Love Your Library: August 2022

I feel compelled to join in with this monthly meme now! Rebecca at Bookish Beck has been running it for years. I’m making more use of libraries for leisure reading than ever, and have even figured out how to suggest new acquisitions to my local library (though I haven’t done that yet). Below is my August showing:

READ (PRINT)

The Brave African Huntress, by Amos Tutuola

Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing

Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis

On War, by Carl von Clausewitz

Tall Bones, by Anna Bailey

READ (EBOOK)

The Virgin in the Ice, by Ellis Peters

The Sanctuary Sparrow, by Ellis Peters

The Trees, by Percival Everett

Dead Man’s Ransom, by Ellis Peters

READ (AUDIO)

The Devil’s Novice, by Ellis Peters

SKIMMED

Collins Guide to British Trees

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

Notes From the Apocalypse, by Mark O’Connell

News of the Dead, by James Robertson

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE (PRINT)

The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham

The Problem of Pain, by CS Lewis

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE (EBOOK)

Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan

Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley

RETURNED UNFINISHED

A Question of Power, by Bessie Head – abandoned at the halfway mark

Afterlives, by Abdulrazak Gurnah – I read the first two or three chapters but never went back to it

RETURNED UNREAD

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola

Admiring Silence, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Rescue Me, by Sarra Manning – Not my usual genre but I loved the premise (two single people jointly adopt a Staffie and fall in love); unfortunately the writing style isn’t my cup of tea at all.

Sunday roundup 21

Not pictured: Percival Everett’s The Trees, read as an ebook

Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis (1955): Lewis’s particular flavour of religious faith is one that I sometimes—even, I would say, more often than not—find useful, but which I can’t view without suspicion for its fundamentally unbending nature. His writing was used too often in the church of my adolescence to illustrate points that felt like a “gotcha!” and to promote what felt like a smug, if intellectually able, evangelicalism, for me to feel entirely comfortable with him. That said, Narnia was a crucial part of my childhood which I wouldn’t change for the world, and I have read some of his nonfiction theology (The Four Loves) before now. Surprised by Joy is an autobiography of sorts, though he’s very keen to emphasise that its focus is spiritual and so the biographical details become fainter and thinner as he gets older (his childhood and youth being, in his opinion, more important to describe so that we get a sense of the way his mind and soul were formed). Although I do believe in God, most of what makes Surprised by Joy wonderful for me is this early childhood material. Lewis’s account of the loss of his mother, his and his brother’s increasing (and guilt-ridden) estrangement from a father emotionally ill-equipped to raise them, and his various school experiences are fascinating, both as historical documentation and for the appeal of a frank and confiding narrative voice. (Both of these points are on full display in his extraordinary analysis of the system of sexual patronage at boarding school. He is surprisingly open-minded about gay activity but fails entirely to engage with the problem of the power differential; in fact, understands the power differential as culturally central to the enterprise, but not as a problem per se.)

On War, by Carl von Clausewitz (1832): One of the two most famous and influential books on war of all time (the other being Sun Tzu’s). I’ve become peculiarly fascinated by military strategy, ops and tactics, of late, for reasons that have a lot to do with my fear of an apocalyptic future. People tend to complain about Clausewitz’s style but it isn’t impenetrable; it’s more that he argues vertically instead of horizontally (ie he builds up his case through repetition as much as through progression), so it can get a bit wearying in that sense. I found his analyses of real-world historical examples much the most compelling bits, and they bring his maxims (the strongest form of war being the defensive, to take one of his most famous) to life. His focus is on the continental European wars of the 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars (in which he took part).

The Trees, by Percival Everett (2022): This really begs to be described by comparison, in some ways—think the brisk declarative sentences of Vonnegut crossed with the Southern grotesquerie of John Kennedy Toole and the hardboiled humour of Chester Himes—but that shortchanges Everett’s power and confidence. The Trees has an instantly arresting premise: several white men with historic family connections to lynchings are killed horribly in Money, Missisippi. Their bodies are found castrated and in the company of a dead Black man whose body is damaged just as Emmett Till‘s was. (Link to the Wikipedia article, for those unfamiliar with the case. Be aware that the second photo under the “Funeral and reaction” section shows Till’s body postmortem. His mother asked for an open-casket funeral, to wake the world up to the reality of the South’s lynching culture.) Similar killings start happening across the country, and every time, the white corpses are accompanied by what seems to be the same corpse of a Black man (or, in some parts of the country, a Chinese one; strong resonance here with Four Treasures of the Sky). Initially I wasn’t sure about the portrayal of shit-kicking redneck racist Southerners—it’s not that such people don’t exist, but the characterization all starts to seem a little one-note—until I realized that excess, stereotype and absurdity constitute Everett’s currency here. Everything is disproportionate, ridiculous, blatant, shocking. The novel reads fast, the chapters are short, and the more I think about it, the more it grows on me, a potent blend of horror, dark comedy, and political satire. Jordan Peele should film it.

Tall Bones, by Anna Bailey (2021): Bailey’s debut novel is one of those deeply assured debuts that belies the author’s age; she’s only twenty-seven. Better than solid writing and a focus on character and motive puts her in the just-under-Tana-French tier of crime/mystery authors. Tall Bones is set in a small town in Colorado, Whistling Ridge, and makes much of the power of the Christian right—not to mention the major employers and landlords—in such a community. The disappearance of Abi Blake is investigated by her best friend, Emma Alvarez-Jones, whose Mexican father also vanished when she was a baby and whose mixed heritage has made her the target of bullying ever since. There were moments when I wondered whether Bailey had quite hit the right note, culturally. She’s often very close but, to my ear, slightly reliant on pop-culture ideals of zealotry and bigotry (particularly in the portrayal of the preacher character; it’s hard to get the measure of that attitude, hard not to render these guys mere cackling baddies, and even more so, I think, if you’re not American, which Bailey isn’t). Still, it’s a compelling mystery, with a solution that gives proper weight to the sad, terrible waste of killing.

Sunday roundup 20

I can’t believe I’ve managed these Sunday posts for twenty weeks, more or less! That’s not bad. Originally I conceived of them as miscellanies which were to contain general book news and thoughts as well as reviews, but the roundup format does seem to be the one in which I’m most comfortable, so I’m experimenting with a post title change.

A reading nook in our sitting room, complete with giant blanket knitted by my mum (perfect for cool evenings)

Pleased to say I got out of last week’s reading slump, mostly by just forging ahead. The first thing I picked up was…

The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing (1950): The last of the books for my African Summer reading challenge (I have until the end of the month but don’t plan to seek out any further texts after having completed this one). This was my second Lessing (the first, The Good Terrorist, I read a long time ago) and a really remarkable novel. It opens with the murdered body of Mary Turner, wife of a white British farmer in colonial Rhodesia, and the arrest of their “houseboy”, Moses. Most of the rest of the novel is a flashback, which explains how this murder came about, and focuses on Mary: her terrible childhood in rural isolation, her flight from her parents’ house when she comes of age, completely self-contained and content early adulthood in town, panic over spinsterhood (she’s perfectly happy single until she overhears her friends laughing at her, which is horrible to read, and realizes time is running out) and almost impulsive marriage to Dick Turner. There is much to be disturbed by here: the racism shown by the characters is strongly, explicitly repudiated by the narrative voice, but they still say terrible things (the n-word recurs frequently). Mary’s memories of her estranged father include what I interpret as borderline sexual assault, and she has repeated nightmares of him attacking her. Her horror and fear of sexuality, combined with the culture of brutal white supremacy in which she has been raised, curdles into something else when she encounters black Africans on her husband’s farm; physically and psychologically, she hurtles towards the abyss of violence, obsessive control, despair, and insanity. An astonishing book and all the more powerful for being barely two hundred pages long. I know that novels by white Africans are in many ways designed to be easier for white audiences to read, but Lessing is pretty unflinching here in her condemnation of Rhodesian colonial attitudes. Certainly a highlight of the challenge for me.

Collins Complete Guide to British Trees (2008): Skimmed, and I won’t count it towards my yearly read total. I got this out of the library to help with ID-ing the trees in the garden of our apartment complex, but quickly found that—lovely though it is—there are reliable free apps that do this sort of thing now, using your in-the-field photographs. I’m glad it exists in book form, but it lacks any dichotomous keys (the best way to narrow down tree types from scratch), which seems a bit of a misssed opportunity.

The Devil’s Novice, by Ellis Peters (1983): Are you surprised? Surely not. I listened to this on audio, which, as I mentioned before, is often a tricky medium for me; I lose plot threads. (Podcasts have proved much more reliable as auditory entertainment.) This is less of a problem with texts (or at least series/characters) that are already very familiar, so listening to The Devil’s Novice actually worked out pretty well in the end. Having to go at a slower pace did make it a bit more apparent where the plot was dragging, though, or where I felt Peters had lavished attention on character or description at the expense of the crime narrative. That hasn’t ever bothered me while reading them, so we’ll chalk it up to medium again. The reader, Vanessa Benjamin, might seem an odd choice for a book whose dramatis personae is mostly men, but she handles the different voices admirably and even gives Brother Mark a reasonably successful Northern accent! The book’s focus throughout is so not on the person eventually revealed as the killer, which might discombobulate some, but it does have the historical political resonance that makes these feel like such rounded representations of the era.

The Furrows, by Namwali Serpell (2022): [spoilers, maybe] Cassandra’s little brother Wayne dies when they’re children (but how, exactly…?) yet his body is never found and she encounters him again as an adult (or does she…?) To begin with, I couldn’t tell whether The Furrows was thriller, sci fi, neither, or both. It’s been ages since a book wrongfooted me so expertly. As the book goes on and Cassandra re-narrates Wayne’s death, in a different set of circumstances each time, I began to wonder about multiverses, and about the relevance of these stories—which always end in the present day, with her meeting a strange man who sparks sexual tension and looks exactly like her little brother would have done, who then saves her from a cataclysmic event—to her therapy homework: imagining her younger self being saved and cared for by her older self in a variety of scenarios. About a third of the way through, the perspective flips and we commit to one storyline, one particular Wayne and one particular kind of relationship between them. There’s a lot of resonant stuff along the way about her white mother’s entitlement (Cassandra is mixed-race) and leveraging of her pain, the way that their family falls apart under the pressure of uncertainty as well as grief. Ultimately, though, this doesn’t have the heft of Serpell’s Clarke Award-winning debut The Old Drift. It’s not the same kind of book, which is partly why, but I’ve have liked a slightly stronger feeling of purpose.

The White Rock, by Anna Hope (2022): In title and concept this is reminiscent of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, one of the best novels of 2020 and one which was unfairly swamped by coming out in the same month as the novel coronavirus started its own worldwide publicity tour. Like Wyld, Hope takes a single natural formation—a white rock in the ocean off the coast of Mexico, said to be the place where the world was born—and hops backwards in time, centring on the stories of four main characters. As in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (surely a conscious influence), they’re nested narratives; we get the first half of each story, a central short interlude focusing on the rock itself, then the second half of each story in opposite order. In 2020, we follow “the writer”, here to give thanks for the safe birth of her daughter in a shamanic ritual to which she feels she doesn’t really have a right, and also mourning the imminent death of her marriage (and becoming increasingly worried about this new virus on the news). In 1969, it’s “the singer”, a world-famous rock star who’s run away from his professional responsibilities and is haunted by his hatred of his admiral father, who’s responsible for countless deaths through his involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1900, it’s “the girl”, a member of an indigenous tribe that is about to be brutally ethnically cleansed by the central Mexican government. And in 1772, it’s “the lieutenant”, a representative of the Spanish crown whose mission to map the northwest coast of the Americas is threatened by the sudden madness of a fellow officer. I tend to like stories structured this way, since it’s perfect for showing resonances across centuries, but although The White Rock is extremely well-written, it’s hard to say whether the proximity of these four people in space, if not in time, actually has much meaning. Maybe that’s the point; in “the writer”‘s sections, she grabs for meaning before realizing or deciding that there doesn’t need to be one. But in fiction there does. Each of the stories is a reckoning with power and human weakness, with the acquisitive colonial impulse, possessiveness, jealousy, responsibility; there are thematic connections here. What might have drawn them all together is a more extended focus on the rock itself, but that central section covers less than two pages, and says little that doesn’t feel clichéd. The rock has obvious uncanny charisma, so why not let it be more weird? I really enjoyed reading this, it’s a solid novel, but probably not a favourite.

Sunday miscellany 19

I feel a bit stuck, reading-wise. I’m actually writing this on Saturday and I can’t work out what to read next. Consulting random.org with my numbered TBR list in hand, I was allotted Ivan Turgenev’s Smoke, but after the first four chapters it didn’t match my mood. The next title on my small proof pile is Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows, which I’m definitely looking forward to, but I like alternating proofs with older books, project books, PhD reads, etc., and I read a proof very recently—is another one too soon? My next African Summer title is Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, which I added to the list as a possible alternate; I have a library copy on my bureau but something is stopping me from picking it up. I’m still reading through the Cadfael mysteries, but the next title, The Devil’s Novice, is only available through the local library as an audiobook. I’m giving it a go, and finding it easy enough to follow (a tendency to lose focus, and therefore the thread of a plot, while listening is what prompted me to stop my Audible subscription in 2020) but it takes more than twice as long to listen to one (8 hours) as to read it (I take a little over 3 hours to read each as an ebook, on average). My friend Mairi lent me a bag of books a few months ago; I’ve picked up the remaining title, Ursula K Le Guin’s essay/speech collection Dancing at the Edge of the World, and have enjoyed the first two selections, but there’s no hard deadline to finish it. Perhaps above all, the weather seems to demand something else, something specific, some kind of reading experience that replicates being twelve and having nothing to do except drink lemonade, go to the neighbour’s swimming pool, and read through stacks of Tamora Pierce (or Jane Austen, or Meg Cabot, or Brian Jacques, or whatever other kick I was on at the time.) I can’t figure out how to recreate that sense of endless time and quicksilver reading, but it’s what this ruthless heat and sunshine appears to require.

I did read some books last week before getting stuck, though.

The Sanctuary Sparrow, by Ellis Peters (1983): [spoilers ahead] As you have probably guessed, you are going to have to put up with at least one Cadfael mystery per week until I’ve exhausted Bromley library’s supply. They are exactly the sort of quicksilver reading I mention above, and the only reason I’m not using them right now to deal with my slump is the aforementioned audiobook situation. This one starts with a bang: a terrified young traveling musician is chased into the abbey church by a bloodthirsty mob who accuse him of murder and theft. The supposedly murdered man turns out to be alive and well, but soon there’s a second attack which ends in death, and the accused can only claim the sanctuary of the holy place for forty days: after that he must leave the abbey and face his accusers. Can Cadfael prove him innocent in that time? Well, yes, obviously. Stakes are raised here; for the first time in the series, the killer is a woman, which seems like a natural extension of acknowledging female agency as these books do, and her motives are strongly connected to the precariousness of an unmarried medieval woman’s economic and social position in her father’s household. Highly enjoyable.

The Great Passion, by James Runcie (2022): Set in Leipzig between 1726 and 1727, with a kind of frame story that takes place nearly thirty years later, this is narrated by Stefan Silbermann. He has recently lost his mother and his father has packed him off to the school connected to St Thomas’s church, to acquire some educational and musical polish as a choirboy. (I’m not sure if he was a real historical figure or not; there’s no authorial note at the end to clarify.) Catching the eye of the Cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, Silbermann is taken into the Bach household and becomes one of the choir’s star treble soloists. After a family tragedy, Bach begins to compose the St. Matthew Passion—possibly the greatest achievement in the Western classical canon—and Stefan’s perspective gets us up close and personal to the creation of this immense work. I very much liked the concept of this (it ticks a lot of my boxes: music in fiction, the eighteenth century), but the execution was—while competent and capable—not all it could have been. The frame narrative makes it difficult to tell how much of Stefan’s self-awareness comes from his older self, so I’ll give that a pass, but the writing about music felt a little rote. Runcie obviously loves Bach and you’d have to listen to the SMP a million times to even start describing it, but unlike, say, Richard Powers in The Time of Our Singing, there’s not much sense of the quality of individual voices and tones, and Runcie relies heavily on reproducing and translating lines of the Passion text, instead of engaging with the characteristics inherent to Bach’s music. Such are the pitfalls of trying to write about an art form that you’re not trained in. I think for most historical fiction readers, this would be a fine reading experience; I was just hoping for a bit more, and I’ve read fiction that engages with music better on its own terms.

The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Vol. 1 (1825): PhD reading. Harriette Wilson was the courtesan whose attempt to blackmail her former lover, the Duke of Wellington, prompted his famous reply: “Publish and be damned!” And she did. I’m reading the Memoirs through a digitized copy of the second edition in the British Library’s collections which comes in four volumes; most semi-modern editions seem to have compressed it into two. She starts with the crackerjack line “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven”, and never lets up. It’s not at all hard to see why people enjoyed her company enough to pay for it: she’s extremely funny, very irreverent, can turn almost anything to a joke, observes other people with the eye of the pencil sketcher or even caricaturist. From my perspective, particularly interesting are the segments in which she bitches about her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale (within the text!!), and talks about her process of composition, including Stockdale’s advice to revise and polish as little as possible, since the public can get that kind of writing anywhere; her USP should be the immediacy and promised intimacy of her text. Fascinating. (Oh, and another incident in which she meets and provides charity to a dying street prostitute—one high-end sex worker colliding with another at the bottom of the scale, although Wilson never frames it that way, for obvious reasons. There’s a lot to think about in those scenes.) I’m partway through digitized volume 2 now and will get back to it next week.

Su-/Monday miscellany 18

Lots of nonfiction this week, oddly enough. And the last of the five main books in the African Summer reading challenge!

The Virgin in the Ice, by Ellis Peters (1982): My Cadfael kick continues, this time with the attemped murder of a monk and the achieved rape/murder of a young nun whose body is hidden in a fast-freezing stream, leaving her coffined in ice. Once again, the strengths of Peters’s series are appealing: the carefully delineated historical background (which I think is largely accurate and, where inaccurate, at least convincing), the (entirely correct and appropriate) assumption that people in the past were both not stupid and generally believed in their religions, leading them to behave accordingly, and of course the character of Cadfael himself: sturdy, practical, thoughtful and perceptive. Sexual violence appears in the main storyline for the first time in this volume, and it its treatment is neither casual nor prurient. The young nun’s rape is a serious crime, a compounding of the violence of her murder and of the divine punishment—as well as human—that will await the man who did it. It’s not human sexuality per se that’s condemned, but use of sexual force and disregard for the nun’s sacred vows of chastity (and, by extension, disregard for her consent). She, Cadfael says to a younger monk, went straight to God, free of sin; her killer is to blame, not her. And they find the killer, of course. Good stuff.

The Business of Books, by James Raven (2007): PhD reading; an overview of the British printing, publishing and bookselling industries from about 1450-1850. I was reading it to find out more about advertising practices, since that’s part of my idea for the next chapter. I particularly liked the data-driven breakdown of things like why colonial trade was so relatively minor for London booksellers (shipping costs, basically, which is hilarious because the high cost of sending books across the Atlantic is literally the exact thing that the bookshop I work in right now is grappling with), and the fact that owning the right to reprint particular titles was far more lucrative than mostly publishing new titles. Also, surprisingly large numbers of women owning printing/bookselling concerns throughout the eighteenth century and beyond, which was really interesting. Some of it I didn’t need (extensive but niche tracings of who rented which commercial premises in which alleyway off Fleet Street at what time), but it’s a pretty readable overview for those with an interest.

Perdita: the Memoirs of Mary Robinson, ed. M.J. Levy (Memoirs originally published 1801; edition published 1994): PhD reading; a “modern” (i.e. spelling, punctuation and capitalization standardized) edition of Robinson’s Memoirs, with a chronology of her life and some endnotes. Robinson had an extraordinary life, which included a very promising career on the stage (she was privately tutored by David Garrick and held in great affection by Richard Brinsley Sheridan), marriage at age fifteen to a man whose personal fortune was not exactly what he represented it to be (but her mother was desperate to get her married lest she go on the stage and be ruined; spoilers: she went on the stage anyway and her marriage was the worst thing that ever happened to her), an affair with the young Prince of Wales, literary achievements that won her the respect of Coleridge and Southey, further affairs with various men of high accomplishment, a miscarriage that seems to have left her permanently disabled, and exile on the Continent. She was writing the Memoirs as she was actively dying, and they break off just before she begins her affair with the future George IV. Her daughter wrote the second half and brought the whole to publication, which brings up several issues of academic interest over reliability, messaging, and so on. Frankly, though, the Memoirs make terrific leisure reading. The writing is genuinely high quality, the events are gripping, the emotions are strongly engaged throughout, and Robinson has a real gift for the character sketch that makes her circle of acquaintances come alive. This is something else TV producers should be adapting instead of limp rehashes of Austen—if they can do it with Anne Lister, they can do it with Mary Robinson.

She was also immensely magnetic to look at—she doesn’t believe herself beautiful, but she has a fascinating face. There are several different portraits of her and they all show this quality, but this one is my favourite.

Ground Truth: a Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home, by Mark R. Hineline (2018): For a reason I forget now, I’m signed up to receive a monthly free ebook from the University of Chicago Press. The process of downloading them is irritating and opaque, so I often don’t get round to them, but I decided to try reading this one online and it turned out to be extremely thought-provoking and well-written. It’s in a personal, accessible tone which could be easily understood by a switched-on teen, and is about phenology: data tracking of seasonal changes. This is something we have historical records for in unexpected ways; people like Thoreau, who kept journals and wrote about when plants and animals appeared and disappeared over the course of the year, but mostly random individuals with strong letter-writing habits and observational skills and a keen interest in nature. Hineline encourages us to practice phenology as a way of living with climate change, which he has no interest in arguing about or “proving” (the book proceeds on the baseline position that anthropogenic climate change is a real thing and is happening). Getting intimately acquainted with your immediate to mid-range neighbourhood, he suggests, is a way of becoming grounded in your space, which might equip you better to notice when/if the seasonal patterns of things become unusual, and perhaps even to protect it. It was very inspirational for me; I’m not doing it very scientifically, but I am keeping a journal of nature observations now and am trying for starters to learn the names of all the trees in the courtyard garden.

Petals of Blood, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1977): The last book in my African Summer reading challenge was highly political and (from my limited experience of postcolonial fiction) felt like a Platonic ideal of a postcolonial novel. The murder by arson of three prominent Kenyan businessmen is the premise for the detention of four citizens of Ilmorog: Munira, a schoolteacher; Wanja, a former barmaid and prostitute and current brothel owner; Karega, a trade unionist and activist; and Abdulla, a former shopkeeper now reduced to destitution by the march of neocapitalism on his community. The novel is told largely in flashback, demonstrating how the four got to know each other over the course of years, and how Ilmorog grew from a small rural community to a sink of international development money with no soul. The Mau Mau rebellion and its repercussions tie all of the main protagonists together, directly and indirectly, and Thiong’o emphasises the ways in which corruption continues to be the order of the day after nominal independence from Britain; by adhering to capitalism instead of attempting a different way, Kenya condemns itself to more of the same. The novel reads in a sort of stop-start fashion, with more fluid sections of dialogue and free indirect speech alternating with denser segments of political thought (usually theoretically the free indirect thought of a character, but practically speaking, more of a narratorial intrusion). I would also have appreciated even minimal endnoting; my edition was a Penguin Modern Classics one printed in 2002, and there was no editorial work apparent, other than a fairly opaque introduction. Because Petals of Blood is so deeply rooted in Kenyan indepedence history—the Mau Mau, Dedan Kimathi, Uhuru—it would be a particularly good idea to give readers all the information they need to fully appreciate it. (I used Wikipedia and was fine, but an expert’s guidance in a dedicated editorial apparatus would have given me more.) I’ll read more of Thiong’o, though; this was so different to Wizard of the Crow and yet I enjoyed the experience of both.

Sunday miscellany 17: late edition

Just four books this past week, plus an unfortunate misfire which I got over halfway through before deciding to abandon ship.

Four Treasures of the Sky, by Jenny Tinghui Zhang (2022): I wasn’t totally sure about this when I started it. It’s the story of a girl, Daiyu, who’s abducted in nineteenth-century China and smuggled to San Francisco, where her experiences include a stint in a brothel, escape and subsequent posing as a boy, a brief home with two Chinese men who run a general store in Idaho, and the racist attacks of white Westerners after the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed. I wasn’t sure whether Zhang would be able to truly breathe life into the period; a lot of historical novels, especially ones with ambitions to political relevance, are two-dimensional and thin. I needn’t have worried: although I’m not totally convinced by the brothel sections (our heroine is never forced to sell sex, which smacks a little of precious protagonist syndrome), subsequent sections are much more willing to look historical realities head-on. The end of the novel [spoilers ahead], in which Daiyu and her employers are lynched by a racist mob, approaches with a grim, sinking sense of inevitability: the court is stacked, the judge indifferent, the law unjust, the sheriff corrupt. When Daiyu finally realizes that there is one choice left to her—how she decides to face death—it’s impossible not to think of how narrow and cruel that choice is, and how many people have been presented with it by American racist killers over the centuries. A brilliantly managed ending, at which I cried.

The Night Ship, by Jess Kidd (2022): Another brilliantly managed ending, also to do with [spoilers ahead] the death of a child at the hands of men swollen with arrogance, cruelty, and power. Reading these two books one after the other was kind of a kick in the head. Kidd constructs a dual narrative, one set in the 1620s aboard the Dutch imperial ship Batavia, one set in the 1980s on an island in the now-Australian atoll where the Batavia is known to have sunk and where some few survivors lived for several months. In each timeline, there is a child: peculiar, brave, and parentless. Mayken is our Dutch girl, Gil our Australian boy. Kidd has a fantastically matter-of-fact way of writing about creepy or spooky doings, which I remembered loving in her earlier novel Things In Jars. The Night Ship does not disappoint. It is very close to being a horror novel, in the “humans are the monsters” sense, and there is one moment of pure slipstream, where Mayken and Gil connect across time. It’s barely glanced at, but it’s there. I cried at the end, again. Really exceptional work.

The IPCRESS File, by Len Deighton (1962): The classic spy novel about brainwashing, which I read as a library ebook loan. I’m glad I read it, but as with Le Carré, I found it almost impossible to follow for the first half. There’s something about these mid-century espionage novels, stylistically, that feels incredibly oblique. There are details that don’t seem relevant followed by leaps in time; characters will be introduced whom the protagonist obviously knows but doesn’t explain to us. It’s effective at creating a sense of the foggy culture of European spycraft in those days, I suppose, but I don’t find being that disoriented particularly enjoyable. I did enjoy The IPCRESS File once I had some sense of what was going on (thanks, Wikipedia), and Deighton’s sardonic asides are very well done. Some of the descriptive writing is surprisingly Wodehousian. And he’s great on food; his unnamed narrator lovingly describes meals and even his grocery shopping in a way that pleased me immensely. That’s capitalist decadence for you.

A Question of Power, by Bessie Head (1973; unfinished): Picked up for my African Summer reading challenge. I did try. That problem of not enjoying disorientation was at the heart of my failure to get on with it, I think. I read well over 50%, but eventually I had a think and realized I was dreading picking the thing up again, and that’s really not the point, even of a reading challenge, so I decided to do the sensible thing and let it go. It’s a nearly autobiographical novel about a mixed-race woman named Elizabeth who moves from South Africa to Botswana, experiences severe bouts of mental ill health that involve religious auditory and visual hallucinations and seem to border on the schizophrenic, and works with a local NGO where Westerners teach principles of eco-friendly agriculture to local Botswanans. I loved the gardening bits; her clashes with the more patronizing of the Danish volunteers are funny, her friendship with the local woman Ketosi is sweet, the descriptions of hard work and pride in the vegetables that grow are lovely. But so much of it is unbroken paragraphs of religious hallucination, and I just hate that sort of thing. I wish I didn’t. If you’re really into literary representations of how individuals experience mental illness, this book is definitely for you, though.

The Brave African Huntress, by Amos Tutuola (1958): I’m counting this as the replacement for A Question of Power in the African Summer reading challenge. A short novella (about 160 pages) based on Yoruba folk tale, in which Adebisi loses her four brothers to the bloodthirsty inhabitants of the Jungle of the Pigmies, then sets off with her father’s gun to get them back. Tutuola was notorious for “bad grammar” (a colonialist concept, by the way). It makes the book a harder reading experience but a much easier-to-imagine-listening-to one, if that makes sense. There are stops and starts in the sentences, clauses that start with “and” or “so” and then go nowhere. It doesn’t matter. Adebisi is a kick-ass heroine who also, occasionally, has her ass kicked. She feels real and funny and her world of giants, obnoxious tricksters, supernatural beasts, hornéd kings and horny bachelors feels real too, despite being patently invented. It’s a bit of an effort to read Tutuola, for sure, but the books are so short I’ll probably try another one. I have both The Palm-Wine Drinkard (his most famous) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts on loan until the 17th, so we’ll see—maybe I’ll manage both.