Yes, but what will I read on vacation?

Fourteen hours from DC to Tokyo. Seven hours from Tokyo to Bangkok. Sixteen days or so in Asia, including seven on a beach, then another 21 hours to get home. Not to mention all the time in airports.

I need some books to read.

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace – Since meaty books like The Mill on the Floss and Portrait of a Lady worked well for me traveling this summer I thought, what could be meatier than finishinng the final 1,256 pages of War and Peace (I’m only a hundred pages in)?
Beryl Bainbridge: A Weekend with Claude – Close readers of my porch will know that I took this one to France this summer and didn’t read it.
Colette: Cheri and the Last of Cheri – This is another one I took to France this summer and didn’t read. I liked Colette’s The Ripening Seed. I hope I like this one. I recently saw the flim Cheri with Michelle Pfeiffer and I hated it.
Marge Piercy: Gone to Soldiers – I like Piercy a lot and the one I took with me this summer was about the same time and provided many enjoyable hours reading while John was in bed with a rumbly tummy.
William Haggard: The Arena – I generally don’t read crime fiction, but finding this green covered Penguin tempted me.
Kate Chopin: The Awakening – A classic just waiting to be read.
I tabbed the reference materials so I could keep track of what is going on.
I know my audience, you need to see covers. With the exception of Tolstoy and the green Penguin and possibly the Chopin, the rest will stay in Asia as I finsh them.

Book Sorting Sunday

After my most recent purchases, the structural soundness of the books stacked in front of the bookshelves was in serious jeopardy. After much sorting I ended up getting rid of only about 12 books. So the end result wasn’t so much a reductionn in the stacks, but merely neater, sturdier stacks. I really can’t buy any more books until we find a house. We just don’t have the room anymore.

Since we are off to Phoenix this weekend to visit my parents and my sister and her family I probably won’t have time to blog. So knowing that many of you share my interest in gazing at piles of books, I thought I would leave you with a whole gallery. Sorry you can’t see many of the titles.


I stayed up until 2:00 AM reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Woke up this morning at about 8:30, and grabbed it off of my nightstand as soon as I could see clearly enough to read. Didn’t put it down until I finished. As I if I needed more proof of Atwood’s genius. What an amazing book. I will review it sometime this week hopefully.

Trying not to finish an author’s back catalog too quickly

The reading room
Jayne Dyer, 2007

My recent read of another novel by Nevil Shute got me thinking about authors whose novels I like so much I worry about running out of their work. For those that have passed on already the dilemma is already clearly delineated. For those authors still among the living, there are wishes for a long, long life and speedy, speedy writing.

This is slightly different than favorite authors. For instance I love Hermann Hesse, but I doubt I will ever read The Glass Bead Game. I will, however, read every work of fiction by these authors (if I haven’t already):

Margaret Atwood
Elizabeth Bowen
Anita Brookner

Willa Cather

Margaret Drabble
Timothy Findley
EM Forster
Ward Just
Sinclair Lewis
Penelope Lively
W. Somerset Maugham
Ian McEwan
Cheryl Mendelson
Iris Murdoch
Anne Patchett
Barbara Pym
Muriel Spark
Carol Shields
Nevil Shute
Anthony Trollope (I don’t think I will live that long.)
Edith Wharton

I am sure I have forgotten some.

Thank god some of these authors wrote (or are still writing) a lot. I have sadly finished Forster and Shields and neither are around to write more. And there are others like Brookner and Atwood who I have almost caught up to their output. And then others whose work I am rationing so as not to finish too quickly.

Who are yours?

Book Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Julia Strachey

(Aside: Don’t you love this portrait of Julia Strachey by fellow Bloomsbury-ite Dora Carrington? And the cover painting “Girl Reading” by Harold Knight shown below is also pretty darn fabulous.)

It is a good thing I included this title in my November Novella Challenge, because I have been having a hard time deciding which of my fabulous first twelve Persephones I should read first. One would think diving into that stack wouldn’t really be an issue, but the existential angst over which to read first was killing me. Then again, who am I kidding, now I just have existential angst over which to read second.

I liked Cheerful Weather for the Wedding less than Simon at Stuck In A Book, but I liked it more than Nicola at Vintage Reads. And I felt a bit like Bride of the Book God when she writes:

The word that kept on springing to mind as I read this was brittle; not a criticism as such, but the story struck me as being one of those bright and witty pieces produced by many in the twenties and thirties, some of which were much more successful than others.

Frankly, in my mind the bride probably looked about as happy on her wedding day as dear old Julia Strachey does in her portrait.

This novella is only 118 pages but it took me until about page 60 before I started to really feel the rhythm of the book and get over my urge to quit reading it. I know that makes it sound pretty dire, and it isn’t as bad as that by any means. I actually think I would enjoy the first 60 pages much more now that I have finished the whole thing. It is kind of like the brilliant TV series Extras with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I only truly appreciated the first season after I finished the second season and the finale show. I agree with Simon that the humor in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is funny and charming—especially the green socks thread (no pun intended). I think I was just worried that I hadn’t really caught on to an actual story by page 60. But then after page 60 when one finally starts to feel like something is happening, it all starts to fall in place and feel right.

I think it is also the kind of book that would benefit from a real face-to-face book club discussion. A little back and forth banter with others who had read it would help put it into perspective for me. It was worth reading, but perhaps an inauspicious place to start my Persephone experience.

UPDATE: Apparently I was channeling Paperback Reader’s May review of this book when I compared Simon’s review to Nicola’s.

November Novella Challenge: 3 down, 1 to go.

Book Review: Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Pied Piper
Nevil Shute

For those of you who have never read a book by Nevil Shute, now is the time. No special anniversary that I know of, it’s just that you are missing out on a really great storyteller. I attach some qualifications to this recommendation, but nothing that even comes close to diminishing my enthusiasm for his work. Some of Shute’s novels use some appallingly dated racist language, but I chalk that up to the era in which they were written, and I have my fingers crossed that the man himself wasn’t actually racist. There is also a certain corniness to some of Shute’s dialog. It sometimes sounds like it comes straight from one of those fast talking, black and white films from the 1940s. And his novels tend to be the kind where if every line doesn’t move the plot forward, your foreshadowing alarm should go off. Although there is usually a romance of some kind that is part of the mix, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that his books are shot full of testosterone-laden adventures. But interesting and suspenseful enough to enthrall even someone like me who likes a lot of “old lady” books.

Pied Piper is the story of John Howard, a retired Englishman who is on holiday in France at the outbreak of World War II. Reluctantly agreeing to take two small English children back to England with him, Howard ends up finding it increasingly difficult to make his way home with the Nazis rolling into France with much more speed than anyone anticipated. During the journey home Howard comes across five more children that need his help escaping France. Since the story unfurls as a flashback, I won’t be giving anything away by mentioning that Howard makes it back to safety. I won’t say whether or not his young charges were as lucky–but have you ever seen a movie with a child character whose stupidity ends up getting folks in trouble? ‘Nuff said about that. The fact that book was published in 1942, long before the end of the war, gives one a different perspective on the tale as well. With the war not yet won, personal heroism (and more than a tinge of Commonwealthism/nationalism) have to take the place of a larger WWII victory narrative.

There is always enough non-fiction in a Shute novel that most of them have me racing to the Internet or some reference material to investigate further some aspect of the story. Pied Piper is no exception. As I made my way through this page turner, I pulled out my big map of France to follow Howard’s progress, which made the story all the more exciting.

Shute was born in England in 1899, worked as an aeronautical engineer, and, upset over the direction England was headed, emigrated to Australia with his family in 1950 and died in 1960. Although I have enjoyed other Nevil Shute novels, it was the recent reissue of four of his books in these great Vintage Classics’ covers (available in the UK) that made me pick up Pied Piper. Vintage has other Shute titles available without the cool covers, but I think many of his 23 novels are out of print. But they can be fun quarry while book hunting at garage sales, charity shops, and secondhand bookstores.

Other Shute books I have read include:

On the Beach (1957)
This was the first Shute I ever read. I was in high school and sobbed like a baby for the last 30 pages. I could barely read it through the tears. Atomic war has wreaked havoc on the northern hemisphere. Shute chronicles life in Melbourne as they wait for the radioactive fallout to reach them. Also made into a good movie with the young (and very handsome) Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame.

Times Square at Night, c. 1955* by Bedrich Grunzweig
(*I love the image on this postcard and the fact that On the Beach is on the marquee makes it even more special to me. But I just realized that the estimated date of the photograph on the card is wrong. On the Beach was published in 1957, and the film came out in 1959, so it couldn’t date from ’55.)

In the Wet (1953)
This is probably my favorite Shute because of the subject matter. Another “flashback” novel (this time to 1980!), it tells the story of a biracial Australian airman who finds himself in very interesting circumstances. As England trends towards socialism the royal family face the possibility of exile. But the Commonwealth comes to the rescue! The Australians and Canadians agree to build and operate a two-craft fleet of super cool De Havilland jets, for the sole use of the royals. The fleet is soon put into use to shuttle the Queen and her consort to various Commonwealth countries around the world as they escape from England until things settle down a bit. I loved this book because of the hardware component (I am a sucker for airplanes) but also for its Royal fantasy element—in the same way I liked Alan Bennett’s alternate universe in The Uncommon Reader.

Ordeal (1938 – or What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK):
Also hugely enjoyable. How one family survives when Southampton is bombed and sickness and disease are causing all kinds of shortages and quarantines. The Corbetts live on their little sailboat, skirting the coast of England trying to stay outside the quarantined areas and survive.

A Town Like Alice (1950):
Aside from Pied Piper, this was the most recent Shute I have read. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of my favorites even though it is one of Shute’s most popular. A couple meets while prisoners of the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II. They meet later in Australia where the heroine is determined to create a successful community in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Pastoral (1944):
I enjoyed this one but I don’t remember too much about it. Life and love in and around an aerodrome in southern England during World War II.

Nancy Pearl, in More Book Lust (a follow-up to the much more fantastic Book Lust) says that Nevil Shute is “too good to miss”. And she is right.

Homage to the Women Unbound Challenge

I won’t be participating (at least not officially) in the Women Unbound Challenge being hosted by Aarti at BookLust, Care at Care’s Online Bookclub and Eva at A Striped Armchair. I am trying to limit any book challenge participation in the next year to books that I already own. I have lots of books by and about women, but I didn’t feel like I had the right ones to really do the challenge justice. Over the years I have read a fair amount of what would be considered women’s studies texts, both fiction and non-fiction, that range from profound and enlightening to unsophisticated and solipsistic. And although, my TBR pile is full of books by and about women, just finding eight books that only sort of fit the bill just didn’t seem right to me.

From about the age of 13 all the way through my undergraduate days, my friends were almost exclusively female—a direct result of not being like the other boys. I was always a little ashamed and embarrassed that all my friends were girls. It wasn’t until I started college that I realized how ridiculous and wrong it was to be ashamed of my fabulous female friends. This was the end of the oppressively retrograde Reagan 80s and the women in my social sphere were decidedly feminist and had a huge influence on my personal and academic world view. (I remember plowing through The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood and feeling more than a little affinity with the protagonist.) In the years since then I have never really lost that sensibility and it has definitely influenced my reading.

As I looked through my TBR pile, I was hoping to find eight appropriate books so I could achieve the “suffragette” level in the challenge. (The word suffragette always makes me think of my trip to the Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, NY where Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.) I found many books that would probably work for the challenge, but not having read them there was no way of knowing for sure. I was worried that many of them might fall into the category of being by a woman, but not being terribly relevant, or even antithetical, to the spirit of the challenge. Plus, in my mind Women’s Studies taken as a whole should be inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. And I gotta admit, my TBR pile right now is pretty darn white.

So instead of being an official participant in the Women Unbound Challenge I pulled together a list of four literary pairs that may or may not turn out to be appropriate for the challenge. Each of the four pairs is based on a biographical work of a female author, each of whom, I think blazed some trails for women writers. And then I paired each bio with a work of fiction by the same author. In most cases the works of fiction aren’t necessarily the best representations of the author’s feminist proclivities. And in the case of Barbara Pym, her feminist proclivities are still up for debate. But, hey, it’s what I have in my TBR. In any case, here are my four literary pairings:

Willa Cather (pictured)
Non-Fiction: Willa Cather, The Emerging Voice by Sharon O’Brien
Fiction: Collected Stories

Fanny Trollope
Non-Fiction: The Life, Manners, And Travels of Fanny Trollope by Johanna Johnston
Fiction: Widow Barnaby

Edith Wharton
Non-Fiction: A Backward Glance (autobiography)
Fiction: The Glimpse of the Moon

Barbara Pym
Non-Fiction: A Lot to Ask, A Life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Holt
Fiction: Excellent Women

So what do you think? Is this a worthy list for shadowing the Women Unbound Challenge?

Book Review: Old Books in the Old World

Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad
Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine B. Stern

Imagine transatlantic crossings on the Holland America Line, spending a month and half each summer digging through antiquarian books in the capitals and countryside of Europe, buying hundreds of old books to ship back to the United States to resell for a profit. My own interests in books do not run to the antiquarian side of things, but given the chance I would gladly immerse myself in such excursions. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were business partners, friends, and companions for 60 years. Beginning in 1942 the pair became partners in their rare book firm in New York and spent a chunk of their summers traveling to Europe to buy stock. Both were Columbia University educated literary scholars, and considered themselves literary sleuths. In addition to writing five books on the antiquarian book trade, their achievements include a major discovery about Louisa May Alcott. The following passage is taken from a wonderful tribute to Stern at

Miss Stern was enormously proud of the fact that she and her dear friend, business partner, and companion “literary sleuth,” Leona Rostenberg, helped bring to light Louisa May Alcott’s unknown tales of intrigue, murder, adultery, suicide — and as Miss Stern put it, “thuggism, feminism, hashish, and transvestitism” to boot.

“One of our greatest thrills,” Miss Stern wrote in 1997, “was our discovery of the double literary life of America’s best-loved writer of juvenile fiction. The revelation that the author of Little Women was also the author of clandestine sensational shockers was our blood-and-thunder story.”

The reminiscences in Old Books in the Old World are taken from Rostenberg and Stern’s diary entries from their book buying trips to Europe between 1947 to 1957. After most entries the authors include retrospective epilogues that provide perspective on their experiences as well as dishing the details on where some of their book finds ended up and how much they sold them for.

I love books of all kinds. But the world of antiquarian books is one that I doubt I will ever enter so I don’t know much about it. Old Books in the Old World gives a wonderful glimpse of what goes on in that world. These are seriously old books on seriously old topics. Sixteenth and Seventeenth century manuscripts, books, pamphlets and other ephemera on politics, science, history, geography, religion, philosophy and other topics written in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, and other languages. Rostenberg and Stern knew what they were doing but often bought things on a hunch, not really knowing what they had in their hands until they get it back to the U.S. to study it and figure out where it fit into the antiquarian universe.

Until I read Old Books in the Old World I never really wondered where universities and libraries got their rare book collections. Not the ancient universities of Europe, those probably grew organically over hundreds of years, but some of the more “recent” universities in the New World like Yale, Columbia, and Cornell. And institutions like the Newberry, Folger, and Library of Congress. And in some cases, books that they bought and overseas and shipped back to New York were eventually sent back across the Atlantic where they found homes at places like the British Museum and the University of Basel.

Besides the tales of treasure hunting for good deals and great books (which of us aren’t drawn to that?), Rostenberg and Stern also give a fantastic firsthand account of post-war Europe. Traveling through England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Austria they provide many details of everyday life that are so often missing from World War II histories. I knew about rationing and food shortages in Britain following the war but didn’t realize that a piece of bread could be considered one of the courses in a three course meal at even the nicer restaurants in London. Or another instance where Rostenberg refuses to sit at a table of Germans at an antiquarian conference in Austria. It is hard to imagine what those relationships would have been like so soon after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Throughout their travels between 1947 and 1957 the duo also heard firsthand accounts of how some of their bookseller friends, Jewish and otherwise managed to survive the war. And with each bookbuying trip they see improvements as England and Europe eventually return to normalcy. They also see the prices of books rise as antiquarian treasures become harder and harder to find.

Old Books in the Old World would be great for anyone with even a passing interest in the antiquarian book trade or for someone interested in a little post-war social history or gossipy European travelogue.

November Novella Challenge

I have been meaning to write this post for several days now. And since I am already halfway through my challenge list, I figure it is now or never.

Bibliofreak is hosting a reading challenge this month based on novellas that looked pretty interesting. Too often I get interested in challenges but then don’t want to follow through on them once I have made my list. However, I knew I could complete this challenge just by taking things from my TBR pile. I tried to keep them under 150 pages (some sources say 120 pages is the top end of the novella range) and was only able to come up with four titles. So I guess that means I will only make it to Level II. If I come across others I won’t hesitate to shoot for Level III (eight novellas) before the end of the month, but I doubt that I find four more lurking somewhere in my collection.

So here are my four:

The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Book Review: All is Vanity

All is Vanity
Christina Schwarz

Ah, the struggling writer trying to get published. All is Vanity is one of those books. I actually tend to enjoy this kind of storyline, but wonder to myself while I am reading them whether or not the author will ever be able to write about characters who do something other than try to be writers. I think about Ann Patchett or Margaret Atwood or any other writer who really knows how to create fictional worlds that are more than just embellished autobiography.

Perhaps I am so aware of this kind of writing because it is probably all I would ever be capable of. When I attempted to write fiction it was all very autobiographical. I figured if I made the main character something other than a writer I could get away with it without ever having to admit borrowing heavily from my own life. A popular method for lazy or unimaginative writers. Another parallel between All is Vanity and my own feeble attempts at writing a novel is the fact that Schwarz’s main character is a thirtysomething writer who decides to skip over taking classes, or starting with short stories, or any other activity that might actually help her become a writer. Like I did, she also thinks that it is just a matter of applying yourself. Sit down and write. It will come. Margaret’s delusional goals, however, are different from mine in that she thinks she is going to actually write a great novel with all kinds of layered meaning and profound imagery. I never thought I would even try to do that.

But enough about me. I enjoyed All is Vanity but there is much that annoyed me as well. The basic plotline is that Margaret ends up using long emails from her best friend Letty as the basis for the novel she is writing. She takes whole scenes from her Letty’s life and writes them up as fiction without telling her. What’s worse is that she actually encourages Letty’s profligate behavior in real life to make the “fictional” Lexie more interesting. You can see where this one is going from about a mile away. You know at some point, that Letty is going to find out, blah, blah, blah. Kind of writes itself from that point on. All is Vanity also included lots (and lots) of epistolary material (email) that include a fair amount “quoted” dialogue. Regular readers will know that this is one of my pet peeves. People just don’t write emails that way.

Schwarz does do an amazing job showing through Letty how so many Americans have gotten themselves into such deep financial sh*t. The interesting thing is that Schwarz wrote about it about five years before the housing market meltdown made it impossible for folks to ignore their mountains of debt.

But finally, to show you just what a class act Schwarz is (although it might be her publisher’s fault) I am going to quote, in full, the author blurb inside the back cover of the book:

Christina Schwarz is the author of Drowning Ruth, a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and optioned by Wes Craven for Miramax.She lives in New Hampshire.

Wow, where to start with that illuminating biographical sketch? Let me try, this could be translated to:

I sell lots of books, no really, I sell a mother lode of books, the numbers would make you blush, and by the way it might be made into a movie so I will eventually sell even more books. Oh, and I live in New Hampsire (big house, lots of land).

All really is vanity.