The Week’s Book, #1: Nicholas Nickleby

imageNicholas Nickleby constitutes this year’s entry in my Annual Winter Dickens project. It’s only the second novel he ever wrote (third if you count The Pickwick Papers, which is arguably more a series of sketches than a fictional narrative per se), and there’s a lot of youthful energy fizzing from the pages. Young Nicholas is very much the action hero: he’s frequently physically violent when he feels honour is at stake, usually either his or his sister’s. Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby, the two villains of the piece, are extremely melodramatic: they clench their fists, turn white, and snarl, with astonishing regularity. This level of implicit theatricality makes a good deal of sense in a novel so given to explicit theatricality; the Crummles family, with whom Nicholas falls in, are traveling actors, and many of the best scenes in the book involve them.

Characterization suffers somewhat as a result of this trait. Better and more informed minds than mine have written theses on Dickens’s relationship with the theatre, and on his use (and subversion) of comic and tragic stereotypes in his fiction. The Brothers Cheeryble, who give Nicholas a chance when all hope seems lost, and who delight in doing good works without being thanked, might be better named the Brothers Implausyble. Kate, Nicholas’s beautiful, vulnerable sister, is a classically boring Dickens heroine, as is Madeline Bray, the object of Nicholas’s affections. There are, though, moments of rupture when characters – usually minor ones – confound expectations: the madman in love with Mrs. Nickleby, for instance, in his small-clothes and grey worsted stockings, falling down the chimney.

All this said, it is a tremendously enjoyable reading experience. For all that it’s extremely episodic (and long – 777 pages in my edition), its fictional world also feels smaller than that of Dickens’s later novels; I’m thinking especially of The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the last Dickens I read and which contains several characters whose relevance, even at the time, thoroughly escaped me, whereas pretty much all of the characters in Nickleby recur frequently enough, and have enough to do, that a reader can keep track. The least successful of these, for my money, is John Browdie, who seems to exist mostly so that Dickens can write bad Yorkshire dialect in the depiction of an honest countryman. It’s not subtle, and it’s nowhere near the heights of elegant connectivity that he reaches in Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend: in Nickleby, Dickens’s love of coincidence is still just an excuse for clumsy plotting, instead of a commentary on the fundamental intersectionality of all levels of society. But it’s very fun, and you can sense that with this novel he found his feet.

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2019: the plan.

After some really excellent feedback from you guys, I’ve had a think about how best to do this blog – and indeed how to approach my reading this year – and here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. My reading challenge goal has been revised downwards from 205 to 120. I can’t read 205 books, work full-time, finish my novel, and have a social life this year; I just can’t. 120 is the lowest reading goal I’ve ever set, so it seems reasonable to imagine I’ll be able to surpass it, which will be a nice mood boost, and it’ll keep the pressure off. (Plus, if you think about it, that’s still a lot of books.)
  2. Instead of trying to read as many books as I can, I’m going to try to genuinely enjoy as many of the books I read this year as possible. This will mean a lot of DNFing, I imagine. So many things I’ve read since Christmas have been so good that it’s really put me off trying to get through something mediocre just because we’re guaranteed to sell a lot of it at the shop.
  3. I’m also going to try to fill in some of my classics and 20th-century gaps.
  4. Re blogging, I’m going to try the following: a weekly reading diary which (as vacuouswastrel suggested) will be, quite literally, one or two lines on everything I’ve read that week. Fortnightly (approximately) I’ll choose one or two of the best books read in that period to feature. Less regularly – I don’t know at this point how often – I’ll do a proper deep-dive review into something that really demands that amount of attention. I’ll also carry on doing Three Things at the end of each month.

And hopefully, that will work. Sort of. Well enough.

A conundrum

Lovely readers, here is my plight: the Reading Diary format last year enabled me to write about every book that I’d read, but I often fell behind. Catching up often entailed a huge effort: I haven’t written a Reading Diary since just before Christmas, for instance, and now have a backlog of twelve books to talk about. It was impractical to say “I’ll publish a post weekly without fail”, and what I did manage to produce often felt rushed or under-considered. I like reading detailed literary analysis, and I’d like to produce it; Instagram-style book reviewing, involving a plot summary plus some adjectives (“brilliant”, “searing”, “heartbreaking”), isn’t something I’m interested in writing, though of course it has its place.

What should I do in 2019?

In an ideal world, every day would be three times as long, and I could read 205 books, give each one the critical write-up it deserves, and finish my own novel this year. But this world isn’t ideal, so something will have to give. At the same time, I want to keep writing about what I’ve read, because I like this blogging, reading community, and because it acts as a useful supplement to my day job, which is to sell books to people.

If any of you have any ideas – about the type of posts I could be writing, or about a possible posting schedule – I would be very grateful to hear them.

In 2018

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was so, so much better than last year; it wasn’t just about surviving, but about thriving: finding out, as Dolly Parton so wisely said, who I am, then doing it on purpose.

In 2018, I:

celebrated my lovely colleague Faye’s wedding, with other bookshop chums

attended a celebratory black tie dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for the engagement of two more friends

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found a new flat, with a new housemate

helped plan my cousin Sarah’s wedding, as her maid of honour, and in company with her brilliant bridesmaids

sang Irish songs, drunkenly, on a rooftop in the snow

received incredibly helpful mentoring and advice on my novel from the infinitely generous Antonia Honeywell

experienced a hen do in Brighton

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sang at York Minster (and had some verse solos in the canticles, in the presence of Iestyn Davies. Swoon.)

participated in the Womens Prize Shadow Panel again

sang for, danced at, and generally revelled in Sarah’s wedding to the wonderful Gareth

hosted my mum in my new flat

travelled to Paris for an utterly unforgettable long weekend with my beloved friend Kendall

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relatedly: eaten a meal in Paris that I will remember for the rest of my life—seven courses, four hours, wine

started a regular paid Sunday singing gig

visited Chatsworth, home of my employers, for the first time

caught up with my goddaughter Beatrice, and her lovely parents, Esther and Bojan, in Oxford

went to IKEA for the first time in my adult life

celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday with beloved friends and so much sushi I could barely stand afterwards

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threw a housewarming party in the new flat, with my excellent housemate Joe

sang at St Paul’s with old college chums, then immediately afterwards attended the reception for Kerry and Alvina’s wedding

hosted my little brother Nick and his brilliant girlfriend Emma on their London holiday

ticked another cathedral (Southwark) off my list of Places I’ve Sung In

heard Susan Graham, live

drank in the private pub for Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London

took myself on my first solo holiday, to Brussels, where I survived on goat’s cheese, baguette, chocolate caramel spread, and ratatouille

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…and where I also wrote thousands of words’ worth of my book

chatted to an agent about said book, and promised to send a draft when finished

accidentally insulted Sebastian Faulks

flew home to visit my family, during which time we picked apples, drank coffee (and a lot of wine), strolled in downtown Charlottesville, basked in late autumn sunlight, drove up into the mountains. I also brunched joyfully at Helen and Charlie’s wedding reception, and wrote more thousands of words

attended the Young Writer of the Year Award announcement, along with lots of blogging friends (and where I met the incomparable Sarah Moss)

cooked a Thanksgiving meal for some American (and non-American!) friends

got a sparkly gel pedicure because why not

sang in four Christmas concerts

re-permed my hair, also because why not

celebrated Christmas at Canterbury Cathedral, thanks to the kind hospitality of Sarah and Gareth

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finished off the New Year with gigs at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s

read exactly 200 books

Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

I didn’t manage to finish this before midnight, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we? (Except perhaps, just briefly, to note that I read WAY more nonfiction this year than ever before. This is definitely to do with getting proofs from the shop, so that I could experiment with genres that were relatively new to me, and find out what I liked, without having to spend a lot of money on a potentially disappointing experience.)

cover2Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch. A thoughtful, intelligent and nuanced exploration of what it’s like to be a non-white person in Britain. Hirsch is mixed race, but she grew up in a middle class London neighbourhood, with ballet lessons and books. Her husband is descended from Ghanaian immigrants and grew up in a much less privileged part of town. Both of them experience daily racism, but in very different ways. Without a doubt the most eye-opening memoir I read all year. Especially relevant given that the current trajectory of Britain’s population is heading towards the country being primarily mixed-race.

cover1Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan. Mangan’s memoir of the books she loved as a child is funny, self-deprecating, nostalgic, and super-informative, blending memory with interesting snippets about the history of children’s literature (a genre that barely existed until the Edwardians came along). It reminds the reader, of course, of the books they loved as a child—E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chalet School, The Worst Witch—but also introduces them to new authors: Antonia Forrest, for instance, was completely unknown to me, but Mangan rates her school novels for pre-teen girls so highly that I’m keen to track them down.

814ysf3sdjlThe Secret Barrister, by The Secret Barrister. When I first read this, I said it was probably going to be the best nonfiction I read in 2018, and although it’s encountered some stiff competition (specifically the two books immediately below), it’s still a strong contender. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous lawyer/blogger who has written a passionate, articulate, knowledgeable screed about the state of Britain’s criminal justice system, and how important it is to preserve the right to a fair trial. What’s revealed is scary, but even scarier is the reminder that courts aren’t just for petty thieves: anyone could get dragged into a legal case, so it’s imperative for us all that justice function properly. (Spoilers: it doesn’t.)

coverThe Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Containing elements of true crime, natural history, psychological study, and memoir, this reads like an extended New Yorker essay in the best possible way. Johnson takes on the weird case of Edwin Rist, a music student who in 2009 stole hundreds of priceless bird skins from the Natural History Museum’s storage facility in Tring, Hertfordshire. Why Rist did it, and the people he targeted as buyers for the skins—men heavily involved in the obscure world of Victorian fly-tying, which often requires rare bird feathers—are the focus of Johnson’s investigation. Fascinating, disturbing, and incredibly well written.

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel. A beautiful book about beautiful books. De Hamel takes twelve medieval manuscripts, and guides us through them: not only the pages themselves, their historical context and a rough summary of the manuscripts’ journeys over time to wherever they’re now housed, but also the experience of viewing each of them, whether that’s in the Royal Library at Copenhagen (bright, open, cheery) or the Pierpont Morgan library in New York (officious, fussy, mistrustful). In many ways it’s like The Feather Thief; a skilled writer takes an obscure subject and makes it mesmerising.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee. McBee’s first memoir, Man Alive, was about his FTM (female-to-male) transition; Amateur takes one experience—training for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden—and builds around it a web of thoughts and ideas on manliness, violence, and how those two things are connected in contemporary Western society. It’s neither dry nor academic, in either sense of the word; if anything, it’s a case study, a deep dive into the tension McBee feels as he becomes part of a community of men who care deeply for each other whilst also learning how to hurt each other. Complicated, nuanced, very thought-provoking.

original_400_600Handel In London, by Jane Glover. More than anything, this biography of Handel, which focuses on his working life in the theatres of London, is fun. It conveys the sense of constant movement, of liveliness, that characterises both Hanoverian England and the music that Handel himself wrote. Glover doesn’t shy away from musical analysis—she’s very good at showing us just how brilliant a composer Handel was—but she understands the appeal of backstage secrets, and there are plenty of tidbits on the challenges and joys of running an eighteenth-century opera company, complete with unreliable singers. Sheer brainy delight.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard. Hubbard’s biography of Bess of Hardwick is also a brainy delight, though instead of “fun”, I might use the word “awe-inspiring”. Bess, four times married and acquiring new wealth, particularly in the form of property, with each marriage, was Tudor England’s grand matriarch. Her political instincts were sometimes ropey (though, amazingly, she never fell out of favour with Elizabeth I), but she’s best known as a builder: some of the houses she commissioned still stand. Hubbard tells her story—that of a woman in a man’s world—with skill and flair.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, ed. Henry Eliot. An ideal sofa companion for a dreary day, and you’ll want to store it on a low shelf for frequent reference in any case. It contains entries on every single book currently published by the Penguin Classics imprint, as well as an index of former PCs that have been allowed to fall out of print. I’d have liked a bit more analysis on that decision-making process, and a bit more musing on what makes a classic at all, but this is full of information and beautifully produced. It deserves to become a classic in its own right.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen. For sheer brilliance of prose, Karen Blixen would top this list by a country mile. Out of Africa is a memoir of Blixen’s years running a coffee farm in Kenya, and it is written in the most balanced, elegant, often quietly amusing sentences I have read for some time. There is something old-fashioned and hospitable about the book; it wants you to sit down and listen, not so that Blixen can talk at you, but so that she can share something precious to her. She describes a world now long gone—and ultimately, I think, rightly so—but there is love shining from every word of this gorgeous book.

Extremely honourable mentions: Quiet, by Susan Cain; The Language of Kindness, by Christie Watson; A Spy Named Orphan, by Roland Phillips; Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth; Wilding, by Isabella Tree; The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee; The Ravenmaster, by Chris Skaife; A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie.

Books of the year, 2018: paperback fiction

51fe1shobzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. The Catholic novel par excellence follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is more humane than his thematic counterpart, Evelyn Waugh, and The Power and the Glory is both stern and poignant.

51dwaae3rzl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. An excellent introduction to hardboiled science noir, and a huge amount of fun. Morgan treads in cyberpunk territory, but he is happier to make things readily comprehensible than the great names of cyberpunk usually are. (I read Altered Carbon just before Neuromancer, so Gibson’s novel felt weirdly familiar but less accessible.) This world has developed a way of remotely storing consciousness, so that that which is you—memories, cognition, personality—can be contained in a small implant near the base of the neck, known as a stack. (One of the great weirdnesses in the book is the distinction between killing someone’s body, and causing Real Death; the former is quite routine, while the latter—effected by destroying a stack, and the backed-up data if there is any—is considered a serious offense.) Morgan writes like a demon—gripping, compelling, bursting with brilliant, weird, revealing ideas about how societies work.

51pyv2bpvkl-_sx324_bo1204203200_This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart. This is set on Corfu and involves a witty, spirited failed actress, a ruggedly handsome grumpy man, attempted and actual murder, smuggling, currency market inflation, abduction, and a dolphin. Our heroine, Lucy Waring, is the aforementioned failed actress, a failure about which she is quite sanguine. I’d never read Stewart before, but she’s very funny, an effect mostly achieved through use of pitilessly accurate similes. The mystery, and the villain, are genuinely chilling and villainous; so often in books of this vintage the stakes feel absurdly low, the evil underdeveloped, but here Stewart conveys a sense of real menace and cruelty. I also read it under perfect circumstances: during the summer heatwave, sprawled on my bed, eating raspberry sorbet. Heaven.

41wf6v2bt7dl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Goblin, by Ever Dundas. The critical and commercial neglect of this book has been a travesty. It’s a novel set in WWII, during the Blitz, but it’s utterly unlike any other such novel I’ve ever read: scarier, fiercer, and infinitely more successful at conveying how completely and utterly the world has changed over the past seventy years. Like The Madonna of the MountainsGoblin allows the reader to inhabit the essential strangeness of the past. Wartime England’s dark and disturbing side is brought to life through the voice of its eponymous protagonist, an unwanted child whose best friend is a dog named Devil, and whose entire difficult life is an extended proof that animals are more trustworthy than humans. Weird, creepy, heartbreaking, and totally convincing.

668282The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark. I’m not sure that I “liked” The Driver’s Seat, but its single trick is so horrifying and so impeccably revealed that it has to make a best-of-year list. It’s impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers, so I won’t; suffice to say that you can only read The Driver’s Seat for the first time once. Subsequent readings might illuminate the pattern and structure of the novel, but nothing will ever make a reader forget that plot. It’s macabre and entrancing, impossible to take your eyes off. Lise, Spark’s main character, has no interiority at all, but that’s the point: we’re not meant to be able to understand her. It’s a brave thing to do in fiction.

s-l225A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine. This is such a complicated piece of work that I’ll need to read it again and again to get the whole thing. Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell’s pseudonym for her more literary crime novels—whatever that means) writes with the psychological insight and the absolute patience that I first encountered in Tana French’s novels. Vine’s narrator delicately unwraps the layers of respectability, self-delusion, silence and manipulation that lead to violence. It’s not only a fantastic novel about a murder, but a fantastic exploration of the strength of social mores, a strong Exhibit A for the argument that the recent past is more alien than science fiction. Genuinely disturbing without ever once being less than decorous.

81yf15ngyelThe Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer. It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love.

81oxlxekxxlConvenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata. Keiko’s social skills have always been on the idiosyncratic side. We might think of her as autistic, or neuro-atypical, though there’s never any attempt to diagnose her in the book. Constant cries of “can’t you be normal?” baffle Keiko so much that, by the time she’s an adult, she’s decided to aim for social acceptance through mimicry. Most of the time, she manages it, but it’s not really enough; after eighteen years of working in a convenience store, she still isn’t married, and the demands for normalcy are returning with a vengeance. The crisis of the novel, the choice which Keiko has to make, is: will she give up the only identity that has ever made sense to her (that of a convenience store worker) in search of social acceptance? Dark yet funny, sweet yet disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is unforgettable.

isbn9781787478039A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley. This is perhaps a book whose time has come. It’s basically speculative fiction; the action begins with a scene in which Tucker Caliban shoots all his livestock, salts his fields, burns his house, and walks out of the (fictional) Southern state in which he lives, accompanied by his wife and their baby. The entire black population of the state follows suit, and the rest of the novel takes the points of view of various white men, including a small boy and the son of the white family for whom Tucker Caliban used to work. Kelley writes sentences with the clarity and declarative confidence of Hemingway; his characters are vulnerable and sympathetic even while they express ignorance, prejudice, and—at the very end—bloodthirsty cruelty. It is a totally brilliant book, one I’ve been thinking about ever since finishing it.

9781780227344The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell. Sixteen-year-old Lalla lives in a London where Regent’s Park is home to a tent city; Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and the British Museum shelters homeless squatters. Her father, Michael, has been making plans for some time, and they finally leave London behind on a heavily provisioned ship that Michael has been stocking for years. Lalla’s parents have protected her, and her naiveté is infuriating to the reader as well as to the people who surround her, but that is the point: even if she grows up late, she has to grow up, and that means being responsible for yourself, instead of waiting for others to take care of you. Full of clever religious symbolism, and much more a portrait of the present than is comfortable.

9780099581666Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre. A novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day, who is now thirty and who, as the novel opens, is seeking a tonic that will preserve her youthful allure. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Absolutely genius.

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace. I read this so recently and it’s still so obvious that it’s book-of-the-year material. Crace is an atheist, but this book—maybe the one for which he’s best known—reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy. A group of equally lost souls is camping in the caves of quarantine, and each of them wants something from this period of spiritual cleansing. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast—no one could—but Musa, Quarantine‘s anti-hero, seems to see him at the end of the book: in a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead. For me, the most Christian element of the book is the friendship between, and emancipation of, the two women in the caves: they find comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. Deeply thought-provoking and moving.

Also completely excellent this year, and now in paperback, was Anna Burns’s Booker Prize-winning Milkman. I finished it last night and want to give it a proper Reading Diary review, but it’s on this list in spirit. A massive accomplishment.

Reading Diary: long and short, or, God and sex

28191591Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (out in Feb): This outrageously good-looking book is also outrageously long: well over 600 pages in proof. It is also only the first in a projected trilogy, entitled Dark Star, focusing on African mythology. Neil Gaiman’s puffed it as an African Tolkien with flashes of Angela Carter, which actually doesn’t seem too far off. It focuses on a mercenary known only as Tracker, whose prodigious gift for finding and following scent is mostly used to hunt down debtors and shiftless husbands until he is recruited to find a missing boy who might just be the rightful heir to the throne of the kingdom. James frames most of the narrative as a story told under interrogation, presumably to keep us in suspense about how Tracker comes to be imprisoned as a result of his quest, but for long stretches of time it’s easy to forget about that. Chronological leaps, a profusion of characters, and the aforementioned sheer length of the book meant that for a fair fraction of its pages–maybe a fifth to a quarter–I was reasonably confused about what was happening and whose side we ought to be on. Luckily, I think that’s exactly the reaction James intends; he wants people to need to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf over and over again. And for all that it’s baggy, it’s also intense and immersive; I read it over four days and could barely stand having to do other things like sleep and go to work. The book is rich in brilliant imagery–a city built in the trunks and branches of enormous baobab trees; a fish the size of an island; murderous spirits who walk on the ceiling–and much of that is imagery that white readers won’t be automatically familiar with. James also does Tolkien one better by making (gasp!) explicit sex, and explicit queerness, part of his world. Black Leopard won’t be for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience.

51zSm5C7lWL._SX326_BO1204203200_The Hook, by Raffaella Barker: Books like The Hook fascinate me because they are clearly the products of skilled professionals, and yet they would be virtually unpublishable if anyone tried to sell them to an editor tomorrow. The Hook was first published in 1996 and there must have been something in the water in English literature in the ’80s and ’90s, because those decades are full of books like this, where–it seems–the author is just telling us a story. How crazy that sounds now! How crazy that it sounds crazy! It’s not that The Hook has no plot; au contraire; the minute we meet eighteen-year-old Christy and learn that her mother’s just died, she’s dropped out of sixth form, her father’s bought a trout farm in the countryside, and she’s met a man named Mick at a bar, we know bad things are afoot. Maybe it’s just that Barker appears to be writing without an agenda. She does tell a story about a young woman being led astray by an older man who is not all he says he is, and let down by the people who ought to be protecting her, but it’s hardly #MeToo territory. There is nothing in the narrating voice that forces us to see the novel’s events in a political light or even in the light of wider society. I can’t decide whether that makes it incredibly subtle and delicate in a way that publishing is missing out on now, or whether The Hook simply has…well…no hook. Or maybe a bit of both. Has anyone else read Barker? What do you think?

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace: Crace is an atheist, but this book–maybe the one for which he’s best known–reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy (and he never goes by the name Christ, being referred to by the narrating voice always as “Jesus”). The “devil” is a man named Musa, a merchant, wife-beater, and, later, a violent rapist, whose near-fatal fever is unwittingly cured by Jesus on his first night in the desert. The caves of quarantine are not as deserted as he would like; others are in them, seeking other things. Aphas, an old man, wants a cure for his cancer; Shim wants the enlightenment that he believes he’s entitled to; Marta wants to get pregnant; Miri and Musa are there simply because the caravan in which they were traveling left them behind. Throughout the novel, characters wrestle with what they want. Crace shows us that desire is often better left unfulfilled: one of the primary questions of the book is whether everyone would have been better off if Musa had not been miraculously cured. And yet Crace’s vision doesn’t seem so bleak, at least not to me. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast–no one could–but Musa seems to see him at the end of the book. In a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead, and it’s suggested that Musa’s inveterate storytelling habit becomes the catalyst for the New Testament narrative that we know now. Meanwhile, Marta and Miri’s friendship and eventual emancipation is, for me, the most Christian element of the book: two people finding comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. It’s a gorgeous piece of work.

the-dreamers-9781471173561_lgThe Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker (out in Feb): This is exactly the sort of science fiction that will receive extremely positive mainstream press attention and high sales; like Station Eleven, another of that kind, it deals with the fall-out of a world-changing event, not so much with the nature or provenance of that event itself. In a small college town in California, students start falling asleep. They’re not in a coma–they’re just sleeping–but nothing will wake them up. Brain scans reveal that they’re dreaming, and not only that, but they’re dreaming more vividly, with more intense cerebral activity, than any normal person. Thomspon Walker follows several point-of-view characters (a few more than she needs to, although she keeps an omniscient narrator throughout, so that pesky problem of differentiating voice doesn’t arise): an isolated freshman named Mei; the idealistic and unusual boy she falls in love with, Matthew; one of her professors, who left his wife for another man decades ago; another college student, Rebecca, who becomes pregnant just before succumbing to sleep; a young couple, Annie and Ben, and their newborn baby, Grace; and two little girls whose father is a doomsday prepper. On the whole, I agree with other assessments I’ve seen of The Dreamers around the Internet: the style is lovely and languid, there’s a bit too much fetishizing of babies and breeding, and everything that’s written about Rebecca’s situation reads painfully like an anti-abortion manifesto. I’d quite like to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, which deals with similar issues and won the Clarke Award in 2012; The Dreamers, meanwhile, is diverting and interesting while you’re reading it, but has faded fairly quickly from my memory.

51FE8d3qeHL._SX287_BO1204203200_The English Gentleman’s Mistress, by Douglas Sutherland: This was published in the late ’80s by Debrett’s (yes, that Debrett’s), and constitutes a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature guide to that most peculiar inhabitant of high society, the gentleman’s mistress. In many ways, it’s funny and charming and contains some cracking anecdotes, including one meant to illustrate the difference between Frenchmen and Englishmen, in which one Frenchman casually informs another that he is sleeping with the latter’s wife, only to be met with “Oh yes? Tell me, is she any good at it these days?” In many other ways, it’s a startling reminder that the late 1980s were as rampant with gross sexism as the late 1880s: women are referred to as mares, for instance, with all of the sexual value judgments that the word implies, and this is clearly not a world in which any sensible woman would prefer having a career to being “kept”. A weird, often enjoyable, often really distressing little volume. I’m glad I have it, if only for self-educational purposes.

27220616Devotion, by Ros Barber: In the near future, just after the death of Richard Dawkins, moves are afoot to reclassify religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. In this climate, Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of April Smith, a ninteen-year-old woman who has committed a religiously motivated act of mass murder. Logan himself is struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter Flora in a skydiving accident; his grief is threatening to destroy his marriage, as his wife–Flora’s stepmother–is increasingly stymied by his inability to communicate his pain. Meanwhile, in the course of investigating April’s condition, Logan comes across a charismatic researcher named Gabrielle Salmon, who offers both him and April the chance to undergo a procedure that, she claims, will allow them to experience direct contact with the divine.

The ideas in Devotion are in many ways more compelling than the characters whose actions are meant to express those ideas: Logan is frustrating, selfish and self-pitying, while the event that drove April to murder is at best predictable, at worst a reduction of female pain to an inevitable origin in sexual trauma. I’m also uncertain about Barber’s portrayal of faith. She writes about it in a way that seems to see only three options: crazed, God-talks-to-me fundamentalism, pure atheism, and a kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” state that manifests in a vague, fuzzy feeling of one-ness with all life. There are many other ways of experiencing what is generally referred to as the divine–there is an enormous distinction between “religious faith” and “religious fundamentalism”–and it would have been refreshing to see some more acknowledgment of that; it’s still so rare in mainstream literary fiction. Devotion is absolutely worth reading, though, even if it only goes halfway, and I’m slightly surprised that it was never on the Clarke Award shortlist.

9781783526215Don’t Hold My Head Down, by Lucy-Anne Holmes (out in Feb): The subtitle should make it pretty clear why I was interested in this. Holmes hit her mid-thirties and became aware–after a disappointing wank to Internet porn–that she wasn’t having nearly as good sex as she wanted. So she made a list (slow sex! A bit of kink! Maybe some bum stuff! Full-body orgasms!) and set off to see what she could find out about how to bang better. It’s a fun read, certainly, but much of it feels (and I accept that it’s very easy to criticize) a bit…basic? Not in terms of the sex she has–Holmes does more stuff in the name of let’s-see-what-this-is-like than I ever have–but in terms of the tone and the attitude, which is all a bit jolly-awkward-Bridget-Jones-falling-into-a-mud-puddle-whoopsy-I’m-such-a-silly-tit. There is a lot of caps lock. There are many exclamation points. A writer can’t help the person that they are, but I was hoping for something that I’d be able to connect to on an emotional level a bit more. Instead I found myself repeatedly thinking “for Christ’s sake, woman”, not helped by the fact that Holmes meets a man halfway through the book and ends up entering a serious relationship with him, eventually having a baby. Perhaps that’s meant to be a happy ending, but it did rather close off some avenues of exploration. Maybe I’ll have to write my own version of this book.

7B0DFC0F19-347A-4F63-B619-6C84B99E8F6F7DImg400John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead: Before this I’d only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead’s reputation preceded him: he’s versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that’s on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he’s said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he’s been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there’s this much going on?

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So much God stuff! So much sex stuff! An extremely long book and several pretty short ones! Also, I love how excited I’ve been by reading the paperbacks that I chose for myself in Crouch End a few weeks ago (in this batch, that was The HookQuarantineDevotion, and John Henry Days).