Tag Archives: libraries

Love Your Library, December 2021

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas! It’s the third month of the new Love Your Library feature. I’d like to start out by thanking Margaret and Rosemary for their recent posts. Margaret’s compares libraries then and now through her experiences as a teenage library assistant in the late 1960s versus as a volunteer these days. Rosemary’s is about rediscovering the joy of browsing her local library.


It’s been a quieter library month for me: I could only go in for volunteering a few times before I flew to the USA for Christmas, and I was focusing more on returning books than on borrowing them, though I do have this small stack awaiting me when I get back. Two from the Costa poetry shortlist (I’ve already read 1.5 of them, actually), a collection of short stories I’ve had recommended several times now, and a novella to reread for January’s book club.

Since last month, these are the library books I’ve read (three poetry books and a doctor’s memoir):

 

A Blood Condition by Kayo Chingonyi

The Cure for Good Intentions by Sophie Harrison

Conundrum by Jan Morris (a reread)

The State of the Prisons by Sinéad Morrissey

The Moon Is Always Female by Marge Piercy

&

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

A book club read. Russell moved to rural Denmark when her husband got a job at the Lego headquarters and used her first year there as an excuse to investigate the Danish way of life and try to determine why everyone seemed so happy. My book club enjoyed the blend of information and experience and found this as light and entertaining as a novel. Although there must have been a lot of research and networking involved, Russell makes her discoveries seem effortless. A few of us felt the book was too long, or incorporated too many statistics, but there was a lot to admire about Denmark (the social safety net, the education system, childcare, clubs for adults across classes, etc.). And it made us laugh!


Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’ve co-opted a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.

Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):

  • Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
  • An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
  • Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
  • A description of a particular feature of your local library
  • A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
  • An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
  • A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.

If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!

Love Your Library, November 2021

It’s the second month of the new Love Your Library feature.

I’d like to start out by thanking all those who have taken part since last month’s post:

Adrian shared lovely stories about the libraries he’s used in Ireland, from childhood onwards.

Laila, Lori and Margaret highlighted their recent loans and reads.

Laura sent a photo of her shiny new library copy of Sally Rooney’s latest novel.

Finally, Marcie contributed this TikTok video of her library stacks!

  

As for my recent library experiences…

 

A stand-out read:

The Performance by Claire Thomas: What a terrific setup: three women are in a Melbourne theatre watching a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Margot is a veteran professor whose husband is developing dementia. Ivy is a new mother whose wealth hardly makes up for the devastating losses of her earlier life. Summer is a mixed-race usher concerned about her girlfriend during the fires rampaging outside the city. In rotating close third person sections, Thomas takes us into these characters’ inner worlds, contrasting their personal worries with wider issues of women’s and indigenous people’s rights and the environmental crisis, as well as with the increasingly claustrophobic scene on stage. In “The Interval,” written as a script, the main characters interact with each other, with the “forced intimacy between strangers” creating opportunities for chance meetings and fateful decisions.

 

Doorstoppers: A problem

Aware that I’m heading to the States for Christmas on the 14th of December (only a couple of weeks from now!), I’ve started culling my library stacks, returning any books that I’m not super-keen to read before the end of the year. A few I’ll borrow another time, but most I decided weren’t actually for me, even if raved about elsewhere.

I mentioned in a post last week that I’ve had a hard time finding the concentration for doorstoppers lately, which is ironic giving how many high-profile ones there have been this year – or even just this autumn. (For example, seven of BookPage’s top 20 fiction releases of 2021 are over 450 pages.) I gave up twice on Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, swiftly abandoned Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (a silly bookish attempt at something like Cloud Atlas), didn’t have time to attempt Tenderness by Alison Macleod and The Magician by Colm Tóibín, and recently returned The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard unread.

Why so many chunky reads this year, and this season in particular? I’ve wondered if it has had something to do with the lockdown mentality – for authors or readers, or both. It can be awfully cozy, especially as winter advances (in this hemisphere), to sink into a big book. But I find that I’m always looking for an excuse to not engage with a doorstopper.

 

I generally enjoy the scope, detail and moral commentary of Jonathan Franzen’s novels; his previous two, Freedom and Purity, which also numbered 500+ pages, were fantastic. But Crossroads wasn’t happening for me, at least not right now. I only got to page 23 on this attempt. The Chicago setting was promising, and I’m there for the doubt and hypocrisy of church-bound characters. But with text this dense, it feels like it takes SO MANY WORDS to convey just one scene or conversation. I was finding the prose a little obnoxious, too, e.g.

Of Santa the Hildebrandts had always said, Bah, humbug. And yet somehow, long past the age of understanding that presents don’t just buy and wrap themselves, he’d accepted their sudden annual appearance as, if not a miraculous provision, then a phenomenon like his bladder filling with urine, part of the normal course of things. How had he not grasped at nine a truth so obvious to him at ten? The epistemological disjunction was absolute.

Problems here: How many extra words do you need to say “He stopped believing in Santa at age 10”? When is the phrase “epistemological disjunction” ever anything other than showing off? And why did micturition present itself as an apt metaphor?

But anyway, I’ve hardly given this a fair shake yet. I daresay I’ll read it another time; it’ll be my eighth book by Franzen.

 


Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’ve co-opted a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.

Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):

  • Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
  • An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
  • Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
  • A description of a particular feature of your local library
  • A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
  • An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
  • A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.

If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!

The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos (Walter Presents Blog Tour)

A library populated entirely by rejected books? Such was Richard Brautigan’s brainchild in one of his novels, and after his suicide a fan made it a reality. Now based in Vancouver, Washington, the Brautigan Library houses what French novelist David Foenkinos calls “the world’s literary orphans.” In The Mystery of Henri Pick, he imagines what would have happened had a French librarian created its counterpart in a small town in Brittany and a canny editor discovered a gem of a bestseller among its dusty stacks.

Delphine Despero is a rising Parisian editor who’s fallen in love with her latest signed author, Frédéric Koskas. Unfortunately, his novel The Bathtub is a flop, but he persists in writing a second, The Bed. On a trip home to Brittany so Frédéric can meet her parents, he and Delphine drop into the library of rejected books at Crozon and find a few amusing turkeys – but also a masterpiece. The Last Hours of a Love Affair is what it says on the tin, but also incorporates the death of Pushkin. The name attached to it is that of the late pizzeria owner in Crozon. His elderly widow and middle-aged daughter had no idea that their humble Henri had ever had literary ambitions, let alone that he had a copy of Eugene Onegin in the attic.

The Last Hours of a Love Affair becomes a publishing sensation – for its backstory more than its writing quality – yet there are those who doubt that Henri Pick could have been its author. The doubting faction is led by Jean-Michel Rouche, a disgraced literary critic who, having lost his job and his girlfriend, now has all the free time in the world to research the foundation of the Library of Rejects and those who deposited manuscripts there. Just when you think matters are tied up, Foenkinos throws a curveball.

This was such a light and entertaining read that I raced through. It has the breezy, mildly zany style I associate with films like Amélie. Despite the title, there’s not that much of a mystery here, but that suited me since I pretty much never pick up a crime novel. Foenkinos inserts lots of little literary in-jokes (not least: this is published by Pushkin Press!), and through Delphine he voices just the jaded but hopeful attitude I have towards books, especially as I undertake my own project of assessing unpublished manuscripts:

She had about twenty books to read during August, and they were all stored on her e-reader. [Her friends] asked her what those novels were about, and Delphine confessed that, most of the time, she was incapable of summarizing them. She had not read anything memorable. Yet she continued to feel excited at the start of each new book. Because what if it was good? What if she was about to discover a new author? She found her job so stimulating, it was almost like being a child again, hunting for chocolate eggs in a garden at Easter.

Great fun – give it a go!

My rating:

 

(Originally published in 2016. Translation from the French by Sam Taylor, 2020.)

My thanks to Poppy at Pushkin Press for arranging my e-copy for review.

 

(Walter Presents, a foreign-language drama streaming service, launched in the UK (on Channel 4) in 2016 and is also available in the USA, Australia, and various European countries.)

I was delighted to be part of the Walter Presents blog tour. See below for details of where other books and reviews have featured.

Coming Soon … A New “Love Your Library” Meme

I know that lots of my readers are dedicated library users. Some of you even work or volunteer in a library, too. Whether or not you blog about books yourself, you’re welcome to join in this simple meme designed to celebrate libraries. Use ’em or lose ’em, after all.

This challenge is entirely open-ended, but here are some things you might consider posting on your blog or to social media:

  • Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
  • An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
  • Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
  • A description of a particular feature of your local library
  • A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
  • An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
  • A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.

(Image by StockSnap from Pixabay)

 

If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it. I’ll post on the last Monday of each month (unless a holiday interferes), but feel free to post whenever you wish. Do share a link to your own post in the comments of my latest one, and use the above image, too. I’m co-opting a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.

Get thinking about what you might want to post on Monday the 25th!

 


Love Your Library has grown out of the monthly “Library Checkout” meme – created by Shannon of River City Reading and previously hosted by Charleen of It’s a Portable Magic, I then hosted it for four years starting in October 2017. Here’s an archive of my past posts.

If you want to continue using this framework to keep track of your library borrowing, the categories are Library Books Read; Currently Reading; Checked Out, To Be Read; On Hold; and Returned Unread. I sometimes added Skimmed Only and Returned Unfinished. I usually gave star ratings and links to reviews of any books I managed to read.

Doorstopper of the Month: The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (2019)

Epic fantasy is far from my usual fare, but this was a book worth getting lost in. The reading experience reminded me of what I had with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – though it’s possible this last association was only in my mind because of Dan Kois. You see, we have Kois, an editor at Slate, to thank for this novel being published outside of Knox’s native New Zealand. He wrote an enthusiastic Slate review of an amazing novel he’d found that was only available through a small university press, and Clarke’s novel was his main point of reference. How’s that for the power of a book review?

Taryn Cornick, 33, has adapted her PhD thesis into a popular history of libraries – the search for absolute knowledge; the perennial threats that libraries face, from budget cuts to burnings – that she’s been discussing at literary festivals around the world. One particular burning looms large in her family’s history: the library at her grandfather’s country estate near the border of England and Wales, Princes Gate. As girls, Taryn and her older sister, Beatrice, helped to raise the alarm and saved the bulk of their grandfather’s collection. But one key artifact has been missing ever since: the Firestarter, an ancient scroll box that is said to have been through five fires and will survive another arson attempt before the book is through.

Nearly 15 years ago now, Beatrice was the victim of a random act of violence. Soon after her killer was released from prison, he turned up dead in unusual circumstances. Ever since, Detective Inspector Jacob Berger has suspected that Taryn arranged a revenge killing, but he has no proof. His cold case heats back up when Taryn lands in the hospital and complains of a series of prank calls.

What ensues is complicated, but in essence, the ongoing fallout of Beatrice’s murder and a cosmic battle over the Firestarter are twin forces that plunge Taryn and Jacob into the faerie realm (Sidh). Their guide to the Sidh is Shift, a shapeshifter who can create impromptu gates between the two worlds (while others, like Princes Gate, are permanent passageways).

Fairies (sidhe), demons, talking ravens … there’s some convoluted world-building here, and when I reached the end I realized I still had many ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, though often this was because I hadn’t paid close enough attention and if I glanced back I’d see that Knox did indeed tell us how characters got from A to B, and who was after the Firestarter and why.

The book travels everywhere from Provence to Purgatory, but I particularly liked the descriptions of the primitive lifestyle in the faerie realm. Knox gives enough detail about things like food and clothing that you can really imagine yourself into each setting, and there’s the occasional funny turn of phrase that inserts the magical into everyday life in a tongue-in-cheek way, like “The Nespresso [machine] made hatching-dragon sounds.”

My two favorite scenes were an intense escape from a marsh and one that delightfully blends the human world and faerie: Taryn’s father, Basil Cornick, is a Kiwi actor best known for his role in a Game of Thrones-style television show. He’s roped into what he thinks is a screen test, playing Odin opposite a very convincing animatronic monster and pair of talking birds. We and Taryn know what he doesn’t: that he was used to negotiate with a real demon. The terrific epilogue also offers an appealing vision of how the sidhe might save the world.

If, like me, all you know of Knox’s previous work is the bizarre and kind of awful The Vintner’s Luck (which I read for a book club a decade or so ago), you’ll be intrigued to learn that angels play a role here, too. But beneath all the magical stuff, which is sometimes hard to follow or believe in, the novel is a hymn to language and libraries. A number of books are mentioned, starting with the one that was in Beatrice’s backpack at the time of her death: “the blockbuster of that year, 2003, a novel about tantalising, epoch-spanning conspiracies. Beatrice enjoyed those books, perhaps because they were often set in libraries.” (That’s The Da Vinci Code, of course.) Also mentioned: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, the Moomin books, and the film Spirited Away – no doubt these were beloved influences for Knox.

I appreciated the words about libraries’ enduring value, even on a poisoned planet. “I want there to be libraries in the future. I want today to give up being so smugly sure about what tomorrow won’t need,” Taryn says. She knows that, for this to happen, people must “care about the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, and about keeping what isn’t immediately necessary because it might be vital one day. Or simply intriguing, or beautiful.” That’s an analogy for species, too, I think, and a reminder of our responsibility: to preserve human accomplishments, yes, but also the more-than-human world (even if that ‘more’ might not include fairies).

Page count: 626 (my only 500+-page doorstopper so far this year!)

My rating:

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?

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?

Library Checkout: June 2020

It looks like my public library system may still be partially closed into July, although there are rumors of an order and collection service starting soon. I’ve signed up to be a library volunteer, so hopefully I can be a part of it.

Will I be able to stock up again next month? I do hope so, as I have a list of 14 books that I plan to borrow and another 21 that I plan to reserve just as soon as the building and catalogue are up and running again. Stay tuned to find out…

Are you out of library books, or have you been able to borrow more lately, perhaps via curbside pickup? 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 (which runs on the last Monday of every month), and/or tag me on Twitter (@bookishbeck / #TheLibraryCheckout).

 

READ

  • The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (a buddy read with Buried in Print)

 

CURRENTLY READING

  • Reading with Patrick: A teacher, a student and the life-changing power of books by Michelle Kuo
  • Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle [set aside temporarily]
  • Property by Valerie Martin

 

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • My Own Country by Abraham Verghese

 

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  • Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
  • When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
  • Becoming a Man by Paul Monette
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
  • Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

 

ON HOLD, TO BE PICKED UP

  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

 

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • Can You Hear Me? A Paramedic’s Encounters with Life and Death by Jake Jones
  • The Accidental Countryside by Stephen Moss
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

 

TO RETURN UNFINISHED

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

 

TO RETURN UNREAD

  • What Are We Doing Here?: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
  • Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

 

What appeals from my stacks?

The Secret Life of Books by Tom Mole

If you’re like me and author Tom Mole, the first thing you do in any new acquaintance’s house is to scrutinize their bookshelves, whether openly or surreptitiously. You can learn all kinds of surprising things about what someone is interested in, and holds dear, from the books on display. (And if they don’t have any books around, should you really be friends?)

Mole runs the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a professor of English Literature and Book History. His specialist discipline and this book’s subtitle – “Why They Mean More than Words” – are clues that here he’s concerned with books more as physical and cultural objects than as containers of knowledge and stories:

“reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant. For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it.”

From the papyrus scroll to the early codex, from a leather-bound first edition to a mass-market paperback, and from the Kindle to the smartphone reading app, Mole asks how what we think of as a “book” has changed and what our different ways of accessing and possessing books say about us. He examines the book as a basis of personal identity and relationships with other people. His learned and digressive history of the book contains many pleasing pieces of trivia about authors, libraries and bookshops, making it a perfect gift for bibliophiles. I also enjoyed the three “interludes,” in which he explores three paintings that feature books.

There are a lot of talking points here for book lovers. Here are a few:

  • Are you a true collector, or merely an “accumulator” of books? (Mole is the latter, as am I. “I have a few modest antiquarian volumes, but most of my books are paperbacks … I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, and I suspect the books on my shelves reassure me that I really have learned something along the way.”)
  • In Anne Fadiman’s scheme, are you a “courtly” or a “carnal” reader? The former keeps a book pristine, while the latter has no qualms about cracking spines or dog-earing pages. (I’m a courtly reader, with the exception that I correct all errors in pencil.)
  • Is a book a commercial product or a creative artifact? (“This is why authors quite often cross out the printed version of their name when they sign. Their action negates the book’s existence as a product of industry or commerce and reclaims it as the product of their own artistic effort.”)
  • How is the experience of reading an e-book, or listening to an audiobook, different from reading a print book? (There is evidence that we remember less when we read on a screen, because we don’t have the physical cues of a book in our hand, plus “most people could in theory fit a lifetime’s reading on a single e-reader.”)

I would particularly recommend this to readers who have enjoyed Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Alberto Manguel’s various books on libraries, and Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From.

 

A personal note: I was delighted to come across a mention of one of the visiting professors on my Master’s course in Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds, Matthew Rubery. In the autumn term of 2005, he taught one of my seminars, “The Reading Revolution in the Victorian Period,” which had a Book History slant and included topics like serial publication, anonymity and the rise of the media. A few years ago Rubery published an academic study of audiobooks, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, which Mole draws on for his discussion.

 

Two more favorite passages:

“when I’m reading, I’m not just spending time with a book, but investing time in cultivating a more learned version of myself.”

“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”

My rating:

 


The Secret Life of Books will be published by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday 19th September. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

Doorstopper(s) of the Month: Julia Glass (& Umberto Eco)

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)

When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.

Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.

One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.

My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.

All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.

Page count: 560

My rating:

 

I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.

A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”

My rating: