Summer Read-Along: Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale

penguin-bennettDorian and I thought it would be fun to do some kind of informal collaborative summer read-along; we settled on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale as a book that neither of us knows and that lies in between our two main “periods” (me, Victorian; Dorian, Modern). I’ve been wanting to get to know Bennett on his own terms for a long time—suspecting, for instance, that Woolf’s brilliant but inevitably Woolfian perspective on Bennett in her (in)famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” is far from the only way to think about his contributions to the history of the novel.

The basic idea is that we’ll read The Old Wives’ Tale in instalments and take turns posting at our blogs to begin the discussion. Anyone who wants to can read along and join in, in the comments – or on Twitter or, of course, they can just post on their own blogs! When we get started, we’ll use a Twitter hashtag (probably #OldWivesTale21) so people can either follow it or mute it, depending on how they feel about this undertaking. 🙂

Here’s our (tentative) schedule, subject to the kinds of adjustments that both the pandemic and the fluidity of our summer plans mean are probably inevitable.

Bennett Schedule

Our intention is to keep this quite low-key: the instalments are pretty modest, the overall time-frame for reading the novel is generous, and there are no rules about what or how much we will be posting or how the spin-off discussions should go. It just seemed like a bit of structure would be a good way to make sure we actually do this! Please do join us on whatever terms would make it fun for you.

Summer Reading: 2020 Edition

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!

Summer Reading and Writing – 2018 Edition

I’ve read quite a lot since term ended in early May, but it didn’t feel as much like summer reading this year because thanks to a long spell of unpleasant heat and humidity coupled with a massive construction project just one street over, I did hardly any of it on our back deck. I read most of the books I was reviewing in my (unair-conditioned) campus office, where the need to vacate before the heat became unbearable in the early afternoon helped keep me focused on my task, and otherwise I just read at home wherever it was quietest. (Today, on the other hand, it was gloriously sunny, with no humidity and no construction, so my Fall 2018 reading has started off very nicely!) Here’s a quick recap of my summer highs and lows.

It turned out to be the summer of Sarah Moss for me: I read four of her books, including Ghost Wall, which I reviewed for the TLS. I enjoyed them all (and I think Ghost Wall is pretty brilliant), but especially The Tidal Zone. That leaves just one novel (Cold Earth) and some non-fiction of hers that I haven’t read yet. I’m not sure I’m enough of a fan to pursue her into more academic territory, but her monograph does sound rather tempting: Spilling the Beans: reading, writing, eating and cooking in British women’s fiction 1770 – 1830. I also enjoyed her contributions to this otherwise fairly unremarkable discussion of literary criticism today on BBC4’s “Open Book.”

Edna O’Brien’s Little Red Chairs was another book I really enjoyed–or, since “enjoyed” seems a bit too chipper for the story the book tells and the feelings it evokes, I’ll say it’s another book I admired and was engrossed by! How have I not read O’Brien before? I would particularly like to read her first novel, The Country Girls. I didn’t love Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, but I read it with great interest; similarly, I didn’t love Irene Némirovsky Suite Française but it has left me with a lot to think about. I really didn’t like Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen or Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me; I admired artistically but personally resisted Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. Finally, Nell Painter’s Old in Art School was an engaging read that was also timely, given that something else I did this summer was take a drawing class.

I wrote nine pieces for publication over the summer. Most were reviews: for Quill & Quire I reviewed Merilyn Simonds’ Refuge, Alix Hawley’s My Name is a Knife, and Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn (which I loved); for the TLS I reviewed Ghost Wall (coming soon) and Peter Keating’s Agatha Christie and Shrewd Miss Marple; and for Canadian Notes and Queries I just finished writing up Helen Humphreys’ Machine Without Horses. I also wrote three essays: for the TLS, I wrote about “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump,” with a focus on Trollope’s great domestic tragedy He Knew He Was Right; for The Reader Magazine, I wrote about Carol Shields’ Unless, which readers of this blog will know is a favorite of mine; and, on a more personal note, I wrote about “Learning to Speak” for Sarah Emsley’s blog series on Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. (The whole series is excellent: I recommend scrolling through to see what else is there.) None of these pieces individually was as exciting as last year’s Dunnett extravaganza, but I enjoyed the range of texts and topics, and I continue to find myself challenged both intellectually and creatively by figuring out what to say (and how to say it) about both books I’m meeting for the first times and old friends I’d like to tell people more about. The tight word limits often felt constraining (for the Trollope and Shields essays especially), but I’m getting more used to the process of generating a lot of material and then, like a sculptor, carving away everything that doesn’t look like the piece it turns out I’m writing. Sometimes (as with the Ghost Wall review) I’m even pretty pleased with the results.

I spent a fair amount of time reflecting on writing priorities, and especially thinking (again!) about whether at some point I should focus my energies on a book project instead of dissipating them (as it sometimes seems) across so many smaller pieces. I have long resisted the idea that “a book” should be a goal in and of itself, as if the form is what matters and not its necessity. There are (IMHO) enough, if not too many, books already (especially scholarly books in “my” field), and it seems foolish to aspire to add to their number unless I have something to say that requires such expansiveness! I’ve also now had multiple reports from people in publishing that there is really no hope of selling (to them, much less to readers) the kind of essay collection I have long had in mind–which doesn’t mean I have given up on it. One thing I don’t like about publishing essays (especially but not only in online venues) is how ephemeral they seem. If only for my own satisfaction, I’d like to fix the best of them in some firmer form–to give them, if I can, a bit more solidity, perhaps by self-publishing them. Is this just vanity? Perhaps! But really, I don’t see how it’s more self-aggrandizing than the kind of pitching and polishing and positioning required for traditional publishing, and it certainly involves many fewer concessions. I’m still thinking about these questions, though, and I am fortunate to have a sabbatical coming up that will give me time to act on whatever decisions I make.

And that’s it for Summer 2018! Classes begin for me on Wednesday, and with them another season of “This Week in My Classes”–the 12th, if I count correctly. (For an index of my years of teaching posts, see here.) My reading continues, of course. I’ve just started Rachel Cusk’s Outline and my book club has chosen George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo for our next meeting; both of these look very different from my usual fare, so I’m excited to see how I do with them. And the first book up for me at work this term is David Copperfield: here’s hoping my students find it as delightful as I do.


Summer Reading, 2017 Edition

There was an undeniable nip in the air when I went on my run this morning–the overnight forecast even included the ominous words “risk of frost.” Though we are sure to have some more warm weather as September unfolds, it will be nice fall weather: the season is definitely changing. The other sure sign of that, of course, is that classes start this week. I’ll have more to say about that soon as I begin the 11th season of posts about ‘This Week In My Classes.’ Before summer has completely receded, though, I thought I’d take a look back at its reading highlights.

I found Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone funny, touching, and thought-provoking, particularly its merging of personal and historical traumas:

Through Michael, Haslett characterizes slavery as America’s inherited disease, one with symptoms every bit as complex and destructive in American life as John’s or Michael’s illnesses are for them and their family.

The obvious conclusion to this extended analogy is that the nation cannot heal unless it too can find some way to treat its transgenerational haunting.

Katherena Vermette’s The Break effectively conveys the human drama and social complexity of the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. When (if) I get to teach Mystery and Detective Fiction again, I would like to include it, though one thing we would certainly discuss is whether the novel is rightly categorized as “genre fiction.” (My feeling is that those who resist labeling it that way underestimate the political uses to which the form has been put by writers in a range of subgenres–I’ve often assigned The Terrorists, for instance, which is a great deal more than a “whodunnit,” and the same is true, albeit in different ways, of Devil in a Blue Dress and Indemnity Only.)

Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place is another genre novel that raises a lot of questions, in this case especially about the risks of narrating misogyny. I was a bit frustrated with The Maltese Falcon in my Pulp Fiction class last term and after I read In A Lonely Place I wondered about switching it in, but I think it’s too soon in my development of this class, which is still very new to me, to change the reading list, especially when the thematic arcs I tried to build across the course are served so well by The Maltese Falcon.

It’s a bit misleading to call Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up As A Flower a “highlight” of my reading summer, but it has been growing on me in retrospect: I said in my original post that I had begun it with what were probably the wrong expectations. I’ve looked at a couple of other options for Victorian Sensations (I’m considering replacing Aurora Floyd on the reading list to avoid having two novels by the same author) and so far this is the front runner.

I read and really enjoyed two novels by Maggie O’FarrellInstructions for a Heat Wave and The Vanishing Act of Esme Leonard. She is a novel who works in a fairly narrow sphere but brings a lot out of her investigation of its darker aspects. Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, in contrast, is more expansive in every way: I described it as “a fairly high concept novel . . . but also a compelling read as a war novel and a spy novel [as well as” a stinging satire, of American hypocrisy and self-delusion in particular but also of pomp and corruption and ideological posturing on all sides.”

The Forsyte Saga remains a work in progress. I was really interested in The Man of Property and I thought Indian Summer of a Forsyte was wonderful. I’ve struggled to find the concentration to press on with In Chancery, but I’ve started. I’m a bit puzzled about what my intended relationship is to Soames at this point: as far as I can tell, we are not supposed to be that bothered that he’s a rapist, which I suppose is not that surprising–but I was surprised at how explicit Galsworthy was about it in the first place, so I expected it to be more of a blight on his role as a protagonist than it seems to be at this point.

Last but not least, I read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s grimly charming Lolly Willowes for my book club; it was our follow-up to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle, which I also really enjoyed for its weird, off-kilter pleasures. For our next book, we’ve chosen Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives: I had been looking for other witchy books (and got a good list of ideas from friends on Twitter) but none of them really captured the group’s interest, and then we got talking about Lolly’s resistance to the life that was expected of her and that led us to thinking about the pressure on women to conform to certain plots and even personalities, and that led us to what may be the ultimate book about just this topic.

I have read quite a few other books since May, including Tana French’s The Trespasser, Jane Gardam’s The Flight of the Maidens, and the morally chastening The Optician of Lampedusa; if you want more about these you can call up the archives for each month and browse around. It was a somewhat slow summer for blogging for me, though, mostly because I was doing quite a bit of other writing and because it always seems redundant to write blog posts on books I’m also reviewing more formally.

Of the books I read for reviews, the one I enjoyed the most was Gillian Best’s The Last Wave; my write-up will be in the next issue of Canadian Notes and Queries. Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds was both conceptually interesting and a gripping read. I thought Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children was by far the best–the most interesting, the most thoughtful, and the most artful–of the neo-Victorian novels I reviewed over the summer (the others were Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Michele Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty).

It was not a bad reading summer overall, then, though there was no book that stood out quite the way Moby-Dick did last year. Some of the most satisfying reading I did, now that I think about it, was actually rereading: all of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, for instance, and Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, both long-time favorites that I finally got to write about.

Summer Reading

moby-dick-penguinI decided to ease out of the summer with some light reading on this long weekend — first Honest Doubt, and then two Spensers, Early Autumn (one of the best of the series just for defining Spenser’s code, which is roughly “autonomy with honor”) and Hundred-Dollar Baby (notable for being a rare case in which Spenser’s knight-errantry fails rather spectacularly). In between, I did read another two hundred pages or so of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but it’s just too good to power through. I do intend to keep on reading it, so more about it later, if only for an excuse to quote more of West’s remarkable sentences.

Looking back over the summer, it wasn’t a great one for reading, beyond (and even, to some extent, including) the books I read for reviews. Still, there were definitely some highlights. Chief among them would have to be Moby-Dick, and isn’t that an entry that makes up for a lot of other deficiencies! A first reading of a novel so deep and capacious can only be a preliminary one, of course, but now that I’ve reveled in it once I know why I will want to read it again one day. In retrospect, I’m surprised at how low my expectations were. Why didn’t I know how much fun it would be?

haruf_coverThe novels of Kent Haruf are on a very different scale and in a very different register — it’s hard to imagine a greater contrast, really, to Melville — but in their own quiet way they gave me a lot of pleasure — readerly pleasure, that is, as they are certainly not novels that shy away from emotional pain. And I would single out David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl and Emma Claire Sweeney’s Owl Song at Dawn as two other books that I particularly enjoyed this summer: both eloquently and, in their own ways, elegantly conveyed the complexities of love and family, and the need, above all, for acceptance.

I expected To the Lighthouse to be another high point of my summer reading: that it wasn’t is surely my fault, not the novel’s. Another time.

And with that, another summer ends and another fall term begins.

The Last Throes of Summer

COVER-SMALLSeptember is here, which means that even though technically it’s still summer, it feels like fall. From now on, every nice day is to be cherished and even the sunniest Sunday will be under the shadow of Monday’s impending classes — though not quite yet, because my first class meetings of the new term aren’t until Wednesday. And as it happens, I will be able to wind up my summer without too much angst: yesterday I realized that right now, though as always there are plenty of things I could be doing, there’s really nothing I must be doing. All the writing I’d promised has been sent along to editors; my courses are prepped, including handouts, lecture notes, and slides for the first day(s); other odds and ends of administrative tasks have been completed. I suppose this is my reward for not really taking a vacation: though I did take it easy when I could, I didn’t travel, and I was in my office almost every weekday getting things done. As a result, I will head into the last long weekend of the summer without either the ambition or the pressure to be working.

This seems like a good opportunity to take stock of how the summer went. I had a number of plans when it started, some of which I fulfilled and some of which got revised. One of my main goals was to learn how to create publishable ebooks. This is a skill I hope to use for a range of projects down the road, including for creating some themed collections of posts and essays. To start with, though, I focused on converting the materials for the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site into book form, which I did — you can now “buy” the book version (it’s free) from both Kobo and Amazon. The process turned out to be extremely tedious but not difficult. Probably the hardest part for me was figuring out GIMP well enough to create a cover — but that too was challenging more because of how picky it was than because anything about it was really challenging. I do feel quite proud of myself for mastering these new, if dull, skills. Now that I’ve gone through this process once, I will be less intimidated about doing it again, for myself and potentially also for Open Letters.

smokeI had intended to create another book club site, probably for The Mill on the Floss, but in the end the time that would have gone into this project went instead into doing more book reviews than I had anticipated. One of my more general goals has been to get more experience and also more recognition for my criticism by writing for a wider range of venues. Because reviews are usually commissioned rather than pitched, I wasn’t sure quite how to do this, but I reached out to a couple of editors and was contacted by a couple of others, and in the end I was kept fairly busy! I consider this time very well spent for a number of reasons. First, I read and thought about a lot of books, some of them ones I would probably not have sought out if left entirely to my own devices. Then, in addition to the intellectual and literary benefits of engaging with a wide range of books, I had to work to deadlines and within space constraints set by other people, and also work with their editorial feedback. I cherish the freedom I have at Open Letters, but sometimes it paralyzes me a bit as I look for “just the right book” to review. I also think my colleagues there are among the very best editors around, but it’s bracing to venture outside, if only to find out what else I might learn. And I do feel that I’ve learned a lot this summer, partly about the genre of reviewing, and partly about my own writing process. I had hoped that writing more and faster would make me, ultimately, a more confident as well as a more widely competent writer, and I think it has.

The-Life-Writer-207x325Here’s the tally of my summer reviewing, meaning books read and written about since classes got out in April:

For Open Letters, I wrote about Tracy Chevalier’s Reader, I Married Him, Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words.

For Quill & Quire, I reviewed Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Steven Price’s By Gaslight, and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York (forthcoming in the November issue).

For 3:AM Magazine, I covered Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone and Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone.

For the Times Literary Supplement, I reviewed Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (forthcoming). (A couple of other reviews of mine appeared in the TLS this summer, but they were written much earlier.)

For the Quarterly Conversation, I reviewed David Constantine’s In Another Country and The Life-Writer (forthcoming in the fall issue).

For the Kenyon Review Online, I reviewed Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer (forthcoming).

I know there are people who review two or three (or more!) books a week. I’ve always wondered how they manage that, since just reading the books takes me a few days usually. But I have discovered that I can both read and write faster than I thought and still come out of it with something I am satisfied with, even at shorter lengths. I do sometimes find it frustrating having to leave out a lot, but it’s a great mental exercise deciding what to put in when your space is limited while still trying to convey a nuanced sense of the whole book.

In some ways book reviewing is not quite the kind of writing I’m most interested in doing. But I think you have to earn your way into more essayistic assignments, and I also think that the greater skill and confidence I’m gaining at this kind of criticism will make me better at other kinds of book writing too. It was exactly a year ago that I wrote a short-ish review that ended up, despite a lot of editorial back-and-forth and revision, being judged unpublishable. That experience was a real blow to my confidence: I feel better now! (Also, I recently reread my effort for that assignment, just to see how it looked in retrospect, and really, I still don’t see what was so wrong with it!)

I’ve done a fair amount of reading and writing for this blog too over the summer; I’ll round that up in another post. Plus, of course, I’ve been working on class preparation, including pragmatic things to be ready for my fall courses and more open-ended research in anticipation of the new (to me) Pulp Fiction class in the winter. About all of that, you can expect more as another season of ‘This Week In My Classes’ gets underway.

Summer 2014: A Reading and Writing Retrospective

IMG_1315We may have been basking in some gorgeous summer-like weather lately, but classes have begun and that means we are well and truly into fall. It had been very quiet around campus — though I find the hush kind of dreary sometimes, I’d gotten used to it, and I’ve been feeling kind of cranky at the return of loud, cheerful voices in the hallway, doors opening and closing all the time, and other people impeding my progress on the narrow stairs! But the renewed energy is welcome, as is (mostly) the return to a more active, immediately demanding routine.

It’s generally a bit quiet online over the summer too, so I thought I’d repeat last year’s idea and do a quick review of my summer activities, partly to bring people up to date who haven’t been around very much and partly to take stock myself.

Summer Reading

There were only a few real standouts in this summer’s reading. Chief among them is Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which was a slow burn but became that most precious of reading experiences:  something satisfying and immersive on every level. I know Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles so well that it was hard for me at first to adapt to the very different tone and pace of King Hereafter, but I can see why it is often referred to as her masterpiece. Reading it also prompted me to give Niccolo Rising another chance, and now I’m ready and eager to make my way through the rest of that series — though I doubt I’ll ever love it the way I love the Lymond books.

kinghereafterAnother highlight was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a book ready-made for someone with my longstanding interest in women’s history and in intersections between fiction and historiography. A low point was Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. And another that I enjoyed reading but appreciated especially for the discussion my blog post prompted was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (I’m currently tracking down the Celine Dion book Tom recommended to help me think more about why we like or don’t like what we do or don’t.)

Some of the other rewarding reading I did was rereading with an eye to writing: Daniel Deronda, for instance, which I want to be the basis of an essay on George Eliot and marriage, and the Pennington novels by K. M. Peyton. But it seems as if many of this summer’s new books were in the OK-to-pretty good range (Finding Nouf or Burial Rites, for instance) or were fun enough without being much more than that (My Cousin Rachel or Friday’s Child).


I kept up my usual blogging over the summer, of course, with posts on my reading but also some reflections on teaching, including this reflection on facing my 20th academic year at Dalhousie. In as-yet-unpublished writing, I completed a prospectus of sorts for my George Eliot book — a conceptual sample, I would call it, something to clarify, if only for me, what kind of thinking and writing I want the book to represent. I also wrote a short piece that I submitted, experimentally, to a publication that has yet to get back to me about it (it has been 4 months and 10 days since I sent it in, but who’s counting?). At this point I’m mulling ideas about how to repurpose it, since rejection has always seemed the most likely outcome.

PenningtonI wrote three stand-alone pieces for Open Letters this summer. One was my version of our ongoing “Title Menu” feature (our attempt to take the popular form of the “listicle” and make it something more substantial and interesting than link-bait); my offering was “8 more George Eliot novels,” from Soueif’s The Map of Love to Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. Then I wrote an essay about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series, for no better reason (and really, is there a better reason?) than that they are longstanding cherished favorites of mine. I had started making notes for it before the bookish internet went berserk over a piece decrying the popularity of “Young Adult” fiction among old adult readers, and my thinking about that whole kerfuffle influenced the way I ended up framing my essay, which I thought might be received as a thoughtful contribution to the debate. I guess I should not have been surprised it didn’t get picked up at all by the people who were raging away about YA fiction just a short while before: everyone had moved on to the next thing, and also the essay is long, thoughtful (I hope) and avoids extreme declarations and hyperbole in favor of careful reading. That is not what you do if you want to play Internet Outrage! Which I don’t, really — imagine the collateral damage to one’s peace of mind! But it would be nice to be recognized a bit more widely as having something interesting and relevant to say.

My most recent piece is also for one of our ongoing regular features, “Peer Review,” in which we survey and comment on a book’s critical reception. Mine looks at the criticism to date of Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels in particular have attracted a lot of very positive (and, as I discovered, very uniform) attention. I found it a very interesting essay to work on, and now I’m watching the expected flood of coverage for her latest, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave with much curiosity to see if anyone breaks the mould. The Wall Street Journal’s review calls it “startlingly frank,” which is right out of the usual playbook. Here too I found myself exploring territory — specifically, debates about women’s writing, anger, likable characters, and “chick lit” — that have been the subject of high profile, high stakes online exchanges. We’ll see if it sparks any discussion. It amused me to find myself doing a version of metacriticism again!

On a much smaller scale, I pitched in for our annual Summer Reading feature, and again for a Title Menu round-up of lesser-known works by major writers.

Other Projects

Two other projects provided some excitement in my summer. One was the Twitter Q&A I did in June with Stephen Burt as part of the Atlantic’s 1 Book 140 reading of Middlemarch. I was very gratified that my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site was highlighted as a resource for this, and Stephen and I had a lot of fun going back and forth about the novel. Indeed, we had so much to say to each other that we didn’t end up entertaining very many outside questions! But any time anyone wants to talk Middlemarch with me on Twitter, you know where to find me.

Then in July I worked with Matt Jakubowski on an interview for a series he’s beginning on critics and criticism. He sent me very thoughtful but also generously open-ended questions to answer by email and then patiently cut my long replies down into something manageable. I don’t usually think of myself as someone who has much visible presence as a critic (so many people review so many more books, so much faster, in much more prominent venues) — so I was flattered at Matt’s interest. I also found it useful, as well as motivating, to think about myself as a critic in the ways his questions presupposed: I do have a small but growing body of non-academic critical work to reflect on, now, and I think it is in fact underwritten by ideas about what criticism is or can be, as well as what kind of critic I want to be — or, what kind of critic I can be that might make my work distinctive.


My personal accomplishments for the summer include two trips, one to Boston for an editorial summit (and, of course, some book shopping) — the other to Vancouver, for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary festivities (and, of course, some book shopping!). I also got a tooth capped that has been broken since third grade, solved (I hope) an eye / contact lens problem that had had me looking weepy for about a year, and developed what turns out to be a “tendinosis” that put a stop to my plans to step up my running routine — that, too, I hope will be resolved soon, as I have been to see a physiotherapist at last and begun a healing regimen of exercises. None of this is exactly the kind of stuff that counts as being productive, but the store of books means more reading and writing to come, and self-care has its own value as well.

And now, it’s time to look forward! I’ll be keeping up my regular teaching posts: it will be the 8th year for “This Week in My Classes,” and while there’s bound to be some repetition in the themes and problems that come up, there’s always something new going on — this term, starting with teaching Villette in my 19th-century fiction class. I also have a sabbatical to look forward to in the winter term: my goal for this term is to keep up enough momentum on my writing that I can make the absolute most of that precious time. This may mean not writing as many smaller pieces — book reviews, for instance — that don’t serve my larger goals: I’m not someone who can crank out prose in a hurry, and “even” a review typically takes up a lot of mental space for me. On the other hand, sometimes being busier makes me more efficient, something I’m often aware of as I look back, as I have done here, at the results of my summer and find that I got as much if not more writing done in the midst of teaching!

Catching Up: Storm Warnings and Summer Reading

arthurbranchesHurricane Arthur passed over us yesterday. Happily, he was “only” a post-tropical storm when he got this far north, but he still packed a wallop. Our particular neighborhood in Halifax doesn’t seem to have been very hard hit. There are some branches down, including some pretty big ones, and we were without power for a few hours, but we got back on the grid before it became necessary to eat all the ice cream (shucks!). We got off lightly, then, compared to many. Here at least, too, the storm was pretty insignificant compared to 2003’s Hurricane Juan, which came onshore full force pretty much right where we live and took out 70% of the trees in nearby Point Pleasant Park as well as many of the biggest and most beautiful ones along our street (the before and after pictures here show clearly what a difference 70% makes).

Juan taught us respect for hurricane-force winds: the high reported gusts yesterday seemed to us good enough reason to keep off the streets and out of the way. So we had a quiet family day inside. Maddie and I did a sorting and reorganizing project in the basement while the lights were still on: its ostensible purpose was clearing out toys and supplies the kids have outgrown (brace yourself for donations, Salvation Army!), but a beneficent side effect is that we cleared three shelves in the bookcases down there, so my next project is reorganizing my mystery collection so the books aren’t two-deep. I also read deeper into King Hereafter (about which more in a moment). Then once we lost power it was, happily, still bright enough by the window to read most of the latest New York Review of Books. Owen has been spending most of his time lately turning a computer game he made into an iOS app (I’m counting on him to finance my early retirement through this or some similar project!) — a nice consequence of his losing power to his desktop is that he headed to the piano for amusement instead, so we whiled away the afternoon listening to his improvs plus some practice time on another of his summer projects, the cadenzas from the Ravel left-hand piano concerto.

We weren’t expecting power back until 9 p.m., but everything lit up again around 7, which was a relief. During winter storms you always have the reassurance that you can keep food fresh just by putting it outside, but the freezer packs we use to keep things chilled in summer wouldn’t probably get us through much more than a day. In then end, then, our storm day was just kind of a quiet break from routine. But we’re back in business today, which, along with making up for yesterday’s missed chores and errands, includes packing Owen off for math camp at Dalhousie. Here’s hoping the restored sunshine doesn’t turn his residence room into a sauna, and (more important) that he has fun bonding with other kids who really like math. He’s read math books for years, starting with picture books like G is for Google and moving on to books like Clifford Pickover’s Wonders of Numbers. He and his dad have also worked their way through most of the Great Courses math options. I did well in math through high school but met my match in first-year calculus, so they leave me behind pretty quickly with this stuff. But in case your kid ever says “what will I ever use this for in real life?” it might be helpful to know that just this week Owen apparently solved a graphics problem in the design of his new game using calculus. Hard as it is for us to believe, he will be applying to Dalhousie for real this fall, presumably as either a math or a computer science major — or both! So this time on campus will be a good preview.

juliejamesweddingAnother summer routine in our household is the library’s summer reading club. Maddie has signed up for it regularly in the past, and I was very happy that she agreed to do it again this year. Like last year, we’ve picked a small quantity of books for her to aim for (10) so that she doesn’t compromise on their quality — also, as usual, she’s got several weeks scheduled for summer camps that never leave time for reading during the day. As always, I’ve pledged to match her book for book (which shouldn’t be any problem for me, I hope!); our last day to meet our goal is September 6. You can see here how things have gone for us in previous years. We’ve both read our first book for this year’s tally: hers was Judy Blume’s Forever, and mine was Julie James’s It Happened One Wedding (which I quite enjoyed, though not as much as her Practice Makes Perfect). I’ve been reading a lot besides that one, but I’m not going to officially count books I read only as “filler” (familiar books I skim through for distraction when it’s too busy to concentrate properly, usually a Dick Francis or a Robert B. Parker, or, nowadays, a Jennifer Crusie or a Mary Balogh). The other real reading I’ve been doing is King Hereafter.  Though it is going very slowly, I’m not at all sorry to be reading it: the first 250 pages were really tough, and even now, at 400 pages in, I still can’t always remember who’s who, or who’s related to whom, but it is working its inexorable Dunnett magic on me, and it’s wonderful to see her working through her great themes (leadership, nation building, love, war) in a different landscape. I’m also part way through A Time of Gifts: it got put aside for other things but not because I wasn’t interested in it. Next up after King Hereafter will be Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, though, which my book club has chosen for its July meeting.

Summer 2013 Reading Recap

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.

Orphan-Masters-Son-with-Pulitzer-BurstIt 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 Kingand 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.)

straightSome 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 DiedJane 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!): ArabellaSprig MuslinBlack Sheepand Cotillion — the last two of which I particularly enjoyed. And there was the Tana French cluster: In the WoodsThe 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.

mrspalfreyI 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.


Taking Stock: Summer Reading, Summer Plans

It was just about three months ago that I reported having filed the grades for my winter term courses. In addition to the clean-up work that remains at that point, and the unfolding list of administrative business that encroaches especially in May, I mentioned a number of projects that I was going to be working on. It’s gratifying to reflect that I have been working quite steadily through this list:

  1. Review Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – done!
  2. Review Deirdre David’s Olivia Manning: A Woman at War – done!
  3. Reread all 40+ Dick Francis novels and write essay for Los Angeles Review of Books – full draft done and submitted, now undergoing final revisions!
  4. Complete “beta” version of Middlemarch for Book Clubs – done!

What remains from these original summer plans is what I described then as the “most ambitious but … most amorphous” one: figuring out what kind of larger project could emerge from the essays I’ve been writing on George Eliot. “Do they, could they, add up to something larger, perhaps some kind of cross-over book project?” I wondered. Now that those more immediate deadlines have been met, I’m going to be thinking a lot — and perhaps writing a lot! — about this question. Last week I actually had a very interesting conversation with a publishing professional in which we exchanged some preliminary thoughts about what such a book might look like, and now I’m pondering what she said about what kind of book she can imagine there might be a market for (and thus that might interest a publisher) and whether that’s the kind of book I had in mind. I’m not going to go into details at this point, not to be coy but because, as I said, these were early thoughts and it was our first conversation. But you can expect me to do at least some of my thinking about all this “out loud” here at Novel Readings, not least because here is, after all, where I already have some readers, and ones I respect very much. Trying to imagine, much less write for, some audience conceived of in the abstract seems both scarier and less useful than discussing possibilities with you folks!

While I’m pondering and free-writing and conceptualizing, I will also set some more concrete goals, the first one being an essay on Adam Bede to add to my collection. That will be my next Open Letters contribution, followed by a review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, for October.

As the fall term approaches, I also have some preparatory work to do, even before I start focusing really intently on preparing syllabi and Blackboard sites. I’m teaching a couple of novels in the fall that I haven’t read in a long time or taught before. I try to introduce some novelty into every rotation of a course, to change up the conversation at least a bit. So in Mystery and Detective fiction this time, I’ve bumped The Maltese Falcon and replaced it with The Big Sleep.  I just reread The Big Sleep and though I don’t really care for Chandler’s rather florid style in it (did the guy ever meet a simile he didn’t like?) I think it will be fun to teach — perhaps a little more fun than The Maltese Falcon, if no less confusing. And in the 19th-C Novel (Austen to Dickens) I’ve chosen David Copperfield this year, which of course I’ve read more than once but which I have never lectured on. I plan to reread that in August. And one other teaching-related summer project is finalizing the reading list for my upcoming winter-term seminar on ‘Women & Detective Fiction.’ I’ve taught it several times before and asked here more than once for recommendations to shake up the reading list. I’m still working on that, particularly with the aim of making the book selection more diverse. I’ve had a lot of good leads but surprisingly often they dead-end because the titles I’m interested in are not in print (Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, for instance, does not seem to be orderable in Canada). Right now I’m trying out Paula L. Woods’s Inner City Blues.

emeraldstarNow that school is out, Maddie and I have also committed to another round of the summer reading club at our public library. Usually I keep a tally of our books in the side bar here: I’ll set that up soon, to motivate us both! We’ve felt sometimes that the emphasis on quantity becomes a disincentive for Maddie to embark on longer books, so this summer we’ve chosen a modest number for her (10) so that there’s no pressure to fall back on rereading Junie B. Jones or something! She’s read two so far, both by favorite authors: Jacqueline Wilson’s Emerald Star and Meg Tilly’s A Taste of Heaven. Now she’s working on The Diary of Anne Frank, and I think The Fault in Our Stars, which I gave her for her birthday, is next. She has the usual summer challenge of being in camp some of the time (including both of the last two weeks): as she’s pointed out, one thing they never seem to make time for at these things is reading! But she’ll have some quieter weeks soon.

I haven’t done too badly myself since the end of June, when she registered: I think I get to count The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and then there’s Felicity & Barbara PymThe Sweet Dove DiedJane and PrudenceThe Woman Upstairs, Mrs. Palfrey at the ClaremontArabellaIn the Woods, and The Big Sleep. One of my next reads will be chosen by the vote at the Slaves of Golconda blog (it seems likely to be Pym’s Excellent Women, though Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian is running a close second). Next from my own immediate pile, though, will be Gift from the Sea, which I picked up at Hager Books in Vancouver under the influence of Victoria Best’s wonderful essay on Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Open Letters a little while back.