Midweek Miscellany: Reading Roundup

 

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Does your book collection resemble this jumble as much as mine does?  The painting (“Odd Lot Cheap,” 1878) is the work of the late 19th century American artist William Harnett (1848-1892).  Although it’s been suggested that Harnett’s illusionistic paintings are devoid of inner meaning, don’t you find this one an implicit comment on the transience of all things, including our beloved books?

Although I’ve been blogging very little in this our year of the plague, I have (as I noted in my last post) been reading fairly steadily since 2020 rolled around.  Because there wasn’t a dud book in the bunch (isn’t it gratifying, dear reader, when one is on a streak of reading good books?) I thought I’d share a quick recap of some of the excellent works of fiction that have come my way in this year.  What I’m offering are quick impressionistic snapshots rather than in-depth reviews (Janakay is not by nature profound, and constant handwashing and unpacking make it so very difficult to concentrate right now).  In making my list I noticed the emergence of a monthly sort-of pattern to my reading.  One month was heavy on thrillers & science fiction while another tended towards “serious” novels; one month tilted to the classics and another to the contemporary, and every month included a comfort read, which generally coincided with a stressful key moment in my long-distance move!  Have you, dear reader, in your great journey through the universe of literature, noted any similar tendencies or patterns in your own seasonal reading?  Do you read classics when it’s cold and drippy outside or eagerly head towards light bubbly froth for those delightful days of  lying on the beach?  Or do you, like Janakay, indulge in counter-programing, saving all those serious literary chunksters for your lazy summer afternoons?  Well, enough with the philosophical musings and on to my list!

As befitting a month associated with endings and beginnings, my January reading contained both old and new, as well as one of Janakay’s own very special little rituals.   Are any of you, dear readers of mine, superstitious about books?  (If so, don’t be embarrassed — do share your little kink.  Janakay won’t tell!)  I’m quite superstititious myself, especially about the first book I start in any new year (books I’m finishing don’t count).  I regard my first new book in January as an omen for the upcoming year; if it’s a really good book, well, the gods have spoken, haven’t they?  They have promised I’ll have a great year of reading ahead of me!

To increase my chances that my January ritual will have a favorable outcome I tend to go with a classic when a new year rolls around or, gasp, even reread something I’ve loved in the past (Janakay regards this as a prudent precaution rather than a cheat.  Honestly, don’t we all load the dice, when we can?)   This year, however, I decided to gamble a bit on Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern fairy tale of two siblings, a wicked stepmother and the enchanted house they all longed to possess.  I really like Ann Patchett’s work (I think I’ve read almost all of her novels) and I’d had my eye on this one since I read the advance notices.  I’m happy to report that my gamble paid off; the novel was every bit as good as it was reported to be.

From contemporary I went to classic, spending the latter half of January with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.  I had tried many years ago to read Corner, but had given it up after less than fifty of its three hundred plus pages; to put it mildly I had been totally unimpressed.  How that Warner woman could dribble on!  Had she no editor?  Why was this book so different from her delightful Lolly WillowesWhatever was Warner up to in this yawn-inducing tome?  Was Corner a history or was it a novel?  Either way, it was BORING and Janakay loathes being bored.  Back on the shelf it went, to gather many layers of dust.  Given my strong negative reaction, I naturally selected Corner for the “Abandoned Classic” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate.  And — please note, dear readers, Janakay conceals nothing from you, no matter how embarrassing — her initial reaction to Warner’s novel was quite mistaken!  In fact, you might say that Janakay missed the boat on this one or, if you were being particularly unkind, conclude that she even fell off the pier!  Oh, my good gracious me, how the years can alter one’s judgment!  Even in my callow youth, however could I have abandoned this wonderful novel?  The Corner that Held Them really is a masterpiece and absolutely one of the best things Janakay has read in years — she was absolutely glued to the pages and bereft when the story ended.   Hopefully, I’ll be posting a review later on, before all the details have totally faded but . . . the weather is so very nice right now, Janakay’s new house has its very own hammock and there are a great many interesting new books to read (Janakay adores novelty)  ….

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I will absolutely, positively get around to writing my review . . . .

and, for particularly low energy days, an overwhelming temptation to browse in that most addictive of sources . . .

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This is an old edition of a very popular work.  Do you have a copy?

But, despite these considerable temptations, Janakay will heroically summon her energy and get busy writing a serious review! (at some point)

Before leaving January entirely, the month’s comfort read deserves a mention, being an early novel by Rumer Godden, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Any Rumer Godden readers out there?  Godden is one of Janakay’s favorites for those times when she’s in the mood for a well-written novel, an exotic setting and at least one psychologically interesting character.  Godden’s technique is traditional (which is fine with Janakay) and she can be surprisingly perceptive on issues of class and race, an important trait when writing about the British Raj, which Godden so very frequently does.  The Lady and the Unicorn centers on the three daughters of an Anglo-Indian family and their struggle to establish themselves in a world that regarded them as neither British nor Indian.  Although the novel’s strong supernatural element distracted a bit from Godden’s sharp social observations, the ghost story was fun and was skillfully incorporated into the main story line.  All in all, The Lady and the Unicorn was a great way to pass an afternoon and a welcome distraction from packing boxes.

 

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Maxi says “Finish packing those boxes or you’ll never get moved!”

February was a discovery month, bringing several new and wonderful novels in translation, thanks largely to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 13.  This was especially gratifying as Janakay is just the teeniest bit parochial in her reading, mostly sticking as she does to anglophone writers.  Participating in Doce Bellezza’s challenge, however, demonstrated just how much Janakay has been missing in her rather narrow approach.  What treasures are contained in even the sketchiest sample of Japanese writing!  Looking for a terse and elegant story of doomed love, set in one of the most poetic and deeply atmospheric novels I’ve ever read?  Try Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country.  More into a contemporary tale of the ultimate non-conformist?  You couldn’t do better than Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a chronicle of the deeply weird life and times of a very contented employee in one of Tokyo’s many “Smile Marts.”  (I’d been intending to read this one for over a year.  I’m happy to report it was definitely worth the wait).  I also spent a few pleasant hours in which I finally got around to reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I had come to regard as a permanent resident on my TBR list; while a little sentimental for my taste it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it.

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A wonderful cover, n’est pas?  You can almost feel the cold.  This is one of  those rare cases in which the cover art so beautifully conveys the mood of the novel

 

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Another wonderful case of cover matching content!
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A fun read; rather western in style & approach but providing plenty of insight (IMO at least) into young Tokyo life

And then, of course, there was Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, another book I had tried but abandoned several years ago.  What a loss that would have been, never to have read it, especially since I had the added benefit of DB’s wonderful commentary.  All of these great novels deserve far more than my brief nods, and Janakay was fully intending to share her thoughts and opinions with you, but, well, life intervened.  Movers were a’ comin’ and she simply had to clean out her basement (a word of unsolicited advice, dear readers!  Never, ever go twenty-eight years without cleaning out your basement!)

To a lesser extent, February was also short story month.  Although I do respect the genre I ordinarily tend to avoid actually reading short stories, as I regard them as a bit of a tease — just when I’m getting interested, poof!  They’re over!  This year, however, I began seeking them out, as they seemed to lend themselves to my currently fractured attention span (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?).  One of my rewards was  re-discovering Daphne DuMaurier’s fantastic novella Don’t Look Now.  Have any of you read it?  If not, why are you wasting time on my blog?  Click off instantly and read it now.  Afterwards, settle in for a wonderfully creepy afternoon of watching Nicholas Roeg’s 1974 film version, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making their doomed way through a darkly beautiful and sinister Venice.

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If February was short stories & Japanese novels, March was packing boxes and saying good-byes; physically it was a long distance move and literature-wise a much quicker journey to some fun and distracting reads.  I was particularly happy to (finally) sample the work of the very talented sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin.  Behind the curve as usual I had totally missed her acclaimed Broken Earth series, so I was particularly happy to read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy.  Aside from being an unusual and gripping story, City’s view that cultural and ethnic diversity are necessary for our very survival made Janakay positively weep with gratitude, being such a refreshing respite from the jingoistic blather that seems so omnipresent these days.  If you’d prefer an interior journey through a dark and twisted psyche to humanity’s struggle against an alien threat, I can happily recommend Flynn Berry’s A Double Life, loosely based on Britain’s Lord Lucan murder scandal.  For a noir thriller with an interesting take on class, race and gender, check out Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime, an elegant tale of intrigue set mostly in Venice, (Janakay adores Venice, even though it’s been years and years since she visited).  I also dipped a toe into some grimly funny Scandinavian fare, with Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good (Janakay was looking for inspiration and did find it there, although — reluctantly — she draws the line at offing those annoying neighbors of hers).  As a bonus, it has an absolutely wonderful cover:

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In April, it was back to more serious, albeit still contemporary, fare.  As you may surmise from my most recent post, I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel.  Do any of you share my enthusiasm?  After it became sadly evident that our current pandemic was not, suddenly, just going to “disappear” (and Janakay absolutely draws the line at injecting herself with bleach or swallowing light beams or whatever), I seriously considered re-reading Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of my highlight books from a few years ago.  I decided, however, that until we see how Covid-19 plays out, I  couldn’t emotionally handle Mandel’s story of a vicious, highly contagious disease that ended current civilization (isn’t it spooky, how great writers have their fingers on the zeitgeist?).   I settled instead on Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel, published at the end of March.  Somewhat to my surprise (Mandel’s incredibly talented, but how many great books can anyone, even Hilary Mantel, produce in one lifetime?)  Glass Hotel was very nearly as good as its immediate predecessor.  Admittedly, the novel has no feel-good characters (it’s based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme), so if you want warm and fuzzy, you’ll need to look elsewhere.  What it does have is beautiful writing, a wonderfully complex structure that uses shifts in time and point of view to reinforce and enrich the story, and an utterly believable, complicated and heartbreaking cast of characters, all of whom are, morally, some shade of grey.  I was hooked in from the beginning and absolutely couldn’t put it down for the two days or so it took me to read.  The only downside was that I had to wait for its impact to fade a bit before I could start another novel, because I knew that nothing I could read would be anywhere nearly as good.  Have any of you read Glass Hotel?  Or any other Mandel novel, for that matter?  If so, I’d love to hear your opinions.   I’d also be interested in hearing how you handle that period of time after you’ve read a novel that just blows you away.  Do you read non-fiction?  Play solitaire?  Immediately go on to the next novel on your list?  Do share your secret of survival!

After a few days of absorbing Glass Hotel and letting its impact fade, I settled in to enjoy another contemporary novel, this time by Lily King.  Although I’d avoided reading Euphoria, King’s highly touted previous novel (I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), I was curious about her work and decided to give her latest novel, Writers and Lovers, a try.  Writers’ ostensible subject is the story of Casey, a thirty-something wannabe writer and part-time waitress; dealing with grief over her mother’s death, Casey struggles with her novel, works in a restaurant and becomes entangled with two very different men.  Writers‘ real subject (IMO at least, don’t know if the critics would agree) is the creative process and the demands that it places on its devotees.  I enjoyed the novel, without being overwhelmed by it; I was particularly taken with Casey’s criteria for determining a real bookstore and picked up several useful titles to add to my TBR list!  (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters and, what I’m far more likely to actually read, Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday.)  Prompted by an excellent review, I then sneaked in a quickie read of Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, a debut novel accurately described by The Guardian as a “smart, creepy fairy story” with a twist.  If you, like Janakay, love Gothic horror and ambivalent endings, not to mention nasty malevolent fairies with a taste for human blood (not to mention hearts), then waste no time, dear reader!  This is your book!  Janakay’s one regret is that she didn’t save it for Halloween.

Well, that’s it for my round-up!  What about yours?  I’d love to compare lists!

 

13 thoughts on “Midweek Miscellany: Reading Roundup

  1. So much good things in this post. The painting is beautiful, I also love the hammock and pool, and oh my, you have read a lot and read well. Your impressionistic reviews as you called them are delightful to read. I always like knowing what prompted you to read what you did and how the book affects your mood and is intertwined in your life.
    I am thrilled to hear that you appreciate The Makioka Sisters. I take note of all the Japanese titles, and Glass Hotel and Station Eleven. Actually, I can’t wait to visit brick and mortar stores and see if any of these titles cross my path.
    The featured covers are amazing. A good book with a great cover is a treasure.
    I don’t know if it was this or possible your prior post. I never paid attention to my first book of the year, now I will 🙂 and I loved your “cheating” with rereads. Hey, why not? I agree that it’s not really cheating but a good time to pick those rereads we need to do. I am of the opinion that rereading is very necessary.
    As for what to do after one finishes a very impactful read, I too feel lost, and it is very difficult to continue. I sometimes watch some easy TV and continue with ongoing books that are usually not fiction, but the next fiction after a great book is always a challenge.
    I am realizing how little I have read in March. First I was busy selling and disposing of books because we finally changed those floors upstairs, and then family, but I am excited about writing a post soon and sharing my book status.
    Stay safe, and see you around.

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    1. Silvia: so glad you dropped by (so fun, to reconnect here and on your own blog!) and thanks for your kind words about my quickie sketches of the books I read so far. I’m also glad you liked the painting; I always have a lot of fun looking for a nice image to go with a post. This one reminds me a bit of some of those old Dutch memento mori paintings, where the artist sticks a skull in somewhere (Harnett did not!), although I doubt if the experts would agree with me.
      My little January ritual developed rather slowly and unconsciously. Several years ago I realized that I was in fact putting a lot of significance on that first book of the year, so I decided to make “a thing” of my January selection. Sometimes I think we humans have an innate need for ceremony and ritual, however small, in our lives.
      It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in feeling a little bereft after a good read! Your TV/non-fiction solution sounds ideal.
      Regarding St. John Mandell, if you’re going to read one, I’d probably pick Station Eleven. As I said in my post, The Glass Hotel is wonderful and almost as good, but I think Station Eleven deals with the big issues (for example, the place & importance of art/literature in human existence) in a way that you’d enjoy.

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      1. I don’t know about the experts but I was about to tell you how much the painting reminded me of the Dutch “memento mori” they are called, as you say.
        I forgot to say that Death in the Holy Orders by PD James has its share of art. There’s a van Weyden painting in the school chapel that I am not sure but it may play a role in whatever is happening there.

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  2. Your post reminded me of this quote from Doris Lessing, “Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vice versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.” It is certainly good practice to keep an open mind and try a book later that disappointed you earlier…obviously the second time around can be the charm; though sometimes this can also work in the opposite way as well. It wasn’t a huge disappointment but I recently re-read Rabbit Run by John Updike and wasn’t as wowed by his writing style as I was when I first read it in my 20s. Updike was one of the authors who made me realize that HOW one wrote could be almost (I say almost because plot and character are really important to me personally) as important was what one wrote. I also just read in another book that humans don’t remain the same person as they age, which is weird to think about, but somehow seems accurate. I would recognize (cringingly) teenage me, but I don’t know if she would like old lady me!

    I am so glad to hear your reading has been so successful in 2020. That is a wonderful feeling!

    I don’t share your superstition about the first book of the year, however. I am usually reading more than one book at a time and they often overlap months, so I couldn’t even make that determination most years…is it the first book started in the New Year or finished? Also, I am usually reading a lot of Tournament of Books books around them and because this is such a varied list of books, there are always a few that are not to my taste but I read them because I want to follow in the discussions and judgements.
    I don’t have a copy of physical object of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die but I do have one of its iterations in an excel spreadsheet. I also have a list of 1000 books from the Guardian, Oprah’s Book Club list and the Modern Library’s 100 best of the 20th century. Let me tell you, there are few things I find quite as satisfying in life as checking off a book as “read” from these lists. I know I won’t read them all but that is OK. I’d be happy with ending up at 50%.

    I share your love for Ann Patchett. I loved Bel Canto, State of Wonder and Commonwealth. I didn’t like her debut, The Magician’s Assistant, but not because of the writing – the story didn’t quite ring true for me personally, that’s all. I’ve never read Rumer Godden but certainly have heard the name and know she wrote a book about a nun. I am quite sure I will like Convenience Store Woman. I read Aminata by Banana Yoshimoto a few years ago and really hated it. N.K. Jemisin has long been on my list but I have yet to sample any of her novels. Maybe this summer? I big fat sci-fi novel sounds perfect for a summer read to me. I liked Lily Kings Euphoria. I think you will like it too. Her style reminds me of Ann Patchett somehow. I didn’t love Station Eleven (though I did love the Star Trek reference!). It wouldn’t; keep me from reading more from St. John Mandel but there was something missing in the story for me. My thought, when I finished it, was that Kate Atkinson would have done a better job with the plotting and connections. Which brings me to a little bit of what I’ve been reading thus far. Too many books to mention here in this comment but I have re-read the first four Jackson Brodie books in the past 6 months to work up to Atkinson’s most recent entry, Big Sky. It was an excellent experience. I have two more novels and one book of short stories and then I can call myself and Atkinson completeist.

    Ok, take care Janakay and happy reading!

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  3. Ruthiella: I’m delighted as always to read your comments, as they give me so much to think about! My response is a bit slow because life has yet to settle down and my energy level is still recovering (dishes are unpacked, thank heaven, but I’m still stepping over boxes).
    A thousand thanks for the quote from Doris Lessing. It articulates, so much better than my own fumbling words the thought I was struggling to convey. After all, that’s what great writers are for, n’est ce pas? To articulate so beautifully what we struggle to express? Can you believe I’ve never read Lessing at all, not even a little smidgen of Lessing? I think I’ve always found her just a bit overwhelming and I’ve never known where to start among her many books. Any recommendations on how I mend this gaping hole in my reading?
    As for the re-reading experience itself (you can tell this is a favorite topic of mine!): I love re-reading books and comparing my reactions to them over time. Aside from the fact that enjoyment/understanding is frequently enhanced and pleasure heightened (or, as you astutely point out, sometimes unfortunately diminished), the book/novel provides a kind of measuring stick vis a vis where we are at particular points in our lives (forgive the pomposity, please — it’s early morning here and Janakay is feeling philosophical!). Have you heard of a short little work by Wendy Lesser called “Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering”? I read it many years ago and was actually thinking of dipping into it again. Lesser argues, as I recall, that rereading is actually MORE of a intimate experience because the reader’s past AND present selves are interacting with the work. Whether you buy this idea or not, the thought of one’s past and present self in dialogue with an art work is fascinating (I might add that the same experience happens with a painting).
    While there are a number of books I’ve read more than once, there are only a few I’ve read three or more times. Do you have any such yourself? Most of mine are sheer comfort reads, predictable works for times when I’m after sheer pleasure and not up to the stimulation of new material. The exception to this is “Middlemarch.” I’m not sure re-reading Eliot gives me much additional self-knowledge but I find the re-read fascinating because each time I read it, I find that I unconsciously focus on a completely different character or sub-plot. In one book, at least if it’s a classic, there are many universes.
    I can quite see how my little January ritual doesn’t work for you! How readers tend to be either sequential (one-book-at-a-time types like me) or simultaneous (many books at once, like you) is another topic I find quite interesting. With fiction I’m too greedy to switch off; I HAVE to know how the story ends as soon as possible; in fact, guilty confession, I frequently read the middle last, after I skip to the end. In my pompous moods, I like to say that I’ve moved beyond the confining strictures of the 19th century novel into the freedom of a non-linear plot. (so much nicer, isn’t it, than saying I can’t bear the suspense of reading chronologically?)
    We really must have a conversation one day regarding the elements of the novel, particularly the ones we find most important to ourselves as readers. I gather that, for you, it’s plot and character. While I join you with respect to character, I’m afraid that for me atmosphere is far more important than plot. While I do enjoy a good plot, my habit of reading the end out of turn necessarily puts this element in the shade. Aside from that, I would gladly forego a great plot (but only if necessary!) for the experience of being totally immersed in a world other than my own. Weren’t you going to read Durrell’s “Justine” as one of your Back to the Classics Challenge books? If so, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts. I found his Alexandria Quartet to be the most fabulous experience of world building. If Durrell’s city never existed, it really should have.
    Regarding “Station Eleven:” I loved the structure of the novel; how Mandel floated pieces of the her story in front of you and then, at key points, let you make the necessary connections (guess I’m back to non-linear plot again, hun?). She does the same thing in “The Glass Hotel,” which I read as simply a type of thriller/character driven story without the philosophical overtones of “Eleven.” You might like it more.
    And, yes, I adore Ann Patchett. I read “Bel Canto” very late in the day, after it was a big hit, and somewhat reluctantly as I thought the plot might be too sentimental for me. Was I wrong! Totally loved it and went to work on Patchett’s backlist. I probably liked “The Magician’s Assistant” a bit better than you did, although I agree it’s far from her best. It’s nice to know that Jackson Brodie is worth a re-read. I raced through the first three, I think, before falling by the wayside; I loved the first two but somehow lost interest somewhere along the way. Judging from reviews, Jemisin’s latest (which I read) is perhaps not the best place to start. I really must check out her Broken Earth trilogy but — so many books, you know! Speaking of which, you’ve renewed my interest in Lily King’s “Euphoria;” I think I’ve avoided it because of the “love among the anthropologists” angle.
    My heaven’s how I’ve rattled on! The sun is up and that very annoying mockingbird who lives outside the window of my new house is going bonkers (I actually like mockingbirds but this one never knows when to stop). Happy reading — and I can’t wait to check out your reviews!

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  4. Isn’t there a famous ancient Greek who said something about never stepping in the same river twice? I love your thoughts on re-reading. I don’t do it enough but with audio books as an option, I am more likely to work it in to my schedule, so to speak. I don’t believe I have ever read a book three times. But I may end up doing so (should I live so long) with Austen, Trollope and Dickens (and probably Christie). I have read all of Austen and Dickens completed novels, some twice. Once I finish them all a second time, I would like to go back for thirds. Like your Middlemarch experience (which I have only read once), it is for pure enjoyment of the story and for sure, a sub-plot or smaller character or whatever is what may be the focus upon re-reading.

    I am going to try at least to read the Alexandria Quartet this year. We’ll see how I get on. I would love to have a more in depth discussion about all that what goes in to making a novel enjoyable to me. Plot is usually what I love most. I just like a good story. But there are always exceptions to the rules. I find it hard sometimes to articulate why I love a book, but I know there are plotless books I have loved. I would have to think a bit about what those are, however. I may have to make a list.

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  5. Intriguing about The Corner That Held Them – I love and adore Lolly Willowes, but when I read Corner I found it one of the most boring books I’d ever read. I did keep it, though, so maybe it’s one to go back to later!

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  6. Simon: My initial reaction to Corner was identical to yours: BORING! This was, in fact, the reason it became my “abandoned classic” for 2020; quite frankly, I didn’t really think I’d be able to slog through it. I was astonished to discover this time around how very much I enjoyed it (although it DID lag a bit at the end). Isn’t it amazing how that happens at times?
    I share your love of Lolly Willowes — it’s one of my absolute favorites and I return to it every few years. It’s hard to imagine a book more different from Corner, however; how COULD the same writer have produced such different works? While doing a little research on Warner (in preparation for that review that I’ve yet to write) I discovered that some critic or other had in fact commented on just how different Warner’s books were from each other, making her a very difficult writer to characterize and perhaps limiting her appeal for some. When I finally get around to reading The Flint Anchor it will be interesting to see where it falls on the spectrum!

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