summer reading

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the States, which means that summer has officially begun. It’s not Memorial Day here, but it is 106 degrees in the shade, which I think has to count as “summer,” don’t you? And while it’s too hot for most people to read on the beach here, it’s the perfect weather to pull up your favorite bench in the mall and relax with a good book.  The rest of you, tuck a book in your bag, or in your ipad or your kindle or your phone or just download the damn thing directly into your brain, and enjoy.

Bring Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel.  When my friend Karen told me that there was a sequel to Wolf Hall, I did the Elizabethan version of the happy dance (sort of a stately quadrille). Wolf Hall may be one of the best novels I’ve ever read: I mean, Mantel was able to take a story we all know really well – Henry VIII’s desire to divest himself of wife number one in order to marry wife number two. We all know the story and yet as I read, I found myself wondering what’s going to happen?

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry has tired of Anne and her scheming (not to mention her lack of a male heir) and it falls to Cromwell, again, to fulfill his master’s wishes: Henry wants his marriage to Anne annulled so he can marry the demure Jane Seymour.  Cromwell is acutely aware of his position at court: as a commoner whose power far outstrips those who by birth far outrank him, he is surrounded by people whose smiles mask a desire to see him fall from grace.  The scheming and conniving in Henry’s court make modern-day politics look ham-fisted and lumpen by comparison, but the chilling ease with which Cromwell engineers the downfall not only of Queen Anne but also the courtiers who have insulted him would teach Machiavelli (whose book Cromwell mentions, early in the novel) a thing or two.

Some people are put off by “historical fiction,” but these novels remind us that history is made of people’s lives, of their desires and thwarted hopes. The best historical fiction breathes life into the present – and Mantel’s books are absolutely the best of the best.

The Art of Fielding.  A friend of ours wrote a great review of this novel when it came out last year but I resisted reading the book until now because – well, because I hate books about baseball. All that lyrical language about the national game, and bucolic green fields, and national pastime and blah blah blah. Phtooey. It’s just a game, dammit. No metaphor, no symbolism, just a game played by men who are (mostly) overpaid in stadiums that give little or nothing back to their communities.

But. Art of Fielding is not about baseball. Or rather, some of the characters in this novel play baseball. Others are academics, others are fleeing failed marriages, others are falling in love, and others are reading Moby Dick. This book captures the landscape of the Midwest, the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small college with “aspirations,” our human need for connection, understanding, forgiveness. It’s really quite brilliant – and truth be told, even the baseball bits weren’t that bad.

What was bad is The Expats, a thriller with a great title.  I love thrillers and I’m currently an expat, so this book should be right up my alley but instead it’s wasted bandwidth on my ipad.  I’m not the world’s most logical thinker, but even I was able to poke a finger in the gaping holes in this novel’s plot – holes that are matched by the curious blind-spots in each of the central characters. A veteran spy says “sure use my computer” to a total stranger?  Another veteran spy manages to overlook a clue so big it practically screamed CLUE?  hmm… There are great snippets here and there about the oddities of expat life, but heck, for that you could just read my blog and save yourself the price of downloading the novel.  If you want a good thriller, find yourself some Lee Childs, or Jo Nesbo, or even early Daniel Silva.

To make things easier for you, you can click right over there in the Amazon box to order your copies of these books. Next in the queue? I Am Forbidden, a novel set in a little-known sect of Hasidim; Nick Kristof’s book Half the Sky; another novel set in Cromwell’s time – this one a thriller, which I think is going to pale in comparison to the real thrills happening during this era; and Discovery of Witches, which a friend told me is sort of like Shades of Gray, “but smart and well-written.” In which case it’s got almost nothing to do with Shades of Gray other than sex, I guess.

What’s in your book bag this summer?


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10 Responses to summer reading

  1. Ellyn L. May 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    As usual, I loved hearing your commentary on books, especially since I am in your debt as you have introduced me to a number of different authors/books over the years. Interestingly, I am reading Art of Fielding right now. While I am not sure that I love the book (someone who recommended it to me did feel that way), I can’t stop reading it and know that I will be sad when it is over, which will be soon.

    My next three books will be, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which has been touted as the book about the Iraq War similar to Catch-22. Also, Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout because I am still in awe of her writing from having read Olivia Kitteridge and, then, Amy and Isabelle. And at some point, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, which looks amazing. Probably some George Orwell, too, since he is our next NEH “Big Read” for the community.
    Happy reading.

    • Deborah Quinn May 28, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

      I will look for the Billy Lynn book – I’ve become a bit of a lightweight in terms of violence, though. But seems worth a shot. Now explain to me Elizabeth Strout, because you’re among the many who ADORED Olive Kitteridge, which left me cold. I think I might have started Amy & Isabelle, too, come to think of it. Hmm. Tell me what I’m missing?

  2. Nancy Horwich May 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    I am reading Bring Up the Bodies right now and loving it. I agree with you about good historical fiction putting you in that place at that time. I even love the trashy stuff by Phillipa Gregory and Sarah Dunant.
    I just finished an earlier Hilary Mantel book, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, about an expat’s life in Saudi Arabia, which you might enjoy. Also, Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending (very British with a few good twists and turns) is worth a look. Next up: Shalom Auslander’s latest, Hope a Tragedy. Have you read anything of his? We love him, but maybe you have to be Jewish. Dip your toe in with his first, Foreskin’s Lament, to see if you like that sort of thing.

    • Deborah Quinn May 28, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

      Most of the history I know, I know from fiction. Couldn’t handle Philipa G., though. But that Dorothy Dunnett…FANTASTIC. You mentioned the Saudi/Mantel book and I will follow up on that – thanks. I liked the Barnes book a lot, actually; didn’t know Auslander had another book but that’s good news b/c his first book, the foreskin etc., made me laugh until … well let’s just say, no, you don’t have to be Jewish to find the funny. In fact, maybe it was you who recommended it to me in the first place.

  3. Dick Horwich May 29, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    Thanks for the plug, but I think your review of The Art of Fielding blew mine away — and in much less space. Bring Up the Bodies started off slowly but enveloped me like a boa constrictor. All I ask for the summer is a new Le Carre, but it’s not going to happen.

    • Deborah Quinn June 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

      a new LeCarre… would be lovely. Spent a while earlier this year re-reading Smiley’s People and others – so great. And I really liked the one set in Africa, about big pharma, that was turned into a pretty good movie, but of course cannot for the life of me remember the title… Reluctant Gardener? hmm.

  4. Ellyn L. May 29, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    Olivia Kitteridge: I loved it because the title character is on the surface so unlikable, and, yet, as you keep on reading, you understand her so much more and realize the huge capacity of her heart–how pitiful it is that she loved her husband and son so profoundly but could not reveal that, sometimes even to herself. That alone broke my heart and made me love the book. But also because the author did such an incredible job revealing how aging makes people invisible, how we cease to value them in the same way and forget that they continue to have the same passions as the rest of us. I found her characters interesting, complex, and believable. She created a world that I never wanted to leave, even though I found it at times suffocating and uncomfortable. I was just shocked that I never heard of the book before (yeah, I know, it won a Pulitzer) and just stumbled into it blindly. So, that’s me and Olivia Kitteridge.

    • Deborah Quinn June 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      hmm. that’s some powerful commentary. makes me think I should give it another chance. you make it sound like Chekov, actually – which I can’t read or watch b/c it makes me feel, yes, claustrophobic and exhausted, just like his characters…!

  5. Karen May 29, 2012 at 6:27 am #

    I just finished Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. I hesitate to recommend this book. On the one hand, the characters are interesting and it is well written. But on the other hand, I felt the first half of the book was rather tedious. I felt oppressed by the anticipation of the bad things I believed would befall these characters. I just wanted to get passed the bad stuff. It took forever to get through that swamp. Now that I am done with that book, I’ve started reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve never read any of his novels before. I’m loving it. I’m ready to pack my bag and set off on a walking tour of Highlands of Scotland.

    • Deborah Quinn June 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      You know, I’ve never read Stevenson in my life. Hmm. Do you suppose it would be a good read-aloud? I heard good things about Swamplandia but the few times i flipped through it (literally and digitally), I was unimpressed. Maybe Stevenson will be my “classic writer” for this summer…am inspired.

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