Month in Books is a regular feature where I report what I’ve read and name my favorite book from the past thirty days. Feedback and suggestions for new reads are warmly welcomed.
1. Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff: When Lotto meets Mathilde at an end-of-college party, he demands that she marry him; two weeks later, she does. We see their marriage through Lotto’s eyes for the first half of the book, and then switch to Mathilde. Some marriages are built on trust, some are built on secrets and others are a series misunderstandings and differences in perception. Groff’s writing reminded me a lot of Donna Tartt, so if you’re a Secret History fan, consider checking this one out.
2. I Served the King of England, by Bohumil Hrabal: Dite, an aspiring hotelier, begins his career as a busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel (not in Prague). Through run-ins with businessmen, prostitutes, traveling salesmen and generals, he learns how to fake his way into higher positions at increasingly prominent hotels. Finally in Prague itself, he falls in love with a Nazi, obtains a valuable stamp collection and works towards his goal of owning his own hotel.
The whole thing is bonkers, which is what I’ve come to expect from Eastern European writing and why I like those authors so much. In this case, the bio for Hrabal tells you everything you need to know: “Hrabal died when he fell from a window on the fifth floor of the Bulovka Hotel in Prague where he was apparently trying to feed pigeons.”
3. The Death of Sweet Mister, by Daniel Woodrell: Sweet Mister is a nickname for Shug, an overweight thirteen-year-old who lives in the Ozarks with his alcoholic mother Glenda and abusive father Red. Red is dangerous and mean, a bad combination for the lonely boy who soon finds himself enmeshed in his father’s tricks and schemes. When Glenda starts an affair with a flashy out-of-towner, the stakes go up for everyone, and when the dust clears, Shug is changed forever.
This was my third book by Woodrell, after Winter’s Bone and Tomato Red, and when I finished I ordered a fourth, fifth and sixth. The stories are simple but the writing is So. Damn. Beautiful. Read this in Book Club if you can—you’re going to want someone to talk it over with.
4. One Second After, by William R. Forstchen: Life is peaceful in a small Smokey Mountain community until one day everything electronic just—stops. John, a colonel-turned-professor, is one of the few to recognize the telltale signs of an EMP, an electromagnetic pulse that comes in the wake of a nuclear weapon.
This is lauded as a cautionary tale, and I picked it up because the premise was so interesting. Imagine my disappointment, then, that it reads like an ultra-Conservative fever dream. There’s a lot of head-shaking that so much money was spent on global warming, which “might have been a threat, though a lot say it wasn’t.” Those who were smart enough to stockpile guns are the protectors and saviors of those who didn’t. Anyone with half a brain is ex-military, and those who did not serve are almost non-functional. Forstchen oh-so-generously casts a woman as mayor, but I lost count of how many times the men “exchanged glances” after she asked a stupid question. The entire book was so incredibly sexist that I got angry until I just started straight up laughing at it. He also repeatedly—as in, at least ten times—described a scene by saying, “This is just like X movie.” I mean…
It’s important to read voices other than the ones you agree with. It’s important to seek out other opinions and viewpoints, and to be willing to really listen. There are some good takeaways here about a security threat many of us have never considered, but it’s awfully hard to get to it.
5. Inferno, by Dan Brown: Robert Langdon, the hero of, among other Brown novels, The Da Vinci Code, wakes up in a Florentine hospital with a gunshot wound and no memory of the past two days. When an assassin breaks into the hospital, Langdon flees with the female sidekick who seems to pop up in each of these novels. Together they race to decipher a series of clues relating to Dante’s Inferno before a maniac’s plan to combat overpopulation changes the course of history.
6. The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica: Colin was supposed to kidnap Mia, the daughter of a prominent Chicago judge, and deliver her to the man who hired him. Instead, he brings her to a secluded cabin in northern Minnesota. Detective Gabe Hoffman gathers clues while Mia’s deferential mother, Eve, keeps a constant vigil, never giving up hope that her daughter will return. But something strange is happening inside the cabin, and the lines of good and evil may be much more blurred than they appear.
7. The Fall of the Ottomans, by Eugene Rogan: This account of the Ottoman Empire’s role in WWI was dry at times, but it also had lots of stories like this one: After the UK, France and Russia were officially at war with Germany, the Ottomans didn’t really want to get involved, but they really didn’t want the Russians to win, so if they were rooting for anyone, Germany was it (file them with Finland and the Baltics as countries that paired up with Germany because they just wanted Russia to leave them the F alone). Meanwhile, they mined the Bospherus and Dardanelles to cut off Russia’s access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. When a pair of German warships entered the waters, international law gave the Ottomans two options: they could demand the Germans leave (not a great choice, since France and the UK had ships waiting just outside the channels to attack) or declare war and requisition them. Even if the Ottomans did reverse course and declare war, Germany wasn’t about to let its ships be requisitioned. Instead, the Ottomans came up with a pretty good work-around: they “bought” the ships from Germany, renamed them and kept basically everything else the same. The German ships stayed where they wanted to be and the Ottomans, on paper, anyway, stayed out of the war for a little longer.
There was so much other interesting stuff in here. For example, Germany had the foresight to target the Muslim world as its allies. A lot of those Muslims were living in British or French colonies, and they were a hell of a lot more loyal to their religion than their overlords. By showing the Muslims respect and courting them directly, Germany basically got those colonial empires to implode and caused France and the UK to try and hang onto their overseas territories at the same time as fighting a war. Pretty sneaky, Germany.
And the best thing I read this month…
8. Voices from Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich: Please go read this beautiful, heartbreaking, difficult book. Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster and then removed her own voice so that their stories read like monologues. From the wife of a fireman called to the scene the night of the accident, to the soldiers told to ship off to Belarus or be shot, to the engineers sent there in lab coats and surgical masks, to the people living nearby forced to leave without a single item they owned, these stories are gripping—so much so that Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her efforts.
Some insane facts about Belarus:
“During the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed 619 Belarusian villages along with their inhabitants. As a result of Chernobyl, the country lost 485 villages and settlements. Of these, 70 have been forever buried underground. During the war, one out of every four Belarussians was killed; today, one out of every five Belarussians lives on contaminated land. This amounts to 2.1 million people, of whom 700,000 are children.” – “Historical Notes”, pg. 1
I was struck by all of the people who moved to Chernobyl from places like Uzbekistan and Chechnya, because it was better to live on top of nuclear waste in peace than struggle for a minute longer in their own countries. What happens to the animals after a nuclear disaster? How does the sky change? To what extent did the Soviet Union tell its citizens what had happened? None of it is easy to read about, but the stories are incredibly compelling.