Reading Round-Up: June & July 2022

Two months’ worth of reading in one post today. Here are the books I spent my time with so far this summer.


  • Glamorous Powers (Susan Howatch)
  • LaserWriter II (Tamara Shopsin)
  • Rattle #72 — Tribute to Appalachian Poets
  • What If? (Randall Munroe)
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed (John Green)
  • The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
  • Ultimate Prizes (Susan Howatch)


  • Mrs. Sherlock Holmes (Brad Ricca)
  • Alice Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
  • All the Seas in the World (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Second Sleep (Robert Harris)
  • Rattle #73 — Tribute to Indian Poets
  • Ragnarok (A S Byatt)
  • Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King)
  • Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business (Dolly Parton)
  • Rattle #74 — Tribute to Prisoner Express
  • Leviathan Wakes (James S A Corey)
  • The Holiday Swap (Maggie Knox)

I quail a bit at the thought of finding something to say about all of these at once — but let’s see if I can give them each a sentence or so, anyway. Working back to front:

The Holiday Swap was light and charming, which was a nice palate cleanser after Leviathan Wakes, which blew my mind (if you like detective noir and/or space opera, give it a go!). Dolly Parton is funnier than I knew, Rita Hayworth and the Etc. was better than the already excellent movie it inspired, and it was nice to encounter Norse mythology in a non-MCU setting in Byatt’s Ragnarok. The Second Sleep fell a little flat for me at the end but was still worth reading (don’t look up any blurbs or synopses for this one, just read to the end of Ch. 2 and you’ll know if you want to continue). All the Seas in the World made me cry more than once, Alice Through the Looking Glass was enticingly zany, and Mrs. Sherlock Holmes‘s interesting subject matter was thoroughly let down by its structural issues and terrible writing.

Moving on to June. Ultimate Prizes is another excellent exemplar of the Starbridge series, but best to start from the beginning with these. The Joy Luck Club was much more moving than when I read it in high school, and The Anthropocene Reviewed was tender and sincere. I only finished What If? by occasionally wrestling it out of Anselm’s hands (we keep renewing it and he’s read the whole thing through, oh, at least eight times). LaserWriter II had its own post here, and Glamorous Powers requires a brief suspension of disbelief re. psychic powers but hangs together well if you can get over that.

Rattle continues to be one of the best poetry magazines out there. The issues blend together in my mind, of course, but all of them have their share of turned-down corners marking poems that particularly touched me for one reason or another.

On deck for August: I’m eagerly awaiting Susan Howatch’s Scandalous Risks (coming via Inter-Library Loan and so arriving anytime between now and next year, apparently) and Caliban’s War, the book that follows Leviathan Wakes. Hurry up, library! (My friend Rebecca put me on to this series & has resorted to buying some of the books when the library holds list was too long — after reading Leviathan Wakes I understand the impulse!)

Reading Round-Up: November 2018

November was a pretty good reading month for me — not as many books as I’ve hit on other occasions, but all high-caliber.

  1. The Best American Poetry 2018 (ed. Dana Gioia)
  2. Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)
  3. Southern Discomfort (Tena Clark)
  4. The Best American Poetry 2017 (ed. Natasha Tretheway)
  5. Possession (A. S. Byatt)
  6. The Reckoning (John Grisham)
  7. Stress Family Robinson (Adrian Plass)
  8. Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis)
  9. Perelandra (C. S. Lewis)

This is the time of year when my reading list starts getting a little repetitive; I have a few books that I read yearly, and generally in the colder months. In November I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which remains a top favourite and in which I am always finding new things at which to marvel. I wrote about it at a bit more length last year. This year, I found myself focusing most on the poetry that serves as epigraph for nearly every chapter; all of it is pertinent and it was interesting to go back and read after finishing each chapter, to better see the themes highlighted by each poem or snippet of poetry.

And speaking of poetry, I read two collections this past month, namely the two latest editions of The Best American Poetry. It was enjoyably different to read a few anthologies, as most of the poetry I’ve read in this past year has been collections by single authors. These two books had a tremendous amount of breadth in terms of style and subject, all the more so because they are picked and organized on a very simple principle: new poetry that best catches the eye of each edition’s guest editor. I slightly preferred, overall, 2018 to 2017 as a collection, but in each I found many wonderful things.

The only other non-fiction I read in November was Tena Clark’s memoir, Southern Discomfort, her account of growing up gay in the American South in the 1960s. Oh, and growing up white while being raised by the black women who worked for her family. And dealing with an alcoholic mother, and a bully of a father who essentially owned their town, and her own burning desires to a) play the drums and b) escape. (There’s a lot going on in this book.) It’s a heart-wrenching, tender, and engrossing read with a few major surprises along the way. Great stuff.

I put Rules of Civility — Amor Towles’s debut novel — on my library list after devouring his magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow (review). Rules of Civility is set in the glitzy inter-war period in New York City, following Katey Kontent, her roommate Eve, and roguish banker Tinker Grey in a novel about social climbing, aspirations and assumptions, truth and transformation.

My last post reviewed Grisham’s The Reckoning (major spoilers). And since that was such a downer, I turned to one of my pick-me-up standbys, Adrian Plass. Stress Family Robinson is a portrait of the chaotic and charming Robinson family (Mike and Kathy, teenage sons Jack and Mark, and six-year-old Felicity) as seen through the eyes of their dear friend Elizabeth ‘Dip’ Reynolds. As always, Plass is laugh-out-loud funny, with a generous dose of wisdom thrown in. I note that there’s a sequel, which I will have to look up one of these days.

Lastly, I started reading C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, finishing Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in November (I just finished That Hideous Strength but that will have to wait for December’s round-up post). Technically this is a re-read for me — I read the whole trilogy perhaps ten years ago, and Perelandra for a class in grad school — but it had been so long since I encountered Out of the Silent Planet it was like reading it for the first time. I found myself completely entranced by Lewis’s cosmology. While it’s not exactly medieval it carries the same sort of flavour — it felt a bit like reading Dante — only with spaceships and things thrown in, of course! These are really fine examples of classic science fiction, in the imaginative mode that perhaps was more possible before we actually got to the moon. This series may have to find its own spot on my annual read list.

Green and gold and mysteriously bright

What to say about A. S. Byatt’s Possession? Even after half a dozen reads the ending always leaves me breathless and I felt like I couldn’t start this post until I had just sat with it a few days. Possession is one of my desert-island books, an annual November re-read. Every time I come back to it I find something new. Every time I come back to it there is some previously-unseen strand to trace, some fresh insight, and a deepening enjoyment of Byatt’s brilliant writing and intricate plot.

The book is subtitled not “A Novel,” but “A Romance.” The distinction is not that this is a “romance novel” — although there are, it must be admitted, multiple romantic plots — but rather that Byatt is writing in the tradition of Romanticism. The novel carries two epigraphs, the first of which is a quotation from Samuel Hawthorne on this very distinction:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former — while as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart — has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation . . . The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Preface to The House of the Seven Gables)

This last sentence, in fact, offers the interpretive key to what Byatt is doing in Possession. It carries two interlinked plot-lines, one set in the mid 1980s, and the other in the late 1850s. In the 80s, postgraduate Roland Mitchell is toiling away in academia, working on the Victorian-era poet Randolph Henry Ash when he discovers two unknown drafts of a letter to an unnamed woman. These letters are urgent, excited, and Roland determines to track down, if he can, the woman to whom they were addressed to find out whether the final draft was ever sent, and what happened then. His research leads him to the Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, and in his own timeline, to the beautiful LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey (herself LaMotte’s great-great-great niece). Together, they follow both literary and physical leads in an effort to solve the various mysteries of the Ash-LaMotte connection. Interwoven with all this is a narrative set in the late 1850s, following Ash and LaMotte themselves and including long excerpts from their poetry. The novel is a pastiche, rather than a straight narrative, and includes poetry, epistolary correspondence, and diary entries, as well as straight narrative.

That’s the bare bones of the plot, and it would be interesting enough on its own, but Byatt really shines in her pitch-perfect historical ventriloquism. Christabel LaMotte sounds like a British Emily Dickinson; Randolph Ash totally believable in the mode of Wordsworth or Coleridge; Christabel’s cousin Sabine a real, breathless young Frenchwoman dying to escape her solitude for a fashionable life of letters. And then there are the contemporary characters: Roland and Maud, Roland’s resentful and perpetually disappointed girlfriend Val, the American contingent of Mortimer Cropper and Leonora Stern, the dry scotch presence of James Blackadder and flustered, frustrated Beatrice Nest — all ring true in their own voices and actions.

Beyond that, Byatt weaves so many thematic threads and parallels between the two stories that I have trouble keeping track of them, and on every re-read I  (seem to) encounter another for the first time. A major theme is that of biography: what it can and can’t account for, the way biographer and subject can seem to possess (or be possessed by) each other, its status as a kind of figurative grave-robbing. There is the power of the written word to conceal or reveal, and its consequent limitations (if it wasn’t written down, did it really happen?). There are questions of faith vs. myth, especially in the 1850s storyline as its characters grapple with the Enlightenment, the aftermath of The Origin of Species, and the like. There are resurrection themes, women-as-spiders, archetypal characters and lives, the strengths and limitations of Freudian readings of texts, academic competition, academia vs. media, and — yes — actual grave robbing (though I will not tell you whose, or by whom). It is such an astonishingly dense text — not just in its length, but in the sheer amount that Byatt is doing. And I say this knowing that there is still much that is obscure to me.

One of these obscurities — for me — is Byatt’s use of colour. She is very deliberate in her descriptions, detailing shape, colour, and line with as much precision as the written word allows, and giving particular attention to what her characters are wearing. I can see that she’s doing something with this, but I am not a visual thinker and the meaning eludes me. But I was drawn, this reading, to notice the repetition of green and gold together; there is green and gold all throughout Ash’s poem In the Garden of Proserpina, both Maude and Christabel are golden-haired and dress in green, and so on. There is something being conveyed about brightness and freshness, but also the mysterious and closed-off. I wish I understood better what her use of colour signifies.

Perhaps it will come to me when I read Possession again next November. I will be reading it next November; I suspect that I will be reading it for the rest of my life.