My month in books: May 2020

Rumpled bedsheets. Image by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash

I ended up with quality over quantity this month – four very good books, which made me think about sleep, racism, cruelty and parenting. And also about flying, man-eating bears.

First on the list is a rare non-fiction entry: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. I’d been wanting to read this for some time and it was as fascinating as I’d hoped. However, I can’t say it has improved my sleep at all – while lack of sleep will ruin your physical, mental and emotional health in pretty much every conceivable way, it turns out reading about all that right before bed will totally keep me up at night. But it has also inspired me to start tracking my sleep more, which has revealed that I definitely don’t get as many hours as I thought, and also do not go to bed at a consistent time. Hopefully I can do a better job of respecting my circadian rhythm, because otherwise I will 100% die horribly.

Reading this made me think about two other sleep-related books, both very different. One is the delightful picture book The Book of the Sandman and the Alphabet of Sleep, by Dutch illustrator Rien Poortvliet and author Wil Hyugen. I had this when I was a kid and am sad to see it out of print now, as it is really gorgeous; I may need to grab a second-hand copy and revisit it. The other is the misanthropic apocalypse thriller Nod by Adrian Barnes, in which 99% of humanity loses the ability to sleep. I can safely say this is one of the literary apocalypses I’d least like to live in.

Next up was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. This is the third Whitehead novel I’ve read, and just as excellent as my previous favourite The Underground Railroad – it also has good characters, an engaging plot, and multiple moments that had me talking to myself out loud in sheer dread. The plot focuses on a reform school for teenage boys in 1960s Florida. I was horrified to find that it is based on an actual place – the Dozier School, where anthropologists discovered the bodies of dozens of students in unmarked graves.

The Nickel Boys also made me consider the ways in which the evil of white supremacy is enforced not just by those in power or obvious shrieking racists, but by seemingly pleasant everyday white Americans. Sadly this became a lot more timely as the month went on, and I think Elwood’s story will stay with me for some time. Highly recommended.

Looking at my next read, I can see that this May was not a happy month for children in literature. Never Mind is the first of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, and is an autobiographical novel about a single day in his horrendous childhood. Patrick tries to make it through a day in a villa in France, surrounded by the world’s most terrible rich people. Chief of these is his father David, an abusive monster who terrorises his wife and son, and has to be one of the most hateful characters ever put on a page. But despite the book’s miserable subject matter, it’s also surprisingly funny, as St Aubyn skewers each one of these awful people in turn.

The final book I finished this month was Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The story takes place in a ruined city in which our protagonist, Rachel, scrapes out a living as a scavenger. Many factors led to the city’s destruction, but the most pressing is Mord, a gargantuan bear with the ability to fly. The bravest scavengers will venture into Mord’s fur while he sleeps, and it’s here that Rachel finds a mysterious, alien-seeming blob creature, who she names Borne.

I loved this book, and also can’t believe I didn’t read it earlier, as its particular flavour of weird is right up my street – freaky world-building, bio-engineering with hints of body horror, and also lots of bugs. And while the premise of the book sounds wacky, I found it surprisingly deep, and ultimately rather touching. It made me think about the power of hope brought by raising a child in seemingly hopeless circumstances, although Borne is certainly unlike any human child I’ve met. But your experience may differ if your own child is a shapeshifting blob with a taste for lizard flesh. I’m not judging.

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