Down the TBR Hole, #3

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.)

4193ii6whql-_sx327_bo1204203200_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 Grigson41fmma0p1nl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

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.

23999630Book #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-Moon71gmzprxvgl

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.

386187Book #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 Solomon81cbrobjzrl

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.

9780060885618_custom-1f0040cfdade67159cc9ebfe336dcbabaf73206c-s6-c30Book #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 FrontCoverMockTemplateEnglish 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.

bio_2000_sp_unabridged_journals_web 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.

Verdict: Keep.

Book #30: All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howardpage-51-all

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.

years of living lightly

It’s become almost a comedy trope in itself to say that the elderly are obsessed with the war. Consider your family Christmases: count up how many times your grandparents (or parents, I suppose, depending on your age) mention it. Quite apart from the fact that there seems to be a more general cultural obsession about the whole thing. No year is complete without at least one large-scale film about the heartwarming and life-affirming reactions of Ordinary People to the depredations of Mr. Hitler. Not necessarily English people (viz. The Book Thief), but definitely Ordinary People nonetheless. And if we can get through a year in publishing without yet another goddamn Churchill biography, I will sing and dance.

However, it does seem to me that there may be some method in all of this military madness. Wars have a way of burrowing into the national psyche. Whether you’re fascinated by every detail of Operation Overlord (and believe me, some people are) or want to throw things at the television every time another episode of Dad’s Army comes on, you have to admit that the war affected people in big ways. If they’re still talking about it seventy years after the fact, it’s probably worth knowing something about.

Which is why I’ve been reading history. Admittedly, David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (Bloomsbury, £12.99) isn’t actually about the war; it’s about what happened after the war. But the post-war British political and cultural scene was (and still is, I suppose) one of the war’s most lasting effects. When my grandparents talk about their childhood, this is what they mean; the war itself ended before my grandmother turned ten, but she can acutely recall the fact that the rationing of sweets continued for ten years.

Consider that: ten years. Ten years of limited sweets, meat, eggs, flour, milk, nylon tights, paper, petrol, shoes, nearly every other form of clothing. One of the strengths of Kynaston’s work is that he uses diaries from the general public and from Mass Observation archives as well as government documents to build a picture of post-war Britain. This allows a window onto the feelings and reactions of people to government decisions and everyday events that is not possible in most other kinds of history writing; the overwhelming impression a reader receives of Britain in the late 1940s is of incredible hunger. “Oh, for a little extra butter!” one woman wails, after stoically enduring eight years of tedious and tasteless meals under rationing.

Kynaston is careful to point out that it is difficult to prove malnutrition; everyone was more or less receiving the amount of food they needed to live. (Oh, hurrah.) But imagine living in a country where everyone is hungry, and no meal is particularly satisfactory. Imagine the strain on tempers, on marriages, on households. At the moment I am both unemployed and trying to keep my savings in the bank, and trying to live on no more than £20 a week; although I am nowhere near malnourished, I am also almost constantly hungry. It does things to your mind, I discover, and also on your ability to deal with stress and the unexpected. In one of the book’s most telling anecdotes, two low-level government officials, John Belcher and George Gibson, were dismissed ignominiously from their posts in 1949 for granting favors in return for the “pathetically minor” rewards of a couple of decent meals, a bottle or two of whiskey and some cigarettes.

Another great virtue of using diaries as sources is that readers get to know the diarists fairly intimately; they become characters in the narrative of the whole nation. There is bitter but clear-eyed North London schoolteacher Gladys Langford; fussy bureaucrat Henry St. John; stolid and wistful Northern housewife Nella Last; harried but overall cheerful housewife and mother Judy Haines; and about half a dozen others. Together, they enable a contemporary reader to understand infinitely more about daily life in the 1940s than a more formal, top-down academic history could ever do. Though Kynaston doesn’t skimp on the politics and economics either–there is a respectable number of chapters devoted to analyzing Labour’s electoral success, and its subsequent crippling weaknesses–I found myself hurrying through them at a faster clip. They’re not uninteresting, but it was always illuminating to read a diarist’s take on current affairs.

Perhaps this is one reason why the elderly like war histories so much: it allows them to see their experiences analytically, to place their own lives alongside others and compare or contrast them. They can plug into a bigger picture–what they lived through can now be explained, historically and socioeconomically–and achieve a sense of perspective on events the significance of which might not have seemed obvious to them at the time. If, in fifty years, there is a spate of popular history books on 9/11 and the decades following it, I shall almost certainly be reading one or two of them, for the relative objectivity that they might provide.

Also everyone will find our fashions adorable in that many years’ time. Look at this kid’s little dungarees!