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
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
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
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
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.
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?