Plus the Anderberg family's favorites for the month.
I had major surgery two weeks ago, so I've been spending A LOT of time reading. It's been a great month for books — and my body is coming along nicely, too :-)
The best book I've read this month is definitely 'Unseen City' by Amy Shearn. I haven't seen a lot of people talking about this one, and I loved this mashup of literary ghost story and historical fiction set in modern Brooklyn.
Our girl is Meg Rhys, a self-proclaimed Spinster Librarian. She's 40 and has a satisfying existence. She rides her bike around the city and works in the archive of the Brooklyn Central Library. She lives with her cat Virginia Wolf and has a pretty good relationship with her younger brother.
This is a bit from early in the book:
'All her heroes had resisted wifehood: Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Lolly Willowes. Okay, so Lolly Willowes was a fictional character and eventually became a witch, but still, Meg reasoned, better a witch than a wife. Just look what had happened to Sylvia Plath, to Dorothea Brooks. You couldn't say that, though. It rankled. It offended married people because you were implying that their own carefully constructed lives had snags woven into them... no one wanted to hear this. So she had a stock response: 'If I ever married, I would love my Spinster Librarian card.' She'd said it so many times she'd begun to imagine the card was an actual object, providing access to books no one else knew existed, which, she felt, would be a much more useful resource than a spouse any day.'
So, Meg doesn't much believe in love, but she does believe in ghosts. Mostly because she has daily conversations with her sister Kate, who died ten years earlier.
At the start of the story, two things happen that upset Meg's equilibrium. First, she learns that the cozy, rent-controlled apartment she's made her home is about to be sold out from under her. And second, a very attractive man named Ellis comes to the library with a compelling historical mystery he needs help solving.
Meg is soon distracted by her investigations into Brooklyn's history, and she has a growing attraction for Ellis, even though he, too, is a bit haunted.
I don't want to give anything about the plot because it would ruin the fun of reading. But I can tell you a few other things I loved:
As you might expect from a librarian, Meg drops book titles all over the place. And I really appreciated that they are accessible. She's not a snobby reader — she's a book lover. So she talks about Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea, A Christmas Carol, The Haunting of Hill House, The Turn of the Screw
This book also taught me a lot about New York City history and the Civil War that I didn't know anything about. It's all woven into the story in a way that makes it integral to the plot — that is my favorite way to learn.
There's a fascinating story about the real-life town of Weeksville. It was a village with farmland founded by free African Americans in the 1830s in what's now Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Today, it's home to the Weeksville Heritage Center where four houses from original Weeksville residents have been turned into a museum, so you can walk through the houses and learn what life was like for Black Americans in the late 1800s.
This is a beautiful, entertaining, non-scary story about the things that haunt us, of both the emotional and the supernatural variety. It's about grief and longing and how we move on after tragic losses. And with Meg the librarian as a companion, it's also very funny, sweet, and relatable.
I also really enjoyed a COMPLETELY different read: 'Very Old Money' by Stanley Ellin. It's from 1985 (!). Imagine Gosford Park or Downton Abbey, but instead of British nobility, it's an extremely wealthy American family in NYC. A married couple, both teachers, lose their jobs and are hired to be a personal secretary and chauffeur for the family. We get an inside look at the logistics of serving a family of this caliber — and the mental gyrations our main characters have to do to be OK with being 'servants.' Not much happens — we see their day-to-day experience — until SOMETHING SURPRISING HAPPENS. If you like British manor house stories (I love them!), this is a fun counterpoint.
Mine is “Why We Love Baseball” by Joe Posnanski. He talks about 50 moments from baseball history that are incredible and have made people love the game. I’ve had to force myself to slow down to not just read the whole thing in one sitting. I have thoroughly enjoyed it
Best book in October? “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro, no question. Heartbreaking piece of speculative fiction. But the runners up were also excellent and both by Australian authors: “The Conversion” by Amanda Lohrey and “All That’s Left Unsaid” by Tracey Lien.
For me it's a toss-up between Lonesome Dove and The Sun Also Rises. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my first taste of Hemingway.
A Gentleman in Moscow, after having it recommended by seemingly everyone. I thought it was a fantastic read. Was going through it around the time the new Wes Anderson short film adaptations of 4 Roald Dahl stories came onto Netflix. From then on I kept imagining how he would film Gentleman. Quite enjoyable.
We haven't finished it yet, but we're doing a read aloud of Dave Eggers' YA novel, The Eyes & the Impossible. The laser cut wooden book covers with gilt edging certainly caught my attention, but the story about a wild dog that lives in a big public park his home has a timeless quality that I think we'll be coming back to this book again and again. It's lovely. I'm also interested in checking out the audio version, which is read by Ethan Hawke.
Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf”
I really enjoyed A Most Agreeable Murder by Julia Seales - a cozy historical mystery and very funny!
Our focus is on the quality of prose, so here are the books we're picking for October, in descending order of stylistic excellence and originality:
1. Never Was by H Gareth Gavin, shortlisted for the Goldsmith's Prize.
This is how it opens:
The party was, as by then they always were, an afterparty. Bodies clawed the tiles and crawled crablike into the garden, which lilted down from the mansion’s terrace, which sank into the lilac sunrise. Beyond the garden where the beach began, actual crabs maneuvered between scraps of plastic and antique condoms, some of which had become tangled with the crabs’ rear legs, and now trailed behind them like latex bridal trains. The crabs made good brides somehow, though it did not seem as if there was anything or anybody they were marrying – their maneuvers had no future; they fussed and bustled for nothing but the fun and cruelty of fussing and bustling.
Some bodies from the party, those that had been able to crawl far enough, watched the crabs. Then they stopped and watched the sea instead. The waves heaped heavily. The foam that gushed from them was thick and glutinous, melting with jellyfish, and everywhere decorated with polymer ornaments – bottle caps and bottle cap grips, weed-kissed Tupperware, vibrantly-coloured shampoo microbeads. The bodies watching could not see the microbeads, but they could taste them – for the sea air, by then, was made of them.
2. Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe, shortlisted for the National Book Awards nonfiction prize.
3. On a Woman's Madness by Astrid Roemer, shortlisted for the National Book Awards translated fiction prize.
Not a single novel among the NBA's Anglophone finalists is, we feel, worth recommending for its prose.
Are there any particularly well-written prize-shortlisted books or recent releases that we've missed? If so, we'll try to take a look at them (especially if you could quote the opening 200 words or so). Thanks.
Reading Lolita in Tehran lead me to Henry James, Turn of the Screw. Somehow I had never read it. The twist at the end was worth the short read. “Stare long enough at the monster and you become one”. Great for spook month.
Mine is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. it was so so good, I had chills all the time!
Currently in the middle of four books (🥴) but I did finish Sea of Tranquility and it was better than I imagined. I saved it specifically for my vacation and it ruined me for anything else after (hence the four books in progress). Mandel is a genius
My favorite this month was "The Passenger"/"Stella Maris" by Cormac McCarthy. Not my favorite McCarthy but probably his most thought-provoking. "Stella Maris" puts everything in "The Passenger" in a new context.
I finally finished “Team of Rivals” (Doris Kearns Goodwin). I’d like to be the kind of person who loves history/biographies but I’m not... yet. This book judged me from my bookshelf for 5 years and then took me about 7 months to finish (interspersed with other books of course). But I did it and really enjoyed it!
Now on to “The Power Broker”!
I also have an 8-year-old named Graham! He's been loving Greenwild by Pari Thomson this month. My favorite book this month was Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand, an awesome haunted house novella that tells the story of 1970s British acid-folk band who spend a summer recording their final album, holed up in a secluded estate with an ancient past. I think Elizabeth Hand should be much better known. Maybe that will change soon: she just came out with a new novel, the first novel to be allowed by Shirley Jackson's estate to officially return to the world of Hill House. Happy Reading!
Red Queen by Juan Gomez-Jurado. My first Spanish thriller and it was really good. Definite Girl with the dragon tattoo vibes.