2022, Chapter One: In which our heroine accepts a challenge!

End of the story first: I just finished reading my second book of 2022, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I’m not sure when a book last gave me actual chills – not hyperbolic chills but goosebumps, hair standing on end.

Holy hell.

This comes immediately on the heels of the book I finished the first week of January, a collection of short stories and nonfiction pieces by Shirley Jackson titled Let Me Tell You. In contrast to Didion, Jackson’s book was uneven. In contrast to Didion, I don’t see anything else measuring up until I’ve calmed down from the high of THAT NOVEL. But it’s unfair comparing a posthumous compilation of early and uncollected pieces the author may never have consented to publishing with a critically-acclaimed stunner of a novel that slaps you across the face, drags you up the road a piece, then leaves you for dead.

I should not have connected with Play It As It Lays. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, if I were trying to come up with three places I’m less interested in it would take a minute. Fortunately, the book’s not about places. It’s a study of a woman living with the consequences of her choices in 1960s America. Maria Wyeth is an actress who plays the Hollywood game. She sleeps around, throws herself haphazardly into life, literally drives long distances for days with no direction. Already unstable, the inevitable choice to have an abortion upends her world, sending her spiralling. Without sympathy, unmoored, she cracks.

Didion (1934 – 2021) was an admirer of Hemingway, to put her style in context. She was a journalist-novelist: sparing and precise. While learning her craft, she copied out long passages of Hemingway’s writings. I’m not positive the student didn’t surpass the master.

Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), of course, is known primarily as the author of the macabre short story “The Lottery,” as well as her two most popular novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter adapted into a Netflix series. Her themes are supernatural, modern American gothics. Her nonfiction can be charming and witty, as I learned from Let Me Tell You. Though some of the stories did let me down, the pieces compelled enough I pulled out the bio of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.

Both modern American writers, I haven’t put enough thought into their similarities to pull out the ways they mesh. I’m sure those exist but I didn’t juxtapose these two with an intention to dive in deeply. What brings them together is my list of 12 books I plan to read in 2022, books I’ve had on my shelves over a year and not yet read. Organized by Adam Burgess of the blog Roof Beam Reader, the specifics of the project are explained on his site.

There’s no conscious intent behind the books I chose, though interconnections are everywhere, no matter what you initially believe. As I read more by and about Jackson and Didion – which I’d like to do, having whetted my appetite with my first two reads of the year – I will find elements that resonate with the both of them. I’ve given up not assuming a universal law of attraction. Nothing supernatural, just an acknowledgment of interconnectivity in all things.

Superficially glancing through their respective Wikipedia articles, both these American women writers were born in California, their lives overlapping by some 30-some years (I hate math). Did they meet, I don’t know. Were they aware of each other, certainly Didion would have known of Jackson, though she hadn’t published much before Jackson’s death so it’s not too likely the other way around. Any similarities between a modern gothic writer and a journalist? I’m sure Jackson’s work extends beyond her most popular pieces. Maybe?

Speaking of resonating with gothic horror, welcome to 2022. It’s only the 10th and I’ve finished two books. Not leaving without a fight, 2021 ended with my first Covid test of the pandemic – negative, thank the gods.

My year went mostly well, everyone I love made it through, and I’m trying not to get over-confident 2022 will hold anything grand or I’ll just let myself down, won’t I.

Let’s focus on these beauties:

2022 TBR Challenge Reads – The List

The challenge is to choose 12 books – one for each month – plus two alternates, should any of the 12 prove impossible or just plain too long to finish.

1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
2. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers – Jenn Shapland
3. Willa Cather: Double Lives by Hermione Lee
4. Soul of the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life – JC Oates
5. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography – Philip Roth
6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
7. Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion – finished
8. Hill – Jean Giono
9. Blindness – Henry Green
10. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings – Shirley Jackson – finished
11. Lucy Gayheart – Willa Cather
12. On Being Ill – Virginia Woolf


Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

I’ve cut down social media – save Instagram – to free up more time for reading and apparently that helped. I’ll be reading other books but these twelve I’ve hand-selected for this specific project.

Welcome to 2022.

Allons-y, y’all.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark


The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)




What a wickedly delightful novel. Who’d have expected it from a book about the devil?

Dougal Douglas, a Scot claiming to be one of the devil’s minions, shows up one day in the village of Peckham Rye. Insinuating himself into a carefully balanced society, he quickly but stealthily begins pulling strings and wreaking havoc. Squirming his way into the dubious position of an “artsy” man in charge of conducting a sociological study of the workers of not one but two factories – neither realizing he was employed by the other, as he’d managed to work out a deal in which he worked off-site in the village – he proceeds to encourage the employees to call in on Mondays.

Ironically, his job was to figure out why absenteeism was such a big problem. Why did he do it? Because being wicked is fun.


Other Books Published in 1960:

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor

Roald Dahl – Kiss Kiss

John Updike – Rabbit, Run

Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear it Away

Scott O’Dell – The Island of the Blue Dolphins

Nancy Mitford – Don’t Tell Alfred

Ian Fleming – For Your Eyes Only

Sylvia Plath – The Colossus and Other Poems

Dr. Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham


He meddles his way into the lives of several residents, sewing despair. One of his bosses, Mr. Druce, is having an affair with the head of the typing pool. Already a miserable man stuck in a loveless marriage and impossible other relationship rapidly crumbling, Dougal reduces him to tears. Later Druce will do something unspeakably awful, but I won’t spoil that.

So many sinister little details about Dougal Douglas, including the stumps of horns on his head he loves pointing out to people as proof he’s some sort of evil entity. Is he, or is he not? Spark never explicitly proves either way, but you have to wonder. He also sees into people and situation, knowing things there’s no way he could or should have. He claims second sight. Of this there seems little doubt.


“… Do you believe in the Devil?”


“Feel my head,”Dougal said.


“Feel these little bumps up here.” Dougal guided Humphrey’s hand among this curls at each side. “I had it done by a plastic surgeon,” Dougal said.


“He did an operation and took away the two horns.”

“You supposed to be the Devil, then?” Humphrey asked.

“No, on, no. I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”


It goes on and on, the trail of broken lives and misery, until eventually he’s run out of town.

Literary Births & Deaths in 1960

Helen Fielding

Jeffrey Eugenides

Ian Rankin

Tim Winton

Neil Gaiman


Albert Camus

Nevil Schute

Zora Neale Hurston

Boris Pasternak

Richard Wright


Lady Chatterley’s Lover sells 200,000 copies in one day following its publication in the U.K. since being banned in 1928.


It is a very funny book, in a dark way. It sounds mean-spirited, and it is, but Spark is so deft and light with her touch it’s fun reading. It’s also complex, for such a short book. I wound up reading it twice, partly because I was having attention difficulties, partly because it’s so sneaky you can’t catch everything the first time around. I’d gladly read it a third time in future.

So far, this is my favorite of Spark’s novels in this celebratory read of all her books. Jean Brodie had been my fave previously. I’ll be interested to see how it holds up this time around.

Next up, The Bachelors (also 1960).

Frankenstein 200: Muriel Spark on Mary Shelley

2018 marks not just the 100th anniversary of Scottish writer Muriel Spark’s birth, but also the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s science fiction classic Frankenstein.

Time flies, friends.



Spark admired Mary Shelley. Extra exciting for me, her biography of the English novelist is where both my Muriel Spark project and participation in the Frankenstein 200 festivities intersect.

In other words: I get twice the bang for the buck, bishes!

Frankenstein is one of those novels you think you know, until you actually read it. It’s so different from the film adaptations. Those are fun, but the book goes far deeper. It’s also stranger, and that’s saying a lot. Same for Dracula. Neither book should be judged by the films. The resemblance is at best vague.


I went there.


I’m heading into my third reading of Frankenstein after Spark’s bio about its author. The background is fascinating, since I’ve never known much about Mary Shelley except she wrote an iconic novel as the result of a bet.  Almost as impressive, she felt no intimidation going up against literary heavyweights Lord Byron and her lover Percy Shelley, also in on the bet. She was only a kid, a mere teenager, while the two men already had staggering reputations for genius.

You go, girl. You go.

I have to be honest, here. The behavior of the Romantic poets – especially Shelley and his pal Lord Byron – is spoiled and distinctly lacking in ethics. Sure, I wish I had a patron to take care of my bills, so I could spend my time drinking and having picnics with my erudite friends. But honey, other writers bust their arses producing not when the muse strikes, but when the rent is due.

Grow. Up.


Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein



Percy Bysshe Shelley pimped Mary out for money. He pimped her out. A wealthy lawyer friend of his had an unspoken arrangement; love letters from Mary to this man imply she was just waiting for her baby to be born so they could get it on for cash. Shelley and Mary kept no secrets. She wasn’t running around behind his back. Percy was just that classy.

Ironically, that baby died.

Shelley was forever running from creditors, yet, on at least one occasion when a friend felt sorry enough to slip him a fiver (most likely to shut him up), he and Mary went to see a play before spending the remainder on food and accommodation. Bitch, please.

I don’t want to paint them all with the same brush, but between Shelley’s bad behavior and Lord Byron’s even worse, it leaves a bad taste. The two men left women and children along the side of the street, because geniuses cannot be bothered. Byron was okay for money, but didn’t hesitate knocking up Mary Shelley’s half-sister, dumping her at Mary’s, and prancing off to Italy. The result? Mary was left feeding both her half-sister and the child, while George merrily spread his seed elsewhere.

And Percy Shelley? The estranged wife he left for Mary committed suicide from despair, leaving their two children orphaned. Hoping to gain custody, he finally married Mary to make himself appear more respectable. Unfortunately, the courts gave him a big ol’ dose of nope. His children were adopted out to another family.



Mary’s own mother – iconic feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – lived with her lover William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s father), yet Godwin all but disowned his daughter for shackin’ with Shelley. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree, but it didn’t look so appetizing held by his 19-year old daughter.

These people did hypocrisy well, too.

I don’t mind being in the minority when it comes to these poets. I cannot muster patience for elitists, much less elitist bed-hoppers. Makes you wonder why I love Virginia Woolf so much. She and her group were no different. Good lord, she was a snob, and a brilliant one, but you’d need a scorecard to figure out who slept with whom in that bunch. Maybe I can do hypocrisy, my own self.


I’d better get back to it. I want to polish off the biography, move on to Frankenstein, then read Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye by March. But first, sleep. Because some of us who love reading and writing must still get up and go to work in the morning.

Right, Percy?

Psssh. Slacker.


Robinson by Muriel Spark


I’ve just finished Spark’s second novel, Robinson. Still reeling. I want everyone who picks up this book for the first time to be as shocked and riveted as I was; so much depends on not knowing the next twist.

Brilliant as her first novel was, she blows away all competition with her second. Anyone else writing in 1958 may as well have put away their typewriter.

Girl got some serious range.


Robinson (1958)


An homage to Irish novelist Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe (considered by most literary scholars to be the first novel), in Spark’s second work three passengers survive a plane crash on a remote island while en route to the Azores. Pulled to safety and nursed by the owner of the island – a man who’s re-christened himself “Robinson” – and a young boy he’s taken under his care – Miguel – the three learn they have several months until a crew coming to harvest and take away the island’s pomegranate crop will call for rescue.

A writer on assignment, sent to research three islands, January Marlow narrates. Handed a notebook by Robinson, who figures this will keep her occupied and her mind off the horror of surviving a crash dozens didn’t, she begins recording what will come to be an increasingly strange and menacing life on the island.


… without any effort of will, my eye recorded the territory, as if my eyes were an independent and aboriginal body, taking precautions against unknown eventualities. Instinctively I looked for routes of escape, positions of concealment, protective rocks; instinctively I looked for edible vegetation. In fact, I must have been afraid.


Widowed after the death of a much older husband who married her on a bet when she was a schoolgirl and he aged 58, January has a young son back home in England. It crosses her mind he and all her family will assume she’s dead in the months before she returns. She carries on, knowing rescue will come eventually. There’s nothing more she can do but record the experience.

Tom Wells, huckster salesman of pseudo-mystical trinkets, suffered the worst injuries from the crash, breaking several ribs. Confined by a make-shift brace ingeniously constructed by Robinson, he spends weeks in recovery. Once he’s up and around, what an irritating character he becomes. Honestly, you’ll want to slap him.

The third survivor, Jimmie Waterford, reveals to January he’s been sent by Robinson’s family to bring him back to run the family business, which he’s inherited – a motor-scooter business headquartered in Tangiers. Only concussed by the crash, Jimmie suffered the least physical damage. Aside from companionable time spent with Robinson, Jimmie will come to be January’s most trusted friend and confidante.


Other books published in 1958:

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana

Barbara Pym – A Glass of Blessings

Ian Fleming – Dr No

Jack Kerouac – Dharma Bums

Mary Renault – The King Must Die

Nobel Prize for Literature: Boris Pasternak


Roddy Doyle – Irish novelist

Cornelia Funke – German children’s author


Rose Macaulay

Dorothy Canfield Fisher


Other Literary Events in 1958


Having established a well-appointed home in a pre-existing 19th century house, Robinson lives a mostly solitary life on the island, surviving on tinned provisions brought once a year by the pomegranate men. Young Miguel was the child of one of these men, taken in by Robinson after the boy’s father died.

Not a native English speaker, naive from lack of life experience, Miguel is Spark’s child version of the character “Friday” from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He serves as a guide around the island, as well as a handy extra set of hands when there’s work to be done.

Settling in, January finds it annoying that Robinson has a beautiful, well-stocked library in glass-enclosed bookshelves, because they’re mostly uncut first editions, for display and obviously unread. At home, she recalls, her books are all a mess, thrown about, edition be damned. When he generously offers up his books for her use, she barely looks at them. Mostly classical works, none appeal.

For modern readers, the uncut bit refers to the 19th century and prior publication of books containing pages that weren’t cut in production. Readers would need knives to separate the pages as they read. Cutting the pages was an added expense for the publisher.

A former bookseller myself, I’ve owned uncut books. Believe me, I felt the same about their previous owners as our heroine January, though the fact a 19th century book was uncut increases its value. It’s like owning a rare car that’s never been driven. A bit of trivia thrown in as a bonus, you’re very welcome.

Here’s a short video for your, in case you own or purchase a book with uncut pages and need to remedy that:



Robinson is a linear novel, told from January’s perspective.  The banter between the characters has a tense quality, always a bit of unease to keep the reader from becoming too confident s/he knows precisely what’s going on, who’s a goodie or baddie. Distrust is sown and fed. Spark keeps us on our toes. It’s difficult to know who can be trusted, if anyone’s being sincere or what’s motivating them.

Except January. Maybe I should say it’s the men you aren’t certain you can trust. But then, it’s January keeping the journal, isn’t it.


On the way back, Robinson once more referred to my journal.

Keep it up. You will be glad of the notes later on. After all, you did intend to write about islands.

Not this island, I said.

Man proposes and God disposes, he said.



The book is filled with Spark’s imaginatively descriptive exploration of an island richly varied, containing sandy beaches, volcanic formations, secret tunnels and caves, even an active volcano referred to as the Furnace. The Furnace sighs, even screams, when things are thrown into it. It’s sulphurous and powerful. In the midst of a beautiful island paradise, there’s palpable menace.

The rest of the island sounds like a paradise. I have to wonder if she used a real location, if she drew from personal experience. It’s so vivid:


In direct sunlight a variety of greens twinkled suddenly, glimpses of mossy craters. Curious red lights appeared, which I later discovered were caused by vapours rising from the soil like rusty dew … The shallower pits were filled with iridescent blue and green pools. This was the moonish landscape of which Robinson had spoken. The feel of the earth underfoot, the colours, even the air, were strange.


The plot pivots past the halfway point, becoming much darker, when one of the characters disappears in a way suggesting great violence. From here the characters actively begin to turn on each other, suspicious. January, as the narrator, analyzes the situation in her notebook, trying to crack the case. There are only five people on the island. Of that she can be reasonably certain. Might one of them be a murderer?

But who?

And why?

Each one of them has some motivation for wanting the missing person dead, some conflict that could appear damning if twisted just the right way. Each has had a run-in the others have witnessed.

I’m sorry. You’re not getting any more spilled beans out of me.

The Catholic Element

Similar to Caroline Rose from her first novel, The Comforters, and an autobiographical tip of the hat to Spark herself, January Marlow is a Catholic convert. Religious discussion crops up between the characters, culminating in January’s determination to introduce young Miguel to the rosary, partly to counteract Tom Wells and the ridiculous stories he tells the boy about his “miracle” artifacts.

Robinson is adamant the boy receives no religious instruction. A born Catholic who left the faith while in the seminary, he orders her to leave the boy alone and Tom Wells to stop feeding the boy nonsense. Mystified, Miguel is drawn to what seems magical and otherworldly, yet he’s easily distracted by pretty much anything, so there’s not much danger either side will influence him. He is a very simple soul.

Muriel Spark’s conversion to Catholicism had a strong influence on her novels. She used the topic of Catholicism in her first two books, and no doubt will later, but interestingly there’s no effort to expound on dogma. It’s more peripheral than concrete, and so far in her books leads to conflict between characters. I haven’t seen anything overtly positive coming from religion in either The Comforters or Robinson.

In both novels, Spark also refers to superstition and the occult. It isn’t clear to me yet what, precisely, she’s trying to say. Or perhaps she isn’t making any judgment, just presenting both.

I’m looking forward to learning more about her own life as I get further into Stannard’s biography, noting how she uses religion and what message she’s trying to convey. Why did she convert, and what did religion mean to her? I’d like to know.


Robinson really staggered me with its depth of detail – natural description and plot-wise – as well as that madly twisty-turny storyline. I didn’t see her wicked humor as much in her second novel, but it would have been obvious she had one hell of a career ahead of her if she was turning out books like this so soon.

I could turn this into a lengthy piece of literary criticism if I deconstructed the book, but honestly, I just want you to know it’s a damn fine read. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood to be a literary critic, you know?

Just read Muriel Spark.

I’ll talk to you later, after Memento Mori.


The Comforters by Muriel Spark


Starting out 2018 with fantastic reads, coming into my year of Muriel Spark with gusto. Having finished her first novel, The Comforters, I see great joy lies ahead – not that I doubted that one second.

Muriel Spark was brilliant. I don’t just say that because she was Scottish, native to my beloved Edinburgh. Doesn’t hurt her case; she was genuinely talented. Related to my reading of her books and associated books about her, she happens to have written a biography of Mary Shelley.


I lucked onto a copy of this at a library book sale.


Why is that significant? I’ll tell you! 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, written by the very same Ms. Shelley. Throughout the course of the year I hope to re-read that classic gothic novel, my small participation in the festivity of all things Frankenstein happening throughout the world.

How handy Spark’s book falls under both umbrellas. Serendipity.

A (Very Tiny) Bit About Muriel Spark’s Edinburgh

Photo credit: Benjamin Brock: Bruntsfield area

Born in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh, a mile south-west of the city center, the opening scene of the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was shot on the steps of her first home at Admiral Terrace.


Admiral Terrace, Edinburgh – which house she lived in, I don’t know


Also in the Bruntsfield area is James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, which she attended and used as a model for the Marcia Blaine School in Jean Brodie.

In 1932 she’d be crowned the school’s poetess:


Her poems appeared regularly in the school magazine


I recognize Bruntsfield. I couldn’t tell you specifics, but I know I’ve been there – at least passing through. If I enlarged the photos and squinted a bit I may be able to relate anecdotal knowledge. The Scot, who knows the city like the back of his hand, would know. Unfortunately, he no longer speaks to me.


Let’s not think about that. I’m not in the mood to have my mood ruined.

In any case, I don’t think I’m done with Edinburgh just yet. If I return, I’ll investigate this and other literary sites. All the places I’d eventually have known like the back of my own hand.


Kicking Off the Reads


The Comforters (1957) – her first novel


What an odd novel, The Comforters – meant in the very best way. The cast of characters is outrageously eccentric, putting it mildly, the plot points funny to the point of slapstick.

There’s a converted Catholic writer (Caroline Rose) who hears her thoughts spoken out loud, accompanied by the sound of a typewriter – an unseen writer composing the actual novel we’re reading, as we’re reading it, whom only Caroline can hear; a sweet, unassuming grandmother engaged in a diamond smuggling trade and her grandson Laurence Manders (formerly involved with Caroline, still obviously in love with her), who works for the BBC and is determined to find out what she’s up to; a practitioner and devotee of the dark arts, possibly two (one of whom is also a bookseller who declares it’s an interest, only); an irritating, universally disliked and paunchy middle-aged disappearing woman who’s either a devotee of the dark arts or a staunch Catholic, no less mysterious by the time of her death …

And on it goes.


The Comforters was the first of the 22 novels Muriel Spark would write over nearly 50 years, the first of what would become her recognisable but inimitable oeuvre of slim, intelligent, irreverent, aesthetically sophisticated, sometimes Hitchcockianly grim, always philosophically powerful works of fiction. Each of these – with a paradoxical lightness, and a sense of mixed resolution and unresolvedness that leaves its readers both satisfied and disturbed – would take to task its own contemporaneity and ask profound questions about art, life and belief.



The two main plot lines involve Caroline Rose’s attempt to write a book about novels, in the midst of her fervent conversion to Catholicism – effectively killing off her physical relationship with poor Laurence, now that she sees that as  the sin of fornication – as well as her battle for her sanity, and Laurence’s attempt to get to the bottom of his grandmother’s suspected diamond smuggling. Then the grandmother’s own story, of course, through which we’re told everything, before Laurence figures it out.

The inter-relationships between all the characters is tight. By the end, everyone’s related to or very tightly bound to everyone else. There are no characters extraneous to the plot.

Timeline of Muriel Spark’s Life


The Comforters is a matter of fact novel, despite dealing with occasional supernatural elements. This makes it all the more humorous, presenting ridiculous situations in a dead-pan tone. Very British, as we’ve come to know their comedy.

Told in a linear narrative, not given to flights of fancy or high-flown language, it flows smoothly. Between ease of reading and its humorous and compelling plot, it’s a fast read. How does it compare to her best-known The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? It’s not as sophisticated, unsurprisingly, much more light-hearted. It doesn’t delve as deeply into psychological aspects, though you can see hints of the mature writer Spark will become.

The Comforters is a delight, a brilliant kick-off to my Year of Reading Muriel Spark. I’m going straight into her second book, Robinson (1958), having set myself up nicely ordering her first three novels.

Other books published in 1957:

Ivy Compton-Burnett – A Father and His Fate

Daphne du Maurier – The Scapegoat

Jack Kerouac – On the Road

Bernard Malamud – The Assistant

Nancy Mitford – Voltaire in Love

Iris Murdoch – The Sandcastle

Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin

Nevil Shute – On the Beach

Dr. Seuss – The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Nobel Prize for Literature: Albert Camus

Other Literary Events in 1957


I’ve also downloaded the Kindle edition of the Martin Stannard biography of Spark. Rubbing my hands in glee at the thought of curling up with that, something I’m able to do sans guilt as I’m laid up, nursing my fractured rib and accompanying soft tissue injury – worse than the fracture itself, actually.

I have a three-day weekend, thanks to working for a company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, home to Dr. Martin Luther King. As Monday’s his birthday, we have the day off. You can guess where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.

I’m off to do just that.

Reading David Bowie’s 100 Favorite Books: A Son’s Tribute


David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, is embarking on a project to read his father’s top 100 favorite books. Kicking off on Twitter February 1, the first discussion will be on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor.



I’m not sure exactly how he plans to carry it out, if he’ll just be tweeting out thoughts or something more organized. Does it matter? It’s about reading and the love of books, and how these particular works influenced a great artist.

Because they’re greedy bastards, Amazon sellers have set prices on Ackroyd’s out-of-print novel as high as $ 1,000. They’ve obviously found out about the reading project, because there’s nothing especially valuable about the book in used paperback edition. Even signed, I can’t imagine there’s a Peter Ackroyd title going for that much.

I almost grabbed the cheapest copy left for $ 35, then decided no, that’s still extortionate. Screw you, bottom feeders. It can be had other places, including:

  • Local indie used bookshops
  • Libraries
  • Audible.com (available with their free trial offer, how I’m “reading” it)

No doubt these same unscrupulous sellers will jack up the prices on other out-of-print books on Bowie’s list. If you’re planning to join in with Duncan Jones, be forewarned: as soon as he announces the next read, prices will soar.

I let Mr Jones know about the price gouging via Twitter:


I also shared with him that it can be had at audible.com, which he re-tweeted. I helped a few potential readers find an affordable option. Because that’s what librarians do.

It is my superpower.

I’ll pop in and out of the reads as the spirit moves me, my schedule clears and my interest is piqued (subject to book availability, as well). I am adding it to my list of organized reads for 2018, but I don’t plan to make it as regular as, say, the Muriel Spark Project and of course the films. It came up rather serendipitously, I happened to see it, and figured what the hell.

Let’s go for it.


God, he was a lovely man.


I’m not a huge Bowie fan, per se. I mean, come on, we all know he was a genius. I loved many of his songs; they get stuck in my head and are there for the duration. “Fame” has been playing on a loop since I started writing this, interrupted for brief moments by “Under Pressure.”

He was larger than life. When he  died it was a shock; I felt genuinely sad for the loss to the music world. But I’ve never owned any of his albums, never followed him.

My interest went into overdrive once I saw what he’d loved to read. It made me appreciate him more, admire his mind. Yes, he was out there and hugely famous. You can’t NOT know about David Bowie. But, unsurprisingly, it’s the literary element that grabs me most.

I respect this man’s mind. I admire him for what he read, as much as any other reason. Through reading what he read, it just may lead me back to more of his music, as well.

I’ll be coming at him backwards, perhaps, the opposite of how virtually everyone else experiences or has experienced him. Still, I’ll get to know him via the way I know and love best: literature.


I’m a real self-educated kind of guy. I read voraciously. Every book I ever bought, I have. I can’t throw it away. It’s physically impossible to leave my hand! Some of them are in warehouses. I’ve got a library that I keep the ones I really really like. I look around my library some nights and I do these terrible things to myself–I count up the books and think, how long I might have to live and think, ‘F@#%k, I can’t read two-thirds of these books.’ It overwhelms me with sadness.

  • David Bowie



I wonder at what point in his life David Bowie put this selection together, and for whom? Perhaps Duncan Jones will shed light on that. I’m hoping he’ll shed light on an awful lot of interesting tidbits about his father.

He’s a very nice person, approachable and interactive. This could be loads of fun.

Fascinating that so much of Bowie’s reading taste lay in works by American writers and/or about American subjects. But then, that would make sense if you’re talking about American music genres, such as rock and roll and the blues. Why would you not go straight to the source?

As far as the fiction, though, I’m interested by how heavily it’s weighted toward Americans. Not exclusively, no. But there are a lot.

Below is Bowie’s list, as near as I’ve been able to gather via internet sources (a couple had conflicting lists, but I’ll fix that if I can). I’ve noted which may be more difficult to obtain (in bold font) and indicated those I’ve personally read (red highlight):


David Bowie’s 100 FavoUrite Books


  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz, 2007
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  • Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992 
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988 – best of luck with this one, be quick
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985 – see above
  • Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  • Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  • Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  • Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977 – series of at least 7, as far as I can tell
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Sanders, 1975
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  • The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr., 1966
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  • City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  • Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  • All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd, 1960
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  • On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956 – *** pretty much impossible ***
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949
  • The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, 1856
  •  Iliad, Homer, c. 1194–1184 BC
  •  As I Lay Dying , William Faulkner, 1930
  •  Tadanori Yokoo,  Tadanori Yokoo,
  •  Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, 1929
  • Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
  • Halls Dictionary Of Subjects And Symbols In Art, James A. Hall,
  •  Blast, Wyndham Lewis, (magazine)
  • Passing, Nella Larson, 1929
  • The Stranger, Albert Camus, 1942
  • Infants Of The Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
  •  McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
  • Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
  • Inferno, Dante Alighieri, 1320
  • Maldodor, Comte de Lautréamont, 1869
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
  •  Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
  • The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
  •  The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1938
  •  English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1984
  • The Day Of The Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
  •  Beano (comic, ’50s)
  • Transcendental Magic, Its Doctine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1854


Lovely, isn’t it?

I’ll let you know how it goes, natch. And, if you’re interested, pop on by Twitter and follow @manmademoon to participate.

Don’t forget.

February 1.

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd

The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst


  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harpercollins; 1St Edition edition (1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002570068


How long have I had this on my TBR list? Can’t say for certain, but through at least a decade, and ownership of two physical copies of the book;  I own so many books I couldn’t find the blasted thing when I eventually decided it was time to read it.

However long, it was worth the wait.

If not for the Stevenson family, the coastline of Scotland – as well as much of its infrastructure – may have looked drastically different today. For it was RL Stevenson’s grandfather, Robert Stevenson, whose hard-headed dedication to protecting the lives of countless sailors lead him into becoming the pioneer of lighthouse engineers, the self-trained expert who made engineering into a field respected enough to be taught in universities.

Before Robert Stevenson, the course of study did not exist. Of course engineering existed: craftsmen and stonemasons, architects and designers built things of great wonder and beauty. What they did just wasn’t considered something to be formally taught.  Not until a force came along that shifted people’s thinking.


Robert Stevenson 1772 - 1850

Robert Stevenson 1772 – 1850


Previous to Stevenson’s arrival on the scene, there was little interest in or even incentive to build lighthouses on the coast of Scotland, despite the hundreds of sailors who lost their lives being drowned or crushed in the process of circumnavigating the shoreline. What’s shocking is the reason: there was money to be had in plundering the wreckage of those hundreds of ships, fishing out the cargo and robbing the sailors. Not just that, many sailors who survived the wrecks were drowned, intentionally, by nefarious thieves who didn’t want witnesses to their heinous acts surviving to tell the tale.


“By 1800, Lloyds of London estimated the one ship was lost or wrecked every day around Britain; between 1854 and 1879, almost 50,000 wrecks were registered. The figure is probably ludicrously low.”

– The Lighthouse Stevensons


Scotland wasn’t blessed with many trees. Thus, wood from these ships smashed apart on rocks unseen, or ships blown into the shoreline during furious gales, made perfect building materials. It was such an irresistible source of revenue, ministers excused parishioners from services when a ship had run aground. Many preached this was God’s own will, manna sent to the needy.

What it took to turn all that around was one very stubborn man with lots more ambition than experience or even knowledge. One man who stood up against the committees holding the purse strings, who didn’t back down in the face of resistance.

And, ultimately, the ship owners themselves stepped forward. They had had enough.


British Lighthouses

British Lighthouses

Once he was given funding, the fight against the elements alone was enough to make a lesser man turn and run. The force of storms in the waters off Scotland more than once tore apart his early efforts to build. The work of a full year was blown completely off its moorings, workmen left clinging onto steep stones, or huddled together in ships gathered around the building site, in a desperate bid to save themselves.

Fresnel Lens - developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Fresnel Lens – developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Most sailors ” … did not expect to live beyond the age of forty.”

The elements seemed insurmountable. Stevenson started over – over and over again.

The stone used to build the lighthouses had to be cut with extraordinary precision, lest the mighty waves crashing against them blow them to smithereens. Tolerance for gaps between each piece was infinitesimal.  And then the lights themselves, going through trial after trial trying to find the one technology that could withstand the rigours demanded of them.

Robert Stevenson, and his sons after him, traveled the world studying lighthouse technology, taking notes and figuring how they could adapt the work of others to their own projects.


Skerryvore Lighthouse - 1838 - 1844, Alan Stevenson

Skerryvore Lighthouse – 1838 – 1844, Alan Stevenson


Yet, not all Robert Stevenson’s children were equally blessed with his skill and determination. Alan Stevenson was born a dreamer, a sickly child whose first love was poetry. A classical scholar, he was gifted musically, and later became an early champion of poet William Wordsworth. Eventually buckling down to the family business, Alan would remain the bane of Robert Stevenson’s existence, just as later Alan’s nephew Robert Louis Stevenson would present the same challenge to his own father, Thomas. Himself sickly and a dreamer, we all know how RL Stevenson’s career turned out.

In my opinion, he did okay for himself.

RL Stevenson did try to mold himself to the family business. For several years he studied engineering, attempting to put aside his passion for writing. He even produced a paper, “On a New Form of Intermittent Light for Lighthouses.” However, it clearly showed he had no promise as an engineer, no passion for the work. Nothing about it was original or particularly creative.


“On being tightly cross-questioned, I owned that I cared for nothing but literature. My father said that was no profession.”

– RL Stevenson


To give him his due, however much Thomas Stevenson disapproved of his son’s choice, felt heartbroken his child would never join the long line of engineers, he never broke with him. Though he would later become frustrated with RL’s agnosticism, he kept up a correspondence. He never allowed their differences to divide them.

And though he’d go on to travel the world, leaving his family behind, Scotland would never be far from RL Stevenson’s heart. Neither would he feel anything but respect for the remarkable accomplishments of his family.

He would move away, sail the seas, living in Samoa and Hawaii, travelling the length and breadth of Europe, visiting the United States more than once.  In the South Seas he’d raise his own family, a sort of modern-day Robinson Crusoe living amongst the natives.

No matter how far he traveled, he didn’t forget where he came from.


“I shall once more lie in bed, and see the little sandy isle in Allan Water, as it is in nature, and the child (that once was me) wading there in butterburs; and wonder at the instancy and virgin freshness of that memory; and be pricked again, in season and out of season, by the desire to weave it into art”

– RLS – Memories and Portraits


RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860

RLS and his father, Thomas, 1860


Dhu Heartach - Thomas Stevenson - Later used by RL Stevenson in novel 'Kidnapped.'

Dhu Heartach – Thomas Stevenson – Later used by RL Stevenson in novel ‘Kidnapped.’


Most of The Lighthouse Stevensons goes into great detail about the building of the major lighthouses produced by the family. And when I say great detail, I do mean GREAT. It’s fascinating if, like me, you love the romance of the lonely, windswept lighthouse, imagining what it would be like to have risked life and limb building them. As much as you may believe you can imagine how it was, the reality is, I guarantee it, much more violent and stark.

Not only was there the weather to contend with, the day-to-day raw fear. There were also occasional mutinies, times when workers who had had enough threatened to walk out as soon as they were back on shore, if their salaries were not raised. The Stevensons did not suffer any threats. If a man threatened to leave, he was fired. This was nothing to take lightly. Marooned on a potentially lethal piece of rock in the middle of the sea for months at a time, there is no margin of error for a man who may decide to turn on his crew mates.

Then, there’s the life of the keeper. A dangerous and grueling profession, it requires sometimes months away from all society. At the mercy of the weather, these early keepers of the lights were oftentimes left longer than originally planned, because no ship could approach to bring them back to shore.




Against the elements, the strongest of men are powerless.

But what a romantic notion, being a lighthouse keeper. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have its appeal. I wouldn’t mind trying the lifestyle, at least the solitude and living on a rock away from civilization.

Just maybe not off the coast of Scotland.


Bell Rock Lighthouse - Off Angus, Scotland - 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson - Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.

Bell Rock Lighthouse – Off Angus, Scotland – 1807-1810 Robert Stevenson – Oldest sea-swept lighthouse.


If the reader finds no romance in waves crashing over the shorelines of Scotland, and stories about the fortitude of men who will stop at nothing, even risking their lives for the sake of creating these magnificent structures, this may not be the book for you.

Likewise, a desire to know the back story of RL Stevenson is great incentive to read The Lighthouse Stevensons. It will leave you understanding much more about the writer, where he came from, how he bowed out of the tradition of his family for a life in books and letters. Truly, this is a fascinating work reminding just how much blood, sweat and tears went into the making of the lights and how one family left its indelible mark on the face of Scotland and the world.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson


“Say not of me that weakly I declined

The Labours of my sires, and fled the sea,

The towers we built and the lamps we lit,

To play at home with paper like a child.

But rather say: In the afternoon of time

A strenuous family dusted from its hands

The sand of granite, and beholding far

Along the sounding coast its pyramids

And tall memorials catch the dying sun,

Smiled well content, and to this childish task

Around the fire addressed its evening hours.”

– RL Stevenson


Not afraid of Virginia Woolf. Or the Brontes.

I don’t know if there’s a better assertion of my rediscovered reading freedom than returning to the Victorians.

I’ve had this book in my collection at least a decade,  a volume I picked up at the now-defunct annual book sale sponsored by Brandeis University.  Tens of thousands of books, such an unfathomable number you owed it to yourself to go several times within the course of the week to see even a small percentage. Each day they cracked open countless boxes, stocking all new delights, priced (mostly) within the budget of the mother of  a young family. I could barely contain myself knowing, while I was away, all new books were shifting onto the tables.

It was heaven, and now it is no more.




When I bought this book I guess I didn’t read the jacket flap, or not closely. It was a smash-and-grab: see it, grab it before someone else does, throw it into the shopping cart, RUN. I thought I’d purchased a biography, however It’s actually a novelization of the lives of the Brontës, based on all available biographical information published prior.

Starting it Sunday evening, I was immediately bothered the book’s written in a style approximating what we now call Young Adult. Researching Lynne Reid Banks, I was reminded she’s famous largely for her book for children: The Indian in the Cupboard. But I still wasn’t expecting a book about the Brontës to read like this.

I’ve since adjusted my expectations. Instead of reading it as pure biography, I’m approaching it to brush up on the famous literary family in a conveniently condensed manner, in preparation for reading Claire Harman’s recently published biography of Charlotte:




2016 is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, which you’ll have seen all sorts of press about if you’ve been paying attention to what’s hot in the world of Victorian literature.

And yeah, Victorian literature’s still pretty hot.


Charlotte Bronte, hot Victorian writer.

Charlotte Bronte, hot Victorian writer.


Charlotte may be my favorite Brontë, though Emily’s a very close second. Her masterpiece Wuthering Heights is dark and brooding and presents a twisted picture of romantic love that’s about as depressing as it gets – precisely why I love it.

It delves into the dark side of the psyche, the part that guards obsession. The love/hate duality fascinates me, and I don’t think enough literature can really dig into that in a way that does it justice. Enter Wuthering Heights, the novel that smashes it out of the park.

As for Charlotte, her writing’s barely less dark than her sister’s; Jane Eyre gives Wuthering Heights a run for its money: huge stone house, torrid passion that’s tamped down and resisted as long as possible, the angst of a horrific childhood, a raving lunatic wife hidden in an attic.


But how did the children of a priest, raised in relative insulated solitude in a Christian household, learn about such deeply held passion? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.

What is with that family, anyway?

I’d like to re-read Jane Eyre once I’ve finished the Harman biography. It would complete my celebration of Charlotte’s 200th appropriately, bringing my Brontë reading full-circle.




In May and June, I’ll also be reading along with HeavenAli’s delightful blog, for the short fiction segment of her #Woolfalong project. I own The Complete Shorter Fiction and, miraculously, was able to locate it amidst the thousands of books crowding my shelves.

I take this as a sign.

I haven’t read Woolf in  far too long, especially  considering how much an impact she’s had on my literary life. Reading as many of these short pieces as will fit within the next two months is a step in the right direction. As a bonus, once again I’m participating in reading projects with other bloggers. Another short-term goal begun.

The Brontës and Woolf. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate reading and the return of spring.

Benefits of planning one’s reading

Never mind a few years ago I thought making any plans beyond the end of the week was silly and misguided. That was before I hit 40 and was slapped in the face with the spectre of my own mortality. An unpleasant experience that was, in more ways than one. First off, ever been slapped by Death? Not high on anyone's list of Fun Things. Second, there went any hope I'd live long enough to get around to reading those ancient classics, at least not willy-nilly at my own leisurely pace.

I no longer think it's silly planning out not just a year's reading but five year and ten year plans as well. And not to say I'm elderly or suffering from a fatal disease but it's simple math/probability the longer you live the more likely you are to die. I never was good at math but I think I may have that one right.

First, those authors whose works I'd like to read to completion (insert joke about "happy finish" here):





Dickens Woolf Faulkner






Henry James

Edith Wharton

Thomas Hardy

Truman Capote



Wharton Thomashardy Capote







Then, works I want to say I've read, in order to throw that fact around at dinner parties (which I never attend but never mind that):

Remembrance of Things Past



Anna Karenina


Remembrancepast Ulysses Moby-dick Annk









Infinite Jest

Gravity's Rainbow










Authors whose works I've read almost completely and want to finish because they're either handsome and I want be thoroughly conversant with them when next I meet them, god willing, or I just plain respect the living hell out of them:


Sebastian Barry

Julian Barnes

Sebastian Barry

Margaret Atwood

Whomever I'm reading at the time and feel thoroughly impressed by.



Julianbarnes Sebastianbarry Margaretatwood






Joyce Carol Oates, though I'm not sure my mind can remain stable if I do so








Writers whom I haven't read yet and should have, which encompasses so many I cannot even recall them all.




Writers whose series fiction is completely addicting:

Susan Hill

Ian Rankin









Books which seduce me, often new books sent to me for review or those I stumble upon serendipitously.




100 best novels – Modern Library (except those of no interest to me).

100 best nonfiction – Modern Library (see above).


All the books I personally own, number in the thousands, save those I start and find uninteresting and either donate or exchange for credit at used book stores.

[Mental Note: Should consider photographing major book storage areas in my house, to post at a later date, assuming blog hosting site can handle that much photo storage space.]




Alright. Well, that's not so bad, now, is it? Totally doable. Assuming I can read 100 books per year (not out of the realm of possibility), the Modern Library will keep me busy a mere two years (and I've read many on the list of novels already), though I won't read them all in one year because I distract far too easily.

Big, chunker books like Ulysses should take, what, six months to a year to read slowly and digest? So that's four years for what I've been able to remember, countless years for those I've forgotten.

Completing authors: five years each, perhaps? Fifteen years, again plus those I've forgotten or have put on the "maybe" list. Assume a good twenty more of these for a total of (gets out calculator) 100 years.

Authors I respect and want to impress: I've listed four, plus let's assume 50 more for whomever else should be on the list. Total shot in the dark Best estimate: Fifteen years.

Series fiction? Depends how long each author lives. Forty years?

Serendipitous books, paired with the thousands I own: Roughly 100 years.

Grand total:   271 years at 100 books per year


Piffle! Scientists say they'll eventually cure death, so that's one point for me. The sun will eventually consume the Earth, if the Andromeda Galaxy hasn't gotten us first, but that's a good few billion years out. Oh, but that's if Yellowstone or another Super Volcano doesn't erupt (could be any day now), or idiotic people with nuclear and other world-destructive capability don't accidentally hit the Red Button (ditto), or a mutant disease doesn't escape from some laboratory somewhere (ditto). Like that super-strain of bird flu recently developed. Something of that nature, which was a BRILLIANT IDEA, by the way. BRILLIANT!

To my mind, my goals are totally doable. I can rest much easier knowing that. What a relief! Ah, I feel better.


Canadian Book Challenge – August report



Alrighty! Here we go. Two books by Canadian authors read over the course of the last month or so, and I'm here to talk briefly about them. These aren't proper "reviews," but rather thoughts on the two books as I explore the literature of Canada.



I've previously read at least one book by Moore. I just can't remember which. Obviously, it made a very big impression on me.

After reading his bio on Wikipedia, I see the man was actually born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. But he's listed as both Irish and Canadian. Well, alright. This book won the Governor General's Award for Fiction in 1975, which is a Canadian award. Methinks he counts for the Challenge.

Plot synopsis: History professor Anthony Maloney (Tony Maloney. Cringe.) is in Carmel, California, to attend a seminar at Berkeley. His first night there, spent at a small motel, he dreams a mysterious man takes him on a tour of priceless Victorian curiosities. When he awakes, the curiosities are set up in the motel's parking lot, conjured out of thin air. He's thrilled. Beyond thrilled. Victorian history is his specialty, and here he finds booth after booth chock full of antiquities, all in perfect condition.

Explaining what happened is of course a difficulty, but after enough convincing – and the authentication of Victorian specialists – at least some are won over by his story. Soon he discovers some of his actions have an impact on the collection, and I won't tell what or how, because this makes up a large part of the rest of the book.

Theme: A variation on the "be careful what you wish for" theme.

My thoughts: Well, it started out great. I love magical realism, books brushing up against the supernatural (used sparingly and with elegant understatement). But it didn't take long until it became a chore.

The dialogue was horrid and stilted. Moore had his characters calling each other by name over and over, even when it was completely obvious who was speaking. The effect was annoying. It went something like this:

Joe: "Hello, Bob," said Joe.

Bob: "Hello Joe, said Bob.

Joe: "Hey, Bob, would you like to go out and have coffee?"

Bob: "Yes, Joe, I would."

Joe: "Well, Bob, I know a great little restaurant."

Bob: "Okay, Joe. Let's go."


Most of this book was written in this sophomoric style. In 1975 the pickings for the GG Award must have been awfully slim if this book won. And I think I just figured out why I can't recall which other book of Moore's I read previously. I've blocked it out for self-preservation.




On the other hand! Miriam Toews. I think I'm in love.

Plot synopsis: Min Troutman, deeply depressed mother of two children – Logan and Theodora (Thebes) – is hospitalized for the umpteenth time when she becomes suicidal. Her sister, Hattie, flies home to Canada from Paris and assumes guardianship of her nephew and niece.

Deciding their biological father, whom Min kicked out many years ago, would be a better guardian for them, she gathers the kids up and embarks on a road trip to find him. The only problem, he's been gone so long she's not sure where he is. But she does have his last known location, Murdo, South Dakota.

The trip is one wild, hilarious romp through the United States. The kids are delightfully quirky, much like the characters in 'Little Miss Sunshine' (another road trip tale). You'll know what I mean if you've seen it.

My thoughts: The writing is an absolute joy. In contrast to Moore, Toews' prose sings, and her dialogue is natural and enjoyable, without once giving me the dry heaves. It was panned by some critics, but maybe they just don't share my sense of humor. And, yeah, okay. A lot of strays from probability. But it's so wacked-out I forgive it.

And that's it for books one and two.