Tag Archives: summer reading

Summer Reading 2015 Edition

Now that we’re more than a whole week into fall, I thought it might be time to talk about my summer reading [insert eye roll at myself]. It was another busy summer — but whose wasn’t? I managed to uncover a few gems in spite of that, and even, which I’m frankly quite proud of, read a non-narrative nonfiction book!! Why don’t we begin there?

gut_coverGut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, by Giulia Enders. I’m honestly still a little surprised by the fact that I managed to read all the way through a non-narrative nonfiction book and — even more surprising — wave it enthusiastically in the faces of other people because I enjoyed it so much. I give all the credit to the author’s clear enthusiasm for her topic, which comes right off the page. For a piece of non-narrative nonfiction to hold my interest longer than an average essay or news article is saying something. And while I suppose that my enjoyment could just be indicative of my own navel-gazing tendencies, I still found this discussion of the digestive tract both engaging and fascinating.

 

pigeon_english_coverPigeon English, by Stephen Kelman. I confess I picked this book for its awesome cover. Based on the true story of the murder of Damilola Taylor, Pigeon English is told through the voice of Harrison Opoku, a Ghanian immigrant in London with his mother and older sister. When a boy who lives on their council estate is murdered, Harri decides to investigate, enlisting the help of his friend Dean, whose expertise comes from watching the American television show CSI. Kelman created such a delightful voice for Harri! It was impossible not to love him. This book is a portrait of innocence in a gritty urban environment where children lose their innocence quickly; it broke my heart a little. Harri’s voice, and his sense of wonder and joy, were a delight, which is why I hate to talk about nits with this book. But in the interest of full and fair disclosure, Kelman includes occasional snippets told in the voice of a certain pigeon that Harri has befriended, and I truly think the book would have been better without these. It’s a small part of the book, though.

wrath_dawn_coverThe Wrath and the Dawn, by Renée Ahdieh. This is a re-imagining of the legend of Scheherazade, the storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights. As in the legend, the caliph of Khorasan takes a new wife each night, only to have her executed the next morning. When this fate befalls her best friend, Shahrzad volunteers to marry the caliph, secretly vowing revenge, only to encounter in the caliph something completely unexpected. When I was investigating the book before reading it, I saw a bunch of gushing reviews from very young-looking girls on Goodreads, and I admit I was leery about the book because of this. May this not be the last time I prove the fangirls correct: this is young adult romance done right, and love is not too strong a word to describe my feelings for this book. In what I think is the first time ever in my reading career, I pre-ordered the second book before even finishing the first.

What about you? What were your standout reads of the summer?

My Summer So Far, In Reading

My summer has been crazy. I have been on the go so much I’ve hardly had time to think. I actually did the math, and in a span of exactly 30 days, I was in 9 distinct airports and took off and landed no less than 23 times. The novelization of my life might refer to this epic thirty-day-period as “Two Weddings and a Baby Shower”, with an afterword entitled “Four Time Zones Apart: Vacation and Work Travel With 24 Hours Between”.

But on the bright side, with all that airport and airplane time, I read six books!

Before the Air Travel Extravaganza, I was working on a post to let you all know ahead of time the reasons for my absence, but the post was scrapped, mostly because I was afraid that my real and actual joy at being able to do all of these things and go all of these places — for and with people I love — would be overshadowed by my melodramatic dread of the attendant exhaustion (and the huge life changes that each trip represented to me).

And I’m glad I scrapped it. “Kill your darlings” is what people who know say about writing, and in this case my darlings were allusions to Robert Frost poems. Thankfulness is a much better use of my time (when compared to melodramatic dread, not allusions to Robert Frost — poetry is never a waste of time).

Let’s talk instead about those six books: here’s what I read, in no particular order, and typically random!

nfrol_coverNo Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym. How I would have loved to have actually known Barbara Pym. I like to think that she and I would have been great friends, if only because I see something of myself in each one of her heroines, who one imagines must each have something of her in them, too. While this particular book of hers was not (in my opinion) quite at the same level as Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence, it still offered such little gems of perfect expression as “the rather perfunctory tone in which social invitations not meant to be accepted are sometimes issued, and to which the only suitable reply is a murmur.” For me, reading one of her books is like reading a long, storied letter from a friend with whom I entirely sympathize.

therook_coverThe Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. A woman wakes up in the rain in a London park, surrounded by dead people, with no recollection of who she is. She soon discovers that she is a high-ranking member of a secret organization in the British government tasked with keeping supernatural forces in check, and that she has extra-special supernatural powers of her own. If you’re not already intrigued, then my raving about wry writing (which reminded me of watching recent Doctor Who) probably won’t convince you to read this super-fun book (first in a planned series). A few hallmarks of a first novel were outweighed by the novel’s being refreshingly without so many of the characteristics that seem to plague so much of recent science fiction/fantasy: there was no annoying romantic triangle (or romance of any kind), and there WAS a confident heroine getting stuff done — on her own, to boot. MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE.

deathofbees_coverThe Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell. The story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, opens with Marnie’s confession: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.” Set in urban Glasgow, it’s the story of Marnie and Nelly just trying to get by keeping the secret of their parents’ deaths until Marnie’s next birthday, when she’ll be legally old enough to take care of Nelly herself. Keeping that secret proves harder and harder as neighbors, authorities, and their parents’ drug dealers start asking questions. This is not The Boxcar Children: there is a hefty bit of Glaswegian grit in this story. While it might not be quite urban fiction, it certainly had similar themes and content. Somehow it still managed sweetness, though — if you can get past the grit and you enjoy coming-of-age stories, this book may be for you.

tntysm_coverThe Next Time You See Me, by Holly Goddard Jones. “Lives of quiet desperation” is what springs to mind when I think of this book. The story is told from multiple points of view: a young girl, a loner, finds a dead body in the woods and keeps it a secret; a schoolteacher’s wild older sister has gone missing; an older man works in a local factory; each of their lives and the lives of others in their small Kentucky town will converge as the search for the missing sister escalates. Really more of a slow-burn character study than a true mystery or thriller, each of the characters was finely drawn and even sympathetic — but it doesn’t shy away from or understate their sadness and hopelessness, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I would probably never read it again.

habits_coverHabits of the House, by Fay Weldon. Fay Weldon was the author of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” — and because I love both period dramas and comedies of manners, I confess I had high hopes for this particular book. But I found it disappointing, and I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. At the end of 1899, the Earl of Dilberne and his family stand on the brink of total financial ruin. Their only hope is to secure a lucrative marriage for their son, who is only interested in keeping his mistress happy and his automobile in working order. Maybe I found it dissatisfying because almost every character was portrayed as having few (if any) redeeming virtues; and although I actually rather liked the American heiress the Dilberne family targeted, I could only picture a future of disappointment for her married to the future Earl of Dilberne. It is entirely possible, however, that I was just tired.

never_coverNever Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a date, by Katie Heaney. I decided to read this book after discovering the author’s contributions to The Hairpin, a series called Reading Between The Texts, in which Katie and her friends analyze text message conversations they’ve had with boys (it is seriously one of the funniest things on the Internets and if you’ve been single at all in this century you can probably relate to these conversations). I believe I can say unequivocally that if you enjoy those analyses, you’ll enjoy Ms. Heaney’s book. There were so many times reading the book I laughed out loud and felt like Ms. Heaney and I should be really good friends because we have so much in common, except she’s funnier.

So my list began and ended with an author I should like to call a friend. What about you? Has your summer been as out-of-control crazy as mine? What have you been reading?

A Recent Text-Message Conversation with my Sister

Or, a progress update on Middlemarch. (For the record, spelling and grammar from this text-message conversation have been corrected on both sides.)

Her: With great heaviness of heart, I just purchased Middlemarch.

Me: Woot! she said, with great enthusiasm.

Her: I’m already getting sleepy a paragraph in. That might be an upside…

Me: Haha! Texting me about paragraphic progress will help keep you awake.

Her: Haha! But I want to sleep!

<<the next day>>

Me: I made it through chapter one last night. I pat myself on the back.

Her: Haha! I’m halfway through chapter three!!! I win!!!!!!

Me: For now!!!!!!!!

I’m sure she’s still winning, though. I am through chapter four, bookmark sitting restfully at chapter five, and not feeling inspired to press on. Am I permitted to draw my conclusions after only four chapters?

The Brontes Went to Woolworths

Cover image from Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

The Brontes Went to Woolworths, a book by Rachel Ferguson, is one of the strangest novels I’ve read in some time. The Carne family – a widow and three daughters – occupy center stage in this novel, and they were great fun – highly imaginative, theatrical, and personable. But I confess that I felt a bit of the slowcoach as far the Carnes were concerned: forever left behind.

The basic premise of the novel is that the Carnes tend to embellish their lives with imagination; sometimes they “adopt” real people and make them into elaborate personalities that figure in the Carnes’ daily lives. What might happen if you actually met in person someone for whom you had already designated space in your life, whom you felt you already knew?

Spending time with the Carnes is a little like spending time with your most fun, most imaginative, and most energetic friend: someone who appreciates nonsense as much (or more, even) than you, whose conversation you adore, and whose flights of fancy may leave you a little in awe. It was like that with the Carne sisters. Admiring their intelligence, their conversation (with its liberal sprinklings of literary references), I liked them instantly. But, inevitably, as the story progressed, I felt a bit like I might in real life with such a friend: I am too conservative or too inhibited, or perhaps my imagination is too tightly tethered to reality to be either a full participant or an equal contributor to any flight of fancy.

The story is as much about the Carnes’ lives as it is about the lives that they touch – their governesses, for instance. In the closing chapters, the governess (the second governess, which I don’t think gives too much away) believes she has caught on to their “games” and makes an attempt to join in that falls flat, greeted as it was with a certain amount of bemusement by the Carnes.

And thus it was that I found myself relating, not to Deirdre, Katrine, or Sheil Carne, but rather the governess, particularly in that final moment. I can recall all too well being that person – carried away by the moment, perhaps, where I said something, thinking it would be well-received, and that painful knowledge afterward that it didn’t fit. The governess’s pacing in her room that night, reliving the awkward moment, did not help dispel the feeling of relating more to her than to them.

Still, I thought the novel was entertaining and lark-like. I read the majority of this book while on vacation this weekend, a vacation in which a great many things went wrong (stories for another night!). The Carnes go on vacation in this book, about which it is said:

Even a holiday that is going to be a successful one should never be preceded by irritating and exhausting details. One should simply walk out of the house into a car, and be driven, coolly, to the station. And when one arrived, a maid would have unpacked.

Indeed. On that point the Carnes and I definitely agree.

Middlemarch, and Me, and Summer Reading

books at bedsideThere are approximately thirty books in my bedside stack of in-progress and to-be-read books.

I don’t know the exact number.  Creating an actual reckoning of those volumes would probably fill me with so much guilt I would immediately leave the bedroom and turn on the television.

Right now, I am reading:

The Bronte’s Went to Woolworth’s (Rachel Ferguson)

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (D. E. Stevenson)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

But summer is approaching, and I have summer reading lists on the brain.  I still sometimes prepare these for myself.  They usually include some of the thirty-odd volumes which seem to have a permanent residence in the stack of to-be-read books; and other books, newer books, which have caught the changing pleasure of my infantile attention span for the moment.

I know my planned summer reading will include Marilynne Robinson’s Home; I’ve been saving it to read when I was in the right frame of mind, as well as – and I am somewhat bracing myself already – George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  When George Eliot last appeared on my blog, it was related to an article I had read about George Eliot that made comparisons to Jane Austen and even – to a degree – wrote about these two authors as though they wrote the same type of novel.

Because I don’t know whether I entirely agree with the conclusions I reached in that post, at book group last weekend I had a very brief conversation with someone who is far more well read and thoughtful about these matters – and who certainly has what I would judge to be a far less emotional attachment to Jane Austen – than me.  From that conversation, I have determined – the academic within requires it of me – to let George Eliot have her fair say.

So, maybe one of you will add Middlemarch to your summer reading list, and we can discuss our findings.  It’s currently winging its way to me; in the interim, lest it come up yet again, my dearest sister, I am (it was at the top of the list!) determined to finish The Bronte’s Went to Woolworth’s, though I confess I have yet to find myself on an even keel in that novel.

What are you going to read this summer?