March

There was a part of March before the lockdown, and in it, I read a few books. (I also finished one book in March directly after posting my most recent round-up, so I’ll cover that too.)

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Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Before I went to the States, I posted a call on Twitter for recommendations with regards to good airplane books. The resulting deluge of suggestions was lovely but completely un-navigable, so I narrowed it down to two classics that I already owned and knew could keep me occupied for eight hours, Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. Posting about this triggered another avalanche,  this time primarily from middle-aged men, all of whom were very keen to tell me just how Extraordinary An Achievement of the Human Spirit both of those books are. (Yes, Kevin, but is it consistently diverting at high altitude?) One guy was such a strong proponent of Cervantes that I decided to take Dostoevsky, out of spite. Crime and Punishment turned out to be very much not what I expected, though that’s not a bad thing. It’s not particularly dense, for one thing, though it is repetitive. (Once Raskolnikov kills the old lady, he mostly wanders around in cycles of despair and defiance, being sick and getting better, intending to turn himself in and deciding not to.) The oddest thing is that those repetitions make it kind of… funny? In the darkest possible way. It’s like a Coen Brothers movie. Just after the murder, he gets stuck in the old lady’s flat while the two guys renovating the flat downstairs yell at him, and his paralysis is ridiculous, hilarious. At one point he literally hides behind a door to evade his pursuers. It’s absurdist comedy. Also: is there Porfiry/Rasknolnikov slashfic? It may just have been me, but there’s a distinct flavour of erotic sadomasochism/power play in the way they talk to each other. Anyway: weird, worth it, I still like Tolstoy better so far, is there another Dostoevsky novel that might be a good next step?

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The Iliad, by Homer, transl. Robert Fitzgerald: Posting about my struggles with the audiobook version of the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad also drew the exaggerated incredulity of the Kevins of this world, which I suppose I should have expected. Anyway, the fact is that for at least the first 50% of the poem, I was not enthralled. Dan Stevens reads the Fitzgerald edition that’s available on Audible, and he has a lovely reading voice, but even he cannot hide the fact that much of the first twelve books is just names and deaths, going by in a blur too quick to be meaningful. Which I guess is the point—soldiers die in war like Whitman’s leaves of grass, cut down before they can know themselves or their enemy can know them—but twelve books of the stuff is rather a lot. The interventions of the gods, also, seem scrupulously pointless: one intervenes for the Achaeans and they advance, another intervenes for the Trojans and they push back. Again, the futility of war is thoroughly conveyed, but at the cost of being able to invest. Things improve significantly around the time of Patroclus’s death (which comes much, much earlier than you’d think given its emotional weight in the poem), and the final 50% was infinitely more compelling. Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Iliad is seeing how the demands we place on our stories have changed over time; it was clearly conveyed orally to its first audiences and was probably shaped in direct response to their tastes and preferences, so why do we now find that parts of it drag, that the dramatic tension drops and rises in curious places? What’s changed about humans, about the pace at which we live our lives and absorb our stories, or about the events and relationships we find significant?

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The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld: Of all the books for which I’m sad because the pandemic will fuck up their first-week sales, The Bass Rock may be the one for which I’m the saddest. Evie Wyld is a great writer—her last book, All the Birds Singing, was subtle and scary about female vulnerability without sacrificing characterization or style to a political end, and The Bass Rock does the same thing. It has three narrators in three different time frames, but all in the same place, which is a structure easy to do badly, but here done in just such a way as to demonstrate its strengths: it allows us to compare and contrast, to see the ways in which society and landscape pattern peoples’ lives across decades, even centuries, throwing up eerie parallels between otherwise disparate stories. The strongest, I think, is that of Ruth in the 1950s; she is the second wife of a man whose kindness is quickly, dizzyingly, somewhat sickeningly, revealed to be merely the condescension of an everyday misogynist, entitled and thoughtless. The anticlimactic, deflating banality of his awfulness is a key strength of Wyld’s writing. In fact, that now-clichéd fact is everywhere in the book, from the ever-so-slightly-wrong local vicar who takes the children off for sinister excursions, to the boyfriend of the woman in the modern-day sections whose anger flares up when she sets a boundary he deems unreasonable, to the matter-of-fact detachment with which the young narrator of the seventeenth-century sections describes the gang rape and subsequent murder of a young woman denounced as a witch. It sounds po-faced and preachy when I write about it this way, but it’s not, I promise it’s not. It’s funny and queasy and stylish and lives in my head weeks after being read. I think it might be this year’s Ghost Wall. Please, please order it (it was published yesterday, by Jonathan Cape) or put it on hold from your library, and read it.

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Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge: A new book from Hardinge is guaranteed to be a treat. She seems to get darker and more adult as she goes on, and I like it a lot. Her latest is set in an archipelago that was previously ruled over by Lovecraftian gods, horrifying eldritch monsters of the deep that occasionally wrecked islands or devoured ships and who had to be placated by a special caste of priests. Within living memory, all these gods killed each other, and the world is now devoid of divinity, except for the thriving market in “godware”, leftover pieces of their corpses that have strange properties. Hardinge paints the relationship between her young protagonist, Hark, and his best friend Jelt, in shades of grey: we realize pretty early on that their “friendship” is emotionally abusive, as Jelt constantly manipulates Hark into putting himself in danger. There are definite shades of Ursula K. LeGuin here—personal accountability and growth are just as important as saving the world; indeed, the latter relies heavily on the former. It’s also the first time I can remember seeing young adult fiction that deals with emotional abuse between people of the same age who are not in a romantic relationship. I hope it’s the first of many.

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Air, by Geoff Ryman: My attempt to read all of the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners has introduced me to some really incredible science fiction, and Air, which won in 2006, is by no means the least of these. Appropriately, it’s set in 2019-2020, and concerns the coming of a new technology called Air (“like TV in your head”) to the remote Central Asian village of Kizuldah, where people are barely aware of “the Net”, let alone this potentially devastating new world. Chung Mae, the village’s stubborn “fashion expert”, experiences an early test version of Air that kills her elderly neighbour and implants the old woman’s consciousness in Mae’s mind. Realizing how desperately unready her people are, she determines to make them so. Ryman’s smart not to play the situation for laughs on the whole; the book is funny, sometimes, but it’s not laughing at Mae or at her fellow villagers. It’s also the most effectively political book I’ve read for a long time, seamlessly integrating the odd coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and (fictional) ethnic minority Eloi in the same village with the central government’s formal oppression of those same Eloi, an oppression reflected in the tiny, propaganda-riddled quantity of information about them available online (and which an Eloi woman in the village decides to remedy, to her own hazard). Nor can I think of another book that so clearly demonstrates how universal access to information is democratic only in the most sinuous and slippery way, how the division of “haves” and “have-nots” (the book’s subtitle) will persist unless have-nots are specifically taught how to use new tools, and taught without condescension, in ways that they can grasp. It’s an exciting, gripping, hopeful, bittersweet book, and an exceptionally good one.

24 thoughts on “March

  1. All The Birds Singing was one of my books of the decade, so I have been eagerly anticipating The Bass Rock for a NUMBER of years now. I’m so glad you liked it so much as I’m scared it’s going to disappoint – I’m just starting it now. Air sounds amazing and is going straight on my TBR.

    Unfortunately, I have also had conversations with some Kevins recently when I tweeted about the best books to read during a pandemic, which were clearly not literary (white, male) enough for their tastes. I enjoyed your descriptions of them.

    1. The Bass Rock is really great, I hope/think you’ll love it. I even preferred it to All the Birds Singing! And I hope you love Air, too. It’s quite moving.

      Oh, Kevins. This is probably unfair to people who are actually named Kevin and who are just fine. But it is so astonishingly noticeable, particularly with those tweets– the ratio of unhelpful male bloviating to helpful female recommendations. Ugh.

  2. I’m such a Kevin when it comes to the Iliad I APOLOGIZE it’s just one of my favorite things ever written and I find it SO ENTHRALLING but at the same time I know I would find it maddening via audio – which as you pointed out is funny/ironic as that’s how it was initially meant to be consumed! I think part of it for me is just personal preference (I don’t really love audiobooks ever) but those are excellent points about how the pace of the world has changed and so literary preferences have changed accordingly.

    I cannot WAIT to read The Bass Rock (I just read The Everlasting which does something similar so I’m particularly interested in that kind of book right now). And I absolutely support you reading Crime and Punishment out of spite.

    1. I forgive you for being an Iliad Kevin, it is allowed from people I actually know! My bestie who is a classicist has also informed me that the Fitzgerald translation is not widely considered to be the best or near the best, so maybe that was part of it?

      You will LOVE The Bass Rock. I really hope you do, anyway. It’s so impressive.

      Reading things out of spite is a long-standing thing with me. When I was twelve, I finished Anna Karenina overnight just to prove to someone that I could do it. It is a completely unnecessary impulse and yet here we are.

      1. It’s true, Fitzgerald is not my fave, though I am easily swayed by Dan Stephens narrating anything so it was an understandable choice. If you ever feel compelled to revisit it, I’m partial to Caroline Alexander and Robert Fagles (the latter being a not-totally-word-for-word-accurate translation but which I think captures the spirit and energy of the text so well).

        Anna Karenina in one night at 12 I AM VERY IMPRESSED INDEED BY YOUR SPITEFUL SELF. Is it good btw?! I found War and Peace to be SUCH A BORE (I hope Kevin doesn’t see this) so it kind of put me off Tolstoy for a while but I like the sound of AK.

      2. Oh lord no I read half of AK in one night. My parents’ friend (jokingly!!) was like “Haven’t you finished it yet?!” and humourless child me was like “I will SHOW YOU”. I had lots of friends, I promise.

  3. I read The Bass Rock at the beginning of the week; my post will go up at the weekend. I think it is remarkable. I’ve already started sending it to friends as early birthday presents just because I want to be sure I’m the one who gives it to them. Why isn’t it on the Women’s Prize list?

    1. Oh, I am SO GLAD you’ve read it and are buying it. I don’t know why it’s not on the Women’s Prize list–the only reason I can think of is that the timing of its publication might disqualify it, by about a week? Which would be incredibly unfair, if so, and I’d hope to see it on next year’s shortlist.

  4. My indie bookshop pre-order of The Bass Rock arrived yesterday and I hope to start it over the weekend.

    I only made it 50 pages into Crime and Punishment earlier this year. That endless letter from his mother nearly did me in.

    I’ve recently acquired an elderly gentleman commenter on my blog who likes to tell me I’m reading too much or that some of my selections are crap. I’ve managed to be diplomatic but firm so far, when all I really want to say is “don’t be a dick.”

  5. Dosteovesky on a plane would be heard! But I think you made the right call – Don Quixote took me months to get through! Personally, I vastly prefer The Brothers Karamazov to Crime & Punishment and find the characters much more interesting.

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