June Superlatives

June. Man. To paraphrase Mean Girls, how can I even begin to explain June. It contained 30 days; I was busy—proper, event-in-my-calendar, several-hours-at-least busy—for 20 of them. (Some of those days involved two separate events, usually something like lunch and then the theatre.) I’m very grateful for a busy social life and friends whom I like enough to hang out with a lot, but that was way too much for one month. In July I need to pull right back. (The fact that my parents and brother were visiting from America this month, admittedly, added to the socializing somewhat, although it was fabulous to see them.)

I managed to finish ten books anyway, though. Which I’m proud of.


most heartbreaking: A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne, winner of the 1997 Orange Prize. Narrated by ten-year-old Marsha, it tells the story of a summer in which a little boy is killed in a Washington DC suburb, and in which Marsha becomes convinced that their next-door neighbor, Mr. Green—a shy, awkward bachelor—is the murderer. It’s one of those books that describes an outsider in terms so unflinching as to be painful. The scene where Mr. Green throws a barbecue for the neighborhood, to which no one turns up, is one I can hardly bear to think about even now.

most “important”: I suspect that lots of reviewers are going to use this word to describe Negroland, Margo Jefferson’s memoir of growing up black and middle-class in 20th-century  Chicago. It’s a favored word when the subject matter is vaguely political or controversial. That shouldn’t in any way diminish Jefferson’s achievement, though; the whole point of her memoir is to describe how oppressive it is to grow up feeling like you carry the reputation of an entire people on your shoulders. It’s a thoughtful and expansive book, for all that it’s not very long, and well worth a read.

most frustrated potential: Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory, which was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize and which I felt had a good deal of potential that got lost in the telling. The opacity of the characters, and the vagueness of Memory’s, well, memory, was probably a smart thematic move, but wasn’t executed with enough conviction (or, in a sense, time – I wondered if the book should have been longer, which is a rare thing to wonder.)


most swiftly gobbled: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, was definitely one of the longest books I read this month, but also one of the books I couldn’t bear to put down. Kingsolver’s prose has always lent itself to being galloped through, not because it’s simplistic but because it’s completely lucid. She’s also writing about such gorgeous, tactile things in this book: the sea, food, the sun, paintings, buildings, Mexico.

most thoughtful: Carol Shields’s novel Larry’s Party, which is one of the quietest and also one of the most illuminating books I’ve ever read. It was nice to read a book about a man, and about manhood, that wasn’t infuriating or upsetting. Maybe there’s something in that that modern discourse about gender could look to emulate. Or maybe not; I haven’t made up my mind.

sneakiest: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell, wrong-footed me more than any other book this month. It starts out masquerading as a fairly standard Victorian pastiche about some colonial prats in India, and it turns into something much deeper and darker, an exploration of what makes people “civilised” and what war does to your psyche.

most soothing: Trio, the new novel by the highly prolific but criminally under-recognised Sue Gee. Set in Northumberland between the World Wars, and skipping forward in time to contemporary London, it tells a story of music, grief, recovery, friendship, and love. I absolutely adored it for not buckling to sentimentality while still expressing so much emotion; if you liked the Cazalet Chronicles, you should read it.


hardest: I’m interested in science, technology, and engineering, but I have no formal academic background in it. I am so poor at arithmetic that I still don’t know how to do long division (without looking up the steps), which at school meant that I wasn’t allowed to progress past algebra, so there’s a huge void in my mathematical knowledge too. Reading Darwin Among the Machines, a study of how “artificial” (machine) intelligence might arise through biological/evolutionary mechanisms, meant I had to reach towards the meaning of what George Dyson was saying, instead of understanding it intuitively – which was a really good experience.

most novelistic non-fiction: John Demos’s The  Unredeemed Captive, a study of the Williams family of Massachusetts, and particularly Eunice Williams, who was kidnapped in 1703 from the village of Deerfield by Canadian Indians, along with the rest of her family. All of the Williamses were eventually ransomed or returned, “redeemed” spiritually in the eyes of their Puritan god and neighbours as well as literally brought back, except for Eunice, who married an Indian man and had children with him. She never returned to Massachusetts, though she met her brothers and nephews several times. It’s a fascinating story, a little-taught part of American history, and Demos really understands the drama as well as giving the historical context.


party I’m late to, again: Lucia Berlin. Specifically, the collection of her short stories entitled A Manual for Cleaning Women. Everyone freaked out about them last year in a non-specific way that didn’t make me interested enough to pick them up, but I got them for Christmas and I’ve got round to them now and they are worth it. She’s writing about herself or a thinly veiled version thereof a lot of the time, but they achieve a tone that’s simultaneously conversational – really intimate, you feel you know this woman and like her – and yet also beautifully constructed, measured, balanced. It’s all intentional but none of it is artificial. Her stories are set in laundromats and abortion clinics and emergency rooms, and they’re hilarious and painful. If you’ve also missed them up til now, don’t miss them for much longer.

what’s next: I’ve just started Alexander Chee’s debut novel The Queen of the Night – about a soprano in Paris in the 1870s (?) and the secrets of her past. I’m having an absolute ball with it; the world is lush, the writing is evocative, the plot is mysterious enough to stay interesting. It’s so my thing.


This and that

Portrait of the blogger with a book

Time for a little meme!

One: Reading on the couch or on the bed?

Genuinely a tricky one to start off with. The short answer, I guess, is that it depends on where I am. I don’t read on our couch very often because it’s not terribly comfortable; the way its back is canted in relation to the cushions means that I get neck strain within twenty minutes. My grandparents’ couch, on the other hand, has been the site of many a marathon read, including last Easter, when I read 300 pages of Earthly Powers in a day, and the summer before, when I stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish Fingersmith. In my parents’ house growing up, I read on my bed a lot, and I do here in the flat too, but more often at my desk, which has better back support in the form of a chair.

Two: Male main character or female main character?

Almost invariably I prefer female main characters. Particularly when the story is told in the first person, with a male narrating voice I always find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Men are frequently, in my experience, either unaware of the physical and emotional power that they wield, or all too aware of it. Either level of consciousness can be pretty stressful to read. On the other hand, I’ve been having a great time with the mostly male-narrated Baroque Cycle, so it’s not exactly a hard and fast rule.

Three: Sweet snacks or salty snacks when reading?

Almost always sweet. I try not to eat while I’m reading, partly because I’m not very coordinated so I tend to drop things on the pages. I am very partial to a good PBJ with a book, though, or a punnet of blueberries, which I eat mindlessly, like candy, one after the other in a steady stream. Or, for that matter, actual candy—the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird, when I was eleven, I was eating Skittles when I got to the trial scene, and nearly choked on one in my excitement.

Four: Trilogies or quartets?

I’ve had great experiences with trilogies: The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, the Southern Reach trilogy, the Imperial Radch trilogy, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, and, of course, The Baroque Cycle. But one of the seminal works of my young life was Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, so I can hardly dismiss quartets out of hand. There’s just something nice and asymmetrical about a set of three, I guess.

Five: First-person point of view or third-person point of view?

I am a bit of a sucker for the kaleidoscopic, which means that I like books with a wide cast of characters and a third-person point of view. I also think that first-person is much, much harder to write well. Good first-person has accounted for several of my absolute favourite books, though, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which blew me away in January.

Six: Reading at night or in the morning?

I read in the morning on my Tube to work, during my lunch hour, in the evening on my Tube back from work, and after dinner, so…all of the above.

Seven: Libraries or bookstores?

Bookstores. This is embarrassing given my otherwise socialist tendencies, but I grew up with a bookshop filling the place that is filled, for other people, by libraries. It was New Dominion Bookshop, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the oldest independent bookshop in the state and a town institution. My dad bought my books there until I left home, and it was where I held my first job, weekends and summers from the summer I turned fifteen. I love the idea of being able to possess a book. I know it’s fundamentally capitalistic and smacks of economic privilege and turns knowledge into a commodity, but I love it all the same.

Eight: Books that make you laugh or make you cry?

It is much easier for a book to make me laugh than to make me cry. That said, I’ve noticed a slight increase in my tendency to cry at books. I think I must be getting old.

Books that have made me laugh out loud: The Code of the Woosters, by PG Wodehouse. A Walk In the Woods, by Bill Bryson. Rush Oh!, by Shirley Barrett. Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett (and almost every other Pratchett I’ve ever read.) The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend. The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde. Mrs Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson.

Books that have made me cry: Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Room, by Emma Donoghue. The Shore, by Sara Taylor. The Human Factor, by Graham Greene. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (much against my better judgment).

Nine: Black book covers or white book covers?

Assuming that black is for Penguin Classics, and white is for Oxford World’s Classics…I used to be a huge Penguin Classics groupie in high school, and I still do love the design idea—the uniform jackets and spines distinguished by one large picture at the top of the front cover. Over the years, though, I’ve decided that I prefer the images that OWC chooses. No real reason; they just generally seem to me to work better. Plus, they do things like release beautiful themed covers for series like Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which I really like.

Ten: Character driven or plot driven stories?

<takes deep breath>

I love plot. I love it when things happen, I love it when you flip pages at a speed of knots, I love not knowing what’s going to happen next, I love twists. Action is not unimportant in a book. Something has to occur for a story to be a story, anyway.

But without convincing characters, the most exciting plot is dead. See The Da Vinci Code. See also my frustration with novels that could have been brilliant, like Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar or Gill Hornby’s The Hive, which cover (respectively) entrenched anti-Native American racism in a small town, and the vicious world of school-gate motherhood. Both of those settings have enough tension to generate several dozen plots. But the characters felt flat or stereotypical or simply dull, and as a result, I couldn’t wait to stop reading. On the other hand, books like The Light Years or Trio or Grief Is the Thing With Feathers have hardly got any plot, if you stop and really try to describe what happens in them, but their characters are so sparklingly engaging and vivid that I desperately didn’t want them to end.

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.”


Valley of the Dolls is 50 years old this year. It’s being republished by Virago Press, the imprint well known for championing women’s writing; they publish, among others, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Margaret Atwood. So there’s an obvious question, one that springs immediately to mind, regarding this reprint: is Valley of the Dolls a feminist book?

The short answer is: hell nope. The long answer is: sort of, maybe.

If you don’t know the plot already (and I didn’t, having neither previously read it nor seen the film, released in 1967 and starring Sharon Tate), it revolves around three young women in New York City just after WWII. There’s Anne Welles, a refugee from emotionally frigid New England small-town life, devastatingly beautiful and seeking an existence as an employed woman on her own terms. There’s her roommate, Neely O’Hara, a seventeen-year-old who’s already been a professional performer for a decade, and who finally gets her big break through Anne’s friendship. And there’s Jennifer North, an actress who cheerfully admits to having no talent, but whose body is her primary asset.

Over the course of twenty years, Anne, Neely, and Jennifer get comprehensively screwed. Anne falls in love with Lyon Burke, a theatrical agent who works for her boss; they eventually marry, but he has copious affairs. Neely becomes wildly successful as a Hollywood film actress, but becomes hooked on drugs, ends up in a psychiatric hospital, and begins an affair with Lyon upon release. Jennifer’s story is the worst of all: aborting a pregnancy in New York because the father of the child has a congenital neurological seizure disorder, she moves to France and becomes hooked on sleeping pills. Upon her return to the States, she meets and falls in love with a Republican Senator, who doesn’t want children but is obsessed with the perfection of her body (mostly her breasts). Just before her wedding, she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and is told she must have a mastectomy. Instead, she commits suicide.

So: here we have mental health and substance abuse issues of the highest order. We have women deeply, terribly damaged by the disregard of society–mostly of men–for their worth as individuals. We have relationship breakdown. We have Anne’s (at least initial) determination to be financially independent. We have extramarital sex, demanding parents, the fear of provincial oblivion. You can see why Valley of the Dolls is cited as a direct cultural forebear of Sex and the City.

The problem I have with calling it feminist is mostly this: feminism has moved on since 1966. All of the things I mention above probably did make it a feminist book (or at least feminism-flavoured) when it was first published. Sure, women had sex and breakdowns, but literature didn’t chronicle it very much, let alone validate that suffering. We like Anne; we feel sorry for Jennifer; we’re forced to admire Neely’s grit even if we find her behaviour shocking. These women are hustling for themselves, and there’s a lot of rage in their experiences. Helen Lawson, an aging stage actress, “crucifies” a younger actress, Terry King, who threatens her primacy in a show. She does it because she’s terrified. Throughout this book, women compete with and attempt to destroy one another because they are so goddamn scared: of the future, of aging, of the power of the men in their lives. The women are the artists and performers, but the men are the lawyers, the agents, the directors. The women sign the contracts, but the men draw them up.

Even the most determined of the women in this book are aiming, really, at one thing: marriage. Anne’s refusal to marry Allen Cooper at the beginning of the novel is admirable (she doesn’t love him and tells him so; he literally informs her that she will eventually; she shakes him off after a few months, but only by falling in love with someone else). But there is so much pressure to bag a man: Jennifer’s mother tells her on the phone, “In five years you’ll be thirty. I was twenty-nine when your father got tired of me.” Even Neely, at seventeen, doesn’t understand why anyone would want anything else. And when Anne falls for Lyon Burke, she demands to know when he’s marrying her… after four days of dating. Intersectionality, meanwhile, is hardly present: Jews and gay men are subject to depressingly off-hand nastiness, while women of colour don’t exist at all in this book’s universe, and working-class women are only ever ashamed of their origins. For me to even raise the issue, of course, is sort of pointless, insofar as Susann wasn’t writing during an age of intersectional feminism. She’s of the Gloria Steinem generation; their breakthrough was to get the world to notice that white, middle-class women cannot be expected to cope with constant domestic and professional misogyny.

The problem now is that we have realized that’s not enough. When you read about the terrible things that happened to women in the early years of film and stage celebrity–the stories of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland spring to mind–you can’t help but be horrified, especially by the way in which contemporary culture fetishizes those same women. A similar phenomenon contributed to the legends, and the early deaths, of Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. What we expect of public women is awful, and was awful. This is all true. But it’s also true that white, middle-class women have a long history of ignoring and erasing others who should be equal partners in the struggle for rights: women of colour, gay men, gay women, transgender women, poor women, fat women, disabled women. My generation does not venerate Gloria Steinem except for as a reminder of how far we’ve come. We’re looking to poets like Warsan Shire; to writers like Juno Dawson and Roxane Gay; to musicians like Anohni; to commentators like Jack Monroe.

So is Valley of the Dolls valuable? Certainly: as an artifact, a signpost, something historically significant. But if I worked for Virago, I would be a tiny bit concerned–privately, quietly, but nonetheless–about reissuing it. We are not these women anymore, or at least, we don’t have to be. Why are we looking back?

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Heidi Melton) at ENO
  1. Gadgette is a site aimed at techy women–like The Pool for geeks. I barely qualify, but I’ve been really enjoying their stuff, especially this article on 6 lessons to forget before you start learning to code.
  2. My parents and brother are in the country. We saw them last weekend, at my gran’s 80th birthday tea, and will see them again soon;  my brother is coming to London for a graduation-present dinner on Friday, and my parents are visiting on Saturday.
  3. It was great to see them and I’m looking forward to seeing them again, but trying to make plans to do so around the rest of my life is so.damn.stressful. I work full-time, so my only weekday options are in the evening. Plus, unfortunately, June is the month when everyone else wanted to plan stuff. Between last Wednesday and next Sunday I’ve had a grand total of three days with nothing penciled in, and those days don’t really coincide with my parents’ availability.  So there’s guilt on my side, frustration on theirs, and dissatisfaction everywhere.
  4. Relatedly, I’m really, really tired. I’ve already canceled one book event last week out of pure exhaustion, and I’m probably going to need to bow out of a dinner party this week as well. Mental health has also been suffering: I’ve developed a new strategy for when I want to self-harm which involves imagining it in great detail without actually doing it, or writing on my arm instead of cutting or scratching. It’s okay, but it’s not exactly a permanent fix. Mother-out-law has been in hospital this week, too, precise nature of ailment unknown. So now that I think about it, there’s been a reasonable amount of stress circulating.
  5. Women With Tattoos is another one of my new favourite sites–beautiful portraits of tattooed ladies, plus interviews. Through it, I’ve also found the woman who I want to do my first tattoo, if and when I get brave enough to follow through.
  6. I went to my first live Wagner performance last weekend: English National Opera is doing Tristan and Isolde (yes, in English; oh well.) It was five hours long and it was excellent; the band made some ravishingly beautiful sounds and Heidi Melton, who sings Isolde, is a new vocal inspiration. The costumes were weird (design aesthetic ranged from “Belle Epoque crazy hair” to “Japanese samurai face masks” to “Beckettian void”), but the singing made none of that matter.

Trio, by Sue Gee

something beautiful and strong


~~warning: here be one or two spoilers~~

Sue Gee seems to be one of those authors who’s both prolific and successful, and yet is still relatively unknown. She was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, which is exactly the sort of thing that happens to good writers who, for some reason or another, don’t please the mainstream as well as they might. That she isn’t better known is, on the basis of her new book Trio, a travesty, though perhaps not a surprise. It’s the sort of book that tends to suffer in an industry that has taken Twitter to its bosom. (I am not knocking Twitter. I mostly love Twitter and am increasingly coming to depend on it, which is a whole ‘nother story, as Americans say.) The point is that Trio is tender, nuanced, and although it contains plot points which could easily be played for melodrama, Gee’s writing is so fine that when you read those moments in her book, they pass in front of you in a thoroughly natural way. That’s terribly difficult to explain in 144 characters.

And then there’s the plot: a school teacher in Northumberland in 1937 grieves the loss of his wife, whom we get to know in the first chapter. (She dies at the end of it, but I felt real sorrow and pain when I read it—sixteen and a half pages in, and Gee had made me care about someone. That, boys and girls, is rare.) Anyway, Steven Coulter, the school teacher in question, meets a group of new friends through a work colleague. They’re all tight-knit and slightly secretive, their relationships reminiscent of The Secret History albeit rather more realistic. There’s beautiful Diana Embleton, who plays the cello; her charismatic brother Frank (with whom Steven teaches); talented violinist George Liddell; and enigmatic Margot, a pianist. These four grew up together, and Diana, George, and Margot have formed a musical trio, which plays regular concerts around the county. It doesn’t sound pacy or intriguing—but it is, it bloody well is.

Writing a book set in 1937, and partly in a large country house, you have to choose, I think, whether to give in to the inevitable echoes of early Downton Abbey, or whether to subvert them. Gee chooses to subvert, and she does that by investing a lot of authorial energy in characterisation. When I say that the death of Steven’s first wife, Margaret, made me feel sorrow after sixteen pages, I mean it; and she achieves that immediacy of feeling by using those sixteen pages to dive deeply not only into Margaret’s immediate bodily experience of tuberculosis, delirium and death, but also into her memory. Memory is what binds together most of the characters in Trio; it’s a sense of shared history between the Embletons, Margot, and George that makes their playing so intimate. It’s also what connects the book’s first section to its second, which is told not by any of the characters we’ve previously met, but by Steven’s son, sixty years in the future.

Although some of the characters fulfill certain stereotypical functions (Diana the beautiful; Margot the quietly enigmatic; George the closeted, tormented and brilliant), they each do so in a way that feels particular, not generalized. Diana, for instance, has many flaws, one of which is a self-centeredness that prevents her from understanding wider social or political currents. In a more Downton-esque novel, this flaw would be emphasised, but never explored; she would simply be dim, arrogant, gorgeous, and distant. In Trio, by contrast, that trait has a huge effect on the plot: Diana doesn’t realize that Margot’s father, whom she too has known as a father figure for twenty years, has fallen in love with her. When he finally declares himself, she is horrified, distraught, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms, which shatters him and leads to tragedy. It’s the subtlety with which Gee builds up the situation, though, that shatters us, too, as readers: we know, long before Diana does, what Mr. Heslop’s feelings are for her. But we also know how easy it’s been for Diana to misunderstand his attentions as simple courtesy–his offers to carry her cello case, his solicitousness in keeping her wine glass topped up, seem perfectly natural, but Steven, through whose eyes we see everything, has observed that he can’t stop looking at her. We see because Steven sees, but Diana doesn’t have that kind of perspective.

For a book that revolves so explicitly around music, though, there aren’t many descriptions of it. When Gee writes about the trio working together, her focus is on their personal connection, the look that runs between them before they begin to play. She gets that spot-on; anyone who has performed music in a group small or large knows what that feels like, and anyone who has seen music performed live will recognise that electrified atmosphere, that awareness that you are witnessing intimate, non-verbal communication of the highest order. I have to confess that I wished for precise descriptions of the music, though; you can appreciate more fully the connection that enables a Beethoven trio to be performed when you understand what that piece sounds like. Writing prose descriptions of music is hard, but it can be done: Helen Stevenson, in Love Like Salt, released in February of this year, writes at length, and evocatively, about Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

The second half of the book is a curious decision; it’s narrated by the eldest child of Steven and Margot’s eventual union (not the biggest spoiler in the world, I venture, since their relationship and marriage is signposted fairly early on.) It follows him as he drives from London back to Northumberland to celebrate Christmas with his sister, after the death of his parents and the sale of Hepplewick Hall, the house where the trio grew up together and which Margot eventually inherits. The point of this sudden shift of era and perspective, I think, is to demonstrate how things change, how time erodes even the most intense of relationships. While I was reading, it didn’t strike me as out of place, but looking back on the book as a whole, I’m hard-pressed to determine exactly why this second half was as long as it was. It would have worked perfectly well as an epilogue. And yet perhaps Gee wants us to feel a little bit off-balance; the story of the subsequent generations is given as much air time as the story of the Greatest Generation, even though, at least for me, it carried less immediate emotional weight.

Fundamentally, though, Trio is a book that rewards your careful attention; you will probably, if you are like me, want to gobble it up, but its observation of human behaviour, of the fault lines of friendships and the limitations of love, is of the subtlest sort. Its generous anatomization of grief and fallibility, and the immense trust it places in the power of music, has earned it a spot on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. This summer, you really should be reading it too.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Salt for the review copy. Trio was published in the UK on 16 June.

04. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell

The old tattered cover I have, though not my copy

Where I read it: sitting under a thick-canopied tree in Kensington Gardens, waiting out the rain

The Siege of Krishnapur is the first in a series of three books that J.G. Farrell wrote, loosely bound by the theme of the end of the British Empire. (His second, Troubles, is set in Ireland, while the third, The Singapore Grip, is–unsurprisingly–set in Singapore.) It’s set in 1857 (though written in 1973) and takes as its premise the Indian Rebellion of that year, which until recently was still taught in schools as “the Sepoy Mutiny”. It won the Booker Prize the year it was published, and it serves as a fantastic reminder of the practicalities of siege: diminishing food, increased prices, hysteria, the growing issue of sanitation and health. One of the subplots concerns a feud between the cantonment’s two British doctors on how to treat cholera. The one whom most people seem to trust is, perhaps also unsurprisingly, wrong; the fact that so many frightened citizens adhere to his ideas says a lot about group psychology, another of this novel’s preoccupations.

So it is in many ways a sincere and realistic book; what no one seems to say about it, though, is that it’s also a satire of nearly absurdist proportions. The scene in which one of our protagonists, an official primarily known as the Collector, sits calmly through a barrage of musket fire, drinking his tea, while other soldiers drop below the table, reminded me of nothing so strongly as the battle scene from Carry On Up the Khyber. (You know, the one where the English dinner party keeps on tidily using its fish forks as plaster from the ceiling rains down upon them.)  In the Carry On scene, the cheery demeanour of the characters borders on the psychotic, something the audience is allowed to realize because one of the characters is having the “appropriate” reaction (terror). In Siege, the calmness is also psychotic, but the narrating voice remains blandly oblivious to it, which is doubly terrifying.

Scott Esposito, an American book blogger and critic, wrote about this in 2008, pointing out how the Collector observes with detached interest that his hand is shaking too hard to put the sugar in his tea: “He’s trying to be dignified and British”, Esposito writes, “but he’s also resigned to the fact that he’s not quite pulling it off.” Yes, exactly, but there’s something amazingly nihilistic about that. It’s interesting that mainstream criticism about The Siege of Krishnapur doesn’t appear to talk about it. (For similar reasons, the book also reminded me, in parts, of Catch-22, another novel about how violent conflict brings out the emotional hypocrisy of humans, makes our attempts to be brave seem pathetic.)

The reason this sneaks up on you—this darkly comical flavour—is because the book itself is written in a style that really could not be called anything but “conservative realism”. It looks like a good old-fashioned un-self-conscious novel, with heroes and heroines and bonnets and a linear plot. There’s nothing particularly self-aggrandizing about the narrating voice. It’s not doing cartwheels in front of you. It doesn’t taste postmodern at first; it barely even tastes regular modern. Farrell’s sentences, with their long meandering rhythm, could have been lifted from the 1857 about which he writes, although they’re not pastiche or parody: another instance of how this book presents itself as a very sincere piece of storytelling.

I won’t deny that it’s hard to get into this book; the prose is oddly dense for such a thin volume, and initially, very little happens. By the halfway point, though, you’re completely invested in the incremental destruction of the certainties these characters have held dear–certainties about the rightness of their God, their country, their use of science, the value of progress. It’s worth reading for that alone: how necessary Farrell makes it for the reader to confront her own certainties as she reads, to admit that she might be wrong.

The Siege of Krishnapur, J.G. Farrell (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973)

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Orlando. Jesus. I have nothing to say that will be in any way new or incisive. I have not got the right to say very much at all – I am straight and white and this is not about me. But here are some extraordinary, beautiful things:

  • The solidarity rally in London’s Soho was attended by Sadiq Khan, our new mayor (try to picture Boris Johnson doing that.)
  • Over 2,500 people attended in total. Here is a photograph of Old Compton Street from above:


  • A friend of mine wrote this on Facebook. I can’t improve on it. “To all my friends in the LGBTQ+ community…you are so loved. I’m thinking about you right now and sending a metric fuckton of hugs and kisses your way. I wish we all lived in a world where you could feel safe to dance with and love and kiss whoever you wanted, wherever you wanted. I wish I could give that to you, but I can’t. All I can do is let you know that I’m not ever going to stop being here for you. Stay loud and proud as fuck—I’m going to be right behind you, fighting alongside you every step of the way. To those who are searching for a scapegoat out of grief and rage, please remember that one man does not stand for or speak for his entire community or religion. Don’t fight hate with ignorance; be compassionate and listen.”
  • Here’s a Tumblr called the Queer Muslim Project. It’s fantastic, and in less than ten minutes of scrolling through it, I felt my own expectations and prejudices challenged. (“But he doesn’t look Muslim…but she doesn’t look gay.” And then “…oh.”) Go look at it.

It seems, frankly, churlish and ridiculous to talk about anything else at the moment. All of the minor problems and developments of one’s own life look so irrelevant when you pick up a copy of the Evening Standard and the leading article is headlined with the last text message of a man hiding in a bathroom, knowing he’s about to die. There is, however, one other thing I read last week that I loved, so here it is, as an aside:

There are so many quotes that resonated with me from this Bryony Gordon article about mental illness and love, but my absolute favourite is: “It wasn’t fireworks and drama – it was a warm front moving in after winter. It was the realisation that drama was not the key to happiness.” I probably talk about this stuff (being crazy, hating yourself, destructive relationships, changing that cycle) too much, but at least one other woman is talking about it too.

Love yourselves, love others, don’t let the bastards win.

03. Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

LarryWhere I read it: eating rhubarb crumble in the kitchen. Not the whole book (and not the whole crumble), but some of both.

This weekend I went to the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival, which was fantastic. The first panel was on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which, as regular readers will know, is something I’m very interested by, and which I’ve been trying to read all the winners of. (Awkwardly constructed sentence, sorry, but can’t think of a way to fix it without splitting it into two sentences, which is boring. Onwards!) This book, Larry’s Party, won that prize in 1998. One of the things that interested me most about the panel at the festival was the series of statistics on women writers and their books. Amid the usual depressing factoids about number of women published vs. shortlisted for prizes, there was this: of those women who are on lists for prizes, the majority of them—I can’t remember the figure, infuriatingly, but it is well above half—have written their books about male protagonists.

Obviously, I thought of Larry’s Party, which I’ve just finished and has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve ever read that goes really deeply into a man’s head. Larry does things, sure: he’s married twice, he starts out as a florist and becomes a designer of mazes and then a noted landscape designer, he has a son. But it’s what he thinks and feels that Carol Shields writes about, and in that assertion—that men, too, have lives full of emotion, that they suffer from uncertainty and doubt—there’s something that I find oddly comforting. I’ve grown up in an era both of widespread feminism and of reactionary masculinity. That it could be so different forty years ago (Larry is born in 1950; the book starts in 1977) is quietly mindblowing. Shields isn’t just writing about Larry, I don’t think, but about the whole Western world. From 1977 to 1997, a hell of a lot changed for white First World-ers: politics, technology, gender, the amount of distance permitted between private and public lives. You wouldn’t call Larry radical, exactly (his first wife, Dorrie, does all the laundry and the cooking, though his second wife, Beth, is a professor of gender studies.) But he is, quietly, unexpected. His father doesn’t have conversations with him, doesn’t really know what to do with him. He’s a “weedy adolescent” and a tall, not especially sporty man. His degree, from a local community college, is in flower arranging. He spends much of his life experiencing complex, deep, and tender feelings, which he is sadly aware that he doesn’t possess the vocabulary to express. He never becomes a hardened or a defensive man. That reactionary masculinity I talked about earlier, the sort of thing that underpins cultural phenomena from burger-eating contests to rape apologism: that is not present in Larry’s psyche. He is not violent or lecherous or cruel.

Another of the rather excellent things about Larry’s Party is that not much really happens in it. The party at the end is meant to sum up, if you will, everything that’s gone before: all of Larry’s adult life so far, from twenty-seven to forty-seven. The novel chronicles relationships above all: relationships with colleagues, with lovers, with a child, with work and the intellect, with the past. It’s a domestic novel about a man, and when you phrase it like that, this deceptively sedate-seeming book starts to look pretty damn brave.

(I’m not mad keen on the ending, though. Dorrie again? Really? It doesn’t seem in keeping with the realistic gaze of the rest of the book, at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Lucy Warkenten whom Larry needs to be with. Maybe Shields thought so too, and wanted us to know that things never do work out the way they ought to.)

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997)

02. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

lacunaWhere I read it: sitting up in bed late at night, trying to make myself tired enough to go to sleep.

Part of the Women’s Prize project that I’ve set myself, as well as one of my 20 Books of Summer, The Lacuna was Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel for a decade when it was published in 2009; it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010. It positions itself as the biography of a mid-century Mexican-American novelist, Harrison Shepherd, curated from his extensive diaries and letters (with some gaps filled in) by his former secretary and best friend, Violet Brown. Shepherd is mostly raised in Mexico, and spends his early adulthood as cook and secretary in the household of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; when Trotsky comes to stay with them, Shepherd becomes his employee too, developing a personal history which will have repercussions in the paranoid Communist-hunting climate of 1950s America.

The good things: It’s about all of Shepherd’s life, not just the time he spends with Kahlo and Rivera and Trotsky. He’s not made into a Forrest Gump character. For one thing, he’s not an innocent joe (read: blank canvas) touched by history; he has his own background and childhood, which shape him profoundly, even before he gets to the artists. His mother is simultaneously a product of her time and an individual, her choices scarring little Shepherd even while he develops a sort of affectionate disdain for her. The same is true of Frida, Diego and Lev (as he comes to know them): they’re fleshed-out people, not just the giants history knows them as. The descriptions of Mexico–its geography, food, dances, people, politics–are vivid and almost tangible. Kingsolver introduces Shepherd’s homosexuality subtly, and starts early: he’s only nine or ten when he starts noticing their cook, which is exactly right, I think, for the first inklings of sexuality. (So often novels seem to portray sexuality as something that only happens once you turn thirteen. Mais non.) And the horror of the 1950s Communist witch hunts is made manifest; it’s so easy to forget that it really affected people, changed their entire lives.

Less good things: It’s so long. I get that some of this is necessary; it is, after all, someone’s whole life, relatively short though it was. And now that I think of it, none of the book seems random or not meant to be there. There’s just a lot of it. It’s like looking back at a binge-watched Netflix series; when you remember something that happened in episode 2, it seems like an awfully long way away, even if it’s relevant to what’s happening in episode 12. More importantly, a reviewer when it was originally published accused Kingsolver of being morally heavy-handed in the later sections, and I think they were right. That’s the risk that you take, of course, as a political novelist, or a moral one, which I think Kingsolver is. She uses fiction to prod at the conscience, showing us the consequences of jingoism and judgement in one person’s life. That’s no bad thing to be doing as a writer; it’s just difficult to do it in a way that doesn’t make you seem to be shouting.

I’ve liked Kingsolver’s work for a long time–I read The Bean Trees and her essay collection Small Wonder in high school, and The Poisonwood Bible earlier this year. I’d like to read Prodigal Summer next; it’s set in the Appalachia of my childhood, and The Lacuna has given me every reason to keep trusting her writing.

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (London: Faber, 2009)

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts


    1. We booked a holiday! Oh my giddy aunt. We’re going to St. Ives for five days in August. It is stupidly expensive and long to get there by train, but who cares? We’re staying in a little flat in the center of town, and we won’t have to do anything all week but there’ll be plenty to do if we get bored. I plan to read and cook and sit in the sun. The Tate, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, and the seaside are all I want. Oh, and maybe some hikes.
    2. I’m still plugging away at JavaScript. I’m trying to do half an hour a day, but it’s hard and it makes me cry a lot (or, if not cry, at the very least wring my hands til my wrists feel loose). I wish it came more easily. This sounds, I know, ridiculously arrogant, but I am just not used to having to work hard at learning something. It fucks with my self-esteem no end.
    3. Saw my friend and former housemate Ollie on the weekend; we went to the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in an exhibition showing photographic portraits of black migrants in England before the Windrush’s voyage in the 1940s. There were some from 1891, when an “African choir” came on tour to London and also visited Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; they looked so modern, staring straight out of the frame, the photographic techniques good enough by then to capture fine details of their clothing texture, skin and hair. There was another display case of smaller portraits, including some of a band of Pygmies who came to London in 1905, and one of an Ethiopian prince whose father committed suicide upon defeat by the British and who was brought back to England by a military commander called Tristram Speedy. He went to Rugby and to Sandhurst, but died of pleurisy at 18. Such curious, little-known lives.
    4. I bought a little chunky journal on Saturday, after bidding Ollie farewell but before getting the Tube back home. It’s grey with a flower pattern on the front, and only cost £3.99. It feels inviting, but unthreatening, and I like it very much. I’m hoping to re-establish the habit of journaling by hand. So far, it’s working.
    5. My novel carries on apace. I can’t say I write a thousand words a day, but I try to write a little bit most days. I’m slowly discovering what one of my characters is all about; he’s a surprisingly complicated chap, not entirely nice or passive. I’m also approaching a point at which I’m going to have to switch to writing about one of the other POV characters for a while. It stops me from getting bored or stuck in a rut.
    6. Now that the weather is sunny again, I am getting broody about dogs. There was a beautiful wrinkly brown shar pei in the park over the weekend which I literally couldn’t stop raving about. The Chaos asked me why I always have to like “the fugly ones”. It’s because they’re fugly. Fugly dogs are the most beautiful.
This will never NOT be perfect.