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.