Category Archives: Books

DENTAL FLOSS FOR THE MIND

Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daylight..

There are books I keep in the bathroom, not for the purpose you are all thinking of, but to read while I brush my teeth. Since electric toothbrushes became the norm, with their mandated two minutes of brushing, multi-taskers like me needed to fill that empty space. Two minutes are a very long time to stand by the sink, contemplating one’s wrinkles, or to sit on the toilet at one with one’s toothbrush

The books of choice for this task are small volumes, mostly poetry, that can be opened at random, or short essays that can be digested in a few dental sessions. The current one, that prompted me to sit down and share my thoughts with you, was bought years ago but, strangely, never opened. It’s Joseph Brodsky’s “Watermark” and I say “strangely” because his meditation on Venice and its effects on humankind and himself in particular travelled  with me at least twice, during my pilgrimages to Venice.

My love affair with Venice, the city on water and not its Californian counterpart, started a long time ago and it is by no means over. That I opened this book only now, when Venice’s weather is turning cooler and the city is preparing for another grey, humid and foggy winter while I am still enjoying balmy days in Los Angeles, has turned out to be a gift in disguise.

Short on physical descriptions and depictions and long on literary meditations, personal adventures in the city and metaphysical thoughts on Venice and its place in the collective imagination, every time a particular shade of light, a fondamenta or a feeling are mentioned, images of this wondrous place come alive.

Check out his description of the water:

“[..] For water, too, is choral, in more ways than one. It is the same water that carried the Crusaders, the merchants, St. Mark’s relics, Turks, every kind of cargo, military, or pleasure vessel; above all, it reflected everybody who ever lived, everybody who ever strolled or waded its streets in the way you do now. Small wonder that it looks muddy green in the daytime and pitch black at night, rivaling the firmament. A miracle that, rubbed the right and the wrong way for over a millennium, it doesn’t have holes in it, that is still H2O, though you would never drink it; that it still rises. It really does look like musical sheets, frayed at the edges, constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings of Coducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In fact, the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the pages.”

It is such clarity and poetry that make me run into a hole and never want to write another word and, conversely, push me to express things as my truth makes me see them.

If you have never travelled to Venice in winter, Brodsky will make you pine for a void in your life you didn’t even know was there. If, like me, you are thinking of Venice as a future place of residence, the book will remind you of all the reasons, good and bad, why such a move would be difficult and transforming. It takes a tortured soul and a literary genius to set aside clichés when it comes to describe a city that has become a cliché in itself.

And, as I unwittingly discovered, there are books that are better read two minutes at a time.

 

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SEVEN LOVELIES

Marcella of For Your Good Health was kind enough to nominate me for a Beautiful Blogger Award. Like all these awards that populate the web and that I am sure have the noble intention of making blogs more visible, the rules are:

  1. Add the image of the award to your blog post
  2. Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to their blog
  3. Post seven interesting things about yourself
  4. Nominate other bloggers  you feel deserve the award and let them know

Instead of posting seven interesting things about myself – could they really be that interesting? –  I would rather list seven books for the coming Autumn/Winter season. I know, it’s fairly hot today in Los Angeles and most likely wherever you are sitting  too but it’s too late to talk about Summer reads. All these novels require some time, possibly on the couch, with a cup of tea and the willingness to enter other worlds.

  1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. My current favourite. I am obsessed with Tudor times and, at this point, I know more about the subject than I ever thought possible. Still, this Booker Prize winner, tells some of Henry VIII’s story from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, in a fresh and detailed new voice.
  2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. At the moment I am reading David Mitchell’s better known Cloud Atlas, another masterpiece, but Jacob de Zoet drew me in with the richness of details and the delicate and unusual love story set in 18th century Japan, a country then still unopened to foreigners.
  3. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Possibly one of the longest novels ever and, yet, I didn’t want it to finish. The story is centered around four Indian families and one woman’s effort to find a suitable match for her daughter.
  4. Saturday by Ian McEwan. I can’t wait for the release of Mr. McEwan’s new novel, an excerpt of which I just read in the New Yorker, as he is one of my favourite authors. The novel takes place in just one day in 2003, protests over the Iraq war in the background, when a surgeon’s week-end routine is disrupted by a violent act.
  5. War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy. If you have never read it, you must. That’s all I am going to say.
  6. The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie. When Rushdie’s books were still great – in this particular one, the narrator traces back the four generations that came before him
  7. Middlemarch by George Eliot. If you haven’t read it in school and have come to the end of the line with Jane Austen, this will satisfy your 19th century English cravings.

As to worthy bloggers, I recently came across :

Doves Today

and I reserve the right to nominate more in the days to come (having a hard time staying on top of all the blogs I come across)

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EDWARD ST. AUBYN, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

Slightly feverish, coughing like Mimi in La Boheme, I am so exhausted I just want to close my eyes and drift off to sleep – instead, I keep on turning the pages, promising myself it will be only one more chapter before I switch the light off –  in less than three days, I have devoured the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.  Where has this man been all my life and why, only now, after a media blitz in the States for his latest “At Last”, have I come to know him? Here are some of the quotations on the Picador re-issue of Mr. St. Aubyn’s first four Patrick Melrose novels:

“Tantalizing…..a memorable tour de force” The NY Times Book Review

“The most brilliant English novelist of his generation” Alan Hollinghurst

“Our purest living prose stylist” The Guardian

“Perversely funny” People

I could go on but I won’t. None of it is an exaggeration. From the first page of the first book, Never Mind, the reader can’t help being drawn into the precise and caustic prose, littered with some of the best metaphors since Nabokov. Part Evelyn Waugh, part Kingsley Amis, Mr. St. Aubyn is a breed unto himself.

It would be too easy to read the adventures of Patrick Melrose, from childhood to middle age, as purely autobiographical. Mr. St. Aubyn, like his character, was born into that stratum of elitist society that can’t be replicated in any other culture – that British stiff upper class still abiding by anachronistic rules, holding on to riches or the appearance of them and closing ranks to any outsiders trying to bulge in. Like Patrick, Mr. St. Aubyn was raped by his father in childhood (not a spoiler as this piece of information is fed early in the first book) and, subsequently, falls prey to addiction. It would be easy to identify the Melrose parents as stand-ins for Mr. St. Aubuyn’s parents and, by his own admission, he did start writing to extricate himself from his personal demons.

Even if some of the material is drawn from the author’s personal closet,  what comes across from these spectacular books, is the acute power of observation of a society and of the individuals who populate it. The not so veiled criticism the books convey, the wit, the mordant dialogue somehow pale in comparison with the flawless sentences, some of them so good I had to go back over and over and re-read them multiple times. Despite the difficulty of some of the material, the pleasure of the writing flawlessly transforms itself in the pleasure of the reading.

Nothing much happens in the books. One or two seminal events and the rest is character study  much richer in information than it is at first apparent. But do not be put off by the lack of intricate plots. The subject matter itself is a guilty pleasure, a sort of Downton Abbey for our days, observed with eyes wide open. Halfway through book three, I am still wondering how I let twenty years pass without brushing against these gems which I am trying to savour slowly. It would be too easy to fall prey to gluttony, the only deterrent being that, like all the best books, I don’t want them to end.

For an in-depth interview, check out this piece in the Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WONDERLAND LOVE TRUTHS

The dangers of wi-fi and my i-Pad combined just cannot be underestimated. There I was, on a Friday night, watching Bill Maher (his smugness a major guilty pleasure of mine), when a blonde woman by the name of Alexandra Wentworth came on. I had seen her book mentioned around in the last few weeks but it didn’t really catch my attention until I heard her talk, and she was indeed very funny. I reached for my i-Pad, browsed iBook and, zap!, 30 seconds and 12 bucks later, “Ali in Wonderland” was right there, awaiting my attention and my time.

Now, I am not above easy reads and occasional trash, especially when coming off a particularly wonderful book or some proper Literature, and I have been known to devour Jackie Collins on the beach. This particular memoir, though, baffles me and it might be because of my utter lack of WASP genes. Here is a pretty blonde girl, recounting her childhood at the hands of a caring and busy mother (social secretary in the Nixon White House), her unremarkable days in college and her heartbreaks. Oh, and a small bout of depression, which might not have been depression after all. All this while pursuing a career as a b actress. Then she goes on to marry George Stephanopoulos and all ends well. Really, as far as major life roadblocks, “ah ah moments”, attention grabbing stories, this particular life is pretty unremarkable and tame.

Still, the 12 bucks were not entirely wasted because Ms. Wentworth can be extremely funny, especially when it comes to men. Here are a couple of truths that have been sticking around in my brain.

“I believe that every woman should sample all the different groups in the male food pyramid. That way, when you finally get married, you’re never enticed by the fantasy of the sculpted yoga instructor who “gets you” or the Brazilian ex-husband of a gallery owner you met once at a Ben Nicholson retrospective. You’ve been there, you’ve done him. Marriage is like being on a perpetual fast, in that you don’t have to waste all that time fantasizing about the curly fries if you’ve had them already. And barfed.”

I was never a big proponent of life long commitments early on. Think about it – if you get tied down in your ’20’s, I am prepared to bet that nobody is immune to the (not so) fleeting thought “what must it be like if…”. Mistakes, “cringeworhty” boyfriends, yucky flings and what “was I thinking specimen” all map the road to long-lasting relationships in the future. When you find someone special, you are  more inclined to treasure him.

“If you love them, set them free. If they come back, they are truly yours. If not, they are assholes.”

Not particularly original but who hasn’t pleaded, stalked , tried to glue together broken pieces no longer fit? If it’s meant to be, he will find the road to you.

Browse the book

 

 

 

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E-READING

An old-fashioned looking red bookmark that could be made of velvet or silk marks the last page I read. An unobtrusive line at the bottom of the page lets me know how far I am into the book, as well as how many pages to the end of the chapter. Unlike the shelves of my library, here my books are organized neatly in whichever fashion I want. I don’t even have to get up from the couch to get a new tome.

My attachment to good, old paper books is in-built in my personality. I love the stacks of unread books I buy faster than I will ever be able to keep up with, piling up in my office and adding to the decor. When entering a bookstore or a library, the smell of paper still inebriates me. Opening a cover, with all the promise it carries, is one of my favourite gestures. Curling up on a cold day and getting lost in another world for hours is priceless.

It wasn’t until hunting for an Italian thriller for my Italian book club, and refusing to order it from Italy because of the prohibitive shipping costs, that I considered checking out iBook. Lo and behold, the book was there, at the modicum price of $9.99. I downloaded a sample and, 30 seconds later, I purchased it. Just like that. Just this once, I told myself, as I have no other choice.

Maybe because the book was a page turner, I found myself forgetting I was reading it on a  e-reader. Then I started liking the experience: turning the pages with a flick of my fingers, knowing at a glance where I was, not even having to use the light on the nightstand when in bed. I still wouldn’t be comfortable reading it in the bathtub and, unlike a Kindle, it’s way too hard to read in the outside glare. Still, this paper traditionalist is enjoying every single page read electronically, to the point I am going back and forth reading the same book both on paper and on the iPad (don’t ask). What has the world come to?

A small pang of guilt at the thought of the Chinese man or woman (or probably the scores of them) who painstakingly assembled my iPad by hand assails my conscience as I read. Foxcomm (where iPads and iPhones are assembled) has been in the news a lot of late, for their lax labour practices – or lack of them. Although I feel Apple is being targeted because of the successful behemoth it is, I do hope they will throw their weight around to improve factory conditions, if nothing else, to appease the conscience of this particular customer.

In the meantime, four more books have been downloaded – it’s all too easy and clinical. My credit card number, stored somewhere in the skies above Cupertino, means I don’t even have to reach for my wallet when paying for my invisible purchases. Good thing I am not a shopaholic – this is worse than the yearlong stint working in a bookstore, where my meager paycheck, and then some, was spent on books I found fascinating while shelving them at 6 in the morning. It was the mother lode of impulse buying.

Conceivably, I could never stray from the couch or the bed: endless reading materia at the readyl, Ottie at my feet and, for some excitement, the worldwide web at my fingertips. Add a bar of chocolate and I am set for a long afternoon.

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WEAVING STORIES

A born story-teller, that is how my friend Kim would most likely describe herself if asked about the process of writing her novel “Greek Red Tomatoes”. And a story-teller she is.

I do not remember a time in my life when books (paper or otherwise) were not present, when reading was not part of my daily routine. I owe my survival of the most turbulent teen age years to pretending to be somebody else, some fictional character in the boring story of my life. As I grew older and more discriminating about the reading material I would devote my precious time to, I couldn’t help feeling in awe of all those men and women who spent countless hours at a desk weaving stories, creating characters for my personal pleasure and enrichment. If the connection between reader and writer is anonymous and unseen, it is nonetheless one of the most intimate relationships two human beings can have.

And I am in awe of my friend Kim who, over the course of seven months, set out to write the story that had been dancing in her head for years. The book, revised three times and still looking for a proper home in the publishing industry, is a multigenerational story steeped in Kim’s Greek heritage. In her words….

“Thea* Mylopoulos-Rosten—like so many women—is perpetually unsatisfied. She is thirty-one, healthy, attractive; has a home, a career, and a loving mother. But she’s not content, and it’s not because she is single and childless. A Greek-American woman born and raised in the U.S., Thea has always been searching—searching for love, for country, for that elusive thing in life that will make her happy. Thea tries to understand her life and choices by escaping to Kythnos, a tranquil Greek island. There, in solitude, she begins writing reflections about her life; then delves into her grandmother’s and mother’s histories. She recounts her yiayia’s experiences in 1940s Egypt, her mother’s in 1960s Athens, and finally, writes her own story.

This novel, which spans Thea’s life from thirty-one to thirty-six years old, puts her in situations that challenge her concept of the ideal relationship. It’s a story of dynamic women, mother-daughter relationships, and ultimately: learning to love oneself. What Thea also learns though her dire explorations is that romantic love can happen in the most unexpected places—or not at all—but only she can make the choice to be happy.”

If you are curious and want to know more, I encourage you to log onto Kim’s website where you can read an excerpt, which is going to whet your appetite. I have no doubt that, through Kim’s determination and sheer stubbornness, I will be holding more than just a sheaf of copied pages sooner rather than later. And I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

www.kimberlykrobeson.com

 

 

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HITCH-ED

It was the ’80’s in Thatcher’s England and a group of young writers was pushing to the forefront with their unconventional and interesting writing. I had read Ian McEwan’s “The Cement Garden” and Martin Amis’ “The Rachel Papers” and little did I know I had embarked on a long literary love affair with both men.  Still in college, I was required to write a paper on a book that hadn’t been translated into Italian and I settled on “The Rachel Papers”. While spending the Summer in London, I even went so far as to send a letter to Mr. Amis, care of Penguin and, amazingly, on my last day in town, I got a phone call from the writer himself, inviting me over to his house to chat about his book.

Fat chance of that happening now, nearly 30 years later. I splurged on a taxi and I reached  Ladbroke Grove with some trepidation but Mr. Amis, opening the door to his new house which, judging from the fresh paint and the minimal furniture looked as if he had just moved in, showed me to the overstuffed couch, offered me a glass of wine and charmingly answered all my questions. My paper turned out great and I went on to read every book he wrote ever since.

To Christopher Hitchens, I got much later in life. I don’t quite remember what piece made me fall in love with his writing, but in love did I fall. And like all love affairs, my reader/writer relationship with Hitchens was rife with disagreements, maddening stomping off and make-up sessions. Part of that same golden generation of British writers who, for better or worse, came to represent my generation, Hitchens was a opinionist, journalist and essayist it was hard to agree with at times but the force of his ideas, his standing by them with lucid logic and his wordplay commanded respect, if not always agreement.

The papers will say that Mr. Hitchens lost his battle with pancreatic cancer today. He fully knew this time was coming and he approached it with the same fierceness that characterized his writing. His columns in Vanity Fair (a magazine I tend to avoid for a bizarre antipathy towards Graydon Carter’s hair) dealt with his disease and its effects without a trace of self-pity or redeeming qualities. Unapologetic in his atheism, he gave me the final push towards believing that there is no point in believing.

I will not be alone in missing his vitriolic, reasoned, provocative and precise writing. He said that “if you can talk, you can write”, a point that could be argued. In his case, though, he did both beautifully.

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