May was an uneven sort of reading month for me. I started out doing a lot of reading, with varying degrees of enjoyment, but by the end of the month, the news had me retreating into old seasons of Project Runway and really distracting movies, if I could bring myself to look away from all the news. I feel like the racial injustice going on in the U.S. right now deserves my attention, but I’m still figuring out at what point the attention ceases being part of the important work of learning and bearing witness and becomes something unhelpful both to the cause and to my own mental health. It’s a balance we all have to figure out, I suppose.
Virginia is easing up on its stay-at-home restrictions, although here in Northern Virginia, we’re a bit behind the rest of the state. I’m not in a huge hurry to move to the next phase. The things I miss the most — church, theatre, movies — are pretty far down the list to reopen, and I expect to be working at home indefinitely, perhaps permanently. I do have a haircut scheduled, and the library is going to start curbside service soon, but if either has to be delayed, it’s not a huge problem. No one really sees my scraggley hair, and I have plenty of books around to read.
So what did I read in May?
Colony by Hugo Wilcken (2005). This novel about Sabir, a man sent to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, feels at first like a slow thriller about a prison break. But it eventually turns into a series of dreams of other potential outcomes. I don’t know if my reading tastes have gotten less sophisticated or if I’ve become more discerning, but I’m not as patient with these sorts of loopy stories as I used to be. It wasn’t bad. I just lost interest.
Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954). This historical novel based on the life of one of du Maurier’s great grandmother starts out strong, but I got bogged down in the legal machinations. I posted a full review for Daphne du Maurier Reading Week.
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (2020). This was the first selection in my local bookstore’s subscription service, which also includes a (currently virtual) book club. I loved the setting of post-Civil War Texas, a time and place I’d read little about. And I enjoyed seeing the fiddler, Simon, build a little family around making music together. But the romance that drives the story irritated me, and the resolution came too swiftly and easily.
Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1957). This was perhaps my favorite book of the month. Set in 1936, it starts with an unhappy wife deciding she wants a divorce from her inattentive husband. Their mothers try to intervene to keep them together, and they even seem hesitant, but events ensue that drive them apart. I loved how Kennedy showed the short- and long-term consequences for the entire family. It’s not exactly a cautionary tale about divorce, but neither does it make getting out seem like the best choice. It’s all so complicated, and this book explores that very well.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016). Entirely accidentally, I read two books in a row that delved into the long-term consequences of a marital break-up. And this book was also very good, although maybe a little more gimmicky in its construction than Kennedy’s more straightforward novel. Not that I minded the gimmicks. It moves around in time, doling out bits and pieces of each character’s story. And there’s a meta-element, too, that makes for some big drama but doesn’t itself become the story.
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello (1990). I love Hitchcock’s films, and Psycho is one of my favorites, although it’s not one I’ve watched often. Rebello pulls together the memories of lots of different people involved in the making of the film, which was a low-budget venture for Hitchcock. When people disagree about, for example, whose body is on film during the shower scene and how much is visible, Rebello just lets the discrepancy lie. I liked that about it because it gave it the feel of an oral history.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). A contender for my book of the month, but it had just a few too many characters for me to keep my mind fully engaged, given all the other distractions. It’s basically the story of a Yorkshire community, as experienced by a variety of residents, from the new teacher, to the long-time landowner, to a poor girl longing for an education, to the minister with a secret. Holtby structures it around the various subjects the county council has to attend to, and many of the major characters are on the council. She ably shows how the fates of different members of a community are intertwined and how changes that are good for one group may be difficult for others. The people are generally likable, even when their positions are not, because few are acting out of malice. At worst, they’re selfish unaware of and unconcerned with others’ fates. Not of good thing, to be sure, but right now, a lack of malice in people’s actions feels refreshing.
As for June, given recent events, I’ve pulled my copy of White Fragility by Robin Diangelo off my shelf to read next, and my church is having a series of discussions on The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander, so I plan to read that. And on a different note altogether, the latest Old Town Books subscription book is All Adults Here by Emma Straub, so I’m going to try to read that in time for the book group. I’m on the library’s waiting list for the Network Effect ebook, but it might be a few weeks for that. I’m enjoying getting through the books on my shelf. Since domestic dramas worked well for me in May, perhaps I’ll go for more of those, but I’m eyeing some mysteries, too. I have lots of options, even without the library!