The 50 books of my year to date

For the last few years — alas, I wish I’d done this always from a child — I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read.

Yesterday my list for 2018 hit 50 books, and here they are.  I like complete freedom in choosing books, so I don’t make any kind of reading plan, and often bypass my pile of recently purchased books to choose others.  I use the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (for audiobook downloads) a lot.  I follow my interests (in the last few years, Russia, pre-and-post revolution), or powerful suggestions, such as the Backlisted Podcast, which brought me to #27, 28, 32, or books mentioned on other podcasts I listen to.  I note when I’ve listened to a book instead of reading it on paper, but I consider listening equivalent to reading.  In some cases, it’s superior to reading — for instance, hearing the audio of “Purple Hibiscus” gave me the Nigerian accents and pronunciations of names without which the experience would have been much flatter.  I also like audiobooks for history, which I’ll happily listen to all the way through instead of getting bogged down in the paper book.

I’m committed to maintaining my ability to concentrate for long bouts of reading, in physical books.  I did read a couple of these books on my iPad because e-books were the only format the public library had to lend, but while I don’t condemn it, I’ll still never prefer it.

The books that wowed me the most are in bold.

 

1 Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets   Svetlana Alexievich         Audiobook

2  Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine    Anne Applebaum                          Audiobook

3  The Orchid House     Phyllis Shand Allfrey

4  The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars     Daniel Beer Audiobook

5 Niels Lyhne           Jens Peter Jacobsen

6  City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War     John Strausbaugh      Audiobook

7 The Adolescent (The Raw Youth)    Fyodor Dostoevsky

8   Hotel Savoy    Joseph Roth

9   Nothing is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia            Peter Pomerantsev               Audbiobook

10 Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 & How It Changed The World                 Laura Spinney             Audiobook

11 The Shooting Party  Anton Chekhov

12 The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

13 Notes From Underground    Fyodor Dostoevsky

14  The Double   Fyodor Dostoevsky            Audiobook

15 Caught in the Revolution—Petrograd, Russia, 1917      Helen Rappaport 

Audiobook

16  My Cousin Rachel     Daphne Du Maurier                    Audiobook

17  Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: A Essay in Contrast  George Steiner

18   Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birdbizhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region    Masha Gessen       Audiobook

19  Lincoln in the Bardo    George Saunders

20  The Unpossessed     Tess Slesinger 

21 Slow Days Fast Company  Eve Babitz

22 The Fox in the Attic     Richard Hughes

23 The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia    Masha Gessen            Audiobook

24  L.A. Woman     Eve Babitz

25  Eve’s Hollywood   Eve Babitz  

26 Elmet                   Fiona Mozley

27 Corregidora     Gayl Jones

28 The Lowlife   Alexander Baron

29 The Romanovs 1613-1918    Simon Sebag Montefiore           Audiobook

30 An Empire On the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America  Nick Bunker                 Audiobook

31  Kudos    Rachel Cusk

32 The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives       Sebastian Faulks

33  Remember Me Like This     Bret Anthony Johnston

34  American Wife  Curtis Sittenfeld         Audiobook

35 The Turn of the Screw    Henry James   Reread/Audiobook

36  A Wrinkle in Time   Madeline L’Engle           Reread/Audiobook

37  Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography    Lesley Blanch

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38  Purple Hibiscus  Chimananda Ngozi Adichie        Audiobook

39  Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution      Kenneth Ackerman  Audiobook

40 The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson: The End of a Beautiful Friendship   Alex Beam     Audiobook

41 Red Plenty       Francis Spufford  Audiobook

42 The People’s Act of Love    James Meek

43  In A Lonely Place   Dorothy Hughes        

44  The World Broke in Two: Woolf, Eliot, Forster Lawrence and the Year That Changed Literature          Bill Goldstein          Audiobook

45  Florida    Lauren Groff

46  Asymmetry      Lisa Halliday      

47  Corpus Christi            Bret Anthony Johnston    

48  The Rainbow          D H Lawrence     Audiobook

49 Days of Awe: Short Stories             A M Homes

50  The Best American Short Stories 2016           Junot Diaz, editor

The book by Lesley Blanch was so much fun for me, because it hit my reading pleasure center in multiple ways — a lot of romantic tosh about pre-revolution Russia, a transgressive love affair, enthusiasm about books, and evocative descriptions of foreign places — Blanch writes about the origins and experiences of her life-long obsession with Russia, a Russia of fairy tales, wolves chasing sleighs across stony wastes, onion domes, extravagant despots.  It’s an absolutely charming book, and it came to me at random — NYRB republished it and sent it to me as part of a subscription; I think I enjoyed it more for not having anticipated it at all.

 

In a Lonely Book Place

As recommended by my podcast-soulmate Backlisted, I’m reading Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, which is a story collection and, at long last, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes, the 1940s noir novel on which the film with Bogart and Grahame was based.  The film is one of the handful that I can’t not watch whenever I see it’s coming on TCM.  Reading the book afterwards is quite a lesson in how novels, when adapted for movies, can be changed, plot-wise, in big ways, often for the (cinematic at least) better. The simple switch — though so not simple! — from making the protagonist in the book, whom we know is a serial killer from the outset, into a man with anger issues who could be the killer, but we’re pretty sure isn’t, takes it to a higher orbit.

 

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Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in In A Lonely Place

I’m also in the midst of Lauren Groff’s latest book, “Florida”, another story collection.  Post writers conference, my interest in the short is resurging.

13bennett-cover-jumboOn audio I’ve got 1922: The Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein, which is about how, in that year, four great writers made their great leaps forward: Woolf, Lawrence, Eliot, and Forster.  It’s sending me to read some Lawrence, which I haven’t seen college.

You may well wonder how I get all this reading done — but in fact I usually feel I’m not getting enough reading done, as, come dusk, I turn to TV binge-watch mode.

 

“My” show of the moment, Claws, has been putting out a 2nd season even better than its stellar first.  It hits my Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sleazy southern noir buttons, it’s hilarious and continually inventive, and also akin to Buffy, the characters are real people with backstories that are “surprising and inevitable,” as Flannery O’Connor says the ending of a short story must be.

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In a similar vein, I saw the movie The Spy Who Dumped Me” this week, with expectations pretty low: killing an afternoon somewhere cool, seated comfortably, so as to avoid running into my cleaner. I’d read somewhere that the action sequences in it exceeded those of the latest Mission Impossible, and I like action — I also like movies that Tom Cruise is nowhere near.  My expectations were large exceeded — this was a funny BFF comedy with Mila Kunis and Katherine McKinnon getting mixed up in a dangerous international caper.  The plot was superfluous, the pleasure was in seeing a story about a pair of best friends who use their best-friendship to conquer all before them.  Recommended, though maybe not for the $17.50 I had to pay when I wandered like a shorn lamb into the theater at 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.  (I go to very few movies — the last one I saw was The Death of Stalin last winter.)

Hanging out in Russia

Without faith in a Christ as god-man, and the life after death Christianity promises, Dostoevsky believed, humanity is doomed to squalid, cruel disorder.  No other intellectual system based on atheism, however well-functioning in practice, even in a sort of utopia where everyone is enthusiastic about wanting to help everyone else be happy and good, can possibly succeed; without the prospect of Heaven, and judgment, humankind inevitably breaks down to debasement.  DostoevskyHe saw this all around him in mid-19th century Russia, in the government, the rulers, the behavior and mores of the aristocracy,  dissolution of the family (as he perceived it), and the desire to turn away from Russian-ness and emulate the culture of Western Europe.

At the same time he seemed to feel that none of the disorder in Russia was ever going to  be reparable.  That the the peasants (recently freed serfs, after the 1860s) were always going to be a somehow incomprehensible other, even as they supposedly possessed the purest highest form the the Russian soul.

I’ve been delving into Dostoevsky for a few years now on and off, reading and then listening to audios of the major novels; I’ve gone from not being able to read him at all in my younger days, to finding him as absorbing and rereadable as Henry James or  Tolstoy.   I had to discover how to read him, and retune myself to the higher emotional pitch he demands — not even Tolstoy prepared me for the high hysteria of a Dostoyevsky character.  His people start out at 11.

But it was just this past couple of weeks that I read his big novel The Adolescent (or A Raw Youth as an earlier English translation calls it), which was his next to last — written between Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.  According to the introduction, it was not well received at the time of publication and tended to be overlooked since.

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There was a lot to it that made it a tough read — some flatness to characters, a ridiculously melodramatic plot turning on possession and purloining of a compromising letter.  (Does the word ‘purloin’ ever get used anymore except with the word ‘letter’ in the same sentence–and barely even then.) But from it I got what seems to be my clearest understanding yet of what Dostoevsky was on about, and in a way that connected more directly than before with my own moral preoccupations, uncertainties and dreads.

This post has been in draft form for well over a week, and I’ve kind of lost track of it, because I was working on a short story with my writers group–trying a form I’m very unaccustomed to attempting, and especially after a year when any creative impulses I might have had were buried against the onslaught of my elderly parents’ emergency.

I’m now stuck into George Steiner’s first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, An Essay in Contrast,51xvLF-3MwL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ (the title always makes me think The Beatles or The Stones, why do we have to pick?), as well as an audio of The Double.

 

 

 

 

 

24631264.jpgAlso just finished Peter Pomerentsev’s nonfiction book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. which contains nothing that would contradict any of Dostoevsky’s points about Russia and humanity, each chapter setting out a story of frightening dangerous absurdity,  Pomerentsev’s parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to London, and he went back as an adult to work in television, wanting to make documentary films about the post-Soviet social upheavals.  Through interviews with various players, both Russians and foreigners who worked in Russia during those years, he shows us, from the point of view of suicidal models, crusading lawyers, shameless oligarchs, unsuspecting entrepreneurs, and brash social climbers, a perspective on the decades following the fall of the SU that’s fascinating in it’s horror and horrible in its fascination.

Once in a while I think about picking up a different sort of book and taking a break from dwelling on Russia, my obsession with it sometimes feeling like a half-open scab I keep picking picking picking.  There’s a weird pain-into-pleasure I experience as I read Russian literature or books about Russian life and history.  Nothing else feels as inviting to me now, anyway. It’s not that I need to “get to the bottom of it” but this immersion is filling some kind of need in me for the squalor, ugliness, human cruelty, occasionally leavened by a spiritual light that I myself don’t believe in, delivered in a beautiful and meaningful package of prose fiction.  The way everything in all these books not just goes up to 11, but seems to start there and go up into ever more shrill, sublime human places that seem otherwise invisible to fictive worlds of other languages and cultures, just keeps pulling me.  The other day I even listened to some Mussorgsky.

And rewatched the 2012 film version of Anna Karenina, which is now on Netflix, and which has always struck me as being a great adaptation, and a visual treasure with a well-chosen cast, look, and feel.

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky

I especially admire how the film is staged, literally, on a stage–and behind the stage, to illustrate how performative is the society from which Anna tries to rebel.


					

In Russia and Denmark

9780691176949_0The next plunge into the work of Joseph Conrad is getting put off a little while, as I’m immersed in things Russian, and a wonderful 19th century Danish classic.

First, the Russia Thing. The House ofGovernment, a Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, has been my preoccupation for the last few weeks, on audio–after listening to all of it, I went back and just started listening again from the beginning.  (It’s read, wonderfully, by Stephen Rudnicki, who also narrates Notes From a Dead House, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I’m also listening to).

I’m also immersed in audios of Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum, whose other books about Russian history I enjoyed very much, and am also engaged with Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, his second-to-last novel, which I’ve somehow overlooked until now (and according to the introduction, has been overlooked by a lot of Dostoevsky scholars.) That one I’m reading with my eyes, not my ears.

Back when I was in college, I took a course on Russian history, not because I was interested in it — I wasn’t, at the time — but because word amongst my fellow students was that one mustn’t miss the experience of a semester with Professor Peter Viereck, who was famous on campus for his eccentricity (his unstable genius?)*.

A few years later that I tried Tolstoy — who surprised me by being easy to read, sentence for sentence, and to understand, contrary to all expectations.  I went on a tear and read all the Tolstoy I could, including the novel Resurrection, which I probably couldn’t read again now even if you paid me.  I went on to Chekhov, and began an on-and-off again but ever-deepening fascination with Russia, in its capacity as Hot Mess and Hotbed of  Great Literature, a place where humans are more-than-human in their over-the-top fucked up emotionality and hysteria, where reasonableness and logic somehow don’t apply, where terrible terrible terrible things happen every moment.  Which led me, eventually, to want to know more about its history and society.  At last I was able to come, after quite a few frustrating failures, to Dostoevsky, who I’d found impossible to read during my earlier happy forays into Tolstoy, for reasons which are now the very ones that make me love his work maybe even more than Tolstoy’s — i.e., A WHOLE LOT — and which originally made me, after reading 100 pages of The Idiot, just want to slam all the characters’ heads together.  He was harder to learn to how to read; when I was younger I couldn’t settle down to his style, I missed his humor altogether, and I wasn’t able to let go of some misbelief at the overwrought emotions and behaviors of his characters.

So, back to The House of Government, a book of history that often reads like a novel, centered on the apartment building of the same name that housed many members of the Soviet government and was, at least when it went up in the 20s, the largest residential building in the world. (The view from my living room window as I write is of London Terrace (1931) which also claims to be the largest apartment building in the world, so that’s interesting. (Though unlike the House of Government in Moscow, London Terrace has never had its own theater, movie house, grocery store, internal surveillance apparatus on all tenants, 2 a.m. knocks on the door by secret police, et al.  It does have its own pool.) Slezkine uses the extensive diaries and letters of various residents, all government officials and their families, to bring to life not just their individual stories  — many of which end in hideous show trials and banishment to Siberia or execution, but the history of the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union.  Among its many tangents and diversions, the book reveals everything from what the ideal Soviet vacation consisted of, to The Happy Soviet Childhood, to the to the importance of literature to the Bolsheviks, who while worshipping the classic writers of Russia’s past (Pushkin, Lermontov,  Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, et al) were never, in the 20th century, able to let contemporary writers and artists alone with their integrity.

I’m also listening to the audio of Anne Applebaum’s most recent book of Russian history, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  I also have to hand a collection of Gogol’s tales and of Pushkin’s prose, which I hope to get to before I get distracted fromthis plunge into Russia by a sudden interest in something else.

Denmark comes in with a Penguin Classics edition of Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, which I bought because somewhere recently I saw or heard a fervid recommendation of it as being a masterpiece.   It’s a coming of age story, a ‘the death of the heart, or at least of the fantastical imagination’ kind of thing, though my presumption that it’s going to end in heartbreak and disillusion is just a guess — but one based on having read a lot of books already.  I’m reading it slowly, because it’s dense and lyrical, pleasurable but not really the kind of thing that pushes me to start the next chapter right after the chapter I’ve finished.  (Unlike anything by Dostoevsky, whose books are difficult to put down.)

I subscribed to the TLS just before Christmas, and in order to justify this expenditure, am trying to read each issue pretty promptly.  It’s lighter generally than the London Review of Books — at least, having read one and a half issues, that’s my impression.  I’ve wished all my life to be a reader of the TLS but it’s very expensive.  It’s also very fun, though a drawback is that I have to fight the urge to want all the books they review; even if I reserve them at the library, I’d never be able to read them all.  And alas, NYPL only has one copy of Country House Libraries, and it doesn’t circulate.

*As a naive undergraduate in the pre-Google times, what I thought I knew about Viereck before taking the class was that he’d been shot down as a fighter pilot in WWII, was a POW, was consequently given to carrying random pieces of food around in his coat pockets, was a poet of renown, and was “not all there”. What I remember, or think I do, from class meetings was that they consisted of him talking the entire time and not taking questions, and that at the first class he put out a packet of Social T biscuits which he invited the students to partake of and which no one dared go near.  The topics covered were mostly about the 15-18th centuries, and the books were thick and intense.  When I came to sit the final exam, on which depended the entire grade for the course, I couldn’t answer most of the set questions, and just filled my blue book with everything I DID know, having spent the prior week frantically reading.  A year or so later, one of my friends who lived in another dorm saw him come for dinner with some students (we had in-dorm family style meals at the time and were encouraged, for “Gracious”, to invite our teachers), and afterwards go upstairs.  She was still up at 2 in the morning, painting some scenery in the dorm living room, when she saw him shambling down the stairs.  He always looked a bit like a scarecrow, or a bum, imperfectly shaven, in a large flapping overcoat. “Good night, young lady,” he said, and went on out the door.  Her conclusion, with which I concur, was that during after supper conversation with the students in someone’s room, he’d dozed off and they hadn’t had the heart to wake him.

Satisfying

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About halfway through, a different narrator takes over, and gives us a different perspective on Cassandra.  To say more than that it’s about 2 sisters, one of whom is about to marry at the family ranch, and other other of whom would vastly prefer she not marry, is almost saying too much about the story.  I recommend this book highly.  It thrilled me in every line, and definitely is one that I’ll want to reread soon.  (Perhaps my favorite kind of novel, ultimately, is a relatively short one that I can read twice and really sink into and grasp, than something longer but less unified and concentrated.)

Something that I liked in it very much, which comes at the very end, is an encounter Cassandra, back in Berkeley after her crisis which is the book’s crisis, has with a casual friend she runs into.  The friend, a poor painter, tells her that she sold her guitar to afford paint, and she took 3 buses that morning in order to reach the SF side of the Golden Gate Bridge.  “The only thing I think about these days is light and what it does to things.  Light on water is something to consider.” Afterwards, drinking coffee alone, Cassandra “thought a little about economics and aesthetics, moving from the very simple to the slightly more complex, and wondering how it would feel to have to pawn a guitar, and how it would be to walk around until it gets dark and somebody gets out of your studio and you can go back in and go to work.  The things that get in your way, the indignities you have to suffer before you’re free to do one simple, personal, necessary thing–like work.  If it has to be a quarter inch thick you hock the guitar, and when the supply runs out, hock something else, and no matter what you have to part with to do it you hang on to the hope of painting a good picture some day.  And in time, others.  That’s painters.  But for me it was pretty much the same thing.  I could never write any of this until I could tear up the pawn ticket on the ghost of my mother.  It’s a different order of hocking but it comes to the same thing.”

Someone commented on a recent post, talking about getting rid of physical books in favor of her large library of e-books.  I was back and forth on e-books for years — wanting to like the form, wanting to embrace all the conveniences of them.  My first big e-reading experience involved rereading War and Peace on a Kindle app. I also happily read books on my iPhone while traveling abroad — especially handy for eating alone in foreign dimly lit restaurants.  But ultimately I find that for me some of the very reading value of a book is inherent in its physicality; I just don’t rate it as much if I’m reading on a device.  It neither feels like mine, nor can I summon up any sense of accomplishment with an e-book.  I haven’t bought one in a long time, and don’t get them from the library.  I want either to be read to by a terrific performer (audiobooks have become huge for me), or read it myself off a paper page.

I’m listening now to Dr Zhivago, and also re listening to some of the opening of The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine, which was as enthralling to me as anything by Dostoevsky.  I’ve begun reading (not listening) to The Adolescent by Dostoevsky, and plan in the next days to finish some books that have lingering from 2017.

My one reading project, as mentioned before, is, let’s call it, MY SHELVES A-Z.  I began with Renata Adler and Dorothy Baker, and must now choose a book by a ‘C” author.  Criteria being, I own it, but haven’t read it yet.  Possibilities include: Joyce Cary, and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

 

A book of misapprehensions

Now I’ve finished Pitch Dark by Renata Adler, which turned out, of course, not to be what I’d taken it for, 40 pages in, when I wrote the previous post.  It’s narrator, Kate is going through a crisis in her life, a love affair that’s doing her no good, and misapprehensions cluster around this central crisis, which is itself a misapprehension — that she is loved by the man she loves, that that love is and ought to be the natural center and purpose of her life.

The misapprehensions take fascinating forms.  Conversations that shy off into two directions at once, each speaker completely missing the other’s point.  There are the visits to her rural house of a raccoon she takes to attempting, all against the usual, to trying to befriend — until she finds out it’s slowly succumbing to distemper.   And then there’s a sojourn in Ireland, a place to escape the broken love affair, to rest, maybe to write.  Kate is lent a big country house by an ambassador she’s met socially, told the Irish staff will be friendly and look after her.  But the staff are withholding and surly, and the house itself almost preternaturally unwelcoming, and Kate’s anxiety is spiraling; she grows paranoid, and decides to leave Ireland early.  Her night-time flight in a rental car through the Hibernian dark — dark in every sense to a young woman who is afraid she’s breaking the law, under surveillance, soon to be caught and punished — is a tour-de-force of nightmare in which she understands nothing of what’s happening, and ascribes purposes and motivations to everything that are all derived solely from her misapprehensions.

I got used to the indirect style of the narrative; it’s imitative of Kate’s darting thought, the kaleidoscope of her intellect, and its perceptions, memories.  Sometimes she’s addressing her absent lover, challenging him, challenging their relationship; at others she’s just telling, moment by moment, what’s happening to her, and what memories and associations her (mis)apprehensions evoke.

Adler has a lot to say about isolation, loneliness, alienation, which are, alas, pet topics of mine.  This passage, pp124-5 of the NYRB edition, are well felt:

… it would be part of what I know, part of what I have to tell, that I understand something, not everything, but something, of what it is to be alone.  In this way. And that there must be others who are and have always been alone. In this way.

Those for whom there was, first dimly, then more bright, then dimly again, a possibility.  Which, though dimly, perhaps still exists, but which they know, have somehow always known, would never come to anything.  They were never, how can I put this, going to be a part of life.  It is as though, going through a landscape, through the seasons, in the same general direction as everybody else, they never quite made it to the road.  Through the years, humanity, like a tide of refugees or pilgrims, shoeless and in rags, or in Mercedes, station wagons, running shoes, were traveling on, joined by others, falling by the way.  And we, joined though we may be, briefly, by other strays, or by road travelers on their little detours, nonetheless never quite joined the continuing procession, of life and birth, never quite found or made it to the road.

So, I’ve embarked on my whimsical project of reading through the letters of the alphabet, two a month, of unread books from my own shelves.  Next up, B is for Isabel Bolton and New York Mosaic, a Virago Modern Classic that’s I must’ve had for at least the last 15 years.  (I had to use a stepladder, because the Viragos, in alphabetical order, start up by the ceiling.)

Other titles on deck that I expect to at least start in the next week:

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Late august reading

 

This summer (I’m writing this in mid-August), my reading took an expected turn when I discovered a podcast that might as well have been made to order for my interests: Backlisted, which is about old books.  I don’t recall what put me on to it, but looking over their list of old episodes, I saw many writers I already liked, and sensed that whatever these folks picked out to discuss would be of interest to me one way or the other. Each episode was so full of enticing descriptions of books that even though I already had a to-read pile that was sufficient for summer, I wanted to read NOW.

The podcast put me on to “All the Devils Are Here” by David Seabrook, a Smiths-back-catalogue of a read that I’d never have discovered for myself.

A cock-eyed ramble among the seaside towns of Kent, taking in the weird, the violent, the homosexual, the  gossipy, the scandalous, the atmospheric,the  readerly and literary,  the murderous, the psychologically-twisted, imporverished, the fascistic, mysterious, pathetic, minor celebrity adjacent, in a mélange of deep inquiries and rambling anecdote given out by the kind of slightly spooky great talker whom you both want to listen to forever and back away from slowly.   I read the book again a day or two after finishing it, and then lent it to a friend.

Also read “Darkness Falls From the Air” by Nigel Balchin, a world war two story of London in the blitz, which again, I’d never have heard of, and which was compared, on the podcast, to Greene’s “The End of the Affair” much to the detriment of the latter (a book I’ve loved a time or two.)  This one is about a government official in London who’s allowing his beloved wife to have an affair with a literary twep because it’s the war and who is he to preclude her from having a life while they wait for the big bombing to begin, except that of course while he’s being very polite and repressed and civilized about it, he hates it.  It’s mostly dialogue of the kind that you long to hear coming from the black and white mouths of Bacall and Bogart, though they wouldn’t really do those clipped upperish English 1930s voices.  I imagined them though, with maybe Leslie Howard as the squirrely lover. A perfect downer of a book, which I mean in the sense that it’s melancholy, the inevitability of its surprises, and its ending, worked completely, a perfect unit of hope and despair.

With no prompt from this podcast, but because of a Meet-up reading group I really wanted to get off my butt and attend (that is, the small part of my psyche that wants to get off and usually is squashed by the larger part that wants to stay recumbent), I read The Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.  I owned thse books, and had tried, off and on since the 1980s, to read “Justine“, always falling out in the first 30 pages with a sense that the characters and narration and apparent emotional situation of the story were overwhelmingly pretentious.  This time, with the idea that I’d go meet other people and hear what they thought of it, I persisted, and pretty much a page or so after my old falling-off point, I was gripped, and realized that in fact this book was just the kind I like best, set in a strange location, slightly overwrought, vivid, difficult to track, and soaked in all five senses.  And then as I read the rest of the quartet I was delighted to find it was one of those works that delves into point of view, into how inaccurate are our perceptions of one another, how unknowable everything is.  As the subsequent books reveal the apparent ‘reality’ that’s concealed from the narrator of “Justine”, worlds open up.  And ultimately the overwroughtness of it all was just the kind of overwroughtness that I eat up with a spoon.

What I’m reading right now: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller, which makes me want to shout: “Comrade!”  (I tweeted the author my compliments), “Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch, and “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

Finding exciting books and a revival of my reading intensity is this year’s one bright spot, in the midst of freelance longueurs, the collapse of my aged parents’ independence, and our appalling political dilemmas.  A cliche to say reading is a life-line, but for me it’s literally true; I don’t know if I’d have made it out of my childhood much less this far, without books.  (I may write more about why this is, but not yet.)

Finally, I’m new to the book-and-reader-blogging world, and frankly don’t know where to begin there either.  I suppose I’ll find like-minded bloggers (and readers)  bit by bit.  Meanwhile, comments welcome.