Saturday, January 29, 2011

Call for the Dead by John Le Carre

Le Carré, John. A Call for the Dead. New York: Walker and Company. 1962.

Yet again, I approached a Connecticut mystery book club selection with a feeling of trepidation. This is not to say I wasn't very glad Le Carré had been chosen, because Bob has been urging me to read him for years. Others have raved about him to me, too. Still. I think Le Carré, and I think "Spies? Cold War? Yawn!" He probably would have rotted away forever on page 451 of the TBR tome if I hadn't been "forced" to read him.

Channeling the average ninth-grader, I was extremely happy when I went to pick this up at the library, to find that it, Le Carré's first novel, was really more of a novella than a novel. We have others sitting on our shelves that could almost give War and Peace a run for its money in the length category. If I have to cut my teeth on an author who writes something I don't normally choose to read, I'd rather start with a teething ring than a tractor tire.

And now I have to tell you that my fears were completely unwarranted. If you've never read him, what you've heard is true: John LeCarré can write. Damn well. Not only can he write, but he can also tell a very good story. Even if it wasn't the most original of plots, he still told it well. I was "gone" by the end of the first chapter -- still a little worried that all sorts of allusions to technical espionage activities and historical events about which I know nothing would be made, but "gone" nonetheless. Happily, those allusions never came.

Very early on, despite the use of Cold War spies (spies you could call "leftovers" from WWII) as heroes and villains, this book proved itself to be a very standard mystery of the "Did he or didn't he commit suicide?" sort. There's even a little, wistful romance, our "hero" still enamored of the wife, we are informed in the first paragraph of the book, who left him "...two years [after they were married] in favor of a Cuban motor racing driver." (p. 3)

I don't know. Are there such things as "cozy" espionage thrillers? If so, I'd say this one definitely qualifies. We're given a puzzle to solve. There is just enough -- tactful -- violence to convince us that people's lives are at stake, that something dangerous and underhanded is taking place, but not so much that we're biting our nails, flipping pages in a hurry, worried for every character. No, I actually read this book at quite a leisurely pace, picking it up and putting it down for about a week -- despite its only being 128 pages long. Every time I picked it back up, I felt happy to be back in it, but I felt no real urgency to get to the end to find out what happened. I was quite content just to meander through it, knowing that all would eventually be revealed and would make perfect sense.

Yet, I wasn't bored. On the contrary, I enjoyed it immensely. I think that's because the characters are so well-drawn and so human. Unlike the heroes of some of the other mysteries we've read for this group, I felt that, even given how short the work was, I really got to know our hero George Smiley, that Le Carré has a talent for throwing in things that give us insight into his characters. I gather from Bob that Smiley continues as a character in other books by Le Carré, that this is his debut, and I think Le Carré was quite fond of him from the very beginning. I know I am. How could I not be fond of this character? He was a man born in the wrong century who

...hated the press as he hated advertising and television, he hated mass media, the relentless persuasion of the twentieth century. Everything he admired or loved had been the product of intense individualism. (p. 112)

"Cozy" the book may appear to be, yes. You can see, though, that Le Carré encourages his readers to think. He's out to do more than just provide some light entertainment by the fire.

The one question I have, though, is: is this book a bit antisemitic? My guess is that Le Carré was trying not to be, but to the ears of someone reading it 50 years after it was first published in Great Britain, it sounds quite so. There were generalizations and stereotypes, though hidden amongst huge bushes of sympathy. Then again, as someone who wants his readers to think, maybe Le Carré was merely trying to open people's eyes to the notion that, just as not all Germans are bad, not all Jews are good, drawing to our attention the fact that we are all, after all, human. He also raised some extremely interesting questions about those poor souls who survived life in WWII concentration camps. On some levels, then, you could say he was breaking down barriers and fighting against anti-semitism.

Anyway, good stuff. Guess who's busy browsing our shelves for more?

Friday, January 28, 2011

A is for Audrey

Audrey is my mother. It seems awfully appropriate (look at all those "A's" I'm using!) to begin my year-long alphabet meme with my mother, since without her, I wouldn't be here. She was born Audrey Anne Forsyth Hadow (when she was growing up, her family called her "Audrey Anne," which in my grandfather's English accent -- at least, the way my father has always imitated it -- sounded more like "Dranne").

I'd like to start with the fact that Audrey is one of my all-time favorite names. Does that stem from the fact that it's my mother's name, or would I have loved the name regardless? I don't know. What I do know is that, despite loving the name, I have never used it in any fiction I have written, and I know that's because I don't feel I could ever write a character that would do her justice (not that a character named Audrey would have to be in any way similar to my mother, but it would be hard to separate the two). It's a rare name, but not so rare that no one's ever heard of it, and (unlike, oh, I don't know, "Emily," say) it hasn't suddenly, after near obscurity, become the "en vogue" name for every middle class family in America, so that all sorts of people who don't look at all like "Audreys" are wandering around with it.

On my walks these days, I've been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed, and I have just finished the chapter in which she is examining her mother's choices and her parents' marriage. It got me thinking a lot about my own mother and the choices she made, and how my mother really did make choices. She wasn't one of those women who fell in love in high school and got married without even really knowing what she was doing. She didn't find herself pregnant outside of wedlock, with a man who decided to "make an honest woman" of her. My mother was actually quite old, by the standards of the day (1959) when she got married. She was 27.

Until then, she had lived what my siblings and I always thought was an extremely glamorous and exciting life. Since her father was in the British foreign service, she had been born in Vienna and had lived in Prague and London before her parents had come to "The New World" when she was eight. She then lived in Argentina; Washington, D.C.; Beverly Hills; and San Francisco. There are all kinds of interesting facts about my mother that I don't know and that crop up every now and then. Recently, I found out that the house they'd lived in in London had been completely destroyed in a bombing raid in WWII, when she said, "It's a good thing we left when we did." I also recently found out how much everyone in her family loathed having to attend "jet set" dinner parties when they were living in L.A. and San Francisco, and how her mother would often beg out of them, her father taking my mother along as his "date." She described them as being excruciatingly boring with the same bland, uninteresting food, arranged to impress, all the while everyone engaging in superficial and uninteresting conversation. Her father's position required that he do such things, and my mother was musing on how difficult it all must have been for a man as intelligent as he was, but that he did them well regardless.

After college, she had lived in Munich, San Francisco, and New York (Greenwich Village, no less, during the height of the Beats, can you imagine?), doing things like working in used bookstores and on the Staten Island book mobile. Then, she moved to Charlottesville, VA (where her mother's side of the family was from) and settled down into the basement apartment of a house her parents owned there (this is where my grandmother would live for the first ten years of my life, and where we would visit her and stay, but I had no clue until I was much older that it had been my mother's home when she and my father were dating). She was writing children's novels (submitted to publishers but never accepted) and working at the library at the University of Virginia.

I'm pretty sure, based on experience, that Charlottesville is the matchmaking capital of the world. No sooner had my mother -- a beautiful, tall, sophisticated, and unmarried redhead -- moved into town than everyone got busy fixing her up with all the available young men. My father, her third cousin, whom she had met a few times when they were kids, and who had not impressed her much back then, had recently lost his first wife to cancer. He was a grad student down in North Carolina, but he was urged by his mother (oddly enough, because his mother and my mother's mother, second cousins, had never liked each other) when he was home to take my mother out. He did, and he loves to tell people it was one of the very few cases of a mother playing matchmaker for her son that actually worked.

One of the most interesting things my mother ever told me about that time was that there were three men who were "courting" her at first. My mother had never been one who had lacked for dates, but she had been one who had had her heart broken a few times by falling hard for men who turned out to be cads. She initially found herself very drawn to one of the other men, but she says she finally asked herself the question, "Are you going to do what you always do and keep going out with this man who is bound to break your heart? Or are you going to go for this nice man over here, the one you have so much in common with?" So, she chose my father more for practical reasons than for mad, passionate love (Gilbert would tell you that she chose a friend over an infatuation, a very smart move when considering marriage).

I once asked my mother, on the brink of my graduation from college, when I was eager to see the world, and when "settling down" was the last thing on my mind, how she could possibly have given up that glamorous life she'd led and married and moved to Winston-Salem, NC to live in the same house for 24 years, raising four children. She told me they had been the very best years of her life. That actually makes sense to me. One thing my mother is, is a mother. She always knew she wanted to get married and have children. In fact, she really had wanted to have six children (no, I cannot imagine wanting such a thing), but that wasn't to be. She just has all those instincts I don't have: she is completely drawn to all babies; she knows how to soothe and comfort; she doesn't mind putting time and energy into things like keeping kids on schedules and making sure they're eating right; etc.

I don't know if she still feels that those years of raising her family were the best (I ought to ask her again sometime. She told me that 25 years ago, and she had only just begun the experience of no longer having any children living under her roof, although some of us would spend the next few years moving back in, periodically, until we all finally went our own ways), but my guess is that she does not look back on them with any sort of regrets or anger (Gilbert's mother admits she gets angry about some of those early years of marriage and child rearing) at how we might have deprived her of a life of her own. She will, though, if asked, tell you that the absolute hardest years were those when she was home alone all day with very young children (so, on some levels, she does echo Gilbert's mother. She just isn't angry -- more like relieved that she managed to make it through them, that they didn't last too long).

I suppose she doesn't feel we deprived her of anything, though, because on many levels, we didn't. First of all, she had lived a life before she had us, so there was no "What if I hadn't gotten married when I was nineteen and had, instead, gone and lived in New York for a little bit?" or "What if, instead of getting married, I'd spent some time writing those children's novels I always wanted to write?" And we didn't deprive her of the things she wanted to do once she was married.

My mother was one of those mothers who did things around her children, fitting everything in where she could, but not letting her children keep her from doing what she wanted to do. I don't ever feel that we were neglected, although I suppose there are some who might say that we were, since -- especially during the summer months -- we were very much left up to our own devices a good deal of the time. Our lives, although we did have things like mandatory swimming and tennis lessons, for the most part, were not spent going from one scheduled activity to another.

As soon as my brother was in first grade (long before most mothers were doing such things. When I was in elementary school, out of a class of 26, only three of us had mothers who worked outside the home), my mother went back to work part-time, as a guide at a museum. This job eventually became full-time and then led to her getting her Master's degree and moving up in the museum world, so that by the time I graduated from college, my father was taking early retirement, so she and he could move to New Bern, N.C. where she would become the Chief Curator of historic Tryon Palace, the first governor's mansion of the state.

I have often said to my mother, "I don't know how you did it." Her life back then exhausts me. Taking care of four children and a husband and home (because, yes, although eventually my father started doing things like cooking and doing the dishes, she was doing the bulk of it) would be tiring enough. But working and getting a Master's degree on top of that? I especially harp on taking care of four children, because it wasn't as though she had them spaced out in such a way that one was, say, twelve and able to help quite a lot, by the time the youngest was born. No, at age 34, she had four children, all under the age of seven. I was once having this conversation with my mother, and she said to me,

"You forget that I loved all of you so much. It isn't such hard work to take care of those you love." I guess I had forgotten that. Because I have chosen not to have children, I think my view of them is mostly one of how much work they are. I don't tend to think in terms of how much I'd love them and that the work would be less of a burden because of that. My mother, however, will tell you that her children are her greatest joy.

Elizabeth Gilbert, by the end of interviewing her mother and thinking about her, knows she doesn't quite understand her. I like to think I understand my mother, someone who easily moved from "mother" to "friend" at the appropriate age (although, once a mother, always a mother. She still can't completely let go of her mothering instincts, but, for the most part, she's done very well), which means I talk to her about any and everything and am completely comfortable doing so, but I know I don't always understand her. I also know she doesn't always understand me. My parents, referred to me, from a young age, as a "little mother," and I think it's always been quite confusing to them that I made the decision not to have children.

Still, I think there are those in this world who just really are meant to have children and then there are those who are meant to be mothers to people in other ways. My mother is the former. I am the latter. And, I thank my lucky stars that I have been fortunate enough to have such a mother. That doesn't mean my family is dysfunction-free (far from it), but it does mean that I never had to deal with the dysfunction of living with a mother who never really wanted to have children and who resented me. That's a blessing and one that has deepened my love for my mother over the years.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Extended TBR Challenge

Last year, I created a challenge that was meant to get me reading books from my TBR tome. The goal was to read 20 books between Dec. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2010 and to post about each one. It sounded very doable when I first came up with the idea, but as the year wore on, I began to realize that, although still interested in every single book I'd chosen and still wanting to be able to say I'd read them (or at least given them a try), as well as being interested in the challenge some of them presented, I wasn't always so interested in actually reading any of them when it came time to choosing books to read. My reading mood is very fickle I guess. What sounds terrific today is not always so appealing by tomorrow (or even by tonight), which is probably why I ought to do something like read books the moment I acquire them, but if I did that, what would I do with the thousands of books I've acquired and never read?

I will say, that even though I didn't always stick to the original list, what I did do last year was read more books that I had acquired and/or decided I wanted to read prior to 2010. That's because the original idea had been to read all twenty of those books before I could buy new ones (in the hopes that I'd get through them all quickly. Instead, I just abandoned -- I think it was in January -- that silly notion). Anyway, I am hoping to continue that trend in 2011, trying to read at least three books I already own before purchasing one. We'll see how that goes. I've tried it in the past without much luck, but last year's exercise maybe helped me develop some discipline in this area.

Anyway, toward the end of the year last year, I realized I wasn't reading and posting on much from my challenge list, and so I gave myself (and anyone else who had taken the challenge) an extension. I really do hope to finish all the books by the end of this year, because I still want to read them, and they've all been waiting so patiently for me to discover them. In the meantime, I thought I'd revisit the list and let you know where we stand with each title.

Those I've read and reviewed in blog posts:
The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Giant O'Brien by Hilary Mantel
On Chesil Beach by Ian McKewan
Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham
The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Those I've read and have not yet reviewed:
A Window Over the Sink by Peg Bracken
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
American Pastoral by Philip Roth
(It's ridiculous that I haven't written blog posts. I keep a book journal where I write about every book I read. All I need to do is type these up here, and yet, for some reason, I haven't done so yet.)

Those I'm in the midst of reading now:
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

Those I look forward to reading and reviewing this year:
Brookland by Emily Barton
The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
Passion and Affect by Laurie Colwin
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Still Life by Louise Penny
In the Beauty of the Lilies by John Updike
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I'm guessing, since no one else has been sitting, looking at these books all lined up on that one shelf in the study, waiting to be read all year, that it's almost as though I'd chosen new books, because I doubt you'd remember what my plans were. I'm hoping so, anyway, because otherwise, this would be a pretty boring post ("there's that stupid TBR list, yet again!"). And I'm hoping there are still some titles here that you're eager to have me read and review. I'll get on it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A P.S. and a Year-Long Meme

When I did my 2010 stats and then went over to Ms. Musing's place to read her own roundup of the year, I realized that I had somehow managed to leave out a couple of my normal categories. Then, I read through my post again to discover that I had also forgotten to give you one of my "least favorites." So, here I am, giving you a P.S. to that post and revisiting 2010 one more time before I let go and admit that we are, yes, in 2011, and that 1981, was not just a little while ago, but was, rather, thirty! years ago. Here you go:

Forgotten categories:

# of fiction titles read:
76 (this excludes poetry and drama)
FAVORITE: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham. Somerset Maugham is an all-time favorite.
LEAST FAVORITE: Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers. Too predictable and trying too hard, by being gimmicky, to be original. I immediately gave it away to the library after I finished it.

# of nonfiction titles read: 16
FAVORITE: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krause Rosenthal. Rarely, very rarely, do I sit down to "take a look" at a book one afternoon and have to drop everything else until I finish it the next morning. A wonderful little gem.
LEAST FAVORITE: Ghosts among Us by James Van Praagh. Oh, I wanted so, so badly to believe him, but I just couldn't. He had way too many loose ends and unanswered questions.

Forgotten least favorite:

LEAST FAVORITE CHILDREN'S/YA BOOK: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling. Again, not because I didn't like it. I did. It's just that it didn't come close to measuring up to the others I read in this category.

And, now reminiscing about reading an Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life has reminded me of a meme. A couple of years ago, before I read that book, some of you had embarked on a meme in which you were going through the alphabet and writing about important people/places/things in your life that began with each letter, one blog post per letter. I thought it was a great idea and planned to do it myself, but then, other blog posts got in the way, and I never got around to it. When I read the book, I suddenly realized that the meme must have originated with it. Someone had read Krause Rosenthal's book and had decided to use the technique on her blog (I'm guessing it was "her," which may be very sexist of me). Again, I was inspired to pick up on the meme, but I never did.

Well, now, I finally plan to pick up on it. I will start with the letter A and work my way through Z throughout this year. Stay tuned for the letter A post, coming soon...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mothering Instincts?

(Because I have no children and can't possibly know what it's like to be a parent) I am often quite judgmental of the parents I encounter. This has led me to find myself sometimes idly wondering what type of parent I would have been had I had any children. For instance, I might think, "Would I have been one of those sorts of annoying parents everyone hates? Or would I have been someone like Zoe's Mom or Danny whose parenting skills I greatly admire?" I have witnessed many, many ways that one can be an "annoying mother," but whenever I've pondered what kind of mother I might have been, I have always prided myself on the fact that I would never, ever have been one of those sorts of mothers who clings to her children, never wanting them to grow up, to go out on their own, making their children forever the ones meant to fulfill some need that's impossible to fulfill. After all, I'm the one who's been known to say, "If they just showed up on my doorstep one day, fully-grown as really pleasant, funny, and fun people, and I didn't have to do all the hard work to help them get there, I'd be happy to have dozens of children."

Well, that's what I used to think. Then, I got a puppy. Although a number of years ago, Bob and I had a dog, we got Lady when she was two years old. We missed her puppy stage, something we always sort of vaguely regreted (her previous human family was kind enough to give us a puppy picture that we still have), but it didn't cause us much heartache.

Enter Clare. I am discovering that I am all kinds of "annoying mother." For instance, do you know the kind of mother you see interact (or, actually, not interact, as the case may often be) with her children, and you have a hard time keeping from asking, "Why did you have children?" I don't feel that way about many, but when I find them, I'm almost tempted to ignore all 1,045,691 reasons I chose not to have children to kidnap their children and raise them myself.

Well, we picked up Clare on December 6th. Need I tell you that December is a terrible, terrible month for a minister and his wife to pick up a puppy? Oh, and that this past December was, like, the coldest December on record? And maybe the windiest, too (or, at least it felt like it)? And that I happen to live in farm country where there are very few trees to block the wind? And then Bob and I got sick? There were some days, I promise you, when I was standing out there in the freezing cold, my puppy practically a kite on the end of her leash, refusing to "do her business" (and who could blame the poor thing, who would come inside and shiver for about ten minutes afterward?), when anyone walking by would have thought, "Why did that horrible woman decide to get a puppy?"

I am also the "annoying mom" who wants everyone to see and fawn all over my puppy, as if no one has ever seen a dachshund puppy before. I practically race over to the manse after church every Sunday to bring her out to the dog run, because I know people walking to their cars in our parking lot will come over to see and comment on her. (Okay, and when they don't, I've been known to take her over to the church's narthex, where everyone is standing around drinking coffee and eating baked goods, in case they want to see her.) And I am that "annoying mother" who over worries and who will, say, if the puppy has been sleeping for six hours straight, wake her up to make sure she's okay.

All of this would be (somewhat) forgivable, though, if I hadn't recently discovered that I am my own worst nightmare -- one of those "annoying mothers" who doesn't want her children to grow up. Clare is now almost five months old. We've had her for six weeks. The other day, she "flopped" her way all the way up the stairs (something a dachshund is not supposed to do. Stairs are very bad for their backs). She did this so quickly I couldn't catch her (so I am also becoming a guilt-ridden mother who doesn't always manage to catch her puppy and keep her from doing things that might harm her). Incentive? Francis's food is upstairs (yes, the puppy who has a terrible memory when it comes to "Indoors? No poop. Outdoors? Poop!" has a photographic memory when it came to "location of cat food," which she remembered within hours of initially discovering it).

When we first got Clare, she could barely flop her way up a few stairs. She'd stand there whining. We could easily catch her. This go-round, by the time I realized she'd hit the first step, she'd made it all the way to the top. Was my first thought (after "Cat food must be rescued!") "bad dog. We've told you 'no' every time you've tried to climb the stairs?" No. My first thought was, "Oh my God! She can climb the stairs all by herself. She's growing up so fast! She's no longer a puppy." This was an absurd thought. The dog is five months old. From everything I've read, most dogs are puppies until they're two years old.

That was bad enough, but then came the next thing. When we first got Clare, if she were sleeping by my side or on my lap, and I had to get up just to do something like go retrieve the telephone, she'd whimper and cry the second I left the room and not stop until I got back. Now, she'll watch for me, might whine a little, but I can go do something like take a shower and get dressed, and I'll hardly hear a peep out of her. When I first realized this, what was my first thought? Forget the fact that it used to break my heart (when it wasn't annoying me) that she couldn't bear to be separated for more than a minute, my first thought was, "She doesn't need me anymore! I've missed her whole puppy hood! I was too busy and too sick to appreciate it, and now it's gone, and I can never get it back."

Yep, Just call me Annoying Mom. If I'd had human children, I would have been the sort of mom I hate. Good thing this poor little puppy has no idea how badly I'm going to screw her up, and good thing dogs are expected to live their whole lives under their "parents'" roofs.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reading in Maine

So, we went to Maine right after Christmas. This is a picture of our home in Maine, taken last fall (yes, I said our home. Once we get it fully furnished, please come visit. Or come visit now, if you like to camp. This is where, God willing, we will one day retire). My plans had been to write, read, snowshoe, and cook up a storm right through New Year's. My body had other plans. I developed a bad chest cold right before Christmas, which you all know from my previous post turned into walking pneumonia. I spent my time in Maine sleeping and reading and mostly eating things that came out of cans. However, that means I got a lot of good reading in. I thought I'd share it with you.

The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow
Thanks go to Zoe's Mom, who lent this book to me. I actually had almost finished it by the time I got to Maine, but I read the last 25 or so pages there. This was an extremely well-conceived ghost story. Molly Marx is dead, and although it seems like her death was accidental, the more we read, the more we come to find that it might not have been so accidental after all. Molly observes from the afterlife (here, cleverly called the Duration), and what we get is not only a mystery, but also a fascinating study of marriage and love and family relationships. It's both funny and sad -- and there are moments of brilliant poignancy, like when Molly observes her young daughter dealing with her mother's death (I can't imagine a mother reading that section and remaining dry-eyed). Oh, and a big plus is that it takes place in Manhattan. Molly even happens to die in Riverside Park, my old stomping grounds. Highly recommended.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
I've actually been reading this book for something like a year, having read it once years and years ago. It's one that can easily be picked up and put back down and not picked up again for ages, as each chapter (once you've been introduced to Gerry's family) is pretty much a discrete piece of writing. I liked reading it this way, because it's a book to be savored. If you love wild creatures and funny family stories, you can't get much better than this book about a young boy whose family moves to Corfu from England and all the adventures and misadventures he and his family have. An added plus is that Gerald happens to be Lawrence Durrell's brother (Larry). If you've ever read Lawrence, Gerry's descriptions of him are even more enjoyable (although I couldn't help wondering if Larry ever forgave him. If the critics considered me to be a serious author, and a sibling portrayed me that way, I might have a little trouble doing so). Anyway, so very funny. Highly recommended.

Faithful Place by Tana French
I found this one to be very different from her other two. On some levels, it was a more straightforward whodunit than her first two. I pegged whodunit almost immediately, so then it became much more of a how and why than a who, and French didn't disappoint in those two regards. More than a whodunit, though, it was an Irish family saga. I haven't read Edna O'Brien in years, but if you take out the murder part, this sort of made me think of a male O'Brien (because we get inside a man's head here, not a woman's, which, if I remember correctly, is typical of O'Brien). I found that interesting, considering the author is female. Typical of French, I couldn't put it down (maybe I should blame her for my staying up too late and not getting sufficient rest to fight my illness). She can do no wrong in my book. Highly recommended.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
Okay, this probably wasn't the best choice for someone who has a slight tendency to be a bit of a hypochondriac to read while suffering from "flu like symptoms" -- anyone ever notice how some of the world's worst diseases begin with "flu like symptoms"? Bailey suffered such symptoms herself when she was 34, only to discover her body was actually being attacked by some pathogen that has affected her autonomic nervous system for nearly 20 years, most of which, I gathered, she has had to live in a prone position. Still, this book about her year with a "pet" snail and its offspring who live by her bedside is a work of lovely writing and fascinating facts about snails. I will never again eat escargot. An added bonus is that she quotes a passage from Durrell (from one of his other books, not from My Family and Other Animals, but that doesn't matter). Highly recommended.

Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town
by Susan Hand Shetterly
(By the way, this and the previous title are both Algonquin books. That means they are extremely visually and "tactile-ly" pleasing.) Shetterly and her husband were some of those "back to nature" types who came along in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1970, they decided to leave their suburban lives and to move with their young son back to the land in Maine. Eventually, they also had a daughter, and then they got divorced, all of which we find out in this part-memoir, part "science notebook" (for lack of a better term). I find it interesting how many people choose Maine for their "simpler lives." I love the place, of course, but it's such a harsh climate, no way would I want to live there without electricity the way this family did for a time. I enjoyed this book mostly for the fact it was about Maine and mentioned places I know and love, and I liked learning about some of the animals and birds she describes. However, Shetterly strikes me as someone who would be too serious and earnest for my tastes were I to meet her in person. Recommended. (But if you want to read a truly superb "back to the land in Maine" book, I recommend you read Louise Dickinson Rich's We Took to the Woods instead.)

Emma by Jane Austen
Thanks again to Zoe's Mom, who gave me the lovely new Penguin Classics hardcover edition of this for Christmas. I didn't actually finish it while in Maine, as I didn't need to, because I know how it ends. It's a rare book that could be more of a comfort to me than Emma, and she has certainly helped nurse me back to health. And now I want to race out and get all of Austen in these editions. Again, such a visually and tactilely pleasant reading experience. Highly recommended.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I hardly read any of this in Maine (Bob was reading it, because it's our book discussion book this month), but I did start it while there. I'm now about halfway through it and kicking myself for having refused to read it for so long because it's been so popular. It's so much better than I was expecting, and I am very eager to find out how it turns out (it made Bob cry, almost always a good sign when it comes to books). Highly recommended (so far).

That was a pretty good start to the new year, reading-wise, huh? I only read one thing that I wouldn't highly recommend. How's everyone else's reading year begun?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

2010 Stats

Yes, I did happen to drop off Planet Earth for a while. I didn't know where I was, exactly, until I found out I was on Planet Walking Pneumonia. Say what you will about Planet Earth (and, believe me, I've been known to say quite a lot, especially about its human inhabitants), it's far better than Planet Walking Pneumonia. I'm glad to be back, and I am back just in time to give you my 2010 reading statistics. If I'd gotten back much later, I probably would just have said, "oh, screw it."

For the past two years, I've included my favorites for each category. This year, I'm including favorites and least favorites. Yet again, I have made an effort not to repeat any titles when it comes to naming them, so nothing will show up as a favorite or least favorite in, say, both "# of books read by female authors" and "# of children's/ya books read." Even if I actually happened to like something better than what's actually in a specific category, if it's already been mentioned in another category, or I plan to mention it in another category, I have chosen something else (it's called lying with statistics, so I can give you more titles). Also, I am one of those people who calls listening to audiobooks "reading," so audiobooks are included in my grand total "read" and show up as favorites and least favorites where appropriate. Finally, I only count published books. I don't count the manuscripts I read for work (although maybe I should).

Anyway, here you go:

# of books read: 102. Just four years ago, I was reading about half that many books a year. As contradictory as it may seem, I credit blogging with the increase in number. You-all just make me want to read so much. I can also credit telecommuting. I used to spend 90 minutes a day driving to and from work (sometimes longer when Bob was in seminary). I can now spend that 90 minutes reading.
FAVORITE: The King of Elfland's Daughter - Lord Dunsany
LEAST FAVORITE: The Secret Letters of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy - Wendy Leigh

# of pages read: 24241. That's a cool number, huh?

# of female authors read: 52. Yea! This feminist finally read more female than male authors.
FAVORITE: The Likeness - Tana French
LEAST FAVORITE: A Royal Pain - Rhys Bowen

# of male authors read: 47. Still reading plenty of male authors, though, just to prove I am not a sexist, anti-male feminist.
FAVORITE: Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
LEAST FAVORITE: The Shack - Wm. Paul Young

# of edited collections of pieces written by both male and female authors: 2
FAVORITE: The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey - Edward Gorey, ed.
LEAST FAVORITE: To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians - Rebecca Todd Peters and Elizabeth Hanson-Hasty. Not because it was all bad. Gary Dorrien, one of the men I most admire in the world and am proud to know, contributed a chapter. But because it was uneven and because, well, I only read two such edited collections. If this one isn't my favorite, then, logically, it's my least favorite.

# of American authors: 58. Yep, it appears I am still a nationalist when it comes to reading, which is quite disappointing.
FAVORITE: American Pastoral - Philip Roth
LEAST FAVORITE: Cleaving - Julie Powell

# of non-American authors: 40
FAVORITE: Slaves of Solitude - Patrick Hamilton
LEAST FAVORITE: The Giant O'Brien - Hilary Mantel

# of non-American authors translated into English: 6. I wish I could read and understand multiple languages, so I could read everything in its original language, but I am terribly dyslexic when it comes to foreign languages, and so, I have to read everything I read written by authors from non-English-speaking countries in translation.
FAVORITE: The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
LEAST FAVORITE: Death Rites - Alicia Giminez Bartlett

# of edited collections of pieces written by both American and non-American authors: 2
Exact same favorite and least favorite as the male and female category. The only other edited collection I read in 2010 was This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers - Elizabeth Merrick, ed. Obviously, it doesn't fall under either the male/female or the American/non-American collection category. It was good, but I would argue with that word "Best" in the title. Some of them couldn't possibly be among our best writers.

# of volumes of poetry: 8. I can no longer claim I don't read poetry.
FAVORITE: Begin Again: Collected Poems - Grace Paley
LEAST FAVORITE: None. I liked them all, which means I can also no longer claim that I don't read poetry because I don't really like it.

# of volumes of short stories: 6
FAVORITE: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk - David Sedaris
LEAST FAVORITE: Again, none. Seems I also need to stop saying I don't like short stories.

# of plays: 2. Did I at some point say I was going to read more drama in 2010? Shame on me!
FAVORITE: Othello, the Moor of Venice - William Shakespeare
LEAST FAVORITE: The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds - Paul Zindel. Only by default, because there were only two. I loved, loved, loved it and wish I could see it performed (the folks who are now at The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT could do a marvelous job with it, I'm sure), and I probably ought to see the movie. But, well, you know, it isn't Shakespeare...

# of graphic works: 8. (That's if you don't count all six of Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine books, which I don't. I don't really know how to classify them.) Okay, so maybe I read so many books this year, because so many of them were graphic or written by Nick Bantock.
FAVORITE: Believe it or not, it's a really tough call for a year in which I read 3 more of Neil Gaiman's Sandman collections (brilliant, brilliant, imaginative, creative stuff!), all three of the Persepolis books (I learned so much!), and The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952, but for some reason Beowulf - Garth Hinds, just manages to squeak past the others. (Oh, who am I kidding? It's because Beowulf is one of my all-time favorite pieces of literature. Shhh! Don't tell me it's a poem and that I supposedly don't like poetry.)
LEAST FAVORITE: French Milk - Lucy Knisley
Not horrible; I like Knisley's drawing style. Just not great, especially when stacked up against all those others.

# of unfinished books: 4
FAVORITE: (Seems odd that there would be a favorite here, but there is.) Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift. I will finish it. I'm just taking my time, and I've read it before, so I can do that.
LEAST FAVORITE: Bel Canto - Ann Patchett. I did try to understand why it's so beloved. And I read much, much more of it than I typically read when I give up on a book. In fact, I'm not really sure why I didn't finish it, because I certainly didn't hate it the way I, say, hated Cleaving, which I managed to finish, but still, it's here, unfinished and least favorite.

# of audiobooks: 5. Maybe this should really be 6 1/2 because I listened to about 1/2 of 3 others (The Haunted Bookshop, American Pastoral, and Jane Eyre) before deciding to finish them in print, but let's stick with 5, which was all I listened to from start to finish.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris. The only thing better than reading David Sedaris is hearing him read his stuff.
LEAST FAVORITE: Away - Amy Bloom

# of rereads: 4
FAVORITE: My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell
LEAST FAVORITE: The Murder of Roger Akroyd - Agatha Christie. Once again, only by default. Poor thing. Despite how much I enjoyed it, it just can't measure up to Jane Eyre, Othello, and My Family and Other Animals.

# of children/y.a. books: 5
FAVORITE: The Twelve and the Genii by Pauline Clarke. I won it from Ms. Musings, and it was superb (especially accompanied by English Mars Bars).

# of 21st-century books: 53. Hmmm...still reading more of those than any others, despite claiming I don't read much contemporary stuff. Chalk it up to graphic works and chick lit.
FAVORITE: Life of Pi - Yann Martel. A book about storytelling whose main character's name really does come from 3.14? How could I not love it?
LEAST FAVORITE: Wishin' and Hopin' - Wally Lamb. It's not that I disliked it so much. It's just that I read so much other stuff that was much better.

# of books written between 1950 and 1999: 33
FAVORITE: The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith. Tells you how weird I am that something so creepy winds up as a favorite.
LEAST FAVORITE: A Window over the Sink - Peg Bracken. I sure chose a lot of not very good books for my 2010 TBR challenge. It wasn't that this one was really so bad, but it certainly doesn't hold a candle to Bracken's other books, and I was extremely disappointed.

# of books written between 1900 and 1949: 8. Supposedly this is my favorite literary era, and yet I only read 8?! How pathetic is that?
FAVORITE: The Haunted Bookshop - Christopher Morley. One long TBR list disguised as a wonderful, light, romantic mystery.
LEAST FAVORITE: okay, put a gun to my head...No, not even with a gun to my head can I name a least favorite. I guess this really is my favorite era. Either that, or I just choose to ignore the more difficult works written back then.

# of 19th-century books: 3
FAVORITE: Oh, how can it not be Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte?
LEAST FAVORITE: Pleading the Fifth again. I guess the 19th century is another one of my favorite eras, despite what seems to be evidence to the contrary.

# of 18th-century books: 0
Of course, by the logic I used for the last two categories, this would be my favorite era of all. It's not, but that doesn't mean I should have completely ignored it in 2010. Oh well...

# of 17th-century books: 1
Have I mentioned Othello already? I have? Rats! It really ought to be here.

# of 15th and 16th-century works: 0
Maybe I'll invite them and the 18th century to a party this year to let them know I don't hate them.

# of Pre-15th-century works: 2
FAVORITE: The Bhagavad Gita
LEAST FAVORITE: None. Beowulf already showed up as a favorite elsewhere.