The past few weeks, though still often sad and difficult, have been a bit better for reading. I’m not sure if it’s me or the books—probably a bit of both.
My favorite recent read by far is Sarah Winman’s exquisite novel Still Life. It took a while to draw me in, but it was well worth an initial bit of patience: it unfolds into such a tender story about friendship, art, beauty, values, love, loss, and chosen families. It has darker shadows and fiercer pains than Forster’s A Room With a View, source of its main intertextual and contextual allusions, but it has in common with Forster’s novel a commitment to seeing widely and to seeking sunshine—to clearing the way for it. I loved it. I also loved Panenka, which like Rónán Hession’s first novel Leonard and Hungry Paul is small, quiet, funny, and yet also piercing. And I almost loved Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which engrossed and moved me nearly to the end—but I thought the last 10% or so dragged, to the point that I started skimming a bit just to see it through. (I was also frustrated by the decision not to name or specify the narrator’s mental illness. A note at the end says her symptoms are “not consistent with a genuine mental illness,” and that seemed to me to undermine a lot of the novel’s work to bring them to such vivid life. What was the point of labeling it “——”? Is it an act of resistance to the whole idea of labeling and diagnosing mental illness? If so, then why is the narrator so relieved to get a correct diagnosis?)*
I didn’t much like Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. I persisted to the end, but it never engaged me deeply at all. My least favorite quality in a book is archness, and that seemed to me Less‘s primary mood. It will shock some of my Twitter friends when I say that I also didn’t much like Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time: it isn’t arch, exactly, but it is crisp and clever and detached to the point that it felt thin, even superficial, and thus unsatisfying. I was interested in the premise of Kate Grenville’s A House Made of Leaves and there are good things about it, but overall the execution felt dry and the messages (about history and gender and colonialism) perfunctory, delivered rather than dramatized.
My lighter reading included Jenny Holiday’s pretty entertaining Duke, Actually and a reread of Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader; I’m currently rereading Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear trilogy, my second favorite historical romance series (my very favorite is Loretta Chase’s Carsington series, especially Lord Perfect and Miss Wonderful).
I have some promising options in my TBR pile to choose from next, including Nicola Griffith’s Spear (a sequel to Hild is apparently on its way, but this looks good too), Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song (for my book club), Pip Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. I’ve put some of Ali Smith’s earlier novels on hold at the library and would also like to read her new one, Companion Piece, partly out of personal interest and partly because I’m still thinking about how her Seasonal Quartet might fit into the book I’m trying to work on. It’s a pretty tough time—personally, but also generally—to find the motivation to write something that seems unlikely to become anything, so I figure I should follow this flicker of interest in Smith as far as it will go.
As you can tell, I’m still not up to writing the kind of longer, more detailed and thoughtful book posts I used to enjoy crafting. But I am reading more again, and reading better. To quote Taylor Swift, this is me trying.
*After posting this, I looked up some reviews and interviews about Sorrow and Bliss and the idea seems to have been to avoid the novel being tagged as “the schizophrenia book” or “the borderline personality book” etc., and thus getting reduced to “a novel about X” in every discussion. I suppose that’s fair enough, though it still feels like a dodge.