Reading from my shelf: May

Books started: 14

Books finished: 9

Books abandoned: 4

Books kept on the shelf: 3

It’s been a long, sunny month, filled with lazy afternoons in the garden and leisurely evening strolls by the river in a balmy heat that has reminded me of my days in New York. Lockdown has become less strange and more just life, now; I seem to have somewhere inside myself accepted that the limits of my world have been drawn much smaller, and no longer rail against their restriction. I make the most of what I can do, and try not to pine for the things I can’t, though of course I have days when I long to escape for a weekend by the sea, to spend an afternoon pottering through a gallery followed by a slab of cake and a proper cup of coffee, or to enjoy the thrill of a night at the theatre with friends and wine and gossip. One day, these things will be possible again; in the meantime, I am experiencing as much of the world as I can through books.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag this month, and my bookshelves are grateful for the fact that not many of the books I started made it back onto the shelf. Unless I plan on re-reading it, using it for teaching, or lending it out to others, I’m not keeping it, and only three books this month met those criteria. There was an unintentional Scottish theme to much of my reading; I started the month with O. Douglas’ A Proper Place, my first of her books, which is set in the Borders and East Coast of Scotland, and tells the story of a once-grand family forced to sell up their estate and move to a small house in a fishing village, and of the nouveau-riche Glaswegian family who take their place. I love Scotland, and being able to go there in my imagination, as I lapped up the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and coastline, was such a treat. I also very much enjoyed the gentle, undemanding and entirely predictable storyline, with its almost-perfectly- tied up, ever-so-slightly melodramatic ending that left a very satisfying taste in the mouth. It’s very much a light, sweet, life-affirming Sunday afternoon read; perfect for when your attention span is limited. The Scottish theme continued with Compton Mackenzie’s The Monarch of the Glen, which was a birthday present, and so I wanted to read it straight away to let the giver know what I thought of it. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and I wasn’t disappointed. The hilarious tale of a reactionary Laird fighting against the cruelly lampooned National Hiking Union, while simultaneously trying to marry his son off to an American heiress who’s fallen in love with a Scottish Nationalist illegally camping on his land, The Monarch of the Glen is a wonderful, witty, and very clever paean to the culture and traditions of the Highlands. Mackenzie was Scottish himself, and so his mockery is not afraid to slice very close to the bone, and his characterisation is superb. I was in fits of laughter throughout – this one is definitely staying on the shelf! Sadly, Jane and Mary Findlater’s Crossriggs, much lauded on the back of my Virago copy as being an unjustly neglected Austen-esque tour de force, was not a success. Set in the small town of Crossriggs, just outside of Edinburgh, in the late nineteenth century, it starts excellently, but it soon becomes apparent that the feisty and independent main character, Alex, is going to continue to make totally martyr-ish decisions that condemn herself to a life of unhappiness right up until the end, and all of the predictable things that happen in nineteenth century novels – terribly timed accidental deaths, men and women who don’t tell each other how they feel but pine away in misery for years, etc. – happen, just exactly when you might expect them to. It’s all so very predictable, and I gave up at the half way point, annoyed at everyone. Though apparently Virginia Woolf loved it, so, you can take from that what you will.

Rather topically, I borrowed Pale Rider by Laura Spinney from the library; an account of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, it’s a fascinating, compelling read, and rather frightening in how similar the mistakes that were made then were made again in our own times. By the time the world realised what was happening, the horse had already bolted, and the consequences were horrific for a world just emerging from the deadliest conflict yet known to mankind. Spinney goes through all the evidence available to explain where it came from (we still don’t know), how and why it spread so easily, its legacy, and what lessons we can learn for our own world today. I genuinely couldn’t put it down; if you can bear to read about a pandemic at the moment, then I really recommend this.

Lastly, my great disappointment of the month was discovering that not all of Susan Glaspell’s output is, for me, anyway, still readable. Having adored her two novels republished by Persephone Books, Fidelity and Brook Evans, I was looking forward to finally getting to the stash of other books I’ve found of hers during various trips to second hand bookshops in the US. However, her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, is sentimental, mushy claptrap, which I abandoned after 50 pages, and a later novel, Prodigal Giver (also known as Judd Rankin’s Daughter) was utterly uncompelling and very difficult to get into; I gave up after 100 pages. Thankfully, a volume of her short stories, Lifted Masks, contained some brilliant, thought-provoking and moving stories, so there was some solace, at least. I’d love to know of any novels of hers readers can recommend, so that I know what to look out for when book shops open again!

9 comments

  1. I’ll echo your wish for a quiet afternoon with coffee, cake and of course a good book. I can do that at home of course but somehow going to a coffee shop makes it more special. I see you are reading Mantel – so am I. Very very slowly – its not a book I feel I can rush. She gave a tremendous talk at the Hay festival online – still available for a few days if you want to listen

  2. I’d love to have that very similar quiet afternoon out somewhere with a book and a drink, but will have to wait a bit longer. Just wanted to add that I’ve also read some of Glaspell’s work, but this was a 1916 play called “Trifles”. Haven’t read her fiction yet though…

  3. That’s sad to hear about the Susan Glaspells because I loved the Persephone editions. I wonder if you’d like her plays? There was an excellent Glaspell series at the Orange Tree a few years back and people seemed to have flocked from far and wide to see them. A Jury of Her Peers was the best, as far as I recall.

  4. Oh dear, it’s SO disappointing when a beloved author’s books don’t work for me. It’s great to hear from you, friend, and I’m glad you’re doing well still. It’s been a rough week on my end but I’m hoping this one will be better, despite the eight hours (!!) of meetings I have ahead of me.

  5. I also read Crossriggs recently and I actually really liked it, but I am a sucker for a Victorian novel. I did find Alex really frustrating, but I did like the plot twist of the ending. And just yesterday I was really longing for a good long browse in a used bookstore, though I still have far too many on the TBR shelves. Some of the shops will start opening soon on a limited basis, and it’s so tempting but I’ll probably stay away for awhile longer.

  6. I didn’t realise Monarch of the Glen was originally a novel. Being Scottish, I should have known that. I remember the tv series years ago though, as it was a lot of fun, so I might try and get hold of the book sometime. I’m glad you are keeping safe and are still coping with Lockdown despite its many drawbacks.

  7. Thank goodness we have books right now to broaden our horizons. I’m starting to go a little stir crazy here but books are definitely helping. I’m glad you enjoyed your first encounter with O. Douglas. I’ve just been reading an excellent biography of her brother, John Buchan, which is full of details on how they grew up and it has me longing to return to her books, which are heavily autobiographical. One of my favourite tidbits was that John, once he was established in London, set up a bank account for his sister and deposited money into it so she would have some independence (while living at home with her parents in Scotland) to travel and do the things she wanted. It’s such a kind gesture and it made a world of difference to her until she established herself as a popular author.

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