Influences on a Common Reader: Where I Find New Books & Why I Read Them


Published in 2013, this is one of my favorite books of the year.

Must I keep up with the latest books?

You should see my book journal: fifth century B.C., first century B.C., first century A.D., Renaissance, 19th century, and many from the 20th century.  But, much to my surprise, I have read 24 new books this year.  And by new, I mean anything since 2010!

This is a post about how I found out about the books and why I read them.  Oh, and I’ve added ridiculous personal star ratings (1-5 stars) to rank  my enjoyment,  as opposed to pure critical judgment (which ratings sometimes coincide, but not always).

TOP REASON FOR READING NEW BOOKS:  FANDOM.  In other words, I already like the authors.

1. Charles Palliser’s Rustication.  I loved The Quincunx, and oddly this is the first of his books I’ve picked up since then.  It’s Gothic, it’s eerie, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t post about it here, so you’ll have to look up the reviews.

On my personal, not critical, scale:  ***

2. Gail Godwin’s Flora.  Loved it, but didn’t write about it!  The story of a life-changing summer.  Precocious 10-year-old Helen, mourning the death of the grandmother who raised her, must resign herself to a babysitter, her  mother’s bubbly cousin Flora, a 22-year-old college graduate looking for a teaching job.  Flora’s father, a school principal, is away for the summer doing  secret war work in Oak Ridge.  There are many twists and turns as Helen’s contempt and jealousy of the generous Flora darkly grows and has consequences.

Star rating:  *****

3 Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret.  Mason is always stunning, and this is one of her best.  Based on her father-in-law’s World War II experiences, it is the story of Marshall Stone, a World War II veteran and retired  airline pilot who  goes to Belgium and then Paris to search for the members of the Resistance who risked their lives to save him after the crash of his B-17 bomber in Belgium.  I posted about it here.

Star rating:  *****

4. D. J. Taylor’s The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918.  In his  compelling new history of a century of writing, brokering, publishing, marketing, reviewing, shaping of taste, and selling of books in England he asks the questions, “What is ‘literary culture’? And what is ‘taste’?”     I posted my reactions here.

Star rating:  *****

5. Jo Walton’s The Just City  In this brilliant, if very strange, philosophical novel, the first of a trilogy, the bookish Athene, goddess of war and wisdom, decides to found a city based on Plato’s Republic. Her brother, Apollo, bemused by the nymph Daphne’s dramatic rejection of his sexual advances (she prayed to Artemis for help and was turned into a tree), decides to participate in the experiment, because he, too, has read Plato, and he wants to be reborn as a mortal to understand the human condition.  You can read the rest of the post here. 

Star rating:  *****

6.  Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.  This strange urban fantasy, a retelling of the Persephone myth, set in Seattle and on an island on Puget Sound, is about climate change. He portrays a magical spring and summer, caused by a divine contretemps between Persephone and Hades. Persephone has left her husband Hades, is hiding out in Seattle, and is working as a waitress. As you can imagine, both Hades and her mother Demeter are searching for her.  The lives of the human protagonists change because of their interactions with the gods.  You can read my post here.

7.  Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days. This is the third of a trilogy about a New York couple, Russell and Corinne Calloway. Russell and Corinne were deeply shaken in the second book, The Good Life, by the trauma of 9/11, and have tried to be their best selves since. Now they are at a crossroads in their marriage and work: Russell, known for publishing literary fiction, toys with the idea of buying a commercial blockbuster because of financial problems, and Corinne, a former stockbroker coming to terms with middle age, now manages a massive food bank that distributes vegetables and fruit to the poor and thinks he should stick to his ideals.  At 50, they are having a midlife crisis about where to live and what to do.  Should Corinne leave Russell for the filthy rich guy she had an affair with after 9/11?  Will the Russells continue to summer in the Hamptons?  I can mock the rich, but I enjoyed this book.   You can read my post here.

Star rating:  ****

8.  Peter  Stothard’s The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher.  Stothard, the  former editor of the Times Literary Supplement (he retired this year) and The London Times, is an Oxford-educated classicist who has written two other brilliant books, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra and On the Spartacus Road. I come to this book through my love of classics, but many will be drawn to the history and politics. In this gracefully-written memoir, he recounts his fascination with Nero and Seneca and Nero’s court, especially to Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s tutor and political advisor. As a deputy editor at the London Times, Stothard met often with Thatcher’s four main advisors, who gave him background for The Times’ political articles. And they shared his interest in Seneca regularly. He organized a Latin class for the four advisors at a pub and reviewed/taught conjugations and declensions and read and discussed Seneca.  I wrote about it here and here.

Star rating:  *****

9.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books.  In this intelligent, charming little book, Lahiri writes about book covers as the clothing of book.  She looks at the role of the book cover in representing ideas  and selling the book and the negligible role of the author in choosing the design. Written in Italian as the keynote speech for the Festival degli Scrittori in Florence, The Clothing of Books was translated into English by her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.  I wrote about it here.

Star rating:  *****

10.  Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, 2029-2047.  In Lionel Shriver’s clever, witty dystopian novel, water is a luxury. There is no water in the West and there is a shortage in New York.  The Mandibles have always been rich: their fortune was built, ironically, on diesel engines (obviously a contributing factor to the pollution in 2029). But this book is really about money: what happens when the economy tanks in 2029 after the dollar is declared worthless in the global economy? Four generations of the Mandibles are affected, and  it’s not pretty.  But it’s not zombies and apocalypse:  there is hope.   I wrote about it here.

Star rating:  ****


1. Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton I was inspired to read this by Sarah Lyall’s excellent interview with Strout in The New York Times.  A lyrical novel about a daughter’s reconciliation with her mother.    I wrote about it here.

Star rating:  *****

2. Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers.  I was inspired to read this by Michiko Kakutani, who liked this light summer book.  Alas, it is the worst book I read all  year.   I won’t bother to link you to my post.

Star rating:  no stars.

3. Emma Cline’s The Girls.  I was inspired to read this by the many, many enthusiastic American reviews.  (In the UK they don’t quite get it, judging from reviews.)   If you loved Donna Tartt’s eerie first novel, The Secret History, you will enjoy this.  Told from the point of view of Evie Boyd, a middle-aged woman who at 14 was involved with a Manson-like cult in the Bay area, the narrative shifts back and forth between Evie’s present as an unemployed home aide house-sitting for a friend and her memories of the summer of 1969 when she was a lonely upper-class adolescent with a crush on Suzanne, one of the cult leader Russell’s girls. Evie did not kill anyone, but she is haunted by her memories. You can read my post  here.

Star rating:  *****

4. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different.  I was inspired by many, many enthusiastic reviews.  Loved it.  Narrated mostly in the first person, partly in the third person, and partly in an elliptical graphic memoir, it is witty, brilliant, alternately grumpy and effervescent. The heroine, Eleanor Flood, a former director of animation on a cartoon show in New York, is too sharp and introspective to fit in seamlessly as a Seattle housewife and stay-at-home mom. In laid-back, quirky, politically correct Seattle, she is neither the perfect wife to Joe, a hand surgeon, nor the perfect mother to eight-year-old Timby, and she never works on the graphic memoir she has a contract for.  She makes resolutions to be kind and generous to her family for one day, but soon everything spirals out of control.  You can read my post here.

Star rating:  *****

5. Charles Bock’s Alice & Oliver.  Source:  a review from Bookpage, a PR book review publication.  Based partly on his notes on Bock’s own notes on his wife’s hospitalizations and  death from cancer, it is the story of a young couple’s struggles after Alice is diagnosed with cancer and Oliver must figure out her care as well as take care of their baby.  Very, very shockingly realistic and sad.

Star rating:  ***


1. Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblan.  Longlisted for the National Book Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize.  Very quirky, charming, and philosophical.  I never got around to blogging about it, but I loved it!

Star rating:  *****

2. David Mean’s Hystopia.  Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.   Means has constructed a novel within a novel about an alternate 1960s.  Kennedy has survived the assassination attempt and is in his third term as president, but his wave-by tours in an open car attract other would-be assassins. Vietnam veterans are shipped to Michigan to be treated by the Psych Corps established by Kennedy to treat mental illness in general but especially to deal with the problem of returning Vietnam vets. The treatment, known as “enfolding,” combines a dose of a drug called Tripizoid with a reenactment of the traumatic events by actual actors, which results in “enfolding” the memories, i.e., amnesia about their tours of duty. But the drug doesn’t work on everyone, and psychotic vets are terrorizing Michigan, which is burning as a result of fires started in Detroit and Flint during riots.  Really loopy lyrical comical prose.  Loved it, but didn’t expect it to win, because it’s meta-fiction and science fiction!  My post is here. 

Star rating:  *****

3. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love.  Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize. A fascinating novel about the competition in the art world to acquire a lost painting by Watteau, “The Improbability of Love.” The details about establishing the provenance of art is slightly reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Possession.  My post is here.

Star rating:  ****

4.  André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last year. A witty, poignant novel about  talking dogs and a bet between Apollo and Hermes.  My post is here.

Star rating:  *****


1. Natasha Stagg’s Surveys. This small-press book was an Emily Books selection (0nline bookstore/book club).  My post is here.

Star rating:  *****

2. Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing.  An Amazon recommendation.  My post is here.

Star rating:  ***

3. Allison Winn Scotch’s In Twenty Years. Found it at Amazon and it is published by an Amazon imprint. This very enjoyable light nvoel centers on the midlife crises of a group of old college friends–and, coincidentally, one of the group members in each book is a rock star.  I posted about it here.

Star rating:  ****

3.  Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better (Star rating:  ***) & Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (Star rating:  ****).  Both are  published by Europa Editions.  My posts are here and here.

And so that’s how I find out about new books!

2 thoughts on “Influences on a Common Reader: Where I Find New Books & Why I Read Them

  1. Interesting – you read so much more new prose than I do, and there’s a real variety of sources. I tend to pick up many of my recommendations from book blogs nowadays – I used to get a book supplement that came with the Saturday Times, but they stopped that years ago and there are many fewer paper recommendations any more – which is a shame.


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