October Superlatives

I only read seven books this month, which is a little lower than average and certainly not ideal. On the other hand, at least two of them were 600+ pages, and I haven’t had much free time because I’ve finally, finally moved! October started with a whole heap of a lot of trauma reading—the first three books of the month were about bereavement, mental instability, and physical and sexual abuse, respectively. However, almost all of this month’s books have been excellent, beautiful, thought-provoking, or all three, save for one definite misfire—and I’ve managed to review a little more than half of them. (Or I will have done; the review of Before the Feast is coming soon.)

most perfectly timed: H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Although, having said that, it’s one of those books that is so beautifully written, so easy to slip into the tide of, that it would probably have been perfect no matter when I read it. Her descriptions of training her goshawk, Mabel, as the autumn waxes into winter, however, felt particularly apt. It’s also some of the most truthful writing I’ve ever read about bereavement and how it can affect your behavior, sometimes to the point of making you unrecognizable even to yourself. No wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

biggest punch to the emotional solar plexus: A tie here between Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. (Told you this month was cheery!) Porter’s novel is a very short, polished jewel of a poetry-novel about a bereaved husband and his two little boys, and the Crow (maybe of Ted Hughes’s writings, maybe something else entirely) that comes to stay with them. It contains, like Macdonald’s memoir, spot-on observations about the experience and performance of grief. A Little Life was the Booker Prize favorite, an astonishingly dark book full of childhood physical and sexual abuse. The prose was dense and lush in the same way that Donna Tartt’s is, but like Tartt’s The Goldfinch, A Little Life felt simultaneously over-and underplotted: too much flesh, not enough muscle. Yanagihara could have excised a hundred pages simply by cutting superfluous paragraphs and had a much tighter novel. It still made me feel like crying when I’d finished, though.

greatest disappointment: Soji Shimada’s 1980 locked-room mystery, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Stilted translation, a ridiculous plot, an overall scent of sexism and a sense that the author didn’t care much about his characters combined to make me deeply frustrated with the whole shebang. It’s one of Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo collection of translated crime novels, and the others in the series have been well reviewed, so perhaps this was just a case of reviewer/book mismatch.

Art from the astonishingly talented http://jovaline.tumblr.com/

most thoroughly engrossing world: The blighted America of Sandra Newman’s Baileys-longlisted novel The Country of Ice Cream Star. All white people (except for the mysterious “roos”) have long ago succumbed to a disease called WAKS; the survivors are struck by a delayed-onset version of the condition in their late teens or early 20s, meaning that a) America is now entirely black/Hispanic, and b) no American now lives past adolescence. Ice Cream Star, a fifteen-year-old leader of her people, sets out to find the cure. She’s an incredible heroine: she fights, fucks, and somehow remains entirely believable, terrified but brave. I couldn’t stop reading about her.

most impressive debut: Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams. A novel about the Lapérouse maritime scientific expedition of the 1780s, it took ten years to research and write, and that dedication pays off in the polished, perfectly weighted prose. It’s a generous book without being unrealistic about human nature. I hope Williams writes more, and I hope she writes more historical fiction. We need more authors who approach the past with such consideration.

best escapism: The delicate weirdness of Before the Feast, Saša Stanišić’s second novel. Set in a German village sometime around now, it’s a dreamy but unsentimental book about how local and national history dovetail, and about how they diverge. It’s one of the best books I’ve read for demonstrating quite clearly that citizens of any country are not all the same, and that a people’s history is not the same as a government’s. It’s also slyly odd, with an air of folk tale and mystery.

up next: I’m currently reading Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; it’s called The Gap of Time and it’s immensely beautiful, and clever, and is making me think all sorts of thoughts about retelling stories, and what the most important element of a work of classic literature is. After that, I’ve got Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson to review, as well as wanting to finally zap my shrinking TBR, maybe by reading Guantanamo Diary or Go Set A Watchman (shamefully late, I know…)

7 thoughts on “October Superlatives

    1. Oh gosh, you must get it if you like her, or Shakespeare, or just good writing. It’s brilliant and gorgeous and heart-rending. Also, H Is for Hawk is an incredible book; I was quite worried it wouldn’t live up to its hype, but oh, it did.

  1. Every one of these books sound wonderful (except, of course, for the disappointing one). I admit to being a little nervous about reading A Little Life and The Country of Ice Cream Star, even though I would like to. Big commitments.

    1. I would say that Ice Cream Star actually reads very quickly; A Little Life is a big commitment but the prose doesn’t make demands of you, although the material certainly does. Of the two, if you had to choose, go for Ice Cream Star. It’s just incredible.

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