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?