My 2010 Summer Reads

by | August 25, 2010
filed under Books, Can-Con, Feminism, Pop Culture

So the summer’s not really over yet (fingers crossed) but now that I’m back at work after surgery my ability to finish books quickly has decreased and I figured it was a good time to recap since my last book update. In the order I read them:

1. In Spite of Myself: Memoirs by Christopher Plummer

I’m not a big biography fan but I am a huge Shakespeare nerd and this book got great reviews, so I picked it up at the library. At 656 pages, it’s not something you can knock off in one sitting, but nevertheless it manages to be a page turner. It’s filled with fascinating anecdotes about his encounters with such notables as Oscar Peterson, William Shatner, Laurence Olivier, Julie Andrews, Maggie Smith, and many more. My favourite was a humourous recounting of a very hung-over production of Hamlet. The stories are engaging and the narrative flows, tied together with quotes from Shakespeare plays.

That said, Plummer played it very safe on the personal front with this book. The death of his mother merits less than a page, and while he takes time to admire his daughter Amanda’s talent, he barely mentions feelings for her or any of the girlfriends and ex-wives he mentions. So if you’re looking to gain insight into Christopher Plummer’s feelings, you’re looking in the wrong place. But do read this book if you’re interested in the history of Shakespearean theatre in North America, the theatre scene in Montreal and New York in the 1950s and 1960s, and the behind-the-scenes experiences of one of Canada’s greatest actors.

2. The Known World by Edward P. Jones

This focuses on free blacks who owned blacks in the pre-abolition South, telling the story of a plantation run by free black Henry Townsend. At times I thought the writing felt stilted, but the historical insight and depth of character made it worth the read.

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I won’t spend too much time dissecting such a classic but it was an amazing book. I was also really struck by the gender dynamics and the recognition of the importance of women holding together families in the Great Depression. East of Eden is next on my Steinbeck reading list.

4. The Gathering by Anne Enright

I seemed to have a thing for novels about families this summer, the more dysfunctional the better. The Gathering looks at the Hegartys from the point-of-view of Veronica, whose brother Liam has just died. The writing is flowing but not flowery. Reading it felt like slowly drinking a glass of water. The only thing that prevented me from really enjoying it was the prevailing sense that women are meant to be long-suffering martyrs, especially relating to Veronica’s mother and Veronica’s relationship with her husband.

5. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

If I had to pick my favourite out of the list, this would be it. My dad recommended Kate Atkinson but I didn’t really know what to expect. And any synopsis of this novel won’t do it justice. It’s the story of a family through three generations, two world wars, and various personal tragedies, but the writing style is so unique, engaging, and often funny that it’s tough to put down. Women suffer a lot in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, too, but they aren’t victims. I’d highly recommend this book and am looking forward to reading When Will There Be Good News? next.

6. The History of Psychiatry by Edward Shorter

 I picked up this book after seeing Shorter quoted in the Vancouver Sun on the issue of adding new disorders to the DSM. Right from the start I was put on the defensive as Shorter approaches his history very strongly from the biological standpoint of mental illness, dismissing the Foucauldian notion of mental illness as socially constructed as nonsense with no historical basis. Shorter raises some good examples and while he claims to be right, he doesn’t claim to be objective, frequently declaring his standpoint. I appreciated that aspect and the thoroughness with which Shorter documented changing treatments in the United States and Europe. That said, even though I think Shorter shortchanged the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture debate, the thing that bothered me most was how little patients factored into his analysis. He goes on at length about various psychiatrists throughout history and even tries to vindicate ones he feels have acquired unfair reputations (not Freud, whom Shorter spends a whole chapter debunking). But rarely does he seem to think the perspectives of patients relevant. Overall it’s a book with a lot of interesting information but it deserves to be taken with a grain of salt.

7. Garbo Laughs, by Elizabeth Hay*

This one gets an asterisk because I didn’t actually finish it. I loved Hay’s Late Nights on Air but couldn’t really get into Garbo Laughs. There were a couple really nice moments but overall I felt like I was watching a bunch of cinemaphiles endlessly debate whether or not Marlon Brando is better than Frank Sinatra. It was interesting for a while but I felt like the book didn’t give me a reason to care about those types of debates.

-Jarrah

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  • Always nice to read a list of books of which I have not read anything! I did not enjoy ‘Late Nights On Air’ but I really loved both ‘Small Change’ from 1997 and ‘The Only Snow In Havana’ from 1992, both by Elizabeth Hay. ‘Small Change’ is short stories, sometimes very short. Wonderful, direct prose. ‘The Only Snow In Havana’ is a memoir in segments, interwoven with Canadian history. One of my favourite books of last year – I always love to see history-in-personal context and memoir written in unconventional forms. I would recommend both. have looked at ‘Garbo Laughs’ in stores for years but will probably never actually read it.

  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks for the recommendations, Derrick! I will definitely check those out.