2015: Reading Fails

I’m at my parents’ house in America now, which I call home because it is convenient and feels true, even though I have at least three places to which I now refer as “home”. I arrived home on Thursday night, and so far have had a wonderful if busy few days, including some cider mulling and an expedition to get a tree. I want to keep the promise that I made to write a post about the less successful books of 2015, however–even though the comforts and delights of home make me think I could never write another post, and live a life instead of pure indolence–so here are the books that didn’t do it for me this year. Fortunately, there weren’t many!

z_feministIt’s always more depressing, I find, to be let down when you’re expecting great things. Perversely, one of the books I was most excited about at the beginning of the year, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, ended up being disappointing. It wasn’t a question of political difference; far from it; I just wanted more of Gay’s essays, both in the sense that I wanted a greater number of them and in the sense that I wanted the ones that did exist to contain more. They felt as though they were mostly skimming the surface of some really interesting issues–how so-called “low culture” can be more illuminating and innovative than supposed “high culture”; the intersections of race, class and gender–and I wanted them to be longer, to engage even more profoundly with the questions they were asking. I wanted footnotes, dammit! Footnotes! I filed the book under “give away”, and Gay under “pay attention to”, which was a good decision, I think.

The Baileys Prize shortlist was an interesting one this year; some of it Ibaileys-split agreed with, while some of it baffled me. A particular misfire was Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees. You have to admire it on one level for its ambition, but Paull’s style is so unexceptional (and in places clunky), her characterization so perfunctory, and her plot so episodic, that I found it hard to understand how the book had managed to compete at all.  Other people I know absolutely loved it, but I have to confess it did little for me; I prefer my anthropomorphized-animal metaphors for dysfunctional political systems a little bit more Watership Down in roundedness and scope.

mkrknotyi7kslejmwxkaPerhaps the greatest failure of the year was Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things. I gave it a fairly vituperative review on this blog, with the caveat that I hadn’t actually managed to finish it. After 150 pages, Faber’s apparent dedication to sickening stereotypes of predatory, self-satisfied evangelicals, and his equal apparent disinterest in doing any serious world-building for his alien race, had driven me to paroxysms of irritation so many times that it was not worth finishing. A great shame, but when there are literary sci-fi writers like China Mieville in the world, why waste your time?

51qghc5xadl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The next book that drove me mad came into my life a few months later, when I read and reviewed Soji Shimada’s murder mystery novel, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Apart from the fact that the murders themselves were gratuitously grisly, the novel’s tone and our narrator’s inexplicable insouciance made it clear that all the events were essentially the pieces of a logic puzzle. It’s not an approach that I find particularly interesting or enlightening–my own feeling is that the human motivations for murder are infinitely more fascinating than the logistical minutiae of crimes–and it felt especially distasteful because of how gory the details were, as though Shimada were being flippant about them. Not one for me, though I’m hopeful that another selection from Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint will prove a better match.

15836The final frustration of 2015 was the first book I chose to begin my Women’s Prize reading project: Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. It embodied, I thought, the worst excesses of modern poetry–imprecision, woolliness, a tendency towards the vaguely portentous–translated into prose. Its odd reliance on the Holocaust without actually portraying any of the Holocaust’s horrors directly was also off-putting. Fortunately, I chalked it up to changing trends in literature since 1997, and it didn’t stop me from continuing to read through the Women’s Prize winners. Again, this has received mixed reviews from other people whose judgement is generally impeccable; it’s obviously a divider of opinion.

The most remarkable thing is that there have been so few bad books this year–I’ve benefited from becoming more a part of the amazing community of books bloggers, and from having the opportunity to sample books for free through publishers. It’s been a brilliant twelve months, and I’m absolutely thrilled for the beginning of 2016, when I’ll be reviewing such work as Helen Ellis’s American Housewife, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, Sunil Yapa’s The Heart Is A Muscle the Size of A Fist, and Shirley Barrett’s Rush Oh!, among others.

I’m trying to avoid the laptop as much as possible this holiday season, since I see my parents and brother so infrequently, so this may be the last you hear of me til the New Year. Have a very contented Christmas, and I’ll be back in January with my customary anti-resolutions post.

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And may this sentiment suffuse your festivities, as and when you want it to.

 

Aside

Recently someone asked me for a book recommendation after finishing Anna Karenina…

…and I can’t remember who it was! I think the request came via WordPress, but I’ve gone back through my comments and I can’t find it.

In any case, mystery person, if you liked Anna Karenina, here’s where you can go from there:

To other European adultery novels

The two most famous are Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and the slightly less well-known Effi Briest, by Thedor Fontane. Madame Bovary is, as I recall, mildly infuriating because Emma Bovary is so bloody difficult; Effi Briest, on the other hand, is short and totally fascinating because it has so much to say about the idea of “Prussian rectitude” and how silly and destructive it is to live your life by an overarching patriotic standard that has no room to accommodate the needs and wishes of the individual. Also, Effi is a terrific heroine. She’s calm and composed throughout, even in her final illness, and although she dies (of course), her husband actually dies first, which, in the context of an adultery novel, basically means she wins.

To other novels about the Russian aristocracy

I’ve not read very much Russian literature, but try Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for further depictions of young men trying to implement political and agricultural reforms against the prejudices of their elders (like Levin in Anna Karenina). There’s also Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which will deliver a similar sort of sweeping love story. (Bonus: you can watch Keira Knightley starring in the films of both Doctor Z. and Anna Karenina, and decide whether you’re more convinced by her Lara or her Anna. Or neither.)

To more Tolstoy

You can read War and Peace, obviously, if you like. I’d recommend making some sort of chart for the characters, though. He also wrote a novella called The Kreutzer Sonata, which I bought for $3 from a secondhand bookshop in Maine when I was fifteen because I’d heard it referred to as a “disturbing psychosexual drama”. It was less dirty than I had been hoping, but it’s got the whole passion/death complex that Anna Karenina has in spades.

I hope this finds whoever asked me about it…terribly sorry for forgetting the circumstances/identity of the questioner!

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This is my absolute favourite Anna Karenina cover. Look at how that face combines beauty, wealth, and haughtiness, without seeming actually unpleasant. It’s brilliant.

A Year In Reading: 2015

I’m stealing this idea shamelessly from The Millions, and, emboldened by the first act of kleptomania, I’m going even further and stealing the seasonal format from Garth Risk Hallberg’s Year In Reading post there. He’s extremely compelling in his linkage of personal life and literary life: very worth emulating, and perhaps a touch more interesting than endless rehashed plot summaries.

Winter

2015 didn’t start well. I’m never at my strongest, psychologically, after Christmas. Seasonal affective disorder kicks in; the weather is bad; I forget to eat well and don’t want to exercise. I was still in a job for which I felt underqualified and in the execution of which I remained unsupported. Reading on my commute became a lifeline. In January I read a good deal of exotically-located fiction, including books set in the Amazon rainforest (Euphoria by Lily King), Tokyo (parts of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell), and south Florida (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy), but the standout was Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I’d never before read her fierce, haunting story of a former slave woman whose dead baby returns in the form of the mysterious Beloved, but it knocked my socks off. Everyone should read it.

I was also entranced by Michel Faber’s creepy alien novel Under the Skin, which ought to make everyone who reads it a lifelong vegetarian. It’s got such a simple central conceit, but once you get wise to it, the story’s horror is only deepened and enhanced. Catherine Chanter’s eco-thriller The Well was my reading material of choice during a five-day bout of illness that combined the common cold and acute depression; once I swam out of my nest of duvets and Lemsip and BelVita, and away from Chanter’s hallucinatory England (in which not a drop of rain has fallen for years), I realized that my mental health was in a perilous state, and needed attending to.

Fortunately, the end of winter came into sight just as I discovered some absolute crackers: Sarah Hall’s latest novel, The Wolf Border, is the best book I’ve read all year. It’s about a Cumbrian observational biologist who is hired as a consultant on a project to reintroduce grey wolves to the North of England. Along the way she discovers that she is pregnant by a former colleague, and the novel is as much about navigating motherhood (and the complexity of her relationship with her own, now dead, mother) as it is about lupine behavior. The descriptions of the Cumbrian landscape are spot on and chest-achingly beautiful; Hall’s knack for capturing a character in a few tight analytical paragraphs is reminiscent of George Eliot. It is so, so good. It should have been on the Baileys Prize list, and the Booker Prize one. Please go and read it. (The final winter read that I loved: The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It is a simple joy to read, a thick, funny, poignant, surprisingly contemporary family saga set in the late 1930s, and it has four sequels. Excellent.)

Spring

Things got better in the spring. I looked out of my office window one day as I was about to leave and saw that it was still just about light, and my heart lifted. I also decided that this blog was to become a full-time book blog, and that too provided a sense of purpose.

April was a very good reading month in terms of sheer quantity, but two books particularly stood out to me. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the debut novel from Alice Furse, is a hymn to the zero-hours-contract office worker, a book for our times. Her unnamed protagonist manages to extract meaning from her life despite the mind-numbing tedium of her job in data entry; by the end of the book, it looks like she might be approaching happiness. A good lesson for recent graduates: things do get better, eventually. In the same month, I finally got round to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and was utterly bowled over by its smooth, fluid prose and its humane conception of the end of the world.

It’s had a lot of love already, though, so how about an unjustly neglected work: Grits, Niall Griffiths’s dense, hallucinatory, Welsh answer to Trainspotting. I never knew there were so many different ways to get high. It sucks you in like addiction itself; you start to feel dizzy and overwhelmed, reading its polyphonic voices, but you can’t let go. Finally, near the end of spring and as I was starting a new (much better) job, I came across Belinda McKeon’s Tender. The story of a close friendship between two Irish students in the ’90s which develops into something more–but only for one of them–it’s a devastating portrait of unrequited longing, youthful fuck-uppery, and the torment that young gay people suffer in environments where they cannot openly be themselves. Reading it is agonizing but also strangely comforting: you can know that other people have felt love and been hurt, but Tender is one of the few books that makes you really believe you’re not alone.

Summer

Summer was a game-changer in a lot of ways. I got serious about my own reviewing efforts. I stepped down from my post at Quadrapheme, where I had been managing editor, when I found I was no longer comfortable with the magazine’s politics; it’s the biggest decision on the grounds of social conscience that I’ve ever had to make, though I don’t regret it. I met the Chaos and fell hard. He talked to me about things I hadn’t seriously considered for years–maths, logic, computing–and realms of thought I had long considered out of bounds for a literature student like me lit up again.

During this time I read some incredibly good books. Ali Smith’s Baileys Prize-winning How to be both was impossible to review; how could I do justice to a novel that encompassed artistic integrity, grief at losing a parent, multiple chronologies, and the development of technologies across the centuries from fresco painting to the iPad? I couldn’t. But I strongly encourage you to read it. Cheryl Strayed’s collection of columns for the Rumpus, Tiny Beautiful Things, has already been lauded on this blog, but it too was a life-saver this summer, read at just the right time and striking just the right tone. It would make a perfect stocking stuffer (or indeed sub-arboreal offering) for literally almost anyone, and it’s not often I give such a blanket recommendation.

On the train on the way to work in the mornings, and on the bus on the way back, I read Donald Ray Pollock’s rural-noir short story collection, Knockemstiff, about the trap of poverty and despair in southern Ohio. I was also blown away (heh) by Patricia Smith’s collection of poetry about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, a raw and elemental novel set in the Mississippi Gulf during the same hurricane. It, too, should be more widely read and admired; Ward is an excellent writer whose protagonist, Esch, is a black girl compared explicitly within the text to icons of Western culture such as Medea. It’s a powerful, impressive annexation of “elite” literary history.

But the best books I read this summer were in August, not least Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I tipped for the Booker before it won. It’s a completely immersive novel, its cast of characters vast and simultaneously tightly interwoven. Meanwhile, William Golding’s novel of Neanderthal-human cultural clash, The Inheritors, rearranged my ideas of how language and abstract thought work while also providing a heartbreaking plot. Finally, the summer ended with a rainy bank holiday weekend in Abingdon, where I read Sara Taylor’s dynamite novel-in-short-stories The Shore in a coffee shop and wept openly at its vivid portrayal of the simultaneous beauty and horrifying violence of Virginia’s Tidewater region.

Autumn
…And then everything got insane. I applied for another job and got it. I moved to London and into editorial web publishing. I moved in with the Chaos. (My parents, amazingly, didn’t have to be revived with smelling salts when informed.) The books, equally amazingly, kept up. The magical (and magisterial) Neal Stephenson entered my reading life with Cryptonomicon, a virtuosic novel about computers, coding, WWII, and freedom of information–timely in 1999, when it was first published, and timely now. Stephenson is a brilliantly funny, dry, erudite writer and I’m planning to read his whole backlist. Another mind-blowing read came from China Miéville, whose novel Embassytown addresses language, metaphor, power, imperialism and addiction in a faraway-alien-planet setting. It’s worth a graduate thesis, and I’m delighted to see that scholars are starting to produce serious work on Miéville; he deserves it.

October was the Month of Grim Beauty. It started with Helen Macdonald’s memoir-cum-hawking-treatise H Is For Hawk, which, like Station Eleven, has already been much lauded but fuck it, I’ll add my voice to the general hue and cry. It’s a great and beautiful book. Macdonald writes like a dream; the words slip down cleanly but make a huge impact as they go, and she draws an unflinching but undramatic portrait of herself as someone struck by grief and behaving, as even she understands, a little bit oddly in its wake. Simultaneously raw and controlled, it deserves its Costa Award win and really should not be missed, by anyone at all. Another powerful and heartbreaking read, Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, channels Ted Hughes’s mythopoeic Crow to help a London widower and his two young sons cope with their bereavement. Goes down in one sitting; stays with you for much, much longer. Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, a saga of post-apocalyptic America where only black and Hispanic children have survived a hideous disease, forced me to reconsider my mental defaults in a way that few books do; meanwhile, Naomi J. Williams’s debut novel Landfalls dealt with an eighteenth-century French scientific naval expedition by juggling multiple points of view, managing to narrate each new chapter with a distinct, realistic and totally engaging voice.

Finally, last month: Jeannette Winterson’s modernized retelling of The Winter’s TaleThe Gap of Time, navigated possible anachronism with aplomb, showing that Shakespeare’s ideas can be applied to present-day situations, and that issues such as jealousy, cruelty, forgiveness and redemption will never cease to be relevant. Katherine Carlyle, the new novel from Rupert Thomson, presented us with a self-possessed young female protagonist who fully owns her sexuality; the sumptuous landscape descriptions are merely the icing on the cake. I also recently started my project to read all the winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So far my favorite has been Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which kept me enraptured on Tube journeys to and from work for a week. It’s not, in my opinion, as smooth a ride as Americanah, but my goodness, it’s still a terrific novel, an exploration of the Biafran conflict that humanizes a war mostly used in the West as a rhetorical device. Finally, the Belgian writer Annelies Verbeke was totally new to me until last week, but her short story collection Assumptions kept me hooked for a full day; the poignant misfires between characters, the way that people try to connect and don’t quite manage it, are subtly managed and deeply affecting.

I realize that this is way, way too long already, but if you’ve gotten this far, that was my year in reading: the books that really stood out. And, for those of you who really like numbered lists, here are my absolute top ten books of the year, in rough but by no means definitive order (except for #1, of course).

1. The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

2. H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

3. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

4. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

5. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James

6. Katherine Carlyle, by Rupert Thomson

7. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

8. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

9. Under the Skin, by Michel Faber

10. The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Coming soon: this year’s dishonorable mentions/just plain misfires–the books I didn’t get on with, for obvious or obscure reasons.