I’ve been meaning to read this book for approximately a decade now, and am glad I finally did. On the most basic level it’s the story of two friends—Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal, who met when they served in WWII together—and their families. But it’s also about families in general, and culture and history (the theme of “roots” is a big one), and immigrant experiences and cross-cultural friendships and marriages and affairs; it’s about people growing up and England changing over time. It’s about familial anxieties and millennial anxieties and class anxieties. It’s sprawling and funny and really satisfyingly constructed: images and phrases reappear, sometimes taking on different connotations as the book progresses, but it manages to work, it manages not to feel gimmicky. The book spans decades, jumps back and forth in time, and also shifts focus from character to character, but this also works: multiplicity (of cultures, of interpretations of history, of beliefs) is so central to the book, so it makes sense to have multiple focal points for the narrative, too.

And Smith’s style is a delight, funny and sharp. I loved this moment early in the book, when Archie is miserable about his recent divorce and Samad tells him to forget about it and about his ex-wife: “And you? You have picked up the wrong life in the cloakroom and you must return it” (11). Also early in the book, there’s this, about the woman who ends up being Archie’s second wife: “A typical teenage female panopticon, she knew everything there was to know about Ryan Topps long before they ever spoke” (24). “Typical teenage female panopticon”! What a phrase.

Elsewhere: if you want to read more about this book (and if you haven’t read it and want to know more about the plot), Michiko Kakutani reviewed it in 2000 and called it “a big, splashy, populous production reminiscent of books by Dickens and Salman Rushdie with a nod to indie movies like ”My Beautiful Laundrette,” a novel that’s not afraid to tackle large, unwieldy themes.” Indeed!

Despite its (fairly frequent) snarkiness, and despite the fact that several sections read like strings of facts or anecdotes connected only loosely, I did enjoy this book, which is as much about Nicholson’s own walking experiences and philosophy as it is about, as the subtitle puts it, “The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism.” It’s not my favorite book about walking—that’s still Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, which I wrote about here—but it was often interesting and full of things I didn’t know. Sometimes this was less than ideal—a section on words/expressions for walking in different languages was full of information but it felt mostly like surface tidbits that I was never going to remember, though it was fun to learn that the Dutch have a verb, “ijsberen, which means pacing to and fro (ijsbeer being the Dutch word for polar bear)” (24). The whole chapter on walking in movies and music felt mostly like a recitation of song titles and song lyrics and movie moments, and I felt like Nicholson didn’t have that much to actually say about his subject matter here. And once in a while, Nicholson’s comments on other people’s approaches to walking felt like they passed from snark to meanness. For example: I agree with Nicholson’s point that many people who say they love “walking in nature” really mean they love “to walk in managed nature” (177), but he’s pretty snippy about the folks he calls New Agers. Like when he writes this: “Here’s a blog entry from Stephen Altschuler, who calls himself The Mindful Hiker, which is also the title of a book he wrote: “Walking is not anything separate from life,” he bleats.” (175). Ouch.

But other chapters were more interesting: I liked the chapter about walking in LA: the personal experience of the city combined with the historical facts of the city; walking as remedy for melancholy for Nicholson and then Nicholson’s walks down LA streets I’ve never seen, through a whole city I’ve only ever seen on TV and in the movies, to places where Raymond Chandler lived, or to places that feature in his Philip Marlowe novels. I liked reading about walking artists and eccentrics, like Mudman (the artist Kim Jones, coated in mud and wearing a sculpture of wood), Steve Gough (who twice walked from Land’s End to John o’ Groats—naked), the Old Leatherman (who walked a 300-mile circuit in CT and NY for 30 years in the mid/late 1800s), Peace Pilgrim, and of course, Richard Long, whose work I’m always happy to read about. And Captain Barclay, whom I’d never heard of, who did a “thousand-hour” walk, in which he walked a mile in each of one thousand successive hours in June-July 1809. (Nicholson decided to do his own small imitation of Barclay, walking fifteen miles in fifteen hours, one mile in each hour. Walking fifteen miles is easy enough, Nicholson notes: it’s the planning and resting of this particular kind of walk that’s the challenge of it.)

I liked, too, the chapters on London and New York, excellent walking cities where I have my own favorite routes and walking-places. The London chapter has bits of Thomas De Quincey, a Blitz-centered walking tour near St. Paul’s, and a visit with Iain Sinclair, plus Nicholson’s own London walking, including a day in 2006 when he decided to make six round trips along Oxford Street. The New York chapter has a lot in it about psychogeography—a fair bit of the chapter is devoted to the Conflux festival, though Nicholson was less satisfied by his Conflux experiences than I’ve been by mine.

New York Review Books Reading Week, November 7-13, 2010

When I saw Carol’s post about NYRB Reading Week, hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons, I thought it might be a good time to read Witch Grass, which is a New York Review Book that also happens to be on my languishing TBR Challenge list. The price-sticker on the back of my copy of this book says I bought it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which led me to guess that it was probably purchased during the summer of 2003, when I was living in Cambridge, MA, and interning at Circlet Press. Which means that I’d owned this book for a good seven years without having read it. I opened it and found a small piece of paper with the following notes in bright turquoise marker: “train whistle” and “conductor” and “Haskell quote.” The other side, written in red pen and inspired by Megan’s sense/object-focused list-project that she was doing at the time says: “one perfect peach (juice dripping down my palms), two pigeons in the lobby of the train station, green and purple fields seen from train windows, hideous hotel lobby art, flags rippling in the breeze, the gleam of teak in sunlight, perfectly coiled rope on the docks, fold-down wooden table, familiar blue sleeping bag.” All of which plus my trusty book list tells me it was August 2003, I was reading (and loving) I Am Not Jackson Pollock, and I was spending the weekend on my dad’s sailboat. I’m not sure about the hotel lobby, though my guess is that my dad took me out to brunch at the hotel just off the highway by his office. But enough about twenty-one-year-old me. On to Witch Grass.

It starts with the evening rush hour, the usual stream of people heading from banks and offices to the train; among them is an observer, a person who doesn’t work, but who sits at a café at this time of the day, to watch. The people are all the same to the observer, each a silhouette in a sea of silhouettes, but then one becomes familiar over the course of several days. We see the silhouette, the man, go home; we see his wife, his stepson, his cat, the unfinished house they live in, out in the suburbs (the money ran out). The observer follows the man one day; another man, by chance, follows his wife. It’s strange and unsettling but also funny, a series of chance encounters and crossing of paths. And I like the style of Queneau’s writing, the unexpected images and turns of phrase, like the moment when, right at the start of the book, the observer opens his eyes “just as the silhouette was being pocketed by the metro, and disappearing” (5). Or this: “Saturnin taught Etienne how to work the elevator, and the two latter immediately took flight toward the upper floors of the uninhabited apartment house” (106).

I like, too, the everyday-ness of the start of the book: routines and their disruption, the daily commute and those days when everyone on the train seems to be getting on one another’s nerves more than usual, people eavesdropping, people staring, people lost in thought. “Such is life, such is life, such is life,” our original silhouette, whose name turns out to be Etienne Marcel, repeats to himself one day, and of course it’s apt (36). There are moments of humor and absurdity: a woman who, having seen an accident from a table in a certain café, keeps going back in hopes of seeing another one. There are moments, too, of offhand cruelty, of cold-heartedness, things that rather made me squirm.

As the book goes on, Etienne has a philosophical awakening/crisis: he feels he’s never existed before (though he’s never been aware of it) but now, suddenly, he does; this matches with the sense that the observer (whose name is Pierre Le Grand), has, the sense that Etienne is filling out, becoming three-dimensional. And as the book goes on, Etienne keeps on thinking, which is new for him. The philosophical parts of the book (including some metafictional moments) are pretty great and pretty hilarious, like Etienne going off about how he doesn’t know anything, how you can’t know anything, how he doesn’t even know who he himself is, how he can’t even say if the verb “to be” has any meaning at all. To which Pierre, deadpan, replies: “You’ve made great progress in metaphysics” (156). Meanwhile, things keep on getting weirder and funnier, though with bits of sadness, too, but mostly humor: everyone meddling and manipulating and misjudging one another, with intrigues and double-dealings and wild goose chases centered around, among other things, an old junk dealer who lives in a shack by the railway. I think that Barbara Wright, in her introduction to this novel, sums it up better than I could: “How it is—that is what Queneau, in his own way, is always describing. How life is” (xii).

Despite the title, and despite the fact that much of this book tells the story of how the weekend as we know it came into being, Waiting for the Weekend isn’t just about Saturday and Sunday and how they got that way. It also examines larger questions of leisure: what is leisure, anyhow? And how do work and leisure and recreation and play interrelate? To start with an answer: leisure, as Rybczynski defines it, is not “an antidote to work”—that would be recreation, which “carries with it a sense of necessity and purpose” (p 224). Leisure, following the ideas of GK Chesterton, is the freedom to do nothing, but above all the freedom to think and to reflect. So if leisure is the freedom to do nothing, where does leisure fit into the modern weekend, the regularly-scheduled two-day break many of us have, into which we often try to cram as many activities as possible? This is something Rybczynski touches on but doesn’t really answer—the answer being, I guess, that there’s room for leisure if you make room for leisure, though some don’t: “the weekend has imposed a rigid schedule on our free time, which can result in a sense of urgency (“soon it will be Monday”) that is at odds with relaxation” (222). Relatedly, as work becomes less skilled and more service-oriented or clerical, we we end up in a situation where “for many, weekend free time has become not a chance to escape work but a chance to create work that is more meaningful–to work at recreation–in order to realize the personal satisfactions that the workplace no longer offers” (225).

In writing about what leisure is and how free time came to be parceled out into Saturdays and Sundays, Rybczynski writes a lot about the history of the week and the history of the weekend, all of which is really interesting precisely because it’s the sort of thing that many tend to take for granted. As Rybczynski puts it: “Because my free time was personally enjoyed, I imagined that it was personally regulated, but this was not quite so. True, I did what I thought I wanted, but certainly not when I wanted; I dutifully arranged my recreations to fall in step with the regularly scheduled weekend intermissions that were accorded me. Not that I felt this was an imposition. It was done so automatically, it seemed so normal, that I never gave the presence of the weekend a second thought—it was simply the way life was” (10). But this isn’t the way life has always been. For one thing, the seven-day week isn’t the only way that we could divide our time: unlike the year or the month or the day, the week has no astronomical significance. And there were plenty of ancient calendars that had repeating periods of something other than seven days. The ancient Egyptian calendar had ten-day periods related to the fact that the stars the Egyptians used for night-time timekeeping changed at ten-day intervals. The Athenians had ten-day divisions in their calendar as well. The Romans had special days with irregular spacing— the first of the month, the fifth or seventh of the month, and the thirteenth or fifteenth of the month. The Chinese calendar involved a 60-day repeating period, and so on through a number of other times and places. By the time of the Julian calendar, Jews had long used a seven-day calendar, but its origin isn’t known. And the seven-day week wasn’t an original feature of the Julian calendar, but it was adopted not that long after. Because there isn’t any written record of a reason for its adoption (no edict from the Roman emperor, no debate among scholars), the guess is that the seven-day week was adopted as a matter of superstition, because the ancients saw seven moving “planets” in the sky and assigned each one to a day, which resulted in a seven-day cycle.

From the origins of the week, Rybczynski talks about different kinds of special days, days on which certain activities—including but not limited to work—are proscribed: a concept that has recurred in cultures and places from ancient Egypt to Judaism to the South Seas—and then talks about the idea of Sunday as taking something from this sort of “tabooed” day, but also being a celebratory holy day, more or less celebratory in different cultures at different times. So how did the special day of Sunday (for British Christians) turn into the weekend? Partly, it was due to prosperity. Of the 18th century, Rybczynski writes: “For the first time in their lives, many workers earned more than survival wages. Now they had choices: they could buy goods or leisure. They could work more and earn more, or they could forgo the extra wages and enjoy more free time instead. Most chose the latter course. This was especially true for the highly paid skilled workers, who had the most economic freedom, but even general laborers, who were employed at day rates, had a choice in the matter” (112). He goes on to note that “Whenever people had a choice in the matter, however, work was characterized by an irregular mixture of days on and days off” (113). Over time, though, there emerged a pattern of “keeping Saint Monday,” i.e. not working on Mondays (in part to recover from Sunday drinking), a pattern that was stronger in some trades than others. At the same time, railway travel was becoming more widespread, and short getaways by train were being marketed to the public. This, combined with opposition to the “Saint Monday” custom and the Sunday drinking that went with it, led to a push for Saturday to be made a half-holiday in Britain. The Saturday half-holiday familiar in Britain was adopted, later, by the US: a sentence like this was surprising to me because I’d had no idea that office-workers used to work on Saturdays: “By the 1930s, most offices in New York City closed their doors at noon on Saturday” (p 135). And from there, the conceptual jump to a full weekend isn’t long.

After focusing mainly on the UK and the US at first, Rybczynski shifts the discussion to the adoption of the two-day weekend elsewhere, including Solidarity-era Poland, Fascist Italy, and Japan. He talks, too, about pastimes and about weekend “retreats,” country campgrounds/trailer parks where working-class families go for the weekend in the summer, and the long heritage of the idea of an escape from the city—from Pliny’s countryside villas to Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. These last chapters sometimes feel like they’re not so well-connected to the ones that came before, but that’s a small criticism for a book that, on the whole, is pretty pleasing.

(Hey, look, this is the fifth book I’ve finished from my list for Emily’s Attacking the TBR Tome Challenge!)

It’s been a while since I picked up any of the books I picked for Emily’s Attacking the TBR Tome Challenge—I’ve only read three books from my list so far, and it’s already August! But after reading Fire and Hemlock I was in the mood for another novel, specifically another novel with a quirky romance aspect and The Time Traveler’s Wife seemed to fit the bill.

I feel like this is one of those books everyone but me read several years ago, and even if you haven’t read it, you probably know the basics of the plot: Henry travels through time; Clare doesn’t. Clare waits. This is both very unusual and not so unusual, as Clare notes in the prologue:

Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. (VII)

The narrative, like Henry, jumps back and forth in time, and the story is told sometimes by Henry and sometimes by Clare, which works nicely: you get the perspective of each, and you also get a sense of how odd their situation is: with Clare, as a child, you see Henry in his 30s; when Henry, at age 28, is talking to Clare, you know that she’s aware of a whole set of shared experiences that this Henry hasn’t had yet. The structure of the book (plus of course the plot!) makes you think about time itself, about the self moving through time, about your future self that doesn’t exist yet, or perhaps does. It makes you think about whether you can talk about a future self with any certainty, or whether you don’t, rather, have an array of possible future selves that might or might not end up ever existing. And it was interesting to compare Niffenegger’s rules-of-time-travel to, say, Connie Willis’s: in Niffenegger’s books, it’s not a problem for a time traveler to meet his earlier self, to be in the same place/time twice, and there isn’t too much worry about causing problems or paradoxes: things mostly just happen the way they will happen, and that is that. This is all interesting stuff, and once I got used to the dialogue (which at first seemed stilted, too disconnected from the more lyrical descriptive passages), the first half of the book was really compelling: delicious weekend reading that I seriously did not want to put down. (Though I suppose in part that’s a testament to how I feel about reading generally at the moment: it’s making me happy, it’s my quiet-time and my alone-time and my thing-that-I-write-about and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than cleaning out the fridge or putting away the clean laundry or cooking in 90-degree-heat. So, um, I am indulging myself, and reading a whole lot.)

Speaking of reading: I like how readerly this book is, how Henry is a librarian who counts “a mystery novel in bed” among his pleasures, how Claire, entering the Newberry Library for the first time, talks about her “Christmas-morning sense of the library as a big box full of beautiful books,” how Henry notes that his apartment “is basically a couch, an armchair, and about four thousand books,” how Clare, on the morning after their “first date,” looks at his bookshelves, lists out authors and titles (X, 3, 15).

But—and I guess, in part, this is the trouble of reading a book like this several years after everyone else has read it—all through that first half I kept feeling slightly squirmy, like: “this gets sad, right? when does it get sad? is it going to be OK when it gets sad or is it going to feel sappy and emotionally manipulative and annoying?” Which is a worry I would say I have moderately often when reading fiction, and am not sure how to articulate. What makes a sad ending moving in a way that feels “honest” or “true” (whatever those things mean; I’m not sure those are even the right terms), and what makes a sad ending feel like a manipulation or a betrayal? I don’t know, but I am pretty sure I have a strong preference for ambiguous or hopeful or happy endings, rather than sad ones.

So yes: this book had me worried, and the end did indeed feel unsatisfying, but even so, there were things in the second half of the book that I liked, things like this:

The compelling thing about making art—or making anything, I suppose—is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there, a thing, a substance in a world of substances. Circe, Nimbue, Artemis, Athena, all the old sorceresses: they must have known the feeling as they transformed mere men into fabulous creatures, stole the secrets of the magicians, disposed armies: ah, look, there it is, the new thing. Call it a swine, a war, a laurel tree. Call it art. The magic I can make is small magic now, deferred magic. Every day I work, but nothing ever materializes. I feel like Penelope, weaving and unweaving (284).

I bought this book in a Whole Foods in London a few years ago, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it ’til now. I love Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries for the really vivid and satisfyingly descriptive way he writes about food. This book has some of that, like when, at the very beginning, he describes a French stew “of cubed beef that has simmered since breakfast with shallots, strips of unsmoked bacon, rosemary and mushrooms in an inky-violet red wine” (p 2). Mmm. But there is also a lot of humor/British self-deprecation: this is a book about British food, good and bad: British stew, he says, is honest and simple; it “tastes of nothing but itself,” though the broth “is the colour of washing-up water and smells of old people” (p 1, p 3).

Eating for England is a collection of vignettes, and it isn’t organized by theme, which is refreshing. It’s easy to pick up and put down (though I also found myself reading it in longer stretches), and I didn’t mind jumping from black pudding to cake, from “lunch on a bench” to afternoon tea, the latter of which Slater says “may be the only meal we take that is purely and utterly for pleasure,” and is “something that exists purely to make us feel good about life” (p 21). Some of the vignettes are better than others: I could have done without the sections on annoying-types-one-may-find-in-food-related-endeavours (“the kitchen fusspot,” “the naked cook,” which is to say a guy who’s newly taken up cooking and follows all the latest trends, “the economical cook,” “the voucher queen,” etc.) Also, the book could’ve done with some better fact-checking/editing: one section refers to “Frances and Bertha Upton” and their book about “Two Dutch Dolls,” but I believe that should be Florence and Bertha Upton, and there’s a bit of repetition: two sections talk about how the mouthfeel of cheap chocolate is comforting (in almost the same words), and two sections talk about how Brits are messy when eating out of doors, as opposed to sexy.

But it was fun to read about British food-cultural things I didn’t know about (Berni Inn restaurants, the fact that “no one has ever heard of a ‘lunch lady’ looking after school meals”—apparently they are “dinner ladies” (p 193), etc.) And when Slater is really writing about food, about color/texture/taste and not just about whatever a given food or food-related custom culturally signifies, this book is really pleasing. I love his descriptions of vegetables from farmers markets, the color and variety of them. And the way he talks about Welsh Rarebit, which I love, makes me want to go out to Sweet Melissa and order some right this second (or better: to make some at home). To wit: “Welsh rarebit is sometimes thought of as just cheese on toast, which is what people call it when they want to patronise it. The point is that a rarebit contains beer and mustard (you allow the grated cheese to melt into the beer in a saucepan), which makes a layer the texture of silk to sit on top of your toast” (p 206). Also pleasing are the sections that center on Slater’s own life/memories: the time his father bought a coffee percolator that got used once then relegated to a box in the garage, the first time he got taken out to a restaurant by his parents. The good parts of this book make me want to dig out my copy of The Kitchen Diaries again, and also make me want to read Toast.

I thought I was in the mood for something other than a kids’ book, but I was, perhaps, wrong. I just moved on Sunday: not far, just four blocks, from one apartment to another within the same neighborhood. As moves go, in the grand scheme of moving possibilities, it was an easy one. But it’s the first time I’ve moved since I graduated college, and I didn’t realize quite how much more work it is to pack/move a whole apartment (pantry! large quantities of dishes! pots and pans! cast-iron skillet!) than it is to pack/move a single room’s worth of stuff. So: I have been a bit frazzled, and now I’m mostly unfrazzled but am pretty busy with the unpacking and deciding where everything goes and settling in, and I just wanted a nice easy read, which this is.

The Great Brain is set in Utah in 1896 (the main characters are not Mormon but lots of their neighbors are), and centers around Tom D. Fitzgerald, who is ten years old and is always talking about his “great brain” and how it’s going to make him a millionaire. The story’s narrated by JD, Tom’s younger brother, and it’s sweet, though at first I found it hard to get into. The characters’ speech often seemed stilted, like the author was cutting down on his use of contractions in order to make things sound more old-fashioned, but it just ended up sounding unnatural. But once I got past that and into the story, I enjoyed it well enough. Tom is rather Tom Sawyer-ish – not so much in the laziness department (though sometimes that!) but definitely in the scheming-to-get-things-he-wants department: in the first chapter, he decides to send his brother out to the street with a sign and a cowbell as a barker, with the idea that they’ll charge other kids in town a penny each to come see the new indoor toilet their dad’s just installed, which is the first indoor toilet the town has. But he’s not entirely selfish: he saves the day when two local kids get lost in a cave, befriends a Greek kid who gets beat up by everyone else, and teaches a kid with a peg leg how to run and play again.

The historical details of this book are often pleasing: I liked the description of the general store (a branch of the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution), and the mention of kids playing games like Heavy Heavy Hangs Over Your Head (I had to look that one up), and chaw-raw-beef (had to look that up too) and color-coded quarantine signs hanging on houses where kids have the mumps or measles. One semi-complaint: the almost complete lack of girls in this book! There are grown-up women, there’s a girl at school who gets a frog put in her desk, there are two girls playing hopscotch … and that’s it! I guess I can’t complain too much: lots of the books I read as a kid didn’t have many boys in them, and this is the same but with the focus on a different gender. Still: while this book was sweet, I don’t think I’ll be reading any of the other books in this series.

I just finished The Fugitive, and it was good, and I am glad to be done with it. The “Sojourn in Venice” section was of course really pleasing, water and light and history and beauty and art, a brief boring digression on politics/diplomacy aside. There’s a surprise telegram (with an added twist) that makes our narrator realize he’s finally over Albertine; there’s the satisfaction of the narrator finally getting to go to Venice after dreaming about it for years; there’s the stupidity of the tantrum he throws on the day he and his mother leave.

But mostly I liked the descriptions: there’s a sentence about “The Patriarch of Grado exorcising a demoniac” that made me go look it up—Proust writes of “the marvellous rose-pink and violet sky” of the painting, “the tall encrusted chimneys silhouetted against it, their flared stacks, blossoming like red tulips” (876). And there’s this whole great passage, too:

After dinner, I went out alone, into the heart of the enchanted city where I found myself in the middle of strange purlieus like a character in the Arabian Nights. It was very seldom that, in the course of my wanderings, I did not come across some strange and spacious piazza of which no guidebook, no tourist had ever told me. I had plunged into a network of little alleys, or calli. In the evening, with their high bell-mouthed chimneys on which the sun throws the brightest pinks, the clearest reds, it is a whole garden blossoming above the houses, its shades so various that you would have said it was the garden of some tulip lover of Delft or Haarlem, planted on top of the town. Moreover, the extreme proximity of the houses made of every casement a frame from which a day-dreaming cook gazed out, or in which a seated girl was having her hair combed by an old woman whose face in the dark looked like a witch’s—made of each humble quiet house, so close because of the narrowness of the calli, a display of a hundred Dutch paintings placed side by side. (881)

After all this, the last section of the book (“New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup”) struck me as less pleasing: marriages and news of the social world and the realization that Saint-Loup has more in common with his uncle, after all, than what one might have thought. Not that it was boring, but it wasn’t Venice.

Also, as I mentioned when I finished The Captive: I am ready for a literary change of scenery. I first picked up The Captive & The Fugitive back at the end of September, though I put it down in favor of a whole string of library books that I either just had to put on hold because they were new and exciting (Al Capone Shines My Shoes, The Magicians, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma) or that I stumbled across in the new books section or by word of mouth and wanted to read (The Coral Thief, Bird Eating Bird).

I started reading The Captive & The Fugitive again in earnest in late December, and have been reading it ever since, all 957 pages of it (including the notes, addenda, and synopsis, because yes, I read them), with occasional breaks to read the New Yorker (though at present I’m two issues behind—shhh, don’t tell!). I have enjoyed being immersed in the world of this book, in Paris and the changing light and the changing weather and the street-noises and the love and sorrow. But now? Now I want to read something short and sweet. Top contenders at the moment are mostly kids’ books: The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, or The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, or The Light Princess by George MacDonald, or Summer Term at St. Clare’s by Enid Blyton—all of which are paperbacks that I found on the sidewalk in my neighborhood (oh Park Slope literary castaways, I love you so!).

(All page numbers in the Proustian portion of this post are from the Modern Library paperback edition of The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright)

TBR Challenge

December 1st, 2009

I read about Emily’s Attacking the TBR Tome Challenge over on Of Books and Bicycles, and it seems like a useful thing for me, though I suspect I am not going to participate in the not-buying-new-books part of it. These days most of my book acquisition isn’t actually purchasing books, anyhow: mostly, it’s picking up books from the sidewalk (I live in a bookish neighborhood!) or from the kitchen at work (I work in publishing, with other bookish people!). But I have been buying the Proust books as I slowly read my way through them, and want to continue to do so.

So here we go: 20 books I currently own that I aim to read by December 31, 2010, not necessarily in this order!

  1. The Captive & The Fugitive by Marcel Proust, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin: I’ve picked this one up and put it down a few times but want to pick it up again and get back in the Proustian mood!
  2. Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma: seems like smart nonfiction; I like smart nonfiction.
  3. Waiting for the Weekend by Witold Rybczynski: ditto the above
  4. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald: I think I bought this for school but only read part of it. But I think I liked it.
  5. Eating for England by Nigel Slater: picked this up when I was in England for work last year, but haven’t read it yet. It is about food and the UK and seems light and fun.
  6. White Teeth by Zadie Smith: seems like everyone else has read it already!
  7. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: ditto the above
  8. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal: because I haven’t read any Stendhal.
  9. The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald : because I never read any of the Great Brain books as a kid, and should have.
  10. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter: because I’ve never read any Angela Carter.
  11. Elegy for Iris by John Bayley: I bought this when Iris, the movie, came out, but sadly, didn’t read it.
  12. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg: do I lose queer points for not having read this yet?
  13. Seeing Through Places by Mary Gordon: I think I read this in college but I sure don’t remember it. I think I kept it because it was good. I’d like to find out!
  14. The Green and Burning Tree by Eleanor Cameron: I’m excited for this—it’s all about children’s literature—though it will surely just add a bunch of children’s books to the list of books I want to read!
  15. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman: I bought this in college but never read it; Megan read it over the summer and said it was really good.
  16. The Uses of Literature by Italo Calvino: mm Calvino. I bought this in college but never read it.
  17. Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf: mm Woolf. I bought this for a college class on autobiographical writing that I ended up dropping; I kept the books because it was a good reading list, but I’ve never gotten to this one.
  18. The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson: mm walking. I loved Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit and have heard this is another satisfying walking book.
  19. Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau: when I first bought this I knew nothing about Oulipo but thought I’d like it. Now I know a little more about Oulipo and still think I’ll like it.
  20. How to Be an Explorer of the World by Keri Smith: I got this for Christmas last year and should have read it by now! This one might actually be tied with Proust for the one of these I plan on reading first—I think this book will be a good start to 2010. If you are not familiar with Keri Smith, go look at her blog and prepare to smile.

    and a bonus number 21…

  21. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, because Josh said I’d like it.

We shall see how this goes, as I’m not normally very list-directed in my reading habits, which is of course why I end up owning a bunch of books I haven’t read yet.