April Reading (a week into May)

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.

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17 Responses to April Reading (a week into May)

  1. Jeanne says:

    Maybe it’s time for me to finally read The Doomsday Book.

    • Jenny says:

      Are you generally a Connie Willis fan? Because I am — I’m basically a Willis-can-do-no-wrong sort of person, even when I can see her flaws. This is a really great example of Willis’s more serious and less farcical writing (though there are funny bits.) If you like her, you’ll like this, I think.

      • Jeanne says:

        I have not been a fan of her writing but can’t say why except it has never really grabbed me and I didn’t see any sense in persevering when I don’t have any other purpose but enjoyment.

      • Jenny says:

        Then… maybe this one won’t grab you either. It’s pretty much prime Willis, with all that entails.

  2. Marg says:

    I love the Doomsday Book!!

    • Jenny says:

      It had been at least eight or ten years since I’d read it, and I’d forgotten how much I liked it too.

  3. I tried to read Sea of Poppies few years back.. Couldn’t complete it. Time to revisit it seems .

  4. I look forward to hearing what you think about the Ibis trilogy on a reread! I liked the first two a lot and then wasn’t at all happy with the third one, but I’ve intended for a while to reread them all three back to back. I never feel that waiting years between book releases is the optimal way to experience a trilogy!

    • Jenny says:

      I’m having something of the same experience, Jenny. I’ll be done with this in another day or so and then I’ll tell you all about it, but I think we are, as most of the time, of one mind.

  5. Grace Paley is something else. I guess I’ve only read her first book, but it is amazing. And they are apparently literally the first stories – practically the first anything – she ever wrote. Pen to paper, and out comes all of that.

    • Jenny says:

      I think I thought she was realist, before starting her stories, but she isn’t, is she? It’s a postmodern work, the way the language and the world fits together. And she is a genius at seeing things.

    • Well, I am not the one to ask about “realist,” since I think it has been emptied of meaning, but I wonder if the postmodern stuff comes later than the stories in Little Disturbances of Man, which are what I read, and which are full of surprising human insights.

      • Jenny says:

        I don’t see “full of surprising human insights” as a different project from “postmodern,” necessarily. I’m thinking more about how her dialogue is not attempting to be realistic (or, if you prefer, “realistic”) dialogue, for instance. It sparkles and fizzes and comes back around and hits you in the ear. It’s full of wit and insight — it’s real about people — but it’s not attempting to portray a conversation.

      • Right, writers with great insight into human nature and good comic dialogue can be postmodern, modern, pre-modern, unmodern. I think I do not understand the sense in which you are using “postmodern.” I usually mean something like metafiction, or texts within texts, or “you know, like Gravity’s Rainbow.”

      • Jenny says:

        I mean… sure, those rhetorical and formal moves are one of the things postmodernism is. But it’s also lots of other things (about difference, and destabilizing grand theories about identity and historical progress and epistemology, und so weiter.) Maybe she’s not postmodern. But I think so, in the way that word and world are not fitted together here.

        There are lots of “realistic” comparisons to be made, too, though. Chekhov, maybe, is a good place to start.

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