“In a world too often governed by corruption and arrogance, it can be difficult to stay true to one’s philosophical and literary principles.”
Olivia Caliban, A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017)
March was a great month for reading and a not-so-great month for my immune system. I picked up a nasty flu at the St Paddy’s parade in Derry and spent the second half of the month barely eating instant noodles and barely reading bits of books in between naps. This month was a couple of re-reads, a couple of new ones, and a collection which I’d already read a bunch of online.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was my first pick of the month. It was another Christmas gift – as were the D&D minifigures I’ve posed the book with. Fantasy has always been one of my favourite genres, but for whatever reason I’ve been much more drawn to literary fiction in the last few years. I was delighted to find this, then, which so expertly blends the conventions of fantasy I have loved for so long with the elegant, restrained prose of Kazuo Ishiguro. The Buried Giant was a bit of a slow start but by around a third of the way in I was hooked. I’m actually DMing my first campaign this summer and this book gave me some great ideas for how to tell a very classic fantasy story without leaning on cliches. I will definitely seek out more adult fantasy like this in the future.
David Sedaris is one of those writers who I kind of feel like I’m supposed to like. And I do! I guess. Whenever there’s a new essay or short story of his online I definitely Reading List it immediately and get round to it… eventually. Maybe I don’t like him that much after all. Maybe I just really like Amy Sedaris. And I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pick up When You Are Engulfed in Flames because of its cover art of Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette which I’m not ashamed to say I laughed at for a good ten minutes at the Van Gogh museum. The best essay in this collection is ‘The Smoking Section’, a longer essay detailing his unique technique for quitting cigarettes: go to Japan for three months. Well, whatever works I guess. Aside from that, I found reading all this Sedaris at once to be just a little too much Sedaris. The occasional New Yorker piece is probably enough for me.
I first encountered Sabrina Chap in 2013 when she came to my favourite community organisation space in Glasgow to talk gender, mental health, and art. It was one of those fantastic nights that sticks with you: I felt so validated and encouraged by seeing this smart, vibrant woman talk so frankly about the experience of female-ness under patriarchy. I return to this book a lot and I find something new in it every time. Although I haven’t personally lived through the various traumas and experiences described in its pages, I am continually inspired by the raw honesty and solidarity displayed therein. It has been a rough few months of news for women, for my friends, and for myself, so it felt like a good time to revisit a healing old favourite.
Speaking of women, there is no fiction writer like Doris Lessing for articulating the female experience. The Golden Notebook is a perennial favourite of mine, and I’ve recently developed an interest in the presentation of terrorism in literature, which is what led me to The Good Terrorist. I loved this book. It was such a funny and erudite exploration of left wing in-fighting; of gender politics; of elitism. I know I’m going to return to this again and again.
The final book for this month was another re-read, brought about by my final lecture of the academic year being on the theme of gothic literature. Of course I had to pick The Castle of Otranto back up. I’ve recently noticed a few people being slightly sniffy about Horace Walpole and I absolutely cannot relate. I’ve always had a great amount of sympathy (pun intended) for sentimental literature in the eighteenth century. I once wrote a very passionate defence of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling as an undergraduate, so I take books that are primarily about fainting pretty seriously. It has been so nice to revisit Otranto knowing I get to share my enthusiasm with a rapt audience of students, and it has been SO much fun picking out slideshow images – and Simpsons clips – to go with the lecture. Now, don’t you wish you were in my class?
And that was my March! In April I’ve already read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and binge-watched Netflix’s Series of Unfortunate Events (based on a childhood favourite). My new job comes with a fairly long commute, so I’ve been able to get so much extra reading time – so keep the recommendations coming.