Big Book Round-Up

Not that this is about big books; I promise I haven’t suddenly taken to reading atlases and oversize childrens picture books. No, this is a big round-up of some of the wonderful books I’ve read this year but haven’t reviewed. 2010 has been very light on reviews for this blog, mostly because the middle of the year found me briefly tired of writing them. I never thought such a thing could be possible, but there it is: too much of anything turns out, eventually, to be just too much. But of course, when I wasn’t reviewing I was naturally reading some fairly outstanding books.

First of all I have to mention The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. Set across WW2 and into its stunned aftermath, the novel follows the fortunes of a small group of people, linked by love or chance. Most people will be aware that it’s chronologically backwards, beginning when the war is over, then heading back into the past to understand what life has done to the characters. Waters uses this device quite brilliantly, so that when I finally reached the last step back in time, I was actually wincing in anticipation of finally uncovering the trials and traumas that lie at the origin of the characters’ malaise. The writing of this book is perfect: economical and elegant, emotionally intense and fiercely evocative. It’s strong stuff but be warned, other books may look insipid by comparison for a little while afterwards.

Also brilliant, but in a completely different way is Ali Smith’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Accidental. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family on holiday in Norfolk, who are unexpectedly joined by a young woman, Amber, who breaks down in her car outside their rented house and who they let into their lives under the misapprehension that she is known to one of them. The story is recounted from a shifting perspective that passes through all four members of the family as Amber works her black magic on them; the best voice by far is that of Astrid, 12-year-old daughter of the house who has a video camera and is obsessed with taping all the nothingness that isn’t happening in her life. A clever, witty, inventive tale that gives a lot of pause for thought.

Salley Vickers’ novel, Dancing Backwards isn’t a big production, or a particularly dramatic story. But it is pure, well-observed, insightful enjoyment. It’s essentially the story of Violet Heatherington, a woman of a certain age, who is crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship in order to visit a very significant old friend who fell out of her life many years ago. As the ship sails on, so we learn Vi’s back story, as well as following the curious relationship she develops with Dino, the dance host on the ocean liner. Reading the book was much like going on a cruise – I joyfully lost myself in it, swept up in the story and the loveliness of Vicker’s prose and allowed myself to be transported to intriguing locations.

Comedy award of the year has to go to David Nicholl’s coming of age story, Starter for Ten. It’s the story of university student, Brian Jackson, a spotty, clever and socially challenged English student, who meets the love of his life (or so he reckons) the beautiful but distant Alice Harbinson. Partly to woo her, and partly because he’s a geek, he inveigles himself onto the University Challenge team, but really that’s only the start of his troubles. This was such a funny book, just hilarious about boys of a certain age, but with some rather pithy things to say about class and education, too. I read it, Mister Litlove read it and then – shock! – our son read it. And we ALL loved it.

Earlier in the year I had a bit of a Persephone-fest. I read two Dorothy Whipples and can only agree with everyone who says that she is an outstanding writer. Someone At A Distance and They Were Sisters both displayed her stellar talents for domestic tragedy. Simple family stories, one might say, but packed with a profundity of emotion and penetrating psychological insight far greater than you’d find in any so-called clever novel. Take tissues though; Whipple makes you care about her characters and then she does terrible things to them. Not so at all the other two Persephones I read, which were much more interested in soothing and reassuring their readers. Greenery Street by Denis Mackail is a charming tale of a young couple in the first year of their marriage. Nothing much happens, apart from everyday occurrences, mishaps, misunderstandings and a lot of froth. I did enjoy it, but the book suffered from coming directly after The Night Watch. Also a sugary but delightful confection is Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson, about the eponymous Miss Buncle and her direct translation of village life into a bestselling novel. When her neighbours realize (as inevitably they must) that they have been transformed into fiction, some find it enraging, some find it amusing and all, one way or another, submit eventually to the literary fate that Miss Buncle has imagined for them.


Right, how are we all doing? Are you flagging yet? Take a deep breath because we’re heading off into non-fiction territory now. The food critic, Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender At The Bone, is a perfect example of a certain kind of autobiographical writing that reads like a novel. Reichl’s difficult relationship with her domestically-challenged mother is portrayed hilariously, without covering up the sense of abandonment and isolation that Reichl felt as a child and young woman. Her mother once poisoned twenty-two guests at a party intended to celebrate Ruth’s brother’s marriage, but which she commandeered as a benefit for her latest fund raising cause. You don’t have to be Freud to spot the origins of Reichl’s love of food, or understand the pain it assuages.

Equally brilliant on troublesome family relationships is Vivian Gornick in her memoir Fierce Attachments. Gornick grew up in the Jewish ghettos in New York, part of a vibrant community of troubled but striving individuals. The story focuses on Gornick’s mother, a drama queen of outrageous proportions whose reaction to her husband’s death (when Gornick was barely a teenager) was an avalanche of grief that drowned out the feelings of the young Vivian and clearly terrified her. Gornick is not quite so kind to her mother as Reichl is to hers, but she is more honest and upfront about the feelings that bind her, even if negatively, and unwillingly, to her mother still. This book was so incredibly well written. One that I really want to read again and savour.

It’s always the eccentrically abusive parents who make for the best memoirs. I also read and enjoyed Cheaper By The Dozen, by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, two of the twelve children suffering at the hands of their economist father. This book is written for the laughs and does its best to smother any nascent discontent that might quite justifiably be aroused in the breasts of children whose father’s dominant parenting trait has been to turn them into a long-term time-and-motion study. Mister Litlove recommended the book to me because he’d never forgotten the anecdotes about the children being made to listen to French and German records whenever they were in the bathroom, with the idea being that they would all learn to speak the language. I taught French for many years and I can promise you that this method does not work. One might be able to parrot a few phrases, but one will never understand a native speaker’s responses. Anyhow, it was a lot like that all the way through; crazy ideas put into practice by a single-minded father, who somehow they all loved and respected. Well, it’s a nice fantasy.

Finally, the biography of the year was The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson. An excellent study of Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother, William, this book is brought alive by the extraordinarily vivid portrait that Wilson manages to paint of her subject. I really admired this because it was not that it read like a novel, which is the sort of easy way out of doing the spade work of biography, but it nevertheless remained constantly informative and entertaining. I came away from it feeling like I had actually got to know Dorothy and William, and been up close to them as three-dimensional people. I’m not quite sure how Wilson did it, but I was most impressed.

Phew! Well, that will teach me not to keep pace with my reviewing in 2011. But it’s certainly been a year of rich and delightful reading. On Friday I’ll post my list of best books of 2010 – probably the one ritual that really marks the start of the festive season for me!

20 thoughts on “Big Book Round-Up

  1. My goodness you read a lot this year! I like that the books you mentioned are all so varied in tone and subject matter as well. Having only seen the film of Cheaper by the Dozen I’m surprised at your summation of it. Is this in any way similar to Running with Scissors ?

    Sometimes it’s just wonderful to sit back and enjoy the read instead of feeling the need to write about it. Definitely looking forward to your “Best of” list, LL.

  2. It certainly is difficult at times to slow down the reading process in order to review those books we’ve read before we begin another. I’m so impressed with those in the book blogging world who can read 5 or so books at a time while working on another 3-4 reviews at the same time…my little brain just can’t handle all that. I also sometimes just like to let a book lay for a while when I’m done…in my brain and on the shelf…reflect on it and think about it. So glad that you let the reading take precedence when you needed to. I’m adding Tender at the Bone to my own TBR list…sounds really good 🙂

  3. Fantastic round-up. I love your in depth reviews, but you’re awfully good at pithy ones as well! I’ve only read a handful of the books you describe, and now you’ve made me want to read the rest. I’m particularly interested in “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth,” having fallen completely under the spell of her Grasmere Journals a number of years ago.

  4. I am absolutely delighted that you enjoyed The Night Watch. And your comments on Cheaper by the Dozen cracked me up. I simply cannot imagine living in that household, but it does seem that the children mostly don’t mind it. (I understand that there were some family tragedies that were left out of the book.)

    I read Riechl’s second memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, a while back and liked it a lot. I’ve been wanting to read Tender at the Bone because her relationship with her mother seemed like something worth reading more about. It’s not central of Comfort Me with Apples, but there was enough of her mother to get me interested in the dynamic between them.

  5. Did you read the second Gilbreth book, Belles on Their Toes? Also quite charming. Apparently the youngest daughter, Jane, absolutely hated both the books because she remembered having quite a sad, lonely childhood with her mother gone all the time. But I read both the Gilbreth books at the uncritical age of eight or so. :p

  6. I read Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel as a teenager and loved it. The father is such an eccentric… I will have to look up the memoirs you mention. It is one of my favourite genres… Is there any thing better than a well written memoir?
    On not blogging… Don’t you think that blogging interfers with your writing? That is how I feel in my case and although I have only started blogging recently (as a means against the ugly demon procrastination and because I did want to abandon writing in French and German). I like the difference in tone, (my blog is very different from how I normally write, more casual, spoken language), and that inspires me but at the same time it takes away time from literay writing… Would be interesting to hear how you see it… I had the feeling it is great for published writers but could be dangerous for aspiring writers due to the instant gratification of a blog.

  7. You’re making me look forward to the two Persephones I’ve got now (Someone and Mis Buncle). And if your whole family liked ‘Starter for Ten’ I’m more inclined to have a go. I found the ‘The Understudy’ dull as anything, but I’ve been hoping Starter would be good anyway, something quite irresistible about the idea of a book featuring university challenge.

  8. I also read Someone At A Distance this year and really loved it. Even though there was very little “action” in it, it was somehow so engaging I had trouble putting it down and read it in just a couple of days. Tender At The Bone is on my Christmas wish list, and if I don’t get it, I have a gift card from B&N I’m going to use (it was a toss up between that one and Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain). Great post and great list of books (that I need to read).

  9. I thought the Night Watch was really excellent, too! I’ve loved everything by Sarah Waters that I’ve read and have only one left that I’m hoarding. I’ve not yet read Miss Bincle’s Book, but I agree the other Persephones are wonderful. Did you know Starter for Ten was made into a movie–I thought it sounded familiar and when I looked it up realized I had seen it, but I am sure the book is better so have added it to my wishlist. Lovely round up–all the books sound good for different reasons!

  10. You’ve gotten me making a whole new list, I’m afraid, and seriously renewing my bid for book store gift credits for Christmas! What fun I would have.

    You know, I’ve never read any of the Persephone books, but see many of my favorite bloggers mentioning them. Santa, are you listening??

  11. I, too, loved The Night Watch. We’ve been selling remaindered copies of the hardcover for 1.99 at our store (as well as the full-priced paperback, of course) and every time someone buys one I have to restrain myself from gushing over how penny for penny they’d have trouble getting a better deal for a book. Any book (though we do get some great deals in our used department…).

    After The Night Watch, I tried to read some of Waters’ other books, and found myself less than entranced, though perhaps as you say, it was just because compared to The Night Watch most things seem insipid for awhile. What a beautiful, heart-wrenching, well-crafted novel. I’m glad you liked it as much as I did.

  12. Growing up, Cheaper by the Dozen was one of my favorite books. I read it over and over until the paperback wore out. Then I grew up and had kids, and when I reread it a couple years ago the parents did seem eccentrically abusive indeed. The part where they’re taught how to bathe efficiently, using as little soap as possible, is just so bizarre.

  13. LOTS that I want to read here, especially the one about Dorothy Wordsworth, which I have on my shelves. But also Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Vivien Gornick, and Dorothy Whipple, three of which I also have on my shelves. Lots to look forward to! I’m glad you had such a good experience with these books.

  14. Kimberly – I think the film is very different from the book – not least because it is set in modern day, whereas the book was written about events in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s nowhere near as obviously dysfunctional as Running With Scissors. It’s just a feel-good memoir (unless you are a hardened cynic of human nature, like me 🙂 ). I must say I did enjoy my break from reviewing earlier in the year. Anything gets stale after a while!

    Patti – it can be really tricky, can’t it, juggling the reading and the reviewing? I agree that I like to let books sit for a while… but then I realise too much time has passed and I’ve forgotten the names of the characters! I love reviewing because it means I remember a book longer and think about it deeper, but at the same time, I don’t enjoy reading so much if it’s determined by what needs to be reviewed. I do hope you enjoy Tender At the Bone – I loved it!

    Kate – I generally prefer the longer review, but these were a necessity! The Frances Wilson book is a delight – I’d love to know what you think of it if you can get hold of it.

    Teresa – I remember you reading Comfort Me With Apples, and thinking that it sounded intriguing. Also, Reichl wrote a brief memoir of her mother that I read oh about a year ago and found absolutely wonderful. I’m interested to know that a few tragedies might have been left out of Cheaper by the Dozen – you don’t surprise me! Although as you say, the authors do seem to be okay with their unusual upbringing.

    Lilian – like a little festive shower! Would love to hear about the ones you do manage to get hold of.

    Jenny – no I haven’t read the second, although I would like to. I would think that for a child, the stories read like delightful fantasies – all that big family stuff, and solidarity between siblings (as well as the competitiveness and the bickering!). I am interested, though, to hear it wasn’t all exactly as portrayed (but not surprised).

    Caroline – I am a big fan of the memoir too – I love them! Very interesting question there about blogging. I actually stopped writing this blog for a period of two months or so over summer because I was finishing writing a book. Somehow I couldn’t maintain both voices, and blogging ate into my writing hours and my imagination. I needed to have focus at that point. But on the other hand, I love to blog when I’m not in a big project as I feel it keeps me practising. And if I hadn’t begun this blog, I would never have found an alternative voice to my academic one. More general writing has been a source of great pleasure to me over the past few years. But there does come a point, for me at least, when I can’t sustain two forms of writing at once.

    Jodie – completely, completely different to The Understudy. We all really loved it, and I can’t think that anyone would absolutely hate it (although of course, you never know). The Persephones were gorgeous, and I’d love to know what you make of them.

    Stefanie – you know me, I do my best to contribute to your tbr. 🙂

  15. Grad – Both the Whipple novels I read were like that – completely compelling. I think it is fascinating to read about characters who are so vibrantly alive and real, and Whipple is rich in her descriptions of emotions. I do hope you love Tender At The Bone – I certainly did!

    Danielle – The Night Watch was just outstanding. I’m really looking forward to The Little Stranger now! Starter for Ten was really funny, although perhaps you have to have sympathy for adolescent boys to love it. But then again, anyone who ever felt humiliated or wrong-footed or insecure in teenage years would identify, and I figure that’s everyone! I did read some great books in the middle part of the year – I felt at the time what a shame it was that I wasn’t blogging!

    Mary – you are very welcome! Do hope you enjoy them.

    Becca – oh you HAVE to read Persephone books! They are made for you! Definitely try Dorothy Whipple, and Monica Dickens’ book Mariana, and Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton, and Miss Buncle’s Book is sweet. I do hope Santa is listening!

    Mbolit – Oh I loved that novel – it was an amazing reading experience. 1.99 is a very good price – I wish I lived a little closer to your book store!

    Ella – (and how nice to have you back!) I bet that Cheaper By The Dozen reads brilliantly to a child, because it’s like the narrators have never really grown up. But so many of the things the parents get them to do are completely bizarre – the soap being an excellent example.

    Dorothy – do you ever get the feeling that parts of our shelves resemble each other quite closely? Lol! Do hope you enjoy your books – I had such good experiences with these ones.

  16. Pingback: the power of biographers & Dorothy Wordsworth, part 1 | Tailfeather

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