Spring Reading Tag

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How to use the extra hours of light

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!

  1. 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.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira in “Silence”

  1. It’s been a while since I did one of these.
  2. 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.
  3. Though there are a couple of Endo’s books in the flat, Silence isn’t one of them.
  4. “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.
  5. 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.
  6. (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”.)

This and that

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Portrait of the blogger with a book

Time for a little meme!

One: Reading on the couch or on the bed?

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 Powers in 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: The Lord 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 Years or Trio or Grief Is the Thing With Feathers have 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.

20 Books of Summer

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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.

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Unintentionally colour-coordinated book pile #1 (peach and green)

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.

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Unintentionally colour-coordinated book pile #2 (blue and red)

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…