Summer Reading Recap

Once again, summer is yielding to fall and Maddie and I have reached the end of our summer reading project. This year, we both reached or exceeded our target of 20 books by the library’s September 8th deadline, and we both read quite a few that we thoroughly enjoyed and admired. Because blog readers are typically fewer over the summer (what, you have better things to do than hang out on the internet?), I thought I would once again review the highlights. The library’s reading program didn’t officially begin until the very end of June, but I’m going to start a bit earlier, as some of the best reading I did was in May and June.

May’s most important reading was certainly Madame Bovary (post 1; post 2). This was a memorable experience, not because I enjoyed the novel, exactly, but because I enjoyed thinking about and debating the novel–which is, obviously, one of the very great novels and also an object lesson for those readers who (much to Howard Jacobson‘s annoyance) think that it’s important to be able to identify with a novel’s characters. The debate in the comments between litlove and Amateur Reader (two of the readers and bloggers I most admire) is as well worth reading (maybe more) than anything I said myself. Sometimes it’s just gratifying to have provided the occasion.

In June I travelled to Boston for some F2F time with my Open Letters colleagues and some quality time with my mother, with whom I spent many happy hours in bookstores in Boston, Cambridge, and Northampton. I came back from my trip feeling full of bookish energy and confidence (where, oh where, has that gone?!). I also brought back a lot of books, of course, and the first one I wrote up was Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. I described this book as ” idiosyncratic, fascinating, beautiful, and occasionally annoying’; writing about it provoked reflections on my own efforts to redefine my life’s work, my experience of aging, and the hope it gave me to read about someone succeeding “by being completely herself”–and doing so when by so many measures she could be seen to have passed her moment. “Some things,” Peacock observes, “take living long enough to do.”

June’s other great reading experience was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which (like The Paper Garden) I had no idea would enthrall and move me the way it did. Part fantasy, part adventure story, part romance, part myth, this extraordinarily effervescent novel is also very much a tragedy about our own inability to live up to our own ideals.

In July I read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which was every bit as gripping, artful, and profound as Wolf Hall led us to expect. I admit I was just a tiny bit less impressed with it than with its predecessor, only because it is exactly the same kind of book, and the delightful shock of it all (from the oblique point of view to the vivid immediacy of the historical details) simply could not be as great the second time. It read like a straight continuation of the first novel, and presumably the final volume, now in composition, will complete the package. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–of course not. But Mantel’s other books show her to be capable of a virtuosic range of styles and voices–imagine the feat of doing each of these parts of Cromwell’s life in a technically different way! But of course when someone writes a brilliant novel it’s petty to wish, even a little bit, that they’d written a different brilliant novel.

Probably the most fun I had reading anything this summer was Thomas Raddall’s Halifax: Warden of the North. Once again, some of the fun was in the surprise–as I explain in the post, I had always snarkily assumed Canadian history had little drama or glamour– but Raddall’s break-neck pace and lively story-telling carried me right along.

In a sentimental mood, I read the three novels in K. M. Peytons Flambards series: FlambardsThe Edge of the Clouds, and Flambards in Summer. I’m still partial to her Pennington series (brooding adolescence! Liszt!) but these books are real treats, not least for their evocative portrayal of a historical moment marked by profound social transformations.

Like Madame Bovary, Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels were more fun to think and write about than to read: they are difficult, nasty even, claustrophobic, misanthropic–yet at the same time, highly stylized. I would have liked to get some responses to my analysis from the folks on Twitter and elsewhere who praised this series to the skies when I mentioned reading it. I expect the discussion would cover many of the same issues that came up in the comment threads on Madame Bovary, actually. Much as I struggled with the first four, I found myself interested and impressed enough to read the final volume.

David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green was a highlight of my August reading–the young narrator won me over, and I found the novel’s more consistent form and focus more appealing than the elaborate Russian doll structure of Cloud Atlas. Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown was slow, difficult, and utterly engrossing.

Throughout the summer also I read a lot in preparation for my seminar on the ‘Somerville Novelists‘ (now, after much anticipation, getting underway). A lot of the contextual reading was recorded only in my research notes, but Brittain’s Honourable Estate, Woolf’s Three Guineas, and Holtby’s Virginia Woolf were all revelatory in their own ways.

It was a bit of a difficult summer for me in some ways. As I’ve written about before, I don’t flourish without structure in my days, and even when I was able to keep up some kind of regular routine with time in my office, I was usually the only person around, as my friends and colleagues were either out of town for research or conferences, or at their cottages, or working at home. I often feel somewhat marooned out here in Halifax, and summer exacerbates the sense of isolation.  This summer I felt particularly mopish! Not, of course, that it isn’t nice to have a more relaxed schedule, and to be able to spend more time enjoying the company of my family. And the virtual company of my online blog and twitter connections is always a good thing–a social lifeline and a great source of intellectual stimulation. Still, I’m thinking I should try to take steps to avoid falling into the same summer slump again. I’ve inquired about spreading my regular teaching load out into the spring or summer: if this is possible, it would help balance things out better, as fall and winter can be overwhelmingly busy. Also, I clearly need to cultivate more friendships outside of work, so that the evacuation of campus doesn’t affect me so much! Precisely because the academic term is so busy, it’s always hard for me to figure out how and where to do this. Also, I’m not much of a joiner. And soon it will be winter and I won’t want to leave the house unless I have to!  Well, when my resolution flags, I can watch this video and renew my motivation:


Summer Reading: The Game’s Afoot!

For the fourth year running, Maddie and I are participating in the summer reading club sponsored by our local public libary. (Maddie signs up officially and I pledge to match her book for book.) We decided that last year’s goal of 30 books wasn’t realistic now that she reads longer books: I didn’t want her making easier choices just to reach an arbitrary quantitative goal! The real point is just to keep reading. So she’s put down 20 books as her goal, and any over that will just be gravy. That’s about two a week, which seems perfectly feasible for both of us — except that one book I’m committed to finishing before September  is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Maybe Maddie will let me count that as five regular books? She’s pretty strict about the rules: I already petitioned to be allowed to count The Once and Future King, but I finished it before the official reading club launch party, and that, apparently, is that!

Though I don’t really believe that it matters how many books you read (just that you read), it’s been a fun project for us to keep track of our reading together, and counting off titles does add a little extra motivation for us both. I’ve been looking back through my archives to see what we read in previous summers. Here are the lists I have–sadly, it seems I only recorded Maddie’s books for one year, so this year I’ll have to make sure to do that again. We count everything, and there’s no pressure to be either highbrow or lowbrow: as far as we’re concerned, summer reading should be as various, self-motivated, and serendipitous as reading at any other time of the year! I wrote up posts on lots but not all of these titles. I’ve linked to some that were real highlights; if you’re curious about any of others, check the index pages (see the tabs at the top of the site) or the category list (at the right). And if you don’t find anything about them there, just ask me!

Summer 2009


  1. Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?
  2. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
  3. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
  4. Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip
  5. Dick (and Felix) Francis, Silks
  6. Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
  7. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil
  8. Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  9. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  10. Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan
  11. Penelope Lively, Consequences
  12. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  13. Ian Colford, Evidence
  14. Louise Penny, Dead Cold
  15. David Lodge, Deaf Sentence
  16. K. Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
  17. Penelope Lively, Cleopatra’s Sister
  18. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
  19. Deborah Crombie, Where Memories Lie
  20. Joseph O’Neill, Netherland


    1. Puppy Place: Princess
    2. Princess Power: The Charmingly Clever Cousin
    3. Puppy Place: Pugsly
    4. Alice Finkle’s Rules for Girls: Moving Day
    5. What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows
    6. Happily Every After
    7. Ivy and Bean Break the Fossil Record
    8. Clementine’s Letter
    9. Princess Power: The Awfully Angry Ogre
    10. Junie B. Jones, Boss of Lunch
    11. Judy Moody M.D., The Doctor is In
    12. Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket
    13. Ready Freddie, King of Show and Tell
    14. Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes
    15. Ready Freddie: The Pumpkin Elf Mystery
    16. Junie B. Jones, Dumb Bunny
    17. Canadian Flyer Adventures: Pioneer Kids
    18. The Magic Tree House: Night of the New Magicians

Summer 2010

  1. Denise Mina, Field of Blood
  2. Hilary Mantel, The Giant, O’Brien
  3. Azar Nafisi, Things I’ve Been Silent About
  4. Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening
  5. John Cotter, Under the Small Lights
  6. Robert B. Parker, Paper Doll
  7. Meg Federico, Welcome to the Departure Lounge
  8. Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek
  9. Diane Johnson, Persian Nights
  10. Sara Paretsky, Hardball
  11. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
  12. David Small, Eulalie and the Hopping Head
  13. Lisa Genova, Still Alice
  14. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
  15. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Leaving Brooklyn
  16. Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
  17. Sophie Hannah, A Room Swept White
  18. Shirley Hazzard, The Evening of the Holiday
  19. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom
  20. Emily Neville, It’s Like This, Cat
  21. Dick Francis, Dead Heat
  22. Sydney Taylor, More All of a Kind Family
  23. Robert B. Parker, Split Image
  24. Anthony Stewart, You Must Be A Basketball Player

Summer 2011

  1. Robert B. Parker, The Judas Goat
  2. Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown
  3. Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs
  4. Marjorie Harris, Thrifty
  5. Jane Gardam, Old Filth
  6. Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, Testament of a Generation
  7. Robert Graves, I, Claudius
  8. Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets
  9. J. G. Farrell, Troubles
  10. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise
  11. Jane Smiley, Private Life
  12. Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
  13. Dick Francis, Enquiry
  14. Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
  15. Robert B. Parker, Looking for Rachel Wallace
  16. Robert B. Parker, Mortal Stakes
  17. Vera Brittain, The Dark Tide
  18. Robert B. Parker, A Savage Place
  19. Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels
  20. Colm Toibin, Brooklyn
  21. Ann Patchett, State of Wonder
  22. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

I’ve got several books on the go at the moment. One of the first ones likely to get finished is Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which my local book group is discussing next week. I’m also about two-thirds through Brittain’s Honourable Estate and will be making that a priority as part of my ‘Summer of Somerville.’ My copy of Bringing Up the Bodies just arrived, so that’s likely to come next, and then we’ll see.


Back from Boston Bearing Books!

I got back yesterday from my second annual (?) spring expedition to Boston. Once again I loved exploring the city and meeting up with some of my Open Letters Monthly colleagues. And this time I had the special treat of also meeting up with my mother. Though we had a delightful time sightseeing, visiting museums, and eating all kinds of good food, there’s no question but what our favorite activity was browsing in the excellent bookstores (and trading comments and suggestions back and forth): we spent hours in Brattle Books in Boston, in both the Harvard Book Store and the Harvard Coop in  Cambridge, and in the Broadside Book Shop and Booklink in Northampton. Here’s most of my haul (a few others will be wending their way to me by post):

Book buying is such a funny thing–when you are surrounded by thousands of titles, many different, sometimes conflicting, even irrational influences and impulses go into the final decisions. I had a little list of books I particularly hoped to find, ones that I hadn’t found in stock in Halifax but wanted to look at personally, rather than just online, before ordering, or ones that I could order but would have to wait for. Other titles or authors I had in mind in a general way and looked for to see what the options were–with such great stock all around, I found more of these than I expected! So what did I get, and why? Let’s go through the pile starting at the top.

A Handbook to the Art and Architecture of the Boston Public Library. I can’t get over how beautiful and inspiring the BPL is. Here are two of the exterior inscriptions: “The Public Library of the City of Boston Built By the People and Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning”; “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” Yes, yes, yes, it does! And public libraries are such a wonderful commitment to and investment in that conviction. The BPL is a great public building not just because it serves this great cause, though, which many modern libraries do in a very utilitarian spirit, but because it is itself filled with art and grace, from the grand entrance hall to the elegant Bates Hall reading room to the astonishing murals by John Singer Sargent. This little book was just $2 at the gift shop. It has no color plates but gives lots of detail about the history, design, and art of the building.

Next in the pile is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I’ve heard a lot about this novel and it sounded really interesting, but so do lots of recent books, so it hadn’t made it onto my TBR list until my mother reported having been won over by it. When I saw a nice copy at the Brattle, I grabbed it up.

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is one I went looking for. I was moved and impressed by Crossing to Safety when I read it a few years ago, and my interest in Stegner was rekindled recently by a documentary I watched about him–though the documentary itself was not very well done. This one I found at the Harvard Coop in the handsome Penguin edition with an introduction by Stegner biographer Jackson J. Benson.

I’ve been wanting to break up my nearly-all-fiction reading diet with more poetry, and Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath are two of the poets I wanted to read more of than is found in my heaps of anthologies (most of which include the same small selection of poems). (We’ve run pieces on both Larkin and Plath recently at Open Letters that further stimulated my interest.) I found The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin at the Coop and Ariel downstairs at the Harvard Book Store. I’ve never written anything on poetry for Open Letters. Maybe someday–but what? In the meantime, I may venture some comments on these volumes here on my own turf.

Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul was recommended to me some time ago by a friend, who thought it was both a really fine read and a book I’d respond to because it’s about a pianist, and my son is a very gifted composer and performer. It too I found at the Coop (which would have been even more dangerous to my budget if it hadn’t been one of the last bookstores we went to, as every time I thought of something to look for, it was there!).

I’ve found New York Review Classics scarce here in Halifax and often with limited availability from Canadian online retailers as well, so I was especially glad to find so many of these around. Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado sounded delightful when I read about it on different blogs and reviews, so I pounced on it when I saw it at the Coop. I’ve been looking for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts all over town here and hadn’t found it yet; I picked it up at the Broadside Book Shop in Northampton. And I found Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner (also the subject of a good piece in Open Letters) downstairs at the Harvard Book Store, where they have all kinds of NYRB Classics on their remainders tables!

I’ve read two novels by Jane Gardam–Old Filth and Queen of the Tambourines. The Man in the Wooden Hat, which I got at the Broadside Book Shop, tells the story of Old Filth’s marriage over again, from the point of view of his wife Betty. The blurb calls it “as fine a portrait of a marriage as any written in English.” We’ll see about that!

Flaubert’s Parrot is the next book chosen by my local book club–the one that just finished Madame Bovary. We have tried since the beginning to follow some kind of thread from one book to the next. The thread here is pretty obvious! I think the only other Julian Barnes I’ve read is Arthur and George, which I didn’t love. I got The Sense of an Ending from the library as an e-book just before I left last week, and I started it on the plane, but it turned out to be too cerebral for me to read under those conditions. (What did I read on the plane? Mostly Jennifer Crusie, actually, several of whose books I had also borrowed electronically with precisely my fear of flying in mind. And they were just right: cheerful, diverting, and easy to keep track of even if you are pausing every few minutes to clutch your armrest and take deep breaths.) I don’t have high hopes for Flaubert’s Parrot (and so I was glad to find it remaindered at the Harvard Book Store for just a few dollars), but at the same time I like that my book groups get me reading things I wouldn’t otherwise, and who knows, I might love it.

Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden was my one real unforeseen impulse buy of the trip. I started leafing through it quite at random in the MFA gift shop (I picked it up just because it looked very beautiful) and got quickly intrigued by the concept of the book–“An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.” The first epigram to the book is from its main subject, Mary Delany, who invented (discovered? developed? conceived of?) an intricate form of collage. “How can people say we grow indifferent as we grow old?” she writes to her younger sister in 1750; “It is just the reverse.” Her spectacular paper renditions of flowers are a testimony to her own utter lack of indifference (sample). I ended up buying it at Booklink in Northampton, as I kept thinking about it after I put it back at the MFA, and I started reading it right away. It’s an odd book in terms of genre, as it interweaves a biographical account of Delany’s life with meditations and speculations on the psychological and sexual meanings of her her flower collages (some quite speculative, though I’m trying to go along with that for now), and with autobiographical material from Peacock herself. I often resist books that offer epigrammatic snippets of wisdom about life in general (you really have to earn the right to them, I figure) but so far I’m liking the delicacy with which Peacock moves from Delany to herself to thoughts about creativity, aging, and other topics.

Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf was not a purchase but was hand-delivered to me by my mother, who has a vast collection of Bloomsbury materials. I’ve read quite a bit about it, and some excerpts from it, and I’m very keen to read the whole thing. (I’ll give it back, though–I promise!)

I found Sandra Gilbert’s Rereading Women at the Brattle. It’s the only academic literary criticism I really even looked at in all these bookstores. Gilbert is a good stylist and always an interesting thinker and reader, and this looks both accessible (it’s an essay collection, not a monograph) and provocative.

The little book Samplers from A to Z, from the Museum of Fine Arts, was a consolation prize to me for just barely missing their exhibit on Embroideries of Colonial Boston. I love looking at samplers and needlework: there’s something so intensely personal about them. It hadn’t occurred to me to time my visit around special museum exhibits, but next time I’m booking a ticket with some flexibility in my dates, I will have to pay attention to that kind of thing, as I was so disappointed to see the poster with the “closed” sign on it.

The last book in the pile is also from a museum, but this time for an exhibit we did manage (though just barely!) to see: the marvelous multi-media display on “Debussy’s Paris” at the Smith College Museum of Art. The displays were fascinating and very thoughtfully done, with listening and viewing stations bringing the music and street life of Paris into the room along with the drawings, paintings, and posters. I don’t often buy companion books for exhibits, but this book is much more than a catalogue: it includes a series of essays on topics like “Dance in Debussy’s Paris.” And I was really absorbed by the attention to dance, visual art, and music–such a rich display, in just one small room, too. They had a listening station with excerpts from some of Debussy’s pieces (with introductory commentary), some of which I hadn’t heard or even heard of before and a couple of which I made a note of because I thought they’d appeal to my son (whose favorite composer is Ravel but who has been experimenting more and more with different styles and modulations).  Here’s a link to Dawn Upshaw singing the “Chansons de Bilitis.”

It’s not as if I don’t already have books to read (and I haven’t forgotten about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon–I have another post on it lurking in my ‘drafts’ folder already!). But it’s really exciting to be surrounded by books and readers the way you are in these shops, and to get a hands-on sense of what the books are really like before you decide what to get, something that just isn’t quite replicated by the ‘look inside’ feature at Amazon. There’s only one book I was sorely tempted by but resisted, and the temptation arose purely from what a lovely tactile object it was: the Penguin ‘Threads’ edition of Little Women. We already own the book (of course!)–in fact, I think we may have two copies of it–but I kept picking this one up just to fondle it. I wonder if Penguin (and the artists responsible for the covers in this wonderful series) would consider releasing them as needlework or cross-stitch patterns.

So! I think I’m ready for the annual ‘summer reading challenge’: Maddie signs up for it at our own local public library, and I always promise to match her book for book. The first one I’m likely to write up here is The Paper Garden, so stay tuned.

Summer Reading Recap

As the warm days dwindle down to a precious few, so too has time run out on our public library’s summer reading program, and Maddie and I have both tallied up our final scores. Neither of us quite reached the number we’d set as a goal, but we feel good that we read a lot, including a lot of books that we really liked. Since, as usual, the number of blog readers went into a bit of a slump over the summer, I thought I’d help people catch up with a look back at some of the books that were highlights for me, with links to the full posts.

At the top of my ‘best of the summer’ list would have to be the two books I read about the ‘troubles’ in Ireland, J. G. Farrell’s Troubles and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September. It’s hard to imagine two more different books dealing with such similar historical territory.  Farrell’s dry, acerbic absurdity was more immediately engaging, but Bowen’s prose, full of beauty but shot through with both pain and humor, made her novel linger in my mind well after I finished it. Both resist all temptation to melodrama; even the inevitable violence and suffering emerges perfectly (though in completely different registers) from the tone and form of each book.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed and admired Jane Smiley’s Private Life. It’s a carefully paced, understated novel, a family saga without any of the grandiosity such books often rely on; it moves us through a tumultuous period of American history and deftly balances attention to the events and complexities of that context against its primary interest in the small-scale achievements and struggles of private life.

Testament of a Generation was everything I’d hoped it would be: sharp, intellectual, passionate journalism from Vera Brittain and Winnifred Holtby. It fed my enthusiasm for one day developing a seminar on the Somerville novelists. Brittain’s The Dark Tide, on the other hand, was a more … ambivalent … reading experience.

Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets took me completely by surprise with its strange, drifting prose and stark confrontations with different kinds of loss. If, as the introduction proposes, it was the Bridget Jones’s Diary of another generation, either I’ve been wildly misreading Bridget Jones’s Diary all this time or that generation had radically different expectations of itself and its books.

I, Claudius was ultimately more fascinating to me for the formal choices Graves made than for the story or characters. It wasn’t easy pushing through some of the longer paragraphs (and if you’ve read I, Claudius, you know that pretty much all of the paragraphs are pretty long!), and I admit I was greatly helped by having watched the BBC adaptation just previously, or I don’t think I could have kept the family tree sorted or felt the drama of the events, which come to us in such abundant yet muted detail.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, though I wondered after just how much that pleasure came from Gardam’s pushing all the ‘right’ buttons for a reader like me. Yet I had similar expectations of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (that it was just the book for me), and didn’t like it very much after all, finding its flat affect ultimately too flat. I didn’t write up Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, as I finished it while in Birmingham and the moment for posting on it had passed by the time I got home, but I was similarly underwhelmed by it: though Patchett’s writing is wonderfully readable and the story had plenty of momentum during reading, somehow (and of course it’s possible this was in part the effect of reading while traveling) I was never deeply engaged by it emotionally, and at the end I couldn’t really decide where it had taken me intellectually. I’ll hang on to it, and to Brooklyn: I’ll reread them someday, I expect, and maybe I’ll find something more in them then. I haven’t written up The Age of Innocence either. It’s wonderful, of course, and yet I ended it a skeptic about it, feeling the brilliance of Wharton’s prose and the minuteness of her analysis was squandered on Newland and Ellen, neither of whom I liked or believed in at all. More about that, maybe, in a later post.

I read four more early Spenser novels, one of which, The Judas Goat, was so awful that, had it been my first experience of the series, I would not have read any more. But the other three were excellent of their kind. I’m still trying to get ahold of God Save the Child, the second in the series, in which Spense and Susan first meet. I read it many years ago, before I had quite the same interest in how their relationship is handled. By just a few books later on, they are very nearly into their lasting patterns, which in many respects have always epitomized to me the relationship between equals that is (or is it?) the ultimate romantic fantasy.

Finally, of the summer books worth any further comment, there’s Murder Must Advertise, an old favorite but one I haven’t read attentively in some time. I enjoyed rereading it, but the real fun came in writing it up, which was by far the best time I had doing any writing all summer. That’s the feeling I wish I could always having when writing: overflowing with ideas, enthusiasm, and energy, and just happy to be putting it all out there.

Everything else I read was disappointing to mediocre, really, or, in one case, laughably bad. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like a great reading season overall. Happily, I have just finished Our Mutual Friend, though. If I’d reached the end before the library’s deadline, the average would have been raised considerably.  I’m currently feeling a bit overwhelmed with the start of the teaching term, but I’m determined to get a proper post up on that dark, hilarious novel before too much longer.

Summer Reading Update: Some Hits, More Misses

I’m up to six books in my quest to reach thirty this summer. I can’t say I’m off to a very good start. Of these, two were awful, two mediocre, and two were very good. I’ll quickly survey them all here, but I plan to give the best two their own proper posts.

The two awful ones were Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat and Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown. The Parker was a real and unpleasant surprise. I wrote recently about my long-standing fondness for this series and mentioned my interest in rereading some of the earlier ones. I don’t think I had ever read The Judas Goat before. If it had been the first time I ever met Spenser, our beautiful friendship would never have developed: I’m morally certain I would not have read another one in the series. I didn’t like the writing style, which seemed arch and insincere; I didn’t like Spenser, who seemed similarly arch and insincere, gratuitously violent, and also (to my surprise) sexist. To be sure, there are shades of the moral scrupulosity that I associate with him, but not enough. Most of all, I didn’t like Hawk–or, more accurately, I didn’t like the way Hawk is characterized here or the way he and Spenser interact. You can see a glimmer of the wry astute humor that infuses their zippy repartee in the later books, but I had the feeling that Parker hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. Plus Hawk kept on calling Spenser “babe,” which I found affected and annoying. The plot was not bad, and it is rare and therefore interesting to have Spenser abroad, but it was only loyalty that kept me reading to the end.

A Rose for the Crown was awful in different ways: it’s historical fiction of the thinnest variety, with tedious faux-antique dialogue, laborious exposition, and lots of forced emotion. I turned every page but by about half-way through I was skimming because I couldn’t bear to put in the effort to read every word. I figure I can count it as “read” for my summer tally because I also skimmed Reay Tannahill’s The Seventh Son, which was equally dreadful. Between them, calculating generously, you have something approximating the substance of a whole book. Honestly, I try to be open-minded in my reading, but I can’t understand the popularity of books of this type: who could not find the transparency of their efforts to be dramatic and affecting, not to mention the alternation between ploddingly pedestrian prose and a kind of loosely imagined old-fashioned idiom kind of insulting after a while? Compare something like The Children’s Book or Wolf Hall–or Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian or Romola: historical fiction can be so much more, and need not neglect originality of style or thought in order to tell a compelling story and animate our imaginings of the past. But I suppose they are no different from other fiction that has no aspiration to ideas, much less to art.

Maisie Dobbs is in the “mediocre” category. Perhaps it was a mistake to read it at a time when I have been reading a lot of much better writing about Britain during the wars. I would call it “Vera Brittain Lite, with a smattering of Dorothy Sayers (but absent her intellectual range).” How’s that for a cumbersome tag line? There’s nothing wrong with Winspear’s careful evocation of either WWI or its social and psychological after-effects, except that she is not a particularly good stylist (a lot of the novel seemed to be, again, striving after effects, rather than earning them) and so many of the notes she plays are so obvious if you already know anything about the context. Maisie is a reasonably interesting character, and reasonably well-drawn: one structural aspect of the book that surprised me was the amount of time spent going back over Maisie’s childhood and development. I wondered, in fact, if Winspear really wanted to write a “real” novel about someone growing up with these kinds of “Upstairs-Downstairs” issues, but thought it would be easier, either to write or to market, if this story were packaged as part of a detective novel. The detective plot is almost peripheral, and as the specific problem under investigation comes into focus, we are left sort of outside it, not knowing the steps Maisie has taken, for instance, to uncover it. I thought it was interesting that the case did connect the ostensible crime to the more complicated question of war and the damage it does–but there are far more original and compelling literary explorations of this (Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for instance). Maisie’s intense relationship with Maurice was not made compelling to me; it felt formulaic, perhaps because it reminded me too much of Cordelia’s relationship with Bernie in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (which is a much better, more surprising, more literary mystery). So for me the book was just OK, but it had enough interesting aspects that I’m willing to read at least one more in the series, to see if they get better. I just hope Winspear got better editing later on. The book opens with a dangling modifier, for crying out loud (how does an editor at a major publishing house not flag and fix this?),  it is full of clichés (“Maisie felt a strong stab of emotion”), and it seems overwritten, as if the author doesn’t think we’ll get it, or if we do, that we won’t feel what she is anxious for us to feel (“a threat to the family of the woman she held most dear, the woman who had helped her achieve accomplishments that might otherwise have remained an unrealized dream”; “a feeling of anticipation and joy welled up inside her as she realized how very lonely it had been working without Maurice”; etc.).

Finally, also mediocre was Marjorie Harris’s Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style. I picked this up from the library because a friend recommended it to me enthusiastically, and I can see why she enjoyed the chatty style and the lifestyle advice, which is sensible and pleasantly concerned to differentiate “frugal” from “cheap.” Being thrifty, Harris argues, is about deciding what you really need, as opposed to what you merely want, and then focusing your efforts and controlling your finances so that these are the things you have. When I tell you that her list of “must-haves” is “delicious organic food, decent wine and candles,” you’ll understand that this is not in fact a book about things you really need in that you could not physically survive without them. That’s fine: we all understand that the real necessities include a roof over our heads, food on the table (organic or not), and so forth. Although there is some discussion in this book about how to understand and stretch your resources to make sure you can have these basics, it’s really more of an argument against foolish consumerism among those who have enough wealth to spend foolishly but might repent–by squandering it and ending up in debt, for instance. I like the idea of identifying priorities and being wary of the immediate but impermanent gratification of purchases that have no lasting value (not economic, again, as this is not really her focus, but value as in making your life better in the ways you really want it to be good). My own list would not include candles, but books, certainly, and music. So her advice for the “frugal fashionista” or the “frugal foodie” was not of much interest, but the general discussion of thrift was, as well as the repeated emphasis on putting your time and money where your heart is–including room for things you love and cherish for their beauty or other special qualities, for example, provided you do not do so at the expense of actual necessities. So far, fine, but the book is not really very well written (“she immediately turned [the fabric] into a suit for my brother and dresses for my baby sister and I” [emphasis ADDED]????–again, how is it that an editor did not flag and fix this?–and there’s trouble with modifiers again, here, too), it gets pretty repetitive, and some of the examples of “thrift” go a little too far towards justified self-indulgence. Great retro cover, though.

What a relief it was to turn to Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, and to discover the gently painful delights of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth–about both of which, more later.

Summer Reading Wrap-Up: Mitchell, Genova, Paretsky, Nordstrom

September 12 is the last day for counting books towards our goals for the public library’s summer reading club. Maddie and I were aiming for 25 each. I’m not sure I’m going to get four more titles in by Sunday, what with classes starting and all. There’s hope: I’m currently reading the latest (and I guess the last, since it’s posthumous) in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, and Parker’s books have very few words in them. I’m also about half way through a couple of others, including Reginald Hill’s latest and Isabel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet. Actually, I suppose there’s no reason I can’t count More All-of-a-Kind Family, which I reread a couple of days ago–so if I finish all three I have already started, I’ll make my quota!

I haven’t written detailed posts about all the books on my summer tally, so I thought I’d at least put a few thoughts together about some of them, if for no other reason than that I find I remember books much more clearly once I’ve written about them (plus, of course, if my memory dims, I can amble through the archives and perk it up).

One book that I read with interest and, for a while, some real enthusiasm is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But as I mentioned before, I hit first ‘An Orison of Somni-451’ and then ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,’ and my reading never recovered its momentum. Mitchell is clearly a brilliant and virtuosic writer, but after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them. The multiple genre trick is a risky one, I think, because after all, not all of us enjoy quite such a range of genres or styles, and this book rather insistently refuses to care about that. That kind of challenge to our reading habits may be good, and in fact for the first third of the book I found it invigorating to be wrenched out of one story into another, to adapt to the new style, and to puzzle over how the parts would ultimately interrelate. I’m fairly sure they do, but by the time I was finishing the book up, I wasn’t excited enough about it to figure out how or why.

I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice on a friend’s recommendation (you know who you are, you lurker!) and while I can’t really say I enjoyed it, since it was extremely depressing, it was certainly moving and probably important, too. I thought it read a bit too much like a case study, or a novelized reenactment, especially through the first few chapters in which a number of fairly technical issues of symptoms, diagnoses, and medications need to be covered. But as Alice’s disease progresses, the tactic of recounting the story from her point of view became increasingly effective and is handled with wise understatement. After I finished it, I was pretty anxious every time I couldn’t remember something! My excuses, after all, are always the same as Alice’s: I’m busy, I’m distracted, I’m juggling multiple demands and tasks most of the time…and I’m too young to be demented–aren’t I?

I read Sara Paretsky’s next-t0-latest V. I. Warshawski novel, Hardball, with interest (her most recent, Body Work, has just come out). I liked it quite a bit. A while back I wrote a bit pettishly that I wasn’t sure my interest in this series could be sustained any further, mostly because I found it too predictable that the villains are always corporate leaders or businessmen, or corrupt politicians. Though this continues to be the case, within variations, in Hardball, I’m inclined more favorably to Paretsky’s overtly political worldview these days. One factor is just the sheer amount of time I’ve spent on my mystery and detective fiction courses, and in prowling around looking for interesting books to assign for them. I appreciate that Paretsky has a worldview, that she uses her novels quite deliberately to explore it: an awful lot of mystery novels are formulaic but without the compensations of actual ideas. I hadn’t taught Paretsky in my lecture course until this past year, when I substituted Indemnity Only for Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi as an example of feminist revisions of hardboiled conventions. (In my ‘Women and Detective Fiction” seminar, I’ve always done both, which allows from some productive comparative discussions.) Grafton’s book is much wittier, but Indemnity Only seems to me to have aged better in some important ways. For instance, Grafton’s detective, Kinsey Millhone, embodies a certain kind of liberal feminism that Grafton called ‘playing hardball with the boys’ (hey–I just noticed the correlation with Paretsky’s title–but I don’t think there’s any deliberate interplay there). Kinsey is strongly male-identified; she refuses to dress up (her indestructible black dress that she keeps balled up in the back of her car for emergency girlishness is a running gag in the series); she takes pleasure in pumping her own gas; and so on. I like her tomboyish character, her refusal to play nice–and in ‘A’ is for Alibi and many of the other books in the series, I think Grafton does a lot of smart things with Kinsey’s struggles to maintain her autonomy, especially in romantic relationships. But the books are only implicitly political, and then only at the individual level: Kinsey won’t put up with shit, from men or anyone else. Paretsky’s idea of feminism seems to me a more complicated one; she pays a lot of attention to systemic problems, connecting women’s efforts to achieve or use power to social structures that also disadvantage people because of race or class. She puts a lot of emphasis on women’s relationships as potentially empowering allegiances, but she also seems more positive about the potential for equity in romance, though she doesn’t pretend it comes easily. The crimes of her novels are always intricately related to this nexus of issues: in Indemnity Only, for instance, the central mystery turns on fraud and corruption among powerful men, but the climactic confrontation at the end is nearly fatal for Vic and her love interest, Ralph, because he has not been able to take her work seriously. Though Vic is very tough, she is also very feminine in some conventional ways: we had some lively discussions in my class in the winter about her emphasis on what she’s wearing, the overt pleasure she takes in nice clothes and in looking good, and about the relationship of this interest (which Kinsey Millhone vehemently rejects) to different ideas about feminism and femininity. I was a little peeved to learn V. I.’s cup size in Hardball: it figures (so to speak) that she’d be a 36C. So as far as that goes, she still conforms to certain standards of female beauty–but that’s OK, some of my best friends are curvy.

The last book I wanted to say something about is Dear Genius: The Collected Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. But you know what? It was such a great read, and has so many delicious quotable bits, that I think I’ll put that off for its own post (also, I really should be prepping class notes by now…).

Summer Reading

My daughter signed up for the summer reading club at our local public library. She pledged to read at least 20 new books between the beginning of July and the end of the summer. I pledged to match her. Because it was summer, ‘light’ reading was fine. Here’s how we did:


1. Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?
2. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
3. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
4. Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip
5. Dick (and Felix) Francis, Silks
6. Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
7. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil
8. Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
9. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
10. Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan
11. Penelope Lively, Consequences
12. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
13. Ian Colford, Evidence
14. Louise Penny, Dead Cold
15. David Lodge, Deaf Sentence
16. K. Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
17. Penelope Lively, Cleopatra’s Sister
18. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
19. Deborah Crombie, Where Memories Lie
20. Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (whew, I’m just squeaking this one in under the wire!)


1. Puppy Place: Princess
2. Princess Power: The Charmingly Clever Cousin
3. Puppy Place: Pugsly
4. Alice Finkle’s Rules for Girls: Moving Day
5. What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows
6. Happily Every After
7. Ivy and Bean Break the Fossil Record
8. Clementine’s Letter
9. Princess Power: The Awfully Angry Ogre
10. Junie B. Jones, Boss of Lunch
11. Judy Moody M.D., The Doctor is In
12. Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket
13. Ready Freddie, King of Show and Tell
14. Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes
15. Ready Freddie: The Pumpkin Elf Mystery
16. Junie B. Jones, Dumb Bunny
17. Canadian Flyer Adventures: Pioneer Kids
18. The Magic Tree House: Night of the New Magicians

She didn’t quite make 20, but as she pointed out, she spent a lot of weeks in summer camps that didn’t allow any time at all for reading–which strikes me as interesting and unfortunate, in retrospect. Two weeks were in a science camp, so she learned a lot, and two in a “mini-university” camp, also a good mix of education and fun. The YMCA camp was all outings and swimming; these are both good things, and I know we are all obsessing about keeping kids physically active, but aren’t books important too? I’m sure Maddie would also want me to point out that we are pretty inflexible about bedtimes. But you see, that’s important so that I can get some reading done! And she and I are both proud of all the reading she did.

I enjoyed most of the books I read, but the highlights for me were certainly The Wasted Vigil, Mrs Dalloway, and The Lost. In the Company of the Courtesans and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were the low points, the first because it was all show and no substance, the second because it somehow managed to be at once prurient and dull. I’m still thinking about Netherland, which I just finished. I have never thought so much about cricket, before, that’s for sure; until I read it, the only other literary cricket scene I knew was the awesome match in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise (I love that scene!).