I seem to blog a lot about what I’m reading. Sorry. Can’t help it.
It used to annoy me when someone published a list of books to read on summer vacation, books either more relaxing or more mindless than the average tome. Since I retired and no longer have to have a summer vacation (it’s all vacation, right?), I have noticed that summer does shunt me off onto a different reading track than other seasons. I have no idea why, but I seem to read more non-fiction in summer. It’s not usually self-help stuff but history or pre-history or popular science. I read a lot of fiction too, but that is beginning to feel like a work assignment–here are the latest mysteries, read them. So let it go without illustration, I’m reading mysteries. Here are two non-mysteries I found suitable for summer.
Joanna Trollope writes good, leisurely studies of relationships–fiction in the grand style of her family. The Soldier’s Wife is a lively portrait of a modern woman caught in the archaic role of British officer’s wife, not to mention the more usual soccer mum role. Trollope even brings off a fairly happy (and fairly fair) ending, all without murdering anybody.
K.J. Parker does heavy fantasy–pre-steam steampunk. I just finished The Folding Knife, a good study of a very anti hero. It begins with a murder about which there is no mystery, and it ends down, down, down, but the detail of life in the “Vesani Republic” (a riff on the Venetian Republic) is rich and evocative. It is refreshing to find fantasy that doesn’t wallow in patterns of bucolic life from the English Middle Ages.
Moving on to non-fiction, a dose of American history. My history degree was definitely European. I don’t believe I ever took an American history course at the college level, so my understanding of U.S. history is patchy. Filling in blanks can be a real pleasure.
Doris Kearns Goodwin has a deft touch with massive arrays of fact that might turn to sludge in a lesser writer’s hands. I finally got around to reading her 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, No Ordinary Time. It deals with the last four years of Franklin Roosevelt’s life–they happen to be the first four years of my life–and Goodwin gives sympathetic portraits of both Eleanor and the President without air-brushing their faults. My parents and grandparents worshiped Eleanor Roosevelt. In No Ordinary Time I found out why. Eleanor’s achievements make the First Ladies who succeeded her fade to nothing, with the possible exception of Bess Truman for very different reasons.
Among Eleanor’s projects was day-care for the children of women working in the factories that were building tanks, ships, and airplanes. No Ordinary Time describes the superb day-care center the Kaiser shipyard was induced to build in Portland OR (and another in Vancouver WA where I now live). My father was a naval officer during the war. His ship, a baby aircraft carrier, was built here on the banks of the Columbia, in part by women whose children spent the day–and in some cases the night–at the Kaiser day-care center. Hooray for Eleanor.
The other U.S. history work I rambled through was Stephen E. Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage (1996). I live on the Columbia River now, but I was born in Montana near the great falls of the Missouri. When I was growing up in eastern Oregon, we could still see ruts carved by the wheels of wagons on the Oregon trail. Needless to say, I’ll read anything about Lewis and Clark.
Ambrose keeps his focus on the tragic figure of Meriwether Lewis. I have no quarrel with that. The biographical slant gives ominous urgency to the narrative, and Ambrose makes a convincing case for Lewis’s death as the straightforward suicide of a man whose family had a bipolar history. Lewis was under a lot of pressure to finish editing his journals. Right now I’m 90% through writing a mystery and whamming my head against the wall trying to force myself to finish it. I think poor old Meriwether’s suicide is perfectly understandable.
So–what are the rest of you reading out there on your beach blankets?