Friday, October 7, 2016

Books Ahead and Elena Ferrante

I was so delighted to find Commonwealth by Ann Patchett on the New Books Shelf at my local  library today. So lucky--because it's in high demand. I've already dug into about 30 pages--the book begins with a christening party in Los Angeles sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. At this stage I'm not able to pinpoint the exact date.

The other book I snapped up is equally in demand. I picked up the only copy available of Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend in the entire network of 30+ libraries serving our region (approximately 80 copies available, not counting audiobooks). I haven't read Ferrante, despite hearing great things from other people, because somewhere out there in the ether, perhaps several years ago, I read several linking articles explaining how and why her writing is over-rated. So I made a snap judgment to put her on the back burner for the time being.

However, as luck would have it, on Wednesday, on the way home after a trip to Boston, I listened to an exquisite program about Ferrante, a National Public Radio program, which was prompted by the news of her having been "outed" by an Italian journalist, who tracked down her true identity despite her wish to remain anonymous. The focus of the hour-long program that I especially liked was hearing from lots of women about what they so strongly valued in Ferrante's Neapolitan Trilogy. Her translator was on hand, as well as one or two other experts. The link to the program is: Tom Ashbrook's On Point: "The Meaning of Elena Ferrante."  Just scroll down to the program. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Late September Catch-Up with Books

It was with huge surprise that I discovered just this week that I've read 46 books this year so far. Despite the fact that I keep a list on this blog, I had absolutely no idea. I haven't been trying to meet a goal or anything like it. I've read quite a number of books that have been 500+ pages. What this all proves is that I've spent a great deal of time reading in 2016, perhaps more than any other activity. This fact does not surprise me. Gads.

I have been trying to balance my reading.

I finally got around to reading Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, and I did enjoy it very much, though--spoiler here-avert your gaze--I was very shocked by the tragedies at the end. I will comment more when I do my Classics Club review.

Catherine Lowell's debut The Madwoman Upstairs was wonderful. If you like mysteries set in academia and if you like the Brontes and if you are into classic English literature you will like this sharply smart and witty romp of a novel. Pretty quirky, too, so one must be forewarned about that, but as you may know, I love a quirky heroine. Actually, all the characters are humorously quirky. A charmer.

Right now I'm reading another Classics Club novel. (Yes, I am behind.) I'm thrilling to My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier, which was published in 1938.

And, because I always have another book going while reading a Classic, yesterday I read a sizable chunk of Ishiguro's most recent novel, The Buried Giant. It's set in post-Arthurian England. The main characters, an elderly couple, are "Britons" from the west of England. The husband and wife journey east to try to locate their son. "Saxons" are everywhere as they travel east. This novel is not historical fiction, although my interest in that genre has been propelling me forward. It's really a fable and fantasy, though not one that will have the reader feeling too comfortable.

Perhaps Ishiguro never read  Lois Lowry's multi-award winning classic novel of the early 1990s, The Giver, but it seems to me that every single theme in Lowry's book is in Ishiguro's. In this way, Ishiguro's novel, while a departure for him, is not entirely original, but I don't think he was aiming for absolute originality at all. I have to say it is likely that he was unaware of Lowry's YA classic. And I have to say that both books encompass universal themes. Do pick up a copy of The Giver  if you haven't already. The Giver is just as interesting for adults as it is for YAs--mind-blowing.

I have many more books I'd like to read this year before midnight on  New Year's Eve.

I had overwhelming health issues this year that made reading my favorite sport, but I must say that it's true that opening a door into a book can be just the most wondrous part of life.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Alan Hollinghurst and The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child is the first book I've read by Alan Hollinghurst. The 450-page novel begins in 1913 and concludes in 2008, and follows the lives of several key characters, men and women,  particularly as their memories reflect back on their relationships with Cecil L. Valance, an upper-class gentleman and minor World War II poet, who died as a war hero. Many of the key characters spend the rest of their lives trying to pin down the nature of their relationships with him, and several write their memoirs, while others influenced by him after his death also try to pin him down in writings and in interviews, yet Cecil was an ebullient personality who proved almost impossible to completely encapsulate. Many affirmed that he must have been bi-sexual because of his supposed relationship with Daphne, but was he as enchanted by the opposite sex as he was by men?

Incredibly nuanced conversations and relationships provide much, much to puzzle over, and every character is seriously flawed, as was Hollinghurst's expressed intent, although some characters appear more flawed than others.

Follow the link to an in-depth, fascinating interview with Hollinghurst in The Paris Review.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I'm in Withdrawal, but Sinking into New Books

I'm suffering from having come to the end of my wonderful medieval historical tome,  When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman. I want to continue with the second book in her Plantagenet series sometime in the future.

In the meantime, no book on hand measures up to the pleasures of the one I just finished.
I have started reading The Stranger's Child, published in 2011, written by Alan Hollinghurst, the Man Booker Prize winner. Many critics stated that  this book is even better than his previous book, which won him the prize. I suppose it's that fact that made me buy the book 5 years ago. I can't judge the book yet--I'm close to 50 pages in to this 450-page book, and my poor soul is still happily lingering in the 12th century.   

For fun, I'm still reading Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah.
The story is about a New York City second daughter of first-generation Chinese parents. Her sister Claire earned accolades at Harvard and at Yale Law School, and now works in Beijing, working for a law firm that deals with U.S.-Chinese partnerships. When Lai Joah, who desperately wanted to make it in New York magazine journalism is let go, she takes off for Beijing to live with her sister and to hope that some of Claire's luck will rub off on her.

She is hired by an expat-English language magazine, Beijing NOW, and eventually falls into restaurant journalism. So, it's crucial to note that the most fascinating part of the book are the descriptions of Chinese cuisine, and all the multi-faceted types of Chinese cuisine. Very interesting! Caution: Don't read this book while you're hungry. 

A lot of attempts at romantic interest in the novel, but more than one-third of the way through, no man of sincere interest for either sister. Things must change soon, because so far the book is relatively static, as in linear. Sigh.  I will report back. But I will say if you are into Chinese cooking, which I so definitely am, you will enjoy this book whether the plot finds legs or not. Lots of interesting descriptions about what it's like to live in the Beijing of today, which I have enjoyed.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A "Welcome Fall" Weekend and Reading

Well, it's not going to last, but we had a lovely autumnal sort of holiday weekend. Fortunately we're far enough north of the big tropical storm's swath of moisture, that we've had no cloudiness at all. Just blue skies, warmish air at mid-day, and very cool temperatures at night. This week we're due to heat up again into the low 80s for a couple of days, but hopefully it won't last, although this fall is expected to be warmer than usual in the northeastern U.S., according to meteorologists.

I've had time this weekend to move fast forward with Sharon Kay Penman's wonderful 12th-century epic of England and France, When Christ and His Saints Slept. I've less than a hundred pages to go now (out of 750 densely packed pages), and am enjoying it now as much as ever. Henry, Duke of Normandy, who will become King Henry II of England, is now about 19 years old and secretly betrothed to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry is completely besotted with the beautiful, brilliant Eleanor, who is nearly 30 years. So, because the next book in the Plantagenet Series is about Eleanor, I believe, I'm assuming that the couple will wed before the end of the book and then hasten to England to take the crown from Stephen. I will definitely be reading more of Penman's books, although after two weeks of solid reading, I think I'll take a break from the Middle Ages for a bit.

Enjoying the U.S. Open in the evenings, especially watching the long-injured and now-healed Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina come back into his own. Such a joy to see his power return.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Do You Enjoy Medieval Historical Fiction?

Every now and then, at least once each year, I get a hankering to read a thick, atmospheric work of medieval historical fiction.

This late August I'm reading Sharon Kay Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept, which is the first historical novel in her Plantagenet Series. This densely packed novel of 750 pages or so is about the generation between Henry I and Henry II of England. It's set in the 12th century, particularly the first half, during Stephen's struggle to reign (nephew of Henry I) and Maude's struggle (Henry I's only surviving legitimate offspring, his daughter Maude). Henry I's son William was lost at sea crossing from Normandy to Southampton years before this struggle took place.

I am at this time, after a week of devoted reading, only half-way through this novel. It fits the bill for excellent descriptions of setting, entertaining discussion of the history, and fascinating characters. What a horrible time, however, to be alive in England! Maude and Stephen continually battle for the Crown, and one city and castle after another are destroyed in the process, not to mention the villagers and townspeople who suffer without end.

Sharon Kay Penman may be an American, but she conducted research all over England for each of her books, consulting and incorporating primary source material. (She uses the name Sharon Penman in the UK.) I'm sorry to say I don't read authors of historical fiction unless I've researched their research, to make sure they've done theirs thoroughly. I'm looking forward to reading more of her books--she has lots. Her most recently published book was in 2014.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Where Have I Been and Books under the Bridge

I must confess that we have had the highest humidity (and heat with it) since we moved to the Adirondacks. Our dewpoints were in the high 70s last week and Sunday--just soaking, water-saturated air that usually does not make it this far north. Sun, followed by torrential downpours, more sun, and the cycle repeats itself. I'm "used to it" because I grew up in Boston's sultry, dripping wet Augusts, but so far we had escaped the worst of this weather here. Temps in the high 80s, that's not unheard of. But It was those Florida dewpoints that got us all down.

I am a limp dishrag in such conditions with the brain of a pinhead pigeon, and hence, I've been reading but not writing about the books consumed.

Some of you have asked about the reading shelter or reading tent, as we call it. I can tell you that we haven't been in it since our last tolerable weather day last Wednesday. But here's to hoping for more hours comforted by a beautiful view in better weather.

And then there's the view from the reading tent:

It's too bad that all the August goldenrod is not apparent in this photo. We're looking out on what should be a field of wildflowers, but because the fields have not been cut the last two years, you can see we need to hire someone to come this September to cut or "brushhog" it; that is, if we hope to keep our fields as fields and not forest. We have lots of woods, too. But I like the fields, too. It's just that expensive maintenance piece!

I've read a number of books this month so far--I will write about them in coming days, but do look at my "Books Read in 2016" blogroll, just underneath my "Blogs of  Substance" list for now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

About ten days ago, we finally put our reading tent up. I really love reading in the tent where absolutely no mosquitos or other biting bugs can bother me, yet the breezes can flow and I can see perfectly well and listen to the birds and the wind and the animals and gaze out over the fields and woods. We've been pretty much in the low 80s F, occasionally into the high 80s. If the humidity is very high, it's horrid, but otherwise it's not too bad. Could be much, much worse.

I have finally dug my teeth into one of my Classics Club books--Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jabhvala, who won the Booker Prize in 1975. The novel was adapted into a television drama by the BBC, I believe, but I never saw it. Did you, by any chance?

I'm only about 40 pages into this 138-page book, but so far the story moves back and forth between 1923-1926 British India and the India of the late 1960s or early 1970s, the latter time period narrated by a granddaughter and grand-niece of two women who spent years in India in the 1920s and 1930s. Much of the mystery for the young narrator revolves around a character of her relatives' acquaintance, Olivia, who created a huge scandal by leaving her husband, Douglas, for the Nawab of the District.

I've also just started The Rocks by British author Peter Nichols, which is set in summertime Mallorca. I'll have more to say about this wonderful novel soon. It was published last summer 2015.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What I'm Reading Today

A very, very brief post to say that I'm fascinated by P.D. James's The Black Tower, especially the deeper I get into it, and I have been so inspired by the extraordinary characterizations in Julia Spencer-Fleming's One Was a Soldier. As many of you know, Spencer-Fleming's "mystery" series about Episcopal priest, U.S. Army helicopter pilot, and recently-returned Iraq War veteran Claire Fergusson  and Miller's Kill Chief of Police and Vietnam veteran Russ Van Alstyne just can't be beat, in my estimation, especially if you admire character-driven fiction or mysteries. I am so in awe of the writing in One Was a Soldier, published in 2011.