Three Months After #TBR20 – A Final Update

2015-06-22 15.35.24I completed TBR20, my project to read twenty books I own before buying more, in March of this year. This is the third and final update about how my reading has been affected by the project since then. I chose to read almost exclusively short stories for my project, so in the first two months afterwards I read several novels. I also bought a few more books than I’d planned to in the first month, but things had settled back down by month two. I’m a week away from the third month post-TBR20 now and my book buying has, I think, now stabilised to a new, less excessive level.

This month I bought two books (pictured above): the Collected Stories of John Cheever, one of my favourite short story writers, and Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, which I picked up after admiring her stories in the New Yorker. She’s appearing at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, so I’m hoping to get tickets to see her there! The collection is excellent. I’ve still to read the novella packaged together with the collection (Minna Needs Rehearsal Space), so I’ll make sure to pick that up before the festival in August.

As I had planned the last time I posted, I’ve spent almost all of this month reading short stories. I’ve read selections from collected volumes on my shelves (including the Cheever I’ve just bought); the weekly New Yorker selections, and a story or two from several author collections I own. I also reread Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies The Island, particularly to revisit two favourites of mine – the superb Fjord of Killary and the Sunday Times prize-winning Beer Trip to Llandudno.

2015-06-10 18.43.04When I wasn’t reading short stories, I was making my way through Larry McMurtry’s epic 1985 Western novel Lonesome Dove. I bought it five years ago when a colleague recommended it, but I hadn’t picked it up. My boyfriend’s a massive Western fan and mentioned recently he’d like to check it out, at which point I remembered I had a copy in the house. We’re both reading it, using the same copy in between the rest of our reading, so it’ll take a couple of months (my edition is 945 pages long). I’m a third of the way through at the moment and it is completely remarkable. It’s immersive, wise, funny, warm and impressively wide in scope. From a writer’s point of view, it’s also a masterclass in third person omniscient. Recommended.

TBR20: The Verdict

I began my project to tackle the anxiety I was feeling about buying far more books than I could comfortably read. I wrote a post about why I had created the TBR20 idea and was pleasantly surprised to find it struck a chord with other readers too. I successfully completed my 20 (plus a few others too) at the end of March 2015, taking almost five months altogether. It worked well. Picking the books ahead of time was a useful focus for me, although I know other readers have found this a difficult way of doing it. I think the next time I try it, I’ll probably pick as I go to see if I prefer it.

The first month after completing the project, I did buy more than I would have liked, but that settled right back down in the second month. And in the past month (the third month) I’ve found myself steadier and happier as a book buyer. The old tendencies to impulsively buy and stockpile are still there, but what I find works is:

  1. Remembering that the anxiety I feel when I over-buy books gnaws away at the pleasure of reading them. The idea of having too many books is usually something to joke about – never too many! – but when it started to feel oppressive, like something that was getting in the way of the joy of it all for me, things had to change.
  2. Remembering that spending too much time and energy on browsing and acquiring books eats into the time and energy I have to read them.
  3. Remembering that books will (usually) not disappear if I don’t buy them immediately.
  4. Remembering I can only read one or two at a time. As I wrote in a previous post, keeping things at a human pace (rather than an acquisitive, hollow, buying-led pace) feels better, ultimately.
  5. Turning back to my own bookshelves, as I did for TBR20, and taking the time to value what I already have there. The things that were shiny and exciting back when I bought them are still worth a look. Lonesome Dove, for example, which I’ve owned for five years and which I’ve just picked up and fallen in love with.

Applying the insights I had during TBR20 is what’s keeping me happier with my book buying three months later. I suspect I’ll do at least a TBR10 on a yearly basis, to keep things going and avoid any creeping towards over-buying again.


My reading appetite has turned towards the thriller in the past few days. I’ve rarely mentioned my thriller and suspense reading on this blog, but writers in this genre are among my all-time favourites. To name a few: Dennis Lehane, Gillian Flynn, Lauren Beukes, Lee Child, Patricia Highsmith. I’ll be picking up thrillers for the next couple of weeks at least (mostly from my shelves, plus I think I’ll buy a couple).

This is my last planned TBR20 update. Thanks to everyone for taking part or following my thoughts on it all! If you think the idea would work for you too, go for it. Check out the project’s page on my blog for more information and a link to a gallery of pics from other readers who took part.

Two Months After #TBR20: An Update

I posted last month about how I could feel myself slipping back into a book-buying habit having finished TBR20, my project to read 20 books I owned before buying more. I resolved to read the books I’d bought in April 2015 before making any new purchases, effectively setting myself a new little TBR project. Here’s how I got on:

May Reading

2015-05-25 19.17.18I haven’t bought any new books and I have read the set of four Scottish debut novels that I bought last month: The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester, Fishnet by Kirstin Innes, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, and The Blue Horse by Philip Miller. It’s a strong year for Scottish debut fiction: I enjoyed all of these and look forward to seeing more from each writer.

finch-by-jeff-vandermeerI read Finch by Jeff VanderMeer. I’ve been a massive fan of his since reading his Southern Reach trilogy. Finch is a 2009 novel set in his Ambergris universe and I’ve read nothing quite like it before. It’s a  noir story of an uneasy detective working a case in a world colonised by strange, fungal lifeforms. Vivid, imaginative, violent and deliciously dark.

indigoI spent a lot of time rereading Indigo by Clemens J Setz, which I first picked up in April. It’s a 2012 Austrian novel. The English translation by Ross Benjamin was published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail in 2014. It’s brilliant. It’s a paranoid, unreliable and disjointed story of an alternate recent past uncannily close to our own, but where ‘Indigo’ children are, it seems, born with a syndrome that means they cause illness in those in close proximity to them. It’s full of Sebaldian black and white images and almost-true documents that play with real-world facts. It’s often funny, always creepy and very clever. I liked this review of it by John Burnside. I particularly loved how much Setz plays with popular culture and horror tropes.

Signs-Preceding-the-End-of-the-World_CMYK-SMALL-300x460At the moment I’m reading Signs Preceding The End of the World by Yuri Herrera for my book group, which will take me very nearly to the end of the month.

Plans for June

I still have five from my April pile to read: Incubation by Bhanu Kapil, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Dancing in the Dark (Vol. 4 of My Struggle) by Karl Ove Knausgaard and The True Deceiver and Fair Play by Tove Jansson.

I’ve decided to shelf these five for a while. It’s important for me to return to my study of short stories for the next few months. I hope to pick up them up during my story project to give my reading a bit of variety.

And, confession: I’ve decided I’ll buy the short story collection Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors this month. I’ve read the two stories she has in the New Yorker and thought they were great.

A Month After #TBR20: Some Numbers & a Plan

On 7th November 2014, I decided to embark on a project to read books I already owned before buying any more. I decided I should read 20 from my To Be Read pile, hence the #TBR20 project name.

On 28th March 2015, I completed the project. So for a month now I’ve been free to buy what I like again. I’d thought my first post-#TBR20 blog post would be a rumination on what I learned from #TBR20 and how my relationship to book buying had changed.

But, a month after finishing, I realised I’m still learning the lessons of the project and won’t have my full thoughts ready until I see how things go over the next couple of months. Here’s a breakdown of my completed #TBR20 numbers:


Books read: 24 (including two non-fiction: I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron and Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine)

Books bought: 0

Books acquired: 3 (two Penguin Little Black Classics as a present from a friend; Phil Klay’s short story collection Redeployment, which I won in a Scottish Book Trust prize draw).

Library loans: 1 (a reference book, The Book of Time by Adam Hart-Davis, which I read selected chapters from to research a short story I was writing).

Other Media

Online: As outlined in my earlier #TBR20 posts, I read some short stories online (mostly from The New Yorker) while doing #TBR20. I’ve also read my usual diet of blogs, longform journalism & news.

Newspapers/Magazines: I bought an issue of The Moth literary magazine, and a few daily newspapers over the course of the five months I did #TBR20. I also received one issue of my regular The Stinging Fly subscription in the post.

When I finished #TBR20, I did not feel like I wanted to go out and buy lots of books. I did, however, fancy a trip to the library, so I walked down to my local branch and borrowed a stack of novels. My clear aim, when I finished #TBR20, was to continue my focus on the books I already own, and make sure that I bought a book because I was just about to read it, not because I wanted to hoard it.

Over the month, however, I started to enjoy the freedom to buy books again, often for the pleasure of acquisition. Here’s a breakdown of my April numbers:

Books Bought In April

Paper copies:

  • Vol. 4 of My Struggle (Dancing in the Dark) by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  • Incubation: A Space For Monsters by Bhanu Kapil
  • Four Scottish debuts: Fishnet by Kirsten Innes, The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, and The Blue Horse by Philip Miller.


  • The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (trans. Ken Liu)
  • The True Deceiver and Fair Play by Tove Jansson
  • And Then Emily Was Gone (horror comic written by John Lees & drawn by Iain Laurie)

And individual comic issues of Southern Cross and Wytches.

Total Books: 10

Books Read in April (until 26/04/15)

Library copies:

  • How To Be Both by Ali Smith
  • Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
  • Indigo by Clemens J Setz (trans. Ross Benjamin)


  • And Then Emily Was Gone (horror comic, as above)
  • Small Gods by Terry Pratchett (book group choice)

Plus several online short stories and all the Southern Cross and Wytches comics I bought. I didn’t read any of the paper books I bought (I blame the library).

Total Books: 6

I bought four more books than I’ve read (so far) in April. And, of the books I bought, I still have nine to read. This is not rebound binge behaviour. This is partly why I was looking for a way to alter my buying behaviour in the first place. My average spend pre-#TBR20 was £50 a month on books, and I’ve basically bounced right back to that. I’m not unhappy with this.

I will, however, be unhappy if I continue this way.

The Plan

The post-#TBR20 change comes with what I plan to do now. I’m going to stick with the spirit of #TBR20 and read the books I bought in April before I buy any more. (Well, I’ll at least attempt to read them – I’m happy to set aside books that aren’t working for me.)

I’m confident this on/off approach will work, just as it has for #TBR20 itself. I like the focus of either being in a buying period or in a TBR period. Willpower isn’t an issue, then: I’m either buying books or I’m not. Essentially, I’ve set myself a little TBR9 of the books I bought in April.

My only exception during this reading period is that I’ll obtain my book group book (I’ve just found out it’s going to be Signs Preceding The End of the World by Yuri Herrera, so I’m excited about that).

Once I’ve caught up with my reading, I’m going to think carefully about how to bring the lessons of #TBR20 into my regular habits, so that I’m not often in the situation of a) having as many as eight to catch up on and b) spending more time catching up with new purchases than focusing on what I already own. When I have fuller thoughts on things, I’ll blog them here.

It’s not too late to join in if you think the #TBR20 idea will work for you! Use the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter or give me a shout in the comments. The only rule is that you should read 20 books you own before buying any more. The rest is up to you. Check out the books others have picked in my photo gallery. Lots of readers picked their 20 books at the beginning, but there’s nothing to stop you choosing as you go.

O’Connor, Kavan, Carter & Asimov: Thoughts on Books 17-20 of #TBR20

I began #TBR20, my project to read 20 books I own before buying any more, on 7th November 2014. I completed it on 28th March 2015. The final four books on my pile were excellent:

Frank O’Connor’s My Oedipus Complex & Other Stories (1953) is a collection of realist stories from one of the original masters of the Irish short story tradition. His stories centre on everyday lives in rural Ireland. They are often funny and sly and always well observed. I particularly liked In The Train, a story that follows members of a rural community on their journey back home from a court in the city.

Anna Kavan’s Asylum Piece (1940) is a beautiful, merciless and paranoid piece of work, charting a descent into mental instability and incarceration. Her spare, modernist style, each line balanced and understated, now tolling like a bell on the page, now rushing into distress, is just incredible. Kavan had a unique eye for the world and her stories unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Asylum Piece is my favourite of the collections I read during #TBR20.

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter is familiar to most English literature students – this ornate, explicit and lushly detailed collection of fairytale-inspired stories is widely taught and well regarded. To read her is to enter a world raucously and cleverly packed with symbolism, sex, sensory detail, wealth, death and magic. I know many readers are completely ignited by this vision; I found myself more of an admirer than a passionate fan. The stand-out story for me was The Courtship of Mr Lyon. I enjoyed the exchanges between the young woman and the Beast, and the strange, slipping way time passes towards the end of the story.

Isaac Asimov, a master of science fiction, is best-known for his Foundation novels and his fiction of ideas about robots. He coined the word ‘robotics’ and inspired real-world robotics experts with his stories.  The Complete Robot is a 688-page paperback (of about 200,000 words, according to the author’s introduction). It collects many of his robot stories from 1939 to 1977. I had saved this book to be my last #TBR20 pick because I strongly suspected I was going to have a lot of fun with it. I was not disappointed.

Plenty of the stories here are twists in the tale, or slices of life about humans living with robots, but the bulk of them are his ‘Powell and Donovan’ and ‘Susan Calvin’ stories following the exploits of those employees of US Robots & Mechanical Men Inc. These stories read like the original detective stories (Poe, Conan Doyle). A malfunctioning robot or hostile act from the outside world threatens the corporation, and the characters must find the elusive solution (blundering and grumpy yet triumphant in the case of the engineers Powell and Donovan, cerebral and rather Sherlockian in the case of robopsychologist Dr Calvin). Just like a bumper collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, this sort of thing is very moreish. With the added bonus that they are bristling with pulpy dialogue (I especially liked when a character exclaimed ‘Sizzling Saturn!’) and they are full of Asimov’s vivid, startling and even moving ideas about robots.

Join In

I’ve now completed my own #TBR20. It’s been a great experience. I plan to blog about it soon. If you think #TBR20 would work for your reading too, it’s not too late to join in. Other readers are still taking part with their own list of 20. Use the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter, give me a shout at @evastalker, or leave a comment here on the blog. Check out other TBR20 readers and their pick of 20 books in my post here.

Roth, Auslander, Jansson, Sillitoe, McEwan & Eisenberg: Thoughts on Books 11-16 of #TBR20

Books I’ve read on the left; books still to read on the right.

Books I’ve read on the left; books still to read on the right.

I committed to #TBR20, my project to read 20 books I own before buying more, on 7th November 2014. Today (4th March 2015) I finished reading book 16.

Some new people have decided to join in with #TBR20 this month through Twitter, so I’ve been updating my gallery of pics from participants. At the moment I make it 49 people taking part, including me. I’m so pleased the idea is striking a chord with readers. It’s also a lot of fun meeting new people on Twitter because of it all. Serious readers, committed bloggers, writers, historians, novelists – from all over the world. A nice side effect, and one I hadn’t anticipated when I started this.

Since I last posted, I have read books 11 to 16 of my #TBR20. I’ll keep my thoughts quite brief here. Things continue to be busy at work and with my own fiction writing (a tentative, happy thing).

goodbye columbus

11/16 Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959)

The debut from the giant of American letters, Philip Roth: a novella and five short stories. The only Roth I’d read before was his 2004 novel The Plot Against America. I’ve very few memories of it, having read it when it came out which is – argh – more than 10 years ago. I’ve retained only the impression that I quite enjoyed it at the time. But I had a clear idea in mind of who Roth was, drawing from that collage of hearsay, literary gossip and commentary that flickers around a writer like him. He’d be angry. He’d be funny. His prose would be packed with energy, and sex, and possibly sexism. I expected Goodbye, Columbus to be a wisecracking, libidinous sub-Bernhard rant. Instead, the title novella was an amusing, quietly well observed study of class and opportunity in 50s America. The rest of the stories are preoccupied with Jewishness (present in the novella too, but not foregrounded), often angrier than the novella and often absurd (The Conversion of the Jews; Eli, the Fanatic). The novella is the stand-out for me, but the stories were good. I have his novel The Human Stain on my shelves so that’ll be the next Roth I pick up.

beware of god

12/16 Beware of God by Shalom Auslander (2005)

I thought I’d follow Roth with a collection from another Jewish American writer. Auslander has written a memoir about his Jewish upbringing (Foreskin’s Lament) and a novel about a man who finds a grown-up Anne Frank in an attic (Hope: A Tragedy). His stories are short, surreal and funny, packed with bickering rodents, chimpanzees blasted by sudden consciousness, an irritable chicken god and a dog appalled by his young master’s addiction to masturbation. There is an absolutely superb story in here called Holocaust Tips For Kids, a fragmentary piece that, David Markson-like, intersperses facts about the Holocaust with a small boy’s ideas of how to prepare for it happening in contemporary America. Funny and devastating. I also particularly liked Somebody Up There Likes You, where God and his team manage to mess up a scheduled death and have to try to put it right. Auslander’s stories are deceptively light.

a winter book

13/16 A Winter Book by Tove Jansson (trans. from Swedish by Kingsley Hart, Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff) (Sort Of Books ed. 2006)

I fell in love with Finnish author Tove Jansson when I watched a BBC documentary on her life a couple of years ago. I’d adored her Moomins when I was wee, and had read some of her grown-up stories from her collection Art in Nature, given to me by a good friend. I’d also read and liked her story Snow, available free on the Booktrust website. The documentary, however, spurred me on to seek out more of her work. As was typical of my behaviour pre-#TBR20, I promptly acquired two volumes (A Winter Book and The Summer Book) and left them sitting on my shelves. A Winter Book is a selection of her stories over several years of her writing life, all autobiographical and ranging from childhood to old age. They are beautiful, generous, moving and wise. The Sort Of books edition pictured above is a lovely object too, nicely bound, containing black and white photographs of Jansson and her family, and with a typically insightful introduction from Ali Smith that added to my enjoyment and opened up the stories for me.

the loneliness of the long distance runner

14/16 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959)

Here’s another writer that, like Roth, I thought I knew before I read him. I was aware that Sillitoe wrote about working class men and that he’d been loosely grouped with the Angry Young Men of the 1950s English literary scene. The title story (and what a title!) is about a youth in Borstal for robbery, who has a talent for cross country running and a governor who wants to see him win the trophy for the institution. I expected to find a politicised, eloquent defence of the working class, something bleak and passionately against social injustice. Instead, I found a first person narration from an unrepentant young man, someone so firmly of his milieu that the story is about his survival and commitment to his way of life, not about the abstract, broader wrongs of class suppression. It’s a brilliant story. The remaining eight pieces are all from within the same working class English Midlands setting. Some are vignettes which packed little punch for me, but I particularly liked The Fishing-Boat Picture, a bleak and satisfying portait of relationships of few words and tens of years.

first love last rites

15/16 First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan (1975)

I have never been able to get on with McEwan’s work. I read Atonement, Enduring Love and Amsterdam, acknowledged they were obviously well written, accomplished novels, then gave up. He leaves me cold, maybe mildly unsettled. A basic incompatibility between reader and writer. But I’d picked up his debut collection of stories having heard they were dark and gothic. I was interested to see how he had started out and hoped I’d find a way into his work from there. Unfortunately, I was left outside again, able to point to the house of his fiction and call it well built, but not quite able to get to the door. The stories feel mean to me – they are dark, in the way stories about abuse and rape are dark. They are also well written and often amusingly nasty and vivid. But I think that’ll do for me with McEwan.

twilight of the superheroes

16/16 Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg (2006)

I picked up this collection of stories on a whim in Fopp several years ago. Fopp is a discount music & DVD shop that also carries limited lines of discounted books. The sort of thing mostly aimed at students (the Beat writers, Ballard, Philip K Dick). Pre-#TBR20 I’d habitually browse there, spend a tenner and leave with three paperbacks. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Eisenberg when I spotted this in Fopp. I liked the cover; liked a lot of the sentences I glimpsed when I flipped through it; bought it; shelved it.

It turns out Eisenberg has been an inexplicable gap in my short story knowledge. Twilight of the Superheroes is her fourth collection. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship. She is described by Bookslut as leading ‘the trifecta of female short story writers composed of herself, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore’ and the New York Times lists Grace Paley, Joy Williams and William Trevor as her peers. The six stories in Twilight are masterpieces of compression, taking mostly privileged lives in America and shining light after light on the experience of being alive, the meaninglessness of being alive, and the way time passes in life. The 40-page title story is told in headed sections and confidently, cleverly examines post-9/11 New York. It gives no easy answers. It also reminded me somewhat of Jennifer Egan’s lauded 2010 novel A Visit From The Goon Squad, in the structure of interlinked sections, the themes of time and relationship and meaning, and something in the voice, funny and light yet sharp and sad. All six stories here are excellent and this is one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Each story had lines that hit me with their truth or made me laugh out loud or startled me. I’ll be checking out the rest of Eisenberg’s work as soon as I can.

Join In

It’s not too late! Some people have just started this month, and plenty of people began in January planning to take at least half a year to complete their project. If you think it might work for you, give it a shot. It has been great for my reading (and my writing, too).

Use the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter, give me a shout at @evastalker, or leave me a comment here on the blog. Check out other TBR20 readers and their pick of 20 books in my post here.

Ishiguro, Rash & Li (Thoughts on Books 22, 9 & 10 of the #TBR20 Project)

Books I've read on the left; books still to read on the right.

Books I’ve read on the left; books still to read on the right.

Things are busy at work and in my own writing at the moment, so I’ve decided to write short paragraphs about each book rather than more extended notes of my thoughts.

Reading Yiyun Li’s excellent collection brought me to the halfway mark of my TBR20 goal to read 20 books I own before buying more – I wrote a post reflecting on that here.


22/20 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
I picked Ishiguro’s novel as another extra book from my shelves outwith my TBR20 picks. This story of a repressed English butler struggling with his past won the Man Booker Prize in 1989. The butler Stevens narrates from the rooms he stays in while motoring through the English countryside on a rare excursion. It’s a perfectly turned entertainment, with moments of touching emotion and vivid set pieces of dark comedy.

nothing gold can stay

9/20 Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash (2013)

I picked up this collection of stories when I read and enjoyed Rash’s novel Serena. These stories are also set in the Appalachian mountains. What surprised me, though, is that several also have a dramatic, plot-twist structure akin to the novel. I wasn’t sure about this at first – some of the stories didn’t seem to earn the pay off, or the results felt predictable – but the stories that worked for me were superb. In the end, I loved this collection. In particular, I liked the impressionistic, disturbing Something Rich And Strange (one of the few reading experiences that has given me nightmares) and the dark, funny and shocking A Sort Of Miracle. Rivers are important to both of these stories. Wild water haunts this collection and the memories of its characters.


10/10 Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li (2010)
Li was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor prize in 2011 and one of the judges, the excellent short story critic Chris Power, wrote a piece for the Guardian about how he wished Li could have been the winner. Li’s stories are understated and powerful. Reading this collection, it began to stand out to me that her people are always studying others’ faces in search of something they can’t quite articulate – whether the exact expression in someone’s eyes, or the mysterious quietness of a young girl’s expression. The opener, an 80-page story called Kindness, was my absolute favourite.

Join In

Use the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter, give me a shout at @evastalker, or leave me a comment here on the blog. Check out other TBR20 readers and their pick of 20 books in my post here.

Ten Books of Twenty: Thoughts at the Halfway Point of #TBR20

Books I've read on the left; books still to read on the right.

Books I’ve read on the left; books still to read on the right.

I began my project to read 20 books I already own before buying more on 7th November 2014. I will finish book 10 on 1st February 2015. It has taken me three months. In that time I have read 15 books: six novels (one volume was a trilogy of novels, plus I’ve read two extra novels), 8 short story collections, and an anthology of 62 classic short stories.

TBR20 (reading 20 books from my To Be Read or TBR) is working for me. I’m enjoying it. Taking a break from buying books felt difficult at first, but now it feels cosy and self sufficient (perhaps winter is an especially good time to do it). The joy in my reading life isn’t exchanging money for books, but discovering moving, strange and brilliant works of fiction. I already had several of those unread on my shelves.

I’ve disentangled myself from that anxious, impulsive feeling that I must buy a book instantly – as though I have to breenge* in before it winks permanently out of existence.

I’ve found myself actively seeking time in the day to read and protecting that time. I wrote in my original post that I hoped TBR20 would refocus my energy on reading rather than buying. That has happened. What I hadn’t anticipated is the way that, given more energy and time, I’ve stepped up to the plate to make the best of it.

I’ve discovered a new comfortable level for reading fiction. I was sure before that I’d hit my level for the amount of stories I could read before my brain felt too full of them – before they got muddled in my mind and I did them a disservice by taking too much in. It turns out I’ve more room for stories than I’d thought.

It’s improving the focus on my own writing. I hadn’t appreciated that I sometimes used book buying as a procrastination from writing fiction. There was always one more novel I had to read, or a book of stories it was essential to have studied, before I tackled a particular problem. Now that I don’t have that avenue, I’m sitting down to the page more often and with better focus. I have what I need.

In Wanderlust, her history of walking, Rebecca Solnit writes that she suspects the mind, like the feet, works at three miles an hour. Modern life and technology, therefore, is moving faster than the speed of thoughtfulness. By stepping away from habitual book buying and focusing only on what I can read in the day in front of me, I see I’ve been negotiating this, too. I have brought my relationship to reading back to the speed of my mind. My world is the right size again, and I can live in it.

Chatting to other TBR20 folk on Twitter, it’s clear that several of us are making these sort of positive discoveries. It’s such a pleasure to be part of something that serious readers are enjoying.

*Good Scots word, that.

Join In

Use the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter, give me a shout at @evastalker, or leave me a comment here on the blog. Check out other TBR20 readers and their pick of 20 books in my post here.

Link & Jones (Thoughts on Books 7, 8 & 21 of the #TBR20 Project)

Books I've read on the left; books still to read on the right.

Books I’ve read on the left; books still to read on the right.

I am now eight books into #TBR20 – my project to read 20 books from my To Be Read (TBR) pile before buying more.

My first piece of exciting news is that #TBR20 got a mention on the Guardian Books site earlier in January!

In other exciting news, my friend Nicola has launched a books podcast with her friend Holly. #TBR20 gets a shout out in the very first episode. Nicola’s an experienced film critic for BBC radio so the podcast promises to be a well made and entertaining fortnightly look at books. Check out the Bookish Blether tumblr for more information.

magic for beginners

7/10 Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link (2005)

Book 7 of my project was a collection of spooky and fantastical stories from American writer Kelly Link.

The nine stories in Magic for Beginners are brimming with fantasy imagery and invention that makes reading them a very visual experience (indeed several reference paintings, both fictional and real). Most often, Link takes adolescents and their coming-of-age struggles, or adults looking back towards youth while stranded in their failed relationships, and sets them against the subtly sinister tensions of off-kilter worlds. Zombies are real, say, or the living and dead can marry, or a TV show character breaks the fourth wall and telephones the protaganist asking for help. The banalities of suburban American life meet the banalities of magic. I adore horror and ghost stories and reading Link I had a strong sense of a writer working passionately with these genres and making them her own.

For me, the stand-out story was Stone Animals, a properly strange tale of a haunted family in a haunted house with a superb opening scene. I also especially liked The Hortlak, about a young man working in a convenience store frequented by zombies (the story creates a sense of subtle dread that turns out to be as much about life’s missed chances as undead customers). The title story Magic for Beginners, about a TV-show-obsessed teenager and his parents’ struggling marriage, is both funny and poignant, and the family and friendship dynamics are beautifully observed.

You can read two stories from the collection free online via the author’s website (Some Zombie Contingency Plans and The Faery Handbag). Link’s next collection of stories, Get In Trouble, is out in February 2015.

known world

21/20 The Known World by Edward P Jones (2003)

Note: I’m listing this as 21/20 because I picked it from my shelves and read it for my book group this month. See my fuller note in the The Rules section at the bottom of the post.

The Known World is set in the antebellum American South in a fictional county of Virginia. Using the death of Henry Townsend, a black man who owned slaves, as a starting point, it depicts the lives of an ensemble of men, women and children marked by the existence of slavery.

The setting (and my edition’s sepia cover) had led me to expect the straightforward storytelling of a genre historical novel, but Jones is doing something different. The novel never truly settles. The death of Townsend takes place in 1855, and the novel ranges across several decades to either side of that date. Often, when characters are introduced, we are told how they will die or given a significant act they will perform decades from the current moment in the prose.

Each character is a complex shading of grey, and each is cast in his or her relationship to God. Often, those suffering find strength in God, and those exacting violence find justification. Some are afraid to leave the small world of Manchester County. Some dream of a wider world – perhaps a more enlightened one.

The great strength of Jones’s prose is how quiet it is. There are no fireworks here – none of the packed, quirky detail of hysterial realism, and no wearisome attention-seeking acrobatics. Jones’s prose is wise rather than clever.

The – very few – moments of rage and violence in the novel curl nastily out of that quiet tone and are more disturbing for it. A man punished and chained alone in a barn studies the sparrows in the rafters of the building (Moses is another slave in the plantation):

He wondered if he would be there long enough for the birds to have eggs, then chicks, to see the chicks grown and then make their own nests. Take straw to the nest, go back for more. To see the grandchildren sparrows become parents. He could wring the neck of everyone on the plantation, it was just a matter of whether to start with Moses or the master. Moses’s neck was thicker. The children’s necks would be the hardest. But over and done with in a snap. He could close his eyes tight with them, with the children, and with the old people. The women would scream the loudest, but God, being the kind of God he was, would give him strength.

This superb novel gives the reader no easy place to rest. There are no clear heroes, only people doing their best to survive. They act sometimes with grace and kindness, sometimes with weakness and malice. There is also no clear present time in the novel, so the legacy of slavery and suffering seems to stand permanently, hidden behind the face of all things. And there is no easy relationship to God. The omniscient view in the novel follows some characters beyond death, but only for a few steps. When Townsend, a black man who owned slaves, dies, Jones writes one of the eeriest scenes I have ever read. As he dies Townsend finds himself climbing into a house, and the house is wrong:

Whoever was renting the house to him had promised a thousand rooms, but as he traveled through the house he found less than four rooms, and all the rooms were identical and his head touched their ceilings. “This will not do,” Henry kept saying to himself…

In The Known World, there is no telling how men might – or might not – be punished for what they do.

lost in the city

8/10 Lost In The City by Edward P Jones (1992)

I had picked Jones’s novel for my book group because I knew I would be reading his debut collection of stories for #TBR20. The stories are just incredible. Jones is phenomenally successful as a short story writer – several of the stories in Lost In The City appeared in the New Yorker and the collection was nominated for America’s National Book Award and won the Pen/Hemingway Award.

In the introduction to the 20th Anniversary Edition I own, Jones writes that he was inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners: ‘I admired Joyce’s bold and evident love of his Dublin people; I knew all the people in that book because they weren’t doing anything different than what black people in Washington, DC, were doing.’

The 14 stories in Lost In The City are realist, and all centred on contemporary Washington DC lives. I enjoyed each of them, but my personal favourite is An Orange Line Train To Ballston. The way he sets the tannoy announcements of a train journey against a woman watching her children chat to a man in the train carriage just seemed absolutely beautiful to me – a perfect evocation of the city.

The moments that moved and stunned me in his stories are powerfully quiet. It’s difficult to quote Jones to convey the experience of reading his stories, since so much of it is subtle and cumulative. In his Guardian series on the short story, Chris Power identifies this as a problem when writing about Chekhov (see the seventh paragraph) and I find it here with Jones. Lost In The City is a remarkable collection, and I very much recommend that you read it for yourself.

Other Fiction Reading

I’ve been reading the New Yorker story every week. A new story appears every Monday. Since I last posted I’ve read The Ways by Colin Barrett, The Crabapple Tree by Robert Coover, Breadman by J Robert Lennon and Inventions by Isaac Bashevis Singer (trans. Aliza Shevrin). I’ve also started reading a classic English novel in the mornings before work (again, one I already own) but I’ll keep the details of that one quiet until I see if I stick with it.

The Rules

The only cast-iron rule of #TBR20 is that I must read 20 books I own before buying more. I’m also avoiding library loans. I’m focusing entirely on the books I already have. I’m allowing one exception to that library rule each month so that I can keep up with my book group.

I’ve also started picking some novels from my shelves outwith my TBR20 pile. I’ll count them as an addition to my total (so I might end up doing a TBR23 or 24 or whatever). The Known World is the first of these, so it’s 21/20. The 12 books I have left on my #TBR20 pile are all short stories so I’m enjoying adding some novels back into the mix.

Join In

Join in on the #TBR20 tag on Twitter, check out my post about TBR20 participants, and give me a shout in the comments – I’d love to hear what you’re reading.

Books, Books, Books: A Gallery of Pics From #TBR20 Readers

Books I've read on the left; books still to go on the right

My #TBR20 pile of books. I’ve read those on the left (plus Magic For Beginners, which I finished on 3rd Jan 2015).

I started my project to read 20 books I own before buying more in November 2014. On 2nd January 2015, there was a spike of activity on the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter as people decided to join in the New Year. Lots of people tweeted photgraphs of the books they’d chosen (but you can pick as you go if you like, too). My post about what I picked and why is here.

I absolutely love getting a peek at these book pics. I wanted to try compiling them here for two reasons: first, not everyone interested in #TBR20 is on Twitter and this will be an easy way they can get a nosey at the pics too. Second, I’m genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how #TBR20 has struck a chord with people and wanted to curate something here to give an idea of all the activity.

If I’ve managed to miss you out, give me a shout and I’ll include you (and if I’ve included you and you’d rather not be on the blog, just give me a shout too). I’ll also update this post as more pics are tweeted.

Edit: As of 19/03/2015 I have counted 54 #TBR20 participants (including me).

#TBR20 came out of @An1081 & I chatting on Twitter, and @AggieHH was the third person on Twitter to click with the project and join in. There are several on Aggie’s pile I want, but the one I’ll be buying soonest after #TBR20 is Thunderstruck after Aggie and I chatted about it. She loved it.

An is doing both a paper book and ebook #TBR20! Check out her blog via the link in her Tweet for her thoughts and rules on the project.

Poppy was another early adopter of the challenge back in early December. Great picks.

Fantastic selection from Agri (including a novel by one of my absolute favourite authors, Jean Rhys).

Epic pile of books from Claire. I basically want all of these. Except A Winter Book – I already have it and it’s on my #TBR20 pile.

05/02/15 Update: Claire rejigged her picks and posted a new photo. Both Claire & I picked a book by Yiyun Li for 10/20 – The Vagrants for Claire and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl for me.

I’ve noticed The Miniaturist and The Golden Notebook on a few piles, and as @AggiHH observed on Twitter, Gilead is making quite a few appearances too. It would’ve been on mine if I hadn’t decided to focus on short stories.

Jess has written a great post about the project on her blog and has startled everyone by including Infinite Jest. I am in awe.

Superb selection from Katherine. Woolf is another #TBR20 favouite.

I love that Betty has such a mix of books here – the poetry is an unusual pick for #TBR20 so far. Also: Don Quixote!

One of the nice things about seeing other readers’ TBRs is spotting a book you’ve read and loved and thinking they have it to look forward to. Hoping Cindy enjoys Cloud Atlas as much as I did.

Nice mix of titles from Phil, including Empire of the Sun which is excellent. I’m a big fan of Ballard and need to read more of him.

Click the Instagram link to see Clare’s picks. I’ve spotted Greene in another #TBR20 pic too and I’m really keen to get round to reading him. Clare recommended Brighton Rock as a particular favourite of hers.

Speechless. (I’m just as bad).

The McBride is brilliant, the Wyld is a beautifully done page turner and I picked up the Vásquez after it won the Impac Prize last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are loads here I haven’t read that are on my wishlist too.

Superb selection from Ali, particularly a lot of 20th century women. Plenty I haven’t heard of here and will need to check out. And she has included the wonderful Alice Munro. Ali has written about #TBR20 on her blog.

A good fiction/non-fiction mix from Helen, including some heavyweight politics picks.

Delighted to see McBride on another pile. And plenty of Knausgaard! I’ll be checking out the ones I haven’t heard of here. Enard’s Zone is near the top of my post-#TBR20 wishlist.

Selection of mostly contemporary novels from Rosie. I’ve read the Levy and Flynn and enjoyed both. Have the Hall on my shelves. Would like to read Sebald soon. Rosie has written about #TBR20 on her blog.

Amazing selection from K, a Danish book blogger. One word: Proust.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor is on my wishlist – the slim white spine underneath is her novel Wise Blood. I’d say I loved Wise Blood, but that would be a strange way of putting things for that book. It’s incredible.

Nice mix of books from Mary and yet another appearance for The Miniaturist on a #TBR20 pile. Looking forward to reading it later in the year.

A properly looming TBR pic from Carol! Bring Up The Bodies is on my electronic pile of books. Very much enjoyed Wolf Hall, so I’d like to get to it soon.

Great selection from novelist Savita. I am especially tempted by Smiley’s book on the novel and by O’Flynn’s Mr Lamb’s Holiday (I enjoyed O’Flynn’s first two books).

Elizabeth has impressively included both The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, two 700+ page contemporary novels. And this is a second pile with Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies in it, reminding me I haven’t read it yet. The Smith is on my wishlist – she has recently won both the Goldsmith’s and Costa prizes with How To Be Both. It intrigues me that the same book won both of those.

A great fiction/non-fiction mix from Michael. So many books in this pic I’d like to try. The only one I’ve read is A Visit From The Good Squad. Also: fairy lights and a guitar! I have to say Michael’s is one of the most atmospheric #TBR20 images yet.

Click on the link to see Kate’s #TBR20 choices – lots of great stuff here. I love Munro and very much enjoyed One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Kesey.

Constance has joined in with a brilliant pile of books: a mix of poetry, epic poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction. Check out her blog on the project.

Cessie joined in with a mix that includes several I haven’t heard of and will need to check out. Judging by chat on Twitter, the Courtmanche is a harrowing read.

Lots I’d like to check out in Sheila’s picture – and another listing for The Miniaturist!

Author Sam Mills (check out details of her novel The Quiddity of Will Self here) has picked a great mix of fiction and non-fiction. She is also after my own heart with her choice of Asimov – his complete collection of robot stories is the final book in my own #TBR20.

Great pile of books from Sarah – and absolutely a million bonus points for inclusion of a robot. I loved the Levi and the Lodge and basically want to read everything else here.

Writer Hugh McCusker has picked a great selection of fiction, most of which I want to read myself. I read O’Connor’s My Oedipus Complex as part of my own #TBR20.

Loved War of the Worlds! And it’s always nice to see some poetry on a #TBR20 pile – Hayley has picked Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Naomi has blogged over at her excellent The Writes of Woman blog about taking part in #TBR20 with a twist – have a read of her post to find out more and to see her TBR20 pic.

Historian and author Peter Moore has written a great post on his blog with a great photo of his choices. Lots of history volumes new to me. Peter’s own non-fiction book The Weather Experiment is coming out this year and looks fascinating too.

Australian writer Jane Bryony Rawson has posted a great piece on her blog about why she’s doing #TBR20. Read all of her #TBR20 posts here.

Blogger Lizzi Thomasson (@lizzi_thom) has blogged about #TBR20 and taken a photograph of her pick of 20 books.

Literary critic Thom (@TheWorkshyFop) has posted about his 20 books here. I’m particularly interested to learn more about the true crime books he mentions.

And, here is one of the loveliest #TBR20 things that has happpened: Thom tweeted me to say his five-year-old daughter has picked her own #TBR20! Here are her picks:

I loved Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures and I hope she does too. And what a great collection of Winnie the Witch books!

Plenty of readers are picking as they go, including:

July, Wigfall, and Constantine (Thoughts on Books 4-6 of the #TBR20 Project)

Books I've read on the left; books still to go on the right

Books I’ve read on the left; books still to go on the right

I’m nearing the end of the second month of my project to buy no more books until I read 20 I already own. Over Christmas I read three contemporary short story collections.

When I committed to my project in November, I had forgotten Christmas sales and the massive ebook discounting that goes on at this time of year. For example, being able to buy one of 2014’s bestselling novels for only £1.80 on Kindle. Or picking up the short story collection that won this year’s Green Carnation Prize for 99p.

But most exciting and tempting: the Verso Books sale. Verso are running a 90% -off ebook sale until Jan 1st. There are some superb books in there. And, importantly, the ebooks are DRM-free, so they really are yours when you buy them.

I do want to support Verso (and will, in future, now I know they do DRM-free copies) but although I was tempted I’m glad I didn’t succumb. This time last year I’m sure I spent £20 or so on discounted books and I don’t think I’ve read a single one of them. It still feels good to have stepped away from that consumerism for a while.


4/20: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July (Canongate, 2007)

I had just finished reading the Heath short story anthology, a collection of 62 classic short stories, when I picked up American author July’s collection. After the anthology, settling into a collection – a debut, no less – took a bit of adjustment. However, it also meant a return to the pleasure of considering the voice and preoccupations of a writer across stories. I love this about reading collections – it feels much like visiting an art exhibition or assessing the work in a degree show.

If the 16 stories in July’s collection were paintings, almost every one would be a portrait of a slyly naive woman, smiling cheerfully from the canvas while sex, chaos and seedy consequences unfold in the background. Most of these stories, whether told from the viewpoint of a middle aged woman or a very young woman, have a similar voice – upbeat even under strain; new in the world. By the end of the stories, the narrators have either revealed the off-beat darkness in their lives or faltered as they encounter it outside of themselves.

For me, the stand-out story was The Man on the Stairs, a six-page piece that uses that voice and July’s penchant for spot-on 20-something observations (‘I thought these were just my starter friends and the real ones would come along later’) to create a genuinely poignant piece. Several of the shorter pieces seemed less complete or satisfying to me, and in those I became tired of the collision of woman-child narration and seedy or bleak reveal. I most liked two of the longer stories: Something That Needs Nothing and How to Tell Stories to Children. There’s something unforgiving in the way the first unfolds against the narrator. The latter uses the wearier voice of an older woman negotiating an unusual set of relationships. I thought it hinted beautifully at the sinister (and often unwitting) attempt at ownership some adults make on youth.

July won the 2007 Frank O’Connor Award for this collection. Her debut novel The First Bad Man is out 19th February 2015 with Canongate.

Clare Wigfall

5/20: The Loudest Sound and Nothing by Clare Wigfall (Faber & Faber, 2007)

I bought this collection secondhand a few years ago when I took a notion to reread her BBC National Short Story Award winning story. Wigfall won in 2008 for the story The Numbers, which is the first in this collection. It’s the story of a woman on a Scottish island with no viable suitors as she ages, and I’ll leave it at that for fear of spoiling it for you. It’s available to read online for free. The voice in this story is bewitching and the ending is powerful and strong. The rest of the stories in The Loudest Sound don’t, for me, quite reach the level of The Numbers, but each is worth reading and they cover a wide range of characters and circumstances (Hollywood husbands, anxious mothers, 1930s outlaws…) My favourite apart from The Numbers is the second story, The Parrot Jungle. It left me with a nagging desire to live back in its world again for days after reading it. It’s full of the tension of potential – of the desire to make more of a life that might not have more to offer.


6/20: Tea at the Midland and Other Stories by David Constantine (Comma Press, 2012)

Here’s another collection I picked up after liking a BBC National Short Story Award winner. Constantine took home the prize in 2010 for Tea at the Midland, the title story of this collection (you can read the story free online). It was interesting to read this immediately following the July and Wigfall debuts – Tea at the Midland is the fourth collection of stories from a writer who is also an established and acclaimed poet. The stories have an advanced level of clarity, unity and depth of vision. Set mostly in England, they contemplate ageing, loneliness, and the pain of relationships and being alive. I loved this collection, including the experience of rereading the prize-winning story and finding new subtlety within it. My absolute favourite, however, was An Island. At about 40 pages it’s the longest piece in the book. I read it on Christmas Day and was drawn absolutely into the beauty and bleakness of its world. It’s remarkable. It takes place over Chrismas, too, so I couldn’t have planned my reading better. A highlight of my reading year.

Other Fiction Reading

In the past week I’ve spent a lot of time on Nuruddin Farah’s excellent New Yorker story The Start of the Affair. Click on the link to read the story online and check out the discussion of the story at the Mookse and Gripes blog.

The Rules

The only cast-iron rule of #TBR20 is that I must read 20 books I own before buying more. I’m also avoiding library loans. I’m focusing entirely on the books I already have. I’m allowing one exception to that library rule each month so that I can keep up with my book group. Join in on the #TBR20 tag on Twitter or give me a shout in the comments – I’d love to hear what you’re reading.


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