My first book of March was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, which provides moments of insights into the lives and struggles of twelve different people, mostly black British women. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different narrator and the narratives subtly overlap while still managing to cut across time, geography, age, class and race. Each character is so distinct and has such a unique voice that it’s easy to forget that they’re not real people, let alone that just one author has written all of them. This truly was a special book and an absolute joy to read. I can’t recommend it enough.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener is a memoir recounting Wiener’s time working at tech startups in Silicon Valley and offers insight into the people behind the internet. I would describe this book as funny but not in a ‘ha-ha’ way, more in a ‘I need to laugh so I don’t cry’ kind of way. Wiener’s anecdotes about the callous treatment of startup staff, the sexism and harassment that were engrained in the culture of her workplaces and the total disinterest of tech companies in how their tools are being used so long as they are profitable expose the cynicism and thoughtlessness that exists at the highest levels of the tech industry. While many are aware about the dubious ethics behind some of the world’s biggest tech companies, Wiener’s memoir opens the readers eyes and makes it impossible to look away.
There was a period in which I fell down a rabbit hole and devoured all three books of Leigh Bardugo’s dark fantasy Shadow and Bone trilogy over the course of one delightful week. The Shadow and Bone trilogy follows the orphaned and insignificant Alina Starkov as she discovers that she has unprecedented magical powers that have lain dormant for most of her life and mark her out as one of the most powerful of the grisha, magical soldiers who serve in the army of the fictional country of Ravka. Over the course of three books Alina must master her powers and save her country from (literally) being consumed by darkness. This series has magic, pirates, all manner of magical beasts and epic battles between good and evil while still dealing with the pressure and anxiety associated with having heroism thrust upon you. I literally do not know what else you could want in a fantasy series.
This month my book club chose to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, not realising it was about a pandemic that wiped out 99% of the human population. So yeah, it felt a little on the nose. While I don’t necessarily recommend reading this book right this second (the descriptions of the pandemic spreading through a city are anxiety inducing enough without the current atmosphere), this is a beautiful ode to the resilience of the humanity and the constant search for meaning through art and culture. Once I got over the heartbreaking sections on the pandemic, I found this to be a hopeful read that reminded me that all of that is best about humanity can’t be killed by a disease, no matter how deadly or contagious.
My classic pick of the month was The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and as I read it, I often recalled the author’s laconic response to an interviewer for The Paris Review asking him what his advice was for readers who said they could not understand his writing even after reading it two or three times – ‘Read it four times.’ Faulkner tells the story of the decline of the Southern aristocracy through the microcosm of the Compsons, a once wealthy and noble family who have fallen into financial and moral decline. Each of the three Compson sons is obsessed with their sister Caddy, whose promiscuity and disregard for the restrictive conventions of old school Southern morality distress her brothers to varying degrees. While I won’t pretend this novel is particularly accessible (the sections narrated by two of Caddy’s brothers are told in a stream of consciousness style that defies all conventions of syntax, grammar and linear time itself), Faulkner has created a vivid portrait of a way of life on the brink of collapse.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a South Korean novel that was recently translated into English and captures many of the concerns of the #MeToo movement in South Korea and the wider world. It tells the story of Jiyoung, an unremarkable thirty-something stay at home mum, who starts having dissociative episodes after the birth of her first child and agrees to seek psychiatric help at the behest of her husband. As part of her therapy she tells the doctor the story of her life and chronicles all the mundane detail of the sexist discrimination she has faced along the way. The prose of this novel is very sparse and it often reads more like a case study than a story (citations are included!). However, I found this very effective as it made Jiyoung less a character and more of an Everywoman whose plight was symbolic of the discrimination faced by women throughout the world (indeed, the name Kim Jiyoung is the Korean equivalent of Jane Doe). To see all of the detail of the sexism Jiyoung faced was highly effecting and while this novel is short, there is no doubt it is powerful.
This novel tells the story of three friends who lived together in London in their twenties but find themselves growing increasingly dissatisfied with their lives as they grow older. In spite of her loving husband and dream job, Hannah cannot stop obsessing over her inability to have a child. Cate has a healthy baby boy but she’s feeling isolated after giving up London and her job and she’s starting to question if she’s married the right person. Lissa lives a life free of ties a responsibilities but she craves professional recognition and longs for connection. Each wants a little bit of what the other has and Hope does a wonderful job of simultaneously portraying the anxiety that comes with growing older and celebrating the myriad forms that happiness can take.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if there is a new adaption of Pride and Prejudice that I will read it no questions asked. Janice Hadlow asks the question of whatever happened to Mary Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet’s bookish, awkward, plain sister and creates a realistic and moving heroic journey for this lesser thought of character. Hadlow expertly wove elements of the original text into a new story that felt authentic and in the spirit of Austen while still feeling fresh and exciting. Old characters appear just often enough to keep fans of the original happy but focus is rightfully kept on Mary and her journey to find happiness and self-esteem as an unmarried and unwanted young lady in Regency England. This was the perfect comfort read of quarantine and the sheer size of this novel means you won’t have to leave the house to get a new book anytime soon!