What Were You Reading 10 Years Ago?

What were you reading 10 years ago? Has it held up?

I looked at my 2009 journal to find out.

Stats:  I read 174 books that year, but only 23  new books.  And I must confess that I have forgotten most of the 23, which does not necessarily mean they were bad.  But it might mean that.

Here are Five Memorable and Five Forgotten Books of 2009.

FIVE BOOKS THAT MADE AN  IMPRESSION

1    The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this  brilliant, rich novel is loosely based on the life of Victorian writer E. Nesbit and her circle. The heroine, Olive Wellwood, a Fabian socialist and a  popular writer of children’s books, supports her husband and family by writing.  Byatt interweaves the story of this bohemian family with the  history of the arts and crafts movement, Victorian fairy tales, socialism, and Olive’s tales.

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.  So weird, so good! I wrote in 2009:   The Great Gatsby meets Petronius’s Satyricon in a New York stuck in perpetual winter.  Narrated by Chase Insteadman, a wealthy former child star whose astronaut girlfriend is lost in space (their romance is famous), lives off residuals from his ‘80s sitcom and is celebrated for his charm. When Perkus Tooth, a former pop culture critic for Rolling Stone, takes a shine to Chase, the world becomes increasingly more fantastic.   Chase’s hilarious observations about Perkus’s discovery of eBay as the result of an acupuncture session are typically over the top (Perkus has an epiphany about beauty as he gazes at a vase in a photo on the acupuncturist’s wall and decides to buy one for himself.)

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore.  This stunning, lyrical novel tells the story of the Roman poet Catullus and his affair with Clodia, whom he calls Lesbia in his poems (a reference to the Greek poet Sappho, not lesbianism).   The Orange Prize-winning Dunmore was an extraordinary writer, but this book was never published in the U.S.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer.  In 2009 I scribbled: Dyer’s entertaining novel is divided into two parts, one set in Venice, the other in Varanasi.  Jeff Atman, a middle-aged freelance writer, hopes never to have to churn out a “think” piece about art again, but he needs the money.  (All freelance writers will understand this.)  In Venice he has an affair with a gorgeous, witty woman who works at an art gallery:  they seem to be the witty Nick and Nora of the peripheral art world.   The second part, set in Varanasi, gives the freelance writer a chance to escape himself as he becomes immersed in the culture of India.

Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  This entrancing popular novel is about one of my favorite subjects, witches.  The narrative shifts back and forth in time between the present and the Salem witch trials.  The heroine, Connie, a graduate student at Harvard, is cleaning out her late grandmother’s house near Salem when she discovers key and a piece of parchment with a name on it:  Deliverance Dane.  Who was Deliverance Dane?  You will find out.

BOOKS I BARELY REMEMBER.

The Spy Game by Georgina Harding.  I remember NOTHING about this book.  I wrote in my journal, “A luminous novel about identity, childhood, and history, centered on the imagination of two English children whose German immigrant mother dies in 1961.”  I liked it at the time.

The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane.  Something Irish?  Indeed it seems to be.  I moderately enjoyed this novel about an Irish immigrant family , but remember nothing about it.

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.   The New York Times called this novel “wickedly smart.” I enjoyed it back then, but it did not stick with me. The Goodreads description says:  “The novel opens in England in 1915, at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragist and one of the first women to integrate Cambridge University. Her decision to starve herself for the cause informs and echoes in the later, overlapping narratives of her descendants.”  It certainly sounds like something I’d like!

Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  I loved Howard’s novels when I binge-read them in the ’90s, but was very disappointed in this late novel by the author of the Cazelet Chronicles.  Perhaps I’d be disappointed in Howard’s other books if I reread them now.

Drood by Dan Simmons.  I love Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so of course I had to read Dan Simmons’s Drood.  Told from the point-of-view of Wilkie Collins, who is madly jealous of his best friend Charles Dickens, it is a borderline novel of sensation, and it is much too long.   Another book that did not stick with me.

I’m so glad I keep a book journal.  It gives me a perspective on decades of the history of the popular novel.

On Dead Blogs and What I’m Reading

Is the blog dead?

My impression is that old-fashioned blogs are our grandmothers’ social media platform now. We have been replaced by BookTube and nugatory Instagram posts.

This is not a crackpot theory.  A 2018 survey at Pew Research does not even mention Blogger or WordPress.  This study of social media found:

Facebook and YouTube dominate this landscape, as notable majorities of U.S. adults use each of these sites. At the same time, younger Americans (especially those ages 18 to 24) stand out for embracing a variety of platforms and using them frequently. Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. Similarly, 71% of Americans in this age group now use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users.”

As the years go by, I find myself reading fewer blogs, clicking on fewer “likes,” and commenting less. It isn’t so much the quality as  it about less screen time. Today I learned that Belle at the splendid blog Belle, Book and Candle wrote her last post in December. Oh no!  I will miss her smart style, humor, serenity, and eclectic tastes in books.  So many of my favorites have folded.

It is a pity that greedy computer moguls have created social networking platforms that rely more on pictures than words.   And I’m not exaggerating too much!   But I might be wrong about the Silicon Valley part.  I don’t know the origins.

AND NOW HERE’S WHAT I’VE BEEN READING.

1. Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, a collection of linked autobiographical essays. In 1993, Houston was living in a tent when her agent gave her a check for $21,000  for her debut collection of stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness, with the advice, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots.”  After traveling around the West, Houston bought a 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies. Although she spends half the year teaching, she always comes back to the ranch, which is the home of her Irish wolfhounds, two elderly horses, a bonded pair of rescue miniature donkeys, Icelandic ewes, and chickens. Houston, who has been a skiing instructor and led white-water raft trips, tells fascinating tales of nature, endurance of the cold, and quasi-primitive living. I cried and cried over the death of one of her dogs.

2.   Robert Graves’s compelling historical novel, I, Claudius.  This classic, set in the first century A.D., is the autobiography of the crippled, stuttering Roman emperor Claudius.  He learned to keep his head down to survive the dangers of the reigns of three emperors: Augustus, who brought peace after  civil wars but whose wife Livia poisoned his heirs and many others; Livia’s cruel, perverted son, Tiberius, who was a good general but uninterested in empire and spent long periods frolicking on Capri; and mad murderous Caligula, whose insane cruelty ruined more lives than Livia.  Claudius becomes emperor at the end of the novel, and  the story is continued in Claudius the God.  Many of the events are based on episodes in Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, which Graves translated.

3. Dark Narnia.  This is my nickname for Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the first two novels in her much lauded Wayward  series. Every SF publication heralded the publication of McGuire’s fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream, which is apparently based on Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.  (Last year I read a brilliant  Goblin Market retelling, Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood.) I decided to read the others first.

I like the premise:  Miss West’e Home for Wayward Children is a refuge for children who disappeared for years through portals to magical lands and cannot adjust to ordinary life.  These books begin like gentle fantasies and  then morph into Sf/horror.  In Every Heart a Doorway, a series of brutal murders are committed.  In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Mcguire tells the adventures of twins Jack and Jill (two students we meet in Every Heart a Doorway) and their years working for a vampire and a doctor who can bring the dead back to life.

They’re not for me–I don’t like horror–but  many SF fans consider them classics.