Love Your Library, May 2023

Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month. I’ve auto-scheduled this one as I’m currently off hiking Hadrian’s Wall!


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (1861): My fifth American Classics Reading Project book, an extraordinary first-person account of courage and anger by a woman who escaped slavery in the South but found that the North had its own dangers. I wrote a lot more about it here.

The Premonitions Bureau, by Sam Knight (2022): A nonfiction exploration of the life’s work of John Barker, a psychiatrist whose belief in the reality of premonitions led to a collaboration with science journalist Peter Fairley that sought to harness the power of people with foresight to prevent catastrophes. The book grew out of a New Yorker article and, unfortunately, it seems to have been better at article length; not that the material isn’t fascinating, but Knight goes down many side roads and spends much time on topics other than the titular one. He writes well and is capable of engaging the reader’s interest on most of these (disquisitions on the crumbling of Britain’s state mental health provisions are particularly interesting in their own right), but it feels like a wasted opportunity to delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of how the Bureau actually functioned, to interview people (or the children of people) who worked there, and to examine the science and philosophy behind the idea of precognition.

The Parasites, by Daphne Du Maurier (1949): A curiously uncharacteristic novel from du Maurier if, like me, you’ve only read Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Frenchman’s Creek. Julie Myerson’s introduction compares it to Wuthering Heights in its focus on the quasi-incestuous relationship between not-quite-siblings, though, and in that sense the Gothic influence is certainly strong. It’s the story of Maria, Niall, and Celia, three children whose parents were famous performers and who grow up to be extraordinary studies in selfishness, passivity, and immaturity—even Celia, who seems at first glance to be the most selfless of them all, remaining with their father in perpetuity as nurse and caregiver. Maria and Niall are technically only step-siblings, making the intimacy of their relationship (which du Maurier hints has a sexual dimension, though she is never specific) both acceptable and disturbing. The accounts of theatrical life are marvelous, as is the dissection of the ways in which pretending to have emotions for a living can stunt you if you’re not careful. Very funny and odd.


The New Life, by Tom Crewe (2023): Can’t wait for this, a story of queer Victorian love that’s partly based on the life and work of John Addington Symonds. Rebecca loved it, and I hope I will too!

What have you enjoyed from your library recently, and what’s up next for you?


Love Your Library, April 2023

Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month.


It Walks By Night, by John Dickson Carr (1930): After such great success with Carr’s London-set chiller The Lost Gallows (1931) over Christmas, I thought I’d try the first novel of his that featured French prosecutor-general Henri Bencolin as investigator. This is, if possible, even more Grand Guignol and creepy than The Lost Gallows, featuring a murder by beheading (!!!) in a private card room inside a Paris gambling club, and a suspect who is known to have recently visited a plastic surgeon to alter his appearance (so he could be absolutely anyone!) There’s a twist I guessed fairly early on, although it’s not the identity of the murderer. The sexy Sharon Grey makes her first appearance in this novel, and there’s a terrific who’s-holding-your-hand-in-the-dark moment. I’m not entirely convinced by the stated solution; technically, Carr gives you the information you need (in a floor plan printed at the front of the book), but he never actually mentions that information within the text, which is improbable—the investigators would have noticed it and should have remarked on it—so it feels a bit of a cheat to me. I’ll keep reading him, though.

Native Son, by Richard Wright (1940): Neatly ticking off both another American classic and my second read of the #1940club week, this novel of anger, shame, racist oppression, and murder was an intense reading experience. I wrote more about it here.

Mystery in White, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937): Another BLCC with a corking premise: forced to abandon their train in a whiteout blizzard, a group of disparate travelers takes shelter in a house where the fires are lit and the table set for tea… but no one is home. The almost fairytale feel of this (don’t eat the food or you’ll have to stay for seven years!) was enough to get me to pick it up. The ultimate solution, perhaps unsurprisingly, can’t really keep pace with the opening few chapters, and ends up feeling a bit prosaic. I do like the way each character is drawn, though, from the timid, Walter Mitty-ish Mr Thomson to the blustering bore Hopkins and the mysteriously serene “psychical researcher” Maltby. The women are also convincingly distinguished from each other—practical, encouraging Lydia and sweet chorus girl Jessie. Part of it does revolve around Jessie’s capacity for clairvoyance, which will either put you off or make you keener. A strong entry in the series for its atmosphere alone, though.

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino (1957; transl. Archibald Colquhoun, 1959): I am unofficially making this a project: reading at least one Calvino book per month for the rest of the year. The Baron in the Trees is my favourite of his fiction writings yet. It’s a kind of spoof picaresque, dealing with the young Baron Cosimo’s life after he climbs a tree one day in the mid-1700s and vows never to touch the ground again. Despite his arboreal existence, he lives as exciting and episodic a life as any Crusoe or Tom Jones, encountering pirates, smugglers, revolutionaries, brigands, and political exiles, corresponding with famous scientists and philosophers, and maintaining many, many love affairs. The novel is narrated by his adoring but baffled younger brother Biagio, who admires Cosimo’s commitment and ingenuity while also mourning his increasingly tenuous grip on sanity. I just loved this. There are so many brilliant touches: the armchair and bookcases that Cosimo lashes to a branch, the dachshund whom he adopts and names Ottimo Massimo, the Candide-like tone, the opposition of the physical limitations of the world to the wide-open horizons of the mind and emotions. Also, it’s funny, and the translation by Archibald Colquhoun avoids the slightest hint of preciousness or self-seriousness. I’d like to buy my own copy now, which is really the best thing you can say about a library book.


The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club, by Christopher de Hamel (2022). This is not, as you might imagine from the title, a cosy mystery set in the world of antiquarian book dealing, but it is a follow-up to de Hamel’s earlier book Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, in which he examined twelve medieval MSs and told us their stories. I loved that earlier book for giving not only a close-up look at each document, but also a sense of what it’s like to consult them—what each library makes you do in terms of security, the general atmosphere and ease of access, the architecture. Posthumous Papers is about twelve historic book collectors, from Saint Anselm to Belle da Costa Greene. Beautifully illustrated in colour, it’s also massive, so I can only read it when I’m at home. Still, I’m enjoying it as much as the first one: de Hamel’s cheery, discursive style hasn’t changed.

Love Your Library, March 2023

Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month. I’ve been trying to plow through some TBR titles this month, so there haven’t been that many library books, but here’s what I have checked out!


Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi (2020): I borrowed this as an ebook as backup for our return flight from San Francisco, but ended up reading it in the days after our return. In short: wonderful. I already knew how much love this story of Ghanaian-American addiction researcher Gifty, her dead brother Nana, and their clinically depressed mother had received, but it was a whole other thing to read it for myself. Gyasi’s first novel, Homegoing, was impressive but in retrospect felt a bit worthy; Transcendent Kingdom, by contrast, is full of strange corners, moments where the love of God, the love of family, and the love of science mix and meld and crash into each other. Gifty feels like a real person: driven, defensive, and trying her best. This ought to have won at least one prize the year it came out. (It was up against Hamnet and Shuggie Bain for the two big ones. I think it’s more interesting than, and just as technically accomplished as, the former; haven’t read the latter.)

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Read for The Great Reread project, and also as a buddy read with my mum, whose book club is discussing it this month. A fantastic revisit to a book I remembered loving but whose details had faded with time; reading it in 2023 feels like hopping into a time machine, in a really moving and effective way. I wrote a lot more about it here.

The Case of the Gilded Fly, by Edmund Crispin (1944): A Golden Age-ish murder mystery which I read after an initial foray into Crispin’s work with The Moving Toyshop. TMT was interesting enough but left me frustrated by its pervasive attitude of condescension towards women, and I wanted to see if this was a hallmark of Crispin’s writing more broadly. In short: unfortunately, yes. (Actually, TCotGF is worse in some ways, demonstrating not just condescension but outright misogyny in its treatment of a murder victim whose universal obnoxiousness seems to be based on her identity as a sexually aggressive, socially catty woman.) Although both mysteries were tantalising puzzles, I don’t think I shall be returning to Crispin in future.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021): Absolutely loved this, a queer retelling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. What a way to get the taste of Edmund Crispin’s gender politics out of my brain. In Parker-Chan’s version, Zhu is a girl who takes her brother’s identity when her family dies in a famine, and rises from novice monk to commander of the Red Turbans, an army of indigenous Chinese who challenged the ruling (and invading) Mongols. Very well written, with a lot to say about power, fate, the value of the unexpected. A sequel is releasing this year and I will definitely be reading it. I wrote more about it here.


The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021): This was an alternate history of, well, everything, that I was very keen to read until I came across some criticism of Graeber’s methodologies that accused him of cherry-picking and misrepresentation. That shook my confidence somewhat, and then the introductory chapter didn’t grab me enough to make me want to keep reading all 700 pages of the thing (especially as this was an ebook, a format I read almost exclusively on my phone).


In Ascension, by Martin MacInnes (2023): It’s possible this is my first 2023-published read of the year! How times have changed. Anyway, loving it, hopefully more when I’ve finished.

Love Your Library, February 2023

Rebecca of Bookish Beck runs this monthly meme, posting on the last Monday of every month. Relatively few library books this month due to our San Francisco holiday, but I’ve still managed a few loans, and as ever, the resources of the public and private libraries are invaluable!


Super-Infinite: the Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell (2022): A shimmering biography of my favourite metaphysical poet that looks at him through the various personae and roles that he inhabited throughout his life. Bound to draw new readers to Donne as well as bring already-confirmed fans back to his work. A highly-deserved Baillie Gifford Prize winner! I wrote more fully about it here.

If on a winter’s night a traveller, by Italo Calvino (1979, transl. William Weaver): My first full-length Calvino novel and a delightful, playful love letter to reading and readers. It gets a little self-involved in the middle parody segments, but mostly this struck me as a charming work of fantastika in the vein of Borges. I wrote about it more fully here.

The Road to San Giovanni, by Italo Calvino (2009, transl. Tim Parks): Five essays in a short collection, some (including the title one) autobiographical reminiscence, others more philosophical in nature. All are beautifully written and highly evocative. I think Calvino’s nonfiction may be just slightly winning over his fiction for me at the moment! I wrote about it more fully here.

Kolymsky Heights, by Lionel Davidson (1994): Read as ebook during our flight to California, and the only library book I haven’t written about at longer length this month. A fantastically involved and detailed literary thriller about a man infiltrating a Siberian research station—it’s the kind of style that clearly drives some readers mad, because so much of it is about the details of flights and trains, transportation and contacts, but I absolutely love that stuff. The hero, French-Canadian-Indigenous Johnny Porter, is sort of a superman, but he’s also insouciant and likeable. He uses his racial ambiguity and linguistic talents to blend in almost anywhere in a way that says a lot about human preconceptions and our desire to connect with other people on even the slenderest of pretexts, and how that can be used against us, but also how that kind of mental and social hospitality is a virtue to be protected in a cynical world. I’m also a sucker for technical descriptions of skilled people doing what they’re skilled at, of which Kolymsky Heights has plenty, and very well written at that. I’ll certainly read more Davidson in the future.

McTeague, by Frank Norris (1899): Subtitled “A Story of San Francisco”, this felt like an obvious choice for holiday reading! Following the titular McTeague, an unlicensed dentist living in a working-class neighbourhood of SF during the Progressive Era, through his awakening to love, his marriage to the beautiful Trina Sieppe (which causes a permanent rift between him and his best friend Marcus), through to the devastating effects of avarice and envy on their marriage. It all ends badly and also kinda trippily. I’m planning a double review of this and Don DeLillo’s Libra, so I won’t say too much more about it here.

Love Your Library, January 2023

Rebecca of Bookish Beck runs this monthly meme, which I am very much enjoying!


The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G. Wells (1910): I said on Twitter that this is a book about a man finding true love and happiness with a fat woman, and it is! Alfred Polly is a miserable, failing small businessman living in a provincial town and trapped in a marriage he hates. His imaginative capacities are immense, but his education has been scanty. Desperate for beauty and poetry, but unable to find it in his life as it is, and ground down to despair, he plans to set his shop on fire and then cut his throat, thus neatly ensuring his own death and his wife’s receipt of a large sum of insurance money. This plan backfires spectacularly, but what it does for Polly is make him realise, as Wells famously wrote, that “if you don’t like your life, you can change it.” A life of happy vagrancy ensues, during which Polly grows as a person, discovers his courage, and enters a fulfilling relationship with the landlady of a country pub (the aforementioned fat woman, whose size is integral to her perfection in Polly’s eyes)—but the final test of his character is yet to come. It’s simultaneously extremely funny (the account of Mr. Polly’s wedding literally had me laughing out loud) and has what Adam Roberts calls “an unforced dignity”: Wells knows Polly is not exactly a hero, but what is it to change your life and seek joy, if not heroic? Glorious, and with an ending that is almost tear-inducing in its quiet sweetness.

The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather (1925): Definitely the oddest Cather novel I’ve read so far. It has a lopsided three-part structure, bookended by two sections that follow the titular Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, as he and his family try to come to terms with the changing dynamics imposed by the wild success of a patent taken out by St. Peter’s former student Tom Outland—who was engaged to S.P.’s eldest daughter Rosamond, died in WWI, and left everything to her in his will. The middle section is an account of Tom’s experiences as a young(er) man on the Blue Mesa in the American Southwest, where he and a friend find evidence of an ancient Native American settlement, and where, eventually, their friendship is shattered by a betrayal. The sections don’t have an obvious fit with each other, but that’s part of what makes the book interesting. The Professor is obviously haunted by Tom, who represents something significant and vital to him. There are certainly homoerotic undertones (especially given Tom’s broken friendship with his Blue Mesa pal Roddy Blake). Philosophically, it’s quite bleak; I’m not sure what I make of it, but Cather still produces perfect landscape writing and emotionally descriptive prose.

Little Sister Death, by William Gay (2015): Posthumously published from material found in Gay’s papers, this tiptoes the line between Southern Gothic and horror in its reimagining of the Bell Witch haunting. I liked Gay’s style plenty, but didn’t find this as terrifying as the publicity had promised. The opening chapter, which is profoundly early-Cormac McCarthy-esque in content though not in style (probably not a coincidence: Gay and McCarthy were very good friends and read each other’s work in manuscript), is powerful and scary, but we never return to it—it’s more of a prologue—and that feels like something of a disappointment.

The Half Life of Valery K, by Natasha Pulley (2022): Pulley has written five books and I have now read all of them, which makes her one of my most-read authors. I think this one is her best. It’s the least overtly fantastical (there’s no precognition/time travel/steampunk), but that’s because realism is quite fantastical enough when it’s about the Soviet Union’s nuclear secrets. Valery Kolkhanov is plucked from the labour camp where he’s serving a ten-year sentence and reassigned to an extremely peculiar experimental laboratory near Chelyabinsk, where the local forest is dying of radiation exposure but the propaganda figures say nothing is wrong. Valery quickly determines that very much is wrong, and finds himself caught between the KGB, his former doctoral supervisor, and his conscience. Other Pulley tropes (MLM yearning, people who are probably autistic but live in contexts where diagnosis isn’t really possible, octopuses) are gloriously present and correct, and everything is pulled together into a compulsively readable package; highly recommended.

The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, transl. William Weaver, Tim Parks, and Martin McLaughlin (2009): All the “cosmicomic” stories Calvino ever wrote, published all together for the first time. This was my introduction to Calvino and highly enjoyable, if (through no fault of its own) a little repetitive. The cosmicomics are wildly inventive and peculiar stories, each of which takes some scientific principle about the universe as a jumping-off point. Many are narrated by the irrepressible (and unpronounceable) Qfwfq, who is sometimes a dinosaur, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes an elemental, clearly an eternal. My favourites were “The Aquatic Uncle”, in which land-dwelling animals evolve but one eccentric relative refuses to leave the water, and “The Daughters of the Moon”, in which lunar activity causes a frenzied parade of naked women in New York City to first chase, then worship, then rescue, the moon. Lovely, weird, thought-provoking, often very funny. I’ve requested a bunch of his other work now.

The Three, by Sarah Lotz (2014): Like Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, an entry in the excellent-execution-of-schlocky-genre-concept books. I heard about this through Blair Rose’s newsletter Learn This Phrase, I think, Lotz’s novel is about three miraculous child survivors of plane crashes that happen almost simultaneously around the world. Their survival shouldn’t have been possible, and everyone from chat show hosts to religious fundamentalists wants a piece of them and their story. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that there really is something wrong with all of them, but nobody has all of the puzzle pieces… Like World War Z, it’s told as though it’s an oral history/documentation collage, including autopsy reports, interview transcripts, chat logs, and voicemail messages. Fantastically chilling, an ending that lands just on the right side of ambiguous (imo), and there’s a sequel of sorts. I’ve already reserved it!


Infinite Ground, by Martin McInnes (2016): Pleasing flavours of Jeff VanderMeer, in this story of a detective inspector trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a man named Carlos in an unspecified South American country. The surrealness of the inspector’s methods—trying to recreate a precisely accurate copy of Carlos’s office, analysing the air he might have inhaled, focusing on his microbiome—is probably going somewhere, but there’s no guarantee of anything making sense. I downloaded it as a backup for my conference trip, but a lack of immersion meant I lost interest. I’ll certainly try McInnes’s other novel, Gathering Evidence, and I’ll probably try Infinite Ground again later.

The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper (1826), and Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Henry Howarth Bashford (1924): I grabbed both of these off the shelves without really thinking, the Cooper because it’s been in my head for a while as a possible American Classics project book, and the Bashford because it’s on the Guardian 1000-best-books list and I’ve never seen it in the wild before, ever. But at the moment, the Cooper isn’t what I fancy (I’ll go for it later in the year), and the Bashford strikes me as very Diary of a Nobody-esque, which is a great vein of comedy, but as I’ve already read Diary of a Nobody, and as comic writing per se isn’t one of my great literary loves, I’m not actually that interested in it right now. It’s good to know the Bromley library system has it, though!

It’s been something of a joy to decide not to read these. They’d both make good entries in my self-imposed project reading, each in its own way, but I don’t fancy them right now and that’s okay! No one is going to make me read stuff I don’t want to or give me a reward for doing so! I can just return them and maybe try again later! Revelation.