Sunday miscellany 16: holiday/birthday edition!

I’ve been away in Crete for the last six days, turning thirty and being on holiday, and I have read MANY books. Nine, to be precise. That seems like many. They have all been totally unrelated to work or grad school or self-imposed reading projects, and they have almost all been light entertainment, and together they have been just right.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by Chris Packham (2016): Ok, not light entertainment at all, this. M bought it for me as part of my birthday parcel, since we both love watching Packham on Springwatch. It’s a memoir about growing up autistic, highly sensitive, and nature-obsessed in Britain’s frankly appalling ’60s and ’70s. It’s told mostly in the third person, frequently from someone else’s point of view, with occasional first-person sections and third-person flash-forwards depicting Packham’s therapy sessions after a suicide attempt. It’s a surprising amount to get your head around, on a formal level, and it’s also shockingly, almost relentlessly sad: he was brutally bullied throughout school, for one thing. Precisely because of that, I’m very very glad I’ve read it; it’s so much more interesting and challenging than a “TV presenter nature memoir” marketing niche suggests. It felt exactly like being inside someone’s unusual head.

Girl A, by Abigail Dean (2021): Extremely slick, smartly conceived thriller about the “girl who escaped” from a House of Horrors family hostage situation, and the ways her past haunts her in the present after her mother’s death in present. I almost never read this genre because it has to be so, so capably done in order to be convincing, but Girl A is exactly what I like when I do read it. It has some upsetting content around violent child abuse, amongst other things, so that’s worth knowing about, but the reveals are superbly handled and the creeping sense of doom is flawless. I felt near the end that either Dean’s grasp on the moral implications of letting a particular character go consequence-free had wavered, or she’s actually written a book that is so dark in its view of human nature as to approach nihilistic despair. I don’t think it’s the latter (though fair play to her if it is, what a skillful slipping of a genuinely disturbing worldview into a book that ended up popular enough to be on paperback crime bestseller lists), but the notion of that did shake me a bit.

Three Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977), One Corpse Too Many (1979), Monk’s Hood (1980): ITV made a series of the Brother Cadfael mysteries in the ’90s, which my parents used to rent on VHS and watch of an evening when I was small. Derek Jacobi plays the main character, and is brilliant. The books are, of course, if possible, even better. They are historical murder mysteries set in the late 1130s in Shrewsbury, as civil war erupts in England between the forces of King Stephen and Empress Maud. Cadfael is a monk who took holy orders after returning from the Crusades; he is now the abbey’s herbalist and gardener, and he solves murders with a reassuring regularity. He’s the heart of the books, and his worldly experience serves him well: not only has he been a soldier, and understands what it means to kill, he has also actually met women, and loved a few of them. His understanding of women as human beings sets him apart from many of his fellow monks, particularly those who enter the cloister early in life, and Ellis Peters (the pen name of Edith Pargeter) is very consistent in making this trait key to Cadfael’s skill both at detection and at healing. Without being anachronistic, the books depict intelligent, capable women of all social classes, as well as being fantastic sources of information about the peculiarities of law, society and religion at this time and place. (The nearby Welsh border is often a plot point; laws and customs are different there, and Cadfael, who is a Welshman, occupies a conveniently liminal, fluid social space.) The approach to murder and justice, too, is good: three books in, Peters has not yet written an ending in which an irredeemably evil malefactor is turned over for state execution, but rather always manages to find the nuances of human desire and behaviour, and to offer compassion and mercy in a way very appropriate to the ecclesiastical setting. They’re all in paperback, but they’re available as ebooks through my local library and I’m planning to tear through some more. Great comfort reading.

The Moon-Spinners, by Mary Stewart (1962): I specifically love reading Mary Stewart on holidays, and it’s so easy to do on-location reading with her! This one is set on Crete, which meant I could look out at the mountain and sea visible from our apartment window and imagine the action happening. Like most of her other novels, it’s romantic suspense, with exciting hijinks involving a lonely mountaintop murder and a hunted witness, an abducted boy and a jewelry heist, secret signals and escapes by sea. It was fantastically involving while I was reading it, though in hindsight I think it’s not my favourite of hers so far; the crime plot doesn’t hold together as it ought and the villainy is less chilling than in, say, This Rough Magic. Actually, in a lot of ways it strikes me as maybe a dress rehearsal for TRM, which is set on Corfu, has several plot similarities, and was published two years later. The Moon-Spinners also contains a portrayal of a gay man which, well, I can’t decide if it’s progressive for its era or still just kind of bad. Nevertheless, it’s hardly going to put me off continuing to read through her oeuvre.

These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer (1926): So… I know that Heyer is the official escapist fluff reading for Literary Folx (especially those of us who rate Jane Austen), and I think I can see the appeal, but These Old Shades might have been the wrong place to start for me. There’s just too much about it that reads icky now. “Buying” a teenage boy and employing them as your servant, the canine devotion of said teenage boy to a master whose interest in their personal welfare depends entirely on the teenager’s centrality to a revenge plot, the revelation that said teenager is in fact A GIRL, and then the inevitable marriage of THE GIRL (who is now 20) and the man who bought her (who is 40)—yes, ok, only after many trials and reversals of fortunes and epiphanies about rank and birth and equality, about which my relief can only be limited because boy howdy this book is classist, which I suppose you could argue Austen is but I wouldn’t, I would say she is class-conscious but hardly likely to advocate for the primacy of social class above things like personality or compatibility, which Heyer’s characters do without any apparent authorial challenging. Anyway, I can see a lot of lovable rogue in the character of Justin Alastair, the quipping can be funny, and Léonie’s sincere desire not to have to be a girl again after eleven years dressing and living as a boy is definitely interesting. But I couldn’t love the book as I wanted to. Has anyone got a suggestion for a Heyer that might feel less sketchy, or is that simply the price of admission, as it were?

Salka Valka, by Halldor Laxness (1931): Newly translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, and bought for me as part of a birthday books parcel by my literary uncle. It’s not unlike Fingers in the Sparkle Jar in some ways, weird though that sounds: it’s about a small community full of closed-minded assholes whose ability to encompass an unusual person is absolutely zero. Salka Valka is the unlikely heroine of a story in which she arrives at a tiny fish-packing town with her mother as a child, her mother is swiftly branded a whore, Salka is nearly raped by her stepfather, and disease and death render her alone in the world shortly thereafter. The second half of the book is basically about unions, working-class feminism, and Communism: she buys a stake in a boat, unionizes the fishermen, falls in love with a local boy who moved away to be educated and moved back to win the town for an Icelandic politician said to be a follower of Marx. It’s rough reading in places but Laxness nails small-town opinion: how it shifts like wind on water, how easily people’s sympathy curdles when they’re asked to actually do something helpful. The ending is pretty sad, too, but Salka is a totally unforgettable heroine: striding around in woolen sweaters, men’s trousers and big boots, chapped-lipped, tall and wide and strong enough to knock down brawling men in the street, taking care of her friend’s four children after they’re left motherless. Tough Nordic stuff, but bracing and definitely worth the time.

Cibola Burn, by James SA Corey (2014): Fourth in the Expanse series, which is perfectly serviceable and enjoyable popcorn sci fi that continues to remind me strongly of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space. In this installment, our hero (James Holden) and his scrappy crew are sent to a potential war brewing on a planet in the space beyond the interstellar gate that opened in book three. I’ve seen complaints that Cibola Burn doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything—that there’s not much character development and no significant alterations in our understanding of the protomolecule, its creators, or the civilization that could have destroyed them. The latter is certainly true; a scene near the end that could have been revelatory about the nature of these aliens is fluffed and instead gives the impression that there’s simply no there there. But who cares? I don’t read these books for their masterful handling of long plot, I read them because they’re zippy and fun, good at making you care and good at making you turn pages. I actually also think that the xenobiology that we get through the perspective of the otherwise annoying character Elvi is a lovely, exciting touch; it’s never not fun to read about a professional scientist exploring a totally untouched biome with all its weird flora and fauna. Anyway, it got me through waiting for a flight so delayed we didn’t get back to the UK til 5 am, so no complaints.


So Long a Letter, by Mariama Bâ

Another quick note on a book that I don’t want to leave uncommented on before going away for a week! This time it’s Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, the third title in my African Summer reading project. It’s very short—90 pages in paperback, although I read it online through ProQuest. Bâ was a Senegalese author known for her feminist politics and writing, and that really shows through in So Long a Letter, which is presented as exactly that: a long letter to Aissatou, the childhood best friend of our protagonist Ramatoulaye. Ramatoulaye’s husband, Modou Fall, has just died, and through her letter to Aissatou, the struggles of both women with their husbands’ decisions to take second wives are contrasted. So are their responses, as Ramatoulaye recalls how Aissatou left her husband rather than be humiliated, while she herself remained married to Modou (though living separately) and caring for the twelve children they had together.

Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are educated women, and the final two dozen pages of the novel or so become increasingly more explicit in their political content. Ramatoulaye advocates for more respect and liberality towards women from Senegalese society. I’ve seen this cited by some readers as being insufficiently integrated into plot and character, but I found an obvious reflection of this political stance in Ramatoulaye’s rejection of two marriage proposals after widowhood—one from her former brother-in-law and one from an old lover—and her refusal to condemn her daughter (also named Aissatou) when she becomes pregnant near the novel’s end. Her acerbic internal monologue during Modou’s funeral and wake is a particular pleasure; she bitingly comments on the hypocrisy and mercenary nature of traditional philanthropic gestures expected from and directed towards widows. Her suffering over Modou’s death is complex: she did at one point truly love him, but the pain of having to share his death with the second wife, Binetou—whom we later learn was a schoolmate of her daughter’s, whose own mother pushed her into an illicit relationship and then marriage for financial gain—accounts for a considerable amount of her distress. It is unabashedly a question of pride, and Bâ puts the reader so thoroughly in Ramatoulaye’s shoes, and mind, that her pride appears thoroughly justified. Her habit of tallying herself against Binetou (she notes that they both receive the same amount of money, although she has given Modou thirty years and twelve children, while Binetou has given him only five and three, respectively) is not generous, but then, why should she be generous?

There are a few good men in the novel—Ramatoulaye’s early love, Daouda, and her daughter Aissatou’s boyfriend Ibrahim are both decent, kind people—but the failure of men to accord women basic respect, even in a society where educated women aren’t unheard of, is the heart of the novel’s sadness, I think. When Daouda says that women are allowed to be parliamentarians now, Ramatoulaye reminds him that of over a hundred seats, women hold only four. By contrast, love, community and friendship among women is the answer to the pain and alienation that men cause: as the novel closes, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou are about to meet again after a long separation, and Ramatoulaye looks forward with joy to teasing her beloved friend. Overall, a novel whose slender size belies its emotional impact; I’m really glad to have read it.

Sunday miscellany 15

Back from Prague (which rocked) for a great week in reading, starting with Henry Mackenzie’s slim novel (basically a novella at a little over 100 pages), The Man of Feeling. I refer to this in the first chapter of my thesis, but I’d only ever read the bits I needed to, and because it’s so short, it seemed especially worthwhile to just read the whole thing. It’s a perfect example of “the sentimental novel”, a genre in vogue in the mid-1700s characterized by what seems to 21st-century audiences like extreme, over-the-top emotional reactions. The Man of Feeling was published in the 19th century with an “Index of Tears” so that readers could look up their favourite crying episode in the plot! Within the space of a generation, though, this level of extreme sentiment (many famous 18th-century novels, like Pamela, are lower-key, more sophisticated versions of the genre) went from being highly in vogue to highly mockable, and it’s likely the Index of Tears was included at least as much for a reader’s amusement as for their participation in the weeping. The pattern of the story (rich but not too-rich Harley travels his local area, talking to unfortunates and giving them money as their stories move him) set the standard for episodic sentimental exchange in fiction. I quite enjoyed it; Harley’s experiences are slightly more individualized than a bare summary would suggest, and the recurring question of whether he’s principled or completely insane—whether strong feeling is a luxury for the propertied classes, essentially—is a worthwhile one.

Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch: This defeated me a while back, so I went back and tried it again when I was feeling a bit stronger. I finished it, but there are so many competing plot strands, ideas and symbols—labour history, nineteenth-century immigration, climate disaster, Native American history, linguistics, turtles, early pennies, BDSM, disability—that the thrust (if you will) of the story just gets lost. Too much going on, not enough tying it all together. I don’t insist that a book be neat and tidy in every particular, but I don’t think a certain level of thematic coherence and inter-reliability is too much to ask for. I’d recommend this for cli-fi fans anyway, because of the way it interweaves speculative fantasy, reparative history, and the ecological future, but for a more casual reader it’d be a bit of a struggle.

Love in Excess, by Eliza Haywood: The first and most popular novel by Haywood, whose work I’m investigating as possible content for another chapter of my thesis. This one deals less explicitly with prostitution; its contribution is the way it allows female desire to be subjective, complex, and human, a treatment English fiction was not used to giving such a topic at the time (1720). The characters have the frustratingly interchangeable names of romance (Melliora and Melantha; Aloysa, Amena, and Ansellina; d’Elmont and d’Espernay), but they each have individual personalities and respond in ways that don’t just accord to their “type”. You can actually see the novel form moving towards more fully articulated interiority in this book, in a way that’s really exciting. Also, the plot events are absurd (so many disguised ladies who are magically impossible to tell apart, so much pining, so many jealous schemes and stratagems), but decidedly compelling. Because Aloysa is a separate person from Amena, with a totally different set of traits and approach to life, you do care about what happens to both of them, even though it appears on the surface level to be basic bedroom farce. I read it in two days (a feat, given the convolutions of eighteenth-century prose) and enjoyed it immensely.

Palace of Desire and Sugar Street, by Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy for which Mahfouz is most famous in the Western world is fast shaping up to be one of my best reading experiences of the summer, awkward translations notwithstanding. In Palace of Desire, tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad finds that his sons are growing up: Yasin makes another disastrous marriage, then a third (which lasts)… with the very same courtesan to whom his father has been addressing his affections. Kamal, at seventeen, is hopelessly in love with his friend’s sister Aida, and in the grip of ideals about literature, philosophy and intellectualism which may or may not make him happy. In Sugar Street, we see how Kamal’s lofty dreams have collided with the bureaucratic reality of teaching, and the focus shifts to the new generation, al-Sayyid Ahmad’s grandchildren: brothers Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad, who espouse the Muslim Brotherhood and Marx, respectively, and Yasin’s son from his first marriage, Ridwan, who engages in what Mahfouz delicately but unmistakably suggests is a gay affair with an older politician in order to rise in the ranks of the civil service. The women—Amina, Khadija, Aisha, and the wives and daughters of the sons—fade into the background a little bit in the second and third volumes, which is a shame, although things certainly happen to them: Amina gets older and wiser, and gains more independence as her husband’s power wanes; Khadija makes her husband’s house a war zone by quarreling ferociously with her mother-in-law; Aisha is brutally bereaved. I said on Twitter, and will say again, that TV ought to stop doing poor rehashes of Austen and start adapting material like this. It really does have everything—war, sex, money, death, illness and aging, young love, politics—and a canny adapter could easily expand the sections focusing on the women, and the gay affair, for a modern audience; they wouldn’t have to make anything up.