Summer Reading 2

The Remains of the Day has been recommended to me over and over again. Finally, when I saw it at my favorite used book store, I picked it up and shelved it. Somehow, the book never made it to the top of my reading list, though. Despite my affinity for Downton Abbey and all manner of British period pieces, it seemed too blatantly Anglophilic for me. I don’t enjoy reading just anything written about British people, but I do appreciate that uniquely British pairing of scathing humor with unnatural, almost illogical, stoicism. That’s why I enjoy Evelyn Waugh’s books, for example, or the lovely gem that is William Boyd’s Any Human Heart—one of my favorite reads of the year. In more ways than I had expected, Kazuo Ishiguro’s book was different from my usual fare.

She had, naturally, aged somewhat, but to my eyes at least, she seemed to have done so very gracefully. Her figure remained slim, her posture as upright as ever. She had maintained, too, her old way of holding her head in a manner that verged on the defiant. Of course, with the bleak light falling on her face, I could hardly help but notice the lines that had appeared here and there. But by and large the Miss Kenton I saw before me looked surprisingly similar to the person who had inhabited my memory over these years. That is to say, it was, on the whole, extremely pleasing to see her again.”Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

I’m going to cut right to the chase. This novel is technically amazing. The first person narrator, Mr. Stevens, is incredibly well conceived. His personality is elaborately constructed and carefully presented in a way that keeps all emotion out of the picture. This fits the stoic and dignified butler perfectly, but I don’t like it. That’s not to say that it isn’t done well, just that I don’t like it. I prefer rawness and full access to characters’ emotions. To burrow 230 pages into an immaculately restrained book, and then to finally gain access to the emotional core of a character in the last 15 pages is too much of an imbalance for me. That said, the emotion that does break through at the end is incredibly moving. It nearly makes up for the void in the rest of the book, but not quite. And without a little humor to balance the seriousness of this character, I was overwhelmed. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in technically brilliant, subtle writing, but don’t expect a book saturated with emotional intensity or humor.

You probably want to throw your computer at the wall every time I write about Phryne Fisher, but I had to mention that I’ve re-read two more of these books. Actually, I listened to the audio editions of books 15 and 16. I won’t bore you with repetitive details of my love for this character. Rather, I wanted to talk about the fact that listening to audiobooks has been a great way to inject more literature into my life. Whether I’m cooking or cleaning or driving, I can appreciate a good story read aloud when I wouldn’t otherwise be physically able to read. Also, when holding a book becomes a physical strain–like when I catch a miserable summer cold, my formerly broken wrist is achy, an old back injury makes my hand numb and tingly, or I get a headache from trying to read on the train–audiobooks allow me to keep reading. Also, what’s better than a book stored on your phone? It takes up zero additional space, and it’s always within reach, no matter where you are. I’m sold!

That is the way the light will shine
when you are gone
on all the places your shadow might have fallen

Billy Collins, “Romanticism”

Before I picked up another novel, I dove into a Billy Collins collection. The poems in Sailing Alone Around the Room include previously published selections–from books published between 1988 and 2000–as well as a few new poems written for this book’s 2001 publication. I first stumbled upon Collins’ work through the Poetry Foundation’s online archives while working on a term paper. I’ve re-read many of these poems since my initial perusal. In particular, I find myself re-reading the poem “Romanticism” again and again. Each time, I fall more passionately in love with it, reveling in its heady mixture of parody, satire, imitation, and a sincere devotion to Romantic poetry and its themes. These contradictory tones permeate many of Collins’ poems, and create a light-hearted atmosphere without sacrificing clarity and honesty. It’s a joy to have a bunch of them in one book, because they satisfy my desire to experience the intimate details of everyday life through beautiful, simple language.

After three days of steady rain–
over two inches said the radio–
I follow the example of monks
who wrote by a window, sunlight on the page.

Billy Collins, “November”

“Romanticism” also illustrates many of the specific features that I love in Collins’ work: depictions of the ever-changing in nature, parallels between the human condition and the natural world, and achingly beautiful descriptions of the literal and metaphorical light and shadows that inhabit our everyday lives. Several of my old favorites–but, sadly, not “Romanticism”–from the Poetry Foundation archives are found in this collection, along with some new favorites–like “November.” This poem, like many other Collins poems that I adore, revolves around the act of writing, and the meaning that the speaker attaches to simple objects and rituals. More than anything, I identify with the speakers in Collins’ poems. Strolling alongside them for a brief moment is as comforting as curling up in my favorite chair under my favorite, threadbare fleece blanket.

“Sometimes I think that if it were possible to tell a story often enough to make the hurt ease up, to make the words slide down my arms and away from me like water, I would tell that story a thousand times.” Anita Shreve, The Weight of Water

Most recently, I read Anita Shreve’s novel The Weight of Water. It was beautifully lyrical and quietly compelling. As much as I appreciate the symbolism of shadows and light, I’m completely bowled over by skillfully-crafted, symbolic images of water. It’s a common theme in my favorite reads, and one of the reasons I enjoyed this book. There were moments when this book completely absorbed me. Detailed descriptions of the sparse, storm-ravaged New England Coast and subtle, telling interactions between characters drew me deeper into the story. The rhythm of alternating scenes from past and present tragedies washed over me like waves–separate entities, yet indistinct from one another. Individual scenes are well-constructed through rich language, but the whole somehow falls flat, ultimately failing to become anything greater than the sum of its parts. The height of the conflict comes late in the book, and the resolution happens far too quickly. Structurally, this parallels a storm that the characters experience at sea, but the device feels a little too gimick-y, and not quite right for this story. The ending isn’t substantial enough to hold up the rest of the book, and doesn’t allow for a thorough exploration of the characters’ experiences and motivations, which are so prominent in the beginning. I don’t regret reading The Weight of Water, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first book I’d recommend to someone else. Reading it was somehow an emotionally-taxing, yet unsatisfying experience.

While this group of porch reads failed to achieve the dazzling brilliance of the first group, I don’t feel that any time spent reading is really wasted. That’s why I’ll gladly continue pursuing my 2016 reading challenge goal with the remaining month of my summer break. What have you been reading? I know I’m not the only one who would be interested in your suggestions, so drop us a line in the comments. Happy reading!

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