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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Nervous Marigold's Top Eleven Fiction Reads of 2009

(Complete with bonus listings)

Ah. Finally done. I read about 80 books this year, including a number of "young adult" novels. There was a lot of fiction this year - I guess I needed the escape factor. The eleven books on this list are mainly not books released in 2009: they are the best books I read this year. The list is organized in alphabetical order by author. I will mention the best few non-fiction books I read this year in a separate post.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with
traviolent Zombie Mayhem!
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith (2009)

A brilliant piece of conceptual art. The thrill is in the concept of a literary mash-up, there is no need to actually read it to enjoy and even wonder at the idea. I, however, did read it, as I have never gotten around to Jane Austen (gasp!) and, after checking, I realized her part was perfectly and sufficiently faithful. Fantastic way to catch up. Having said that you don't need to read this book, I confess that I also have on my pile Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben Winters, and I will probably get the prequel to P and P: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Jane Austen and Steve Hockensmith because it looks and sounds so funny too. So rare to find something new in writing!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery (2008 in English, translated from French)

This year's book that got me thinking about the best books of the year. That this book could be a huge seller restores one's faith in the existence of a clever reading public, one that delights in its own cleverness. Interesting. This is a book I will keep in my permanent collection, most unusual for current fiction.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz (2007, won the Pulitzer in 2008)

A book both street and scholarly, and totally fabulous, but again all us clever readers are congratulating ourselves for being both clever and cool. Oh well. The book is still fantastic.

Mountain Man
by Vardis Fisher (this edition 2000)

This is an old book, written in the mid-60's, but this new edition only recently came to me, loaned as a favourite by a friend. This book is the opposite of clever and cool. It comes from a world-view which is both harsh and lyrical. It feels unvarnished and honest: a strange book to read amid the current values of eco-this and that, plus politically correct reverence for aboriginal peoples of the world, an attitude which implies that less development of technology equals moral superiority. It requires an honest reader to recognize our current paradigm as nothing more than a paradigm, and re-evaluate the way we see the world. An amazing book. (Side note: he is one of the authors most often shown as a favourite author among LibraryThing readers! And I had never heard of him.)

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures: Stories
by Vincent Lam (2006)

This is a book of inter-linked short stories by a Canadian writer who is also a physician. I had it on my pile a long time, and then when finally got around to it, I really loved it. Lam is adroit and convincing as a writer, and the physician characters are human but not weak.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
by Reif Larson (2009)

This is an extraordinarily beautiful book, narrated by compulsive 12-year-old mapper, illustrated with maps and diagrams of daily life on nearly every page. The boy has some difficulties relating to people, and I group it with books about people with Asperger's syndrome, (although no-one else seems to have) so it is not new in that aspect, but the graphic treatment was really lovely, particularly appealing to readers who are semi-compulsive organizers and/or art-appreciators as well. Ahem.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Steig Larson (2008 in English, translated from Swedish)

Absolutely deserves to be the phenomenon that it is. Really blew open the "Nordic Crime Fiction" category in North America. I love mysteries and thrillers. I once read about Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie (I think) the idea that in formulaic fiction, one is not looking for pure creativity, but for deftness with the formula. I often think of that benchmark when reading genre fiction of any kind (like stories about people with Asperger's? hmmm), and I think Larson succeeded beautifully.

Pretty Monsters: Stories
by Kelly Link (2008)

Surprise last-minute entry. This writer could pick up the baton that has passed from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman, stopping briefly at Clive Barker. Short stories, just over the edge of reality, with a wonderful ear for tone in a number of genres. This is her first book, so it remains to be seen if she can maintain her unique strangeness over the long haul.

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

A true tour-de-force by a rare writer who is changing English letters. One thinks (everyone who reads thinks) of Hemingway simplifying written English into a terse American voice, and McCarthy takes that up to the present, and projects it into the future. In fact this book is post-apocalyptic science fiction, but I understand that is not his usual genre. I plan to read his biggest book, All the Pretty Horses, and I have high hopes for it. (PS The Road also has one of the all-time great covers.)

Shelf Monkey
by Corey Redekop (2007)

This book should be compulsory reading for all LibraryThing devotees. It is about loving the books more than the readers. It is a kind-of absurdist view of the future of book-retailing, a fearful vision that is probably shared by most passionate readers. It is so funny and so throw-away clever. It encompasses a delightful and broad reading list. It's written by a guy whose day job is librarian in New Brunswick, and who has a great book review blog (called Shelf Monkey) Can't say enough good things. Can't wait for the next book. A total and delightful surprise.

The True Meaning of Smekday
by Adam Rex (2009)

This is a kids' novel by someone I think is a genius: he writes, he illustrates, he rhymes, he is funny, he is literate. This book moved into our family vocabulary in number of ways. We also adore his kids' book Frankenstein Takes the Cake, which every literate lover of horror should read, if not own. No other writer shows kids the fun of having an education as well as Adam Rex.

Greatest disappointment of the year:
The Watchmen
by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons (1986)

I am trying and trying to get a thrill from graphic fiction. I am working on Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I have bought half a dozen of the most famous works, recommended by the young guys at the local independent comic store: Sin City; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Fables: Legends in Exile; The Last Man: Unmanned and The Watchmen. I already had 300. So far, all I've managed to do is slog through The Watchmen. I will watch the movie, if I come across it. I will ask to borrow a friend's copy of Watchmen and Philosophy. I love Shakespeare manga and opera manga. I try the kids' stuff like Bone. (Bleah! How can they get it? What do they see in it?) I am determined not to be left behind by current culture, especially print culture. I study art. I should be able to "get" it, but I can't find that thrill. If I can get around to these other books, maybe I'll find it. I dunno.

Funniest reading experience of the year (maybe actually ever):
by Jack Kilborn (2009)

I requested an Early Review copy from LibraryThing of this book. It was soooo scary, I was too afraid to read it. End of review. Note: best viral pick-up among my friends.

Final note:
I was holding this list to see if any of the books I would read during this last restful, reading-full part of the year would qualify. They did not, but...thinking over a top one hundred books of the decade that a friend sent me, and realizing we have spent 10 years in the 21st century already, gave me a kind of time-crisis, so I read two near-future books and one millennial book to help me cope, and they were perfect: Spook Country by William Gibson, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Gentlemen of the Road: Jews with Swords, by Michael Chabon. It's been a good holiday.

The marigold wonders nervously:
Is it OK if I give a shout-out of thanks to my reading doppelgänger for sharing much of this list with me, you know who you are, and say "love ya babe! first up for the new year is Bang Crunch Stories by Neil Smith?" I think it's OK. It's OK right?

For comparison purposes, last year's list here:
The Nervous Marigold's Top Ten Reads of 2008

Saturday, November 21, 2009

LibraryThing Early Review

by Jack Kilborn

Well titled!

Although I love scary and I say I'd rather be offended than bored, for the first time in my life I have had to say this book was TOO FRIGHTENING to read. I only managed about 50 pages. I actually imagine that this comment is a confirmation of the intent of the author. The combination of suspense, horror, science gone mad and gore is keyed to an insanely high degree.

I will now pass it on to the most adventurous reader I know, see if she can manage it. I'll try to remember to append her comments.

The marigold wonders nervously: is this, in fact, the PERFECT review for this book?

The other reader of my copy did finish reading the book, and said the relentlessness of the gore was remarkable. It didn't stop her from reading it, though. AND another reading friend asked me about "that book you were too frightened to read" because she was intrigued enough to think she would pick it up is she ran into it in an airport bookstore. Well, whaddya know? My review is working!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some things are so funny

A lot of things are kind of funny, but lately I have been thinking about things that are REALLY FUNNY, and I thought I would share them with you all! (Yes, possums! All of you!) Amazingly, or not, they all kind of intersect with books.

I've said it before: I love a smart-ass. I last said it about Michael Chabon and his characters in my post about my favourite ten reads of 2008. (Starting to think about this year's list. HMMMM.) Anyway, these are my top favourite funny things of the moment:

The comics (and everything else) on Wondermark created by David Malki ! are to die for. Did you like the one at the top of the page? I also loved his screen-shot videos of creating the comics, beautiful little works of art, and I plan to continue rummaging around his site to look at all the offerings.

No-one is smart-ass-ier than the writers of, and nothing can be funnier than McSweeney's. I particularly love McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes. No more need be said on that. I also adore, and have (probably inappropriately) shared with my kids McSweeney's Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of Lists. Suffice it to say that the cover of the book is illustrated by a unicorn, and among other funny topics for lists there are lists something like: "Things that make a unicorn cry" and "Messages sent to me by my mother when she was learning to text-message".

Produced by McSweeney's, there are also more books, a great web-site, and several unusual-format periodicals. Results are uneven, but these people can make coffee come out your nose, if you are not careful.

I am also a recent convert to the BadAss of the Week site by Ben Thomson. From him you can learn real stuff WHILE COFFEE COMES OUT YOUR NOSE! I had seen some of his postings on the Cracked! website, but when he guest-blogged on the Powell's Books enewsletter (see under reading links - it's all good) about Aeschylus, I had to check into him further. This is my second mention of him in a row, he's that good.

A smart laugh must be one of the most satisfying things that can be experienced. Hope you get one, or two...

Here is a bonus Wondermark comic:

(Except I don't have a cat. Draw your own conclusions.)

The marigold hopes nervously that it's OK for me to have reproduced these two that actually illustrate my life. In any case, go to the site and find the ones that mean most to you.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rereading Hallowe'en

I recently felt the urge to re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray, probably because I wanted Oscar Wilde's story topmost in my mind before the irresistible onslaught of movie promo. I was surprised to discover that it was his only long prose fiction. I was further surprised to find so many of the aphorisms which I thought Wilde himself had delivered at parties and such, to be delivered by one of the main characters in this book, a man whose relentlessly aphoristic style sounds affected to a modern ear. Nonetheless, the sayings which have stood the test of time...uh... stand the test of time: I cannot accept your invitation due to a subsequent engagement, and so on.

So, I remembered the book being thrilling, un-put-down-able. This time it took a long while for me to reach that feeling, but then when it started it literally left me breathless. How many BOOKS can really do that? Am I even talking about reading? The story is so awesome, that I think it quite possible that translated into the modern vernacular in every way (by this I even mean from book to movie) that it will be quite artistically successful. I hope so.

Then, I started free-associating over to Edgar Allan Poe. Hmmm. Not really contemporaries, but still...a couple of stories to re-read there too, in light of (my) current scholarship. Murder in the Rue Morgue, (and The Purloined Letter for that matter): Poe was acknowledged by Arthur Conan Doyle to have created the prototype of a detective before the word existed. Plus, somehow, I had a must-read recommendation for The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. I can't remember who, and I can't figure it out, either. The first two thirds are a horror/sailing story (an unusual but not unknown category). However, the final third is science fiction - also a prototype. Jules Verne and and HG Wells feel to us like the pioneers of explorer science fiction. Yet Verne was born 20 years later than Poe, and actually wrote a sequel to Gordon Pym (!), and Wells wasn't born until 1866, more than 15 years after Poe's death and likewise credited him with the invention of the category.

Here the observation seems to be that Poe is quite under-rated. He is taken as a novelty act, but he was truly creative and courageous. I even saw, when I was confirming his dates on Wikipedia, that he was the first American writer to try to live on the income from his writing alone. The guy was full of ideas. I have to say that when I come across his poetry now, I put it in the special category with Dr Seuss and Shel Silverstein - producers of poetry with both distinctively creative rhymes and yet also natural-sounding scansion. I think these writers offer the best possible way to learn the intricacies of English pronunciation when it is not your mother tongue. I love them all for it.

(Note to self: send a suggestion to the BadAss guy about Poe. I'm pretty sure he was one. Meanwhile, gentle reader: run, don't walk, to There you will find a mixture of real historical figures, fictional characters, writers, scientists, etc, etc, whose bad-ass-iness is meticulously and HILARIOUSLY documented. I am actually going to subscribe to the RSS feed, so I don't miss out.)

I also must send a shout-out to Adam Rex here, who brilliantly spoofed The Raven, without any disrespect at all, apart from the obvious, ironic and rhyming disrespect in his version. It is a part of a poetry collection for kids - no that sounds all wrong, like, very, like, smarmy - it is a part of a kids' book, in rhyme, so funny that is almost wasted on kids. That book is called Frankenstein takes the Cake and it is actually a sequel to Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, which we have never seen. My kids and I love his The True Meaning of Smekday, too. See link to his homepage under "writers"

And...big news! In case you were wondering, I discovered, with a couple of Grade 2 kids, that there actually are stories about women were-wolves! In fact there doesn't seem to be an actual term for them and most of the sites about them won't open because of the school's internet filters! Anyway, who but a Grade 2 kid and/or a poster of R-rated internet material would ever have asked such a question? Lets you know who is capable of thinking outside the box these days.

Should I also mention spooky, scary, Coraline? Loved Neil Gaiman's original book. LOVED Henry Selick's movie - a separate and original work of art (especially the opening title sequence, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of animation ever). LOVED the soundtrack, by composer Bruno Coulais in an imaginary language (how perfect is that?) and bought it and use one song as a ring tone on my mobile. And loved the graphic version by P Craig Russell (whom I already love for his graphic versions of opera. Actually - maybe I should check his work for female wolf-men - no term, remember? - as he is capable of thinking outside the box). See link under "fun, cool funny".

The marigold wonders nervously: Did you see how re-reading intersected with Hallowe'en just now? Were you wondering? Is it kewl?

Friday, September 18, 2009

LibraryThing Early Review

by Chuck Palahniuk

This book is not unfunny, but I mean to damn it with faint praise.

As soon as I started reading it I wondered if it would have been published before the success of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which already richly covered the ground of fractured English.

Then I thought of the Simpsons episode with the foreign exchange student. I looked it up on It was episode 111, from 1990: "...the Simpson family takes in Adil, a student from Albania, who's actually a spy stealing the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant's secrets." The very cover summary of this book could be applied to the TV show "...this cunning, double-edged satire of a xenophobia that might, in fact, be completely justified...For Pygmy and his fellow operatives are cooking up something big...that will bring this big, dumb country and its fat, dumb inhabitants to their knees." Hello Homer.

I guess Palahniuk has a kind of trademark violence and vulgarity that has made him a cult figure. It shows in this book. THAT makes me think of Matthew Collings, the art critic, saying something like :...when everyone is transgressing, then it is no longer transgression." In other words, boring.

This experience won't stop me from giving Fight Club a try, if it falls into my hands, or any book of Palahniuk's that a friend might recommend, but this book is slight, derivative and formulaic.

On further thought, I have to mention that the one really interesting idea is that the Deity has made us in his image, and He plans to kill many of us by cancer or war etc, and thus we are obliged to both imitate Him and deserve His treatment of us. It is the justification internalized by the spy Pygmy for the havoc he is meant to wreak. It is a clever inversion of a kind of received truth, that requires faith in God, rather than understanding of his mysterious ways.

There. I've given you the best part. I recommend you pass.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Re-reading books

I am a passionate user of and advocate for LibraryThing. (See sidebar for hot link). I love cataloging my books, or rather my reading experiences, and I love to rummage around for recommendations and ideas and to follow trails through reading lists.

Some of the things that have come out of it for me is that I have a mental library of about 1100 books. This includes not only books I own, but also books I have read but given away, books I have borrowed from friends or the library and books I own but have not yet read (there are about 200 of those - woo-hoo!) (Actually I am hoarding books and wine against the day that all world currencies collapse. I figure I'll be in good shape to enjoy life, and possibly be able to trade for necessities.)

A very surprising statistic that came through is that I have only re-read about 10 books. Ever. That started me asking around a bit among my friends. Not only which books have you re-read, but why. The first answer I got was so charming - it was a fellow biblio-adept - who re-read a book as an adult that he read as a teenager enjoying his first passionate relationship with a girl.

Now I plan to write up the stories here in a nice long post. Please send me your lists. Those of you who know me can pass along suggestions in any form of communication.

The marigold is left wondering nervously if the library in question is also "mental"?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Days you can only have in a small Italian town

photo by souci photo

Well, we have had another of them:

One day we went to look at a local archeological site, Colombarone, unusual even anywhere in Italy. It is history in layers, starting with a Roman villa of the 4th century, which lasted until the 6th century, then was squatted in as a ruin for a while. Then in about the 7th century, the foundations and building materials were re-used for a basilica, which fell into disuse about the 11th century, but were re-used again for a parish church in the 12th century, which also gradually fell into ruin, leaving behind what became a chiesola or little church, which led to the discovery and partial excavation of the site in the 18th century. Over the last 25 years the site has been excavated and researched extensively, and put on display under a canopy. We spent about an hour there, had a personal tour guide, and bought the kids' and the adults' books about the site. It can give you shivers, this stuff.

Then we had to rush to an appointment with a young local ceramicist, Annalisa Speziali, who wanted to teach the kids about ceramics by letting them glaze prepared bodies. Ceramics is one of the historical arts of this region, and as a way of life and art it is dying. They all enjoyed it so much, that she subsequently had them in to her shop to form a body each, which are now drying out, and which she will let them glaze, and then fire in her kiln. Before we leave, we plan to go see her laboratorio with its kiln, out in the country. I guess we will be packing a handful of ceramic pieces in our luggage to bring back. (Check out her props under Art Links, to the right)

THEN we had to rush to meet family friends, a star of the Rossini Opera Festival and his wife and daughter, who happen to be from Rochester. We became friends with them a couple of years ago when we overheard them speaking and recognized their American accents from our part of the world. We had aperitivi with them (Aperol spritzes, natch) at one of our mutual favourite local bars, the bar El Cid. The kids like it because they can bike around in the park, instead of sitting at a table. Sadly, it was not karaoke night, as we had all hoped to enjoy a bit of over-kill together. As it was, musically speaking, we had to content ourselves with the tenor's Bel Canto Concerto a few days later, about which more another day. Suffice it to say it was not a hardship. (See the link to tenor Gregory Kunde's home page under music links, to the right. Greg and his wife Linda are also active in music in Rochester. I have given the link to their chorale as well. We plan to make the trip to see them sing close to home, too. I guess we are joining the legion of fans who follow Greg around the world.)

Side note here: A couple of years ago, we met some family friends from home for a day in Florence (instead of meeting them at the park with our Starbucks coffee, as usual). Just before splitting up to go our separate ways, we decided to buy the kids t-shirts on the ponte vecchio. We chose a booth and stopped at it and started shopping. The guy in the booth recognized the Pesaro accents and asked. Why yes! We had come from Pesaro. He used to work there. Really? Where? At a bar near the Palla di Pomodoro (a really fabulous public sculpture in the park near the sea). Really? We hang around that area. Which one? The Bar El Cid! Well, we'll say hi to Ivan for you. Now that's a small town and a small world.

How places in the world offer such a smorgasbord of cultural options, so casually, so easily, so delightfully? The mix seems impossible for one life to encompass, let alone one day.

The marigold wonders nervously:
This is as valid as summer camp, right?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

At last! The falling stars of San Lorenzo honoured properly in our household!

Everything I know about the meaning of San Lorenzo:

Lawrence of Rome (c. 225 – 258) was one of the seven deacons of ancient Rome who were martyred during the persecution of Valerian. Lawrence is said to have been martyred on a grill. During his torture, Lawrence cried out "This side’s done, turn me over and have a bite." - Wikipedia.

There is a famous poem about the martyred San Lorenzo by Giovanni Pascoli that everyone quotes:

San Lorenzo, io lo so perché tanto
di stelle per l'aria tranquilla
arde e cade, perché si gran pianto
nel concavo cielo sfavilla...

my translation:

Saint Lawrence, I know why so many
stars burn and fall through the tranquil air:
it is because your tears
are sparkling in the concave sky...

How many years have we been in Italy on August 10, the day of San Lorenzo, known for its association with falling stars? Hundreds? Well, at least 10. As usual, the nights of August the 10th and 11th were overcast. Never yet caught the effect of the falling tears.

Meanwhile, astronomically speaking, the annual passage of the earth through the "Perseid meteor shower" continues, although the actual peak night is now really August the 12th. Thank goodness someone gave me a heads-up to check the sky again last night.

The night was so clear, I wished I had a star map to learn some additional constellations. Luckily I can recognize Cassiopeia, and the darkest part of our balcony faces it, because I looked it up this morning and I now know that the Perseids fall from Perseus, which is right below Cassiopeia and beside Andromeda, so we were looking at exactly the right band of the sky, without even knowing it. I had a sensation of a flash/fade from the corner of my eye. Once. Hmm - am I imagining it? Twice? By the sixth time, I realized this was it! (Here is the perfect place to check it out:

It was like magic. And as always, it is the pile-up that makes the feeling so intense:

• thinking of the meteorites as astronomical objects and the shower as a purely astronomical event. How cool is the universe?
• thinking of the story of Perseus and Andromeda and Cassiopeia, and how wonderful it is that they are linked in the constellations (see below).
• thinking of San Lorenzo and his martyrdom.
• thinking of the poem and its metaphorical linkage of the meteor showers with the martyr's tears.

By the way, Andromeda was the daughter of the beautiful queen Cassiopeia, who, in punishment for her mother's bragging, was chained to a rock to be sacrificed to a sea monster. She was rescued by Perseus as part of his adventure. Further connections: He also killed the Medusa and here in the museum in Pesaro is an enormous ceramic Medusa by a local ceramicist, (copied from Caravaggio's self-portrait as the Medusa) which killed the artist by falling on him, a continuation of the Medusa's malevolent spirit...

The marigold is wondering rather nervously:
If you could know everything, would it ALL connect?

Can't get to Italy - still pursuing reading for France

Despite some amount of preparation and drafting of a book list for a trip to Italy, I am not yet finished with France.

Here was a comment left for the posting re: Joan of Arc books:

Blogger poetbdk said...

Mark Twain's biography is probably the best one on the list you have but I can not say for sure as I have only read about half of them. The complete Twain book is available online at:

August 9, 2009 5:27 PM

As far as I can understand, his suggested link take one to the essay, which was appended to the book, as part of a link to a current book, but
this link:

takes you to the full-text on-line version of the book.

I'm there!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summering in Italy IS worthwhile!

Well, I have been waiting to write something interesting about our time here in Italy. Every day, all there has been to say is that we woke up late, ate lunch after doing some dishes and laundry. Then we went to the beach, then we went for dinner, a bike ride and then bed. Delightful, but not exactly “woo-hoo!”
However, finally we have had an unforgettable sequence of activities that make us feel that our choice to spend summer here has been worthwhile.
Here’s how it started: Pesaro has begun an initiative to keep the stores open after dinner, combined with little public entertainments like craft markets or street performers or concerts. We turned a corner one night early in our vacation, following the sound of music, and found a choir singing.
The smallness of the town came into play as one of the sopranos turned out to be a baby-sitter we shared a summer with a number of years ago. We have run into her here and there over the years, but this was special. Her choir specializes in ancient English music (of all things). They have a full program over the summer, and she particularly recommended one of their upcoming performances. It was an adaptation of Purcell’s mezz-opera The Fairy Queen, which is taken from Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. By coincidence, our younger child performed the play this year to close Grade One, so even the kids knew the story quite well. It wasn’t too long or too late or too expensive. It all added up to be worth considering.
After the usual afternoon at the beach, that particular evening came. I had the wrong town in mind, but we figured out our mistake before we headed out. We drove off with the right town in mind, but in the wrong direction. We corrected that mistake, too, feeling more and more like we were dragging the kids, late, to some obscure and difficult grown-up entertainment.
Instead, it was true dream on a mid-summer night. We arrived in time. The performance was in an outdoor amphitheatre, part of a beautifully restored villa complex in a village in the hills above Pesaro. The moon was shining, the crickets were chirping in the pines, the moths were fluttering and a fountain was flowing. The music was old and exquisite. (I know Purcell’s Dido and Aeneus to be pretty, but still, you never know.) The instruments were so old that at every pause, they were re-tuned. In addition to the choir, there was a soprano with a slightly odd, but compelling, voice and a “sopranista”: a male soprano, singing in same register, but with a completely different tone. That’s something that sounds old-fashioned, I can tell you. There were beautiful Italian ballet dancers, with their long hair and summer tans, dancing as all the fairies in the story. It was an enchanted hour. We all loved it. Just to give it a perfect local feeling, at the table offering local wine and snacks after the show, we ran into a couple we have known (slightly) at the beach for several years.
The next night , after our afternoon at the beach, we went straight to eat at our favorite beach-side restaurant, and then we all biked down to go roller-skating at the beach-side, outdoor roller rink. The kids tried it last year, but it was my first time on old-fashioned roller-skates. Super-fun. The other end of local culture.
Oh. I also should mention that the Aperol Spritz aperitivo habit is still going strong. This year, we have discovered that the bar at the beach stand next to ours makes them, so we can enjoy them under our umbrellas, in our bathing suits, with whichever friends are still around, just before heading home from the beach in the evening.
If you ask me, vacations don't get much better than this.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Not finished on Paris yet...

Of course, I forgot to mention the Madeline books, by Ludwig Bemelmans, which would be essential for kids visiting Paris, and I came across Little Bo in Paris by Julie Andrews Edwards in my own kid's bookshelf, which I do not think any of us have read, but which I would definitely pull out if I was heading there with mine.

There are also many books and series about artists, with their stories and their art, particularly the French impressionists, any or all of which would also let a kid feel like they knew something about Paris and art before they even got there:
A lovely book, more or less about the Musée d'Orsay, is Laurent de Brunhoff's Babar's Museum of Art. Laurence Anholt and Richard Muhlberger have both written several books in this category, any of which would be worth looking at with kids.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Further Suggestions for Paris Reading

People I know are fascinated by the idea of finding something perfect to read on a trip to Paris, and the suggestions keep coming. Luckily the people I know are really interested in books, so the suggestions are great. Here they are, in no particular order:

Vita Sackville-West wrote a biography called Saint Joan of Arc, which a friend told me of, but had not read. I loved her book about her garden Sissinghurst, and the memoir of life with his parents written by her son Nigel Nicholson, so this sounds promising.

Two friends (a married couple, of all things) both said they LOVED Geaorge Bernard Shaw's Joan of Arc book, Saint Joan. Must read?

A good friend recommended The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart - a book about music: it sounds like heaven.

Essays by French philosophers, such as Pascal and Montaigne. (Not to make it sound like philosophy is my life, but I have read a few of each, and they are surprisingly entertaining, and I would gladly accept a gift of such a book to take on a trip to Paris). There is also Sartre. In what city beside Paris would you really conclude that "Hell is other people?" Hmmm?

George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London came highly recommended.

I was told I should have thought of and also mentioned Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which I LOVED, but thought of as provincial, rather than Parisian. Its literary value over-rides that consideration. I was wrong not to mention it.

I thought of Auguste Dupin - Edgar Allan Poe's french detective, admired by Arthur Conan Doyle, and the progenitor of all detectives, a character created before the word even existed. The most famous story is Murder in the Rue Morgue, but there is also The Purloined Letter and The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. Must dig out my copy of his complete works. Yes.

Something worthwhile for kids would be the Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They would be discovering something familiar once on a trip to Paris, which is, I think, more the point than the value of the movie per se.

The Marigold asks nervously: Is there still more? Of course there is. Is it worth mentioning? Probably. Do I have time? Ack!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Couple extra Paris books to mention

How could I have forgotten: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I have not read it, but as Pierre Bayard says in How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read (see prior post on this), I know the important things: the author, the setting of the French Revolution, the famous opening lines ("It was the best of times..."). A trip to Paris would be the PERFECT time to read the real thing. I guess this is the moment to mention Les Misérables by Victor Hugo as well.

Also, I did not mention Iréne Némirovsky's books, because I have not read them, but I would maybe try to get my hands on Suite Française to read for a trip.

I debated but did not include The Many Lives and Secret Stories of Josephine B, about Napoleon's creole empress, by Sandra Gulland, but I have decided to mention it after all - it is a reasonable piece of historical fiction about Paris.

PS I have written a post about what to see or read for a trip to New York with kids, and maybe I'll add a "travel reading" tag to make such lists easy to search.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reading on the way to Paris

Recently, tons of requests poured in for me to a recommend a book to read on a trip to Paris. Well…one request really, but what a great assignment.

I love to rummage around in the reading relating to a place I am visiting. I am very slowly working my way through The Aeneid during my summers in Italy. I have read Tacitus, the classic I, Claudius by Robert Graves, and lots of Roman history fiction. I will think up a Rome reading list for myself this summer and write it up separately.

For Paris, there are the French classics –
I would take a stab at reading more Proust and/or Balzac.

I would think about the period of the Impressionists, and these are books I liked:
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Stone Chessman
I am Madame X by Gioa Diliberto, about the artist John Singer Sargent in Paris
In the Land of Pain by Alphonse Daudet (one of my favourite books – a memoir by a syphilitic contemporary of the great writers and artists of the 19th C - too grim for some, but I think it is exquisite)

A Canadian novel I enjoyed was Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen by Kate Taylor

Iain Pear's serious novel The Dream of Scipio covers a lot of French history as does
Perfume by Patrick Suskind and
GG Kay's Ysabel, in fantasy format

For a more modern France (and for a non-fiction reader) these could be good
Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France (I could only get through about half)
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik (still on my to read pile)
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (I read it. People love it but it was not my cup of vin)

For a laugh, I loved
Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile and other plays and
David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day

For a kid:
Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson is perfect.

Now the marigold is wondering nervously:
Have I forgotten anything? and
Should I have mentioned The Da Vinci Code?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

LibraryThing Early Review

It is always a bonus to read a book in translation from another culture, and I am always delighted when they cross my path. Hoffman's Hunger was written in Dutch and was also a best-seller in German. For example, English-speaking writers seem to write freely about non-English characters, but it feels funny to read an American character sketched by a Dutch writer. That is one sort of insight that can be gained from reading literature in translation.

Another foreign-feeling emphasis comes in the concentration in this book on toilet activities. Granted a story about physical hunger standing in for emotional hunger would generate a certain amount of digestion-talk, but to me it feels like conversations I have with Italian acquaintances, in which I have to give up my Anglo bodily-functions reserve.

Then there is the thriller aspect - not only foreign characters, but foreign characters in countries foreign to them. Like a taking a little trip!

It took me a long time to get around to reading this book, but I guess I was ready to really enjoy it when I got to it. Now my mission is to figure out which friends to lend it to, or how to recommend it. Let's see - a great book for Europhile-traveller/foodies, a quick read and not challenging (except for the digestive parts) so good for vacation reading, but for readers, OK mom, maybe a couple of my best friends from high school...

I would definitely be glad to encounter another of Leon de Winter's books. No better praise than that.

The marigold is wondering nervously:
There are only 2 reviews on LibraryThing, ARC says due out in 2007, but the ARC itself was sent out in the summer of 2008. Has this book been, in fact, published?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Modernism - Why?

I realized I need to say a little more about Modernism. Movements do not spring up in a vacuum. Harold Bloom, in his brilliant book The Western Canon, posits literature as a dialectic - or argument - the geniuses of one generation fighting off the influence of the previous generation by creating something new. I love this idea and find it useful when thinking about any part of culture. So...

Modernism was a deliberate attempt to distance the arts of the 20th century from any work that had come before. The screaming pace of industrialization and the brutality and loss of the first world war, led artists to decry the effete and upper-class-feeling decorativeness of the immediate past, not to mention THE PAST in a general way. Pared down, egalitarian, daily experience, communicative - these were the sought-after qualities. Nothing was meant to feel "styled" for effect.

Then...Post-modernism is a response to Modernism. For Post-modernists, Modernism is a style, too, despite its anti-style stance. All of the work of man can be seen to be constructed within a style paradigm, even if that style paradigm says it is about plain-ness. Therefore it is an historical style against which an artist can position his or her work, and can be referred to together with any other historical style in a world view that encompasses the idea of culture as a construct.

The marigold wonders nervously:
that does make it more clear, doesn't it?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Modernism or Post-Modernism: How to Tell

I was talking to a friend about a book and how to place it in modernism or post-modernism, and she urged me to post my simple way of thinking about it here, so:

Quick version:

Modernism offers the simplest version.
Post-modernism is self-referential.

Long version with a couple of examples:

Modernism offers the simplest version - stripped down - with no embellishment or ornamentation. As Mies van der Rohe said, "Less is more." This is true of writing: think of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. It is true of art: think of Piet Mondrian at the beginnning, through Barnett Newman and up to recent post-minimalist Agnes Martin. In music, the ultimate and explicit practitioner is Schoenberg, whose 12-tone "...technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any...". In architectural design it is the Bauhaus movement, exemplified best by Mies himself.

Post-modernism is self-referential. We no longer need to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
...willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.* There is no sense of disappearing into another world, another person's POV, no looking through an imaginary window. The creator is present at all times. Think of Jose Saramago, (in my mind THE most brilliant practitioner of post-modernism on the planet): he is always laughing there behind his narrator. The artist and his world are evident in the construction of the art. Installation art, performance art, conceptual art and multi-media art can fit into post-modernism. Post-modern art can include words, appropriated images and other popular culture references. Step up Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer, to be examples. Likewise for architecture: think of Michael Graves's jokey Dolphin and Swan hotels at Disney World - using references to historical architectural features - nothing to do with form following function, or the demands and/or opportunities of our era.

Post-modern music: not sure I know enough to say...requires some study and thought.

*from Biographia Literaria (1817)

The marigold asks nervously:
Does that help? Suggestions, anyone?

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Shelf Monkey
by Corey Redekop

For starters, I usually prefer not to read books about our time. We live it. We are inundated with it. The news coverage is already overwhelming. The worse it gets out there, the more I long to reread Buddenbrooks.

However...occasionally a book overlaps so closely with my actual life that I not only bother reading it, I really enjoy reading it. (Wow - does that ever sound egocentric!)

Shelf Monkey is, delightfully, one of those. Although the narrator, megabookstore-employee Thomas Friesen, is almost painfully manic, his tastes, his book dreams and his book frustrations are similar to mine. I am even a bit of a shelf monkey myself, volunteering in a school library once a week. (Is anything more pathetic than a librarian wanna-be? We even inhabit the same loser-land.) The key idea for a shelf monkey is that the books are more important than the readers.

The premise of the book - bookstore staff jointly working up their frustrations to the point where they snatch an opportunity to attack a talk-show host cum purveyor of trash-fiction - is the set-up for a disquisition on the culture of reading as I guess is experienced by...dare I say it?...many readers and most, if not all LibraryThingers. The tone is hard and smart and funny. The story is sufficient unto itself - no padding. Hate padding!

I have promised to lend my copy to a few friends, but I really want to keep it close to hand, to track down the references to books that I couldn't get or re-read the ones that seem like they might bear new fruit. The whole book is like a conversation about books with a smart-ass friend.

And thus, in conclusion, Shelf Monkey rox!

Fun fact: I discovered Corey Redekop on LibraryThing because I saw that he connected two books I love through Recommendations, and I looked at his profile only to discover he is a writer himself! Go LibraryThing!

Monday, February 9, 2009

1984 - Steampunk?

I was moved to re-read 1984 by Ann Coulter who said she is the liberal-left's "Emmanuel Goldstein". She noted that although we all claim to have read the book, few got her reference. It is a good book to read (or re-read) in our times. Maybe it is always a good book to read to think about your own time.

It strikes me first of all that this is a steampunk book, as I understand the category: technology projected inaccurately (by chance or on purpose) resulting in a much darker, grimmer vision than actual technological advances have produced.*

Secondly, I suffered several shocks of recognition as I was reading, not police state, totalitarian stuff, but the shifts in the experience of normal daily life:

Children are trained to be wild and ungovernable, while also remaining zealous followers of the party line, questioning only their parents' authority, never the state's. (Think anti-smoking, think environmental issues - the level of programming is comparable.)

Mass-produced "art" for the masses - pornography, cheap broadsides covering crime and sports only, music fabricated by computer-like machines.

The working tax-payers can be seen to be the Outer Party members, held to a boring and rigid orthodoxy, squeezed into position between the luxury-loving, nonsense-issuing Inner Party, and the unconfined, irresponsible Proles. Think of Al Gore, leaving his mansion to fly in his private jet to preach energy-responsibility, or rock star Sheryl Crow thinking we could all start using a little less toilet paper to save trees, while on the other hand, mortgages are given to people who have no hope of paying them, and little girls feel that they want to dress like prostitutes.

The marigold asks nervously: 'Twas ever thus or is it worse now?

* The Toronto Public Library defines "Steampunk" as a "steam-powered and clockwork-driven" future. I think that fits 1984 in style.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

D-minor update

I had a chance to hear Beethoven's Sonata No 17 in D Minor,
Op.31, no 2 "The Tempest" in performance.

I love the idea of D Minor as the saddest key/Dorian mode etc etc and this was a piece on my list to hear.

It was lovely, but I did not find it particularly sad in feeling, nor do I consider Shakespeare's The Tempest, upon which it is apparently based, to be a sad play.

Kind of a disappointment, really. I love sad music.

I guess I should check and see if I can find someone else's list of D Minor music and work my way through it.

Actually, Widipedia says Mozart's Requiem is in D Minor - reason enough to call it the saddest key - as is Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

And my correspondent from months ago telling me that it is a Spinal Tap joke is correct - it is, but not original to them - Nigel Tufnel credits Mozart and Bach for inspiring his work in D Minor.

Further update:
Meanwhile, Verdi's Requiem seems to be in G Minor, but Brahms's Requiem seems to be - yes! in D Minor (like his First Piano Concerto.)

Added note: I have added a link under Music Links to Wikipedia's (somewhat) incomplete explanation of Dorian mode, which also has a note about Aeolian mode, for anyone who is reading in the comments about Gorecki.

And: this Wikipedia article refers to The Beatles Eleanor Rigby, as a pop song in Dorian mode. It certainly makes sense for a song that is undoubtedly about loneliness and is perhaps the saddest Beatles song of all. Perfect.