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Posts Tagged ‘John le Carre’

The further ahead I read, the more I “fall” behind. Even though I started reading fall books back in the summer, I’m still catching up with some of my favorite authors who had new books in September and October. A neighbor who loves Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto wanted to know about her latest novel, The Dutch House (HarperCollins, digital galley). With its emphasis on blended family dynamics, the book is more like Patchett’s Commonwealth than Bel Canto, but she still injects suspense in her domestic drama, and she is still writing about how we struggle to find a home in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s outside Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conroy are the Hansel and Gretel siblings, spiritually orphaned when their mother abandons them to the care of their reserved father. Then, after his sudden death, they are exiled from the suburban mansion of their childhood by a grasping stepmother looking out for her own young daughters. Although the fairy tale motifs are obvious, Patchett doesn’t overplay them as she explores complicated family relationships, how the past impinges on the present, how hard it is to forgive and yet how necessary. Adult Danny narrates, but Maeve — fierce, loving, brilliant, thwarted — is the book’s heart.

John le Carre is such a pro. His nimble new novel Agent Running in the Field (Viking, purchased hardcover), offers timely entertainment. Nat, the veteran British spy who narrates, is a passionate badminton player. “Squash is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.” Le Carre could well be describing his stylish plotting that has Nat taking over a derelict intelligence substation in London and running its motley assortment of agents. One bright spot is his young second in command, Florence, who has a plan to bug the apartment of a Ukranian oligarch with ties to Putin. There’s also Nat’s weekly badminton game with Ed, an odd duck researcher with a media firm, who vehemently dislikes Brexit, Trump and the British government and who vents his displeasure to Nat over post-match drinks. But when the Ukranian operation goes south, Nat finds that he can’t separate work from play, and the game is on — the great game of espionage, that is, complete with lies, spies, moles and betrayals large and small. No one writes it better than le Carre, even if Nat, Ed and Florence aren’t  as memorable as Smiley and the Cold War crowd of Tinker, Tailor days. Then again, it’s hardly the same world. Have to agree with Ed that we’re living in a hot mess.

I remember feeling bereft when I first finished reading Carol Anshaw’s 2012 novel Carry the One about several siblings and friends affected by a fatal car accident. It followed the characters over the years, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them, from Alice the artist to Walter Payton the dog. There’s a cool canine named Sailor in Anshaw’s new novel, Right After the Weather (Atria, digital galley), the same great writing and more complicated characters to care about. In 2016 Chicago, theater set designer Cate is turning 40 and turning over the pieces of her life, trying to get them to fit. Her career is gaining steam, she has an extroverted new girlfriend, and her longtime best friend Neale and her son Joe live nearby. But Cate still gets money from her parents, her angsty ex-husband is living in her spare room and she can’t forget her last girlfriend. Also, Trump has just been elected president. When a couple of addicts invade Neale’s home, Cate comes to her friend’s rescue, but the ensuing violence marks her and those around her in surprising ways. Neale, for one, announces that her estranged husband is returning home. “Pain slams Cate hard in the chest, as though she’s been whacked by an oar. Nothing big happens, she’s beginning to see, without knocking around the adjacent pieces.”

Like her 2016 first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, acclaimed YA author Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel Red at the Bone (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley) reads like a lovely prose poem. It also features a similar time-shifting narrative, but Woodson weaves together five voices in her poignant story of how an unexpected pregnancy brings together two families from different social classes. It opens in 2001 with a party for 16-year-old Melody, whose parents, Iris and Aubrey, had her when they were just 15 and 16. In a turnabout, it is ambitious Iris who left Aubrey and Melody with her parents, Sade and Po’Boy, so she could go to college at Oberlin. Woodson dips in and out of their lives at various junctures in a series of compressed vignettes full of youthful yearning and bittersweet wisdom. There is a lot of pain, but also love and hope, as Red at the Bone cuts close to the bone.

Kate DiCamillo isn’t just one of my favorite authors of books for young readers, but a favorite writer, period.  Beverly, Right Here (Candlewick Press, purchased e-book), the third book in the winning sequence that began with Raymie Nightingale and continued with Louisiana’s Way Home, centers on Beverly Tapinski, the third of the Three Rancheros, best friends in 1970s Central Florida. It’s now 1979, and Beverly is grieving the loss of her dog Buddy when she decides to leave town for good. Without a word to Raymie or her neglectful mom Rhonda, she hitches a ride to Tamaray Beach, where she lies about her age to get a job at a seafood joint and makes the acquaintance of elderly bingo player Iola Jenkins. In exchange for driving Iola around, Beverly gets tuna fish sandwiches and a place to stay. Despite her tough-girl exterior, Beverly has a tender heart, and Dicamillo perfectly captures her bravura and vulnerability. A small group of oddball but caring friends, including store clerk Elmer and waitress Freddie, help Beverly discover her self-worth as she tries to find her place in the world. Supposedly for ages 10-14, Beverly, Right Here should also appeal to so-called grown-ups, especially those who remember what it’s like to be 14. If you don’t, DiCamillo and Beverly are here to remind you.

In the spring of 1941, Berlin is “a tiger of a city filled with soot and ashes, where glass was never swept up, and fires were burned in the hallways of apartment houses, and people disappeared without a trace, and shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.’’ Desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Berlin, Hanni Kohn arranges for forged papers that identify Lea as a Christian. But she also has the rabbi’s clever daughter Ettie make a mystical Jewish being — a golem — to watch over Lea and keep her safe. Ava, the golem fashioned from water and clay, can communicate with birds and angels. Her life is linked to Lea’s, but also to her maker Ettie, who flees Berlin on the same train.  Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance The World That We Knew (Simon and Schuster, review copy), a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy.  I reviewed it last month for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and you can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/yyg5qz3g

 

 

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When Hurricane Irma made a mess in Central Florida last month, I ran away to the Circus. Cambridge Circus, that is, headquarters for John le Carre’s legendary British Secret Service and spies like George Smiley. In A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin, hardcover gift), Smiley, long retired, haunts the memory of  his protege Peter Guillam, called out of his retirement in Brittany for a reckoning with the past. Remember Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? He had a son, now grown, who blames the Circus for his father’s betrayal in the long-ago Operation Windfall, which Smiley oversaw at Control’s behest. A new generation with little or no memory of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall demands Guillam revisit the mission and its old files with the intention of erasing any embarrassment or responsibility. Guillam reluctantly complies, and le Carre artfully unlocks the puzzle of past and present, of old lies and loves, an agent called Tulip. It’s vintage le Carre, with references to Smiley’s nemesis Karla and the search for the mole detailed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but also the silky prose, the mordant wit, the moral ambiguity clouding the whole in every shade of gray. And, finally, Smiley — “grown into the age he had always seemed to be.” By George, it’s good to see him.

There were other windfalls. Celeste Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, purchased hardcover) begins with a two-story house in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio, going up in flames, then goes back in time to chronicle the events leading up to the conflagration. Ng has talent to burn — read her Everything I Never Told You — and is a mesmerizing storyteller. When free-spirited artist Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl move into a modest rental house owned by the affluent Richardsons, the two families’ lives intertwine. Quiet Pearl is soon enamored by teenagers Lexie, Trip and Moody, their seemingly carefree wealth, and admires their mother, organized reporter Elise. But the youngest Richardson, unruly Izzie, is drawn to Mia’s unconventionality and reticence about her past. Then the proposed adoption of a Chinese-American baby by friends of the Richardsons divides loyalties and reveals secrets. Sides are chosen, boundaries crossed. What does it mean to be a mother? Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the Clinton ’90s, but the issues it raises and the emotions it evokes are timely and timeless.

Just thinking about Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) makes me smile. Rich with whimsy, deliciously odd, it reminds me of nothing so much as Sloan’s first novel, the endearingly quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sloan fused books and technology and a touch of magic in that book. In this one, food combines with the tech world of robotics; as for the magic, that would be the sourdough starter that software engineer Lois Clary inherits from two immigrant chefs forced to leave San Francisco because of visa problems. Lois isn’t much of a baker, but even her first attempts with this starter taste wonderful. The cracks in the crust seem to smile, and Lois realizes the starter itself burbles melodically. It soon will change her routine life as her bread gains her entry first to the company cafeteria and then to an odd farmers’ market. Can she teach a robotic arm to bake? Or will the starter revolt?  Talk about wonder bread!

I generally veer away from “how-to” books, favoring fiction over DIY.  So it’s ok that Veronica Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop (Viking Penguin, digital galley) doesn’t actually give directions to finding romance among the shelves. This sweetly predictable novel of books connecting hearts is just the ticket for escape. Nightingale Books enjoys a central location in a lovely English village, which makes it prey for real estate developers. Emilia Nightingale, who suddenly inherits the bookshop when her father dies, has to figure out a way to keep the little store going or watch it turn into a parking lot. Fortunately, the town’s book lovers band together to keep the shop open, and several of them discover love in the process, including Emilia — maybe. The object of her affection, an old family friend, is otherwise engaged, but a charming single father is definitely interested. Other would-be couples include the terminally shy caterer who has a crush on the cheesemaker, the famous visiting author who recognizes an old flame at his book signing, the stay-at-home mom with business skills who suspects her commuter husband of having an affair. Then there’s Sarah, the wealthy older women with a secret. Nightingale Books is well worth a visit.

Salman Rushdie’s satirical, Gatsby-like novel of New York City during the Obama Years, The Golden House (Random House, digital galley), is like an extravagantly rich cake. The main characters — wealthy patriarch Nero Golden, his three grown sons, the supermodel second wife, the observant narrator, the crass politician — are larger-than-life, and it’s as if Rushdie has written the whole with a Bedazzler. It was all too much, and I only read about half before setting it aside. I may get back to it one of these days, maybe not.

I was all too happy to finish to Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, digital galley), a beautifully written book about an ugly subject. Martin Alveston, a disturbed survivalist, physically and sexually abuses his 14-year-old daughter Turtle, who is desperate to please him. She intimidates her middle-school classmates and scorns those who might help her, then meets high school student Jacob. The promise of friendship leads her to question the value system instilled in her by Martin and will ultimately end with a violent reckoning.

Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach (Scribner, digital galley) is quite different from her award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, being a more traditional historical novel.  It has the expanse and depth of an ocean as Egan details the story of Anna Kerrigan, who becomes a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, seeks answers to her bagman father’s disappearance, and becomes involved with gangster Dexter Styles. While still working as a machinist at the Navy Yard, Anna visits a nightclub with a girlfriend, who asks her if she’s an angel. “Anna was aware of the rattle of fall leaves over the pavement, the gardenia smell of Nell’s perfume. No one had ever asked her that question before. Everyone simply presumed that she was. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not an angel.’ “

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If you know where to find Checkpoint Charlie, how to follow Moscow Rules, and can quote from The Third Man, then Dan Fesperman has a book for you. In The Double Game, he pays homage to the classic espionage novels of the Cold War era even as he constructs a clever spy tale.

Former reporter Bill Cage begins to feel like he’s fallen down the rabbit hole of one the espionage tales he read as a Foreign Service brat growing up in Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Vienna in the 1960s and ’70s.  Someone is leaving him cryptic clues harking back to Cage’s old interview with Edwin Lemaster, in which the CIA spook- turned- spy novelist admitted he had toyed with the idea of being a double agent. The anonymous writer suggests there’s more to the story, and his intriguing missives send Cage off from his boring PR job to visit his diplomat father in Vienna. Soon, he’s puzzling over more literary clues in the surprise company of an old girlfriend, Litzi, who may know more than she’s telling.

The Double Game wears its knowledge lightly, thanks to Fesperman’s twisty plot and play on the classic themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, readers of le Carre, Deighton, and earlier greats, will appreciate the numerous literary references, as well as the visits to antique bookstores in European capitals where the mysterious “Source Dewey” plied his tradecraft. An eccentric book scout, Lothar, keeps turning up, as well as the cohort of a retired agent. And a former CIA researcher named Valerie (!) decries her similarities to le Carre’s fictional Connie Sachs, but she sounds just like her as she recalls one secret operation: “Then, in early sixty-five, Headlight struck gold. A man he met in Budapest. On a tram car of all places, right as he was rolling across the Danube on the Margit Bridge. Source Nijinsky.”

Charles Cumming’s nimble A Foreign Country takes its title from the famous L.P. Hartley line from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When designate MI6 chief  Amelia Levene goes off the grid, the service taps disgraced former agent Thomas Kell to find her. Given this chance to get back in the game, Kell reluctantly agrees and rather quickly tracks down Levene in a Tunisian resort. But that’s just one byway on a winding route taking Kell (and readers) into the long-ago past, where a French expatriate in Tunis had an affair with a British nanny, as well as more recent events — the murder of a French couple in Egypt, and a kidnapping in Paris. Even if you guess where the story’s going, it’s fun to follow the cat-and-mouse game from a Marseilles ferry to an English country house.

Love and loyalty are also called into question in Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, a different kind of Cold War tale, narrated by a young PLO operative posing as a student in 1989 London. Michel details his day-to-day errands as a courier for Abu Leila, the mentor who picked him from a Lebanese refugee camp after his his parents were murdered, and who supervised his schooling in Cyprus and his training in East Berlin and the Soviet Union. (KGB agents, we learn, read le Carre for the tradecraft.) As Michel gets to know his rooming-house neighbor Helen, a prickly graduate student, he splices more of his lonely past into the procedural-like narrative. When a routine operation goes tragically awry,  Michel is left holding a sealed envelope his enemies are willing to kill for. He and Helen escape to Scotland, where his education as a spy is tested and a thrilling chase ensues.

Open Book: Dan Fesperman is an old friend and colleague, and I thank him again for the hardcover copy of The Double Game (Knopf). I also had access to a digital version on NetGalley, where I obtained the e-galley of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off (Little, Brown). I read a paperback advance reading copy of Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press), after signing up for a giveaway on Shelf Awareness.

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I caught the elephant walk on the local news last night; yes, the circus is back in town. As much as I enjoy the animals and the acrobats, I’m too busy to head to the arena. Besides, I’m being vastly entertained by events at the Circus, which John le Carre fans know is his name for the British Secret Service, or MI5.

The novels that make up the Karla trilogy — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People — are among my favorite books, and every few years I reread them all, immersing myself in bespectacled George Smiley’s bleak world of scalp-hunters and lamplighters, Sarratt and the Nursery, London Central and the American cousins.

In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley hunts for the mole planted by Russian spymaster Karla in the heart of the 1970s Circus. The mole’s unmasking leaves the Circus in tatters in Schoolboy, and Smiley sends philandering journalist Jerry Westerby back to Hong Kong. Then, in Smiley’s People, word is out that Karla’s in search of “a legend for a girl.” Time for the Circus to get its act together and bring Karla over.

My latest rereading was prompted by the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, which I liked very much, an excellent distillation of the book although not as suspenseful as the 1979 miniseries with Alec Guinness as Smiley. Who is the mole? “There are three of them and Alleline” among the suspects, and  the miniseries allows for more backstory. Gary Oldham (and his glasses) makes for a wonderful Smiley, and the rest of the cast, including Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Toby Jones, are all well-suited to their roles.

Still, I have quibbles. It doesn’t make much difference that Boris appears in Budapest rather than Hong Kong, but why is Jerry Westerby the night duty officer instead of Sam Collins? What’s the point of Peter Guillam having a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend? And why does everything look so dull and brown when the script is actually as slick and sharp as steel knife?

Oh, apples and oranges. I like them both, or rather all three: book, mini-series and new movie. And all three Karla novels, too. Smiley’s People also was a good miniseries. I’d like to see the same Tinker film team take a crack at that story. Meanwhile, I’m in Hong Kong with Jerry and then on to Switzerland with George. Don’t tell Karla we’re coming.

Open Book: I have multiple copies of all of le Carre’s books, but I lent my paperback of The Honourable Schoolboy to a friend several years ago, who then lost it on a trip to Hong Kong.  Or so he said. I bought the digital editon for the Nook tablet.

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Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and, oh, yes, Cairncross. The infamous Cambridge Five, the spy ring that upended British intelligence in the 20th century. Now, name the Sixth Man.

 Right, there wasn’t one. Or was there? Espionage aficionados, historians and conspiracy theorists have long speculated that perhaps another Trinity College student was recruited in 1930s Cambridge by Moscow Centre. The Brits covered so long for Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps they covered for another mole. What if this ancient agent is still alive?

Charles Cumming uses this unlikely premise as a springboard for his new thriller, The Trinity Six, which reminded me how much I love a good spy novel in the tradition of early John le Carre and Len Deighton. I reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carre’s classic mole hunt, every few years even though I know its secrets. Alec Guniness and Ian Richardson starred in the excellent 1979 British miniseries; I’m not sure the new film version due out later this year is needed, even with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth among the stellar cast.

On the other hand, Cumming’s novel appears tailor-made for a film, with its engaging characters and atmospheric scenes in European capitals. It’s written cinematically, too. When history professor Sam Gaddis excuses himself from the bar in Budapest just as his source is primed to spill all, you want to yank him back to his seat. No, don’t go write up notes for your book in the men’s room. Don’t you know about the assassin just waiting to pick off the man you’re with? 

Readers do, of course, because they’ve seen him outside on the street. Shots are going to ring out. Sam’s going to be on the run again, hunted by both the British and the Russians because he’s getting to close to identifying ATTILA, the sixth man with the really big secret. Didn’t Sam learn anything after the fiasco in Berlin? Has he counted the bodies piling up in his wake? Can he really trust the lovely and efficient Tanya, who has betrayed him before? Just as well Sam doesn’t know the British have tagged him POLARBEAR, as in soon to be extinct.

Cumming knows the conventions and tradecraft of the spy novel inside out. The movie The Third Man figures in a code; Sam reads the spy novel Archangel on a train. In the end, he even invokes the Moscow Rules in a kind of rueful homage to a past that didn’t include e-mail and throwaway cell phones.

The Trinity Six is as old-fashioned and entertaining a Cold War thriller as you can find in the age of Google and the Taliban. As one old spymaster instructs Sam, “Never underestimate the extent to which SIS and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.”

Still, I wish the story held better secrets and surprises, that the foreshadowing wasn’t so heavy, that betrayal came like a knife to the heart. Ah, where have you gone George Smiley?

Open Book: I received an advance readers’ edition through a web promotion of Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six (St. Martin’s Press). Now, I want to read  Cumming’s previous three thrillers as I eagerly await his next.

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I’ve hardly unpacked and I’m already getting itchy feet. Not today, nor tomorrow, but sometime soon I’ll want to go somewhere else for a bit. Considering the state of my budget and my health, I best be content with living in Florida (yeah, it’s tough this time of year!) and letting my fingers do the wandering, flipping through pages of books of faraway places.

And I have just the guidebook, librarian extraordinare Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers. It follows Book Lust, More Book Lust and Book Crush, which are musts for everyone wondering what to read or reread next. 

I have never met Nancy Pearl, although I did interview her by phone when the Sentinel started its “One Book, One Community” reading program in 2002 with E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. When she was at the Seattle Public Library, Nancy developed the program, “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” which spread across the country. I remember her applauding our choice of Charlotte’s Web, and then we went off on a tangent about other books that had absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand.

Now I listen to her recommended reading on NPR’s Morning Edition and follow her at her website, on Facebook and Twitter. She was recently named Librarian of the Year and was the cover girl for Library Journal. And she has her own action figure. How cool is that?!

We have exchanged occasional e-mails on the virtues of various books — we are both fond of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair — and periodically wonder why some favorite authors of yesteryear (Elizabeth Cadell, for instance)  have gone out of print.  I always smile when she singles out a book I adore (Robin McKinley’s vampire novel Sunshine), and when she tweets that she just loves Jo Walton’s new book, Among Others, I order it ASAP. I trust her. 

Back to Book Lust to Go. It’s divided into short sections, “A is for Adventure” to “Zipping through Zimbabwe/Roaming Rhodesia,” and you can hop on and off at any spot, as if on a tour bus. The commentary is witty. On Ireland: “Let’s not start with James Joyce and just say we did, okay?”

Hong Kong is a place I’ve visited only via books and movies, and I’ve read several of Book Lust’s recommendations: Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher, Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy. Up next for me, Gail Tsukiyami’s Night of Many Dreams. I’m also going to reread The Honourable Schoolboy, which Nancy loved on first reading but can’t bring herself to reread because of what she “perceived as its desperate sadness.” Yes, but it’s sooo good, and the middle book in the Smiley trilogy.

Off to Venice, where I once spent a solitary Sunday because my traveling companion had tummy trouble. After finding him some Gatorade (no translation needed), I wandered the city, keeping in mind Donna Leon’s series of mysteries starring Commissario Guido Brunetti, Henry James’ Wings of the Dove, and Salley Vickers’ charming Miss Garnet’s Angel. I even went in search of the church in Vickers’ novel only to find it covered in scaffolding and closed for restoration. If I ever get back, I’ll look for it again.

 Meanwhile, I’ve never read Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed. And I’m going to shop my shelves for John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy and the Great World, and Sarah Caudwell’s Thus was Adonis Murdered. I may need a map to find them, though.

But who needs a plane ticket? In my fabulous new armchair, and with Nancy Pearl as my guide, I’m off to see the world.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go (Sasquatch Books), a handy paperback to take on your Grand Tour. The chair’s from Pier One.

 

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I’m not ready to close the book on 2010, or any other year for that matter. Perusing others’ year-end best lists, I’m gratified to see many of my own favorites (Tana French’s Faithful Place, Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, Emma Donoghue’s Room) and that President Obama is reading John le Carre and David Mitchell. But mostly I see all the books I’ve read but still haven’t written about, plus all the ones I want to read, including the lovely stack from Santa and friends.

 Just yesterday I finished Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy, which was very good, and came out six months ago. It’s the 19th in the Inspector Alan Banks series, which is hard to believe. Was In a Dry Season really 10 books back? I’d like to reread it if I can find my copy. I’m always looking for books lost in my own house, and while searching for them, I inevitably turn up others I’d like to reread — or never read in the first place. A constant chorus seems to emanate from the shelves and stacks: Pick me! I’m next! Over here!

I’m on vacation at my mom’s but can’t escape the books begging for attention. In fact, my bed is shoved up against a bookcase on one side, and I fall asleep — and wake up — eye-to-eye with a shelf of Maeve Binchy novels, a couple of Barbara Kingsolvers and some Tony Hillermans. All read and read again, still enticing. I turn my head, and the TBR stack of new volumes threatens to topple off the nightstand.

Susan Hill understands. The prolific British author, best known forThe Woman in Black — although I love her Simon Serrailler crime series — also loses books in her house. It’s why she wrote Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. Looking for one elusive volume, she turned up a  dozen more she’d forgotten about. So, swearing off new books for the most part and curtailing her use of the internet, she decided to “repossess” her own books. She writes:

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Her books also turn out to be a map of her own life, and her reading journey becomes a memoir. For fellow bibliophiles, the result is as hard to resist as the title — charming, anecdotal, opinionated. The temptation to quote is endless. “No matter what the genre, good writing tells.” And, “Ah here is Muriel Spark, sharp as a pencil, cool, stylish.”

She is talking about Sparks’ novels and stories, but Hill has led a literary life, and her descriptions of her encounters with older, famous writers are just as pointed. Edith Sitwell is haughty and terrifying, but the “small man with thinning hair and a melancholy mustache” who accidentally drops a book on her foot in the London Library offers “a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur.” As she returns the book, she finds herself looking into the watery eyes of an elderly E.M. Forster. “He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly 50 years.”

She notes that knowing about a writer’s life is rarely necessary to appreciate their works but makes an exception, at least for herself, where Dickens and the Brontes are concerned. As for her own life, she has published books by other authors and found it an enjoyable sideline. She loves the feel and shape of books, the smell of them, the sound of pages being turned. She’ll put money on books — real books, printed and bound — being around as long as there are readers.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had the ambitious idea of giving away at least one of my old books for every new one I brought home. I would even chronicle this pruning of my collection in occasional posts, “Going, going, gone.” I think I did this twice before realizing the futility of my donating books or releasing them into the wild in any organized fashion. I always have a give-away box going, but it contains mostly recent acquisitions in which I’ve lost all interest. Rarely can I survey my shelves, stacks, piles, bins, carry-alls, table-tops, etc. and see a book I think I might not want to re-read — or get around to reading for the first time. Just reading Hill’s memoir has reminded me of at least half a hundred of which I already have copies.

So that’s my plan for 2011. Not to stop reading new books; I know my limits — as well as what’s on the horizon that looks wonderful. I’m already counting the months — eight — when the sequel to Lev Grossman’s  The Magicians is supposed to be published. But I am going to make a concerted effort to “repossess” the books I have, to indulge in the companionship of old friends, to acquaint myself with new-to-me volumes. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how often whimsy wins out over the call of the current. As soon as I get home later this week, I’ll probably start with Forster. Howards End is in the white wicker chest beneath the bedroom window. I think.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books) when it was published in the U.S. in early November. It moved to the top of my TBR stack about a week ago.

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