Meeting Helene Hanff

Wayne Smart, an Australian living in Dubai, posted this memory of his encounters with Helene Hanff to the Fans of Helene Hanff Facebook Group. I thought it was so lovely I wanted to share it with a broader audience and I knew that regulars of Hogglestock would enjoy reading it. I’ve posted it in total with Wayne’s permission.

I became acquainted with Helene Hanff when I first saw the movie 84, Charing Cross Road in the mid 80’s. I subsequently went about reading every book of hers that I could get my hands on.

As a university student in Australia at the time, all I wanted to do was visit NYC (something I have done more than a dozen times since). Helene’s descriptions of NYC made me long to go.

After reading 84, Charing Cross Road several times, I decided to write to Helene. Problem was, I didn’t know where to get her address. (This was long before the internet). One night after a few gin and tonics, I decided to see if her phone number was listed. I decided to CALL her!
I called the “International Directory” number and asked for NYC listings – there was only one H Hanff listed in NYC – I got the number and then dialed.

A very friendly voice answered- I explained I was a fan – and that I was calling from Australia. Helene then exclaimed: “THIS MUST BE COSTING YOU A FORTUNE – HANG UP AND WRITE TO ME!!”….. I explained that I didn’t know her address. She laughed loudly and asked if I had a copy of 84. I said I did, and she said her address was printed on the top of every second page for the entire last part of the book (It was a book of letters!).

I wrote to her in the late 80’s, and always received a lovely handwritten reply on a personalised post card.

In 1991 I visited NYC for the first time. I called Helene, and we met at Rumpelmayers on Central Park South – (long gone now) for coffee. It was the most delightful hour. She was gracious, and regaled me with many stories. We shared a love for not only books, but also classical music.

I continued to write to Helene throughout the 90’s, and in January 1997 whilst visiting NYC, I went up to 72nd Street to leave flowers with the doorman. He told me Helene was very sick and that I should go up and deliver the flowers myself, as she would like company. He said I would find the door open – and he called her to announce me.

When I arrived up at her apartment, Helene was sitting on a couch near the window looking out towards 2nd Ave. She was obviously very sick – she appeared not very mobile. She asked me to fetch her some drinking water. I arranged the flowers. We chatted. She invited me to go into the alcove at the side of the apartment where there was a huge bookshelf. She said “go ahead – take down some books – touch them – they have brought me so much joy”. The original Marks and Co sign from the shop in London was on the top bookshelf.

A few months later, in April 1997, a friend faxed me Helene’s obituary from the NY Times. The headline was: “Helene Hanff, Wry Epistler Of ’84 Charing,’ Dies at 80”.

Memories I will always cherish – and sustained by my occasional re-readings of her wonderful books.

Hanff and Anne Bancroft during the filming of 84, Charing Cross Road–for most of us, the introduction to Hanff and her wonderful world.

My own private ephemera

Today I opened up a cabinet in my library and rediscovered all sorts of things I forgot I had. When I first set-up my new shelves a few years ago, I didn’t know what to do with various things that didn’t fit in with my general organizational scheme so they got chucked (carefully) into a cabinet. The only problem is, out of sight, out of mind. On the other hand that made for a rather fun Saturday morning having a good fossick through the contents.

So let’s have a look…

The main theme of this cabinet is really simply overflow. Even though there are some odds and ends in here, many of these books are things I would read, but I simply ran out of room on my shelves. They ended up in here mainly because they were too fine the be reading copies and so did not need to be easily accessible.
When I mentioned once that I wanted to find the Mapp and Lucia books in similar editions John ran with that and surprised me at Christmas with this Folio Society boxed set. They are lovely, but they take up a lot of darn room.
Mapp (L) and Lucia (R) floating away on flood waters on an upturned kitchen table.
And speaking of boxed sets, this Bill Amberg set from Penguin was a special edition from their 75th anniversary, I think. Another gift from John.
I’ve had these for about 10 years and only took the shrink wrap off of one of them.
Amberg is a leather goods maker and these books are packed in tissue like a fine pair of shoes or handbag.
The leather is buttery smooth and the attached luggage tag can also serve as a bookmark.
Out of the six books, this was the only one I had never read which is why I took it out of the shrink wrap.
A limited edition Main Street illustrated and signed by Grant Wood.
I include the bookmark from the bookseller because he went above and beyond. I’ve never been to The Captain’s Bookshelf but John was in there mentioning to the owner the kinds of things I liked. The owner said that he had just the thing, left the shop, went home home, got this book, and brought it back for John to buy.
Grant Wood was the artist who painted the famous American Gothic. He captures Lewis’s characters perfectly.
Small town Minnesota ‘slum’.

This boxed set isn’t particularly valuable, but it is in pristine shape. I already own an unboxed set of Faber editions that live on my shelves, but when Nonsuch Book and I were on one of our book hunts I saw this and couldn’t pass it up.
A bunch of little things that would have have kind of disappeared amongst all the bigger books if I had included them on the shelves.
Some bona fide ephemera. If I wasn’t careful I could find myself collecting ephemera. Who doesn’t love old pieces of paper?
In this case, two pamphlets from 1964 and 1968 that were issued by the Philadelphia Free Library to aid patrons in finding books they may like. I bought these at a really lovely antiquarian bookstore Wickhegan Old Books in Northeast Harbor, Maine, right near Acadia National Park. I really wanted to buy something there but their stock was so fine and expensive, I had to limit myself to some pamphlets.
Lots of wonderful exhibition catalogs that would have gotten lost among the shuffle of the art books.
I came across this artist when I saw a work he was commissioned to do for a federal courthouse in Davenport, IA.
Xiaoze Xie specializes in photo-realist paintings of books and other printed matter. Certainly a subject after my own heart.
Information graphics with a twist by Matthew Vescovo. I believe the cover image is titled ‘Dark and Curly’.
‘Cats are not Dogs’
I doubt I will ever read Canterbury Tales, but John and I do really like Rockwell Kent.

A bit of a memoir (I think) of Rockwell Kent’s time in upstate New York. So far I have only looked at the pictures.

This makes me think that Kent and Nevil Shute should have teamed up to create some illustrated editions of Shute’s work.

No way can I get rid of this. I even have a print out of the sale prices for all of the lots.

The central thesis of my thesis for my first Master’s degree still holds up but could use an update. Who wouldn’t want a copy of this on their shelves? Turns out, me.

In 79 years I’ll be finished

My reading pace has slowed down a tiny bit this month, but given it was the shortest month of the year, 10 books read is not too bad. Not only am I making good progress toward my  A Century of Books Challenge but I don’t feel even remotely tempted to read anything that is not already on my TBR shelves. Putting them all in one spot and in chron order is really paying off.

The titles read this month are not, however, in chron order, they are in order of how much I liked them, with my favorite at the top and so on.

The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
I bought this purely because of how great the British Library Crime Classics covers are. I’m not big on mysteries but I couldn’t resist. The nod on the cover to air travel gave this one an edge when determining which of the BLCCs to buy. The book did not disappoint on so many levels. It starts off with an elderly man dying on the 12:30 flight from Croydon to France. The action moves from the circumstances surrounding his death to following the relative who murdered him. I loved all of the detail surrounding the air travel itself, the business circumstances that led to the murder motive, the great pains the murderer took to go undetected, and then what happens as the net starts to gather around him. I have a feeling that others may not find all of that detail fascinating but I love it. Chapters and chapters about how the murderer’s business is failing. Like a cross between Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and Nevil Shute. Loved it.

Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
I fear I am becoming more and more of a nostalgia queen. If this 1976 spy thriller had been written in 2016, I’m not sure I would have cared about it. As it turns out I loved it. A Soviet/East German spy living in Washington, D.C., opens a tale of spy vs. spy that ends up in the French Riviera. It wasn’t all secret codes and eavesdropping, MacInnes writes very smart books that immerses one and explain things without being obvious. There’s nothing flashy about her writing or content. Imagine if Ward Just wrote spy novels. (I know, you haven’t read Ward Just so you have no idea what I mean–so maybe it is time you read some Ward Just. Probably easier to find than Helen MacInnes.)

Recovering by May Sarton
One of May Sarton’s calming, beautiful journals. This one written when she was about 67 and recovering both from a mastectomy and the poor reception of her novel A Reckoning. Like her other journals this one can be quite cozy with plenty about gardening, her pets, dinners with friends,  her process, etc., but there is plenty that isn’t cozy including depression exacerbated by professional woes and loneliness. One of the saddest things ever comes in the early pages of the journal when Sarton describes what turned out to be a very unsuccessful Christmas. Her long term partner’s Christmas visit from the nursing home is cut short because her dementia has reached the point where she no longer seems to be aware of Sarton and Sarton finds it nearly impossible to take care of her. As I read about Sarton’s concerns over the viability of her being able to make enough money to live on, all I could think was “Hang in there, in about five years you are going to write one of my favorite books of all time.” (The Magnificent Spinster)

Marazan by Nevil Shute
This was Shute’s first published novel. And he wrote it while working full-time as an engineer on Britain’s airship program. True to Shute’s form, Marazan is not without its aeronautical and nautical scenarios, but this time the crisis has to do with a murder and illegal drug importation into England. A bit of racist language to be overlooked and a rather simple minded–very 1926–understanding of drug interdiction don’t diminish the storytelling. Having read all but three of Shute’s novels, what surprises me about Marazan (and his novel Most Secret), is that Shute seems to prize doing what his characters think is right over what is legal. I’m not sure I’ve picked that up in his other work. I guess I am such a rulesy kind of person that I generally prize what’s legal over what is right.

My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
I’ve now read all but O’Farrell’s latest novel. This one, from 2002 is O’Farrell’s second novel and one that I have never seen in the U.S. so kudos to Heywood Hill’s Year of Books subscription for finding me something I didn’t know I needed. It doesn’t live up to any of O’Farrell’s other novels but it is still a decent read. Lily has moved in with Marcus an architect she has quickly fallen in love with. He seems to be full of secrets including the fate of his previous girlfriend. He is a grade-A creep and many moments in this book had me thinking of all the nefarious male behavior being presented in recent days by the #MeToo phenomenon. It feels like a call out of how awful men can be and how much women have been socialized to put up with it–but I don’t think that was O’Farrell’s point, I think it more just a sign of the times. Or maybe it was the point and women have been purposely making that point for a hundred years, but I’ve just considered it to be part of the background. That’s depressing.

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
Young woman sharing a flat with two people she knew from university. I wanted to like it and there many moments when I did like it, but overall I wasn’t a big fan. I really enjoyed Outline, I have even read it twice since it came out in 2014, so I was surprised this one didn’t work out better for me. I believe it was her first novel. It was published 21 years earlier than Outline so maybe I prefer late Cusk. In some ways it made me think it could have been an edgier Anita Brookner who was writing a novel a year at this time. I think her writing style comes close. It certainly has an old fashion feel to it. I should note that I started this one as an audio book but I was somewhat unreasonably annoyed by the narrator’s voice so I switched over to my print copy.

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
I am beginning to think I may not like Spark as much I thought  I did. From the 1972 New York Times review by Lawrence Graver “A group of servants in the Klopstock mansion near Geneva wait for the Baron to commit suicide after killing his wife and their mutual lover, so they can sell scabrous memoirs to the press.” I don’t mind Spark’s darker side (The Driver’s Seat), but this was all a little bit too whimsical for me.

Rex by E.F. Benson
Young Rex is an aspiring playwright who does not get along with his father and is a bit of an unfeeling user of people. At first I thought this was going to be charming but I ended up disliking Rex so much. I’m not entirely sure Benson was trying to portray him is quite that unsympathetic light, but it is hard to know. I kept hoping for failure/comeuppance and/or transformation. Neither seemed to be in the offing.

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
Although I found more than a few things interesting in this “bio” of Ackerley’s dog Tulip, he spent way too much time on anatomical descriptions of the process of trying to get her impregnated. I wouldn’t have minded this if he hadn’t kept bringing those things up and writing about them in a way that was far too poetic to be scientific. The effect ways creepy. There were also moments that I completely identified with, so it was amusing and emotional on some levels. The other thing about this book is that the way we live with dogs today is so much different than it was in Ackerley’s time. From sterilization to picking up poo to calling female dogs bitches. I’m glad we’ve progressed.

Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
A successful, charismatic, Catholic priest in Chicago is sent off to a derelict retreat house in the wilds of Minnesota by his superior who seems to be jealous of, or threatened by, his presence. He is a priest in the order of St. Clement making him a Clementine. I don’t know if the small, easily peeled, citrus fruits of the same name were as popular in the 1960s as they are now, but it sure made me chuckle ever time I saw it in print.  This was kind of charming and funny but I think I would have appreciated it more if there had been less of it.


1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell


Better reading through social media

Like any other reader out there who is on social media, I have done my fair share of moaning about how social media has kept me from reading. Now that I’ve spent countless hours updating my Goodreads page to include every book I have since 1994 I can tell you that my moaning may be misplaced. Here are a few of my observations:

Prior to social media the quality of my reading was hit or miss

As I plugged in all of my book data one thing became clear, back in the days before I found my social media family of like minded readers, my book choices missed their mark more than they hit. Some years, 2005 comes to mind, just seemed to be nothing but a seemingly endless stream of 2- and 3-star books. It was kind of depressing to see how much time I wasted on boring, lackluster, totally forgettable books. The only light during this period was the publication of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. She was key to me finding books I actually liked. In particular she turned me on to Ward Just and Barbara Pym, just to name two.

An example of a rare hit in a sea of misses.
A book group helped

For a while after 2005 I was in a monthly book club where people just brought in books they had been reading and talked about them and then we swapped. Over time we got to know whose interests  were similar and I got recommendations that were better than just pulling books off the library shelf at random and hoping for the best. My ratings were much perkier during the book club period.

An example of finding one of my all time favorites at my book club.
2009 was a watershed year

Sometime in the summer of 2009 I discovered book blogs. It seems a little weird that I had been blogging (sometimes about books) for three years before I discovered actual book blogs. It’s possible I had found a few prior to that, but it was around then that I found Savidge Reads and Stuck in a Book. I don’t remember which one I found first, but those two Simons and their blogrolls turned me on to a whole world I didn’t know existed. It was at this point where I really started to find books I liked. Not surprisingly it was also about this time that I stopped taking recommendations from people IRL because I didn’t know their tastes as well as I knew the tastes of the bloggers I followed. This was also the year that I discovered many firsts: My first sensation novel (The Woman in White), my first Persephone (Cheerful Weather for the Wedding), my first Europa (Queen of the Tambourine), my first Bloomsbury Edition (Henrietta’s War), and my first NYRB Classic (Manservant and Maidservant).  The Wilkie Collins was the only one that was an unqualified success at the time, but the others were enticing enough that they set me on a much better path to a world of books that were “up my alley” as it were.

An example of a book blogger recommendation that opened up a whole new world.
social media does not seem to be a culprit

If you look at the chart below, the only thing that seems to be clear is that I tend to have a good year followed by a not-so-good year. I started blogging in 2006 which was  a banner year for books. I started focusing mainly on books in 2009 which was another banner year. I started on Twitter in 2013 which was my bannerist year of all time. I’m not sure when I started on Facebook so I can’t really make any judgments about that.

What does it all mean?

The biggest takeaway from all this is that social media has definitely provided me with reading recommendations from trusted sources that would have been unavailable to me in real life. No question about it. I also think the competitive nature of social media has helped me up my game in terms of quantity. It’s true that sometimes I do spend too much time staring at a screen, but overall it hasn’t really negatively impacted the amount of reading I do. A net gain for sure.

And let’s get real, people

Just think how much grayer my life would be (and I am not talking about Persephones) if I didn’t have you all to interact with. If we all lived in a little reading village where we could get together for cocoa and book talk that would be great. But we don’t, so virtual reality works out pretty damn well. At least it has for me.

Only 89 years to go

The Promenade Deck on the British airship R101. See Slide Rule by Nevil Shute below.

I made really good progress in January against both my goal of reading 100 books for the year and of reading books only from my TBR for the A Century of Books Challenge. I would love it if I could keep this pace up for the year. There really is no reason I couldn’t, except for TV, the internet, and laziness. I read 12 books total, 11 of them counting towards ACOB.

A Son at the Front – Edith Wharton 
This Wharton is perhaps the most neglected Wharton I have come across. Although it is back in print, it is not one you are likely to find very easily (unless you want it on Kindle). John Campton, a successful American portrait artist living in France tries to keep his son George out of the war. Very much worth reading.

The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
Americans in Provence in the 1950s or so, a village dog, I feel like I should have loved this book. But there was something about the writing style that not only put me off the book but made the 118 pages seem like an eternity. Each of the chapters is its own little vignette that all just felt like they were trying to be amusing and charming.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
Given its title, not terribly surprising that this is one of Graham Greene’s thrillers. The agent in question, only identified as ‘D’, is in England to buy coal to support his side in his country’s civil war. Almost from the moment he lands in England he is hampered in his task by ‘L’ who wants to keep D from getting the contract for coal and get it for himself instead. I liked the story quite a bit for its 1930s setting and logistical detail, not to mention D’s ability to escape complicated and sometimes harrowing circumstances. I never did believe in the love interest Greene inserts into the tale. It seemed a little lazy and superficial. Like I said a good book, and I love some of Greene’s other books immensely, but this one just proved to me how much better Eric Ambler is at this kind of thing.

Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett 
I am a huge fan of Sherriff’s two very different books The Hopkin’s Manuscript and A Fortnight in September. Finding this novelization of Sherriff’s play of the same name was quite a surprise when I came across a few years ago. (I think it was at King Books in Detroit when I was on my Booktopia road trip with Savidge Reads.) It’s a good, if fairly standard World War I story, that was  well worth reading but didn’t knock my socks off.

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
Being a bit of a Paul Auster fan I was excited both by the fact that this is a dystopian novel and that I had an audio recording of it read by none other than Vanessa Redgrave. I was entranced right from the start. But then I realized the Redgrave recording was an (unmarked!) abridged version. What a tragedy. Her reading was marvelous. So I set the recording aside and picked up the actual book. I kind of loved it. It was sad and beautiful. Sometime in the near future, Anna Blume, trying to live through the insanely poor, hardscrabble, almost MadMax-like life in a volatile, unnamed city tells her tale through one long letter written to a friend who is elsewhere away from violence and chaos. Before I knew what was going on in the books, I thought it was set in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust.  It wasn’t, but it sure seems like Auster’s intentions were to write an allegory–or would it be a metaphor?–in any case I think he did. High marks for this one. If you think you may not like Auster, I think this shortish novel might be a good place to start. (Although now that I think of it there may have been one or two slang references to female anatomy that seemed a little jarring and unnecessary. But it is still a fantastic book.) 

The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
I’ve had several Dawn Powell novels for quite some time. I feel absolutely proud of myself for finally reading one of them. This one, published in 1929, takes place in rural Ohio and tells the story of Sophie who is a beauty who is torn between two men. That makes it sound superficial, which it isn’t. Powell really is a fine writer who must have shocked audiences when this was published. Aside from the period trappings it feels pretty modern.

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
This novel doesn’t have the same crazy writing style of the far more compelling The Well of Loneliness but it could have used more rigorous editing for sure. I can like some good old fashioned unfulfilled lives morphing into life long complacency, but I really wanted this one to have a happy ending.  It didn’t, maybe not tragic, but not happy. One has to put aside what could be perceived as child sexual predation–although I don’t think it got phsyical (if ever) until Joan is older. It seems less creepy in 1924 than it does today. Maybe. I love many of the reviews on Goodreads by people who enjoyed it more than I did.

Slide Rule – Nevil Shute 
I always knew that Nevil Shute had an engineering background, but until I read this memoir I didn’t realize just how involved he was in aviation prior to giving it up to focus full time on being an author. For instance he was an engineer for Britain’s air ship (aka blimp) program and intimately involved in its development. This was fascinating on so many levels, not the least of which was the fact that these early airship designs were really conceived of as ships with dining rooms, saloons, and cabins, etc. After that program was shut down, he co-founded an airplane manufacturing company Airspeed Ltd in 1931.  At first I thought it was going to be a tale of a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make airplanes, but it wasn’t. They produced numerous types of aircraft and it lasted for 20 years until it merged with de Havilland. Shute left the company sometime in the late 1930s and it made him enough money to not have to work for about 10 years if he had decided to. Although Slide Rule does cover Shute’s novel-writing efforts (which he did in his spare time), this really is a memoir of an engineer. I loved the book and was only disappointed that it didn’t chronicle the next 20 years of his life which was full of WWII, emigrating to Australia, and becoming one of the world’s best selling authors.

Passage of Arms  – Eric Ambler
I. Love. This. Book. Amblerian perfection. American couple steaming their way across the world stumble into an arms smuggling plot. One of the things I loved about the story was how we see the deal from inception to completion from some really disparate points of view. It starts in the jungle where a clerk who dreams of owning a bus transportation company comes a cross an abandoned rebel arms dump and he fashions a plan to sell the arms so that he can buy his first bus. Then we see the efforts of the middle man he has enlisted to try and sell them. And then come the American dupes. All told with ample amounts of glorious officefilaic and logistical detail. And did I mention a steam ship making ports of call in southeast Asia.

Vera – Elizabeth von Arnim 
I started off loving this book. Older, recent widower Everard, meets and consoles the much younger Lucy who has just lost her father. They fall in love and get married and he instantly becomes controlling and abusive. I don’t really agree that this is “darkly comic”. It think it is just plain tragedy and fairly superficially told at that. This is the book that has sealed the fate of von Arnim for me. I loved The Enchanted April, but her other books have left me bored or annoyed. So I got rid of the rest of her titles on my TBR.

To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
A Jewish mother and her son make their way back to her eastern European homeland as Nazism is on the rise. They unknowingly stumble into the mass deportation of Jews. Interesting and poignant in many ways, but overall, as a reading experience it was just okay.

ACOB progress

1921 – Vera – Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front – Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1954 – Slide Rule – Nevil Shute
1959 – Passage of Arms  – Eric Ambler
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld reruns. I’ve seen most episodes multiple times. But after a period of a few years of not seeing any episodes I now find them perhaps even funnier than before and on top  of that I now feel nostalgic for the 1990s. Seeing the group of four friends and all the socializing and informal pop-ins makes me hanker for my easy-breezy 20s. So when I saw the book at Politics and Prose, and not in the market for any new fiction given my ACOB goals, it seemed like this clearly enjoyable, easy-to-read, bit of fluff wouldn’t make much of a dent in my reading time. I was right on all counts. I enjoyed it for some of its behind the scenes gossip and much of it made me laugh out loud reminiscing about episodes and how they were received at the time they first aired. It was also interesting to read about how the show first came to be and how it almost didn’t survive it’s pilot episode. The second part of the book  kind of breaks down a bit and turns into a lot of disparate anecdotes that felt like the author was stretching for material. But still a very fun read. [I’m not counting this one toward ACOB because it was not part of my TBR and because there are too many other books from 2016 to from which to choose.]


A near hit and a miss

Regular readers will know that the first two months of my year of books from Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair were absolute hits (see here and here). They were so good I was beginning to think they were living in my head. I wondered if they could keep it up. On the whole I would say yes, they did keep it up. However…

This choice was a winner because Heywood found something that is both in my comfort zone in setting, tone, and writing style. And they get kudos for giving me a ghost story, something I would never pick up on my own. I wanted them to challenge my usual reading choices. So no faults for their choice. Where it falls down is that the book just isn’t that good. I kind of liked it at first but then I started to have problems with the one dimensionality of the characters and a story that I grew to care less and less about as each page passed.


This choice was a winner because it is exactly the kind of book I would love. But. I read it when it first came out and hated it because I thought Hill set up a narrative framework and then proceeded to ignore it and just blather about whatever bookish topic she wanted to blather about. And don’t even get me started on her thoughts on book bloggers. What a dip.


My TBR by the decades – The 2010s

[For those who don’t know, I am participating in A Century of Books this year which requires me to read one book from each year from 1919 through 2018.]

My biggest challenge for this less-than-a-decade, decade is that I’ve got a lot of 2016 and 2017 stuff that I want to read I don’t know how in the world I am going to choose.


Conversations with Beethoven – Sanford Friedman
My Animal Life – Maggie Gee
The Midnight Promise – Zane Lovitt
Eva Sleeps – Francesca Melandri


The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress – Beryl Bainbridge
Everything Happens Today – Jesse Browner
At the End of a Dull Day – Massimo Carlotto
The Adults – Alison Espach
The Love of My Youth – Mary Gordon
Rodin’s Debutante – Ward Just
Wish You Were Here – Graham Greene


Winter Journal – Paul Auster
Aftermath – Rachel Cusk
The Lola Quartet – Emily St. John Mandel
The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus
Jack Holmes and His Friend – Edmund White

The Ben Marcus volume was recommended by a bookseller at Three Lives in New York when I mentioned I liked a dystopia like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Meanwhile The Lola Quartet seems like a non-dystopic Mandel. 


The Automobile Club of Egypt – Alaa al Aswany
Maggie and Me – Damian Barr
Harvest – Jim Crace
Last Friends – Jane Gardam
The Last Banquet – Jonathan Grimwood
The World is a Wedding – Wendy Jones
Sight Reading – Daphne Kalotay
The Perfume Collector – Kathleen Tessaro
All the Birds, Singing – Evie Wyld


The Boston Girl – Anita Diamant
The Pope’s Daughter – Dario Fo
A Paris Apartment – Michelle Gable
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
American Romantic – Ward Just
The Golden Age – Joan London
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
The Dismal Science – Peter Mountford
The Pathless Sky – Chaitali Sen
The Meaning of Maggie – Megan Jean Soavern
Nora Webster – Colm Toibin

A Paris Apartment sounds like it will be a total delight for me, but there is also a chance that it is twee, pandering, dross. 


The Distant Marvels – Chantel Acevedo
The Seventh Function of Language – Laurent Binet
The Green Road – Anne Enright
The Vienna Melody – Ernst Lothar
Girl at War – Sara Novic
The Gardens of Consolation – Parisa Reza
Checkpoint – Jean-Christophe Rufin
Skyfaring – Mark Vanhoenacker

I feel like Girl at War was one of those that was ubiquitous in the blogsphere and I still have read it. Same thing with The Green Road. I think that one was up for a prize. Skyfaring seems like a total pleasure read for me. Non-fiction about the life of a commercial airline pilot.


A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin
Transit – Rachel Cusk
Weekend – Jane Eaton Hamilton
Rain – Melissa Harrison
Hot Milk – Deborah Levy
This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell
Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
A Very English Scandal – John Preston
The Woman on the Stairs – Bernhard Schlink
All That Man Is – David Szalay
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
The Arrangement – Ashley Warlick
Our Young Man – Edmund White
The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood

The choice for 2016 is just plain insane. Why I haven’t already read the O’Farrell and Patchett I don’t know. I’m very drawn to the Schlink and I  am just dying to devour (and savor) the slim Harrison.


Difficult Women – Roxane Gay
Midwinter Break – Bernard MacLaverty
The Crossing – Andrew Miller
Elmet – Fiona Mozley
Welcome to Lagos – Chibundu Onuzo
George and Lizzie – Nancy Pearl
Sympathy – Olivia Sudjic
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman – Denis Theriault
When the English Fall – David Williams

The Williams is high on my list as is Mozley, and MacLaverty. This is the year I am second most likely to read more than one. Even if I am behind on the challenge.

The whole list

TBR Chron