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. Peyton‘s Flambards series: Flambards, The 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: