Reading Diary round-up

More for me than for you; short impressions of what I’ve read in the last fortnight that isn’t 20 Books of Summer.

Lit, by Mary Karr: A devastating memoir of trying to be a poet, keep a failing marriage together, and kick alcoholism. (Two of these things, Karr achieves. The marriage isn’t one.) A little too long given that it doesn’t really acquire a sense of propulsion until the second half, which is when Karr also finds Catholicism–but her writing about faith, particularly faith as an intellectual and inveterate doubter, is electric. One for fans of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald’s writing is very clear and clean and capable, and also entirely of its time; one wonders whether she’d get published in today’s marketing- and sales-driven environment. The Blue Flower is the love story of the German Romantic poet Novalis and the pre-teen daughter of a business acquaintance, which makes it somewhat tricky to read in 2019, although the narration is never prurient or indeed particularly sexual. Her atmospheric abilities are incredible, though; you do feel you’re in a nineteenth-century German market town on wash day. And Novalis’s odd, ethereal little brother makes the novel memorable all on his own.

The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon: Tremendously fun contemporary urban fantasy, set in an England beset by a plague of clairvoyance and suffering under a repressive regime. Shannon makes Oxford a ghost town controlled by powerful, supernatural beings who are also utter arseholes. (One imagines there’s some not entirely sublimated irony there.) A bit race-y in its plotting, but then that’s why you read a book like this: to be swept away.

Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor: Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe MistressThe Phantom of the Opera, and Things In Jars.

Joe Country, by Mick Herron: I go back and forth on Herron’s work in the Slough House series; it’s sometimes wickedly funny, with a strong element of self-aware bathos, and sometimes tries too hard for its own good, falling over its own political incorrectness. Joe Country lies on the right side of the line, generally, though I’m starting to wonder if the series is now long enough that new readers will have a hard time starting in the middle.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: Outstanding. It’s a very short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.

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20 thoughts on “Reading Diary round-up

      1. I’ve only read her book The Art of Memoir, which is more of a writer’s how-to with recommendations and close readings from the memoir canon. I have The Liar’s Club and Lit on the shelf and will start the former soon.

  1. I really couldn’t get on with The Bone Season or The Blue Flower, unfortunately, for very different reasons! I don’t think I enjoy complex fantasy worlds that aren’t close enough to history or folk-tale, and The Blue Flower was beautiful sentence-by-sentence but too sparse overall for me.

    1. Ahh, I would have thought The Bone Season might have done more for you! I did find its world extremely (perhaps overly) complicated, which may have been a byproduct of an extremely inventive author putting in more than she needs. I see what you mean about The Blue Flower, too – I finished it aesthetically pleased but wondering on another level whether there was any real point to it…

      1. It was just too complicated for me, sadly, but I don’t think I’m a natural fantasy reader – I tend to like either simpler folktale-inspired worlds (e.g. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Robin McKinley’s novels) or complicated political stuff in a less obviously fantastical world (A Song of Ice and Fire).

      2. I mean, I read it on the recommendation of a colleague–it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to pick it up otherwise–but I know what you mean about preferring the folktale side of the fantasy spectrum. (Wondering now where Pullman falls here; his fantasy is, like Tolkien’s, very grounded in European mythologies and history.)

  2. Giovanni’s Room sounds amazing. I must get to it at some point. As you say, Baldwin is such an impressive writer – he has an ability to convey such powerful emotions in his beautiful, lyrical prose.

    1. It’s my very first Baldwin and so impressive. (SO SHORT.) Thinking Go Tell It on the Mountain next. The child preacher thing makes me think of Flannery O’Connor a little.

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