This year I’ve been reading at least one book each month from a stack that I bought ages ago and neglected. I call it my Reading Down the House challenge. I started with 17 unread books from my own collection, and in the past 8 months, I’ve read 12. My goal is to read them all within a year, which ends in October. It’s getting more difficult because I now have to choose from titles that I put off reading again and again! But I did try to leave some appealing ones for the end. The remaining titles are:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Birth House – Ami McKay
- A Forest for Calum – Frank Macdonald
- Citizen Girl – Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (authors of The Nanny Diaries)
- From the Velvets to the Voidoids: the Story of American Punk Rock – by Clinton Heylin
This month I read London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp. All I knew in advance was that it was the story of three gay men in London. It turned out to be the story, in turns, of sex work in three in different eras: the 1880s, the 1950s, and the 1990s. Jack, in the 1880s, can make more money in a brothel than as a telegram messenger. Colin, an artist in the 1950s, has repressed his sexuality but daydreams about his life drawing model – whose main gig is hustling. David, in the 1980s, is a nihilistic young man who got into “whoring” for the hell of it, and writes from prison a decade later, where he was sentenced for an “unrelated” crime.
I was impatient throughout the first half of the book because it focused on the fetishes of the men’s clients and described their encounters in graphic detail. I wondered if the whole book consisted of such tales and if it was intended as gay erotica. But there was an undercurrent of revulsion for the old and unattractive clients.
Thankfully, the book came into its own in the second half, as the characters tired of sex work and their lives and relationships became more nuanced. It took me a long time to care about them, but it did come together. Jack has a crucial decision to make about his client Oscar Wilde, Colin has an opportunity to act on his desires, and David is blindsided by love. The book’s additional main character was the city of London through the ages.
Overall, the book reminded me of other stories of adventurous urban youth, like The Basketball Diaries. I’d give it three out of five stars. But I have a feeling it’s going to be memorable, because everything about it was vivid.
I had another great month for reading. I’ve been cutting back on screen time and setting aside blocks of 2 or 3 hours at a time for reading books. I read 7 more books, 3 of which were wonderful:
- 84, Charing Cross Road – by Helene Hanff
- Americanah – by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – by Mark Haddon
I’d never heard of this one but stumbled across it at the library. It’s the (real) correspondence over 20 years between a bold, young New York editor/screenwriter, and an antiquarian bookseller in London. The book combined several of my favourite things: books and book stores, vibrant tales of life in NYC, and the contrast between life in North America and the UK. Plus it is novella-length and can easily be read in one sitting. Highly recommended!
My book club reads international fiction and our monthly reads have been unrelentingly bleak. Finally, one to break the mold! This is the story of Ifemelu, a successful American blogger, writer and scholar, and her complicated relationships with her two countries: the United States, where she feels pushed into becoming an African-American despite having little in common with them; and Nigeria, which she had the opportunity to escape, but is still grounded in values she doesn’t want to leave behind. I loved the discussion of race in this book, largely told through her blog entries. Ifemelu’s life is complex and it takes some time to unfold. It is neither sugar-coated nor hopeless. A love story about a childhood sweetheart forms part of the narrative. I loved it!
I had read a few books with characters who aren’t neuro-typical, like Come, Thou Tortoise, The Rosie Project, and The Good Luck of Right Now. I’m probably the only person who hasn’t read this book, so I thought I would add it. Published in 2004, this is the book that started the trend of narrators with autism (except for Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, of course).
I was wary that the author might be exploiting autism for comedic purposes, and reinforcing stereotypes. Instead, I found it told of the idiosyncrasies of that one person, and didn’t generalize about autism. We learned about Christopher from his actions, his affect on others, and what he says about himself. His depiction of the struggles faced by his parents and teachers on his account is quite touching, especially given his lack of empathy.
What really makes this book a stand-out is the plotting. It isn’t just a slice of life. There is a propulsive story which links the grisly murder of a neighbour’s dog, a dead parent, and a head-swimmingly scary trip to London to find out the truth. The book deserved its status as a literary sensation. Five out of five stars!
To top it off, I read another book which might not have so much literary merit, but had personal meaning to me. The Examined Life consisted of tales from a psychiatrist’s couch. The author wrote up some case studies of patients he treated, and interspersed them with brief personal stories. The themes were classic ones: love and loss, regression, grief, envy, and re-enacting the past. Some of the stories were predictable and summed up oh-so-tidily. But you know, life is like that. Sometimes you really are messed up because of what your parents did to you! This book spoke to me, especially the chapters about parents loosening their grip on their children and letting them live their own lives.
I read three more books which were not compelling, but I have no regrets about having read them:
Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott
I enjoyed her earlier memoirs, but not this one – her son’s and grandson’s story are not hers to tell (although the over-attached parent theme did ring a bell!)
The Property is a graphic novel about a young woman who visits Poland with her cranky, secretive grandmother, and finds out a family secret.
Doomed to Repeat was about lessons we should have learned from history, and mostly didn’t. There were a few good chapters, which gave me background info on wars and conflicts I previously didn’t understand. However, half of the book is devoted to the American 2008 financial crisis, and it is unfocused and repetitive. Doomed to repeat, indeed! On the plus side, books like this generate interest in history, and made me want to learn more.
So that was my month in books.
What have you been reading? Anything from your own house?