Saturday, November 30, 2013

TBR Pile Challenge 2014

2013 wasn't even halfway over when I started planning my list for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge!  The goal:  read at 12 specified books that have been hanging around the TBR shelves unread for at least one year.  I've been revising this list for a while, and I think I'm finally done.  I'm nearly finished with the 2013 challenge, and this year, I'm trying to include more fun books -- I really liked most of the books on the list this year, but I was really dreading some of them.  I'm going to try and make this less of a chore this year.  Here's my list:

1.  Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge. Bought at the Borders liquidation.  Completed 7/3/14.

2.  Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.  One of many black-spine Penguin Classics on the TBR shelves.  Also bought at the Borders blowout.  Completed 12/29/14.

3.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  It's been on my to-read list for years, because it's on the Modern Library Top 100 list.  I'm especially interested because my oldest daughter is taking Latin and she's learning all about Roman culture.  I've never seen the PBS miniseries adaptation, so maybe I'll watch that too. Completed 12/17/14. 

4.  The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  I loved The Cazalets miniseries, based on this book.  Bought it (and the second in the series, Marking Time) for only $1 from the library's donation cart.  Completed 1/5/14. 

5.  Kim by Rudyard Kipling.  Another book from the ML Top 100.  I've only read 49 so far, so if I complete both this and I, Claudius, I'll be more than halfway through the list. Completed 5/10/14.

6.  Dusty Answer by Rosamund Lehmann.  A Christmas gift from about three years ago.  Completed 2/16/14.

7.  The Sisters:  The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell. Bought after reading (and loving) The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate -- in 2006. Completed 6/15/14.

8.  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  I bought this while I actually lived in Japan almost ten years ago (via Amazon, ironically).  Still haven't read it.  Completed 12/5/14.

9.  Singled Out:  How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After WWI by Virginia Nicholson.   Bought during Downton Abbey withdrawal.  I'm thinking about reading up on WWI next year, in honor of the 100th anniversary.  There's also a WWI Library Thing readalong.  Completed 7/19/14. 

10.  Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant. Another Penguin I have wanted to read for years.  I've heard this one somewhere between Jane Austen (or is it Elizabeth Gaskell?) and George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I loved. Completed 2/1/14.

11.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West.  Also purchased during Downton Abbey withdrawal.  Completed 8/31/14.

12.   The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  From my Big Box of Penguin Classics.  My copy is actually the Graphic Deluxe Classics version, and the cover is really disturbing.  Completed 6/7/14. 


1.  Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch.  Yet another purchase from Borders before they closed.  Sigh.

2.  The River's Tale by Edward Gargan.  Another book about Asia purchased while I was overseas.  I should have really put this in the must-read list for the challenge.

So -- several Penguins, several non-fiction books, four from my Classics Club list, two in translation, and some lighter reading as well.  What do you think, bloggers?  Good list?  Which are must reads, and which should be put off until the bitter end?  And who else is signing up for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge?  What's on your list?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim

I was looking for the next book in my Back to the Classics Challenge, and having a hard time deciding -- I really wanted to read something from my own shelves, but nothing was really speaking to me.  Finally, I picked up All the Dogs of My Life by Elizabeth von Arnim, author of the beloved Enchanted April and Elizabeth in Her German Garden, both of which I loved.  After reading both of these, I had purchased All the Dogs of My Life, her memoir of the many dogs that she'd owned.  Somehow, though, I kept avoiding it.  I adore dogs, but I'm a very tender-hearted person, and inevitably, memoirs with pets end up with me bawling my eyes out.  They nearly always end up with doggie deathbed scenes that make me cry like a baby.  (This is why I've never read Old Yeller or The Yearling.)

But All the Dogs of My Life is very short, just over 200 pages, and there's lots of white space on the pages.  I'd just finished more than 500 densely-written pages about Communist China, and was deep in the midst of The Duchess by Amanda Foreman, 400 densely-written pages of history about the 18th century British aristocracy.  I love nonfiction but sometimes it's awfully slow.  

And Elizabeth von Arnim is just a delightful writer.  She's wry, witty, and charming.  Most of the book is quite funny, with only a few sad moments.  She recounts all fourteen dogs she's had in her life, and describes how she came to have them and all about her life during those periods, ranging from tiny dachshunds to enormous Great Danes.  Amazingly, I got nearly all the way through the entire book without even getting choked up.  Finally, I was down to the last twenty pages, so I thought I could quickly finish it one morning before I went to work -- and then I was devastated.  I won't go into great detail, but once again, a pet memoir had me crying like it was my own beloved dog.  

I loved this book and I want to read more of von Arnim's books, but seriously, if you're interested in this book, you'll need some tissues for the final chapter, unless you have a heart of stone, or if you aren't a dog lover, in which case you probably want to avoid this book altogether.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Books and Chocolate Cake

I know, this isn't a food blog.  Originally, when I started the blog more than four years ago, I did post a few recipes and the occasional photo of food I'd eaten in restaurants, but 99% of my postings have been book-related.  Today I am making an exception because last week, November 15 it was National Bundt Day.  (Really.  It's a thing.)

Anyway, about a year ago, I became obsessed with bundt cake after finding this amazing blog:  The Food Librarian, created by Mary, an amazing baker and librarian in California.  Like myself, she likes cake and doesn't care much for frosting; hence, the bundts.  And who can resist all those pretty pans?

Almost every year, Mary celebrates November by baking bundts, sometimes, a different one every single day.  This year, she's giving a way a new bundt pan to anyone who posts about a bundt they made -- and how could I resist?  So Monday morning I made this cake and brought it to work:

This is a Malted Milk Chocolate Cake from the Beekman 1802 Heritage Dessert Cookbook by Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge (also known as the Beekman Boys, goat farmers and winners of last year's Amazing Race).  I love chocolate and I love malted milk balls, so I thought this would be a fun recipe to try.  The original recipe called for a 9 x 13 baking pan, but I thought it would make a fun bundt.  (Those lumps on the cake are bits of chopped malted milk balls).

Well, yes and no.  At first I was going to bake it in my largest 12-cup bundt pan, which is stoneware, then I realized it would never be finished in time for me to get to work.  I pulled it out of the oven after just a minute and scraped most of the batter into the smaller 10-inch Heritage bundt pan; the rest I baked into a teeny 3-cup bundt pan.  (I left this for my kids to eat since I was taking the larger bundt to work).  Well, it was nearly a disaster -- the batter puffed up and overflowed from the small bundt and burned all over the bottom of the oven.  The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of baking soda, which is a LOT -- I was worried that it was a printing error and that the whole thing would be a disaster.  And that I would be late to work.

Well, fifteen minutes before I had to leave, I checked the cakes again, and they were both finished (the small one should have been done much quicker, which was odd).  I pulled them from the oven and they were cooled enough to turn out of the pans with five minutes to spare before I jumped in the car with my beautiful warm cake.  It was delicious, rich and chocolatey with little chunks of malted milk balls.   Now everyone at work thinks I am a hero because I brought warm chocolate cake.  There was barely a scrap left by the end of the day.

So thanks, Mary, for inspiring me to make this cake, and thank you Beekman Boys for your beautiful new cookbook!  I'll be back to blogging about books next time.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Duchess by Amanda Foreman

After completing Wild Swans, I was inspired to tackle more nonfiction (specifically, book #11 for the TBR Pile Challenge.)  I'd seen the movie adaptation of The Duchess a couple of years ago, but never got around to reading the book which I'd picked up for a paltry $1 at the library Friends sale.  It was also one of the reading selections from our Jane Austen book group that I never read.

Anyhow, once I finally started reading this, I quite liked it.  Georgiana was a really interesting woman.  I mostly think of 17th century women as standing around in giant dresses with enormous powdered wigs, but she was actually a political powerhouse.  Georgiana Spencer (great-great-I-forgot-how-many-times-great aunt of Lady Diana Spencer, yes, THAT Diana Spencer) was 17 when she married the Duke of Devonshire, uniting two rich and powerful British families in the late 1700s.  Most of what I know about 18th century history is about the American Revolution; this book is about what was happening politically on the other side of the Atlantic around that time.  Her marriage to the Duke was troubled, yet she became involved in politics and was incredibly influential with the Whig party.  She was also a close confidante of famous politicians like James Fox and the Prince Regent (and all you Jane Austen fans know exactly who that is).

Of course this book talks about Georgiana's difficult marriage and home life, and her complicated relationship with the Duke, and her best friend Elizabeth Foster, who lived with them for years and  was also her husband's off and on mistress!  Complicated is putting it mildly.  However, there was much more politics than I was expecting.  I liked it but I did have trouble sometimes keeping all the politicians straight.

And to make matters even worse, Georgiana had a serious gambling problem.  Gambling was to the rich as gin was to the poor, the book notes.  She racked up seriously jaw-dropping debts, literally millions in today's dollars.   Plus she had at least one lover and illegitimate child, and the story there is really heart-breaking.  Not really a role model, but a very complicated and interesting woman. 

So -- I've now completed eleven of the twelve books for my TBR Pile Challenge!  I have three left on my original pile (since I also read my two optional books already).   How's everyone else doing with this challenge?  Have you finished, or are you close to completing it?  Which books have you liked best? 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Classics Spin the Fourth

Another Classics Spin from the Classics Club!  If you haven't seen this before, it's pretty fun -- participants choose 20 books from their Classics Club to-read list in various categories (for example, five books you want to read, five books you're dreading, five you're neutral about, and five free choice).  Books are numbered and listed on a blog posting. Next Monday, a random number from one to twenty will be chosen, and everyone reads the book with that number.

It's getting easier to narrow down the 20 possible books for the Spin selection, because I'm nearly halfway done -- I've already finished 34 of my 75 books.  This time I decided to narrow the list to books only from my owned-and-unread shelves.  This time, I also eliminated books by Anthony Trollope from the list since I just read Orley Farm for the last Classics Spin.

To make it really random this time, I'm going to mix up the list, but I have four categories:

Titles in purple are five books I really want to read;
Titles in red are five books that make me nervous;
Titles in green are five books I'm feeling neutral about;
Titles in blue are French classics in translation.

So, here's my list:
  1. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
  2. Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
  3. Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
  4. Kipps by H. G. Wells
  5. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
  6. Nana by Emile Zola
  7. Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
  8. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  9. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
  10. The Earth by Emile Zola
  11. New Grub Street by George Gissing
  12. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  13. Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert
  14. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 
  15. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  16. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  17. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
  18. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  19. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
  20. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
My last three spin selections were really enjoyable.  I'm looking forward to seeing what the random number assigns!    Who else is participating in the spin?  And what do you think of my list -- good choices or bad?  Which did you love -- or absolutely hate?  Let me know!

Updated:  The Classics Spin Number was selected, and the lucky number is . . . 10!!!  So, I'll be reading The Earth by Emile Zola.  Great pick, I love Zola so I'm looking forward to it.  I'll be posting about it on January 1. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe

Last year, when I signed up for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I knew there were a couple of categories that would really challenge me -- specifically, pre-19th century fiction and Russians.  I was not surprised, therefore, to discover my last three categories to complete are those two, plus a non-fiction classic.

Looking back at my reading history, I've read very few books published before the 18th century -- some plays by Shakespeare, which I haven't touched since college -- Candide by Voltaire, and Robinson Crusoe.  For this selection, I had it narrowed down to three choices.  I was originally planning to read Gulliver's Travels, since I just received a lovely Penguin clothbound copy from Adam at Roof Beam Reader in a drawing (thank you again, Adam!); however, I was also considering Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos or Moll Flanders.  I really, truly, tried to read all of them, but Moll Flanders finally won out for the simple reason that it was available on audiobook at the library, which was a great incentive. 

I think the hardest thing for me about the early novels is the language.  I had a Modern Library print edition of the book as well, since I rarely listen to an entire audiobook without some print reading mixed in.  I really do find the 18th century writing style it tough to get into.  Here's a selection from the first chapter:

Had this been the Custom in our Country, I had not been left a poor desolate Girl without Friends, without Cloaths, without Help or Helper in the World, as was my Fate; and by which, I was not only expos'd to very great Distresses, even before I was capable, either of Understanding my Case, or how to Amend it, nor brought into a Course of Life, which was not only scandalous in itself, but, which in its ordinary Course, tended to the swift Destruction both of Soul and Body.  

Now, I get that the Modern Library publishers are trying to preserve the original text, with the spelling, capitalization, and grammar as close to the original as possible.  Listening to it is easier -- at least I don't have the jarring random Capitalized Noun that pops up in nearly every Sentence.  And I am now grateful that I was not an English major in college, because I would have been required to read The Canterbury Tales in the original Chaucer.

Oh, and did I also mention that there are no chapter breaks in the entire novel?  That's right, the entire book is One. Long. Chapter.  No breaks!!  (Well, it could be worse -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a book that is all one paragraph.  I've forgotten which one, but I can tell you right now I'll never read it.)

Anyway, as usual, I digress.  Once you get past the style of the language and get into the story, Moll Flanders is a pretty good tale about the fate of women in the 17th century.  Moll is born in pretty much the worst possible circumstances -- while pregnant, her mother is convicted of theft, and while sentenced to the infamous Newgate prison, she "pleads her belly," that is, puts off her sentence due to pregnancy.  After her baby [the future Moll] is born, she's transported to the colonies.  

Young Moll is put in an orphanage, and after a rough start she's placed in the care of a kind but poor woman who takes good care of Moll and some other orphans in a little school, where she's raised to be a future servant.  Moll's clever and good with a needle, and ends up as a companion/servant to the daughters of a well-to-do family.  Things are going well and she picks up a lot of skills like dancing, singing, and French, but she's also growing into a lovely young woman, which does not go unnoticed by the sons of the family.  The younger falls in love with her, but the hapless and naive Moll falls in love with the older, a rake who makes her his secret mistress, thus beginning her downfall.

This pretty much sets the tone for Moll's entire life.  She's acquired a taste for the finer things, and becomes a serial monogamist in her quest for a man to take care of her; I lost count of how many husbands she marries, legally and not-so-legally.  And don't even get me started on the children -- DeFoe hardly bothers to give the various husbands and lovers first names, much less the  offspring, whose fate is barely mentioned.  I though it made Moll come off as rather cold-hearted -- after multiple pregnancies and babies, there's only one instance of Moll really caring about the fate of one of her children.  As a mother, this bothered me, and it made me wonder how this aspect of the story would have been different if the author had been a woman.

Meanwhile, Moll gets older, and eventually she has to rely on her wits more than her feminine charms.  Since her choices are few, she inevitably turns to a life of crime. For a while, she's the luckiest thief in England, making countless narrow escapes as others are transported or sent to the gallows.  It gives DeFoe a chance to let the reader know that Crime Does Not Pay. Apparently such fictional accounts of criminal life were especially popular during the 17th century;  DeFoe himself was imprisoned in Newgate, where he must have met many women with Moll's problems.  I'm not quite sure if DeFoe was trying to comment on the terrible choices women had to make to survive at that time, or if he was just trying to preach.  Moll does admit that she gets greedy and could give up stealing, but time after time, she just can't quit the criminal life.  

It was an interesting read, ultimately.  Moll's pretty sassy and keeps her wits about her, and there's one section in which she's accused of a crime she actually didn't commit, which is my favorite part.  The outcome was pretty entertaining.  Now I'm going to have to go back and watch the BBC miniseries, which starred Alex Kingston as Moll and Daniel Craig as one of her paramours:  

Even Daniel Craig cannot pull off that hairstyle.  Sorry, 007. 

I'm quite pleased to have completed my 18th-century-or-older requirement for the challenge.  Only two more to go -- a Russian classic and a classic nonfiction.  I'm thinking about Crime and Punishment!  Thoughts, bloggers?  Who else is working on this challenge?  Have you finished?  Did anyone else read a pre-19th century book for this challenge?  How about a Russian?  And is Daniel Craig's hairstyle the most embarrassing EVER?  

Friday, November 1, 2013

My New Book Group

As I mentioned, I've started a new job as a librarian, at a different branch.  One of the hardest things was leaving the two book groups I'd been coordinating at my old branch, which was kind of heartbreaking -- I spent almost two years with both of them, and that was probably my favorite thing about that job.  So, naturally, I'm eager to start another book group at this new location. And I have this idea that's so crazy, it just might work. . . .  I'm starting a themed book group and the theme is. . . . nonfiction!!!

Yes, I'm going to attempt to start a new book group that will read nothing but nonfiction!  I've been really inspired these past few years by how much great non-fiction is available nowadays -- some of my very favorite book club selections have been nonfiction choices.  I'm going to call it the Stranger Than Fiction Book Group, and we're going to read a mix of history, biographies, memoirs, true crime, and adventure books, to name a few.

The group is going to start in January (no point in getting something off the ground until after the holidays) and I'm going to start publicizing it now.  Our branch is going to have a Friends of the Library Book Sale soon, so I think that's a great opportunity to publicize it.  I'm also going to try and advertise at some of the local senior centers.  Who knows, I might even get some male patrons to the group.

Anyway, I have some ideas about possible reads for the first couple of months.  They can't be too long, nothing over 500 pages, and we have to have enough copies in the library catalog, probably about ten, preferably with copies in large print and audio available.  And nothing too popular; also, I'd prefer not to choose books that most people (myself included) have read already.   So, I'm not even going to consider uber-popular works like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Eat, Pray, Love because so many people have probably read them.

Here are some of my top choices:

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larsen.  He's written some incredibly popular nonfiction books, plus it's about Texas, so that's a win-win.  Definitely on my list!

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.  This was all over the 2012 best-of-lists.  It might be a little depressing but I've heard it's also uplifting.  I hope so.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.  History and true crime combined, sounds fascinating.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston.  The best-selling mystery writer moves to Italy, discovers a local unsolved crime, and ends up under suspicion by the Italian police.  How could you make this up?

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.  I've never read Krakauer but it's kind of an adventure/biography.  Plus, it was my daughter's assigned reading last summer.  And it's short.

Anyway -- those are just some of my ideas.  There are tons more nonfiction books I want to read -- hopefully I can find enough people to make the group work.  If not, I'll just go back to mixing up the genres like I did in my last group.  So -- good choices or bad?  Any other suggestions?