Jun 26, 2011

The Sunday Salon: The Dead (reading) Days of Summer

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Good morning, everyone. First of all, if anyone else has been trying to secure Edinburgh Book Festival tickets since 8am, my commiserations. I gave up after three hours of struggling with their constantly crashing website with tickets to four of my six desired events – and judging by what I’ve been seeing on Twitter, that’s actually an incredibly lucky outcome.

The other day it dawned on me that I’ve been in a sort of reading slump for the past two or three months, if not the whole year. Looking at other bloggers’s mid-year best books lists, I realised that unlike what happened in the past few years, I really don’t have that many clear favourites. I suspect that the fact that I’ve been exhausted and dealing with so much anxiety and stress has affected my reading. It’s difficult to find books that truly grab me, and I read so much more slowly than I used to before. I actually need to push myself to pick up a book even if I’m enjoying it, whereas before I’d eagerly spend every free minute reading.

Lately I’ve been devoting most of my time to either non-fiction or children’s literature, and while you wouldn’t catch me dead saying that this kind of reading “doesn’t really count”, I do miss reading more diversely. I miss getting lost in a long, meaty, sweeping nineteenth century novel, for example – or even a contemporary one. Don’t get me wrong; there have been novels I absolutely loved this year – most notably Naomi Novik’s series, A Monster Calls and The 10PM Question. More recently I had the perfect reading experience with Hilary McKay’s Caddy’s World, a brand new addition to the Casson family series. Reading this book was the highlight of my week – I only wish it hadn’t been over so quickly. I’ve also been delighting in the new Virginia Nicholson, Millions Like Us, a social history of women’s lives during WW2. But as brilliant as it is, it’s making me miss being wowed by Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. It’s making me miss being wowed by a novel, period. Even the best novels I’ve read this month (Ship Breaker and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) were novels I appreciated intellectually rather than emotionally. They’re extraordinarily well crafted, but I wanted to be swept off my feet and get truly involved in the narrative.

So I thought I’d turn to you for help. I do of course realise that what makes a book have that wow factor depends as much on the reader as it does on the book itself, but tell me anyway: what was the last book that really swept you off your feet? And to those of you who have got to know my reading taste over the months or years, what do you think might break this current dry spell? If you were feeling generous, you could pursue my tbr list for ideas, but feel free to hit me with whatever.

Have a great Sunday, everyone!

The Sunday Salon.com


  1. I've written a very similar post which I have yet to post as still waiting to get around to uploading the picture. The stress of moving house has made me miss out on some of the really good reading I sometimes do and I'm desperate to know what I have been missing. So no, recommendations from me I'm afraid, but lots of sympathy. And I'm going ot order the Hilary McKay for my wedding trip reading pile.

  2. Is N.K. Jemison's series available there? It begins with "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" which just won a Locus Award. I think you'd like that one.

    I've also had near-universal good luck in recommending Tana French's books, if you haven't read them yet. (Eva at Striped Armchair was one notable strike-out though.) "In the Woods" would be the place to start.

    Lastly, there's an American YA writer, John Bellairs, whose kids' books are striking if uneven, but he has one adult title, "The Face in the Frost," that I believe would delight most Gaiman fans, if you can find it (it was published in 1969).

  3. I'm still trying to track down A Monster Calls. That one sounded so good, I would think it might make up for all the other lacking. But I understand how you feel. I feel like that every time I read a Sarah Waters book - nothing matches up. I have had some amazing reads lately...The House of Tomorrow, Cutting for Stone, The Doomsday Book, The Fates Will Find Their Way. But we all have slumps. They make us appreciate it when we find treasures!

  4. I wish I had a good answer for you. My focus on books hasn't been the best lately. I have been trying to match my reading to my short attention span which means the books I read had better have something to hold my attention. Suspenseful novels seem to be my best option. Good luck!

  5. How have you read Caddy's World already? I thought it wasn't out until September! I am SO JEALOUS.

    I've been a rotten blogger and not written up any of my reads, but I can't immediately think of anything that I think would knock your socks off. I am presently wrapped up in Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, of all things. :p

  6. Hands down, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor :D

  7. I've been reading 1001 Children's Books You Must Read and some of those children's books have been like little Zen experiences. I just finished Invention of Hugo Cabret and it's lovely. (It also appears to be quite daunting, but don't let the bulk of it intimidate you....It's actually a children's picture book.)

    Here's my Sunday Salon: Une Petite Visite à Paris. (And don't worry....it's in English. I just like to pretend to speak French.)

  8. well, for epic scope, go for The Stand. If you want trippy interconnected stories, go for Cloud Atlas. If you want 19th century gothicness, start The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Good luck!

  9. I know what you mean. I'm enjoying my reading, but there is a lack of that special love + so many awesome themes to explore kind of books in my reading right now. Oh argh tough because I've been reading a lot of YA as well and I think our emotional tastes vary quite a bit. I'd suggest 'Liar' by Justine Larbalestier because I always suggest 'Liar' because everyone should read 'Liar'. Maybe 'Beloved', or 'The Still Point' by Amy Sackville, or have you tried Pat Barker's books? I also don't think 'The Folded Leaf' by William Maxwell, 'Captivity' by Debbie Lee Wesselmann, or 'Dance Night' by Dawn Powell are good bets. Basically I bombard you with recommendations!

  10. I would love to give you some suggestions, but I am sort of struggling with the same thing! Did you still want to review the Valente together?

  11. I think there's something to the idea that even inveterate readers enjoy their reading less when it comes in small bits. I've had a little more time in the past two weeks, and really enjoyed two of the things I picked up--first, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, and today I finished The Family Fang. Both of those were really fun in very different ways. I'll have a lot to say about Fang sometime this week, I think.

  12. If you just keep reading, something great will find its way to you.

    That said, I read A Visit from the Goon Squad twice in a row I loved it so much. I also recommend We by Yevgeny Zemyatin, old school Russian science fiction that was lots of fun in a serious way.

  13. I am really having an amazing time with A Discovery of Witches right now, and am right in the middle of it. It's smart, funny, and sexy, and includes the strangest plot including vampires, witches, and daemons that I have come across in a long time. Be warned that it is a chunkster though. It's a really great read. I also really loved the third book in the Iron Fey series, and might suggest that series to you too. Good luck finding something that wows you. It can be hard sometimes. Oh, I almost forgot! I have been reading some super reviews of State of Wonder and I recently finished A Visit From the Goon Squad and loved that one as well.

  14. I have been where you are, and the slump always ends eventually. Stress & anxiety & trying new things always mess up a person's normal habits. All of which is to say - that sucks but I have no doubt it will work itself out in the end. :-)

    Not a novel, but Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs have been blowing. me. away. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is just fascinating for the way Beauvoir examines her childhood in terms of gender dynamics, her evolving understanding of the way language and writing work, and her relationships with others. Great stuff; I thought of you.

  15. Hi Nymeth,

    I kind of left a bizarre comment on your blog recently - hopefully it's forgotten about now.

    If you want a really long, engrossing, winding, gripping, fast-plotted Victorian novel, then I think you should read 'The Necromancer' by George Reynolds.

    I shouldn't really bother to recommend, though; I haven't seen reviews of either Charlotte Mew or the Elizabeth Blackburn book.

    Still, I console myself with the thought that it's really your loss!

  16. I've been in such a slump almost all year. I have to actually force myself to read it's awful.

    I have no recommendations, except maybe The Sparrow if you haven't read it yet. That's the last time I remember really being really emotionally engaged in a book.

  17. Ana, I know you hear this from me all the time, but I know exactly how you feel. These last 6 months have just felt.. I don't know. It's hard to put into words. Now that I am nearing the end of Dutch Lit Month, I find myself not turning to the books I thought I would: no Orange reading, no classics, etc. Instead, I am reading Austen based rewrites and the like. And I miss being completely blown away by a book. You know, find the kind of book you want to recommend to each and everyone and feel completely consumed by?

    I am sorry I cannot help you, but I just wanted to let you know I understand. And that I am still reading your blog.

  18. Oh, I so wish I had an answer to that question...it would make me the happiest person on Earth if I could be your reading hero just one time like you are for me several times a year. Like with the last book that just stole my heart--Two Weeks With the Queen.

    i hope you find it, Ana. And soon. *hugs*

    And sorry about all the frustration trying to get your tickets. :(

  19. I felt the same way while I was getting my master's degree, and for about a year or so afterward. Just too much reading. Also, I was so busy while school was going on that when it was over, it was really difficult for me to just sit and relax and concentrate on a book.

    My advice is just start going through your tbr pile. If a book isn't capturing your attention, toss it and pick up another and another and another until you get to one that you CANNOT put down. You need to remind your brain why you *enjoy* reading, because right now it probably equates reading to work.

  20. Having taken a glance at your tbr list, the first book that jumped out was The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox, a book I read last year and absolutely adored, a beautifully written story I was completely immersed in. Or for a shorter but engrossing fantasy read with a strong base in Eastern European legend, try My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick. I think you know how much I love the man! Lastly, knowing your love for Margo Lanagan, I think you would really enjoy her collection Red Spikes. Best of luck finding something that fits, I know how frustrating it can be.

    All the best xx

  21. I looked at your TBR list and saw the Tricksters. Margaret Mahy is almost always the perfect author for me when I am in the sort of situation you describe, and the most perfect book of Mahy's for the purpose: Memory. Life-affirming, art-affirming, de-slumpifying novel extraordinaire.

    Bad Blood is riveting--and encouraging, if reading portrayals of complicated, miserable family situations in exquisite, humorous, hard-edged prose is something you find encouraging. I do! (Also I would love to hear your review.)

  22. Slumps are funny. I;ve just picked up and put down 5 books before settling into something. Of the books on your TBR list I'd recommend "Cloud Atlas". Of my favorites so far this year I'd recommend "Kamchatka" and second Amy's "Who Fears Death" (a very intense read).

  23. I was just thinking I hadn't read a blow-away book this year since the book I started the year with, Cry, the Beloved Country. While I've enjoyed many books this year, I don't know that I will still be LOVING them come the end of the year (or mid-year, really). I enjoyed Tender Morsels, but was so wrapped up in THINKING about it that I don't think I loved it on the level that you did.

    I think part of that is because I've read more non-fiction this year. It has been AMAZING, but I do not generally form an emotional attachment to a non-fiction book (except 1491, which I adored) the way I can with fiction.

    Have you read Cry, the Beloved Country? I think you would love it. I highly recommend it, if you have not.

  24. Ugh I'm so with you...it's been a bad reading year for me too. Good books, but just not much. I think those funks and stress definitely make it harder to enjoy books. The last book I loved though was Two Weeks With the Queen :) What a freaking amazing book!

    As for books on your TBR to read, Animal Vegetable Miracle, The Wild Things, and Stuck Rubber Baby are all amazing! I think you should read Red Spikes too! I really need to read it.

  25. Oh Ana, it must be really difficult to be feeling like this when you usually can lose yourself in a book so easily! It's awful, isn't it? To be looking around for a book to read, something that is magical and reminds of why we love to read so much.....let's see. Unlike most of your commentators, I have been on a reading tear this year, and some of my favourites so far that I think you might like are: Guardian of the Dead (Karen Healey); Handling the Undead - John Ajvide Lindqvist (much more moving than you would think a zombie book could be); The Broken Shore (Peter Temple) - Australian mystery winner, and The Good Fairies of New York (Martin Millar) because it will make you laugh out loud, really it will. There's always poetry too, which sometimes only that will do.

    Otherwise, here's a hug, my friend, and maybe you need to go to a park and be in the sun, or to a museum to give your reading part of your brain a little rest. There's nothing like lying in the sun like a cat to feel the stress go away for a bit!

  26. I've really missed interacting with you, Ana, I hope you had a good year. I'm moving to London in September and I really hope we'll be able to meet one day :)

    I've read three books since the beginning of the year so I understand the situation, though in my case it's a bit different (I find it hard to stumble upon good books to read, despite having plenty of time, I'm really picky). My best find was South Riding by Winifred Holtby. To quote my Goodreads review:

    'So this is one of Those Books. For me, there are two categories of books. Those that change your life, those which you started in a certain way and ended up changed when closing it. Such books are rare and precious. And then there are the ones that make you feel as if the author had extended a hand and held yours, that for the duration of your reading, you found a mirror so perfect it validated everything you'd been and everything you wished to be. This is such a book. It's about the value of education, the value of change. About how in order to inspire, you need to be inspired. It's about happiness and fulfillment and about responsibility and choices. It's also about Sarah Burton who's probably the best character I've ever encountered in all of literature. I don't even know where to begin except that I hope I'm her and I wish I'll be her when becoming myself. That is all. I realize I haven't talked about the book much so here's a quote. This is why this book is special, because it's about this:

    'We're so busy resigning ourselves to the inevitable that we don't even ask if it is inevitable. We've got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.'

    Suffice it to say I've probably been looking for this book my whole life. Well here it is. Finally.'

  27. That being said, I wouldn't recommend this book if you haven't read anything that grabbed you in a while, it's not slow exactly but you can't rush it.

    My most unputdownable book of the year was The Help by Kathryn Stockett, worth of all the praise it's getting. Great storytelling, unforgettable characters. The plot is a complete page-turner. I couldn't believe it was a first novel! I really really recommend it, it's very easy to read and very rewarding.

    Or, you know, when I want to go back to reading, I pick up a Pratchett I haven't read it. Does the trick every time.

  28. Things get better when you start having more free time--when I was in college, I considered scheduling a lit class every semester to be "making time to read." Reading for fun just didn't happen. This summer though, I've gotten back into it full swing and am enjoying it more than ever.

    Over the past few months, I discovered how awesome Charles de Lint is. I like his writing a lot, and he has a lot of short stories if you don't have a lot of time to sit down and continuously.

  29. Hiya Nymeth!

    I have a few recommendations actually.

    The YA Horsemen of the Apocalypse series (starting with Hunger) is definitely wow-inducing, and the first two books are very quick-reads indeed.

    I also recently read The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice and found it to be incredibly moving and the ideal summer read.

  30. Awww, hun, I'm sorry to hear you're in a reading slump! :( I'm getting more read than you, but I think I'm having similar trouble being wowed by anything.

    Anyway... As per request...
    "The Vintner's Luck" wowed me, but you might find that it won't won you (as much) in your slump. It's beautiful, but in a similar way to those of Valente's works that I've read.

    "Tigana" wowed me too, but, again, it might be a little too unemotionally engaging for you at present. (I love GGKay's works, but they always take me a good hundred pages to settle into. After that I have trouble putting them down.)

    If you're taking suggestions for books that aren't on your TBR pile or in your library on LT, you might find "Ilario"/"The Lion's Eye" to be more enjoyable than I did. (It deals with a lot of things you enjoy, anyway.)

    Otherwise... *thinks* Maybe try to revisit something you loved or read a new book by an author you know often wows you?

    I hope you'll be able to find a book with that wow factor soon, hun! *sends good thoughts*

  31. I've been feeling much the same. A few fantasy books have kept me reading and some were really good but I haven't been so enamored with anything that I couldn't wait to talk about it. This weekend I finally abandoned The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins because I found myself getting bored with it. Maybe it's summer and the nice weather but I feel like I need a GREAT book right now!

  32. I'm sorry to hear you didn't get tickets for all of the events you wanted to attend.

    I've been in a bit of a reading slump too. I'm still reading, but not many are engaging me and I'm pretty sure it's not the books, but just my mood.

    I wish I had a really solid recommendation for you. I don't have a good feel for your reading tastes. The one book this year that kept me up late reading was The Help.

    I did just finish Brideshead Revisited and the writing is fantastic. Good luck finding a book that will really pull you in!

  33. *De-lurks* I'm glad you're blogging again! :) Caddy's World was great, wasn't it?

    If you're looking for something funny, you might try The Code of the Woosters (PG. Wodehouse). It's far better than the Jeeves short stories -- I think by the time he wrote it, he'd refined his silliness to an art. It's really delightful.

    For a fun, Victorian novel, what about Captain Blood (a fantastic pirate story)? As with Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, I feel the name of the main character is recommendation enough. How could it not be good? It's called Captain Blood!

    Also, I'm curious as to what you'd think of Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, since you didn't like the Narnia books much. It's a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It's quite interesting because most of the protagonists are female, and they're all such complex characters. I found the plot, the themes, and the grim, barbaric setting completely absorbing and and beautifully constructed . . . but I think even if you didn't like it, you'd find it interesting!

    Good luck finding an amazing book!

  34. Looked at your TBR (since Night Watch blew me away too!) and we share a few TBRs too.
    Of the ones I've read, three stood out.
    Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is one of my all time favourites.
    On Chesil Beach is short, startling, and wonderful. I also have a short interview on DVD of the author on the book that Powell's released.
    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society really engaged me, reminding me a bit of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. One of my mom's friends was a child on Guernsey during the war and she said it caught it pretty well.
    Good luck

  35. I feel like last year I hit the mother load of great books but not so much this year.I keep looking though

  36. Verity: The sympathy is very much appreciated! I hope we both find a way out of out slumps soon.

    Laura Miller: Many thanks for the recommendations! The Face in the Frost has been on my wishlist ever since I saw Ursula Le Guin name it as one of her favourite novels, but I'd kind of forgotten about it in the meantime.

    Sandy: Book Depository is your friend :P I really think you're going to love it. Also, I'm so happy to hear you found Doomsday Book amazing! I can't wait to read your review.

    Wendy: Thank you, and good luck to you as well!

    Jenny: It was out in May here! And I didn't even know! I really want to read the Martin series, but the book's length + everyone's panic over whether or not he'll ever finish it have sort of kept me away :P

    Amy: I did love your review of that :D

    Deb Nance: I really need to see if my library has Hugo Cabret! That's another one of those books that have been on my radar for years but I never got around to. The reminder is very much appreciated.

    Melanie: Thank you! I think those would all qualify in terms of books-I-could-really-lose-myself-in.

    Jodie: Bombard away! The only one of those I've read is Beloved, so I shall investigate the rest.

    Kelly: I need to e-mail you about that! And I will today.

    Jeanne: I have heard of State of Wonder but not The Family Fang, so I look forward to your post.

    C.B. James: So many people have been enjoying A Visit from the Goon Squad! And it does sound like something I'd like myself, especially with all the musical references I hear it has.

    Zibilee: A Discovery of Witches is another one that has been on my radar for a while. And another vote for Goon Squad!

    Emily: The memoir does sound fascinating, and like it would be an excellent companion to The Second Sex nest month. Many thanks for the recommendation!

    Amy: No worries about the dog comment. And I hope you don't think the fact that I haven't read those books yet means I'm not listening! I actually put The Farmer's Bride on hold at the library some months ago, only to be told they had lost their copy :\ But anyway, it may take me a while to get to what's recommended to me (the same happens with books I receive as gifts), but that doesn't mean I have forgotten them or don't care.

    Amy: I haven't, but I did absolutely love your review of The Sparrow. And fingers crossed that we both find a way out of our slumps!

    Iris: Yes, that's exactly what I miss too. And thank you for understanding - that in itself means a lot to me.

    Debi: I think you underestimate the number of excellent books you have in fact introduced me to!

    Heidenkind: I think you're spot on about my brain equating reading to work. I need to find a way to trick it :P

    Mariel: Your review and some others were the reason why I got The Vintner's Luck! I'm dying to read it, but at the same time I worry I'll ruin it for myself by picking it up when I feel so meh about reading, you know? But then again, without taking risks I'll never get over this slump.

    Trapunto: You're actually the second person to strongly recommend Mahy's Memory to me recently! I must see if the library has it. Also, you've made Bad Blood sound even better than I had imagined.

  37. Damn. I hope you understood that when I said the last three 'weren't good bets' I'd meshed two sentences together and made a wrong one. They are good bets, very good in fact.

  38. I can't help you as I'm going through my own reading/reviewing slump due to stress and more stress. I'm restricting my reading to short novels and novellas. Keeping my fingers crossed that it works. And you hope that you find your way out of yours.

  39. So yeah, I was skittish about the Martin books for the same reason, but then I started watching the HBO series because I love Sean Bean and I love Peter Dinklage, and then I wanted very much to know what was going to happen. And thus I started reading the books. I have problems with them, but mostly they are super duper absorbing -- I just went and bought the third and fourth books today.

  40. Hi Nymeth!

    I went through my own dry spell, which lasted nearly a year, and I understand how you feel- you want to read more but when you're reading, you don't feel like continuing. It got so bad that I was reading a book a month, despite not having too hectic a schedule!

    I got over this spell, to some extent, by reading smaller books. I read potboilers and bestsellers with lots of suspense and drama, just to get back into the reading mode. Then I started on A Game of Thrones, and I was hooked. It is a big book, but I never felt tired or uninterested in the story. You mention being worried about the size, but truth is, once you start reading it, you will want to keep going on.

  41. I second Hazra's rec. Haven't read a book in two months and I just started A Game of Thrones and can't put it down. The show is amazing as well, really recommend it.

  42. I've had a similar reading year. I've read lots of good stuff, but very little that's swept me away. I could only choose four books for my first quarter Best-Of list, and I'm not sure I'll even have that many on my second quarter list. Sigh.

    I took a look through your TBR, and the following books blew me away emotionally as well as intellectually:

    TIGANA by Guy Gavriel Kay - you knew I was gonna say this, didn't you?

    THE VINTNER'S LUCK by Elizabeth Knox - when I first finished it, I thought it was a primarily intellectual book. A couple of hours later, it crashed into me. So wonderful! Plus, it paves the way for THE ANGEL'S CUT, which is still one of my favourite books from the past few years.

    GIRL GODDESS #9 by Francesca Lia Block - I want to burst into tears whenever I even think of a couple of these stories.

    And they aren't on your list, but the last books that really blew me away were THE NAME OF THE WIND and THE WISE MAN'S FEAR, both by Patrick Rothfuss. They're really big, absorbing, detailed fantasies with lots of magic and little bits and pieces and general awesomeness.

  43. another lovely story..exactly the material i was looking for.!
    Accredited High School Diploma Online

  44. I'm glad that I have read your later posts and that you found your way out of your reading slump. I hate reading slumps but tend to get in them when I am under a lot of work stress or have too much going on at home.


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