Tag Archives: books

Behind the Shelfie

‘Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.  It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own.  Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, “live always at the ‘edge of mystery’–the boundary of the unknown.”  But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.’

-recently read inA Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit

– – currently in my purse, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado

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summer reading list

To most book lovers, it’s an old, well-understood song and dance. When in company with one another, one hears the hum of agreement when mentioning the quiet joy of walking through a bookshop. There’s a collective knowledge of the slow pace, the rocking motion of slowly leaning back and tilting forward to see the entire shelf. A recognition of the spark held by a known author or title, or a captivating new title that makes the person perusing to slide the book from the shelf to leave through the pages. For all the convenience of amazon (if one ignores the taxes issues), a free afternoon calls for a mosey through a good bookshop.

But this past winter I bought and read a book that I noticed on a shelf in my boyfriend’s aunt’s house, Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. I think I’ve mentioned this book before, here, but the essence of the plot is that she goes through her house to read all of the books she owns but has not read. This survey of her books and their location within her home leads to a rumination on the books in her life and the memories they call forward. The book’s premise has inspired me to take stock of the books in my flat for new reading material, temporarily abandoning the bookshop.

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My boyfriend and I moved in together a year ago, which combined our book collections–his collection provides Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. One of my English professors loved Graham Greene. In our modern english literature course we read The End of the Affair, a novel that was difficult for me to process at the time. It was thought-provoking, but I think I wasn’t perhaps ready to read the book at that stage of my life. The writing was excellent, however, so I’m very much looking forward to reading The Quiet American.

I’ve been a bit absent from fiction for a while. There hasn’t been much time to read. But that hasn’t stopped me from taking a spin through a bookshop when I’ve had a few minutes to spare. There used to be a chain bookshop on the way from the library to my boyfriend’s office. If I seemed a bit early to meet him after work, I’d stop in to visit my friends. Which, of course, led to purchasing new potential friends: the often recommended Poisonwood Bible and Oryx and Crake and the potentially baffling Proust and Pessoa. I’ve enough books to get me through the summer at the very least, so this is what I’ll do. Except when Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life comes out, because a) I’ve already pre-ordered it and b) her books (both fiction and academic) are AMAZING and I’m not going to miss anything for a single second.

Tuesdays at Tea Time

The benefits of going on a vacation are endless, and it’s pointless to list them all here. However, the first and foremost among them is this: free reading time. Books for pleasure are increasingly getting put back on the shelf (pun intended) the older I get. Reading time seems to be eaten up by other things that just seem more pressing . . . I want to read my book but I have all these other books for school . . . I want to read my book but I have to go run errands . . . I want to read my book but I should tidy my flat. All of these are important and necessary things to do INSTEAD of reading for pleasure, it’s true. And that’s probably why I feel so bitter when I end up wasting my day on tumblr.

Anyway, so when a vacation/holiday comes around it’s amazing to just read and read and read (and watch american tv) and read. During my two weeks in America I managed to read 3 books: two novels and a novella.

After Nora Ephron died this year, I (and the rest of the world) really wanted to make an effort to read her prose. I don’t actually know anyone who doesn’t enjoy the films she’s written and produced, so to say I am a fan is pointless. I’m convinced that it is only the sheer strength of the combined charisma of Nora Ephron and Amy Adams that made Julie Powell bearable in Julie and Julia.

I decided to read Heartburn, the novella that Ephron herself repeatedly admitted was a thinly disguised re-telling of the end of her own second marriage. As I anticipated, reading Nora Ephron is like sitting down with your best friend somewhere and listening. It’s wry, incredibly self-deprecating, and a whole bundle of emotions. You laugh with her, you cry with her, you cheer with her, and you purse your lips with a slight shake of your head saying “WHY are you DOING this to yourself?!” But, without revealing the end, it all wraps itself up on a triumphant note and a future in a quandary.

I managed to read and finish Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies a few weeks before it won the Man Booker Award. Mantel has previously won the Man Booker for Wolf Hall, to which Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel. As a devoted champion of Anne Boleyn since even before I started seriously considering history as a career, I’ve never been Thomas Cromwell’s biggest fan. I am, however, a huge fan of extraordinarily well-researched historical fiction. It feels fantastic when I can read a novel set in my major research period and not get pulled out of the story by a spike of disappointment/rage that is usually encompassed by “that could NEVER have happened. ugh.”

Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell in Wolf Hall made me much more inclined to like him, and Mantel’s characterization of Anne Boleyn made me much more inclined to trust her as an author. So many fiction writers who deal with the Tudor era depict Anne Boleyn as a two-dimensional man-stealing shrew, and beyond this being historically inaccurate it’s also just lazy writing. Mantel’s Boleyn is multi-faceted and complicated; Mantel has encapsulated the fiesty, intelligent, contrary, and certainly a little vicious personality that makes a woman incredibly attractive when young and beautiful and unattainable, but slightly less so when she’s older and more haggard and naggy and not producing male heirs. While Wolf Hall tackled the former Anne, Bring Up the Bodies depicts the downward spiral of the latter.

As a reader, I preferred Wolf Hall. I felt like Cromwell’s voice and his motives were more clear and the progression of the story was more engaging. As a historian, I respect Bring Up the Bodies enormously. Scholars have essentially pieced together how Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII got together. It’s really not that complicated and the sources have pretty much stitched together to form a narrative. Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace, however, is much less transparent. We know the bare bones of what happened: who was arrested, who died. We know some gossip and there are certainly legends. We know enough to make the story but not enough to know what happened. So many people and alliances got entangled in the whole thing, and everyone tried to conceal or alter their parts in the story. Eveyone had an angle. Hilary Mantel’s account is believable, but for an interesting reason that I won’t spoil here.

It certainly raises a salient question about how much the truth factors into government/policy/justice. But that’s a debate for a different forum.

I also read another big release, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I had stayed away from the hype around it, so I didn’t really know anything about the plot or that a major character’s name is Barry (“it rhymes with Harry! OMG, can she not come up with anything else?” . . . people, sometimes, amiright?) or that it had the word “vagina” in it.

That being said, I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. I loved that her writing voice is still essentially the same; her imagery is incredible and that sly twisting humor still pokes away at you. It was certainly interesting to read a book about the dark underbelly of an idyllic English village, as an outsider with an up-close and personal view of English culture. I’m not sure all of the social issues/commentary will translate for international readers. As I said, I’m still chewing on it but I do highly recommend it to others.

Next on my list is Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book and Juliet Barker’s biography The Brontes. I should probably do some preparatory PhD reading, but . . . not just yet.