Saturday, July 22, 2006

Very New Orleans: A Celebration of History, Culture, and Cajun Country Charm

Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, destroying a legacy of charm and color that cannot be fully repaired. This little volume by Diana Hollingsworth Gessler is almost prescient in its elegant documentation of the distinctive food, history, and environs of New Orleans that has since been altered, perhaps forever.

Each page--every single page!--is illustrated with charming pen-and-ink drawings colored in with watercolors. Even the text is done in a hand-lettered-looking font, so the effect is of a journal kept by an exceptionally talented tourist who explored New Orleans with unmatched thoroughness.

Very New Orleans is organized by geography, with each district lovingly described and illustrated, including shops, restaurants, quaint hotels, points of interest, and bits of local color and trivia. This book, intended to be a tribute to a fascinating city, turns out to be a eulogy to the New Orleans that once was.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to get more books in your life and more life from your books

Steve Leveen is the co-founder of Levenger, a catalog founded on offering "tools for serious readers," and the author of this How To book about reading. I found his voice oddly off-putting, rather brisk and energetic, like a motivational speaker; not at all what I'm looking for when I read about reading. So I quickly skimmed the book for useful information. The following paragraphs are my notes.

There is a chapter on how to find books you want to read. Resources include the Reader's Advisory librarian, who helps you find what you want to read, even if it's a novel you once read but you can't remember the title or the author, just that it was a spy thriller set in the 1930s in Budapest.

There are also books of suggestions. Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason, by Nancy Pearl, is a treasure trove of suggestions, as is its sequel, which I believe is called Book Lust 2 .

Good Reading: A Helpful Guide for Serious Readers was compiled by a committee; the committee chair, Professor Atwood H. Townsend advises: "Never force yourself to read a book that you do not enjoy. There are so many good books in the world that it is foolish to waste time on one that does not give you pleasure and profit."

There is also The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman, whose impressive credentials included editor of Encyclopedia Brittanica, judge for Book-of-the-Month Club, and book review editor for The New Yorker.

There is a chapter on how to read, which favorite part for me is the mention of the learning technique known as SQ3R: Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review, by Francis Robinson. I'm pretty sure someone taught me this in school once, but obviously it didn't stick. There are also mentions of Edmund Bordeaux Szekely's Sorbonne Method and Walter Pauk's Cornell System.

There is a chapter on audiobooks, of which Mr. Leveen is an enthusiastic proponent. He mentions four surprising things that were discovered about audiobooks in the early years of their development:
1--They do not merely occupy your mind, but calm it. This would help me in traffic, for sure.
2--Authors are usually not the best narrators. Actors tend to be better.
3--Music is a distraction in audiobooks, unlike TV, radio and movies.
4--One narrator is best, even for different characters and lots of dialogue.
Audiobooks are best compared to the ancient art of storytelling.

He also discusses the pros and cons of audiobooks:
Pros--Easier to track & enjoy dialogue and dialects, easier to deal with foreign words and names, can reinforce experience if listening and reading at the same time, some people prefer listening.
Cons--Some people prefer reading to listening, takes longer.

There's a chapter on book clubs. Not really my thing, but a reference to Nancy Pearl's "One Book, One Community" program intrigues me, since I am such a fan of her Book Lust volumes.

And that's pretty much it.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

This is a book about bookstores. An easy sell, to the passionate book lover, because not only is it about books (which populate bookstores), which I love, but it IS a book, which I love. And a book about bookstores is an interesting twist in the book-about-books genre.

Lewis Buzbee explores his topic with style. Each chapter intertwines the history of books with Buzbee's own memoir of book reading, book selling, and book shopping. And because he grew up in San Jose, and currently lives in San Francisco, many of his reference points are on familiar turf.

The best part, though, is the chapter entitled "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop," which is the next-to-last chapter. Here he lists his own favorite bookstores worldwide, and why. I must take copious notes. Such as: The Booksmith in the Haight, City Lights Bookstore (near Columbus & Broadway in San Francisco), Kinokuniya Books in Japantown (not English language), Powell's City of Books in Portland Oregon, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, the Tattered Cover in Denver, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge by Harvard Square (yes, just poetry), and the One Book Bookstore in Bisbee Arizona (yes, just sells one book). And Paris bookstores, children's bookstores, airport bookstores, and books-and-something-else stores. And imaginary bookstores.

So, why the title? A quote from Vincent Van Gogh: "I think that I still have it in my heart someday to paint a bookshop with the front yellow and pink in the a light in the midst of the darkness."

An apt reflection on Buzbee's view of the bookstore as a hallmark of civilization.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives

This book will be forever associated in my memory with the day David had his wisdom teeth out. I read it start to finish (more or less) in one day while I waited for the surgery and then nursed David through the first day of recovery. But I digress.

What would it be like to live in the White House? For some it was the highlight of their lives; for others it was a nightmare. This book by Bonnie Angelo examines the effect that life in the White House had on the families that have come and gone over the years, annotating her anecdotes with extensive references for the scholarly reader, but with a conversational tone for the rest of us.

The information is arranged by topic, without consideration for chronology. Religious observance touches on LBJ, Nixon, the Carters and George W Bush; the next page dives into FDR's swimming pool, later removed by Nixon. Birth and death, raising children and pets, romances, marriages, fashion, entertainment, high society, tragedies, scandals, and interior decoration are all addressed with charm and candor.

The treatment is relatively even-handed; Jefferson and Eleanor Roosevelt are often referenced, but Lou Hoover, Nancy Reagan, Edith Roosevelt and Helen Taft appear frequently as well. Dolley Madison, Jackie Kennedy, and the Lincolns, yes, but also the Grants and the Hoovers, and even such footnotes as the Fillmores and the Fords.

I enjoyed it; trivia in narrative form is a favorite of mine, and I am a White House afficionado. I'm not likely to read it again, but I certainly don't regret this time.

(By the way, my favorite book about the White House is Flowers, White House Style by Dottie Temple and Stan Finegold. Ms. Temple did flowers for the White House for years, and her insights on the White House, and entertaining behind the scenes, are fresh and unique.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad

This nonfiction book takes a long look at the Cold Case Squad of the NYPD, the group that follows up on murders that were never solved when they were current events. How was it started? What kind of detective works these cases? How many are finally solved?

A sampling of cases are examined closely, including the murders of a young teen in 1988, a troubled wife from Alabama in 1951, a drug-dealer and his wife in 1996, and a policeman in 1977. Ultimately, one leads to a whole network of interconnected murders, one leads to the conviction of the four who did it, one points to a likely murderer but all the parties involved are dead or untraceable after 50 years, and one continues to be a maze of dead ends.

I found it interesting, but depressing. The operations of a police department, like the making of sausage, should not be examined too closely by the squeamish. The bureaucracy, the territorialism, and the human foibles of the police officers at every level leave me amazed that anything is resolved at all. But they keep on plugging away at these cold cold cases, so that a murderer won't continue to walk the streets and kill again, so the victim's families can find another increment of justice, so they can feel the satisfaction of knowing they didn't give up.

If it interests you, read it. You will learn something and you might like it. But once was enough for me.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Home Therapy: Fast, Easy, Affordable Makeovers

The author, Lauri Ward, has apparently made a name for herself with the concept of Use What You Have (r) decorating. Home Therapy has a promising premise: that you can redecorate with what you have, and addressed some problems that interest me: decluttering, creating a home office, downsizing, etc. So I dove in.

Well, I probably had unrealistic expectations. But it seemed like the solution to most problems was rearranging the furniture and placing the area rug at an angle. There were also some tidbits of advice that to me were fairly obvious, such as: Tavor's souvenirs from his travels are all large scale indigenous artworks, and they have taken over the apartment. What to do? Create an attractive display with some, and store the rest. Well, duh.

I didn't actually read the book cover to cover; it's not that kind of book. But I read enough to know that I have exhausted the possibilites for me.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Among the Shadows

Anne of Green Gables and the six books of that series are the cornerstone of the reputation of L M Montgomery, but she has written many other books as well, sought out and enjoyed by her many fans. I ran across Among the Shadows and was diverted by the premise that ties together this collection of short stories. These are tales from the dark side, the jacket promised, showing a grimmer edge than Montgomery's fans are likely to expect.

Truth to tell, I am not one of her die-hard fans. I liked Anne of Green Gables, but that's as far as I got, to the shocked indignation of my daughters, who have read and reread her works. So I cannot comment on how Among the Shadows compares to her better-known works. But I enjoyed it. I dislike horror intensely, but, as one Amazon reviewer put it, these are "ghost stories for people who don't like ghost stories." Within these stories are ghosts, pseudo-ghosts, tragic characters, bad people, redeemed sinners, and the strong flavor of the Canadian Atlantic coast that I find very satisfying. I would definitely read this again.

The Magic Circle

Katherine Neville's The Eight is much admired, and her second book A Calculated Risk not so much. So I started her third novel, The Magic Circle, with moderate expectations, partly because of the jacket blurb made it sound a bit over the top.

Alas, I could never get into it. The first bit, about an intrepid woman archeologist in the late Victorian era (almost lost on that premise already) unearthing the mythic oracle of something-or-other didn't engage me like it should have. And when I dozed off in the bath and dropped the book in the water, I watched the cover curl up like a rose petal and tried to feel some regret. Didn't happen. Clearly the story had failed to grip me, and the book went into the trash unmourned. So if the story makes a dramatic recovery in the second quarter, I didn't get that far. Someone else will have to tell you.