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.

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