Summer reading 2019

Samuel Johnson reading, a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson reading, a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This has been a busy summer. My wife and I welcomed our third child, which I reflected upon briefly here, and I also chose that time to begin my newest book. I actually just hit 100,000 words this morning! But despite the busyness and exhaustion I did get in a lot of good reading.

So here’s a quick post to recap my summer reading, with a few superlatives I’d like to mention. For the purposes of this post, “summer” corresponds to the period beginning May 11, just before the beginning of our summer academic session, and ending with Labor Day week, about two weeks into the fall semester. The only organizing principle is that the books on this list are presented in the order in which I finished reading them.

Finally, anything I’ve reviewed, whether briefly on Goodreads or in more detail on my blog here, I’ve hyperlinked. Enjoy!

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Summer reading, May-September 2019

A few superlatives, just because

Best reread: Beowulf. What else could beat it? This time around I read the Liuzza translation, which I first heard recommended by my friend David Grubbs on the Christian Humanist Podcast. It was very good, though I will always have a soft spot for the Irish-inflected cadences of Seamus Heaney’s translation, which was the first I ever read all the way through.

Biggest surprise: Ralph Peters’s Cain at Gettysburg. Peters’s Civil War series, of which this is the first, has won a lot of awards, but I was unprepared for how strongly written and how good, how in-your-face this novel was. I had also gathered that Peters had set out to write a sort of anti-Killer Angels, and since that’s one of my favorite books (and still is) I was hesitant to indulge in Cain. Never mind. While I feel like it lost something near the end as the various point-of-view characters cycled out of the story to be replaced by newcomers, the first half was so powerful it carried the rest of the book. Cain at Gettysburg is as wonderfully evocative of the wider world of Civil War America as Andersonville, as intimately personal and reflective as Shiloh, and as harrowing as The Black Flower. (For more on those, see my post about Civil War fiction from last summer here.)

While reading Cain at Gettysburg—which I began to coincide with the anniversary of the battle—I wrote this short reflection on our attitudes toward and memories of warfare, inspired by a passage in Peters’s book. I look forward to reading the next in the five-volume series, Hell or Richmond.

Best history: There isn’t a lot of competition in this category, as I read a lot of shorter stuff or fiction this summer, but I wanted to give a special mention to James Holland’s new history of the Normandy campaign, Normandy ‘44. It’s excellent—well researched and wide-ranging, providing a full view of the battle for Normandy beyond the actual D-day landings. Worth checking out.

Best general non-fiction: I’m a great fan of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series, and discovered late in the spring that they had a new entry on the life and work of CS Lewis. I snapped it up. Written by James Como, a university professor at CUNY and founder of the New York CS Lewis Society, the book astonished me with how much of Lewis’s life, thought, and work it covered, and in what concise and insightful depth. It’s an impressive little book worthy of Lewis himself, who thought that only when you could explain something simply and elegantly had you really mastered it.

Favorite classic: The Iliad, our first and last poem. It had been some years since I last read the Iliad in its entirety and I’m grateful for the nudge to reread it that I got from the folks who started Core Curriculum, which started posting episodes last week. Check it out! Or at least read the Iliad. This time around I read the Robert Fagles translation again. It’s excellent. And because I didn’t give the non-fiction superlative to Barbara Graziosi’s Homer: A Very Short Introduction, let me plug it here—it’s a wonderful, evocative short book that does an excellent job of explaining and introducing Homer and his two epics, and I highly recommend it.

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Biggest letdown: The Reckoning, by John Grisham. I like Grisham quite a lot, but this book was a horrible slog. A revenge story and family drama set in the Deep South in the aftermath of World War II—this has my name written all over it. But alas. It reads like a first draft, with unforgivably weak and lazy writing, cliches, poor structure, a constantly recurring tone of condescension toward its characters, and not a bit of tension to get you through its almost 600 pages.

If you want a Deep South revenge story, read Grisham’s A Time to Kill instead. If you really want a gripping World War II drama set in the Pacific, read The Naked and the Dead. Avoid The Reckoning at all costs.

New to me: Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, the short novel that introduced French detective Jules Maigret. Big, gruff, taciturn, and longsuffering, Maigret was the hero of a whopping 76 novels by Georges Simenon and, having seen stacks of old Maigret stories on the shelves at my local used book store, I decided to give one a try. My wife and I really enjoyed it—I particularly enjoyed the shoeleather aspects of Maigret’s investigations and was impressed by his patience, waiting for hours in the rain sometimes—and I’ve picked up a few more of the books since then.

Currently reading:

What I’ve got on my bedside table for now:

  • Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman

  • The Face of God, by Sir Roger Scruton

  • Last of the Breed, by Louis L’Amour

  • Teutoburg Forest AD 9: The Destruction of Varus and his Legions, by Michael McNally, illustrated by Peter Dennis

  • Strong Convictions, by G.P. Hutchinson

  • Britain After Rome, by Robin Fleming

Happy reading!

Fall semester is shaping up to be busy, busy, busy again but, as always, I’ll be making time to read, even if it’s in snatches of twenty pages here or there, as it has been for the last few weeks. It’s worth it. God willing, by the time I put together my year-end reading list and some recommendations, I’ll have a completed rough draft of my new novel—which I’m calling The Wanderer—and possibly a smaller palate-cleansing project besides. Here’s hoping.

As always, thanks for reading!