Back to school time seems like a good time to try to get back to more regular blogging.
The achievement of my summer was (mostly) completing the slow process of swapping my office with my daughter’s bedroom; she wanted to move downstairs and
have more privacy get away from her parents. I had a lovely office, but gradually over the last decade it was given over to children and then junk, while I worked from the kitchen or dining room table while supervising the dog, homework, dinner making, etc. I am surprised by how happy I am to have my own space in the house again, and how much I am looking forward to not eating dinner with a pile of ungraded papers staring me down from the end of the table.
I did a big book purge and you can see I still have to drop a lot of boxes off for Friends of the Library. I told my therapist that “My space filled up with junk and now I’m trying to reclaim it and make it nice” seemed like the perfect metaphor for all I’ve been up to this summer.
I did some satisfying reading and even more audiobook listening. Part of the return to audio was being in recovery mode and not having a lot of extra mental energy, and part was seeking comfort and distraction. Here are some highlights of my summer reading and listening:
I had three different audio mystery binges: June was P. D. James, July was Andrea Camilleri (both from the library), and August saw the start of a Dick Francis run which is still going strong at 7 books and counting. I used up my backlog of Audible credits, bought extra, and am probably going to need more extra, because I’m out of Francis. As always, I have been guided in my choices by Rohan’s old post on her top ten Dick Francis novels and the lively discussion in the comments. I am more grateful to her than I can say for the introduction to Francis, which has been invaluable during a rather insomniac month. Although possibly contributing to the insomnia at times. . . .
My choices so far (* I had previously read and enjoyed):
- Odds Against
- Come to Grief (these three all feature former jockey Sid Halley)
- Reflex (this, along with Straight, was probably my favorite of the binge–a touch of romance and fascinating puzzles to do with photography and different development and printing methods)
- To the Hilt*
All of these were read by Tony Britton, who has a classic British actor voice but doesn’t sound too plummy. I finished To the Hilt this morning and am trying to decide what’s next. (I also started the summer by reading a Francis book, The Danger, on my trip East for my college reunion).
I think what I’m finding so comforting about Francis is the decency of his heroes. They aren’t supermen and typically have to confront physical fear, but despite their vulnerability they don’t give up and you can trust them to do the right thing.
The other books that stood out were a trio of début novels by and about young black women that I read in July, all of which play with popular genres in interesting ways:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this to be paced like a typical spy novel, though that’s in part what it is. It cuts between three timelines–the novel’s present in 1992, when Marie Mitchell kills an intruder in her home and flees to her mother in Martinique with her two young sons, and flashbacks to Marie’s 60s childhood and to the period in the late 80s when Marie, an FBI agent, is recruited for an operation involving the (real life) president of Burkina Faso. The spy part is twisty and intriguing, and Wilkinson’s connections between spying and passing (as Marie’s mother did in her youth), and on the difficult position of a black woman in the FBI, are fascinating. The operation she’s recruited to forces Marie to examine her beliefs and allegiances, and the political and ethical questions the novel raises are quite different from those of a standard Cold War spy story.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite Kind of a thriller, kind of a family saga, a bit chick lit, this zippy, satirical Nigerian novel made the Booker longlist, and that plus Sunita’s positive review made me get over my prejudice against the title/concept and pick it up. Ayoola, the beautiful younger sister, is no Biblical Mary (after all, she’s a serial killer), but narrator Korede definitely made me think of Martha, the older sister always doing the clean-up, resenting the younger sibling who seems to sail through life and get everything Korede wants. The sometimes far-fetched plot is thoroughly grounded in realistic depictions of sibling relationships, of life in a patriarchal culture–and with a patriarchal father–and in a modern urban Africa that is both familiar and strange to a North American city-dweller. I’m not sure I’d tip this to win the Booker (I’ve only read a handful of the list this year), but it’s a smart and enjoyable book.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (audio read by Shvarte Markes was excellent) This is billed as Bridget Jones meets Americanah (which I own but still haven’t read–after my book purge at least I can see it on the shelf!), and the Bridget reference led me to expect something much lighter than Carty-Williams offers. This novel does tread the territory of chick lit–the professional and romantic woes of a young British woman, the gang of friends–but the fact that it’s Queenie’s best friend who is named Darcy, not a man, is the first tip-off that Queenie’s story won’t have a romance-plot resolution (it’s a hopeful ending though!). Bridget is middle-class white woman whose parents, while embarrassing, are loving and supportive; Daniel is a jerk who uses her, but he isn’t acting out a racist fantasy at her expense; Mark Darcy thinks she’s perfect just the way she is. Queenie’s troubles are far more serious and real than this. Race, class and culture all shape Carty-Williams’ characters and their relationships; Queenie faces both micro- and macro-aggressions, and her immigrant family’s resistance to seeking help makes it harder for her to change her situation. But change she does, and one of the things I liked about this novel was its realistic depiction of a therapeutic relationship.
All three of these novels put black women at the center of the kind of story that usually features people of color as sidekicks or villains, and in doing so stretch the boundaries of what this kind of story can do.
Here’s hoping that I’ll keep finding time to read in my comfy new chair as the semester ramps up, and time to write about that reading too. I just ordered a copy of Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellman’s Booker-longlisted doorstopper. That might keep me going until December! What’s on your autumn reading agenda?