Saturday, June 30, 2012

June Recap and Paris in July

Here is the June recap:
Books read: 8
Books started and not finished: 3 - Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt; Eye of the God by Ariel Allison (Nook); Frost at Christmas by R.F. Wingfield
Books abandoned: Dead Tease by Victoria Houston
Authors met: 1 - Gail Collins

In other news, I signed up for the Paris in July event started by Book Bath and Thyme for Tea. This is its third year and my first. The point is to read, eat, watch and listen to anything that has to do with Paris and France. I already have one book and a cooking event planned. I am excited about participating.

I have visited Paris twice; most recently in September 2010. I spent the week walking everywhere. My toes had bruises. But that is definitely the best way to see this beautiful city. The first time I visited, in 1994, I took the Metro a lot because I was jumping from one famous site to the next. I saw many individual places but missed the big picture.

This last time I also visited Monet's gardens at Giverney. I spent hours sitting, sketching, and just relishing the stunning fall French weather. I had seen so many photos of the house and garden, and of course Monet's paintings as well, that I felt like I had been there before. It was a glorious adventure.

So I am inspired by the Paris in July event. Be prepared for many stories about my times in the City of Light.

Friday, June 29, 2012

As Texas Gail Collins

Last night journalist and author Gail Collins spoke to a full, full house at a program put on by the public library. This was part of her book tour for As Texas Goes...How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.

Collins had some funny things to say about Texans, their politics, their education system, their influence, and just their general crankiness. There are 26 million people living in this huge state that has the second highest birthrate in America. Utah is first. The population has an enormous sense of self-identity and still clings to the idea that before it was a state Texas was a republic for nine years. And they are still riding on the sentiment of the soldiers at the Alamo: Victory or die.

Collins is a very engaging speaker. She is short and her head barely made it over the top of the podium. She spoke for about 45 minutes and then took questions from the audience. She has an explosive laugh and says she loves writing for the New York Times op-ed page twice a week and doesn't plan on going anywhere soon.

This is not her first book. She has two books out about the women: When Things Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (2009) and America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (2007). She also wrote a biography of President William Henry Harrison as part of the American Presidents Series (2012). Another of her books is Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics (updated 2007).

I had no idea she was so prolific. I think the first two listed above will go on my To Be Read list.

I did not feel the urge to buy the book. As a matter of fact, I kept wondering how she could stand to constantly immerse herself in the malfeasance and misadventures of those in the political scene. I wouldn't be able to take it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hotter Than a Texas Biscuit

Gail Collins
It is 102 degrees at six o'clock in the evening. A bit of a heat wave.

Heat or not, I am on my way to listen to Gail Collins speak at the library. Before the New York Times started charging to read 'into' the paper, I used to relish her op-ed columns along with those of Maureen Dowd. I do think Collins is wittier.

Tonight she will speak on her book As Texas Goes... How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. I am not much of a political junkie, but I just couldn't pass up a chance to see and hear her in person. I will give a full report tomorrow.

How fitting that it is hotter than a Texas biscuit tonight.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Quite a while ago I signed up for ebookfling. Here is how it works: you list the ebooks you own and they can be lent to others. You earn credits which can be used to borrow books from someone else. Since I don't really 'buy' books for my Nook, I probably don't have any to fling (lend). But, I can 'borrow' a book for 14 days for $2.99. The site also works for the Kindle.

Occasionally, I get an e-mail inviting me to download a free book.  Recently, I was invited to steal (download) Eye of God by Ariel Allison which I did. It is a mystery about plans to steal the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian Institute. I read a bit of it last night and it held my interest. There is some history of the diamond and its curse along with the plot.

Another book I was invited to steal was Dead Tease by Victoria Houston. It is one of a Loon Lake series of mysteries. I started it but wasn't too impressed although it is number 12 in that series so they must be popular if Houston keeps writing them. I may return to it another time. Or maybe I should begin with number one.

The first book I stole was The Book of Rules: The Right Way to Do Everything by Joshua Belter. It is a clever listing of rules for life covering such items as where ketchup should go on your plate, proper toilet paper placement, and regulations on singing aloud with headphones.

Written with tongue firmly in cheek.

I just now did a search for three books that are on my reserve list at the library. Not one of them is available for lending (even at $2.99 ) from ebookfling per the publisher. I can of course buy them from Barnes & Noble. No surprise there. Two are $12.99 and one is $9.99.

I added these three to my Wish List with ebookfling. Maybe one will become available, otherwise, I guess I will wait until my number comes up at the library.

Have you used ebookfling with any success?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Books That Shaped America

Most readers love lists of books. I know I do.

Well, now here is another one. Yesterday, our very own Library of Congress opened an exhibit of Books That Shaped America in conjunction with its multi-year Celebration of the Book. Here on display are 88 books dating from 1751 (Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity) up to 2002 (The Words of Cesar Chavez).

Many of the usual suspects are here: Walden, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Common Sense, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby.

But how about A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America (1789),  The History of Standard Oil (1904), and Joy of Cooking (1931).

Here is the link to the complete list: Books That Shaped America.

“This list is a starting point,” according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

There is a link on the website where you can nominate the book or books that you think ought to be on this list. Of the 88, I have read maybe 20. I will certainly be jumping over there to nominate All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren.

What books would you add?

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Perfect Library

I have picked up where I left off in Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim. Here is a lovely bit I read today. Elizabeth has just gotten home from a journey:

When I got to the library I came to a standstill, -ah, the dear room, what happy times I have spent in it rummaging amongst the books, making plans for my garden, building castles in the air, writing, dreaming, doing nothing!

There was a big peat fire blazing half up the chimney, and the old housekeeper had put pots of flowers about, and on the writing-table was a great bunch of violets scenting the room.

...It looks, I am afraid, rather too gay for an ideal library; and its colouring, white and yellow, is so cheerful as to be almost frivolous. There are white bookcases all round the walls, and there is a great fireplace, and four windows, facing full south, opening on to my most cherished bit of garden, the bit round the sun-dial; so that with so much colour and such a big fire and floods of sunlight it has anything but a sober air, in spite of the venerable volumes filling the shelves, Indeed, I should never be surprised if they skipped down from their places, and, picking up their leaves, began to dance.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Great American Novel

Robert Penn Warren Birthplace
Guthrie, Kentucky
Today, in a seven-hour reading marathon I finished All the King's Men. I truly think this is The Great American Novel. It has it all: greed; lust; violence; adultery; war; bribery and blackmail; political shenanigans; murder; love lost and found; friendship; sports; and, history. It also has the most compelling prose and plot-line to be found anywhere.

I can't tell you how many times I said to myself, "Oooh. I didn't see that coming."

I do believe Robert Penn Warren gave this novel everything he had.

I am so glad I didn't have but the vaguest of notions of what the novel was about. Anyone I have talked to about it says: "Oh, that is the book about the politician in the South, isn't it?"

Well it is and it isn't. Warren himself said that the book was never about politics. And I believe that. Politics plays a part but it is just the background against which all the action takes place. It could just as well have been Corporate America or the Wild West.

I am going to have to take some time to digest and absorb all that the book has to offer. It is quite a read.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Loves Lost

Chapter VI of All the King's Men which begins on page 376 and ends on 434 is a doozy. Jack Burden tells the reader about his summer love affair with Anne Stanton when she was 17 and he was maybe 21 or 22. They had been childhood friends for a long time before that summer when they both realized they were in love with each other.

It ends badly. It seems that most things do for our Jack.

Also in this chapter is the tale of Jack's marriage to Lois. He writes:

As long as I regarded Lois as a beautiful juicy, soft, vibrant, sweet-smelling, sweet-breathed machine for provoking and satisfying the appetite (and that was the Lois I had married), all was well. But as soon as I began to regard her as a person, trouble began. All would have been well perhaps, had Lois been struck dumb at puberty. Then no man could have withstood her. But she could talk, and when something talks you sooner or later begin to listen to the sound it makes, and begin, even in the face of all other evidence, to regard it as a person. You begin to apply human standards to it, and the human element infects your innocent Eden pleasure in the juicy sweet-breathed machine. I had loved Lois the machine, the way you love the filet mignon or the Georgia peach, but I definitely was not in love with Lois the person.

No surprise. The marriage ended badly as well.

Poor Jack.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Range of Intellect

As I am reading All the King's Men I am so aware of its many different levels. There is the plot level; the plot within the plot; the characters and their personalities; the lush writing; the philosophy; the sense of place; and most of all the range of intellect, imagination, and endurance that it took for Robert Penn Warren to craft such a piece of work.

I know that I am missing some of the wonder of each of the above as I read and my mind wanders from level to level. And then I think, 'Oh, I will have to reread this book,' or 'I wish I could just sit and read this book in one fell swoop and not be jerked in and out of Warren's world.'

And now, back to the reading chair.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Obstacles in the River

Obstacles abound and today I was unable to read any of All the King's Men which has left me irritated and anxious.

Classic withdrawal symptoms.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Swept Away

I can barely pull myself out of the river that is the novel All the King's Men. It flows, it swirls, there are rapids and calm waters. Huge boulders appear. The muddy banks come closer and then recede. Mysterious people appear on the shore. Some are smiling with happiness, some shoot looks of hatred.

My reading chair is my river raft and my life jacket is firmly buckled.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Coincidence at the Coffee Shop

Movie Poster for All the King's Men
How's this for a coincidence: This afternoon I had a rendezvous with a woman to discuss some business at a coffee shop. I had not met her before and when she asked me how my day had been, I told her I spent the morning reading Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

She looked shocked, then smiled and said, "That is one of my top ten favorite books ever."

Then it was my turn to look shocked. I don't think I have ever met anyone who has read it.

She loves it for the political intrigue. I love it for the writing. And the intrigue...which we agreed was so very current even though the book was published over 60 years ago. Some things just never change. I explained to her a bit about the Grand Southern Literary Tour and how I even came to buy the book.

When we finished our business, she insisted that when I got to the end of the story to be sure and call her and we could meet again and talk about it.

Which is just what I will do.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Beach House - Thumbs Down

I had never read any of the mysteries written by James Patterson so when one was offered in the "Take One for Free" stack at Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, I grabbed it.

The Beach House was published in 2002. It takes place in the Hamptons. It has a Underdog-vs-The Rich plot. The story opens with Peter speeding to the Memorial Day party given by the wealthy Neubauers. He is not a guest but one of the parking valets. By the end of chapter one, Peter is dead - beaten to death and tossed into the ocean. But, the inquest verdict - bought and paid for the the Neubauers - is death by accident or suicide.

The rest of the story has Peter's brother Jack, a soon-to-be attorney, trying to prove that Peter was killed and why. It takes lots of money and people conspiring to cover-up the murder. And it takes lots of townies - Jack's friends and even his grandfather - to uncover it.

There is the obligatory romance, the sex scenes, and the creepy violence (not too much) that normally deter me from modern thrillers. Unfortunately this one wasn't even thrilling.

The book is written in three-page-long chapters. I guess that is supposed to give it the feeling of a 'page-turner' but it is not. It really isn't very good which surprised me as I know that Patterson is a very popular writer. If this is a sample of what he is putting out there - and I understand he writes three books a year - I won't be coming back for more.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

All the King's Men

I seem to swing from one extreme to another. I left the childhood charm of the Hundred Acre Wood and am now embroiled in the political shenanigans in The South in the 1930s with Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men. It is a whopper of a tale coming in at 600 pages. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

The copy I have is the Restored Version edited by Noel Polk, which has the main character named Willie Talos as the Boss, the name Warren used in his original manuscript. The Boss is better known as Willie Stark in the first published edition and in the movies. There have been two film versions - one in 1949 starring Broderick Crawford and another in 2006 starring Sean Penn.

Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905. He received degrees from, are you ready, Vanderbilt University, University of California at Berkeley, Yale University, and Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar.  Quite an education. He was named poet laureate and won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry. He died in 1989.

I am surprised at how quickly I was drawn into the story which is narrated by former newspaperman and now the Boss's right-hand-man Jack Burden. The writing is superb - slow and sinuous like a Southern summer's day. It evokes perfectly the long red faces of the hard-scrabble farmers, the sweat-stained seersucker jackets of the townsmen, and the still-blazing evening sun setting over cotton fields and courthouses.

Here is a small sample:

I went on past the stables, which were build of log, but with a good tin roof, and leaned on the fence, looking off down the rise. Back of the barn the ground was washed and gullied some, with piles of brush chucked into the washes here and there to stop the process. As if it ever would. A hundred yards off, at the foot of the rise, there was a patch of woods, scrub oak and such. The ground must have been swampy down there, for the grass and weeds down there at the edge of the trees were lush and tropical green. Against the bare ground beyond it looked too green to be natural, the way the phony grass carpet the undertaker puts on the new grave to spare the feelings of the bereaved looks too green to be natural. I could see a couple of hogs lounging down there on their sides, like big gray blisters popped up out of the ground.

I think I am in for quite an experience.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hundred Acre Wood

In which Winne-the-Pooh impersonates a storm cloud to trick some bees
Ernest H. Shepard
I spent the morning in the Hundred Acre Wood with Winnie-the-Pooh and compatriots Piglet, Rabbit, Eyeore, Owl, Kanga and Little Roo. What fun we had when Christopher Robin led us on an Expedition to find the North Pole. And we celebrated Eyeore's birthday, pulled Pooh out of the rabbit's hole when he got stuck, set a trap for a Heffalump, pretended to be a storm cloud to trick the bees into giving up some honey, and most helpful of all, we found Eyeore's tail.

I am talking of course of the wonderful escapades of A.A.Milne's creatures who live in The Forest. Nothing really bad happens that can't be set right by Christopher Robin. And in time of troubles it is best to hum a little tune of your own creation.

There are probably lessons of tolerance to be learned when Kanga and Little Roo come to the wood and no one knows how they got there. "The Usual Way," is CR's explanation although no one knows exactly what that means. The gang kidnaps Little Roo in hopes that Kanga will decided the wood is not a good home, but as usual plans go awry and everyone becomes friends in the end. And Piglet gets a bath.

But that is not the point of these delightful stories. At least I hope not. There is too much enjoyment and laughter to be had to be thinking about Serious Meanings. What good companions these inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood turned out to be on a Saturday morning.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Taking Childhood Reading in Hand

Illustration by Kate Greenaway

Since my post the other day on the pitiful state of my reading during childhood, I decided to make a more concerted effort to catch up. So between now and the end of the year I will read 10 books that come from the lists of classics for kids.

I found a lovely used hardback copy of Winnie-the-Pooh on the Grand Southern Literary Tour and although I have read it, I will start with Winnie and the crew and work my way through a list of my own devising.

I know for sure I want to read Anne of Green Gables. (I had a copy that got water damaged in a storage box before I ever got around to reading it.) And I have never read any of the Little House on the Prairie books.

I know that Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, is a big fan of children's literature and even started a book club devoted to the genre...if is a genre.

Maybe the reason I don't read much fiction is because I was not exposed to it so much as a child so I don't have that 'tell me a story' yearning.

If anyone has any suggestions, let me know. I am not interested in vampires or any of the newer politically correct books. I just want a good, old-fashioned read.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

To Reread, or not to Reread, that is the question

I am not a re-reader. Once I finish the book, that is pretty much it for me. But I recently watched an interview with Shelby Foote and he said rereading was when you got to study what the author did. You know by now where she is going and you get to see how she gets you there.

Anna Quindlen said the same thing. She is a big fan of rereading. I could probably count on two hands the number of books I have found compelled to read again.

One is Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman. Another is To Kill a Mockingbird. One summer I reread all of the Annie Dillard books that I own: Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I have read William Zinsser's On Writing Well multiple times.

Within the past few years I also reread Travels With Charley by Steinbeck. That is the book that made me want to be a writer. I was afraid to read it again - the last time was in high school - because I didn't want to be disappointed or finish it and say, "What was I thinking? This is the book I based my entire life on?"

Fortunately it was just as compelling as I remembered it.

I feel like rereading a book you loved the first time is risky business. The emotions that you felt may be entirely missing the second time and that would be so disheartening. It is like visiting the house you grew up in now that someone else lives there. The images that you hold dear are superseded by the green carpet and the yellow wallpaper that the new owners have installed in your bedroom.

How do you feel about re-reading a favorite book?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder

Barbara Kingsolver

I finished Small Wonder this morning. It is a book of 23 essays by Barbara Kingsolver. And it is a wonder.

The woman writes a fine essay. She made me smile, think, cry, and get angry all at once. Quite a feat.

Usually I read a book of essays in order but this time I started in the middle and read backward to the first one and then started over with the final essay and read toward the middle.

I read her Foreward last. In it, Kingsolver writes that she began the book on September 11, 2001. She didn't know it would would end up as a collection. Instead it began as one woman's response to the terrorist attacks.

I can not find fault with her ideas and opinions about war, family, community, home and homelessness, and the fragility of our planet's flora and fauna. She digs deep and I often found myself weeping at her words.

She mentions a previous book of essays published in 1995. So of course that one, High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Ever, is now on my To Be Read list. One book leads to another.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading in the Garden

I have been doing some reading on the front porch the past couple of afternoons. My front yard is no bigger than a handkerchief surrounded by a picket fence. Three small arbor vitaes stand at attention to the left of the walkway. A red knock-out rose, a planter boasting a green fern, two French blue planters with red geraniums, and a French blue birdbath decorate the right side of the yard.

It is very pleasant of an afternoon to sit outside in my black wicker chair. Sometimes the reading turns into a bit of napping, but where's the harm in that?

What better book to accompany me today than Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Elizabeth loves her garden. Although not perfect, she finds solace there and sees its potential. She plants, she fails, she plants again. She wanders. She reads. She builds castles in the air.

She makes a pilgrimage to her childhood garden. The house where she grew up now belongs to cousins. Because Elizabeth was born a She and not a He, the house and gardens were lost to her when her father died. Memories come of pleasant days spent hiding from governesses. She cries when she comes across a little patch of radishes still growing in a particular border tended by her father.

I like to read about gardening, but you won't find me touching dirt. Although my mother could name every flower and tree in a yard or park and my father enjoyed puttering around in his tomato and iris beds, I didn't get that gardening gene. I know that others thrill to the pulling of weeds, the squishing of bugs, the pruning of rose bushes. I am not one of them. What is therapeutic for some proves to be simply taxing for me.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Anna Quindlen's Book Lists

I finished up Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life. It is a book one can read in a minute; it is only 70 pages long. Although it is short, don't be fooled - it is not lightweight.

I especially enjoyed looking over her book lists at the end. I love lists. These are not your typical ones, either. Here are examples and a pick from each list:

10 Books I Just Love to Read, and Always Will
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

10 Modern Novels That Made Me Proud to Be a Writer
The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

10 Good Book-Club Selections
The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

10 Books Recommended by a Really Good Elementary School Librarian
No Flying in the House by Betty Brock

10 Mystery Novels I'd Most Like to Find in a Summer Rental
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie P. King.

10 Books for a Girl Who Is Full of Beans (or Ought to Be)
Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

10 Book I Would Save in a Fire (If I Could Save Only 10)
Bleak House by Charles Dickens

10 Nonfiction Books That Help Us Understand the World
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

There are a couple other lists but you get the idea. Here are over 100 books just in case you are looking for some suggestions. What I liked is that there are books on these lists I have not heard of much less read. But, from the examples above, I have read two: The Phantom Tollbooth and Catherine, Called Birdy. I loved them both and both are listed as 'children's books'.

There I go trying to make up for my childhood lapses in literary adventures.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Revolution in the Classroom

In fact one of the most pernicious phenomena in assigned reading is the force-feeding of serious work at an age when the reader will feel pushed away, not from the particular book being assigned, but from an entire class of books, or even books in general.

This is a quote from Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life. She goes on to write that making a class of high school freshmen read Silas Marner is unlikely to make them want them to enthusiastically read Middlemarch in later life.

It was while reading that paragraph that I developed a theory that education would be so much more enlightening and engaging if students learned by reading books. I do not mean textbooks. Has there every been an interesting textbook written? I don't think so.

Why not have students learn about the Civil War by reading Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Why not study the mores of Victorian England through Galworthy's The Forsythe Saga. Or the horror of the Holocaust through Anne Frank's diary. Or study biology with Lewis Thomas's Lives of a Cell. Or become a poet by reading Dr. Suess.

One could learn to be an astute observer by reading the mysteries of Agatha Christie, an interior designer by reading Edith Wharton's The Decoration of Houses, or, want to become a scientist or mathematician by reading biographies of Marie Curie or Hypatia of Alexandria.

Not that books aren't read but they are read as a supplement to the textbooks. In fact there are already so many sources of knowledge on the library shelves now that we don't need another dull textbook. Let students wander and wonder and find their own way in the arts and sciences. How much more exciting my school days would have been if I could have followed my own interests instead of being led by the nose. How many minds have been lulled into lethargy by the droning on of a teacher.

The only time children are encouraged to read what they want is during the summer. And even then some students are told they will have to write a book report the first week of the new school year.

Oh yeah. That really encourages kids to read.

Well, so much for my theory of education. What say you?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Childhood Reading History

I love to read books about how others came to love books and why they love to read. Today I picked up at the library Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life. It is part of the Library of Contemporary Thought which I had no idea even existed.

She tells of a childhood spent in a club chair in her living room, legs dangling over the arm, reading, reading, reading. Many writers spent their childhoods being told, "Get your nose out of that book." Or, "It is a beautiful day. Go outside and play." Or, "Stop reading, turn out the light, and go to sleep."

Not me. My second grade teacher told my mother that I needed to read more books for enjoyment. My childhood reading consisted of Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski, and a biography of Sun Yat-Sen. What I as a third grader had in common with a Chinese revolutionary remains a mystery.

I have no recollections of picture books or being read to. Of course that doesn't mean there were no picture books or that I wasn't read to. I just don't remember.

I do remember reading selections from my grandmother's Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  I recall two; Miracle at Carville by Betty Martin, a true story of a young woman diagnosed with leprosy (which scared me to death) and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff. (Now that one stuck with me and I have an unabridged copy on my bookshelf.)

As I wandered aimlessly through my teens I stumbled onto the Nancy Drew mysteries of Carolyn Keene, Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, and Nine Coaches Waiting and other romantic tales by Mary Stewart. I think I may have discovered Agatha Christie then but I am not sure. And I remember making a very odd choice for a teen: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair about the meat-packing industry written in 1906.

Only two books come to mind that I had to read for high school - A Tale of Two Cities and Gone with the Wind.

Where, oh where, were Charlotte's Web, Little Women, Wind in the Willows, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?

I am sure they were on the bookshelves of the school library but believe me I have no recollection of ever setting foot in that room. I even worked as a page for the public library my sophomore or junior year. What I remember about that time is that I was paid 50 cents an hour and I got fired because, I was told, "You spend too much time with the books."

What could that have meant?

Anyway, the point here is that my love of books and reading apparently didn't develop until much later. My mom, who was a librarian, even admitted that my childhood was definitely lacking in literary learning or yearning.  Not that there weren't books in the house. There were. I just didn't read them.

I have had to catch up and have read many of the books I missed. Well, OK, I never have read Jane Eyre and probably never will, but I can live with that. Perhaps as an adult I got more out of the books than I would have as a child.

I will tell you that there was one book that did change my life: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. I read in as a high school junior. It was the first non-fiction book I read (not counting my third grade acquaintance with Sun Yat-Sen) that wasn't a textbook.

I was fascinated that here was a man who took a road trip with his poodle around America and wrote about it. Really? You could tell the tale of your own adventures?

That book made me want to become a writer.

And so I did.

To be continued...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Breaking and Entering: the Library of Congress

Main Reading Room
Thomas Jefferson Building
Library of Congress
Today I will regale you with a true story.

A couple of years ago I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Cherry Blossom Festival. I stayed with a roommate from college who lives in Silver Spring, Md. There were three things I wanted to do on the trip:
1. See the cherry blossoms. That was always a dream of my mom's and she never got to see them so I was going to see them for her.
2. Go to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and
3. Visit the Library of Congress.

My friend Marci and I started out one fine morning. To arrive in Union Station by commuter train was an adventure all its own. We hopped on one of the tour buses that circulate the city and when we got to the basin with the cherry blossoms we got off and feasted our eyes on their beauty. I remember staring for a long time thinking of my mom and hoping she could somehow see what I was seeing.

From there, we took another bus to the National Portrait Gallery. I loved looking at the faces that capture the history of our country. And of course I bought the book sold in the gift shop featuring photos of what I had seen.

After a lunch at a very clubby restaurant, we headed for the Library of Congress. Here is where things started to go awry.

First of all, it was Spring Break for many schools and as we walked up toward the entrance, we were astounded to see a long line of children. I walked right up to the guard at the door and asked if we could please be allowed to go ahead of this enormous line. As I was asking I was walking, and before the guard could turn us away we were through the turnstile. To my horror though, something in my purse set off the metal detector and this held up the line while my purse was searched. So much for flying under the radar.

Next I walked up to a nice fellow sitting at an information desk and asked how to get to the reading room. He asked if I had my Reader Identification Card. I replied, "What card?" The card that has to be applied for in advance and in person. And, in another building.


I was heartbroken. I had come all this way and would not be allowed into the great reading room?

We took the guided tour. At one point we were led onto a gallery overlooking, you guessed it, the reading room. Now I could see how it fit in to the floor plan of the building and was determined to make my way to it.

In the gift shop a clerk, when asked, told us how to go through a tunnel, get on an elevator and, lo and behold, we would be at the entrance of the reading room. We couldn't go in of course, he told us, but at least I could have a peek.

The guy didn't know me very well. When we stepped off the elevator, there was a guard sitting at a desk talking on the phone. I just smiled at him and kept on walking. We reached the door to the reading room. There was a sign-in book on a pedestal. I signed my name and walked into an anteroom filled with computer screens and people staring at those screens.

I kept moving. Marci was trailing behind me muttering that we were going to get arrested. How could they arrest us? We were citizens and taxpayers.

Through another doorway and in a second I was in the Main Reading Room, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress.

I thrill to relive the moment.

In the center of the round room is the information desk. The domed ceiling rises 160 feet above it. Surrounding the center desk are rows of wooden desks for reading and studying. I sat down at one and looked above me.

Eight statues stare down from above representing the eight categories of knowledge: philosophy, art, history, commerce, religion, science, law, and poetry.

In addition, there are sixteen bronze statues of men representing the accomplishments in each of the categories, so we have Plato and Bacon; Michelangelo and Beethoven; Herodotus and Gibbon; Columbus and Fulton; St. Paul and Moses; Newton and Henry; Solon and Kent; and, Shakespeare and Homer.

I whipped out my notebook and made a dated entry:

Here I sit in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.

Next to me Marci was barely breathing. I figured the worst that could happen was we would be escorted out of the room, but no one paid us any mind. I sat and stared and tried to absorb as much as I could of the atmosphere of knowledge.

When I had had my fill, and just before Marci was going to faint, I stood and calmly made my way out. I smiled at the guard at the elevator and we exited the building.

So that is my story of how I broke into the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress and lived to tell the tale to you.

Did they really think they could keep me out?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

So long, Ray.

Ray Bradbury
I always thought of Ray Bradbury as being quite a character. I enjoyed reading Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine. Also, the prose in The Martian Chronicles took my breath away. What a fertile, creative mind.

And then of course, Fahrenheit 451. What a nightmare tale for a lover of books. Just the idea of putting out there the temperature at which books burn makes me shudder. One should never have to know that.

The ending of the movie starring the lovely Julie Christie, with people walking about reciting over and over the book they had memorized, is one that I often think of. I wonder which book I would choose to commit to memory? What book would I want to live with every day?

I never have been able to decide.

What would you choose?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I took myself off to the movies this afternoon to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy (I do believe I am in love with him), Dame Maggie Smith and some other attractive folks.

Old age is not for sissies and these folks, who are at a later prime of live than some, take off for India from Britain and land at the hotel which is advertised as being for the elderly and the beautiful. They all have their own reasons for taking such a risk and some adapt to the change better than others.

The acting is superb and the scenery is a dizzying kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and colors. A very exotic locale and not to everyone's taste. Especially when they arrive and find that the photos of the hotel in the brochure don't exactly match the reality. But the young man (Dev Patel) who is the owner/manager of the hotel, a former palace, is so charming and so positive and he assures them that all will be well. Some go out to explore the city and some choose to stay within the walls of the crumbling hotel.

There aren't too many surprises in the story, but what fun it is to watch these lovely British actors bring that story to life.

The credits listed the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach as the basis for the movie. Random House has now issued a trade paperback under the title of the movie. I just put it on my reserve list and there are 30 people ahead of me.

Here is a bit of wisdom from the movie that the young owner gives to Judi Dench:

"Everything will be all right in the end.  If it isn't all right, then it's not the end."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Small Wonder

Am loving the essays in Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver. This novelist and essayist has degrees in biology and most of her thoughts in this book are pleas for the planet. I know she has written many fiction books but it is her essays that interest me. I have not read any of her fiction.

She grew up in rural Kentucky and has an affinity for the planet and its creatures. She and her family now live on a farm in Virginia and, according to her website, have an extensive vegetable garden and raise Icelandic sheep (who knew?). She won the Orange Prize in 2010 for her book The Lacuna.

But back to the essays. Most begin with a personal story that then leads into the heart of what she wants to say. They are informative and inspiring. Kingsolver writes with affection about hiking with her family along the San Pedro river in the desert; of seeing brightly colored macaws flying from tree to tree in the jungle; and, of her daughter Lily's experience with raising chickens.

That's the good news. The bad news is the river is drying up due to development of the lands along it. The macaws are an endangered species and she was thrilled to see them in their natural habitat against the blue sky and not through the bars of a cage in a zoo or, heaven forbid, a pet shop. Although her daughter's chickens offered free breakfast with the laying of the first egg, it also brought on a conversation about corporate farming and the injunction not to name the animals you are raising to eat.

All these pieces are written with warmth, humor, and intelligence. They will break your heart if you linger too long.

From the dilemma of whether to kill a hermit crab that has taken up residence in a perfect conch shell on the beach (they didn't) to the killings at Columbine High School, Kingsolver's essays make me stop and ponder the world and its infinite variety and consider what small steps I can take to protect it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Crome Yellow

Aldous Huxley
I am reading Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley on my phone. It is an odd experience (I can only see a sentence or two on the screen), but that is okay because it is an odd book.

People are gathered at a British country house, Crome. There is the master of the house who has just finished writing a history of the manor; his wife who is entranced with metaphysical goings on of the time; their niece Anne; a young writer/poet who is in love with Anne; a painter; an uncle, I think; and, another young woman.

There really doesn't seem to be a plot. Each chapter is a conversation or a story or in one case a sermon. In one chapter the two young women have a discussion about sex. It is very short as this is in the 1920s. The master of the house reads the first chapter of his history of the house that tells the story of one of the first owners who was a dwarf. He populated the house with dwarf servants and found an Italian dwarf wife. All was well until they had a son who grew up to be tall. Many humiliations ensued including the attack of the mother by a huge bull mastiff that the son brought home one summer. Finally, distraught with the lack of respect by the son, both parents committed suicide. 

That is how odd this book is but it is so witty too.

Here is the part describing the vicar's study:

Mr. Bodiham was sitting in his study at the Rectory. The
nineteenth-century Gothic windows, narrow and pointed, admitted the
light grudgingly; in spite of the brilliant July weather, the room was
sombre. Brown varnished bookshelves lined the walls, filled with row
upon row of those thick, heavy theological works which the second-hand
booksellers generally sell by weight. The mantelpiece, the over-mantel,
a towering structure of spindly pillars and little shelves, were brown
and varnished. The writing-desk was brown and varnished. So were the
chairs, so was the door. A dark red-brown carpet with patterns covered
the floor. Everything was brown in the room, and there was a curious
brownish smell.

In the midst of this brown gloom Mr. Bodiham sat at his desk.

A brownish smell? Too funny.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Anna Quindlen: In Depth on C-Span

Anna Quindlen

I spent three hours with author Anna Quindlen this afternoon. She was the guest on C-Span's Book TV In Depth program. What an intelligent, well-spoken woman. I wanted to invite her to lunch.

She spoke of abortion, why she left the Catholic Church, the feminist movement, books, writing, alcoholism and aging. If those topics sound a bit depressing, believe me she was not gloom and doom. She is very personal, honest, and engaging.

Quindlen has written ten non-fiction books and six novels. She was a columnist with the New York Times and also Newsweek magazine. She now writes full time from her home in New York City. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1992.

If you are not familiar with In Depth, here is the format: The first Sunday of the month the interviewer, it used to be Brian Lamb who has now retired, spends three hours with the guest author and takes calls and emails from the viewers. I find it to be very relaxing as the interviewer is not abrasive nor does he interrupt. He doesn't ask and answer his question in the same breath.

Quindlen's most recent book is a memoir titled Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. I am now the 72nd person in the reserve line for the book at the library. I have read her Imagined London in which she serves up a portrait of this literary city that she fell in love with through books before she ever set foot in Piccadilly.

When I had a television I used to watch Book TV religiously. But the one-eyed monster was unceremoniously banished from my home years ago. In connection with the Grand Southern Literary Tour I discovered an In Depth interview online with Shelby Foote. I had seen it in 2001 and just rewatched it this past week.

That is when I also discovered that I can now watch Book TV, and indeed other C-Span channels, live on my computer. So here I was today carrying my laptop with me to the kitchen and the bathroom so I wouldn't miss a minute of Anna's interview.

Another book of hers that interests me is How Reading Changed My Life. I don't know how I have missed this one that was published in 1998. It is also on my reserve list at the library.

You can watch this program and others like it at Happy hunting. I have already picked out a few more that I want to see.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Grand Southern Literary Tour Bonanza

I hate messing with the computer. I spent two hours trying to sync my new phone with my PC so I could transfer this photo of my treasures from the Grand Southern Literary Tour.
I finally gave up and just e-mailed it to myself. Then I spent another bunch of time trying to get the photo posted to the blog.
Sigh. I could have finished half a book in that time.
Anyway, here are the books bought.  From the bottom up:

Writers of the American South: Their Literary Landscapes by Hugh Howard - Lovely text and photographs by Roger Straus III of Southern writers and their homes. It was through this book that we discovered Shelby Foote's house and burial spot. A treasure.
Calico Joe by John Grisham - My first ever Grisham book and it is signed by him. It is about baseball which is why I bought it.
The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby - This story of the yellow fever was suggested by Jorja the historian at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Crosby is a Memphis writer.
The Points of My Compass by E.B. White - I have this in paperback and was glad to find this hardcover edition.
The Beach House by James Patterson - I have not read any of Patterson's mysteries. This one was free from Off Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
The Eye of the Story by Eudora Welty - These are essays and reviews. The Professor across the street told me that her essay here on place is the best he has ever read.
Every Day by the Sun by Dean Faulkner Wells - This is written by William Faulkner's niece.  She lived with the Faulkner's after her father, William's brother, died in a place wreck.
Lanterns and Lances by James Thurber - I can never pass up a book by this wonderful humorist.
Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver - A book of essays. Her thoughts on why she doesn't have a television are totally in sync with mine. It was through that essay (published elsewhere) that I discovered this book. I think I may have checked it out of the library years ago but I never got around to reading it. I was glad to find a copy for my own shelves.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - A Kentucky author. I have never read this book or indeed anything else by him. But I did see his library, desk, and typewriter on our stop at the Kentucky Museum and Special Collections Library at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. I was very impressed with the range of subjects in his collection. What an intellect.
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne - No explanation needed. A perfectly fine, used, hardback edition.
A journal with a typewriter on the cover. I couldn't resist.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg - This is one of my favorite books about writing. I already have a copy and have no idea why I bought another one. It is a different edition, though.
Derby Day and Other Adventures by A. Edward Newton - A delightful discovery which has led me to read his Amenities of Book-Collecting.
What Now? by Ann Patchett - Her commencement speech to the graduating class of Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater, in 2006. I just read it this morning. A lovely, funny address. It is not just for college graduates as we all have many "What Now?" moments in our lives. A signed copy.
Great Essays edited by Houston Peterson - A collection of 50 essays for 50 cents. "Nuff said.
The topper of the pile, that sweet little journal featuring shelves of books on its cover, is the autograph book. All the 'stars' that I met on the trip were asked to sign and leave a message. 
What fun I had pulling these volumes out from the shopping bags. I found other mementos as well: bookmarks, a coffee mug from the Fairview Inn in Jackson, a book bag from Square Books, and pamphlets from many of the places I visited.
A nice little recap of the Tour.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Harry Elkins Widener

Harry Elkins Widener
I have come to the final chapter in Newton's Amenities of  Book-Collecting. In these last pages, Mr. Newton tells the sad story of Harry Elkins Widener, the son of George D. Widener of Philadelphia. George was financially prominent, Newton writes, having taken over his father's business, the Philadelphia Traction Company. The family lived in a 110-room mansion known as Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Harry Widener was George's oldest son. He was born in 1885 and attended Harvard University. While at Harvard, he began to show an interest in book-collecting. Soon after he graduated in 1907, book-collecting became a serious matter for the young man.

Newton writes about his library:

"It is but a collection of perhaps three thousand volumes; but they were selected by a man of almost unlimited means, with rare judgment and an instinct for discovering the best. Money alone will not make a bibliophile, although, I confess, it develops one."

One evening, Harry confessed to his friend Newton that he didn't want to be remembered only as a book-collector. "I want to be remembered in connection with a great library, and I do not see how it is going to be brought about."

As the Fates would have it, Harry Elkins Widener needn't have worried about how it would happen. He and his father were both passengers on the Titanic and were drowned in the Atlantic on April 15, 1912. His mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived. She made a $3.5 million donation and had erected in his memory the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University. It was dedicated in 1914. Here his collection rests.

Today, the Widener Library, is the centerpiece of the Harvard University Library system. With its 15.6 million volumes, it is the largest university library system in the world.