Friday, 24 February 2017

A year in reading - part 1

A year in reading - part 1 · Lisa Hjalt

Here it is, the blog entry I have wondered whether to write or not, the one with comments on a few books that appeared on my 2016 reading lists. First I thought of writing these notes in a comment under the list in question but later thought it best to keep them separate. I see no reason to repeat comments that I have already made on certain books, or to comment here on the ones I reread; I only read books again if I like them or they hold a special place in my heart.

Speaking of rereading books: Scottish author Ali Smith was recently featured in the 'By the Book' column (NYT), where she said something that reasoned with me:
[A] rereading can feel like a first-time read in itself, which is another great thing about books and time; we think we know them, but as we change with time, so do they, with us. (Sunday Book Review, 12 Feb. 2017)
I saw this feature a couple of days ago and noticed that she mentioned the book Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. If you are following me on Instagram you may have seen it in a photo I shared last Sunday. It so happens that I borrowed it at the library on Saturday and it will be on my next reading list.

Below are some of my ideas about books that appeared on my № 1, 2 and 3 reading lists. On my first list I included design books but later decided to only include novels, auto/biographies, travel books, etc. Let me add that it's not my intention to steer you away from the books I unfavourably comment on, or those I didn't finish. Our literary tastes are different, so are our cultural and social backgrounds, and I certainly don't want to appear as an authority on what to read and not to read. However, I know that I have blog readers who are using my lists as a guide to books, which is why I think it only fair to mention those that perhaps didn't live up to my expectations.

№ 1 reading list (2 of 8):
· The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I read a few chapters before putting it away, only because Africa by John Reader has been on my list for some time and I wanted to read it before reading other Africa-related books on my to-read list. Polish journalist Kapuscinski covered Africa for decades and I believe that one day I will pick up his book again and finish it.
· The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. The biggest disappointment of my 2016 reads. Started brilliantly with an observant and humorous Theroux - I could hardly put it down. At some point his tone becomes annoying, as if all he can do is complain. I lost both my interest and patience, and tossed it. A travel writer that doesn't inspire me to travel has no place in my bookish heart.

№ 2 reading list (1 of 6):
· Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Lost my patience and gave up. Way too revealing and not in a good way. The times were different but it astonished me how she allowed Neal to disrespectfully treat her right from the start of their relationship. The first chapters are a good lesson in how not to pick a husband.
[Another from the list: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (see separate blog entry).]

№ 3 reading list (2 of 6):
· Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. The first volume of her autobiography, in which she covers her early life, her childhood in Paris and her Sorbonne years. My only fault with it was her serious narrative; her tone of voice was too intellectual for a child but fitted better as she grew older. The other volumes will appear on my reading lists in the future.
· Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. In my opinion, overrated. In the beginning the narrator is a young girl which means an easy read with a simple vocabulary, and there is plenty of humour (the mother is priceless!). The author lost me when I reached the last third or fourth part of the book (when the girl leaves home); the narrative became sloppy somehow. This was one of those books that I really wanted to like and be able to recommend but it left me rather disappointed.

'Part 2' is coming soon, with comments on a few books from the № 4, 5 and 6 reading lists.

[Update: click here for part 2.]


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the books you have read. I was feeling ashamed to not finish book I would start no matter how terrible I would find them. My reading have been rather poor over the past years, but since our move and thanks to my commute, I am catching up, proudly having just finished my 8th book since August...
    I will follow your reading lists with interest.

    1. Hi Stephanie. These are just notes on some books I hadn't commented on; you can see more by following the link to the reading list in question.

      I was that kind of reader, too. I thought I had to finish everything no matter what. Then at some point I thought, Life is short, I don't have time for books that don't inspire me.

      It's great that you are able to catch upon your reading while commuting. Have you left Luxembourg?

    2. Indeed, I have been following those links...
      Yes so true, life is too short. It was just that at one point I have been started at least 4 books (bought new) which did not inspire me at all!
      We left Luxembourg this past summer and moved in a small village in Oxfordshire. This has been (and is still) a fantastic experience, especially as the life style change has been accompanied with a rather significant downsizing...

    3. A small village in Oxfordshire sounds lovely. Is there a local library or in a nearby village? I like borrowing at the library and then I buy the books that I really like or note down to buy later. It's so annoying when a book one has bought turns out to be a disappointment ... 4 uninspiring books, there should be a law against that!

    4. Yes, the village is lovely and pretty! I am not sure about a local library and will look for it. What I am now doing is I buy my book second hand as often as I can... As we have downsized so much, I don't have room to keep many of them... I agree, uninspiring books are so frustrating!
      I just finished L'art de la simplicité from Dominique Loreau, and while the first third was interesting I have found the two last thirds less inspiring... So let see how the next one will turn out :-)

  2. Dear Lisa, thank you for these honest insights! :-) As for rereading, I just finished 'Mrs Dalloway' in English. I enjoyed it even more than about 10 years ago in Latvian. Such spot-on observations about the way we people are!

    1. If I were forced to pick a list of 10 favourites (a very difficult dask, if I may add!) 'Mrs Dalloway' would be on it. Have you read Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse'? It's another one by her that I have read more than once; I find it beautiful.

    2. Since you recommend it, I'll read 'To the Lighthouse'. The only other Woolf's book I've read (also twice) is 'Orlando' which I found boring, messy and wordy both times. Loved the film with Swinton though!

    3. I think you will like that one; I think you will find in it those same observations you mentioned in your earlier comment. It's an ode to her mother who died when Woolf was only 13 (her sister Vanessa Bell was very touched by the book). Sorry to hear about 'Orlando' disappointing you.
      (Not that it matters: meant to write 'make a list' in my comment above.)

  3. Dear Lisa, you were absolutely right! I thoroughly enjoyed 'To the Lighthouse' and plan to buy nice hardcover editions of this book and 'Mrs Dalloway' as I'm quite certain I'll be rereading both. Thanks for the encouragement!😊

    1. I'm so glad to read that you enjoyed it!
      Nice hardcover editions sound perfect.


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