Thursday, December 30, 2010

2011: The Great Unread

After the relative success of my self-imposed book challenge in 2010, I’ve set myself a new goal for 2011.

Each month, I’m going to do something radical and read a novel or play from my own shelves. Despite moving every few years, and shedding books along the way, I still have a number of works that I insist on keeping for my (limited) fiction shelves, but that I haven’t actually read. Some, such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I’ve started and liked, but never finished, others, such as Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, are gifts I always intended to read, but never made time for, and some are recent additions, like my fancy clothbound editions of Dickens (designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith). Luckily, many of these coordinate with upcoming book salon topics.

First up will be The Name of the Rose, which I will read for our holiday season book salon in mid-January. The theme is “Because Atheism Has No Holidays” and features books with religious characters or settings. I’d also love to read either Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving for this salon, but I don’t want to get overly ambitious as I tended to do last year.

If you’d like to join me in this challenge, please post a comment, and check in monthly to report your progress. I’d love to have others involved in this effort!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2010: The Year in Books, Part II

One of the biggest challenges of getting through the books on my 2010 challenge list was that, as I focused more on reading, I discovered just how much was out there that I wanted to read. At times, this made my “should-read” books feel like more of a chore than they otherwise would have, which was often compounded by the additional pressure of library due dates. The following are some of my favorite reads of the year.

Top Ten of 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This is one of the biggest page-turners I’ve read in the last ten years. Not only did I stay up late to get through the whole thing, but I put the second volume on hold at the library the very next morning. It’s a shame the rest of the trilogy didn’t live up to this first volume.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
This teen novel is suspenseful and intriguing, despite the grim subject matter of teen suicide (don’t do it!). It makes you think about destiny and all the little things that seem meaningless but may have profound consequences.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This beautiful novel of the love between a father and son was one of the shortest I read all year, but it certainly packs a wallop emotionally.

 Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
This novel is well written, suspenseful, and simply one of the best multi-narrative books I’ve read in a long time. Be prepared to want to read it again from the beginning when you finish.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
A modern take on vampires and what a post-apocalyptic U.S. might look like. My only complaint is its length—it is not particularly slow-moving, but it is unnecessarily long.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
This first novel of what has been dubbed The Millennium Trilogy is exciting and smart, although quite dark. It’s a bit slow in the beginning, but once it picks up you can’t put it down.

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
This book was even better than the first one. The story was much more intricate and developed, while still moving along at brisk pace. Lisbeth really comes into her own here and it’s nice to see such a strong female character, even if her talents seem a little bit unbelievable at times.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson
I really liked the conclusion to this trilogy. It is certainly a different book than the others, more of a legal thriller mixed with caper elements than a mystery, but I always love a good caper.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
A thrilling story that takes place over the course of one week during the siege of Leningrad. It is both unbelievable, yet very real.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin
This novel retells the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from the viewpoint of a maid in the household. I really enjoyed this fresh perspective on the story and the glimpses it provides of the life of a servant in Victorian London.

Naturally, there were a few disappointments as well, notably Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, which I was looking forward to, but ended up being a bit of a slog. I also tried a number of graphic novels this year (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld), but merely ending up reinforcing the fact that I don’t love them as a format.

You can read my reviews of these and other books on Goodreads.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2010: The Year in Books, Part I

As 2010 began, I was just getting back into reading again after years of research focused on French history and culture. As I mentioned back in my first blog post, I decided that it might be a good idea to challenge myself to read one book a month from those many lists out there devoted to what one should have read. I combed through a number of lists, and finally settled on twelve books of varied length. All in all, I’m quite pleased with my selections and happy to have read most of them. War and Peace has proved to be my white whale as there is no way I will finish it this year when I’m still working on Catch-22 and Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.

And now the awards!

Biggest Surprise:  This is a tie between My Ántonia and Catch-22. I really wasn’t looking forward to either of these, but I was pleasantly surprised by both. My Ántonia reminded me of an adult, literary Little House on the Prairie while Catch-22 is just really funny and entertaining.

Longest:  Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. Although Don Quixote and War and Peace both run over 1000 pages, this unabridged French novel is two large paperback volumes of about 700 pages each. I had read the abridged English version last year, but nothing compares to the original. I haven’t finished it yet, but it is proving to be an easy, enjoyable read.

Most Disappointing:  Macbeth. I recently wrote on the redemption of this play in my eyes, but, as a text, it still remains the one that I was most looking forward to but did not enjoy as I read it.

Biggest Accomplishment:  Don Quixote. This is both because it inspired this challenge and because I wanted to hurl it across the room after a few hundred pages. The First Part is extremely repetitive and annoying; the fact that I continued on to the incredible Second Part is an achievement in itself.

Hardest to Finish: Two Years Before the Mast. I really liked this book, but it was far longer than it needed to be. Of course, the same could be said for the book it inspired, Moby-Dick. However, I don’t regret switching out The Education of Henry Adams for it.

The Book I Most Regret Putting on the List:  Wide Sargasso Sea. This book showed such promise. I loved the concept of a prequel to Jane Eyre that explores the background of Rochester’s first wife; however, I really hated the writing style and felt the author could have done much more with the concept.

The Book I Feel Everybody Should Read:  The Handmaid’s Tale. The dystopian world presented in this story is both disturbing and chilling. Sadly, it is probably also more believable now than when the book appeared in the 1980s.

You can read my reviews of these and the other challenge books (The Awakening, Lord of the Flies, La Princesse de Clèves) on Goodreads.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

As many of you know, I spent Thanksgiving in Pasadena with friends, one of whom introduced me to the joy that is Slings and Arrows (appropriately, her own blog is called Little But Fierce). I had heard about this Canadian comedy for years, but had conflated it in my mind with Due South (both star Paul Gross), a show I had sampled but wasn’t much interested in.

Slings and Arrows revolves around the fictitious New Burbage Festival, a stand-in for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival just outside of Toronto—and believe me, I’m now kicking myself for not checking this festival out when I was in nearby Kitchener-Waterloo. Each season (there are three, with six episodes each) the local company takes on a different play, first Hamlet, then Macbeth, and finally King Lear, with the arc of the season somewhat mimicking the play itself. If you have any interest in theatre, particularly Shakespeare, hie thee to Netflix to add this remarkable show to your queue.

Shakespeare has been much on my mind of late. For starters, Macbeth was one of my book challenge should-reads for the year (being the only one of the major tragedies that I hadn’t read). I hadn’t liked it when I read it back in March, as the misogyny really struck me forcibly at the time. However, that may have been due to the type of books I had been reading in February, which had a distinctly feminist slant.

However, I recently revisited the story with the BBC film that aired on PBS this fall and was forced to reconsider my opinion. The film stars Patrick Stewart and updates the setting to a 1930s(ish) Scotland. Unsurprisingly, Stewart gives an incredible performance (I will never forget being blown away by his one-man show of A Christmas Carol years ago), but the real revelation for me was Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth—she really brought the character alive. Also, transforming the witches into hospital nurses was a truly inspired touch; they brought just the right amount of modern creepiness. If you didn’t get a chance to catch this on PBS, try to watch it when it comes out on DVD this January. You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Coraline: The Musical

I really don’t know what to say about this show, except maybe, don’t see it. I didn’t even want to post my usual picture of the program because I wouldn’t want someone who happened across this blog to get the idea to go. You might see Neil Gaiman’s name and think, oh, that might be cool. Or, you might see “Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields” and think, wow, that could be interesting. Don’t do it. (Unless, like me, it gives you the opportunity to see friends you see far too seldom—that was worth every penny of the half-priced tickets.)

It’s not that this musical was bad; it just wasn’t quite there yet. There were a number of enjoyable moments, but it seemed like something you would see in a workshop about how one might adapt Coraline as a musical. Songs with no depth or structure. A set with no depth or structure. I felt so sorry for the poor girl playing Coraline, who had to tell us about much of what we should have been seeing.

That said, I felt the entire cast did a great job with what they were given. Unfortunately, they just weren’t given very much.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Santa Makes the Baby Jesus Cry

Let me start off by saying that I am not at all religious and these days pretty much regard Christmas as a secular holiday. However, when it comes to music, I like to keep the Christ in Christmas. So, when I say I love Christmas music, I generally don’t mean anything that uses the words rock or bells (although exceptions can be made in the case of music recorded before I was born). The fact that I have relegated all my Santa-related music to a playlist called “Get Behind Me, Santa” basically tells you all you need to know.

Along with opera, Christmas music is really the only thing I buy on CD these days and I recently added a few new favorites to my collection that I wanted to share. The first two albums are by The Cambridge Singers, conducted by John Rutter—Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity and The Cambridge Singers Christmas Album. I can’t believe this group escaped my notice for so long. Both of these albums are fabulous collections of traditional European carols, and, although I’d give a slight edge to the selection on Christmas Album (“Somerset Wassail”; “Still, Still, Still”; “Gabriel’s Message”; “In dulci jubilo”), Christmas Night has “The Cherry Tree Carol,” which is one of my all-time favorites.

Also out of England is a collection from the early 1990s, A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers. These carols are probably a bit more familiar to your ears than those of The Cambridge Singers, but still remain fairly traditional, similar to the selections of the Robert Shaw Chorale, which is an old standby, along with Now Is the Caroling Season by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, a favorite from my childhood.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere

“There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe."—Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea

This month’s book salon topic was water, which was the theme of the summer reading programs this year at the San Francisco Public Library: An Ocean of Summer Reading.

I had intended to use this theme to celebrate my own personal Bay to Breakers (the Chesapeake Bay, that is) by reading two classic works of nonfiction, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William Warner, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, and Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, which recounts Dana’s shipboard adventures in the 1830s. I’ve been meaning to read Beautiful Swimmers since an ex-boyfriend recommended it to me when I moved to the Eastern Shore back in 2005, but, like with my ex, Fate had other plans and the book remains one of the great unread on my shelf. 

I guess it worked out well that I chose Two Years before the Mast since some of my Thanksgiving vacation was spent in Monterey and along the coast, which Dana describes so vividly. This book is a fascinating tale of life at sea and pre-Gold Rush California—it’s a shame more people haven’t read it. Although, not for nothing, but I bet if the cover still looked liked this, it would have far more readers.

Other books read by the salonistas include Billy Budd by Herman Melville, Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez, and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. One person attempted multiple books, but apparently had the same reaction that I did to Wide Sargasso Sea. There may have been another selection that I’m forgetting, but I had had three martinis by the end of the evening, so I really have no idea what the sixth person read.

Which brings up the most important question of all, how did people function on three-martini lunches?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Two Americas

The amazing thing about California is its sheer size and the resulting diversity of landscapes and mindsets. A great example of this diversity can be found in the two classic landmarks that I stayed in this past week.

In what is quickly becoming a Thanksgiving tradition, I headed down to Pasadena for the holiday. Last year, I flew down early and had a marvelous side trip to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. This year, I decided to take a few days off and drive leisurely down 101 (or I guess “the 101” being that I was visiting Southern California).

I have driven along the coast twice since moving here, with the focal point of both trips being Hearst Castle, when I stayed at the Sand Pebbles Inn on Moonstone Beach in Cambria. This time, I stayed at two iconic places along the route: Asilomar and the Madonna Inn.

Asilomar boardwalk and dunes at sunset
I had longed to stay at both for some time: Asilomar, because it was designed by Julia Morgan, architect of my beloved Hearst Castle, and the Madonna Inn because I had heard so many crazy things about it.

Asilomar Room
While both high on my list of landmark lodgings, these two places couldn’t be more opposite, with Asilomar representing a sort of East Coast, old money rusticity, and the Madonna Inn (named after its original owner, Alex Madonna, not the pop star), representing classic American roadside kitsch. And yet it made perfect sense to me that I loved them equally and that they were both terrific representations of my new home state.

The Traveler's Yacht room at the Madonna Inn

You can read about these incredible places in more detail at my new travel blog, Worth the Detour.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Deep Thoughts

Most of the time, I forget I live on the Pacific Ocean.  But then, some days, it decides to sit up and slap me in the face and scream "Wake up, here I am, in all my vastness!"

Or maybe I've just been reading Two Years Before the Mast for too long.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

And now for something completely different…

If you are looking for new listening material for your commute, or simply your edification, below are some of my favorite podcasts (all available for free on iTunes):

Books on the Nightstand by Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman
This is a great podcast about (mostly) contemporary books. Begun in 2008 by two sales reps for Random House, the format usually consists of a short discussion about a current events topic or theme involving books and/or publishing and then a reading recommendation from each of the hosts.

One thing I love about this podcast is that they simply give recommendations of books that have caught their attention (not necessarily by Random House). They don’t do reviews or give anything away, but rather tell you just enough for you to decide whether you might like it. This podcast is how I discovered The Book Thief, The Lost City of Z, and Mary Reilly.

The Classic Tales by B. J. Harrison
I am a longtime fan of this podcast where the host reads classic short stories and novellas, most often adventure tales and classic horror (and, unfortunately, the Jeeves stories of P. G. Wodehouse). The episodes vary greatly in length, but most run 45 to 60 minutes. Occasionally, he will produce multiple episodes of longer works, most recently The Turn of the Screw. His accent can be a bit off-putting, but it grows on you. Unfortunately, only his most recent episodes are available for free, but, if you like his style or story selections, all of them are available for purchase on his website.

Philosophy Bites by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton
This podcast out of the U.K. presents short interviews (15 to 20 minutes) with guest philosophers focusing on a wide variety of very specific philosophical writings, questions, or issues: Plato’s Cave, Hobbes on the State, atheism, medical consent, and so on. Over 100 episodes are available on iTunes and each topic is independent from the next, so feel free to listen to whichever title looks appealing. Philosophy has always been difficult for me to get a handle on and the specificity of the topics really helps me with that.

Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir by Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards
This series is a must for any fan of film noir. Both professors, not only do Clute and Edwards really know what they are talking about, but they are clearly very passionate about their work. There are a total of 50 episodes, almost all focusing on a single film and generally running 30 to 35 minutes. There are a couple of instances where they pair a classic film with something more contemporary (for example, The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski) and these run over an hour. Like a lecture course, they sometimes reference earlier episodes and discussions, so I highly recommend listening in some sort of vague chronological order. If you don’t really know the film well, I also recommend Netflixing before listening.

Watching the Directors by Joe and Melissa Johnson
This podcast ran from 2006 to 2008 and has almost 50 episodes. I don’t love the husband and wife team that hosts this series, but I love the concept and structure of looking at the entire career of one director in each episode. I also appreciate the incredible amount of viewing it must have required to put each episode together. The choice of directors runs the gamut from classic (Frank Capra, Ingmar Bergman, Michael Powell) to contemporary (Peter Jackson, Mira Nair, Steven Soderburgh) to iconic (Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, John Hughes). Perhaps because of the time involved, the Johnsons, along with a third host, now host a new series that examines a single film from the angle of its theological, philosophical, and thematic content: Watching Theology is ongoing and has over 30 episodes to date including those on Pulp Fiction, Children of Men, and Fight Club.

12 Byzantine Rulers: The History of the Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownworth
In just 17 episodes (most 25 to 30 minutes long), Brownworth manages to condense over 1000 years of history into a fascinating narrative by focusing on some of the key leaders of the Byzantine Empire. While the original series is long over, his current effort is Norman Centuries, which tells the history of the Normans in England, France, and Italy. To date, there are 10 episodes.

The Dave Ramsey Show by Dave Ramsey
If you are looking to get out of debt, this podcast is a great motivator, particularly on Fridays, when people call in to shout “I’m debt free!” and tell their own personal get-out-of-debt stories. But, fair warning, he thinks you should be sacrificing more to make it happen and his plan is not easy. He also has strong Christian beliefs that he is not afraid to talk about; however, he is pretty good about keeping the show money and debt focused. As someone who used to work in investment consulting, I didn’t really need most of his financial advice (which is extremely sound), but his show played an important role in helping me stick to the strict budget that allowed me to pay off my graduate school loans much earlier than I would have otherwise.

Finally, for help in other areas of your life, I also recommend the “Quick and Dirty Tips” podcasts. This is a group of self-help podcasts each led by a different specialist and focusing on a particular area: legal issues, fitness and health, money matters, etiquette, grammar, etc. The episodes are very short, usually 5 to 10 minutes—which is extremely annoying given how podcasts work on iPods (but I digress). My favorite series are Get-It-Done Guy, who covers managing and organizing your work life, and The Nutrition Diva, who examines such vital questions as “Is high-fructose corn syrup really as bad as they say?” and “Should you spend more for natural gourmet salt?”

Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what are your favorites and why? I have a 30-minute walking commute so I'm always looking for new listening material.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Opera 101—Memoirs of a Geisha

According to Opera America, Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is the most-performed opera in the U.S. (Puccini also grabs the #2 spot with La Bohème). It is easy to see why—it has an incredible score and provides a soprano with the opportunity to really shine. However, the plot is so uncomfortable (a callous American officer “marries” and abandons a 15-year-old Japanese girl) that I have mixed feelings about it. Watching San Francisco Opera’s latest production on Veterans Day did not help matters.

It also did not help that I really did not like many of the production choices, particularly the set: a rotating Japanese house, turned periodically by what I could only describe as ninja assassins. For such a quietly dramatic piece, the rotation was very distracting. The turners remained on stage throughout and were generally unobtrusive, as one would expect from a ninja, but they occasionally interacted with the players, which threw me out of the story completely.

Also, throwing me out of the story? The moment when Butterfly is sitting vigil for Pinkerton to return, with the unmistakable (to me) strains of “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil playing in the background. Given that the plot of Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is essentially Madame Butterfly shifted to Vietnam, that can’t be a coincidence. (Although obviously not Puccini's fault.)

Despite my complaints, I was pleasantly surprised by this production, mostly because I had read a number of negative reviews when it opened. Apparently, there were two casts for this production and we saw the second. A good thing I guess, because I felt that all the main players sang well and gave a strong performance. It was a good close to our subscription for the season.

I’m sorry the season is over, but I’m really glad I decided to do this and look forward to next year.

And now the awards!

Production I would most readily see again: Le Nozze di Figaro
Favorite scene: “Gloria all’Egitto” aka The Triumphal March from Aida
Outstanding lead performance (male): Plácido Domingo as Cyrano
Outstanding lead performance (female): Ainhoa Arteta as Roxane
Outstanding supporting performance: Daveda Karanas as Suzuki
Best set design: Cyrano de Bergerac
Best costumes: Aida
Best ninjas: Madama Butterfly

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lost in Translation

Since our Russian Roulette book salon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of translation. More than one person said they loved to read Russian authors because of the language. But whose language? Having taken on a few freelance translating jobs in my time, I know that it is an extremely difficult task even in its most basic form. And, when it comes to literature, there can be vast differences in language between different translators.

I had done some investigating into translation when I read Don Quixote earlier this year, settling on Edith Grossman’s version primarily because of library availability. It had an introduction by Harold Bloom, so it had to be decent right?

“Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”—Don Quixote (Cervantes, trans. Grossman)

When I decided to tackle War and Peace, I had a few more options. Although I had to wait for it, and despite the controversy surrounded their methods (apparently they break the cardinal rule of translation, which is to translate into your native language), I selected the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Normally, based on what I had read about it, I wouldn’t have, but their edition is the only one I found that left the French portions intact—most English editions leave only a few French phrases strewn about, like an English mystery novel, when in fact there are large chunks of discourse in French as well as entire letters. Since I had to wait a bit for the actual book, I decided to experiment with another translation, the classic version that most people have read, by the Victorian-era translator Constance Garnett, which the library had on audio. Admittedly, I also thought listening to it first would make the reading go more quickly, which it did. It also highlighted how different two versions can be. If you don’t care about the French issue, I’d recommend Garnett.

If you are wondering just how different translations can be, consider what I read earlier this week while attending a performance of Carmina Burana. The San Francisco symphony thoughtfully provided the Latin text and English translation in their program. Not knowing if they would do this, and wanting to follow along, I had brought the booklet from my CD, which used both English and French.

Here is an example from the “Swaz hie gat umbe” chorus at the end of the “Spring” section.

San Francisco Symphony translation:
They who here go dancing round
Are young maidens all
Who will go without a man
This whole summer long.

Mehta English translation:
Those who go round and round,
are all maidens
they want to do without a man
all summer long.

Mehta French translation (translation mine):
Those who go round and round there
are young maidens
They think they can go the whole summer
without a lover.

Call me crazy, but there’s a whole world of difference between going without a man, wanting to do without a man, and thinking you can go without a man for an extended period of time. But maybe that’s just me.

By the way, I love Carmina Burana in all its cheesy, overused glory and this was a very fun performance, particularly the “roasted swan” song, which was sung with more passion and personality than I have ever heard before.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I’ve got a little list…*

“Lists of books we reread and books we can't finish tell more about us than about the relative worth of the books themselves.”—Russell Banks

I’ve spent a good deal of time recently coming up with new themes and lists of suggested books for my book salon. Since the salon is grounded in the classics, I figured that a good way to get ideas would be to peruse some “top” lists. After all, everyone seems to have one. Newsweek even came up with a meta-list compiled from the selections on other major lists, notably those of the New York Public Library and The Modern Library.

The controversial Modern Library list (of the top 100 English-language novels of the century) gained much notoriety over ten years ago for being too white, too male, and too middlebrow. There was such an uproar over the list, that they introduced a companion “Reader’s List,” but, with four books by Ayn Rand and three by L. Ron Hubbard in the top ten, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not worth bothering with. I find the Modern Library list a tad boring, filled with books that one reads only because one is forced to in high school or college. My biggest quibble with it is that James Joyce hogs both the #1 and #3 spot. Seriously? But maybe I’m just bitter that I’ve only read 20 novels on the list. Ouch. (I do a bit better on the rival Radcliffe List, where I’ve read 34, but still.)

If you are looking for something a bit more current, try TIME’s 100 List, which further narrows the pool to English-language books published in or after 1923, the year of the magazine’s founding. And, let’s all pause for a moment and thank our lucky stars that that restriction means no Ulysses (published in 1922). Of course, I don’t do much better on this list, with about 25 under my belt. Some other lists include the 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians (40!) and The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (34!). One of my favorite lists is The Daily Telegraph’s “110 Best Books: The Perfect Library,” if only for the fact they couldn’t limit themselves to 100. Even then, they cheat quite a bit since a number of their entries are actually multi-volume series (Trollope’s Barchester chronicles, Updike’s Rabbit, Run books, etc.). Finally, if you’re really ambitious, you can try to tackle the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, for which there are intricate spreadsheets you can download to track your progress.

People who know me know that I love nothing better than organizing and making lists. However, the problem with looking at all these lists and coming up with these themes is that they inevitably bring back the refrain that haunted me in graduate school: so many books, so little time. I want to read many of the books on these lists, but is it really important that I do so? After all, it’s lists like these that led me to read Wide Sargasso Sea this year, and that’s time I can never get back.

Do these lists make you feel guilty? energized? indifferent? Do you have books you feel you should read? Do you actually plan to read them? I'd love to hear from people on this.

*What can I say? When I’m not making lists, I’m rewatching the entire Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre via Netflix.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

West Coast Story

This week (as a sort of belated birthday present), I attended the new touring revival of West Side Story at the Orpheum. The conceit of this version is that it’s grittier and more authentic than the original, primarily through the extended use of Spanish by the Puerto Rican characters.

I thought the concept worked well as a whole, but that may have been because I was so familiar with the story and songs. Given that there were no translations made available, nor any supertitles, and that a few key plot points were in Spanish, I have to wonder if someone new to the show would be able to fully appreciate the story. However, after a day when the bilingual nature (in fact, trilingual, when you throw Chinese into the mix) of our city was on full display, with the highlighting of the Spanish-speaking announcers and players in the parade and celebration of Los Gigantes, the updated musical seemed a fitting close to the day. Of course, as someone who daily works in multiple languages, I’m always eager to see new displays of mixed language use.

I got another pleasant surprise when it turned out that one of the Jets was none other than Neil Haskell, of So You Think You Can Dance fame. It was a good thing, as I hadn’t realized just how much dancing there actually was in this musical (having only known it through the movie version). And dancing was certainly the highlight here; although, as often seems to happen in San Francisco, the rustle-tussle of the gang fighting took on new meaning. Unavoidably, given the small orchestra, Bernstein’s lovely music got short shrift, which was a disappointment. But, all in all, it was an enjoyable, if a bit overly dramatic, show.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Opera 101—A Nose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet… As Victory

Picture, if you will, the tender balcony scene between Roxane and Cyrano, and later between Roxane and Christian. The music swells. The singers profess their love. The curtain falls on the first half of Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac

A smattering of applause, then a roar from the crowd. Cheers for the great Plácido Domingo in one of his signature roles? Nope. The San Francisco Opera had flashed the final score of Game #1 of the World Series as the closing supertitle. Who knew that opera buffs had it in them? But there they were, checking their iPhones during the brief pauses between scenes, taking photos of City Hall (all lit up in orange for the occasion), and cheering the Giants at the end of the Second Act.

Final:  Giants 11  Rangers 7

And the opera?  Pretty darn good. Musically, it doesn’t really compare to our other selections for the year, but with Plácido Domingo as the lead and a strong Roxane (Ainhoa Arteta), it really got to me.  Of course, the original play has always been one of my favorites, both for its poetry and its humor. The poetry was somewhat lost in this version, especially given the French diction of the singers, but the sets were impressive and the adaptation choices quite interesting.  I particularly liked how they flipped the opening theater scene from being about the gamblers, pickpockets, and aristocrats in the audience to a backstage view of the performers getting ready. Ragueneau's bakery was gorgeous and the Arras battlefield was also well done. I'm not sure I would seek out a recording of this opera for my collection, but it was definitely an enjoyable performance.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Boys of October vs. The November Nine

As I prepare for the invasion of my town by baseball fans big and small, I find myself infinitely more interested in the other World Series: The $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Main Event, where thousands of players enter in July, and only nine remain for the final table in November.

What do I like about the World Series of Poker?

It’s international. There are many Americans, true, but also players from Australia, Russia, France, Canada, England, Denmark, China, heck, even Ecuador. Where else, that doesn’t involve snow or ice (or maybe handball), can you see Norwegians and Swedes compete at this level?

It’s ageless. Competitors at this year’s tournament included 97-year-old Jack Ury, who survived through Day 2, 76-year-old Doyle Brunson, who won back-to-back Main Events in 1976 and 1977, and Joe Cada, who, at the age of 21, became the youngest champion ever in 2009.

It’s egalitarian. You have your pros. You have your occasional celebrities (Jason Alexander, Don Cheadle, Hank Azaria). And, while women are few and far between, they are at least competitive. There are also plenty of non-professionals, including November Nine contender Soi Nguyen and once-in-a-lifetime hopefuls like wheelchair-bound Gary Kostiuk, an optometrist with multiple sclerosis who earned his place in this year’s tournament by winning a small, local satellite game. If you can believe it, this year’s “Bubble Boy” was a professional angler.

It involves a Bubble Boy. What more needs to be said?

Sure, in my heart of hearts, I will always be a Red Sox fan. How could I not be after going to Fenway Park with my Dad to see Luis Tiant pitch, or having a stuffed bear whose extended list of middle names included Fred Lynn and Rico Petrocelli? But, these days, I’d rather watch the November Nine than the Boys of October.

*The bulk of the World Series of Poker is filmed over two weeks in July and shown Tuesdays on ESPN through early November, when the nine players who made it to the final table come back to determine the ultimate champion.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Hundred Years War (and Peace)

As October winds down, I’m beginning to seriously worry about getting through this year’s book challenge. Russian Roulette came and went as a book salon topic and I still couldn’t get through War and Peace. Before getting distracted by The Passage (another damn trilogy!), I had read over 400 pages, but, even though I liked it, it wasn’t grabbing me.

Maybe I should have used email?

I think at this point I need to admit (at least temporary) defeat and try to get through the remaining four titles: Catch-22, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, given that my book salon has chosen “Water, Water, Everywhere” as our next topic, I’m already thinking of changing out The Education of Henry Adams for Two Years Before the Mast, which had been on my original should-read short list (along with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is about what I need to get through all these).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bored with Reality

I’m a big fan of Reality TV. Or, at least I thought I was. But I’ve been wondering lately if its time has past. Is it me, or has reality television become really boring?

I should start off by saying that, by reality, I primarily mean competitive shows. And by competitive shows, I mean ones based on actual talent and skills, judged by actual experts. In other words, So You Think You Can Dance, but not Dancing with the Stars. I did used to watch The Amazing Race, but when it became all about the casting, instead of the racing, I gave it up.

I have little interest in documentary-style reality, although I will cop to watching most of the first season of Toddlers and Tiaras—I just couldn’t look away. Hoarders could be interesting, but I think it would give the neat-freak in me seizures, or at least nightmares. In the past, I’ve enjoyed some self-improvement shows, mostly What Not to Wear and Clean Sweep, but these quickly became repetitive to me.

Is competitive reality suffering the same fate? Why do I no longer care who wins American Idol, Project Runway, or Top Chef? (Well, that’s not exactly true, Mondo needs to win Project Runway, but does anyone come close to him?) We’ve gotten to the point on most of these shows that the talent pool is incredible, but did anyone find their latest seasons interesting?

Are they pushing too hard on So You Think You Can Dance? Have they run out of good challenge ideas for Top Chef? Are the contestants too savvy and self-aware? Has stunt casting backfired? In short, can these shows be saved?

Or should I just be happy that I’ve discovered Modern Family and Parenthood?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Opera 101—Walk Like an Egyptian

This week, I enjoyed my second opera of the season. If Le Nozze di Figaro was light-hearted fun, Aida was opera with a capital O. Skipping from the opera buffa of Mozart, right over the bel canto of Rossini, to this grand opera of Verdi was quite a jump. All of a sudden—DRAMA! SPECTACLE!

Aida was not an opera I had any familiarity with at all, beyond the fact that it took place in Egypt, and somehow involved an elephant. It was definitely harder to relate to on a musical level than Mozart, with fewer standout “numbers” (you are not going to leave the theater humming, that’s for sure); however, the pageantry of the first half alone makes it a terrific introduction to the world of opera.

The Good:  The costumes were absolutely gorgeous, especially Pharaoh. The elephant was very well done and the triumphal march quite stirring. For the most part, the singing was very strong. Also, the woodwinds sounded great—as a former player of the clarinet, I always appreciate when woodwinds get a chance to shine.

The Bad:  I assume this is Verdi and this style of opera and not the performers, but the lyrics were unintelligible to me. Whereas I could follow much of the Italian in Figaro, here I totally had to rely on the supertitles. This may be why I felt the acting wasn’t as strong as in Figaro, which became especially problematic for the emotional tomb scene, where the production values could have been stronger.

Thankfully, there was no ugly. It was a fantastic night out all around. For that, I’d also like to give a shout-out to Indigo, for their fabulous food and even more fabulous policy of no corkage fees. We had a delicious meal and were able to enjoy a great wine (the Calcareous Vineyard Très Violet 2006—a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre) purchased on my trip to Paso Robles last year.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cocktail Culture

Just a quick post to express my excitement at receiving my very own copy of Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail. After discovering the “Blood and Sand” (equal parts blended scotch, cherry Heering, sweet vermouth, and orange juice) in the Great White North, I knew I had to get this book. It’s a great mix of recipes and history and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves classic cocktails. This new bible comes on the heels of being supremely disappointed by the drinks at The Burritt Room in the Crescent Hotel. I had been hoping for a new Bourbon and Branch (who had me at their cucumber gimlet), but, sadly, the cocktails at The Burritt Room were more creative than tasty. DeGroff’s recipes are a great antidote to places that aspire to be part of the new cocktail culture, but try just a bit too hard.

In other book news, I also received my outstanding order of two Penguin Classic clothbound designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith. Originally designed for Waterstone’s in the UK, these editions are simply gorgeous and, priced at under $15 at Amazon, a great addition to any library.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Opera 101—Rock Me Amadeus

From the opening bars of Le Nozze di Figaro (familiar to anyone who has seen Trading Places, another great story of putting one over on an undeserving aristocracy), I was thrilled with my decision to explore the world of opera this year.

In New York, one of my great luxuries was an annual subscription to the New York Philharmonic. So, once my budget here allowed (food and rent are not the only things around here that cost money…), I looked into both the symphony and the ballet. Not thrilled with the programming of either, and seeing that the opera season would include a number of “warhorses,” perfect for a beginner like me, I decided to take the plunge.

Over the years, despite my love of concert music, I have seen only a few classic operas live: La Bohème (it’s an opera), La Traviata, a horrific Carmen in Paris, and a number of productions of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. But these have been few and far between.

So, naturally, I decided that some research was in order. I turned, as I often do, to The Teaching Company, which provides educational courses on CD and DVD. These recordings cover a range of topics, from science to history to literature, and can usually be found at your local library. I can’t recommend them enough. If you have any interest in concert music, I highly recommend Robert Greenberg’s lectures, especially How to Listen to and Understand Great Music (48 CDs) and How to Listen to and Understand Opera (32 CDs).

The Marriage of Figaro is featured prominently in Greenberg’s discussion of opera buffa, or Italian comic opera. It’s a fun opera, easy to follow, and very tuneful. Last night’s production seemed to be a very traditional interpretation, but I highly enjoyed it. I was reasonably impressed with the orchestra and singers, whose acting was particularly strong. The set was appropriately Spanish looking. My only complaint was with the supertitles, which were remarkably inconsistent, and, at times, incomplete. My Italian filled in the gaps, but I feel like they could have been handled much better than they were.

But, all in all, this was a great start to the season.

Looking good, Mozart!

[Note: If you missed the multitude of Trading Places references in this post, get thee to Netflixit's a classic.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Technological Gains vs. Tactile Loss

Weeks ago, I dug out my mother’s old copy of Théâtre de Beaumarchais in order to finally read Le Barbier de Séville and Le Mariage de Figaro in preparation for seeing Le Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera. It’s one of the few books of hers that I have, and the only work of fiction. I finally opened it this past weekend. This is what I found:

Once I got over the shock that my mother wrote in books (!), I was thrilled to turn the pages and discover what she had written almost 60 years ago: thoughts and connections from years before I was born. Reading them now, more than 20 years after she died, was both fascinating and comforting. Just seeing her handwriting (so very French, so very her), brought back a flood of memories—like I could feel her fingerprints.

I’m lucky to have plenty of fond memories of both my parents, but it made me realize how lucky I am to have these tangible memories as well: letters, photos, postcards. With digital cameras, emails, and texts, are kids today even familiar with their parents’ handwriting? Are these technological gains worth the tactile loss? Are they gathering different physical memories?

As much as I personally loathe the Kindle, I never thought that one of my arguments against it would be that you couldn’t write in it. But I guess I’m particularly glad that it didn’t exist in the 50s, or I might never have known that, apparently, Mom wasn’t a fan of trilogies either—there’s not one mark in La Mère coupable.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Trilogy of Trilogies

As I finish up the second most-awaited third volume of the year, I’m left wondering about trilogies.

Hollywood has long taken advantage of the popularity of original works to produce sequels, but rarely are these films better than the original (feel free to post your inevitable defense of The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan here). Of course, Hollywood’s trilogies suffer greatly from the fact that they are rarely planned; rather, they are most often attempts to capitalize on the success of the original. As such, they are generally ill-conceived, rushed, and often leave you even more depressed than when you started—Wachowski brothers, I’m looking at you.

But what of literary trilogies? Two of the biggest book releases of 2010 were conclusions to trilogies, the first volumes of which were released in the US in 2008: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games series seems to have been planned as a trilogy, but, while the Millennium Trilogy was only submitted to publishers after the (now late) author had completed all three books, rumor of a manuscript for a fourth book leads one to believe that the series would have continued.

What’s intriguing to me is that, while opinions vary on which book in the Millennium Trilogy is “the best” (as often seems to happen with books in an extended series), everyone I know who has read the Hunger Games trilogy was disappointed with Mockingjay, myself included.

Are the second and third volumes of literary trilogies doomed to disappoint? After all, people say that Purgatorio and Paradiso are a snooze, and only Inferno is worth reading.  As I pick up Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy to prepare for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro later this month, do I bother to read La Mère coupable?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Games Without Frontiers

So, I had a bit of trouble crossing the border into Canada last week because immigration officials were convinced that I wanted to move there to work. Of course, it didn’t help that I had actually brought my resume along to updatesince I would love to find another job that I like as much as my current one (but where I'm, you know, adequately paid and appreciated), but not in Toronto.

Officials thought it was odd that I seemed to be coming just for a few days to visit friends. If they had known that I would spend much of that time hanging out and playing games, they probably would have been even more concerned. Why visiting to go up to the top of a tower and look down is more “normal,” I have no idea, but many people don’t seem to understand the appeal of games, or what I mean when I ask “Do you like games?”

I don’t mean Monopoly. And I don’t mean video games. Mostly I mean German-style board games, or Eurogames.

Eurogames emphasize strategy over luck, while not being as intense as something like chess. They have a theme and often involve building or developing things: cities, lands, train lines, etc. Although the first time you play generally takes a lot longer as you learn how the game works, unlike something like Risk, they have built-in endpoints that prevent a game from being interminable. They aren’t always German, or even European—that’s just what they’re called because they often are. Classic examples of the genre are Carcassone and Settlers of Catan.

If you’ve never tried them, invite a couple of people over, make some fabulous cocktails, and enjoy the following suggestions!

Exploring the world of Eurogames: Carcassonne, Dominion, Notre-Dame, and Ticket to Ride

Taking it to the next level: Agricola, Race for the Galaxy, and The Settlers of Catan

Games for people who think they don’t like games: Acquire, Bohnanza, and the Mystery Rummy series, especially Murders in the Rue Morgue