Monday, March 28, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge

Spring is in the air. Yes, it's been freezing cold here for the past four days, but spring is in the air nonetheless, because the birds are chirping, the days have gotten longer, and the lilac bushes have buds on them. That means it's a good time to embark on a quest or two.

I've never participated in Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge, but I am doing so this year for Challenge V, basically because I can't believe I've been reading about it all these years and have never decided to do it. The challenge began on the first day of spring and runs through June 20th. Carl kindly gives us many different levels from which to choose.

Seeing how I am typically so successful when it comes to challenges, I probably ought to take on The Journey (read at least one book between now and June 20, and that's it. Reading more is fine, but the only commitment is one), but seeing how I also tend to be someone who bites off more than she can chew, that level isn't doing it for me. I've decided to take on Quest the Third, which is to read at least five books that can be classified in any of the following categories: fantasy, folklore, fairy tale, and mythology. This one also includes reading A Midsummer Night's Dream in June (well, how could I not want to do that?).

I'm not going to make a decision at this point about any specific books to be read. I want to be open to changing my mind or adding new titles at whim. However, I thought I'd give you a (much longer-than-five titles) list of some of the things (because half the fun of challenges is making decisions about what to read) I'm considering for this challenge (alphabetical by title here, to satisfy my anal retentive nature):

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman. I've been saving the last in the trilogy, but I'm ready to read it now.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It's another one I've been saving, because it's supposedly his best. Anyone, is it? Of course, I could also just read some more Sandman collections, but they're probably more appropriate for Carl's R.I.P. Challenge.

The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. I last read this when I was a teenager, and I've been wanting to reread it for quite some time now.

The Blessing of Pan by Lord Dunsany. I want to read more Dunsany, and Pan is one of my all time favorite mythical characters.

Bullfinch's Mythology. Speaking of mythology, I'm constantly getting my myths confused and mixed up. Reading this might help set me straight (or, might get me even more confused, but how will I know until I read it?).

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault. It seems I probably ought to read Bullfinch's first, but I might skip that and read this instead.

The Complete Grimms Fairy Tales. I don't think I've ever read all of them. Keep reading this list to find out why I'm suddenly interested in doing so. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure I would have been reading this whether I'd joined the challenge or not.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. So much Ray Bradbury to read, so little time...

The Earthsea Trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore) by Ursula K. LeGuin. I read the first in this trilogy years ago and loved it, but I've never gotten around to reading the whole thing. At this point, I need to start over with that first one.

Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story by Carolyn Turgeon. Someone else read this once for Carl's challenge, and it sounded so good I went out and bought it.

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman. This book is basically the reason I decided to join the challenge. I'm halfway through it, which means I've already got one book almost done. (And, yes, this is why Grimms is on this list.)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I got this one at last spring's library book sale. I think it might be nice to read it in time for this year's sale. Also, I want a good fantasy written by a woman, as it seems so much lauded fantasy is written by men. This one has been highly lauded, and I'm looking forward to it.

L'Morte d'Arthur. Yes, it would be a reread, but I just can't get enough of it. And I think it's going on ten years since I last read it. It's something that ought to be read at least every ten years or so.

Mort by Terry Pratchett. Speaking of death...Also, I read my first Pratchett in the spring, and I think of him when the daffodils begin to bloom.

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. I am completely superficial, as I want to read this one only because the copy of it that we own is so beautiful. I do know it's gotten rave reviews, though, and years ago, I was the nanny for a kid who couldn't get enough of the movie.

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. What's not to love about Gaarder? It's been a while since I read Sophie's World. Time for this one.

Tom's Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce. This was a Slightly Foxed discovery.

And, of course, A Midsummer Night's Dream. I haven't read it since college, although I've seen it performed at least twice since then.

They all look great, and some have been in the TBR tome for ages and ages. Tell me which ones you've read and what you'd like to see me read and review. Then, be prepared for my choosing the five shortest ones on the list (and the Shakespeare to make six total).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Top Ten Meme

Top Ten Books I Absolutely Had to Have -- But Still Haven't Read

I got this one from Litlove. I know I'm being repetitive, but in case you're new to this blog, I feel I need to inform you that my house is full of books I haven't read. Usually, I blame this on Bob. I married a man who has no self control when it comes to buying books, and he fills up our house at an alarming rate. But then I start browsing our shelves and realize someone else is responsible. Bob isn't buying Margery Allingham and Georgette Heyer. Perhaps my friends are sneaking in here and putting books on my shelves. Finally, though, I have to fess up to the fact that I am not someone who goes out, buys a book, reads it, then goes out and buys another book to read. No. I am someone who goes out and buys a book (or 2 or 5). Period. Unless it's the latest David Sedaris, or something I'm reading for a book discussion group, or I am unexpectedly stuck somewhere with nothing to read (a rarity, but it's been known to happen a time or two while traveling), chances are, it will be some time before I actually read it (maybe a month or a year or 20 years).

Nonetheless, I am going to try to choose ten from my vast quantities of had-to-read-until-I-bought-it books for this meme. It just seems like a fun thing to do. I will, of course, be cheating a little (I prefer to call it creative math). You will see the numbers 1-10, though, so I say I've done my job.

1. Over half the Persephone Books I own. (I own 11. I've read 5.) Who can possibly resist Persephone? I'd own their entire bookstore if I could. But it's expensive to order their books and to have them shipped to the U.S. I figure they need to be parsed out and savored. Really, though, I probably don't need to be quite so parsimonious.

2. Every book by Jeffrey Lent except In the Fall (he's written three others). Bob and I were both so blown away by In the Fall that we got all his others. Could it be that I maybe wasn't quite as blown away as I thought?

3. Every book John Irving has written since he wrote A Prayer for Owen Meany. John Irving was a pivotal influence when I was in my teens and early twenties. I've actually read both The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany twice. Ask me to list my favorite contemporary authors, and he's right at the top of the list. And yet, once he published A Son of the Circus, I basically quit reading him. In the beginning, it was because he took so long between books that I wanted to wait a while before reading A Son of the Circus, so I didn't have to wait so long for the next (poor logic, I know, but I never claimed to be rational when it comes to books). I think I've been waiting something like sixteen years now, and he's published plenty of other books since then (all of which I had to and do own). I have no idea why I'm still waiting.

4. Almost every Library of America book we own. That may not sound like much, but Bob used to have a connection who would get these for us free. You wouldn't be too far off if you guessed that we have practically an entire bookcase full of them. I haven't completely ignored them. I've read at many of them -- a novel from this one, several short stories from that -- but the only one I've read all the way through (despite insisting we must have this one and we must have that one) is their collection of light verse.

5. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Christmas 2008, I told Bob this was the only book I really wanted. I didn't care if he didn't get me anything else. I had to have it. I couldn't wait to read it. That was over two years ago. Okay, okay. I actually happen to be halfway through it now, but that's only because a. it's in my TBR challenge and b. my book discussion group just discussed it on Sunday (due to all kinds of extenuating circumstances, like getting stuck out of town without it, I didn't finish it in time for that, but I will. It's a great book!)

6. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghesi. Last summer, when I was visiting Connecticut, I met friend-not-husband Bob and his wife Ann for dinner and a play. Ann told me I had to read this book. The next day, I headed off to Borders with Zoe's Mom and bought it. It looks fantastic. Everyone I know who's read it has liked it. Have I read it? No. Why not? Let's blame Zoe's Mom, because I'm sure I keep picking up books she's lent me instead.

7. Little, Big by John Crowley. Back in the summer of 2009, when I wrote my blog post on Lud-in-the-Mist, one of the comments I got suggested I might like this book. I turned to my friend Mr. Fantasy, the same one mentioned in that blog post, who has a keen sense of my "picky-ness" when it comes to fantasy, and asked if he thought I'd like it. His answer was a very enthusiastic "yes!" That week, I went out and bought it. It's been sitting unread ever since. Sigh!

8. A Family and a Fortune by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Speaking of Mr. Fantasy, he introduced me to Ivy Compton-Burnett when he lent me A House and Its Head, which I loved. Shortly after that, he and I went to a library book sale together, and he found this for me. Okay, I was living in Connecticut at the time, which means it's been at least 3 1/2 years, and I'd say probably, realistically, you could double that number. God, it looks so good. Why haven't I read it?

9. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. And speaking of library sales, they're certainly a source for must-have books, aren't they? I bought this one at the Lancaster library sale two years ago. I still remember how excited I was to find this nearly pristine copy that looks as though it's never been read. I guess I've decided to keep it looking that way.

10. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Bob loves Calvin and Hobbes, so it was easy for me to pretend I was getting this birthday gift for him a number of years ago instead of for myself. Our shelves just wouldn't be complete without this handsome set. I can't remember exactly when I bought it. That's how long it's been that I've been meaning to read it.

Looks like I need to finish that TBR challenge and start a "Books I Had to Have" challenge, doesn't it? Maybe I'll do so in 2012. Anyone want to join me for that?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mystery Man by Bateman

Bateman. Mystery Man. London: Headline, 2009.

How could I park the No Alibis van near the shop when the place was swarming with police and reporters and the van had Murder is our Business on its side? Would it not be a surefire indicator that I was involved in the murder of Malcolm Carlyle? How many miliseconds would it be before the long arm of the law grabbed me by the throat? And it wouldn't even require a long arm. A short arm. A stunted arm. A police officer suffering from growth hormone deficiency in the general arm area would throttle me the very instant he saw the No Alibis van with its oh so witty catch line. (p. 179)

I wish I'd written that.

Throwing caution and brain tumors to the wind, I removed my cell phone and called Jeff. (p. 179)

That, too. But I didn't. Those thoughts are coming from Bateman's (Colin Bateman, but here he refers to himself, in Madonna-like fashion, as "Bateman") protagonist (the mystery man who has no name) who owns a mystery bookshop in Belfast (the "No Alibis" mentioned above) and who seems to have taken over a good deal of the caseload from the private detective who used to have his shop set up next door to No Alibis before he went missing. And I was treated to thoughts like that first quote from beginning to end while reading this book, the latest for the CT mystery book club. I probably don't need to tell you, then, that I found the book laugh-out-loud funny.

It got off to a bit of a slow start for me, though. I picked up on the humor immediately, but then I began to wonder if it wasn't a little forced. Was Bateman trying too hard?

Soon enough, however, I got wrapped up in the story. To make it easier to write about it here, I'm going to have to resort to naming No Alibis's proprietor. He adopts various authors' names when taking on cases, and at one point, he calls himself Walter Mosely. Walter fits him, so let's call him Walter.

Walter starts small, solving mysteries like The Case of the Missing FA Cup and The Case of the Fruit on the Flyover (in a nod to Conan Doyle, Walter names his cases and refers to some -- e.g. The Case of the Fruit on the Flyover -- that I'm presuming will never be related to Bateman's readers. This book, among other things, is a great big nod to many, many writers, as well as an opportunity to attack contemporary well-knowns). It can't remain simple, though (this is a mystery after all, not Encyclopedia Brown). A man who is dabbling in another detective's business is bound to stumble upon a murder at some point. You know from the get-go that it's going to be said detective (truly. He doesn't come right out and say it, but, unless you've never read a mystery in your life, you know it is, so I'm not giving anything away here). This becomes The Case of the Dancing Jew, a case into which he ends up dragging Alison, the woman who works at the jewelers across the way. He's had a huge crush on Alison for some time; some -- although he will tell you he hasn't been -- might even say he's been stalking her.

Alison comes into his store one evening to attend one of the writing classes hosted by Brendan Coyle. Brendan Coyle...

...was already a much-garlanded author of literary fiction when he decided to write crime under a pseudonym before being "accidentally" unmasked. He gives the impression that it is just something he dashes off while waiting for divine inspiration to strike his real work. In reality, he offers nothing new to the genre, and instead merely rehashes some of its worst clich├ęs. (pp. 67-68)

Hmm...doesn't that sound an awful lot like Benjamin Black (a.k.a. John Banville)? And are you beginning to catch on to how opinionated Walter is? I happened to love all his opinions about the writers he stocks (or doesn't, as the case may be) in his bookstore, mainly because I agreed with him most of the time. However, I loved his opinions even when I didn't necessarily agree, for example, when he said, "Life is too short to spend an hour and a half on a mystery that will ultimately be solved by a cat." (pp. 23-24) I haven't actually read any of those mysteries-solved-by-cats-and-dogs, but I think, given the right time and place, I'd probably be perfectly happy wasting an hour and a half on one.

Anyway, back to Alison. She comes into the store, puts Brendan Coyle in his place, and Walter falls even more in love with her. So much so that he drags her into this most dangerous caper of his, the first to involve an actual murder. In fairness, Walter doesn't exactly draw Alison into it, more like he refers to it, and, next thing you know, she's forcing him to discover a dead body with her. He spends a good deal of his time trying to back out of solving the case, but she keeps pushing him.

What I haven't told you about Walter is that he's a character who could give Monk a run for his money. Check off every neurosis you can think of, and he's got it: O.C.D., phobias, paranoia, hypochondria, etc., etc. He doesn't really want to be involved, is very afraid to be involved, and yet he can't quite help himself, because (after years and years of being deeply immersed in the crime genre, as well as being very intelligent), he has an extraordinary talent for putting the pieces together to figure out whodunit. Meanwhile, Alison is the fearless one, the one with the guts to counter-balance his brains, the one willing to do things like accept a dinner date with a suspect, even though if he's a killer, he's likely to try to kill her.

These two make a great team as well as a wonderful romantic couple. Together, they do solve The Case of the Dancing Jew (it seems I've been reading an awful lot of books lately -- for instance, mysteries for the CT book club -- that have plots that figure around Nazi Germany, which this one does. I guess it's a subject that never gets old. Let's hope not, lest people forget or begin to believe the idiots who'd like us to think it never happened). The mystery is a good one, although, yet again, I found myself liking it more for the characters than for the plot.

I hope this isn't a one-off. I'd love to read more mysteries with this crime-solving duo. That is, if Walter doesn't turn out to be Norman Bates (which he very well could, but that's a spoiler I'm not willing to give you. You'll have to read the book to figure out what I mean by that. If you do, expect your TBR list to grow exponentially, as TBR lists have a tendency to do whenever one reads a book whose main character owns a bookshop).

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Danskos: A Love/Hate Relationship

Everyone who knows me knows that, practically before I could speak, I was pointing at shoes in shop windows and thinking "I want." I don't know why I (someone who really hates to waste time shopping) have always been obsessed with shoes and will gladly say "yes" whenever someone suggests a trip to the nearest shoe store (even if that shoe store is only Payless, and even if my to-do list is so long, I'm thinking of turning it into a novel). The good thing about this obsession is that, unlike bathing suits, say, I never, ever get depressed while shopping for shoes. The bad thing is that I have crammed my poor feet into all sorts and conditions of shoes over the years and then done things like running in ill-fitting sneakers, and all this has taken a toll on said feet.

A few years back, when I started suffering from things like plantar fasciitis and other painful foot conditions, I began to fear I was never, ever going to be able to wear a lovely pair of shoes again. I was going to be forever stuck wearing ugly, comfortable ("sensible") shoes. However, by buying sneakers that fit well and were designed for the way I walk and using inserts carefully, I have discovered I can still manage to wear beautiful heels (at least, for an hour or two on Sunday morning, or to do something like go to the theater, being deposited and picked up at the door). Nonetheless, for everyday, long-term wear, I have to find things that are a bit more practical. Back then, I began looking for more comfortable foot wear and was told by everyone that the best shoe to buy was the Dansko clog.

Okay, with the exception of the Croc (btw -- you see, this shoe obsession really runs deep, to the point of owning shoes I find hideously unattractive -- I also have a pair of those, but they are never, ever been worn off my property. They were bought back in the days when Bob and I had a garden and lived on a plot of land that was often very muddy), is there anything uglier than the Dansko clog (don't let that touched up photo above fool you. Somehow, Dansko's marketing folks have managed to put their ugly duckling into the very best light. I almost don't recognize them)? I know they're ugly, because even Bob, who usually couldn't care less about such things, was not thrilled when I announced I was getting a pair -- that I was, in fact, spending a good deal of my Christmas money that could have been spent on something far more attractive (say three pairs of cheap, but dainty, little shoes from Target. Bob is nothing if he isn't into bargains) on a pair of Danskos. Luckily, they were all the rage at the time. At least I wasn't investing in something that was not only ugly but that had also gone out of style back when Jimmy Carter was president.

I bought them somewhat reluctantly, but then discovered something. They are (aren't all the ugliest things?), as everyone had assured me, extremely, extremely comfortable. I can walk anywhere in them, and my feet don't get nearly as tired as they do in other shoes. My plantar fasciitis is bothered almost less by them than it is by my sneakers, and I don't have to wear inserts with them. They are also convenient. I can slip them off and on with no bother (far more practical than some of those strappy sandals I own, for which I practically need a microscope in order to find the holes in the straps so I can buckle them. Such shoes have been known to make me late to events, when I find myself thinking, "All I need to do is put on my shoes, grab my bag, and I'm ready to go," and allot myself 30 seconds to do so).

The problem is, they make me feel like The Little Dutch Girl, which might be okay if I were Dutch and under the age of eighteen, but I'm not. I confess they look better with (some) skirts than that hideous "commuter" look of white socks and running shoes (that always reminds me of the movie Working Girl, big hair and all) women sometimes still sport in the name of comfort, and when I wear my longest jeans, they are almost tolerable, as they are mostly covered up. Still, there is no mistaking that I am wearing Danskos, and I hate the fact that I'm wearing Danskos, choosing comfort and practicality over pretty and/or sexy.

How comfortable and practical are they? Well, this week, I have been stranded at my brother-in-law's house, because my car broke down when I thought I was taking a quick and easy business trip up to Tarrytown, NY. My brother-in-law has been kind enough to put me up for three nights instead of the one night he thought I would be here. I came completely unprepared for three nights away from home, though, and had to get him to take me to Target to supplement my inadequate wardrobe . I did not, however, need to supplement my shoes, because I happened to have had two pairs of shoes with me (in case you thought I was exaggerating when I confessed to being shoe-obsessed, you should know that only the truly shoe-obsessed would have two pairs of shoes with her for an overnight stay). I had worn boots on Sunday to the work event and had packed my Danskos for the trip back on Monday. Four days without any form of exercise would be unthinkable for me. I have to do something (usually walk) at least every other day. Yesterday evening, I took a four-mile walk in my Danskos, and my feet were perfectly fine. I will do the same again this evening. Had I had only my boots with me, I would never have been able to do that without needing a visit to a podiatrist.

So, practical, yes, but how ugly are they? Let's just say that I recently had to go to the mall to buy an outfit for an upcoming event. I hate malls. I hate walking around malls. In order to do so, I need something comfortable. I also need something convenient if I am going to be going in and out of dressing rooms trying on clothes. There were piles of ice and snow melting all over the place. I didn't want to ruin any of my pretty little comfortable flats trying to walk from the parking lot to the mall, so I reluctantly slipped on my Danskos. The whole time I was at the mall, passing windows with all kinds of pretty and impractical shoes, I wanted to announce to everyone, "I'm not really a Dansko wearer. I'm being forced to wear these by aliens from another planet in a little experiment they're conducting." Ahhhh, but my feet were so grateful by the end of the afternoon when I rewarded them with a trip to Starbucks where I sat down for a leisurely cup of coffee and a scone, and they didn't throb, which they've been known to do when dressed up in something too tight and too high, even after I've sat down for hours.

Is it really possible to both love and hate a pair of shoes?