My month in books: April 2020

A bison in tall grass. Photo by Bryce Olsen.

This month’s reading had it all. Bison! Romance! Killer plants from Soviet Russia!

Outside the world of books, things have been shit for obvious reasons. This definitely had an impact on what I chose to read and how I dealt with it. But at least I’m finally making a dent in my to-read pile, now that it’s less easy to replenish it.

I began the month with The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. This was another one of my Mr B’s recommendations (they actually publish it in the UK) and as usual, they didn’t let me down. This 1982 novel follows the interwoven stories of seven Black women living in the same housing development in an unnamed American city. These women are very different – we spend time with overstretched mothers, a middle-class activist and a lesbian couple – and they’re all richly written, memorable characters. But what unites them is the strength they show in the face of heartbreak, cruelty, and a system that has no interest in their dreams (symbolised by a brick wall that blocks their sunlight and their access to the rest of the city). Be warned that there is a horrific scene of sexual assault, which has haunted me for the rest of the month.

Next up was my April favourite: Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Williams is best known for Stoner, a novel about the inner life of a literature professor, which I read and enjoyed a few years ago. Butcher’s Crossing is a very different book, but definitely one which will stick in my mind. It’s a western, beginning when rich kid Will Andrews decides to drop out of Harvard and head to the frontier to find himself. What follows is a mix of coming-of-age story, survival thriller, and meditation on the hubris of man.

The naive Andrews is drawn in by the world of bison hunting, and joins a mission to a lost valley where an experienced hunter claims they can find an untouched herd. This is where the book really takes off, and where Andrews’ romantic idea of the west gives way to brutality. The men slaughter thousands of animals for their hides alone, leaving the rest of the corpses to rot in heaps. But any idea of them being the masters of nature is short-lived. Which I suppose gives it something in common with my next read.

“When a day you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, you know something is seriously wrong somewhere.” Sounds familiar, but this isn’t a tweet from last week – it’s the first line of The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. This book has been on my bedside table for months, and frankly an end-of-the-world scenario involving killer plants sounded like good escapist fun. And it indeed it was.

Unfortunately, as with so much vintage sci-fi, the whole thing has a whiff of misogyny to it. There is an eminently cringeworthy scene in which a secondary male character chides a woman for not fixing an engine, telling her that men can’t coddle her any more by “stoutly repairing the poor darling’s vacuum cleaner”; she responds by telling him that everyone knows women engineers in the war “weren’t good engineers”. What an argument. The female lead, while rather more capable, is still given to saying things like “It’s all very confusing to a simple girl.” It’s not at the same level of its apocalyptic contemporary The Death of Grass, which I found unbearable, but it did make me roll my eyes at times.

I was craving some more escapism, so my next read was The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary. Shut out of the London rental market, two strangers with opposite work schedules decide to share a one-bedroom flat – one of them will live there during the day, and the other at night, but they don’t plan to actually meet. Rather than leave each other the usual passive-aggressive housemate notes, they become live-in pen pals. But could this quirky, statuesque redhead and this sensitive Irish nurse with a soft spot for the elderly… fall in love? Let the inevitable commence. I don’t really have any great literary analysis to provide about The Flatshare. But it was adorable and kept me pleasantly distracted.

The final book I finished in April was The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The memoir covers Didion’s struggle through the aftermath of one catastrophic week that left her husband dead and her daughter in a coma. Didion is an absorbing writer, and I was struck by many of her observations – how passing the first anniversary of a death of a loved one rips away the chance to think about what you did together this time last year, for example.

My timing may have been off, however – I don’t know if I was really up for staring into the abyss of grief this month. Instead I found myself distracted by her reminiscences of what sounded like a charmed life (before disaster struck) – Bay Area houses with swimming pools and wisteria, the trips to Paris and Hawaii, barefoot weddings with leis. Maybe I’m better off sticking to the escapism.

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