Summer 2020 Reading List: What I Would Have Read

I’m a bit late with this summer reading list: it’s August! And this list is more intentional than actual, so I’m not going to be able to give informed commentary on most of these books. I planned to read all of them, but as soon as the end-of-semester responsibilities were over, intensive gardening began. And as soon as intensive spring gardening ceased, family trips were taken. And then I returned home and BOOM: big book contract! So the last month has been all about writing rather than reading. Yet I have heard from many of you that you like my book lists, so I thought I would offer up one: I did choose these carefully, and many of them are sitting by my bedside, but I usually pass out before I can pick one up! I didn’t even have time to go back and look at my previous book lists but I bet there is a trend of increasing interest in historical fiction over the years: I used to be pretty snobby about that genre, but after reading several titles which were researched meticulously and crafted beautifully—enabling one to really plunge into the world in question—I have changed my tune. I think there are a few of these on this list: you’ll have to forward your assessments, and after my own book is finished I will either return to these books—or I won’t!

So let’s start with fiction. I am dying to read James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time, which is set in England and France during the Hundred Years’ War and Black Death, and the publication date of Emma Donoghue’s 1918 book was moved up to Corona time. Talk about plunging into the past: I read Andrew Miller’s previous historical novel, Pure, last year and was definitely plunged into the world of an eighteenth-century engineer in Paris; Free is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, and I really want to go there. I always want to go to sixteenth-century England, even into the somber Shakespeare household following the death of Hamnet, from the plague, of course. Big jump in terms of both chronology and topics: I’ve been reading my way through Evelyn Waugh and his era over the years, and I loved these new covers so purchased them for my bedside stack (I purchased Martin Green’s Children of the Sun a few years ago for some context and insights into this era, but have read it only in snippets so far). And another favorite era in fiction and fact: the Daphne Du Maurier’s novel is from the 1940s, Nadine Akkerman’s scholarly book on female spies in the seventeenth century is much more recent.

Reading Pandemics

Reading Miller

Reading Hamnet

Reading Waugh collage

REading Untitled - 2020-08-03T132118.632

For the first time every, I think I have more fiction books than nonfiction—-probably because I’m all nonfiction all the time for by work: both writing and teaching. I don’t really have time to indulge my curiosity this year, but if I did, I would move Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown, about the medieval Lewis Chessmen, up to the top of my bedside stack: I’ve been curious about these guys forever. The other books are somewhat related to my book so I supposed I can categorize them as research: I’m writing about gardening and cooking right now, in my Chapter Three, so Floud’s and Dawson’s books are right by my side, offering some great insights and context supplementary to my primary sources. Newton is a little late for me, but I’ve got to read all about alchemy for my book as it creeps into several topics (medicine, beauty, even agriculture), so William R. Newman’s Newton the Alchemist will be illuminating, I’m sure.

Reading Chess

Reading Gardens

Reading Food

Reading Newton Collage

10 responses to “Summer 2020 Reading List: What I Would Have Read

  • Laura

    Always love your reading recommendations! I have the Meek novel and Hamnet. Haven’t read them quite yet but glad to see that Meek novel interests you too. I always appreciate your material culture history selections and this year there are some enticing ones as always–the Economic History of the English Garden and Food and Drink in a Sixteenth- Century Household are going to be absorbing escapes from the present! Thanks as always!

    • daseger

      You’re welcome, Laura! Please check back with your takes on Calais and Hamnet!

      • Laura

        I’m liking James Meek’s To Calais in Ordinary Time a great deal. It took a couple chapters to get used to the language but I find if I read a piece of dialog out loud it really makes sense and is so, well, evocative of a scene or a place. The language is so grounded in time, place, and “economy” or material way of living that I feel drawn into another world–which these days is my prime reason for reading! The story is great too. I’m about half way through and can highly recommend so far.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for getting to your reading list in the midst of your busy summer. Great news about your book deal too.

    You mentioned James Meek’s novel set in the time of the Hundred Years War between England and France. A few years back I took a tour of “Chateaux Country” in the Loire Valley that contains hundreds of fortifications from that period. Many that remain have been turned into municipal properties. As the endless war wound down, the French nobility began to build magnificent chateaux in the area that were much less about protection and more about opulence.

    Maybe I will take the plunge and try a bit of fiction. I go for nonfiction as I tell folks – the dull stuff. I notice you mention Evelyn Waugh. Love him. I have re-read BRIDESHEAD REVISTED at least five times.

    Always fun to see what others are reading…

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    Perfect timing… you have increased my list of reading possibilities during the next 6 weeks (at least) of lockdown. I will create a link at:


  • Maggie

    So excited to read some of these books you’ve dug up! I too, rarely read a fiction book.

  • Brian Bixby

    My history work for the summer is Geoffrey Parker’s “Emperor” on Charles V. For historical fiction (emphasis on fiction, I’m afraid), William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1848 “The Lancashire Witches” (based on the famous Pendle Hill case, about which I just read an actual historical account).

    While I liked Nancy Marie Brown’s books I’ve read so far (Song of the Vikings, and, The Far Traveler), she seems to me to be a bit too apt to jump to a conclusion she’d like.

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