I don’t usually look back on my year in reading until I’m pretty sure the reading year is actually over: traditionally, I get some good books as gifts, for instance, and sometimes the last week of December is my best chance for happy, uninterrupted reading. So I won’t plunge into retrospection just yet! Instead, I’ll just briefly note three more books that could be in the running for best or worse of the year.
Actually (spoiler alert!) none of these three is at either of those extremes for me. The first, Monk’s Hood, was fine: exactly what I expected after my happy experience reading the first Brother Cadfael mysteries. In this turbulent year, Brother Cadfael’s quiet but firm moral rectitude felt particularly soothing. It calmed and satisfied me, but it didn’t inspire me to binge-read the rest of the series immediately. I remain very pleased that I inherited it from a colleague who was “downsizing” her library, though: it is nice to know they are all there, neatly lined up and ready for me the next time I want just that kind of an interlude.
Elizabeth von Armin’s Father was better than fine: it was funny, touching, and somewhat acerbic, never tipping over into sentimental but also without quite the edge of cruelty that turned me off Mapp and Lucia. As Simon Thomas notes in his Afterword to the nice new British Library edition, it is one of a number of novels from around the same period treating the place or plight of single women – he notes Lolly Willowes as another along with a few I’d never heard of such as May Sinclair’s The Life and Death of Harriet Frean. Father tells a superficially simple story about a daughter finally freed from her care-taking duties to her austere and imperious widowed father (a highbrow if somewhat scandalous novelist) by his impulsive second marriage. “Papa is wed, and I am free,” Jen thinks joyfully, as she sets off, during what is supposed to be Father’s honeymoon in Norway, to find herself a home of her own. She does, and it is everything she ever wanted. The initial period of her setting up housekeeping is just so happy – but between her clergyman landlord and his possessive and interfering sister and her father and stepmother (who, it turns out, never made it further than Brighton) things do not go quite as Jen had planned–with what specific results, I will leave it to you to find out when you read Father for yourself!
The recent book that did not go over so well with me was Lesley Crewe’s The Spoon Stealer. I decided to buy it after enjoying an online event put on by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia about historical fiction. All of the authors on the panel read excerpts from their work, and The Spoon Stealer sounded charming–and it is, in many ways, but it fell flat when I read it for myself. I’ve been wondering if the problem might lie somewhere in the difference between how books sound read aloud and how they sound in my head, or with something about what I read novels for and prefer to get from them: perhaps Crewe’s style tilts towards oral storytelling, for instance, while my taste tends in another direction. When I paused over an incident or paragraph or sentence in the novel that seemed especially stilted or unconvincing, I could almost never point to anything specifically wrong with it, and I like the novel’s premise and (in theory at least) its protagonist. But I became increasingly impatient with it, though just to be sure I gave it a fair chance, I did read all the way to the end. I am always aware that not all books are for all readers and this one turned not to be for me–it’s not always good enough (depending on the circumstances) to shrug a book off this way, but in this case, I am OK with just moving on.
I think your comment about reading or listening to a book is fertile ground for upcoming neurologists and teachers, to research. I had the same experience with one of my book club’s books, cannot remember which, where listening was better than reading. I would guess that in listening, the mind has more resources to devote to the story than in reading. It seems to me that the process of reading [not thinking about the story] requires more resources than the process of listening.
This issue must be important to teaching and learning. I googled ‘reading vs. listening’ and found “Why Listening to a Book Is Not the Same as Reading It” at https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/friendly-interest/201812/why-listening-book-is-not-the-same-reading-it
Thank you for your blog and wishing you, your family, and readers, a happy holiday season, and yes, next year will be better.
Thank you for your comment! That is a very interesting line of inquiry about reading vs. listening. Best wishes to you too! I would like to see 2021 can hardly be worse than 2020 but that seems like tempting fate even for a resolutely non-superstitious person like me. 😉
I have all the Brother Cadfael books in digital and reread them earlier this year (over the summer, I think) for much the same reason you enjoyed reading Monk’s Hood.
It’s also soothing to know that people have gotten through as bad or worse situations than we have! Stephen and Matilda might not be in the same league as Donald Trump, but having two competing claimants to the throne fighting each other and sacking cities was unnerving for everyone. As the saying goes, “God and his saints slept” during that period, yet England survived.
It is an enviable position to have a number of unread Brother Cadfael books waiting for you when you’re ready!
I might have to try Father.
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