The Reading List #2...

By Lucy Harbron - 15:39

I’m currently on day 5 of self-isolation as the world settles into lockdown, so there seems like no better time than the present to bring you my 2nd reading list. I’ll admit that this one is shorter than I’d like it to be as I’ve been super busy the past month and a half. But a lot of travelling and the now total lack of travelling gave me a chance to dive back into some old favourites as well as flying through some new stuff.

#1 Les Enfant Terribles by Jean Cocteau

Reading this gave me a strange sense of nostalgia from all the times I’d pick up a random book as a child, read it and then return it to the library. It’s been a long time since I felt like I’d read ‘a story’ with a very clear plot, roster of characters and setting. It’s also been a long time since I read a piece of fiction this short which was really nice and refreshing. I think a lot of those feelings of nostalgia came from the childlike characters in the novel, that, although time passes, never seem to age. They’re annoying and unlikable but not in a way that makes them unreadable. The protagonists Paul and his sister Elisabeth are the ultimate ‘naughty’ children, a trait that seeps into their adult-life and slowly morphs into something more toxic with age.

The plot revolves around the siblings' love and possession of each other, all really hanging on jealousy as they build a twisted friendship group with Gerard and Agatha, always keeping the other from being happy in fear of leaving. There’s a lot going on in terms of emotions and manipulation, but I couldn’t help but wish I could read French as if some of the creativity in the language was lost in the translation. The narrative has moments of real poetic glorious language but largely stays pretty simple. So, if you’re into easy stories with twisted plots in plainer English, pick up a copy of this. If you’re looking for something more stereotypical French and poetic and romantic, you might feel unsatisfied here. Maybe I missed something? Either way, I enjoyed the plot and the dark humour that peaked through.

#2 Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Surprisingly this was my first interaction with Bukowski as I’ve never really read his poetry or anything. I didn’t know what to expect knowing little of his style, but I loved it. Reminiscent of the quick wit of Vonnegut, Hollywood is full of dry humour as the famed alcoholic dives into the mainstream in this extremely non-fiction ‘fiction’ novel. The plot follows the poet Henry Chinaski as he writes a screenplay, seeing his struggles with motivation as he sees himself selling out and trying to fit into the Hollywood scene with this project that he only half cares about. It’s a really funny take on Hollywood from his half-in, half-out perspective of Chinaski who constantly distances himself from the industry but contradicts that at every turn as he makes this film that’s wildly personal and close to him. I think I really loved this with Bukowski being a figure of the late 60s/70s era that I studied, so this 1989 text is a really good insight into the aftermath of the chaos of that era when all the drugs started to have consequences and they all decided they just wanted some cash and a nice house with a cat.

Narrative and character are kings here as the figures in the novel are all super distinct and well-written. I loved the contrast of the wilder figures as opposed to Sarah, Chinaski’s partner, or even Chinaski himself as Bukowski is writing this out the other end of the worst parts of his alcoholism. It’s all very bleak and tragic but in a comedic kind of way with elements of the ridiculous and even slapstick coming in. Most of all, it’s just wildly easy reading. I love short chapters and nice flowing dialogue, both of which this has. The plot is well-formed but still with plenty of breathing room for Bukowski’s poetic tendency to come through as he manages to describe everything with clarity as well as character. It’s left me really excited to dig into some Bukowski poetry and settle down to watch Barfly, the film this novel is about, ASAP.

#3 Devotion by Patti Smith

I have no idea how I managed to miss this but imagine my delight when one rainy Sunday I stumbled across a Patti Smith book I hadn’t read before. I left it waiting a week or two until I could give it the time it deserved.

The perfect books for self-isolation, I like to see Patti Smith’s books in one sitting if I can. There’s a hypnotic quality to her writing that really sucks you into the whirlpool of rich imagery, settling and poetic wisdom that she creates. While her other books do that by being so personal, making you feel like she’s there telling you her life story over coffee, the bulk of Devotion is fully fictional. The main text of the 4 part text is a short story about a young girl called Eugenia and her torn devotion to ice skating and a rich man that wishes to keep her. It’s got a myth-like feeling as the icy setting and scenes of luxury and travel all seen through the eyes of a young, poor girl give the sense of a fable, or an epic. In other parts, it felt as though I was reading a classic Russian novel as the stoic figures and their riches felt like something Tolstoy would’ve conjured. It was refreshing to read something fully fictional from Patti but my favourite part of the novel was definitely part 1.

The whole book is an exploration into writing so parts 1, 3 and 4 looks into the situations, thoughts and inspirations behind part 2. Part 1 is a classic Smith narrative telling an anecdote in her dream-like tone, packed full of references to both classic art and literature as well as her youth and time at the Chelsea Hotel. The four parts come together to create a beautiful well-rounded image of the piece as the decisions and images behind it, as a perfectly round piece of ham turns into a round ice rink, and the films she watches about Estonia informs her protagonist’s background. I love how self-aware and analytical it is, being a super fascinating piece to read as both a writer and a Patti Smith fan.

If you’re looking for a good book for this time of isolation, definitely consider a Patti Smith book. In March I also dipped back in and out of her Early Work collection which I can’t recommend enough. I’ve never read a body of work that feels more like a companion, sure to leave you feeling calm and inspired in these weird times.

#4 Morning Songs on the Vine by Joni Mitchell

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the library I hope to have in my house one day and the books I want on the shelves. This is one of those books.

It’s really just a collection of hand-written lyrics and paintings done by Joni, but being written really makes you stop and read her work as the poetry it is. Through reading this I’ve re-discovered old songs and gained new favourite Mitchell songs as my level of respect for her work has shot up. I don’t know another singer-songwriter that’s ever created a body of work that’s so gloriously rich in imagery and metaphor as hers, with each piece merging the personal with the informed as she weaves her own feeling into the vast canon of famous stories and artworks. It’s not a book that you’d sit and read from cover to cover, but I think if you’re a fan of Mitchell, this is definitely a book to own.

#5 The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes

People keep recommending Ted Hughes to me and I wish they’d stop. Before reading this I had read a couple of his pieces but never been wowed. And after reading this, I’m still not.
I think maybe I just had nature poems, always preferring depth of emotion over the setting. But Hughes’ poems about birds and other various animals don’t do much for me. If anyone wants to try and show me a nature poem that’s going to change my mind, go ahead.

#6 Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy

To remedy the bore of Hughes, I revisited the tragedy of Plath. This collection is the only interaction I’ve had with Plath as I wrote a couple of essays on it in uni but surprisingly have never given The Bell Jar a go. After being reminded how much I love her work, I think I might pick up a copy.

Plath for me toes the line between the personal and political really well as a lot of her work is very punching and aggressively feminist as she fights against the housewife role that was literally killing women in the 50s. The oppression in her work is clear as she seems to desperately be searching for bigger and vaster images to use. Unlike Hughes, I feel emotions behind Plath’s nature imagery as though she sees a tree and yearns for more like Hughes just sees a tree.

Obviously, a tragic figure, Plath’s body of work is a constant tug of war between power and struggle, as one poem is firey while the next feels defeated and dark. It can be a draining read on a bad day, but dipping in and out, Plath’s work is exactly the kind of intense, emotional work I love. While I’ve been feeling conflicted about my own work, I found myself writing a lot more while reading this, and feeling less cliché about being a woman writing about feelings.

Next up:

Originally I was planning to stick with poems and dip in and out of a Walt Whitman anthology on the train. But in this weird self-isolation limbo, I’m thinking I’ll dive into more fiction. Tempted to give Ulysses or Anna Karenina a go as a challenge, or otherwise here are the books on my to-read pile currently:

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera
Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

As always, send me your recommendations. My bookshelf is overflowing but ready for more.

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  1. I am a sucker for book posts and even more so in lockdown (I've read too many books to count but they are keeping me sane) and I have added a few more books to read thanks to this list. I always see Patti Smith's books but have never read any so now is the perfect opportunity. Les Enfants Terribles sounds like a fabulous book to read in French. As I'm starting my degree in September (in French and Spanish), it would be perfect reading in prep so I am definitely going to purchase. Snap with The Unbearable Lightness of Being! I've recently fallen in love with Kundera and would highly recommend his essays called 'Encounter' xx


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