What I Read in October

Bad weather and a new lockdown meant October was another great reading month. There’s nothing better than curling up with a book when you have nothing else to do and the wind is howling outside. Here’s what was on my reading list this month:

Severance by Ling Ma

I didn’t know what this one was about before I started reading it; I just knew it had been on my TBR for ages. I wonder if I would’ve picked it up at this time if I had. I won’t let you go in blind in case you’re considering it, because it might not be the right book for you right now: the story (published in 2018, mind) centres on a pandemic, beginning in China and spreading worldwide until NYC becomes the epicentre. Everyone is wearing masks, avoiding close contact, etc. The usual, you know. Satirical and dystopian, if you can’t handle it right now that’s very understandable, but when this is all over it’s still worth picking up.

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

I’ve written before about how cave diving and scuba accidents are a rabbit hole I love to dive (ha ha) into. This story about a motley team of divers who discover a U-boat wreck off the coast of New Jersey hit all the buttons for me in terms of existential dread about the idea of diving into a low-chance-of-reward, high-chance-of-death situation for the small possibility of glory. It’s an extremely gripping read, not only for the parts about diving but also fascinating from the standpoint of the research the divers did to try to figure out the identity of the U-boat that was not on record as sinking anywhere near its final resting place.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Please read my review of this one here. I also reread Allie Brosh’s first book, Hyperbole & a Half, this month. It was exactly what I needed.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is one of the most unique voices out there at the moment. While not all of the stories in this collection were hits for me (being one of those rare women who did not subsist on a steady diet of Law & Order SVU, the paranormal revisiting of its many, many seasons confused me, although it has been roundly praised by others), Machado’s writing is unflinching, unyielding, and always evocative. This collection is strange and experimental, and will stick with me for a while.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This year’s Women’s Prize winner, and while it wasn’t my personal favourite of the nominees, it’s certainly a worthy pick. O’Farrell turns a fragment of history—Shakespeare’s son, who died at a young age and shared a name with one of the playwright’s most famous works—and explores it through the lens of another oft-forgotten figure, the bard’s wife. O’Farrell’s writing is poetic and sensual, offering metaphors that are as lyrical and vivid as a song or a painting. It’s a devastating portrait of loss, and a rich fleshing out of a part of history that is usually relegated to brief footnotes.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

I’ll be honest: I don’t know why I like Glennon Doyle so much. Or, I suppose I should say, I don’t know why Glennon gets a pass from me on her take on the “I’m such a mess but also motivational” genre when I’m in a whole group chat dedicated to mocking Rachel Hollis’s Girl Wash Your Face. But it is what it is. Anyway, I think Untamed would have worked better as a series of instagram captions or short blog posts—I loved a lot of what she said, but it felt very disjointed as a book. However, I did enjoy the bit where she talks about her wife playing on an amateur adult soccer team, because it’s a great image to picture a multiple World Cup winner playing pub football.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a poetry collection rather than just a poem or two here and there, and I couldn’t have picked a better collection than Harjo’s. The current Poet Laureate of the United States, Harjo weaves tradition, memory, and contemplation into this beautiful and heartbreaking homage to her ancestors on the Trail of Tears and her contemporaries in her and other Native American tribes. Amongst the poems are short extracts of history as well as Harjo’s personal recollections, and it comes together into a powerful and poignant story of past, present, and hope for the future.

Culture Warlords by Talia Lavin

Culture Warlords (subtitle: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy) is tough to read, but I can only imagine how tough it would have been to write. Lavin, a journalist and Jewish woman, goes undercover in a series of online white supremacist/nazi communities to surveil and out the cretins who lurk there, many of whom share their violent fantasies about her by name. It’s a horrifying and harrowing read. Although I don’t feel like it necessarily breaks any new ground, as by now we all know how much evil there is in these groups, it’s worth reading for Lavin’s grit and bravery in infiltrating and exposing them.

Just Like You by Nick Hornby

Hornby’s writing is always a delight. Set mostly in the period leading up to the Brexit referendum, the novel follows the burgeoning relationship of two people who seem to be a mismatch—different generations, different career and education backgrounds, different races, somewhat differing political views. Despite making some statements on the political and social climate of the UK, the book is mostly light, but there’s just enough depth to keep it from being full fluff. And I always appreciate reading a female protagonist written by a male author who isn’t a hot 20-something, especially when the protagonist still gets to do (comparatively) interesting things.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I have a confession about Naomi Novik: while I think she is an extremely talented writer, her work sometimes leaves me a bit cold. I can recognise that it is technically very good, but with a few exceptions (Spinning Silver, one or two of the Temeraire series), it doesn’t quite emotionally connect for me. A Deadly Education was like this—the “magical school” genre is well-trod, and she doesn’t really break new ground, but the concept is still enjoyable. I’ll read the second book in the series when it comes. But I didn’t fall in love with either the setting or the characters in a way that I expect to really stick with me.

Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight

I listened to this one on audiobook while working so I confess I didn’t give it my undivided attention, and even so I’m not sure I’ve ever read a biography that has offered a fuller, more complex picture of its subject. This admittedly-massive book covers not only the man but also brings in a rich contextual history of the time and a close reading of Douglass’s famous autobiographies. Many reviews describe this Pulitzer-winner as cinematic, and I think that is an apt description for such an engrossing narrative, but it also doesn’t abandon fact in favour of story and brings a balanced view that paints a vivid portrait of its subject.

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