July Superlatives

July: a great month for reading (eighteen [nineteen! I forgot one!] books, somehow, bringing my yearly total up to 116), a very bad month for reviewing. I won’t apologise – moving house tires the mind – but hope that these Superlative entries will be detailed enough to pique interest. I did write one review, for Litro, of Best British Short Stories 2017, which I’ll link to once it’s been posted. Meanwhile, onwards.

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most versatile: Francesca Segal’s second novel, The Awkward Age. It is a very well-written modern-relationships novel, centering on Julia—a widowed piano teacher—and her new partner, James; her resentful teenaged daughter Gwen; and James’s resentful, privileged teenaged son, Nathan. Surprising (possibly melodramatic) plot twists involving the teenagers are balanced by the presence of Julia’s former husband’s parents, whose relationship is not without its own interest and is presented with great nuance. I can’t imagine anyone, of any age, reading this book and not being able to get something out of it.

blast from the past: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which I read as a result of bringing it home with me from a visit to my grandparents. I hadn’t read nineteenth-century prose for months, and what struck me about it was how dryly funny Hardy often is, especially when describing character quirks. His “rustics” are better in this than in almost any other of his novels; even the utterly goofy ones, like Joseph Poorgrass, feel convincing, which I’m not sure is the case in, e.g., The Mayor of Casterbridge or even Tess.

best crime novel: Cambridgeshire-set Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. The standout in this book is its DI, Manon Bradshaw, who’s heavily pregnant by a sperm donor and also trying to mother her adoptive son, a young black boy named Fly. (Persons Unknown is the second in a series that starts with Missing, Presumed, which must chart Manon’s and Fly’s relationship from the beginning.) A City banker is murdered in broad daylight; Fly becomes the main suspect. Persons Unknown handles a very specifically British sort of racial prejudice with total sensitivity, and provides some delightful point-of-view characters, including Davy (trying hard to be politically correct, not entirely equipped for the task) and Birdie (a London shopkeeper who becomes embroiled in the case). Loved it.

most haha-YEP: Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running Wigtown’s The Book Shop, The Diary of a Bookseller. What can I say? It’s screamingly funny, helped along by Bythell’s rotating cast of eccentric employees (including Nicky, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, lives in her blue van, and comes to work in the winter dressed in a black snow suit that makes her look like a demented Teletubby), and Bythell’s own dry sense of humour. He’s also great on the day-to-day business of antiquarian and secondhand book selling—traveling to valuations, how to price an old book, and so on—which, as a new bookseller, I like learning about. This is out in September and you really mustn’t miss it.

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second most haha-YEP: Living the Dream by Lauren Berry, a novel which slots firmly into the modern-and-knowing-twist-on-the-being-in-your-twenties-novel category that also contains Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere and Lisa Owens’s Not Working. If I had read this a year ago, when I was still at Mumsnet, I would have died of relief that someone had written a funny, relatable book about being bored in strategy meetings and feeling as though you were sort of vaguely failing at life but being too knackered and broke to sort it out. Furse’s and Owens’s books both dig deeper into the potential for real catastrophe in acquiescing to modern life—Berry’s heroines are never in any actual danger of becoming drones, because the narrative demands that they Find Themselves—but it’s a fun addition to the subgenre.

warm bath books: The Well of Lost Plots and The Eyre Affair (in that order, because TWOLP is my favourite), by Jasper Fforde. I refuse to criticise these, okay? I absolutely, unapologetically used these books as gentle, goofy balms to the soul in a challenging week, and therefore have nothing bad to say about them (nor will I ever), except to note that some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but when you’ve got that chapter on the Global Standard Deity and those asides about registered John Miltons and kids trading Henry Fielding bubble gum cards (let alone all the rest of it—Generics! Plotsmiths! Making all the characters from Wuthering Heights attend rage counselling!), it seems churlish to nitpick.

most disappointed to be disappointed in: Meta, no? So I read Attica Locke’s new book, Bluebird, Bluebird (which is out in September, I think) and it was fine: a small-town East Texas-set murder mystery involving the deaths of a black man and a white woman. Locke off her game is better than a lot of writers on top of theirs. But the more I consider it, the more baffled I get: Locke is strangely ambivalent about her protagonist Darren’s character arc, and why, in God’s name, does it end the way it does? That ending comes out of a clear blue sky and it makes no emotional impact whatsoever, because its total strangeness hasn’t really been earned. I may have to write an in-depth review of this to be posted nearer the publication date.

most illuminating reread: I’ve reread Tana French’s books too many times this year. Oh well. After rereading In the Woods, though, I’ve got a better handle on what makes it work so well: her sterling ability to construct a narrator, Detective Rob Ryan, who is—quietly—a complete arsehole. He drops all the hints we need to work this out along the way, but, as with the final revelations regarding the crime, it’s only very late in the day that we put all the pieces together and realise that Rob—although decidedly also a victim of his own history and pitiable in that regard—is truly not very nice. It destabilises much of what we’ve felt for him up til then (he’s also funny, quick-witted and observant, which makes him an appealing narrator), and it gives the book that dark, queasy edge that moves it from good to great.

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best debut: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s book of short stories from Tinder Press. Arimah’s stories really are short, most not more than five pages, but she’s great at getting inside the heads of protagonists who straddle cultures (like the character who’s packed off to her cousins in Nigeria for the summer after a mildly rebellious year in American high school). I was also impressed by her vision in the more speculative stories, like the title one, which posits the existence of professional grief-removers. Can you imagine?

longest overdue: I’ve had W. Somerset Maugham’s massive novel Of Human Bondage on my actual, physical TBR since about 2014. My friend and former housemate Bunter (not his real name) lent/gave it to me back then, and I’ve been putting it off ever since, mostly because of the size. It turns out to be rather wonderful—a young man’s coming-of-age story, so, yes, fairly masculine, but Philip Carey’s club foot gives him a vulnerability that makes him easier to empathise with than many early C20 novels that demand a reader’s adulation for a privileged male protagonist. He has strong emotions and deals with them, for the most part, stupidly, in the way that people in their twenties do. You can’t help wanting things to be all right for him. It reminded me in some ways of David Copperfield, another classic English Bildungsroman.

best anthology: Clue’s in the name: Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle at Salt. I’m not usually much of a one for short stories, let alone a collection of stories all by different writers, but Royle’s selection is delightfully coherent; themes of the supernatural and the unspoken, the slightly uncanny and the merely surreal, recur throughout. There are some weak links, but some truly exceptional stories too (Lara Williams’s “Treats”, Daisy Johnson’s “Language”, Rosalind Brown’s “General Impression of Size and Shape”, amongst others.) (review)

best find: My uncle is the only person who reliably gifts me actual books for my birthday, for which I will never cease to be grateful to him. This year he sent me a slim collection of poems by Thomas Lux, called To the Left of Time, and I absolutely love them. Lux’s voice is a little like Tony Hoagland’s, that slightly weather-beaten, over-educated, under-employed, grown-up-farm-boy tone. His odes, especially Ode To the Joyful Ones, are the best things in the book.

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best recommendation: After my first Down the TBR Hole post, my brother got in touch with me to tell me to read Slaughterhouse Five straight away. I bought it on Saturday and read it almost in one go. It’s absolutely wonderful. A humane, good-humoured, sweetly resigned war novel that is also utterly clear-eyed about horror and fear and torment. Billy Pilgrim is an everyman with whom I might just be a little in love.

best palate-cleanser: The first Robert Harris novel I’ve ever read, Conclave. Apparently it has divided opinion, but you know what? He can write just fine, plus he can construct differentiable characters in what’s basically an ensemble novel (which is remarkably hard). His ability to make a reader care about moral issues that modern sensibilities mostly ignore is also surprising: the central question of Conclave—how can you tell whether serving God means intervening in something, or keeping your nose out?—requires us to take seriously the faith of the characters, and we do, and that’s an impressive feat for a mainstream contemporary writer.

party to which I’m late: Tove Jansson, just in general. Specifically, The Summer Book, her first novel for adults, which takes the form of a series of vignettes focusing on an old woman and her granddaughter over the course of a summer on their island in the Gulf of Finland. Grandmother is the best-written old woman I’ve ever read, perhaps because Jansson based her heavily on her own mother; she retains an actual personality, complicated and dry and cynical and not always either cuddly or feisty (the default settings for old ladies in fiction). I will be looking for Jansson’s other adult books, as well as reading the Moomin series, in the future.

best short read: Another of Penguin’s Little Black Classics, this time Trimalchio’s Feast by Petronius, a birthday present from AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the Lawyer). It’s an excerpt from a much longer work, the Satyricon, and focuses on an orgiastic party thrown by lonely, narcissistic trillionaire Trimalchio. Because it’s so short, and so absurd, you can read it as a fun interlude, or you can venture down some darker alleys of thought (however rich you are, death is coming for you, and you can’t stave it off with honey-roasted dormice or dancing girls).

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second most illuminating reread: Quicksilver, the first of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It is such a long book, and so crammed with incident and information, that rereading is virtually a necessity. I certainly understood more of the plot’s overall shape, and more of the characters’ rationale at various times, than I did the first time around.

[the one I forgot: Such Small Hands, a tiny creepy novella by Andres Barba about a bunch of Spanish girls stuck in an orphanage, who invent a horrendous “dolly” game that ends up, perhaps unsurprisingly, turning violent. The story is shocking, but—and maybe this is just a different approach to psychological realism—not especially moving, since all the little girls speak as one. I think the book might well be too short.]

up next: Various books I’ve said I would review, including Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, and Sarah Franklin’s Shelter. I’ve also got several delightful purchases to get through, including Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier and China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, and need to choose airplane reading for my trip to see family in the States – I’m thinking The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I have in proof, and which appears to be the sort of massive weighty tome about a female writer’s artistic development and vexed relationship to traditional feminine roles that I’ve been waiting for someone to write.

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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])

August Superlatives

It feels like August has come and gone very quickly – my first month out of work, and it seems as though it’s only been a week or two, though we’ve crammed a lot in. We had a house party, went to a wedding, had a proper holiday, caught up with my old school friend Chelsea, who’s a professional flautist. This past weekend I went to my first ever festival, a micro-fest held by my lovely former colleague Tessa and her sister Freya in their parents’ back garden in Oxfordshire. Six bands over two nights, plus an abridged read-through of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part One and the most delicious paellas, curries, and breakfast hashes made it an unforgettable experience. I’ve also reached and exceeded 26,000 words in the novel I’m writing, which is great news. Reading-wise, time was limited, but although I read fewer books in total this month than average, most of them were BIG.

best teenager: Velveteen Vargas in Mary Gaitskill’s new novel The Mare, of course. I read most of this hiding in a side chapel of Westminster Cathedral, waiting for the Chaos to finish cantoring at a wedding for which the bride was a full hour late, and it’s a testament to the power and presence of Velvet’s voice that I often forgot where I was. She’s bright but not precocious, streetwise but not a stereotype.

most realistic love story: The one between Meg and Jon in A.L. Kennedy’s Booker Prize-longlisted Serious Sweet. It’s long, and it’s flashback-y, but she dives into their heads with a dedication that reminds me curiously of Elizabeth Jane Howard (see below) and also a little bit of George Eliot. I like authors who take their characters so seriously that we spend pages and pages listening to them think. I know it’s not for everyone, but it really is for me.

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most utterly charming love story: The one between Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman, both of whom are just as ungainly and awkward as their names make them sound, in Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Harley is a textile artist from Sydney, in the tiny town of Karakarook to advise the locals on setting up a heritage museum. Douglas is an engineer, in Karakarook to supervise the demolition of a bridge that many regard as the centrepiece of the town’s “heritage” value. Their collision course is set from the beginning, but their genuine awkwardness—Harley tall and big-boned and blurty, Douglas shy and ugly and enthusiastic about cement—saves the book from being a tedious rom-com. It’s wonderful.

toughest: Waking Lions, an unflinching morality tale about immigration and privilege (if you’re one of those people who thinks the word is bandied about too frequently these days, this book’ll give you a better understanding of what is meant by it), by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I gave it a full review and said it’s not the sort of book you love, but you’re not meant to love it: you’re meant to get something out of it, and there are very few books these days that are willing to give up your love in exchange for your understanding.

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best fun: The final book of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, The System of the World. He’s so good at being dryly funny, and his plotting is so intricate that I shudder to think of what his notes for this series must have looked like. This is also the most serious of the three books, which I liked: it makes you realize that this is where the modern world started, really, this span of seven or eight decades from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th. It’s why I want to study the literature of that period in any subsequent postgraduate degrees I end up doing.

best holiday reading: The Tailor of Panama, John Le Carré’s novel about an intelligence fabricator leading up to the handover of the Canal to the Panamanians in 1999. If you think that makes it sound an awful lot like Our Man In Havana, you’d be right, but Le Carré really follows through on the consequences of lying. The ending is really quite sad, although not sad enough to make it un-fun for the beach. I think this might be the last good book he wrote, before he started becoming wild-eyed and moralistic sometime after 9/11.

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most engrossing world: That of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I read the first in the series, The Light Years, over eighteen months ago, and I’ve returned this month to the second, third, and fourth: Marking Time, Confusion, and Casting Off. They mostly follow the fortunes of the three girl cousins in the Cazalet family: elegant Polly, glamorous actress (and unhappily married) Louise, and awkward aspiring writer Clary. Howard’s ear for dialogue is just marvelous; the way she uses it for efficient characterization is aspirational. And to be honest, I don’t think any other books have helped me to understand my grandparents or their generation half as well as these ones have.

up next: I said I’d review Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which is making big waves in the publishing world, but I’m really scared to start it – the extract I’ve seen online makes me wonder if it’s going to be pretty triggering. I guess I can always stop if it’s too much…

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir, & The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill

There’s very little that connects these two books, I’m afraid; they’re not being reviewed together for any clever reason on my part. One is short, the other long. One is by a man, the other a woman. One is a claustrophobic little quasi-horror tale, the other is a chunky social realist novel that thoroughly imbues the political with the personal and vice versa. They’re both published by independent publishers, but other than that, there’s not much similarity between them, either superficially or thematically. Sorry! On the other hand, at least today’s post has got something for everyone… (or something like it.)

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir (Salt Publishing)

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~~here be spoilers, sorry~~

If this looks familiar to you, it’ll be because it’s on the Man Booker Prize longlist. (My copy doesn’t have that neat little marketing sticker—proof that I got my request in just before they were inundated with book journalists’ emails and did a reprint. Haha.) It’s so short as to be almost a novella; at 141 pages, it’s readable in a day. There are two point-of-view characters: Ethan, a fisherman in a remote Cornish coastal village, and Timothy, an interloper in the village who has bought a house that’s lain dormant for a decade. The former inhabitant of Timothy’s new home was Perran, a member of a fishing crew who, it’s vaguely suggested, had some sort of learning disability, and who drowned one night in a storm. Timothy’s presence in Perran’s house is displeasing to the villagers—like all villagers, they have long memories. Ethan is struggling with his own problems: fishing trips are bringing back strangely emaciated hauls, and the sea has been declared contaminated. The fishermen are prohibited from working outside the boundary of a line of old container ships moored on the horizon, and their skeletal catches are purchased wholesale by a mysterious woman in a grey coat whose besuited goons do most of the (literal) heavy lifting.

For atmosphere, The Many cannot be faulted. In fact, its perfection in that regard is kind of the problem. Menmuir creates this setting where reality bumps up against genre trappings—eco-thriller, conspiracy—in a truly unsettling way. The sea and the sky are so encompassing, Timothy and Ethan’s emotional isolations so perfectly mirrored by their bleak surroundings, that you find yourself on tenterhooks to see what the hell is going to happen. It reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, particularly those awful dead-eyed fish: a Nature that has soured somehow, a government agency that exists, morally speaking, well within the shades of grey. And yet there is (here come the spoilers) never any resolution to this at all. The woman in the grey coat is such an obviously menacing and important figure that for us to get to the end of the book without any indication of who she is or what she’s doing there feels alarmingly like cheating. Meanwhile, Timothy’s marital troubles, we learn, stem from the stillbirth of his son, a little boy named…Perran. This was the detail that really threw me. Perran’s an unusual name. Is it meant to be a coincidence? There’s enough mystical stuff going on in this book (Timothy has Symbolic Dreams; that barrier of container ships) that I thought perhaps Timothy’s Perran and the village’s Perran were…the same person? Or is Timothy insane? Is he projecting this village and its loss?

They’re good questions. They’re the sort of questions that I like a book to provoke. The reality of reality, and the sanity of sanity, have long been uncertainties for authors to engage with. But the strength of a book lies in how satisfactorily it deals with those questions—it doesn’t have to answer them, but it has to deal with them—and The Many doesn’t deal with anything. It just shrugs and leaves (which, incidentally, is what Timothy eventually does.) It’s a mark of my frustration that, after finishing it, I realized I still had not the slightest clue what the title meant. The many what? Fish? Deaths? Portentous pronouncements by old Clem the winchman? I don’t mean to sound bitter, but reading this book felt like being ghosted by someone on Tinder. There was so much promise here! What happened?!

(Or am I just an idiot who missed the obvious? Anyone else read this and have an idea?)

Thanks very much to Hannah Corbett at Salt for the review copy. The Many was published in the UK on 15 June.

The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

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Sometimes if you’re a pretty well-known person in your field, you develop this face that you use every time someone takes a picture of you. (Natalie Dormer is an excellent example of this.) Mary Gaitskill has either learned to do this, or it came naturally to her: she is a pouty glarer. Her every photo pulses with the subtext “and just what the fuck do you want?” This is great, because I imagine that Velveteen Vargas, the teenaged protagonist of The Mare, would photograph similarly, although probably without intending to. Velveteen is one of the most impressive fictional creations I’ve come across all year: a pre-teen of Puerto Rican descent when we meet her, she grows over the course of several years into a beautifully complex fourteen-year-old, full of age-appropriate longing to fit in and to meet boys, as well as distinctly mature concerns about her physically abusive mother, and, above all, a driving passion for horses.

Velvet doesn’t know that she’s a natural horse rider until a summer trip courtesy of the Fresh Air Fund. For two weeks, she stays with Ginger, a childless artist in her late forties, and Paul, a professor at a small college in upstate New York. Across the road, there’s a stables. It’s there that Velvet meets Fugly Girl, a seriously damaged mare, learns to ride, and becomes invested in salvaging Fugly Girl’s spirit. It sounds cute and vaguely saccharine, right? It is not. There is weird coerced sex and drive-by shooting in this book; there is the agony of first love and the sadness of an affair; there is the pain and sacrifice and bewilderment of Velvet’s mother, Silvia, who has to be tricked into allowing her daughter back in the stables at all. Silvia, incidentally, is one of this book’s best-drawn characters. She’s almost completely inexplicable to soft, middle-class Ginger: a woman who tells her only daughter that she’s ugly, a woman who hits her kids, a woman who loves her kids so hard that she won’t show them any love. We only realize slowly, by the way, that that’s what Silvia’s doing. We get chapters in her voice, as well as in Ginger’s, Paul’s and Velvet’s. We learn what she’s been taught about love. We see how vulnerable she knows love can make you. We recognize that she is determined to keep her children safe by making them hard.

How Gaitskill renders the pretentious, precious awkwardness—and the warmth and good intentions—of Paul and Ginger and their intellectual friends, as well as the slang and posturing and deep loss and vulnerability of the teenagers Velvet hangs out with in Brooklyn: it all reminded me forcefully of Orange Is the New Black. That’s the only other piece of art (is TV art? whatever) that I know of that has so completely given its characters their own voices. That show’s every sentence, no matter who’s saying it, is meticulously pitched to reveal bias and weakness and at the same time to build our sense of a character, of why they are precisely who they are. It’s fucking hard to do. Gaitskill nails it. She’s written a great book. Go on.

Thanks very much to Hannah Westland at Serpent’s Tail for the review copy. The Mare was published in the UK on 21 July.

01. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

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Experimenting with using my own photos for 20 Books of Summer…

Where I read it: on the Tube to see my friend Ollie at the National Portrait Gallery this weekend; on the couch at home with a coffee.

I’m trialling a new, briefer, more scattergun approach to reviewing with the 20 Books of Summer. Since I don’t have anyone to answer to (neither editors nor publicists) regarding these, I can be a little looser with my impressions, and perhaps shorter, too. Anyway, The Book of Memory: in summary, an albino black woman on death row in Zimbabwe for murdering the white man that she lived with writes her version of the story.

It was longlisted for the Baileys Prize, but it didn’t make the shortlist, and I can kind of see why. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the writing: it’s precise, limpid, descriptive but not florid. There is a certain stiffness to the dialogue, though, and I suspect Gappah is attempting to mask that by not having very many dialogue scenes. Memory, or Memo, does a lot of remembering, but it’s mostly of the diffuse “we used to do this as children; our house looked like that; we would often go to so-and-so” variety. The actual, pinned-down flashback scenes are infrequent.

This probably contributes to the other problem I had with The Book of Memory: the characters are ciphers. Or maybe “symbols” would be a better word. Memory doesn’t have a very consistent personality; we see flashes of it, like when she defiantly informs the pious lady visitor from the Goodwill Fellowship that what she misses most about life outside of prison is “a good hard fuck”. Or when she assesses herself at seventeen as a Catholic schoolgirl blinkered by dogmatism. But mostly she’s just a lens. Lloyd, the white man who adopts her (well—he buys her, but their relationship is parental, not sexual), is the same. We’re told he’s a very kind man, but we don’t see him actually doing much for most of the book. Nor do we get a sense of their relationship as it developed in real time. Memory is constantly analyzing, but she’s analyzing material that Gappah doesn’t actually give her readers access to. We’re told what to make of experiences that Memo has had, but we don’t have any context for them. It’s difficult to describe the effect, but once you notice it, you can’t get around the challenge it presents. You could argue, I suppose, that this kind of withholding makes the novel more realistic, but it doesn’t make it particularly satisfying. And it doesn’t happen with the kind of regularity or emphasis that would suggest it’s deliberate.

I’m told that Gappah’s first book, the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly, is outstanding, and that I should have read it first. I’d still like to read it; a lot of the problems I had with The Book of Memory can be categorised as formal shortcomings. I suspect a story collection might give Gappah a better chance to show off her strengths.

The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah (London: Faber, 2015)

Capsule reviews: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh + This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu

Once again, my eyes are bigger than my stomach, metaphorically speaking—I requested an arseload (that’s a technical term) of pre-pubs that were all releasing at the beginning of March, and despite my best efforts with a color-coded Google Sheets spreadsheet, I am at least a week behind on reviewing. Capsule reviews to the rescue! (The great virtue of capsule reviewing these two books in particular is that there is so much to be said about them, and enjoyed about the experience of reading them, that I can just give you the tiniest sense of it, and then you can go buy them and enjoy them for yourselves.)

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape)

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You probably know a good deal about this already, so I’ll keep it brief. The plot: Eileen Dunlop’s mother is dead, her father a neglectful alcoholic. She’s twenty-four years old, a virgin, and works as a secretary in a boys’ prison outside an unnamed New England town (she calls it X-ville.) “This is the story,” she proclaims early on, “of how I disappeared.” The week before Christmas, the charismatic Rebecca St John comes to work at the prison as a child psychologist. Her beauty and mystery completely captivate Eileen, and lead her to commit a dreadful crime.

There are a couple of brilliant things about this book. One is the character of Eileen herself, who is undeniably very, very strange. Her relationship to her own body is one of mingled fascination and disgust. She finds herself revolting, almost wallowing in the idea of other people’s revulsion. The very notion of sex seems both ridiculous and defiling, but at the same time, she’s obsessed by it. She doesn’t masturbate, but she’s something of an emetophile, taking copious amounts of laxatives in order to empty her body into a state of vacant, semi-conscious ecstasy. Reading Eileen’s comments on her own physicality (which she makes, as she narrates the whole novel, from a position of adulthood, nearly sixty years in the future) is an intensely disturbing experience, but it rings so true. Teenage girls are still taught that their bodies are shameful, that they take up too much space, that their smells and sounds and tastes and very existences are somehow foul. Eileen captures the adolescent awkwardness of it (“Breathing was an embarrassment”) while also going far, far beyond the norm.

Rebecca St John, as the villain (or something like it), is simultaneously utterly false and utterly compelling. Her description–coppery hair, lithe and stylish–made me think of her as a physical cross between Daphne from Scooby-Doo, and Erin Winters from John Allison’s Scary Go Round comics. She’s a cardboard siren, but that’s absolutely the point: Eileen is such a naif that Rebecca’s attention bowls her over completely, even though we see both the calculation and the ease of deception. Rebecca barely needs to try. Eileen’s half in love with her, even though she goes to tremendous lengths to assure us that she’s not a lesbian.

The other brilliant thing about Eileen is the pacing. You know something awful is going to happen, because you’ve been told so from the very beginning, but you’ve got no idea what it is. The way that older, narrating Eileen mentions Rebecca (“I wonder if she’s married now”) makes it clear that she doesn’t kill her, but also that when she runs away, Rebecca’s not with her. Those two obvious avenues of plot being closed, the novel has to twist pretty hard, which it obligingly does. When you finally realize what’s going on, as in the best noir and thrillers, you think, “Oh, of course!”, but you also hadn’t quite guessed it. (Or I hadn’t. Although I am notoriously bad at this sort of thing.) The action is drawn out over the course of a week, and since it’s told in retrospect, you get little hints from the narrating Eileen, but it’s still a pretty sharp surprise when the point that everything has been building to finally arrives. I read it with my pulse racing. Writing a book that actually does that is hard. Moshfegh’s imagination is a dark and unapologetic place. I hope she writes another novel soon.

This House Is Not For Sale, by E.C. Osondu (Granta Books)

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From freezing New England to sweltering Nigeria: E.C. Osondu’s second book is sold as a novel, but feels much more like a collection of short stories. vignettes concerning the inhabitants of the Family House in an unnamed city (though, given its topography, it’s probably Lagos). The self-mythologising that surrounds the house, and the family that lives there, starts on page one, when we learn “How the House Came to Be” through a kind of Just So Stories parable: a man who gives a king the secret to long life is given the land as a reward, and eventually, the king builds him a handsome mansion there. But the gift is two-edged: sure, it’s to say thank you, but it’s also so that the king can keep an eye on the man. He’s to be killed in the event that the king dies of anything other than simple old age. That dynamic–of debt and power, bestowing and withholding–defines the Family House from its inception.

The narrator is a little boy who lives there. We know almost nothing about him, though he refers to the patriarch as Grandpa. He does not intrude much into his own stories: instead, he’s a preternaturally observant child, watching the currents of favour, disfavour, money and prestige flowing through the Family House’s rooms. Grandpa can give, and Grandpa can take away. He bestows wives upon husbands (women are commodities); he takes cruel retribution upon a woman accused of stealing from him. He does provide shelter, clothing, and a livelihood for many of his poorer family members and hangers-on from “the village”, but those gifts are always Faustian bargains. If you receive anything from Grandpa, you belong to him.

Increasingly, the book features a Greek chorus of voices–disembodied, floating in the text–which belong to the neighbours. There are murmurings about the Family House, as well as about its individual denizens. People’s reputations rise and fall. The general chatter of the neighbourhood is characterised by hypocrisy: when someone is on the upward swing of popularity, their praises are sung far and wide, but if they challenge Grandpa, or behave in a deviant manner, they’re publicly denigrated. There’s very little room for difference here, although sometimes accommodations are made. Baby, a brain-damaged young woman, is married off to a prosperous female trader named Janet; the arrangement is that Janet provides for her as a husband would, while at the same time any children that Baby bears by other men will be generally considered to belong to Janet, not Baby. It’s a curious combination of pimping and problem-solving. In the event, Baby disappears after the wedding (she claims to have been kidnapped by witch doctors) and returns several months later in a state of disarray, prompting Janet to seek an annulment. Meanwhile, a prodigal son returns from America with a degree (in what, no one can quite grasp) and begins to throw “salons” frequented by community outliers such as “Man-Woman” the hairdresser. Unable to countenance the growing gossip about his son’s predilections, Grandpa quietly orders him away again, with the understanding that he can never return.

It’s a very slim book–I finished it in a day–but an oddly powerful one. There’s a lot of pain in it, but you get an excellent sense of the interconnectedness of family relationships, the importance of supporting your own and the power that accrues to people who are in a position to lend others a hand. Of course it corrupts; we shouldn’t be surprised that Grandpa has turned into a tyrant. He is paying the piper, after all. The book ends as the narrator and his cousin, Ibe, watch the house being bulldozed. The bulldozer runs out of electricity, which is blamed on the many layers of curses that cast-off family members (mostly women) have laid upon the house over the years. But a battery is found; time marches on; the balance of power shifts. The Family House, with its complicated freight of cruelty and community, warmth and hatred, inevitably comes down.

Thanks very much to Joe Pickering at Cape, and Natalie Shaw at Granta, for the review copies. Eileen and This House Is Not For Sale (in paperback) were published in the UK on 3 March.

January: That Which Was Not Reviewed

I did a new thing this month, which was to alternate reading books I Had To Review (because I had promised I would) with books that I Did Not Have To Review (because I had chosen them myself, been given them as presents, etc.) It was a most effective way of tunneling through the great January heap of review books, and I’m going to try to keep it up. The downside is that half of the stuff I read, I’ve already written about, so January Superlatives seem kind of pointless. Instead, here’s an overview of what I read and didn’t talk about:

Ancillary JusticeAncillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie.

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I read all three of these and loved them. Their main character is a fragment of an AI system; now known as Breq, her consciousness confined to a single body like a human, she used to be the computer-mind of a spaceship, Justice of Toren, with thousands of soldier-bodies that she could use however she liked. The catastrophe that reduced her to just one body, twenty-five years ago, was precipitated by her head of government, Anaander Mianaai, who also has a nearly infinite store of bodies, and who is suffering from what you might call split personality disorder. Civil war is the natural result. Ancillary Justice won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is just ridiculous–like a book winning the Booker, the Baileys, and the Costa Book of the Year Awards, all at once. Leckie’s success is richly deserved: the books are lucid but full of detail. There’s also an interesting linguistic trick whereby the dominant language, Radchaai, doesn’t mark gender, so it’s never clear whether any of the protagonists are male or female. (You can sort of guess at a few of them, but the point is that it’s not relevant. Stereotypical “male” and “female” behaviour, clothing and hairstyles are culturally relative depending on which planet you’re on, anyway, and hence not reliable guides.) The default pronoun is also always “she”. It’s such a small thing, but it changes how you see this entire universe. It’s also classic space opera. Amazing, addictive stuff. I read each book in a day.

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke.

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One of the books Dad got me this Christmas, which I reached for when I’d read three review books in a row and my brain was reaching the consistency of a saturated sponge. I wanted something where I could rely on the quality of the writing while also relaxing into a primarily plot-driven narrative, and this, I knew, Attica Locke could deliver. Her second novel, The Cutting Season, is set on a Louisiana plantation, Belle Vie, which has found a second life as a sort of antebellum Disneyland: Civil War buffs and parties of bored school children take tours round it, and it has a thriving sideline as a venue for wedding receptions and corporate dinners. When a woman–a Mexican migrant worker from the huge agribusiness farm next door–is found with her throat slit on Belle Vie’s property line, Caren Gray, the estate’s manager and descendant of slaves who worked this land, must find the killer before suspicion falls on her or her employees. It’s a book unafraid to tackle huge issues: agribusiness and slavery, but also the long shadow of racism (Caren’s white employees, the Clancys, who’ve known her since she was a child, keep reminding her to be grateful to them; Donovan, the prime suspect, is a young African-American man, all too easy to profile), as well as the difficulties of raising a child whose father you are no longer in a relationship with, and the painful pride of the working class (when Caren, as a young woman, found out that her tuition at Tulane was being paid for by the Clancys, she left school rather than owe them any more.) Locke is a fluid writer; pages, even chapters, whizz by, but you never feel short-changed or as though the plot is fluffy. She’s a serious, and seriously good, crime writer; no wonder Black Water Rising, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2010.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.

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As far from an easy ride as it gets; I was inspired to read this by going to hear Han talk at Foyle’s about her most recently translated novel, Human Acts, about the Gwangju massacre in the 1970s. The Vegetarian was released in English by Portobello Books earlier in 2015, sensitively translated (as Human Acts is) by Deborah Smith. At its most basic level of plot, it is about a woman, Yeong-hye, who, after years of being a passive housewife, decides she is no longer going to eat any meat. In Korea this is a somewhat bigger deal than it might be in the UK or the US, in part because meat comprises such a huge part of the national diet. But it’s clear that Yeong-hye’s rebellion disturbs the people in her life—mostly men—for another reason too, which is that it’s an assertion of her control over her own body, and thereby a denial of anybody else’s control. The first section of the book culminates in an act of violence that her own father perpetrates against her in an attempt to force meat into her mouth; she responds with a swift suicide attempt, is restrained and hospitalised, and her husband seeks a divorce. Vegetarianism isn’t where it ends; she eventually won’t eat or drink anything at all, and keeps trying to take her clothes off in the sunlight, and it becomes slowly, gradually clear that she is essentially trying to photosynthesise. She doesn’t want to be a human any more. There’s a lot more to this novel, which is slim but absolutely explosive: there’s a whole middle section involving a video art project, nudity, and painted flowers, which somehow—miraculously—manages to avoid any hint of D.H. Lawrence; there’s Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, who cares for her even as she slips in and out of consciousness in a secure unit; there are the horrifying dreams Yeong-hye has, which melt into what seem to be memories of her childhood, her father violently abusive, though only to her. There is so much to unpack here, all of it delicately rendered and intensely disturbing. Highly, highly recommended.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe.

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Howe’s had a lot of publicity recently, with many an Establishment asshat contending that she can’t possibly have won the TS Eliot Prize because she’s any good at poetry; no, it’s probably because she’s young, erudite, beautiful, and mixed-race (snort!gasp!wheeze!) I read a Guardian review of Loop of Jade before reading the book itself, and I was braced for irritating, unnecessary polysyllables, but fuck me, was I ever blown away instead. If you lift almost any line of poetry out of context and say it sneeringly, it can sound ridiculous; the work of TS Eliot himself is proof of this. (“Do I dare to eat a peach?” indeed.) Howe’s lines, in their contexts, are allusive, balanced, rich, conversational enough to make sense without ever sounding merely conversational, if you see what I mean. It’s a genuinely impressive collection; not one of these poems feels thin or glib or weak or pointless, which is something I cannot say of either of the collections of Don Paterson or Michael Symmons Roberts that I have read in the past eighteen months, much though I admire them both. And, for a collection that is touted as being Very Much About a mixed-race legacy, it is somehow about more than that; you can draw things from it about coming to terms with your identity, your history (as mediated by your parents), full stop. The horrors in which you are implicated merely by blood; the traumas of which you are forced to be, on some level, a victim, or a consequence, likewise. It’s terrific poetry, and the way it’s been received in the national press is a breathtaking reminder of how racist and sexist the literary establishment still is.

and now I am reading:

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, the first volume of his Baroque trilogy. It is basically the entire late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, condensed into 900+-page novel form, and there are two more after this one. I am as happy as a pig in the proverbial unmentionable substance.

Also, to be reviewed soon, Atticus Lish’s Preparations for the Next Life, out in paperback from Oneworld (the folks who brought you Marlon James, so it’s bound to be good.)