February Superlatives

I read eleven books in February, which is pretty decent for someone with a full-time job in the shortest month of the year. As I’m trying to get into writing something, even a small something, about most of the things I read, I thought I’d try this: a sort of mini-awards for all the books I’ve read in each month. It’ll make sense, I promise (/hope). Like high school senior superlatives–most likely to succeed and so on–only less shit.

most oddly anticlimactic: It’s a tie between Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. I wanted so badly to be blown away by both of them. Chandrasekaran was writing on the mismanagement of the initial (2003) US occupation of Iraq, and Baghdad’s Green Zone in particular, while Gay is now more or less the Internet’s foremost feminist, as well as being consulted on virtually every other societal/cultural issue, especially those involving race, gender and sexuality. The books were almost guaranteed to be exceptional, only, with both of them, I kept having an odd “is this it?” feeling halfway through a sentence. Both books, I think, suffered from having started out life as a collection of separate pieces which were then forced together to make a whole. Bad Feminist is still marketed as a collection of separate essays, but no one seems to have sat down with them to work out which bits are repetitive, which are flabby, which aren’t pulling their weight, and so on. It’s a real shame; I’d still like to read Gay’s recent novel, An Untamed State.

most physically nauseating: Far and away, the honour goes to Edward St Aubyn’s short, vicious novel Never Mind. It encompasses one day in the life of five-year-old Patrick Melrose, who is on holiday in the South of France with his aristocratic parents, alcoholic doormat Eleanor and sadistic abuser David. If you have ever been in an abusive relationship or know someone who has, do not read this, or read it very carefully; St Aubyn is perfect on the dynamics of domination and control, which, although I admire the technical and emotional skill required, makes the reading experience sickening. I was going to read the three sequels straight afterwards, but just couldn’t face them. Maybe one a month.

most like a ‘90s indie teen movie, only with Mennonites: There can really only be one contender for this: A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews, which is about Nomi Nickel, whose strictly religious upbringing has caused both her mother and sister to rebel and leave, and who is considering doing the same herself. One of the curious things about this book is that nothing really happens in it. It’s all about charting the progression of someone’s mindset from idly thinking about something to being determined to do it, and not in an intense, Macbeth sort of way. But Nomi is a charming protagonist: intelligent, impatient, and kind of just done with everything. Very good.

most unabashedly comforting: A tie, between The Wind In the Willows and Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, both of which I read whilst having a long weekend with my grandparents at their house on the South Downs. The Wind In the Willows basically defines my childhood: there was an animated film made in about 1994, with such voice talent as Alan Bennett (Mole), Michael Palin (Rat), Rik Mayall (Toad) and Michael Gambon (Badger), and I watched that thing hundreds of times. About ninety-six percent of the dialogue and narration is lifted directly from Kenneth Grahame’s original text, so re-reading the book is almost like having a nostalgic audio track of the film in my head. Not to mention that the writing is simply beautiful without ever tipping into sentimentality. God bless the Edwardians. (Adrian Mole is, I should hope, self-explanatory.)

most impressively disturbing: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber. This has also been made into a film, starring Scarlett Johanssen, which I would like to see, although I am a little worried that it will be too violent to enjoy watching much (I’m squeamish about on-screen blood, though reading about it is okay.) It’s a hard book to discuss because there’s a huge spoiler which occurs fairly early on, but I can say that it flips a reader’s idea of “normal” in the way that the best speculative fiction (or indeed any sort of fiction) does, and that I had to lie down for a bit after finishing it.

most ludicrously enjoyable: No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon, which is a novel that partakes very much of the 1066 And All That school of historical interpretation. It reads like what would happen if Terry Pratchett decided to do a mash-up of the life story of Shakespeare. There is an ongoing subplot about a potato, and another, smaller subplot about Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak. Reading this is the very definition of “nerding out”, and it’s great.

Tudor potato

most apt reading for a cough syrup fugue state: Both of the books I’ve been sent for review this month, oddly: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader, and The Well, by Catherine Chanter. The Anchoress is about a young woman in thirteenth-century England who decides to become, essentially, a hermit, and the repercussions of her decision; The Well is part murder mystery, part eco-thriller, and part domestic drama. I slightly preferred it, out of the two, although it is slightly longer than it ought to be. Both of these were ideal for sick reading, focusing as they do on altered states of consciousness, memory loss, visions, hallucinations, etc. And I’ll be reviewing them at the end of the month in Shiny New Books!

most straight-up infuriating: Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. This was February’s Classics Club read for me, and it is very racist. Yes, it was written in the seventeenth century, when this sort of thing was par for the course; and yes, it is easy and enjoyable to analyze other elements of the work; and yes, the racism is in part what makes this a valuable window into the development of Western attitudes towards Africans and slavery. But it also makes for rather eyebrow-raising reading. More on that when I post a full Classics Club review, later!

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