May was an oddly slim month for reading. I keep thinking there must be material I read and forgot to list, but if that is so, I’ve no idea what it was. If I remember, I’ll add it to June’s list.
#40 How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer – Sarah Bakewell
The title rather implies that this is some sort of super self-help book, à la de Botton, but it’s better to think of it more as a very lively biography with philosophical interpolations. In his own time, Montaigne was better known as a courtier and diplomat than as an author. His innovative approach to writing – this man was the master of the digression – was regarded as poor style by his contemporaries, yet his questioning of everything around him, his doubt and scepticism, his personal engagement with the world, driven by his own curiosity seems to put him remarkably in tune with the contemporary world. Whether, at the end of it, one learns how to live, I don’t know, but it suggests that questioning everything is the only way forward.
#41 The Heroes Joe Abercrombie
Reviewed for the next issue of Vector. I like Joe Abercrombie’s writing immensely so was predisposed to enjoy this novel. I find something curiously sympathetic about Abercrombie’s cast of mercenaries, their allegiance shifting according to who pays them but somehow also possessed of honesty and integrity, trying to do their job as well as they can. Abercrombie seems to take great delight in setting their workmanlike approach against that of the standing armies, with poorly trained me led by clueless officers fired up with dreams of glory. There is little room for heroism here; it’s all about survival.
#42 and #43 Ledoyt; Leaping Man Hill Carol Emswhiller
#44 Gardens In the Dunes Leslie Marmon Silko
If one is interested in North American indigenous literature, one quickly becomes acquainted with the writing of Leslie Marmon Silko. Ceremony is the novel everyone has heard of, Almanac of the Dead is the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ novel, and Gardens in the Dunes comes somewhere between the two. It begins with a small tribe of Native Americans, living hidden away in the dunes which give them their name – the Sand Lizard people – and follows two of them, Indigo and Sister Salt when they are forced away from their ancestral home after their grandmother’s death. At first they live among other Native Americans who have been forced off their ancestral land by the damn project but who resist removal to the reservation but after they are captured by the authorities and sent to school, the sisters go their separate ways. Sister Salt is sent to work in the laundry but falls in with Big Candy, an entrepreneurial black man working at the camp, while Indigo quickly escapes and finds her way to the house of Hattie and Edward Palmer. The couple take charge of her and with them she travels to Europe before returning to America in search of her sister. The story is much more complex than that, kaleidoscopic even, as it brings together wildly differing world views.
Not, I have to admit, entirely to my taste, as I find the prose rather more lush than I generally care for, but the story itself is thought-provoking.
#45 Equations of Life Simon Morden
Reviewing for The Zone, so I’ll put the link in when it’s done.
#46 A Voyage Long and Strange Tony Horwitz
I first came across Tony Horwitz when I read Confederates in the Attic, one of the finest modern accounts of the ways in which the US engages with its own history, and in particular the Civil War. In this book, Horwitz sets out to confront his own ignorance about the history of European settlement in America prior to the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, and indeed to undo that myth, while he’s about it. Initially, I found the book rather thin, but I couldn’t decide whether it was because I knew the basic history already or because Horwitz’s road trip was, I hate to say it, rather dull. In fact, I realised the problem was more than with the earlier explorers he hadn’t really got much of a modern story to hang around them: the Vikings are really long gone, and the residents of Cape Cod are taciturn to a fault, so there was not much of an engagement. Things got much more interesting once the Spanish arrived and once towns had got shreds of history to fight over. Horwitz has a lot to say about the ways in which that history is interpreted – I found the section on the French in Continental America particularly interesting in this regard, not least because it made me realise how little I know about them in the area that became known as the Louisiana Purchase, although I know a certain amount about their activities in what is now Canada. So, perhaps not as mindblowing as Confederates in the Attic , and by no means exhaustive in its coverage, but still a good corrective read.