Thursday, July 31, 2008

Booking Through Thursday, and L.A. Book News

Los Angeles has a wonderful selection of independent bookstores, but some of the really good ones have closed over the last few years. Here's a bit of good news about one of my favorites, Skylight Books, which is located in one of the great L.A. neighborhoods, Los Feliz.

And here is this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

What are your favourite final sentences from books? Is there a book that you liked specially because of its last sentence? Or a book, perhaps that you didn’t like but still remember simply because of the last line?

I'm cheating a little here, because this is something my husband knows by heart, as does my best friend. It's the last line of The Great Gatsby, which, it turns out, it comes in handy to know every once in awhile, as it is appropriate to many situations:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Ahh, the man could write.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald--a review

Eccentrics Afloat might be my subtitle for this lovely little novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. I don't mean to be disparaging when I say little, it's just that it's a short book, and minimalist in the plot department. But it's truly rich in atmosphere, and brilliant in its characterizations.

In Offshore, Fitzgerald tells the story of a group of people who have chosen, for one reason or another, to live aboard boats at Battersea Reach on the Thames. The story mostly revolves around the unsettled and slightly hapless Nenna, who lives aboard the boat "Grace" with her two daughters, Martha, 12, and six-year-old Tilda. Nenna feels her life is falling apart--her two daughters aren't going to school, and her husband won't come to live with them on Grace, though Nenna wants him to. Nenna confides her heartache to another boat-dweller, male prostitute Maurice, another hapless soul, who stores stolen goods on his boat for a sinister friend. Nenna is also drawn to Richard, an ex-soldier who is now a successful businessman, whose wife Laura is bored and really wants to live somewhere on dry land. Richard runs the only shipshape ship around, and seems an unlikely denizen of Battersea Reach. They all try to help another barge dweller, Willis, an aging marine artist whose barge Dreadnought is sinking, and who wants to sell and retire to a cottage with his sister. All of these people are neither here nor there--they live afloat, but their boats go nowhere, and of course it's the perfect metaphor for their lives, which are all in some degree of disarray.

The story is amazingly tight and compact, with most of the action occurring in the last few pages of the book. The beginning is taken up with what seem at first to be Fitzgerald's leisurely observations about life on board the boats, but I realize turns out to be deep and delicate character development, too. It's the kind of character development that sneaks up on you--you realize that you have formed a perfect mental picture of these people, you know who they are, after mere pages, and it might have taken other writers reams to get you there. As Julian Barnes says of a certain short scene in Fitzgerald's work, "it expands into something much larger in the memory." That's what happens in this book--Barnes has it exactly right--it expands into something much larger in my memory.

The almost abrupt ending holds a few surprises, which I won't give away here, and which made the whole thing worthwhile for me. I also found surprises in the writing itself--Fitzgerald has such a way with language, and her occasional bursts of humor and vivid descriptions often made me stop and read them again. Now I get why this won the Booker Prize, and I understand why people love Penelope Fitzgerald. I'll be sure to read her other works...soon!

P.S. Logophile just sent me a link to a great article about Penelope Fitzgerald in the Guardian, by Julian Barnes. Thank you so much, Logophile! Worth reading because it really illuminates Fitzgerald's personality and her writing life. It also makes me want to read The Blue Flower (which I have sitting on my shelf) next, as Barnes says it should have won the Booker instead of Offshore. The article is also a review of So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, which now goes onto my list!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Windfall of books

I just love it when books fall into my lap. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, there's nothing better. Here are a few books I've acquired with little effort, and absolutely no money, lately.

Less Than Angels, by Barbara Pym. I've been on a Pym jag lately, so I mooched this on BookMooch. I recently mooched and read Pym's Quartet in Autumn, which I really enjoyed. Of course, I haven't reviewed it yet, but I'll try to get to it...

The Mercy Rule, by Perri Klass. This was sent to me by a publisher, unsolicited. This new for me. It's a novel by a doctor/novelist/mother, a combo that interests me, and I've heard her novels are nicely character driven.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver. I've wanted to read this ever since I read Shriver's later novel, The Post-Birthday World, which I really enjoyed. This book, about a mother and her violent child, has intrigued (and scared) me for a long time. I borrowed this one from a friend.

The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham. Another book from the publisher. This is a memoir of a daughter's exploration of why her father committed suicide, and again, this is an intriguing and scary subject--I'm definitely interested in reading this.

Mommy Wars, by Leslie Morgan Steiner. I've been meaning to read this and several other books on motherhood for a long time, but I tend to grab a novel instead. This is a collection of essays by different "fiery" women about working and motherhood, and the work-family balance. I acquired this from a friend who was cleaning out her bookshelves, and was about to give it to charity. Since it was something on my list, I snagged it!

This has been a crazy week, with little time for reading or blogging. The flowers and the bottle of champagne you may be able to spy in the picture behind my stack of books are from a wedding shower that I helped host at my house yesterday. But I did manage to finish Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which I really enjoyed, and will write about soon.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Morning glories and a reading meme

The morning glories are taking over my yard! Well, they've taken over the fence. Even though I know they're a weed, and invasive, I can't help it, I think they're pretty.

I got this reading meme from Stefanie at So Many Books, and it looked like a fun one, so here goes:

Do you remember how you developed a love of reading?
Not exactly. I expect that it had something to do with how much reading was valued in my family. Both my parents were (and are) big readers, and we always had books in the house. My mother used to take me to the library when I was little, and I remember the thrill of checking out a big stack of books. I also remember that losing myself in a book was always a pleasant feeling, and if I was ever anxious or scared or sad I used books to comfort myself. I don't remember a time when I didn't love to read.

What are some books you loved as a child?
I loved the Nancy Drew books, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Great Brain, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

What is your favorite genre?
Fiction. A mixture of classic and contemporary.

Do you have a favorite novel?
I cannot imagine picking one!

Where do you usually read?
I often read in bed, but really any comfortable spot will do. Even in the carpool line waiting for my kids to get out of school.

When do you usually read?
Usually after the kids go to bed, but any time I can get some reading in, I will.

Do you usually have more than one book you are reading at a time?
Most of the time I do read more than one book at a time. Either I get really excited about something new and have to start it, even if I have something else going...or I have more than one book going so that I can read what I'm in the mood for at any given moment.

Do you read nonfiction in a different way or place than you read fiction?
If I'm honest with myself, I have to struggle to pay more attention when I'm reading non-fiction. I tend to sail through fiction. Then, with fiction, if I think I've missed something, or I want to savor it, I'll slow down, or re-read it.

Do you buy most of the books you read, or borrow them, or check them out from the library?
I buy most of the books I read (though not always at full price--I try to be creative). But I also mooch books through BookMooch. I'm working on utilizing the library system better, too.

Do you keep most of the books you buy?
Most of them. Though my shelves are more than overflowing at the moment and I fear I will be forced to cull through them soon. When I get rid of books I either list them on BookMooch, or give them to charity.

If you have children, what are some of the favorite books you have shared with them?
I have three children. My two boys are big readers, and I introduced my eldest to The Lord of the Rings, My Side of the Mountain, The Great Brain series, A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Red Fern Grows, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I also read books I loved to both of them when they were little: The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, pretty much all of Dr. Seuss, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Story of Ferdinand, Blueberries for Sal, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, Babar, Harry the Dirty Dog, Charlotte's Web, a whole bunch of Caldecott Medal winners, and when they were a bit older: Tin Tin, the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia. And when my daughter (who is now 3) is reading, there are many things waiting on her shelf, including all of the books I mentioned as my childhood favorites above, but also Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Redwall series, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Ginger Pye, The Moffats, Tuck Everlasting, Bridge to Terabithia, Ella Enchanted, The Cricket in Times Square, Julie of the Wolves, Stuart Little...

What are you reading now?
Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris.

Do you keep a To Be Read List?
I used to only keep a mental list, but now I have a notebook. I'm thinking of upgrading to a spreadsheet :)

What’s next?
Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. And the rest of the huge stack next to my bed.

What books would you like to re-read?
Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend, Out of Africa, Anna Karenina, West with the Night.

Who are your favorite authors?
I add to this list all the time, but at the moment, and in no particular order: Jane Austen, George Eliot, A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, Wallace Stegner, Laurie Colwin, David Mitchell, Raymond Carver.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--Vacation Spots

Booking Through Thursday's question today:

Do you buy books while on vacation/holiday?

Do you have favorite bookstores that you only get to visit while away on a trip?

What/Where are they?

I'll buy books anywhere, so yes, I buy books while on vacation. Actually, I usually bring plenty of books with me for my vacation reading, but I find an excuse to buy new books while I'm away, anyway.

I actively seek out local bookstores when I'm on vacation--it's a wonderful way to soak up the local color. Also, I love to buy local books to help me learn about a new place.

We usually visit Cape Cod every year with my husband's family, and there's a lovely little bookstore right down the road from where we stay in Brewster. I blogged about it here.

And here's a picture:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

July Odds and Ends

I am reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, and I am enjoying it very much. It is a post-9/11 story, but told by an ex-pat Dutchman who was living in New York at the time. I'm finding that looking at New York through the eyes of a sojourner during that particular time period is very interesting.

On my trips around the web, I noticed on The Diary of Samuel Pepys that the plague is plaguing London during July in 1665, which is sobering. Every generation has its scourge, I suppose, but reading about the plague definitely de-romanticizes the times before antibiotics.

My sister-in-law, who lives in the Boston area, and who we were visiting when we went to Walden Pond in June, sent me this funny article in a Boston website about Thoreau's popularity waxing and waning over time. Apparently, we missed the annual meeting of the Thoreau Society, which gets together at Walden Pond in July. And, according to the article, Thoreau is getting popular again due to the "simplicity movement" that is going on. I've thought the same thing--Thoreau seems to make sense at a time like this, when we're all trying to find ways to be kinder to our beleaguered planet, and when modern life seems at its most complicated, difficult and dangerous...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Goldberg: Variations, by Gabriel Josipovici

Gabriel Josipovici is one of those writers I had heard good things about on the book blogs (I know I read about him on Litlove's blog, for example), but had never heard of before that. After reading Stefanie's fascinating review of Goldberg: Variations, I decided to give it a try--and I'm very happy that I did. Goldberg: Variations is a novel of sorts, inspired by Bach's Goldberg Variations, that legend has were a series of 30 musical pieces composed at the behest of an insomniac patron named Goldberg.

In Josipovici's version, some time in the late 18th century, Samuel Goldberg, a writer and a Jew, takes a job reading to English aristocrat Tobias Westfield. Westfield is troubled by his thoughts, and cannot sleep at night. He has heard of the talented Goldberg and hopes that Goldberg's voice will soothe him to sleep. When Goldberg meets Westfield, he finds that Westfield does not just want him to read him to sleep--instead, he must compose something new every day to read to Westfield each night. Goldberg's financial situation demands that he accept this challenge, but he finds he has writer's block, and all he can write is a letter to his wife, which he reads to Westfield that first night.

What follows are 29 chapters that are connected, yet stand independently; tales involving Goldberg, Westfield and their families, a modern writer who is trying to write a novel about Goldberg and Westfield, and several other characters, sometimes told in first person or third, sometimes in letter form, sometimes in dialogues, and sometimes in third-person narrative. At first, while trying to follow the threads of the story, I got frustrated reading this book, but then I realized it was better when I just relaxed and let the story wash over me, not trying to figure out the puzzle, but letting it unfold instead on its own. And I was rewarded closer to the end of the book by some of the almost mystical voices in the tales, that challenged my feelings about narrative and what it means to tell a story.

There are many wonderful references in the book--and not just to Bach and his music--some of which actually sent me off to read more about them elsewhere. For example, one of the chapters is about Skara Brae, the ruin of a neolithic village in the Orkney Islands, which I had heard mentioned and seen on a television show, and now was even more intrigued by. Josipovici's writing about Homer, and about the nature of the fugue, also sent me off in other directions to look things up, or just to think.

One of the most intriguing ideas Josipovici had me pondering was the nature of storytelling itself. More than one of the characters is a writer tortured by writer's block, and their struggles made me think about the struggle to create, and how the difficult birthing process that is the creation of art is inextricably bound up in the struggle to live.

While I found it a challenging read, I really enjoyed the book--I found its ideas were meaty, and really stuck with me and colored my thoughts long after I had shut its covers. I think I will have to re-read this book, as there were so many layers to it that I'm sure I will uncover more when I go through it a second time.

There is a really good interview with Josipovici at Cruelest Month, and what he says about the genesis of this novel is very enlightening. I'd suggest reading this if you're interested in reading Goldberg: Variations.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Weekend with the kids

This past holiday weekend involved very little reading, but there was watermelon, there were fireworks, and there was a movie. We went to see Kung Fu Panda, which was the only movie the whole family could agree on.

It was a lot of fun, but I particularly liked one quote, from the Kung fu master Oogway: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That's why they call it the present." Very nice.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New books, big flowers

Isn't summer supposed to be slower than the rest of the year? At least, if you're on the school calendar it should be, right? Not so much, here. The kids haven't settled into a routine yet, and all three of them seem to be going different directions at once, and I'm the chauffeur. Needless to say, I haven't had much time for blogging. Though I seem to have had some time to acquire new books...

What I Loved: A Novel, by Siri Hustvedt. I'm a little afraid of this book, because I know it includes the death of a child--a subject I tend to shy away from.

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Mooched. Recently read and enjoyed Offshore, so I'm looking forward to this one.

The Last Days of Dogtown: A Novel, by Anita Diamant. I enjoyed The Red Tent, and have heard good things about this one.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris. Because he's a funny, funny man.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Loved the movie Smoke Signals, and have always wanted to read something of his. I may pass this on to my son.

The Photograph, by Penelope Lively. I have her memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived. Which I haven't read. But thought it would be good to pair with her fiction. And a friend was giving it away, so I grabbed it...

Matrimony: A Novel, by Joshua Henkin. A signed copy from the author. Wahoo!

Can't wait to start reading!

Our garden is going crazy these days, and I'm not so hot at tending it. The sunflowers have taken over!