Lockdown has been tough for everyone, but from a personal perspective, one of its few high notes thus far has been that I have been reading as though possessed.
The year had already started well on the book front: by mid-March, I’d read 10 titles. About a week later, when I started working from home because of COVID-19 – seven days ahead of the curve – I was about half way through what would be my eleventh book of the year.
Perhaps I should explain a little: for some anal reason or other, I like lists – and I keep ones of books I’ve read, films I’ve seen at the cinema and live performances of various sorts, together with a bit of a rating system.
Additionally, in as much as I ever make new year resolutions, reading more is a perpetual promise I make to myself.
Strangely enough, it’s also the only one of those lists that is thriving this year. Roughly a book a week until I went into lockdown. In the 15 weeks since, the total is 23.
That doesn’t include anything I haven’t finished – and there have been one or two: almost always when I’m struggling to get going again after something that has absolutely grabbed me and refused to let go until the last page.
Some of the books involved are very slender – not least because I started reading poetry quite seriously. But then again, more than one book has been well over 400 pages.
Indeed, the one that I was reading when I went into lockdown was one such example – Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery.
Eco’s The Name of the Rose was the first literary novel I ever read voluntarily. It took me ages, but I loved it. I subsequently spent a long time getting through Foucault’s Pendulum.
Like those, The Prague Cemetery is about conspiracies: Eco is obsessed with them – and he is very good at showing you how they are created and how they grow.
There’s something unpleasant about the taste that The Prague Cemetery leaves in the mouth (albeit less so than after reading pretty much anything by Nabokov), given the nature of the anti-Semitic conspiracies that are created in this book. Almost all the characters really existed and what Eco has done is gloriously written and shines an unforgiving light on the conspiracy industry.
After that, Autumn and Winter, the first two volumes of Ali Smith’s seasons quartet. Written about a Britain in the wake of the 2016 referendum result, these are both are wonderful. Stunningly imaginative, they challenge the reader in unexpected and poetic ways. A joy to read and I look forward to the next two.
If you fancy something a bit more factual, then Hold on Edna! Is the story of the birth of the NHS, from the first baby born in it, Aneira Thomas – and I reviewed it here.
Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party is a classic murder mystery in a closed room. I found it really quite irritating until I metaphorically slapped myself around the chops to remember that most of the characters in Agatha Christie are irritating too.
Foley has created a seriously tense story that will have you turning the pages madly to the end.
And now to Ransom Riggs and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its sequel, Hollow City.
These are wonderful works of fantasy; beautifully written, and illustrated by the most extraordinary vintage photographs, which both inspired the stories themselves and also give a really different feel to the books. I loved the first one – but the second is even better.
Wonderful stuff – and a perfect illustration that ‘children’s books’ can have plenty to reward adult reading.
On the fantasy front, it took me two goes at it, but I finally made my way through John Gardner’s novella, Grendel.
This entry into the Fantasy Masterworks selection is an alternate take on Beowulf and is short, but dense with ideas and images, and has a wonderful sense of the mythological that makes it very special indeed.
I mentioned poetry, and I’ve been reading a fair few slender volumes, so let me give particular mentions to Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns, Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover! and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House.
In a melding of poetry and prose, I finally got around to reading the very short – but utterly stunning – Grief is the Thing with Feather by Max Porter. Do read – possibly after reading Ted Hughes’s crow poems first.
I’ve already mentioned Atwood, but if her poetry is good, her short story collection, Stone Mattress is, for me, even better. Frankly, it is the sort of dark gothic stuff that has lingered in the mind since.
It hasn’t all been ‘arty’: I’ve also finally read Stephen King’s one vampire novel, Salem’s Lot (and loved it.
But my bookish highlight of the last few weeks is absolutely a literary one.
For various reasons, I got around to James Baldwin and his semi-autobiographical first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.
It is stunning. I feel a link because, while not personally knowing the Pentecostalism of speaking in tongues, I have experienced other elements of the evangelistic Christianity that he describes.
But beyond that, Baldwin, in this gloriously written debut, seems to me to make the lived experience of those with a heritage of slavery to be immediate and understandable to all. I have never seen it, and felt an understanding of it, so clearly.
It is an incredible book and, if I had to recommend just one from this lockdown of reading, that would be it.
I’ve just ordered more Baldwin – so what more can I say?