Category: Reading habits

Book Serendipity Incidents of 2019 (So Far)

I’ve continued to post my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading 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 between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. (The following are in rough chronological order.)

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

 

  • Two titles that sound dubious about miracles: There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything that Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

  • Two titles featuring light: A Light Song of Light by Kei Miller and The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer

 

  • Grey Poupon mustard (and its snooty associations, as captured in the TV commercials) mentioned in There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

 

  • “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (the Whitney Houston song) referenced in There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

 

  • Two books have an on/off boyfriend named Julian: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

 

  • There’s an Aunt Marjorie in When I Had a Little Sister by Catherine Simpson and Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
  • Set (at least partially) in a Swiss chalet: This Sunrise of Wonder by Michael Mayne and Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer

 

  • A character named Kiki in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch, The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer, AND Improvement by Joan Silber

 

  • Two books set (at least partially) in mental hospitals: Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning and Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

 

  • Two books in which a character thinks the saying is “It’s a doggy dog world” (rather than “dog-eat-dog”): The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and The Octopus Museum by Brenda Shaughnessy

 

  • Reading a novel about Lee Miller (The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer), I find a metaphor involving her in My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: (the narrator describes her mother) “I think she got away with so much because she was beautiful. She looked like Lee Miller if Lee Miller had been a bedroom drunk.” THEN I come across a poem in Clive James’s Injury Time entitled “Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub”
  • On the same night that I started Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, I also started a novel that had a Siri Hustvedt quote (from The Blindfold) as the epigraph: Besotted by Melissa Duclos

 

  • In two books “elicit” was printed where the author meant “illicit” – I’m not going to name and shame, but one of these instances was in a finished copy! (the other in a proof, which is understandable)

 

  • Three books in which the bibliography is in alphabetical order BY BOOK TITLE! Tell me this is not a thing; it will not do! (Vagina: A Re-education by Lynn Enright; Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner) by Michael Hebb; Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction by Peter Rubie)

 

  • References to Gerard Manley Hopkins in Another King, Another Country by Richard Holloway, This Sunrise of Wonder by Michael Mayne and The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt (these last two also discuss his concept of the “inscape”)

 

  • Creative placement of words on the page (different fonts; different type sizes, capitals, bold, etc.; looping around the page or at least not in traditional paragraphs) in When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back by Naja Marie Aidt [not pictured below], How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo and Lanny by Max Porter

  • Twin brothers fall out over a girl in Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and one story from the upcoming book Meteorites by Julie Paul

 

  • Characters are described as being “away with the fairies” in Lanny by Max Porter and Away by Jane Urquhart

 

  • Schindler’s Ark/List is mentioned in In the Beginning: A New Reading of the Book of Genesis by Karen Armstrong and Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction by Peter Rubie … makes me think that I should finally pick up my copy!
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Continuing the Story: Why I’m Wary of Sequels and Series, with Some Exceptions

Most of the time, if I learn that a book has a sequel or is the first in a series, my automatic reaction is to groan. Why can’t a story just have a tidy ending? Why does it need to sprawl further, creating a sense of obligation in its readers? Further adventures with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window? Returning to the world of The Handmaid’s Tale? No, thank you.

It was different when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of series: the Little House on the Prairie books, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Saddle Club, Redwall, the Baby-Sitters Club, various dragon series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries, the Anne of Green Gables books… You name it, I read it. I think children, especially, gravitate towards series because they’re guaranteed more of what they know they like. It’s a dependable mold. These days, though, I’m famous for trying one or two books from a series and leaving the rest unfinished (Harry Potter: 1.5 books; Discworld: 2 books at random; Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files: 1 book; the first book of crime series by M.J. Carter, Judith Flanders and William Shaw).

But, like any reader, I break my own rules all the time – even if I sometimes come to regret it. I recently finished reading a sequel and I’m now halfway through another. I’ve even read a few high-profile sci fi/fantasy trilogies over the last eight years, even though with all of them I liked each sequel less than the book that went before (Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden series and Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy).

A later book in a series can go either way for me – surpass the original, or fail to live up to it. Nonfiction sequels seem more reliable than fiction ones, though: if I discover that a memoirist has written a follow-up volume, I will generally rush to read it.

 

So, what would induce me to pick up a sequel?

 

I want to know what happens next.

 

WINNERS:

After reading Ruth Picardie’s Before I Say Goodbye, I was eager to hear from her bereaved sister, Justine Picardie. Ruth died of breast cancer in 1997; Justine writes a journal covering 2000 to 2001, asking herself whether death is really the end and if there is any possibility of communicating with her sister and other loved ones she’s recently lost. If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love after Death is desperately sad, but also compelling.

Graeme Simsion’s Rosie series has a wonderfully quirky narrator. When we first meet him, Don Tillman is a 39-year-old Melbourne genetics professor who’s decided it’s time to find a wife. Book 2 has him and Rosie expecting a baby in New York City. I’m halfway through Book 3, in which in their son is 11 and they’re back in Australia. Though not as enjoyable as the first, it’s still a funny look through the eyes of someone on the autistic spectrum.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first Patrick Melrose book, left a nasty aftertaste, but I was glad I tried again with Bad News, a blackly comic two days in the life of a drug addict.

 

LOSERS:

Joan Anderson’s two sequels to A Year by the Sea are less engaging, and her books have too much overlap with each other.

Perhaps inevitably, Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, about getting clean, feels subdued compared to his flashy account of the heights of his drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water was an awfully wordy slog compared to A Time of Gifts.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow was one of my favorite backlist reads last year. I only read the first 60 pages of Children of God, though. It was a recent DNF after leaving it languishing on my pile for many months. While I was, of course, intrigued to learn that (SPOILER) a character we thought had died is still alive, and it was nice to see broken priest Emilio Sandoz getting a chance at happiness back on Earth, I couldn’t get interested in the political machinations of the alien races. Without the quest setup and terrific ensemble cast of the first book, this didn’t grab me.

 

 

I want to spend more time with these characters.

 

WINNERS:

Simon Armitage’s travel narrative Walking Away is even funnier than Walking Home.

I’m as leery of child narrators as I am of sequels, yet I read all 10 Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley: quaint mysteries set in 1950s England and starring an eleven-year-old who performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) was the best, followed by Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8).

Roald Dahl’s Going Solo is almost as good as Boy.

Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come is even better than Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Likewise, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, about a female doctor in the 1880s, is even better than Bodies of Light.

Doreen Tovey’s Cats in May is just as good as Cats in the Belfry.

 

LOSERS:

H. E. Bates’s A Breath of French Air revisits the Larkins, the indomitably cheery hedonists introduced in The Darling Buds of May, as they spend a month abroad in the late 1950s. France shows off its worst weather and mostly inedible cuisine; even the booze is barely tolerable. Like a lot of comedy, this feels slightly dated, and maybe also a touch xenophobic.

The first Hendrik Groen diary, about an octogenarian and his Old-But-Not-Dead club of Amsterdam nursing home buddies, was a joy, but the sequel felt like it would never end.

I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead; I didn’t need the two subsequent books.

The Shakespeare Requirement, Julie Schumacher’s sequel to Dear Committee Members, a hilarious epistolary novel about an English professor on a Midwest college campus, was only mildly amusing; I didn’t even get halfway through it.

I finished Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy because I felt invested in the central family, but as with the SFF series above, the later books, especially the third one, were a letdown.

 


What next? I’m still unsure about whether to try the other H. E. Bates and Edward St. Aubyn sequels. I’m thinking yes to Melrose but no to the Larkins. Olive Kitteridge, which I’ve been slowly working my way through, is so good that I might make yet another exception and seek out Olive, Again in the autumn.

 

Sequels: yea or nay?

Library Checkout: March 2019

A rare second post in a day from me since I was also committed to a blog tour. What have you been reading from your local library? I don’t have an official link-up system, so please just pop a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout this month. Feel free to use this image in your post.

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

SKIMMED

  • Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill – I had read this back in 2012, but looked over it again for an article I was writing on Athill.
  • Have You Eaten Grandma? by Gyles Brandreth
  • Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation by Michael Hebb
  • The Roasting Tin by Rukmini Iyer
  • The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair

CURRENTLY READING

  • Murmur by Will Eaves
  • Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors by Caroline Elton
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans
  • Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
  • The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
  • Injury Time by Clive James [poetry]
  • Lanny by Max Porter
  • The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • To Obama: With love, joy, hate and despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ (or skimmed)

  • Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain by James Bloodworth
  • It’s All a Game: A Short History of Board Games by Tristan Donovan
  • The Pebbles on the Beach: A Spotter’s Guide by Clarence Ellis
  • Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
  • Lost and Found: Memory, Identity, and Who We Become when We’re No Longer Ourselves by Jules Montague
  • Taking the Arrow out of the Heart by Alice Walker [poetry]
  • The Uninhabitable World: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
  • The Face Pressed against a Window: A Memoir by Tim Waterstone

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • A Breath of French Air, H.E. Bates
  • Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond by John Lewis-Stempel
  • The Dreamers, Karen Thompson Walker

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor by Aoife Abbey
  • How to Treat People: A Nurse’s Notes by Molly Case
  • Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife before It Is Too Late? by Mark Cocker
  • 21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
  • How to Catch a Mole and Find Yourself in Nature by Marc Hamer
  • The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
  • Horizon by Barry Lopez
  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
  • Daisy Jones & the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd
  • Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
  • A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm by Sally Urwin

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh – I’d heard so much about this graphic novel, but I found the drawing style childish and didn’t get more than 10 pages in.
  • Everybody Died, So I Got a Dog by Emily Dean – I couldn’t resist that title for a bereavement memoir, but within a couple pages I knew the author’s voice wasn’t for me.

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon – I needed space on my card to borrow my reservations. I’ll get this back out another time, perhaps even for book club as some other members have expressed interest.

Does anything appeal from my stacks?

March Reading Plans and Books to Look out For

My apologies if you’ve already heard this story on social media: I was supposed to be in France this past weekend, but for the fourth time in a row we’ve been plagued by transport problems on a holiday: a flat tire in Wigtown, a cancelled train to Edinburgh, a cancelled flight to the States, and now car trouble so severe we couldn’t get on the ferry to Normandy. Though we made it all the way to the ferry port in Poole, our car was by then making such hideous engine noises that it would have been imprudent to drive it any further. We got a tow back to the auto shop where our car is usually serviced and currently await its prognosis. If it can be fixed, we may be able to reschedule our trip for this coming weekend.

The good news about our strange (non-)travel day: I got a jump on my Doorstopper of the Month, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a terrific read that reminds me of a cross between Midnight’s Children and The Cider House Rules, and also started Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood – though my husband made me stop reading it because I couldn’t stop sniggering while he was trying to make important phone calls about the car. We ended up having a nice weekend at home anyway: going out for Nepalese food, gelato and a screening of The Favorite; doing some gardening and getting bits of work and writing done; and (of course) doing plenty of reading. Waking up with a purring cat on my legs and tucking into a stack of pancakes with maple syrup, I thought to myself, being home is pretty great, too.

What I packed to read in France.

 

Reading Ireland Month 2019

This will be my second time participating in the annual challenge hosted by Cathy of 746 Books. I recently started The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen and I’m also currently reading two nonfiction books by Irish women: a review copy of Vagina: A Re-Education by Lynn Enright (which releases on March 7th) and the essay collection Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, on my Kindle. I have several other novels to choose from – two of which are set in Ireland rather than by Irish authors – plus a classic travel book by Dervla Murphy.

Irish selections.

 

Wellcome Book Prize

The second of my ‘assigned’ longlist reviews will be going up on Wednesday. I’m currently reading another three books from the longlist and will post some brief thoughts on them if I manage to finish them before the shortlist announcement on the 19th. At that point I will have read 10 out of the 12 books on the longlist, so should feel pretty confident about making predictions (or at least stating wishes) for what will go through to the next round.

 

Blog Tours

I have two blog tours coming up later in the month, including the official one that’s being run for the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist.

 

Review Books

I’ve got a pile-up of review copies that came out in February or are releasing early this month – 9, I think? Some I’ve already read and some are still in progress. So I will be doing my best to group these sensibly and write short reviews, but you may well notice a lot of posts from me.

 

Blog Anniversary

This Friday marks four years that I’ve been blogging about books!

 


Here are a few March releases I’ve read that you may want to look out for:

 

Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel [releases on the 26th]: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” That Arabian proverb provides the title for Amy Hempel’s fifth collection of short fiction, and it’s no bad summary of the purpose of the arts in our time: creativity is for defusing or at least defying the innumerable threats to personal expression. Only roughly half of the flash fiction achieves a successful triumvirate of character, incident and meaning. The author’s passion for working with dogs inspired the best story, “A Full-Service Shelter,” set in Spanish Harlem. A novella, Cloudland, takes up the last three-fifths of the book and is based on the case of the “Butterbox Babies.” (Reviewed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

 

The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) [releases on the 26th]: This is a pleasant enough little book, composed of scenes in the life of a fictional chef named Mauro. Each chapter picks up with the young man at a different point as he travels through Europe, studying and working in various restaurants. If you’ve read The Heart / Mend the Living, you’ll know de Kerangal writes exquisite prose. Here the descriptions of meals are mouthwatering, and the kitchen’s often tense relationships come through powerfully. Overall, though, I didn’t know what all these scenes are meant to add up to. Kitchens of the Great Midwest does a better job of capturing a chef and her milieu.

 

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor [releases on the 12th]: After she left the pastorate, Taylor taught Religion 101 at Piedmont College, a small Georgia institution, for 20 years. This book arose from what she learned about other religions – and about Christianity – by engaging with faith in an academic setting and taking her students on field trips to mosques, temples, and so on. She emphasizes that appreciating other religions is not about flattening their uniqueness or looking for some lowest common denominator. Neither is it about picking out what affirms your own tradition and ignoring the rest. It’s about being comfortable with not being right, or even knowing who is right.

 

What’s on your reading docket for March?

Library Checkout: February 2019

A somewhat lighter month, but with lots of skimming of books on topics that interest me: happiness, nature, mental health and self-help. The set of books that I’m currently reading is absolutely fantastic. (As usual, I’ve added in star ratings and links to Goodreads reviews where I haven’t already featured the books on the blog in some way.)

 

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

SKIMMED

  • The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why by Dean Burnett
  • The Nature of Winter by Jim Crumley
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
  • Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari
  • The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that Reveal how to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin

CURRENTLY READING

  • Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley
  • Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Absent in the Spring by “Mary Westmacott” (aka Agatha Christie)

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • To Obama: With love, joy, hate and despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot [poetry]
  • Injury Time by Clive James [poetry]
  • Taking the Arrow out of the Heart by Alice Walker [poetry]
  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Along with the rest of a new batch of university library books:

  • An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame
  • A Pocket Mirror by Janet Frame
  • Becoming a Man by Paul Monette

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor by Aoife Abbey
  • Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain by James Bloodworth
  • 21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
  • Everybody Died, So I Got a Dog by Emily Dean
  • Murmur by Will Eaves
  • Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors by Caroline Elton
  • Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds
  • Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
  • The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
  • Lost and Found: Memory, Identity, and Who We Become when We’re No Longer Ourselves by Jules Montague
  • Lanny by Max Porter
  • The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid
  • The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
  • Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
  • The Face Pressed against a Window: A Memoir by Tim Waterstone

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Louis & Louise by Julie Cohen – The prose is fine – easy to read, but nothing special. Though Cohen says she was inspired by Alderman’s The Power and Woolf’s Orlando, I don’t have faith that significant points will be made about gender identity.
  • The Binding by Bridget Collins – I didn’t even make it through the first chapter. I was getting Diane Setterfield-lite vibes, but couldn’t imagine reading 400 pages of this.
  • Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by John Dunn –The writing is great; no question about that. But the book is so dense: so many words on a page, in such small type. Unless you’re a botany nut, I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Genevieve Fox – Fox has some amusing turns of phrase when talking about her throat cancer and treatment, but this is way too long at over 370 pages of small print.

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Daphne by Will Boast – I liked the voice in the first couple of pages and will definitely get this back out at another time.
  • The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor – This felt more detailed and technical than I was looking for in a species overview.

What have you been reading from your local libraries? Does anything appeal from my stacks?

I don’t have an official link-up system, so please just pop a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout this month. (Feel free to use the image in your post.)

This Year’s “Snow” and “Winter” Reads

Longtime readers will know how much I enjoy reading with the seasons. Although it’s just starting to feel like there’s a promise of spring here in the south of England, I understand that much of North America is still cold and snowy, so I hope these recent reads of mine will feel topical to some of you – and the rest of you might store some ideas away for next winter.

(The Way Past Winter has already gone back to the library.)

Silence in the Snowy Fields and Other Poems by Robert Bly (1967)

Even when they’re in stanza form, these don’t necessarily read like poems; they’re often more like declaratory sentences, with the occasional out-of-place exclamation. But Bly’s eye is sharp as he describes the signs of the seasons, the sights and atmosphere of places he visits or passes through on the train (Ohio and Maryland get poems; his home state of Minnesota gets a whole section), and the small epiphanies of everyday life, whether alone or with friends. And the occasional short stanza hits like a wisdom-filled haiku, such as “There are palaces, boats, silence among white buildings, / Iced drinks on marble tops among cool rooms; / It is good also to be poor, and listen to the wind” (from “Poem against the British”).


Favorite wintry passages:

How strange to think of giving up all ambition!

Suddenly I see with such clear eyes

The white flake of snow

That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!

(“Watering the Horse” in its entirety)

 

The grass is half-covered with snow.

It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,

And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.

(the first stanza of “Snowfall in the Afternoon”)

My rating:

 

Wishing for Snow: A Memoir by Minrose Gwin (2004)

One of the more inventive and surprising memoirs I’ve read. Growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s–30s, Gwin’s mother wanted nothing more than for it to snow. That wistfulness, a nostalgia tinged with bitterness, pervades the whole book. By the time her mother, Erin Clayton Pitner, a published though never particularly successful poet, died of ovarian cancer in the late 1980s, their relationship was a shambles. Erin’s mental health was shakier than ever – she stole flowers from the church altar, frequently ran her car off the road, and lived off canned green beans – and she never forgave Minrose for having had her committed to a mental hospital. Poring over Erin’s childhood diaries and adulthood vocabulary notebook, photographs, the letters and cards that passed between them, remembered and imagined conversations and monologues, and Erin’s darkly observant unrhyming poems (“No place to hide / from the leer of the sun / searching out every pothole, / every dream denied”), Gwin asks of her late mother, “When did you reach the point that everything was in pieces?”

My rating:

 

The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2018)

It has been winter for five years, and Sanna, Mila and Pípa are left alone in their little house in the forest – with nothing but cabbages to eat – when their brother Oskar is lured away by the same evil force that took their father years ago and has been keeping spring from coming. Mila, the brave middle daughter, sets out on a quest to rescue Oskar and the village’s other lost boys and to find the way past winter. Clearly inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia and especially Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, this middle grade novel is set in an evocative, if slightly vague, Russo-Finnish past and has more than a touch of the fairy tale about it. I enjoyed it well enough, but wouldn’t seek out anything else by the author.


Favorite wintry passage:

“It was a winter they would tell tales about. A winter that arrived so sudden and sharp it stuck birds to branches, and caught the rivers in such a frost their spray froze and scattered down like clouded crystals on the stilled water. A winter that came, and never left.”

My rating:

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1937; English translation, 1956)

[Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker]

The translator’s introduction helped me understand the book better than I otherwise might have. I gleaned two key facts: 1) The mountainous west coast of Japan is snowbound for months of the year, so the title is fairly literal. 2) Hot springs were traditionally places where family men travelled without their wives to enjoy the company of geishas. Such is the case here with the protagonist, Shimamura, who is intrigued by the geisha Komako. Her flighty hedonism seems a good match for his, but they fail to fully connect. His attentions are divided between Komako and Yoko, and a final scene that is surprisingly climactic in a novella so low on plot puts the three and their relationships in danger. I liked the appropriate atmosphere of chilly isolation; the style reminded me of what little I’ve read from Marguerite Duras. I also thought of Silk by Alessandro Baricco and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – perhaps those were to some extent inspired by Kawabata?


Favorite wintry passage:

“From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies. There was something quietly unreal about it.”

My rating:

 

I’ve also been slowly working my way through The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, a spiritual quest memoir with elements of nature and travel writing, and skimming Francis Spufford’s dense book about the history of English exploration in polar regions, I May Be Some Time (“Heat and cold probably provide the oldest metaphors for emotion that exist.”).

On next year’s docket: The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (on my Kindle) and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

 

Last year I had a whole article on perfect winter reads published in the Nov/Dec issue of Bookmarks magazine. Buried in Print spotted it and sent this tweet. If you have access to the magazine via your local library, be sure to have a look!

 

Have you read any particularly wintry books recently?

Library Checkout: January 2019

As soon as I was back from the States on the 1st, I set about refilling my library stack and my reservation queue. I’ve been reading a bunch of poetry and skimming a lot of nature and social science books, with plenty of fiction, self-help and medical material on the way.

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

  • Get Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare by Nick Duerden 
  • The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave 
  • A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes 
  • Us by Zaffar Kunial [poetry] 
  • Soho by Richard Scott [poetry] 
  • Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith [poetry] 

SKIMMED

  • Rewild Yourself: 23 Spellbinding Ways To Make Nature More Visible by Simon Barnes 
  • Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell 
  • The Brief Life of Flowers by Fiona Stafford 
  • Under the Knife: A History of Surgery in 28 Remarkable Operations by Arnold van de Laar 

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • The Nature of Winter by Jim Crumley
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
  • Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari
  • The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that Reveal how to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by John Dunn
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor
  • The Mary Westmacott Collection, Vol. 1 [the alias of Agatha Christie – I only plan to read the third book in the volume, Absent in the Spring]

ON HOLD, TO BE CHECKED OUT

  • Daphne by Will Boast
  • The Binding by Bridget Collins

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain by James Bloodworth
  • Selected Poems by Edmund Blunden
  • The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley
  • The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why by Dean Burnett
  • Louis & Louise by Julie Cohen
  • Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley
  • Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors by Caroline Elton
  • Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds
  • Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Genevieve Fox
  • How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life by Catherine Price
  • The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
  • Growing Pains: Making Sense of Childhood: A Psychiatrist’s Story by Dr. Mike Shooter
  • The Face Pressed against a Window: A Memoir by Tim Waterstone

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson – I read the first 85 pages in December and found I couldn’t get back into it after a number of weeks away.

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Assurances by J.O. Morgan [poetry] – I opened to the first page and instantly thought, “Nope.” Poetry is so subjective that it’s hard to pinpoint what put me off, but the fragmentary phrasing felt simultaneously repetitive and overwritten, and I don’t think I’d realized this is basically one long war poem. I didn’t make it past page 1 and returned it to the library on my next trip. Of course I then felt sheepish when I saw it won the Costa Prize for Poetry …
  • From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan – I’ve lost interest for the time being.


What have you been reading from your local libraries? Does anything appeal from my stacks?

I don’t have an official link-up system, so please just pop a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout this month. (Feel free to use the image in your post.)