May 2020 reading round-up

Showcase cinema Avonmeads
“We are pressing pause for now” – the cinema nearest our house last week. That empty carpark felt really eerie.

Oh dear. I read a decent amount this month but only managed to write one review. And with all those bank holidays too! I really do want to write more about all of this month’s books, but I am in danger of forgetting any interesting critical thoughts I had about them. Ah well. There have been things on my mind.

Speaking of things on my mind, racism is – rightly – a major point of discussion right now. As a white woman, I need to educate myself as well as call it out when I see it. My school education was sorely lacking in this department. In history (which I studied up to A-level) the coverage of slavery was limited to the trade triangle and maybe one or two accounts of slave ships. Colonialism was an even briefer footnote, limited to a few maps of the world showing the extent of different empires, but no examination of how they came to be, how they operated, the long-lasting effect they had on all countries involved. Even when studying Othello at university, we didn’t really look at historical race issues, which I now see as a shocking omission.

So I have switched up my June reading plans from finishing my EU list to some titles that address race and racism head-on. I’m starting with Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, and I plan to follow it up with Superior: the Return of Race Science by Angela Saini. After that, I’m thinking maybe The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, perhaps Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

I’m going to place an order with our local bookshop Storysmith to fill out this reading list, so if you have any suggestions please let me know!

Books read in May

Black Wave by Michelle Tea
This is an apocalyptic feminist novel about queer culture in 1990s California. It is strange and grungy and brilliant. Perhaps it’s because it gets very meta, which I tend to enjoy. Michelle Tea is effectively writing about a period in her own life, using the pseudonym Michelle Tomasik, which turns out to be Tea’s actual name. By replacing the end of an important relationship with the end of the whole world, she finds humour – and violence – in her sadness.

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
I picked this book off my shelf because I figured it was about time to tackle one of those big doorstoppers I collect. This saga is a retelling of King Lear set in modern-day Delhi. Devraj is the head of a megacompany and at the start of this tale he announces his retirement and intention to split the company between his three daughters. They all, in different ways, defy him. And he is growing senile, which makes him increasingly anti-women. It’s a brilliant, darkly fascinating interpretation of the tragedy.

The Duke in His Domain by Truman Capote
In early May we watched the film Murder By Death because it had been recommended in a listicle of murder mysteries that people might enjoy if they had liked Knives Out (which we loved). It was not a good recommendation. Despite its stellar cast and Neil Simon-penned screenplay, Murder By Death is a terrible film. It’s unfunny, racist and not even a satisfactory mystery. We should have stopped watching the second we saw Peter Sellers’ painfully awful depiction of detective Sidney Wang (definitely the most racist thing in the film, though far from the only racism) but we were intrigued by the promise of a starring role from Truman Capote. It was certainly interesting to see that famous face attempting to act, but acting was not his forte. So I thought I’d turn back to Capote’s writing, and picked up this extended profile of a meeting he had with Marlon Brando in Kyoto. Sadly, this too opened with a whole bunch of racism before getting to its point. Some of it is very good, some is hagiographic. Another one for the discard pile.

Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh
To cheer myself up, I turned next to a crime novel by an author who is somewhat less well known than her fictional detective. Roderick Alleyn certainly rang a bell for me. His New Zealand-raised creator did not. Turns out she’s rather good. And for a book written in the 1950s, there was surprisingly no objectionable content. In this outing, Alleyn is convinced that a serial murderer has absconded on a passenger ship to South Africa so he goes undercover on the voyage. It’s funny, clever, insightful and even includes a sweet romance. Very happy to discover I have 31 more Alleyn books to read – and a handful of others besides if that isn’t enough Marsh for me.