What We're Reading, Vol. 9
May is halfway through, and we really don’t know how either. As spring has burst into action, a haze of tiredness (if not outright exhaustion) has blown over us all, inviting time spent only slowly turning the pages of our books as we feel the gentle breezes of the season and take in its blossoming pops of color (even from the insides of coffee shops).
Here is what we’ve been reading this month…
If I thought I had burnt out from my dissertation last month, then I had no idea for what was in store. I’ve been extremely fatigued and low with an unhelpful side of panic for the past few weeks so my brain really isn’t up to much. Prioritising my rest has meant that I’ve set aside my ambitious summer reading list and gone straight for comfort. Unable to sleep one night in late April, I picked up Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and promised myself that I would read it until I felt sleepy – be it 10 pages or 100. While I’m feeling better than I did on that night, I’m still treating my brain with patience so I’ve made my way through the books from 5-7 and have just begun 4. What’s more calming than reading a series you know back to front, and can approach at any time, in any order, and still get a bit of peace from it? I’m sending all my love to all the other frazzled, fried, and burnt up students out there. Please don’t push yourself too hard, and remember to take time for yourself.
I’ve only just started reading a new book (The Bricks That Built the House by Kate Tempest) so I don’t have much to say on it yet, but recently I finished Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, and it was absolutely brilliant. The book follows the story of a kidnapped widow and mother of 10 named Jean McConville who was ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in Northern Ireland in 1972. McConville was suspected of being a British informant during the Troubles - an offence punishable by death - and so was abducted by militants in front of her children and never seen again. Her body was not found until 2003. The narrative of the book is thoroughly thrilling and captivating, detailing the secretive, cutthroat practices of the Provisional IRA, but it is also a stark reminder that those involved in the conflict were real people with real lives, and that the memory of the conflict lives on as Brexit threatens the very frail ‘peace’ that exists in Northern Ireland today.
Like Eliza, I’m feeling extremely fatigued this month and have been trying to treat my mind gently as I move to get some more work done in the near future. As such, I’ve revisited a few old favorites as well – which I talk about in this year’s Spring Reading List – reading a few passages here and there, but I’ve mostly turned to my other approach to dealing with burn out, which is to only read things I’m really excited to read… but without any pressure to read quickly. I picked up Annie Ernaux’s Les Années (The Years) last month, and I’ve been reading bits of the memoir when looking for something soft to read, which has been a welcome change as I haven’t voluntarily read in French in years (pun possibly not intended but definitely appreciated). I also turned back to Joan Didion, whose writing I’ve found to be both vivacious and calming, and read South and West, a recently published edition of her notebooks looking back at trips through the South and West of the United States. Similarly on the topic of memory, I came across Ayşegül Savaş’s debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, and very peacefully ate it up. Taking place half in Istanbul, half in Paris, Savaş’s novel struck me to my soul by hitting a combination of culture references that mean the world to me but that I don’t see represented in literature very often. Representation most definitely does matter.
I occasionally like to coordinate my reads, and this month I read both Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and am in the process of reading Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and last novel in the Neapolitan Novels (to be more precise, I'm trying to read the Ferrante, but as I picked up the Italian edition to practice my target language, I'm moving through it with the speed of an injured turtle) to see how the writers treat the complex female friendships at the core of each novel. Next on my list is Zadie Smith's Swing Time.
Olivia recently picked up a a book by Annie Ernaux, a famous contemporary French writer, and made me realize I had never read anything by her before, and so I picked up one of her most recent books, Memories of a girl. Annie Ernaux always writes about her life, in a Proustian attempt to re-capture the person she was at different points in her life. In Memories of a girl, she remembers her first sexual encounter with an older boy at a summer camp in 1958. Although I think that, sadly, her experience speaks to a lot of young girls, it is a very hard read, and even now, a week after having read it, I'm don't fully feel comfortable recommending it.
Speaking of memoirs conjuring painful memories, after having read Annie Ernaux, I turned to Joan Didion's Blue Nights, a book she wrote after her daughter Quitana Roo passed away. To say that I cried like I rarely had reading this memoir would be an understatement.
The last month must have been a good time for me to explore memoirs written by contemporary female writers, because after Joan Didion, I've began a book by French novelist and playwright Marie Ndiaye, Three Strong Women, that won the Goncourt Price in 2009 and is largely inspired by her own life. Moving between France and Senegal, the novel seems like a formidable psychological exploration of the struggles of its three heroins, and I'm enjoying it a lot so far.
Finally, the political climate in France is pretty agitated these days, which made me think about the way we think and write about revolutions and social upheavals. I picked up Honoré de Balzac’s The Chouans, a classic nineteenth century novel about monarchists during the French Revolution (so, the anti-revolutionist side), hiding in Brittany. To find them, the republican revolutionaries send Marie de Verneuil, a beautiful young aristocrat to seduce their leader. Balzac is always a pretty big hit or miss with me, mostly because I cannot stand the way he writes female characters, but I'm curious enough to give this novel a chance!
I think slow reading seems to be a theme this month. Like others, I find myself with an ambitious reading list and suddenly no mental energy to get through it quickly. I had started in on it, but slow pacing tripped me up and despite devoting a few entire days to reading, I am still only about halfway through my current read. I’m reading Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light, a release I anticipated for the better part of last year but have had a mixed reaction to so far. Like I said, the pacing has completely thrown me off — jumping back and forth between long stretches of 1929/1930 and mere moments throughout WWII, the different scenes initially felt focused but further along seem to lose connection. I don’t usually frequent historical novels either so I’m not sure how I feel about scenes that feel a little bit too perfect; Surrealist Paris is obviously an ideal, but too many of the right artists in the same room passed off as chance every. single. time. can feel heavy. Still, Lee Miller was a visionary and one of, if not my favorite artist of the time, whom I haven't really studied since university, and I find it nostalgic to be in some version of her world again.
Between chapters, or over my morning coffee, I have been finding some calm retrospection in rereading the monthly bits in Jessica Kerwin Jenkins’ All The Time In The World. I think I’ve mentioned this one before, but it’s a forever favorite of mine and taking in random aesthetic tidbits throughout history feels just like reading the right sort of poetry that just brings me some low maintenance joy. (Each essay is under four or five pages)
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