Challenge completed?

When I chose my goal for the Goodreads reading challenge for 2018 I thought for sure that 120 books would more than cover the 100 books I need to read for the A Century of Books challenge. I appear to have been wrong.

Just today I finished up numbers 119 and 120 for the year, thus completing the Goodreads challenge. But I still have six books to read in 15 days in order to complete the ACOB challenge.

With the exception of the Calvino I’m expecting that these should go pretty quickly. In fact, I chose three of them (Toibin, Mawer, and Piercy) for that very reason. I had more challenging books available for those years but as December rolled around I thought I had better get serious about knocking this ACOB out.

It is interesting to see the years that I left until the end. Apparently the 1990s are something I unconsciously avoided. Years left: 1947 (Calvino), 1958 (Schuyler), 1981 (Stow), 1997 (Mawer), 1998 (Piercy/Wood), 1999 (Toibin).

The good thing is that next weekend could/should be a good reading time, not to mention Christmas week. And there will be some flying time involved which is always good for reading, so fingers crossed.

Wish me luck.

Never follow a bookseller into the basement…

[So that I can speak freely, I’m not going to divulge the name of this bookshop or even where it is located.]

Too bad I don’t like Dickens.

Not too long ago I stumbled across a used bookstore that made me gasp a little. First, despite knowing the location pretty well, I had no idea it existed. Second, I wasn’t looking for a bookstore. I had an appointment in the building next door and was entirely gobsmacked to see a cart of books on the sidewalk. Third, the place is huge and delightfully crammed full of books of a vintage that looked particularly promising for my particular predilections. Fourth, at one point the bookseller/owner asked me if I wanted to see the basement.

Don’t you always wonder about the random stacks? Stacks that they were unable to believably simulate in Bill Nighy’s house in the pretty awful film adaptation of Penelope Fitzgeral’s novel The Bookshop.
I would pay to spend a week helping to organize.
I own all of these but I still find an urge to buy them when I see them out and about.
The BBS kept me from really giving this section a close look.

A used bookstore with a basement isn’t the weirdest thing to come across. I’ve been in many a book-crammed basement that had me wondering about the last time time the fire marshal had inspected. But those basements are typically found below a handmade sign announcing more books downstairs. In this case there was not only no sign indicating another floor of books, but there didn’t appear to be another floor, up or down, accessible from the store. And so it was. The 70/80-something bookseller took me out the door into a common hallway in the old commercial building, through an art gallery to a giant elevator that took us down to a very basementy basement. And there, behind an unsigned, nondescript, metal door was a giant room with a maze of tall metal shelves crammed full of books and LPs. The old man flipped on  a few lights and told me I had until 7:00 pm, just shut the door behind me when I came back up. [I have to say that this was the third time I had heard him mention the closing time to various people and each time he gave a different time. The posted time was 5:00 which I heard him tell a customer, then to a customer on the phone the closing time was 6:00, and then for me in the basement, it was 7:00.]

On the way to the book bunker.
The reveal…
The bookseller mentioned how he had just put up these shelves. Now when in the world does he plan to pull out the contents and actually try and sell them?
I would have loved to have had time to really comb through all those classical LPs.
I absolutely loved this McCarthy novel but I already have a copy of this edition. Has he had all of these copies since 1971 when it was published?
I’ve never read any of these.
13 copies of Tracks. In the basement behind a locked door. What are the chance he is going to sell them. Ever.
Did I mention that none of the books in the basement were in any kind of order?

Often when presented with such an opportunity to browse a prodigious number of used books, I’m confronted by what I call Book Bowel Syndrome (BBS). You know what I’m talking about, that moment when you are about to settle in for a nice long browse, a kid in a candy store kind of moment, but your body says “Too bad you aren’t going to be able to spend much time here because I have other plans. I’ve got a poo just about done and I’d really prefer to deliver it as soon as it’s ready.” Now, this isn’t to be confused with CT (aka crampy tummy), which is a discussion for a different kind of blog, but it can be a real pain the butt (seriously, no pun intended). So despite the seemingly endless browsing possibilities I had other things on my mind. Still, I managed to call forth all of my fortitude and managed about 45 minutes in the stacks.

So what was the verdict? It was one of those stores (and basements) that is a delight to poke around in, but none of the authors I was hoping for were present. It was kind of like when you set your fingers on the computer keyboard slightly off center so that everything you type is off by one letter. How could there be so many books in one place with none of them really jumping out at me. Was it the BBS? No, it was the stock. Good stock, but just not what I was hoping for. Also, things were reasonably priced, but definitely not cheap, so unless I found something that really tickled my fancy I didn’t really feel like buying.

I did find one book in the basement by Margery Sharpe that I put on my modest stack of four books. But the bookseller decided it was worth $30 not the $20 that was penciled in “25 years ago”. I told him it was wasn’t worth it to me at that price (in truth it wasn’t worth it to me at $20). I thought for sure he would relent. But no, he set it aside presumably to go back to the basement where it would sit until he dies and the store gets liquidated. Which isn’t far off. The man is well beyond retirement age and he admitted he is still acquiring stock. That’s great to be optimistic about the future, but it smacked more of book hoarding than book selling. Happily I didn’t by the overpriced Sharpe because it tuns out I already own it.

Aside from a May Sarton biography I don’t remember what else I bought. It’s a place I would still like to spend time fossicking around just for the fun of doing it, but I wouldn’t except to find much I wanted.

Confidential to Ruthiella

When I was a kid I never understood at the end of a Dear Abby Q&A why there would sometimes be items labeled “Confidential to so-and-so”. Presumably the questions were so incendiary that only an answer could be risked in print. This isn’t really one of those situations, but Ruthiella did send me a provocative query that I now repeat here in Dear Abby form:

Confidential to “Ruthiella”: If you can’t let go, get counseling so you can fully enjoy the reality you have — instead of grieving over a 1970s teenage fantasy. Oops, that isn’t quite right. Hopefully my comments below will help you make the decision that is best for you.

Overall, I enjoyed getting the packages each month from Heywood Hill. (Click here to see the pretty packages.) And if I judge it from the point of view of whether it introduced me to books that I wouldn’t otherwise have found, it was very successful. Having said that, I feel like it peaked early for me and then produced some mixed results and kind of petered out. Oddly, they canvassed me to see if I wanted to re-up the gift subscription I gave to someone else last year, but they never tried to get me to re-enroll for myself.

The whole year in order by month with October 2017 at the bottom and September 2018 at the top.

The real hits for me were An Equal Music which I absolutely loved and Three Daughters of Eve which I really liked. I almost didn’t finish Austerlitz but I am glad I gave it a second try because I ended up finding it pretty satisfying.

Others that I enjoyed but didn’t love included My Lover’s Lover (which I hadn’t read before and ended up being my least favorite O’Farrell), Burnt Shadows, Mrs. Osmond, and First Love.

I kind of liked Thin Air. I thought I was going to like Let Go My Hand, but didn’t. And Smile I just found tedious in the extreme. I’m not a fan of Roddy Doyle.

They were right to send me Howards End is on the Landing because I should really love that book but instead I really didn’t like it when I read it about seven years ago. After that I sent them my spreadsheet of books that I have read so that they didn’t send me something I already had. They must not have checked it before they sent the Fitzgerald as my final selection because I already own it and love it.

So, a mixed bag, but I liked getting things that were new to me. If I didn’t have other reading plans for next year I probably would have re-upped.

The Portable Desk of Cortez

I didn’t much like listening to The Log from the Sea of Cortez. I thought I would find Stenbeck’s narrative of his six-week marine specimen collecting trip interesting on a couple of levels. But I didn’t.

However, there was one passage early on that delighted me. (In fact, I found many of the opening pages fascinating because they were laden with trip preparation details. And you know I love minutiae.) The particular passage that caught my ear:

In a small boat, the library should be compact and available. We had constructed a strong steel-reinforced wooden case, the front of which hinged down to form a desk. This case holds about twenty large volumes and has two filing cases, one for separates (scientific reprints) and one for letters; a small metal box holds pens, pencils, erasers, clips, steel tape, scissors, labels, pins, rubber bands and so forth. Another compartment contains a three-by-five-inch card file. There are cubby-holes for envelopes, large separates, small separates typewriter paper, carbon, a box for India ink and glue. The construction of the front makes room for a portable typewriter, drawing board, and T-­square. There is a narrow space for rolled charts and maps.

I could read a whole book with similar descriptions. Especially given that the office supplies would have been 1940s vintage. Fitting squarely in with my officephilia, I settled in or more.

Closed, this compact and complete box is forty-four inches long by eighteen by eighteen; loaded, it weighs between three and four hundred pounds. It was designed to rest on a low table or in an unused bunk. Its main value is compactness, completeness, and accessibility.

But, alas the tale of the Utopian desk was not be. That very same paragraph goes on to talk about how they never had any place to put it on the boat and so had to lash it to the top of the deckhouse and cover with a complicated, time-consuming, configuration of tarps and ropes.

You can click here to see the actual desk. It’s not quite as romantic as the image in my head, probably because it lacks all the contents.

A phone case with a picture of the purse seiner Western Flyer that Steinbeck chartered for the exhibition.


Q3 Reporting

Given the lateness of this quarterly report, I only have 2 months in which to complete my A Century of Books challenge for the year. The last time I did ACOB it took me about 18 months, but this time around I am determined to finish the century by the end of the the year.  Although I have been making good progress, I realized this month that I needed to reapply myself to reading off the ACOB list and cut down on non-ACOB reading.

19 to go with two months left. Should not be a problem. I am already thinking of next year’s reading resolutions.


Completed last quarter.


With 1927 done, I am now finished with the 1920s.

1927 – Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton


With these three, I have now also finished the 1930s. The Road to Wigan Pier was fascinating (and depressing) and the Old Man’s Birthday was a lot of fun. Untouchable was also fascinating and depressing, but a little tedious.

1935 – Untouchable by Mulk Raj Annand
1936 – The Old Man’s Birthday by Richmal Crompton
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell


Nevil Shute must have been a fast writer because Landfall is a World War II story published in 1940. The Wescott was also a World War II but, as far as I could tell/remember Two Serious Ladies was not. The Bowles also did not seem like a book that could have been written in the 1940s. Salacious enough to have been written in the 1960s.

1940 – Landfall by Nevil Shute
1943 – Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1945 – Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott


The Waugh seemed slightly antiquated. Ernesto was a bit of historical fiction so it didn’t necessarily feel like the 1950s (then again it may have been written earlier and only published in 1953). The Sarton feels of its time–academics and the Red Scare.

1952 – Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
1953 – Ernesto by Umberto Saba
1955 – Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton


I really kind of enjoyed the creepiness of The Room Upstairs. The Wallace Stegner was amazingly good and definitely felt like California in the 1960s (not something I know first hand mind you). And I’ve now finished this decade as well.

1964 – Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal
1966 – The Room Upstairs by Monica Dickens
1967 – All the Live Little Things by Wallace Stegner
1968 – A Very Private Life by Michael Frayn


The Bainbridge felt very much like the 1970s. Williams’s take on ancient Rome did not.

1972 – Augustus by John Williams
1978 – Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge


Highly wrought, hyper-emotional, intellectual soap opera. Very Murdoch. (I loved it despite all.)

1983 – The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch


Finally made some progress on the 1990s. None of these felt like they were published in the same decade. None of them could be more 1990s than the Crichton. An interesting romp through an air accident investigation that had characters so much out of central casting it was painful.

1991 – City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
1992 – Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

1995 – The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
1996 – Airframe by Michael Crichton


I really, really enjoyed The Man in the Wooden Hat, but I also loved The Road Home which definitely felt more of its time.

2005 – Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto
2007 – The Road Home by Rose Tremain
2008 – Anathem by Neal Stephenson
2009 – The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam


Four completely different and satisfying reads. The one that really mesmerized me was Open City. Dense and fascinating with tons of cultural/intellectual references that don’t seem forced or pretentious.

2011 – Open City by Teju Cole
2013 – Harvest by Jim Crace
2016 – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
2018 – West by Carys Davies

The Whole Century So Far

1919 –  Free Air by Sinclair Lewis

1920 – Happy House by Jane D. Abbott
1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1923 – Peter West by D.E. Stevenson

1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1927 – Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton
1928 – Quicksand by Nella Larsen

1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell

1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1931 – Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts
1932 – Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
1933 – High Rising by Angela Thirkell
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1935 – Untouchable by Mulk Raj Annand
1936 – The Old Man’s Birthday by Richmal Crompton
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
1938 – Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

1940 – Landfall by Nevil Shute
1943 – Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles
1944 – The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
1945 – Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott
1948 – Catalina by W. Somerset Maugham
1949 – Prairie Avenue by Arthur Meeker

1950 – Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
1952 – Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
1953 – Ernesto by Umberto Saba
1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1955 – Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton
1956 – The Hunters by James Salter
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler

1960 – Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
1961 – The Chateau by William Maxwell

1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1963 – A Day in Late September by Merle Miller
1964 – Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
1966 – The Room Upstairs by Monica Dickens
1967 – All the Live Little Things by Wallace Stegner
1968 – A Very Private Life by Michael Frayn
1969 – Fat City by Leonard Gardner

1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1972 – Augustus by John Williams
1973 – Other Men’s Daughters by Robert Stern
1974 – Doctor Frigo by Eric Ambler
1975 – The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle

1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
1978 – Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge

1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1982 – A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
1983 – The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch
1985 – The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld

1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1988 – Beirut, Beirut by Sonallah Ibrahim
1989 – Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami

1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1991 – City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
1992 – Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
1995 – The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
1996 – Airframe by Michael Crichton

2000 – The Goodbye Kiss by Massimo Carlotto
2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
2003 – Oracle Night by Paul Auster
2005 – Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto

2006 – In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
2007 – The Road Home by Rose Tremain
2008 – Anathem by Neal Stephenson
2009 – The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

2011 – Open City by Teju Cole
2012 – The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
2013 – Harvest by Jim Crace
2014 – The Golden Age by Joan London
2015 – Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker
2016 – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
2017 – When the English Fall by David Williams
2018 – West by Carys Davies

Thousands, not hundreds

Yesterday I found out, unexpectedly, that I would be home from work today. Realizing today was the 26th I realized I’d be able to go to the memorial service for Matthew Shepard at that National Cathedral. Not just any memorial service mind you, but one to commemorate the internment of Matthew’s ashes in the crypt of the cathedral twenty years after his death.

But then this morning rolled around and I found myself busy getting lots of stuff done and, as is usual when I work from home, I was unshowered and hadn’t even brushed my teeth. I decided I would skip the service. Then I saw a headline in the Washington Post that said that hundreds were expected for the service. And I thought of the huge nave of the cathedral. A building that  holds thousands, and all I could think about was just a few hundred people in that huge space. I couldn’t let that happen. I could at least make it a few hundred plus one. I threw on some clothes, brushed my teeth, and ran out the door, I didn’t have much time to get there. I almost went back inside to grab some Kleenex but didn’t. That turned out to be a mistake.

When I got to the cathedral, the very large parking structure was full. Annoyance was quickly replaced with gratitude, knowing that a good size crowd had turned up. As I walked up to the West door I joined a steady stream of people making their way inside, police checking backpacks and large bags. The central nave was full and folding chairs filled the two long side aisles. By the time the service started about 15 minutes later the place appeared to be full.

I was weepy from the moment I entered the church. All I could think about was the juxtaposition of  a brutalized 23-year old alone on a cold road in Wyoming in 1998 and a warm cathedral full of 2,000 people, bishops, and television cameras in 2018. An honor Matthew, and thousands of other brutalized people deserve, but one which would be gladly traded away if they could all still be with us today.

I wept and wept. At times unable to see in front of me and having not one shred of Kleenex.

I wept for Matthew.

I wept for Matthew’s family.

I wept for all those who are alone, and hurt, and finding this world more and more hateful.

I wept for myself. I wept for all of us. Every single one of us. Five hours later I’m weeping again.

The police officer who found Matthew strung up on the fence–still alive–told Matthew’s mother that there was a doe who appeared to have bedded down for the night near Matthew. The contrast of the beauty of creation side by side with the horrific evidence of human cruelty is breathtakingly sad.

At the end of the service as the procession came up the side aisle where I was seated at the end of the row, my desire to look at the faces of Matthew’s parents and pay silent respect was overtaken by the thought that they didn’t need to see the pain in my eyes and the tears on my face. Their pain goes far deeper and is more profound than I could ever understand. I only saw Judy Shepard’s black shoes.

Before the procession came up the aisle some gay dads with their infants were asked to move their double wide stroller out of the way.

A Catholic nun held her rosary.

A young gay couple in front of me held hands.

A young person with purple hair wept.

An openly gay bishop carried the remains of our brother who didn’t live long enough to see what he could become.

And I wept.

Which class would you take?

With beautiful blue skies and a touch of fall in the air, I strolled the streets of Berkeley pretending I was back in college. Well, actually I was pretending I was my husband back in college because Berkeley is his alma mater, not mine, but I still caught the nostalgia bug for my own days in college. And there is no place more quietly exciting than a campus bookstore in the fall. After I had exhausted all the regular bookstores in Berkeley I found myself in a few that sold course books. I thought fondly of how much I loved going course book shopping when I was in school. It was especially fun as an undergrad when there was so much that was new and so many courses outside my major to take. Not surprisingly then, I found myself wrapped up in a college fantasy as I strolled the aisles. But which classes would I take? Which class would you take?

I’m glad the instructor dropped The Mill on the Floss in favor of Daniel Deronda since I’ve read the former but not the latter. But I wonder if I could actually get through Bleak House. Is that the one with Jarndyce and Jarndyce? But more than anything I’d be curious to see how it all fits in with Darwin. Or is it the other way around?
Although I find Mrs. Dalloway dull as dishwater, I loved Passing and am curious about the “not available” Lonely Londoners.
Huge fan of Americanah, couldn’t get into Homegoing, but would probably be interesting to talk about in class.
I think I would probably hate this class. A lot.
Oh lord. Maybe if I took this class and got to go in depth (and maybe got some help in understanding them) I would hate Faulkner and Conrad less; appreciate James and Woolf more, and finally get around to Beloved. Nabokov and Wilde would be re-reads, but then again, so would the James, Woolf, and Conrad. I would really have hated this as an undergrad.
My writing classes in college were freshman comp and then writing for the social sciences. I have no idea how this class would work.
This one looks a bit fascinating despite my general dislike of Robinson.
People on Twitter have been reading, hating, and not finishing The Mysteries of Udolpho so that doesn’t bode well for this class. I’m very curious how Silent Spring fits in. (And yes, Austen, is spelled incorrectly.)
With the exception of the text penciled in at the bottom, I’ve already read all of these. That would be the best of all worlds, re-reading 3 short books and then going in deep.
Despite my dislike of Conrad and my fear of Ulysses, this would probably be the class I would take. But then again, maybe not. Probably more interesting to go a little further outside my comfort zone.
At least three courses had Fun Home as assigned reading.


I did actually buy one of the required texts for an Italian class on English grammar for students of Italian. I worry that some Berkeley student doesn’t have his/her textbook because I bought a copy, but one of my challenges in studying a foreign language is my spotty knowledge of the technical names of parts of grammar like “direct object pronouns”.