Friday, May 31, 2013

Friday Fancies

I've been lucky enough to get to go to BEA a few times now thanks to my job. Although I get a bit more blasé about it with each one, I made spur of the moment decision to go check out this year's convention yesterday afternoon. Aside from weaving through crowds and winding my way through the booths, I also caught a presentation on some of the upcoming Fall literary fiction offerings from several independent publishers, where I picked up a few advance copies that I'm excited about. Another highlight was an in-person sighting of something that I had actually already bookmarked for today's collection of links: Penguin's mobile book truck, which was at the convention center and will be hitting a few other cities this summer.

These need to become as prevalent as food trucks, don't they?

A few other links that caught my eye recently:

For the ultimate Fitzgerald fan: the recipe for F. Scott's prohibition ale

How to decorate a well layered room.

And Barbara Pym Reading Week is almost here! I'm reading Crampton Hodnet in honor of it.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cape Cod

Last week, in between my two travel fiascoes, I got to spend a few days on Cape Cod with my friend Lara. Still pre-season, it was a relaxing and picturesque way to kick of the summer season. While the days were sunny and 70, the mornings started out with a cool, misty fog that perfectly set the New England ambiance.

Once the fog lifted, our hotel looked out onto a sand bar...

...and onto this vintage car. We never found out why it was there, other than in honor of the current Gatsby fever.

We discovered a local winery where we did a little wine tasting that included cranberry wine.

We drove out to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, where there's a ton of shops, galleries, and restaurants, plus a monument to the Pilgrims.


My first lobster roll of the year. (Hopefully not the last!)

 A surprising number of shops in Provincetown seemed to be of the tacky T-shirt variety, but there was a little gem in the form of Tim's Used Books. Tucked behind the main commercial street and accessible by what would best be described as a cross between an alley and the bridge to Hansel and Grettel's cottage, it's packed to the rafters with treasures. I could have done much more damage than I did but, mindful of my impending bus ride home, I limited myself to a handful of paperbacks: three Barbara Pym novels, an orange Penguin Evelyn Waugh, and Noblesse Oblige, a slim collection of writing edited by Nancy Mitford. Best of all was the store's employee who exclaimed over the Pyms as he rang up my purchase, leading to a conversation about how great she is.

Do you have any summer getaways coming up?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Appointment in Samarra

John O'Hara is a classic American midcentury writer who was a new discovery for me. Although doesn't seem to have the wide renown of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, his first novel, Appointment in Samarra, garnered praise from, and drew comparisons to, both of those authors. He may be poised for a resurgence in popularity, as Penguin is releasing new deluxe editions of his works with bold, graphic covers that perfectly capture the post-Jazz Age world that O'Hara writes about.

Appointment in Samarra is set in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, a mining town where Prohibition has led to booming business to small-time mobsters. Within the large cast of characters, the focus eventually narrows to Julian English, privileged son of a local doctor, owner of a Cadillac dealership, and half of one of the most admired couples in town. Although he seems to have all of the trappings of local success, Julian isn't satisfied with his life. The reasons for this aren't readily apparent. Unlike Fitzgerald's characters, we don't see him striving toward some distinct though unreachable goal. Instead, we witness Julian rail against the status quo through a series of increasingly destructive antics. He picks fights with other men in his social circle, lets his business dealings spiral out of control, and, in an act of marital infidelity, simultaneously alienates his wife, who he does seem to truly love, and angers the local mob boss. With a heavy drinking habit added to the mix, it becomes clear as the story progresses that things will not end well for Julian.

Although I appreciated the vivid world that O'Hara creates through his writing, I'm not sure I'd say I enjoyed spending time in it. A mob-infested small town where drinking is the municipal pastime is a pretty bleak world to buy into, made even bleaker by the fact that the events of the novel unfold over the course of Christmas. I was impressed by the way that O'Hara uses a diverse collection of characters to tell Julian's story, weaving their lives together to bring the novel to its climax. All of these characters only added to the bleak atmosphere for me, though. For the most part, they lack the more hopeful and/or wistful qualities that I like about many of Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's characters. This is most apparent in Julian himself. He's not a likable character in the present action of the novel, and we never really see a "best" version of his former self, so his ultimate downfall lacks the poignancy that might be found in similar downward spirals in other authors' works. 
Have you ever read anything by John O'Hara? While I can't say he's a new favorite, I am glad to have gotten a taste of his work.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday Fiascos

Instead of my usual Friday roundup post, today I have an even better treat for you: the tale of a series of comically bad travel experiences that happened to me this week.

Last weekend, I went on pre-summer getaway that was supposed to have involved taking the train to Boston on Saturday, meeting up with a friend and heading out to Cape Cod for a few days, and then returning home by train on Tuesday. Around 10pm last Friday night, I heard the news that two commuter trains had collided and derailed in Connecticut, indefinitely suspending Amtrak service between New York and Boston. After some stressful scrambling on my part, I managed to cancel my train reservations and book bus tickets instead.

I was a bit apprehensive about the bus ride because, well, it's a bus ride, but about three hours into the trip, I was thinking that it wasn't so bad. There was no traffic, we seemed to be making good time, and the trip was passing by quickly. Just at that moment, a jarring, grinding sensation had everyone grabbing for their seatbelts. The bus had blown a tire! The drive safely pulled the bus over to the shoulder where we all got out.

We stood on the side of the Connecticut interstate waiting....

...and waiting...

...and about an hour later a repair truck arrived. We watched as they removed the damaged tire, which was completely shredded.

Then they put the spare tire on and got us back on the road.

I arrived in Boston a little bit late, but with a good story, and continued on with the fun part of the weekend. On Tuesday, I got on the bus to come home. I was much less apprehensive this time around. After the events of the trip on Saturday, what more could go wrong, right?

About twenty minutes into that trip, I sensed a commotion starting on the bus. A few people from the rear of the bus were walking up to the front and standing in the aisles. There was a slight smell of gas fumes on the bus and apparently,it was much worse in the rear, where the air conditioning was weaker. Some of the passengers sitting back there felt sick and started to call and email the bus company to lodge complaints. This led to the drive pulling over on the side of the road to announce that, since the situation had the potential to become a safety hazard, the bus company was making him turn around and bring the bus back to Boston. This caused an outcry from a second group of passengers who were insisting that the bus must go on to New York. The driver, still on the phone with his boss, said that he had his orders and his hands were tied. The irate passengers starting passing around his phone, pleading with the bus company to let the trip continue. After about thirty minutes, with passengers still complaining, the driver got back on the road and drove slowly on. Our fate was uncertain for a few minutes. Were we indeed going on to New York? No. At the next junction, he took an exit ramp and turned the bus around, putting us back on the road to Boston. At this point, a couple of passengers from the back of the bus who had lodged the original complaints started to argue that since the bus was too unsafe to continue to New York, it also must be too unsafe to drive back to Boston. They wanted to get off the bus immediately and so they dialed 911 from their phones. A minute later, two police cars with lights flashing surrounded the bus and pulled it over!
By this point, I was in a state of amused disbelief. Not particularly stressed out, just watching the entire situation unfold while I snacked on some taffy I had gotten on Cape Cod. It took another half hour for the state troopers to talk with the driver and the passengers who called them, but we finally got back underway to Boston, where I spent an extra night staying with my friend before taking a train home on Wednesday, shortly after Amtrak service had resumed.

It was a memorable trip, to say the least. I'll share some pictures of its more pleasant parts next week. In the meantime, do you have any travel horror stories to share?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Civil to Strangers

Published posthumously, Civil to Strangers and Other Writings is a collection made up of one of Barbara Pym's novels, several fragments of unfinished novels, a few short stories, and an essay adapted from a BBC radio talk she gave about finding a voice as a writer. It's a must-read for any Pym fan. As a whole, this collection is to Pym what something like Lady Susan or The Watsons is to Jane Austen--something that ardent fans probably pick up once they've worked their way through the rest of the author's works and are left wanting more. Luckily for me, this is just the fourth book of Pym's that I've read, so I have many more of her novels ahead to look forward to.

The complete novel, Civil to Strangers, is just as delightful a read as Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence. It features a comically selfish husband who doesn't appreciate his wife until a series of slight miscommunications has her running off to Europe with a foreign admirer who's just moved into the village. The three unfinished fragments are both charming and frustrating in that they left me wishing they had been developed into full novels. "Home Front Novel" is set in a typical quaint Pym village and shows how the villagers' lives are enhanced by their efforts to support the home front during WWII. "Gervase and Flora" is set among a community of British expatriates in Finland and "So Very Secret" is a traditional spy novel, with the twist that it starts a cast of Pym's "excellent women". Although the latter made it easy to see that the spy genre wasn't Pym's forte, it was also one of the funniest spy stories I've ever read and had me laughing out loud in public--always the true benchmark of literary humor. And finally, the essay based on her radio talk offers insights into the diverse group of authors that Pym considered to be influences--everyone from Austen to Proust, Henry Green to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Pym's thoughts about writing show that, despite the somewhat unassuming quality of her work, she was a part of the important literary thinkers of the last century.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Taking Another Spin

The Classics Club is doing another spiny and of course I'm joining in. I've taken a bit of a short cut and recycled most of my list from the last spin, which saw me rereading Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent

(image via here- perfect table for a book spin, no?)
Here's my list of twenty classic books--a mix of some I'm looking forward to and some that I'm a little more reluctant about reading:

1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
2. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
4. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
5. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
6. Howard's End by E.M. Forster
7. The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
8. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
9. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
10. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
12. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
13. Cecelia by Fanny Burney
14. Ulysses by James Joyce
15. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
16. Othello by William Shakespeare
17. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
18. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
19. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
20. To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

Where will the spin land me this time?

The result is in and I'll be reading my #6 book, Howard's End!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Fancies

It ended up being another light week around these parts. Despite being full of good intentions, I got wrapped up in some extra projects, yoga classes, and preparations for an early summer mini-vacation. I won't jinx myself by promising that I'll be back in full swing next week. What I will promise, though, is that I'll be back with a post about the latest Barbara Pym that I finished, so stay tuned.

(a mediocre iPhone picture of one of the cutest sights of Spring)

Some of my favorite finds from around the internet this week:

An e-book for Francophiles.

But since I'm more of an Anglophile myself, here's an incredible looking London bike race.

Pretty bags for farmer's market season.

An article about one of my favorite things- restyled covers of classic books.

And speaking of restyled covers, new on the horizon are Penguin's street art editions.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

This Side of Brightness

I became an almost immediate fan of Colum McCann's writing upon first reading his work. His beautiful language combined with his eclectic subject matter--from tightrope walkers to famous Russian dancers--yields fascinating and absorbing results. In This Side of Brightness he deals with two men from different time periods whose lives are both centered around subterranean New York City. During the early part of the twentieth century, Nathan Walker works as a "sandhog", digging train tunnels under the East River. Closer to the present day, a homeless man named Treefrog lives in the underground train tunnels and struggles to maintain his daily existence. McCann alternates between telling each man's story, tightening up the two arcs as the novel progresses until, much like a pendulum slowing down at the end of it's swing, the stories begin to overlap.

As interesting as this novel was to read, it wasn't my favorite of McCann's. To me, his unique subject matter choices in Let the Great World Spin and Dancer enhanced the stories he was telling by serving as unexpected backdrops for universal characters and themes. In This Side of Brightness, I didn't think the story was strong enough to be of equal significance as the quirkier details of the story. Much of my interest in the novel was of a gawking nature, specifically in relation to Treefrog's story. The idea of "mole people" who live underground is such an urban legend that it's hard to look away when it's presented in as much vivid detail as it is here. But if Treefrog, and subsequently Nathan, were separated from that context, I'm not sure they would have enough depth as characters to make me care about them. There's a lot that's engrossing about this novel, and it's worth a read for fans of Colum McCann, but probably not the place to start if you're just trying his work for the first time.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday Fancies- Gatsby Edition

Gatsby fever seems to have erupted this week, all leading up to today's movie opening. Are you going to see it? I will, although I might not necessarily rush out this weekend. Although I liked what Baz Luhrmann did in Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, I've been feeling a bit uncertain about the Gatsby trailers I've seen so far, but I've come to the realization that my favorite things about the book, like the language and Fitzgerald's sense of nostalgia, would be nearly impossible to capture in any film version. If I try to remember that I just might be able to approach the movie with a more open mind without automatically drawing comparisons to the book.

(image via here)

In case you missed anything, here are some highlights from the recent Fitzgerald frenzy:

In 1925, the New Yorker ran a series of "Suggested Bookplates". Here's the one they came up with for Fitzgerald.

If you really want to get in the spirit, you can add some art deco touches to your home and wardrobe.

In the interest of being a fair and balanced blog, here's a critique of Gatsby for those of you who might be on the other side of the fence.

And if you're still looking for more, check out this roundup of all things Gatsby.

For one more last minute addition, here's a hidden image in the iconic Gatsby cover. Hope I'm not the only one who had never noticed that before.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Ivy Tree

Mary Stewart is another one of the many authors who I've discovered as a direct result of recommendations from other book bloggers. Stewart is a mid-century British author whose writing seems to have a lot in common with Daphne du Maurier's--elements of suspense and romance mixed with touches of Gothic mystery and the supernatural. I've long been eager to give her work a try and finally did with The Ivy Tree

The heroine of the novel is Mary Grey, a Canadian expatriate struggling to make ends meet in England. During an unexpected encounter, she's mistaken for Annabel Winslow, who, although missing and presumed dead for the past eight years, remains the sole heiress to a local farm. What at first seems to be a random encounter takes an even stranger turn when Con Winslow, Annabel's cousin, begins to urge Mary to pose as Annabel and try to sway their grandfather to revise his will in Con's favor. With no family behind her in Canada and a dull future as a waitress ahead of her, Annabel's initial reservations soon give way and she agrees to take part in the scheme. She seamlessly steps into the role of Annabel but soon finds herself faced with complications that take a darker than expected turn.

I had a hard time fully engaging with The Ivy Tree and--as isn't always the case--I can pinpoint two very specific reasons why. First, Stewart devotes a lot of time to descriptions of scenery and landscapes. While these do paint a lush picture of the setting, I've come to realize that these kind of descriptions just don't do much for me in any book, especially when they go on for pages at a time. I would much rather get back to the plot and the characters than get lost in the contemplation of rolling country hills. The second thing that tripped me up was overly quaint terms of endearment that were tacked on to a lot of the dialogue. Characters were often saying things like, "Listen to me, my dear" or "I'll be back in two minutes, my darling", which made the dialogue sound somewhat affected.

Although I felt like these issues dampened my enjoyment of much of the The Ivy Tree, things did pick up about two-thirds of the way through when the novel's twist quietly presents itself and reveals that the narrator has been unreliable to the extreme. A narrator who lies to the reader is always an interesting idea, and here I think it's actually  made even more intriguing by being juxtaposed against some of the elements of Stewart's writing that I wasn't as crazy about. It hints that there's more to her work than might first meet the eye. That, combined with the fact that so many others whose literary opinions I trust enjoy her work, has me looking forward to trying more of Stewart's work even though I didn't completely love this one.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Friday Fancies- Super Short Edition

I had hardly any time for blog reading this week, so I found myself with just two links to share. I thought about putting them off until next week, but have been such a sluggish blogger lately that I decided a quick hello and a very short post was better than nothing!

(a little bit of spring in my apartment)

I'll try to get back into a more regular posting schedule next week. In the meantime, you might want to check out:

An article about the evolution of the book review.

And the Rain Room, and upcoming art installation that could warrant a visit to MoMA.


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