Category Archives: Reading habits

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?

Book Serendipity, Mid-March to Early May 2021

In early April, the publisher Canongate ran a newsletter competition for one reader to win a stack of their recent releases. All you had to do was reply with your favourite word. On Twitter they gave a rundown of the most popular responses. Turning up several times each were petrichor, mellifluous, and oleaginous. Most frequent of all was serendipity: I was one of 15 to submit it! And one of those entries, but not mine, won. Anyway, fun little story there.

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.

  • A white peacock is mentioned in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, both of which were on the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist.
  • Speaking of that Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist, four of the eight were paperbacks with French flaps.

 

  • The main character takes ballet lessons in Indelicacy by Amina Cain and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez.

 

  • Mermaids! A big theme in The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (of course) and The Republic of Love by Carol Shields, but they’re also mentioned in the opening story of The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans and are main characters in “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the anthology Close Company.

  • The Brothers Grimm story about brothers who have been transformed into swans and their sister who sews shirts out of nettles to turn them back is reworked in The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin and used as a metaphor in Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott.

 

  • An electric carving knife is mentioned as a means of suicide (yipes!) in The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

 

  • A discussion of the distinction between the fear of dying and the fear of being dead in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart.

 

  • Two novels in a row in which an older man is appalled by the squalor of his young girlfriend’s apartment, and she calls him “daddy” during sex (double yipes!), made the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist: Luster by Raven Leilani and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
  • Architect husbands in The Push by Ashley Audrain and The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (and, last year, in A Celibate Season by Blanche Howard and Carol Shields), as well as a female architect as a main character in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan earlier this year.

 

  • The next-to-last essay in the Trauma anthology quotes from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I was also reading at the time.

 

  • A mention of the eels in London absorbing cocaine from the Thames in the final essay in the Trauma anthology; I then moved right on to the last 40 pages of Nobody Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood and the same bizarre fact was mentioned. A week and a half later, there it was again, this time in Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic.

 

  • A mention of sailors’ habit of getting tattoos of swallows in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell (who has a swallow tattoo, even though he’s not a sailor) and Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt.
  • A father and teenage child wander an unfamiliar city and enter a sex shop together (yipes yet again!) in Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio and Ten Days by Austin Duffy.

 

  • A mention of the same University of Virginia study in which people self-administered electric shocks to alleviate the boredom of sitting alone with their thoughts in Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy.

 

  • Basho’s poetry and George Monbiot’s Feral are both cited in The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell and Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 

  • A dead sister named Mattie in Consent by Annabel Lyon and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.
  • A young Black female protagonist and the same family dynamic (the mother committed suicide and the father is in the Marines/Navy) in The Mothers by Brit Bennett and Luster by Raven Leilani.

 

  • On the same night, I read about two pets encountering snow for the first time: a cat in Close Encounters of the Furred Kind by Tom Cox and a dog in Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.

 

  • A character is described as being as wide as they are tall in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox.
  • A character is known as Seventh in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander and the story “The Pangs of Love” by Jane Gardam in the Close Company anthology. Plus, there’s Septimus in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which I’m reading concurrently with those two.

 

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

Library Checkout, April 2021

Over the past month, my library reading has included a few more novels from the Women’s Prize longlist and several memoirs, a few of them reflecting on the events of 2020. I also picked out a stack of picture books, most of them cat-themed, while looking for reservations (I’ve been back to volunteering at the library twice weekly).

I give links to reviews of books I haven’t already featured, as well as ratings for most reads and skims. I would be delighted to have other 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 (the last Monday of each month), or tag me on Twitter and/or Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout & #LoveYourLibraries.

 

READ

  • Luster by Raven Leilani – review coming up tomorrow
  • No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – review coming up tomorrow
  • Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon – review coming up tomorrow
  • Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss
  • How We Met: A Memoir of Love and Other by Huma Qureshi
  • UnPresidented: Politics, Pandemics and the Race that Trumped All Others by Jon Sopel
  • Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic
  • When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

 Also these children’s picture books, which don’t count towards my year totals.

    • Alfie in the Garden by Debi Gliori
    • The Poesy Ring by Bob Graham
    • The Mice in the Churchyard by Kes Gray
    • Captain Cat by Inga Moore
    • Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been? I’ve Been to Washington and Guess What I’ve Seen by Russell Punter
    • Fred by Posy Simmonds

SKIMMED

  • The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind by Isabel Hardman
  • The Librarian by Allie Morgan

 

CURRENTLY READING

  • You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
  • Ten Days by Austin Duffy
  • Featherhood: On Birds and Fathers by Charlie Gilmour
  • The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy
  • Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette
  • The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley
  • You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy
  • Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

 

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • 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

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Under the Blue by Oana Aristide
  • The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth and Power by Deirdre Mask
  • The Pleasure Steamers by Andrew Motion
  • How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better by Helen Russell

 

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
  • Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott
  • Life Support: Diary of an ICU Doctor on the Frontline of the COVID Crisis by Jim Down
  • The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
  • His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
  • Life Sentences by Billy O’Callaghan
  • Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS by Michael Rosen

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Civilisations by Laurent Binet
  • This Happy by Niamh Campbell
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare
  • The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Reverend Richard Coles
  • Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
  • Lakewood by Megan Giddings
  • The Rome Plague Diaries: Lockdown Life in the Eternal City by Matthew Kneale
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • Circus of Wonders by Elizabeth Macneal
  • Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley
  • I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  • When We Went Wild by Isabella Tree and Allira Tee

 

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro – I read and enjoyed a few stories, but didn’t feel the need to read any more (especially some very long or fantasy-looking ones).
  • The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

 

RETURNED UNREAD

  • A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes – Seemed like it might be tiresome (too involved, too much backstory, etc.).
  • Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn – Ponderous writing in the first few pages, and too many middling or negative reviews from friends on Goodreads.

 

What appeals from my stacks?

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields (Blog Tour Review)

“Let’s hear it for love.”

Last year I read, or reread, six Carol Shields novels (my roundup post). The ongoing World Editions reissue series is my excuse to continue rereading her this year – Mary Swann, another I’m keen to try again, is due out in August.

The Republic of Love (1992), the seventh of Shields’s 10 novels, was a runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize and was adapted into a 2003 film directed by Deepa Mehta. (I love Emilia Fox; how have I not seen this?!)

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of radio disc jockey Tom Avery and mermaid researcher Fay McLeod, two thirtysomething Winnipeg lonely hearts who each have their share of broken relationships behind them – three divorces for Tom; a string of long-term live-in boyfriends for Fay. It’s clear that these two characters are going to meet and fall in love (at almost exactly halfway through), but Shields is careful to interrogate the myths of love at first sight and happily ever after.

On this reread, I was most struck by the subplot about Fay’s parents’ marriage and especially liked the secondary characters (like Fay’s godmother, Onion) and the surprising small-world moments that take place in Winnipeg even though it was then a city of some 600,000 people. Shields has a habit of recording minor characters’ monologues (friends, family, radio listeners, and colleagues) word for word without letting Fay or Tom’s words in edgewise.

Tom sometimes feels like a caricature – the male/female dynamic is not as successful here as in the Happenstance dual volume, which also divides the perspective half and half – and I wasn’t entirely sure what the mermaid theme is meant to contribute. Mermaids are sexually ambiguous, and in Fay’s Jungian interpretation represent the soul emerging from the unconscious. In any case, they’re an excuse for Fay to present papers at folklore conferences and spend four weeks traveling in Europe (Amsterdam, Copenhagen, northwest France).

The cover on the copy I read in 2016.

Straightforward romance plots don’t hold much appeal for me anymore, but Shields always impresses with her compassionate understanding of human nature and the complexities of relationships.

This was not one of my favorites of hers, and the passage of nearly five years didn’t change that, but it’s still pleasant and will suit readers of similarly low-key, observant novels by women: Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.

Favorite lines:

“Most people’s lives don’t wrap up nearly as neatly as they’d like to think. Fay’s sure of that. Most people’s lives are a mess.”

Fay’s mother: “I sometimes think that the best thing about your mermaids is the fact that they never age.”

 

The Republic of Love was reissued in the UK by World Editions in February. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

I was delighted to take part in the blog tour for The Republic of Love. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing.

Library Checkout, March 2021

Loads of my reservations came in all at once this month, so I’ve had to put some effort into finishing the in-demand new releases so I can relinquish them to the next in line. I’m sorry/not sorry that a few much-hyped books ended up not being for me so that I could put them down and move on to other things (like requesting novels that made it onto the Women’s Prize longlist). On the other hand, some recent novels that I picked up more than lived up to my expectations, giving me the first few entries on my Best of 2021 list.

I resumed my regular volunteering hours at the library last week, and the building will reopen to the public on April 12th. It’s great to be back!

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/Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout & #LoveYourLibraries.

 

READ

 

SKIMMED

  • All the Young Men: How One Woman Risked It All to Care for the Dying by Ruth Coker Burks
  • Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
  • Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
  • A Promised Land by Barack Obama
  • Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
  • Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London between the Wars by Francesca Wade

 

CURRENTLY READING

  • Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
  • Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette
  • You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy
  • How We Met: A Memoir of Love and Other by Huma Qureshi
  • UnPresidented: Politics, Pandemics and the Race that Trumped All Others by Jon Sopel
  • Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic
  • When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

 

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind by Isabel Hardman
  • The Librarian by Allie Morgan

 

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes
  • Featherhood: On Birds and Fathers by Charlie Gilmour
  • Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
  • Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro
  • The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy
  • Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

 

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
  • Under the Blue by Oana Aristide
  • Espedair Street by Iain Banks
  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
  • Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare
  • Ten Days by Austin Duffy
  • Lakewood by Megan Giddings
  • After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond by Bruce Greyson
  • The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
  • Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt
  • Consent by Annabel Lyon
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
  • His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
  • Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss
  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley
  • Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan
  • Life Sentences by Billy O’Callaghan
  • The Ministry of Bodies: Life and Death in a Modern Hospital by Seamus O’Mahony
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS by Michael Rosen
  • How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better by Helen Russell
  • I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi
  • Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn

 

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar – I read the first 34 pages. Interesting enough story, but shaky writing. Incessant use of the present continuous tense was going to drive me mad.
  • A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion – The 1980s Philadelphia setting was promising; I read the first 28 pages and didn’t feel connected enough to any of the characters to keep going.

 

RETURNED UNREAD

  • A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago – The font and large cast list put me off. Maybe another time.
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – Women’s Prize longlisted. I knew to expect bleakness, but the writing didn’t draw me in.
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh – Sounds too similar to Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow
  • Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson – I can’t remember now how I heard about this or why I thought it would be for me. Medieval settings are so not my thing!

 

What appeals from my stacks?

Book Serendipity, Early 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.

Josh Cohen’s How to Live. What to Do, a therapist’s guide to literature, explains why this might happen:

More than one writer – the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges – has advanced the exhilarating idea that each book is an infinitesimally small piece of one single, endless Book. I’ve always felt that this idea, unlikely as it might sound, makes perfect sense if you read enough novels [also nonfiction, for me]. The incidents, descriptions, phrases and images in the book you’re reading will always recall the incidents in another, and those in turn will call up the incidents in another, so that even as you’re reading one book, you’re reading countless others.

The following are in roughly chronological order.

 

  • Mother‒baby swimming sessions in Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley and The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp.

  • [I think it would be a spoiler to even name them, but two novels I read simultaneously in January featured 1) a marriage / close relationship between a man and a woman – even though the man is gay; and 2) a character who beat his wife and then died in a convenient ‘accident’. One was published in 1997 and the other in 2020.]

 

  • Stomas appeared in Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann and First Time Ever by Peggy Seeger late in my 2020 reading, and then in early 2021 in Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen and Love’s Work by Gillian Rose.

 

  • An account of the author’s experience of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan and I Miss You when I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.

 

  • Salmon fishing takes place in Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.

  • The medical motto “see one, do one, teach one” appears in Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and Complications by Atul Gawande.

 

  • Filipino medical staff feature in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke.

 

  • Twin Peaks is mentioned in The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and the anthology Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health; a different essay in the latter talks about Virginia Woolf’s mental health struggle, which is a strand in the former.

 

  • St. Teresa of Ávila is mentioned in Heart by Gail Godwin and Sanatorium by Abi Palmer.

  • The same Rachel Long poem appears in her debut collection, My Darling from the Lions, and The Emma Press Anthology of Love – but under different titles (“Portent” vs. “Delayed Gratification”).

 

  • There’s a matriarch named Dot in Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett.

 

  • There’s an Alaska setting in The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton and Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth.

 

  • Becoming a mother is described as a baptism in Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.

  • While reading America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo, I saw Castillo mentioned in the Acknowledgements of My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long.

 

  • Polar explorers’ demise is discussed in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Still Point by Amy Sackville.

 

  • “Butterfingers” / “butter-fingered” is used in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.

 

  • There’s a mention of someone eating paper torn from books (the horror!) in Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.

  • I was reading three pre-releases at once, each of 288 pages: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson.

 

  • The Jewish golem myth is the overarching metaphor of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.

 

  • There’s a ceremony to pay respects to those who donated their bodies for medical school dissection in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer.

 

  • An old woman with dementia features in The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Keeper by Andrea Gillies, and The Clock Winder by Anne Tyler.

  • A mother dies of cancer on Christmas Day in This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist and The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills.

 

  • The main character does stand-up comedy in Milk Fed by Melissa Broder and This Party’s Dead by Erica Buist.

 

  • Winning a goldfish at a carnival in The Air Year by Caroline Bird, A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez, and Anna Vaught’s essay in the Trauma anthology.

 

  • ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is mentioned in Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.

  • There’s a father who is non-medical hospital staff in The Push by Ashley Audrain (a cleaner) and A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (a kitchen worker).

 

  • There’s a character named Hart in The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes and The Birth House by Ami McKay.

 

  • Cannibalism is a point of reference, a major metaphor, or a (surreal) reality in Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander, Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick, and Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford.

 

  • Infertility and caring for animals were two big themes shared by Brood by Jackie Polzin and Catalogue Baby by Myriam Steinberg. This became clearer when I interviewed both authors in February. Also, both women have shocks of pink hair in their publicity photos!

  • A young woman works at a hotel in The Distance between Us by Maggie O’Farrell and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read late last year).

 

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

Library Checkout, February 2021

I felt a strange compulsion to clear the decks, so I ended up returning a lot of my backlist library loans unread and will get them out another time (or not). I haven’t even listed them below, though you can see a few in the first photo. For now I’m focusing on the brand new releases. Highlights: most the Costa Award poetry shortlist (I would have chosen a different winner from the judges!) and the memoir by the new U.S. Vice President. I’m grateful that, even though the building is closed to the public and volunteering has paused during lockdown, my library is still allowing people to collect their reservations.

I would be delighted to have other bloggers – not just book bloggers – join in 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 every month), or tag me on Twitter and/or Instagram: @bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout.

 

READ

 

CURRENTLY READING

  • The Air Year by Caroline Bird (poetry)
  • A Lie Someone Told You about Yourself by Peter Ho Davies
  • The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan
  • The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.
  • City of Departures by Helen Tookey (poetry)

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
  • A Promised Land by Barack Obama
  • Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London between the Wars by Francesca Wade

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Lessons for Today by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
  • Seed to Dust: A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • The Push by Ashley Audrain
  • All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks
  • Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro
  • A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago
  • The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
  • A Burning by Megha Majumdar
  • A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

 

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Can Bears Ski? by Raymond Antrobus
  • Espedair Street by Iain Banks
  • Ten Days by Austin Duffy
  • The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do for Your Mind by Isabel Hardman
  • The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy
  • The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin
  • The Librarian by Allie Morgan
  • Liquid Gold: Bees and the Pursuit of Midlife Honey by Roger Morgan-Grenville
  • Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley
  • The Ministry of Bodies: Life and Death in a Modern Hospital by Seamus O’Mahony
  • How We Met: A Memoir of Love and Other by Huma Qureshi
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
  • How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better by Helen Russell
  • UnPresidented: Politics, Pandemics and the Race that Trumped All Others by Jon Sopel
  • Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
  • Asylum Road by Olivia Sudjic
  • Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson

 

RETURNED UNFINISHED

 

What appeals from my stacks?

Ex Libris x 2: Who Wears It Better, Anne Fadiman or Michiko Kakutani?

When I heard about the new book by Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times, I rushed to put it on my wish list – though I ended up accessing it via the library instead. I also felt a hankering to reread Anne Fadiman’s essay collection by the same title, so I ordered myself a secondhand copy earlier this year. Both books are by (more or less) famous New York City bibliophiles and take old-fashioned bookplate designs as an inspiration. Here’s how the two fared in a head-to-head battle.

 

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998)

Like many a bibliophile, I have a soft spot for books about books. However, I’m also a real stickler about them, because all too often they make common mistakes: they’re too generic or too obscure in their points of reference, they slip into plot summary and include spoilers, or they alienate the reader by presenting the author as being on another echelon.

Fadiman, though, is a very relatable narrator in these expanded versions of 18 essays originally written for publication in Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine published from 1994 to 2000. (Can you imagine, your own bookish column in which you could write whatever you like?!) Her father was the well-known intellectual Clifton Fadiman. Theirs was a family of book-obsessed, vocabulary-loving, trivia-spouting readers, and she was also crafting her own with her husband and two young children.

I saw my family – especially my mother and me – in a number of these pieces: in “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” about the love of obscure words and word games played on a board or along with the TV (I was a spelling bee champion, and we’re all Scrabble fiends to a greater or lesser extent), in “Insert a Caret [Inset a Carrot],” about compulsive proofreading, in “The Catalogical Imperative,” about a build-up of print catalogues and the different selves one can imagine using the products therein, and in “Secondhand Prose,” about collecting used books.

There’s one respect in which I differ from the Fadiman family, though. Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books had reminded me of Fadiman’s division of readers into “courtly” and “carnal” lovers of books: the courtly ones keep a book pristine, while the carnal ones use and abuse them however they wish. She introduces this piece with an episode from a family trip to Copenhagen when she was a teenager. Her brother left a book open, facedown, on the bedside table at their hotel and the next day they found that the chambermaid had carefully put a marker at the right page, closed the book, and set a note on top reading, “Sir, you must never do that to a book.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I always say “your books, your rules” to other readers, I would have to suppress a cringe if I witnessed dog-earing, reading in the bath, cracking the spine, tearing out pages, doodling in the margins, and so on.

What I can get on board with, though, is the love of books as both narratives and physical objects. In the former camp, you get essays on books about polar exploration, sonnets, outdated guides to femininity, food literature, and reading aloud. On the latter, you’ll hear about her New York City apartment groaning with books absorbed from her husband’s and father’s collections, the good and bad of inscriptions, and Prime Minister William Gladstone’s tips for storing books.

Two essays have not aged well: one on a beloved pen (though she acknowledges that this was already multiply outdated by that time, by the typewriter and then by the computer she now uses for composition) and especially one on the quandary of gender-neutral pronouns (as opposed to “every man for himself” types of constructions) – nowadays we have no qualms about employing “them” for the unknown and the nonbinary.

My favorite essay overall was “You Are There,” about the special joy of reading on location. Additional irony points for Joe Biden being mentioned in the piece on plagiarism! I’d read this from a library some years before. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around, and certain essays will reward additional future rereadings, too.

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani (2020)

In my more morbid moments, when I imagine how I would approach the remainder of my life if I knew that I was going to die young of a terminal illness, I think about self-publishing a selection of my best blog posts and book reviews. A personal greatest hits, if you would, and anyone could forgive the self-indulgence because, hey, she’s probably going to die soon. But then I open a book like this and realize that a collection of book reviews can actually be pretty tedious, even when written by one of the greats.

“Like all lists and anthologies, the selections here are subjective and decidedly arbitrary,” Kakutani warns in her introduction. What this means in practice is that: a) if I’d read a particular book, I didn’t need to read a ~1000-word review of it; b) if I hadn’t read the book but wanted to, I avoided the essay in fear of spoilers (e.g. she does reveal some specific incidents from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, which I have on the shelf and was looking forward to; I’ll just wait until I’ve forgotten); and c) if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t want to (there is LOTS of history and politics here, with plenty of Trump jabs shoehorned in; you do know her only previous book was a diatribe against Trump, right?), I wasn’t interested. So, while there were a few pieces I appreciated, such as one on the enduring appeal of The Great Gatsby, which I recently read a third time for book club, not many caught my eye as I skimmed the book.

In any case, it’s not a book for reading all the way through but one for having on the coffee table to read the occasional essay. It is gorgeously put together, what with Dana Tanamachi’s illustrations in the style of vintage bookplates, so would still be a lovely reference book to have around. Think of it as a collection of amuse-bouches to whet your appetite to read the books you’ve always meant to pick up but haven’t managed yet (for me, that would be As I Lay Dying and Mason & Dixon). See Susan’s more judicious review here.

My rating:

 

I found plenty of other books on Goodreads with the title Ex Libris, such as this one, a compendium of library-themed fantasy and science fiction stories. (Yes, really.)

 

Have you read one of these? Which did you prefer?