Reading Round-Up, 2/4/2014

First of all, let me say that posting around here will be light for the foreseeable future. And I apologize for dropping out of the blogging world as far as commenting goes. But the usual busyness — job, baby, life stuff — has been made more complicated by the fact that we are now trying to sell our house. This has required ungodly amounts of cleaning and also putting many of my books into storage, in the name of making our house look less cluttered. We have emptied the house of five large bookcases. It’s painful not to have those books around, although having gotten those books temporarily out of the way will make moving day decidedly less painful. But I have no idea when moving day will be — our house could be on the market another week, another month, another year, no idea — and I don’t like not having my books right here. Um, okay, I have lots of books left, it’s not like I’m living in a bookless house, but just the other day I wanted to reread the opening pages of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and I couldn’t! Frustrating.

So, here is some recent reading:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which is part of the Tournament of Books. Actually, most of the books I’ve read in the last few weeks have been part of the tournament. I liked this book, although I didn’t fall in love. The opening sections were enthralling as I read about life in Kansas in the 1850s. McBride captures the wildness and danger of it so well. He also creates a wonderful character in John Brown. I thought the book needed some more editing, though, and it felt too long. But his language is amazing, and he deals with some interesting gender and race issues with his main character.
  • Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. This was a strange reading experience. The book is very long and very plotty, and neither of these attributes is something I really enjoy. But I liked this book. The way the plot unfurls is mesmerizing. Catton has such perfect control over her material that following the plot twists and turns was satisfying. And over time, she creates memorable characters whose lives and fates I came to care about. She also does a brilliant job of capturing the world of the gold rush in 1860s New Zealand. I’m not sure I would ever want to reread this book, though. It’s beautiful, brilliant, moving — but is it a truly great book? I’m not sure.
  • Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. This was my choice for the most recent meeting of my mystery book group. I liked it, although I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t like it more. But it really was good — tightly constructed, chillingly atmospheric and creepy. The psychologizing felt a little too easy to me, which I think was my main problem with it. But Millar was great at keeping the plot going at a good pace and making you feel uneasy and unsettled in the way good thrillers do.
  • Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. This book could easily be a novella. But the large margins and abundant white space that make this book 220 pages serve a good function: the writing has a spare quality to it that invites you to slow down and reread and linger over the language. It’s about a boy growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, dealing with sexual abuse by an older neighborhood boy and also becoming more and more aware of the depredations done to the landscape around him by miners. The book is dark, but also beautifully written and moving. Very good.
  • Lastly, I just finished Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. It was good, not at all surprising in terms of the plot, but with two good main characters. I liked Eleanor very much. This was entertaining, fun, difficult to put down.

I’m in the middle of reading Maggie Nelson’s book Jane: A Murder. It’s part poetry, part bits of journals, books and newspapers. It tells the story of the murder of Nelson’s aunt who died when she was 23, before Nelson was born. The book is Nelson’s attempts to understand and respond to what happened to her aunt and how it affected her own life.

I also plan on picking up Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things and maybe also Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division. So, lots of good reading going on around here, in spite of the busyness.

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Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Reading Round-Up, 1/12/2014

It’s been over a month since I’ve done one of these round-up posts, and in that time, I’ve only properly reviewed one book. What have I been up to? The books I’ve read since last time I did a round-up include:

  • Alix Kates Schulman’s memoir Drinking the Rain. I liked this, although I thought it started a little slowly. You have to have a fairly large appetite for nature writing in the book’s first section, although it is beautifully written and interesting. Basically, Schulman retreats to an isolated primitive cabin in Maine to live on her own. Later parts of the book include more of Schulman’s past life — her involvement with the feminist movement, her marriage, her writing. There’s lots of interesting stuff here.
  • Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory, a short collection of feminist essays, and also an Emily Books pick. Really great cultural criticism.
  • Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic. This reminded me a little of A.M. Homes’s writing in the way it’s realistic fiction but turned up just a notch — the people are a little larger, wackier, and stranger than in real life, and more stuff happens to them than happens to most people. I liked it.
  • Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, which I wrote about in my previous post.
  • Laura Kipnis’s Against Love. I started off loving this and continued to like it to the end, although the tone began to feel a little same-y after a while. But this book is a great critique of contemporary ideas about marriage and fidelity. I finished reading it not feeling against love, exactly, but definitely against social expectations that people fit into one model for how relationships should go (which I was already, but still).
  • Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Review forthcoming!

As for current and upcoming reading, any plan I previously had got disrupted by the publication of the Tournament of Books short list. I love the Tournament of Books and have followed it closely for a few years now. It’s so much more interesting than other awards and contests because the decision-making is transparent, at least once you get to the short list stage, and you can follow along and comment on each decision over the course of several weeks. And I love how the organizers recognize how silly and ridiculous the whole idea of a Tournament of Books is. It’s absurd! But it’s fun, and I’m glad they do it.

As happens every year, I’m tempted to read some of the books off their list so I can follow along with the decision-making that much more closely. As it turns out, Hobgoblin gave me a copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for Christmas, a book that’s on the tournament list, so I’m reading it right now. Since I put James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, also tournament short listed, on my TBR list last month, I thought I’d check it out of the library and see if I liked it, which I do, so I’m in the middle of that now too. After that, we’ll see. I have a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, so I might pick that up, and others on the list look appealing as well. I may read from the list until I get bored with contemporary fiction and then move on to other things. Of the 17 books on the list, I’d already read only two: Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Have a great week everyone!

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The Trip to Echo Spring

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing was the last book I read in 2013, and it was a good way to end the year. It’s the kind of nonfiction I like: bookish, elegantly written, with a mix of genres. The book is mostly biography, but it contains elements of travel narrative and memoir as well. The idea of the book is to trace the influence of alcohol in the creative lives of six writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever. Laing travels by train around the U.S. visiting places of importance to these writers, and while describing her journey, she tells us about the lives of these authors and the ways their paths crossed and their experiences coincided. The connections among these writers proliferate: they were friends, enemies, colleagues, rivals, fellow sufferers. Laing looks not only at the biographies of these writers, but at what they had to say about alcohol in their writing, both in their creative work and in letters and journals.

Laing undertakes a LOT in this book, and for the most part she succeeds. The biographies are interesting, and her insights into the literature she examines are strong. What she has to say about how alcohol influenced these writers’ lives and creative work is illuminating. I kept wishing she would develop the memoir aspects of the book further, though. With Litlove, I wanted more. This touches on another part of the book I found puzzling: Laing’s decision to discuss only  male writers. She says in a parenthesis early in the book that

There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.

The reasons that “will become apparent” are presumably to do with her mother’s partner who was an alcoholic. Laing sketches out this story in the book. But the reasons for writing only about men never did “become apparent” for me; to say that her experience — very powerful though it was — with an alcoholic woman meant that she couldn’t write about alcoholic women didn’t satisfy me. The explanation might have satisfied me if she had developed it at greater length, but further explanations never came. So I felt that Laing missed an opportunity to shed light on her own experience in the way she does with the writers under examination. I would have loved to see more discussion of gender itself and the role it played in writers’ relationships with alcohol. Have alcoholic men had a fundamentally different experience than alcoholic women? Perhaps this is asking too much of a book that already accomplishes so much, but it does leave what felt to me like a hole in the book.

Still, there is so much here to admire. My biggest fear when picking up biographical writing is that it will be boring, and Laing’s book is decidedly not that. And she makes it look like weaving together multiple strands of narrative, complete with beautiful sentences, is an easy thing to do, when I know for sure it definitely is not.

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My Best of 2013

As I’ve done in recent years, I will list my favorite books in terms of categories rather than creating a simple top ten list (or whatever number). How can I really say which is better, my favorite biography vs. my favorite mystery, for example? So here is what stands out the most from the year:

Best fiction overall:

  • Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding
  • Alissa Nutting’s Tampa
  • Justin Torres’s We the Animals
  • Paul Harding’s Tinkers
  • Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound

Most enjoyable novels — these are maybe not great, great books, but they were lots of fun:

  • Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette
  • Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins
  • Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring

Best mystery:

  • Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Best graphic novel (yes, I only read two this year, but still):

  • Craig Thompson’s Blankets

Best biography/autobiography:

  • Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments
  • Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave

Best essay collections:

  • Michelle Orange’s This is Running For Your Life
  • Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth
  • Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

Best literary criticism:

  • Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

Best unclassifiable nonfiction:

  • Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (a reread)

Here’s hoping that we all find some wonderful books in 2014!

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2013 Reading

Happy New Year! I’d hoped to post at least once before Christmas, but I wasn’t able to finish my fall semester grading before we headed off on an almost-two-week trip to visit family in western New York state and California, so I just couldn’t squeeze it in. The trip to California involved three flights on the way there and three flights on the way back — with an eleven-month-old. It was crazy. But the trip was great, and involved this:

Cormac Beach

and this:

Hiking

And this (that’s a winery in the background):

Cormac winery

The California sunshine was lovely. Now I’m back home and there is a snowstorm on the way. Sigh. But it’s a good time to think about last year’s reading. I read much more last year than I thought I would, considering I had a baby and all. I read a lot in the few weeks before the baby was born and then a lot during the night when I was up with the baby, so I learned that it’s not having a child that keeps me from reading. It’s really my job that’s the problem. When the job started back up, my reading slowed down. Again, sigh.

Here’s how my reading breaks down:

  • Books read: 100 (tied with 2011 for my highest number)
  • Audiobooks: 2 (down from the previous year because of podcasts)
  • eBooks: 27 (way, way up)
  • From library: 30 (also up. This includes some library ebooks)
  • Fiction: 67
  • Nonfiction: 33 (this fiction/nonfiction breakdown is pretty typical for me. Nonfiction means a lot to me, but I read it more slowly than fiction.)
  • Poetry: 0 (fail)
  • Essay collections: 10 (typical)
  • Biography/autobiography: 14
  • Theory/criticism: 4 (other nonfiction included history, religion, and unclassifiable nonfiction)
  • Short story collections: 3 (up!)
  • Mysteries: 12 (typical)
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 6 (up only a bit)
  • Books by writers of color: 12

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 36
  • Women: 63 (almost exactly the same as last year. I used to read more evenly. I don’t purposely try to read more women; it just works out that way.)
  • Collection with men and women: 1

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 70 (up a lot!)
  • British: 17 (down)
  • Canadian: 2
  • French: 2
  • One each by Dutch, Irish, Israeli, Japanese, Norwegian, Pakistani, Spanish, Sri Lankan, and Swiss authors.

Year of publication:

  • 18th century: 0 (I’ve moved on from my grad school days, I see.)
  • 19th: 1 (fail)
  • First half of 20th century: 6
  • Second half of 20th century: 16
  • 2000-2009: 25
  • 2010-2013: 52 (way up)

This year and last year I read  many more contemporary novels than I used to. Ah, well. I’m just balancing out earlier years of my life when I hardly read anything contemporary.

As for the upcoming year, I’m doing what I did last year and setting no specific goals and making no real plans. I would like to try to read more books from other countries, keep reading more and more books from authors of color, and read more books from earlier centuries. It would be great to read some poetry as well. But these are just thoughts in the back of my mind and if I don’t follow through, so be it. The one thing I’d like to do this year is not worry about the number of books read. If I read less, I don’t want to feel bad about it. This year promises to be very busy, so I’d like to focus less on quantity and more on quality. I set myself a goal on Goodreads of reading 50 books, half of this year’s number and a goal I shouldn’t have any trouble meeting. I hope this will help me choose the books I pick up a little more carefully and take my time with them.

I hope to come back soon with a list of favorites from 2013.

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Reading Round-Up 12/8/2013

First of all, I never reported back on my Small Business Saturday book shopping experience. I loved Sherman Alexie’s Indies First idea — that authors go hang out in bookstores and act as booksellers for a day — and I wanted to take part in it as much as possible. One of my local bookstores, Byrd’s Books, hosted the author Mark Slouka, who recently published the novel Brewster, which takes place in a town not far from my home. So we stopped in the store to meet him, and I left with a signed copy of the novel. The bookstore was full of people and excitement, which was great to see. Then we headed out of town to visit Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, NY. The drive was rather lengthy, but Hobgoblin wanted to see Kelly Braffet and get signed copies of her books, and I was happy to go along. We thought perhaps her author husband, Owen King, son of Stephen King, might be there, but he wasn’t. That was fine, though. In the store, it took a minute to figure out who Kelly Braffet was, and then it took a few minutes more to figure out how to get a conversation going. But since she was hanging out by the cash register looking a little bored, I eventually just went up and asked if she was giving out book recommendations. She immediately lit up, happy that someone wanted a recommendation from her, and we headed over to the fiction section, where we spent the next 10-15 minutes looking over books and talking about ones we liked. As we talked, I realized how difficult Hobgoblin and I are as customers in bookshops; much of what Braffet recommended, we had already read. We talked about Jennifer Egan, Megan Abbott, Joe Hill, and others. Eventually, we came across Jenni Fagan’s novel The Panopticon, which neither of us had heard of, and which sounded great. Then Hobgoblin got Braffet to sign his books, we looked around a little more, and we were two happy customers.

That’s not all going on in my book world, though. Yesterday evening, my mystery book group met to discuss D.A. Mishani’s novel The Missing File. It was a lively discussion, although not because the novel is a great one. For the most part, I was enjoying myself as I read the book, but afterward when I tried to put it all together, it just didn’t work. It’s a very odd mystery novel. The detective is not very good at his job and makes several important mistakes. His colleagues do a better job conducting the investigation, but they are flawed as well. Mishani spends a lot of time with a marginally-related character who involves himself in the mystery for reasons that I never fully understood. He’s a writer, and through what I guess is writerly imagination and empathy ends up doing a better job understanding the people involved in the mystery than the detective does. But this guy is kind of creepy and doesn’t cohere as a character. I think Mishani is most interested in the ways fictional stories help but also more interestingly fail to help us understand stories in the “real” world. This is an intriguing idea, but Mishani doesn’t manage to pull his plot and themes together.

Next up for the mystery book group is Margaret Millar’s novel Beast in View, which was my choice. I became interested in Millar after reading this essay by the crime fiction critic Sarah Weinman. Sarah has come through with recommendations for me before, so I’m looking forward to seeing how this one turns out.

The only book that has come into the house since I last wrote about incoming books is Brewster. I have added a bunch of books that I’d like to investigate and perhaps add to my TBR pile at some point, though. These are by no means books that I will definitely read; they are just ones I’ve got my eye on:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, winner of the National Book Award.
  • Javiar Marías’s The Infatuations, as another Marías novel to follow All Souls.
  • Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. I can’t remember where I heard about this one….

These books are small press books, a category I’ve been learning more about recently as I listen to podcasts with small press authors or that champion small press books. I really have no idea if I will like these or not, but it will be fun to explore them:

  • Monica Drake, The Stud Book,
  • Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, Nothing,
  • Renee Gladman, Event Factory,
  • Pamela Erens, The Virgins: A Novel,
  • Jamie Iredell, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac.

Have a good week everyone!

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