Book Reading

I made a resolution for 2017 - less terrible television, more reading books. So, here's a little diary of the books I'm reading in 2017. I'll include new books as I finish reading them. This is sometimes a slow process - I've a lot of extra reading to do for university, and I can only wonder at the sort of speed with which author John Boyne gets through books. I'm mostly a non-fiction reader; I'm more interested in what happened than story, although I do enjoy a good story too. Anyway, here's what I've read so far this year:

The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

When I was at uni the first time around (i.e. normal student age), I was obsessed with "doomed poetess" Sylvia Plath; especially reading about her, rather than reading her own work. I read every biography I could get my hands on at the time. Rough Magic was a favourite - I wanted to be "sympathetic" to Plath, too. Bitter Fame? Bah, hateful rubbish. (I still feel that way about the spiteful, nasty appendices to the book, but that's another story).

I stopped reading much about Plath over a decade ago, and haven't read any of the newer biographies, such as Mad Girl's Love Song or the unfortunately titled American Isis; those with a different perspective, who did not live through or understand the times Plath lived in.

So in reading the Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm's illuminating work on the nature of biography and the battle for the memory of Plath (and, some would say, the soul of Ted Hughes), I was joltingly aware of the generation gap between those who knew Plath, and today; the difference in values, speech patterns, sensibilites. For Malcolm was able to speak with those on both "sides" of the Plath debate - Olwyn Hughes, Plath's ex sister-in-law who Plath had not much cared for in life but who ended up in charge of her literary estate by default; Plath's friend the poet Al Alvarez, who has written on his relationship with Plath and her final days of despair; and the shrunken figure of Anne Stevenson, author of Bitter Fame, who ended up caught in the middle, bound to Olwyn Hughes in writing a book she was not happy with.

Who owns the dead? What can be said about them? Do immediate family have a right to their memories and how they are spoken of? If so, does that expire and when? Malcolm explores the issues, those caught in the middle, the legend of Plath, where it has been and where it is going.

For there are more books, more revelations. This month, letters were revealed in which Plath accused Hughes of beating her and wanting her dead. These letters, dated to within a few days of her death, add an interesting twist to Hughes'es claim that he destroyed Plath's diaries leading up to her death - was he trying to hide more than her despair? And there is of course the unbearable cumulative tragedy that Hughes' and Plath's son Nicholas himself committed suicide, in 2009.

I don't know if I'll read any more Plath soon though. As I was reading this, a friend of mine from high school, whom I'd stayed in touch with (yeah Facebook) took their own life; and it was the second suicide from my year at school in a few months. So these things are on my mind a lot. It's a bit of a weird time.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

I read the Santaland Diaries, ages ago, but this is the first full length work of Sedaris's I've gotten through. I like the style of humourous essays, though what is true and what is exaggerated for comedic effect puts this in that shaky territory between fiction and non (I've used the same technique in my blog more than a couple of times over the years...and it's gotten blowback from people who've taken me seriously, I might add).

Anyway, to Pretty. It's a book of two halves; the first where Mr Sedaris reflects on his daily life in New York, the second his experiences moving to France and learning the language to set up life with his partner. I did find the first more intriguing, partly because of my obsession with New York, even though the cultural references are now somewhat dates (if Mr Sedaris was perplexed by the foams and reductions restaurants considered a staple in 1999, I can only imagine what he must think of what they're on about now).

I was feeling kind of cranky and sick of being a student when by the time I got to the second part. So for a lot of it all I could think was "hey man, stop complaining! You're in love and immersed in a wonderful new life. Stop whinging." That's the problem with reading about other people's lives - your own keeps butting in.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

This is a brief, beautifully written book I didn't understand a word of. It delivers what it promises - seven short pieces describing various aspects of physics, suitable for those with no scientific background; you can get through the whole thing in about an hour, barring pauses to go "what? Huh?".

Reviewers with scientific backgrounds have criticised its simplicity, but alas though I've long wanted to be one of those people who writes endless formulae on a whiteboard whilst bearing an expression of intense concentration - preferably with a little bit of tongue hanging out - I have not been blessed with the talent of comprehending the shape of the universe.

I have gained some perspective on how the universe fits together, and am reminded of the metaphysical philosophy I loved turning my mind to in my youth - how did we get here? What are we? How can we be the only sentient life forms, clinging to this tiny rock alone in a vast universe? (I try to avoid such thoughts these days; they give me a headache).

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

This book is not about the Long Island Serial Killer as much as it is about the victims - the young women working as escorts murdered by the as yet uncaught killer, and the families and friends they left behind. It's also a human look at the barrier islands communities brought to unwelcome attention by the crime.

However, whilst this book does a great job of humanising the five (possibly six) identified victims of the LISK, as the narrative is drawing to a close, the tale shifts abruptly with the discovery of more remains that dramatically alter the course of the investigation - which the author skims over before drawing to a close, leaving the book with a hastily unfinished feeling.

All the new books I've read so far this year have been about young women who died too soon. It was an unconscious choice of reading, but I'm making a conscious choice to change direction and am working through some very different material I'll post about soon.

Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport

I was obsessed with the Romanov sisters in my teens; drawn in at age ten by a Readers Digest article on what was then still the unresolved question of the fate of Anastasia, I wanted to know everything about the mystery and their beautiful, doomed lives. I must have read just about every book published in Australia, even those to which I had to apply my school certificate French when no English translation was available. But then the mystery was solved - the DNA was in, Anna Anderson was not Anastasia - and as I matured, my politics developed so that I was decidedly against admiring an autocratic, antisemitic reform crushing aristocracy. I stopped reading or caring much. What was there left to say?

So Four Sisters would be the first book I've read about the Romanovs in well over a decade. It's engaging enough, well paced, although ironically I found myself itching to know more about the political background, the parts I'd skipped over as a teen. It also gives a pretty good idea of how awful measles really is. There's a haunting sense of what might have been in the last chapters of the book - the multiple opportunities for rescue that were missed due to illness, circumstance and fate. So the sisters' went to their fate, along with the hundreds of millions of others dead through war and executions in the Twentieth century - I suppose that though I no longer share it, the fascination with these young women will endure.

Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose

Early on, Prose states the diary of Anne Frank has rarely been subject to analysis for its literary merits; so I was excited to read a study of the diary as a work of literature. Unfortunately the book deals with that in a chapter or two, before turning to a lengthy and at times tedious account of the publication history of the diary and subsequent plays and films.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Tackling new books this year has been somewhat held up by my annual re-reading of these seven tomes. I've fallen in love with Harry Potter late in life, but that's something I want to save for a lengthy, separate post.

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