Starting the Year as I Mean to Go On?

The houseguests have gone home, the Christmas tree is coming down tomorrow, and it’s darned cold. I’m feeling stuck in a rut in my career, the blog, and so many other areas of life. It’s hard not to think of 2017 as a huge stretch of emptiness with very few bright spots. All I want to do is sit around in my new fuzzy bathrobe and read under the cat. Luckily, I’ve had some great books to accompany me through the Christmas period and have finished five so far this year.

I thought I’d continue the habit of writing two-sentence reviews (or maybe no more than three), except when I’m writing proper full-length reviews on assignment or for blog tours or other websites. Granted, they’re usually long and multi-part sentences, and this isn’t actually a time-saving trick – as Blaise Pascal once said, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one” – but it feels like good discipline.

So here’s some mini-reviews of what I’ve been reading in late December and early January:

The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble

dark-floodThe “dark flood” is D.H. Lawrence’s metaphor for death, and here it corresponds to busy seventy-something Fran’s obsession with last words, obituaries and the search for the good death as many of her friends and acquaintances succumb – but also to literal flooding in the west of England and (dubious, this) to mass immigration of Asians and Africans into Europe. This is my favorite of the five Drabble books that I’ve read – it’s closest in style and tone to her sister A.S. Byatt as well as to Tessa Hadley, and the themes of old age and life’s randomness are strong – even though there seem to be too many characters and the Canary Islands subplot mostly feels like an unnecessary distraction. (Public library3-5-star-rating

Hogfather, Terry Pratchett

hogfatherIn Discworld belief causes imagined beings to exist, so when a devious plot to control children’s minds results in a dearth of belief in the Hogfather, the Fat Man temporarily disappears and Death has to fill in for him on this Hogswatch night. I laughed aloud a few times while reading this clever Christmas parody, but I had a bit of trouble following the plot and grasping who all the characters were given that this was my first Discworld book; in general I’d say that Pratchett is another example of British humor that I don’t entirely appreciate (along with Monty Python and Douglas Adams) – he’s my husband’s favorite, but I doubt I’ll try another of his books. (Own copy3-star-rating

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting

love-of-countryIn a reprise of childhood holidays that inevitably headed northwest, Bunting takes a series of journeys around the Hebrides and weaves together her contemporary travels with the religion, folklore and history of this Scottish island chain, an often sad litany of the Gaels’ poverty and displacement that culminated with the brutal Clearances. Rather than giving an exhaustive survey, she chooses seven islands to focus on and tells stories of unexpected connections – Orwell’s stay on Jura, Lord Leverhulme’s (he of Port Sunlight and Unilever) purchase of Lewis, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s landing on Eriskay – as she asks how geography influences history and what it truly means to belong to a place. (Public library4-star-rating

Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of a National Trust House, Mary Mackie

cobwebs-and-cream-teasMackie’s husband was Houseman and then Administrator at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk in the 1980s – live-in roles that demanded a wide range of skills and much more commitment than the usual 9 to 5 (when he borrowed a pedometer he learned that he walked 15 miles in the average day, without leaving the house!). Her memoir of their first year at Felbrigg proceeds chronologically, from the intense cleaning and renovations of the winter closed season through to the following Christmas’ festivities, and takes in along the way plenty of mishaps and visitor oddities. It will delight anyone who’d like a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a historic home. (Own copy4-star-rating

The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir, Betsy Lerner

bridge-ladiesWhen life unexpectedly took the middle-aged Lerner back to her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, she spent several years sitting in on her mother’s weekly bridge games to learn more about these five Jewish octogenarians who have been friends for 50 years and despite their old-fashioned reserve have seen each other through the loss of careers, health, husbands and children. Although Lerner also took bridge lessons herself, this is less about the game and more about her ever-testy relationship with her mother (starting with her rebellious teenage years), the ageing process, and the ways that women of different generations relate to their family and friends. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that every mother and daughter should read this; I plan to shove it in my mother’s and sister’s hands the next time I’m in the States. (Own copy4-star-rating

Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite

waiting-on-the-wordGuite chooses well-known poems (by Christina Rossetti, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge et al.) as well as more obscure contemporary ones as daily devotional reading between the start of Advent and Epiphany; I especially liked his sonnet sequence in response to the seven “O Antiphons.” His commentary is learned and insightful, and even if at times I thought he goes into too much in-depth analysis rather than letting the poems speak for themselves, this remains a very good companion to the Christmas season for any poetry lover. (E-book from NetGalley3-5-star-rating


img_1033I started too many books over Christmas and have sort of put six of them on hold – including Titus Groan, which I’m thinking of quitting (it takes over 50 pages for one servant to tell another that the master has had a son?!), and City on Fire, which is wonderful but dispiritingly long: even after two good sessions with it in the days after Christmas, I’ve barely made a dent.

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Stack on left = on hold (the book on top is Under the Greenwood Tree); standing up at right = books I’m actually reading.

However, the three books that I am actively reading I’m loving: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is an uproarious blend of time travel science fiction and Victorian pastiche (university library), Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a compulsive historical saga set in Korea (ARC from NetGalley), and the memoir Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear has been compared to H is for Hawk in the way she turns to birdwatching to deal with depression (e-book from Edelweiss). I also will be unlikely to resist my e-galley of the latest Anne Lamott book, Hallelujah Anyway (forthcoming in April, ARC from Edelweiss), for much longer.

Meanwhile, in post-holiday charity shopping I scored six books for £1.90: one’s been tucked away as a present for later in the year; the Ozeki I’ve already read, but it’s a favorite so I’m glad to own it; and the rest are new to me. I look forward to trying Han Kang; Anne Tyler is a reliable choice for a cozy read; and the Hobbs sounds like a wonderful Victorian-set novel.

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All in all, I seem to be starting my year in books as I mean to go on: reading a ton; making sure I review most or all of the books, even if I write just a few sentences; maintaining a balance between my own books, library books, and recent or advance NetGalley/Edelweiss reads; and failing to restrain myself from buying more.

Now if I could just work on my general attitude…

How’s the reading year starting off for you?

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24 thoughts on “Starting the Year as I Mean to Go On?

  1. Sorry to hear you are in a bleak mood – its likely just the start of the year with dark nights and mornings. At least you have your love of books to keep you in balance. I’ve been thinking of reading some Drabble but didnt know where to start so now you’ve given me the clue!

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    1. It’s true, the post-holidays slump and the dark mornings don’t help. I didn’t much like the earlier Drabble novels I read, but did enjoy her unusual family memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet, which is kind of about jigsaw puzzles.

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  2. I’m sorry you feel a bit bleak, too. Let’s hope it’s just the weather and a bit of post-Christmas blues. Meanwhile, I’m delighted you’re having a bit of a Korean moment: I’d like to get hold of ‘Pachinko’ too.

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  3. Don’t drop Terry Pratchett! Try some of his Nightwatch or wizard books.

    But I completely agree with you about Titus Groan. It was painful to get through.

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    1. Hey Rach! Interesting to hear you say that — I’d heard great things about Mervyn Peake and bought the whole trilogy secondhand, but it’s been such a slow start I’m not sure I’ll get through it. I might give it a few more pages and then set it aside for another time. Chris recently started rereading the whole Discworld series from the start and says they start getting better at book 4. I’ll ask him if there are other good stand-alone volumes.

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  4. I was just reading somewhere that January is the worst month for ‘the blues’. I imagine it has a bit to do with post-holiday activity. I hope you’re feeling better soon!

    I love the cover of Birds Art Life, and happy to hear you’re enjoying it!
    Maybe going out and buying more books will cheer you up. 🙂

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  5. Oh I’m with your husband – Pratchett always raises a smile. Did you know that he coauthored a book with Neil Gaiman? It’s set in the “real world” (e.g. not the Discworld) and it’s about Armageddon, and it is really good—if you’re not a fan of Pratchett on his own, try him mixed with a little Gaiman? (And if you’re still not into it, then I promise we need never speak of it again.)

    Mary Mackie’s book sounds wonderful, as well. Just the sort of thing my mum (a social historian) would love!

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    1. I might well enjoy a Pratchett-Gaiman team-up; I really liked the one Gaiman book I’ve read (The Ocean at the End of the Lane).

      The Mackie was very gentle, bordering on twee, but I think it would suit people who like poking around historic houses. I also thought my mom would like it. It glories in people’s eccentricities à la Gervase Phinn et al.

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      1. Yep, Phinn is one of my mum’s faves too (she lived in Yorkshire as a lass, which also accounts for some of it)! I’m definitely going to keep the Mackie in mind for her.

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  6. My husband read all of the Peakes and loved them (although he read them on audiobook) but I’ve never fancied them as have assumed they’d be long-winded and arch. Interested to know why you’ve put Books on hold as it’s such a quick read; having said that, it’s set in my home town which immediately makes a book more attractive to me (if the author gets it right). Lovely new purchases (I’ve done none of that so far, well done me, right?!) (oh that’s a lie, I bought a Kindle version of 6 Ada Leverson books for 99p so they’re invisible and don’t count). Have you read Ozeki’s earlier novels? Also vg. Happy reading!

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    1. Long-winded is definitely the word I’d apply to Peake. I’ve set the book aside at page 62 but may try going back to the series at some point.

      I returned to “Books” yesterday and got to the one-quarter mark. I’m finding it slightly silly and don’t always respond well to postmodern tricksiness (reminds me of Nicholas Royle’s “First Novel”) but I’ll stick with it.

      I figured just after Christmas would be a good time for finding charity shop bargains and am actually surprised I didn’t come away with more. The “Buy 1 for 95p, get 2 free” deal proved too tempting to resist, though.

      I have a copy of “My Year of Meats” but haven’t read it yet. “A Tale for the Time Being” is one of my favourite books of the last five years, so I’m keen to read her backlist.

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  7. Oh, I just loved that Willis book. I went back to read Doomsday Book last year and found it markedly different, but, strangely, after about the 2/3 mark realised that she’d pulled me by the heart into the story after all. Now I am ready to reread TSNotD, which should be a real treat. Don’t you find that the short reviews sometimes take just as long anyway, with the sheer effort to capture everything so succinctly, like poetry almost? But I do agree, good discipline. My reading year is off to a slow start so far, but I have some shorter books lined up for this week and maybe that will help with the sense of inertia….

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    1. Absolutely, my two-sentence reviews took me nearly as long as, or in some cases longer than, the usual rambling several-paragraph reviews 😉 But perhaps it will get easier with practice.

      “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is just delightful. I studied Victorian literature, so I am loving all the little digs at the time period. And while I would usually not be drawn to science fiction elements like time travel at all, it’s working for me here. After church today I sat down with coffee and the cat and blazed through 130+ pages in one sitting. I might even try to finish it this evening. I’m not sure where I’d go next with Willis, though. I don’t think the others in the series appeal.

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      1. Oh no! Well you’re not selling this one for me haha. If other reviews on Goodreads are similar, I think I probably will end up skipping it. What a bummer.

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