May 2021 Wrap-Up

May! May was a good month. “Good” is a broad word, which we were taught in school never to use in our writing (like “pretty” and “nice”), but May was a good month nevertheless. I read thirteen books, indoor dining and hugs both made a return to our lives, and I got into grad school! (I’ll start with an MPhil and shift to a PhD after two years–I’ll be studying part-time to begin with–on 18th-century literature, specifically literary depictions of sex workers, even more specifically those marginalized by their race and/or gender identity. I KNOW.) Also, it eventually stopped raining.

So, those books. A remarkably high number of them were proofs/reading copies of current hardback releases. Actually, one of those came out in 2019 but it’s still available in hardback so I’m counting it, and also counting it as a dent in the Great Unread: the comedian Sofie Hagen’s memoir Happy Fat, which doesn’t say a lot that anyone who’s done any fat-positive reading won’t already have seen, but which has the great virtue of being funny, and of reinforcing a message that I always, always seem to need to hear. Another was Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, her newest historical-fantasy novel, and also her best; combining time travel, the Napoleonic Wars, speculative history, and a slow-burning love story, its multiple subplots are handled with greater clarity and aplomb than anything she’s yet written. It’s not what you’d think of as a “quick read”, and yet it reads quickly; once I became invested, I couldn’t stop reading til I was done. One was a Barbellion Prize submission, Sara Gibbs’s memoir of growing up as an undiagnosed autistic woman, Drama Queen. (I won’t comment extensively on the Barbellion Prize books other than to register that I’ve read them; I haven’t discussed this with the chair of judges but I have a feeling it’s not the done thing.) There was Assembly by Natasha Brown, which I discussed a little bit with Rebecca and Laura on Goodreads; it’s marketable as a disaster-woman book but I don’t actually think it is; I think it’s a book about the impossibility of winning as a Black British woman under capitalism, how material success is based upon the exploitation of your labour and material poverty only reaffirms your status as a second-class citizen. The plot twist, such as it is, has been called melodramatic, but I think it’s perfect: the stakes are that high, and (without wishing to spoil anything) the book makes it very apparent that checking out completely can easily look like the only solution. As our narrator muses, in a passage that seems to me to encapsulate the book’s whole project, “Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice.” I also read The Dreadful Monster and its Poor Relations by Julian Hoppitt (a history of taxation and spending in the UK from the Act of Union in 1707 to 2010; dry, yes, but more or less comprehensible if very granular, and I’m interested in the British historical economy and how people and governments chose to spend money as imperial ambitions and capacities increased), and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (as much a love letter to libraries, books, and stories as everyone says it is, with references ranging from Jane Eyre to Norse mythology to The Da Vinci Code, but oddly and problematically disjointed, for me. There’s too much going on, too many characters who want too many incompatible and largely undiscussed things, to hold it all in your head as a singular reading experience, which makes it very unlike Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book to which it has been much compared. It’s addictive, extremely tense in parts, and I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not perfect and not as immersive as I’d hoped.)

With regards to backlist reading: I read two of the Gollancz ebooks from that 99p sale (I’m getting through them!): Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (very close to being better than just good; personally, I found Willis’s 1990s conception of a 2050s Oxford a lot closer to 1950s Oxford, which is frustrating on an imaginative level–a huge part of one plot strand revolves around being unable to get hold of an academic because he’s on holiday, Willis apparently not having thought of widespread mobile phone usage, and the gender politics amongst the young characters are ridiculously outdated–but the historical strand works well because it relies on our emotional connection to individuals we know will die sooner or later, and it largely earns that emotional connection) and Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones, which I really enjoyed: gods who are a sentient fungus! A blistering critique of theocratic patriarchy! An acknowledgment of music as a revolutionary force! If the book has a weakness, it’s a total indifference to minimizing point of view; there are dozens of POV characters, though we move fluidly between each of them and the effect is generally that of an omniscient narrator, which is manageable. Still, I thought it was great and will be reaching for more Tepper (especially Grass) in future. I also finished The Silmarillion, with the help of the Prancing Pony podcast; it is decidedly not for casual Tolkien fans, but I definitely came to it at the right time and, like all the richest collections of myth and legend, it contains some very memorable individual stories (the death of Fingolfin; Beren and Luthien, of course; the children of Hurin, also of course). Much to my surprise, women are better represented here than in The Hobbit or LOTR: there are more of them, elves and humans and demigods, and they achieve more in war and in diplomacy (Haleth, for instance, who leads the defense of her lands, and takes up the leadership of her people when all her male relatives fall). Those who believe Tolkien a misogynist might do well to look to the women of The Silmarillion for role models.

More academically, I read Rebecca Gibson’s The Corseted Skeleton: a Bioarchaeology of Binding, for Barbellion Prize purposes (it’s about the physical effects of corseting on women’s bodies and argues that physical transformation should not be interpreted as oppression across the board), and British Women’s Writing in the Long 18th Century edited by Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan, which, well, does what it says on the tin. Most of it probably won’t be that relevant to my own work, but women did sometimes address sex work–as well as, more commonly, the morality of labour, and constructions of race and otherness–in their writing, and I came away from it with at least two new directions of enquiry. So that’s a good thing.

Finally, two rereads: Tana French’s In the Woods (which I reread almost by accident, in snatches on my phone; the final 25% of it as agonizing as ever, I honestly take my hat off to her for being able to sustain the process of writing such emotionally painful scenes as an intimate friendship falls apart. The case is technically solved, but no one wins and justice is not served, and it’s that as well as her delicate, brutal filleting of motive and social performance that makes her such an unusual crime writer, I think), and Jane Austen’s Persusasion (which I think I hadn’t reread since June of 2007?! That can’t be right, but it must be right. Anyway, it holds up. I hadn’t noticed til reading Gillian Beer’s introduction this time around how closely we are tied to Anne Elliot’s perspective, even to the point that when she lowers her eyes, the rest of the scene is reported only in dialogue–we literally can’t see what she can’t see. It explains, I think, why Wentworth sometimes feels oddly colourless. He’s handsome, rich thanks to his own competence, sensible, kind, dutiful, and dryly witty, but he doesn’t have the vast charismatic charge of Darcy, or even the queasily immoral magnetism of a Willoughby or a Henry Crawford; we love him because Anne loves him. Which feels right, I think, in that the book is about becoming sure of yourself, and of your choice of partner, without needing to justify them or hold them up for the quantification and judgment of others.)

To analyse: only one by a person of colour, which is pretty poor. (I started two others–The World Does Not Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott, and Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke–and abandoned both, mostly for the same reason: more surreal/magical realist than I fancied. It’s really not my mode. Also, Lianke’s narrator kept describing a woman’s breasts as being like handsome white sheep. Hard pass.) Quite a lot of nonfiction, though; five out of thirteen, a figure inflated by Barbellion Prize reading. (There are some nominated novels and poetry collections, but I’m not there yet.) Two books by queer authors and/or featuring queer characters (Happy Fat and The Kingdoms), again not great but present. A pretty good balance of frontlist to backlist, and I definitely feel my choices have been largely directed by thoughtful whim.

For June, I have no reading plans, apart from not buying any books, again. I’m moving in late September and am already planning a joyful way of downsizing my book collection, which I’ll tell you more about later. For now, I’ll try to enjoy my last few months of “free reading” before I start the MPhil, which I anticipate will keep me constantly guilty when I’m not working. (I’m really, really excited, though. Honestly, I am!)

And you? Do you have summer reading plans, wishes, goals, hopes?

18 thoughts on “May 2021 Wrap-Up

  1. I didn’t quite connect with The Kingdoms as I did with Pulley’s two most recent novels (though I liked it a lot). The Bedlam Stacks remains my firm favourite. Doomsday Book was a bit of a disappointment for me, although part of this was because it wasn’t the book I wanted it to be, which is not the book’s fault. I have to say, the pacing is appalling (it could be half the length) and I agree with both your criticisms of the ‘modern’ half of the book and praise for the ‘historical’ half. I guess I wanted a lot more time travel politics in Oxford and less lengthy descriptions of the C14th, but that obviously wasn’t the book Willis wanted to write.

    1. Oh, The Bedlam Stacks is good, that’s true. I think The Kingdoms demonstrates that she’s figured out how to corral BIG/MANY PLOTS, though, which is great. Doomsday Book, oh man, I wanted the exact OPPOSITE; all of the contemporary politics bored me stiff. The pandemic was the interesting bit of those sections, partly for obvious reasons and partly because I like the correlation to the medieval experience of plague, even if it’s a bit too tidy a comparison.

      1. I didn’t like the way it actually came out, true, but I would be fascinated to read a novel about how time travel as a technology is contested and fought over in an academic setting (I actually started writing this myself ha but my novel took a different direction). Whereas Willis clearly doesn’t understand how Oxford works at all, and pacing-wise, their inability to talk to the one guy who could explain everything drove me to distraction!!

      2. Good point! Perhaps a more academic (instead of corporate) version of Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel… (Yes, also, mega-lol about how Oxford functions. It’s very difficult to get it right without actually experiencing it, in fairness.

      3. I know Google didn’t exist when she wrote the book but a quick word with any Oxford academic would have fixed some of the issues!

        Yeah, exactly. Susan Price’s The Sterkarm Handshake is another brilliant corporate take and also uses time travel really cleverly – would recommend.

  2. As fat-positive reads go, I’d recommend Fat by Hanne Blank, from the Bloomsbury Object Lessons series. I know what you mean about The Absolute Book having all that and the kitchen sink thrown in, but for a rare foray into fantasy I enjoyed it. Interesting that you couldn’t connect with The World Does Not Require You — I tried it last year and set it aside before the end of the first story, but I’m determined to try again, especially because of the MD setting. Not to pick a bone with you/Jake but to clarify a point … is autism truly classifiable as a disability? Somehow that would make me uncomfortable.

    1. Hanne Blank’s cool, I read some of her book Virgin, years ago. (REALLY years ago.) Yeah, I felt bad about The World Does Not… The first story inspired intense indifference (I couldn’t figure out why it had been told, or what the point of it was) and then I found I was mildly dreading picking it up, and that’s no good.

      Re. autism as disability, to be honest with you, this makes me uncomfortable too. I’m reading the submissions, so obviously Gibbs or Gibbs’s publisher thought the book was eligible. She does have health conditions, which might have been the publisher’s justification. (The same is true of The Corseted Skeleton, actually. Skeletal deformation as the result of corset-wearing–does it count as disability if it’s self-inflicted, or if there’s social pressure to do it? Like getting tendonitis from wearing high heels? Presumably these are questions we’ll be debating in our first judging meeting.)

    2. My bad–I’ve been back and checked, and The Corseted Skeleton is eligible because the author has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

  3. Great news about the postgrad – well done! I have huge terrifying reading plans but have started to make a dent in them. I have Assembly TBR soon (I just need to get a few books between it and The Other Black Girl) and your notes make me even more excited to read it.

  4. Thanks for your review of The Absolute Book; you highlighted a number of issues that neatly explained why I also didn’t enjoy the book as much as I had anticipated. Congrats on Grad School admission!

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