Books read in September

I read fewer books this month than in recent past months. There are reasons for that. First, several of these books were challenging to read: long, consisting of prose written in a time before people had cable, etc. This pushed my reading rate to the lower end of the range. Second, I’ve been working more this month as I’m crashing toward my own book deadline. Third, the kids are back in all their activities, which is also consuming much time. Finally, I joined a choir, which takes 4-5 hours weekly. I am loving it, but that is not an insignificant proportion of my disposable hours.

Still, I managed to make it through a fair amount of stuff! What I read in September:

Reading People, by Anne Bogel

It’s possible I read this in August, but didn’t get it on that month’s post. Bogel runs the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog, and the What Should I Read Next? podcast. She is a self-described personality junkie, and this book is an introduction to the various kinds of personality tests and frameworks, and how you can use them in your life and your relationships. I am less of a personality junkie, but I found it very interesting. I may look into the Enneagram stuff (I’m familiar with Myers-Briggs et al). Of course, I will admit that I am hoping that Bogel’s next book will be more about reading, and approaching literary works, and different kinds of readers, and such. To me, the best parts of this book were when she was leaning on her profound expertise in literature — like which literary characters and authors had which kinds of personalities! I’m proud to call C.S. Lewis a fellow INTJ.

Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

This is a classic book, and I had never read it. Right around the time of World War I, Blixen traveled to Africa with her husband to run a coffee farm. The marriage didn’t work out, and eventually the farm didn’t work out either, but over the course of her decades there, Blixen fell madly in love with Kenya and its people. There are a few parts that are non politically correct (oh, those crazy natives!) and others that dragged a bit, but the descriptions were nice and the characters alluring. FYI, the book is not much like the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie, in case you were wondering.

Shadows on the Grass, by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

A follow on to Out of Africa, with more tales of the characters Blixen met there. I read this because it came bundled with Out of Africa in the ebook version I purchased.

The Rain in Portugal/Billy Collins

I picked this book of poems up at the library. It was OK. Collins occasionally has some memorable images, but I didn’t find myself writing down lines to quote later. (I am definitely looking for some poetry recommendations if people have them).

The Cotton Kingdom, by Frederick Law Olmsted

This book took big chunks of this month. I had written in past posts that I was looking for something describing life in the antebellum south, and what people were thinking leading up to the Civil War. After reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals this summer, I was struck by what a bad gamble the war had been for the South. Before, the compromise that was on the table was that some new territories would be admitted as free states and others as slave states. Abolition was a fringe movement; Lincoln, for instance, wasn’t a big advocate for it at the time. But this compromise was viewed as intolerable, and southern states began seceding. Result: within a few years, the south would be in ruins, and slavery would be abolished. A reader wrote to remind me that Frederick Law Olmsted (better known for designing Central Park) had spent a long time traveling in the south and filing anonymous dispatches to the New York Times about what he saw. His writings were later compiled into a book called The Cotton Kingdom. Thanks to the miracle of Amazon, I could get the ebook for 99 cents! So I did. It was a tough, but fascinating read. Tough because I don’t do well with violence and cruelty, and slavery, you will not be surprised to hear, featured exactly those qualities. Fascinating because Olmsted was a real reporter. He described what he saw. He talked to people. He went everywhere, and what he found was an incredibly backward society suffering from a combination of bad economics and bad cultural narratives. After the importation of slaves stopped in the early 1800s, the slave population could only increase by its natural rate (say, 4% a year). So the price of slaves rose rapidly, and people who were “rich” put all their capital into slaves, rather than into technology or any sort of public improvements. The roads were atrocious. So were the rails and ports. The only thing that it was profitable to do to earn back the investment in slaves was grow cotton, but monocultures and single industry societies often have trouble developing. There were rich planters, and then there were subsistence farmers, but there were incentives against these white small landholders working hard to improve themselves, because the culture stressed that working in the fields was something slaves did. It was beneath a white man to do such labor. As for the terror of states being admitted as free, what Olmsted conveys in here is that the south had been a largely closed society, and the big planters tried to keep their slaves as isolated as possible. But, bad as the roads and rails were, the country was industrializing, and it was getting harder and harder to keep people in the dark. Olmsted talked to slaves who would ask him about the north, and whether it was true that there was no slavery there. Since in many places the slave population massively outnumbered the white population, slave holders were terrified of rebellion. And with slaves being as expensive as they were, they were also worried about there being any close place someone could flee to. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone except, say, someone looking for the history of the south or first person accounts of pre-war life there. But it did provide a lot of interesting perspective on the questions I’d had.

The Garden of Small Beginnings, by Abbi Waxman

I found this book in the library, and picked it up. I think I finished it because it was in every way the anti Cotton Kingdom, and I needed something different afterwards. A young widow named Lilian takes a gardening class in LA with her fun and sassy sister. The one-liners are flying! The gardening class is taught by a hunky guy who is perfect for our widow! Also, the fellow students are a nice multicultural mix of folks, all of whom get along fabulously. Frothy fun.

Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissinger

Another non-fiction classic I hadn’t read yet. The sports writing is great, of course, and Bissinger does a lot within the confines of needing to report the facts. Sometimes truth is a great story. Would anyone believe it in a novel if the playoffs were decided by a coin toss? Or if the kids on the rival team took to robbing fast food restaurants for fun? But anyway, this was a tough read in some ways too — because it had some unfortunate parallels with The Cotton Kingdom. In fact, if any students reading this are looking for term paper options, a comparison of The Cotton Kingdom and Friday Night Lights might be interesting. The same ugly racism seems to have lingered for 130 years. There is sanctioned violence against young men’s bodies, with the defense given that it’s part of a way of life. But the people defending that way of life don’t see how it’s limiting them too. One of the most depressing parts of this saga of the 1988 Permian High School football team’s season in Odessa, Texas, is how under-challenged many kids were in these high schools. They were great because of football, so they didn’t have to be great in anything else.

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

I had seen this new novel reviewed several places, and it seemed like it might be more my type (than, say, The Garden of Small Beginnings). A young widow and her daughter come into the care of an order of nuns in early 20th century Brooklyn. The daughter thinks she might become a nun, but eventually decides that the world’s people aren’t really deserving enough to sacrifice her life for — a fact one is inclined to agree with given McDermott’s grotesque portrayal of people’s earthly bodies and wayward psychologies. The nuns themselves, on the other hand, continue sacrificing in some rather unexpected ways to help give the widow and her daughter the life they’d like. The prose was beautiful in places, if the story itself was sometimes strange. If there are any McDermott fans reading this, I’d love suggestions for what novels of hers might be good to read next.

12 thoughts on “Books read in September

  1. I wouldn’t call myself a huge Alice McDermott fan, but I really enjoyed her book Someone. More of a coming of age story about a Irish Catholic girl growing up in Brooklyn.

    1. Gillian Goddard, Agreed. Someone is one of the rare books I have rated five stars on Goodread. I should re-read it. I wrote something like “every ordinary family has a story.” It is a coming of age story–but also goes on into old age.

    2. I also absolutely loved Someone. Beautiful prose and a simple, honest story. One of those books where nothing happens and everything happens.

  2. I have read a lot of Alice McDermott. I’ve always said That Night was my favorite but it’s been a long time since I read it!

  3. I’m glad you read *Friday Night Lights*. I graduated from Permian High School in 1967, more than 20 years before the 1988 season Bissinger wrote about. Our football team won Permian’s 1st state championship in the fall of 1965, my junior year. Things were different then, at least a little. The football stars were also students. And btw, I don’t think “the playoffs” were decided by a coin toss, unless you mean “which teams were allowed to advance to the playoffs.” In 1988 they had a 3-way tie for the district championship, and only 2 teams could advance to the playoffs, so the 3 coaches met and flipped coins to eliminate one of the teams and to determine which 2 teams would represent the district in the playoffs. Perhaps in that sense “the playoffs were decided by a coin toss,” but not in the way that sentence would normally be understood.

  4. “Bear Town” is the latest by Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove) and it looks at how a small town’s hockey team involves the entire town, players are made into heroes (or not), etc. Replace hockey with football/baseball/lacrosse/whatever, and this could be anywhere. Very good and thought-provoking. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

  5. My favorite poet is Robert Frost. I think you may like Frost because of your interest in American literature. I have a tattered anthology of his poems with favorites marked. A few are “The Tuft of Flowers,” “Mending Wall,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and “The Pasture.” He’s probably best known for “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken.” I enjoy his simple yet lyrical phrases and the images he creates. He wrote of a simpler time, but I find the messages to remain current. “The Pasture” reminds me to slow down and be mindful of beautiful moments when they come.
    By the way, thank you for the recommendation of Bill Bryson. My husband and I are enjoying his books.

  6. Thanks for your commentary on Cotton Kingdom — it’s not a book I may necessarily read, but would be good to dip into for research at some point. Interesting note re: Friday Night Lights. I grew up in east Texas (graduated from one of the state’s several Robert E Lee high schools in 1999 — and it’s still named that), and yes, thanks for pointing out how far things still need to go.
    Attica Locke’s books are excellent, and a great look at race and politics in Texas, set against a legal thriller background. I can’t wait to get started on Bluebird, Bluebird, set in east Texas, and her Jay Porter series captures Houston like nothing else does.
    I just finally finished The Children’s Book by AS Byatt — I read half of it about 4 years ago, then put it aside. It’s wonderful, in a murky, too-slow-moving-to-be-called chaotic way.
    Have you read Margaret Atwood’s poetry? It’s magnificent (fun note — some of her poems are used for Ruth Zardo’s in the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache series).

  7. I know I’m late to the party, but I do have a couple of poetry recommendations. I highly recommend Poet’s Choice, a book of poems selected and introduced by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Reading this book led me to poets I have enjoyed reading more of. I also really like Mary Oliver’s work. There is also a website, American Life in Poetry, that will send you a poem a week in your email, and you can go through the archives when you have time to look for more gems.

    I was just getting ready to look for Margaret Atwood’s poetry, because I’ve loved the few of her novels I’ve read. I got a kick out of that little insider bit about Louise Penny’s Ruth because I also love the Three Pines mysteries!

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