Angels and Insects: Two Novellas, by A.S. Byatt
Babel Tower, by A.S. Byatt
Zelda, by Nancy Milford
Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great Books, by Cara Nicoletti
Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne (audiobook)
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow
Stuff I've Been Reading, by Nick Hornby
H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (audiobook)
(most of) Angels and Insects, Two Novellas, by A.S. Byatt
It's the beginning of a new month, and I'm already exhausted. It's been a full week of work (made fuller than usual with two weddings this past weekend and working from home on Monday). I've also been slightly more domestic than usual lately. I blame the onset of fall. Cooler weather not only brings out the leggings from my closet but also brings about a stronger desire to cook. And snuggle under blankets. There have been very few complaints about this from the peanut gallery.
It's also brought about an uptick in my reading. I've been a bit more avid about burying myself in a book than in the past few months, and it shows in my accomplishments. I really don't know where I find the time. I think I've just given up on sleeping.
With the end of September comes a change in the way I do my reading lists on this blog, thanks to one of this month's books (a perfect gift from the lovely Anne when she came to visit last month).
Stuff I've Been Reading, by Nick Horby, is a wonderful collection of the essays Horby wrote as reflections on his monthly reading list and ruminations on his books bought list vs. his books read list, essays which, I must say, far outshine my past few "reading list" blogs. So? I'm going to rip off the format from Hornby... I mean borrow from. Commandeer, if you will. Nautical term.
Hey, writers snag ideas and inspiration all the time from other writers, so why can't I? (Apparently I've decided since last week that I am, in fact, a writer. At least for now.)
Since there are far too many coincidences in my life to be coincidental, I wouldn't dare to say that it's a coincidence that I read Nicoletti's Voracious in the same month that I started cooking more. I bought it one night after dinner with Mark at Pi, one of our favorite pizza places. Left Bank Books is just a diagonal jaunt across the street, so it's hard to avoid "just looking." It was the first of two "books about books" that I read this month. I adored both, but Voracious, for some reason, thrilled me in a way that was surprising for how simple the book itself was. I guess it's not that surprising. It does, after all, combine two of my favorite things: books and the food in books, complete with truly delicious-looking recipes. And no, I haven't made anything from the book yet, but it's only a matter of time before there's a cherry pie on the table.
Nicoletti's essay/cookbook mash-up is everything it promises to be. She takes us through her whole lifetime of reading and food, starting with childhood and moving forward. The essays are short, sweet, and heart-felt. They are not long, drawn-out, soul-searching works, and that is fine, because they don't need to be epic works to show the deep-rooted love Nicoletti has for great food and great literature. It's highly possible that I identify a little too strongly with her and am more than a little annoyed that I didn't keep up on my own blog about the food in books. Such is life.
In the same vein, Stuff I've Been Reading is another book about books. It's definitely more high-brow and sarcastic, which is fine by me. I chuckled to myself throughout the whole book, constantly prompting my boyfriend to ask what on earth I was laughing about. Needless to say, the list of books I want to read has sky-rocketed this month further and further into the unimaginably unachievable range. But what else is new?
If there is a lesson I learned from both books, however, it is that I never, ever want to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Ever.
Not all books can be winners. Journey to the Center of the Earth was my least favorite book this month, which is almost unfair considering how excellent most of the books I read were. Yes, it's a classic, blah blah blah. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. This view, I might add, is a more recent revelation to me. Young, idealistic Ashley was of the firm view that classics were required reading and that if you didn't like them, you were missing something. Older, lazier Ashley has learned that yes, you can and probably should read the classics, but you don't have to be their staunchest defender. Some of them are boring and hard to pay attention to (particularly when read in Tim Curry's sonorous voice). That's not to say they don't have merit. But it is to say that I don't have to lie and say that I loved a book when I didn't. So. I didn't love it. Moving on.
This brings me to a book I completely loved: Ready Player One. Loving this book was a bit of a surprise to me. It wasn't a book that was even on my radar, besides hearing that it was going to be a movie. It sounded more like a gamer boy book, and I'm not a gamer in any sense of the word. But I read this article about books "as enchanting" as Harry Potter, and it was listed on there, along with other favorites like The Night Circus and American Gods. And while wandering around a bookstore with the boyfriend (Yes, we do a lot of that.), I picked up a copy of Ready Player One and mentioned the article I'd read. Mark, having not-so-secret motives of wanting me to buy the book so he could read it, encouraged me to get it. And since I never need much encouragement to buy another book, I did.
Cline's fantastic debut novel is one I would never have appreciated as much a few years ago as I did now. Correction: it is not a book would have appreciated as much without the influence of my boyfriend. Without him, I wouldn't know half the references I did. I wouldn't know Oingo Boingo, or The Last Starfighter, or Explorers, or Heathers (to be fair, Alexis helped with that one too). As someone born in the mid-80s, my 80s pop culture knowledge is middling at best. It was only a few years ago that I actually saw all the Back to the Future movies all the way through.
Ready Player One is a love song to geeks, gamers, and all things 80s. That being said, even if I didn't have my new-found 80s education, I still would have enjoyed the book immensely. The trivia knowledge that you may or may not possess is a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of a wonderfully-told adventure story, or like an Easter egg you weren't expecting to find.
Following up on the books that became movies theme (also the reason I bought Wild, hopefully to be read next month), I read Here Be Monsters!, which I honestly only picked up because I realized it was the basis for the adorable The Boxtrolls movie (another thing I can blame on the boyfriend: he "made me" watch the movie. Terrible man. Truly.) However, if that's also your motivation for reading the book, I'd caution you to reconsider, or at least to forget that the movie was allegedly based on the book. Because outside of the existence and inherent nature of boxtrolls and a few characters with the same name and plot lines involving cheese, there's really nothing to connect the two stories. Once I got over that dismaying fact, I was able to enjoy the book. It's a quirkily dark young adult novel (there are strange creatures like cabbageheads, rabbit women, and pirate rats that run a nautical laundry, for starters), the first in a series that I probably won't be reading more of because really, I don't have the time.
Helen Macdonald's is a sadly sweet, compelling memoir of Macdonald's struggle to get over her father's death through training a goshawk. She winds in stories of T.H. White's life and his own book about training a goshawk, aptly titled The Goshawk. Both authors are tormented souls, grasping at straws and falconry as a means to stay afloat in their grief and pain. The audiobook is wonderfully read by the author, but I think her aching voice would carry through any text, read aloud or silently.
There is, as Mark put it, an inherent tragedy of a finished book, a strange binding up of satisfaction and dismay. Though I'm currently in a "read all the books" mode and have been tearing through books as fast as I'm able with limited reading time, I have often felt the internal struggle of I-want-to-finish-this-book-but-don't-want-it-to-end. After all, a truly wonderful book wraps you up and doesn't let you go when it's finished. You don't want to pry yourself out and ease into the unfamiliar arms of a new story. Ready Player One came closest this month to reprising that feeling. I know Mark, who dropped A Feast for Crows without hesitation to read Ready Player One when I finished, definitely felt it. I'm not sure he's done much reading at all since. Of course, A Feast for Crows is a definite swamp of a book, so I can't say I blame him.
We've both become apostles of sorts for Cline, having both recommended Ready Player One to friends and strangers alike, only just stopping short of going door to door passing out stacks of paperbacks. There are all-too-few books I feel that way about, and I certainly never expected to feel that way about a book I was ready to write off as a gamer boy book. Great literary fiction? Yes. John Irving novels? Yes. Books about books? Yes.
But it's books like Ready Player One that keep me reading, and reading everything. Correction: it's books like Ready Player One and people like my nerdy boyfriend that keep me reading everything. I've become far less of a book snob since knowing him, and I'm a better reader (and person) because of it. Not only does he introduce me to 80s movies and music, but he gets me to read things I never would have on my own. Without him, I would never have read Terry Pratchett, or the Odd Thomas series, or the Myth Adventure books, or several excellent steampunk novels. I mentioned the young, earnest reader I used to be earlier? She still tends to stick around and turn up her nose at things like science fiction, fantasy, and Dean Koontz as a whole.
But I've gotten better at beating her down, as you can see by this month's varied book list. There are two non-fictions (one even being half a cookbook), a memoir, a YA novel, a classic, and a contemporary fiction. And the majority of a typical high-brow Byatt novella pairing. These days, I read just about anything someone gives me (eventually - I do have a very long reading list, after all), but I'm always pleasantly surprised when a book outshines any pretentious expectations I happen to put on it.
I guess that cliche about not judging a book by its cover sometimes holds true after all.