May 2020 Reading Roundup

The COVID-19 lockdown here in Belgrade was very strict in March and April, but this month it ended, and things are more or less back to normal now. The cafes, shops and restaurants are all open again, and there’s rarely a mask to be seen.

Everyone seems to have decided the pandemic is over, and so far the numbers are cooperating by continuing to drop. So I’ve been out and about a bit more this month, which means I’ve read fewer books than in March and April, when I binge-read my way through a strictly enforced lockdown.

I also read a 700-page doorstop at the start of the month and am finishing it with Gramsci’s voluminous Prison Notebooks, so that slowed me down a bit too. Anyway, here are my reading notes from May.

The House of Tusk by R.J. Luck

The House of Tusk by R.J. Luck

This was something different for me: a huge, engrossing fantasy novel that also incorporates elements of mythology and spirituality. On one level it’s a traditional “quest into magical realms” story, but the fact that those realms are more internal and psychological makes The House of Tusk much more interesting.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney

I’m sick of reading about COVID-19 by now, but I enjoyed this look at a strikingly similar pandemic from a century ago. It was written in 2017, so it was refreshingly free of direct comparisons with the current situation, but they jump out of the text anyway. If the similarities hold, I’m afraid we’re in for a tough time this autumn.

The Infinities by John Banville

The Infinities by John Banville

Writers come in different kinds. The Irish writer John Banville doesn’t produce the most gripping plots you’ll ever read, but he writes the most beautiful sentences. I read and loved Birchwood and more coolly admired The Sea, and this one was a fine addition. It’s the story of a few days at an Irish country house, as observed and manipulated by a mischievous collection of Greek gods. But oh, those sentences! I’m in love with any writer who can describe the onset of rain as “the first and faintest susurrus of rain, like the sound of a blind man’s fingers reading braille.”

A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch

This is a fascinating novel about the gap between words and actions. We start with a stable little world of apparently strong and happy relationships, before the arrival of an agent of chaos and mischief by the name of Julius. By driving wedges into those gaps, he turns everything upside-down. This was my first Iris Murdoch book, and it made me want to try more.

The Verdict

Some good contenders again this month, but I think my favourite is The Infinities. Apart from the beautiful prose that I mentioned, Banville also delivers some very deep, fascinating themes. Who needs relatable characters and a gripping plot when you’ve got so many dazzling ideas to think about?

What did you read this month? Let me know your recommendations. And if you’re hungry for more book talk, check out my book reviews or read other book bloggers’ monthly roundups.

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There are 23 comments

  1. Your first Murdoch during lockdown? What inspired that? This isn’t one of hers that I’ve read but it’s in my stack and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve read maybe half of her books and I still enjoy them just as much, and don’t mind that they feel quite similar (in the same way that, say, Anita Brookner’s books or Elizabeth Taylor’s books do) after the first three or four. I like what you’ve said about Banville’s novel; I thought The Sea was meticulously executed but maybe my heart wasn’t involved as much as it should/could have been. (I probably read it too quickly too.) Except for the last two days, our numbers were rising after the first stage of reopening had begun, and there has been some carelessness, but perhaps now our numbers will “cooperate” (laughs) too. Your photo seems so shocking. Nothing here looks quite so “normal”. But perhaps it just needs to be a little warmer even yet, and then people’s guards (and masks) will drop more freely.Good luck with your reading in June!

    1. Hmm, I can’t remember now what specifically inspired me to read A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Iris Murdoch is just one of those writers I’ve been hearing about for years and always feeling faintly embarrassed about not having read, so I’m glad to have put an end to that. Which of hers is your favourite?

      Yes, your reaction to The Sea was the same as mine. In my review on here back in 2010, after rhapsodising about the prose, I wrote:

      “The characters and plot, though, left me a little cold. In fact, it’s been a few months since I read the book and already I can’t remember much about the plot, which is a bad sign. I wasn’t very interested either in the elderly narrator’s current life or in the childhood reminiscence which make up the majority of the book. At times it is a moving meditation on loss and the passing of time, but I found myself wishing it would go somewhere. The “revelations” at the end of the book didn’t really add much for me either. It ended up being a beautiful ride to nowhere in particular.”

      Normality felt weird here too at first, but I quickly got used to it again. Hope you can get out and about again soon! I know there must be a library hold somewhere with your name on it 🙂

  2. Wonderful books you’ve read, Andrew! I loved The Infinities! I love John Banville! Loved what you said about his beautiful sentences! Love the beautiful sentences he writes! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Happy reading in June!

    1. Hey Vishy, a fellow John Banville fan! I just checked out your review of The Infinities and really liked it. I love your observation: “If one wants a plot, one doesn’t read a John Banville novel. But if one wants to read beautiful prose and contemplative passages, a John Banville novel is the place to go.” And you have some great extracts from the book to illustrate his beautiful prose. Here’s the link if anyone else wants to read a good review of The Infinities:

      1. Glad you liked the review, Andrew 🙂 Thanks for sharing it 🙂 All this discussion about John Banville makes me want to go and read my next John Banville ?

          1. So nice! Looking forward to his new book! I liked The Newton Letter also. It is slim, but beautiful prose. If you haven’t read that, maybe you can try it.

  3. I’m particularly glad to see that you enjoyed the Murdoch as I have a copy of it in my TBR. For several years, I’d been rather daunted by the prospect of reading her, viewing her books as being too intellectual or challenging for my tastes; but then last summer I read her debut novel, Under the Net, and it was much more accessible than I’d expected it to be. Funny too. Now I’m looking forward to reading more…

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Jacqui. When philosophers write novels, it can be time to worry 😉 I was surprised at what an easy read this was. She does sneak some philosophical arguments about the nature of morality into a few pieces of dialogue, and those themes also lie behind the book as a whole, but the story itself was a real page-turner. I’m looking forward to trying more too—maybe Under the Net…

  4. Lovely and varied selection of reading material! Very glad that your lockdown has lifted and life is returning to normal. I hope we do the same very soon – and that the anticipated resurgence in fall doesn’t happen. Visiting from the May 2020 Wrap-up.

    1. Hi Kym, Thanks for visiting! Yes, it feels good to be back to normal again. Travelling across borders is still difficult, but as long as we stay in Serbia, things are fine. Hope things improve where you are as well!

  5. That is so great that things are opening up for you guys again! And it’s even better that that numbers are staying low! I hope they continue to do so!

    Happy reading!

    1. Thanks Liliana! It was quite strict here while it lasted, with curfews every night and weekend with no movement at all allowed, and strict controls even during the week. So it feels great to get out and about again. Hope you can do the same soon 🙂

    1. Hi Donna, I found it a really good overview of the pandemic. Be warned that a big chunk of the book focuses not on the pandemic itself but on its wider implications and how it affected politics and society in the years and decades after it ended. I think that was more what a reader would have been interested in back in 2017 when the book was written. The stuff we all care about now, like R numbers and flattening curves and the details of social distancing rules, would have made a reader’s eyes glaze over back in 2017, so there’s not so much of that. I’d strongly recommend the book anyway, but just giving you fair warning 🙂

    1. Yeah, to be honest I’m surprised the numbers have stayed so low. There was a transition earlier in the month, but it was very quick. I think maybe that because they took such swift and extreme action here very early on back in March, they kept the numbers low, so we can unwind much sooner. Countries like the UK and US, where they kept things open for longer to protect the economy, are now having to stay locked down for longer to bring the numbers back down again. But hey, what do I know? I’m not an epidemiologist—I’m just a guy who read a book about Spanish Flu 🙂 Hope things improve over there, Nicole, and happy reading in the meantime!

  6. Pale Rider looks very interesting! You read some great books in May it looks like. I’m in the US and my state has started opening up more, but still not everything is completely back open. Most fast food restaurants are still drive thru or delivery only, and other restaurants are at a 50% capacity. Unfortunately with all the protests we’ve been having over the horrible events lately, I’m worried we may have an uptick in the cases. Hoping not. Hope that you have a great June!
    Lisa Loves Literature’s May Wrap-Up Post

    1. Hi Lisa, Yes, Pale Rider was excellent. I’m a little worried about an uptick in cases here too, but so far the numbers are still low. Hope things continue to improve over there. The protests are so important, but I know what you mean about the potential to spread the virus, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen. I’ll check out your wrap-up post now!

  7. Sounds like a good reading month. On the topic of people losing their fear about the pandemic is very dangerous. Hopefully they find a vaccine soon.

    1. Hi Gayathri, You’re right about the danger of not taking the pandemic so seriously. It could very easily take off again and be even worse than before, as happened with the Spanish flu. Yeah, I hope those vaccine researchers are working around the clock 😉

  8. I wish the US would have shut down faster and more complete–lives are worth more than money. Our state took an aggressive stance on stay-at-home and I’m appreciating it very much. We are just starting to reopen here with masks required, but I’m still not planning to go out much or into buildings just yet. I want to see the data from the reopening first. May was an excellent reading month for me as I finished off all my library checkouts. Now I can finally return them through the drop off slot. I’m so happy your country’s cases have stayed low.

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