Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven


I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I LOVED this book about a young girl growing up in rural England dealing with her conniving older sister. It is a delicate and well-written story that is a good pre-cursor to Nancy Mitford, E.F. Benson or Barbara Pym.

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight by Margaret Cho. Half autobiographical, comedic essays, half lefty political call to arms. Well-written, fun and intelligent, it didn’t inspire me to go out and change the world, but it did have me nodding in agreement.

I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You by Roger J Pearman and Sarah C Albritton
What’s wrong with everyone else? I’m normal–they’re the weirdos, right? Yes and no. This is a new edition of an invaluable resource for those wishing to learn more about themselves or the people with whom they interact. I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You covers everything from relationships with your colleagues to your relationship to yourself. It’s the sort of book one keeps to hand for those dire circumstances where your normality butts heads with someone else’s normality. Eminently useful.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson. Bryson was born and raised in America, went on to live and prosper in England for twenty years, then upon returning to his homeland he found a few things had changed. Some in a rather drastic fashion. This book is a collection of humorous essays documenting his observations on the discrepancies between Americans and the English. Originally intended as a guide for the British visiting the US, it is also quite informative and riotously amusing for Americans. Eng|Trv|Hum

Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes. Review here .

The Ice House by Minette Walters. The first Walters book I read and I was hooked! An intriguing plot along with convincing characters and fast pace. Very English, but in my opinion that’s only a plus. Reading this book was the first thing I did once I acknowledged my Anglophilia—I went out and bought it along with Walters’ first four novels when I received the VHS of The Ice House for Christmas.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Hysterical, droll and educational. I do not think Bryson can write a bad book. This time he sets off across Australia, which seems to have around nine billion ways to kill a person.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This was the first true crime book read and I believe it was the book that made true crime novels popular. I thought that the idea of Capote retracing the steps of a couple of notorious killers would detract from the story, but he’s such a great writer that I didn’t notice—he allowed the story to have first billing, which was the perfect thing to do, as the story alone was enough to keep a person up half the night.

Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. Kier is a good guy. He plays football and soccer well enough to be noticed by college scouts, he loves his two older sisters and can’t wait to go to the same college they do so they can live together again and his best friend is his dad. Kier knows right from wrong and when someone he loves gets hurt he feels just as badly as if he were the one injured. So he can’t understand why GiGi Boudakian is saying what she’s saying he did. Because good guys don’t do what she says he did. And Kier is a good guy. Yeah, he knows how to party, but he knows when enough is enough and he loves GiGi Boudakian. He’s loved her since they were six. He couldn’t have done what she says he did to someone he loved…In this young adult novel, Kier narrates the story of his last year in high school and all the events leading up to the night in question, when Killer Kier (so named because of an accident on the football field) finds out that sometimes the way we see reality isn’t the way it really is. A provocative story about something that happens more frequently than we’d like to admit. Recommended for fifteen and up, this would be an excellent book to stimulate discussions in the classroom or with teens in your family.
When I heard this was a book about date rape from the rapist’s point of view I was hesitant to pick it up—thinking the author would try to make us feel sorry for the protagonist, but instead Lynch gives a believable portrait of a young man who believes he can do no wrong. At first, I was livid, but eventually I came round to think this book should be read by every teenager—male and female.

‘The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter’ by Jeff VanderMeer. Review .

The Inner Circle by TC Boyle. This is a fictionalised account by one of Professor Kinsey’s protégés and is so engrossing it’s difficult to keep in mind that on the whole it actually happened. Boyle captures the 50s beautifully and by the end the characters were some of the most well-drawn that I’ve read, though not necessarily people I’d like to know. Yes, it’s about sex research, but it’s not at all salacious. Boyle had a case of over-blown prose in the first fifty pages, but it cleared up after that (thank goodness).

Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue. Whether the relationship is sexual or passionately platonic, the bonds between women can be unbreakable. This is a quite good (and a little exhausting) survey of the variety of women’s relationships as presented in literature. It’s probably a bit too academic for a general audience but a must have for women’s or lesbian studies. (Another review here .)

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Set in 1660s Oxford, this is the sort of book that draws you in. ‘Atmospheric’ is the best word to describe this novel about a woman who is (perhaps unjustly) tried and hung for the murder of a don and we see the events before and after the murder from several sources…the end was a genuine surprise. Pears captures the turmoil of a country only just out of civil war, the particulars of English society and the superstitions of the day. I read this while in Oxford, but would have been just as captivated if I’d read it at the beach.

Instances of the Number Three by Salley Vickers. When Peter Hansome dies he leaves behind a wife, Bridget, and a mistress, Frances, who wind up being friends, and it just gets more complicated and entangled from there. Vickers is adept at conveying the myriad ways people become involved in one another’s lives. An enjoyable, light read, that does not lack substance.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jeb Rubenfeld. [FotC] An excellent book to kick off your autumn reading— Based on Sigmund Freud’s only trip to the U.S. (which left him calling Americans ‘savages’ amongst other choice phrases) this is a literate murder mystery set in Victorian New York high society. Someone is offing young women, but one of his victims survives. The problem is she can’t remember what happened. The good news is that Dr Freud is just off the boat from Europe and he has created something called psychoanalysis that might help the girl remember who attacked her. The real life events meld seemlessly with the fictional (though Rubenfeld separates the two in the endnotes for the curious). Meticulously researched, this is an unputdownable novel with breathing characters, a fast-paced plot and intelligent dialogue.

Inventing Elliot by Graham Gardner. Elliot transfers into an exclusive private school, determined to put his dark past behind him. Things are not as they seem at Holminster High and the boy who was once ridiculed and tormented by his peers is suddenly offered the chance to see life from the other side of the fence and be one of the Guardians—a group of boys who keep the other students in line. An interesting and sometimes disturbing look at how a person can re-invent himself given the proper motivation.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
The first dream-fiction of Nabokov’s I’ve read. Usually I don’t have much patience for this sort of thing—nothing is nailed down and the entire story is fiction anyway so why bother, right? This one was quite well done, though. Our protagonist, Cincinnatus C, is convicted of agnostic turpitude, which is never defined, but which is held to be an atrocity. So much so that the punshment for it is beheading. Cincinnatus spends the novel in his cell with a spiderweb and next to no lighting. He makes friends with his new neighbour, who then tries to dig an escape tunnel…that goes into his [the neighbour’s] own cell. At this point we find out the neighbour is really an employee of the state and has been hired to befriend and bemuse our protag. Charming. Cin’s in-laws arrive (carrying all of their furniture) and abuse him—his wife more interested in her ‘friend’ she’s brought along with her. At the end, he realises everything is in his mind and he simply makes everything disappear.


A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell. Review .


Kafka: A Very Short Introduction . Review .

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov Obsessive love again, but this time, the man loses interest faster than in the other Nabokov novels I’ve read. A bored housewife seduces her penniless nephew and forms a plan to kill her husband so as to have all of his money. The nephew comes to the city and happens to share a train car with them—neither know this, though. From first glance, Franz is captivated by his aunt. His uncle, Dreyer, is boisterous and goofy, giving the boy money and a job. Because he first saw that boy as an idiot and he never allows later evidence to cloud a perfectly good fallacious first impression, it does not occur to him the two are having an affair. The woman is the villian this time around—Franz simply going along with what she wants because he doesn’t know how to extricate himself from the situation. After much research into methods of murder on the aunt’s part, and a few failed attempts, all three go on a trip to the seaside where the unswimming uncle will be drowned. he’s saved at the last moment, but the day out in the boat kills the aunt. Franz is driven mad by the pressure.


The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. Review .

Lapham’s Quarterly, Winter 2013. Death Issue.  Review .

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov loved the cinema and wanted this story to be turned into a film and it shows—the scenes are very cinematic. The story is of a man who finds himself attracted to an usherette at a local movie house. They have an affair and it’s the ruin of him (pretty typical Nabokov—obsessive love that drives one or both people involved crazy). One thought that went through the protag’s mind on more than one occasion was the clear-minded thought that if his mistress were cheating on him he’d kill her. To keep with the cinematic theme—his mistress fancies herself an actress and manages to get a role in a film. She’s absolutely appalled at how bad she is in the role and has her lover buy and destroy all the copies. This is another of Nabokov’s common themes—that people do not see themselves the way others do and are incapable of doing so.

‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving. Review .

Lifeguarding by Catherine McCall. [FotC] There’s a vicarious thrill when a friend gets published by a big name publisher. There’s an even greater thrill when you read your friend’s book and don’t have to find a nice-sounding way to ask, ‘And HOW did you get published?’ I’m happy to say I can recommend this honest and well-written memoir of growing up in a tumultuous family and the process of finding her true self. McCall shows that a person growing up in something of a battlefield need not repeat that behaviour as a grown up. Her writing makes the moment immediate—I could feel the cold of swimming in sixty degree weather and the heat of the oppressive summers, as well as the tension of being raised by adults who are trying to do their best, but with troubles of their own. McCall has written an ultimately uplifting memoir about the ties that bind amongst adversity and shows that the pain of truth is far better than the burden of maintaining secrets. Catherine McCall grew up in the Ohio Valley and has lived in Wilmington for thirteen years, where she is in private practice.

Lifted by the Great Nothing  by Karim Dimechkie. Review .

The Little Black Book of Short Stories by AS Byatt. Not up to par for the writer of Possession. I liked the first story—sort of a grown up fairy tale—and the fourth story, which was about a creative writing class. The third story was about a woman who slowly turned to stone—it made me nauseated so I didn’t finish it. The second story was interesting in a sterile way; the characters didn’t engage me at all. And I didn’t understand the point of the fifth story. Byatt was trying for grotesque and achieved it on the whole, but it simply wasn’t her best work.

The Little Book of Neuroses by Michael Thomas Ford. The fourth in his ‘My Queer Life’ series. Very Funny, although not as much so as the first or second books.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. The Secret History is one of my favourite books, ever, so it would have been difficult to impossible to top it, but I enjoyed it. The ending was disappointing in that, I was expecting some great literary twist that explained everything and got something more like French films, where they just stop with no closure.

Locke & Key by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez: Review

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde. Hysterical and literate. The sequel to The Eyre Affair and it’s even better than its predecessor. I love the entire concept of book jumpers and being mentored by old-timers like Miss Havisham, who, by the by, made the book for me.

Lying Awake by Marc Salzman.
This book is a lesson in spare but full writing. At 192 pages it can be read in an afternoon, but Salzman manages to capture an entire world inhabited by breathing characters. The story centres around Sister John of the Cross—a Carmelite nun living in a monastery in Los Angeles—who writes poetry about her visions of God. When she’s diagnosed with epilepsy she has to decide if she wants to give up the headaches that lead to her visions. I read this as I was reading Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl Reed, which made a great companion book.


Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs.
This collection of essays is far less harrowing than his memoir Running with Scissors, but no less well-written and entertaining. From a psychotic housekeeper to a horrific dentist appointment Burroughs makes the everyday amusing. One of my favourite chapters concerned the consequences of publishing a memoir—people feel it’s all right to share the intimate details of their horrific childhoods. After recounting one such public confessional Burrough said, ‘That’s the sort of thing you don’t tell anyone. Even your therapist.’ Highly recommended.

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey. A man is seemingly killed in a crowded queue outside a theatre in front of a whole line of witnesses. My first Tey—the sort of mystery novel where nothing is what it seems. The plot takes us from London to a remote town in the Scottish Highlands (a particular favourite part) and involves mistaken identity and forsaken love.

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s first novel (1926), about a young Russian emigre living in a boarding house in Berlin who discovers one of his housemate’s is married to his first love. She’s set to arrive in a few days and he spends the interceding time revisiting their affair. The night before he arrival, he gets the husband drunk and goes to the train station with the plan to take Mary away so they may live happily ever after. On the way there he realises their affair is in the past where it should stay and instead he boards the train to somewhere else to start anew. Typical Nabokov theme of pure, true, first love and sex. The descriptions of the boarders and the house were grotty and real—very well done.

Mary George of Allnorthover by Lavinia Greenlaw. I enjoyed this one very much. The protagonist reminded me of me, if I lived in England in the seventies, kind of awkward and pale and not really fitting in anywhere. It goes on like a character study for a while so the ending was quite a surprise. A quirky snapshot of provincial England with seventeen-year-old outcast Mary George trying to figure who she is and her proper place in the world. With wonderful nuances and layers, you can almost feel the heavy air on your skin and her desperation to get out of the small village she has spent her entire life in. Beautiful in a painfully accurate way.

The Match Girl & the Heiress  by Seth Koven. Review .

A Meddler and Her Murder by Joyce Porter. Absolutely hysterical! The second in the series about the Honourable Constance Morrison-Burke, the spinster daughter of a peer with far too much time on her hands who decides to be a private detective—and nevermind that she has no training whatsoever. Hon. Con lives with her friend Miss Jones—the relationship between the women isn’t clearly defined, but that only makes it more interesting.

Meditations  by Marcus Aurelius. Review .

Monster: Oil on Canvas by Dmitry Zlotsky. Review .

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. Richard Cadogan stumbles upon a body in the small hours in an Oxford toyshop. He goes to the police only to find that not only has the body vanished—so has the scene of the crime! What follows is a literate, rollicking mystery. Great fun! And it has one of my all-time fav lines: ‘It’ll be better if we talk about the same thing at the same time—this isn’t a Chekhov play.’

Mr Phillips by John Lancaster. Odd English novel that reminded me of Sue Townsend. An interesting portrait of one man’s life.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Ah, Woolf, I love the way she uses language, to make you look at the world in a way you never had before—that is what great fiction does.

The Mummy at the Dining Room Table by Jeffrey Kottler. Fantastic, a collection of the most bizarre cases seen by eminent psychologists. People are so weird.

Murder Being Done Once by Ruth Rendell. Once again I am impressed with Rendell’s ability to create atmosphere. This is a gripping, fast read. Her descriptions of the mausoleum and cemetery are breathtaking.

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos
The excellent My American Unhappiness is about a regular guy, Zeke Pappas, who runs a not-for-profit that’s funded by a closeted homosexual Republican who is under suspicion by a shadowy arm of Homeland Security. Zeke’s mother is dying and he can only keep the nieces he’s helping to raise–since the untimely deaths of his brother and sister-in-law–if he gets engaged before she dies. He has a list of four prospective wives and part of the story is how he tries it on with each of them (I was wary how that would go, but Bakopoulos handled it deftly). Zeke is also working on a project called the Inventory of American Unhappiness, which is a modern day chronicle of why Yanks are discontented with their lives. It sounds like a lot to be getting on with, but Bakopoulos (who reminds me a Charles Baxter) pulls the strings like a pro. The end is realistic and satisfying, which is something rare in contemporary fiction. Highly recommended–I read it in one sitting.

My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger. Review .

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. Very Good. A portrait of a first summer after finishing college. This was his first effort and worth reading, but Wonder Boys is still my favourite.

Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers by Stephanie Levine. Levine lived in the Crown Heights Lubavitch community for a year and a half to find out what Hasidic girls’ lives were like. Well-written—if occasionally long-winded—Levine came to some interesting conclusions. Particularly how single sex environments encouraged girls to be more independent than co-ed environments. Very informative.

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