Tag Archives: summer reading

Finishing 20 Books of Summer: The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

The final choice for my colour-themed 20 Books of Summer, a terrific essay collection about the best and worst of the modern human experience, also happened to be the only one where the colour was part of the author’s name rather than the book’s title. I also have a bonus rainbow-covered read and a look back at the highlights of my summer reading.

 

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green (2021)

(20 Books of Summer, #20) How Have You Enjoyed the Anthropocene So Far? That’s the literal translation of the book’s German title, but also a tidy summary of its approach. John Green is not only a YA author but also a new media star – he and his brother Hank are popular vlogging co-hosts, and this book arose from a podcast of the same name. Some of the essays first appeared on his various video projects, too. In about 5–10 pages, he takes a phenomenon experienced in the modern age, whether miraculous (sunsets, the Lascaux cave paintings, favourite films or songs), regrettable (Staph infections, CNN, our obsession with grass lawns), or just plain weird, and riffs on it, exploring its backstory, cultural manifestations and personal resonance.

Indeed, the essays reveal a lot about Green himself. I didn’t know of his struggles with anxiety and depression. “Harvey,” one of the standout essays, is about a breakdown he had in his early twenties when living in Chicago and working for Booklist magazine. His boss told him to take as much time as he needed, and urged him to watch Harvey, the Jimmy Stewart film about a man with an imaginary friend that happens to be a six-foot rabbit. It was the perfect prescription. In “Auld Lang Syne,” Green toggles between the history of the song and a friendship from his own old times, with an author and mentor who has since died. “Googling Strangers” prides itself on a very 21st-century skill by which he discovers that a critically injured boy from his time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital lived to adulthood.

Green is well aware of the state of things: “Humans are already an ecological catastrophe … for many forms of life, humanity is the apocalypse.” He plays up the contradictions in everyday objects: air-conditioning is an environmental disaster, yet makes everyday life tolerable in vast swathes of the USA; Canada geese are still, to many, a symbol of wildness, but are almost frighteningly ubiquitous – one of the winners in the species roulette we’ve initiated. And although he’s clued in, he knows that in many respects he’s still living as if the world isn’t falling apart. “In the daily grind of a human life, there’s a lawn to mow, soccer practices to drive to, a mortgage to pay. And so I go on living the way I feel like people always have.” A sentiment that rings true for many of us: despite the background dread about where everything is headed, we just have to get on with our day-to-day obligations, right?

Although he’s from Indianapolis, a not particularly well regarded city of the Midwest, Green is far from the conservative, insular stereotype of that region. There are pockets of liberal, hipster culture all across the Midwest, in fact, and while he does joke about Indy in the vein of “well, you’ve gotta live somewhere,” it’s clear that he’s come to love the place – enough to set climactic scenes from two of his novels there. However, he’s also cosmopolitan enough – he’s a Liverpool FC fan, and one essay is set on a trip to Iceland – to be able to see America’s faults (which, to an extent, are shared by many Western countries) of greed and militarism and gluttony and more.

In any book like this, one might quibble with the particular items selected. I mostly skipped over the handful of pieces on sports and video games, for instance. But even when the phenomena were completely unknown to me, I was still tickled by Green’s take. For example, here he is rhapsodizing on Diet Dr Pepper: “Look at what humans can do! They can make ice-cold, sugary-sweet, zero-calorie soda that tastes like everything and also like nothing.” He veers between the funny and the heartfelt: “I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing.”

Each essay closes with a star rating. What value does a numerical assessment have when he’s making such apples-and-oranges comparisons (a sporting performance vs. sycamore trees vs. hot dog eating contests)? Not all that much. (Of course, some might make that very argument about rating books, but I persist!) At first I thought the setup was a silly gimmick, but since reviewing anything and everything on Amazon/TripAdvisor/wherever is as much a characteristic of our era as everything he’s writing about, why not? Calamities get 1–1.5 stars, things that seemed good but have turned out to be mixed blessings might get 2–3 stars, and whatever he unabashedly loves gets 4.5–5 stars.

As Green astutely remarks, “when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir—here’s what my experience was.” So, because I found a lot that resonated with me and a lot that made me laugh, and admired his openness on mental health à la Matt Haig, but also found the choices random such that a few essays didn’t interest me and the whole doesn’t necessarily build a cohesive argument, I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars. I’d only ever read The Fault in Our Stars, one of the first YA books I loved, so this was a good reminder to try more of Green’s fiction soon.

(Public library)

 


Initially, I thought I might struggle to find 20 appealing colour-associated books, so I gave myself latitude to include books with different coloured covers. As it happens, I didn’t have to resort to choosing by cover, but I’ve thrown in this rainbow cover as an extra.

 

Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie (2021)

A Daisy Jones and the Six wannabe for sure, and a fun enough summer read even though the writing doesn’t nearly live up to Reid’s. Set largely between 1969 and 1971, the novel stars Jane Quinn, who lives on New England’s Bayleen Island with her aunt, grandmother and cousin – her aspiring singer mother having disappeared when Jane was nine. Nursing and bartending keep Jane going while she tries to make her name with her band, the Breakers. Aunt Grace, also a nurse, cares for local folk rocker Jesse Reid during his convalescence from a motorcycle accident. He then invites the Breakers to open for him on his tour and he and Jane embark on a turbulent affair. After Jane splits from both Jesse and the Breakers, she shrugs off her sexist producer and pours her soul into landmark album Songs in Ursa Major. (I got the Sufjan Stevens song “Ursa Major” in my head nearly every time I picked this up.)

There are some soap opera twists and turns to the plot, and I would say the novel is at least 100 pages too long, with an unnecessary interlude on a Greek island. Everyone loves a good sex, drugs and rock ’n roll tale, but here the sex scenes were kind of cringey, and the lyrics and descriptions of musical styles seemed laboured. Also, I thought from the beginning that the novel could use the intimacy of a first-person narrator, but late on realized it had to be in the third person to conceal a secret of Jane’s – which ended up feeling like a trick. There are also a few potential anachronisms (e.g. I found myself googling “how much did a pitcher of beer cost in 1969?”) that took me out of the period. Brodie is a debut novelist who has worked in book publishing in the USA for a decade. Her Instagram has a photo of her reading Daisy Jones and the Six in March 2019! That and the shout-out to Mandy Moore, of all the musical inspirations, in her acknowledgments, had me seriously doubting her bona fides to write this story. Maybe take it as a beach read if you aren’t too picky.

(Twitter giveaway win)

 

Looking back, my favourite read from this project was Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon, closely followed by the novels Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and Ruby by Ann Hood, the essay collection The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (above), the travel book The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, and the memoirs Darkness Visible by William Styron and Direct Red by Gabriel Weston. A varied and mostly great selection, all told! I read six books from the library and the rest from my shelves. Maybe next year I’ll not pick a theme but allow myself completely free choice – so long as they’re all books I own.

 

What was the highlight of your summer reading?

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?

20 Books of Summer, #18–19: The Other’s Gold and Black Dogs

Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a novel about a quartet of college friends and the mistakes that mar their lives and a novella about the enduring impact of war set just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames (2019)

Make new friends but keep the old,

One is silver and the other’s gold.

Do you know that little tune? We would sing it as a round at summer camp. It provides a clever title for this story of four college roommates whose lives are marked by the threat of sexual violence and ambivalent feelings about motherhood. Alice, Ji Sun, Lainey and Margaret first meet as freshmen in 2002 when they’re assigned to the same suite (with a window seat! how envious am I?) at Quincy-Hawthorn College.

They live together for the whole four years – a highly unusual situation – and see each other through crises at college and in the years to come as they find partners and meander into motherhood. Iraq War protests and the Occupy movement form a turbulent background, but the friends’ overriding concerns are more personal. One girl was molested by her brother as a child and has kept secret her act of revenge; one has a crush on a professor until she learns he has sexual harassment charges being filed against him by multiple female students. Infertility later provokes jealousy between the young women, and mental health issues come to the fore.

As in Expectation by Anna Hope, the book starts to be all about babies at a certain point. That’s not a problem if you’re prepared for and interested in this theme, but I love campus novels so much that my engagement waned as the characters left university behind. Also, the characters seemed too artificially manufactured to inject diversity (Ji Sun is a wealthy Korean; adopted Lainey is of mixed Latina heritage, and bisexual; Margaret has Native American blood) and embody certain experiences. And, unfortunately, any #MeToo-themed read encountered in the wake of My Dark Vanessa is going to pale by comparison.

Part One held my interest, but after that I skimmed to the end. Ideally, I would have chosen replacements and not included skims like this and Green Mansions, but it’s not the first summer that I’ve had to count DNFs and skimmed books – my time and attention are always being diverted by paid review work, review copies and library books with imminent deadlines. I’ve read lots of fiction about groups of female friends this summer, partly by accident and partly by design, and will likely do a feature on it in an upcoming month. For now, I’d recommend Lara Feigel’s The Group instead of this.

With thanks to Pushkin Press (ONE imprint) for the free e-copy for review.

 

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan (1992)

When I read the blurb, I worried I’d read this before and forgotten it: all it mentions is a young couple setting off on honeymoon and having an encounter with evil. Isn’t that the plot of The Comfort of Strangers? I thought. In fact, this only happens to have the vacation detail in common, and has a very different setup and theme overall.

Jeremy lost his parents in a car accident (my least favourite fictional trope – far too convenient a way of setting a character off on their own!) when he was eight years old, and is self-aware enough to realize that he has been seeking for parental figures ever after. He becomes deeply immersed in the story of his wife’s parents, Bernard and June, even embarking on writing a memoir based on what June, from her nursing home bed, tells him of their early life (Part One).

After June’s death, Jeremy takes Bernard to Berlin (Part Two) to soak up the atmosphere just after the Wall comes down, but the elderly man is kicked by a skinhead. The other key thing that happens on this trip is that he refutes June’s account of their honeymoon. At June’s old house in France (Part Three), Jeremy feels her presence and seems to hear the couple’s voices. Only in Part Four do we learn what happened on their 1946 honeymoon trip to France: an encounter with literal black dogs that also has a metaphorical dimension, bringing back the horrors of World War II.

I think the novel is also meant to contrast Communist ideals – Bernard and June were members of the Party in their youth – with how Communism has played out in history. It was shortlisted for the Booker, which made me feel that I must be missing something. A fairly interesting read, most similar in his oeuvre (at least of the 15 I’ve read so far) to The Child in Time. (Secondhand purchase from a now-defunct Newbury charity shop)

 

Coming up next: The latest book by John Green – it’s due back at the library on the 31st so I’ll aim to review it before then, possibly with a rainbow-covered novel as a bonus read.

20 Books of Summer, #16–17, GREEN: Jon Dunn and W.H. Hudson

Today’s entries in my colour-themed summer reading are a travelogue tracking the world’s endangered hummingbirds and a bizarre classic novel that blends nature writing and fantasy. Though very different books, they have in common lush South American forest settings.

 

The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds by Jon Dunn (2021)

As a wildlife writer and photographer, Jon Dunn has come to focus on small and secretive but indelible wonders. His previous book, which I still need to catch up on, was all about orchids, and in this new one he travels the length of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, to see as many hummingbirds as he can. He provides a thorough survey of the history, science and cultural relevance (from a mini handgun to an indie pop band) of this most jewel-like of bird families. The ruby-throated hummingbirds I grew up seeing in suburban Maryland are gorgeous enough, but from there the names and corresponding colourful markings just get more magnificent: Glittering-throated Emeralds, Tourmaline Sunangels, Violet-capped woodnymphs, and so on. I’ll have to get a look at the photos in a finished copy of the book!

Dunn is equally good at describing birds and their habitats and at constructing a charming travelogue out of his sometimes fraught journeys. He has only a narrow weather of fog-free weather to get from Chile to Isla Robinson Crusoe and the plane has to turn back once before it successfully lands; a planned excursion in Bolivia is a non-starter after political protestors block some main routes. There are moments when the thrill of the chase is rewarded – as when he sees 24 hummingbird species in a day in Costa Rica – and many instances of lavish hospitality from locals who serve as guides or open their gardens to birdwatchers.

Like so many creatures, hummingbirds are in dire straits due to human activity: deforestation, invasive species, pesticide use and climate change are reducing the areas where they can live to pockets here and there; some species number in the hundreds and are considered critically endangered. Dunn juxtaposes the exploitative practices of (white, male) 19th- and 20th-century bird artists, collectors and hunters with indigenous birdwatching and environmental initiatives that are rising up to combat ecological damage in Latin America. Although society has moved past the use of hummingbird feathers in crafts and fashion, he learns that the troubling practice of dead hummingbirds being sold as love charms (chuparosas) persists in Mexico.

Whether you’re familiar with hummingbirds or not, if you have even a passing interest in nature and travel writing, I recommend The Glitter in the Green for how it invites readers into a personal passion, recreates an adventurous odyssey, and reinforces our collective responsibility for threatened wildlife. (Proof copy passed on by Paul of Halfman, Halfbook)

A lovely folk tale I’ll quote in full:

A hummingbird as a symbol of hope, strength and endurance is a recurrent one in South American folklore. An Ecuadorian folk tale tells of a forest on fire – a hummingbird picks up single droplets of water in its beak and lets them fall on the fire. The other animals in the forest laugh, and ask the hummingbird what difference this can possibly make. They say, ‘Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire. What do you think you are doing?’ To which the hummingbird is said to reply, ‘I’m just doing what I can.’

 

Links between the books: Hudson is quoted in Dunn’s introduction. In Chapter 7 of the below, Hudson describes a hummingbird as “a living prismatic gem that changes its colour with every change of position … it catches the sunshine on its burnished neck and gorget plumes—green and gold and flame-coloured, the beams changing to visible flakes as they fall”

 

Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by W.H. Hudson (1904)

Like Heart of Darkness, this is a long recounted tale about a journey among ‘savages’. After a prologue, the narrator soon cedes storytelling duties to Mr. Abel, whom he met in Georgetown, Guyana in 1887. Searching for gold and fighting off illness, the 23-year-old Abel took up the habit of wandering the Venezuelan forest. The indigenous people were superstitious and refused to hunt in that forest. Abel began to hear strange noises – magical bird calls or laughter – that, siren-like, drew him deeper in. His native friend warned him it was the daughter of an evil spirit.

One day, after being bitten by a snake, Abel woke up in the dwelling of an old man and his 17-year-old granddaughter, Rima – the very wood sprite he’d sensed all these times in the forest; she saved his life. Recovering in their home and helping Rima investigate her origins, he romanticizes this tree spirit in a way that struck me as smarmy. It’s possible this could be appreciated as a fable of connection with nature, but I found it vague and old-fashioned. (Not to mention Abel’s condescending attitude to the indigenous people and to women.) I ended up skimming the last three-quarters.

My husband has read nonfiction by Hudson; I think I was under the impression that this was a memoir, in fact. Perhaps I’d enjoy Hudson’s writing in another genre. But I was surprised to read high praise from John Galsworthy in the foreword (“For of all living authors—now that Tolstoi has gone—I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson”) and to note how many of my Goodreads friends have read this; I don’t see it as a classic that stands the test of time.

My 1944 hardback once belonged to one Mary Marcilliat of Louisville, Kentucky, and has strange abstract illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer. (Free from the Book Thing of Baltimore)

 

Coming up next: One black and one gold on Wednesday; a Green author and a rainbow bonus (probably on the very last day).

 

Would you be interested in reading one of these?

20 Books of Summer, #14–15, RED: Gabriel Weston and Marie Winn

I’m catching up on blogs and getting back into the swing of work after a week’s staycation hosting my mom and stepdad and taking them on daytrips to lots of local sites: Highclere Castle (“Downton Abbey”), Bath, Avebury, the south coast, Sandham Memorial Chapel, the Kennet & Avon canal, and Mottisfont Abbey.

Today’s contributions to my colour-themed summer reading are both nonfiction: a forthright memoir from a female surgeon and a light-hearted record of multiple seasons of hawk-watching in Central Park.

 

Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston (2009)

Trying to keep herself alert seven hours into assisting with a neck surgery, Weston recites to herself a list of dyes used to stain tissues for microscopy: methylene blue, acridine orange, saffron, malachite green, Tyrian purple, Hoffman’s violet, direct red. This is how the book opens, and of course, red being the colour of blood, it shows up frequently in what follows. She tells (anonymized) stories of people she has treated, of all ages and from all backgrounds, both during her training and after she specialized in ear, nose and throat surgery.

Like Henry Marsh in Admissions, she expresses regret for moments when she was in a rush or trying to impress seniors and didn’t give the best patient-focused care she could have. Some patients even surprise her into changing her mind, such as about the morality of plastic surgery.

The accounts of individual surgeries are detailed and sometimes gory: morbidly delicious for me, but definitely not for the squeamish.

Blood trickled in a stream down the inside of my wrist onto the plasticky gown, and then dripped off me and onto the drape. It collected in a green valley and was congealing there like a small garnet jelly. I lost my balance slightly as the breast was cut off.

Surgery is still a male-dominated field, and I’ve sensed unpleasant machismo from surgeon authors before (Stephen Westaby’s The Knife’s Edge). As a woman in medicine, Weston is keenly aware of the difficult balance to be struck between confidence and compassion.

To be a good doctor, you have to master a paradoxical art. You need to get close to a patient so that they will tell you things and you will understand what they mean. But you also have to keep distant enough not to get too affected.

It is no longer enough to be technically proficient; nowadays, we need to be nice. And this presents the modern surgeon with a great challenge: how to combine a necessary degree of toughness with an equally important ability to be gentle.

Initially, her bedside manner is on the brusque side, but when she becomes a mother this changes. Treating a sick baby in the ITU, she realizes she barely sees her own child for more than five minutes per evening. In the final paragraphs, she quits her career-track consultant job to work part-time. “I chose a life with more home in it.” It’s an abrupt ending to a 180-page memoir that I thoroughly enjoyed but that left me wanting more. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Reading)

 

Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park by Marie Winn (1998)

In the early 1990s, Wall Street Journal columnist Winn fell in with an earnest group of birdwatchers who monitor the daily activity in New York City’s Central Park, a haven for wildlife. Through the Register, a logbook stored in a boathouse, they share sightings and track patterns. Relative rarities thrive and breed each year. Before long the book zeroes in on a famous pair of red-tailed hawks, “Pale Male” and a series of females. Winn emphasizes the “drama” of her subtitle, arranging the content into Acts and Scenes that span about five years.

Wild birds face many risks, most of them the fault of humans, and there are some distressing losses here. It is thus a triumph when Pale Male and his mate successfully raise three chicks on the façade of a Fifth Avenue apartment building (home to Mary Tyler Moore, with Woody Allen across the street). The birdwatchers are vigilant, sending letters to the apartment manager and calling park staff to ensure the birds are left in peace. No doubt it’s easier to disseminate information and assign responsibility now what with WhatsApp and Twitter. Indeed, I found the book a little dated and the anthropomorphizing somewhat over-the-top, but Winn makes a sweet, rollicking yarn out of people getting invested in nature. (Secondhand purchase from Clock Tower Books, Hay-on-Wye)

 

Coming up next: Three green, one black, one gold (and maybe a rainbow bonus).

 

Would you be interested in reading one of these?

20 Books of Summer, #12–13, BLUE: Johnson & MacMahon

Blue has been the most common colour in my themed summer reading, showing up in six out of the 20 titles. In the two books I’m reviewing today, it’s used somewhat ironically, with a YA memoir subverting its association with conventional masculinity and a Women’s Prize-longlisted novel contrasting idyllic holiday weather with the persistence of grief.

 

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson (2020)

“you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving”

Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson knew he was different. He preferred Double-Dutch to football, called his classmates “Honeychild,” and begged for a pair of cowboy boots instead of the sneakers everyone else coveted. His effeminate ways earned the expected epithets. Even though he had plenty of LGBT precedents in his own family – a gay older half-brother, a lesbian aunt, a trans cousin – and his beloved Nanny assured him he was loved for who he was, he didn’t publicly confess his identity until he got to college and felt accepted as part of a fraternity. In fact, there are three instances in the book when, as a teenager, he’s asked directly if he’s gay and he denies it. (Do you hear a rooster?)

Johnson is a warm, earnest storyteller and deftly chooses moments when he became aware of the social disadvantages inherent to his race and sexuality. His memoir is marketed to teens, who should find a lot to relate to here, such as dealing with bullies and realizing that what you’ve been taught is comforting myth. In the “‘Honest Abe’ Lied to Me” chapter, he discovers in middle school that Lincoln didn’t actually support racial equality and questions whether landmark achievements by Black people are just conciliatory tokens – “symbolism is a threat to actual change—it’s a chance for those in power to say, ‘Look how far you have come’ rather than admitting, ‘Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.’”

The manifesto element of the book lies in its investigation of the intersection of Blackness and queerness. Johnson is an activist and wants queer Black kids to have positive role models. He knows he was lucky to have family support and middle-class status; many have it harder, getting thrown out and ending up homeless. Multiple chapters are devoted to his family members, some in the form of letters. The structure didn’t always feel intuitive to me, with direct address to his cousin or grandmother coming seemingly out of nowhere. The language is informal, but that doesn’t excuse “me and so-and-so” constructions or referring to “people that” instead of “who”; young adult readers need to have good grammar reinforced.

I also questioned whether the author needed to be so sexually explicit in describing his molestation at the hands of an older male cousin (he has about a zillion cousins) and losing his virginity at age 20. Then again, today’s teens are probably a lot more sexually knowledgeable than I was 20+ years ago. All in all, I wondered if Johnson is more successful as a motivational speaker than a writer. I think his occasional bravado (he closes his introduction with “This is the story of George Matthew Johnson. This is a story for us all.”) would come across better in person than in print. Still, considering I couldn’t be much further from the target audience, I found this a sweet and engaging read. (Public library)

 

Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (2020)

“Incongruous, the situations we found ourselves in. To be talking about such sorrow against the backdrop of a Mediterranean summer.”

SPOILERS in the following; otherwise it would be difficult to say anything other than that this novel is a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. When I read a synopsis, I thought it would be Sue Miller’s Monogamy with the roles reversed, but that’s because the blurb makes it sound like there were secrets in David and Mary Rose’s marriage that only emerge after her death in a plane crash. I was on the alert for something sordid and earth-shattering, but in fact this is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage.

David, a foreign correspondent on Dublin’s television news, always put his career first, his sophistication and wicked humour masking the wounds of an emotionally chilly upbringing. Mary Rose, a hospital midwife, was the perfect foil, deflating his pomposity and calling him out on any unfeeling quips. Her loving nature was the soul of their relationship. Now that’s she gone, David regrets that he didn’t take more seriously her desperation to have children, a desire he didn’t share. His voice, even flattened and numbed by grief, is a delight. For instance, here’s how he describes Irish seaside holidays: “Summer to us was freezing your arse off on a windswept beach, with a trip to the ice-cream shop if you were lucky. Of course, they never had the ice-cream you wanted.”

The novel is set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Against his friends’ advice, he’s decided to come back alone this year. Although most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here, there is also a present storyline running underneath. Initially subtle, it offers big surprises later on. These I won’t spoil; I’ll only say that David’s cynical belief that he’ll never experience happiness again is proven wrong. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated. This reminded me of Three Junes and also, to a lesser extent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. (Public library)

 

Coming up next: Pairs of green and red titles.

 

Would you be interested in reading one of these?

20 Books of Summer, #10–11: Dabiri and McDonald on Whiteness

I didn’t jump on the antiracist books bandwagon last year. Instead, my way into the topic was a work I became aware of through the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. I was on the Church House website to buy books by several of the weekend’s contributors and a forthcoming release being advertised jumped out at me for its provocative title and fabulous cover: God Is Not a White Man. I promptly pre-ordered. It never fails to put this Gungor song in my head, and seemed an ideal way to engage with the issues from a perspective that makes sense to me. So for this latest batch of colour-themed summer reads I’m thinking about whiteness from the point of view of women of colour based in England and Ireland.

 

God Is Not a White Man (And Other Revelations) by Chine McDonald (2021)

Here’s where McDonald is coming from: she moved to England from Nigeria with her family as a small child, grew up on the Evangelical end of Anglicanism, works for Christian Aid, and is married to a white man. She’s used to being the only Black person in the room when she steps into a church or other Christian setting in the UK. “It is a sad fact that the Church often lags behind on racial justice, remaining intransigent on issues that the world has long since labelled oppressive and unjust [such as opposing interracial marriage].” Always in the background for her is the way Black people are being treated in other parts of the world: although she wrote the bulk of this book before George Floyd’s murder, she has updated it with details about Donald Trump’s late outrages and the Black Lives Matter movement. Her chief concern is for her young son, growing up as a male with brown skin.

The book is shaped around moments of revelation large and small. For instance, McDonald opens with the first time she saw a God who looked like her. It was through The Shack, a bestselling novel by William P. Young in which God the Father is portrayed as a big Black woman (played by Octavia Spencer in the film version). She notes how important such symbolism is: “When a Black woman only sees God reflected as a white man, then somewhere in her subconscious she believes that white men are better representations of God than she is, that she is made less in the image of God than they are.” Other topics are the importance of equal access and education (she went to Cambridge), and standards of beauty. Beyoncé helped her to love her body, curves and all, and feel a sense of Black sisterhood. I liked getting glimpses into her life, such as her big Nigerian wedding to Mark. (New purchase)

 

Links between the two books: The authors’ Nigerian heritage, plus McDonald mentions that she interviewed Dabiri at Greenbelt Festival in 2019 and has been trying to get up the courage to return to her natural hair, as Dabiri encouraged her (the Natural Hair Movement is the topic of Dabiri’s first book, Don’t Touch My Hair).

 

What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri (2021)

Another terrific cover with a bold sans serif font. This is clearly in the mould of 2020’s antiracist books, but Dabiri wouldn’t thank you for considering her under the same umbrella. She doesn’t like the concept of allyship because it reinforces unhelpful roles: people of colour as victims and white people as the ones with power who can come and save the day.

Dabiri is Irish and Nigerian and grew up in the USA and Ireland. Her experience of racism was much more overt than McDonald’s, including verbal and physical abuse. She challenges white people to stop the denial: ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’, though artificial constructs, have been with us since at least the 1660s, so racism is a system we have all been born into. “We’ve been conditioned to see the world through that lens for centuries. … over that you have no control. What you do have control over is what you do next.”

Like McDonald, Dabiri emphasizes that monolithic categories like white and Black flatten a huge diversity of people and experiences (McDonald has a chapter entitled “Africa Is Not a Country”). But Dabiri has a more political (as well as, of course, a completely secular) approach: She wants readers to interrogate capitalism and think about how resources can be redistributed more fairly. Her notion of coalition is about identifying common ground and shared goals. “On the most basic level, we have to see our struggles as interconnected because they are, and because we are.”

Reading this was like encountering an extended TED talk. I wasn’t taken enough with Dabiri’s writing style to seek out her previous book, but if you have an interest in the subject matter you may as well pick up this 150-pager. It was small enough for me to pack in the back of our booze bag and read a bit of during a neighbour’s outdoor birthday party last weekend. I got a couple of “huh” looks, but that may have been just for reading during a party at all rather than for the specific content. (Public library)

 

Would I say that I enjoyed reading these two books? That’s a tough question. They were worthwhile, but also tedious in places, such that I did plenty of skimming. History, politics, sociology: these fields are not my reading comfort zone. The theological bent to McDonald’s work made it more to my taste than Dabiri’s contribution. Still, my whole reason for avoiding antiracist books was that I questioned my motivation. I didn’t want to read them because I felt I should; a sense of obligation is a recipe for resentment when it comes to books. I’m not sure to what extent readers should read things they feel they must. I look to books for learning opportunities, yes, but also for escape and pleasure. But maybe it’s valuable simply to show willing, to get outside your reading comfort zone and be open to hearing new ideas.

How about you? Would you pick up one of these for the educational value?

 

I have ALL of the rest of my 20 Books of Summer in progress at the moment. The only question is when I will next finish some!

Northumberland Trip, Book Haul, and Reading & 20 Books #9 Emerald

We spent the first 11 days of July on holiday in Northumberland (via stays with friends in York on the way up and back) – our longest spell of vacation since 2016, and our longest UK break since 2013. The trip also happened to coincide with our 14th anniversary. It was a fantastic time of exploring England’s northeast corner, a region new to me. I loved the many different types of landscape, from sandy beaches and rocky coasts and islands to moorland and lovely towns. It’s the county for you if you like castles. We joined the National Trust so we could make stops at lots of stately homes and other historic sites. Some highlights were:

  • Cherryburn, the off-the-beaten-track home of engraver Thomas Bewick.
  • A cheap and delicious meal of authentic Mexican street food in Hexham, of all places (at Little Mexico).
  • Walking along a tiny fraction of Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Roman Fort.
  • Cragside, the over-the-top home of a Victorian inventor (and the first international arms dealer – whoops), nestled in a plantation of pines and rhododendrons.
  • A boat trip to the Farne Islands with a landing on Inner Farne, giving close-up views of puffins, other seabirds, and grey seals. We also sailed past the lighthouse made famous by Grace Darling’s rescue of shipwreck victims in 1838. (Relevant song by Duke Special, by way of a Michael Longley poem.)
  • Whiling away a rainy morning in Barter Books, one of Britain’s largest secondhand bookshops (located in an old Victorian railway station), and the charity shops of Alnwick.
  • An adventurous (and very wet) walk along the coast to the Dunstanburgh Castle ruin.
  • Searching the dunes for rare orchids on Holy Island, followed by a delicious and largely vegan lunch at Pilgrims Coffee House.
  • Another seabird-filled boat trip, this one round Coquet Island. Sightings included roseate terns and the Duke of Northumberland.
  • Our second Airbnb, The Lonnen (near Rothbury), was a rural idyll shared mostly with sheep and gray wagtails. We were spoiled by Ruth’s excellent interior décor and cooked breakfasts. You can get a feel for the place via her Instagram.
  • Coffee and snacks at Corbridge Larder’s Heron Café – so good we made a second trip.

It was also, half unexpectedly, a week filled with book shopping. First up was Forum Books in Corbridge, a lovely independent bookshop. I don’t often buy new books, so enjoyed the splurge here. The Flyn and Taylor were two of my most anticipated releases of 2021. It felt appropriate to pick up a Bloodaxe poetry title as the publisher is based in nearby Hexham.

Next came a bounteous charity shop haul in Hexham.

On the Tuesday we holed up in Barter Books for hours while it rained – and the queue lengthened – outside. I was surprised and delighted that the nine antiquarian books I resold to Barter more than paid for my purchases, leaving me in credit to spend another time (online if, as seems likely, I don’t get back up in person anytime soon).

Alnwick also has a number of charity shops. I had the most luck at the Lions bookshop.

I seemed to keep finding books wherever I went. Kitchen came from a bookshelf in a shop/café on Holy Island. A secondhand/remainders shop near York Minster was the source of the other three.

 

What I Read:

The holiday involved significant car journeys as Northumberland is a big county with an hour or more between destinations. Alongside my navigating and DJ duties, I got a lot of reading done during the days, as well as in the evenings.

 

Finished second half or so of:

Phosphorescence by Julia Baird – An intriguing if somewhat scattered hybrid: a self-help memoir with nature themes. Many female-authored nature books I’ve read recently (Wintering, A Still Life, Rooted) have emphasized paying attention and courting a sense of wonder. To cope with recurring abdominal cancer, Baird turned to swimming at the Australian coast and to faith. Indeed, I was surprised by how deeply she delves into Christianity here. She was involved in the campaign for the ordination of women and supports LGBTQ rights.

 

Open House by Elizabeth Berg – When her husband leaves, Sam goes off the rails in minor and amusing ways: accepting a rotating cast of housemates, taking temp jobs at a laundromat and in telesales, and getting back onto the dating scene. I didn’t find Sam’s voice as fresh and funny as Berg probably thought it is, but this is as readable as any Oprah’s Book Club selection and kept me entertained on the plane ride back from America and the car trip up to York. It’s about finding joy in the everyday and not defining yourself by your relationships.

 

Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles – I have yet to review this for BookBrowse, but can briefly tell you that it’s a terrific linked short story collection set on the sagebrush steppe of Colorado and featuring several generations of strong women. Boyles explores environmental threats to the area, like fracking, polluted rivers and an endangered bird species, but never with a heavy hand. It’s a different picture than what we usually get of the American West, and the characters shine. The book reminded me most of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

 

Every Minute Is a Day by Robert Meyer, MD and Dan Koeppel – The Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center serves an ethnically diverse community of the working poor. Between March and September 2020, it had 6,000 Covid-19 patients cross the threshold. Nearly 1,000 of them would die. Unfolding in real time, this is an emergency room doctor’s diary as compiled from interviews and correspondence by his journalist cousin. (Coming out on August 3rd. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Virga by Shin Yu Pai – Yoga and Zen Buddhism are major elements in this tenth collection by a Chinese American poet based in Washington. She reflects on her family history and a friend’s death as well as the process of making art, such as a project of crafting 108 clay reliquary boxes. “The uncarved block,” a standout, contrasts the artist’s vision with the impossibility of perfection. The title refers to a weather phenomenon in which rain never reaches the ground because the air is too hot. (Coming out on August 1st.)

 

Read most or all of:

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – I feel like I’m the last person on Earth to read this buzzy book, so there’s no point recounting the plot, which initially is reminiscent of Luster by Raven Leilani but morphs into its own thing as Nella realizes her rivalry with Hazel, her new Black colleague at Wagner Books, is evidence of a wider social experiment. The prose is hip, bringing to mind Queenie and Such a Fun Age. It was a fun road trip read for me, but I could have done without the silliness of magical hair care products.

 

Heartstopper, Volume 1 by Alice Oseman – It’s well known at Truham boys’ school that Charlie is gay. Luckily, the bullying has stopped and the others accept him. Nick, who sits next to Charlie in homeroom, even invites him to join the rugby team. Charlie is smitten right away, but it takes longer for Nick, who’s only ever liked girls before, to sort out his feelings. This black-and-white YA graphic novel is pure sweetness, taking me right back to the days of high school crushes. I raced through and placed holds on the other three volumes.

 

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – Perfect summer reading; perfect holiday reading. Like Jami Attenberg, Straub writes great dysfunctional family novels featuring characters so flawed and real you can’t help but love and laugh at them. Here, Franny and Jim Post borrow a friend’s home in Mallorca for two weeks, hoping sun and relaxation will temper the memory of Jim’s affair. Franny’s gay best friend and his husband, soon to adopt a baby, come along. Amid tennis lessons, swims and gourmet meals, secrets and resentment simmer.

 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – A pair of poignant stories of loss and what gets you through. In the title novella, after the death of the grandmother who raised her, Mikage takes refuge with her friend Yuichi and his mother (once father), Eriko, a trans woman who runs a nightclub. Mikage becomes obsessed with cooking: kitchens are her safe place and food her love language. Moonlight Shadow, half the length, repeats the bereavement theme but has a magic realist air as Satsuki meets someone who lets her see her dead boyfriend again.

 

I also made a good start on a few of my other purchases from the trip: Islands of Abandonment, No Time to Spare, Filthy Animals, and Female Friends.

Alas, most of the in-demand library books I brought along with me – Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Still Life by Sarah Winman – didn’t hit the spot, so I’ve returned them unread and will borrow them at another point later in the year (except Malibu Rising, which felt soapy and insubstantial).

 


It’s been a struggle getting back into the routines of work and writing since we got back, but I’ve managed to review one more of my 20 Books of Summer. This is #9, slipped in from my Forum Books pile, and I’m currently working on books #10–13.

 

Emerald by Ruth Padel (2018)

This was my 11th book from Padel; I’ve read a mixture of her poetry, fiction, narrative nonfiction and poetry criticism. Emerald consists mostly of poems in memory of her mother, Hilda, who died in 2017 at the age of 97. The book pivots on her mother’s death, remembering the before (family stories, her little ways, moving her into sheltered accommodation when she was 91, sitting vigil at her deathbed) and the letdown of after. It made a good follow-on to one I reviewed last month, Kate Mosse’s An Extra Pair of Hands.

Emerald, the hue and the gemstone, recurs frequently in ornate imagery of verdant outdoor scenes and expensive art objects. Two favourites were travel-based: “Jaipur,” about the emerald-cutters of India, where Padel guiltily flew while her mother was ill; and “Salon Noir,” about a trip down into prehistoric caves of France the summer after Hilda’s death. Overall, I expected the book to resonate with me more than it did. The bereavement narrative never broke through to touch me; it remained behind a silk screen of manners and form.

Two favourite stanzas:

“Your voice is your breath.

The first thing that’s yours

and the last.” (from “Fragile as Breath”)

 

“that’s all of us

sifting the dark

in our anonymities and hope.” (from “Above is the Same as Below”)

My rating:

 

Next books in progress: The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon

Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)

I had the “wrong” introduction to Julia Glass’s work in that I started with The Whole World Over (2006) in January 2019 instead of the novel to which it is a rough sequel: her National Book Award-winning debut, Three Junes. This wasn’t really a problem, though. The main link between the two is the character Fenno, a Scottish transplant to New York City who runs a bookstore. He narrates the central and longest section of Three Junes, while the shorter bookend chapters are in the third person. All three pieces braid past and present together such that the novel’s 10-year span feels even more expansive.

“Collies,” set in 1989, opens the book on Greece, where Paul McLeod has headed for a package holiday after the death from cancer of his wife, Maureen, who was an obsessive dog trainer. In “Upright,” which moves six years into the future, Paul’s son Fenno and his younger twin brothers, David and Dennis, are at the family home in Dumfries to divvy up the estate. Fenno’s mind drifts back through his time in New York City and particularly the lovers and friends of his life, some of whom died at the height of the AIDS crisis. In the present day, he faces a dilemma when his brother and sister-in-law ask him an intimate favor.

“Boys,” dated 1999, closes the book and centers on Fern, a young widow who is visiting a friend’s beach home in Long Island and contemplating how she will tell her new boyfriend (who happens to be her landlord’s son) that she is five months pregnant. This final chapter ropes in a few characters from previous sections – but, in a frustrating yet delicious instance of dramatic irony, the two main figures don’t realize there’s a couple of connections between them.

Many of the elements that I loved in The Whole World Over were present here, too: a New York City bookstore setting, the comfort of animals (David is a vet), gourmet meals (Dennis is a chef), and a matter-of-fact but tender consideration of loss. A minor character declares, “people overestimate the power of the past,” but this tripartite narrative puts the lie to that statement as the past continues to seep into everyday life. And the last line goes on my list of favourites encountered so far this year: “Here we are—despite the delays, the confusion, and the shadows en route—at last, or for the moment, where we always intended to be.”

I didn’t particularly warm to the first chapter and worried that this boded ill for the whole book, but as soon as Fenno’s voice took over at about page 60 I sank into the inviting prose. After my first taste of her work, I likened Glass to Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst; now I’d add in Elizabeths Berg and Strout. I’ll read the rest of her books for sure. I have a paperback copy of I See You Everywhere and her latest, A House among the Trees, is on my Kindle.

 

Source: Secondhand purchase from Wonder Book and Video outdoor clearance area

My rating:

Classic of the Month & 20 Books of Summer #5: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (1873)

While going through my boxes stored in my sister’s basement, I came across an antiquarian copy of this lesser-known Hardy novel. I used to place a lot more value on books’ age and rarity, whereas now I tend to just acquire readable paperback copies. I also used to get on much better with Victorian novels – I completed an MA in Victorian Literature, after all – but these days I generally find them tedious. Two years ago, I DNFed Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, and I ended up mostly skimming A Pair of Blue Eyes after the first 100 pages. In any case, it fit into my 20 Books of Summer colour theme. It’s sad for me that I’ve lost my love for my academic speciality, but life is long and I may well go back to Victorian literature someday.

I found similarities to Far from the Madding Crowd, my favourite Hardy novel, as well as to Hardy’s own life. As in FFTMC, the focus is on a vain young woman with three suitors. Elfride Swancourt is best known for her eyes, rapturously described as “blue as autumn distance—blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.” Her vicar father, suffering from gout and sounding much older than his actual age (40 was a different prospect in that time!), warns her that architects will soon be arriving from London to plan restoration work on the church tower.

The young architectural assistant who arrives at the Swancourts’ coastal parish in “Lower Wessex” (North Devon?) is Stephen Smith, a clear Hardy stand-in, desperate to hide his humble background as he seeks to establish himself in his profession. Stephen emulates his friend Henry Knight, a dilettante essayist and book reviewer. Book learning has given Stephen passable knowledge of everything from Latin to chess, but he doesn’t know how to do practical things like ride a horse. Elfride and Stephen, predictably, fall in love, and she is determined to go ahead with an engagement even when she learns that his parents are a mason and a milkmaid, but her father refuses to grant permission. It’s intriguing that this poor clergyman fancies himself of the class of the Luxellians, local nobility, than of the Smiths.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}

Elfride’s previous love died, and his pauper mother, Mrs Jethway, blames her still for toying with her boy’s affections. When Stephen takes a position in India and Mr Swancourt remarries and moves the family to London, Elfride’s eye wanders. Time for love interest #3. The family runs into Knight, who is a distant cousin of Mrs Swancourt. There’s another, juicier, connection: Elfride is a would-be author (she writes her father’s sermons for him, putting passages in brackets with the instruction “Leave this out if the farmers are falling asleep”) and publishes a medieval romance under a male pseudonym. A negative write-up of her book needles her. “What a plague that reviewer is to me!” And who is it but Knight?

They begin a romance despite this inauspicious coincidence and his flirty/haughty refusal to admire her fine eyes – “I prefer hazel,” he says. Some of the novel’s most memorable scenes, famous even beyond its immediate context, come from their courtship. Knight saves her from falling off the church tower, while she tears her dress into linen strips and ties them into a rope to rescue him from a sea cliff (scandalous!). Somewhere I’d read an in-depth account of this scene: as Knight dangles from the rock face, he spots a trilobite, which, in its very ancientness, mocks the precariousness of his brief human life. Lovingly created and personally watched over by a supreme being? Pshaw. Hardy’s was a godless vision, and I’ve always been interested in that Victorian transition from devoutness to atheism.

The novel’s span is too long, requiring a lot of jumps in time. I did appreciate that Mrs Jethway becomes the instrument of downfall, writing a warning letter to Knight about Elfride’s mistreatment of her son and another former fiancé. Knight breaks things off and it’s not until 15 months later, after he and Stephen bump into each other in London and Knight realizes that Stephen was her other suitor, that they travel back to Wessex to duke it out over the girl. When they arrive, though, it’s too late: Elfride had married but then fallen ill and died; her funeral is to take place the very next day. As the book closes at the vault, it’s her widower, Lord Luxellian, who has the right to mourn and not either of her previous loves.

{END OF SPOILERS}

 

As always with Hardy, I enjoyed the interplay of coincidence and fate. There were a few elements of this novel that I particularly liked: the coastal setting, the characters’ lines of work (including a potential profession for Elfride, though Knight told her in future she should stick to domestic scenes in her writing!) and the role played by a book review, but overall, this was not a story that is likely to stick with me. I did wonder to what extent it inspired Lars Mytting’s The Bell in the Lake, about a country girl who falls in love with the man who comes to oversee construction at the local church.


Source: Secondhand purchase, most likely from Wonder Book and Video in the early 2000s

My rating: