November Superlatives

Plenty of good stuff this month, with barely a dud in the bunch. (And nine books read overall, which feels a lot better. December is always a good reading month, too, what with Christmas and plane journeys and general leisure time.) I started my Women’s Prize reading project and have so far read four: two excellent, two meh. Two other exceptional novels, a collection of brilliant short stories, a series of non-fiction tales about American poverty, and a rather formulaic John Le Carre comprise the rest of the month’s reading.

best cover version: Jeanette Winterson herself calls The Gap of Time a “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It does what all good covers should: keeps the spirit of the original while bringing something fresh and exciting to the retelling. It’s a poignant and extremely skilled piece of evidence for the significance of storytelling, not just to human culture in general but to individual human lives. It’s also got some terrific one-liners.

best new writing: The collection of “non-fiction stories” being put together by my friend and former colleague Charles Wolford, Entertainments. I read them in draft this month and they’re sharply observant, simultaneously cynical about and baffled by the world and its harshness. He’s particularly good on describing process—especially the tedium of low-paid labour—and on the bleary disorientation of foreign travel. Not to be missed.


best filler: A category that damns with faint praise if ever I’ve seen one. This rather dubious honour goes to John Le Carré’s novel A Most Wanted Man, which was the least bad option from the book exchange shelves at work during the week when I was living out of a suitcase and didn’t have a book on the go. It could have been a taut thriller about international counterterrorism operations with a unique perspective (the political dueling between German, American and British intelligence), but it got bogged down by a paint-by-numbers approach to female characters, even (especially) when such an approach was contradictory to what had previously been written about said characters. Why are male writers of a certain age so wary of just stepping over the line of their comfort zone? They’ll dance right the way up to it and then back off. Cross the line, dudes! Your characters will be more believable and fascinating when you do!

slow but satisfying burn: Helen Simpson’s new collection of short stories, Cockfosters. Simpson has been writing about the lives and relationship dynamics of women all her career: from the marriage-and-babies maelstrom of women in their twenties to the career-and-children grind of the thirties, and now this collection: the long, slow breath out as wives and mothers hit their fifties and begin to relax a bit. Children are growing up, husbands are growing cranky, it’s time to reassess. She writes men just as well as women: the two (or maybe three) stories in this collection from a male point of view are every inch as bittersweet, generous and nuanced. I’d never read her before, but I’m deeply impressed.

all-around best: I loved Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Katherine Carlyle, about a young woman who decides to run away from her absent father and her buried grief for her mother, and start a new life as far North as she can possibly go. The landscape descriptions and pencil sketches of people were vivid but controlled, and I am always hugely impressed by writers who decide to make their protagonists’ sexual and emotional responses individual, as opposed to formulaic. It feels like a commitment to the reality of the character, and to reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the reader’s reality properly. Like The Wolf Border, Katherine Carlyle did this brilliantly. It will probably end up on my best-of-year list.

greatest disappointment: This is perhaps a bit unfair, because it’s not like I had any particular expectations of Fugitive Pieces, the 1997 Orange Prize winner by Anne Michaels. It’s not a terrible book, just a vague one, suffering from the curse of language that’s too mannered to be deeply meaningful. Also, it’s a Holocaust novel without a Holocaust, which (quite apart from the fact that WWII novels tend to grate on me) is a very odd choice.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The rural Edwardian isolation of Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter. She’s so perfect at describing country life, with all its stark mortality: the hare hung from the ceiling, dripping blood into a dish; the orange trees in a conservatory; the smell of must that hangs about unaired rooms. Plus the sex scenes in this book, although brief, are electrifying.


most deserved prize winner: Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about the Biafran war of independence, which won the Orange Prize in 2007 and won the Best of the Best award that celebrated the prize’s twentieth anniversary. Adichie uses five characters—middle-class professor Odenigbo, his lover Olanna, Olanna’s businesswoman sister Kainene, and Kainene’s white British lover Richard, along with Odenigbo and Olanna’s houseboy, Ugwu—to tell the story of the war through the experiences of one family. Dealing truthfully and compassionately with the cruelties of civil war and starvation as well as with the vagaries of love, it’s a stunning novel.

most anticlimactic: The final book of November was another Women’s Prize winner, Madeline Miller’s 2011 The Song of Achilles. A novelization of the love between Achilles and Patroclus that culminates in both of their deaths on the fields of Troy, it was less frustrating to read than Fugitive Pieces but had almost the opposite problem: the language felt too pedestrian, like Miller was ticking off plot points and wasn’t that interested in characterization (I never understood what made Achilles especially loveable, for instance. He seemed unreal to me. So did Patroclus, which is worse, since he was a first-person narrator.) It slipped down easily enough and the ending tugs at the heartstrings a bit, but I think it’s basically quite forgettable.

what’s next: I’m currently reading Anne Lamott’s memoir of her son’s first year of life, Operating Instructions. I have loved Lamott for years, ever since reading her book Traveling Mercies—she’s anarchic and hilarious and quirky in the best possible sense of the word—and this is only making me love her more.


8 thoughts on “November Superlatives

  1. This is the second excellent review of ‘Katharine Carlyle’ that I’ve come across recently and I must do something about it and get hold of a copy. I’m interested, though, in how it is possible for two readers to agree and yet disagree about the relative worth of books. Like you, I loved ‘A Spell of Winter’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, but then I also enjoyed ‘The Song of Achilles’ and think that ‘Fugitive Pieces’ is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Heigh ho.

    • Yes, funny that–I think it’s probably a lot to do with what the reader brings to each book (family, background, and so on), in a quite deep and instinctive way, so quite hard to pick apart. Still, take my word for it, Katherine Carlyle is certainly worth a read.

  2. I own Song of Achilles and have heard great things, but for some reason it doesn’t appeal to me. I still do plan on reading it, because I have been wrong many times. I can’t always trust what it says on the back of a book. I would also love to read Half of a Yellow Sun and A Spell of Winter. And, you might have convinced me to add Katherine Carlyle to my list!

    • Yes, I think The Song of Achilles isn’t a bad book at all–it just doesn’t stand out for me, especially given the number of really great books I read this month. Would highly recommend HOAYS, ASOW, and KC, though.

    • Yeah, oh well–there are plenty of other good-destructive books out there, at least. This one especially seems to be so divisive that whether you like it or not is a bit of a toss-up.

  3. A pretty decent month even if there were a few disappointments. I just had a coworker recommend the movie of A Most Wanted Man to me. She said it was really intense and really good. Her recommendations aren’t always a hit with me, maybe I shouldn’t bother?

    • I think it would probably be a better movie–there’s less scope in films for characters to think annoying things. Plus I see it’s got Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who are perfect humans. Maybe watch the first half hour and see how it feels!

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