My reading in April has been so consistently good that I’ve had trouble thinking of positive categories that don’t all sound the same! Long may it continue. Links are to reviews where applicable.
most inspirational: a tie between Deep Lane, by Mark Doty, and All About Love, by bell hooks. Doty’s poetry is gorgeous and playful, and refreshed my interest in ignoring the rigidity of formal poetic boundaries; I reviewed it in Quadrapheme here. bell hooks is an author I had never read before now, and All About Love struck such a chord with me that I just couldn’t write about it. It’s a gauntlet thrown down to a generation defined by cynicism, the sort of challenge you want to rise to whilst still being afraid.
most philosophically worrisome: Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess. I read two Classics Challenge books this month, to make up for a grand zero in March. Burgess’s fat novel of Catholicism, morality, sexuality and the two World Wars was ideal Easter reading, but disquieting because it forces you to wonder what you would do in similar situations, and to realize that you probably wouldn’t be heroic.
guiltiest pleasure: Orient, by Christopher Bollen. Martin Cornwell reviewed this in Quadrapheme, and I took a copy from the launch party, for my own satisfaction. I finished it in two and a half days–it’s that addictive. A marvelous literary thriller that, as Martin says, transcends genre.
most impressively disturbing: The Beautiful Indifference, by Sarah Hall. Read all in a gulp on the Oxford Tube, on the way to an event at Foyle’s for the release of her new novel The Wolf Border. All of these stories are, in the best way, haunting, but the one that keeps coming back to me is the first in the collection, “Butcher’s Perfume”, which was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and, let’s be honest, probably should have won. (Hall won it a few years later anyway, for “Mrs. Fox”.)
most simpatico: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse. This debut novel of office-worker malaise and the myriad weirdnesses of being in your twenties pushed so many buttons for me. It’s also wonderfully rendered: Furse does a good line in detached, observational prose, which helps subtly but unmistakably to characterize her unnamed protagonist.
most straight-up infuriating: The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham. Another one for the Classics Challenge this month. I just. I’m sorry. I know that there are many excellent reasons to explore the character of a man who callously abandons his wife and family in order to pursue A Life Of Art Because He Is A Genius, but genius has been an excuse for far, far too long.
pleasantest surprise: Goblin Market (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Christina Rossetti. Having never read any Rossetti before (to speak of), I wasn’t sure what to expect–morbidity, mostly. There was plenty of that, but also plenty of unexpected sensuality. The title poem is extraordinary in its imagery and its intensity.
most earnest: On the Beach At Night Alone (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Walt Whitman. Here’s what I learned by reading this: I like Whitman a lot, but only in small doses. The problem is that he enjoys repetition too much, and some of his keystone phrases (“men and women”, “I have loved well”, literally anything to do with the sea or sailors) lose their potency when they’re right next to fifty other poems with the same keystones. Read Whitman poems one at a time, very gradually.
most unabashedly comforting: Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. Comfort food for the soul: this collection of emails between two university friends as they embark on international adventures both professional and romantic was itself a gift from an old friend, and a fun, oddly soothing read.
greatest cause of head-on collisions with strangers: Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison. I kept stopping in the middle of carparks whilst reading this poetry collection, which is dangerous. Some of these poems are devastatingly clever, like “Wave”; some are small and self-contained, like “Happiness.” All are great. I can’t think of a poem in this collection I didn’t like.
all-around best: Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. I waited months to read this, and good Lord, was it ever worth it. A post-apocalyptic thriller that’s actually much more about relationships, resilience and missed opportunities. It’s so good.
most gut-wrenching: Girl At War, by young Croatian author Sara Novic, which I’ll be reviewing as part of Little Brown’s promotional blog tour (!) It’s a novel about the Balkan war in the early ’90s (something I have very vague, very early memories of, it being in the news in the States when I was a toddler. Not the parts that this novel covers; I don’t think I was really sentient until Kosovo happened in 1998, and Girl At War‘s most traumatic events occur in 1991.)