20 Books of Summer, 2018: the final score

20-books-of-summer

Technically, it ain’t over til Monday (the 3rd), and I’m still reading my 20th book. But I’m only a few dozen pages in, and I’m out all day Sunday, so we might as well call it now: I read (and reviewed!) 19 of my 20 Books of Summer this year. Actually, that’s better than it looks, because I only properly chose 19; my 20th was always going to be a wild card, decided upon once all the others were finished. (It’s The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.)

I also read 35 other books that weren’t for 20BoS, so, you know, I’d say this has been a pretty good reading summer by any count.

Here’s my full list:

  1. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan: review
  2. Neuromancer, by William Gibson: review
  3. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida: review
  4. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison: review
  5. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas: review
  6. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood: review
  7. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller: review
  8. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan: review
  9. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson: review
  10. Wilding, by Isabella Tree: review
  11. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea: review
  12. May, by Naomi Kruger: review
  13. A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence: review
  14. Goblin, by Ever Dundas: review
  15. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell: review
  16. This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: review
  17. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann: review
  18. Collected Stories, by John Cheever: review
  19. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley: review
  20. Wild card! EDIT: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

Time for prizes, as Kimbofo calls them:

The worst of these 20, or at least the less enjoyable, were The Waters and the Wild, A Station On the Path To Somewhere Better, and Chopin’s Piano. I might also throw Empire of Things to the wolves simply for its deadening length; if a non-fiction writer doesn’t construct a compelling through-line, either narratively or argumentatively, it’s a lot harder to justify 880 pages.

The best of these 20 were, without a doubt, Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Ever Dundas’s Goblin, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks. I refuse to choose between them.

Closely following the top tier of excellence: Mary Stewart’s novel This Rough Magic and John Cheever’s Collected Stories. They’re both fantastic works, and I would say top-tier material themselves; they just had a fraction less emotional resonance.

Then we come to an interesting category that I like to think of as the Not-For-Me: they’re not dreadful books, but they struck me somewhat obliquely, not full-on as they seemed to be intending. In some cases, that was down to weaknesses in structure, tone or editing (or all three): in others, I suspect they were simply Not My Cup Of Tea. In this category I’d include Neuromancer, The Stopping Places, A Station On the Path To Somewhere Better, May, and A Jest of God.

And the rest are simply good, solid books. They achieve what they set out to do, and I will be/have been selling and promoting them most assiduously: Washington Black, Transcription, Wilding, and Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.


Have you been attempting, or following along with, 20 Books of Summer? How far did you get? Have you read anything from my list?

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19. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell

x1080-v0qYou might have heard of the Yazidis—they’ve been having some trouble, these past few years, from IS militiamen. You might even have heard of Zoroastrians, whose traditional burial rites involve leaving their dead in “sky towers” to be devoured by vultures (neither earth nor fire may be used to dispose of a body). But the Kalasha, or the Kam? The Copts of Egypt? The Samaritans? Ever heard of any of those? If not, don’t fret: Gerard Russell’s fantastically accessible and engaging book on minor religious traditions of the Middle East will tell you all about them. Russell is a former diplomat who has worked in Kabul, Cairo, Baghdad, and Jeddah, amongst other places; he doesn’t make many appearances in his own book, so that the impression the reader receives is of a pleasant, somewhat diffident man. (A photo of him partaking of local drinks with some Kalasha men seems to bear this image out.) Although each chapter involves him visiting an area of the Middle East where the religion in question is still practiced—the book therefore constituting a travelogue as well as a theology and history text—Russell’s personal experiences are rarely foregrounded. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms is about the heirs of its title, the men, women and children who still practice arcane, even archaic, religious observances, and about what their lives are like.

Inevitably, Russell must discuss diasporas, and the relative ease or difficulty of maintaining the practice of a very small religion outside of its native land. Several of the belief systems he discusses are characterised by their secrecy. Only priests or elite members of the religious hierarchy of the Druze, for instance, are allowed to know what the whole thing is actually about: their followers are not required to read holy books or to keep any particular form of observance in dress, diet, abstinence, or really any other way. What is required of a lay Druze is the willingness to say “I am a Druze”, and to accept that the full meaning of that allegiance will probably remain forever closed to you. One woman recalls moving to America as a child and trying to explain her suspiciously lax religion to her teacher, who assumed she was lying. Only when her mother was asked, and confirmed that indeed their faith required absolutely nothing of them, did the teacher (apparently, though I’m sure she still didn’t really) believe her. But, as Russell notes, this also means it’s very hard to maintain a community of Druze outside of Lebanon. How do you protect and cultivate an identity which has no identity markers?

Some of the oldest of these religions are dead ends of Christianity or Islam, versions of those religions that stayed put when the majority of believers moved on to different, centralised, or officially sanctioned forms of worship. The creed of the modern-day Mandaeans, for instance, bears a strong resemblance to that of the early Christian sect the Marcionites, as well as to the beliefs of the highly popular and influential Manichaeans (Saint Augustine was one, before becoming a Christian). To an extent, these likenesses seem unremarkable: all of these versions of belief were developing around the same times, and around the same places. It should not strain our credulity that the two opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness, appear in multiple different belief systems. But the idea that watching a Mandaean rite gets you closer to the experiences of Christ’s early followers than going to Mass does is an extremely enticing one. Moreover, it clarifies just how much major world religions have changed over the centuries, or millennia, of their existences. It’s hard to believe in the immutability of doctrine after reading Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.

18. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann

cover2This is not my usual sort of book at all. 880 pages of global economic history, nearly 200 of which are taken up by endnotes and bibliography? Gosh. But I put it on my #20BooksofSummer pile for a few reasons: we had sold a lot of it in the shop last summer, there was a damaged copy going, the front cover is utterly beautiful, and I am kind of interested in material culture: how people’s stuff relates to the way they treat themselves and each other, how self-fashioning is so often bound up with what you own and how you use it.

Since this is so enormous, I posted updates to Goodreads while I was working my way through it. They’re fairly indicative:

page 136 (15.45%): “So far, I’m impressed by Trentmann’s scope: he deals with consumerism in Ming China and in East African kingdoms, as well as in Britain, France, the Netherlands, etc. (There were big differences. Ming elites wanted antiques with provenance, not the new and shiny.) The focus of any given section is often unclear, though I’m willing to believe that this is the fault of a reader unaccustomed to reading economic history.”

page 370 (42.05%): “I’ve a better handle on the focus and structure now: part one is basically a chronological overview of global consumption trends (fun!!) Almost finished that section now and especially impressed with the analysis of consumption in the GDR and Soviet Russia. (Socialism doesn’t stop people wanting stuff. It’s not news, but the details on things like car ownership and food shopping are interesting and engaging.)”

page 735 (83.52%): “Covered lots of ground last night. Part 2 deals with present-day consumption issues, using historical examples to contextualise: the current chapter is on fair-trade movements. Interestingly, Trentmann’s analysis of the effects of state spending merely glances at contemporary austerity policies. He implies they only really affect the already-poor and disadvantaged, which is demonstrably untrue, at least in the UK.”

The very last bit was a short chapter looking into the future of consumption, which – obviously – is a tenuous one, given that if human civilisations continue to consume resources at the current rate, or anything like it, we’ll be in deep trouble very shortly. Trentmann has some interesting things to say on short-term strategies, like various municipal waste-management policies, but he stops short of advocating a real crackdown on waste or consumption. He keeps his own politics out of the narrative, mostly, as a good historian should, but globally we’ve reached a point where to be politically neutral is to make a political statement, so it doesn’t wash in this section, though it does in the earlier chapters.

It’s also too long, but then, any book of 880 pages is too long.

 

17. Goblin, by Ever Dundas

41wf6v2bt7dl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Goblin is a phenomenal book. There.

No, I know, I can’t just leave it there. So: Goblin has flown under the radar a bit. It turned up in places where such books do turn up – in reviews by interesting book bloggers, on the Not the Booker Prize longlist, the occasional mention in a year-end best-of roundup – but there was never, as far as I can tell, much mainstream coverage, apart from a Guardian book-of-the-day review and some pieces in the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman. I’m here to tell you that the neglect of this book was 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.

The title is our protagonist’s name: she has never known another. Her mother hates her, calling her “goblin-runt born blue” and other, less savoury names. Her father is kinder, but ineffective. Goblin finds sanctuary with her older brother David – cool in her eyes, but viciously bullied by neighbourhood toughs – her friends, Stevie and Mac, whom she tyrannizes without much difficulty, and her dog Devil. The great pet massacre – a mass culling of domestic animals that really happened – results in Devil’s death, and David disappears. Goblin articulates her loneliness and her mental distress through intense, surreal, sometimes horrifying imaginative play: the story she invents for David is charming (he has gone, she believes, to be a pirate, and to marry a mermaid), but the voodoo-like creature she constructs to help with her grief over Devil is, if harmless, disturbing: a doll with a shrew’s head, a pigeon’s wings, one clawed foot, and arms made of dried earthworms, whom she names Monsta. She also has visions of various London “characters”: Queen Isabella, who carries her husband’s heart pinned to her dress; Miss Amelia, locked up in Newgate for murdering the orphans in her charge; and the Lizard King, who wept tears of acid for his dismembered wife and took horrible revenge on humans.

It’s extremely difficult to disentangle Goblin’s imaginative capacities, and what we would now call her socioeconomic disadvantages, from the possibility that she has a form of mental illness. In fact, I think that is exactly Ever Dundas’s point. Goblin‘s literary pedigree includes ancestors like Lanark and Gormenghast, books whose magical worlds are composed in roughly equal parts of menace, fertile chaos, and a sense of having been constructed somehow out of the raw materials of consensus reality. The wartime England of, let’s say, Atonement, or of Bletchley Park, did exist, somewhere, but so too did experiences like Goblin’s. Self-sufficient, confident to the point of arrogance, so frequently muddied and tousled that she lives for months as a boy: there is joy in the chaos that surrounds her, but there’s also the gaping hole left by the neglect of parents and by David’s abandonment.

Evacuating herself from London (she hops on a train with children from various schools; the ruse is never discovered), she experiences another form of neglect when chosen to work on a farm run by a couple whose behaviour towards their refugee children moves from distasteful to abusive. But the countryside is also where she finds love, with a beautiful girl named Angel, and friendship, with a piglet that follows her around and whom she names Corporal Pig. Goblin’s queerness is a permanent point of contention throughout her life, but especially in this context: the farmer and his wife attempt an exorcism that looks very much like the torture suffered by Sierva Maria in Of Love and Other Demons. She survives, and escapes back to London, but the experience reinforces her love and trust of animals above humans; her later life as the adopted daughter of two circus performers helps to restore some of that balance, but it can’t make up for what wasn’t there at the beginning.

The crisis of the book is precipitated by the need to look back at the past. In sections set in 2011, Goblin is living in Edinburgh, very elderly but apparently all right. Her best friend, Ben, is a homeless man with a dog of his own, whom she adores because he reminds her of Devil, and they get along together until Goblin is contacted by a Met detective: they need her to return to London and give testimony regarding a crime that they think she witnessed seventy years ago, during the Blitz. Readers will piece together the nature of this crime, probably, fairly quickly, but it’s testimony to the sheer strength of Goblin’s voice, her conviction in the rightness of her own made-up stories, that the crime seems slightly incredible until the very end. It explains much of the preceding book, but it doesn’t hold much weight on its own; in another novel I would say that it feels rushed or underdeveloped, but here I think that’s exactly what’s intended. Ever Dundas has built a character whose own world may be part coping strategy, part untutored brilliance, but whose imaginative strength so far outstrips the reader’s own rationality that we are pulled with her, wherever she goes: even, at the very end, to acknowledging the real nature of her history.

16. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

9781781258972Looking at that cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Washington Black was a sort of steampunk adventure, perhaps a kind of abolitionist The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not, though; apart from the dubious legitimacy of the flying machine on which Washington Black effects his escape from plantation slavery in Barbados (and, to be honest with you, it’s hardly a deus ex machina given that it promptly crashes mid-storm), everything about Esi Edugyan’s second novel is straight historical fiction. What’s remarkable about it is the sense of constant slight peculiarity that pervades the novel’s atmosphere: this is the nineteenth century and the slave trade and the racism that we know, but there’s more to see, more to experience, than hackneyed literary tropes. Like Washington, anyone reading this book must prepare to be surprised, not just once but repeatedly: by the way people can be so simple and yet so complicated; by the curious twists of fate.

Washington is lifted (quite literally) out of his life as a Barbadian slave by the brother of his sadistic master. Christopher, or Titch, as he insists that Wash call him, is a gentleman but also an amateur naturalist. An amateur does things for love. The pain and the irony of Titch’s and Wash’s relationship is that Titch, though intelligent and far more humane than his vile brother, still sees Wash as a tool or a means to an end. That Wash happens to have artistic skills, and a scientific mind, does not make him less of an object; he’s just an object that Titch respects. Wash is young, though, and because he’s been removed from the rough love of Big Kit, the slave woman who raised him, he is desperate for something to fill that empty place of affection. When the two of them are separated, in an Arctic snowstorm (long story; there’s a lot of travelling), it’s the idea that Titch has abandoned him that haunts Wash for decades. Much of the rest of the story involves his attempts to find his former master, and his struggles to find a place in the world, while remaining permanently haunted by a particular episode of violence just before he left the plantation and by the reward his former master placed on his head.

Love comes in the form of Tanna Goff, a mixed-race young woman whose father is an eminent marine naturalist. Wash becomes Goff’s artist and assistant in an attempt to get to know Tanna better. The complex implications of everyone’s racial identity in this household are left unspoken but profoundly acknowledged. There’s an ambiguity to Wash and Tanna’s relationship, too: she’s strong and clever and loving, and he loves her, but can they ever be enough for one another?

That Edugyan packs all of this in to a novel that is also an adventure story is testimony to how carefully she picks and chooses what to depict. An encounter with an octopus that takes a shine to Wash isn’t just a natural history caper; it’s another instance of the interplay between affection and power. Titch’s determination to construct his flying machine comes – despite his progressive thoughts – at the expense of his brother’s slaves, who are diverted from their regular labour to carry materials at his whim. There’s always a sense that there are two levels to the book: the signifiers, if you will (plot events, character actions), and the signified (what those events and actions reveal, or represent). Edugyan avoids heavy-handedness by having an inherently interesting story and by creating Washington Black himself, a boy it’s impossible not to feel for. It’s an excellent piece of work.

15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

51f8igl7ngl-_sx323_bo1204203200_John Cheever has a reputation, an enormous one, as a giant of post-war American fiction. There is a particular social atmosphere surrounding his work. His men mix drinks and travel into New York every weekday morning on the eight-four; his women wear furs and are quietly, desperately, suicidally bored; everyone plays tennis at the club. The sea is never far away. To a large extent these descriptions hold true when you read the actual stories, but there is a surprising extent to which that is not all they are, or not all that Cheever can do. He can, and does, write about poverty: Christmas Is a Sad Season For the Poor, for instance, which features an apartment building elevator operator who spends the entirety of Christmas morning telling everyone he ferries in his elevator how depressing and lonely his day is likely to be. He succeeds in exciting Christian charity in the hearts of virtually all the families in the building, ending up with seventeen hot dinners and mountains of presents. Unable to distribute them all to his children, he gives most of this bounty to his neighbour, who rouses herself and her family to take them, in turn, to an even poorer family. The moral of this story – even whether there is a moral at all – is unclear, although I think the point here is less any particular moral than it is an overwhelming sense of irony, maybe even of futility, not just in this context but of all human endeavour.

He can, and does, write about adultery and cruelty. (Mostly, in Cheever’s world, it’s wives who are abusive to their husbands. Every now and then, as with The Music Teacher, the position is reversed, but Cheever never seems to be on the side of patriarchy at the expense of justice. He rarely appears to take sides at all, but he generally reserves tenderness for those characters who are baffled, vulnerable, or weak, whether they’re men or women.) Many of his stories revolve around a man who takes a mistress. None of his first-person narrators are women, though he writes some stories in the omniscient third person that focus on female perspectives. He was a closeted bisexual, which, although not the only lens through which to read his dissection of middle- and upper-class American sexual mores, is an interesting one. He is frank and fascinated by the hypocrisy of family values, the liberating effect of post-war European travel, the terrible anxiety about mortality and obsolescence that the act of adultery, in this world, is an attempt to assuage.

Philip Roth is quoted on the back of my edition as saying that Cheever writes “enchanted realism”; it’s an interesting expression because it so explicitly repudiates the implications of how I’d say it, which is that he writes a kind of materialist fabulism or fantasia. Frequently, at the end of these stories, miraculous or inexplicable things happen; time shifts and blurs; people appear and disappear. There’s a sense of the uncanny about all of it. This manifests most famously, perhaps, in the late story The Swimmer, whose protagonist Ned Merrill decides to make his way home from a party by swimming in the pools of all the neighbours between the two houses, and discovers when he returns home that he has aged by decades, his fortune has evaporated, his house is shuttered and empty, his family is gone. But there’s also that twinge of eeriness in earlier work: The Sutton Place Story, for instance, which revolves around a little girl who goes missing. When, eventually, she is recovered, she mentions a mysterious lady who gave her bread, but is either unwilling or incapable of saying more. I think it is a story about the moment you first realise that a child is not an extension of yourself, a realisation that strikes the little girl’s parents especially hard precisely because they have been so neglectful of her.

Most significant, though, is that Cheever’s writing is, quite simply, beautiful. He can write a sentence as simple and declarative as Hemingway; he can spin out a string of subordinate clauses as lush and proliferating as (though more dexterous than) anything of Henry James’s. He is profound and superficial at the same time; he can capture frivolity and desperation in the same breath, and follow it up with genuine, foolish, heart-felt love. And his work is suffused, for me, with this sense of light: suburban light, golden light, American light. I’ve wanted to read his Journals for some time, and on the strength of the short stories, his novels are also about to go on my TBR. Marvelous.

14. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

isbn9781444784671Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809, just after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular War. We first meet our protagonist, John Lacroix, being carried into his family home in Somerset: feet badly wounded and hearing severely damaged, he is on the edge of death, though his housekeeper Nell nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, we meet two other characters: an English soldier named Calley who witnessed English troops on the retreat committing an atrocity in a Spanish village, and a Spanish officer named Medina. Calley, after giving testimony identifying the man in charge of the raping and murdering troops, is charged by a shadowy superior to find the individual in question and kill him; the Spanish want proof that someone has been punished, but the English government’s position is sufficiently precarious that it needs to be done extrajudicially. Medina is assigned to keep Calley on track and to witness the murder as a representative of Spain. The juxtaposition of the two narratives suggests strongly to the reader that Lacroix – whom we know, so far, as a gentle and quiet man – was the officer named by Calley. As he sets out on a journey that will take him from Somerset to Bristol to Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides, and from frozen guilt and shame to redemption and love, suspense comes not merely from wondering whether Lacroix’s psychological scars will heal, but from the reader’s disbelieving anxiety: surely we know him, but could it be that he’s less than the man we think he is?

In fact, he is, but not in the way that we’ve been led to think. This is the first of Miller’s books I’ve read, but if its impressively nuanced characterisation is anything to go by, the rest of them must be worth reading too. The community that Lacroix eventually finds in the Hebrides (on an island that he reaches on the back of a cow, after a voyage narrated with such dry wit that I found myself grinning periodically throughout) consists of three siblings, two women and a man. This is the last remnant of a quasi-pagan cult led by a charismatic man called Thorpe, or sometimes Phyrro. (We actually meet him, in passing, when the narrative is with Calley and Medina.) Thorpe has left one sister pregnant; the other, Emily, with whom Lacroix falls in love and whose sight is failing, seems to have unfinished emotional business with their absent leader. Emily’s interior landscape is complex – at one point she reproaches Lacroix for referring to her as “free”, listing the many ways in which she is not at liberty at all – and Miller renders it very delicately. There aren’t really any minor characters in this novel; even William Swann, Lacroix’s Bristol merchant brother-in-law, and Nell, the housekeeper, who only appear in one or two chapters each, feel like fully rounded people, with hopes for the future that have nothing to do with Lacroix or his journey. And Miller’s settings are the same: his early nineteenth century harboursides, crofting communities, hospitals and rural estates have lives of their own; you can imagine them carrying on quite happily when Lacroix or other point-of-view characters leave the scene.

In short, then: an excellent historical novel; a moving exploration of guilt and love; beautifully written; very highly recommended.