February Superlatives

It’s been a whole year since I started doing Superlative wrap-ups! Elle Thinks has come a long way since then. Last month it didn’t seem worth doing Superlatives because most of what I’d read was reviewed; this month, I’m getting back into the swing of things. Reading was decent—I spent two whole weeks on two different 900-page books, which resulted in fewer total books read, but it was worth it.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The seventeenth century in Neal Stephenson’s erudite, globe-spanning novels Quicksilver and The Confusion. They cover almost everything—commerce, finance, politics, sex, war, slavery, physics—and everywhere: London, Cambridge, Germany, Constantinople, Versailles, the Barbary coast, India, the Philippines, Mexico. There’s Daniel Waterhouse, fellow of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, soldier, galley slave, King of the Vagabonds, and pirate; and Eliza, who works her way up from slavery in a Turkish harem to major stockbroker for the French crown and a duchess twice over. Other characters include Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Peter the Great, Charles II, Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren, Gottfried Leibniz, and Sophie, Electress of Hanover. It’s extremely difficult to stop reading them once you’ve started. The third in the trilogy is called The System of the World, and I nearly bought it this weekend, but The Chaos insisted I try reading his ebook copy first. This will be my first (and very reluctant) foray into ereaders. I will report back.

most comprehensively devastating: Without a doubt, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. I read some rough stuff this month, especially towards the end, but Lish’s story of an Iraq War veteran and the Chinese Muslim he falls in love with is classically tragic in its inexorable downward slide. It’s also some of the best writing about New York City I’ve ever read.

most obscurely baffling: I didn’t really get on with Shylock Is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice for Hogarth’s Shakepeare project. Much of the plot felt begrudged, as though Jacobson were primly disgusted by all of these goings-on. The dialogues between Shylock and his contemporary stand-in, Strulovitch, were genuinely interesting, but marred by Strulovitch’s prurient fascination with his daughter’s sex life. That sort of thing tends to give me the shudders, and not in a good way.

all-bodies

most chilled-out read: This wasn’t a hard book, either stylistically or intellectually, but damn if I didn’t have a jolly nice time reading it: Jes Baker’s Things No One Tells Fat Girls. It’s a bible of radical body-positivity. I’m really into this idea: that not all bodies are “pretty”, but that every single body is beautiful, and that, moreover, your body is absolutely no one else’s business, and no one else’s body is your business, unless and until they explicitly invite you to it. Imagine what the world would look like if people didn’t publicly (or even privately) comment on other people’s bodies. Imagine what magazines and TV and the Internet would like. Imagine how health writing and food marketing would change. Imagine how much more we could do with our lives.

book that could have been written for me: Love Like Salt, Helen Stevenson’s memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis, plus her mother’s dementia and their life in France, ticked so many boxes for me. She’s a good amateur pianist who writes lovingly and knowledgeably about music I know and love. She’s a linguist and a reader who uses poems and prose that mean something to me as touchstones for her own thoughts. She’s the  mother of a child with a chronic illness; I was a child with a chronic illness, and am now an adult with one, and I remember what my mother had to do for me when I was younger. In fact, Love Like Salt touched me so personally that I am actually dreading having to finish a review of it; it cuts so close to the bone.

greatest potential: I wasn’t unimpressed by Harry Parker’s debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier. Quite the contrary; he takes a conceit that could go horribly wrong (a novel about an IED explosion in Afghanistan, narrated by forty-five different inanimate objects) and gives it life. What did surprise me was the stylistic awkwardness that pervaded the writing. I wonder more and more now about editorial practices in large publishing houses: how much work gets done on a manuscript after it’s been bought from an agent? It was a poignant, topical book and it’ll get a ton of publicity, which means it’s likely to sell well, and perhaps that was the rationale, but it just strikes me as odd that no one looked at it and thought, This is pretty good, but we can make it even better.

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most nightmare-inducing: I don’t remember my good dreams, just my bad ones. Elizabeth Knox’s new novel, Wake, gave me a nightmare after I’d only read forty pages of it. It’s about a small town in New Zealand that falls into the grip of a mysterious insanity, causing everyone to kill each other. There are only fourteen survivors, and the inexplicable malevolent force that caused the disaster isn’t quite finished… Brilliant literary psychological horror that cleverly keeps its monster offstage for most of the action, while also making sure to actually explain what the hell is going on. (You’d be amazed how many of these sorts of novels never do, which, contrary to the beliefs of their authors, is not clever but infuriating). I won’t forget it for some time. I also think it would make a fantastic mini-series.

what’s next: I’m about to start Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen. I have heard Patricia Highsmith comparisons and am expecting good things. (Though I am also wondering how to stop myself burning out on dark twistedness next month. Many of my to-review pre-pubs for March seem…rough.)

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15 thoughts on “February Superlatives

  1. 1. Dark books are the best books, aren’t they?
    2. You have my attention with Wake – just the thought of it gives me the shivers.
    3. Yes, imagine how much more productive we could be if we put a little less effort into our bodies (and other people’s bodies). Crazy, really.
    4. Looking forward to hearing more about Love Like Salt.
    5. Have fun reading Eileen. I loved it. 🙂

    • 1. Yes, but I’m hoping for something a little bit un-painful, somewhere in there…
      2. Oh gosh, do read Wake. It’s utterly addictive.
      3. Just this morning, Edwina Currie (an English former MP and current talking head) spouted off about how “plus-size” models are “unhealthy” and should be “removed from public view”. I have no words.
      4. I’ll try to get a review up by its release date (Thursday)!
      5. Excellent news.

  2. I know what you mean about books that cut close to the bone. For very different reasons Helen Dunmore’s latest novel, ‘Exposure’, is putting me in a similar position and I am having to read it in small doses so that I can deal with the memories that it is bringing back.

    • It’s amazing, isn’t it—simultaneously makes you feel so understood and so uncomfortable. They’re always the books I find hardest to review, not only because of how much I relate but because I’m never sure how much I should let people know that I’ve related to something, especially if it’s something difficult or unpleasant.

  3. This is a great way to wrap up your month’s reading! I read Quicksilver a few years ago but it sounds as though you’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I did. I loved the concept and I agree that the world Neal Stephenson created was engrossing, but I didn’t like the first book enough to continue with the other two.

    • I had a bit of a quarrel with him on his women (he tends to fall into the “she’s NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS” camp with his heroines, I find), but Eliza becomes much more rounded and conflicted in The Confusion, which helped a lot.

  4. The Jes Baker book sounds great. I’ve been following a few body positive blogs for a couple years and it seems like the movement is really starting to take off which is heartening because I’d like to do more than imagine all the things you mention 🙂 And you remind me how I really do need to get around the Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. I’ve been meaning to for years.

    • It’s worth it, but it’s huge! Depending on when your holiday times are, that might be a good time to start. I managed it in a week, but only because I a) read fast, and b) have at least an hour of reading a day on the Tube.

      The Jes Baker book is FAB, and in the back, there’s a whole bibliography of Tumblrs and blogs and books to check out if you’re into body-positivity. It’s an amazing resource in itself.

    • Oh, yes–totally worth it. (Super 8, although a film, not a book, is another one that excels at making its monster simultaneously scary and invisible.)

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