09-15 of 20 Books of Summer

20 Books of Summer Collage

I made this collage on Picmonkey and I am so ridiculously proud of it

WHOOPS.

To be completely honest with you, I got to book #15, and then shit happened—other books I needed to review, holidays, that pesky novel I need to write—so although I’ve read waaaayyy more than 20 books this summer, I am very unlikely to finish the 20 Books of Summer, if you follow me. Still, it’s a super project, very worth attempting, and I’m definitely going to try it again next year! (Plus, because I’ve decided to DNF one of them—I can’t read Dylan Thomas’s collected poems all the way through, sorry—and to not worry about another—a monograph from the Royal Academy on Jean-Étienne Liotard, which I’ll enjoy reading in snatches but which is too bulky to be practical as an everyday book—I only have three books left to read, and I’m sure I can knock those out before the fall is too far advanced…)

Brief reviews follow.

book_2909. When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant

Where I read it: Mostly on the Tube, I think, over about two days.

I liked everything about the premise for this one: Evelyn Sert is an orphaned hairdresser, aged twenty, who decides to move from Soho to the new state of Palestine. Once there, she becomes embroiled with a mysterious man named Johnny, who it turns out is a spy and a student militant, and their romance has serious repercussions for them both.

Things that were great about it: The setting is beautifully evoked. Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ’50s must have been an absolute shock to the system for a girl raised in grey post-war London. The Bauhaus architecture, the café culture, the brilliance of lemons and oranges against the whiteness of the houses; it’s all very well done. Equally, the snobbish attitude of the British wives whose husbands work for the protectorate in Palestine is well conveyed. Evelyn’s job at the salon is dependent on these women continuing to believe that she herself is 100% British, and the awkwardness of trying to conceal her Jewish identity in a place that seems designed to celebrate it is a really nice touch.

Things that could have been better: Everything about the espionage plot, really. Evelyn is quite a passive character, so it makes sense that she should do and know so little, but a) that means we don’t really know her, even by the book’s end, and b) it means that the dénouement comes as rather a surprise. We know Johnny’s up to something, but we hardly know what, and the ending feels a bit unearned.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-70710. Chronicles, by Thomas Piketty

Where I read it: Over the course of a lazy, hair-twirling, coffee-drinking Saturday.

This is a collection of Piketty’s financial columns which he wrote for a French newspaper. They’ve clearly been released on the back of his success with Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which means a lot of them are out of date. What’s interesting about them, though, is how scarily prescient they appear to a reader in 2016. He’s writing from 2012 about Greece and the IMF, but a lot of what he says about the Euro, and how it can best be stabilized, and what will happen if it isn’t, resonates with alarming clarity in the post-Brexit atmosphere. Essentially, Piketty predicted Brexit too, saying that if the situation in central Europe wasn’t changed for the better by decisive action from the European Parliament—mostly France and Germany—and the IMF, lack of confidence in the European project would be the result. And… yep, that’s exactly what happened.

All of which makes me think that we really ought to be paying attention to whatever Piketty is saying now.

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11. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Where I read it: On the train to Hitchin, where the Progenitors Chaotic live, and on the train back again.

I read this book too fast. In my defense, it’s hard not to. It’s short, the prose flies by. Robinson is known for the beauty and the quasi-Biblical rhythms of her writing, and that’s certainly true; there’s an eerie luminescence that surrounds my memory of Housekeeping that I think is only attributable to that incredible quality in the writing. I don’t remember noticing it much at the time, but I remember it making an impact on me nonetheless.

It is about two orphaned sisters, Ruth and Lucille Stone, and their lives in the Idaho town of Fingerbone. Their aunt Sylvie comes to care for them. Sylvie is not a domesticated creature, even by the somewhat more relaxed standards of our day; Housekeeping, it’s implied, is set sometime mid-20th-century, and the good men and women of Fingerbone hardly know what to do with Sylvie at all. She doesn’t clean. She doesn’t tidy. She’s a hoarder and a wanderer and a wild-haired sprite, a former homeless woman, a rider in railroad cars. Ruth loves this. Ruth clings to her. Lucille doesn’t; she goes to live with a teacher, a woman who has doilies on her tables and a clean, full, well-lit larder. Fearful of being removed by Child Protection, Ruth escapes with Sylvie across frozen Fingerbone Lake, and they both become travelers. Occasionally they pass through the town again, riding the rails.

It’s basically a novel about family, about what home can mean, and as Robert McCrum puts it, “Robinson believes in family.” This is a good book to have read a few months after reading another of her novels, Lila, which also addresses the question of the families we’re born into and the families we choose, or which are thrust upon us, or which we build for ourselves. While Housekeeping has a more overtly dark edge (I spent pages waiting for something cataclysmic to occur; I was amazed that all of the characters got out of it alive), it too is preoccupied with choosing family, with the statements that your choice makes.

978022409002512. The Father, by Sharon Olds

Where I read it: Commuting, again. God, this is getting dull.

Poetry is so fucking hard to write about, it tends to put me off reading it, or at least it puts me off reading it for this blog. In brief: this is a collection of poems in which the narrator is a daughter tending to her dying father. He has cancer. Their relationship has not been a positive or a loving one; as Adam Mars-Jones noted in a London Review of Books essay on Olds’s poetry, “the depth of the poems is inversely proportionate to the richness of the relationship. The poet is so attentive to her father’s dying because in his living he so comprehensively refused her.”

So, yeah, not exactly happy stuff, but supremely, superbly powerful. Olds is one of those poets who writes in a manner that looks conversational and absolutely isn’t. She doesn’t do syntactical inversion, heightened diction, alliteration, any of that bag-of-tricks stuff. She just selects and places words so that their context gives them grandeur. I’d love to be able to do it myself. I will never be a poet that good.

51n8dqdd2wl13. Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks

Where I read it: On the bus from Crouch End to Finsbury Park, after a marathon OITNB session with my friend Ella, formerly known on this blog as the Duchess.

This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. Iain Banks was commissioned to do a tour of Scotland’s single malt distilleries and write a full-length travelogue detailing his search for “the perfect dram” (see subtitle). It’s a great idea. It’s the sort of thing that editors stopped having the money or the free time to do, circa 2003, which coincidentally is when this book was published. And it’s the kind of all-expenses-paid vanity project that you really, really need to be humble about, if you’re lucky enough to land the gig. Banks isn’t humble. He preens. He mentions that he’s been commissioned, that the whisky is all on his publisher, that none of his junkets are leaving him out of pocket, at least once a chapter.

He also doesn’t really seem to take the brief all that seriously. On the one hand, it’s hard to blame him for this: his descriptive skills are good, but come on, it’s whisky, innit. It’s smokey and peaty and maybe a bit salty and occasionally you can throw in some words like “caramel” or “toasted orange”, but on the whole it’s going to be difficult to describe fifty of the buggers in anything like a distinctive fashion. On the other hand, there were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger. Reading about how they got in trouble (tee hee hee, boys will be boys) for making too much noise in a family hotel after-hours did not make me sympathetic. It didn’t even make me think, “What a legend.” It made me think, “What an arsehole.”

So anyway, long story short is, I’m going to read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and forget that I ever took this irritating detour into their author’s personal life/head.

18071176-_uy200_14. The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor

Where I read it: Literally no idea. Perhaps it gave me amnesia?

Tell you what, O’Connor really doesn’t fuck around with her titles.

This is her second novel. Her first, Wise Blood, had already established her thematic interests: evangelical Christianity, confused young men, violence and grace, the human fear and loathing and rejection of Christ and His implacability. It’s fairly serious stuff; you can’t really go into it half-heartedly. Even if you have issues with Christian belief or are simply an atheist, you need to take on board the premise that these beliefs are significant and important for the people you’re reading about. Otherwise none of it makes any sense at all, and even for me – raised in a church tradition, though not a fundamentalist one – it sometimes gets a bit bewilderingly intense.

The Violent Bear It Away focuses on Francis Marion Tarwater, who was abducted from his family home as a baby by his mother’s brother. Determined to make the little boy into a prophet of the Lord, old Tarwater raises him in a rural backwater and keeps him away from school (by getting him to pretend he’s mentally disabled when the truant officer comes around). When old Tarwater dies, young Tarwater moves to the city in search of his other uncle, and has to determine whether to live as his religious uncle raised him or as his secular uncle wants to make him. It asks a lot of questions about freedom: spiritual, intellectual, moral. O’Connor doesn’t really believe in freedom, or at least not in the way that most of the people reading her probably do. She believes in God, though, in the ultimateness of Him. So it hasn’t got what you might call a happy ending, but it has an ending full of conviction. Reading O’Connor gives me a much stronger sense of what motivated a Joan of Arc or a Thomas Cranmer: the solid reality of that kind of belief.

4125be3z3vl-_sx310_bo1204203200_ 15. The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville

Where I read it: Lying on the bed, the window open to catch whatever breeze was going in southwest London, the week before my holiday.

Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize for this in 2001, and she followed it up with The Secret River, which means I should really have read her by now. It served both for 20 Books of Summer and for my less formal Women’s Prize project, and, like most of the (relatively) early Women’s Prize winners I’ve read, it was a fantastic surprise.

It follows two awkward people (imperfection, you see): Harley Savage, a museum curator who specializes in textiles, and Douglas Cheeseman, a structural engineer who adores cement. Both are in Karakarook, New South Wales, Harley to advise on the development of a heritage museum and Douglas to oversee the destruction of a historic bridge. Obviously, these are conflicting aims, and the townspeople expect Harley and Douglas to be at loggerheads. To begin with, they are, sort of, but both are at odds with the expectations leveled at them by daily life and society in general, and this brings them together.

What’s brilliant about it: the sheer dedication that Grenville puts into her portrayal of imperfect people. Harley and Douglas go on a “first date” to a genuinely horrible rural greasy spoon café, where they manage to misunderstand one another and second-guess their own reactions to a point that is, frankly, painfully familiar to anyone with even mild social anxiety. Also, I love how she deals with the “woman with a past” trope in relation to Harley, who suffers horrible guilt from something that was 100% not her fault but nevertheless pretty horrible. Grenville is so good at not making her a bombshell or a sex object while also not painting her as a gargoyle or a grotesque (though that’s how Harley thinks of herself.) This is counterpointed by the story of a bank manager’s wife who embarks on an affair with the local butcher, pretending that her marriage is perfect while we know it’s a sham. That storyline ends with a twist that is so tame by today’s Gone Girl standards, and yet so perfectly conveyed in the prose, that I actually gasped. It’s emblematic of the lovely balancing act Grenville achieves throughout the book. And the ending is very joyous.

When I Lived in Modern Times, Linda Grant. (London: Granta, 2011 [2000])

Chronicles, Thomas Piketty. (London: Viking, 2016)

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. (London: Faber & Faber, 2005)

The Father, Sharon Olds. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009 [1992])

Raw Spirit, Iain Banks. (London: Arrow, 2004 [2003])

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007 [1960])

The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville. (London: Picador, 2002 [2001])

July Superlatives

July’s been a month of changes. I’ve had my 24th birthday, marked my first year with the Chaos, left my job, and committed more concretely to writing my novel. I’ve also read a lot of books: fourteen of them, to be precise, seven of them counting towards #20booksofsummer and two of them on the Man Booker Prize longlist.

most gripping: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s chunky historical novel about a Parisian soprano whose past comes back to haunt her. It’s long and there are flaws, but it’s a hell of a book, impossible to put down and lushly detailed.

oddly anticlimactic: Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times, a story about a young Jewish hairdresser from Soho who moves to Palestine after WWII. There’s political content – espionage and the handover of the Protectorate from British rule – but it’s under-emphasised, so that the shape of the book is a little uneven.

book that really should have made the Booker Prize longlist: The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss. It’s an exceptional novel, taking in its stride stay-at-home parenthood, marriage difficulties, the NHS, mortality, Coventry Cathedral, and much more. Sarah Moss really is a writer to attend to, one of the best novelists working in England today.

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most sadly prescient: Thomas Piketty’s collection of columns for a French newspaper, Chronicles, about European economics, the global recession, Greece, the IMF, and much more. They date from 2012, but Piketty was already predicting the crisis in the Eurozone that led directly to Brexit.

most darkly surprising: Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. I know her through her novels GileadHome and Lila, which are luminous with worldly spirituality; Housekeeping is much weirder, a story of two sisters raised by their eccentric aunt. Parts of it reminded me a little of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, in its portrayal of a young woman coming undone; you always think something terrible is going to happen.

best family saga: Anne Enright’s Baileys Prize-shortlisted The Green Road. I’m not that keen on Irish family epics, but Enright is a skillful and lucid writer, and this had the virtue of jumping repeatedly through time, which often makes things more interesting.

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most thoroughly disappointing: Raw Spirit, a nonfiction book by Iain Banks in which he visited all (or almost all) of the single malt distilleries in Scotland. It was clearly commissioned in order to give him a kind of junket trip; he’s utterly upfront about that; but he also just struck me as a vaguely unpleasant, highly privileged man who did not think very much about his good fortune, preferring instead to cultivate lads-lads-lads friendships and drive fast cars. I’ll still seek out his science fiction, but gosh what a terrible introduction.

most emotionally complicatedDon’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the second of Boris Fishman’s novels to be published in the UK. It deals with adoption, immigration, infertility, and the complex currents of a marriage; there’s a lot to unpack in it, and Fishman’s prose is dense and thoughtful.

most evocative: Rosy Thornton’s Suffolk-set collection of short stories, Sandlands. United by themes of history, haunting, and the past’s effects on the future, it’s a marvellous group of stories that demonstrates a deep love for the Suffolk countryside and its people.

most philosophically demanding: The North Water, Ian McGuire’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel of a whaling voyage that descends into the heart of darkness. There are some levels on which I have issues with this book; it’s a prime example of the deeply masculine, aggressive, Blood Meridian-esque school of novel writing, in which men wrestle with great evil and women, if they exist at all, are whores or dead bodies or both. On another level, though, the writing is absolutely top-notch and the plot is so gripping I read it in a day.

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most bewildering: I never know what to do with Flannery O’Connor, morally speaking. The Violent Bear It Away is, like her other novel Wise Blood, a story about a young man who tries to evade Jesus and can’t. It also features extraordinary violence and stupidity and obstinacy. It’s fascinating, especially because it’s not easy to tell what side O’Connor comes down on.

most relevant: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was the only Booker Prize-shortlisted book from last year that I hadn’t read. If Marlon James hadn’t also been on the list, this would, or should, have won: an achingly open, generous-hearted novel about a house full of Indian immigrants in Sheffield, and the visa-wife of one of them, it refuses to give us pabulum for an ending. It is heartbreakingly good.

second most bewildering: The Many, Wyl Menmuir’s short novel (also Booker Prize-longlisted this year!) about a man who moves to a seaside town in Cornwall and finds that the history of the village is darker and more opaque than anyone is willing to admit. It feels like an allegory, but the terms of that allegory are not clear, which makes me wonder whether it wants to be cleverer than it actually is, or whether I’m just suffering from a failure of perception. Anyone else read it and want to help me out?

up next: I’m currently staying at my grandparents’ house, taking care of my grandpa for a few days while my grandmother is in hospital. I brought the collected poems of Dylan Thomas with me, but I can’t brute-force my way through it; it’s too gnarly. So I’ve picked up my old Penguin copy of Middlemarch instead. When I get back to London, I’ve got the rest of #20booksofsummer plus Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and another Booker longlister, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet, waiting for me.

07 & 08. A Manual For Cleaning Women and The Queen of the Night

I feel awful. I’m 14 books into #20booksofsummer and I’ve reviewed LESS THAN HALF of them. Fortunately, I now have some time on my hands: I’ve just left my job (more on that later, if I feel like it), and due to family circumstances, I’ll be popping down to West Sussex over the weekend to hold down the fort at my grandparents’ house. Both things should afford me some time to catch up. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished series 4 of Orange Is the New Black and can’t sleep—images from the past few episodes keep flashing through my head; is it normal to be this haunted by a television show? It’s because it’s so brilliant—so here are two very quick, embarrassingly quick, catch-up reviews of books I loved.

07. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

a-manual-for-cleaning-womenWhere I read it: On the way back from a singing lesson in Highbury, amongst other places.

I missed out on Lucia Berlin last year. Last year was her moment in the spotlight, really, her rediscovery after decades of brilliant and productive obscurity. Fortunately the paperback of this collection is coming out soon, so perhaps I can pass this off as a timely appreciation. Anyway, the thing is, I’m not really a short story kind of person. I find them contrived most of the time, and they make demands of you: emotional engagement, intellectual flexibility (so many of them open in medias res and expect us to be able to follow the situation at once). It’s not that I mind stories making demands of me; it just pisses me off to make the investment when the product is so…brief. (I know this is a tormented metaphor, I’m giving it up now.)

The nice thing about Berlin is that she beckons you in. She doesn’t ask you to do anything but listen. She’s not going to get smart or existential or pretentious with you. She’s just going to tell you about this thing that happened and was interesting, or sad. Her narrating persona could be the same woman all the way through, which lends the collection a more novelistic feeling; you get the impression you’re seeing someone in a fragmented way at different stages in her life, but her character is consistent enough for this not to be disorienting. Most of her stories are set in Mexico, the American Southwest, or California. It’s Cormac McCarthy country—dry wind and desert grass—but there’s more kindness and grace than McCarthy is ever willing to squeeze out. She writes about abortions, and alcoholics helping each other out in laundromats. She writes about prison and hospitals. She writes about being a writer and being poor and having two small boys. Most of her work is autobiographical (the foreword by Lydia Davis is especially illuminating about this); none is self-pitying. She mastered the art of conversational prose. You feel as though she’s standing right there next to you, smoking and looking at you with those huge heavy-lidded eyes, cracking a smile. These are 100% worth seeking out.

08. The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

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Where I read it: Probably everywhere, I don’t remember actually putting it down at all.

 

When I finished The Queen of the Night, I went back to the manuscript of my own novel and wrote a scene that allowed me to describe music (Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, if you’re keen); this book is that evocative and inspirational. Liliet Berne is the toast of Paris in the 1860s, an opera singer whose Fach, or voice type, is that of a Falcon soprano—a tragic voice, powerful as steel and utterly unpredictable in its delicacy. But Liliet has a secret; in fact she has many, and most of the book consists of her re-telling her own life in an attempt to find out who might be blackmailing her now.

Chee gets so many things right: the lushness and corruption of Napoléon III’s France, the helplessness of a woman without money or connections, the things that such women do to get ahead. He’s also bang on with his opera descriptions. I’m demanding about classical music in fiction because I know about it; plenty of writers get the atmosphere of performance and professionalism all wrong. He gets it just right, with enough of the basics to interest you if you don’t know much about opera while placating you with high-level detail if you’re more knowledgeable. Several times during the book I wanted to put it down and sing—but we have neighbours, and I couldn’t put it down anyway because the plot was roaring ahead at full speed.

There are places where it slows down, and I was never entirely sure of the precise mechanics behind all of the plotting and conspiring. Liliet’s life is clearly in danger throughout much of the book, but I often had to stop and reassemble the reasons for her jeopardy in my head. It’s a long novel, and confusion would be easy. And is there a faint element of the soapy to the many twists and turns of Liliet’s identities? Perhaps—though I could also easily argue that the right word is”picaresque”. But give yourself a clear run at it, and you’ll be richly rewarded: this is definitely one for the holiday (even for a long-haul flight, if you’ve got strong wrists).

A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin. (London: Picador, 2016 [2014])

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (London: Michael Joseph, 2016)

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  • My birthday was on Monday. I took the day off work, made pancakes, went hat shopping, went book shopping, went to an art exhibit, came home, called my mum, made my own cake (from this recipe by She Cooks She Eats), and then we had pizza. It was all very nice.
  • It’s been hot in London this week. Like, really motherf*ckin’ hot. Before anyone starts mocking the Brits for their weather weakness, please bear in mind that a) I grew up in Virginia, where it’s often 90 degrees (Fahrenheit; that’s 32 Celsius, kids) in the shade by mid-May, and humid, so it’s not like I don’t know what heat is, and b) in Virginia, every building is designed to deal with the heat. Even the ones that were built pre-air conditioning; my parents’ house is from about 1890, and they’re not legally allowed to install a/c, but it was built to allow cool breezes (when there are any) to drift through the whole building. My office in London, by contrast, has no air conditioning and is designed to keep us warm in the Victorian winters (although, as I can attest, it does a pretty crap job at that, too). There are no breezes and we’re all miserable.
  • Angela Eagle has stepped down from her bid to be leader of the Labour Party. This is sad, partly because Piers Morgan has decided to play on it by suggesting that perhaps women just aren’t good enough (his words, y’all. His actual words). Mostly, though, I’m sad that the team on Dead Ringers won’t be able to satirize her anymore. (“I may sound like a nervous badger, but when I want something, I take it! And then I put it back. And cry when the police come.”)
  • Yoga isn’t something I’m particularly good at; my flexibility and upper arm strength are nil (though my balance isn’t bad) – but I’ve been doing it for nearly two months through work and I am, I think, getting a bit stronger. I’ve only got another week of it left, though, so if I want to continue, I’ll have to find a class near home. I’d like to carry on, but like everything else, it costs money, which I soon won’t have much of. I know it’s the sort of thing worth spending money on, though. Ugh. Someone help me to convince myself?
  • I’m 13 books into #20booksofsummer, and have finally read the first on my list which I really wasn’t into: Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks. He may have been a brilliant fiction writer, but in person he strikes me as a self-indulgent blowhard with too much money, a less funny Bill Bryson. Shame.
  • Kodasema is an Estonian architecture group that’s designed a beautiful, tiny pre-fab house (the KODA) that can move with you. It only takes seven hours to put up, in total (I spend more time than that at work every day), it’s green as hell, and it’s unbelievably good-looking. The downsides are that the ceiling is only 7’1″ (the Chaos is 6’7″), and no website seems to have information on prices. Still…

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06. The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos

51ekjmutwolWhere I read it: in bed at the end of a very, very busy weekend in June seeing my parents and brother

I’m on book 13 of 20 Books of Summer, but I’m way behind on reviews (even though I’m keeping them brief!) so here’s another one.

In 1703, the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts was raided by a French and Indian war party. The town’s Puritan minister, John Williams, was taken captive along with his wife and their five children. Mrs. Williams, heavily pregnant, died en route to Canada;   John Williams was ransomed two and a half years later, and most of his children too were eventually returned to him. Only one was “unredeemed”: Eunice, five years old at the time of her capture, remained with the Mohawks. The Unredeemed Captive is about Williams’s attempts over many decades to free his daughter—to redeem her not only physically (by bringing her back) but spiritually (by reinculcating in her the Puritan traditions of her childhood). Expeditions to release her, negotiations between French Canadian and colonial English governments, intelligence from fur trappers and merchant traders: all were in vain. Eunice forgot how to speak English within a few years of her capture, converted to a frontier form of Catholicism, married a young Mohawk, raised children with him, and above all—when finally located and visited by what remained of her family—refused to return to Massachusetts.

It’s a fascinating premise, and John Demos, a Yale historian, tells it with due attention to historical context. The French and Indian wars are a complicated and frankly bewildering time in American colonial history; the fact that they occurred pre-Revolution, also, means that they tend to be glossed over during American school history classes. I knew virtually nothing about them beyond the fact that they had happened. Demos digs deep into the implications of Eunice’s captivity: because French Canadians had developed a level of co-existence with Indian tribes and, in some communities, lived together with them, the world into which Eunice was plunged was one of what the Puritans regarded as spiritual heresy. By forgetting her catechism in favour of the pagan-tinted Catholicism of Frenchified Mohawks, not only was John Williams’s daughter lost to him in this life; she was lost to him in eternity, as well, unless he could retrieve—redeem—ransom her. The connotations of all of those words are not accidental.

Demos uses contemporary sources to excellent effect: sermons, letters and diaries feature heavily, particularly those of John Williams and his son, Eunice’s brother, Stephen. He  acknowledges the problem with relying on the written word—that we cannot know what Eunice thought or felt—though there is one surviving letter from her, and he analyzes its text with a thoughtful tenderness that suggests a true investment in his subject. Elsewhere, he freely admits to speculation, and writes sections in italics that describe turning points in the drama: the trek to Canada, the marriage of Eunice with her Mohawk husband, the meeting between Eunice and her father after many decades, and what might have been going through her head.

If the novelistic approach here clashes with the slightly dry facts and figures in other places (Demos ensures that if we’re confused by the vagaries of the French and Indian wars, it’s not for lack of information), I’m willing to give it a pass: the book is so illuminating on a period I know so little about, and so generous in its examinations of how the religious, social, and political currents of a whole world affect the beliefs and actions of individuals. It is, in short, the kind of book that tells a story, situated within a wider context (Demos admits freely that he likes history for its storytelling potential). It approaches history in the same way as my best teachers did at school: as a way of making sense of people.

The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos (New York: Papermac, 1996 [1994])

Summer Reading 101

Vulture did a feature on “beach reads” this week (which I stumbled upon by way of Vintage Books’s Twitter feed). Whoever wrote the piece identified three things a book needs to be a good beach read: “narrative momentum, a transporting sense of place, and ideally, a touch of the sordid.” Just so, I thought, applying these criteria in quick succession to the books I have mentally begun to select for the six-hour train journey to (and subsequent five days in) St. Ives next month. John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama passed the tests with flying colours, as anything by Le Carré would. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Marking Time, the second of the Cazalet Chronicles? Sure – one out of three at least (a transporting sense of place), and the turmoil of family relationships in war provides, I think, a touch of the sordid, even if the book itself is tasteful in the extreme. Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World? Hell yes to all of the above.

I realized, at that point, that there were plenty of books, new and old, which I’ve already read this year that would be absolutely cracking beach reads – not silly or fluffy, nor harrowing and dark, but absorbing, well paced, atmospheric. Hence this: a list of books I truly think cannot be beaten for this year’s holiday reading.

NEW BOOKS

Clinch, by Martin Holmén (my review)

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A sexy retro-noir about a bisexual ex-boxer in 1930s Stockholm, searching for a murderer in order to clear his own name. It’s sharp and surprising, and the setting is perfectly rendered. I called this “the thinking person’s beach read, as long as you don’t mind a little blood and bonking”, an assessment which I stand by unreservedly. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (20 Books of Summer review forthcoming)

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If you know nothing about opera, this’ll convert you; if you do know about opera, you won’t be disappointed. (A very rare combination, that.) Lilliet Berne, former pioneer girl, equestrienne, and courtesan, now a soprano in the France of Napoléon III, retells the story of her life to determine which figure from her past now threatens her. Narrative momentum: A- (it’s long, though compelling). Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

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You know as well as I do that this was never NOT going to be on this list. Recently widowed Cora Seaborne, an amateur naturalist, moves to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter with her young son Francis, in search of a mythical creature that might provide a geological “missing link”. The friendship that ensues with Aldwinter’s vicar, William Ransome, and his family, will challenge everything that both Cora and Will thought they knew about faith, knowledge, and love. It’s beautiful historical fiction that takes its characters seriously as people, in the way of Wolf Hall and Possession (two other favourites). Narrative momentum: A+. Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A+.

OLD(er) BOOKS

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

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My parents took me on holiday to the North York Moors after I graduated from university. I had no job prospects, had just broken up with my uni boyfriend, and was sinking into acute depression. I read this, and was miserable. That I still remember Gormenghast so vividly is a testament to how great it is: a Gothic fantasy about a seemingly endless castle, an evil kitchen boy, murder most foul and strange rituals beneath the moon… It’s one of the most original things I’ve ever read. Narrative momentum: A- (points deducted for length, but you won’t care, honestly.) Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

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I actually read this on a winter holiday, not a summer one, but it’s utterly absorbing: for the long train journey from Oxford to Manchester it was perfect, and it even kept me busy on the long flight from Manchester to America, too. (The chapters are short, which helps.) Trollope’s merciless (and epic) portrayal of venal capitalists ruining everyone else’s lives in Victorian England may feel a little too topical at the moment, or it may serve as reassuring proof that other times and places were not necessarily any better, and in some ways were a great deal worse. Narrative momentum: A-. Transporting sense of place: A. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (my 20 Books of Summer review)

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The “hook” is that it’s about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky—art, adultery, politics, cooking—in Mexico during the 1930s; the perspective is that of the young man who becomes cook and secretary to their households, Harrison Shepherd. It also follows Shepherd’s later life in America, and the destructive effects of the Communist witch-hunts. I described it as “lush” and “vivid”, which it most certainly is. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

Anyone else read any of these? How does your projected (or already-achieved) holiday reading stand up to the supposed criteria?

 

 

05. Darwin Among the Machines, by George Dyson

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Where I read it: mostly on the Tube, and a little bit during lunch breaks

This was the first non-fiction book that I got to on my 20 Books of Summer list. As I think I mentioned in my June Superlatives round-up, I have almost no background in computer engineering, evolutionary biology, or mathematics, so it was, to say the least, harder going than any of the fiction I’d read so far. Fortunately, George Dyson is a solidly competent writer; confusion never arose because he was confusing, just because I often didn’t have the knowledge that would have clarified things for me. He also has a distinguished scientific pedigree: his mother was a famous mathematician, Verena Huber-Dyson, and his father was Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and inventor of the Dyson sphere. (More in my wheelhouse was his grandfather, the Edwardian composer Sir George Dyson, responsible for the Evensong canticle settings Dyson in F [aka the Star Wars Service] and Dyson in G. And some other stuff, too.)

Dyson’s thing is machine intelligence. This book is all about how, if and when (and it’s mostly when) machine intelligence arises, it’s likely to do so through processes similar to those that created life as we know it. Computers, in other words, are going to experience evolution, or rather,a version of natural selection. Conditions that are advantageous to a computer network will allow pieces of that network to flourish, until it’s able to respond and adapt to its own environment without any input from the engineers that built its circuits or the programmers that set it in motion.

This is the sort of thing that people (especially fiction writers) refer to as Artificial Intelligence, and AI bots already exist – they’re just not the kind of bots you really want to be hanging out with. Dyson is a science historian, though, not a fortune teller, so he focuses less on the possibilities and more on the history of the belief that humans will someday create a global intelligence. It’s older than you think. It predates Turing by centuries; Dyson pinpoints the beginning of the idea with Hobbes and Leviathan. Hobbes sees the government, the state, as a kind of collective entity composed of a nation’s people:

 “Nature is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal.”

He sees the Internet as a perfect place for a global intelligence to develop: a network that spans the world, through which vast amounts of data travel in fractions of a second. Here, also, he suggests that evolution, which is generally painted as a thoughtless or “randomized” process, might be driven by considerations that could be referred to as intelligent ones. It sails close to the wind of intelligent design, but not in the way that Texan fundamentalists think of it; rather, Dyson suggests that “intelligence” may be a concept we are applying all wrong. Machine intelligence may be something that already exists but which we are simply failing to recognize because it is so far above, beyond, and/or different to, the ways in which we understand human intelligence to work. It’s an argument that allows for the existence of something like a God, in the same way that you can call “magic” a kind of science we don’t yet understand. It’s perhaps the scariest, and yet the most beautiful, idea in the book. For all that I could have done with a greater depth of knowledge while reading it, I’m very glad I did.

(I’ve now passed it on to the Chaos, who will probably have more nuanced things to say.)

Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson (London: Penguin, 2012 [1997])