This month my reading had a very British theme, both classic and contemporary. Here’s what moved from the “to be read” to the “read” pile in July (plus some books I read for blurbing, but I’ll write about those closer to when they come out):
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
This epic novel of not-terribly remarkable lives (hence the famous final line of “unvisited tombs”) had been on my list for a while. Its appeal was partly the same as Kristin Lavransdatter; I feel I have a feminist duty to read big books by women writers who were writing at a time when few women wrote. It started slow — I quit reading for a while — and continued to move at the pace preferred by 19th century writers who were providing the day’s entertainment. This was people’s Netflix. They needed something to fill the hours. But the story and characters — a band of folks in Middlemarch with shifting loyalties and dramas — definitely grew on me. Indeed, by the end I was plowing away, skipping a family outing one morning while we were at the beach in early July so I could read for 3 hours in peace and finish the thing. At first the language struck me as stilted, but as I got used to Eliot’s voice, I also realized how funny she is. She wryly nudges readers to empathize with a few insufferable characters (that she, of course, has created to be insufferable.) It is masterly writing, and worth adding to the pile of doorstop-books-worth-attempting. Some similarities with Moby Dick in terms of tone, pace, and character development (if any students are reading this, you’re welcome to use that as a term paper idea.)
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
After Middlemarch, I needed something short as a palate cleanser. Fortunately, Modern Mrs. Darcy posted a list of novels you can read in a day. Several of July’s picks came from that list (I only struck out once, more on that in a minute). The Uncommon Reader is a story of a not-terribly-disguised British Queen discovering the world of books. As she is forever hunting down new literature, she starts neglecting her Queenly duties in a way that has repercussions for everyone. Light, and very very quick (you might be able to finish this one in a train ride, or while sitting on the sidelines at swim practice).
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
A lot of people have read Cisneros’ collection of vignettes because they were assigned it in school. This book fits that genre well: readable, a coming-of-age story (teens like to read about people like them), adding some much-needed diversity to a canon that often dwells, as Marley Dias memorably put it, on “white boys and dogs.” Young Esperanza grows up in an immigrant community in Chicago. She knows she will climb up and out, but she is cognizant of her many friends who won’t. I enjoyed this as another quick read with some joy and poignancy mixed together.
[After this, I began reading The All of It, another book on the MMD list, but had to abandon it. I can deal with touches of cruelty/violence to advance a plot, but not pages upon pages of it.]
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
While writing Off the Clock, I became very interested in the question of what we remember and how we remember it. The remembering self is a story teller, and will construct narratives that make sense, or that portray ourselves in a positive light, even if that’s not really what happened. The Sense of an Ending covers this topic from a fictional perspective. Tony, a retired man, tells the story of his life in two parts. In the first, he recounts his youthful self becoming friends with a young man named Adrian, and dating a woman named Veronica. It’s not a particularly great relationship, and eventually, after an awkward weekend at Veronica’s family’s house, they break up. Veronica starts dating Adrian. Tony backpacks around the US for a while, and when he returns, he learns that Adrian has killed himself. He’s unsure why, but leaves it at that, eventually marrying, having a daughter, and divorcing. In the second half of the novel, he learns that Veronica’s mother has just died, and mysteriously left him some money. In attempting to learn why, he traces back through what actually happened with Veronica, and Adrian, and how he might have been involved in setting some rather strange and sad events in motion. The full secret isn’t revealed until the last pages, whodunnit style. I read quite carefully, but I still feel like I missed some things in piecing this together. However, while it was a decent book, I didn’t like it enough to go back and read it again to figure out if the things I missed were there.
84, Charing Cross, by Helene Hanff
I picked this up after Jess Lahey (of the #AmWriting podcast) mentioned it as another potential option for the “books you can read in a day” list. This one is non-fictional. In the years after World War II, New York City writer and book lover Helene Hanff writes back and forth with a London bookshop, Marks & Co, to find books she can’t find easily locate in the US. The staff grows fond of her, especially as she sends them care packages with foods they can’t obtain in post-war-rationing London. For two decades, the letters recount her life and the store manager’s, until his death ends the correspondence (and sparks the book). I can’t say this was a particular favorite of mine, but if you like to read books about books, then it’s a nice addition to that genre.
How It All Began, by Penelope Lively
I read Moon Tiger last month, so I gave Lively’s more recent novel a whirl. Charlotte, a retired teacher living in London, is mugged by an unseen assailant. This act sets off a series of repercussions for several intertwined characters, including Charlotte’s daughter, her daughter’s employer, that employer’s niece, that niece’s married lover, and so forth. Intellectually, this is an interesting construct, and I enjoyed Lively’s occasional voice-overs noting the strange connections, but on the whole, I didn’t find the characters (beyond Charlotte) appealing enough to want to spend much time with them. I kept hoping Lively would come back to Charlotte, but I guess the intertwined-stories concept requires telling all those stories. I welcome suggestions on other Lively books to try next.
But, in the meantime, I’m on to Infinite Jest. This could take much of August! Well, according to my Kindle’s counter, it should take about 30 hours. Reading one hour a day, which I generally do manage, should get me there. We shall see.
In other UK book news: Off the Clock is available in the UK market this week! Please let me know if you see it in stores; you can email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.
In other general book news: The official Penguin Random House page for Juliet’s School of Possibilities is now up! Click on the link and you can see the real cover. The book comes out March 12, 2019. Much more to come on that too.
Photo: The piles next to my office book shelf are actually quite a bit smaller than they were yesterday. I’ve been culling books in advance of a scheduled pick-up of clothes, household items, and other such things next week.