We’re well over half way through the month: Easter has come and gone, the bean seeds I planted at the end of March are suddenly shooting up like weeds, and I finally feel confident that we’ve seen the last snow of the season. My reading urges are shifting a bit, too, from cozy murder mysteries and unsettling nonfiction to more literary fiction and lighthearted essays; thus, now seems like a good time for me to do a mini round-up of what I’ve been reading this month before I switch tracks completely and no longer have the desire to make compelling cases for some of these early-in-the-month reads.
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark: This was my third or fourth Spark novel, and while it wasn’t my favorite (that distinction goes without ado to A Far Cry from Kensington, if you’re interested), I enjoyed it a lot. The characters of this novel are almost all elderly men and women who are recipients of alarming and mysterious telephone calls from an impossible to describe voice telling them that they soon will die. Some of the characters attempt to pursue the matter along police lines, but they are not believed: for the most part, only other elderly people pay them the courtesy of belief and true interest. This isn’t some sort of woe-unto-the-old sort of book, though, and neither is it a scrappy Marigold Hotel sort of celebration of the joys of freedom in old age. Rather, Memento Mori is a droll, though still moving, examination of the aging process and the fears most of us have accompanying it: the fear of losing one’s mind, the fear of being patronized, the fear of being exploited, not able to care for oneself, not able to care for one’s loved ones. These terrors are accompanied by Spark’s customary wit, though (“How nerve-racking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old,” for example). My only bone with this little book is that it seemed like, as per usual, Spark has attempted to cram in just a few more characters than she quite had the room for, with the effect that I sometimes felt like I must be missing the pages in which certain characters had been fleshed out, though I was reading on my Kindle at the time. 4/5.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert: This is the Kolbert book before The Sixth Extinction (which I read and loved when it came out), but this one is organized as a collection of essays rather than a sustained, book-length argument and thus may be more approachable to those just dipping their toes into the body of climate change disaster literature. Various essays explain just what permafrost is and why we all need to care about its well-being, the history behind the Kyoto protocol and what it means that the US has failed to sign on, and some of lessons we were meant to have learnt from Hurricane Katrina. Kolbert is neither the first nor the last to cover such topics, but she is one of the best: her writing is clear and engaging while still giving the utter seriousness of the subject matter the gravity it deserves. The Sixth Extinction is more thorough, and more recent, but I would still recommend this one as a good “primer,” a book that’s easy to pop in and out of as one can stomach it (and one must be able to stomach this information to some degree). 4/5.
The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber: I actually mean to do a longer review of this one in the next day or two, so I’ll just give a very brief summary here. This is, I believe, Graeber’s latest book, but he has written previously on the history of debt and he was a pivotal figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In this book, he argues that while we often throw around complaints about and arguments against government bureaucrats, we simultaneously ignore the ubiquitous presence of private enterprise bureaucrats, the paper pushers and important form holders of our personal lives. Throughout the book (which is deceptively short, as it’s quite loaded with arguments and a wide array of evidence), Graeber traces how these “hidden” bureaucratic forms influence our ability to live the lives we want, to imagine futures for ourselves, to act in ways that could be meaningfully different from the norms imposed by capitalism and representative democracy. He writes, “Revolutionary change may involve the exhilaration of throwing off imaginative shackles, of suddenly realizing that impossible things are not impossible at all, but it also means most people will have to get over some of this deeply habituated laziness and start engaging in interpretive (imaginative) labor for a very long time to make those realities stick.” Deep, potentially complicated stuff, but very worthwhile. 4.5/5
The Bowl of Night by Rosemary Edghill: This is a delightful 1990s-era murder mystery set down in a group of delightfully 1990s-era Wiccans on their annual pre-Halloween retreat to a campground in Upstate New York for a weekend of networking (coven building), ritual performing, and selling and buying of magical goods. I believe this one is part of a series that concerns itself with Bast, a renegade Wiccan turned amateur detective, but I haven’t read the others. In this one, Bast goes for an early morning walk through the campsite on her first full day at the retreat and finds the body of a local religious zealot, famous for protesting the appearance of the Wiccan retreat every year in his home town, murdered in what appears to be a ritualized Wiccan fashion. Bast is desperate to prove that the perpetrator wasn’t one of her own, but even she can’t deny that the evidence isn’t looking good for her clan. I found this novel a little bit ridiculous and rather predictable, but it made me so nostalgic for the years when middle school-me (coincidentally, 1990s-me) would sit up all night reading teen witch books and fantasizing about spell casting. 2.5/5.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: I also want to do a longer review of this novel in the next few days because I loved it so much, want to spend some time revisiting it, and I think it’s an incredibly important work of fiction “for our times,” as the saying goes. But, for now, a brief summary. Exit West is a sci-fi romance novel about two refugees, Nadia and Saeed, who are forced by circumstances beyond their control to abandon their homes and lives early in their relationship to flee their war-torn country as refugees. Rather than traveling by foot or boat, however, they utilize some of the many doors that are opening around the world; these are literal doorways that serve as instant portals between countries. Through them, desperate refugees can materialize in wealthy, secure countries in the blink of an eye. The resulting destabilization and eventual reconciliation experienced by the citizens of these countries is mirrored in the evolution of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. This book is so gorgeously written and so beautifully plotted, and I want the world to read it. 5/5.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: This is my second Flavia de Luce mystery by Bradley, and it will not be the last. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in the series (I read the Christmas book, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, last December) and it gets off to a bit of a slow start as the setting is built, but it’s worth it. The protagonist, Flavia de Luce, is a wonderfully precocious eleven-year-old, a budding chemist with a particular interest in poisons, the much maligned youngest daughter of a family that has fallen in fortunes and temperaments since the death of her mother when she was a baby, and, as this novel establishes, a quite skilled detective. This book has her investigating the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a body in the cucumber patch of her amazingly historical family manse; the details involve the darkly obsessive world of philately (the study of stamps) and the decades-old suicide of her father’s old Latin teacher. This book is charming, clever, and cozy: a perfect cozy mystery for the chilly, rainy evenings of spring. 4/5.
Heirs and Assigns by Marjorie Eccles: This little historical mystery is a nod to the classic age of closed house mysteries: in the midst of a family reunion, the head of the family (a successful man of business in poor health who has just announced that he plans to marry the gardener) is found dead in his bed. Detective Reardon is brought in when it becomes clear that the murderer had to have been someone in the house, and he spends the length of the novel unpacking the various neuroses and relationships that have sprung up within and between the various members of this rather embittered family. The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, but I guessed the culprit quite early, and I expect others will too, and this made the remainder of the book drag on a bit for me. Still, it’s not a long book, and it’s well written and anyone who loves to peek into the lifestyles of the 1920s’ wealthy (though fictional) scions will enjoy this one, I imagine. 3/5.
So, that’s what I’ve read this month so far. In the next few days I’ll pop out my more elaborated thoughts on Graeber’s book and Exit West, and I’ll probably get up a review of Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver which I’m nearly finished with now and am adoring absolutely.