I’ve been rubbish at reading lately for no particular reason. Actually there are many I am sure particular reasons, but I drifted off some time ago and have had a challenging comeback to my usual devouring of almost everything that comes my way. It also seems that the less time I have for reading, the more I somehow manage to read.
The pandemic has barely changed my preference for books. Literature-wise, last spring was dominated by the Cromwell-trilogy by Hilary Mantel. Events, or rather the lack of them, come right back at the mere sight of those books. I ploughed through the Handmaid’s Tale DVD-set in the early, panicky days of the virus and then moved on to really marinate myself in the darkness of human psyche. Was any of this useful for adjusting to the surreal confinement? Probably not. Did any of it help me personally? Also probably not.
Nevermind the pandemic, the past year has been an epic spectator-show of dramatic events that we haven’t have been properly able to digest collectively given the confined circumstances: Black Lives Matter, US-election with its appalling aftermath, the decisions that led to women’s uprise in Poland, curbing of press freedom in parts of Europe and continuous attacks on free speech across the world just to name a few. All of it makes me not want to mainly seek escape, but explanations.
It’s early days still for pandemic literature save from a couple of hot takes, but I’m bracing myself for the avalanche of “The Pandemic and I” -genre in the coming months. I’m a tiny bit comforted by France’s biggest publishing house’s plea for people to stop sending their scripts as I’m sure we all have only that much interest in reading about how everybody else made it through once we start the slow crawl up from this mess.
What has sparked joy recently are the following books, which include some of my favourite authors that I know will not mess about. Second Place by Rachel Cusk does actually mention “pandemonium” a couple of times, but it’s a novel based on the story of D. H. Lawrence setting up quarters at Mabel Lodge Luhan’s place in the 30s, so it’s not about Covid-19 and therefore a more abstract and timeless read. I like Cusk’s clippy sentences and really enjoyed her previous novels as well (the Outline-trilogy is gold). I am currently reading The Bradshaw Variations, which is her earlier works, and very enjoyable as well. The Wall Street Journal calls Second Place “maybe the first pandemic novel” and has an interview / review here.
Milkman by Anna Burns is worth the hype – I could not bring myself to read it earlier because I simply disliked the cover of the European edition so much. I came across an edition which was covered in a greenish Liberty-print, and read the novel pronto, and recommend it warmly, if only to figure out reasons behind the political fuss related to the EU’s vaccine contract with the UK and its implications on Northern Ireland. (Now apparently sorted, but the novel is brilliant.)
Vivian Gornick is my favourite observer of metropolitan life, so I was very thrilled to see another collection of her short stories in Taking a Long Look, Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time. Another fail-safe social commentator is Olivia Laing, whose Everybody – A Book about Freedom is likewise a collection of essays about the human body and the bodily freedoms. You might want to check out Laing’s recent wellness-diary in Vanity Fair here.
I really liked Rachel Kushner’s novel Mars Room a few years ago (very Orange is the new black), and The Hard Crowd is a collection of her essays from 2000-2020, mostly observations about art and literature. While her style is different from Joan Didion, Kushner does similar, literary eagle-eyed and surgically exact reconstructions across the society.
Jhumpa Lahiri was a new acquaintance, but I cannot resist a book about women who walk around in cities. Whereabouts is a very metaphorical novel, something that I’m often not crazy about, but the book’s timespan of a year of observations and paths and steps and happenstances and transformations and changing perspectives kind of resonated just now. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian and has done the English translation herself.
I haven’t read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, but it didn’t stop me from totally loving its sequel The Committed. A hilarious and at times tragic novel about Vietnamese Americans who find themselves dealing drugs to posh people in Paris manages to weave together politics (communism, capitals, colonialism), history and comedy without becoming pompous or messy. It’s fast-paced but properly develops each of its characters, and as one of the blurbs very poignantly put it, it’s “an elegy to idealism, Orientalism and existentialism in all its tragic forms”, describing the novel’s Paris as “a squatter’s paradise for those with one foot in the grave and the other shoved halfway up Western civilisation’s ass”.
The Sympathizer is also excellent for alleviating wanderlust, as its descriptions of Paris quartiers are almost three-dimensional.
Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin was a total impulse buy which I’ve only just started. I felt like a suspense story on the day, and think that the novel’s murder mystery mixed with social commentary will see me through the upcoming long weekend perfectly.
A bonus tip in case you are looking for literary skits akin to SNL: the short stories in The Best of Me by David Sedaris are very funny.