Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bel Canto

I do a fair amount of work-related driving.  This week even more so as I anticipated spending over two hours a day traveling to and from South Carolina.  Normally, the idea of getting into the car and driving around town without an audio book does not make me break out in a cold sweat.  But long-distance driving is quite another matter, so I figured it would be a very good time to "read" Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which is something I've been meaning to do ever since I finished State of Wonder.

I am currently on disc 5 of 9, which brings me a little more than half-way through, and I like the story line quite a bit.  World famous opera soprano, Roxane Coss, is engaged to sing at the palatial home of the vice-president of an unnamed South American country following a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of the chairman of a large Japanese electronics company.  The party is attended by rollers and shakers of industry and politically powerful personages.  The president of the unidentified country is supposed to be in attendance as well; however, the party falls on the evening his favorite soap opera is scheduled to reach its denouement.  He sends his regrets at the last minute.  Meanwhile, a terrorist organization has composed a plot to break into the house at the height of the festivities and kidnap the president.  The break-in is successful, but for obvious reasons the kidnapping is a bust. The terrorists take everyone who is in attendance hostage instead.

That is about all of the plot line I'm going to reveal, except to say a lot of the book is character study and is very well written - at least as far as I have come in the book.  Let's tally this up so far:  Plot line:  Very good; Writing:  Excellent; Character development:  Insightful.  So why am I not loving this book?  Narration.  Narration, dear readers, can kill a good book quite dead.

Because the aforementioned gala event is attended by multi-national glitterati, there are a lot of foreign accents to be heard among the crowd.  That's okay when the reader is reading inside the reader's head.  The mind sort of fills in the blanks without much notice.  But in narration?  Well, let's say in this particular instance it goes something like this:

Russian guest (predicable low voice):  "OH-prra eez wary eemporrtahnt een my cowntry."
Spanish guest:  (higher voice) "Eees eet polithicul or-r-r museeecul? Joo cahn nevahrrrr thell."
Japanese guest (halting sotto voce):  Well, there's just no way to type it, but it reminds me of Ming the Merciless in the old Flash Gordon television series.

It's a shame, really, to subject an otherwise very worthwhile book to linguistic torture.  And it is only because it is very worthwhile that I will soldier on until the end.  My advice to actors who wish to pursue a career in the book-reading biz is to ditch the phony accents.  Because unless you're David Suchet or Meryl Streep, it seldom works and you will only accomplish ruining the experience for the poor reader who, like me, is trapped inside their car contending with foul weather, traffic jams and road construction.  Is it too much to ask that you simply read the words?

As the Russian said, shaking his head, "Eees so wary froostrrating."  I hear you, pal.  I feel the same way.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In my earliest memory of...well, anything, I am 3-1/2 years old and standing next to my mother in the dining room one early, gray winter morning.  We lived in a brownstone two-flat on Lawndale Avenue in Chicago which my parents bought after the war.  It was 1951 and the dining room was cozily heated by a wood-burning stove.  She was holding a brightly colored book-order form that my sister had carried home from school.  My sister made her selections, then my mother turned to me and said I could chose one book as well.  I still remember the thrill of excitement, looking at the pictures of the book covers.  I chose The Tall Book of Make-Believe illustrated by Garth Williams.  Over fifty years later, when I was forced to evacuate my home outside Savannah, a hurricane bearing down on us, the only possession I took with me was that book. That battered, bent, raggedy-paged book.  That book which traveled with me to college, and to Europe, and to Hawaii, and eventually to an island along Georgia's coast.  In a world of possessions, it was what I could not lose.  On that cold winter morning in 1951 I was not yet a reader; but it was the moment I became a book lover.  Over the intervening years I have read many fine books, great ones, masterpieces written by gifted authors.  And yet, The Tall Book of Make-Believe remains the most important and influential book I have ever held in my hands.  For those of you who have seen Citizen Kane, it is my "Rosebud."

When I was roughly 8 years old, my parents moved us from the city to the suburbs.  The library was 7 blocks away, an easy bike ride over what were still very urban streets.  It was housed in a corner store front building; the librarian sat at a heavy oak desk to the right of the front door.  I would head directly to "my section" which was located in the back, right-hand side of the room - second row from the end.  It was from this library that I borrowed my first chapter book, The Wizard of Oz.  It was bound in an appropriately green cover, sprinkled with small yellow fleur de lis.  I wish I could find one just like it.  And then, after carrying my stack of books quietly to the desk, the librarian would hand me a pencil so I could print my name on the little pocket card.  She would pound the date stamp on the pad and "plunk" it onto the return slip glued to the inside cover.  I would pedal home, books in the basket of my bike.

As Lewis Buzbee writes in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, his very readable book about books, printing them, selling them, lusting over them,  "[t]ake someone who likes to read; give her a comfy place to do so and ample time for doing it; add one good book, and then more; stand back."  As all book-lusters know to be true, we are "drawn to the bookstore by the books that moved us, and stopping for just a moment, we stayed for a long time."
A book, as Buzbee points out, "is a uniquely durable object, one that can be fully enjoyed without being damaged.  A book doesn't require fuel, food, or service; it isn't very messy and rarely makes noise.  A book can be read over and over, then passed on to friends, or resold at a garage sale.  A book will not crash or freeze and will still work when filled with sand.  Even if it falls into the bath, it can be dried out, ironed if necessary and then finished.  Should the spine of a book crack so badly the pages fall out, one simply has to gather them before the wind blows them away and wrap with a rubber band."

It is clear that Lewis Buzbee loves the physical book, the printed version, the real McCoy.  When first published in 2006, this little volume expressed his concern that ebooks and Internet booksellers might signal the end of the bookstore and the book-book.  However, as proof of the resiliency of the printed book he asks us to take a simple test:  "Look around on the streetcar or bus or airplane and count how many e-readers you see.  None.  We still prefer that quiet rustle of the pages, and besides, how do you press a wildflower into the pages of an e-book?"  Fast-forward to 2015, however, and it's easy to see things have changed.  Not everyone among the general readership desires the "quiet sensuality" of the printed book.  In his 2008 Afterword, he admits there's no doubt about it - it's a bad time to be a bookseller.

Yes, I loved this little volume.  What book-luster would not?  Who among us hasn't, on occasion, become a "book snoop," straining to make out what that person sitting across from you on the train is reading?  Loving how the unique smell of the bookstore wafts over you as soon as you enter.  Being alone among others?  Who hasn't stopped in a bookstore for "just a moment" and stayed a long time? I have no idea whether the bookstore or the printed book will survive as technology presses on.  Or whether a young reader in the next millennium will find the same satisfaction in flipping electronic pages as I did reading under the covers with a flashlight, or peddling home, basket heavy with Nancy Drew or Heidi or that silly Mrs. Goose And Her Friends.  Or printing my name on the flyleaf.  This book belongs to ME.

But one thing will always be true:  When one opens the covers of a book, the universe unfurls itself.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rhapsody In Blue(s)

My latest book order came!  I had not realized I color coded my choices.  Was it a trend?  Had I been doing this subconsciously for a while?  Impossible!  Preposterous!  So, I checked.  The month before I walked out of the bookstore with The Crystal Cave and The Sun Also Rises tucked under an arm.

The Sun Also Rises
The Crystal Cave (Arthurian Saga, #1)

and then there was the book order comprised of:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

The proof, as they say, is in the cover art.  I have no idea how long this has been going on.  Is it a sign of something deeper, more psychological, than the lure of a color wheel?  Wouldn't it be fun to take all the books one owns and line them up by hue?  Just to see how it looked?  Discover your primary palette for prose!  Define your literary pigment.  Achieve the ultimate crayolafication of your reading life!  Are you a tranquil blue, a dignified gray, a tender pink?  Or perhaps you are:

The Camerons


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

And The Winner Is...

Whoosh.  Did you feel that?  Another year zooms on down the road leaving some of us wondering what the heck just happened.  Am I richer?  Thinner?  Fitter?  Or perhaps a combination of thinner and fitter which I will call "thitter."  Do I see a more peaceful world?  A cleaner one?  Have I been kinder, or have I at least tried?  I suppose it's inevitable that at the close of each year one can't resist the urge to take inventory and tally up the balance sheets of life.  I don't particularly like the exercise and generally avoid it...with one exception!  The books I've read.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, is not only the best book of fiction I read in 2014, it is the best book I've read this year.  No, that's too limited.  It is the best book I've read in many years. I would not be surprised if I learn someone plans to make a "major motion picture" based on it.  Just, please, whoever you are...please do it justice.

Last October I had a bunch of coupons for Barnes and Noble for 20% off that were set to expire.  Since I also have a membership, I get an additional discount plus free shipping when I order books on-line.  The rationale I use is thus:  with a coupon and extra discounts, one is not spending money one is saving money.  Using this rationale, I had a great time saving tons of money by clicking, and entering coupon codes, and applying discounts.  When the books began arriving it was actually better than Christmas surprises.  You might know that feeling:  "Oh, I forgot I ordered that.  How wonderful."

One of those books turned out to be the best book of non-fiction I read in 2014.  In The Heart Of The Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is based on the 1820 voyage of the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket, which was rammed by a sperm whale (apparently in a deliberate attack...an event unheard of at the time) and sunk near the Equator in the South Pacific Ocean.  Twenty survivors packed into three small boats with little food, water or navigational equipment.  Only a handful made it home.  I was half-way through the book when I noticed for the first time that it was not only a New York Times Bestseller (something I don't follow) but the cover also announced that it is "soon to be a Major Motion Picture."  After a little checking, I see it is due to be released in a few months.   As a side-bar, if you didn't already know that the whaling industry had terrible consequences for the survival of the species, that and other acts of environmental malfeasance will probably make you sad and angry. Nevertheless, this is a whopping good story.

I read several excellent mysteries this year.  I especially loved The Tiger In The Smoke, an oldie by Margery Allingham, which had me turning pages like crazy.  It was all you hope a murder mystery will be. But, I'll have to give the award to The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley.  Not gripping, not spine-tingling, but well-written and my sentimental favorite since I find Flavia de Luce to be the most refreshing and precocious chemist/sleuth of all time.  Besides, this is the volume in which her long-lost mother, Harriet, comes home.  I had heard it was supposedly the last, but I'm delighted that number 7 will be out next week.  Have I pre-ordered As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust?  You bet.

Although it was not published in 2014, I only got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel this year and it gets the award for best historical fiction.  My only criticism of it was I wish it had been longer.  I wasn't prepared to reach the end.  It was that good.

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer is a collection of essays and articles written in his brilliant, witty, and insightful style.  Known mainly for his political commentary, Krauthammer is also a psychiatrist which I think gives him a special gravitas in his analysis of people and why they do the things they do.  There is some politics, but he writes so well on a number of subjects:  baseball, dogs, speed chess.  Even if you do not agree with him ideologically, I will bet you will like the guy after reading this book.

I can't remember how I learned about I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. The cover art is awful, so I know it isn't what grabbed me.  I'm happy something did.  The story line, the tight writing, the contemporary subject matter all worked together to create a real edge-of-your-seat thriller.  I was going to loan it to a friend, but am too afraid it won't come back to me.  I don't want to part with it.  I can see a movie on the horizon for this one and would bet money someone has already bought the rights.

The most delightfully fun read was Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple.  I wanted fearlessly quirky, highly intelligent, but somewhat blundering Bernadette Fox to be my friend.  This was an audio book for me and the narrator's voice was perfect.  The wrong voice will ruin it every time.

I read one YA book this year (something I rarely do) but had heard so much about The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier that I figured, "Why not?"  Now that I've read it, if I was twelve or thirteen again, I would check under the bed every night and sleep with the light on, and dead leaves blowing about the house would make me run in a panic.

There were so many good books this year, I hate to pick favorites.  But these really did stand out and I can recommend each and every one of them.

So bring on 2015.  I can hardly wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Go Ahead: Challenge Me

The end of the year is breathing down my neck and I find myself glancing over my shoulder at the wreckage of broken resolutions, failed goals and challenges that remain unchallenged.  But I remain hopeful and ready to begin afresh.  Yes, Scarlett O'Hara, you are correct.  There's always tomorrow - or next year (at least one hopes). In six weeks I'll start again to think about painting the hallway, scraping the ceilings, planting a vegetable garden, and getting up an hour before dawn to exercise.  What I will not do is burden myself with a reading challenge on Goodreads.  Or rather, I will not make a blood oath with myself to read a book or two a week.  I will admit the Goodreads challenge is fulfilling in the same sort of way my 401k statement is fulfilling.  As I finish a book and hang a few stars on it, it gets saved in my little "Books Read" bank account.  And as the year wanes, a bibliophile takes pleasure in looking back over the year via the book covers that get lined up.  Or realizing that book was read last year, not this year.  Last year? I could have sworn I read it this year.  Or even more stunning when it happens to me..."I read that book?  I wonder what it was about?"

So, let's say you've set yourself a goal of 52 books in the year.  That's a book a week.  That's doable - especially if you listen to an audio book while driving or during that pre-dawn jogging you mean to accomplish.  Ah...But are we talking about reading The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson or Natchez Burning by Greg Iles?  One could read the Jackson book four times before finishing the Iles.  Or perhaps three Penelope Fitzgerald novels and The Stranger by Albert Camus.  Do I really want to pick up George Eliot's Middlemarch when, at 900 pages, Goodreads will gently remind me that I'm "6 books behind schedule," which may therefore compel me to reach for a graphic novel - just to catch up rather than because I want to read it - all because being behind schedule is anathema to me?  Being behind?  Not making the grade? What - shall I lose the challenge just because I choose to cart around a tome?  It isn't that I don't want to read Camus.  I love Camus; Camus is brief and he is brilliant.  But I also love Victor Hugo and might want to re-read Les Miserables.  

Challenges are fine; they can be invigorating and self-affirming.  And they have their place.  I'm just not sold that a book challenge based solely on numbers is the right place for me to be.  I suppose you can argue that such a challenge encourages people to read more.  But let's face it.  A person who signs up for a reading challenge is probably already someone who reads without any prompting.  Goodreads is, after all, a place for readers.

I will still sign up for the 2015 Challenge when the time comes, but I'll challenge myself to something stress free - 12 books for the year perhaps.  I can still look at my "books read" bank and feel a smug satisfaction with myself as the covers start to add up.

Before the end of the year I would like to finish my little TBR pile which consists of The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester.  I will most certainly finish the very delightful audio book Where'd You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple but gave up on Among Others by Jo Walton narrated by...I can't remember.  The story was just fine but I could not take that voice for 8 more hours.  Just...could...not.

And, if I do not finish any of them, that will be okay too.  Because there's always tomorrow.  And as we all know, tomorrow is another day.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon

Well, I am already into my stack which includes audio books so I can also run some errands.  This is the third time I have participated in the read-a-thon, which is a very good excuse to let dust settle, drink a great deal of coffee, and not answer the phone.  Hundreds of readers from all parts of the world are taking part in this unique event and I look forward to checking in with many of them and also to cheer them on.

Happy reading!

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I was shopping for a dress.  A dress for my daughter's wedding.  In order to get there I had to pass the book store...honestly I did.  Really.  I decided I could not buy one...more...book.  I made a pact with myself.  Not one.  But...I mean, what's a person to do?  (Oh hush up.)  So, there I was...suddenly finding myself in the book store...and there was Dearie, a biography of Julia Child by Bob Spitz.  And on sale!  Yes, yes, I know.  I need to find the right shoes.  I need to find the right dress.  Sometimes, however, serendipity leads you to just the right book as well.  It's all good.

In the long ago past I was a young bride eager to use her Lenox wedding china.  I was married to a military man, and we lived very simply and frugally.  We made friends with an older couple.  They owned a Lincoln car dealership, had a beautiful home with an in-ground pool and sauna, and ate at very fine restaurants.  Intrepid as I was in my youth, I invited them to what was to be my second "important" dinner party.  (The first was Thanksgiving.  I made a turkey, invited my boss and his wife and the local parish priest.  The bird was lovely and golden brown.  I carried it sizzling to the table with great pride to the hoped for "ahhhs".  My (then) husband proceeded with the ceremonious carving and as he attempted to get through the neck stuffing, he asked, "Did you stuff this with cheese?"  I looked on horrified as he attempted to pull out a melted white strand that looked a lot like mozzerella and which eventually shot out of the bird, catapulted across the room and hit the wall with a loud splat.  It was, of course, the plastic bag containing the giblets.  "Um...gravy anyone?"  Never let them see you sweat.)

And so, for that second dinner party, I turned to Julia Child and my copy of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, which I received as a wedding gift.  I made Homard Thermidor.  The two lobsters required for four people took up an entire week's food budget.   I mixed and dribbled and sieved.  I worried and fretted.  It was delicious, although I did overcook the lobster.  We ended the meal with Soufffle au Chocolat.  I was dead exhausted by the time my guests left the house, but fell into bed that night with the comforting knowledge that Julia was to be my kitchen salvation.  If I followed her instructions, I could do it.  I did and I have.  Today, without even thinking about it, I brought home chicken breasts and made two exactly as she suggested I should...the way I have been doing them for decades without giving it much thought:  Supremes de Volaille a Blanc (only made without the blanc).  To her, eating was the art as much as the cooking.

My original copy of Mastering has long ago lost both its front and back covers.  Several pages have fallen out and have been lost, a few more are stuck haphazardly into the falling apart book.  Pages are splattered with DNA evidence of balsamic vinegar, clarified butter, and wine.  A few years ago, at a library big book sale, I found another copy for $1.  What a lovely bargain.  It belonged at one time to Darris Plumb, so says her bookplate.  And in the margins dwell her wonderful notations:  "Very good," and at Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons she notes "Betty says this is good."    I didn't trust Betty until I made it myself.  Betty was spot on.

In the early morning of Christmas Eve I make Julia's boeuf a la bourguignonne.  I make it in my Le Cruset rip-off and put in the oven to warm for Christmas dinner.  I make it exactly as she instructs.  I read the recipe and listen to her as she guides me step by step.  No fudging, no winging it.  Elegant enough for that important occasion, and yet easy for the end of a season that has been filled with stress and excitement.  Thank you, Julia.

Naturally, Julia Child is known mostly for her TV shows.  She kept me company when my children were small.  When I was pregnant with my second child, I put my first child down for his nap at 12:00 noon.  It was also the same time The French Chef was aired on PBS.  When I was expecting my third child, I put my two children down for their naps at noon, and there was Julia again.  Like a "big sprig" companion.

Russell Morash, the original producer of her show on WGBH-TV, recalled her voice as being "a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a slide whistle."  I think a statue should be erected to Mr. Morash.

Since I just brought the book home today I can't tell you much about it or whether I will enjoy it, but I can't imagine not doing so.  And, as another bit of serendipity the movie "Julie And Julia" is playing on television tonight.  My only criticism of which is that they spent time making the "Julie" part of the movie.  How cool would that movie have been if it had concentrated on Julia's life only.  She's the real story, after all.  Well, in reality it will be a love story.  As Paul Child wrote to her before their marriage, "I want to see you, touch you, kiss you, talk with you, eat with you...eat you maybe.  I have a Julie-need."  Whew!  Is it just me or does anyone else think it's getting hot in there?  When I finish Dearie I will tell you all about it.