Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven


Easter Rising by Michael Patrick MacDonald.In the follow up to his successful and riveting memoir, All Souls, MacDonald takes us along for another ride—this time through his teen years in the Irish ghetto of Boston’s Southie. He says he wrote this in response to the readers of his first book who only wanted to know how he’d got himself out of what can only be described as a desperate (and seemingly impossible to escape) childhood. MacDonald was the third youngest of seven kids, raised by the singular ‘Ma’ and when we catch up with him in this installment is just discovering the punk scene of the early seventies. His exploits into the underground scene are fascinating and hysterical (his run ins with Johnny Rotten and Siouxsie Suh are jaw-dropping). MacDonald has a knack for creating atmosphere—his descriptions of his brief foray into the drug culture of New York fortified my resolve to stay away from hard drugs. Neither sentimental nor sensationalistic, his story is one of truth and hope and all the incarnations a person has to go through before finding their real self. (It’s also about some really kick-booty music.)

The Edgar Allan Poe Scrapbook edited by Peter Haining. Review .

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary. Review .

Emily Stone by Anne Redmon. This was a gift from Jael Litvinov who found it so revealing about herself that she didn’t want to share it with our reading group. I understand that. This is the sort of book that makes me believe novels have journeys to make to find their destined readers. Reading about the protagonist (Emily Stone) was like reading about myself and I wasn’t thrilled with everything I saw. I understood her point of view but I also saw her through the eyes of the other characters in the novel and the picture wasn’t flattering. This is going on my list of books to read in ten years’ time to see if I’ve changed and if the novel still cuts so close.

The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris. Review .

Encyclopaedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Finally! A memoir of a person who wasn’t abused or had a drug dependency. And it’s laid out like you think of your life—in bits and bobs and charts and lists, random associations and the happy and sad moments. I feel I know more about her from reading this relatively short book of snippets of her life than I would from reading an exhaustive memoir about every moment of her life.

Erotic Refugees by Paddy Kelly review here

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. I picked this up because the cover looked interesting, it did not have a synopsis or anything describing the text. It was wonderful, Mr. Foer is one year older than I am and it makes me sick that he is such a talented writer. He uses language in a way I have never seen before, but is beautiful and, pardon the pun, illuminating. When I first discovered that the writer was using himself as one of the main characters I checked my passports for an ego trip, but it comes off very naturally. There are three stories going on at once: one recounting the history of a Jewish shtetl in the 1700’s and one recounting the protagonists family in the 1940’s and the third is the search for a mysterious woman in the present. The separate stories are great alone, but when you find out how they are tied together, that’s the real treat. Foer is brilliant at creating laugh out loud moments that blend into scenes of unbelievable horror that at the end leave a lump in your throat. It is the kind of book that when you finish it you have to just sit there a moment to absorb what you have read. Amazing!

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I was reading this as I moved from my parents’ house to Wilmington—it was my first Pym and I named one of my cats for one of the characters in the book—Mildred. Similar to E F Benson in the satire of English country life, Pym has a keen eye for the psychology of humanity. (Excellent women are the church ladies. And BOY are they persnickety.)

‘The Exiles’ [from The Illustrated Man] by Ray Bradbury. See review here .

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Another brilliant novel from Foer—he also wrote Everything is Illuminated. This time around our guide is Oscar, a nine-year old boy whose father died in the World Trade Centre attacks and who is on a quest to find out what the mysterious key he found in his father’s things unlocks. On his journey he meets an assortment of characters and makes a few friends. Foer re-examines familial ties and the ways people can be connected to one another—themes he explored in his first book. Highly recommended.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Great fun, literary, parallel universe, British. What more do you need? It starts in 1984 in England, but everything is different. First off, they have brought back dodos who make ‘plock, plock’ sounds and people are able to jump into their favourite books, unfortunately this also means that well-meaning souls can change the endings of they most treasured books. And then there is the Rocky Horror like productions of Richard III.


The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. An excellent story about love in its many forms told through the personal stories of group of people connected in one way or another to a coffee shop in Michigan. Baxter has a gift for creating believable voices for his characters.

Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller. Review .

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs by Alexander McCall Smith. The second book in the von Igelfeld trilogy. This time our hapless protagonist gets himself into even more precarious waters but always manages to extricate himself with aplomb…or sheer luck.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. FANTASTIC! Miss Waters improves with each book! I adored her first two, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity and she has outdone herself with this tale of mixed identities and intrigue in Victorian England. She keeps you guessing up until the last two pages, I literally gasped with shock at the final resolution.

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark. Echoes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—one of my favourite novels of all time—and explores the nature of creativity and obsession. Spark is a master of ‘spare’ writing—she can capture entire lives in ten words or less.

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. So great! I figured out who did it before they revealed it, but the way it was tied up was beautifully done. Another complex, literary mystery from Perez-Reverte.

The Forgers  by Bradford Morrow. Review .

‘The Fox’ by D. H. Lawrence. Review .

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins. Review .

F*ck It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way by John S. Parkin. Review .

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Graphic novel/memoir of Bechdel’s … eventful early life. Her father was a deeply closeted homosexual, who took his frustration and self-hatred out on his house—he was obsessed with redecorating their massive Victorian home. They also have a funeral home—started by Bechdel’s great-grandfather—which is where the book’s title originates. Bechdel draws Dykes to Watch Out For, and as personal as that strip is, this is her first effort at memoir. A coming out story set against her dysfunctional family life, this is a top-rated story of how one parent’s demons can effect an entire house.

Future Files by Richard Watson Freakonomics with a crystal ball, Future Files by Richard Watson is a fascinating, if sometimes unsettling look into how our world will evolve in the next five decades. No segment of society is free of his long-range sights. From genetically engineered babies to self-replicating nanotechnology, Watson tells us where we’re going and how we’ll get there. (Another review here .)

Future Minds by Richard Watson
Does technology shape us or do we shape technology? Is the instantaneous culture we live in hurting us in the long run? In Future Minds Richard Watson addresses these questions, as well as a host of others you probably hadn’t thought of. Then he tells us how our ever-expanding arsenal of digital products will rule us more than we rule it. Eye-opening and thought-provoking, this is a must-have for anyone interested in the influence cutting-edge technology has on humanity and how we can prevent the negative effect of said technology. (Another review here .)


Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. Wonderful! I copied several quotes into my journal. In my list of favourite books ever. Academia, Oxford, great fun.

Ghost Girl by Torey Hayden. I don’t know *what* possessed me to pick up this true story of a girl who refused to speak (elective mutism) and what was revealed once she finally chose to say something. Hayden can write well enough to keep me reading, but I had to sleep with the lights on afterwards. Non-fiction is always far more disturbing than fiction. I did enjoy learning more about child psychology and emotional disorders.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub. Review .

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood. A contemporary ghost story with a Victorian flavour. When a boy is 10 he gets a pen friend in England (he’s in New Zealand) and they write one another for years, but she refuses to send him a picture. Meanwhile, his mother tells mysterious stories about her childhood home back in the English countryside, but gives conflicting stories about why he can’t go there and see it. With a dilapidated mansion, ghosts and a story within a story within a story this novel is tightly written and difficult to put down. Atmospheric, but not for people easily confused.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. Review here .

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist. Review here .

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Great day! This is one of those memoirs so popular now that makes you think your childhood working in the blacking factory from the age of five wasn’t so bad after all. Raised by artistic and volatile parents who seem fundamentally incapable of holding down jobs the three Walls children are examples of what can happen—good and bad—when kids aren’t raised in ‘normal’ circumstances. Hilarious, frightening and ultimately uplifting, I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t fiction.

God Save the Queen by Mike Carey. Review .

Goodnight Steve McQueen by Louise Wener. Along the same lines as High Fidelity—set in contemporary London, hapless, loser-type guy having girlfriend problems. Great fun, but not the most taxing reading. Then again, I probably needed a break from the nineteenth century novel I was reading at the time.

The Goth Bible by Nancy Kilpatrick. Review .

Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam
McLean, the first premier mental health hospital of the U.S. Built to cater to the eccentric millionaires and their families. The suites are more posh than most luxury hotels. The hospital had to change its procedures as times changed. In the 60s and 70s the parents of hippies—kids who weren’t interested in school and would rather do pot—would send their kids there. James Taylor and both his siblings were sent there, as was Sylvia Plath, Joan Biaz and Susanna Kaysen (who wrote Girl, Interrupted).

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Review here .

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Review here .

Greetings from Hellville by Thomas Ott. Review here .


Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. An insightful young adult novel about finding who you are and who you love. I wish I had something like this to read when I was a younger person. It was refreshing that the baby dyke did not give in to the guy, just because he said he was in love with her.

Harold and Maude by Colin Higgins. Review .

The Haunted Looking Glass edited by Edward Gorey. I began reading these before bed but had to stop because it’s hard to sleep with the lights on!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Review .

Hell with the Lid Taken Off: Book One: River of Mud by Adam Lee Herold. Review .

Hey Nostradamus! By Douglas Coupland. An exploration of the way people deal with violence, I picked this up because I wanted something heavier to read and I got my wish. The novel follows the lives of four different people involved in varying degrees in a school shooting. It’s one of the most haunting books I’ve read—I felt as if I knew each of the characters intimately.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. This is a sharp and witty tour through the life and mind of a thirtysomething Londoner just trying to figure women out. If I were a thirtysomething male Londoner I would be this guy. He constantly made top-five lists, for everything, so when I was reading it I was tempted to do the same thing.

A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott. I began this book months ago and read it very slowly, taking notes all along the way. Empowering for those of us who choose not to partake in that which other people call ‘normal.’

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams this was Karl’s first choice for our little book club and it’s great fun in that veddy, veddy British way. It’s the first in the series and we’re going through the rest of the set.

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham. This is a beautiful novel about the complex bonds between mothers, sons, best friends and lovers. Cunningham is a master at capturing the small moments that define people.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I read this the day after reading Mrs Dalloway, and that was a great decision because I could see how deftly Cunningham adapted Woolf’s story for modern day. Brilliant! One of my favourites. Sidebar: the movie was as-good-as the book, they complimented one another very well.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. A finely wrought, exquisitely written story about a bohemian woman who becomes the guardian of her nieces after her sister’s untimely death—this was recently voted one of the best novels of the past twenty five years and deservedly so. Written from the youngest girl’s point of view, we follow the rag-tag family as they negotiate their way through the world, trying to hold on to the one thing they have—one another. About making your own way when the rest of society says ‘not typical’ is ‘not healthy’. Part of the joy of reading this novel is the crystalline precision of the writing—several times I found myself stopping to re-read a particularly beautiful bit of prose; Robinson’s command of the language is a gift.

How I Became Stupid by Martin Page. Hysterical satire about intelligence and its waning importance in our culture. Antoine is a twenty-five years old and tired of being intelligent—thinking too much is doing his head in. So he decides to become stupid. Everyday he sees people who are stupid and quite happy so he follows their example. First, he tries becoming an alcoholic, but he’s allergic to alcohol. Then he learns how to commit suicide, but that doesn’t work out, either. In the end, his doctor prescribes from happy pills for him and he stops analysing every second or every day and begins to fall in line with the sheep of the world and he’s finally happy. It’s pretty much an indictment against all things mindless and American (written by a Frenchman, quelle surprise) and I kept thinking that certain people would find it incredibly offensive, but then I realised those people don’t read anyway…which makes me laugh. It’s rather brilliant to write a book insulting people who don’t read because they’ll never know they’ve been insulted.

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. I can’t say that it changed my life, but I did learn some interesting things about Proust—one of my favourite eccentric authors. For example, his father was a renowned physician who wrote a popular pamphlet on exercises to help keep young women in shape with exercised like ‘jumping up and down’ and ‘stretching’. Oh, gee, I thought *I* was a hypochondriac. Whether you think Proust was a whinger or as frail as he professed this glimpse into his life is entertaining and enlightening.

The Hum Bug by Harold Schechter. I liked his previous novel, Nevermore, a lot, and this one was pretty good also. With Edgar Allen Poe as the detective, and Schechter’s reverent yet droll tone, it would be pretty difficult to go wrong.

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