Summer Reading Recap

As the warm days dwindle down to a precious few, so too has time run out on our public library’s summer reading program, and Maddie and I have both tallied up our final scores. Neither of us quite reached the number we’d set as a goal, but we feel good that we read a lot, including a lot of books that we really liked. Since, as usual, the number of blog readers went into a bit of a slump over the summer, I thought I’d help people catch up with a look back at some of the books that were highlights for me, with links to the full posts.

At the top of my ‘best of the summer’ list would have to be the two books I read about the ‘troubles’ in Ireland, J. G. Farrell’s Troubles and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September. It’s hard to imagine two more different books dealing with such similar historical territory.  Farrell’s dry, acerbic absurdity was more immediately engaging, but Bowen’s prose, full of beauty but shot through with both pain and humor, made her novel linger in my mind well after I finished it. Both resist all temptation to melodrama; even the inevitable violence and suffering emerges perfectly (though in completely different registers) from the tone and form of each book.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed and admired Jane Smiley’s Private Life. It’s a carefully paced, understated novel, a family saga without any of the grandiosity such books often rely on; it moves us through a tumultuous period of American history and deftly balances attention to the events and complexities of that context against its primary interest in the small-scale achievements and struggles of private life.

Testament of a Generation was everything I’d hoped it would be: sharp, intellectual, passionate journalism from Vera Brittain and Winnifred Holtby. It fed my enthusiasm for one day developing a seminar on the Somerville novelists. Brittain’s The Dark Tide, on the other hand, was a more … ambivalent … reading experience.

Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets took me completely by surprise with its strange, drifting prose and stark confrontations with different kinds of loss. If, as the introduction proposes, it was the Bridget Jones’s Diary of another generation, either I’ve been wildly misreading Bridget Jones’s Diary all this time or that generation had radically different expectations of itself and its books.

I, Claudius was ultimately more fascinating to me for the formal choices Graves made than for the story or characters. It wasn’t easy pushing through some of the longer paragraphs (and if you’ve read I, Claudius, you know that pretty much all of the paragraphs are pretty long!), and I admit I was greatly helped by having watched the BBC adaptation just previously, or I don’t think I could have kept the family tree sorted or felt the drama of the events, which come to us in such abundant yet muted detail.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, though I wondered after just how much that pleasure came from Gardam’s pushing all the ‘right’ buttons for a reader like me. Yet I had similar expectations of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (that it was just the book for me), and didn’t like it very much after all, finding its flat affect ultimately too flat. I didn’t write up Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, as I finished it while in Birmingham and the moment for posting on it had passed by the time I got home, but I was similarly underwhelmed by it: though Patchett’s writing is wonderfully readable and the story had plenty of momentum during reading, somehow (and of course it’s possible this was in part the effect of reading while traveling) I was never deeply engaged by it emotionally, and at the end I couldn’t really decide where it had taken me intellectually. I’ll hang on to it, and to Brooklyn: I’ll reread them someday, I expect, and maybe I’ll find something more in them then. I haven’t written up The Age of Innocence either. It’s wonderful, of course, and yet I ended it a skeptic about it, feeling the brilliance of Wharton’s prose and the minuteness of her analysis was squandered on Newland and Ellen, neither of whom I liked or believed in at all. More about that, maybe, in a later post.

I read four more early Spenser novels, one of which, The Judas Goat, was so awful that, had it been my first experience of the series, I would not have read any more. But the other three were excellent of their kind. I’m still trying to get ahold of God Save the Child, the second in the series, in which Spense and Susan first meet. I read it many years ago, before I had quite the same interest in how their relationship is handled. By just a few books later on, they are very nearly into their lasting patterns, which in many respects have always epitomized to me the relationship between equals that is (or is it?) the ultimate romantic fantasy.

Finally, of the summer books worth any further comment, there’s Murder Must Advertise, an old favorite but one I haven’t read attentively in some time. I enjoyed rereading it, but the real fun came in writing it up, which was by far the best time I had doing any writing all summer. That’s the feeling I wish I could always having when writing: overflowing with ideas, enthusiasm, and energy, and just happy to be putting it all out there.

Everything else I read was disappointing to mediocre, really, or, in one case, laughably bad. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like a great reading season overall. Happily, I have just finished Our Mutual Friend, though. If I’d reached the end before the library’s deadline, the average would have been raised considerably.  I’m currently feeling a bit overwhelmed with the start of the teaching term, but I’m determined to get a proper post up on that dark, hilarious novel before too much longer.

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