Category Archives: Reading habits

Book Serendipity, July to August 2021

I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20–30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

 

  • I read two novels about the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl at the same time: Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth and When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain.

 

  • Two novels in a row were set on a holiday in Spain: Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and The Vacationers by Emma Straub.
  • I encountered mentions of the removal of the Edward Colston statue in God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald and I Belong Here by Anita Sethi on the same evening.

 

  • Characters have the habit of making up names and backstories for strangers in Ruby by Ann Hood and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon.

 

  • The main female character says she works out what she thinks by talking in Second Place by Rachel Cusk and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler.

 

  • A passive mother is bullied by her controlling husband in Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and Female Friends by Fay Weldon.

 

  • Two reads in a row were a slim volume on the necessity of giving up denial: What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri (re: racism) and What If We Stopped Pretending by Jonathan Franzen (re: climate change).
  • Expressions of a strange sense of relief at disaster in Forecast by Joe Shute (re: flooding) and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (re: a car accident).

 

  • The biomass ratios of livestock to humans to other mammals are cited in Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green, and Bewilderment by Richard Powers.

 

  • Two Booker nominees referencing china crockery: An Island by Karen Jennings and China Room by Sunjeev Sahota (yep, it’s talking about the plates rather than the country).
  • Teens sneak vodka in Heartstopper, Volume 3 by Alice Oseman and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

 

  • Robert FitzRoy appears in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute, and is the main subject of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson, a doorstopper that has been languishing on my set-aside pile.
  • Dave Goulson’s bumblebee research is mentioned in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, which I was reading at the same time as Goulson’s new book, Silent Earth.

 

  • Reading two cancer memoirs that mention bucket lists at the same time: No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler and Year of Plagues by Fred D’Aguiar.
  • Mentions of the damaging practice of clearing forest to plant eucalyptus in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute.

 

  • Mentions of mosquito coils being used (in Borneo or Australia) in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
  • Different words to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.

 

  • A brief mention of China and Japan’s 72 mini-seasons in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles: this will then be the setup for Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian, which I’ll be reading later in September.

 

  • Beached whales feature in Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.

 

  • A chapter in No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler is entitled “Flesh & Blood,” which is the title of the whole memoir by N. West Moss that I picked up next – and both are for Shelf Awareness reviews.

 

  • A description of a sonogram appointment where the nurse calls the doctor in to interpret the results and they know right away that means the pregnancy is unviable, followed by an account of a miscarriage, in Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
  • Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane quoted in Church of the Wild by Victoria Loorz and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.

 

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

Library Checkout, August 2021

I’ve read a little of everything this month, including a Booker Prize nominee and one from the Wainwright Prize longlist. A few reads were good enough to make it onto my growing “Best of 2021” list. (Full reviews of the Green and Thirkell coming soon.) In September one of my usual foci is short story collections, so I plan to get through the Butler and Byatt next month. Cathy and I have also been plotting about Novellas in November, so I’ve checked out a number of short works in advance.

As always, I give links to reviews of books not already featured, as well as ratings. I would be delighted to have other bloggers – not just book bloggers – join in with this meme. Feel free to use the image above and leave a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout (on the last Monday of each month), or tag me on Twitter and Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout & #LoveYourLibraries.

 

READ

  • Autumn Story by Jill Barklem (a children’s book – these don’t count towards my year total)
  • Second Place by Rachel Cusk
  • What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri
  • Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson (for Shelf Awareness review)
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a human-centered planet by John Green
  • The Rome Plague Diaries: Lockdown Life in the Eternal City by Matthew Kneale
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain
  • Heartstoppers, Volume 3 by Alice Oseman
  • Heartstoppers, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman
  • Earthed: A Memoir by Rebecca Schiller
  • Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute
  • August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  • The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk (a mostly wordless graphic novel, so I didn’t count it towards my year total)
  • Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham

SKIMMED

  • I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
  • Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack

 

CURRENTLY READING

  • Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs
  • Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  • Everyone Is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink
  • Cut Out by Michèle Roberts
  • Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

 

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • The Easternmost Sky: Adapting to Change in the 21st Century by Juliet Blaxland
  • Gardening for Bumblebees: A Practical Guide to Creating a Paradise for Pollinators by Dave Goulson
  • An Eye on the Hebrides: An Illustrated Journey by Mairi Hedderwick
  • September 11: A Testimony (Reuters)
  • Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Winter Story by Jill Barklem
  • The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin
  • Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler
  • Barn Owl by Jim Crumley
  • Kingfisher by Jim Crumley
  • Otter by Jim Crumley
  • Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
  • The Cure for Good Intentions: A Doctor’s Story by Sophie Harrison
  • Victory: Two Novellas by James Lasdun
  • Jilted City by Patrick McGuinness
  • His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
  • Conundrum by Jan Morris [to reread]
  • The State of the Prisons by Sinéad Morrissey
  • The Sea Is Not Made of Water: Life between the Tides by Adam Nicolson
  • Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven
  • Before Everything by Victoria Redel
  • Yearbook by Seth Rogen
  • A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven by Joe Shute
  • The Performance by Claire Thomas
  • A Walk from the Wild Edge by Jake Tyler
  • Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
  • A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul

 

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • Notes from a Summer Cottage: The Intimate Life of the Outside World by Nina Burton
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
  • Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
  • Spike: The Virus vs. the People – The Inside Story by Jeremy Farrar
  • Mrs March by Virginia Feito
  • Matrix by Lauren Groff
  • Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
  • The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
  • The Book Smugglers (Pages & Co., #4) by Anna James
  • The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
  • Listen: How to Find the Words for Tender Conversations by Kathryn Mannix
  • I Give It to You by Valerie Martin
  • Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  • Something out of Place: Women & Disgust by Eimear McBride
  • Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan
  • Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  • Sheets by Brenna Thummler
  • The Disaster Tourist by Ko-Eun Yun

 

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • August by Callan Wink – The first few pages were about a farm boy working out how to kill all the cats. No thanks.

 

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews – Luckily, I remembered that Laila said it was awful!
  • The Summer before the Dark by Doris Lessing – I should have learned from Memoirs of a Survivor that I don’t get on with her vague dystopian stuff.

 

What appeals from my stacks?

Lana Bastašić for WIT Month 2021 & September Reading Plans

My literature in translation statistics for 2021 have been abysmal so far, but here’s my token contribution to Women in Translation Month: Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić, originally published in 2018 and translated from the Serbo-Croatian by the author herself.

Sara has made a new life for herself in Dublin, with a boyfriend and an avocado tree. She rarely thinks about her past in Bosnia or hears her mother tongue. It’s a rude awakening, then, when she gets a phone call from her childhood best friend, Lejla Begić. Her bold, brassy pal says she needs Sara to pick her up in Mostar and drive her to Vienna to find her brother, Armin. No matter that Sara and Lejla haven’t been in contact in 12 years. But Lejla still has such a hold over Sara that she books a plane ticket right away.

Alternating chapters, with the text enclosed in brackets, dive into the friends’ past: school days, losing their virginity, and burying Lejla’s pet white rabbit, Bunny. Sara often writes as if to Lejla: “I can’t beautify those days, I can’t give them some special, big meaning. You would despise me for it. Besides, I don’t know how to write those two kids: you keep shrinking and growing in my memory, like illusive land to desperate sailors.”

In the road trip scenes, we have to shake our heads at how outrageous Lejla is: peeing in a cornfield, throwing her used tampons out the window, and orchestrating a farcical situation when she lies and tells their host that Sara only speaks English. A lovable rogue, she drives the book’s action. Indeed, Sara realizes, “both the car and I were nothing but an extension of Lejla’s will, she moved us with her words, and we followed obediently.”

This offbeat novel struck me, bizarrely, as a cross between Asylum Road and When God Was a Rabbit. I sometimes find that work in translation, particularly Eastern European, has too much quirkiness for the sake of it. That’s probably true here, and although the nostalgia element was appealing the emotional payoff wasn’t enough to satisfy me. However, I did love a late scene where Sara gazes at Albrecht Dürer’s famous Young Hare painting, and keep an eye out for how the ending connects back to the beginning.

(Simon appreciated this European Union Prize for Literature winner more than I did: his review compares the picture of asymmetrical female friendship favourably to that in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.)

With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.

Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?

 

September Reading Plans

Each September I make a bit more of an effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to sit on my shelves and Kindle unread. Last year I managed to read eight collections for this challenge. How many will I get to this year?! Here’s my shelf of potential reads:

I’ll reread selections from the Byatt anthology (I’ve read all of her published short story collections before and own two of them, one of which I reread last year) and will otherwise focus on books by women. I’ve had good success with Amy Bloom and Helen Simpson stories in previous years, so I’ll definitely plan to read those plus Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler (from the university library).

Since I own THREE unread collections by Alice Munro, it’s time to tackle one, probably Dear Life since I’ve owned it the longest – it’s a review copy that arrived before her Nobel Prize win and I’ve (oops) never reviewed it. The World Does Not Require You is also a long-languishing review copy, so might be my one male-penned title.

What are your September reading plans? Any short story collections you’ve read recently and would recommend to me?

Library Checkout, July 2021

As seems to happen every few months, I felt the urge to cull my library stack and only keep out the books I’m actually excited about reading right now. So you’ll see that a lot of books got returned unread in July. I did manage to read a handful as well, though, with the list looking longer than it really is because of a lot of undemanding children’s and YA material. My summer crush is the super-cute Heartstoppers comics series.

As always, I give links to reviews of books not already featured, as well as ratings for reads and skims. I would be delighted to have other bloggers – not just book bloggers – join in with this meme. Feel free to use the image above and leave a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout (on the last Monday of each month), or tag me on Twitter and Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout & #LoveYourLibraries.

 

READ

 

SKIMMED

  • Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar

 

CURRENTLY READING

  • Second Place by Rachel Cusk
  • What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri
  • All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson
  • The Rome Plague Diaries: Lockdown Life in the Eternal City by Matthew Kneale
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain
  • Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich
  • Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham

 

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
  • Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Autumn Story by Jill Barklem
  • The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin
  • Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  • The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich
  • Gardening for Bumblebees: A Practical Guide to Creating a Paradise for Pollinators by Dave Goulson
  • The Summer before the Dark by Doris Lessing
  • Jilted City by Patrick McGuinness
  • The State of the Prisons by Sinéad Morrissey
  • Stiff by Mary Roach
  • August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  • August by Callan Wink

 

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • The Easternmost Sky: Adapting to Change in the 21st Century by Juliet Blaxland
  • The Sea Is Not Made of Water: Life between the Tides by Adam Nicolson
  • Heartstoppers, Volume 4 by Alice Oseman
  • Earthed: A Memoir by Rebecca Schiller
  • Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
  • The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
  • Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt
  • Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs
  • Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
  • The Cure for Good Intentions: A Doctor’s Story by Sophie Harrison
  • An Eye on the Hebrides: An Illustrated Journey by Mairi Hedderwick
  • Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
  • The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
  • Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  • His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
  • Heartstoppers, Volume 3 by Alice Oseman
  • Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven
  • Before Everything by Victoria Redel
  • Everyone Is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink
  • Cut Out by Michèle Roberts
  • Sheets by Brenna Thummler
  • The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk
  • A Walk from the Wild Edge by Jake Tyler
  • 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Disaster Tourist by Ko-Eun Yun

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  • Still Life by Sarah Winman

None of these captivated me after 10–30 pages. I’ll try the Shipstead and Winman again another time.

 

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Misplaced Persons by Susan Beale
  • This Happy by Niamh Campbell
  • Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare
  • Lakewood by Megan Giddings
  • The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley
  • A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf
  • Joe Biden: American Dreamer by Evan Osnos
  • The Dig by John Preston
  • Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee

The last of these was requested after me; I (at least temporarily) lost interest in the rest.

 

What appeals from my stacks?

Book Serendipity, May to June 2021

I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20‒30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

  • Sufjan Stevens songs are mentioned in What Is a Dog? by Chloe Shaw and After the Storm by Emma Jane Unsworth.

 

  • There’s a character with two different coloured eyes in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal.
  • A description of a bathroom full of moisturizers and other ladylike products in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and The Interior Silence by Sarah Sands.

 

  • A description of having to saw a piece of furniture in half to get it in or out of a room in A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller and After the Storm by Emma Jane Unsworth.
  • The main character is named Esther Greenwood in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story “The Unnatural Mother” in the anthology Close Company and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Indeed, it seems Plath may have taken her protagonist’s name from the 1916 story. What a find!

 

  • Reading two memoirs of being in a coma for weeks and on a ventilator, with a letter or letters written by the hospital staff: Many Different Kinds of Love by Michael Rosen and Coma by Zara Slattery.
  • Reading two memoirs that mention being in hospital in Brighton: Coma by Zara Slattery and After the Storm by Emma Jane Unsworth.

 

  • Reading two books with a character named Tam(b)lyn: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier and Coma by Zara Slattery.

 

  • A character says that they don’t miss a person who’s died so much as they miss the chance to have gotten to know them in Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour and In by Will McPhail.
  • A man finds used condoms among his late father’s things in The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster and Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour.

 

  • An absent husband named David in Open House by Elizabeth Berg and Ruby by Ann Hood.

 

  • The murder of Thomas à Becket featured in Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot (read in April) and Heavy Time by Sonia Overall (read in June).
  • Adrienne Rich is quoted in (M)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal and Heavy Time by Sonia Overall.

 

  • A brother named Danny in Immediate Family by Ashley Nelson Levy and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler.

 

  • The male lead is a carpenter in Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler.
  • An overbearing, argumentative mother who is a notably bad driver in Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny and Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott.

 

  • That dumb 1989 movie Look Who’s Talking is mentioned in (M)otherhood by Pragya Agarwal and Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny.

 

  • In the same evening, I started two novels that open in 1983, the year of my birth: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris and Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
  • “Autistic” is used as an unfortunate metaphor for uncontrollable or fearful behavior in Open House by Elizabeth Berg and Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (from 2000 and 2002, so they’re dated references rather than mean-spirited ones).

 

  • A secondary character mentions a bad experience in a primary school mathematics class as being formative to their later life in Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott and Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler (at least, I think it was in the Tyler; I couldn’t find the incident when I went back to look for it. I hope Liz will set me straight!).

 

  • The panopticon and Foucault are referred to in Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead and I Live a Life Like Yours by Jan Grue. Specifically, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon is the one mentioned in the Shipstead, and Bentham appears in The Cape Doctor by E.J. Levy.

 

What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?

Classic of the Month & 20 Books of Summer #5: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (1873)

While going through my boxes stored in my sister’s basement, I came across an antiquarian copy of this lesser-known Hardy novel. I used to place a lot more value on books’ age and rarity, whereas now I tend to just acquire readable paperback copies. I also used to get on much better with Victorian novels – I completed an MA in Victorian Literature, after all – but these days I generally find them tedious. Two years ago, I DNFed Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, and I ended up mostly skimming A Pair of Blue Eyes after the first 100 pages. In any case, it fit into my 20 Books of Summer colour theme. It’s sad for me that I’ve lost my love for my academic speciality, but life is long and I may well go back to Victorian literature someday.

I found similarities to Far from the Madding Crowd, my favourite Hardy novel, as well as to Hardy’s own life. As in FFTMC, the focus is on a vain young woman with three suitors. Elfride Swancourt is best known for her eyes, rapturously described as “blue as autumn distance—blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.” Her vicar father, suffering from gout and sounding much older than his actual age (40 was a different prospect in that time!), warns her that architects will soon be arriving from London to plan restoration work on the church tower.

The young architectural assistant who arrives at the Swancourts’ coastal parish in “Lower Wessex” (North Devon?) is Stephen Smith, a clear Hardy stand-in, desperate to hide his humble background as he seeks to establish himself in his profession. Stephen emulates his friend Henry Knight, a dilettante essayist and book reviewer. Book learning has given Stephen passable knowledge of everything from Latin to chess, but he doesn’t know how to do practical things like ride a horse. Elfride and Stephen, predictably, fall in love, and she is determined to go ahead with an engagement even when she learns that his parents are a mason and a milkmaid, but her father refuses to grant permission. It’s intriguing that this poor clergyman fancies himself of the class of the Luxellians, local nobility, than of the Smiths.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}

Elfride’s previous love died, and his pauper mother, Mrs Jethway, blames her still for toying with her boy’s affections. When Stephen takes a position in India and Mr Swancourt remarries and moves the family to London, Elfride’s eye wanders. Time for love interest #3. The family runs into Knight, who is a distant cousin of Mrs Swancourt. There’s another, juicier, connection: Elfride is a would-be author (she writes her father’s sermons for him, putting passages in brackets with the instruction “Leave this out if the farmers are falling asleep”) and publishes a medieval romance under a male pseudonym. A negative write-up of her book needles her. “What a plague that reviewer is to me!” And who is it but Knight?

They begin a romance despite this inauspicious coincidence and his flirty/haughty refusal to admire her fine eyes – “I prefer hazel,” he says. Some of the novel’s most memorable scenes, famous even beyond its immediate context, come from their courtship. Knight saves her from falling off the church tower, while she tears her dress into linen strips and ties them into a rope to rescue him from a sea cliff (scandalous!). Somewhere I’d read an in-depth account of this scene: as Knight dangles from the rock face, he spots a trilobite, which, in its very ancientness, mocks the precariousness of his brief human life. Lovingly created and personally watched over by a supreme being? Pshaw. Hardy’s was a godless vision, and I’ve always been interested in that Victorian transition from devoutness to atheism.

The novel’s span is too long, requiring a lot of jumps in time. I did appreciate that Mrs Jethway becomes the instrument of downfall, writing a warning letter to Knight about Elfride’s mistreatment of her son and another former fiancé. Knight breaks things off and it’s not until 15 months later, after he and Stephen bump into each other in London and Knight realizes that Stephen was her other suitor, that they travel back to Wessex to duke it out over the girl. When they arrive, though, it’s too late: Elfride had married but then fallen ill and died; her funeral is to take place the very next day. As the book closes at the vault, it’s her widower, Lord Luxellian, who has the right to mourn and not either of her previous loves.

{END OF SPOILERS}

 

As always with Hardy, I enjoyed the interplay of coincidence and fate. There were a few elements of this novel that I particularly liked: the coastal setting, the characters’ lines of work (including a potential profession for Elfride, though Knight told her in future she should stick to domestic scenes in her writing!) and the role played by a book review, but overall, this was not a story that is likely to stick with me. I did wonder to what extent it inspired Lars Mytting’s The Bell in the Lake, about a country girl who falls in love with the man who comes to oversee construction at the local church.


Source: Secondhand purchase, most likely from Wonder Book and Video in the early 2000s

My rating:

Library Checkout, June 2021

I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things after my trip to the USA plus 10 days in quarantine. I sent my husband to pick up my latest pile of library reservations, and tomorrow I’ll get the chance to go in for one volunteering session before we’re off to Northumberland for 10 days (our major vacation of the year). It looks like Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, at over 600 pages, will form the bulk of my holiday reading.

I would be delighted to have other bloggers – not just book bloggers – join in with this meme. Feel free to use the image above and leave a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout (on the last Monday of each month), or tag me on Twitter and Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout & #LoveYourLibraries.

 

READ

  • Under the Blue by Oana Aristide
  • Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières
  • Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

SKIMMED

  • How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better by Helen Russell

CURRENTLY READING

  • Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette [set aside temporarily]

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • This Happy by Niamh Campbell
  • Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare
  • Lakewood by Megan Giddings
  • The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley
  • A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf
  • The Rome Plague Diaries: Lockdown Life in the Eternal City by Matthew Kneale
  • Elegy for a River: Whiskers, Claws and Conservation’s Last, Wild Hope by Tom Moorhouse
  • Joe Biden: American Dreamer by Evan Osnos
  • The Dig by John Preston
  • Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee
  • Broke Vegan: Over 100 Plant-Based Recipes that Don’t Cost the Earth by Saskia Sidey [to skim only]

Plus a cheeky new selection from the university library – graphic novels, poetry, and a bit of fiction. No photo as of yet, but this is what my husband is bringing back for me later today.

  • The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx by Tara Bergin
  • Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler
  • James Miranda Barry by Patricia Duncker
  • The Kite Runner: Graphic Novel by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Summer before the Dark by Doris Lessing
  • Jilted City by Patrick McGuinness
  • The State of the Prisons by Sinéad Morrissey
  • Frankenstein: The Graphic Novel by Mary Shelley
  • Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

 

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • Misplaced Persons by Susan Beale
  • Second Place by Rachel Cusk
  • The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis [to skim only]
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Demystifying the Female Brain: A Neuroscientist Explores Health, Hormones and Happiness by Sarah McKay [to skim only]
  • Heartstoppers, Volume 1 by Alice Oseman
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  • Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham
  • Still Life by Sarah Winman

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar
  • Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
  • Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt
  • Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
  • When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain
  • His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
  • To the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne by Alistair Moffat
  • The Sea Is Not Made of Water: Life between the Tides by Adam Nicolson
  • Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • Everyone Is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink
  • My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
  • Earthed: A Memoir by Rebecca Schiller
  • I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
  • Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute
  • Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack
  • August Folly by Angela Thirkell
  • A Walk from the Wild Edge by Jake Tyler
  • August by Callan Wink
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

 

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – The first few pages didn’t draw me in, and I’ve seen very polarized responses.
  • Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal – I read the first 40-some pages and skimmed up to p. 90. Victoriana by numbers. None of the characters leapt out at me. Such a disappointment after how much I loved The Doll Factory!

 

What appeals from my stacks?

Library Checkout, May 2021

Another big library reading month for me as I scrambled to get through the books that were reserved after me and then wrangle the remaining pile under some semblance of control before heading back to the USA for my mother’s wedding. I’ve also suspended any holds that look like they might arrive imminently – the first time I’ve taken advantage of this option. Once I’m back I’m sure I’ll quickly build up another goodly stack to last me through the summer.

I give links to reviews of books I haven’t already featured here, as well as ratings for most reads and skims. I would be delighted to have other bloggers – not just book bloggers – join in with this meme. Feel free to use the image above and leave a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout (on the last Monday of each month), or tag me on Twitter and Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout & #LoveYourLibraries.

 

READ

SKIMMED

  • After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond by Bruce Greyson
  • The Ministry of Bodies: Life and Death in a Modern Hospital by Seamus O’Mahony

CURRENTLY READING

  • Blue Dog by Louis de Bernières
  • Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette [set aside temporarily]

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Under the Blue by Oana Aristide
  • Summer Story and Autumn Story by Jill Barklem
  • This Happy by Niamh Campbell
  • The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
  • Lakewood by Megan Giddings
  • The Master Bedroom by Tessa Hadley
  • A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf
  • The Rome Plague Diaries: Lockdown Life in the Eternal City by Matthew Kneale
  • His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
  • Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee
  • How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better by Helen Russell
  • Earthed: A Memoir by Rebecca Schiller
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker (to reread)

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
  • Misplaced Persons by Susan Beale
  • Civilisations by Laurent Binet
  • Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare
  • Second Place by Rachel Cusk
  • Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
  • Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny
  • The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
  • Demystifying the Female Brain by Sarah McKay
  • When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain
  • Elegy for a River: Whiskers, Claws and Conservation’s Last, Wild Hope by Tom Moorhouse
  • Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
  • Heartstoppers, Volume 1 by Alice Oseman
  • Joe Biden: American Dreamer by Evan Osnos
  • The Dig by John Preston
  • My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
  • I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  • Broke Vegan: Over 100 Plant-Based Recipes that Don’t Cost the Earth by Saskia Sidey
  • Still Life by Sarah Winman
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
  • The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy – I read the first 22 pages. The plot felt very similar to Ankomst and I didn’t get drawn in by the prose, but this has been a huge word-of-mouth hit among my Goodreads friends. I’ll try it again another time.
  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott – I think I’m finally tiring of Covid stories.
  • Life Support: Diary of an ICU Doctor on the Frontline of the COVID Crisis by Jim Down – Ditto, though having now seen him at a Hay Festival event I might give this a try another time.
  • Life Sentences by Billy O’Callaghan – I can’t even remember how I heard about this or why I put a request on it!

What appeals from my stacks?

20 Books of Summer 2021 (Colour Theme) & Other Reading Plans

It’s my fourth year participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. Three years ago, I read only books by women; two years ago, I did an animal theme; last year, all my choices were related to food and drink. This year it’s all about colour: the word colour, or one mentioned in a title or in an author’s name, or – if I get really stuck – a particularly vibrant one on a book cover. My options range from short stories to biography, with a couple of novels in translation and a couple of children’s classics to reread on the piles.

As usual, I will prioritize books from my own shelves, but this time I will also allow myself to include library and/or Kindle reads. For instance, I have a hold placed on Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon, which was on the Women’s Prize longlist.

Here are the initial stacks I’m choosing from:

One that’s not pictured but that I definitely plan to read and review over the summer is God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald, which came out earlier this month.

Tomorrow I’m flying out to the USA as my mother is getting remarried in mid-June. I’m not completely at ease about travelling, especially as on this occasion it has involved expensive private Covid testing and quarantine periods at either end, but I am looking forward to the fun aspects of travel, like downtime in an airport with nothing to do but read. For this purpose, the first two books for my challenge that I’ve packed are the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the short story collection Emerald City by Jennifer Egan.

This week and next, the Hay Festival is taking place. I went nuts and booked myself onto eight different literary talks, three of which have already aired, with two more coming up this evening. Then there will be a few to keep me occupied during my first few days of quarantine next week. It’s a fantastic program and all the online events are free (though you can donate), so do take a look if you haven’t already. I’ll try to write up at least some of these events.

Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong is continuing throughout this year, and I happen to own one novel that’s scheduled for each of the next three months: Saint Maybe for June, A Patchwork Planet for July, and An Amateur Marriage for August. The last two I’ll be rescuing from boxes in my sister’s basement.

I always like reading with the seasons, so this is my summery stack:

I’ll start with Three Junes. Others I will contemplate getting out from the library include Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth, The Summer before the Dark by Doris Lessing, and August by Callan Wink.

In mid-June I’m on the blog tour for Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau, a novel that’s perfect for the season’s reading – nostalgic for a teen girl’s music-drenched 1970s summer, and reminiscent of Curtis Sittenfeld’s work.

I have also managed to amass a bunch of books about fathers and fatherhood, so I’ll do at least one “Three on a Theme” post to tie in with Father’s Day.

 

Are you joining in the summer reading challenge? What’s the first book on the docket?
 Do you spy any favourites on my piles? Which ones should I be sure to read?

Adventures in Rereading: Madeleine L’Engle and Posy Simmonds

I’m not doing as well with my rereading goal this year as I did in 2020. So far I’ve gotten to The Republic of Love by Carol Shields and the two below (with another DNF). Considering that I completed 16 rereads last year, I’m looking seriously behind. I still have a bulging shelf of books I’d like to reread, but they never seem to make it onto my current reading stack…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

I probably picked this up at age seven or so as a natural follow-on from the Chronicles of Narnia – both are well-regarded children’s sci fi/fantasy from an author with a Christian worldview. In my memory I didn’t connect with L’Engle’s work particularly well, finding it vague and cerebral, if creative, compared to Lewis’s. I don’t think I ever went on to the multiple sequels. As an adult I’ve enjoyed L’Engle’s autobiographical and spiritual writing, especially the Crosswicks Journals, so I thought I’d give her best-known book another try.

On a proverbially dark and stormy night, Meg Murry and her precocious little brother Charles Wallace come down to the kitchen to join their mother for a snack. In blows Mrs. Whatsit with the promise of a way of rescuing their missing scientist father through a “tesseract,” or wrinkle in time. Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, rounding out a trio of Macbeth-like witches, accompany the children and their friend Calvin on a perilous journey to face up to cosmic darkness in the form of a disembodied brain called IT that keeps their father hostage and tries to entrance Charles Wallace as well.

Interplanetary stories have never held a lot of interest for me. (As a child, I was always more drawn to talking-animal stuff.) Again I found the travels and settings hazy. It’s admirable of L’Engle to introduce kids to basic quantum physics, and famous quotations via Mrs. Who, but this all comes across as consciously intellectual rather than organic and compelling. Even the home and school talk feels dated. I most appreciated the thought of a normal – or even not very bright – child like Meg saving the day through bravery and love. This wasn’t for me, but I hope that for some kids, still, it will be pure magic.

Favorite lines:

“The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

“we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.”


Original rating (as remembered from childhood):

My rating now:

 

Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds (2007)

This must be one of the first graphic novels I ever read. Hearing that it was an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one of my favorite novels, was enough to attract me. During the years that I worked at King’s College London, I took full advantage of Lambeth Library’s extensive graphic novel collection and would pick up big piles of all sorts of books on my lunch breaks – I got a gentle ribbing from library staff nearly every time I showed up. Anyway, this is all backstory to me finding a severely underpriced secondhand copy (99p! the dear old ladies pricing things couldn’t have known what they had) in the Hay-on-Wye Oxfam shop in April 2017. It took me until earlier this year to reread it, though.

Simmonds recreates the central situation of FFTMC – an alluring young woman returns to her ancestral village and enraptures three very different men – but doesn’t stick slavishly to its plot. Her greatest innovation is in the narration. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, the novel is told in turns by Dr. Glen Larson, a (chubby, Bryson-esque) visiting American academic trying to get to grips with his novel; Beth Hardiman, who runs the retreat center and does all the admin for her philandering crime writer husband, Nicholas; and Casey Shaw, a lower-class teenager who, with her bold pal Jody, observes all the goings-on among the posh folk from the local bus shelter and later gets unexpectedly drawn in to their lives.

Tamara is a hotshot London journalist and, after a nose job, is irresistible to men. Andy Cobb, the Hardimans’ groundsman, runs a small organic food business and is a clear stand-in for Hardy’s Farmer Oak. He’s known Tamara nearly all their lives, and isn’t fussed about her new appearance and glitzy reputation. But she certainly turns Nicholas’s head, and also draws the attention of Ben, former drummer for a washed-up band. Tamara and Ben are a power couple in this sleepy village, and stir up jealousy. Ben is closest to Sergeant Troy, but he and Nicholas (who’s most like Boldwood) aren’t one-to-one equivalents. Casey and Jody fill the role of the servants and rustics, with chavs serving as the early 21st-century peasantry.

So Simmonds takes what she wants from Hardy, but adapts it as it suits her. There are a lot of words on the page compared to some graphic novels, so this would be a good halfway house for someone who’s new to comics for adults and still wants a good story to get the teeth into. At nearly 150 pages, there’s plenty of time for Simmonds to spin an involved, dramatic tale and give insight into her characters and their interactions. One ends up feeling, perhaps inevitably, more sympathy for the narrators than for the other characters, but all are well drawn. There’s a surprise ending, too. Back in 2010 I was probably more interested in getting a straight Hardy remake, so might have been disappointed when Simmonds strayed from the source material, but now I thoroughly enjoyed this for its own sake.


Original rating (2010?):

My rating now:

And a DNF:

I’ve long considered A.S. Byatt a favorite author, and early last year my reread of one of her story collections was successful. But trying again with The Biographer’s Tale (2000) – which I remember reading in an airport as I traveled to or from Leeds, where I was doing a Master’s degree, to see my family for Christmas in 2005/6 – was a lost cause. I remembered an intricate, clever, witty take on the biographer’s art, but couldn’t have recited any details for you. I managed about the first 100 pages this time. Phineas G. sets out to write a biography of famous biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, whose subjects included Francis Galton, Henrik Ibsen, and Carl Linnaeus. The novel quotes extensively from Destry-Scholes’s writing on these three, and his general notes on writing biography. I got lost somewhere in the documents. I think in my early twenties I was more impressed by virtuoso faux-scholarly writing like you often get in Byatt or Julian Barnes. Alas, it engages me less now.

Done any rereading lately?