I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?
I’ve just started Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life (forBrilka), which is a good 944 pages long and takes in all of the changes that the twentieth century brought to Russia, Georgia and the Caucasus. I’d be surprised if I can’t finish it by the end of the month, let alone the end of the year, although its enormity makes it not very portable…
II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?
I always read a Dickens in the winter, but haven’t previously had an autumn reading tradition. That may change given that I just finished M.R. James’s Collected Ghost Stories and found them perfect atmospheric reads. They’re not terribly scary while you’re reading, but this is deceptive: two days later, I can’t stop thinking about them. I’ve also found Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, narrated by Stephen Fry, excellent audio companions to the turning of the season.
III. Is there a release you are still waiting for?
Good heavens, no. Not in 2019, anyway. There’s one book coming out in November that I have a proof of and may yet read (Unknown Male by Nicolas Obregon), but it’s not essential.
IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.
Just from my current library stack: Paradise by Toni Morrison, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. Also, on my bedside bookshelf: Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, The Need For Roots by Simone Weil, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Plus the thirty-six books on my “home” TBR, although those are certainly not going to get read by the end of 2019.
V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of theyear?
Probably, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m actually kind of sad because although 2019 has been, thus far, an extremely good reading year, I haven’t had the kind of mind-electrifying experience with a book that made 2018 such a pleasure. (It was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, in case you’re wondering.) I’ve read lots of great stuff–which I will write about in December, because goddammit, we’re six weeks out from New Year’s Eve, it’s much too early to start doing personal roundups–but so far nothing arresting.
VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?
Not that I believe in bookish “sins”, really, but a good tag is hard to find. This one was originally created by A Page of Jenniely, and I’ve borrowed it from Cleo.
1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?
All the time. This has become more of a thing since starting to work in a bookshop: previously, proofs sent to me for review on the blog were my only source of free advance copies. They now come from the shop as well. Consequently, the books that are actually sent to my house by publishers constitute only a fraction of the proofs that come my way, and many of them aren’t ones I would choose to read or review, so I often don’t.
2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?
Ahaha. Yes, probably. I keep forgetting that NetGalley demands reviews from you, and then having to hastily copy/paste whatever I put on Goodreads or the blog.
3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?
I do this pretty regularly, or at least I did before instating the Reading Diary format on the blog; that keeps me a little more honest.
4. Folded down the page of a book?
Yeah, obviously. I use bookmarks as much as I can, but if there are multiple pages or passages I want to flag, folding down the page is a lot easier than hunting down some mini Post-its.
5. Skim read a book?
Very, very rarely. For the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel, I skimmed Outlandish Knight, because it was six hundred pages long and there was a time crunch. I used a technique that my colleague Zoe, who studied history, told me about: read the first and last two pages of every chapter, going into more depth only if you’re really interested.
6. DNF a book this year?
This probably depends on how you qualify a DNF. I read the first two or three pages of The Optickal Illusion yesterday and decided not to commit to reading it; does that count?
7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?
I’m skint. I can’t afford to buy books just because I think they’re pwetty.
8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?
I think you mean “read whilst actually doing something else”. I have stirred a sauce, cleaned a shower, shopped for groceries, walked to work, watched TV, and sat in the back of my tenth-grade chemistry class whilst reading. I’ve not yet managed to combine reading with sex, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
9. Accidentally spilled on a book
No, but I spill things on myself all the time as a result of book-related multi-tasking. Dropping things is a close second: I often overestimate my ability to simultaneously hold a laptop, an open paperback, my phone, and a glass of water.
10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?
No, but this is probably because I a) set my Goodreads goals realistically, and b) read like the wind until the point in the year when I know I’m going to make it.
11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?
Very few people lend me books, so the issue rarely arises. I did steal a not-insignificant number of books from various primary school classrooms, though.
12. Broke a book buying ban?
Can’t break a ban you never instated.
13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?
This used to happen all the time when my primary blogging strategy was to do full-length reviews. It’s one of the reasons I started doing monthly Superlative roundups, and has influenced the development of the Reading Diary format.
14. Wrote in a book you were reading?
Yeah. Good luck doing an English degree if you don’t annotate your texts.
15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?
The documentary impulse is strong in me: I get very antsy if I finish a book and can’t add it to Goodreads before midnight that night (so that my Reading Challenge stats stay accurate, obvs).
Feel free to join in, if you want absolution from your bookish sins…
Time for another round! This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.
(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)
Book #21: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter
Why is it on my TBR? It looked like cool, reasonably accessible writing about maths and music and pattern. Sold.
Do I already own it? No, although I have Hofstadter’s (massive) book on translation, Le ton beau de Marot.
Verdict? Keep, or at least keep to try. Ton beau is written—at least to begin with—in a half-rhyming, almost spoken-word style; if GEB is the same I may have a hard time with it, since I need maths writing to be a bit more straightforward.
Book #22: English Food, by Jane Grigson
Why is it on my TBR? Quite superficially, because I liked the look of it in a shop.
Do I already own it? I did. I’ve already gotten rid of it, because…
Verdict? …if I’m ever going to have the time, energy and technique to prepare dishes like devilled hare’s kidney in marmalade (only a little bit exaggerating), it will be very far into the future.
Book #23: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Why is it on my TBR? Read a good review of it while trawling through the archives of a books blog I’d just discovered and really adored, I think. Can’t recall which one—perhaps Eve’s Alexandria.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Keep. It’s a classic of speculative fiction and I’m fascinated by the idea of monks preserving civilisation post-apocalypse, like late antiquity all over again. (Plus, the title is terrific for charades.)
Book #24: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon
Why is it on my TBR? Americana. Nostalgia. Travels on the forgotten byways of the continent. (A weakness for road-trippery.)
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: I have heard not-so-good things about this one, in the interim. I might not bother.
Book #25: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
Why is it on my TBR? Southern Gothic nonfiction. Eccentricity and Spanish moss and heat. Duh. Also, my cousin bought it for me for about $4 at a secondhand bookshop when I was seventeen; you remember things like that.
Do I already own it? Yes!
Verdict: Keep. So obviously.
Book #26: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon
Why is it on my TBR? I was bought it by a dear friend who thought I should read it.
Do I already own it? Yes. But I lent it to another dear friend who seemed in need of it, and then she moved a long way away, and long story short, I think she might still have it but I don’t know where.
Verdict: Keep, if I can ever find the damn thing again.
Book #27: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Why is it on my TBR? Not sure. After I added it, though, it was made into a film, which is apparently amazing and surreal, and I would really like to read the book first.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Keep, I think.
Book #28: The Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the English Village, by Rowland Parker
Why is it on my TBR? Piqued an interest in English social history, especially over centuries. I might have just finished Ulverton by Adam Thorpe when I added it.
Do I already own it? Nope, but there’s a very attractive Eland edition in the bookshop.
Verdict: Keep. I’ve just read a Thomas Hardy and remembered why I like rusticity.
Book #29: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Why is it on my TBR? Read Plath’s Collected Poems, thought they were amazing, had a shufti at some of her journaling and found it as compelling and personal as Woolf’s.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Book #30: All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Why is it on my TBR? I read the first four Cazalet Chronicles books and really, really loved them. All Change is set ten(?) years after the last one.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Actually, discard. I loved the Cazalets so much because of the way that the children interacted with one another, and with the adults; now that the children are young adults in their own right, I don’t feel quite as compelled by it.
Conclusions: Three books out of ten discarded, each for a good reason, I think. Going through these books is, if nothing else, reminding me of how much I’ve been “wanting to get to” for a long time, and how silly it is to put off reading interesting things you’ve been aware of for a while in favour of titles that you’ve seen more recently.
What do you think—is William Least Heat-Moon actually a genius whom I should read immediately? Is Sylvia Plath not worth it? How difficult is Douglas Hofstadter’s mathematical writing?! Comments much encouraged, as always.
This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)
Book #11: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford
Why is it on my TBR? Look at that subtitle, and consider that I was raised in the Episcopal Church by a Christian mother and an atheist father, that music kept me in churches and chapels for most of my early adulthood, and that my crisis of faith started when I was eight and continues unabated to the present day, such that I now find it impossible to talk about religious belief with anyone at all, so complex and snarled is my relationship to it.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep. I go through phases of reading around this topic – liberal theologians trying to sort their own heads out – and I’ll get to Spufford.
Book #12: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Why is it on my TBR? I’m both pretentious and ambitious.
Do I already own it? No.
Verdict? Oh, keep, I think. I really do want to read it.
Book #13: The Flavour Thesaurus, by Nikki Segnit
Why is it on my TBR? Because the concept is fantastic: a compendium of how flavours relate to one another, the idea being that if you understand flavour relationships, your own cooking can be both more inventive and better quality.
Do I already own it? Nope – I’ve come close a few times though.
Verdict: Surprisingly, discard. It is still a brilliant idea and a gorgeously produced book (and the Chaos knows the author and her husband, which makes me feel guilty) – but my cooking at the moment isn’t at the experimental level that would make this book indispensable. If I ever start working from home again (aka writing half the day and pissing about in the kitchen the other half), maybe.
Book #14: Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon
Why is it on my TBR? Haven’t any idea.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Discard – if I can’t remember why I wanted to read it… It looks interesting enough, but life is short.
Book #15: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Why is it on my TBR? Hmm. There must have been some kind of Pynchon-fever going on at some point, given this and the above.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Keep. A classic of post-war literature, something I should have under my belt.
Book #16: Independent People, by Halldor Laxness
Why is it on my TBR? I read about it in Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and thought it looked fantastic. Also, taciturn Icelandic farmers are auto-approved.
Do I already own it? Yes, there’s a copy in my room at my parents’ house.
Verdict: This is a hard one. I’ve tried to read it three times and failed every time. I know Victoria loved it, though. I want to try again.
Book #17: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey
Why is it on my TBR? I think I read the blurb and thought it sounded magical – card tricks and floating glass palaces in Victorian Australia! – and perhaps a bit like Possession.
Do I already own it? My parents have a copy with the (unforgivably ugly) Faber cover pictured.
Verdict: Yeah, keep.
Book #18: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
Why is it on my TBR? Acquired a copy for a quid at an Oxfam during university, put it on Goodreads in a vague attempt to keep myself accountable
Do I already own it? Not anymore.
Verdict: Discard, in this particular sense. I’d still like to read it, but I’m not going to try very hard.
Book #19: Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama
Why is it on my TBR? See previous TBR Hole post for an explanation of my former obsession with Simon Schama, but I got this one in particular because of an interest in the connection between landscape and cultural history.
Do I already own it? Yes, hurrah.
Verdict: Keep, although it’s difficult to imagine when I’ll have the time to read it—it’s very long and the physical book is huge, as well, so it’s hard to carry.
Book #20: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, by Andrew J. Bacevich
Why is it on my TBR? Not at all sure. I must have read a review.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Discard, unless it turns out to be the most important book ever written on the subject. There are a couple of similar titles further down the list, anyway.
Conclusions: A little more success in discarding this time, mostly because I’m either no longer interested in a book’s subject or because it no longer has the relevance to the way I’m living that it used to. This project is helpful, too, in allowing me to realise that being open to reading something without actually making a plan to do so is legitimate.
What do you think—is Henry James indispensable? Should I give up on Halldor Laxness? (I doubt it, but you never know.) How much of Pynchon is worthwhile? Comments much encouraged, as always.
I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to write criticism recently. I’ve had a hard time finding enough time to read; it’s halfway through the month and I’ve just started the month’s sixth book, which, given monthly totals so far this year, is glacial. So to fill the gaps here, I’m turning to this meme, which I spotted on Jillian’s blog (originally created by a blogger called Lia) and which has the virtue of actually being mildly productive.
It goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)
Book #1: Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Why is it on my TBR? Obviously, I want to read all of Dickens’s novels (and I’m getting there! 9 out of 15), but they’re not all listed on my Goodreads TBR. Given the date I added this—February 2013—I suspect I was impelled by a viewing of the film of Nicholas Nickleby. You know, the one with that pretty boy.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep—I’ll own it one day, probably when I decide I’m sick of having mismatched paperback editions of Dickens and just buy a complete set that’s actually attractive.
Book #2: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659, ed. David Norbrook
Why is it on my TBR? David Norbrook was one of my favourite lecturers. Also, there was a time when I thought my academic interest was almost precisely one hundred years earlier than it actually is.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep—I really like Renaissance poetry, its vocabulary of allusion and the tensions between public and private that are inherent in a literature composed mostly by horny courtiers under constant surveillance. Plus it’s at its best when anthologised, and I suspect Norbrook’s is the best of those.
Book #3: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
Why is it on my TBR? I went on a bit of a Graham Greene kick in the summer of 2012; I presume this is a hangover from then.
Do I already own it? I don’t think so.
Verdict? Keep. It’s Graham Greene, for heaven’s sake.
Book #4: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene
Why is it on my TBR? See above. I’ve had a thing about Brighton Rock for a while, though; it occupies this space in my mind as being about someone properly evil, although I’m not sure that’s actually true.
Do I already own it? Yes! The Chaos has a copy on his shelves.
Verdict? Slightly tricky, this. I tried it last year and simply couldn’t get the hang of it at all. But, again, it’s Graham Greene, and perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough. KEEP!
Book #5: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
Why is it on my TBR? Adored Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, enjoyed Beyond Black and Fludd, thought this was worth a go.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Keep, obviously, oh God this isn’t going well as a culling exercise
Book #6: The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope
Why is it on my TBR? I read the entire Palliser series, and the entire Barsetshire series except for this last installment, between 2012 and 2014. I’m a completist, and the Penguin English Library cover is gorgeous.
Do I already own it? Yes! Although it is in my grandparents’ garage in West Sussex.
Verdict: Keep, but maybe this particular version of it can be given away—the entire Barsetshire series was released as Penguin Clothbound Classics and I stare at them daily from my desk at work, wondering how long it will be before I just snap and buy them so that all my Trollopes match and look nice, like adults’ books, instead of the awful mismatched copies that I have now. (It is exactly the same sitch as with Dickens and I do not enjoy it.)
Book #7: Essays, by Michel de Montaigne
Why is it on my TBR? I first encountered Montaigne in a high school class called Humanities, which is probably responsible for saving the lives of several hundred bright, desperately bored kids in my hometown (Charlottesville, Virginia). I came across him again as an undergrad. The idea of writing essays—literally, “attempts”—to explore your own soul was hugely appealing.
Do I already own it? Sort of. I own a selected edition, but not the big-ass Penguin paperback that represents the complete version.
Verdict: Sigh. Keep, obviously. I’ve read a few of them and I really like him, as a writer, as a person. It’s just that there are so many.
Book #8: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
Why is it on my TBR? My dad got it one Christmas, and it looked comprehensive and interesting.
Do I already own it? No—the plan would be to read it when visiting my parents.
Verdict: Finally, a firm no! I’m sure it’s great, but MacGregor did it as a podcast originally, and I think this is basically just a print tie-in. Unnecessary.
Book #9: The Embarrassment of Riches: an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama
Why is it on my TBR? 1: I used to fancy the pants off Simon Schama. (It was an early manifestation of a clear preference for older fellas.) 2: This is precisely the period I’m interested in. 3: Dutch paintings make me want to swoon with joy. 4: Material culture is fascinating.
Do I own it? Nope.
Verdict: Of the four reasons to read it given above, three are still applicable and legitimate, so keep, duh.
Book #10: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Why is it on my TBR? Astonishingly, I escaped American public high school without ever having read this.
Do I own it? The Chaos might have a copy somewhere, but I don’t think so.
Verdict: I have to keep this, really. There is no reason in the world to decide I’m never going to read it. It’s just one of those books—like The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Tale of Two Cities—that has mysteriously never quite been compelling enough to be next. (But I read A Tale of Two Cities in January, so I bet I’ll get round to this.)
Conclusions: The very earliest stuff on my TBR is stuff I still want to read, either because it’s classic or canonical or because it’s about subjects I’m still interested in. This is kind of a nice thing to know. As we get closer to the present day, however, I fully expect to see the influence of increased exposure to bookish media—blogs, review sites, Twitter, etc.—and a trigger-happy index finger.
Am I wrong about any of these? Is Vonnegut not worth the hassle? Is Graham Greene a waste of time? (No.) Is Neil MacGregor’s book 1000% worth reading? Comments welcomed.
This is really a Booktube thing (I came across it on Victoria’s wonderful channel, Eve’s Alexandria), but I don’t have a Booktube channel, because I cannot even contemplate a) my hair and un-made-up face on video; I can handle photography because it allows for posing, and b) audio of my ridiculous speaking voice with its wandering accent. So I have hijacked this tag—because I fancy doing something a bit frivolous and non-review-related—and turned it into a normal, twentieth-century blog post. Forgive!
What books are you most excited to read over the next few months?
WELL. I have a pile of proofs for the next three months, so I’ll have to select a few to highlight. I’m incredibly excited about the genre-bending The Fact of a Body, a combination of true crime and narrative non-fiction/personal essay by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, and about Queer City, Peter Ackroyd’s history of LGBTQIA London. I’m also eagerly anticipating Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race, which if it’s anything like her story collection Foreign Soil will be amazing, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, a definitive history of anti-Black thought in America. Non-proof-wise, I need to read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo stat, and I have the second Slough House book by Mick Herron (Dead Lions), China Miéville’s The City and the City, and Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing, all lined up.
2. What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?
Obviously, The Enchanted April—what’s more spring-like than rediscovering love and happiness in a coastal castle in Italy? Less obviously, Anna Karenina, which I’ve read two or three times, always in the spring. (The big Russians are impossible for me to get through without the incentive of light evenings.)
3. The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?
Probably The Faerie Queene, or The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (aka The New Arcadia, which is a good deal longer than The Old Arcadia.) I can’t check the latter’s page count, but the former is 1,248 pages of densely printed early modern allegorical poetry. Plus endnotes.
4. What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?
I always, always recommend I Capture the Castle for questions like this, because it’s lovely and tender and detailed and eccentric and you don’t have to work hard to get into it. But I’d also say The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett—so short, so adorable—and, if cheering up is essential, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. If Toole isn’t your style, Bill Bryson might do: I love A Walk In the Woods, where Bryson tries to walk the Appalachian Trail, and The Lost Continent, charting a Great American Road Trip, with equal affection. And there are the Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend: equal contenders with Toole for funniest books in English.
5. Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)
Victoria already mentioned the third book in Hilary Mantel’s series focusing on Thomas Cromwell; to that I’ll add a sequel to Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a lush, detailed novel about the girl who became Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, of which we were promised a second volume some years ago. Also, a book I’ve already declared I’m going to write myself, about parenthood, where the mum is a brilliant but detached theoretical physicist and the dad struggles to find self-fulfilment and identity after becoming a father. (Spoilers: he eventually opens his own yoga studio.)
6. Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?
Obviously, the answer to this depends on how far back I go. My reading records span nearly a decade—it was June 2007 when I started writing down the title and author of each book I completed—and two things strike me about that stretch of time. One is that I read with much greater direction now; when I was fourteen, I basically wandered around picking up things that looked interesting or that I thought I ought to read, which meant I covered swathes of 18th, 19th and 20th century fiction, but missed a lot of stuff that wasn’t high-profile (though I did read Tobias Smollett, which almost no one does.) These days, while I don’t project my reading terribly far into the future, I have a sense of what I’m interested in at the moment, and tailor my book acquisitions to help me build a picture of a field or a genre or a time period. The second thing is that my speed of reading has increased. In high school I could finish around twelve books a month; in university that dropped because of coursework, which led to a lot of bitty reading (individual articles or essays instead of whole monographs); at present, less than four months into the year, I’ve read nearly sixty books. I think, also, I’m now using the critical skills developed at university to engage with contemporary texts, which I didn’t do much before—I had some sense that a book needed to be Old or A Classic for me to use those tools on it, which strikes me now as kind of a sweet but callow attitude.
7. We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?
See above—really well! It could be the best year since records began. The vast majority of what I’ve read, too, has been very good. I’ve encountered a lot of authors for the first time who’ve convinced me I have to read more of their work: Mick Herron, Joanna Kavenna, Rick Bass, Kei Miller, Colson Whitehead. I’ve read a lot of debut authors who have impressed me: Laura Kaye, Daniel Magariel, Danielle Dutton. I’ve had an amazing time shadowing the Baileys Prize. It’s all going swimmingly so far.
8. Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?
Not especially—I haven’t signed up for any challenges or clubs. But I’m excited to read through the backlists of some of the authors I’ve just discovered. And I would like to do a bit better with reading the older books on our sitting room shelves which come from the Chaos’s grandparents’ house: I’ve quite a substantial reading gap in the shape of C20 men (William Golding, Robertson Davies, C.P. Snow, Laurence Durrell), which they could help with. Plus the collection includes Japanese lit, science, and poetry, all of which looks interesting too.
We went to see the new Scorsese movie, “Silence”, based on the novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, at the BFI last week. It’s about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, where Christianity was persecuted after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-8. It is…rough. I hesitate to use the word “graphic”, because no one gets disembowelled or anything, but there are some pretty distressing scenes. I thought it was a very powerful movie asking very interesting questions about the point at which virtuous loyalty to a faith becomes destructive pride (in this case, the point at which the life at stake isn’t yours, but someone else’s). The Chaos thought it was a very powerful movie with a very superfluous premise, since to him, all religious belief is absurd anyway. I’d really like to read the book now.
Though there are a couple of Endo’s books in the flat, Silence isn’t one of them.
“Reading resolutions” are not really my cup of tea—I like reading somewhat at whim; “challenges” and “lists” strike me as being generally an instance of eyes larger than stomach. However: in the sitting room and the landing bookshelves, we have hundreds of books that the Chaos took from his grandparents’ house after they died. There are many nineteenth and twentieth-century classics (Bellow, Kafka, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene); there is a fair amount of Japanese literature and non-fiction; there is quite a lot of science and poetry. I’d like to start reading them. In between new books solicited from publishers and essential contemporary reading (The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, etc.), I’ll prioritise those.
This is all I have for you at the moment, I’m afraid: reading, writing my own book (which comes along), turning up to work, and getting quite a lot of cuddles are pretty much all I can manage. January is not my favourite month.
(Although a couple of years ago I wrote a post about how to survive January; it’s on my old blog. It included the advice “eat a lot of oranges”.)
Genuinely a tricky one to start off with. The short answer, I guess, is that it depends on where I am. I don’t read on our couch very often because it’s not terribly comfortable; the way its back is canted in relation to the cushions means that I get neck strain within twenty minutes. My grandparents’ couch, on the other hand, has been the site of many a marathon read, including last Easter, when I read 300 pages of Earthly Powersin a day, and the summer before, when I stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish Fingersmith. In my parents’ house growing up, I read on my bed a lot, and I do here in the flat too, but more often at my desk, which has better back support in the form of a chair.
Two: Male main character or female main character?
Almost invariably I prefer female main characters. Particularly when the story is told in the first person, with a male narrating voice I always find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Men are frequently, in my experience, either unaware of the physical and emotional power that they wield, or all too aware of it. Either level of consciousness can be pretty stressful to read. On the other hand, I’ve been having a great time with the mostly male-narrated Baroque Cycle, so it’s not exactly a hard and fast rule.
Three: Sweet snacks or salty snacks when reading?
Almost always sweet. I try not to eat while I’m reading, partly because I’m not very coordinated so I tend to drop things on the pages. I am very partial to a good PBJ with a book, though, or a punnet of blueberries, which I eat mindlessly, like candy, one after the other in a steady stream. Or, for that matter, actual candy—the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird, when I was eleven, I was eating Skittles when I got to the trial scene, and nearly choked on one in my excitement.
Four: Trilogies or quartets?
I’ve had great experiences with trilogies: TheLord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, the Southern Reach trilogy, the Imperial Radch trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, and, of course, The Baroque Cycle. But one of the seminal works of my young life was Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, so I can hardly dismiss quartets out of hand. There’s just something nice and asymmetrical about a set of three, I guess.
Five: First-person point of view or third-person point of view?
I am a bit of a sucker for the kaleidoscopic, which means that I like books with a wide cast of characters and a third-person point of view. I also think that first-person is much, much harder to write well. Good first-person has accounted for several of my absolute favourite books, though, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which blew me away in January.
Six: Reading at night or in the morning?
I read in the morning on my Tube to work, during my lunch hour, in the evening on my Tube back from work, and after dinner, so…all of the above.
Seven: Libraries or bookstores?
Bookstores. This is embarrassing given my otherwise socialist tendencies, but I grew up with a bookshop filling the place that is filled, for other people, by libraries. It was New Dominion Bookshop, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the oldest independent bookshop in the state and a town institution. My dad bought my books there until I left home, and it was where I held my first job, weekends and summers from the summer I turned fifteen. I love the idea of being able to possess a book. I know it’s fundamentally capitalistic and smacks of economic privilege and turns knowledge into a commodity, but I love it all the same.
Eight: Books that make you laugh or make you cry?
It is much easier for a book to make me laugh than to make me cry. That said, I’ve noticed a slight increase in my tendency to cry at books. I think I must be getting old.
Books that have made me laugh out loud: The Code of the Woosters, by PG Wodehouse. A Walk In the Woods, by Bill Bryson. Rush Oh!, by Shirley Barrett. Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett (and almost every other Pratchett I’ve ever read.) The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend. The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde. Mrs Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson.
Books that have made me cry: Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Room, by Emma Donoghue. The Shore, by Sara Taylor. The Human Factor, by Graham Greene. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (much against my better judgment).
Nine: Black book covers or white book covers?
Assuming that black is for Penguin Classics, and white is for Oxford World’s Classics…I used to be a huge Penguin Classics groupie in high school, and I still do love the design idea—the uniform jackets and spines distinguished by one large picture at the top of the front cover. Over the years, though, I’ve decided that I prefer the images that OWC chooses. No real reason; they just generally seem to me to work better. Plus, they do things like release beautiful themed covers for series like Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which I really like.
Ten: Character driven or plot driven stories?
<takes deep breath>
I love plot. I love it when things happen, I love it when you flip pages at a speed of knots, I love not knowing what’s going to happen next, I love twists. Action is not unimportant in a book. Something has to occur for a story to be a story, anyway.
But without convincing characters, the most exciting plot is dead. See The Da Vinci Code. See also my frustration with novels that could have been brilliant, like Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar or Gill Hornby’s The Hive, which cover (respectively) entrenched anti-Native American racism in a small town, and the vicious world of school-gate motherhood. Both of those settings have enough tension to generate several dozen plots. But the characters felt flat or stereotypical or simply dull, and as a result, I couldn’t wait to stop reading. On the other hand, books like The Light Yearsor Trio or Grief Is the Thing With Feathershave hardly got any plot, if you stop and really try to describe what happens in them, but their characters are so sparklingly engaging and vivid that I desperately didn’t want them to end.
The wonderful Cathy at 746 Books is running this event: you have from 1 June til 5 September to read a pile of twenty books that you’ve chosen for yourself. I happen to have twenty books (not including pre-pubs) on deck right now, so thought I might as well try to join in the fun! I’m expecting to be able to put these away without difficulty, but I’m also taking the whole endeavour with a pinch of salt: I generally find formalized reading challenges to be Not My Thing. As these constitute the titles I’m trying to read at the moment anyway, though, perhaps I’ll have more success.
Collected Poems (update: I can’t. Sorry, I can’t. I did try to read these all in one go, and it was impossible. I’ll only get through these by going very slowly indeed.) – Dylan Thomas: I love Dylan Thomas. I think he was utterly mad and would have been a hopeless person to know, love or be friends with, but his poetry is magical and I’d like to read it all.
Darwin Among the Machines (finished 20/06/16; thoughts here)- George Dyson: A classic text exploring the possibility of artificial intelligence. The book’s title originates from an essay by Samuel Butler, considering roughly the same question, but from a late Victorian historical perspective.
Celia’s House – DE Stevenson: A stocking pressie from last Christmas; a gentle Edwardian novel about a woman who leaves her house to her nephew and his young family. What my mum used to call “a safe book.”
The Queen of the Night (finished 03/07/16; thoughts here)- Alexander Chee: A Parisian opera star in Belle Epoque France tries to maintain her upward trajectory and keep hidden a dark and secretive past. Yes, of course I was always going to want to read it.
Jean-Étienne Liotard (update: have decided not to worry about completing this one by the end of the challenge date. It’s huge and very difficult to take out of the house, as it won’t fit in any of my normal bags) – the RA: This is the enormous hardback monograph for the Liotard exhibition that we saw at the beginning of spring. He was an Enlightenment-era French portraitist and I absolutely adored everything that we saw. My new favourite painting is his wedding portrait of 23-year-old Julie de Thellusson-Ployard. It’s the contained but genuine joy in her smile, I think.
A Manual for Cleaning Women (finished 29/06/16; thoughts here)- Lucia Berlin: Another party to which I am appallingly late, but the underappreciated-woman-writer-from-the-’60s vibe is one I can get behind. Perhaps a good preparation for Elena Ferrante, whom I’ll probably get to eventually.
Larry’s Party (finished 10/06/16; thoughts here)- Carol Shields: A novel about late-20th-century masculinity, under the guise of a character study: one man, Larry, followed from age 27 to age 47. I don’t know why, but that title makes me feel really sad.
The Idea of Perfection (finished 11/08/16) – Kate Grenville: An unlikely love story set in New South Wales, and winner of the Orange Prize. I have high hopes.
When I Lived in Modern Times (finished 05/07/16) – Linda Grant: In 1946, Evelyn Sert sails from Soho to Palestine, where the new state of Israel is coalescing, to reinvent herself, find love, and (from what the blurb coyly suggests) be a spy?! Excellent.
The Lacuna (finished 08/06/16; thoughts here) – Barbara Kingsolver: Not Kingsolver’s familiar territory here – Harrison Shepherd, a young drifter, becomes entangled with the households and intimate lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico. I heard an excerpt from it at a Baileys Prize event last fall and was very favourably impressed.
Housekeeping (finished 09/07/16) – Marilynne Robinson: Beautiful, phenomenal Marilynne Robinson. Her first book. All about sisters and aunts, family and loyalty. Hurrah.
Raw Spirit (finished 17/07/16) – Iain Banks: Somewhat randomly acquired in September when I visited my godmother and her husband in Glasgow, and we went on a distillery tour; they were selling this in the gift shop. Banks’s account of his attempt to find the perfect whiskey. I’d quite like to read his “real” books (sf and lit fic both), but this’ll do to start.
The Siege of Krishnapur (finished 13/06/16; thoughts here) – J.G. Farrell: Basically a novel about the Sepoy Mutiny, but from the point of view of English soldiers barricaded into the Residency in a remote north Indian town. An early Booker Prize winner; my copy is secondhand and very tattered.
The Book of Memory (finished 04/06/16; thoughts here) – Petina Gappah: An albino Zimbabwean woman on death row recounts the strange story of her childhood, and the man her parents sold her to as a child. Rumour suggests it’s all right but not the same level as An Elegy for Easterly. Sadface.
The Father (finished 12/07/16) – Sharon Olds: Moar poetry, moar! I am trying to read more, anyway. Apparently this is good. I’ve been wary of Sharon Olds since reading a very dismissive review of her work by William Logan when I was fifteen, and only recently did I think of that review again and realize that it was crazily misogynistic. I hadn’t twigged.
Decreation – Anne Carson: Love Anne Carson. Find her a bit terrifying. Have read three of her collections already, so moving through back catalogue now.
Chronicles(finished 09/07/16) – Thomas Piketty: A more manageably-sized tome from the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century; a collection of his financial op-ed columns. I’m being brave with this one. Economics tends to lose my attention after a time.
Brief Lives – John Aubrey: A seventeenth-century collection of biographical sketches of public figures. Aubrey is pretty well known for this work, at least among people who care about the seventeenth century; it’s gossipy, lively, and rather entertaining, on folk as diverse as Shakespeare, Edmund Halley, and John Dee.
The Unredeemed Captive (finished 26/06/16; thoughts here) – John Demos: A scholarly study of the early American nonfiction genre known as the captivity narrative, usually written by or about European settlers who had been abducted by Native Americans. Some assimilated, married into the tribe, and raised children; others escaped or were ransomed. I can’t wait for this.
The Violent Bear It Away (finished 25/07/16) – Flannery O’Connor: The last of O’Connor’s fiction that I haven’t yet read, concerning a young boy in the Deep South whose uncle is raising him to be a prophet. I expect it to contain all the murderous misunderstandings and religious wranglings that O’Connor’s work is known for.
I do feel rather excited now. It remains to be seen whether I can read all of these AND the nine pre-pubs that I have, at least in theory, agreed to review, but at least I know I won’t run out…