Reading Down the House (and the Library, too!)

In November 2018, I listed the unread books sitting on my shelves at home, and vowed to read them. At the time of my last update in July, I’d read 15 of them, and got rid of two that I couldn’t stomach. Of the 13 remaining, I’ve now read 7 more and have 6 to go!

Here’s the latest round-up.

FICTION

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – Dai Sijie

Two young men, sons of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, are sent away to be reeducated in remote area (sent to do grueling manual labour). They discover that a camp-mate has a trove of books – banned Western literature. They trade favours for books and fall in love with literature. Although they are supposed to be learning the value of agriculture, they end up spreading their love of storytelling and music. They each have a crush on a local, illiterate young woman; one of them “gets the girl.” 

I was not as enamoured with the ending as some readers (I was not as hopeful) but it was an immersive story that spoke to the value of literature and learning.

Rating: Very Good

Lovesong – Alex Miller

Revolving around a Tunisian restaurant in Paris, we find a beautiful love story and a (probably unhealthy) obsession. Tourist John falls for the owner’s niece and decides to settle locally and join the family business. Sahiba loves him, but is single-minded in her pursuit of giving birth to a daughter, to the point she feels it is her destiny and her “right.” She will do anything to make it happen, regardless of the impact on John, her extended family or their business. Meanwhile, John reveals his side of the story through conversations with a writer in a cafe. 

Rating: Fair. Seems like the nice guy doesn’t win in this one. Or does he? 🙂 

Eddie Signwriter – Adam Schwartzman

Eddie, a student in Accra, has two mentors and a great future. In a milieu where reputations can easily be ruined, teenage Eddie embarks on a passionate relationship with Celeste, with the encouragement of a village elder. Her blessings do not protect Eddie and Celeste from being cast out of their homes and schools. Eddie has an unexpected talent for commercial art, but he is untethered in his adult life, scarred by his experiences, which does not bode well for his relationships with women. He becomes an undocumented migrant in Paris. 

Rating: Fair. Eddie and his life are just so vague. However, I do believe people like him exist in the world: people who feel they have been buffeted by fate. I loved the specificity of his growing up years in Ghana, and it’s one of only a few books I’ve read about modern city life in an African country.

Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka (companion to When the Emperor Was Divine, which I haven’t yet read)

This is the collective story of a group of young Japanese brides who travel to California to marry Japanese-American men, sight unseen, in the hopes of living the American dream. When they arrive, they are shocked to find the men are not rich, handsome and integrated into society; instead, most of them work as farm labourers. The short novel traces the journey of the group of women as they steel themselves for married life as second-class citizens in a foreign land. They get jobs, labouring like their husbands or doing domestic work for white families. Until internment 😦 

I loved the use of the first person plural  (“we”) as the subject of the book. Some have criticized it because it follows the whole group and doesn’t tell deeper stories of a few individuals, but that’s what I liked best about it. The author takes pains to show how each woman is an individual within the group, but they are a cohort with a shared experience. Like Ru by Kim Thuy, it is told in spare, poetic vignettes – one of my very favourite writing styles.

Rating: Excellent. One of the few books I will keep and re-read.

NONFICTION

What Are You Looking At?…150 Years of Modern Art – Will Gompertz

I have owned this book for 5 years and only now journeyed through it, over a period of 6 months. It is a straight-forward history of contemporary art from the Impressionists up to recent times (for example, Banksy and Hirst). It provided a good overview of all the “isms” and other trends like pop art. Gompertz tried to include significant women artists if they fell within one of the chapter headings, but their work is not often so neatly contained. I found the book informative, but frustrating. Although there were 68 illustrations, he spent a good part of the book describing artworks that were not pictured. I Googled most of them, hence the 6-month read! 

I’m not sure that a text-heavy work of nonfiction is a good introduction to modern art. Best to see as much as possible in person, look through photo books, and visit artist and museum web sites, then maybe read the back-stories of a few favourite artists.

Rating: Fair

Crucial Accountability (formerly: Crucial Conversations) – Kerry Patterson et al

I read this one for work. It is about how to hold people accountable for what they’ve promised you, on either a personal or professional level, and how to hold hard conversations when things aren’t working. The premises of the book are sound. The authors encourage readers not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions about what happened, but not to “fold” if the other person always gets emotional. They run through a step by step process to get results. My issue was that if you, as the instigator of the conversation, are not perfectly trained and prepared, you may fail. Therefore, only perfect bosses and perfect partners or parents can hold these conversations. It is quite unforgiving. How do you practice? I hope to incorporate some of this content even though my attempts will be flawed!

Rating: Good

Vivienne Westwood – by herself with Ian Kelly (author of Casanova, Beau Brummell) 

The life and times and loves and work of Vivienne Westwood. Yes! Such an icon. I loved reading about her design inspiration, hard work, business ventures, and family. I loved her perspective on That Rotten Rogue she was entangled with, and her subsequent relationship success. 

This is an autobiography, “as told to” Ian Kelly, so it’s more of an authorized biography, and there is certainly a rosy glow about some aspects of her life. I don’t find she is articulate about her environmental activism, but she has always been more of a provocateur than a spokesperson.

I loved this book, especially because she knows her weak points and her place in history (she understands she is a product of her times) and she has forgiven herself for many of her failings. I hope I can do the same!

Rating: Excellent (for inspiration), Good (for writing)

On my last trip to the UK, I fell prey to a 3-for-2 offer at Waterstones (book store) and have read 2 of them. I always find the book covers and copy are so much better on the UK editions! I can’t resist book buying there.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

I love “edgy” fiction and the book had a great buzz. It was a black comedy about a young woman in New York who opted out of life for a year by keeping herself medicated to the point of being comatose. Not an uncommon premise: novels like Eleanor Oliphant and Bridget Jones contain similar scenes, and I’ve also read Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. (Ali Smith has a book about it, too). This one was extraordinarily bleak in the way the protagonist continually rebuffed offers of help, used people, and resented them. I am not faulting the author for creating an unlikeable female lead. Her prerogative! On the plus side, I liked the snarky send-up of the NYC art world. It was a mistake for me to read this because I generally don’t like black humour, and the author deliberately provokes.

Rating: Fair

Ordinary People – Diana Evans

Two couples in London, Black and Biracial, each with kids, are bogged down in stultifying mid-marriage. John Legend’s 2004 album Lifted, about that very conundrum, is the soundtrack for the novel, which is set in 2008/9. Each of the four characters has their own individual reasons for struggling with marriage, child-rearing, work and domestic life. Add racism, community expectations, parental pressure, and housing woes, and they are overwhelmed – just when they think they should have “made it” by now. Their story was almost more realistic than life, and it doesn’t offer easy answers.

Rating: Good

Yet to read of the 3-for-2 is The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla.

Left to read in my Reading Down the House challenge are:

  • Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu
  • Forced Entries – Jim Carroll
  • Country Girls trilogy – Edna O’Brien (have read first one)
  • Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  • Brides of Rollrock Island – Margo Flanagan
  • Four Sisters of Hofei – Annping Chin

Two of my favourite books of 2019 were on my RDTH list! The following were published in various years. My favourites were (in no particular order):

  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
  • Becoming – Michelle Obama (memoir)
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
  • Small Island – Andrea Levy (have not seen the movie)
  • The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (from Reading Down the House list)
  • Soul of an Octopus – Sy Montgomery (nonfiction)
  • Walk through Walls – Marina Abramovic (memoir)
  • Girl Woman Other – Bernardine Evaristo
  • Nosy White Woman – Martha Wilson (short stories)
  • The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsuka (from Reading Down the House list)

I adored all these books!

If you have read any of these, what did you think? Any other reading recommendations?

Lucinda Sans is also reading down her house!

I just perused The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century (2000-2019) and I’ve read 16 of them. My reading list is growing!

 

  

20 comments

  1. Congratulations on getting more of your book stack read through! 🙂

    I’ve read a few on The Guardian’s list, and my to-be-read pile includes two others.

    I wonder if I’d be able to pinpoint enough published-post-2000 titles I’ve liked enough to make a personal “Top 20” (Top 100 would never happen!) list for the first 20 years of the new century. It would make for an interesting project.

  2. I so applaud your efforts. Well done and thanks for sharing your list and thoughts.

  3. “When The Emperor Was Divine” was a great book, but oh so depressing.

  4. Mary

    Have just returned from the UK…with ten books (9 non-fiction). Bookstores hit: Waterstones in Piccadilly (though, sadly, none of mine were 3/2); John Sandoe in Chelsea; and Toppings in Edinburgh. Good thing I brought an extra bag with me.

  5. I’ve read the first two on your list of favourite books (Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine and Becoming). Will look into your other favourite books. Last year I read 62 books in total. Feel free to filter by Books category on my blog if you like to see what I read. Lots of good books to read for sure. The library is awesome 🙂

  6. Fiona

    I just finished reading ‘Becoming’ and loved it as well! It went immediately to a friend who was in hospital (I’m sort of regretting giving it away, but she’s loving it too.)

    I love your reviews – such an eclectic mix of styles, content and authors!

    I live “lists” as well, so I’ll check out The Guardian one. I’m excited to see ‘Brides of Rollrock Island’ on your ‘forthcoming’ list!

  7. See, this is why I have too many books in my house waiting to be read, and on my Goodreads list, and on my library list. People keep reviewing books and giving me links to list of books I have to read.

    I have a friend and I know the look she has which tells me she is about to recommend another book. I want to say no but then think, “What if I miss on a really good book!!” And I did just last weekend. Not miss. But read one.

  8. Dar, I love your reviews, and I have added a few books to my list. BTW, I think we had written to each other by email many years ago. I cannot seem to find your address, though. Write to me at verapoh24@gmail.com so that I can save it. 🙂

  9. I’ve been inspired by you to make myself a similar challenge, as part of a broader challenge to slim my bookshelves (mainly by removing and passing on those that no longer hold any interest for me).

    It’s a long time since I last read the Country Girls trilogy, but recently I’ve been enjoying hearing them dramatised on R4 (I think a rebroadcast of older productions), and I would definitely go back and read them again based on that.

    Good luck with the rest of the challenge. I’ll be interested to see your write up in due course.

    • I wish the Radio 4 episodes were available online here!

      Whenever I read/hear the phrase “in due course” I always think of a cheeky send-up of British character that I once read:

      What do we want?
      Incremental change!
      When do we want it?
      In due course!

      It reminded me of myself 🙂

  10. Jamie

    The books come in here faster than I can get through them!

    Today I finished The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham. I wasn’t a fan quite early on, but persevered thinking I was just tired. Not sure I will watch the movie now. By the end of it there was a lot I didn’t enjoy.

    I’ve added more titles to my Want To Read list on Goodreads after seeing your blog post, Dar! And I’ve only read 9 from The Guardian’s list, so found some new ones there, too!

    I finally read 84, Charing Cross Road last month. I enjoyed it so much! I wasn’t so sure about it before I started and thought “I’ll just read a chapter or two” (I obviously had no idea of the format!) I found I couldn’t put it down! Very enjoyable, with a surprise ending as I hadn’t realised this library copy was combined with The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street in the one volume.

    Next up is Paris or Die by Jane Tuttle.

    • I adored 84 Charing Cross Road (which will be mentioned again in my next post). I haven’t read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street so I have that to look forward to!

      I hope all is going well with your studies and that you and your family are in a safe area.

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