Monday, January 31, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

Well, this is a digression from the TBR Dare -- a library book!  (gasp!).  I am allowing, it, however, because I put it on hold at the library months before the end of the year, and there was a long waiting list -- in effect, this was grandfathered in.  It even delayed my participation in Virago Reading week!  But it was really worth it.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life is a bit hard to describe.  Several years ago, Bryson and his family returned to England and purchased a home built in 1851, a former rectory.  This got him thinking about everyday life.  He used the template of his house as the template of the book -- it's divided into chapters named after every room in his house:  "The Hallway," "The Kitchen," "The Scullery," and so on.  Theoretically, each chapter is focused on that topic.  However, if you've read Bill Bryson, you understand how his books are not always what they seem.

On the surface, this is a book about the history of houses and domestic life -- the things that everyone encounters in their daily life, the mundane, the ordinary.  Why do we put salt and pepper on the table?  What kind of toilets did people have 200 years ago?  Why do we say 'make the bed'?  And so on, et cetera.  But this book is more than that.  Bill Bryson digresses.  He meanders.  He makes lateral moves that somehow, eventually, circle back to the original topic.  So, yes, this is a book about the history of the everyday, but it's so much more than that.

If you read this book, you'll learn an awful lot about the daily workings of Victorian life -- servants, food, childcare -- but you'll learn a lot of other little interesting factoids as well.  Bryson manages to weave in the history of houses and the discovery of ancient British settlements that predate Stonehenge; Thomas Edison (and the fact that he technically didn't invent the lightbulb); Darwin's theories of evolution; Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Washington's Mount Vernon; and a lot more information about bedbugs and mites that I personally couldn't bear to read (sorry, I was too grossed out and skipped parts of that chapter).

I found this book both engrossing and overwhelming -- there were so many facts that mind was sometimes reeling, yet I didn't want to put the book down.  I've been reading a lot of Victorian literature the past few years, and this book gives a lot of background that I found fascinating.  It gave real insight into all the changes that took place in the 19th century -- it started out with candles and carriages and ended up with cars, electricity, and the theory of evolution.  It must have been an amazing time to be alive.

If this sounds like a lot to absorb -- and there's 450 page of it, not including endnotes -- yes, it is, but Bryson makes it so fascinating, you won't want to put it down.  I rarely purchase hardcover books, but I think I really need my own copy of this -- there is so much of it I want to refer back to again and again.  And it's funny!  I found myself laughing out loud several times, and quoting facts to my family.  And it's extremely insightful.  Here's one of my favorite paragraphs, from the chapter "The Nursery," in which Bryson discusses the childhood of both poor and wealth Victorians:

. . . . it would seem that Victorians didn't so much invent childhood as disinvent it.  In fact, however, it was more complicated than that.  By withholding affection to children when they were young, but also then endeavoring to control their behavior well into adulthood, Victorians were in the very odd position of simultaneously trying to suppress childhood and make it last forever.  It is perhaps little wonder that the end of Victorianism almost exactly coincided with the invention of psychoanalysis.

So there you have it.  If you're looking for something fascinating, fact-filled, and funny, I highly recommend this book.  It's only January and I know this will be one of my favorite reads this year.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

I'm having a hard time writing this review.  This book puzzled me. I was really looking forward to reading more Cather, since I just loved My Antonia and O, Pioneers!, two of her most famous works.  I liked this book but it's hard to explain it.

Let me back up a little.  The story begins with Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a fiftyish man who teaches at a nameless university somewhere in the Midwest.  It's in the 1920s, and he and his wife are moving from the house they've rented for many years to a lovely new house built to their specifications -- after years of hard work, the Professor's research has finally received recognition and they're financially very comfortable.  However, the Professor is having a hard time letting go of his old house, his tiny study in the attic, and his old life.

There are two grown daughters who are married, and the oldest, Rosamond, is also very financially secure.  In fact, she's very nouveau riche because she was the sole heir of her former fiancee, Tom Outland, who died in WWI before the story began. Apparently Tom invented a special kind of engine after graduating from the university, and was smart enough to patent it and make a will leaving everything to Rosamond.  Her new husband developed the engine and made them a fortune.  The Professor loves his daughter and likes his son-in-law, but he seems uncomfortable with they way they're spending all the money.  He and Tom had been very close when Tom was at the University.  A significant section of the book is told as Tom's diary, telling the story of his experiences working in New Mexico before he moved to the Midwest.

I think I'm undecided about this book because it seems almost like two different books; the change in narration and story line are so distinct.  Tom's history is hinted at during the Professor's section, but to me they seemed like two totally different books, and I'm having a hard time fitting the whole story together in my brain.  There's so much going on in this book and it's only about 250 pages -- Cather writes about the Professor's dissatisfaction, sibling rivalry, how money changes people -- I wish this book had been longer, since there was so much more I wanted to learn about the characters.

What I liked best about it was Cather's great writing.  Her characters are really well-developed, but very subtly -- it doesn't take the reader long to realize exactly how Professor St. Peter feels about his son-in-law.   Also, her descriptions are just beautiful, without being long-winded and flowery.  She can really capture the essence of a midwestern prairie or a mesa in New Mexico in just a few words.  I hadn't read any of her books set in the southwest so I'm really intrigued to read more.

My real-life classics book group is reading Death Comes for the Archbishop in June, and I don't know if I can wait that long to read it.  I'm limited by the TBR Dare to books on my shelves for the next couple of months, but I still have The Song of the Lark if I need more Cather. Ultimately, I liked this book even though I found it slightly unsatisfying.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books and Rachel at Book Snob.  And many thanks to Thomas at My Porch for recommending The Professor's House, one of his favorite books of all time.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Virago Reading Week

It's Virago Reading Week!  For those are you who are not familiar, the Virago Press is a British company that publishes books by women, both classic and contemporary, and includes American as well as British writers.  Authors range from Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and the Brontes to current works by Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou.  Luckily for us Yanks, they're readily available on this side of the pond as well.

Lots of bloggers are participating, and I hope to jump in with at least one book review this week.  After perusing my to-read shelves, I realized I own no less than sixteen (unread) books that are currently or have been previously published by Virago (though not all in Virago editions).  Here are my choices:

  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  • The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
  • The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s by Rachel Ferguson
  • Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehman
  • Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
  • The Love Child by Edith Olivier
  • Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  • All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim
  • Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
  • The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
  • The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
  • Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
  • The Virago Book of Ghost Stories

That's enough for about five or six Virago Reading Weeks!  Well, if nothing else, I should cross a few of these off my to-read list.  At the moment, my top choice is The Professor's House by Willa Cather -- I haven't read anything by her but My Antonia and O, Pioneers!, both of which I loved.  The Song of the Lark sounds great also.  

I'm hoping to get through at least two of these, maybe three if time allows.  Besides Cather, I'm hoping to read some more Edith Wharton, then probably either Excellent Women by Barbara Pym or The Brontes Go to Woolworth's by Rachel Ferguson or All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim.  Something short.  I may try to squeeze in a few of the ghost stories as well.  Bloggers, what can you recommend from my list?  And are you reading any Viragos this week?  I look forward to reading all the posts -- and adding a ton of books to my must-read-someday list.

Update:  I had to correct the number of owned-and-unread Virago titles to sixteen -- I forgot about Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Selection Anxiety

Okay, this is really silly, but I'm going to share this because I was wondering if anyone else in the book-blogging community has ever experienced it: Book Selection Anxiety.  I will explain if it's not already obvious.

Right now, I'm in the middle of a long, wonderful, fact-packed book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.  It's great, but I can only read so much of it at once.  So, the other day, I was trying to select an alternate book to read.  I've really trying to whittle down my TBR shelf, so it made sense to me to select something from that list.  But I was in agony!

I didn't want anything too long, because two long books at the same time is so intimidating; I didn't want anything British, because I've been reading so many lately (almost half the books on my TBR pile are either about Britain or written by British authors); I didn't want anything brand new, because I felt guilty about reading new books when I have so many I've owned for so long; I didn't want anything non-fiction because I was already reading a non-fiction book.  See how difficult I'm being?

I finally looked at my TBR list and decided on the perfect book:  Collected Novellas by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which includes Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I'd read Chronicle years ago and really liked it, so that would make it an easier read; all three are fairly short; and it's probably the book I've owned longest without actually reading, so it would feel really good to cross that off my list.  And I've just started a new Conversational Spanish class, so it felt particularly timely.  A perfect choice.

However, this dilemma really got me thinking -- why on earth was I making this so difficult??  Reading is supposed to be fun -- there are no reading police to tell me what and when to read or enjoy.  It's not homework!  What in the heck is wrong with me???  It also made me wonder if all my blogging and reading of blogs and to-read lists was contributing to my insanity.  AndI was really wondering if anyone else has ever gone through this.

And by the way, that was three days ago and I still haven't picked up Garcia Marquez.  I also realized that Virago Reading Week starts tomorrow so I should probably start a Virago if I need another book -- I'm leaning toward The Professor's House by Willa Cather.  Alas, Collected Novellas will have to wait after all.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

The beautiful endpapers
from Making Conversation
I'm slowly but surely making my way through the Persephone books list.  I recently received four new Persephones as belated Christmas gifts -- even though they arrived in January, I can still count them towards part of the TBR dare, since they're technically Christmas gifts. (I will make exceptions due to the slow arrival of the mail because of weather and holidays.)

Anyhoo.  I put this on my Christmas wish list back in December, and now I can't remember why.  The description in the Persphone catalog says it's a comic novel, in the vein of Cold Comfort Farm.  Well, I don't know if it's because I'm not British, or because I'm not educated enough, but I just did not get this novel.  It's about a young woman's education just after WWI, and about conversations in general (which you might have gathered from the title).  The book is full of Martha's conversations.  In fact, the whole book is mostly conversations, and not much action.

The novel begins in the 1910s, when Martha Freke is a young teen.  She's being raised by her single mother, since her father, a former military officer, has done a runner.  Her mother has been forced to take in lodgers (it is NOT a boarding house!) who are mostly students, so Martha gets an unconventional education from the interesting people who seem to drift through her life.  It certainly seems better than the school in which she's enrolled which sounds just horrible.  She's forever putting her foot in her mouth and there are lots of misunderstandings, one of which ends up getting her kicked out of school. Nevertheless, Martha is bright enough to get a scholarship to Oxford, where she has lots of other conversations, mostly with female students since they appear to be quite segregated from the men.

I suppose this is supposed to be satirical in some way, but I just didn't get it.  I know that Cold Comfort Farm was poking fun at the pastoral novels of the era, and I really enjoyed it, even though I didn't get all the references.  I also loved Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (and if you've read Brideshead Revisited, this is nothing like it.  Brideshead has its great moments, but Decline and Fall is just a hoot).  Maybe the humor in this is too subtle for me, or too specific, or maybe I would have gotten much more out of it if I'd read classics or history at an elite British university (for the record, I majored in journalism and history at a well-respected university in the Midwest, so I'm not a complete moron).   I was hoping the introduction would give more insight, but it's mostly biographical information about the author.

Anyhow, I'm not saying this is a bad novel.  I just didn't really connect with Martha or her friends, most of whom I couldn't keep straight, and I didn't find her story particularly interesting or compelling.  It was an easy read, but I wasn't at all excited about it the way I have been with most Persephones.  I'm mostly just disappointed because I've really liked most of them so far. If anyone has read this novel and can help explain it to me, please do.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber

Crescent is one of the many books that have been filling up my TBR shelf for years, staring at me every time I walk by with a library book. I finally picked this one up since it's on the pile of the books I've owned the longest -- more than six years of being schlepped from house to house.

I think the fact that I've owned this book for so long, I really, really wanted it to be good.  I read more than 100 pages and I just wasn't in love with it, but I still forced myself to finish it.  I hate to admit defeat.  And yet, if I finish a book I didn't like, I get really annoyed with myself for wasting the time on it. I am at best ambivalent about this book.  I'm not sorry I read it, but I can't say I recommend it either.

This is the story of Sirine, a 39-year-old chef who has never found true love.  She is blond and beautiful and half Iraqi, and her parents died when she was 10, leaving her to be raised by her Iraqi uncle.  She doesn't know much about her heritage except through her cooking, which is wonderful.  Many men flock to her because of her looks and culinary talent, but she drifts from man to man.  In Crescent, Sirine may find true love with Hanif, a mysterious Iraqi scholar and friend of her uncle.  There are other men in the story, including the flirtatious Aziz, a renowned poet; and Nathan, a photographer with a lot of emotional baggage.

I think the problem with this book is that it may have been overly ambitious -- just too many elements that didn't seem to come together at the end.  There's the love story between Sirine and Hanif; the big mystery about Hanif's past; Nathan's erratic behavior; Sirine's quest to learn more about her Iraqi roots; et cetera, et cetera.  Plus, lots of descriptions of food, since Sirine is an amazing chef.  And did I mention every chapter begins with an excerpt of a tale told to Sirine by her uncle?  There's a lot going on here, probably too much.  For me, the book lost focus.

The biggest flaw I found in the book were the characters -- honestly, they just weren't all that interesting.  Sirine, the heroine, is 39, a fabulous cook, and beautiful.  That's pretty much all I can say about her.  Oh, and she still lives with her uncle, which is weird since she's nearly 40, and of course, because she is so stunning, many men fall in love with her, but she doesn't seem to get attached to any of them.  Her parents died when she was young so I guess that is the reason why.  Plus, there were some plot elements that were quite obvious and contrived, and the ending seemed tacked on.

Maybe beautiful characters don't really need that much development or back story.  But seriously, umpteen descriptions of her beautiful blond curly hair are not a substitute for character development.  Within the first couple of chapters, Sirine has multiple men falling all over themselves to be with her, often at the same time.  Frankly, this bores me.  I'd much rather read about flawed, well-rounded characters that aren't so pretty.

There were a few elements of this book that I did like.  The writing is pretty good, and I did rather like the recurring story told by Sirine's uncle.  That was the most interesting thing in the book, and I wish the author had just stuck to that.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

This is the very last library book I'm reviewing before I really get into my TBR dare -- I know, I was supposed to have finished all of them before January 1, but I did start it last year and I had to take a break and finish all of my book group selections last week.  And it was an Inter-Library Loan so I wouldn't be able to renew it.

Anyway.  This is exactly the sort of book I'm into at the moment, domestic fiction in the early 20th century.  But it wasn't AT ALL what I was expecting -- I thought it would be light and charming, sort of like Nightingale Wood or Miss Buncle.  It wasn't exactly light, and I wouldn't call it charming, though it was a good, thought-provoking book.  I'm not sure if I really liked it, but it's really sticking with me.  I guess that makes it a good book.

That probably makes no sense, so here is the synopsis:  Set in the early 1950s Imogen and her husband, Evelyn, have been married for about 15 years.  She's in her late 30s and he's older, in his early 50s, and he's a very successful lawyer with a London practice, though they're currently living in the country with their son Gavin, who's about ten.  Imogen is lovely and charming and not particularly deep, and her husband seems kind of overbearing.  Lately, Evelyn, the husband, has been spending a lot of time with their neighbor, Blanche Silcox, a wealthy, somewhat dowdy country spinster.  Evelyn seems to be increasingly under the influence of Blanche, though the idea that Evelyn could be cheating on his beautiful wife seems at first ridiculous.  Or is it?

The novel takes Imogen's point of view, and I can't say that I really liked her -- she needed to grow up and develop a backbone.  I ended up taking a break from this book due to my book discussion groups, and I wasn't sorry to leave it for a week or so -- I was so frustrated with Imogen's passivity that I wanted to shake her or at least throw the book across the room (which I would never do because I'm a librarian and it wasn't my book.  I don't want to annoy the ILL people!)   However, after finishing it and reading the afterword, I think this was the point of the book -- Evelyn married Imogen because she was passive and pretty, the perfect woman of the 1950s.

This book has some great writing, and Jenkins really does draw the characters well -- there are some bourgeois neighbors that are really hilarious, they're so awful.  This book made me really think about relationships and the role of women in the 1950s.  I suppose it was better than in the Victorian era, but really not that much!

If anyone else has reviewed or read this book, please let me know because I'd love to hear your thoughts.  The Tortoise and the Hare would be great for a discussion group but naturally my library doesn't have a single copy.  If you're looking for an interesting book for the upcoming Virago Reading Week, I highly recommend this book.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Books and Pizza

OK, just pizza.  I know this is primarily a book blog, but I was so proud of this creation, I had to post it for the whole world to see:

Yes, this is a genuine Chicago-style deep dish pizza made ALL BY MYSELF.  The larger one has sausage, mushrooms and peppers and the smaller one has pepperoni, mushrooms and sausage (for my husband, who ate the entire thing in one sitting).  It's pretty darn close to the real thing.  It's the closest thing you'd get to Chicago pizza in Texas.  Thank you for the recipe, Cooks Illustrated magazine!

Let's have another look:

Yep, that's pretty wonderful.  But it's all gone!  I made them for my husband (and children) in honor of the BCS football game, which they are currently watching.  I'm actually going to retire to the bedroom and watch the first season of Upstairs, Downstairs, which could not be more unlike football.  If you know me, this will come as no surprise.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

TBR Update and Two Book Group Selections

Well, we're into the second week of the New Year, and I've already fallen off the TBR wagon -- I came home from vacation with three library books to read for my real-life library discussion groups!  Maybe I should say that I haven't even gotten on the TBR wagon yet, because I had already committed to these.  I really could not bear to schlep three hard-cover library books in my carry-on luggage, and I wouldn't have had time for them anyway. Besides, when I first committed, book group selections were the exception.  Yes.  That is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

And now I must admit to another small transgression -- the no-buying book-ban for three months.  Sigh.  I was not going to purchase any new books for three months, until April 1.  However (hangs head in shame) I did put in a purchase for some new Persephones on January 1, so I guess I've broken that rule already.  But I do think I have a pretty good excuse -- I got some Christmas money that I really wanted to spend on Persephones, and I seriously didn't have time to purchase the books safely before January 1.  I was a little squeamish about making an online purchase at a public computer at my hotel, and I had so little time with family I didn't want to be rude and start shopping on my sister's computer.  So I was delayed slightly.  Internet security is a good excuse, isn't it?  Oh, I hope I can forgive myself.  I will extend my book-buying ban until April 2 as punishment.  I promise.

As far as the library book-checkout ban goes -- I only checked out three books, and all of them were allowed according to my previous rules:  one of them, Eleanor and Franklin: An Extraordinary Marriage, had been on hold before the ban started (of three total) and two were book group selections.  One is a play, A Raisin in the Sun, and the other is a reread, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

So -- I reviewed my first book group selection, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in yesterday's post, so I'm quickly going to mention the other two.  The first one was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey.  Yes, a Western!  My first authentic Western, for my classics book group.  But I just could not get through it.  I read about 84 pages and I really had no desire to go on.  I know book groups are about expanding your horizons, getting out of your comfort zone, etc., but I got really bored with the endless descriptions of canyons.  It seemed extremely predictable, and I felt like I'd expanded my horizons enough for one week with Oscar Wao.  So that was one abandoned book I can cross off my to-read list forever.  I felt a little bad because I was the one who suggested it, but life is too short.

Instead, I did pick up the selection for my other book group selection, The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. Yes, three book group meetings in one week!  That's just the way it turned out because of the schedule.  Usually it's one the first week of the month and two the second.  I don't always read the selection for our Jane Austen book club, but I was cranky one day and needed something easy to read during lunch.  I had actually read this book several years ago when it first came out, and was disappointed.  I did like it much better on the second reading.  I don't know what I was expecting the first time around, but I got so much more out of it this time.  It's not a straight sequel or retelling of a Jane Austen novel, and I really liked that.

The book club has six members and six monthly meetings, and the novel is really six intertwining stories which are loosely related to a Jane Austen novel.  It took me a little time to figure out the connections, and I liked that.  I think the author did a good job of not making it a literal reinterpretation.  Plus there was a lot of background and quotes about Jane Austen, which I also enjoyed.  Our group is supposed to watch the movie adaptation next month, but I'm not as interested in that because I've heard there were a lot of changes from the novel -- plus some of the actors are much too young which changes the whole dynamic of the book, and I find that irritating.

So -- on to the TBR challenge now that I've crossed the book club selections off the month's reading list. I've already started Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber, which I've owned since 2004.  It's starting out slowly but I'll give it time.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This is a tough book to review.  It is not for everyone.  Based on what I saw on Goodreads, many people love it, but I'm sure some people will hate it.  I almost abandoned it, and in truth, I did not finish it for my library book group this week -- I was even tempted to skip book group out of embarrassment.  But I am so glad that I didn't miss it, and I think I'm glad that I finished it.

Before I digress any further, here's a brief setup: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of a young Dominican immigrant man living in New Jersey, from about the late 1970s until the 1990s, and his family's history in the Dominican Republic under the Trujillo regime.  He is a massively overweight, science-fiction book-loving nerd who can't talk to girls and is convinced he'll die a virgin.  He lives with his rebellious sister and his mother, and it seems the family is cursed by what the Dominicans call fuku.

This was not an easy book for me to get into, because it seemed at first it was about a lonely teenaged nerd fanboy obsessed with sex, and frankly, that is not my cup of tea.  But I stuck with it for the sake of the book group -- it's supposed to be about expanding my literary horizons.

But I did stick with it, and after about 50 pages or so it got much more interesting.  The story jumps back and forth between the stories of Oscar, his sister Lola, and his mother and grandparents, between New York, New Jersey, and the Dominican Republic.  If you didn't know anything about the Trujillo dictatorship, you will before the book is over -- the book includes lots of background, mostly through footnotes.  In teeny tiny print.

The other thing that makes this book unusual is the language -- it's full of slang, both English and Spanish, lots of references in Spanish (and no glossary), and it is chock-full of the f-word.  If you are easily offended, this is not a book for you.  Plus, a lot of the book is about sex -- Oscar wants sex, and other people are having sex.  It's not horribly graphic or explicit, but it's there.  There's quite a bit of violence as well -- Trujillo was a nasty, nasty character, and that was a terrifying era.  This book is not for the faint of heart.

But I'm actually glad I finished it.  This is not my normal kind of book, and I will admit that as I began I could not help wondering how in the heck this book won the Pulitzer Prize.  I understood a lot better after the book discussion.  I was wondering how it would be received by the group, which is mostly senior ladies.  However, they're extremely open-minded, and we do have one man in the group, who also happens to be Hispanic.  I was really interested in his perspective.  I really love having a man in the group -- most book clubs are the domain of women, and having Danny always makes it interesting.  (The fact that he's brilliant and well-read may have something to do with this).

Anyway.  During the discussion, I learned why the author kept using all the Spanish words and slang with no glossary -- because he was trying to mirror the experience of an immigrant who's learning a new language and doesn't get everything.  There's a lot I didn't get, but I was able to figure out most of it from context, just as an immigrant would.  I also learned a lot about the symbolism and Dominican folklore that comes into the book.  I think it was chosen for the Pulitzer because of its style -- it reminded me a bit of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and how their writing styles are groundbreaking and important.  The discussion definitely inspired me to stick with the book and finish it.

I'm probably rambling by now but that's the only way I can describe this reading experience.  I can't say I loved this book, or that I would want to read it again.   But it was definitely thought-provoking and that's why I love going to book group.  Next month we're discussing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which could not be more different from Oscar Wao.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Reading Swap

So, this is not exactly a challenge, because the only challenge to which I have absolutely committed myself this year is to clear off my unread bookshelves, aka The TBR Dare.  However, my good friend Amanda from The Zen Leaf -- yes, the very same blogger that got me sucked into the world of book blogging -- asked if I'd like to do a reading swap in 2011.

Basically, she chose five books for me, and I chose five books for her.  Here's what she chose for me:

1.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.  I was underwhelmed by Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but Amanda swears this is so much better.  And there's an audio version narrated by Alan Rickman, need I say more?

2.  Flush by Virginia Woolf.  Because it's on my to-read shelf, and Amanda really liked it.  And she knows how much I love dogs.  And it's a Persephone!

3.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  Because we both love Steinbeck and I still haven't read it.  And Amanda says it has the best villain ever.

4.  Kindred by Octavia Butler.  A great time-travel novel about the antebellum South.  Enough said.

5.  Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov.  Because Amanda swears it's nothing like Lolita.

Amanda and I both have eclectic tastes -- sometimes wildly different.  Sometimes she absolutely hates books I love, and vice versa.  I'm really excited about the first four books (especially because I own copies of East of Eden and Flush, so that counts for the TBR challenge!).  The one book on this list that scares me a little is the Nabokov.  I read Lolita years ago, in college, and it still creeps me out.  But I am willing to give him another shot.

And in case you're wondering, here's what I chose for Amanda:

1.  Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh.  Because she was underwhelmed by Brideshead Revisited, and this is nothing like that.  If you haven't read it, it's hilarious.

2.  Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.  Because it's on her to-read list, and I thought it was just wonderful.  One of my favorite books from the Modern Library Top 100.

3.  West with the Night by Beryl Markham.  Because she loved Out of Africa, and because it's one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read.  Also a ML Top 100 Non-fiction pick.  If you haven't read it, go out and get it right now.  You won't be sorry.

4.  Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence.  Because she hated Lady Chatterley's Lover and I think she should give Lawrence another try.  I was afraid of this book but after one chapter I was really hooked.  The characters are kind of repulsive, yet I couldn't put it down.

5.  Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.  Because Amanda still hasn't read any DWJ and I think she'd really like this one.  DWJ is wildly unappreciated in this country and it is my personal responsibility to fix that.  Howl is brilliant, and I liked the movie but the book is soooo much better.

So -- we both have a year to finish these books.  I think it's doable.  Bloggers, have you read any of these books?  Loved them or hated them?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Loot

This is so late, but we had a whirlwind holiday week.  We left Christmas afternoon for a week in the Baltimore/DC area so I had no time for blogging (though my DH got an iPhone so I was able to read some postings, just no commenting until we returned).  I had to wait to post this until today because I was anxiously awaiting the mail, which had been held in our absence.  Due to the nasty weather some holiday packages were held up in the mail.  But they finally arrived!  Anyway, here's my first photo EVER posted of my own books, taken and uploaded by me.  Behold, my Christmas swag:

I got NINE new books:
  • The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child, chosen by my oldest daughter -- all by herself!  I am so touched, since she knows how much I worship Julia.  Maybe I'll even cook some of the recipes. 
  • Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann, so excited about this one.  A Virago! Can I wait until Virago Reading Week?
  • Nella Last's War by Nella Last.  I keep hearing about this in the blogosphere, and I'm so into The War at Home right now.
  • Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford.  Been meaning to read this since I read Love in a Cold Climate, which I adored.  (Also a great miniseries.) 
  • Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D. E. Stevenson.  I loved Miss Buncle's Book so I'm looking forward to this one.
  • The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook -- British recipes from Harry Potter, including recipes for haggis and blood sausage.  Seriously.  I'll probably skip those in favor of chocolate gateau and treacle tart.
  • My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.  From my dear friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf
  • They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple.  My Persephone Secret Santa, which has probably been waiting for me at the post office all week while I was far far away.  From Care at Care's Online Book Club.  Thank you again, Care, I can't wait to read it.  And thank you again for all the fun clues.  
  • Finally, another Persephone:  The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens.  From my dear husband.  Sadly, it was also held up in the post but now I have TWO new Persephones.  Woo hoo!
And now that I've found the proper cord to the digital camera I'll be uploading lots more photos.  Technology is my friend.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Books: The Best and Worst

Well, it's a bit late, but I've been out of town and unable to post.  I was so busy I hardly even got any reading done.  I'll be compiling some year-end statistics and a report on my holiday swag this week as well.  But here's some of my best and worsts for 2010.

1. Best book of 2010? Wow, that's tough!  Several Persephones are on top of my list, including Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Miss Buncle's Book, and The Priory.  But Fingersmith was just great, and I loved Barchester Towers.

2. Worst book of 2010? The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell.

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2010?  Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier.  I had high hopes after Rebecca, but it was just meh.

Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2010? Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson by Jan Jarboe Russell.  I'm not really into politics or biographies but this was an absorbing, fast read.

Book you recommended to people most in 2010?  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Fingersmith.

6.  Best series you discovered in 2010?  I just read my first Miss Read novel between Christmas and New Years and just loved it, it's sure to be my new favorite series.  And of course I discovered Persephone Books this year -- technically, it's a publisher, but I feel like I need to mention them as well.

Favorite new authors you discovered in 2010? Sarah Waters, Emile Zola, Dorothy Whipple, Miss Read, and  D. E. Stevenson.  

8. Most hilarious read of 2010?  Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson. My Family and Other Animals Gerald Durrell was another hoot.

Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2010?  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.  I'd seen the BBC adaptation and I still couldn't put it down. Can't wait to read more of her books.

Book you most anticipated in 2010?  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson.  Sadly, a little disappointing after the first two, though it had its good points.  

11. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2010?  Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons; The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett; Where the Mountains Meet the Moon by Grace Lin.

12. Most memorable character in 2010? Tom Sawyer; Miss Pettigrew; Ethan Hawley from The Winter of Our Discontent.

Most beautifully written book in 2010? The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

 Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2010? The World that was Ours by Hilda Bernstein.  A shocking, frightening memoir of the 1963 Rivonia trial in South Africa.  The blantant racism and miscarriage of justice was mind-blowingly awful.

15. Book you can't believe you waited UNTIL 2010 to finally read?  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

This was fun!  I'd love to hear about other bloggers' year-end roundups; if you've posted one please leave a link in your comments and I'll add them below.