Book Review: The Photograph

The Photograph
Penelope Lively

This review might be a little on the short side. As much as I like Lively, I am a little ambivalent about The Photograph. Not to say I didn’t like it. I just expected more. The plot is pretty clever and can be summed up fairly easily. Glyn finds a picture of his deceased wife Kath that suggests that she had an affair with her sister Elaine’s husband Nick. Glyn confronts Elaine, Elaine confronts Nick, etc. Not wanting to give away any of the twists and turns I think I will leave it at that.

The Photograph is an enjoyable, easy read. The characters are believable and have interesting jobs that provide interesting context (landscape designer, publisher, historian), but the twists and turns of the relationships themselves—while understandably fascinating to others—was not all that interesting to me. And if I went into great detail about the book (and included some spoilers) I could detail the ways in which I don’t think some of the events and characters portrayed ring true. And there are even a few things that happen that explain why this book carry’s the “Today’s Book Club” seal. (For those that don’t know or remember this was the Today Show’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of Oprah’s book club. And we aren’t talking about Oprah’s better choices either…plus it was on morning TV with Katie Couric. In other words this is not a badge of honor.)

If you are only going to give Penelope Lively’s fiction one shot, read Consequences instead. Far more interesting and compelling. If you plan to read everything she as written because she is a wonderful writer (which she is), or you are looking for something to read on a plane, The Photograph is still worth the time.

Book Bloggers, show me what you’re made of…

Yesterday I found myself at Books for America, my favorite charity bookshop, perhaps even my favorite secondhand bookshop. As I was quickly but methodically digging through the recent arrival bins, I came across this book and the cover image leapt out at me. Unfortunately there is some serious fading near (and on) the spine.

Let’s see how long it takes for one of you to tell me where else I have seen this image recently.

Some of you might be thinking, “how would I know what Thomas has been looking at lately?” But, this isn’t a test of how well you know Thomas, and it isn’t a test of how well you know my blog. And there really aren’t any clues on MyPorch–well only the slightest, but it would only make sense after you know the answer, so I don’t recommend looking for a clue here–of course I do recommend going through the MyPorch archives, but I don’t want to mislead anyone.

I think for some of you this won’t be a challenge at all. And even if someone has already answered correctly let me know how long it took you to figure it out, or whether it stumped you. If no one has figured it out by Monday, I will add another clue. And eventually I will show you the back cover where the image continues. That might be the next clue anyway.

Book (cover) Review: Persuasion

Jane Austen

With so much written about her over the years, how does one “review” Jane Austen. One doesn’t. At least this one doesn’t. Although I find reading Jane Austen enjoyable, and I completely understand the literary and sociological merit of her work, I tend to like the Jane Austen films better than the books. (Please, no hate mail.)

So you will get no substance out me on Persuasion. It is actually one of my favorite JA flicks. But the one from 1995. I am not so sure how I feel about the version from 2007, I seem to remember the plot of it was skewed differntly than the ’95 version. Now that I have read the text, I want to see both of them side by side and make my determination not only about which one I like, but which one is closer to the text. I have them queued up on Netflix, so I should be able to blog about that in the near future.

What I really want to talk about is the cover of the edition I read. I picked it up at that English bookstore I went to in Den Haag. As far as I know, we don’t have these Penguin Popular Classics editions in the US. I was totally drawn to their simple, GREEN covers. But when I tried to photograph it, it came out very bright greeny yellow. I thought it was something to do with my camera skills. So this morning I tried to scan the cover and the same thing happened to the color. So I headed off to the Interwebs to see if I could find a good representation of the color of the cover. And I did, BUT, I also came across many, many, many other pictures that suffer from the same yellowing problem that I had.

It is like vampires not showing up in mirrors. Have the scientists in the Penguin laboratory discovered a way to make their covers not appear correctly in photos? Also, I love the fact that they are using recycled pulp, but it doesn’t make the tactile experience very pleasant.  UPDATE: I just noticed that even The Book Depository wasn’t able to get images with the proper color covers.

See if you can guess which of these images is mine.

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier
Rebecca West

At 185 pages, and with a really big font and really big margins, this one definitely falls into the novella category. But what a crackerjack little novella it is. Written in 1918, the essence of the plot is about Captain Chris Baldry, a WWI soldier who returns to England with post-traumatic stress disorder that leaves him with amnesia. He remembers Margaret, a love interest from 15 years previously, but doesn’t remember Kitty, his wife of 10 years. The fact that Margaret is of a lower class than his own, and perhaps more importantly, than his wife’s, is an added twist that really seems to drive the Kitty mad.

I think some of the class material is a little heavy handed and even some of the plotting is a little clumsy at times, but I really enjoyed this book. It was one that I found myself reading while walking down the street and riding in elevators because I didn’t want to put it down when I arrived at work. Which is a bit of a shame in some ways. There are moments in the book that compel one to want to read on, but much of the book is also rather atmospheric and would have benefited from more relaxed and sustained reading sessions. The final chapter makes for a pretty fabulous, but not necessarily happy, ending.

Victoria Glendinning’s introduction written in 1980 is rather un-illuminating. John thought it sounded like an uninspired term paper. Are introductions even necessary to most books? In some cases they helpfully explain context that enhances the main event (i.e., the narrative itself). But in many cases they seem rather gratuitous. A way to throw a few dollars, or in this case pounds, to a writer or academic. Not that I am opposed to that, but at least make them good. And more importantly, if an introduction or preface doesn’t help put things in context then make it an afterword instead. Don’t tell me what to think about a book before I read it. Tell me what I thought of it after I have read it (he said, tongue firmly in cheek). What do you think? Are introductions a gratuitous waste of trees?

Book Review: Home to Roost at 37,000 Feet

Home to Roost
Deborah Devonshire

Last week while we were enjoying ourselves discovering The Hague, I stumbled across an English language bookshop. But it wasn’t merely an English language bookshop, it was really an English bookshop full stop. I didn’t see any American editions of anything. Everywhere I turned there were editions of books I have only seen on British based book blogs–books that are for the most part unavailable in the United States. When I saw the bright blue Bloomsbury Group edition of Miss Hargreaves I couldn’t say no. The same was true for the lavender Bloomsbury Group edition of The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Although I have heard much about both of these books on various blogs, perhaps most notably on Stuck in a Book, I had made no attempt to order either of them. But seeing them sitting on a table right in front of me I couldn’t resist. And right next to these two little beauties was Deborah Devonshire’s Home to Roost. And it turned out to be perfect reading for the plane ride back to DC. I read it cover to cover somewhere over the Atlantic.

Deborah Devonshire, born one of the six (in)famous Mitford sisters, otherwise known as the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has intrigued me since the earliest days of my Anglophilia. I remember reading years ago the story of how she and her husband, the 11th Duke, had to get really smart and creative to save their magnificent house Chatsworth from ending up on the auction block to pay off huge death duties. Most things that I have read about her over the years had kind of a behind the scenes quality that I love. When I visit a stately house like Chatsworth I am less interested in the grand history, art, and decoration than I am in the behind the scenes workings of such a large estate. Call it the Upstairs, Downstairs Syndrome. So it was with that in mind that I picked up Home to Roost. I wasn’t expecting gossip mind you, but a peek behind the official curtain was what I hoped for. There was a bit of that but surprisingly the parts of the book that I found most interesting weren’t about the house at all. They were the chapters about Devonshire’s relationship with the Kennedys and her eye witness account of the inauguration of President Kennedy as well as his funeral two years later. I suppose it was behind the scenes after all, but more about where I live (Washington, DC) than about Chatsworth. Similarly her memories of the “Treasure Houses of Britain” exhibition at the National Gallery here in Washington was pretty interesting. I have a vague recollection of this exhibit despite the fact that I was in high school in Minnesota at the time. Reading Devonshire’s account of it I am really disappointed I didn’t get to see it.

Overall I enjoyed reading the book but I found parts of it slightly annoying as well. Some of the chapters seem to be nothing but a list of words that once upon a time meant one thing and now mean something else. There is nothing interesting, enlightening, or even new about this kind of comparison. If I had remembered Simon’s review at Stuck in a Book, I would have known that he had similar feelings. In fact, he does such a good job identifying what doesn’t work about the book that I am going to let him have the final words:

Too often the articles are simply catalogues of complaints, snarking at anti-hunting people, townfolk, American vocabulary, the government – anything any grumpy old lady might moan about. I’m sorry to sound a bit cruel, but there is no fury like a booklover scorned. Some of the essays had the sparks of humour I’d hoped for – when she is writing about tiaras, for example, and book signing. And none of the collection is unreadable – it’s just the tone is consistently grumpy and demonstrating an inability to see the world from anyone else’s perspective.

Bookmark Giveaway

I picked up some very cool magnetic bookmarks when I was at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp which I blogged about below. I have all I need for my own use so I have 6 to give away. They are about half the length of a regular book mark, but they fold over the top of the page and adhere through the page with magnets.

Three will be given to first time commenters. Three will be given to repeat commenters. Just let me know in the comments if you are interested and whether or not you are a first time commenter (just in case I don’t remember everyone). Comments must be made by Monday, October 19, 2009.

n.b.: My photography skills are lacking. We have a very good camera so I can’t blame it, but that Jane Austen edition is actually a bright green–not yellow.

The Art and Business of Making Books

During our short stay in Antwerp we had a few hours to go to a museum before heading off to catch our train for The Hague. I was tempted to go to one of the art museums in town when I noticed in my guidebook a blurb for the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

Christopher Plantin (c. 1520-1589) was a French bookbinder who in 1546 came to Antwerp to set up his own printing workshop. It became one of the most influential publishing houses in Europe during the late Renaissance, producing Bibles, maps, scientific books and much else. The museum consists essentially of the printing workshop and home of Plantin and his heirs. It contains a large collecdtion of rare and precious books, and displays of their illustrations. The processes of hot-metal type setting and letterpress printing are also explained. Plantin gave his name to a typeface still widely used today.

I am so glad I stumbled across this paragraph and John agreed it sounded like a good idea to spend our last few hours there. Everything about it was interesting. The story of a family of book makers who were in business for over 300 years. The story of bookmaking during those same 300 years with a great audio guide explaining the whole process from typesetting to proofreading, to printing, to sales and distribution. It also showed how the hosue and workshop evolved over time. And of course there was an amazing collection of manuscripts and books on display aas well as big beautiful library rooms that would make any book lover a little weak in the knees. John took all the pictures shown here but  a Google image search comes up with some pretty great pictures.

It is not surprising that the house museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This one is not to be missed if you are in Antwerp, or even Belgium, it is a reason to put Antwerp on your itinerary.

More travel pictures soon. How about another stack of books…

You may recall, before we took off out of town I went book browsing/shopping with my friend Benjy who was visiting from Atlanta. I got quite a cheap haul of books from Books for America, a charity shop here in DC before lunch that day.  After lunch we went out to deepest suburban Maryland to the Daedalus Warehouse Store. I have blogged about Daedalus before. They are probably the biggest wholesaler and online retailer of remainder books in the English speaking world. If you have ever shopped a bargain table at a bookstore, you have probably touched a book that has been distributed by Daedalus.

So this is the haul I made that afternoon. You can see there are lots of great things here. There is a book buying moratorium coming up, but not yet…

Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope
I love Anthony Trollope. We will see what I think of his dear old mother Frances.

The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox
I was lying if I didn’t admit that I was drawn to this by its fabulous Penguin cover. But I also bought it because my knowledge of the Classical world is woefully inadequate despite my undergraduate degree in history.

My Own Cape Cod by Gladys Taber
I had never heard of Gladys Taber until I came across her name on Nan’s fabulous blog, Letters from a Hill Farm. And since I yearn to move north and love the northeast, this book of Taber’s reflections of the Cape seems right up my alley.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman
Lipman writes great, easy-to-read novels that border on chick-lit, but smart chick-lit. I have also read The Inn on Lake Devine and Ladies Man.

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse
I read a lot of Hesse in high school, Narcissus and Goldmund was a particular favorite, but I am not sure if I ever read this title.

Letters from London by Julian Barnes
Even before I read (and liked) Arthur and George by Barnes I thought his essays on London seemed like something that would appeal to me.

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
Bennett has written many things that I love, including one of my favorite books of all time The Uncommon Reader. Bennett has a way of making everything sound interesting to me. So this memoir with diary excerpts and essays should be quite enjoyable.

Turn Magic Wheel
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
Don’t know anything about Powell so these two were a roll of the dice.

The Little Girls
Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen
I have really liked other books by Bowen.

Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad by Rostenberg and Stern
This one speaks for itself.

Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan
I love Walt Whitman’s work, my paperback of Leaves of Grass is quite tattered from use, but I don’t really know much about his life.

Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson
I have an academic bio of Murdoch that I haven’t really been able to get through. It is a little dry. I was thinking this might be a more interesting read about one of my favorite authors.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley
This one kind of speaks for itself as well.

Have you read any of these, or do you have them in your TBR pile?

A note on book (over)buying.
I have really been pigging out lately when it comes to books. In addition to this haul and the one from Books for America, I found an English bookshop in The Hague where I picked up a few titles which I will blog about soon. I went to the Book Depository website and ordered a bunch of books that I have been coveting for some time now. And finally, I placed an order with Persephone Books which I really can’t wait to get.  After all of that and my already huge TBR pile, I will not be buying books for some time now. I want to say I am on a book buying moratorium for the next year, but that might be setting myself up for failure. But I do need to stop for a while. I will keep you posted.

Back in the USA

I am glad to be back home. On October 2nd, less than four weeks after our return from our 16-day jaunt across France and Switzerland, we set off for Belgium and the Netherlands for my friend Ron’s 40th birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. I feel truly lucky to be able to travel as much as I do. But it is nice to be home for a long stretch.

I have many blog ideas rolling through my head at the moment, hitting all the points on the MyPorch compass (travel, food, books, pet peeves), as well as some of the great things we saw on Dutch TV (Just wait until I introduce you to Click Clack Ralf!).

So for now, take a look at this picture of me with some Belgian guy in Bruges.