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, 2020…
Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell – Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel sets the stage for her later works – especially North and South – and fixes on one of her favorite themes: the conflict between labor and capital, between the working classes and their employers. It’s a revolutionary novel in that its heroine, Mary Barton, is a working-class girl; the novels of the time did not lend much credence to the romances, loves, pain, or joy of laborers and their families. It’s also vintage Gaskell: a whole mess of people bite it, and if only everyone would just sit down and have tea together, labor and capital could solve all of their problems, I mean, really. Heh… I really did enjoy this; it was slow-moving for the first half or so, but really picked up speed about midway through the novel, when it turned into a courtroom drama. Full review (for the Classics Club) to come, so I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for that.
The Fixed Stars: A Memoir, by Molly Wizenberg – I had such mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, Molly’s writing is as elegant as ever and I flew through the book. But on the other hand, this felt too personal, to the point that reading it felt voyeuristic. I know that she put these words out in the world, and that she wanted people to buy her book and read it, and that she got royalties (or at least credit toward her advance) from my purchase of the kindle version, but – still, actually reading about the demise of her marriage, and her sexual awakening as a queer woman, a part of my brain kept nagging me, “This is private. This is not for you.” (A separate part of my brain knows it’s important that queer stories are out in the world, and also that no one forced Molly to write and publish this particular book, and she no doubt wanted people to purchase and read it.) Molly acknowledges that memoir is something of an act of violence to the people in the memoirist’s life, but it also struck me as topsy-turvy that the only “main character” who got to keep some privacy was “Nora,” Molly’s problematic first girlfriend, who gets the coverage of a pseudonym while Molly, Brandon, Ash, and June are all out there with their real names. (I know it wouldn’t be possible to give Brandon and June pseudonyms; anyone who has read Molly’s other writing already knows about them.) Molly is clearly holding back a lot of details about her relationship with Ash (understandably, and I think rightfully); Brandon doesn’t always come off very well, but he is an adult who agreed to and supported the project. But I do wonder how her daughter will feel in ten years, having the demise of her parents’ marriage and these very personal details in print for all of her classmates to read. Having a blog myself, I have given a lot of thought to how I portray my children; they are a part of my life and so they’re around this space, but I intentionally don’t use their real names or show recent photos of their faces, and I don’t share details (either about them or about myself) that might cause them pain or embarrassment later. Everyone is different, obviously – what I’m comfortable with isn’t the “right” way or what everyone has to do, and I get that. I’m not going to clutch my pearls and shout “Think of the children!” – and Molly is clearly a very thoughtful person, who I’m sure considered the ramifications to June of having her parents’ personal tumult in print for all to read, and balanced them against her need to write the story. Still, permission notwithstanding – I felt a bit like I was pressing my nose against a window, looking in at a family’s pain that didn’t concern me, and I just felt vaguely wrong and weird about that.
Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty – It had been a long time – years – since the last time I re-read Delta Wedding, which was one of my favorite books in high school. I was definitely worried that it wasn’t going to hold up with my “2020 vision” – would I love it as much as I remembered, or would it be full of cringeworthy moments and dated words about characters of color? Being a 1923 book, it was of its time, certainly – but race is not the focal point of the story (class is – something I realized for the first time on this read-through) and while Welty’s characters behave like a white Southern landowning family in the 1920s, it could be much worse. The descriptions of nature and the telescopic focus on a few family members makes this book what it is – a series of gorgeous vignettes, still a wonderful read years after I first picked it up.
The Silver Branch (The Dolphin Ring Cycle #2), by Rosemary Sutcliff – Having loved The Eagle of the Ninth, I had high expectations for the second novel in Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic series about Roman – and later Saxon and Norman – Britain, and they were met and exceeded. The events of The Silver Branch take place about 200 years after The Eagle of the Ninth and focus on two young Romans – Flavius, a Centurion (and descendant of Marcus Flavius Aquila) and his cousin Justin, a Cohort Surgeon. When the young men uncover a plot to overthrow the Emperor of Britain, they quickly find themselves neck-deep in intrigue and adventure. Yay, plotting! Yay, intrigue! Yay, battles! Yay, danger!
Slightly Foxed No. 66: Underwater Heaven, ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – Figured I’d better get around to the current issue of Slightly Foxed before the autumn issue comes out! I always enjoy this journal and often come away with a long TBR after reading writers on their favorite books and authors. I didn’t feel a great compulsion to pick up any of the books that were profiled in the summer issue, this time, but it occurred to me that the journal is almost stronger when that’s the case – because if I’m not interested in the underlying book but still find the essays in the journal to be wonderful reads, worth enjoying for their own sake, the journal must be impressive indeed.
And that’s a wrap on August. It looks like a light month of reading, but what you don’t see is that I spent considerable time with two Victorian doorstoppers last month. When I started the month, I was partway into Mary Barton, and that took up a good two weeks to finish. (So good, though!) Then I cruised through a few shorter books before picking up The Pickwick Papers. As of the publishing of this post, I am nearly done with it, so it will appear on September’s (hopefully longer) book list. But it ate up a lot of reading time in August and into September. Everything I read in August was well-written and engaging, but there were definite highlights. The Silver Branch was, I think, my favorite book of the month, and I am so stoked that Slightly Foxed is continuing to publish the series. Mary Barton was wonderful, too, and I don’t even want to think about the fact that I have only two unread Elizabeth Gaskell novels left.
How was your August in books?