April! Whew! A very strange month: I was teaching from home (something I hope not to have to do much of in the future, but WHO KNOWS), and keeping an eye on my teens, and strategizing about safe grocery shopping and household stuff, and with all that, I was much less able to focus on reading this month than last. In March, I read fourteen books. In April, I read five! But they were quality, so let’s look at them:
Normally, for my wonderful and thrice-blessed book club, we all choose a book together and read the same thing, as most book clubs do. But this month, I suggested that each member read a different novel that had to do with an epidemic/ pandemic, and return with a report on her readiing. For our meeting, I re-read Connie Willis’s marvelous Doomsday Book, one of her time-travel novels, in which Kivrin, a historian traveling to the Middle Ages, accidentally travels to a plague year. Her supervisor, Dr. Dunworthy, works frantically to find out what the accident was and to retrieve her before the worst happens, but there is a virulent plague attacking Oxford on his end of the timeline as well. This is a book about plague, of course, and the horror that it is when illness and death surround you on every side. But it is also a book about friendship and community and doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming reasons not to. I read this when I’d been having real trouble focusing on reading other than in short bursts, and I read it in two days. It’s wonderful. (Other books my friends read included Love in the Time of Cholera, They Came Like Swallows, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Station Eleven, and Journal of the Plague Year.)
Another book that saved my concentration-deprived brain was Grace Paley’s collected short stories. I’ve heard Paley’s name mentioned many times over the years, but I’ve never read anything she’s written. Reading all of her stories at once in this collection was like taking a deep breath. More than anything else, she is an impresario of voice: her stories are full of human thought, full of dynamic energy, full of… empathy, I guess, in some kind of synergystic way that lets us into her characters’ heads (or Paley’s own head) for a while. The stories are witty and political and closely-observed. They have turns of phrase that open up whole new worlds for a minute and linger and then close them, because this story is already enough. How about this: “If you said the word ‘city’ to Edie, or even the cool adjective ‘municipal,’ specific children usually sitting at the back of the room appeared before her eyes and refused to answer when she called on them.” (“Ruthie and Edie”) Where have these stories been all my life? (New York.) They were perfect for this time and this place; they let us see and love the world a little better.
I also read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. I’m a lover of good nature writing, and this is a classic I’ve been meaning to get around to for years. Baker observed mating pairs of peregrines in his English valley, about 10 miles long by 4 miles wide, over a decade, and recorded his observations in prose that is deep and dazzling. He writes about their bloody predatory slaughter, the heart-catching beauty of their flight, their plummeting fall through thousands of feet of sky onto smaller birds, their ruffled, sullen shoulders in the rain as they sleep, their habit of bathing in running streams, their bones made fragile by pesticides. There is nothing he does not know. He is half peregrine himself. This book was difficult to read; it’s repetitive (because nature is repetitive) and dense. But every word is worship, and it’s both fascinating and brilliant without being purple or sentimental in the slightest.
I’m going to save a discussion for the last two books — the first two of the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh — for next month, because I’m going to finish up the last book in a couple of days and I can write about all three at that point. I’ll say that the first two were wonderful, just as wonderful as I remembered. I’m looking forward to seeing how the third concludes.