June Reading

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Here’s What I Read in June.

1. Walking Home by Simon Armitage

I’ve been reading a lot of Simon Armitage’s poetry in the last year or so, and I really am almost ready to move on from him. But I couldn’t resist this non-fiction work, Walking Home, which was such an enticing concept. (And I have just one more volume of his poetry, Book of Matches, which I’m going to make short work of.)

In July of 2010, Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way from North to South (opposite of the way people usually do it), taking with him no food or money for lodgings. Instead, he arranged a support staff of admirers and helpful folks to feed him and put him up for the night. In return, he offered a poetry reading at every stop along the way.
Walking Homeis the product of this unusual arrangement, and it chronicles every moor, bog, cairn, and fell from Kirk Teholm on the Scottish border, to Edale in the Peak District. The book gets into an easy gait, as does the author, alternating from tales of his days spent on the path and evenings meeting the locals and reading poetry. As it turns out, Armitage was a geologist-in-training before poetry derailed him, so there’s quite a lot of information about the physical landscape of this barren part of the world.
The challenge here is obvious–how does one write about a tiring, monotonous journey through a bleak landscape without making the reader feel tired or bored? Armitage is witty and charming enough to pull it off–most of the time. The accounts of his meeting with village folk and poetry fans is the most interesting part of the book, and at times the long walking scenes were a bit of an impediment to the fun. Also, there was surprisingly little poetry in this book, which I found odd.

(Armitage’s trip took place in July of 2010, when I was spending my summer at Yale. In fact, I knew exactly where I was during certain points of his journey, including the weekend of July 11-12, when Renee and I went to New York to celebrate her 32nd birthday, visit the Cloisters and see a Mets game. You can read it about it all here. And here.

2. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I must thank my wife, Lady McBrame, for recommending this book to me. I had never read any Maugham before, having always shied away from Of Human Bondage whenever it popped up on my suggested reading lists in high school and college. Since she liked it, and I was intrigued by the arresting cover painting by Meredith Frampton, I thought I’d try it out.

The Painted Veil is only 245 pages long, but it has the sweeping feel of a much larger book. Set in Hong Kong and inland China in the 1920s, it concerns a troubled marriage between Walter and Kitty Fane, two well-to-do British citizens living at the remotest posts of the British empire. He’s a bacteriologist; she’s an unhappy housewife who knows she could have done better than to marry him. She has an affair with a dashing Assistant Colonial Secretary named Charlie, and when Walter finds out, he offers her a shocking ultimatum.

This is not a pleasant story. It’s surprisingly frank vis-a-vis adultery and desire, and paints a bitter, even bleak, picture of marital life. Kitty seems a particularly three-dimensional woman, struggling to exert her own will against the will of the patriarchy. I’d be interested in doing some research and seeing what the feminist reaction to the book was. Highly recommended.

I also saw the 2006 movie, starring Naomi Watts and Ed Norton. While it was a good movie in its own right, it created a love story out of whole cloth. The filmmakers smoothed over the rough edges of bitterness and loss in Maugham’s book to create a more palatable movie. Still, the cinematography and acting was first rate, and it was a satisfying movie. Check it out.

3. Lots of African-American short fiction

I am finishing up my summer course for 2014, bringing me slowly closer to my masters degree. This class covered African American short stories, and I was introduced to a lot of writers and stories I’d never heard of before. My favorite one was the most recent one on the syllabus, “Cattle Haul” by Jesmyn Ward. You can read it online here. Other stories I liked included:

“The Ingrate” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
“Dave’s Neckliss,” by Charles W. Chesnutt
“Abr’m Jimson’s Wedding. A Christmas Story” by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins
“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Cross Crossing Carefully” by Anita Scott Coleman
“The Fine Line” by Marian Minus
“Long Black Song” by Richard Wright
“Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin
“After the Ball” by Cyrus Colter
“The Witness” by Ann Petry
“Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler
“Equal Opportunity” by Walter Mosley

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