The Reading List #6 | Jan-March 2021

By Lucy Harbron - 13:36

I’ll be honest with you, so far my 2021 reading motivation has been minimal. My mind has turned to mush that thinks about nothing but Married At First Sight Australia, hula hooping and pub opening plans, so it doesn’t quite seem to have the capacity for a novel. 

This is the exact reason why I don’t set myself reading goals. I don’t have a particular number of books I want to read in a year or a quota per month, just letting myself read at my own pace and enjoy. The last couple of months I feel like I’ve been fighting off that old English degree feeling of force, settling down every Saturday morning as a slave to routine more than a book lover. The climax of the sensation came last week as I tossed my book aside in favour of TikTok again, realising that I wasn’t enjoy the read so why was I bothering? I’m sure it’ll feel liberating when I stop feeling so guilty, but more on that later.

Here are my first reads of the year...

#1 Nights Sky With Exit Wounds- Ocean Vuong 

Technically this was a 2020 read as I flew through it in the Christmas-New Year limbo, inhaling it in a deep breath and finishing with a reluctant sigh.

Within the first pages I knew Ocean Vuong deserved every bit of hype he gets. His phrasing is so vivid but also so simple I was almost kicking myself for not coming up with it. He effortlessly creates such sharp emotions and this collection moves through the whole range of them from grief to love to anger to heartbreak. It deals with huge and heavy topics like war, death and coming out, but it never feels overwhelming or hard to read. After each piece I wanted to take a moment to digest, but quickly found myself turning the page for more as the emotions are gripping rather than smothering.

Like with all my favourite poets, Vuong had me hooked with his use of simple English. His work is fuss free and easily engaged with, even his more experimental pieces don’t feel like he was in cahoots with a thesaurus as they flow so simply and naturally. It’s one of those poetry books that’s ended up covered in my pen, with so many perfect phrases underlined to remember later, phrases so good I wanted to applaud but settled for drawing a star next to instead.

If you haven’t guessed already, I adored it. It immediately took a place in my list of favourite poetry collections, and I’m excited to dive into more of his work. Put this one on your to-read list.

#2 Trying To Float – Nicolaia Rips

You probably all know about my obsession with The Chelsea Hotel, but for those who don’t: The Chelsea is a hotel in New York where people like Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen all once lived. It’s haunted my academic life and was the topic of my dissertation, so I’ve indulged in almost every bit of Chelsea literature I can. 

I was gifted this for Christmas and I was excited as I hadn’t heard about it, being a memoir of a child that grew up in the hotel. I assumed it must have been written by an older woman, but about half way in I realised that Nicolaia is my age, maybe even younger and her experience of the Chelsea was way later than the era I’d studied. The essays in this book cover all corners of coming-of-age, colouring the classic dilemmas in the quirky tone of the hotel and its cast of odd inhabitants. I didn’t learn much more about the hotel other than the spirit of community continued into its later years, but this was a lovely read.

Lovely is definitely the right word as it’s easy and sweet, gets a couple of chuckles and feels like a friend telling you a story. 

#3 Chameleon In A Candy Store - Anonymous

If you read my last reading list post, you’ll know how much Anon hooked me in with Diary Of An Oxygen Thief. A modern sympathy for the devil narrative, the sleazy, awful narrator has such a unique voice that I finished the first book in a number of days. 

The second book ended up being the same. A slow start as it took me a little while to figure out where in the story you were and how much time had passed since the original book. But when this book gets going, I think I actually enjoyed it more than the original. It engages further with Anonymous’ awful personal relationships, and finishes up with such a cruel but kind of hilarious twist that made me even more desperate to try and figure out who the author is.

So much of this second book really dive into the meta element of it, referring a lot to the actual writing of the book and even pointing you towards Anonymous’ website and introducing his marketing technique which is possibly what led it to being such a cult read. It manages to be both smart and stupid at the same time which is exactly what you need sometimes.

#4 Eunuchs and Nymphomaniacs – Anonymous

Before I even finished the 2nd book, I pre-emptively ordered the 3rd so I could wrap up the trilogy. I dove straight in as soon as I finished the previous one, but something about it didn’t stick. Maybe it was my lockdown brain setting in as I seemed to lose the ability to focus on anything, or maybe it was that this 3rd book is quite different. The narrator is more pathetic than cruel here, balancing his usual behaviours with a heavy dose of heart-ache. In this book he’s more irritating and stroppy, still making his way through the women of New York while moping about his ex. 

The cast of characters in this one is quite hard to keep up with as so many women walk in and out of the story, but it still has the same hilarious moments that will make you guiltily laugh out loud as you fall into his gross mind. 

Not as good as the others, I really enjoyed getting stuck into a series which I haven’t done in years. This 3rd book closes up with a circle back to the beginning, tying up loose ends from the original novel, so it’s 100% worth persevering through all 3 to get a full view of Anonymous’ world.

#5 Orlando – Virginia Woolf

And here’s when it gets hard.

I read Mrs Dalloway in Uni and I remember struggling. I remember loving the themes and the idea behind the novel, but the task of getting through it was a slog with Woolf’s signature embellished narrative style of long sentences being hard to follow. But she feels like an author I should love. I love her letters and her shorter works, so I wanted to try again with Orlando, a novel that is so beloved by so many people in my life.

I sat down hopeful. My copy was small with only a 100 or so pages, but I was immediately put off by the tiny font that made following it even harder. I noticed the lack of chapters, only huge sections which always puts me off. But I was determined, I settled down on a Saturday morning with a coffee and a croissant planning to fly through it, but gave in after 6 pages and my head ached.

The follow day I tried again, sinking into the bath with wine and a hair mask that demanded time, but I soon found myself swapping my book for my phone. 15 pages in, it wasn’t going to happen as the protagonist had managed to do nothing but walk into a house in all that time. I didn’t read for nearly two weeks, partly out of a lack of motivation and partly actively avoiding the book. So I decided to give in.

I hate giving up on a book. I’m the same with films too, forcing myself to sit there and watch even if I’m bored. The act of putting a book back on my shelf unfinished makes me feel so guilty, especially when it’s a classic that I feel like I should have read. But when concentration is hard to come by anyway nowadays, I’m trying to not let myself slip back into that English degree mind-set of half reading a book out of duty. I don’t owe anyone anything, no one is demanding an essay on Orlando from me, I won’t fail if I don’t finish it, so why sap the passion from myself.

So I put the book down, I might return to it but probably not as I’m returning to the safe ground of modern classics and 60s America that I love.

Next Up...

Currently reading – Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

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