03 December 2010

What I Meant to Write in September

Here is the question that came into my head as I finished the novel I went to three St. Paul bookstores to find: Who is Jonathan Franzen and why did someone let him into our house?

This is from p. 511 of Freedom, where one of the main characters, Patty (who had "escaped" from New York to Minnesota 30 years before), has returned to the Westchester home of her estranged parents, Joyce and Ray:

Patty went with much fear and trembling and found her childhood home little changed from the last time she'd set foot in it. ... Ray's towers of Times-recommended books [were] even higher and more teetering, Joyce's binders of untried Times Food Section recipes even thicker, the piles of unread Times Sunday magazines even more yellowed, the bins of recyclables even more overflowing, the results of Joyce's wishful attempts to be a flower gardener even more poignantly weedy and random, the reflexive liberalism of her worldview even more impervious to reality ...

I liked this book, but I remember liking The Corrections even better. I'll have to re-read the earlier book to remember why.

29 August 2010

Life Through a Lens

Books read:
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. New York: Picador (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 2006. M. bought it two? years ago. Finished 10 August 2010 (while I was an election judge at Minnesota's primary election).

Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. From the Saint Paul Public Library; finished 11 August.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico by Andrew L Kraut. Norman [Okla.]: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Read 18 August 2010 in Abiquiu, N.M.

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence. London & New York: Continuum, 2009, 2003. Rainy Days, 19 July. Finished 22 August.

The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher (Penguin), 2005. From SPPL, where I renewed it the maximum number of times, meaning I've had it out nine weeks. Finally finished it 29 August.

Still reading:
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor by Tad Friend. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Kindle edition.

Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia by Patricia Morrisroe. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010. Kindle edition.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Walters. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2009. From SPPL.

Turn & Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart by Howard Mansfield. S.l.: Down East, 2010. From Amazon; bought after reading review in WSJ.

Not started yet:
The New Stranded Colorwork: Techniques & Patterns for Vibrant Knitwear by Mary Scott Huff. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 2009. Between Friends (Brainerd), 19 July.

Cable Confidence: A Guide to Textured Knitting by Sara Louise Harper. Woodinville, Wash.: Martingale, 2008. Between Friends, 19 July.

North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. Minneapolis: University if Minnesota Press, 2010. Bought at Book World in Baxter 22 July.

Myths from Mesapotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 1989. From Amazon, July 2010.

You could argue that all nonfiction is autobiography. This seems especially true in these early years of the 21st century, when many authors seem to be turning to memoir as a way of making sense of a lifelong obsession. Four books on my list this month — two Read, and two Still Reading — especially bring this point home, sometimes to ridiculous heights. I started reading them after my "Year in the Life" post, which of course colored my choices, but I still think we're on to a trend here.

The Stargazing Year is a life through a literal lens: a telescope. Charles Calia, who lives in Connecticut, sometimes thinks he's inherited the New England mantle of self-conscious pronouncements — he reminds us in the penultimate chapter that Robert Frost, too, was a passionate amateur astronomer. Hence, from p. 113:

The stars at night comfort us with reliability. For generations, people have looked up to wonder, argue, and plead. They have done this from caves, in the backs of pickups and on the backs of horses, in fields and on patios, in mansions and in huts. The stars demand our awe and respect, but they also require something else: that we look up. 'Some things are never clear,' writes Robert Frost, 'but the weather is clear tonight.' And there is no better call to arms for the backyard stargazer. A clearing sky, stars on the rise.

And so on. But Calia's enthusiasm and self-deprecating humor save us from being crushed by profundity. His book takes us through the year he decided to build a small observatory in his backyard; his best comic moments come from his own self-described inept carpentry, and his realization at the end (thanks to a one-upping friend) that what he has after a year's labor is essentially a leaky shed. But Calia gives us the stars' psychological pull as well as their scientific significance; ultimately his obsession is infectious.

Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is less engaging. I remember liking Meghan Daum's novel The Quality of Life Report a few years ago, but I found her persona in this memoir — life seen through the lens of her real-estate obsession — self-absorbed and whiny. I wanted it to be about me, not her: why are we all, as a nation, fixated on HGTV's "house porn"? Instead we get a woman who has enough cash to blow on lost "earnest money" for houses in New York, California, and (yes) Nebraska that she buys and drops like discarded boyfriends. She has enough self-knowledge to make the boyfriend connection (over & over, in fact), but not enough for anyone else (e.g. Me) to make the leap into empathy.

Other notes: The Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When M. and I toured the Taos Pueblo earlier this month and read the one-paragraph history in its brochure, we wondered: Why did the Indians destroy the pueblo's church during their short-lived rebellion at the end of the 17th century? This book is not the most dynamic history in the world, but it answered the question. The conquistadors used the Catholic church as a weapon against the Indians as they colonized the American Southwest. At best, priests were forced to play "good cop" against the Spanish King Philip IV's "bad cop" soldiers. It made me wonder if all modern science fiction, especially "Star Trek," is not a long atonement for the anguish and bloodshed when real Europeans encountered real Americans.

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life. This was exhausting to read at first, since the family tree that Jon Spence is at pains to describe is punctuated by half-siblings, stepchildren, marriages between cousins, and at least one adoption (Jane's brother Edward, who took his adoptive parents' name: Knight). But what emerges is a very human portrait of a writer who ends up using her novels to work out the problems of sexuality and affection that her family presented her with. I haven't seen the 2007 movie based on this book, but maybe I should.

The Echo Maker. This was the only fiction I read this month, and I loved it. Complicated, absorbing plot; great setting (Kearney, Neb.!). I've had this on my list since it won the 2006 National Book Award, and it was worth the wait. I agree with J.W. in my book group that it's overwritten at times, but when we're talking about issues of memory, loyalty, and family, who cares? For the coming month, Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger is well on its way to filling the fiction gap in my life; I've found it compelling from the very first page. Hooray!

06 August 2010

Feel-Good Reads

Books read:
The House of Arden: A Story for Children by E. Nesbit. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1923, 1908. Kindle edition. Finished 14 July 2010.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009. From Rainy Days Books. Finished 18 July.
False Mermaid by Erin Hart. New York: Scribner, 2010. From Common Good Books. Finished 20 July.
Summer at Tiffany: A Memoir by Marjorie Hart. New York: Avon, 2010, 2007. Rainy Days, 18 July. Finished (read in one sitting) 21 July.
Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009. Bought at Harry Truman historic site in Independence, Missouri. Finished 23 July 2010.
Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos. New York: Business Plus, 2010. Bought at Common Good. Finished 25 July.
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foults. New York: Penguin, 2009. Amazon. Read (in one sitting) 27 July.
Time at the Top by Edward Ormondroyd. Berkeley, Calif.: Parnassus Press, 1963. From the St. Paul Public Library. Read 28 July.
All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd. Berkeley, Calif.: Parnassus Press, 1975. Via inter-library loan from the University of Minnesota at Morris. Finished 4 August.

Summer at Tiffany [see above]
Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence. London & New York: Continuum, 2009, 2003. Rainy Days, 19 July.
The New Stranded Colorwork: Techniques & Patterns for Vibrant Knitwear by Mary Scott Huff. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 2009. Between Friends (Brainerd), 19 July.
Cable Confidence: A Guide to Textured Knitting by Sara Louise Harper. Woodinville, Wash.: Martingale, 2008. Between Friends, 19 July.
North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Bought at Book World in Baxter 22 July.
The Quickening Maze [see above].
Myths from Mesapotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 1989. From Amazon, July 2010.

Becoming Jane Austen [see above]
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. From the St. Paul Public Library.
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. From the St. Paul Public Library. (Got halfway through with this before I learned that it is not August's pick for my book group. Apparently I talked everyone into The Echo Maker instead, then forgot I'd done so.)
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. New York: Picador, 2007.

Still Reading:
Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010.
The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky by Charles Laird Calia. New York: Penguin, 2005. From the St. Paul Public Library.

As you can see, leisure time at the lake (or rather, as we say in Minnesota, at The Lake) worked its magic: Look at all the books I knocked off my list! You will notice, however, that I quickly filled in all the gaps I created by my industry — it turns out that there are three bookstores (and two libraries) within easy reach of The Lake. So I won't be running out of reading material anytime soon.

In between books, and swimming, and eating, I mused on the nature of literary happiness. After all, leisure reading is almost by definition books that make us feel good. Of course we all have different happiness triggers. I am not really a "thriller" fan, for instance, although, if you believe magazine book columns and airport-bookstore displays, that's supposed to be what all of America reaches for on the way to a beach vacation. Why? Who knows. I'm by no means immune to the page-turner, but I have a low tolerance for all but the most cartoonish violence. Reading about extreme human pain does not make me feel good (sorry, John Sandford). But that's just me.

I wrote a little bit ago about a friend who asked me to recommend books that would make her happy. Here you see some of the grocery-bag full of books that I lent her then: Jack Finney's Time and Again, Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time, Laurel Doud's This Body, Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Light Years trilogy, Jane Hamilton's Laura Rider's Masterpiece, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and mysteries by Josephine Tey and Jo Dereske. I barely remember the plots, but I will always remember how wonderful I felt while I was reading them. A Suitable Boy in particular was like a vacation in itself. We bought it (all 1,350 pages!) at Oslo's English-language bookstore the year we lived in Norway. My husband and I were so hungry for English words — you get that way when you're surrounded by a foreign language — that we devoured it like starving creatures. I think we even fought over whose turn it was to read it. Opening its pages was a direct doorway to Vikram Seth's world: a large Dickensian family in India whose problems and personalities became an extension of our own.

That trying on of different worlds is what makes a Great Escape for me. (What's the Emily Dickinson line? "A book is like a frigate"?) And my ability to be immersed in those worlds is probably what has kept me off drugs all these years. My father used to say, "If libraries were bars, you and your sisters would be drunks!" — which was more or less the literal truth. The public library was about halfway between my small-town high school and home, and after a particularly rough day I would stop there to find solace in Madeleine L'Engle or Agatha Christie. These were my double scotches, my Marlboros, my cocaine; I was lucky they were there.

I had to pause in the middle of this to look up the poem I was misremembering before. Here's the whole thing, number 1263 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960), edited by Thomas H. Johnson:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

11 July 2010

Why I Love Time Travel

Time and Again by Jack Finney (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995, 1970)
In the Hebrides by Alice Starmore (Blairstown, N.J.: Broad Bay, 1996, 1995)

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009)
Private Life by Jane Smiley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture by Kirsten Olson (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009)
Culture Wise England: The Essential Guide to Culture, Customs & Business Etiquette by David Hampshire & Liz Opalka (London: Survival Books, 2007). From the St. Paul Public Library
A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution by Dennis Baron (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). From the St. Paul Public Library

The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky by Charles Laird Calia (New York: Jeremy T. Tarcher / Penguin, 2005). From the St. Paul Public Library

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend (New York: Little, Brown, 2009). Kindle edition
Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos (New York: Business Plus, 2010)
The Accidental Webmaster by Julie M. Still (Medford, N.J.: Information Today, 2003). From the St. Paul Public Library

Those of you who have read this blog in the past month — all twelve of you — will notice that my new access to a Kindle has not diminished my book-acquiring zeal. ("Book" here refers to the thing with pages that requires ink, glue, and wood pulp to create.) Nor, alas, has the new job I started this past week decreased my optimistic belief that I have all the time in the world to read any book I want. Add this to the fact that I am biking to work instead of taking the reader-friendly bus, and, ceteris parabis, this poor blog is on a path to becoming a logjam (blogjam?) of unread material.

Fortunately I'm going to the cabin in a week or so. (Yes, I know: Take a new job, go on vacation. It's a very nice job.) The cabin is a traditional place of reading, especially when it rains, so I hope the ceteris will not be parabis for long. On the other hand, because the cabin is a traditional place of reading, it is well-stocked with the detritus of the family's past literary passions, most very long past. More than once, this unwary reader has there found herself drawn into the spell of Mary Stewart, Agatha Christie, or Nancy Drew, to emerge ten days later with a blank mind and a dim sense of entitlement.

But what I wanted to talk about today was time travel, since one of the books I managed to finish this month was Jack Finney's Time and Again. This old favorite was among the books I lent to a friend last year when she requested classic escapist literature — books that would make her happy — and she declared this one her favorite. I hadn't read it for twenty years, but that recommendation put Time and Again at the top of the pile, and it and Germania were the two books I brought to an out-of-state family reunion last month. Guess which one I stayed up late reading, and finished with deep regret?

Time and Again, first published in 1970, is out of print, although it was enough of a cult classic that Scribner's put out a new edition after Finney died in 1995. (You can read Finney's New York Times obituary here.) It tells the story of Simon Morley, a New York advertising illustrator who is recruited for a top-secret government project. It turns out that Einstein's theories can not only split the atom, they can also move people back through time, given the right combination of hypnosis and geography. Thus a vast warehouse in Manhattan has been fitted out for the experiment with dozens of painstakingly detailed movie sets: Notre Dame cathedral in 1451, a Vermont village in 1926.

Morley turns out to be the perfect candidate for these scientists' version of the Manhattan project. He responds well to hypnosis, and he has personal reasons for wanting to hang around New York's main post-office building on January 23, 1882. Thus, on the government payroll as a kind of time-traveling spy, he ends up walking into a rented apartment in the Dakota Building (not yet famous as the site of John Lennon's murder) in about 1968, and walking out of it 86 years earlier. Utterly cool.

You can guess the rest. Morley's personal reasons end up eclipsing his governmental mission, and he is drawn into an 1882 intrigue that is about equal parts thriller and fantasy — lest we forget, Finney also wrote the book that became the 1956 movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." What makes the book sing, however, is Morley's love of architecture and photographs, and Finney's passion for bringing 19th-century New York alive for his readers.

Here is Morley, newly arrived, about to board a streetcar:

[W]e heard the squeal of iron tires crunching cold dry snow, heard the loose wood-and-iron rattle of the body, and the crack of leather reins on solid flesh. Then, very slowly, we turned our heads to look again at the tiny, arch-roofed wooden bus with high wooden-spoke wheels, drawn by a team of gaunt horses, their breaths puffing whitely into the winter air at each step. It was closer now, filling our vision, and staring at it I knew now from where and when I had come. It took a moment of actual struggle for my mind to take hold of what it knew to be the truth: that we were here, standing on a corner of upper Fifth Avenue on a gray January afternoon of 1882; and I shivered and for a moment felt shot through with fear. Then elation and curiosity roared through me.

Everywhere he goes, Morley notices buildings — those that aren't there that "should" be, to his 20th-century mind, and those that are there that proclaim Manhattan's even longer history. He makes sketches of the people he meets, and borrows a box camera (conveniently urged on him by a new friend) to take photos of his surroundings — including, improbably, one from the top of the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. And since Finney's Einsteinian time travel requires stable physical locations, at one point Morley journeys back to the 1960s in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, which in 1882 was just an arm sticking out of a Manhattan park. He goes to sleep in Madison Square, and wakes up overlooking the New York harbor. Again, how cool is that?

There's a lot more to Finney's book, including the unintended consequence that, in reading it, you're also traveling back to the "Mad Men" era that is just as lost to us as is 1882: the pre-computer world of pen-and-ink drawings and efficient secretaries. And it helps that there's a satisfying plot twist at the end that even I wasn't prepared for. But it got me thinking about why books about time travel hold such appeal for me. (Movies, too: if I opened the paper to find that all the theaters in town were playing nothing but "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Groundhog Day," and "Back to the Future," I'd think I'd died and gone to heaven.)

My fascination with time travel may stem from my early acquaintance with "Dr. Who," about which more (perhaps) in another blog. But I also attribute it to two books I read in childhood and early adolescence, which like Time and Again take their inspiration from 1880s buildings:

  • Edward Ormondroyd's Time at the Top (originally published by Parnassus Press in 1963, but I notice a 40th-anniversary edition, possibly inspired by a forgettable 1999 movie, is in print on Amazon) involves a 20th-century New York girl who finds out by magical means that her apartment building was built on the site of a 19th-century farmhouse — and that the building's elevator can take her back to it. It looks like Ormondroyd wrote a 1975 sequel, All in Good Time, which is quite out-of-print but is recommended by at least one Amazon reader. Inter-library loan, here I come!
  • Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce was first published in England in 1958, but I didn't run across it until I was nearly too old for it, sometime in the 1970s. Unlike the other two books, which celebrate the past but still have a robust appreciation for the present, this one is almost unbearably sad. Tom's modern England is industrial, dirty, and paved-over; the Victorian world he discovers when the old grandfather clock in his apartment building strikes midnight is elegiac, rural, and doomed. (The apartment building, of course, was once a country estate.) There is no question here of Tom's going back to live in the 1880s — at the end of the book, the past is gone. This book, too, was made into a movie I have never seen (but perhaps should). And, probably because it won the Carnegie Award the year it was published, it is very much in print.
There are also a slew of E. Nesbit classics, including The House of Arden and Harding's Luck, which are wonderful exercises in time-travel fantasy; I notice that the former, along with Tom's Midnight Garden, comes up as recommended on Amazon when you express interest in Time at the Top. But since I have already spent all of a Sunday morning on this blogpost, I'm out of time. Doubtless to your relief.

24 June 2010

A Year in the Life

Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini (New York: Free Press, 2010)

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend(New York: Little, Brown, 2009). Kindle edition

Ever since I encountered Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, I've been a sucker for books that chronicle someone obsessively doing something for a year. Julie and Julia (whose subtitle is "365 days, 524 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen"); The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life—all sucked me into their spell. Sometimes the author's ego gets in the way for me, as was the case with A Year in Provence and the gaggingly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, but for the most part this is a foolproof Good Read.

The Madison Public Library has obligingly put out a comprehensive list of these books, so I see that the genre goes all the way back to 1948 and Henry Beston's Northern Farm: A Glorious Year on a Small Maine Farm. (Heck, it occurs to me that Walden probably qualifies as the great-granddaddy of them all.)

Two of them recently turned up in my Bedside Pile, and of course I finished them before just about everything else: The Happiness Project and, now, Sweater Quest. Both books began as blogs—doesn't every nonfiction book now? The explosion of blogonauts has swelled the ranks of the year-in-the-life genre to the point that I imagine publishing-house interns don't even bother with the slush pile anymore (if they ever did), but instead spend their days trolling the Web for examples of this new performance art. (The New York Times documented the term "blooks" back in December 2006, but it doesn't seem to have made it into everyday speech.)

Like dance marathons during the Great Depression, the one-year endurance contest seems especially to attract the un- or under-employed. Sweater Quest's Adrienne Martini is no exception. The Simon & Schuster Web site identifies her as a "freelance writer and college teacher." She's smart, and she has time to knit; what more do you want? When I heard her interviewed on Brenda Dayne's Cast-On podcast, I knew this was a book I had to read. Martini wanted to counter the "directionless haze" of her 2007 by doing something really, really big in 2008. So she picked the most challenging knitting project she could think of: the "Mary Tudor" cardigan designed by the Scots knitting behemoth Alice Starmore, "the Shakespeare of the knit and the purl." With fingering-weight wool (this means a very very skinny strand), in eleven separate colors, in a brand of yarn that's not even being made anymore—well, just assembling the supplies took Martini two months of her year.

I'm in the middle of a (non-Starmore) Fair Isle sweater that I'm guessing will take me a minimum of three years to finish, so I'm the perfect audience for Martini's book. She is easy to read, but I found I never really got lost in her work—perhaps because she, herself, seemed so detached from it. Once Martini figured out the Fair Isle technique, knitting the sweater itself became boring even to her. So she spends most of the book interviewing other knitting designers—some very good ones—with the question, "What makes an Alice Starmore sweater an 'Alice Starmore'?" Which is interesting, but a little repetitious.

Martini is good at details—maybe a little too good. She stops short of telling you how many calories are in the desserts and entrees she is endlessly eating with her interview subjects, but not very far short. She's at her best when she is filling us in on knitting-gossip backstory, like why most knitters refer to Starmore in print as "St*rm*re," or, delightfully, LSD, which stands for "Litigious Scottish Designer." But the book shows signs of being hastily edited, which means no one reined in Martini's tendency to reduce situations to a quick laugh, or evened out her tone. (Do we really need to know that Amy Singer has "a mighty rack"?)

Nor, in the end, did all those details add up to synthesis. For heavens sake—and I'm hardly issuing a "spoiler" here, because Martini makes no attempt to create a narrative arc—the sweater didn't even fit! A blogger might be able to get away with ending a saga with the equivalent of "And then I woke up," but really a grown-up book writer should know better. Sigh.

22 June 2010


———————— THIS MONTH'S BOOKS ————————
Knitting in the Old Way: Designs & Techniques from Ethnic Sweaters by Priscilla A. Gibson-Roberts and Deborah Robson (Fort Collins, Colorado: Nomad Press, 2004)
Hot Broke Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos (New York: Business Plus, 2010)
Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini (New York: Free Press, 2010)
Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
iPhone Application Development for Dummies by Neal Goldstein (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend (New York: Little, Brown, 2009). Kindle edition
Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
In the Hebrides by Alice Starmore (Blairstown, N.J.: The Broad Bay Company, 1995)

Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder
Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously by Adrienne Martini
Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope (Kindle edition)
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor by Tad Friend

The Seven of Cups card in TarotThe knitting world has coined a term for the chronic condition of beginning more projects than you can possibly finish: Startitis. With myriad attractive things to choose from, you choose—all of them! Throughout most of June, I have been afflicted with Startitis in my reading world—though it is a matter of opinion whether it is actually an affliction.

Suffice it to say that Kindle is unlikely to provide a respite. Being able to get entire books downloaded to my iPod in less than a minute (for a price, of course) has supplemented, but not supplanted, my library habit. It used to be that, when I heard of a book I thought I'd like, I would request it from the library or, if I thought I needed constant access to it for the rest of my life (what was I thinking?!), buy it at the nearest bookstore. Impulse purchases were reserved for trips to worthy venues like St. Paul's Common Good and Nisswa's Rainy Days.

Now I am yielding to impulse as I sit in a coffeeshop or surf the Web at home. My pocketbook is suffering, but my patronage of my public library is not; I put 12 items on hold there this month.

But let's look at the things I'm actually reading. This month I finished Phineas Finn and started Phineas Redux, both on the iPod. This is at least my second time through both of them, and this time I am trying not to skip over the political bits—just as, when I read Moby-Dick all those years ago, I made myself read all the whaling parts, and actually ended up enjoying them.

So far Trollope's mine is not as rich as Melville's, but neither is it unrewarding. For example, I went to my college reunion this past weekend and, in one of those chance conversations one has at these affairs, I ended up talking to a fellow who's edited a book by the man believed to be Trollope's model for Phineas Finn: John Pope-Hennessy, 1834–1891. (M.C. Rintoul's Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction, available here in Google Books, discusses the various historical figures thought to be Trollope's Irish M.P., as well as providing a key to other less thinly disguised political lights; Daubeny turns out to be Disraeli, for instance. If you have access to Academic Search Premier or another database that indexes the journal English Studies, also check out John Halperin's April 1978 article therein on the subject, "Trollope's Phineas Finn and History.")

Emperor Maximilian IIn the physical world of old-fashioned print, I'm really loving Germania. Simon Winder has that light, ironic tone that seems to be wound into the DNA of the best British writers—I am thinking of my hero Nick Hornby as well. Winder is irreverent, but I find myself trusting him implicitly as he romps through German social and political history, which he cheerfully acknowledges is justly considered a cultural dead zone for today's scholars, tourists, gastronomes, and politicos. "I want to get round the F├╝hrer and try to reclaim a bit of Europe which is in many ways Britain's weird twin," he says.

Picking a page practically at random, here is Winder on the founding father of the Habsburg kaisers:

"The Emperor Maximilian I died in 1519 having spent a long and enjoyable life, fighting, having children, feasting and fixing up marriages for his own children. His reign has the air of a vastly prolonged international card game where through debonair luck and skill Maximilian winds up with virtually everything. ... Sadly Maximilian died before the [soap-opera] episodes where ... the marriage of his son Philip the Handsome to the Castilian Joanna the Mad was going to have the sensational result of their six children turning into two emperors and four queens."

I'm happy just living in a world where nutty royalists can trace their ancestry back to someone named Joanna the Mad. Aren't you?

02 June 2010

What Would Nick Do?

A friend of mine who calls herself “Barb” on her very funny blog justly chides me for not being clear about my intentions for this page. Actually, what she really said was:

“Glad to see Erin's book on your night table, but why won't you
tell us which you are reading? If you are writing a blog, please be so
good as to reveal your real reading preferences to us!”

I think the key phrase here is If you are writing a blog. My ambivalence about this hanging-out-in-public thing is showing. So is the fact that I never really explained what I was doing when I changed the focus of this blog from my moribund "23 Things on a Stick" project to simply books.

My hero, Nick HornbyWhat I wanted was to create something like Nick Hornby's wonderful monthly column in The Believer (now defunct, but collected in The Polysyllabic Spree and other books). Each column started with a list of books Hornby had bought that month, followed by a list of those he'd actually read — not necessarily drawn from the first list. (This had the effect of letting you keep score. If Hornby had read more books than he bought, he won; otherwise, he lost.) Then he described the experience of reading them, or more often what he did instead of reading them.

So the catalog of books by my bedside was supposed to be List #1 — my lofty goal — and you were supposed to learn from reading my golden words whether I actually succeeded in reading them. Clever, huh? Well, not really.

If I were following such a format for this post, my books-by-the-bedside list would look like this:

  • False Mermaid by Erin Hart
  • The Happiness Project; Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  • In the Hebrides by Alice Starmore
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
But here's the catch: I haven't been reading any of them. Or, rather, I did read The Happiness Project, but only because that was right before I gave my husband the birthday gift of a Kindle — and learned I could access his Kindle books through my iPod Touch. So here's what I've actually read this past month, all on an electronic screen:

  • The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner
  • So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (read for my book group)
  • Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia by Patricia Morrisroe
  • The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope (it turns out that Trollope's Parliamentary novels are free in the Kindle store, but his Barsetshire ones aren't)
  • Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
And I'm about one-sixth of the way through Phineas Finn as well. (Yes, I know I'm reading Trollope out of order. So sue me.)

All of which has left my literary world in a bit of a shambles. I thought I was one of those people who didn't consider a book a book unless it had pages and a cover; well, I have been drawn into Kindle's versions the same way that I would have been to the "dead tree" ones, and got just as irritated with Alice Vavasour there. (The original "Smart women, foolish choices.") At the same time, I am still buying books and checking them out of the library — yesterday I put myself on the wait list for three more — in the apparent belief that I have unlimited time to read any book in any medium.

So clearly I, like Alice Vavasour, cannot long continue on this headstrong course. But I will follow “Barb” ’s advice and do my utmost to keep you informed of my progress. Fair enough?

13 April 2010

Truth or Fiction?

In Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing, the main character amuses us by creating a list of the ten books he would like to take with him if abandoned on a desert island. It is a fictional list on many levels, for Stoppard's Henry doesn't care two straws about any of the books; he is concerned only with the public image his choices create for him.

Possibly in that same spirit, the following is a list of the 12 books you may find in close proximity to my bedside table, waiting for me to read. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to discern how truthful I am being:

  • From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings; Poetry and Prose from Prison. New York: Student Press Initiative, 2009.
  • False Mermaid by Erin Hart. New York: Scribner, 2010.
  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  • The Linden and the Oak by Mark Wansa. Toronto: World Academy of Rusyn Culture, 2009.
  • Sneeze on Sunday by Andre Norton and Grace Allen Hogarth. New York: Tor, 1992.
  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.
  • The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, Kindle edition. [Seattle:] Public Domain Books, Amazon Digital Services, 2006. On my iPod Touch.
  • The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days by Fern Reiss. Boston: Peanut Butter and Jelly Press, 2003.
  • Design-it-yourself Clothes: Patternmaking Simplified by Cal Patch. New York: Potter Craft, 2009.
  • The Choir by Joanna Trollope. New York: Random House, 1988.
  • The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Orlando, Austin, and New York: Harvest Book/Harcourt, 1962, 1934.

I am not going to tell you which of these books I am actually reading, since that would (assuming this list is The Real Thing) reveal much more about myself than I'd like.

Mind you, all this is coming from someone whose first widely published work was a letter to Ann Landers printed in the fall of 1976, the first words of which were (I recite from memory): "This letter might make you think that the Yale boys are at it again, but I swear that every word is absolutely true." Which it was not. (At the time, Yale undergraduates were a known source of agony-aunt fiction.) To quote the immortal Mary McCarthy, every word was a lie, including "and" and "the." But I can't tell you how thrilling it was to see my tale of the bawdy parakeet there in the pages of the Minneapolis Tribune, and know that it was being read all over the country.

An April spring has come to Minnesota. Enjoy!

07 April 2010

Nostalgia for ‘The Funny Guy’

Referring to my post about spam nonsense, I heard from another St. Nicholas fan (thank you, Jean!), and that got me remembering how I ever thought to seek out those fat bound volumes in the Carnegie Library of my hometown. I am pretty sure it was through a book called The Funny Guy, which I bought for probably about 35 cents, new, from Scholastic Book Services in third grade — remember those fill-in-the-blank forms, where you could order books like Girl Scout cookies?

Some quick research tells me The Funny Guy was written by Grace Allen Hogarth, who also wrote a considerable amount of science fiction. It was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1955, and the Scholastic edition came out in 1965. I should have hung on to it; the WorldCat database says there are only 45 copies of the hardcover in libraries around the world, and fewer than 20 of the Scholastic one. As I recall, my copy had completely fallen apart by the end of its life, so obviously it wasn't made to last.

The story, however, has long outlasted its binding, at least in my memory. It was set in a small town in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts, and the young heroine is struggling with being the most unpopular girl in her grade-school class (now why did this resonate with me?). “The funny guy” is what they called her, and it was not a term of approbation. (Think “guy” as in Guy Fawkes, a figure of derision.) She takes comfort in reading and writing, and sending in submissions to St. Nicholas. Also in raising money door-to-door for her own use, pretending it's for the Boston Baby Hospital; I learned the term “false pretences” from this book. I don't think it was a happily-ever-after book, but she does get a story in St. Nicholas. Also, she eats a live caterpillar on a dare.

Recounting the plot like this makes me think I should re-read it, somehow. In spite of its library rarity, you can buy it used for under $5, including shipping, on Amazon. But I don't really want to own another musty-smelling falling-apart paperback. I would gladly pay that much and more for an e-book version (I recently downloaded the Kindle app for my iPod Touch and am reading The Eustace Diamonds there), but children's literature from the 1950s appears to be the exception to the rule that the Internet makes everything available to anybody with a credit card. So here I'm running up against the limitations of publishing's brave new world.

I am, however, requesting a copy of Hogarth's Sneeze on Sunday, co-written with Andre Norton, from our local library — one of 556 in the world that has this particular book. I know nothing about it right now (except that it's classified as a mystery, and that I read a number of books by Andre Norton a few years after I wore out my copy of The Funny Guy). I'll know more after it is resurrected from deep, deep library storage at my command. Ain't libraries grand?

(Here's someone else who's nostalgic for the Scholastic Book Club. I got the photo I'm using of The Funny Guy's cover from his or her Flickr site — thank you!)

05 April 2010

Are You Still Crazy if It's Just Books?

photo from Hoarding Web siteLast night we watched a reality show called “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” the TLC network's answer to a similarly named show (“Hoarders”) on A&E. “Watched” may be too mild a term. It was like a train wreck; you couldn't look away. Last night’s episode featured two very nice women, one in New York City and the other in Omaha, who just happen to be mentally ill. I want to emphasize that; this was a show about crazy people. So for years their families had watched them slowly fill up their apartment (NYC) and houses (Omaha—she had bought the house next door as a storage closet when her own got too full) with useless junk, and, as with most families of mentally ill people, had been helpless to stop them. Both women were so rational, so competent, so ordinary ... until you looked in their homes.

It felt odd to be watching this particular show in what, 16 years ago, my husband's family dubbed “the Reader's Digest room.” That was the year we bought the house from a relative's estate, and, while I wouldn't go so far as to label this relative “crazy,” his was definitely a hoarder’s house. We have pictures: narrow paths in the living room and dining room between stacks of magazines; the kitchen window plastered with Chiquita stickers from about 20 years of banana consumption; the attic, basement and garage packed with scraps of wood and cans of paint from what amounted to a home carpentry business.

We also have samples of the beautiful things he built—elaborate birdhouses, hand-bent waterskis with about 20 coats of varnish—but he considered these too ordinary to give as gifts. Instead, for Christmas and birthdays, he collected items from a Minnesota phenomenon called the Fingerhut catalog. This was a credit-card company masquerading as a “collectables” gallery; the actual price of the (let's say) plastic clock would be obscured by a label advertising the low, low payment plan of $3.99/month. (I was surprised to learn, from a quick Google search, that Fingerhut still exists. I am not going to provide a link.) Which is why the room next to what is now our TV room was once “the Fingerhut room.” The present-day TV room was, by contrast, full of boxes of books from the Reader’s Digest folks, all purchased on credit in an attempt to increase his odds of winning the famous sweepstakes.

Yes, the irony of a room full of condensed books was not lost on us.

I doubt whether anything in either room was ever paid in full. If you add it all up, he probably did win the sweepstakes, sort of.

I have forgotten the number of 40-yard dumpsters that it took to get everything clear: seven? twelve? thirty-six? So the house we live in today is a bit different from the one we bought. But, as we watched this show, we realized it was not quite different enough for comfort. The hoarding gene may be mostly dormant, but it's definitely there—in both me and my husband. And where it manifests itself most is in books.

There are two bookshelves in the former Reader’s Digest room, and another one right outside the door in the hall. The Fingerhut room (now a guest room) has only one, but our bedroom has three, and that's only if you don't count the nightstands. Downstairs, the living room has one wall of built-in bookshelves and a freestanding one by the stairs. Which wouldn't be so bad if most of the horizontal surfaces weren't occupied by more books waiting for a home.flylady-cartoon

And this is after a several-years’ campaign, aided by the incomparable Flylady, to declutter my life. I think we're definitely overdue for a “room rescue” here.

But first, I need to get to a bookstore and buy a copy of The Nine Tailors. I just read about this Dorothy Sayers classic in P.D. James’ book, Talking About Detective Fiction, and for some reason I don't own it. Can you imagine?


29 March 2010

Thank You, Spammer, for the Time Machine

One of those weird e-mails arrived today, the kind that is a jumble of nonsensical sentences that are just barely English, sent by an improbably named stranger. About one a month gets past the spam filter. I’m not sure what the robotic senders are after, since usually none of the words is V*AG*RA. I think I’m probably supposed to inadvertently click on some attachment, which will then enslave my computer or eat my hard drive. So usually I handle such things with the electronic equivalent of a smile-and-nod to a beggar on the street: I tell my mail program it’s spam, and then I’m on my way.

But the language of this one was different. These few short paragraphs had words in them I hadn’t read since my last perusal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, like “waistcoat-pocket” (with a hyphen). It had a pun about “prescription” and “postscription,” and another one that had the meaning of “exercise” moving from a written essay to the act of moving your body. It also had a robin named Bob Scarlet. It was still nonsense, but it read like authentic 19th-century nonsense––like a fragment from an unpublished work by Lewis Carroll.

So I plugged one of the more unusual phrases (“Dorothy gave the paper a good shake, after which Bob Scarlet took it and stuffed it into his waistcoat‑pocket”) into a Google search. There I found that my spammer had lifted a bit from a serialized story, “The Admiral’s Caravan” by Charles E. Carryl, published in the January 1892 issue of St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. Google has thoughtfully digitized the Princeton University Library’s copy of this volume, so I could read the whole story (if I wanted to). So can you:

Do you know St. Nicholas? Its last original reader probably died in 2005, but I was lucky enough to stumble across some old bound volumes of it in my own public library at the age of 10 or so. It was published from 1873 to 1941, first by Scribner’s, then by the Century Co. It was known not only for publishing the most famous children’s authors and illustrators of its day (Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys was first serialized there), but also for including works by its young readers. (The PBS television show “Zoom!,” which I grew up watching, was inspired by St. Nicholas.) I love knowing that it’s still out there, waiting to be discovered by someone else who loves Arthur Rackham illustrations and novels by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

So thank you, Sorbello Banke, whoever you are. But I’m still not clicking on your “ratepayer.zip” file. And you’re still spam.