Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Wherever you're spending your evening, I hope it's a good one! And if champagne is involved, even better!

2010: Summing Up

A Personal Summing Up - never mind the affairs of the world, those will continue to happen whether you and I are here or not. (Though I could have done without the Tea Party nonsense and the loss of those seats in the November election.) Any year that I remain cancer free is a pretty good year. So 2010 was a pretty good year for me.

Most Important News this year:
The best part of this year was the birth, in May, of my grandchild - after that momentous event, everything else is duck soup and gravy. This baby girl is the delight of our family. A happy child who inspires joy every time she smiles. I can hardly explain the pleasure I feel just watching my own daughter finally understand what it is to be a mother - to watch her interact with her daughter is a feeling so elemental that it defies anything I've ever felt before. When my daughter told me, "I never knew I could love like this." My heart almost burst.

What happened in July?:
The second most important thing to happen this year was me getting the bright idea to have a blog. Yes, it was a very bright idea. I am loving this whole thing. I thank my daughter for the push it took to get me over the edge. She established her blog first and I thought, well, I need to do that too. Why not? She helped me, of course, but I designed it and keep it going. Six months later, here I am.

Books and Reading:
This has also been the year of books for me. Though my reading speed is slowing down as I get older, I still did a pretty good job this year plowing through a large amount of books. One reason why: I did no real work this year. Except for a piece I did for my granddaughter's room, I just stopped painting. Couldn't afford to do it, but did it anyway. Well, in truth, I had little choice:
I've been damn tired it seems, for ages. Been dragging around with no interest in even picking up a pencil. (I'll talk more about my elusive work later on in 2011. Hopefully I'll have something positive to talk about then.) That's all I'm going to say about it now.

Reading has been the mainstay of my life, it seems, forever. But I've never been more grateful for the ability to lose myself in a book than I was this year. And there were some great books in 2010, no question. Here's the link to my List naming all the books I finished this year. (My list of 10 Best Books is linked here.) Of course, I picked up more books than are on this list but since I never finish a book I don't like, what's left is choice. Everything I finished was to my liking - some more than others, of course, but I recommend any title on this list. Next year I'm going to indicate the books I've reviewed on the blog as I go along. I read a grand total of 121 books this year. Not bad, but not great. Maybe I can do better, maybe not. We'll see how it goes. (I didn't count most of the Agatha Christie re-reads.)

Reading Goals for 2011:
I'd like to read at least as many books as I read in 2010. I've joined two Challenges for the upcoming year: the Victorian Literature Reading Challenge and the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. I have a feeling the Victorian one will slow me down a bit since these will be books and authors I've probably never read before and I know the writing styles are not conducive to zipping through. As for the Vintage Mystery, that one I can do with my eyes closed (Ha!) since I normally read a lot of vintage books to begin with. I might even do an audio book or two and those I can really do with my eyes closed.

Specific books I have in mind for the Vintage Challenge: While I'm not, by nature, a planner, I do know I want to re-read all of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books (something I haven't done in many years). I will also be re-reading my favorite Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout. (I do this every few years anyway.) I also plan on reading more of Ellery Queen, Mr. and Mrs. North, Hildegarde Withers and authors John Dickson Carr and Carter Dickson (one and the same). It goes without saying that I will also be searching out more of Michael Innes' work as well. I'll also reread a bunch of Agatha Christies, again, this is something I usually do anyway. And I have a copy here somewhere of THE MOVING TOYSHOP by, I think, Edmund Crispin - which I've been meaning to read. Luckily my local library has a lot of older books still on their shelves, plus there's BETTER WORLD BOOKS which has free delivery of used books.

Specific books I have in mind for the Victorian Challenge: So far, I have a copy of Wilkie Collins' WOMAN IN WHITE ready and waiting. Also Rudyard Kipling's KIM, Bram Stoker's DRACULA, Anthony Trollope's CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? and PHINEAS FINN.
I might also give Dickens and George Eliot a try - but I'm not making any promises. I haven't read any Dickens or Eliot since high school and there's a reason for that.

There will be other books this coming year which will distract me, of course, from my Challenge Reading, but that's to be expected. I am eagerly (and none too patiently) waiting for the new book from Robert Crais and the new one from Julia Spencer-Fleming and the new one from Alan Bradley of Flavia deLuce fame, the new one by Jasper Fforde and the new Kate Atkinson. Not to mention anything else that catches my eye and my fancy. And there are several non-fiction books which look very enticing. That's part of the fun of reading - the expectation and, best of all, the possible discovery of something rare.

All in all, I think 2011 is going to be another good reading and blogging year.

So, to all my newfound friends and readers in the blogging community: Thank You. Thank you for helping to make this blogging thing as much fun as it has turned out to be. Who knew?

And, of course, a very Happy New Year to us all.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thought for the Day

Wednesday's THOUGHT FOR THE DAY, a bit late. (Slowly recuperating from a nasty two day sinus attack.)

When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.

Christopher Morley

Note: Artwork: N.C. Wyeth

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sick as a....Cat!

I was going to say 'dog' but the pix wouldn't have matched. This little cat looks a lot like how I'm feeling right about now. I'm either having a bad allergy spell OR I'm coming down with something or other - who knows? I'm sitting here suffering and sneezing. Woe is me!! The point of all this is just please note that my blogging may be sporadic within the next few days while I loaf around feeling sorry for myself and taking plenty of liquids.

Note: kitty-cat artwork by Racey Helps

A Favorite Film: MINISTRY OF FEAR starring Ray Milland

Famed director, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944), a film based on Graham Greene's equally sinister and entertaining book, is one of those films I've never grown tired of watching and re-watching over the years. There's just something about it that, from the first few moments, always gets to me and refuses to let go. If this film in on, I drop everything and stay to watch. I used to think I wasn't really a big fan of Ray Milland, I've changed my tune: I am now, officially, A BIG FAN of Ray Milland, especially in these three films: Ministry of Fear, The Uninvited and Dial M for Murder. (In this last film, I too would have been driven to murder by Grace Kelly's impossibly meek and oh-so-tremulous demeanor, I mean, give it a rest. We get it, we get it - ha! Hitchcock and his 'thing' for perfect ice blonds. Jeez.)

Anyway, the female co-star in Ministry of Fear - which, by the way, is supposed to take place in 1941 England though very few of the actors even attempt any kind of creditable accent - is Marjorie Reynolds. She is the weakness in the cast, though in truth, even she becomes tolerable after awhile. But she's got this kind of 'wide-eyed' housefrau demeanor that works against her on the big screen. I think later on she became a tv wife on some hit show, maybe Life of Riley with William Bendix. There, she blended in perfectly. (Though how she came to marry a character played by William Bendix was never adequately explained to my satisfaction.)

In the film, Reynolds plays Carla Hilfe, a not very convincing blond with a kind of all-purpose European accent. Her brother Willi is played by a very smarmy Carl Desmond with a heavy accent to match. (Why his accent is that much heavier than his sister's is never adequately explained either, but I can see I'm digressing again...)

I promise to stay on track, at least for the next few sentences: At the very beginning of the film, Ray Milland's character, Stephen Neale has just been released from an 'asylum' - something to do with the 'mercy' killing of his wife. I've never been able to remember one way or the other, if he was actually guilty or not, don't know if it's ever really explained. He was in there for two years, that much I know. (It's better explained in the book in which, by the way, his character is named Arthur Rowe and there is no love interest, if I'm remembering correctly.) So here's the ticket: he's been released from an asylum into a world at war - a world not exactly sane.

So, Neale is on a train going to London, a chastened, quiet man, very much alone, who obviously, has been through some hard times. There's a bit of eerie music and camera work too, just to keep things mysterious. Anyway, on the spur of the moment, he stops at one of those English country fetes where fortunes are told and things like baked goods are raffled off. It's the end of the day and there aren't many people about. There are, however, a bunch of very hearty, elderly English women who, mysteriously, confuse him with someone else and hand him a cake. Well, they make sure he wins it in the raffle, which is basically the same thing.

Okay, so as he's leaving, another man drives up and it turns out HE is the one the women have been waiting for. But too late, Milland is not giving up his cake. (The film is set in 1941 - flour and butter are in short supply so the cake is a real treat.) The man that drives up at the last minute is Dan Duryea, everyone's favorite sleaze of a villain, so you know right away something is definitely up. The thing about the 'country fete' is this: the place appears 'normal' but with a very sinister vibe, seriously creepy. Yet Milland, just released from incarceration, pretends, I suppose, that he doesn't notice or maybe he thinks this is the way the world acts on the 'outside'. Hard to tell. The war is a burden on everyone and maybe this is the new normal.

Anyway, Milland gets back on a train with his cake, trailed by a blind man with whom the Milland character offers to share said cake. Later, the 'blind' man snatches the cake, runs from the train and gets blown up by a bomb. (Obviously he wasn't very blind at all.) Don't forget the film is set during WWII.

I know, I know, it sounds highly improbable. But so is the rest of this story. That's why I love it.

Okay long story, short, a very confused Milland arrives in London, hires a private detective to find out about the organizers of the fete - he's begun putting two and two together - meets the Marjorie Reynolds character and her brother who are refugees, members of a Foreign Aid organization helping raise funds for said refugees, goes to a seance attended by more seriously sinister types including everyone's favorite suspicious blond Hillary Brooke, stumbles into a spy ring and gets accused of murder. The wise old police inspector put on his trail is just smart enough to give the Milland character enough rope to hang himself and the chase is on.

There are not a lot of high cost production values and most of the film seems shot in a studio environment, but nevertheless, I love this film. The thing is so damned sinister and nothing is as it appears to be and poor Ray Milland, fresh from the loony bin, has every strike against him. Plus you get the always entertainingly sleazy Dan Duryea as an evil tailor. Love it.
You can see the original trailer from 1944, here.

A Slow Read

You know how there are fast reads and slow reads? Well, this appears to be something meant to be read and enjoyed s l o w l y - the better to appreciate it's beautiful design mysteries.

I'm just now reading about Marion Bantje's new book, I WONDER in an email from VSL (The Observer's Very Short List). It sounds absolutely fascinating. (Just what I need right now ANOTHER book to get interested in - yes, that's the way it goes around here - too many books is NEVER enough.)

A quote from the VSL email about Bantje's book: It's a deeply personal, absurdly ornate set of illustrated essays and observations on typography and graphic design.

Marion Bantje is a designer and typographic illustrator who lives and works on a small island off the coast of British Columbia. She is fascinated by Middle Eastern mosaics, Pop art, Roman architecture, medieval heraldry, Jewish mysticism and a million other styles, symbologies, and art forms in between. Here is a link to Bantje's website. See more of the book here on Flickr.

Certainly this will go on my Acquisition List for the incoming New Year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

First Christmas!

My daughter and little granddaughter. Julianna's First Christmas. A very special day. For more pix of granddaughter and rest of family celebrating Christmas, please go to my daughter's wonderful blog, First Time Mama, First Time Blogger.

Paint On the Floor

Our family celebrated part of Christmas day at my brother's on Saturday afternoon. It was a very special time - my granddaughter's First Christmas. It was the 'second' celebration of the day after the morning's festivities.

Besides the Christmas hoopla, presents, delicious food, great wine and general merry-making, I fell in love with Lou and Viv's house all over again. (Lou's my brother, Viv's my sis-in-law.) Such a lovely house. We had a great time. Well, we would have had a great time even if their house was hideously ugly - but thankfully, it's not. Ha!

I've decided to do this special post on Painted Floors because Viv has done such a beautiful job on the floors in their 150 year old house. This is her patient stencil handiwork, all of it painstakingly done on hands and knees. I absolutely love it. These gorgeous floors add tons of 'oomph' to her decorating scheme, especially at Christmas. (Rocky liked them too.)

This is the partially finished floor Viv is currently working on. She makes a point of using historic design stencils. And, as you can see above, her finished work is quite superb. To learn about floor stencils and their use, please go here and here. There are many stencil and design how-to's online.

Christmas Book Loot!

I apologize in advance: No Monday Review today, I'm in a Christmas cookie daze. Ha! But I'm recovered enough to list the books I received from Santa on Christmas morning:
  • A BUTTERFLY IN FLAME by Nicholas Kilmer - a Fred Taylor art mystery.
  • A DOG ABOUT TOWN by J.F. Englert
  • KRAKEN by China Mieville

I'm already halfway through A BUTTERFLY IN FLAME, so that review will be coming up sometime this week. Hint: I'm liking it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Snow is Falling!

For the first time this winter in northern New Jersey, we're seeing snow. They're saying near-blizzard conditions for the eastern sea board, but we're fifty miles inland, so we'll have to wait and see what happens. It's actually still at its 'pretty' stage (though coming down hard and the wind blowing) - I'm not complaining. Rocky and I are home, snug as two bugs in a rug.

My family and I had a fabulous Christmas - it was little Julianna's first! Ah, the opening of the presents, the tearing of tissue paper, the waving of said tissue paper in the air, the squeals of joy! (And that was from the adults, so you can imagine....) Julianna was, at first, bemused by all the excitement, but after a few moments, she joined in enthusiastically - what a sweetheart. I don't know who had more fun. I think it was fifty/fifty! Photos will follow, soon as my daughter gets a moment to download the pix from my camera to my computer. (I am incapable.)

Meant to mention: there were three dogs - a chihuahua, a Jack Russell mix and a Havanese in attendance Christmas morning - they all behaved exceptionally well. (We'll gloss over one little incident of a suspicious liquid on the floor....)

For those of you having to travel these next few days, my heart goes out to you. But it had to happen sometime - the snow I mean - it is not an exceptional occurrence that it should snow in the winter. I hope you all reach your destinations safe and sound and with, at least, a modicum of good will.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas One and All!

Because of the holiday, this will probably be my last blog post until early next week. I want to make sure and wish all my blogging friends and visitors a wonderful Christmas Holiday. I am eagerly looking forward to our continued conversation about books, art, old movies and whatever comes our way. Here's hoping we all have the happiest of New Years!

I never suspected, when I first began this blogging venture in July 2010, just how much it would come to mean to me. (And how much I would enjoy it.) I never thought anyone would be interested in hearing what I had to say about anything. I though I'd wind up just keeping a kind of journal which only me and maybe my family would read. But still I tried to make it as good looking and informative as I could (within my own limited tech-experience which isn't saying much). So all of your comments and positive feedback have come as a bit of a surprise and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I think this Norman Rockwell painting expresses the joy of a Christmas homecoming perfectly - don't you? Notice the man with the pipe, that is Norman Rockwell himself.

A Carl Larsson Christmas!

Carl Larsson (1853 - 1919) is a revered Swedish artist whose exuberant family and Christmas images we've come to know and love. My only excuse for posting these paintings today is that they are so beautiful and emblematic of the season, I just wanted to share them with you. I own this book and it is truly a joyous exploration of a painter who celebrated family with, in my view, a particularly Swedish use of brilliant color and design.

A Favorite Read: HOW READING CHANGED MY LIFE by Anna Quindlen and EX LIBRIS by Anne Fadiman

I still have a bit of work to do if I'm successfully to go off tomorrow to my daughter's for an extended Christmas Holiday with family and friends - luckily I don't have far to go. (No airports, trains or buses involved.) Rocky is a bit suspicious about all the activity - ha! Last minute laundry and vacuuming and packing, but I wanted to talk about My Favorite Read (or Reads) today (I missed last week's post), so I've made the time.

Two books this week, shorties really - both quick reads but with much in them to think about: EX LIBRIS by Anne Fadiman (a book of short essays) and HOW READING CHANGED MY LIFE by Anna Quindlen.

Anne Fadiman is the daughter of famed editor and publisher Clifton Fadiman, the editor of The American Scholar. Recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reporting, she has written for Civilization, Harper's, Life, and the The New York Times, among other publications. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book, THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN, she has authored and/or edited several books of essays.

Anna Quindlen is the author of several bestselling novels, among them: Object Lessons, One True Thing, and Black and Blue, Every Last One. Her News York Times column, "Public and Private" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. She is also the author of two children's' books, The Tree That Came to Stay and Happily Ever After.

HOW READING CHANGED MY LIFE and EX LIBRIS are book memoirs of the best sort; both these authors exude an enthusiasm and delight for reading - something inborn I suspect - and both have an affinity for the written word and how best to convey that love, the shared joy of reading as a natural extension of their lives. For those of us who share in this joy, there's not much about this we don't understand. It's a mutual love-fest.

Two other excellent things here: there's plenty of talk about favorite books, titles and authors galore. Both of these books and a spare afternoon would be a great way to pass the time, especially on one of those frigid January days we know are coming. But make sure to keep a pad and pencil near by to make notes for your TBR list. (Yes, pad and pencil is a euphemism.)

From: How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen:

...Of those of us who comprise the real clan of the book, who read not to judge the reading of others but to take the measure of ourselves. Of those of us who read because we love it more than anything, who feel about bookstores the way some people feel about jewelers.....we are what the world of books is really about. We are the people who once waited for the newest installment of Dickens's latest novel and who kept battered copies of CATCHER IN THE RYE in our back pockets and our backpacks. We are the ones who saw to it that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE never went out of print.

...It is not possible that the book is over. Too many people love it so...It is true that department stores no longer sell books, and that many of what pass for bookstores seem closer to gift shops, with far too many datebooks and trinkets. It's a little terrifying, the fact that in many of the mall stores there is an entire long wall classified as Fiction and a small narrow section to one side of it called Literature. That second, smaller, section is reserved largely for dead people, dead people who represent much of the best the world of words has had to offer over its long span.

But the ultimate truth is that they aren't dead, those people. The writers of books do not truly die; their characters, even the ones who throw themselves in front of trains or are killed in battle, come to life over and over again. Books are the means to immortality; Plato lives forever, as do Dickens, and Dr. Seuss, Soames Forsyte, Jo March, Scrooge, Anna Karenina, and Vronksy. Over and over again Heathcliff wanders the moor searching for his Cathy. Over and over again Ahab fights the whale. Through them all we experience other times, other places, other lives. We manage to become much more than our own selves. The only dead are those who grow sere and shriveled within, unable to step outside their own lives and into those of others. Ignorance is death. A closed mind is a catafalque.

(Anna Quindlan very kindly provides us with some handy 10 Best Lists at the back of her book.
Who doesn't love lists?)

From EX LIBRIS by Anne Fadiman:

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other's T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; and our record collections had long ago miscegenated without incident.....But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of the of our loft, his at the south. We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby-Dick, yet neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together.

We had been married in this loft, in full view of our mutually quarantined Melvilles. Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health - even promising to forsake all others - had been no problem, but it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn't say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt. We were both writers, and we both invested in our books the kind of emotion people reserve for their old love letters. Sharing a bed and a future was child's play compared to sharing my copy of THE COMPLETE POEMS OF W.B. YEATS from which I had once read "Under Ben Bulben" aloud while standing at Yeat's grave in the Drumcliff churchyard.....

Our reluctance to conjugate our Melvilles was also fueled by some essential differences in our characters. George is a lumper. I am a splitter. His books commingled democratically, united under the all-inclusive flag of Literature....Mine were balkanized by nationality and subject matter. Like most people with a high tolerance for clutter, George maintains a basic trust in three dimensional objects. If he wants something, he believes it will present itself, and therefore it usually does. I, on the other hand, believe that books, maps, scissors and Scotch tape dispensers are all unreliable vagrants, likely to take off for parts unknown unless strictly confined to quarters. My books, therefore, have always been rigidly regimented.

After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation.

I hope these two separate but equally delightful little memoirs will make for some pleasant reading, on any dreary and frigid winter day. If you're a really last-minute shopper, either/or both of these would make a great present for any reader in your life.

A Good Morning Christmas Picture

Norman Rockwell was an artist who met our expectations, especially when it came to Christmas and the other special occasions we celebrate throughout the year. He painted an ideal America that reflected our own best opinions of ourselves. I love his work.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas and Commerce

I do like these vintage Holiday ads because of the happy charm of the artwork. Check out the Edsel. And doesn't the Seven Up party scene remind you a bit of Mad Men (only happy)?

Thought for the Day

As long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, Christmas is.
Eric Sevareid
Note: I can't find a source for the illustration, but it's so beautiful I couldn't NOT include it.

A Good Morning Christmas Picture

One of the things I enjoyed most, living in the city many years ago, was catching a glimpse of interiors through the many lit windows when walking or driving around at night, especially at Christmas time. To me, it was often like a living museum. Just a glimpses of lives here and there. There's something essentially soothing about a lit city window at the holidays.

Illustration by the brilliant Roberto Innocenti (1940 -) from his book, THE NUTCRACKER.