Just a few collected thoughts about some of my recent reads.
Alix & Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding ****
Alix and Nicky remained on my TBR shelf for over two years, and after reading, I have no idea why that was. Well, perhaps the fact that my copy is rather a large hardback which was incredibly difficult to juggle whilst in bed…
I am a self-confessed Russian history nerd. I studied Russian history, from Peter the Great to the modern day, throughout my A Level History course and as part of my undergraduate degree. There’s something about it which is both mysterious and compelling. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that I picked this up when I was on a trip to Oxford.
Alix and Nicky is both rich and thorough, and I thought that the non-reliance upon a rigid chronological structure worked incredibly well. The writing is strong, the vocabulary varied, and the chapters wonderfully structured. I feel as though I learnt a lot whilst reading, which is always a bonus. Virginia Rounding is an author whom I haven’t read before, but based upon this, I have added the rest of her bibliography to my to-read list, and have a feeling that there will be some gems in store for me.
On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya *****
A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important. More Tolstaya, please.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock ***
Whilst this intrigued, both in terms of plot and setting, and whilst I very much enjoyed the opening chapter, this just didn’t sit right for me. I had no issues with the writing, but predictability soon seeped in, and I did not even feel as though Hitchcock had made any effort to conceal such elements.
I was more interested in the stories of Ruth and Dumpling than those of the other characters, and the male narrative voice used for Hank just didn’t feel realistic. There were also distinct similarities in the narrative voices of other characters too, which I think let the book down somewhat.
I could have so easily filled a post about the Jazz Age in literature with books by my beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald. Instead, I have chosen one Fitzgerald, two other works of fiction, and two pieces of non-fiction which I think sum up the period wonderfully.
Tales from the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald
‘Tales of the Jazz Age (1922) is a collection of eleven short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Divided into three separate parts, according to subject matter, it includes one of his better-known short stories, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” All of the stories had been published earlier, independently, in either Metropolitan Magazine (New York), Saturday Evening Post, Smart Set, or Collier’s.’
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
‘One of the great literary curios of the twentieth century Save Me the Waltz is the first and only novel by the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. During the years when Fitzgerald was working on Tender is the Night, which many critics consider to be his masterpiece, Zelda Fitzgerald was preparing her own story, which strangely parallels the narrative of her husband, throwing a fascinating light on Scott Fitzgerald’s life and work. In its own right, it is a vivid and moving story: the confessional of a famous glamour girl of the affluent 1920s and an aspiring ballerina which captures the spirit of an era.’
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade
‘In her exuberant new work, Marion Meade presents a portrait of four extraordinary writers- Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St.Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber – whose loves, lives, and literary endeavors embodied the spirit of the 1920s. These literary heroines did what they wanted and said what they thought, living wholly in the moment. They kicked open the door for twentieth-century women writers and set a new model for every woman trying to juggle the serious issues of economic independence, political power, and sexual freedom. Here are the social and literary triumphs and inevitably the penances paid: crumbled love affairs, abortions, depression, lost beauty, nervous breakdowns, and finally, overdoses and even madness. A vibrant mixture of literary scholarship, social history, and scandal, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin is a rich evocation of a period that will forever intrigue and captivate us.’
Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore
‘Bracketed by the catastrophes of the Great War and the Wall Street Crash, 1920s America was a place of drama, tension and hedonism. It glittered and seduced: jazz, flappers, wild all-night parties, the birth of Hollywood, and a glamorous gangster-led crime scene flourishing under prohibition. But the period was also punctuated by momentous events – the political show trials of Sacco and Vanzetti; the huge Ku Klux Klan march down Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue – and it produced a splendid array of writers, musicians and film stars, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bessie Smith and Charlie Chaplin.’
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
‘The quintessential novel of the Lost Generation, “The Sun Also Rises” is one of Ernest Hemingway s masterpieces and a classic example of his spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. ‘
Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite Jazz Age books?
Whilst I could have been clever and split this into fifty separate parts to denote every single one of the states of the good old USA, I feel that some of them would be horribly underrepresented, and some of them would inevitably include far too many books (New York State, I’m looking at you). That said, I have decided to present five distinct parts of Reading the World on the American shores – theoretically one book for each state, although I will be encompassing the continent as a whole – and showcase fifty books which are set in America, and which I have very much enjoyed. (NB. I have decided not to include many very popular classics, or modern classics – To Kill a Mockingbird, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and East of Eden, for instance, for whilst I adore all of the aforementioned more than I could say, I do not want this to turn into one of the usual, predictable list which newspapers publish every so often to see how well read we are). So, let us begin…
1. The Crucible by Arthur Miller (Massachusetts)
‘Arthur Miller’s classic parable of mass hysteria draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch-hunt of 1692 – ‘one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history’ – and the American anti-communist purges led by Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. The story of how the small community of Salem is stirred into madness by superstition, paranoia and malice, culminating in a violent climax, is a savage attack on the evils of mindless persecution and the terrifying power of false accusations. A depiction of innocent men and women destroyed by malicious rumour, The Crucible is also a powerful indictment of McCarthyism and the ‘frontier mentality’ of Cold War America.’
2. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken (Massachusetts)
‘The year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod 28 year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels as if love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt – the ‘over-tall’ 11 year-old boy who’s the talk of the town – walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who’s ever really understood her, and as he grows – six foot five at age twelve, then seven foot, then eight – so does her heart and their most singular romance. The Giant’s House is a strange, beautifully written and unforgettably tender novel about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle.’
3. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (South Carolina)
‘Carolina in the 1950s, and Bone – christened Ruth Anna Boatwright – lives a happy life, in and out of her aunt’s houses, playing with her cousins on the porch, sipping ice tea, loving her little sister Reece and her beautiful young mother. But Glen Waddell has been watching them all, wanting her mother too, and when he promises a new life for the family, her mother gratefully accepts. Soon Bone finds herself in a different, terrible world, living in fear, and an exile from everything she knows. “Bastard Out of Carolina” is a raw, poignant tale of fury, power, love and family.’
4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch (California)
‘White Oleander is a painfully beautiful first novel about a young girl growing up the hard way. It is a powerful story of mothers and daughters, their ambiguous alliances, their selfish love and cruel behaviour, and the search for love and identity.Astrid has been raised by her mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet. Astrid forgives her everything as her world revolves around this beautiful creature until Ingrid murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life. Astrid’s fierce determination to survive and be loved makes her an unforgettable figure.’
5. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (New York State)
‘The unforgettable story of the rise, fall and ultimate redemption of an American family. The Mulvaneys are seemingly blessed by everything that makes life sweet. They live together in the picture-perfect High Point Farm, just outside the community of Mt Ephraim, New York, where they are respected and liked by everybody. Yet something happens on Valentine’s Day 1976. An incident involving Marianne Mulvaney, the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter, is hushed up in the town and never discussed within the family. The impact of this event reverberates throughout the lives of the characters. As told by Judd, years later, in an attempt to make sense of his own past reveals the unspoken truths of that night that rends the fabric of the family life with tragic consequences.’
6. The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (Florida)
‘Alice Hoffman is at her electrifying best in this fairy tale for grown-ups. The story begins with a little girl who makes a wish one snowy night and ruins her life. She grows up with a splinter of ice in her heart until one day, standing by her kitchen window, she is struck by lightning. Instead of killing her, this cataclysmic event sparks off a new beginning. She seeks out Lazarus Jones, a fellow lightning survivor. He is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets – what turned one to ice and the other to fire. The Ice Queen is a haunting story of passion, loss, second chances and the secrets that come to define us, if we’re not careful.’
7. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (Alaska)
‘By examining the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man, who in 1992 walked deep into the Alaskan wilderness and whose SOS note and emaciated corpse were found four months later, internationally bestselling author Jon Krakauer explores the obsession which leads some people to explore the outer limits of self, leave civilization behind and seek enlightenment through solitude and contact with nature. ‘
8. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (Tennessee)
‘Flannery O’Connor’s first novel is the story of Hazel Motes who, released from the armed services, returns to the evangelical Deep South. There he begins a private battle against the religiosity of the community and in particular against Asa Hawkes, the ‘blind’ preacher, and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter. In desperation Hazel founds his own religion, ‘The Church without Christ’, and this extraordinary narrative moves towards its savage and macabre resolution. ‘
9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Michigan)
”I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974.’ So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations. Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America. Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.’
10. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (New York State)
‘Nicole Krauss explores the lasting power of the written word and the lasting power of love. ‘When I was born my mother named me after every girl in a book my father gave her called “The History of Love”…’ Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man called Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the love lost that sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives…’
Yonder she sits beside the tranquil Dee, Kindly yet cold, respectable and wise, Sharp-tongued though civil, with wide-open eyes, Dreaming of hills, yet urgent for the sea; And still and on, she has her vanity, Wears her grey mantle with a certain grace, While sometimes there are roses on her face To sweeten too austere simplicity. She never taught her children fairy-lore, Yet they must go a-seeking crocks of gold Afar throughout the earth; And when their treasure in her lap they pour, Her hands upon her knee do primly fold; She smiles complacent that she gave them birth.
I was prompted to make this post because my library’s rules about borrowing from other county branches has changed. When I was young, I was a weekly borrower; I used to skip excitedly down to the library every Saturday with whichever parent was taking me, and max out my card. I would then look forward to the next week, when I would have inevitably have read everything I had borrowed, and itching to discover something new.
From the age of about nine onwards, my borrowing habits changed a little. I was still an avid reader, but part of me wanted to add to my own library, as well as re-reading all of my mother’s old Enid Blytons and the like. I read all the way through my teens, and would borrow the odd book from my school library, as well as squirrelling myself away in there every break and lunchtime and inhaling all of the stories I could. I was still more of a buyer than a borrower, though.
When I started at University, I tended to buy all of my books. Whilst I had access to quite a large library, it had zero fiction books upon its shelves. Zero. I tended to purchase all of my books from Waterstone’s, charity shops and secondhand shops, of which the city I was in had many. I also began to borrow the odd book from literary-minded friends.
As soon as I finished University, my book-buying became a little out of control. I discovered both AwesomeBooks and AbeBooks at around this time, and marvelled at the fact that I could buy a book for around £2.49, including postage costs. I did rejoin the library around a year later too, my card having expired due to lack of use, but found that I only picked up the odd volume here and there due to my local branch not having that much by way of stock. I could request books from other branches, but a charge was put in place for every single one of these, and I deemed that actually, for me, it was better value to purchase my books so that I at least got to keep them afterwards. There were also, of course, review copies, and I read a lot of free classics on my Kindle too.
From 2015 onwards, however, my reading changed. Early in the year, I found that my library system had stopped charging for reservations, which pleased me greatly. Suddenly, new worlds were available to me, and I didn’t have to travel to Cambridge’s central branch to borrow Persephones and the like. I certainly made the most of it, borrowing around 300 books from the start of 2015 to July 2016. I also underwent a project to read every single one of the books on my TBR without buying any more, and despite having to pick up a couple of volumes here and there for my studies, or for my dissertation, I have pretty much made it to the end of the list.
Sadly, in June of this year, the library started to charge for its reservations again. Even if I want to reserve a book from my local branch, there is a £1 charge, and when you are as avid a reader as me, this just seems like money which could be spent on my own books. I understand that libraries are severely underfunded, and it’s an awful thing, but I am less likely to borrow books now, unless they are in my local branch and I can find them myself.
For a couple of months over this summer, then, I began to buy books again, both from the Internet and from Oxfam Bookshops (participating, as I was, in their Scorching Summer Reads initiative). I will be joining three libraries when I relocate to Glasgow, so I imagine that my reading will go back to being largely a free endeavour again, but I will be living near an Oxfam Bookshop, and I probably will have to pop in from time to time…
This has been rather a rambling post, in which I haven’t really come to any conclusions as to whether buying or borrowing books is better. Let me address that now. I love buying books, and whilst I purchase a lot less from full-price bookshops now (I am a student, after all!), I still love the thrill of finding something wonderful, especially if it’s an old or cheap edition (reiteration of the student thing…). I also love borrowing, though; I am a big fan of selecting things from the library which I perhaps wouldn’t buy, but which sound interesting enough to take a chance on. I don’t do this so much with books I read, as I like to be able to invest my money into something I know I will enjoy. I also love supporting my local library as much as I can.
What are your thoughts on buying and borrowing? Which do you prefer to do? Which were the last books you bought, and the last books you borrowed? How many libraries are you a member of, and what is your local library system like?