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…

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8 thoughts on “June Superlatives

  1. 7 corresponds to Nights At the Circus, funnily enough! I’ve got to try harder… And 2 is Of Human Bondage. Hummmmmmmmm. Also long and probably quite serious…

  2. I’ve just re-read ‘Nora Webster’ because I’m leading a discussion on it on Monday and I know that I have got a great deal more out of it this time than I did when I first read it. I think that in many cases this is the sign of an excellent book. I’m interested, therefore that you’ve re-read ‘The Wolf Border’ because I’ve just put that on my library list.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t even hoping that I would get more out of it because I loved it so much the first time round–I really hope you love it as much as I do!

  3. I’ve just finished the first chapter/section and I love how unselfconscious she is. That utter sincerity about how important things were to her–the creation of art, her friendship with Robert–is something that doesn’t crop up all that often even in literary memoirs. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

  4. What a good month June was! I loved How to Be Both, such an intricate, beautiful little book. It was one of my top five favorite books last year. I hope July has all sorts of goodness in store for you!

    • June was, now that I think of it, a totally fab month. July is starting well too, so far; I’m hoping to have a review of Just Kids up in the next day or so!

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