The Failure to Commit: Did You Finish Your Summer Reading Project?

“Reading Woman” by Matthieu Wiegman

I have a spotty record of finishing summer reading projects. Yes, I loved The Tale of Genji in 2016, but this past summer of SF I barely cracked open an SF book.  I preferred Jo Walton’s brilliant collection of essays, An Informal History of the Hugos:  A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, to two actual SF novels, Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer and John Crowley’s Aegypt.

Does this mean I cannot commit?

It is a bloggers’ tradition to commit to whimsical summer reading. This summer there was the Full Monte, a cleverly-named discussion of The Count of Monte Cristo; the Classics Club, The Books of Summer, All August All Virago, and Women in Translation Month.  Coming up is Victober, a reading of Victorian novels in October, sponsored by various vloggers at BookTube and a Goodreads group.  Since every month is Victober here, I will inadvertently participate.

Such bookish fun is a little too quixotic.  I prefer book clubs where all read the same book. (And so The Full Monte gets my vote of approval.) My husband and I, in our scruffier years, used to walk to the lake (where we never swam, because of dead fish and pollution) and read Betty MacDonald’s humor books aloud under a tree. More recently, we had a lunchtime Joseph Conrad book club. This year we’re reading an interminable Solzhenitsyn book.

Everything is undoubtedly more fun on the internet, though you might have to be a Millennial or of the “I” gen to enjoy it.  Take a look at the adorable book site, Bookish, which sponsors a Bookish Bingo game for its September Reading Challenge.  I would never do this; still, kudos to “red or orange cover.” And, let’s face it, I’ll have a Bingo without playing.

Why am I wary about cute internet reading projects?  Well, it is like interplanetary butterflies humming and hovering over different genera of flowers but never hovering or humming over the same flowers. (Is that what I mean?  And is it SF?)

I recently read David Ulin’s brilliant book, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. (And I wrote about it here).  He discusses the internet interruptions that impede our reading books.  The internet actually rewires our brains so we need constant fixes.  In 2008, Ulin became so addicted to newsfeeds about the election that he could barely get off the net–and he could not get lost in a book.

Many critics have written about the triviality of social media.  Ulin quotes David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. Denby writes, “The trouble with today’s snarky pipsqueaks who break off a sentence or two, or who write a couple of mean paragraphs, is that they don’t go far enough; they don’t have a coherent view of life.”

Ulin does not entirely agree with Denby’s critique, but he explains the gist of it:

What Denby is lamenting is the lack of a larger framework, the absence of any wider point of view.  That’s the problem with the culture of the comments thread, which, for all its pretense toward open conversation, adds up to little more than a collection of parallel monologues.

It is difficult to conduct a meaningful conversation in parallel monologues. Certainly I do not have the facility.  What can a couple of lines in a comment possibly signify?  We try, but I succeed only as a cheerleader.

So let’s recover our hippie reading life, the best response to a noisy, muddled world.

To quote Joni Mitchell:

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden

Summer Reading: Five New Books I Loved

Do you ever wonder how Critic X could tout a silly, mediocre novel, or a puerile autobiography?

If only there were a Critics’ Buy-Back Day!

Dear Critic at New York Times/Washington Post/L.A. Times/Chicago Tribune, etc.

Would you please buy back this dreadful book you recommended?

Granted, they are paid to read bad new books, so there is the tendency to overpraise the slightest hint of talent.  You must adjust your standards to immerse yourself in twenty-first century literature.

But even I occasionally find great new books, and I unreservedly loved the following five, from five different genres.  I don’t guarantee–my taste is my taste–but one of them might be good summer reading for you!

My favorite new book of the year.

1 . The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.  Shelved in the literary fiction section, this haunting science fiction novel has been widely reviewed–deservedly so.  Set in 2049, it consists of the meditations of Christine Pizan, an artist, rebel, and “skin writer,”  on gender, ecology, devolution, and the dictatorship on the space station where she lives.  We also read her book about Joan of Dirt, a post-apocalyptic Joan of Arc who led the Resistance on the now devastated Earth.  The rumor is that Joan is still alive.  (You can read my post on this intriguing book here.)

2. The Clairvoyants by Karen Brown.  Entertaining, suspenseful, and engrossing, this is one of my great bookstore finds of the year.  Two sisters, Martha and Del, were raised near a summer colony of psychics.   Martha, a reluctant clairvoyant,  repeatedly sees the ghost of Mary Rae, a missing person, after she moves to Ithaca to attend college.  When her sister, wild, promiscuous Del, shows up at her apartment, Martha has to take her in:  Del has been living in a progressive mental hospital. And then things get eerie fast.  (Here is my post on this novel.)

3.  Morningstar:  Growing up with Books by Ann Hood.  This won’t be published till August, but I received an advance copy and loved it.  Hood is a novelist and has written a spellbinding memoir of her reading in childhood and adolescence.  Her favorite book was Marjorie Morningstar.   (You can read my post here.)

4.  The Idiot by Elif Bautman.   A charming, comical coming-of-age story.  Selin, the slightly nerdish narrator,  is baffled by nuances during her freshman year at Harvard: she is perplexed by the conversation of her eccentric roommates, the medium of e-mail (which is new in 1995), and the intentions of Ivan, a charming Hungarian student who writes e-mails to her constantly.   Does he like her?  The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Selin falls in love with him, to the point that she spends her summer in Hungary.  But will it work out? He already has a girlfriend.   (You can read my post here.)

5.  Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World by Kathy Chamberlain.  This engrossing biography focuses on eight years in the life of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle’s wife.    Virginia Woolf called her  one of “the great letter writers,” and Elizabeth Hardwick said she had a “private writing career.”  Indeed, the quotes from the letters are better than excerpts from many novels!   (You can read my post here.)

Summer Reading Binge: Lose Yourself in a Trilogy or Quartet

It is hot. Prairie hot. It is in the 90s.  Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady hot.  But there is no Marian Forrester to bring us lemonade. I bring the lemonade.

Here’s how we cope:  loll in the hammock and read until it cools off, when we may or may not take a walk.  I like to lose myself in a trilogy or quartet.

Here are 10 recommendations of trilogies and quartets for summer reading.

1.  Lynne Reid Banks’s THE L-SHAPED ROOM, THE BACKWARD SHADOW, and TWO IS LONELY .  In The L-Shaped Room (1960), pragmatic Jane Graham,  a former actress who is respected at her PR job, daren’t tell her friends when she gets pregnant. In a bug-infested L-shaped room, she muses on her life and befriends some unconventional Londoners. The two sequels, published in the ‘70s, relate Jane’s further adventures.   (And I posted on The L-Shaped Room here.)

2.  Edna O’Brien’s THE COUNTRY GIRLS TRILOGY AND EPILOGUE.  In this lyrical coming-of-age story, Caithleen and Baba, two bickering, mischievous friends, contrive their own expulsion from a convent school and move to Dublin to pursue fun and love. And then they get married.  Do they live happily ever after?  O’Brien occasionally overwrites the wispy, romantic parts, but it’s all true to women’s literary heritage.

3.  Anthony Burgess’s THE COMPLETE ENDERBY (Inside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, the Clockwork Testament, Enderby’s Dark Lady). The poet hero, Enderby, happily writes in the lavatory.  And then he wins a poetry prize and everything changes. Women are attracted to his fame, such as it is;  a pop star plagiarizes him; he teaches poetry cluelessly; and writes a screenplay based on a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. It has been years since I read it, but I loved these comical novels.

4.  R. F. Delderfield’s Swann trilogy, GOD IS AN ENGLISHMAN , THEIRS WAS THE KINGDOM, and GIVE US THIS DAY.  Want to go pop-literary?  Delderfield’s fascinating  ’70s trilogy, set in the 19th century, focuses on work.  Every character, male or female, must work to fulfill himself or herself.  Idleness leads to confusion and mistakes. The hero, Adam Swann, a former soldier, founds a haulage firm after a railroad employee explains there is a need for wagons to carry merchandise from cities and small towns to the railroad. He and his spirited wife, Henrietta, with whom he originally has a rocky relationship, build a dynasty of employees and family.

Award-winning Australian Elizabeth Jolley’s THE VERA WRIGHT TRILOGY (My Father’s Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges’ Wife).  Her style is Virginia-Woolf-meets-D.-H.-Lawrence, a poetic yet blunt stream-of-consciousness mixed with erotic strangeness and lies.  Vera, a hero-worshipping nursing student/adulterer/false friend/unwed mother/housekeeper/doctor, is the  unreliable narrator of unreliable narrators.  Vera lies and cheats to get attention and makes weird lateral and downward career moves.  She is a fascinating heroine.

6. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s HELENA TRILOGY.  These complex, witty novels, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide,  delineate the the changing relationship between the narrator, art historian Claud Pickering, and his histrionic stepmother, Helena, amidst the disintegrating class boundaries of postwar society. It is as good as Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time!

7.  Known as Joyce Cary’s SECOND TRILOGY, these stunning novels, Prisoner of Grace, Except the Lord, and Not Honour More, center on the mercurial career of Chester Nimmo, a  Union man who becomes a politician and savvily changes his politics with the winds of public opinion.   His story is told from three different points of view, his own, his wife Nina’s, and Nina’s cousin Jim’s.


8.  Storm Jameson’s THE MIRROR IN DARKNESS TRILOGY.  Jameson is one of my favorite leftist writers, so it is odd I’ve never blogged about this trilogy, Company Parade (1934),  Love in Winter (1935) , and None Turn Back (1936).  I once wrote about it for a bookish newsletter, which I apparently threw away because it was only a newsletter! (Who knew I’d want to post it someday?)   Set after World War I, these superb novels explore the life of Hervey Russell, who moves to London while her husband is still in the Air Force, copes with an unhappy marriage and a child she can’t take care of easily, poverty, radical politics, publishing, falling in love, and the General Strike.  Jameson is not the smoothest writer, but she is very intelligent.

9.  Eleanor Porter’s MISS BILLY TRILOGY. In  Miss Billy, Miss Billy Married, and Miss Billy Makes a Decision. Porter, the author of Pollyanna, tells the story of Billy as an orphan-heiress.  At 18, upon the death of her aunt, she contacts her father’s best friend, William, because she is his namesake. Thinking she is a boy, William invites her to live with him and his two brothers in Boston at “the Strata,” thus called because each of the three brothers has his own “stratum” or floor on which to pursue his interests. William collects antiques, Cyril is a musician, and Bertram paints.  These charming, funny novels follow Billy’s adventures from age 18 into young adulthood.   (The books are free at Project Gutenberg).

Kristin Lavransdatter: a cult classic!

10.  Sigrid Undset’s KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER TRILOGY.  This gorgeous trilogy, written in luminous medieval-style language, chronicles the life of a Norwegian woman in the 14th century. Nobel Prize winner Undset dazzles with her vivid descriptions of Kristin’s childhood, teens, love affairs, marriage, religious dilemmas, religious pilgrimages, and the disappointments of life with Erlend, her weak husband. I love Undset!


Summer Reading!

book at the beach Grown-Up-Summer-ReadingWhat am I reading this summer?

Pretty much what I always read.

But who doesn’t like a list?  There are  Best of the Year books in December (the serious books for serious readers and gift-givers) and Summer Reading (the lighter books) in May and June.

Now I don’t promise that the books on my list are lighter or heavier than usual, but here are seven recommendations.

1.  I learned about Holly LeCraw’s stunning novel, The Half Brother, through Nancy Pearl’s recommendations of “under-the-radar reads” at NPR.

And this taut, beautifully-written, realistic novel is perhaps the best new book I’ve read this year.

the half brother by Holly LeCraw 51TRuQcPgjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_LeCraw’s brilliant, lyrical style captivates us from the beginning as Charlie, the teacher narrator, takes a walk on the beautiful grounds of his school in  Massachusetts.

Mid-August.  On the quad, the only sound is a far-off angry machine, a leaf blower, somewhere in the vicinity of the library.  Otherwise I’d have the whole place to myself, except for the bees.

Charlie, who went to Harvard only because his stepfather in Atlanta arranged it, was relieved to find a job teaching English at Abbott, a boarding school in New England.. This talented teacher wins his students’ respect not only by his insights into Donne and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but by his Southern charm and old-fashioned habit of addressing them as Mr. and Miss.   When he falls in love with his former student May, the daughter of the chaplain, everything clicks into place.   Then a family secret causes him to break off the relationship.  Ten years later, when  his beautiful golden brother, Nick, is shattered physically and mentally by an experience in Afghanistan, and  comes to Abbott to teach, the dynamics at Abbott change for Charlie, May, and the students.

Charlie is an absolutely believable character:  I have known many dedicated teachers who take jobs at demanding private schools and stay on.  The only unrealistic detail seems to be that he doesn’t struggle to support himself on the salary.  (Private schools pay less than public schools.)

Get in Trouble Kelly Link 51UpA-MbcYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2.  Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble.  Last winter I was bowled over by Link’s  brilliant collection of short stories  but never got around to blogging about it.  It is impossible to categorize Link:  does she write literary fantasy?  Magic realism?  Horror?  Science fiction?  She is so good that her books have burst out of the science fiction ghetto and are reviewed at The New York Times and The Guardian (though not at The New York Review of Books and the TLS–yet!)

It has been a while since I read this, so here is a summary from Goodreads:

In “The Summer People,” a young girl in rural North Carolina serves as uneasy caretaker to the mysterious, never-quite-glimpsed visitors who inhabit the cottage behind her house. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a middle-aged movie star makes a disturbing trip to the Florida swamp where his former on- and off-screen love interest is shooting a ghost-hunting reality show. In “The New Boyfriend,” a suburban slumber party takes an unusual turn, and a teenage friendship is tested, when the spoiled birthday girl opens her big present: a life-size animated doll.

Snow and Roses Lettice Cooper 97814482106573.  Lettice Cooper’s Snow and Roses.  A fascinating novel about a lecturer at Oxford whose love life literally breaks her down.    Flora’s married lover dies in a car accident after she fights  with him about his plans to move away with his mentally ill wife (whom Flora very much resents).  Her heartbreak is stark and tragic, and since everyone except Hugh’s wife knew about the affair, all know about her mourning.   A gay man suggests she spend a summer in Italy with his sister, a lesbian with whom she falls in love.  AS you can imagine she is utterly shattered when it doesn’t last.  This novel is about picking up the pieces.

Some of you may know Lettice Cooper from Fenny (Virago) and The New House (Virago and Persephone).

Euphoria by Lily King cover4.  Lily King’s Euphoria.  I enjoyed this book very much last year, and it is now in paperback.  King’s early novels struck me as only so-so, so I was astonished by the complexity of Euphoria, obviously her breakthrough book.  The heroine, Nell Stone, the ­controversial American author of the best-selling ethnography “The Children of Kirakira,” is based on Margaret Mead.  The cover jacket copy calls Euphoria “a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the ’30s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.”

Nick Hornby's funny girl 227499945.  Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl.  This is one of Hornby’s lighter books, but there is no such thing as a too-light Hornby.  Given Hornby’s new avocation as a screenwriter, I was not surprised that he set this novel in TV comedy of the 1960s.    The down-to-earth  heroine, Barbara Parker, who changes her name to Sophie Straw, flees to London after winning a beauty contest to become an actress when she realizes she doesn’t want to make appearances for the Chamber of Commerce.   In London she breaks into television, and a daring new BBC sitcom,  “Barbara (and Jim,)” about a young married couple’s ups an downs, is written partly at her suggestions..  Through her career, Sophie only gets nicer, but the  novel also follows the lives of her brooding, jealous co-star, Clive Richardson (too charming for his own good),  the two writers , Bill Gardiner and Tony Holmes, who eventually split, and the earnest director, Dennis Maxwell-Bishop.  This books is not as great a joy as Hornby’s rock and roll novel, Juliet, Naked, but I loved it anyway.

Susan Wittig Albert awilderrose2015_332x5006..  ON THE LIGHTER SIDE.  Susan Wittig Albert is best known for her mysteries, but in this fast-paced historical novel she  she  explores the life of Rose Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter.  This will intrigue fans of the Little House books. Rose, a successful novelist and journalist, rewrote her mother’s novels from Laura’s notes .  Until the crash in 1928, Rose did very well financially, but during the Depressions she moved back to her parents’ home in the Ozarks with her companion.  (This book is one of many in progress, but I can attest that the first third is fascinating.)  Why didn’t they make their collaboration public?  All will be explained.

Aeneid dryden 51o9UO0ZXOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_7.  Virgil’s Aeneid.  You knew this was coming.  Every summer I tell people The Aeneid is the perfect beach book.   Let’s say we meet on the shore in August and I’ll read aloud parts in Latin, then you can read the English, or, wait, I’ll TEACH YOU SOME LATIN AS WE GO ALONG.  You don’t like the sound of that at all?

Here are the opening lines of Dryden’s translation

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

Summer Reading: Books Found on the Porch

the death of virgil by brochSince the summer of 2010, I have promised myself that I will read Hermann Broch’s modernist classic, Death of Virgil, a gorgeously-written stream-of-consciousness narrative about the last hours of Virgil’s life at Brundisium.

Oh, greatness of human diversity, amplitude of human yearning! And floating in his awareness, floatingly borne aloft over the shouting heads, floatingly borne aloft over the festival fires of uproarious Brundisium, floating, held high in the undulant movement of the present, he experienced the boundless contraction of…

I’ve given this four tries.  Starting over yet again from the beginning is pointless–I have already done that–so I plan simply to read on. Summary so far:   1.  Virgil is sick.  2.  He is carried off the ship.  (Nothing happens.)

There are also the Review Copies on the Porch. I no longer accept review copies (I have a backlog of books, people! and few of them are new), but I weeded the box on the porch and found three to read this summer (two from 2012).

The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert1.  Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden (2014). The publicist compared this to Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, one of my favorite books this year.  According to the press release, “16-year-old Bay Singer never believed the local rumors that her mother, Nan, is a witch. But when two of Nan’s friends from the past appear at the door, their reunion summons haunting memories: of an oath the three women took years ago, a secret they promised to protect, and the small town whose distrust has already ruined more than one life.”  By the way, the author is a Nebula Award nominee and a multiple World Fantasy Award winner for short fiction.

The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant2.  Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer (2012).  According to the press release, “a suspenseful, modern gothic tale of a young American couple who win a pub on the southernmost tip of Ireland.”

3.  Adam McComber’s The White Forest (2012).  Another fantasy novel.  According to the press release, “Jane Silverlake is a lonely young woman with a strange, inexplicable gift–ever since her mother’s mysterious death she has been able to hear the souls of man-made objects.  The frightening sounds from the artifacts in her father’s crumbling estate…plague her constantly, but she finds solace in the peaceful silence she hears from nature.”

I hope I’ll enjoy one or two or all of these.  We’ll see.

Summer Reading

Is it time to reread Emma?

Is it time to reread Emma?

I mock Summer Reading articles.  I don’t know why I do.

The lists are usually of good new books.  This year Alan Cheuse at NPR has recommended poetry for summer reading: three books by Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, and W. S. Merwin, and two by poets I don’t know, Brenda Shaughnessy and David Rakoff.

Janet Maslin at The New York Times goes pop with Stephen King’s Joyland and Carl Hiassen’s Bad Monkey, but also includes books I’ve never heard of, Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat, a collection of stories, and Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, “a novel about a status-conscious North Carolina family.”

I never particularly want to read the summer reading books.  Some are good, some are bad, most reviewed aren’t as good as they say.

I prefer to choose my own books.  I’m sure most of you know what I mean.

This vacation I am doing my share of summer reading.  We bicycle in the rain every day because this is it, summer, and when else can we take long trips?  But I find that when we arrive at the diner,  I cannot read Anna Karenina.  I finished it at home.  Short books are best for the road.

And so here is a little bit about my Summer Reading.

book-atownofemptyrooms Karen E. BenderI finished a wonderful Southern novel,  Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms, which I found by chance at Barnes and Noble (and that’s why we need bookstores:  I read no reviews of this book).   Bender, who teaches creative writing at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has won two Pushcart prizes for her short stories.  There is a rich texture to her observant, intense, lyrical writing.

If you liked Kent Haruf’s Benediction, you will probably enjoy A Town of Empty Rooms.  It’s not that the plots are the same, but they are both stylishly written, with intelligence.

Bender’s poignant novel about a Jewish family who moves to a small town in the South begins:

She did not intend to steal anything that day.  Serena Hirsch was walking through midtown Manhattan on her lunch break; it was one week since her father had died, and it was her first day back at work.  It was a bright April afternoon, and people were gathered in loose, happy groups outside, sitting on concrete walls and benches, turning faces to the cool pale lights.  Others seemed relieved, released from the confines of winter, certain of the damp promise of spring.  Serena walked with the crowd marching down the sidewalk, hoping she would feel she was one of them again, but now the clear sunlight, the blaring cabs, and the groups gathered on the sidewalks all seemed to exist in some world that she did not inhabit.  Her father was not part of this world anymore…

Her father had moved with his family from Berlin to the U.S. in 1936 when he was six:  he told her she should always have something she could sell:  he gives her jewelry. After her death she has a mini-breakdown and steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate charge card.

Fired from her job in marketing from PepsiCo and blacklisted, she moves with her husband, Dan, and two children to Waring, North Carolina.  Everywhere there are signs like:  If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats.

They are one of 100 or so Jewish families in town, and Serena is drawn to religion when she drives by the Temple.  But Dan, who doesn’t want to be viewed as Jewish, longs to be accepted and won’t go ro Temple.  He becomes a Boy Scout leader.

Things are crazy in the South for everyone.  Their next-door neighbor, Forrest, a fulltime Boy Scout director, has quarreled with everyone in the neighborhood.  Suddenly he becomes obsessed with their tree.  There is nothing wrong with the tree, but he insists it is about to fall on his shed.  And Dan is so worried about being ostracized and driven out of town that he cuts down the tree while Serena is at work.

At the temple things are crazy, too.  The Rabbi, who is a mesmerizing speaker and wonderful to have on your side when Forrest starts a Bring Back Christmas to the Schools campaign, is also slightly manic, and alienates many of the old women in the congregation.

This beautifully-written novel is a pageturner, but it is also painful.  Most of the characters are emotionally crippled in some way.  One is sorry for the eccentricities that hurt them.  One also realizes the life-affirming power of religion (for some, not for all).

Another new novel I’d like to recommend is Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm.  I wrote about it here.