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.

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.

Kristóf, Bâ, and 62 stories (Thoughts on Books 1-3 of the #TBR20 Project)

I’m five weeks into my #TBR20 project to read 20 books I own before buying more. So far, on my own shelves, I have found a novel trilogy masterpiece, a remarkable feminist novel of late 70s Senegal, and a collection of essential literary short stories.

kristof 3 volume

1/20: The Notebook (tr. Alan Sheridan); The Proof (tr. David Watson); The Third Lie (tr. Marc Romano) by Ágota Kristóf (Grove Editions, 1997)

I bought this volume of three novels on 5th February this year, along with Seven Terrors by Selvedin Avdic. Guardian articles inspired both purchases: the Avdic thanks to Nicholas Lezard’s review, and the Kristóf thanks to a piece by Slavoj Žižek on the wonder of the ‘authentic ethical naivety’ of the twin boys in the novel.

In 1956, Kristóf left her native Hungary because of revolution and settled in Switzerland, where she wrote the three short novels of her trilogy in French in 1986, 1988 and 1991. They tell the story of twin brothers who adapt to survive in an occupied country. The first, The Notebook, was released in the UK this year by CB Editions and is a perfect standalone work of strange, sparse and fable-like beauty. But reading the second and third feels like watching the author coldly dismantle her creation layer by layer, until the lies at the heart of it are laid bare. Together, the three works form a remarkable and bleak enquiry into truth and story. By the end of The Third Lie, Žižek’s ethical naivety has been discarded, but the merciless authenticity remains.

ba so long a letter

2/20: So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ (tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas) (Heinemann African Writers Series, 1981)

I bought this slim little Sengalese book a few years ago. I have a dim memory of seeing it on a blogger’s list of feminist novels and being attracted to the title. Only 95 pages long, it takes the form of Ramatoulaye’s letters to her closest friend as she deals with the aftermath of her husband’s death. Her husband had taken a second wife shortly before he died, and she must navigate the complexity this has created in her grief. For such a short work it feels densely populated, teeming with the narrator’s family, friends and acquaintances (a particularly vivid character is her friend’s mother-in-law, who schemes for years to demolish her friend’s position in the family). The letters are eloquent and powerful expressions of grief, acceptance and the strong belief that women are owed a better place in society.

heath antho

3/20: The Heath Introduction to Fiction (5th ed), ed. John J. Clayton, (DC Heath & Company, 1996)

This book is an out-of-print edition of an American college anthology of 62 classic short stories from the 1800s to mid 1990s. Various editions of the anthology seem to sell for about £30 online, but I got my copy for £2.50 in a Glasgow charity shop several years ago.

It’s a great selection, ranging from anthology classics such as Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog and Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, to contemporary writers new to me such as Toni Cade Bambara and Susan Minot. It also contains thoughtful essays on how to read and write about fiction, genuinely useful notes on each story and short biographies of each author from the editor John J. Clayton.

There are too many highlights to mention (it really is a superb selection) but I was particularly pleased to discover Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. I was also gripped by Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat. Sea stories are my catnip, apparently.

There are also now several collections I want to buy – particularly Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. Her story The Jilting of Granny Weatherall is just stunning. I’m also interested in reading more by Tillie Olsen, as I have a particular interest in fiction by working class writers, women especially.  I’ll also read more Flannery O’Connor as soon as I can (I love her novel Wise Blood and this anthology included A Good Man Is Hard To Find). My only gripe about the anthology was that I could find no mention of the translators of translated pieces. A baffling omission.

Reading Short Stories

The Heath anthology was an ambitious choice for my third book of the project, not least because I would never normally contemplate reading so many short stories close together – particularly stories held up as great examples of the form. A great short story detonates perfectly in the mind, clearing a blast site in which nothing else can grow for a time.

Incidentally, this is also why the notion that short stories are ideally suited to busy modern lives is nonsense. Stories require full concentration for a single sitting, the length of which is determined by the story itself; require the reader to tolerate a heightened level of ambiguity and allusion in a form that is not simply a short piece of prose; and require immersion again and again in singular visions afforded only by a glancing pass.

A great short story is not the convenient tidbit of literature. It shines, hard and glittering, and is left alone in favour of the soft, friendly cloth of a popular novel. I wouldn’t be without those novels (or my favourite TV boxsets), but short stories are a different form entirely.

I realised last weekend, despite the difficulties of reading a large quantity  of short stories, that I very much wanted to continue to spend time completely engaged with short fiction. This would have value both as a reader – many of my best reading experiences have been with short stories – and as a writer, since I am working on stories of my own.

I decided to commit to spending the rest of #TBR20 reading short story collections. You can see a photograph of the books I’ve chosen here. I’m a little anxious that a short-fiction fatigue will creep up on me. But mostly I’m excited to be dedicating almost three months to reading and studying the short story.

The Rules

The only unbendable rule of #TBR20 is that you will read 20 books you own before buying more. The rest is up to you. Check out this great post from @An1081 setting out her rules for the project and showing us the 40 – yes, 40! – books she has picked. She has committed to separate paper and ebook #TBR20 projects. I am in awe.

Join In

Take part via the hashtag on Twitter at #TBR20 or in the comments below. Check out my update post from Sunday 7th December for a photograph of my short-story TBR pile and links to other TBR pile pics from the lovely folk taking part on Twitter. Since that post, @maudie43 also tweeted a great pic of her 20 books and @AshleyJStokes posted a pic of the first book he completed.

If you’ve decided to join in, I’d love to hear about it. What have you chosen to read?

#TBR20 Project Update: The Books I’ll Be Reading

In early November 2014 I began a project to read 20 books from my To Be Read pile before buying any more. There is now a group of us taking part on the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter. I’ve had great fun over the past few weeks getting a look at the stack of 20 books others have chosen. Check out these TBR book pictures from @AggieHH, @poppypeacockpen, @A9ri – and here’s an ebook selection from @An1081. There is something very satisfying about seeing these (and, as @AggieHH put it, oddly consoling).

I’d avoided committing to a particular 20 so that I had more flexibility about where my reading mood might take me, but this evening I’ve decided to take the leap. So far I’ve read two novels and my third book, which I should finish in the next few days, is a short story anthology of 62 classic short stories. I’m getting so much out of reading the anthology that I have decided to read short stories for the rest of the project.

In no particular order, the remaining 17 books of my project will be:

2014-12-07 19.40.35


The only rule of #TBR20 is that you must read 20 books you own before buying more. The rest is up to you. I’m avoiding library loans, too. Some of us are picking out the books in advance, and others are choosing as they go. If someone gives you a book as a present, that doesn’t count as a breach of the rules (unless, of course, you have browbeaten a friend into buying it for you because you feel that desperate for a new hardback. If you’re doing this, you’re a hopeless case and #TBR20 probably can’t help you).

Join In

Follow the #TBR20 hashtag on Twitter or give me a shout in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts on the project. If you’re taking part, let me know what books you’ve picked.

The TBR20 Project: Taking A Break From Too Many Books

Some of the short story collections I own and haven't read.

Some of the short story collections I own and haven’t read.

I own too many books. I rent a one-bedroom flat in Glasgow and I have: a cupboard full of books; a separate bookshelf full of books; and a chest of drawers upon which are piled several piles of books. There is no more space. Volumes wash up like driftwood on all available surfaces of the house. Paperbacks, acquired on holiday and unpacked from my case. An impulse buy or three in Waterstones. A stack of bargains bought second hand.

Most of the books I own are unread. But most of what I’ve read in the past five years is still there too. I enjoy re-reading, both in full and in part. Perhaps a scene or sentence I read comes back to me months later and I return to relive the memory. Or perhaps I identify a problem in my own writing and I remember I’ve seen it solved somewhere, that I followed another writer as she breathed life into the very thing I’m trying to do.

I am also a slow reader. I am slow partly through disposition (the sentences! the world unfolding! my own pace, taken!) and partly through time constraints. I work full time. I write, I exercise. I attend political meetings. I’ve a modest but happy social life and an enthusiastic desire for sleep. And I really do like to see my boyfriend now and again.

Some of the unread novels lurking in my flat.

Some of the unread novels lurking in my flat.

In the first week of November this year I decided, not for the first time, that I needed to stop buying books for a while. I needed a project or a detailed resolution. A thing like this isn’t undertaken lightly, you understand. You can’t just think ‘Oh, I just won’t buy books’ and then it happens. It goes deeper than that. It needs some sort of apparatus to make it stick.
This time, though, I was stuck. I’d tried everything before. I thought about the time I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy books for the entire year. That had failed in the first week of February. Later I’d resolved I wouldn’t buy any books for a month. That had failed, too. What about only buying a certain number of books a year? What about only buying one book a week? What about setting a budget? Failed, failed and failed.

I wasn’t looking to change because of money. I’m lucky enough to be able to spend what I like on books (I average £50 a month). It wasn’t even really about the dwindling space, although reminders of that were becoming hard to ignore. I like reading on an ereader – I could have switched completely to digital reading. I could have hidden it from myself.

What had crept up on me as the books gathered on all available surfaces of my house was that it all seemed to be driven by some kind of anxiety. I was serving some need that was nothing to do with finding new reading material. A nervous habit. A way for the mind to jitter without meaning. I was, I worried, using book buying the way I might tap a pen or bite my nails.

Like all anxieties it had mortality at its root. Aside from the instant gratification of buying something new, what I bought had a certain intent. I was buying what I wanted to have read. I was always looking for the next thing, the next great thing that would mean everything.

You couldn’t devise a surer way of disconnecting from literature and stories. When I took a moment away from hunting for books and sat down to read, sure, the connection eventually flooded back. But I was aware of the wrench of attention it required.

It’s easy to buy the books you want to have read. It’s less easy to read them.

It turned out that this was exactly the way I needed to think about it. When I mentioned on Twitter that I really needed to stop buying books, @An1081 tweeted to say she’d considered reading a certain number of books she already owned before she’d permit herself to buy more. A good, large number, she thought. It immediately made sense to me. I think I’ll make it twenty, I said.

This is what I hadn’t appreciated before: instead of focusing on what I wouldn’t do or how I would limit myself, I should be focusing on what I would do: reading the books I have.

I opened my books cupboard. My eyes roamed past the non-fiction on the shelves to the great stacks of novels and short stories I had accumulated. I knew I wanted to stick to reading fiction for this project. I picked up a volume containing Ágota Kristóf’s three twin trilogy novels: The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie, which I had bought in February.

I tweeted that I had committed to a project to read 20 books I own before buying more. Adopting the usual online books acroynm of TBR for the To Be Read pile, I decided to give the project a name on Twitter: #TBR20. Others began to join in. Too Many Books, it seems, is the common plight of the bibliophile.

This week Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels on Twitter; his excellent blog here) picked up the idea and tweeted about it. He tweeted about it on Black Friday, that strange day of bargains and riot-shopping that has only recently gripped the UK. It seemed apposite.

Borges wrote that he imagined Paradise would be a ‘kind of library’. Thanks to #TBR20 I am sitting quietly at one of the broad, well-lit tables in the reading room, rather than dashing madly about the shelves.

Join in
Join in on Twitter with the hashtag #TBR20. At the moment the participants are: me (@evastalker), @AggieHH and @JacquiWine, with a few more hoping to join when they can. I’m on book 3/20 at the moment and reckon I’ll hit 20 by April 2015.

Strength in simplicity! One rule: I will read 20 books I own before buying more. I’ve decided to include avoiding library loans since I was as guilty of loaning more books than I could read as I was of buying them. I’ve made an exception for one library book a month, though, so I can take part in my book group. I’ve also decided to focus on paper books.

Next up on the blog
In about a fortnight’s time I’ll post some thoughts on my experience of #TBR20 so far and what I’ve been reading as part of the project.


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