Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some light holiday reading

The best used bookstore I know of in my parents' hometown is Goodwill; one of the locations even has a little coffeeshop attached, and if you buy a book you get $1 off pastries. Not bad, not bad.

I picked this title up for a mere 79 cents the other day -- from the clearance rack at Goodwill. That bodes well, right?
"Whodunnit" is right up there with "cyber" on my list of words I hate

But! I am pleased to report that this was a good buy. The book contains a variety of short mystery stories featuring detectives in different periods of history. Many of the stories are republished from Ellery Queen but a few were written for this anthology. As the cover suggests, some of the sleuths are the stars of series, so if you like their stories this collection can be a jumping-off point. To this end, there's a little bibliography suggesting specific books according to their setting. The editor has obviously put a lot of work in and these aren't just public-domain stories collected up to make a quick buck. The bibliography and the introductions to each story make it clear that there is a real human opinion at work behind the selections, which I think makes the whole thing more enjoyable.

Unsurprisingly, given my well-known Roman history obsession, I liked the story starring Decius Metellus best, and I want to read one of the full-length books at some point, whenever I get time. I was really surprised by the number of different time periods represented though. So far I've read stories set in ancient Egypt, Golden Age Athens, republican Rome, imperial Rome, Justinian Byzantium, ancient China, and early medieval Ireland. Some are, I think, a little more "historical" than others, in that some stories seem more interested in exploring the limitations and methods of pre-modern "investigation" than others, which more or less transpose the standard format. It's interesting to see how different authors set about their stories, and the beauty of short stories is that you're never far off from something different.

I'm still plugging away at The Two Towers but this book makes for nice vacation reading. It's like that tray of cookies you can't stop nibbling at, even though you know you ought to be eating up the leftovers from your Christmas party's raw veggie tray.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In dulci jubilo / Let us our gifties show (off)

Alice has decreed that we should all post about the books we got for Christmas, and when Alice says "post" I jump, so here it is, a photo of the books I got for Christmas:

Artist's rendition
Of course it's just what I asked for and I am very grateful and look forward to feeding my Kindle, but I admit it was a little anti-climactic. Especially since my family exchanged a lot of books this Christmas (which is unusual; I don't think a single person got a bottle of brandy or a weapon this year). Boo hoo hoo.

I'm planning to hold onto the card and buy books as I want to read them, how boring is that? I've already sketched out some of the things on the table for me in the New Year; the only addition I have to make is that I, shamefully, still have to buy and read Mindy Kaling's book. Apparently $13 is too much for me. But I'm going to bite the bullet as soon as I've cleared the decks.

The only other book-related present I got was a booklight. I adore the Kindle's non-backlit screen, but even so, there are times when one wants to read in bed without having to get up and switch the light off. The one I got has a big clip to go on a paper book, so I think I'm going to try and return it for one that's more e-reader friendly.

I hope everyone's having a cheery holiday season! The only slight spot on my Christmas has been mom's obsession with HGTV -- who are all these early 20-somethings buying condos?!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'm havin' hobbits for Christmas

Christmas (or in my case, the birthday-Christmas season) is a time of excess. Personally I've spent the last couple of days baking booze cakes (yes plural, and both those recipes are delicious), drinking pumpkin spice Irish cream in my coffee, and sewing sequins onto a sweater. Ho ho ho.

The other thing I've been doing, which is in its own way excessive, is re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I passed over the three-volume hardbacks and the paperback omnibus and went right for the pleatherette Big Red One:

Uff da.
It's a nice bright festive red with shiny metallic printing, and satisfyingly hefty. Like the Ring itself, this edition is reluctant to be moved and feels especially heavy when you consider taking it with you anywhere.

Having just watched the Peter Jackson trilogy with Alice, the movies are fresh in my mind --

Break to gush over the Hobbit trailer: SQUEEEE! Martin Freeman was born to play Arthur Dent, Dr. Watson, and Bilbo Baggins, so thank you world for making these happen.

-- certainly much fresher than the books. I have a horrible memory; in fact I think when I saw Two Towers and Return of the King in theaters I had pretty much forgotten the respective books already. The movies are "big" visually, but the books feel "big" in time. What I mean is, the art direction and the use of New Zealand's geography makes it seem like the movies were shot in a real continent-sized place; and while the books certainly have that complete world in them, what strikes me first and most immediately is that there are thousands of years present in and behind the story. Even on a smaller scale, I've just gotten up to the arrival in Rivendell and already years have passed in the main plot. And of course the events of The Hobbit are directly involved as well.

I'm trying to pay better attention to the poems and songs -- as my experiences with AS Byatt will attest, I have a tendency to gloss over this kind of thing to get back to the plot as soon as possible. Aside from your feelings about poetry, I guess you have to like spending time with the characters in order to appreciate this kind of literature within literature. After all, in this case at least, the poems are the characters' way of expressing and enjoying themselves.

Being (hopefully) (sort of) older and wiser since the last/first time I read LOTR, another thing that strikes me is that the characters are very much adults. Frodo is out of his "tweens" almost right out the gate, and the other characters (at least so far) are mature if not actually old. Of course there's an element of growing up, learning, gaining experience to the quest, but it's not a coming-of-age story. It seems even sort of Tolkien-esque to say that the characters' lives to this point have been a kind of preparation for this quest in a broad destiny sort of way.

This frivolous image is your reward for reading this far.
 Anyhow, I am plugging along and hopefully will have more and better thoughts to share with you over the next few weeks. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Books on the horizon

It's a dangerous thing to be the book I bring with me on a trip. I usually finish it pretty early in the proceedings, so that by the time I have to decide what's coming back with me, it's looking kind of old and dull next to the shiny exotic new foreign books.

Probably the only book I'll be bringing with me to London next month (other than missals) is my Kindle. Now praise we all our Kindles! This is precisely why I got the Kindle, and let's hope it doesn't have any kind of technical issue while I'm over there. The only potential non-ebook I might have with me is Bel Canto, which I bought at the Open Books sale and is just about the only book I bought there that isn't three inches thick.

The first thing that will probably be on the Kindle for my reading pleasure is Doctor Thorne, by my old friend Anthony Trollope. Being in the public domain is a pretty good argument for picking this series back up, huh?

Also in the free books realm, I've been meaning to re-read some Jane Austen, although my thoughts are a little too nebulous about that to translate into actual reading at the moment. I find that it's best to wait until I'm really, really interested in reading something or else it just drags.

Another possible re-read, crossing over into books that cost money, would be The Lord of the Rings. I've been itching to re-read this for about a year and I think the time might be right. I'm only hesitant because I already own three paper editions (yes, yes) and spending $23 for an ebook version makes me a little... cringey. I'll probably start reading the paper version before I leave and see how far I get.

I'll certainly have Norwegian Wood on there, since Alice is doing another read-along.

The Time in Between is another one that's on my radar. I don't know anything about it except the publisher's blurb -- and that it's got a gorgeous cover/endpaper design in hardback. You know, sometimes you just have to read things because they're intriguing. Aside from the subject matter and art direction, my interest is piqued by the fact that it's been translated from Spanish and brought to the US market. That's kind of a vote of confidence, right?

So that's sort of my reading plan for the next couple of months. Such as it is.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Books worth adding a few pounds to your suitcase (and your credit card bill) (see what I did there)

You know what's a good way to fit books into your suitcase to bring home? Between the ribs of the rolly handle in the bottom. Once I managed to bring 12 books home with me without paying an excess weight fee. Here, in no particular order, are some books I brought from London to the US.

Pie, by Angela Boggiano. I love British dinner pies. Love, love, love. Oh sure, American pot pies are okay, but they tend to be more "creamy soup with biscuits on top". My mother is from the very small area of the US where pasties are common, but other than that, it's unusual to encounter a really good savory pie in the states. So I bought this book in the hopes of being able to produce the thing I love myself. I tried the cheese and onion recipe after much researching and specialty-ingredient shopping and it turned out delicious, even if the crust was a little wonky (my own fault).

The Great British Picnic Guide was actually a gift. It's a pretty sort of book, with recipes and ideas and so on: the sort of thing that makes you forget how unpleasant eating on the ground in the outdoors actually is.

Aubrey/Maturin books are a summer reading staple for me, and searching used bookstores for the next one in the series makes for a nice afternoon. But I'll be honest, I have mostly brought these home because I feel like I need to own one of each cover design.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a three-part novel about a woman in medieval Norway that I started reading because I was in the mood for some first-class historical fiction. Obviously it had to come home with me, it's going to help balance out all the un-classy Georgette Heyer.

It's unusual, really, to come across a book that you can't get in America. And, okay, you can buy The Spirit of Solesmes here, but it wasn't on Amazon when I got it. And it's an outstanding Christian-spirituality book, so I was very glad I shelled out the money when I did.

I can't remember the title or any other identifying information about this next one, and although I'm pretty sure it was exclusive to the British Library somehow it's not on their online shop. It was a small reprint/translation of a sort of domestic handbook from colonial Latin America. How to manage a household, that sort of thing. I know, at this point you're wondering why you even bother reading other blogs when this one is so informative and engaging.

Ok, so I actually bought The Secret Life of Buildings in Manchester but bear with me. Unlike all of the others on this list, this one was pretty disappointing; in fact I didn't make it past the first few chapters. The book claims to be architectural history told in an engaging way that takes into account the way the buildings were used and how they changed over time -- a social history of architecture?! Yes please!! But after reading the essays about the Parthenon, the Basilica of San Marco, and the Hagia Sophia, I was completely non-plussed. The author picks some little point or theme for each building and gives vignettes illustrating how these theme plays out in different phases of its history. But it plays fast and loose with the facts in name of cleverness a little too often for my taste. Furthermore, although these three buildings are religious buildings, the author makes it clear that he has no time or regard for religion. Fair enough, but it's hard to understand the religious design and use of religious buildings, much less how one religion might adapt another religion's buildings, without at least trying to wrap your head around religion beyond just "one superstition is the same as another." But oh! Look at that lovely cover! Even if I had read it and realized its disappointingness before having to wedge it into my suitcase, I probably still would have brought it home, just because of its stylish good looks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Where is my "Don't Panic" Kindle cover, capitalism?

No, I had not read The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy before, but having practically grown up on a Lord of the Rings message board, I sort of felt like I had. Towels, "42", mice and dolphins, you know. And then I saw the movie version in college with a group of Turkish grad students (an appropriately weird set of circumstances, I thought). But used bookstore to the stars (i.e. me and Alice) Open Books had a nifty omnibus edition of the "trilogy in four parts" for a bargain $7 so here we are.

For the record, I liked the movie well enough, and I haven't come across anything in the book(s) to change that impression. For the most part my reaction to the book(s) -- I've just finished The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and started in on Life, the Universe, and Everything -- has been to ramble along genially, thinking "heh" and "I see what you did there" at intervals. In short, I am not one of those people for whom Hitch Hiker's Guide is a touchstone, change-your-life book.

But! That's not to say I'm not enjoying it. And certainly not to say there aren't moments that make me laugh awkwardly in public places. For instance:
 "We have a thing on Earth..." began Arthur. "Had," corrected Zaphod. "... called tact. Oh never mind"
Ha, very sly.

One of the major problems encountered in time travel... is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveller's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. ... Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up.
Yes, yes, so far so wacky.  Adams is full of these little digressions. But then the whole thing just blossoms when a few paragraphs later you're suddenly getting this:
In it, guests take (willan on-take) their places at a table and eat (willan on-eat) sumptuous meals whilst watching (willing watchen) the whole of creation explode around them.
 Ahhh! Genius!

I think your tolerance level for these digressions probably shapes your enjoyment of the book to a great degree. I mean, in a way, the whole book is a series of digressions loosely hung on a plot. Being a very plot-driven reader, my tolerance for all these little wanderings (woo, synonym?) is naturally pretty low. (This is ironic because my mind is always going on digressions.) So while sometimes I find myself skipping ahead a little, I'm sure there are other people who eat them all up with a spoon. But even so, it's generally not too long until I find myself in the middle of an aside that is as funny as the one above, or, cue another example:
It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85 per cent of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N'N-T'N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme...
Medium is an interesting issue with the Hitch Hiker's Guide, and it occurs to me that the things that I really enjoy tend to be things that are fairly textually based. I'm assuming the jynnan tonnyx joke never turned up on the radio! although I guess the verb tenses would be just as funny. I can't put my finger on why, but I think I probably would enjoy the digressions in general more in the radio format.

Anyway, I'm convinced that the Ultimate Question is "How many songs about rainbows are there?"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

He who is tired of London is probably tired of Samuel Johnson quotes too

You certainly don't have to look far for literary whatnot in London; the place is sickeningly thick with bookish sites (and probably cites, har har). I don't think I've ever deliberately sought any of them out - with the possible exception of the time I went with my high school English class, but that was a package thing. And the time I lived 2-3 blocks from Mr Holmes' flat in Baker Street - but that was coincidence. I think you're pretty much always in some sort of literary reference in London, but my point is, I've never sat down with a book and a map and gone to a place for the sake of seeing where some fictional character did something.

I have sought out the British Library, of course, for research purposes but mostly for the food. The catering is all by Peyton & Byrne (IIRC) and it's right up my street as they say. In fact, it has been my custom, on arrival at some awful early hour at Heathrow, to hustle into the city to the BL, where I settle myself on the terrace with a latte and some sort of pastry and watch the English Lit types collect before the main doors open.* Another creature comfort of the BL is the free wifi, which is a wonderful thing to put you on your feet before hauling your suitcase off to your digs.**

Coffee, bun, literary scholars.

So maybe this is shallow, but my mental literary map of London has less to do with "here's Where Nicholas Nickleby lived" or even "here's where Jane Austen stayed" but more to do with, "here's where they always have a big stack of Patrick O'Brian novels" and "this is the best place to sit with a book instead of going to the archive."

Why am I rambling on about this? Because in about a month I'm headed back out to spend a good six month chunk in the ol' Metrop. And right now I'm having a hard time thinking of it as anything but a huge stressor and disruption. A stressor, because it's obviously an enormous and expensive pain in the butt trying to work out banking, housing, etc (all in process, thank you). And a disruption, because one likes one's friends. One is rather inclined to think that one's social future is here, not there. And one is not immune from thinking that spending six months in a foreign country isn't likely to do one's love life much good. Given that this will be my eighth lifetime trip to London, is it so surprising that it's not quite my first choice for a European vacation anymore?***

What gets me through the funk (and the guilt produced by the funk) is thinking about books, oddly enough. Many of my most relaxing memories of the capital are book memories. And one of the purposes in starting this blog was to provide a communications channel and outlet, to make some of that reading less solitary.

So to keep that calm, happy energy flowing, I think I'm going to work up some lists of my personal literary relationship with London: bookshops and reading spots I guess, but maybe also books I've brought home, the books I've brought with, and the books I really, really wanted to buy but didn't. I hope you'll bear with me.

* This follows the cup of tea at the Costas in arrivals and the almost inevitable fumbling to reload the Oyster card - why do I always run that down before leaving?
** I mentioned this to a London grad student once who let loose a bitter rant against tourists and freeloaders who clog up the bandwidth people need to do research. Fair enough, but I am unrepentant, partly because I have a reader's card, na na na boo boo.
*** 1. Vienna, 2. Rome, 3... Ljubljana? Maybe? Anyway, this ain't vacation, it's work, so all my £££ are needed in London.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Children's books

Alice has alerted me to this meme being hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, which is perfect for giving me an opportunity to gush...

Guys, I love kids' books. Kids' books are the best. I love any excuse to look at kids' books and have gone to Lengths to create excuses to buy them. So without further ado and not in any order:

1. Each Peach Pear Plum - there's maybe some punctuation in there - this might be the first book I really remember from childhood. It's by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, so it has adorable illustrations. The text is a little rhyme involving various fairy tale characters, and then you can search for them in the pictures. It's so cute and simple and wonderful.

2. The Jolly Postman - another Ahlberg book with cute, detailed illustrations and fairy tale characters. This one has little letters you can pull out and read, hence the subtitle: Or, Other People's Letters. Little kids will enjoy it, although it's kind of a "learning opportunity" about being gentle with books, and then when they get older they'll marvel at the level of detail and humor.

3. Flat Stanley is now, apparently, a whole media empire or something, with at least two series of early-reader books and a new set of illustrations. I can't find a picture of my old one, but I remember the pictures being black and white and pea-green. Stanley was a favorite bedtime story for Young Julie despite or perhaps because it was very long. At some point mom put her foot down and divided it up into chapters.

4. Dear Zoo - whenever I mention this one to my peers they don't seem to know what I'm talking about. Their loss: it had flaps. Flaps.

5. Flecki Hat Geburtstag - or as you Anglos might know it, Spot's Birthday Party. I spent Pre-K and Kindergarten in an international school in the Netherlands and my dad brought me this from West Germany. I don't remember the German classes we apparently had but I do remember making dad read this to me in German and English.

6. Officer Buckle and Gloria was my brother's book but I loved the pictures even though I was too old for it. If I'm remembering correctly there were lots of little details snuck in (which you might notice as a theme on this list). I could describe the Arthur books the same way.

7. The Berenstain Bears - good lord, we had so many of these. My brother and I learned (or were expected to learn) a large portion of our good behavior from the Bear family. I looked up the spelling of this on Amazon just now and spent a good ten minutes scrolling through the list: "Trouble with Money! No Girls Allowed! The Messy Room! Get in a Fight!"

8. Arty the Smarty and The Blue-Nosed Witch were two of my mom's old Weekly Reader books. She loved those books and I remember giggling when she would tell me about them, and then eventually gramma found them in the attic for me. I giggled because I thought it was goofy that mom would be so excited telling me some dumb ol' story about a fish, but you can bet if I ever have kids, I'll wear my enthusiasm on my sleeve like that. My mother, god bless her, maybe isn't the sort of bookworm I am, but we were always more enthusiastic about books than movies in my house growing up.

9. Usborne Newspaper Histories - I'm giving you a link for these because I think they're a little less well known. It's stunning how these manage to be so good on both a humor and an educational level. Again, they're the kind of thing that kids and adults can enjoy because there are all kinds of details in the writing and imagery. If I recall correctly, the Medieval Messenger and the Egyptian Echo are the funniest ones, but they're all hilarious. There are many imitators and wannabes but these are unbeatable (the "tour guide" types books in particular always fall flat for me).

10. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie - Just plain fun. There are a lot of other entries in this series now, but this is the original. I think if you were to look at all the books on this list together you could piece together my present-day sense of humor.

And, just to round out this list, one book that doesn't rank at all for me: Goodnight Moon. It was not a part of my childhood and has no magic for me. Flat Stanley all the way!