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Archive for the ‘Recommended Reading’ Category

Favourite Books of 2014  

How to Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis

How to Be Both

Ali Smith

How to Build a Girl

Caitlin Moran

[Perhaps this list should be called Favourite Books That Begin with How!!]

Among Others

Jo Walton

Thunderstruck

Elizabeth McCracken

Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

Lexicon

Max Barry

Tenth of December

George Saunders

The Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

Best Books About Books

How to Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis

This is the story of Samantha Ellis looking for a role model in the heroines of books she read as a child and young woman.  I adored every page.  Not only did this book entertain and delight from beginning to end, Ellis sent me back to the books she discusses, prolonging the enjoyment, engaging me for weeks.

Lexicon

Max Barry

A fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power.   A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour.  Some of these recruits get out of hand.  Thrills ensue. Delightfully inventive, this book reminded me a lot of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman because the new recruits have to work really hard at mastering this magical ability.

Among Others

Jo Walton

My second read, after reading her book about her favourite SF and Fantasy books, What Makes This Book So Great? I think her fiction is more persuasive than her prose at persuading me which SF and Fantasy to pick up and try.  This book is absolutely full to the brim with love for the books of both the author’s and the protagonist’s youth.

Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

Biting satire about a jury for a book prize.

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

Kitty Burns Florey

I love how the author combines autobiography with history in these books about handwriting and sentence diagramming.  Thoroughly entertaining reads.

The Murdstone Trilogy

Mal Peet

I laughed a lot while reading this satirical metafictional adult novel about an author of young adult fiction who is struggling with writer’s block.  He makes a pact with the devil to get out of it.  The dialogue with the devil in question is so wonderfully inventive, and his voice single-handedly makes the book.  Chapter Two, in which Philip Murdstone’s agent spells out exactly how to write a successful Phantasy novel, with a P Haitch, had me in stitches.  My only criticism is that sometimes the humour was too earthy.  Toilet humour does not do it for me.

Best Interviews with Authors

from The Guardian Books Podcast

Ali Smith

How to Be Both

Isabel Greenberg

Encyclopedia of Early Earth

James Frey

Endgame

Eleanor Wachtel interviewing

P.D. James

Colm Toibin

Ali Smith

Others Raved and So Did I

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

My favourite thing about Tartt’s abilities as a writer is how she manages to depict characters from extraordinary privilege who find themselves utterly powerless to control their own lives.

Tenth of December

George Saunders

This made many best of lists for 2013, and I did not catch up until this year.

Did Not Have High Hopes, But It Was a Surprisingly Good Read

We’ll Always Have Paris

Jennifer Coburn

This book was sent to me for review for my parenting blog, and I really did not have high hopes but ended up reading it in one sitting.  It’s a memoir of a mother-daughter trip to Paris, and the narrating mother is a control freak who learns to let go and be mindful in the extraordinary moments of travel and discovery.

In Praise of Messy Lives

Katie Roiphe

We are not supposed to like her because she blamed date rape on women in The Morning After.  She’s an obnoxious cross between Margaret Wente and Leah McLaren, but she’s whip smart and in very good form in this collection of essays.  I enjoyed them all.

Disappointed

The Opposite of Loneliness

Marina Keegan

Anne Fadiman blurbed it, praising it highly.  She was Keegan’s instructor at Yale, and when Keegan died in a car crash, this collection of essays and short fiction was published posthumously.  I found the collection to be too spotty and felt that the promise she obviously had is not adequately showcased here.

Roseanna

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The series written by this couple became the ur-texts for police procedurals.  The problem with going back to the ur-text after having read a lot of police procedurals, is that the original can feel stale and half-formed.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne-Jones

I read it aloud to the kids, and it was a bit of a slog.  I had such high hopes, but we all found it just too disjointed.

Outlander

Diana Gabaldon

A case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”  Historical fiction and time travel just do not often work for me.  But this book does stand out for one of the best exchanges I read all year.  The time-travelling (and married) Claire is about to be married off to a hottie in the past:

“Does it bother you that I’m not a virgin?” He hesitated a moment before answering. “Well, no,” he said slowly, “so long as it doesna bother you that I am.” He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door. “Reckon one of us should know what they’re doing,” he said.

Stoner

John Williams

Again, it’s not you, it’s me.  I don’t like passive characters whose fates flow over them.

Elizabeth is Missing

Emma Healy

Transparent from the beginning.

Must Read Everything Authors

(with thanks to Buried in Print for the category)

Confirmed:

Alan Bradley

His latest Flavia de Luce mystery, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, confirmed that Flavia is a sleuth to love.  I wait obsessively for the next books to come out.

New:

Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird kept me on the edge of my seat.  I had to track down all her other books after reading it.

Ali Smith

I loved How to Be Both so much that I did not pick this book for my book club choice; I did not want to hear anyone disagree with me about how absolutely wonderful it is.  I re-read First Person, then went out to get all her other books.  I read Hotel World and The Accidental as soon as I could get my hands on them.

Elizabeth McCracken

New to me with Thunderstruck, and so wonderful was it that I had to have more.

Mysteries to Fall For

The Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Humans begin to lose the ability to speak because of a deliberately-released virus.  A gripping bibliophilic thriller.

Northanger Abbey

Val McDermid

She rewrites Austen’s classic by substituting vampire fiction for the gothic novel.  Hilarious, timely and pitch-perfect.

The Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

I can’t remember how I found him, but I did something very unusual for me and began his series of Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit books in the middle, with The Victoria Vanishes, and fell head over heels in love.  In addition to being very well plotted, with well-rounded characters, it’s chock full of trivia about London’s pubs.  Other books in the series deal with London’s underground tunnels and theaters.  Fascinating reads for both the whodunit and the trivia.

Young Adult  

Half Bad

Sally Green

Half Bad is all good.  Harry Potter and Twilight meet Divergent.  I think the guilty pleasure of reading these books is the good vs evil plot, the clearly drawn lines.  The protagonist, though, does not know what he will be, White or Black witch.  He exposes the hypocrisy of the first, and is seduced by the mystery of the second.  So, not so black and white after all.

We Were Liars

E. Lockhart

A loose retelling of the story of King Lear and his daughters.  The narrator spends her summers on the family island off of Martha’s Vineyard with her grandparents, aunts and cousins.  She has an accident and cannot remember the events around it.  The novel is her piecing it all together with a great twist at the end.

Blood Red Road, Rebel Heart and Raging Star

Moira Young

I’ll say right from the start that the narrative voice annoyed the hell out of me (first person, present tense narration in the drawl of a cowboy: nuthin, haveta), but once past that, I found this Canadian trilogy gripping.  Strong female characters in a post-apocalyptic world.  I loved that the women are so strong, although, in the end, there does seem something of a patriarchal, hetero-normative resolution.  Not entirely, but I was getting a bit uncomfortable with the excessive use of the word “family.”

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Liani Taylor

Jenny recommended this, and I loved this, the first in a trilogy about angels and demons.  The world building is so assured and the eroticism is simply pulsing.  I found the next two disappointing, however.

Fabulous Nonfiction

The Perfect Scent

Chandler Burr

Burr is the first curator of olfactory art at MOMA, a position he created for himself with a view to encouraging the growth of a body of intelligent criticism for the art of making perfume.  In this book, he follows two perfumers through the process of creating and bringing to market a new perfume: Jean Claude Ellena for Hermes, and Sarah Jessica Parker.  This was my second reading of the book, and I loved it.

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untitledWhat Makes This Book So Great?: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Jo Walton
New York: Tor, 2014.

I am on a Jo Walton tear.  I have gobbled three of her books in about as many days, which would be impressive if I wasn’t comparing myself to her and her mind-boggling reading rate.  She can get through four to six books a day.  Not for her the lament, “So many books, so little time.”

I could say that there are never going to be sufficient books to fill the voracious maw that is me.  Get writing!  I need books!  If I didn’t re-read I’d run out of books eventually and that would be terrible!

Jo Walton is a prodigious (re)reader.  It was her devotion to books that landed her a gig as a blogger at her publisher Tor.com, where she blogs about re-reading.  This book is a selection of those blog posts.  I love this idea for all kinds of reasons, but most especially because it puts fans in touch with books tried and true.  It’s not all about the latest thing, but about books that have enduring appeal or that deserve a revival or that need their praises sung.

Singing praises is something Walton does well and very persuasively.  There’s a wonderful quality of immediacy to her blog posts about her favourite books, which contrasts nicely with what she has to say about their enduring qualities.  The majority of posts are about science fiction, there is a fair bit of fantasy, but she also includes some surprising books.  In one particularly brilliant piece about Middlemarch, she argues that George Eliot could have invented science fiction.  For the bibliophile, there are also several wonderful pieces about the joys of reading, ways to read and re-read, essays on genre and sub-genre, and on how to speak to an author.

I do not read science fiction, though since having kids, I have added a lot of fantasy to my reading diet.  I’ve tried Ursula le Guin many times, and each time lamented that she just did not speak to me.  I think the closest I’ve come to reading science fiction in the last 25 years was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.   Walton is such a persuasive enthusiast, though, that I’ve added a dozen books to my wish list and TBR pile on the strength of her endorsements.  Her expertise is unimpeachable, and her enthusiasm so infectious.

When I had only a few pages left of this book, I put it down in order to re-read Among Others.  I did so to honour Walton’s own practice, and I am so glad I did.  Among Others is almost the novelistic equivalent of this book of recommended reading.  The protagonist joins a science fiction book club, and so many of Walton’s favourite titles come into the novel through this thread of finding community and a sense of home in books.  Reading one in light of the other gave both a wonderful new richness.  Then I read her newest book, My Real Children, and I think it was my first truly cover to cover, do not move, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, gobble of a book.  I began at midnight, and I did not move until 4 am when I finished the book and reached over to turn out the light.

How wonderful it has been to be immersed in so much bookish goodness.  Off now to find her first two books!

 

 

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heroineHow to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis

London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Was there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet and Flora Poste, from Esther Greenwood to Lucy Honeychurch.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

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What kind of fool buys a book like this?  A romantic fool.  A fool in love with books.  Me.

My Ideal Bookshelf collects brief essays and interviews from dozens of readers and pairs them with painted portraits of the books the subjects chose for their ideal bookshelf.  Jane Mount’s paintings of the books are beautiful to behold.  I know that there is this great current of fear out there that we are fetishizing the book and that we do books and publishing no great service by over-emphasizing the book-as-object.  But we do, and we collect and we covet and it’s a delicious indulgence.   You know that thrill of scanning a person’s bookshelves to see what’s on there?  With this book, you get to do that with the slight twist of looking at those books through the veil of art.  The spines are all hand-lettered, the Penguin Classics get the added beauty of the uneven line, the imperfect reproduction.  You recognize immediately the red and cream of the spine of The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s slightly off; mine, but not mine.

As interesting as the mix of subjects who share their ideal books (lawyers, chefs, designers, writers, dancers) is the mixed approach they took to the task: some made a desert island selection, some chose books that captured their childhood, some chose books that would make a good introduction to their field.  Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle appeared on a startlingly high number of shelves.

This is not the best book about books you will ever read, this is not the most moving selection of praises sung to the book.  The selection of people who contributed their ideal bookshelves was an odd collection (vampire lit’s Stephenie Meyer and cookbook author Mark Bittman; novelist Dave Eggers and fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy; picture-book writer Oliver Jeffers and essayist Malcolm Gladwell), and the essays are often annoyingly brief, cut short.  But the book had some great moments.  Did you know that there is a book out there that is a collection of photographs of junkyard dogs paired with quotations from William Shakespeare?  It’s called Junkyard Dogs and William Shakespeare.  It will, apparently, make you cry.

Coralie Bickford-Smith, a book designer for Penguin, wrote one of my favourite entries.  She describes the design for Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

The pattern I created for Dracula is composed of garlic flowers.  In the book, the heroine wears garlic flowers around her neck to stop Dracula from biting her in her sleep.  So the idea is that they’re wreathed around the book, too, to keep in the evil.

I love the fact that I get to repackage amazing literature that has stood the test of time.  I really couldn’t be designing anything more important.  (22)

Agreed.

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An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula and More Than 20 Other of Most Remarkable Women in Literature

Jamie Cox Robertson

Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.

Reviewed from a review copy.

Like Stephanie Stall, author of Reading Women, Jamie Cox Robertson had occasion to revisit the books of her youth after having a daughter.  For Robertson, the book that sent her on a re-reading spree was Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In my twenties, I thought of Holly as a self-centered girl who dated entirely too many men.  But reading Capote’s novel again so many years later caused me to see Holly Golightly in a completely different way than I did back then.  Now I see a necessary rite of passage to her outrageousness and self-centeredness, and I think a woman’s twenties is the perfect time to be whimsical and unpredictable. … I got to thinking–would I see other women I had read about in a different light now that I was older, married, and had a daughter of my own?

The result of her re-reading the heroines of her youth, and of meeting some new ones, is this collection of excerpts from the classics of books by and about women.

Each chapter is named for the heroine and has brief sections on “her story,” “what makes her so memorable,” and “the life and times” of the author who brought her to life.  Those brief sketches are a useful reminder of the character’s back-story, and the context of the authors’ biographies helps to situate the memorable women they created. 

Because this book began as an experience born of revisiting the heroines and revising her opinions, I would have liked to have heard a lot more from Robertson, but her voice all but disappears after the short introduction.  I would have liked much more lengthy discussions of how her perspective changed, about what having her daughter did to colour her perception of many of these women’s maternal ambivalence, for example.  For me, the joy of books about books so often lies in the personal narrative, in how authors’ lives have been shaded by their reading.  I am also not a big fan of excerpts, but I did enjoy the brief visits I had with these uncommon heroines, some of whom I met for the first time.  (I have gotten this far in life without reading My Antonia.  Summer seems like a good time to change that.)  This book is a gateway to others and an invitation to question her choices: Is Anne Elliot your favourite Austen heroine?  Is Little Dorrit worthy of inclusion?  Does Dorothea Brooke prevail as a heroine?  Many of the women on these pages also appear in The Heroine’s Bookshelf, and I’ve added some titles to my list for that reading challenge.  (Sometimes, “challenge” is just not the right word.  It’s just too easy to read and read and read books with these marvellous, complicated women.)

Ultimately, the book did what good books do: it sent me to my bookshelves. I pulled down Mrs. Dalloway for a re-read, and I will spend the summer solstice roaming through the streets of London and through the minds of Clarissa and Septimus, listening to the birds speak Greek.

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We’re all ones today. 

In honour of the number one, here are a few of my favourite first sentences (or two).

So.

In the beginning, there was nothing.  Just water.

Coyote was there, but Coyote was asleep.  That Coyote was asleep and that Coyote was dreaming.  When that Coyote dreams, anything can happen.

          I can tell you that.

Thomas King

Green Grass, Running Water

 

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit

 

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley

The Go-Between

 

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm

 

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre

 

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.  In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.

Lemony Snickett

The Bad Beginning

 

Greta was at the stove.  Turning hotcakes.  Reaching for the coffee beans.  Grinding away James’s voice.

Sheila Watson

The Double Hook

 

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning.  She listens and asks questions as the vehicle travels through darkness.  Outside, the countryside is unbetrayed.  The man who is driving could say, “In that field is a castle,” and it would be possible for her to believe him.

Michael Ondaatje

In the Skin of a Lion

 

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

 

The birth was quick but the christening took forever.  Baby Stink was practically walking by the time everybody got their cowlicks battened down and the shit scraped off their heels.

Terry Griggs

The Lusty Man

 

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father.  My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.  She was in the white corner and that was that.

Jeanette Winterson

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

 

My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.

Robertson Davies

Fifth Business

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

 

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?  I used to think it didn’t.  Now I think it does.  And I think mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

Donna Tartt

The Secret History

 

I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south…. 

Margaret Atwood

Surfacing

 

I don’t know whether you know Mariposa.  If not, it is of no consequence, for if you know Canada at all, you are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns just like it.

Stephen Leacock

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

 

When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose power the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half its course in the sign of the Ram, and the little birds that sleep all night with their eyes open give song (so Nature prompts them in their hearts), then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages.  Only, these days, professional people call them conferences.

David Lodge

Small World

What are your favourite first lines?

Here are some others.

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‘Tis the season for lists. 

Here is my list of favourite books about books, with brief raves and links to my posts.  The only one without a link is Anne Fadiman, whose Ex Libris was my first book about books.  I love it so much I can’t write about it, but I buy copies often to give as gifts.  If you have not read it yet, please do. 

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is a collection of perfectly polished essays about loving and living with books.  Each essay is a gem.  You cannot do better than this collection for a book about books.  It should be on every bibliophile’s bookshelf.

Cover of 84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy and 84, Charing Cross Road

When I first started collecting books about books, I would run across mentions of 84, Charing Cross Road frequently.  None of them did justice to its charms.  None of them prepared me for my infatuation with the book.  This is a collection of the letters exchanged between a woman in New York and the staff of a London bookstore who provide her with the books she cannot find at home.  It reads like an epistolary novel, complete with careful pacing of the plot and pitch-perfect characterization.  I love the spark that comes from the clash of English reserve and American forthrightness.  Helene’s persona as a letter writer is endearingly brash.  It made me laugh; it made me cry.  It is another indispensable book for bibliophiles. 

In Q’s Legacy, Hanff tells the story of what fostered her love of English literature, and it is a memoir whose voice and charms have stayed with me.  She is just so damned sure of herself.  This is one to read after 84, Charing Cross because in addition to giving the back story to her exchange of letters with Frank Doel, she takes up the story of the afterlife of that book.  (It was made into a play and a movie.)

Nick Hornby’s first and other collections of book reviews also play with the culture gap between England and America.  He is unapologetically English with his prose style, but he explains things for his readers in America, with great comedic effect.  These are the collected “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns from The Believer, but they work really well collected in book form.  Inside jokes mature from one month to the next, and it is always fun to see if/when the books that appear in his “Books Bought” column will turn up in his “Books Read” column.  There is often no overlap between the two, which is comforting, really.  I am a crazy woman in a bookstore, and it’s nice to know that I am not alone.  (My friend Marcelle gave me a button that reads “I’m not to be trusted in a bookstore with a credit card.”) 

Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing gave me the idea of trying to put a stop to my book buying at the beginning of this year.  That’s what she did: she spent a year with the books she already owned, and this is a memoir of her student and writing life through the rereading of the books on her shelves.  Again, it is her wonderfully assured voice that stays with me.  This is a woman with firm opinions, and it is so refreshing to read opinions that come from a writer’s character and not out of a need to shock or make tweet traffic.

Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop must go on to a top ten list, to represent a book about bookstores.  Part cultural history, part memoir, this is a lovely book to curl up with.  He has such a sensible outlook on the whole business of book selling, and it was relaxing to read a book that took the long view and was not all doom and gloom about the current state of books and print. 

 

Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book is one of the most well-written books I read all year.  I loved every minute of reading this book, and I simply marveled at Miller’s prose.  This is a book about her changing relationship to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, but it is also a biography of Lewis and literary criticism about the books themselves.  Miller moves deftly between these narrative modes, and her autobiography is shot through with the clean, crisp prose of research.  I recommend it highly for any book lover.

Fellow New-Yorker David Denby’s Great Books was also one of my favourite reads of the year.  I picked up his book for my stint of reading books about the great books, and I found so much more than I expected.  Again, it was how he incorporated autobiography into his discussion of the great books programme at Columbia University that made the book exceptional.  His chapter on King Lear blew my socks off with its poignant reading of Shakespeare through his mother’s demanding personality.

One of my great joys as a mother is reading to my kids, and I have discovered a wonderful world of books about children’s books in my quest to find the next great book to read with them.  Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children ranks among my favourites because, like Laura Miller, you sense that the words on the page represent just a fraction of the encyclopedic knowledge that the authors possess about their subjects.  Silvey caters to the keener in me, and she provides all kinds of wonderful anecdotes about the authors’ lives and publishing careers along with brief synopses of the books.  Her vast store of knowledge is now also available in daily instalments online.

Ahhh.  That felt great!  Bibliophilia, autobiography, memoir, anglophilia, women with strong opinions.  What’s not to love?  I hope some of them have piqued your interest.

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