For the Record: Recent Reading

cassatSince 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. riley-time-2

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.”

monica-aliAnyway, 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).

June Books

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.

gileadI 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.

A Decade of Novel Readings!

My very first post to Novel Readings went up 10 years ago today. It wasn’t much: a quick comment on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Rereading it today, I’m amused to see that careless applications of the label “Dickensian” was already a pet peeve, but I’m also interested to see that my appreciation for Dickens himself, as a self-conscious and effective artist, has increased since then.

As I’ve often remarked, starting a blog was not, at first, a very purposeful action for me. It turned out to be a life-changing one, though. I’ve written before about the ways blogging has opened up new opportunities for me, but today I find myself thinking more about the intrinsic value of Novel Readings itself. For me, blogging turned out to be an outlet, a distraction, a pleasure, a challenge, a learning experience, an intellectual adventure.  In some circles, Novel Readings is the work of mine that deserves the least credit. But in many ways I am more proud of my archive of blog posts than of any other writing I’ve done, precisely because the value of doing this lies all in the doing! I’ve never been under any obligation to blog, or had any extrinsic incentive to do it, or received any external reward (or, god knows, any professional advancement) for it. As a result, there’s an authenticity to this writing, a freedom, that means Novel Readings has allowed me to discover a lot about who I am as a reader, a writer, a critic, a scholar, and a teacher — which is to say that blogging has contributed a lot to my understanding of myself as a person. A lot has changed for me, both personally and professionally, since 2007, and some of that is indubitably because of the degree of reflection this blog has prompted, as well as of the habits, skills, and interests it has helped me cultivate.

At the same time, Novel Readings has never been primarily a personal exercise, a vehicle for self-exploration or self-expression. In fact, I’ve deliberately kept a lot of aspects of my private life off the blog! Though like all blogs Novel Readings ebbs and flows somewhat in its aims and accomplishments, overall I am as proud of the results of my blogging as I am pleased with the process of it, because I think I have actually (if, initially, accidentally) made something of substance here. Over the past decade I have produced a significant body of thoughtful, articulate commentary on books, on criticism, and on academic and pedagogical issues. I have done this in the face of a fair amount of skepticism — even some outright scorn — but also buoyed by some precious encouragement. In the end, though, what really mattered was my own commitment, and that came (as I expect it does for all bloggers) from my belief, born of experience, that it was something that, for me, was worth doing.

So, Happy Birthday, Novel Readings! And sincere thanks, as always, to those of you who help make this effort worthwhile by reading, commenting, and writing your own wonderful blogs.

The First Ever Novel Readings Book Giveaway!

When I put up my last post, I realized that it was #899 – making this my 900th post at Novel Readings. That seemed like a milestone that ought to be recognized with something a bit out of the ordinary! But what? As I was musing about options, I remembered that not long ago I had contemplated holding a book giveaway for my anthology, The Victorian Art of Fiction, to put a more positive spin on its rather sluggish sales. (OK, “sluggish” is putting it nicely: my last royalty statement shows it selling -3 copies in Canada!) Clearly this is the perfect opportunity for just such a special event. It can also double as my way of celebrating World Book Day!


Lest the sorry story of my book’s recent sales makes you skeptical that you even want a free copy, let me tell you just a little bit about it. (You can also read more about it at Wuthering Expectations, where once upon a time it was the book of the week!) It’s actually the project I was working on in 2007 during the same sabbatical that I launched this blog, making it the perfect prize for this occasion. (The first person to joke that “second prize is two copies” is banned from Novel Readings forever.)  I had been reading quite a lot of Victorian essays about and reviews of fiction — partly because I was asking questions about the kind of criticism we do and how it sometimes seemed to me to fit the primary sources uncomfortably. I wanted to get a better sense of the contemporary conversation into which the Victorian novels actually emerged. I found this material fascinating but also diffuse, and I thought a collection of the choicest examples would be a nice thing to make available, for interested readers as well as for students and teachers of the history of criticism; happily, Broadview Press agreed.

My introduction to the volume that resulted sums up some key themes across the various readings as well as what seemed to me some notable and thought-provoking differences between the way they did criticism then and the way we do it now. But the real fun is in the essays themselves. There are some that are canonical (as far as that concept can even be applied to 19th-century essays about the novel): George Eliot’s “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists,” for instance, and Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction.” There are some by writers whose names are certainly familiar to readers of Victorian fiction: Margaret Oliphant’s “Modern Novelists – Great and Small,” or Anthony Trollope’s “Novel Reading.” There are some by people who, though not widely known today, were major critical or intellectual figures at the time: David Masson’s “Thackeray and Dickens” or Walter Bagehot’s “The Novels of George Eliot.” There are essays on “lady novelists,” sensation fiction, and the morality of fiction; there are discussions of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë by writers including George Henry Lewes and Leslie Stephen. The essays are perceptive, idiosyncratic, sometimes puzzling, often surprising, and occasionally profound. Above all, they reflect a common conviction that fiction is an art form worth talking about, which is a feeling I think is likely to be shared by anyone stopping by a blog called Novel Readings.

So here’s the plan. If you’d like a chance at a free copy of this elegant, entertaining, and edifying volume, just say so in the comments below, in the next 24 hours (it’s 10:00 a.m. Atlantic time here in frosty Halifax, so that will be the cut-off time tomorrow). As an extra incentive, I will also include a pretty bookmark in an appropriately bookish pattern made by a local paper artist! Then I’ll put all (both? the only?) names in a hat and Maddie will draw out one winner. I’ll identify the winner in the comments and invite him or her to contact me by email to sort out mailing information. (With regret, after looking at international shipping rates on Canada Post, I do have to limit this offer to US, Canadian, and UK addresses only. Maybe for my 1000th post I’ll go completely global.)

I hope someone is interested. If it turns out that I can’t even give copies of the book away, just think how depressed I’ll be: what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain? And so, as James says in the exuberant conclusion to “The Art of Fiction,” go in!

UPDATE: It’s heartening to see so much interest in the book! I wish I could send everyone a copy – but I can’t. The ‘contest’ is now closed. I promised Maddie she could do the actual drawing, so it will have to wait until after work. Then I’ll make the big announcement of the winner. Thanks to everyone for joining in!