January 2021 Wrap-Up

Well, I’ve done it for a whole month so far: chosen books deliberately, read them with care, and written a considered piece on each book before reaching gluttonously for the next. This has involved spending a number of my weekday mornings before work with a coffee and my laptop, slowly coming to and exercising my brain, and I’m so grateful to have carved out that quiet, intellectually creative hour and a half for myself.

As far as selections go, I’m pretty happy with the balance between old and new so far. I read ten books in January, four of which were proof copies, new releases or new reprints (Lightseekers, The Prophets, Dostoevsky in Love and Without Prejudice). Three were from the Great Unread on my shelves (Don Quixote, Water Music, The Summer Without Men), and one of those was a classic. Two were new purchases. I’ve started allowing myself one new book a week (purchased on Wednesdays, delivered on Fridays, just in time for the weekend), and both of January’s choices were great in different ways: Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox and Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. I also finally finished Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat, which I’ve been reading from front to back like a novel for about a year. Her prose fills me with joy, and I’ve been cooking from it more and more too!

With regards to calming down about the Goodreads numbers: I think slowing down my pace of reading, and focusing on writing something analytical about each book, is doing a lot of the work here. I still think about it too much, but I’m not nearly as distressed by the fact that I “only” read ten books in January as I might otherwise have been.

As far as my other reading resolutions go, both Rosenberg and Anders are trans, which is good as I want to explore more trans, nb and GNC authors this year. Femi Kayode (Lightseekers), Robert Jones Jr. (The Prophets), and Nicola Williams (Without Prejudice) are all authors of colour, which goes towards maintaining the racial diversity of my reading. No translations, though, unless you count Don Quixote (which I suppose I should; it was, after all, a good translation.)

For February, my vague aim will be to focus more on authors in translation, to continue working through as-yet-unread backlist titles on my shelves, and to preserve my senses of whim and balance when it comes to choosing my next book.

In non-book-related stuff, I’ve been trying to stay both sane and physically healthy, as we all are. Mostly, for me, the necessary sense of stability comes from routine and ritual. Working out three times a week helps. So does making myself write those book essays, and I’m also trying to write (no matter how small an entry) in my journal every day. Having to plan visits to the supermarket like the Peninsular Campaign has paradoxically led me to cook more (including, amongst other things, Tuscan bean stew, pork rice bowl with green beans, roasted paneer with potatoes, tomatoes and peas, a bacon, leek and bean soup, and slow-cooked Venezuelan beef with red peppers and bay). Going on endless weekend walks is pretty much the only way to see anyone, so I’ve been doing a lot of that (Woodberry Wetlands in Hackney with my best mate today, where I’d never been–it’s historic and lovely, with proper space for nature, and the local area feels like a real little neighbourhood!) M and I can’t see each other in person but we’ve been doing movie dates on the weekends thanks to Teleparty, and are working steadily through Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue. My housemate Joe and I, meanwhile, have been clinging to Junior Bake Off and The Great Pottery Throwdown for gentle, kind-hearted weirdness, and I’ve been blasting through The West Wing (I’m on series 7 now. Santos-McGarry For America!)

What about you? How are you doing with your reading so far this year? How’s your life? What are you enjoying, or not enjoying? Where does your sense of stability come from?


All the Birds in the Sky

I read this in a way that I had sort of tacitly agreed with myself to stop doing: in great big tearing gulps, all at once, the whole thing in a day, which has left me with a book hangover and a sense that it needs digestion before being written about. I think it’s likely I won’t write such a long or detailed review here as some of my more recent ones have been, but that’s okay—a lot of my new attitude towards reading and writing is an experiment, so some trial and error is par for the course.

Which is probably what Laurence would say, Laurence being one half of the duo-tagonists of this book. He is a maths and science genius when we meet him, in the eighth grade, being brutally bullied. Patricia, our other main character, is a witch. But while Laurence is always capable of using his skills (to, for instance, build a two-second time machine with schematics he finds on the internet, which brings him to the attention of some grown-up geeks who will shape his adult life), Patricia is often unable to control or command hers for months at a time. We first meet her, age six, realizing she can talk to birds, and being directed by one of them to the Parliamentary Tree, where she is asked a seemingly unanswerable riddle; but the memory of this fades with time, and she is only sporadically able to communicate with animals, or use astral travel, until the crisis of her own experiences with bullying at school causes her to run away. You might think there’s a touch of gender essentialism in making Laurence’s power quintessentially male-inflected and Patricia’s quintessentially feminized: when Patricia speaks to the tree, it tells her “a witch serves nature”, which makes her wonder: if a witch serves nature and nature serves Laurence, would following the path of magic lead me to nothing more exciting than serving Laurence?

All the Birds isn’t totally interested in answering these questions—about power and interference—on a macro level, although it acknowledges them (trained witches, as Patricia eventually is, are constantly warned against Aggrandizement, or doing anything that might a) affect the course of the world too much, or b) make them feel that they themselves are any more important than “specks on a speck”). Patricia and Laurence argue in explicit terms about ethics: Laurence belives morals are derived from principles, Patricia that they’re situational. But ultimately—even though each of them ends up making choices that bring humanity closer to either abject destruction, or another chance at life—the novel is about two people, and the responsibilities they bear towards each other. There’s a touch of disproportion here, in that we both know by the end of the book that Patricia and Laurence really are just specks on a speck, and yet we’re also being asked to care the most about them; I’m not sure All the Birds is completely coherent in its riffs on the ideas of Chosen Ones and specialness vs. just doing what’s in your power to make the world a safer, kinder place.

I sort of don’t mind, though. Anders’s narrative tone oscillates between the arch and the urgent in a way that jolts a reader rather pleasantly: I found myself snorting at descriptions of the assassin Theodolphus Rose, determined to kill both Laurence and Patricia as children, who eats a poisoned ice-cream sundae in a suburban mall Cheesecake Factory and has to self-administer the antidote. His later attempts to get closer to them involve being hired as their school guidance counselor, and inadvertently becoming the most beloved educator in the school. These early sections might seem manic, I suppose, but they reminded me of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett at their satirical best—auspicious stylistic forbears for a novel about both science and magic. Later descriptions of the hAcKcOlLeCtIvE [sic] in the Bay Area where Laurence works on a wormhole machine that might save ten percent of humanity from a warming planet, or Danger Books, a San Francisco secondhand bookshop and absinthe bar where area witches congregate, are as assured as, and warmer than, anything out of Gibson or Gaiman. Ernesto, a witch whose touch supercharges anything organic (including himself) and Isobel, a scientist whose fear for her planet leads her to the brink of despair, could both have come straight out of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X novels. And in between the descriptions of our protagonists as children and adults just doing their thing, we get glimpses of a rather sinister world; the curriculum they follow, the Saarinian Programme, seems designed to have them memorizing and repeating obscure texts by rote (for instance, the speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes, which becomes a sort of running joke), and their families appear even more damaged and desensitized by late capitalism than is usual. (Patricia’s parents lock her in her room for a week at one point; her sister Roberta clearly tortures small animals; Laurence’s father is so terrified at the thought of falling behind in his work that he can’t even consider taking an afternoon off to go watch a rocket launch with his son.) The scene-setting and the set dressing in All the Birds is a big part of the fun (it would make a terrific mini-series). If the whole apocalypse part seems muddled, well, apocalypses usually are.

All the Birds in the Sky was published by Tor Books in the US in 2016; in the UK, where my copy originated, it’s published by Titan Books.

Without Prejudice

~~Some spoilers may follow. Trigger/content warnings for open racism and sexism, rape, sexual coercion~~

Without Prejudice, one of the six entries in Penguin’s new Black Britain: Writing Back reprint series (curated by Bernardine Evaristo), is a crime novel from 1997 that both speaks urgently to contemporary issues and reveals just how far we’ve come in twenty-odd years–though often this is less a question of battles being won than of the fight simply moving underground. Lee Mitchell, the protagonist, is a barrister from a working-class Caribbean background; one of only two women in her chambers, and the only Black person at all, she comes up against constant institutional resistance, from colleagues as well as clients. When a tasty, high-profile fraud case involving the Omartians, a City investing family, lands on her desk, she takes it in the knowledge that this could be The Case, the win–or at least the media attention–that catapults her into the big-time. It wouldn’t be a courtroom drama, of course, if things went exactly as planned, and soon it becomes clear that Lee’s client, Clive Omartian, could destroy everything she’s worked so hard to achieve.

One of the great features of Without Prejudice is that it is likely to surprise even relatively sanguine and realistic people about the prevalence of biogtry in English society. It’s not that it exists, but the sheer nakedness of its expression, that is so jolting. Clive is pretty clearly some degree of wrong’un from the start, so perhaps his increasingly sexualized remarks come as less of a revelation, but even Lee’s head of chambers, the odious Giles Townsend, thinks of her as “abrasive” (whilst also secretly pulling strings to get his 23-year-old lover, to whom he grotesquely refers as his niece, installed as Lee’s pupil), and the celebrity barrister George Amery reflects, unbecomingly, on how much he’ll enjoy “taking this arrogant bitch down a peg or two”. These are such classic instances of sexist-inflected language that I felt almost impatient with them; I learned that “abrasive”, “brusque”, “intimidating”, “rude”, “cold” and “arrogant” were dog-whistle euphemisms when I was eighteen or so–which admittedly was late; I got lucky not having to learn sooner, and I was at university in the early 2010s, when fourth-wave feminism was just stirring and #MeToo wasn’t even a speck on the horizon. (None of us, as far as I can recall, had Twitter.) So the language and undisguised nature of the prejudice on display in this novel from 1997 struck me as rather self-evident, or even quaint. Which, of course, is the most perfect illustration of how we’ve changed since then, or how we haven’t.

Although it’s a subplot and not particularly connected to Lee’s Omartian trial, the aspect of the book that conveys this most effectively is the way Lee’s friend Simone is treated when she makes an allegation of rape against a man whom she had been seeing casually, and whom she let into her house to use the bathroom one evening. Simone doesn’t want to prosecute at first, and when her rapist leaves the house, she washes herself thoroughly and bleaches everything (including, horrifyingly, herself; Williams writes that a juror winces at this). Both of these actions, plus the fact that she is still legally married to but separated from her husband, who has left her because she has miscarried a much-wanted baby, and the fact that she was sleeping with her rapist but (horrors!) not in love with him, torpedo her case in court. Here, for instance, is a portion of her cross-examination by her rapist’s defence barrister:

“Mrs Wilson, let’s talk about the pictures. I suggest that those bruises were due to sexual activity that was a little, shall we say, more energetic than usual.”

“I don’t get excited by being hurt, Mr. Amery.”

“And what does, to use your words, Mrs. Wilson, ‘excite’ you?”

Without Prejudice, Nicola Williams, p. 259

It is not inconceivable now that a defence barrister would take such a line: the rough-sex defence for serious harm or murder was only outlawed in the UK in July of 2020, less than a year ago. (Please note, by the way, that the URL for that article shows us that it is not archived on the Independent’s website under “news/uk/crime”, but under “life-style/women”. Clearly, we haven’t made all that many intellectual and cultural leaps since 1997.) It is slightly less conceivable that a vulnerable witness would be allowed to take the stand, in a highly emotive case, before a jury, with apparently no guidance from her lawyers with regards to how to give her testimony, and these days Simone might not have to appear in court in person at all (page 35 of the government’s Victim Strategy from 2018 suggests as much, anyway). For which, reading Williams’s meticulous account of her cross-examination by the defence and the Crown’s failure to assist her, one can only say thank God.

There are other, telling moments that bring class into the equation, as must always eventually happen in discussions of British inequality. Lee is at last alerted to the presence of a mole in her team by a former client, Ray Willis, a career criminal whose defence she has conducted many times. Ray manages this under the nose of a minder from a higher-up, by giving her a copy of Julius Caesar, which was, he tells her, the only thing he paid attention to in school before he dropped out. Paging through it, Lee finds that he has highlighted the famous statement about “yon Cassius”, with his “lean and hungry look”, and realizes to whom it refers. Williams knows that this is something a snob would consider implausible; when Ray is visited later by the truly awful Clive, “he had a bemused look on his face: ‘So it’s true, a Peckham lad who reads Shakespeare as well as Loaded.'” To Clive, it’s incongruous, even suspicious; but poor people read Shakespeare, and like and understand him as well as Harrow-educated fraudulent financiers do. Perhaps better: Ray loves Caesar so much because he sees reflected in it a relentless jostling for power that he recognizes from his own life. In another incident that blends class and race prejudice, Lee is mistaken for a defendant in a drugs case by a young Oxbridge clerk on summer work experience (who is, to top it all, late for the relevant trial). Her response is delicious (“Please, don’t say anything more. We’re done here.”), but she faces it every day, from every conceivable angle.

Something my housemate and I like to talk about is: where are our blind spots now? Broadly speaking, racism, sexism and homophobia are the “how did you not get that was bad?” issues of our grandparents’ generation; our parents struggle with neurodiversity and transsexuality; we, I suspect, will be intolerant of transhumans, people who believe themselves to be a consciousness which belongs more rightly in a mainframe than a body. It’s interesting to see an author twenty-five years ago trying to grapple with that herself. Williams introduces, very briefly, a trans woman named Tonia, who used to be Winston and who went to school with Simone and Lee. When Simone cannot acquire justice through the courts, she turns to vigilanteism. [trigger warning now for rape/revenge rape] Her rapist, Steve, is “fooled” by the stunning Tonia in a club, goes back to her place, and is promptly beaten to the ground and raped by that same Tonia, who still has a penis, while Simone looks on dispassionately from the shadows. As trans representation goes, it’s very, very bad. Cis straight men have historically responded to their fear of being “fooled” or “tricked” by enacting murderous violence upon the bodies of trans women; to suggest that the threat is the other way around may look like empowerment, but is in fact an early manifestation of what’s now turned into the bathroom debate. Tonia endangers her own life to enact vengeance for Simone. (And are we to assume that she can simply summon an erection on command?) That scene is hazardous, and more than anything else, that’s what marks this novel as out-of-date. The rest of it, though, is eye-opening. I have two more reprints from the Writing Back series–one a historical novel, one an exploration of ’90s Britain’s mental health system–and look forward to exploring them both.

Without Prejudice was originally published in the UK in 1997; my edition, from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series, is published 4 February 2021.

Dostoevsky in Love

I had read only one novel by Dostoevsky before embarking on this biography. (It was Crime and Punishment, which I’m increasingly thinking I may have shortchanged by expecting it to be something very different to what it actually is.) Luckily, Christofi’s biography doesn’t so much demand prior familiarity with Dostoevsky’s oeuvre as it pushes the reader into a state of ever heightened curosity about the novels into which the man poured blood, sweat, tears, and years. In that sense, perhaps, being a novice in the field is the ideal position from which to read Dostoevsky in Love. Having been uncertain, after finishing C&P, about giving him another go, Christofi has convinced me that at least the three remaining major novels (The Idiot, Devils, The Brothers Karamazov)—as well as Notes from the House of the Dead—should be on my TBR list. That’s quite an accomplishment for a non-specialist biographer.

Partly, it’s Christofi’s approach that makes this biography so accessible. He explains his decisions in the author’s note that prefaces the text:

Anything in quotation marks is a direct quote reported by Dostoevesky or one of his contemporaries, and is cited in the notes. Similarly, the main narration is based on contemporaneous accounts and the work of trusted scholars […] Anything in italics—that is, anything written in the intimate first person and represented as thought—might have been taken from his letters, notebooks, journalism or fiction […] When writers conceive fiction, they often shear memories off from their context to use them as the building blocks of their new world. […] By carefully parsing what is known of Dostoevsky’s life, it is possible to re-attribute many of the memories and sense impression that litter his fiction, and to give some insight into his habits of thought.

Dostoevesky In Love, Alex Christofi, p. xiii

It is, therefore, definitively a work of creative nonfiction, but one that takes its responsibilities very seriously: there are 452 endnotes providing primary source support for the narrative Christofi weaves of Dostoevsky’s emotional, creative, and eventful life. Your mileage may vary, as tends to be the case with any stylistically unusual presentation, but certainly for a novice this is a most effective way of discovering much of his oeuvre at once, and being able to make rudimentary links between his experiences and the way he processed and articulated them both in journalism and in fiction.

He never considered himself wealthy, though his family were not peasants. He was born poor into a large family where acquiring money and stability was the ultimate—indeed the only—goal. In imperial Russia, owning both land and lives was standard procedure if you could at all manage it, so his father, when he was awarded an Order of St Anna for his work as a military doctor, purchased a small estate called Darovoe and a tiny village, Cheremoshnia, next to it. Even as a young child, Fyodor seems to have been strongly emotionally connected to the land and its people: when he returned as an old man, fifty years later, the oldest people then in the village warmly remembered him running two kilometres to fetch a peasant woman’s baby a drink of water. His mother died young and his father sank into depression and alcoholism; Fyodor and his brother Mikhail were thrown onto their own resources as students, and the grinding anxiety of penury was a constant theme in his life. Later, he would complain of Tolstoy that he was a true aristocrat, a count, who could edit and revise his work at leisure, while he, Fyodor, was forced to push inferior product towards the publishers because he needed the paycheque too urgently to spend a long time polishing.

His early life was eventful: as a student he was arrested for his participation in a revolutionary circle (though they were nowhere near as violent as the terrorists of the 1870s and 1880s, who eventually succeeded in killing the Tsar with a homemade bomb that blew off the man’s legs; Fyodor’s friends were more talkers than doers). He was sentenced to an execution which turned out to be mock (this is now considered psychological torture and a war crime under international humanitarian law), and mined the experience for later use in his fiction; meanwhile, he was shipped to Siberia for a four-year term of forced labour. With nothing but a New Testament to read, he made friends with a mutt and a few of his fellow prisoners, and spent the time meditating ardently on Christ. By the time he was out, his Orthodox convictions were sealed.

However, he was never particularly good at knowing who to trust, including himself. His first courtship and marriage was a disaster; he was repeatedly rolled by unscrupulous lenders and publishers who bought up rights to his work. (At one point, in order not to lose copyright for the next nine years, he was forced to finish two manuscripts in four months, which came to about 230,000 words.) Most devastatingly, he became addicted to gambling during a deeply ill-advised European tour with a young woman named Apollonia (Polina) Prokofievna Suslova, with whom he was infatuated, and who revealed herself to be both manipulative and unstable (she talked repeatedly about stabbing the Tsar). He finally accepted that Polina was bad for him, but the gambling was even harder to shake. When he married his second wife, Anna, who was about half his age and seems to have been a remarkably patient, forgiving, bright and determined woman, their European honeymoon extended for an unplanned four months because Fyodor kept losing all their money and stranding them. The accounts Anna gives of his despondent, penitent demeanour after a loss, followed by another desperate attempt to win it all back, are textbook signifiers of addiction, and they’re hard to read. This is when they’re in Baden-Baden; Anna is pregnant and prostrated with morning sickness:

Fyodor […] took five of their remaining 45 ducats off to the tables. When he had spent those, he came back and took another ten, leaving them with 30 ducats. When he lost those too, he came back and sat sadly on the edge of the sofa where Anna was sleeping. He threw away his purse, which had brought him nothing but bad luck. A hellish thought occurred to me: why not, when all’s said and done, borrow more after my confession? So I prepared my confession as a sort of fricassee with a sauce of tears, to soften her up. Waking Anna up, Fyodor began to tell her everything. Anna reassured Fyodor that she understood, and that he could have more money. She gave him another five ducats. He returned late. He had been up by as much as 400 francs, but stayed far longer than he had intended, and he begged her forgiveness, saying he was not worthy of her.

Dostoevsky in Love, p. 134-5

Damn right you’re not, the twenty-first century reader might think. Dostoevsky’s gambling finally came to an end in 1871—after his first daughter, beloved Sonya, died in infancy, and his second daughter, Lyuba, was born. He seems simply to have lost the compulsion, though the simplicity of this explanation is hard to believe.

Throughout, of course, he was writing—some books received better, some worse; now he was the hero of the revolutionary young, now of the conservative old guard. It’s hard to overstate, I think, just how much Russia changed during the nineteenth century. (Anna lived until 1918, but told Leonid Grossman when he interviewed her in 1916, “I am not living in the twentieth century. I have remained in the 1870s.” The revolutionary soldiers in Petrograd left her alone, out of respect.) Dostoevsky was, in large part, the chronicler of that change. His many losses—mother, father, brother, first wife, best friend, baby daughter, toddler son—made him the opposite of hardened; he seemed to grow more open to the outside world, more easily affected by sunlight on the roof of a monastery, birdsong, children’s laughter, linden trees, every year. Though he’s often thought of as a dour, bleak writer, I came away from Dostoevsky in Love with the impression that what he really believed in was the possibility of a better world, and of seeing all the beauty in this one. I owe his writing more attention, and I’m grateful to Christofi for showing me so.

Dostoevsky in Love is published by Bloomsbury on 28 January.

Confessions of the Fox

The old me would not have written a review of Confessions of the Fox, or possibly even tried. The old me, having such strong—indeed, passionate—feelings about a book, might have regarded the act of corraling them verbally with exhaustion, thinking that there could never be enough time or ink or articulacy to Get It All Down and, moreover, get it all down right, and that therefore, not making the attempt was preferable to doing so and failing. The person I am trying to be, at least for one full month of a new year, is taking the opposite view, and has elected to try to write critically and insightfully about Confessions of the Fox anyway.

It purports, at first, to be the academically edited transcript of a rediscovered manuscript about the life of Jack Sheppard, perhaps the eighteenth century’s most notorious thief and gaolbreaker, who escaped the hands of the law repeatedly and (according to his legend) semi-miraculously until his eventual final capture and death at the ripe old age of twenty-two. Jack had a lover, a London sex worker known as Edgworth Bess; this much is a matter of historical record. Rosenberg, however, remagines Jack as a trans man (a possibility intriguingly opened by the many descriptions of Jack as being of small and slight build), and Bess as Bess Khan, mixed-race daughter of a lascar sailor and a mother from the Fens who raised her as a social radical and died protesting the surveying and draining of their landscape. Black, mixed-race and South Asian people had a presence in eighteenth-century Britain, and, naturally, eighteenth-century London; this, too, is not outside the realm of historical possibility. Rosenberg, or rather his editorial narrating voice, one Professor Voth, notes that whiteness has been the historical default of portrayals of Bess, but nothing in contemporary sources prevents us from reading her a different way: rather like the Virgin Mary, or Hermione Granger. The same is true of what we would now call queer and trans communities, represented in part by “mollies”, or homosexual male sex workers, and in part by reports of a shadowy society formed by mutinous sailors in the South Asian seas, partly founded by women who partake of a “strength Elixir” that seems to be a rudimentary form of hormone therapy. Rosenberg draws explicitly on the work of Saidiya V. Hartman, who is cited both in-text (in footnotes) and as further reading in the back; her scholarship deals with how to historically reimagine individuals or experiences that have been largely left out of “the archive”, which is to say the official record of What Happened And Who Was There. These are postmodern games, so if those aren’t your cup of tea, there you have it; but if they are, it’s tremendously exciting to be invited to participate in the gameplay, as a reader. We are absolutely reading a novel, with dialogue, structure, foreshadowing, and so on; we are also, in parallel, contemplating the grounds of that novel’s very existence as a document which, though avowedly fictional, attempts to interpret and reimagine historical individuals and events.

If Confessions of the Fox therefore seems rather odd, with patches of what we’d think of as twenty-first century concerns (the ethics of policing, surveillance culture; even, rather alarmingly, the idea that quarantine and lockdown under the guise of plague is a hoax perpetrated by the elites to keep the common people ground down) in eighteenth-century clothing, it becomes increasingly obvious that that is the point. Voth’s footnotes, which start as vocabulary aids or references to further reading, reveal ever more about the world in which he lives as the book goes on: he is summoned to a meeting at his down-at-heel university campus with the sinister Dean of Surveillance Andrews; the manuscript and his work on it is requisitioned by the even more ominous P-Quad corporation, which more or less owns the university; a representative of P-Quad, the distressingly cheery and all-caps’d Sullivan (“LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUE! CAPS SETTING NON-NEGOTIABLE”), demands ever more control over the manuscript and, at the same time, their interest becomes ever more prurient. Further nods both to Hartman and to eighteenth-century literary forebears here: a description that seems sure to lead up to an illustration of Jack’s unusual genitalia leads us to nothing more illuminating than a marbled page (as in Tristram Shandy). Sullivan, convinced that a page has been removed, demands that Voth reinstate it forthwith. His curiosity is disproportionate, and here Hartman is also relevant: she writes of the ways in which people who escaped slavery declined to use the graphic, gory details of their bondage and their escape to satisfy the grim voyeurism of Northern whites. (Frederick Douglass, who is also quoted directly in the text, is characteristically coy about how he escaped, saying that he did not want to jeopardize the route he took for others still trying to escape. At the very end of the book, we learn that Voth has escaped with the manuscript to a kind of fantastical Borgesian library; he will not tell us how he got there, saying only: “Dear Reader, if you are you—the one I edited this for, the one I stole this for—and if you cry a certain kind of tears […] you will not need a map.“) It is a question of being a vulnerable person, a person who might, in the wrong time or place, be put on display in a menagerie, and of refusing to lay your trauma bare for people who cannot be trusted to deal with it respectfully. It’s profoundly political in Confessions, and it was political when Douglass did it too.

However, although they may seem distinctly contemporary to us, it’s also obvious that these concerns about society and money and how we live together have their roots in the eighteenth century. The 1714 Vagrancy Act, which comes into force during Jack’s apprenticeship to a brutal carpenter, widens the definition of vagrant to almost anyone who was considered a lower class of citizen and didn’t have some kind of proof of employment. This swept up women, children, and poor-looking men: anyone unable, in fact, to “give a good account of themselves” (an obviously un-quantifiable requirement). It is designed to promote the alienation of labour; if you have no master, work for yourself in a small capacity, are a sex worker, are an unmarried woman who looks like a sex worker, are a woman of indeterminate status who looks like a sex worker, are a foreigner (foreigners were also blamed for plague), you are liable to be imprisoned. If you do have a master, like Jack, he has no responsibility to treat you well, and your hopes of career advancement are entirely pinned upon his goodwill. (This is why Dickens’s Scrooge is so awful, and why his memory of his old master Fezziwig’s kindness is so potent: until robust labour laws were instated, men who employed others were petty gods, virtually unaccountable.) Capitalism, mercantilism and imperialism—the trading of goods for money; the forced export of goods for money; the seizure of lands and peoples and resources to produce goods for money—are all starting to assume their modern forms in this century. The values of people’s lives are changing accordngly. What Rosenberg (and Voth) drives at is that some people’s lives have always been valued at a low price, but that, though they may have found a way to live—like the mollies and the bats (sex workers)—the capitalist turn deliberately made that way much harder.

I’ve not even scratched the surface here; Bess’s childhood in the Fens is particularly worth more time, as is the fact that Rosenberg writes sex so well, hot and yet delicate: the eroticism and the hesitancy here intertwine, as Jack and Bess discover each other and gain each other’s trust. It would be interesting to read Fanny Hill, which is much more deliberately explicit, alongside Confessions of the Fox; I wrote about it a few years ago, considering it both liberating in its frank descriptions of female sexuality and constricting in the sense that it’s entirely focused through the (male) desire and voyeurism of its author and early readers. Confessions does not constrict in its depictions of sex, though its characters may feel constrained; their transports of delight are not designed to arouse us, even if they sometimes do. (Or are they?) Confessions isn’t going to be for everyone, but if a mishmash of eighteenth-century history and queer theory is your thing, then read it right now.

The Summer Without Men

I’d read three of Siri Hustvedt’s books before this one: What I Loved, which haunts me in the best possible way with its intimations of conceptually-artistic murder and child death; Memories of the Future, a Woolfian excavation of a woman’s recollections of early adulthood in New York City; and A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, a brilliant but dense collection of essays on art, sex, and neuroscience. I was told to expect lighter fare with this, and I can see why: that Jane Austen comparison (from the Daily Mail, no less—boak), the jaunty readeress on the front cover, a plot that promised to retread old midlife-marriage-crisis ground. Mia Fredericksen, a middle-aged moderately successful experimental poet, is told by her husband Boris, a neurobiologist, that he wants “a pause” in their marriage in order to pursue a relationship with a much younger French colleague. Mia experiences a brief bout of psychosis, and a stay in hospital, then goes back to a Midwestern town where her mother is now in an assisted living facility to recover for the summer. There she becomes embroiled in the social drama of several twelve-year-old girls to whom she teaches a poetry workshop; befriends her neighbour Lola, a twenty-six-year-old woman with two small children and a deeply unstable, angry husband; discovers the subversive art produced over many decades by one of her mother’s friends in the facility, Abigail; and tries to come to terms with the possibility that her marriage is over. Sounds a bit like Frederick Backman or Joanna Cannon, right? Charming. Inoffensive. A trifle twee.

Noooo. No no no no no.

Hustvedt’s work is intensely metatextual and allusive; always has been. It makes perfect sense that Mia, a poet and professor, should have quotations at her finger’s ends. Throughout the book, she refers, inter alia, to the works of: Emily Dickinson, George Trakl, Alice in Wonderland, Friedrich von Klinger, a whole sublist of mad poets (“Torquato Tasso, John Clare, Christopher Smart, Friedrich Holderlin, Anontin Arnaud […], Edna St Vincent Millay […], Anne Sexton, Laura Riding, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, John Berryman, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz…”), Jane Eyre, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Tom Lehrer, the Book of Job, Soren Kierkegaard. That’s only the first fifty pages. I just flicked through; there’s something every two or three pages or so. There is also, consistently, the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, which Mia’s mother’s book club is reading and discussing. Persuasion, of course, is known best for being Austen’s most middle-aged novel, a book in which youthful mistakes and arrogance, and the pain they cause, are not ignored—the effects of Anne’s initial rejection of Wentworth are not undone—but in which a second chance, another choice, is made possible. (It’s Austen’s version of Shakespeare’s late romances, her Tempest or Winter’s Tale, perhaps.)

Hustvedt is a sophisticated enough writer not to suggest that better worlds are likely, but she does offer chances. The girls to whom Mia teaches poetry are not all natural readers or writers, and the one who is—Alice—is shunned and bullied for being what the other girls incoherently refer to as “stuck up”. What they mean is that Alice’s feelings are strong and external; that she makes herself vulnerable; and that the sight of her vulnerability in conjunction with her access to imaginative (if overheated) self-expression is enraging, that it makes them want to hurt her. Mia’s method of dealing with this crisis, when it comes to a head, is to force all of the girls into writing accounts of the debacle from each other’s points of view. It looks, at first, like the old, hoary notion that fiction fosters empathy, but that’s not Mia’s purpose, or Hustvedt’s:

By Thursday it was obvious that a tacit script had already been written, and the children had thrown themselves into their own melodrama with gusto. Alice lost something of her stature as a romantic heroine, but her suffering was acknowledged by all, and she entered the lives of her tormentors with such zeal that by Friday, Nikki cried out, “Oh my God, Alice, you like being the mean one!” […] The story they all took home on Friday was not true; it was a version they could all live with, very much like national histories that blur and hide and distort the movements of people and events in order to preserve an idea. The girls did not want to hate themselves, and, although self-hatred is not at all uncommon, the consensus they reached about what had happened among them was considerably softer than [“homo homini lupus“].

The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, p. 201

The way to start over again, then, in life, is to tell a different story. What I love Hustvedt for is that she never says that. She just has her characters doing it. Mia, for instance, runs through Boris’s many tics and quirks and downright thoughtless habits, and those are stories; she also tells herself differing versions of the same tale when her daughter Daisy reports that Boris is now living in a hotel: he has broken up with The Pause, The Pause has broken up with him, they’re still together but the apartment isn’t big enough so they’ve moved in to a hotel, they’ve mutually broken up, none of the above. Her ability to cope with her life is determined by her ability to narrativize it. The same is true of Abigail, her mother’s friend. It transpires that she has spent much of her adult life making entirely unobjectionable-looking needlepoint pieces which, on further inspection, contain secret unseemlinesses: a button is the knob of a door that opens onto a scene of cavorting naked women, or flying Hoovers, or flaming female dragon-monsters. Abigail was in love with a woman but married a man—a man who failed her—and it is not hard to start drawing parallels between her story and Persuasion and Austen’s biography and the long history of furious, hidden, secret female art.

Mia’s metatextual playfulness extends to the very book we’re reading. She is its author as well as its subject, we are given to understand. As with all of Hustvedt’s work, Virginia Woolf’s ghost hovers when it comes to discussions of time and the fictional representation thereof:

How to tell it? asks your sad, crack-brained, crybaby narrator. How to tell it? It gets a bit crowded from here on in—there’s simultaneity, one thing happening at Rolling Meadow, another at the Arts Guild, another at the neighbouring house, not to speak of my Boris wandering the streets of NYC with my confused Daisy on his heels; all of this will have to be dealt with. And we all know that simultaneity is a BIG [sic] problem for words. They come in sequence, always, only in sequence, so while I sort it out, I will refer to Dr. Johnson.

Ibid., p. 134

It’s not a light book; it’s just not heavy. It’s a Trojan horse for deep levels of thought about time, cause and effect in relationships, action, structure, narrative. It is, in other words, not far from what my friend and former colleague Faye means when she talks about “soft metafiction”. I already know it’ll be a book to revisit.

The Summer Without Men was published in 2011; my copy is from Sceptre.

The Prophets

In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.

The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.

One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.

Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:

“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]

“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”

“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.

The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208

This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.

There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.

The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.

Water Music

~~contains spoilers, but don’t let that stop you~~

In 1795, Ned Rise is trying to make a bit of money by producing a live sex show in a London tavern. Mungo Park, meanwhile, is on his first expedition into Africa, bankrolled by Sir Joseph Banks and the aristocratic subscribers of the African Association, trying to be the first European to see the Niger River. Rise and Park are the twin poles of Water Music, TC Boyle’s debut novel (published in 1981). In usually-alternating chapters, we see them succeed and fail, following each man through years of misadventure. They will meet in Africa, on Park’s second expedition, but their lives run in curious parallel, often almost but not quite overlapping. An additional strand details the tribulations of Park’s fiancée and then wife, Ailie Anderson, who waits for years for him to come home and marry her, only to lose him to Africa a second time when Banks et al. commission him to find the Niger’s source in the early 1800s.

Water Music reminds me a good deal of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, though less single-mindedly scientific and with a less overt thesis. It is tremendously diverting, scurrilous, funny, sad, but one of the most significant criticisms I’ve seen leveled at it is that it seems not really to have a point; that it’s an incredibly virtuosic performance for no real purpose, other than to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with a book being merely entertaining, especially when it’s done this well, though when it’s done this well, one can’t help feeling that it could have accommodated more meaning. However, having finished the book, it’s apparent that Boyle does pull out a thematic conclusion. Rise and Park, having come together only one hundred pages before the end of the book, are forced into situations that change them: Rise for the better, as he suddenly develops a clear-eyed sense of other people’s characters and his own capacities and responsibilities, and Park for the worse, as the relentless pursuit of their expedition down the Niger by indigenous Africans turns him from a naive, excitable young man into a naive, infuriated one, his soul crabbed by racist hatred and megalomania. When, in the book’s final pages, they are faced with almost certain death, Rise at last rises (haha) to the occasion, preventing Park from murder and narrowly saving his own life (for probably the fifth time) in the process.

Rise’s miraculous ability to escape death is threaded throughout the book. As a baby, he’s saved by a mysterious harridan who reappears periodically in the narrative, haunting and mocking, perhaps a personification of street London itself. Fleeing an abusive master who mutilates him to make him a more convincingly crippled child beggar, he’s taken in by a kindly clarinetist named Barrenboyne who trains and feeds him, though Barrenboyne is shot and killed in a duel with a black man over a racial insult (who is later revealed to be Mungo Park’s first and best guide through Africa, Johnson). Jumping into the freezing Thames to escape justice when the police break up his live sex show, he should drown, but instead washes up at a fish shed in Southwark, where two brothers take him in. Sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for a death pinned on him as murder by the vindictive landlord of the raided tavern, he wakes up coughing on a dissecting slab, not a cadaver after all. Thrown down a well, locked up in a prison hulk, sent to the malarial swamps of the Goree as free labour, Rise survives time after time after incredible time. So does Park, curiously: we first meet him as a tortured prisoner of the Moors, but he endures many more tribulations–flash floods, crocodile attacks, curious cannibals, territorial leopards, Moors again–before his final voyage down the Niger. The two men are defined by their tenacious relationship with existence. At one point, wedged into a well several feet from the bottom so that his friend Boyles can take his turn sleeping on the ground, Rise wonders whether he really did die on the scaffold and everything since then has been hell; Park, wedged into the fork of a tree to avoid ravening nocturnal predators, wonders something similar. Boyle draws these connections lightly and many dozens of pages apart, making him a good deal subtler than Dickens, of whose work Water Music is also reminiscent (though really the aptest comparison would be Hogarth, with his etchings and engravings teeming with faces and bodies, grotesque and gorgeous, drinking, spitting, swearing, laughing, eating, pushing each other over. And indeed, the front cover of this edition is a Hogarth painting.)

If we didn’t already know that this was the debut novel of an aggressively clever young man, the style would make it clear. Water Music is defined by its frenetic energy, which is partly what makes it difficult to detect a purpose to its narrative: it can be hard for an author to maintain a thematic throughline when they’re so busy hopping up and down. Detail and abundance are the watchwords here, and never once does Boyle’s energy flag. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a brief (for this book) history of Johnson, the guide. It is on page ten of my edition:

Concerning Johnson. He is a member of the Mandingo tribe, they who inhabit the headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal rivers and most of the Niger valley as far as the city of legend, Timbuctoo. His mother did not name him Johnson. She called him Katunga–Katunga Oyo–after his paternal grandfather. At the age of thirteen, Johnson was kidnapped by Foulah herdsmen while celebrating the nubility of a tender young sylph in a cornfield just outside his native village of Dindikoo. The sylph’s name was Nealee. The Foulahs didn’t ask. Their chieftain, who took a fancy to Nealee’s facial tattoos and to other features as well, retained her as his personal concubine. Johnson was sold to a slatee, or traveling slave merchant, who shackled his ankles and drove him, along with sixty-two others, to the coast. Forty-nine made it. There he was sold to an American slaver who chained him in the hold of a schooner bound for South Carolina. The boy beside him, a Bobo from Djenné, had been dead for six days when the ship landed at Charleston.

Water Music, p. 10

And here, for comparison, is a passage from page 419:

And so here they are–guideless, cowryless, goodsless, anchorless, their clothes in rags and their bodies devastated with disease, sunburn and culinary fatigue, the current carrying them where it will, the water level dropping as the dry season advances, sandbanks lapping at them like tongues, humped white rocks protruding from the sickly wash of the current like picked ribs, mites, flies, ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes biting, the odor of dead fish and exposed muck so rancid and oppressive they can hardly breathe–here they are, overjoyed, celebrating, heading south.

Ibid., p. 419

Not an ounce of the hyperactive drive from the first pages has been lost. Clauses pile on top of one another like waves. It’s not always forward movement–Boyle loves to circle, as in between the two dashes above–but it doesn’t stagnate. It’s like a spun penny that never falls over. I would argue that Boyle doesn’t need 438 pages to tell this story, and that his stylistic exuberances are in large part responsible for the book’s unnecessary length, but I’m also not sorry to have read a single one of those pages.

I haven’t even gotten to Ailie, the woman and then wife whom Park abandons again and again, or Fanny, the much-loved chambermaid who sacrifices herself to a sadomasochistic young lord who is obsessed with her, in order to ease Ned Rise’s time in prison. Neither of them has quite what you would call a happy ending. Ailie glimpses happiness with a man she’d previously rejected, but a sort of vision recalls her to her responsibilities, and although she never sees her husband (or brother, who accompanies him on his second expedition) again, she spends the remaining decades of her life determinedly fostering the cult of Mungo Park, the great lost explorer. Yet she also loses her youngest son to the lure of exploration, and in our final glimpse of her, she seems drowned in despair: Africa, empire, conquest, has destroyed nearly everyone she has ever loved. Fanny, meanwhile, dies a terrible death: sex-trafficked into Europe, kept half-unconscious by laudanum (to which she becomes addicted), repeatedly gang-raped for years by an aristocratic group of sex-cultists, she escapes back to England with her toddler son after a particularly violent orgy, but loses him. Penniless, friendless, she falls from Blackfriars Bridge, even as Rise continues to search for her. It is difficult to read these passages. Ailie starts off spirited and bright, funny, sarcastic, impatient; Park’s self-centeredness and inability to trust his wife with the truth makes her life a waste, and renders her a husk of her former self. Fanny is beautiful, good-natured, and brave; the choice she makes for her man brings her nothing but humiliation, pain, shame and death. What are we to make of this, other than to nod in recognition as, once again, patriarchal societies that fundamentally despise women end up destroying them? They are very skilfully rendered sections, and there is no doubt that the 1790s and early 1800s were not forgiving times for women whose lives did not follow the prescribed track; it’s just that we do already know this. Is dwelling on the point realistic, or cruel? Hard to say.

Water Music was first published in the US, by Little, Brown, in 1981. My edition was published by Granta in 1998.


~~might contain spoilers, depending on how you define spoilers~~

Femi Kayode’s debut crime novel is set in Nigeria, to which his protagonist Philip Taiwo has just returned after an academic stint in America. Taiwo is hired by eminent businessman Emeka Nwamadi to find out what happened to his son, Kevin—although not in the usual way, since what happened to Kevin and two other boys, an hours-long beating followed by necklacing with a burning rubber tyre, was caught on video and is all over the Internet. Everyone knows who was in the mob that killed the Okriki Three. What no one knows, and what Taiwo has been hired to find out, is why.

I wanted to like this much more than I did, which is disheartening. The story is promising, but the writing is very average. Take, for instance, this pulse-pounding cliffhanger:

Has he been shot?

Or maybe, I’m the one who has been.

I can’t seem to figure this out as I start falling into blank, endless space.

Three single-sentence paragraphs in a row, one of which ends in the lumpen “has been” and starts with the O RLY?-inducing phrase “Or maybe”, colloquialism in “can’t seem to figure this out” that adds to a sense of inconsequence instead of to a meaningful statement about the character’s informal nature, and “blank, endless space” to finish, which is double redundancy. It’s fine; it’s readable; it’s not exciting. At another point, the narrator muses, “For the second time today, I am left alone to wonder who the real villains are in the Okriki Three tragedy.” Hmm! Perhaps we should complicate our opinions of several main characters!

This would be less galling, I think, if Taiwo weren’t a psychologist. A psychologist protagonist never convinces unless they are at least two steps ahead, which Taiwo is not. (After his wife is irritated when she sees him talking to an attractive woman who’s helping him with the investigation: “To say I’m perplexed is an understatement. Women are strange!” Pal…)

What Lightseekers does have going for it, however, is that it is entirely set in a black African community that is not represented as a monolith. There are divides—class, wealth, education, urban vs rural, expatriate status—that matter in Nigeria as Kayode describes it in a way that race absolutely does not. Those complicating factors are inherently interesting. Kayode also deals persuasively with the effects of social media on communities; I might have been less convinced by his conclusions a few years or even a few months ago, but it’s more obvious now than ever that bad actors can exploit, channel, and even create, aggression and hatred.

Lightseekers is published by Raven Books on 4 February, 2021.

2021 Resolutions, reading and otherwise

It’s the reading resolutions we’re all always so interested in, isn’t it? Which is fair enough, and I have a few of those. They tie into a more general purpose for 2021, though, which can be boiled down to: be more intentional. Spend my time more intentionally. Cook, eat, maintain contact with friends, choose and read books, write my own work, develop my career, with a certain level of intentionality, which 2020 seemed to steal from me. I don’t want to drift, and I don’t want to run my engine frantically in place. I want to make choices.

With that in mind, my reading choices this year will be aligned along the following axes:

  1. Read better. Not more, exactly. I already know how many books I can read in a year while maintaining full-time employment; I top out at around 200 and I’m perfectly happy with that. What I’d like to do is cut down even more on the number of books I read out of a sense that they might be professionally useful to me, or otherwise out of un-joyful obligation. (Sometimes obligations are joyful!) I pick up so many titles because I imagine that many of my clients might enjoy a book but want to do some quality control first. It’s not a bad impulse, but it means I spend more of my reading time than I would like following other people’s whims, instead of my own deepest interests. Since I’m not paid for the time I spend reading, this imbalance seems worth addressing.
  2. Find more older books to enjoy. Everything you could describe as “a classic” that I read in 2020–including but not limited to Shirley, The Lonely Londoners, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, My Antonia, East Lynne–I enjoyed immensely. (Actually, not quite: I didn’t love Crime and Punishment or The Aeneid. Still worth it, though, just.) Most of the books I read that were mid-to recent-backlist were also excellent: Zami, A View of the Empire at Sunset, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Air, and The Fifth Season, among many, many others, made big impressions. There’s so much I’m still missing.
  3. Chill the fuck out about the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I’m starting to wonder if I should stop even participating in this, since all it does is engage my competitive perfectionist side. This year I’ve deliberately set my target unprecedentedly low (75 books), so as to feel better when I overachieve. We’ll see if that psychological approach actually works or not. I spent a good fifteen minutes this evening angsting over the need to choose my next read quickly so my stats don’t drop, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic on this one, but I think choosing what to read next will always be fraught.
  4. Keep actively seeking out authors of colour and queer authors. Durrr. I might try and work a few more translations in here, and it’d be good to seek out and support more nonbinary writers, too.