Everything I read in May

May was a big reading month for me. One of my favourite parts of going on holiday is all the reading I get done – so when I took a week off this month (Weekend Week!) I made sure to spend as much time as possible curled up with a book. Even though I was on holiday on my own sofa, it still felt very luxurious.

Here are all the books I finished this month and what I thought of them.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

At the end of last year, I read an interesting article by Gary Younge about his year of only reading books by African women, and added a lot of recommendations to my to-read list as a result. Americanah was one of them and I’m glad I picked it up – it was a great read. The main character, Ifemelu, grows up in Lagos but moves to the United States for university. Her childhood sweetheart Obinze is unable to follow her and tries to make a life for himself in London instead.

In a book packed with well-drawn characters, Ifemelu is a worthy protagonist, and her struggle with her dual identity is central to the novel – to Americans, she seems Nigerian; to Nigerians, American. I moved to another country at roughly the same age, and while Ifemelu and I definitely had different experiences, I really related to this part of her story. As an adult, she also writes a popular blog about race in America, and I always looked forward to reading the posts that were included in the book. Maybe this means I should seek out some of Adichie’s essays? I’ll definitely read more of her novels.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

This French novel has a killer set of opening lines: “The children were dead. It only took a few minutes.” But the remaining story isn’t a thrilling whodunnit so much as an exploration of class, domesticity, and the pressures and expectations of motherhood in modern France. I’ve already ranted about the marketing for this book and the expectation of “twists”, so won’t say much more. But this was an interesting, haunting book, and worth a read.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

My favourite from the month. This is a novel about the end of the world as we know it, but one that glows with hope and belief in humanity – a nice change of pace for a genre that tends to lean towards the miserable.

Art is central to the lives of many of the characters. Before the pandemic that wipes out most of civilisation, Miranda’s life’s work is creating a sci-fi comic book that shares its name with the novel; twenty years later, Kirsten is part of a squabbling band of Shakespeare performers and musicians who enchant other survivors with their depictions of the lost world. Is survival just a matter of staying alive? Or is it of staying human?

Parts of the book are very sad, and the scenes of the outbreak itself are suitably tense. But it’s the persistence of the characters that has stuck with me, and its little moments of humour – when one of the post-apocalyptic musicians scrawls “Hell is other people” in a caravan, another replaces “other people” with “flutes”. Overall, this is a a lovely book, and one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti

A story about the loss of childhood innocence, with all the staples: kids on bikes, the hottest summer in living memory, and learning that your parents aren’t who you thought they were. This was a pacy read. Ammaniti’s descriptions of life in the sleepy Italian village are very evocative, and his depiction of childhood as a mixture of innocence, boredom and confusion always felt real.

This has been adapted into what is apparently a very good Italian film with a very bad American trailer that reveals the entire plot of the movie.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

Content warning for sexual assault.

I did not like this book. This 1950s eco disaster focuses on middle-class Londoners attempting to survive a plague which kills off all species of grass, from lawns to wheat. One of them, John, has a brother who lives on an isolated farm, and sets out to lead his family and friends to safety.

At the start of the book, as they watch chaos unfold across the rest of the world, the heroes declare their belief in the innate superiority of British character – a belief which is immediately undercut, as it takes barely any provocation for them to start murdering innocent people. Unfortunately, while the narrative subverts the characters’ racism and “stiff upper lip” bullshit, it seems quite happy to uphold their sexist attitudes. Based on this book, Christopher doesn’t seem to like women very much – or men, for that matter, as he appears to think they’re all rapists. The low point had to be when our heroes raid a family’s farmhouse, murder the parents in cold blood, “marry” the orphaned teenage daughter off to their pet psychopath to keep him sweet after he kills his wife, and then make cruel jokes describing the traumatised teenager as “a Sabine woman come home to roost”. The book ends with John’s wife telling him that all of his decisions were great.

The whole thing comes off as some sort of weird power fantasy about a scenario in which the family patriarch can make show the family how much of a man he is. The fact that the main character shares a name with the author really does not help. Overall: gross. I was glad to be done with it.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

This well-constructed page-turner tells the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident in Bristol that leaves a young child dead. The book divides its focus between the people affected by the accident and the police investigating it. The marital issues of the lead cop weren’t that interesting, but I was a lot more absorbed by the other narrator, a grieving artist trying to escape her past. And the book’s villain is seriously loathsome.

The cover of this novel makes a big deal out of the fact that it has a twist. Unfortunately, when I know something has a twist, I will spend all of my time trying to guess what the twist is, and that took away some of the impact of said twist. I also found some of the final revelations a little unbelievable. Still, I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and this made me want to read more.

The Stars My Destination by Albert Bester

Content warning for sexual assault. Again.

My second classic sci-fi read of the month, and again my enjoyment was tainted by Ye Olde Misogynye. Our protagonist is Gully Foyle, who is abandoned on a broken spaceship and swears revenge on those who failed to rescue him. He also rapes one of the book’s three female characters, and fantasises about assaulting another. Yes, Foyle is meant to be a terrible person, but this still soured me on the book significantly.

At least the rest of The Stars My Destination has a lot more going for it than The Death of Grass. Bester stuffs more ideas into every page than some writers fit in an entire novel. Humans have gained the ability to teleport, which has had some interesting implications for society, including maze-like secret offices and lightless subterranean prisons. There are some cool early cyberpunk themes, and the exploits of new-money nitwit Fourmyle of Ceres are entertaining to read about.

However, after ranting about this to my friend and hearing from her that The Demolished Man also has a really shitty attitude towards its female characters, I think I’ll be giving Bester a miss from now on.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Last year I read and loved Revolutionary Road, so was looking forward to giving Richard Yates another go. I was not disappointed. The book’s opening line (good opening lines this month!) sums it up: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.”

Sarah, the older sister, accepts the domestic life the world expects of her, while Emily resists it. What follows is a procession of disappointments, bad relationships and excessive alcohol consumption. Yates is excellent at describing characters who are deeply unhappy with their situations, but completely paralysed by inertia. This is a painful book, but very moving.

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