October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

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This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.

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tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.

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up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

A World Gone Mad: the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren

But still—are we doing as much as we should? Posterity will no doubt be the judge of that.

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It is forgivable, I think, to be slightly fatigued by WWII. Especially in the UK, it represents a time and an atmosphere so deeply romanticised as to be almost fictional. The “Blitz Spirit” is invoked by people who want to take the country back to a status quo that never existed as uniformly as they’d like to think; grainy black-and-white photos of wartorn and occupied nations don’t manage to convey very much in the way of individual characters being formed under horrific circumstances. What I liked about the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Swedish children’s classic about anarchic redhead Pippi Longstocking, is that this collection gives us a perspective on the war that Anglo-American education often ignores: that of the Nordic countries, sandwiched between aggressive Germany and bloodthirsty Russia, and in particular that of Sweden, which maintained official neutrality throughout the conflict.

That neutrality is a moral stance, although it pretends not to be one. Lindgren is constantly reminding herself of how lucky they have it: there’s very little food rationing, and their Christmases and birthdays often include veritable feasts. In 1940, she writes,

It’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of the war as here. …To my mind, our rations are so generous that anyone who bought all that we are entitled to would end up in dire financial straits.

Lindgren is more aware than most, one suspects, but even she isn’t free from complacency. The next year, directly after paragraphs describing the “intolerable food situation” in France and Finland, and the public executions in German-occupied Norway, she describes their new flat:

We now have a lovely big living room, the children each have their own room and then there’s our bedroom. …I really don’t want it to get bombed.

It’s a trifle difficult to summon up any sympathy at this point.

A semi-permanent strain in writing about the war, particularly modern-day writing about the war, is the question of how much people knew about the Holocaust and German/Russian atrocities at any given time. Despite the evident presence of Nazi apologism in the UK during the 1940s, it’s obvious that Lindgren is pretty well aware of what’s going on. This is probably at least in part to do with her work at the official government censor’s office: she has access to letters that demonstrate, first-hand, just how bad the situation is in the rest of Europe. Her growing awareness is painful; here’s a snippet from 1941:

A profoundly sad Jewish letter, a document of its time, crossed my desk today. A Jew who had recently arrived here in Sweden sent a fellow Jew in Finland an account of the transporting of Jews from Vienna to Poland. …Some sort of instruction arrives by post and the individual concerned has to leave home. …Conditions on the days leading up to transportation, during the journey and on arrival in Poland were such that the letter-writer didn’t want to describe them. …It is apparently Hitler’s intention to make Poland into one big ghetto where the poor Jews are to perish.

One big ghetto, or one big concentration camp. And here is a section from early 1943:

I wonder what the German people really think and feel, faced with the ‘blessings’ of National Socialism. A deadly war killing the flower of youth; the hatred and loathing of virtually all other nations; horrific assaults on defenceless people; torture both mental and physical of the populations of occupied countries; the informer system; the demolition of family life; ‘euthanasia’ for the incurably ill and mentally deficient; the reduction of love to a matter of basic procreation; and—unless all the signs are deceptive—total breakdown of the German people in the not-too-distant future. It’s simply impossible for many Germans not to have realized how royally duped they’ve been by their Führer.

The euthanasia bit is particularly striking; I wasn’t aware that many people outside of the Nazi regime knew about that at the time, particularly not as it related to the murder of differently-abled people and homosexuals. It’s a clear-eyed and condemnatory paragraph, making it even more horrifying to think about the widespread defense of eugenics in Allied countries.

It all seems so terribly relevant to 2016 in many ways. Here’s Lindgren celebrating a Churchill speech:

So different from a Hitler speech! You’d think everyone would realize that only a man with some kind of mental defect could stand up and make speeches like Hitler.

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ANYWAY.

And this, too, rings true, especially when she writes about the tens of thousands of Finnish, Danish and Norwegian refugees pouring into Sweden, and the anti-Semitism that sometimes greets them:

Recently I’ve been reading in Grimberg’s history of the world about ancient Rome and all the bloodbaths and atrocities, proscriptions and wars of conquest. Reading the papers and coming across the same geographical  names, one simply despairs at how little humanity has learnt in the intervening centuries.

So this is, after all, a useful and interesting addition to the panoply of World War literature published in the West. I only have two complaints about the editing of this particular edition. The first is that Lindgren’s diaries included a lot of press cuttings, newspaper articles, cartoons and the like. In this volume, these are not reproduced; instead, we get italicised précises of their contents. For instance: “Press cuttings. One undated and unidentified: ‘The Allied message to the people of Italy’. Roosevelt and Churchill appeal to them to surrender. …Dagens Nyheter, same day: After the bombing of Rome, petrol is free and loaded vehicles stream out of the city.” It’s not clear why these aren’t simply translated from Swedish like the rest of the book; maybe Pushkin thought that would make the whole thing too long, but at 218 pages it wouldn’t be damaged by a little more bulk, and might help to give the reader a better sense of the timelines of the war on various fronts. The other option would have been to reproduce the articles as facsimiles, though I suppose even in black and white this might have been considered prohibitively expensive.

The other issue, which is more confusing for the general reader, is the lack of footnotes. Lindgren writes about her family without explaining background, which is natural in a personal diary, but when personal diaries are published, explanatory notes are usually included. There are at least two instances where this would have been helpful: at one point she mentions her son’s 17th birthday, then writes of her 13th wedding anniversary a few pages later. This seemed unusually liberal, even for Sweden, in the 1940s, so I had to check out Wikipedia (where I discovered that Lindgren was rather a minx: Lars was fathered by her employer when she was nineteen. She refused to marry the man, and instead married another employer, Sture Lindgren, who was eleven years her senior, in 1931.) A brief footnote would have taken five minutes to write and saved the confusion. Likewise, in 1944 she drops several cryptic hints about having “lost everything”; her marriage seems to be going through a rough patch. The two likeliest explanations, to me, are a miscarriage, or Sture’s infidelity, but again, no note, and this time Wikipedia is no help: they never divorced, and no mention is made of relationship troubles. It’s possible that Pushkin thought Lindgren’s marriage woes simply weren’t relevant to the war, which is what the diaries are mostly about—but they were clearly important enough for her to mention in the diaries in the first place, so I think a reader is owed a little bit of explanation.

Those two niggles aside, this is a wonderful and, in places, heart-rending account of World War II, from a perspective not usually prioritised in historical retellings. Neutrality gives Lindgren an unusual objectivity, while Sweden’s geographical position means her account retains a sense of real urgency and investment in the war’s outcome. (Also, it’s delightful to catch her little asides about the invention of Pippi Longstocking!) Definitely one to look out for, especially as this year of global madness winds down.

Many thanks to Mollie Stewart at Pushkin Press for the review copy. A World Gone Mad was published in the UK on 27 October.

6 Degrees of Separation: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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This is the first time I’ve played this game; it’s like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here. Technically this is a very late post (the meme is for the first Saturday of each month, and the November one will be coming up soon), but whatever.

We start with

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a little boy whose father dies in the 9/11 attacks, and who embarks on an epic quest to find the lock that matches a mysterious key his father owned. It’s one of the first adult novels I read that included pictures, photographs, drawings, etc. as part of the book.
  2. Another book that does that is the one I’m reading now, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Its main character, Zhuang (or Z.), shows us snippets of her lover’s handwriting, confusing signage on London shopfronts, and her own tentative scribbles.
  3. As a Chinese woman navigating a Western society that seems, frankly, weird and illogical most of the time, Z. reminds me of Zou Lei, the heroine of Atticus Lish’s frighteningly good novel about the repercussions of the Iraq War, which is also a love letter to New York City: Preparation for the Next Life.
  4. Lish’s book contains a rape scene that disturbed me so badly I had to put the book down (temporarily). Another book that’s beautifully written and deals with sexual assault head-on is Sara Taylor’s Baileys-longlisted The Shore. (This one made me cry in public.)
  5. The Shore is set in rural Virginia and composed of a bunch of interlinked short stories. Donald Ray Pollock’s incredible Knockemstiff lays bare the gritty and intensely depressing lives of rural Ohio’s poverty-stricken and painkiller-addicted, and it too is composed of interlinked short stories.
  6. I first saw one of Donald Ray Pollock’s books on the coffee table of a guy I was seeing. Another book I first encountered through a date was, well, the collected works of Terry Pratchett, but we’ll go with Guards! Guards!, the first in the City Watch series. What a wonderful discovery.

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From New York City to Discworld—not bad, but I’m sure I could do better…

A Book Haul!

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I don’t often post book hauls because, well, I don’t know. Because it feels vaguely masturbatory? Because they’re nice to look at, sure, but the point is to read them? Because I get the vast majority of my books through publishers or through other people’s kindness, instead of through shopping sprees? Possibly some part of all the above. There are some habits that die hard, though, one of which is the inclination to read around the subject with which I was inoculated just before university. Starting work in a new industry sent me scurrying instantly for research reading. Amazingly, I found a lot of food/cooking/hospitality memoirs for about a penny each secondhand, plus two others which are relevant to that recent talk at the Southbank Centre…

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Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. I read this years ago, during high school, when I worked at New Dominion Bookshop in my hometown. It’s an account of the disguises—wigs, wardrobe, makeup and all—that Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, adopted when visiting restaurants in order not to be given “special treatment”. She finds that her different characters have different personalities, too, but the psychological insights (although pretty good) aren’t my favourite part. That would be the reviews: Reichl dissects pretension and hypocrisy with verve, and hands out approving write-ups to small, unfashionable restaurants where the chefs are passionate about their craft. I wish every food critic was like her.

Waiter Rant. This, too, came into my life via the food memoir shelves at New Dominion. I remember very little of it, except for the way it casts a blinding, sarcastic light upon the business of waiting tables. Since that is now my occupation, it seemed due a reread.

Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton. I know nothing about this, except that it is apparently the best memoir by a chef ever written. Since chefs are, to me, mostly enigmatic and mercurial beasts, reading this is probably, at least on a practical level, a wise move. (Also, no doubt, Kitchen Confidential, but we’ll save that for later.)

Heads in Beds, by Jacob Tomsky. Like Waiter Rant, but for hotels. The relevance of this is that, before getting the pub job, I signed up with an agency that provides contracted workers to hotels for both front-and back-of-house work. The training day, plus a couple of episodes of Hotel Babylon, made the whole hospitality enterprise feel a bit like The West Wing, only less morally defensible.

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UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo. This was the book that Guo talked about most during the Southbank Centre event. She wanted to write it in English, but, because her English was limited, she chose to write the whole thing as a police interview transcript: no flowery language, no poetic turns, just terse narrative prose. It’s about a woman in rural southern China who becomes convinced she’s seen a UFO outside the village, but there’s a whole kettle of political allegory just under the surface.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo. Maybe Guo’s best-known work in the UK; it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, back when Orange was still the sponsor. It follows a young Chinese immigrant to Britain and her love affair—start to inevitable end—with an English man. I’ve read the first few pages and I’m already in; the English of the narrator is so perfectly broken, it’s like you can hear her in your head.

Anyone read any of these, want to offer advice on where to start, or know any other food memoirs/Chinese sci-fi I should check out?

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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The menu at the White Bear, Kennington. If you’re going to be in South London, come say hi!

Several days late. Sorry!

  1. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written anything here, which is mostly because of training for my new job at the gastropub round the corner. We opened to the public on Wednesday, and I’ve been working floor every night since (except for tonight). So far I’ve spilled two and a half pints, but I’ve also acquired a nickname from the chefs (“Dave”, for reasons unknown), so I guess it’s going pretty well. It’s especially interesting to be on the receiving end of the British attitude towards tips. (In a nutshell: almost no one tips, although we’ve had a few very generous tables.)
  2. Tana French is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for aaaages, and it all came to a head last week when Ella Risbridger noted on Twitter that her back catalogue was 99p per book on Kindle, as a promotion for her newest release. I bought all five of the Dublin Murder Squad books and have been absolutely ADORING them. The first two (In the Woods and The Vanishing) are, I think, better than the third (Faithful Place) and maybe the fourth, which I’m halfway through now (The Secret Place), but they’re all amazing. French’s prose is stunning—literary, descriptive and elegant—and her plotting is phenomenal. I especially love her analytical approach to characterisation; Ella’s description of her as “like Donna Tartt without the pretentiousness” is spot-on.
  3. My own novel is nearly to 50,000 words. I’m so close to finishing section two that I can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll have to go back to sections one and three, after that, but it’ll be amazing to have a whole chunk of the first draft finished.
  4. Speaking of my novel: I’ve created a website for it! There’ll be periodic updates there as well as playlists, blog posts about the writing process, sneak previews, etc. If you’re at all interested in this thing I’ve spent the past few months coyly mentioning, head over there and check it out.
  5. The London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre today hosted a panel on Chinese sci-fi, entitled “Living in Future Times”. The two authors featured were Cixin Liu, whose The Three-Body Problem won this year’s Hugo Award, and Xiaolu Guo, author of Baileys-longlisted I Am China and A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, as well as of the book-turned-film UFO In Her Eyes. Liu is a very big-picture kind of guy, full of thoughtful assertions about the potential of science fiction to bring people together across races, nations and creeds. Guo is fiery and deeply intelligent, a tri-lingual trained filmmaker whose take on sci-fi (and literature in general) is distinctly, though discreetly, feminist. It was a hugely enjoyable talk, and I’m definitely going to buy both Liu’s trilogy (of which The Three-Body Problem is the first volume) and Guo’s books.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous: go check out the other posts!

September Superlatives

September! A thoroughly mixed bag: meteorologically, professionally, literarily. I finished ten books, which is okay, and felt good about eight of them, which is also okay. The air has been getting steadily less warm, although today was the first day I actually felt cold outside. I’ve taken a part-time job in a gastropub round the corner from our flat, which is exciting—they’re giving us training! I’m learning to pull pints and carry three plates at once!—but also, of course, intimidating, and forcing me to rethink myself in a way that will hopefully be healthy (did I ever expect to be working in a pub at this stage of my life? I did not.) The book is coming along steadily; I’m handwriting some of it, which is going better than I thought it would. Roll on October!

least my thing: Unsurprisingly, this accolade goes to Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymously published English translation of a book originally released in Amsterdam in 2006. The foul misogyny I was expecting was mostly replaced by narcissism and alcoholism, so although it could have been much worse, it was still a bit of a chore.

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most delightful: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel about a maiden aunt whose eventual move to the countryside to start her own life is the catalyst for a pact with the devil. I like how gradually the plot moves; we get to know Laura, or “Aunt Lolly”, so well that when the devil eventually does come a-calling (surprisingly late in the book), we care all the more about her happiness.

most evocative: Deborah Levy’s incredible novel Hot Milk, which makes heavy use of symbolism and allegory but which also says “summer” in a way few other novels I’ve read this summer actually have. Set in desert-like Almería, Spain, it deals with hypochondria, sexuality, mothers and daughters, and responsibility. I liked its bizarre unpredictability, loved its woozy prose. I’d be happy if it won the Booker Prize.

most surprisingly enjoyable: I hadn’t expected to dislike Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I’d expected to find the politics much more obviously unpalatable. Instead, I found right-wing military philosophy that struck me as more juvenile than malevolent. I think I still prefer the film, mostly for reasons of pacing; the book drags a little.

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warm bath book: Defined either as “one you could read in the bath” or “one that functions like a warm bath”. In this case—Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event—both are true. It’s a novel based on the real events that happened in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s, where three planes crashed en route to Newark airport in the space of three months. There’s plenty of domestic drama too, and although Blume’s prose is occasionally ungainly, it’s ultimately a lovely, life-affirming read that doesn’t shy away from tackling huge questions.

best romp: Obviously, Love and Freindship [sic], a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia. It’s so rewarding to see how she developed from her very earliest writings to the work she was producing in her late teens: sharp and witty from the beginning, but the wit gets ever more pointed as she goes on. Lady Susan is a miniature masterpiece. It’s the early stuff, though, like The Beautifull Cassandra and Frederic and Elfrida, that makes me giggle: heroines get rat-arsed on port wine and steal bonnets, men are so useless that they forget who they’re married to. It’s great.

most illuminating: iO Tillett Wright’s memoir, Darling Days, about growing up semi-feral on the Lower East Side. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had a difficult family life; who’s experienced parental alcohol or drug abuse, who’s grown up “alternative” or who’s been through the juvenile courts system, you need to read this book. It will tell you everything you need to know about the effect it has on a kid, and it will also show you that it is possible for kids to survive and thrive into adulthood even under the craziest of circumstances.

most aptly timed: Not Working, by Lisa Owens, for obvious reasons. Seriously, though, this is a fantastic novel. I was braced for something a bit brittle, a bit vapid or over-privileged. Instead, the sadness, the humour, and the bravado of this book absolutely knocked me out. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing; I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Lisa Owens’s future work.

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most disturbing: Angela Carter is always going to win “most disturbing”, isn’t she? Not necessarily bad disturbing, just…disturbing. You know. Anyway, I read The Magic Toyshop this month, which apes the traditions of Victorian novels (beautiful young orphaned heroine, big bad uncle, mysterious cousin, etc.) and produces, out of material that we think we know, a wholly strange concoction. This book has got atmosphere by the bucket-load; you feel so grounded in its reality, reading it, and yet simultaneously enchanted. My favourite Carter to date, I think.

most disappointing: I hate to say this, but: Michael Hughes’s The Countenance Divine. I was expecting, if not quite Neal Stephenson, at least Stephenson-adjacent, and you can’t really blame me: the plot summary is that, in 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666). Sounds phenomenal, no? And yet. The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.

up next: I’m currently reading Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer who’s been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with absolute justice. When I finish it, I’ll review The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, coming out from Granta this week.