July brought a few baby steps toward normalcy. I started using my library’s no-contact curbside service, which works really well. And my church started having outdoor services last week, with masks, social distancing, and reservations required. (The reservations are to ensure there’s space for distancing in our small amphitheater.) I’ve continued crocheting and finished a shawl in Tunisian crochet and couple of beaded jewelry pieces and a few afghan squares. I’m currently pondering what to do with the leftover yarn I used for the shawl. I really liked the shawl, except I wish it were bigger, so I may make another with a larger hook, or I may look for a new pattern. So far, I’ve just followed patterns in the various subscription boxes I receive, and I get overwhelmed if I look for one to try on my own. If anyone has recommendations for a relatively easy project that requires a couple of skeins of sportweight yarn, I’m happy to receive them. As for reading, I did a lot of it in July, most of it quite good! A mix of old and new, popular and obscure, fiction and nonfiction. The way I like my reading to be.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: This true-crime book about the Golden State Killer was pretty gripping, although the large number of victims and locations was hard to keep track of. For me, the really interesting thing about the book was the process of writing it. Michelle McNamara was a true crime blogger who started looking into the cases and gained the respect of a lot of the investigators. Tragically, she died before finishing the book and before the killer was found. As a result, sections of the book are built from her notes and published articles.
Network Effect by Martha Wells: The first full-length novel in the extremely enjoyable Murderbot series includes the return of ART, my favorite character in the series. Murderbot continues its growth as a character, learning to balance competing priorities and loyalties and follow its instincts. One minor issue I have with these books is that the plot can be hard to follow, because Wells just plunks readers into the action. It took me a while to find my footing here — longer than in the novellas — but once I did, I had a great time. I think, though, I might have enjoyed it a hair more as a novella.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: My church has been having weekly discussions on race and policing in America, using this book as a guide. Alexander provides lots of information on how the war on drugs has disproportionately affected Black people, even as white people are no less guilty of illegal drug use. It’s 10 years old, but the landscape hasn’t changed much, as best I can tell. I’m glad, though, that more people are talking about it.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: Stella and Desiree are light-skinned Black twins, one of whom chooses to live as a white woman. As in her previous novel, The Mothers, Bennett shows a lot of sympathy for her characters’ choices, even when they’re clearly wrong. She follows the characters across decades and shows the effects of their choices in the next generation. I did have some minor reservations about the inclusion of a trans man in book. On the one hand, it was great to see a trans man just accepted for who he is, and the love story he’s part of is really sweet. But I worry about the potential for placing his transition in parallel with racial passing. It’s not something remarked on in the book, but I wondered about it. I’m curious about how trans readers are reacting to book but have not yet found anything.
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: I obviously know how to read a book, but this book is really about how to extract as much understanding as possible from informational texts. Some of the advice seemed counter-intuitive — such as to keep reading and not look everything that you don’t understand. But I don’t think this kind of reading, which involves skimming, outlining, and reading again more carefully, is appropriate for every book and every reader. The authors acknowledge that such reading isn’t necessary or useful for every book. But they also suggest that, for good nonfiction, this is the right and most virtuous way to read. It might be the way to get the most out of a book, but I think it’s also okay just to get what you feel like getting from a book in the moment.
The Soloist by Mark Salzman: Renee was a cello prodigy who, as an adult, lost the ability to play well. He lives alone and teaches but has no clear direction now that he’s lost his talent. Participating in a jury in a murder trial and teaching another young prodigy gradually gives him a new perspective. I found the ending of this book, which shows a new way of thinking about limitations and possibilities, to be quite moving (and it involves a cat, which is a bonus).
The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: In this 1947 novel, a suburban wife named Lucia whose husband has gone to the war finds herself covering up a murder for the sake of her family. And the cover-up brings her into contact with a variety shady characters, doing things no one would suspect her of doing, but also putting her under scrutiny for a whole other set of reasons. It’s a great book, and I liked watching Lucia use the inner resources nobody saw in her, and I worried about how it would turn out for her as her situation gets increasingly desperate.
The Witch Elm by Tana French: Alas, I’m now caught up on Tana French. Her books are so reliably good! This, her first standalone book, features a dead body in a tree and a main character whose memory is messed up, thanks to a head injury incurred during a break-in. So you have a character trying to solve a murder that he himself may have committed. It’s long but I was able to whip through it. I still think Broken Harbour is my favorite Tana French, but this was really good.
Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile: A disturbing novel about a teenage girl named Susanna who seduces the father who abandoned her as a baby. Also extremely sad, because Susanna seems to know no good way to experience love, in part because her family never gave it to her. And when people do offer her appropriate love and friendship, she’s unable to accept. The last part of the novel shifts in tone, as Susanna faces the consequences of what she’s done. Weirdly, I found this last part harder to read than the disturbing main story, I think because there was no more tension to resolve. It was just pain at that point.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison: Set in the 1680s, this book features the voices of a variety of members of a small farming household, servants and landowners. As is typical of Morrison, she treats all her characters with great dignity, even when the society they’re part of does not. Most of the characters are women, and even the woman with the most power doesn’t have any good choices. The book itself feels like an act of mercy, giving voices to women whom history silenced.
As for August, I’m going to continue a mix of old and new books from my shelves and the library. I’ve started The Lost Traveller by Antonia White, sequel to Frost in May, which I read and loved years ago. I have all of books in that series and will probably read them all. I’ll also probably read A Burning by Megha Majumdar for my local bookstore’s book group. And I have one book left from the Tournament of Books Tournament of Champions, coming this fall: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s not a book I’d necessarily be inclined to read if it weren’t for the competition, but I also don’t expect it to be a slog. If it is, I’ll move on to something else!