Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Travel plans

This weekend my family is doing what everyone in their right mind has been avoiding lately, considering the price of gas--getting in the car and driving to our vacation destination. We're going to Yosemite to celebrate my dad's birthday.

Yosemite has been one of my favorite places since I was a child. I remember stopping at a store on the way to Yosemite when I was a kid, and buying two books from a bargain table--Silas Marner, by George Eliot, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle--both of which I devoured on that trip. I remember loving Silas Marner, but I don't remember much about The Hound of the Baskervilles. Maybe I'll read it again some day.

In Silas Marner, I remember reading about Silas trying to punish baby Eppie by putting her in the coal hole, and having the punishment backfire on him when she took to going into the coal-hole for fun. When Silas finds her in the coal-hole, dirty with coal dust, she smiles and says, "Eppie in de toal-hole!" I remember finding that bit very funny, and sharing it with my family, and having Eppie's phrase stick with us and become a family joke. Now, with a three-year-old who loves nothing more than making a mess, I relate to the anecdote even more.

For this trip I'm not relying on finding a bargain book table; I'm bringing Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which I've been saving for the trip, but which I need to finish before my book group meets next week. I loved The Namesake and The Interpreter of Maladies, so I'm really looking forward to this book. Can't wait to discuss it with my book group.

Do you ever associate books with the places you read them?

And anyone who has read Unaccustomed Earth, what do you think?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Books the Bloggers Mention...Constantly

I've realized lately how much my reading has been influenced by book blogs over the past year or so. I still love to read reviews in various old school media, and I still get book recommendations from NPR, and friends, and my book group. But I've noticed that there are some books and authors I just wouldn't have heard about if it weren't for book bloggers. Occasionally my interest is piqued by a single review, but more often there are clusters of bloggers who mention certain books, and I always love when I find those. It's like secretly discovering the zeitgeist. I feel that bloggers' love for certain books is so passionate, it is more motivating than any other type of review, and I find myself mooching or buying or borrowing those books almost immediately.

It reminds me that blogging is so particularly well-suited to the recommendation of books, movies, music, restaurants...for me, what makes it work so well is the intimate nature of blogging combined with its ability to spread things like a virus!

This is a partial list of books on my wish list, all of which I discovered via my lovely blogging friends. I might have come across them otherwise, but without the clusters of recommendations and comments on these, I don't know if I would feel the urgency to read them that I now feel.

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
Goldberg: Variations, by Gabriel Josipovici
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Neil Gaiman (anything by this author--they've all been mentioned. People love this guy and I haven't read anything of his yet, I'm ashamed to admit)
Hearts and Minds, by Rosy Thornton
The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Myths), by Margaret Atwood
Matrimony: A Novel, by Joshua Henkin
The Book Thief (Readers Circle), by Marcus Zusak

There's a much longer list of books recommended by bloggers that I have already read (and enjoyed, of course!). I think I'll keep a list of the books I've found through blogging alone, as an addition to my regular reading journal.

What books or authors have you found solely through blog recommendations?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Books Vs. Movies

Today's Booking Through Thursday question was suggested by: Superfastreader:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to read screenplays for a movie studio for a living. It made me look at movies very differently than I had before. A screenplay is essentially a blueprint for a movie, so reading a screenplay is nothing like seeing the film. But the blueprint has to be solid for the film to be good--in the screenplay there has to be a strong three-act structure, characters we care about, and dialogue that is witty or natural, rather than wooden. Then casting, production design, and the director's vision all come into play, hopefully making the film a visual delight that allows you to immerse yourself in a good story.

So for me, enjoying a film means using different muscles than reading a good book. The visual immersion of a film, for me, is slightly more passive, and more of a roller-coaster ride, than the immersion I have in reading. Reading a good book may be just as immersive, but like I said, it involves different mental muscles. For me, reading is slower, and I will sometimes put down a book after reading something I want to ponder further, and savor it. (I can't imagine getting up from my theater seat and going into the lobby to ponder the theme of a film I'm watching, though I might get up to get more popcorn!)

Novels are a word-based medium, and in a good novel, every word counts. Film is word-based, but is more importantly a visual medium. Here's an exercise for you: The next time you rent a movie, watch it with the sound off, and see how much of the story you can follow. My husband (who works with new directors all the time) would say that the mark of a good director is that his or her film will be almost as good with the sound off.

So, I value books and movies for some of the same things--important themes, characters I relate to, vicarious experiences (like travel to exotic locales), witty dialogue, immersion in imaginary worlds, emotional connection to a story--but for me, movies and books achieve these things in vastly different ways.

There's also the question of whether books and movies mix--what makes for a good adaptation from book to film? I'm sure there are theses out there written on this subject, but I will give you my two cents. One thing I've noticed is that short stories and novellas are easier to adapt to film than really long, complicated novels. I'm not sure exactly why this is, other than the obvious two-hour time limit, but some of my favorite movies based on books have come from shorter works: Brokeback Mountain, Rear Window, The Birds, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me. I'm not saying that adaptations of big books aren't always good, but it almost always feels like a bigger compromise to me.

And the other thing I have to say is that it is better not to judge the book by the movie, or the movie by the book. They just aren't the same thing. I have found that there are some books I didn't like that made good movies, and some really bad movies made from books I loved.

Some of the adaptations to film I really like (other than the list above) are: Ordinary People, Adaptation, Sense and Sensibility (the Emma Thompson version--she wrote and stars in it), Dangerous Liaisons, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Year of Living Dangerously, Blade Runner, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather, The English Patient, Schindler's List, The Remains of the Day, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Apocalypse Now.

What are your favorite movie adaptations?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I'm hoping to like Penelope Fitzgerald...

Penelope Fitzgerald is one of those authors I have learned about solely through the blogging world. I found I kept running across her name, mostly in the blogs of British bloggers I respect, and I was intrigued.

She wrote nine novels, three of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and one of which won that coveted prize. So of course I mooched whatever I could of her work from BookMooch. I got The Blue Flower, which was highly praised when it came out in 1995, and reconstructs the life of an 18th-century German romantic poet and tells of his love for a young girl. I also got Offshore, which won the Booker Prize in 1979, and tells the stories of an eccentric bunch of people who live in houseboats on the Thames.

I'm not sure which one to start first! They're both slim, and they are on such different topics. Evidently Fitzgerald is also known for the breadth of her subject matter! And she embarked on her literary career at the age of 60, which also endears her to me. I love late bloomers!

Anyone have anything to say about Fitzgerald? Advice about which book to read first, or other favorites of hers? Let me know!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Mother's Day

The Sunday

It's Mother's Day and I have managed to read a little. My husband and children's main gift to me is the time to go out to lunch alone with my own mother (a rare treat), with a little alone time thrown in, so I can read.

My precious moments have been spent reading Alice Munro's collection of stories The View from Castle Rock. I really enjoyed Munro's last book, Runaway, and I'm enjoying this, too. It's different from her earlier books because it's more personal. She's writing about her ancestors, from when they lived in 18th century Scotland, through their immigrating and settling in rural Canada, and then continuing with a possibly semi-autobiographical present. Though Munro has mostly created fiction about her ancestors, there is something in the solidity of dates and details that makes the reader know without being told that these are real people.

I like Munro's melding of fact and fiction. Her writing style suits the combination. I always love Munro's characters, because they often seem to be holding something back. I wonder how Munro does this. The characters are fully realized, they are beautifully drawn, and yet there remains a mystery about them that I find appealing. Maybe that's what makes them feel so real.

Is it just me, or does the paperback cover for this book not seem to suit its subject matter?

Here's the paperback cover:

And here's the hardback cover:

I don't know, I'm not usually very cynical, but that looks like one of the most obvious marketing ploys I've ever seen! To me, the hardback cover suits the book, as the title, "The View From Castle Rock", comes from an anecdote about a father bringing a son up to Castle Rock in Edinburgh to look out over the sea and see America--though what they are really seeing is Fife, the county across the Firth of Forth, five miles away at the most. I haven't finished the book, but so far have not come across any scenes of beach-going, sunbathing women, as seen on the paperback cover. Though perhaps they are in there--I haven't finished the book yet. Maybe someone out there can enlighten me!

I've also dipped into Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, which I mooched off of BookMooch. It is a memoir about the joys and pitfalls of the reading life, and though I'm only 10 pages in, I'm enjoying it immensely. I love Schwartz's use of language. And as is usual in a book about reading, I see myself in her.

She talks about not finishing books, something I only recently have learned to do:
Over the last ten years or so, I have managed not to finish certain books. With barely a twinge of conscience, I hurl down what bores me or doesn't give what I crave: ecstasy, transcendence, a thrill of mysterious connection. For, more than anything, readers are thrill-seekers, though I don't read thrillers, not the kind sold under that label, anyway. They don't thrill; only language thrills.
I'm really looking forward to the rest of this book!

If you'd like to participate in the Sunday Salon, check it out here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--Manual Labor

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question:

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?

I have a couple of old stand-by reference books that I use, mostly The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and The Chicago Manual of Style. But I don't refer to them that often, really. Maybe I need to check in with them a little more!

I also hear a lot of good things about Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, which is supposedly an entertaining book.

This Booking Through Thursday question is now prompting a confession I have to make. I'm addicted to books about writing. I am married to a writer, and I write some, too. So it's not entirely inappropriate. But I think I've carried it a bit too far. I'll list a few of my favorites here. And this is just a sample, not the whole writing reference library. Okay, here goes:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. I love Lamott's personal style, and I especially like the anecdote that inspired the book's title--I use it to inspire myself when I'm stuck, and my kids when they have a particularly troublesome homework assignment.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg is a Zen Buddhist and her approach to writing is both accessible and reflects her beliefs.

Writing To Learn, by William Zinsser. A great reference if you're writing non-fiction.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, by John Gardner. The subtitle says it all. Gardner's style is very readable.

The Fiction Writer's Silent Partner, by Martin Roth. This is a sort of cheesy book put out by Writer's Digest but there's nothing better to get you unstuck.

Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, by David Ball. This is really a book about reading plays, but it really helps you understand dramatic structure, which is a must for any kind of fiction writing, not just plays and screenplays.

Okay, I could go on and on. Scary, really. I also love a bunch of memoirs about writing, including Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Louise Erdrich's Blue Jay's Dance, and then there are all those great books out there about books and reading...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Los Angeles Library Funding Crisis

I got a flurry of emails today about the crisis in funding for Los Angeles public libraries. Evidently cuts in the city's budget are going to means big cuts in the libraries' budgets, and now the city's librarians are fighting mad.

A friend who is a children's librarian at one of the nearby branches says she no longer has a budget for books. And the librarian at my nearest branch says that, except for a small stipend they were were given in February, they have not been able to purchase any materials since December of last year.

Los Angeles has a huge library system, housed in some architecturally amazing buildings. It would be a shame not to protect, nurture, and grow the system.

The city's librarians and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles have created Save the L.A. Public Library, an advocacy group for libraries. According to the Library Foundation and Save the L.A. Public Library's websites, here's the background:

Faced with a citywide budget shortfall, elected officials are proposing deep cuts to the Library department budget that will result in:

1. Reducing the book budget by $2 million This is a 22% cut from last year’s book budget, and a 33% cut from two years ago.

2. Closing the eight regional branch libraries on Sundays, due to a reduction of staff positions.

3. “Short-term layoffs” of Library staff, which may further reduce library service.

And they've also put together what I think is a convincing list of reasons to fight the cuts:
The proposed cuts to the Library budget come at a time when:

People want more books, not less. The Library was unable to fill more than 300,000 requests for books last year, because the book budget has been cut 33% over the last two years to $7.7 million for the Central Library and 71 branches. The Library serves the largest population in the U.S., yet for per capita book spending, the Library now ranks 23rd among the 25 public libraries serving populations of over 1 million. The Library has only 1.6 books for each resident of Los Angeles.

People want the library to be open more hours, not less. The Library experienced record use in three key areas: more than 16 million visited the Library; more than 15 million books were checked out; and the electronic resources were used more than 110 million times. In a 2005 survey, keeping libraries open longer hours was among the top three requests from library users. Libraries must be open on Sundays, not closed as proposed in the budget, to meet the record demand for library books, computers and programs.

The Library gives kids a real alternative to gangs. At a time when gang intervention is among the city’s top priorities, the Library provides anti-gang education programs, workshops that help kids explore educational and career opportunities, peer groups that build self-esteem, and more.

Supporting education means supporting the Library. The schools can’t do it alone, that’s why the Library provides children with books, computers, homework help and libraries that are open when schools are closed. The Library also provides the largest after-school program in the city designed to build literacy skills in children and keep them reading outside the classroom. With more than 70% of LAUSD third- and seventh- grade students scoring below the national average in reading, and nearly 90% of eighth- grade students scoring at or below the basic level in writing, the Library’s resources are more critical than ever.

A strong Library is good for business. An educated workforce is essential to successful business. Yet more than 50% of the Los Angeles area’s working age population suffer from low literacy skills. To battle the devastating personal and social effects of illiteracy, the Library operates free Adult Literacy Centers in 19 libraries citywide and provides self-tutorials on its Web site. The Library’s free collection of books, databases, education-support programs and other resources provide all people with the tools they need to succeed.
They've convinced me! I'm going to write the mayor's office now!

I'd love to hear what you--and especially you librarians or library studies students--think about this library crisis...