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August 3, 2005 [feather]
Summer Reading

With less than a month left before school starts, I though I'd do the annual obligatory post on summer reading. I've read some wonderful books this summer, but I'll only talk about my three favorites:

--If you like non-fiction narrative a la Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Jonathan Krakauer, you must read Jonathan Harr's profoundly gripping A Civil Action. Harr wrote the book on the advice of his friend, Tracy Kidder, and it took him ten years and a large dose of angst to do it--but the story of how a leukemia cluster in a little town in Massachusetts gave rise to a pathbreaking toxic tort suit is marvelously written, at once detailed and informative and paced like a thriller, despite the fact that the bulk of it is taken up with minute descriptions of the extraordinarily particular legal ins and outs of planning and financing a class action lawsuit. What makes it work--besides Harr's contagious belief that legal minutiae are endlessly compelling--is his portrait of the lawyer at the heart of the case, Jan Schlictmann. Schlictmann is at once an aspiring, ruthlessly ambitious personal injury lawyer, a dedicated practitioner of his craft who willingly gives everything he has to a worthy cause, a thorough snob who seeks to impress with everything from clothing to car to professional comportment, and a thoroughly noble person who fights the good fight because someone needs to do it. He's a sort of tragic hero dressed up in a pinstripe suit, and he's not to be missed.

--Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Beautifully crafted, beautifully told. Stegner was a genuine historian of the west, and in this novel he reconstructs not only a pivotal period in a family's western history, but the particular work of genealogical reconstruction in the figure of the narrator, a historian who has turned his attention to his own family's past. Stegner won a Pulitzer for the novel, and he felt it was the book he was meant to write: "It's perfectly clear," he said, "that if every writer is born to write one story, that's my story." Part of what makes the book so interesting is the way it builds a fictional story around the actual letters of one Mary Hallock Foote, a nineteenth-century pioneer-artist-writer whose correspondence anchors the novel. Foote's letters are quoted at length in Angle of Repose, but not as Foote's letters; they are instead quoted as the letters of Susan Burling Ward, the fictional nineteenth-century pioneer-artist-writer who forms the focus the narrator's investigations into family history. Needless to say, Susan Burling Ward's life amounts to a fictionalized biography of Mary Hallock Foote, told by way of a novel about the historical work of doing accurate family history. If you like that sort of thing--and as a compulsive amateur genealogist I most certainly do--then Angle of Repose is the novel for you.

--I'm presently reading Thomas Flanagan's fat, leisurely, dense, and delightful Tenants of Time, which tells the story of a young Irish expatriate historian who, in 1904, decides he simply must write the history of the 1867 Fenian uprising as it happened in a little Cork town called Kilpeder. Flanagan, like Stegner, is a historian operating by other means; and in his three great novels of Irish history--the other two are The Year of the French (all about Ireland's failed 1798 rebellion) and The End of the Hunt (all about Michael Collins and the Irish fight for independence)--he did an enormous amount of imaginative documentary work. The magnitude of Flanagan's achievement both as a historical novelist writing in subtle and textured ways about Ireland's complicated past and as a practitioner of a genre that has in recent years effectively devalued its own claims to verisimilitude, is aptly summarized in the New York Times review of Tenants of Time. Flanagan has a way of attending to the historical impulse at the same time that he expresses that impulse in the form of historical fiction; by framing the novel in terms of a historian's project of writing about the uprising--and by framing the portrayal of that historian as itself historical (he is writing before independence), and fabricated (the novel opens in June 1904, and so invokes another odyssey, Joyce's Ulysses)--Flanagan manages to make Tenants of Time into both a gripping historical read about plots and guns and prisons and aftermaths and a gripping meditation on whether the past can ever be properly remembered, and what it means to try to reconstruct it.

Comments are open--I'd love to hear what others have been reading.

posted on August 3, 2005 8:01 AM


I thought "Year of the French" was outstanding..one of the best books I've ever read. His other books didn't seem of quite the same caliber to me.

Just finished "The Dogs of Babel." The protagonist's wife dies under strange circumstances, and the only witness was the family dog. The protagonist, a linquist, needs to get the dog to reveal what she knows.

Posted by: David Foster at August 3, 2005 11:11 AM

Erin,try out "Jonathan Strange& Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke,a strange and funny novel about magicians in Regency England.

Posted by: scott at August 4, 2005 10:19 AM

Not great literature, but I just read and loved Balling the Jack, by Frank Baldwin. A fun, engrossing, moving, colorful book.

Unfortunately, the reviews on Baldwin's second novel look pretty dismal...

Posted by: JSinger at August 4, 2005 1:49 PM

I have been moving house so my reading has been confined to magazines and newspapers of late. That said, I am kind of enjoying the New Criterion, a magazine of politics, art, and literature.

Posted by: RP at August 5, 2005 1:09 PM

I've been reading the books on my daughter's summer school list.

The Color of Water, etc. were great last year, we are still diving into this years.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at August 6, 2005 5:07 PM

Great quote from Ozarque's blog:

"One of the things that saddens me most about being "retired" is the glaring lack of graduate students...."

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at August 7, 2005 12:41 AM

Just finished "Mobius Dick" - probably the most enjoyable fictional tale of quantum physics and 1900's sanatoriums you'll ever read! :-)

Posted by: Dan at August 7, 2005 6:03 AM

Sounds like you're on a good non-fiction vibe--can I recommend Michael Chorost's recent book "Rebuilt"? I think you will find it fascinating.

Posted by: Jenny D at August 8, 2005 11:58 AM