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January 4, 2016

Holiday Reading Joy

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One day back into our routine, and I find I’m happy to be here. It’s been so long, with the sick-filled holidays and my three-plus weeks of pneumonia, and while I was nervous about this return to the real world, I find it much more pleasant and even more relaxing than where we’ve been lately. Although, granted, this is after just one day. Get back to me, perhaps, at the end of the week. But the one thing I do miss about the holiday was the reading—it was wonderful.

I was reading not-new and not-notable books in the weeks before Christmas, and enjoying the experience entirely. But then I picked up Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken, and found myself reading notably in spite of myself. It was so terrific. I’d adored McCracken’s short story collection, Thunderstruck, and I spent last Christmas Day sobbing while reading her exquisite memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. I read her The Giant’s House last summer, and liked it well enough, but it lacked the immediacy of her other books. And I had been reluctant to finally pick up Niagara Falls… because it was about men, a comedy team who find fame on the vaudeville circuit and in the golden days of Hollywood—nothing about that grabbed me. But the book did. Oh, its pacing, and energy, and to be so sad and so funny, and so completely realized. Truly, one of the best not-new books I read in 2015, and I’m so pleased that I finally did.

After that, I read Cassandra at the Wedding, which I bought at Ben McNally Books right before Christmas. I bought this one on the recommendation of Sarah from Edge of Evening, and was so pleased that I did. As Sarah writes, Dorothy Baker conjures Joan Didion in her setting but is entirely different in tone and approach—more wry than wrought, humour bubbling to the surface even in the darkest moments. It’s a book about twin sisters that seems like a great companion to Libby Crewman’s new novel, Split. About the connection between sisters and what happens when it’s severed, and how one person’s reality can be interpreted by another. Like so many books published by New York Review Books, Baker is doing fascinating things with narrative voice, and I appreciate how hearing from the slightly-deranged Cassandra’s sister Judith turns the whole story on its heel.

Then I read Inside Out, which is an essay by Rebecca Solnit with paintings by Stefan Kurtan. I’d asked for it for Christmas because I love Rebecca Solnit and wish to read everything she’s ever written, and also because it’s an essay on the subject of houses and homes, which I find really interesting. And it was. I loved her thoughts on materials and materialism, and the home as an extension of the female body while the automobile is that of the male (and therefore mobile), which connected to all kinds of things I’ve been thinking about Mad Men as we’re rewatching Season 1. Reading Rebecca Solnit is never not satisfying, and the book is beautiful.

I read Because of the Lockwoods next, by Dorothy Whipple. A Persephone Book, which is never short of extraordinary. I bought it in April when we were in London, because we’d been visiting Lancashire and she’s a Lancashire author and also because she is compared to Barbara Pym, similarly ripe for a revival, says Harriet Evans, but even a better writer. Whipple (whose unfashionable name is perhaps part of the reason she’s so fallen out of favour, writes Evans) is meant to be utterly readable, her novels absorbing. But I was dismayed to discover that they’re also 500 pages long, and you know how I feel about long books. It was one thing to carry such a doorstop across the sea, but then to actually pick it up and read it? Clearly I needed a holiday, a bit of space in which to make the long read happen—but then the book turned out to be everything Evans said. I read the whole thing in 2 days and now want to read everything in print by Dorothy Whipple. The novel was engaging, surprising, rich with complex characters and situations. I really loved it. Was dismayed to read that Virago Books was so thorough anti-Whipple. Thank goodness for Persephone for bring her back in print.

And then finally, I read The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller, which was a marvellous celebration of reading, of literary criticism, and of the Narnia books and their creator, as well as critiquing the considerable problems with the two latter points. As we’re smack in the middle of reading the Narnia series (all of us for the first time!) in our family, I was glad to learn so much more about them and their context, and there was no shortage of fascinating Narnia and CS Lewis trivia, so that I become as uninteresting as I always do whilst reading excellent non-fiction (avidly sharing details, beginning every sentence with, “Did you know…) We’re reading Prince Caspian now, and I’m loving it all the more for Miller’s book.

One thought on “Holiday Reading Joy”

  1. Nathalie says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you had that reaction to The Giant’s House. I liked it well enough, too, but was so disappointed that it did not knock socks off like Thunderstruck did. Will now try Niagara with less trepidation. If you like books about houses, read Winifred Gallagher’s House Thinking, a room-by-room history of domestic life. Loved it.

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