A lot of reading and not a lot of posting this month—I managed the regular Love Your Library, American Reading Challenge and Great Reread posts, but nothing else. So that means a fairly substantial superlatives roundup!
best technically-related-to-work read: Memoirs of a Georgian Rake (written 1808-10; published 1913-1925; this edition 1995), by William Hickey. This sprightly Folio Society condensation of the original 700-page memoir (!!) is well judged, taking us into the bustling Regency world of money, sex, entertainment, and imperialism. Hickey is appealingly hapless, although elements of his memories are pretty disturbing. (In a scene that we would now recognise as child sexual abuse, he wakes up in the middle of the night age seven or eight to find that the teenaged female servant with whom he shares a bed has placed his hand on her genitals; he credits this as his moment of sexual awakening.) His accounts of the rakish life aren’t all loveless: he seems to truly love both the courtesan Charlotte Barry, who posed as his wife when they traveled to India and who died of a fever age 21, and his subsequent Bengali mistress Jemdanee, who died giving birth to their son. A fascinating window into a vanished world and way of thinking.
best fantasy quartet wrap-up: An Autumn War (2008) and The Price of Spring (2009), by Daniel Abraham. Don’t start here—you really need to read the first two to understand the last two—but these volumes develop and conclude the plot lines elegantly and enjoyably. I’m glad I found Abraham’s work last year, but this quartet particularly.
quickest read: The Beggar’s Opera (1728), by John Gay. There’s a reason why reading plays never appeals to me. It’s all over too quickly, and there’s a certain ironic lifelessness to drama on the page. I’d rather just watch Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera again, instead.
most unconventional memoir: My Father and Myself (1968), by J.R. Ackerley. I found this lovely NYRB edition in an odd little brunch spot in Bromley North, and couldn’t leave without taking it along with me. Ackerley is a funny fish and his memoir is too: he writes both about his father’s “secret life” (as the patriarch of a second family, complete with children) and his own (as a sexually active gay man), and how his and his father’s relationship allowed them to talk about sexuality (surprisingly candidly, I feel, for the era—maybe for any era). It gives a rather sad picture of Ackerley’s personal life, though—he’s too much of an idealist in love—and is peculiarly lopsided in structure for a memoir.
my nomination for the cinematic treatment: Sarah Jane (2019), by James Sallis. One of those short, strange books about taciturn people, in this case a Midwestern cop who’s lived many lives before washing up where she is. The mystery element is oblique and I’d have preferred something a bit more definitive plotwise, but the atmosphere is terrific and the real extent of Sarah Jane’s secretiveness is revealed over the course of the book. It would make a great indie movie, with shots of Americana-classic diners and prairie, perhaps with Sarah Jane played by Clea DuVall…
most sacred cows overturned: Lilith’s Brood trilogy (Dawn: 1987, Adulthood Rites: 1988, Imago: 1989), by Octavia E. Butler. A tremendous triple whammy of alien sex, polyamory, non-binary gender identities, genome editing, paternalism, utopianism, and postapocalypticism. (WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word. It is.) The story of the human race’s total remaking, and the philosophical question of whether to be remade means to survive or to be destroyed, underpins these intensely thought-provoking books. As always with Butler, the most apparently fundamental tenets of social relationships are interrogated and frequently cast aside. The writing is often more plain and functional than beautiful or interesting, but the ideas are more than radical enough to make up for that.
most oddly insubstantial: The World of Yesterday (1942), by Stefan Zweig. I had never read any Zweig before this, and felt I ought to like him (or at least try him), but was aware too that he’s been criticised for poor style. I’m not sure it’s style that’s the problem with The World of Yesterday; it felt more as though Zweig wasn’t being specific enough, making broad statements about (his experience of) pre-war European society. This improves a bit as the memoir elements of the book follow him into adulthood, but in total, it has all slipped from my mind with alarming speed, and I think that lack of particularity and bite might explain why.
boldest move by a white writer: Property (2003), by Valerie Martin. This pulls off the difficult balancing act of making its first-person narrator protagonist both generally sympathetic and unredeemed. Manon Gaudet, a white woman married to a boorish Louisiana plantation owner, becomes fixated by the enslaved woman Sarah who has borne two of her husband’s children. When a slave revolt causes chaos and Sarah runs away, Manon becomes obsessed with finding her. A fascinating read in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—the other side of the slavery-ruins-everything-for-everyone coin. In Property, we’re allowed to understand that Manon’s life is stifling and terrible, but we are also allowed to understand that this is not a sufficient excuse, that she has allowed elements of her humanity to become crushed and warped and that pursuing Sarah is so important to her because it is—pathetically, awfully—the only way she can feel powerful. Clearly written and under 300 pages, it becomes ever more impressive the more I think about it. A worthy Women’s Prize winner in its time.
most engrossing: Grass (1989), by Sheri S. Tepper. An incredibly rich novel encompassing ecology, feminism, theology, sex and power, class prejudice, practical ethics, and—incongruously—horseback riding. A seemingly incurable plague is sweeping the inhabited planets of the galaxy, except for one, named Grass for its endless prairies. Marjorie Yrarier, her husband Roderigo, and their two children are sent as ambassadors by the religious monolith Sanctity (clearly adapted from Mormonism) to find out what they can about the secret to Grass’s immunity. They find a strangely closed-off community of aristocrats who engage in a parody of fox-hunting with the planet’s native fauna, an unorthodox Sanctity monk whose archaeological interests have led him to some remarkable discoveries, and a more horrifying truth than anyone anticipated. I really loved this; I know Tepper has her detractors, but so far her work has been spot on for me, with tenderness and brutality interwoven and fascinating, complex female protagonists. Grass is a strong candidate for the Best Books of 2023 list.
What have you enjoyed reading this month?