My month in books: September 2020

A dark hallway in a derelict house. Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash

This blog post is very late, but I promise I did indeed read some books in September. 10 of them, even. And one of them was a new candidate for favourite book of the year – I’m just gonna cut to the chase, it’s In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado and it’s amazing – so I’m extra sorry to have withheld this valuable post from you.

This was a month of two halves: a lot of heavy capital-L Literature to start, and then a whole bunch of sci-fi (with a rom-com breather in the middle).

The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline by George Packer

Ronald Reagan, Wall Street, Glass-Steagal, Ponzi scheme
Newt Gingrich, Jay-Z, rising inequality

War on terror, Fox News, man obsessed with biofuels
“Biden Guy” turned lobbyist, subprime loans, what a twist

Jobs in Youngstown went away, foreclosures in Tampa Bay
Obama’s win, Tea Party, middle class in poverty

Zuccotti Park, crystal meth, Peter Thiel’s fear of death
Book came out in 2013, all explains the current scene

We didn’t start the fire

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

This month’s Booker Prize winner (I swear my reading habits are not this intentionally repetitive but here we are). Girl, Woman, Other is an episodic novel about the interwoven lives of 12 Black women and non-binary people living in the UK. Each chapter focuses on a different character, from artists and student activists to a great-grandmother on a remote Yorkshire farm.

This is the first book I’ve read by Evaristo and it was definitely a highlight of the month. With so many personalities to juggle, I kept waiting for one chapter to be a dud, but each character is so well-realised and compelling that I was happy to spend time with all of them. This is a great novel, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Three sisters live on an island in some sort of semi-derelict wellness hotel. They have been raised by their parents to fear the outside world, and their life is full of rituals designed to repel contaminants – from rings of salt around dead animals to almost drowning themselves in the swimming pool. But the most feared toxin of all is men, and guess who washes up on the beach one day…

I enjoyed this, because I like weird, unsettling narratives about trauma featuring female protagonists where it’s not always clear what’s going on. Has some sort of apocalyptic event actually occurred, or is this just a very small cult? Either way, there are some seriously messed up family dynamics to chew on here.

Lanny by Max Porter

Probably the most aggressively Literary book I read this month. Unfortunately, this didn’t really click for me. The titular character is a small, slightly unearthly boy who goes missing from a commuter village in the home counties. Lanny’s disappearance affects the lives of all the book’s protagonists – his parents, a local artist, and also the ancient spirit of Dead Papa Toothwort, a sort of minor woodland god.

Some of the narrative is straightforward, but other segments are told as a sort of jumble of eavesdropping on the villagers, picking up individual scraps of dialogue. While this effectively captures the insular vibe, I struggled to connect with the book as as a whole. Not bad, just not my cup of tea.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Here it is, the second five-star read of the year. I read this in one sitting – my partner came into the room at 3am and was shocked to find me still awake – but as soon as it was done, I was temped to stay up all night just so I could read it again. It’s just really bloody brilliant.

In the Dream House is many things – it’s a memoir about Machado’s experience in an abusive relationship with another woman, but it’s also a metatextual analysis of abuse in queer relationships. Chapters draw on everything from memories (Machado’s girlfriend in the car, screaming “Don’t you dare write about this!”) to Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes (“There are four lights!”). The closest thing I have to compare it to is H is for Hawk, another memoir that was much more than a memoir, but that comparison doesn’t do justice to how unique this book is.

All of this sounds like a hell of a lot to pull off without it being a pretentious mess, but somehow it works, and it works so well. I’ve been a fan of Machado since I discovered her novella made of Law and Order: SVU episode summaries on the internet years ago, and she just absolutely knocked this out of the park. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

This month’s book that I probably should have read at some point in my formal literary education. Go Tell It on the Mountain is the story of John Grimes, a confused Harlem teenager whose entire world is his church and family, both dominated by his oppressive stepfather.

I initially struggled to get into this book, but then its focus shifted away from John and onto the rest of his family. Gabriel Grimes is an absolutely terrible person, but also the most compelling to read about, and I was thoroughly absorbed by his heady mix of religious fervour and rampant hypocrisy. John’s mother and aunt have their own difficult backstories as well. John’s own rather hallucinatory religious awakening is still memorable – I just found the adults a lot more interesting.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

This month’s book in which two feisty and attractive single people make some sort of bargain that requires them to spend time together and inevitably fall in love. It was cute. The male lead has the wholly ridiculous name of Redford Morgan. Chloe’s struggles to get the life she wants while dealing with chronic illness and pain give this an extra layer of interest.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Hooray for Becky Chambers, who has been consistently filling the Firefly-shaped hole in my life since I discovered her work. If you like stories of rag-tag groups of loveable characters trying to make a home for themselves in odd corners of space, I can’t recommend her enough. Her books also have consistently great queer representation and this one is no different.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate turned out to be my favourite thing of hers that I’ve read so far. The story focuses on four scientists and their mission to document alien life in a remote solar system. The scientific spirit of this mission is at the core of the book, but it’s also deeply human, and I found myself touched by the decisions its characters have to make.

Semiosis by Sue Burke

A small group of environmentally-minded human settlers arrive on an alien planet where the plants are smarter than the animals.

If you like Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky as much as I do, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. Both are first-contact stories with unexpected alien civilisations that are told generation by generation. I enjoyed seeing the settlers’ culture develop over time. However I did find the pacing rather odd – chapters in the first half of the book have about 30 years between them, whereas events in the second half all happen one after the other.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

All previous expeditions into Area X have failed. Anyone who has entered has died, disappeared, or returned strangely altered by the experience. What’s a mysterious government agency to do but send in another four people and see what happens?

Annihilation is a hard book to describe – it’s a weird, woozy vibe of a novel. I didn’t get into it as much as VanderMeer’s Borne, which, for all its strangeness, probably has a more conventional narrative. I’d also seen the film adaptation already, which probably coloured my expectations more than I would have liked – while the atmosphere is similar, the content is quite different. Overall I am not sure how I felt about it. But I may still read the sequels.

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