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?