Simon’s Book Meme

Quite possibly one of the most useful book memes, ever, from the magnificent Simon T of Stuck in a Book.


1. The book I’m reading

Is Greenbanks by the incomparable Dorothy Whipple. This is the author whose books need to be forcibly shoved into the hands of readers who believe that novels about domesticity can’t ever amount to much. Greenbanks is indeed simple in conception; it’s the story of a family, starting very early in the nineteenth century and recounting events from the next twenty years or so. Holding the story together are Louisa, the family matriarch, and her young granddaughter, Rachel, who enjoy an unusually close relationship. No one constructs a scene with more skill than Whipple, and she knows how to wring tension and drama out of the smallest, most everday occurrence. I’d like to review this properly, so I won’t say more about it for now.


2. The last book I read

Was Palladio by Jonathan Dee. This novel wove two strands together, on the one hand a story of ideas about art, on the other, a love story. Eccentric advertising executive, Mal Osbourne, opens a cutting edge company with the challenging intention of marketing art, not products. A man with a genuine passion for championing modern art, he is distressed by how beleaguered and marginalied art has become. He’s equally horrified by the derivative, ironic pointlessness of much advertising and so a brave new idea is born: since there is nothing much to distinguish one product from another, apart from its branding, he decides to put attention-grabbing works of art in their place with no logo, no slogan, no means of identifying the company behind the image. The uniqueness of this approach creates enormous buzz, as people scramble to find out who is behind the art in question. And thus the most unusual new art is presented to the biggest possible audience with maximum impact. I loved the ideas in this novel and found them fascinating both in conception and the way they play out. The love story, on the other hand, is rather blah, and after a brilliant opening chapter of 290 pages (no kidding), the narrative shifts point of view into one of the characters and loses much of its interest and momentum. But I was so glad to have read it, as the parts about art are just excellent.


3. The book I’ll read next

Is still to be decided. Well, I should qualify that. I will definitely be reading The Life and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre as I’m writing a biographical essay on Beauvoir this month for an online magazine, Cerise Press. It was lovely – the editors asked me if I’d be interested in offering them another essay, I came up with three possible ideas, and they said they’d have them all. So I have this sort of mini-series on French authors and their love lives coming up. As for fiction, though, I am in very fickle mood at the moment. I read the first few pages of Lolly Willowes and it struck me as the sort of book I’d adore in the right frame of mind, but I might not quite inhabit it at the moment. I’m also tempted by Wolf Hall, or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, or maybe The Go-Between, by J. L. Carr.


4. The last book I bought

Was a long time ago. I’ve gone almost completely cold turkey since I’ve stopped working and all I can say is that for the first time in years and years, I haven’t been consumed by a need for more books. Don’t worry; I’m sure it’s just a phase! So the last book I bought was in fact a pre-order on amazon, which has yet to arrive: Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval. Kafka had four major love affairs, each of which resulted in an engagement, a cancelled wedding and an important novel. This looks like a creative non-fiction sort of book, drawing heavily on Kafka’s journals to explore his relationships. Kafka is one of the authors in my great pantheon (Kafka, Colette, Rilke, Cather) whose life and work resonates with me particularly deeply. That’s a blog post for another day.


5. The last book I was given

Arrived this morning – a complete surprise. It came from Tom LoCicero and was the second part of his Truth Beauty Trilogy, The Disappearance. You may remember that I read the first part, The Obsession, and enjoyed it very much. My dear blog friend, Stefanie, also sent a book recently, Heidi Julavits’  The Vanishers, which you can see in the side bar. I was delighted to receive that, too. I hadn’t noticed until I typed it how curiously related those titles are. A little bit of spooky Halloween magic happening there, I think!

7 x 7 Award

I’ve been tagged by Caroline for this meme – woo-hoo, haven’t done a meme in ages!

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.

2: Link to a post you think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.




1. Something people don’t know about me – tricky, after almost six years of blogging. I think everyone knows everything there is to know. Is there anything you want to know? I mean, seriously, we have no secrets.


The Most Beautiful Piece

Probably dates back several years now to another meme that went around my corner of the blogosphere, entitled I Am From.


The Most Helpful Piece

That’s difficult because I always try to write (what I think of as) helpful reviews.  So I’ll plump for something completely different, which is this piece I wrote about meditation. Not least because I find meditation very helpful myself, when I put aside the time to do it and don’t get up halfway through because I’ve remembered something vital that needs to be done….


Most Popular Piece

My most popular post is in fact Best Book Club Books, which was a dreadfully quick and careless thing I wrote one day when I hadn’t finished a book. It seems to attract masses of search engine queries. But the second most hits for a post goes to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which remains at the top of my posts list pretty much every day.


Most Controversial Piece

I admit I’ve never written anything that has sparked off something like an argument, and I would be horrified if I did. So again, I have to go for something different, which is this post I wrote when a graduate student was a bit over persistent in asking me out for dinner. The upshot was that he retracted the invitation somewhat huffily about a week later – so someone, somewhere showed him this post, I have to conclude.


Most Surprisingly Successful Piece

I suppose this one probably goes to What is Existentialism? Which also features near the top of my all time top posts page. It’s nice to know people still care about Existentialism – although a significant percentage are probably students struggling to write essays.


Most Underrated Piece

It’s always the posts that I pour my heart and soul into that fail to get hits, particularly when I do a lot of critical analysis (I love analysis, even about books I haven’t read). I really enjoyed writing about Willa Cather’s novella My Mortal Enemy a couple of weeks back but not a lot of people read it.


Most Pride-worthy Piece

This post on Nature vs Nurture was picked up and mentioned in the Washington Post. I was absolutely delighted.


Name seven other bloggers to pass this award onto:





Simon T.




The Marcus Aurelius Meme

At the start of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lists all the good qualities that he has learned, absorbed or inherited from friends and family. I felt it might be in keeping with the true festive spirit to herald all the really important gifts I’ve ever received.


From my father – my polite, conflict-avoidant nature, attention to detail, the desire to master the fields of knowledge that fascinate me, a strong work ethic, my good memory, my love of reading stories.

From my mother – an almost uncanny ability to intuit the moods and feelings of others, generosity of spirit, the capacity to listen properly, the desire to serve those I love with wholehearted enthusiasm, my love of recounting stories.

From my brother – the ability to fight dirty (not much used these days, but who knows that it won’t one day save my life?)

From my husband – the privileging of reason and common sense over freefloating fears, an interest in all sorts of general questions about culture and society, a more stable confidence in myself than I’ve ever had before, that giving people their space is a genuine act of kindness and sympathy. And to trust to life a little; on the whole, things go right more often than they go wrong.

From my son –  the ability to live in the moment and to accept things just as they are, for what they are, the recognition that expediency can be valuable, and that integrity is a necessity, for without it we simply cause ourselves pain.

From my undergraduate French tutor – sympathy for those in the awkward position of having to learn difficult things.

From my undergraduate German tutor – that the only way to be good at what you do is to be really and truly excellent at what you do.

From my PhD supervisor – that generosity and understanding help students far, far more than criticism and censure. To look at a problem always from the perspective of what needs to be done and how best, pragmatically, to do it. And that bad drafts always have the germ of good drafts in them, so nothing learned or written is ever wasted.

From my students – staying young is about being interested in everything.

From various therapists – that there is no cure for life, you can’t perfect it; instead you have to make use of what you’ve got in the moment and often that’s more than enough. That although we may lose access to certain qualities in times of stress, we do possess every nternal resource we need. That I will always be me, no matter what I feel about it, and you know what? That’s okay.

From my friend, Ali – in matters of creativity, you have to stick out for things to be the way you want them to be. Committees dilute and diminish.

From my friend, Kathryn – even dreadful events can be a source of quite fascinating narrative.

From my reiki practitioner – what’s good in my life will always far outweigh the bad, and the good deserves more attention.

From my cat – no matter how mangy, ill-tempered and difficult you are, whilst there’s family around, someone will always take pity and feed you.


Top 10 Books Outside My Comfort Zone

This is such a busy week all my serious reviews will have to wait. In the meantime this meme from The Broke and the Bookish looked fun.


Georges Bataille – The Story of the Eye

Quite the most disturbing book, ever. The narrator goes on a sexual odyssey involving eyeballs, eggs and bull’s testicles. People get locked in wardrobes, priests are killed; every other page produces something new to flinch at. The first time I read this, in all innocence of what awaited me, I was on a train. Of course I was; if I couldn’t have been meeting someone like a new mother-in-law, say, with the volume in my hand, then the next inevitable option would be public transport. But it is one of those cult novels that belong to a tradition of subversive, challenging literature, hence someone suggested I read it. Never again.


Jacques Derrida – Positions

When people say they dislike literary theory, it is usually Derrida they have in mind. He was king of the tortuous sentence, and the kind of madly sophisticated exposition that boiled down to something really quite simple (except you couldn’t say it that way). I nearly threw this book out of a train window (trains, again!) when I was a student, and I’d paid £16 for it, which was a lot of money back then. Thinking I’d discovered him on that difficult, second book, I went to the library and checked out Of Grammatology. The only difference was that it contained 400 pages of impenetrable prose rather than 120. I tried to read the introduction by Gayatri Spivak, thinking there, all would be clear, and, who’d a thunk it, she was even worse than Derrida!  I made my peace eventually with Derrida by turning him into a dipping-in author. Honestly, it works. If you just read a paragraph here and there, he’s quite interesting. It’s the sustained argument that kills you.


Voltaire – Candide

Long-term visitors to this site will be aware of my, ahem, difficulties with Voltaire. Candide is all about people on a crazy journey in which everything apocalyptically dreadful that you could ever imagine happens to them. They get thrown from one traumatic situation to another, while this incredibly annoying philosopher among their party parrots that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, or some such nonsense. A very insightful friend said to me: ‘you can’t bear the thought that an idea should be more important than people’s humanity’, and the reasons why I cannot bear this book suddenly became clear.


Jorge Semprun – L’écriture ou la vie (Literature or Life)

Semprun was a Holocaust survivor, released from Buchenwald in 1944. He published this book in 1994, having taken 50 years to find a way to talk about his experiences in the camps. It is an amazing book, harrowing in places, yet far more gentle towards the reader than many similar memoirs. It has never left me, in fact, it often crops up unexpectedly in my thoughts. Everyone should have a Holocaust book, as a tribute to humanity, as a sense of perspective on one’s own life, and as a way of keeping one’s eyes open to the darker realities of the world. No kidding, though, it takes courage to pick them up.


Joseph McElroy – Night Soul and other stories

I have become very lazy of late. I used to read all sorts of books, which meant that when I first thought about this meme, I had to consider what my comfort zone might look like. In retrospect, I never used to have one. But now I do. These days I tend to read writers who are very clear. I love clarity. It makes me happy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t intriguing qualities to less clear books. Joseph McElroy is a highly literary stylist, which is another way of saying that language is paramount in his books as a remarkable substance; he plays with it and bends it to breaking point. This sort of writing asks for a different kind of reading, and it’s good to be stretched. Quite what I’ll say about it in a review, I haven’t figured out yet.


Albert Camus – The Plague

This was a book I put off reading for years. I don’t like narratives about illness, and I feared this would be the literary equivalent of a disaster movie in which everyone fell down writhing in torments of agony, their helpless loved ones running about like headless chickens, etc, etc. In fact it’s not like that at all. It’s a brilliant book that asks searching questions about how we behave when in extremis, how to respond as a community to crises, who we become when the ordinary conditions of life are removed. And most of all, how to tell the story of what happens in an extraordinary situation with accuracy and justice. Outstanding.


Robert Graves – Greek Myths

To be fair, the main problem I had was that I must have been no more than 12 or 13 when I tried to read them. I had no idea I would be plunged into a divine bloodbath, or that I would need to find out what words like ‘parthenogenesis’ meant. What a jump from Enid Blyton and the Chalet School girls! I was afraid of the Greek myths for years, considering them inherently traumatic reading, until we bought my young son a tape of the children’s version and I realised they were actually enthralling. You’ve got to come at these things from the right level.


Catherine Cookson

When I was at school, I had a good friend called Caroline who used to read at every single opportunity during the day. Waiting in line outside the classroom, idle moments before the lesson began, idle moments in the lesson, when she could get away with it. I used to sit beside her in class, so I got a lot of over-the-shoulder reading done. She went through a Catherine Cookson phase, and so, by obligation, did I. If you’ve ever thought Cookson was a romance writer, think again. The things that happened in her stories! This would always be the lesson before lunch, and she would have reached the bit where some poor woman would be beaten by her husband, causing her to miscarry in full, queasy detail. Or some young girl would be forced to marry an uncongenial man and be raped by him, in full, queasy detail. Caroline was alternating around that time between Virginia Andrews and Catherine Cookson, and believe me, I thought they came from the same section of the bookstore.


Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingstone Seagull

I have a nasty feeling that Mister Litlove gave me this book when we were mere undergraduates together. Anyway, back then I wasn’t that great with allegories, and spent most of the time thinking, why am I reading about a seagull? I was especially not good with Christian allegories and I spent a lot of time thinking, why am I reading this patronizing drivel? I am not so stupid as to think that what happens to seagulls is the same as what happens to people. Please remove the syrupy tone or bring a real, live person into the story, or preferably both. It just rubbed me up the wrong way, although I do wonder how I’d feel reading it now, when I am much more accepting of all sorts of different perspectives.


Christine Angot – Incest

Angot writes memoirs, but not like any you’ll have come across before. This is, on the whole, a good thing, as the world is probably only big enough for one Angot at a time. In this book she describes the incestuous affair she had with her father (I think her mother divorced when she was young, so she didn’t know him well, growing up) that lasted, if we believe her, into her twenties. Angot is a fearless and brutal narrator, queen of oversharing, but what makes her books rather intriguing is that she is wholly unreliable, too. Just when you are thinking that it is amazing anyone would broadcast certain intimate events to an entire reading public, she’ll come out with a ‘You didn’t really think I meant that, did you? My goodness, you’ll believe anything!’. It is very disconcerting. Keeping the reader outside of any comfort zone is very much Angot’s business, and she does it effectively and well. Read her at your peril.