August Superlatives

It feels like August has come and gone very quickly – my first month out of work, and it seems as though it’s only been a week or two, though we’ve crammed a lot in. We had a house party, went to a wedding, had a proper holiday, caught up with my old school friend Chelsea, who’s a professional flautist. This past weekend I went to my first ever festival, a micro-fest held by my lovely former colleague Tessa and her sister Freya in their parents’ back garden in Oxfordshire. Six bands over two nights, plus an abridged read-through of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part One and the most delicious paellas, curries, and breakfast hashes made it an unforgettable experience. I’ve also reached and exceeded 26,000 words in the novel I’m writing, which is great news. Reading-wise, time was limited, but although I read fewer books in total this month than average, most of them were BIG.

best teenager: Velveteen Vargas in Mary Gaitskill’s new novel The Mare, of course. I read most of this hiding in a side chapel of Westminster Cathedral, waiting for the Chaos to finish cantoring at a wedding for which the bride was a full hour late, and it’s a testament to the power and presence of Velvet’s voice that I often forgot where I was. She’s bright but not precocious, streetwise but not a stereotype.

most realistic love story: The one between Meg and Jon in A.L. Kennedy’s Booker Prize-longlisted Serious Sweet. It’s long, and it’s flashback-y, but she dives into their heads with a dedication that reminds me curiously of Elizabeth Jane Howard (see below) and also a little bit of George Eliot. I like authors who take their characters so seriously that we spend pages and pages listening to them think. I know it’s not for everyone, but it really is for me.

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most utterly charming love story: The one between Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman, both of whom are just as ungainly and awkward as their names make them sound, in Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Harley is a textile artist from Sydney, in the tiny town of Karakarook to advise the locals on setting up a heritage museum. Douglas is an engineer, in Karakarook to supervise the demolition of a bridge that many regard as the centrepiece of the town’s “heritage” value. Their collision course is set from the beginning, but their genuine awkwardness—Harley tall and big-boned and blurty, Douglas shy and ugly and enthusiastic about cement—saves the book from being a tedious rom-com. It’s wonderful.

toughest: Waking Lions, an unflinching morality tale about immigration and privilege (if you’re one of those people who thinks the word is bandied about too frequently these days, this book’ll give you a better understanding of what is meant by it), by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I gave it a full review and said it’s not the sort of book you love, but you’re not meant to love it: you’re meant to get something out of it, and there are very few books these days that are willing to give up your love in exchange for your understanding.

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best fun: The final book of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, The System of the World. He’s so good at being dryly funny, and his plotting is so intricate that I shudder to think of what his notes for this series must have looked like. This is also the most serious of the three books, which I liked: it makes you realize that this is where the modern world started, really, this span of seven or eight decades from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th. It’s why I want to study the literature of that period in any subsequent postgraduate degrees I end up doing.

best holiday reading: The Tailor of Panama, John Le Carré’s novel about an intelligence fabricator leading up to the handover of the Canal to the Panamanians in 1999. If you think that makes it sound an awful lot like Our Man In Havana, you’d be right, but Le Carré really follows through on the consequences of lying. The ending is really quite sad, although not sad enough to make it un-fun for the beach. I think this might be the last good book he wrote, before he started becoming wild-eyed and moralistic sometime after 9/11.

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most engrossing world: That of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I read the first in the series, The Light Years, over eighteen months ago, and I’ve returned this month to the second, third, and fourth: Marking Time, Confusion, and Casting Off. They mostly follow the fortunes of the three girl cousins in the Cazalet family: elegant Polly, glamorous actress (and unhappily married) Louise, and awkward aspiring writer Clary. Howard’s ear for dialogue is just marvelous; the way she uses it for efficient characterization is aspirational. And to be honest, I don’t think any other books have helped me to understand my grandparents or their generation half as well as these ones have.

up next: I said I’d review Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which is making big waves in the publishing world, but I’m really scared to start it – the extract I’ve seen online makes me wonder if it’s going to be pretty triggering. I guess I can always stop if it’s too much…

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14 thoughts on “August Superlatives

    • You should totally read The Mare – it’s getting lots of publicity and love, but it’s a really good book for all that 😉 And yes, hopefully more novel progress to report soon.

  1. This was the perfect way to catch up on what you’ve been doing and reading this summer! In particular, your novel sounds very exciting!
    I’ve never heard of Elizabeth Jane Howard, but these books sounds like something I’d like, so thank-you. 🙂

    • I’m going to be recommending them to so many people – the first one in the series made my Books of 2015 list, and the second through fourth will probably make this year’s! There’s a fifth volume, set about ten years later, that came out the year EJH died; I haven’t got a copy yet, but soon will.

  2. Congratulations on your novel progress! And goodness, that’s an interesting assortment of books. I haven’t heard of Diary of an Oxygen Thief; Amazon has a listing for a Dutch book from 2006—is that it?

    • No, I think it was originally self-published and it’s been picked up by Corsair, an imprint of Little Brown. I’ve started it. It’s not as traumatic as I thought it would be, but so far it’s…I don’t know, a bit inexplicably normal? Like, there’s nothing about the writing that stands out, and the narrating protagonist is just kind of your average London advertising dick (one of those people who give the city a bad name), and I’m not sure what we’re meant to take from it other than that alcoholism and misogyny make people unpleasant, which is…not exactly revolutionary? I don’t know. I’m less than halfway through, maybe something will change.

  3. I absolutely love that you were reading a book while waiting for the bride to arrive. Those are wedding goals right there.

    Sounds like you’ve had a wonderful month, both with reading and life in general.

    • I’m shameless for this – I took a massive hardback to this year’s Easter Vigil service as well. I love liturgy as much as the next overly dramatic girl, but there’s also reading efficiency to think about!

  4. You read the whole Baroque Trilogy in a month? Holy mackerel! that thing is so hefty I haven’t even dared lift if off my shelf yet and the shelf I think is beginning to bow.

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