This second installment in the “Thursday Next” series is as fun and funny as the first, and I was delighted to read about Thursday’s continued adventures. In this one, there’s a found Shakespeare play, a lost husband, and several near-death experiences, as well as time travel, travel into various books, and an all-too-brief reappearance of Spike, Swindon’s SpecOps agent dealing with vampires, werewolves, and the undead in general. And in this one, Thursday learns about the world of Jurisfiction: agents focused on protecting literary integrity, much like her own LiteraTec SpecOps division, but from within books rather than outside them. There’s a lot of great detail to do with that side of the plot: Miss Havisham and the Cheshire Cat make appearances, and footnotes figure as a means of communication; Thursday even has an appointment in a Kafka work. There’s great detail in general, actually: at one point Thursday’s at an art exhibition and sees “a model of a matchstick made entirely out of bits of the houses of Parliament” (236), which totally cracks me up. Also: I love Thursday’s whole family, especially her dad but also her uncle and brother and grandma—the latter of whom is 108 years old and at one point explains that she “got mixed up with some oddness” when she was young and “can’t shuffle off this mortal coil” until she’s “read the ten most boring classics” (134)—the only problem being that she can’t figure out which ones they are.

Until recently I’d never heard of Johnny Gruelle (who created Raggedy Ann) or The Magical Land of Noom, but this kids’ book from 1922 was a cute/fun read. At the start, we meet Johnny and his sister Janey, who decide to use the boards left over from the chicken coop their grandfather just built to make themselves a Flying Machine so they can pretend to fly to the Moon. Except the machine somehow actually takes flight, and they somehow actually land on the Moon, which turns out to be a magical place with lemonade springs and giant mushrooms that taste like cake. The kids soon cross paths with a magician, though, and find themselves in a (literal) bind. Luckily their grandparents, having seen them fly off, decide to make a Flying Machine of their own to come after them, so they’re able to help the kids out. Except now they’re all on the Moon and the magician’s threatening to turn them all into animals. They proceed from one adventure/scrape to the next, meeting various characters as they try to make their way to the city of Nite, where they’ve heard there’s someone who can help them get home.

While the characters feel more slight to me than those in other kids’ books I like more, I did have fun reading this: the episodic nature of the story kept me interested in what was coming next. There are pleasing little details, like when the characters are attacked by flying boxing gloves, or when they catch fish that end up tasting like other foods entirely when they’re cooked, or when a storm turns out to be a rain of ink. And I like Gruelle’s illustrations a whole lot. (Here are four of my favorites: 1, 2, 3, 4)

Near the start of In the City, Colette Brooks wonders: “What kind of a person is a city person?” and then offers her own answer: “One possibility: the kind of person who doesn’t feel the need to finish a jigsaw puzzle, who relishes jagged edges and orphaned curves, stray bits of data, pieces of stories parsed from sentences half overheard on the street” (2). Well. I’m not so sure about the first part of that, but the end, yes. I think she offers another answer near the end of the book, when she says this: “I suspect that I could collect these strands forever, link one discrete element to another, and still it would seem incomplete. There would always be something else to remark upon, something else to say” (106). I mean: maybe anyone feels that way about the landscape they love best, but a city person is someone who feels that about the built urban environment and its history and all the many lives and stories and secrets it contains. Another answer, maybe: you know you’re a city person when you think about the city where you live and, as Brooks puts it, “you simply cannot conceive of your life having worked out in any other way” (9).

I really like the associative way this book proceeds from topic to topic, and the way it mixes the personal and the historical. It’s a little about cities in general and a lot about New York in particular and a little bit about other specific cities, too (there’s a trip to Brazil that figures in the narrative); not surprisingly, I especially like the bits of NYC history and descriptions of NYC moments and scenery. Early in the book Brooks talks about seeing the Statue of Liberty from what I’m pretty sure is the F train—not that she names either the statue or the train line, but I remember how much I loved that stretch of my commute for the ten years I lived off that train line, the moments between when the train comes aboveground after Carroll Street and when it goes back underground after 4th Avenue. Other NYC things in this book I love: a discussion of what people are reading on the subway, a section about lost & found posters, bits of overheard conversations, a description of the Panorama of the City of New York in the Queens Museum, a bit about the The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that laid out the street grid. And, though this is from one of the sections in the book about Brazil, I love this: the idea that any city is many individual cities, all “constructed from scraps of memory and invention” (64).

I really enjoyed this collection of eighteen stories about love/relationships, which my boyfriend checked out from the library back in February, and which I’d been meaning to read for months now, since the night when he was reading it and I somehow ended up grabbing the book and reading the story “Rufus” (which is narrated by a dog and is simultaneously funny and poignant) aloud to him. It took me a while to get back to the rest of the book, but I’m glad I finally did. The stories range in length and form (one is a rhyming poem that’s a valentine/anti-valentine; another is a list of bullet points), and some are naturalistic while others have fantastical elements. There’s one about a couple who are stressed about planning their wedding, in a world that is almost ours but definitely isn’t: there’s mention of a family dinner at an Olive Garden and a trip to a Rite Aid, but a lot of the plot revolves around how everyone expects their wedding to have more sacrifices to the Stone God than they were planning on. (That story, “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,” was one of my favorites.) There’s another that features a theme park called Presidentland and some poorly-thought-out genetic engineering, and another in which a door to a theorized “anti-universe” doesn’t have the results the narrator expects. I like these weirder stories a whole lot, and I like the writing style throughout the book, with sentences like this: “Dorothy quickly whittles the word “furious” into a verb and furiouses at me” (27).

Or something being described like this: “Kind of as a joke and kind of for real, the way eighteen-year-olds do everything” (90).

Or this: “Every conversation was punctuated by long awkward silences—but punctuated the Spanish way, so every sentence was followed by a long awkward silence and preceded by the same awkward silence upside down” (186).

Also: I totally love the last story, which is a play on a misspelled sign about a store being closed, and which describes a day as “a moment, a twenty-four-hour trick of the light” (242). And I totally totally love that the story called “Missed Connection – m4w” was originally posted on Craigslist.

I first read The Eyre Affair in 2014 and didn’t love it at the time (I felt like it was too plot-driven, too zany) but this time around it was exactly what I was in the mood for, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series at some point sooner rather than later. As previously noted, this book is set in an alternate England where time travel is possible and literature is Extremely Important. Thursday Next is a special agent in the LiteraTec department, dealing with forgeries and manuscript thefts, and the theft of a manuscript that’s a very big deal is what sets the plot of the book in motion: Martin Chuzzlewit has been stolen. Thursday finds herself in pursuit of the suspect, Acheron Hades (a supervillain who faked his own death in years prior); her genius uncle Mycroft and his newest invention, the Prose Portal (which lets a person enter a work of literature) end up being part of the story as well. Hades’s idea is to use the Prose Portal for purposes of extortion: if he or his henchmen enter an original manuscript and harm one of the characters, all the copies of the book in the world will change as the original manuscript is altered. And he’s not just interested in Martin Chuzzlewit: his next heist is to steal the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, at which point things get really personal for Thursday, who has her own connections with that book and its characters.

I think part of why I enjoyed this book more this time around (aside from being pretty happy to read for plot and humor, at the moment) is that I watched the National Theatre production of Jane Eyre online in April, so the characters and world of that novel were fresh in my mind in a way that they definitely weren’t when I first read The Eyre Affair. Because of that, I think I was better able to enjoy the way that the events of this book shape the plot of Jane Eyre in Thursday’s world. And all the details I loved from my first read still made me grin: pet dodos created via cloning kits, kids trading bubblegum cards with Henry Fielding characters on them instead of baseball players, Baconians proselytizing door to door, a production of Richard III that’s acted entirely by audience members and features audience participation in the style of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and more.

I definitely read The Secret Garden when I was a kid, but I’m not sure if I read A Little Princess or not: reading it now, for what may or may not have been the first time, the very beginning seemed very familiar to me, so I wonder if I started it but didn’t finish, or if I read the whole thing but I just don’t remember the experience vividly. In any case, apparently kid-lit from the 1800s onward is my go-to comfort-reading genre at the moment, and as such, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I like the descriptions of the main character’s surroundings and her rich inner life enough that I’m willing to overlook the unlikely coincidences of the plot. I mean, when the first sentence of a book is this, I’m into it:

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

The little girl is Sara Crewe, who’s seven; her mother died giving birth to her and she and her father have lived in India her whole life, but now she’s going to be educated in London. Sara is imaginative, someone who “was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to,” and while she’s not so sure about this whole going-away-to-school thing, she’s sure that “if she had plenty of books she could console herself,” since she “liked books more than anything else.”

So this is partly a school story, but once Sara’s been at school for four years, things change, and Sara has to deal with circumstances that are suddenly very different. Her imagination, kindness, and nobility of spirit turn out to serve her very well, and she manages to see beauty even where there isn’t much. I love this, where Sara is talking about what you can see from an attic:

Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to.

In a different mood, I might find this book sappy, but right now, it felt just right: once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down. If I never read this before, I’m glad I finally did, or if I read it but didn’t really remember it, I’m glad to have revisited it.

This year I’m doing a project where I read one nonfiction book per month, which is more nonfiction than I normally read. It’s been interesting to read some nonfiction books that have been lingering unread on my shelves for ages, and also interesting to explore some types of nonfiction that I don’t normally pick up. The Art of Choosing is the kind of pop science book I rarely read, and I’m not sure why. Once I got past the first chapter (which has some things in it about experiments on animals that I found distressing), I enjoyed this book a bunch, and had fun telling my boyfriend about all the psych studies I was learning about.

Basically, this book is an exploration of how people make choices, how choice-making sometimes causes us problems, and how we might approach choice-making in ways that might actually increase our happiness. Iyengar partly talks about making the kinds of choices we’re used to thinking about as choices—what to have for dinner, career choices, relationship choices—but also talks about the choices we make in the narratives we construct about our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, the way we emphasize our own agency, or don’t. And she talks about the larger cultural contexts of choice-making—how different cultural backgrounds shape different attitudes towards choice, both in terms of what level of choice-making is deemed appropriate/optimal, and in terms of what people even see as choices. (There’s a great part when she talks about having students at the same school, from two different countries/cultures, write down every choice they made the day before. One group of students includes things like brushing their teeth or snoozing/not snoozing the alarm as choices; the other group doesn’t list that kind of thing.)

I like how Iyengar talks about choice and our sense of self/identity: she talks about how there’s a common conception of identity that goes like this: “Beneath the many layers of shoulds and shouldn’ts that cover us, there lies a constant, single, true self that is just waiting to be discovered” (75). But is that necessarily true/is it necessarily helpful to frame it like that? Could we not “acknowledge that our identity itself is malleable but no less authentic for it”(101)? I like how she talks about seeing “identity as a dynamic process rather than a static object” and “finding ourselves in the evolution of choosing, not merely in the results of choice,” and seeing choice itself as “an ongoing, liberating act of creation” (110).

Of course, choice is not always great: choosing can be overwhelming, especially when there are a lot of options and we aren’t experts/don’t necessarily understand all of the differences between them. Iyengar offers some practical advice for dealing with choice overload/decision fatigue: if you’re making a lot of choices at once, start with the easy ones and work up to the harder ones; classify options to make choosing easier; consult experts or crowdsource opinions when appropriate. She also talks about cognitive biases that can affect our choices, and how to avoid being blindsided by them.

Minor quibbles: when reading about various psych studies, I sometimes found myself thinking about the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology—though I realize there are different perspectives on that (1, 2). And when reading about the ways that our choices can be influenced by advertising/priming, I found myself feeling like Iyengar was being too uncritical of consumerism. (Like: she suggests we shouldn’t worry too much/”would serve ourselves better by separating the influences that conflict with our values from the influences that are basically harmless” (175) — but I don’t know, I’d rather opt out of consumerism/advertising a bit/I don’t think it is basically harmless.) Still: this was an interesting read/maybe I should read more pop science!

For me, Normal People wasn’t immediately absorbing in the way that Conversations with Friends was—maybe partly because of the third-person narration of this book as opposed to the first-person narration of that one—but once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down, even as some of the narrative choices made me squirm. The chapters of Normal People alternate between focusing on Marianne and Connell, schoolmates from a small town in the west of Ireland who both go to Trinity in Dublin for university. Though their social lives in high school don’t overlap (by which I really mean: Connell has a social life; Marianne is an outcast) and they’re from different backgrounds (Connell is the kid of a single mother who cleans for a living; Marianne’s family has money—and Connell’s mom cleans their house) they end up becoming friends, and then end up having sex, though Connell makes a point of not wanting anyone at school to know. Their relationship ends up being an on-and-off thing that continues while they’re at Trinity; they keep miscommunicating and messing up, but they also keep finding themselves drawn to each other. The book captures the intensity of their connection really well, the way that their private interactions let them make a separate space for themselves, away from everyone else, but also how that separateness can cause problems. (Early in the book, there’s this: “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him” – and I think the narrative explores the appeal of and the problems with that.) On the subject of narrative choices that made me squirm, I’ll just say that I’m tired of the novelistic trope of female submission being tied to a traumatic family life and/or deep insecurity. But I do really like Rooney’s prose style, in passages like this:

In the afternoon it started snowing, thick gray flakes that fluttered past the windows and melted on the gravel. Everything looked and felt sensuous: the stale smell of classrooms, the tinny intercom bell that sounded between lessons, the dark austere trees that stood like apparitions around the basketball court. The slow routine work of copying out notes in different-colored pens on fresh blue-and-white lined paper. (17)

Or this:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way gray stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic. (261)

Even though I was a kid who loved books, horses, and books about horses, I somehow never read Black Beauty when I was a child. I’m pretty sure I started it and didn’t finish, and I can’t remember why: maybe I tried it when I was a little too young, or maybe I was put off by how didactic it is, or by the fact that there isn’t a central child character/narrator—it’s narrated by Black Beauty, the horse, himself. Whatever the reason I abandoned it when I first picked it up, I’m glad I got around to reading it now. It is very didactic, with lessons about being kind to animals, and giving horses enough light and exercise and not overworking them, and doing your best, and treating others as you would wish to be treated, and intervening when you see someone doing something cruel, but it’s also a sweet story: I cried four times over the course of the novel, so I clearly found it moving.

The book starts with Black Beauty talking about being a colt in the countryside, and having a near-idyllic existence there, though the tranquility of life is intruded on slightly by the violence of foxhunting. When Beauty is broken in and sold, things are good at first: he’s in a well-run stable with another horse and a pony, and though he misses his early freedom, his master takes good care of him and he enjoys being useful to his master, and appreciated for his usefulness. Things go downhill, though, when that master’s family has to leave England for his wife’s health: Beauty is sold again, and there are more difficulties at the next place he goes. As the book goes on, Beauty keeps suffering due to human carelessness or bad behavior, though there are always good people as well. We see Beauty’s life as a cab-horse and then a cart-horse, dealing with crowded London streets, and his eventual move back to the countryside. I loved the moments of high adventure in the book, like when Beauty is out on a very stormy night, or when there’s a fire, but I also liked the everyday moments of connection between horses and people, all the moments when someone feeds Beauty well, or pats him and talks kindly to him.

Though the subtitle of this book is “The Murder at Road Hill House,” and though a lot of it does focus on that particular crime (the murder of a three-year-old child in 1860), it also covers a lot of additional ground, so it’s part true-crime and part cultural criticism about detectives, detective fiction, Victorian sensation novels, privacy in the Victorian era, and more. True crime isn’t really my genre, so this wasn’t totally the book for me, though I was interested in the historical/literary elements about Victorian novels and Victorian anxieties. I also was interested in the stories of where various family members ended up, post-murder: I might be into a book just about one of the victim’s half-brothers, who ended up becoming a naturalist who worked in Australia and photographed Great Barrier Reef corals.

But anyway, right: this book proceeds chronologically from the murder onwards, looking at the crime, the initial investigations, and the further aftermath. The Mr Whicher of the title is a London detective who was called to assist with the investigation two weeks after the killing; there’s a lot about his theories (that the child was killed by his half-sister, Constance, possibly with the help of her brother, William) vs. the theories of the local police (that the child was killed by his father and the nursemaid, after the child woke in the night and saw his father in the nursemaid’s bed). There are questions about the father’s possible propensity towards extramarital affairs: his second wife (the mother of the dead child) used to be the family governess, and he may have been sexually involved with her before the death of his first wife. There are also questions about Constance’s sanity, or lack thereof: there are rumors that her mother was insane, and Victorians were big into the idea of hereditary madness, especially when it came to mothers and daughters. It seems clear from the fact that the house was locked for the night when the murder took place that the killer was someone in the house itself, but aside from the body of the dead child, there isn’t a lot of evidence: no murder weapon is found, and the doctors who examine the boy’s body can’t agree whether he was fully or partially suffocated and then had his throat cut, or whether he just had his throat cut. Not quite a spoiler: five years after the murder, someone confesses, but it’s still unclear whether or not that person actually committed the crime.

I think what I liked best about this book was all the stuff about the figure of the detective, and the tensions around that figure. There’s the comforting idea that a Victorian detective “offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos” (xii) but there’s also discomfort with the idea of a case being shaped by a detective’s hunches/suspicions, and discomfort with a detective who didn’t necessarily come from the middle classes prying into middle class family homes/lives. Overall, though, I think I definitely prefer reading about fictional crimes to reading about real ones: I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever read a true-crime book before, and I think having read this one I feel like I’d rather read some Wilkie Collins instead, if I’m in the mood for Victorian detective stories in the future.