April 2021 Wrap-Up

With best intentions, it looks as though my New Year’s resolution to write something about every.single.book. has sort of come to its natural end. Oh well. It lasted for two months pretty solidly, which isn’t bad. I refuse to feel guilt or shame. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if constant churning-out of bookish content is really where I want my productivity to lie. It was a useful exercise for a while there, to bring my mind back into shape, but I already work for the book industry eight hours a day, five days a week. Do I really want my leisure hours to consist entirely of free publicity for that same industry? This ambivalence is partly reflected in the way my reading is shifting away from frontlist titles at the moment. We’ll see how this develops over the course of the year.

On to April, a pretty rich reading month in which I read eleven books! Three of these were proofs of new releases: Florence Gildea’s Lessons I Have Unlearned (a cheering and charming slim volume about mental health, eating disorders, and God; it would be difficult to read it from a non-Christian perspective, but as someone who wrestles with God’s existence and a brutally perfectionist self-image, I found it very resonant), Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand (exactly as good as I wanted it to be, though a different animal, and slightly less technically accomplished, than Reservoir 13; it’s a novel in two chunks, really, the first chunk establishing as protagonist Robert “Doc” Wright, an experienced technician assisting scientists and photographers in Antarctica, the second following Doc’s progress after a stroke leaves him with aphasia, and filtered through the eyes of his wife, Anna; emotionally nuanced but sometimes perhaps a bit distant with its readers. Still, writing aphasia–a condition defined by a loss of control over language–is ambitious and difficult, and mostly McGregor does well there), and Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (a strong contender for my book of the year so far, a dual-strand historical novel following Marian Graves, a 20th-century female pilot who disappears, like Earhart, on an attempt to complete a type of round-the-world flight known as a great circle, and Hadley Baxter, a “troubled Hollywood starlet” in the mould of Jennifer Lawrence or Kristin Stewart–she’s become famous by playing the female romantic lead in a franchise adapted from cod-fantasy YA novels, whose fans are portrayed as rabidly unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality–who feels compelled to play Marian in a new, and misleading, biopic, and to find out more about her actual life; Marian’s strand gets more pages, and it’s clear to me that Shipstead preferred writing her, but Hadley is never less convincing than Marian; it’s been months since I read a book that made me believe so deeply in the reality of its characters. The descriptive writing is also phemonenal. It might be a tad longer than strictly necessary, but not a single page made me feel I was wasting my time by reading it. It’s magnificent, and will, I hope, be much loved.)

Two were newly released reprints of older books, both from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. The first, Incomparable World by SI Martin, is a sort of crime picaresque set in 1780s London amongst a community of Black soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution, having been promised freedom from slavery and a new life in England after the war’s end. Martin’s great on atmosphere, noise and muck and mess, the way poverty steals dignity, the necessity of living on the edge, but less good on clear plotting and character differentiation. Still, it’s funny and poignant and provides a much-needed fictional window into a historical experience that remains largely unexplored. The second was The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy, in which zaftig, irrepressible Gloria, and skinny, silent Merle become unlikely companions on an NHS mental health ward in the 1990s. Roy slyly forces us to question whether either of them is actually mad, or whether (as has been the case so often for women, especially poor women and/or women of colour) they’ve been sectioned largely for the convenience of people around them. Gloria sings constantly, talks loudly to everyone she sees, and is secretly grieving her female partner of many years, Josie, whose family’s homophobia has made it impossible for Gloria’s pain to be acknowledged; Merle is traumatized by childhood sexual abuse and a toxic current relationship; both make other people uncomfortable. Their growing friendship, and the journals they keep for the scrutiny of their doctors, reveal the essential unhelpfulness and fluidity of labels like “sane” and “insane”. It’s a genuinely joyful book, and the ending is perfect.

I got through a number of books when I went down to Sussex at the start of the month. Two of these were e-copies of backlist sci fi classics that I snaffled in a buying spree at Gollancz’s 99 p sale (Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, which also counts towards my Clarke Award challenge as it won in 1996; heavy on the cyber-punk and biotech but posing fascinating questions about sentience and authority over life, although its curious structure lets it down by deflating tension every time we move location; and M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which Harrison himself has described as “the crappiest of my novels”, a kind of anti-space opera in which the half-alien protagonist is defined by his passivity and indifference in the face of a potentially world-ending weapon that only he can unlock; I don’t regret reading it, but I’m pleased to hear that he gets better). One was a backlist title gifted to me by my partner (The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, a reexamination of the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld and her husband Stephen–yes, that Courtauld. They lived in Rhodesia because Ginie’s history was too scandalous to keep them in England, which is portrayed as unbearably stuffy and repressed, probably quite accurately; a part of me struggles with being asked to sympathize too heavily with a wealthy white woman for being socially ostracized for being vocally anti-racist, but then, as Treger makes clear, being a “race traitor” in Rhodesia in the 1950s could get you shot.) Two were old copies of books found at my grandmother’s house (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I wrote about at greater length earlier this month, and A History of Harting by Rev. H.D. Gordon, a private-press reprint of a local history of my grandmother’s area originally published in the late 19th century. Absolutely fascinating explanation of topography and human settlement in that part of the world going right back to the Iron Age, when there was a hill fort, and with some exciting, lurid stories of murder, smuggling and land grabs in later centuries. Obviously of very niche interest, but I loved it).

Finally, one of April’s reads was part of a new-paperback buying spree at BookBar on Blackstock Road: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which uses imagination, empathy and analysis to re-present the lives of Black women in American cities in the early part of the 20th century, whose experiments in sexuality, family structure, and earning a living anticipated the 1960s revolution in white social and sexual structures by decades. (There are still four books from this spree I have yet to delve into, but I’m pleased to have read one relatively quickly, instead of leaving the whole pile to languish, as so often happens.)

In terms of reading resolutions, I feel this month was fairly diverse: a number of books by authors of colour, a number of books by or about queer individuals, a respectable sprinkling of nonfiction, some experimental and some “standard”. A good genre spread too: some sci fi, some historical fiction, some contemporary fiction. Though not a whole lot of the latter; this plus the release of the Women’s Prize shortlist yesterday (of which I have read one) makes it clearer than ever that my reading interests are not necessarily making it easy to prioritize frontlist books. Further stagnation on the Great Unread, though. It’s difficult to make room for everything, especially because I really need to start pushing Barbellion Prize contenders to the fore. (I probably won’t discuss those in future reading wrap-ups, apart from acknowledging how many of them I’ve read in a given month. I’m not sure why, but it seems the done thing to keep official prize panel reading to oneself.)

In May, I am going to try not to buy any books. I have my proof pile, my physical-purchases pile, my Gollancz e-purchases (currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, not totally sure about it), the Great Unread, Barbellion Prize submissions… There’s plenty to be getting on with. (I’m also reading, chapter by chapter and at long last, The Silmarillion, which defeated me utterly as a Lord of the Rings-obsessed ten-year-old but which I think I’m finally coming to at the right time. After each chapter, I’m listening to the corresponding episode of the Prancing Pony podcast, which is a chapter-by-chapter deep dive into Tolkien’s work hosted by two very funny, earnest, passionate Americans. I love it. I so rarely fly my true High Fantasy Freak Flag, but consider it hoisted.)

Also: beer gardens and outdoor dining are back! I had a falafel burger and two glasses of wine at a cafe with my best friend last night, then came back home and promptly fell asleep, like an overstimulated toddler. Happy days.

18 thoughts on “April 2021 Wrap-Up

    1. It’s so, so good. I’m kind of surprised by how strongly I reacted to it, but it’s just amazingly engrossing and compelling and the writing is fantastic.

    1. I knew he did, so finding The Centauri Device underwhelming hasn’t put me off! I’d like to read Light, and Nova Swing, for sure.

  1. Well, you HAVE written something about every book, yes? – even if just a parenthetical as above, or a Tweet, or whatever. That’s the key for me: Write SOMEthing about a book or it’s lost to me, and the time spent reading it seems wasted. When I see titles I read years ago with nothing more than a 3-star rating on Goodreads, I shake my head at my past self.

    Would you intend to keep up full-time work alongside a degree program? I can see how your research would shift you away from new releases, but if you could at least read a few pre-releases a month, maybe you’d feel like you were keeping a hand in there.

    I wish I could be a fly on the wall and see what you’re reading for the Barbellion Prize! I will certainly follow along with the shortlist again when the time comes. I think Jake took on board my initial batch of suggestions, but there may be a few on my list here that are new (some are perhaps only peripherally relevant, e.g. Ansell is hearing impaired): https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5875398-rebecca?ref=nav_mybooks&shelf=barbellion-2021-hopeful.

    1. This is a good point! I’m mostly not posting commentary on Goodreads, but yes, I am writing something about everything. No matter how teeny tiny.

      I’d want to keep up part-time work if possible. It all depends on how much external funding I can secure, really, but it seems likely I’ll need to do a bit of work, which is fine by me! I’ll definitely keep up with contemporary or contemporary-ish writing to an extent, I just don’t see projects like reading the Women’s Prize shortlist every year being in my future for the time being.

      That’s a great bookshelf, will definitely have a look!

  2. I love al the variety in your reading! And yay for patio drinks! I read The Silmarillion for the first time a couple of years ago (couldn’t get into when I was 12 either) and really appreciated it once I accepted it for what it was (ie not The Lord of the Rings)

    1. Yes, I think as a younger reader I was expecting something that, like LOTR, at least starts with a more narrative flavour (even if, by the end of the trilogy, Tolkien is in full High Rhetorical Mode). Which he very deliberately didn’t do for The Silmarillion; it’s supposedly an in-world history text, more or less, and he commits to that style. Going through it with the commentary provided by the podcast is helping me get the most out of it!

      1. Yes, once I accepted it as more of a mythology/creation story than an actual story with a plot, I started to really enjoy it. Commentary would definitely help too!

      2. I’m really into the history of the Noldor now, to be fair. These guys have ridiculous family lives.

      3. As a kid I always just thought of them as Elves. But then you get deeper into Tolkien’s world and realize how varied each branch is!

  3. That’s a great diversity of reading in one month. I have read the Silmarillion years ago but it was a slog: I do still have it, though.

    I have a problem with Jon McGregor in that his books just seem like writing exercises to me, off a creative writing course. Knowing he’s set out to write something difficult technically this time just confirms that to me. But I know I’m in a minority here!

    1. Thanks! I’d be struggling more if I didn’t have the commentary and analysis from these guys who are so well versed in the Tolkien legendarium, and in linguistics and mythology more generally.

      I can see that, with Jon McGregor. I think he’s a bit Marmite-y. For me, Reservoir 13 works emotionally *because* it’s so technical, and Lean Fall Stand, though I loved it less, also achieves its emotional resonance through its formal constraints, but it’s not something that will work for every reader–that’s the chance he (and his publishers) must know he’s taking.

  4. Loved this! Impressed at your way of saying something substantial about a book even in a few sentences. So hard to do! I loved RESERVOIR 13 and still think of it often. Curious about the new one, though not out here until the fall. Of the rest, THE FAT LADY SINGS appeals the most, I think.

    1. Thank you! It seems to be about what I can handle at the moment, but I do always want to say something. Give the McGregor a go when you can, I think it’s worth it. And I do want many more people to read The Fat Lady Sings–highly recommended.

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