About halfway through June I discovered the very amusing “Six In Six” Challenge sponsored by Jo at Book Jotter. Since I’ve posted so very little this year while reading more than I have in quite some time, I decided this was an excellent way to share at least a little of the many great books that have come my way in what is shaping up to be a banner year for reading. Besides, isn’t quantifying one’s journey almost as much fun as undertaking the trip in the first place?
The challenge is to pick six categories and, having done so, to list six books that you’ve read by the end of June within each chosen category (as I understand it, the selections should be posted by the end of July. Since I just wouldn’t be me if I actually posted on time, I’m shooting for August 1!) In addition to supplying a multitude of categories from which to choose, Jo has very cleverly left room for participants to exercise their creativity by adding something new. I’ve taken advantage of her leniency by adding two categories of my own, “Short Reads,” which is self-explanatory, and my “Shelf of Shame,” a list of six books that I’ve had on my shelves unread for over six years! Can you, dear readers, match my brave honesty? If so, please share in a comment!
SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE
As a reader I am both loyal and tenacious, i.e., when I find a writer I like, I’m automatically “in” for her next novel and will frequently start working on that writer’s backlist as well. As a result, my yearly list almost always includes at least a few writers from prior years, although the particular combination of names may vary. Six of this year’s repeaters (there have actually been more but hey — we’re doing a “six in six” roundup here!) include:
Beryl Bainbridge (BB). Although I’ve always enormously enjoyed BB’s work, I took a rather extended break from it after reading a novel or two that didn’t quite do it for me. This year, however, Tony’s excellent review of BB’s The Bottle Factory Outing reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Bainbridge’s elegant prose and her unique view of the world. Resisting the temptation to re-read an old favorite or two (since I’m big on re-reading, this was difficult) I opted to try Every Man for Himself, in which a very privileged young man (he’s a nephew of J.P. Morgan) thinks it’s a great idea to book a homeward voyage on the Titanic. Well, we know how at least one part of the story is going to end, don’t we? Bainbridge, being Bainbridge, however, never fails to throw her readers a curve ball or two and this particular luxury ship as a metaphor is a perfect vehicle for her gimlet gaze at Edwardian Society at its height. Because I tend to avoid fiction (and movies ) invoking the Titanic (frequently too sentimental and/or melodramatic, don’t you think?) I was very skeptical the novel would work for me. Another of my egregious literary misjudgments, I’m afraid, as it was a fabulous read. If you share my phobia about things Titanic (Titanophobia?), fear not, gentle reader. This coming-of-age tale conjoined with the sinking of a very large ship is Bainbridge at her best.
Sylvia Townsend Warner. A favorite writer of mine, so much so that I actually summoned the energy last year to write a real review of one of her wonderful books. Since that time I’ve been hoarding The Flint Anchor to read for Gallimaufry’s annual STW week. Although Anchor is classified as historical fiction, it’s leagues above what’s included in this genre. Warner’s combination of realism and imagination is equaled IMO only by Hilary Mantel’s; both writers have the ability to convince me that I’m reading an actual account of an era while at the same time enriching their stories with modern flashes of insight and imagination. If you haven’t read Warner before I wouldn’t recommend that you begin with Anchor, which does start a bit slowly; if you need sympathetic characters with which you’re able to identify, I’d probably skip Warner altogether. If you’re looking, however, for an unforgettable reading experience from a master of English prose, then head for this novel about a 19th century Norfolk merchant and his tyrannized family. Despite my intense enjoyment of Flint Anchor, I didn’t manage a review for STW week. Not to worry, gentle readers, as Gallimaufry’s excellent review says it all. (Note to Gallimaufry: typepad frequently gives me technical problems, so I wasn’t able to leave any comments.)
Valerie Martin. A prolific and wonderfully skilled author that I’ve somewhat lost track of in recent years (if you haven’t read Property, put it on your TBR list immediately!). I was happy to renew our acquaintance this year with Martin’s latest, I Give It To You, a wonderful novel involving a writer’s use, and sometimes misuse, of fiction to interpret another’s life. Set in a beautifully described Tuscan countryside, with an interwoven plot strand involving Mussolini’s Italy, what’s not to like?
Joe Abercrombie: No one does dark fantasy better than Joe A. Why read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones when Abercrombie’s novels are available? And better? Unlike Martin, Abercrombie does tight plots, has a wicked sense of humor and can actually finish a story line (is it obvious, dear reader, that I’m a disgruntled fan of George R.R.?) From December 2020 to mid-February 2021, Abercrombie’s novels were calling my name; I totally immersed myself in his deliciously cynical world. Abercrombie’s realpolitik, tricky plots and flawed characters were such a perfect escape from pandemic and moving-to-a-new-house stress. When the dust cleared, shortly after my eyesight gave out, my total was two complete trilogies and the first two volumes of a third (last volume’s due out this September. Guess what I’ll be doing then?). Readers, what can I say? That’s a lot of trilogies. If you’d like to sample Abercrombie’s work on a less immersive basis, I’d recommend Best Served Cold, which can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Elizabeth Bowen. As I’ve noted before, Bowen is one of those writers with whom I have long had a problematical relationship. She’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, and her prose can be absolutely gorgeous but . . . at times she’s just a bit too nuanced and elliptical for little old me, who dearly loves an unambiguous story told in a straightforward manner (yes, dear reader, some of us never quite leave our childhood behind). Yet Bowen is one of those writers to whom I keep returning and I’ve slowly but steadily whittled away at her novels after discovering her work a decade or so ago. (I think Hotel and A World of Love are the only ones I haven’t yet read.) This year’s Bowen was Eva Trout, a wonderful novel involving a socially challenged and very rich young woman, a gun that goes off at a most unexpected time and the inability of humans in general to communicate anything important to each other. As if Bowen’s wonderful prose and the very interesting questions she raises aren’t enough to make it one of the best things I’ve read this year, the novel is also very, very funny in spots (there’s a luncheon scene I’d rank with some of Saki’s finer sketches).
Anita Brookner. After being a rabid (if one may use such a word in connection with such a genteel writer) fan for many years, I drifted away from Brookner’s work when she was slightly past mid-career. Undeterred by my desertion, the wonderful Ms. B just kept turning out her elegant, psychologically insightful novels. I hadn’t intended to read anything by Brookner this year, but Jacquiwine’s reviews of Brookner’s novels (she’s working her way through them in publication order) have been so much fun to read I was inspired last spring to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites. This time around, I enjoyed Brookner’s tale of the intelligent, lonely Blanche and her nemesis, a husband stealer named Mousey, every bit as much as before.
SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE READ IN AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND SIX WRITERS WHO ARE NEW TO ME
Until I started blogging, I really avoided translated literature for a variety of reasons, none of them good. One of the great joys of the last year (and, face it, weren’t we all seizing on the teeniest little bit of joy in that awful pandemic year?) was letting go, or at least beginning to let go, of that irrational prejudice, with some very happy results as a reward (the only downside has been an exponential explosion in my TBR list). Since I’m new to reading translated fiction, practically every translated novel that I read in the early part of this year (exception noted below) was by a writer who was new to me. Taking advantage of Jo’s invitation to be creative, I’ve decided to combine these two categories.
Aoko Matsuda. Placed at the bottom of my pile only for convenience (the other books stack up nicely on top of it), Matsuda was one of this year’s wonderful discoveries. Humor! A feminist slant! A great translator (Polly Barton)! Great characters and clever plots! Matsuda’s collection of short stories inspired by Japanese folk & fairy tales has everything. Although I read it back in January, thus beginning 2021 on a really high note, I’m afraid Abercrombie’s fantasy novels and my move to a new house got in the way of a proper review (I’m somewhat optimistic that I’ll manage this for #WIT month which begins, my heavens, can it really be tomorrow????)
Amélie Nothomb. I’ve been intending for (literally) years to read something, anything by this very interesting French/Belgian/grew-up-in-Asia novelist. Since she’s amazingly prolific (think Joyce Carol Oates) I had quite a lot to choose from. Because I’m drawn to mother-daughter tales, I decided on Strike Your Heart, the story of an unloved daughter and the effects of that maternal deprivation on her life. Since I’ve not read any of Nothomb’s previous work, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I must admit I was surprised by her terse style and the almost mythic nature of her story. This short and disturbing novel (the mother’s psychological brutality in the opening pages made me mildly queasy) can be read in an afternoon. Its effects, however, linger for quite some time afterward.
Magda Szabo. Including Szabo’s Katalin Street in this twofer category is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve previously read her wonderful novel The Door. But, hey — this is my list and if adding it here causes any of you to read it I’m sure you’ll forgive me for you’ll be reading a marvelous novel. Szabo’s tale of three interlocked Budapest families whose lives are torn apart by the German occupation of 1944 is quite different from The Door (aside from a more complex story arc, Szabo plays with a touch of magical realism by making one of her many characters a ghost) but is almost as good. Absolutely not to be missed.
Jens Christian Grøndahl. Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy was another great discovery from the earlier months of the year. I must admit that a somewhat prurient curiosity drew me to this novel in which the narrator addresses her dead best friend, who just happens to have stolen the narrator’s husband (I’m addicted to tales of marital betrayal. Don’t ask why). You can imagine my surprise in finding a spare, poetic meditation on grief, friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved this book and have now added to my TBR list everything of Grøndahl’s that’s been translated into English.
Margarita Liberaki. Do you, dear readers, enjoy coming of age novels written in beautifully sensual prose? Are interesting female characers and a sense of atmosphere high on your requirements for an ideal reading experience? Are you less exacting with respect to plot and action sequences? If so, Liberaki’s Three Summers, which charts the lives and relationships of three young sisters growing up in a suburb of Athens shortly before WWII, should be your next novel. Regardless of the time and place in which you read it, Liberaki will instantly transport you to the Greek countryside of the mid-1940s, in which you’ll almost smell those red poppies and hear the bees in the garden.
Eileen Chang. Languages as well as a universe of emotional difference separates Liberaki’s novel from the beautiful, brutal short stories contained in Love In a Fallen City (oddly, I think the two women are roughly contemporaries). If you’re seeking gentle tales of romantic love, well, Chang is not your writer. Despite the title, her stories are about anything but love; rather, they center on power, exploitation and raw sexual politics, all told against the exotic setting of mid-20th century Hong Kong. I loved this collection of stories, originally published separately in the 1930s-1940s, and put together by NYRB Classics. Next on my reading for Chang will be her Little Reunions, also an NYRB Classic.
SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST
As I noted above, 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for me as far as my reading selections are concerned, with scarcely a dud among the lot. Although it’s difficult to limit my choice to six (for one thing, I keep changing my mind) my current selection is as follows (those who bother to count will notice that I’ve sneaked in a seventh novel):
Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel. Another take on a love triangle, combined with a sensitively rendered portrait of childhood, told in beautiful prose by a marvelous, and marvelously underrated, American writer. Stafford was a journalist and writer of short stories, with only three novels to her name. Of these, only one, The Mountain Lion, seems to have remained continuously in print. Thankfully, NYRB Classics has recently republished Stafford’s Boston Adventure (very high on my TBR list) and the Library of America has taken up her work as well.
Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.
Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. A year without a Henry James novel is a sad year indeed. As much as I adore James, one has to be realistic about one’s available time and attention span, so I chose a shorter work to squeeze in this spring, keeping in mind that “short” does not equate to simple when reading HJ. Being a material girl myself, I was eager to see how this duel to death over the family heirlooms would play out. As usual, HJ did not do the expected but then — that’s why he’s The Master.
Paula Fox’s The God of Nightmares. This is the year that I’ve finally gotten to Paula Fox, a very interesting American writer whom I’ve been intending to read for years and years. This novel of a young woman, her fading actress-aunt and their bohemian circle of friends in 1940s New Orleans is told beautifully and with a complete lack of sentimentality (always welcome in novels with New Orleans’ settings). I am now an avid fan of Paula Fox and expect to read many more of her novels.
Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. One of my “rescued from the back shelf” books; that it remained unread for so many years speaks very poorly of my judgment. I loved this novel, for all the reasons I discussed in one of my few reviews this year.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Flint Anchor.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion. An impulse choice, but can one ever go wrong with Austen? Because I first read Persuasion at a particularly low point in my life, when facing the results of several very bad choices, this novel has a special place in my affection. Don’t we all need to be reminded at times that a bad choice can be redeemed? Aside from a wonderful heroine in Anne Elliot, Sir Walter is one of Austen’s great comic creations.
SIX SHORT READS
This is one of my “invented” categories, i.e., it’s not on Jo’s “Six in Six” list. Although I’ve never been a big reader of short stories or novellas, I found myself turning increasingly to both in 2020, when I (like many others) found it so difficult to concentrate on novels. The willingness to try shorter works has carried over to 2021, when I’ve finally started to read some of those many Melville House and Penguin novellas that have been sitting, neglected, on the shelf. So far this year I’ve managed:
Willa Cather’s “Alexander’s Bridge.” A very early work, with an uncharacteristically urban setting (Boston and London, no less), this is a satisfying if flawed introduction to Cather’s work. A love triangle in which two strong and very interesting women are being strung along by the same guy, who can’t quite make up his mind between the two. Considered by critics to be not among Cather’s best, it’s still very much worth reading.
Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone.” Not quite first rank Wharton IMO but still better than almost anything else written during that period. A brilliant, famous woman bestows her love on an unworthy object, who ultimately betrays her trust in a particularly dishonorable fashion. Wharton’s style and signature irony save this novella from being a tad sentimental and melodramatic.
Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love.” Another coming of age tale, with a twist. Although I guessed the plot well in advance, this novella was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. It’s the first thing I’ve read by Turgernev; now I’m eager to read his Fathers and Sons.
Joseph Conrad’s “The Duelist.” After watching Ridley Scot’s great movie of the same name for the umpteenth time, I finally read the source material. Although I’m not a big Conrad fan, this story of mad obsession, in which the irrational rancor of the duelists reflects the insanity of Napoleonic Europe, was a gripping and very satisfying read.
Stefan Zweig’s “Fear.” Ah, the carnal lust lurking beneath the respectable facade of the Viennese bourgeoisie! Adultery, guilt and blackmail! No one does this type of thing better than Zweig.
James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I’ve read it before, but what does that matter? A work to re-read, as many times as possible during one’s life.
SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE
MY SHELF OF SHAME: SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE HAD FOR MORE THAN SIX YEARS WITHOUT READING THEM
As I indicated at the beginning of this post, I devised this category largely because I have so very many unread books. The above, a mere bump on the iceberg, were chosen purely at random:
Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down: this one belonged to Mr. Janakay’s grandmother, who was quite a reader. In my possession, unread, since 1985. I love West’s novels, but just can’t seem to get to this one.
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: In my possession since shortly after its publication in 2008 (note: I have the other two volumes of the trilogy as well, also unread). Not to worry, dear readers! I’ll get to all three. Sometime.
Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights: sitting on my shelf since 2015; I can’t understand why, as I’ve always wanted to read it.
Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare. I’ve been dying to read this one since 2009. One day.
Ursula Holden’s The Tin Toys. I don’t know the precise date I acquired this, but it’s been warming the shelf for at least a decade. I actually took it with me on a long overseas birding trip, but ended up reading several of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels instead.
Esther Freud’s The Wild. Again, no precise date of acquisition, but this one’s looking pretty foxed. It was published in 2000, and I’m guessing I acquired it in 2011, when I first discovered Freud’s novels and went on a massive Esther Freud binge. I love her work, so I’ll definitely read it. At some point.
41 thoughts on ““Six In Six”: My 2021 Reading So Far”
I LOVED Property and must read more by Valerie Martin. We’ll have to agree to disagree on GRRM and Abercrombie 🙂
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Hi Laura! So nice to find another reader who liked Martin’s Property, a truly fabulous novel. Despite its winning the Orange Prize, however, not that many people seem to have read it. I think the same is true, to a lesser extent, for Martin herself. Although I hope I’m wrong on this point, she generally seems IMO to be rather underrated. I began reading her years ago, with The Great Divorce, which blew me away: two skillfully handled plot lines, one modern, one pre-Civil War (some of the same themes as Property); complex characters and intriguing questions about man’s relationship with nature. I’d like to re-read it after so many years, to see if I still like it as much. Not all of Martin’s novels are this good, of course (some of the very early ones left me cold) and I did stop reading her several years ago, right around the time she wrote Trespass, which I didn’t much like. Still, I’m a fan and I was very happy to see I Give It To You, which I considered a wonderful read and in the top tier of Martin’s work.
Your comment about George R.R. and Abercrombie made me laugh! Not a fan of the old grim dark, uh? Isn’t it amazing how we all have our little reading foibles? I grew up reading mass market sci-fi and fantasy, with ray guns and green space babes on the cover (usually struggling with many-tentacled monsters) so I have an enormous capacity (and tolerance) for works in those genres!
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Really interesting about Valerie Martin. I’m not sure which of her novels to read next but will take the advice to avoid Trespass and her early works!
I actually meant that I love GRRM/ASOIAF, but couldn’t get through the one Abercrombie novel I’ve tried, sorry 🙂 It’s true that I’m not really a fan of grimdark but don’t really read GRRM as such, especially in his non ASOIAF works. I found Abercrombie’s characters really unpleasant which was a bit of an issue for me, though not sure if I just chose the wrong Abercrombie to try (the one I read was The Blade Itself).
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Reply to Laura (not sure if this will work) — regarding Abercrombie vs. Martin
I realized AFTER i hit reply that I’d misunderstood your comment! Thanks for the clarification. I do like Martin, very much, although I’ve gotten increasingly impatient with his inability/unwillingness to JUST SIT DOWN AND FINISH his story! I suppose I shouldn’t blame the guy, but like many I take my fantasy (a bit too?) seriously and it’s incredibly frustrating to have so many story arcs left hanging. I also think that his books in the series have gotten progressively weaker.
I do think that Martin is probably a better stylist than Abercrombie; he has that wonderful streak of poetry that Joe, as much as I like his novels, doesn’t possess. There’s a certain grandeur to Martin’s characters that is definitely missing from Abercrombie’s. I can’t imagine Abercrombie coming up with dragons; if he did, one of his characters would be selling dragon rides and swindling the customers! On the other hand, Joe is funnier (important to me) and has a very twisty way with a plot.
I totally understand your opinion about Abercrombie. His characters are nasty indeed (who else would have a major character who’s a torturer?) and his world is pretty unpleasant; not too many chinks of light in HIS universe. It probably says too many things about me that I adore his work, although his forthcoming book will probably be my last for quite awhile.
If you didn’t like The Blade Itself, I’d confirm (for what it’s worth) that Avercrombie’s definitely not a writer you’d want to waste time with.
Oh my goodness! You certainly have made up for not posting for a while in this super post. So much to read here, and I’m having that panic-stricken feeling that there are a huge number of wonderful writers here as yet not known to me. I
Thank you very much for joining in and also more categories to add to the list for future years!
Hi. I’ve read books by only a few of the writers you mention. I’ve made note of some of your recommendations. There are so many good writers out there!
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Isn’t that the truth? I remind myself of this, when the “Shelf of Shame” gets several more inhabitants (reading the blogs contributes to this quite a bit). So many great books, but one can only read so much. Aren’t you a fan of Robin Sloan, or do I misremember? Last spring I finally read his Sourdough, which I enjoyed a great deal; he really, really knows the food scene in San Francisco. I’d love to read more of his work (I particularly enjoyed his humor and eye for satire) — maybe one day!
I have read a fair number of the works you mention on your six lists, and, best of all, I will be adding one of these works, ‘Fear’ by Stefan Zweig, to my own soon to be read list.
I think you’ll enjoy it a great deal. It’s a tad melodramatic, which I enjoy, but very intriguing. I haven’t read a great deal of Zweig’s work, but he’s high on my list to explore further (I have a copy of Beware of Pity, waiting on the shelf . . .).
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I’m hope your shelf of shame is at least somewhat facetious – I’d have whole book cases of shame, and what about Umberto Eco?! Love the teapot.
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Hi CathyC! I was being just a little facetious about the shelf of shame — the situation is actually much, much worse! The past year has been a tough one in many respects and I’m afraid my book mania is out of control. Having lots of empty shelf space for the first time in my adult life has been fuel for the fire, I’m afraid.
Speaking of shelves, how’s your own project coming along? Did you ever decide on the layout?
I’m glad you like the tea pot, which is one of my better flea market finds. Back in the forties, these things were giveaways when you bought a certain brand of flour, or sugar or something like that. This one appeals to my sense of whimsy, being very Aladdin shaped. I keep hoping there’s a genie in there somewhere!
I don’t know when our saga will end: our library was picked up in Europe first day of October, so 10 months ago and we still haven’t seen it. That’s cargo shipping during COVID for you I guess.
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How horrible; life with your books all packed up on a cargo ship. I’ve seen articles here, about supply chain disruptions and know several people who’ve had very long waits after ordering household items. As you, another gift from Covid. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that you’ll soon receive your treasures!
That’s why we’ve been living in a house full of books we haven’t yet read. I’m still not sure if I’m going to get rid of quite a lot of them once our own turn up. Despite having so long to figure it out!
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Every Man for Himself is definitely one of BB’s good ones from her historical phase (I also loved The Birthday Boys). I have read and loved Property, but it’s the only Valerie Martin I have read. Somehow I’ve let Joe Abercrombie pass me by – I should definitely give him a try.
I really enjoy Amelie Nothumb, her novels are always slightly disturbing, yet full of pithy wit. As for my shelf of shame – I probably have six bookcases full!
Hi Annabel — glad you stopped by. I, too, loved The Birthday Boys. If it wasn’t my first novel by BB (I think it was), it definitely started my mania for her work. I think I stopped working my way through her books with Master Georgie, which I’m afraid I didn’t much like when I read it many years ago. Since it’s a favorite of many readers, however, I really should try it again. I don’t think I’ve read many of Bainbridge’s earlier novels, so I have quite the treat to look forward to. It’s amazing to me, that she never won the Booker.
Martin’s Property was fabulous, wasn’t it? And so very dark and disturbing. Like many prolific novelists, Martin doesn’t always completely succeed, but even when she doesn’t (I wasn’t wowed, for example, by The Ghost of the Mary Celste), she’s generally worth reading. I do remember loving The Great Divorce, the first novel of hers that I read. The one I mention in my post is a very enjoyable way to pass a couple of afternoons and a welcome return to Martin’s better stuff.
I will definitely read more by Amelie Nothomb. Juding from the one novel I’ve completed, she has a most distinctive voice.
As for my shameful shelves — well, there ARE limits to my honesty! My actual number of unread books is far, far too embarrassing to disclose.
I wasn’t a fan of Master Georgie either. I prefer her first phase of novels where she mined her own life for inspiration. The Bottle Factory Outing, Injury Time, Sweet William and An Awfully Big Adventure are all superb and very witty. The even earlier ones are great too, but not as funny.
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Hi Annabel! It’s odd about Master Georgie, isn’t it? I really loved BB’s novels up to that point. Perhaps it was the Crimean war setting that didn’t appeal or I felt the situation with the nursery maid was a bit too much. Luckily, I haven’t read BB’s novels drawing on her life experiences, so I’ve much to look forward to. Not to mention the re-reads (I’m big on re-reading) . . .
Excellent interpretation of the meme! I’m hoping to get to Three Summers soon for #WITMonth. And possibly a re-read of Persuasion – we shall see! 😀
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Hi Kaggsy! Hope all is going well and you’re not too busy, gearing up for #WIT (hopefully I’ll manage at least one review). I did notice Three Summers in one of your stacks; if you get to it, I’ll be very interested in your reaction. I thought it was beautifully done (I admire the skill) although temperamentally I’m more drawn to the novelists whose style is ironic, dark and quirky, i.e., more Beryl Bainbridge/Shirley Jackson than Liberaki, if that makes any sense.
Persuasion is really wonderful, isn’t it? I had no intention of a re-read, was just sorting through the piles, and fully intended to just glance at a paragraph or two but . . . . Sir Walter draws me in every time!
Many thanks for the link to my Brookner piece, that’s very kind of you! (I’m glad you’ve been enjoying my posts on her books.) Of the other books you’ve showcased here, Eva Trout definitely appeals. Bowen can be a a challenging author to read but every rewarding when you’re in the right mood, so I’m glad to see how much you enjoyed this book!
Hi JacquiWine! glad you clicked by and, as for the link, “de nada” — your Brooner reviews are not to be missed! I am eagerly awaiting the next one (I believe it’s either Misalliance of Friend from England, my absolute favorite from years ago).
As for Bowen, I totally agree that when she’s “on” for you, she’s great. I think I find that all her nuance sometimes creates, for me at least, a certain chilly elegance which can be a bit off-putting. Although I admired the talent on display, for example, in Friends and Relations (admittedly an early work) I didn’t warm to it. On the other hand, I loved Death of the Heart, to which I responded in an emotional way. I’m afraid I postponed reading Eva Trout for a number of years, which made my very favorable reaction when I did so a lovely treat! I’d have to think it through a bit more, but perhaps I found ET in some respects to be almost a comedy of manners, whose effects IMO are accentuated by a little chilly detachment on the writer’s part.
I really must try some of Bowen’s non-fiction, particularly as I’ve gotten great recommendations from my blog reading!
Marvelous post, as usual.
Elizabeth Bowen and Anita Brookner are authors I would be hard pressed to return to. But never say never! I loved Hotel du Lac, but read two subsequent books and became weary of Brookner’s repeated, depressing theme of lonely women. From Bowen, I read The Death of the Heart and like you, I found parts of it indecipherable.
I really want to try Abercrombie. I just need to take the plunge.
There is so much fantasy out there that I want to read. Especially since it is usually quite plot driven, it is typically a pretty quick read for me. But I get tied up in my lists of things I “should” read. On that list is most definitively Stephan Zweig and Magda Szabo. I really should put Women in Translation month on my to-do list because you make Amélie Nothomb, Margarita Liberak, and Eileen Chang all sound like must-reads. I read very little that is translated; only three books this year so far and all three were because of the Tournament of Books.
You also make The Catherine Wheel sound fascinating. One of my bookish catnips is authors who have only published one or two books. That fact always makes me very curious about their work and why they didn’t get the limelight or why, if they did, they aren’t still “in the cannon” or in print. I often read/hear that a classic has “lasted for a reason”, but sometimes that reason it maybe more precarious or more infused with preconceived notions about who “deserves” to be taught or preserved that readers realize.
I just started to re-read Persuasion yesterday. On Litsy (a reading social media app) they are doing a chapter a day read-a-long and I thought I would tag along. I’ve only read it the one time and know I would benefit from a closer read. I formed a dislike for Austen’s passive heroines like Fanny Price and Anne Elliot. I much prefer the flawed but mouthy Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet. But I know there are riches to be mined from the text and narrative if I would pay better attention and a chapter a day read-a-long with posts from other readers doing the thinking for me is perfect.
Regarding your six years shame: I read Pomona Queen a couple of months ago and I freely admit that it is a book I have had on my shelf (or in storage at least) for at least 25 years. I don’t know that it was worth waiting for that long for the general readership, but I did appreciate reading it. It is crime fiction based on the city where I grew up, so it had a very personal connection in that respect. I am pretty sure a friend from high school gave it to me. We are still in tough and when I texted him, he confirmed that it was a strong possibility. Otherwise, it is modern noir, which really isn’t my bag. Meaning I can read one or two from the genre every so often, but I don’t actively seek it out.
Also on my TBR for this year is The Last Banquet by Johnathon Grimwood which I purchased in 2013 for The Readers Podcast group read… It is the last book of that now defunct Podcast’s reading group that I have. I kept up for most of the series, but fell behind at the end. This is historical fiction, way more up my street in terms of taste, so I have high hopes.
I’ll stop here, but I am sure you know that you are not alone in your “shame”. LOL
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Ruthiella — I’m delighted, as always, that you clicked by, as I so much enjoy our bookish conversations. As usual, however, I’m having trouble getting myself organized to reply (how I managed to function in the workplace for so long is a mystery to me. Probably sheer luck).
Like you, I came to Anita Brookner through Hotel du Lac, which I suppose you could consider Brookner’s high action novel. (it’s still my favorite BTW) I did stick with her for some time afterwards, although I completely understand why you (and many others) didn’t. I did eventually take a break from her novels (she was writing almost one a year) and, while I didn’t intend this to be permanent, I never quite got back to reading her work on a sustained basis. After so many years, however, I’m now ready to re-examine the novels I’ve read and try the ones I haven’t. I must admit, however, that given Brookner’s stellar success — acclaimed novelist, Cambridge professor, respected art historian (I’ve actually read a little of her art criticism although the French painters she specialized in aren’t my big favorites), a female first in so many, many respects, I do find myself asking why so many of her protagonists seem so lonely and dissatisfied with their lives. Maybe Brookner worked through her angst in her novels; mabe they aren’t autobiographical at all, maybe artists are just complicated people.
If you ever try Abercrombie, you really MUST let me know your reaction, as I’ve given him such a build-up. Although you can do the standalone novels (essentially his second “trilogy;” I use quotes because there’s only minor links among these three books) I think you’d do better to just start the first volume of the first trilogy, The Blade Itself. You should know within a very short time whether Abercrombie’s work is for you. It’s snarky, and cynical and ALL of the characters are flawed and, in many respects, unpleasant; his universe is dark and nothing init is quite what it appears to be on the surface. Abercrombie is incredibly funny in spots (the humor reminds me somewhat of Hollow Kingdom, which I think you liked), his plots move and move fast and they’re intricate but well-thought out with (usually) a twist or two along the way that I didn’t see coming. A major character, and one of my very favorites, is Glokta the torturer, a messed up guy who loves his job. If that’s an unthinkable barrier for you, I’d skip Abercrombie; but if you’re open to very grey characters the very self-aware Sand dan Glokta is one of the best. A great review of what I’m blathering about is: https://www.tor.com/2008/12/05/thefirstlaw/
I think you make a great point about “the Canon” vis-à-vis Jean Stafford. I always find it interesting how the people who don’t quite make the cut tend to be women and writers of color. It does make you wonder about who’s doing the selecting, n’est ce-pas? I really didn’t know much about her life, other than it was an interesting one that included a stormy marriage to Robert Lowell. Her best known novel (I think she primarily wrote short stories) is The Mountain Lion, which I’d avoided for no good reason. I loved her writing in Catherine Wheel but I must warn you Ruthiella, it does smack stylistically a bit of Henry James (or even, perhaps, Bowen)! Not so ponderous or complex as late James (I think we’ve both read, with difficulty, Wings of the Dove), but lots of emotional nuance and not very much plot. Catherine Wheel is beautifully descriptive and has a great portrait of a difficult childhood year for one of the characters but, despite a rather melodramatic situation involving the Catherine of the title, not much action. I’ll definitely read Stafford’s other two novels (NYRB classics has just reprinted one); as you say, women novelists of limited output really are like catnip to a reader! I actually read Catherine Wheel for the Back to the Classics Challenge, which means I really should write a review (but — we know how that goes in my case, don’t we?)
Austen heroines are a great bunch, aren’t they, and prime conversation starters (we all have our favorites). Many readers, I know, dislike Fanny as a passive goody two-shoes. Oddly enough, I’ve always been o.k. with her, although my last read of Mansfield Park is many years ago. I must admit I never thought of Anne Elliot as passive exactly, although you’re quite correct on this point (I have to point out, however, that she does say that she’d have disregarded her family and gone with Wentworth, if he’d reached out to her when he returned to England after his first success). I, too, love Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, who really is one of lit’s greatest creations (bet you’ve never read THAT before, have you?) As for Emma, I always feel a little sorry for her, as I think Austen was actually a little mean to her; I’ve always suspected that Austen was setting poor Emma up for a moralizing lesson!
I appreciate your willingness to share your “shame” (LOL) regarding your unread books; your Pomona Queen is right up there with my Rebecca West novel! Like you, I’m not that big on modern noir; with me, a little goes a long way. I’m not familiar with The Last Banquet, although I do still retain my fondness for historical fiction. If you read it, be sure and share your views. I think one of the worst things about the long-held but never read books we all have is that the subjects or styles of many of them frequently date or become irrelevant if we leave them too long unread; also, even if this doesn’t occur we ourselves change, so that the reader who chose that book years ago has been replaced by a different person, to whom that book no longer appeals. I fully expected one of these things to be the case with Nunez’s Last of Her Kind; that it wasn’t probably explains some of my enthusiasm for the novel (not all of it, however! The novel really was great).
Well, enough of these musings (I need a photo of a yawning cat here!). Hopefully wordpress will post all of this.
Just wanted to report back that I am really enjoying the re-read of Persuasion. I don’t know if I will ever warm to Fanny Price, but I do now better appreciate Anne Elliot’s steely backbone. Her strength is what enabled her to live with her insufferable family for so long after Wentworth went to sea and it is also what gives her the will to turn down the odd suitor now. I suspect I read it too fast the first time around and because it wasn’t Pride and Prejudice, was disappointed. I’ve only re-read Emma the one time as well and will eventually re-read it, but I think perspective is what counts here. The reader can see Emma as a figure at which to poke fun or to pity or as a heroine who grows over the course of the novel from her mistakes. I think it works either way. I have seen the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow multiple times and the fantastic updated version, Clueless, countless times. So naturally, I am an expert on the subject. LOL.
I read the prologue of The Blade Itself and will continue at some point. The ebook isn’t currently available from my library and I would have to put it on hold if I wanted to check it out. So, I am going to wait to see when it serendipitously IS available and check it out then. I think this will work best as a spontaneous read for me. I find that often, when I put a book on hold, by the time I actually get it many weeks later, I am no longer in the mood. And I definitely want to be itching for some fantasy and then discover that the library gods have smiled upon me. It’s really satisfying when that happens.
The Last Banquet was, unfortunately, not worth waiting for IMO! It wasn’t difficult, but it was rather pointless. There was some nice writing, particularly since the protagonist has highly developed sense of taste and will eat ANYTHING. But the author never really goes anywhere with this other than to have him eat various animals and tell us what other cooked animal flesh they resemble (surprise, mostly chicken). The rest was just research of the mid to late 18th century in France with this guy traipsing through history…I found it ultimately boring to read.
Ruthiela: so glad you dropped by and that your re-read of Persuasion went so well. It really is one of my favorite novels; I’ve re-read it several times and it never disappoints. I think of it as a very autumnal book, best enjoyed (at least by me) when I wasn’t in “the first flush of youth” to quote our beloved Jane. As I think I mentioned, I first read it at a particularly bleak time; its message that bad choices aren’t always fatal really resonanted. And I positively love Anne, she’s one of my favorite Austen characters. As you say, she’s steely! And that horrible family! If you haven’t seen the movie with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds it’s worth checking out. Corin Redgrave captures Sir Walter perfectly.
I agree about Fanny Price. She’s a hard gal to love but one can admire (and really, there is a lot to admire, aside from her taste in men!). I really must re-read Mansfield Park. Sometimes I wonder why I waste my time on the newer stuff, which can be hit or miss, when there’s a whole world of Austen novels to savor.
So glad you sampled Blade! If you liked the first few pages, you’re probably good to go. I didn’t feel any need to race through all the books; although I did do the total immersion thing this year I was reading many of the early books for the first time.
I know totally what you mean about not being in the mood when you finally manage to get a copy of something you were interested in. That’s one reason my TBR mountain is at the point of burying me alive! I read a review, get interested but when I finally have the book I’ve moved on to other things.
Thanks for the head’s-up about The Last Banquet. It definitely does not sound like my kind of book. Aside from the boredom factor, I’m fairly squeamish about what people do, and don’t eat.
Right now I’m actually reading several things in translation. I just finished Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star, a very strange and lovely book that I’m still thinking over and I’m near the end of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. With your German background you might find the second interesting (assuming you haven’t already read it). It’s set in the former East Germany and concerns the country’s treatment of African refugees. It sounds grim (and some of the refugee’s stories are heart-breaking) but it’s incredibly well done and the glimpses of contemporary German life, particularly from the former inhabitants of East Berlin, are fascinating to me.
What a lovely list, and most of it reminding me of the big fat gaps in my reading. Persuasion is the only one I’ve read.
The Amitav Ghosh trilogy is one I’ve been meaning to get to for I don’t know how long; I’ve read a couple of others of his and while I enjoyed them for the most part, something r the other prevented them from being a full five stars for me (animal cruelty in one book for instance, though I know it made sense in the context, but I couldn’t get past it.)
I love your little hedgehog and the Chinese lion/dog; I have a set of the dog statutes too.
Malikabooks — thanks so much for the nice compliment! I found most of these books myself by reading book blogs, which can be a dangerous thing to do, both in terms of shelf space and the old bank account! I’ve sort of accepted the fact that I’m totally addicted to books (one of my cousins collects dishes — rooms and rooms of dishes– give me books any day!) If my mania gets much worse, however, I’ll have to start looking at 12 step programs or something.
I’m so happy to discover a fellow procrastinator vis à vis Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. The books are so beautiful, with those great dust jackets, and the reviews are so good and the setting is so exotic . . . One day! Maybe! (unlike you, I haven’t read any of his other works. Thanks for the head’s up about the animal cruelty issue, BTW. Which book is it? That’s one area I absolutely can’t handle.)
I’m so glad you like my hedgehog, who’s the star of my zoo. My Chinese lion-dog was a flea market find, so I only have one (I suspect his twin met a bad fate); I envy you your pair, as they really should come in twos!
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Our lion-dogs came from my aunt; she moved country and didn’t want to take those along, so we got them 🙂 The colours are the same as yours.
The Ghosh was The Hungry Tide; I enjoyed the book overall, especially the insights into some of the culture and folklore in the Sunderbans but the animal cruelty part was really hard to get through; I am fairly sure I only skimmed through that section/scene but still it left me feeling horrible. But it was a small section in an otherwise good read so if you skip that over I think you should be fine (I did this in Anna Karenina with the hunting scenes as well).
I keep meaning to get to the Ibis books but I can’t say when that will be either. I have so many waiting, and to add to it, each time I log onto NetGalley, I add some more to the pile.
I am a ‘collector’ (I daren’t say hoarder) as well since there are so many I absolutely want to read (from blogs, friends’ reviews on Goodreads, and also youtube) and which I obviously can’t all at once. I was horrified at the Marie Condo meme of having 30 books only–that’s not even one shelf on one book case 😛 (mine are all double stacked)
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I, too, almost always skip hunting scenes. I also skipped a scene in Crime & Punishment, involving a peasant and a cart horse, which still made me ill and I hated (as I’m sure I was intended) the scene in Anna Karenina where Vronsky overrode his horse at a race. So — I super appreciate the warning about The Hungry Tide!
The meme you mention is absolutely horrirying — I’ve taken more books than that with me on a trip!
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I have just added another ton to my TBR!! What a great post & you have given us such valuable insights in limited space. I have been meaning to read Sylvia Townsend Warner for years but I think I will grab a copy of her work now. I read two back to back amazing review of Three Summers , from you & Ali & I so hope I can find a copy soon! Persuasion is such an amazing read; in my late teens early twenties, P& P was my go to book! It still is, but I feel Persuasion is more for the woman who has seen a bit of the world, while P&P is for the young girl venturing into the world!
Hello Cirtnecce — so glad you dropped by and thanks for the kind words about my list. I do hope you have a chance to explore Sylvia Townsend Warner, as she’s one of my favorite writers. Have you found gallimaufry’s blog? She’s been hosting a STW week for several years now and her yearly roundups/summaries are a great resource if you’re interested in Warner’s work. This year she did a fabulous review of The Flint Anchor, much more detailed than my little capsule. https://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/2021/06/the-flint-anchor-by-sylvia-townsend-warner.html Last year I did a real review of Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, which is a challenging but very rewarding read.
Three Summers is definitely a book to transport you to a different time and place, both very beautiful. I tend to prefer a certain detached irony in my writers, which this book doesn’t have, but I must admit there were times when I simply sat back, read the story and lost myself in those gorgeous summer afternoons. I do hope you’re able to secure a copy. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but I read a reprint by NYRB Classics.
As far as Persuasion is concerned, we think alike! Austen’s P&P is simply unmatched; it’s a picnic in spring, with champagne, in a flowering garden. Persuasion is a walk through the woods in autumn, with mists hiding a lake and one’s solitary thoughts for company (please forgive the hyperbole here but — I love Austen!). Both are wonderful books but appeal to different moods and times of life. As I stated in my post, I first read Persuasion in my late twenties, in the middle of a massive crisis, almost entirely of my own making (realizing this didn’t help, of course). Austen is such a wonderful writer, I totally lost myself in her world as I read this novel for the first time and then — bonus! I realized that, like myself, her protagonist had made some really bad decisions, was living with the consequences and — things worked out! It’s that personal link that makes Persuasion so special for me. Perhaps in the end the personal link, no matter how attenuated, is the factor that determines how we each choose our special books!
I’ve had Often I Am Happy for ages, still unread, so thanks for the recommendation – I loved his novel Virginia, and bought lots after that. The only other one I’ve read was Silence in October, which I liked but not as much.
And I’m with you on Bowen! When I’m in the right frame of mind, she is astonishing – but often I am not.
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Hi Simon — so nice you stopped by! Grondahl has been one of my happy discoveries this year, a sort of unexpected reward for forcing myself out of my accustomed grove. I, too, have been acquiring his backlist and had thought Silence in October would be the next novel I read by him. Of course, given my track record, that probably won’t occur until 2030 or thereabouts! I’ll definitely check out Virginia, which hasn’t come my way.
Odd about Bowen, isn’t it? She isn’t quite my thing and yet, at times, she is, as you say, astonishing. I actually believe Eva Trout is my favorite of her novels so far; its tone and style are somehow different, more melodramatic and somehow a bit more straightforward, if that makes any sense. And that luncheon scene I allude to was so very, very funny! I really must check out some of Bowen’s non-fiction; I’ve been eager to try A Time in Rome since reading Kaggsy’s excellent review some months ago.
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Those book covers are simply gorgeous, if I saw them in a shop, I would have bought the books. I love their “otherworldliness”. I’ve only read two of Anita Brookner’s novels so far: Hotel du Lac and Look at Me. I loved both. I see that she wrote so many novels, it’s hard to choose. From the synopsis, it sounds like A Misalliance will have a deep and thought-provoking character study.
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Diana: glad you enjoyed the covers (also flattered, as I know from your blog you have a strong visual sense!). I’ve must admit that I HAVE bought some books based on the covers, or, more frequently, bought a duplicate copy/different edition because of a cover (this was actually the case with Warner’s True Heart; I didn’t much like the cover of the edition that I had and couldn’t resist when I saw this one).
It really IS hard, to know where to jump in with Brookner’s novels because, as you say, she wrote so many, some stronger than others. Almost all IMO are psychologically acute character studies, almost always of smart, strong, essentially solitary women. They can also be quite funny, at least in spots. Aside from Misalliance, my own favorites (I’ve probably read about half of Brookner’s output) are Hotel du Lac and A Friend from England. Hmm, what a nice reading project to go through them . . . .
I “discovered” Valerie Martin’s Property via a recommendation by Margaret Atwood several years ago. I admire her sleek style and how subtly she introduces big ideas into seemingly simple stories (and simple sentences, too!). Isn’t it wonderful when an entire author’s oeuvre lands on your reading list, with the promise of so many good stories awaiting. On your shelves/stacks of shame, I can vouch for Sea of Poppies. It was just wonderful, wholly swept me away (not at all like Martin, though, despite my mentioning them in tandem). What terrific lists you’ve got here, all in all!
Hello Ms. Buriedinprint! So nice you clicked in and many apologies for my delay in responding (I’m afraid I’m neglecting my blog even more than usual these days). Thanks for the kind words about my lists; they were fun to compile and I’m happy you enjoyed them.
I’m also delighted to find another Valerie Martin admirer. I’ve always been a little surprised to see that her name doesn’t appear very often on the book blogs, at least not on the ones I’ve discovered so far. Like you I think she’s a skilled and subtle writer who’s able to handle big ideas; most important of all, however, she just tells a really good story. Have you read The Great Divorce? This was my first encounter with her work and I liked so much I went on a major VM binge. I must admit that some of her earlier novels left me a bit cold (as I recall I didn’t like Alexandra very much) and not all of her later ones are triumphs (I thought The Ghost of the Mary Celeste didn’t quite add up) but even her weaker novels are worth reading. And, as you point out, Property was recommended by Atwood, no less. As you can see from my ramblings, I share your enthusiasm for the delightful enterprise of reading a beloved author’s entire body of work!
I’m so glad you mentioned Sea of Poppies and I’m much encouraged by your recommendation. I love exotic settings and have become increasingly interested in how non-westerners view some of the more dubious aspects of contact with 19th century Europe. Besides, the covers of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy really are beautiful, aren’t they?
I can’t recall how I found my way here, but through one of our mutual bookish friends and an enthusiastic comment you left there. My online commenting is often on a delay as well, so I completely understand.
List-making is such fun, when it’s about books and reading plans, and not household chores or anything like that. (But I still make those lists, too.)
I haven’t read The Great Divorce, so I’ll have to look out for that one. I know the books of hers I’ve missed are in the library (because I did look her up again for some reason, earlier this year, maybe when BookishBeck was reading her) but I have been reading mostly backlisted books for the past three years and switched to newer books this year so I am quite distracted by all that. In a good way!
Those are gorgeous covers indeed. So was his recent novel, Gun Island (I think that’s the title) but a different style of art for certain. I’ve heard his trilogy is also good on audio but I’ve not tried it.
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