Category: Reading habits

Making Plans for April & a Return to Hay-on-Wye

In April I’ll be busy with the last three books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist. I’m nearing halfway in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, have just started Siddhartha Mukherjee’s dauntingly dense The Gene, and am still awaiting my library hold on David France’s How to Survive a Plague. With the shadow panel’s decision due by the 23rd, it’s going to be something of a struggle! If push comes to shove, I’ll have to leave Dickens aside for next month and call Mukherjee and/or France my doorstopper for April.

As to other planned posts for the month…

  • I read my second Margaret Laurence novel a little while back and just need to find time to write it up.
  • I’m taking part in a nonfiction blog tour for a bereavement memoir on the 11th.
  • I’m working on four review books, including two offered directly by the authors.
  • I’ll try to round up a few recent or upcoming theology titles for an Easter post.
  • If I get a chance, I’ll preview two or more recommended May releases.

Luckily, it’s a quieter month for me in terms of work deadlines. I’ve been working like a fiend to get ready for our short break to Hay-on-Wye, leaving Monday and returning Thursday evening. Tomorrow I’ll be submitting four completed reviews and scheduling a Wellcome Prize post for while we’re away, and then I’ll be able to breathe a big sigh of relief and allow myself some time off – always a difficult thing for freelancers to manage.

This will be our sixth trip to Hay-on-Wye, the Book Town in Wales. Our other visits clustered between 2004 and 2011; I can hardly believe it’s nearly six years since we’ve been back to one of our favorite places! Yet it’s a bittersweet return. On four of our previous trips, we stayed in the same B&B, a gorgeous eighteenth-century house with extensive gardens. It’s where we got engaged in 2006. It also served the finest breakfast known to man: organic Full English PLUS homemade cereals and jam to go with warm croissants; local single-variety apple juice PLUS all-you-can-drink tea. Around 2013 we toyed with the idea of going back, but didn’t make a serious enquiry until 2014. Alas, they’d closed temporarily while the hostess underwent breast cancer treatment. We wished them well, hoping we’d get a message when they reopened for business. Instead, we found her obituary in the Guardian last year.

So, although Hay is still our special place, we’re sad the experience won’t be quite the same. We also noticed that more shops have closed since last we visited, but there are still about 12, a lot for a town of its size. Some of these are top-class, like Booth’s, the Cinema Bookshop and Addyman’s. There will certainly be no dearth of tempting shopping opportunities. I’m not going with much of a plan in mind. Our general strategy is to start with the cheapest shops/bargain basements and then move on to more expensive and specialist ones.

Hay is better for browsing than for concerted searching for particular titles – for that you’re better off going online (many of the shops do Internet sales). It’s also not a place to go for cheap paperbacks – for that you’re better off at your local charity shop. So although I’m taking an updated list of books that are priorities to find, I don’t expect to make much of a dent in it. I’ll just wander and see what catches my eye. We’ll also visit Llanthony Priory and Clyro Church, go for a good country walk, and have lunch with a friend in the Brecon area.

Taking books to Hay is rather like taking coal to Newcastle, but it must be done. I’ve picked four topical reads to sample while I’m there: a selection from Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary – he was the curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872; Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 debut novel On the Black Hill, set on the England–Wales border; the obscure classic The Rebecca Rioter, about the Rebecca Riots against tolls in rural Wales in 1839–43; and a Kindle copy of The Airbnb Story, since we’re renting an Airbnb property this time.

But that’s not all. I need to make progress in at least some of the books I currently have on the go, too, so I will be loading up a book-themed tote bag with the following:

I call this my Hay-stack. Geddit? In progress on the Kindle are a poetry book and two religion books.

Now, the last thing I needed just before a trip to Hay was an influx of secondhand books, but I couldn’t help myself. This afternoon a local green initiative ran a swap shop where you bring things you don’t want anymore and go home with things you do want. I donated a couple of household items and a few books … but came away with 13 books. Good travel and literature finds. I’m particularly pleased with Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems and a Dave Eggers novel I’ve not read. It’s fun to think of the journeys these books have been on: John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel (which I have already read, but would like to have around for reference) is an ex-library book all the way from Westborough, Massachusetts! I left my details so I can get involved with future local greening activities, too.

The one not pictured will be a gift.

I know a number of my readers are Hay regulars, or have at least made the trek once. If you have any up-to-date recommendations for us in terms of shopping or eating out in the area, do let me know (by tomorrow night if you can – we’re away from Monday morning).


See also: My review of Hay local interest book Under the Tump by Oliver Balch, and my Bookkaholic article on Book Towns.

Enjoy my Sarah Moss review while I’m away, and I’ll see you back here on Friday!

Library Checkout: March 2017

A dangerous thing happened a few weeks ago. I lost track of the number of library books I had on my account and happened to accidentally borrow a 16th book via the self-service machine (I always thought that 15 was the maximum). So the next time I visited I tested this limit and successfully borrowed enough books to get me up to a total of 21! Whoopsie. Of course, I have so many review books and Kindle titles on hand that a suggested limit of 15 should be more than enough, so I will try not to abuse the privilege too often.

A lot of the books I have on loan are hangovers from last month, and they’re likely to stick around for a while yet given the reading I still have to do for the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel. However, I managed to get through nine library reads in March so far, and will hopefully finish the Murakami as this month’s doorstopper as well. I’ve added in ratings and links to any reviews for books I haven’t already featured on the blog in some way.


LIBRARY BOOKS READ

SKIMMED ONLY

  • Go Lean Vegan: The Revolutionary 30-Day Diet Plan to Lose Weight and Feel Great by Christine Bailey
  • The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More by Michelle McGagh 
  • Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling 

CURRENTLY READING

  • The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  • Jackself by Jacob Polley [poetry]

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Ashland & Vine by John Burnside
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk
  • The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life by Amy Dillwyn
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  • The Owl at the Window: A Memoir of Loss and Hope by Carl Gorham
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Finn Family Moomintroll & Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson
  • Human Acts by Han Kang
  • In the Bonesetter’s Waiting-Room: Travels through Indian Medicine by Aarathi Prasad
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

CHECKED OUT, TO SKIM AGAIN FOR WELLCOME PRIZE SHADOW PANEL

  • Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • The Otters’ Tale by Simon Cooper
  • How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS by David France [for Wellcome prize shadow panel]
  • Where Poppies Blow: The British Soldier, Nature, the Great War by John Lewis-Stempel
  • Augustown by Kei Miller
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee [for Wellcome prize shadow panel]

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal by Al Alvarez – I read the first 57 pages but found the entries fairly repetitive.
  • The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion – Compared to the Rosie books, this felt like it had no spark.

RETURNED UNREAD

  • The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (I’ll have a little break before reading another one of hers)
  • A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind: Survival Techniques for Staying Sane by Emily Reynolds (did not seem at all relevant to me)

Hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic.

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

Making Plans for March

How is it March already?! The last weekend of February flew by with a trip to Exeter to visit friends. Between Saturday and Sunday we spotted: a humpback whale off the Devon coast at Slapton (occasioning many cries of “Thar she blows!”), a giant pug painted on an underpass, a mighty fine cream tea, and far too many secondhand books at BookCycle.

For me the month of March holds an alarming number of deadlines for book reviews: 15, to be precise. Yipes! Luckily I’ve already managed to submit two of these reviews, and I plan to write a third this afternoon. Most of those are as part of my paid work, but I’ll also be participating in two blog tours for nonfiction books on adoption and foxes, respectively, and contributing a review of Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn to Shiny New Books.

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As to other planned blog posts for the month…

  • Thanks to your comments I’ve started The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as my monthly classic (27 pages in and I’m loving it already).
  • I’m doing some thematic reading for World Kidney Day on the 9th.
  • I’m thinking of getting my first Haruki Murakami book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, out from the library as my doorstopper of the month.
  • I’ll be reviewing Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh (terrific) and The Family Gene by Joselin Linder (haven’t started yet).
  • A couple more books may turn up from publishers if I’m lucky.

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Some other themed reading challenges are underway but will probably roll over to future months.

Today I’m picking up three library holds: The Good People by Hannah Kent, The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion and Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (this one’s for a BookBrowse review due in April). All are likely to be requested after me, so somehow I have to fit them in during the next three weeks. I do hope they’re quick reads!


So, a busy month – back to the reading! How does the month look for you?

Library Checkout: February 2017

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


LIBRARY BOOKS READ

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

CURRENTLY READING

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

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

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

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ON HOLD, TO BE CHECKED OUT

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

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

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

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

In the Past Week…

It truly felt like spring was on the way. Temperatures were in the mid-fifties (I’ve never really gotten to grips with Centigrade) and the daffodils in our back garden were trying their best to join the snowdrops decorating the churchyard in town. I started reading this pair of books to look to the seasons ahead instead of dreading that winter might return in earnest:

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Some lovely things have happened in the past week.

  • I’ve delighted from afar as my sister, a widow for just over two years, precipitously falls in love with a pastor she met through a dating website.
  • I had my second yoga class and, after the one other participant had to leave early, got what was essentially a private lesson. Many of the poses feel right at the edge of what my flexibility and balance will allow, which is surely a sign that the exercise is doing me good.
  • (This one’s not so much lovely as annoying yet amusing.) The cat, already a connoisseur of cereal milk, discovered the illicit pleasure of melted butter in a dish we unthinkingly left on the counter, and now will not rest in his search for it. This is bad news as he’s already quite the butterball. He’s also ramped up his efforts to access all of the house’s secret spaces, including the airing cupboard, the under-stairs cupboard, and the crawlspace under the bath. [Stay tuned for tomorrow’s mini-reviews of yet more cat books, including one about some very mischievous Siamese cats.]
  • On Friday I got an e-mail out of the blue asking me to review a book for the Times Literary Supplement. It was October 2015 when I first wrote for them, but that ended poorly: they said they’d run out space in the magazine for my review and paid me a “kill fee” instead, but it made me doubt myself – was that code for them not thinking my writing was good enough to publish? So hearing back from them five months after I’d last gotten in touch asking for work was a great surprise. And I get to read History of Wolves, which I’ve heard marvelous things about.
  • We went to a brilliant gig by folk artists Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin in a hole-in-the-wall venue 10 minutes from our house. It was doubtless the first time I’d seen beatboxing and a classical Indian sitar/guitar used in folk music, and Henry’s harmonica skills were literally unbelievable. You had to have been there. I was impressed anew at how folk, arising as it does from liberal working-class traditions, is unafraid to tackle social issues. They had songs about his cotton mill-working grandfather, the war in Syria, immigration, and a detention center in the Midlands. My favorite, though, was “Landlocked,” about a real woman from the eighteenth century who went to sea with her naval husband but ended up right back where she started: selling fish at Exmouth harbor. I loved Martin’s deep, rich voice and the complex interplay of guitar, banjo, pedal steel and fiddle in many of their songs.
  • With one of our leftover jars of homemade mincemeat we made a decadent mincemeat cheesecake from this Nigel Slater recipe. What with the shortbread crust and crumbs and the orange zest in the topping, it was very much like having mince pies – but also cheesecake. Yum.

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  • This morning we attended a service led by a former archbishop. We knew that George Carey was a parishioner at the Berkshire church we’ve been frequenting since December, but hadn’t seen him at the pulpit yet. He’s one of various retired and lay clergy who have been filling in while the church seeks to appoint a new vicar. Carey gave a damn fine sermon (I guess he’s had plenty of practice) on the enormous topic of why bad things happen to good people, refuting the prosperity gospel and telling the tragically fascinating story behind the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”

And, of course, I’ve been reading some brilliant books. This week’s ongoing reading has included three terrific novels: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh.

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How was your week – in terms of reading and otherwise?

Literary Power Couples: An Inventory

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

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

 

Zadie Smith: 5

Nick Laird: 5 (= ALL)

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

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

 

Jonathan Safran Foer: 4 (= ALL)

Nicole Krauss: 3 (= ALL)

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

 

Margaret Drabble: 5

Michael Holroyd: 0

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

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

Claire Tomalin: 2

Michael Frayn: 1

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

 

Plus a few I only recently found out about:

 

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

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

 

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

Hari Kunzru: 0

 

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

Rawi Hage: 0

 

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

 

Michael Chabon: 1

Ayelet Waldman: 0

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

 

Dave Eggers: 5

Vendela Vida: 0

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

 

David Foster Wallace: 2

Mary Karr: 1

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

 

And some classics:

 

Ted Hughes: 1 (Crow)

Sylvia Plath: 0

 

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

Zelda Fitzgerald: 0

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

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

A Book for Every Occasion?

Yesterday I signed up for a six-week yoga course at the local wellbeing center. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for at least two years. Now that I’ve finally made myself commit to it, of course I’m thinking twice: going out on a Tuesday evening in the cold, dark and quite possibly wet – what was I thinking?! What will I wear? Will I have to talk to other people? Will they be nice? Will they be better than me? It’s like high school all over again.

So, naturally, last night I started reading this:

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This was a Christmas gift from my wish list. With an appropriate bookmark I found at the library where I worked in London.

It’s actually a book of disparate travel essays, with the first about a stay in Louisiana that coincided with Mardi Gras in the early 1990s. But Geoff Dyer is one of those amazingly talented authors I’d read on pretty much any topic. I’ll probably skip ahead to the title essay and then make my way through the rest of the book.

Alas, I don’t think there’s a specific book that can console me for failing to get tickets to see John Mayer in London in May and wasting several hours of this morning in the stressful attempt, followed by much disappointed lethargy. (We were similarly unsuccessful with U2 recently, but did manage to secure seats to see Sigur Rós play London in September.)

When’s the last time you found a surprisingly relevant book on your shelf?


Postscript: The next day John Mayer announced a second London show, and this time we got tickets 🙂