What I have been reading #4

10th book of 2021 – “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor.

I read this book for the book club created by my friend Regina Duarte.

It was a very surprising read. On the surface, it seems that this is a murder mystery, examining the disappearance of a 13 year old girl, who was holidaying in a village in the Peak District. Except that it isn’t. While the girl’s disappearance opens the book and frames the story, at the end of the day, this is, really, the story of the village’s residents. Their hopes, their disappointments, their public vs private personas, their wins and their losses.

The writing, too, is surprising. One the one hand, it feels like not much is happening. Each chapter starts with the same image (“At midnight when the year turned…”). In each one, the seasons just roll into each other. Throughout the book, there are only snippets of text for each character. And, yet, the book manages to tell us so much about the habits and the emotional turmoil of these characters, as well as the traditions and the changes in the village.

One of the reviews that I read for this book said that the author “hasn’t got narrative time to waste”, and that’s precisely how I feel about this book: not one word wasted! Brilliant.

11th book of 2021 – “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles.

Another book club reading, this time for the @lse.alumni book club.

The story centres on an aristocrat – Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov – who is sentenced to house arrest in a luxury hotel in Moscow (The Metropol), in 1922, just as the Bolsheviks came to power in the new Soviet Union. Like book #10, this is an exploration of time, of changes, and of constants. But, unlike book #10, it is not economical with words: With 462 pages, there’s a lot going on in this book!

Many people love this book; but, sadly, I didn’t.

Sure, I liked how the Count focused on what he could control, and how he remained true to his principles through the twists and turns of his life at the Metropol. The reflection, in page 109, that “Even men in the most trying of circumstances – like those lost at sea or confined to prison – will find the means to carefully account the passing of a year. Despite the fact that (…) normal life have been replaced by the tyranny of indistinguishable days, the men in such situations will carve their 365 notches into a piece of wood or scratch them into the walls of their cell” seemed very relevant after the recent experience of lockdown. It reminded me of how I marked the passage of time, during the first lockdown, by braiding a new bracelet every Saturday.

However, some of the plot elements are unconvincing, like the camaraderie with the 9 years old girl, and their subsequent explorations of the hotel. Moreover, many descriptions are too long (the scene with the dogs in the lobby, comes to mind), while key aspects of the story are glossed over (such as when / how / why The Count became a waiter). It’s an entertaining story, which could have been told in two-thirds of the pages.

12th book of 2021 – “Who Cooked the Last Supper?: The Women’s History of the World” by Rosalind Miles.

This non-fiction book was recommended by my colleague, Shireen Kanji, with whom I have recently conducted a project looking at representations of women and money in the media. I thought that this book would provide a spotlight about the role of women in key historic events, and be the source of various interesting, lighthearted anecdotes for future conversations. But lighthearted this book is not! It is a text heavy analysis of the place and role of women in society, throughout history; of how and why women have been controlled and silenced; and of why women are omitted from historical narratives. It touches many painful issues such as sexual abuse, genital mutilation, honour killings, or misogyny. It’s an important read. But, be warned, that it is not an easy one – neither in form, nor in essence.

Which books have caught your attention, lately?

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