Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

For our latest read, my wonderful book club (go DAFFODILS!) decided to read something from a decade we had not yet explored, the 1980s. We had a democratic vote and ended up selecting a book that I suggested, and that I had read before, back in college, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

When I read this book almost 15 years ago, I thought it was amazing, and I still think it is very very good, although with my intense memories of how great it was I set myself a pretty high bar. The Remains of the Day tells the story of Mr. Stevens, a man who has been the butler in a wealthy and formerly well-respected house in England for over 30 years. His former employer, Lord Darlington, has died, and Stevens "came with the house" when a wealthy American recently bought it.

His new boss does the very American thing of telling Stevens to take a little road trip while he will be out of the country and not needing any buttling. He even loans Stevens his car and gives him a little traveling money. Stevens sets out to explore the English countryside, and to visit a former housekeeper who served during the reign of Lord Darlington, Miss Kenton.

Mr. Stevens narrates the book and takes us back and forth between his current travels and his memories of his years of service, the past grandeur of the house, and his colleague, Miss Kenton. Stevens is a classic unreliable narrator, not because he is crazy or deceptive, but because his own rigid codes of behavior don't allow him to see what has been happening around him, both with the people in his life and with his employer and his ill-informed dabblings in international politics.

Ishiguro uses Stevens' unreliability to slowly reveal to us what has happened in the past and what kind of man Stevens really is. That authorial control, the narrative voice, and the perfect structure of the novel are what makes this a great one, even if the ultimate message is a little disappointingly simple.

And just in case I've made this sound like some kind of boring writing exercise, be assured that the book has a lot of humor in it (like Stevens studiously studying the art of bantering, or Stevens trying to teach a young gentleman about the birds and the bees as ordered by his employer). This is a book that is both literary and fast-moving, and if it leaves the reader feeling a little cold, I think we can just blame that on Steven's surfeit of dignity.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Family Handyman Home Improvement edited by Ken Collier (2012)

In my never-ending quest to become the perfect handy homeowner, I have read through yet another repair/renovation guide, this time the rather awkwardly titled The Family Handyman Home Improvement edited by Ken Collier (2012).

This book series is basically an annual compendium of selected articles that had previously been published in The Family Handyman magazine, loosely organized by topic. Each stand-alone article is well-illustrated and walks the theoretical handyman through the necessary tools and steps to get the job done.

I could see myself undertaking some of these projects, but more than a how-to guide, I like this book because it gives me an idea of what is possible and what isn't, and what questions I should be asking when I inevitably call my handyma'am to come make the repairs for me. No surprises here, and certainly not a complete guide to improving your home, but worth reading and keeping around as a reference.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Time Out Shortlist New York City (2012)

The lovely Jennifer LaSuprema loaned me yet another NYC travel guide before our big trip, the Time Out Shortlist New York City (2012). I have a weird love for travel guides, and I hadn't ever read a Time Out guide before, so I was interested to see how the series would roll.

This was a readable and very full introduction to all things NYC and all things 2012. A good mix of the tried and true and the up-to-the-moment, the guide also includes easy to read maps and lists of cultural, shopping, and food-based attractions.

 I did read the whole book before I went (I'm a completest nerd), but I didn't take it out much while I was there. Still, I feel like this guide, in tandem with the National Geographic walking guide and some internet research, gave me a good foundation for the NYC trip.

And the trip was so much fun! Photographic evidence here, if you are into that sort of thing...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (2004)

Our dear friend Alex thoughtfully gave us a copy of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (2004) as a housewarming present shortly after we moved into our new house with its increasingly hopeless seeming rat problem. It took us about eight months to figure out the solution (back flow valve in the main sewer line into the house!), and since then we have been completely rat free (9 months and counting!). Now that the rats are really really gone, I felt like I could finally handle this book.

Sullivan spent a year observing rats in a single alley in the financial district of Manhattan. What originally started as a magazine article was bulked up into a book-length work that covers the history of rats in New York, the history of the plague, the profession and life of the exterminator, and Sullivan's own many observations on the activities and preferences of his particular alley rats. His observations were interrupted by the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the book ends up exploring the effects of the collapse of the towers on both the people of New York and her rats.

Sullivan occasionally gets a little cute, and his comparisons of the activities of people to the activities of rats can get a little dull, but ultimately this is a pretty fascinating book, regardless of your feelings for rodents. As much a history of New York City as an exploration of a single animal, the wide-reaching nature of Sullivan's reporting is a real strength and keeps the book from getting too bogged down in a single corner.

Coincidentally, I'm about to head on my first trip to New York City (so excited!), so I'll be on the lookout for any rodents of unusual size. If nothing else, this book has given me some perspective on the little animals that drove me crazy for two thirds of last year.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Walking New York: The Best of the City by Katherine Cancila (2012)

The lovely Jennifer LaSuprema* loaned me this copy of Walking New York: The Best of the City by Katherine Cancila (2012) in preparation for an upcoming trip.

I've never been to New York City before and this was a nice overview of the different neighborhoods and main attractions. I tend to be pretty map-based, and this gave me a good sense of where things were in relation to other things and how Manhattan in general was laid out.

The book is published by National Geographic and is very nicely laid out and illustrated. It's also a perfect size for tossing in your bag before heading out into the city. I can't wait to try this one out on the ground and see how the recommendations hold up.

* Go to Jennifer's Austin Fanzine Project page right now and check out the cool work she is doing to crowdsource the transcription of local fanzines from the 1990s (starting with her own Geek Weekly). It's cool and fun and you can help!