July Superlatives

July’s been a month of changes. I’ve had my 24th birthday, marked my first year with the Chaos, left my job, and committed more concretely to writing my novel. I’ve also read a lot of books: fourteen of them, to be precise, seven of them counting towards #20booksofsummer and two of them on the Man Booker Prize longlist.

most gripping: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s chunky historical novel about a Parisian soprano whose past comes back to haunt her. It’s long and there are flaws, but it’s a hell of a book, impossible to put down and lushly detailed.

oddly anticlimactic: Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times, a story about a young Jewish hairdresser from Soho who moves to Palestine after WWII. There’s political content – espionage and the handover of the Protectorate from British rule – but it’s under-emphasised, so that the shape of the book is a little uneven.

book that really should have made the Booker Prize longlist: The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss. It’s an exceptional novel, taking in its stride stay-at-home parenthood, marriage difficulties, the NHS, mortality, Coventry Cathedral, and much more. Sarah Moss really is a writer to attend to, one of the best novelists working in England today.

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most sadly prescient: Thomas Piketty’s collection of columns for a French newspaper, Chronicles, about European economics, the global recession, Greece, the IMF, and much more. They date from 2012, but Piketty was already predicting the crisis in the Eurozone that led directly to Brexit.

most darkly surprising: Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. I know her through her novels GileadHome and Lila, which are luminous with worldly spirituality; Housekeeping is much weirder, a story of two sisters raised by their eccentric aunt. Parts of it reminded me a little of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, in its portrayal of a young woman coming undone; you always think something terrible is going to happen.

best family saga: Anne Enright’s Baileys Prize-shortlisted The Green Road. I’m not that keen on Irish family epics, but Enright is a skillful and lucid writer, and this had the virtue of jumping repeatedly through time, which often makes things more interesting.

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most thoroughly disappointing: Raw Spirit, a nonfiction book by Iain Banks in which he visited all (or almost all) of the single malt distilleries in Scotland. It was clearly commissioned in order to give him a kind of junket trip; he’s utterly upfront about that; but he also just struck me as a vaguely unpleasant, highly privileged man who did not think very much about his good fortune, preferring instead to cultivate lads-lads-lads friendships and drive fast cars. I’ll still seek out his science fiction, but gosh what a terrible introduction.

most emotionally complicatedDon’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the second of Boris Fishman’s novels to be published in the UK. It deals with adoption, immigration, infertility, and the complex currents of a marriage; there’s a lot to unpack in it, and Fishman’s prose is dense and thoughtful.

most evocative: Rosy Thornton’s Suffolk-set collection of short stories, Sandlands. United by themes of history, haunting, and the past’s effects on the future, it’s a marvellous group of stories that demonstrates a deep love for the Suffolk countryside and its people.

most philosophically demanding: The North Water, Ian McGuire’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel of a whaling voyage that descends into the heart of darkness. There are some levels on which I have issues with this book; it’s a prime example of the deeply masculine, aggressive, Blood Meridian-esque school of novel writing, in which men wrestle with great evil and women, if they exist at all, are whores or dead bodies or both. On another level, though, the writing is absolutely top-notch and the plot is so gripping I read it in a day.

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most bewildering: I never know what to do with Flannery O’Connor, morally speaking. The Violent Bear It Away is, like her other novel Wise Blood, a story about a young man who tries to evade Jesus and can’t. It also features extraordinary violence and stupidity and obstinacy. It’s fascinating, especially because it’s not easy to tell what side O’Connor comes down on.

most relevant: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was the only Booker Prize-shortlisted book from last year that I hadn’t read. If Marlon James hadn’t also been on the list, this would, or should, have won: an achingly open, generous-hearted novel about a house full of Indian immigrants in Sheffield, and the visa-wife of one of them, it refuses to give us pabulum for an ending. It is heartbreakingly good.

second most bewildering: The Many, Wyl Menmuir’s short novel (also Booker Prize-longlisted this year!) about a man who moves to a seaside town in Cornwall and finds that the history of the village is darker and more opaque than anyone is willing to admit. It feels like an allegory, but the terms of that allegory are not clear, which makes me wonder whether it wants to be cleverer than it actually is, or whether I’m just suffering from a failure of perception. Anyone else read it and want to help me out?

up next: I’m currently staying at my grandparents’ house, taking care of my grandpa for a few days while my grandmother is in hospital. I brought the collected poems of Dylan Thomas with me, but I can’t brute-force my way through it; it’s too gnarly. So I’ve picked up my old Penguin copy of Middlemarch instead. When I get back to London, I’ve got the rest of #20booksofsummer plus Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and another Booker longlister, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet, waiting for me.

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16 thoughts on “July Superlatives

    • Thank you! This is the only way I can say something about all of the books I read every month; I can never manage to write full reviews for them all.

  1. Housekeeping is so wonderful–so different from her other books, yet it still feels like her. Interesting to see you compare it to Eileen, a book that I abandoned not quite halfway through because I found it so dull. I’m giving it another try since it’s on the Booker list and am crossing my fingers that the problem was just my mood at the time. I was actually pretty grumbly about the Booker list because the only books I was familiar with were two I’d abandoned–Eileen and The Sellout–and one I’d thought was only OK–Lucy Barton. I’m hoping the rest is better. Your comments on the others make me wonder, but I am liking Work Like Any Other, so that’s good news.

    The Year of the Runaways was my second choice among the books on last year’s shortlist. I so much about that book and wish it had gotten more attention when it was published here earlier this year.

    • Interesting that you abandoned The Sellout; I haven’t read it but its blurb makes me wary. Obviously there’s a huge dose of satire there, but…gosh. I did really enjoy The North Water – it’s ridiculously well written and not too heavy-handed – I only had those criticisms when I thought about its shape, later on. And The Many is pretty promising for a pretty long time; I just have a hard time with books that dump me like that at the end.

  2. Happy Birthday, Elle! I love the way you do these round-ups. You’ve completely convinced me to read Housekeeping (it’s been on the shelf for ages; I’m hit-and-miss with Robinson: I loved Lila, hated Gilead. I really want to read The North Water although your comments on masculinity and the women in the novel put me off a bit. However, I’m fascinated by traditional working-class jobs and the sea. And I was only recommending The Year of the Runaways to someone on Sunday; love love love that book.

    • Thanks! Honestly The North Water is good; it’s very good prose, and now that I think of it there IS a non-dead-whore woman! She’s an Inuit who works for a mission priest. Phew. Also, it is what people call “a ripping yarn”, so there’s that in its favour.

      And The Year of the Runaways was emotionally devastating, in its own quiet way. What a book.

  3. ian darling says:

    Bewildering – but fascinating- does sum up The Violent Take It Away. I am prodded to read The Year Of the Runaways – it sounds like a fantastic read.

  4. I adore Housekeeping. It sounds like a good month—happy birthday!

    And if you’d ever like a person to look over your pages as you write your novel, I volunteer.

  5. A good month! I loved Houseskeeping. Read it a very long time ago when it was her only novel and no others were even rumored. I’m curious about the Piketty book but with so much anger inducing Trump crud in the news every day I feel like I am barely hanging on to my sanity. Maybe after November election when Hillary wins.

    • Yeah (GO HILLARY) – Piketty is admirably calm in his tone, but it’s really disheartening to see him making suggestions for French and European leaders that are comprehensively ignored.

    • I’m really keen to read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games at least, so I’ll just try not to think of his annoying car chat while I’m reading them! After all, the writer isn’t the work, thank goodness.

  6. I wish The Tidal Zone had made the long list, it was so so so good. The synopsis really undersold its brilliance.

    You’ve intrigued me about Housekeeping, I like a dark novel about family, maybe this will be my next.

    I actually need to keep a list of the books bloggers inspire me to read.

    • Oh, I agree about The Tidal Zone. So infuriating that it didn’t make it. And Housekeeping is fascinating, very strange and lovely in a weird sort of way. Highly recommended.

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