A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf
Her Privates We – Frederic Manning
Graceling – Kristen Cashore
Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor
Unspoken – Sarah Rees Brennan
Anna Dressed in Blood – Kendare Blake
Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo
The Now Habit – Neil Fiore
A Writer’s Diary – Virginia Woolf
A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson
Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen
White Cat – Holly Black
The Murder Room – P.D. James
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 – Christopher Clark (half)
Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor (half)
In this inaugural post I would just like to throw out there that I have stolen two things, shamelessly, from the magnificent collection of Nick Hornby’s writing for THE BELIEVER that I just finished. It’s called Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books and you should read it. Hornby is funny, generous, expansive, and contemplative, and I have a three page list of things I’d like to read based on his recommendations.
But back to the stuff I stole. First, I stole the title of this blog – Finger Steepling and Sharks. The title may change – I’m extremely partial to the titles of the blogs I’ve had so far. Jen Says More Robots is an actual thing that I have said to someone, I forget who, when thinking about what I want added to a story, and Every Time Robocop Cries an Angel Gets Its Wings is, in my opinion, a funny mental image. And pretty impossible, since we all know Robocop doesn’t cry. Sorry, angels. At any rate, in a discussion of things that make a good book (one of many,) Hornby has this to say about what he sees as the unnecessary forced divide between “finger steepling” and “sharks:”
“You can get finger steepling and sharks in the same book. And you really need the shark part, because a whole novel about finger steepling …can be on the sleepy side. You don’t have to have a shark, of course; the shark could be replaced by a plot, or, say, thirty decent jokes.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good story, and that little passage spoke to me. It’s a great writer’s equivalent of “More Robots.” And who am I to argue with a great writer? The second thing I stole was the format of this post. Every month for The Believer magazine (sometimes once every two months, I guess) he’d list the books he bought and the books he read and write about them, usually making me chortle a little in the process. He’d also write about fatherhood, and marriage, and soccer, usually in an oblique way, usually also making me laugh. But I hadn’t ever thought of the books I’d bought as a part of my reading biography. Usually I think to myself “What is wrong with you? You don’t need this book. You won’t have time to read this book anytime soon.” For the past eight months my bookshelves have been regulated by a strict “two out, one in” policy, whereby I must read two of my current possessions before adding to the menagerie. I should note that copies I am given do not apply as “adding.” But Hornby also points out that, for a certain kind of reader, the books we buy and want to read, even if we never do, constitute an integral part of the way we think about ourselves as readers:
“All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal.”
Who we are, who we’d like to be. A nice place to start.
This month I re-read Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, mostly because due to an unfortunate confluence of “updating my kindle” and “getting trapped in a hobo car for forty five minutes between Bedford and 1st Avenue” I had literally nothing else on hand. There is a lot that’s useful (or at least interesting) here, and a lot of stuff that is not very useful (“guilt-free play” is not my favorite phrase, and it comes up A LOT in this book.) Far more helpful in the “who we’d like to be” column was reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. Edited posthumously, this is a fascinating look at what it was like to be a genius writer of the twentieth century. And what it was like seems to be quite similar to being a writer of any kind of the 21st century – who will pay the bills, is it worth it to have children, will this book be a huge flop, what will so and so think of the book when I see them next at a party. And it’s a portrait of the artist as depressive, too. The silences in the book speak volumes, times when she was “low” and not writing, times when she took to her bed. If you’re a Woolf fan or a writer or anyone, really, this is well worth checking out. I picked this up in a beautiful Persephone Books edition at Hatchard’s, Booksellers to Her Majesty the Queen, on a blistering hot day during my recent trip to London. If you’re ever in London definitely give Hatchard’s a visit. It’s an indie bookstore that is almost comic in its loveliness. Two or three floors, beautifully organized, with a huge selection, and I wanted to buy ten or fifteen books while I was there. The pound being what it is, and the dollar being what it is, I only bought two – the Woolf and a novel of World War I that I had never read, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We.
World War I is something of my special subject, and in June I bought two or three books on the subject as a subconscious nod to the 100 year anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. (I read one of them, The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund, but still haven’t finished one I’m looking forward to, A Monstrous Regiment: The Story of the Women of the First World War by David Mitchell. No, I’m not sure if it’s that David Mitchell, or the other David Mitchell.) I am really enjoying The Sleepwalkers but man, is it dry. I know a lot more about Serbia than I ever did before, and it’s the first book that I’ve read about the conflict that puts all the pieces together in a way that shows how simultaneously unavoidable and completely avoidable the First World War was. At any rate, it’s six hundred freaking pages long, so I’m not done yet!
Most of my Books Read in July were read on the balcony of a cabin in Tennessee, in the Smoky Mountains, just 45 minutes away from the park. I was there for a week and my family likes to take reading vacations – at one point, every single resident of the cabin was sitting around reading. It was heaven. While I was there I also went hiking and acquired the World’s Gnarliest Sunburn (that took nearly four weeks to finish peeling) but the reading was really dizzying. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is hilarious, and begins with a frank and bloodcurdlingly funny discussion of bear attacks and the deaths caused thereby, and just gets better from there. (So chosen because there is a portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the Smoky Mountain National Park.) I continue to read P.D. James even though I am getting less and less pleasure from her novels. The Murder Room had an interesting setup, about a museum of a not very popular time period that featured a room full of murder paraphernalia, but followed the pattern of her books that drives me a little nuts. I re-read Pride & Prejudice because my sister had brought my grandmother’s beautiful 1940s edition with her on vacation, and there’s never a bad time to reread Pride & Prejudice. It made me want to reread Persuasion. (So did my extremely quick but very fun trip to Bath later in the month, where I was unable to hang out with Emma Newman, my lovely client. Next time!)
Holly Black’s White Cat isn’t the first Holly Black that I’ve read, but it might be my favorite. I love stories like this, with weird unspoken (and spoken) family tension, and gifts that are really burdens, and boarding schools and class and magic. It’s SO GREAT. When I went on my YA fantasy buying binge later in the month I tried to find the second two in the series but couldn’t. Maybe this month I’ll order them from Powells, where I got this copy – I don’t love the cover (hot model holding, you guessed it, a white cat, also without a shirt) because it feels disingenuously Sexy, but what can you do? Marketing is marketing.
Though I didn’t include it on this list, I finished The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton on June 30 so I feel it should count, and also it was really amazing. Kind of like Middlemarch, only a legal thriller, only set in New Zealand by way of that miniseries about the Klondike that starred Robb Stark. Really beautiful writing, even if the ending wasn’t the most satisfying, but I found its twisty structure and sense of atmosphere kept me going. Also she is my age!
As far as Books Purchased that go yet unread I am sure I will get to these fairly soon. I’ve been meaning to read Anna Dressed in Blood because I loved Antigoddess, and so many of my friends have raved at me about Graceling and Shadow & Bone that I felt like a genuinely bad person for not having got to them yet. Days of Blood and Starlight is the second in the series after Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and I love it SO MUCH. The first one was fairly straightforward – angst, pining, winged creatures, mysterious talents, but the second one has ratcheted it up to include genocide and megalomania and half-abandoned casbahs in the Moroccan desert. SO MUCH, I say again. I am about seventy-five pages to the end.
So yeah! That’s July. I’m not going anywhere in August – my reading in July was also curtailed by my trip to London, which was incredibly fun but didn’t leave much energy for reading anything other than MCU fanfiction – so I am looking forward to a lot of time spent not doing much of anything in particular. In particular I need to get my hands on Abaddon’s Gate, the third Expanse novel, before Cibolo Burns comes out.