The last three months haven’t been very good reading months for me: I have picked up and then put back down a lot more books than I have finished. This is true of new (to me) books, at any rate: since January I have actually reread quite a few books that were easy and comforting, including the first four Anne books (thanks to a dear friend who sent me a lovely box set), several favorite romances and mysteries, and The Beethoven Medal (part of one of my all-time favorite ‘YA’ series). I have also, of course, been reading books on grief and loss, and odds and ends of poetry.
But I have read some new books, and I thought I would remark them here, if only sketchily, so that I don’t forget them, and so that this blog doesn’t altogether lose its bookish aspect.
In January, I read Lauren Groff’s Matrix. I expected to like it more than I did. This is not to say I didn’t like it; the premise was fascinating, and I remember being impressed at how vividly Groff built her world, and how strong, strange, and specific she made Marie as a character. Female agency and empowerment, creativity, desire, spirituality: the book explores them all, with a compelling combination of grittiness and lyricism. For some reason, though, I was disappointed when I learned that this particular work of historical fiction is much more fictional than historical—that almost nothing is actually known about Marie, that Groff’s character and story is all invention. This retroactively took some of the life out of the book for me, which is hardly fair given that I read and love a lot of historical fiction that is mostly made up.
In February, I read through Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. The sabbatical project I am picking away at has to do with the relationship between fictional form and social or political engagement (or, to put it another way, with fictional form as itself a kind of social or political engagement). With this in mind I was poking around in information about the Orwell Prize and this led me to some articles and interviews about Smith’s win, which in turn made me curious about whether her series might make a good contemporary example for me. I reread Autumn, and then picked up the other three and read them all through. By the end of Spring I was a bit less sure about using this series for my purposes, but some of my hesitation came from feeling unqualified to work on Smith: both her style and her influences, including the explicit invocation of Shakespeare plays, are a bit far afield for me. That doesn’t rule the books out, of course; it would just mean I would have to work hard to figure out how to talk about them, a prospect which is actually kind of appealing, or it would be if my mind didn’t feel so scattered all the time right now.
In March I read Denise Mina’s Rizzio, another historical novel I ended up being a bit disappointed in. There was something awkward (to my reading ear, anyway) about the combination of meticulous historical detail and a too-contemporary idiom, especially in the dialogue. Mina is good at foreboding and action, as you’d expect from a crime novelist. I reread Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which I loved all over again, though it is even more melancholy than I’d remembered. Then I read Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, which went really well at first and then started (I thought) to lose its focus and ended up feeling scattered, full of good bits but not a satisfying whole. I read two recently reissued novels by Rosalind Brackenbury, A Day to Remember to Forget and A Virtual Image, for an upcoming review (I finished a third, Into Egypt, yesterday). My last March book was Katherine Ashenburg’s Her Turn, which I enjoyed a lot. It’s less ambitious than some of my other recent reading, but it seemed to me to do well what it set out to do, including explore the possibilities and implications of both revenge and forgiveness in the context of our most intimate relationships.
I have a lot of unread books to hand that look tempting, including Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time, Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I have more of the Anne books to dip back into, too, and another kind friend set me up with Emily of New Moon and its sequels, more childhood favorites that I haven’t read in decades. I have picked up and put down some of these a few times already but I’m sure their time will come. It’s not them—it’s me. It is rare for me that reading is this difficult: usually books have been a refuge for me in troubled times, but this time is not like the others. We’ll see how April goes.
(Brief update: I finished Small Things Like These this morning—there’s not much of it!—and it was indeed very good, as everyone has said, although I also felt that underneath the beautiful writing and careful minimalism—did I mention there’s not much of it?—it might actually be a bit heavy-handed.)
Thank you so much for posting this. I can only send compassion and empathy. I never used to give up on books but I do now.
I do recommend the Cazelets.
I will have a go at the Anne books.
I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea but, for humour, good characters, terrific plots, and an overwhelmingly optimistic kindness as well as satire, I love the later novels of Terry Pratchett. Even his villains are redeemable to a certain extent and a lot of the books are laugh aloud funny.
They give me comfort in these bizarre times.
Very best wishes to you.
Thank you, Mary. I think I will try the Cazalets next. It’s nice to know that if I like it there are more. I’ve tried Pratchett a couple of times and so far he has never clicked with me. One of Owen’s favorite books was ‘Good Omens,’ though, which I gave him after it was recommended by a lot of folks on Twitter. It was one of my rare successes, as a book gift for him!
I send you my sincere condolences. It’s okay to be scattered, for however long it goes on for you. One book I reach for over and over when I want respite is Greenwillow, by B.J. Chute. It’s a simple, charming story of the kind nobody writes anymore. May Sarton wrote that she made a point of reading it every year. I hope you find solace in whatever reading brings you comfort.
Thank you, Kathleen. I hadn’t heard of that before but I am a Sarton fan so that’s a good sign.
Thanks for this list, Rohan. I’m always interested in what you’re reading. And even what you’re setting aside. Matrix was in the recent Tournament of Books, and it had many, many fans, for many of the reasons you mention, but in the end, it didn’t win. That went to Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. And with that in mind, I wonder if you would like The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sheriff (1931). Ishiguro mentioned it as a novel he’d read during the pandemic that had a calming effect. I found it quite lovely and delicate. As always, thoughts are with you.