Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reading Log, January 2009

As the month draws to a close, I realize that I have been confined to the house for nearly three solid weeks. I've either been sick, as has my entire family, plus there was that little episode with the hospital. All things have conspired together to give me many "leisure" hours for reading, while at the same time leaving me mentally unfit for anything more intellectually challenging than L.M. Montgomery.

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton--I listened to the audio version at, except for the last five chapters, which I read. I've already written about this book, but this was my third Wharton novel and it prompted me to accquire her biography, which I plan to read sometime this year.

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins--Another audio book! This was written in 1918, but you'd never know it. Patricia, a "spinster" of 24 (this was 1918!) works in London and lives in a boarding house. When she overhears a few other boarders pitying her because she doesn't have anyone to "take her out," she invents a fiance, and announces her plans to go out with him for dinner. Berating herself all the while, she dresses up and calculates how much her "date" is going to cost her. Then she arrives at the restaurant and discovers that a few of her fellow-boarders just "happen" to be dining there as well.

To avoid having her deception revealed, she approaches a man sitting alone at a table, and begs him to "play along," which he does, very gamely. But one thing leads to another, and before long, Patricia's engagement has been announced in the paper, her employer's family are ingratiating themselves with her, and her fellow-boarders are making a greater nuisance of themselves than ever.

This was very funny, and felt like a much more modern novel than its age would indicate. It really would make a very funny romantic comedy film.

I Am The Clay by Chaim Potok--Not my favorite Potok so far.

Santa Claus’s Partner by Thomas Nelson Page--Audio book,at Librivox, of course. I meant to listen to this during the holidays, and didn't get around to it, so I picked it when I finished the Patricia Brent book because it was short. It was a fairly predictable Christmas Carol knock-off (minus the ghosts), but it was okay.

When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh--This is a mystery from the golden era of mystery writers. I've only started reading Ngaio Marsh in the last year or two. I think this is the first one I've read that *didn't* have a theater setting. Instead, it takes place in Rome (as the title implies), with a lot of architecture and historical "atmosphere." To be honest, it was only so-so. A lot of what I read and listened to this month was fairly mediocre, and I am ready for something great.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell--Probably the newest title I read this month. There were quite a few interesting themes in this story, but I found both Esme's circumstances and the ending of the book very disturbing.

The Blue Bedroom by Rosamunde Pilcher --This was a collection of Pilcher's short stories. I've read some of her longer books before, and I adore her character-driven novels that show love and grace in action. These shorter stories, mostly about families, were not too bad, although I like her longer fiction better.

The Witness for the Prosecution (and other stories) by Agatha Christie--another short story collection, and some of Christie's most chilling and gruesome stories, I might add.

Maus by Art Spiegelman--a graphic novel, about the author's father's experiences in Nazi-occupied Poland. His family was Jewish, and he and his wife survived Auschwitz, although most of the rest of their family, including a pre-school aged son, did not. This was the first graphic novel I've read, and I don't think I'll be a regular reader of this kind of book, but I will try to find and read the sequel to this.

The Grey Woman by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell--This was another audio book. I've only been reading Gaskell for a couple of years--North and South, Wives and Daughters, and Cranford so far. This short novella (which I listened to at Librivox) was a bit of a shock. I even thought for a while they might have listed the author incorrectly and it was really Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho. This is a "Bluebeard" story in which in a young girl marries a mysterious foreigner, and is taken to live in his remote castle, where she discovers to her horror that he has secrets she never dreamed of.

A War of Gifts by Orson Scott Card--I am an unabashed fan of Card's Enderverse books, but I'm sorry to say, this one was a disappointment. It's a Christmas story of sorts, that takes place at the Battle School during Ender's training there. It would have been better if Card had told his story and left Ender out of it, because I couldn't reconcile Ender as he appeared here with the Ender we know from Ender's Game. My recommendation: read Ender's Game and all its marvelous sequels...except this one.

The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker--I listened to this as an audio book, and only finished it for the same reason you watch a bad movie to the end--just because you have to see if the whole thing is really as bad as it seems, and because some things are just so bad they are almost funny. If I make a "worst books of 2009" list at the end of the year, this book will be on it.

Beloved by Toni Morrison--I just finished this and am still mulling it over. I hope to do a better review this week, and I'll link it here if I do.

That makes a total of thirteen books in January, and nary a one of them nonfiction. I am ashamed of myself, but plead mental fog brought on by a child's accident, my own fever and relentless cough, quite a few sleepless nights, and just plain weariness of soul. I hope to do better in Feburary.

As part of my monthly reading log, I plan to include what progress I'm making in my Worthwhile Reading Challenge. I've already confessed the titles I completed this month, but before the month fell apart, I did get about 1/4 of the way through Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and in spite of a change of heart on my part about whether or not this is worthwhile reading, I hope to finish it in February.

I also started reading Szatan z siodmej klasy and have decided that, intended for young people or not, this is a hard book for me. I'm up to page 9. Don't laugh. Here's my rough translation of one sentence: "A flock of mustangs on the prairie never neighed with joy at the site of water like the seventh grade neighed aloud with humor." Of course, they're not neighing--just laughing. But I don't know the verb "neigh" anyway. I don't like reading with a dictionary at my elbow, so I just soldier on and hope for the best. If I'm going to finish this book, it is going to have to be by reading just one or two pages per day on a consistent basis.

So, now I'm ready for February.

Friday, January 30, 2009


I read my first graphic novel!

Ever since I heard of Art Spielgelman's Maus, I have been intrigued by the concept of telling the story of the holocaust in the form of a graphic novel, casting the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Poles as...pigs. (I don't think that was intended to be entirely insulting. It could just be because Poles eat a lot of pork, and didn't eat kosher.)

All of the events in the story took place fairly close to where I live, and I wonder how readers fare who aren't sure how Sosnowiec and Czestochowa should be pronounced?

The story itself is such a common one (if you have read much holocaust literature), that it would almost seem stale if it were not so horribly true. Six million Jews...possibly two million Poles...and every one of them with an individual story that could break your heart. But the details are so familiar...I think Art Spiegelman drew his story in a fresh way in part to give it a new impact.

I'm going to be perfectly honest and admit that the pictures didn't "make" the story for me. Maybe I don't know how to read comics, or graphic novels. I found myself reading the words, and glossing over the pictures.

Maus tells more than the story of how Mr. Spiegelman's parent's managed to survive in Poland from 1941 to 1944, when they were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz. It also portrays the way in which the experience continued to affect them to the end of their lives, and how it affected their relationship with their son born after the war. This aspect of the story lends depth and perspective to the tale, and it was that part of the story that made the strongest impression on me. I also enjoyed the fact that Vladek Spiegelman tells his story in somewhat broken English. It sounded very authentic.

If I have the chance, I will read the sequel (Maus II) to this story, but otherwise, I think my first graphic novel will probably be my last. I prefer words...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reeled in by another list!

Has anyone else been watching the "1,000 novels you must read" lists that The Guardian (a UK newspaper) has been publishing? They have divided their books into seven rather odd categories:

Comedy, Crime, Family and Self, Love, Science Fiction and Fantasy, State of the Nation, and finally, War and Travel.

Their placing of various books into the different categories seems a bit strange at times, and I am not the only one who thinks so. However, the irresistible lure of the list compelled me to read through all the lists, and tally up where I stand.

Before I reveal those numbers, however, I wanted to weigh in with my feelings about lists like this. I consider them a sort of measuring stick against which I don't mind measuring my reading, simply because it says something about my reading list in comparison with what others think are worthwhile books. However, I am rather amazed at the audacity of a list 1,000 books long. Let's say you average reading one book per week (and some of the choices on this list could scarcely be finished in a week), so about 50 books per year. That's a low number for some, but far above the average. At that rate, it would take 20 years to read through all the books on that list as it stands.

Twenty years of compulsory reading, without any room for newly-published works of fiction unless you read MORE than one book per week. Twenty years without time to delve into the complete oeuvre of authors like Jostein Gaarder (an author who didn't make the list) or John Grisham (who did), just because you especially enjoy them. Twenty years with no room in the schedule for those delicious rereads of old favorites. Twenty years, by the way, of novels alone, with no time for non-fiction, biographies, poetry, short-stories, or how-to books. Twenty years of assigned reading, even if you hate the book?

I don't think so. In fact, I would boldly make the claim that none of the Guardian staff, nor any of the contributors to this list, have read all the books on it. I'd almost bet money that none of them have read half.

So where did I stand? I'm giving myself credit for 110, since one of the books is a current read and I'm over halfway through. I have read 11% of the list. Rather than the total number, I was more interested to see how my reading broke down by category. I was pleased to learn that I have read books from all seven categories, with the highest number falling (to my very great surprise) in the Science Fiction and Fantasy category (26 books) and the lowest in Comedy (only 6). Please don't tell my family these statistics--they already think I have no sense of humor. (And the Guardian's idea of Comedy is a little strange, anyway.) I've read 20 of the books on the Crime list, and the rest of the categories fell somewhere in the middle, between 12-18 books each.

Also interesting for me was keeping track of the books on the list that are already on my radar and on my (not at all offical) "to be read" list. I had at least one or two books from each category (even Comedy!) that I hope to read in the not-to-distant future. I feel so well balanced.

But this is the best part--and the reason I enjoy lists like this, and don't really care how long they make them (since I feel no guilt over the 89% I haven't read, and probably never will)--I discovered several intriguing new books that I want to read, and either added them to my online wishlist or downloaded the free etext or bookmarked the online audiobook. THAT'S what lists like this are good for.

If you've looked over the list and gleaned some good titles, or criticized their choices, or questioned the categories, or counted how many you've read, please leave a comment or link. I'd like to hear!

Friday, January 23, 2009

A peek at what socialized medicine (sometimes) looks like

Almost two weeks ago, 4yo C. had a nasty fall and cut her ear quite badly. As soon I started cleaning up the blood, I knew it needed stitches. We ended up waiting nearly five hours in the emergency room of the only hospital in this city of one million people that will give a child stitches. That is pretty much par for the course everywhere, I know.

A week later, we went back to the same hospital to have the stitches removed. Remembering our emergency-room wait, for which I was ill-prepared, I loaded up with toys and amusements before we headed out. The surgical clinic area, where we had to go, was swamped. There were at least 20 children there, with one or more adults in tow. Toddlers wailed, babies fussed, and parents sat with the resigned expressions on their faces that we recognized so well. Might as well make ourselves comfortable, right?

Krakovian took C.'s papers to the registration desk, and after waiting a while there, the clerk took the papers and handed them right back. You see, we didn't have insurance (translation: we were not enrolled in the Polish National Healthcare System). Therefore, we had to pay for the service first. Krakovian went off to the cashier to pay, while C. and I settled in. (She had a nasty stomach flu three days after our last hospital visit, and I wasn't keen for her to get too close to anyone.)

And then, lo and behold, a surprise. Krakovian returned with his "paid in full" receipt, and the same clerk who had dismissed him 15 minutes before, sent him straight back to the nurse, who led us straight to the doctor (past a dozen waiting parents or more), who had the six stitches removed and sent us on our way in less than the same 15 minutes. I didn't attempt to catch the glances of any of the waiting parents, still seated on benches and in the hallway. I didn't want to see their resigned expressions transform themselves into disgruntled resentment at the fact that, arriving later, we were taken care of before them.

We don't actually KNOW that paying for service sent us to the front of the line, but it is difficult to account for it otherwise. Does anyone think nationalized health care would look much different in the United States? Hoards of people would sign up. Hoards of people would line up for the (far too few) doctors the program pays for. And then hoards of people would wait, and wait, and wait for their turn. Unless they could pay up front and be seen sooner. I've no doubt the system would still work better for those who have the money to pay.

And for the record, it cost about $20 to have the stitches removed. I suspect that getting the front-of-the-line attention in the US would cost a lot, lot more.

And C.'s ear is healing nicely, praise the Lord!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

This is a very visual book. The author evokes a series of fragmented images or pictures that remind me of an image as it would appear in a broken mirror. There are sharp, clear portions, but the complete image is difficult to see or bring into focus. You have to put some distance between the images and yourself before the fragments merge into a coherent image.

Consider the opening few sentences:
Let us begin with two girls at a dance.

They are at the edge of the room. One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers. The other stand beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor.

A similar picture is evoked in the last few pages of the story: "Two women in a room. One seated, one standing."

And in the meantime, more than sixty years have elapsed.

The two girls/women are Kitty and Esme, sisters. They were young women in Scotland in the 1930's,and sixty years later, Kitty is a grandmother with an Alzheimer-clouded memory. Her granddaughter Iris is stunned to receive a letter from a mental institution, explaining that her relative (one Euphemia Esme Lennox) is going to be released. Iris's father is dead and her grandmother is in no condition to explain to her who this person is, and why she has never heard of her before. In fact, she was certain that her grandmother, like her father and herself, was an only child...

But there is Esme, child-like and solid, and Iris cannot abandon her to the fate of a dilapidating system of care.

The action of the story takes place across just two or three days, as Iris discovers Esme's existence and brings her home for the weekend. However, the story spans more than sixty years, and is told in images and fragments from Esme's point of view, from Iris's, and from Kitty's broken and unsettled point of view.

Here is one bit from Esme's childhood memories. As I read through this, I was forcefully aware that a great deal of time was passing and that the child was clearly unsupervised. It definitely created the sense, by the end, that something was wrong, and indeed something was.
In the parlour, Esme wound the gramophone, stroked the velvet curtains, rearranged the chain of ivory elephants on the windowsill. She opened her mother's workbox and examined the threads of coloured silk. She rolled back the carpet and spent a long time sliding in her stockinged feet. She discovered that she could slide all the way from the claw-footed chest to the drinks cabinet. She unlocked the glass bookcase and took down the leather-bound volumes, sniffed them, felt their gold-edged pages. She opened the piano and performed glorious glissandos up and down the keys. In her parents' bedroom, she sifted through her mothers' jewellery, eased the lid off a box of powder and dabbed some on her cheeks. Her features, when she looked up into the oval mirror, were still freckled, her hair still wild. Esme turned away.

Esme was an intelligent, introspective girl--too independent to be satisfied with learning how to behave properly,and unwilling to accept that marriage was her only future. She was different, and in the end, her difference set her up for her fate: life in a mental institution.

It's hard to imagine any parents being able to lock a child away like that. Regardless of the culture and the times, I just cannot understand that. It was Esme's mother, I think, who was mentally disturbed, possibly because she had lost several babies. Her character isn't clearly seen, but I think there must have been something wrong with her if she could say of Esme, "we won't speak of her anymore..." and erase a daughter from her life entirely.

This is also Iris's story, although I don't think her part of the story was quite fleshed out as well as Esme's. I was left wishing there were one or two more chapters...


Sunday, January 18, 2009


A few months ago, before Christmas, I decided to use some of my points at Bookmooch to find a few titles that would make good Christmas presents for the kids. I have a wishlist, but nothing I want ever seems to be available, so I thought it would be a way to use up the points. At the time, I had about 24 points, which meant I could request twelve whole books!

I did find a few books that the kids wanted, and requested them. And then a strange thing started to happen. Either I found more books that I wanted to request, or books that I already wanted became available, and the next thing I knew, I was mooching book after book. "Wonderful!" I thought, "Now I'll have a chance to use up those points, and I'll have some great books to read,too."

Meanwhile, other people must have had the same idea, because I sent books from my inventory to Finland and New Zealand, and probably some other places, and now, in addition to the stack above, which does not include the books I mooched for my kids or Ian McEwan's Atonement which is still en route to me, I have 33 points, and can ask for sixteen more books.

What a great system.

In case you can't see them well, this is what I'll be reading:

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

and, last but not least,

When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh

That last has a sad story attached to it. I checked that title out of the library here in Krakow before Christmas, and I--(this is so terrible)--lost the book. I was reading in a restaurant, and then later, I couldn't find my book. I returned to the restaurant, and they didn't have it, so it was just...gone. I was busy with the holidays and let my other book run overdue because I dreaded going back to the library to tell them about it, but in the meantime, I also located and mooched a copy from Bookmooch.

When I finally went to the library to pay my fines and explain the situation, they were very gracious, and will accept this book in place of the one I lost, in spite of the fact that (gulp) I lost a hardcover and this is an ex-library softcover.

I'm going to read it first, though, and that's why it is on top of the stack!

But only after I pack up the books I have to mail to Australia.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The work of her fingers...

Just in case anyone is wondering what I do while listening to audio books...


I guess it more or less speaks for itself. Only two of these are still in my possession. One is mine because I made it for me, and...well, there probably aren't many people who want an olive green doily. The other one will find a good home sooner or later.

This is my way of making the world a little bit prettier...

I Am The Clay by Chaim Potok

I have read several books by Chaim Potok--The Chosen, In The Beginning and My Name is Asher Lev. They were all excellent books and have firmly established Potok on my list of Authors I Think Are Worth Reading.

I have to establish that first, before I say that this book didn't live up to the others I've read. Chaim Potok is Jewish, and the other books I've read are set in the American Jewish community. When he writes, his characters are excellent, but they are also set in relief against the Jewish background, and the effect is very authentic.

The story in I Am The Clay is set in Korea (where Potok served as a chaplain during the Koren War), and the characters are Korean. An older man and wife are fleeing, with thousands of others, from the on-coming Chinese army. Along the way, the woman rescues an injured, orphaned boy. Her husband begrudges the effort and food required for his care, but as they live and work and travel and suffer and grieve together, the bonds of family are forged.

However, Potok really doesn't know the Korean culture from the inside in the same way that he knows Jewish culture, and so the effect is rather flat. This book didn't have the same depth, the same rich, authentic flavor that his Jewish-related books did. I noticed from the first chapters that the writing seemed different--sparser and plainer than I remember Potok being, with far less attention to the details. He also used a technique that I found a little odd. That is, he told the thought processes of various characters in one flowing paragraph, with nothing to mark the switch from one to another.

Mountain air affects the eyes, Uncle said, and the heart and lungs, you see the whole world in a different way. And now so we found the boy and came all this way only to die here in these mountains what kind of spirits are you to do such a thing to an old woman there is no strength left in me even for anger but if there were how I would hate you. And if I had not run away if I had stayed maybe someone would have been alive and and I could have lived with them but no one was alive and Badooki had also run away and and I would have died in those flames everything was burning the house the air the bodies and and and look all the stars everywhere stars the ice on the mountains reflecting the stars in the sky and in the snow stars and stars.

Stream-of-consciousness is always a little difficult to read, but in that paragraph, you are dipping into three different streams.

I'm a little disappointed that what may be the only Potok novel I'll read this year wasn't one of his best, but that won't stop me from reading more of his work in the future. Toward the end of the book, the boy meets a Jewish chaplain, and I suspect that is Potok's cameo appearance in his own novel. I actually think that if he had written this book differently--if he had written about the Korean refugees as an outsider looking on, instead of trying to write as if from the inside, it would have been a better story.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


That's how I felt when I reached the end of this book.

I read more than one Wharton title in 2008, and had this book in progress as the new year began. Most of it I listened to at Librivox, but I read the last five chapters myself. Edith Wharton is one of those 20th century authors I've neglected for years, but lately I've reached a point from which I suddenly "get" this literature, which is very much a precursor of the post-modern literature of our own time. (I've read more of that than the earlier 20th century literature, and perhaps that is why I can understand it better now.)

The reader for the book is top-notch, but I found myself dreading each chapter. I felt as if I were watching an accident that I could foresee, but not prevent. Lily Bart is the butterfly-creature of American Victorian Society, in New York. She was raised in luxury and comfort, and despite the loss of both her parents and their fortune, she cannot reconcile herself to any other kind of life. After all, she merely has to marry a wealthy a man, and with her beauty and charm, she has no trouble attracting the attention of eligible suitors.

But somewhere underneath it all, Lily Bart has finer feelings and better principles--undefined, undeveloped, and too fragile to set her feet on another path--strong enough only to always keep her back from finalizing the action she has determined to take. So, suitor after suitor slips away, until Lily approaches her 30th year--a single "girl" still, finding it harder and harder to play her self-chosen role.

It was actually painful to watch Lily lose the things she thought she cared for, while gaining nothing of value in their place, until it was too late for either. The ending of the story was not what I anticipated, but although it was not what I feared for her, it was tragic.

I would be interested to read and learn more about Edith Wharton, as I really know nothing at all about her personal life. What perversity of soul would make an author name a book like this "The House of Mirth?"

But, lest I finish with a wrong impression, I must say that the writing is beautiful--achingly compelling and wistful. I was never able to despise Lily, even when she despised herself. I do intend to read more by this author, although not, perhaps, right away.


If, and only if, you have read the book, you might find this article interesting. It explains a recent letter that came to light, which may have had a bearing on explaining the ambiguous ending of the book. I also discovered that there is a connection between Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss, another author I admire and have read recently.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

My Worthwhile Reading Challenge

What's this? A third post within a week? I hope no one experiences undue shock.

However, this is 2009. A new year, a clean slate, fresh beginnings...time to recover from the undeniable fact that I read 92 books (actually 93--I found one I'd forgotten to put on the list...) and reflect on a few things.

I steadfastly refused to make reading plans for myself in 2008 (except that I said, in a general sort of way, that I wanted to read 2 non-fiction books each month, and I read 9 total for the year). I would not be tempted into joining challenges. I would simply read "as the spirit moves" me, so to speak. Well, that will not do. I need some relaxing, fun reading material, and I don't intend to plan that, but if I don't plan my serious reading better, it apparently isn't going to happen.

So, I found this challenge at The Common Room, and decided that was about right for me. Almost. I was only able to choose 10 worthwhile books. If I manage to finish these, I'll find another two.

I'm not going to list my plan month by month. I will have to tackle these somewhat simultaneously. Any encouragement, cheering, gentle nudges, polite inquiries, or tart reminders will be welcome to help me stay the course.

Ten Worthwhile Books I Plan to Read in 2009

(If December arrives, and I have finished none of these, I shall surreptitiously delete this post.)

1. Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

2. Education in Antiquity by H.I. Marrou

3 The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

4. The Pleasures of Philosophy by Charles Frankel

5. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

6. Paradise Lost by John Milton

7. The Ascent of Man by J. Bronowski

8. Thinking Youth's Greatest Need by Dan Gilbert

9. Clive Staples Lewis by William Griffin

10. Szatan z Siodmej Klasy by Kornel Makuszynski

I've had all of these books on my shelves for one year or longer. It's high time I read them all the way through, I think. The last book on the list is young adult fiction, and the title means something like "The Satan in Seventh Grade." However, it did come highly recommended to me as a "living book" and I do plan to read it in Polish (that's what makes it worthwhile).

Wish me luck--join the fun.