One of the great things about retirement is having time to read. And time to explore those “rabbit holes” that crop up when you’re reading a great book. Like when a book mentions a specific place or historical character and, instead of just carrying on, you stop and do a bit of exploring. Or finish the book and then read another that explores a specific subject or setting prompted by the first book. You might disappear down that rabbit hole for two or even three books. I remember when I first read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, it awakened in me an interest in all things Mitford. And so I went haring off (pun intended) in all directions reading whatever I could by, and about, those famous sisters. Last year I wrote a blog post about my “Mitford Madness,” which you can read here if you’re interested.   I guess this is what Ms. MacDonald in Kate Atkinson’s book When Will There Be Good News? might call “reading round the subject.”

If you haven’t read Kate Atkinson’s series featuring detective Jackson Brodie, you must. Atkinson is a wonderful writer; I think she’s absolutely one of the most talented writers I’ve read. She’s written four Jackson Brodie novels; When Will There Be Good News? is the third in the series. You can check them out for yourself here.   

The books were also made into an excellent TV series starring Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie. The shot below is from the episode based on When Will There Be Good News? That’s Gwyneth Keyworth as the character Reggie, with Jackson. Reggie is such an engaging character, both in the novel and in the TV series. Seriously Keyworth, as Reggie, is so adorable you just want to adopt her. And it’s Reggie who’s been instructed, by her tutor Ms. MacDonald, to “read round the subject.” 

Jason Isaacs and Gwyneth Keyworth

Which brings me back to my subject…which isn’t Kate Atkinson, as it happens, at least not in this post. But Paula McLain. And her propensity for writing novels that appeal to those of us who love to “read round the subject.”   You’ve probably heard of, and maybe read, McLain’s acclaimed 2011 novel The Paris Wife, which is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley and their life in Paris in the 1920’s. It’s based in part on Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, but told from Hadley’s point of view. McLain said she was inspired not only by A Moveable Feast, but also by her reading of Hadley’s letters to Ernest during their courtship. She wanted to give Hadley a voice, and I think she achieved that wonderfully.

I didn’t need to “read round the subject” after I finished The Paris Wife. I’d already done that for years. I took a course in 20th Century American Fiction in university, and then went on to read several biographies of Hemingway. His short stories have long been favorites of mine; I used them regularly in my senior English classes. And A Moveable Feast has always been a special book for me. I loved reading about Hemingway “making himself into the writer he became,” as McLain puts it. 

What struck me most about Paula McLain’s book was that she really knows her Hemingway. The man, his work, the events of the time, the depiction of the other real life characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald, all simply ring true. It’s as if she has stepped into that historical time and is simply recording what everyone said and did, what they looked like, what they ate and drank, albeit much more vividly because it’s fiction. That’s what I adored about her book. And if you haven’t read The Paris Wife, and choose to do so, I highly recommend reading it in conjunction with Hemingway’s memoir. I think that knowledge of each heightens appreciation for the other.

It’s funny, in preparing this post I read some old reviews of The Paris Wife and someone criticized the ‘character’ of Hadley in McLain’s novel for being “insipid.” Uh, okay…well… shy, placid, passive…wasn’t she actually like that? The comment reminded me of a movie review I read of the 2013 remake of The Great Gatsby which criticized the movie for making Daisy so shallow. Uh… hello? Wasn’t that Fitzgerald’s point? Maybe some of these critics need to do a little more “reading round the subject.” 

Which brings me to Paula McLain’s latest book and the delicious fact that this time she is bringing to life a historical character whom I knew nothing about, until now. Beryl Markham. Born in England in 1902, but raised in Africa, she was a pioneering aviator, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west in 1936. 

Markham after her 1936 flight. source.

Markham is described in various sources as a beautiful, passionate, brave, independent “bad-ass.” She trained race horses, roamed the African bush, stole other women’s lovers and husbands. She wrote about her life in Africa and her memorable trans-Atlantic flight which ended in a Cape Breton bog (that’s in Nova Scotia for you non-Canadians) in her 1942 memoir West With the Night. Apparently Hemingway (yep, him again) called it a “bloody wonderful book” in which “[she] writes rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” Interestingly, in the same letter, he reputedly described Markham herself as a “high grade bitch.” So… I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely intrigued.

That’s why after ordering Paula McLain’s novel Circling the Sun from our library… I’m on a long waiting list… I was so excited to see that they also have a copy of Markham’s book. So I ordered it too. I think I’m almost more excited to read Markham’s memoir than I am McLain’s novel. And once I’m done with these, well, I can see all kinds of “rabbit holes” opening up. I may be “reading round the subject” for quite some time.  

Which brings me back to where we started, Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News?

Anyway… here I was yesterdayleafing through the first few pages of the book looking for the part where Ms. MacDonald tells Reggie that she should “read round the subject.” And I come upon the exact paragraph and then see that she also suggests Reggie read Hemingway’s story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” which she describes as a “seminal text.”

So, I laugh and rush into the kitchen to tell Hubby how this whole blog post topic just keeps coming back to Hemingway. Over and over. McLain writes about Hemingway’s wife as her subject, and Hemingway writes a letter about McLain’s subject Beryl Markham, and Kate Atkinson’s character talks about Hemingway. Wheels within wheels, see?

And Hubby just guffaws and says, “Suz, you think everything comes back to Hemingway.”   

Huh. He’s probably just bitter because I dragged him around to so many Hemingway “shrines” in Paris. “Walking round the subject,” you might say. Hah. Good one.   

Still. I may go dig out that Africa story that Hemingway wrote…”The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in which a “high-grade bitch” of a wife has an affair with a big game hunter in Africa and then “accidentally” shoots her husband. You don’t think that he based her character on….?

Nah. I’m just imagining things. Fallen down one too many reading rabbit holes, probably.      

Do you enjoy “reading round the subject?”

P.S. I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you buy a book by clicking on any of my links I will receive a small commission. You can find all the books I review on Amazon. Here are the links: The Paris Wife, A Moveable Feast, Circling the Sun, West with the Night, When Will There Be Good News?


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25 thoughts on “Reading Round the Subject.”

  1. Yes I do! One memorable, very extended period was when I read a book about the last Tsar of Russia, which lead to an (almost) obsession with all things Russian royal family! I read every book about them that I could get my hands on; reading round the subject indeed!
    Love your blog, and look forward to the posts, especially those featuring fashion or books. You've got me hooked on Peter May, I immediately downloaded the first in his Lewis trilogy, and am loving it.

    1. So glad you are enjoying Peter May, Bodie. I remember my "Russian period" a few years ago. It all started with the historical novel Nicholas and Alexandra, lent to me by a friend.

  2. I know just what you mean . I had the Mitford obsession too , especially the family themselves . It became a general interest in society figures of the early 20th century & the effects of WW1 on their lifestyles . On holiday I often peer across to Inch Kenneth & imagine their lives there . The same thing happens in my family history research . I'm lead on to local history of the areas involved , the industries my ancestors worked in , the workhouse system & emigration etc . All fascinating- I just wish I remembered it all ! Thank you for the surprise pic of Jackson/Jason . Love those books & that character.
    Wendy in York

    1. Me too…I started reading biographies of society figures( whose names I've forgotten) who lived at the same time as the Mitford sisters. More of a rabbit warren than a rabbit hole, that subject, actually.

  3. Oh, so many books, so little time! I think I need to retire so I can read more. 😉 But yes, I've been one to "read around," especially when I get into reading histories or historical biographies. I need to re-read Moveable Feast and follow up with "Paris Wife." I think those will be my book for this fall.

  4. Yes! I was so pleased to come across that phrase when I read Good News a few years ago and have quoted it many times since. I'm not particularly a Hemingway fan although obviously, tecnique, style….undeniable. I do go through "reading around" periods, of course, for my work, obviously, but also in my leisure reading from as early as I can remember. Re Hemingway, I read through Gertrude Stein, then through Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs. We had Canadian representation there as well, of course. John Glassco's "memoir" is deliciously naughty and playful, and of course Morley Callathan. Oh, clearly we need to convene a bloggers' book club meet-up!!
    I've just finished Atkinson's A God in Ruins, a stellar companion to her brilliant Life after Life. Thank God for writers!!

    1. Oh that's funny Frances…that you should pick on the same phrase. I loved that in the TV series they had Reggie say it several times. I read Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse years ago for a university writing course I was taking. And of course Morley…our Canadian member of the Paris expat crew of the twenties. Love that whole era. I've been toying with getting A God In Ruins. Do I need to have read Life After Life to enjoy it properly?

    2. I don't think you need to (I'd forgotten quite a bit and will go back at some point and retread Life), but to really appreciate the narrative techniques she plays with, I think you might enjoy reading Ursula's story (LAL) first.

  5. Hi Susan–I have always wanted to comment on your blog but have been a bit timid. I am a retired nurse and have really enjoyed your blogs on fashion but my favourites are your blogs on books. I am always telling my husband that your choices are brilliant because they frequently coincide with my own (Jane Urquhart, Barbara Pym, Donna Leon, Diane Johnson, Deborah Crombie). Today I had to jump in the pool–I was at our local bookstore to choose a book for my 2 week trip to Vermont (a guilty pleasure because I'm a library person). I finally selected Circling the Sun because I loved The Paris Wife. Then I came home and read your blog. Another brilliant choice for you and for me. Bravo! Bobbe in Montreal

  6. Yes I do there was my Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald phase which incorporated fiction and biographies and in turn led to reading about Gerald and Sara Murphy, and from there Americans in Paris in the twenties. Recently saw Lisa Klausman has a new book based on the story of the Murphy's but it doesn't seem to havegood reviews. Other clusters have included fiction and non fiction relating to the boomsbury set, Russian revolution, China, India in the time of the raj and more recently Afghanistan. I enjoyed the American Wife and like the sound of Circling the sun. Have enjoyed reading about Hemmingway and often women linked to him more than his actual writing. Perhaps I need to look again. Love Kate Atkinson and especially enjoyed Jackson Brodie books. Less fond of Life after Life though it's very well written so I'm not in a rush to read her latest though I will read it. Definitely enjoy books I can read around _ adds to the pleasure. Thanks for another lovely book post . Iris

    1. Love anything Bloomsbury. And I also got into a Scott and Zelda phase followed by a book on the Murphy's. I couldn't finish the latest fiction on Zelda, came out in 2013 I think. Can't remember the title….(was it Z?) …probably blocked it out because the book left me cold. They should have a "reading round the subject" section in bookstores….imagine how much it would boost their sales.

  7. Hi Susan, I'm impressed. My first time reading your blog and I haven't made it past this post. You've provided enough reading suggestions to keep me going for a long time, especially as I won't be retired for awhile! Speaking of reading obsessions, a few years ago I picked up a slim volume in my favourite used bookstore in Kingston, Ontario called The Wayfarer. The artwork on the front of the paperback and the blurb and the quotes on the back appealed to me. It was Anita Brookner's "Providence" – I had never heard of the English writer Anita Brookner and immediately at the end of Providence I had to start collecting any other pieces of her writing I could find. I've read 80% of her fiction. It calms me. She is my go-to author when I need a break from our online, 21st century world. I enjoy being transported backwards as opposed to forwards. Much to learn and yet there is recognition too. Ahhhh reading. Take care, and thanks, Heather.

    1. Thanks, Heather. I also love Anita Brookner. Her book Hotel du Lac is one of my favourites; in fact I featured it in a book post a while back. Brookner and Barbara Pym are my go-to writers when life gets too hectic! Thanks for stopping by.

  8. What a wonderful post! I am so glad you linked up to my #AllAboutYou link party! Really enjoyed reading this. I haven't read much Hemmingway at all although please don't think badly of me! I'm rather more of an Alexandre Dumas kind of girl, but am open minded to explore!

  9. Omg, I'm so anxious. So many books and never enough time. I too love Barbara Pynn, Kate Atkinson and bar du lac. Have you read Mary Wesley. Another British woman writer. Need to check out Peter Mayes and Paris Wife. I get stuck on your blog and can't leave. Love it. Sandra Sallin from http://www.apartfrommyart .com

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