What I’ve Been Reading Recently

My own paper books! Really! Not exclusively; I still find Kindle books easiest to read during lunches and on the cross trainer. Still, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made towards my summer resolution of reading my own books. In August I’ll have to get to grips with some of those doorstoppers I’ve been meaning to pick up. Below I give brief write-ups of what I’ve gotten through lately and recall how these books came into my collection to start with.

juneJune by Gerbrand Bakker: It seemed to make sense to read this during the month of June. I loved Bakker’s The Twin, but struggled to connect with this one. The first chapter and the last three (starting with “June”) are the best – I felt that the core 1969 material about the Queen’s visit and the family’s tragedy would make for a great short story or novella, but the bulk of the novel is languid contemporary moping about the ongoing effects on the Kaans. It took me forever to figure out who all the characters were and keep them straight (brothers Jan and Johan, for instance), and the way the perspective drifts from one to another doesn’t help with that. Matriarch Anna, with her habit of going up and lying in the hayloft when life gets to be too much for her, was my favorite character.

[Bought in a local charity shop for 20 pence.] 2 star rating

 

uncommon groundUncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler: This is like a photographic companion to Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Journeying around Britain, Tyler illustrates different geographical features, many of them known by archaic or folksy names. Some are just record shots, while others are true works of art. I especially liked the more whimsical terms: “Monkey’s birthday” for simultaneous rain and sunshine, and “Witches’ knickers” for plastic scraps waving from a tree or fence.

[I won a copy in a Guardian giveaway.] 4 star rating

 

waveWave by Sonali Deraniyagala: The author was vacationing with her family at a national park on the southeast coast of her native Sri Lanka in December 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, killing her parents, husband, and two sons. Job-like, Deraniyagala gives shape to her grief and lovingly remembers a family life now gone forever as she tours her childhood home in Colombo and her London house. It’s not until over six years later that she feels “I can rest … with the impossible truth of my loss, which I have to compress often and misshape, just so I can bear it—so I can cook or teach or floss my teeth.” This is a wonderful tribute to everyone she lost. Her husband and sons, especially, come through clearly as individuals you feel that you know. Although it’s not a focus of the memoir, Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and food culture struck me – this would be an appealing place to visit.

[Borrowed from a friend in America.] 4 star rating

 

out of sheer rageOut of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer: This is a book about D.H. Lawrence in the same way that Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is a film of The Orchid Thief. In other words, it’s not particularly about Lawrence at all; it’s just as much, if not more, about Geoff Dyer – his laziness, his procrastination, his curmudgeonly attitude, his futile search for the perfect places to read Lawrence’s works and write about Lawrence, his failure to feel the proper reverence at Lawrence sites, and so on. While I can certainly sympathize with Dyer’s wry comments about his work habits (“I hate doing anything in life that requires an effort”; “better reading than writing”; “all things in which I am interested … [are] a source of stress and anxiety”), I liked best the parts of the book where he actually writes about Lawrence. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)

[Bought – I think in the Hay Cinema Bookshop – for £2.99.] 3 star rating

 

middlesteinsThe Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: I was surprised how much I loved this. On the face of it it’s a fairly conventional dysfunctional family novel à la Jonathan Franzen, set among a Jewish family in Chicago. The main drama is provided by the mother, Edie, who seems to be slowly eating herself to death: she gorges herself on snacks and fast food several times a day even though she’s facing a third major surgery for diabetes. Her husband, Richard, ditched her in her time of need, leaving their adult children to pick up the slack. Every character is fully rounded (pun intended?) and the family interactions feel perfectly true to life. This isn’t really an ‘issues’ book, yet it deals with obesity in a much more subtle and compassionate way than Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)

[In last year’s Christmas stocking, from the Waynesboro, Pennsylvania Dollar Tree.] 4 star rating

 

republicThe Republic of Love by Carol Shields: Not one of my favorites from Shields, but still enjoyable and reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Her chapters alternate between the perspectives of radio disc jockey Tom Avery and folklorist Fay McLeod, two Winnipeg lonely hearts who each have their share of broken relationships behind them. It’s clear they’re going to meet and fall in love, but Shields is careful to interrogate myths of love at first sight and happily ever after. I especially liked the surprising interconnectedness of everyone in Winnipeg, the subplot about Fay’s parents’ marriage, and the habit of recording minor characters’ monologues. My major points of criticism would be that Tom sometimes feels like a caricature and I wasn’t entirely sure what the mermaid material was meant to achieve. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)

[In poor condition, so free from the Oxfam bookshop where I volunteered in Romsey in 2007–8.] 3 star rating

 

not that kindNot That Kind of Girl: A Memoir by Carlene Bauer: Lena Dunham forever rendered this memoir obscure by stealing the title. I read it because I adored Bauer’s debut novel, Frances and Bernard. This could accurately be described as a spiritual memoir, and I think will probably appeal most to readers who grew up in a restrictive religious setting. A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how her church and Christian school denied the validity of secular art, including the indie rock she loved and the literature she lost herself in. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. This book resonated with my experience in many ways. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)

[Bought cheap on Amazon US to qualify for super saver shipping.] 3.5 star rating

 

measuring

A statue of Alexander von Humboldt in the grand stairwell of the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
A statue of Alexander von Humboldt, in the grand stairwell of the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann: “Whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them.” This is a delightful historical picaresque about two late-eighteenth-century German scientists: Alexander von Humboldt, who valiantly explored South America and the Russian steppes, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, a misanthropic mathematician whose true genius wasn’t fully realized in his surveying and astronomical work. Both difficult in their own way, the men represent different models for how to do science: an adventurous one who goes on journeys of discovery, and one who stays at home looking at what’s right under his nose. I especially loved Gauss’s hot-air balloon ride and Humboldt’s attempt to summit a mountain. The lack of speech marks somehow adds to the dry wit.

[Purchased via a donation at Book-Cycle of Exeter.] 4 star rating


What have you been reading recently?

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12 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading Recently

  1. All interesting reads and I always like to know where people got their books; I try to record that for mine although some are mysteries! I’ve just been reading bios of Evelyn Waugh and Philip Sassoon to review for Shiny New Books, and I’m also reading some wonderful Robertson Davies.

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    1. I sat out this SNB issue after doing 5 pieces for the last one (!), but I look forward to reading everyone else’s contributions. It’s always such a varied and erudite set of reviews.

      Robertson Davies is one of those authors I’ve heard praised from every quarter but have never read. Occasionally his books turn up in charity shops. What would you recommend?

      I think your blog is where I got the idea of recording where all the books came from! It was truly alarming to realise the Shields novel had been lurking on my shelves for 8+ years. Most of my books are accompanied by a strong memory of where I purchased them, but a few are lost to the mists of time — especially because I almost always rub out the price/take off the sticker.

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      1. Oh, cool, glad to have had even a tiny influence on someone else’s blog habits! I write in my name, where I bought it and when and I get sad when I read an old book of mine where I didn’t do that (however, I know that if it’s covered in sticky-backed clear plastic and says my full old name, I bought it in 1987-9!).

        I would recommend any of RD’s books. The trilogies are great and I recommend getting the single-volume editions as otherwise you end up with 2 out of 3 of all of them! I just finished The Salterton Trilogy but they’re all good. He’s often described as a 20th century Anthony Trollope.

        And FIVE? Crikey! Two decent bios was enough for me, although I always find myself suggesting a lot and saying it’s OK to take two. Then of course I find even more to put on my wish list …

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    2. I’ll keep an eye out for the Davies trilogies. (SNB just ended up snowballing. One review was brought forward an issue and an interview with the author was added on, and another book I volunteered for on a whim turned out to be nearly 600 pages long. I think they had quite enough of my name in that issue, so I’ll take a break until later in the year!)

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  2. ‘Uncommon Ground’ is really speaking to me. I want it! As to me, I’m currently reading and enjoying Nigel Farndale’s ‘The blasphemer’. Fascinated to see how it will end, and link the two main threads. I recently enjoyed Bradley Somer’s ‘Fishbowl’, and am interested to observe that a story I quite enjoyed is continuing to linger with me. Very clever idea, and brilliantly illustrated.

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    1. Uncommon Ground is a really beautiful book. A quick ‘read’ as it’s mostly photos, but there is something of a narrative there too. With your love of the countryside I think it’s one you’ll want to have for the coffee table.

      The Blasphemer is new to me but sounds good — I’ll add it to the list. I have a feeling Fishbowl is on my Kindle (one of my endless NetGalley downloads); I’ll have to prioritise it soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So glad you liked Measuring the World – he really brought those two eccentric men to life!

    I’ve had June on my book shelf for a few years, but now I’m thinking maybe I don’t need to bother with it (always a welcome discovery!).

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    1. I liked the other Bakker I read, and have the third of his novels on the shelf to read. His style might be best appreciated in small doses. You have to love him for this bio: “Gerbrand Bakker worked as a subtitler for nature films before becoming a gardener.”

      Liked by 1 person

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