July was a challenging month for reading. Not the least because the languorous summer days hold so many other temptations. It was also because I had decided to read that brick, that tome, that substitute-for-a-doorstop that is entitled Vanity Fair. And no, I am not talking Condé Nast, I am talking Thackeray. It was a beast, but I got through it. Ever. So. Slowly.
It was a Penguin that saved me. I read most of my books via Kindle App or Audible, but my heart beats wildly for Penguin clothbound classics and I swear it was only the sweet powder-blue cover and satin ribbon bookmark that persuaded me to stay with the saga of the invidious (but unforgettable!) Becky Sharp. Oh Penguin, how I love you…that block on the far right is Thackeray’s opus, also known as the summer of my discontent:
Here are my reads for July and August:
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. Audiobook, narrated by Anna Massey. 416 pages, published 1938. I read this eons ago, but as it kept popping up on “the best of” lists, I decided to give it another go, this time via Audible. I think its meticulous construction may be what has endeared this novel to the heart of so many readers over the decades. Entertaining if not edifying. Recommended.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Hardcover. 809 pages, published 1848. I made a note at page 600, saying “I am finally starting to care about what happens to these people.” So it was a long haul. The irredeemable Becky Sharp is a timeless character and Thackeray’s social satire equally so, but so arcane are the customs and quirks and manners of early nineteenth century England that it required more study than I was willing to give it. Would have thrown it across the room if it wasn’t so heavy and might have injured a slumbering cat. Still, recommended. What can I say – it’s a classic.
The Night Manager by John LeCarre. Audiobook, narrated by David Case. Published 1993. There was so much buzz about my bae Hugh Laurie’s turn as Richard Roper, “the worst man in the world” that I wanted to read the book before I indulged myself in the miniseries. Le Carre is great at riddles wrapped in enigmas and this lifts his work above others in the spy fiction genre. Recommended.
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Kindle. 240 pages, published 2015. This is a puff piece paean to the crusty Supreme Court Justice. A glib but interesting read. It might surprise you to learn that she and Antonin Scalia were dear friends and opera buddies. The Kindle version does not include the clever graphics of the hardcover version.
The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel by Andrea Barrett. Kindle. 400 pages, published 1999. I have no idea where I came across this tale of a failed polar expedition. It is carefully researched and shadows the actual voyage of Sir John Franklin’s quest in 1845 to find a northwest passage. Not a fast read, but an engrossing one. The Narwhal sails from mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia to Greenland, where the ship and its crew are locked in for a winter by ice and immediate survival depends on eating larvae from caribou skins. The genius of the author is her uncanny ability to make the reader a fellow traveler. I read this in July but felt the polar chill of every page. Concurrent with the adventure is the telling of the expedition leader’s megalomaniacal quest for fame and fortune and the ways in which it plays havoc with the lives of those around him long after the survivors return from their journey. Recommended.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Kindle. 336 pages, published 1927. The brilliant Willa Cather wrote this novel set in her beloved Southwest, based loosely on the life of missionary Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who traveled in 1850 to establish a Roman Catholic diocese in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is not my favorite of Cather’s exquisite novels, but it does include one of my favorite quotes: “Where there is great love there are always miracles”. As always, Cather explores the deep connection of the people to the land. In her prose, Shiprock and the Sandra mountains take on the sanctity of cathedrals. Highly recommended.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Audiobook, read by Marisol Ramirez and Thom Rivera. 496 pages, published 1982. I wanted to love this book. I didn’t. Purportedly autobiographical, it is the generational story, infused with magic realism, of a family caught up in the cultural and political upheavals of an unnamed country that is almost certainly Allende’s native Chile. Critically acclaimed by pretty much everyone who can read, so who am I not to recommend it?
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Kindle. 354 pages, published 1993. This was a re-read and although I was slightly less enchanted with it the second time around, Proulx’s characterization of the downtrodden Quoyle (so brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey in the film) and the bleak landscape of Newfoundland are ample reasons why this book was so well-deserving of the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is a story of brokenness that rings so true that the reader is astonished to find that hope also resides within. Highly recommended.
The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan. Advance PDF copy. 264 pages, published 2016. I follow @andrewklavan on Twitter and signed up to receive an advance copy of this courageous memoir, which I reviewed but which I think I am going to read again because I find myself thinking about this book so often. The title pretty much says it all, but Klavan’s generosity in sharing personal experiences as well as thoughts about faith crafts a relatable read . He is a gifted writer and a grounded, pragmatic thinker, which makes his conversion of faith all the more compelling. Recommended.
Just Kids by Patti Smith. Audiobook, narrated by the author. 320 pages, published 2010. Listening to Patti Smith narrate her National Book Award-winning memoir was a, if not the, highlight of my summer. The fact that I listened to much of it while on foot in New York City was a joyous bonus. Smith’s unflinching account of life and art in late ’60’s, early 70’s Manhattan is a loving remembrance of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, told against the backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel. Everything you expect is there – Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, drugs, sex and rock and roll, but there’s more: Rimbaud, Genet and Smith’s direct but gently luminous style. Highly, highly recommended.
And just like that, summer came to an end. Those long summer days wound down and fall began to stingily steal light from the sky. All the better for reading, I suppose. I bid a reluctant farewell to Patti Smith but I cannot tell a lie – it was a relief to heft Becky Sharp and Thackeray back onto its shelf! You’re free to borrow it – indefinitely – if you’d like.
Onward to fall…