Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City

101. The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, by Carl Smith

The year 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, and, boy, did Chicago celebrate. There were lectures and exhibits and installations. Smith's book, a revision of the interpretive digital essay he wrote for the electronic version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago, is the story of how it all came together.

The city was exploding. In the 20 years before the Chicago Fire, the population grew from 30,000 to ten times that. By the time of the plan's publication, it was two million. It was exploding in other ways as well. The conflict between labor unions and capital often erupted into violence. The urban poor were crowded into dense and unhealthy tenements. And the city was governed by what Smith calls a "profoundly crooked group" in the city council.

But the city was also home to a group of civically engaged businessmen, people like Montgomery Ward, who fought to keep the lakefront "forever open, clear and free". Through private civic organizations, the Commercial Club and the Merchants Club, they determined to create a plan to alter the city's built environment. And the man they hired to create this plan was Daniel Burnham.

Burnham was by no means an unknown. He was one of them. He had been the architect behind the "White City", Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893. He designed their homes and their office buildings. He was joined in the endeavor by Edward H. Bennett.

Much of what we see in Chicago today is the result of this plan. The lakefront and the Museum Campus:
Museum Campus

the Michigan Avenue bridge, that joined the streets on either side of the Chicago River:
The city and the river

and so much more we owe to Burnham and Bennett's work.


100. Keeping House: a novel in recipes, by Clara Sereni (Translated from the Italian by Giovanna Miceli Jeffries and Susan Briziarelli)

The title of this book in the original Italian is "Casalinghitudine", a word for which there is no English equivalent. It combines "casalinga", homemaker, with the noun ending also found in "abitudine" (habit), "solitudine" (solitude) and "negritudine" (negritude). It could perhaps be described as the embracing with pride, and from a feminist standpoint, of those things that are perceived as constituting "keeping house".

Cooking and food, for Sereni, represent a form of caring. The recipes here are placed in conjunction with events in the narrator's life, from her childhood, raised mostly by a grandmother and aunts, through her youth and involvement in radical politics, to her marriage and motherhood. Her relationship with food also reflects her relationship with her father, a journalist, politician and member of the Italian Communist Party, who also wrote about the history of food in Italy (a quotation from one work of his in fact ends this book).

In the recipes (many of which I have copied down to try), we find patience, love, complexity and simplicity, exactness and improvisation, like life.

I found this book quite engrossing, perhaps because I am of an age with Sereni and, albeit in the U.S., share some political experiences with her. I do think that readers with at least some knowledge of Italian culture and recent political history will be better able to appreciate this book than those who don't.

Read more about Clara Sereni.

The Dot & the Line: a romance in lower mathematics

99. The Dot & the Line: a romance in lower mathematics, by Norton Juster

A sweet little romance, in which a sensible straight line:

falls in love with a dot, who spurns him for a squiggle:

But it all turns out right in the end.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


The People

94. The Allure of Chanel, by Paul Morand

Morand first met Coco Chanel in 1921, and in 1946 was invited to visit Chanel in St. Moritz, where he had extensive conversations with her, with a view to help write her memoirs. That project never came off, and the notes were put away and did not surface again until after Chanel's death, and were published finally in 1976.

It's pretty well known by now that Chanel created herself in more ways than one, inventing stories about her childhood and upbringing, but the reality of a young woman who broke loose from that past, lived in the era of Picasso and Sert, and changed the face of fashion in a career that spanned the world wars, can't be anything other than fascinating. No longer were clothes designed only for women whose lives were "worthless and idle"; they were for women who led busy lives and who, therefore, needed to feel comfortable in their clothes. Tossing out corsets and introducing menswear tailoring, Chanel anticipated the needs of women as the 20th-century advanced.

Because these are Chanel's own words and thoughts, this book provides an insight into the thinking of a woman who was not only a great couturier, but a woman whose influence still resonates today. I cannot help but be reminded of the Chanel exhibit I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. The exhibit juxtaposed Chanel's work with that of Karl Lagerfeld, who became head of the House of Chanel in the early '80s. The difference was stark. Nearly everything of Coco Chanel's could be worn today without hesitation, so classic are they. The designs of Lagerfeld, on the other hand, could have the date of design written on them.

The book is not, however, confined to Chanel and the world of fashion. She talks, also, about her private life, her amours, which would be a book in and of themselves.

95. D.V., by Diana Vreeland

I really adored this book. It's not written. Instead, it's rather obvious that the editors, George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill, just sat down with Mrs. Vreeland and let her talk, and then pretty much transcribed the conversation as it had happened. And, boy, can she talk! A mile a minute is a conservative estimate. You zip through this book because you find yourself reading it as quickly as it was said. And it's full of italics! Vreeland's excitement and enthusiasm for whatever it is she's talking about are evident on the page.

What a life she led. Raised in a rawther social family, in London and Paris and New York, she married banker Reed Vreeland at the age of nineteen, and he was clearly the love of her life. She knew everyone, from Josephine Baker to Jacqueline Onassis with the Windsors in between, practically invented red, was fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar for twenty-six years and editor-in-chief at Vogue for eight, and ended her career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

Remarks like "Unshined shoes are the end of civilization" and the famous "Pink is the navy blue of India" make Vreeland seem superficial. And, indeed, she herself said that she adored artifice. But she was also a very insightful, practical, intelligent and hard-working woman. She rightly says that the books one has read are the way you find out about a person. And although she says, "I stopped reading -- seriously reading -- years ago, she can talk about Tolstoy and kept The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon next to her bed. (More on Vreeland's books.)

If Chanel brought fashion kicking and screaming into the 20th-century, it was Vreeland (who adored and patronized Chanel) who made it part of the life of the woman-on-the-street.

96. Silver and Gold, by Norman Hartnell

Norman Hartnell left Cambridge without a degree, intent on becoming a fashion designer. With the financial assistance of his father, and the practical assistance of his sister, he established his own house, and ultimately became dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II, among other royal and noble ladies.

It's popular to sneer at Hartnell, to call his clothes "dowdy" and "frumpish", but that's really wrong. Much of his work, particularly his evening wear, could, to the contrary, be called "over-the-top", with embellishments of jewels, fur and heavy embroidery. Indeed, he is quoted as saying, "For me, simplicity is the death of the soul." While his daywear for the Queen has been deemed "matronly", one must not forget that, when she was young, it was common for young, married women to dress in an older style. And Hartnell also talks about the various constraints that exist when designing for royalty: the use of pale colors to stand out in a sea of people wearing darker colors, a design that allows for the wearing of Orders, the need to "set an example" (as with wartime restrictions). As he puts it in describing the choice of colors for Queen Mary's visits to bombed sites, "Black does not appear in the rainbow of hope."

In many ways, Hartnell put English fashion design on the map. Most people would be hard-pressed to name an English fashion designer before Hartnell. There is, of course, Charles Worth, but he made his name in Paris. After Hartnell, the names keep coming: Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood and so on.

This memoir is a must for anyone interested in fashion history, whatever their opinions of Hartnell's designs.

The Things

97. The Little Guide to Vintage Shopping: Insider Tips, Helpful Hints, Hip Shops, by Melody Fortier

This little book is an excellent guide for anyone who is interested in vintage clothing, whether it be to wear or to collect. Fortier provides many useful tips for buying in a variety of stores, online or at auction, and she clearly knows what she is talking about.

While no one book can make you an expert at identifying vintage clothing and materials, this is a fine start. Fortier discusses how to date clothes by the type of closures and the labels, how to determine what fabric a garment is made of, what construction to look for, general rules of pricing and how to care for your vintage find. I appreciated the sections devoted to hats, shoes and other accessories, because, as a self-styled "accessory queen", I believe that these items lend the finishing touch to any outfit. That pair of vintage gloves gives a certain "je ne said quoi" to any modern suit.

One area that I haven't seen mentioned in other books on the subject is "reinventing" vintage. If a garment is damaged, or a very common style, Fortier sees nothing wrong with customizing and updating it, and shows several examples.

The only real quibble I have is that I would have liked more illustrations to supplement descriptions of technical terms. But overall, this is definitely a book I'd recommend for inclusion in the library of anyone with a serious interest in buying vintage fashion.

98. The Classic Ten: The True Story of the Little Black Dress and Nine Other Fashion Favorites, by Nancy MacDonell Smith

One need not consider it necessary to own all of Smith's "classic ten" to agree that they are, indeed, classics. Many women lead happy and fulfilled lives never having put on a pair of jeans or sneakers. Others wouldn't dream of letting a pair of high heels into their closet, and many simply cannot afford pearls or cashmere sweaters. Nevertheless, the history of all these items makes for a fun read.

Smith not only discusses where these items originated and how they developed, but also describes their place in popular culture, particularly film (such as Audrey Hepburn's iconic little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Lana Turner's image as "the Sweater Girl").

But somebody needs to tell her that Harriet Vane was never Peter Wimsey's "paramour"!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sicilian Tragedee

93. Sicilian Tragedee, by Ottavio Cappellani

The theme is star-crossed lovers, but Shakespeare would be a bit startled at the casting. It's not in fair Verona that we set our scene, but hot Sicily. And the households are alike in their lack of dignity.

Take: Tino Cagnotto, theatre director, who is trying to stage an unusual production of Romeo and Juliet, while battling depression and wooing his younger inamorato, Bobo. Add: Alfio Turrisi, mafioso, in love with Betty Pirotta, daughter of a rival, said rival being all too happy at the prospect of getting the spoiled brat off his hands.

Mix in: various aristocrats, dueling cultural commissioners, and actors (never forget the actors!)

Result: plots, counter-plots, confusion, hilarity and un libro molto divertente!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do Nothing But Read Day - The Execution

I normally would have begun the day reading the Sunday paper, but it hadn't been delivered! So I started right in on book reading along with my breakfast. I then ensconced myself in my sunroom, with cozy socks and a pot of tea:

At various times, I had assistance:

I admit to the occasional lapse. I put up my Christmas tree yesterday, so every time I passed it on the way to the kitchen (to heat up more water for tea, fix lunch or dinner, etc.) I'd add a couple of more ornaments. The newspaper finally came and I deserted the books for a bit to read that. And I popped onto the computer to check my email and to post my progress in the LibraryThing thread.

By dinnertime, I had five books in the "read pile":

And here's the final result:

It's not really as much as it looks. I was already close to finishing three of the books (Vintage Shopping, J.M.W. Turner and Keeping House) and The Dot & The Line can be whipped out in about five minutes, as it's mostly images and very little text.

Reviews will be coming, but a few quick words on the books are in order. Vintage Fashion is a nice, practical guide to buying, The Classic Ten provides some history on classic fashion pieces, and D.V. is a hoot and a half! I'll be trying some of the recipes in Keeping House, which also provides an interesting glimpse into Italian leftist politics. The Dot & the Line was quite clever; I'll scan some of the illustrations when I review it, as they really make the book. Fun Home is a biographical graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel ("Dykes to Watch Out For"). J.M.W. Turner is one of Ackroyd's "Brief Lives". So it was quite a variety, but with an emphasis on fashion.

This was fun! I look forward to DNBRD 2010!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Do Nothing But Read Day - the plan

So here's the plan.

Get up at my usual time, eat my oatmeal and read the paper.

Make another cup of tea.

Curl up in my comfy chair (see previous DNBRD post) and commence to read.

I have a couple of books that I have almost finished, so if I haven't completed them by Sunday, they are first up. Then I have put a couple of piles of books on the table you see next to the chair. There are basically two themes: fashion (because it's fun) and Florence (because I'm going there in April).

Now, I obviously am not going to read all of these, probably just a couple, but I wanted to have some choices depending on my mood. The options are:


Living on the Edge in Leonardo's Florence, by Gene A. Brucker
Florence in the forgotten centuries, 1527-1800, by Eric W. Cochrane
The city of Florence : historical vistas and personal sightings, by R.W.B. Lewis
A Traveller's Companion to Florence


The classic ten : the true story of the little black dress and nine other fashion favorites, by Nancy McDonnell Smith
The fashion conspiracy : a remarkable journey through the empires of fashion, by Nicholas Coleridge
Silver and gold, by Norman Hartnell
D.V., by Diana Vreeland

(If anyone's read any of these, comments are welcome!)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Florence, a Delicate Case

92. Florence, a Delicate Case, by David Leavitt

David Leavitt divides his time between Gainesville, Florida, where he teaches, and Florence, Italy, which residence has resulted in this charming little book, part of Bloomsbury's The Writer and the City series.

Leavitt concentrates on the expatriate experience in Florence, particularly the expatriate homosexual experience, even more particularly the expatriate English homosexual experience, in the person of folks like Norman Douglas (author of South Wind), E.M. Forster and Ronald Firbank. He does not entirely neglect the ladies, however, noting that "the English ladies who have gone over to Catholicism . . . may be the loudest presence of all."

Neither a guidebook nor a history book, though there is a touch of each, this book rather provides an atmosphere, a feeling about the city, from the point of view of one who is at one and the same time an insider and an outsider. It's full of delightful gossip, and one gets the sense that, like Alice Longworth Roosevelt, Leavitt thinks that "if you can't say something nice, come sit next to me."

And, if nothing else, reading this book has confirmed me in my desire to visit Florence.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What are you doing on Sunday, December 20th?

Amanda Hyphenated has come up with this brilliant idea: Do Nothing But Read Day! Avoid the Christmas-shopping crowds at the mall. Have dinner delivered (pizza is always good). Make a dent in your TBR pile. (Lord knows, though, one day won't be enough for mine.)

Surprisingly, this is one day over the next couple of weekends that I don't have a get-together of some sort on my calendar. The goddess of books must have known something was up! So I plan to brew a pot of tea, curl up in that chair you see in the picture, and read! Why not join me?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Connections: Our Selves - Our Books

91. Connections: Our Selves - Our Books, by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern

Miss Rostenberg and Miss Stern were an amazing couple. They met in the early '30s, teaching Sabbath School, and became partners in life and in the rare book business. I wonder how many young women today have any conception how difficult their path was. Feminists, scholars, entrepreneurs, unmarried, in a world where women were expected to be none of those things, they lived, in the words of the New York Times obituary of Miss Rostenberg, "in a universe in which it was not possible to live the way she wanted to. She simply ignored that impossibility, created her own universe and, in a small but exquisite way, changed the world."

Between them, they wrote or edited upwards of thirty books, and innumerable sale catalogues. This book is rather special, though. Here, they describe books that they have bought and sold over the years, but these are all books with special meaning for one or the other or both. For Leona, who had been told by a college professor not to set her sights too high because she was "a woman and a Jew", and who was distantly related to Alfred Dreyfus, finding Émile Zola's pamphlet, "L'Affaire Dreyfus. Lettre A La Jeunesse", was a dramatic reminder of intolerance. Madeleine, who is, of course, best known for her work editing collections of Louisa May Alcott's potboilers, writes of the acquisition of the first edition of one of Alcott's earliest works, Flower Fables (stories she created for Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, Ellen).

There is the book that they never sold, the 1591 Parma imprint of Angeli Bonventura's La Historia della Citta di Parma, with a binding embossed with the arms of George Carew, Earl of Totnes, a book Leona had lusted for ever since she had apprenticed with the antiquarian bookseller, Herbert Reichner. And there is the book they never wrote, a proposed biography of Belle da Costa Greene. The proposal was rejected, as Anne Haight was in the process of writing a biography. In fact, that biography never appeared, though Haight did write a biographical entry on Greene for Notable American Women. (There is now a biography of Greene, Heidi Ardizzone's An Illuminated Life, which I have previously reviewed.)

What books have gone through their hands! What places they have scoured and found! What stories they have to tell! To find a copy of the first Hebrew edition of Theodore Herzl's Der Iudenstaat (the book that inspired the Zionist movement) is one thing. To find it on Erev Rosh Ha-shanah is quite another.

I could go on and on about these connections, the serendipitous finds, the books that escaped only to be found again, but you might as well read the book, enjoy the stories, and marvel at the full and fulfilled lives of Miss Rostenberg and Miss Stern.

Madeleine B. Stern (from the New York Times)
Leona Rostenberg (also from the New York Times)

The Heather Blazing

90. The Heather Blazing, by Colm Tóibín

In this quiet novel, Eamon Redmond, a High Court judge in Dublin, looks back, reflecting on his life. The troubled history of Ireland is there in his reminiscences and the turmoil of the modern world and a changing country is reflected in his own family.

The structure of the novel is deceptively simple. It is in three parts, each beginning as the law term ends, with a final case being heard or judgment being carefully crafted and delivered. Then Redmond leaves the courts to summer with his wife, Carmel, in Cush, County Wexford, the area where he grew up. I say "deceptively simple" because there is, in fact, a complex interconnection between the scenes in the law courts and the judge's summers, among the three years covered by these parts, and between the judge's present and his memories of the past.

The first and third parts begin with the same two sentences: Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the color, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow." That phrase, "small currents and pockets of movement within the flow", is a rather good description of this book, as Redmond recalls the "small currents and pockets of movement" within the flow that is his life.

I have seen Tóibín compared to Joyce, and it's not a bad comparison. His ability to show people's relationships and characters through the simple description of the mundane events of their daily lives, yet leading to a moment of realization, is very Joycean. His language is neither fancy nor stilted, but polished to a gem-like luster, each word perfectly chosen, and all strung together like a matched set of pearls.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monster: Gay Adventures in American Machismo

89. Monster: Gay Adventures in American Machismo, by Brian Bouldrey

In these essays, Bouldrey chronicles the world of the macho man from the point of view of a self-confessed "part-time opera queen" who once killed a bear (he wasn't only three, though). From rodeos to car racing, from bullfighting to boxing, Bouldrey analyzes male bonding and homoeroticism with wit and affection.

Despite the title of the book, it isn't all about "American" machismo, as Bouldrey also writes about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, conversations with a spa attendant in the Azores, and the aforesaid bullfighting.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Magicians

88. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater is a very bright teenager who lives in Brooklyn. He lives an ordinary life, in an ordinary house, with ordinary parents. He is entranced by a series of books by an Anglophile author about English children who move between this world and the magic world of Fillory. And he is bored with his own ordinary existence.

Then, on a day when he was to have had his entrance interview for Princeton, he finds himself instead on the grounds of Brakebills College, sitting an exam which will determine whether or not he will be admitted to that school of magic. Of course, he is, or we wouldn't have a book, now, would we?

The book is pretty much divided into several parts. The first, which is the bulk of the book, and, I think, the best, is set primarily at Brakebills. The students learn about making and controlling magic, and, as in all the best colleges, have a lot of exams to pass. Here they mature, learn their strengths and weaknesses, make friends (and lovers). In the brief section that follows, we find Quentin and his friends living and partying in New York City.

But they are restless, and when one of them finds a way into the world of Fillory, they go, and we enter the third part of the book, that without which a book about young people and magic would not be complete: the QUEST! (Dum dum dum dum!) Here, naturally, they meet a variety of creatures, human and non-, who variously help, hinder, harm, trick, save them, and whom they, in turn, help, hinder, harm, trick and save.

Although I found the ending of the book to be too abrupt and unsatisfying, in the main I really enjoyed it, particularly the characters and their relationships. How do you handle being different? Having to keep a secret? How do you manage going from being the most brilliant kid in class to being just another smart kid? How do you cope with being a magician?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Bauhaus to Our House

87. From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Nearly thirty years ago, Tom Wolfe put the architectural world in a tizzy when he published this essay attacking modern architecture.

Now, I'm not a big fan of glass & steel & concrete office buildings, but Wolfe is absolutely virulent on the subject. And therein lies the rub. He detests Bauhaus-inspired work so much that he has no perspective. He is guilty of the same pretentiousness and arrogance of which he accuses the architects whom he dislikes.

There is a great deal to be said against architects who prefer form over function, theory over practice. But any legitimate criticism is lost in this diatribe. Saying over and over again "it's ugly and I don't like the architects' politics" is not particularly persuasive.

A Rumpole Christmas

86. A Rumpole Christmas, by John Mortimer

Five short stories featuring Mortimer's beloved barrister, Horace Rumpole, his wife, Hilda (otherwise known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed), and various other characters who will be familiar to readers of this series or viewers of the Thames Television show. (Inded, the cover illustration of Rumpole is the image of Leo McKern, who played the role in that show.)

Hilda manages to get Rumpole out of London for the Christmas break, once actually to a slimming spa(!), but murder and blackmail and old familiar faces follow him wherever he goes.

Because these stories were all first published in various journals at various times, there is a slight repetition of background, but that is to be expected under the circumstances. They are as delightful as always. But who could have anticipated that Mortimer would kill off Honoria Glossop!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On One's Best Behavior: Etiquette Past and Present

84. Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication, by Judith Martin

The subtitle of this book pretty much says it all: In which Miss Manners Explains the Proper Form and Choice of Technology for Messages Private, Professional and Public: When to Phone, When to Fax, When a Handwritten Note is Obligatory, a Form Letter Forbidden and a Chain Letter Out of the Question

I adore Judith Martin, particular when she is in her alter ego of Miss Manners. In this slim, yet meaty, volume, she takes up the question of communication in the age of cell phones and email. Really, people, it's not that difficult. Does the person really need to hear what you have to say, and, if so, right this minute? Do not expect them to drop everything to respond to you. Don't conduct business in the middle of a social engagement. The near-ubiquity of cellphones with the concomitant ability to be constantly in touch has, unfortunately, led some to believe that they should be constantly in touch.

In addition to the spoken word, Miss Manners discusses the written word. This encompasses not merely the question of the proper stationery and the proper salutation (my personal bugaboo, seen often in donor lists, is "Mr. John and Mrs. Jane Doe"), but the who, what and when of invitations, thank-you notes, announcements, condolences and the like. (No "and guest". As she rightly says, "Miss Manners is sorry if it is too much trouble to find out the actual names of the people you care enough about to invite to a formal occasion, but you must do it.")

With her usual style and wit, Miss Manners will help you navigate the really not so difficult waters of proper communication. (Q: "How do you get children to write thank-you letters?" A: "Well, how do you get children to do anything?")

And, for god's sake, if someone invites you to an event, no matter how casual, Rsvp!!!

85. The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining, (adapted by) Autumn Stephens

Victorian upper-class Entertaining, that is. What a delightful little book! I admit to a passion for old etiquette books, and what Miss Stephens has done is to take bits and pieces from various unidentified 19th-century sources and created a guide to dinner parties, country house gatherings, and the like. While few of us today have the leisure to pay formal calls, or have footmen to receive callers' cards on a silver tray, much of the advice given is still quite appropriate, even if couched in language that makes us smile. Would we not all agree that an overnight guest "should have a comfortable room . . . with bed linen that is fresh and well aired"? Or that "[w]e have no right to offend people with our manners or conversation"? Such simple rules of courtesy and consideration never go out of style, though details of how to dress and the accepted hours for meals may change.

I am quite curious about one reference, however. "It is in utmost poor taste for a gentleman . . . to carry a little poodle dog (a man's glory is his strength and manliness, not in aping silly girls)." They did that? (Apparently, they did. A bit of searching reveals that the quotation is from a book called Modern Manners and Social Forms, published in 1889.)

Which leads me to my one criticism. It would have been appropriate (and proper) for Miss Stephens to have identified her sources. While the books she drew from are undoubtedly long out of copyright, courtesy (both to the writer and to the reader who may wish to know more) should be a sufficient reason to give that information.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How to Live with a Calculating Cat

83. How to Live with a Calculating Cat, by Eric Gurney

Is there any other kind? Those of us who share our homes with cats will recognize the behavior of Gurney's cats right away, from their finicky-ness as regards their food to the fact that they "are not likely to sleep in the basket which has been purchased specifically for this purpose."

We are also treated to a gallery of well-known calculating cats, such as the Cheshire Cat whose "real claim to fame . . . is that he was the first cat to admit quite cheerfully that he was mad."

An amusing, and accurate, account of life with cats, accompanied by clever drawings. I am particularly fond of this illustration which shows a rare instance of cat and dog cooperation. (The caption reads: "Teamwork makes the impossible simple.")

Deep Purple

82. Deep Purple, by Mayra Montero

Agustin Cabán, music critic for a San Juan newspaper, has just retired, and is writing his memoirs and sharing them with his editor. These memoirs consist primarily of his sexual encounters with musicians, and Montero writes of the connections her protagonist finds between music and sexual desire.

I had read other books of Ms. Montero's, Dancing to Almendra, and The Messenger, both of which I enjoyed and found intriguing. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Deep Purple. It's basically one sex act after another, and emotional content is lacking. I don't mind the descriptions of sex. I enjoy good pornography and I enjoy good writing about sex. But this wasn't either.

The Reverberator

81. The Reverberator, by Henry James

In our time, socialites, celebrities and people "famous for being famous" hire publicists and are content to have their private lives made fodder for the public press. Indeed, they are often complicit in the revelation of the most intimate details of their lives and seem to agree with the saying that "no publicity is bad publicity".

Henry James would be shocked. Simon Nowell-Smith points out in his introduction to my edition of this novel James' reaction to a public report of a private conversation between Julian Hawthorne and James Russell Lowell; he called it a "beastly and blackguardly betrayal". But he took an incident in which a young American who had been admitted into Venetian society wrote an account of that society for a New York newspaper, and was widely excoriated in Venice for so doing, and turned it into this charming novel.

The Dossons, father and two daughters, serious Delia and flighty Francie, are Americans in Paris. Coming over, they had made the acquaintance of George Flack, a journalist whose job is to find stories for an American 'society-paper'. He has attached himself to the Dossons, showing them Paris, while smoking Mr. Dosson's cigars, spending his money, and having a flirtation with Francie. He introduces her to the expatriate Impressionist portraitist, Charles Waterlow (possibly based on John Singer Sargent?) who begins to paint her portrait. During the sittings, she meets a young man, Gaston Probert, an American who had never been in America, having been born and raised in France, his father a "Gallomaniac", his sisters having married into French society (two into the nobility). Inevitably, Francie and Gaston fall in love, and, after her charm overcomes some familial objections of the Proberts, they become engaged.

All is going swimmingly, Francie is taken into the bosom of the Proberts, learning the ways of French society, until Gaston heads to the United States to take care of some business for his family, as well as for Mr. Dosson. While he is away, George Flack re-appears. One lesson Francie has not learned is that a young engaged woman does not go out alone with a young man who is not her betrothed. But she takes the view that Flack is an old acquaintance and what's the harm? The harm turns out to be that he, by judicious questioning and saying he merely wants to write about Waterlow's painting of her, sets her chattering about her fiancé's family, and the resultant newspaper story causes a storm. Francie still cannot quite understand the harm she has done. "I thought he would just speak about my being engaged and give a little account; so many people in America would be interested." What she doesn't grasp is that the Proberts do not want "people in America" (or France, for that matter) to be interested in their private lives.

The Reverberator was first written as a serial in early 1888, and published in book form shortly thereafter. James extensively revised it twenty years later, but my edition is that of the 1888 book. Nowell-Smith's introduction, which compares this and the later edition, shows that the revisions were not an improvement! The ease of language here, very different from James' later "tortuosity of expression", perfectly expresses the wide-eyed naïveté of Francie.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

80. Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

It seems only appropriate to observe Hallowe'en by reviewing a novel in which one of the main characters is a ghost.

Elspeth Noblin and Edwina Moore are twins who have been estranged for years. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her entire estate to her nieces, Valentina and Julia, who are mirror twins, with the stipulation that they must reside in flat, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, for one year, and that their parents must not set foot in the place. When the twins arrive, they discover that although Elspeth may be dead, she still inhabits her old home. At first merely a felt presence, she gradually begins to be seen by, and then to communicate with, the twins, as well as her lover, who lives in the flat below.

Valentina and Julia have very different personalities. Julia is the dominant and decisive twin, who looks after asthmatic and timid Valentina. Each becomes involved with a neighbor, Valentina becoming attached to Robert, Elspeth's younger lover, and Julia spending time with Martin, the upstairs neighbor whose OCD keeps him indoors all the time and led his wife to return to her native Netherlands.

As their year passes, Valentina's desire for independence intersects with and is seized upon by Elspeth's ghost, who conceives a scheme to help her break free of Julia, a scheme in which they involve Robert. (And that's about all I can say without giving a lot away!)

I've been a fan of Niffenegger's writing for years, when I discovered her writing the catalog for Chicago's Center for Book and Paper Arts (though I don't think she writes it any more), and Her Fearful Symmetry did not disappoint. This is an eerie book, with surprises around every corner, beautifully evocative. At certain points, I found myself wanting to say, "No! Don't do that! It's a mistake!", and actually stopped reading occasionally because I feared what would happen next. I wasn't always right.

Readers of Niffenegger's other works with recognize the Gothic sensibility as well as a variety of familiar themes: rival sisters, pregnancy, odd physical characteristics (Valentina has situs inversus, in which the internal organs are reversed), wandering ghosts, flight (in both senses of the word). There were images which here are in words but that I recalled from her illustrated novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress. In this novel, as well as The Time Traveler's Wife, she has taken ideas which in those novels are presented in isolated and (generally) unspecified locations and times, and placed them in the contemporary world, where they are all the more startling for their incongruity.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Venezia: Food & Dreams

79. Venezia: Food & Dreams, by Tessa Kiros

In this culinary love letter to and about Venice, Tessa Kiros has gathered traditional Veneziani recipes for your delectation. Obviously, it's heavy on seafood, with many recipes for sardines, octopus, scampi, etc. The recipes are easy to follow, and before each she gives a little description of the dish or the process, or gives a serving suggestion. Her language is delightful; instead of telling you to cook the radicchio until it is soft, she says "until it surrenders its hardness".

Equal time must be given to the photographer and the book designer. The book is chock-ful of gorgeous color and black-and-white photographs of Venice and of the food. And, as an object, the book itself must be described. Heavy, with gilded edges and a wide black velvet book marker, it will definitely not be used in my kitchen. And that's one of the drawbacks. It's one thing to drip some oil or chocolate on my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but this one is far to elaborate to expose to the vicissitudes of la cucina. In addition, the American cook will likely find it difficult to locate some of the ingredients. Even in Chicago, with a good produce store down the street, I can't recall ever having seen radicchio di Treviso.

But never mind. I shall curl up with this book and a glass of Prosecco from time to time, and dream of returning to Venice, and the best sea bass I've ever had:

Lunch on Burano

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Girl From Foreign

78. The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home, by Sadia Shepard

Sadia Shepard parents were from very different worlds, her father an American-born Protestant, her mother a Pakistani-born Muslim of Indian descent. But in fact the third major monotheistic religion is also represented in Shepard's background, as her mother's mother was a Jew who converted to Islam upon her marriage. When she was dying, Shepard's grandmother urged Sadia to go to India to learn about this part of her history. Fulbright fellowship in hand, Sadia did so, and this book is the result (along with a documentary film - Shepard is a filmmaker).

Shepard's grandmother's family were members of the Bene Israel (or Beni-Israel), Indian Jews whose tradition says that they were shipwrecked off the coast of India, although the dates and reasons are varied, some saying it was after the destruction of the Second Temple, others that they arrived during the reign of King Solomon, and there are other stories as well.

It would be a mistake, however, to expect this book to be a history of the Bene Israel. It's not, and wasn't intended to be. It's a family history, the story of Shepard's family, here, in India, and in Pakistan (where they moved after Partition). In the course of learning that history, she learns about the present-day Bene Israel, a community that is diminishing, as the younger generation looks towards Israel as a homeland, but still striving to maintain its traditions. The book is also the story of how Shepard adjusts to living in India, her friendships and study there. She sees it now through her own eyes and that of her grandmother. Shepard also is trying to find out if she needs to choose one religious path, or if she can reconcile and merge the three traditions into which she was born. It's a struggle that she hasn't resolved, one that most children of mixed religious and ethnic backgrounds go through.

I was struck by the contrast between the warm personal relationships among Muslim, Jew and Hindi and the political conflicts caused by Partition. It's a great sadness and shame and wonder that the adherents of different religions can appreciate and admire and help one another, can be close friends and associates, and yet be willing to kill each other because they worship the same god in different ways.

For another book on the same subject, you might want to read Carmit Delman's Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing up between cultures: a Memoir of an Indian Jewish girl.

Beni-Israel, from the Jewish Encyclopedia.

The Language of Bees

77. The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King

Although I am not ordinarily fond of books that take a well-known character of another author and place him (or her) in a situation that the originating author would have found ludicrous, it is nevertheless the case that I enjoy King's Mary Russell series, despite the fact that she has contrived to marry off Sherlock Holmes. That in itself is quite contrary to Holmes' nature as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but, on top of that, she marries him off to a woman far younger than himself. And in this book, she has given him a son by Irene Adler (a/k/a "The Woman").

Russell and Holmes have returned to Sussex following a lengthy sojourn abroad (the details of which are available in King's previous books). One of Holmes' bee colonies has been engaging in very odd swarming behavior, but more seriously, his estranged son, a brilliant Surrealist painter, appears to announce that his wife and young daughter have disappeared. Mary and Holmes proceed to investigate, with Holmes attempting to do so while keeping his relationship with Damian Adler secret. Yolanda Adler's background is a dubious one, to say the least. That, as well as Damian's past involvement with the law, former drug addiction and shell-shock (what we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) from his war experiences, cause suspicion to fall upon him when his wife's body is found. It appears that her murder may be related to other odd murders that have been occurring.

Although this book was a compelling read, it was, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying. For one thing, I am a bit tired of mysterious cults, and I'm afraid we're going to get more of the one that King created for this book. More seriously, though, is the fact that too many threads were left hanging, too many questions remain unanswered.

So only a mild recommendation.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mr. Jefferson's University

76. Mr. Jefferson's University, by Garry Wills

There are certain writers who can write compellingly about any subject to which they turn a hand, who can, even if the subject is one in which you would ordinarily have no interest, make you sit up late to finish "just another page". Garry Wills is, for me, one of those writers. So to have him write a book about a favorite subject (architecture) and a favorite historical personage (Thomas Jefferson) is a real treat.

Jefferson and Wills have a lot in common, both being men who did not confine their interests and erudition to even a few subjects. In addition to his political interests, Jefferson was an inventor, a designer, an architect, and not in a dabbling, dilettantish way. One of his projects was the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Wills' book describes the result in great detail (perhaps too great for some, but not for me!), accompanying the text with elevations, preliminary drawings and photographs, as he lays out the relationship of the buildings with each other and with the landscape, and, more important, the aesthetic behind the choices.

But the book is not merely about the buildings. It also is a history of the politics behind the founding of the school, of the difficulties of choosing and keeping faculty in those early years, both fascinating stories.

I find that now I would very much like to travel to Charlottesville, with this book in hand, to re-read it in situ, and see the place through Jefferson's eyes and mind.

[University of Virginia, J.Serz, 1856
], Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

On Jane Austen

74. Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

If you read only one biography of Jane Austen, read this one. It's not only extraordinarily well-researched, it's as readable as Austen herself. Witty, detailing the Austen family's daily life, not shirking at scandal (cousin Elizabeth may have really been the daughter of Warren Hastings) and never presenting speculation as fact (though not failing to provide factual support for what speculation there is), Tomalin gives great insight into Jane Austen. She does not make the mistake of assuming that Austen's books are biographical, but does show how Austen (not unlike most authors) has taken the threads of her life, her friends and family, and woven from the briliant tapestry of her novels.

Tomalin provides a good deal of information not only about the Austens, but about the world in which they lived, what was happening in it of political importance, what life was like for the different classes, how people lived. Interspersed with the biographical material are thoughtful analyses of Austen's works, and Tomalin shows with great clarity how Austen's fictional world meshes with the one in which she led her life. This really should be required reading for anyone who complains that Austen doesn't share the modern view of what a woman should think and feel and do.

This is a truly impressive undertaking, and one which has well succeeded. Tomalin makes us feel that we know Jane Austen, the girl and the woman, as well as her relations and relationships, and, in so doing, allows us to take our well-read copies of the novels down from our bookshelves and re-read them with greater insight and appreciation.

75. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, by Fay Weldon

Weldon's imaginary niece, Alice, wants to write a novel. What she doesn't want to do, despite doing a college course in English Literature, is read Jane Austen. Weldon sets out to show her why she should.

Weldon, as a novelist, has a rather different take on some of the received wisdom about Austen. She refers to James Austen-Leigh's famous comment about Austen covering her work when others entered the room, which has led some to speculate that she was ashamed of her work. Weldon notes that "[m]ost writers choose to cover their work when someone else comes into the room", not wanting to answer questions such as "And who is this Mr. Knightley?" One of the most delightful things about this book is to read a writer's take on Austen and her work and works.

But that's not all. Her description of Literature as a "City of Invention" is one of the best things I've read in a long time. Books are the buildings, writers the architects. I'm sure we can all name a few books that fit this description: Sometimes you'll find quite a shoddy building so well placed and painted that it quite takes the visitor in, and the critics as well - and all cluster round, crying, 'Lo, a masterpiece!' and award it prizes. But the passage of time, the peeling of paint, the very lack of concerned visitors, reveals it in the end for what it is: a house of no interest or significance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association to celebrate the right to read, and to highlight the dangers of attempts to ban or censor books in the United States.

I grew up in a household filled with books. The regular trips to the library were a highlight of my childhood, and I well remember the exhilaration when I was no longer confined to the "Children's Section" (never mind that I had been reading so-called "adult" books for quite some time). Our parents never censored our reading. They might suggest that the book we'd pick was trashy, and recommend something else, but I never heard "You aren't allowed to read that" from them.

While I certainly understand why parents might want to monitor their own children's reading (despite the fact that I think it's a really bad idea), it appalls me that anyone would seek to restrict what adults or other people's children read. On a personal level, it is simply none of their business. On a civic level, it's dangerous. It restricts knowledge and learning, it prevents people from learning how to think critically and to form their own opinions. But, of course, that's what the censors want.

Here is a list of the top ten most challenged books of 2008 and the reason they were challenged. Go read one and strike a blow for freedom:
  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
    Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence
  3. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  4. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence
  5. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence
  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group
  7. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
    Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group
  9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  10. Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper
    Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group
And here's a poem by Bertolt Brecht (translation by Eric Bentley) that succinctly sums up an author's point of view:

When the Regime ordered that books with dangerous teachings
Should be publicly burnt and everywhere
Oxen were forced to draw carts full of books
To the funeral pyre, an exiled poet,
One of the best, discovered with fury, when he studied the list
Of the burned, that his books
Had been forgotten. He rushed to his writing table
On wings of anger and wrote a letter to those in power.
Burn me, he wrote with hurrying pen, burn me!
Do not treat me in this fashion. Don't leave me out. Have I not
Always spoken the truth in my books? And now
You treat me like a liar! I order you:
Burn me!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unlawful Occasions

73. Unlawful Occasions, by Henry Cecil (Henry Cecil Leon)

I've been reading Henry Cecil for ages. He was a barrister and judge, and his books are delightfully humorous accounts of activities in the law courts and lawyers' and judges' chambers. Every so often, I come across one of his works that I haven't read before. Unlawful Occasions is one of those.

Brian Culsworth, barrister-at-law, is sought out for advice one day by the tenant above his chambers, one Mrs. Venery. She has had a visit from a man who appears to be a blackmailer. I say "appears" because he is quite clever at avoiding a direct threat, but merely insinuates. At the same time, Culsworth is representing a man who is suing for his share of a win in the pools (lottery to us Yanks!). His client's habit of speaking his mind directly gets him in trouble in court, and Culsworth's efforts to get him out of it may expose him to the tender mercies of the blackmailer.

As with all Cecil's work, there's a twist or two, and the story is told with a dry wit that goes well with a gin and tonic.

Confections of a Closet Master Baker

72. Confections of a Closet Master Baker, by Gesine Bullock-Prado

I begin with a caveat: do not read this book if you are trying to avoid sweets. Though not a cookbook, it has recipes. Luscious-sounding recipes. Recipes for things like "Starry Starry Night" cookies, which are nearly solid chocolate. Rock scones and cream scones. Tarts redolent of plums, pies redolent of apples. You'll want to put the book aside and head to the kitchen!

I'll be honest. I wasn't sure I'd like this book. "Oh, sure," I said to myself. "Another 'I got off the money treadmill and went to live the simple life on the money I made on the aforesaid treadmill' book." Blurbs like "A former Hollywood insider trades the Holywood Hills for Green Acres" don't incline me favorably towards a book. It was the baking part that tempted me.

But the book is better than the blurbs would have you think. Yes, there's a lot about Bullock-Prado's unhappiness in Hollywood, where she headed her sister's production company. But there is far more about the importance of baking in her life, the way it makes her feel to give people macaroons and receive their passionate thanks in return, the way a tart or a pie brings back to her memories of her childhood, of her mother and grandmother and the special times they had together.

As all such books must, it gives us stories of mishaps along the way to success. It didn't hurt that the national media was attracted to the story of "Sandra Bullock's sister opens bakery in Vermont". One would like to think that she'd have had a successful business anyway, though I doubt that the Food Network would have knocked on her door if she were Gesine Nobody's Sister. She is such a success that she has now closed the bakery about which she wrote here, and is concentrating on her online business and helping open a new shop in Texas (weird, that's a long way from Vermont, wonder how that will work?). It's kind of too bad, because it sounded like a great place, very neighborly and warm, the sort of bakery you'd like to have down the street from you.

You can read more about what Gesine is doing now at her blog: Confections of a (Closet) Master Baker: Idle Musings on Baking and a Few Good Recipes from a Nomad Baker.

(My thanks to Shelf Awareness and Broadway Books for the opportunity to review this book.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lamb to the Slaughter and other stories

71. Lamb to the Slaughter and other Stories, by Roald Dahl

The title story in this collection of five is fairly well-known, as it is often anthologized. It's the one about the wife who bashes her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, and then feeds the murder weapon to the police investigating the crime!

"Parson's Pleasure" and "The Bookseller" have similar themes. In each, someone is taking advantage of others' ignorance or weakness to trick them for financial gain, but is in the end hoist by his own petard. "The Butler" also involves trickery and deceit, but here a pretentious nouveau riche is caught by his butler and cook.

But the very best of these stories is Dahl's first published work, based on his wartime experiences. "A Piece of Cake" is a hallucinatory story of a pilot who crash lands in the desert between the Italian and English lines. Extraordinary writing: "I knew that the hotness was unpleasant, but that was all I knew. I disliked it, so I curled my legs up under the seat and waited. I think there was something wrong with the telegraph system between the body and the brain. It did not seem to be working very well. Somehow it was a bit slow in telling the brain all about it and in asking for instructions. But I believe a message eventually got through, saying, 'Down here there is a great hotness. What shall we do? (Signed) Left Leg and Right Leg.' For a long time there was no reply. The brain was figuring it out."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

70. Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

New Orleans. There's no other city like it in the United States. It's southern, it's French, it's Spanish, it's African-American. It's the filé in the gumbo, the lait in the café, the feathers of the Mardi Gras Indians and the improvisation of a jazz ensemble.

And we nearly lost it. We nearly lost it all.

A lot of books have been written about Hurricane Katrina. I've read a bunch of them. This is one of the best, mostly because it's not merely about Katrina. After I came back from the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2006, I wrote in my Live Journal: I picked up a book while I was there, Chris Rose's 1 Dead in Attic, a collection of his articles in the Times-Picayune. And in the eponymous article he writes about some homes in the Eighth Ward, where many of the Mardi Gras Indians live, and where they have "retrieved their tattered and muddy Indian suits and sequins and feathers and they have nailed them to the fronts of their houses." New Orleans has nailed its colors to its houses; it's not going without a fight.

This is Baum's effort to understand and explain, through the lives of nine New Orleanians, just what it is that makes people so devoted to this city, as poor and violent and corrupt as it was, just why they struggled (and still struggle) so hard to return and rebuild. He interviewed these folks (as well as friends, relatives and co-workers) for days, you feel that he knows them as well as he knows himself.

His interviewees are as varied as you'd expect: a high school band leader, a transsexual bar owner, the coroner of Orleans Parish, a single mom from the 'hood determined to have a better life, a millionaire king of carnival, the wife (later widow) of Big Chief Tootie Montana. Their lives are so different, and yet they intersect. Each in his or her own way has tried in their lives to make their city a better place. It hasn't always been easy. Wilbert Rawlins, Jr.'s devotion to his band kids, knowing that for many he's the only father, for some the only parent, that they know, nearly loses him the woman he loves. Billy Grace, Rex, King of Carnival, risks losing status to open up the krewes (those social organizations that drive Mardi Gras). Ronald Lewis fights for equal rights on the job, and starts a second-line club to "bring a little pride back" to the Lower Ninth. Setbacks don't stop them, so why should Katrina?

Rather than tell one person's story and then the next, Baum has told the stories in bits and pieces, chronologically, beginning in 1965, with Hurricane Betsy (described by Lewis as "a force of nature more powerful than his mom") and ending two years after Katrina. This structure gives the book such great force and drive that I finished it at about 1:00 in the morning, unwilling (unable, really) to stop reading. There's an incredible tension in reading the dates under each section, as we move closer and closer to that weekend in 2005.

When jazz great Irvin Mayfield was interviewed by NPR shortly after Katrina, he said "jazz is about taking what you have and making the best of it, and doing it with style". That's what these folks did with their lives, and are still doing to make New Orleans come alive again.

We're home!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Cat that Jumped out of the Story

The Cat that Jumped out of the Story, by Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht, screenwriter, journalist, author of "obscene" novels - who knew he wrote children's books as well? I didn't, until I found this little volume at a used book sale. It's a charming book, about Catarinka, a black cat who came out of the moon, and who has a Great Secret, one which she is afraid other cats would find out. Her friends, the mice Itzel and Bitzel, try to discover it, but she resists. Then comes Mickey Lickey, the Worst Cat in the World, who will turn her into hash if she doesn't tell him! Catarinka, however, outsmarts him, by, well, that would be telling!

The text is accompanied by numerous black-and-white and color illustrations by artist Peggy Bacon that artfully evoke the world of the street cat.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: The present & future blog

The challenge: Tell us and this is really important, in 50 words or less what you love best about your blog! And then in 50 words or less where you want your blog to be by the next BBAW!

I love having a place to write about the books I read, the literary events I go to, and my general musings about all things book-related. But mostly, I love sharing with anyone who cares to read it.

Where do I want to be this time next year? More consistent in posting, with longer and more in-depth reviews. And, I hope, more readers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Meme

I should have done this yesterday, but better late than never!

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?

I do occasionally. It's more likely to be when I'm home in the evening, so the snack will likely be an after-dinner, dessert-type snack - fruit, ice cream, something of that ilk. When it's ice cream, here's what happens when I'm done:

I'm licking the bowl!

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I rarely write in books (probably reminds me too much of college/law school days!). I won't say it "horrifies" me, but I'd rather not.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?Laying the book flat open?
Bookmarks. I have zillions of them! Those cats in the photo above? Sometimes they'll sit on the book and hold my place for me.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
Both. If a book is interesting and well-written, that's enough.

Hard copy or audiobooks?
Printed matter. When I began a long commute, friends said, "get audiobooks". I tried, but found that I could concentrate on the book or the road, not both. For the safety of myself and those around me, I gave up the books!

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?

I can put a book down at any point, but I prefer to stop at a logical stopping point. If I stop in the middle of a chapter, it's not so easy to find the exact place where I stopped, particularly if I'm not coming right back to the book. So as the clock wends its way toward my bedtime, I find myself looking to see how many pages to the end of a chapter - will I stop now, or can I finish before bedtime? Sometimes, of course, the chapter is very long, and I must, however reluctantly, stop before the end.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
That depends on whether or not I'm near a dictionary!

What are you currently reading?
The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, by Carl Smith
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

What is the last book you bought?
I bought three at the 57th Street Children's Book Fair last Sunday, costing a grand total of $5.50 (mostly for the first book, a big hardback)
The Annotated Brothers Grimm (which has an introduction by A.S. Byatt, and lovely illustrations)
As I was Crossing Boston Common, a children's abecedaria/bestiary by Norma Farber
Teach Yourself Dutch, in anticipation of a trip to Amsterdam next spring

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?
See "What are you currently reading?" above! I nearly always have at least two books going, usually more.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?
No. Most of my reading is, of necessity, done in the evening at home, but I always carry a book to court in case there are long breaks, and when I'm on the bus.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
I tend to read "stand alone" books. Although I do read some series books, I find that they pall over time. It's a rare author who can sustain a character over a lengthy series of books. Too often, they degenerate into schtick.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
Hmmm . . . not really. I tend to recommend books I've recently read and enjoyed, or a specific book to a specific person because I think it will suit her. But two that I do like to recommend are Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night and Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
Literature (including lit crit and literary biography) is alpha by the author's last name. Books about an author are shelved with her books. Non-fiction is shelved by subject, and then further subdivided as needed (for instance, performing arts subdivided into theatre, film, opera, etc.) Deciding what goes where can result in tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. Do books on kimono belong with "fashion" or "Japanese culture"? (Fashion) Is Frank Lloyd Wright in Pop-up "architecture" or "pop-ups"? (Pop-ups)

Then there are those piles of books on the floor because I've run out of bookshelf space. Those aren't organized at all. (I keep meaning to get around to it, really!)

Some of my bookcases.