Although until a couple of days ago I was awash in end-of-term work, especially evaluating final essays and exams, I have been managing to fit in some “leisure” reading (although, given my line of work, what reading is ever purely personal is never clear). Partly just to break the inertia of not blogging, I thought I’d write the books up briefly; hopefully that will clear my mind enough that some more thoughtful posts will follow over the next few days, including some kind of wrap-up post about my first full year of teaching online.
First up: Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. I have really enjoyed the three books I’ve read so far in Herron’s Slough House series and usually crime fiction is more my thing than spy novels, so I had high hopes for this one. It didn’t really live up to them, but I think that’s more because of a mismatch between my expectations and Herron’s book, rather than any faults with Down Cemetery Road on its own terms: it is more a thriller than a whodunnit, and while it has some good characters, it is more about plot and suspense than about developing them. It’s pretty dour, even dark, and also pretty political, with its crimes reaching back to things like experimentation with chemical weapons and war crimes. If that’s your thing, you’ll probably like it! It’s well written and pretty fast paced. I won’t be seeking out more in this series, though; I’m much more interested in reading more of the Slough House ones.
Next up: The Mayor of Casterbridge. One of my vague plans for ages has been to revisit some Hardy in case there’s something I’d rather assign in the ‘Dickens to Hardy’ course than Tess or Jude, so the last time I ventured out to campus I brought back two likely suspects to read over the summer, The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Picking up Mayor a bit randomly the other day, I found that for whatever reason, I could stick with it better than with the contemporary novels I’d been sampling, so I stuck with it. I think it had been 15 years or more since I last read it: presumably I didn’t love it then or it would promptly have taken its place on my syllabus, and I didn’t end up caring that much for it this time, though I can see that it probably teaches well. As an aside, I mentioned on Twitter that it wasn’t for me and (inevitably, I have learned) people popped up in the replies to tell me that it’s a great novel, or Hardy is a great novelist. Honestly, that’s not a particularly relevant response: even setting aside the vagaries of terms like “great,” tastes vary. By all means tell me that you like it, and better yet tell me what you like about it, but I don’t enjoy replies that sound as if they are correcting my “mistake.” (I’m sure some people do not mean to chastise you when they tell you how good a book is that you’ve admitted to not liking, but especially when it’s a “classic,” I do find that it often sounds like they are saying that you should know [that is, read] better. Tone is notoriously difficult to convey online!) I really hope I don’t do that when people say (as they pretty often do) that they don’t like Middlemarch.
I also picked up Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises pretty randomly: it has been ripening unread on the shelf since I picked it up used at the symphony book sale, which has not been held now since 2019. (How I have missed it!) Isn’t it odd how the right moment for a book just arrives, sometimes? I think I hadn’t read it before because it has a dreary cover and sounded dour–and if that makes you wonder, then, why I even bought it, well, it was only $2, and Drabble is a novelist I often like, so it seemed worth the very small risk. That said, it is a bit dour, but it’s also sometimes mordantly funny and also kind of encouraging, for a novel that is mostly about death–because what it is really about is what it means or looks like to live a good life. A number of its characters are near the end of their lives; it is not written in the spirit of raging against the dying of the light so much as of seizing what small comforts you can, an idea encapsulated really nicely in Robert Nye’s poem “Going On,” which is quoted in the novel in full. Here are the last line, though of course they mean the most in context:
Now when I think I can’t go on
What I remember is that man
With some small comforts in his hands
Passing along a crowded street
Towards a room all of his own.
Drabble’s eye is really sharp and she does not soften her stories of middle or old age at all. What I appreciate is that the resulting perspective, while resolutely unsentimental, is also not cruel or harsh: it’s just perceptive and kind of curious, as if she’s puzzling out what odd creatures people are and examining the various ways they get as best they can from one day to the next.
Finally, my ‘light’ reading: I had pre-ordered Sally Thorne’s latest romance, Second First Impressions, and was happy when it showed up on my Kobo just when everything else felt like a bit too much. I thought it was just OK. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Hating Game, though I know it was a bit polarizing among other readers. To me it felt fresh and believable, and it’s also very funny; I’ve reread it a few times when I needed a diversion. I can’t imagine rereading this one: its people just didn’t stand out and it all felt a bit too manufactured. I think it might have been better if she’d alternated points of view: the ‘hero’ never quite came into focus for me. It wasn’t bad, though, and it had a lot of cute elements.
What’s next? Right now I’m reading Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth, which is going pretty well so far. It’s a bit hard to roll with some of his devices for Shakespeare’s characters and plots; I’ve just reached the murder of Duncan and that, in particular, seemed insufficiently motivated for these updated characters, who don’t exactly live in a world where “killing the king” is a thing people do to get ahead. The exercise itself is fun, though; I’ve read a couple others in this venture (Vinegar Girl, for one, and also Hag-Seed) and part of the pleasure is just seeing what creative approach the contemporary author comes up with. As far as other reading plans go, I started The Garden of the Finzi-Continis but wasn’t getting along well with it, so I’m saving it for a day when I can read it on the deck, basking in the sunshine and tuning out the fretful world better than I can at the moment. I’ve got Lonesome Dove on order, and I’m looking forward to that, as it sounds as if it’s an adventure in great old-fashioned story-telling. Plus in honor of Independent Bookstore day, I’ve ordered Anne Enright’s Actress and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree, both recommended by other trusted readers and books that also look smart without being too demanding.
Pretty soon, too, the last of the administrative work for the term will be done and then I will finally–for the first time since last March, really–be able to turn my attention away from online teaching and sort out some priorities and plans for longer-term reading and writing projects, probably including a return to the work I’d been doing on and around The Years. What a nice thought! It’s almost (but not quite) enough to cheer me up in the face of today’s dismal and rather frightening COVID numbers.