My first classes of 2013-14 meet tomorrow morning: between that and the expectation that temperatures will drop into the single digits tonight, it’s clearly time to admit that summer is over — and along with it, Maddie and my annual summer reading project. (She exceeded her goal this year, so good for her!) Because blog traffic, like all things, slows down around here in the warm weather, I thought I’d do another quick review.
It wasn’t as good a reading summer as last year, though to be fair, it’s hard to beat a season that includes Madame Bovary The Once and Future King, and Bring Up the Bodies along with my personal highlight, The Paper Garden. A late entry turned out to be this year’s winner: I was entirely moved and impressed by Adam Johnson’s grim, funny, poignant novel of North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son. The summer’s other notable highlight was a long overdue rereading of David Copperfield – it’s absurd, really, how much there is to savor, laugh at, and cry at in that one book. Rose Tremain’s Restoration was another notable experience. Like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, it approaches history very personally, and (though quite different in tone and style) it is also similarly ingenious about making individual character convincingly embody the spirit of an age. Finally, May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep was just wonderful. (I’ve just begun its dark twin, Journal of a Solitude and am finding it equally engrossing, if less uplifting.)
Some of the summer’s other good reading came in clusters. The biggest of these, of course, was the Dick Francis cluster: I reread all 40 of his (solo) thrillers as I worked on my essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. But there was also the Barbara Pym cluster, which included not just The Sweet Dove Died, Jane and Prudence, and Excellent Women, but also Harrison Solow’s smart and lively Felicity and Barbara Pym. There was the Georgette Heyer cluster (I’ve finally figured out how to read her! Everyone was right – she’s delightful!): Arabella, Sprig Muslin, Black Sheep, and Cotillion — the last two of which I particularly enjoyed. And there was the Tana French cluster: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place (which for my money is the best of these three – I haven’t read Broken Harbor yet). (I wrote a little about each of these at GoodReads but didn’t review them here in detail.)
Two other books I particularly enjoyed were Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which is, so far, my favorite Elizabeth Taylor novel: it’s an odd but very effective blend of poignancy and acidity (but I read it while on vacation, so again, no post here!) and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea — which I know I will reread in turbulent times, despite my faint unease at its self-helpishness.
I shouldn’t forget the books I reviewed in Open Letters. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life was both good and bad, smart and limited — in my review I tried to do justice to its strengths while being as clear as I could about what I felt were its shortcomings. I’m particularly proud of that review, actually; I think it’s one of the best I’ve done. Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning, in its turn, was consistently both smart and interesting — like its subject! (But not in any way as ornery!) And that reminds me that I read another excellent literary biography, Susan Kress’s Feminist in a Tenured Position: I’ll be reviewing this as I prepare for next term’s seminar on ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ (even though I won’t be able to assign Death in a Tenured Position this time around).
The only real disappointments were The Woman Upstairs (which, to be fair, I didn’t exactly think was a poor novel – I just disliked it) and The Sixteen Pleasures.
Going through this list, it seems like a decent summer’s reading after all, even if last year’s was better. When the reading’s not as good, neither is the writing, though: I felt a comparative lack of critical exhilaration as well as energy, as indicated by the number of books here I didn’t blog about at all. I was pretty energetic about some other summer projects, though, notably my Middlemarch for Book Clubs website, which went live in June. Now if I could only figure out the most effective way to publicize it … but that’s for another post, along with more thoughts about projects for the fall and beyond.