Summer reading

Hello hello! At this point, I must concede that summer is over. Here in the D.C. area, it’s still humid but there have been a couple of mornings this month that were a touch autumnal. I had quite a nice summer. My younger sister, who lives overseas, was back in the States and so I got to hang out with her a few times. In June, I went up to Maine with my family. My parents still live there. We went on a puffin cruise, visited Acadia, and kayaked on the Kennebec river. One of my cousins joked that my vacation pictures were like an LLBean ad. In late July, my sisters and I had a weekend together in Duluth, Minnesota and along the shore of Lake Superior. It’s a really lovely part of the country up there. I visited a fantastic bookstore in Duluth called Zenith books that I highly recommend. In addition to picking up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, I also picked out two books by authors with Minnesota/local connections. The first was The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich and the second was Onigamiinsing: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda LeGarde Grover. Onigamiinsing is the Ojibwe name for Duluth.

And with that, I’ll just pivot completely over to books!

My tiny book club (which sadly became smaller when Leslie moved out of the area in August) had met in May, where we decided our next reading project would be re-reading books we had enjoyed as adolescents. I chose to re-read two books that I had first found on my aunt’s bookshelf when I lived with her for a summer, when I was seventeen. The books were Moonraker’s Bride and Tregaron’s Daughter. Both are authored in the early 1970s by Madeleine Brent, a pen name for Peter O’Donnell. Both are gothic romance novels that feature poor and plucky girls that each wind up living in a wealthy family’s home. Moonraker’s Bride is set in China and England, around the time of the Boxer Rebellion. The heroine of Tregaron’s Daughter is Cornish with Italian ancestry that ties her to a mystery in Venice. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the books definitely held up, despite some dated aspects. And I read the novels long enough ago to experience it quite freshly in my re-read. I was reluctant to put them down, and stayed up a little too late with them – which is certainly reminiscent of my teenage years.

Other delights from the summer included reading Naomi Novik’s fantasy Uprooted, which I adored. The storytelling is so good and it’s one of the best depictions of the learning and use of magic that I’ve read in a while. I also read my first Sarah Waters novel: The Little Stranger. My friend Teresa and I had gone to see Blackkklansmen one Friday and the trailer for Little Stranger was in the previews. I’d heard of the novel, but Teresa spoke of it so enthusiastically, that I went home that night and bought it. And then I read it completely over the weekend. I loved it. Teresa and I had a really great text conversation about its mystery and its narrator. And rounding out my discussion of delights is Lucy Parker’s Making Up, which continues her stellar London Celebrities romance series. Though her characters all work in the entertainment industry (in this case an aerialist and a make-up artist), Parker makes them all very grounded in real-world problems and relationships and the obstacles to romance never feel contrived.

On the nonfiction front, I read Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback. I quite liked it – she’s very insightful about herself and the impact of this journey on her. And it’s quite an unusual journey – setting across with mainly her camels and her dog, with a few human companions for small intervals.

I also finished Beyond the Map by Alastair Bonnett (a book I requested from Netgalley), which is a collection of micro-essays about geographical oddities and unique places. A few standout essays that I found myself sharing with others: Rio de Janeiro as the “City of Helicopters”; Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India; and the essay on Tsunami Stones and Nuclear Markers. Bonnett’s essays are about points around the globe, but it was his essays set closer to home that I most enjoyed. He has an essay about his city’s abandoned skywalks, remnants of an urban planning fad that never was fully realized. In another essay, he muses on traffic islands. It just shows that exploring can happen anywhere.

I read Charles B. Dew’s short nonfiction book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History and the Slave Trade. It’s book with two distinct parts. In the first part, he tells about the ways he was steeped in racist narratives as a boy, through jokes, children’s books, and particularly his father’s example. He then talks about how he came to recognize his own racism and alter his worldview. The second part is Dew’s analysis of primary texts associated with the internal slave trade of the South. Dew does explain the connection between the two parts in the introduction and in the transition to the second part, but I’m not sure I can recall it clearly. I liked the first part of the book, but the second part was so dry in comparison that it was hard to finish the book. I appreciate that his profession is as a historian and thus that engagement with primary texts is his life’s story. Still, as a reader, hitting this second part was like hitting the brakes and it really slowed the momentum of the reading experience. All that said, what I love about nonfiction is that I still came away with knowledge I did not have before about the internal slave trade in the United States.

I made some more headway with the chunkster history Postwar, by Tony Judt – the sweeping history of Europe after World War II.  I’m really finding my groove with this macro-history, and how Judt manages to paint a picture of trends and movements without being overly simplistic. There was a section on brutalist-type architecture of the 1960s that I found so fascinating – how these big impersonal housing blocks fed into the alienation of the people who lived there. Judt also gets into decolonization, cultural changes, the fatal puncture of Communist ideology in 1968 Prague, the huge demographic shifts as masses of people left agricultural work for service industries.

I’m belatedly and happily acquiring historical context for all the midcentury European films I consumed as a cinephile in my late 20s. Ah yes, the soldier in French director Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is headed off to Algiers, and now I know even more details about that conflict. I retrospectively marvel at the clear indictment of anti-Semitism in the 1965 Slovak film The Shop on Main Street, when I realize now that most of Europe refused to acknowledge their culpability in the Holocaust for many years after World War II.

I’m now getting into Europe in the 1970s – depressed economies and all. I find myself excited as the book creeps closer to my own lifetime, when I’ll start connecting it with my own memories of the time.

In addition to Postwar, I have the following books in current rotation:

a book of daily meditations taken from homilies by Archbishop Oscar Romero

Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out by Walter Brueggemann, which is a read-together book for my church

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


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2 responses to “Summer reading

  1. Oh I am SO excited that you read your first Sarah Waters book! Are you going to read more? Say yes say yes! Especially because despite The Little Stranger’s considerable charms, it remains my LEAST FAVORITE of Sarah Waters’s books, apart from Affinity, which I’ve still never read. Night Watch is amaze. Fingersmith is extraordinary.

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