Reader’s Block

by Maria on February 11, 2007

As of January 1st, 2007, I’ve been keeping track of all the books I read/start. This is mostly because by the time I get to the end of the year and want to make a satisfying round-up of what I’ve read, what I’d recommend or trash, I find I can’t remember more than half a dozen of them. Two years out of three, I’m between homes and most of my books are in storage again, so I can’t run a finger along the shelf to prompt a memory of the year’s reading. Also, in a spirit of self-improvement I started lots of non-fiction books and know myself well enough to realise that a reporting system may be the only thing that makes me finish them. And finally, because my partial training in history and the social sciences gives me faith that data collected even for subjective purposes can be revealing of unexpected things. We shall see.

Here we go:

Politicians and Other Animals
, Olivia O’Leary.
1/1/07 – 1/1/07
A clever, cutting and sometimes disarmingly sympathetic series of sketches on Irish political life by a current affairs presenter who put the fear of god into many a hardened hack. Hence easy to finish in a day, but still lingering on the kitchen table for early morning reads. Olivia O’Leary gave an after-dinner talk about Irish political figures in Brussels last week which I hear was brilliant, sharp, funny and warm. Unfortunately I had to ditch for a work do right after the lamb cutlets were served, and had forgotten to bring the book along for her to sign anyway.

Russian Literature, an Introduction, Catriona Kelly
1/1/07 – present
This is one of those OUP ‘very short introductions’, and is a little gem. It avoids the chronological approach for a more subjective look at Russian literature through the prism of Pushkin’s influence. I’ve gotten through three of its very short chapters, and really enjoyed them, dipping out occasionally to Natasha’s Dance as a cross reference. But in all honesty, my little bourgeois drive for perfection through the accumulation of knowledge would have preferred a straight run from A-Z. I agree intellectually with how Kelly has written her very short introduction, but it is rather hard work. Pushkin literally sends me to sleep, and, as Kelly admits, only Russians really get the point of him. This one will probably stay a bedside read for when I really can’t nod off.

The Flood, Ian Rankin
2/1/07 – 3/1/07
His first novel. A bit naive and roughly worked, and not much like the police procedurals Rankin is best known for. His introductory essay is worth it alone to see how an accomplished writer regards his early work; acutely aware of its faults but not allowing his present self to disavow his erstwhile undergraduate. And another easy read, in about 2 days.

Prayer Road, Frank Fowlie & Phillip Moses
3/1/07- 3/1/07
Frank’s a colleague, and this book is about his efforts in a previous role to get an East Timorese team to the Sydney Olympics. Parts of it are nails-on-a-blackboard clumsy, when the Timorese would-be athletes have words put in their mouths by the Western writer to describe their sufferings under the Indonesian regime. Colonialism mark two. The name’s a bit off-putting. Some colleagues thought ‘Prayer Road’ indicated an overtly religious book, and avoided it, but I don’t think there’s a single prayer in it. The story is a powerful one about how to push against a large UN/IOC bureaucracy, using the irritant of populism to get counter-intuitive things done.

Bess of Hardwick
, Mary Lovell
28/12/06 – present
I’m about half way through this book which a sister received for Christmas, I started reading, then bought my own copy when sis took hers away after the holidays. She’s now on her 4th husband (Bess, not my sister), who’s a cranky old git, and the heroine’s story has settled into a side show to the incarceration to Mary, Queen of Scots. My pace has slowed accordingly. I was interested in the kind of book a professional biographer who’s not a historian would write. Lovell is not in Claire Tomalin’s league, but Bess a solid, richly detailed read. It’s very good on the prominent families of Tudor and Stuart England. One aristocratic or possibly gentry family who served the realm were the Pierrepoints, an unusual name which I recently noticed was also shared by Britain’s last executioner. I wonder if he was a descendant. This one I’ll finish, but slowly. Distant historical figures inhabiting a colourfully detailed universe are far better company on holiday, than in the half hour before bed time.

Black and Blue, Ian Rankin
3/1/07 – 6/1/07
Standard issue Ian Rankin; clever, sympathetic and a bit cranky – just like the protagonist. Rebus embodies the contradiction of the Scottish character, both witty and dour. I was house-sitting for a friend who had introduced me to Rankin a couple of years ago. It’s his dialogue that pulled me in; crackling in pace, world-weary in spirit. (At this point it should be obvious that I have no problem finishing genre fiction.)

Oh dear, we’re still on the first week of January. Well I read much less once I went back to work.

Journal d’Hirondelle, Amelie Nothombe
7/1/07 – 15/1/07
I read it through quite quickly, and am now torturing myself by underlining and memorising new vocabulary. It’s about a broken-hearted man who discovers that he gains no pleasure from any sensory experience he had before he was dumped. (Except for Radiohead) Seeking out new experiences, he becomes an assassin zooming around Paris on a motorbike. The summary encapsulates this book and Nothombe’s oeuvre quite perfectly (sorry to those who don’t read French);

“Personnage nothombien par excellence, le héros, solitaire, misanthrope, détaché de toute réalité contingente, coincé dans sa propre logique, amputé des perceptions ordinaires, agissant au-delà du bien et du mal, découvre justement qu’il y a un au-delà et qu’il se nomme amour.”

This may well be the last Nothombe I enjoy. Her oddness has become a predictable formula that indicates she’s not at all as odd as she thinks.

The Pursuit of History, John Tosh
12/1/07 – 27/01/07
This is cheating. I haven’t read every chapter of this student/general reader’s introduction to the reading and writing of history. But I’ve read all the ones I needed to convince me that I will not embark on that historical biography this year, or perhaps ever. Having re-familiarised myself with the state of my former discipline, I’ve now despatched this to my youngest sister who is a first year student at Trinity. Not that she really needs it – she has a sharp mind and a good nose for out of the way essay topics. This book is like an Open University introduction to modern historiography, but without the leaden dullness of those texts. It is good for leading under-grads to social history and the annalistes (something my degree didn’t, but my big brother did) and even describes how Cromwell created the phrase ‘warts and all’. It reminds me that I still haven’t managed to read Ladurie’s Montaillou, thirteen years after I promised myself I would.

The Lion and the Unicorn, Richard Aldous
14/1/07 – present
This is a superb dual-biography of Gladstone and Disraeli, written by the new-ish head of the University College Dublin* history department, who’s actually English himself. It is written to entertain and engage a wide audience, though a book seller tells me it didn’t jump off the shelves at Christmas as expected. This despite being recommended by Supreme Court judge, Adrian Hardiman, and Trinity historian Patrick Geoghegan, two people with an appreciation for the colour and humour of history. I’ve recommended this book to every Irish person I think might be /should be tempted. We read the Victorian period only through its impact on land reform and home rule, and rarely have any feel or interest in the wider world of British politics which ultimately determined our fate. This is unapologetically a history of great men, full of verve and manly vigour, and makes me think I really should read Jenkins, one of the days. Still haven’t finished it, though.

The Dalkey Archive, Flann O’Brien
27/1/07 – present
I’ve already stalled on this. Although I love The Third Policeman with all my heart, and laughed right the way through At Swim Two Birds, there is only so much De Selby I can manage. Keep him in the footnotes!

Borderland, a Journey through the History of Ukraine,
Anna Reid
31/1/07 – present
This is a re-read. I read Borderland before going on a study tour of Ukraine last year, and recently gave a short talk about it at a reception in London. Afterwards, talking to Chris Patten about EU/Russia relations, we both enthused warmly about this book. Which made me want to read it again, especially now that I’ve been to Ukraine. Borderland tells of Ukraine’s history as the mythic Rus – which explains why the Russians just can’t let it go – and how it is shaped by being part of Poland, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and Turkey, or at least their old empires. The chapter about Odessa would make you buy a ticket there. I’ve slowed down a bit because I’ve gotten to Stalin’s man-made famine which is hard to read about, even if knowing about it is a moral imperative. The book finishes a few years before the Orange Revolution, which is just as well, as Ukraine today is a country where that feels like it never happened.

There are a few more half-hearted, half-started books lurking under the bed. Which makes me think this logging of books is creating a perverse incentive to not put them in the notebook until I’m already well started on them. There was one thriller by David Baldacci which is so bad I won’t name it. It included a US security czar who just happens to speak Arabic better than the terrorists, and a female love interest who qualifies by reading junk as well as intellectual stuff and the classics. Talk about an insecure author – complete adolescent male wish fulfillment.

I also started Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet, and am half way through, hoping the protagonists will run out of money and end their repetitive schemes sooner than the length of the book indicates. Again, I see the point of it; it’s just that the execution is so dull.

Then there was Lionel Kochan’s ‘The Making of Modern Russia’, written in the 1960s. I’ve read a couple of chapters, but find myself a bit put off by Kochan’s description of Stalin’s ‘discovery’, contra Lenin, that world revolution wasn’t essential, and that Russia was big enough and bad enough to go it alone. You’d have to be deeply immersed in the theology of communism to call this necessary, sidewise manouevre a ‘discovery’. Though I bought it as a period piece (one pound fifty outside the NFT), I think I’ll probably hang on for the posh new histories of Russia that are coming out now that the official archives have been open a while.

So what counter-intuitive finding have I made so far? I admit to starting 11 books since the beginning of the year (the truth is probably closer to 15). And I find I’ve finished about 6. Which makes for about half, an unexpected finding. If I hadn’t logged the data, I’d have said I finish a quarter of the books I start. It’s not that they’re bad books, on the whole, but because I’m a magpie and am always on the look out for something brighter and shinier.

So to counter-act that tendency, I’ve also begun a list of books I’d like to read, with a holding period of at least a week before I’m allowed to buy them. Of 9 books added since the beginning of the year, I’ve only bought one. (though there have been un-scheduled purchases of about 5.) Next year, I’m going to start a list of lists I’m allowed to make, and see how that goes.

* Tks, Doug.



Doug 02.11.07 at 3:09 pm

Will there be a list of lists you’re not allowed to make? Borges would like that one better, I suspect.

Also suspect that UCD, above, is somehow not University of California, Davis, despite said state’s known relationship to the center of the universe.

I do something like this list already (though not online), but only with books finished and then only title and author. The listing does provide a little extra incentive to finish, but not much more than living in a non-English-speaking country already does. There’s not much that I buy here (libraries being uncooperatively almost all in that other language) that I don’t have a pretty sure sense of finishing. At least eventually.

But looking back is fun, and yields the occasional counterintuitive finding.


tom s. 02.11.07 at 4:11 pm

Certainly do list them here – good ideas for my own reading. But do you also add them to librarything? It’s a good way of keeping a virtual shelf to run a finger along.


thistle 02.12.07 at 1:15 am

UCD = University College Dublin.


Tim 02.12.07 at 3:56 am

I’ve been doing this at for a few months now, and it has been interesting to see the evolving tag count. As I suspected, murder mysteries are on pace to be the number one category. Hopefully just seeing that will be enough to shame me into making a better effort on the philosophy and science stuff, which I enjoy once I get into it, but is so much harder to start.


Richard Vagge 02.12.07 at 8:35 am

Shouldn’t this list of books also contain its eponymous book.

A great read.


Doug 02.12.07 at 10:32 am

About the only guilt left about things I ‘should’ be reading is the amount of time something has spent on my shelves unread, and even that is most strongly related to the number of times I have moved house with it. I think the current record-holder is a reader’s advanced copy of a novel from 1991, which means seven moves, presuming that it did not come along for the shorter stints in Budapest and Warsaw. I hope it’s a good book, for having been lugged around so much.

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