It has become something of a tradition for me to post a retrospective of my summer reading, partly because I enjoy revisiting the books and partly on the theory that people spend less time online in the summer and so even those who ordinarily like to know what I’m reading and what I think about it might have missed some posts and want to catch up as the changing season brings us back to our usual routines.
I honestly don’t know if either of those reasons holds up this year! I didn’t read nearly as much, or with nearly as much pleasure, as I would in a typical summer: it’s not that I didn’t read some good books, but the pleasure always felt precarious, and the many hours I’ve spent struggling to re-train and prepare for online courses meant I spent a lot less time on our back deck basking in warmth and words. I also think a lot of people spent more hours online this summer than they ordinarily would–not just those who, like me, have had to make over their skills for work, but also those whose plans to travel or have visitors were disrupted, and those who were housebound for whatever combination of COVID reasons, from illness to care-taking to personal precautions.
Still, books remained a constant source of comfort and distraction, and it’s nicer thinking about them than doing a lot of the other things I still have to do before classes officially start up again on Tuesday, so here’s a review of my April to August reading.
Though I actually read it in March, Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life deserves to be included here, because it is so good and also because it rescued me from near-despair early in the lockdown, when everything seemed scary and uncertain and, to make matters worse (or because matters really were worse) I was struggling to concentrate on reading anything at all. As I said in my post about it, it is a “marvelous, inspiring, touching, and extremely wide-ranging account of the myriad ways needle crafts of all kinds have mattered and made meaning throughout history.” It was a great reminder of the many forms hardship has taken over the years and of the many creative ways women have responded by making practical or beautiful or expressive objects.
Another welcome reminder that it was still possible for me to lose myself in reading came from Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, which I thought was quite extraordinary: harrowing but also uplifting, smart and high-concept but also heartfelt. I’d like to go back to it, and maybe (circumstances and class assignments permitting) teach it some day; the only reason I wouldn’t do that is my suspicion that a lot of academic readers felt the same way about it that I did and so it might become one of those ubiquitous “I have to read it for all my classes” books (the way The Handmaid’s Tale was back in the 1980s, or Never Let Me Go more recently).
In May, I joined the swarm of other readers excited to finish up Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy with The Mirror and the Light. I didn’t find it as propulsive as Bring Up the Bodies, which to my mind was the best of the three, but a second-best installment in this remarkable series is still better than most other books, and its last 100 pages or so are as good as anything I ever expect to read. For me, The Mirror and the Light especially provoked questions about length–not because I thought it was “too long” (a measure for which there can be no generally applicable standards) but because I was fascinated by what its length ultimately meant about Mantel’s project and the form she gave it.
I very much enjoyed Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting – and I hope it doesn’t sound cynical to say that I also admired the marketing savvy that enabled her to repackage these particular biographies, some of which have been told often, and make something new, engaging, and appealing out of them. I brought my Woolf / Holtby materials home with me the day the term ended so abruptly: in retrospect, that was a pretty optimistic thing to do, but I was still thinking in terms of weeks, not months (or years, sigh), and it seemed reasonable that once the winter term wrapped up, I would turn my attention back to whatever that project was going to become. There’s a possible world in which I am presenting on just that question at the MSA in Brooklyn this October–not in this world, though.
I got caught up immediately in Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, which was a gift! I ended it not entirely sure what all of its parts added up to, which isn’t necessarily a fault of the novel: the habit of looking for that kind of unifying “reading” is just hard to shake for someone with my particular training.
The fun we had reading An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good sent my book club to Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss as our next read. I didn’t enjoy it all that much but it is definitely an interesting example of a crime novel with a “relatable” female detective as its protagonist. We have since also read Yrsa Sigurdasdottir’s Last Rituals; we haven’t “met” yet to discuss it, so I don’t know how well it went over with the rest of the group, but I found it quite tedious, though again (as with the Tursten) it might be an issue with the translation more than with the novel itself. I liked Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent much better, though I never wrote it up properly here, and will be looking around for the first in that series.
In June and July a lot of what I read was the entirety of P. D. James’s Dalgliesh series (16 novels, if you count, as I did, the two Cordelia Gray books, as they take place in the same fictional universe–a lot of them really quite long!). You will be able to read what came of that endeavor (which to be honest sounded more fun in theory than it turned out to be in practice) in the TLS a bit later this month: the September 25 issue, I’ve been told. I did try to read other things (and managed some miscellaneous light reading, mostly romances)–but A Time of Gifts, which I’d hoped would be the perfect antidote to lockdown, proved once again not to be my thing. I guess I need a story to motivate me to keep going–or a lot more life, which is just not what this beautifully written book communicates to me.
Hamnet and Judith, on the other hand, though in one sense a book all about death, was engrossing and immensely satisfying, as was William Trevor’s Love and Summer. Both are quiet novels with little overt drama; I think what is so pleasing about them both is that they perfectly execute what they set out to do (as far as I understood that, at any rate), whereas Sandra Newman’s The Heavens left me feeling thwarted, as if either the novel or my comprehension of it was a near miss, a lost opportunity. I was also really pleased and impressed with Kathleen Rooney’s Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, which turns a risky premise into a smart, touching, and thought-provoking novel.
One more highlight of my summer reading was Sarah Moss’s new novel Summerwater. Like Ghost Wall, it is a terse novel that turns out to have a lot packed into it: it gets bigger (not longer, of course!) the more attention you pay to it. I was estopped from reviewing it for the TLS because of having reviewed Ghost Wall for them, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to write it up for the Dublin Review of Books.
That’s not such a bad summer, really. There’s no Moby-Dick or To the Lighthouse (though there was Flush, which was a lovely little diversion), but there’s plenty to look back on with appreciation. Also, while it hasn’t been possible to support every cause or business that has been struggling because of the pandemic, I have tried to do my bit for our local bookstores at least! Getting new books delivered by bicycle has brightened many dreary days; I am really grateful to both Bookmark and the King’s Coop Bookstore (and manager Paul specifically!) for providing this heartening service.
My last book of the summer–or my first book of the fall–has been Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. I actually didn’t like it as much as I expected to. I loved aspects of it, but Ántonia herself never really came to life for me: she felt like a device, partly for a story about America and immigration and values, but also for a much less appealing and rather tired story about ambitious men and their stay-at-home muses who get to be inspirations, not protagonists. It’s definitely not Stoner-level annoying in this regard, but the novel in which Ántonia is actually the main character is the one I would rather read–or the one about Lena and Tiny.
And with that, this long, strange, uncertain summer winds up. I am really struggling to picture the fall term that is about to begin. I plan to keep up my “this week in my classes” series. Sometimes I have wondered whether the posts have gotten too repetitive, given the similarity of the routine every year and the reiteration of courses I have now taught many times. That certainly won’t be the case this year: a silver lining, perhaps! I’m wary about taking on any formal writing or reviewing assignments, in case I am overwhelmed with the different demands of online teaching, but I hope and expect to be able to keep reading, and to keep writing the results up here.
I know I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating that keeping up with other people’s blogs has been a great source of intellectual stimulation and comfort for me over the past few months, so thanks as always to everyone whose bookish thoughts help make the internet a better place. This has mattered so much at a time when our virtual communities are almost all we’ve had to keep us company!
“the one I would rather read” – she was not writing that kind of book at that time at least.
This is Edmund Wilson reviewing The Lost Lady in 1924: “Miss Cather seems to suffer from a disability like that of Henry James: it is almost impossible for her to describe an emotion or an action except at secondhand” (The Shores of Light, 41).
I don’t think Wilson is entirely right, but his point is a good one. Cather is full frames, witnesses, and questions about aboutness. My Ántonia is a puzzler.
I enjoy the retrospective of your books. A lot more fun than making powerpoints and recording lectures.
Thanks for your comment, Tom. That’s a really interesting insight into Cather. I thought there were hints in the novel of her interest in a different kind of story, especially the story of the daughters’ resistance to their mothers’ fates. I kept thinking of Angle of Repose, though: for me at least, that was a much more satisfying inquiry into women in America.
Hello there. I’ve read a few of the books that you mention. Love And Summer, for one. Right now I’m reading The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth. Maybe not one of his very best. Take care. Neil Scheinin
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I’ve never read any Roth at all. Is there one you would most recommend?
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Well, you’d probably want to research Roth before choosing a book. Too hard to list only one. Here are a few suggestions: Portnoy’s Complaint; Nemesis; Sabbath’s Theater; The Ghostwriter.