I had another piece of absurdly good news in June, which was that I’d gotten into the London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme. You can read a bit more about it here. It offers free membership to the LL for a year, for research and a work space; mentoring with published writers; peer support in groups with my fellow Emerging Writers (love that, “emerging”, like we’re coming out of a cocoon); and networking and social opportunities. Plus, the incredible gift of knowing that someone else (someones else) took my writing seriously. Hurrah!
It was also a pretty good month for reading, if slightly scattered. I read twelve books, some pretty long.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien: Another reading voyage prompted by the Prancing Pony podcast hosts, and a nice re-read of a book I’d last picked up well over a decade ago. The standard line on The Hobbit is that it’s the goofy, kid-friendly fairytale that Tolkien wrote before he decided to get serious with The Lord of the Rings, and to a certain extent that’s true, but a close re-read brings up plenty of seriousness, in themes like the importance of hope and courage and in the allusions to be found in Tolkien’s etymology. The chapter “Riddles in the Dark” is never not good, is it; never not terrifically creepy. It reminded me of how potentially scary The Hobbit is for a young reader: there are a lot of dark and claustrophobic situations, a lot of caves and mountains and dank unpleasant environments. It stands up magnificently to a re-read.
The Promise, by Damon Galgut: A family drama set in South Africa over several decades; each chapter returns to the farmstead for the funeral of one more family member. The metaphor for the deadening poison of a racist society is clear enough, and the constantly deferred titular promise–that the family’s black maid Salome will be given ownership of the house where she has lived for decades–is not a particularly subtle iteration of that metaphor either. What I enjoyed about it, and what makes me interested in Galgut’s older work, is his stylistic bravura, the way he sweeps in and out of characters’ thoughts and perceptions like Virginia Woolf, the old-fashioned but seemingly effortless cinematic eye of his narration. He can move between characters in a single paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence, without ever fully disorienting the reader. It’s a huge technical accomplishment.
Body of Glass (He, She and It), by Marge Piercy: First published under the former title, now published under the latter; I don’t know why. This won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1993, and is a thoughtful science fictional exploration of artificial intelligence, cyborg humanity, and Jewish history: it is set in an America where most of the population lives in the Glop (gigantic conurbations reaching down the East Coast and across the Midwest), except for those employed and housed by megacorporations. The few exceptions are smaller communities that have made themselves useful; our protagonist Shira returns to one, her hometown, at the novel’s start. Her community is entirely Jewish, and the creation of a cyborg, Yod, to defend the town from physical and cyber attacks is an explicit parallel to the tale of a golem created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the ghetto of sixteenth-century Prague to defend its Jewish population from murderous Christian Czechs. There’s perhaps a little too much sentimentalism about sex and male-female relations for my personal taste, but it’s nearly thirty years old, and ninety percent of the book is thought-provoking enough about religion, science and freedom that for me it was overall a success.
The Fell, by Sarah Moss: Sarah Moss is the only person by whom I would want to read a lockdown novel (with the exception of Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat; both are out in the autumn). The Fell doesn’t reach the heights of Ghost Wall for tension, dread and horror, but I’m not sure anything else Moss writes ever will, and it comes closer than Summerwater did. (And it is also by no means the case that tension, dread and horror are the only aims here.) Following an ordinary single mother, Kate, as she leaves her house for an illicit walk on the fells during a time when she is supposed to be quarantining (a colleague at the cafe where she works has tested positive for coronavirus), The Fell also slips into the perspectives of her teenage son Matthew, her elderly neighbour Alice, and Rob, part of the mountain rescue team that must search for her when darkness falls and she doesn’t return. It’s a novel the experience of which will deepen with re-reading; Kate’s encounter with mortality, for instance, is so subtly seeded with intent that it’s startling to realize she may not want to be saved. Another excellent showing from Moss.
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner [spoilers, I guess?]: A summer re-read. I can’t read Faulkner in any other season, I’m not sure why. This time around, the cruel humour of the novel felt more apparent than ever; the Bundren family’s utter haplessness and emotional melodrama is so darkly funny (Anse “mumbling his mouth” and not “begrudging” his dead wife anything; furious bastard Jewel; weird, confused little Vardaman). And yet it does feel cruel to be told to laugh at them. I was particularly unnerved this time by the fate of Dewey Dell, whose very name signposts the only important thing about her–her femininity and fertility–and whose fumbling attempts to procure an abortifacient result in her rape. Why can’t Faulkner and I coexist more easily? I find his writing magnetic and also deeply, deeply disturbing; Flannery O’Connor is the same. I want to argue with them both.
Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, by Mari Ness: Read for the Barbellion Prize, so will say little about it other than a description; it’s a collection of columns that originally appeared on Tor.com about classic French fairytales and their roots in social mobility, resistance to autocratic monarchy, and salon culture. Accessible, smart, and well worth a read for its discussion of some obscurer stories (like “Bearskin”, which I knew almost nothing about!)
America on Fire, by Elizabeth Hinton: A nonfiction examination of the history of Black civil rebellion in America from the 1960s to the 1990s. All of last summer’s books seemed to be aimed at helping white people be less racist, or at least be able to know racism when they see it, and that’s worthwhile, but America on Fire is a different proposition, providing a rigorously researched timeline that gives the lie to any notion that 2020’s protests were new, unprecedented or unwarranted. Hinton describes Black communities in small to medium-sized cities all across America, for decades, taking to the streets or arming themselves for self-protection, and describes merciless campaigns of terror waged by white citizens and police departments. This is really your next step for understanding “how we got to here”: after reading Hinton’s book, you’ll realise we’ve always been here.
The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper: A historical novel detailing the experiences of Amara, a slave in Pompeii’s brothel (known as the lupanar, hence the title). Amara was once a free woman, but her father died in debt and she was sold as a household slave; her master’s jealous wife has had her sold again, as a whore. Much of the novel revolves around her attempts to make more money (through schemes like managing financial loans to desperate women in the town) and gain her freedom. Although Harper can’t inhabit her Roman characters’ mindsets with the conviction of a Renault or a Mantel–I never lost sight of the fact that I was reading a modern historical novel–she does create characters for whom it’s easy to care, much like Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.
And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts: It took me a week to get through this 600-page investigative/documentary history of the early years of the AIDS crisis, but that’s not because it’s hard to read. Shilts musters a cast of characters including activists, doctors, politicians, bureaucrats, and private citizens, all of whom give their testimony about the years from 1979 to 1984, when a new disease began to ravage the queer community of America from coast to coast, with no apparent cause or treatment method. Enraging and heart-rending in its depiction of official indifference and political infighting, without which tens of thousands more lives could have been saved, it’s also a portrait of a community that finally found its feet in advocating for its own survival. Shilts himself was diagnosed HIV-positive a year after the book was first published, and died of complications from AIDS in 1994. And the Band Played On is a worthy legacy.
First Comes Love, by Tom Rasmussen: Rasmussen is a non-binary male-bodied person in a relationship with a man, who has always wanted to get married but never really known why. In the chapters of this chatty, funny, often surprisingly deep book, they examine what marriage means when you don’t fit a very narrow “standard”–whether that means gay, nb, polyamorous, or something else. They speak to a woman who married a ghost, to a wedding planner for multi-millionaires, to their friend Gemma from Lancaster. They examine how class, particularly in Britain, determines the tone and aesthetic of a wedding, and the relationship between the unique event of a wedding and the long effort of maintaining a marriage. It’s not always as rigorous in its tone and in avoiding repetition as I’d like, but I was very pleasantly surprised by it and will be passing it on; I can think of many people my age (and not) who would appreciate the questions Rasmussen raises and the way they discuss them.
My Ántonia, by Willa Cather: I keep re-reading this (well, this is the second time in two years) and finding new beauty in it every time. It’s a perfect summer choice, set as it is on the Great Plains of Nebraska, and written as it is with attention to details of season and weather, though without ever becoming enervating in its landscape description. Cather’s narrator, Jim Burden, grows from a young boy to a man in early middle age, looking back on his youth in the West, although like Cather (and like me), Jim originates in the Virginia mountains. But the novel is very oriented towards the plains, and the titular character of My Ántonia, while an individual, is also an archetype, an homage to the pioneer women who came from Germany and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and Sweden and Norway to settle the American West. Reading Cather brings home the combined dignity and humility of the human state; I don’t think I can be clearer on her magnificence.
Emma, by Jane Austen: Another re-read, this time of a novel I hadn’t visited since I was fourteen. Oddly, although I’ve always gotten on pretty easily with most of Austen’s work, Emma managed to repulse me somehow, and I hadn’t sought it out again since first reading. Coming back to it at twenty-eight, it absolutely shines: the characters are drawn without mercy but with terrific good humour, the dialogue and the wit both sparkle, and the whole thing is just a lot more charming than either Persuasion or Mansfield Park, the former of which is gorgeous but very melancholy and the latter of which often seems to put people off Austen with its unappealing heroine. But Emma the second time around? Magnificent. Maybe her best novel of all. I do think that having spent a decade socializing as an adult equipped me much better to find its rich veins of humour and absurdity; teenage me just thought everyone in it was kind of horrible, which is of course true, but not the whole truth.
What have you been reading, or re-reading, in June? Do you have books you can only read in certain seasons? Do you have summery books?