Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay

She was smart enough to want more but tired enough to accept the way things were.

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Someone on Goodreads wrote that this book could be equally well titled “Sad Women Having Sex.” They’re not wrong. They don’t mean it in a pejorative way, though, which is good because Gay’s stories shouldn’t be patronised or belittled just because they are, in fact, about sad women having sex. Plenty of critics, I think, have been taught that women, let alone sad women, let alone sad women fucking, aren’t serious subjects. One of the great significances of Gay as a writer is how she affirms that they are.

In Difficult Women, she circles the same thematic territory over and over again. Many of these stories feature sexual abuse, rape or molestation. Many of these protagonists conceive a child and lose it, through miscarriage or tragic accidents. Many of them work through their damage by demanding to be hurt: rough sex, verbal abuse, slapping, choking. Several of them are set in Michigan; one of my favourites, “How”, is about a woman of Finnish descent, Hanna, who finally shucks off the thankless life she has lived in the service of her parents and husband, in favour of escape with her sister and her female lover. Another, “North Country”, follows a light-skinned black academic as she moves to a Northern town, fields constant queries about where she’s from Detroit (why else, her white neighbours assume, would a black person be in Michigan?), and lets go of her protective carapace enough to fall in love with a woodsy guy called Magnus.

Those stories have happy endings, more or less, endings where people meet their trauma on their own terms and force it into a shape they can handle. There are other stories, like the first one, “I Will Follow You”, where a happy ending is contingent and constantly marked by the shadow of the past. The narrator here follows her older sister, Carolina, to Nevada, where Carolina’s husband Darryl works. Slowly, the secret of their past is revealed: the younger sister was kidnapped as a child by a paedophile known to them only as Mr. Peter. Carolina, instead of running for help, jumped into Mr. Peter’s van just before the door closed—”I couldn’t leave my sister alone,” she says when asked why she did this. The narrator recalls the settlement they were awarded by a jury, after Mr. Peter released them and was arrested:

The jury awarded us a lot of money, so much money we would never have to work or want. For a long time, we refused to spend it. Every night, I went online and checked my account balances and thought, This is what my life was worth.

The worth of women is another recurring theme in this collection, often intertwined with race and class. “La Negra Blanca” is a story about Sarah, who strips to pay her way through college and who goes by “Sierra” while she’s working. She’s mixed-race but has white features and straight Caucasian hair. One of her regular clients is a man named William Livingston III, a white guy from a Southern family for whom blood purity is an unshakable tenet of the universe, but who also has a fetishising obsession with street culture, African-American music, and black women’s bodies. It is not the subtlest story I’ve ever read, although there is something convincingly, pathologically pathetic about Livingston’s secret forays into the hood aesthetic:

When he’s not watching his housekeeper, William listens to his music and repeats the lyrics about skeeting and Beckys and backing that ass up and living the gangasta life. His office has a small closet where he keeps urban clothing he sends his assistant to West Baltimore to purchase—Sean John jeans and Phat Farm hoodies and Timberland boots. His understanding of what the kids are wearing is dated. Sometimes he poses in front of the full-length mirror, grabbing a handful of denim-clad crotch, and sets his chin to the side and tries to recreate gang signs with his fingers.

It’s not the kind of behaviour I can even remotely imagine someone in Livingston’s position actually engaging in, but the story works if you view him, not as an individual, but as an embodiment of the way black culture gets turned into something that Western companies can use to make a quick buck. Isn’t Livingston just a logical extension of the way white people have stolen black people’s words, stories, hair, clothes? (See: Bo Derek’s dreadlocks; Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) He happens, also, to be a literal rapist. When he finds out that Sarah/Sierra is actually half-black, he is consumed not with guilt but with horror: “He has done something generations of Livingstons have had the discipline to avoid.” The truth is that they probably haven’t: the supposed purity of white Southern women has always rested on the fact that their men have been able to satisfy themselves on the bodies of black women. Livingston may think his father “looked but didn’t touch”, but that’s naive.

“A Pat” is a very short story, only two pages long, but it’s one of the subtlest in the collection: the narrator sees a man eating a burrito alone in a fast food restaurant. She sits down across from him, keeps him company, invites him back to her house “for a proper meal”. She cooks for him and he eats her dinner and they have sex and then he leaves. The narrator remembers her mother’s advice from her first day of school:

“You make friends with the ugliest kids in your class and you make friends with the loneliest kids in your class, the ones off by themselves. They will be the best friends you’ve ever had and they’ll make you feel better about yourself.” With a pat on the head, she pushed me.

It’s so short and it works so hard, this paragraph: the way it shows you that kindness can be pity can be mercy; the way that generosity can be selfish; the way that, somehow, it doesn’t matter what it is.

There are a lot of stories in this collection—twenty-one—and some of them are better than others, more purposeful or more interesting or with more varied sentence structure. (This has been, for me, a semi-permanent stumbling block with Gay’s style: when she’s writing straightforward, linear, present-tense prose, it’s often not very interesting on the sentence level; the effect is more cumulative and thematic, and sometimes I don’t have the patience.) But let’s be honest: you’re probably going to read Difficult Women anyway, because it’s Roxane goddamn Gay and no one wants to miss one of her books. This is worth reading not just to keep up with the zeitgeist, but because it contains stories and endings like “A Pat” and “How” and “North Country” and “I Am A Knife” and “Break All the Way Down”, stories that approach pain and sex and humanity from many different angles, stories that are considered and honest and, in the most important sense, true.

Many thanks to Susan de Soissons and the team at Corsair Books for the review copy. Difficult Women is released in the UK on 3 January.

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson

The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety.

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Further to my plan to read everything Neal Stephenson has ever written, the Chaos, who is a good sort, bought me The Diamond Age for Christmas. Like all of Stephenson’s books I’ve read so far, I found it thoroughly addictive, so much so that I blasted through it in under two days. As I go further into his back catalogue, though, and approach his plots with a slightly more critical eye, I’m also discovering that his earlier work tends to suffer from structural weakness. He gets away with it because his invention is explosive and boundless and entirely seductive; the reader is swept up in a world they don’t want to leave, and so the fact that the whole narrative is curiously lopsided doesn’t matter. But it’ll leave the book vulnerable on rereading.

The Diamond Age is set in a near-future made possible by huge leaps in nanotechnological development. Nation-states are obsolete; people now select their own tribe (or join a “phyle”, a slightly less centralised version thereof). Some of them are familiar: the Jews, the Parsis, the Zulus. Some of them are less so: most of England has become neo-Victorian, while America includes a tribe known as the Heartlanders and China is divided into the Celestial Kingdom and the Coastal Republic. Body modification is most commonly practiced through the use of “sites”, nanobots introduced into the bloodstream that can enhance reflexes, incite pain or pleasure, interface with other objects like spectacles or external weaponry, and much more.

Our heroine is little Nell, a “thete” girl who belongs to no particular tribe and into whose hands falls a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is an interactive (or “ractive”) book, programmed with both fairytales and useful instruction, that changes and adapts according to Nell’s responses. It has been designed by John Percival Hackworth, a programmer or “artifex” of great skill, and commissioned by the neo-Victorian Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw. Lord Finkle-McGraw has worked out the fundamental problem with choosing your own tribe: your children will grow up in a society that seems “natural” to them because it is familiar, and will stay in it out of habit, not out of choice. Finkle-McGraw believes, of course, that to be neo-Victorian is the best choice, but he wants his little granddaughter Elizabeth to be raised and educated in such a way that she has the skills and knowledge, eventually, to make that choice. Hackworth is only too happy to build such an education in the form of the Primer, but he makes an illegal copy for his daughter Fiona. And another copy is stolen by Nell’s ne’er-do-well brother, Harv, and finds its way to her…

Add to this heady mix some subplots involving Confucian justice as administered by an inscrutable judge named Fang, a rebellion being led by the Fists of Righteous Harmony and puppeteered by the mysterious Doctor X, and the ractress Miranda Redpath, who, as the voice of Nell’s copy of the Primer, develops a close relationship with this little girl she has never met, and you have some downright addictive stuff. Stephenson’s trademark dry wit is here (I imagine his prose is talking to me with one of its eyebrows lightly arched at all times), as is his entirely unashamed approach to cliffhangers and to proliferating narrative streams. It all makes it very hard to put the book down.

Eventually this becomes a bit of a problem because it also poses a challenge to anyone trying to make the book cohere in their head. About halfway through—roughly, I would say, at the point at which Nell joins Madame Ping’s, though actually I think it starts happening when Hackworth emerges from his ten-year sentence in the realm of the Drummers—the focus of the story shifts from the personal to the political. Technically, I suppose, you could argue that the story has always been political—that the whole thing has been catalysed by Finkle-McGraw’s bid to mass-inculcate subversiveness in the young—but our focus up until now has been on individuals, in whom we have become invested. To see them so suddenly yanked out of one context and thrust into another, and then the battle scenes that follow, is disorienting in the extreme. And, I’m sorry, but I am not satisfied with the ending. It doesn’t need much, maybe another five pages, but I would really have liked those five extra pages.

The star of this book, though, is definitely the Primer. What a wonderful invention; what a beautiful piece of symbolism, using and enriching the trope of a lost child finding solace in books. The Primer isn’t just something you read. It talks back to you; it uses the events of your life as a springboard for the lessons you need to learn; it can zoom in and out on images and stories, showing you both fine detail and the big picture. It contains blueprints, manuals, tales, keys, maps. Had I read The Diamond Age fifteen years ago, I’d have pined away for a Primer of my own. If you love books, you’ll probably love this one just for the way it literalises and takes seriously the deep truth that readers know: a book really can be your best friend.

The Diamond Age is published by Penguin Books.

2016’s Dishonourable Mentions

I was really lucky with my reading this year. Maybe it’s because as I get older, I have a better sense of what I’m going to like; maybe it’s the opposite and I’m just developing the ability to appreciate a wider range of writing. Whatever the reason, most of the books I read this year were not just good but really good, worth rereading at the very least—even the ones that didn’t make my Best Of Year list. But…no year is perfect. Here are the few books that just completely misfired for me in 2016. (This is all, of course, highly personal and subjective. What didn’t work for me may work brilliantly for you! And vice versa. I’ll still try to explain, succinctly, why I felt these books faltered, but don’t feel you need to take my word for it. All links are to my reviews, if you want to read more.)

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The Expatriates, by Janice Lee

What’s it about? The intertwined lives of three women living in Hong Kong: Hilary Starr, the childless stay-at-home-wife of an expat lawyer; Margaret Reade, whose youngest child went missing last year; and Mercy Cho, the childminder who was meant to be looking after the lost boy at the time of his disappearance.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.”

9780804141321Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

What’s it about? It’s the second entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which novelises and updates some of the Bard’s most famous plays. Jacobson resets The Merchant of Venice in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, throwing celebrity footballers into the mix.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though [the characters] Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.”

ten daysTen Days, by Gillian Slovo

What’s it about? The development of riots over the course of ten days in south London, as a result of a death in police custody. There are some clear parallels to the Tottenham riots of 2011.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The problem may be that I’ve seen all of this before, and not too long ago at that, and done with greater flair: in House of Cards, obviously, but also in The Politician’s Husband. (I hope other people remember that show. It starred David Tennant and Emily Watson, and aired in 2013. It was fucking devastating.) It’s suggestive, I think, that both of those instances are television shows. I suspect that this is material we don’t actually expect to read anymore; political machinations and back-room deals are the domain of the small screen now, and a good actor can raise a thinly written politician stereotype to a higher level, whereas a novel…well, a novel has to rely on its writing. The writing is all that a novel has.”

9781408862445The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

What’s it about? A down-on-her-luck woman working as a private chef finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone from a Saudi sheik to a shady art dealer decides they want it.

Why didn’t it work? From my Superlatives post: “It’s a sweet idea but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like ‘I will’ or ‘You do not”, instead of ‘I’ll’ or ‘You don’t’. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last.”

51n8dqdd2wlRaw Spirit, by Iain Banks

What’s it about? Banks, a famous science fiction writer but also a well-known lover of whisky, takes a road trip with several of his old drinking buddies to visit, and sample the wares of, every single-malt distillery in Scotland.

Why didn’t it work? From my #20booksofsummer roundup: “This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. …There were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger.”

9781784630485The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

What’s it about? Timothy buys an abandoned fishing cottage in a tiny Cornish village and sets out to restore it, temporarily leaving his wife behind in London. But the village has its own secrets: the fate of the man who lived in the cottage before Timothy, the bizarrely etiolated fish being pulled from the sea, the identity of the mysterious grey-coated woman who buys every catch…

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves. It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!”

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

What’s it about? The supposedly non-fictional (but, thank heavens, clearly actually fictional) account of an alcoholic Irishman who, after years of recreational cruelty to women, gets a taste of his own medicine.

Why didn’t it work? A lot of reasons, but this, from my review, might give you a clue: “The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to.”

51fxpzhkbwlThe Countenance Divine, by Michael Hughes

What’s it about? In 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of British millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666).

Why didn’t it work? From my monthly Superlatives post: “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.”

9781784630850The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

What’s it about? A debut collection of fantastical short stories focusing on transformation, metamorphosis, and literal and figurative identity.

Why didn’t it work? From my review: “I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all. …The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.”

Did you read any of these this year? What did you think of them? Am I a lunatic fool for missing the point of The Many? Am I a horrid killjoy for wanting to roll my eyes on every page of The Improbability of Love? Let me know…

A Year In Reading: 2016

Winter

I started a new job six weeks before Christmas 2015, so the beginning of 2016 was mostly a haze of attempting to reorient myself professionally. I had requested a truly enormous pile of review copies, and spent most of January bashing through them, alternating them with 978-0-385-53807-7TBR books. Some of the year’s best books were found this way, including Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, which should have received more attention: the story of a young single mother and waitress in Dallas, Texas whose experiments with drugs and no-strings sex are really elaborate forms of self-harm. Beautifully written and devastating. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, my Christmas presents from the Chaos, paved the way for more contemporary sci-fi this year. I especially loved Leckie’s use of the universal female pronoun, and the way she casually inverts standard tropes (a sexy bombshell character, who’s also a shrewd politician, is repeatedly described as being large, plump, etc., and the ruler of the known universe is, one realises late in the day, a black woman.)

Visiting a friend of the Chaos’s in rural France in February, we retrieved a couple of books he’d borrowed: the first two volumes of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. I read all three volumes this year, but the first, Quicksilver, is my favourite because it requires marginally less intimate knowledge of early modern international finance than the other two. They are all excellent books, witty like Terry Pratchett, smart like no other writer I know, circumscribing the globe and many decades. Characters like Gottfried Leibniz and Sophie, electress of Hanover, cross paths with Eliza, formerly a harem slave in Constantinople who rises to become Duchess of Arcachon and major stockbroker for the French crown; Jack, a vagabond and anti-hero par excellence; and Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher and a Puritan malgré lui.

In a totally different way, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life was an equally 28238711wonderful reading experience; it is, I think, the best “9/11” novel I’ve ever read, engaging with the aftermath of deployment in Afghanistan and the diversity of New York City and the fact that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t win. It’s disturbing and  heart-breaking and every word, every detail, tastes real. I’m still thinking about it all these months later. I also loved Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, a memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis that also encompasses expatriation, marriage, music, and bereavement after her mother’s death. It was one of those rare books that seems to strike a chord because the author’s experiences and interests are so like my own.

Spring

Four of the best books I read this year, I read in April. What was going on in that month?! I can barely remember, but I do know I started singing again the month before that. Good spring all around, really.

Those great books were: Daughters of the North (or, in the UK, The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall, whose novel The Wolf Border was my book of the year in 2015. In this novel she posits a UK where the population is controlled by forcibly implanting contraceptive devices into women; her heroine runs away from the Cumbrian border town of Penrith to join a militant women’s collective in the hills. In its exploration of the limits of what we’re willing to subject ourselves, or others, to, it’s positively incendiary. Foreign Soil is the debut story collection from Australian writer Maxine Beneba Clarke, and I just bloody 9780733632426loved it. Every story is like a tiny novel, an ivory miniature to rival the perfect miniaturism of Austen. She writes about refugees and immigrants and minorities and foreigners and makes you feel that her characters are your aunts and uncles, brothers and cousins, sisters and friends. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers was longlisted for the Baileys Prize and should have been on the shortlist (I can think of at least two worse books that did make it to the shortlist). Like Leckie’s trilogy, it’s part of a new breed of sci fi that celebrates diversity, tolerance, respect, and friendship, and I really like it for that. It doesn’t avoid big issues—the possibility of enfranchisement, or rather embodiment, for artificial intelligence is one of the novel’s major foci—and it isn’t preachy but 61oilfbarml-_sy344_bo1204203200_simply, boundingly joyful. Kizzy and Jenks, spaceship mechanics, have a particularly great relationship. Finally, Lisa McInerney won the prize itself with her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, and oh my was it ever deserved. Heresies is a great book, outlining in detail a whole swathe of Cork City’s underbelly with the blackest of humour, an ear for dialogue that never fails, and just the right touch of poignancy. I wanted a sequel.

Summer

Every year has a crazy season, doesn’t it. This year it was the summer. I left my job. I decided to actually write the novel I had been trying to pretend wasn’t in my head for the past two years. I discovered that actually, I would really really like to write novels for a living. We went on holiday to Cornwall, where it was very windy and I complained about walking up hills and the Chaos tried to stop me from buying a pasty for every meal. Lots of books were read.

Of these, not many actually stick in the memory. I was trying to complete Cathy‘s #20booksofsummer challenge and, although it’s a great idea, I fear my picks were basically good books but not, you know, outrageously awesome. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee was a huge beast of a book about Belle Epoque France and nineteenth-the-north-watercentury opera that I absolutely adored; it has its flaws, but I was definitely the right reader for this. Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, which I got to a year late, was as amazing as everyone said: her stories about laundromats and alcoholics and runaways and emergency rooms are never pessimistic or downbeat, though often bittersweet. Ian McGuire’s novel of whaling and pure human evil, The North Water, sticks in my head, though its level of violence made me feel sick at least once. It is, nevertheless, not a book that will leave you easily.

In Cornwall, I finished Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which are wonderful. My favourite, I think, is probably Marking Time or Confusion, but to be honest with you,51fme2b2br0rl-_sx323_bo1204203200_ they do all run together. That’s sort of the point; they are a literary box set. For all that they’re thinly veiled autobiography, they are also astonishingly delicate and ahead of their time, for the ways in which they handle child sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, post-partum depression, and the realities of a bad marriage. The way the story flips back and forth between the cousins, the way they develop and grow as characters, is utterly charming and addictive: pretty, vain Louise; sensitive Polly; passionate Clary; dashing Teddy; increasingly horrible little Neville. They feel like family.

Autumn

Writing novels is not necessarily lucrative. I’ve been financing the writing of mine by working as a waitress since late September, and that work has framed my season. While in 51vbtiu7keltraining, I discovered the novels of Tana French going for 99p each on Kindle, and snapped them up. (They were easy to read on my phone, during breaks in training. I maaayyy, in a minor way, be less violently opposed to the Kindle app now.) In the Woods and The Likeness, the first two, are perhaps the best: in the former, Detective Rob Ryan must catch a murderer in his hometown of Knocknaree, where two of his childhood friends went missing, presumed dead, in the woods. In the latter, Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover to find out who stabbed a University College Dublin postgraduate. They’re not your run-of-the-mill thrillers: French writes detailed, precise, electric prose, and her understanding of human psychology is second to none. I’m a true convert to her work now.

I also adored Lisa Owens’s Not Working, a sweetly sad novel about graduate unemployment 9781509806546not20workingwhich, let’s not dissemble, struck pretty close to home. It should go on the same shelf as Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, for consultation in the year 2216 by academics interested in artistic representations of the repercussions of global fuckuppery and malaise in the early twenty-first century. Treasure Palaces, edited by Maggie Fergusson, is a glorious compendium of essays by well-known authors on their favourite museums. Don Paterson’s piece on the Frick Collection is simultaneously reverent and ripe with detail; it makes me want to go straight there. So does Frank Cottrell Boyce’s on the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, and Aminatta Forna’s on the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. C.E. Morgan’s magisterial The Sport of Kings is, like The Queen of the Night, an enormous and flawed beast: for some, Morgan’s use of four words where one would do isn’t worth it. For me, it absolutely is; her exuberance is tempered by the fact that she does know how to write, and by her huge ambition in taking on subjects like race, racism and heredity in a Southern American setting. It feels a bit like a Faulkner novel had a threesome with Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule and Dickens’s Bleak House.

Finally, coming up to Christmas I’ve had some absolutely cracking reads, as I try to push 97818470891371through the books outstanding on my TBR before the New Year. Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children is a hell of a book, dealing with trust, responsibility, emotional abuse, mental health and cultural disorientation, all in a nineteenth-century Cornish and Japanese setting. I’m now planning to read Moss’s entire back catalogue. And the two books most recently reviewed here—Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich and Golden Hill by Francis Spufford—couldn’t be more different, but couldn’t be more brilliant in their own ways: one a painfully beautiful literary documentary of life for the citizens of rural Ukraine and Belarus in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the other a glorious, voluptuous romp in eighteenth-century New York with writing that rings true as a bell. Both are unforgettable.

These books are my personal best-of 2016 list. I can’t rank them—the good ones this year were so good, and so diverse, that it feels like comparing apples with oysters—but I feel I’ve raved more about The Queen of the Night this year than any other book. Though I’ve also shouted a lot about Love Me Back. And In the Woods. And Love Like Salt. And the Baroque Trilogy. And, now, Golden Hill. …No, ranking is impossible.

Coming soon: 2016’s few (but spectacular!) bookish misfires…

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

By morning, the news was all around town that a stranger had arrived with a fortune in his pocket.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

I am not at all sure that I have read a more purely enjoyable book this year than Golden Hill. It ticks many of my personal-preference boxes: set in the eighteenth century (New York City, 1746), exploring finance and trade and the intersection of the political with the personal. I was hoping that it would be a bit like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. And in many ways, there were similarities, but Spufford is doing something with the material that is totally his own, and with such confidence in his plot and such exuberant yet finely controlled language that I smiled more times than I could count. One of 2016’s most unalloyed reading highlights; I keep trying to think of reasons to dislike it, and am unable to come up with any.

Further to journaling, here is some elaboration on the reasons that I did like it:

  • Its echoes of David Simple/Tom Jones/Roderick Random (eighteenth-century English picaresque novels) are entirely intentional. David Simple in particular is referred to repeatedly, explicitly, throughout the text; I like that Spufford has done his homework. I also like how good-humoured he is about these novels, and about novels in general, often in quite a meta way. For instance: his protagonist is Richard Smith, who appears in New York with an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket. Smith falls in love with his banker’s prickly eldest daughter Tabitha. At a dinner one night, Tabitha’s sister Flora, who loves novels, asks Smith to pass her his copy of David Simple. He hands it to Tabitha to pass down the table. Mistake: Tabitha is a self-professed hater of novels (though she is by far the brightest woman Smith meets). She hurls it down the table in disgust, where it lands in a soup bowl and is fished out by another dinner guest.
  • It is intensely atmospheric; more specifically, it evokes in great detail just how provincial colonial New York was. In 1746 there was still a strong Dutch presence there; Richard meets the influential Van Loons, and a powerful judge drives in to town from “his farm in the Bouwerij” (the Bowery). There are just enough surprising touches like that—moments where Spufford’s use of the old name for a place meets my awareness of our contemporary name for the same place—to make the setting seem both utterly familiar and utterly alien, and yet it never becomes an end in itself, it never yanks you out of the story. I spent several pages eagerly following Smith’s progress up a semi-rural road referred to as the Broad Way. It took me quite a long time to work out that this was, of course, what the famous Broadway had been in 1746.
  • Language and syntax are just antiquated enough to be interesting and believable, without being actual pastiche. Through various plot twists (again paralleling the picaresque tendencies of eighteenth-century novels), Smith is imprisoned; his letter to his father is both painfully poignant to read, and a sheer delight because of how perfectly it adheres to the style of the time. The main body of the narrative doesn’t use archaisms very often; instead, the structure of the sentences and judicious word choices (“I am become”, “a civil attention”) keeps the historical flavour correct.
  • The male gaze is repeatedly flipped, challenged or interrogated. Smith is, at one point, seduced by an “aging” (she’s forty-six) actress in a bathhouse; the narrator, delightfully, breaks off mid-sentence (this is another eighteenth-century thing, though people forget it: narrators that directly address, manipulate, and often annoy, the reader). “But why always Smith?” we are asked. “Was it necessarily true, that because she seemed to him the ripe, round, straightforward antidote to the complications of his hopes, the scene looked as simple through her eyes? Was she not taking the greater risk here? Did she not have to set aside cautions, sorrows, hopes, fears, loyalties, to permit herself the role of the plump and ready siren in the steam-room? …Should we not, at least, pay a little attention to [her] view of him?” It’s good; it maintains that lightness of touch that I mentioned earlier in relation to the way novels are discussed, though the point is serious. Plus, the late revelation of who, exactly, is narrating this story flips much of what we’ve seen and been told over the past 300 pages, which I very much enjoyed.
  • Related to the above, I think, is the fact that Spufford addresses homosexuality, slavery and women sensitively but, broadly, within the mindset of the times. He writes, for instance, a relationship between an African slave and a young white male secretary for the Governor, and picks his way delicately but confidently over and around the many faultlines of power and secrecy that their relationship implies. When Smith finds out, he tells the secretary—Septimus, one of his few friends in New York—that he does not think the less of him for sleeping with a man, or even for sleeping with a black man, but “for taking your pleasure where there is no possibility of it being refused.” (The relationship is consensual, but for Spufford to characterise Smith by making that his major concern is efficient to the point of mastery.) Smith’s relationship with Tabitha is equally complicated by the fact that she is what Kenneth Clarke would call “a bloody difficult woman”. Although Smith is attracted to her—and although he is also a highly unusual man—he has to devise his own script for interacting with her; his society and upbringing have given him one that is too limited to be helpful. In devising that independent script, he frequently makes mistakes, sometimes approaching the unforgivable, and Tabitha likewise. Spufford doesn’t shy away from that, which I think is a mark of real emotional honesty in a writer.
  • That emotional honesty leads to another thing: he’s not afraid to make bold plot choices. A major character dies three-quarters of the way through the book. Smith is in jail, then out of it, then in again. The first chapter is hardly over before he’s had his order for a thousand pounds stolen from his hands. And the ending—when we finally learn why he is in New York, where the money is from, and what he has been charged to do with it—is both brilliantly unexpected and makes perfect sense.

I’m so glad this book is in paperback now. I want everyone to read it. It would make an ideal Christmas holiday escape: cracking plot (you’ll be up past midnight reading) meets the vivacious clarity of truly excellent writing. It’s on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire now; I can’t praise it more highly.

Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber.

Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a writer, but I am a witness.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

What I know about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident: It happened in the Ukraine, which was, at the time of the accident in 1986, part of the USSR. Gorbachev was in power. Perestroika had already begun; glasnost, the process of making governance transparent, was directly hastened by the disaster. This occurred, in essence, because a test that was running during maintenance shutdown in the plant’s Reactor Four was allowed to occur in such a way as to make the reactor extremely unstable. A power spike led to overheating, which led to the control rods becoming jammed, which led to an explosion. A graphite fire shot plumes of radioactive material into the air above the plant. This later settled across the surrounding region as radioactive dust.

What I know about Svetlana Alexievich: Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She is a non-fiction writer, the first (I think?) to win that award. She is Belarusian. In a way she is less a writer than a composer: her books are composed of other peoples’ voices, revealed through interviews. Chernobyl Prayer has three parts, each subdivided into “monologues”. Her art is to arrange peoples’ testimonies, and, one presumes, to be trustworthy, and to ask the right questions in the first place, and to be capable of listening.

You may need to do some background reading if you wish to tackle Chernobyl Prayer; almost all of the information in the first paragraph, above, I gleaned from Wikipedia and the official IAEA report. Alexievich isn’t writing for Western grief tourists (although, of course, in a way, she absolutely is. But she wants you to work for it.) There are no tidy maps or chronologies. Just the voices of people living in a ruined world.

It’s a book you want to quote a lot. I found myself underlining huge chunks, not only because they are tragic or beautiful, but because the people she meets are insightful on things like the Soviet character, too, and the motivations of politicians, and the fact that the people who lived near the reactor were really still peasants, country people, who didn’t understand that just because you couldn’t see radiation didn’t make it unreal.

There are themes that recur. On the implacability of nature, which is beautiful but also, in a way, what makes nuclear disaster so fatally unstoppable:

One morning, I looked into the orchard and there were boars grubbing about. Wild boars. You can resettle people, but not the elk and the boars. And the water takes no notice of boundaries, it flows where it will, over the ground, under the ground.

On the hierarchy of threats (this from a woman who has settled with her husband and child in the ghost country near Chernobyl, fleeing political violence in Tajikistan):

I meet people, they’re amazed, can’t understand it. ‘What are you doing to your children, you’re killing them. You’re committing suicide.’ I’m not killing them, I’m saving them. …This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory.

It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.

Many people—probably two-thirds of the people Alexievich interviews—compare it to the war. They mean, I think, the Second World War, but it could be any war of the past century. The grannies of Eastern Europe are very used to war. Soldiers forcing them from their homes? Crucial information being kept from them? The destruction of their livelihoods? “It was just like the war”, they say, over and over again. Some of them leap from simile to metaphor: “It was war. We were at war.”

A government filmmaker is struck by the universal need for a role, the way that people cling to a cultural narrative:

I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were acting as if they were in everyone’s favourite movie… The tear in the eye, a few words of farewell. A wave of the hand. It turned out we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.

There is some discussion of “Slavic fatalism”, a kind of gloomy (it can be cheery, if there’s vodka around) passivity. There is also mention of the way that the government fell back, instantly, into old habits:

They revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’… Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology…

Clean-up workers are issued lead aprons and masks, sometimes, but the ones who are working on the roof have no protection from the radiation coming up from below. In any case, most people don’t wear their masks—they are heavy and cumbersome, and the work must be done quickly. One man tells of the thirty-six hundred roof workers, how they slept on the ground, on straw taken from hayricks right beside the reactor. “They’re dying now,” he says. “But for what they did… These are still people from a particular culture. A culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims.” I have read nothing more chilling about Soviet Communism than this, the recognition that thousands of lives were viewed as worthless. It is not the same thing as the “Blitz Spirit” of pulling together. It is not as if protective equipment didn’t exist; it was simply not considered worth spending on these men. And the men were offered money, a bump up the queue for an apartment or a car, maybe five to seven more years of life, and the promise of postmortem heroism. And that worked. This was only thirty years ago.

And the terrifying ignorance of Party leaders:

In the villages and factories, people from the district committees of the Communist Party traveled around, meeting people. Yet not one of them was capable of giving an answer if they were asked what decontamination was, how children could be protected, or what the coefficients were for radionuclides finding their way into the food chain. Neither could they if asked about alpha, beta and gamma particles, nor about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, let alone isotopes. For them, that was all something from another planet. They gave lectures about the heroism of Soviet people, symbols of military courage, and the wiles of Western intelligence services.

Thirty. Years. Ago.

There is an interview with a man who was on a district committee, and in it, he seems to understand how terribly he and his colleagues failed. But he can’t look at it too directly. He does not want to shoulder the blame. Who can; who could? “It was our duty,” he keeps saying. “We did what we were told to do.”

This, from an engineer, perhaps explains why:

We stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. …That was not because [we] were afraid of losing [our] Party cards, but because of [our] faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification.

No longer part of something, but complicit in it: it’s such an articulate phrase, such an exact assessment of how ideology works, and why its crumbling can be such a catastrophe.

And man was the measure of all things. I think for a considerable portion of the twentieth century, we believed this. Why not? We had harnessed the power of the atom. We were programming computers. We had sent men to the moon. We could conquer anything, anything we wanted. And then Chernobyl happened. It wasn’t like Hiroshima or Nagasaki; it wasn’t intentional. It was a terrible accident, and man failed as the measure, and no matter how many men in green uniforms shoveled rubble off the roof of the reactor, they could not pull the particles from the skies, or the rivers, or the grass.

There is absolute rage running through this book; it is a current of fury at the lies and deceit that were fed to the people of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and it is also fury at the helplessness of the people who suffered and continued to suffer. There is almost superhuman love: the testimonies of two women whose husbands were clean-up workers (one comes near the beginning of the book, one near the end) are sobering and painfully beautiful and so sad. And there is this, from one of the children Alexievich interviews:

I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard. ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.

Chernobyl Prayer is published by Penguin Modern Classics.

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.