Random Bookish Thoughts – 19 October

In the complete absence of any new reviews for the past few weeks, a selection of random, tangentially-book-related musings.

What I’ve been reading

Although I haven’t been writing reviews, I’m on holiday in northern California this week and last week, so I have been reading. After finishing Vanity Fair at the beginning of October, I rewarded myself with the new Salman Rushdie (raced through whilst on trains; I don’t know why, but Rushdie’s stories seem to lend themselves to movement). Then I read a couple of Meg Wolitzer’s earlier novels, having read The Interestings last year and liked it. I think she is getting better with age; The Interestings was better than either The Wife or The Uncoupling.

I also raced through Villa America by Liza Klaussmann; I’ll read pretty much anything based in the Jazz Age. The standout read of the month for me so far, though, is The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant. It charts the story of a woman’s life, from the dawn of the 20th century until she turns 85, and I found it utterly addictive – especially after being a little bit disappointed by Sweet Caress by William Boyd, which was (nominally) along the same lines. I know I’m horribly behind with book reviews, but I’ll post a proper review of this one soon (or soonish, anyway).

Books about authors

I like reading about authors almost as much as people seem to like writing about them. I didn’t notice at first, but there’s been a definite authorly trend in this month’s reading matter. ‘The Wife’ featured a celebrated novelist, and Villa America was studded with the literary stars of the 1920s. I’ve now embarked upon Sophie and the Sibyl, by Patricia Duncker, which features George Eliot as one of the main characters and the ‘Sibyl’ of the title.

Nick Hornby doesn’t like the fact that there are so many novels about writers and writing. In one of his Believer articles (which have been published in two books, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and Stuff I’ve Been Reading, both of which are very worthwhile for any book nut), he wonders aloud (well, on paper) whether it’s this that is turning reading into such a minority activity – i.e., to read a new novel, you have to have a passing knowledge of every novel that’s gone before. (I haven’t read it for a while, so I may be misquoting, but I think that’s the thrust of his argument.) I’m not sure I agree; I think if a novel is written well, then it should stand on its own, whatever the subject matter. Entirely subjectively, I love reading about authors for any number of reasons: because I grew up wanting to be one, because it helps me to get to know the text, and in some cases simply because they had the most fascinating, glitzy, disastrous lives (yes, Fitzgeralds, I’m looking at you) and I’m a terrible gossip.

The Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event

I recently reposted the starter post for this, and I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’ll be scanning down my Classics Club list for the books to bump up to next year, and perhaps adding a couple of new titles as well, including The Yellow Wallpaper as suggested by the fabulous thepocobookreader . Look out for a proper starter post, again let’s say ‘soonish’.

Right, I’m going to go and read for an hour in the California sunshine before starting the day’s adventures. Hope everyone has a great week!

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The joy of books-about-books

I’m a sucker for booktalk. I can waste hours on blogs and the Twitterverse, hours which I know, I know, I could be spending reading. Books about books fulfil a useful function, therefore, and I love them. My favourites, in no particular order:

– The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, and Stuff I’ve Been Reading, by Nick Hornby. These are two collections of Nick Hornby’s bookish articles for Believer magazine, spanning the last 8 years or so. I love his writing style – conversational and unpretentious and completely non-judgmental – but more importantly, these books have led me to other books which I otherwise would never have read. The most memorable example was his rave review of ‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell. I am not the kind of person who would typically wander into Waterstones and pick up a biography of Montaigne (in fact I had barely even heard of Montaigne), but I bought it on his sayso and I’m so glad I did.

– Howard’s End is on the Landing, by Susan Hill. I read this before I read any of Susan Hill’s fiction (the Simon Serrailler books are my favourites) and I still like to curl up with it on cold winter nights. This explores a year of ‘reading from home’, ie a year Hill spent not buying any new books, but instead exploring her (beautiful, from the sound of it) home and all of the lost souls already on her bookshelves. I re-read this about once a year, and it’s one of the few books I actually own both in paperback and on Kindle, just in case.

– Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman. If you ever need a stocking filler for a booklover, this is the one. A series of short articles on a number of aspects of bibliomania; a bit like having a conversation with an old friend.

– My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff/The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. New entries, both of which I’ve only read in the past couple of months. They are different to the four above – they’re bibliomemoirs, both focusing on a single book or author, and I’m not sure I will re-read either of them as often as I revisit the others. That said, I enjoyed them both as stories of how engagement with literature can change people. I read My Salinger Year in an evening, and it raced along, like a coming-of-age novel. The Road to Middlemarch was more ‘grown-up’ (whatever that means), engaging more deeply with a single novel – Middlemarch, unsurprisingly – and teaching me a lot of things I didn’t know about George Eliot. Less autobiography, more biography, but as much engagement with Dorothea Brooke as with either author. Rakoff and Mead also both made me want to read or re-read the originals (Salinger and Middlemarch), which can only be a good thing.

– Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. This is similar in theme to My Salinger Year and The Road to Middlemarch, but belongs in its own sub-bullet (a) because of how different its subject matter is – three millennia away from the other two, and (b) because it was one of my few five-star reads of 2014, and easily the most surprising.

I have a couple more, waiting in my TBR pile. There’s The Most Dangerous Book, which I’m hoping will finally give me a push to finish Ulysses. There’s Among the Janeites, about Jane Austen fandom. Not to mention a chunky TBR pile of literary biographies, including The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot and pretty much everything that Claire Tomalin has ever written. (Actually most of Claire Tomalin is on my Amazon wishlist, but let’s be honest – it probably won’t be long.) All in all, it’s shaping up to be a pretty bookish year…