America Reading & Book Haul, Etc.

On Wednesday we got back from two weeks in the States. We were so busy catching up with family and friends we hadn’t seen in a year and a half or more that my reading really slowed down: aside from the three books I took on the plane and finished within my first week, I only read another two books (not counting two during the trip back). Alas, I seem to be in a bit of a rut: everything I read was 3 stars. I haven’t finished anything I’d rate higher than that since late May. I do hope I can break that pattern before June ends!


What I Read:

In Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Bennie Ford writes an extended letter during an unexpected overnight layover in Chicago, ostensibly to demand his $392.68 back, but really to tell his life story. His daughter is getting married in California tomorrow; it’s Bennie’s chance to make things right after years of estrangement. Will he make it to the wedding or not? The structure of the book means it doesn’t particularly matter, and I stopped caring a little bit as it went on. The sections of a novel Bennie is translating from the Polish felt irrelevant to me. Still, amusing, and a good one to read in the airport and on a plane.

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym: I’m completely unmusical, so I enjoyed learning about what it’s like to be a violin virtuoso and a child prodigy, and what it means to fall in love with an instrument. Kym also puts things into the context of being a Korean immigrant to London. The central event of the book is having her Stradivarius, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, stolen from a train station café in late 2010. It’s a brief and fairly immersive story, but the style is melodramatic and choppy at times.

Back When We Were Grown-ups was my fifth Anne Tyler novel. Rebecca is in her fifties and the pillar of the large Davitch family, even though she only married into it six years before her husband’s sudden death. The Davitches are always renting out their home for their party business, and Rebecca has over the years developed a joyous persona that she’s not sure is really her true self. What would life have been like if she hadn’t become a stepmother to Joe’s three girls but instead married her college sweetheart, Will? While this is funny and warm, and a cozy read in the best possible way, it didn’t really stand out for me.

Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell, first published in 1954, tells of his animal collecting in Guiana, South America. The highlight is pipa toad reproduction and birth.

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin is a very atmospheric read, set on a South Carolina island with a haunted cottage where a family was swept away by a hurricane. However, I thought the rhythm of the young narrator’s languid summer days caring for his great-aunt became tedious, and I struggled to buy how self-aware he was meant to be of his fragile mental state at the age of 11. It’s reminiscent of John Irving (quirky secondary characters and so on) but without the same spark. I was sent a review copy for BookBrowse but found I couldn’t recommend it with 4 stars or higher.

To my surprise, I completely went off Kindle reading on this trip until the flight back, when I raced through Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks, a sweet but inconsequential graphic novel about the salmon’s life cycle. I also started the poetry collection Fast by Jorie Graham but left it unfinished.

Two more DNFs from the trip were The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I may try again with both in the future. Alas, library reading was a total wash: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro didn’t arrive in time, I abandoned the Coates, and I didn’t feel in the mood for advice letters so ended up not even starting Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed.

My enjoyable read on the long journey back was Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Janzen gave the Mennonite tradition she’d forsaken a second look after her life fell apart in her early forties: her husband left her for Bob, whom he met on a gay dating site; and she was in a serious car accident. It’s more in the form of linked autobiographical essays than a straight memoir, so she keeps cycling round to some of the same themes, and it gets less laugh-out-loud funny as it goes on. Still, I was impressed by how the author has managed to pull what’s good from experiences most would consider disastrous. (I also read the first third of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.)

Now that I’m home I’ve started a huge pile of review books and library books and instead of the 1–3 books at a time I was reading while we were away I’m back up to my more usual 14.


What I Bought:

Day 2: A stop at my parents’ local Dollar Tree to stock up on greetings cards for the year’s events (2 for $1!) also brought some unexpectedly good book finds. [Not pictured: a paperback of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, our favorite of his novels.] Total spend: $3.18.

Day 4: The obligatory visit to Wonder Book & Video in Frederick, Maryland, one of my happy places.

Day 5: A trip to bookstore chain 2nd & Charles in Hagerstown, MD. Total spend (minus my trade-in of various books and CDs): $5.19.

Day 6: A book of Mary Oliver poems from the Goodwill store in Westminster, MD.

Day 14: Some bargains from a thrift store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where we met up with my friend and her family while they were on holiday. Total spend: $4.50.


I also managed to snag a couple of Crown ARCs that are not out until October.

The state of my closet back in the States (most of those boxes contain books):


Other Bookish Sightings:

 A Little Free Library at my parents’ local organic supermarket. I dropped off a few proof copies before I left.

The Peabody Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A trip to Mermaid Books in Williamsburg, Virginia (overpriced – no purchases), where I spotted an amusing cover on Anne Tyler’s first novel – she still has the same hairdo!

Ephemera in two of my purchases.


Other highlights of the trip:

  • Meeting my sister’s fiancé (!) and his kids.
  • Going to an alpaca farm with my sister and nephews.
  • Surprising my mom with her early 70th birthday gift: a mother–daughters trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for dinner and a showing of Shear Madness, a long-running improvisational murder mystery with audience participation.
  • Exploring Williamsburg (and Jamestown Island) for the first time since I was a kid.
  • A day trip to Cape May, New Jersey – a place to go back to, methinks.
  • Plus all our meet-ups, however brief, with friends.
  • Not forgetting the total of seven cats and two dogs we got to spend time with.
  • Two weeks of doing absolutely no work. I didn’t miss it for a second.

One last book haul photo: These were the review copies (top two) and giveaway books awaiting me when I got back to the UK. (I won the Schaub from Liz’s blog; I’m on a great run with Goodreads giveaways at the moment: along with these Sedaris and Whittal titles, I have new books by Cathy Rentzenbrink and Anne de Courcy on the way.)

How has your summer reading been going?

17 responses

  1. Your discontent is the discovery of mass mediocrity, which has hit literature like a virus. How about pulling up (This not an advertisement.)


    1. Nah, there’s plenty of great stuff out there, including lots that’s currently on my docket. I just hit a patch of so-so books there.

      I’ve hardly read any classics since leaving higher education, thus the Classic of the Month feature to encourage me to read at least 12 or so a year! I’ve never used that site but have used Project Gutenberg.


      1. Gutenberg is run by some weird people who publish défenses of the KKK, among other silly things. The classic books of the site I named are in pdf, more easily readable than text. There’s also Adelaide, a great Australian collection. However in defense of populism, there are a lot of good books on sale, even for mainstream afficionados.


  2. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    An absolutely delightful account.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Woooo for all of those secondhand purchases! (Lauren Winner, the author of Girl Meets God, was a fellow at my church when I was in high school. She’s an amazing human being and Girl Meets God is a phenomenal book; highly recommended.)


    1. Yes, it was your recommendation of her books that put her higher on my radar 🙂 It was a lucky find and I look forward to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Loved hearing about your trip. Have seen numerous Dollar Trees when in the US but didn’t know they sold books! Maybe just as well.
    Your closet picture did make me smile! And the Peabody Library is amazing!!


    1. Like Poundland, dollar stores sell a mishmash of whatever they can get cheap. Often that includes books, some of which seem surprisingly big-name/popular, such that you wouldn’t expect to see them in bargain bins (besides the Franzen novel, I saw Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and a later novel by Mohsin Hamid — but didn’t buy either as I’ve had mixed experiences with these authors).


  5. The Peabody Library is stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It smelled great, too 🙂


  6. What a haul! I loved The Book of Salt – gorgeous writing. You’ve a treat in store there. Glad you an enjoyable family visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alas, it’s one of the books I had to leave behind in the closet when my backpack started getting too full, but I hope to be back for it later in the year.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ha – your review of the Durrell made me laugh out loud. I read Mennonite … in 2011!! a bit meh for me but I remembered the title. I’m glad the win arrived, oh, and I look forward most to your review of Cunningham’s Land’s End as that’s the only book of his I haven’t read. What a great trip! I often take my Kindle away then don’t use it – I once didn’t use it right until we were on the train home from the airport …


    1. Yes, the Mennonite memoir was a little forgettable but a pleasant way to pass the flight since I couldn’t sleep. I think I expected more depth than I got, but I should have known better from the title and cover.

      This wasn’t a stand-out Durrell for me, but all his books are enjoyable. Pipa toad tadpoles develop in depressions on the mother’s back! Really quite amazing.

      I think the only Cunningham I’ve read is The Hours (after seeing the film). Land’s End looks like such a lovely little book, and I was especially pleased to see that this copy — presumably — came from the very town it’s about.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The sign of a good trip is very little reading time! I loved hearing about your trip, bookish and otherwise.

    I’m excited that you have the Zoe Whittal! Also Crow Lake is good, and I’ve read Anthony de Sa’s Kicking the Sky. Barnacle Love is on my shelf, still unread. Maybe you’ll get to it first!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought you’d be familiar with those Canadian authors 🙂 I’ve read one other book by Mary Lawson, Road Ends, and loved it so much I want to read all her others. The Anthony de Sa book sounded quirky and fun, and was worth taking a gamble on at $1!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, a set of droll autobiographical essays that I read on a USA trip in […]


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