Thursday, December 31, 2009

Books of the Year 2009: Fiction

It was much more difficult choosing favourite fiction for 2009 than choosing nonfiction, plays, or short fiction. I suppose this is partly because I've read more fiction, or that I'm much less likely to read a novel I don't really like than a play or something short I don't like. Really, it was the last book on my list of three that gave me trouble, the other two were rather automatic. What I think distinguishes these books is that they're the ones I wrote the longest posts about. I had a lot to say about them, lots of ideas and impressions, and some very incoherent emotional or subconscious reactions to them, which I attempted to work through by writing. I read all of these books since September, which makes me wonder if they're on the list just because I remember them better. But I'm sure about the first two. I knew when I read them they'd be on the list.

There's little more I can say about these books than I said the first time around, since they're so dependent on impression and they are bigger than anything I could say in a paragraph. So I'll just leave you with the links to the original posts, and the urging that you read these books.

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt. I'm so glad I own this now. All three of these books are in my possession, which strikes me as fitting for my favourites. Original post here.

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. Original post here.

Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple. I think it may be a given that if I read a Persephone book it goes on this list. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was on my list last year. Original post here.

And Happy Hogmanay! (This is me indulging in my joy in amusing Scottish holidays.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Books of the Year 2009: Nonfiction, Short Fiction, and Plays

I read 4 books of nonfiction this year, but my favourite is clear. I read 18 plays, mostly for school. Four of my reads I consider short fiction. I'm kind of arbitrarily deciding how many favourites I get in each section, it's just how many seem to fit there--one nonfiction, two short fiction, three plays.

The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell, would definitely be in the running for most enjoyable book in any category this year. It is 529 pages but I absolutely sped through it. I forget how much I love biographies, but this was biography at its best, giving both a picture of its subjects' personalties and a clear view of their place in history. I found it completely fascinating. Original post here.

Short Fiction
The Lady in the Van, by Alan Bennett, doesn't quite count as fiction at all, because it's a true story and is mostly made up of Alan Bennett's diary entries about Miss Shepherd, the woman who lived in her van on the author's door step for 20 years. Despite its truth, though, I'm including it here because it is a story, and isn't comprehensive the way nonfiction would be. It was one of those stories that induced compulsive reading aloud, and I loved it. Original post here.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is kind of a given for good short fiction. It's one of those books that is an experience to read, because it's so evocative and intuitive. I'm sorry I never really wrote a post about it; I would have liked to revisit my initial reactions. But I know it was good.

It feels somehow like cheating to include The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard, since I didn't just read it, I produced it and costumed it and assistant stage managed it. But all that aside, it is a good play. It's one you sort of have to read more than once to get the full meaning out of, because it has so many layers. It's very good fun, and I can't resist theatre about theatre.

The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee, is a short, contained play. What I liked was the language, something about the two characters' expressions, the way it rolled. I don't know that I would have expected this to be the one play out of the thirteen from my comparative literature class that I liked best, or even that it absolutely is the best, but it's one I know I'll remember.

What can I say about Shakespeare's King Richard III? It always feels odd somehow to put a Shakespeare play on a list like this. But I suppose there's some Shakespeare I wouldn't put on this list, so putting Richard III here works. I thought he was a fascinating character, historically accurate or not, and this play does have some really great lines.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The loot

This seems to have been the Christmas of books. I got eight books as presents, and bought four others in the days before Christmas. I'd better get reading.I bought three of these at Goodwill, and one in a lovely little bookshop in Pike Place Market. The only other Barbara Pym I've read was Some Tame Gazelle. Civil to Strangers is her last novel and various shorter works. Mary Wesley is the author of The Camomile Lawn, which I read in February. I've never read any Umberto Eco, but I had a feeling he'd have interesting things to say about literature; this book is a collection of his essays. And I've never read Penelope Lively, but thought I ought to.Most of these books came from my father, who dearly loves to buy me books (and he's good at it, too). I read Bill Bryson's book The Mother Tongue last summer, so I know whatever he says about Shakespeare will be pretty fascinating. Bardisms sounds entertaining, mostly as reference or novelty; it seems to be separated into sections like "Shakespeare on Fathers," "Shakespeare on Parties," and so on. I know there's a story about why my father decided I needed to read Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley, but I can't remember it. My mum got me that copy of Pride and Prejudice (which makes my total copies up to three if you count the collected works) purely because it's so beautiful; it's leather-bound. And The Children's Book, which I'm sure you remember me reading, because it's one of those books that I just want to own. Now I get to go back and replace all the post-its I had to take out of the library copy. The book below it, which you probably can't read the title of, is Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques. I do need to do some more sewing, maybe that will help get me into the mood. Victorian Visitors sounds quite fascinating. It's non-fiction, and I have a feeling it's going to be the kind of non-fiction I find utterly absorbing. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, on the bottom, is apparently about the Salem witch trials, alternating stories between modern day and the 17th century.

So my to-read stack has just about doubled in size, but what the hell. I'm looking forward to it all.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Ephemera #21

Merry Christmas! You get three photos for the occasion, all of which I took.Downtown Seattle, with the carousel and the star on the top of Macy's.Molasses cookies I made Monday (these being the second batch where the dough worked and I didn't burn them to the point of completely unchewability).A bit of my tree. This gives you a very inaccurate representation of what my Christmas tree is actually like, because we have an enormous collection of very random Christmas ornaments (think glass pickle, glass corn cob, Peruvian llama...), and they all go on the tree no matter how well they all really fit.

I hope everyone enjoys their Christmas (or their Friday), and gets exactly what they want out of it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas books

Happy Christmas Eve! There are certain books I always read at Christmas time. All children's picture books, most of which I've been reading since before I can remember. Reading them every year adds to the festivity of the holiday; it gets me in the mood for Christmas just as much as the tree or the lights do. So I thought I'd take you through a tour of these books.Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is actually the only one of these books that wasn't a part of my childhood. I got it for Christmas a couple of years ago, though I'd read it before, and it is a lovely thing to look through during the holiday.
This is my favourite of the two versions of The Nutcracker I have. It has beautiful illustrations and it tells the full story (everything about the quest for the hard nut). It very much achieves the compellingly sinister, which is what I like in retellings of this story.
This is my other version, which is much more toned down for kids than the other one. I've never liked it as well, but the story's good no matter what form it's in.
It's a Little Golden Book! I absolutely loved this one when I was very very small, and then forgot about it for several years and finally, last year, made my mother dig it out of the basement. The story is exactly what it says on the tin, and for some reason it always particularly appealed to me.I got this one for Christmas (from my grandmother, I think) when I was younger. All my family are cat people, so it's particularly appropriate.This one might be my favourite. It's written and illustrated by Jan Brett, and set (I believe) in Sweden, where two funny little trolls are envious of a family's Christmas and want it for themselves. I always loved it because I've got a good chunk of Swedish in me, and the girl in the book has the same orange Swedish carved wooden horse that I have. And the illustrations are wonderful. It's just good.

There are other Christmas books I have and read almost yearly, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Night Before Christmas (which I could recite from memory at the age of three because I made my parents read it to me so many times), but this is a good cross section, and these books have always been really important to me.

This, by the way, is my 200th post.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I've never done a reading challenge, though there are lots to choose from floating around the internet, and sometimes they appeal to me, but there's one I'm actually thinking about doing in 2010. The Bibliophilic Books Challenge involves reading three, six, or twelve books about books and reading, fiction or not, during 2010. I absolutely love reading bookish books, so I imagine it will be entirely possible to complete this challenge. I'll aim for the lowest level, reading only three books, but if I read more so much the better.

The only book I have specifically in mind is Howards End is on the Landing, by Susan Hill. I'm sure everyone's already heard about this book, but if you haven't: it's nonfiction, about the author's decision to spend a year reading only the books already in her house. Otherwise, the field's wide open; I could read any number of things. I wouldn't be surprised if I read a novel about books without even thinking to apply it to the challenge.

Has anyone read any good bookish books they'd like to recommend? I don't have any particular ideas, so I'd better start compiling a list.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Slightest Move

It's funny how a book will work for you perfectly at one time, and not at all at another. This is how Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple, has been for me. I got it for Christmas last year and read about 150 pages of it, and I don't remember what else I was reading or doing at the time but I got distracted and stopped. It just wasn't capturing my attention, and I was skeptical of all the blurbs about it calling it "unputdownable". I was, in fact, afraid all my high expectations of Persephone Books were going to be disappointed so soon.

It's a good thing I didn't decide that was the case for sure, since it would have been premature and very sad. I started the book Monday and finished it Wednesday, which for a 413 page book and my recent reading habits is a bit amazing. It was unputdownable; I now believe everything good anybody's ever said about it. Sometimes I had to force myself to put it down and do other things, because it was overwhelming.

As the story goes, the North family, father Avery, his wife Ellen, their children Hugh and Anne, live comfortably in a house in the country in the early 1950s. Ellen keeps house and gardens, Avery takes the train back and forth to London where he is a publisher, Hugh is doing his compulsory military service, and Anne, at 15, rides her beloved horse Roma when she is home from school for the holidays. It's all very lovely and idyllic. When Avery's mother, old Mrs. North, engages a French girl called Louise to come and keep her company, however, things begin to go wrong. Louise is rather a masterpiece of a character. She compares herself to Madame Bovary, and understands and really likes Madame Bovary. It is, in a way, possible to admire her, because she knows what she wants and how to get it, and she takes pleasure in things, in her artfulness about clothing and about manipulating people. But she also hates things the rest of the characters love, doesn't understand why provincial, simple, artless life is appealing, and expects everyone else to grasp that her way of life is better. She just doesn't care about other people's feelings. She has absolutely no sympathy.

I spent almost the entire second half of the book (which I read in one day) feeling like crying, which surprised me; this kind of story doesn't usually make me cry. But I think I must have discovered one of the few stories that does have this effect. It's stories where the characters could be happy, they could fix what's gone wrong, but they are stubborn or proud or both, they make assumptions about what other people want, and they just don't communicate. They let it go because they assume that's what other people want them to do. When of course it never is. While this story was painful to me, it was very, very satisfying. The characters are so real, and their desires (even Louise's, usually), are understandable.
"If we could be seen thinking, we would show blown bright one moment, dark the next, like embers; subject to every passing word and thought of our own and other people's, mostly other people's." (pg. 181)
It is in this that Dorothy Whipple understands her characters, and that we understand them (even when we want to grab them and shake sense into them). This is a good book, one that I put down after the last page and had to recover from. I went to bed and laid there thinking about how much I wanted to fix things for the characters, and about the ending, which works and provides hope without being exactly happily ever after. It's the sort of book that's left me at a loss for my next reading choice, because how do you follow it? It's not a large story, it's not very out of the ordinary, it's making tea late at night and cleaning out a house, dead-heading the flowers in the garden and mailing a letter, but that's what makes it so good.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Ephemera #20

I don't know where I got this. I was going through my (very extensive) folders full of historical costume images, and found this. I've got no memory of saving it. The file name is "manet", so maybe we can attribute it to Édouard Manet, but I don't know for sure. That is French, I think, though it's rather impossible to read.

I'm now officially on winter break, so it's time to do some reading!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Happy Birthday to Jane Austen! Today, she is 234 years old.


I'm nearing the end! All I have left to do in my classes is take two finals tomorrow. And study for them today, but that's not a big deal. Yesterday, I turned in my final essay for Comparative Lit, so now I'm thinking about all the plays I read for that class this quarter.
The Good Person of Sichuan by Bertolt Brecht, Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'neill, The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco, The Balcony by Jean Genet, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, Offending the Audience by Peter Handke, Biography: A Game by Max Frisch, and Indians! by Arthur Kopit.

Thirteen plays in ten weeks. My favourites, I think, were The Skin of Our Teeth, The Zoo Story, Offending the Audience, and Biography: A Game. I can't quite say what sets these apart. They're not all the most experimental or all the least, they're not all from the same country or language. Two American, one Austrian, one Swiss. I think they all just had certain qualities, whether of story or language, that I liked. The Skin of Our Teeth is cheerfully absurd, I liked something about the language in The Zoo Story, Offending the Audience just rolled so nicely, and Biography had a fascinating premise (the main character gets to go back and re-do his life like it's all a rehearsal for a play he's trying to perfect).

All these plays, though, are worth reading. Some of them wouldn't have struck me as experimental if I hadn't been told they were, but they all are. Something we spent a lot of discussion on in class was the theatrical illusion, and how it is broken or maintained in these plays. It's something to think about, if you ever read or see any of them.

I'm so glad I took this class. I started it out thinking myself extremely knowledgeable about theatre, just by loving it and having done a few plays, but there's a lot I don't know and a lot of plays I haven't read or seen, and the class taught me to push at the boundaries of what theatre is and what I expect from it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Past Imperfect

So, I'm sick, which is extraordinarily terrible timing as it's finals week and I missed my German final because of it, but it does mean that I got to read most of Past Imperfect this weekend, and managed to finish it.

My impressions of the book are somewhat muddled. It's odd reading a book by someone who I associate with a completely different world. The author, Julian Fellowes, is an actor, and for some reason it changes my experience of the book that I know what its author looks like, not just from the photo in the back of the book but in movement.

The premise of the book is that its narrator gets a letter from a man called Damian Baxter, whom he was friends with forty years ago, during the London Season of 1968, and now hates. Damian is now dying, and wants the narrator to undertake a search for Damian's illegitimate child (now grown up), who might belong to any one of five women they both knew during that year. The incident at a dinner party in Portugal which caused the animosity between these characters is not revealed until very near the end of the book, so you're always wondering vaguely what it was.

There's nothing too unusual about the plot, but the book is written in a very odd style. I'm not sure I've ever quite read anything like it. For one thing, the narrator is never given a name, which always made me wonder how much he was Julian Fellowes. I couldn't help picturing them as one and the same in terms of appearance, and you just know if they made a movie that's who would play him. The book has a definite air of memoir, which adds to this comparison. It also takes place in, almost, three different times. There is the present in which the story is being written down, the present in which the search for the child is happening, and the background to this search, which happened forty years previously. There's a slightly excessive amount of nostalgia for the past, and also an excessive amount of marveling that once upon a time they really went through all these rituals of the Season, and marveling over the past in general. Some phrases are overused in the book, especially variants of "as we know" which usually go on to tell things I don't know, being both American and much too young. It's a superfluous phrase anyway, whenever it's used, with things like "as we know, they always served salmon mousse at these dinners."

I never managed to care very much what had happened in Portugal to make Damian and the narrator hate each other. Curiously, it didn't even occur to me until more than halfway through the book to wonder which woman was the mother of Damian's child. The book never quite managed to be suspenseful, and there was no sense of urgency about the search, even though it was urgent. And when we did hear the story of Portugal, it both lived up to expectations and failed them.

Over all, I feel like in many ways the book did not achieve what it was attempting. It's title can be applied to it purely as relates to the writing--it's definitely imperfect. I think the author could use some more practice writing novels, frankly; there are a lot of things wrong with the plotting and the writing, a lot of misplaced commas--it could have used a better editor. However, if it did not achieve its intended effect, it did achieve something else. The mood and style of the book is extremely unusual and very interesting, and it does give a pretty good picture of the last vestiges of the London Season. It was worth reading, and though I considered giving up on it a couple of times, it really did hold my attention.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Books of a Year 2009 - The Second Rank

I'm waiting on posting my actual books of the year, because I want to do a lot of reading over the break and I don't know whether I'll read something that merits a place on the list. I do have a list in the making, though, and in that process I've come up with another list, of books that have faded from my memory a little (which is why they're not on the best books list), but which I wanted to remind myself of because I did like them very much.

On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad, was the story of a girl who dresses as her brother to go to Yale in 1936. I'd forgotten this, but from my post about it in August, it dealt very interestingly with questions of gender.

Marking Time was the sequel to The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Both books were quite excellent, but I especially liked how Marking Time expanded on what we already knew about the characters and made them all even more interesting. It was, also, a well-done view of World War II. I originally posted about it here. I need to get around to reading the rest of this series.

Nameless, by Sam Starbuck, is very near and dear to me, being one of the 2,500 the dedication mentions. As I said in my original post, it was originally published online, giving readers the opportunity to critique and improve it. It is a very self-contained, lovely story. I need to reread it some time.

The Story of a Marriage
, by Andrew Sean Greer, cropped up by chance in February (which was a very long time ago, it seems). According to my review of it, it was very good at evoking images, of San Francisco especially, and associations, and I found it slotting very nicely into my own life and thoughts at the time I read it.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, was one I got for my birthday with no previous knowledge of it. It's translated from French, and conveyed very interestingly both French and Japanese ways of looking at the world. All the characters were quite interesting, too. My original post was here.

Looking back on what I read this year, I find there are definite trends. All of these books have somewhat of a mood in common. And Marking Time was World War II, On Borrowed Wings pre-war, and The Story of a Marriage post-war. I've read a lot of other books set in that era this year, too.

I wonder what sorts of trends I'll see in my reading next year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Ephemera #19

Did anyone ever read the children's books My Father's Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon, and The Dragons of Blueland, by Ruth Stiles Gannett? These were some of my favourite books when I was small, and I barely remember them now (must revisit) but for some reason they came to mind the other day and I looked them up on Wikipedia. This search provided the information that they made a Japanese anime out of the story. I was rather horrified at the thought, but judging by this image, it looks rather cute.

I'm turning in my term paper this morning! (Its writing explains my absence over the last week.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Ephemera #18

I've had this one for ages, and always, for some reason, skipped over it. Thought it fitting for the first Friday of December, though. It strikes me as not quite Narnia and not quite England, which is kind of pleasant to think about. Narnia's a bit Christmassy, in the way both have an element of nostalgia associated with them.

I'm getting a new (functional!) camera next week, so maybe I'll start posting some photos I've taken myself.

I don't know where I got the image.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More links

I hereby head into hibernation mode. Next week is the last week of classes, the week after that is finals, so I have to read one last play, read a couple of articles about Ovid, read some of Ovid himself, do some German homework, write a twelve page term paper and a five page essay. Let's hope I do not completely lose sanity in the process!

That was a long-winded way to say I'll be a bit out of the loop for a little while. In the meantime, have some fun links!

Laundry Room Libraries.

Chameleon Man

Works within Works. This is a discussion of smaller literary works within bigger ones, where the small ones have become better known than their parent. Kind of speaks to how easily things can take on a life of their own.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sad news, loveliness to counteract

I mentioned just the other day that I was thinking of reading Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, didn't I? Well, now I really feel like I ought to read it soon, as he passed away on Sunday. More information here, but he was only 61. I read part of Mythago Wood years ago, and I read another of his books, Celtika, though I think at the time I didn't know it was the same author. He wrote fantasy very firmly based in myth, and with darker edges with feet firmly planted in the dirt, not very comfortable books, but good. I'm looking forward to reading more of his books, and sad to hear he's gone.

Sad news first, nice things second, here's a couple of pretty and cheerful links to cheer you up.

London (and Windsor) Alphabet.

Phone box becomes mini-library.


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