Reading Diary, Jan. 22-28

isbn9781787470453The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo: Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia) and dealing with the folklore of weretigers, through the perspectives of Ji Lin, a bright girl working in a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong debts, and Ren, a young houseboy whose white master, Dr. MacFarlane, has just died. Choo slides into cliché sometimes, particularly when she’s writing about Ji Lin’s attraction to her stepbrother Shin, and the solution to the mystery is robbed of being completely satisfying because the characterization of the malefactor(s) is too thin. Ji Lin’s and Ren’s voices are both charming, though.

9781526602077To the Lions, by Holly Watt: A forthcoming (February) thriller by, and about, an investigative journalist, illustrating the way in which British political and business interests exploit volatile countries—in this case, Libya. The protagonist, Casey, is something too much of a Cool Girl (she’s effortlessly beautiful, a lone wolf and a risk-taker, more afraid to tell a man she loves him than of being executed in the desert), but Watt’s brilliant on the fizzing energy of the newsroom, the dialogue made me laugh out loud more than once, and the plot is a genuine, morally complex page-turner.

41c8al52l8l._sx331_bo1204203200_Selected Poems: 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich: On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, thanks to Cheryl Strayed, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain. She wants so much to live responsibly, love responsibly. Probably my new favourite poet.

611phcl47gl._sx323_bo1204203200_The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon: An epic stand-alone high fantasy novel from the author of The Bone Season; this is the first of her books I’ve read. Shannon emphatically but subtly foregrounds women in her fantasy world – rulers, knights-errant, pirates, merchants, etc., are more often female than not – and the whole book is casually gay in a way that effectively challenges Western paternalist fantasy tropes. The story itself is fairly standard (dragons, an ancient evil, some business involving a sword and some jewels) but it rips along and Shannon’s writing is excellent: often funny, always genuinely moving.

Currently reading: A Time To Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

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Reading Diary: Jan. 14-21

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens: The classic tale of a young man’s attempts to make his own way in the world and care for his family against the machinations of his nasty, money-lending uncle. This might be the Platonic Ideal of the Dickens Novel: it’s got everything you expect, including comic poor people, tragic poor people, mean rich people, benevolent rich people, and some great London street scenes. (I wrote a bit more about it here.)

Midnight Chicken (and Other Recipes Worth Living For), by Ella Risbridger: I’ve been following Risbridger’s writing, and life, for years. She’s got a hell of a story. This is a cookbook, but also a memoir, beautifully illustrated, and containing the kind of recipes that it’s perfectly easy to follow if you’re a little bit drunk. It’s aspirational in a completely achievable, you-do-you sort of way; there are allusions to Laurie Lee and Laurie Colwin, The Railway Children and The Secret Garden. Lovely.

What Is This Thing Called Love, by Kim Addonizio: I’m freshly obsessed with poetry at the moment and I hope it lasts. Addonizio’s is sexy, smoky, bluesy. The final poem in this collection, “Kisses”, in which she imagines every kiss she’s ever received imprinted on her body, is worth the price of admission on its own, I think. (You can read it for free here if you need convincing.)

Currently reading: 

The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo (out in February), and Selected Poems 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich.

The Week’s Book, #1: Nicholas Nickleby

imageNicholas Nickleby constitutes this year’s entry in my Annual Winter Dickens project. It’s only the second novel he ever wrote (third if you count The Pickwick Papers, which is arguably more a series of sketches than a fictional narrative per se), and there’s a lot of youthful energy fizzing from the pages. Young Nicholas is very much the action hero: he’s frequently physically violent when he feels honour is at stake, usually either his or his sister’s. Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby, the two villains of the piece, are extremely melodramatic: they clench their fists, turn white, and snarl, with astonishing regularity. This level of implicit theatricality makes a good deal of sense in a novel so given to explicit theatricality; the Crummles family, with whom Nicholas falls in, are traveling actors, and many of the best scenes in the book involve them.

Characterization suffers somewhat as a result of this trait. Better and more informed minds than mine have written theses on Dickens’s relationship with the theatre, and on his use (and subversion) of comic and tragic stereotypes in his fiction. The Brothers Cheeryble, who give Nicholas a chance when all hope seems lost, and who delight in doing good works without being thanked, might be better named the Brothers Implausyble. Kate, Nicholas’s beautiful, vulnerable sister, is a classically boring Dickens heroine, as is Madeline Bray, the object of Nicholas’s affections. There are, though, moments of rupture when characters – usually minor ones – confound expectations: the madman in love with Mrs. Nickleby, for instance, in his small-clothes and grey worsted stockings, falling down the chimney.

All this said, it is a tremendously enjoyable reading experience. For all that it’s extremely episodic (and long – 777 pages in my edition), its fictional world also feels smaller than that of Dickens’s later novels; I’m thinking especially of The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the last Dickens I read and which contains several characters whose relevance, even at the time, thoroughly escaped me, whereas pretty much all of the characters in Nickleby recur frequently enough, and have enough to do, that a reader can keep track. The least successful of these, for my money, is John Browdie, who seems to exist mostly so that Dickens can write bad Yorkshire dialect in the depiction of an honest countryman. It’s not subtle, and it’s nowhere near the heights of elegant connectivity that he reaches in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend: in Nickleby, Dickens’s love of coincidence is still just an excuse for clumsy plotting, instead of a commentary on the fundamental intersectionality of all levels of society. But it’s very fun, and you can sense that with this novel he found his feet.

2019: the plan.

After some really excellent feedback from you guys, I’ve had a think about how best to do this blog – and indeed how to approach my reading this year – and here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. My reading challenge goal has been revised downwards from 205 to 120. I can’t read 205 books, work full-time, finish my novel, and have a social life this year; I just can’t. 120 is the lowest reading goal I’ve ever set, so it seems reasonable to imagine I’ll be able to surpass it, which will be a nice mood boost, and it’ll keep the pressure off. (Plus, if you think about it, that’s still a lot of books.)
  2. Instead of trying to read as many books as I can, I’m going to try to genuinely enjoy as many of the books I read this year as possible. This will mean a lot of DNFing, I imagine. So many things I’ve read since Christmas have been so good that it’s really put me off trying to get through something mediocre just because we’re guaranteed to sell a lot of it at the shop.
  3. I’m also going to try to fill in some of my classics and 20th-century gaps.
  4. Re blogging, I’m going to try the following: a weekly reading diary which (as vacuouswastrel suggested) will be, quite literally, one or two lines on everything I’ve read that week. Fortnightly (approximately) I’ll choose one or two of the best books read in that period to feature. Less regularly – I don’t know at this point how often – I’ll do a proper deep-dive review into something that really demands that amount of attention. I’ll also carry on doing Three Things at the end of each month.

And hopefully, that will work. Sort of. Well enough.

A conundrum

Lovely readers, here is my plight: the Reading Diary format last year enabled me to write about every book that I’d read, but I often fell behind. Catching up often entailed a huge effort: I haven’t written a Reading Diary since just before Christmas, for instance, and now have a backlog of twelve books to talk about. It was impractical to say “I’ll publish a post weekly without fail”, and what I did manage to produce often felt rushed or under-considered. I like reading detailed literary analysis, and I’d like to produce it; Instagram-style book reviewing, involving a plot summary plus some adjectives (“brilliant”, “searing”, “heartbreaking”), isn’t something I’m interested in writing, though of course it has its place.

What should I do in 2019?

In an ideal world, every day would be three times as long, and I could read 205 books, give each one the critical write-up it deserves, and finish my own novel this year. But this world isn’t ideal, so something will have to give. At the same time, I want to keep writing about what I’ve read, because I like this blogging, reading community, and because it acts as a useful supplement to my day job, which is to sell books to people.

If any of you have any ideas – about the type of posts I could be writing, or about a possible posting schedule – I would be very grateful to hear them.

In 2018

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was so, so much better than last year; it wasn’t just about surviving, but about thriving: finding out, as Dolly Parton so wisely said, who I am, then doing it on purpose.

In 2018, I:

celebrated my lovely colleague Faye’s wedding, with other bookshop chums

attended a celebratory black tie dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for the engagement of two more friends

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found a new flat, with a new housemate

helped plan my cousin Sarah’s wedding, as her maid of honour, and in company with her brilliant bridesmaids

sang Irish songs, drunkenly, on a rooftop in the snow

received incredibly helpful mentoring and advice on my novel from the infinitely generous Antonia Honeywell

experienced a hen do in Brighton

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sang at York Minster (and had some verse solos in the canticles, in the presence of Iestyn Davies. Swoon.)

participated in the Womens Prize Shadow Panel again

sang for, danced at, and generally revelled in Sarah’s wedding to the wonderful Gareth

hosted my mum in my new flat

travelled to Paris for an utterly unforgettable long weekend with my beloved friend Kendall

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relatedly: eaten a meal in Paris that I will remember for the rest of my life—seven courses, four hours, wine

started a regular paid Sunday singing gig

visited Chatsworth, home of my employers, for the first time

caught up with my goddaughter Beatrice, and her lovely parents, Esther and Bojan, in Oxford

went to IKEA for the first time in my adult life

celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday with beloved friends and so much sushi I could barely stand afterwards

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threw a housewarming party in the new flat, with my excellent housemate Joe

sang at St Paul’s with old college chums, then immediately afterwards attended the reception for Kerry and Alvina’s wedding

hosted my little brother Nick and his brilliant girlfriend Emma on their London holiday

ticked another cathedral (Southwark) off my list of Places I’ve Sung In

heard Susan Graham, live

drank in the private pub for Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London

took myself on my first solo holiday, to Brussels, where I survived on goat’s cheese, baguette, chocolate caramel spread, and ratatouille

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…and where I also wrote thousands of words’ worth of my book

chatted to an agent about said book, and promised to send a draft when finished

accidentally insulted Sebastian Faulks

flew home to visit my family, during which time we picked apples, drank coffee (and a lot of wine), strolled in downtown Charlottesville, basked in late autumn sunlight, drove up into the mountains. I also brunched joyfully at Helen and Charlie’s wedding reception, and wrote more thousands of words

attended the Young Writer of the Year Award announcement, along with lots of blogging friends (and where I met the incomparable Sarah Moss)

cooked a Thanksgiving meal for some American (and non-American!) friends

got a sparkly gel pedicure because why not

sang in four Christmas concerts

re-permed my hair, also because why not

celebrated Christmas at Canterbury Cathedral, thanks to the kind hospitality of Sarah and Gareth

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finished off the New Year with gigs at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s

read exactly 200 books

Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

I didn’t manage to finish this before midnight, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we? (Except perhaps, just briefly, to note that I read WAY more nonfiction this year than ever before. This is definitely to do with getting proofs from the shop, so that I could experiment with genres that were relatively new to me, and find out what I liked, without having to spend a lot of money on a potentially disappointing experience.)

cover2Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch. A thoughtful, intelligent and nuanced exploration of what it’s like to be a non-white person in Britain. Hirsch is mixed race, but she grew up in a middle class London neighbourhood, with ballet lessons and books. Her husband is descended from Ghanaian immigrants and grew up in a much less privileged part of town. Both of them experience daily racism, but in very different ways. Without a doubt the most eye-opening memoir I read all year. Especially relevant given that the current trajectory of Britain’s population is heading towards the country being primarily mixed-race.

cover1Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan. Mangan’s memoir of the books she loved as a child is funny, self-deprecating, nostalgic, and super-informative, blending memory with interesting snippets about the history of children’s literature (a genre that barely existed until the Edwardians came along). It reminds the reader, of course, of the books they loved as a child—E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chalet School, The Worst Witch—but also introduces them to new authors: Antonia Forrest, for instance, was completely unknown to me, but Mangan rates her school novels for pre-teen girls so highly that I’m keen to track them down.

814ysf3sdjlThe Secret Barrister, by The Secret Barrister. When I first read this, I said it was probably going to be the best nonfiction I read in 2018, and although it’s encountered some stiff competition (specifically the two books immediately below), it’s still a strong contender. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous lawyer/blogger who has written a passionate, articulate, knowledgeable screed about the state of Britain’s criminal justice system, and how important it is to preserve the right to a fair trial. What’s revealed is scary, but even scarier is the reminder that courts aren’t just for petty thieves: anyone could get dragged into a legal case, so it’s imperative for us all that justice function properly. (Spoilers: it doesn’t.)

coverThe Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Containing elements of true crime, natural history, psychological study, and memoir, this reads like an extended New Yorker essay in the best possible way. Johnson takes on the weird case of Edwin Rist, a music student who in 2009 stole hundreds of priceless bird skins from the Natural History Museum’s storage facility in Tring, Hertfordshire. Why Rist did it, and the people he targeted as buyers for the skins—men heavily involved in the obscure world of Victorian fly-tying, which often requires rare bird feathers—are the focus of Johnson’s investigation. Fascinating, disturbing, and incredibly well written.

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel. A beautiful book about beautiful books. De Hamel takes twelve medieval manuscripts, and guides us through them: not only the pages themselves, their historical context and a rough summary of the manuscripts’ journeys over time to wherever they’re now housed, but also the experience of viewing each of them, whether that’s in the Royal Library at Copenhagen (bright, open, cheery) or the Pierpont Morgan library in New York (officious, fussy, mistrustful). In many ways it’s like The Feather Thief; a skilled writer takes an obscure subject and makes it mesmerising.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee. McBee’s first memoir, Man Alive, was about his FTM (female-to-male) transition; Amateur takes one experience—training for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden—and builds around it a web of thoughts and ideas on manliness, violence, and how those two things are connected in contemporary Western society. It’s neither dry nor academic, in either sense of the word; if anything, it’s a case study, a deep dive into the tension McBee feels as he becomes part of a community of men who care deeply for each other whilst also learning how to hurt each other. Complicated, nuanced, very thought-provoking.

original_400_600Handel In London, by Jane Glover. More than anything, this biography of Handel, which focuses on his working life in the theatres of London, is fun. It conveys the sense of constant movement, of liveliness, that characterises both Hanoverian England and the music that Handel himself wrote. Glover doesn’t shy away from musical analysis—she’s very good at showing us just how brilliant a composer Handel was—but she understands the appeal of backstage secrets, and there are plenty of tidbits on the challenges and joys of running an eighteenth-century opera company, complete with unreliable singers. Sheer brainy delight.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard. Hubbard’s biography of Bess of Hardwick is also a brainy delight, though instead of “fun”, I might use the word “awe-inspiring”. Bess, four times married and acquiring new wealth, particularly in the form of property, with each marriage, was Tudor England’s grand matriarch. Her political instincts were sometimes ropey (though, amazingly, she never fell out of favour with Elizabeth I), but she’s best known as a builder: some of the houses she commissioned still stand. Hubbard tells her story—that of a woman in a man’s world—with skill and flair.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, ed. Henry Eliot. An ideal sofa companion for a dreary day, and you’ll want to store it on a low shelf for frequent reference in any case. It contains entries on every single book currently published by the Penguin Classics imprint, as well as an index of former PCs that have been allowed to fall out of print. I’d have liked a bit more analysis on that decision-making process, and a bit more musing on what makes a classic at all, but this is full of information and beautifully produced. It deserves to become a classic in its own right.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen. For sheer brilliance of prose, Karen Blixen would top this list by a country mile. Out of Africa is a memoir of Blixen’s years running a coffee farm in Kenya, and it is written in the most balanced, elegant, often quietly amusing sentences I have read for some time. There is something old-fashioned and hospitable about the book; it wants you to sit down and listen, not so that Blixen can talk at you, but so that she can share something precious to her. She describes a world now long gone—and ultimately, I think, rightly so—but there is love shining from every word of this gorgeous book.

Extremely honourable mentions: Quiet, by Susan Cain; The Language of Kindness, by Christie Watson; A Spy Named Orphan, by Roland Phillips; Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth; Wilding, by Isabella Tree; The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee; The Ravenmaster, by Chris Skaife; A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie.