My month in books: July 2020

A photo of three camels. Photo by Bernd Bangert on Unsplash.

I feel more excited to write this blog post than I have in some time, because I really loved a lot of what I read this month, and I want to share it.

There’s a Victorian pastiche with cannibalistic dragons, a chapter that saved 16 hours of my life, and a romance that finally dares to ask the question: “What if Jonathan Franzen was hot?”

I hope at least one of those sounds intriguing. This will also be a long post, because I finished 9 books in July. Let’s go!

I started July with A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Life After Life was one of my favourites in 2019, and this book is a companion piece focussing on the life of Teddy Todd, sister of Life After Life‘s Ursula, and a World War II bomber pilot. It’s very good. I have to admire not just Atkinson’s mastery of her craft, but also her compassion for the characters, even ones which made me want to throw the book and say “What the fuck is this person’s deal?” (You will almost always find out what their deal is, and suddenly everything will make sense.) One of the later chapters also made me cry buckets, which hasn’t happened for me with a novel since I read A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

My second read was Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, and what an unexpected delight it was. There was a gap between me buying this book and me actually starting it, and so I’d completely forgotten what it was about – which turned out to be cannibalistic dragons suing each other. Tooth and Claw is a riff on an Anthony Trollope novel, with country parsons, maidens in need of marriages, and an inheritance dispute… which in this case is about who should be entitled to eat the corpse of the deceased. Because these dragons, for all their interest in fancy balls and the rules of propriety, get their strength and power from eating those weaker than themselves. I absolutely loved Tooth and Claw and will no doubt expend a lot of energy trying to force others to read it too, because it’s just so damn fun (the dragons are really into millinery!!!) and the premise is so goofy and yet so perfect – you really won’t read anything else like it.

This month’s foray into westerns was provided by Inland by Téa Obreht. This novel introduced me to a bizarre episode in American history: the United States Camel Corps, an attempt by the military to conquer the unforgiving landscape of the South West with dromedaries. One of the book’s protagonists, Lurie, is a Balkan Muslim caught up in the camel experiment; the other, Nora, is a settler trying to survive an especially difficult day during an Arizona drought. How the two are connected takes a while to become apparent, but both stories are individually absorbing, and Obreht really captures the surreal atmosphere of the dehydrated mind in the desert.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all my years spent in formal education about fiction, my exposure to the great classics of the African American literary canon has been really limited. I think we did The Bluest Eye in high school and that was about it. This is a shoddy state of affairs, and one that I really need to sort out. So this month, I picked up Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. My first question is: why the hell wasn’t this on any of my syllabuses? Couldn’t we have taken a break from The Great Gatsby for once and done this instead? From style to content, there’s enough here to fill an entire semester of literary theory. Hurston’s writing is pure poetry, whether it’s describing Janie’s awakening sense of self or the Biblical chaos of a Florida hurricane. And there’s certainly enough drama to keep high schoolers entertained: romance, rabies and mule funerals. Maybe your high school did this and mine just needed to up its game.

From classics on to newer releases – I blazed through Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid in under 24 hours. The novel chronicles the saga of a Fleetwood Mac-esque rock band, told in the form of an oral history of interviews with all parties involved. This format works so well that at times I forgot I was reading fiction and would think, “Hey, I should look up ‘Honeycomb’ to hear what it sounds like”, except I couldn’t. So I guess Aurora is now my favourite album I’ve never heard, at least until the TV adaptation comes out – in the meantime, I’ll have to make do with listening to Rumours. Anyway, this is a hugely absorbing novel and I wasn’t expecting to get so emotionally invested in all the characters and their stories.

I still have a lot of that lockdown feeling of time just slipping past and generally feeling rather directionless. So while I read Daisy Jones by night, during the day I took a hard turn into the self-help section with Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. This book was written by two former Google staffers, and you can totally tell, although it’s up to the reader to decide if this is a pro or a con. As someone who does a retrospective in her personal journal every month, I can hardly judge anyone for taking Agile methodologies a little too closely to heart; however, one of the authors’ claims that these methods enabled him to quit his job and sail the world with his wife in their lovingly-refurbished sailboat had my eyes rolling. Nothing in the book seemed particularly groundbreaking at the time of reading, but a few weeks on, I would definitely say I found it useful. The suggestion to choose a particular “highlight” to focus on every day has made my days feel a little more intentional and fulfilling. And while I didn’t go as far as deleting my internet browser off my phone, I was still inspired to make changes to my phone usage, which resulted in a staggering 16-hour drop in screentime for me last week. Holy shit.

(Also I have to shout out Read With Cindy, who introduced me to Make Time. I’m not really into Booktube, but I recently discovered Cindy’s channel and think she may be the funniest human on YouTube. Her review of Nevernight absolutely killed me, and then I had to write this blog post from beyond the grave. But the seance ends soon, so I’d better move on.)

Self having been helped, I found myself with extra time for reading, and rocketed through the rest of the month.

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch is the sixth entry in the Peter Grant series. Did I feel kind of weird reading a fun story about cops given the events of the past few months? Honestly, yes, but it’s also a world with wizards, sentient river spirits and a man who may or may not be an immortal fox, so I cracked on. That said, The Hanging Tree was probably my least favourite in the series so far. It does a lot to move the arc of the series forward, but as a novel itself, it feels a little unfocused. Past entries tended to have more of a specific hook (the Underground, brutalist housing estates, jazz vampires, etc) and I’d struggle to name something like that for this one. That doesn’t make it a bad book by any means, just maybe a slight disappointment.

While I may have felt conflicted reading that last book, I feel conflicted writing about the next one. If there’s any genre that I’m a snob about, it’s romance. Deep down, I am a softy, and I love a good love story. But while I will happily discuss my penchant for more traditionally masculine genres like science fiction, or the fact that I’ve read at least a dozen Jack Reacher books, the idea of having the same enthusiasm for romance has always seemed kind of embarrassing. (This extends beyond books – anyone who knows me will probably be a lot more familiar with my love for the Fast & Furious franchise than Bridget Jones’s Diary, but guess which one I’ve seen more?) When I do write about the genre, it’s often qualified with an unfairly sneery tone.

So when I started Beach Read by Emily Henry, I did not expect it to call me out on my internalised misogyny bullshit. But it did, and I’m glad. Two authors, both suffering from writer’s block, make a bet: they will swap genres and try to finish a book in each other’s chosen style. One is a gravedigger-turned-literary-wunderkind who loves Salinger and being a cynical bastard. The other is a writer of love stories with titles like Southern Comfort who feels she owes her readers a happy ending, even if her own belief in the concept has recently been utterly destroyed. This premise makes the whole book enjoyably meta, as the two leads spend a lot of time discussing the different ways in which their work is perceived and breaking down the tropes and writing processes behind it. (And also, of course, falling in love.) I finished this book resolving to read more like it, and without shame. Bring on the romance, life’s too short.

The final book I read in July was Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor. In 1993 Iowa City, Paul Polydoris passes his time bartending, ignoring university assignments, and spending his rent money on producing zines. But he has a secret: he can change his body at will, transforming his form and gender into whatever is most useful or appealing. Paul uses this ability to explore the early 90s queer scene across America, from punk shows and leather bars to Act Up protests and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. (A digression: this was the second book in a row to take place partly in my home state! I was excited, even though Paul and his friend Jane make it very clear that they “disdain Michigan”.)

The resulting book is fascinating, sexy, and often very funny. (“Was biology destiny, in fact? That might really fuck up not only her identity but her dissertation.”) Music plays a huge part in evoking the time and scenes that Paul inhabits, and halfway through I had to go on Spotify to see if anyone had compiled playlists of all the songs mentioned (yes). Apparently it took Andrea Lawlor 15 years to write this book. I selfishly hope it doesn’t take them another 15 to write the next one, because I’d love to read it.

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