Reading Round-Up: June 2018

June was a good reading month for me, unusually heavy on the non-fiction. I found that once I finally made my way through the massive … And Ladies of the Club, I was ready for a significant palate cleanse (although I did dip into fiction again towards the end of the month). I read a lot of poetry, and a fair amount of memoir, and it was deeply satisfying.

Here’s the final list:

  1. … And Ladies of the Club (Helen Hooven Santyer)
  2. Felicity (Mary Oliver)
  3. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg)
  4. Upstream: Selected Essays (Mary Oliver)
  5. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Tracy Kidder)
  6. Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home (Natalie Goldberg)
  7. The Secret Keepers (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  8. A Phone Call to the Future (Mary Jo Salter)
  9. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Jaron Lanier)
  10. Aimless Love (Billy Collins)
  11. One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both (Jennifer Fulweiler)
  12. The Rooster Bar (John Grisham)
  13. Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (Jan Karon)

A handful of these were already featured in their own posts: … And Ladies of the ClubWriting Down the Bones, One Beautiful Dream, and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. And I’ll take the rest on by genre this month:

Poetry: This month I greatly enjoyed reading a few new-to-me poets, Mary Oliver (Felicity; the other book by her was essays) and Mary Jo Salter, and also re-acquainting myself with the inimitable Billy Collins. I like all three of these poets very much, and I think there are a couple things they have in common: they write a lot about day-to-day living, they are very grounded in natural surroundings, and while their poetry is of an informal, contemporary style, it still has recognisable structure: stanzas, rhythm, occasional rhyme. Above all their work is clear: I don’t mind working at poetry a bit, but I dislike poetry that reads as if it’s obscure for obscurity’s sake. But Oliver, Salter, and Collins are all masters of clarity and I adore them for it.

Memoir: I read several books of memoir this month. Mountains Beyond Mountains is not quite memoir, I guess, because it’s biographical about Dr. Paul Farmer — but on the other hand, it’s also Tracy Kidder’s account of meeting Farmer, and so it’s memoir-ish as well. I accidentally read the dumbed-down-for-middle-schoolers version of the book, but it was still a fascinating account of Farmer’s work among the poor, chiefly in Haiti, focusing on infectious diseases such as TB. It’s an inspiring read — I don’t like using that word because it’s become such a cliché, but sometimes that’s all you can do — and a good spur to remind us that for Christians, caring for the poor is not an optional item.

On a very different note, Let the Whole World Come Thundering Home is a slim little book by Natalie Goldberg, remembering the year (or so?) when she and her partner were both diagnosed with cancer. When I flicked through it at the library I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it, but it is a deep and tenderly-wrought book and I am glad to have read it.

Finally, Mary Oliver’s Upstream is also on the kinda-sorta memoir scale; it has some personal essays, but also some literary criticism and other things. I was particularly struck by Oliver’s accounts of how she came to treasure the natural world, and her take on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which is very influential on her own writing.

Fiction: It was mid-month before I cracked any fiction, but Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers was a great place to begin. I had previously read a few books in his Mysterious Benedict Society series; The Secret Keepers is a stand-alone novel that encompasses all of the same charm, following eleven-year-old Reuben after he discovers a powerful artifact that must, at all costs, be kept out of the hands of the sinister ruler of his city, known only as The Smoke. It’s great fun.

Striking a very different tone, I read The Rooster Bar, which is John Grisham’s latest-but-one, published in 2017. Although it tackles some compelling issues in America these days — including crushing student debt, for-profit law schools, and family deportation — I had a hard time rooting for the protagonists, who got away with what they were trying to do in the end (well, sort of) but made some bad mistakes that harmed people along the way. It felt as if the ends were meant to justify the means, but I’m not sure that they did.

And last in the fiction department as well as in the month, I picked up Jan Karon’s latest three Mitford novels, and finished Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good right at the tail-end of June. This is a long-running series following Fr. Tim Kavanagh, an evangelical Episcopalian priest serving in the small town of Mitford, North Carolina. They’re sweet books, funny but above all warm-hearted. Some people feel as if they have to apologize for liking the Mitford books because they’re not, you know, high literature — but I don’t. They’re some of my best go-to comfort reading and I love them.

And that was my month of reading! I hope that yours was equally satisfying.


You’re reading a book! What’s it about?

It’s about fourteen hundred pages long is what it’s about.

“What’s it about?” has to be my least favourite question when I’m reading something. especially because the longer it is, the worse I am at coming up with a coherent summary. And I’m never sure what kind of “about” I should be answering with. Is a book abouts its plot? Or is it about its major themes? Generally I just hand people the book in question so that they can read the professionally-written summary on the back cover.

Perhaps fortunately for me, Helen Hooven Santmyer inserted her own answer to “what’s it about” in the final pages of … And Ladies of the Club, which I (finally) finished reading last night:

By late November, Theresa’s book was printed and bound and the publication date set: December 10, in time for the Christmas trade. Theresa felt that she had done with it and put it behind her; she scarcely glanced at her author’s copies, although she autographed one for Anne and one for her parents. She felt ready to go to work on the book she had set her heart on writing: a long one, covering several generations of life in a small midwestern city: the sort of thing that had been popular a few years back, like Jean-Christophe and Remembrance of Things Past and The Forsyte Saga. She laughed at herself ruefully: the was no Galsworthy, much less a Rolland or a Proust. But she would like to write an answer to Sinclair Lewis, whose Main Street had made her so angry that after a decade she seethed when she thought of it. She set about planning the new book with stubborn concentration. She hoped that times would be better when she had finished, or no publisher would look at it, nor anyone have the patience to read it. But there was a chance that, after the depression had somehow been dealt with, some readers might still be interested in what she felt compelled to do: Old America changing, while New America seemed to be tumbling about one’s ears. (1423-24)

… And Ladies of the Club (hereafter referred to as ALoTC because that is a lot to type out every time) is just that: a small-town saga set in the fictional Waynesboro, Ohio, spanning five generations over the years from 1868 to 1932. It follows the members of the Waynesboro Women’s Club, a closed literary society, and their relations, chiefly focused on Anne (Alexander) Gordon and her best friend Sally (Cochran) Rausch. ALoTC is about their families, marriages, and children; those of the other club members; the pangs of industrialization; what war does to a man and to a community; religious faith or the lack thereof; (Republican) politics; women’s suffrage; ethnic conflict; labour relations; the effects of ageing; the dangers of gossip; what happens when your children go a way that isn’t yours; and the requisite amount of personal, natural, and national disasters.

It’s not always an easy read, and I don’t just mean because it’s 600,000 words long (which, for reference, slightly surpasses Tolstoy’s War and Peace). Many of the characters are snobbish, ethnic and/or religious bigots. Some of them refuse to forgive and so wreak destruction in multiple lives. Some of them marry the wrong person and also wreak destruction in multiple lives. Santmyer takes a documentary approach: her characters are presented without irony or censure from the narrator, even when they certainly deserve some. Perhaps she simply wanted her characters’ actions to stand or fall on their own merits.  Regardless, there are definitely characters I wouldn’t want to spend any amount of time with in real life — looking at you, Sally Rausch.

ALoTC was also occasionally confusing, especially towards the end of the book, because a lot of characters shared first names: there were multiple Ellens, Marys, Lavinias, and Ludwigs, who were sometimes hard to sort out. I would have appreciated a list of characters or some family trees at the beginning — although I suppose that would have spoiled some of the plot.

That being said, I think that Santmyer did succeed in her project (if we can take Theresa’s goal as her own, which I think we can in this case). If ALoTC is sprawling, that’s because her subject is as well: the social, intellectual, political, moral life of a town and its inhabitants over the course of 8+ decades is a lot to cover! Opening a mere three years after the end of the American Civil War, ALoTC progresses through the depressions of the 1870s and 90s, the Spanish-American war (1898), World War One, and the Great Depression. It’s a fascinating portrait of (upper-crust) small-town life during some very tumultuous decades. If the resultant characterization is occasional superficial, perhaps that is merely a function of scope. … And Ladies of the Club requires a significant investment in terms of reading time, but I think it was an investment worth making (although it does make me want to read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street to see what prompted Theresa’s/Santmyer’s ire).