My first book of what is supposed to be the best year of all our lives (though so far, I’m not sure) is Don Quixote. In my edition (the Penguin Clothbound Classics one, above), it’s 982 pages long plus endnotes, and I remember trying to read it (in a different edition) at least twice before, becoming bored, and dropping it. Now, at last, I’ve conquered it, and as with a previous nearly-thousand-page-long book (The Last Chronicle of Barset), I’m not sure that a review or even an analytical essay is as useful as a few scattered comments and/or tips, if you’re thinking of scaling this mountain yourself.
The translation matters. Not in the way that you might think, or the way which tends to trip me up with comparisons (“which one is The Best/the most faithful to the original language/the most faithful to the original sense/what should I even be looking for in a translation aaauugghhh helpppp”). Like War and Peace, Don Q has many translators, and the one that’s right for you will depend on what kind of reader you are, the context and background knowledge you bring to the book, etc. However, the translation I read is by John Sutherland, and I would recommend it highly, in large part because it’s one of the few translations that really contributes to a sense that…
The book is funny. I really wasn’t sure about this at first, and I’m not sure Cervantes was either–it takes a while for the characters to become people, and for the humour to kick in. After Quixote’s “first sally” (initial adventure), however, it’s clear that Cervantes decides he’s interested in this delusional hidalgo and his coarse and obnoxious yet truth-telling squire, and from then on they start to develop a relationship and characteristics that form the basis of the book’s best humour. Sancho Panza, the squire, not only develops the habit of speaking in endless and often irrelevant proverbs, but also of a kind of reverse malapropism: Quixote mentions “the estimates of Ptolemy, the great cosmographer”, which Sancho dismisses as “the sexy butts and tomfoolery of a great pornographer”. The translation matters! In another, stuffier or older edition, that level of linguistic playfulness wouldn’t, I think, sound nearly so natural, modern, fresh or irreverent, and therefore wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Obviously there’s also the physical humour (Quixote is frequently tricked into uncomfortable, painful or embarrassing situations, often by women, and Sancho gets beaten up as a proxy for his master more times than you can count), which may be less hilarious to you; I didn’t find myself laughing out loud reading those scenes, although it’s possible they’re funnier read aloud. Which brings me to…
The book may have been intended partly for oral transmission. There’s some evidence for this in the cliffhanger chapter endings and the way that the narrator discusses his storytelling strategy (which is what leads so many people to refer to it as a post-modern book avant la lettre; Cervantes’s narrative persona is extremely self-aware, and throughout the text, there are explicit signposts that it is a text). There’s a lot of repetition and rhetorical embroidery, which looks chunkily intimidating on a page but makes a good deal more sense if you think of someone reading it loud or half-performing the scene; it represents the natural rhetorical padding that humans give to spoken sentences. It also means you shouldn’t feel particularly bad skimming those bits. You can get the gist in the first and final few sentences of a page-long paragraph, and pick up the essentials in the middle, without committing your full attention to every single word–the text is clearly not designed for that level of scrutiny.
Women, poor people and working people are interesting and well-represented here. Many of Don Q‘s past translators have assumed that his devotion to chivalry, although deriving from insanity, represents an aspirational ideal, like the holy fool, and have therefore interpreted him as an uncomplicated paragon of goodness and mercy who is genuinely beset by devils and malice. Sutherland approaches the text in a way that reveals Quixote’s madness as ridiculous, if also somewhat pitiable, and grounded in an old-fashioned paternalism that is repeatedly shown to be silly and impractical. Sancho Panza’s wife (initially referred to as Juana but always subsequently known as Teresa) is a sturdy, pragmatic farmer’s daughter who runs her family’s smallholding intelligently and is very reluctant to be drawn into her husband’s airy hopes of promotion and enhancement. The daughter and maidservant of the innkeeper during Quixote’s first adventure play numerous tricks on him, which are all enabled by his outmoded and deluded view of female innocence and susceptibility. A ruffian named Ginés appears twice in the book, once as a convict and once as the proprietor of a travelling ape and puppet show; both times his ingenuity and quick wit is presented with approbation, while Quixote’s credulousness in both situations leads to chaos and destruction. Women, working people and poor people are generally described with sympathy, and given complexity and agency. It’s a nice surprise.
Don’t worry about the plot. There is one, sort of, eventually (it kicks in during the second half of Part II), but you could just as easily call that an extended episode, one of many. It’s an episodic book by nature, which would make it perfect for dipping in and out of over the course of a longer period of reading, maybe one or two chapters an evening. Mostly, Quixote ventures forth, meets someone or sees something which he grievously misinterprets as requiring his help or input, attempts to fulfill the conditions of knight-errantry, fails, and either chalks it up to the work of malicious enchanters or interprets his failure as a success anyway. Sancho has some kind of misadventure, complains about it, tries to fix his master up as best he can, asks for payment, is rebuffed, and they continue. It’s formulaic, of course, but that’s the point when you’re writing a satire of chivalric romance. And it means the reader need not worry too much about losing track of names or events. Characters do recur, but this is not a tightly-plotted novel by any means, so if you’re not following, don’t worry too much–just keep reading and see what happens.
Worth reading? For my money, definitely. It’s a serious investment of time, but it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously (or, really, seriously at all), and it contains some bittersweet moments of sanity in the midst of complete madness. A joyful ride.
June has been the month of the most conscious reading I’ve done for a very long time. This probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It’s become very clear to me that, although I attempted to recommend diverse books in my professional life before now, I must make the decentralisation of whiteness a central tenet of my bookselling practice. To do that, I must also make it a central tenet of my reading practice—not to mention which, stories by Black authors (and authors of colour more generally) must be read for their own sake. And we—bloggers, booksellers and readers—need to encourage the industry to publish more of them, making sure they’re not all centered on racism (because… you know… everyone’s life and narrative is bigger than that). The more representation there is in the book world, the healthier and more creative it is.
best coming-of-age story:Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. This reminded me so strongly of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, centering as it does on young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants in New York, and her attempts to break free of the familial and societal expectations that bind and devalue her. It’s a huge shame that it’s now out of print; my copy is an old Virago edition. Bring it back, Virago!
loudest wakeup call:The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Hardly the most fun read, but without a doubt, this has laid the foundation for much of my self-education this month. Alexander’s thesis is that mass incarceration has created a tacit racial caste system that functions much as Jim Crow laws used to, but without public acknowledgment. Drawing examples from recent political and legislative history, Alexander’s argument is convincing, thorough, and extremely alarming.
best random acquisition:The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph. The U Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, which I’m signed up to; usually I don’t read them, but this one seemed extremely apt. Ralph conducted an oral history/anthropological survey of people—mostly African-American men—who have experienced torture at the hands of the Chicago PD over the course of forty years. It’s a tough read, and sometimes repetitive (he structures most of the book as a series of open letters), but it’s illuminating about the struggles that people in a particular region have been engaging in for years, without any national media coverage. (And it’s made quite clear that Chicago can’t be the only place in the Union where this occurs.)
most outside my reading habits:Managing Up, by Mary Abbajay. A weird one: this is essentially a business/self-help tome about how to work with different types of managers. I’m interested in career development, but I tend to be quite resistant to books of this nature, especially ones that demand behavioural adaptation from the person already in a position of less (or no) power. Still, it certainly provided food for thought. Abbajay does distinguish between a manager who just doesn’t communicate the same way you do, and a manager who’s actively abusive or dangerous (she has no time for the latter and encourages people whose bosses are abusive to leave asap, thank goodness).
greatest potential (not bad as it is, but…) : Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the Story of a Tangled Inheritance, by Richard Atkinson. Atkinson’s attempt to trace his family back through several centuries of British history is fascinating, if overlong and occasionally bogged down in details of eighteenth-century scams. Still, the thing that’s most interesting about it is the fact that many of his ancestors were slaveowners, holding significant estates in Jamaica. The timing of this book intrigues; had it been published even a month later, I wonder if Atkinson’s publishers would have asked him to address this shameful legacy more directly. Instead, though he does engage with it, it’s on a fairly superficial level, the general attitude being that this was not a great thing, but without dwelling much on the details. Still, what it does do is drive home how many perfectly average middle-class families in Britain today have benefited from the slave trade. It’s not just peers and merchant princes who need to take a good hard look at their own houses.
most illuminating:Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. There’s been a surge in purchases of nonfiction by Black authors about contemporary racism, and it can be a little tricky, I think, to navigate the options. If you pick just one of these books to read, make it Natives. Akala is a poet, singer and lecturer; his guide through British racist history, especially the legacy of empire, is both accessible and revelatory. I truly didn’t expect to learn much I didn’t already know, and found myself humbled instead. There’s a reason Natives is already a contemporary classic.
best London novel:The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. A brilliant, funny, poignant novel chronicling the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants post-WWII, focalized mostly through the eyes of generous but world-weary Moses Aloetta. Other characters include the romantic Sir Galahad and the roguish Nigerian survivor, Cap. The writing is beautiful, a melange of dialect and so-called Standard English that captures the rhythms of thought and time passing. There’s a particular ten-page section describing summer in London that made me miss the freedom of hanging out in parks more than anything else in this shitty pandemic season yet.
most darkly comedic:A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. Himes’s first detective novel is so funny and so dark that it reminds me of the Coen Brothers (he’s also often compared to Chandler). Featuring a mendicant cross-dressing nun, the theft of some gold ore that may or may not exist, and the detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (who appear in smaller parts here than in subsequent entries in the series), A Rage in Harlem invites us both to mock and to celebrate the innocence of its protagonist, clumsy Jackson, who can’t believe his woman Imabelle could do him wrong even when presented with the most suggestive evidence otherwise. It was made into a movie with Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover, which I’d love to see—particularly the hearse chase scene. (You heard me.)
best reimagining:Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Rhys’s famed “prequel” to Jane Eyre retells the story of Bertha Rochester in her own words (including the fact that “Bertha” is a name assigned to her by her husband; she is born Antoinette). Dealing persuasively and furiously with inequities of skin colour, gender, sexual expression and money, Wide Sargasso Sea is a short but very deep text; the fact that I never studied it in an educational institution is extraordinary to me, given the challenge it poses to concepts like elite storytelling, narrative closure, and teleology. It’s also incredibly beautifully written, its register slipping between a kind of Joycean tracing of the movements of consciousness and a more constructed, linear storytelling mode. (This slippage occurs not only when Antoinette narrates, but also in Rochester’s sections—the effect of the Caribbean on his soul is not itself corrosive, though his reactions of fear, rejection, and adherence to known hierarchies certainly are.) It’s a gem of a book, one to reread.
least-known (to me) history:The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan. The Great Partition served as my entry point into the history of British colonialism in South-east Asia, for which I’m glad, though I’d like to see (or be made aware of—if you know any, recommend me some!) more books about the experience of first-generation Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the UK. My primary takeaway from Khan’s book is that the Hindu/Muslim divide and subsequent violent religious nationalism was not a natural one; it was identified and stoked by British colonial officials, who could not conceive of the rivalries that did exist but were divided along different lines. Instead, by imposing their own expectations of faith-based conflict upon residents of the subcontinent, colonial officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear and tensions between religious communities contributed to, essentially, an arms race, which exploded bloodily in the summer of 1947. I also learned that the Radcliffe line, which created both West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was drawn by a Briton who had never been to the regions in question, was not a cartographer or politically aware, and had spent about ten days in India, in total. The staggering arrogance of the project needs no further elaboration.
most likely to be a modern classic:Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made history by becoming the first number 1 nonfiction book in the UK by a Black author. I listened to it on Audible and thought it was an excellent addition to the canon of nonfiction on contemporary racial issues, but although there’s huge value in Eddo-Lodge’s explicit focus on raising the consciousness of white people (racism, after all, is so often viewed as a “BAME problem” whereas it is in fact quite clearly a white-person problem), I found myself preferring Natives on the basis of its depth of historical research. Both, I think, clearly have broad commercial appeal, which is an important thing, and if Eddo-Lodge’s book gets more white people (especially in the publishing industry) to evaluate their own racism and complicity in racist structures, it’ll have done what it set out to do.
most terrifyingly prescient:Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Butler was a prophet; of this I am quite convinced. The first book in her Earthseed series, Parable of the Sower, was out of print earlier this month, so I ordered the second, which is comprehensible on its own. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. For anyone who loved The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the too-close-to-reality dystopia you should be reading; written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a way that Atwood’s novel tended to elide. Profoundly disturbing—I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight—and incredibly moving.
best psychological profile:The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper. I love literary true crime, and manage to find about one book a year that really answers to that description. The Arsonist is about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people and left many more homeless. A suspect was quickly arrested on suspicion of lighting the fires: Brendan Sokaluk, whose defense team struggled to represent him because he is both autistic and intellectually disabled, and frequently seemed not to understand what was happening to him. Hooper examines what happened the day the fires started, the major players in the arson investigation, and Sokaluk’s already difficult life (he’d had trouble at work, and lived in a house his parents had bought for him, where he could be regularly checked in on), as well as what happened after he was arrested. The result is an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, dealing with mental health stigma and the evisceration of industry in Victoria as well as the social and environmental consequences of the fires. It’s perfect for fans of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief or Susan Orleans’s The Library Book.
mostentirely unexpected: Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. It seems to me as though a lot of narratives around queer self-acceptance and religion establish those two things as being completely incompatible. And I can see why: religious fundamentalism is frequently characterized by its cruelty towards, and rejection of, queerness. Yet Baldwin’s typically gorgeous novel embraces both things: his young protagonist, John, fears his stepfather’s harsh and disapproving (and heteronormative) God, but the penultimate scene in the book is the beautiful, transcendent vision of the divine that John finally receives, and in his dialogue with an older boy at the very end, we are given to understand that although John may appear to turn his back on the church by embracing his queerness, the truth of that revelation—that he is a child of God and much loved—will never cease to be. In addition to John’s perspective, we hear from his mother, stepfather, and aunt in a central section that completely opens up the reader’s perspective on these characters. I’d read one Baldwin before (Giovanni’s Room) and, as previously, was utterly blown away by the quality of his thought and writing. Which one next?!
most political use of humour:Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which reminds me strongly of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the way it mobilizes magical realism and dark comedy to criticize political actors. It tells the story of Aburiria, governed by a corrupt and self-aggrandizing dictator known only as the Ruler, who decides to build a new Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. A large cast of devout Christians, government ministers, police officers and businessmen is anchored by Kamiti, a beggar who initially adopts the role of a witch doctor as a joke but finds himself inextricably entwined with the fate of the nation, and Nyawira, the political radical with whom he falls in love. Hilarious, compelling, and a clear argument for Thiong’o as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
This is the first post I’ve created with WordPress’s newly structured Editor, so bear with me if it’s weirdly formatted. It all seems mostly, roughly intuitive, but who can say? Anyway, May 2020: a pretty good reading month. Fewer books, but quite possibly many more pages—I read some chunksters, not all of which flew by, but all of which were incredibly rewarding. One of them, actually, is on my list of candidates for Books of the Year (I’m creating that as I go this year, in the hope of having an easier time choosing when December rolls around). Thirteen in total, only seven of which were physical books; photo of them below, collage of ebooks and audiobooks in middle and at end of post. Let’s get into it!
best classic: One of the few remaining Charlotte Brontë novels I hadn’t yet read, her historical novel Shirley. I think it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that nineteenth-century novelists wrote historical novels that were also set in the nineteenth century; Shirley is about industrial labor and romantic pragmatism in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic wars, as new laws devastate the area’s woollen mills. It feels surprisingly hard-nosed even for C.B., who, for my money, is the most ruthless Brontë by a long way. But, as I think I mentioned before, it features a female friendship that doesn’t collapse over a man or even revolve around him most of the time, and that’s refreshing.
slowest burn: This, by the way, is a good thing. The one thing everyone knows about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is that it’s long. Having read it, the reason for the length is obvious: it’s a stylistic choice that reveals character, a buildup of childhood memories, musical earworms, film and literature references, a constant circling around specific but initially, apparently, random events that reveals this woman’s inner self to us, a building up of layers like the lamination of dough for croissants (she’s a baker). And despite the fact that it’s nearly 1000 pages long, the final 100 pages are nail-biting. Literally, genuinely, edge of your seat stuff. They never say that in the reviews.
most reflective of my own obsessive brain: Okay, this is a weird category, but it’s no weirder than me finishing The Only Plane in the Sky last month and immediately using my free Audible credit to download Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda. It won the Pulitzer, and I can see why, as it’s very thorough, but listening to it also clarified how much easier this kind of nonfiction is for me to read than to listen to. It’s a complicated story, there are a lot of names, dates and places, and the chronologies are decades-long. Once we got to the ’90s, it was easier to keep track (presumably because a lot of those names are more familiar to me: bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on), but the cumulative effect of listening to this was probably more atmospheric than concretely educational.
most overdue recommendation: Pretty sure my friend Jon recommended The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, to me over a decade ago. I’ve had an ebook version for a while—it’s on the Guardian Top 1000 novels list as well—and turned to it in a sf-y mood. It’s a rather brilliant metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam: Earth soldiers are engaged in an interstellar war with aliens called Taurans, but the effects of relativity mean centuries pass for every month or so they spend on campaign. I wanted more about the general social implications of this (how do you continue to fund and wage a war when most of the civilian population have never even seen a veteran?), but it’s a novel about soldiering, not politics, and as far as I can tell without having ever been a soldier, from that perspective Haldeman nails it. Fair warning: it has that kind of whiplash fake-future-feminism you get from a lot of older sci-fi (women serve as soldiers and are supposedly treated as equals, but it’s also illegal for them to refuse to have sex with anyone. Cool!)
most eclectic: Lots of my customers like to describe their tastes as “eclectic”. They virtually never really are. If they were, they might be more open to books like Ken Hollings’s The Space Oracle, which I find myself utterly unable to describe in any genre terms whatsoever. It’s nonfiction, but that’s where my certainties end. It’s definitely mostly astronomy, but sometimes it’s history and sometimes it’s mythology and sometimes it’s kind of, maybe, alchemy? It’s more or less an exploration of how different world cultures have used the ordering principles of the night sky to impose order on life, but Hollings uses unfamiliar names for the members of the zodiac, which immediately throws off all the things you think you know. Really interesting, really weird.
best emotional break: I suppose this is an odd takeaway from a memoir about the incredibly difficult life of cattle farmers in Ireland, particularly given that the author of The Cow Book, John Connell, is perpetually at loggerheads with his father. But it did feel like an emotional break. The concerns of farming are concrete and visible, unlike many of our current anxieties: will the calf die? Will the weather break? Will the cow conceive? There’s a slightly sadboi energy to Connell’s writing that occasionally irritates (he uses “for” instead of “because” a lot, which I’m only really willing to accommodate in writing from at least fifty years ago or in poetry), but it’s a thoughtful, melancholy read, which I appreciated.
most obvious influence: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is… well… the first time machine in literature! Certainly the first to use the phrase, and without doubt a foundational text of the time travel canon. I was surprised by its brevity, and by how basically flimsy the story is (and that the Time Traveller’s tale, which makes up the bulk of the novella, never loses its quotation marks at the start of each paragraph), but Wells’s theorized split in the future of humanity, where the effete, beautiful and useless Eloi are the prey of the bestial, subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, and both are descendants of homo sapiens as we currently know the species, says some dark, dark things about the direction of late Victorian/early Edwardian thought about class division. (To be clear: I’m not saying Wells thought the poor were Morlocks. I’m just saying, he doesn’t seem to have had much optimism about upward mobility.) A fascinating, if brief, book.
most annoyingly good:Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, which I would much prefer not to have enjoyed, but which instead I have to admit is extremely compelling in its account of how languge both reveals a person and constrains them. And not just in the generic literary-fiction sense, either; Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, is an Irish ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and her detailing of which words are used in what contexts and with what implications are so precise, they feel like evidence for use in an essay. She skewers class, gender, nationality and sexuality with this level of attention. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to Sally Rooney, and I can see why, but I prefer Dolan: she acknowledges the peculiarities, the oddness, of her characters in a way that Rooney never does, and it makes their odd behaviour feel, perversely, more realistic.
best premise:Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. In an alt-Johannesburg, there’s a condition called Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism. No one can explain it, but if you do something bad (not necessarily criminal, but definitely morally wrong), you get an animal sidekick – silent, ever-present, inseparable from you. Think kind of noir Pullman. Our heroine Zinzi has a Sloth. You also get a gift: hers is finding lost things. When she takes the kind of case she never takes—missing persons—she’s in at the deep end of a story involving the South African music scene, traditional medicine, and very unscrupulous people. This won the Clarke Award; my last Clarke winner was Air, by Geoff Ryman, which was a more ambitious and more moving novel than Zoo City, but this is a seriously fun noir/sf mashup, the pace never lets up, and Beukes’s prose—while occasionally overegged—usually hits just the right tangy/salty notes. Grand stuff.
closest to stealing Tana French’s crown: No one will ever actually do that. But We Know You Know (formally published under the much more evocative and relevant-to-the-actual-plot title Stone Mothers), by Erin Kelly, comes near. Dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event that occurred in a now-closed hospital, and the effect it has on three lives when it’s brought up many decades later, the book is not just a crime thriller, but a merciless filleting of the systems and prejudices that conspired (and still do) to imprison and punish the vulnerable—particularly women—and how the repercussions of traumas incurred in those systems are generations-deep.
best historical escapism:The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak’s novel of sixteenth-century Istanbul, master builder Sinan, and one of his apprentices, Jahan, who appears in the Ottoman court as the keeper of a white elephant, Chota, sent as a gift to the Sultan. I’ve said before that I want to like Shafak’s work more than I do; there’s a stylistic inelegance and tendency to rely on cliché that often deflates her writing for me. The Architect’s Apprentice suffers from these flaws, but somehow the historical setting seems to absorb them more easily, making it feel more naturally like a long fable or picaresque. Highly enjoyable, though, for its energy and charm, and the way it explains gaps in the record (Sinan and his chief western rival Michelangelo having never met or even corresponded, for instance).
best audio choice:In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, a memoir exploring Stott’s childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict Christian sect that became a cult in the ’60s and was rocked by a sex scandal in the ’70s. Stott’s father, who had been a pillar of their EB community in Brighton, pulled the family out then, and the book is something of an attempt to lay his ghost (Stott uses this metaphor herself) after he dies several decades later. It’s beautifully written, a thoughtful, curious, compassionate and fascinating account of religious mania but also of her family history and her father’s character. She has, apparently, written at least two novels as well, though this is what won her the Costa biography prize in 2017; her fiction must be well worth seeking out.
best sunshine thriller:Conviction by Denise Mina, although that makes the book sound popcorn-y and it’s not. Focusing on a woman who decides to do some investigating of her own when a true crime podcast mentions a man she was once friends with, there are a few melodramatic moments that stretch credulity, but they’re swallowable because Mina writes really capably, and because of the voice of the protagonist she’s created. Overt polemics are few and far between, but make no mistake, this is an intensely political novel disguised as a Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick. That just screams summer to me.
currently reading: On audio, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; and just about to start an old Virago paperback of Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.
Book posts are back! Just as Superlatives for now, but who knows what the future holds?
In April I read 10 print books (pictured above) and 4 ebooks, plus listened to 2 full audiobooks (most of which pictured below), which makes 16 in total. The anxieties and slow progress of March have been replaced by a rejuvenation of reading mojo, albeit not a noticeable diminishment of more generalized worry. But I don’t think I’m alone in that.
gateway drug: Michael Christie’s family-saga eco-drama Greenwood started slowly, but quickly compelled me to read on, as it leapfrogs backward into the tangled and hidden histories of a family whose destiny is irrevocably entwined with trees: whether tapping them for sap to sell, cutting them down for timber that fuels the growth of a business empire, or protecting the last stand of virgin growth-forest in the world, only a few decades into the future. A tad melodramatic for my taste, but definitely did the trick.
biggest time-warp: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays started out as columns in The Times, but lovely Persephone Books collected them and put them between beautiful dove-grey covers. Reading them is like experiencing a mad, but not unpleasant, dream, where the correct preparation of Lobster Newburg (eh?) is discussed alongside deeper moral questions (“choosing well is one of the most difficult things in a difficult world”).
most delightful surprise: Briarley, by Aster Glenn Gray, which was my very first ever romance novel and which shocked me by being absolutely excellent. It is a m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in an English village during WWII, featuring a bisexual vicar whose daughter is volunteering for the war effort, and an arrogant landowner who’s been turned into a dragon for his heartlessness. Gray incorporates the classical references you’d expect educated men in the ’40s to have at their fingertips, along with Biblical and literary ones, and the whole tone of the novella is both wistfully fable-like and muscular. Gorgeous, and funny.
best disguise: I’m awarding this to Mistresses by Linda Porter for being, basically, quite enjoyable fluffy chapters on the lives of the major mistresses of Charles II, cunningly hiding in the form of a group historical biography. She does provide political and historical context, and of course the fates of mistresses often parallel the fates of administrations, factions, and fashions, but it’s not highly academic by any means.
steamiest surprise: My second foray into romance was the equally delightful, well-written and tender, but also waaayyy hotter, The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham. I implore you, look past its cover and the title and what is surely a pseudonym, and consider: an ambitious, proud woman trying to make a career as a botanical gardener in a world that despises working women; an emotionally damaged nobleman who can only find the emotional release he needs at the hands of a professional domme; a marriage of convenience; profound misunderstanding; and the beauty of what is possible when people really try with each other. It’s so good on BDSM dynamics without being anachronistic (at least not in any ways that stuck out to me), and I’m so glad I read it.
most fun reread: Two rereads this month, the jolliest of which was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I still find her pacing, especially in the latter third of the book, a little confusing; things seem to happen very quickly but without much consequence, and in the whole chapter where Sophie goes to visit the king, nothing advances. It’s still really fun, though, and the movie is now on Netflix (though I know it’s quite different!)
most anticipated: Sarah Moss’s new novel, Summerwater (not out til August). It’s good, of course—she literally can’t write a bad one at this point—though it doesn’t maintain its sticky tension the way Ghost Wall does. I’m not sure it’s trying to; the reason it loses that claustrophobia despite being set in a small place over one day is that the point of view bounces from character to character each chapter, and what it doesn’t have in dread it makes up for in its miniaturized characterization, each new voice convincing.
best proof that “old” =/= “classic”: The 1830s bestseller Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which takes 600 pages to tell a pretty straightforward story of a young boy who grows up to be a highwayman, his life of crime, the woman he falls for, and their eventual happy ending. It’s not terrible, and there’s value in being able to see that Bulwer-Lytton is aiming for effects that Dickens manages not long after with infinitely more panache and individuality (poor and elderly grotesques with funny accents! Parentage shrouded in mystery!) But the fact that it’s now out of print (after a brint stint as one of a short-lived Penguin series of Victorian Bestsellers) is really a mercy.
second-best surprise: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which I started listening to basically on a whim and found myself really sucked into. She’s such an appealing narrator/protagonist: she’s not into politics at all, her self-presentation as a driven, conscientious rule-follower is rueful and funny, and to start with she’s not all that into Barack either. Her dedication to her kids and family life also goes down very well: she’s smart and educated, and has no intention of being a smiling doll-wife, but she also unashamedly loves being a mom. I liked her a lot just from listening to this. The hype is real.
most frustrating: I really wanted to like Holly Watt’s follow-up novel, The Dead Line, which sees her investigative journalist protag Casey Benedict chasing a story about illegal surrogacy in Bangladesh. And for much of it, I did; it’s a page-flipper, even though it’s too long. But there’s a certain authorial sympathy extended to the white British women who constitute the market for this illegal surrogacy and who don’t care how many vulnerable people are hurt as long as they get their baby at the end of it. I think it was meant to be even-handedness, which is admirable in theory—there’s a lot of emotional territory to be explored—but instead it felt like an attempt to equate their sufferings with those of the women forced to carry their babies, and that sits very, very badly with me indeed.
best popcorn books: Two thoroughly trashy YA novels from a series that I was obsessed with as a pre-teen, Fearless FBI: Kill Game and Fearless FBI: Agent Out, by Francine Pascal. Fearless FBI is a follow-up series to Fearless, which is about a teenage girl “born without the fear gene” (teh sciencez!) living in New York who just kicks everyone’s ass vigilante-style because she can. Very ’90s, very girl-power, lots of violence and sexual tension. I was not allowed to read them and therefore had to borrow them in secret from my best friend. In Fearless FBI, our protag Gaia has just graduated from Stanford and joined the FBI (in the first book’s first scene, she saves everyone from a suicide bomber at her college graduation because of course that’s a natural venue for a domestic terrorist). These were written around 2005, and there are definite efforts to integrate some more sophisticated gender politics, but they flounder because Pascal is clearly a lot more comfortable in the “RESPECT WOMEN, YOU DOUCHE [round-house kick] THAT’S RIGHT, GIRLS CAN BE CUTE AND DANGEROUS” zone. They’re quite bad and joyfully these two of the series (vols 1 and 3) are available in ebook form. (Vols 2 and 4 are not, which is a huge disappointment; please get on that, Simon & Schuster, kthanks.)
biggest splash of cold water: After chewing through two of those in one weekend afternoon, I elected to read something more sensible and settled down with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian satire on Taylorian management principles and totalitarian (Soviet) society, We. It’s not masses of fun, and it’s pretty misogynistic, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise with things written in the mid-20th century but somehow always is. Not dissimilar to Brave New World (though We came first and Huxley denied the influence), with its classes of citizens, strictly regimented timetables and regulated sexuality, and brutal repression of dissidents. Worth reading if you’ve exhausted Huxley and Orwell, though. It wasn’t published at all until three years after it was written, and then only in English; its first publication in Russian took three more decades.
wait, no, this was the biggest splash of cold water: The audiobook of Garrett M Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11. It is, as the title would suggest, sombre. But it’s also incredibly well done; a full cast reads the interviews, which are interleaved with each other and arranged in roughly chronological order, so we get a section called Tuesday Begins followed by Checking In, The First Plane, First Reactions in DC, American Airlines Flight 77, The Military Responds, and so on. It feels like nothing so much as being physically inside a multi-part documentary. The amount of work that went into the writing of the book—fifteen years—let alone the recording, is phenomenal. Did it make me tear up several times? Absolutely, yes. Did it leave me with a profound sense of hope? Also, absolutely, yes. Good to read about acute disasters during a chronic one, in a way.
best reminder to reread more: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, which I read at about thirteen and hadn’t revisited since. Liz Dexter (on Instagram I accidentally said it was Clare from Years of Reading Selfishly, I’m so sorry!) prompted me to read this again along with her, and it’s so good. Cather was one of my authors of the year in 2019; in My Ántonia, the story of a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant girl and her family in the American West, her landscape descriptions and her gifts of empathy and grace are on full display.
most alarmingly topical: Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig, an 800-page novel about… a global pandemic. (There’ll be no spoilers here, but let’s just say the ultimate revelation about the pandemic’s source is fairly chilling.) Good, clean, page-turning fun; not as profound as it thinks it’s being, and Wendig has one of my least favourite writing tics (“And with that, [character’s name] [some kind of synonym for “moved out of shot”: “walked away”, “left”, “departed”, “closed the door”, you name it]). It’s kind of sub-The Stand (mind you, I like Stephen King). But absolutely great for this moment in time, if what you want to do with this moment in time is stare into the abyss of it.
currently reading: Shirley, the major Charlotte Brontë novel I hadn’t yet gotten to. (I don’t count The Professor.) For nineteenth-century depictions of industrial unrest, I have to say, I find Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South both more sympathetic and less preachy, but Shirley is very readable and moreover is primarily about a close female friendship that doesn’t sour (or hasn’t yet) over a man, which is great.
On the left: the next six proofs for me to read, all of which (I try to read proofs in order of release date and in the month before they’re published) are out on the 6th of February. On the right: my stack of library borrows, all of which are due back on 26th January. The top three are part of my children’s literature project; the next two are a combination of my Guardian Top 1000 novels project and a half-conceived notion to borrow all the Penguin or Vintage classics off the shelf in order; Celestial Bodies just sort of… fell into my hand, and the final two are Guardian Top 1000 choices from the list’s crime segment, which is statistically the one in which I’m least well read.
The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually finished this between the time I took the photo and the time I started writing this post. It’s very reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but uses its sfnal/magical realist conceit in a different, more concentrated manner. I think it will be extremely successful, although I’m still constantly unsure of how I feel about using non-realist conceits in novels that purport to show the pains of slavery. And then I feel unsure of whether I have a right to feel unsure, since Coates has done the thinking and possesses the heritage that gives him the right to tell the story however he likes.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts: One of my relatively rare non-fiction choices. From the press release: “Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos – grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, and humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes[…] That stately instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.”
The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott: A YA adventure set in an alt-ancient Britain where one of the children tasked with guarding a sea wall has Down’s syndrome. She teams up with an un-self-confident boy to journey into a mysterious country of magic and secrets. This sounds amazing, has had terrific reviews, and the last YA title I read published by Walker Books knocked it out of the park (Rules For Vanishing; review here).
Swimmers in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski: This is giving off serious Aciman/Greenwell vibes. Two boys meet in Poland and, over the course of the summer, swim in some beautiful lakes and fall in love. Aahhh. Yes.
A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher: I’m still not quite sure what this is about, but I think it is about a group of friends who, radical in their youth, make compromises with the boring adult world as they age, except for one of them—Spike—who does not, and the effect his refusal to compromise has on his life. I have never actually read a Hensher novel, but a new one seems like the place to start.
And, from the library:
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read Gaiman’s writing for children, though I liked American Gods a lot (and Neverwhere slightly less), so this will be a new experience. The story of a small boy called Bod who is raised by the spectral inhabitants of a graveyard when his entire family is murdered, I’ve heard rumours that it’s somewhat uneven, and am keen to find out for myself. [C21 children’s lit challenge]
The Skylarks’ War, by Hilary McKay: As a child I tended to gravitate towards fantasy, but warm/familial fiction set a little in the past (a la The Railway Children) was another great love. This seems like that sort of thing, only written by a contemporary author, and was the Costa Children’s Book Award winner in 2018; other than that I don’t know a lot about it but am optimistic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]
The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Another children’s fantasy, but this time taking in the art and science of cartography, as Isabella has to leave her island to save her friend. Millwood Hargrave was only twenty-six when this was published and it’s already become a modern children’s classic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]
A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe: A short sharp shock of a novel about an unnamed African country’s Minister for Culture, his corrupt and opportunistic ways, and the initially idealistic young student who first challenges, then succumbs to (I think), that life. Of Achebe’s work, I’ve only ever read Things Fall Apart and found it a bit too schematic to genuinely enjoy, but then it’s a general rule that an author’s worst book is the one taught to high schoolers, so maybe this’ll be better. [Penguin Modern Classic]
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin: I fell in love with Baldwin’s writing through reading Giovanni’s Room last year. Go Tell It…is the semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s disillusionment with the church in which he’s raised, and I can’t wait. [Guardian Top 1000 + Penguin Modern Classic]
Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi: Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and the first such to be a translation from Arabic. I finished it this morning; it tells the stories of three Omani sisters – Mayya, Asma, and Khawla – their marriages, and their parents’ marriages; the collision of old and new in a country where slavery was only outlawed in the early 1960s (and persisted in essence for years after it was officially illegal); the collisions of love, honour, poetry and money that make up any good family saga. A worthy winner, I think, and most surprising in its somewhat experimental form, particularly the half-dreaming narration of every other chapter, told by Mayya’s husband Abdallah. Heartily recommended.
Live Flesh, by Ruth Rendell: A man commits a crime, goes to prison, gets out, and recommences the obsession that led him to commit the crime, all over again. A common enough story, but my last Rendell (technically a Barbara Vine) was incredible because of the way the story was told, so I’m hopeful this one will be too. [Guardian Top 1000]
Sidetracked, by Henning Mankell: The only Mankell on the Guardian list and I plucked it off the shelf because, well, he’s solid, right? I’ve been under the impression I’ve read at least one Mankell novel for some time, but I think I’ve just watched enough of the Wallander series (both English and Swedish) to have given me the gist. Anyway, I imagine it’ll be good competent distraction. [Guardian Top 1000]
How should I prioritize these?! I almost certainly won’t get through all the library books before they’re due back, which is fine, and I like being able to do full, in-depth reviews of each book I finish for the children’s lit challenge before moving on to the next one, which tends to slow me down. But I also want to keep a steady pace with the proofs, unless a title is dull or frustrating enough to DNF. Thoughts?
Can there be a ten-year period in which more changes than the one between being seventeen and being twenty-seven? Of course everything depends on circumstance and there are anomalies, but it does strike me that this is the decade in which I went from child under my parents’ roof to adult paying my own bills, and what—even assuming the acquisition of a life partner and the possibility of one’s own children—can possibly compete with that for upheaval? So the task of choosing ten books of the decade (and I will limit myself to just ten, this time) feels like not just a commentary on my reading, but on how that reading has shaped and reflected my life.
2010: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It has to be this. 2010 was the year I started university, and Mantel wins it by a whisker; George Eliot (particularly Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss) is close behind. But up until then, I don’t think I had quite realized that it was possible for contemporary fiction to be as rich and dense as what I rather naively and snobbishly thought of as “the classics”. Wolf Hall was the first novel I read that opened my mind to that possibility.
2011: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. The vast majority of my reading in this year was for university, and there are lots of reading memories that seem ineradicable, but The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia was perhaps the longest (I also read The Faerie Queene in 2011, mind you). I got through it during shifts at my summer job back home, not even bothering to be surreptitious and read it under the counter. It’s outrageously overcomplicated allegorical pastoral Tudor romance, and yet I found myself entranced.
Arden Shakespeare editions
2012: Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I know this is a dick move and Desert Island Discs lets you have them for this very reason, but in the summer of 2012, I read every single word that William Shakespeare ever wrote, as well as some he probably didn’t. It took a little less than three months and by mid-July I was starting to dream in blank verse. Nothing else even came close to matching that experience that year.
2013: The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. An odd and messy year. I graduated, continued living in Oxford, scraped together internships at literary agencies and my old college’s Development Office, and read a fuck of a lot of Terry Pratchett, for no doubt obvious reasons. However, Tanizaki’s extraordinary perception about romantic and social relationships in mid-20th century Japan reminded me forcefully of Jane Austen, and I’ve not stopped recommending this book since.
2014: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris. This was the year in which I started blogging about my reading more seriously, reading other litblogs, and writing for the now-defunct Quadrapheme, which meant free books and new contacts in publishing house. In amongst the riches, Young God stood out like a hammered thumb: it’s reminiscent of Winter’s Bone in that it’s about a young Appalachian girl who grows up before her time, but it is, if possible, even grittier, bleaker and more disturbing. What a winner.
2015: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall. The first year in this decade where the winner is hands-down obvious and uncontestable. I was sent this for review and was so smitten, I read it twice in four months: the combination of lush landscape writing with an utterly unsentimental but also un-bleak portrayal of single motherhood fit its subject matter so well. It didn’t just show me what good writing was; it showed me that there are a million ways to live, and most of them are only just now being written into stories.
2016: The Likeness, by Tana French. Not the first Tana French novel I read, but as I finished that within about a day and turned immediately to this, the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the distinction is fairly academic. And academic is the point in this deliciously clever engagement with The Secret History tropes (overintellectual young people are faced with murder, must navigate treacherous shoals between story and reality; so meta, I fucking love it). It’s my favourite of hers because of the descriptions of the house and the friendship dynamics—she gets into the meat of how people relate to each other—and I read it just as I was beginning work on my own book, which has similar themes.
2017: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Getting harder now; 2017 was the year I started working at Heywood Hill and my access to books skyrocketed (no longer was it necessary to buy new titles with my own money or indeed even request them half the time; boxes of proofs come to the shop every week). Thien’s Booker- and Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel is a gorgeously written family saga set in communist China, about music and integrity and survival. I rather wish it had won both prizes.
2018: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. I couldn’t stop talking about this, all year, and all of 2019 too. The first five pages are a devastatingly scary, moving, gut-grabbing experience, and the rest of it—telling the story of teenage Silvie and her father’s increasingly unhinged obsession with neolithic British customs—hurtles, with an extraordinary stop-start combination of sticky tension and humid tedium, towards what feels like an inevitable climax. It’s utterly magnificent and it, too, should have won both the Booker and the Women’s Prize.
2019: As we know, 2019 was an exceptionally good reading year overall—so good that I couldn’t even narrow my top books down to ten, and had to settle for twenty. There was no one standout title, though, so instead I’m nominating Willa Cather, and the three of her books I read this year. She is an exceptional writer whose evocation of landscape and grasp of psychological nuance makes her feel well ahead of her time. Both Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Song of the Lark are wonderful, not to mention the much lesser-known A Lost Lady: short but perfectly formed and breathtakingly empathetic.
This list, written on a different day, would probably have produced a different outcome—choosing books to represent a whole decade is so subjective a task that the decisions, though not totally arbitrary, often feel balanced on the knife’s edge of how I happen to feel right this minute. All of these are brilliant books, though, and have meant a lot to me over the past ten years.
Do you have any books of the decade you’d like to share?
I’ve started using my local public library a lot more recently, thanks in large part to this rather magnificent Twitter thread from Secret Library Gorgon. It reminded me that I do, in fact, possess an Islington Libraries card, and that until two weeks ago, I had only used it once in the course of nine or ten months. So I went down to the library a fortnight ago, borrowed five books (most of which were mentioned in my last reading roundup post), and had a whale of a time.
They were all due back today (one of the most embarrassing things about my relative virginity as a public libraries user is that I was genuinely unsure whether that meant I could return them at any time today, or whether I had to return them by the time it became today, e.g. yesterday. For anyone else similarly struggling: it is the former.) Duly, I returned them and immediately borrowed seven more:
One of the very nicest things about a public library is its free-ness. This should be obvious, but it allows for all sorts of experimentation in one’s reading that would be harder to defend if spending of actual cash were required. My job does provide me with a lot of free books, but these come from publisher’s reps and, as proof copies, are in the nature of “previews” of the things they’re going to be releasing this season. If I happen to want to read something published longer ago than, say, six to eight months, the reps are unlikely to have proof copies (though sometimes miracles do occur—reprint editions, how I love thee), and I will have to spend money on it in order to possess it. My staff discount from Heywood Hill is extremely good—we can buy books at cost price, more or less, which in practice generally means at least 45% discount and sometimes as much as 55%—but it’s still, you know, money.
I am, as you can probably see from the above pile, trying to expand my knowledge of iconic crime and science fiction, and it is much easier to do that when I don’t have to spend money on a book whose quality I can’t predict, precisely because my knowledge base in that genre is currently limited. I’m also trying to fill some of my classic literature gaps; these are probably smaller than most people’s, by the nature of the degree that I did, but with the best will in the world, even after three years of reading the Anglophone canon, one is going to have missed some things. And I’m being guided, in a vague sort of way, by the Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels list (although the more I examine it, the more I realize that it is noticeably biased, though the nature of that bias has yet to clarify itself. It contains, for instance, five novels by Michael Dibdin and three by Ian Fleming in the “crime” subcategory, which is itself composed of 146 titles. Even his champions will probably balk at the notion that Ian Fleming, neither the world’s greatest stylist nor its greatest plotsmith, wrote three—three!—entirely indispensable books. I have read two of the listed, Goldfinger and Casino Royale. Only the latter has a claim to that kind of significance, and its claim is mainly historic. The former is not even particularly good.)
Tangents aside, this is what I’ve come away with this time:
The Drowned World, by JG Ballard [on the Guardian list]
Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss [on the Guardian list]
Sorcerer To the Crown, by Zen Cho [on my personal to-read list for years]
The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke [on the Guardian list]
Blood Shot, also published as Toxic Shock, by Sara Paretsky [on the Guardian list]
Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë [on the Guardian list]
How Do You Like Me Now?, by Holly Bourke [recommended by my trustworthy colleague Faye]
Anyone read any of these, or want to? What should I read first? I’ve never read any of these authors before, except for Brontë, obviously.
Rebecca at Bookish Beck runs a regular Library Checkout feature, from which I’ve snitched this post title; the most recent one is here.
I’m playing again! Cathy at 746 Books hosts this (extremely chill) reading challenge; you’re allowed to do a 15-book or a 10-book version, swap out books as you go, etc. I’ve decided to aim for the 20-book goal. Most of the books on my list will come from my proof TBR; as the challenge runs from 3 June to 3 September, I’ve decided to try reading five proofs being released in each month (June, July, and August), plus a final five which are drawn from my stacks at home. With any luck, I’ll read many more than twenty books this summer, but these are the first priority!
Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer [June, nonfiction]: The world’s youngest, and first female, winner of the Mongol Derby, on the mental and physical discipline of horse racing. She’s also the sister of a former colleague of mine. (review)
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, by Elif Shafak [June, fiction]: An Istanbul sex worker is killed; in the ten minutes after her death, a series of flashbacks reveals her childhood and early life. (review)
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton [June, nonfiction]: The life and times of Maud West, who opened her private investigation agency in London in 1905. (review)
Dressed: the Secret Life of Clothes, by Shahida Bari [June, nonfiction]: I’m an absolute sucker for fashion/style analysis, particularly as it relates to material culture. (DNF’d)
Big Sky, by Kate Atkinson [June, fiction]: The next in the Jackson Brodie series, and long-awaited too. I need to read Case Histories first. [READ, not reviewed]
Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn [July, fiction]: An undocumented Jamaican woman in New York, and her daughter growing up without her on the island. Looks magnificent.
Supper Club, by Lara Williams [July, fiction]: I know very little about this, except that it’s about female rage, and must involve food at some point. Sign me upppp.
Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo [July, fiction]: Taddeo basically embedded, like a war reporter, into the lives of three women over eight years. These are the stories of their love lives over that time. Modern New Journalism + exploration of contemporary female sexuality = 100% my jam. (review)
Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang [July, fiction]: Chiang wrote “Story of Your Life”, which the movie “Arrival” is based on. I’m told he’s excellent, and this is his first collection in a decade.
Rose,Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence [July, YA]: Lawrence’s earlier YA novel, Orangeboy, really impressed me. Rose, Interrupted is about a girl who escapes a cult with her brother and has to learn to be a Normal Teenager while also Following Her Path. Sounds good. Cover’s adorable. [decided against]
Life For Sale, by Yukio Mishima [August, fiction]: According to the jacket copy: “When Hanio Yamada realizes the future holds nothing of worth to him, he puts his life for sale in a Tokyo newspaper, thus unleashing a series of unimaginable exploits. A world of revenge, murderous mobsters, hidden cameras, a vampire woman, poisonous carrots, espionage and code-breaking, a junkie heiress, home-made explosives and decoys reveals itself.” Need I say more?
The Truants, by Kate Weinberg [August, fiction]: Sort of The Secret History, but on a campus in East Anglia instead of the woods of New England, and minus the classical references. Worth a punt.
The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware [August, fiction]: Ware’s brand of contemporary Gothic thriller is eminently suited to a rewrite of The Turn of the Screw.
Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick [August, YA]: A British boy and a Berber girl, both shipwrecked, must help each other to survive. This looks wonderful.
The Offing, by Benjamin Myers [August, fiction]: Post-WWII, following an unlikely friendship between a sixteen-year-old miner’s son and an older woman in Robin Hood’s Bay. Myers has loads of critical acclaim and I’ve never read any of his work before; this seems like a good time to start, though his other stuff appears to be much darker than this sounds.
The final five are subject to change, but may look something like this:
Daemon Voices: Essays On Storytelling, by Philip Pullman
Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell [READ, not reviewed]
A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt
Other possibilities for the final five include: The Summer Without Men, also by Siri Hustvedt; The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphael Jerusalmy; Breathe by Dominick Donald [READ, not reviewed]; Lowborn by Kerry Hudson; Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen; If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson.
Have you read any of my choices? Do you particularly recommend (or dis-recommend) any of them?
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
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
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
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
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
…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
finished off the New Year with gigs at Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s
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.
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.
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.
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 Mountains, Goblin 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.
The 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.
A 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.
The 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.
Convenience 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.
A 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.
The 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.
Viper 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.
Quarantine, 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.