I started the month of July with 25 books on my TBR; this includes both physical books, and those on my Kindle. The majority of my leftover physical books are now at my parents’ house, and I need to pick them up during August. I have therefore mainly been focusing upon reading the books which I have bought over the last year or two on my Kindle.
I have added three books to my TBR this month, but did not actively purchase any of them during July. I received a copy of Irène Némirovsky’s All Our Worldly Goods. This however is not a recent purchase. I had ordered it from AbeBooks in March, and had not received the copy, so was given a full refund by the seller. It finally – and luckily – turned up in the post on my last week in Glasgow before I moved. The other two books which I added to my TBR were copies which I received as belated birthday presents – A Castle in England by Jamie Rhodes was a graphic novel given to me by my good friend Katie, and my sister gifted me a copy of My Mum, Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson for nostalgic purposes. I have read each of these books, and very much enjoyed them all.
With regard to my original TBR list, I have managed to read seven titles. My TBR therefore stands at 18 books. I had intended to get this down to 15 by the end of July, but with moving and discovering my great new public library, this did not quite go to plan. I am pleased with my progress however.
I have written up short reviews of the books which I have managed to read below. Two of them – The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester, and Clara by Janice Galloway – will be appearing as full-length reviews early next year.
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson (abandoned)
I purchased James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack quite some time ago, and it had been languishing on my to-read pile for ages. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, this is the first of Robertson’s books which I have read, and it will sadly more than likely be the last.
In some ways, this is not the kind of book which I would usually go for, as I tend to steer clear of largely religious content. However, the elements of satire and the unusual quality which the story promised drew me in. Whilst not badly written, The Testament of Gideon Mack simply failed to pull me in at all. I did not find Mack convincing or quirky enough for a story of this kind. His first-person narrative voice was rather vague at times, and meandered with little direction.
I read around a quarter of the novel, but found that it was doing very little for me, and that I did not care at all about its characters. I can see why a lot of readers would appreciate The Testament of Gideon Mack, but it is simply not the book for me.
Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy ***
I am so interested in Chernobyl and its aftereffects, and therefore felt as though Plokhy’s scholarly account of the nuclear disaster would be well worth picking up. The facts that it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2018, and that it is written by a professor of History at Harvard University further piqued my interest.
I found Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy fascinating from the outset, and learnt a great deal from it. Plokhy focuses on both individuals and the collective community, in both Chernobyl and its neighbouring town of Pripyat, and in Ukraine as a whole. Plokhy’s tone is, as I expected, academic, and those chapters which deal with the explosion of the nuclear reactor are incredibly dense, and packed with almost too much information to process.
I did not feel as though the book was entirely consistent, as some of the chapters felt rather choppy, and others flowed well. In this manner, Plokhy’s account does tend to feel a little disjointed. Whilst Chernobyl: The History of a Tragedy is highly saturated at points, as I have mentioned, it is worth persevering with. I have a few qualms with it, and it is undeniably dry in places, but this weighty tome will be useful to anyone wishing to learn about the science of the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, and its later impact.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick ***
Whilst I found Demick’s accounts of several citizens of North Korea, some of whom have since defected, interesting, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea did not prove as engaging as I was expecting. Often, I found Demick’s tone to be impersonal and detached, and this was curious in a piece of reportage which focuses so closely upon individuals. Some of the chapters here kept me more interested than others, and I must admit that there were one or two which I did not really enjoy at all. Whilst Demick ties together her points well, Nothing to Envy is by no means the best book about North Korea which I have read, and I would hesitate to recommend it.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin ****
I had originally intended to write a full review of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, but decided that I would simply read it and jot down some thoughts instead. This is not my first taste of Baldwin’s work. I have read his wonderful and touching Giovanni’s Room, the novella which he is perhaps most famous for, as well as his lovely compendium of Greek mythology, and the Penguin Mini of his selected essays (review here).
Tish, the nineteen-year-old narrator of If Beale Street Could Talk, has just discovered that she is pregnant. Her boyfriend, twenty two-year-old Fonny, is in prison, accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. I very much enjoyed the way in which Baldwin unfolds and probes into their relationship from their childhoods, and found his approach convincing. The characters, too, are entirely believable.
Baldwin’s prose is strikingly contemporary, and his story so poignant. I was surprised throughout the novella, particularly with regard to the graphic scenes and coarse language which Baldwin includes. If Beale Street Could Talk has a markedly different feel to Giovanni’s Room, and I found it far grittier. Baldwin comments wonderfully, and often scathingly, upon the society of 1970s New York, and what life was like for the black community, who were so often scapegoated and unjustly treated.
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
I read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag several years ago, and thought it excellent. I was therefore very much looking forward to diving into her oeuvre of non-fiction. For some reason, it has taken me an awfully long time to pick up another of her books, but <i>Red Famine<i> was just as thorough and well-written as I was expecting it to be. Applebaum’s writing is always so considered, and is highly accessible, whether one knows a great deal about the famines in Ukraine engineered by the Soviet Union, or whether it is a new topic altogether. Applebaum uses facts and testimonies alongside her own commentary, and remarks on how so many different topics interlink. A fascinating tome, and one which I would highly recommend.
My current TBR stands as follows:
- Thomas Hardy: A Life by Claire Tomalin
- The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
- The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
- North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
- Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba
- These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth
- Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd
- The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
- The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicolson
- Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
- Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson
- Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
- Sweet Caress by William Boyd
- Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
- The Complete Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- The Necessary Marriage by Elisa Lodato
I am keen to get my TBR down to 10 books by the end of August. Having a TBR of between 5 and 10 books is my goal, but ultimately, I have decided that I would like to completely eradicate my TBR. I will then be able to focus on reading books from my local library, and all of the galleys which have mounted up on my Kindle over the last couple of years. Any books which I therefore add to my TBR, whether purchased by myself or received as gifts, can be read very quickly to maintain a zero books TBR.
Please wish me luck for the next leg of getting rid of my TBR altogether!