March Superlatives

I read thirteen books this month, thanks to panic over my review pile, my eighty minutes a day of commuting time, and the four-day Easter weekend. I’ve reviewed eight and a half of them (one of the pieces I wrote this month, a column for Litro that’ll be published soon, was about a book but not precisely a review of it), which means that Superlatives may be a kind of irrelevance. (I also plan to review the final book read this month early in April.) Still, as Vicky of Eve’s Alexandria has it, it’s good to write about everything I’ve read, and there’s a lot to say about these, so here we go.

most seriously unnerving: Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, which features an uncomfortably weird protagonist and a tense noir plot. I found myself uncertain what was going to happen next (unusual) and desperate to find out (even more unusual), but it’s Eileen’s bizarre psychology that really pulls you in.

quietest punch: An odd category, I know, but E.C. Osondu’s short story collection-cum-novella, This House Is Not For Sale, goes down in one sitting and hangs around hauntingly for a while longer. Told through the eyes of a little boy whose tyrannical grandfather is the patriarch of a family house in Lagos, it’s unsparing in its observations of how people wield power in a microcosm.

best Old-Fashioned Storytelling: This, I’ve decided, is a tie between two books. The first is Freya, by Anthony Quinn, which bounds from Oxford to Nuremberg to Fleet Street. It’s not stylistically challenging or innovative, but it’s impeccably written and the plot derives from the complex humanity of the characters and their motives—my favourite kind. The second is Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, which you’d think wouldn’t qualify at all, since it’s composed of film scripts and voiceovers and advertisements as well as just straight prose. It’s all about storytelling, though, and in its own beautiful, extravagant way, its storyline is Good and Old-Fashioned. I loved them both.

most resonant: I’ve been seeing echoes of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City ever since I finished it. Exploring artistic representations of, and negotiations with, urban loneliness, it’s a book with incredible contemporary relevance. Even if you don’t like nonfiction (especially if you don’t like nonfiction), I’d really recommend this.

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bit anticlimactic: Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost right after The Lonely City was probably unwise. It’s a completely different approach to a very similar subject, and I felt as though  Laing had simply managed to get more out of it by virtue of her depth. I did get some interesting stuff out of Solnit’s book, about the captivity narratives of European settlers in  North America who were kidnapped by Native Americans (this is a whole subgenre of American colonial literature), but mostly it felt undercooked. Depressing, as I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas. Maybe I should try another of hers.

possibly shouldn’t have been a novel: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days, about riots in south London, felt more like a sketch for a miniseries. An excellent idea that read very visually and that lacked the in-depth characterisation that novels are designed to deliver better than any other art form. Would love to see it on ITV, though.

most heartening re: the younger generation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, a feminist fairy tale of a YA book that I’ll be reviewing in Shiny New Books next week. It’s about an isolationist community composed solely of women, and about how they respond when gender-based violence comes to their front door. The writing had the breathless over-eagerness common to a lot of YA novels, but I’m willing to overlook that for the utter organic wonderfulness of what this book is actually saying. (Which is: girl, you are more powerful than you have ever known.)

best time-killer: It seems like damning with faint praise, but I had two and a half hours to kill in Highbury before my singing lesson last week, and I passed most of them in a Thai restaurant with Jason Gurley’s novel Eleanor and some spring rolls. Time travel, intergenerational conflict, shame, bereavement, and alcoholism all get a look in, but Gurley avoids soap opera with marvelous emotional dexterity. I was quite impressed—though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as the book was apparently in gestation for fifteen years.

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best surprise: I made a start on the Baileys Prize long list with Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, which has been lauded to the skies and will almost certainly win. Was terribly grumpy about reading it and spent a good fifteen minutes muttering about how annoying WWII novels are before actually cracking it open. I was so wrong! It’s not really a war novel, although there’s a lot of exploration of how the war affects those who survived it and the subsequent generations. I was a bit disappointed by the ceaseless authorial hatred for one character whose only crime, as far as I could tell, was that she was an imperfect and selfish mother. Obviously not a role model, but the book seemed surprisingly judgmental of her. Other than that, wonderfully fluid writing and characters that jumped off the page, in a convincing way. Bits of it reminded me a little of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years.

most heartrending:  Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. A graphic novel with almost no words, by a Belgian artist, about a lonely middle-aged Belgian man who visits art museums and barely ever talks to anyone. It can be devoured in a single sitting, or pored over at leisure; Gijsemans’s drawings are plain at first glance but full of detail the longer you look. Hubert is a wonderful creation. His sad little face and glasses do the same thing to my heart that Wall-E’s character design did (i.e. stomp on it). This is also a great book to read in conjunction with The Lonely City, since it’s basically a case study of how individuals medicate their own isolation with art. It’s really beautiful and made me all sad and hopeful at the end.

biggest disappointment: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, director of the National Gallery.  It was also longlisted for the Baileys Prize, though it won’t win, and hopefully won’t even make the shortlist. It’s a sweet idea (a down-on-her-luck woman finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone in the art world decides they want it) but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like “I will do this” or “You do not see that”, instead of “I’ll” or “You don’t”. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last. Do trade fiction editors even turn up to work anymore? grump grump Positive aspects include the fact that there are divine descriptions of food in it, and the “mild peril” (as film ratings boards say) is rather fun.

and, getting in under the wire: Relativity by Antonia Hayes, which I finished this evening and can’t think of a superlative for at the moment because it’s still percolating through my head. I have to come up with a few questions for Hayes, whose publicist has kindly granted me a Q&A with her; I think about half of them will be to do with this specific book, and half will be to do with writing (especially as a debut novelist) more generally. For now, you should know that it’s about a twelve-year-old boy who was badly shaken as a baby and who is now growing into his intellectual gift for maths and physics, trying to piece together the truth about his estranged father. The writing is tidy and competent and the plot is pretty good stuff too. More on this soon.

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what next: I’ve borrowed Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North from a colleague (it was published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), and have borrowed the Chaos’s mum’s Kobo, which has The System of the World on it. I also want to get through more Baileys Prize longlist books–maybe The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet next?–and have got a few books from publishers for April, including Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, which looks amazing. It’s going to be a wonderful spring.

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16 thoughts on “March Superlatives

  1. I love your superlatives!
    Glad to hear you ended up liking A God in Ruins. I haven’t read that one yet.
    And, sitting in a Thai restaurant eating spring rolls and reading for 2 hours sounds like heaven to me!

    • Yay! I love writing them. Do try A God In Ruins, I was so not into the idea but totally changed my tune once I’d started. (If you’ve read Kate Atkinson before, that goes double.) And yeah, it was pretty heavenly! I was the only person in there for ages and the waiters just left me alone. Bliss.

    • Haha (me too, my inner misanthrope needs the exercise)! That’s not a bad approach, actually. I definitely don’t have time to read them all, and I normally ignore everything til the short list announcement, but this long list has got some serious appeal.

  2. Yay for Maresi! I’m glad you liked it in spite of the YA bluster. It took me completely by surprise, because I wasn’t expecting it to be so true to its premise. I loved that the women of the abbey had real power – the comb magic was just marvelous – but that it didn’t mean they immune from the blunt force of physical violence or fear. And I loved the drama of the ending and the crone door.

    Sarah Hall, how I love love love her. I’m really interested to see what you think of The Carhullan Army (I think of it as that, because that’s how I read it – I reviewed it waaaay back at Strange Horizons). I think it’s the fiercest and angriest of her books by far and marked her as a Must Always Read author for me, but it isn’t my favorite. Have you read How to Paint a Dead Man? While I love The Wolf Border and The Beautiful Indifference, How to Paint… is definitely the book that moved me most.

    • Omg yes. And what happens to the Rose still haunts me. (Was slightly weirded out by how easily she seemed to move beyond the trauma, with her baby at the end. In a way it’s incredibly empowering – the father is unknown and thoroughly unimportant; her spirit hasn’t been touched – but in another way, it doesn’t seem true to the experiences of most survivors of sexual assault, even women whose assaults were made as a result of their decision to protect others. I don’t know. I can’t decide.

      I’m about halfway through Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North and I LOVE it. I read The Electric Michelangelo last summer and it felt much denser to me, with the impenetrability of a sepia photograph. This doesn’t have the limpidity of Wolf Border, but the prose isn’t as chewy as Michelangelo, which is a perfect balance for its content, I think. I’m really into it so far. Never read How to Paint… and would really like to.

      • Victoria says:

        The Electric Michelangelo is definitely my least favourite of her books, which is ironic given it’s also the most well known, what with the Booker shortlisting. She seemed like a totally different writer to me in that one. Definitely prefer her later style.

  3. See, I didn’t care for Atkinson’s Life After Life that much, so when I heard that A God in Ruins was a sequel/companion volume, that put me right off. But so many people have been saying how good it is and how much it subverts the expected for a war story. I wouldn’t say it’s a priority, but I’ll think about it, especially if it wins the Baileys Prize.

    • ^ That was exactly my attitude before I read it! I have to say that the more distance I get from it, the more I appreciate it for what it is: not genre-redefining, but solidly good writing and characterization, with a surprising amount to say about the treatment of the elderly.

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