Since I started Novel Readings in 2007, I’ve written up—sometimes briefly, sometimes in great detail—almost every book I’ve read. The best thing about that has always been the exercise itself: knowing I would write at least something about my reading encouraged me to read more attentively and thoughtfully, and then finding the words for what I’d noticed and thought about not only fixed the experience better in my memory but helped me understand the experience better, since as we all know, writing isn’t just a matter of transcribing things you’ve already figured out but is a vital process for figuring them out.
Over the years I have come to really appreciate having this record of my reading, and I am sad that this habit has been so hard to keep up since Owen died. At first, I just wasn’t reading much; now, I am reading again (though not as much as before, and with more difficulties) but I’m tired all the time, mentally as much as physically. Also, writing—at least, writing that doesn’t come with the extrinsic motivation of a commitment and a deadline—turns out, for me anyway, to be a more optimistic activity than I had realized. Going back, as I have so often now, to Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow, I came again across her comment,
You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity . . . Any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion, unlike my own paralyzed time.
Earlier in my own experience of grief, I was not really conscious of what she describes as “the sensation of having been lifted clean out of habitual time,” but as I try harder to make my own way back into the present, I think I understand better what she was talking about.
I have done a lot of writing since Owen died, of course: about my grief and loss, not just here but privately (it might seem to some people that I’ve overshared here, I suppose, but there are definitely aspects of my experience and of Owen’s, both his life and his death, that are too hard, or just too much, to share even—as I imagine this space being—among friends); about at least some of my reading; in draft material for the book I am working on; and in a few published reviews and review-essays. Many times in the past I have stumbled over identifying myself as “a writer,” but not now: it has never felt more essential to me to put things into words. As I have learned more about grief and what helps people move through it, I have realized that the compulsion I felt starting very soon after Owen’s death to write about it was probably an intuitive reaching towards what in therapeutic jargon is sometimes called “meaning making.”
Anyway, this is a pretty roundabout way to get to the point of this post, which is to update the record of my recent reading, if only to shore up my recollections of this period of my life. There’s no way I can write “proper” posts about each of these recently read titles, but I don’t want to forget that I read them, and I also (as part of my larger effort to “reengage with the world”) want to push myself past the sad inertia that at this point is mostly to blame for my losing the habit of writing up my ‘novel readings.’ I remind myself, not for the first time, of my conviction that if something was worth doing before a catastrophe, it remains doing after. Novel Readings has never been “just” a book blog, of course, and I expect I’ll continue to write sometimes about my grief, just as I know mourning is going to continue changing how and why I read. As September nears, I expect I’ll also go back to blogging about my teaching.
So: here’s a stack of books I’ve read in recent weeks but mostly haven’t written up here (the exceptions are The Slowworm’s Song and Woolf’s diary).
It was a good run: there’s not one here I wouldn’t recommend to you if you asked about it. The standout was Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which is at once the best representation I’ve ever read of what it’s like being on Twitter (which she calls, evocatively, “the portal”) and a truly heartfelt and heartbreaking human story. I appreciated that, while she doesn’t gloss over the ways Twitter can be strange and terrible and inhumane, she doesn’t pit “real life” against it either. “The world of books is still the world,” Aurora Leigh remarks, and I have always felt the same about social media.
I didn’t like Oxygen as much as the other books I’ve read by Andrew Miller, but that’s a pretty high bar; ditto Companion Piece, which read easily but made less of an impression on me than Smith’s Seasonal Quartet did. The Dictionary of Lost Words is probably the most conventional one in this stack, which is not a knock against it: it’s smart and very readable. My review of Haven will be in Canadian Notes & Queries at the end of the summer; the tl;dr version is that it’s quite good, though I continue to wish Donoghue would slow down and write a really good, more expansive, novel. (I wish the same of Sarah Moss.) I do admire how different Donoghue’s novels are from each other. Haven has the most in common, thematically, with The Wonder, as it is in part about faith, but it’s still quite distinct in approach and tone. It’s set on Skellig Michael, which looks like an incredible site. Donoghue writes wonderfully about that setting, and the novel is also chock full of brilliant process writing, about everything from fishing to making ink.
I have stumbled more in the last couple of weeks, starting and then quitting a lot of titles including Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, but I did read Monica Ali’s Love Marriage with interest that (with a bit of persistence) grew into appreciation. One book I began with enthusiasm but ultimately decided not to finish was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I have read before, long ago (pre-blogging, that’s how long ago!). It was just too religious for me this time: I just don’t see the world as John Ames does, and while as a well-trained and very experienced novel reader I totally understand and agree that I don’t have to in order to engage with his story, this time (with apologies to the people of faith among you) it just felt too much like having to take very seriously someone who believes in Santa Claus. There’s a lot that’s beautiful in what and how the Reverend Ames sees, but I’m with the brother who reads Feuerbach and goes his own way (I assume he read George Eliot’s translation!). I didn’t much like Housekeeping when I went back to it a few years ago, so maybe Robinson is just not for me.
I have just started Natalie Jenner’s Bloomsbury Girls, which seems fine so far, though I don’t expect anything groundbreaking from it either stylistically or thematically. Ali Smith’s how to be both looks more exciting in both respects, so it’s probably next.
I love this–I never try to write about everything I’m reading, but the times when I’m reading junk and not writing about it do tend to coincide with lapses in optimism. That’s good to remember.
I reacted much the same way you did to Gilead, and also to her most recent novel in that series, Jack. Because they didn’t have as much religion, though, I enjoyed Lila and Home. I actually enjoyed Home a lot.
And although I loved Ali Smith’s seasonal series, I didn’t care for Companion Piece or How to Be Both. Maybe you’ll like the latter better if you have low expectations for it.
Love what you say about No One is Talking About This. That’s a great quotation, “the world of books is still the world.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
That’s interesting about ‘Home.’ I do think Robinson is a lovely writer in many ways so I might give it a try eventually.
I feel so strongly about the world of books (or of social media) not being separate from “the real world” – academic life too, which is so often derided as somehow not real life.
Thanks for sharing this Rohan. I remember not being able to read any novels for a couple of years. (Years ago this) I haven’t read any of those except Gilead which like you I didn’t enjoy and am now wondering about Home which is a tbr. I am just reading Mr Pip which I’m finding astonishingly wonderful. I love the child’s eye view that the writer achieves
Thank you for your comment, Peter. I remember liking Mr. Pip when I read it some years back. Have you tried teaching it? Pairing it with Great Expectations is the obvious thing to do, I suppose.
Brock Clarke, a novelist who teaches creative writing at Bowdoin, identifies Robinson as “[t]he novelist, essayist, and John Calvin spokewoman,” which is kinda mean but maybe accurate. I haven’t read Robinson. “The books pretend to be folksy but in fact are infuriatingly condescending” (p. 30).
The quotes are from “The Case for Meanness” on p 28 of Clarke’s I, Grape or the Case for Fiction (2021).
I remember watching a recording of a talk Robinson gave and finding it quite patronizing in its tone, though I wondered if it was just that she wasn’t (or didn’t seem to be) a very comfortable public speaker.
It’s heartening to see you writing about your reading again, Rohan, and I’m glad you’re finding it enjoyable – as you say, more optimistic than you anticipated beforehand.
Funnily enough, I listened to an abridged audio reading of Love Marriage on the radio recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. Definitely on the lighter side of my spread of reading, but very engaging nonetheless!
Thanks, Jacqui. I guess what I meant is that I have not been feeling optimistic enough to write more often, but I’m going to keep trying.
I see there’s already an adaptation of Love Marriage in the works. I expect it will work well for that approach.