Of Mount TBR

Lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman tagged me in this, and I’m a big fan of general book talk, so here we go: a set of questions about how I store and manage the books I haven’t yet read, or, in book bloggers’ parlance, the To Be Read (TBR) stacks!

I don’t have one of these, but give me time, give me time…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

I don’t own that many books I haven’t read, mostly due to space constraints. I used to keep all of my unread books on the floor–they earned a spot on the shelf as they were read–but living with The Chaos, who is, perversely, tidier than I am, has scotched that. I have a to-do app on my phone (it’s called Clear, if you’re interested) where I keep two TBR lists, one of books that have been requested from publishers and one of books that I’ve bought myself. I also have a “to-be-read” shelf on Goodreads, but that’s to keep track of the books I want to buy/acquire/borrow in future, and I think of it more as a “to-investigate” list than an actual duty.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

100% print. I don’t read on screens, partly because my eeeyyyeeesss, and partly because it’s just not something I grew up doing and it doesn’t really occur to me as an option. Also because I have a curiously materialistic streak and I love book covers. If you’re reading on a phone or tablet, you can’t see the cover design, can’t feel the book in your hands, and you miss out on that little satisfaction.

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

If its publication date is within the next week or so (or has already passed), it goes straight to the top of the list. If I’m picking off my own list, I have all sorts of little strategies: the random number generator, asking a friend to choose, doing themed reading, spreading out a selection on my bed and reading a bit of each… It’s all rather onanistic.
A book that has been on my TBR the longest?

I’ve had David Copperfield since August 2013. It’ll be this year’s airplane/Christmas book.

A book you recently added to your TBR?

I haven’t actually bought myself a book for ages. I’m borrowing The Chaos’s copy of Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels at the moment, to kick off my Women’s Prize reading project.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

Actually, most of the books on my TBR right now are gifts, so I can’t say whether they were chosen specifically for the cover or not! Recent books that I’ve been drawn to because of cover design include Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams, Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson (review coming soon!), and The Shore by Sara Taylor.

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

I don’t plan to never read anything! (Except for Atlas Shrugged. Ain’t no one got time for that, either literally or ideologically.) I’ve been putting off some books because they’re thick and probably a bit melancholy, though, including Of Human Bondage and Guantanamo Diary. Sigh.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser BohemiansA Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing was amazing, although I kind of want her to do something completely different this time around. Whatever she does will be worth checking out.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

Nights At the Circus. I’ve tried, I really have. Every time, it just feels a bit camp and excessive and I just think you kind of need to be in the mood for vaudeville, y’know? I got about a third of the way through last time. In most Angela Carter novels I get this sense of creeping, impending disaster, which will then be treated as though it’s not a disaster at all, and in this one it’s really throwing me.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

See above. What am I doing wrong?!

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

Go Set A Watchman. I was going to read it over the summer, and for some reason it always kept getting delayed. Now I’m going to have to read it before Christmas, which is so annoying–Maycomb, Alabama is a summer place, not a winter one! Maybe it’ll provide some relief from the grey of London?

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

I’m actually embarrassed by how few there are, at least in real life, which is unheard of for a book blogger: only seven! (On my Goodreads “to-read” shelf, however, there are 152.) And I’d like to say, in my own defense, that all this means is a) I’m good at pacing my acquisitions, and b) I don’t have very much space!

Most of my shelves

People I’m tagging:

Rebecca at Bookish Beck

Alice at OfBooks

Naomi at Consumed By Ink

Stefanie at So Many Books

Teresa and Jenny at Shelf Love

Esther at Esther Writes

Ten Authors I Really Want To Meet

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic: the top ten authors I’d really like to meet. To be honest, I’ve already met Philip Pullman (we talked about The Faerie Queene), AS Byatt (we talked about poetic meter), Sarah Hall (she basically just signed my books but whatever), and JK Rowling (we talked about her shoes), so I’m not sure where else I can go with this… I’m kidding, I totally know where I can go with this.

  1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a truth-telling genius of polished prose.
  2. David Foster Wallace. I know he’s dead, I don’t care. He’s a genius too. He also probably wouldn’t be a jerk (which is what has disqualified a lot of male authors from this list. I love Faulkner but I would rather be hit in the face with a haddock than have to deal with his after-dinner chat.)
  3. Angela Carter. I know she’s also dead. I also don’t care. Can you imagine what a great person Angela Carter must have been to hang out with?
  4. Anne Carson. Sad and sexy and super-clever. We’d hang out in tall-ceilinged rooms without artificial lighting and leave the window open and shiver in the breeze.
  5. Bill Bryson. He would be hella funny and you’d sit in a pub for hours after lunch and he’d tell you all sorts of mental travel stories like an enormous ursine uncle.
  6. Harper Lee. Quite obviously. She’s about ninety years old and still a boss.
  7. Olivia Laing. She’s hilarious on Twitter and her nonfiction is some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read.
  8. Hilary Mantel. I would have THE biggest tongue-tied hero-worship embarrassment, but it would be worth it.
  9. Terry Pratchett. Another dead ‘un. He’d be like Bill Bryson but a bit dreamier, and a bit angrier, and a bit more off-the-wall.
  10. Flannery O’Connor. A woman who raises peacocks and writes the kind of violent mysticism that O’Connor did has got to be worth drinking a mint julep with, at least.

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

First published: 1991.

Edition read: Vintage Classics, pub. 1992.

Provenance: purchased from Bookends in Carlisle.

Read: December 2014, curled up in an armchair next to the Christmas tree.


Angela Carter was a revelation. I started her book of cultural criticism, The Sadeian Woman, in my second year of university, given it by a friend who was two years older and who, as a Finalist, had attained a level of world-weary knowingness that awed me. I didn’t manage to finish the book because, frankly, I hadn’t read enough secondary material to know what to do with it, and it scared me. Even then, though, I could recognize that this writer was totally unique. No one else thought like this, or if they did, they didn’t write it down so sensibly. Last year, I read The Bloody Chamber, her collection of re-imagined fairytales, and made the wonderful, rare discovery that every line in the book was quotable in its brilliance, beauty and wit. When it came time to make this list of fifty, I put her novel Wise Children on it, keen for more of the same. It wasn’t quite the same.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Wise Children is a novel that pays homage to, among other things, Shakespeare, especially Shakespearean comedy and the later romance plays; it has twins, doublings, the possibility of incest, a contrast between “high” and “low” culture and lifestyles, and a persistent questioning of legitimacy. The two sisters at the heart of the story are Dora and Leonora (known, mostly for brevity’s sake, as Nora) Chance, chorus girls, dancers and sometimes actresses on the vaudeville and chorus hall circuit of early twentieth-century London. They are the bastard children of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, an Olivier figure who never acknowledges them as his own and who is quite content to let the world think that they are his brother Peregrine’s by-blows. The two names–Chance and Hazard–are playfully resonant: both mean “luck” or “fortune”, though Chance is a simple word and Hazard a grander one. These names are Carter’s first warning that Wise Children will be about the differences between subcultures within the same country, and the potentially awful consequences that may visit you if you choose to ignore the less picturesque aspects of your own history. You could, I suppose, call it an allegory.

Spotting the Shakespeare references scattered throughout the book is highly diverting; there is, for instance, the fact that Melchior Hazard’s mother met her husband while playing Cordelia to his King Lear, an imaginary incest which parallels the Chance girls’ childhood crush on their famous father. (This also mirrors the uncomfortable father/daughter dynamic in Pericles, where the exiled king encounters a girl in a brothel who turns out to be his long-lost daughter, Marina.) My favorite, however, has got to be a scene set during a game show broadcast. The Chance sisters have an extended unofficial family which includes “little Tiffany”, their goddaughter, who is now in her early twenties, and an extended official family, which includes Tristram Hazard, their half-brother. Tiffany and Tristram, both carrying on the family line by working in show business, co-host a game show called “Lashings of Lolly” (I don’t think you’re meant to understand what this means; I certainly don’t.) They are also dating, and as the novel opens, Tiff is pregnant with Tristram’s baby. In a rather extraordinary scene, she descends a staircase on the set of Lashings of Lolly during a live broadcast, apparently out of her mind, alternately singing and talking nonsense, before taking off her clothes and dashing, naked and unstoppable, from the studio. It’s painfully funny, and it’s as obvious a parody of Ophelia’s mad scene in Hamlet as I’ve ever read.

Mostly, Wise Children (like Shakespeare) is about generation, and generations. The novel’s title comes from an old saying: “It’s a wise child who knows its own father.” The traditional view of parenthood, where paternity is nearly impossible to establish but maternity is nearly impossible to deny, is interrogated and turned inside-out by the book’s events. Where paternity is so often disputed, we have, in the end, a disputed maternal line for the Chance sisters as well; there is some suggestion that their mother might have been the woman who raised them and whom they considered to be their grandmother. This totally destabilizes the idea of heredity: if women no longer occupy a position of immobility, their children could be anything, could inherit all manner of undesirable traits, from unknown forebears. Even unbroken heredity is as much a curse as a blessing: you have to destroy your progenitor in order to become your own person, but more often than not, you become the thing you thought you’d put behind you. Melchior, on his 100th birthday, dresses as his famous father, Ranulph, who killed Melchior’s mother, her lover, and himself. Is he being his father, or defeating him? Is it possession or exorcism, damnation or redemption?

This is a hugely entertaining book, but not a particularly easy one to review. It’s not even particularly easy to describe, or analyze. I have not pulled any quotes from it; few leap out. It addresses large questions but makes no claims about any of them. Carter’s point, presumably, is that supposedly clear demarcations between the known and unknown, the legitimate and illegitimate, the normative and deviant, are actually very blurred lines. I’d recommend Wise Children, but it’s more diffuse than her most notorious work, lacking the intensity and precision of The Bloody Chamber. Still–as the Lucky Chance sisters would no doubt tell you–different doesn’t have to mean bad.