Without intending to, it appears that I’ve taken quite an extended break from most things bookish. It’s common for me to have breaks between my posts (sometimes quite lengthy ones), usually because I’m reluctant to stop reading long enough to write about whatever new book is currently holding my interest. This break, however, differs from previous ones; the posting stopped last spring and so did many other bookish things that I ordinarily enjoy a great deal. My favorite book blogs remained unread, as did book reviews and literary journals; even — gasp! — the exponential growth in the TBR pile slowed to a crawl. In short, for a variety of reasons I spent some time last spring wandering in that bookless desert so unwillingly visited by many bloggers from time to time.
My drought began in April, when a long-anticipated surgery date finally arrived. I was quite proud of my sang froid in the months leading up to the big event; there was nothing rare about the procedure; the odds were overwhelming that it would be both quick and relatively minor, just another day at the office so to speak, but . . . . when it’s your body and the time to start hacking away at it is actually staring you in the face . . . it’s a different situation, isn’t it? Since my hacker of choice was in metropolitan Washington, D.C. while I now live in Florida, I also had a fairly lengthy stay away from home. My little ordeal proved to be a best case scenario, which meant a quick in and out with the medical folks, followed by a very nice post-op recovery in one of my favorite cities, full of museums, bookstores and wonderful ethnic restaurants but . . . well, it wasn’t quite a vacation. After that, it was home again, home again, and slowly having life flow back into its accustomed channels when — guess who had a breakthrough case of covid? (I suspect I caught it at the gym; despite intense propaganda otherwise, don’t we all just instinctively know that exercise is inherently unhealthy?) My case was mild by medical standards but it was unpleasant, as was the physical fatigue and emotional lassitude that followed.
By June, thankfully, I felt some energy beginning to stir and, even more welcome, my bookish mojo slowly, slowly returning but — summer was then in full swing . . . and there were . . . various non-bookish things I needed to do, both for practical reasons and as part of my personal “healing.” (I know this sounds a bit New Agey, but fear not, dear readers! There’ll be no discussion in this post of spiritual auras or wellness crystals.) Because it’s been some time since I posted, however, I’m afraid I am going to ramble a bit, so please bear with me. To ease your pain if you decide to do so, I’ve divided my lengthy post into sections, so that you may easily click into and out of whatever you find of interest.
I. SUMMER DOINGS
Doesn’t everyone love summer? Even in my new home, where it’s always summer, more or less, there’s still a different feel to things this time of year. Because there are fewer tourists, the traffic is lighter and favorite restaurants more accessible; because it’s hotter, there’s even more of an excuse to spend the afternoon on the lanai (Florida talk for a porch or patio) reading something interesting (under a good fan and with a tall glass of something nice & frosty, needless to say). Aside from restaurants and books (surely two of the greatest of life’s many pleasures, n’est-ce pas?), my summer has included . . . .
Putting tropical things in pots & containers and placing them about the house;
(Attempting) to attract butterflies;
Visiting the local farmers’ markets;
and, best of all, making serendipitous discoveries!
So that’s the outline of my summer, more or less. What about yours? Am I alone in my passion for large green plants and gooey treats?
And, of course, my summer has included books. Always, there are books. Even though I checked out of the blogosphere last spring and pretty much stopped writing, I never stopped reading. As I noted in my caption to the first photo, during surgery & covid months I focused almost entirely on sheer entertainment and quick-paced stories. Any C.J. Parker or Mick Herron fans out there? Although the two write in wildly different genres — Parker does fantasy, albeit hard edged (more G.R.R. Martin than Tolkien, with nary an elf in sight) while Herron gives a unique twist to the espionage novel (think le Carré meets The Office, with moments of real heartbreak and some very pointed political satire, U.K. variety) — they are both very, very funny and know how to move their stories along. All in all, their novels were most satisfying reads during a difficult time.
By mid-May, however, I felt up to focusing on more serious fare, so it was on to my very first novel by Zola, an author who’s been haunting my reading selections for a few years now. For several years running, my January resolution has been that “this year” will be the year that I finally read something by Zola! But then, he wrote so very many novels, didn’t he? Where does one begin? And aren’t most of them extremely long? Readers — this year I did it! I took the plunge and I’m so very glad I did! Zola rocks!
After Zola I felt another round of fatigue setting in, so it was time for a return to the light side. Some time ago I read and (enormously) enjoyed Margery Sharp’s Rhododendron Pie. Since I had a few other of her novels in the stash of Middlebrow books awaiting my attention, I selected one, almost at random, as a palette cleanser before moving on to something “more substantial” (I know this sounds terribly pompous. Forgive please; this was before I realized that, in her own sphere, Margery Sharp is unequaled) Several days, and three novels later, I was still marveling at how very good Sharp is, within the parameters she set for herself. Her dialogue is crisp and believable, and her eye for her society and its foibles keen but compassionate. I think she’s particularly good at dealing with class differences (admittedly, a reader from the U.K. would be a better judge of this than I); she’s very light handed on this topic but also quite realistic. In The Nutmeg Tree, the favorite of my three summer reads, I was hooked from the opening paragraph, with its description of “Julia, by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermott,” sequestered in her bath and surrounded by her most prized possessions, holding her creditors at bay as they banged on the bathroom door. Julia, a good-time girl fallen on hard times (Mr. Macdermott has decamped for parts unknown when the novel opens), has various more-or-less believable adventures, all recounted in a very amusing manner. Running through the comedy, however, is a real vein of emotion as Julia attempts to forge a relationship with the daughter she abandoned as a child. Harlequin House and The Foolish Gentlewoman, if not quite up to Nutmeg Tree IMO, fit my then current mood perfectly, being equally fun and well-written. I think of all three novels as very much in a P.G. Wodehouse vein, but with a streak of social realism that the latter (IMO at least) doesn’t possess. (As a side note for those interested in such things, Nutmeg Tree is published by Open Road, while Harlequin House and Foolish Gentlewoman are part of Dean Street Press’ Furrowed Middlebrow series.)
After my delightful little detour with Margery S., I felt the need for a big door stopper of a novel, something on the serious side and lengthy enough to keep me occupied for several days. What better choice than David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Although my enthusiasm has waned a bit in recent years (I have some reservations about his recent science fiction), I’ve been a huge Mitchell fan since his wonderful Cloud Atlas. So puzzling then, that I’ve had this copy of Thousand Autumns since its 2010 publication, without once even reading the first chapter. My delay in reading this novel is even more inexplicable given that I’m quite interested in the time and place about which Mitchell writes (the Dutch mercantile empire and its trading activities in the Far East during the early 19th century). Past time, then, to open that cover and read the first chapter!
Isn’t it wonderful, dear readers, when fate places an unexpectedly wonderful book in your hands? This delightful event occurred to me, when I received April’s selection from the NYRB’s Classics Club.
Since I had never read anything by Pushkin, this ordinarily would have gone to the bottom of the TBR stack; prose “experiments” not sounding very promising to this Russian literature novice. Because I was still in a bit of a dead zone (i.e., I wanted to read and didn’t much care what) I decided, however, to give it a go, based largely on that very intriguing title. The collection includes four of Pushkin’s short pieces, along with an essay by one of the translators (Robert Chandler), “suggestions for further reading” and excellent notes. What a wonderful discovery this book turned out to be! Although I loved all four selections, I particularly enjoyed the eponymous first piece (part of an unfinished novel), which portrayed a changing Russian society through the eyes of Peter the Great’s African godson (and former slave), a character closely modeled on Abram Gannibal, Pushkin’s own maternal great-grandfather. The remaining pieces in the collection, almost as satisfying, included a clever parody of historical writing (“The Village of Goriukhino”), an adventure story (“Dubrovsky”) and the strange and beautiful “Egyptian Nights,” in which Pushkin used a mixture of prose and poetry to question the place of art (and artists) in an increasingly commercialized society. Contrary to my fear my that the collection would be too esoteric for someone such as me, I found it an ideal introduction to Pushkin’s work. If any of you wanderers of the web have read the NYRB collection, or any of the individual works it contains, I’d be very interested to hear your views on the subject. (As a side note, a recent New York Review contains a very interesting piece by Jennifer Wilson regarding Pushkin’s views about his African heritage. I’m not sure of the Review’s free click policy, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s definitely worth a try. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2022/08/18/the-first-russian-peter-the-greats-african-pushkin/ )
Although it’s impossible at this point to discuss all the books I enjoyed this summer (I do hope in the following months to review at the very least the ones included in my Back to the Classics and European Reading Challenges), I’d like to list a few that stood out for various reasons.
III. BOOKISH ODDS & ENDS
Over the past few months I’ve been keeping a list of interesting bookish topics that I might, or might not, get around to investigating. It’s all very haphazard, and not terribly current; if you’re interested in such things, you’ve probably already found most of these items for yourself. On the off chance it might be helpful, however . . . here goes!
Are you a fan of Jean Rhys? If so, you may want to check out The New Yorker’s “The Many Confrontations of Jean Rhys,” a wonderful overview of Rhys’ life and literary output (be warned! After reading it, I felt a reading project coming on . . . .) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/07/11/the-many-confrontations-of-jean-rhys-miranda-seymour-i-used-to-live-here-once
Looking for an interesting book column, one that includes the old and the new; the highbrow and the low and everything in-between? Check out Molly Young’s “Read Like The Wind” pieces. It’s a New York Times’ subscription only service, but you should be able to get a freebie or two. Here’s a representative sample, which includes a biography of a legendary art dealer and an Elizabether von Arnim novel that I hadn’t previously heard of.
Curious about the great Australian writer Gerald Murnane? It’s back to The New Yorker and, hopefully, another free click if you’re a non-subscriber. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/01/the-reclusive-giant-of-australian-letters
Did you know that it’s the 100th birthday of the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant? There a nice episode offered by the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel. Check it out! https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-77-writers-and-company/clip/15929224-mavis-gallant-celebrating-centenary-masterful-canadian-short-story
Are you an arm chair traveler? If so, check out the New York Times series in which various writers recommend the books they believe help you to get to know their favorite cites. So far I’ve only read Leïla Slimani’s “Read Your Way Through Paris” (it was great BTW) but the others (which to date include Cairo, Berlin, Stockholm, Newfoundland, Reykjavik & Lisbon) look equally enticing.
My apologies for my New Yorker fixation, but it’s offering some really good stuff these days. High on my list for this afternoon’s reading is its account of Ivan Turgenev and his composition of Fathers and Sons, a book that his Russian contemporaries loved to hate. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/05/liberals-radicals-and-the-making-of-a-literary-masterpiece-ivan-turgenevs-fathers-and-children-slater-translation
IV. IN CLOSING (AND AREN”T YOU GLAD?)
At this point in my blathering, I traditionally close with a cute cat photo (I have several I’m dying to inflict on the internet). Because Mr. J has been experimenting with his super-duper, deluxe new camera, however, I thought I’d share a couple of his recent photos. These were taken at one of the many little ponds that dot my neighborhood, where we recently spotted . . .
Warning: this next photo isn’t for the faint of heart . . . .
Well, that’s it for now, for anyone who happened to hang with me this long. Next week I’m off for my first big trip since the pandemic, a jaunt involving hiking shoes, binoculars and, hopefully, some birds. I won’t be posting again for a bit, but I’m dying to start reading the blogs again (I’ve peeked a little already & see that y’all have been reading some great stuff while I’ve been eating donuts) and will begin doing so, just as soon as I finish reading that article on Turgenev!