Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for August, 2016…
Wild Strawberries (Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire #2), by Angela Thirkell – I really enjoyed this follow-up to High Rising, the first in the series of cozy novels set in Angela Thirkell’s version of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire (confused yet?). Wild Strawberries focuses on the Leslie family, who live in luxury at the stately Rushwater House. Lady Emily is the vague, kindly matriarch, presiding over a family that includes her adult children John, Agnes and David. John has a deep tragedy in his past; Agnes is preoccupied with her children; and David is the handsome, rakish playboy of the family. When Agnes’ impoverished niece, Mary, comes for a visit, trouble brews as Mary falls for the flirtatious David – while Lady Emily and Agnes scheme a match between Mary and John. This being Angela Thirkell, there’s no question of the right match being made in the end – but who that will be, and how it comes about, is the joy of the story. So as I said, I really enjoyed this – with one caveat. As I mentioned last month with High Rising, there’s some completely unnecessary stereotypical language that simply does not stand the test of time. It’s really a shame and kind of puts a damper on what would otherwise be my raging love for Angela Thirkell. I don’t think it’s worth throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and based on the Thirkell resurgence that seems to be going on, others feel the same. But this would have been a perfect book had it not been for one offensive scene, and that bums me out quite a lot.
August Folly (Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire #4), by Angela Thirkell – I skipped the third, The Demon in the House, because Virago didn’t publish it for some reason. But all of these Barsetshire books stand alone, so I don’t think I missed any necessary information. August Folly tells the story of Richard and Margaret Tebben, home on holidays to their parents’ modest dwelling in the village of Worsted, just in time to be part of the annual summer play. Richard falls head over heels in puppy love with the sister of the squire’s wife (who is much older, married and has nine children – the eldest of whom are older than Richard) and Margaret strikes up a romance of her own. There are references to Jane Austen, the Greek playwrights, and other literary lights, a hilarious scene involving a bull and heroics that may or may not be heroic, and many appearances by a donkey named Modestine or Neddy. So, I loved the literary references and this was a fun read (and only one problematic word – we’re getting better). My only complaints were: (1) the bulk of the action focused on Richard, who was beyond annoying); and (2) I could.not.read.this without getting the Fountains of Wayne song “Stacy’s Mom” in my head every time Richard was “onstage” with Mrs. Dean and/or her daughter Helen, which was most of the time. Stacy’s Mom has got it goin’ on / She’s all I want and I’ve waited so long / Stacy can’t you see, you’re just not the girl for me / I know it might be wrong, but I’m in love with Stacy’s Mom.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts I and II, by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and Some Other Guy Whose Name I Forget – Meh. Sigh. What to say about this? I liked it, I guess, because I love Harry Potter and I love J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world and I am always happy to go back there. But this was just weird. The story left me a little flat, and it didn’t seem to really be Rowling’s work, which makes sense, because it isn’t. It’s fan-fiction by Jack Thorne and That Other Guy, and J.K. Rowling sort of approved it and maybe helped a little? Anyway, I didn’t love the story, and I agreed with some of the media reviewers who pointed out feminism issues with Hermoine’s character during a part of the story line (which I won’t spoil, for those of you who haven’t gotten to it yet) and the whole thing just seemed strange to me. Maybe I’ll have a whole blog post in me at some point after I let it settle a bit more. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but… meh.
Summer Half (Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire #5) – Okay, this one was my favorite! Edged out Wild Strawberries based on lack of objectionable language – wahoo! Angie, I knew you could do it! Summer Half tells the story of Colin Keith, a well-to-do younger son who is marked for law practice but decides to become a schoolmaster instead, to save his father having to support him while he “reads law.” (Colin’s father doesn’t need the income savings.) Colin finds himself a job as a junior classics master in a boys’ boarding school, despite being sort of terrified of boys, where he immediately makes an enemy of one of the other teachers (who is jealous that his airhead fiancée is flirting with Colin – completely unencouraged by Colin). Everyone agrees that this should really just be a temporary thing, Colin included, and boarding school hijinks ensue in a careless atmosphere in which all relevant participants are aware that Colin is neither keeping, nor trying to keep, this job for longer than a term. Tony Morland (of High Rising fame) is a major character, and much improved – I quite enjoyed him – and Colin’s younger sister Lydia’s eccentricities keep everyone on their toes. There are picnics, teas, cricket, motoring, and basically everything you would expect from Thirkell. It’s pure fun from the first page to the last.
Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee – I’ve had Laurie Lee’s memoir of his Cotswold boyhood on my to-read list for ages, and I put it on my summer list as well. I finally got around to reading it, and as expected it was absolutely beautiful. Lee’s vivid descriptions of the natural world, his fond remembrance of his sisters, his spirited invocation of the village school, of caroling shenanigans at Christmas and games of “fox and hounds” spanning the reach of the entire county on hot summer nights… I fell deep and dreamily into this stunning book and several times found myself surprised to be at my metro stop when I had just been in an English village circa 1915. Magic, pure magic.
The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest That Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, by Kathryn Aalto – Post edited because I somehow left this out in the original version – oops! I now have a new career goal: literary naturalist. That’s basically what Kathryn Aalto does, and better yet, she does it in England! In The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, Aalto takes readers on a deep dive into Christopher Robin’s world, starting with extensive histories of the lives of both A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, and how their boyhood wanderings inspired Milne’s descriptive writing about the Hundred Acre Wood, and Shepard’s iconic illustrations. From there, Aalto guides the reader into the Wood itself, with a gorgeous depiction of Ashdown Forest, the Milnes’ estate there, and the particular quirks of the landscape that might have inspired specific spots in the Pooh books. We visit, for instance, Eeyore’s Gloomy Spot, the Sandy Pit Where Roo Plays, the North Pole, and the Enchanted Place, among others, and speculate on where Pooh and Piglet may have set their Heffalump Trap. After visiting all the important spots, Aalto concludes with a discussion of the flora and fauna of the Hundred Acre Wood. It was such a fun read (how did I forget to blog it?) and I am now obviously stalking kayak.com for flights to Heathrow so I can visit Ashdown Forest for myself (which has actually been on my bucket list for ages).
The Warden (Chronicles of Barsetshire #1), by Anthony Trollope – After all that Angela Thirkell, I was itching for a visit to the original Barsetshire – that famous sun-dappled land of Trollope’s creation. Thirkell was famously a Trollope fangirl who decided to set her novels in the imaginary county made famous in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. I’d never read anything by Trollope, but he’d been on my list for awhile, and when I found absolutely gorgeous hardcover editions of his Barsetshire novels on amazon.co.uk (yes, I really ordered them from England because the editions I liked weren’t available in the Colonies) I took it as a sign. The Warden tells the story of the Rev. Mr. Septimus Harding, warden of a hospital (a.k.a. almshouse) from which he takes an income of 800 pounds per year, while the twelve elderly bedesmen who reside in the hospital receive much less. The bedesmen – egged on by rich local do-gooder John Bold – decide that they should really be getting a lot more money from the charity, and they commence a lawsuit. Mr. Harding, initially concerned with his responsibilities to the hospital, soon becomes racked with doubt as to the question of whether his income really is fair and legitimate, and the novel centers on his inward struggle to find out and do the right thing. It’s the slimmest of Trollope’s Barset novels by far, but every word is elegant and perfect. I loved, loved, LOVED my first foray into Trollope’s world, and I will be returning there just as soon as I can. (I have Barchester Towers, the second in Trollope’s Barset series, on my nightstand now, for when I have ticked off one of my other current reads.) My only complaint about The Warden is that it was way too short – but since the rest of the Barsetshire novels are about three times the length, I expect I will be well satisfied with them.
For a month that included moving, a vacation, and starting a new job, I feel really good about six books this month – especially when they include two classics as gorgeous as Cider with Rosie and The Warden. The classics were definitely the highlights of my month, and I finished on a particularly high note with my first Trollope. (First but DEFINITELY not last!) As for the other books I read, I enjoyed all of them to varying degrees. It was fun to visit with my Potter pals again, but the story really was quite blah and I preferred my own versions of the characters’ future lives that I cooked up after the end of the seventh book. The rest of the month I was diving deep into Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels and loving my time spent in that dreamy place. Looking ahead to September, I anticipate more time spent in Barsetshire – both Trollope’s and Thirkell’s versions – because I’m officially obsessed with that fictional county and won’t rest until I know all its nooks and crannies.
What’s the best thing you read in August?