Man Booker Longlist Feelings

It will loom over you from now until late September, get used to it

So, they’ve announced the Man Booker Prize Longlist for 2015! Those of us who like having the order and discipline of lists in our lives are quite excited by this, and, having glanced at it, I have to say it does make me slightly more hopeful than last year’s did. Firstly, the nationality breakdown is fairly heartening. Yes, there are more Americans than any other nationality, but there are three Brits represented, and one writer each from New Zealand, Ireland, India, Nigeria and Jamaica. As for the gender balance, that too is heartening; seven women on a list of thirteen is pretty good going, even for a contemporary prize.

  • Bill Clegg is the only one that I’ve genuinely never heard of (which is unsurprising, as this is his debut novel–he is, however, a hotshot agent in his own right). His book about a fire and familial secrets/trauma is Did You Ever Have A Family.
  • I have read Anne Enright’s novel The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007–I was about fourteen, which may have been too young to fully appreciate the virtues of a novel about child abuse in an Irish Catholic family, but I do wonder whether The Green Road will be too similar–it’s billed as an Irish family saga.
  • Marlon James is already high on my list of Authors To Read More Of: I read The Book of Night Women, about a Jamaican slave rebellion, in November, and was utterly bowled over. A Brief History of Seven Killings is one I’ll be looking to read.
  • I know next to nothing about Laila Lalami, although The Moor’s Account sounds amazing: an account of the exploits of the conquistadors, as told by one of their Moroccan slaves.
  • Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island struck me as almost unbearably precious when it first came out; a sort of wannabe David Foster Wallace-type meta-novel. I’m sure it’s very clever and probably reasonably well-judged, but I just don’t want it to win at all.
  • The Fishermen, by Chigoizie Obioma, is published by Pushkin Press, of which I am very fond, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. Hopefully, I can get hold of a copy to review soon.
  • Andrew O’Hagan is one of those authors whom I think I’ve read, but I haven’t. The catalogue copy for The Illuminations made it seem as though it could go either way (war, dual plot strands, memory, photography, etc.), but perhaps it’s worth a punt?
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson has been a contender since it was published last year. Everything Marilynne Robinson writes is a contender for something. I must read this.
  • Anuradha Roy is, again, an author about whom I know nothing, though the Guardian did a fascinating podcast about Sleeping on Jupiter a while back. More heavy child-abuse themes, this time with an Indian religious flavor instead of an Irish one…
  • Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways looked promising in catalogue: the story of thirteen young Indian immigrants living in a house in Sheffield, looking for new lives. The blurb is full of effulgent comments about how it celebrates the dignity of the human spirit, which makes me wary, but it could be true!
  • Anna Smaill’s The Chimes has been on my radar for a while, ever since Naomi tapped it for the Baileys Prize. It’s about a world where music replaces memory, and as a part-time musician with some interest in neurology and a lot of interest in identity, I think I’d probably enjoy it a great deal.
  • Anne Tyler, on the other hand, has never really piqued my interest, and A Spool of Blue Thread being nominated for both the Baileys and the Booker confuses me, because its premise seems intensely boring, like a rehash of The Corrections. But maybe it’s brilliant?
  • And, finally, Hanya Yanigihara’s A Little Life. I knew I wanted to read this before the nomination, but now it’s a dead cert. Described as “the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season […a]n epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light”, it looks superb.

You know what I can’t get over, though? The exclusion of Station Eleven and The Wolf Border, and of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and also I’m a little bit surprised that The Buried Giant didn’t AT LEAST make the long list. But primarily I’m upset by the absence of The Wolf Border. Why don’t prize committees get it? Why don’t they see how revolutionary this book is, how casually it hurls narrative conventions about women and men and relationships out of the window? Why don’t they love its descriptions of Cumbria, its fells and lakes and green villages, and of Idaho’s dark and snowy roads, the way I do? Sigh.*

*(Because the way I feel about The Wolf Border is TRUE LOVE, that’s why. And prize committees are not in the business of fomenting true love, necessarily. It still disappoints me.)

Anyone read any of the books on this long list? Anyone have particular favorites? Anyone else disappointed not to see something on the list?

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Birthday Books!

I’ve read some bloody good books since writing about Knockemstiff, including James Salter’s portrait of a dissolving twentieth-century marriage, Light Years; Blood DazzlerPatricia Smith’s extraordinary collection of poetry on Hurricane Katrina (some of it told from the hurricane’s point of view…), and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, also about the events leading up to the hurricane in the life of a fifteen-year-old pregnant girl living in poverty on the Gulf Coast. I would recommend every single one of these books without hesitation to nearly everyone–they are all That Good. But I’ve fallen down a bit on reviewing, because the past two weeks have been profoundly chaotic and busy, and I had a birthday! I got a LOT of books, and I figure the best way to wipe the slate clean is to do a book pile-post (everyone loves one of those!), and then pick up with reviews again.

birthday booksFrom the top:

Imagine My Surprise: Unpublished Letters To the Daily Telegraph. Casanova and Princi gave me this, along with a card that had rhyming couplets and the word “twat” in it, which means they come pretty close to Winning At Birthdays. There is nothing more gloriously, incomprehensibly English than the rejected complaint letters from readers of the Telegraph. If you don’t understand what “Disgusted in Tunbridge Wells” means, then this book’s not for you; if you do, it’s a gem.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. From the Duchess, this is a gorgeous edition of the Winifred Watson novel about a middle-aged spinster who thinks she’s landed a short-term governess job, only to find that she’s working for a nightclub singer instead of a bunch of undisciplined children. Their unlikely friendship, and the slow blossoming of Miss Pettigrew’s spirit, makes for a gently lovely novel.

Go Set A Watchman. Also from the Duchess; who DOESN’T know what this is about by now? A very anticipated read, although my expectations are cautious.

The InheritorsFrom dearest Dubai-dwelling Loch Hess Monster, who has been trying to evangelize this book to me for about a year! A fictionalization of the meeting of Neanderthals with homo sapiens, it is what William Golding should be known for, instead of that choirboy horror show Lord of the Flies.

The Complete English Poems of John Donne. An early birthday present from Darcy–I haven’t got all of these in one volume, so this is handy and lovely all at once. Oh, Donne. Always and forever one of the gatekeepers to my heart.

Diary of Witold Gombrowicz. I came in at around two in the morning on the day of my actual birthday, because we’d had the office summer party the night before, and I tripped over this enormous Amazon package sitting on my front doorstep. I carried it upstairs, ripped it open, and found this: the 800-page diary of one of the major figures of twentieth-century Polish literature, none of whose works I have ever read. It was, of course, from Literary Uncle.

Le ton beau de Marot. An extraordinary tome by Douglas Hofstadter (he who brought you Godel, Escher, Bach), about translation and language systems. I’ve started it: he writes in meter, semi-intentionally. It will, without a doubt, be one of the most interesting things I ever read in my life.

And something I bought myself as a weird little treat:

Eloquent JavaScriptYes, really. I took a programming class YEARS ago and was really interested by it, but I was the only girl and the instructor was discouraging and…you know the story. This was sold to me as being one of the most comprehensive, and comprehensible, guides to beginners’ programming on the market, and the first few pages haven’t disappointed–the author has a marvelous chatty style. I like it already.

So, a wonderful birthday all around (including a joint celebration with Papa Bear down the pub, ft. the Duchess, Bunter, Casanova, Princi, the Lawyer aka AdventureSinCake–many of our old favorites, and quite a few new ones too.) What to read next? Apart from the above mentioned, there is also The Shore by Sara Taylor, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, The Holy and the Broken by Alan Light, and Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, on my shortlist of potential new reads. Someone help me make a decision…

 

Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock

I found myself wishing I had a loved one who would die and leave me their barbiturates, but I couldn’t think of anyone who’d ever loved me that much.

Partly because I still haven’t put up a single review of a book by a man since writing that post on whether I’m a sexist reviewer (despite reading several!), my hand strayed towards Knockemstiff when choosing a book for this weekend’s Oxford-London coach journey. I’m currently reading Will Cohu’s brilliant novel Nothing But Grass in order to be able to ask him pertinent questions about it for a Q&A in Quadrapheme (indeed!), but it’s several hundred pages long and a hardback, and my Friday journey was intended to culminate in a bar near Piccadilly for a friend’s birthday, and then, quite possibly, some posho nightclub. A 400-page doorstop about manual labourers in the Lincolnshire Wolds is not an ideal item to carry around such places. A slim short story collection blurbed as “a whiskey-stained classic”, on the other hand, seemed pretty much ideal.

Knockemstiff, Ohio is real; it’s Pollock’s hometown, although he takes care in the acknowledgments to distance his work from the reality of the place. And for good reason: his stories are deeply reminiscent of early Cormac McCarthy, despite not having the same deliberately obtuse approach to sentence construction. The atmosphere of off-kilter, electric violence, where people’s actions (or passivity) constantly threaten to cross the line from the merely odd to the inarguably taboo, is the same. The first few stories, which seem to be chronologically earlier than the others, hinge on explosive moments of physical and sexual violence, but the theme runs throughout the collection.

Fathers are totemic in Knockemstiff–none of them are kind or good, but the influence of their scorn and their masculinity affects their sons more than almost anything else. The first story, “Real Life”, features a father whose bullying is relentless:

“I shit you not, Cappy,” my father was telling the man, “this boy’s scared of his own goddamn shadow. A fuckin’ bug’s got more balls.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Cappy said. He bit the filter off the cigarette and spat it on the concrete floor. “My sister’s got one like that. Poor little guy, he can’t even bait a hook.”

“Bobby shoulda been a girl”, the old man said. “Goddamn it, when I was that age, I was choppin’ wood for the stove.”

Unmanliness is the worst possible quality for a man in rural South Ohio. Spreading rumors about another man’s homosexuality can ruin not only his reputation, but his livelihood, and the possibility of having fathered a “queer” is beyond nightmare. Of course, all of this fear and anxiety only serves to drive things underground. In the story “Hair’s Fate”, young Daniel is unceremoniously shorn by his father, who fears that long hair equals effeminacy. Daniel runs away only to be picked up by a truck driver, who invites him back to his house and offers the blonde wig that his mother wore throughout her battle with cancer. The story ends with the trucker helping Daniel put the wig on, his hand lingering a little too long on the younger boy’s, and the unnerving final words:

Daniel knew that if he looked in the mirror again, he’d see the wig for what it really was. So instead, he closed his eyes.

Fathers are destructive even when they’re paying attention to their children. Luther Colburn in “Discipline” has spent years grooming his eighteen-year-old son to take the Mr. South Ohio bodybuilding title; the training strategy includes injecting him with steroids. It doesn’t end well for Colburn, Jr., and with him go Luther’s last hopes of glory. Men in Knockemstiff tend not to have a Plan B; they pin their hopes on one huge success, overplay their hands, or simply fail to account for margins of luck or error.

The collection features few women, and only one story is actually told from a woman’s point of view. For the most part, women are dead-eyed mothers, or dead-eyed whores. Sometimes, as in the case of Geraldine Stubbs, they make the transition from the latter to the former across several stories; we first meet Geraldine as a barely-pubescent white-trash hooker, trading her services for cans of beer. Later, she appears (although we don’t initially know it’s her) as the unshakable girlfriend of Del in “Fish Stick Girl”, and later still, she and Del are married, with a baby called Veena. Del, in one of the few moments of loyalty that men show to women in the whole collection, defends Geraldine to the checkout clerk at the convenience store, who refers to her as “crazy”: “She’s married to a friend of mine…They even got a little baby.” It’s about as close to a happy ending as Knockemstiff will allow.

Salon.com published an article recently about the way that poor, rural women are used as running jokes in Orange Is the New Black. I disagreed with that article, at least in part because I’d previously read this article on Vulture which took precisely the opposite stance: that OITNB is not only the sole contemporary TV show to engage with rape storylines in an appropriate fashion, but that it is also one of the few shows that has made it clear how disproportionately poor rural women are at risk of sexual violence. Pollock’s stories reminded me of that article: the casual use of and disregard for the female body is everywhere, but never do these stories make that disregard a virtue. One character in the earliest story in which Geraldine Stubbs features notes that no one has spoken to her throughout the entire transaction, “not even to say, see you next time, whore.” The fact that he notices and comments on the silence isn’t approbation; it’s not explicitly judgment, either, but it doesn’t need to be explicit. We can see the destructiveness of this way of treating other people; it’s played out in their lives, in every single story in the collection.

In the world Pollock describes, drugs are everything. Mostly, it’s prescription painkillers or antidepressants, acquired by manual laborers who suffer work-related injuries and then keep refilling the scripts. For some people, it’s a way of life: one woman, we’re told, has a whole stable of fat girls whom she “carts around” southern Ohio, getting antidepressants prescribed to them, which she then sells on. The girls are happy to do it, paid per job with a couple of ice creams for their kids, or a cheeseburger for themselves. In “Bactine”, two prospectless young men huff from spray cans; in “Pills”, the narrator and his buddy steal a stash and plan to sell it in California, but they end up too stoned to even get out of the county. Pollock’s vision is uncompromising, and it sure as hell isn’t glamorous. In “Schott’s Bridge”, one man steals a whole stash from another. The victim of the theft, without a home to return to or a trade to make a living from, walks out onto Schott’s Bridge in the middle of the night and jumps. It’s to Pollock’s immense credit that he makes us see the waste of this, the sorry awful trashing of potential that constitutes the most potent side effect of any narcotic.

What truly makes the collection is the final story, “The Fights”.  Narrated by a man probably in his mid-thirties who’s coping with alcohol addiction by attending AA meetings, the story takes its time before letting us know, through the narrator’s memories, that he’s the same character as the little boy bullied by his father in the first story. Here, we meet the old man again, decades later; his body ravaged by a lifetime of hard treatment, he’s now on oxygen, decaying in front of his family’s eyes but still terrifying. Bobby, our protagonist, goes to visit—encouraged by his sponsor, who’s a black man, something difficult for the old man to even comprehend—and finds his father watching televised boxing matches. The fights that he’s watching come to represent all of the other fights that there have been: Bobby’s fight with alcoholism, his father’s fight with impotence and mortality, the physical fights his father used to put him and his mother through, and above all of this, the fight to transcend what it means to be born into a place like Knockemstiff, Ohio. At the very end of the story, Bobby is outside smoking, fighting the impulse to take a drink, and sees his father through the window. A whoop of victory at an on-screen triumph turns into a look of mild panic as the old man’s oxygen tubes slip from his nose, and Bobby sees his father weigh up the consequences of leaving them there, of ending the fight early. He doesn’t, of course; he puts them back in.

The TV light brightened and then dimmed. Tossing my cigarette in the grass, I turned and started toward my car. The fight was nearly over.

His car: not his brother’s, where the beer is. This kind of victory–contingent, bittersweet–is the only kind there is in Knockemstiff, but in context, it feels momentous.

Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Honours, by Tim Clare, and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

HONOURS-both

Shiny New Books is an online book recommendation magazine, published four times a year to highlight the best of fiction, nonfiction, reprinted fiction, and literary news in its Bookbuzz section. I now write reviews for them, and the Summer 2015 edition is up today!

First, Tim Clare’s historical/fantastical novel The Honours, published by Canongate and set in interwar Norfolk. Here’s the beginning of my review:

It’s rare for any book, let alone a book marketed as literary fiction for adults, to open with a thirteen-year-old girl lying flat on her stomach in a marsh. It’s rarer still for that teenaged girl not to be the victim of some horrific tabloid crime, but rather a shotgun-wielding deadeye; and it is rare in the extreme for her quarry to be, not a pheasant or a rabbit, but a dog-sized bat-creature from a parallel universe. This is how Tim Clare begins The Honours.

Tempting, eh? It’s like Buffy mixed with Doctor Who plus a little bit of Downton Abbey if Downton Abbey were populated by creatures of eldritch horror. Read the rest of the review here.

Smoke-Gets-in-Your-Eyes

The second book I reviewed for this edition was actually–gasp!–nonfiction, a memoir by a young mortician entitled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Canongate has published this one too (they’re really bloody good, those people):

Caitlin Doughty was a twenty-three-year-old with a degree in medieval history when she decided to become a mortician. The decision wasn’t spontaneous; she had been obsessed with death, she tells us, ever since, as a little girl, she watched another child fall to her death in a Honolulu shopping mall. Still, it’s an unusual career choice, which she freely admits. Her hope in joining the funeral industry seems to have been to exorcise some of her long-standing fears about death and mortality, whilst also feeding her attendant obsession with them. What eventually happened was this memoir, which chronicles not only her journey from fear to acceptance, but her growing interest in helping fight the culture of silence and ignorance that surrounds death, dying, and mourning rituals in modern Western (by which she mostly means American) culture.

It’s a generous-hearted book about learning not to fear death and about empowering the dying, and their relatives, to make informed choices about how you die and what happens to you afterwards. More here.

I’ll be reviewing Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things for the Extra Shiny edition in August, to coincide with its paperback release, so stay tuned for that!

Please do spend some time poking around the rest of the reviews at Shiny New Books; I think it’s a public service, like talking to your favourite librarian or bookseller or friend or mother-in-law, or whoever else recommends your books to you. It’s also edited by some great and dedicated people, whose own work can be found here: Annabel’s House of Books (Annabel), Harriet Devine’s Blog (Harriet), Stuck In A Book (Simon) and Tales From the Reading Room (Victoria).

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

I knew one day I would stop and he would keep on going, but until then nothing could tear us apart.

Just Kids is a memoir by Patti Smith, whose most famous soubriquet is “the godmother of punk”, about her romance and friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is mostly set in a New York City of the ‘60s and early ‘70s that no longer exists, an artistic subculture whose portrait makes it clear that American society suffered a debilitating, game-changing onset of cynicism and materialism from the 1970s onward. Given this, you might think that enjoying Just Kids requires a more-than-passing acquaintance with punk rock, bohemian romanticism, or Mapplethorpe’s photography. Fortunately, that’s not true. All you need to be touched and charmed by this book is half a heart.

Smith is a romantic, and her style remains utterly untouched by self-consciousness or irony. She describes her childhood, full of conspiracies and storytelling contests among her many siblings, as sincerely as I’ve ever read any account of childhood; the only real trauma she writes about is her friendship with a slightly older girl who was dying of leukaemia. Transfixed by the other girl’s pretty belongings, the young Smith waits until she’s asleep before stealing a pin from her jewellery box. In a reckoning so swift and Catholic that it feels like an outtake from Joyce’s Dubliners, the other girl dies two days later, and Smith, consumed with guilt and shame, is given all of her belongings.

She’s not the type to dwell on misery, though. Sometimes this means that Smith’s interiority isn’t clear—when she nurses Mapplethorpe back to health in the  Chelsea Hotel, for instance, she describes conditions of the utmost squalor and despair, yet her own reactions never really register in the observational prose—but most of the time it’s what enables her to get through life. She bears an illegitimate daughter at the age of nineteen, gives her up for adoption, and leaves teacher training college, feeling called to be an artist in New York City. There’s something extraordinary about her singlemindedness; the very idea of asserting that you are going to be an artist in New York is, by now, so profoundly clichéd that I felt inclined to roll my eyes, but Smith was and is completely sincere. There’s something beguilingly innocent about her conviction. She arrives in the city in the summer, and her friends at Pratt are less helpful than she had hoped; nothing daunted, she sleeps in Central Park for weeks, eats next to nothing, and is apparently quite content.

It’s Mapplethorpe who changes everything for her. The story of their meeting is like a fairytale: they encounter each other once (in the apartment of a friend), twice (at the bookstore where Smith finds a job, Mapplethorpe buys a Persian necklace that she’s long coveted for herself), three times (trying to extricate herself from a potentially unsavoury date, she recognizes him across the street and begs him to pretend to be her boyfriend). It’s that third time that does it; they walk around the city until three in the morning, talking, pouring out their hearts. Smith’s prose when she writes of that night is, perhaps, a little precious:

He responded that the drawing was symbolic of his own commitment to art, made on the same day. He gave it to me without hesitation and I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust. We looked at books on Dada and Surrealism and ended the night immersed in the slaves of Michelangelo.

But it’s a rare human indeed who can step outside of their own feelings about the first person they loved, and I suspect that Smith’s earnestness here reflects the general innocence of her time. They really were kids.

The flipside of innocence and childlike purity, of course, is vulnerability and naivete. It seems to have characterised the ‘60s, this sort of ridiculous sincerity, and I found myself struggling with it in Just Kids because my cultural context means that I see it as self-indulgent. Smith has a pot-induced dream, for instance, about the lost papers of Arthur Rimbaud being in a leather case underneath a tree in the Abyssinian desert, on the basis of which she plans a journey to Ethiopia to find these papers and publish them back in the States. Wisely, no bookshop or publishing house will give her an advance to do this, which, even in retrospect, she seems to find baffling. Likewise, she meets Jimi Hendrix on the stairs at a party and is subjected to his vision of hundreds of international musicians playing in a field—not playing the same thing, you understand, just playing their own songs—in a bid to find, amongst the cacophony, what Hendrix calls “the language of peace”. “You dig?” he asks her, at which point my eyeballs could control themselves no longer and floated unstoppably heavenwards in my skull.

Mapplethorpe remains a beautiful (that much is undeniable; the self-portraits he took are the kinds of things that make your heart shudder like a stalled car) yet ultimately unknowable and in some ways deeply selfish presence. While he and Smith are still sleeping together, he “hustles” for money to make their rent, but Smith and the reader both know that he’s also exploiting the excitement of coming to terms with his sexuality—which would be great if he wore a condom. As it is, he catches gonorrhoea, which has implications for Smith as well. Likewise, social capital is important for Mapplethorpe in a way that it never is for Smith (she tells us that she tends to eat with her hands, which is a pretty sweet confession). He loves rising in the galaxy of New York talent, making friends with the director of the Met, going to dinner parties on the Upper West Side; Smith is profoundly uncomfortable in that atmosphere, and Mapplethorpe never seems to notice or to address it with her. She writes, perhaps defensively, that he supported her work fully, but we never actually see that happening; she never writes a scene where he does so.

The ending, though—that affected even my leathery, cynical, millennial heart. Just before Patti leaves New York with her husband-to-be Fred Smith, Mapplethorpe photographs her for the cover of her first, and iconic, record Horses. Her writing is elevated to a stark loveliness from this point to the end of the book, and this made me want to cry:

The light was already fading. He had no assistant. We never talked about what we would do, or what it would look like. He would shoot. I would be shot.

I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That was all.

[…] I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra-style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.

“It’s back,” he said. He took a few more shots. “I got it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

He took twelve pictures that day.

Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. “This one has the magic,” he said.

When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.

Smith lives in Detroit and has a son; she is pregnant with her second child, a girl, when she learns Mapplethorpe has been diagnosed with AIDS. She and her husband, Fred, fly and drive back and forth between New York and Detroit over the next year. It’s a long goodbye, although for a while the reality of this doesn’t hit any of them. When Mapplethorpe’s long-time patron and partner Sam Wagstaff dies, though, and then with the death of Andy Warhol, something changes:

“He wasn’t supposed to die,” Robert cried out, somewhat desperately, petulantly, like a spoiled child. But I could hear other thoughts racing between us.

Neither are you.

Neither am I.

If that doesn’t send cold shivers of recognition down your spine, I don’t know what will.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Mapplethorpe and Smith were famous, or that they were artists, or that they knew famous people. What matters—the real reason this book was written—is that they were two wildly magnetic people who loved each other, and despite the quotation at the top of this article, it wasn’t Smith who stopped and Mapplethorpe who kept on going; it was, with sad and awful irony, the other way round.

June Superlatives

Ten books in June, hurrah! Two of them were for Shiny New Books, and two were very long. One—the CIA torture report—took me over a week to read, what with all the flipping between text and footnote, and trying to fill in the many blacked-out redactions. I haven’t had any real disappointments in reading this month, which is a great delight, although some books (White Teeth, Outline) made me wonder if I’d get more out of them on a second visit. And, oddly, I started Nights At the Circus and got bored on chapter three. Why is this happening?? I’m going to try again soon. Still, this seems a good beginning to summer.

most physically nauseating: a toss-up, obviously, between Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects and the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The Senate Report isn’t actually physically nauseating, although there are sufficient descriptions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to upset a fine sensibility; it is, however, by far the most comprehensively disturbing document I’ve read in years. Sharp Objects did, on the other hand, make me feel queasy, which is part of its observant brilliance.

most intriguing: The Nightingales Are Drunk, Penguin Little Black Classics’ collection of poems by the medieval Persian Hafez. He is to Persia what Chaucer is to England, and the selection was so brilliant, it made me want to learn and read more of his work.

all-around best: How to be Both, by Ali Smith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since it won the Baileys Prize, this is a wonderful book. It’s composed of two sections–one set now in Cambridge, and one set in the 1500s in Italy–and your copy can have either one of them printed first. It affects the way you read, which helps Smith to make a greater point about the way we absorb art, the way art or artists are valued (the Italian section has a lot to do with being paid properly for a fresco), the way that the creative impulse has been used over centuries as a guerrilla tactic to reveal the cruelties and iniquities of those who have power over the weak, and, most poignantly, grief over the loss of a parent. It’s impossible to do justice to it in a summary, which is perhaps why I didn’t review it. Read it.

most envy-inducing: This has got to be Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a book she wrote when she was about my age. Absurdly unfair though that is, the book has a terrific, mature, knowing, omniscient, fatalistic voice; I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a reader or a critic when it first came out. Like a firework exploding in your face, I imagine. I don’t always agree with Smith’s assumed stances; much of her work at least appears to champion a bizarrely conservative worldview. But the writing is top notch.

most gruesome: Again, my two Shiny New Books reads pair very nicely with each other. One, Tim Clare’s novel The Honours, is an adventure story with questions of mortality and the demands of true courage and sacrifice at its heart, starring a thirteen-year-old heroine whom we first meet as she is about to pull the trigger of a sawn-off shotgun. The other, Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, is about working in a California crematorium and the American funeral industry and attitude towards death. They’re both not for the squeamish, but they both achieve moments of true beauty and significance. Reviews go up on Shiny at the end of next week!

most perfect for the moment: I read Cheryl Strayed’s collection of Dear Sugar columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, at precisely the right time. I needed that voice: loving, firm, irreverent, humble, like your big sister, your coolest teacher and your best friend all rolled into one. I’ve been trying to write a review of it for a week and can’t. It is simply the most beautiful book; I cried a little, and giggled aloud, and finished it feeling ravaged but peaceful.

guiltiest pleasure: Only guilty because it is a reread and I don’t do many of those, but Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border gave me the same sort of feeling as Tiny Beautiful Things, oddly enough, and I wanted to read it again once I’d finished Strayed’s book. So I did, and was seduced anew by Hall’s physically evocative landscape writing, her honesty and vividness about sex and personal relationships, and her ability to do pen portraits. What a bloody excellent book it is. I shall be livid if the Booker Prize committee disagrees.

the Tin Man prize for technical brilliance: This is an unfair category—things that are technically brilliant are also, of course, perfectly capable of having heart (unlike the Tin Man)—but it struck me as a good name. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline made the Baileys shortlist, and I can see why: told through the eyes of a recently divorced creative writing instructor on a summer course in Athens, it revolves around ten different conversations, and we learn about the instructor mostly through what other people say and how she reacts to it internally. It’s a well executed structure and it reveals a good deal about conversation: how some people dominate, how that looks different when the dominator is a man and when it’s a woman, the reasons people choose to talk or to stay silent, the needs that people reveal. Unfortunately I’m an old-fashioned fan of plot, which Outline hasn’t got much of. But it’s a strangely still, transcendent book; reading it is like waking up from a midday siesta on a Mediterranean holiday, that odd sense of disorientation. It’s certainly impressive, though I’m not surprised it didn’t win.

next up: I’ve been looking at some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos recently and I’m now keen to read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her time with him. I also have to read Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things to review in Extra Shiny (coinciding with the paperback release). Also, the random number generator is again insisting that I read A Suitable Boy, which I really don’t feel I have the concentration for at the moment. Anyone want to help out? Pick a number between 1 and 14 at random and leave it in the comments…