Reading Down the House Has Resumed!

Last November, I started a new round of Reading Down the House, an attempt to read the big stack of unread books I had at home. I bought 8 of them and 2 were from a friend.

The other 20 are ex-library books, i.e. I took discarded books home from the library where I work. No, I didn’t discard perfectly good books just so I could read them without a due date, haha! They were all deselected because they were shelf-sitters. They hadn’t been checked out for a long period of time, and we had copies at other branches to fill any potential holds.

I don’t need my books to be bestsellers, so I wasn’t concerned about their waning popularity. I could decide, at my leisure, if they had been worth saving.

Between November and February, I read 9 from the list, and now I’ll report on a further 7. So I’m over the halfway mark!

When I travelled to Cuba a few months ago, I brought some of those ex-library books with me.

First, I read The Bird Catcher by Laura Jacobs.

Margret is a well-schooled and promising artist, but she ekes out a living in NYC, dressing store windows. Before the book begins, she marries her Professor of Pre-Raphaelite art. The book goes back to tell the story of their romance, and it is absolutely lovely. Despite their urbanity, he entices her into birdwatching in NYC. She takes it a step further, becoming an amateur taxidermist. Gradually we see that her life has been interrupted and she has been set adrift. But the seeds of “adriftness” were already there, sown by her family dynamics – and offset by her close relationship with her austere grandfather.

I rejoiced in Margret’s return to the art world, and her gradual return to feeling grounded. This was a very quiet and sad book, but if you love NYC and the art scene, you’ll enjoy your time immersed in the story.

Next, I read I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett.

What a ride! Our main character, Not Sidney Poitier (that’s his name) grows up in Georgia as the “filthy rich” unofficial foster child of Ted Turner. Yes, that Ted Turner. As he matures, he resembles a young Sidney Poitier more and more. A turn of events causes him to strike out on his own. His subsequent road trip reads like a series of walloping tall tales – side by side with stories of sexual abuse and racism that are both comedic and heart-rending.

Experimental and odd-in-a-good-way, this plays as a satire which strikes out at the treatment of race and celebrity in America.

I read Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture over two months. It is a long social history of youth movements in the US, UK, France and Germany from the 1870s to the 1940s (just before 1950s teenagers sparked the most recent incarnation of youth culture). I thought it would be pop culture reading, but it was quite scholarly. And very, very slow. I was interested in all the youth movements he wrote about: youth gangs and young soldiers and Woodcraft Folk; Hitler Youth and Zoot Suiters and more. He provided case studies of compelling individuals; even a lengthy section on Anne Frank.

The book’s key points are that the concept of “teenagers” began before Rebel Without a Cause, and that every generation has its own youth cultures that arise in opposition to the adult world. It also makes a statement about how subcultures are co-opted for marketing and consumerism.

I can’t really recommend this because the writing was so dense and the treatment of the subject was so exhaustive.

Then I read Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr. As you know, I am a rock music fan and I read loads of memoirs by musicians. This one was a bit surprising. He doesn’t look back on his years with The Smiths as the pinnacle of his career. He is a working musician who has played with several bands (notably Modest Mouse and The Cribs) and he doesn’t rest on his laurels.

In some respects, Marr is very reasonable. He exerted a calming influence on The Smiths. He works hard. He pulled himself back from addictions and became healthy. He’s still married to Angie whom he met when they were both teenagers. Reading between the lines, it must have been hard for others to deal with him throughout his career. He is passive and uncommunicative, waiting for others to take initiative and make decisions. When the going gets tough, he makes big life changes (like moving to California) and expects his family and staff to sort themselves out. And I am sure all his drinking and drug use took a toll on everyone around him.

I still like it that Marr is a career musician and not a flash in the pan. I also like that he’s always been comfortable with girls and women, and he’s fine with expressing femininity himself. I like that he describes his best friendships with men in terms of chemistry and intimacy.

A good read!

And now for something completely different…The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld.

This novel was in the fantasy section of the library, but it is the furthest thing from fantasy. It is told in fairy tale language, but it’s about death row inmates in a rundown prison. There are two story lines. Someone known as “the lady” has three months to rescue one of the prisoners – she is to research York’s case and seek amnesty before his execution date. Except – York wants to die. How is that going to work? Meanwhile, she befriends “the fallen priest,” an ex-clergyman who also works in the prison.

The other story concerns our unnamed narrator. We think of him as a gentle soul. He avoids violence from the other inmates by spending all his time in his cell, reading and re-reading books from the prison library. He spins his own tales of life on death row. He is thoughtful and observant. We learn about his sad, sad upbringing but we never really know What He Did.

The author somehow manages to strike a balance between describing horrors and allowing other horrors to remain unspeakable.

This is one of the most intense books I’ve ever read. I’ve read another on the same subject (A Lesson Before Dying) and I’ve seen movies like The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking. The Enchanted belongs in this company.

The narrator’s story has a shocking twist and a strong resolution. The language in the book is beautiful throughout. Ultimately, it is life-affirming. Wow!

Thanks to Lucinda Sans for recommending this book which I would never have picked up on my own.

I got rid of another book for the same reason I turfed The Ask a few months ago. This time it was To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I had really liked his book Then We Came to the End. This one was about a dentist named Paul whose identity was stolen, and his new namesake has a big online presence. Unfortunately, the old Paul was so vile in chapter one that I didn’t care what happened to him and I refused to read it. So I struck that one off my list.

As in The Ask, it is quite likely that the character was redeemed, but I didn’t stick around to find out.

Finally, I read Wetlands by Charlotte Roche.

Wetlands begins with Helen in the “ass unit” of the hospital where she has just had surgery for an anal tear. She then spends the next 200+ pages detailing everything about her body that is deemed disgusting or lurid: hemorrhoids, pus, scars, vomit, menstrual fluids, etc. etc. The accounts are so over-the-top explicit and gross that I couldn’t help laughing. Uproariously. The older I get, the more I see that our bodies are remarkable. They are also funny and pathetic.

Charlotte Roche obviously wanted to shock and titillate. She seriously skewers body and germ phobias. No one will ever act in public like our heroine Helen (OMG I hope not!)

Unexpectedly, 18-year-old Helen proves to be both a woman of the world and a needy little girl.

Not for the faint of heart!

So that’s my Reading Down the House status. 13/30 left!

In the meanwhile, I recommend the following:

Becoming – Michelle Obama (of course)

Accidentally Gay – Lucky and Wolsey Bradley (blog friends!)

Small Island – Andrea Levy

Daisy Jones and the Six – Tara Jenkins Reid (my pick for fun summer/beach read)

And the very popular Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

What have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?

12 comments

  1. I have recently added to my already-overlarge To Be Read pile (which is, in actuality, not a pile but a book shelf full) because I’ve had the opportunity to visit several independent booksellers recently and have found – of course! – a few million pages worth of “Oooh, that sounds fabulous!” material. 🙂

    I typically work my way through multiple titles at once, though I speed through the ‘entertainment’ pieces (Terry Pratchett, Dorothy Sayers, Jayne Ann Krentz, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, etc.), take a leisurely pace with collections of short stories and biographies, and truly take my time with the academic tomes I tackle. (Most recently, Gwyn Jones’ A History of the Vikings, which was fascinating.)

    One of the books I picked up on my recent forays that I’m looking forward to reading is called The Flying Flynns, which is a memoir written by a female veterinarian who – along with her husband – traveled by sea plane to remote areas of the northern Pacific coast (including northern BC and Alaska) to treat animals during the 1950s.

  2. I recently borrowed six library books (three fiction, three non) and have devoured four but am slowly getting through the fourth… I plan to spend some of today working through it. I figure now is the time to read more, given I’m not working, but it seems inevitable I will be soon!

  3. Margie from Toronto

    I have managed to make a tiny dent in my “to be read” pile – one whole bookcase that is sitting right in front of me at the moment – but the library still commands a lot of attention as well.
    I love my mysteries and have finally caught up on my Ava Lee mysteries with “The Imam of Tawi Tawi” – which meant that I had to go out and order the next two in the series as I’m a bit behind – they should arrive today!
    I’ve also been in a non-fiction mood and have read “How Bad are Bananas” by Mike Berners-Lee – it gives the carbon footprint of almost anything you could think of – and many of the answers truly surprised me – not what I was expecting at all. I heartily recommend this as he gives you a lot of useful information – and explains how he reached each number (it’s his day job to do this sort of research for both companies and governments) but he does it in a a very clear but engaging style.
    Then “The Catalogue of Wonders” by Stuart Kells – libraries of the world, both private and public – as a librarian I think you would really enjoy this one.
    Currently I am reading “The Art of the Wasted Day” by Patricia Hampl – really a series of essays around a theme, plus a bit of an autobiography from someone looking back on the great influencers in her life. I am really enjoying this book and I am madly writing down a lot of the authors and books she refers to – and yes, I bought this one as I think it will be something that I go back to from time to time.

  4. Fiona

    Intrigued to read your comments about The Enchanted! I saw you gave it a 5 star rating on Goodreads so it must be good 🙂 I love cross-checking to Goodreads and compiling ‘Want to Reads’ there (so that went on the list, of course!)

    ‘Set the Boy Free’ sounds intriguing as well. I think I’d like to add a rock biography next to my reading list. I’m reading a weird (obscure) book at the moment that compares Australian rivers to French rivers. I really like it, but it definitely must have a micro-audience, I think!

    • The Enchanted was stunning – it knocked me for a loop!

      Set the Boy Free was good, but reserved – I felt Johnny Marr was holding back and he could have spoken more freely.

  5. Hello and thank you for your recommended books. I’ll see if I can borrow them from my local library. I just finished Love in the Time of Cholera by G. G. Marquez, after A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing by Maya Angelou. A lot of human suffering in these stories. This year I’ve been using the Toronto Public Library Reading Challenge proposed categories to read more widely. I wrote a blog post on the books I’ve read in the first half of this year in case you want to see it.

    • I have read One Hundred Years of Solitude and And the Mountains Echoed! I did read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings many years ago but it’s time for a re-read. I love the categories TPL is using!

  6. Such a great idea and one I’m starting to copy. Though along the way I’m finding books I didn’t get through for a reason, and I no longer feel the need to finish just because I started. My time is too precious to me for that.
    I can heartily agree with your recommendations of Small Island and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
    I’ve recently been binging on the crime novels by Anne Cleeves set in Shetland, in lieu of a planned trip to visit friends there that looks like it won’t happen. Which is sad, because the books have made me even more keen to see the place for myself. Maybe one day….

    • I agree – I generally don’t finish books that I don’t like. I don’t give them much of a chance. They have to grab me right away. I haven’t read Anne Cleeves!

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