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.

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Reading Diary: of monstrosity

9781925713459The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley: Described on Instagram as “the contemporary feminist Beowulf retelling of my dreams”, this takes the action of the Anglo-Saxon poem and relocates it to a gated community in upstate New York (I suppose it could be Connecticut), Herot Hall. Roger, the man whose family created Herot Hall, and Willa, his wife, are our Hrothgar and Wealhtheow; their earthly paradise is threatened by the presence of Dana Mills and her son, who live in the mountain that looms over Herot’s manicured backyards. Dana is an ex-soldier who fled a never-named Middle Eastern conflict after being captured by the enemy, her beheading staged for the Western media but not actually carried out due to her pregnancy. The liminality of her existence – her death is on tape, but remains unreal – is a brilliant way of translating the terrifying liminality of Grendel’s mother into a modern idiom, as is the heritage of her son, whom she names Gren: his father was (probably) an enemy combatant. It seems likely that he was conceived with Dana’s consent, but that isn’t ever totally clear. Dana is permanently terrified that her baby, her dark-skinned, too-tall, too-big son, will die a victim of the fear of people like the ones who live in Herot; it’s a painfully resonant fear for anyone who pays attention to the news. The tragedy of Beowulf from this point of view is that she’s right, and – as in classical tragedy – all the measures she takes to protect her boy only draw his fate nearer to him. The peril of making ancient tales contemporary, as the editors of the Hogarth Shakespeare ought to know by now, is that while some stories are timeless or universal in a certain sense, all stories arise out of a particular culture and context, and it’s very easy to sterilize the meaning of an old story by over-zealously mapping character names and plot points while forgetting to consider how that story’s conflicts might manifest in the twenty-first century. Headley mostly avoids that, although there are a few details (the train in the mountain – what is it with contemporary retellings and trains?; the fact that the Beowulf character’s name is Ben Woolf) that seem a little on the nose. On the whole, though, The Mere Wife is a phenomenal, brave reimagining of one of Western civilization’s oldest stories; unafraid to target institutional authority, Headley also forces us to question the original poem’s allegiances. It’s the sort of book I didn’t know I was waiting for someone to write.

original_400_600Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin: Berlin’s earlier collection, A Manual For Cleaning Women, is the book that changed my mind about short stories. She uses the raw material of her own life–alcoholism, young sons, constant moving, the American West and Southwest–in stories that constantly circle around similar themes and characters. They are written in startlingly lucid yet straightforward prose, vivid with imagery, often illuminated by a single unexpected word or phrase. Evening in Paradise is the second collection of her work to be published after her death, and it isn’t, by any means, a collection of the second-best; it’s superb. The first two stories, told through the eyes of a child, engaged me the least, but starting from “Andado” (subtitled A Gothic Romance), Berlin’s voice becomes the voice that enchanted throughout A Manual For Cleaning Women. “Andado” features Laura, the daughter of an American businessman in Chile, being used as a sexual pawn to advance her father’s career; a country weekend with a much older man leads to the loss of her virginity (she’s perhaps fourteen), which she takes in her stride, although the reader can see the grooming and calculation behind the seductive gestures. From then on, the stories focus on women who share some aspects of Laura’s background and differ in other ways; they explore sexuality, marriage, the bohemian life, poverty, whether making good art requires you to lead a cruel life. Berlin is simply brilliant; her memoir, Welcome Home, is out next year and I’ll be reading it.

81mglejixklThe House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell: This is the book that The Wicked Cometh wanted to be. Young women are disappearing from London’s East End, mostly orphans and servants that few, if any, will miss. A seamstress throws herself from the top of a lord’s Mayfair townhouse; at the autopsy, a cryptic message is found stitched into her skin. What does it mean? And can young Gideon Bliss–recently arrived in London from his theological studies in Cambridge, but unable to find the mysterious uncle he’s meant to be meeting—work with Inspector Cutter, not only to keep London’s women safe, but to save Angie Tatton, the woman he loves? It’s all very pseudo-Victorian Gothic, but it works beautifully, partly because O’Donnell’s descriptive voice combines detail with restraint and partly because his characterization is so good. Cutter, irascible though fair, calls Bliss a “chattering streak of gannet’s shite”; Bliss, true to his intellectual training, cannot use one word where a dozen might do; even Esther Tull, whom we know only for one chapter, is a person with conflicting desires and duties whose departure from the narrative (and from life) feels like a real loss to the reader. O’Donnell is also frequently funny: there really are elements of Dickens at his best in the dialogue. The plot does, surprisingly, rely upon the supernatural, which is the opposite decision about Gothic tropes to the choice Susan Fletcher makes in House of Glass (see here for my review), and which might put people off. Oddly, though, I rather liked it. Everything about The House on Vesper Sands has such a flavour of ghost story that its payoff is gratifying: for once, an author isn’t messing with our heads or with genre expectations, and in this post-post-modern era, that feels oddly refreshing, especially when it’s so well executed. Highly recommended.

isbn9781787478039A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley: Quercus is overtly positioning this as the next in the long line of “rediscovered classics”; the proof copy lists Suite Francaise and Stoner as forebears in this rediscovery tradition. Kelley’s book comes with a fantastically illuminating essay by Kathryn Schultz that originally appeared in the New Yorker; he was the inventor of the word “woke”, way back in the 60s, and after A Different Drummer his star never quite rose in the way it perhaps ought to have. Partly, Schultz suggests, this is because of his focus: he was writing about white people, their inner lives and reactions to black people, trying to understand them, at a time in American history when Black Power and the civil rights movement were creating an artistic and social milieu that didn’t give a single damn about what white people thought or felt. His daughter recalls that his lack of success didn’t particularly faze him: “he was utterly unafraid”, Schultz quotes her as saying, “of being poor”. A Different Drummer is perhaps a book whose time has come. It’s basically speculative fiction; the book commences with a story told amongst white men about a huge slave, known as The African, who evades being auctioned for several weeks and is the progenitor of the black family known as the Calibans, but the action proper begins with a scene in which Tucker Caliban shoots all his livestock, salts his fields, burns his house, and walks out of the (fictional) Southern state in which he lives, accompanied by his wife and their baby. The entire black population of the state follows suit, and the rest of the novel takes the points of view of various white men, including a small boy and the son of the white family for whom Tucker Caliban used to work, as they grapple with the consequences of losing half the population of the state, and with their own attitudes towards their black neighbours. Kelley writes sentences with the clarity and declarative confidence of Hemingway; his characters are vulnerable and sympathetic even while they express ignorance, prejudice, and–at the very end–bloodthirsty cruelty. (In fact, it’s the very sympathy that Kelley has previously evoked for these Southern farming men that makes the ending so horrible. The reader, especially the white reader, is placed in the same position as thousands, millions, of Americans throughout history: we know these people by name, they’re our neighbours and friends, and yet here they are, masks flung aside, lynching a preacher.) It is a totally brilliant book, one I’ve been thinking about long after finishing the last page.

516oizjigrl-_sx314_bo1204203200_House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher: I’ve already written about this as part of the blog tour that Virago ran to promote the book; you can read what I had to say here. In brief: Fletcher is dealing with Gothic romance tropes (as does Paraic O’Donnell, and, in fact, Lucia Berlin in “Andado”, though Berlin explodes them in a very different way from Fletcher; she chooses not to deceive us before revealing that there’s nothing behind the curtain, but to show us that what’s behind the curtain is so much worse than ghoulies and ghosties for being man-made: the venal pimping of one man’s child to another man, the unequal but queasily exciting exchanges of power and sex that constitute the engine that drives Gothic fiction). Fletcher’s protagonist, Clara, is quite unforgettable, and the book’s engagement with genre ideas makes for not only a gripping story, but a genuinely thought-provoking one. It’ll make an excellent autumn or winter read; pair it with Melmoth or The House on Vesper Sands and you’d have reading sorted for a chilly weekend getaway.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard: Things I wouldn’t ordinarily read: historical biography, in general. Things I’ll make an exception for: Bess of Hardwick. She was married four times; each marriage served as an opportunity for her to amass more land, build more homes, and acquire more material wealth in the form of plate, textiles, jewellery, et al. With her best-known husband, William Cavendish, she founded the dynasty that became the Dukes of Devonshire. Her final marriage, to the Earl of Shrewsbury, suffered under the strain of Queen Elizabeth’s request that they serve as jailers to Mary, Queen of Scots; Elizabeth clearly trusted the Shrewsburys, and continued to give Bess the benefit of the doubt even when, in her old age, she was maneouvering for advantageous marriages for her children and grandchildren (particularly her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, whose claim to the throne Bess championed). The strength of her will comes across clearly; so does the particular nature of each of her marriages. She seems to have truly loved Cavendish, probably to have been fond of St. Loe (husband number three), and to have loved Shrewsbury before the marriage soured irreparably. (Husband number one died young and it’s not clear that Bess ever really cared much about him; she was married at the behest of her parents, for land consolidation purposes, as most young women of the minor Tudor gentry were.) Her appetite for construction was insatiable; there was a lot of house-building in Tudor England, which, with the dissolution of the monasteries, became one of the most upwardly mobile societies in the history of the world, but it was mostly done by men. Bess was a visionary builder, constantly commissioning work on any one of half a dozen houses. Commanding, tough, and fair, she’s hard not to admire, even if (as Kate Hubbard notes) personal correspondence from this period keeps contemporary readers at arm’s length, unlike letters and memoranda from just a century later.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: Many of these books resonate with each other: Berlin, O’Donnell, Fletcher and Headley are all exploring similar ideas, in very different ways. Even William Melvin Kelley has things to say about human monsters. Meanwhile, Devices and Desires is a standout biography, even though it’s not thematically related to anything else in this post; I’m really glad to have read it.

Reading Diary: oh dear, part three (holiday reading)

I went to Brussels in the middle of this month. There was no real reason to do this, apart from the fact that I had the time to take a week-long holiday, and I fancied going somewhere Abroad, and Brussels happened to be the city to which I could most cheaply transport myself. (£50 each way on the Eurostar. Even Easyjet flights to places like Malta were more expensive.) It was also the first proper, avowed holiday which I have taken alone. As such, I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but I brought five books, the notebook containing the section of my novel that I’m working on right now, and my laptop, and prepared to spend some time figuring out how much tourism vs. relaxation I actually wanted to do.

In the event, I tourist-ed for three and a half days (Grand Place, the Mont des Arts, the cathedral, various chocolatiers, Parc Josaphat, and the Horta Museum) and spent the rest of the week reading in the sunshine on my Airbnb’s terrace, writing in a coffee shop near the Horta Museum and in my Airbnb, taking very long baths, being intimidated by the local butcher, and bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Most importantly, I wrote over a thousand words a day, and finished all the books I brought with me (the last one on the Eurostar home, so my back-up book, Villette, was unnecessary).

61s2b5egxvtl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Frost in May, by Antonia White: The first book ever to be published as a Virago Classic, and (according to Elizabeth Bowen) “not the only school story to be a classic, but…the only one that is a work of art.” Its protagonist is Nanda Gray, whose father has recently converted to Catholicism and who is sent to a Catholic convent school, where she is permanently treated as a second-class citizen, albeit one who might (eventually) be redeemable. The story follows fairly closely the events of White’s own early life, and she captures with the extreme clarity of adolescence (and of trauma) the emotional terrorism visited upon the girls of the school by the nuns. Anyone who has been manipulated by an authority figure will find Frost in May both disturbing and familiar. Nanda’s eventual disgrace is also the mechanism of her freedom, although she may not realise it. This might, now that I think about it, have been very interesting to read alongside Villette, also a school story intensely concerned with surveillance, privacy, and autonomy.

91pgumjkzvlKintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: One of the most challenging, and therefore most instructive, aspects of reading fiction that was not originally designed with a Western market in mind is that there are things Western readers expect with regards to narrative structure and characterisation. When those expectations are swerved, as in Kintu they frequently are, it presents an opportunity to examine the lukewarm reaction this provokes in a reader and to consider how growing up in different cultures affects how we tell stories and what we demand from them. Kintu is the story of a curse placed upon a historic Ganda chief for failing to properly bury his adopted son, who is biologically from another tribe. This curse – or is it simply hereditary mental illness, exacerbated by guilt, poverty, and other factors? – is passed down through generations of Kintu’s descendants to the present day. What I found confusing and alienating about the novel – the interchangeability of characters’ names, the repetition of similar events with minor variations, the assumption of understanding surrounding Ganda social taboos – are clearly the very elements that comprise its strength in the context for which it was written (it was first published by Kenya’s Kwami Trust, sponsored by a leading Kenyan literary journal). This is the sort of thing that #WITMonth, for example, is for: asking you to perform a meta-analysis of the way you evaluate literary success.

9780571347018Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest novel felt particularly apt reading in the week I was in Brussels. Half of it deals with a very contemporary woman whose family and house both appear to be crumbling around her, and who is required to care not only for her new grandson (whose mother has just killed herself) but also for her dying father-in-law. The politics of care – both in the sense of emotional faultlines and in the very real sense of legislation and regulation and the heartbreaking struggles of American people to access healthcare at this point in time – are at the fore here. In the other half of the book, politics and caring are also foregrounded in the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a young schoolteacher who wishes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and who is thwarted by Landis, the man who essentially runs the company town where he lives and works. There are, of course, parallels with the Trump administration: fear of science and experts, dissemination of lies presented as truths, the ability of the rich and powerful to (literally) get away with murder. There is so much going on in both strands of the novel that perhaps elements are short-changed, like Willa’s relationship with her daughter Tig and some parts of Thatcher’s relationship with Mary Treat, the brilliant woman scientist next door who corresponds with Darwin and Asa Gray. But Kingsolver’s central metaphor illustrates perfectly that famous quote about American conflict: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And that, perhaps, the best thing we can do is bring it all down.

41li6jgb7il-_sy445_ql70_Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott: An homage to P.G. Wodehouse (as the subtitle says) has got a lot to live up to, and Ben Schott pretty admirably fills the shoes of the master here; without trying too slavishly to pastiche PGW, he manages those signature goofy similes with aplomb. (My only objection might be that his Wooster is actually not enough of an idiot.) In this outing, Wooster discovers that the Junior Ganymede Club, the organisation of gentlemen’s gentlemen to which Jeeves belongs, has in fact been functioning as an arm of British intelligence for decades, if not centuries: who, after all, is better positioned to acquire information about the great and the good (or not so good) than their butlers? (Though it is not just butlers; the Junior Ganymede, apparently, recruits from all ranks of domestic service. “Pigmen,” as Jeeves notes in one of those delightfully poker-faced asides that Wodehouse himself would be proud to have written, “have been particularly cooperative.”) The plot, such as it is, involves Jeeves and Wooster having to intercept some sort of code on its way to the carbuncular British fascist Roderick Spode, which requires a lot of careening all over the West End. There’s a particularly enjoyable chase scene through the interconnecting doors of Pall Mall’s private clubs: the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the RAC, all are name-checked. For my money, Wodehouse plotted better – he’s madcap but he’s as precise as clockwork, where Schott is a little scattergun – but it feels so churlish to complain when you’re having this much fun.

EDIT: I forgot The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick! Perhaps this is because I’ve been reading it on and off for months, on my phone, in spare moments. As most of you will probably know, it is set in a United States that lost WWII, and is now divided into several zones, mostly governed by the Japanese, who were thrown North America after the war by their victorious Nazi allies. To be perfectly honest, this on-and-off reading technique was obviously bad for this particular book, because when I picked it up properly again, none of it really hung together and I couldn’t work out what the main thrust of the story was, and when the big reveal appeared, the fact that it was so unclear whether we were in a parallel universe or what the mechanism was, exactly, was just intensely irritating. Is there a better Dick? (…shut up.)

Reading Diary: oh dear, part two (pre-hols)

Continuing with my desperate catch-up (I WILL write words about every book I read this year, I will do it if it kills me) with four titles I read at the beginning of September, before starting my holiday.

81yf15ngyelThe Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love. One to look up.

9780008307929The Ravenmaster, by Christopher Skaife: One of the more delightful memoirs of the latter half of the year (it’s out in October). Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and more specifically, the one in charge of the Tower’s ravens: legend has it that their departure will cause the kingdom to fall. It’s obviously not true (the Tower didn’t have ravens at a point in the ’40s, and we won the war, didn’t we?), but Skaife takes great joy in describing his daily routine, the awe-inspiring intelligence of corvids (they’re about as clever as a five-to-seven-year-old human child), and the Tower’s many myths and legends. I got to go on a private tour of the Tower with him, thanks to his publishers, and can confirm that he really is as jolly and eager to share knowledge as the book makes him appear. Follow him on Twitter, and pick this up for any history buffs, Anglophiles and/or bird-lovers you know this Christmas.

37281873The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, by Sarra Manning: I wang on a lot about how Vanity Fair is my favourite novel of all time and Becky Sharp is perfection (I hate being asked about favourite novels, but it’s as close to a truthful answer as I can provide). So Sarra Manning’s update of the book was destined to be read as soon as the proof was available on NetGalley. As far as rendering Thackeray’s events and characters contemporary goes, Manning does a flawless job: Becky and Amelia now meet on a reality TV show, Amelia’s father is an investment banker whose disgrace comes when he’s found to have made some dodgy deals, the Crawleys are an acting dynasty (Dame Matilda Crawley is clearly modeled on Maggie Smith, down to her role as the purse-lipped matriarch of an ITV costume drama about an aristocratic family), and Becky’s dazzling rise to fame is boosted by sponsored Instagram posts and charity fashion shows. Is the writing on Thackeray’s level? Nope. Does it matter? Not at all. Great, intelligently executed fun, and hopefully will push people to seek out the original too.

51v5sxwoybl-_sx324_bo1204203200_A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie: The community of Anglican priests is well-known for having more than its fair share of weirdos. Fergus Butler-Gallie draws back the curtain on some prime historical specimens. The back cover lists, for example, the Reverend Edward Drax Free, whose reaction to the attempts of his congregation to oust him for (amongst other things) repeated public drunkenness and stealing the lead from the church roof to sell for scrap was to lock himself in his study with “his favourite maid, a brace of pistols, and a stack of French pornography”. Eccentricity doesn’t mean awfulness, though; there’s a great charm in the vicar who insisted upon traveling only by horse (which he named Sabbatical, so that his secretary could quite honestly tell callers that the good reverend was “away on Sabbatical”), or in Launcelot Fleming, Bishop of Portsmouth, who once commandeered a Navy helicopter when he was late for services. Another one for the Anglophile, Anglican, or, indeed, eccentric of any persuasion, come Christmastime.

 

 

Reading Diary: oh dear, part one

I have read eighteen books since last posting here. EIGHTEEN. This is a ridiculous backlog to deal with, so I will have to do it in chunks, and without spending too long on each book. This post will deal with what I read from mid- to end of August.

s-l225A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): Terrific creepy murder mystery that isn’t, quite; we know who killed whom right from the start. Vine’s narrator, the niece of the murderer, takes us back through her family history in a way that carefully, delicately unwraps the layers of respectability, self-delusion, silence and manipulation that led to violence. It’s not only a fantastic novel about a murder, but a fantastic exploration of the sheer strength of social mores, a strong Exhibit A for the argument that the recent past is more alien than science fiction. Genuinely disturbing without ever once being less than decorous. Magnificent.

9781408898017All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison: Another entry in the category of recently published books described as “timely”, “relevant” and “resonant”. Edie Mather is a farmer’s daughter in 1930s Suffolk. Her knowledge about farm work and rural traditions is eagerly sought by Constance FitzAllen, who is collecting information about Olde Englande for a project whose politically-tinged dubiousness the reader will spot from a mile away. I could have done without the very end, which establishes where Edie is now and explains a few comments earlier on in the book; it felt slightly tacked-on. But Harrison’s writing about the countryside is tactile and unsentimental, and her characterisation is spot-on. Very good indeed.

9780008264314Elefant, by Martin Suter: This is an extremely adorable novel about a Swiss vagrant named Schoch who awakens one morning to find himself faced with a small pink elephant. Initially convinced that the elephant is a manifestation of DTs, he soon finds that it’s real and the product of an unethical biological experiment by a glory-hunting scientist, whom he must thwart at all costs. The beats of the story are hardly unfamiliar, and it’s not high-brow (it reminded me a lot of Jonas Jonasson), but it’s good cute fun.

rachel-kushner-the-mars-roomThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner: Man Booker-nominated for good reason, Kushner’s third novel follows Romy Hall, currently in prison for murder, as flashbacks reveal the story behind her crime. Amazingly, none of the reviews I’ve read have compared The Mars Room to Orange Is the New Black, which might be because, despite indulging in melodrama, the latter is often also very funny. The Mars Room isn’t, although the bleakness of its setting in the neon-lit, cigarette-reeking, rain-streaked concrete underbelly of San Francisco is relieved by an ending that suggests, not miraculous deliverance, but the possibility of discovering a good reason to keep living when you don’t have any other choice. Kushner’s also great on dialogue and thumbnail character sketches. Better than The Flamethrowers.

31944750The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, by N. West Moss: Short stories, all of them centered on Bryant Park in New York City and its immediate environs. Moss’s characters are doormen, recently bereaved women, street sweepers, elderly immigrants, research librarians. They may be peripheral to wider society, but they’re central to their neighborhood. It’s a love song to New York, and each story is polished but without preciousness or self-consciousness. I didn’t know Moss’s work before now, and I don’t think she’s available in the UK; this was a birthday present from Literary Uncle.

dear-evelyn_high_rgb-823x1231Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page: Kathy Page, like Sue Gee and other writers who’ve perhaps been longlisted once or twice for the Women’s Prize, has flown largely under the radar of publishing journalism while also writing damned good books. Dear Evelyn is a novel that takes as its form the study of a marriage, from the bride and groom’s childhoods in post-war south London to their eventual deaths in nursing homes. Page is a magician at evoking a sense of past-ness, and her characterisation is extraordinarily skillful and tender: both Evelyn and her husband Harry can be extremely difficult, but the reader understands and feels for them both. Exceptional work.

a1v3v7j-lzlThere, There, by Tommy Orange: A multi-POV novel whose climactic incident is the Oakland Powwow, where a tragedy occurs (no spoilers; you can guess as much from the jacket copy). As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that every one of the characters we care about will be involved with the Powwow – and are connected to each other – in some way. Orange interleaves sections narrated by none of the characters, or perhaps by all of them, which deal overtly with the painful legacy of Native displacement in America. His writing is so assured, so poetic and so graceful, that these sections don’t feel clunky or shoehorned in, but rather constitute an integral part of the book, articulating clearly what each character’s story can only suggest. Powerful and beautiful, even if there are sometimes too many characters to keep track of.

647121Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor: Essentially, Angel is a study of a terrible person. Angelica Deverell is supremely confident, utterly humourless, and entertains the grandest of delusions about her own importance. From Angel’s first novel, written at the age of fifteen, through her highly lucrative career as an author of popular romantic fiction, to the decline of her popularity and her death unmourned by any but her much-abused companion, Elizabeth Taylor takes us deep into the mind of a character exquisitely uninterested in social niceties. Angel is a writer above all else: not a Booker prize-winning one, by any stretch of the imagination, but one who gets the work done. (To complete a deadline, she has herself locked into her bedroom for a month.) In its black humour and its merciless dissection of an individual, Angel actually reminded me quite forcefully of Muriel Spark.

 

Reading Diary: from Wednesday to Wednesday

isbn9781408711156Simon Mawer is known as a writer of rather excellent spy novels, many of which are interconnected: The Girl Who Fell From the SkyThe Glass Room and Tightrope all have overlapping characters, and deal primarily with WWII espionage. (I reviewed Tightrope for Quadrapheme when it was released, and was impressed with Mawer’s ability to construct a female spy whose sex didn’t define her, and whose war trauma was acknowledged without being fetishised.) His new novel, Prague Spring, is set during a time that rarely gets treated, at least in the espionage fiction that I see: 1968, in Czechoslovakia, as the titular conflict draws near. Mawer has two sets of protagonists. The first is a pair of English undergraduates named James and Ellie, who are hitch-hiking around Europe and who head to Czechoslovakia more or less on a whim. The second is a British diplomatic official in Prague, Sam Wareham, and a young Czech student, Lenka, with whom he is conducting an affair. These four come into contact with each other about halfway through the book, and one of Mawer’s greatest successes is in showing how insistently social life asserts itself, even as huge political rumblings occur in the background: gigs and meetings and parties don’t stop even as Leonid Brezhnev continues to pressure Alexander Dubček. The espionage element of the plot exists, but is downplayed in favour of exploring political innocence and coming of age. Ellie is a passionate student protester (she was arrested in Paris, which gives her a mystique in James’s eyes), but events in Prague quickly overwhelm her limited and privileged experience of political conflict. The Czechs, meanwhile, experience this disillusionment on a grander scale, as Soviet forces invade the country and crush hopes for a more liberal society. Prague Spring is a much-needed examination of the human cost of repressive regimes, and also a rattling good read.

a1k1al3vf5lThe Golden Age of crime writing is having quite the renaissance at the moment; I presume much of this is down to a desperate desire for escapism on the part of politically left-leaning readers, and a certain level of satisfaction for right-leaning ones in the allure of a simpler, jollier, more British age. Rachel Rhys’s second novel written under that name (it’s the pseudonym of psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen), Fatal Inheritance, is set just post-WWII and takes place primarily on the French Riviera, where frustrated housewife Eve Forrester finds herself sitting in a solicitor’s office being informed that the last will and testament of Guy Lester, a man she’s never met, has named her as the beneficiary of a quarter share of his beachside villa. Needless to say, Lester’s adult children and wife are furious, but Eve wants to discover the nature of her connection to them, so, despite a barrage of irritated telegrams from her cold and boring husband, Clifford, she remains in France. As she attempts to investigate, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is trying to murder her – and that this might have some connection to a file of old newspaper clippings about a man killed in a London park decades earlier. Fatal Inheritance wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve (I noticed some Mary Stewart, some Du Maurier, some Christie), although it’s not as original or as engaging as any of them: Eve is sympathetic but a bit of a blank, and the ultimate explanation feels a bit anticlimactic. Still, it’s a sunny summer book that practically reads itself. If it’s your sort of thing, it’ll definitely be your sort of thing, if you see what I mean.

17903275I love advice columns. I love the whole concept of them, the placing of your confusion and entanglement into the hands of a kind, sensible stranger who can step back, look at what they’re holding, and tell you the shape of it. Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, published at The Rumpus a few years back, is one of the undisputed classics of the genre. I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of some of those columns, before, but I come back to it every few years because Strayed takes people so seriously that it makes me want to cry. She makes their interactions a two-way street: not just some lost soul asking for help, but a conversation in which Strayed shares moments of vulnerability, or of epiphany, in her own life. It helps that she writes with lyrical grace that never falls into the trap of being self-satisfied, and it helps that she has had, by anyone’s standards, a life both tough as hell and outstandingly lucky. She knows whereof she speaks. I used to have a mug that said “Write like a motherfucker” on it, which is a quote from a Dear Sugar column (and to be honest with you, I want that mug back; I’ll buy another someday soon). But my favourite letter is from a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver several years ago, and who is struggling mightily to carry on. It’s a long letter, and the response is long too, but the final three sentences make me weep every time I read them – whether I’m in public or not, whether I’m feeling particularly sad that day or not. I think you, whoever you are, owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of this book somehow and read them too.*

*Okay, okay: there’s a link to that column online here. Read it, and then buy the book.

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Varina is a historical novel about Varina Davis (née Howell), who married Jefferson Davis, the man who was later appointed President of the Confederate States of America. It’s a hell of a task, as a fiction writer, to humanise people whose ideas and ideals are so obviously, now, wrongheaded. The point on which Charles Frazier is to be commended is that he opens his arms to the complexity of this task. Jefferson Davis is here not portrayed as an evil man, but nor are his flaws brushed over: he’s ambitious, somewhat cold, and has a self-martyring streak. Varina is very clever, pretty, combative, and lonely. Her story is told in flashbacks, through conversations with a black man named James who was raised with her children – not as a slave or servant, but as part of her family – during the years of the Civil War. Varina’s and James’s relationship is complicated (did she really pick him up off the streets of Richmond, or is he her child? Is he Jeff’s?) and their conversations involve elusiveness, and illusion, on Varina’s part. All James wants is the truth about his past; Varina either can’t give it to him entirely, or can’t psychologically lose whatever she would need to lose in order to do that. She is a mystery to the reader much of the time, but Frazier is a gifted writer of character and so the result is not a cipher (like Eve Forrester of Fatal Inheritance, see above) but a woman who is enigmatic because she wants to be; not because there’s nothing there, but because there’s too much there. The musings on the rightness or wrongness of slavery that such a book must contain are integrated in a way that feels psychologically convincing. Varina recognises from the age of five that there is something odd about having masters and slaves – not necessarily good or bad, to her mind, but strange. Her observations of Jeff’s relationship to his longtime body slave and friend, Pemberton, acknowledge that strangeness too. Varina, as a novel, is thus both responsible and artful. We can talk about this in fiction, and the job of doing so can be taken up fruitfully by white writers as well as writers of colour, if we can be honest both to the characters and to the history. We must.

Thoughts on last week’s reading: Two new releases, an older title, and a proof of a forthcoming book: that’s a pretty good balance. To have enjoyed three out of four is also not bad, though it’s sad that I didn’t love the only author here that’s new to me.

 

Reading Diary: reviews in brief

I’ve read eight books in between the most recent few #20BooksofSummer entrants, and, frankly, though I want to say something about each of them, I also don’t have much time. So here are some tiny reviews.

41ytm2ralil-_sx331_bo1204203200_Blackfish City, by Sam Miller

The premise: In a post-climate change world, a floating city is visited by a mysterious woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, seeking someone she lost decades ago,  .

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Blade Runner meets Philip Pullman.

The good bits: Lots of gender diversity, including a non-binary teenage main character. Extremely atmospheric. Wears its influences elegantly.

The bad bits: Somewhat awkwardly written, particularly in the dialogue. Plot uneven: front-loaded with contextless information, conflict resolved in haste and without giving this reader a strong sense of emotional connection to the characters.

Verdict: Three stars (worth reading, but won’t keep a hard copy).

31h4vpzmjvl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Glass and God, by Anne Carson

The premise: Well, it’s poetry, so there isn’t really one, but the book is divided into several sections, the first of which (“The Glass Essay”) explores the end of a love affair through the lens of Emily Bronte’s life and work.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Maggie Nelson for heteros, if she was also a professor of classics.

The good bits: The images, and the phrasing, of “The Glass Essay” are some of the starkest poetry I’ve ever read. You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently.//Why hold onto all that? And I said,/Where can I put it down? 

The bad bits: The other parts of the collection are diffuse to the point of incomprehensibility, although I suspect there’s meaning in them; it’s just hard to break through to.

Verdict: Five stars (I’ve read this before, and I loved it then too.)

61lyilc0sfl-_sx305_bo1204203200_Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The premise: The lives of Becky Sharp, a sexy, penniless governess on the make, and her friend Amelia Sedley – a fatally naive young gentlewoman – provide a frame through which to view English high society during the early to mid-nineteenth century.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Well, it’s a classic, so the comparisons should go the other way round really, but the toxic female friendship around which the book revolves is echoed in popular culture from Mean Girls to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; plus, Becky’s strange positioning (partly an antagonist, partly a protagonist) is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

The good bits: Very funny. Total lack of purple-ness; you never have to wade through Thackeray’s syntax to get to his meaning, as you sometimes do with Dickens or Eliot. Every character drawn with merciless clarity, but also with pity or compassion for their weakness.

The bad bits: Very long. But that’s only really a drawback if you don’t like long books on principle; Thackeray needs it to be long because his plot needs decades.

Verdict: Five stars (this is my favourite book of all time, so that one was a gimme.)

11076123Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

The premise: Hiero Falk had more raw talent than any other jazz trumpeter of his generation. In occupied Paris, he was taken away and interned, never seen again, presumed dead. Now, his former bandmates – Sid, who believes that he betrayed Hiero, and Chip, who believes Hiero is still alive – set out to find him again.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: The Time Of Our Singing with classical music stripped out and World War II injected into the space where it had been.

The good bits: Emotionally compelling. Characters believably weak and vulnerable. Evocation of Paris under occupation, and of the essence of jazz playing, is exceptional.

The bad bits: Perhaps it could have been more emotionally compelling. Sid does a lot of processing in the modern-day sections, and some of his self-awareness seems to have been arrived at with convenient rapidity.

Verdict: Four stars (have already recommended to many).

9780008146221The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee

The premise: Partly a biography of Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and his father’s first biographer; partly an account of Hernando’s attempt to build the first truly universal library.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Fans of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, as well as people who get nerdy about the history of information technology, might like this.

The good bits: Some great analogies drawn between the idea of the universal library and the Internet. Hernando Colon’s life also happens to have been rather colourful: he first went to the New World as a teenager, and inherited a lot of his father’s personal drama (and lawsuits).

The bad bits: Not nearly enough about the intellectual connection between universal libraries and the Internet. To me this was the most interesting element of the book, and it felt very under-developed.

Verdict: Three stars (I’ve been sending it out steadily, but haven’t kept my hard copy).

71agbivj1slSigns of Life, by Anna Raverat

The premise: A young woman has an affair with a man in her office; her relationship ends badly; her affair ends badly; as she recounts this eventful history, is she telling us the truth?

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Glass and God as prose fiction.

The good bits: I can’t get enough of writing like this: material about destructive relationships, relayed in prose like a recently cleaned window (and, also, like a broken bottle).

The bad bits: I didn’t dislike any of it. You’ll either love this sort of thing or you’ll hate it.

Verdict: Five stars (bought with my own money, now on the shelf of Books To Save From Fire).

revelation_space_cover_28amazon29Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

The premise: The Amarantin civilisation were wiped out nine hundred thousand years ago, just as they were on the cusp of discovering spaceflight. Dan Sylveste is determined to find out why, and forges an unholy alliance with the cyborg crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity to do so – but the Amarantin were crushed for a reason…

How I’d (cynically) sell it: A beguilingly written and plotted classic space opera.

The good bits: It’s funny, it’s engaging, the mystery is excellent, and most of the main characters are women (at least one is also of colour).

The bad bits: It’s longer than it needs to be, although the scenic route lets Reynolds write some fun worldbuilding stuff. Also, despite the presence of many female characters, Dan Sylveste is still written as an Asshole Genius Deserving Veneration.

Verdict: Four stars (I raced through it and had a great time. It’s also very well written. Just, ugh, men).

coverThe Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The premise: The end of the Trojan War – Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, the death of Patroclus, etc. – told through the eyes of Briseis, the slave girl over whom the former two famously fall out.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: I’m so tired of people comparing every book that glances at misogyny to The Handmaid’s Tale. This does, however, have the virtue of actually also being a book about sexual slavery. (I wouldn’t compare the two in any other way, though.)

The good bits: Very competently written, as you’d expect from Pat Barker, and absolutely merciless in the way it draws back the veil on ancient societies, war, and the vulnerability of women in those contexts. Hard to read the way Ghost Wall is hard to read (which is to say, in the best possible way).

The bad bits: WHY. ARE THERE SO MANY CHAPTERS. DEVOTED TO THE PERSPECTIVES. OF MEN. At least half the book is through Achilles’s eyes. I understand the need to create variation, but why couldn’t we have had a different female perspective to fulfill that requirement, instead? I was hoping for a panoply of women’s voices.

Verdict: Four stars (it’s still bloody good).