Friday, November 08, 2019

Bybeeary: Fiction and Nonfiction

It suddenly occurred to me this morning, before coffee, that I have lived in my newest place since June 1 and hadn't posted any pictures of the newest incarnation of the Bybeeary. So I'm fixing that today. Before coffee, as you can tell by the quality of the photos.

These two tall, slender shelves are on either side of my sofa.

The first picture is of the fiction shelf and the one below is the nonfiction. The fiction is alphabetical. The nonfiction is still a work in progress, except for the first one-and-a-half shelves: those are my books related to food.

On top of the fiction shelf is a pot that my mother made.

On top of the nonfiction shelf is decorative ball that reflects light. Next to it is a photo of my great-grandmother, taken around 1915. In the middle of the second shelf (which is the end of the aforementioned food section) is a cookie jar shaped like a stack of chocolate chip cookies.

 In the foreground on the right is a small drop-leaf table with some crystal on it. In the crystal bowl is my matchbook collection.

I'll go now (coffee) and let you zoom in on the book spines. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Falling Into the Readathon: Shiny New Things

Readathon Days are here again! The skies above are...

Well. Never mind about the skies, which are sort of gloomy and overcast. I'm focused on my stack of books for the next 24 hours.

In my previous post, I discussed all my half-read projects like Frankenstein and the Sontag biography, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Readathon: I was once again seduced by the shiny and new. Blame it on The New Yorker, which keeps appearing mysteriously in my mailbox. I don't know why. I love it, but I didn't subscribe to it. I guess I give off a heady bookworm scent that defies conventional borders.

Pictured above, this is my shiny new object: Lucky Per, a 1904 novel by Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan. (His name makes me smile, but I tremble every time I type it, for fear of misspelling it.)

Why did I feel compelled to go out and get Lucky Per? The usual reasons: It's old and obscure. There are good, strong whiffs of Realism. And yeah, this Everyman edition is so stinking cute. I'm not that hard to figure out, am I?

Okay, time for that first cup of coffee in my beloved Korea mug.

My plan is to read the last 150 pages of Sontag, then move onto Frankenstein, then soak my eyes in a vat of Visine.

Happy reading to all the Readathon participants. As always, I wish Dewey could be here with us, but I feel her spirit.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Planet Plans

I have a strong sense of how I want to wrap up my reading year. There are a lot of half-read books on the old TBR. I'm hoping to clear the decks. I'm making plans. Drafting a list to follow. Usually, when the year is past and I sheepishly duck back in to read these plans, the inevitable question I ask myself is: What planet were you on when you made this list?  Well, Planet Plans, of course! I can fairly hear the B-52s singing as I hum and arrange my stack:

1. Finish Middlemarch (I'm about 20% in. Dorothea is still on her honeymoon. Readers are starting to meet other citizens of Middlemarch, including the new doctor, Lydgate.

2. Finish the audiobook of Varina by Charles Frazier. I haven't listened to this book since June, and I fear that I've lost the thread. Must do better. Have I mentioned that it's performed by Molly Parker? I MUST do better. Molly freakin' Parker, for crying out loud.

3. Finish In America by Susan Sontag. The Polish actress and her entourage are finally, finally in America. The story has properly started. Time for me to get back on the stagecoach.

4. Finish Bettyville by George Hodgman. This memoir of a man who goes back to a small town in Missouri to take care of his ageing mother hits a little close to home, so although it's not very long and beautifully written, I can't read too much at one time. It breaks my heart. Plus, I wanted to know more about other pieces George Hodgman has written, so I googled him, Just more and more heartbreak. But I will finish Bettyville. For George and for me and for Betty, his mother, and Judy, my mother and for all the thousands of sons and daughters who set up and maintain that final, shaky outpost. Finished

5. Finish Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. After a couple of fitful starts on audiobook and an Everyman's edition with insect print, I visited my library. Gleaming from the very top shelf was The Annotated Frankenstein! It's gorgeous. Sexy. Great shelf appeal. The footnotes overrun the 1818 text (mostly commenting on the changes made for the 1831 version) but it feels so right, that balance of history and horror and literature and geekishness and nerdiness and yes! October!

6. Finish Sontag, Susan Sontag's biography by Benjamin Moser. I'm 35% in.  Finished

7. Read Go Down Together by Jeff Guinn. It's about Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. I gave it as a gift to a friend a couple of years ago. My reasons were twofold: I thought that he would enjoy it, and I planned to borrow it from him after a decent interval. Two years seems decent, even decorous, somewhat formal and old-fashioned.

8. Read Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. This will be my first outing with Gladwell. I reserved his latest book at the library. I'm second on the waitlist. Finished

Overall: It's a good plan(et), a pretty good list. It'll be interesting to check back in 2020 and see what really happened.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Seven in September

September was a good month for reading. I didn't make any reading plans; I just let my inclinations pull me about. The result was a richness of discovery:

1. Sempre Susan (memoir) - Sigrid Nunez.
In the 1970s, Susan Sontag was recovering from Stage 4 breast cancer (the treatment was as gruesome as the disease), and she hired Nunez to help her with correspondence. Soon, Nunez began dating David Rieff, Sontag's son, and all three lived together for a while. An honest and thoughtful memoir that gives readers a real glimpse of a formidable cultural icon.

2. The Pioneers (nonfiction) - David McCullough.
McCullough's stately and measured tone doesn't quite match up with the hardships and excitement of the settling of the Ohio valley. But McCullough is always good, and I was pleased to see that The Awakening Land trilogy by Conrad Richter influenced him to write this book. It made me want to read Richter again.

3. Dancing Fish and Ammonites (memoir) - Penelope Lively.
This was my first outing with Lively. I liked her reportage from the frontier of old age, and the careful and affectionate cataloging of her favorite objects, from which this memoir gets its title. I am eager to read her fiction now, particularly Moon Tiger.

4. The Government Lake (poetry) - James Tate.
What a strange read. Imagine if Raymond Carver wrote poetry instead of prose, and he just let his train of thought steam merrily into the hinterlands of absurd dream-logic with all its hard left turns. I enjoyed the playfulness of Tate's poetry while managing to understand that something more serious was afoot. I'll probably read this one again.

5. Happy All the Time (novel) - Laurie Colwin.
Colwin seems very mannered to me. Her characters interact in a way that feels almost brittle. But then, my God, there's all these dazzling pops of description, and they are so sensual, so cozy. It's like the reader could fairly snuggle down between the lines of print as if it were the softest of comforters. Clearly, domesticity was Colwin's genius. I think she'll be best remembered for her later work, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking.

6. A Ladder to the Sky (novel) - John Boyne.
This was my favorite read, my most pleasant reading discovery for September. Reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley, this novel is about Maurice, who wants nothing more than to be a writer. His problem is that he can't seem to generate an idea of his own or escape his own deadly boring prose style. Cold and opportunistic, Maurice doesn't let his shortcomings stand in his way. I could not put this book down.

7. What Is the Story of Frankenstein? (nonfiction) -Sheila Keenan.
I made a little foray into juvenile nonfiction to read about the first creature to observe that "it's not easy being green." I've always loved the story of the genesis of Frankenstein, how teenaged Mary Shelley beat the crap out of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron at their ghost-story writing contest. Although boiled down for younger readers, everything is here: the contest, Mary's background and influences, how the novel went through three drafts, how the monster in the novel is different from his famous screen incarnation. I was surprised to learn that there is a 1910 version available for viewing on YouTube. At the end, I was fired up to finally read Frankenstein for the first time in October.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

August: Intensity Too

I was feeling common bonds with the final four books I read in August:
 Women being underestimated
Women obsessed
 WTF? justice system
Evil men
 Slimy, shitty boyfriends/partners

5. The Trial of Lizzie Borden - Cara Robertson.
This is the very best book about the Borden trial. Cara Robertson does a close reading of the transcript and interprets the finer points, particularly in the defense strategy. She also researched how the press covered the trial, almost to comic effect. Really, they weren't so different from social media today. The examination of the brutal murder and the trial balances with the media circus and it creates the perfect amount of tension. In the end, it was all about the all-male jury not being able to wrap their heads around the idea of a well-bred New England spinster committing such a brutal murder. Luckily for Lizzie, she was underestimated. If it had gone the other way, she would have been hanged. My only beef with this excellent book is the dust jacket cover. It looks like historical fiction, which it most certainly is not. Why not a more typical nonfiction cover? Why not a photo of Lizzie Borden?

6. Three Women - Lisa Taddeo.
Journalist Lisa Taddeo followed three women for ten years, chronicling their lives: Maggie, a teenaged girl who falls in love with her handsome, popular English teacher who allows an inappropriate romantic relationship to develop; Sloan, an upscale restaurant owner whose chef husband has decidedly adventurous sexual proclivities that she does all she can to cater to; and Lina, a housewife from Indiana who has a husband who hates kissing (they go to marriage counseling about it) Lina and her husband separate, and she takes up with her high school boyfriend who has turned into a jerk and a lout. Lina sees this, but she looks the other way to get sex from him. Also belongs to a women's group and enjoys scandalizing them with her exploits. Lina and Sloane are pseudonyms. Maggie's real name is used, presumably because she finally informs the police about her teacher's advances several years later. I was dazzled by Taddeo's narrative of the three women's stories, but the book made me uncomfortable. I recognized the thoughts and sometimes the actions of an earlier incarnation of myself, as well as potential actions. What if I'd had an English teacher like Maggie's? The thought makes me shiver.

7. I'll Be Gone in the Dark - Michelle McNamara.
The Golden State Killer eluded the authorities for decades, but technology caught up and was finally his undoing. He started his 'career' as a rapist, so there was plenty of DNA to connect most, if not all his crimes. He hadn't been caught yet when the book was published, so it's amazing to read how close the cops were to figuring the case out, even pinpointing the college he attended briefly. I'll Be Gone in the Dark is also the story of Michelle McNamara, whose blog True Crime Diary helped shine a spotlight on the case. Obsessed with solving the crime, McNamara did an amazing amount of research, poring over documents and following leads. Sadly, she died in the middle of writing this book and just months before the capture of The Golden State Killer.

8. After A While You Just Get Used To It: A Tale of Family Clutter - Gwendolyn Knapp.
This summer, I watched Florida Girls, a screamingly funny and deceptively sharp comedy on PopTV. The season consisted of only around a dozen episodes, so I've been missing my Wednesday nights with Jayla, Erica, Kaitlin, and Shelby. Knapp's book about her hilarious and horrifying family in Florida and New Orleans filled the void nicely. Near and dear to my heart (not sure I'm referencing the proper organ) was Knapp's discussion of her ongoing IBS problem. I laughed; I cried; I ran to the bathroom.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

August Reading: Bump Up The Intensity

My August reading seemed intense. Just before I sat down to write this post, I found this quote on my Twitter feed by the absolutely fabulous Nancy Pearl, quoting Angela Carter:

"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel...all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms."

As true with nonfiction as with fiction.

Anyway, this month I brought to my reading all the emotions that keep my nerve endings crackling nonstop. Somehow, the books answered me in kind:

1. Swimming in a Death Sea - David Rieff.
This short but powerful memoir of Susan Sontag's final illness by her son, her only child, was intense. I'm glad it was short. Almost too much to take. I was reading with an odd sort of triple vision. One, I was reading about an author who I've come to admire in just a short time who was fighting to cheat death from cancer a third time in her life, as well as her son, who was put in the unenviable position of not being able to discuss his mother's illness with her candidly, nor was he allowed to lie to her or sugarcoat anything.  Two, I read this with the full weight and grief of what I'd just been through with my own mother. Not cancer, but a steady. sharp decline with stalled conversations as a sense of unreality covered us like a shroud. Three, I read it with an eye to a possible, no, probable future: Myself (Susan) as elderly, ill patient-parent, and my own son, my only child by my side, and wanting to spare him that sort of experience, but also knowing that I probably cannot.

2. The Escape Artists - Neal Bascomb. 
Take The Great Escape, back it up to a WWI setting, and double the efforts and intensity of pilots trying to escape a "perfect" POW camp with a sadistic Kommandant in the German wilderness that was more than a hundred miles from the Dutch border. Fun fact: James Whale, the director of the 1931 version of Frankenstein was a prisoner there.

3. Daisy Jones & The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid.
So much to love about this "oral history" of a fictional 1970s rock band. Reads enjoyably like an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. I plan to revisit this novel in audiobook form; the cast list is a Who's Who of my favorite audiobook performers. I'm starting to feel quite attached to Taylor Jenkins Reid. I read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo in July and absolutely gobbled it down. Now I want to read all of her books.

4. Incoming Assets - Stephanie Williams and Celestian Rince.
Young, thirtysomething Canadians Steph and Cel live in Vancouver, B.C. which is, by all accounts, expensive. They are also planning to retire around the age of 35. They also want to keep their favorite hobby of globetrotting twice a year. Achieving all of this with regular-paying incomes takes intensity and focus, especially since they just started this endeavor less than 10 years ago, but there's nothing grim about these two. I was happy to discover them and I enjoy reading their blog of the same name.

There were 8 books altogether in the month of August. I need to make this a two-parter. Next time, the remaining 4, which I'm still trying to process as we climb farther into September.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Larry McMurtry on Susan Sontag

The following excerpts in which Larry McMurtry mentions Susan Sontag are from his 1999 memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen:

     Susan Sontag is a reader who can almost be said to sweat literature--it is in her juices, as basketball is in Michael Jordan's. With Susan, I think, the tug of literature is as constant as breath. A characteristic she shares with all great readers is that, however stern she may intend to be, politically or philosophically, when she begins to talk about her reading she reveals a broadly catholic taste. The thrill Susan experiences when she spots a desired book she has not been able to find is probably comparable to that of a bird-watcher who at last glimpses a long-sought species. [pp. 124-125]

     Both in my library at home and in my bookshops I have a hard time hewing to any strict philosophy of shelving. Shelving by chronology (Susan Sontag's method) doesn't always work for me. The modest Everyman edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refuses to sit comfortably next to Leonard Baskin's tall Beowulf, and exactly the same problem--incompatibility of size--crops up if one shelves alphabetically. Susan Sontag, on a visit when all my books were in the old ranch house, found that she couldn't live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving. She imposed a hasty chronologizing which held for some years and still holds, in the main.
    Susan's principles notwithstanding, I make free with chronologies when the books seem to demand it. My Sterne looks happier beside my Defoe than he looks next to his nearer contemporary Smollett, so Tristram Shandy sits next to Moll Flanders rather than Peregrine Pickle. [p. 167]