Inspired by Brittany’s lovely posts about books, I offer here a summary of what I’ve been reading.
But first a bit about that verb, reading, because for years now I’ve been a listless reader, sometimes finishing books, always taking a long time, mostly putting them down half-read. A few pages here, an hour on my iPhone there. I love reading, even if I didn’t actually read. Now, I am reading. What changed?
The podcast Backlisted features two men, Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, and a guest or two enthusiastically talking about books. Their taste is eclectic, their enthusiasm catching. Miller introduces himself as “the author of The Year of Reading Dangerously.” Appreciative of their podcast, I went to the book. In it, Miller describes how he, a non-reading book-lover like me, went for years without completing a novel. He wanted to read, he loved reading, but he didn’t read. Picking up The Master and Margarita on a whim one day, he begins to read, and the spirit takes him. He decides to make a list of books he always wanted to read (and sometimes said he had read) and read through it, but how to go about this project? His wife, a reading book-lover unlike me, says it’s simple: Read 50 pages a day. So Miller does, and begins reading again.
Inspired by Miller, I began to read 50 pages a day a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve read seven books. It helps to choose short books.
I encourage you, if you are like me and have become a non-reading book-lover, to just start reading again. It’s wonderful.
To the books, then.
Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
A short novel for young adults set near Cheshire, Weirdstone is mostly comprised of two long chase sequences with two children and two dwarfs evading a horde of goblins and giants and shapeshifters and such. They’re trying to get the titular stone to a wizard. It features lovingly described geography and wonderful dialect, but the story itself is rather thin. You never feel the stakes of the book, and when it ends abruptly you’re left with little to remember. It was Garner’s first book, and I understand that he gets much, much better. I’ve never read his work before.
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
Spark is possibly my favourite prose stylist, and Memento Mori might be the best of her novels that I’ve read. A dizzying story featuring numerous elderly people with their machinations and failings, the plot is loosely tied together by an anonymous phone caller who tells them to remember they will die. Spark’s novels can sometimes (often) come across as vicious, and certainly she doesn’t spare the satire in Memento Mori, but the poignant confrontations with the fact of senescence drive this novel. I spent months of 2017 getting halfway through this novel, then read it from the beginning in a few days as part of the 50 pages a day goal. Very highly recommended.
Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
A writer in her late 30s is unsure what she should do with herself, so she goes to a hotel in Switzerland. At this hotel, whose grandeur is fading, a relic of a previous way of living, she meets various people, talks to them, and thinks about stuff. It’s a beautiful novel of character: an experience worth having.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
This novel surprised me. Approaching a Classic You Have Never Read But Should Have is always intimidating. Hurston is not averse to writing poetically, but most of this novel is people chatting in dialect. Events tend to happen quickly, and time is spent recounting conversations. The emphasis is on everyday life. The main character, Janie Crawford, is married off young, leaves her first husband for a man who becomes mayor of Eatonville, Florida (where Hurston lived as a child). He dies, and she runs off with a younger, happy-go-lucky man to the swamps of southern Florida. Along the way, she learns more about who she is, although I must say that I find Janie’s character to be something of a cypher.
I need to reread this one. I read it too quickly. Because so much of it is in dialect, my eyes didn’t pick up as much on the first pass, being unfamiliar with the spelling of the words. I feel like I missed a lot. The unusual rhythm where there’s a lot of talk and then quick action also lends itself to missing the important bits on the first pass. Even so, I can see why this novel has become a classic. There is so much packed into it, so many different ways to interpret it, such heartbreaking emotion, and such cultural richness. Hurston was an anthropologist (she was doing research in Haiti when she wrote this novel in seven weeks), and there are significant sections that feel almost as if they’re there to preserve. It’s a very curious novel, a must read.
Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire
The memoir of a scientist written in the 1980s. He was born in Czernowitz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1905, too young for WWI, too old for WWII. His family moved to Vienna when he was small. He became a chemist, got a job at Columbia, and made significant discoveries about DNA. He is also fabulously well-read in the Western Canon and the German Tradition (capitals necessary). Half the biography is a jeremiad about the decay of science and society; the other half is a lovely and lush monologue about his favourite writers and the cultural and scientific ways of life that have now disappeared. I learned about it through the blog Brain Pickings, and I would say that it’s worth reading, although his prophet of doom act does get annoyingly repetitive. He makes you want to read the classics.
Paula Fox, Desperate Characters
Like a 200-page-long story by Alice Munro, except set in New York City and briefly on Long Island, Desperate Characters features adults in relationships, personal and professional, having problems. The action, such as it is, is set off by a stray cat biting the main character’s hand. As with Hotel du Lac, I enjoyed it very much but find it difficult to say anything about. It’s certainly a worthwhile experience, if you’re in the mood for psychological realism about a wealthy, white couple in their early 40s having marriage difficulties. There’s also a humorous, almost surrealist, edge to the novel.
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
One of those things went around Twitter recently, and I wrote that this novel was one of my favourite five books of all time. In truth, I put it on that list to show my love for Muriel Spark. I remembered loving it when I read it years ago. Rereading it now, it would certainly not make that list. It’s a daft novel about a Scotsman named Dougal Douglas, who may or may not be a devil, coming to the working-class Peckham in south London. He does human research for local companies, which requires him never to be at work, in the process of which he sows discord. It’s a tremendously funny book, strange and light as a feather. That said, it’s autumn and I’m in the mood for more weight in my books.
So I’m now reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Would you like me to continue writing these?