Polishing off My 20 Books of Summer with Hay, Jones & Markham

I finished off strong with a few books I’ve been meaning to read for months or years.

 

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

(This was a Twitter buddy read with Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Penny of Literary Hoarders.) I read my first novel by Hay, A Student of Weather, last year. It was wonderfully rewarding even though it took me a month to read. By contrast, I read the Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air in half that time. Most of it is set in 1975–7 in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Here winter lasts for eight months and you can still meet with snow and frozen lakes in early July. A tight-knit cast gathers around the local radio station: Harry and Gwen, refugees from Ontario starting new lives; Dido, an alluring Dutch newsreader; Ralph, the freelance book reviewer; menacing Eddie; and pious Eleanor.

Everyone is in love with everyone else, so you get these layers of unrequited romance and a sense of exposure: not just to the elements, but to the vulnerabilities of admitting one’s feelings and risking professional failure. The novel is also about appearances and assumptions – “You don’t look anything like how you sound,” Gwen says to Harry – and the dangers of obsession. Four of the station employees set out one summer to recreate the six-week journey of Arctic explorer John Hornby, a trip that ends up being as wondrous as it is fraught. Hay’s foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed, and I found the final chapters after the expedition a slight letdown, but overall this is a marvellous story of quiet striving and dislocation. I saw bits of myself in each of the characters, and I loved the extreme setting, both mosquito-ridden summer and bitter winter. I need to read the rest of Hay’s oeuvre stat.

Favorite passages:

Harry’s professional advice to Gwen: “Radio was like poetry, he told her. At its best it could be, while television was like a blockbuster novel: one made you think and feel, the other dulled your mind. … ‘To be any good you have to believe it’s hard. It’s called creative tension. … And you won’t be any good until you’re dedicated to something outside yourself.’ … I learned that a mistake is just something you go on from.

“Something blossoms in an unlikely place. An oasis of trees miles above the treeline. An arctic river warmer than any other water they’d come upon. The four of them bathed in the waters of the Thelon, wading out into it, almost swimming. On shore they towelled themselves dry and dressed, and there was no feeling to equal the splendour of warm clothes on river-cold skin.”

My rating:

 


I ran out of time for Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so substituted in…

 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

(If it’s good enough for Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, it’s good enough for me!)

The title feels like an echo of An American Tragedy. It’s both monolithic and generic, as if saying: Here’s a marriage; make of it what you will. Is it representative of the average American situation, or is it exceptional? Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. Through their alternating first-person narration and their letters back and forth while Roy is incarcerated, we learn more about this couple: how their family circumstances shaped them, how they met, and how they drift apart as Celestial turns to her childhood friend, Andre, for companionship. When Roy is granted early release, he returns to Georgia to find Celestial and see what might remain of their marriage. I ached for all three main characters: It’s an impossible situation. The novel ends probably the only way it could, on a realistic yet gently optimistic note. Life goes on, if not how you expect, and there will be joys still to come.

This would make a great book club pick: there’s a lot to probe about the characters’ personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration. I found it remarkable how the letters, which together make up not even one-fifth of the text, enhance the raw honesty of the book. There are other marriages on display besides Roy and Celestial’s, their range providing a snapshot of African-American lower-middle- and upper-middle-class life in the South. I especially liked the use of two totem objects, Roy’s tooth and the hickory tree outside Celestial’s childhood home (what you see on the cover).

Favorite lines:

Celestial: “I believed that our marriage was a fine-spun tapestry, fragile but fixable. We tore it often and mended it, always with a silken thread, lovely but sure to give way.”

Andre: “I don’t believe that blood makes a family; kin is the circle you create, hands held tight.”

Celestial: “Our marriage was a sapling graft that didn’t have time to take.”

Roy: “mostly my life is good, only it’s a different type of good from what I figured on.”

My rating:


An American Marriage was published in the UK by Oneworld on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942)

(Another Twitter buddy read, with Laila of Big Reading Life.) I’ve meant to pick this up ever since I read Paula McLain’s fantastic novel about Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun. I loved Markham’s memoir even more. She writes so vividly about the many adventures of her life in Africa: hunting lions, training race horses, and becoming one of the continent’s first freelance pilots, delivering mail and locating elephant herds.

It took me a while to get used to the structure – this is a set of discrete stories rather than a chronological narrative – but whether she’s reflecting on the many faces of Africa or the peculiar solitude of night flights, the prose is just stellar. Ernest Hemingway once asserted in a letter that Markham could “write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers,” and I certainly enjoyed this more than anything I’ve read by Hemingway.

The text is bookended by two momentous flights: it opens with Markham scrambling to deliver oxygen to an injured miner, and ends with her completing the first east–west solo flight across the Atlantic in 1936. Her engine cut out multiple times; it’s no less than a miracle that she survived to crash land in Nova Scotia. Laila and I agree that Markham’s life is so exciting it’s crying out for a movie version. In the meantime, I’d like to read some more about her circle – Denys Finch Hatton; and Baron von Blixen and his wife Karen (aka Danish writer Isak Dinesen, famous for Out of Africa). In my Circling the Sun review for BookTrib, I wrote that “Markham was the kind of real-life action adventure heroine you expect to find in Indiana Jones movies,” and that sense was only confirmed by her own account.

Favorite passages:

“to fly in unbroken darkness without even the cold companionship of a pair of ear-phones or the knowledge that somewhere ahead are lights and life and a well-marked airport is something more than just lonely. It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even a reasonable possibility. The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite. The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star—if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.”

“I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know—that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”

My rating:

 

 

So how did I do on my first-ever #20BooksofSummer challenge? In that I read and reviewed (more than) 20 books by women that I owned in print, it was a smashing success. However, I only read 7 of the books I’d intended to, substituting in the rest from my review pile, books I owned in America, and others that grabbed my attention more than those I’d picked out in early June. Looks like I’m not great at sticking with the specific reading plans I set!

At any rate, as bonuses, here are the additional books by women that I read in print from my own shelves over the summer, not counting ones already reviewed on the blog (in chronological order, with ratings and links to any Goodreads reviews):

  • Blue Horses, Mary Oliver 
  • The Egg and I, Betty Macdonald 
  • Eye of the Shoal: A Fish-watcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything, Helen Scales 
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell 
  • Talk before Sleep, Elizabeth Berg 
  • The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon [blog tour review coming on Monday] 
  • The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron 
  • Gross Anatomy: My Curious Relationship with the Female Body (The Top Half and the Bottom Half), Mara Altman [Glamour UK review coming soon] 
  • Questions of Travel, Elizabeth Bishop 
  • Writers & Company, Eleanor Wachtel 
  • Help Me!: One woman’s quest to find out if self-help really can change her life, Marianne Power 
  • Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart, Nell Stevens 

I’d call that a result!

What have been the best books of the summer? Of the final 20, The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer was the winner, followed closely by The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, and West With the Night by Beryl Markham. There were no real duds. I’m still very interested in all but one of the books I chose back in June, so I’ll see how many of the rest I can fit into this autumn and winter’s reading.

 

How was your summer of reading? Did you meet any goals you set?

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29 thoughts on “Polishing off My 20 Books of Summer with Hay, Jones & Markham

  1. I like the sound of the Beryl Markham memoir and especially love the acknowledgement by Hemingway, more proof if it was ever needed of how the writings of women tend to fall in the shadow, regardless of talent or workmanship.

    I loved Tracy Farr’s Lena Gault too, it reads almost like a true story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done you. I only managed 8 of my planned 20, plus one sustitution, all had been on the shelves prior to 2018. Although I read another 5 from my pre-2018 TBR in the three months of the challenge, I didn’t officially swap them in, an unofficial 14/20 isn’t too bad at all (I did 11 last year). I like the sound of the Elizabeth Hay, one to look out for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been reading some reviews of Ohio and I think I’d like to read it, too. It sounds long and dark, but the comparisons to Franzen and Yanagihara are encouraging. It’s not currently available in the UK, but maybe it will be someday. It certainly sounded like something you need to read for the Rust Belt connection!

      Like

  3. I enjoyed “Late nights on Air”. It is one of those books I have kept for a future re-read. Having spent time in Yellowknife, I could connect to the quirky characters. A favourite this summer was Susan Vreeland’s, historical fiction “The Forest Lover” about Emily Carr’s struggle to capture the essence of British Columbia’s west coast and First Nations in her artwork.

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    1. It’s good to know that the Yellowknife setting struck you as being true to life. I am so impressed with Hay’s works that I’ve read so far, and look forward to discovering all the rest.

      The Vreeland sounds very appealing indeed! I’ll add it to my TBR, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Late Nights on Air sounds really intriguing! I’m enjoying An American Marriage which I’m rushing to finish in time for 20 Books of Summer – I agree, I think my book group would really like it and might suggest once it’s in paperback.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One element of Late Nights that I completely forgot to mention is the uproar over a proposed gas pipeline and the impact it would have on the First Peoples community. It’s a novel that has so many interesting things going on.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As you know, I loved Late Nights on Air… thank you for reading it with me!

    An American Marriage is next on the list for Literary Wives – sounds like it’ll be a good one! I’m also thrilled that you liked Writers & Company so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well done! I did a load of substitutions on mine, well, around three I think, and moved them around – and you had the sudden trip to the US to contend with. So good work, I’d say. I love the look of Late Nights on Air and think I’ll pop it on my wishlist – I do like books about the Far North, and radio, so …

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Elizabeth Hay is one of my MustReadEverything authors: I just love what she does. My first, also, was A Student of Weather, and I’ve just never stopped. Which one do you think you’ll read next?
    I agree that the Tayari Jones novel would make for a great bookclub discussion; I think the way she brought these issues to the forefront of her fiction is vitally important and it does everything that I’d hoped to find in Angie Thomas’ The Hate You Give (but I think Tayari Jones is just a more experienced writer, that’s all).
    The Markham bio is on my TBR and has been there for years. I don’t know what mood I’ll need to be in to finally move it into the stack – sometimes an event/challenge can trigger that kind of momentum, but it’s just been sitting sitting and sitting some more, since I was a teenager!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think His Whole Life will probably be next up for me. I hear she’s coming out with a memoir of her parents soon, but that probably won’t be widely available for a while yet.

      Doing a buddy read was the impetus I needed to finally pick up the Markham; the same was true of Small Island earlier in the year! Just that little bit of companionship and accountability can make all the difference.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that’s it exactly. That nudge! His Whole Life is in my stack (I don’t want to be entirely caught up with her either though – she doesn’t write terribly quickly) and I did start it – I think you will be pleased.

        Liked by 1 person

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