Ten From My Shelves

I stole this idea from someone on Twitter, but now I can’t remember from whom. Let me know if it was you so that I can credit you! [Note: It was Simon from Stuck in a Book. Thanks, Simon!]


Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

In my early to mid-twenties I was deeply infatuated with Sontag. Still am, really. I thrilled to her erudition—she’d read everything—and her elegant prose. Essays like hers are still the kind of writing I most admire. The title essay impressed me most of all, especially its famous, hortatory, gnomic last line: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”


Laurie Colwin, Family Happiness

Another favourite from my twenties. I read all of Colwin’s books the summer between my Junior and Senior year; I was working as a bookseller then, and I hand-sold a ton of them. A few years ago I found this lovely hardcover at a library sale. I was a bit worried about re-reading it—would it hold up?—but I needn’t have. Not only was it as bittersweet as it had been then, but now I could see what at the time I couldn’t: I thought the book was about New Yorkers but it was really about (thoroughly assimilated) Jews. At the time I’d never have imagined that twenty years later I too would be Jewish, but I like to think my philo-Semitism was unconsciously at work. Colwin is so funny, but also so sad.


David Bezmozgis, The Free World

Speaking of Jewishness, I’ve loved each of Bezmozgis’s three books, but I think this one might be the best. It’s about the Soviet Jews who were allowed to emigrate in the 1970s. Three generations of the Krasnansky family (like Bezmozgis, Latvian Jews) wait in Italy for visas to come through from Canada, the US, Australia, anywhere that will take them. Rather than focusing on the young children—that is, the characters who would have been the same age as he was when his family left the USSR for Canada—Bezmozgis focuses on their parents and grandparents. We see what the Soviet Union meant to each of them and how differently they experience even this tentative experience of the ironically named Free World. Smart, funny, no schmaltz.


Anthony Trollope, The Warden

I read this in college and liked it well enough but I think I’d appreciate it a lot more now. Might have been a bit too subtle for me back then. I really want to tackle Trollope soon and the Barsetshire novels seem like a good place to begin.


Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy

Three wonderful novels, pretty closely based on Manning’s own experiences, about a British couple in Romania and Greece before and during WWII. The scenes of denuded, starving Athens haunt me still. Yaki is one of the great characters in 20th century literature.


Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past

Do you have writers you’re convinced you love but have never actually read? Probably you are less crazy than I am. But I have at least five or six books by Compton-Burnett around here and haven’t read a one.

Here’s what the publishers say about this one:

Nine years after her divorce from Cassius Clare, Catherine re-enters his life in order to re-establish contact with her children. Her arrival causes a dramatic upheaval in the Clare family, and its implications are analyzed and redefined not only in the drawing room but also in the children’s nursery and the servants’ quarters.

(Sounds like Henry Green!) Anyway, odd, uncanny women 20th Century British writers (Comyns, Rhys, Bowen, etc) are my thing, so I really ought to get around to reading Compton-Burnett soon.


J. G. Farrell, Troubles

A great, great novel set during the Anglo-Irish war and featuring an English Major, Brendan Archer, who comes to Ireland to claim a bride he can’t quite remember proposing to. Angela Spencer is the eldest daughter of an Anglo-Irish family who lives with her family in a once glorious seaside hotel called, no longer quite appropriately, the Majestic. At once funny and macabre, Troubles sets itself the task of trying to figure out how to represent decline. I had a lot to say about this terrific, engrossing book here.


Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot

First in the Urban Fantasy Rivers of London series. Peter Grant is a rookie cop who can speak to the dead and stumbles into a little-known unit of the Met that deals with magic and the uncanny. Perfect light reading.


Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

My favourite Tey (though admittedly I have rationed them and kept a couple in reserve), an unsettling novel about a woman and her mother who are accused by a fifteen-year old schoolgirl of having locked her up in their attic for a month. Have they been falsely accused? If so, how will they be acquitted when all evidence points toward their guilt? Can justice be done without prejudice? Unconventional, suspenseful, and thought provoking.


Giorgio Bassani, The Heron

Regular readers know that together with some fellow bloggers, I recently read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This, Bassani’s last novel, is the newest addition to my library. I started reading the first page just now and it was all I could do to stop. Elegant mournfulness really does it for me.


There you have it, ten books plucked from the many thousands in this too-small house. Do you have thoughts about any of them? Let me know if you’re inspired to share some from your shelves.

22 thoughts on “Ten From My Shelves

  1. I loved The Franchise Affair! Great to see it on your list – it’s a book that deserves to be better known.

    Ivy Compton-Burnett pops up every now and again, usually in discussions about neglected authors ripe for rediscovery. I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with her.

      • Compton-Burnett is stranger, colder, brusquer, more metafictional, than Green, and extremely uncanny; a little closer to Stevie Smith, perhaps, though her books are not a lot like Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper.

  2. Twas I who started this meme, I believe 🙂
    And what a great collection! I have certainly been a stock-before-reading person, which paid off this year when I discovered that I *did* love Beverley Nichols as much as I thought I would, and had 12 of his books to go onto next. And I do indeed love Ivy C-B – I read The Present and the Past last year, and it’s excellent.

    Also I v much covet your Olivia Manning edition now…

  3. That’s so funny: I too have books by Ivy Comton-Burnett that I haven’t read but bought because I was sure for some reason I’d love them. I only have two, though! I figured I should read at least one before adding any more.

  4. My local PL doesn’t have Natasha, so I am starting The Betrayers. In addition to its literary values the book looks to inform about the Israel situation.

  5. I rather like this concept.

    Troubles is fantastic. I wrote a lengthy piece about it at mine too. I was hugely impressed and it’s frankly lax on my part not to have read the next two in the thematic trilogy. I should correct that.

    Tey I hadn’t even heard of but that sounds fascinating. Quite like the classic cover. On the subject of covers, I love those for the Manning and the IC-B.

    Bassani I want to get to grips with. I’ve saved the Finzi-Contini reviews for later because I want to try to start at the beginning.

    On a very different note, the Aaranovitch has been recommended to me by quite a few people. Just not sure I have space in my life for a series of large fantasy novels however good. Is there a tv adaptation? I had the vague sense there might be (though I’ve no idea if it’s any good if so).

    • I liked Siege fine (it won the Booker) but thought Singapore Grip even more interesting.

      I hope you do read both Tey and Bassani!

      I don’t know if the Aaronovitch have been made for TV but it would be surprising if not. On the other hand, they do have a literary quality (the first person narrative voice, for example) that might not translate so well.

      I have actually only read the first two. So it’s totally possible to just dip into it. But I suspect a real immersion would be best. They don’t take long, though I totally know what you mean about not being sure you have space in your life for another series.

  6. I’ve ordered the book by Laurie Colwin and two by David Bezmozgis (both £1.99 on ebay for some crazy reason!).

    Many thanks for yet more books to add to my pile!

  7. Pingback: Book round-up for February 2019 - Martin Black

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