Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Vacation

I'm off to Paris for my first real vacation in quite some time (not a trip to visit family or some other obligation). I'm planning to read as much as possible, probably in cafes, while enjoying wine or hot chocolate or macarons.

I'll be back in two weeks, unless I find some free internet access somewhere, in which case I will try to post some pictures!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Skeletons

Here is this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

In honor of Halloween this weekend:

What reading skeletons do you have in your closet? Books you’d be ashamed to let people know you love? Addiction to the worst kind of (fill in cheesy genre here)? Your old collection of Bobbsey Twin Mysteries lovingly stored behind your “grown-up” books? You get the picture … come on, confess!

Hmmm...skeletons in my reading closet? The first thing that comes to mind are all those Georgette Heyer novels I've read over the years. They're really a guilty pleasure. I have enjoyed her historical novels but her Regency books are the true skeletons in my reading closet.

Other than that, I may read the occasional chick-lit novel, or cheesy bestseller, but other than Georgette Heyer, I don't have anything else that approaches true secret addiction.

How about you, anything you don't readily admit to reading? Any secret book addictions?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Salon--Halloween season

The Sunday

We are pumpkin-y and leafy around here, and the kids insisted that we decorate for Halloween early. We get so many trick-or-treaters, it's insane. We live one street away from a street where everyone decorates the heck out of their houses at Halloween, and trick-or-treaters come from all over. We only get the spillover from that street, and I have to buy 1200 pieces of candy. Isn't that crazy?

But we actually love it. The kids enjoy giving out candy more than they care about trick-or-treating themselves.

My husband and I are getting ready for our trip to Paris, sans children. I cannot wait! I pulled out my copy of A Moveable Feast, to re-read Hemingway's memories of his time in Paris in the 1920s. Apparently he lived there on 5$ a day...ha! Wouldn't that be nice? I often forget how good a writer Hemingway actually was...this book is reminding me of that.

When I threw it out there that I'm looking for something to read while I'm in Paris, a commenter recommended Mavis Gallant stories. I've been meaning to read Gallant for years. So of course I bought a copy of her Paris Stories (published by one of my favorites, New York Review of Books Classics), so I'll have that to bring along.

And I'm still making my own slow way through Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, though I'm almost finished now. I swing wildly between identifying with the characters and being disgusted with them. I can't wait to hear what my fellow book-groupers think next week.

What are you reading on this lovely fall weekend? And do you have any good recommendations for things to do, eat, read in Paris? I'm loving everyone's advice!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lazy blogger

I've been such a lazy blogger lately, it's pathetic. But at least I haven't been a lazy reader. I've been working my way through Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: A Novel for my book group, which meets in early November. I'm hooked. It's as I remember from The Corrections: A Novel--the man can write.

I ran across an interview with Emma Donoghue, whose novel Room: A Novel s nominated for the Booker Prize. I generally avoid books in which children are in serious peril, but this book sounds fascinating. It's written from the point of view of a five-year-old, which must have been pretty tough to pull off. It's been getting good reviews, so onto my list it goes.

The real reason I've been distracted from blogging is that I'm planning a trip to Paris. My husband and I are going on a sort of second honeymoon to the city of light, a place I've yearned to explore.

I've been obsessed with figuring out where to eat and what to do and where to walk. Of course, we're going in early November, so there is the distinct possibility of rain and rather colder temperatures than I'm used to here in L.A., so I may not be able to do all the things I'd like to do while I'm there. But I'm going to cram a lot in, I promise!

Of course I'm going to make a pilgrimage to Shakespeare and Co., but I'm not sure about other bookish things. I'm going to try to take a chocolate tour of Paris, though. And there's always the question of how many books to bring, and which ones!

So all you fab folks out there who have been to Paris, please leave me some recommendations! What should I see, do, eat, read?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Current

Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)

(I’ve asked this one before, but, well, it’s not like the answers stay the same, and darn it, it’s an interesting question!)

It's a simple question, but always interesting--a snapshot of what people are reading right now. I always ask it at cocktail parties, and when I meet someone interesting, and when I email my cousin...

My answer is, I'm reading a bunch of stuff right now. I'm reading My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson, which makes me cringe because of its resemblance to my own life. I chose it because my good friend recommended it, and because it's about my town. I've also just started Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I have a feeling it's going to be one of those books I just can't put down, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. I chose it because I loved his The Corrections, and I have been waiting (forever) for this one to come out, and because I'm planning to force my book group to read it. And I'm also reading, slowly, Ten Poems to Change Your Life, by Roger Housden, because I love poetry and I don't read enough of it.

What are you reading right now? Why did you choose it?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

This morning I finished a really interesting book, Ideas of Heaven, by Joan Silber. It was recommended to me by someone (a lovely woman who works with my husband) who had studied with Ms. Silber. The book's cover says the book is "a ring of stories", which is an apt description. It's one of those books of stories that are connected, a construct I am coming to really appreciate. This book is really cleverly done. The stories are all linked in some way, and the last story connects to the first, making it a "ring", as the cover says. I loved the writing, and the way the writer takes us all over the world and all through time with these stories, yet keeps them accessible. I'll have to write up a review soon.

I am planning to read Mona Simpson's My Hollywood next--I'll crack it open tonight after the kids go to bed. I probably wouldn't have picked this one up on my own, but a friend I trust recommended it, and said it was a quick and enjoyable read. I have to see what Simpson's Hollywood is like, as I live very near Hollywood myself(my neighborhood is sort of south of Hollywood and west of Koreatown). I'm betting my Hollywood is nothing like her My Hollywood, but I'll let you know.

And then on to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Oprah's choice (ah, the symmetry) for her book club, which will most likely be the choice for my book group as well. One of my go-to bookish friends really loved it, so I'm really looking forward to starting it soon.

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Day and Night

Today’s Booking Through Thursday question is suggested by Mae.

“I couldn’t sleep a wink, so I just read and read, day and night … it was there I began to divide books into day books and night books,” she went on. “Really, there are books meant for daytime reading and books that can be read only at night.”
- ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera, p. 103.

Do you divide your books into day and night reads? How do you decide?

Wow. When I read this, I realized this was one question about reading I had never considered before. I love The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where the quote is from, by the way.

While I've never categorized books into day books and night books before, there are certainly books I have read far into the night. There are also books that I put down at night because they are too scary to contemplate alone late at night. They might not be traditionally "scary", but they might prompt me to think about uncomfortable things, things I don't want to think about at night, like our insignificance in the universe--stuff like that.

On the other hand, because it was a page-turner that sucked me in, I read one scary book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, until far into the night, because even though the subject matter wasn't something I want to think about at night, I just couldn't put the book down. So there are definitely those books that transcend day and night, because you just keep reading them, through night and day and night again.

While I can see why people might want to read "safe", comforting sort of books at night, and read books that take them out of their comfort zone during the day, I don't think I am truly one of those people.

What is the difference between your day reading and your night reading?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sunday Salon--Back in the Saddle Again

The Sunday

I'm finally ready to blog again, after a crazy-long unintended vacation from the whole thing. It's not that I haven't been reading, it's just that I didn't have much time to spare to think about what I had read. But now that all three kids are back in school and I've had about five minutes to myself, I find myself finally reflecting on what I read over the summer.

When I was a kid we used to travel to the UK to visit my relatives, every other year or so, and while I was young I developed a soft spot for British literature. This summer I did a bit of a British literary tour, sort of by accident. I just got on a roll, you know how it goes.

I read Nick Hornby's novel Juliet, Naked. I always love Hornby's sense of humor and his style, and this novel did not disappoint. This one is about an aging rock star who has gone incognito, the obsessed fans who write about him on the internet, and the girlfriend of one of those fans, who doesn't see what all the fuss is about. Hornby creates really accessible and sympathetic characters, and the budding friendship/love relationship between retired rocker Tucker Crowe and Annie, girlfriend/ex-girlfriend of obsessed fan Duncan is subtle and really satisfying to read. The whole thing is tinged with sadness, but it's the understandable sadness of people who look back on their lives and have some regrets, but who are also trying to be true to themselves now.

Then my sister-in-law lent me another British novel, One Day, by David Nicholls, which I had never heard of before. Like Hornby's book, it was a page-turner. The book has a gimmick--it checks in with the characters on one particular day each year, over a period of twenty or so years, so it's a snapshot of their evolving relationship on that day. I so enjoyed the book's sense of humor, the snappy dialogue, and I'm a sucker for books about star-crossed relationships, so it was a lot of fun. I wasn't a huge fan of the book's (perhaps gratuitously sad) ending, but I'm not going to spoil it for you, and it didn't spoil the book for me, so...I'm keeping my mouth shut.

Then I hopped over to Ireland and read two books by Patrick Taylor in the "Irish Country Doctor" series. I read An Irish Country Doctor, and An Irish Country Village, the first and second books in a series that includes several more novels about a country doctor set in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Now, when I was a kid I was a big fan of James Herriott's books about being a vet in Yorkshire, so I knew I would probably like these books. I don't think they are quite as good as the Herriott books, but I enjoyed their gentle humor, the medical anecdotes and the evocation of the atmosphere of that particular time and place in Irish history.

So this next book was set in France, Britain and mostly America, and it was written by Australian superstar Peter Carey, so it sort of qualifies as a continuation of my British theme. My book group chose Parrot and Olivier in America as one of our summer reads, so I took it on vacation with me. It was a fascinating book, and talk about atmosphere--Carey is a brilliant stylist, and his descriptions of late 18th century America, as perceived by a French aristocrat (a la de Tocqueville) and his down-to-earth British sidekick Parrot, are amazing. All the books I read this summer had humor as a hallmark, and this was no exception--I love Carey's eye for the absurd, and his fabulously unreliable narrators, both definitely on display here. I'm really looking forward to discussing this with my book group in a couple of weeks.

I'm hoping to convince the ol' book group to read Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom. While on vacation in Cape Cod last month, my sister-in-law and I tried to get a copy of Freedom from a local bookstore, only to be told that it wasn't out yet. We had both heard that President Obama had taken the book on vacation with him, and we found out from the bookseller that he had an advance copy! I was so annoyed because I thought I was going to be able to read it on the beach.

Okay, I'm ending with a weird picture of my new running shoes. There's a book out there called Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, that tells the story of Mexico's Tarahumara indians, and of the joys and benefits of barefoot running. Friends tell me the book is really inspiring and very entertaining, so I plan to get a copy. But just talking about it with friends inspired me to buy some running shoes that approximate barefoot running. So far I have only used them once, and I've been advised not to run too far in them at first. After the first day, my calves are a little sore, so we'll see how it goes next time...

But aren't they funny looking?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Beach Buddies

This week's Booking Through Thursday question (suggested by Joy) made me think, and then it made me laugh:

Which fictional character (or group of characters) would you like to spend a day at the beach with? Why would he/she/they make good beach buddies?

There are quite a few fictional characters I've imagined having dinner with, but I've never thought about going to the beach with any of them! And imagining Persuasion's Anne Elliot, or Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennett on the beach in sunglasses and a tankini made me giggle. Though maybe they'd be up for a beachside margarita...

That said, there are plenty of fictional characters I would be interested to meet--including Albus Dumbledore, Jeeves and Wooster, Dorothea Brooke, and Lisbeth Salander--because they are wise or witty or amusing or mysterious, but I think I'll keep bathing suits out of the imaginary equation.

Which fictional characters would you most like to meet, and why?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Discussion

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question:

Do you have friends and family to share books with? Discuss them with? Does it matter to you?

(Personally, I almost can’t remember the last time I was able to really TALK about a book I’d read with someone else who’d read it, and haven’t really been able to since my best friend and I devoured the same books in high school. Thank God for the internet.)

It's a timely question, as I just posted about trying to share my son's (required) summer reading, and trying to get him to talk about it with me. This will be a challenge, as he's so deep into teenage-ness at the moment that he barely speaks. But a mother can dream, right?

In general, though, most of my book discussion happens at my book group. We're a group of ten women, we've been going strong for six years, and it's my most consistent arena for discussing books (in person, obviously, since I have wonderful online discussions with all of you!). I always look forward to our book discussions, and our wine, cheese, and desserts!

Besides the book group, I have a sister-in-law and a cousin-in-law I tend to discuss books with, when we're together--which is not that often, since they live on the other side of the country. But we email about books occasionally, which I love.

My mom and I share books, and we discuss them too. We have similar taste in fiction, and I always save my favorite reads to pass along to her.

My dad reads mostly non-fiction, but I'm always on the lookout for things I think he'll like to read. We don't discuss books that often, but when our tastes overlap, we do talk about the books we have in common.

Overall, though, I have fewer in person conversations about books than I'd like. But I do find that when people hear I like to read, they corner me and ask me about what I've read recently, and can recommend!

Who do you discuss books with in person?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Summer Reading for my son and me

My eldest son enters 9th grade in the fall. That's high school, people! Ack! How did this happen so fast? I'm not old enough to have a child in high school!

In middle school, he finally started to read books for school that were exciting to me. I was thrilled to read along with old favorites (The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird), and to have him experience serious books (Night, by Elie Wiesel, Romeo and Juliet).

And this summer he's required to read two books that I haven't read, but I'm interested in. For English he's reading William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and for History he's reading Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, about Thomas More and Henry VIII. My son likes history, so this should be interesting to him (I hope).

How great, I can kill two birds with one stone--I can read two things that I somehow missed along the way, and I can help my son prepare for the school year. I'm a little optimistic thinking we're going to make a cozy little book group of two, and have lovely discussions about the book. But I will force him to talk about them, if it kills me!

I was happy (and surprised) when he asked me the other day if he could get a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Perfect, I think, for the teenager that he is. I can't wait to hear what he thinks.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Impromptu vacation

Hello again! Sorry for the unexplained absence. I kept meaning to get to the computer, but I just couldn't seem to. This is what I was doing over the last few weeks instead of blogging:

I took my unplanned blogging break because I planted a huge vegetable garden in my back yard, and then our family took an impromptu trip to Vancouver, where my husband sometimes has to work. He's been going there every once in a while for the last several years and I hadn't ever been, so we packed up the kids and had a wonderful week exploring the city.

And now there's just the craziness of three kids not in school. I feel like a chauffeur. I have yearly amnesia about just how difficult the "unstructured" time of summer is. It's harder to get the kids to their various fun things during the summer than it is to get them to and from school every day.

While in Vancouver, I managed to read Laurie Colwin's book of essays, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. I love her fiction, and her food writing is just as good. Her voice is wonderfully confiding, and self-deprecating, and funny. Some of the recipes are dated (which doesn't actually take away from their charm) and some are timeless, but there are quite a few dog-eared pages where I marked recipes I'd like to try.

While I was away, Jose Saramago died, at age 87. I have only read his novel Blindness, but I really liked it (and wrote about it here). It was a singular reading experience. I will definitely read more of his work in the future. Here's an appreciation of Jose Saramago and his NY Times obituary.

Here's a picture of downtown Vancouver from our hotel room balcony, taken with my iPhone:
I had never been to Vancouver before, and I really, really liked it. Breathtakingly beautiful, clean, and lots of good food. I'll go back!

Where is everyone going this summer, and what are you taking to read?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Signature

Here's today's Booking Through Thursday question:

Do signed copies excite you? Tempt you? Delight you? Or does it not matter to you?

Signed copies don't really excite me or tempt me, but I guess they occasionally delight me. I don't spend any time chasing signatures, but every once in awhile I'll attend a book-signing, and the combination of hearing the author read, meeting the author, and having the author sign my book makes the signature in my copy of a book special.

My husband also mentioned something I hadn't ever thought of--he appreciates the historical significance of some signed copies of books. I guess it would be pretty great to see a signed copy of a favorite book by a long-dead author, or see a book signed by someone famous TO someone famous. The only way I'll ever see anything like that is in a museum, but I would go out of my way to see certain signatures! There was a Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York that I really wish I had seen...

How about you? Do you value signed books higher than unsigned? Who would you really go out of your way to have sign a book?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Salon--this week's reading

The Sunday

I've spent the week immersed in Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters. I love Tanizaki's style, and the wonderful detail about pre-war Osaka life, and how the traditional Japanese culture deteriorates as the country modernizes and prepares for war. I am fascinated by how Tanizaki crafts a plot out of countless small moments in this family's life. It is one of those books that sort of sneaks up on you, and all its layers come together to create a delicate and complete picture.

I also had time to zip through another book, a memoir called If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter's Notebook, by Katherine Rosman, the sister of someone I know. It is the examination of a mother's life by her reporter daughter, after the mother has died of cancer. The daughter sets out to interview people who knew her mother, and in the process create a clearer picture of the mother, unclouded by their complicated relationship. It's an interesting idea for a memoir, and though the descriptions of the mother's illness and death were painful to read, it was thought-provoking on the subject of mother-daughter relationships, and how we as daughters see and don't see our mothers.

I've also started Laurie Colwin's book of essays, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen. I've loved Colwin's writing for twenty years--I've read all of her fiction, but this is the first time I'm reading her essays on food and cooking, which she wrote for Gourmet and other magazines. I love Colwin's easy, accessible, charming and very funny style. I'm looking forward to getting deeper into this one!

What have you been reading this week?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--The Long and Short of it

Today's Booking Through Thursday question is:

Which do you prefer? Short stories? Or full-length novels?

Ah, a question where I don't have to be waffle-y. While I enjoy reading short stories every once in awhile, I prefer full length novels. I enjoy losing myself in the world that a novel creates, and I like the fact that it takes me awhile to get through a novel.

Everything else in life these days seems to occur in short, staccato bursts--texting, emails, even the way movies and TV are edited has changed to accommodate those with short attention spans. I like the pace of a novel--maybe because it's a pace I dictate!

How about you?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reading Habits Meme

I saw this meme about reading habits at Letters From a Hill Farm, and thought it would be a fun one for this holiday weekend. You should do it, too!

Do you snack while reading?
Yes, but not habitually. It depends on if there's something worth eating in the house.

What is your favourite drink while reading?
Coffee. Or possibly water.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I sometimes dog-ear a page, if I don't have a 3x5 notecard near. That's my preferred method--to make notes as I go on a notecard that I also use as a bookmark.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat?
Bookmark, or aforementioned 3x5 card. If I can't find anything else, I'll dog-ear a page.

Fiction, non-fiction or both?
Both, but mostly fiction.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?
I can stop anywhere. Sometimes I fall asleep in the middle of the page.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?
I never throw books! It hurts me to think about it. I might put it down, but would never, never throw it.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
I wish I did. I intend to. Sometimes I'll write down the word and plan to look it up later...

What are you currently reading?
The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. It has really drawn me into its world.

What is the last book you bought?
Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?
I will read any time and any place. But I tend to read in bed lately, because bedtime is the only reliable reading time I have.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?
I don't really have a preference.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
Jane Austen. Over and over!

How do you organise your books?
I have big plans to organize my library one day, but right now it's pretty disorganized.

Barbara's additional question: background noise or silence?
Silence is preferable, but with three kids, I can tune out almost anything!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Bedside

Today's Booking Through Thursday question is:

What books do you have next to your bed right now? How about other places in the house? What are you reading?

Next to my bed is a precarious pile of books. On top is Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, which I am reading for my book group, and which I read once before, maybe fifteen years ago. I like it!

Under that are several other books that I plan to read next, including Chang-Rae Lee's A Gesture Life, and a novel called Bone Worship, by Elizabeth Eslami. Underneath that is a copy of Walter Mosley's book This Year You Write Your Novel--all I can say to that is "Ha!".

Around the house are so many other books I don't have the space to mention them. Next to the TV is a copy of Kim Boyce's new book on whole grain baking, called Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours. Yes, I flip through it while watching TV. Yes, I have a rich baking fantasy life.

What books are next to your bed, or lying around your house right now?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Salon: old favorites?

The Sunday

My book group is reading The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, this month. It's a book I read probably 20 years ago, and I remember really liking it. I've kept it on my "good" book shelf, the one where I keep classics or nice hardbacks, books I connected with in some way. How strange it was to open it up again and start reading, and find that I remember virtually nothing about this book.

It's like reading it for the first time. It's very disconcerting to me, because I usually remember something about a book I've read, other than just that I liked it.

I am enjoying the book, however. As usual, I find the marker for this is how late I am willing to stay up reading the book, even though I know I have to get up at 6 the next morning as usual. I've definitely sacrificed some sleep reading this book.

It's the tale of four sisters, part of an aristocratic Japanese family that has seen better days, in the years leading up to World War II. It is one of those novels that concerns itself with the details of everyday private life, rather than the grand, sweeping events of public life. And not only do the details give a picture of a bygone life in Japan, which I find fascinating, they also accumulate slowly to create a kind of realism that is really engaging.

The result is a delicately beautiful novel, a book that transports you to another world. I love the descriptions of the natural world around them, of the women's clothing, of their daily habits, of their intricate relationships with each other. This is a great example of a novel that does not have a traditionally strong plot that nevertheless keeps me engaged, turning the pages, reading past my bedtime!

So has anyone else had that experience--re-reading a book and not remembering anything about it? Or should I be consulting a memory specialist?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Influence

Okay, first of all, you might be wondering where the heck I've been the last few weeks. And the answer would be, "right here." But obviously not blogging. Oh no, not that. It's just been a crazy few weeks of kid stuff, including this:

And this kind of stuff:

And yes, even this:

But there has been little blogging. Fortunately, there has still been some reading, which I will get to some time soon. But now, a little Booking Through Thursday question for you on a Friday:

Are your book choices influenced by friends and family? Do their recommendations carry weight for you? Or do you choose your books solely by what you want to read?

And my answer is that my book choices are influenced by the friends and family I know have good taste! I have a few go-to book-loving friends and family members whose taste I trust and whose recommendations I really treasure. There are a couple of family members in particular who seem to read everything before I do, and I love hearing what they have to recommend, and what they tell me I can steer clear of.

What about you?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee--a review

Chang-rae Lee's new novel The Surrendered tells the tales of the intertwined lives of several characters, all of whom are profoundly affected by their experiences during the Korean War. First of all, there is June, orphaned while fleeing the Communist army. She meets American soldier Hector on the road, and together they end up the orphanage run by Sylvie Tanner and her husband, a minister. Both June and Hector fall in love with Sylvie, who is also emotionally damaged, after watching her missionary parents murdered by the Chinese in Manchuria.

I was fascinated to read that Chang-rae Lee got the idea for this novel more than twenty years ago, after interviewing his father about his experiences during the Korean War. Lee writes that his father had only spoken about the war years in the vaguest way before Lee interviewed him for a college project. The traumatic details of Lee's father's brother's death came out in the interview, and the story became the inspiration for one of the most powerful scenes in The Surrendered.

The anecdote Lee relates reminds me of many stories I have heard from the children of Holocaust survivors, of parents who shelter their children from the horrors of their pasts, and then at some point, maybe when the children are adults, finally tell them their stories--and it is shocking for the children on many levels. Lee explores this theme in the novel, too--he creates a character in June who has hidden some part of herself from her son, and that separation, that hiding, has colored their whole relationship, and made it dysfunctional.

This relationship—or rather, non-relationship—between June and her son leads to their estrangement, and then to June’s dying quest to find him in Europe. Lee is sparing in the details he provides about the characters’ motivations and inner emotional lives, and here it was sometimes maddening and sometimes haunting, as I watched June in her self-delusion, hoping for a reconciliation with a son who cannot acknowledge her, perhaps because he never knew her. There’s a twist at the end that makes the story even more poignant, but I won’t spoil it here.

I felt I understood Hector better than I understood June. Hector, like his namesake in Greek mythology, is a talented warrior and, because of the myths his hard-drinking Irish father spins, believes he may be physically invincible. But while bodily strong (and beautiful, which turns out to be a curse), Hector is emotionally damaged, and feels that he is a curse to others if they get involved with him. While June is more of a cipher, because she is so emotionally self-contained and defended, Hector is more openly wounded, and therefore easier to see into.

But overall, while Lee’s characters were very compelling, there were times when I felt I didn’t truly understand them. The writing is clean, steady, and often beautiful. I really enjoyed Lee’s prose style. However, the story is relentlessly tragic, and just about everything bad that you can imagine happening to these characters does happen. So while I recommend Lee’s writing, I feel this book is definitely for the stout of heart.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Plotting

Today's Booking Through Thursday question:

Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness? Which would you rather read?

Both, is my wishy washy answer. There is a time and a place for stream-of-consciousness, and a time and a place for plot. I enjoy getting lost in the stream-of-consciousness of Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf, but I also enjoy a rip-roaring plot.

I guess it really depends on how good the novel is. I'm happy with either as long as the writing is strong!

How about you?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sunday Salon--Book Group Reading

The Sunday

At our last meeting, my book group discussed Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. I was planning to write a review, but after my group's discussion of the book, I must admit my thoughts grew muddled. I really enjoyed the book for several reasons. I liked Smith's voice, and I liked the way she was able to tell the story of her youth without judging herself in hindsight. I also liked the window she made for me into the New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Smith lived at the Chelsea Hotel and frequented Max's Kansas City, and she got to know William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. It was a colorful time, to say the least, and I enjoyed the anecdotes about the city and the scene at this time.

But I also came away with more questions than answers after reading this. It's clear that there was much that Smith didn't want to say. The book is a labor of love, a eulogy and love letter to her lover and best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. At the beginning of the story, Smith is a naive girl who comes to the city to live a life about art. Some of my book group found her naivete surprising, if not suspect, but maybe it was this naivete, mixed with a certain kind of fearlessness, that allowed Smith to become an artist after all. Mapplethorpe seemed even more devoted than Smith to the idea of art for art's sake, and Smith makes it clear that they both truly believed in each other as artists, even when neither was entirely sure what direction their art might take. Again, Smith chronicles their development as artists, and people, without judging with the benefit of hindsight, and she has a lyrical, impressionistic storytelling style, so there isn't a lot of self-reflection here.

Maybe because as a society we are used to post-Freudian, post-Oprah gut-spilling self-reflection to the point of narcissism, this book seems unusual to me. It feels like, perhaps because she is being respectful of her dead friend's secrets, Smith doesn't tell the whole story about Mapplethorpe and her relationship with him. She does, however, treat him and her younger self with an admirable empathy. I go back and forth, both wanting to know more about how Smith felt (for example, upon learning her lover and trusted friend was homosexual, and having their relationship necessarily change because of it), and recognizing that maybe there are no words for much of what was going on, and because it was a different time (and only nascently feminist) place, and because Smith and Mapplethorpe were making up their own rules as they went along.

Smith has an appealing sense of humor and self-deprecation. One of the best anecdotes in the book is about how Allen Ginsberg once hit on Smith, thinking she was a particularly good-looking boy. I would recommend the book for anyone interested in the New York art scene of the late 60s and early 70s--plus the photos alone are worth the price of the book. My book group discussion about the book was pretty wide-ranging--we touched on misogyny in the art world, feminism, the spectrum of sexuality, poetry and rock and roll, the allure of Paris, obsessiveness about Baudelaire--so even though there was disagreement about the book, it sparked some interesting talk.

We agreed to read a novel next time, and we picked Chang-rae Lee's new book, The Surrendered. One of my good friends really loved Lee's A Gesture Life, so I got hold of a copy of that, too, and I hope to read both before our next meeting.

Lee is one of those novelists that has popped up out of nowhere for me. I'd love to hear what you all think of Lee, if you've read him...

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Today's Booking Through Thursday question:

Do you take breaks while reading a book? Or read it straight through? (And, by breaks, I don’t mean sleeping, eating and going to work; I mean putting it aside for a time while you read something else.)

I do take reading breaks. It depends on the book. Sometimes you just can't put a book down. Love those compelling reads that keep you up until 3 a.m., even though you have to be up and functioning the next day.

But that doesn't happen to me as much as it used to, mostly because life gets in the way. I'm so tired most of the time that I can fall asleep on the most compelling book. So now I do take reading breaks. If something doesn't really grab me, I find I put it down and forget about it for awhile, maybe read something else in the meantime, and then I might pick it back up again. But I also occasionally give up on a book entirely--something I never used to do when I was younger.

I'm really much more compassionate with myself these days. I've relaxed the reading rules. I don't beat myself up if I don't finish a book, or if I want to take a break from it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Salon--British reading and Spring!

The Sunday

It's officially spring now, according to the calendar, but the season arrived here in Los Angeles about a month ago. My backyard wisteria is insane, and I'm enjoying all sorts of blooming around the neighborhood--tulip magnolias, lilac vines, cherry and plum blossoms.

I've managed to do a little bit of reading this weekend, moved the bookmarks forward in two different books. First off, I started Gervase Phinn's memoir of his career as a school inspector in the Yorkshire Dales, called The Other Side of the Dale. The cover copy calls Phinn "the James Herriott of schools." I read and loved James Herriott's books about being a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales when I was a kid, so this sounded like a good bet. And while the stories don't have the drama of Herriott's, the writing does have a gentle wit that I'm enjoying.

I also (finally) started Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian England. It's been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, and I know it's one of those books so many have recommended to me. So far it's really compelling, drawing me into the story of a Victorian con game, and promising some interesting twists and turns in the future.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

YA for A

I've always felt that the best young adult fiction is worth reading again and again, no matter what age you are. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article about how adults are reading more and more young adult fiction, and that young adult fiction sales are up 30.7%, in an otherwise sluggish book market.

It doesn't surprise me a bit, considering the obvious success of crossover hits like the Twilight
and Harry Potter series, and the perennial appeal of books like The Witch of Blackbird Pond

After the LA Times article came out, cultural website Flavorwire published its list of top 10 Young Adult novels, and I liked the list--it has a few of my favorites on it, including The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, as well as two of my husband's favorites, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, which was also a sweet independent movie. Also on their list are a couple of books I've been wanting to read for quite some time, The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.

The list didn't include some YA books I've heard a lot about lately, The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, What I Saw And How I Lied, by Judy Blundell, and Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief series.

And then there are those books out there, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and Black Swan Green: A Novel, by David Mitchell, that have young adult protagonists but aren't necessarily categorized in young adult fiction...

What are your favorite Young Adult titles? Do you feel they have crossover appeal? If so, why?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Illustrious

Today's Booking Through Thursday question is:

How do you feel about illustrations in your books? Graphs? Photos? Sketches?

I don't have a strong opinion about illustrations in my books. I guess it really depends on the book.

As a child, I loved the illustrations in my copies of Alice in Wonderland (the originals by Sir John Tenniel), and in The Borrowers (illustrations done by Beth and Joe Krush), because they were really beautiful drawings, and I looked forward to coming across them while reading. It was like getting a wonderful little surprise every few pages. So I remember the magic of illustrations very well.

I just finished Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, about her life in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe, which had photos sprinkled throughout. It reminded me of those reading experiences I had had as a child, enchanted by the illustrations I would come across. That's because the pictures were so great in this book--allowing a glimpse into a life, and perfectly illustrating the text. They also felt necessary, because they were often mentioned in the text, and were part of the story itself.

But generally speaking, I don't want or need illustrations for a novel. The language paints enough of a picture for me.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Some British reading, and a whiff of Spring

I wish I could post smells on this blog, to give you all a whiff of the jasmine that is blooming in my back yard. It almost overwhelms me when I walk out onto my back deck. I know my friends on the east coast could use a little of the beginnings of spring we are experiencing here in Los Angeles...

I won't blame the spring-like blooming (though it could be my allergies...), but for some reason I haven't been in the mood to read anything heavy lately. I've been testing the heft of Wolf Hall before I dive in, and I think it might need a little leavening, so I used up the last of my holiday gift cards to buy a couple of other English books, but in a lighter vein.

The lovely Litlove recently posted about Gervase Phinn's The Other Side of the Dale, and it sounded interesting to me, because I almost always like stories about British country or village life, and because Litlove said it was a "delightful and soothing sort of book", soothing being something I look for when I'm not in the mood for heavy. Phinn was a school inspector in the Yorkshire Dales, so he's called (on the front cover) "the James Herriott of schools"--and since I have such fond memories of reading James Herriott's books when I was a child, this sounds like it's right up my alley.

Another lovely blogger, The Indextrious Reader, posted about an English novel called Henrietta's War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942, by Joyce Dennys, a re-issue done by the Bloomsbury Group, which sounded intriguing. It wasn't available until later in the month, so I picked out another of their reissues--one with a whimsical title: The Brontes Went to Woolworths, by Rachel Ferguson. It's about three sisters growing up in London in the 1930s, and that's about all I know about it, except that I like the purple cover, so I'll let you know if I actually like the book or not.

There are several other British books I've been meaning to get to, like Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked, Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. More for the list!

One more photo for you, of the view from our front balcony, at sunrise:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann--a review

It is August, 1974, in New York City, and daredevil wirewalker Philippe Petit makes an amazing, and illegal, walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This event is the cornerstone of Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin, the strange and wonderful event that connects the story's characters. But the story is not about Petit at all, it is about the lives of a seemingly disparate group of New Yorkers whose brief contact with his wire-walk sets off a chain of events that changes or touches them all.

An Irish monk, John Corrigan, lives in the Bronx and concentrates his saintly impulses on improving the lives of hookers and nursing home patients. Despite his vow of chastity, he falls in love with a Guatemalan nurse.

Judge Solomon Soderberg sees Petit's wire-walk and wants him prosecuted in his courtroom. In order to hurry to Petit's case, he gives short shrift to the case of two prostitutes, friends of John Corrigan's, mother Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn. Soderberg lets Jazzlyn off but sends Tillie to jail. As Corrigan drives Jazzlyn back to the Bronx, they get in a terrible car accident, their van clipped by a car driven by a wannabe artist, Blaine. Blaine's wife Lara is in the car, too. Lara feels terribly guilty, and later seeks out Corrigan's brother Ciaran to make amends.

Other characters include Judge Soderberg's wife Claire, who mourns their son, killed in Viet Nam. And in Claire's grief group is Gloria, an African-American woman who also mourns her two sons, and who lives in the same building in the Bronx where Corrigan lived.
I won't go further into the plot, except to say that McCann elegantly weaves together the stories of his characters and has the mysterious forces of fate bring them together to experience both grief and redemption.

I was charmed at the outset by McCann's lyrical writing style in the very first few pages of the story--a beautiful description of the setting of Petit's wire-walk. Beautiful writing goes a long way with me, but this book has more. It has an elegant plot, woven together out of the stories of several characters. Some of the characters interested me more than others, but I found most of them engaging, and was always drawn in by putting the puzzle pieces of their relationships together.

I love the novel's atmosphere, and the vibrant images McCann conjures. I also enjoyed exploring the novel's themes of fate and whether or not things happen for a reason, and guilt and redemption. New York City is a character itself, and McCann captures its mysteries, both the pleasure and the pain of the city, very well. Maybe because this novel was written after 9/11, but set before it, there was something eerie about thinking of the Twin Towers as the center of this amazing but benign event that topples the dominos of the characters' lives, and rearranges them so completely.

My book group really enjoyed this novel, too. I'll look out for more of McCann's work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To read next, and BTT snuck up on me--Encouragement

For our next read, my book group chose the book I was coveting last week--Just Kids, by Patti Smith. It's the memoir of her romance and lifelong friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and how they spurred each other to become artists. I had to laugh--a bunch of my book groupers had the same idea I did, so I didn't have to persuade anyone--they even brought the New York Times Book Review from that week, which featured Just Kids.

I also have a copy of the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, on my nightstand. It's pretty hefty (um, 560 pages), and it's historical, but I think I'm up for the challenge. It's about Henry VIII, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, his close advisor. I know it mixes fiction with fact, but I'm looking forward to learning more about this era of history by diving into this novel.

Is it really Thursday already? I don't know where the time goes. My book group friend told me her husband woke her in the middle of the night recently, to say he'd solved all their problems--he was just going to add another hour to the day between 3 and 4 in the morning. Sounds good to me! Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

Suggested by Barbara H:

How can you encourage a non-reading child to read? What about a teen-ager? Would you require books to be read in the hopes that they would enjoy them once they got into them, or offer incentives, or just suggest interesting books? If you do offer incentives and suggestions and that doesn’t work, would you then require a certain amount of reading? At what point do you just accept that your child is a non-reader?

In the book Gifted Hands by brilliant surgeon Ben Carson, one of the things that turned his life around was his mother’s requirement that he and his brother read books and write book reports for her. That approach worked with him, but I have been afraid to try it. My children don’t need to “turn their lives around,” but they would gain so much from reading and I think they would enjoy it so much if they would just stop telling themselves, “I just don’t like to read.”

This is a tough question. Right now, I have two kids who don't read enough for my liking (and one who doesn't read yet!). My 13-year-old and his younger brother (10) both like to read, but both feel like they don't have enough time to read for pleasure, because they have reading to do for school. I don't get it, because when I was a kid, I was always trying to sneak more reading in.

I think my eldest really likes reading, but is seduced by social networking, video games, and other stuff that we didn't even have when I was a kid. My younger one doesn't like reading quite as much as his brother did at this age, but he does love a good story, and really gets into the books they read at school. For his "free reading" (reading he has to do for school, but he gets to pick the book), he most recently finished Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which his older brother also loved, and he just had to read the last page aloud to me, because it had a surprise ending--gotta love that. But I wish he would pick up a book on his own more often. I'm not sure how to encourage it, other than getting more books for them from the library, and trying to provide them with some down time when they can read. I limit the "screen time" anyway, so that helps create time for reading. But I don't like to push reading too hard, for fear that they will just resist.

If anyone has any good tips to get kids to read more, I'm all ears.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Winter Reading

Today's Booking Through Thursday question is:

The northern hemisphere, at least, is socked in by winter right now… So, on a cold, wintry day, when you want nothing more than to curl up with a good book on the couch … what kind of reading do you want to do?

Interesting--winter reading as distinguished from summer reading? I equate the phrase "summer reading" with vacation reading--easy-to-tote, easy-to-concentrate on beach reads. But my actual summer reading is more or less the same as my reading the rest of the year.

I can see how winter reading, defined here as the reading you want to do when it's cold outside and you're curled up with a book someplace warm, would be about comfort. I just posted about my comfort reads when I have a short attention span, like when I'm sick--cookbooks!

But on a typical cold, winter day (which we've been having more than usual this winter--cold and rainy days interspersed with our normal 70-degree winter wonders), I might curl up with something comforting, or something that really transports me to another time and place.

I have two favorite comfort reads, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, both by Jane Austen. I'd curl up with either, any day, blustery or otherwise.

I just finished Sally Gunning's historical novel Bound, which took me to colonial Cape Cod, and gave me a thorough yet entertaining picture of the life of an indentured servant then and there.

And I'm almost through Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, which transported me to 1974 New York. This book, with it's poetic language and wonderful descriptions, is an immersive experience, and definitely worth curling up with.

But lately I have had so little time for reading, that any time with any book is an absolute pleasure.

Do you have any favorite books for a wintery day?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sunday Salon--Cookbook Reading in Bed

The Sunday

Over the last week, my daughter caught a cold, and then my husband got it, and then I got it. I have been recovering slowly, but haven't had any time to blog.

I have had a chance to read, but I haven't been able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. So one thing I like to read in short bursts is cookbooks. Often I take them up to bed with me. I don't often eat in bed, but I'll read about cooking and eating there. I love to fantasize about cooking, probably more than I like to actually cook.

I received some really good cookbooks this holiday season. I've been leafing through them quite a bit while sniffling and using up whole boxes of tissues, and tossing them without making it into the wastebasket.

One of my lovely sisters-in-law sent me Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking, which has all kinds of good cooking tips, and recipes, and like all of Julia Child's books, is really fun to read. I challenge you, however, to read her writing without imagining her voice. Or without imagining Dan Aykroyd doing Julia, "I've cut the dickens out of my finger!"

Reading Julia's Kitchen Wisdom inspired me to finally get a copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which, of course, has become a bestseller again since the movie "Julie and Julia" came out, and which also makes for interesting reading.

I also read food blogs fairly religiously. I've been reading Heidi Swanson's blog 101 Cookbooks, which inspired me to get a copy of her book, Super Natural Cooking: Five Delicious Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Foods into Your Cooking. This has recipes, but it's also a sort of primer on natural foods and has a section called "Build a Natural Foods Pantry", which I found informative.

I also reacquainted myself with Mark Bittman, and his tenth anniversary edition of How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition), Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food I always enjoy his writing style, when I read him in the New York Times, or here in this book. And this book is a great cooking reference.

And for dessert, I decided to lighten up, while still feeding my chocolate habit, so I've been drooling over Camilla Saulsbury's book Enlightened Chocolate: More Than 200 Decadently Light, Lowfat, and Inspired Recipes Using Dark Chocolate and Unsweetened Cocoa Powder. A girl after my own heart, she adds chocolate to almost everything. Chocolate for breakfast? Why not?

And as for coveting non-cookbooks, this Sunday's New York Times Book Review features a review of Patti Smith's memoir about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, which sounds fascinating, and which I'm really looking forward to reading at some point.

How's your reading going this week? Any new books you're coveting?