The bedside bookstack – November 2020

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Jonathon Cape 2020

By some random literary luck, I picked up three novels this month that could be loosely described as modern gothic. This one definitely felt like it was a firm fit for the genre. It was as compelling as it was unsettling and at times it felt like I was caught in the pages of a Henry James novel.

July and September are sisters. They’re a slim 9 months apart but their connection is more like twins. After an undisclosed event at school, their mother moves them away to a remote house owned by her ex-husband’s sister. The house has history for all of them but there is a sense of things closing in metaphorically rather than the freedom and release of being remote.

September, the older sister, has a ravenous love and control over July. And the mother, in her own fog of grief and depression fears September as a version of the violent husband who fathered her.

I read it a bit franticly, trying to keep up with the action and get to the final reveal. I read so fast that I was sure I was missing something important and wasn’t quite putting all the pieces together but I didn’t want to slow down and in the end it all comes out.

A warning that it’s always raining – everyone is always wet and muddy and cold. There’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark and I longed for some warm waterproof clothes and a few sunny days to dry everything out. Not very gothic of me, I know.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, Vintage 2020

I think this book would have to be in my top five for 2020. I just loved it. It’s the second of my accidental gothic novels this month with parallel narratives about three women all linked by family, location and a haunting. The bristling and elemental Scottish coastline is very much a character too.

Violence and aggression against women is a common thread through these narratives from the extremes of stabbed bodies to the attrition of emotional manipulation and insistence.

There is the idea that these women aren’t to be trusted and so they doubt themselves when really, it’s the men in their lives who should be viewed suspiciously.

They’re often frozen by their own doubts about what’s going on and revert to the shamefully familiar thought -‘I shouldn’t make a big deal about it.”

This was a real ‘wow’ read for me.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, Scribner 2020

Kim Jiyoung is the Korean every-woman. She’s named for the most popular girl’s name in that year. She is a normal girl with a normal family who follows the ‘normal’ path. Normal starts to unravel for her after having a baby when she briefly takes on the persona of other women in her life.

This book reads like a diary or catalogue. It lists, in a very understated way, the norms of Jiyoung’s life as a woman, especially a young one.

The preferential treatment of male siblings, classmates and colleagues made my blood boil. And the endemic misogyny in workplaces was a sobering reminder that things have only changed very recently and the fact that I tutted with recognition when I read it makes me wonder how much has actually changed.

Thank god this book was written and that a million copies have been bought breaking the code of ‘keeping quiet like a good girl’.

Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, Hamish Hamilton, 2020

I stayed up late last night to finish this one. It was a real page turner for me and should replace ‘The Beach’ as the definitive backpacker book. I liked the premise of an Australian expat in India who scams tourists in a beach town who then gets himself in too deep. Worlds collide when he runs into an American woman looking for a spiritual experience and a way to move on with her life.  

Anyone who has done any travel, especially backpacking, through south-east Asia, will love the familiarity of it all. Overnight trains, touts and tea stalls, seekers and surfers are all brought to life in a familiar but sometimes uncomfortable light.

I didn’t know how or where this one was going to end – which is a great thing and I recommend it as a perfect summer read.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings, Picado, 2020

This was the last of my accidental gothic trio of books this month and is by the very talented Kathleen Jennings whose gorgeous and other-worldly cut-paper silhouettes deserve their own mention.

But I digress…Bettina lives in the quiet rural town of Runagate with her mum. Her brothers and father have disappeared and there are rumours about strange creatures that have been sighted nearby.

I have to confess, I was very tired when I read this and was kind of unmoored from the start. I was never clear on when and where we were exactly and what was going on. It was described as part folk tale, part mystery, so there’s an intention for the reader to be unsettled and uncertain. They sure were for me.

The love of a good woman by Alice Munro, Vintage 1998

I picked this up at a garage sale and I love finds like this because they seem to arrive so serendipitously. I’d just been thinking I needed another Alice Munro on my shelf. I only have Dear Life thus far.

Haven’t read a word of it yet but am always happy for the bedside bookstack to have a few anthologies when I’m between books or just want a little slice of something. I’m sure I’ll get some in over the summer break.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, Vermilion 2016

This tome of a thing is sitting at the bottom of my bookstack. Not at all the kind of book I usually get, I bought it because of the eloquent recommendation that Katherine Colette gave it on the First Time Podcast.

The subtitle is: the tactics, routine and habits of billionaires, icons and world-class performers. So, there’s obviously going to be some interesting stuff in there but how and when to find it?

I already have another couple of writing/business books sitting around unread. The problem is that I do most of my reading at night and this is a ‘work’ book, so when am I going to choose that over the pleasure of a narrative?

Being realistic, it’s only going to get opened if I put it in as part of my working day.

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