The blog has been a little, ahem, “bare” of new content this past week, primarily because I’ve gotten away for a few days pursuing one of my secondary hobbies — looking at nature, particularly birds. Although I’m very much a couch potato type, there are times when I just have to get outdoors and breathe air that’s been neither recyled, reheated or artificially cooled. Aside from providing sheer relaxation, the natural world serves a number of functions for me; first and foremost, I’m very much a part of the 19th century school that views nature as a manifestation or expression of the sublime and that sees spirituality in nature’s workings. On a different level, the inter-relationships of the natural world — the ways in which the web of life binds plants, animals, birds, and insects into a functioning ecological system — can be incredibly interesting from a purely cerebral point of view. The more I learn about one little piece of nature (say, a new bird species or some strange plant) the more I become interested in the parts that connect to it. Moreover, there’s the added attraction of learning, if only a little bit (there’s usually not time for learning much beyond the birds) about the history and culture of whatever place I happen to go for my nature/bird viewing. And, last but certainly not least — nature activities can just be plain fun! Anyway, my “nature place” this time around was Jamaica, an island of bays, coves and mountains:
Unless you share my hobby you’re probably unaware that Jamaica has over 300 different species of birds, including 28 endemics, i.e., birds that naturally occur nowhere else in the world besides Jamaica! If you’re a birder, you go to Jamaica primarily for the endemics, such as this one:
And — you take this book, which you’ve hopefully studied before hand (I hadn’t!):
Remember my comment about finding the sublime in nature?
Now — for the “reading” part of my post. Because I’m talking Jamaica, I have to mention one of my very favorite writers, the immensely talented Marlon James. Has anyone read his Booker prize winner from a few years ago, A Brief History of Seven Killings? I think it’s one of the most powerful novels written by anyone in at least the last decade. A native of Kingston, James has set many of his novels on the island.
I can’t wait (but I’ll have to!) to read one of James’ earlier works, set in the British ruled Jamaica of the 19th century, when most of the island’s inhabitants were enslaved:
For the historically minded, there’s a fabulous nonfiction account of the history and culture of Jamaica and the other islands of the Carribbean basin. To my shame, I”ve never read my copy (which I’ve had for years) but — it’s on my TBR list for next year!
As for my other reading, when I wasn’t watching birds:
Finally (because I really, really, really have to get back to Great Expectations), remember what I said at the outset, about the fun aspect of nature activities?
Isn’t it incredible to think that it’s mid-January, with all the shiny newness already being worn off the year? I usually give myself the entire month of January to make resolutions, do lists and so forth (hey! Only organized people get that stuff done by January 1st!). This year I’m in pretty good shape with my lists. After spending a very enjoyable day reviewing the titles of the books I read last year (when I finally get organized I’ll probably post the list) I spent an even more enjoyable few days looking at other people’s lists of past and future reads. After a lot of hesitation, I decided to start my own blog, mainly because I wanted to participate in a few challenges this year; ultimately I settled on the Back to the Classics Challenge and the TBR Pile Challenge. This was a wonderful decision, as it gave me an excuse to spend lots and lots of time pulling books from my shelves, internally debating what books to include on various reading lists and actually reading little bits and pieces of my “rejects” (actually, these books are “postponements” — I will read them next year!). In the course of all this, I found myself pondering the question of why deciding what to read is just so much fun, at least for me. Is it the lure of the unknown, the excitment of possibility, the hope that this particular book will be something really, really special, that if I complete a list of, say, 19th century classics, I’ll be a better rounded person? Reading itself, of course, is intensely pleasurable but I find that there’s a special and separate thrill that comes from pawing through my piles and piles and piles of books and making plans for everything I intend to read in the upcoming year. If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on the subject and whether you have the same experience.
Well, enough of the philosophical questions and back to lists! Before settling down to actually reading and writing about my various Challenge books (I finished my first one, Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, a couple of days ago and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it in a review), I decided to have the fun of doing one last list of prospective reads. I skim a lot of book reviews and I’m always finding things that look at least mildly interesting; I usually forget to jot down the titles and then, when I’m looking for something newly published to read, a book that’s a change of pace or something quick to read in-between class work or such, I’m at a loss. I’ve decided this year to be a bit more organized and do a list, which in the “might-as-well spirit” that is my blog’s guiding philosophy, I decided I “might as well” post. My criterion for inclusion is pretty simple — these are books that, at the present moment, I want to read! They don’t fit any of the various challenges’ criteria, at least none that I know of; most, if not all, are recently published, or about to be published, and they’re almost all fiction. Because my list is very idiosyncratic, it excludes some very good writers and certain books that either have, or can be expected to get, a lot of buzz. For example, I don’t include Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is scheduled for publication in September 2019. Although I love Atwood’s novels and short stories (and those poems of hers that I’ve read) and regard The Handmaid’s Tale as a moving and powerful work, I have mixed feelings about a sequel; while I may read it this year, I’m not planning to and, in fact, may never read it at all. How many of the books on my list I’ll actually read, or when I might read them, is totally open; both factors will depend on time, circumstances and inclination. With this in mind, and in no particular order of preference, here goes my list of interesting, relatively recent books.
The Witch Elm by Tana French. I’m proud to say that I’ve been a follower of Tana French since she published In the Woods, her stunning debut and the first of her Dublin Murder Squad novels. As good as they were, life intervened and I never read the entire series. Not to worry, however, for this is a standalone novel, described by the Guardian as “a brilliant examination of male privilege and family secrets.” Sounds fun!
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. Drawing on African history and myth, James has written a fantasy novel centering on the search for a mysterious child by a mercenary and his misfit companions. James became one of my literary deities after I read his A Brief History of Seven Killings when it won the 2015 Booker Prize. I was so impressed with James’ talent I resolved to read his previous novels, but I may go for this new one instead. It should be very, very different from Seven Killings, which was set in contemporary Jamaica; because it’s by James, however, I’ll risk it, although I probably won’t get around to reading it until next summer.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley. Hadley’s novels, including this one, get glowing reviews. I’ve never quite taken to her work, however, probably because I disliked some short stories of hers I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. Still, I like to keep up with contemporary authors. This tale of the “lives of two closely intertwined couples” (Washington Post) looks pretty interesting and I may read it as a break between between various Challenge books.
Sadie Jones, The Snakes (UK publication in March 2019; available on Amazon U.S. in June). The Guardian describes this as “a suspenseful, beautifully written thriller about the corruption of money and abuse within a dysfunctional family.” What could be better?
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (available September 2019). This is a follow-up to Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winner, Olive Kitteridge. I was slow to jump onto the Elizabeth Strout bandwagon, which I mentally dismissed as overly hyped; how could anyone be that good? Well, she’s that good. Although I preferred her Lucy Barton (its subsequent, connected story cycle Anything Is Possible was equally good) to Olive Kitteridge, Olive was nevertheless a wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to a continuation of Olive’s life.
Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. I’ve always been interested in how modern writers treat classical myths, either as fairly straight re-tellings albeit with unusual angles (think Madeline Miller’s Circe or Song of Achilles) to outright reinterpretations (a good example here is Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, a type of Oedipus re-telling set on the canals of Oxford). Needless to say, I was keenly interested when the great Pat Barker (have you read her Regeneration Trilogy yet? If not, stop now and do so immediately) published her version of the Iliad, told from the point of view of one of the captured female war prizes (Briseis, for the classicists among you). I wasn’t surprised that Silence made several of the “best of 2018” lists; I am surprised that I haven’t read it yet.
Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead. A generally well-received debut novel, centered on the relationship between an eccentric single mother, scion of Manhattan’s uber wealthy Upper East Side, and her only daughter.
Sally Rooney, Normal People. Another hold-over read from last year. This Irish author has gotten so much favorable attention I feel almost morally obligated to check her out. I thought I “might as well” start with this, her second novel, which recounts the relationship of Marianne & Connell, beginning in a small town in western Ireland and continuing through their university years in Dublin.
Anna Burns, Milkman: A Novel. I usually keep up at least a little with the various novels annually nominated for the Booker Prize (it’s one of my hobbies); in years when I have a lot of time I generally read at least the short list. This year, alas, I let things slide; although I read four or five of the nominees, I lost interest in the process and didn’t even read Milkman, the 2018 winner. The novel is set in an unnamed Irish city during the Troubles and concerns “middle sister,” who reads old books and keeps to herself. Her life changes dramatically when a local guy with a dangerous reputation as a paramilitary begins to take an interest in her and she’s unable to break free of the gossip. At least in some quarters the book has a reputation as a somewhat “difficult” read, which may be what has kept me away. 2019, however, is shaping up as an ambitious year for me . . . . .
Sara Gran, The Infinite Blacktop: A Novel (Claire DeWitt). Have you ever really, really liked a particular author or book while knowing that it isn’t to everyone’s taste, or perhaps that it’s not “great” in a cosmic sense? It’s a “some people like pistachio ice cream and some don’t” kind of thing. Well, I like Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt mysteries, which have been described as a combination of classic noir, hipster funk and eastern mysticism. I’ve been saving this, the latest in the series, for a weekend when I really need a relaxing treat.
The 7 1/2 Deathsof Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. This mystery is a holdover read from 2018, when I very badly wanted to read it but just didn’t have the time. Inspired by Agatha Christie and quantum time travel, with a touch of groundhog day thrown in, the narrator has eight days to solve a murder. Each day he’s reborn in the body of a different witness and hence with that person’s memories of the crime; some of these are helpful, some not. Most reviewers considered the novel fiendishly clever and a lot of fun to read (in addition to the pro reviews, I’ve also seen several book blog postings extolling it).
Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand. I’m a little surprised this caught my interest, as I’m not normally fond of books described as “thrillers,” even for relaxation reads. Here, however, the former friends whose intense competition drives the novel are two female scientists, which is unusual enough to catch my attention. NPR’s description of it as “a nuanced and atmospheric study” of the lure of big dreams, especially women’s, ensured it a place on my list.
The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt. After ending up as a single mom in London, American Sibylla turns to unconventional child rearing methods, which include replaying Kurosawa’s films for her fatherless son. As is evident from my list, I’m drawn to quirky, off beat tales of unconventional families. I believe this book has actually been around for a few years, but only recently came to my attention.
Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing. This is a gorgeous NYRB Classic reprint of a 2006 work originally published in German (translator is Anthea Bell). It’s 1945 in East Prussia, with the German army in retreat and the Red Army approaching; although life in all its banality continues in the von Globig estate, the family’s manor house is becoming filled with refugees and change is coming. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? Although I have a big historical read on my Back to the Classics Challenge list, I may end up reading this as well.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I’ve been interested in this one since reading a Guardian review last year. Because it was only published in the U.S. in early 2019, however, I almost forgot about it until seeing in on Danielle’s list at her Work in Progress blog. Silvie’s dad is an enthusiast of early human history; for vacation the entire family takes an anthropology course in which the students reenact the lives of Iron Age Britons. The “ghost wall” of the title refers to barricades build to ward off enemies; when Silvie’s group builds one they rediscover a connection with their early ancestors. Judging from the reviews, Moss’ novel asks whether connections like this can go too far. This one is pretty high on my list for a 2019 read.
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman. This English language debut of a contemporary Japanese writer centers on oddball Tokyo resident Keiko, who eschews a “normal” life to work in a convenience store. Keiko is perfectly happy with her choice; her family and friends are not and apply increasing pressure on her to start a career and find a husband. This book received a lot of favorable attention; it’s another one that turned up on Danielle’s Work in Progress blog, although I can’t now find precisely where (hence, no link).
Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir. I’m so resistant to the memoir genre that reading two of them last year was a real milestone. This year I might actually read another, as I’ve long been very interested in Educated. In this memoir, Westover recounts her journey from a survivalist upbringing by fundamentalist religious parents to successful academic stints at Harvard and Cambridge.
French Exit by Patrick DeWitt. Since reading The Sisters Brothers, his (very) unconventional take on the classic American western, I’ve been a mild Patrick DeWitt fan. While not being quite my cup of tea, DeWitt is a very skilled, interesting writer who’s worth checking out. This, his latest, is DeWitt’s take on what one reviewer described as a “tragedy of manners;” a once wealthy mother & son, fleeing penury and scandal, desert New York for Paris, meeting a number of unusual characters along the way. I can’t imagine anything more different from the setting of The Sisters Brothers and I can’t imagine anyone other than DeWitt carrying it off.
What Red Was by Rosie Price (available in U.S. August 2019; UK May 2019). A young university student gets drawn into her boyfriend’s rich & privileged world; all goes well until her life is shattered by a sexual assault during a party at his family’s London home. The Guardian marked this debut novel as one gathering lots of “buzz.”
If you happen by, and you’ve actually read or have any insights into the books on my list, I’d appreciate your thoughts!