Reading Down the House – Book Reviews

I started strong with Reading Down the House, my effort to read the unread books piling up at home. Since November, I’ve read 9 of the 30 books on my shelf. I made sure not to read all the sparkly ones first, so I won’t falter!

First up, I read Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs (also known as Songbook). It’s a collection of little essays about favourite songs – when he first heard them, what was going on in his life at the time, and why they continue to have meaning for him. I was easily able to find a playlist of the songs on Apple Music so I listened as I read. Although I’m also a fan of rock and pop music, and knew many of the artists, I’d heard very few of the songs. I love Nick Hornby’s voice as a writer and it was great to spend time with his passion for music.

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is a career-spanning collection of short stories by Margaret Drabble; the first book of hers that I’ve read. The stories are chronological, so the reader can see the development of her skills in short fiction. It’s a cliché to say that someone writes with candor about the everyday lives of women, and there might not be a way to make that sound appealing. But with every story, something clicked and I felt, “That’s exactly the way it is.” I loved that her women were not always strong and virtuous, but neither were they victims. The age of the characters increased as the author’s age increased. At my age, I especially liked the stories about mature and successful women! Recommended if you enjoy moments of literary contemplation.

Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure is a social history of candy making and eating in the USA since industrialization. I adore candy. The book isn’t a celebration of candy, but more an impartial telling of how candy was viewed through the decades. It’s hard to believe that in the past 100 years, there were times people were so malnourished that candy was seen as a good source of nutrition, or at least, calories – perhaps in the same way instant ramen was, in Japan after WW2. I liked the tales of how candy was made in the factories and how candy marketing boards swayed governments and popular opinion. Over all, the account was rather slow, but as a candy fanatic, I needed to know the whole story.

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age was an intense literary read. The author has written several inter-related books and stories loosely based on his own life and that of his eldest son, who has intellectual disabilities. I didn’t need to have read any previous ones as a background to this one. The narrator is a William Blake scholar who relates passages of Blake’s prophetic writings to the daily life of himself and his son. The narrator has a Freudian mindset and is always dissecting their inner lives and intentions. Meanwhile his wife deals with all the real-life shit, not to mention the other kids. I found the book both interesting and infuriating.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. What a gem! Told in verse, each chapter focuses on a vivid character, each of them part of a loosely-knit group of relatives, lovers and friends. The central character, Cliff, exemplifies the progress and plight of gay men in America over the last century. His story is funny and lewd and heartbreaking. The disparate stories come together in a twist at the end. A funny and wise fable.

The Snow Child is based on the fairy tale and is mostly a traditional novel, with a fantasy element: a mystical child simply appears at a homestead in Alaska, after a weary couple has wished her into being. The child has a biological beginning and a backstory, but is untethered from it. She doesn’t “belong” to the couple, but remains a half-civilized wild child, dipping in and out of the freezing forest. The story speaks to the power of want and belief. Mabel and Jack are so austere, and the child so mercurial, that I didn’t find any of them relatable. The personalities and choices of the couple left me cold, but I liked the longing and the acceptance they showed. How could any child remain so ideal for so long? She stays in the fairy tale realm. I liked the realistic depiction of Alaska.

Inside the Dream Palace is my kind of book. It was a history of the famous/infamous Hotel Chelsea in NYC, home to poets and rock stars and all manner of depravity. I bore with a long section on the financing and building of the hotel which the casual reader would probably skip to get to the juicy bits. But then it amped up – O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Arthur Miller, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Sid and Nancy. It was thrilling (OK, to me, anyway). But the best part of the book were stories of unsung heroes: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (feminist and communist), Shirley Clarke (film maker), Vali Myers (artist), Harry Everett Smith (Beat polymath). A must if you are an NYC devotee!

I Think I Love You is about two thirteen-year-olds from Wales in love with pop star David Cassidy in the early 1970s. (I was a little young for David Cassidy in those days, but I later had a Tiger Beat crush on his younger sibling Shaun.) Petra and Sharon’s story was intertwined with the story of Bill, a young man who wrote the copy for a Cassidy fan magazine. The author did a great job with girl friendships, fan obsession, the milieu of the early 70s, and life in a small town. Later the story jumps to Petra’s adult life, and here I felt everything slow down and get weighty. Yet, it was a testament to friendships and formative experiences. David Cassidy died in 2017, making the whole reading experience bittersweet.

Tolstoy Lied is set in academia (one of my favourite contexts). Tracy teaches Modern American Literature in New York and is focused on tenure. Though she’s content on her own, she meets George, who sweeps her off her feet – until he starts discussing marriage and children after just two months of dating. Tracy wants to slow things down but he will brook no half-measures, so they split. I liked the parts of the story about faculty politics and grad student mentoring. The author questions how society lavishes attention on brides-to-be and how women are encouraged to quell their doubts. The main premise of the book (as per the title) is that drama is glorified and happy endings are seen as boring – you rarely hear anything after the “I do.” The ending gives a new definition of happiness.

I re-read The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll in preparation for reading the sequel, but I didn’t read Forced Entries immediately because two heroin addiction stories back-to-back are “two” much.

I also struck a book off my list. I was given a copy of Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and I just couldn’t read it. The narrator speaks so contemptuously of women in the first chapter that I was repulsed and I literally threw the book away.

So that was 10 out of 30 on my list. Have you read anything good lately? Quit any books you thought you’d like?

13 comments

  1. I quit The Lebs, an Australian novel. I thought it might engage me, giving the voice of disaffected young men of Middle Eastern background. But, like the book you threw out, it spoke so contemptuously of women, actually of everyone, I couldn’t read it. Would have thrown it out, but a friend took it. Not sure if they’ve read it.

  2. Recently finished Bored and Brilliant spawned from a podcast. And Bryce Courtenay’s The Potato Factory, an epic tome spanning London to Tasmania with the petty thieves. It’s definitely a page turner and I felt I learnt a heap about Australia from the fiction as he’s known to be well researched as an author.

  3. Fiona

    What a diverse array of books! I love your reviews…which themselves convey the tone of each book. I’ve only read 2 books so far this year, so once again, it is great inspiration to see what others are reading and to remind me to get back to my Kindle!

    • The current book I’m reading is crawlingly slow. I took a break from it and read Michelle Obama’s book. Loved it! (and it was interesting to think what I would do in some of her situations)

  4. Jamie

    Uni starts back in two weeks and I still have so many books in my TBR pile!

    We went camping over the weekend and I took along Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald, Collapse by Jared Diamond and Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. I managed to read a few chapters of the first while my husband had a nap one day after a bushwalk, but didn’t get to touch the other two (or my crochet).

    Others I have on my Good Reads “reading” list are Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss, Walden by Thoreau, Finding me in France by Bobbi French, A Room of One’s Own by Woolf (it’s my “in the car waiting for the kids to finish extra curriculars” book. It often gets forgotten because I tend to read something on my phone instead…). The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge and Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin are also on my “reading” list, but feel like they are in a different category in my mind.

    Currently out from the library (but as yet uncracked) are The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, The Snow Child (I think a few people have mentioned it recently), The Strange Library by Murakami, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, Louisiana Saves the Library by Emily Beck Cogburn (our library had a wonderful display on the theme of Libraries/Books, probably for Library Lovers’ Day. I couldn’t resist!), The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Annie Raser-Rowland, and 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson. Actually, the Peterson book should really be on my “reading” list, but I’m hating it so haven’t put it on. If I’m honest I’m probably reading it out of spite and to be able to have good arguments against Peterson when some (early 20s male) friends of mine start talking him up. It’s the second time I’ve borrowed it from the library and I’ve barely made progress. I’m not a fan of his style of speaking, so I feel resistant to put the time into to reading his writing. I wonder how long I will persevere? Perhaps until someone else reserves the book.

    P.S. I got my assignment result back last night. It came in just as I sat my dinner on the table and I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat until I knew how it went. I got a pleasant surprise with my marks. Perhaps my best mark so far?? I’ll have to double check, but worth the three weeks of worry since I submitted.

    • I have read quite a few of those, Jamie. I had such a laugh when I saw your comment on 12 Rules for Life. I f’ing hate Jordan Peterson! In fact I even stood in a bookstore and skimmed the book for the exact reason you mentioned – I wanted to prepare my own rebuttals to his arguments! I have a friend (former friend?) who is a fan.

      Congrats on your good grades!

  5. great selection of books, I love to see what others are reading and see if anything appeals to me. I’m going to add the day in the life of a smiling woman to my to read list, but like you I’m am trying to read through all the books I have and not buy.

  6. Margie in Toronto

    I haven’t made much of a dent in the pile of books at home because I’ve been reading so many great library books! I heartily recommend “Educated”, an auto-biography by Tara Westover. A brilliant book that I couldn’t put down!
    I am currently reading “The Woman in the Window” for Monday’s bookclub.

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