Pick Up Lines, 4th quarter, 2016

Two things I’m thinking about as I write this final book blog post for the year:

• It might be the cover that makes you pick up the book to hold it; you might scan the blurbs and the names who contributed said blurbs…but it is the first lines, surely, that decide you. What did the writer do with that blank page that invited you in?

• Also: libraries! What a magnificent idea and institution! That a community, a municipality or a town would fund and encourage reading, by allowing its members to borrow books and that this would be so intrinsically valuable that you would honour this civil contract as an unquestionable good. The library is a marvel for which I am perpetually grateful. 


As the fourth quarter of reading began I returned to Stalinist Russia, to Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. It begins: It happened in the middle of wartime, on a station platform as flat and dusty as the endless plain surrounding it. It was a slim pick, as I was busy with other writing and needing something for those evening times when I wanted to forget the world of work. It was a provocative ‘fictionalised biography’ (so I’ve learned the genre is now called) of Dmitri Shostakovich. (I’ve been trying to work out how or why most biographies are not regarded as fictionalised?) Turns out this ‘fictionalised bio’ was the second such I’d read in the year, the first being Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein. By the end of it, I was ready to steer around stories of suffering artists under crazy, dangerous politics.

Why not something closer to heaven, next? I picked up and, after 100 or so pages, also gave up on, Arcadia by Iain Pears, because it was just not right for the time. It required too much of a kind of attention I then did not have the energy to give it. Have picked it up for the holiday pile and have downloaded the app for it, too. Looking forward to getting back to it.

Next was In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which begins: I want to cross a small lake. It is a collection of essays detailing the author’s internal journey of learning to fully inhabit a foreign language. Lahiri, in Rome, learns to live (and write; I mean really write!) in Italian. The left page is in her original Italian; the right is in English translated by Ann Goldstein (and, interestingly, not by the author, a choice explained in the foreword). Thoroughly enjoyed this collection. So much rang so true to my own experience living outside my native language environment (though Lahiri’s devotion to her studies & her deep project are incomparable to mine, I confess! ). This is the first of Lahiri’s that I’ve read. Next, of hers I’d like to read is The Lowland. Her writing is elegant, light and beautiful. Just so.

I read A Midsummer’s Equation, by Keigo Higashino (trans. Alexander O Smith) which opens with the central character, a child, on his way out of the city.  Kyohei found the transfer gate from the bullet train to the express line without any difficulty, and by the time he ran up the stairs to the platform, the train was already there. It was quite a quick read and I was gratified by the central theme of resistance to an environmentally destructive project that was about to spoil an old fishing village. Such news seldom makes it to the international (or English medium) papers so I was glad to see this dealt with in (international) fiction. It was set in summer and I liked being there in my imagination. The little fellow, Kyohei, was a great and well-voiced character. I thought the translation was great, too.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, begins: It’s not my fault. If you read this book, and you should, be prepared to carry its resonance. That sounds like a threat, perhaps, but you cannot (shouldn’t?) come to this writer’s work casually and you cannot leave it unchanged. I’ve not read all that much of Morrison’s fiction, I realise as I write this. (I think I may have been carrying resonance from what I have already read!) She is august, almost formidable, and I know, and am reminded reading this one, soul-stretching. Everything I want to write about her capacities veers toward the superlative … I don’t need to convert you, if you know her work. This work is profoundly human (is that the artist’s essential skill? There’s little you don’t recognise in it as, if not reflective of a piece of you, then somehow and amazingly, true to life.) It was utterly wretched in some parts and quietly uplifting in others. Above all, because of its humanity, it is hopeful and it gave me hope.

>>> Post-script insertion. How could I have forgotten?! After the Morrison I read the Australian writer, Gail Jones’ Sixty Lights, which was also a woman-centred story. It opens with an epigraph by Eduardo Cadava, There’s never been a time without the photograph, without the residue and writing of light. It’s an arresting and beautifully written novel of becoming that takes place on three continents and is, on a deeper level, a mediation on seeing, on light, on photography. I copied out many passages from this book and it continues to swim about in my imagination. I remember the word ‘maculate’ from it; something true to life, that seems accidental, but that piques interest and has in it a sort of strange beauty that you don’t expect. <<<

How to choose a book after that? All I could think was to enter another world, entirely! I picked up The Girl of Fire & Thorns, by Rae Carson, with an eye out for new titles to use for my YA literature seminar. Gobbled this up in a few days reading with the same intensity and pleasure I used to as a child when days were unending. It was really well done, I thought, and thoroughly enjoyable. It begins: Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. This opening line signals what turns out to be a strong spiritual line throughout which I suppose could be risky, but was well done. I really liked the story and the characters and the relationships. I think it’s a great YA book and a delightful princess story for our age.

(As a P.S. on the princesses for our age, I enjoyed watching this short video of Jeanette Winterson at work with children rewriting Cinderella on the wonderful BBC series, 100 women. )


Arcadia, by Iain Pears. Imagine a landscape.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan Lost in the shadow of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thein. In a single year, my father left us twice.

Cobra, by Deon Meyer. The rain drummed down on the corrugated iron roof. 

Silence & Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura.


4 thoughts on “Pick Up Lines, 4th quarter, 2016

  1. What seems to make me buy books recently is hearing their authors talk in interviews. Of course a ten-minute interview is most of the time much more accessible, even dumbed-down if you will, presentation of the writer’s ideas. Then I order the book and find out that I don’t have what it takes to follow through.

    Also, there is the draw of a certain sort of title, such as that recent one with both Marvelous and Clouds in it. I should start a new practice of only buying books of which I have read and enjoyed at least the first page. Good first lines, I think, can have as strong a pull as a title, so I have to be wary!


    • Yes, I could see how that might be influential, hearing writers talk about their work, but I think it’s true that once the text finds its way to market it becomes its own thing, a creation of its readers. It is, I imagine, in a way, analogous to parenting.

      Your comment makes me realise how rare it is for me to take in sort-of-ambient interviews … if I have the radio on it’s for music, or if I want to listen to interviews I’ll download a podcast.

      It seems to me, though, that a good library would be a perfect solution to your ‘tsundoku’ pile 😉! That, or sample downloads which I’ve just discovered and which also save time and money and intervene in my oftentimes excessive book appetites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My local library doesn’t have most of the NF books I’m interested in. Probably I should just be more selective about which authors I commit to so strongly in dollars and shelf space! What are you referring to by “sample downloads”? Are these audio files or …?


      • I use the google play app on the iPad and for many, many (most?) books, they’ll let you read a sample of a chapter or two. (Kindle might do this, too, if you have such?) After reading your Laurus review last summer actually I downloaded a sample anticipating I’d be in an airport customs line longer than I’d like with no wifi and it worked brilliantly. I was well and truly hooked and bought the book. Do give it a try! (Thanks, by the way – that was a really great book!)

        Liked by 1 person

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