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?

13 thoughts on “Diary, Reading and otherwise

  1. Great that you’ve been able to enjoy an American fall. (I may have been to that same orchard when we visited my friend in Charlottesville some years back.) I have been back for Thanksgiving once since I moved away, and in a couple of Septembers. I do miss the height of the autumn leaves, though. You can sometimes get the same kind of display here, but usually accompanied by rain.

    The Little Stranger is my least favourite Waters novel. I’m interested in trying some more literary-type crime fiction – George Pelecanos, Louise Penny, etc. – and wonder if I’d need to read the Tana French books in order?

    • You probably went to Carter’s Mountain! We love them, although this time we ventured further afield (past Harrisonburg) to a place in the Valley.

      You don’t have to read French in order, but I’d recommend reading In the Woods before The Likeness – something happens in the former that affects the protagonist’s mindset in the latter, not too much but enough that you probably want to know about it beforehand.

  2. The Trespasser is the one French I haven’t re-read and I wonder if that says something about how I feel it sits within her output? It may just be that being the most recent I haven’t yet got round to it. The Likeness, on the other hand is one of my favourites. Like you, it appeals to me because of the setting, but also because of the friendship group. I’ve always argued that one of the reasons that the films, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill were so successful is because we would all like to have the type of supportive friendship group that they portray.

    • Yep, definitely, and I also think French is especially interested in the fault lines of relationships, the places where even the most perfectly suited people have tension. Friendship groups are great for exploring that.

  3. I must read more French as I loved the first one. I agree with Rebecca on The Little Stranger being my least favourite Waters (so far, I’ve only read her books from The Night Watch onwards at the mo).

    I did some leaf-peeping many moons ago in New England, and loved the glorious colours set against blue skies and white clapboard houses/churches etc. Would love to do that again.

    • Of Waters, I’ve only read Fingersmith and The Paying Guests before this. Fingersmith far and away the best of the three, I think. Affinity also appeals.

      The leaves here are less glorious than usual because apparently the summer was very damp 😦 But the skies are still intensely blue and the light is so bright and the air so crisp. I’m storing it all up in anticipation of England’s customary five months of porridge-sky.

  4. I must re-read The Little Stranger. I used to say it was my least favourite Waters, like everyone else, but I’m wondering if I might change my mind on a re-read. The discussion on that Abigail Nussbaum post is fascinating. Waters said at the Durham event I went to that she did set out to write a ghost story and for the happenings to be perceived as supernatural – so if the novel doesn’t quite work, I’m not sure it’s because she wasn’t committed to the genre but because she was trying to do something subtle with it that didn’t land with a lot of readers. I’m still not sure what my opinion is.

    The Trespasser was the first French novel I read, and while I agree with you that it’s not quite up there with the Top Three, I think it comes close behind them to me. Antoinette’s changing attitude to Aisling is so well-written. Hooray for re-reading The Likeness, as well. Daniel’s ‘take what you want, but pay the price’ still haunts me.

    Friday Black sounds great – the thing about some US black fiction becoming increasingly speculative and surrealist is very true.

    • Hmm. Yeah, I too found the discussion on the Nussbaum post very useful. A lot of theories mentioned there didn’t really sit right with me – I can see, for instance, why people might think that Caroline is referring to Faraday when she says “You!”, but I don’t think she is, not least because Faraday is certainly an unreliable narrator but not, thus far, one who seems to erase episodes entirely from his narration, so I’m not convinced by the idea that he’s done something that we, the readers, haven’t had the opportunity to witness.

      I liked The Trespasser a good deal more on this reading. Conway fascinates me. And, yes, Daniel too. (I’ve a theory that he somehow arranged the deaths of his parents, when he was a child. As Frank notes, his reactions to Lexie’s death are those of someone who’s done this before, and he’s clearly not quite right…)

      Do give Friday Black a try. I think it’s extraordinary.

      • I agree about Faraday. I can buy the idea that his animus is a malevolent force in the house, but I don’t think Waters presents him as a narrator who would have done something in the physical world and omitted to tell the readers. Interesting theory about Daniel! I’ll have to re-read (again) at some point…

  5. Hope you are enjoying your trip. I really liked The Likeness too, although the premise is ridiculous but she still manages to pull it off. Looking forward to her new one next year.

  6. Yay, Virginia in the fall! You came just at the right time to enjoy the tiny bit of fall we’re getting this year.

    The Little Stranger happens to be one of my favorite Waters novels (along with Fingersmith), but I know many people did not care for it. I really liked the tension between reality and the supernatural, and I felt that, by the end, the nature of what was going on was pretty clear, and my reading held up when I read it a second time. (I think that Faraday was behind it, but not necessarily consciously–the poltergeist was a supernatural emanation of his desire to possess the house.)

    I’m just now reading In the Woods for the first time having heard such good things about Tana French for so many years. A lot of crime fiction disappoints me these days, but I’m liking it a lot so far.

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