Diary, Reading and otherwise

I’ve been at my parents’ house in the States for the last week, which coincided with my brother’s college fall break; we’ve been trying to cram the greatest quantity of Organized Fun into six days. This has involved a lot of visits to vineyards and ciderworks, of which there are about 200 in the state of Virginia, as well as a hike in the nearby Blue Ridge, a movie in the little town where my mother works, and an extended family get-together this past weekend. Both my dad’s parents died within twenty-four hours of each other last month, so it felt particularly important to all be together, and particularly nice that I could take part.

But, books! I don’t think I’ve updated since the beginning of the month, which is shocking. Since the 1st of October, I’ve read ten books – not great, but preparing for and staying with my parents always minimizes the available time for reading. Several of the books I’ve read have qualified for the R.I.P. challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril), too. Here’s the first half of this month’s reading:

the_little_stranger_28film29The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters: It was very difficult to decide how to feel about this: on the one hand, it’s an extremely atmospheric ghost story, set in decaying Hundreds Hall after the First World War and playing on an obsession with class and tradition that manifests itself in the character of Dr. Faraday. On the other hand, as Abigail Nussbaum points out, Sarah Waters makes genre and realism pull against each other, and therefore neither element is totally successful; the ambiguity of the ending is less richly satisfying and more of a frustration as a result, as though Waters simply can’t be bothered to decide. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is the phrase “the little stranger”: it was a Victorian euphemism for an unborn child, and the entity which knocks from ceilings and scrawls childishly on walls seems to suggest that it is the ghost of Susan, a little girl who died at Hundreds Hall several decades earlier – but there is also a suggestion that ghosts in general are psychic emanations of the people who live in a haunted house, non-physical children, in a sense. It’s the sort of book that will probably need another look. (RIP categories: horror; supernatural.)

51udevpxrxl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: It seems fairly evident, simply from watching the news and following the barest minimum of the relevant folks on Twitter, that the experience of being a person of colour in America now – let alone historically – is so quotidianly bizarre as to almost register as a form of science fiction or surrealism. The literary response to this has varied (but think of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or, maybe more relevantly, of the movie Get Out); from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah comes what seems like a natural response, which is a collection of short stories that take the experiences of various black American characters and make of them an anthology that reads like a series of Black Mirror. “The Finkelstein Five”, the collection’s opening story, concerns the trial of a white man who decapitated with a chainsaw five black children (at least one of whom was as young as seven or eight). Adjei-Brenyah’s dialogue in these trial scenes is flawless; the arguments of white men who murder black children, like George Zimmer, barely need exaggerating. In another story, a young black man works at an amusement park which is actually named ZimmerLand, in which patrons confront and “kill” him on a suburban street. Three linked stories, meanwhile, explore the zombie-like horror of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has traditionally been America’s busiest shopping day. What makes Adjei-Brenyah’s most successful stories stand out, instead of merely being exercises in grim, heavy-handed satire, is the moral detail of them. ZimmerLand, for example, gives its customers the option of taking a mobile phone or a gun, or nothing, into their scenario; more than ninety percent of them make the choice to take the gun. The young salesman protagonist of the first Black Friday story wants to win the regional sales competition that day because he wants the chance to bring his mother a nice coat for Christmas; the ludicrous violence and twitching bodies are semi-inevitable and so he continues to work that shift, in that mall, in a neat parallel of the violence and destruction behind most American consumerism, even the relatively restrained kind. Adjei-Brenyah is one to watch, I think. (RIP categories: fantasy; horror.)

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The Trespasser, by Tana French: I won’t subject you to too long a dissection of yet another Tana French novel, partly because I read them pretty regularly and partly because I not only reread a second one of her Dublin Murder Squad books this month, but also read her new standalone, The Witch Elm, which I’ll be talking about later. This is only the second time I’ve read The Trespasser; the first was the weekend after my ex broke up with me last year, so my memories of it were pretty patchy, to say the least. It’s not on quite the same level as her best books (Broken HarbourThe LikenessThe Secret Place, for my money), partly because the motive is less interesting: it circles around a girl called Aislinn Murray, found dead in her home, whose entire life seems to be a blank. Only when the detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, remembers that she’s seen Aislinn before – years ago, asking questions about the father who went missing when she was a child and who was never found – do clues start making sense, but they all point to the one place Conway really doesn’t want to go… As always, French is uniquely excellent at differentiating her detectives, making them individuals whose problems are complex and convincing, far from the dysfunction-by-numbers drunk with marital problems that often seems to pass for a detective in this genre. Conway’s got issues – trust and an absent father among them – but she deals with them in her way, and part of her need to put Aislinn Murray’s case to bed stems from a deep personal irritation with Aislinn’s way of handling problems similar to her own. The writing, also as always, is spectacular, a blend of grit and lyricism that works incredibly well for me. Long may Tana French reign, I say. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

imageA Political History of the World, by Jonathan Holslag: It’s nice to think of oneself as an eclectic reader, and I think for the most part I genuinely am, but recently I’ve been experimenting with reading things that really are very off-brand for me, and a three thousand-year history of global diplomacy and warfare certainly qualifies. Jonathan Holslag is a professor of international politics in Brussels, which is both an occupation and a locale that would seem to equip him thoroughly to write this book. For the most part, it’s delightfully informative, covering Asian pre-history and antiquity as well as the obvious Western empires. There’s much less about North and South American civilisations, though Holslag acknowledges, occasionally, peoples like the Olmec and the Maya, with the addendum that the documentary evidence for civilisations in these places is thinner on the ground. (This is probably true, although it seems rather weak sauce.) The main problem, though, is that he covers so much in the way of historical event (kingdom A fought kingdom B; kingdom B, forced to defend against kingdoms C through E, declined until its overthrow by kingdom F, which had been quietly amassing strength for decades) that he leaves little room for analysis or exposition regarding diplomacy, which is, in theory, the purpose of the book. It’s of little interest to know about the vacillations of power amongst kingdoms A through F when the rationale, or the psychology, behind those vacillations remains largely unexplained.

51hnj-b63wl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Likeness, by Tana French: The second of my French rereads this month, and my very favourite of all her books, mostly because it’s set amongst a tight-knit group of friends, postgraduates at Trinity who all live in an old and beautiful house out in the countryside surrounding Dublin. I’m increasingly convinced that one of French’s major themes is the dynamics of friendship: how people develop non-sexual intimacy between themselves, what kind of power that intimacy can hold, the potential danger of it, how far someone might go for people who are neither blood relatives nor romantic prospects. The Likeness also, like The Trespasser, contains a detective convinced that her personal issues are under control, who is forced eventually to confront the fact that those very issues are deeply resonant with her case and might well be affecting her judgment. Some of French’s most beautiful writing is in this, and the final paragraph (as I’m sure I’ve said before) makes me cry every time I read it. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

The second half of October’s Reading Diary should be up in the next few days, so keep an eye out… Are any of you participating in the RIP challenge this year?

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#6Degrees of Separation: The Outsiders

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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We start with The Outsiders, which I read as a kid—my dad must have brought it home for me. I don’t remember much about it, but the main character is named Ponyboy, which is hilarious, and it’s something to do with teens in gangs.

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Another book whose title follows a “The Plural-Nouns” formula is Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, which introduces us to a group of talented kids at hippie summer camp, and then tracks their lives over the next few decades.

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At one point in The Interestings, a character whose employees are killed in the September 11 terrorist attack promises to pay their families the salaries that they would have earned. In Julie and Julia, Julie Powell’s decision to cook her way through Julia Child’s magnum opus is catalyzed by her misery in her job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation—formed to distribute $10 billion in federal funds in order to rebuild areas destroyed by the attack.

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Meryl Streep, of course, stars in the movie version of Julie and Julia. She also plays the Clarissa Dalloway character in the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which is itself a triptych that updates Mrs. Dalloway and looks at Virginia Woolf’s own life.

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The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999. That year, the nonfiction prize was won by John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a book collecting his writings on American geology. McPhee is a criminally underread writer, at least in the UK and right now; he was a staff writer for the New Yorker for years and is one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary writers of nonfiction.

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My godfather is a geologist. I have never seen him read a book, but he used to come and take me on roadtrips when I was young. We’d drive out to some backwater of rural Virginia in search of cool rocks, or just to the local plant nursery for something to put in his garden. Once he turned up unexpectedly, and I forgot to put my book down before I got in the car with him. It was Anna Karenina.

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I used to reread Anna Karenina every spring, before deciding that I should just do an Annual Spring Russian Read. (Sometimes I forget.) I also have an Annual Winter Dickens, which I forget less regularly. Last year it was The Old Curiosity Shop, which I’d rank firmly in the middle tier of Dickens novels, mostly because half of it is unnecessarily manipulative padding. (Incidentally, if any of you have opinions on which Dickens book should be my next, please choose from the following options: Barnaby Rudge, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood.)

From teenage greasers to gambling granddads, via hippie nerds, lifestyle blogging, Woolfian musings, geology, and Russians: where will your 6 Degrees take you? Next month is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, which is my favourite book of all time, so hooray!

Reading Diary: post-hols

9781908906342-217x346Wally Funk’s Race For Space, by Sue Nelson: If there were a prize for titles so bad they’re good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by “Wally” for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women’s program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she’s got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she’ll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it’s a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn’t always sit well together. It’s hella informative, though.

9781786074447Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, by Deborah Kay Davies: This is one of those curious books that you get sometimes, that exist right smack on the boundary between genres or categories: it’s neither one thing nor the other, though sometimes it also feels like two things at once. Tirzah is growing up in the isolated Welsh valleys in the 1970s, the daughter of parents who adhere to a Christian sect so strict that I’d recommend any survivor of spiritual abuse avoid this title altogether. She’s resilient, and resists the dictates of her elders. There are aspects of her resilience, however, that seem almost like psychotic breaks (and how many young women became either saints or martyrs after reporting similar experiences?): she becomes acutely aware of the natural world, particularly in the form of a mysterious homeless boy called Bran who claims to be the servant of a crow god. When Tirzah becomes pregnant by Bran, it shakes her whole community, and the novel becomes concerned with how Tirzah can be free under these circumstances. Its weaknesses are in the plotting: it simply goes on for too long, focusing on repetitive incidents (Tirzah does some mildly rebellious thing, like go out for a walk; her parents find out; she is shamed; she cries and feels guilty; she gets a second wind of defiance; rinse and repeat). Because of the business with the crow god and wild Bran, there’s a flavour of magical realism (there’s a Welsh myth involving crows and a giant-king called Bran the Blessed), but that never seems to go anywhere, and the ending’s ambivalence about Tirzah’s mental state is less richly open to interpretation than frustratingly vague. Davies’s description of landscapes and her characterisation of young, restless women (especially Tirzah’s mother and her cousin Biddy) are both very good, but the book is too diffuse to have the power it aims for.

41jqd2jfmul-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Long Take, by Robin Robertson: The first novel-in-verse on the Man Booker shortlist (I think?) is worthy of the accolade. Robertson’s poetry, qua poetry, has made little to no impression on me, although I read Hill of Doors a few years ago. But The Long Take uses free verse to capture not only a sense of fragmentation and loss, but also the rhythms of the mid-century American city, the trauma of war, and – perhaps most impressively – the techniques of noir filmmaking. Walker, Robertson’s protagonist, is a Canadian D-Day veteran who cannot face going home: he has a girlfriend in the little fishing village from whence he came, but he can’t imagine a world in which she deserves to be burdened with him. First in New York, then in LA and San Francisco, he finds work as a newspaper journalist, chronicling the growth of the cities (which, in LA, is synonymous with slum clearances and the building of highways) and the situation of the homeless men, many of them veterans, who clog the city streets. It’s a tad inconclusive, or rather, the conclusion Robertson reaches is the result of a process that the free verse may obscure slightly: with more words, with more elaboration, we might feel we’ve been with Walker all the way, whereas the effect of The Long Take is rather more a series of vignettes. It might well read differently to someone who knows more about the history of noir. Worth a punt, though.

heavy-9781501125652_lgHeavy, by Kiese Laymon: This is the first of two memoirs by black men that I’ve read in the past few weeks. Laymon’s context is American. He is the child of a single mother from Mississippi, a brilliant woman whose tenacity and academic achievements were matched only by her high expectations for her son and her punishing disappointment (often physically; in the memoir, she strikes young Kiese a lot) when he doesn’t match up. The book is roughly chronological, tracing Laymon’s struggles with weight, addiction, desire, and how best to be a man, from childhood on up to his professorship at Vassar. He is clear and uncompromising about the role that abuse plays in shaping young black men and women: physical abuse, such as his mother hitting him, and sexual abuse, the first scene of which occurs when he is a child in a neighbour’s house where a slightly older girl, Layla, is made to go into a bedroom with three “big boys”. Laymon is queasily but precisely aware of power and coercion even as a very  young child, and his strength in this memoir is in showing us how hard it is to win when the body – as they say – really does keep the score. Things fall apart a little near the end; the book as a whole is addressed to his mother, and as he begins to wrap up, the text begins to feel like a monologue, with some of the problems of  repetition and obscurity that that suggests. It is, however, an outrageously good and visceral piece of writing, and in its detail, it clarifies so much about black lives in America. (Particularly illuminating is the fact that each of Laymon’s paychecks gets parceled out to more than half a dozen relatives in need, so that despite a regular salary, he often finds himself living hand to mouth.) White people should read this; non-Americans should read it too. Laymon is a clear successor to Roxane Gay.

original_400_600Handel in London, by Jane Glover: This is going to be the best high-end Christmas book ever. From the joyful cover to the fact that the font isn’t too small, from the canny summaries of every opera and oratorio Handel wrote to the insightful but not distractingly detailed musical analysis, Handel in London might well have been tailored specifically for the genteel-music-lover market, and their Christmas needs. It’s also fun to read about the various difficulties involved in putting on operas in England in the early eighteenth century: they’ve always had an image problem, apparently, as they were generally considered to be too “exotic” and fancy for honest, simple English tastes. (That they were sung in a foreign language seems to have been the primary problem.) Singer drama, meanwhile, takes up a large portion of Handel’s time. (There is that glorious story about Francesca Cuzzoni refusing to perform an aria, to which Handel replied, “Madam, I see that you are a true devil – but I am Beelzebub, chief of devils”, and then threatened to fling her out of a window. Glover also recounts the weirdly manufactured rivalry between Cuzzoni and another soprano, Faustina; the two women appear to have mostly gotten along just fine, until nascent celebrity culture and the press whipped up a story about their being bitter enemies.) If I have one complaint, it’s that, although we get a great sense of what Handel was doing at any given moment in his life (and he was always doing a lot), it’s much harder to imagine what the inside of the man’s head might have been like. But then, his letters just don’t seem to be very revealing, and it’s obvious that he was both brilliant and almost obsessively hard-working. Highly recommended.

7112zfwmgglNormal People, by Sally Rooney: This is much, much preferable to Conversations With Friends, to my mind. Rooney follows two teenagers from Sligo, Marianne and Connell, as they enter into a secret relationship at school, break up, go to the same university, and spend the next three years on a faintly agonising will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster. The class difference (they meet because Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner) creates a strange power dynamic, but so does the fact that Marianne is considered a social outcast at school, Connell’s physical beauty, her absolute dedication to him, and (only revealed later) her interest in BDSM. That makes explicit what Rooney has been getting at all along: that Normal People is about exploring power imbalances, in ways that are both healthy and not so. (It’s to Rooney’s credit that the BDSM isn’t painted as a Bad Thing per se; what feels icky about it is that we know Marianne feels she deserves no better than violence, as opposed to it being an avenue of exploration and pleasure for her.) The novel reminded me a lot of Belinda McKeon’s Tender, also about two young people at university in Dublin and their painful, tumultuous relationship. I still prefer McKeon’s book because she never looks away, whereas Rooney chooses to illuminate Marianne and Connell through vignettes, but that’s a stylistic thing.

9781408889183The Life and Times of a Very British Man, by Kamal Ahmed: Ahmed is the BBC chief economics editor, and as such is a pretty well-known name and face. His memoir is not unlike Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish), which was published earlier this year and is just out in paperback now: both Hirsch and Ahmed seek to explore the peculiar feeling of being a light-skinned or mixed-race person in Britain today, with the legacy of violence in the 1970s and ’80s still fresh, but with children for whom Britain will increasingly be a nation of brown faces. Ahmed’s book convinces me less, partly because his interpolation of statistics and political truths into the story of his life feels less organic than Hirsch’s (and Hirsch writes more fluidly), and partly because he subscribes to the idea that we all just need to listen to each other. Technically speaking, of course, he’s not wrong, but his assumption that people can meet each other at a table “as equals” is startling, given that institutional racism very much still exists; people of colour, not only in Britain but also in America and Europe, are under a weight of suspicion, lack of opportunity, lack of generational wealth, lack of access to the establishment, that their white counterparts don’t have to struggle against in quite the same way, even if they’re poor or working-class white people. No one is coming to this putative table to listen to each other without their context. I think perhaps this is a generational thing; people my age seem much more likely to acknowledge that not only are we not all dealt comparable hands, but that addressing that imbalance ought to be an integral part of any kind of policy development.

Three Things: September 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’ve written about my holiday reading here (the photo above is of a sunset from the terrace of my Airbnb, in the Schaerbeeke neighbourhood of Brussels). Apart from that, mostly what I read was actually my own work: I wrote over a thousand words a day while on holiday, and when I wasn’t writing, I was going back in the text to try and smooth out earlier bits of the manuscript that don’t make sense anymore. It is an activity simultaneously deathly boring and very exciting.

Looking: For once, I caught up with the television that everyone’s talking about, and watched Bodyguard. Two things to say about that: first of all, it is a work of absolute screenwriting genius. How the script and the shots and the actors manage to maintain tension for so long is absolutely beyond me (as the Guardian noted in its review of the first episode, it’s a credit to the writers that it seemed genuinely likely [SPOILERS AHEAD] Nadia might be shot in the head even after surrendering and stepping down from the train). Secondly: I’ve talked about this a little bit on Twitter, but the show gets casual inclusivity more right than most TV thrillers. In episode one, the unit commander, train guard, and explosives officer are all women. The Home Secretary, Head of Counterterrorism, and head of the Met special protection unit are all women. In episode 3, when we meet the two internal detectives, they’re a man and a woman, both of colour. The male explosives officer called to the scene in episode 6 is of colour. David Budd’s colleague on the protection squad, who dies in episode 3, is a woman (with a non-RP accent). No plot points revolve around this casting; it just is what it is, and I think that’s the way to do it.

Thinking: There hasn’t been a lot of time to do much thinking recently. It’s been two weeks since I wasn’t out four nights of five. You know what is nice, though, and what’s been taking up space in my head more than anything? How glorious this weather is. The air is cool and crisp, there’s sunshine more days than not, and the sky is blue. It won’t last for long – London will shortly plunge itself into its customary five months of gloom – but while it does, it is the most beautiful thing. I’m going back to the States in a fortnight to visit. The blue skies and mountain foliage near my parents’ house are ultra-reliable at this time of the year, and I’m already getting excited about jumpers and hiking and maybe picking some apples.