Book alert: I've been rereading Andrey Kurkov's Grey Bees and liking it even more the second time around. Today my copy of his Diary of an Invasion arrived and already I have learned that by January 3, 2022, workers from the eastern part of Ukraine who might once have gone to Russia had begun going to Western Europe instead, a fact that he thought might be worrying Putin. So much we don't understand about that war, no matter how many daily headlines are given to it! And how splendid, if heartbreaking, to learn about it from such a gifted observer and novelist!
Picturing a World
My latest reading from the books I gave myself at Christmas is the new YA fantasy, Tyger by S. F. Said. It is set at Midwinter in the harsh London of an alternative universe, where Muslims must live in a Ghetto and aristocrats own slaves. It is anti-colonial, for sure, and demonstrates the harm done by in prejudice and injustice. Yet unlike R. F. Kuang's Babel (see previous post), it is full of love, courage, and loyalty.
R. F. Kuang's Babel has scope and ambition. Its plot moves with many melodramatic surprises. I wanted to like it. Too soon, however, it became apparent that it was driven primarily by anger at the all-too-obvious injustices of colonialism. To be fair, such concerns suit the taste of readers who value politics over other aspects of art. I don't.
Literary tip for Anglophiles: Angela Thirkell's long Barsetshire series was written, in effect, in real time. Jutland Cottage (1953) and What Did It Mean? (1954) include the death of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Here at the end of the queen's long reign, I have pulled them out for a nostalgic visit to the England that shaped her. And for good measure, Corgi owner that I am, I have ordered a copy of All the Queen's Corgis.) Keep calm and read on?!?
My favorite book dedication is Rudyard Kiplings for Plain Tales from the Hills: "To the wittiest woman in India." Now it has a close runner-up, Natasha Pulley's in The Half Life of Valery K: "For Claire, Larry, and Jacob, who put up with me telling them pointless facts about nuclear physics for the whole of lockdown." The rest of the novel is terrific, too—I only wish it weren't frighteningly apt at a time when jitters about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine are all too real.
This month, my library book club is reading The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. A few of its characters first appear in The Glass Hotel so I decided to read the two novels together. What fascinates me is that Mandel gives the Hotel characters somewhat altered lives in Tranquility—not out of carelessness, but because it fits! The Glass Hotel is very much about how a person's world is created by circumstance and psychology. It has no paranormal threads; but, with a large cast and interlocking plot lines, it offers many, many takes on perception, construction, hiding, disguising, remaking, maturing, drugs, etc. Tranquility, by contrast, is an outright time-travel, sci-fi novel and, as such, opens yet other ways of looking at the worlds, including speculation about the future, (something Mandel did brilliantly in her break-out novel, Station Eleven).
I am reading a poem a day in The Heeding, a collection by naturalist and poet, Rob Cowen, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The book is vividly illustrated by Nick Hayes (an evocation of place is on the dust jacket). Unlike many other disasters with global impact (including the war in Ukraine), COVID-19 has had immediate, individual effects on each and every one of us, which means that artists can grapple with it in very personal, concrete ways. I haven't really collected Pandemic Art, but I became aware when I bought The Heeding that a cluster of books is forming on my bookshelf. Nicholas Borden's Lockdown Paintings is a virtual contribution, a reminder of how important place can be.
I've just watched the trailer for a film I'd love to see: Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War. It will be released in the U.K. in July. Maybe it will come to the U.S. or be streamed someday. Meanwhile, just the trailer is a treat!
Thanks to Keith Gessen's review in The New Yorker, I bought a copy of Andrey Kurkov's Grey Bees because I wanted to know more about life in Ukraine. The novel is set in the Donbas after Russian separatists have turned the region into a war zone. It makes for illuminating topical reading now that Putin has assaulted the whole country; but far more important to me, it goes on my shelf of deeply humane books to treasure and reread. My husband loved it, too, incidentally. It should appeal to many audiences—and kudos to Boris Dralyuk, who translates smoothly it into lovely English.