Friday, December 31, 2004

Last Call!

Wanted: Your Opinion

What was the Best Book You Read in 2004?

For details, see my Saturday, December 11 entry. (Go to the archive for December 2004 on the right.)

Note: I have changed my best book to Oracle Night by Paul Auster. (See my February 4, 2004 entry).

Every year, as soon as it gets dark on December 31st, I feel I must lay to rest the unresolved questions in my life. I believe that if I have the solitude and the darkness to surround me, for however many hours it takes, I can develop a plan that will either set my life right or that will furnish me with the resolve to remain steadfast on whatever course I'm on.

But I'm never alone on December 31st. I'm usually surrounded by Ken and my friends and I suppose I wouldn't want it any other way. But in the week ahead, maybe I can gather the darkness on other days and try to visit the quiet place inside myself where I can reflect.

The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth is hard to put down. I find myself identifying so strongly with Ilse, who ages from 12-15 in the novel, that I feel every bump in the road she experiences. On the eve of World War II, her life is almost perfect while she is living with her uncle in Morocco. There she is cherished, well fed, happy, free to be her true self, though somewhat anxious about the fate of her self-absorbed parents in Germany. When the war begins, her uncle's wife decides she must return to Europe. No! No! My heart breaks in two for everything that she loses. But I read on. Bravely, I might add.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

My mind has been appallingly dull in the late afternoons for the past month or so. I've had to realign my work schedule a bit to compensate--I've tried to squeeze more writing hours out of the morning and have saved all other tasks for afternoons. Perhaps the lack of sun has been to blame, though I really have no hard feelings about deep winter. Sophie and I have been happy sludging through the snow all over Ponkapoag--she's been overjoyed to romp in the deep stuff.

I've come across a thought-provoking book, A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books by the Argentine-born Canadian writer, Alberto Manguel. In his entries he discusses his reflections on his rereadings of favorite books and works by favorite authors. He reads The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the memoirs of Chateaubriand, Don Quixote , and others. He's particularly concerned with the connections he makes between realities in his everyday life and ideas stimulated by his reading. His writing is wonderful, and I enjoy picking up the book several times a day and reading several pages. Manguel travels extensively--Newfoundland, Paris, Berlin--so that his environments are constantly changing as he reads and writes.

He's staying in London when he rereads Kim by Kipling.

"Kim is one of the few books that constantly delight me; it grows friendlier with each reading. I want to apply to it a word used in Quebec to denote a particular state of happiness: heureusete. I love the tone of the telling, the vividness of every minor character, the moving friendship between the Lama in search of a river and the boy in search of himself. I never want their pilgrimage to end."

Manguel seems to own dwellings in most of the places he visits. There's mention of "his library" in London, for instance, and he clearly owns an apartment in Paris.

I love this passage:
"For me, no German city...ever had the reality of Conan Doyle's London: the gaslit rooms in Baker Street, the evil winding streets, the genteel foggy squares. Years later I traveled to London, convinced that I would find that memorable geography. My first shilling-metered bed-sitter above a fish-and-chips shop disabused me."

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

My brain has been so scattered this week. Projects that have been inching along keep colliding with obstacles that are impossible to resolve quickly because they need input from other people. For today, I may have given up for the most part.

I ended up at the library where I decided to seek out Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (note: 2 separate links here). Someone online somewhere raved about it and I'm embarrassed to admit I thought it must be new. I recently heard an NPR interview with Helprin and decided it was high time I investigate his work. So here I sit with all 670 pages before me. The book's leading selling point was the fact that it's set in New York City. Of course.

As far as Kate Atkinson's Case Histories is concerned, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it and will read more of her work. After the first brilliant 100 pages, though, she had difficulty managing all the threads of the three different cases and the personal predicament of the private detective. I had no trouble keeping the stories straight, but the description of events and the overlapping of the cases became very confused at times. Atkinson just needed more time with the manuscript. Now that I think of it, isn't that my solution to every book's problem? But don't hold off reading it because of this flaw. It's well worth the time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

I've been suffering from the post-Christmas blahs, which is surely the body's and the mind's attempts to return to some semblance of "normalcy," whatever that is.

I'm struggling to write about books this morning, and since I keep deleting everything I write, I must sign off for the moment. I'll try to return later today.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Off-Topic Warning: Yes, this is a literary blog. But today I am posting an off-topic entry, although several books have squeezed their way in.

It's nearly half past one and I'm about to roast the lamb for our Christmas dinner. Nothing fancy, just a hearty, tasty meal. The holiday has been wonderful. This is a joy, considering how downhearted I can be about the season. Last night Ken and I attended the Christmas Eve service at our church. (Yup, Unitarian Universalists celebrate this holiday [and Hanukah and the Solstice]). The service was beautiful, filled with carol-singing and other music. Afterward, we enjoyed a warm, festive time greeting old and new friends in the Parish Hall.

This morning I woke very early and had a read-a-thon with Sophie in the family room. Although I had a slew of Christmas books to revisit, I couldn't keep my nose out of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. I may leave it for a few hours, but the whole time I can't wait to resubmerge.

Sophie and I had a sunny hike at the Bradley estate. No one was about, not a human soul anyway, and I sang "The Holly and the Ivy" to the magnificent holly tree that sits at the edge of the lower meadow bordering the woods.

After breakfast, Ken and I unwrapped our gifts to each other. It amazes me how desperate we are to please the other, and how much reassurance we each seem to need to know that our gifts were just the right ones. Ken got me a slew of gift cards to spend at a number of my favorite establishments. This is a terrific gift because the giving can go on for months. A certificate for my favorite yarn store, The Snow Goose, and one for the nearest bookstore, and one for Starbucks, which I have been visiting much less frequently since our austerity campaign. I also received Oracle Night by Paul Auster (visit the archives to find my blog entry for February 4, 2004). I will never tire of rereading it. Somehow or other I thought I read it in late December last year, but since I read it in late January and February of this year, it must be my favorite book of 2004, with Mrs. Sartoris a runner-up.

On the docket the rest of the day: Dinner, Reading, Dr. Zhivago on DVD.

A party tomorrow. Calling all British readers: Do you have any Boxing Day party traditions or party games that you'd be willing to share with me?

Friday, December 24, 2004

On Monday morning, I decided I had to get a hold of Auggie Wren's Christmas Story by Paul Auster. Could I have it in my hands by Christmas Eve? I figured it was worth a try, so I ordered it from the library. It came through yesterday, all the way from Cambridge, so I stopped by Westwood Library on my way home from purchasing all the goodies for Christmas Day.

The Auggie Wren story appeared the first time in the op-ed pages of the New York Times in 1990. It's also included in Auster's novel Smoke. But this year, Holt packaged the Christmas fable in a beautiful slim volume for the holiday market. I will report more about it later today. Until then, you may wish to visit NPR to hear Auster reading the beginning of the tale.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rumer Godden's The Story of Holly and Ivy , about an orphan who finds a warm, loving home with an older couple, is one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories. I read my paperback copy every year!

Two days til Christmas and my house is a mess. My office resembles the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. And right now I just do not have the reserves of energy to do what needs to be done.

Getting hot under the collar is energizing, though. By now, some of you know me well enough to realize how this book blogger's comment hit me.

"A NOTE ABOUT BOOK SALES. As an author myself, fully sympathetic with the view that public libraries are an evil akin to Napster in its pirating days -- not that most would equate the two. One wants one's books to sell, not to be bandied about on the streets for free."

No additional comment is necessary from me except to say that I have lost sympathy with this blogger, who, I'm sure, has no idea how elitist her attitude is.

May libraries live long and prosper!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

I spent yesterday shopping and shipping gifts. I unloaded my wallet at the Brookline Booksmith. That would have been even more fun, if I'd bought something for myself. But I have trouble combining business and pleasure. I must confess I know nothing about A Christmas Like Helen's; I just loved the art.

The entire process took all day. After the last box was mailed, I stopped in at the Canton library. As tuckered out as I was, I couldn't drive by without checking in, just in case some of the new titles I'm looking for had slipped in. And, sure enough. With a triumphant "Ha!" I grabbed Kate Atkinson's Case Histories off the shelf. (See below.)

I trudged home in an exhausted state and fixed a very strong cup of Peet's Darjeeling Choice tea. I slumped onto the couch, Sophie sidled up next to me, and, as I was too tired to climb the stairs to get The Children's War, I dove in to Case Histories.

An hour and a half later, Ken appeared, snooping around to see what was up in the kitchen. A ticking clock was about it. Atkinson's prose is so smooth, the reading so effortless, the characters and story so compelling, that I couldn't stop reading, despite my hunger. The private detective is charmingly quirky, and best of all, he's not introduced until page 65. Plenty of pages to lay the groundwork for each of the cases. Rivetting stuff.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Wanted: Your Opinion

What was the Best Book You Read in 2004?

For details, see my Saturday, December 11 entry.
I journeyed to the Newton Public Library this noontime, a trip that had originally been planned to soothe myself after what I imagined might be a particularly vexing event. The morning proved not to be as difficult as I thought, and even though I was relieved and happy, I ducked work and headed to the library anyway.

Although I found several treasures, I had been hoping to find Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, which was reviewed in a number of the Sunday newspaper book review sections. Atkinson, a British writer, now lives in Edinburgh (a city that's becoming quite the literary mecca). She won the Whitbread Award in 1995 for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a novel about dark, dysfunctional relationships between women, a book that's still prized by book groups. She also had an acclaimed volume of short stories shortlisted for the Whitbread last year, entitled Not the End of the World. Case Histories, though, is her first work of crime fiction, a genre that she loves reading but has not attempted to write prior to this. Anyway, aside from the Washington Post, the book is getting alot of attention and some good reviews.

I do feel for her, though. She says she's unable to read while she's in the middle of writing a book. Her brain is so full of the story and characters that she can't keep the characters straight in another book. Now that Case Histories is published, I hope she's enjoying a few good reads.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

With snow predicted for Sunday night and Monday, I'm reminded of an intriguing new history title. The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin is about a storm that struck the Upper Midwest in January 1888 (great link to author interview). Oddly enough, the blizzard occurred just two months prior to a calamitous blizzard that hit New York City and New England.

What appeals to me most about the book is that the author, a writer of history who also specializes in weather phenomenon, conducted extensive research into the lives and experiences of the children and the families who were most affected.

By now you know I'm a fan of blizzard books and stories. After a lifetime of indulging this predilection, my favorite is still Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter. I have read and reread this gem and have never ceased to be amazed at the clarity and spare beauty of the prose. A magnificent, fascinating book.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ten minutes of googling lassooed me surprisingly little about Monique Charlesworth, the author of The Children's War. With a number of the new novel's stellar reviews in my recent memory, I seized the book at the library today, delirious to find one that's on my "dying to read" list. I vow I will snatch time out of the holiday madness to read this.

The Children's War is being hailed for its "impeccable research" and its artistic vision. Set in Europe during World War II, it is the twin stories of a French girl and a German boy, both age thirteen, surviving the crazy, dangerous world that adults have created. Charlesworth, a British writer, has an intimate knowledge of France and Germany, and speaks their languages fluently.

And just for FUN! Check out this cool online Advent Calendar by Leslie Harpold. I loved last year's and the one for 2004 is beautiful, too.

Monday, December 13, 2004

In the seventh grade, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was on my school reading list. As I recall it, that list was a luscious "torture." I had the perfect excuse to while away many more hours, flopped on my bed, reading. I pulled my family's The Complete Sherlock Holmes down from the shelf and thrilled to "A Scandal in Bohemia." Turning the pages, I was repulsed by a collection of "florid-faced," red-haired, elderly men in "The Red-Headed League." At the time, I was puzzled by the many metaphors, Britishicisms, and other references that I didn't understand and that I couldn't find in the dictionary.

I would have enjoyed the new book weighing down my lap at this moment--The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie Klinger (W.W. Norton, 2004). The notes, filling the generous page margins, explain in intricate detail all the obscure items and references found in the collected stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Who would've known that a smasher is a person "who passes bad coins or forged notes?" And who could possibly guess that when "the stranger" says "I confess that I miss my rubber," he is referring to a unit in the scoring of the card game whist?

The book is full of dozens and dozens of period illustrations (the period is the 1890s) from the Strand magazine, which published Doyle's stories, and photographs and drawings from books of the era. The volume is well done. I wish I owned a copy, but that is definitely off-topic.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

It's Time! Select your Best Read of 2004

Last year I asked readers to join me in selecting their Best Read of 2003 in several categories. This year I'm going to ask everyone to choose the best book they read in 2004, but if you can't remember back to February or March, select any really satisfying book you read recently. In other words, if you visit this blog, do weigh in, regardless of your memory for the books of the past year! I'd love to hear about the book or books you loved reading!

Just enter your title and the author (if you remember it) and add any comments you'd like to make in the "Comments" area. If you'd prefer not to comment, just list a book title and its author.

The best piece of literature I read during the past year was, without any doubt or hesitation, Mrs. Sartoris by Elke Schmitter. I raved about it at some point this summer, so longtime readers of this blog may recall the title. It was shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize and received considerable attention as a work translated from German into English. The plot is so tightly constructed--it's a brilliant piece of writing.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

I'm encouraged because it looks as though my schedule will allow me to post entries on a more regular basis through January 3rd. I need to scrounge around for some content, however, especially because I'm still reading The Murder Room by P.D. James. As I've mentioned here many times, I'm turned off by the mystery genre in general, but I wanted to give her books a try, especially since her writing is so widely praised. I am loving it, and wish it wouldn't have to end. The setting, a small museum in a large house on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, is so well handled. I love a story rich in descriptive details, where I can stand beside the characters as the action unfolds. And this is it.

I've always been amazed that all her working life, James set aside two hours each morning to write, between 5 and 7 am. That's it. Just kept plugging away, week after week, at those hours. And here she is at 81, 17 books later. Of course, I imagine that once she retired she could work longer hours if she liked!

Let's hope that December brings me plenty of time to read!

Friday, December 03, 2004

This may be a Friday that really means something. By that, I mean the end of a work week, when work ceases for a time? I will need to work some, though--more projects stacked up. But for right now I'm not going to think about that.

I received a subscription invitation in the mail today that is making my phone-dialing finger quiver. I believe I've mentioned my craving for a subscription to Publisher's Weekly, and how difficult it is to access copies at public libraries. It is the single most helpful resource for writers of books. (Hello, editors: Do I need a comma after "single?") When I subscribed in the past I learned immeasurably from it, and it has helped my career. But I have really balked at the $225 yearly subscription rate. I just haven't been able to afford it. So the offer of $149 is tantalizing. And I'm definitely going to go for it.

Speaking of great magazines about books: Have you sampled Bookmarks magazine? Since the demise of Book magazine, it has become the best of the glossy book mags. I love the way it's crammed with information about dozens and dozens of new books in all genres. And I admire the short shrift they give to the mass-market top-of-the-bestseller-list stuff. So if you love to read about books, check out their website. Bookmarks is also available at Borders, Barnes, and all better bookstores.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

These long hours have annihilated free time. Looking forward to taking a breath. Can you believe I picked up David Baldacci's The Christmas Train? What was I thinking? I was gasping with an attack of the sticky-sweets by the end of the first paragraph. I forced myself to read three pages. Smothered in molasses, honey, and maple syrup, I gave it up and wished I didn't have to touch it again. But I have to in order to return it. Oh, dear.