A monthly recap of books I've read. For past months, see:
Last month's books were all over the place—a little of this, a little of that. No theme dominated, except possibly "escapism and inconvenient truths."
I start my day with a perusal of news and analysis and I end it with an escape from said news cycle. The last couple of weeks, my escape has been "Stranger Things" (my first Netflix binge, if two episodes a night can be considered a binge). But before that, I was flinging myself to the comforting and imaginative world of Barbara Mertz aka Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Michaels, with a book I found at a used book store (Devil May Care) and one I found on my bookshelf (Wings of the Falcon). The more I read and reread Mertz's books, the more I love her voice, her encyclopedic knowledge of everything, her sly wit, her clever use of Gothic and suspense tropes (both satirizing and embracing), her great characters, and the general fun of her books.
I also read The Mistletoe Murder, a collection of short stories by P.D. James, mainly to see how a murder mystery is done in short story form (thinking about writing one myself), but also because I enjoyed the two books by Ms. James which I read last month. These were great and I didn't realize until after I finished the book that the title story is actually nonfiction. Which kind of wowed me.
Over the last year or so, I've been (very slowly) watching a series of YouTube videos called an Introduction to Literature and the Environment. Several readings go along with each video/lecture and since most of these have been individual poems or excerpts from longer works, they haven't appeared on my lists. The lecture on the Elizabethan period, however, focuses on several poems as well as Shakespeare's play, As You Like It. The edition I found at the bookstore has a "translation" into modern language on the page facing the original, which I had to refer to far less often than I expected. It was an entertaining piece (I do enjoy the comedies more than the tragedies) and I plan to read a second play, "A Winter's Tale," which is not analyzed in the lectures, but which the lecturer mentioned as another piece which addresses how nature versus culture was viewed at the time.
On our road trip this summer, the boys and I listened to a couple of Elizabeth Peters audiobooks—the ones where Amelia Peabody's young son Ramses gets wound up in the murder investigation and causes plenty of trouble of his own. The boys enjoyed the stories—particularly Ramses's role—as I knew they would and, after we finished our last read-aloud, Z asked for "the next Emerson book." I failed to realize before we started that the next book in the series, The Deeds of the Disturber, was the one where one of the suspects has syphilis and the miscreants engage in orgies, but Ms. Peabody's Victorian sensibilities causes her to narrate these events in such oblique terms that we didn't have to have too many uncomfortable conversations. They were quite entertained by Ramses's outrage that he wasn't allowed to investigate an opium den with his parents. After the holidays are over, we will probably launch into the next book in the series, thus fulfilling my master plan of creating more Elizabeth Peters fans and expanding my children's vocabulary to include words like "ratiocination" and "terpsichorean."
This summer, I attended a reading of Soap Opera Confidential, a collection of essays about, what else, soap operas, edited by Suzanne Strempek Shea and Elizabeth Searle, both delightful writers and wonderful teachers in the MFA program I attended. The collection is a super-fun read that covers the range of soaps, from Dallas and Dynasty to daytime, to a nod to Downton Abbey. Before I read the book, I didn't think I had a soap opera story in me, but as I read, I remembered the summer I watched three soaps with my sister, which was also the summer I volunteered in two hospitals as a candy-striper and "volunteen," and a story began to unfold and is now a rough-draft essay, waiting for the call for submissions to Soap Opera Confidential II. It's amazing how words trigger memories and memories trigger stories and 30 years of distance can connect those stories in ways that were not at all obvious at that time.
Lest you fear I spent too much of my reading time last month in escapism and fun, you need not worry. I also read Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America's Forests, by Andrew Nikiforuk, which is about the mountain pine beetle and other Dendroctonus and Ips beetle species that have ravaged coniferous trees from British Columbia to Baja. Even having read several articles on the topic and hiked through miles and miles and miles of dead trees last summer, I did not grasp the enormity of the situation until reading this book. Long story short: climate change and poor forestry management practices (primarily fire suppression) have conspired to turn a rice-grain-sized bug from a natural forest manager which aided in the diversification of forest species and age structure to a region- (or continent-) wide destructive force. And everything humans do to try to combat the bug only compounds the destruction. I can't imagine anyone who is not doing research on this subject reading this book, but I think everyone who cares about forests, trees, and oxygen should. Consider this statement: "If ambient oxygen levels drop further, women will need to carry their infants for longer periods of time, as many mountain dwellers already do. But for many women, thirty-seven weeks is already a dangerous stretch. 'It's a matter of molecular physics,' says Beresford-Kroeger. 'When the forests go down, women will suffer.'"