Friday, December 27, 2013

Book List for 2013

I don't think it's the number of books you read; it's the amount of enjoyment that comes (or not!) from delving into a novel or a book of nonfiction. Some people want to reach their goal of 50 books each year. I didn't set a goal - never do - but I spent many good hours with novels and nonfiction this year, 43 in all. Here are a few of the books that I enjoyed most in 2013.  If you care to see my entire list, go to

Someone by Alice McDermott
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Transatlantic by Colum McCann
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry
Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Benediction by Kent Haruf
Fools of Fortune by William Trevor
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson
And the Mountains Echoed by Khalid Hosseini
Strapless, John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

Here are a few that failed to meet expectations:
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwen
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ekphrasis and Bildungsroman

While you’re reading do you always stop at an unfamiliar and look up its meaning right away?  Or do you jot it down on a handy piece of paper and say to yourself that you’ll find its definition later? Perhaps you just read on and figure out its meaning from its context?
While reading a review of Donna Tartt’s novel “The Goldfinch” in the New Yorker I came across “ekphrasis,” a word I’d never seen before.  I scribbled it on a piece of scrap paper and laid it aside.  Here it is a few weeks later and I have finally decided to see what it means.  

From a definition of ekphrasis:  “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.”  I don’t know if I’ll ever use “ekphrasis” in writing or in conversation, but at least I’ll remember what it means if I come across it again.

Like “bildungsroman.”  Because I don’t come across it very often I have to stop for a second to recall that it means a novel that charts the development of the main character’s mind and character from childhood through various experiences into maturity.  A few examples of a bildungsroman: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith), “The Catcher in the Rye” (J.D. Salinger), “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (Stephen Chbosky), “Someone” (Alice McDermott), and “Portnoy’s Complaint” (Philip Roth).

Every year at this time people select books for gift-giving and many a bildungsroman will be among them.  Word-A-Day calendars also make the gift lists.  I’ll check but I doubt “ekphrasis” will be among the pages.




Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fashion Plates and Spinsters
Whenever I stop to consider the derivation of certain words and phrases, I often wonder why I’d never thought before how they came to be part of our English language.  “Fashion plate,” for example.  

I knew, of course, that the term refers to someone, usually a woman, who is dressed in the latest style. Recently I learned its derivation while reading Strapless,” a book written by Deborah Davis about the artist John Singer Sargent and his model for the painting Madame X.  In the book Davis describes the life of upper-class women in Paris in the 1880s. She explains that new dress designs were pressed onto plates which were then printed in the local fashion magazines and newspapers. 

And then last week during a lecture on the history of American women, I learned about spinsters. During the 19th Century, when the women who worked in mills as spinners of fabrics reached a certain age, usually thirty, they were regarded as being beyond the age of marriage. These “old” women were then referred to as “spinsters.” 

It’s a different story today as “unmarried” has replaced “spinster” which earlier in this century brought to mind an old woman with wrinkled hands sitting in her rocking chair. Today you may call a woman a fashion plate and you’ll be met with a smile.  Call her a spinster and she might hit you with her AARP card.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Who needs a summer reading list?

When I see a list of books suggested for summer reading, I'm glad I’m able to delve into books of my choosing year-round. To me “summer reading” is an anticipated pastime for students released from mandatory book reports and for those who relish a vacation away from the office. 

Because a classroom and a five-day work week are part of my past, I feel lucky that I may browse through a library, roam the aisles of a book store or select a book from the pile waiting for me on my bedside table.  My question is always “what’s next?”  After I’ve turned the final page on a book, I usually look for a different type of experience.  I just finished “The Woman Upstairs,” a psychological novel by Claire Messud in which an angry and disillusioned woman is betrayed by a friend and I was looking for something in a different vein.

A recent interview of the British author John le Carre, master of spy thrillers, steered me to “Our Kind of Traitor,” published in 2010.  After this book, I’ll look for something lighter.  Perhaps I’ll find something as delightful as “An Uncommon Reader,” a novella by Alan Bennett which tells the story of a bookmobile stationed outside Buckingham Palace.

Like some of my friends, I keep an annual list of the books I read. Every year I try to include at least two or three classics.  In the past couple of years I’ve enjoyed Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra,” and Willa Cather’s wonderful novels of American pioneers.
“So many books, so little time” is an apt expression.  It’s easy to find books that please. For me, life is too short to waste time on books that aren’t satisfying in some way, whether it’s the good writing, great depictions of characters, an interesting plot or a book that teaches me something about the world. 
And genre isn’t that important as I discovered a few years when I was part of the craze that enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s trilogy that began with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”  Soon I found other Scandinavian writers including Per Petterson who writes wonderful novels. But my newest fascination is the Norwegian mystery writer Jo Nesbo and his series about Harry Hole, a detective on the Oslo police force.
What’s on your reading list? How do you decide what book to read next?  Do you listen to word-of-mouth recommendations from friends?  Do you consult the best seller lists? Or do you return to your favorite genre or a particular author?
Whether you’re off to the beach, the backyard or a living room chair, the best companion is a book that keeps you interested and entertained.