Category: Book lists

Library Checkout: February 2017

I managed to get through six library reads in February. I’ve added in ratings and links to any reviews for books I haven’t already featured on the blog in some way. Currently I have a lovely quartet of books on the go; given that I got a bit carried away with the free reservations, it looks like I’ll be reading a whole bunch of library books in March.


LIBRARY BOOKS READ

The current library reads. I hadn't noticed until I took the photo that they all feature black, white and red on their covers...
The current library reads. I hadn’t noticed until I took the photo that they all feature black, white and red on their covers…

CURRENTLY READING

  • Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal by Al Alvarez
  • The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey
  • Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley
  • Let Them Eat Chaos [poetry] by Kate Tempest

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Ashland & Vine by John Burnside
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk
  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Finn Family Moomintroll & Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson
  • Human Acts by Han Kang
  • The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More by Michelle McGagh [to skim only, I think]
  • Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling
  • Nonsense by Christopher Reid [poetry]

img_1192

ON HOLD, TO BE CHECKED OUT

  • The Good People by Hannah Kent
  • The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Go Lean Vegan: The Revolutionary 30-Day Diet Plan to Lose Weight and Feel Great by Christine Bailey
  • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
  • The Owl at the Window: A Memoir of Loss and Hope by Carl Gorham
  • Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, the Great War by John Lewis-Stempel
  • Augustown by Kei Miller
  • A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind: Survival Techniques for Staying Sane by Emily Reynolds
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Have you been taking advantage of your local libraries? What appeals from my lists?

Yet More Books about Cats

I reviewed two sets of cat books last year, one in April and another in October. When you start looking, you realize there are endless pet books out there, with cat books seemingly second only to dog books in popularity. In the past few months I’ve encountered five more books about cats: a Christmas classic, a scientist’s introduction to cat behavior, an anthology of church-themed fiction, an installment of a charming children’s series, and a very funny memoir.


The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory

img_0895In the late 1970s Amory was a bona fide animal lover (he’d founded the NYC-based Fund for Animals, after all) but didn’t have a pet of his own until he was involved in the rescue of an unprepossessing stray one Christmas: Polar Bear, the cat who would introduce his fussy habits to a bachelor’s household and complicate his life in all kinds of ways. Cat owners will recognize so many things – the 3 a.m. bowl-emptying snack, testy relations with various other species – but I found the book strangely belabored and irrelevant as it goes into the history of the domestic cat, the business of naming cats, and Amory’s travels on behalf of the Fund. [Public library] 3-star-rating

Favorite lines:

  • “For an animal person, an animal-less home is no home at all.”
  • “The fact is that most cats, most of the time, have already met everybody they care to meet.”

 

Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed by John Bradshaw

cat-senseBradshaw is the founder and director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol. He writes as both an expert in animal behavior and a cat lover. I only skimmed this one rather than reading it in full because I expected it would repeat a lot of the information in Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room. There is indeed a fair amount of overlap in the discussion of domestic cat evolution and the environmental effects of cats’ hunting instinct, but Bradshaw’s book is unique for the amount of time it gives to cat genetics and behavior, especially things like breeding and how cats interact with other cats and with people. This would be a good halfway house if you want a readable but quite scientific book about cats. The Lion in the Living Room is the better all-round introduction, though. [Public library] 3-star-rating

Bradshaw's diagram of a cat landing on its feet.
Bradshaw’s diagram of a cat landing on its feet.

Favorite lines:

  • “Part of the pleasure of owning a pet comes from projecting our thoughts and feelings on to the animal, treating it as if it were almost human. We talk to our cats as if they could understand our every word, while knowing full well that they certainly can’t.”
  • “Purring therefore seems to convey a general request: ‘Please settle down next to me.’ In the gentlest way, the purring cat is asking someone else, whether cat or human, to do something for it.”

 

The Church Cat: Clerical Cats in Stories and Verse, edited by Mark Bryant

img_1174This seems like an impossibly narrow category: stories and poems that combine cats with a church setting. But Bryant has found some real gems that fulfill just that criterion. A few of the short stories, by Ellis Peters, M.R. James and Ernest Dudley, are compact murder mysteries. I most enjoyed Arnold Bennett’s “The Cat and Cupid,” about spinster sisters and “notorious cat-idolaters” who squabble over the handsome new organist; W.L. Alden’s “The Yellow Terror,” about a ship’s cat who insists that his owner hold church services onboard; and Christopher Park’s “The Case of the Cross-eyed Sphinx and the Holy Ghost” (my overall favorite) in which a newly married man meets his wife’s family, including a defrocked chaplain in a wheelchair and his barking mad wife, all of whom have “had an overdose of cat worship.” Of the 21 pieces, only five or six stood out for me (and none of the poetry, really). [Charity shop] 3-star-rating

 

The Church Mice Adrift by Graham Oakley

This 1976 picture book was my introduction to the 14-strong “Church Mice” series. The town of Wortlethorpe is looking to modernize: tearing down all its heritage buildings in favor of glass-fronted monstrosities. This leaves a troop of rats without a home, but they spy an opportunity when they sneak through Sampson’s catflap in the church door. The wily creatures displace the church mice and even Sampson the ginger wonder cat can’t take back his territory. So the cat and his mice are forced to get creative, and come up with a plan that involves a doll’s house turned into a floating café for rats…

img_0900

I loved the illustrations (the 1970s clothing on the few human characters cracked me up!) and the plot, a good mixture of humor and mild peril. There’s a fair number of words on each page, yet not too many. I can see this being ideal to read aloud with young children before having them take over the reading at age 5 or 6. I look forward to experiencing more of the church mice’s adventures. My thanks to Margaret of From Pyrenees to Pennines for recommending this charming series. [Public library] 4-star-rating

 

Cats in the Belfry by Doreen Tovey

cats-in-the-belfry

Solomon stalking a neighbor dog.
Solomon stalking a neighbor dog.

Do you think your cat is noisy and troublesome? Be thankful you don’t have Doreen Tovey’s Siamese cats! This 1957 book was the first of her many cat-themed memoirs and is perfectly delightful for any animal lover. Their first Siamese was Sugieh, who loved nothing more than to jump into a full bath and frighten the life out of the bather. They bred her and kept two of the littermates, Solomon and Sheba, a mischievous pair whose first three years of antics fill much of the book: terrorizing dogs, pulling down the curtains, following horses, and developing, er, ‘refined’ tastes – “What with spiders, string, and the occasional butterfly caught napping on a cabbage which he ate wings and all, Solomon was, of course, frequently sick. But never, ever, was he so gloriously sick as the day he ate the cream cakes.” [Charity shop] 4-star-rating


Up next:

  • firesideI have Thomas McNamee’s The Inner Life of Cats (coming out on March 28th) and Jason Hazeley’s The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat (coming out on April 4th) on my e-readers.
  • I’m sure to borrow more books from the public library by Tovey and Bradshaw, who has a book about training your cat (ha!).
  • I covet I Could Pee on This, Too: And More Poems by More Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.

Whether you consider yourself a cat lover or not, do any of these books appeal?

Six “Love” Books for Valentine’s Day

Starting in mid-January I began surveying my shelves, library stack and Kindle for books with “love” in the title. Here are the six I had time to try; I didn’t get to Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love on my Kindle, nor my paperback copies of Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.

img_1131

You’ll notice that a number of the books I’ve read aren’t that optimistic about love; in several cases the use of the word in the title even seems to be ironic. As Lady Montdore exclaims in Love in a Cold Climate, “Love indeed – whoever invented love ought to be shot.” So I can’t offer them as particularly romantic choices. But let’s start positively, with some pleasantly out-of-the-ordinary love poems.

 

From Me to You: Love Poems, U.A. Fanthorpe and R.V. Bailey

from-me-to-youUrsula Fanthorpe and Rosie Bailey met as English teachers at the same Cheltenham school in their late twenties and were partners for nearly 40 years. None of the poems in this short volume are attributed, though I recognized a few from Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems. They’re not particularly distinguished as poetry, but I appreciated the simple, unsentimental examples of what makes up everyday life with a partner: “There is a kind of love called maintenance, / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it; // Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget / The milkman” (“Atlas”) and “I’m working on a meal you haven’t had to imagine, / A house cleaned to the rafters” (“Dear Valentine”). [Public library3-star-rating

 

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

what-i-lovedThis 2003 novel could just as well have been titled “What I Lost,” which might be truer to its elegiac tone. Narrated by Professor Leo Hertzberg and set between the 1970s and 1990s, it’s about two New York City couples – academics and artists – and the losses they suffer over the years. With themes of modern art, perspective, memory, separation and varieties of mental illness, it asks to what extent we can ever know other people or use replacements to fill the gaps left by who and what is missing. Read it if you’ve enjoyed The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky, other books by Siri Hustvedt, or anything by Howard Norman. My favorite lines about love were “I often thought of our marriage as one long conversation” and “love thrives on a certain kind of distance … it requires an awed separateness to continue.” [Charity shop4-star-rating

 

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford

mitfordI didn’t realize this 1949 novel is a sequel to The Pursuit of Love, so it took a while to figure out who all the characters were. Fanny Logan is a cousin orbiting around Lord and Lady Montdore and their daughter Polly Hampton, all recently returned from some years in India. Fanny marries an Oxford don, while Polly shocks everyone by eloping with her uncle by marriage, “Boy” Dougdale, a recent widower once known as the “Lecherous Lecturer” for interfering with little girls. (This hint of pedophilia is carelessly tossed off in a way no writer would get away with today.) Meanwhile, the heir to the Hampton estate, an effeminate chap named Cedric, comes over from Canada for a visit and wins Lady Montdore over. This amusing picture of aristocratic life in the 1930s marvels at who we love and why. [Bookbarn International3.5 star rating

 

Enduring Love, Ian McEwan

enduring-loveInteresting to consider this as a precursor to Saturday: both have a scientist as the protagonist and get progressively darker through a slightly contrived stalker plot. Enduring Love opens, famously, with a ballooning accident that leaves its witnesses questioning whether they couldn’t have done more to prevent it. Freelance science journalist Joe Rose – on a picnic with his partner, Keats scholar Clarissa, at the time – was one of those who rushed to help, as was Jed Parry, a young Christian zealot who fixates on Joe. He seems to think that by loving Joe, a committed atheist, he can bring him to God. In turn, Joe’s obsession with Jed’s harassment campaign drives Clarissa away. It’s a deliciously creepy read that contrasts rationality with religion and inquires into what types of love are built to last. [Charity shop4-star-rating

 

An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, Johanna Adorján

exclusive-loveThe author’s grandparents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors who moved to Denmark as refugees, committed suicide together on October 13, 1991. Her grandfather, an orthopedic surgeon who had been in an Austrian concentration camp, was terminally ill and his wife was determined not to live a day without him. This short, elegant memoir alternates Adorján’s imagined reconstruction of her grandparents’ last day with an account of their life together, drawn from family memories and interviews with those who knew them. She wonders whether, like Primo Levi and Arthur Koestler, theirs was a typically Jewish failure to fit in wherever they went, and/or a particularly Hungarian melancholy. “The answer is their great love,” the newspaper report of their death insisted. [Waterstones clearance4-star-rating

Note: That striking cover is by Leanne Shapton.

 

And another nonfiction selection that I didn’t make it all the way through:

A Book about Love, Jonah Lehrer

book-about-love(Abandoned at 31%.) Although I can see why he starts where he does, Lehrer’s early focus on attachment and attunement – two psychological theories of how babies learn to relate affectionately to others – means the book gets bogged down in studies performed on mice and/or children and feels more like a parenting book than anything else. (If that’s what you’re after, read All Joy and No Fun.) A glance at the table of contents suggests the rest of the book will go into marriage, divorce and how love changes over time, but I couldn’t be bothered to stick around. That said, Lehrer’s popular science writing is clear and engaging, and with the heartfelt mea culpa at the start of this book I couldn’t hold a grudge about his earlier plagiarism scandal. [Kindle book from NetGalley.]


No overtly heartwarming love stories in that selection, then, but are there any you fancy reading anyway? Have you read any “love” titles recently?

See also: The Guardian’s list of Top 10 Authentic Romances.

Literary Power Couples: An Inventory

With Valentine’s Day on the way, I’ve been reading a bunch of books with “Love” in the title to round up in a mini-reviews post next week. One of them was What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt – my second taste of her brilliant fiction after The Blazing World. Yet I’ve not tried a one of her husband Paul Auster’s books. There’s no particular reason for that; I’ve even had his New York Trilogy out from the library in the past, but never got around to reading it.

How about some other literary power couples? Here’s some that came to mind, along with an inventory of what I’ve read from each half. It’s pretty even for the first two couples, but in most of the other cases there’s a clear winner.

 

Zadie Smith: 5

Nick Laird: 5 (= ALL)

Zadie Smith in 2011. By David Shankbone (CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
Zadie Smith in 2011. By David Shankbone (CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve read all of Zadie Smith’s work apart from NW; I only got a few pages into it when it first came out, but I’m determined to try again someday. To my surprise, I’ve read everything her husband Nick Laird has ever published, which includes three poetry collections and two fairly undistinguished ‘lad lit’ novels. I’m pleased to see that his new novel Modern Gods, coming out on June 27th, is about two sisters and looks like a stab at proper literary fiction.

 

Jonathan Safran Foer: 4 (= ALL)

Nicole Krauss: 3 (= ALL)

Alas, they’re now an ex-couple. In any case, they’re both on the fairly short list of authors I’d read anything by. Foer has published three novels and the nonfiction polemic Eating Animals. Krauss, too, has three novels to her name, but a new one is long overdue after the slight disappointment of 2010’s Great House.

 

Margaret Drabble: 5

Michael Holroyd: 0

Michael Holroyd is a biographer and general nonfiction dabbler. I have a few of his books on my TBR but don’t feel much compulsion to seek them out. By contrast, I’ve read four novels and a memoir by Margaret Drabble and am likely to devour more of her fiction in the future.

Margaret Drabble in 2011. By summonedbyfells (CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
Margaret Drabble in 2011. By summonedbyfells [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons.

Claire Tomalin: 2

Michael Frayn: 1

Claire Tomalin’s masterful biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy are pillars of my nonfiction collection, and I have her books on Nelly Ternan and Samuel Pepys on the shelf to read as well. From her husband, celebrated playwright Michael Frayn, however, I’ve only read the comic novel Skios. It is very funny indeed, though, about a case of mistaken identity at an academic conference on a Greek island.

 

Plus a few I only recently found out about:

 

Ian McEwan: 7 (+ an 8th in progress)

Annalena McAfee: 1 (I’ll be reviewing her novel Hame here on Thursday)

 

Katie Kitamura: 1 (I just finished A Separation yesterday)

Hari Kunzru: 0

 

Madeleine Thien: 1 (Do Not Say We Have Nothing)

Rawi Hage: 0

 

Afterwards I consulted the lists of literary power couples on Flavorwire and The Huffington Post and came up with a few more that had slipped my mind:

 

Michael Chabon: 1

Ayelet Waldman: 0

I loved Moonglow and am keen to try Michael Chabon’s other novels, but I also have a couple of his wife Ayelet Waldman’s books on my TBR.

 

Dave Eggers: 5

Vendela Vida: 0

I’ve read a decent proportion of Dave Eggers’s books, fiction and nonfiction, but don’t know anything by his wife and The Believer co-founder Vendela Vida.

 

David Foster Wallace: 2

Mary Karr: 1

I didn’t even know they were briefly a couple. From Wallace I’ve read the essay collection Consider the Lobster and the commencement address This Is Water. I’ve definitely got to get hold of Karr’s memoirs, having so far only read her book about memoir (The Art of Memoir).

 

And some classics:

 

Ted Hughes: 1 (Crow)

Sylvia Plath: 0

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: 2 (The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night)

Zelda Fitzgerald: 0

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in 1921. By Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in 1921. By Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

How have you fared with these or other literary power couples? Do you generally gravitate towards one or the other from a pair?

My (Tiny) Collection of Signed Copies

The other day I discovered a pencil-written recipe in the back of a secondhand book I got for Christmas. It got me thinking about handwriting in books: signatures, inscriptions, previous owners’ names, marginalia, and so on. If I can find enough examples of all those in my personal library, I might turn this into a low-key series. For now, though, I’ve rounded up my signed copies for a little photo gallery.


I’ve never placed particular value on owning signed copies of books. I’m just as likely to resell a signed book or give it away to a friend as I am a standard copy. The signed books I do have on my shelves are usually a result of having gone to an author event and figuring I may as well stick around for the signing. A few were totally accidental in secondhand purchases.

Though I’ve had personal correspondence with Paulette Bates Alden and love the three books of hers that I’ve read, this signature is entirely coincidental, in a used copy from Amazon. Shame on Patti for getting rid of it after Paulette’s book club visit in 2000!

I love Karen Armstrong’s work, especially her two memoirs about deciding not to be a nun, and A History of God. I’ve seen her speak twice and am always impressed by her clear reasoning. (Tell you a secret, though: I couldn’t get through this particular book.)

While my husband worked at Royal Holloway we saw Alain de Botton speak at the Runnymede Literary Festival and I had him sign a copy of my favorite of his books.

Krista Detor is one of our favorite singer-songwriters. We’ll be seeing her play for the fourth time in March. Luckily for us (but unluckily for the world, and for her coffers), this folk songstress from Indiana is unknown enough to play folk clubs and house concerts on both sides of the Atlantic. She wrote a book documenting the creative process behind her next-to-last album; when I saw her in Maryland she signed it with “Maybe see you across the pond!”

I have yet to read one of Melissa Harrison’s books, though I’m interested in her novels and her book on British weather. However, she edited the Seasons anthologies issued by the Wildlife Trusts last year – two of which my husband’s writing appeared in. When she spoke on the University of Reading campus about notions of the countryside in literature, my husband went along to meet her and bought a paperback of her second novel for her to sign.

I’ve seen David Lodge speak twice, both times at the London Review Bookshop. He’s one of my favorite authors ever but, alas, isn’t all that funny or personable live; his autobiography is similarly humorless compared to his novels. Deaf Sentence was a return to his usual comic style after his first stab at historical fiction (Author, Author, about Henry James’s later life). The second time I saw him he was promoting A Man of Parts, which again imagines the inner life of a famous author – this time H.G. Wells.

An obscene bargain from Amazon that just happened to be signed. I’m looking forward to starting this one soon: books about book are (almost) always such a cozy delight.

Plus three signed copies languishing in boxes in America:

  • Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott: I love Lamott’s nonfiction but have never tried one of her novels. I found this one at a library book sale, going for $1; I guess nobody noticed the signature.
  • The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang: I originally read the book via NetGalley, but it quickly became a favorite. After she saw my five-star review, Maya asked me to help her out with word-of-mouth promotion and was kind enough to send me a signed copy as thanks.
  • The Life of D.H. Lawrence: An Illustrated Biography by Keith M. Sagar: Sagar was one of the keynote speakers at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America conference I attended in the summer of 2005.

Do you deliberately buy signed copies? What are some of the jewels in your collection?

Some Books I Was Surprised to Love

Like most fiction readers, I generally stick with what I’m pretty sure I’ll like. For me that means that, unless I’ve heard very good feedback that makes me think the book will stand out from its peers, I tend to avoid science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels (or genre fiction in general). I’m also leery of magic realism and allegories, as these techniques can so often be cringe-inducing. But occasionally a book will come along that proves me wrong.

to-say-nothingFor instance, last week I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!). Once I got into it, I read it extremely quickly – finishing the final 230 pages on one Sunday afternoon and evening – and it provoked a continuous stream of snorts. I can hardly think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to. 4-5-star-rating


This got me thinking about some other pleasantly surprising books that took me outside of my usual reading comfort zone in recent years:

dark-edenDark Eden by Chris Beckett: Six generations ago a pair of astronauts landed on the planet Eden and became matriarch and patriarch of a new race of eerily primitive humans. A young leader, John Redlantern, rises up within the group, determined to free his people from their limited worldview by demythologizing their foundational story. Through events that mirror many of the accounts in Genesis and Exodus, Beckett provides an intriguing counterpoint to the ways Jews and Christians relate to the biblical narrative. Page-turning science fiction with deep theological implications. I liked each of the two sequels less than the book that went before, but they’re still worth reading. 4-star-rating

dead-in-their-vaultedThe Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley: Normally I shy away from series and tire of child narrators – and yet I find the Flavia de Luce novels positively delightful. Why? Well, Canadian author Alan Bradley’s quaintly authentic mysteries are set at Buckshaw, a crumbling country manor house in 1950s England, where the titular eleven-year-old heroine, also the narrator, performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) is the best yet. In this installment, Flavia finally learns of her unexpected inheritance from her mother. The most recent, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8), is a close second. 4-star-rating

discovery-ofA Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: The thinking gal’s Twilight. Harkness, a historian of science, draws on her knowledge of everything from medieval alchemy to recent DNA mapping. The main character, reluctant witch Diana Bishop, is studying alchemical treatises at the Bodleian Library. She calls up an enchanted manuscript from Ashmole’s original collection, presumed missing since 1859. There are three excised pages, and the book instantly draws attention from the myriad “creatures” (non-humans) plaguing Oxford. Enter Matthew Clairmont, a mega-hot vampire with a conscience. From rural France to upstate New York, he and Diana fight off rival vampires and the witches who killed Diana’s parents. As with Beckett’s books, the two sequels are a bit of a letdown, but the first book is great fun. 4-star-rating

you-too-canYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: A full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on body image, consumerism and conformity. The narrator, known only as A, lives in a shared suburban apartment. She and her roommate, B, are physically similar and emotionally dependent, egging each other on to paranoid anorexia. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we compulsively buy things we don’t need, have no idea where our food comes from and worry about keeping up a facade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. 5-star-rating

first-fifteen-livesThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: The theme of a character reliving the same life over and over will no doubt have you thinking of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but I liked this book so much better. Perhaps simply because of the first-person narration, I developed much more of a fondness for Harry August and his multiple life stories than I ever did for Ursula Todd. Harry, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, is born in the same manner each time – on New Year’s Day 1919, in the ladies’ restroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed rail station! – but becomes many people in his different lives. 4-star-rating


What books were you surprised to love recently?

Books that (Should Have) Literally Changed My Life

(Following on from my posts Landmark Books from My Early Life and Landmark Books in My Life, Part II.)

Every once in a while you’ll hear someone claim that a certain book will change your life. I think of a scene in Garden State, still one of my favorite movies of all time, where Natalie Portman’s character tells Zach Braff’s character “this song will change your life” and puts The Shins’ “New Slang” on his headphones. (Ok, it’s a good song, but not that great.)

Are there any books that have literally changed my life? I can think of a handful that have been extremely influential on my worldview and, in a couple of cases, also changed my behavior. As it happens, they’re all nonfiction.


Religion

new-kind-of-christianityAfter I got back to the States from my year abroad, I spent a few years doing some intensive reading about progressive Christianity (it was sometimes also called the emergent church) and other religions, trying to decide if it was worth sticking with the faith I’d grown up in. Although I still haven’t definitively answered this for myself, and have drifted in and out of lots of churches over the last 12 years, two authors were key to me never ditching Christianity entirely: Brian McLaren and Marcus Borg.

heart-of-christianityMcLaren founded the church we attend whenever we’re back in Maryland and is the author of over a dozen theology titles, including the New Kind of Christian trilogy of allegorical novels. For me his best book is A New Kind of Christianity, which pulls together all his recurrent themes. Borg, who died in 2015, wrote several books that made a big impression on me, but none more so than The Heart of Christianity, which is the best single book I’ve found about what Christianity can and should be, going back to Jesus’ way of peace and social justice and siphoning off the unhelpful doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries.

how-not-to-speakAny number of other Christian books and authors have been helpful to me over the years (Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner, How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, Without Buddha I Could Not be a Christian by Paul Knitter, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and various by Kathleen Norris, Rowan Williams, Richard Holloway and Anne Lamott), reassuring me that it’s not all hellfire/pie in the sky mumbo-jumbo for anti-gay Republicans, but Borg and McLaren were there at the start of my journey.


Sexuality

straight-hanneReading is my primary means of examining society as well as my own life, so it’s no wonder that I have turned to books to learn from some gender pioneers. Hanne Blank’s accessible social history Straight (2012) is particularly valuable for its revelation of the surprisingly short history of heterosexuality as a concept – the term has only existed since the 1860s. But the book that most helped me adjust my definitions of gender and broaden my tolerance was Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974).

conundrumJames Morris, born in 1926, was a successful reporter, travel writer, husband and father. Yet all along he knew he was meant to be female; it was something he had sensed for the first time as a young child sitting under the family piano: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … the conviction was unfaltering from the start.” In 1954 he began taking hormones to start his transition to womanhood, completed by a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972. This exceptional memoir of sex change evokes the swirl of determination and doubt, as well as the almost magical process of metamorphosing from one thing to another. Morris has been instrumental in helping me see sexuality as a continuum rather than a fixed entity.


Food

Apart from Michael Pollan, can you guess who’s had the greatest influence on my eating habits? You might be surprised to learn it’s American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. In 2009 he published a provocative book called Eating Animals. I’m still surprised by how powerful and challenging I found it, considering that I knew pretty much what to expect: anti-meat rhetoric from a trendy vegetarian, with plenty of arresting statistics and horrifying behind-the-scenes accounts of factory farming and slaughter. But I set aside my jaded approach to potential propaganda and let it all saturate me, and it was devastating.

eating-animalsThe fact that I still haven’t completely given up meat is proof of how difficult it is to change, even once you’ve been convicted. We’ve gone from eating meat occasionally to almost never, and then mostly when we’re guests at other people’s houses. But if I really reminded myself to think about where my food was coming from, I’m sure we’d be even more hardline. Foer didn’t answer all my questions – what about offal and wild game, and why not go all the way to veganism? – but I appreciated that he never characterizes the decision to be vegetarian as an easy one. He recognizes the ways food is bound up with cultural traditions and family memories, but still thinks being true to one’s principles outweighs all. (He’s brave enough to suggest to middle America that it’s time to consider a turkey-free Thanksgiving!)


Daily Life

ignore-your-teethThere’s nothing more routine than brushing your teeth, and I never thought I would learn a new way to do it at age 32! But that’s just what Ignore Your Teeth and They’ll Go Away by Sheldon Dov Sydney gave me. He advises these steps: (1) brushing with a dry brush to remove bits of food and plaque, (2) flossing, and (3) brushing with toothpaste as a polish and to freshen breath. It takes a little bit longer than your usual quick brush and thus I can’t often be bothered to do it, but it does always leave my mouth feeling super-clean.

feel-the-fearI frequently succumb to negative self-talk, thinking “I can’t cope” or “There’s no way I could…” Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers helped me see that I need to be more positive in my thought life. Originally published in 1987, the self-help classic says that at the base of every fear is a belief that “I can’t handle it.” Our fears are either of things that can happen to us (aging and natural disasters) or actions we might take (going back to school or changing jobs). You can choose to hold fear with either pain (leading to paralysis) or power (leading to action). This is still a struggle for me, but whenever I start to think “I can’t” I try to replace it with Jeffers’ mantra, “Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.


Can you think of any books that have literally changed your life?