I’m writing this in the middle of a two-week quarantine in the UK. Don’t worry, I don’t have any Covid-19 symptoms—it’s just a precaution for people arriving from certain “high-risk” countries.
Why the UK (with 46,000 deaths) is quarantining people from Serbia (with 500 deaths) could be the subject of another post about the intersection of Covid rules and international power relations, but today it’s all about the books, and I had an excellent reading month. Here’s my roundup.
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
The story of a family being torn apart by a terrifying pandemic, this novel was written in 1937 but has obvious resonance today. I loved it, just as I loved William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I reviewed back in 2010.
Police: A Field Guide by David Correia & Tyler Wall
I’ve been reading a lot about the police lately, but this book takes a unique approach: treating the world of policing like a new landscape to be explained through entries for various common terms, like wildlife in a field guide. It made me think about the language we use and why we use it, e.g. “officer-involved shooting”, which anonymises and neutralises and carefully avoids assigning blame.
Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu
This Romanian novel is hard to classify. It centres around a series of murders, but the crime aspect takes a back seat to political intrigue and hypocrisy. And it’s also a novel with plenty to say about anti-Roma discrimination. Excellent translation by fellow book blogger Marina Sofia, capturing the different registers of speech in a wide cast of characters ranging from street hustlers to corrupt politicians.
Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation by Annie Zaidi
Another book that resists easy classification, this one is billed as a memoir but reads more like a series of essays on the state of the nation of India. Zaidi does bring in her personal experiences, but they remain in the background. Still, it’s a book with plenty of fascinating and somewhat terrifying insights into belonging and exclusion in contemporary India.
American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise by Eduardo Porter
Why does the United States have such an inferior healthcare system, social safety net, education system, etc., compared with other rich nations? Eduardo Porter’s argument in American Poison is that racism is to blame, dividing Americans and making it impossible to achieve social progress. It’s a persuasive argument that’s backed up with plenty of facts and data.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Beneath the serene surface of life for the wealthy Richardson family is a whole lot of conflict, as suggested by the fact that their house gets burnt down in the opening scene. The novel goes back to unpick the seams in the family and the town, with divisions erupting in a custody battle over a Chinese-American baby, the tension between the affluent Richardsons and their bohemian tenants, resentments within the family, a secret abortion, etc. I listened to this on that long drive across Europe and really enjoyed it.
Rivers of the Anthropocene edited by Jason M. Kelly et al
As we enter the Anthropocene age in which humans have such a huge impact on the environment, how are our rivers affected? In this series of academic articles, the picture is quite clear: most major rivers are now so controlled, disrupted and polluted by human activity that they are no longer entirely “natural” entities. Instead, they’re a kind of hybrid form, and since we’ve destroyed so many of their natural processes, we’re now responsible for restoring their health—something we’re not doing a great job at so far.
Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World by Belén Fernández
Wow. After five years on the road, I thought I was living quite a bohemian life, but it looks very staid compared to Belén Fernández’s adventures. Exile is her account of rejecting life in the USA, hitch-hiking around the world for more than a decade, and commenting on her country’s malign role in world affairs. It’s a great combination of travel writing and political commentary, with plenty of humour thrown in too.
Don’t listen to anyone who claims that Covid-19 came out of nowhere and could not possibly have been predicted. While the specifics are of course unpredictable, people have been warning of a pandemic like this for years. Mike Davis, for example, sounded the alarm bell 20 years ago with The Monster at Our Door, and this is his 2020 update. Most of the book is a reprint of the original (updated in 2006 I think) and refers more to avian flu than coronaviruses, but there’s still lots to learn from it, and the book includes his updated take on Covid-19. Sadly, many of the tactics from earlier epidemics (denial, delay, diverting blame, protecting the economy at the expense of public health, etc.) are still on display from many world leaders in 2020.
After a lull in June, this was a really good month of reading for me. I learnt a lot from all the non-fiction and enjoyed the novels too, but I think the one that will stay with me the longest is They Came Like Swallows, William Maxwell’s short novel about the Spanish flu.
How was your reading month? Let me know in the comments! And if you want to see more book bloggers’ reading recommendations, check out the roundup of roundups over at Feed Your Fiction Addiction.