May Superlatives

This is the first post I’ve created with WordPress’s newly structured Editor, so bear with me if it’s weirdly formatted. It all seems mostly, roughly intuitive, but who can say? Anyway, May 2020: a pretty good reading month. Fewer books, but quite possibly many more pages—I read some chunksters, not all of which flew by, but all of which were incredibly rewarding. One of them, actually, is on my list of candidates for Books of the Year (I’m creating that as I go this year, in the hope of having an easier time choosing when December rolls around). Thirteen in total, only seven of which were physical books; photo of them below, collage of ebooks and audiobooks in middle and at end of post. Let’s get into it!

best classic: One of the few remaining Charlotte Brontë novels I hadn’t yet read, her historical novel Shirley. I think it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that nineteenth-century novelists wrote historical novels that were also set in the nineteenth century; Shirley is about industrial labor and romantic pragmatism in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic wars, as new laws devastate the area’s woollen mills. It feels surprisingly hard-nosed even for C.B., who, for my money, is the most ruthless Brontë by a long way. But, as I think I mentioned before, it features a female friendship that doesn’t collapse over a man or even revolve around him most of the time, and that’s refreshing.

slowest burn: This, by the way, is a good thing. The one thing everyone knows about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is that it’s long. Having read it, the reason for the length is obvious: it’s a stylistic choice that reveals character, a buildup of childhood memories, musical earworms, film and literature references, a constant circling around specific but initially, apparently, random events that reveals this woman’s inner self to us, a building up of layers like the lamination of dough for croissants (she’s a baker). And despite the fact that it’s nearly 1000 pages long, the final 100 pages are nail-biting. Literally, genuinely, edge of your seat stuff. They never say that in the reviews.

most reflective of my own obsessive brain: Okay, this is a weird category, but it’s no weirder than me finishing The Only Plane in the Sky last month and immediately using my free Audible credit to download Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda. It won the Pulitzer, and I can see why, as it’s very thorough, but listening to it also clarified how much easier this kind of nonfiction is for me to read than to listen to. It’s a complicated story, there are a lot of names, dates and places, and the chronologies are decades-long. Once we got to the ’90s, it was easier to keep track (presumably because a lot of those names are more familiar to me: bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on), but the cumulative effect of listening to this was probably more atmospheric than concretely educational.

most overdue recommendation: Pretty sure my friend Jon recommended The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, to me over a decade ago. I’ve had an ebook version for a while—it’s on the Guardian Top 1000 novels list as well—and turned to it in a sf-y mood. It’s a rather brilliant metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam: Earth soldiers are engaged in an interstellar war with aliens called Taurans, but the effects of relativity mean centuries pass for every month or so they spend on campaign. I wanted more about the general social implications of this (how do you continue to fund and wage a war when most of the civilian population have never even seen a veteran?), but it’s a novel about soldiering, not politics, and as far as I can tell without having ever been a soldier, from that perspective Haldeman nails it. Fair warning: it has that kind of whiplash fake-future-feminism you get from a lot of older sci-fi (women serve as soldiers and are supposedly treated as equals, but it’s also illegal for them to refuse to have sex with anyone. Cool!)

most eclectic: Lots of my customers like to describe their tastes as “eclectic”. They virtually never really are. If they were, they might be more open to books like Ken Hollings’s The Space Oracle, which I find myself utterly unable to describe in any genre terms whatsoever. It’s nonfiction, but that’s where my certainties end. It’s definitely mostly astronomy, but sometimes it’s history and sometimes it’s mythology and sometimes it’s kind of, maybe, alchemy? It’s more or less an exploration of how different world cultures have used the ordering principles of the night sky to impose order on life, but Hollings uses unfamiliar names for the members of the zodiac, which immediately throws off all the things you think you know. Really interesting, really weird.

best emotional break: I suppose this is an odd takeaway from a memoir about the incredibly difficult life of cattle farmers in Ireland, particularly given that the author of The Cow Book, John Connell, is perpetually at loggerheads with his father. But it did feel like an emotional break. The concerns of farming are concrete and visible, unlike many of our current anxieties: will the calf die? Will the weather break? Will the cow conceive? There’s a slightly sadboi energy to Connell’s writing that occasionally irritates (he uses “for” instead of “because” a lot, which I’m only really willing to accommodate in writing from at least fifty years ago or in poetry), but it’s a thoughtful, melancholy read, which I appreciated.

most obvious influence: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is… well… the first time machine in literature! Certainly the first to use the phrase, and without doubt a foundational text of the time travel canon. I was surprised by its brevity, and by how basically flimsy the story is (and that the Time Traveller’s tale, which makes up the bulk of the novella, never loses its quotation marks at the start of each paragraph), but Wells’s theorized split in the future of humanity, where the effete, beautiful and useless Eloi are the prey of the bestial, subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, and both are descendants of homo sapiens as we currently know the species, says some dark, dark things about the direction of late Victorian/early Edwardian thought about class division. (To be clear: I’m not saying Wells thought the poor were Morlocks. I’m just saying, he doesn’t seem to have had much optimism about upward mobility.) A fascinating, if brief, book.

most annoyingly good: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, which I would much prefer not to have enjoyed, but which instead I have to admit is extremely compelling in its account of how languge both reveals a person and constrains them. And not just in the generic literary-fiction sense, either; Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, is an Irish ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and her detailing of which words are used in what contexts and with what implications are so precise, they feel like evidence for use in an essay. She skewers class, gender, nationality and sexuality with this level of attention. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to Sally Rooney, and I can see why, but I prefer Dolan: she acknowledges the peculiarities, the oddness, of her characters in a way that Rooney never does, and it makes their odd behaviour feel, perversely, more realistic.

best premise: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. In an alt-Johannesburg, there’s a condition called Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism. No one can explain it, but if you do something bad (not necessarily criminal, but definitely morally wrong), you get an animal sidekick – silent, ever-present, inseparable from you. Think kind of noir Pullman. Our heroine Zinzi has a Sloth. You also get a gift: hers is finding lost things. When she takes the kind of case she never takes—missing persons—she’s in at the deep end of a story involving the South African music scene, traditional medicine, and very unscrupulous people. This won the Clarke Award; my last Clarke winner was Air, by Geoff Ryman, which was a more ambitious and more moving novel than Zoo City, but this is a seriously fun noir/sf mashup, the pace never lets up, and Beukes’s prose—while occasionally overegged—usually hits just the right tangy/salty notes. Grand stuff.

closest to stealing Tana French’s crown: No one will ever actually do that. But We Know You Know (formally published under the much more evocative and relevant-to-the-actual-plot title Stone Mothers), by Erin Kelly, comes near. Dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event that occurred in a now-closed hospital, and the effect it has on three lives when it’s brought up many decades later, the book is not just a crime thriller, but a merciless filleting of the systems and prejudices that conspired (and still do) to imprison and punish the vulnerable—particularly women—and how the repercussions of traumas incurred in those systems are generations-deep.

best historical escapism: The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak’s novel of sixteenth-century Istanbul, master builder Sinan, and one of his apprentices, Jahan, who appears in the Ottoman court as the keeper of a white elephant, Chota, sent as a gift to the Sultan. I’ve said before that I want to like Shafak’s work more than I do; there’s a stylistic inelegance and tendency to rely on cliché that often deflates her writing for me. The Architect’s Apprentice suffers from these flaws, but somehow the historical setting seems to absorb them more easily, making it feel more naturally like a long fable or picaresque. Highly enjoyable, though, for its energy and charm, and the way it explains gaps in the record (Sinan and his chief western rival Michelangelo having never met or even corresponded, for instance).

best audio choice: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, a memoir exploring Stott’s childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict Christian sect that became a cult in the ’60s and was rocked by a sex scandal in the ’70s. Stott’s father, who had been a pillar of their EB community in Brighton, pulled the family out then, and the book is something of an attempt to lay his ghost (Stott uses this metaphor herself) after he dies several decades later. It’s beautifully written, a thoughtful, curious, compassionate and fascinating account of religious mania but also of her family history and her father’s character. She has, apparently, written at least two novels as well, though this is what won her the Costa biography prize in 2017; her fiction must be well worth seeking out.

best sunshine thriller: Conviction by Denise Mina, although that makes the book sound popcorn-y and it’s not. Focusing on a woman who decides to do some investigating of her own when a true crime podcast mentions a man she was once friends with, there are a few melodramatic moments that stretch credulity, but they’re swallowable because Mina writes really capably, and because of the voice of the protagonist she’s created. Overt polemics are few and far between, but make no mistake, this is an intensely political novel disguised as a Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick. That just screams summer to me.

currently reading: On audio, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; and just about to start an old Virago paperback of Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.

14 thoughts on “May Superlatives

  1. I’ve been meaning to read a Denise Mina for ages (shallow I know, but I do love her hair!). My copy of Ducks is sitting looking at me – but I’m saying ‘after my 20 books of summer’ for now.

    • Mina’s hair is great, and her writing is great too—I heard her speak about Conviction at a Vintage showcase nearly a year ago and she was incredibly inspirational. I’m so glad I finally picked it up.

      I literally only got round to reading Ducks because I made my boyfriend choose a random number from my TBR and that was what it landed on. It took me a week, but it’s absolutely engrossing; the rhythm of the phrases becomes hypnotic. I really recommend it, although it’s also definitely a commitment, so post-20 BoS sounds like a good plan!

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed Stone Mothers (agree that title is infinitely superior, but marketing!)

    The concept of The Forever War is fascinating but I found the sexism and homophobia incredibly uncomfortable, and couldn’t read it again.

    The Time Machine has all the obvious problems of a first entry in a totally new sub-genre, but the bit at the end where they find the empty room where the Time Traveller should be still haunts me.

    • Oh God, yes, the homophobia as well. I wouldn’t read it again—I’m glad I did on a certain level, but it was very, very uncomfortable. Lists like the Guardian Top 1000 reinforce, quite deliberately, a hierarchy of literature that is often white supremacist, imperialist, racist, sexist and homophobic, and I’m going to have to face the fact that my desire to have Read All The Books needs to be tempered with a growing awareness that All The Books might not look the way I (and mainstream literary commentary/media) think it does.

      That is a haunting moment, I agree. Getting lost in time is second in scariness only to getting lost in space…

      • It’s a tricky one! I really admire your SF reading project and I love seeing how genres develop, so I’m definitely also motivated to read older SF – and books like The Forever War need useful critical readings if they’re going to keep getting valorised by people who may have last read them decades ago (and I did think there was such interesting stuff in the novel, especially in its first half). Sometimes I think part of the problem with ‘best of’ lists is that people are backing their memory of a film/book rather than what they’d think of it if they returned to it now (at least I HOPE that’s why Good Will Hunting pops up so frequently in top films).

      • Very good point. A lot of “best” lists must be powered by nostalgia—so many people’s opinions change over time!

  3. Exciting Times definitely goes on the list. Having worked in a university department where many of my colleagues had taught ESL in Far East countries it’s a cannot miss.

  4. I have not seen this fabled block editor yet … I dread it!

    There was a question about Shirley in the pub-style quiz I did last night! (Well, just naming which Bronte sister wrote it, but I was smug about it being a no-brainer.)

    I’m not sure if I consider my tastes eclectic — I read a lot more NF, of different categories, than many people do, but I avoid genre fiction almost entirely — but I do tend to love the sort of uncategorizable book you’ve described.

    I adored In the Days of Rain, but didn’t get on with the novel of Stott’s that I tried, Ghostwalk. I might try again, though. I saw her speak at Greenbelt Festival and was really impressed.

    It sounds like NF works well for you on audiobook. I know Simon Savidge has found the same.

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