Mini Reading Reviews

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I’ve been reading, as per usual, but not with the usual abandon, I’m afraid. My injured eye is *still* bothering me, and I’ve been ending the day resting it more than usual. It’s really been rather a bane to my existence, but in the big scheme of things, it’s manageable in the end. Plus – my doc and I are making progress, so I’m hopeful that this is temporary.

Anyway, so life has been moving a bit slowly, but the vision issue combined with the lassitude of late summer makes for not many blog entries about books read. For the two that I have recently finished up, they were good reads, but not astonishingly fascinating enough to write book reviews. To wit, here are two mini reading reviews. As always, these tiny review-lettes don’t necessarily mean that the titles were bad. Sometimes, you can have a good read and still end up with not much to say, so they fall into that category.

Mrs_ MiniverMrs. Miniver – Jan Struthers (1939)

This was a reread to get another title into the ongoing Century of Books and was quite fun. It’s a collection of newspaper columns written by Struthers and describing life for her and her family during the outbreak of World War II in England. Fairly lightweight covering topics such as buying a diary and going to dinner parties, this was more a palate cleanser than anything. If you have a Monkey Mind and need something to read that you can pick up and put down with ease, this would fit the bill. This was a good read, despite the gamble of rereading, and did remind me of how hard life would have been at that time and how easy life is nowadays. Plus – epistolary. Swoon.

Here’s a paragraph from Mrs. Miniver which mirrors my own attitude towards learning:

The structure of our life — based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war — is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

Moving on…

still-life-with-breadcrumbs-tpStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

A domestic novel that’s fairly straightforward in its narrative arc, this was a fun non-challenging read. (Plus – off the TBR.) It’s about a female fine art photographer who leaves NYC to live in a rural village, rents a slightly tumble-down shack, meets village residents, and a bloke, and it all runs smoothly from there. Nothing too strenuous, but just a nice fairly easy (I might say even cosy in a way) read.

I’m also in the middle of some pretty funny essays collected together in a book called “I See You Made an Effort” by comedian Annabelle Gurwitch. Gathered around the theme of aging and reaching the milestone birthday of 50, it’s an entertaining E-Z read that has some sly wit in it every now and again.

Another reread gamble, but this one paid off, for the most part. Good if you like your humor sly and quick-witted, and you’ll be able to relate to her essays if you’re now a woman of a certain age. 🙂 (I do recommend that you read this in bits and pieces, as opposed to solid front-to-back. It can get a little same-y after a while if you do it solidly. Still fun, but just not as good a reading experience.)

So nothing too mind-blowing. More of just pottering around, really. Life is good… I hope yours is as well.

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Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home – Nina Stibbe (2013)

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Coming of age as I did in 1980’s England, I always look back with plenty of nostalgia at that time: few responsibilities, lots of free time, great fashion (!), fantastic music, the belief that the world was our oyster… I just loved the whole thing, and so when I found a book that was about that time by someone who’d been around the same age and was English, I leaped at it. Not only was this by a peer from that time and in England, she had been as lost (future-plan-wise) as I had been, it was funny, and then — delirious joy — it was epistolary to boot.

“Love, Nina” follows the true story of a new nanny who has been employed by the then-editor of the London Review of Books who lived smack in the middle of London. The family was small, but the foot traffic and visitors through the house whilst she was nannying was chockfull of literary and arty superstars: authors, screenwriters, and all manner of other creative types would regularly come for a cup of tea, and all recounted in a series of letters sent by author Nina Stibbes to her sister in Leicester.

Author Deborah Moggach (who was also a neighbor up the street from the family) described this read as “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins mashed up in literary London…” and I think this analogy hits the nail on the head. As the book is written from Nina’s own POV, the reader goes through some of what Nina experiences and thinks, and TBH, it was hilarious in places.

(Note: There were quite a lot of names of people who I had no idea who they were, but once you get used to this and realize that this lack of knowledge doesn’t actually affect the story in any big way, you can move along. Don’t fret about not knowing who these literati are. Just jump over the names you don’t know. The book is still really enjoyable.)

So, nothing heavy in this read, but it was a very funny nostalgic visit to UK in the 80’s. I really enjoyed this book, and gobbled it down over one weekend. Highly recommended for anyone who lived firsthand through that fabulous decade and who is looking for a good solid read that makes you snigger with recognition on a hot summer day.

(P.S. Don’t be put off by the cover art. The read is better than it looks.)

The Nether World – George Gissing (1889)

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The Nether World is a Victorian perspective on the underground world of those mired in poverty and for whom there is little to no way out of their precarious situations. It’s not a happy read at all, and in fact, it’s rather hard to keep going at times as the sheer grind of hopelessness and filth never ever ends. However, I imagine that this is a more realistic depiction of how life was for the Victorian underclass of London and other large cities. Dickens also covered these lives of the unlucky masses, but at least he would tip the scales every now and then with some levity. Gissing – not so much.

It’s also a tale of intrigue covering, as it does, the possibility of inherited wealth from an elderly man, but as immediate wealth tends to do, it leads to unhappiness for many of those who believe that they may be in line to receive it. The world that Gissing’s characters inhabit is unrelenting in its tough life for each of the characters; there is no future to look forward to, just the day-to-day needs of food, water, and a roof over your head, and despite how grinding these descriptions were, I think it was actually these pictures that pulls you as the reader into the lives of these unfortunate people. Most of the characters have not done anything to deserve these hard lives – it was just an unlucky twist of birth and geography that seems to have thrown the majority of the people into these situations.

Still, despite the oppressiveness of this lack of resources, families still stick together (not always happily), and most people work and continue to live their lives even if they do end up living at the bottom of the financial pile with few options to escape out of their worlds.

Gissing was a naturalistic writer (i.e. didn’t sugar-coat things and has a strong sense of location), and this is demonstrated by the way that the entire book is set in this dark poor world. No one escapes to the world of money. People dream of doing so, but their dreams end up thwarted, and I imagine that this POV echoes reality of the time: how does someone born into poverty escape it without getting money for education, useful work experience, knowing the right people? (Not so different from nowadays, one could argue…)

As a rather long book for me (404 pages), this title clearly falls into the Scary Big Book category but as I have learned to read huge-page-count projects on my ancient Kindle (as opposed to a physical copy), it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it might have been. (I tend to get rather intimidated by large page numbers – not by the content, just the numbers. Nutty, I know.) If I’m honest though, I must admit that the middle bit was rather b-o-r-i-n-g and the number of characters was a bit confusing at times. Uncertain whether to blame the author or me about that!

So – a rather glum read overall. I’ve read other Gissing’s (New Grub Street and The Odd Women), but I think I might be done with him now…

The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby (2004) and other thoughts

book451This is a short collection of some of Nick Hornby’s brilliant book review columns from The Believer magazine, these ones from 2003 and 2004. Well, after reading these (and laughing out loud at the gym several times), Hornby has now made it on to my evergreen Literary Dinner Party Guest List.

If you’ve only read Hornby’s fiction (Like a Boy, High Fidelity et al.), then get ye to a bookshop and buy any of his volumes of his book review columns. His fiction can be a bit patchy, but his columns are little nuggets of gold all tucked into each two and half page entry of his book. I have to say (and I don’t say this very often, mind you) that I thoroughly enjoyed every single page of this collection.

Hornby looks at books in exactly the same way as I (and probably as other voracious booklovers do comme ça) and so this read was like sitting down for a cuppa tea or coffee with a friend and then just nattering away about things. His columns always start with a list of “Books Bought” and “Books Read”, each column varying from month to month (as they do for many of us), and he’s upfront about his book-buying (and book-receiving) habits and why his “Books Read” list rarely matches his “Books Bought” selections. (Hmm. Nope. Never happens to me. No sirree bob.)

In one of the columns, I came across this sentence:

“All the books we own, read and unread, are the fullest expression of self that we have at our disposal…”

and then this one (actually taken from one of his other collections but along the same lines: there are sometimes:

“…unusual attempts at reinvention that periodically seize one in a bookshop…”

For some reason, I was so struck by this thought as it really resonated with me. It’s true that with some titles I purchase or bring home from the library, I am saying to myself “I’m really going to read this time,” or “I should really read this title – it’s so *important* to be well read,” or perhaps something along the lines of “I’ve always meant to read this,” or “Ooh goody. I’ve been looking for this…” and then the new acquisition gets home and is promptly put on a more inaccessible bookshelf for that “one day…”

(And here, I’m not berating myself (or anyone else) about this whole “not reading what you’ve bought” thing. (That’s part of the fun of being a reader, don’t you think?) It’s more of an observation, and I think it’s pretty funny to contemplate. I mean who hasn’t done this with at least one book that’s been brought into the house at some time?)

Thinking about it, I’m not sure what the impetus for these admittedly far-reached reading dreams may be – perhaps I read about it on a blog somewhere or via a book review, perhaps it was bought up in casual conversation with a booky friend or maybe it was just drudged up from the long-ago past and I just happened to be reminded of the title as I browsed one of the shelves. It is as others have said many times (and this is an incredibly vague paraphrase here), “…for where is a heart so weak as in a bookstore [or other booky place]”…

So, I decided to take a look along my own particular bookshelves to see if I had an inordinate number of Titles of Shame – sad volumes who, through no fault of their own, have remained untouched and unmoved off their shelf, watching other books be chosen (or not as the case may be). Which regrettable titles (although obviously thought worthy at the time of purchase) would be found during this observation?

(…Time passes…)

passing_timeIt wasn’t too bad. I’m pretty good at getting rid of books that aren’t of interest any more so I don’t have that many Failed Dream titles hanging around. I did have two books about foreign languages, one for French and one for Spanish, but I still hold out a fragile hope for those two titles. I even think I have one for Latin, but I’ve already tried that and crossed it off the list. (Oh my god. The declensions, the conjugations, the tenses!)

(Oh, and Superhero suggested that I add all the cookbooks to the Failed Dream title group as well, but I pretended not to hear that.)

I think if I had looked closely at my infinite TBR list(s) that they would more closely mirror my intended self. They are pretty wide-ranging in scope and, I would have to admit, even a touch optimistic in places, but I say “aim high.” The old “Ad astra per aspra,” right?

For myself, I’m going to keep the hopeful fire of Hopeful Dream Titles burning. There’s nothin’ wrong with that.

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Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (2015)

book339This was one of the New Releases Books at the library and I tend to love Hornby as an author, particularly his book columns, and yet hadn’t heard anything about this new fiction coming out. It follows the life of a young Northern 1960’s beauty queen who is chosen to star in a new sitcom of the time which becomes extraordinarily successful. She works with a small group of writers and producers and the book tracks the natural ups and downs of being in the TV business. This wasn’t a deep and meaningful book, but was a nice optimistic kitchen-sink drama with a female protagonist and from her perspective.

A good read, and will probably be made into a film at some point. (In fact, it seemed rather written for a film in retrospect which doesn’t make it any less of a good read really.) I liked it, but even so – when I put the book down, it didn’t always scream to be picked up again. However, that might’ve been me. (“It’s not you. It’s me” type of situation.)

Glad I found it at the library, but I’m also glad that I didn’t buy this in hardback (like I have Hornby’s Believer columns.) Aaah well. Can’t have a home run every time, can you?

Raymond Briggs – Still Great…

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Continuing with my graphic novel binge from our Snow Day the other day….

book343I dug in my shelves and found “Ethel and Ernest: A True Story” (1998), a GN by English author Raymond Briggs. (You might know Briggs from his work, “The Snowman”, which sometimes comes on TV at Christmas.) This was a wonderful read, poignant with crayon drawings (as opposed to the harsher pen/ink) and closely follows the biographies of two ordinary people who get married and live their lives through the twentieth century. Based on the story of his parents’ lives, this is structured so that the reader sees UK history through the lens of these two people as it happens: WWII, rationing, austerity, stereo, TV, buying their own car, Labor government. They move on as best they can with the husband having stronger political views and the wife pretending to not know and just agree when she really does understand events. Her gentle teasing of her long-time husband, familiar to anyone in a long-term comfortable relationship of any gender combination, will ring true along with a realistic portrayal of aging which, in this case, eventually shows one of the pair having Alzheimer’s. The couple lived in the same house for 41 years which provides an unchanging backdrop to the ever-changing world about them. A lovely and poignant story written with love.

book344Then, I found another Raymond Briggs’ work, “Fungus the Bogeyman” (1977). I had read this when it first came out and when I was 14 and I enjoyed it then, but this reread was a much deeper appreciation as I saw Briggs’ many literary and word-related sly jokes which had gone right over my head when I was younger. The actual story is presented as a “Day in the Life…” of Fungus the Bogeyman who, with his family, lives in dread of clean and dry places up above his home in the open air. He’s not the only Bogeyman, but lives in a community of others, most of whom go up to do their daily jobs of scaring unassuming quiet vicars on an evening walk and waking up babies from their sleep. However, along with this fairly humdrum life, Fungus is also dealing with an existential crisis of his own, pondering the meaning of his life and asking himself: What was the point of being a Bogeyman? He analyzes his life: a lovely dirty wife, a lovely dirty boy called Mould (respecting the UK spelling there), and pets called Mucus. But what more was there for him in his life? Readers are given a detailed field guide (of sorts) to how the Bogeys live and it really was very sly witted on so many levels. Bogeys love literary quotations, but always misquote them so it was fun (and tricky!) to try and work out which ones he was quoting on his bicycle journey to the outer world. I enjoyed this when I first read it in 1977, but I really appreciated the clever wordplay when I read it on Friday.

Scab and matter custard,/

Snot and bogey pie,/

Dead dog’s giblets,/

Green cat’s eye./

Spread it on bread,/

Spread it on thick./

Wash it all down with a cup of cold sick.*

(Children’s rhyme from England, oral tradition.)

(And related to not much — look what I found in my bookshelves the other day looking for graphic novels…a 1974 Star Trek Annual with scary illustrations of Spock and Kirk and co.)

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* The word “sick” (in my English childhood) referred to the actual product of vomiting (i.e. the vomitus). It wasn’t the verb (meaning “generally feeling unwell”) that it is in the U.S., and so when I first arrived in Texas and people referenced that they were (or had been) “sick”, I just thought that there was a lot of throwing up going on which I found to be confusing as ‘Mericans tend to be quite healthy. (I know this small nugget of memory is fascinating and amazing for you all.)

Devoted Ladies – Molly Keane (M. J. Farrell) (1934)

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This was one was from the Virago Modern Classic series, books which have been on one of my shelves for Way Too Long. Choosing a Virago can sometimes mean an uncomfortable read in that the characters (and the stories) can be rather prickly. Perhaps that’s only me? This one was no different as most of the characters were thoroughly unlikeable and mean to each other (both men and women equally were mean to just about everyone else), and yet, despite this, I almost enjoyed this unpleasant and rather sour read in the end.

Jane and Jessica are together and have been together long enough to be an accepted couple in their circle of friends. However, Jessica is a very boorish and spiteful person, especially to the person that she supposedly loves – Jane. Jane, in turn, is quiet and scared of Jessica’s sharpened tongue, but is resigned to spending her life in this abusive relationship. Any efforts to escape from Jessica have never ended up well, so perhaps safer to stay? The unhappy couple are surrounded by a small grouping of sycophantic friends and servants who continue to play their lives out whilst pretty much ignoring the couple’s dysfunction until one day, a friend brings new blood to the fold in the form of a successful Irish business man and farmer, George Playfair. (There’s some irony in the last name.)

An affair grows between the quiet Jane and Playfair, and when Playfair is in an accident one day, it is enough to ignite the ember which sets into motion a dual of the hearts for Jane. Who will win and get to keep Jane’s heart? For surely she is not strong enough to choose of her own accord.

I’m not going to give the plot away, but suffice to say (and this being a Virago), the end is not all fluffy and warm. Nevertheless, it was a very satisfying conclusion to come across and once I’d finished the read, I closed the book with a contented sigh. Despite such detestable characters, this was a good read – prickly but good.

 

The Diary of a Nobody – Weedon Grossmith and George Grossmith (1888)

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“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’—why my diary should not be interesting.”

Although this was a reread, it was a reread from A Long Time Ago and so it ended up being more or less a New Read in the end. And this was fine, as I loved this book. I know it was written in the late Victorian era, but it was so funny that I burst out laughing at times which led to some strange looks when I was on the elliptical at the gym. I couldn’t help myself though, and TBH, it was that funny to me that I can neither confirm nor deny that snorting out loud did occur in public.

Laurels House - the home of the Pooter family.

Laurels House – the home of the Pooter family.

This is a fictional diary of a lower middle-class man living on the outskirts of London, married with a grown-up son and a wife who loves him despite his flaws. (He doesn’t acknowledge these flaws though…) Charles Pooter is the diarist, and he lives a modest existence as a city clerk in an office where he’s been working for the past 20 years without much professional recognition, and he begins journaling as he secretly thinks that someone somewhere will publish his diary for its literary worth. He’s a nice guy, basically, but has some insufferable snobbish airs which stem only from his own personal social insecurity and not from malice.

Adult son William (and then later called Lupin) is rather a gadabout creature who drinks, gambles and makes somewhat brash decisions, but who receives the general adoration from his parents (which becomes somewhat tempered after Lupin movies in to his childhood home due to losing his job). Wife Carrie is portrayed as a sweet Victorian wife, but readers can see (through Mr. Pooter’s diary descriptions) that perhaps she is not quite as quiet and adoring of her husband as he writes. It’s all very farcical, but done in such a way that it’s fresh and still very very funny in parts.

Mr. Pooter’s diary chronicles about 15 months of his life and details his thinking about his life in London as a clerk and the sometimes hilarious social misfortunes that occur to him, typical things that happen to anyone but which, when they happen to Mr. Pooter, can completely shape his day and how he sees it. It’s a little bit like reading Basil Fawlty’s diary (if you remember that TV series). He does his best, but things consistently go wrong for him. Despite this, his family still loves him all the same.

(L-R) George and Weedom Grossmith, authors.

(L-R) George and Weedon Grossmith, authors.

Written by brothers and stage performers, Weedon and George Grossmith, this book was first published as a series of excerpts in Punch, and was popular precisely it skewered most of the typical routines of its audience and the increasing social expectations of a booming lower-middle and middle class. However, it wasn’t an instant hit, but its popularity grew over time and since it was first published, this title has never been out of print. It’s also been the influence of other fictional diaries that have since been published: Diary of Adrian Mole series (by Sue Townsend), Bridget Jones’ Diary series (by Helen Fielding) and in other media forms, there’s a clear influence of Mr. Pooter’s ilk on TV shows such as Fawlty Towers. Interestingly enough, Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) was given rave reviews for his time as Mr. Pooter in a 2007 BBC dramatization on BBC Four. I wonder if that’s available on-line somewhere… I’ll check in the future.

Suffice to say, this was a very fun read and I’m really glad that I picked it off the TBR shelf. Highly recommended. This will be added to my Epistolary Novels post for certain.

Random note: Speaking of Hugh Bonneville, anyone going to see the new Paddington movie?

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The Cricket on the Hearth and Other Christmas Stories – Charles Dickens (mid-1800’s)

book320I’d been interested in reading some Dickens for quite some time, but wanted to give “A Christmas Carol” a break. (Don’t want it to lose its special with too many readings.) So, wandering around the library shelves, I came across a small collection of three Christmas novellas that Dickens wrote in the mid-1800’s, all of which were originally published as books (not as a serial in a magazine, as I had thought before.) So – it was a cold night the other day and I snuggled in with Cowboy and a fire playing on the DVD player – one does what needs to be done to make it nice for oneself, yes?

cricket_playI have not read Dickens for quite some time, but I do enjoy his works. I just hadn’t heard of these stories before (apart from reading in a shopping catalogue that “all English homes have crickets on the hearth” when they were trying to pitch a small metal cricket in its wares.) They were really nice tales and very Dickensian full of characters with names like Mr. Peerybingle and Tilly Slowboy.

The first one, The Cricket on the Hearth, was written in six weeks and similar to “A Christmas Carol” in that it’s pretty domestic and divided into several small parts (these called “chirrups” instead of “staves”). “A Christmas Carol’ had been published two years before, and was the first of Dickens’ Christmas books (or so says Wiki), so there are some similarities. One notable difference between the two is that The Cricket… remains light and domestic, avoiding any mention of difficult or disturbing social issues. It’s also been argued this work is less Christian that his other Christmas books… (When this book was adapted for a play and played in Russia, Lenin reportedly walked out of the play calling it “too sentimental” (which is a valid criticism, but that’s what Victorians loved at the time so his contemporary audience would have been happy.)

One interesting note is that The Cricket… features a sight-impaired young woman at one point. In Victorian society, disabilities were believed to be inherited, and thus it was not generally socially acceptable for people with disabilities to marry anyone. Writers of the time tended to utilize disabled characters as tools to build tension in a narrative arc as it was assumed that they must be kept from falling in love and then getting married. This character is also thought to have been based on a true life girl that Dickens met in the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, MA, and who is mentioned in his American Notes work. (Just out of curiosity, has anyone read this? What did you think?

Christmas card from the 1880’s.

Christmas card from the 1880’s.

The next novella in the collection was called The Holly-Tree and is a fairly straight-forward narrative of what happens when one character is stuck at an inn when he is traveling from London to Liverpool one winter – a long way in those days. (This is a very snuggly tale if you’re looking for one.) Nothing too deep and meaningful (the usual redemption model), but very well written and just fun to read.

(An aside here that I dug up on-line was in the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a group of restaurants called the Holly Tree Inns which operated as non-profits, serving meals (but not liquor – the drink of the devil!) and focused on reaching working women who wanted “substantial food at cost prices” – all funded by the wife of a large Boston publisher who, it is thought, heard Dickens read The Holly-Tree story and was touched by the “warm relationships that cross class divisions”.)

And then the final novella in this collection was The Haunted House (1859) which has an interesting history behind it. It’s called a portmanteau story (and thus, in this case, refers to a story with multiple parts), and for this one, Dickens wrote the starting and the ending chapters (stories, really) with other stories by other authors in between (authors such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell); however, only the Dickens’ authored stories were in this collection that I read. So – basically, this is a Victorian haunted house set up. A small group of friends all stay there for a while to find out if it’s really haunted or not (very similar to a Scooby Doo episode), and at the end, they all get together on Twelfth Night to share their experiences.

Again, a pretty easy going straightforward narrative, but still fun to read if you’re in a Dickens mood. (And, in case you’re interested, “The Haunted House of 1859” is/was? one of the attractions at Dickens World in Chatham, Kent. Does anyone know if this place is still open? I heard that they went into bankruptcy earlier this year… Or even better – has anyone ever been??

Credit unknown (but if anyone does know, just let me know and I’m happy to fix that.)

Credit unknown (but if anyone does know, just let me know and I’m happy to fix that.)

November 2014 Reading Review

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For November, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves – Lynn Truss

Life Before Man – Margaret Atwood (F)

Dishes – Shax Riegler

The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy (F)

Coasting – Jonathan Raban

The Ladies Paradise – Emile Zola (F) (post to come)

The History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier  (F) (Post to come)

My Man, Jeeves – P. G. Wodehouse (F) (no post of any note)

Ongoing read: Ten Years in the Tub – Nick Hornby (NF)

*****

Total number of books read in November: 8

Total number of pages read: 2342 pages (av. 292 pages)

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 5 F and 3 NF

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 2 library books and 3 owned books; 3 e-books this month. (Total of 44 books off TBR pile this year. Yahoo!)