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?