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Will The Book Be As Good As I Remember?

A photograph of a copy of Vanity Fair with a duster on it

There was a good piece posted on Book Riot last month in which the author said:

I worry that the books aren’t as good as I remember, or that there’s something horrible and problematic that I missed when I was younger.”

I feel this and I reckon it’s part and parcel of the concept of re-reading when you’re considering books you read years ago. No matter if it’s something that occurs to you as an all-powerful may-make-or-break-your-decision-to-re-read or just on the periphery, it’s natural for it to be there.

And I think especially when those years in between have seen you grow up a lot, mature. Any age can see this but it’s especially apparent when you’re looking at a book you read at, say, ten years old, a decade later. If the book in question was one you read at the appropriate age or older, it’s likely you understood it correctly. Unless we’re talking adult books and possibly missed cultural references, it’s almost a forgone conclusion, I reckon, that you’ve not much to worry about.

But if you read a book that is or was considered a little too mature for you, having missed something becomes quite likely and this likelihood increases the larger the gap between you and the book’s recommended age. Sometimes you may have realised at the time of reading that you were missing parts and in those cases that awareness will have carried over into the times you considered talking about the book – you may not have recommended a book you loved, for example, because you knew you may have missed something significant. Other times you won’t have been aware of it.

And that can cause a problem – in re-reading this book, am I likely to notice something I didn’t before and thus feel stupid or embarrassed? I recommended this book, lauded it – am I going to find something in it that’s wretched? Am I going to make the discovery that I possibly looked very bad/ignorant when I recommended it to X friend X years ago, or discussed it with X who, older than me, knew it wasn’t as good as I was saying?

Most of the books I’ve re-read were YA and I’ve not had too many experiences of feeling embarrassed – Northern Lights will always be good, for example, and most of what I missed on other occasions turned out to be very minor points – it’s actually more the case that I recognise a few of the books I read just as I was starting to become an avid reader again, in adulthood after leaving school, were likely a lot better than I thought. Does literary fiction seem lifeless and plodding when you don’t ‘get it’? In my experience, yes, it does.

Those times you didn’t like the book but you find on a re-read that it’s good, you just weren’t mature or knowledgeable or in the zone – that’s better. I think in many ways it’s easier to go from ranting about a book to saying ‘okay, it’s not so bad, I messed up’ than ‘oh my goodness this book is amazing… okay, actually the characters are horrible and I feel ashamed’. I think I’d have hated Heathcliff at any age, but I am still glad I only read that book a few years ago.

Away from any embarrassment, does this ‘worry’ that a book will be different point to the importance of re-reading? If an important element of re-reading is to see how your opinions have changed, then worry is as good a reason as any. Re-reading means we learn more. It’s linked to the concept of a book still having something to say, just that it’s on a personal level rather than societal, and not limited to the classics.

But what does this difference in maturity and so forth have on our ability to form an opinion, in terms of reviews and recommendations? Can we trust our opinion? Does it resonant a little too uncomfortably with that idea that some opinions are worthless? (Or does it simply match the idea that all opinions are worthwhile and should be matched with people who will appreciate them?) I know many people delete old reviews – I can’t see myself doing that but I do wonder if an update is in order.

What are your thoughts when considering re-reading a book you read a while ago?

Margaret Laurence – The Stone Angel

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Be a bit nicer.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 301
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97769-6
First Published: 1964
Date Reviewed: 15th January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Hagar Shipley is in her nineties and her time is coming to an end. Living with her son and daughter-in-law she has had time to reflect on life and has been able to live with a modicum of independence, but Marvin is not her favourite son, his wife Doris is too religious, and both now want her to live in a home. Hagar has other plans.

Originally published in 1964 the reprinting of The Stone Angel by Apollo now is timely as it fits the current trend of books about older people. But it has a twist – the woman here grew up in the 1800s, a bit earlier than our contemporaries.

This book is a difficult read and it takes a while to work out what’s really going on, where fault really lies and so on. (This will be aided if you’ve read more recent novels in a similar vein.) Hagar is not completely forgetful, but she forgets enough that you learn to read between the lines and base your opinion of the other characters on the dialogue they speak. (There’s a chance, of course, that Hagar reports conversations wrongly but one can only go so far as the reader.)

So you go through a brief period at the start where you’re questioning who might be the ‘bad guy’ if such a person exists, and then you start to see what’s been in the background all along. Hagar is not a pleasant character by any means. Through the pages that pass by you can see her open favouritism – her favourite son is not the one who looks after her and through the reactions of Marvin and Doris you can see plainly that they’ve had that beaten into them. Hagar nags, belittles, and is critical 90% of the time; she may well have a personality disorder. She has seen herself as above so many people that she’s had few friends; very snobbish. She’s made bad choices but remained rigid in her views. Toxicity is a big feature of this book as while you feel for Hagar’s plight, her not wanting to be put in a home, you can also see how much emotional pain she has caused those who have looked after her for years. And Marvin and Doris aren’t young themselves – whilst Doris’ relentless devotion to converting Hagar to her own religion is a bit much, it’s impossible not to feel for this couple who have looked after a woman so ungrateful.

A difficult book at times, then, but not a bad one. There are a few drawn-out sections, which means it’s a good book to read in terms of its cultural status – it’s considered a Canadian classic – as well as all the things Laurence says, but it may not ‘wow’ you. Despite its character it is an easy, comfortable read, that has a lot of value nowadays for its social context and historical content. It also demonstrates how a strict upbringing can affect a person as well as showing what is important, even if what’s important may seem obvious – Hagar doesn’t get it.

You know from the start where this story is headed but its not a sad book. Hagar’s views and personality mean that she’s very open and confident so whilst she’s not particularly nice she does break through some of the social barriers in place during her younger years. The father who sees himself highly. The husband who was different but that different proved too much. The children much too like their awful father. The people one should not associate with. And Laurence’s 1960s take on it all can be fascinating.

One to read and love in places, perhaps fiercely dislike in others, The Stone Angel is one for contemplation. Where Hagar is loud, you’ll find yourself seeking quiet. It may not be fun – the lady is not for changing – but it’s memorable, interesting, and rather important.

I received this book for review.

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Latest Acquisitions (November 2016 – January 2017)

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Barbara Erskine: Sleeper’s Castle – I’ve never read Erskine before; had always planned to; listening to her speak at Hay and reading a sampler had me putting it on my Christmas wish list.

Elizabeth Chadwick: The Autumn Throne – The last of Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy; loved the first book, not yet got to the second…

Helen Irene Young: The May Queen – Set for an April review, this is a historical novel with a great premise; to be honest, the cover likely would’ve been enough to grab me, it tells you a lot.

Hiromi Kawakami: The Nakano Thrift Shop – So excited.

Josephine Johnson: Now In November – A 1930s novel that I hadn’t heard of before but is apparently rather well-known; I’ll be reviewing this in a few weeks.

Lauren Owen: The Quick – I may not get to this for a while but I’ve been wanting to read it for ages.

Margaret Laurence: The Stone Angel – Another older novel that has been republished; rather looking forward to reading it.

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Meelis Friedenthal: The Willow King – The cover had me very excited and I haven’t wanted to look too closely at the premise for fear of spoiling it but I think it’s more present-day than historical.

Nicola Cornick: The Phantom Tree – Cornick’s previous, House Of Shadows made my top 7 in 2015; I believe the genre of this new one is the same.

Sally O’Reilly: Dark Aemilia – Having read Elizabeth Fremantle’s The Girl In The Glass Tower I’ve been particularly interested in this because both are about the same Aemilia; Fremantle concentrated on Aemilia’s later life and wove her into Arbella Stuart’s story, O’Reilly’s book looks at her life in the context of Shakespeare.

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar – It’s been a long time coming; I’m ready for what I hear is a difficult book (I haven’t wanted to read too much about it).

Tom Connolly: Men Like Air – A study of relationships, this follows a few different characters.

Tony Grey: The Tortoise Of Asia – Historical fiction based on a legend, this is about a Roman soldier who is taken prisoner and ends up battling for the Huns.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan – Harmless Like You

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Not being admitted, or keeping one’s distance?

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 305
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63832-7
First Published: 11th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 6th December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Following his father’s death, Jay flies to Berlin to find his mother to hand over the keys to the family home; Yuki has been absent as long as Jay can remember yet his father still wanted her to have the house. Yuki’s teenage years and early adulthood were troubling times; as an artist and Japanese American growing up in the 1960s she always felt uncomfortable, distanced, and the few relationships she does have are not enough to change that, particularly as they aren’t all healthy.

Harmless Like You is a rather well-written dual narrative novel that looks at discomfort, identity, isolation, and social-racial issues in mid twentieth century America, in turn examining the effect of an absent parent on their child as well as the effects of artistic frustration on a person. Both subtle and to the point it uses interesting turns of phrase to create something rather new and full of interest but doesn’t quite make the most of the setting and characters.

The writing in this book is really something. Hisayo Buchanan favours a poetry in prose sort of style that fits somewhere between the experimental and the more usual, a narrative that could have easily swung towards the self-indulgent but doesn’t. Rarely does the author fall back on common metaphors, preferring to look at things in a different manner that fits well with the idea of an artist, a very creative style wherein you can see how much time has been spent on every sentence:

The small, female oblong stood in the shadows beyond the doorway. Sun buttered the sidewalk where I stood, but she was dressed for a colder season.

In the playground, bodies swirled to the door like so much dish soap draining away.

Told in both the first and third person – one for each of the two narratives – the use of the two ‘persons’ boosts the overall atmosphere of distance and closeness; Jay, very much a part of society and in a loving relationship, even if it’s been strained recently by the birth of his daughter, speaks to the reader directly; Yuki, always feeling at arms-length to everyone around her and only at peace in an abusive relationship in which equates outbursts to love, is chronicled by the author. Yuki would probably be happy to narrate herself… sometimes. This use of third person means that although you spend a great deal of time with Yuki, far more than with Jay, and thus know a lot about her, the lack of the character’s own voice means you are distanced from her yourself. In any other book this would be a problem, and indeed some might say that even here it’s a problem, but it does reflect the author’s character and point well.

Yuki was a chīzubāgā [cheeseburger] – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.

Of points, Hisayo Buchanan uses a fine mix of the frank and the subtle. Yuki struggles with knowing where she fits in the world due to her heritage, ethnicity, and nationality – she looks Japanese and speaks it but does not want to live in Tokyo because it would not be a good fit, would not offer her what America can, which are things that match who she is. What and who she is are questions she asks herself often if not in so many words. In the same vein, this is a book in which Asian Americans – Japanese here – are both accepted and not, where many people have got past colour and many haven’t and the author shows both sides, where colour is irrelevant and unremarkable upon as well as that simple prejudice where it may or may not be discussed but certainly has an impact. It’s the latter that informs the text most, particularly because, like her usage of distance in her writing, the author shows unvocalised prejudice, the only vocalised questions and statements made by those who like Yuki and those who may or may not. It makes for an interesting reading experience because it allows Hisayo Buchanan to really look into Yuki’s anxieties, to show how many different elements make them up – she shows how the underlying feeling can have a big impact. Sometimes – we could even suggest it’s often – the girls who seem to dislike Yuki (because we see things from Yuki’s perspective ever time) have different reasons for disliking her, particularly as Yuki is what we’d now call flaky, other times you have to piece things together along with Yuki’s perception of what’s going on. And where there is room for debate, where it’s not definite whether Yuki’s thought is correct, there is Hisayo Buchanan’s frankness to show how Yuki has reached her opinion. (There is also a look at female friendship where distance and possible misunderstanding has eroded the connect, but this is distinct from the rest.)

Then there is the author’s own feeling, scattered throughout the text in a way that means you see it and the point of it but toes the line between the author being directly involved and not, about race and how we discuss it, of identity. It’s best to use an example:

‘So,’ Yuki’s boy asked. ‘Where’re you from?’
‘Six blocks away. Oh. My family,’ she replied. ‘Japan.’ When she moved back would she say she was from America?

There is also Yuki’s later exhibition, based on eating only white coloured food for a month, which is titled Shit’s Still Brown. It’s not commented on directly, but one can read subtext in it.

So this book is about being apart from people because of physical differences, perceived differences, and that stereotypical creative isolation – Yuki isn’t Cassandra sitting bin the sink, she’s Mr Mortmain in his room at the top of the house, staying away from relatives. Through its theme of artistry it also looks at the Vietnam war, Yuki using the Napalm girl photograph as a base for a photography series, contrasting the situation depicted with the childhoods she sees in action on the streets of America. It looks at artistic frustration and misunderstanding when Yuki photographs food for a series and people write to ask her about the restaurants instead of discussing the work itself.

And it looks at a life without a parent, parental neglect as well as purposeful separation, and the effects both have. Would Yuki have been happier if she’d not stayed with her friend and had followed her parents back to Japan? Would she have been a different person, capable of being a mother? Would she have left her abusive boyfriend earlier instead of finding comfort in the relationship? (That is something else the book looks at – why people stay, the reasons the have.)

This book does a very good job portraying characters – the main ones, at least; others aren’t so well drawn but that appears to be the point – and it does an excellent job in evoking the setting. It’s easy to imagine place and time. However the plot is minimal and this is only emphasised by the fact you know how Yuki’s life ends out because the author brings Yuki and Jay together as the introduction. The substance of this novel lies entirely in its themes and the ending isn’t particularly engrossing, Yuki remains roughly the same person as she begins. And as the theme work can be very subtle at times you do need to be happy with the idea of a gentle flow rather than something that you’re going to want to sit up and pay attention to. At times the writing becomes the best part. You may well very much enjoy the book but is it one you’d recommend to a friend?

Harmless Like You is a good début full of fine writing, well-written characters, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Yuki won’t be for everyone. And perhaps that’s also part of the point, falling very much in line with the thinking in the book. If you’re looking for something in particular, a literary element, you may find it middling; this is a book that uses broad strokes of the calligraphy brush liberally so there are patches where the ink inevitably misses.

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Finishing A Book In A Certain Month Having Read Most Of It In Another

A photograph of a 2017 diary set to March 1st with a copy of The Nakano Thrift Shop resting on it

I have a personal problem with my own concept of reading by month in accordance with my blog. (I hope that makes sense.) That the problem is entirely of my own creation; nevertheless it’s hardly unheard of to talk of books you read in any one month – book clubs are based around months – and so I know this might strike a chord with many of you or at the very least form a fair discussion.

I feel, in terms of my own reading and blogging life, that it’s cheating if I finish a book in one particular month having read the majority of it the month previous. I read 75% of Anna Karenina in the months… years… preceding the one it was included, round up wise. And often this can happen in multiples so I’ll have a month where I’ve read a lot overall but only finished two books, say, and then because I finished the remaining books on the 1st of the next month, it looks like I read a lot in that next month. I know it’s silly, especially as it all works out in the end, and especially because a month of few and a month of many achieves the same result – talking year by year now – but I continue to struggle.

So the extremely first-world problem is effectively balanced out by the fact the month in which I read most of the book isn’t included.

This post, though brewing for years, was written up because I was inspired by Stefanie’s descriptor, ‘The Middles’. The Middles is that time when you’re in the middle of a few books. It can feel like you’re not getting anywhere and of course you are getting somewhere but the more books you have on the go, the harder it is to make noticeable progress. Your reading time is diluted, even if you concentrate – once you’ve noticed there’s a problem – on getting one finished at a time. You get to that place where September saw you finish lots of books but October saw none.

I think it’s time I put more emphasis on books I have on the go.

Have you ever thought something similar?


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