Book pile demolished


Back in September I pulled all of the new(ish) hardcovers I hadn’t read yet off my bookshelves. For the most part they were unknown quantities that were taking up too much of my limited shelf real estate. I decided to see if I could read, or at least try to read, all 26 books in the pile before the end of the year. And now that the end of the year is upon us, it’s time to reveal how I did.

Pretty darn good, as long as you accept that deciding not to continue with a book is as virtuous as finishing a book. The whole experience proved to me yet again that I need to take praise of new books with a grain of salt. Or at least do a better job of filtering the praise through my particular set of likes and dislikes.

It is also interesting to see what I decided to keep and what I decided not to keep. It doesn’t always correlate to what I liked best.

(DNF = did not finish)

In descending photo order:

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn: KIND OF ENJOYED / DONATING
Although I enjoyed it, it was a little too arch to keep around (or read the others in the series).

Hotels of North America by Rick Moody: ENJOYED / KEEPING
A man’s story told through his online hotel reviews. Clever, funny, and I want to read it again some day.

The Last First Day by Carrie Brown: ENJOYED / KEEPING
Comforting in a melancholy way.

Euphoria by Lily King: REALLY ENJOYED / KEEPING
Love me some anthropologically based fiction. (See also many of Barbara Pym’s characters and Satin Island found below.)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift: REALLY ENJOYED / KEEPING
The upstairs/downstairs tale told in a unique, beautiful way.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: KIND OF ENJOYED / KEEPING
I wasn’t a huge fan of this because it wasn’t what I expected, but I am keeping it because now that I know that, I think I would enjoy it more. Plus there just aren’t enough novels about classical music.

Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud: ENJOYED / KEEPING
I’m actually not sure I will read this again, but I am not sure enough to risk chucking it.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd: JUST SHORT OF LOVED / KEEPING (I THINK)
I think Any Human Heart is superior to Sweet Caress so I may not keep it.

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss: REALLY ENJOYED / KEEPING
Gay coming of age in South Africa, those are too rare to not keep.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: HATED & DNF / DONATING
I really love to hate this book, but no enough to keep it on my shelves.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: TEDIOUS & DNF / DONATING
I think everyone has a position on this one. Mine is pretty clear.

The Blue Guitar by John Banville: ENJOYED / KEEPING
Banville’s books are beautifully written and beg to be re-read.

The Girls by Emma Cline: REALLY BORING / DONATING
I liked the set-up of the young girl looking for something in her life. But once she met the other girls I thought it got really boring really fast.

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy: AMBIVALENT & DNF / DONATING
Bad timing. I think I would enjoy reading it under the right circumstances, but not so much so that I want to keep it on my shelves.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: REALLY ENJOYED / KEEPING
I love books that deal with academic endeavors (although this book does not have an academic setting. There is much in this that I would like to read again.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: I KNOW I WILL LOVE IT BUT HAVEN’T STARTED IT YET / KEEPING

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild: REALLY ENJOYED / MIGHT DONATE
I found this clever in a superficial way and really enjoyed reading it, but I think it might do more good being circulated than sitting on my shelves.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond: AMBIVALENT & DNF / DONATING
I think this was a case of just not being in the mood.

And Sons by David Gilbert: ENJOYED / DONATING
I totally enjoyed this, but I don’t think I will read it again.

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: AMBIVALENT & DNF / DONATING
At first I was really into this story, but then it got complicated in a way that didn’t interest me much.

Zero K by Don DeLillo: HATED / DONATING
Holy shit, how can a book this short be so painful and take so long to read?

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: AMBIVALENT & DNF / DONATING
This might be a great book, but I couldn’t get past the fact that all of the action seemed to be predicated on actions taken due to superstition/religion. I am guessing that is part of a commentary, but I find it tedious.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: DIDN’T LIKE & DNF / DONATING
So rubbed me the wrong way in the early pages and I knew it wouldn’t change enough to make it worth my while to continue.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: HATED IT & DNF / DONATING
The snotty review says it all. (Click on title if you missed it the first time around.)

Canada by Richard Ford: REALLY ENJOYED / MIGHT KEEP
I’d never read anything by Richard Ford and may have only purchased it because it was on the remainder rack and one of my best friends in the world is Canadian. I really liked this book on many levels, yet I’m not sure I want to keep it. I don’t think I would re-read it.

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe: DIDN’T LIKE / DONATING
I’ve been a big fan of Wolfe’s past fiction (Bonfire, Right Stuff, Charlotte Simmons, etc., but this one didn’t work for me at all. Didn’t even give it 50 pages before I quit.)

The ghost of goals past


It’s 16 hours (local time) to the end of 2016. I had a goal of reading 104 books this year (equivalent of two per week), and as of five minutes ago, I achieved my goal. I was doubtful earlier in the week as I got quite busy and time seemed to compress. I was four books shy of getting there and I just didn’t see how it was going to happen.

I had some short books lined up to make it happen (although that felt like cheating), but in the end it was a clerical oversight earlier in the year that saved the day. For some reason I forgot to log the fact that I had read Richard Ford’s excellent novel Canada. So at the last minute I went from needing to read two books in 1.5 days to only having to read one.  And thankfully, I chose my 104th book well. A gossipy, classical music memoir/bio was just the thing to occupy me on a 5-hour flight. Perhaps A Genius in the Family by Hilary du Pré and Piers du Pré (on which the movie Hilary and Jackie was based) is more than a gossipy, classical music bio, but it was details about performers, pieces, concerts, recordings and such that made it easy for me to fly through the book. Incidentally, I had a similar experience recently with Marilyn Horne’s memoir which was much more gossipy and a super quick read. Another nice thing about those kinds of books is that they contain an endless stream of ideas for one’s Spotify listening.

I toying around with some reading resolutions for 2017, but I haven’t figured out exactly what those might be. Part of me wants to plan something really crazy and part of me wants to plan nothing. More anon.

Here are my 2016 goals as posted on January 4th.

Get back to 100
I think it has been a couple of years now since I made it to a 100 books in a year. Last year was a respectable 81, but 2014 was a measly 63. I need to up my  game. The only way this is going to be possible is if I read really short books watch less TV. And here it is January 4th and I still haven’t finished a book. I am already behind. But let’s make this more interesting. Instead of 100 books, how about the equivalent of two books a week and make it 104 books for the year? Sounds good, 104 it is. Now I am even further behind. ACHIEVED

Come to terms with platform confusion
I keep track of books I read in at least four ways: 1.) A handwritten list in a notebook that I started keeping in 1994; 2.) An Excel spreadsheet; 3.) Goodreads; and 4.) This blog has tabs for books for recent years and then alpha lists by author. This is going to take some thinking. There are redundancies and things that are annoying and time consuming and there are also new possibilities afforded by my conversion to WordPress. Not sure how this will resolve itself, but I have resolved to resolve it. TOTALLY NOT ACHIEVED – I didn’t even think about this much over 2016, let alone try and do something about it. I’m thinking I might get to doing something about early in 2017 given that I am running out of space at the top of my blog to keep adding tabs for each year.

Limit book purchases to newly published books
I bought a LOT of books last year and most of them used. When Simon Savidge was here in September I vowed that my resolution for 2016 would be to only buy books published in 2015 or later. I still want to do this, but I’ve also resolved that I am going to break this resolution whenever I want. This may seem like no resolution at all, but there is a nuance in it that oddly makes sense to me. Besides, NW DC is getting a new used bookstore and I consider it my civic duty to support that venture. NOT ONLY NOT ACHIEVED, BUT A DUMB IDEA – Given that my success rate with new (and expensive) books was about 50%, there is no way that I am going to do this again. I will have more about this particular failure in the coming days.

Spend some time in my library
I’m not talking about the public library, I’m talking about the beautiful room in my house that was completed over a year ago, is chock full of books, but almost never gets used. In fact, I have really only used it to store books. Lucy often curls up on the chair, but due to less than adequate seating and lighting, I haven’t spent one minute (seriously, not one) in there reading. This means I really only read in bed. How have I gone so long without a reading spot? Must make seating and lighting for that room a priority. GREAT STRIDES WERE MADE – We really need additional/different seating in the library for this to be totally successful, but I did increase use of my library in a meaningful way. Not just for reading, but also just to poke around, and even blogging in the library helped me get joy out of using the room. Hopefully the furniture issue will be sorted out in the first quarter of 2017.

Figuring out the ineffable
There is something else I want to achieve in 2016 relative to reading, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. As I sit here thinking about it, I think it may boil down to feeling like I frittered away far too much time that could have been used for reading. There were many times during the year when I wanted to go read and then an hour or more later I would still be futzing around not doing much of anything. So I think carving out longer spans of time to read it definitely part of it. And I think maybe I just need to shut-up and read. SUCCESS-ADJACENT – I can’t say I was totally successful on this count, but I definitely was better about going off and reading a book. I think part of the reason is that John has discovered the joy of Spotify and will spend hours with his headphones on listening to song after song. Because of this, I feel freed up to turn off the TV and go to another part of the house and read. For some reason, I have a hard time being in another part of the house from John. In my twisted control freak mind I think I feel like I need to program his time.

My new favorite thing


I saw Lapham’s Quarterly a few weeks ago in the check-out lane at Whole Foods and had to have it. I find it absolutely charming and interesting and have decided it is my new favorite thing. Each issue focuses on a specific issue and is filled with shortish bits and bobs from all over.  The journal’s website explains it better than I can.

Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.

The texts are drawn from authors on the order of Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Thucydides, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Edward Gibbon, Mahatma Gandhi, Confucius, Honoré de Balzac, Jane Austen, Jorge Luis Borges, Matsuo Bashō, Henry David Thoreau, and Joan Didion. Abridged rather than paraphrased, none of the text in the Quarterly runs to a length longer than six pages, others no more than six paragraphs. Together with passages from the world’s great literature, each issue offers full-color reproductions of paintings and sculpture by the world’s great artists. The connecting of the then with the now is further augmented with the testimony found in the letters, speeches, diaries, and photographs, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

The website is very cool and has lots of content, but I must say, I love the printed version. The art is cool, it’s beautifully designed, and I love it as an object as much as I love the content.







Christmas Baking Part Two

I got a little cranberry happy on Christmas Day, although you can’t tell from this first picture. Might only be interesting to bakers in the crowd.


Friday night. Made the cranberry curd.




Next day, the cake.



You know how much of this batter I ate? A lot.


Christmas Day, time to assemble the cakes.



Not only did I have to level off the top, I had to cut the two layers in half to make four layers. Usually I am terrible about trying to get even layers so I wasn’t going to take any chances.



img_7876 img_7887 img_7888



Time for the meringue.
These didn’t actually get used in the recipe, but I thought they looked pretty.




Tip: when a recipe says beat the meringue for 15 minutes, don’t think you can stop early because it looks right. By the time dessert rolled around the meringue hadn’t held its shape as well as I would have liked. But it tasted great.
More cranberries.
This time they don’t get cooked, just get chopped with sugar before going into the cake.


I forgot to take a picture when it was at its most dramatic. I ate a lot of this batter as well. I don’t know why I even bother with the oven some times.


It tastes even better than it looks. The pumpkin babka and the panettone, from a bakery, weren’t as good as they look. The kitchen background is at our friends’ farm.


Christmas Baking Part One

December has been so busy work wise I haven’t had much brain capacity for blogging. I have a few ideas I hope to execute before the new year, but in the mean time here is something delicious to look at.

The batter certainly tasted yummy, but frankly I made this cake just because I thought it was picturesque and it reminded me of something Mrs. Bridges might have made or something the Schlegels may have had when Leonard Bast showed up to tea unexpectedly. Or just about any other cosy tea in English fiction you can think of.

And for something even more seasonal, you can head over to Lucy’s Forever Home, and see the house dressed for Christmas (and Lucy).


Using the 9″ parchment round to decide whether I am going to do a random pattern or something more formal. I went for random.



Planning my next step.
I don’t drink coffee, but my photographer does.


Dried currants, sultanas, dried cranberries, chopped dried apricots, orange zest, whole blanched almonds, slivered blanched almonds, eggs.
Recipe called for Cognac, I had to settle for Armagnac
Warming up the Armagnac.
Dried fruit gets added.
Steeps in the warm Armagnac for 30 minutes.




I had the hardest time finding blanched whole almonds. I ended up having to blanch and peel them myself. It was not only easy, but it was fun.





shelf by shelf : from Ross to Sarton

I find this shelf deeply satisfying, but alas, there isn’t much variety so I’m guessing some of you may get a little bored.

Having said that, I will also note that May Sarton is one of the delights of my life. She wrote beautiful journals; warm, introspective novels; essays; and poetry. I think she is one of the most underrated authors. Her book are also pretty easy to find in used bookshops, at least in the U.S. So why haven’t you read her? If you need more convincing, you can read about my love for Sarton here, here, here, and here.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

SHELF TWENTY-TWO: 39 books, 20 unread, 19 read, 49% complete

Ross, Sinclair – The Lamp at Noon and other stories 
Ross, Sinclair – Sawbones Memorial (completed)
Ross, Sinclair – As For Me and My House (completed)
Ross, Sinclair – The Well
I think the only way you would have read Sinclair Ross is if: A) You are Canadian; or B) Someone who already read him told you/inspired you/forced you to read him. And this is a damn shame. You will see I have only read half of my small Ross collection, but I have read As For Me and My House twice and think it is one of the more brilliant books of all time. When I re-read it in 2011 I described it thus: “Imagine On Chesil Beach meets The Grapes of Wrath meets Main Street meets Anita Brookner.” Re-reading my 2011 review makes me want to read the book again soon.

Rowland, Amy – The Transcriptionist (completed)
I just read this novel this past summer and really liked it.

Sackville-West, Edward – Simpson

Sackville-West, Vita – The Easter Party
Sackville-West, Vita – The Edwardians
Sackville-West, Vita – Heritage
Sackville-West, Vita – No Signposts on the Sea (completed)
Sackville-West, Vita – Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir
What is missing here is All Passions Spent. Not only my first VSW novel, but also the first Virago I ever bought. I got it in 1992 from a used bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I guess somewhere along the way I got rid of it. I wish I hadn’t.

St. Aubyn, Edward – At Last (completed)
Since I took this picture, I’ve read At Last and put it on my donate pile. I didn’t dislike it, I just can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again.

Salih, Tayeb – Season of Migration to the North

Sarton, May – Selected Letters, 1916-1954
Sarton, May – Faithful are the Wounds
Sarton, May – A Reckoning
Sarton, May – The Magnificent Spinster (completed)
One of my favorite novels of all time. From my 2011 review: “The Magnificent Spinster is cozy, cozy, cozy, but with feminist, political twists and some somber earnestness that elevates it to something more profound. Parts of it reminded me of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but it also had a Pepysian quality as WWI, the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the McCarthy Communist witch hunts and Vietnam all scroll through proceedings.”

Sarton, May – As We Are Now (completed)(two editions)
Another one of my favorite novels of all time, but for every different reasons. A tale of an elderly woman confined to a nursing home.

Sarton, Mary – Crucial Conversations (completed)
Sarton, May – Joanna and Ulysses
Sarton, May – Halfway to Silence (poetry)
Sarton, May – The Bridge of Years
Sarton, May – The Birth of a Grandfather (completed)
Sarton, May – Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (completed)
Perhaps Sarton’s most (in)famous novel, but perhaps my least favorite.

Sarton, May – Faithful Are the Wounds
Sarton, May – Shadow of a Man
Sarton, May – The House by the Sea (journal)(completed)
Sarton, May – Journal of Solitude (journal)(completed)
Sarton, May – I Knew a Phoenix (journal)
Sarton, May – A Shower of Summer Days (completed)
Sarton, May – Kinds of Love (completed)
Sarton, May – The Small Room (completed)
Sarton, May – The Poet and the Donkey
Sarton, May – Anger
Sarton, May – At Seventy (journal)
Sarton, May – Recovering (journal)
Sarton, May – Plant Dreaming Deep (journal)(completed)
Sarton, May – The Single Hound
Sarton, May – A World of Light (biographical essays)

One novel I can’t believe I don’t own is The Education of Harriet Hatfield. I must have loaned or given it to someone. I hope they are enjoying it because I sure did. I’m going to have to buy the next copy I see.

NEXT TIME: Schine to Shute


A whole lotta of recappin’

euphoria-by-lily-king-coverI was shocked to see on my Books Read 2016 list, how many I have yet to post about. For some reason I thought I was caught up. I wasn’t. But this post will help close the gap.

Euphoria by Lily King
I think I bought this one for the cover but I really enjoyed it. A fascinating look at a young couple who are anthropologists in New Guinea. Great combination of anthropology related drama and personal dynamics.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
A novel about a classical composer I quite like, Dmitri Shostakovich, should have been a slam dunk for me, but it was just so-so. I found the story about the composer trying to stay clear of the vagaries of the ruling Communist party interesting, but overall the book seemed a little emotionless and left me cold.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
A 1971 thriller about a professional assassin who has been hired to kill Charles de Gualle. This book is interesting on a few different levels. I didn’t realize how fragile France’s government was in the 1960s. Nor did I understand much about France’s departure from Algeria. But the aspect of this book that I just loved was the description of all the steps the Jackal took in planning the assassination attempt. Visits to public records offices, trains, passports, cafe tipples, top-secret multinational briefings. I love that kind of stuff. I’m not even sure I would need a plot–although there is plenty of plot here.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
A lovely, beautiful book about a servant and her romance with the heir of a neighboring country estate. Luminous is a word I want to use. It has depth and subtlety that is too often absent from the upstairs/downstairs genre.

mrmacMr Mac and Me by Esther Freud
A young boy becomes friends with the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife during World War I. Freud uses actual correspondence between the couple in a way that isn’t gimmicky. This is a great example of historical fiction that works for me. I never got the feeling that the author was trying to write historical fiction.

The Girls by Emma Cline
So much hullabaloo about such a boring book. I was kind of liking it until Evie hooked up with the cult, then it just got really boring and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
This is an odd, fascinating, enjoyable, little book. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it’s narrated by “U”, a corporate anthropologist who takes us on a wild, somewhat depressing, ride through the many ways in which we create and consume information. It also shows how we are leaving trails of information that allow markets and governments lots of room for manipulation.

And Sons by David Gilbert
The narration seems to be first person omniscient. The story starts off using “I” and goes back to it with some regularity, but we know what everyone else is up to and what they are thinking. In some cases you can see how the narrator was a fly on the wall, but there are other times when there is no way he could have been a fly on the wall. The action focuses on a reclusive, national treasure type author and his family and social circle. Enjoyable for sure.

Hotels of North America by Rick Moodyhotels
This book is essentially one man’s story as told through his online hotel reviews. I wasn’t sure if this would work for me, but I found it witty and biting (in a good way) and more than a little quirky. I can imagine re-reading this one.

Books and You by W. Somerset Maugham
A collection of three essays about what to read. Fun in the way those kinds of essays are always fun, but not much in the way of surprising choices, or even authors who were new to me.

The Last First Day by Carrie Brown
A woman reflects on her life as the wife of a headmaster of a boys school in Maine as they experience their last first day of school. Interesting, engaging, a little sad. Nicely done.

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn
The fact that this is the last in a series almost kept me from reading it. There were moments I loved the cast of characters, but overall I found it a little too arch to like all that much. I think I could enjoy St. Aubyn in the future, but this wasn’t compelling enough to get me to try.