Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer of My English Reading

My summer has been more chaotic than I am comfortable with, so in an unconscious response, I read several books about life in the English countryside, which calmed me down, as it always has in the past. I read two of Miss Read's books, Village Diary and Storm in the Village, which transported me to the middle of the last century and a rural village called Fairacre. I chuckled along with Miss Read, teacher in the village school, about the inhabitants' foibles. They are not plot-heavy books, but there is a rhythm to them that you get used to, and a structure that pays off in the end. I enjoyed their subtlety, and I'm sure I'll read more in the series.

I also read Beverley Nichols' Down the Garden Path, another chronicle of English country life, but through the lens of a city dweller who comes to the country to create the garden of his dreams. Nichols' dry wit and sharp eye for the ridiculous made me laugh out loud at times. Nichols' satire is impressively all-encompassing--he skewers his fellow villagers, his city visitors, and himself with equal vigor.

I'm moving away from rural England to Scandinavia now, to begin The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, to bring a little northern chill into my hot Los Angeles August. Hope it works! I hear so many good things about this book, so I'm really looking forward to starting it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Preferences

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question. Answer with me, won't you?

Which do you prefer? (Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date)

  • Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
  • Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
  • Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
  • Poetry? Or Prose?
  • Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
  • History? Or Historical Fiction?
  • Series? Or Stand-alones?
  • Classics? Or best-sellers?
  • Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
  • Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
  • Long books? Or Short?
  • Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
  • Borrowed? Or Owned?
  • New? Or Used?
Okay, since they asked for quickly, I will answer quickly, off the top of my head:

Historical fiction
Straightforward, basic prose
Long books
Not illustrated

Do all my book prejudices show through? Given more thought, I'm sure I would change some answers, so I'm sure my prejudices are there for all to see!

What are your quick answers?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Salon--Scattered

I've been really scattered in my reading lately. Sometimes it happens that I start a whole bunch of books at once, and then I'm pulled in too many directions in my reading. That's what's happening to me this weekend.

I started Christian Moerk's Darling Jim, which I'm reading for my book group. I'm reading it on my Kindle. It's a suspenseful novel, written with a lovely, lilting style, about obsession and storytelling, and some gruesome murders in a small Irish town, and of course I was just getting up a good head of steam when I realized the Kindle battery was low. So I had to interrupt my reading to rummage through my big box of electrical cords to find the Kindle charger. And then I couldn't find the charger, because I realized it was still packed in a bag I had taken on my last trip, and had already put away, up high, in the garage. So, that book got sidetracked by my short attention span, my bad organizational skills, and my inability to manage technology.

I am also reading Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which won the Booker Prize last year. I love the narrator's voice, and I'm really enjoying the story. I also love the details about life in India. But I brought the paperback with me to a doctor's appointment a few days ago, and then I left it in the car. So I know I'll pick it back up again on Monday, when I start the week's round of carpooling and errand-running again, but today I'm trying to stay out of any four-wheeled vehicles. I'm just like that on Sundays.

I'm also reading Beverley Nichols' gardening memoir, Down the Garden Path. My sister-in-law and I first saw Nichols' books in a little bookstore when we were on vacation, and were intrigued--but neither of us could remember the author or titles later, when we wanted to buy them. But between us, we mustered up the brain cells to recall the title, and I immediately ordered the first book online. I like Nichols' 1930s-style wit, and being a haphazard gardener myself, I'm enjoying living vicariously through this book, as Nichols gets put through his gardening paces while putting his cottage garden in order. By the way, I love the covers of his books, they're so wonderfully old-fashioned.

I got distracted from the book on gardening by another passion of mine, food. I was trolling through my favorite food blogs, and I saw noted pastry chef David Lebovitz's book, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City, mentioned. It's about his expatriate adventures living and cooking in Paris--with recipes!!--so of course I bought a copy of the book. So far I'm enjoying Lebovitz's sense of humor, too. There's a David Sedaris-style, self-deprecating, fish-out-of-water quality to the memoir so far, and I love books about life in Paris. Since I love dessert, and Lebovitz is a famed pastry chef who worked at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, that's a plus.

Oh yes, and I'm obsessed with Masterpiece Theater's production of Little Dorrit. I'm watching it piecemeal, while I walk on the treadmill, but I've never looked forward to exercising more!

What are your Sunday reads this week?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I love my book group

My book group has been meeting for five and a half years. I know this because we conceived of the idea of the group at the bris of the youngest son of one of the members, and he's now five and a half years old. If you know what a bris is, you'll be amazed, like I was, that the woman had the presence of mind to know she wanted to join a book group that day. I've only gotten through every bris I've ever attended by drinking plenty of sweet ceremonial red wine.

At our last meeting, one of the members brought a list she's been keeping of the books we've read so far. It made for a half a meeting full of reminiscing, and I must admit it was such fun to go back over the list of books. It's amazing how much more fondly I remember some of the books now, as opposed to when I read them, when I might have been a tad more critical...

Here's the list. I think it's a darn good one. I'm sort of proud of us for getting through so many books. If you've read any of the books, let me know what you think. If you have suggestions for good book group reads, I'd like to hear those too!

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer
Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Saturday, by Ian McEwan
The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
13 Steps Down, by Ruth Rendell
Heat, by Bill Buford
The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore
The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Dirt Music, by Tim Winton
Theft, by Peter Carey
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
Silk, by Alessandro Baricco
The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud
The Starter Wife, by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
The Believers, by Zoe Heller
Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
Niagara, by Richard Watson
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Foreskin’s Lament, by Shalom Auslander
Platform, by Michel Houellebecq
Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
Everyman, by Philip Roth
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Dias

Oh, and the books we're reading over the summer are:
Darling Jim, by Christian Moerk
Lush Life, by Richard Price,
The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks

I have started Darling Jim, and it's a page-turner...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Unread

This week's Booking Through Thursday question spoke to me, so though it's almost Friday, I realized I had to participate this week.

“So here today I present to you an Unread Books Challenge. Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, ‘No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!’ "

Ack! I have so many books on this pile, I don't think they'll fit in a picture. But I have gathered together a representative sampling. Here they are:

I guess the challenge is to get working on this pile...

Do any of your piles of unread books haunt you?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Surprise Encounter

After posting about my encounter with Sir Ken Robinson in the airport, I remembered that I had another surprise encounter with an author recently.

I went to a charity lunch to benefit a wonderful women's shelter where I occasionally volunteer, and one of the speakers was a very charming author I didn't know was going to be speaking.

Her name is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and she is the author most recently of Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a young adult novel about a young middle school teacher in Brooklyn. I had never heard of the book, but after hearing Ms. Bynum speak, I'm going to get myself a copy.

Hearing Ms. Bynum speak was such a pleasant surprise. She talked of how this novel grew out of her own experiences as a middle school English teacher in Brooklyn, and she told some very entertaining anecdotes about the mistakes she made as a teacher, and funny things her students did. It was clear that she had been very enthusiastic about teaching English, and that her students probably loved her.

She also talked about the transformative power of reading--for her students and for everyone. She said that in her experience both writing and reading give one the unique opportunity of becoming deeply immersed in someone else's consciousness, and this teaches empathy.

Ms. Bynum also talked about the writing process, and studying writing with Michael Cunningham (whose writing I also admire). She talked about figuring out what story you want to tell. She quoted Cunningham, who said that you should be able to imagine that the last sentence of your (or anyone's) book could be, "And after that nothing was ever the same again." I thought that was a great point. In screenwriting, they often talk about how the two hours that comprise a movie should tell a story about the pivotal point in the main character's life. You should be able to say the same thing, that nothing was ever the same afterward, at the end of a movie, too--at the end of any good story.

It was nice to hear Ms. Bynum talk about writing about one's experiences, good storytelling, and the power of reading.

I have also been reading the Fairacre Series of novels by Miss Read, about a teacher in a village school in rural England in the middle of the last century, and have been enjoying reading about teaching and marveling that I recognize so many of the issues that Miss Read writes about, even though she wrote about them something like 69 years ago. So perhaps after finishing my reading about English country schools, I'll move ahead in time and across the ocean, and read about teaching in Brooklyn a few years ago, in Ms. Hempel Chronicles.

I'd love to hear about everyone else's favorite books about teachers and teaching--do you have any titles to share with me?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Airport Serendipity

As you probably know, I live in Los Angeles. Among other things, this means that celebrity sightings are a fairly regular part of life. Half the time a trip to the supermarket means seeing someone you think you know, but then you realize he or she was not someone you went to high school with, he or she was actually some bit part actor from a B movie that you caught late one night on cable. (Less often you might nearly get knocked over by a paparazzo trying to get a shot of Heidi Klum in her sweatpants, while she tries to buy some orange juice in peace...true story, but I digress...)

A week ago, the family and I were heading out on our trip to the east coast, and we were stuck in the airport waiting for our plane's air conditioning system to be fixed, when I saw a man who looked familiar, waiting for the same flight.

After scouring my sieve-like memory, I realized that I did not actually know the man, but had seen him online, giving a talk about education. Not just a talk about education, a really entertaining, informative and very funny talk about education. A friend had forwarded me a link to one of the TED talks.

(Do you know the TED talks? They're really great, and you should check them out here. TED is an annual conference that bills itself as "ideas worth spreading". The lectures at the TED conferences are really great, and range in subject far beyond the "Technology, Entertainment, and Design" of their acronym. The keynote speaker at their conference this year was Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame. Other speakers have included Al Gore and Jane Goodall. But I re-digress...)

So after I heard the man speaking with an English accent, I decided that he really was Sir Ken Robinson, the education and creativity expert I'd heard speak about how today's education is killing our kids' creativity. It's a great lecture--but more than that, it's very funny--and you can watch it here.

So I went up and said hello! Okay, except at appropriate venues like the LA Times Festival of Books, I've only once approached a total stranger in to tell him I enjoyed his work. (That was Michael Moore, while we were in line at a movie theater). And granted, I doubt Sir Ken Robinson gets recognized all the time and has to dodge fans to have a restaurant meal in peace--but still, I actually approached the man. And he was really nice! And we chatted about his book. He was charming in person, too. And he gave me his card. Which I will frame. Just kidding!

Once I was in shooting distance of a bookstore, I bought his book, which is called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Reviews tell me that not only does the book tell the stories of a wide range of people who found the place where their natural talent met their personal passion--people like Paul McCartney, Vidal Sassoon, Matt Groening and Meg Ryan--it also gives practical advice to the reader for finding one's passion and quieting the naysayers who might keep you from it.

Sounds like something I could really use. I will let you know if I find it educational, entertaining, useful, or all of the above!