Reading


I loved Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is one of the most profound love stories I’ve ever read, and I remember loaning my copy to at least five friends afterwards. So when Her Fearful Symmetry came out, I started on it right away.

It’s a story of twin sisters who move to London after the death of an unknown aunt who’s left them money and a flat, and of the inhabitants of this flat’s building that sits next to a cemetery. As you might now guess, death figures prominently in the novel. The story seems to be set in present day, but the narrative and the characters have an ethereal, removed quality that at the same time suggests a past century. This fits comfortably with the tale’s resemblance to Victorian Gothic novels. It has all the elements: Horror, romance, the supernatural, and death all intertwine.

I recommend the book, but not because it follows in Traveler’s footsteps. The tale itself isn’t as engrossing as Niffenegger’s first novel, where you feel compelled to keep reading. I think Her Fearlful Symmetry’s strength is in its aesthetics: the picture it paints of a spiritually active world, the themes of death and darkness. I enjoyed it because I felt transported to an intriguing new time and place.

We all need methods in our lives to separate the worthwhile from the time-wasting, the valuable wheat from the useless chaff.

I’m not suggesting that all other books are chaff-like (I will admit Twilight was a delicious read), but the award winners below are safe bets in an age where 200,000 books are published each year in the United States alone. For reading and collecting.

Mann Booker Prize, open to novels by citizens of the Commonwealth of  Nations, Ireland, and Zimbabwe

National Book Award, open to American authors

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, open to American authors

Sad to say, I haven’t read any of them. I have my eye on The Children’s Book (Byatt is always great) and The Little Stranger (a mystery in postwar Britain seems right up my alley). Let me know what you think of these, or any of the books on the list.

My newest fixation is the audiobook. I’ve taken a few long trips — one to Paris, and most recently holiday travel. When traveling for long periods of time, I have always brought books along but either my eyes get tired or I find I’m restless from bending over a book.

So in preparation for my interminable flight to France, rather than buy a new book, I downloaded one. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. It was mesmerizing. The narrator was brilliant and brought the story to life — a dark and perverse story, I might add. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not for the faint of heart; it is an intriguing mystery that touches on some very uncomfortable subjects (rape and incest, for example).  Audiobooks are a bit pricey, but I consider the entertainment for long trips well worth it. I use Audible, associated with Amazon.

Now I’m on to Anna Karenina, a book that I’ve started before but never finished. The audiobook is around 37 hours long. I’ve listened to 8. But I’m optimistic that I’ll finish. Audiobooks are particularly well-suited to lengthy classics — you don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of difficult characters’ names and heady detail. The story flows at the steady pace of the narrator, and you are drawn along for the ride.

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven MillhauserI haven’t posted in a while — my negligence is a function of getting back into the swing of real life after the holidays. Real life is much busier than I remember it being.

I’m back in DC, and there two major news stories here. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen much else on the local news. 1) The inauguration is upon us, and that means crazy time here. 2) It is really freaking cold outside, which has a critical effect on news story #1.

Since the windchill today has been in the single digits, I’ve decided to shut myself indoors. I made myself a warm pot of jasmine green tea, curled up under a blanket, and savored the first two stories from Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser.

The two stories I read, especially the first, were wonderful. I usually don’t read short stories, but I’m finding that they offer quick, self-contained, and satisfying escapes from reality. And in the unwelcome busy-ness I’m finding myself in, that’s wonderful.

I’ll get back on track with my posts on book collecting soon.

From the novel I’m currently reading, Birds Without Wings by Louis des Bernieres. It’s about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, set in the early 20th-century, and promises to continue the beautiful epicness of des Bernieres that I last encountered in Corelli’s Mandolin.

Birds Without WingsThere comes a point in life where each one of us who survives begins to feel like a ghost that has forgotten to die at the right time, and certainly most of us were more amusing when we were young. It seems that age folds the heart in on itself. Some of us walk detached, dreaming on the past, and some of us realise that we have lost the trick of standing in the sun. For many of us the thought of the future is a cause for irritation rather than optimism, as if we have had enough of new things, and wish only for the long sleep that rounds the edges of our lives. I feel this weariness myself.

A History of ReadingIt may sound silly, but I really enjoy reading about reading. Perhaps I enjoy these types of books because they introduce the pleasure of reading through someone else’s eyes, or they push me to approach reading in a different way. Or maybe I just like the books because I love the subject so much.

Regardless, here are three very interesting reads on reading, and books.

On Writing and Reading

  • Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster — gleaned from Forster’s series of talks on such aspects as “The Plot” and “The Story,” the survey of novels is widely considered to a best nonfiction work of the 20th century
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books…, by Francine Prose — she uses thought-provoking passages from Austen, Dostoevsky, le Carre, et al. to identify the elements that make great fiction
  • A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel — a treasure trove of tid-bits related to the subject of reading throughout the ages, including personal stories and historical illustrations; a delight for any serious reader

Have any to add?

Historical fiction is my favorite genre of literature. There’s nothing better than reading a great story while soaking in some of the culture and events of a place removed both in time and space. I’ve read a lot of the stuff, and these ten titles round out my favorites. I’m always looking for new suggestions; if there’s something you think I should read, leave a comment!

It’d also be nice to get first editions of these novels, but for some of them — like Gone With the Wind — that just ain’t happening.

  1. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
  2. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
  3. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
  4. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
  5. The Eight, by Katherine Neville
  6. Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
  7. Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  10. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Next Page »