March Reading

Books Acquired

  • Lucky Jim | Kingsley Amis
  • The Most of S. J. Perelman | S. J. Perelman (duh)
  • Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall | Spike Milligan
  • Reliable Essays | Clive James
  • Great Bus Journeys of the World | Alexei Sayle
  • So Shall We Reap | Colin Tudge
  • Otherwise Knows As the Human Condition | Geoff Dyer
  • Home Fires | Gene Wolfe
  • Agent Zigzag | Ben Macintyre
  • Manhood for Amateurs | Michael Chabon
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction | Alan Jacobs
  • Fahrenheit 451 | Ray Bradbury
  • Travels With Charley | John Steinbeck
  • I Capture the Castle | Dodie Smith

Books Read

  • How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer | Sarah Bakewell
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union | Michael Chabon
  • Manhood for Amateurs | Michael Chabon
  • Man Alone | John Mulgan
  • Moominpappa at Sea | Tove Jansson
  • Momminvalley in November | Tove Jansson
  • Room | Emma Donoghue
  • I Capture the Castle | Dodie Smith

Did you know Gonzalo’s description of Utopia in The Tempest (“No occupation; all men idle, all;”) is plagiarised from Montaigne’s 1580 essay “On Cannibals”, in praise of Tupinambá Indian society? Nor did I. The Tempest/Tupinambá connection is one of many gems from Sarah Bakewell’s approachable and quirky Montaigne biography, How To Live. This is more than the De Botton-ish summary its title suggests: Montaigne’s philosophy is interwoven with both his life, and his writing’s “afterlife”. The three strands run concurrently, not in chronological sequence, a slightly postmodern device you end up wishing more biographers used.

Two good hauls of books this month, the first six from one of my favourite bookstores, Hard To Find in Onehunga (the Alexei Sayle I grabbed solely because it contains a very funny song about Doris Lessing), and the last three from a farewell visit to the Christchurch Book Fridge, a take-one-leave-one book repository created by the Gap Filler project. The best score was certainly I Capture the Castle: a book several women of my acquaintance have rhapsodised about, so expectations were fairly high. I got very excited towards the end, as various textual clues suggested the novel was in fact a cunning metafiction, with an unreliable narrator busily constructing and editing the story she complains about being unable to “capture”. My expectations built to such a point I was hoping the last chapter would reveal an alternative reading of the entire book, like Life of Pi or Atonement. But—alas—it did not.

capturecastle(My old hardcover copy of I Capture The Castle revealed a 1950s cigarette wrapper being used as a bookmark. I love discoveries like this: I’ve found antique library cards, a shopping list, an old parking ticket and similar bric-à-brac in used books, and one of the first things I do when I get a purchase home is give it a good shake and then leaf through every page.)

I Capture the Castle seems to be a comfort read for many people, something to return to in times of stress. My post-earthquake move to Auckland felt like it qualified, and as Bruce Sterling’s Distraction was in storage I chose my other comfort read, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; I seem to get through this book about once a year. I followed it up with Chabon’s memoir Manhood for Beginners, a collection of non-linear vignettes funny, self-deprecating, and engagingly nerdy.

Part of my comfort reading as a child was Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, and re-visiting the later ones after 30 years I was amazed by her savvy and craft. Moominpappa at Sea in particular I remember as a child finding eerie and puzzling, but with adult eyes it revealed whole new layers dealing with loneliness, middle age, and the difficulties of solving one’s problems with radical life changes. So that was apposite. Mercifully Hollywood has yet to get its hands on the Moomin books and ruin them the way it’s busily doing to Dr Seuss.

Man Alone is one of those New Zealand classics we were supposed to have read in high school—though at my (sports-obsessed) school English classes were non-canonical and we read Alistair Maclean, Frederick Forsyth, and Ian Fleming. In fact Man Alone‘s muscular Hemingwayesque prose, mostly about being the virtues of being stoic and a farmer, would possibly have worked for bored teenage boys. I found it noteworthy that in 1938 Mulgan was writing whare and pa, untranslated but italicised, for an English audience, but “bush hen” and “native owl” instead of weka and morepork. Also, smart young Māori men in 1935 apparently wore “wide purple flannel trousers and broad-brimmed hats with coloured feathers in the band.” I definitely don’t remember learning that in high school.

† “Doris Lessing, Doris Lessing / She’s a writer who knows all there is about trucks…”

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