Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly email about things I’ve read

Books I’ve read, intend to read or that I’m reading at the moment

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Books I’ve finished reading (the most recent 35)

William Empson, Volume 1: Among the Mandarins cover John Haffenden, William Empson, Volume 1: Among the Mandarins
Empson was a brilliant eccentric who led an eventful life, which included teaching in a Chinese university while the country was partly occupied by Japanese in the late 1930s. The biographical details are interspersed with useful critical discussion of his major works, including Poems (1935).

The Wild Laughter cover Caoilinn Hughes, The Wild Laughter
I have extremely mixed feelings about this on first reading. Some bits I really hated, yet I was never tempted to abandon it, and I’ll certainly read it again. I’ve loved her earlier work, so this is a shock.

Summer Will Show cover Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show
It took me a whole week to read this: it’s densely written and not a book to be rushed. The central character’s antisemitism (though she’s in love with a Jewish woman) and more general racism can’t be dismissed as merely a portrait of the character.

Dear George and Other Stories cover Helen Simpson, Dear George and Other Stories
This collection contains several stories about motherhood, childbirth, pregnancy and related themes, which are generally well handled, though there are some stories that I might come to dislike strongly on rereading. I don’t yet know whether I want to write about Simpson’s stories, but I might.

Runaway (Vintage International) cover Alice Munro, Runaway (Vintage International)
I enjoyed Almodóvar’s film Julieta which is based on three stories from the collection. The tone and setting of the stories are quite different from those of the film, and Almodóvar has made some small but significant changes to the plot. Indeed, while the film has a unified plot, the stories feel like distinct stories, though the events they recount are connected.

The Scapegoat cover Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat
The second du Maurier I’ve read. It’s a doppelgänger story, so implausibilities are inevitable. A selfish, hedonistic Franch comte steals the identity (and car and passport) of an English professor of French history, leaving the latter with little choice but to take his place. Loved it.

Wuthering Heights cover Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Troubled Blood cover Robert Galbraith, Troubled Blood
I often felt while in the middle of it that at 1000 pages it’s too long, with too many characters and red herrings. But I thought the plot was resolved very satisfactorily and I’ll probably reread it … eventually.

The Absolution cover Jonathan Holt, The Absolution

The Abduction cover Jonathan Holt, The Abduction

The Abomination: A Novel (Carnivia Trilogy Book 1) cover Jonathan Holt, The Abomination: A Novel (Carnivia Trilogy Book 1)

The Changeling cover Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling

The Testaments cover Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
It’s striking how small a role the Handmaids play in this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. There are 3 narrators, one an Aunt (who wears drab brown, not red). The second is training to become an Aunt. She and third are both daughters of an escaped Handmaid, who may be the first book’s Offred.

Sweet Tooth cover Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

The Innocent cover Ian McEwan, The Innocent

Beautiful World, Where Are You cover Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You

The Telling Error cover Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error

The Carrier cover Sophie Hannah, The Carrier

A Room Swept White cover Sophie Hannah, A Room Swept White

Kind of Cruel cover Sophie Hannah, Kind of Cruel

Exciting Times cover Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is essentially a love story, though an unusually nuanced and analytical one. (At least that’s how it seems to me, no expert on the subject.) I hope she’s writing more.

Disgrace cover J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace

Shame: A Novel cover Salman Rushdie, Shame: A Novel
When I first read this in the mid 1980s, I thought it was a damp squib after the magnificent Midnight’s Children (1981). A recent reread hasn’t really changed my view, though it has brilliant moments. I’m going to write about it soon in Talk about books.

My Cousin Rachel cover Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency cover Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
I’ve reread this for the first time in more than 30 years. Hilarious and clever. I don’t remember Adams’s second Dirk Gently instalment, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, being as funny or as good but I still want to reread it.

Final Cut cover S J Watson, Final Cut

Lights Out: A Novel cover Peter Abrahams, Lights Out: A Novel

A Perfect Crime: A Thriller cover Peter Abrahams, A Perfect Crime: A Thriller

End of Story cover Peter Abrahams, End of Story

Paradime cover ALAN GLYNN, Paradime
I was very tempted to abandon this novel. The opening chapters, in which a man with PTSD flounders hopelessly, were painful to read. But it really takes off about halfway through, so I’m glad I stuck with it.

Orchid & the Wasp cover Caoilinn Hughes, Orchid & the Wasp
Very ambitious; loosely combining ideas from Deleuze and Guattari, Isaiah Berlin and others. Rereading required. I enjoyed it very much but I think I prefer her short stories, some of which I’ve written about in the newsletter.

Missing, Presumed cover Susie Steiner, Missing, Presumed
Well plotted kidnap story. The missing young woman is a student, daughter of an influential couple who are friendly with the Home Secretary, which is awkward for the investigating detectives. Susie Steiner died young, but not before writing two more books in the series. I’ll probably read them too eventually.

Madame Zero cover Sarah Hall, Madame Zero
Quite a varied collection of short stories: I liked some of them a lot more than others. I’d like to revsit most of them and perhaps reconsider my response. The one I remember most clearly is “Wilderness”, in which an Englishwoman and two South African men cross a rusting, decrepit and precarious viaduct high above a shallow estuary.

Blacklist cover Andrew Taylor, Blacklist
A spy story written in the late 1980s, shortly before the end of the cold war. For a while the plot seemed overstuffed, many minor characters being blackmailed, threatened or killed, but the ending ties it up neatly enough. I glimpsed the final twist early on but my attention was skilfully misdirected and I forgot.

The Ashes of London cover Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London

To read

Keats's Odes cover Anahid Nersessian, Keats's Odes

Debatable Land cover Candia McWilliam, Debatable Land

Blank Pages and Other Stories cover Bernard MacLaverty, Blank Pages and Other Stories

Don't Look Now cover Daphne du Maurier, Don't Look Now

The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie cover Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie

Archipelago cover Saif Rahman, Archipelago

What I’m reading right now

The Satanic Verses cover Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Because They Wanted To cover Mary Gaitskill, Because They Wanted To