shelf by shelf : from Murdoch to O’Farrell

As I do shelf by shelf, I am finding that the monoculture shelves are kind of boring to write about. Not because I find the authors boring, be silly to own so many if I felt that way, but it just isn’t that interesting when there aren’t a lot of different authors on the shelves. But it also makes me worry what I will do if I keep collecting the full catalog of authors I like. I could end up with full shelves but few authors. But two things come to mind:

1. Just because I love an author doesn’t mean I have to keep every book by her/him if I don’t love every title. I’ve already done this with Margaret Atwood. I’ve read Alias Grace two times and I found it just as boring the second time as I did the first, so I gave it away. I also sent her most recent novel on its way as well. I wasn’t bored by it, but I did find it a let done after the brilliant MaddAddam books. I’m also going to do this with Timothy Findley (not to pick on another Canadian). I went through a period fifteen years ago where I wanted to read and own everything by him. But one of these days I am going to start re-reading that collection and if I don’t love it, it goes. I have a feeling Murdoch is headed for the same treatment, but more on that below.

2. As I have been plowing my way through that stack of 26 hardcover novels that I purchased in the last year, I have been ruthless about what I keep. I’m starting to settle more and more on the idea that I am only going to keep books that I think I may want to re-read. I realize that some of my urge to keep certain books is because I like the physical proof that I read them, or I want imaginary guests in my library to think I have wide ranging tastes, or read important books, or something silly that. I don’t need to prove any of those things. So these days, my approach that, aside from my TBR, I’m only keeping books I think I will want to re-read. It’s really quite liberating.

Much more interesting if you click on image to make it bigger.
Much more interesting if you click on image to make it bigger.


SHELF EIGHTEEN: 27 books, 14 unread, 13 read, 48% completed

Murdoch, Iris – The Black Prince
Murdoch, Iris – The Bell (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – The Sand Castle (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – The Italian Girl (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – An Unofficial Rose
Murdoch, Iris – The Book and the Brotherhood
Murdoch, Iris – The Philosopher’s Pupil (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – The Green Knight
Murdoch, Iris – Under the Net (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – A Word Child (completed)
Murdoch, Iris – The Good Apprentice
Murdoch, Iris – The Red and the Green
Murdoch, Iris – Nuns and Soldiers (completed)
That is quite a load of Murdoch. I am a little surprised I’ve read that many of them. I thought there were more of them I hadn’t gotten to yet. And on top of these I have read an additional eight that I have read that I don’t own. Wow, that makes 16 Murdoch novels that I have read. And that, brings me back to my discussion above about monculture shelves. Since I took this photo a few months ago, I re-read The Italian Girl and I must say I wasn’t a fan. I’ve already put it on the donate pile. And it’s made me rethink how I feel about her work in general. Even without re-reading I know I will keep a few of these and I know that I will probably want to re-read The Sea, The Sea, and A Fairly Honourable Defeat for sure and I don’t even own them. And I have yet to read (or own) A Severed Head, which I know some people swear by. There is still much I love about Murdoch, so regardless of how many I get rid of, I’m pretty sure I will always have  more than a few of her novels on my shelves. 

I would be remiss if I did not say something about Under the Net, Murdoch’s first novel. I say it is my favorite Murdoch, but it was also my first, so it has been some years since I read it. I’m very curious to see what I would think of it now and to be reminded of the young Murdoch. However, the real story here is that on my first date with my husband I mentioned how much I loved Under the Net. A week later, after returning to DC from a business trip, John gave me that  very nice first edition–on our third date no less. Any wonder why I kept him?

Naipaul, V.S. – The Mimic Men
Naipaul, V.S. – In a Free State (completed)
Despite some of the truly stupid things Naipaul has said in recent years, I still like his novels. I’ve read his more famous titles The Enigma of Arrival, A Bend in the River, and A House for Mr. Biswas. And those I think I would re-read. Hmm, something to buy.

Nichols, Beverly – A Thatched Roof
Nichols, Beverly – Laughter on the Stairs
Nichols, Beverly – Merry Hall
Nichols, Beverly – Down the Garden Path
I hope I like these more than I liked Evensong. These are house and garden related so even I hate them I probably can’t get rid of them until John has read them. Funnily, when I was a kid I checked out Down the Garden Path from the library just because it had a few illustrations.

Norris, Frank – The Octopus
I bought this doorstop just because I like these Penguin editions. We will see if I ever read it.

O’Brien, Kate – Mary Lavelle
O’Brien, Kate – The Land of Spices

O’Farrell, Maggie – Instructions for a Heatwave (completed)
O’Farrell, Maggie – After You’d Gone (completed)
O’Farrell, Maggie – The Hand That First Held Mine (completed)
O’Farrell, Maggie – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (completed)
Nothing really to say here is that I love O’Farrell. The Hand that First Held Mine is the only advanced copy I have ever accepted from a publisher. (I’m pretty sure that is true.) She is an author I will never hesitate to buy.

NEXT TIME: Pym to Persephone (don’t ask, it gets v. complicated)


If you liked Any Human Heart

My cover was less terrible because the photo was in black and white. But I can’t tell if this one is better or worse than the one at bottom of this post.

About a year ago at the final Booktopia, I sat in front of an audience in a room in Petoskey, Michigan discussing the many merits of Any Human Heart by William Boyd with Simon Savidge, and Ann and Michael of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. When Michael chose AHH for us to read, I had already had it in my TBR pile for quite some time. I think I had been drawn by the cover and the jacket blurb certainly tripped some of my triggers. But for some reason it was pretty low on my list of what to read next. Something about its size and seeming complexity gave me that feeling I was never going to get to it. But then Michael assigned it and I ended up loving it. It wasn’t perfect but had so many things going for it, the imperfections really only seemed to exist to provide a little grist for the discussion mill.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd
As we wrapped up Petoskey and our road trip back to Washington, Simon gave me a copy of Boyd’s (then) newly published novel Sweet Caress. From all accounts it was similar to AHH. And now, having read it, I can say it is similar to AHH but from a female perspective–kind of. Like AHH, it takes us through most of the 20th century and the protagonist is an artist with a fairly unconventional approach to life. Whereas AHH was chock full of fun, faked, non-fictional seeming, footnotes, Sweet Caress had black and white photographs littered through the novel like a scrapbook depicting many of the characters that crossed the pages. From what I understand, Boyd used photos that he found for sale  at flea markets and antique shops. Just like the footnotes in AHH, I loved the way the photos gave added depth the the story and made the characters feel so real.

Despite the similarities Sweet Caress can easily stand on its own. The stories in the two books are in no way linked, and one doesn’t have to have read one to enjoy the other. Amory Clay is a photographer who knows at an early age that she wants to be out of her childhood and into something exciting. The fact that she tries to seduce her gay uncle at the age of 19 gives you some indication that there is a fire burning somewhere. Through the years we follow the ups and downs of her unconventional (for the times) personal life and her life as a photographer. From society photography, to ‘obscene’ interwar photos of Berlin prostitutes, to being a war photographer in both WWII and Vietnam.

A totally compelling, enjoyable read. It somewhat satisfied my need for a sweeping, epic tale of the 20th century from a female’s point of view. However, I’m not sure I entirely buy the female point of view. I will set aside whether there is a such a thing as a male or female POV and whether or not one sex can write from the perspective of the other. But as much as I am willing to believe and celebrate characters that go against traditional gender roles, I’m not sure Boyd’s depiction feels authentic. I won’t say too much more about that because it’s all very squishy and subjective, and subject to long, complex, discussions. But I think there is one objective observation that begins to prove my point.

Almost every phase and facet of Amory’s life relies on the agency of men. Pretty much every advancement of her career was due to the intervention of some male. And I don’t mean that men made the decision whether or not to hire her, but too often she only gets an opportunity or a leg up because of some male who essentially does her a favor or who has an ulterior motive. I don’t think there is one instance where her career trajectory seems self-propelled. One could argue that it is easy to see a male character having a similar trajectory, but there is no implied or explicit commentary in the book that gives you any feeling that Boyd did it on purpose. It felt more like he was completely unaware of it–as if he couldn’t fathom how a female could progress through the 20th century without the continual help from men with whom she had a personal connection. Even if Boyd was deliberately trying to show the obstacles a female photographer would have faced, I think his lack of comment on it feels more like ignorance than insight. My guess is that a female author would have allowed Amory at least one thought or comment in passing. It’s particularly jarring when it’s her former lover who is continually responsible for the success of her career. It’s clear that Amory’s work is successful at different phases in her life but never once does Amory have a moment where she thinks “God damn it, I’m good at what I do. Why do I have to grovel for favors just to make a living?”

I would love to know what female reader’s thought of Boyd’s female point of view. I found the book totally enjoyable and worthy of a read, but I wonder if it would have made me nuts if I was a woman.

“I may take crappy photos this way, but I just had my make-up applied and I want to make sure all the boys can see it.”

shelf by shelf : from McCarthy to Murdoch

After my recent spate of DNFs, and one that I actually did finish but hated and couldn’t believe I didn’t DNF it, I don’t really have other progress to report. I am in the middle of Sweet Caress by William Boyd, which I love, and also Visitors to the Crescent by Mary Hocking, which I quite like. It’s nice to finally be back onto something I don’t hate.

In the meantime, why not give the folks what they want. A picture of a shelf.

Don't forget to click. Plenty of room to zoom.
Don’t forget to click. Plenty of room to zoom.

SHELF SEVENTEEN: 31 books, 15 unread, 16 read 52% complete

McCarthy, Mary – The Group (completed)
McCarthy, Mary – Birds of a America (completed)
A million years ago I won some sort of Virago related contest on someone’s blog. The result was I won the Virago of my choice. I think I let the blogger chose what they sent me. Or I might have had some choice and chose The Group because I had seen the cover of the newish Virago reissue all over the blogosphere in recent days and wondered why. I ended up absolutely loving it. Such a fantastic read and such an important book. That set me off buying up used McCarthy’s every chance I got. And I was totally delighted by Birds of America.  Might be one of my favorite books.

McCourt, James – Mawrdew Czgowchwz
Say that title three times fast.

McEwan, Ian – The Cement Garden (completed)
McEwan, Ian – The Comfort of Strangers (completed)
McEwan, Ian – Black Dogs
McEwan, Ian – On Chesil Beach (completed)
McEwan, Ian – Sweet Tooth (completed)
I find that McEwan is two writers. One is dark and quirky. The other is not quite as dark and not quite as quirky. If I am not mistaken The Cement Garden falls into the first category and On Chesil Beach and Sweet Tooth fall into the second category. I don’t remember enough about The Comfort of Strangers to put it in a category. I should also note that On Chesil Beach is one of my favorite books of all time.

McPherson, William – Testing the Current

McFarlane, Fiona – The Night Guest (completed)
The first ever summer read along on The Readers. I ended up liking it more after we had our discussion and hearing from our listetrners about their thoughts on the book.

McGrath, Patrick – Constance (completed)
I don’t remember anything about this novel, but I remember really liking it.

Mendelson, Cheryl – Morningside Heights (completed)
Mendelson, Cheryl – Anything for Jane (completed)
Part of a trilogy written about a group of friends/acquaintances in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. I really like these books.

Merrick, Gordon – The Strumpet Wind (completed)
A not very well-written novel about post WWII France that is, none the less an interesting read. Written by a novelist who would later go on to write gay bodice rippers in the 1970s.

Messud, Claire – The Woman Upstairs 
Since this photo wa taken I got halfway through this book and then got really bored with it. I’ve kind of liked her other novels, but not by much. It has been moved to the donate pile.

Michaels, Leonard – The Men’s Club

Miller, Merle – The Warm Feeling (completed)
Miller, Merle – Reunion (completed)
Miller, Merle – A Gay and Melancholy Sound (completed)
Miller, Merle – The Sure Thing
Miller, Merle – A Day in Late September
Miller, Merle – That Winter
Nancy Pearl is responsible for Miller being on my shelves. I had never heard of him and he remains pretty obscure. She put A Gay and Melancholy Sound on a list of books too devastating to read again, if I am not mistaken. If I remember correctly, I enjoyed Reunion and The Warm Feeling more. I just decided that sometime between now and he end of the month I am going to start reading A Day in Late September.

Mitchell, Larry – My Life as a Mole

van der Merwe, Andre Carl – Moffie
It is only because of The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss, which I just read this week, that I now know what a moffie is. Although I did know when I bought it that it was a gay-themed South African novel.

Monette, Paul – Afterlife (completed)
And speaking of gay, I read this way back in college when all gay fiction seemed to be about AIDS. Not surprisingly and right so. This is one of the better ones. I bought it recently so I could re-read it, which hasn’t happened yet.

Moody, Rick – Hotels of North America
This one is on my pile of 27 newish hardcovers that I am pushing to finish or DNF and donate by the end of the year.

Moorcock, Michael – Mother London
A novel about London I picked up for 50 cents. Worth a chance.

Mordden, Ethan – How Long Has this Been Going On? (completed)
Without Googling to check, I am pretty sure this is an omnibus of Mordden’s three volumes of short stories. Part of my reassessment of gay fiction I read in high school and college. Haven’t yet re-read it.

Morley, Christopher – The Haunted Bookshop

Munro, Alice – The Progress of Love
I have never read any Alice Munro and this was free somewhere.

Murdoch, Iris – The Message to the Planet
I am going to save any discussion of Murdoch until next time when I have a whole mess of them to comment on.

NEXT TIME: Murdoch to O’Farrell


Opera without music is just bad writing

920x920When I finished chapter one of Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night this morning I was in very high dudgeon. After only 18 pages I knew this novel about a 19th century opera diva, wasn’t for me. I was dubious about the melodramatic twaddle. Since then I have read reviews that suggest Chee meant it to be melodramatic. Just like an opera. The only problem is that in opera I am moved because of the music and in spite of the melodrama. It’s only the music that allows me to overlook the insane, implausible plots of most operas. If you want 553 pages of sugary, tragic, over the top, operatic writing, then this is the book for you. It was lines like this that leapt off the page:

I’d had a premonition in accepting the role of Marguerite that, in returning to Paris this time, I would be here for a meeting with my destiny.

Later, after a writer proposes to write a role for her (that just happens to be her hitherto unknown life story–and still unbeknownst to the writer) she comes up with this gem:

Here it was, the source of my premonition, the meeting with my destiny.

Of course it is. And it only took 3 pages to get from premonition to postmonition. (It’s a new word.) And just in case we missed the fact that the libretto he wants to write is based on her life story as a young singer from America–which he still doesn’t know is her story–he says:

My novels…it would seem they have a way of coming true.

Did I mention we are only on page 12? All of this is told against a backdrop of Chee trying to prove to us how much research he has done as well as his inability to let the reader figure details out for herself. For instance, he can’t just mention an opera by name, he has to tell us who the composer is. Similarly he can’t just say La Scala or Mariinsky, he has to tell us they are in Milan and Saint Petersburg respectively. I hate that kind of writing. I’m not a huge fan of the inverse where the author is too opaque with facts, but I think I prefer it over the let me spell everything out for you as if you have no cultural literacy or don’t have access to a dictionary or the internet, style of writing. Even worse, he refers more than once to the Jewel Song aria from Faust. How about just calling it the Jewel Song from Faust? You don’t need to prove, or explain to your audience, that it is an aria.  Or maybe the first time you could have written something like “the Jewel Song,–the aria where Maugeurite…” and then the next time just call it the Jewel Song. I know this sounds like small cheese, but to me it is the hallmark of a bad writer when they feel the need to spell everything out.

There were also factual implausibilities that kept popping up–something historical fiction tends to do to me. For instance I don’t even want to get into a debate over whether candlelight or gaslight at home is going to give our heroine a better sense of what her gown will look like under the brilliant chandeliers at the ball. And, in the age of made to order clothes and the absolute and complete absence of read-to-wear, are we really to believe that her dressmaker just happened to have a black-beaded gown with a train that she could could put on at a moment’s notice. Let’s skip the fact that this dress swap literally happened when the heroine left the party in her ugly dress that had been reduced to tutu length (no, just no) by two nobleman who get sexual pleasure from cutting women’s dresses with their (literal) sabers. The dressmaker just happened to be closing up (he dressed other women for the ball don’t you know, the Rachel Zoe of his day) and had the perfect thing for her that apparently required no alterations.

And don’t get me started on the plausibility of a singer of her caliber and renown never having originated a role. And the unlikihood that she would even consider it without knowing the composer first. And if he was a protege of the FAMOUS Verdi–who was also her close, personal friend (he is more proud of his risotto than Aida!)–why the hell didn’t she at least know of the composer already?


This only gets us to page 18! That seems like a great place to stop and hurl the book across the room to my donate pile.

The first casualty

My quest to plow through as many of these 26 hardcover books before the end of the year continues apace. I finished the first one in short order and then I moved on to The Goldfinch. Huge, three years old, and either loved or hated. I am totally ambivalent about it which is why I’m stopping after a hundred pages. I found parts of it enjoyable, and I can understand why some people love it. I was starting to tire of it, but then the bomb exploded and I thought, wait a minute, I didn’t see that coming. Unfortunately, I found the immediate post-bomb sections a little tedious and frustrating, and then I found Theo’s move to Park Avenue a little lazy and it began to remind me of the intellectual laziness of A Little Life. But only a little, a whiff, if you will.

A worthy book perhaps, but not for me. So it goes into the donate pile with 600-odd pages unread.

Meanwhile, I realized I had another newish, biggish, hardcover that I failed to put into my pile. Benjamin Markovitz’s You Don’t Have to Live Like This.

shelf by shelf : from MacInnes to McCarthy

I haven’t posted a shelf since July. I almost forgot this is something. I think I was subconsciously worried that Hogglestock was becoming too shelfy. I was also kind of tempted to take new photos of the shelves that I have yet to write about as some of them have changed noticeably since I photographed them. But I thought better of that notion because I had always intended it to catch one moment in time, and updating photos could really get me into a loop of updating that would never end.

Don’t forget to click. Plenty of room to zoom.

SHELF SIXTEEN: 29 books, 21 unread, 8 read, 28% completed

MacInnes, Helen – The Salzburg Connection (completed)
MacInnes, Helen – The Double Image
MacInnes, Helen – Rest and Be Thankful
MacInnes, Helen – The Snare of the Hunter
MacInnes, Helen – The Hidden Target
MacInnes, Helen – Agent in Place
MacInnes, Helen – Message from Malaga
MacInnes, Helen – Prelude to Terror
After I became wildly enamored of the vintage thrillers of Eric Ambler thanks to a tip on Twitter, I asked the Twitterverse if they new of a comparable female author. A friend mentioned Helen MacInnes. She was a little hard to find at first but then when Nonsuch Book and I made a roadtrip to Baltimore to go to Book Thing (the “store” where all the books are free) I found a cart load of them.

Marouane, Leila – The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (completed)
I don’t remember anything about this book but I know I liked it and found it amusing.

Martinac, Paula – Out of Time (completed)
Woman walks into an antique shop, takes home a vintage scrapbook of four women, ends up haunted by the lives of “the Gang”. Good Lesbian fiction from small press. Very under the radar.

Maugham, W. Somerset – Christmas Holiday (completed)
Maugham, W. Somerset – Catalina
Maugham, W. Somerset – Mrs  Craddock
Maugham, W. Somerset – Then and Now
Maugham, W. Somerset – The Complete Short Stories Vol 1
Maugham, W. Somerset – The Complete Short Stories Vol 2
This is another example of a prolific author I very much like but is way underrepresented on my shelves. Novels of his that I have read and are missing here include Of Human Bondage, The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge, Up at the Villa, and Cakes and Ale.

Maupin, Armistead – Tales of the City (completed)
This is really only on the shelf for the sake of nostalgia. I doubt I will ever read it again and the million other follow-ups leave me kind of bored. But, back in the day I loved this book.

Mavor, Elizabeth – The Ladies of Llangollen
Two women from titled Irish familes set-up housekeeping in Wales in 1780 and live together for 50 years.

Mawer, Simon – The Glass Room (completed)
Mawer, Simon – Tightrope
Mawer, Simon – Mendel’s Dwarf
I loved The Glass Room. It is so well written and plotted and the subject matter is fascinating. I’ve only read one other Mawer: Trapeze (not pictured). It was enjoyable, but nowhere near as accomplished as The Glass Room.

Maxwell, William – Over by the River
Maxwell, William – All the Days and Nights
Maxwell, William – The Chateau
A well-regarded author (especially of short stories?) who I have never read. These three volumes are here merely because he is supposed to be so good. Maybe that should be my next self-imposed challenge: to read at lest one book by authors I haven’t read but who have multiple books on my shelves.

Mayle, Peter – Anything Considered (completed)
I realized recently with another Mayle book just how fluffy and superficial his books are. Although I really enjoyed this caper about truffle hunting years ago when I read it, after my most recent experience I know I will never go back to this one so I moved it to the donate pile just last weekend.

McCarthy, Mary – Cast a Cold Eye
McCarthy, Mary – The Groves of Academe (completed)
McCarthy, Mary – A Charmed Life
McCarthy, Mary – The Company She Keeps
My two favorite McCarthy’s (so far) are on the next shelf and I have only read one of these. I don’t really know much about McCarthy but I loved The Group so much that I buy her novels whenever I see one I don’t have. But more about her next time when I walk about my two favorites.


NEXT TIME: McCarthy to Murdoch