January Bookshelf: Conversations with Chelsea Girls

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx

I love reading. Which is good, because if I didn’t love reading I would be in the wrong line of work. I read the printed word every day, mostly for work, mostly from or about the eighteenth century, but I try to keep it diverse and spontaneous and I definitely try to do some relaxation reading every day, even if it’s just a couple of hurried pages on the bus to work. I’ve definitely noticed my mood taking a nosedive if I can’t get near my novel for a couple of days, and I know that it’s easy feel like I’m too busy to read. Frankly I’m too busy for a lot of things, but not reading. You make time for the things you really love. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month.


Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy: A Memoir

Every year, all I ask Santa for is Toblerone and books. This year he obliged, and though the chocolate is long gone, I’m still thinking about this memoir. I love Patricia Lockwood’s poetry and have been dying to read Priestdaddy, which didn’t disappoint. Lockwood’s prose has a disarming earnestness masked by silliness and her memoir is compassionate, brave, and honest without sacrificing her trademark humour. I’ve been trying to make an effort since moving away from Scotland to get to know my own parents as human beings and not just proximate ancestors, but once you manage that you begin to see the ways in which they’re flawed, which can be disillusioning. It takes a precise and sensitive writer to give life to this process.


Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto

Another Christmas gift, this time from my aunt and uncle who found a signed copy in a bookshop in Carlisle. I read this on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh where I spent the day at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and then I read it again on the way back (and then I flicked through an old copy of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing just to be sure I was really enjoying my day off). It’s a short book, adapted from a couple of lectures. Enough has been written about the breezy, approachable writing style upon which Beard has built her career. I’m a fan! And while I liked Women and Power, I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it. It made me feel seen, but it didn’t make me feel comforted. But that’s not the job of the historian. If anything they’re there to shake us up. Mission accomplished. I pledge to be vocal.


Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends

I wanted to love Conversations with Friends, and there was certainly a lot to like about it. The characters all feel true-to-life and the sketch of Dublin also feels refreshingly familiar, unnostalgic for the halcyon days of Joyce conjured by the city’s literary tourism. I know women like Frances and I know the married men they sleep with… the thing is, I don’t like those people and I didn’t particularly enjoy spending this time listening to them ruminate on their lives. It did feel like a conversation with friends, but of the sort that occurs at half past two when the beer has gone warm and you’ve all moved on from being able to ask each other questions. That said, I’m really looking forward to talking to people about this book. I think I’ll enjoy conversations with friends about Conversations with Friends more than I enjoyed Conversations with Friends. And that’s something.


Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls

I picked up Chelsea Girls at the iconic Gay’s the Word bookstore during a research trip to London in July and just got round to reading it this month. I’m sure everyone can relate to that guilty, unread pile of books – this one was weighing heavy on my conscience because I knew I’d love it, and I did. As with Lockwood, I loved Myles’ poetry before I read her memoir, which is really a loose, nonlinear jumble of stories about New York, the eighties, bohemian lesbianism, being poor, having sex. I re-read Patti Smith’s Just Kids on my honeymoon in 2016, and I think this book (along with more recent books such as Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl or Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band) makes a sizeable ripple the counterculture memoir genre. This book took me a while to read, though it’s not long, but I loved the fact that I could dip in and out of it. It’s an unconventional memoir, but she’s an unconventional person.


Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

I’m not about to be that person who reviews The Rape of the Lock in earnest. It’s obviously a masterpiece. I re-read it this month for the first time since I was an undergraduate because I am teaching on it this semester. All I’ll say is that I’m a lot more attuned to misogyny now than I was when I first read it (maybe especially after Women and Power!) and I’m looking forward to having discussions with my students about it.


Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter

Okay, at the time of writing I haven’t technically finished this one. I’m about fifty pages from the end. This is this month’s pick for my book group, which I sadly won’t be able to attend any more as I’m moving too far away from the host library. I started going to the book group because I was struggling to get out of my reading comfort zone and this is the exact kind of book that makes me glad I did. I love a historical novel, but I’d have walked right past this in the library. As it is, I’ve been transported to frontier-era Canada for has been an utterly moving story of trauma and self-acceptance. I can’t wait to see how it ends.


What’s up for next month? Well, I’ll need to refresh myself on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. I got Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant for Christmas. Last year I got a graphic novel about a woman who couldn’t finish her thesis that I’ve been too superstitious to read until now. I’m looking forward to reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power and Margaret Atwood’s Hagwood. Then again, maybe I’ll just spend the whole month re-reading Discworld. See you then.


Have you got a book recommendation for me? I’d love to hear about it.


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