Body and soul

A room without books is a body without a soul.

– Cicero (attributed)

El Niño is here, in all its wet and windy glory, throwing monstrous tantrums up and down the state.  For a weather phenomenon named after the Christ child, it’s certainly a very contrary and intense presence.  The lights have flickered, but thus far have remained on.  Lightning, hail, sudden downbursts and winds that lift up of a moment and whip the trees into a frothing mass of branches and leaves all indistinct – all without is wild and unpredictable.

Inside, it’s warm and woolly.  The kettle is constantly on, and we’re drinking more tea than anyone has a right to drink.  I’m bundled up in my Drops jacket, and everyone’s reading a bit more than usual.  We’re all inclined to the bookish, here, so this is a pleasant state of affairs.

Last year, I took up a challenge to read 50 new books in the year.  5o books in itself is not a problem, but I’m a chronic re-reader, and I thought that the challenge would help me break out of my usual rut.  It did.  I read 58 new books, most of them quite good.  I’ve taken up the same challenge again this year.

Last year, I took up the challenge in part to spur me to finish a couple of books I’d started and then lagged in reading.  One of them was José Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon.  One year and 58 new books later and I still haven’t finish Lisbon.  I have enjoyed Saramago’s books in the past and I have enjoyed what I’ve read of the Siege, but the way that Saramago writes forces me to slow down my reading to the point where I get somewhat frustrated at my own slowness and end up picking something else up and reading it instead.

There is no natural light today. It has all fled before the storm.

This year, I am going to finish my book, by gum!

I know lists are, well, lists, and not always the most exciting things to read, but I’m going to put up a list of the books I read last year, along with notes where a strong reaction was elicited.  Some of the books are young adult books that Gabriel read or recommended to me, but I think that oftentimes the only major difference between a book for a child and a book for an adult is the age of the main character.  There are some excellent books out there that adults miss out on because they get slapped with the young adult label.  These books are listed in the order read, and reveal the obsessive manner in which I read a particular author.  Books I highly recommend are bolded.

  1. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin – This book’s been lauded to the skies already, but I think it’s an excellent read with a lot of good, solid information.  There are so many books out there on Lincoln, but I’ve never read one with so much information about his cabinet and politics before.  I think this helps bring the myth of Lincoln down to Earth at the same time as it emphasizes some aspects of his character that I think truly were remarkable.  
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen
  3. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart
  4. The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs
  5. The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring by John Bellairs
  6. The Alchymist by Michael Scott (Really!  I do not recommend this book, but the author’s name amuses me.)
  7. Scoundrel Time by Lillian Hellman
  8. What Shall I Do With These People (Jews, and the Fractious Politics of Judaism) by Milton Viorst
  9. Serendipties: Language and Lunacy by Umberto Eco – I generally love Umberto Eco, so no surprise on this one.  If you like your humor densely packed with historical oddities, this is a very fun book to read.
  10. My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath
  11. Darcy’s Story by Janet Aylmer – My husband thought this would be a funny Valentine’s Day gift for me.  It was awful – much of the book was Pride and Prejudice intact, but with sudden unpleasantly jarring moments when badly written and occasionally anachronistic phrases and behaviors take place.  My sense of humor can’t always conquer my nitpicky soul.
  12. Couples by John Updike – One of the most unpleasant books I’ve ever read.  Dude was a complete misogynist and I don’t buy the excuse that it was the times.  I’ve read plenty of male authors from the same period and before who managed not to show complete contempt for the opposite sex.  There was not a single female character in this book who was made of something stronger than cardboard, and the prose was so purple you could dye a royal robe in it.  Ugh.
  13. The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones
  14. The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones
  15. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
  16. The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken
  17. Cold Shoulder Road by Joan Aiken
  18. Unexpected Magic by Diana Wynne Jones
  19. The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie – I think this was my favorite of the many, many Agatha Christie books I read last year.  Like most of her books, the action doesn’t really make a lot of sense if examined in detail, but it’s a great deal of fun to read, and I thought the female character was a little spunkier than any of the other ladies until Miss Marple.
  20. The Dark Secret of Weatherend by John Bellairs
  21. The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
  22. The Doom of the Haunted Opera by John Bellairs
  23. Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
  24. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  25. Spice by Jack Turner
  26. The Tuesday Club Murders by Agatha Christie
  27. Death in the Air by Agatha Christie
  28. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban – I think Russell Hoban’s children’s books are often under appreciated in terms of just how good the writing is.  Even his picture books show an economy of beautiful, carefully chosen language that is admirable, and moreover, true.  He captures characters vividly and simply.  The satire in this book is gentle but meant.  I loved it.
  29. The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie
  30. A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie
  31. Nemesis by Agatha Christie
  32. What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! by Agatha Christie
  33. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  34. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  35. Hammett’s Moral Vision by George “Rhino” Thompson, Vince Emery, and William F. Nolan  – Yes, one of the authors goes by Rhino.  It was an interesting read, if you like Dashiell Hammett.
  36. Symposium by Muriel Sparks
  37. The Golden Ball and Other Stories by Agatha Christie – Ye gods, these stories are awful!  Classist, racist, awful, awful stories that have nearly no redeeming qualities.  The nice thing to note is that these are early Christie stories and you can see how her opinions (and writing) evolved over time to become more progressive and certainly better thought out.
  38. The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope
  39. The Eyes of the Killer Robot by John Bellairs
  40. What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank
  41. The Land of the Silver Apples by Nancy Farmer
  42. Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California by David Wyatt – I mentioned this book in a previous post.  It’s a book about California’s history written by an English professor, and as a result, the literature of California is very much woven into the text.  I thought it covered some aspects of our history that are rarely discussed and did so in a literate, interesting way.
  43. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding – Manages still to be shocking today.  It’s very funny, but I found it heavy going after a time, because the narrator stops by every so often just to interject a chapter in which he defends his book preemptively from your criticism.  These are not short chapters.
  44. The Various by Steve Augarde
  45. Ishi’s Brain by Orin Starn
  46. The Girl from Paris by Joan Aiken – Mostly out of print, but a really nice Joan Aiken book.  One of her rare books for adults that is not overtly based on someone else’s work.  Aiken’s admiration for Austen is evident in her book, but it’s not a copy, and there’s still a lot of the Joan Aiken who wrote the wonderful Dido Twite books.  Some versions of this book are called The Young Lady from Paris.
  47. The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones
  48. A Whisper in the Night by Joan Aiken
  49. The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald didn’t finish this book, and I think that’s for the best.  It started off really strong, and I loved the first bit.  However, by the time it ended abruptly, it was tapering off into not-as-good territory.  Fitzgerald’s notes suggest it would have been a mess had he been able to finish it.  I tend to go one way or the other with him, but this book went two ways at once.
  50. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – How I managed to go 30 years without reading this book is beyond me.  Everyone raves about it, but I thought it didn’t sound like my thing and I kept putting it off.  It was amazing.  Beautiful, beautiful writing, honesty beyond what I’ve come to expect from authors, and a deep, encompassing sympathy that made each page a treasure.  Read it, if you haven’t.  It’s so so good.
  51. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope –  I was trying to decide which Trollope book to highlight, and figured that other people might as well read the Barchester novels in order, even if I didn’t.  I read them as my library got them in, which meant that I read them in a decidedly unusual order.  Trollope was a slow burn for me.  I read one of his books, and wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, so I read another of his books.  And then another.  And in the midst of the third, I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten that the characters were written, that I was worrying about them even when I wasn’t reading, that I had come to regard the events in Barchester as factual in some way.  It was then that I realized that I really liked Trollope.
  52. O Pioneers by Willa Cather – This book confirmed for me my view that I don’t really like Cather.  Like Cormac McCarthy, I love her descriptions of landscape, but then find the humans in the book to be flat and caricatured in comparison.  And oddly enough for a book with a murder, I felt like nothing happened.  I knew I was on shaky ground a few pages in when a child character speaks in cutesy and false baby talk.  I don’t enjoy baby talk in real people but the Victorians’ propensity to transcribe it in the cutesiest and stupidest terms they could find is so freaking annoying!
  53. Celandine by Steve Augarde
  54. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
  55. Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmoore
  56. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – I don’t like reading Sherlock Holmes books that much.  They’re weirdly self aware and are all so contrived.  But this did set me off on an orgy of Jeremy Brett Mystery! episodes, and I enjoyed those thoroughly.
  57. Adam Bede by George Eliot
  58. Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope

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7 Responses to “Body and soul”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I was so pleased to see a number of Diana Wynne Jones’ books on on your list – I LOVE her, and think she should be much more widely known than she is!

    Ditto to your thoughts on the Alchemyst, and pretty much any book that tries to update Pride & Prejudice, or tell it from another character’s perspective, or be a sequel, or anything like that. I’d rather just re-read P&P.

  2. Julie Says:

    What a great idea to expand one’s reading horizons!! I have a book weight I use for when I knitting plain old stockinette, and then I can read and knit at the same time. It’s nice to do two of your favourite things at once, i think! Good luck with the Lisbon book!

  3. Wendy Says:

    I was so excited to see John Bellairs on your list!!! He was by far my favorite author in my pre-teen years. I remember saving up my allowance to buy each of his books – in fact I still have them all, they’re the one series I refuse to part with. I’m also excited that I’ve read and loved almost half the books on your list (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is probably in my all-time top 5!), which makes me thing I might just like the other half too 🙂 So thanks for the list – this’ll keep me reading this year too!

  4. sarah Says:

    what does it mean, when you say “the prose was purple”?

    • Kristen Says:

      I’m quoting from Wikipedia here, but it describes what I meant really well! Writing “so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself”. The language was so over the top as to be distracting, especially when describing genitals or sex, which it must be said, was a lot of the book.

  5. Carol Says:

    Thanks for the booklist. I’d like to share a new (to me) mystery writer – Batya Gur. Her books are great!

  6. HeatherLouise Says:

    Thank Goodness! Someone who agrees! I thought “O Pioneers!” was so boring that I didn’t even remember a murder! (Disclaimer: I read it 6 years ago, but even so, I remember being THAT bored). Ditto on Updike too. On the other hand, yesterday I heard an interview with the editor of the NYT bestsellers’ list, in which he claimed Updike (at least the early work) was essentially copying J.D. Salinger, whom I (and you may) find positively delicious. Thanks for the list! I’ll read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn next! Hope you’re feeling better soon!

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