January Reading

Books Acquired

  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating | Elisabeth Bailey
  • The Mouse and His Child | Russell Hoban
  • Tales from Moominvalley | Tove Jansson
  • Moominvalley in November | Tove Jansson
  • Moominpappa at Sea | Tove Jansson
  • The Ukulele Entertainer | Ralph Shaw
  • Wulf | Hamish Clayton
  • The Birthday Boys | Beryl Bainbridge
  • Great Expectations | Charles Dickens
  • The Flower Beneath the Foot | Ronald Firbank
  • Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women | Ricky Jay
  • Ravens in Winter | Bernd Heinrich
  • Far From the Madding Crowd | Thomas Hardy
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge | Thomas Hardy
  • Yesterdays in Maoriland | Andreas Reischek
  • The Voyage of the Narwhal | Andrea Barrett
  • Oryx and Crake | Margaret Atwood
  • The Penguin Modern Poets: Mersey Sound | Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten

Books Read

  • The Sense of an Ending | Julian Barnes
  • The Sisters Brothers | Patrick de Witt
  • The Mouse and His Child | Russell Hoban
  • Tales From Moominvalley | Tove Jansson
  • The Third Policeman | Flann O’Brien
  • The Road | Cormac McCarthy
Every time I go into town I accidentally buy two or three books.
—Philip Pullman, “Unpacking My Library”

Well. I’m obviously buying far more than I’m reading and I think we all know who’s to blame. The bookstores. Principal offenders this month were Hard To Find Books in Onehunga, where I picked up the long-sought Ricky Jay volume, and Time Out in Mt Eden, my favourite bookshop in Auckland and indeed all of New Zealand. From Smiths to Scorpio, all the fine bookstores of Christchurch were trashed in the earthquake, but they’ve sprouted again in shipping 1305827801-the_sisters_brotherscontainers, or in the suburbs. Even amidst the devastation of Lyttelton, its used-book shop popped up again in a back room, and I found a nice clean 1950s edition of Reischeck’s 19th century wanderings around New Zealand. Prominently displayed in Time Out was The Sisters Brothers, frontrunner in the Best Cover Design of 2012 for me. The voice of the shlumpy psychopath Eli Sisters carried me through this parade of memorable vignettes and eccentric characters, and I could almost see how the Coen brothers would shoot some of the scenes.

Revisiting favourite childhood books is always a risk. I suspect the Willard Price zoo-collector stories that enthralled me in my youth would not bear up well today. The teenage protagonists were ignorant of CITES and animal ethics guidelines, and the fawning devotion of their various brown-skinned native guides would be a bit sickening. Plus having been a teenage boy at one point I would not trust one to organise a DVD rental, let alone an animal-collecting expedition to New Guinea.

So it was a relief to find The Mouse and His Child has lost none of its charm. I remember having it read to 10-year-old me, sitting on the mat in Burwood Primary School—now in the Red Zone and doomed, I think—but I couldn’t remember how it ended; a perfect reason to read it again, 33 years later, spurred by Russell Hoban’s death last December (which also prompted me to add Riddley Walker to the reading list). Surprisingly sophisticated and moving, with metaphorical depth lost on me the first time around, along with the Samuel Beckett parody. Hoban was adventurous and had no qualms about including, in what was supposedly a children’s book, words like chthonic, demiurge, capstan, and mansard.

I also grabbed re-issues of the last three Tove Jansson moomin books, and realised I’d never actually read Tales From Moominvalley, which was like finding $20 in my coat pocket. Gorgeous stories for kids that have deep resonance for adults—I’m working my way up to the darkest one, Moominpappa At Sea, which freaked me out as a child.

Michael Dirda’s review collection Classics for Pleasure inspired me to track down some authors I’d only vaguely heard of: Firbank was one, and Flann O’Brien another. I eventually figured out The Third Policemen was in the same vein as “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and The Man Who Was Thursday, but the ending was even neater than I anticipated. A fabulous piece of absurdism, both funny and unsettling, told in a dry and elliptical tone in a distinctly roundabout Irish way.

The latest Julian Barnes was read almost entirely in one sitting on the Cook Strait ferry. Barnes likes to make you gradually re-examine both the narrator’s motives and the theme of the whole book. He did it in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World, and tries it again here. It wasn’t completely successful for me, but the biting observations of the unreliable narrator are fun, and it’s a beautifully-crafted examination of the nature of history (explicitly so) and memory.

I’ll save The Road until I can compare it with Riddley Walker, next in the queue. This grand reading scheme seems to be working, in one sense: I’m making time in the evenings to open a book, not just aimlessly cruise the Internet. The next step will be to throttle back the acquisitions. Which might be harder.

2 thoughts on “January Reading

  1. Dawn

    Reading rates might vary if one is reading non-fiction. If I am reading an ethnography or some such, I get distracted by the notes or the bibliography, and wander off (literally and figuratively) looking up the book or journal article, or making notes as ideas come to me about research areas I might like to pursue. Whereas I can rip through a fiction book fairly quickly.

    Perhaps I should just stick to fiction books to keep my reading rate high. Because reading is, after all, all about how many books we have read, how many we want to read, how many we’ll never read, rather than the delicious, wonderful pleasure of reading. :P

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