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Bookish Notes: A Surfeit of Pleasures (including An Unnecessary Woman, The Dancing Goddesses, The Word on the Street, Anne of Green Gables, & The Queen of America)

March 6, 2014

Oh guys. It’s clear to me by how sporadic my blogging has been over the past year and a half that my old approach is no longer working. I find myself missing blogging but also feeling overwhelmed by it: I don’t even like to read the blogs I subscribe to unless I have the time, energy, lack of pain to comment on them. This is silly. Writing that down made it clear just how silly it is, and I shall return to reading your blogs, even if I can’t comment, forthwith.

As for my own blog, my beloved, if slightly shabby striped armchair, I envision this space as a kind of reading journal. I have in mind things like Nick Hornby’s lovely columns, but I don’t know how to bridge the gap from where I am now to where I want to be. This is especially challenging as I am not, in fact, Nick Hornby. There will likely be bumbling involved, as I sort things out, but at least it will be better than nothing. Books are so much more fun when they’re talked about!
This morning, I began An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Despite reading and adoring both The Hakawati and I, the Divine, and despite one of the most enticing covers I’ve seen in quite awhile, I was unprepared to fall instantly in love. But that is exactly what happened. I love reading essays by older, reflective, bookish women, and this novel is narrated by just such a woman. I’m fussy about male authors writing female characters, so you can believe me when I say that Aaliya Saleh is utterly convincing. I find myself wishing she’d written more books, her style is so perfect, before remembering that this is in fact a novel. I love the kind of novelists that allow me to suspend my disbelief without the slightest effort on my part. I’m thrilled he set this in Beirut too: it feels like a love song to the city, and I do love a book with a strong sense of place. I’ve now used love four times in one paragraph, which is probably excessive, but that’s what certain books do to readers, isn’t it? I’m one hundred pages in and will pick it back up as soon as I’ve published this post, although a quote on the cover about heartbreak as me a bit nervous. He did break my heart in both of the other novels I suppose, but in the best sense. When an author is as talented as Alameddine is, I can forgive him for a streak of tragedy.

As always, I am a polygamous reader. I’m in the middle of two completely satisfying nonfiction books too: the first is The Dancing Goddesses by E. J. W. Barber, all about folklore and language and women and Central/Eastern Europe, so is clearly my type of history. In December, I became mildly addicted to British historical farm series, available on youtube, in which historians spend a year living and working on a farm following the methods of whatever period they’re looking at. My favourites are the medieval ones (Tales from the Green Valley and The Tudor Monastery Farm), and this book reminds me a bit of them, especially a terribly enthusiastic folklore professor who seems to visit at least once in each series to lead everyone in reenactments of old traditions and customs. The midsummer bonfire of the Tudor series was particularly notable, if only for watching them try to get a burning cartwheel to roll down a hill!

The other is The Word on the Street by John McWhorter, a fun and thoughtful linguistics essay collection that just convinced me it’s time to start performing Shakespeare in modern English translations. I’m one of those who believe a translation should sound close to the author’s original intention anyway, so even if it’s a translation of a classic, it should only read as stilted or archaic if that’s how it would have sounded to the author’s contemporaries. So in a certain sense McWhorter was already preaching to the choir, although I thought he overly exaggerated a bit to get his point across. The other essays, in which he explains why constructions such as “You and me should go to the bookstore” are actually rooted in English structure (while the rules against them come from an 18th century academic intent on making English more like Latin), and in defense of non-standard dialects as legitimate in their own right, have been equally fascinating.

And then there are the audiobooks. This year, I began listening to two audiobooks at once: a children’s book for bedtime and whatever caught my fancy for the rest of the time (chores, knitting, cooking, walking, etc.). This new policy has resulted in far fewer terrible dreams, which is quite a relief, and I’d be thrilled to hear any audiobook suggestions you’d consider sage for a nightmare-prone seven-year-old (yes, that’s how cautious I need to be). I’ve become particularly drawn to modern authors inspired by classic children’s lit, both parodies like The Willoughbies and The Mysterious Howling and more straightforward books like The Penderwicks (whose sequel I just picked up on CD from my library this week). Right now I’m listening to Anne of Green Gables, and rereading it (again) as made me realise just how much Anne influenced my worldview. I believe I finally have any answer to that tricky question: what book has changed your life? I must admit I don’t care hugely for the narrator, who pronounces certain words in an oddly Southern tone of voice for a Canadian novel, but I love Anne so much I can overlook that. My other audiobook is The Queen of America: it was slow going for the first couple of hours, but I’ve loved all of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novels, and it’s almost eighteen hours long, so I stuck with it and now it’s amply rewarding me. The narrator is fabulous too!

In other words, I’m in reader bliss at the moment. There’s not a bad one in the bunch: just a lot of soul satisfying, intellectually stimulating, endlessly comforting and entertaining books, the kind that make me so grateful I’m a bookworm.

I’m hoping to do a post like this twice a week but no promises yet. I’m not sure if the format (which desperately needs a more elegant title solution: any ideas?) will be as helpful to readers as my more straightforward book review style posts, and I might alternate between the two, depending on my mood, however I hope this new approach will get me back in the blogging habit and avoid the dreaded paralysis induced by an every growing review backlog. Time will tell, I suppose.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2014 11:00 am

    Sounds like you have a lot of good things going on! I reread Anne of Green Gables on audio in January and enjoyed the experience. I am supposed to listen to Anne of Avonlea, but haven’t got that far yet. Glad to see you back around in whatever capacity works for you.

    • March 7, 2014 12:54 am

      Thanks Kelly! I always love Anne, I read the books so frequently as a child I think I could tell what happens in all of them (well, up until she gets married; I didn’t reread those ones as often).

  2. March 6, 2014 3:21 pm

    Oh my gosh, well I for one LOVE this format! As in LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! But dear, do you know how much damage you’ve done to my wish list this week, between this post and your comment and your email. Speaking of your email, now I’m not sure if I even responded. Oh this pathetic little brain of mine–I should go check. Anyway, I’m so happy that you’re in the midst of such a wonderful assortment of books, each of which sounds awesome in its own right. I’ve got not a bad pile going myself, and am excited to say that I have Shooting the Boh second in my “on deck” pile! :)

    • March 7, 2014 12:55 am

      Thnx Debi! I’m glad your reading is going well too (Shooting the Boh was so fun, although I read it so long ago I hope it’s as good as I remember, lol). You’ve not responded to my email but no worries: I still owe you longer ones. But the book was so good I think you & Annie both need to read it asap! :)

  3. Jennifer Dee permalink
    March 6, 2014 4:50 pm

    I love Anne of Green Gables; I also love L M Montgomery’s selected journels. Have you read these journels? If so I would be interested on your thoughts.

    • March 7, 2014 12:59 am

      I didn’t know she had journals! What are the titles? I can’t find them in my library but perhaps I can ILL them. To be honest, when I was a child, it didn’t occur to me to look up more books by my favourite authors (unless they were in series) so I didn’t read anything but the Anne ones! I just finished reading the Emily series last December & read & loved The Blue Castle a couple of years ago, so I’d be happy to have more of her writing in my life. :)

      • Jennifer Dee permalink
        March 7, 2014 1:59 am

        Well you are in for a treat. There are:The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery: Volume I: :1889-1910 The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery: Volume II: 1910-1921:: 1910-1921 Vol 2 The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery: Volume III: 1921-1929 [Paperback]
        The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery: Volume IV: 1929-1935; The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery: Volume V: 1935-1942 –

      • March 10, 2014 12:30 pm

        Hello Eva,

        So wonderful to see you here. Love that Alameddine cover too.

        L. M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals (5 vols) were released starting in 1985. The complete journals are now being published which include all the photos she had included, and all the sections previously omitted. I believe two volumes of the complete journals have been published. Here is the Amazon link for the first one.

        I think you will be fascinated by her journals since you are so familiar with her novels. There is both overlap and divergence in her private and public writing. I’m toying with the idea of a LMM project in which I read the journals and all her writing in chronological order. I hope you can get your hands on them.

  4. March 6, 2014 8:42 pm

    So glad to hear of your love for Anne. I am the same; LMM has been a big influence in my life.

    Also very happy to hear your thoughts on An Unnecessary Woman. I’ve also really enjoyed Alameddine’s other work and I am planning on reading this one — so happy to know I have a great read to look forward to. If it passes the Eva test, I know I’m in good hands :)

    • March 7, 2014 1:00 am

      I haven’t finished it yet! Heehee But so far it passes the Eva test with flying colours. :D I always knew I loved Anne, but now I can see how much she influenced me too, which is rather thrilling.

  5. March 7, 2014 12:00 am

    Oh, Eva, do I ever understand this! At the start of this year, I rebooted S&TI! because I missed making reading a priority, and more than that, I missed having a place to talk about books and non-travel things. But I find it so hard to find the time to write coherent things about the things that I have read, and having recently pushed through a bunch of less than inspiring books certainly didn’t help. So, I get that it’s hard, but I try to remind myself to do it for me and write as though no one is reading (though surprisingly some people still are!) and that’s helped take the pressure off. I try to jot thoughts down when I can, knowing they aren’t high art and I’m out of practice, but it’s better to say something about the books I’ve read than nothing. :)

    • March 7, 2014 1:02 am

      My issue isn’t time! lol It’s more my RA, which limits how much I can type, and that I thus read far more quickly than I can blog about the books & the review backlog grows seemingly exponentially. And then I end up not reading as much because I don’t want to contribute to it, which is just ridiculous. But you’re right that something is better than nothing. :)

      Too bad you haven’t read many inspiring books lately. I got the one about people in trees out from the library (I can’t remember the title right now) but didn’t get to it before I had to return it. There were maggots on the spine, which was a bit disconcerting! And based on your post I knew I’d have to be in a sturdy frame of mind to handle it, so I’m waiting until I feel better.

  6. March 7, 2014 8:26 am

    “Books are so much more fun when they’re talked about!”
    That really sums it up for me… :^)

    I absorbed all the LMM journals a few years ago, They are edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston (The Selected Journals of LMM, vols 1-5) and now the complete journals are being issued.

    I read them alongside Rubio’s biography of LMM, which offers an external view of her deeply difficult life.

  7. March 7, 2014 6:54 pm

    For many years I listened to audiobooks at night. If I woke up, I’d just hit the play button on my dear little cassette player. I have a million suggestions since I am still that seven year old, even during the day, mostly. Here are a few from my journals. PG Wodehouse, always cheering. The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. A Country Year by Sue Hubbell. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit. The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter. Ava’s Man by Rich Bragg. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. Pastoral by Nevil Shute. Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. Out of the Rain by Elizabeth Cadell. My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter. The Birthday Room by Kevin Henkes.

    • March 12, 2014 4:59 pm

      Oh thank you Nan!!! I can’t wait to try some of these. :)

  8. March 7, 2014 9:43 pm

    I know about trying to let the blog be a joy instead of a weird pressure on my reading habits. I’ve been reading a long nonfiction book for most of this year, and am still fending off my own internal pressure to read shorter books at the same time – but I don’t actually want to read anything else until I finish this book.

    The Alameddine book sounds great! I really enjoyed The Hakawati – Alameddine struck me as such a natural storyteller.

    • March 12, 2014 5:00 pm

      Yes, the Alameddine book is so good. You should definitely pick it up! Isn’t it interesting how the act of recording our reading habits changes them? Observer effect in action!

  9. March 7, 2014 11:01 pm

    It’s hard to get the balance right. I think though that as much as we would all like to see more from you, at the end of the day, you are the one who can decide what does and doesn’t work for you! And reader bliss sounds like a great place to be!

  10. March 8, 2014 1:53 pm

    Oh Anne of Green Gables! The huger influence on me was the Emily books — I’ve owned at least four different copies of that series in my time, and they loom very large in my imagination. I love the Emily books because Emily gets to be a writer, and that’s her most important thing. I love that LM Montgomery lets her keep that. (NOT LIKE ANNE.)

    • March 12, 2014 5:01 pm

      I didn’t read the Emily books until quite recently, so they didn’t impact me the way the Anne ones did. But it never bothered me that Anne didn’t become a writer, perhaps because I didn’t want to be a writer myself? I’m going to reread the whole series this year and see what I make of it now!

  11. aartichapati permalink
    March 9, 2014 11:41 am

    Ohmigosh, I shall be YouTubing these farm reality show series tonight for sure!! They sound fabulous.

    I have Queen of America on my audiobook queue but have not gotten to it yet. I will keep in mind that the first few hours are slow but that it picks up after that. Sounds like one that will help me wile away my commute :-)

    And I am so excited that you are enjoying Alemmedine’s newest! I want to read it very badly :-)

    Hope you are well! I too am a fan of this format because even a little bit of Eva is better than no Eva at all.

    • March 12, 2014 5:02 pm

      They’re so addictive Aarti! heehee

      I think Queen of America would be a v good commute book: I’m about halfway through it now. Urrea is so excellent. I’m doing fairly well, but I seem to be getting a lot more flare ups recently. I hope that’s not a permanent change, because if so it might affect my plans. Oh well: there are always lots of books to be read!

  12. March 9, 2014 4:39 pm

    I always get some little tidbit from reading your blog, Eva. Mostly I just love your conversational tone–I always feel that we are two readers, talking about books across the air :)

    • March 12, 2014 5:02 pm

      Thank you Lisa, that means a great deal to me. :)

  13. March 9, 2014 7:01 pm

    I love posts just like this so I hope that you continue to do them. They are always a pleasure to read! I

  14. March 10, 2014 11:42 am

    Good idea for a format. I agree with Aarti that a little Eva is better than none at all. And I do understanding about needing to humor your body. I, too, don’t always trust male authors easily, but glad to hear of another who treats women well. And I have to try your medieval farming videos.

    • March 12, 2014 5:05 pm

      I bet you’d enjoy the farm videos, although they do seem oblivious of England’s imperial destruction (that’s probably why I prefer the medieval ones to the 19th & 20th century ones!). I wish I could figure out a way to type that wasn’t so destructive: I think the next time I need a computer I’ll get a regular one instead of laptop so I can be more ergonomic.

  15. March 10, 2014 6:19 pm

    I loved the paragraph were you said:

    “In other words, I’m in reader bliss at the moment. There’s not a bad one in the bunch: just a lot of soul satisfying, intellectually stimulating, endlessly comforting and entertaining books, the kind that make me so grateful I’m a bookworm.”

    A delightful blog post, thank you!

  16. March 17, 2014 1:47 am

    Nice to see you back after a while, Eva. Enjoyed reading your post. Loved this sentence from your post – “I have in mind things like Nick Hornby’s lovely columns…This is especially challenging as I am not, in fact, Nick Hornby.” It made me smile :) You are definitely not Nick Hornby – you are better :) I don’t think even Nick Hornby would have read the number and variety of books that you have read. I challenge him to prove me otherwise :) I loved your description of Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’. I am hoping to read his book ‘The Hakawati’ sometime soon and after I read that, maybe I will explore this book. Meanwhile hope you enjoy reading it and hope the ending is not as heartbreaking as it is expected to be. John McWhorter’s comment on the phrase ‘You and me’ made me happy. I always found ‘You and me’ more natural and ‘You and I’ quite pretentious. Now I am happy to know that there is a factual basis for that and ‘You and me’ was widely used once upon a time. I think I will use it more often now.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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