New Books and Rediscovered Old Ones

So, I have fallen off the wagon, and spectacularly too. You may recall that I was not meant to be buying books this year. Up until a couple of days ago, that was going pretty well. I had only bought three books in seven months. If you look at the pile on the left below, you’ll see Orient by Christopher Bollen, Vivien Gornick’s essays The End of the Novel of Love (which were excellent) and Suzanne O’Sullivan’s controversial book on psychosomatic illness, It’s All In Your Head. This last has really split the reviewers on amazon, half finding it a compassionate book, the other half decrying its lack of scientific testing. But I thought science hadn’t found ways of measuring emotions, their strength, and the damage they can do to the human body? If science has no measuring tools, then isn’t science failing here rather than the book? Ah well, I’ll let you know what I think about it when I’ve read it.

I’m not quite sure why I weakened, but a trip into town on Thursday found me seduced by the three-for-twos in Heffers. And before I knew what I’d done, I’d bought Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Peter Lovesey’s Down Among the Dead Men (I adore his crime fiction) and William Nicholson’s The Lovers of Amherst. I put them in a pile and got Mr Litlove to take a photo, vowing no more. And then somehow, looking at the cheap marketplace seller books on amazon, I ordered Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the new Angela Thirkells rereleased by Virago, and one of the Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamilton because I’m interested in art theft at the moment (in theory, not in practice) and that’s central to the plot. And THEN, when I was in town today (I was going to have a haircut but there’d been a mix-up at the salon so I went shopping instead – honestly, they made me do it), I bought a book for Mr Litlove and, given it was buy-one-get-one-half-price, another novel for me. It would have been rude not to.  When I gave Mr Litlove his book, he said, ‘You think it makes it any better if you buy one for me?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ confidently. Because you have to brazen these things out. He doesn’t know about the amazon order yet. Let’s not tell him.


So now I really must get back on the straight and narrow. Not least because I really do have a lot of unread books on my shelves. Earlier in the year, when I wasn’t reading much, I took to poking around on my bookcases, seeing what I had there, and I found all sorts of things, good and bad.

The pile on the right in the above photo is just a selection of books by authors I have been meaning to read for so long it’s almost embarrassing. On the top is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (I could have added John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids to the pile, too), E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (how can I have never read Calvino?), J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Joan Didion’s essays.


I love non-fiction, and there have been several books over the past six or seven years that I just had to have as soon as I heard about them, that of course remain unread still. The above is a selection again: Stacy Schiff’s prize-winning biography of Cleopatra; O My America by Sara Wheeler (which tells the stories of six 19th century women who escaped trouble of one sort or another by travelling to America, including Trollope’s mother, Fanny Trollope and travel writer Isabella Bird); The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (a mix of nature writing and memoir); Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon (recounting her relationship to her emotionally troubled mother); Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (which I’ve seen recommended so many times in the blogworld) and The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte which mixes meteorology, notably fog in San Francisco, with memories of his brother who committed suicide.


Now this pile might be termed books where I have bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not very good with chunksters, on the grounds that there is no good reason, ever, for a book to be longer than 500 pages. So you’d think I wouldn’t buy them, wouldn’t you? I even started a blog several years ago on the William Gaddis, as I thought it might encourage me through it. Several of us bloggers were going to read it together, though I think only one did in the end, that one not being me. I read the first twenty pages or so and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, just that I didn’t have the necessary concentration over an extended period of time. I have a good friend who is a huge fan of this novel and I’d like to read it for his sake. I will get to it again one day.

Similarly, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I began for Caroline’s German Literature Month, did the twenty pages thing, never picked it up again. Forever Amber I am sure is a favourite novel of blogging friends (though I can’t recall who loves it, and I’m not sure William Gaddis is too thrilled about having it sat next to him).

The book on top of the pile, Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy was one of those impulse buys on amazon that sounded interesting, only I never looked at the page count. Imagine my surprise when it arrived! It’s larded with quotes from reviewers who call it ‘ambitious’ and ‘unusual’, which if  you translate those phrases like estate agent speak, you get ‘over-blown’ or ‘pretentious’ and ‘strange’. I do wonder what I was thinking. Then the Rumi… well, I thought I’d like to know a bit more about Rumi. I am not at all sure I have the brain capacity to know that much about him.

So that’s just a few of the books I rediscovered. Any there you think I should hasten to read? Any I should send to the charity shop?


33 thoughts on “New Books and Rediscovered Old Ones

  1. How *can* you have never read Calvino??? (Mind you, I’m a Calvino obsessive….) As for the chunksters – I keep thinking about the Gaddis and the Musil, but having just taken *ages* to get through 600 pages of Dostoevsky, I’m not sure that would be a good idea….

    • It’s a good question! I’ve even owned Invisible Cities since the early 1990s….. Okay, I’ll put him at the top of the list (you are not alone in putting the case for him! 🙂 ) And you remind me that I’ve never read Dostoevsky…. Not that I dare add him to that enormous pile!

  2. I’ve read precisely two out of all those you’ve mentioned. Orient – which is a chunkster, but a speedy thriller, and I loved it, and the Ray Bradbury – which I should re-read one of these days now I have a posh Folio edition of it. So not much help really.

    • Well I haven’t read any of them yet, so you are doing better than me! 🙂 So glad you loved Orient. I was hugely attracted to the premise and am looking forward to it even more now. And I really want to read the Bradbury – such an iconic book!

  3. You have to ask which one first?! Calvino without any doubt at all in my mind. Indeed take all the others back and buy all of his writing instead! (OK so too much Ch Lafite Rothschild makes for a lack of variety, but even so ..) 🙂 xx

  4. Gosh, that’s quite a collection! Never Any End to Paris is wonderful, my favourite Vila-Matas of the three I’ve read so far. Both the premise and execution are so intriguing – would love to hear what you think of it.

    • Jacqui I remember your post – I may even have bought my copy after reading it! And he’s an author I have been wanting to read for a long, long time. I’ll put him up there with Calvino!

  5. I’m feeling overwhelmed by the number of books I have in my house and want to get rid of lots of them – in theory, anyway. But does that stop me buying more of them? Absolutely not. Still, there are worse things in life than buying books, so don’t give yourself a hard time. Great post, though.

    • I am so glad it’s not just me! 🙂 I was really sorry not to be able to get to Annabel’s yard sale the other weekend because I bet I would have bought a ton of her unwanted books. I think the same would be true of any book sale you held too! Mind you, on the above evidence, it’s just as well if I can’t hoover up any more….. 😉

      • If you had made it – I’d have given you as many books as you wanted! All the leftovers that aren’t ARCs have gone to the charity shop now. 🙂

  6. I gave 1,000 books to charity a week ago and still have plenty. I agree that there are worse vices than buying books. Now, of course, I will have to seek out Calvino. I too find it difficult to sustain interest in books that are 500 plus pages.

  7. Where are you when I need you? I’m giving away some of my books (for free, too, as long as they go to loving homes) in preparation for my cross-Channel move. And I think I’ve found just the … customer.

  8. As you say, It’s All In Your Head has been controversial but most of the complaints focus on one specific chapter about myalgic encephalomyelitis. It’s definitely worth reading the whole thing for an overall picture and is probably the most thought-provoking non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

  9. I’m the one who loves “Forever Amber.” I just read it again (for probably, not kidding, the thirtieth time) earlier this year, and still enjoyed it.

    I just bought the Lauren Groff book, myself…it looks like the sort of thing I’d enjoy…bitter and unpleasantly real.

  10. Courage! It happens to all of us. After all it was not that many books. But I understand, I am on the same failed trail.😕 Read about Calvino in an article the other day. I have never heard about him before, and now he pops up here. Obviously someone I have to read.

  11. Agree about the 500-word limit. Almost every novel longer than that probably wants splitting into two or more smaller novels.
    I have read some excellent books that were longer than 500 pages, but of them, only “Middlemarch” held my attention all the way through. “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina” and “Bleak House” had me yawrning for longish stretches.
    Re. “The Man Without Qualities”: it gets better after the first twenty pages, but even so, I only made it to page 90. There’s no real story, and that’s a real problem in a book 1000 pages long* – it’s just a sequence of character studies, which are fascinating in themselves, but there’s no suspense to sustain you for the Herculean task ahead.

    * And that’s just the 1000 pages Musil published, there are another 1000 he didn’t!

  12. Orient reads really fast and is smart and stylish to boot. I read O My America two years ago and found it fine, but it skimmed the surface a bit – I guess in order to get in chapters on all of those women! I’d love to read It’s All In Your Head, and Celestial Harmonies looks like exactly my sort of thing, from the cover alone…

  13. Oh dear. Well at least you fell in a spectacular way …. It’s always a worrying sign when a book gets described as unusual or challenging. Makes me feel inadequate before I even begin it

  14. But they all look so good! All worthy of a place on the shelf.
    Chunksters: for some reason, I have ended up reading Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance (paperback) and War and Peace (on phone, for the train). Very strange for me, being into short books, but both absolutely wonderful books.

  15. I read some of the Italian Folktales and Cosmicomics in the 80s and haven’t read Calvino since–then last year one of my blog readers told me I should read Invisible Cities. I have a copy of it, but haven’t read it yet, and still mean to. So maybe if you read it, it will inspire me to follow!
    Fahrenheit 451 is gripping and goes fast. Plus, then you can play one of my favorite games, what book would you “be” in a Fahrenheit 451 world?

  16. There must be a 12-step program for book addicts out there! I’ve bought the Lauren Groff now it’s out in paperback, too. Looking forward to it.

  17. Oh, I had so much fun reading this post. I love to see fellow lovers of literature add to their collections.
    I have loads of books waiting to be read. And I find that over the years I get to one after the other when the MOOD is right for each book.
    I know exactly what you mean about chunksters, but it’s very interesting–sometimes a very long book by an author I’ve been dying to read is just the thing. When conquering a dense chunkster, I almost always have shorter, lighter books to encourage my brain along.
    Thank you for posting!!
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  18. Mm, so many excellent books. If I got to choose, I’d say, hasten to read Fates and Furies because I am very curious to hear your thoughts on it, and also hasten to read the one about psychosomatic illness because that just sounds fascinating. (You know how I love books about brains and problems with brains!)

  19. As falling off the wagon goes … I’m not too concerned for you. I don’t think we need to schedule an intervention, or direct you to the nearest Booklovers Anonymous.

  20. Those books look lovely sitting atop your beautiful new desk! Very interested to hear what you make of Fates and Furies. I liked it but it seems to have a love it or hate it polarization with not many falling in between. Argonauts is fabulous, you are in for a treat on that one! enjoy then all!

  21. Litlove, on 500+ pages it depends. I thought Jonathan Strange too short at over 1000. But more often than not, chunksters scare me. I’m afraid some other shiny object (book) will catch my eye. With a big book, if I stop to take a break, I know I’ll never go back. And then I’ll feel guilty about not finishing something I started. I am determined to read Calvino this year and also Fahrenheit 451 (which has been on my bucket list forever). Also, I’ve had Schiff’s Cleopatra on my shelves for a long, long time. I bought it in hardbound when it first came out, but somehow I keep forgetting about it. As for taking anything to the charity shop, I truly wish I had the ability to part with some of my books.

  22. I am interested to hear your thoughts on Fates and Furies – my friends who have read it have given it mixed reviews and frankly I am a little scared to read it! This is Courtney, by the way, with yes, a new blog – first post to come in mid-August. There is a good reason for the change. So, yes – I would like you to read Fates and Furies so I can know whether or not I should! No pressure.

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