A Homage to the TBR

Someone else’s reading journal.

I keep a book journal, but do not have a TBR.  I buy books, I put them on shelves, I take them off shelves, I find I am not in the mood, I put them back for a year or ten years, I take them off the shelves again, and eventually I read them. Are people with TBRs more organized?  When I do plan, the dates are flexible.  Last spring I meant to reread Daniel Deronda, but didn’t get around to it till  fall.  Did it matter?  Not at all.  And did I hurry through 800 pages?  I did not.  George Eliot’s prose is buoyant and rich in texture, lush and leisurely.  Festina lente (“Hurry slowly”),as the Roman proverb says.

Not everyone shares my serendipitous style of selection, though. We don’t all have to be the same:  I very much like other people’s TBRs!  And so this post is a homage to pictures of  bloggers’ TBRs, which I always love, and to the “vloggers” at Booktube who show books to the camera and say they plan to read them. (Now that is a bit weird!)  The photo above is of what passes for my TBR (though I am committed to reading other books currently, so this TBR is in flux).  I have started some of these, so I can decide which to finish, and which to reject.

1.  Gail Honeymoon’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.  Everybody has read this except me, yes?  I have read 50 pages, and it is well-written.  Initially I thought it might be like Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, only Eleanor Oliphant is a 30ish eccentric heroine with a dead-end job in an office, not an elderly woman about to retire. But Honeymoon’s novel is both lighter and more issue-oriented:   The victim of some kind of abuse, Eleanor has scars all over her face but says she “is completely fine” without having any friends. And then, at  a concert, she is smitten by a musician, and buys a computer to stalk him online.  She plans to meet and seduce him and even gets a bikini wax.  But her most likely friend?  The nice, dull guy from the IT department.

I’m of two minds about this:   I do feel I read a very similar American novel in 2015 or 2016.  I actually blogged about it, but don’t remember the title.  It wasn’t very good:   the story of a obese woman who is completely alone until a kind woman befriends her–and naturally she blooms.  Gail Honeymoon’s novel is much more sophisticated.  I am not very intrigued by the story, though.

2.  Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun.  This is a Christmas present from a friend with very good taste.   And I loved Stewart’s nonfiction book about earthworms, The Earth Moved.  This mystery, set in 1914,  is based on the real-life Kopp sisters: Constance Kopp became of the nation’s first female sheriffs, after the sisters survived a shoot-out at their farm.  This is another of those books everyone loves, and  the opening pages are addictive.  AND SO IT WILL BE READ.

3.  Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I read an article in The Guardian about publishers’ favorite books of the year:  Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury recommended Conversations with Friends.  I’ve read 62 pages of this beautifully-written little book, and it slightly reminds me of Barbara Trapido’s comic novels, only it’s aimed at Millennials and written by a Millennial.  The narrator, Frances, a poet who performs poetry at bars with her best friend Bobbi, develops a tangled relationship with a married actor, the husband of a woman who is writing a profile about Frances and Bobbi.   I’m of two minds about this:  I’m not its target audience, and I do not relate to the characters.  But  I will PROBABLY finish it because it’s blessedly short.

4.  Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke It’s a Golden Age Detective Story, and I love Allingham.  It is not her best but very exciting!  I’m a fan of her hero Albert Campion, so I’ll finish it.

5.  Browsings, by Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post, is a collection of essays which he wrote originally for the homepage at The American Scholar. He is obsessed with collecting books, carries a notebook on walks, and tells us which notebooks he prefers (not Moleskines), lists titles of books about books, and guides browsers at a famous book sale at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart to learn which books are collectible and valuable.   Yes, I will finish this book, and it would make a great Christmas gift.

6.  Susan Richards Shreve’s Queen of Hearts.  I absolutely loved this well-written novel when I read it in the ’80s, and am loving it again.  It’s a moving tale with a hint of magic realism, set in a small town in Massachusetts.  The heroine is beautiful, kind, and has second sight, but on the eve of her wedding, an unforeseen incident occurs: she finds her fiance with another woman, and she kills him. What will she do with this secret?   The very talented Susan Richard Shreves is one of my favorite novelists. She bridges the gap between literary and popular fiction, and this is thoroughly enjoyable.

So, do you have a TBR?  Do you plan your readign?  Or do you read as you go? What’s on your TBR?   Let me know!

Michael Dirda’s Essay on E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle e. nesbit il_570xN.769748903_qjtqWhen I was a child, E. Nesbit was my favorite writer, and The Enchanted Castle was my favorite book. Before birthdays and Christmas, I made a list for my mother of the E. Nesbits I wanted from the local bookstore. (I idiotically sold them in my 20s.)  Nesbit’s children’s books are more entertaining and better-written than most of her adult books, but last  winter I discovered her adult novel, The Lark, a delightful comedy published in 1922.

I was thrilled to find that Michael Dirda has written a brilliant essay, “The Serious Make-Believe of E. Nesbit,” for the Barnes & Noble Review, 

Here is an excerpt:

Not all of E. Nesbit’s children’s books are fantasies, but even the most realistic somehow seem magical. In her holiday world nobody ever goes to school, though all the kids know their English history, Greek myths, and classic tales of derring-do. Again and again, Nesbit’s fiction celebrates the power of reading, coupled with the power of the imagination, as the best way for young people to transform and enchant everyday life.

Between 1899 and the outbreak of World War I, Nesbit scribbled one juvenile masterpiece after another. Everyone has his or her own favorite: Mine is The Story of the Amulet (1906), but other readers would opt for Five Children and It (1902) or The Railway Children (1906) or The Enchanted Castle (1907). In the United States, however, Nesbit isn’t anywhere near as well known as she deserves to be, given her delightful humor, sprightly, conversational style, and all-around irresistibility. Just listen to Oswald Bastable near the opening of The Treasure Seekers:

“There are some things I must tell before I begin to tell about the treasure-seeking, because I have read books myself, and I know how beastly it is when a story begins, “Alas!” said Hildegarde with a deep sigh, “we must look our last on this ancestral home” — and then some one else says something — and you don’t know for pages and pages where the home is, or who Hildegarde is or anything about it. Our ancestral home is in the Lewisham Road. It is semi-detached and has a garden, not a large one. We are the Bastables. There are six of us besides Father. Our mother is dead…”

An excellent essay!  Every adult should know about Nesbit.

The Blogger Chronicles, Part 3: Critic Michael Dirda and Novelists D. J. Taylor & Sherry Jones Speak Out on Blogs

Roman woman writingThis is the third in a series of “featurettes” about blogging.  Today, meet Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Washington Post; D. J. Taylor, an award-winning biographer, novelist, and critic; and Sherry Jones, an award-winning author of historical novels.

In a scene in D. E. Stevenson’s light, humorous novel, The Two Mrs. Abbots (1943), Janetta Walters, a romantic novelist, meets an air force pilot who dislikes her books.

She was aware that the English-speaking world contained people who did not care for her work, but never before had she met one of these people in the flesh–not so far as she knew.  Reviewers were sometimes unkind, but reviewers were different…

Novelists, reviewers, and bloggers often have confusing encounters.  Everybody is a click away by email (two or three clicks if you go through PR people), and bloggers can happily chat with famous writers, or, in this case, interview them.

Because so many of the bloggers I recently interviewed like to read classics and older books, I approached Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning critic at The Washington Post and author of Readings, Bound to Please, and Classics for Pleasure. Not only is he an outstanding writer, but he sometimes reviews classics, reissued editions of out-of-print novels, reference books, poetry, science fiction, and other less well-known books. * (see note)

He kindly agreed to an email interview on the subject of critics and bloggers.

Although he does not read blogs regularly, he enjoys “specialized sites about everything from the classic ghost story (All-Hallows) to the Golden Age Mystery (The Passing Tramp) to the course of popular fiction over the past 100 or so years (the restricted discussion group called fictionmags).”

He is happy with the quality of some blogs, not so happy with others.

He writes:

“China’s Cultural Revolution proclaimed: “Let a thousand flowers blossom”–and, while I’m no Maoist, I do think the proliferation of reader comment and discussion online is to be welcome. Besides, it’s inevitable, even if there are losses. My own caveats are pretty familiar by now.  People gravitate to specialized blogs or tailor their data consumption–to use the lingo–to a narrow band of material. Common knowledge–the stuff that everyone knew about because it came to you in the daily paper or from big-name magazines and book reviews–is being eroded. We can now learn an incredible amount about quite specialized areas of interest: Unfortunately, more and more people  know everything about the strategy of League of Legends yet are unable to name the Secretary of State. And not care.”

He cautions readers about believing everything they read online, since few sites have fact checkers and copy editors.  He can identify bloggers who know their stuff, but thinks “the flashy and the crowd-pleasing sites are often the ones that receive all the hits and make the big numbers.”

He says that when critics and journalists talk about bloggers, it is “mainly to lament their own loss of power and influence.” There is no equivalent of the supportive community of bloggers or online book groups among critics.  They spend a lot of time alone.

He writes, “To read a book well or appreciate a work of art requires a focused act of attention. You need quiet and minimal interruption, both of which are hard to achieve if you’re constantly updating your Facebook page. Addictive twittering is even worse. Personally, I prefer to talk with my friends, truly face to face, over dinner and a glass of Guinness.”

D. J. Taylor is a critic, biographer, and Man Booker Prize-nominated author of the novel, Derby Day.  His brilliant new novel, The Windsor Faction, was one of my favorite books of 2013 (I wrote about it here) and I very much enjoyed his non-fiction book, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age (I wrote about it here; It can also be used as a reference book about such Bright Young People as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and  Cecil Beaton).

Like all writers, he has had good and bad experiences online.  He said by e-mail:

Blogs are like every other form of reader response in the publishing process, from newspaper reviews to Amazon critiques – helpful and instructive if well done (and by this I don’t merely mean favourable to the author), a waste of time if not. My instinctive feeling is that the Americans are better at this than the Brits. I have been very impressed in recent years by specialist non-fiction sites which have been useful for promoting my own stuff –  a blog called Cocktails with Elvira was particularly helpful with my Bright Young People book. With The Windsor Faction blogs such as The Common Reader and your own site have offered a welcome counterblast to various on-line reviewers who will insist that an alternative history novel set in World War II has to be full of stampeding Nazis and derring do.

Sherry Jones, a former journalist and the author of two historical novels, Four Sisters All Queens and The Jewel of Medina, has had good and bad experiences, too.  (I wrote  here about Four Sisters All Queens, a well-researched, fascinating novel about the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy in Provence.)  She said in an email interview:

“How readers find out about new books is a mystery to me. As an historical fiction author, I’m very grateful to the bloggers who’ve taken the time to read and review the novels I’ve written, but I’m also aware that their impact on my readership is very limited. Most bloggers have only a few hundred followers at most — a drop in the proverbial bucket. Some, alas, can barely spell. And yet they offer us exposure, both on their blogs and on the social media where they promote their posts…”

She appreciates reviews online, but says they can be helpful or harmful.

“My only concern about blog reviewers is that, too often, they write authoritatively as literary critics despite having no schooling or even basic knowledge of the art of criticism. In the online world, anyone can post whatever they desire about a book and be taken seriously, even if the person writing is no “serious” critic or even educated in literature and literary history (a must for context, if for nothing else).”

She belongs to two book groups, and says word of mouth or the review of a trusted blogger are often the best ways to learn about good books.  When her new book, THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, is released in October, she will be “writing to as many bloggers as I can find, soliciting reviews and interviews, and offering to write guest posts….  Bloggers, unlike critics, tend to be unpretentious, and quite approachable.”

She thanks bloggers for writing.  “Believe me when I say that we’re all infinitely grateful for what you and other book bloggers do. Please don’t stop!”

Thank you, Michael, David, and Sherry for agreeing to be interviewed!

* Note:  In recent years, Dirda has written about a reissue of Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds (a kind of predecessor to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds), Persian poetry, an annotated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a fantasy novel by Gavriel Guy Kay, an appreciation of Ray Bradbury on the occasion of his death, and a reissue of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr. Polly.