Reading Diary: Feb. 5-Feb. 11

dwexiozxcam1lcdThe Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan: Nathan’s novel is based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Out in July and not to be missed.

61aijqs-bml._sx323_bo1204203200_In the Full Light of the Sun, by Clare Clark: Clark’s enormous but addictive new novel fictionalizes an art-world scandal that rocked 1930s Berlin regarding the authenticity (or not) of several dozen recently discovered Van Gogh paintings. Clark’s three point-of-view characters are Emmeline, an aspiring young artist; Julius, an art historian whose reputation is on the line; and Frank, a Jewish defense lawyer. The plot is over-complicated–there are too many names to remember and not enough clarity regarding the details of the fraud–but Clark’s most memorable character, the charismatic and manipulative art dealer Matthias Rachmann, is a real success.

Currently reading: A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, by Siri Hustvedt (a brilliant collection of essays on the mind-body problem, art, and gender relations; she’s one of the most intelligent writers I know), and Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett (which makes an interesting counter-read to the Hustvedt, given that it’s a Clarke Award-winning science fiction planetary romance/exploration drama which also partakes of alarming gender essentialism).

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Reading Diary: Jan 29-Feb. 4

a-time-to-keep-silence_1024x1024A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A very short (95 pages) collection of three essays about monasteries and the monastic life. Leigh Fermor stayed at St Wandrille, Solesmes and La Grande Trappe, as well as spending time looking at the ruins of the Cappadocian rock monasteries. The first two essays, set in the three French foundations, are the strongest, describing what it’s like to live in solitude for a spiritual purpose; though Leigh Fermor has no faith, he acclimatizes to the silence and misses it when he returns to the world. If your mind needs calming, these pieces may help.

51kp-nb0hjlThe Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall: There are people who might say, I suppose, that the final quarter of this book is too slow, or that Hall’s writing about the Lake District seasons, weather and light are too deliberate and descriptive, but I’m never going to be one of those people, because I think she writes like a dream and this is one of my favourite books of all time. I also think that here, some of her previous thematic interests–motherhood, the cycle of birth and death, the natural world and how humans live both in- and outside of it–coalesce in their most sophisticated form yet. An excellent book to read if you need reminding of how well it is possible to write.

9781781257364_2I must be living twice: new and selected poems, by Eileen Myles: Myles’s poetry is quite different from Rich’s; her lines are short and jagged, often only three or four words each. Her style of thought is discursive: I often feel lost, reading her, until a vivid observation or connection jumps out. “Peanut Butter” is the poem that brought me to Myles, but the sweary dismissiveness of “On the Death of Robert Lowell” makes me laugh; “Yellow Tulips” is unashamedly happy; the opening of “Mal Maison” is devastating. “And Then the Weather Arrives” is maybe peak Myles: it feels like it’s written in a sort of personal code, but you understand the emotions, if not the details.

9781473639058What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt: A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. The first half of the book, roughly, deals with the older generation, and the second half with the younger; without any spoilers, Matthew and Mark’s lives turn out very differently. Hustvedt excels at describing the destructive self-delusion of a certain kind of art world denizen. The novel is both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and know it’ll continue to haunt me.

31v6x3y3mql._sx286_bo1204203200_The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck: The next installment in my quest for more poetry. Someone recommended Gluck to me years ago, but it’s taken me this long to read her. I am not sure that I grasp or love her yet. There’s passion in these poems, but it feels like the highly personal and focused passion of a nun; not that it’s anti- or asexual, but that it insists upon the numinous. Does that sound pretentious? It shouldn’t; most of the poems are quite explicitly earthbound, being either from the point of view of a plant or flower (metaphors, I think, for human life), or from a higher point of view that is still occupying itself with earthly things. Curious and transcendent.

Currently reading: I’ve just finished Alix Nathan’s forthcoming The Warlow Experiment.

Reading Diary, Jan. 22-28

isbn9781787470453The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo: Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia) and dealing with the folklore of weretigers, through the perspectives of Ji Lin, a bright girl working in a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong debts, and Ren, a young houseboy whose white master, Dr. MacFarlane, has just died. Choo slides into cliché sometimes, particularly when she’s writing about Ji Lin’s attraction to her stepbrother Shin, and the solution to the mystery is robbed of being completely satisfying because the characterization of the malefactor(s) is too thin. Ji Lin’s and Ren’s voices are both charming, though.

9781526602077To the Lions, by Holly Watt: A forthcoming (February) thriller by, and about, an investigative journalist, illustrating the way in which British political and business interests exploit volatile countries—in this case, Libya. The protagonist, Casey, is something too much of a Cool Girl (she’s effortlessly beautiful, a lone wolf and a risk-taker, more afraid to tell a man she loves him than of being executed in the desert), but Watt’s brilliant on the fizzing energy of the newsroom, the dialogue made me laugh out loud more than once, and the plot is a genuine, morally complex page-turner.

41c8al52l8l._sx331_bo1204203200_Selected Poems: 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich: On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, thanks to Cheryl Strayed, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain. She wants so much to live responsibly, love responsibly. Probably my new favourite poet.

611phcl47gl._sx323_bo1204203200_The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon: An epic stand-alone high fantasy novel from the author of The Bone Season; this is the first of her books I’ve read. Shannon emphatically but subtly foregrounds women in her fantasy world – rulers, knights-errant, pirates, merchants, etc., are more often female than not – and the whole book is casually gay in a way that effectively challenges Western paternalist fantasy tropes. The story itself is fairly standard (dragons, an ancient evil, some business involving a sword and some jewels) but it rips along and Shannon’s writing is excellent: often funny, always genuinely moving.

Currently reading: A Time To Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Reading Diary: Jan. 14-21

Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens: The classic tale of a young man’s attempts to make his own way in the world and care for his family against the machinations of his nasty, money-lending uncle. This might be the Platonic Ideal of the Dickens Novel: it’s got everything you expect, including comic poor people, tragic poor people, mean rich people, benevolent rich people, and some great London street scenes. (I wrote a bit more about it here.)

Midnight Chicken (and Other Recipes Worth Living For), by Ella Risbridger: I’ve been following Risbridger’s writing, and life, for years. She’s got a hell of a story. This is a cookbook, but also a memoir, beautifully illustrated, and containing the kind of recipes that it’s perfectly easy to follow if you’re a little bit drunk. It’s aspirational in a completely achievable, you-do-you sort of way; there are allusions to Laurie Lee and Laurie Colwin, The Railway Children and The Secret Garden. Lovely.

What Is This Thing Called Love, by Kim Addonizio: I’m freshly obsessed with poetry at the moment and I hope it lasts. Addonizio’s is sexy, smoky, bluesy. The final poem in this collection, “Kisses”, in which she imagines every kiss she’s ever received imprinted on her body, is worth the price of admission on its own, I think. (You can read it for free here if you need convincing.)

Currently reading: 

The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo (out in February), and Selected Poems 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich.

Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Diary: season of mists

9780008272111The Binding, by Bridget Collins: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this – it’s getting the extremely-pretty-jacket treatment, which experience has taught me is often an early warning of a great idea badly executed – but it turned out to be rather good. The thought-provoking premise is that books are not, as we think of them, made-up stories, but are rather the true memories of a person, magically bound between covers, which a person cannot retain  once they’ve been bound. It functions as a form of confessional and forgetting, and binders are treated with wary respect. But it’s also a power that can be abused, and Emmett Farmer, our young protagonist, is soon plunged into a world of wealth, cruelty, and complicity. Bridget Collins has thought out the implications of her initial idea with admirable thoroughness, and the book’s written in a slightly breathy but perfectly palatable style that’s just the right side of YA. (Emmett’s romantic entanglement with another young man, Lucian, which forms the novel’s emotional core, is mostly responsible for this, I think. It’s nice to read anyway, and although I’m not a gay teenaged boy, from my perspective as a reader Collins seems to write sensitively. She’s especially good on institutional power dynamics, in a relationship as well as in the society that Emmett and Lucian live in.) Released in January, this will be an excellent antidote to the post-Christmas blahs.

5142oysdktl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Something Of His Art: Walking to Lubeck with J.S. Bach, by Horatio Clare: This is based on a “slow radio” series that Horatio Clare presented on Radio 3. I’m new to the concept of slow radio, but it seems not unlike slow television, a broadcasting trend that seeks to reverse frenetic media consumption and bring us all back to the important things in life, like watching seven hours’ worth of Norwegian train journey. Clare’s programs sought to follow in the footsteps of Johann Sebastian Bach, who as a young man walked from Arnstadt to Lubeck in order to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ. (Buxtehude was sort of the Bach of his day. The only excuse Bach ever gave his employers for disappearing for four months was that he wished to learn “something of his art”. Because the record we have is in the third person, it’s unclear whether Bach means his art, or Buxtehude’s, or – more pleasingly – both.) Unsurprisingly, I wanted more Bach and less birdsong, but Horatio Clare is really a travel writer so this seems a slightly unfair demand. He also hints at some truly interesting moments – there’s an especially surreal dinner in a German mountain canteen that used to be a Cold War militarized zone – of which the brevity of this format and project doesn’t allow elaboration. Terribly atmospheric anyway, though.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, by Henry Eliot: I bought this for myself as a celebratory present after the US midterm elections, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because it’s not like I was singlehandedly responsible for the midterm results, but there you go. It’s a handsome, heavy, clothbound compendium of (and companion to) the Penguin Classics imprint, beautifully illustrated with colour photographs throughout and including little essays and text boxes about the imprint’s early days. E.V. Rieu (whose translation of The Odyssey was the first Penguin Classic ever) edited it for a long time, as did Betty Radice, who seems to have been both marvelously clever and quite wonderful as a person. Little notes on each entry provide pieces of trivia about translators, many of whom were the sort of eccentric academic types that only English intellectual society in the twentieth century could have created and sustained. It’ll also remind you of how much there is in the way of world literature; the texts from antique and medieval Asia, in particular, were often new to me. There are a couple of awkward typos (along the lines of “weak” instead of “week”), which shouldn’t exist at all in a book where so much design effort has clearly been put in, but the production of the object on the whole is first-class. I spent an extremely happy rainy weekend on the sofa with this beast, and if you’re a nerd, you should too.

9781780227344The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell: In the spirit of full disclosure, Antonia is my friend and has – extremely kindly – looked at my nascent book, but neither of these things really has any bearing on the fact that her book is very good. 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. Food and security are scarce. She has been protected by her parents to such an extent that her conception of the state of England – indeed, the world – is desperately, terrifyingly naive. But her father, Michael, has been making plans for some time, and the shooting of Lalla’s mother forces them, finally, to leave London behind on the heavily provisioned ship that Michael has been stocking for years. The ship is full of people – an elect few, chosen for their ability to hold onto humanity as the world burns – but Michael soon becomes a Messianic figure, and Lalla chafes against his vision for the people of the ship. There are a lot of religious themes and parallels here, with Noah as well as with Christ, the Protestant doctrine of predestination, and the Adam/Eve story (apples constitute a recurring symbol). Lalla’s naivety 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. The ending is scary, but hopeful, as all points of no return must be.

original_400_6001The Order of the Day, by Eric Vuillard: Vuillard’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel is so short (160 pages) that I feel I’d be justified in making anything I wrote about it commensurately shorter. (Although I realise that, by its grace, I’ve managed to participate in Novellas In November.) It is, more or less, fiction, but you could be forgiven for reading it as a kind of chatty, intimate history; there is no protagonist, and no narrator save for an omniscient voice that has somewhat the flavour of Thackeray’s knowing asides to the reader. The story is of how Germany became the Third Reich: the meeting of industrialists (Krupp, Siemens et al.) who bankrolled Hitler, the bulldozing of the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, the way Germany took over Austrian state mechanisms while retaining a thin veneer of legality, and finally the actual invasion. It reads, in a way, like a piece from an older time; the novel’s interest in the interior lives of its characters is most often demonstrated not by taking us into that character’s head, but by describing that character to us with utter clarity and insight, somewhat as George Eliot does in Middlemarch. Yet it succeeds in being moving, even heartrending, in its descriptions of men who caused terrible damage but whom Vuillard wants us to see clearly. I rather suspect it will be a bit of a sleeper hit.

41g2bnfhi4sl-_sx309_bo1204203200_When All Is Said, by Anne Griffin: Maurice Hannigan is drinking. On a bar stool in a hotel that used to be the country home of the family that employed and abused him, he makes five toasts, one for each of the important people in his life: his son, his wife, his sister-in-law, his brother, his daughter. Because tonight is not going to be like all the other nights; tonight, Maurice Hannigan has a plan. Anne Griffin’s debut novel has more than a touch of the commercial crossover about it, and some of the execution is a little awkward (when are writers going to learn some restraint with speech indicators?), but the book is rescued from mawkishness by being genuinely felt. There has been real sadness in Maurice’s life, as well as real joy. He has not been a perfect husband or father, but he hasn’t been a monster: his obsession with acquiring money and land is revealed to be part of an obsession with avenging wrongs against his family that he has been angry about since he was a boy, and it has affected his relationships as an adult in unattractive ways. But he’s honest with himself and us, and the final chapter—when his greatest decision yet becomes clear—is surprising, moving, and bold. I’ve not read another novel in which the author allows her character the particular type of dignified choice that Griffin gives hers.

9781526601988Loyalties, by Delphine de Vigan: Another very short novel, bordering on novella—192 pages—from a French author, this one by the writer who brought us the queasy stalker autofiction of Based On A True Story. In Loyalties, she dissects the web of lies that children spin for adults, and the willful blindness that adults show to each other. Several characters tell the story: there is Théo, a charismatic eleven-year-old; Mathis, his privileged but easily led friend; Hélène, their teacher, who suspects something but can prove nothing and whose own past may be colouring her judgment; and Cécile, Mathis’s mother, who has found something terrible on her husband’s computer and now finds everything about her life with her family to be in question. Théo is easily the saddest and most convincing of these protagonists: his descent into alcoholism and deception is charted clearly, and without agenda, as stemming from his separated parents’ inability to keep their child out of their quarrel with each other. Mathis’s confusion about what the “right thing” to do might be rings very true, and Hélène is sympathetic, if perhaps too damaged to be totally convincing. Cécile is a curious character, just coming into a sense of who she might be apart from her husband and child; I’d read a whole book about her, though she doesn’t get to do much in Loyalties. It’s a fable, really, not much more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are extremely interesting in themselves.

9781526601025The Redeemed, by Tim Pears: Tim Pears might be British literature’s best-kept secret. (It used to be Sarah Moss, but I think she’s hitting the big time now, despite her lack of prize wins.) The Redeemed is the third in his West Country Trilogy, of which I have only read the second (The Wanderers), but with which I am nevertheless obsessed, and for which I have the profoundest awe. The Redeemed opens with Leo Sercombe, exiled from the estate where his parents worked and which served as his childhood home, having joined up with the Royal Navy and about to see action in World War I. Lottie Prideaux, his childhood playmate and the daughter of the manor, meanwhile, has managed to get herself taken on as a veterinary assistant to Patrick Jago, whose young male assistants are all away at war. Over the next twelve years, Lottie and Leo live their lives, and it’s to Pears’s immense credit that he manages to keep us in suspense about whether they will find each other again, and a way of living that fulfills them, without resorting to cheap tricks of plotting. (He’s not averse to a cliffhanger chapter ending, but he does it with such elegance.) His writing is beautiful—not self-satisfied or self-conscious, but engaging all the senses, plain and clear without being dull, delicate without being precious. The Horseman and The Wanderers described a world that’s now gone; The Redeemed describes that world’s passing, and shows us that a decent world, in many ways a better one, replaced it. Read Tim Pears, please.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: There’s some really cracking stuff coming out in January, of which the Pears and the Vuillard are my top picks. I’m so glad I finally read The Ship, and The Penguin Classics Book is proving an invaluable work resource as well as a fun thing for myself. I seem to have read a fair amount of short books, too (Vuillard, de Vigan, Clare), which is no bad thing for me, as I tend to prefer a doorstop tome.