Reading Diary: Mar. 5-Mar. 11

original_400_600Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi: I’m never totally sure what to do with Oyeyemi’s fiction; she evades rationality by a hairsbreadth in a way reminiscent of Kelly Link. Harriet Lee is a refugee of sorts from the country of Druhástrana, which has no Wikipedia entry. Living in London with her daughter Perdita, she’s forced to retell and reconsider the story of her past as Perdita gets older and demands answers to her heritage. This makes it sound like an immigrant-family allegory, but the effect is far more fantastical; Harriet’s stories of her childhood suggest a fairytale country located on a vaguely European continent but inhabited entirely by black people, and the gingerbread of the title is clearly magical. The novel’s relentless coyness is a little wearing by the end, but most of the time, Gingerbread entrances even as it baffles.

60f6a5e6a4035e1655cd07638642fbafee4bCala, by Laura Legge (DNF @ 82 pages): I may have bounced off this book so hard because I was reading in snatched five-minute bursts; my colleague Faye has been reading it in longer sittings and getting through it more easily. The comparisons to The Water Cure are reasonable (though I think Cala is somewhat more original), but the difference is that Euna, our protagonist, leaves the closed and oppressive environment of her community by page sixty. However, there’s an opacity to the prose that frustrates forward movement, and the occasional gleams of poetic lucidity that break through are more incongruous than illuminating. Possibly a case of wrong reader or wrong time, or both. Anyway, I’m trying to break myself of the habit of finishing things that aren’t appalling but that I’m not enjoying much, so I put it down.

9781786894373The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch: This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself  for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.

9780857503916The Terror, by Dan Simmons: A 900-page novel about an Arctic expedition is, I know, not going to be everyone’s kettle of fish. Even less so if you add an element of supernatural horror in the guise of a mysterious thing that is stalking the men of the ships Terror and Erebus from out on the pack ice; trapped in their boats for two winters, the men are all but helpless. There’s an argument to be made that The Terror is too long, and that the introduction of a supernatural element is unnecessary given the genuinely horror-movie qualities of life when you’re shipwrecked in the Arctic. (Do you know what it’s like to die of scurvy? It’s like something out of Clive Barker.) I, however, think that Simmons is trying to do something larger – to make a point about the arrogance of imperial exploration – and even if it’s sometimes a tad obvious, both the horror plot (what is that thing?!) and the “realist” plot (will the food stores last?) compelled my curiosity. (Great piece on it here by Sady Doyle saying all the things I’d like to say.)

9781408890073Circe, by Madeline Miller: The first Women’s Prize longlisted book I’ve read after the announcement, and one I enjoyed a good deal more than Miller’s Prize-winning debut, The Song of Achilles. In her second book, she’s learned emotional restraint: the slightly breathless, soapy quality of Achilles’s and Patroclus’s doomed romance is replaced by Circe’s independence and the knowledge that her time with Odysseus is borrowed at best. Perhaps the most interesting parts of this story are its beginning – Circe’s childhood as a minor daughter of the Sun Lord, Helios, and the million petty cruelties of his court – and its end – providing what I think is a non-canonical but highly satisfying fate for Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, as well as for his son Telemachus and Circe herself. I wouldn’t be sad to see this on the shortlist, unless the longlisted titles I haven’t yet read are all outstanding.

Currently reading: I’ve just started Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, a space-exploration novel by the terrifyingly young (twenty-five) and talented Temi Oh.

27 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Mar. 5-Mar. 11

  1. I’m still hesitating re whether to try Oyeyemi again! For me, her work tends to fall on the wrong side of the line you mention (I haven’t read Kelly Link so can’t compare, but Karen Russell does a wonderful job of walking on the right side of it).

    I remember really liking The Song of Achilles, but I read it in 2012, so I might feel differently if I came back to it now.

    I’m so keen to read Do You Dream of Terra-Two?

    1. Gingerbread is definitely less opaque than some of her earlier work (I tend to find that Kelly Link falls on the wrong side of the line for me too, although I really want to like her work.)

      Have you read Circe yet? I don’t think it’s so unlike The Song of Achilles that it’d put off Miller’s fans; it just feels like the work of a more mature, confident, skilled writer.

      Do You Dream…? is so far ok, but leaning a little towards the YA in style and focus. I’ll probably carry on with it for a while longer before making a decision about putting it down or not.

      1. No, haven’t read Circe yet, but definitely planning to – have it on order at the library. It’s unusual, but I think quite encouraging, that there’s such a gap between her first two books.

        That’s a shame about Do You Dream? I really want to read more diverse SF that isn’t YA-ish (or actual YA)!

      2. Finished Do You Dream…? this morning – it’s fine, highly readable, but in its emotional beats, yes, a YA vibe throughout. Trying to think of more SF (as opposed to fantasy) – Nnedi Okorafor, perhaps? River Solomons? (I’ve heard An Unkindess of Ghosts is amazing.) Cixin Liu? (Not my favourite SF experience, but so different to stuff written for Western audiences that it felt worth reading.) Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist?

      3. Thanks for the recs! I really didn’t get on with the only Okorafor I’ve read (Binti) ironically partly because it felt quite YA-ish, but perhaps I should try her again. I’ll definitely check out Liu and Solomons. I struggled with Whitehead’s dystopian SF Zone One, but haven’t read The Intutitionist.

      4. Maybe try The Book of Phoenix? It’s not perfect but it’s maybe a bit less YA. The Intuitionist seems to be a different vibe from Zone One – less zombie, more social commentary – which might make a difference!

  2. I enjoyed The Song of Achilles, in fact I’m going to include it as one of a possible grouping for this year’s Summer School based around retelling of classical tales, however, I think Circe is even better and would be very glad to see it on the Short List.

    1. The Song of Achilles definitely contains a lot to discuss, and Circe just as much! It’s also made me want to read The Iliad and The Odyssey back-to-back…

    1. The Book of Joan is AMAZING. Why it hasn’t made its way onto prize lists (any of them! All of them! The Women’s Prize, The Booker, the Arthur C Clarke, ffs) is beyond me.

  3. Yuknavitch is scarily talented. And her memoir was my favourite book I read a few years ago. I recently had reason to reread the first chapter and there is just something hypnotic about her writing.
    I gave up on Do You Dream of Terra-Two after trying to get into it for months. The writing didn’t really work for me.

      1. Then I think I am ok with my decision to put it down for now. I found it very YA in tone and I am not quite up for that at the moment.

  4. Knowing how highly you think of her work, I’ll have to try out Lidia Yuknavitch’s books sometime. She’s blurbed on my copy of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, which I recently read (but wasn’t a huge fan of), and she seems like a really interesting writer.

    1. She writes in her memoir about meeting Kathy Acker! Acker’s 100% not my kind of writer, but you can tell that her mentorship meant a lot to Yuknavitch; her memories are extremely affectionate.

  5. The Chronology of Water sounds like everything I ask for in a book (memoir, swimming, emotional turmoil, tears). Thanks for the recommendation (may not say that when I’m ugly-crying in the tram).

  6. Err… this is an odd question, I know, and a long shot, but in “Cala”, is ‘Cala’ the name of a person? If so, is there any discussion of the name, or indication of its origins (in the first 82 pages!), even an ethnicity?

    [tldnr explanation: in the poem cycle I’ve just read, the poet variously calls his beloved “Cynthia”, “Caelica”, or “Myra”. Now, Cynthia is obvious, and although I think he invented “Caelica” it’s clear what it means. He did invent “Myra”, and there are various theories as to why, which make some sense*. But in just one poem he instead calls her “Cala”, and I can’t find any precedent, any etymology, any plausible connotation. So, seeing soon after a novel actually titled after the mysterious “Cala”, I was kind of wondering if there was anything there to solve the mystery!]

    [*official theory is that it’s an anagram of ‘Mary’, the woman’s presumed real name. Personally, whether or not that’s true, I think it’s designed to evoke “myria”]

    1. Cala is the name of the farmhouse where the protagonist lives in a collective with several other women – unsure if that helps or not. Also, a lot of their names and household terms for things are Gaelic, so perhaps that’s where the name comes from?

      1. Well, it IS Welsh for “penis”.

        …or, perhaps more relevantly, it means “harbour” in Gaelic (‘caladh’ in Irish).

        Plausibly the origin of your ‘Cala’, but probably not of mine (since I doubt the poet knew any Gaelic).

        Thanks for helping, though!

      2. Well, that’s new – I had no idea. (It does seem slightly more likely that the “harbour” derivation is the relevant one in my case…)

  7. Perhaps it’s not accurate – I haven’t read any of her work! – but the way you described Oyeyemi reminds me of Murakami Haruki!

    1. Actually, that’s not far off – there’s the same sort of uncanniness, a seemingly realistic and recognizable world that shifts and changes into surreal or supernatural shapes. Interestingly, I’ve never had a lot of luck with Murakami either; I find him interesting but cold.

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