Saturday, August 11, 2012

Summer Reading

It is odd for me, as an American, to read articles in British papers like The Guardian that exclaim on August 3, "At last – at last! – summer has arrived ..." and discuss summer reading lists.  Here in America, summer is almost over.  School starts next week for many and there will be no more time for summer reading for them or their parents.  I needed suggestions for summer reading at the end of May, not at the beginning of August.  But then I remind myself that over the Pond, everyone seems to holiday in August.   Ah, cultural differences.

At the beginning of the summer (our summer) I visited my friendly independent bookseller. She asked me if I was looking for something in particular and I said, "No, I'm just browsing for summer reading."  She then proceeded to bring me piles of books that she was pushing as good summer reading.  Books like A Discovery of Witches (which I blogged about earlier).  This happens every year and every year I try to explain to her that, for me, summer is the time to read longer and/or more difficult fiction.  Everyone else is going for the simple, fun, lightweight beach/pool read but not me.  I save those for the dead of winter for some reason.  In the summer I want to sink my teeth into long stories and so-called "literary" fiction.   And I like to discover a work that unexpectedly captures me and doesn't let me go.

Unfortunately, for me,  although I read many fine novels this summer, none of them really grabbed me.  And these are books that have appealed to many, many people.  So maybe it was just my frame of mind this summer.  Anyway, I doubt I'll blog individually about any of them but I'll probably blog about them in groups. Here's a few.

In past summers, for my "long" read I've worked on (if not finished until Autumn)  Anna Karenina and War and Peace.  This year I worked my way through the first four volumes of  A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin, also known as the Game of Thrones Series (so called because the first novel is called The Game of Thrones as is the television series based on the novels). I haven't seen the HBO series (I don't have cable) but it has received so many rave reviews that I know I will eventually watch it.  In the meantime, I thought it might be nice to read the novels first.   Martin has, so far, written five novels and I've only read the first four so I'm not yet ready to blog about them (if I ever am).  But I do want to say that I think he has created an enormous cast of characters most of whom are multi-dimensional.  He has also created a world I can believe in.  But I'm finding his plotting a little ... plodding.   He seems to like putting his characters in motion.  They are forever on journeys and these physical journeys also seem to be a metaphor for their psychological and emotional journeys.  Now, I generally like books about journeys.   But with so many characters on so many journeys all at the same time and not together - well, I find it wearying.   And I'm really wondering how they are going to film this in later seasons. 

In May I read Hillary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall, which unfortunately didn't affect me the way the earlier novel did.  I still think she's one of the best novelists I've ever read, but the magic that existed for me in Wolf Hall just didn't show up for Bring up the Bodies.  But I thought summer might be the time to try some of her earlier work.  I chose A Place of Greater Safety, her long novel about the French Revolution, specifically a novel about Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximillian Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. 

I know only general facts about the French revolution and I remembered the fate of Robespierre but I had never heard of Danton or Desmoulins.  However, I was pretty sure that they were not going to end pretty.   Nobody seemed to in those days.  But I already knew how Thomas Cromwell ended when I began Wolf Hall, and that didn't matter.  She made me care about him in the sense that she made me want to keep reading to find out how what happened to him did happen.  I didn't feel that way about Danton, Robespierre or Desmoulins.  It isn't that I found all three dislikeable (I did) but that I kept thinking  "I don't really care how they come to their ends".   In a way, that wasn't the fault of her characterization as much as my feeling that the Terror had no logic to it and that whether one lived or died depended, in a way, on the whim of the mob from day to day.  I found it hard to get invested in the story because of that.  And at the end, I wasn't very affected by what happened to them. 

 It did make me think, though.  I looked up biographies of the characters to see how true to fact she stayed (pretty close I found out).  At one point I wondered what it would have been like to live through the French Revolution in France but in a place other than Paris.  And I wondered if one of the reasons that the French Revolution devolved into the bloody mess that it did is because all of the leaders were living on top of each other in Paris.  Whereas, in America, after the British were forced out the American revolutionary leadership was spread out along the eastern seaboard and complained mightily about any time they were forced to spend together in Philadelphia, leaving as soon as they possibly could to get back to their homes.    In the end, it  did help me better understand how Napoleon grabbed power.

The other author I've been wanting to read more of is Jane Gardam.  I loved Old Filth and really liked The Man in the Wooden Hat.  Last year I read God on the Rocks.   I, again, loved her style but the story didn't really grab me.  I'm not much on stories that involve religious fanatics.   But I decided to try again and I took Crusoe's Daughter with me on vacation. Gardam has said that this is her personal favorite of all the books she has written.  Once again, loved her style but was somewhat indifferent to the story.  The story begins in 1904 when Polly Flint comes to the "Yellow House" which stands in partial isolation near marshes and ends in the mid 1980's when Polly and the house are stranded, an island, amidst an industrial development.  During this time, World War I and World War II occur and Polly knows happiness and sadness.  Everyone tells me that The Queen of the Tambourine is the novel of hers that I should read.  So, maybe in a few months I'll pick that up.  I don't regret reading Crusoe's Daughter, but I just didn't find the same magic as I did in Old Filth.

That's it for now.   More updates later.