How I Spent My Summer Holidays

Every year it’s the same. I leave for vacation in Canada with ambitious reading plans, usually involving a fat Penguin classic. I take the book with me and find myself unable to read a word once I arrive. Instead I’m helplessly drawn to books I’ve left behind at my mother’s house or books I buy, mysteries mostly. It’s as though I need weeks of nothing but light reading to allow my readerly self to recuperate for another year. (As someone who has spent almost his whole life in a classroom, the new year always starts for me in September–or, since coming to Arkansas, cruelly, August.)

This year’s abandoned classic was Leopold Alas’s La Regenta. I read the first 60 pp on the plane and was impressed. Not easy stuff, by any means, but interesting, and often quite funny, particularly impressive since at least at first it’s all about priests. I was glad to have read Sentimental Education so recently as I could see Flaubert was an important inspiration for (the brilliantly named) Alas.

But then I got to Calgary, and the mountains beckoned and La Regenta sat on the shelf, untouched, for the next three weeks. I felt especially bad about this failure because Tom from Wuthering Expectations had organized a readalong. This is now the second time I’ve funked one of his group readings (there was that Hamsun I abandoned ¾ of the way through a few years ago) and since he is one of the bloggers I most respect I really wanted to participate. You can check out the posts, with typically interesting comments, over at the site, though I confess I’ve only skimmed them, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because I feel so badly about giving up.

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So what did I read on my vacation, you ask?

Well, a few things:

Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (1976)

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Rohan had written about this shortly before I left and when I looked up at the shelf of books that I’ve still got to get out of my mother’s house some day, there it was. Bashert, right? I must have bought my copy in my bookselling days in the early 90s. Over 20 years it had been sitting there, just waiting for me to get to it. American literary fiction isn’t really my thing, but the 70s are long enough ago that this book almost felt like literature in translation. Rohan’s review is as smart and thoughtful as you’d expect; read it to get a better sense of the book. She liked it better than I did. Although I appreciated its astringent, unsentimental portrayal of aging, I tired of its protagonist’s jaundiced take on contemporary life. I wasn’t convinced the novel itself was distancing itself from the character’s embitterment, so the whole thing started to feel querulous and brittle. And I really wanted more about his wife, who seems much the most interesting character.

Eva Dolan, Tell No Tales (2015)

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Why doesn’t this superior police procedural about a hate crimes unit in Peterborough have a US publisher? It didn’t seem to matter that I came into the series late (this one is the second; I gather there are three so far.) And the story—about a far-right party loosely or not so loosely modeled on UKIP and featuring violence to immigrants–felt even more relevant this summer than it must have last year. Dolan’s not breaking any new ground, but this is satisfying stuff. I’ll read more but I’d rather not have to import from the UK.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (1966)

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Years ago I read Spies and really liked it. And like all sentient human beings, I love Noises Off. So when I came across a whole series of early Frayn novels in the bookstore—recently reissued by Faber in the UK and Canada; I think some interesting small publisher has them in the US, but I can’t remember where I saw that—I grabbed the one that seemed most appealing. Given my fascination with all things Russian, and with the vicissitudes of European 20th Century history, The Russian Interpreter was the obvious choice. I liked the book for its pleasing combination of English reserve and Russian lugubriousness. Set in Moscow in the late 50s, it tells the story of an English graduate student of Russian history, Paul Manning, who gets involved with a visiting English businessman named Procter-Gould. Procter-Gould has no Russian, so Manning starts interpreting for him, not least in his love affair with Manning’s own girlfriend. No one is quite what they seem, and it all gets a little byzantine. It’s totally unfair, but I couldn’t fall in love with this book because I wanted it to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, another novel by an English author set in Moscow, though this time in 1913, and one of the very best English novels of the 20th century.

Frayn is no Fitzgerald, but who is? And The Russian Interpreter has a great opening:

Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old friends, and no friends at all, old or new, in Moscow or anywhere else, called Proctor-Gould.

Ragnar Jónasson, Night Blind (2015) Trans. Quentin Bates (2016)

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Arnaldur Indridason needn’t worry about being deposed as King of Icelandic crime any time soon. I read Jónasson’s first book earlier this year and liked it enough to buy this sequel. The writing here is less clunky, but the plotting is weaker, and I really missed the intense evocation of bad weather that characterized the first book. I like Iceland a lot but can’t see myself continuing with this series.

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) & Death is a Welcome Guest (2015)

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These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. (Added 8/5/16: I just came across Max’s review too.)

As a hypochondriac of longstanding, I’m enthralled and terrified by stories of pandemics. So I am definitely the right person for these books, which is about an illness called the Sweats that quickly wipes out most of the world. Each book has a different protagonist; the last page of the second volume suggests they will meet up in the third. I found these books in the crime section and it’s true that each has a suspicious death at its center. But I didn’t find that stuff nearly as interesting as Welsh’s depiction of apocalypse. Rather unusually, the second volume is even better than the first—the first sometimes felt a bit like Ballard-lite, though with much less interesting prose—since it considers what kinds of communities could be built after a catastrophe and how hard it might be to do so. The best thing about these books is that they are real just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-sleep-oh-well-it’s-almost-finished-might-as-well-just-read-the-rest page-turners. Volume three, please!

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (2014)

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Another book I found in the crime section that really doesn’t belong there. (And I say that as someone who loves crime fiction.) Woodward seems like a writer I need to pay more attention to. I really liked the first half of this (rather long: 500 pp) book. Interwar England is my meat and drink and I appreciated how adroitly Woodward taught me things, especially about the old Heathrow, the farming community in Middlesex that was requisitioned and destroyed by the British government during the war to build the military airfield that became the airport we know today. I was especially fascinated by the story of how sludge cake—basically the refuse from the sewers of London—were first used to fertillize the crops in this area. Teaching readers stuff about the world is something realist fiction does best, but it’s not easy to do without dumping information on readers in a heavy-handed way.

But before long Vanishing grew more and more complex. Too complex. It tells the story of Kenneth Brill, from his boyhood in Heathrow to his student days at the Slade School of Art to his time in a camouflage unit in Egypt in the war. The retrospective material is brought out at his trial in a military court, where he has been bought up under suspicion of treason. (He claims to have been painting the landscape of his childhood before it is destroyed; the military claims he is encoding secrets about the airfield into his paintings to pass on to the enemy.). The camouflage stuff is interesting, but I started to be reminded of a novel like Giles Foden’s Turbulence, which taught me things about weather prediction during WWII that I could have learned more concisely and compellingly in an essay. Camouflage does give Woodward a metaphor to work with as he also examines Brill’s queer sexuality and the appeal of fascism in the England of the period. But I don’t know exactly what he wants to say about all these things and in the end I didn’t quite care enough to really think it through. There’s really a whole lot going on here, I haven’t even mentioned all the subplots, and I found the story’s narrative structure, its use of unstable, unreliable first person not quite well handled enough to sustain my interest. (It’s no Ishiguro.) But Woodward is definitely a talent and I mean to try some of his other books when I’ve time. For more check out this interestingly ambivalent review by John Self at Asylum.

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So I didn’t get on with my classic, but I read some good things (and more importantly went on a lot of great hikes). Now I’m back in Arkansas, sweltering in the heat, and trying to stay on top of a lot of deadlines before the new semester begins in just three weeks…

What about you? What did you read on your summer holidays?

 

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21 thoughts on “How I Spent My Summer Holidays

  1. I can see why The Spectator Bird seemed a bit querulous. But you’re right, I did like it better than you did! Most of the other books here are ones I hadn’t even heard of, so what an interesting survey.

    I too have been sheltering in some light reading – Robert P. Parker, Julia Quinn, Dorothy Sayers – in between the things I’m reading for more work-ish reasons (for reviews, for instance). I just read two books by David Constantine, one his novel The Life Writer and the other his collection of stories. Have you read him? I hadn’t heard of him before, and I thought both books were quite marvelous. (I didn’t blog about them because I was reviewing them for the Quarterly Conversation). Kind of randomly yesterday I picked May Sarton’s ‘At Seventy: A Journal’ off my TBR stack and I’m really enjoying it. I don’t always like her novels and her poetry leaves me cold, but Sarton is a wonderful diarist (and memoirist), I think.

    Gorgeous photo.

    • Thanks, Rohan. (BTW I filched this photo from the internet; I didn’t take it. It’s of the Glenbow Ranch near Calgary, which has been turned into an amazing park. I love the foothills more than anything in the world.)
      I’ve never heard of Constantine but a quick online search suggests I might like him a lot. Biblioasis is an interesting press. I look forward to your review!
      I really liked your Sayers review and want to make time for that. I read the one where Wimsey meets Harriet earlier this year (I forget what it’s called) and really liked it. All part of working my way to reading Gaudy Night, which I somehow have *still* never read!

    • I’ll have to check out the Sarton journal. One poem of hers that blows me away is “Dutch Interior.” If you look it up, be sure to read a version that breaks the poem into three-line stanzas, the way she wrote it–there are some online versions that butcher it by showing it as a single-stanza poem. Great poem.

  2. “organized,” well, let’s not attach too much meaning to that word. The casualty rate on La Regenta has been thrilling. Crime and Punishment was my book carried everywhere, unread, on vacation. I did get through Daniel Pennac’s subtle The Rights of the Reader, an anti-manifesto about the title subject. Pennac is the Bad Student made good.

  3. Since I went to the beach in Maine this summer I went with two lighter reads that I really enjoyed and actually got through: The Trouble with Sheep and Goats and This Must Be the Place.

  4. Strong words there on the Fitzgerald!

    Thanks for the linkback on the Welsh, I’ve actually reviewed both at mine. I agree with you the second is stronger, but I think that’s partly as the first has already done a fair bit of scene setting. You’re absolutely right about them having that “just a few more pages” quality. I powered through both.

    The area around Banff is beautiful. My very patriotic paternal Scottish grandfather once said that in his view Banff was the second most beautiful place on Earth (after Scotland, naturally). I don’t think he was far wrong.

    • The Beginning of Spring is one of my very, very favourites. Have you read it?
      Good point about the second book being able to work from what the first has established. I like the way you put it–about it being more a parallel story than a sequel. Sorry I didn’t link to the other (I know Grant also reviewed both)–too lazy!
      Have those books been well reviewed in the UK? I don’t think I’ve seen any mention of them in the US.
      Banff certainly is lovely and Canmore (about 20 minutes away) even more so IMO. As a child I took it all for granted, and then for many years I wanted to get far away. And now I *am* far away and would like to get back…
      I’d also like to see Scotland one day too!

  5. I’ve not read it. I’ve read one of hers (Offshore, review at mine) and I have her The Bookshop but I’ve heard very good things about Beginning.

    The situation in the UK seems similar to the US. I’ve barely seen any coverage. No idea why.

    My wife and I have skied Banff several times. One does take where one grows up for granted (I grew up in Central London, Notting Hill, which people still travel ages to see but which for me was just home) but I think Banff is a bit special.

    • Yes, it’s quite lovely. Let me know if you ever get to Banff in the summer (even nicer IMO as we usually get there every year.)
      The Bookshop is fabulous too. You think it’s going to be cute and twee but it is NOT.

  6. Another fascinating post (I’m playing catch-up this afternoon). I’m interested in that Stegner but will probably read Angle of Repose first before hunting around for any others. It’s been sitting on the shelves for a couple of years, ever since I wrote about his Crossing of Safety, which I loved. Have you read it?

    Delighted to hear you’re a fan of The Beginning of Spring! It was my first Fitzgerald (back in my early days of blogging) and I’ve read another couple of her novels since then (The Bookshop and Offshore). She’s making her way on to my list of favourite writers to explore further in the future, so I’m hoping for several more treats ahead.

    The more I hear about that Louise Welsh trilogy, the better it sounds. I wasn’t sure if it would be my thing when I read Grant’s reviews, but then I saw Max’s response and now yours. I’m seriously thinking of getting hold of it for a time when I need something completely different from the norm. Good work!

    Well, you probably know what I’ve been reading over the summer: The Go-Between, although that was back in June. Since then I’ve been mainlining translations for #WITMonth and trying to do a bit of prep for the Jean Rhys Reading Week. All good stuff.

    • No, that was my first Stegner. But it didn’t really whet my appetite for more. It’s weird, since moving to the US I read less and less American literature.
      I’d be curious what you make of the Louise Welsh. It might not be literature for all time but what it does it does really well. I do wish the third were out now because by the time it is I’ll probably have forgotten what happened in the first two…
      I saw your Grand Hotel review: I’ve got that too and really want to read it. Will probably have to wait until the pre-semester crush is over…

      • That’s a fair point about the Stegner – if it didn’t light your fire, little point in reading more, especially when there are so many other great books around.

        I think I will pick up a copy of the Welsh, so I’ll let you know. Might be a while before I get to it though..

        Grand Hotel is marvellous, rather entertaining and quite dark in places. Would love to hear what you think of it.

      • Now I’m even more keen on Grand Hotel. I’m struggling through a very long and totally dispiriting novel on the Nazi treatment of disabled children that I recklessly agreed to review. It just makes me want to read something else!

      • I have friends who love Stegner’s fiction, but somehow I’ve never warmed to it. The Stegner book I really like is Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, a collection of essays about the American West.

  7. Well, since you asked. . .

    One of the most delicious summer pleasures is reading whatever you want, highbrow or lowbrow, randomly chosen or not.
    Accordingly, my summer reading has run the gamut. I started with Adichie’s Americanah, which I liked a lot (despite having a few questions and quibbles, such as: The heroine seemed amazingly un-self-aware—did she never examine why she was doing certain things/drawn to or repulsed by certain men, or did the novelist simply omit that self-examination on purpose? And what does the ending say about the African diaspora?…Also, I got tired of some of the protracted dinner party conversation by tiresome people who seemed intended to represent Americans in general, but who to me were obviously a mere obnoxious sliver of American Northeastern intelligentsia… STILL, overall I liked this book; it had the smell/feel/detail about daily life, the ruminating roominess, that I enjoy). One most striking passage occurs when Obinze, the male protagonist, is browsing American fiction in a London bookstore:

    “He read contemporary American fiction, because he hoped to find a resonance, a shaping of his longings, a sense of the America that he had imagined himself a part of. He wanted to know about day-to-day life in America, what people ate and what consumed them, what shamed them and what attracted them, but he read novel after novel and was disappointed: nothing was grave, nothing serious, nothing urgent, and most dissolved into ironic nothingness.”

    This really resonated with me. I am so often disappointed by American fiction these days, its chasing after oddities, its mannered hipness—it’s so hard to lose myself in the fictive dream, as John Gardner would say.

    Anyway. Other summer standouts:
    • Dan Harris’s 10% Happier and Helen Russell’s My Year of Living Danishly—neither too deep, but well-done, and lively in the audiobook versions I read
    • Neville Shute’s Requiem for a Wren—a low-key, matter-of-factly told novel that reminded me a bit of Peter Taylor or, now that you mention him, Stegner. For the first half of the book it was easy to put down, and I was thinking that the plot impetus was improbable and that everything was too muted because most of the action happened in flashback. Somehow things turned, and for the entire last stretch, through the ending, I was riveted.
    • Gerald Durrell’s Two in the Bush—I love Gerald Durrell; this account of his collecting trip to New Zealand, Australia, and Malaysia had darker undertones than I remembered from my first read many years ago. Durrell’s collecting trip accounts are not so great as his first memoirs, My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, but they’re still good. This was a great refresher on some signature species of Australia on the eve of my trip there.
    • Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun—Oh my God, why have I never read this book before? How did the novelist take so many things away from the main character and have anything left to make a book out of? And how did he make such lyrical magic out of all these run-on sentences and left-out commas?
    • Philip Roth’s Indignation—Great. Short, masterly novel—vintage Roth (just when you thought there wasn’t going to be any more of that). But who at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt let this pass:

    “You look like you’ve been through the ringer,” he said.

    Do today’s editors not know it’s “wringer”? Did Philip Roth himself not read the proofs? And why should I care so much? This was hugely disheartening to me. Still, it was too good a book to quit on the basis of one little w.

    I read some others, and did quit a few (including To the Lighthouse—I had thought it would be fun to reread that when I was in London for a conference and staying in Bloomsbury—but somehow found myself not in the mood. Eh, it’s summertime. Not going to beat myself up). Anyway, that’s the gist of my summer reading. And thank you for asking.

    • Thanks, Hope! I loved reading about your reading. I haven’t read Shute since middle school (what’s that nuclear war one–it left a big impression on me back in the day). But the writer I love most of the ones you mention (admittedly, I haven’t read most of the others, though I did like that Roth novel too) is Gerald Durrell. His books were SO important to me as a kid. I loved them all, especially the family ones, which I read over and over. I’m actually a little scared to go back–could they possibly hold up to my memory of them?!

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