Reading from my shelves: July

Books started: 12

Books finished: 11

Books abandoned: 1

Books kept on the shelf: 8

 

The summer holidays are here and as I write, I’m sitting in a cabin perched above a loch in the far north west of Scotland.  There are more birds here than people (and definitely more midges!) and the world and its troubles seems very distant. Being amidst such a dramatic and timeless landscape helps to keep everything in a healthy perspective, and it is so refreshing to my spirit to at last have a proper change of scene, in a part of the world I’ve not explored before. Whilst I was at home in London throughout July, I struggled in a way I hadn’t really experienced throughout the lockdown period. Without the routine of my daily lessons and with limited opportunities to do much other than mooch around the now far too familiar streets of a miserably empty central London, I started to feel really quite trapped, and a despondency descended as each day dawned with so little to offer in terms of excitement or adventure. Reading helped, but it didn’t lift my mood entirely, and July, which I usually look forward to as the start of a lovely rest from the stress of summer term at school, filled with plenty of travel plans and reunions with far-off friends, became a mire of misery.  I indulged myself in this dark frame of mind by repeatedly thinking back to this time last year, when I was living it up in Washington D.C and New York with my much-loved and much-missed US friends, and kept googling pictures of Malawi, where I should have been right now, had coronavirus not arrived, teaching in a charity school for the summer. Not knowing when I can do anything again, or when things will change – the lack of control or agency I have over anything – has been, I think, the root of my struggles. So, spending some time amidst the still waters and magnificent mountainous horizons of Scotland is providing some much needed balm to my troubled soul, as I look up, around and beyond myself. I am lucky in so many ways, I know, with a secure job, income and home, and family and friends who have all, thankfully, so far remained well. I know I really don’t have anything to complain about. I’m hoping that a week of looking at so much natural beauty will sort me out, and have me back to my usual cheerful self!

In order to distract myself from the world around me, I read absolutely loads in July, and had a very successful run of excellent books that I thoroughly enjoyed, and in some cases, found wonderfully inspiring. I also got to some books I’ve been meaning to read for ages, and knew I probably wouldn’t like, but felt the need to get under my belt anyway. I read Henry James’ The Europeans and Washington Square; I’ve never liked James but wondered if I had just read him when I was too young to appreciate him. Lots of people advised these two shorter novels (or perhaps novellas?) as the best entry point, and I wondered whether I might find brilliance within, but sadly, I did not. I found them both incredibly dull, with very forgettable characters doing largely pointless things. Why is Henry James considered a literary great? I certainly can’t think of even one reason why. Both of those books went out onto my ‘please take: free books!’ box that I keep on my front step  – who doesn’t love free stuff? – and they were promptly picked up by someone who either enjoys James or is in for a disappointment. Let’s hope it’s the former. Another book I thought I probably wouldn’t like was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; I’ve seen the film so I knew the ‘twist’, and wondered whether, without that, I’d still find it a compelling read. I have to say that I didn’t. I enjoyed the writing and I was drawn into the story, but it lacked any real emotional gravitas for me and I finished it thinking that it was really rather forgettable, if well executed. It’s a shame, as The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourite books. This also went into the free box, and is now being enjoyed by someone else!

So what did I enjoy? Well, much to my surprise, I couldn’t put Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other down; I had thought it would be a bit too experimental to be my cup of tea, but I absolutely loved the almost free verse writing style and the lively, vibrant voices of each of the every different characters. Evaristo’s exploration of loosely connected groups of women’s lives over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is so thought provoking, challenging and eye-opening, and gave me a glimpse into experiences and realities of women from different cultural and racial backgrounds to me that has been a real, and much needed, education. I particularly loved how Evaristo pairs characters, so that you can see one characters’ perspective of an event, and then how that event was perceived by the other person in the encounter, and she shows through this how easily we can miscommunicate and misunderstand one another, missing out on so much potential for connection and community as a result. I’m now very keen to read more of Evaristo’s writing; she was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize – more so than the terrible The Testaments – and I’m only sorry I hadn’t heard of her before. If you’ve been on the fence about trying Girl, Woman, Other, I’d really recommend that you give it a go.

Non-fiction wise, I loved Rutger Bregnan’s newly published Humankind: A Hopeful History of Humanity, which debunks the myths about the selfishness of humanity through looking at a range of experiments and real-life scenarios to show how we are inherently good. It is quite broad in scope and Bregnan is certainly more of a philosopher than a historian or social scientist, so there is a fair amount of cherry-picking and generalisation, but I found it a lovely, uplifting and inspiring read nonetheless, with plenty of fascinating and thought-provoking nuggets and a wonderful positivity. If we all spent less time moaning on social media and more time volunteering and getting involved in making our communities better places, then the world would be a much better place, and I can’t agree more with this outlook. Armchair activism is one of my greatest bugbears – ‘liking’ something doesn’t mean you’re actually doing anything about it – and my favourite book of the month evidences this perfectly in the life of the remarkable Gloria Steinem, whose autobiography, My Life on the Road, is just brilliant. Famous for her feminist activism, this book is not a traditional autobiography, but more a collection of thematic thoughts and reflections on her life, what drives her and what experiences have changed her and formed her thinking. She refers to herself as an ‘organiser’, and I loved her humility, her wisdom, and willingness to be challenged and changed by her experiences. She has spent most of her life travelling around America, advocating for equality and human rights causes, and her tales of who she has met on her travels, the friendships she has made, and the things she has learned on the way, are just amazing. I loved reading about her experiences in the 1960s and 70s, in the midst of the fight for the ERA in the US, and when she founded Ms magazine; I’ve just watched the HBO series Mrs America (which Steinem is not happy about for many reasons, though it is a very good series, I thought!) and it was so interesting to actually read about what really happened from Steinem’s perspective, and how she got involved and how the experience changed her. She comes across as such a positive, kind, passionate person, with the true journalistic spirit of being genuinely interested in other people, and a heart full of compassion and openness. I am in absolute awe that in her eighties, she is still on the road, still speaking out against injustice, and still inspiring women all over the world to stand up against discrimination. She is an amazing woman, and her words on life should be required reading. I know I’ll come back to this again and again.

7 comments

  1. I found both of the James novellas mentioned as forgettable as you did. On the other hand, I do like many of his short stories. Since you are an admirer of Remains of the Day, I think you might like the James short (relatively!) story “Brooksmith”. If you are in the mood to give James one more chance.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’ll be giving the Girl, Woman, Other book a shot. I can relate to the mood regarding COVID since I was supposed to be traveling this month as well. It’s hard not to feel confined despite being relatively lucky. Still, we have our books…

  3. I can’t believe Steinem is in her 80s. Having been in University in the late 60s/early 70s in the state of Michigan where I grew up, she was everywhere in the media and put up with so much from people. One tough woman. I have Girl, Woman … on my shelf unread. I do need to pick it up. I was disappointed Evaristo had to share the Booker with Atwood who has won it before. Evaristo was the first ethnic woman to win and should have had all the glory of it and not been in Atwood’s shadow. Enjoy your time in Scotland. It sounds beautiful. I’m fortunate being in Tasmania as being an island with the drawbridge up over the moat to Victoria as the premiere mentions. Wwe don’t have any Covid cases here now for about 7 weeks or so and most things are open. Who knows how long that will last though. All the best.

  4. Eleven books is quite an accomplishment given how hard it’s been for some of us to focus on anything right now.
    Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy “Washington Square.” It’s one of his works I actually like. Personally, I think Edith Wharton is a much stronger writer and I’m not sure why indeed he is considered to be the great one.
    I’ll be looking for Evaristo’s latest now! I’ve read her “Blonde Roots” a long time ago. It had an interesting premise but didn’t leave much impression on me.

  5. I’m glad you’ve managed a change of scene and hope that helps. Enjoy the rest of your time up there!

    I completely share your feeling towards Henry James. I tried him when I was young (and was deeply committed to reading classics, whether I liked them or not) and have tried him several times since, never with any luck. I’ve been dipping in and out of Humankind and thoroughly enjoying it. I get slightly frustrated by the cherry-picking (such a good description!) but on the whole who wouldn’t enjoy hearing hopeful stories right now?

  6. Thank you for your blog, which gives me great pleasure, especially this year. I live in Cambridge MA and usually my college roommate, who live in Arizona, and I spend three weeks every spring at the Nell Gwynn House on Sloane Avenue, going to theater, visiting friends, scouring the second hand book stores, etc. We are so sad to miss it this year, so I am really savoring anything that gives me the feel of being there. I also want to thank you for writing about Elizabeth Jane Howard, which got me started on the Cazalet Chronicles. How did she survive that many years with Kingsley??!! Stay well!

  7. An additional comment: I “attended” an interview with Gloria Steinem a couple weeks ago, sponsored by Harvard Book Store. She ws just delightful” warm, funny, wise, and totally unpompous. Her book conveyed all of that as well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s