Bookends: October 2020

During the pandemic, when each day seems to blend into the next, I’ve been trying to make holidays and birthdays stand out a little more. This is not an innate skill for me. I’m not sure if it’s laziness or perfectionism or if the thought of putting away and storing all of the decorations is so unpleasant that it saps the pleasure I feel in the decorations themselves, but it seems to take a lot of work for me to make things special.

I really tried this Halloween. I bought more Halloween decorations—lights for the front of the house, jack-o’-lanterns to hang in a bunch of our windows—and talked early and often with my children about costumes, virtual alternatives to trick-or-treat, and homemade treats to make up for lack of candy from strangers. But I don’t have enough interest in the holiday to carry the full weight of initiating everything, so when my children didn’t take some initiative things just kind of fizzled. I figured if they weren’t into it, I wouldn’t push it.

Then around 7pm on Halloween they looked up from the episode of She-Ra they’d just finished and said, “Man, I wish we’d done more for Halloween!” It was too late for most things, but not too late to carve pumpkins, so they did that just before going to bed. They turned out pretty nice, too.

We’ll toast up the seeds tomorrow and postpone putting away decorations for one night so we can enjoy the lit jack-o’-lanterns for an extra evening. Maybe they’ll remember this experience when it comes time to plan for winter holidays and will be a little more active with planning. I do think I need to put a little more effort into connecting them with family and friends, but it’s difficult. All of our family members live 2000 or so miles away, and most of them aren’t as cautious about COVID as we are so they get together with each other and with friends in person, and there’s not much room in their schedules for virtual get-togethers with California cousins. But since we’re not traveling for the foreseeable future, it’s probably a good idea to prioritize those second-best gatherings.

Now, books!

Finished in October (19):

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Penance by Kanae Minato

Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

Carpe Demon by Julie Kenner

Certain Dark Things: A Novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

The Silent Companions: A Novel by Laura Purcell

Toliver’s Secret by Esther Wood Brady

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

George and the Big Bang  by Lucy and Stephen Hawking

King George: What Was His Problem? by Steve Sheinkin

What You Should Know About Politics . . . But Don’t by Jessamyn Conrad

Recently I started using StoryGraph as a possible future replacement for Goodreads, which I’m still conflicted about using since they were purchased by Amazon. But even aside from a protest move, StoryGraph is pretty nice. I love all of the nifty little charts it has, like the one below that helped me visualize the distribution of genres I read in October.

As you can see, I read a fair amount of horror and mystery last month, much more than I usually read, which was by design. I decided to focus on scary reads during Halloween month because I figured it would be pleasant to be scared by something other than current events for a change.

And mostly it was, although few of the books really stood out. Among my favorites this month were the short story collection Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (author of The Memory Police), and the novel I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In).

I Am Behind You, about a handful of campers who wake up one morning to find that everything—the campground, roads, the sun—is gone, is notable to me for its delicious weirdness and for the excellent job Lindqvist does of developing his characters. It’s a fairly large cast with multiple points of view, but the voices are all distinctive, and I found myself invested in all of the characters’ stories, which isn’t always the case. It looks like this is the first in a trilogy. If I can find the others in English translation, I would very much like to read them.

I read Revenge toward the end of the month, and I found it to be an exquisite collection of delicately related short stories. I really enjoy good short stories, but I don’t often read story collections because they so often feel disappointing to me. Maybe there are one or two stories that I really like while the others just blend together. Ogawa’s stories, however, are all necessary and all memorable. They aren’t so much interwoven as just resting gently beside one another, blending a little at the margins. My spouse caught me grinning at the way one story led into another. Some authors it’s a joy to watch at work, and Ogawa appears to be one of those for me. The first story in the collection—“Afternoon at the Bakery”—was near perfect.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton was the other short story collection I read this month, and while it was enjoyable, it was more like my usual experience with short stories. They’re well crafted but mostly not very memorable, with the exception of “Kerfol,” which features some mysterious dogs that I suspect will stick with me. This was one of two books from my current Cavalcade of Classics list that I read this month. The second was Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which I found beautiful and which I review in more detail here.

I read one other book in translation this month: Penance, a crime drama by Kanae Minato, which, like Revenge, was originally published in Japanese. This one had five different narrators who all sounded pretty much the same, but it’s difficult to tell if that’s a feature of the original novel or if it happened during translation. Despite the sameness in voice, it’s an interesting exploration of the long-term effects of childhood trauma and the ways in which the things we say and do—or refrain from saying and doing—can have ripple effects over the years.

I found myself reading rather more crime dramas/mysteries this month than I usually do. In addition to Penance, there was also Jennifer Hillier’s Wonderland, about an amusement park with an odd relationship with the town it’s in, Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which detective Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance, and Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, which is an historical novel set during the advent of the New York City police department in the 1840s. The second two are the first in their respective series, and I’m on the fence about whether to read more. I mentioned last month that I’m in an Agatha Christie book club on Goodreads so I technically ought to read more Poirot books, but I’m not sure I’m really feeling it. The Gods of Gotham was a literature selection for my daughter’s Build Your Library curriculum so no pressure to read more of those unless they show up on a later list, but I enjoyed this first novel and I might read others if they cross my path. It’s little gory with some anachronistic attitudes about sexuality and gender equality, but I found the characters lively and interesting.

And that brings us to a quartet of books I’m not sure how to classify. They’re well outside of my normal fare, with mysteries and creatures (demons, vampires, werewolves, witches) and all very plot driven. But that was part of the goal for this October, to branch out a little into the horror-related genres, and creatures are part of that. Three in this category I listened to as audiobooks and they were fine but didn’t blow me away. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (a witch and scholar of old manuscripts comes across an enchanted manuscript and an enchanting vampire on the same day) is a little too long and has a main character that’s a little too helpless for how independent she claims to be. The narrator of Patricia Briggs’s Moon Called (who shares a name with a main character in The Gods of Gotham) is a little too self-consciously hard-boiled for me to get close to, and werewolves are a little tough for me anyway, perhaps because I’m not a dog person. And Carpe Demon is just silly fun, kind of like Bewitched meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although the demon voice on the audiobook kind of scared the crap out of me.

The one in this group that I liked more was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things. Moreno-Garcia’s vampires head up Mexican drug cartels, and a turf war between them leads to a showdown in Mexico City. I’m not entirely sure why her vampires work for me where Harkness’s don’t. Maybe it’s just that they’re not all attractive, and even the attractive ones are kind of…beastly. They’re more complicated and their motives are a little more alien, which makes them a little more believable as non-human creatures. This one is quite gory, though, so not for the squeamish.

I rounded out my spooky/scary/suspenseful reads with two very different haunted house books. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is a well-written but fairly straightforward Gothic-style ghost story with two intersecting storylines set 200 years apart. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is a modern (near-past) story about the fine line between nurturing someone and consuming them. Like many (most?) haunted house stories, both of these novels address how a place of refuge and safety can come to feel like a prison. Both also deal with social and cultural biases, primarily gender in Purcell’s book and race in Oyeyemi’s, but both touch on class issues as well. I enjoyed both, but White is for Witching is a little weirder, which appeals to me a little more.

Now the homeschool curriculum books. In historical fiction, we have Toliver’s Secret by Esther Wood Brady, in which a young girl becomes an unwilling spy during the American Revolution, and The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, a novel with a Little House on the Prairie feel which follows an Ojibwa girl in the 1840s as she faces tragedy and discovers her own strength and sense of identity. My eleven-year-old and I read these together, and we both preferred The Birchbark House, although it might not be fair to compare them directly since they are about different cultures and different time periods. He and I also read George and the Big Bang by Lucy and Stephen Hawking, one novel in a series of adventures reminiscent of the Magic Tree House books, only instead of traveling through history, these characters travel through space and learn about astronomy, triggering my existential anxiety in the process (astronomy always does that to me). King George: What Was His Problem? was a surprise for me. I was not remotely looking forward to another book about the American Revolution, but Steve Sheinkin takes the stories that had become so familiar to me with two kids learning about American history and infuses them with life and character and little vignettes that make the historical figures seem more realistic. When I read history, it’s generally like a black-and-white movie in my head, but this one was in color. We have Sheinkin’s book about the wild west on our list for later in the year, and I’m looking forward to that one now.

And finally we have What You Should Know About Politics…But Don’t by Jessamyn Conrad, which is quite different from any of the other 18 books I read this month. This one’s for my daughter’s U.S. government curriculum, and for a high schooler, I think it’s an excellent nonpartisan introduction to some of the major issues in politics today. It spawned several interesting conversations between my daughter and me about the economy, healthcare, and political campaigns. I was a little disappointed with the fourth edition, which came out in January 2020, but really doesn’t have any new information compared to the third edition. The introduction says this edition is out just in time for the presidential election, but there’s so little in it past 2012, it seems it wouldn’t be of any better use than the previous editions for getting ready for this week’s election.

To-Read for November:

My Litsy #bookspin list for November is pretty full. Until just after dinner on the 31st, I had 26 titles for 25 spaces, but I managed to finish The Silent Companions so am able to bump All Different Kinds of Free into the list proper. No free spaces for #bookspinbingo, though. *Sigh* This month’s TBR is a combination of leftover scary books from October, Build Your Library homeschool curriculum selections, my Tailored Book Recommendations from Book Riot, and one LibraryThing Early Reviewers win.

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month and to see the image of my reasonably successful #bookspinbingo card for October.

What’s on your TBR stack for November?

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