It’s spring! The dwarf irises are blooming in my garden (always the first flowers up, by a considerable margin) and it’s well past time to take a look at what I read last month. February was particularly fruitful, I felt, in part because I’ve hit on a reading mode that really works for me: nonfiction books on paper, and fiction on my phone. I love the portability of ebooks and the ease of borrowing them — instantaneously! — from my local library. But for some reason that I haven’t bothered to parse, on-screen reading doesn’t seem as suitable for nonfiction texts, at least for me. Maybe it’s because I approach the text differently if I can hold it in my hands; maybe it’s just nice to differentiate long-form nonfiction from the constant stream of emails, blog posts, and articles I’m already reading on my laptop or phone screen. Whatever the reason, this method of separation seems to work.
Here’s what I read last month:
- A Single Thread (Tracy Chevalier)
- Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (Mary Roach)
- At the Edge of the Orchard (Tracy Chevalier)
- Several People are Typing (Calvin Kasulke)
- The Long Haul (Finn Murphy)
- Dear Mr Knightley (Katherine Reay)
- The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories (P. G. Wodehouse)
- Draft No. 4 (John McPhee)
- Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
- My Salinger Year (Joanna Rakoff)
- Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)
- So You Want to be a Wizard (Diane Duane)
- Deep Wizardry (Diane Duane)
- High Wizardry (Diane Duane)
- A Wizard Abroad (Diane Duane)
- The God of the Garden (Andrew Peterson)
Let’s do the fiction first.
I read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring a few times about a million years ago, back when everyone was reading it, but hadn’t at all kept up with her work after that. Both A Single Thread and At the Edge of the Orchard are historical novels: the former examines the lives of the “surplus women” of Britain’s post-WW1 demographic crisis; the latter, American expansion to the West in the early/mid-19th century. They’re both immersive and richly detailed; I enjoyed learning about cathedral embroidery (what we would probably call needlepoint now) and the British gardening craze for exotic American trees like California’s giant redwoods. At the Edge of the Orchard used a number of dialect variations to differentiate between point-of-view characters, which I found somewhat distracting the first time it shifted but worked well overall. I will note, however, that (as with Girl with a Pearl Earring), attempted and/or actualized rape was used as a plot point in both novels, which, at this point, just seems lazy.
From the historical we move to the extremely contemporary, with Calvin Kasulke’s delightful, absolutely bonkers Several People are Typing, an absurdist novella told entirely through workplace Slack conversations. It was blurbed as “where WFH meets WTF,” which strikes me as entirely accurate — and includes some literary Easter eggs if you’re paying attention (watch for how Kasulke uses excerpts from Yeat’s “The Second Coming”). I read this in a single evening when I had been feeling extremely blue about something — I don’t even remember what — and it was just the ticket. It’s bananas.
One of the advantages of keeping a reading log is that when you’ve read something previously, or think you have, you can actually go back and look for it. The first time I read Dear Mr Knightley was in the summer of 2014; I was massively pregnant with Anselm and house-sitting for one of our professors, on whose shelves I found a copy. That’s long enough to have forgotten everything about it except a general positive impression. Dear Mr Knightley is epistolary almost in its entirety, following former foster-kid Samantha Moore, who deals with her trauma by sublimating herself in 19th-century novels, particularly the Austen oeuvre. She is granted an anonymous scholarship to a prestigious graduate journalism program, on the condition that she writes letters to her benefactor, keeping “Mr Knightley” informed as to her progress. It’s a sweet narrative despite Sam’s inherent, um, annoyingness. As with many romances it’s necessary to consciously suspend some disbelief, but in the end Sam finds a forever-family as well as a love interest (the former is admittedly more satisfying), and all’s well that ends well.
Speaking of Austen — skipping Wodehouse for the moment — last month I finished both Pride and Prejudice (for like the 30th time, and as an audio version in this case) and Sense and Sensibility. Reading the latter was a very strange experience. I was sure I had read it at some point, perhaps as a teenager, but as I went on I realized I had no idea where the plot was going, except I could remember some things, or thought I remembered them — I think I must have seen the movie, or bits of it, and that combined with a general sense of what happens that I’ve just picked up here and there somehow convinced my brain that I had read this novel. Reader, I had not. And I probably won’t again because, whew, it could definitely stand to be chopped down by a good 50-80 pages… also I hated everyone but Elinor, who marries (imho) the wrong man at the end, anyway. I was profoundly disappointed that when Austen afflicted Maryanne with fever she did not take the obvious opportunity to kill her off, and really, the whole lot of them ought to go jump in a lake. Perhaps Sense and Sensibility would not have disappointed me so much had I not been reading it right at the time I was finishing up listening to Pride and Prejudice, which is such a sparkling delight; the comparison was not flattering. (It’s odd that they’re so different in quality, too, because they were published less than two years apart, and Austen seems to have been revising them both around the same time.)
The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories is a wonderful collection. Wodehouse is best known for the Jeeves and Wooster novels, but he wrote short stories as well, all of them with his trademark wit and humour. I especially enjoyed the two stories told from a dog’s perspective, although I cannot just now remember their titles.
Finally, wonderfully, engrossingly: the first four installments in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series of young adult fantasy novels. I just tore through these! In the first one, So You Want to Be a Wizard, young teenager Nita is drawn to a mysterious book of the same title on the shelves of her local library, and finds herself drawn into a world of magic, powered by the Speech that holds the universe(s) together, where wizards unite in the fight against entropy and its champion, the Lone Power. It’s terrific stuff, and though Duane’s books aren’t religious per se, and she draws from many different mythologies, there’s a lot of really interesting theological things going on in the underpinnings if you’re willing to look for them. The only real caveat is the series timeline, which is woefully complex and contradictory, due in part to the span of time over which they were published. In the second book, A Wizard of Mars, Nita’s younger sister Dairine gets a top-of-the-line home computer that is essentially a lightly-disguised Apple II; only a few books later, they all have cell phones and ipods (and Dairine, notoriously, has aged a few years backwards). If you’re willing to accept that the books are set in some sort of “eternal now” — rather like comic strips, I suppose — then it works, but once I noticed the discrepancies I found it them hard to overlook.
On to the non-fiction!
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law is another one of Mary Roach’s fascinating, one-word-titled (Bonk, Stiff, Spook, Gulp, Grunt), long-form explorations of unusual topics — in this case, the conflicts, legal and otherwise, between humanity and the animal kingdom. It’s absolutely typical Roach: engaging, funny, and full of weird facts I never knew I needed to know.
The Long Haul is Finn Murphy’s memoir, centred on his life as a long-haul trucker; more specifically, as a cross-country professional movers. We hired movers for our second-to-last uprooting (a ten+ hour drive and across an international border) and it was a very interesting experience; kind of weird to have other people doing so much with our stuff, and of course requiring a great deal of trust as they took off with it once all of the packing was finished. I found Murphy’s narrative fascinating; it’s always cool to get an insider’s-eye-view of an industry. People! Doing things! My friends, the world is infinitely fascinating.
Also on the memoir menu, I read Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, her account of a year spent working at a NYC literary agency of some prominence during the mid-1990s. Rakoff is older than I am, but not by so much that I didn’t resonate with many of her cultural touchstones. The book is revealing — of an agency struggling against modernization (her boss grudgingly allowed one computer to be purchased for the entire office, which had to be used in a public place), of the ways the ways that we bend ourselves to try and fit a mold we think we want or need, of Rakoff’s own coming of age. It was highly engrossing. (You can figure out which agency she worked for with an internet search or two; I wonder what they thought of it?)
John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 is partly a memoir, I suppose, although it’s really about writing and a life spent doing just that. McPhee writes long-form nonfiction — articles that come in at 40 or 50 thousand words — and I found his remarks about structure to be especially illuminating. The whole thing is just chok-full of tidbits, really, and obviously written by a master of his craft. This was a library copy but I plan to purchase my own.
Finally, I closed out the month with Andrew Peterson’s beautiful The God of the Garden. Peterson seems to do a bit of everything: he writes both fiction and nonfiction, he sings, he founded an artists’ community… The God of the Garden is a meandering memoir written over the lockdown year of 2020, about faith, gardening, creativity, place and rootedness, theology, and the wonder of trees. (I too often wonder at trees.) It was beautiful, and made me more eager than ever to get my hands in the dirt again this spring.