Books of the Year, 2020

It’s Christmas Eve. I’m still on the clock for another few hours, but apart from monitoring three inboxes, there’s not much that needs doing. It has been three months since I last posted anything about books, and now is the first time in those three months that I’ve started to feel as though maybe I have the time, energy, or inclination to try.

It wasn’t the year I expected, in a number of ways. I fell in love. There was a pandemic. Both of these things, plus renewed social justice movements in both my home countries, impelled me to read in particular ways, and to forego habitual patterns of book consumption. I read many, many fewer hardbacks and new releases this year, and found myself drawn much more to backlist titles (both fiction and non), filling gaps in my reading knowledge, and increasing the diversity of what I consume and recommend. It’s been a very rewarding year in that sense, and has helped to unshackle me somewhat from an old feeling of constant vigilance: must read the latest release, must know about all the big authors’ newest titles! No, I mustn’t. There’s no real need. If they’re very good, they’ll stick around.

Not that I didn’t read a number of excellent new releases. Some of the best, most memorable books I read this year were from debut authors whose next outing I await with excitement. Others were new releases but were perhaps a second or third foray from authors I already knew. I read a handful of the year’s It Books and, on the whole, was glad that I did.

I can never narrow a list down to ten. I read too much for ten to be reasonable (158 books thus far in 2020; down considerably from last year, but still a decent showing, and many of them excellent). My preliminary list was nineteen titles strong; after being very stern with myself, I managed to highlight six that were absolutely exceptional, that I’ll probably carry with me forever. Those six are below, with the honourable remaining thirteen to come in a later post. All of these are amazing and recommended without reservations.

  1. Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis. Imagine that Olive Kitteredge is a septuagenarian Texan Methodist, then add a survivalist bent worthy of Cormac McCarthy, and you have the outline of Cloris Waldrip, Curtis’s protagonist in this brilliant, heart-bending debut. Cloris is the only survivor of a light plane crash in the mountains of Montana that kills her husband of many decades and the pilot. She must walk out of the hills if she wants to live: no one from the outside world believes there were any survivors, except for tenacious, alcoholic park ranger Debra Lewis. Oh: and Cloris isn’t alone in the mountains. Encompassing theology, sex, grief, and culpability, Kingdomtide asks what we owe to each other, individually and as a community, and challenges the contexts in which we judge one another. It’s also, dryly, quite funny.

2. Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Yes, it is a thousand pages long, and yes, it is all stream of consciousness, and no, there’s more than one sentence (several interludes from the perspective of a mother mountain lion are written in regular, multi-sentence prose), and yes, it really does need to be this long. Ellmann’s protagonist is a home baker who has turned her hobby into a business. The process of circling her head, voyeuristically privy to the themes, symbols and memories to which she frequently returns, is analogous to the lamination of dough for croissants: you genuinely need those many layers in order to build up a broad, rich picture of her state of mind. And when the plot (there is one!) takes a turn for the melodramatic near the end, we realize the significance of everything that’s gone before.

3. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Someone this year tweeted, “Every time I hear a white woman say ‘We’re living through The Handmaid’s Tale‘, all I hear is ‘I haven’t read Parable of the Sower.'” Parable of the Talents is that novel’s sequel, and although I haven’t yet read Sower either, Talents shares its alarming characteristic of feeling like both a prophecy and a history lesson. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. Written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a deeply relevant and necessary way. Profoundly disturbing, and incredibly moving.

4. Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intellectually sophisticated yet accessibly written book of its kind I read this year, or indeed any year. Davis weaves together the histories of feminism, abolitionism, and the labour movement to show the natural interconnectedness of these fights: it’s a primer on intersectionality in action, and on how, when intersectionality fails, its failure is due to a form of short-sightedness that sets everyone back. I found her analysis of the late 19th- and early 20th-century struggle for worker’s rights especially interesting, as those were stories I was less familiar with, but every page of this slim volume contains the names of heroes and heroines both well-known and obscure. Penguin Modern Classics reprinted a beautiful edition of this earlier in 2020, and for people wanting to get their heads around the sociocultural problems that sparked Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is an ideal starting block.

5. In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. This earned an instant place on my Books To Save From Fire shelf. Telling of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, it is simultaneously an excavation of how narrative works in folklore and myth, a revelation of how humans use those same narrative tropes to make sense of our experience, and a gut-wrenchingly immediate yet bruisingly poetic portrait of the betrayal of trust that occurs when abuse does. Machado also weaves in brilliant, shockingly funny pen sketches of friends and family, serious discussions of how lesbian experience is erased in broader conversations about abuse, and digressions on topics such as the queerness of seemingly all Disney villains. Utterly unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and serves as a perfect blend of craft, skill, humour and intellect. It’s particularly hard-hitting for people who have suvived an abusive relationship, although has a lot to offer even readers who have not. (It was also my boyfriend’s favourite book of the year, because he accepts my recommendations and has great taste.)

6. Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. This brand-new retelling of William Caxton’s classic medieval trickster tales, featuring sly Reynard the Fox, pompous King Noble the lion, brutal Isengrim the wolf, stalwart Grimbart the badger, and silly Bruin the bear, amongst many others, is one of the most delightfully playful, erudite, and generous-hearted books I’ve read in a very long time. Glorying in multilingualism, it incorporates slang from Middle English and Middle Dutch, German, French and Latin, and contains wonderful asides, anecdotes, and even recipes in the footnotes. The tales themselves are small miracles: surprisingly dark and violent in places, they reinforce the values of individualism, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and quick wit that we so love in our anti-heroes. Reynard is an unforgettable character, and Anne Louise Avery’s work in bringing his stories to a modern audience would be rewarded with a prize, if the world was just.

There: my top six books from 2020. Magnificent, all of them. I’ve started a new shelf on Goodreads called “breaks your heart and puts your chin up”, and each of these titles deserves its place there. They offer us what we most need right now. Go get them and read them at once!

And, of course, have a very merry Christmas. I’ll be back later with the thirteen(!) runners-up…

Reading Diary: 17 August-23 August

Descendant of the Crane, by Joan He: This ancient Chinese-inspired fantasy novel isn’t my usual fare, but it’ll be somebody else’s cup of tea, without question. Princess Hesina’s father, the king, has just been killed, and she is determined to find out by whom. But with a wily Minister of Rites, a kingdom so terrified of magic that it slaughtered all (spoilers: not quite) of its “sooths” three centuries ago, and invasion threats from the neighbouring country of Kendi’a, finding the murderer is the least of Hesina’s problems. This, in turn, presents the reader with a problem: there are so many plot strands fighting for primacy that it’s difficult to know where to place one’s attention and investment, and He’s characters, while endearing, also perform a lot of cliched actions. Hesina is constantly blushing, gasping, fighting for breath, inwardly cursing, feeling her throat constrict, and so on. (A lot of this overcooked rhetoric is respiratory, now that I think of it. I wonder why authors go for it so often?) The characters’ reactions frequently slow the pace of the action; when the dead king’s tomb is opened, whole paragraphs go by in lavish descriptions of bafflement before we’re told what Hesina and her peremptory love interest Akira are actually seeing. It’s a lot of fun–it reminds me forcefully of the fantasy novel I spent much of my pre-teen years writing, which was sort of equal parts Tolkien, Pierce and Pascal–and it sets up a sequel, which I wouldn’t spurn if it was offered to me, but there’s definitely a sense of too much material, not quite tightly enough controlled.

The Searcher, by Tana French: A new French novel is always cause for celebration. The Searcher (out in November; my copy is from Netgalley) continues her move away from the traditional cop protagonists that characterized her first six books, although it’s kind of a lateral move: here, our investigator is an ex-policeman and an American ex-policeman at that, Cal Hooper, formerly of the Chicago PD. Chicago is fairly notorious for police violence, and Hooper’s experience reflects both the truth and the nuance of that: he has never killed an unarmed young black man, but an incident where his partner nearly does so is ultimately what pushes him into early retirement. A divorce and a move to rural Ireland later, he hopes to find peace and quiet in the country, but is instead recruited by a young kid, Trey, whose brother Brendan has gone missing, and who demands that Cal find out where Brendan is.

The Searcher is as beautifully written as all of French’s books, but what it lacks, for want of a better word, is a sense of intoxication. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The professional detectives in her early books love their job, they live and breathe it, and that sense of drive, passion, righteousness, infuses their appreciation of the world around them and of human relationships within it. As French’s career has matured, her characters’ perceptions have too. Cal isn’t quite the hard-bitten cynic he considers himself, but his understanding of social dynamics, of how we fit in with each other, has less flash and snap than, say, Cassie Maddox’s or even Scorcher Kennedy’s; more resignation and determination. It’s a mystery novel for grownups, this–which isn’t to say that it’s excessively violent or disturbing, but rather that both French and her characters are increasingly interested in how to behave when the right thing and the correct thing are not the same. (Cal and Trey have a fantastic conversation about the difference between etiquette, manners and morals that sums up what I think French is getting at throughout the entire book.) A really promising turn for her. I can’t wait to read more.

In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki: A rather lovely little essay on aesthetics (sort of, I guess?), clocking in at well under 100 pages but published on its own by Vintage Classics. Tanizaki was a 20th-century Japanese novelist who produced, amongst other things, the magnificent The Makioka Sisters, which has always reminded me very strongly of Jane Austen’s work, with its similar cultural context of a high value placed on reputation, limited economic options for middle-class women, and a codified (and coded) set of behaviours, from which deviation cannot be tolerated by polite society. In Praise… is a different beast: here, Tanizaki explores the distinction between a Western prioritization of light (specifically electric light) in design, and a traditional Japanese preference for “the pensive lustre” over “the shallow brilliance”. His arguments are both wide-ranging (he touches on toilet design, the unique properties of jade, why Japanese cuisine really must be eaten by candelight to be properly appreciated, and the allure of half-hidden women in old-fashioned brothels, amongst many other things), and intriguing in their engagement with cultural imperialism: he posits, for instance, that technologies such as mass-produced paper and modern interior lighting would look completely different worldwide had they been invented by the Japanese instead of Westerners (and mainly Americans). It’s a thoughtful and surprisingly profound piece of work; I’m glad I picked it up on a whim.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: This tale of corruption, scandal and decadence is one of those books I constantly thought I’d read (and everyone else seemed to have done in school) but hadn’t actually, until this week. The Penguin clothbound edition is good because it contains the introduction by Robert Mighall from the paperback, which dwells on Wilde’s revisions between the original publication (in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890) and the slightly longer printed-book version (1891). These were largely made in order to tone down the overt homoeroticism of the original material, which, I have to say, is blatant if not absolutely screaming. Basil Hallward, the painter who becomes obsessed with Dorian’s physical beauty, speaks repeatedly of “adoring” him, of being “jealous” and “romantic”; the Mephistophelean Lord Henry Wotton, who turns both Dorian’s head and his soul, mocks Hallward’s devotion in terms that render it explicitly romantic, but clearly desires erotic domination over Dorian himself, and encourages the latter to practice that same domination on other impressionable young men. The interpolated revenge-plot material focusing on James Vane is not especially interesting or good (it feels like the third-rate subplot of a Dickens novel; all the big ones have got one of those), and the scenes in high society… well, I tend not to like those even in Wilde’s plays; here they strike me as simultaneously silly and mean-spirited. The supernatural element of the book (the whole portrait scapegoat thing) is actually the least dwelt-upon, since Wilde is really more interested in philosophizing upon Art, Morals, and the relationship between the two (in Wilde’s ideal world, none). Divertingly grotesque, though.

Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler: I had a rather rough afternoon on Friday and a friend suggested I pick up a YA fantasy novel, which usually soothes and resets me; when I told her I was halfway through this, she described it as “almost laughably the opposite” of soothing, which is true. It takes place during the Moscow show trials of 1936-8, during which Stalin purged most of the historic leadership of the Communist Party—”purge” being a light word for imprisonment, solitary confinement, torment, humiliation, forced confession, and execution. The protagonist here is Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who has done some bad things in his time but who has become disillusioned with Soviet propaganda and ideology as a result of Stalin’s rule, and who is consequently imprisoned. Much of the novel is about Rubashov’s own struggle to determine whether he was right or wrong in his dedication to the Revolution as a younger man: if he was right, the only validation he’ll receive is from posterity, decades after he’s gone; if he was wrong, as he puts it, “I’ll pay.” And pay he does, in the end, as we know he will right from the beginning. The intimacy Koestler achieves in charting his psychological journey, however, is exceptional, disturbing, and moving. The evocation of prison—and particularly the solidarity shown between prisoners, even those who thoroughly disagree with each other ideologically—is perhaps the strongest part of a very strong book: the scenes where Rubashov and his neighbour in cell 402 tap out messages to each other, where Rubashov is initiated into the prison tradition of hammering on one’s cell door in percussive salute each time a fellow inmate is taken away for execution, and where finally Rubashov and 402 have their last conversation, will haunt me for a long time.

Reading Diary: 2 August – 9 August

This was a format that worked well for quite a long time a few years ago, and maybe it’ll be a little more manageable than a monthly roundup. It’ll also have the distinct advantage of forcing me to a) post more than once a month, so you won’t forget I exist, and b) corral my thoughts about books fairly recently after finishing them, instead of getting to the end of the month and trying to remember it all at once.

The Habsburgs: the Rise and Fall of a World Power, by Martyn Rady: I read this in proof so unfortunately did not get to glory in the finished edition’s excellent front cover. It’s also not necessarily my usual bag, but I picked it up because I knew a lot of my customers would be keen and I wanted to make up my own mind. And it’s excellent! Rady has about nine hundred years of history to distill into <350 pages, and does so masterfully; the occasional confusion about dynasties (so many Ferdinands!), genealogies, and religious affiliations were mostly easily resolved by consulting the multi-century family trees in the front of the book. (A lot of family-tree typos in the proof copy, though; more “Emporers” than you can shake a stick at. Presumably these have been dealt with in the finished version.) The chapters are a perfect length: long enough to provide an overview of a topic or period, short enough to feel manageable and give a pleasing sense of progress. And although Rady is a historian, not a comedian, he clearly has a keen sense of the ridiculous (such as the attempts to cure a particularly mad scion by forcing him to sleep with the mummified corpse of a saint, which–surprise–did not work). His style is light but not lightweight, witty but not intrusive, and intelligent but highly readable. The topic is also less Eurocentric than I’d imagined: the Habsburgs presided over the first genuinely global empire, with outposts in Latin America thanks to their Spanish connection as well as the occasional foray into Southeast Asia (who knew?!) and Africa (likewise). Highly, highly recommended.

Grace Will Lead Us Home, by Jennifer Berry Hawes: This was my next audiobook choice and it was a very good one – I was guided by the fact that it won an Audie Award for Best General Nonfiction. It is an account not only of the massacre of nine Black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church in 2016, but of what followed: the national and local responses, the arrest and trial of Dylann Roof, and the incredibly painful journey of the survivors and the bereaved. This last is probably the most powerful element of the book. Although forgiveness was the watchword that got picked up by media when one of the survivors told Roof she forgave him just days later, this was not an easy or a universal response. Particularly tragic is the story of the husband of one of the murdered women, who returned from a merchant marine job halfway across the world and sank into depression, bitterness and apathy without his wife’s leavening presence. You find yourself unable to blame him, really. Roof is described about as objectively as possible—we learn about him through his actions and his reactions to his family and police—but it is highly evident that there is something wrong with him, perhaps undiagnosable, perhaps simply the manifestation of evil. A hard book but a very necessary one, and one that gives dignity and complexity to all of the actors in this horrible episode in American history.

Lot, by Bryan Washington: Washington’s debut connected-story collection focuses on the lives of Black and Latinx characters in Houston, Texas. About half of them focus on a particular young man who goes unnamed, but whose uneasy relationship with his family and his burgeoning sexuality is the focus of most of the stories in this main thread. Others, like “South Central” and “Waugh”, are snapshots of different individuals struggling to maintain integrity—or just survive—in a city beset by gentrification, poverty and racism. “Waugh” in particular is appallingly moving, its protagonist Poke a young prostitute forced to reckon with his pimp and protector’s HIV-positive status. It’s the story in which a cultural emphasis on the implicit, the unspoken or unarticulated emotion, is most evident. Elsewhere, our unnamed narrator’s uber-masculine brother Javi teaches him “what happens to faggots”, his father takes him on a visit to his “plainer than plain” mistress, his sister marries to get out of the neighborhood, and his mother suffers as gentrification forces her to give up the family restaurant. Washington’s prose style is clipped and succinct, which often creates a perhaps unintentional sense of emotional distance, but the final chapter—in which the narrator at last decides to commit to a romantic relationship with a man instead of the no-strings-attached sex he’s allowed himself up til now—holds out a delicate hope for fulfillment that only a rock could fail to find heartrending.

Set My Heart to Five, by Simon Stephenson: The premise here is perhaps cringey to a certain type of reader: in a near future containing “driverless ubers” but no New Zealand (casualty of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, apparently), Jared, a bot who looks exactly like a human but whose brain is a biological computer and who has no emotions, begins to develop feelings, along with a taste for classic movies. Pursued by an incompetent but dogged jobsworth from the Bureau of Robotics, he flees his comfortable, sterile dental practice in Ypsilanti for Los Angeles, intending to write and direct a movie that will change the way the world feels about bots. So far, perhaps, so cute (an impression backed up by Jared’s relentlessly slangy narration: “10/10” and “I cannot!” being but two of his many catchphrases). But what makes this stand out as more than just a big-hearted underdog novel with futuristic set dressing is its obsession, nay its love affair, with film tropes—which are, of course, storytelling tropes—and by way of which Jared comments, both explicitly and unconsciously, upon his own quest. I wrote “underdog” up there, for instance; Jared knows he’s in a quest story, and he knows how the logic of such stories works. He knows that Inspector Ryan Bridges of the Bureau of Robotics is his nemesis, and that (as per RP McWilliam’s Twenty Golden Rules of Screenwriting, a text he treats with reverence) coincidences should only occur in order to create obstacles, not to smooth the hero’s path. This incredible circular knowingness—a story about stories, and who gets to tell them, and how they can be hijacked (there’s a great subplot about an unscrupulous Hollywood producer), which also knows it’s a story, and comments on that, and the comments are both an integral part of the story and reinforce its thematic meaning—is quite brilliant, and further reinforced by form, as sections of the book are typeset to resemble a film script. If this all sounds a bit precious, please trust me when I say that it is not. There is something perfect and painful about Jared’s first viewing of Blade Runner, for instance—quite deliberately a movie about whether robots are people—or about his being reassured that the people sailing on Lake Michigan during inclement weather probably don’t want rescuing, because humans actually enjoy illogical risk. Not to mention his unexpected side trip to Las Vegas with a lonely, self-deluding fellow train traveler (who happens to hate bots), or the way he falls in love. Set My Heart to Five is poignant, funny, light on its feet, and very, very sharp. By the end, I felt—as Jared hears a famous screenwriter say—as though I’d been “f-worded in the heart”; I can’t recommend it more highly.

Remain Silent, by Susie Steiner: This is the third of Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw novels, and may be her last—she was recently diagnosed with what seems to be (going from her Twitter and the Acknowledgments page here) a pretty aggressive cancer. Bradshaw (or Manon, as most everyone in the books calls her) has always been an extraordinary creation: grumpy, dogged, keen on a custard cream, not so keen on buzzwords or bullshit. Here her smallest child is a toddler, her older boy Fly—adopted in an earlier novel—is about to sit GCSEs, her partner may or may not be terminally ill, and she is staring at the settlings, losses and alterations of middle age. The crime, on the other hand, could hardly be more contemporary: a dead immigrant hanging from a tree in Cambridgeshire, a note reading “The dead cannot speak” pinned to his clothing. Because this is a crime novel, of course nothing about it adds up, and of course Manon is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Steiner tells the story in a pretty effective multi-POV fashion, switching from the present (narrated alternately by Manon and by her deputy, Davy) to “Before” (narrated by Matis, best friend of the dead man, and Elise, a local girl whose father is a frothing xenophobe abetted by, and fawningly besotted with, a Nigel Farage analogue). Davy’s presence in the book is an interesting leaven to what could otherwise easily be a one-note political set-up: we know Manon has no time for Little England, National Front bollocks, for she tells us so frequently and forthrightly, but Davy is a white man of precarious status approaching middle age and his internal monologues often muse on the anger he sees in these men. He doesn’t quite agree with them, but he understands them, and in some moments even sympathizes, and through his eyes we can understand them too. Or at least understand how other people can understand. The solution to the murder is actually quite ingenious: it struck me as both believable and appalling, which is no mean feat for crime fiction. The believability rests on Steiner’s work with characterization, which she’s remarkably good at; if there is a slight wobble of “would someone really…?”, it’s covered by the fact that most of the other characters wonder that, too. If this is the last Manon Bradshaw book, it will be a very great loss: she is really one of the most exceptionally idiosyncratic characters—let alone detective characters—currently being written, and I would miss her. Let’s hope she rides again.

currently reading: Afropean, by Johny Pitts, which I am absolutely loving. No wonder it won the Jhalak Prize. More on that next week.

July Superlatives

A good sixteen books read, in print, e- and audio form, this month! This is hardly a Superlatives post, though, given that I can’t summon up the creative energies to think of the categories. I’ll just do what I normally do—a short paragraph on each book read—without categorizing them, and hope you’ll forgive me. (I’m also thinking of returning to the weekly Reading Diary format; it might be more manageable.)

Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown: A wickedly funny coming-of-age story about a young lesbian in the 1950s, who comes from dirt-poor Southern stock and eventually finds her way to New York City, film school, and freedom. Molly Bolt is the most engaging, uncompromising, self-aware and hilarious protagonist I’ve met for a long time, and her social and sexual escapades make for delightful reading, despite the prejudice she faces.

How To Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi: My problem with this book is not the book; it’s me. And it might not even be me qua me, so much as it is timing. Having already read two very up-to-the-minute nonfiction dissections of racism in twenty-first century Western society, a third hot on their heels felt somewhat repetitive: much of the material, and the general thrust of argument, is the same. This is, however, clearly an excellent book for people eager to learn, and I’d recommend it.

A View of the Empire at Sunset, by Caryl Phillips: My first book of Phillips’s, though it won’t be my last, A View of the Empire… is a fictionalized exploration of the life of Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea (which I read last month). The constant tension between her Creole upbringing and the expectations of white England infuses the book, and Phillips’s style shows a melancholy restraint that reminds me of earlier English authors like Brookner and Fitzgerald.

The Book of Queer Prophets, ed. Ruth Hunt: Like all anthologies, some entries here are stronger than others, but the concept—queer writers describe how their sexuality and their religious faiths, or lack thereof, affect each other—is a winner. Amrou Al-Kadhi’s piece on becoming a Muslim drag queen is wonderful, but the one that hit me hardest was Jay Hulme’s account of conversion and cathedrals. It’s a magical piece of writing that ties in revelation, suicide, and the appreciation of beauty. He’s a poet, but I would read more of his prose.

Playing Nice, by J.P. Delaney: Delaney is one of our foremost writers of domestic, or psychological, noir, and all his work (I was convinced he was a she for ages, but apparently Delaney is the pseudonym of a male author) is both utterly addictive and really quite good, despite the melodramatic plots. Playing Nice deals with the scary implications of an accidental child swap, and, like many contemporary domestic thrillers, invests in the notion of the common or garden psychopath. The scenes where one character forces/manipulates his way over the boundaries of the others are nauseatingly believable, even if the actual story might not be.

Rainbow Milk, by Paul Mendez: Mendez’s debut, dealing with the trajectory of Jesse from Black Country Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness and closeted homosexual, to rent boy in early ’90s London, to professional waiter—and unexpectedly beloved—in the 2000s, is lush with accent, detail, and a LOT of meticulously described sex between men. Critics have said it’s too autobiographical and doesn’t give its characters enough space, but I loved the authority with which Mendez writes Jesse’s experience (and the restaurant scenes are really, really spot-on).

Conjure Women, by Afia Atakora: Set in a community of former slaves after the American Civil War, Conjure Women deals with the clash between folk medicine/obeah and Christian teaching, as midwife Rue falls under suspicion when the children of the area begin dying. Flashbacks to the era of slavery illuminate goings-on in the narrative’s present day, and Atakora’s depiction of characters forced to make terrible choices is empathetic and moving. Lots about mother-daughter relationships, love and the vulnerability it brings, too.

Lady Sings the Blues, by Billie Holiday: Actually not written by Holiday, but composed by journalist William Dufty from transcripts of interviews he conducted with her. This brings its own set of interpretative and moral difficulties, but the voice that shines through these pages is strong and clear, and it belongs to someone: it’s easy to imagine Holiday holding forth in a hotel room, Dufty recording and scribbling. Much of the autobiographical material is invented or embellished, but on singing in Jim Crow-era America and as a general set of observations on craft, plus for its glimpse into a lost world of glamour, drugs and celebrity, this is hard to beat.

That Reminds Me, by Derek Owusu: My problems with this book, again, are mine alone. That it feels unfocused and underpowered is a subjective assessment; that the periodic invocations of Anansi strike me as slightly mannered is also opinion and not fact. That it tells a story that needs telling—that of a black boy taken into care as a child, and his subsequent mental health issues as an adult—and does so in short, innovative prose-poetic sections, is also the case: and it won the Desmond Elliott Prize. I suspect it might click more upon rereading.

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah: I was told this was specifically excellent as an audiobook, so I listened to it, and it absolutely is. Mostly, and unsurprisingly, it’s just fucking funny: Noah tells stories well, and he has good ones to tell here. The section where his grandmother and aunts hold a wailing exorcism for the demon whom they believe has planted human shit in the wastebin (it was, in fact, young Trevor) had me giggling helplessly aloud. It stops before Noah’s comedy career takes off, which is probably a good thing; the final sections, detailing his late teens of DJ-ing/petty crime, are a little repetitive.

Empires in the Sun: the Struggle for the Mastery of Africa, by Lawrence James. I really, really struggled with this; I’d hoped for the balance and impartiality that the Literary Review blurb promised, but James instead writes with a kind of blasé Eurocentrism that seems to equate acknowledging atrocities with reparation for them. I can best describe it by saying that for James it’s as though African minds don’t really exist—he certainly doesn’t write about them, only African bodies. A decent overview of the historical events for the beginner, but otherwise, I think, best left.

Zami: a New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde: I’d somehow never actually read Lorde before now, and had developed the idea that she was a slightly scary/po-faced theorist along the lines of Sontag. Zami proves nothing could be further from the truth: a barely fictionalized autobiography, it’s warm, funny, and vivid about Lorde’s feelings of being left out (along multiple axes of race, gender, sexuality, and general oddness) as a child and young woman. A true joy and revelation to read, and a contender for the Best Books of 2020 list.

Enter the Aardvark, by Jessica Anthony: Congressman Alexander Paine Wilson awakes one morning to find a stuffed aardvark being delivered to him by FedEx. It’s from his male lover, who has (apparently) just committed suicide. Only, Wilson is in the closet—even to himself—and a rabidly conservative Republican. As the aardvark’s existence begins to unravel Wilson’s life with the relentless rapidity of a nightmare, a second strand focuses on the eighteenth-century taxidermist who stuffed it, and his hidden romantic relationship with the explorer who brought it back. There are some tonal/factual errors which I put down to the author’s American cultural background (the most egregious being that you would never refer to a man named Sir Richard Ostlet as “Sir Ostlet”; he would always be “Sir Richard”). But it’s an extremely funny, surprisingly poignant book, and it basically stole my heart.

The Vanishing Trick, by Jenni Spangler: My first children’s book for many months was… all right? There’s certainly a very cod-Aiken vibe to its supposedly Victorian but much more generic-fantasy-feeling setting, and the horrid Madame Pinchbeck, who traps children’s souls in household objects, is a clear descendant of Miss Slighcarp. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that three child narrators (all in an undifferentiated third person) was at least one too many, and Spangler compounds the issue by spelling out emotion and motive instead of building up character through behaviour and letting us deduce it. The Vanishing Trick is definitely fun, but you can’t compare it to Reeve or Hardinge or Robin Stevens.

A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid. Oh, my days. I’m definitely a scaredycat, but this (randomly picked up as 99p on Kindle and I’d never read McDermid before; I know, I’m sorry) is a really creepy book: not just about the abominable things men do to vulnerable girls, but also about the Wicker Man-esque community of Scardale, which demonstrates a mute solidarity in the face of outside interference (aka a police investigation) that is at least as frightening, in its own way. It’s the sort of book that would never work in these days of wifi and well-maintained roads (though actually, in some parts of the Peaks, mobile reception is still rubbish enough to make this a reasonable plot in 2020).

You People, by Nikita Lalwani: This has definite ambitions to be a state-of-the-nation novel, although its focus is narrow enough (one pizzeria in South London; two point of view characters, Welsh waitress Nia and Sri Lankan pizza chef Shan) that it might be more productive to read it as a London novel. Shan has left behind his wife and child, and is both horribly ashamed and desperate to get them to England; Nia, who’s fled an alcoholic mother, is determined to get to the bottom of restauranteur Tuli’s not-so-legal extracurricular activities (he operates the pizzeria like a safe house for undocumented asylum-seekers). The ending is a touch sentimental, but it provides satisfying narrative closure, and Lalwani’s depiction of the “hostile environment” is thoroughly terrifying.


So that was July; August is shaping up well (though I genuinely cannot believe it’s been four and a half months since I’ve been into the office. We’re going back in, on a rotating once-weekly basis, this week; my first day back is Wednesday. I’ll be lonely, as it’ll only be me from my team, but maybe I’ll get things done.) In the meantime—I’ve got plenty of proofs, having finally been brought my office stash a few weeks ago, plus several remaining new and old purchases, AND I went on a Netgalley spree, like a lunatic. What’ve you been enjoying this past month?

June Superlatives

Hard copies read in June 2020

June has been the month of the most conscious reading I’ve done for a very long time. This probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It’s become very clear to me that, although I attempted to recommend diverse books in my professional life before now, I must make the decentralisation of whiteness a central tenet of my bookselling practice. To do that, I must also make it a central tenet of my reading practice—not to mention which, stories by Black authors (and authors of colour more generally) must be read for their own sake. And we—bloggers, booksellers and readers—need to encourage the industry to publish more of them, making sure they’re not all centered on racism (because… you know… everyone’s life and narrative is bigger than that). The more representation there is in the book world, the healthier and more creative it is.

best coming-of-age story: Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. This reminded me so strongly of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, centering as it does on young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants in New York, and her attempts to break free of the familial and societal expectations that bind and devalue her. It’s a huge shame that it’s now out of print; my copy is an old Virago edition. Bring it back, Virago!

loudest wakeup call: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Hardly the most fun read, but without a doubt, this has laid the foundation for much of my self-education this month. Alexander’s thesis is that mass incarceration has created a tacit racial caste system that functions much as Jim Crow laws used to, but without public acknowledgment. Drawing examples from recent political and legislative history, Alexander’s argument is convincing, thorough, and extremely alarming.

best random acquisition: The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph. The U Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, which I’m signed up to; usually I don’t read them, but this one seemed extremely apt. Ralph conducted an oral history/anthropological survey of people—mostly African-American men—who have experienced torture at the hands of the Chicago PD over the course of forty years. It’s a tough read, and sometimes repetitive (he structures most of the book as a series of open letters), but it’s illuminating about the struggles that people in a particular region have been engaging in for years, without any national media coverage. (And it’s made quite clear that Chicago can’t be the only place in the Union where this occurs.)

most outside my reading habits: Managing Up, by Mary Abbajay. A weird one: this is essentially a business/self-help tome about how to work with different types of managers. I’m interested in career development, but I tend to be quite resistant to books of this nature, especially ones that demand behavioural adaptation from the person already in a position of less (or no) power. Still, it certainly provided food for thought. Abbajay does distinguish between a manager who just doesn’t communicate the same way you do, and a manager who’s actively abusive or dangerous (she has no time for the latter and encourages people whose bosses are abusive to leave asap, thank goodness).

greatest potential (not bad as it is, but…) : Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the Story of a Tangled Inheritance, by Richard Atkinson. Atkinson’s attempt to trace his family back through several centuries of British history is fascinating, if overlong and occasionally bogged down in details of eighteenth-century scams. Still, the thing that’s most interesting about it is the fact that many of his ancestors were slaveowners, holding significant estates in Jamaica. The timing of this book intrigues; had it been published even a month later, I wonder if Atkinson’s publishers would have asked him to address this shameful legacy more directly. Instead, though he does engage with it, it’s on a fairly superficial level, the general attitude being that this was not a great thing, but without dwelling much on the details. Still, what it does do is drive home how many perfectly average middle-class families in Britain today have benefited from the slave trade. It’s not just peers and merchant princes who need to take a good hard look at their own houses.

most illuminating: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. There’s been a surge in purchases of nonfiction by Black authors about contemporary racism, and it can be a little tricky, I think, to navigate the options. If you pick just one of these books to read, make it Natives. Akala is a poet, singer and lecturer; his guide through British racist history, especially the legacy of empire, is both accessible and revelatory. I truly didn’t expect to learn much I didn’t already know, and found myself humbled instead. There’s a reason Natives is already a contemporary classic.

best London novel: The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. A brilliant, funny, poignant novel chronicling the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants post-WWII, focalized mostly through the eyes of generous but world-weary Moses Aloetta. Other characters include the romantic Sir Galahad and the roguish Nigerian survivor, Cap. The writing is beautiful, a melange of dialect and so-called Standard English that captures the rhythms of thought and time passing. There’s a particular ten-page section describing summer in London that made me miss the freedom of hanging out in parks more than anything else in this shitty pandemic season yet.

most darkly comedic: A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. Himes’s first detective novel is so funny and so dark that it reminds me of the Coen Brothers (he’s also often compared to Chandler). Featuring a mendicant cross-dressing nun, the theft of some gold ore that may or may not exist, and the detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (who appear in smaller parts here than in subsequent entries in the series), A Rage in Harlem invites us both to mock and to celebrate the innocence of its protagonist, clumsy Jackson, who can’t believe his woman Imabelle could do him wrong even when presented with the most suggestive evidence otherwise. It was made into a movie with Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover, which I’d love to see—particularly the hearse chase scene. (You heard me.)

best reimagining: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Rhys’s famed “prequel” to Jane Eyre retells the story of Bertha Rochester in her own words (including the fact that “Bertha” is a name assigned to her by her husband; she is born Antoinette). Dealing persuasively and furiously with inequities of skin colour, gender, sexual expression and money, Wide Sargasso Sea is a short but very deep text; the fact that I never studied it in an educational institution is extraordinary to me, given the challenge it poses to concepts like elite storytelling, narrative closure, and teleology. It’s also incredibly beautifully written, its register slipping between a kind of Joycean tracing of the movements of consciousness and a more constructed, linear storytelling mode. (This slippage occurs not only when Antoinette narrates, but also in Rochester’s sections—the effect of the Caribbean on his soul is not itself corrosive, though his reactions of fear, rejection, and adherence to known hierarchies certainly are.) It’s a gem of a book, one to reread.

least-known (to me) history: The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan. The Great Partition served as my entry point into the history of British colonialism in South-east Asia, for which I’m glad, though I’d like to see (or be made aware of—if you know any, recommend me some!) more books about the experience of first-generation Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the UK. My primary takeaway from Khan’s book is that the Hindu/Muslim divide and subsequent violent religious nationalism was not a natural one; it was identified and stoked by British colonial officials, who could not conceive of the rivalries that did exist but were divided along different lines. Instead, by imposing their own expectations of faith-based conflict upon residents of the subcontinent, colonial officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear and tensions between religious communities contributed to, essentially, an arms race, which exploded bloodily in the summer of 1947. I also learned that the Radcliffe line, which created both West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was drawn by a Briton who had never been to the regions in question, was not a cartographer or politically aware, and had spent about ten days in India, in total. The staggering arrogance of the project needs no further elaboration.

most likely to be a modern classic: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made history by becoming the first number 1 nonfiction book in the UK by a Black author. I listened to it on Audible and thought it was an excellent addition to the canon of nonfiction on contemporary racial issues, but although there’s huge value in Eddo-Lodge’s explicit focus on raising the consciousness of white people (racism, after all, is so often viewed as a “BAME problem” whereas it is in fact quite clearly a white-person problem), I found myself preferring Natives on the basis of its depth of historical research. Both, I think, clearly have broad commercial appeal, which is an important thing, and if Eddo-Lodge’s book gets more white people (especially in the publishing industry) to evaluate their own racism and complicity in racist structures, it’ll have done what it set out to do.

most terrifyingly prescient: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Butler was a prophet; of this I am quite convinced. The first book in her Earthseed series, Parable of the Sower, was out of print earlier this month, so I ordered the second, which is comprehensible on its own. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. For anyone who loved The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the too-close-to-reality dystopia you should be reading; written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a way that Atwood’s novel tended to elide. Profoundly disturbing—I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight—and incredibly moving.

best psychological profile: The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper. I love literary true crime, and manage to find about one book a year that really answers to that description. The Arsonist is about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people and left many more homeless. A suspect was quickly arrested on suspicion of lighting the fires: Brendan Sokaluk, whose defense team struggled to represent him because he is both autistic and intellectually disabled, and frequently seemed not to understand what was happening to him. Hooper examines what happened the day the fires started, the major players in the arson investigation, and Sokaluk’s already difficult life (he’d had trouble at work, and lived in a house his parents had bought for him, where he could be regularly checked in on), as well as what happened after he was arrested. The result is an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, dealing with mental health stigma and the evisceration of industry in Victoria as well as the social and environmental consequences of the fires. It’s perfect for fans of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief or Susan Orleans’s The Library Book.

most entirely unexpected: Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. It seems to me as though a lot of narratives around queer self-acceptance and religion establish those two things as being completely incompatible. And I can see why: religious fundamentalism is frequently characterized by its cruelty towards, and rejection of, queerness. Yet Baldwin’s typically gorgeous novel embraces both things: his young protagonist, John, fears his stepfather’s harsh and disapproving (and heteronormative) God, but the penultimate scene in the book is the beautiful, transcendent vision of the divine that John finally receives, and in his dialogue with an older boy at the very end, we are given to understand that although John may appear to turn his back on the church by embracing his queerness, the truth of that revelation—that he is a child of God and much loved—will never cease to be. In addition to John’s perspective, we hear from his mother, stepfather, and aunt in a central section that completely opens up the reader’s perspective on these characters. I’d read one Baldwin before (Giovanni’s Room) and, as previously, was utterly blown away by the quality of his thought and writing. Which one next?!

most political use of humour: Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which reminds me strongly of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the way it mobilizes magical realism and dark comedy to criticize political actors. It tells the story of Aburiria, governed by a corrupt and self-aggrandizing dictator known only as the Ruler, who decides to build a new Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. A large cast of devout Christians, government ministers, police officers and businessmen is anchored by Kamiti, a beggar who initially adopts the role of a witch doctor as a joke but finds himself inextricably entwined with the fate of the nation, and Nyawira, the political radical with whom he falls in love. Hilarious, compelling, and a clear argument for Thiong’o as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

June 2020’s e- and audiobook intake

May Superlatives

This is the first post I’ve created with WordPress’s newly structured Editor, so bear with me if it’s weirdly formatted. It all seems mostly, roughly intuitive, but who can say? Anyway, May 2020: a pretty good reading month. Fewer books, but quite possibly many more pages—I read some chunksters, not all of which flew by, but all of which were incredibly rewarding. One of them, actually, is on my list of candidates for Books of the Year (I’m creating that as I go this year, in the hope of having an easier time choosing when December rolls around). Thirteen in total, only seven of which were physical books; photo of them below, collage of ebooks and audiobooks in middle and at end of post. Let’s get into it!

best classic: One of the few remaining Charlotte Brontë novels I hadn’t yet read, her historical novel Shirley. I think it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that nineteenth-century novelists wrote historical novels that were also set in the nineteenth century; Shirley is about industrial labor and romantic pragmatism in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic wars, as new laws devastate the area’s woollen mills. It feels surprisingly hard-nosed even for C.B., who, for my money, is the most ruthless Brontë by a long way. But, as I think I mentioned before, it features a female friendship that doesn’t collapse over a man or even revolve around him most of the time, and that’s refreshing.

slowest burn: This, by the way, is a good thing. The one thing everyone knows about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is that it’s long. Having read it, the reason for the length is obvious: it’s a stylistic choice that reveals character, a buildup of childhood memories, musical earworms, film and literature references, a constant circling around specific but initially, apparently, random events that reveals this woman’s inner self to us, a building up of layers like the lamination of dough for croissants (she’s a baker). And despite the fact that it’s nearly 1000 pages long, the final 100 pages are nail-biting. Literally, genuinely, edge of your seat stuff. They never say that in the reviews.

most reflective of my own obsessive brain: Okay, this is a weird category, but it’s no weirder than me finishing The Only Plane in the Sky last month and immediately using my free Audible credit to download Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda. It won the Pulitzer, and I can see why, as it’s very thorough, but listening to it also clarified how much easier this kind of nonfiction is for me to read than to listen to. It’s a complicated story, there are a lot of names, dates and places, and the chronologies are decades-long. Once we got to the ’90s, it was easier to keep track (presumably because a lot of those names are more familiar to me: bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on), but the cumulative effect of listening to this was probably more atmospheric than concretely educational.

most overdue recommendation: Pretty sure my friend Jon recommended The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, to me over a decade ago. I’ve had an ebook version for a while—it’s on the Guardian Top 1000 novels list as well—and turned to it in a sf-y mood. It’s a rather brilliant metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam: Earth soldiers are engaged in an interstellar war with aliens called Taurans, but the effects of relativity mean centuries pass for every month or so they spend on campaign. I wanted more about the general social implications of this (how do you continue to fund and wage a war when most of the civilian population have never even seen a veteran?), but it’s a novel about soldiering, not politics, and as far as I can tell without having ever been a soldier, from that perspective Haldeman nails it. Fair warning: it has that kind of whiplash fake-future-feminism you get from a lot of older sci-fi (women serve as soldiers and are supposedly treated as equals, but it’s also illegal for them to refuse to have sex with anyone. Cool!)

most eclectic: Lots of my customers like to describe their tastes as “eclectic”. They virtually never really are. If they were, they might be more open to books like Ken Hollings’s The Space Oracle, which I find myself utterly unable to describe in any genre terms whatsoever. It’s nonfiction, but that’s where my certainties end. It’s definitely mostly astronomy, but sometimes it’s history and sometimes it’s mythology and sometimes it’s kind of, maybe, alchemy? It’s more or less an exploration of how different world cultures have used the ordering principles of the night sky to impose order on life, but Hollings uses unfamiliar names for the members of the zodiac, which immediately throws off all the things you think you know. Really interesting, really weird.

best emotional break: I suppose this is an odd takeaway from a memoir about the incredibly difficult life of cattle farmers in Ireland, particularly given that the author of The Cow Book, John Connell, is perpetually at loggerheads with his father. But it did feel like an emotional break. The concerns of farming are concrete and visible, unlike many of our current anxieties: will the calf die? Will the weather break? Will the cow conceive? There’s a slightly sadboi energy to Connell’s writing that occasionally irritates (he uses “for” instead of “because” a lot, which I’m only really willing to accommodate in writing from at least fifty years ago or in poetry), but it’s a thoughtful, melancholy read, which I appreciated.

most obvious influence: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is… well… the first time machine in literature! Certainly the first to use the phrase, and without doubt a foundational text of the time travel canon. I was surprised by its brevity, and by how basically flimsy the story is (and that the Time Traveller’s tale, which makes up the bulk of the novella, never loses its quotation marks at the start of each paragraph), but Wells’s theorized split in the future of humanity, where the effete, beautiful and useless Eloi are the prey of the bestial, subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, and both are descendants of homo sapiens as we currently know the species, says some dark, dark things about the direction of late Victorian/early Edwardian thought about class division. (To be clear: I’m not saying Wells thought the poor were Morlocks. I’m just saying, he doesn’t seem to have had much optimism about upward mobility.) A fascinating, if brief, book.

most annoyingly good: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, which I would much prefer not to have enjoyed, but which instead I have to admit is extremely compelling in its account of how languge both reveals a person and constrains them. And not just in the generic literary-fiction sense, either; Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, is an Irish ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and her detailing of which words are used in what contexts and with what implications are so precise, they feel like evidence for use in an essay. She skewers class, gender, nationality and sexuality with this level of attention. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to Sally Rooney, and I can see why, but I prefer Dolan: she acknowledges the peculiarities, the oddness, of her characters in a way that Rooney never does, and it makes their odd behaviour feel, perversely, more realistic.

best premise: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. In an alt-Johannesburg, there’s a condition called Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism. No one can explain it, but if you do something bad (not necessarily criminal, but definitely morally wrong), you get an animal sidekick – silent, ever-present, inseparable from you. Think kind of noir Pullman. Our heroine Zinzi has a Sloth. You also get a gift: hers is finding lost things. When she takes the kind of case she never takes—missing persons—she’s in at the deep end of a story involving the South African music scene, traditional medicine, and very unscrupulous people. This won the Clarke Award; my last Clarke winner was Air, by Geoff Ryman, which was a more ambitious and more moving novel than Zoo City, but this is a seriously fun noir/sf mashup, the pace never lets up, and Beukes’s prose—while occasionally overegged—usually hits just the right tangy/salty notes. Grand stuff.

closest to stealing Tana French’s crown: No one will ever actually do that. But We Know You Know (formally published under the much more evocative and relevant-to-the-actual-plot title Stone Mothers), by Erin Kelly, comes near. Dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event that occurred in a now-closed hospital, and the effect it has on three lives when it’s brought up many decades later, the book is not just a crime thriller, but a merciless filleting of the systems and prejudices that conspired (and still do) to imprison and punish the vulnerable—particularly women—and how the repercussions of traumas incurred in those systems are generations-deep.

best historical escapism: The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak’s novel of sixteenth-century Istanbul, master builder Sinan, and one of his apprentices, Jahan, who appears in the Ottoman court as the keeper of a white elephant, Chota, sent as a gift to the Sultan. I’ve said before that I want to like Shafak’s work more than I do; there’s a stylistic inelegance and tendency to rely on cliché that often deflates her writing for me. The Architect’s Apprentice suffers from these flaws, but somehow the historical setting seems to absorb them more easily, making it feel more naturally like a long fable or picaresque. Highly enjoyable, though, for its energy and charm, and the way it explains gaps in the record (Sinan and his chief western rival Michelangelo having never met or even corresponded, for instance).

best audio choice: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, a memoir exploring Stott’s childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict Christian sect that became a cult in the ’60s and was rocked by a sex scandal in the ’70s. Stott’s father, who had been a pillar of their EB community in Brighton, pulled the family out then, and the book is something of an attempt to lay his ghost (Stott uses this metaphor herself) after he dies several decades later. It’s beautifully written, a thoughtful, curious, compassionate and fascinating account of religious mania but also of her family history and her father’s character. She has, apparently, written at least two novels as well, though this is what won her the Costa biography prize in 2017; her fiction must be well worth seeking out.

best sunshine thriller: Conviction by Denise Mina, although that makes the book sound popcorn-y and it’s not. Focusing on a woman who decides to do some investigating of her own when a true crime podcast mentions a man she was once friends with, there are a few melodramatic moments that stretch credulity, but they’re swallowable because Mina writes really capably, and because of the voice of the protagonist she’s created. Overt polemics are few and far between, but make no mistake, this is an intensely political novel disguised as a Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick. That just screams summer to me.

currently reading: On audio, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; and just about to start an old Virago paperback of Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.

March

There was a part of March before the lockdown, and in it, I read a few books. (I also finished one book in March directly after posting my most recent round-up, so I’ll cover that too.)

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Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Before I went to the States, I posted a call on Twitter for recommendations with regards to good airplane books. The resulting deluge of suggestions was lovely but completely un-navigable, so I narrowed it down to two classics that I already owned and knew could keep me occupied for eight hours, Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. Posting about this triggered another avalanche,  this time primarily from middle-aged men, all of whom were very keen to tell me just how Extraordinary An Achievement of the Human Spirit both of those books are. (Yes, Kevin, but is it consistently diverting at high altitude?) One guy was such a strong proponent of Cervantes that I decided to take Dostoevsky, out of spite. Crime and Punishment turned out to be very much not what I expected, though that’s not a bad thing. It’s not particularly dense, for one thing, though it is repetitive. (Once Raskolnikov kills the old lady, he mostly wanders around in cycles of despair and defiance, being sick and getting better, intending to turn himself in and deciding not to.) The oddest thing is that those repetitions make it kind of… funny? In the darkest possible way. It’s like a Coen Brothers movie. Just after the murder, he gets stuck in the old lady’s flat while the two guys renovating the flat downstairs yell at him, and his paralysis is ridiculous, hilarious. At one point he literally hides behind a door to evade his pursuers. It’s absurdist comedy. Also: is there Porfiry/Rasknolnikov slashfic? It may just have been me, but there’s a distinct flavour of erotic sadomasochism/power play in the way they talk to each other. Anyway: weird, worth it, I still like Tolstoy better so far, is there another Dostoevsky novel that might be a good next step?

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The Iliad, by Homer, transl. Robert Fitzgerald: Posting about my struggles with the audiobook version of the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad also drew the exaggerated incredulity of the Kevins of this world, which I suppose I should have expected. Anyway, the fact is that for at least the first 50% of the poem, I was not enthralled. Dan Stevens reads the Fitzgerald edition that’s available on Audible, and he has a lovely reading voice, but even he cannot hide the fact that much of the first twelve books is just names and deaths, going by in a blur too quick to be meaningful. Which I guess is the point—soldiers die in war like Whitman’s leaves of grass, cut down before they can know themselves or their enemy can know them—but twelve books of the stuff is rather a lot. The interventions of the gods, also, seem scrupulously pointless: one intervenes for the Achaeans and they advance, another intervenes for the Trojans and they push back. Again, the futility of war is thoroughly conveyed, but at the cost of being able to invest. Things improve significantly around the time of Patroclus’s death (which comes much, much earlier than you’d think given its emotional weight in the poem), and the final 50% was infinitely more compelling. Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Iliad is seeing how the demands we place on our stories have changed over time; it was clearly conveyed orally to its first audiences and was probably shaped in direct response to their tastes and preferences, so why do we now find that parts of it drag, that the dramatic tension drops and rises in curious places? What’s changed about humans, about the pace at which we live our lives and absorb our stories, or about the events and relationships we find significant?

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The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld: Of all the books for which I’m sad because the pandemic will fuck up their first-week sales, The Bass Rock may be the one for which I’m the saddest. Evie Wyld is a great writer—her last book, All the Birds Singing, was subtle and scary about female vulnerability without sacrificing characterization or style to a political end, and The Bass Rock does the same thing. It has three narrators in three different time frames, but all in the same place, which is a structure easy to do badly, but here done in just such a way as to demonstrate its strengths: it allows us to compare and contrast, to see the ways in which society and landscape pattern peoples’ lives across decades, even centuries, throwing up eerie parallels between otherwise disparate stories. The strongest, I think, is that of Ruth in the 1950s; she is the second wife of a man whose kindness is quickly, dizzyingly, somewhat sickeningly, revealed to be merely the condescension of an everyday misogynist, entitled and thoughtless. The anticlimactic, deflating banality of his awfulness is a key strength of Wyld’s writing. In fact, that now-clichéd fact is everywhere in the book, from the ever-so-slightly-wrong local vicar who takes the children off for sinister excursions, to the boyfriend of the woman in the modern-day sections whose anger flares up when she sets a boundary he deems unreasonable, to the matter-of-fact detachment with which the young narrator of the seventeenth-century sections describes the gang rape and subsequent murder of a young woman denounced as a witch. It sounds po-faced and preachy when I write about it this way, but it’s not, I promise it’s not. It’s funny and queasy and stylish and lives in my head weeks after being read. I think it might be this year’s Ghost Wall. Please, please order it (it was published yesterday, by Jonathan Cape) or put it on hold from your library, and read it.

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Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge: A new book from Hardinge is guaranteed to be a treat. She seems to get darker and more adult as she goes on, and I like it a lot. Her latest is set in an archipelago that was previously ruled over by Lovecraftian gods, horrifying eldritch monsters of the deep that occasionally wrecked islands or devoured ships and who had to be placated by a special caste of priests. Within living memory, all these gods killed each other, and the world is now devoid of divinity, except for the thriving market in “godware”, leftover pieces of their corpses that have strange properties. Hardinge paints the relationship between her young protagonist, Hark, and his best friend Jelt, in shades of grey: we realize pretty early on that their “friendship” is emotionally abusive, as Jelt constantly manipulates Hark into putting himself in danger. There are definite shades of Ursula K. LeGuin here—personal accountability and growth are just as important as saving the world; indeed, the latter relies heavily on the former. It’s also the first time I can remember seeing young adult fiction that deals with emotional abuse between people of the same age who are not in a romantic relationship. I hope it’s the first of many.

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Air, by Geoff Ryman: My attempt to read all of the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners has introduced me to some really incredible science fiction, and Air, which won in 2006, is by no means the least of these. Appropriately, it’s set in 2019-2020, and concerns the coming of a new technology called Air (“like TV in your head”) to the remote Central Asian village of Kizuldah, where people are barely aware of “the Net”, let alone this potentially devastating new world. Chung Mae, the village’s stubborn “fashion expert”, experiences an early test version of Air that kills her elderly neighbour and implants the old woman’s consciousness in Mae’s mind. Realizing how desperately unready her people are, she determines to make them so. Ryman’s smart not to play the situation for laughs on the whole; the book is funny, sometimes, but it’s not laughing at Mae or at her fellow villagers. It’s also the most effectively political book I’ve read for a long time, seamlessly integrating the odd coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and (fictional) ethnic minority Eloi in the same village with the central government’s formal oppression of those same Eloi, an oppression reflected in the tiny, propaganda-riddled quantity of information about them available online (and which an Eloi woman in the village decides to remedy, to her own hazard). Nor can I think of another book that so clearly demonstrates how universal access to information is democratic only in the most sinuous and slippery way, how the division of “haves” and “have-nots” (the book’s subtitle) will persist unless have-nots are specifically taught how to use new tools, and taught without condescension, in ways that they can grasp. It’s an exciting, gripping, hopeful, bittersweet book, and an exceptionally good one.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 1

Upfront disclaimer: This is quite long. Oh well!

It’s been two weeks since my work asked us to start working from home, and it’s taken me this long to get into a headspace where I can start to think about writing anything. The last fortnight has been consumed with iterations of anxiety, uncertainty, and sometimes downright fear: about the stocks of food in my house, about how my employers can keep a book subscription business going remotely, about not seeing my friends, or boyfriend, for God knows how long (he lives across town and I wasn’t with him when the lockdown announcement happened; we can Zoom and FaceTime, but that’s it. I could try to hop on a train, I suppose, but I also count as an immunosuppressed person—type I diabetes, baybee—and that’s almost certainly not a good idea.)

But nothing lasts forever—no state of mind, no public health crisis—and now I can write a little, so I wanted to share what I’ve been consuming recently, in this temporarily topsy-turvy world. Mostly books, because obviously, but some movies, too.

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Last weekend, when we were all working from home but the lockdown hadn’t yet hit, I was halfway through The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. It took me a full week to read it; it’s very long (about 900 pages), and not having a daily commute oddly meant that I had less built-in reading time, plus it was incredibly difficult to focus properly for the first few days (and still is. Twitter, during a crisis of any kind, is a time-and energy-sink like no other.) Once I got into the rhythm of it, though, it was as glorious as I remembered the other two Cromwell books being: just as sharply and minutely observed, just as steeped in the tactile details of the period (no one writes casually about Tudor food like Mantel), just as shockingly funny (her Cromwell has a dry, sometimes capricious wit that Austen might have been proud of), just as attuned to weather and temperature, the powerful weight of religious conviction, the rapidity with which the mood of a room can turn. It’s heartbreakingly good; even as you hurtle towards the end, queasily aware of your A-Level history and knowing what has to happen, you find yourself hoping Mantel has discovered some evidence to the contrary. The final two pages are so stunningly written that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them on English literature and creative writing courses up and down the country in a decade’s time. It’s a magnificent piece of work. I cannot believe that anything else on the Women’s Prize longlist even approaches it, and will also be hoping for a Booker Prize hat trick.

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After that, something completely different: C Pam Zhang‘s forthcoming debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold. (God knows what will happen to the April/May publishing schedule. I think Zhang’s book was meant to be Virago’s lead debut for the spring, which is doubly devastating if it has to be pushed back.) Set during the California Gold Rush of the 1860s, it follows Lucy and Sam, two Chinese-American orphans who set out into the wilderness to find an appropriate place for the burial of their Ba. From this description, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bulk of the book comprises their odyssey, but that’s not quite how it works; their travels together end a quarter of the way through, and the rest of the book consists of an extended flashback narrated by Ba’s corpse (hat-tip, William Faulkner, for all of this), then a flash-forward in time showing Lucy’s life in the town of Sweetwater, and what happens when fiercely independent Sam returns from five years of wandering and shakes things up. It’s an oddly weighted structure, not helped by the persistent present-tense narration; I’m more willing than a lot of people to give the present tense a chance, particularly in historical novels (cf. Mantel), but it also has the danger of imparting a kind of bland weightlessness to events, which is the effect it tends to have in Zhang’s novel. Most of the book feels glassy, not quite there, which may be because the structure prevents us from ever seeing Lucy or Sam bedding down into any one location. Sam’s gender-queerness is intelligently portrayed, particularly as it’s frequently juxtaposed with their beauty, but Zhang doesn’t ever seem able to commit to a pronoun, so you get sentences like “Sam jumps off Sam’s horse”, which is too consistently awkward to be passed off as stylistic. Worthwhile, certainly, but not quite the sum of its parts.

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Yesterday, I finished Olivia Laing‘s new essay collection, Funny Weather: Art In An Emergency. (Another scheduled April release, and a bigger name; what will become of these books?!) It’s one of those round-ups you get once an author has enough columns in various publications to their name; the second section is two years’ worth of short monthly pieces for Frieze magazine, for example. Luckily, unlike most collections of this type, the quality is consistently good, and excellent in places. I enjoy Laing’s writing a good deal more in long form than in short, so her Frieze pieces struck me as occasionally, unavoidably, glib, but an earlier section—biographical and creative appraisals of various 20th-century artists—was a delight. No one else writes about artists with such infectious verve; I now desperately want to read both Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature and David Wojnarowicz’s Close To the Knives, to seek out Agnes Martin’s paintings, to look up Sargy Mann. Her profiles of four creative women—Hilary Mantel (hey!), Ali Smith, Sarah Lucas and Chantal Joffe—reveal her fascination with artistic process and an artist’s psychology: why do writers, or painters, or filmmakers, or sculptors, work the way they do and on the things they do? There’s also a marvelous three-page essay (which I photographed and posted in full on Twitter, because it’s so good) about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of “paranoid reading” versus “reparative reading”: paranoid reading is what a lot of us are doing right now, desperate semi-mindless thumb-ache-inducing scrolling in order to gather the minutest pieces of data about a given situation. Sedgwick suggests an alternative paradigm, one in which the mere revelation of Bad Stuff Happening isn’t prioritized over attempts to process it or make it constructive or beautiful. Much harder to define, this reparative reading, but a really useful idea, at least for me, in the middle of this endless breaking news about Bad Stuff.

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I’m now listening to Michelle Obama‘s memoir, Becoming, which I got from Audible primarily because every woman of a certain age seems to love it and it seemed like something I should be, dutifully, aware of. Guess what? It’s genuinely great so far. She’s warm, gently funny, reflective, generous in her sharing of her family history. The first chapter culminates in an anecdote about her first piano recital at the age of five—she gets stuck because she can’t find Middle C on a piano with a perfect keyboard, having learned to identify it on her great-aunt’s instrument because it’s the key with a big chunk chipped out of it. Really, really enjoyable and lovely; highly recommend if you’re feeling a bit jangly because of all the news.


On to other media: Netflix is great and all (especially now that they’ve got most of Miyazaki’s films on there), but movies are my most infantile medium. The way some people demand only soothing or cosy or already-familiar books, I tend to demand the same of films. I like a franchise; open-mindedness and experimentation is a characteristic of my literary intake, not my cinematic one. I reckon we all need at least one artistic medium that we utilize purely for comfort. Therefore, in these times of turmoil: I bought a Disney+ subscription. It has been the greatest decision.

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My housemate Joe and I watched Coco as our first foray. I’d seen it once before, on Boxing Day two years ago, and figured my weepy response might just have been a result of being in holiday mode. Nope; it is a genuinely emotionally devastating film. It’s also wonderful and heartwarming, visually stunning, astonishingly dark in places, and very funny. It occurs to me that it doesn’t appear to have had much of a cultural afterlife (hah, afterlife): three years after its release, there’s no merchandise or memes or any of the stuff that, e.g., Frozen or Moana or even Inside Out have had. Why? What made this film sink (or sink-ish)? It can’t be because it’s about Mexican culture, entirely voice-acted by Hispanic/Latinx talent and set on the Day of the Dead, surely? (Apparently it is the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico, which is both lovely and heartbreaking: imagine being so starved for representation of your culture that it takes a cartoon to show you yourself.) Anyway, it’s fantastic; whoever wrote it has an incredibly light touch that only increases the emotional impact of each plot twist. Good, good stuff.

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We went for a double bill last night, because it was a Friday: our first screening was of Zootropolis (also released as Zootopia), which I’d never seen. God knows if I was just emotionally unstable and also half a bottle of wine down, but it struck me as utterly hilarious; the sloths in the DMV nearly had me weeping from laughter. The central conceit also allows for consistently brilliant visual gags, mostly to do with scale: the pneumatic commute tubes that deposit tiny, be-suited hamster bankers at their stop, a fox carrying a popsicle twice his size from a shop run by elephants, the fact that terrifying mafia boss Mr. Big is a pygmy shrew. I think this is actually a stronger element of the film than its police-procedural plot and the barely-sub-text about racism and prejudice; that stuff works well enough, but it doesn’t feel especially sophisticated. Watching a scene of a wedding reception, complete with exuberant dancing, before the camera pulls back to reveal that the whole thing is taking place on a tabletop (ringed by bodyguards who are polar bears)? Never not funny.

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For some reason, after we’d had one bottle of wine and finished Zootropolis, we decided to watch Hercules, which was made in 1997 and looks like it. Nevertheless, it’s also got some excellent writing, mostly given to Hades and Meg, both of whom are brilliant, bone-dry sarcasm merchants. It’s especially interesting to rewatch Disney films from this era because things that went right over my head are now smacking me in the face: the way in which Hades is coded both queer and Jewish, for example, or the fact that Meg is so clearly a 1940s comedic heroine, a His Girl Friday for the Bronze Age. The plot itself, of course, takes…liberties…with classical mythology, and the historically rape-y vibes of Zeus, the centaur Chiron and the satyr Philoctetes (who wasn’t a satyr) are either brushed under the rug or erased entirely. On the other hand, this is also the movie that gave us the Greek chorus of gospel singers, which is probably the best analogy in any Disney movie ever, not least because their music is SO. GOOD. (Another fun thing: when the chorus is narrating, as opposed to their actual musical numbers, the style bears a strong resemblance to operatic recitative. I copped on to it in the section that starts “Young Herc was mortal now”, but it’s there all the way through.) The introduction of the characters Pain and Panic is regrettable, and I still don’t understand why Hera is portrayed as hot-pink and sparkly instead of her more traditional characterization as a jealous bitch (with, as far as I know, standard human skin tone), but it’s fun and diverting, the scary bits are surprisingly scary, and the songs are surprisingly good.

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Oh, and I’ve also decided to watch all the way through the Star Wars movies in chronological order, which meant I had to start with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Which is… not a very good movie. Liam Neeson is sexy in it because Liam Neeson is sexy in everything and at all times, but the rest of it is pretty pants. The pacing is weird, it takes an absolute age to get going, Darth Maul is barely in it (though his triple duel with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor at the end is excellently choreographed), Natalie Portman at eighteen really cannot act, and am I the only person who kept looking at every scene Shmi Skywalker was in and thinking, “More of this! Pay more attention to Shmi!” Her emotional experience before the film has been fairly devastating and things only get harder, and Qui-Gon Jinn just… never asks her any questions except for who Anakin’s dad is, and the film doesn’t seem to care? Also, Jar Jar Binks sucks. I know it’s fashionable to hate on him, but the fact is that it is also correct to hate on him, for he is the worst. The only redeeming feature of the film is Queen Amidala’s hair and wardrobe. Bring me this gown at once:

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What are you watching, reading, listening to, to stay sane?

books to look forward to

Forthcoming in January 2020: a bundle of truly excellent new titles, some of which I’ve read over the last few weeks. Let us hope that a good literary start to a new decade is an omen.

9781786331625Long Bright River, by Liz Moore: A genuinely exceptional crime novel, reminiscent of Dennis Lehane and Attica Locke, set in the drug- and prostitution-addled Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington. Our detective protagonist, Mickey, grew up in the area and has seen friends, cousins, neighbours, and her own parents and sister, fall prey to opiate addiction; keeping her patch safe is her biggest priority. Keeping her sister, Kacey, safe is equally important to her, but Kacey is a sex worker and a heroin addict, and Mickey is permanently worried about her. When it becomes clear that a serial killer is targeting Kensington’s sex workers, Mickey has to find the murderer and protect Kacey, even if it means going against orders. Her relationship with her former partner, Truman, is exquisitely drawn, as is her history with her ex-husband; the story of their marriage is an intelligent reinforcement of Moore’s exploration of how structural power is used against women, especially vulnerable ones. Not to be missed.

41uya1dvjtl._sx308_bo1204203200_Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid: I was meant to love this, according to the people I know at its publisher (Bloomsbury), and it almost feels churlish not to have done so. It is a forthright and quite uncompromising look at the shifting dynamics between a liberal white woman who desperately wants to be liked, and the slightly younger black nanny of her children; Reid’s major success is to create an atmosphere where all of the characters are both irritating and sympathetic, where everyone—even those that are more irritating than others, like the white boyfriend who has a history of fetishizing black people—makes at least one valid point about the emotional dishonesty and manipulative behaviour of the other characters. Where it’s not particularly subtle is in the illustration of nanny Emira’s friendship circle, which seems to consist primarily of Sassy Black Girl Friends. Ultimately uneven, but thought-provoking.

imageBraised Pork, by An Yu: Gorgeous cover, no? Despite the red flecks, it’s not especially gory; more than anything, it reminded me of Murakami, which is a comparison I generally dislike but which does occasionally seem applicable. In Braised Pork, a young woman finds her husband dead in the bath, the only clue to his demise being a scrap of paper upon which he has drawn a fish with the head of a man. His widow sets out to find the source of the strange drawing, and finds herself re-examining her own childhood in the process, including her father’s abandonment of their family. For me, the clearly magical realist elements of the novel (the un-dreams she has where she’s swimming deeper and deeper into a black lake in search of the fish man; a long sequence in a remote Tibetan village where an elder has been carving the image for decades) sat uneasily alongside the more prosaic family drama. Like Murakami, Yu’s novel often feels meandering and purposeless, though there no doubt is a purpose. Not my cup of tea, but might well be for someone else.

51licv4b04l._ac_sy400_ml2_The Street, by Ann Petry: Slated for republication by Virago Modern Classics, this was originally published in 1946 and was the first novel by a black woman to sell more than a million copies in America. Like much of what I’ve read from Virago recently, there is a fantastic sense of contemporaneity to it; the story of Lutie Johnson, who tries to keep herself and her son safe and their integrity intact, but who must contend with sexism, racism, and the devastating grind of poverty, is told with a fury so passionate and fresh that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the ink still wet on the page. Petry’s work is clearly a frontrunner for a literary tradition that went on to encompass Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and Tayari Jones.  Frequently skirting melodrama but always redeemed by Petry’s absolutely clear, burning vision, it’s a gripping page-turner as well as a portrait of a woman trying to maintain sanity within a system that has been specifically designed to destroy her.

81wobth2melAgency, by William Gibson: It must be odd to be William Gibson. Society, and technology, has more or less arrived at a point that he wrote about as futuristic during his early career; he’s now indelibly known as a science fiction writer, but Agency—though it has all of the trappings of a techno-thriller and is, certainly, science fictional—is less world-of-tomorrow sf than world-of-three-minutes-from-now satire. It concerns the development of an autonomous AI system, originally created as a form of virtual handler for covert military operations, now stolen by a Silicon Valley firm and marketed as a PA called Eunice. There’s time travel (sort of, in a manner of speaking), and high-speed motorcycle chases, and a remote-control drone shaped like a radiator, and a lot of quick, slangy banter. It’s terrific fun and reasonably clever along with it, though I think Gibson’s ending is optimistic.

9781526607027Threshold, by Rob Doyle: Nothing—no friend’s impassioned recommendation, no innate desire, no travel article—has ever, ever made me want to drop acid and go to a three-day rave at a Berlin nightclub. This book did. Doyle seems to have written a type of autofiction, one in which all he does for at least a decade and a half is travel around Europe, writing in a desultory fashion and taking a lot of drugs. As a human being, narrator-Doyle is faintly insufferable—he’s not good to women and remarkably solipsistic—but of course the relationship of narrator-Doyle to author-Doyle is indirect. Rachel Kushner writes, on the front cover, that she “learned to stop worrying (about what sort of novel this is) and love the narrator”; I never quite loved him, but I did warm to his earnest, encyclopedic  informativeness, and the postcard-from-Europe style of his perambulations around various cities. And no description of the effects of hallucinogens has ever entranced me half so much.


Out later in 2020:

original_400_600The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (6 Feb): I’m ever wary of covers like this one—it’s generally a dead giveaway that the publishers are attempting to ride the Essex Serpent wave, though sometimes (see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock) it pays off. Millwood Hargrave’s first novel for adults (she’s a successful children’s/YA author) is based on the true story of a freak storm that killed forty men off the coast of a Norwegian island in 1617, and the subsequent imprisonment and trials for witchcraft that the women of the island suffered. Its relevance to the modern day is, perhaps, a tiny bit on the nose (yes, men dislike powerful women! Yes, religious mania is a figleaf for controlling sadists!) I was, however, moved by Millwood Hargrave’s description of the physical effects of grief and depression, and by her sensitive portrayal of the central (lesbian) romance. A wonderful historical yarn to curl up with on cold nights.

9781526601094Rest and Be Thankful, by Emma Glass (19 March): Curious, this: Glass’s depiction of a NICU nurse who is overworked, desperately sleep-deprived, and already prone to chronic anxiety and depression is extremely affecting, but also feels very one-note. There is nothing in the book other than the protagonist Laura’s increasing inability to keep herself together, her physical deterioration (red, cracked hands and greasy hair) mirroring her mental and emotional decline. Her boyfriend, who leaves her, is clearly a dickhead, but one also struggles to blame him for wanting more out of his relationship than the miserable zombie he’s currently living with. Hints that Laura is struggling with a deeper trauma hidden in her past go some way towards clarifying her state of mind, but the final-page revelation feels slightly unearned. Perhaps if I read it a second time I would get more out of it.

71zwt2vovwlMy Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (31 March): I put off reading this (the hype! The overt Nabokov, specifically Lolita, intertext! The teacher/student romance thing!) I was, eventually, blown away by it. Russell gets everything so right: the way that English teacher Jacob Strane grooms fifteen-year-old Vanessa, making her feel special and clever, playing on her emotional intelligence to push her into wanting to be “cool” and “mature”, and therefore not reacting negatively when he at last touches her. The way that Vanessa, seventeen years later, struggles with revelations that Strane did this to other students; the way that, as she tells her therapist, she doesn’t see herself as a victim; the way that she has to tell it to herself as a love story—because if it isn’t, how can she bear it? I recognized so much of myself in Vanessa’s reactions and longings that it scared me: if the right (wrong) person had come along when I was fifteen, I was nearly as vulnerable as she was. A lot of girls are. Russell deals with an incredibly difficult, complex subject with the nuance and shading that it deserves, while never being unclear about the dreadful effect Strane has had on Vanessa’s life. Believe the hype.


What are you looking forward to reading in January?

reading and listening

(long-ish, sorry)

Audiobooks! I don’t hate them!

This, it turns out, is what I’m like: I hate the idea of change, I resist it with every fibre of my being, I make up reasons why the new thing won’t work, and then I try it once and really enjoy it. This is where I am with audiobooks now, and where I was with podcasts about six months ago. I always want to read on my commutes and yet – especially this time of year – often find that after a day at work, my eyes are too tired to want to look at marks on a page. Listening to books is a natural solution. My resistance was based on how intensely annoying other people’s voices can be, but listening to Elisabeth Moss narrate The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be a good introduction: she has a soft-spoken, understated delivery that suits the barely veiled menace of Gilead. Having finished that, I spent some time looking for another title that would work as well, and eventually settled on Stephen Fry narrating a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. It’ll last me for some time; I’ve completed two of the novels and still have over 60 listening hours to go…

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A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle: The very first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever published, in which we meet both the titular character and his amanuensis and helpmeet, the stolid Dr John Watson. The mystery revolves around the murder of a man in an abandoned house in Brixton, found without a mark on his body and with the word RACHE painted in blood on the wall. (S1E1 of the BBC’s Sherlock perpetrated a nice, sarcastic twist upon this detail: “She was writing Rachel?” a Scotland Yard detective says, skeptically, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snarls, “No, she was writing an angry note in German – of course she was writing Rachel”, where in the book it is precisely, and improbably, the other way round.) The solution to the mystery, at which Holmes arrives with customary speed, involves revenge for a romantic injustice that occurred decades previously, when both killer and victim were involved with – yes – the early Mormon community of Salt Lake City.

Most of the novel’s Part II is taken up with a flashback narrative of the circumstances that led up to said injustice, which lets Conan Doyle really go for broke with his portrayal of the American West. There’s absolutely no clear reason for him to introduce Mormonism, apart from the natural exoticism involved in describing a foreign sect, and A Study in Scarlet has been challenged in some American schools for showing “anti-Mormon prejudice” (to which one answer might be, well, Brigham Young and his buddies were pretty big fans of polygamy, and they did have a secret police/militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, so where’s the lie?) This section is much too long and risks losing the reader’s interest, though one wonders what might have happened had Doyle decided to write a Western. (Are fanfic communities already on top of this?) Apart from that, though, the most interesting element of A Study in Scarlet is Holmes, who, on his first outing, is nowhere near such a jerk as he’s been made to appear in subsequent adaptations: a little full of himself, perhaps, but surprisingly warm to Watson, and always ready to laugh at the absurd.

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It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo: One of the season’s offerings from HarperCollins’s new imprint, Harper Via, which focuses on fiction in translation. Borgo is a Venezuelan journalist; this is her first novel. She no longer lives in her home country but in Spain, and has been watching Venezuela descend into lawlessness over the past thirteen years. Some of what she has seen is echoed in the experiences of her protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, whose world falls apart immediately after she buries her mother. Adelaida’s flat is commandeered by a group of violent and clearly working-class women – supposed revolutionaries, though their behaviour is more like that of petty warlords –  who use it as a base to store the food supplies that they are meant to be distributing equally throughout the district. (They are, of course, selling most of it on the black market at ridiculously inflated prices.) Driven from what remains of her home, Adelaida finds shelter in the flat of her neighbour, who happens to have died of a heart attack. She also offers sanctuary to her friend’s brother, Santiago, who has been captured, tortured and raped, and made to join the revolutionary forces, but deserts the instant he gets the chance. Adelaida’s and Santiago’s silent, nocturnal lives – they cannot draw attention to themselves for fear of being found out by the women in the flat next door – make up the bulk of the book, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, until Adelaida at last takes the risk of attempting to impersonate the dead woman, who has family in Spain, and flee the country.

The briefest trawl of Goodreads throws up lukewarm reviews of It Would Be Night in Caracas. A lot of them are in Spanish, which I don’t read very well. The longest one in English suggests that Borgo has, either out of intentional malice or out of culpable ignorance enabled by her own position of privilege as a white Venezuelan member of the property-owning classes, written bourgeois propaganda meant to dupe the English-reading public into supporting action against a democratically elected Venezuelan government. This was not something I considered while reading the book, and I’m glad to have been made to stop and think about it afterwards. As far as the convincing fictional construction of a life under siege goes, Borgo’s nailed it; the novel feels both dreamlike and hyper-real because those are the conditions of emotional and physical stress under which her characters live, and she pulls that off because she can write. (Her journalistic training may help; there’s a straightforward lack of melodrama to her descriptions of suffering that enhances their power.) I would need to know more than I do about Venezuelan history and politics to be able to say whether this feels more like a cynical maneuver, a sincere cri de coeur from an exile, or something in between. But it sure as hell works on a technical level.

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Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout: Strout’s last two books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, defeated me—I tried the first few pages of each and rapidly lost interest. Olive, Again is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteredge, and either I’ve changed or the book really is in a different league. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career; the eponymous Burgess boys make an appearance, as does Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle. But mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. What is so extraordinary about her work is that—not unlike Willa Cather, now that I think of it—she uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Power dynamics are constantly being assessed and revealed, but never explicitly. The first chapter, which follows Jack Kennison on a drive, includes a scene where he’s stopped and humiliated by a police officer, who may or may not—Jack doesn’t look long enough to know for sure—get an erection during the course of the interaction. It scares us as it scares him, the idea of being at the mercy of someone who is aroused by your unconsensual helplessness. Yet the idea never escapes the boundaries of a restrained, almost formal narrative voice that suits the character and the context exactly. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t; Strout may be hit or miss for me, but the hits are good enough that I’ll keep trying her every time she produces something new.

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The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle: First of all: this book is racist. Sorry. It was written by a British man in 1890 and involves the Indian Rebellion, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; under such circumstances, casual racism is, regrettably, par for the course. However, the main villain is a white Englishman, giving Doyle only a relatively small window in which to be racist. He must turn his attention instead to what seems to be a staple of the Sherlock Holmes books—the Lengthy Explication Of the Crime By the Villain What Did It, Taking Up At Least the Final Third of the Novel’s Whole Length—and for most of this explanation, racism is blessedly beside the point.

The plot is complex and turns on the theft of some jewels by four men—two Sikhs, a Muslim, and the aforementioned white guy—during the Indian Rebellion, when the countryside is in an uproar and a particularly wealthy Rajah attempts to have his valuables escorted to be guarded by the British at Agra. Instead of ensuring the safety of his possessions, the wheeze backfires spectacularly: the courier accompanying the jewels is murdered and the four men steal, and hide, the treasure. Their crime is found out almost at once and they are all sentenced to lifelong penal servitude in the Andaman Islands, but—crucially—the treasure remains hidden. Our villain, one Jonathan Small, reveals its location to one of the British army officers stationed in his prison, hoping that the man’s desperate gambling debts will prompt him to help Small escape in return for a portion of the loot. Instead, naturally, the British officer absconds with the entire treasure and Small remains incarcerated, until he escapes and befriends an Andaman Islander named Tonga. (More racism occurs here, particularly as Tonga ultimately falls from a boat and drowns as a direct result of Holmes and Watson’s investigation, and their inability to conceive of a black man as anything other than threatening.) Tonga and Small travel to England, track down the man who betrayed Small, and kill him. Collateral damage takes the form of the death of another British officer, a Captain Morstan, who is a fairly good guy as far as this book is concerned, and whose daughter’s desire to find out what happened to her father is the catalyst for the plot. (She falls conveniently in love with John Watson, and agrees to marry him at the end of the book. If it’s hardly the most convincing romance I’ve ever read, it’s a fairly convincing match; they’re both practical, sensible, kind-hearted characters.)

Listening to both of these books in quick succession has allowed me to note Doyle’s evident fondness for a kind of plotting formula. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, seeing as they are classic genre novels and genre fiction can be partly defined by a certain level of structural predictability. Still, side by side, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet both have easily identifiable features, the most prominent of which is the Very Long Flashback Monologue From the Villain. In a way, I wonder if this constitutes moral foresight on Doyle’s part, a kind of pre-post-modern attempt to get the reader to empathize with a murderer by understanding their circumstances. In another and more likely way, I think it might just be Doyle indulging his readers’ (and his own) taste for descriptions of faraway lands. It can’t be a coincidence that both Very Long Flashback Monologues (VLFMs from now on) take place in colorfully unstable foreign countries, much like the pre-credits sequence in every new James Bond film. Does anyone know of any work on colonialist tropes in early crime fiction and how/whether this developed along with the genre? I’d be keen to find out more.

also read recently:

  • North Child, Edith Pattou’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which is in itself a form of Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche. It was my favourite as a kid—there’s a talking white bear and an evil troll queen!—and Pattou’s adaptation is beautiful, scary and thrilling. There are too many POV characters (not all of them contribute much to our understanding of the story), but that’s a minor gripe. For strong readers of 10+.
  • The Horseman, the first in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, of which I’d already read the second and the third. (Weird, yes, but take from this the fact that you can start reading the books in pretty much any order.) This volume focuses on life working the land on a manor estate in Edwardian Devon, before our young protagonist Leo is (metaphorically) expelled from Eden. It’s just as beautiful—hyper-focused, lyrical, unsentimental about either nature or farming—as the other two. More people should be reading Pears. He knows what he’s about; in fact, he’s so good that attempting to analyze, critique or review his work feels somewhat superfluous.
  • A Man On the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s now-twenty-year-old history of the Apollo program. I developed a mild obsession with the moon landing this summer, when it was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and a lot of media on the topic was being broadcast. Chaikin’s book goes one better by dealing with every mission from Apollo 1—which never flew, because a disastrous fire in the space capsule during a routine test killed all three members of the crew—to Apollo 17, which gave us more information than we’d ever had before about the geology of the moon, and therefore about the history of our own planet. The fact that NASA plans to return to the moon in 2024, with the Artemis program, is intensely exciting; we should be funding these projects, we should be trying to learn more and go further and study what we find. A Man on the Moon is a fantastically readable account of the handful of people who have already done these things, and an inspirational argument for repeating the effort.