Sunday, April 5, 2020

Isolation reading: Not only, but also

I've had to give the 'new novel at the start of the month' thing a miss this time because I wasn't able to get to the bookstore before they closed in the lockdown, but I've kept it up almost every other month. So as well as the 13 books I've highlighted in the past couple of weeks, here's another 13 I tried out, mentioned here for your own consideration:

The drive to read books outside my comfort zone mean I somehow ended up reading a number of books about slightly autistic women working in menial jobs, which is a whole new genre for me. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata might be the zenith of the form, because there isn't anything else to the story than this concept, but is still a breezy look at life through somebody else's eyes. And Halle Butler's The New Me looks like it's going to get extremely dark as eternal temp Millie pursues a hollow vision, only to pull back from the edge. But Plum Rains by Andromeda Romano-Lax proved to be the best of the bunch, partly because it had the added hook of a robot-drenched future, and partly because it also goes back a century in Japanese to tell a completely different kind of story. But mainly because it features a woman trapped in a foreign land as the outside world tears itself apart, and that just feels incredibly prescient right now.

So many of the books I browse past have a blurb that sounds overly familiar - a ridiculous amount of them start with a sudden death and the promise of hidden truths bursting out - and sometimes all it takes is a decent hook to get the attention. All it can take is something like Trinity by Louisa Hall, which has a number of stories revolving around the life of the man who built the first nuclear bomb, and how people in his orbit get absorbed his genius and obsession. Jac Jemc's The Grip Of It All is a straight-up haunted house story, which are always welcome, even if it eventually fizzles out into anti-climax. After Me Comes The Flood by Sarah Perry has the classic 'stranger shows up at a crumbling mansion inhabited by a weird old family', but is never quite gothic or decayed enough for my tastes. And the hook of Emily Ruskovich's Idaho is the simplest - a tiny action becomes a monstrous act of violence - but never offers any simple answers for what happened, even if it's obvious how the effects destroy the lives of the people involved.

And sometimes the novels I choose because they sound like the weirdest thing on the shelf, and I'm always down for that. Consent by Leo Benedictus gets as dark as the cover is white, and might only work as a reading experience if you know absolutely nothing about it going in. It does feature a character detached from society, and so does Katherine Kilalea's Ok, Mr Field, where a concert pianist slowly loses his mind in splendid isolation after impulsively buying a South African villa and shutting himself off from the world. In The Terrible, an autobiographical long-form poem by Yrsa Daley-Ward, the author does want to fit into the world far more than those others, but doesn't has an easy path to get there, and Daley-Ward's beautifully-written tale sings with truth and righteousness.

Finally, I did originally plan to read a lot more non-fiction as part of this new reading spree, but only read a few science and history books before switching to just novels, because novels are just more fun. But they were still hugely entertaining and informative - The Swerve by Stephan Greenblatt covers a lot of territory, from ancient philosophies to medieval monks digging those ideas up again, and it's all fascinating (if a little existentially troubling), while Brenna Hassett brought a deft human touch to the business of digging up ancient dead people in her Built on Bones. For a change of pace, the last non-fiction I tried was incredibly local - Scott Bainbridge's The Great New Zealand Robbery - which takes place on the streets I walk on every day (or at least did, until the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in last week), but is also set in a 1950s New Zealand which is barely recognisable as the same city today. The bit where a recent mayor showed up as the dodgy kid of a career crim was aces, though.

And that, apart from a few books I've loaned away over the months, is all the books I've been reading as part of my one-person book club. I'm looking forward to ramping it up again when we come out of the other side of this coronavirus crisis, because it's incredibly rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and a shit-tonne of fun. Highly recommended.

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