30 May 2006

Summer Reading Challenge: My list

I'll be participating in the Summer Reading Challenge at Amanda's Weekly Zen. Here is my tentative list:

1 FICTION: Saturday, Ian McEwan
2 DRAMA: Master Harold-- and the boys, Athol Fugard
3 FICTION: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,M Spark (Slaves of Golconda)
4 FICTION: The Only Problem, Muriel Spark (Slaves of Golconda)
5 FICTION: Glyph, Percival Everett (Book giveaway: read & pass along)
6 NONFICTION:Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel,Jane Smiley(Lit Crit)
7 FICTION: The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
8 FICTION: The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt
9 FICTION: Graceland, Chris Abani (vacation)
10 NONFICTION:Fraternity, Bob Greene (Contemp Amer History)
11 FICTION: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn, (vacation)
12 NONFICTION:The Judgment of Paris, Ross King (Art History )
13 FICTION: March, Geraldine Brooks (vacation)
14 NONFICTION:Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell
15 MEMOIR: A Pound of Paper : Confessions of a Book Addict, John Baxter
16 FICTION: Beowulf (vacation)
17 FICTION: Grendel, John Gardner (vacation)
18 MEMOIR: Julie and Julia, Julie Powell
19 FICTION: Black Swan Green, David Mitchell
20 FICTION: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
21 NONFICTION:Lost Mountain, Erik Reece (ecology)
22 POETRY: Selected Poems, John Donne (vacation)

This list was culled from my TBR tag list on LibraryThing. I didn't realize how long that list was! Some have been on that list for a several months (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and Fraternity, for example). Pillars of the Earth and City of Falling Angels are loosely related to my summer travel destinations and both were recommended by friends. Beowulf & Grendel just scream to be read together. I pulled these, along with the collection of Donne's poems and Fugard's play, from my son's car where they had been tossed in a clean-out-the-locker year-end frenzy. From the looks of them, he may actually have read them. It will be interesting to re-visit Beowulf and Donne after many, many years. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a work my son has been bugging me to read for about a year!

I know this list is much longer than I can complete in 3 months, but I was unable to make further cuts in my TBR pile. Yes, indecisive! This somewhat resembles a chronologically ordered reading list, but I may not stick with this sequence. Those marked "(vacation)" are those likely to get packed for my trip, for no reason other than they are lightweight paperbacks. Depending on timing, vacation may shift the list somewhat. Also, this doesn't account for my reading group -- whether those are added or bump something else off the list, will depend on the work and whether we meet in July/August.

29 May 2006

A Reading Foodie's Delight

Sunday was a day for lazing the day away by sitting outside, tanking up on caffeine, reading the NY Times. And, what a treat for a gourmet or a gourmand that this week's issue of the NYT Book Review was 'The Food Issue'.

Becoming Julia Child is a review of the her autobiography My Life In France, co-written by Child's nephew Alex Prud'homme. Child described herself as "6-foot-2-inch, 36-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian" when she first started cooking at Ecole du Cordon Bleu. This bio focuses on her life in France when she first began to cook. The review made me want to run right to the store to buy it.

Eat Your Vegetables reviews two similarly titled books The Way We Eat and What to Eat that explore the food industry. From the review, I'm not sure one would want to read this while eating.

Will Work for Food discusses Bill Buford memoir Heat about ditching his job as a fiction editor at The New Yorker to be an apprentice in Mario Batali's kitchen.

Save These Books poses the question: What is your favorite out-of-print cookbook? to chefs, restauranteurs, and foodies. Interesting responses leave you wishing that most of these were still in print.

My favorite out-of-print cookbook? The Covent Garden Cookbook by Marie Stone. Purchased on my first trip to London in 1980, at a hole-in-the-wall thrift shop located in the midst of the Covent Garden district, then awaiting the wrecking ball, signs of 'Save the Garden' all around, this is, perhaps, a sentimental choice. But, in addition to that, this is a great vegetarian cookbook that is an interesting read because the recipes are interspersed with stories, drawings and photographs from the 300 year history of the Covent Garden market. Covent Garden today has been rebuilt, gentrified, reborn as a center of entertainment, shopping and--what else?--eating.

25 May 2006

Poetry Thursday Poem: Archeology


We asked your opinion and
you said ‘It depends’,
And we both echoed ‘On the red wheelbarrow’,
laughed, exchanging knowing smiles.

You were perplexed by yet
another oddity of adults,
pissed, not in on the joke,
locked out across the dinner table by an age.

Your mom being weird,
reciting poetry or whatever you call it:
another artifact of the cryptic,
illusive world you seek to unearth.

How much you already know about
the world because you know:
there is much to discover,
And that it all depends.

Text here of The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams

22 May 2006

Nature Journal: Photo

When I was in 7th grade, one of the English teachers made her class keep a 'Nature Journal'. All my friends thought it was a tortuous assignment, but the idea seemed neat to me. But, I was 13; my efforts at a 'Nature Journal' lasted about 30 minutes.

In the ensuing 33 years I've thought of this idea from time to time. While I've kept journals, none were devoted exclusively to observations of nature. It wasn't until a layoff last year that I made the effort. But, instead of writing, I made it a discipline to step outside at 2pm every day and take photographs of the trees as they started to leaf out. By the end of April, I had a job -- and all of the trees had leaves, magnificently shrouding my view of life beyond my property. The benefit of this discipline, besides some gorgeous photographs, was a more refined sense of observation, a keener sense when something in my physical surroundings has changed, a sharper awareness of how easy it is to let the marvelous blend into to the mundane if you allow it to do so.

Yesterday I found this bloom, without stem, atop the wood pile, apparently blown by the recent storms. I was surprised by its beauty when I found it, surprised by its color when I looked at it up close through the camera lens, and surprised by the amazing contrasts when I downloaded the shot. I love this picture!

Thanks, MorrowPlanet

I won MorrowPlanet's Monday Giveaway -- a copy of Percival Everett's Glyph. I look forward to finding it in my mailbox in the near future & will definitely write about it here after reading.

Oh! my TBR pile keeps growing....

20 May 2006

It's Only A Dog

I was skeptical about reading Marley & Me. It seemed too trite of a subject to be much more than a long article -- how could it be a full length book? With all of the ruckus over memoirs recently, if this wasn't too far-fetched (or maybe if it was), I did think that the made-for-memoirs details would provide a few laughs.

I am a snob about what I read (what a surprise!). It had better be good; it had better inform or entertain or make me think. I better not wish to get back those lost hours spent reading the book. A book about a dog? Not likely.

I read beyond the first chapter. Yes, it was short, but a poor excuse for a book can lose me in 2 or 3 pages. By chapter 3 I hadn't wanted to throw the book across the room, but I wasn't convinced that I needed to finish the book. But then something happened: my own very old dog's health changed drastically overnight. I spent the better part of two days sitting beside him, gently petting him, wishing I could ease his pain, letting him know that he was as valued to me as I think we've been to him.

And that lead me back, a few weeks later to Marley. It is just that affinity between pet & pet owner, between companion & friend, that this book is about. Told in brief slice-of-life chapters, John Grogan recounts the tales of Marley, the rambunctious, always a puppy, canine terror that ruled the roost for 13 years. By telling the stories about the dog, the reader also comes to know John Grogan, his love of gardening and of writing, of his family, and of the pains and joys of being a parent, a neighbor, or a friend. Throughout the book there are plenty of opportunities for the book to fall into a saccharine mess. After all, by it's nature, it is perched dangerously close to such a fall into the sugar bowl. And yet, there are episodes that you can't help but laugh at, like the description of a cross-country move involving an airplane ride with 3 young childen, some goldfish, crickets, frogs, a snail, and one tranquilized dog that howls so loudly in the hold that all of the passengers can hear him.

Pet owners know that it is never 'just' a pet. Reading about how Marley was not just a dog, but a companion and family member to the Grogans is something pet owners will understand. Marley & Me may not be a thought-provoking literary jaunt that you'll remember for a long time, but it is a lighthearted read that almost all pet owners would enjoy spending a few hours with.

19 May 2006

Don't like NYT's 25 best books? For a twist on the top 25 list, check out Playboy's 25 sexiest novels of all times, complete with plot summary and rationale for inclusion on the list. To quote from their intro: "If reading is thinking with someone else's brain, then erotica is feeling with someone else's body parts."

I've never heard of several of the works listed. At first, I was surprised by Judy Blume's Forever , but I agree with the rationale. And I remember having to resort to stealth methods to read it when I was 15!

And the number 1 book? Fanny Hill, published in 1749 and subject to centuries of censorship. Playboy quotes it as "the first deliberately dirty novel in English" (no citation to source of the quote given).

Years ago, I was teaching a Intro the Literature class and had students complain about a story by Hal Bennet,"Dotson Gerber Resurrected" because the notes in the Norton anthology indicated that the story had been published first in Playboy and therefore couldn't be literature. BTW, that short story is in no way 'erotica'. Things don't change much over the years, do they?

Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the link.

16 May 2006

Real and Fictional Travels

The New York Times ran an article in Sunday's Travel section on books that evoked wanderlust. I find it amusing that I was reading it while Matt Lauer was interviewing the curator at the Louvre regarding increased tourism due to The DaVinci Code. (No, I haven't read the book.) Say what you might about the confluence of pop culture and high culture, but I agree with the curator who said he thought it was great that people who wouldn't otherwise come to the Louvre were doing so. Isn't that what engaging writing will do: inspire the reader to explore ideas, places, cultures, whether in person or from the armchair?

A few years ago, I sat on the sands of Copacabana and looked towards Pao de Acucar, realizing a dream I had had for over 30 years, inspired by my 4th grade Geography book. Reading Camus and Saint Exupery made me want to travel to northern Africa; Hugo planted a desire to see Notre Dame and the catacombs of Paris; Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, T.H. White's Once and Future King, Barrie's Peter Pan, and a host of other writers' works lead me to travels throughout England; Hemingway to Paris, Italy, Spain, Cuba (maybe some day I'll get there) and Key West; Bradbury to planets beyond my capacity to travel; Shakespeare's The Tempest to the Green World.

Reading Jessamyn West's Massacre at Fall Creek when I was a teenager made me think about events that happened nearby years before I lived. Sometimes I look out my window and look at that sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent of a creek and wonder about that massacre 200 years and 10 miles away and what it taught me about pioneers, justice, how disrespectful people can be towards other cultures.
Writing can both inspire and inform one's travels, both before and after one visits the actual locality. Give me an engaging piece of writing and there will probably be something in it that will make me want to experience it in person, whether it exists or not.

As Steven Colbert (who just isn't right, is he?) was quoted in the Times article regarding his travel inspiration:

"Lord of the Rings." I always wanted to travel to Middle Earth. And now wherever I go, I am always on the lookout for Hobbits."

Yeah, Steven, you're right!

11 May 2006

Ticknor: A Novel

Ticknor: A Novel, Sheila Heti.

Because this was a nominee for the Spring 'Read This' at the LitBlog Coop, and because it was short, I picked up a copy of Ticknor recently and avoided reading any of the LBC posts until after I finished the book. I can't remember the last time it took me 4 days to read a 118 page book! And that should not recommend it. Heti's book is a tough trudge up a steep hill in inclement weather. I kept encouraging myself: "It's only 118 pages -- you can do this". But, 3 of the last 4 nights I either fell asleep or found myself wondering what I had just read on the previous few pages that I had to re-read before continuing. So, imagine my surprise when I turned the last page and thought: "Well, that wasn't so bad; I liked it a bit."

Heti's work is imaginative and bears little resemblance to the historical persons portrayed. Ticknor is a stream-of-consciousness tale about biographer George Ticknor and his friend historian William H. Prescott. But, it isn't historical fiction. Rather, it is a character study of Ticknor, a socially awkward, obsessive, flawed man consumed with jealousy over his friend's publishing successes, wealth and social standing. Ticknor even seems jealous over his friend's blindness, resentful of how Prescott adapts to and overcomes the fateful boyish prank that injured his eye. More than that though, Ticknor is consumed by his own inadequacies and anxieties.

Ticknor does not interact with any one in the book; the narrative takes place completely in his head. His disjointed internal monologue is so disruptive that it isn't surprising when he reveals that it took him 10 years to write an article. Ticknor's various trains of thought have him ruminating on how his friend's acquaintances won't acknowledge him, on Prescott's dislike for him, how Prescott's wife is horrified by his obvious (to him) lust for her, and his daydreams about how the wife might one day return his admiring glances. Yet, the description of his social ineptitude suggests that he would botch up any return of affection.

There isn't just one narrative point of view in the work, although all points of view are Ticknor's. The changing narrative voice is challenging, but contributes to the overall mood of the work. You want to shout "Turn off the voices in your head, George". Yet Heti's novel depends on that battering din.

You don't end up feeling much of anything but pity for poor George Ticknor, but only in a voyeuristic, 'won't someone help him so he won't be my problem?' sort of way. And this is why Heti's book works: it isn't about Ticknor's friendship with Prescott; it isn't success and failure or wealth and poverty; it is about inadequacies within Ticknor, his introspection and inaccurate observations that drive his actions and keeps him from interacting with others. And it is about the similar inadequacies within those who avoid him. Even the reader. The human condition: Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!

03 May 2006

Expressions of Sadness & Secrets on the Web

Onepotmeal had a link yesterday to The Saddest Thing I Own. Contributors submit a photograph and a written explanation about the saddest object they own. Some of the items seem benign, but the narratives can be gut-wretching; tales of lost loves, lost lives, and haunting memories.

Scrolling through the site, I couldn't help but think of similarities to PostSecret, where contributors submit a piece of art on a postcard to reveal a secret. And, yet, for the last day I've been trying to figure out why these sites have a different emotional impact on me. A few posts on The Saddest Thing brought me close to tears, yet I felt like I was rubbernecking at a car wreck. Real life a little too upclose and personal.

Not every secret on PostSecret is traumatic, though many are. Some are witty, some fun, some titillating -- but not necessarily sad. Like The Saddest Thing, the artist is anonymously sharing an emotional experience with the reader. Perhaps it is the limitations of the format that forces the creator to judiciously choose words and images that makes the experience more profound. Maybe it is the catharsis of PostSecret: no matter how horrendous the secret, there seems to be a healing in the revelation the postcard art contains.

I don't find that yet in the first posts in The Saddest Thing. It just seems sad.