort at all.

Oh, and I started reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, my second book for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge. (The first was her Over Sea, Under Stone - you can read my report on that one here.) Haven't gotten far enough into this one to tell much about it. But a few lines, early on, make me think it's a book to match my mood tonight:

"The Walker is abroad," he said again. "And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining." [p.8]

Well, things may not be so bad as to be "beyond imagining." After all, the second half of "Sense and Sensibility" is on PBS tonight. But if this rain doesn't let up, we're in for a very gloomy Monday, whether the Walker is abroad or not.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Lit-Ra-Chur

This week's BTT topic:
When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?)
Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?

OK, I have to admit the first thing I think of when I hear the term is Julie Walters in the film "Educating Rita": "I want to study LIT-ra-tyur."

Wow, this is one of those questions I could mull over for days and still not come up with a satisfactory answer. I suppose I do make a distinction between "literary" reading and, say, reading the L.L. Bean catalog. But to me, these days, books are books. And whether it's Dickens or Dr. Seuss, I read purely for pleasure.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Review: Over Sea, Under Stone

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000; 196 pp.

Originally published by Jonathan Cape (London), 1965

Once Upon a Time II Challenge

Ever since he had learned to read, Barney's greatest heroes had been King Arthur and his knights. In his dreams he fought imaginary battles as a member of the Round Table, rescuing fair ladies and slaying false knights. He had been longing to come to the West Country; it gave him a strange feeling that he would in some way be coming home. [p. 4]

In Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper's fantasy novel for young readers, the Drew children – Simon, Jane, and Barney (short for Barnabas) – along with their father and mother, have come to Cornwall to spend their vacation in the seaside village of Trewissick. They're staying with their Great-Uncle Merry in his mysterious Grey House. Soon after arrival, while the grownups are off tending to their grownup business, the three kids are left to explore their new surroundings. After uncovering a hidden entrance to the attic, they find an old manuscript that looks like a treasure map. And that's when the adventure begins.

The manuscript turns out to be the key to the hiding place of an ancient artifact from King Arthur's court. And soon the three youngsters, along with their enigmatic great uncle, are caught up in the ages-old legend of Arthur's battle for Good against Evil. There are enemies in the village who are also searching for the object, and will go to any lengths to get it. Not wanting to give too much of the plot away, I'll just say that the three Drew kids end up vanquishing the forces of darkness, at least for the time being (well, you knew they would), and almost uncover the secret of their Great-Uncle Merry's true identity.

This is the first book in Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence of five novels (named for the second novel in the series), and I understand that it's very different from the other four. It actually reads more like a mystery novel than fantasy. For one thing, at first glance anyway, it doesn't have a lot of the trappings of traditional fantasies – no fairies, demons, dragons, magic, witches or wizards – although some of those things are hinted at. And it's set in modern-day England (well, fairly modern), but it has a timeless quality that I found very appealing – thankfully, there are no cell phones, instant messaging, or computer games to distract the Drews from their quest.

I've been intending to read this book for years , and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can see why it's been a favorite of kids and adults alike, ever since it appeared 30-odd years ago. The story is exciting, with lots of twists and turns and near-disasters. The characters are well-developed, and the action is mostly plausible, given the fact that we're dealing with a cosmic fight between the forces of light and darkness. I can't wait to get started on the next title in the series.

And since this was such a fast read, I've decided to take on one of the other "quests" in the Once Upon a Time Challenge. My update post is here.