Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven


S.  by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams: Review .

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill: Review

Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World by Alex Giannini and Abigail Larson: Review

Saturday by Ian McEwan. Once again, McEwan manages to create an entire world in a few hundred pages. The novel takes place over the course of one day as we follow a neurosurgeon living in London through the early morning hours when he watches a plane on fire making an emergency landing at Heathrow through to an incident on the street during an anti-war march that takes a more sinister turn than her could have imagined. Saturday reminds me very much of Mrs Dalloway in that, though the action happens in one day, whole lifetimes pass before us. Beautiful and melancholy.

The School for Supervillains by Louie Stowell. Review .

The Sea and the Silence by Peter Cunningham. A luminous tale of a marriage that isn’t always perfect. Dividing into two parts, the end of the relationship precedes the beginning, giving the novel a pathos it wouldn’t have if written in chronological order. Cunningham has a rare gift for language, descriptions of the sea stand out particularly. His descriptions are so vibrant the reader can feel the emotional texture of the lives of his characters. Perfect for fans of John McGahern.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. made it onto my ‘All Time Favourite’ list within the first fifty pages. Set in an exclusive, elite Classics class at a New England college during the early nineties this mystery has it all-well drawn characters, tightly woven plot, beautifully rendered setting (the winters in New England are harsh)-and is written in a way I have never seen before. Our narrator on the first page confesses to the murder of one of his friends, the mystery hinges on why that particular character needed doing away with. And when you find out, oh wow. One of those books you want to move in to. Think more coherent Rules of Attraction & more suspenseful ‘Wonder Boys.’ (A second review here .)

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neill McKenna. An entire book devoted to the part of Oscar Wilde’s life we knew about (his being homosexual) but that hasn’t really been addressed before. McKenna’s writing doesn’t distract from the story, which is compelling enough to keep you turning the pages.

Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent. An enlightening account of what it really means to be a man in our society—the good and the bad. This book goes on my list of books everyone over 16 should read. I expected Vincent to be surprised by how not-green it is on the other side, but I was the one whose eyes were most opened. She passed as a man for 18 months and learned that trying to change something as ingrained as gender is dangerous to one’s mental health—she had a breakdown and checked into a hospital to recover. Her methodology was to break down the different aspects of daily life—friendship, dating, sex, work, etc and then found ways to most fully experience those aspects. My personal favourite section was when she spent three weeks at a monastery. One of the most fascinating things was that when Vincent stopped wearing her drag (beard, binding) people still saw her as a man proving that people will accept you for what you present yourself to be.

The Serial Killer Files by Harold Schechter. The only Schechter i’ve read have been two fiction novels starring E.A. Poe. This is an encyclopedia of serial killers throughout history—from Bathory to the Beltway killers. Informative, sometimes repetive, sometimes a bit stomach-churning.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters. Her best yet! Finally, a female lead!

Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood by Julie Gregory. ‘Harrowing’ isn’t a big enough word for this memoir of a girl whose mother made her ill (or just said she was) in order to befriend doctors and nurses. If you liked Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors then you’ll definitely enjoy this one.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. My first book written for adults, as well as my first thriller. This book was my introduction to sociopaths and serial killers, which continue to be of interest to me. Still one of the best thrillers—Clarice Starling is at university at Quantico on track to be an FBI agent when she’s asked to interview a cannibalistic serial killer in prison in order to gain insight into the mind of a serial killer currently on the loose. Fast-paced, well-researched, well-rounded characters.

The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace. Review .

‘Sister, My Sister’ by Wendy Kesselman. Review .

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert. Review here .

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins. How fun! A true story of bibliophile and writer, Collins moving his wife and toddler to the Welsh village, of Hay-on-Wye, pop. 1,500, 40 Antiquarian bookshops. A delight for Anglophiles, bibliophiles and writers. I laughed, I learned, I underlined whole pages.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I enjoyed this—my first Vonnegut—though I felt I was missing something. Was Vonnegut trying to say that humanity is a myopic bunch of imaginative twits? According to acquaintances of mine—yes. Interesting use of language.

Slow News Day by Andi Watson. English comic/graphic novel. Great line work and story.

Small Island by Andrea Levy
[Focus on the Coast Review:]
Set in and after WWII in London and Jamaica, this novel is about the Jamaican men conscripted to fight for the Mother Country, when most inhabitants of said country didn’t know Jamaica was ruled by England in the first place.
The story is told by four distinct characters—Queenie, the daughter of a butcher, is the quintessential English woman. When her husband doesn’t return from the war she is compelled to take on lodgers—whom the neighbours believe ‘bring down the tone of the neighborhood’ by dint of their skin color.
Bernard—a meek bank clerk, married to Queenie out of duty more than love, decides to be a man for once and signs on to go overseas. He believes he’s going just to fight the Nazis but the war ends and instead of being sent home he is sent East to mediate the strife between Muslims and Hindoos in Calcutta—a journey that will change him in more ways than one.
Hortense—a proud Jamaican woman who flees to England to what she believes will be a better life in a country she has come to love through the stories she’s been told throughout her childhood. A teacher by profession, it has never occurred to her that one’s skin color would have any bearing on one’s status in society.
Gilbert—joins the army to fight for England. He is British, too, after all, as he has been told his entire life, and he wants to defend the Mother Country. He trains in Jamaica, then in the southern United States where he gets his first taste of racism. Stationed in England, he begins to see that the land he learned to love as a boy was not what he’d expected.
This is a story of perceptions and patriotism; people finding their ways and themselves in foreign lands. It’s about the years that shaped the England of today and shows a part of WWII of which most Americans know nothing—of the tenancity of a people determined to defend and rebuild their land from what is left after war. It grabbed me right away and I had a difficult time putting it down—until I neared the end then I found myself reading more and more slowly because I didn’t want it to be over.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Review

I’ve been reading Smothered Dolls by A.J. Morlan, which was sent to me by a book-friend who knows my tastes better than me, apparently. I’ve never thought of myself as a horror fan, but these stories kept my interest. The first story is the most autobiographical and the afterword where Morlan explains the inspiration for the story is gasp-worthy.
Calling Morlan’s work ‘horror’ doesn’t do her justice–it’s too small a box. Yes, some of her stories are cringe-inducing–I couldn’t finish one about snakes in carousel horses–but others are speculative fiction. Two of my favourite stories are of that type. One is about what would happen if a person could bring dead animals (or people) back from the dead and if that was the only chance that person had to die. Meaning that they couldn’t be killed after their resurrection.
Another story I quite enjoyed was about civic duty. If you’re name gets chosen for you to participate in a justice system then it’s an honour and you’d better do your bit, right?
The only critique I have are the afterwords after each story explaining how the story is connected to the author’s life. Sometimes it’s interesting to know how an author’s writing is affected by their life. Other times it ruins the mystery. Morlan went a little overkill with her afterwords, but if a reader is more interested in what an author does with the truth than the actual truth he or she can skip the afterwords easily enough.
Of course, how you’re going to get a copy of this book is anyone’s guess, as I read the ARC and the specs on the back list it as being $44. On Amazon it says there were only 500 signed copies.
Anyway, here are the stories (most of which have appeared in other places) and my rating:
“Smothered Dolls” or “The Girl Who Could Never Be Good”: 4/5. Yikes.
“The Second Most Beautiful Woman in the World”: 4/. Georgia O’Keeffe inspired story about one of those contests where a person wins a vehicle if they keep their hands on it the longest. I wouldn’t consider it horror, but something about it is haunting. The descriptions of O’Keeffe’s paintings are wonderful.
“No Heaven Will Not Ever Heaven Be”: 3.5/5. Enormous painted cats look out for their creator.
“The German Lady”: 4/5. Very nice fair-tale for grown-ups. More interesting than scary.
“Civic Duties”: 5/5. Excellent speculative fiction.
“Powder”: 4/5. The second most disturbing story in the collection, just after the first story.
“In a Fine and Verdant Place”: 5/5. Based on a real-life serial killer, this one is one of the best.
“Dora’s Trunk”: 3.5/5. Interesting take on the Pandora myth.
“Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess”: 4/5. Shiver-inducing modern fairy tale for adults. This one made me chuckle, actually, but I’m a little twisted.
“The Gemutlichkeit Escape”: 5/5. I never thought I’d read anything that’d make Hitler interesting, but here it is.
“The On’ner”: 4.5/5. Finest speculative fiction. Very thought-provoking.
“Tattoo”: 4/5. This one made me cringe a bit, but the concept behind it was quite interesting to me. It’s about a victim of a gang rape who takes back her body using tattoos.
“Need”: 4/5. Written in the earliest days of the internet, this is one of those stories where a person writes awful things that then come true. Even though it’s a fairly well-trod theme this story was well done.
“And The Horses Hiss at Midnight”: 3.5/5. Jeebus, I couldn’t finish this one. I have a thing about snakes and genitals. I got through most of it and what I read was written well enough.
“Milan, March 1972″: 4/5. About an artist who becomes obsessed with a particular photograph of a model who killed herself in his apartment. The descriptions of his artwork make this one a great read. Any author that can describe food, music or paintings evocatively gets my respect.

Sort of a contemporary Wodehouse, Snobs by Julian Fellowes (he won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Gosford Park) is about high society in England—what people go through to get in and what happens when they’re no longer in favour with the aristocracy. Edith Lavery schemes to get out of her middle-class life and into the exclusive world of the upper classes, but once she’s inside it’s not what she expected or wanted. Laugh out loud funny in that dry, British way, Fellowes has an ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the psychology of the people he pokes loving fun at.

So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid I must say, I didn’t get the point of this book. It had a couple of interesting facts (like 4,000 books are published a week) but most of it was redundant (like the more people there are in the world the more subjects will be interesting). The majority of the book seemed to be about why writing was pointless and publishing was a dying art and waste of money but at the end the author said something like, ‘But I don’t think writing and publishing will ever truly die.’ This one was a head-scratcher. Mostly over how it got published in the first place.

The Society of Others by William Nicholson. This is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. I finished it four days ago and I’m still thinking about it. It’s a fable about a young man who is numbed by what the world has to offer and what is expected of him and decides to go in search of answers. Without consulting a map or booking tickets he embarks on a journey that takes him into an anonymous eastern European country that is wracked with paranoia and fear sowed by the government. Everything he holds to be true is tested and he finds out what he really wants from life. As soon as I finished it I forced it on a friend who read it in one sitting. This is the sort of book that can be read repeatedly—always revealing new meanings.

The Sociopath Next Door by Dr Martha Stout. This was one of the most disturbing books I’ve read—I suppose because as unsettling as the subject matter was I couldn’t tell myself the author was making it up. One in every twenty-five Americans is a sociopath, which means they are capable of doing absolutely anything with no feeling of guilt or remorse—they have no conscience. Stout discusses what causes and contributes to the condition, the ways it can manifest itself, how to know if you’re dealing with one (and not just a supreme jerk) and how to deal with said sociopath. It’s the first book to give me nightmares, but fascinating and a must read. This is one of the few books I think everyone should read.

Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. The fourth in the Thursday Next series. Miss Havisham is no longer part of the story, much to my dismay, but now we have Hamlet and Madame Bovary to contend with as Thursday tries to juggle duties as the President of Jurisfiction with being a new mother. Great fun as usual.

The Sophie Horowitz Story by Sarah Schulman. Okay. It reminded me of Armistead Maupin, but lesbian and set in NYC. It was supposed to be a mystery, but I was interested in the characters more than the story.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. An introduction to philosophy by way of a fictional story a father writes to his daughter on her birthday. Mysterious and educational with bits of Alice Through the Looking Glass thrown in for good measure. (Purchased in DC with boa)

Spook by Mary Roach. It was a good time, particularly for the cynics out there. She, the perpetual sceptic, goes in search of scientific proof of past lives, ghosts and life after death, amongst other things. Her journey covers several continents and meetings with some of the most learned people in their respective fields, but rather than giving the reader answers she gives us the facts and lets us figure out what we believe on our own. Roach had me laughing out loud several times with her wry observations and self-depreciation and in the end I’m with her in thinking that the human mind has an enormous capacity to convince itself of whatever it wants to believe.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon. [Original Thoughts] Something makes me laugh out loud on every page. It’s like an extremely well-written situation comedy without the obnoxious laugh track. The action revolves around the daughter in a family marrying a bloke no one else likes, but each character has his or her own problems, which are very real but when viewed from the outside provoke gales of laughter. Each chapter is third person omniscient from different character’s point of view.
[Final Review] I’m still not sure what I think was going on with one of the characters, but it was entertaining and well-written. I’m sticking with my ‘very like a sitcom with great writers’ analogy from before. The ending felt a little… not rushed…but not quite complete to me. Keep in mind that endings are a constant problem for me, so I’m sure it’s a personal thing. I wanted to know juuuust a bit more about one of the characters. Another person might read it and think it turned out fine, though. It’s entirely possible that I didn’t pick up on some clue and the questions I have were answered–I’m not always clever when it comes to the mental state of characters. Someone had to tell me the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” was insane. I know, I know, but I just didn’t see it. I’m improving at reading more deeply, but in the case of Spot of Bother it might be that I’m not seeing the full picture. I’m not brilliant with telling what real people are thinking or feeling, either, so it’s not limited to fiction–the joys of Aspergers, I tell you.

Steering Toward Normal  by Rebecca Petruck. Review

Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy  by Melissa Milgrom. Review .

Stranger Than Fiction by Chuck Palahniuk. This is the first Palahniuk I’ve read and I’m definitely going to read more—beginning with the ubiquitous Fight Club. This is a collection of non-fiction pieces the popular fiction writer did between novels. From stories about the people in the US who decided to build their own castles with their bare hands to his interviews with people like Juliette Lewis and Andrew Sullivan Palahniuk has a gift for letting oddball stories tell themselves. I never thought I’d be riveted by an account of a combine demolition derby, but there you go.

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. Pretty good. Wonderful account of 60’s race/sexuality issues & civil rights fight. This book shows you the power a graphic novel can have. Great graphics.

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Review .

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert teaches the most popular class at Harvard. Happiness 101. Stumbling on Happiness is basically that class and it’s excellent. He explains why we want what we want and why we’re not happy when we get what we think we want. (Try saying THAT five times fast.) Fascinating and informative about memory and imagination and how they fool us about what we’ll think about the future. Recommended for people who enjoyed Freakonomics or who find themselves living too much in the past or future, this is sort of a self-help guide for people who prefer facts to meditation. And Gilbert comes through—he tells you exactly what you need to do to be happy…then he tells you why you won’t do it. This one made me think as well as laugh out loud—it’s the sort of book in which you want to make notes in the margins and then foist onto all your friends.

The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson. Not what I thought it would be, but not a disappointment, either. This trilogy of stories follows a prince once he joins a ‘suicide club’.

Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse by Otsuichi. Review .


Talk to the Hand  by Lynne Truss. Truss is fed up with the increasing tolerance of rudeness—from mobile phones to the Eff Off reflex the world is getting out of hand. She references Kate Fox’s Watching the English quite a bit and discusses how we’ve got to the point of rudeness being the accepted status quo. The sorts of things that drive her to shout are the same sorts of things that do my head in, so it’s something of a relief to hear another person discussing these things in a more rational tone. My inner response is more along the line of just shouting at the idiots who think because they’re having a private conversation on a mobile no one else can hear them.

The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran. This is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve come across. I cried every time I picked this up & read a few pages. She captures depression and suicide and how they affect the people around them very well. She writes the way people think.

Thanksgiving by Michael Dibdin. Dibdin’s typical crystalline prose combined with a haunting premise of a man trying to cope with the sudden death of his beloved wife. He can’t let go of the fact that he didn’t really know what her life was like before he knew her, nor the fact that his life would have been totally different if only they’d met earlier. An aching account of living between being haunted by the past and by what might have been.

That’s Why They’re in Cages, People! By Joel Kelly. Collection of humorous essays in the vein of Michael Thomas Ford without as many laugh-out-loud moments. A fun distraction.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington. Hysterical! Nearly every page had me laughing out loud. Pel Dalton is in a relationship with the…volatile…Ursula, he keeps getting promoted even though he wasn’t qualified to do the first job he had and gangsters from Hong Kong sincerely want a word with him…but he doesn’t know why. A fantastic beach read for people tired of chick lit.

Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell. One of my favourite authors has done it again. This time she’s invented two very lonely people, a woman and her lodger, who live in a crumbling Victorian house in London. Though there’s a ghost and a murder involved the story is really about what goes on inside the minds of individuals and the way we create our own reality. Atmospheric and creepy.

The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark by Christopher Meades. Henrik Nordmark is the most unremarkable man alive–no, he’s not even *that* remarkable, but he’s at the centre of this screwball romp featuring accidentally switched lottery tickets, three nonagenarian hitmen, a married couple trying to kill one another and a man who successfully ruins his life in one afternoon. With Douglas Adamsesque humour this is an excellent book if you’re looking for an escape into the realm of the not-quite-reality.

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There  by Lewis Carroll. Review .

The Time Keeper by Kevin Cropp. Corey Wails is a high school senior and the star pitcher on the baseball team when his mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Their relationship has been more than a little strained since her previous bout with the disease left her bitter and angry and now she wants to make amends. Corey can’t forgive and forget so easily, and has to learn his own lessons about family and love and what it means to face impossibly difficult situations as an adult. Prior to his mother falling ill, his life revolved around baseball—the pitcher’s mound was the one place he was happy and felt safe from his mother’s violent rages against the world and everything in it. Meanwhile, Linda Wails finally sees what sort of person she had become and tries to help guide her son so he doesn’t wind up taking the same path and shutting out the world.
A story about life and death and the people left behind when someone is taken too young, The Time Keeper was written by Wilmingtonian Kevin E. Cropp, and is semi-autobiographical. Published by the local Copper Press Publishers, this is a novel about baseball and life changes and has something for both teens and adults.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. My first Grass and there will definitely be more. A novel that captures an entire era (Poland before, during and after WWII). Surreal but believable.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. I know what you’re thinking, ‘Gee, when is some brave soul going to write a really intriguing Victorian England lesbian romance?’ Well sister, your wait is over. The Well of Loneliness this is not, and thank Nora for that. It largely takes place in London everywhere from the raucous music halls to the posh Palladium; from the richest homes to some rather appalling apartments. The plot is an engaging, subtle—never smutty; yet at times very erotic romp that moves along at a clip as the reader cannot wait to find out what new tragedy or triumph awaits our heroine. The kind of book that can make a person hopeful about love, and grateful they did not live in Victorian England.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The first book I read twice and my reigning all-time favourite. It’s the coming of age of Scout Finch in the Deep South in the 50s. I picked it up when I was 12—this book made me love reading. A masterpiece of characterisation.

Toothpaste for Dinner by Drew. The first book I read in 2006 was a collection of hipster comics an individual named Drew doodles while at work. Several of the comics are actually quite insightful while others perfectly capture the joy that is office work.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Review.

The Trial of True Love by William Nicholson. Nicholson (who wrote the screenplay Shadowlands) is the sort of author who tells one story, which seems rather simple but interesting, while the entire time there’re whole other layers going on. I was wary, because I didn’t think he could outdo his previous effort—the brilliant The Society of Others—but he didn’t let me down. The story is about Bron—he’s thirty years old and trying to be a writer, but he’s mostly just being broke. He finally sells the idea of a non-fiction book about true love and then realises he has to actually write the thing—the man who’s terrified of commitment and hasn’t had a lasting relationship in his life. Needless to say, his friends find the idea laughable, either because they don’t believe in true love or because Bron is about the last person on Earth likely to be capable of writing about it. While doing research, he happens across Flora and falls instantly and totally in love. Or that’s what he calls it. Suddenly, the phenomenon of love at first sight becomes a major part of his book and he follows Flora to Amsterdam partially to convince her of the depth of his feeling for her and partially to do research on the post-impressionist painter Paul Marotte, who fell in love with a woman he saw on a bridge and devoted his life to painting the scene in an effort to capture the essence of love at first sight. The novel delves into the subject of true love—is it real? Is love at first sight an actual phenomenon or is it simply lust or some other sort of chemical reaction? Various characters argue their cases and give the reader quite a bit to think about—it offered the best definition of ‘true love’ I’ve heard—and it might even change your mind, whatever your opinion is.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman. Review .

Turbulent Souls by Stephen Dubner. The story of Dubner’s parents’ conversion to Catholicism twenty-five years prior to his birth, this book spoke to me in many ways—when Judaism began calling to him—his connection to Jews he meets while trying to unravel his father’s story were particularly poignant. Aside from being a fascinating story, Dubner is an excellent writer and captures the world his grandparents inhabited wonderfully.

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