Thursday, January 18, 2018

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - January


I have read Susan Hill's other book about books twice. Howards End is on the Landing is one of my all time favorite books. I've written about it twice in my letters, here, and here.

Because Jacob's Room is Full of Books is divided into months, I decided to read it that way. But I'll tell you, it was very hard to stop when I reached the last page of January!

Again, I feel like this woman is inside my head. I called to Tom twice as I read her January entry because she put into words thoughts I've had for a long time.

One is about the Kindle.
I had a Kindle. I read books on it for maybe six months, and then I stopped and went back to printed books. I did not do this for any reasons whatsoever other than organic ones. I prefer holding a real book.
But this is the part that got to me.
I gave up reading on a Kindle because I found I wasn't taking the words and their meaning in, as I do those in a printed book. They went in through my eyes but seemed to glide off into some underworld, without touching my brain, memory or imagination, let alone making any permanent mark there. I was puzzled by this, until I learned that if we use an e-reader or a laptop before going to sleep, our brains are affected so that we are more likely to sleep badly. It is something to do with blue light. I've forgotten. The e-reader is cold, and what I mean by that I cannot put into words or explain. I can only feel that it is the right way of describing the experience, as against the warmth of a physical book.
Well, even though she says she can't really explain, I understood. I have gone on probably too much in various blog entries about my relationship with the Kindle. I began using one, and a Nook, though I didn't like it as well, for one reason alone. Well, really for two, I guess. The first was because I got a shoulder injury from lying on the same side, holding my book the same way. It was so bad that it was a few years before I could sleep on that side again. The little e-reader is perfect. It just sits there and I don't have to do anything but 'turn' the pages. So, for that I am completely grateful that it exists. Before the Kindle, I listened to audio tapes for years and years. Yes, tapes. Once tapes weren't around anymore, I tried books on CD but I couldn't control it like I did the tape. I'd go too far forward or back. I know a lot of people now use their phones and listen via Audible or some other company, but I just can't do it. I'm not a phone person. I don't have many apps. I use it mainly for texting and photographs. I have Instagram, but I don't have Facebook on my phone. I hate doing searches or going to web pages on the phone. I like my big screen on the desktop computer.

My second reason why I am so very grateful that e-readers exist is all the old books that are available for them. Books I used to search all over the internet for, and often not find, are right there in the Kindle store. I have discovered so many older authors and my reading life is much, much richer.

Still I understand what she means about not "taking the words and their meaning in." I simply don't remember what I read on the Kindle as well as what I read in print. Maybe it is the blue light thing Susan Hill talks about. When I'd fall asleep listening to audio books I never had this trouble, so it can't be drifting off as I read on the Kindle. I remember the audio books almost better than print books. " 'Tis a puzzlement." But I feel like I understand a bit better after reading her words.

The second time I called Tom into the room, she was talking about May Sarton. Now there's an author I've always thought I 'should' like. I've read a few of her books, and try as I might I don't like them much and I especially don't care for the author, but yet, I continue to read her occasionally. Susan Hill is re-reading Sarton's Journal of a Solitude.
I have never known such a self-regarding, self-indulgent author. Yet isn't writing a journal bound to be an outpouring of self? No. I can think of so many diaries and journals that of course are about the writer and her or his life and experiences, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, friends... but which do not seem self-centered in this way. May Sarton was, by all accounts, including her own, the most infuriating woman to know. She believed she was a major poet, that poetry was her form. She was wrong. She thought she was a fine novelist. She was an OK one. How harsh this is. But she is dead and cannot read me.
She was a woman tormented by her own temperament, by her rages, storms of tears, hysterical outbursts, jealousies, passionate, possessive love affairs with other women; a woman who complained about the interruptions from her readers, her friends, her daily domestic routine and said all she longed for was to be left alone with her art. But when she was, she was lonely and miserable and craved company, as she had always craved attention and affection. Her well was so empty, no one could ever fill it.
But I am enjoying this one of her journals all the same. She has an eye for beauty, an ability to describe a sky, a snow storm, a plant, a bird, a wild cat, the antics of her parrot Punch, so that one is there with her, and she was respectful of her country neighbours, whose lives were rough and poor and harsh but who had a dignity and a pride in manual work and an honesty she valued. 
There you have it. I quoted the whole portion on May Sarton because she is writing what I've so often thought. And yet, we both keep reading her for those reasons in the last paragraph. If you type her name into my search bar, you will see several poems I have put up over the years. I do like them, and she does capture the natural world in a way that I admire. I've waited for many years to read a book that I plan to begin on February 25, the day I turn 70, May Sarton's At Seventy.

The January entry isn't all about books. Susan Hill has a wonderful section about a particular type of British comedy, " the sort of humour beloved of old-fashioned vicars and their wives." This American had never heard of Joyce Grenfell or Flanders and Swann, but I will be looking them up on YouTube.

Walking outdoors and seeing a woman picking up trash reminds her of a friend of her aunt's who, in her retirement used to go out for two hours each day doing the same, "with a black sack and a stick with a prong on the end." And then as she remembers this woman, she thinks of two women who taught at the same school, one of whom is the poet U.A. Fanthorpe whom I have heard of, and her partner Rosie Bailey, whom I haven't. More to look up.

She ends by telling the reader that she receives many questions from prospective writers on how to write. They all want to know how to do it. I won't tell you how she writes, but she ends with, "I would never achieve an MA in Creative Writing."

I've been wondering why it was hard for me to stop at the end of January, but not hard for me with Gladys' book. I think the reason is that though Gladys Taber writes of many things, she does spend a lot of time on the actual weather and life in a particular month. Susan Hill mentions the outdoors a little, but mostly she is writing about literature and people and memories. I did love this bit.
The last day of January, apropos of which a friend said, 'Now that can't be bad.' Yes and no. Yes, we are on the right side of the year - a little lighter in the mornings and evenings, more birds singing. And yet February and March and often April ('the cruellest month') can disappoint, and even May can be wet and windy and cold.
Her England sounds much like my New England.

Although I didn't re-read Howards End when I read Howards End is on the Landing, I do intend to re-read Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room this year. I haven't read it in a very long time.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Stillmeadow - January

I think that for a lot of us, the days beginning after Christmas into the middle of January are pensive ones. We take stock of our lives. Some people make resolutions. It is usually a quiet time after the bustle of the holidays. We might feel let down, or we might feel that it is a restful time. I'm in the latter group. I love every single minute of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love the shopping, the planning, the decorations, the music. And then between the 25th and New Year's Eve, I love putting the house back to 'normal,' having that blessed silence that comes after commotion. Gladys says,
It is a good thing to curl up with a book for a little while before bedtime. I like James Russell Lowell, saying, "Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character." We all need to spend some time alone; people who cannot bear their own company for a time have thin souls.
The deep part of winter gives most of us a little more time alone. The natural rhythm of time has changed from that of summer. But instead of dreading the dark winter days, we ought to savor them for what they can give. Now there should be time to reread old books, to absorb some philosophy, to play a whole symphony without hurrying.
She begins her January entry with memories of her own childhood winter days, when "no one had ever heard of organized winter sports." Gladys and her friends would hop on a bobsled pulled by a horse, and ride all around town. "The boys fell off and scuffled in the snow and threw snowballs, and if a boy was really wild about you, he showed his ardor by putting snow down your neck."

Now, I've never made oyster stew or eaten it, but this is a recipe you would probably never read today.
Oyster stew was really oyster stew then. Mother made it by melting half a cup of butter in a big, heavy pan. She added a quart of oysters and let them just come to a boil, then poured over them three cups of milk and a cup of cream, a teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of pepper. This simmered until the oysters began to rise to the top; then it was served with parsley, paprika, and often more butter on top.
Nowadays people would cry, "too much butter and cream." But think about what is served in restaurants - french fries with gravy as a side to a huge hamburger. I can't help but think that is just as unhealthy, perhaps more so.

As is so often the case when I read Gladys Taber's words, I hear my own thoughts echoed. Thoughts I didn't know anyone else had.
Here is a strange thing. In summer I always make plans for those long winter nights. I say blithely, "Well, in the long winter evenings I am really going to learn to knit socks. There will be time, then, to reread all of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan poets." On a long winter evening we can refile the phonograph records, straighten the game cupboard, and really throw out those incomplete checker sets and nibbled [my words -by what, mice??!] game boards. A thousand small, niggling jobs we can dash off, I think, in winter. 
Every single year I go through this happy reasoning and every year, in surprise, I face the fact in January, that those long winter evenings are pure fiction. 
... What does become of those evenings? I often wonder. Because I find myself, in January, saying cheerfully, and with hope, "Now when the summer evenings come, and it stays light so long, I can really catch up with those odd jobs. I'll just wait for summer."
I suspect it is just a human weakness to look forward to a season with plenty of leisure, a tranquil space between regular jobs. Much the way we used to anticipate nice restful vacations. And then actually we wore ourselves out on those nice restful vacations.
Gladys Taber was a highly educated woman, especially for her time. She was born in 1899, got her Bachelor's Degree from Wellesley and a Master's Degree from Lawrence College. She later taught at Columbia, and this book sees her commuting from New York City to Stillmeadow. I read that in 1935 she began living in Connecticut full time.

Most (all?) of Gladys' books are illustrated by Edward Shenton. Here is January's.

 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

2017 Book Facts

As I wrote about the 2016 books, I jot these facts down for my own interest, and I can't imagine anyone but me caring about such things. For 2018 I'm adding what country the author is from and where the book takes place.

This year I read 55 books.

Genres:

6 fiction (1 short stories)
5 nonfiction
44 mysteries (1 short stories)

44 on the kindle
11 in print

Gender of author:

33 men
22 women

Publication dates:

1900 through 1910 - 1
1920s - 1
1930s - 7
1940s - 3
1950s - 4
1960s - 2
1970s - 1
1990s - 9
2000 through 2010 - 6
2011 through 2019 - 21

Monday, January 8, 2018

Second half of 2017's reading

I posted my first half of 2017's reading here. Now, I'll try and talk a bit about the rest of the books.

A real stand-out of the last six months of the year is Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. How many times have I read this? 3, 4, 5? It never dims. It is always interesting and is so beautifully written. This book is about how one young girl changes her life, and the lives of two older people. If you've never read it, you really owe it to yourself to give it a try. It is a wonderful, wonderful story.

I remember where I sat in the library when I first picked up this book. I remember the way the book looked. Green with no cover. No kidding.

The whole Anne Shirley series is available on kindle for peanuts.

A recent book that was a real favorite is Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. He may rival Alexander McCall Smith in how prolific he is! You can read about MM all over the internet, so if you are interested in the plot, you can do a search. I knew nothing when I began, and am so glad. I loved every page of this completely unique book. 'Nuff said.

I really like a new series by Triss Stein set in Brooklyn, featuring an historian, Erica Donato. She is not a usual 'cozy' amateur sleuth. Yes, trouble does seem to follow her around, but so far she hasn't been a damsel in distress. She's intelligent with way too much on her plate - a teenage daughter, a job, a dissertation she must write, and all the cases she gets involved in because of her historian knowledge. She brings Brooklyn history alive just as Cleo Coyle does all of New York City in her Coffeehouse series (I also read two more in her series, and enjoyed them, as always). I so love a sense of place. Really a great series. I read three of them in 2017, and the last one this year. The way it ended could have meant the end of the series, but we'll see.

The Perfect Summer - England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicolson was a perfect book. I may have mentioned sometime that I always wished I could have had a college course that studied all facets of one year - art, literature, politics, home life. This book does that. She did a beautiful job of bringing that year, that time alive to me. In addition to the things I mentioned, the reader also learns about royalty, fashion, sport. I cannot praise this enough. Nonfiction.

I read two more in the Alan Grant series by Josephine Tey, including what many think is her best, The Daughter of Time. She was such a good writer. I'm quite sure it is Cath who really got me interested in these books. Go to her blog and search for JT if you'd like to read some really good book reports.

I wrote about a Phyllida Law book here, and have now read another, How Many Camels Are There in Holland? Dementia, ma and me. I think she is a wonderful writer. Her personality comes right through every sentence, and her honestly and humor make her books a joy to read even though there is sadness in them. You may know her as the actress, also mother to Emma and Sophie Thompson. I hope she continues to write such charming little books. I know there is a new one, and I'm off to buy it now. There's a wonderful recent article about her here.

I'm really liking the Inspector Richardson series by Basil Thomson. It makes me wonder how many other older writers I've never heard of. I don't love all of them that I read, but this series is very good.

The 18th(!!) in Alexander McCall's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, The House Of Unexpected Sisters may just be the best one yet. How does this man do it? He keeps the characters alive and fresh, and makes the reader, at least this one, wanting more. I also read the latest Isabel Dalhousie, A Distant View of Everything, which I liked.

I read more Brendan DuBois, and just have the latest in the Lewis Cole series to read. I'm such a fan of these books.

I read more Bobby Owen books by ER Punshon. As much as I do like these books when I am reading them, afterwards I can't remember any details. They are slow and quiet and lull me to sleep, but the plots are lost to me. Read a couple more Michael Gilbert's which I like even better, but again seem to have trouble remembering the stories.

Reading A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories reminded me I really do want to read more Simenon books.

I reread three books this year which pleases me - A Rumpole Christmas, Anne of Green Gables, and Miss Read's Battles at Thrush Green.

After having traveled the world last year in my reading, 2017 didn't find me much further than England and Scotland, with an occasional foray into the US, and one each into Canada, France, and Denmark.

So, I guess that's it. I do miss my long book reports with photos and links, and hope to get back to them someday. Maybe this year?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Today's video/Tribute to musical artists we lost last year

Here's a tribute to some of the musicians who died in 2017, done by Keith Urban. My personal sadnesses are Tom Petty and Gregg Allman.

There's a nice treat near the end when Keith's family comes onstage with him. I'm a big KU fan.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

2018 Book Facts

just bookkeeping post

Tom's 2018 Reads

just a bookkeeping post.

Books Read in 2018

3. Whale of a Crime - book 7 in the Gray Whale Inn series
by Karen MacInerney
mystery 2017
kindle
finished 1/13/18
US writer/US setting

2. The Young Clementina
by DE Stevenson
fiction 1935
kindle
finished 1/8/18
Scottish writer/England setting

1. Brooklyn Wars - book 4 in the Erica Donato series
by Triss Stein
mystery 2017
kindle
finished 1/4/18
US writer/US setting

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I've thought for a while that Iceland might be my true home - this confirms it

Forget hygge. This is the word we book lovers are interested in - Jolabokaflod. I just read about it here.

There's an article here from a few years ago. Still another here.

Imagine living in a country of readers. Imagine living in a country where, when you are selling your house, the realtor does not suggest you take your books off the shelves. (Yes, I've heard of this)

And then there is this article from here. Sets me dreaming, I'll tell ya.


Iceland: Where one in 10 people will publish a book



Woman reading in Reykjavik


It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, "ad ganga med bok I maganum", everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone "has a book in their stomach". One in 10 Icelanders will publish one.
Iceland is experiencing a book boom. This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.
"Does it get rather competitive?" I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. "Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much."
Special saga tours - saga as in story, that is, not over-50s holidays - show us story-plaques on public buildings.
Dating from the 13th Century, Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country's Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century.
Sagas are written on napkins and coffee cups. Each geyser and waterfall we visit has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached. Our guide stands up mid-tour to recite his own poetry - our taxi driver's father and grandfather write biographies.
Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit.


Two visitors to the Reykjavik International Literary Festival

Reykjavik is rocking with writers. It is book festival time. Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai and Generation X author Douglas Coupland rub shoulders with Icelandic literary superstars Gerdur Kristny and Sjon. Sjon also pens lyrics for Bjork, Iceland's musical superstar.
"Writers are respected here," Agla Magnusdottir tells me. "They live well. Some even get a salary."
Magnusdottir is head of the new Icelandic Literature Centre, which offers state support for literature and its translation.
"They write everything - modern sagas, poetry, children's books, literary and erotic fiction - but the biggest boom is in crime writing," she says.
That is perhaps no surprise in this Nordic nation. But crime novel sales figures are staggering - double that of any of its Nordic neighbours.


Bookfair in Iceland

So what has led to this phenomenal book boom? I would say it is due to a crop of darn good writers, telling riveting tales with elegant economy and fantastic characters.



Iceland's black lava riverbeds, its steaming, bubbling earth, with its towering volcanoes and fairytale streams also make it the perfect setting for stories.
No wonder JRR Tolkien and Seamus Heaney were entranced and Unesco designates Reykjavik a City of Literature.
Solvi Bjorn Siggurdsson, a tall, Icelandic-sweater-clad novelist, says writers owe a lot to the past.
"We are a nation of storytellers. When it was dark and cold we had nothing else to do," he says. "Thanks to the poetic eddas and medieval sagas, we have always been surrounded by stories. After independence from Denmark in 1944, literature helped define our identity."
Siggurdsson pays homage to Iceland's Nobel Literature Laureate, Halldor Laxness, whose books are sold in petrol stations and tourist centres across the island. Locals name their cats after Laxness and make pilgrimages to his home.
"When Laxness won the Nobel prize in 1955 he put modern Icelandic literature on the map," Solvi tells me. "He gave us confidence to write."


Graffiti on Landskankinn sign 2008

A combination of ash and the crash also put Iceland on the map.
The financial crisis - or "kreppa" - of 2008, which helped trigger the world economic crash, came first. The ash cloud from one of Iceland's many active volcanoes created a second in 2010.

"It made us less complacent and gave artists a creative shot in the arm - as Thatcher did for Britain," he grins. "We address politics too - it is not all about sagas."
Hallgrimur Helgason - comedian, painter and writer - tells me the kreppa brought Icelanders down to earth.
But some fear a book kreppa, too. Iceland has so many writers there is huge pressure on publishers.
This time of year sees the "jolabokaflod", or Christmas Book Flood, when most books are published.
About now every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents - hardback and shrink-wrapped.
"Even now, when I go the hairdressers," Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, says, "they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books."


Bjork

But it is a lock of blue hair which alerts me to the presence of Iceland's most famous celebrity. The singer Bjork attends several of the festival events.
"It is great to see you supporting writers," I say to her.
"It is a small place. We have grown up together," she replies. "We support each other."
If Bjork was, once upon a time, Iceland's biggest cultural brand, she is today joined by a whole bokaflod of authors.