Thursday, October 30, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Conditioning

This week's BTT topic:

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

Afraid I can’t really come up with one definitive answer here. Some books I do try to keep in pristine condition – certain first editions, and copies of titles that I collect – like Alice in Wonderland or Huckleberry Finn. And some very old books, of course.

However, the very mention of spine-breaking makes me cringe. That’s a no-no. I don’t even like to break the spines of magazines.

If it’s a hard cover book, I try not to be a dog-earer (that’s why I have that huge collection of bookmarks). But paperbacks are fair game: usually not for marking my place (again – huge collection of bookmarks), but for noting passages I want to remember and write down later.

Which brings us to margin writing. And on that count, I’m afraid I have to plead guilty – I’m an enthusiastic note writer. I usually try to keep it short, and write lightly in pencil so I can erase later. But if you start investigating my library, you’ll find that most books are annotated to some degree. Well, it’s my book and I’ll write if I wanna!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Legacy Libraries

This week's question from Boston Bibliophile: Legacy libraries. With which legacy libraries do you share books? Tell us a little about a couple of them and what you share.

Well, I’ve really only looked at the “completed” libraries. And among those, I share the most books with Walker Percy (109) and Ernest Hemingway (117). Of course, since Hemingway’s library contains more than seven thousand volumes, I suppose he shares books with just about everyone! After those two, I think I have the most books in common with Sylvia Plath (51) – one of which, interestingly, is Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock. And just as interestingly, that’s a book I also share with Marilyn Monroe.

I always learn something from these Tuesday Thingers exercises. I already knew about the legacy library project, so for once I wasn’t completely surprised by the topic. But this week, while looking around at the various libraries, I found I had 27 books in common with the Jewish Serbian-Hungarian author-poet-translator Danilo Kiš – someone I’d never heard of. But a little surfing around on the internet has got me interested. Now I’m going to have to try to find an English edition of his short story collection, The Encyclopedia of the Dead. And that’s one of the great things about LibraryThing, isn’t it – always so many intriguing, unfamiliar works to be discovered.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: What's Sitting on Your Shelf?

This week’s BTT topic is inspired by a recent Washington Post article, and the main question is:

“What tomes are waiting patiently on your shelves?”

I think I’ve probably written a few times on this blog about the fact that I find it really, really difficult to let go of books. Once a book comes into my possession, it’s mine for life. Or at least, that’s the way I look at it. I suppose I have let a few go, over the years; but always against my better judgment, and I’ve usually regretted it afterwards.

But I’m a slow reader and sort of a picky reader, so a lot of the books I’ve acquired have ended up unread or half-read. Which means that, yeah, I’ve got a lot of books I fully intend to read or finish reading someday when there’s world enough and time.

At the moment, I’m on the road and away from my physical library. But I did a quick check of my LibraryThing catalogue (has to be quick because the hubby is standing at the hotel room door, jingling the car keys), and came up with a few titles right off the bat. Flatland by Edwin Abbott - one of the classic early sci-fi works: I’ve had my ancient paperback copy for years now, and have every intention of reading it - someday. The Mirror and the Lamp by M.H. Abrams - again, another classic, and if you were an English major twenty or thirty years ago, it was a must-read; don’t know how I managed to pass it by, but one of these days I’ll get back to it (I promise).

Of course, there’s always War and Peace, which I really would like to read someday (no, I really mean that) - I’ve got several copies of it, I think. And I’m pretty sure I’ve been hanging onto a couple of volumes of Proust since high school. I’ll get to them someday.

OK, I guess I could say Moby Dick, couldn’t I? I’ve got several copies of that, too. Had them for years. But it would be a lie to say I intend to read any of them. Who needs all that info about whales, right?

And now it’s back on the road as we head out for the beautiful (but rainy today, I think) Texas Hill Country!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Road Trip

I suppose I really shouldn’t burden everyone with a Sunday Salon post today, since I haven’t had much time for reading, and probably won’t. M and I are getting ready to set out tomorrow morning on a three-week trip to Texas, to visit family and friends, and start scouting retirement locales. So my reading today has been confined to various reminder lists:
  • Have mail held. Check
  • Stop newspapers. Check
  • Don’t forget to pack prescriptions. Check
  • Don’t forget to pack undies. Check
  • Stop whimpering. Check
  • No – really stop whimpering. Check

Packing for a three-week trip is always a chore, especially at this time of year when the weather in South Texas can be so changeable. So our apartment is beginning to look like the staging area for a NASA mission to a Mars outpost, and I’m starting to feel a bit like David Bowie’s Major Tom (Don’t forget to pack protein pills and helmet. Check).

I have mixed emotions about the trip. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone – it’s been a couple of years since we visited. And this is the first time in over twenty years that we’ll be “home” for my mother-in-law’s birthday (she’ll be 84 this year), which will definitely be nice.

But we’re driving down, and that makes for a very, very, very long trip. And it involves doing a lot of things I really hate doing – sitting in a car for hours at a time, getting up early, living out of a suitcase and having my daily routine disrupted (yes, I know I shouldn’t be such a creature of habit, but it’s too late to change that now).

Plus, it means not being able to play with my computer all day. Bummer. We’ll have a laptop along, but we’ll be dependent on hotel internet hookups and dial-up service along the way, and that’s not an encouraging prospect. So this could be my last transmission for a while (Major Joy to Ground Control).

On the other hand, I probably will get a lot of reading done on the trip. I’m taking along several books I’m reading for various challenges. I even toyed with the idea of picking up a couple of audiobooks for the drive down and back. But I’m not sure how that would go over with M – he likes to listen to Aerosmith and The Who and Pink Floyd and Rod Stewart on the burn through Tennessee. Turned up loud!

So, I guess for now it’s back to the packing (should I or shouldn’t I take dress-up clothes for the birthday celebration? will we need winter coats for the trip back north? and where the hell did I put that travel steamer?). And the reading of lists with helpful reminders. Next item:

  • When mother-in-law says I look like I've put on a few pounds since the last time she saw me, resist urge to bang head against wall (my head or hers).

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Book Meme

This week’s BTT topic:
I’ve seen this series of questions floating around the ‘net the last few days,
and thought it looked like a good one for us!

What was the last book you bought?

Actually, the last time I was on a book buying excursion, I bought four books – Miss Bunting, Never Too Late, and Peace Breaks Out, by Angela Thirkell, and If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino. At a Book Rack used book store. Haven’t read any of them yet.

Name a book you have read MORE than once
Alice in Wonderland. Dozens of times.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?
The answer is Yes. The book was Be Here Now, by Baba Ram Das. Just the right book at the right time.

How do you choose a book? e.g. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews
All of the above. But probably by reviews more than anything. And there are some writers I always read, whenever they come out with something new - mostly mystery writers like P.D. James and John Dunning.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?
I would say, these days I probably prefer fiction over non. But that hasn’t always been the case.

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?
Again, currently I’d have to say plot and character are probably more important to me – beautiful writing is always a plus, of course.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)
Hmmmm. A tough one. Guess if I have to choose just one, I’ll have to say Huck Finn.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?
I don’t have an actual nightstand, worse luck. But my bedtime reading at the moment includes Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey, The Eight by Katherine Neville, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs, finished a week or so ago. My review is here.

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?
Sure. But generally if I don’t like a book enough to finish it, I’ll know before I’m halfway through. These days, I’m pretty picky about the books I read, so there aren’t many that I dislike enough to abandon before the end. I suppose the last book I started but never finished was The Devil Wears Prada. Just couldn’t really get into it, and then I saw the movie (which I loved, by the way) and thought “why bother?” and shelved it. Has that ever happened to you? It's happened to me more than once - which is why I always prefer to see the movie after I've finished the book.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Recently Added

This week, Boston Bibliophile asks:

LibraryThing's Recently Added feature: do you look at it? Do you use it for ideas? Is there something listed there now that looks interesting to you? What have you added to your LT library recently?

Well, actually I have those features turned off so I don’t have to see them every time I look at my LT home page. Which isn’t often – I’m more apt to check into my profile page. Had to turn them back on to look at them. So I guess the short answers to the first questions would be no and no.

After looking at the features, I have to say it is kind of neat to see all my recently-added covers lined up there. I think I turned that feature off in the first place because it was taking a long time for all the cover graphics to load. Or possibly because at that time I was adding a lot of Library of America titles to my library, and those covers are kind of boring when you see them all lined up together. (Not a reflection on the literature inside the covers, mind you.)

The other recently-added feature – the one that shows books added by others – I’m still not that excited about. I suppose if I kept an eye on it, I might find a few things that interest me. Not that I need any help adding books to my TBR list – finding books that interest me has never been a big problem.

So, what have I added to my LT library recently? Well, I added a couple of books that I’ve recently reviewed: Superfudge, by Judy Blume, and Mr. White’s Confession, by Robert Clark. Also several books by Angela Thirkell (Miss Bunting / Peace Breaks Out / Never Too Late) that I found at a local used book store. And a few Viragos I just bought on eBay: Saraband by Eliot Bliss, Young Entry by M.J. Farrell (Molly Keane), and The Matriarch by G.B. Stern. I love Viragos – especially the green covers.

The most recent book I’ve added was Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo. Got a free copy of that one from an ad that appeared on Shelfari a couple of months back. I had forgotten all about it, and it just appeared in the mail the other day. What a nice surprise. Dontcha just love it when that happens?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Review: Summer Reading

Written by Hilma Wolitzer
Published by Ballantine Books, 2007; 251 pages

I was a little suspicious of Hilma Wolitzer’s novel Summer Reading when I first read the plot summary. A book about a group of women getting together to read books, and how that activity affected their lives outside the group, sounded an awful lot like The Jane Austen Book Club. And while I enjoyed that earlier work, I wasn’t eager to read a carbon copy. So when I put Wolitzer’s book on my reading list for this past summer, I had some misgivings. After all, a book called Summer Reading just couldn’t really turn out to be a great summer read, could it?

Well, as it happens, it most certainly could! And I needn’t have worried about it being a carbon copy. It definitely is not that. Wolitzer’s novel is original and very readable, with well-developed characters, a lot of humor, and a few surprises thrown in along the way.

Basically, it’s the story of three very different women – how they interact, and how reading (or not reading, at times) affects their lives. Lissy Snyder, the wealthy “trophy wife” of a Wall Street type, is the originator of a reading group (called the Page Turners) that meets twice a month at her summer place in the Hamptons. Michelle Cutty, Lissy’s hired help, is younger than Lissy and a permanent resident of the beach community – as opposed to the “summer people” who invade the place during the tourist season. And Angela Graves, a retired English professor who lives in a tiny book-filled cottage by the sea, has been engaged by Lissy to lead the discussion at the group’s meetings.

Angela guides the Page Turners through five books in the course of the novel: Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, Villette by Charlotte Brontë, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. And these works, each in its own way an exploration of male-female relationships, cause each woman to reexamine how her own past actions and decisions have shaped her life.

All of the characters were intriguing – even the minor ones like Michelle’s mother Jo Ann and April, the first wife of Michelle’s boyfriend Hank. But I think my favorite was Angela. I’m always looking for books with interesting older women in leading roles – they’re not easy to find. I liked her because she was a book lover, and something of a loner. And the back story of her affair with a married colleague – an interlude from many years ago that has shaped the whole of her life since then – was touching and sad and also a little exasperating. She just seemed very human.

The only quibble I have with the book (and it’s really a minor one) is the slightly surprising ending to Lissy’s story. It involves a coincidence of fairly epic proportions (well, epic to Lissy, anyway), and isn’t quite as believable as the rest of the book. But it does provide a very satisfying, if not terribly realistic wrap-up to an otherwise entirely appealing read.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Review: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Written by John Bellairs
Illustrated by Edward Gorey
A Dell Yearling Book, Published 1973
RIP III Challenge
Young Readers Challenge

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs, is the first book in his Lewis Barnavelt series of gothic horror novels for young readers.

Orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, ten-year-old Lewis comes to live with his Uncle Jonathan, in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1948. Lewis is lonely, frightened, nervous about meeting his unknown relative, and worried about what his future holds:

It seemed to Lewis that all he could think of these days were questions: Where am I going? Who will I meet? Will I like them? What will happen to me? [p. 4]

This could be the beginning of any number of orphaned-children novels. But Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan turns out to be a wizard – the scandalous black sheep of the family. And the story soon takes a unique and uncanny turn: Together with neighbor Florence Zimmermann (who just happens to be a witch), Lewis and his uncle must locate a magic clock hidden somewhere in Jonathan's spooky mansion, before it destroys the world.

The clock was the handiwork of Isaac Izard, an evil warlock who was the original owner of Uncle Jonathan's house. Izard practiced black magic and lived a hermit-like existence there in the mansion along with his wife Selenna until her mysterious death. Isaac himself died shortly after that, one night during a wild thunderstorm. And though no one understands why he did it, Izard devised a clock that would bring about the end of the world and hid it somewhere in the walls of the house. Now every night Lewis and his uncle search for the clock while they hear it ticking off the minutes leading up to doomsday.

Bellairs’ story is decidedly creepy, but also whimsical and endearing. Uncle Jonathan’s house has some very surprising characteristics – such as stained glass windows with pictures that change without notice. And a secret passageway that leads to Mrs. Zimmermann’s house next door. And Jonathan and Florence are constantly engaged in good-natured bickering, and delight in addressing each other with pet names like “Hag Face,” “Frizzy Wig,” and “Weird Beard.”

Lewis is presented as a very real boy, with a real child’s insecurities and fears, forced to deal with very exotic and peculiar and even perilous situations. His desperate struggle to maintain an unlikely friendship with a popular boy in his class at school serves as the main mechanism for some of the most dangerous action in the book. And although he’s certainly instrumental in the effort to destroy the forces of evil, he’s not portrayed as a superhero. In the end, he’s content to sit around a bonfire with his uncle and Mrs. Zimmermann, drinking cocoa and eating chocolate chip cookies. Of course, the bonfire eventually turns into a jack-o-lantern, with a scowling orange face – but then, Uncle Jonathan is a wizard, after all.

This was my introduction to John Bellairs and Lewis Barnavelt, and I'd definitely like to read more titles in the series. I loved the eccentric characters and bizarre storyline. And Edward Gorey’s illustrations were a special treat, and a perfect match for Bellairs’ mix of ordinary everyday action with a supernatural element. It all combines to make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a delightful experience for readers of all ages.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Worst of the Best

This week's BTT topic:
What, in your opinion, is the best book that you haven’t liked? Mind you, I don’t mean your most-hated book–oh, no. I mean the most accomplished, skilled, well-written, impressive book that you just simply didn’t like.
Like, for movies–I can acknowledge that Citizen Kane is a tour de force and is all sorts of wonderful, cinematically speaking, but . . . I just don’t like it. I find it impressive and quite an accomplishment, but it’s not my cup of tea.
So . . . what book (or books) is your Citizen Kane?
Gee, this is a lot easier than I’d really like it to be. I can think of so many “great” books that I just don’t care for – it’s almost scary. But then I’ve never minded admitting that I’m a philistine, so here goes.

I guess if I had to pick just one book (and I think I’ve already blogged about this recently), it would have to be James Joyce’s Ulysses. Or possibly James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I didn’t care for either of those, although I recognize the artistry. I read Ulysses for a college English class and I’m glad now that I was forced to finish it. But at the time, it was really a struggle. And Portrait of the Artist I read because it’s one of my husband’s favorites and he kept recommending it. No accounting for taste, I guess.

Then there’s Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. But I suppose that wouldn’t really count because I’ve never actually managed to read it. I know, I know – everybody tells me it was post-modern before there was a modern for it to be post-. I’ve tried many times to get through it, but always give up somewhere around page 10. Just not my cuppa. But maybe someday something will snap and I’ll be able to zip right through it and love it. Stranger things have happened.

One I'm really embarrassed about (because, in general, Hawthorne is one of my favorite authors) is The Scarlet Letter. I know it's considered to be his masterpiece, but I just think it's an abominable book. The House of the Seven Gables is much more readable. Had to read The Scarlet Letter in high school and by the end of the term, my copy was in shreds from being thrown across the room. I think I actually dropped it in a toilet at one point. Appropriate.

And then, of course, there’s Faulkner. And this is something I really hate to admit, having lived in the South most of my life. But I’ve never really enjoyed Faulkner. Too gothic. Too much testosterone. Too much something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s just too much for me. OK, The Reivers wasn’t too bad, but that may just be because I was thinking of Steve McQueen in the movie the whole time I was reading it.

Which brings us back to movies. And “Citizen Kane.” How can you not love “Citizen Kane”?