Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven


The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Very like An Instance of the Fingerpost in regard to historical detail and atmosphere—not to mention compelling story-telling. It IS a mystery, but the story and characters are what kept me reading. Set in a monastery in the 1300’s this novel is rife with intrigue and fascinating characters.

Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. Bryson decided to re-create a trip around Europe he took when we was in his teens—without having to stay in youth hostels. He mixes stories from that hysterical trip (with what must be the most annoying travel-mate imaginable) with his second go at it with fabulous results.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Wonderful! Gaiman makes supernatural events and elements seem totally plausible in everyday London life. One of those books where you read 100 pages at a stretch without realising it and have to take a moment to re-acclimate yourself to reality when you put the book down.

The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin. SO wonderful! I have always enjoyed Maupin’s work, but this one had me laughing and crying. Fabulous, fabulous.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
I was hesitant when I picked this up because Waters was departing from her usual Victorian lesbian storyline and going with WWII England instead, but I was quickly won over. The novel is told backward in three segments, each revealing more about how the relationships were formed. As usual, the characters are all fully human and dealing with their own difficulties. Waters captures dyke drama like no one else—not going too overboard, but keeps it realistic. Reminded me of Small Island, in that it was a story told from four different points of view. A two-dayer.

[Focus on the Coast Review] : I adored Waters’ Tipping the Velvet and her Booker nominated Fingersmith and so was quite looking forward to her newest, The Night Watch, and she didn’t let me down. This time out, Waters shows us WWII London after, during and before the war (the book is revealed backwards), through the eyes of three women and one man.

During the Blitz, Kay was an ambulance driver and was allowed to dress in mens clothing, which she much preferred to womens attire and which she was loathe to give up when the war ended. We follow her and her complicated relationships and discover just how they came to be that way.

At the start of the book, Duncan happens across an old friend…from prison, where he spent the war with conscientious objectors. Everyone thought Duncan was there because he tried to commit suicide after his friend killed himself (attempted suicide was punishable by law in Britain until 1961)—but is that what really happened? The truth, as usual, is more less straightforward.

Viv, Duncan’s sister, has been involved in a messy relationship with a married man for years and we learn how that came about and the consequences of the relationship. During the war, she worked in the offices set up to help people who’d been bombed out of their homes.

When we meet Helen, she’s involved with Julia and works in the temp offices with Viv, and we learn the forces that brought them together and how they are entangled with the others.

From the descriptions of people chatting casually on their way to the Underground shelters for the evening to what Kay and her partner cope with during their ambulance shift, the night watch—the atmosphere is palpable and immediate. The knowledge that at any moment a bomb could kill all of them lends urgency to every decision and propels the characters on their separate journeys. It’s also an interesting picture of the way people are changed (for better and worse) during wartime and how their expectations are molded by the precarious world they’ve been given.

The Nightingale Papers by David Nokes. Review .

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Excellent! Lord Peter Wimsey is in top form investigating a murder where the victim has been purposely disfigured as to be unidentifiable. Now why would someone want to do that? Atmospheric and compelling this is one of the best mysteries I’ve yet read.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen. Nine year old Louis Drax is accident prone and by his ninth birthday he’s on his ninth life. He’s also in the coma ward of a hospital in France during one of the hottest summers on record where wildfires are threatening the building. Written from the point of view of Louis, who is having a very interesting coma (and reminds me of the protagonist in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and the doctor trying to help him while falling in love with the boy’s mother, it’s an interesting and inventive read. The plot is the doctor trying to help solve what really happened the day of Louis’ most recent ‘accident’ as well as figure out what happened to the boy’s father. At times creepy, it held my interest. Originally written and published in French, I found the relationship between the doctor and his wife to be particularly European—she knows he’s in love with someone else and rather than leaving and phoning a divorce lawyer like an American would do she tells him to sort himself out. I found that amusing.

The Nirvana Plague by Gary Glass. Review.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym. Once again I am delighted by Pym’s ability to make the trivialities of middle-class English life entertaining. Dulcie Mainwaring meets Aylwin Forbes at his lecture entitled, “Some Problems of an Editor” and thinks he might be a suitable match for her. Through her scheming and spying she never notices that his interest lay in a different direction altogether. Light and funny with a keen eye for psychology, Pym is one of my all-time fav authors.

Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins. This memoir follows the first six months of Paul and Jennifer Collins’ lives after their three-year-old son is diagnosed as autistic. Collins’ conversational style is beautiful and affecting—taking the reader along on his at turns wrenching and humorous journey. By profession Collins is a historian and he becomes fascinated with the way autistic people have been treated throughout history— weaving his son’s story with those unfortunate souls who lived in a world that didn’t understand and barely tolerated them.

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. Wonderful! Bryson lends his keen eye to the country he lived in for twenty years before returning to his country of origin. Ever witty and droll, this is one of Bryson’s best.


Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram must be one of the most chilling, most important books about human psychology and it should be read by every person over sixteen years of age. The study was inspired by Eichmann’s assertion that he was only doing his job. How could a rational human being knowingly send other people to their deaths? The fact that he only shuffled papers like the mid-level bureaucrat that he was made no difference. Simply knowing your actions would cause death should be enough to make a decent person stand up and say, ‘No! I’ll not contribute to this inhumanity in any way!’
The belief was that Americans were fundamentally different from Germans–-an American would never knowingly cause pain to another human. Milgram thought that most humans follow authority figures so he devised an experiment wherein a man in a white, lab coat asked a volunteer to deliver a series of increasingly painful shocks to another volunteer. The second person was really an actor who only pretended to receive shocks–his cries for help had been recorded by an actor. When the majority of subjects went right to the top of the shock board Milgram began adjusting the conditions of the experiment to see under what conditions a typical American would refuse to harm an innocent person. The results were fascinating. I dare you to read this without your jaw dropping.

Off Camera: Private Thoughts Made Public by Ted Koppel. Fascinating. I have always enjoyed a day-by-day journal format. It also helped clarify the Bosnia crisis.

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith. North Carolina native Lee Smith has done it again. Another well-crafted, beautifully written tale by a master of the craft. This is a story of an unconventional woman’s extraordinary life told through diaries, letters and documents. In post Civil War North Carolina, Molly Petree loses her parents and is raised by a bereft uncle, where she creates worlds of her own. One summer she befriends a cousin who introduces her to whole other imaginary worlds and when she leaves, a benefactor worthy of Dickens arrives. Shortly after, Molly is sent to an all-girls school to be made into a lady—something she has no interest in being. Her years at the school are chronicled through the diary of the headmistress, who is certain the girl has been sent as a trial from God, and her sister, who grows to love the girl. After finding her way in the world, Molly meets her match and settles down in her own way, only to be charged with a horrible crime. Each character has his or her own distinct voice—Smith gives us an entire life in this gem of a novel.

One’s Company by Barbara Holland. I really enjoyed this probably because I totally identified with Ms. Holland’s points about the differences between the way single men and single women are viewed and treated by society. It also had me laughing out loud at and nodding in agreement with her spot on observations into the single life, not single in a looking-for-love way, but in a live-on-your-own-terms kind of way. She explores such subjects as food preparation, social life and the importance of quiet time to yourself.

Only Begotten by Gary Glass. Review .

The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own by Periel Aschenbrand. Part memoir, part essay, this is a collection of stories from Aschenbrand’s life as a teacher and writer. An amusing diversion for an afternoon.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. Review .

Other Girls by Diane Ayers. Funny in places, but mostly veered between heterosexual melodrama and homosexual melodrama. It was a real shame, too, because the premise, a girl at a private all-girls college getting romantically entangled with a teacher, had promise.

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. Review .

Outline of My Lover by Douglas Martin. This is an interesting meditation on our obsession with celebrity told from the point of view of a lost young man. Once I adapted to the singular writing style I quite enjoyed it.

Over 50s Singles Night by Ellyn Bache. Bache is a local author and I read the line edit of this so I can talk about it when we do the publication party for her. Thank the Gods of writing that I won’t have to lie—I’ll be telling the truth when I say I enjoyed it. It was a light sort of novel, but not insulting to my intelligence and the characters weren’t the typical Quirky & Odd ™ Southerners. It was a nice change to read about Jews in the south, too. One of the subplots seemed a bit forced, but over all it was a fun, quick read.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez. I picked this up because I missed Oxford and I was pleased with Martinez’s depiction—I felt I was back in one of my favourite English cities. It was a fine diversion for an afternoon, light but not a waste of time. I particularly enjoyed seeing England and the English from the point of view of a South American.


The Package Included Murder by Joyce Porter. The second Hon Con novel I’ve read and Porter continues to crack me right up. Constance Morrison-Burke is as underfoot as ever—she really needs to get a hobby.

Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg. Pretty good. Great for those of us with older-woman fantasies. The ending of the relationship was off-putting and slightly confounding as I thought we would have moved beyond the lesbian leaves her girlfriend for a man plotline, but oh well.

Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. This book was recommended to me by someone who was friends with Ms. Miller as the first lesbian love story with a happy ending. The women get to stay together, no one kills themselves or runs off with a man a la The Well of Loneliness. The characters react to the situation very much like real people and do not fall into the stereotypes of most lesbian stories. Very sweet. The vernacular is wonderful. Ms. Miller alternates between both women’s voices adeptly.

Pedro & Me by Judd Winick. So beautiful in a heart-wrenching kind of way. The first graphic novel I have ever read, and it shows how powerful they can be.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steve Chbosky. FANTASTIC! The type of book that alters your way of thinking, you start thinking like the character, which in this case was a young man who is writing letters to an anonymous source about his life. I love epistolary novels anyway, but this one is definitely going on my ‘favourites’ list. I totally sympathised with the character and teared up a bit at the end.

I decided to learn a second language and after I chose French I came across a book on my shelf I’d had for ages— The Philosopher’s Demise by Richard Watson, which is about a professor of philosophy who decides to learn to speak French in his fifties. He’s a Descartes scholar and has written several books about the philosopher and has been able to read French since his twenties so he believes learning to speak the language should be no problem. He finds out exactly how incorrect that assumption was when he applies to the largest school of French language in Paris. Interspersed with his journey through the French method of teaching, terrifying professors and mind-numbing quizzes are stories about French culture and the French. The book is worth the price simply for Watson’s descriptions of the contraptions the French employ for the disposal of trash and dog’s droppings. Watson also has a keen eye for the machinations and snobbishness in the academic community. It’s a short book, but quite informative and amusing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Review .

Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth. The plot of this 750-page book takes up about 50 pages. The rest is some of the most entertaining, literary writing I’ve read. Set in Victorian New York and from the point of view of a self-proclaimed ‘madwoman in the attic’ this meticulously researched novel is reminiscent of Woolf in terms of psychological insights. I found myself underlining passages on nearly every page and laughing out loud almost as often.

Piranha to Scurfy and Other Stories by Ruth Rendell. is great as usual. She deals with several different themes: macabre, vengeful, mysterious, but there is also a flow to the stories so it does not seem they were randomly thrown together in a collection. Just as with her novels, Ms. Rendell keeps the reader transfixed, wanting more. Brilliant!

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
[Focus on the Coast Review:]
This collection of essays is a follow up to Traveling Mercies (they don’t have to be read in succession) and had me laughing and nodding in recognition on every other page. This time, Lamott offers her thoughts on life as a single mother when her son asks to meet his father, how dogs are really mothers—I mean where else do you get unadorned unconditional love?—as well as the state of political affairs in the U.S. and overseas. Human and humorous, Lamott tells it like it is, but in a way that’s much funnier than real life. Whether discussing what it’s really like to be a parent (“What they never tell you is that occasionally you will lose your mind. Period.”) or how to cope with life’s daily annoyances with grace, she makes you feel not so alone in the world. This is a great book to take to the beach—Lamott’s style is conversational and intelligent, but something you can dip into between dipping into the pool or reapplying sunblock. The only drawback is laughing in public, but I’ve stopped caring if strangers think I’ve lost my mind. And if anyone asks what’s so funny you can explain about the ‘what I’d do if I won the lottery’ form of meditation one of Lamott’s minister friends taught her. (I’ve tried it and it works brilliantly.)

‘Poe Posthumous’ [from Wild Nights] by Joyce Carol Oates: See review here .

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. This is a collection of essays Hornby did for the Believer magazine. It’s a monthly inventory of books he’s bought and what he’s read and it’s fantastic! I’m copying bits into my journal because Hornby so perfectly captures what it is to be a book person who knows one could never have enough time to read everything one wants. He is also of the opinion that the books you buy (even if you never get around to reading them) speaks volumes about a person—that perhaps the bought-but-not-read books reveal more about a person than the books the person actually finishes reading.

Poison Elves: Sanctuary by Drew Davis. Review .

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Okay. Strident and shrill at times, hysterical at others.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith. The first in the von Igelfeld trilogy. Great fun—a satirical look at academia featuring the very tall, German philologist Morita-Maria von Igelfeld and his two not quite so inept colleagues.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. This was recommended to me by an online acquaintance (Keith Walker) and I LOVED it. It’s going onto my list of all-time favourite books. The film can’t capture everything going on in the novel, though it does a good job. Spark’s writing is spare, but manages to encompass years in the lives of the Brodie set. Sandy Strange was by far my favourite character, by the way.

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Conroy so accurately captures what the South *is* that I tell people if they only read one southern novel it should be this one. Realistic characters, all the insanity and pathos one could want (if a bit loquacious in the delivery) this is one of my all-time fav books.

Pure by Rebbecca Ray. Kind of like Arabella Weir, just younger. Disturbing in that no one questioned the fact that the protagonist was 14 and involved with a 27 year old man.

Purity by Douglas Clegg. A boy loves a girl since they were children and one summer she brings back another boy. Boy number one formulates a plan to make the girl his. Full review here .


Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey. A wonderful biography from one of the Bloomsbury group about one of the most influential and loved monarchs ever. Strachey makes biography read like fiction.

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Brilliant! A Victorian novel in the true sense of the term. Well researched and beautifully wrought. I am not sure I have ever been so absorbed by a book.


The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen. Review .

Rameau’s Niece by Cathleen Schine. Satirical look at literary/academia life. Very well done. This is the second Schine book I have read, and I want to read more of hers.

Rare Beasts by Charles Ogden. This is a kid’s book for children who like the Series of Unfortunate Events books or Charles Addams/Edward Gorey. It is the first in a series about twelve year old twins, Edgar and Ellen. Twisted and fun.

A Reader’s Manifesto by B.R. Myers. This is very well done, and brought to light several tendencies in American literature I had not noticed, but were spot on.

Readings by Michael Dirda. Another bibliophile who has wonderful taste. I think we’d be pals.

The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan. [Focus on the Coast Review:] This short book isn’t about one teen, it’s by twenty. At least, that’s how it reads. Five sections, each divided into four parts—each part a poem or two by each character. The only thing they have in common is that they attend the same school. This is categorised as a young adult book, but I would recommend it to any adult trying to understand what teens are going through—Levithan gets into the souls of his characters and the things they deal with from being the goth kid who everyone thinks is just waiting to blow up the school to issues with body and sexuality and even what it’s like to try to live in the gospel while all your peers are going any way except toward the Lord. Though I’ve been out of high school for awhile now, I found myself in one of the characters and was reminded that though the music and clothes might be different, the social rules of school don’t change. (I was also relieved when I finished reading that characters poetry—it was just a little too close to home for me.)
The section in question is a series of ‘songs’ written from one girl in love with another girl. Unrequited love is the best, no? And what says ‘teen angst’ more than poetry? The only difference between this and my teen poetry is that it’s much better.

Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams The second in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. Not quite as fun as the first one, but still laugh out loud funny.

The River King by Alice Hoffman. Haunting. Not heavy reading, but not pointless. Beautiful. She has a way of summing up people succinctly.

Rose of No Man’s Land by Michelle Tea. [FotC] No one can accuse Tea of viewing adolescence through rose-coloured glasses. Trisha Driscoll is in the tenth grade in present day Massachusetts. She helps her sister make a video to try to get on MTV’s The Real World, allows her mother’s boyfriend to keep stolen goods in her room for a fee and spends most of her time trying to find ways to waste time. A picture of the grittier side of being a teen, Tea doesn’t hold back, but neither does she make everything seem desperate. Every character is interesting in a ‘fun to watch, but I don’t want to meet them’ kind of way. Most of the action of the plot takes place over one day, where Trisha procures and loses a job, falls in love, climbs a dinosaur and gets a tattoo…and that’s just for starts.
Trisha drinks and tries meth, as well as loses her virginity to Rose, the hellion she meets when she loses her job. It reminded me of the film Spun in that afterwards I wanted to have a long shower.

The Round-Heeled Woman by Jane Juska. I picked this up hoping to learn something about how a woman in her sixties views romantic relationships and sex. It turned out to be more than I expected: the sections about her life outside of the responses she receives from the personal ad are heartbreaking at times, though they do explain the way she relates to/views men. And less than I expected: she is rather whiny and comes across as pathetic in the way she allows herself to be used by men and places so her self-worth in their hands. This strikes me as odd: her work life is vibrant and successful, she is obviously confident in that arena, but her relation to men is immature, reminiscent of a teenager. It did have a happy ending though, she found a man who appreciated her, and he was thirty-three years younger than she.

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis. Wonderful. My vicarious way of living a ‘normal’ college life of casual sex, drugs and issues.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. I had to keep reminding myself this book was a memoir because it’s definitely on the Truth is Stranger than Fiction list. When he was 12 his manic depressive mother sent him to live with her shrink and his brood in a dilapidated Victorian. He was in his first relationship by the time he was 13—with a man who was 33—and had basically dropped out of school by then, as well. At turns heartbreaking and hysterical you wouldn’t be able to put it down. And keep telling yourself, ‘This really happened.’

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