And… the other books for 2008

Well, I’ve pretty much lost inspiration for this blog as I scramble to finish my phd, but who knows what will happen in the new year? So here are the non-thesis related books I’ve read this year since I stopped counting. Probably in roughly reverse order…

The Virgin in the Garden, A. S. Byatt. Finished this today. I bought it in Leeds to read over Christmas. Partly because it was big and fat and dense, and partly because I’ve been meaning to read it for ages. I read book four in this quartet, A Whistling Woman, four years ago, and it’s starting to make a lot more sense now. I found The Virgin in the Garden to be slightly hard to get into, and irritatingly detailed in places, but I can see why so many people I respect have told me it’s a work of genius. It’s set in Yorkshire, and tells of the adolescence of a very clever/educated girl, as well as the experiences of the very clever/educated/slightly mad family and colleagues who surround her. Centred around a play retelling the life of Elizabeth I. And now I definitely want to read the other two books…

The King Arthur Trilogy, Kevin Crossley-Holland. This consists of The Seeing Stone, At the Crossing Places, and The King of Middle March. I loved them all, especially the first and the last. The middle one really is about ‘crossing places’ and interim times, and once you get used to this it’s good as well, and relates quite nicely to the middle section of the Morte D’Arthur, in which random knights go round in circles on random quests to no particular plot development… (What I mean to say is, it’s clever how he does this.) If you like the Middle Ages you absolutely have to read these books – they are beautiful and light and fresh and I loved them. (I ordered these on Amazon for a rainy day.)

Gatty’s Tale, Kevin Crossley Holland.

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. Bought this in the Nice airport, as the most appealing English book they had. It’s about a boy growing up in the UK in the 80s. I quite liked it – funny and wry and slightly depressing. Some nice descriptions of stammering.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. A perfect, glowing book written in the voice of an aging preacher, writing for his seven year old son whom he will never see grow up. One of my favourite books I read this year. I ordered this after coming across praise of it on several blogs.

Oh Pioneers. Willa Cather. Bought this in Salt Lake City as it felt appropriate to my surroundings. It was lovely, just as My Antonia was. I would love to read everything Cather ever wrote.

The Last Magician, Janette Turner Hospital. I bought this on sale in the Leeds University Bookshop, because of it’s Dante references. It’s sort of a mystery, superimposed on Sydney, superimposed on Dante’s Inferno. One of the characters is a brilliant photographer/film maker. A childhood tragedy binding all the characters together is slowly uncovered. Sort of terrifying and lovely and nostalgic all at once.

After Dark, Haruki Murakami. My friend Vic, who I was staying with in Leeds, lent this to me. I didn’t like it as much as Kafka on the Shore, but still enjoyed it.

The Ladies of Grace Adeiu, Susannah Clarke. Bought this in the Munich airport, out of a minimal selection of English books. Very entertaining Victorian style retellings of fairytales.

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster. This contains three short novels: The City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. I liked how the stories echoed each other. Michael bought this one, and read it, and liked it.

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December 31, 2008 at 5:48 pm 2 comments

Gatty’s Tale

I finished reading the most beautiful novel the other day. Gatty’s Tale, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I first realised what a lovely writer he was when I read his translations of Norse Myths, and I vowed to get hold of his King Arthur trilogy. I did, and have read the first one so far, and loved it. Gatty’s Tale is a spin-off from that – a thirteenth-century girl joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There it was!

Jerusalem!

At once Gatty reined in.

There it was, waiting for her.

No need to ask. She recognised it like a home from which, long ago, she had strayed. Its contours were her own heart’s and mind’s contours. She felt like a little girl again. No need to say anything.

The Holy City, golden, grew out of the gentle slopes on which it sat. Or was it the other way round? Did the Holy City, Gatty wondered, come down from God, out of heaven? And did the hillslopes and the valleys and everything else on the earth grow out of it?

All that stood between the pilgrims and the golden domes, the clustered towers and columns and walls was one last shallow valley, dark with olive groves.

I read this on the train, on a very tedious journey from Stansted Airport up to Bingley. Finish the damn thesis, I told myself glumly as I stood in the cold in Peterborough station, waiting for a train that didn’t come, you’ve got to stop doing this. I ended up catching a train up to York, and then another train to Leeds, and then another train to Bingley.

As I waited in York station, I thought about how usually I would feel very sad just to be there. I lived in York for three years. I loved it. It was home. I met Michael there. We lived together in the sweetest little house. We cycled everywhere – to the shops, to the pubs, to the wonderful Baroque concerts with two pound tickets for students. I did my masters there. I finished my novel there. I started my PhD. I would walk on the stone walls, and hang out in my favourite bookshop (now sadly closed). Every time I returned there, after being away, as the taxi swung past the walls and the gates to the city, I would feel a tangible surge of at-homeness. It was so sad to leave.

But – this time I didn’t feel sad. I felt content, in myself. I have a new home now. I am building a new home.

And then, on the train, I read about Gatty in Jerusalem. And my heart surged. I have been there – the centre of the world, as they thought in the Middle Ages. I have stood inside this other walled city. Michael had a two month scholarship to be in Israel, and I went to visit him, and we went to Jerusalem together.

Like Gatty, I had heard about it all my life. The Bible was a big part of my childhood and my early adulthood – I have read the stories over and over. My parents went to Jerusalem when Mum was pregnant with me. Dad bought a little statue of Moses, which has sat in the corner of the lounge room all my life. My Mum bought a big brown coat, like a monk’s cloak, which I wore for a while as a teenager. And there I was, again, the centre of the world.

For Gatty, part of her has always been in Jerusalem, and part of her will always be there. And when she prays inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – that mazelike, burrow-like place where I too have stood – she prays for all her friends and family at home, for those who could not come to Jerusalem and never will, but when she prays they are there anyway, with her, safe inside the walled city.

And I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, but I like that idea – of being together even when you’re not together, of being at home even when you’re far away. And there, on the train, between York and Leeds, the journey was a burden no longer, and I gripped the novel firmly, with tears in my eyes.

December 10, 2008 at 9:31 pm 3 comments

Heaven’s Net is Wide

I moved to WordPress with my other blog, and my procrastinating soul couldn’t bear to leave this one behind. I will transfer my blogroll at some point, can’t say when, for the moment it’s accessible at The Little Book Room, take one.

Heaven’s Net is Wide is the prequel to the Across the Nightingale Floor series (now there are five books in all). I read the other four books last year and adored them. Set in a world modeled on a medieval Japan, the books explore conflicting loyalties and honour codes between three different groups: the warrior classes (their motto is fight and die with honour, even when it means killing yourself), the Tribe (secret families with magical skills who ultimately answer only to themselves but hire themselves out as assassins and spies), and the Hidden (equally secret religious sect based on Western Christianity, who refuse to kill). This is a promising background for a story, but as well as being gripping reads, the real beauty of these books is in the sensual descriptions of the places, the seasons and the characters. Amid the courage, betrayal, and doomed loved stories, these books offer true escapism of the loveliest kind.

That said, I thought this was the weakest of the five. Having read the other books, it was great to get a bit of the back story, and get inside the heads of the characters who were more distant in the other novels. But I don’t think the pacing was as tight as it is in the other ones, and there was sometimes the sense that it filled in background details just for the sake in it. This was most obvious regarding the Hidden – this religion is dealt with quite lightly in the other books, and as it was made more explicit here, it lost some of its mystery. I don’t know what it would be like reading this one first, but I would recommend starting with Across the Nightingale Floor, which dealt with the unfolding mystery and the conflicting loyalties in a much more compelling way.

August 5, 2008 at 4:53 pm 2 comments

My other June reads


Hmmm, I was on a role there for a while wasn’t I, then I forgot about this place… Anyway, to catch up… I picked up Kafka on the Shore by Murakami in an airport bookshop and absolutely loved it. Gripping and funny and elegant and strange. I read this in a hotel in the mountains. It seemed somehow appropriate. And then I read Leviathan by Paul Auster. As I went along I kept thinking it wasn’t his best, but it got quite exciting and clever towards the end. Oh what wonderful nuanced reviews I am giving. You can see why I’m doing a PhD in English literature. Ahem. After that I was in Stansted again, waiting for my train up to Leeds, and bought a copy of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This was partly because I have a soft spot for Russian Literature, partly because I have been meaning to read it ever since I read an essay one of my cousins wrote about it for his year 12 English project several years ago now, and partly because it had a black cat on the cover, as did my copy of Kafka on the Shore. I read it on the train and then in Leeds in between packing up my English life into boxes. But I didn’t finish it. I really liked the strange chapter on Pontius Pilate, but I got bored of the people disappearing for no reason and the rest of it didn’t really grip me. I probably just didn’t give it enough time and I’m sure I’ll get back to it at some point.

August 2, 2008 at 3:36 pm 5 comments

The Book Thief

Marcus Zusak. Ok, I can see what all the fuss is about. Despite the serious subject, this book is just so much fun to read. It’s an immensely comforting read, even though it had me bawling my eyes out in Stansted Airport as I finished it. The use of a rather world-weary death as narrator works well, and more effectively here than in Stow’s The Suburbs of Hell. (Or is it just that Zusak’s Death is a lot more friendly…) But the best thing is its deceptive simplicity, and its finely drawn characters, and its depiction of the normality of life throughout WWII. Which is, ofcourse, exactly how it would have been. I mean – despite violence, starvation, and rumours of atrocities, children still play on streets and grow up. It is a book filled with warmth.

June 6, 2008 at 4:09 pm 1 comment

My Antonia

Willa Cather. I picked this up as a respite from all the turgid, complicated male writers I had been reading. It was the right thing to do. Oh, it is gorgeous. Not in terms of plot or structure but in the way it creates a scene – the landscape, the characters, the way of life. The writing is beautiful but transparent, and the descriptions of the prairie grass are to die for. Can’t quote you any because I left it in Norway. My Mum read it too (on my recommendation) and loved it just as much.

June 6, 2008 at 4:06 pm 3 comments

Baudolino

Umberto Eco. I finished this a couple of weeks back, but I must admit it took me about six months to read. My thoughts of the novel are summed up in the sentence: it’s not The Name of the Rose. I loved The Name of the Rose. I found it utterly moving and compelling. I loved the way the story was encased by the monastery, and the relationship between the young narrator and the friar (read it so long ago that I can’t remember names… ah, Adso and William, thank you Wikipedia). The friar William seemed to me unutterably wise, and a lot of what he had to say I needed to hear at the time (I read it at Christmas, four and a half years ago, in Berlin, three months into my masters at York, the same time I read and adored Slaughterhouse Five). And I loved the thought of Aristotle’s lost work on comedy…

I enjoyed the beginning of Baudolino, but I got stuck three quarters of the way through. Eco doesn’t skimp on detail and ideas! The book hinges on the search for the kingdom of Prester John, with some forgery of religious relics on the side. It’s about the power of stories to influence political realities, and the way stories even hold power over those who make them up.

May 15, 2008 at 9:03 am Leave a comment

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