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Self-Isolation reading list

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    Books read:

    Valley of the Serpents — S H Payne ** She's a friend, I'm trying to be kind.

    Tarka the Otter — Henry Williamson ***** Quite stunning, an absolute classic of English pastoral writing for sure. It's rare to find anthropomorphism without a shred of sentiment. I'm certain this book would be more widely known if the author hadn't been an active Nazi for most of his adult life.

    Doctor Faustus — Thomas Mann (unread)

    Hi Five — Joe Ide **** Well up to snuff with his previous 'IQ' novels. An excellent book for falling asleep over (that sounds like a sarky comment but I mean it seriously.)

    The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun — Sebastien Japrisot ***** I'm not usually a huge fan of puzzle-type mysteries, being more into character and location. But Japrisot, who has few books translated into English, does both very well. The plot is as tricksy as you could wish, but the French early 60s setting gives the story a very nice Nouvelle Vague vibe.

    Big Sky — Kate Atkinson *** A classic English "cosy" set in Bridlington. I spent many childhood holidays there which is why I bought it, and was pleasantly surprised. Atkinson is a pleasantly witty writer, with an excellent command of her craft. No real surprises, but no disappointments either.

    Currently reading:

    The Long Fall — Walter Mosley *** The first of his Leonid McGill novels. Entertaining, but doesn't do as much for me as Easy Rawlins. Maybe I'll give one of the more recent ones a try.

    Displaced Persons — Dagni Innus *** An unpublished memoir someone has asked for my opinion on. So far, so good.

    Dissident Gardens — Jonathan Lethen **** Like The Fortress of Solitude this more recent novel of Lethen's kinda threw itself at me (it was on a reduced rack outside our local bookstore for four dollars.) I couldn't say no, and I'm glad i didn't.

    Upcoming Reading:

    It's Superman!: A Novel — Tom De Haven

    The Origins of Totalitarianism — Hannah Arendt

    The Three Body Problem — Cixin Liu


      Originally posted by Amor de Cosmos View Post
      Tarka the Otter — Henry Williamson ***** Quite stunning, an absolute classic of English pastoral writing for sure. It's rare to find anthropomorphism without a shred of sentiment. I'm certain this book would be more widely known if the author hadn't been an active Nazi for most of his adult life.
      An 11 year old child in my class is reading this at the moment and she reads me a page or so every day. I can't really comment on the story as I'm only hearing random extracts but what strikes me is the level of nature-specific vocabulary is extremely high and would challenge many a modern day adult reader, let alone a child but she does appear to be enjoying it. As did my Dad. Some 75 years ago he sent in a review of the book to a BBC children's radio programme and got a mention on air.

      The same pupil has also read Watership Down, which I am currently reading to my son. We are both really enjoying it. I don't know if you've read it, Amor, but surely it fits into the same category - pastoral English writing, unsentimental and anthropomorphic. I have read a few children's classics to him over the last year or so - The Secret Garden, Swallows and Amazons, Stig of the Dump - but Watership Down is the one I'm enjoying the most.


        I can't disagree with your comments. It's been a very long time since I read Watership Down, probably shortly after it was published. From memory there are certainly strong stylistic echoes of Tarka, in fact I'd be a surprised if Richard Adams wasn't familiar with it. However I don't remember it as quite as death-ridden as Tarka. Yes, it happens but — again in my memory — not as frequently, and with more import than the mortality rate in Williamson's book. Not that it's casual there but it is both ever present and frequent, also barely acknowledged when it occurs. IIRC Adams's book was based on stories he read to his children. I assume Tarka was read to children too, perhaps your Father was one. But it was written in the shade of war, and at time when there was less discrimination between what was written for children and adults. Your comment on the vocabulary in Tarka is very true. Your eleven-year-old student must be exceptional these days, the descriptive density of the story would be more than modern audiences, young or old, would likely to accept. You'd know better than I, but I suspect in schools today it would be a rarity. Aside from the language, any research on Williamson would be bound to include his politics which, when it comes to Tarka would be a difficult and incidental, path to negotiate.


          Yes, there is a definite line to be drawn from Tarka through to Watership Down and I have no doubt that Richard Adams had read it. I asked my dad yesterday if he had had the book read to him but no, he had read it himself, around the age of 11, he thinks. I think I have already mentioned to you that my dad has always been a great reader of nature books, both fiction and non-fiction and was a particular lover of the 'Romany of the BBC' series so I doubt he had many problems with the vocabulary in Tarka. I wasn't aware of Williamson's connection to the British Fascist movement at all. Is this a well known fact? You seem to intimate that it might be.


            Yes, it's discussed extensively in the introduction to the copy of the book I have, and also on his Wiki page:


            There's an expressed belief he, and his writing, would be more widely known today if it wasn't for his extreme political views, which appeared to continue until the end of his life.


              (Make that still) To Read:

              Craig Brown-One Two Three Four
              Jon Savage-Joy Division Oral History
              Glen James Brown-Ironopolis

              & to which will add Will Carver -Hinton Hollow Death Trip having been mightily impressed by both Good Samaritans & Nothing Important Happened Today

              Instead read-Francis Spufford Golden Hill **** Historical romp in early NY. Not typically my genre but entertaining and comfortable.
              Louise Welsh-No Dominion **** Conclusion to 'sweats' pandemic trilogy. Like most of these genre the standards of the first instalment not maintained and has run its course but a satisfying conclusion none the less
              Paul Slansky-Clothes Have No Emperor*** Expecting more of a narrative for 1980s America but mainly a factual chronology which could not help getting repetive
              Richard Aldous-Reagan & Thatcher The Difficult Relationship ** & 1/2. Seemingly an attempt to posit an alternative viewpoint to the understood relationship but curiously only felt its conclusion only reinforced the stereotype.

              Currently reading-Zadie Smith Grand Union ** & 1/2. Short stories which work well at their best. Unfortunately doesnt happen that often.
              Joe Hill-Nos4A2 ***Stephen King son and you can tell. More enthusiastic and story driven than stuff his dad now writing even if rehashing some of his familiar tropes
              Laura Cumming-On Chapel Sands **** & 1/2 Genealogical & evocative biography of author complicated family background dating back to 1920s Lincolnshire.

              Last edited by ale; 23-07-2020, 10:46.


                Have just completed milestone of century of books read since July 2020 which seems reason enough for a bump.

                Just read:

                Shadow Year-Jeffrey Ford **** Bears comparison with some of Ray Bradbury coming of age stories influenced by small doses of magic. Set in small US community at end of 1960s & affect that peeping tom prowlers,child abductions,and appearance of sinister outsider has on it and one family in particular.

                Theres Only One Danny Garvey-Davd F Ross ***1/2.Bears absolutely no comparison to Ray Bradbury & setting moved to 1990s small Scottish community. Interspersed with reference to contemporary football & music the titular character returns home to Ayrshire village to battle demons of past as manager of local club which has fallen well below the glories it experienced when he was the star player. Not as cliched as it sounds but not as original as originally promised.

                A Very English Scandal-John Preston ***1/2 Subject of Jeremy Thorpe which subsequently dramatised for TV. Which I havent seen. And surprisingly although familiar with the background story found myself unfamiliar with the ending. Author tells story solidly & effectively enough-which I guess is the remit although as it is non-fiction written as fiction a little literary flourish wouldnt have gone amiss. Would have also appreciated more stitching of contemporary politics into story given subject matter. It is the story of how Jeremy Thorpe personal life impacted on Jeremy Thorpe as a person rather than as a politician and of some stature.

                Currently reading:

                Britains War-Daniel Todman ****. Part 1 of 2 and covering years 1937-1941. Over a third through and still in early 1940 with Chamberlain as PM & Western Europe blitzkreig still to happen. Illuminating in the lengths government went & decisions taken to deal with the threats of both Germany and Russia. As much an appraisal of economics as military transformations at the moment.

                Last House On Needless Street-Catriona Ward ***1/2. Almost 40% through & as yet to fully satisfy or grip. The house of the title is inhabited by a mid 30s bachelor recluse who may or may not have been responsible for a child abduction 10 years or so previously. The house belonged to his parents who may or may not have mat a grisly untimely end at hands of their son. The other occupants may or may not be the abducted girl. Along with a cat who occasionally narrates a chapter and may or may not be the abducted girl. The other main character is the sister of the abducted girl who has moved in next door.

                Will Carver-Hinton Hollow Death Trip *****. Third in the DS Pace stories & being told in author own inimitable style. A little familiarity with the first two novels helps. DS Pace has temporarily left his metropolitan duties harrowed by earlier cases & returned to the tranquil comfort of his Berkshire commuter town upbringing. Population 5,119 when he returns. Within 3 days population is 5,114.

                Next to read:

                As previous post 10 months had the Will Carver above in this category definitely not a reliable guide. But earmarked for priority are Andrew Grant Jackson-1973 Rock At The Crossroads, Clay McLeod Chapman-Whisper Down The Lane, & Francis Spufford-Light Perpetual.


                  Cripes, I haven't contributed to this thread in going on a year!

                  It's not that I haven't read anything — I'm inhaling almost a couple of books a week on average — just that I haven't felt like talking much about them, I'm not good at one-line reviews and anything longer is subject to this very strange Covid ennui.

                  But I should mention a couple of recent reads, bad and good.

                  Back in the 70s I was a pretty heavy Paul Theroux fan, read most of his novels from The Family Arsenal to The Mosquito Coast, but nothing since then, he just slipped out of my sight-lines I guess. So I thought I'd revisit him by picking up his latest, Under the Wave at Waimea. Oh dear.

                  It begins well enough, sort of. The central character, and it's hard to believe he's not the author's wish fulfillment proxy, is an aging surfer. By his late 50s/60s he's surfed every big wave there is on the planet, and has the scars, trophies, tattoos and GF, who's twenty years his junior, to prove it. Basically, like any aging athlete he's living off his rep, so far as he can. At its best the book hints at being a decent reflection on aging and what it's like to become a living relic, but it never really takes that anywhere. It also relies very much on secondary sources, primarily William Finnegan's autobiography Barbarian Days. Half-way through the book moves back into the protagonist's childhood to relate in more detail what was already mentioned in the first half. At this point I gave up. Unfortunately there was no readers' reward in sight.

                  On the flip side Louis Menand's The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, offers all kinds of trinkets. Menand's a Harvard prof and this is definitely an academic book (over 200 of its 850 pages are citations.) Having got that out of the way it must be said the man can also write pretty darn good — he's an English prof after all. Concentrating on US political or cultural events and personalities, Menand discusses their significance within the post WW2 – mid 60s period. They're a well known bunch, though not often discussed together. George Kennan, Jackson Pollock, Lionel Trilling, John Cage, Alan Freed, Pauline Kael and so on. An eclectic bunch of American movers and shakers. Whether you're familiar with them or not, Menand will often surprise you with facts — I didn't know, for instance, Andy Warhol was making over $70,000 a year as an illustrator in the 1950s, nor that he never made more than $1,200 a year during his heyday in the 60s — and opinions. Maybe because we share the era, if not the place, I found the distance Menand brought to this work enormously valuable. Neither rose-tinted glasses, nor retrospective cynicism are between these pages. A keeper for sure, and I'm glad I sprang for the hard-back


                    I've always been a fan of Jan Morris's travel/history writing. Her articles were generally the first I looked for back when she was a regular Rolling Stone contributor. It sounds a bit callous, but now she's gone I can begin catching up with her rather voluminous catalog. Manhattan '45 seemed liked a good place to start.

                    It's a portrait of the restless island at a time when, instead of being "never the same city for a dozen years together" according to Harper's Bazaar in the previous century, it paused for a moment, or so Morris claims. "[It] seems that just for a spell the city was finished, was staying the same, as it contemplated its new status in the world and breathed the long sigh of victory."

                    Whether this was true, or the author's conceited concept-hanger, I can't say but in any case it makes an extremely informative and entertaining read. For instance: did'ya know that one James "Smelly" Kelly patrolled the IND subway track — literally — sniffing out gas-leaks? Or that The Fifth Avenue Bank had a brocaded room reserved just for lady clients (so that they could remove folding money from their stocking tops, allegedly!) I was especially interested in the section on Radio City Music Hall, the first landmark I visited in NY. I did know The Rockettes had a dormitory backstage, but not that one high-kicking lady lived there until she was in her sixties. Nor that ozone was pumped through the building to make "everyone feel good," (the original plan was to use nitrous oxide!)

                    Besides being a "good read" Manhattan '45 is a bit of a curiosity. It's set in 1945, but Morris didn't visit the city herself until 1953. It was written in 1986, so when read in 2021 it has a sort of diorama effect, add in my own experience of NY in the early and you have a vision of the same place informed by different temporal distances. Strange but exhilarating.


                      Her book on Venice is amazing and I'd recommend her memoir, Condundrum.


                        Indeed, I have read Conundrum and her city books and articles are generally absorbing, even if you're personally not familiar with them. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere made it one of the places I'd love to visit when previously it was just a historical backwater.


                          I was s just about to mention Trieste.

                          Remarkable book about a remarkable place


                            Out of interest have you read Manhattan '45 ?


                              No, though I have ordered it on the basis of your review


                                Ah, right. I'd be interested in your perspectives. Particularly on the precipitous rise in crime beginning in the early fifties and local attitudes to the police, which she infers were linked. The cops were viewed largely benignly by residents in the forties, but by the end of the following decade they turned right around. She doesn't enlarge on it, because it isn't really what she's writing about, but I'd like to know more.


                                  It's unfortunate that my mom isn't around to ask, as she lived through that (though she was away, primarily in Europe, from 45 to 54).

                                  I was certainly raised with a very healthy skepticism about the NYPD that came primarily from her before it was reinforced by my own experiences.

                                  I would think that the very rapid change from foot patrols to squad cars was a very important factor, as was the force being among the vanguard of white flight from the city.


                                    If it needs yet another recommendation, there’s another one for Trieste here. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my love of that book in a number of other threads.