End of the Year Book Tag

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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I’ve just started Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life (for Brilka), which is a good 944 pages long and takes in all of the changes that the twentieth century brought to Russia, Georgia and the Caucasus. I’d be surprised if I can’t finish it by the end of the month, let alone the end of the year, although its enormity makes it not very portable…

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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I always read a Dickens in the winter, but haven’t previously had an autumn reading tradition. That may change given that I just finished M.R. James’s Collected Ghost Stories and found them perfect atmospheric reads. They’re not terribly scary while you’re reading, but this is deceptive: two days later, I can’t stop thinking about them. I’ve also found Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, narrated by Stephen Fry, excellent audio companions to the turning of the season.

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

Good heavens, no. Not in 2019, anyway. There’s one book coming out in November that I have a proof of and may yet read (Unknown Male by Nicolas Obregon), but it’s not essential.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Just from my current library stack: Paradise by Toni Morrison, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. Also, on my bedside bookshelf: Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, The Need For Roots by Simone Weil, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Plus the thirty-six books on my “home” TBR, although those are certainly not going to get read by the end of 2019.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

Probably, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m actually kind of sad because although 2019 has been, thus far, an extremely good reading year, I haven’t had the kind of mind-electrifying experience with a book that made 2018 such a pleasure. (It was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, in case you’re wondering.) I’ve read lots of great stuff–which I will write about in December, because goddammit, we’re six weeks out from New Year’s Eve, it’s much too early to start doing personal roundups–but so far nothing arresting.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

Heh. Aren’t I always making reading plans?

In 2020, I would like to continue:

  • reading my way through this crowd-sourced list of the 21st century’s best children’s books
  • reading my way, slowly, through Women’s Prize and Arthur C Clarke Award winners
  • using my local public library a lot more
  • reading backlist paperbacks and classics, including rereads

I want to read everything, you know. Really, I don’t understand–not on any meaningful emotional level–why I can’t.

just after midnight

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. 2011.

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I am trying to read my way through this list, for reasons that combine professional interest (I’m now Children’s Subscriptions Coordinator at work, you may acclaim me) with the simple curiosity of the lifelong, but now grown-up, bookworm. The undisputed number one book on the list is A Monster Calls, and it makes sense, doesn’t it, to start with the best?

A monster—a Green Man-type walking yew tree, the earth on two legs—calls on pre-teen Conor O’Malley at 12:07 one night. He isn’t afraid of it. Or rather, he is, but he’s not as afraid of it as he is of the other thing, which is the dream that he keeps having. The dream involves his mum, but he can’t even bring himself to think about it when he’s awake. His mum is dying. Everyone at school knows this, because his best friend has told them all. His father is in America with his new family and seems content to use them as an excuse to stay there; his grandmother, not at all a stereotypical sort, is a hard-nosed estate agent whose attempts to do right by her family are constantly butting up against her own brusqueness and rigidity. Conor is alone, until the monster comes. And the monster wants to tell him a story. Three, actually.

Conor—thank God—reacts like a normal child to this, which is to say that he can’t understand what’s meant to be so scary about that. (It reminded me of a delightfully sarcastic tweet, which I can’t find now, in response to the recently released The Secret Commonwealth: “Mum! Philip Pullman’s at the door! He’s bangin’ on about the power of storytelling again!”) The scarier thing, as far as Conor’s concerned, is the bargain that the monster drives: after three stories, it’ll be Conor’s turn to tell one. If he manages, the monster will leave; if he refuses, or if he can’t, the monster will eat him. There’s only one story he can tell–the story of what happens in his dream every night–and he doesn’t want to tell it. But he has a respite, for now, while the monster goes first.

The stories Conor is told are like fairytales, in that their characters and dynamics are similar: there is a foolish king whose second marriage is to an evil witch, a cruelly slaughtered bride, a misanthropic healer, a proud man humbled by grief. Where the monster, and Ness, differ from familiar tales is that the person we suppose to be good, the protagonist with whom our sympathies are designed to lie, is shown each time to be compromised. What they want to achieve is not necessarily good or right. Nor is this a simplistic flipping of heroes and villains: the “bad” characters don’t turn out to be angels. In the monster’s first story, the murderer of the bride turns out not to be the witchy queen, but the queen is most definitely a witch, and a powerful, dangerous one at that. She’s allowed to escape the violent retribution of the villagers not because she’s a good person, but simply because she isn’t a killer.

I have to confess that I, like Conor, was initially very skeptical of the monster’s stories, but by the end of the first one, the effect was clear: to introduce the idea of grey-area morality. And Conor needs this, because his mother is about to die, and although no one in his life has told him, it will be the moment he enters adulthood, and to enter adulthood is to enter a realm where nothing is any longer definitely good or definitely bad. The story the monster wants him to tell is the acknowledgment of his own loss of innocence: he must confess that a part of him actually wants his mother to die, to put a stop to her pain and his own.

The story is moving, and movingly told, on its own, but it’s Jim Kay’s illustrations that lend a real air of wildness, of uncharted territory both physical and emotional, to the book. He might be better known for his illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, but his stark, brambly pen-and-ink drawings that encroach on nearly every page of A Monster Calls are exquisitely well suited to the text. This is my favourite spread:

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A thoroughly unpatronizing dissection of grief and growing up, and an excellent start to the project. The best children’s book of the last twenty years? Quite possibly.

me on the radio!

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On Monday, I had the opportunity to join Antonia Honeywell—my dear friend, and author of The Ship, a haunting novel about a young girl whose flight from a politically unstable England once felt dystopian and now feels, quite frankly, like today’s headline—on Booktime Brunch, her Monday morning radio show. We talked about the surprise Booker Prize result, bookselling as a vocation, the power of narrative to sway lives (not always in a good way), and—yes—my own book! Interspersed with our chat were twelve tracks that I chose and (mostly) explained. Honestly, it’s a really, really good show: we sound like we’re having a great time and we are. Think Desert Island Discs but with more books. You can listen to it here:

reading and listening

(long-ish, sorry)

Audiobooks! I don’t hate them!

This, it turns out, is what I’m like: I hate the idea of change, I resist it with every fibre of my being, I make up reasons why the new thing won’t work, and then I try it once and really enjoy it. This is where I am with audiobooks now, and where I was with podcasts about six months ago. I always want to read on my commutes and yet – especially this time of year – often find that after a day at work, my eyes are too tired to want to look at marks on a page. Listening to books is a natural solution. My resistance was based on how intensely annoying other people’s voices can be, but listening to Elisabeth Moss narrate The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be a good introduction: she has a soft-spoken, understated delivery that suits the barely veiled menace of Gilead. Having finished that, I spent some time looking for another title that would work as well, and eventually settled on Stephen Fry narrating a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. It’ll last me for some time; I’ve completed two of the novels and still have over 60 listening hours to go…

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A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle: The very first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever published, in which we meet both the titular character and his amanuensis and helpmeet, the stolid Dr John Watson. The mystery revolves around the murder of a man in an abandoned house in Brixton, found without a mark on his body and with the word RACHE painted in blood on the wall. (S1E1 of the BBC’s Sherlock perpetrated a nice, sarcastic twist upon this detail: “She was writing Rachel?” a Scotland Yard detective says, skeptically, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snarls, “No, she was writing an angry note in German – of course she was writing Rachel”, where in the book it is precisely, and improbably, the other way round.) The solution to the mystery, at which Holmes arrives with customary speed, involves revenge for a romantic injustice that occurred decades previously, when both killer and victim were involved with – yes – the early Mormon community of Salt Lake City.

Most of the novel’s Part II is taken up with a flashback narrative of the circumstances that led up to said injustice, which lets Conan Doyle really go for broke with his portrayal of the American West. There’s absolutely no clear reason for him to introduce Mormonism, apart from the natural exoticism involved in describing a foreign sect, and A Study in Scarlet has been challenged in some American schools for showing “anti-Mormon prejudice” (to which one answer might be, well, Brigham Young and his buddies were pretty big fans of polygamy, and they did have a secret police/militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, so where’s the lie?) This section is much too long and risks losing the reader’s interest, though one wonders what might have happened had Doyle decided to write a Western. (Are fanfic communities already on top of this?) Apart from that, though, the most interesting element of A Study in Scarlet is Holmes, who, on his first outing, is nowhere near such a jerk as he’s been made to appear in subsequent adaptations: a little full of himself, perhaps, but surprisingly warm to Watson, and always ready to laugh at the absurd.

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It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo: One of the season’s offerings from HarperCollins’s new imprint, Harper Via, which focuses on fiction in translation. Borgo is a Venezuelan journalist; this is her first novel. She no longer lives in her home country but in Spain, and has been watching Venezuela descend into lawlessness over the past thirteen years. Some of what she has seen is echoed in the experiences of her protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, whose world falls apart immediately after she buries her mother. Adelaida’s flat is commandeered by a group of violent and clearly working-class women – supposed revolutionaries, though their behaviour is more like that of petty warlords –  who use it as a base to store the food supplies that they are meant to be distributing equally throughout the district. (They are, of course, selling most of it on the black market at ridiculously inflated prices.) Driven from what remains of her home, Adelaida finds shelter in the flat of her neighbour, who happens to have died of a heart attack. She also offers sanctuary to her friend’s brother, Santiago, who has been captured, tortured and raped, and made to join the revolutionary forces, but deserts the instant he gets the chance. Adelaida’s and Santiago’s silent, nocturnal lives – they cannot draw attention to themselves for fear of being found out by the women in the flat next door – make up the bulk of the book, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, until Adelaida at last takes the risk of attempting to impersonate the dead woman, who has family in Spain, and flee the country.

The briefest trawl of Goodreads throws up lukewarm reviews of It Would Be Night in Caracas. A lot of them are in Spanish, which I don’t read very well. The longest one in English suggests that Borgo has, either out of intentional malice or out of culpable ignorance enabled by her own position of privilege as a white Venezuelan member of the property-owning classes, written bourgeois propaganda meant to dupe the English-reading public into supporting action against a democratically elected Venezuelan government. This was not something I considered while reading the book, and I’m glad to have been made to stop and think about it afterwards. As far as the convincing fictional construction of a life under siege goes, Borgo’s nailed it; the novel feels both dreamlike and hyper-real because those are the conditions of emotional and physical stress under which her characters live, and she pulls that off because she can write. (Her journalistic training may help; there’s a straightforward lack of melodrama to her descriptions of suffering that enhances their power.) I would need to know more than I do about Venezuelan history and politics to be able to say whether this feels more like a cynical maneuver, a sincere cri de coeur from an exile, or something in between. But it sure as hell works on a technical level.

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Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout: Strout’s last two books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, defeated me—I tried the first few pages of each and rapidly lost interest. Olive, Again is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteredge, and either I’ve changed or the book really is in a different league. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career; the eponymous Burgess boys make an appearance, as does Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle. But mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. What is so extraordinary about her work is that—not unlike Willa Cather, now that I think of it—she uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Power dynamics are constantly being assessed and revealed, but never explicitly. The first chapter, which follows Jack Kennison on a drive, includes a scene where he’s stopped and humiliated by a police officer, who may or may not—Jack doesn’t look long enough to know for sure—get an erection during the course of the interaction. It scares us as it scares him, the idea of being at the mercy of someone who is aroused by your unconsensual helplessness. Yet the idea never escapes the boundaries of a restrained, almost formal narrative voice that suits the character and the context exactly. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t; Strout may be hit or miss for me, but the hits are good enough that I’ll keep trying her every time she produces something new.

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The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle: First of all: this book is racist. Sorry. It was written by a British man in 1890 and involves the Indian Rebellion, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; under such circumstances, casual racism is, regrettably, par for the course. However, the main villain is a white Englishman, giving Doyle only a relatively small window in which to be racist. He must turn his attention instead to what seems to be a staple of the Sherlock Holmes books—the Lengthy Explication Of the Crime By the Villain What Did It, Taking Up At Least the Final Third of the Novel’s Whole Length—and for most of this explanation, racism is blessedly beside the point.

The plot is complex and turns on the theft of some jewels by four men—two Sikhs, a Muslim, and the aforementioned white guy—during the Indian Rebellion, when the countryside is in an uproar and a particularly wealthy Rajah attempts to have his valuables escorted to be guarded by the British at Agra. Instead of ensuring the safety of his possessions, the wheeze backfires spectacularly: the courier accompanying the jewels is murdered and the four men steal, and hide, the treasure. Their crime is found out almost at once and they are all sentenced to lifelong penal servitude in the Andaman Islands, but—crucially—the treasure remains hidden. Our villain, one Jonathan Small, reveals its location to one of the British army officers stationed in his prison, hoping that the man’s desperate gambling debts will prompt him to help Small escape in return for a portion of the loot. Instead, naturally, the British officer absconds with the entire treasure and Small remains incarcerated, until he escapes and befriends an Andaman Islander named Tonga. (More racism occurs here, particularly as Tonga ultimately falls from a boat and drowns as a direct result of Holmes and Watson’s investigation, and their inability to conceive of a black man as anything other than threatening.) Tonga and Small travel to England, track down the man who betrayed Small, and kill him. Collateral damage takes the form of the death of another British officer, a Captain Morstan, who is a fairly good guy as far as this book is concerned, and whose daughter’s desire to find out what happened to her father is the catalyst for the plot. (She falls conveniently in love with John Watson, and agrees to marry him at the end of the book. If it’s hardly the most convincing romance I’ve ever read, it’s a fairly convincing match; they’re both practical, sensible, kind-hearted characters.)

Listening to both of these books in quick succession has allowed me to note Doyle’s evident fondness for a kind of plotting formula. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, seeing as they are classic genre novels and genre fiction can be partly defined by a certain level of structural predictability. Still, side by side, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet both have easily identifiable features, the most prominent of which is the Very Long Flashback Monologue From the Villain. In a way, I wonder if this constitutes moral foresight on Doyle’s part, a kind of pre-post-modern attempt to get the reader to empathize with a murderer by understanding their circumstances. In another and more likely way, I think it might just be Doyle indulging his readers’ (and his own) taste for descriptions of faraway lands. It can’t be a coincidence that both Very Long Flashback Monologues (VLFMs from now on) take place in colorfully unstable foreign countries, much like the pre-credits sequence in every new James Bond film. Does anyone know of any work on colonialist tropes in early crime fiction and how/whether this developed along with the genre? I’d be keen to find out more.

also read recently:

  • North Child, Edith Pattou’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which is in itself a form of Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche. It was my favourite as a kid—there’s a talking white bear and an evil troll queen!—and Pattou’s adaptation is beautiful, scary and thrilling. There are too many POV characters (not all of them contribute much to our understanding of the story), but that’s a minor gripe. For strong readers of 10+.
  • The Horseman, the first in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, of which I’d already read the second and the third. (Weird, yes, but take from this the fact that you can start reading the books in pretty much any order.) This volume focuses on life working the land on a manor estate in Edwardian Devon, before our young protagonist Leo is (metaphorically) expelled from Eden. It’s just as beautiful—hyper-focused, lyrical, unsentimental about either nature or farming—as the other two. More people should be reading Pears. He knows what he’s about; in fact, he’s so good that attempting to analyze, critique or review his work feels somewhat superfluous.
  • A Man On the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s now-twenty-year-old history of the Apollo program. I developed a mild obsession with the moon landing this summer, when it was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and a lot of media on the topic was being broadcast. Chaikin’s book goes one better by dealing with every mission from Apollo 1—which never flew, because a disastrous fire in the space capsule during a routine test killed all three members of the crew—to Apollo 17, which gave us more information than we’d ever had before about the geology of the moon, and therefore about the history of our own planet. The fact that NASA plans to return to the moon in 2024, with the Artemis program, is intensely exciting; we should be funding these projects, we should be trying to learn more and go further and study what we find. A Man on the Moon is a fantastically readable account of the handful of people who have already done these things, and an inspirational argument for repeating the effort.

a bit of most things

Not everything I’ve read since my last post, but a fair amount of it.

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Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve: An addition to the shelf of books that prove children’s literature need not be any less morally complex, engaging, or surprising than adult books (Philip Pullman’s complete oeuvre also lives there). You no doubt know the premise of this already, from the film: in an ecologically ravaged future, cities have become mechanized and mobile, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism encourages larger settlements to hunt and consume smaller ones. (This accounts for Reeve’s justly famous opening line: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea.”) Tom Natsworthy, a young apprentice historian, saves a famous adventurer from an assassin and, during the struggle, is flung from the city into the wastelands below. He must team up with a physically and emotionally scarred girl named Hester Shaw, not only to get back to London, but to foil a plot brewing within the city itself that threatens what remains of the world. There’s also a third point-of-view character: Katherine, the sheltered and protected daughter of the man whose life Tom saves, who mounts her own investigation from within the upper echelons of London society.

Both Katherine’s and Tom’s moral arcs bend towards disillusionment and the assumption of responsibility, and Mortal Engines is so good because that development is paced so well. Tom and Hester argue periodically about the legitimacy of Municipal Darwinism, and for more than half the book, Tom cannot quite understand why anybody would want a different system; Katherine trusts in the good faith of the authority figures around her for a very long time, even as she continues to uncover proof of corruption. It’s a realistic depiction of how difficult it is to face the flaws in your own beliefs, and it’s infinitely more convincing than the remarkable readiness of, e.g., Katniss Everdeen to overthrow everything she’s ever known. (Reeve also writes with a restraint and sureness of touch that makes his more emotional sequences unbearably effective: a sudden death near the end of the book is conveyed in a paragraph the rhythmic balance and deftness of which made me cry.) I’ll be reading the rest of the series.

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The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty: Back to adult literature for a bit, with Neil Hegarty’s second novel, which was published on 3 October. It centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. It draws the attention of the public for its uncanny freshness: the nature of the materials means the colours should not have remained bright for as long as they have. A short opening sequence is from the perspective of the late Victorian female artist who painted the piece; when it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. It is, in a way, a novel about a stolen painting, but it is not an art-world heist caper; it is very much more about the lives led by three people brought together by a piece of art that is meaningful to each of them, about what sorts of experiences form a person and how that formed personality can sometimes be blazed away, for an instant, by something other. Probably more to the point, though, Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland. Some are more effective than others. I was never quite as convinced by Roisin, the gallery curator, and the story of Ward, the recovery specialist, is by far the most emotionally engaging. But these are quibbles that raise themselves weeks after reading the book; while turning the pages, all of these characters are real. And Hegarty’s prose is just so trustworthy, which is much rarer than it sounds.

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Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, by Colin Grant: Also published on 3 October. Grant is a journalist and Homecoming (or Home Coming; reviews have been published that spell it both ways) is an oral history of black Caribbean-British life from the 1940s onwards. Like many books that use this research method, Homecoming is often not quite clear about when its sources were interviewed, presumably because Grant has visited some of his interviewees multiple times, then cut and shaped their testimony (Svetlana Alexievich’s books are not dissimilar). The book also borrows transcripts from other projects of this kind: from BBC documentaries on the black British experience going back as far as the 1950s, for example, or from memoirs by black British writers. Although this can lead to a kind of historical vertigo, it also has the effect of layering generations of testimony, sometimes in a surprising and enlightening manner; there is a whole chapter dedicated to racist violence in Notting Hill in 1958, but there are also several interviewees who state frankly that Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, ten years later, made little to no impression on their daily lives. It’s one of many salutary reminders in the book that people live, as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale, “as usual”–that patterns we retroactively read as abnormal or catastrophic are often experienced much less dramatically by the people alive at the time. The point is not that racism never existed or wasn’t as bad as news reports suggested; it’s that no two people of Caribbean descent in Britain have experienced the same things in the same ways. Homecoming goes a long way towards challenging the still-prevalent idea of a monolithic racial narrative.

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The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather: Still on a Cather kick, and I think this might be the best one so far, although possibly that’s because it’s about something that fascinates me: namely, the artistic development of a musician. Thea Kronborg grows up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Moonstone, Colorado, but her talent as a pianist, and later as a soprano, lead her to Chicago, Germany, New York, and beyond. Cather’s strengths are here in full force: her apparently effortless evocation of the lands of the American West; her subtle and entire grasp of the complications of human character; and her innate understanding that artistry involves sacrifice, and that involves decisions that other people can’t always empathize with. (Thea chooses, for example, not to come home when her mother is dying; if she stays in Germany, she will have the chance to sing the role of Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhauser, which becomes her breakthrough role. The people in her life are divided primarily into those who understand this perfectly, and those who never will.) Structurally, Cather thought the novel a failure, and AS Byatt, in her introduction, agrees: she cites what Cather seemed to think of as the weakening effect of the final section of the novel, during which Thea is seen at the height of her career. Cather’s regret is understandable; the novel would be strong enough if it ended just as Thea goes off to Germany, her development as a singer now well underway. This isn’t really a book about success: it’s a book about work, which makes a whole section on success a little redundant. But it’s worth it, just about, to know that the work pays off.

also read recently:

  • Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, undoubtedly the most intelligent and rigorous essay collection on the Internet age, and specifically Internet feminism, that I’ve yet read. Tolentino’s a New Yorker staff writer and she is not content with platitudes about millennial culture or about the deleterious effects of social media on our attention spans; she’s much more interested in dissecting how things happen, what the exact circumstances are that result in malaise, or trolling, or a specific cultural phenomenon. Outstanding.
  • Priests de la Resistance, by Fergus Butler-Gallie, a moving and also charming collection of biographical chapters focusing on religious individuals (mostly ordained or consecrated but some not) who have fought Fascism in the twentieth century. The usual suspects are present (Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), but also some names quite new to me (Sister Sara Salkhazi, Pietro Pappagallo). He also doesn’t just stick to WWII-era resistance, but glances also at the religious foundations of the US civil rights movement. A bit more balance would have been welcome, but maybe that’s for volume three? In any case: an excellent collation of humans who, whatever you think of theology in general, felt themselves called to save lives. We could all do a lot worse than to follow these particular examples.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, my first audiobook in… maybe ever. Our household didn’t really do audiobooks when I was a kid, and I’ve always assumed I’ll find them annoying. This was technically a re-read, since I read it first at fifteen, but this time around, Atwood’s novel felt much more immediate and daring and vital. For a long time I’ve been quietly skeptical of what all the fuss is about, having only faint memories of the book I read twelve years ago, and now – especially thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s dry, softly-spoken narrative style – I get it. Occasionally Atwood shows signs of the slightly too on-the-nose jokes that have started to mar her recent work (“pen is envy”, recently cited by a reviewer of The Testaments, turns up for the first time in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m not at all convinced by the likelihood of portmanteaux such as “Prayvaganza” or “Particicution”, although the grim euphemism of “Salvaging” is plausible). But mostly, it’s as fresh and terrifying a guide to the ways in which women can be enslaved – and complicit in the system that enslaves them – as ever.

 

 

 

some children’s books

Therapist: and what do we do when we feel a tiny bit heartbroken but also dumb because we revealed our vulnerability to someone who rejected it, and additionally feel waves of acute terror that a no-deal Brexit will threaten our actual life because we need insulin and medicine shortages will be more than a minor inconvenience?

Me: walk to the nearest bookshop and purchase £50+ worth of children’s and YA novels

Therapist: NO

And so:

wrinkle in time

A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: Not gonna lie, this one has aged weirdly. Not badly, exactly, but weirdly. There’s a level of sheer serene acceptance of Christian theology that would actually make me think twice before sending it to a child now—not because L’Engle ever advocates anything more controversial than the power of love, but because direct Biblical quotation in a book for eight-to-twelve-year-olds feels a bit…full on? Maybe that’s my problem, though; maybe a child would skate over whatever they didn’t need. They tend to. Also, I can’t quite shake my uncertainty about the characterisation of Meg, her genius-mystic little brother Charles Wallace, and her beautiful-genius mother Mrs. Murry, in particular, ever since reading this Paris Review article. Are they just prototypes of the Perfectly Flawed Protagonist trope in YA? I don’t know. There’s enough left in the book, even with my discomfort, to make it resonate with me very deeply: the way Meg is told that her weaknesses can also be her strengths, that what she has in her heart for her little brother is enough to save him from the cruelty that wants him for its own. And the description of the terrifying dark planet of Camazotz, with its authoritarian sameness and awful punishments for those who step out of line, retains all of its power to disturb.

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The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster: The complex delights of characterisation are not really an issue in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our protagonist, Milo, is a chronically bored little boy (one rather extraordinary feature of the book is that he appears not to have any parents; it’s not that he’s orphaned but that they simply aren’t mentioned. I guess he’s what that era might have called a latchkey kid, except that he literally never thinks about them, not once. It’s a fascinating omission. Is it that they don’t love him, or that they’re simply not necessary to the story? Or a bit of both?) Anyway, one day he finds a parcel in his room which turns out to be a flatpack toy tollbooth. He rouses himself from lassitude enough to put it together and drive through it in his little toy car, and suddenly finds himself in an entirely different world, where two brothers rule over words and numbers (respectively), the conductor Chroma directs the orchestra of the world to play every day into colour from sunrise to sunset, and Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord collects loud noises along with his lab assistant, the Terrible Dynne. Milo acquires two faithful companions, Tock the Watchdog (watch + dog, you see?) and the Humbug (stripy, pompous, likes spats), and soon finds himself on a quest to bring back the princesses Rhyme and Reason from their exile in the Castle in the Air. The delights of The Phantom Tollbooth are in the rigorous logic of its nonsense world, in which it much resembles Lewis Carroll; if you eat subtraction stew, you get hungrier and hungrier, of course—why wouldn’t you?

*a personal disclaimer: I read The Phantom Tollbooth out loud to my kid brother when he was six or seven and I was eleven or twelve. It made the most enormous impression on him; until he discovered Roald Dahl, he called it his favourite book, and he used to talk about it loads. We never found another book that did quite the same sort of thing.

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Arsenic For Tea, by Robin Stevens: The second in Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series, and quite possibly even better than the eponymous first book. Daisy Wells (president of the Detective Society at Deepdean School) and Hazel Wong (Secretary) are at Daisy’s parents’ country house, Fallingford, for the summer holidays, but there is something rotten in the estate. Daisy’s mother (much younger than Daisy’s father) has invited a rather flashy and insincere antiques dealer named Mr Curtis to stay, and they seem entirely too chummy; Great-Aunt Saskia’s habit of pinching the silver spoons is becoming too obvious to ignore; and why does Uncle Felix (who does something top secret for the government) seem to know the girls’ holiday governess, when she’s only just been employed? When Daisy’s birthday tea ends with the unexpected demise of Mr Curtis, and flash flooding cuts off Fallingford from the surrounding countryside, it’s up to the girls to find out which of the houseguests is a killer… The reason Stevens’s books work so brilliantly is that, within this familiar framework of Christie-esque plot devices, she is absolutely committed to psychological realism. Daisy and Hazel have investigated one murder already, and they are only fourteen; where a lesser author would skip over any lingering effects of trauma, Stevens understands that the resilience of youth has limits, that Hazel is upset not just by this murder occurring but by the way murder seems to be happening all around her and her friends, that Daisy’s apparently lesser concern is not (as Hazel believes) a sign of her superiority but an indicator that something is not quite right with her. Daisy’s and Hazel’s characterisations have both developed between books one and two, and I’m very interested to see where Stevens takes them next. (She also has the extraordinary knack of dealing with topics like infidelity, lesbian relationships and pathological kleptomania in a way that feels entirely accurate to the 1930s’ schoolgirl point of view, but also entirely appropriate to her 21st-century audience, neither patronizing nor unsubtle. It is one of the hardest tricks in the world and she deserves to sell very well for it.)

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Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones: Wynne Jones mostly bypassed me, somehow; I had friends who loved Charmed Life and Dark Lord of Derkholm, and I think I read one or two, but they didn’t really sink in. And I’ve never seen the Miyazaki film of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is presumably how most people now come to the book. But the Folio Society—of all people—made Howl’s Moving Castle the subject of their most recent illustration competition, and artists produced such stunning and intriguing work for it that I found myself picking it up and thinking I’d give it a go. Well, it’s great. Wynne Jones, like Stevens, takes familiar and even goofy genre tropes (three daughters, a supposedly evil wizard, seven-league boots, curses cast by jealous witches), throws them all together with a huge dose of irony, sarcasm and bloodymindedness, and makes something entirely sui generis. Sophie Hatter is an eldest daughter, which means her life will be comfortable and boring; everyone knows only the youngest children in a family get to have adventures. But when she inadvertently offends the Witch of the Waste, a spell is cast on her that makes her appear to be an old woman. Making her way to the castle of the feared wizard Howl in hopes that he can remove the curse, she finds that being an old woman liberates her from caring for other peoples’ opinions, and she installs herself as Howl’s cleaner. But the Witch is after Howl, too, and Sophie needs to find a way to free Howl’s indentured fire demon, Calcifer, if she’s to rescue not only herself but her employer… Extremely funny, quite unpredictable, and with some action taking place in our world in a way that Wynne Jones simply declines to explain, which (instead of being annoying) makes it all the more magical. Also, and rather unexpectedly, features one of my favourite John Donne poems.

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Rules For Vanishing, by Kate Alice Marshall: Actually not part of the book haul, but a proof copy sent to the bookshop which I plucked off the shelf in anticipation of its October publication by Walker Books. It is an excellent instance of Internet-creepypasta-type horror, including an urban legend about a girl who disappeared, mysterious documents about “the road”, “the game” and “rules” that must be followed, and a fragmented, documentary-style structure. (I was forcefully reminded in the early pages of this exceptional Reddit thread.) There’s also a very impressive subtlety to the representation of deafness, bisexuality, and stammering; I often struggle with YA where the characters are DIVERSE!!1!1!!!1!, but Marshall does it brilliantly, making each character an individual with a given trait, as opposed to a walking trait. (The deaf character’s deafness, in particular, actually functions in the story: because of it, most of his friends know ASL, so they can communicate silently when they need to.) I’ll definitely be recommending this to thirteen-year-olds and up, for Halloween and beyond.

Currently reading: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, which I’m loving (more on that in another post, perhaps), and have two more from the book haul stack left: Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass, which is new to me but which Abigail Nussbaum convinced me about, and Richard Adams’s Watership Down, a childhood favourite and also one of those books that, when read as an adult, make one wonder why on earth our parents thought this was appropriate for us at the tender age of nine.

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware: I finished this in a day; it is SO readable. A modern take on James’s Turn of the Screw, featuring all our faves (creepy kids, mysterious footsteps, an initially rational narrator with secrets of her own who is progressively broken down by fear), but with some modern twists (the house is old, with a terrible history, but has been renovated to make it a “smart house” which can be run – and also run remotely – via app. YES, horrifying.) I’m not so sure about the ending, which makes some leaps with regards to motive and capacity, but goodness me is it gripping.

 

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Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, by Elizabeth Hardwick: I took this to Paris, because look at that title, how could I take anything else? Much of the criticism seemed outdated, at least in terms of its gender politics, but then, it was written in the ’70s, so it’d be sort of surprising if it wasn’t. The other thing I found tricky about it is that Hardwick’s particular brand of criticism doesn’t involve a lot of textual reference: she writes about the characterisation of Ibsen’s heroines – the terrifyingly empty and amoral Hedda Gabler, for instance, or the somehow untouchably free Nora in A Doll’s House – while rarely making reference to anything they say. The same is true, to a large extent, of the Bronte sisters, who are the subject of the first essay, and of the women both real and fictional whom she discusses in the title essay (including Anna Karenina and Richardson’s Clarissa). Still worth reading for the declarative power of her sentences, and for the essay on Sylvia Plath alone.

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Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick: A brave ten-year-old could handle this, but I’d suggest it for twelve and up, on the whole. Bill, a young English boy, is on a sailing summer course off Gran Canaria when a storm separates him from his shipmates. Drifting in the Atlantic, he comes across another shipwrecked adolescent: Aya, a Berber girl, who is keeping secrets of her own. Bill and Aya’s growing ability to communicate and trust one another is beautifully rendered, as are the stories Aya tells to keep them going (as not-so-subtle but still very moving symbols of the power of narrative to provide hope). Sort of like a junior Life of Pi without all of the clever-clever religiosity. Also a genuinely scary and thrilling survival/adventure story.

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The Truants, by Kate Weinberg: Whether you enjoy The Truants or not probably depends on how well you react to familiarity. When I read the proof blurb by Scarlett Thomas that claimed this was like a mashup of Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, and Liane Moriarty, I wasn’t prepared for how entirely accurate that was: it’s The Secret History set in Norwich with Agatha Christie texts occupying the place that classical Greek culture takes in the former. If you’re keen on genre riffs, and sexily unpredictable men, and the erotics of pedagogy, pick it up. I rather enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll remember much in a month.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather: Willa, my queen. Not much happens in Death Comes for the Archbishop, except for a whole life: that of the titular Archbishop, who’s mostly just a Bishop while we know him. He’s Jean Latour, the first Catholic bishop of New Mexico, and with him is Father Joseph Vaillant, his right-hand man. The friendship between the two men – Latour intellectual and kindly but aloof, Vaillant awkward and ungainly but easy to love – is the most beautiful part of Cather’s novel, although she’s also good on the shifting nineteenth-century politics of the West and Southwest, and describes Native American and Mexican customs with interest and respect. Her prose is like desert air: lucid, invigorating, vivid. *chef’s kiss*