Category Archives: Something Different

Six Degrees of Separation: From Stasiland to The End of the Point

It’s my third time participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). The challenge starts with Stasiland (2003) by Anna Funder, which I also happened to read recently. While working part-time for an overseas television service in what was once West Berlin, Funder started gathering stories of how ordinary people were put under surveillance and psychologically terrorized by the Stasi, the East German secret police. She molds her travels and her interviewees’ testimonies into riveting stories – though this won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction in 2004, it’s as character-driven as any novel.

 

#1 My interest in Stasiland was piqued by reading Sophie Hardach’s Costa Prize-shortlisted novel Confession with Blue Horses (2019). When Ella’s parents, East German art historians under Stasi surveillance, were caught trying to defect during a ‘vacation’ to Hungary in 1987, their three children were taken from them and only two were returned. Ella is determined to find her brother, whom they’ve had no word of since, via a correspondence with the Stasi archive. It’s an emotionally involving story of one ordinary family’s losses and reconstruction.

#2 Blue Horses (2014) is one of Mary Oliver’s lesser poetry collections. I found it to be a desperately earnest and somewhat overbaked set of nature observations and pat spiritual realizations. There are a few poems worth reading (e.g., “After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond” and Part 3 of “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac”), and lines here and there fit for saving, but overall this is so weak that I’d direct readers to Oliver’s landmark 1980s work instead.

 

#3 Oliver’s poetry, especially “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day,” gets quoted everywhere. The latter’s most famous lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” appears in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, my book of 2020 so far. Clarke specializes in palliative medicine and alternates her patients’ stories with her own in a completely natural way. A major theme is her relationship with her late father, also a doctor, and his lessons of empathy and dedication. A passionate yet practical book, this aims to get people talking about end-of-life issues.

#4 I have meant to read Dear Life by Alice Munro (2012) since before she won the Nobel Prize. I was sent a free paperback copy for a Nudge review, but as the site already had a review of the book up, I let it slip and never followed through. More than once I’ve put this short story collection onto a reading stack, but I have never quite gotten past the first page or two. At some point this must be rectified.

 

#5 Alice Munro is one of the authors featured in Writers & Co. by Eleanor Wachtel (1993), a terrific collection of interviews from Wachtel’s weekly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program. Whether I’d read anything by these authors (or even heard of them) or not, I found each Q&A chock-full of priceless nuggets of wisdom about creativity, mothers and daughters, drawing on autobiographical material, the writing process, and much more.

#6 My first-ever author Q&A, for Bookkaholic in 2013, was related to The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver. (Alas that the site is now defunct, so the interview only exists as a file on my computer.) In an astonishing historical sweep, from Massachusetts’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent‒child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.

 

Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!

 

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Book Spine Poetry Returns

The literary world continues to revolve, rapidly replacing all in-person events with online ones. On Thursday night I was meant to be in London seeing Anne Tyler. Instead, I spent the evening on Twitter, watching a literary prize announcement, attending two virtual book launches, and (pre)ordering three March releases from my nearest independent bookstore, Hungerford Bookshop. Today I sent the shop owner a long list of book recommendations for the website. I offered remote bibliotherapy for customers and she asked me to add to her curated lists of Long books, Books that are part of a big series, Books to make you laugh, and Books about hope (that last one was really hard). I’m also going to be taking part in two blog tours in early April for novels whose book tours were cancelled. A hint is below.

I’m continuing to read and write to the blog plan I had set up for March into April. What else is there to do? In the meantime, I assembled some titles, mostly from books on my bedside table, into a few impromptu poems. Remember what fun book spine poetry was back in 2016? (My efforts from that short-lived craze are here and here.)

A partial haiku for our times:

 

Plus two more wee poems of hope and lament.

Refuge

The song of the lark,

The nightingale

Abide with me

A sweet, wild note.

 

The Sorrows of an American

News of the world:

My own country,

Red at the bone.

 

I hope you are all staying safe and keeping your spirits up.

What have you been reading that has felt particularly appropriate or comforting?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Wolfe Island to Riverine

It’s my second month participating in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme (see her introductory post). This time the challenge starts with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar. Alas, as far as I can tell this hasn’t yet been published outside of Australia. Which is such a shame, because I absolutely adored…

#1 Salt Creek, Treloar’s debut novel. I read it in 2018 and deemed it “one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read.” A widowed teacher settled in England looks back on the eight ill-fated years her family spent at an outpost in South Australia in the 1850s–60s. It’s a piercing story of the clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs.

#2 I recently saw someone on Twitter remarking on the apparent trend for book titles to have the word “Salt” in them. Of the few examples he mentioned, I’ve read and enjoyed Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, which was on the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The book’s nine short stories are steeped in myth and magic, but often have a realistic shell.

#3 One story in Salt Slow, “Formerly Feral,” is about a teenager who has a wolf for a stepsister. So, to get back to the literal wording of our starting point (a homonym, anyway; I didn’t know whether to take this in the Salt direction or the Wolf direction; now I’ve done both!), another work of fiction I read that incorporated wolves was The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, a fantastic novel to which Scottish independence and rewilding form a backdrop.

#4 The controversy over the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park – and the decision to remove their endangered status, thus declaring open season for hunters – is at the heart of the nonfiction study American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee. “The West was caught up in a culture war, and for some people it was more than just a metaphor,” he writes.

#5 Wolves and rewilding in the American West also come into the memoir-in-essays Surrender by Joanna Pocock, about the two years of loss and change she spent in Missoula, Montana and her sense of being a foreigner both there and on her return to London.

#6 A wonderful memoir-in-essays that was criminally overlooked in 2016 was Riverine by Angela Palm (my BookBrowse review). It has such a strong sense of place, revealing how traces of the past are still visible in the landscape and how our environment shapes who we are. Palm reflects on the winding course of her life in the Midwest and the people who meant most to her along the way, including a friend who was later sentenced to life in prison for murdering their elderly neighbors. In keeping with the watery imagery, there is a stream-of-consciousness element to the writing.

 

Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already!

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Fifth Blog Anniversary

Bookish Beck launched five years ago today. I can hardly remember what it was like not to have a blog. I started it in the wake of my brother-in-law’s death, as a kind of seize-the-day gesture and as a replacement venue for Bookkaholic, a now-defunct web magazine where I used to post most of my book-related thoughts and reviews.

This is post #696, working out to two and two-thirds posts per week – which seems just right to me. In the past few years, I’ve gotten more involved in buddy reads and blog challenges; I continue to take part in literary prize shadow panels and attend events when I can. I’ve hosted #TheLibraryCheckout for nearly 2.5 years now, and my current project is organizing a #NotTheWellcomePrize blog tour for this April, while the official Prize is on hiatus.

I meant to do a blog redesign in time for this fifth anniversary – I’ve barely changed the site’s appearance since I started it, and things like my menu headings and About page need some attention – but didn’t get a chance, so expect that to be unveiled within the next few weeks.

Incabell / CC0

 

In the meantime, here are some fun stats:

 

My five most popular posts of all time:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (1,683 views)

Barbara Kingsolver in Conversation about Unsheltered (1,670)

Review: The First Bad Man by Miranda July (1,605)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (1,257)

Mixed Feelings about Elena Ferrante (1,187)

 

Most views on one day (304): August 13, 2018

 

The five posts that generated the most engagement (by number of comments):

Painful but Necessary: Culling Books, Etc. 50
Book Triage 48
These Days 45
Fourth Blog Anniversary 44
My Bibliotherapy Appointment at the School of Life 44

 

Five personal favorites:

Omnibuses, Built-in Bookmarks, Deckle Edge: Book Traits I Love/Loathe (May 2017)

Welcome to the Fold, Little Book: How I Tend to My Secondhand Purchases (January 2018)

Biography of the Month: Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig [a review in verse] (January 2018)

A Trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town (April 2018)

Nonfiction November: Being the ‘Expert’ on Women’s Religious Memoirs (November 2018)

 

Thanks to everyone who has supported me over this last half-decade by visiting the site, commenting, re-tweeting, inviting me to participate in blog challenges, joining me for shadow panels, and so on. You’re the best!

Six Degrees of Separation: From Fleishman Is in Trouble to Shotgun Lovesongs

I’ve not participated in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme before, although I’d seen it around on other people’s blogs. I think all this time I’d misunderstood, assuming that you had to go from the start point to one particular end point. Instead, bloggers are given one book to start with and then have free rein to link it to six other books in whatever ways. Most of the fun is in seeing the different directions and destinations people choose. I am always drawing connections between books I read and noting coincidences (e.g., my occasional Book Serendipity posts), so this is a perfect meme for me! I’m very late in posting this month – for a while I was stuck on link #4 – but next month I’ll be right on it.

 

#1 Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I didn’t care for this debut novel about a crumbling marriage and upper-middle-class angst in contemporary New York City. A major plot point is the mother going missing, just like in Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, a very pleasing epistolary novel I read in 2013.

#2 There’s also an absent Bernadette in Run by Ann Patchett (2007), which opens with a killer line: “Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back.” (Alas, I abandoned the novel after 80 pages; it has a lot of interesting elements, but they don’t seem to fit together in the same book.)

#3 Ann Patchett wrote for Seventeen magazine for nine years. Before she ever published a novel, Meg Wolitzer was a winner of Seventeen’s fiction contest. Wolitzer’s The Wife (2003), my current book club read in advance of our March meeting, is a bitingly funny novel narrated by a woman trapped in a support role to her supposedly genius writer husband.

#4 I’ve heard great things about the recent film version of The Wife, which has Glenn Close as Joan Castleman. Close also stars as the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The 1782 Choderlos de Laclos novel was one of the texts we focused on in one of my freshman college courses, Screening Literature. For our final projects, we compared a few film adaptations. My group got Cruel Intentions (1999), a teen flick that provided one of Reese Witherspoon’s breakout roles.

#5 Witherspoon is giving Oprah a run for her money with her Hello Sunshine book club, which has chosen some terrific stuff. I happen to have read nine of her picks so far, and of those I particularly enjoyed Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

#6 Daisy is said to have been inspired by the personal and professional complications of the band Fleetwood Mac. The musical roman à clef element isn’t necessary to understanding the novel, but is fun to ponder. In the same way, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler features a musician modeled after singer/songwriter Bon Iver. I adored Shotgun Lovesongs and have a review of it coming out as part of Friday’s post, so consider this your teaser…

 

And there we have it! My first ever #6Degrees of Separation.

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

They Don’t Make ’Em Like That Anymore

Volunteering at my local mall’s free bookshop, I see all manner of outmoded books and cover designs. I seem to be in a blogging slump*, so to keep things ticking over, I’ve compiled a selection of amusing period covers and blurbs I’ve come across there and elsewhere. (I got the Iris Murdochs in a bargain bundle from Oxfam years ago and read them for Liz’s recent readalong; the L’Engle children’s novel, a university library book, was recommended by Buried in Print.)

 

The dated:

The provocative:

The lurid:

 

I can’t imagine that making it into a blurb or book review today…

From the inside jacket of Meet the Austins.

From the back cover recommendation … “like a fruit punch”?!

An entirely unilluminating first paragraph on The Country Girls.

 


* More like a general life slump. January is tough for me: after all the cheer and socializing of the holidays, it’s back to the boring everyday and (often) to inescapably damp, cold weather. Many mornings it’s a struggle for me not to go back to bed after my husband leaves for work, and I’m more likely to leave assignments to the last minute. I was unsurprised to recall that today is called “Blue Monday,” while tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death from brain cancer.

At least it’s been sunny and frosty rather than gray and rainy for the last few days; I even managed to bundle up, don my wellies and spend half an hour reading with the cat on our garden bench this morning. (Our canalside garden is 1/3 flooded, but we’re on slightly higher ground so ours is nowhere near as bad as our neighbors’, which is a lake.)

In terms of books, I’m not particularly excited about at least half of the ones I’m reading. I’m sure I’ll get through them all eventually, but for now I’ve been bingeing on the few that appeal most. I’m working on a couple of thematic roundups (one on winter and another on love and marriage for Valentine’s Day), and will also report on a few recent releases I’ve enjoyed. I am finding, though, that with fewer review copies around, I have less direction and easily find a week or more passing before I think, “what can I blog about?!”

Cover Love: My Favorite Book Covers of 2019

I’ve picked 26 favorite book covers from 2019, most of which are on books I haven’t yet managed to read – either they’re U.S.-only releases, or my library doesn’t own a copy. In the past I have sometimes found that the most eye-catching covers and the most striking titles end up belonging to disappointing books, but at least a few have bucked that trend.

Here are my favorite covers from books I have actually read or am currently reading:

And here are the rest:

What have we learned from this exercise? That I’m a total sucker for flora and fauna on book covers, especially birds. (Bizarrely, rabbits/hares make four appearances, too.)

What cover trends have you noticed this year?

Which tend to grab your attention?

200 Names for a Cat

Winter weather. Impeachment hearings. An impending election. There are any number of things that might be getting you down on this early December day, so it’s time for something cheery.

For once I don’t have something book-related to post. Instead, I think this list of 200 nicknames we have called our cat deserves to see the light of day. For the record, the cat’s actual name is Alfie. Some nicknames are literal and some are fanciful. A few are downright embarrassing, but I’m going to go ahead and post them all; surely you’ve called your (fur)baby by some ridiculous names? Others are gentle slurs about his weight, though he has lost about 1 kg this year. Some have to do with his occasional sullenness or outright meanness. But he’s a lovely creature, really. I marvel sometimes that we let a tiny carnivore share our bed every night. We’re so used to it that we wouldn’t have it any other way.

A few of my favorite nicknames are: Alfred the Ingrate, Furry McPurrface, G.K. (Grumpy Kitty) Chatterton, Grumblepuss, Imperious Blinker, Kitten Pot Pie, Monsieur Poire, Podgebelly and Smugtopuss.

For the whole list, click here. It’s in alphabetical order.

Which is your favorite?

Choose the Year Book Tag: 2010

Thanks to a couple of Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that has also been going around on BookTube. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try?

Goodreads lists the 200 most popular books of any given year. Skim through and see how many you’ve read from the list and discuss whichever ones you like. (I chose not to answer the last two questions of this prompt but have included them at the bottom of the post.)

 

  1. Choose a year and say why.

I browsed a few of the years and found that 2010 contained 12 books that I’ve read, including some that stood out to me for various reasons. For instance, two of them marked the start of my interest in medical-themed reading. I also think of 2010 as when my reading went into ‘mega’ mode, i.e. approaching 200 books per year. (Now it’s more like 320 a year.)

 

  1. Which books published in that year have you read [or if none, heard of]?

Because the list is based on the number of times a book has been added to users’ shelves (though not necessarily read and rated) on Goodreads, there is a LOT of YA and series fiction, e.g. Mockingjay at #1. Other notable inclusions: Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo and Orange Is the New Black before that really took off.

 

Read at the time:

Gimmicky child narrator, but thoroughly readable: Room by Emma Donoghue (#4)

 

Medical masterpieces: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (#6) and The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (#45)

 

Postmodern, angsty pop culture-filled delights: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (#31) and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (#37). I wonder if they’ve stood the test of time?

 

Vintage Bryson in curiosity-indulging mode: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (#69)

 

Not his usual sort of thing, but my introduction to him and a damn fine work of historical fiction: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (#112)

 

Not my usual sort of thing (sappiness + magic realism), but I read it at a festival and it passed the time: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (#116)

 

Part of my progressive Christian education, but not a great example; not memorable in the least: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt (#138)

 

A joy of a linked short story collection set among expat journalists in Rome; this author hasn’t disappointed me since: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (#156)

 

Who knew typesetting could be so fascinating?! Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield (#178)

 

Read later on:

A brilliant WWII novel, truly among the best of the best: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (#93)

 

A DNF: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (#73) was way too involved for my level of interest.

 

  1. Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting, and would you read them now?

 

On the TBR:

#50 Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

#75 The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

#124 Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

#152 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

 

None of these are priorities, but I’d still read them if a copy came my way.

 

[4. Most obscure-sounding book

5. Strangest book cover]

 


Do you remember any of these 2010 releases with fondness? Which other ones from the list should I read?

Literary Fiction Book Tag

Thanks to the Lauras (Reading in Bed and Dr Laura Tisdall) for making me aware of this tag that is also going around on BookTube. Laura F. specifically tagged me. If you haven’t already taken part and think this looks like fun, why not give it a try? For my examples I’ve chosen books I read this year or last year.

 

  1. How do you define literary fiction?

My inclination is to adapt one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic (recapped here): a book that will never finish saying all it has to say. In other words, a perennially relevant work that speaks to the human condition. Obviously, not all literary fiction can live up to that standard; some will inevitably feel dated due to its setting, slang, technology, and so on. But at its best, literary fiction voices, and makes an attempt at answering, one or more of life’s biggest questions. As Laura F. says, this generally means that it lends itself to discussion and (re)interpretation. I know I can be an awful snob about genre fiction, but I avoid crime, science fiction, etc. because I find these genres less ‘serious’ and thus less worthwhile than literary fiction.

 

  1. Name a literary fiction novel with a superb character study.

The first novel that comes to mind here is The Poisonwood Bible, which would be a suitable answer for several of these categories but on rereading struck me most for how well developed its five main characters are. Barbara Kingsolver does an impressive job of distinguishing these multiple narrators from each other based on how they speak/write.

 

  1. Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

One of the fiction highlights of 2019 so far for me is Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. It stands out from the autofiction field due to its placement of words. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even in the more conventional sections, a lack of punctuation creates a breathless, run-on pace.

 

  1. Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

In The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff’s debut novel, Willie Upton is back in her hometown in upstate New York, partway through a PhD and pregnant by her married professor. We hear from various leading lights in the town’s history and/or Willie’s family tree through a series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents.

 

  1. Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge, is written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. With unemployment rising amid the clamor for universal male suffrage, the scene is set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class.

 

  1. Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons.

 

  1. Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is a rare sci-fi novel that I loved wholeheartedly. Set on a near-future Jesuit mission to the two alien species on a distant planet, it is about the possibility of believing in God, and doing good works in His name, when suffering seems to be the only result. (See also: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.)

 

  1. What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I’ve always felt that Maggie O’Farrell expertly straddles the line between literary and women’s fiction; her books are addictively readable but also hold up to critical scrutiny. Her best is The Hand that First Held Mine, but everything I’ve read by her is wonderful. I’d happily read more books like hers. (Expectation by Anna Hope was slightly less successful.)