Reading with the Seasons: Summer 2021, Part I

I’m more likely to choose lighter reads and dip into genre fiction in the summer than at other times of year. The past few weeks have felt more like autumn here in southern England, but summer doesn’t officially end until September 22nd. So, if I get a chance (there’s always a vague danger to labelling something “Part I”!), before then I’ll follow up with another batch of summery reads I have on the go: Goshawk Summer, Klara and the Sun, Among the Summer Snows, A Shower of Summer Days, and a few summer-into-autumn children’s books.

For this installment I have a quaint picture book, a mystery, a travel book featured for its title, and a very English classic. I’ve chosen a representative quote from each.

 

Summer Story by Jill Barklem (1980)

One of a quartet of seasonal “Brambly Hedge” stories in small hardbacks. It wouldn’t be summer without weddings, and here one takes place between two mice, Poppy Eyebright and Dusty Dogwood (who work in the dairy and the flour mill, respectively), on Midsummer’s Day. I loved the little details about the mice preparing their outfits and the wedding feast: “Cool summer foods were being made. There was cold watercress soup, fresh dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs and meringues.” We’re given cutaway views of various tree stumps, like dollhouses, and the industrious activity going on within them. Like any wedding, this one has its mishaps, but all is ultimately well, like in a classical comedy. This reminded me of the Church Mice books or Beatrix Potter’s works: very sweet, quaint and English.

Source: Public library

My rating:

 


These next two give a real sense of how heat affects people, physically and emotionally.

 

Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (2020)

“In the heat, just having a human body was a chore. Just keeping it suitable for public approval was a job”

From the first word (“Languid”) on, this novel drips with hot summer atmosphere, with its opposing connotations of discomfort and sweaty sexuality. Rachel is a teacher of adolescents as well as the mother of a 15-year-old, Mia. When Lily, a pupil who also happens to be one of Mia’s best friends, goes missing, Rachel is put in a tough spot. I mostly noted how Barkworth chose to construct the plot, especially when to reveal what. By the one-quarter point, Rachel works out what’s happened to Lily; by halfway, we know why Rachel isn’t telling the police everything.

The dynamic between Rachel and Mia as they decide whether to divulge what they know is interesting. This is not the missing person mystery it at first appears to be, and I didn’t sense enough literary quality to keep me wanting to know what would happen next. I ended up skimming the last third. It would be suitable for readers of Rosamund Lupton, but novels about teenage consent are a dime a dozen these days and this paled in comparison to My Dark Vanessa. For a better sun-drenched novel, I recommend A Crime in the Neighborhood.

Source: Public library

My rating:

 

The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1998; 2001)

[Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska]

“Dawn and dusk—these are the most pleasant hours in Africa. The sun is either not yet scorching, or it is no longer so—it lets you be, lets you live.”

The Polish Kapuściński was a foreign correspondent in Africa for 40 years and lent his name to an international prize for literary reportage. This collection of essays spans decades and lots of countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. The author sees many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. Living among Africans rather than removed in a white enclave, he develops a voice that is surprisingly undated and non-colonialist. While his presence as the observer is undeniable – especially when he falls ill with malaria and then tuberculosis – he lets the situation on the ground take precedence over the memoir aspect. I read the first half last year and then picked the book back up again to finish this year. The last piece, “In the Shade of a Tree, in Africa” especially stood out. In murderously hot conditions, shade and water are two essentials. A large mango tree serves as an epicenter of activities: schooling, conversation, resting the herds, and so on. I appreciated how Kapuściński never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences: “Africa is a thousand situations, varied, distinct, even contradictory … everything depends on where and when.”

Along with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and the Jan Morris anthology A Writer’s World, this is one of the best few travel books I’ve ever read.

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

  


August Folly by Angela Thirkell (1936)

“The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake.”

I’d been curious to try Thirkell, and this fourth Barsetshire novel seemed as good a place to start as any. Richard Tebben, not the best and brightest that Oxford has to offer, is back in his parents’ village of Worsted for the summer and dreading the boredom to come. That is, until he meets beautiful Rachel Dean and is smitten – even though she’s mother to a brood of nine, most of them here with her for the holidays. He sets out to impress her by offering their donkey, Modestine, for rides for the children, and rather accidentally saving her daughter from a raging bull. Meanwhile, Richard’s sister Margaret can’t decide if she likes being wooed, and the villagers are trying to avoid being roped into Mrs Palmer’s performance of a Greek play. The dialogue can be laughably absurd. There are also a few bizarre passages that seem to come out nowhere: when no humans are around, the cat and the donkey converse.

This was enjoyable enough, in the same vein as books I’ve read by Barbara Pym, Miss Read, and P.G. Wodehouse, though I don’t expect I’ll pick up more by Thirkell. (No judgment intended on anyone who enjoys these authors. I got so much flak and fansplaining when I gave Pym and Wodehouse 3 stars and dared to call them fluffy or forgettable, respectively! There are times when a lighter read is just what you want, and these would also serve as quintessential English books revealing a particular era and class.)

Source: Public library

My rating:

 

 As a bonus, I have a book about how climate change is altering familiar signs of the seasons.

 

Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute (2021)

“So many records are these days being broken that perhaps it is time to rewrite the record books, and accept the aberration has become the norm.”

Shute writes a weather column for the Telegraph, and in recent years has reported on alarming fires and flooding. He probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. However, he provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations (phenology) such as temperature data and photo archives that reveal that natural events like leaf fall and bud break are now occurring weeks later/earlier than they used to. He also meets farmers, hunts for cuckoos and wildflowers, and recalls journalistic assignments.

The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility: he and his wife long for a child and have tried for years to conceive, but just as the seasons are out of kilter, there seems to be something off with their bodies such that something that comes so easily for others will not for them. A male perspective on infertility is rare – I can only remember encountering it before in Native by Patrick Laurie – and these passages are really touching. The tone is of a piece with the rest of the book: thoughtful and gently melancholy, but never hopeless (alas, I found The Eternal Season by Stephen Rutt, on a rather similar topic, depressing).

Forecast is wide-ranging and so relevant – the topics it covers kept coming up and I would say to my husband, “oh yes, that’s in Joe Shute’s book.” (For example, he writes about the Ladybird What to Look For series and then we happened on an exhibit of the artwork at Mottisfont Abbey.) I can see how some might say it crams in too much or veers too much between threads, but I thought Shute handled his material admirably.

Source: Public library

My rating:

 

Have you been reading anything particularly fitting for summer this year?

13 responses

  1. I’d agree Thirkell is fluffy and she does that weird animal thing on occasion throughout her books – I just read her millionth one from 1946 and there’s a random spider in that! Now I’ve got through to the end of the war I’m thinking I’ll offer up my collection to another reader; I have Miss Read for comfort reading still if I need her.

    I’d put Pym a cut above the others you mention, though …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was Some Tame Gazelle that I found fluffy; by contrast, the only other novel of hers I’d read before, and loved much more, was Quartet in Autumn — more substantial. I’m keen to read more by Miss Read. How odd to hear that Thirkell always does those talking animal scenes!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh god, Quartet is the one I can’t cope with! I suppose I love them en masse and the body of comment and characters they make. Maybe. Miss Read is so gentle but I’ve loved her forever.

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  2. On your recommendation, I’ve already ordered the Ryszard Kapuściński from the library. And I loved Shute’s A Shadow Above, so I’ve reserved Forecast too. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent choices! I hope you enjoy them both.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the sound of the Shute in particular from this batch – going to add it to my wishlist. I’ve only read the one Pym, which was Quartet in Autumn too, I’ve not tried Thirkell, and have never got on with Wodehouse on the page.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair to Wodehouse, I’ve only read one of his books, and it was short stories, which I imagine are particularly light in comparison to his novels. So I do have a few more on the shelf to try another time.

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  4. Enjoyed your choices and commentary, thanks, what a range! The Kapuściński would appeal most to me, I think, I can barely bear to think about the climate crisis and the Shute would just underscore what a mess humans have created.

    Oddly, in the last couple of months none of the books read are specifically about or set in summer (unless the action crosses the seasons and years); in fact a surprising number are set in autumn or winter. Robertson Davies’s novel began on Halloween, PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder alludes to Christmas, Aiken’s Gothic romance was set over the Christmas period, the main part Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel was set in autumn, and the John Christopher SF story occurred in a ski chalet. Don’t ask me how this turned out to be the case—possibly some troubling psychological reason… 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand that. I avoid most writing about the climate crisis, but books like Shute’s that combine nature and travel with memoir are right up my street.

      It can also be fun to read books set in different seasons! A bit of snow during a heatwave, for instance. I missed there being a Robertson Davies weekend this year to give me an excuse to finish What’s Bred in the Bone. Next year, perhaps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know Lory was having a break over the summer and that included Reading Robertson Davies but I was determined to continue with the Salterton Trilogy. Hmm, I wonder, he died on the 2nd December 1995, should I use this anniversary as an excuse to finish the final instalment…

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  5. How I love the Brambley Hedge stories! But they are very hard to find here unfortunately.

    “Languid” is such a great word!

    If you’re counting Klara as a summer read, then count me in as reading summery things too. I finished it recently as well.

    The only other one I can think of is Elias Rodriquez’ All the Water I’ve Seen is Running, which does have a few summer bits but is actually just Florida-y, which makes it SEEM summery to me, y’know? I really liked it, but I’m not sure whether it’s one you would enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How lovely that you know the Brambly Hedge books! They were donated to my library some time back. There’s a particular picture book from my childhood that they remind me of, but I haven’t yet managed to identify it.

      Klara will probably end up in my Booker longlist roundup instead. I would have included it with summer reading just for the “Sun” reference. Alas, it was a slog for me.

      Florida definitely seems like the land of perpetual summer. I didn’t think I’d heard of that novel, but I see it’s on my TBR (and I love the title).

      Like

  6. […] my first installment of summer reads, I’ve also finished Klara and the Sun (a bust with me, alas) and the three below: […]

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