How I Spent My Summer Holidays

Every year it’s the same. I leave for vacation in Canada with ambitious reading plans, usually involving a fat Penguin classic. I take the book with me and find myself unable to read a word once I arrive. Instead I’m helplessly drawn to books I’ve left behind at my mother’s house or books I buy, mysteries mostly. It’s as though I need weeks of nothing but light reading to allow my readerly self to recuperate for another year. (As someone who has spent almost his whole life in a classroom, the new year always starts for me in September–or, since coming to Arkansas, cruelly, August.)

This year’s abandoned classic was Leopold Alas’s La Regenta. I read the first 60 pp on the plane and was impressed. Not easy stuff, by any means, but interesting, and often quite funny, particularly impressive since at least at first it’s all about priests. I was glad to have read Sentimental Education so recently as I could see Flaubert was an important inspiration for (the brilliantly named) Alas.

But then I got to Calgary, and the mountains beckoned and La Regenta sat on the shelf, untouched, for the next three weeks. I felt especially bad about this failure because Tom from Wuthering Expectations had organized a readalong. This is now the second time I’ve funked one of his group readings (there was that Hamsun I abandoned ¾ of the way through a few years ago) and since he is one of the bloggers I most respect I really wanted to participate. You can check out the posts, with typically interesting comments, over at the site, though I confess I’ve only skimmed them, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because I feel so badly about giving up.

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So what did I read on my vacation, you ask?

Well, a few things:

Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (1976)

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Rohan had written about this shortly before I left and when I looked up at the shelf of books that I’ve still got to get out of my mother’s house some day, there it was. Bashert, right? I must have bought my copy in my bookselling days in the early 90s. Over 20 years it had been sitting there, just waiting for me to get to it. American literary fiction isn’t really my thing, but the 70s are long enough ago that this book almost felt like literature in translation. Rohan’s review is as smart and thoughtful as you’d expect; read it to get a better sense of the book. She liked it better than I did. Although I appreciated its astringent, unsentimental portrayal of aging, I tired of its protagonist’s jaundiced take on contemporary life. I wasn’t convinced the novel itself was distancing itself from the character’s embitterment, so the whole thing started to feel querulous and brittle. And I really wanted more about his wife, who seems much the most interesting character.

Eva Dolan, Tell No Tales (2015)

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Why doesn’t this superior police procedural about a hate crimes unit in Peterborough have a US publisher? It didn’t seem to matter that I came into the series late (this one is the second; I gather there are three so far.) And the story—about a far-right party loosely or not so loosely modeled on UKIP and featuring violence to immigrants–felt even more relevant this summer than it must have last year. Dolan’s not breaking any new ground, but this is satisfying stuff. I’ll read more but I’d rather not have to import from the UK.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (1966)

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Years ago I read Spies and really liked it. And like all sentient human beings, I love Noises Off. So when I came across a whole series of early Frayn novels in the bookstore—recently reissued by Faber in the UK and Canada; I think some interesting small publisher has them in the US, but I can’t remember where I saw that—I grabbed the one that seemed most appealing. Given my fascination with all things Russian, and with the vicissitudes of European 20th Century history, The Russian Interpreter was the obvious choice. I liked the book for its pleasing combination of English reserve and Russian lugubriousness. Set in Moscow in the late 50s, it tells the story of an English graduate student of Russian history, Paul Manning, who gets involved with a visiting English businessman named Procter-Gould. Procter-Gould has no Russian, so Manning starts interpreting for him, not least in his love affair with Manning’s own girlfriend. No one is quite what they seem, and it all gets a little byzantine. It’s totally unfair, but I couldn’t fall in love with this book because I wanted it to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, another novel by an English author set in Moscow, though this time in 1913, and one of the very best English novels of the 20th century.

Frayn is no Fitzgerald, but who is? And The Russian Interpreter has a great opening:

Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old friends, and no friends at all, old or new, in Moscow or anywhere else, called Proctor-Gould.

Ragnar Jónasson, Night Blind (2015) Trans. Quentin Bates (2016)

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Arnaldur Indridason needn’t worry about being deposed as King of Icelandic crime any time soon. I read Jónasson’s first book earlier this year and liked it enough to buy this sequel. The writing here is less clunky, but the plotting is weaker, and I really missed the intense evocation of bad weather that characterized the first book. I like Iceland a lot but can’t see myself continuing with this series.

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) & Death is a Welcome Guest (2015)

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These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. (Added 8/5/16: I just came across Max’s review too.)

As a hypochondriac of longstanding, I’m enthralled and terrified by stories of pandemics. So I am definitely the right person for these books, which is about an illness called the Sweats that quickly wipes out most of the world. Each book has a different protagonist; the last page of the second volume suggests they will meet up in the third. I found these books in the crime section and it’s true that each has a suspicious death at its center. But I didn’t find that stuff nearly as interesting as Welsh’s depiction of apocalypse. Rather unusually, the second volume is even better than the first—the first sometimes felt a bit like Ballard-lite, though with much less interesting prose—since it considers what kinds of communities could be built after a catastrophe and how hard it might be to do so. The best thing about these books is that they are real just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-sleep-oh-well-it’s-almost-finished-might-as-well-just-read-the-rest page-turners. Volume three, please!

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (2014)

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Another book I found in the crime section that really doesn’t belong there. (And I say that as someone who loves crime fiction.) Woodward seems like a writer I need to pay more attention to. I really liked the first half of this (rather long: 500 pp) book. Interwar England is my meat and drink and I appreciated how adroitly Woodward taught me things, especially about the old Heathrow, the farming community in Middlesex that was requisitioned and destroyed by the British government during the war to build the military airfield that became the airport we know today. I was especially fascinated by the story of how sludge cake—basically the refuse from the sewers of London—were first used to fertillize the crops in this area. Teaching readers stuff about the world is something realist fiction does best, but it’s not easy to do without dumping information on readers in a heavy-handed way.

But before long Vanishing grew more and more complex. Too complex. It tells the story of Kenneth Brill, from his boyhood in Heathrow to his student days at the Slade School of Art to his time in a camouflage unit in Egypt in the war. The retrospective material is brought out at his trial in a military court, where he has been bought up under suspicion of treason. (He claims to have been painting the landscape of his childhood before it is destroyed; the military claims he is encoding secrets about the airfield into his paintings to pass on to the enemy.). The camouflage stuff is interesting, but I started to be reminded of a novel like Giles Foden’s Turbulence, which taught me things about weather prediction during WWII that I could have learned more concisely and compellingly in an essay. Camouflage does give Woodward a metaphor to work with as he also examines Brill’s queer sexuality and the appeal of fascism in the England of the period. But I don’t know exactly what he wants to say about all these things and in the end I didn’t quite care enough to really think it through. There’s really a whole lot going on here, I haven’t even mentioned all the subplots, and I found the story’s narrative structure, its use of unstable, unreliable first person not quite well handled enough to sustain my interest. (It’s no Ishiguro.) But Woodward is definitely a talent and I mean to try some of his other books when I’ve time. For more check out this interestingly ambivalent review by John Self at Asylum.

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So I didn’t get on with my classic, but I read some good things (and more importantly went on a lot of great hikes). Now I’m back in Arkansas, sweltering in the heat, and trying to stay on top of a lot of deadlines before the new semester begins in just three weeks…

What about you? What did you read on your summer holidays?