January: That Which Was Not Reviewed

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

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

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

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke.

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

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang.

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

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe.

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

and now I am reading:

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

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

Goblin Market (Penguin Little Black Classics no. 53), by Christina Rossetti

We must not look at goblin men,/We must not buy their fruits.

Who knows upon what soil they fed/Their hungry thirsty roots?

Virginia Woolf once wrote of Christina Rossetti, “If I were to bring a case against God, she would be one of the first witnesses I should call.” It is not the most wholehearted of endorsements. Rossetti suffers from it; most people know her, if they know her at all, as the woman who wrote the words to “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”. The remainder of her reputation is as a writer of morbid romantic and devotional poetry, with a heavy focus upon death and blighted love. She’s easy to make fun of, if you’ve never actually read her.

Penguin’s Little Black Classics ought to help rectify that. To begin with, they constitute a brilliantly simple marketing idea: to celebrate Penguin’s eightieth anniversary, a limited edition release of eighty short, small, elegant books of extracts from some of Penguin’s most famous publications, priced at 80p each. There is nonfiction from the writings of Charles Darwin, Samuel Pepys, John Ruskin, and Henry Mayhew, amongst others. There is fiction from Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, to name but a few. There is, of course, poetry: Basho, Hafez, Chaucer, Ovid, Catullus, Homer, Walt Whitman, and—not least—Rossetti. The Little Black Classics are pamphlet-sized and come without any supplementary material: no introduction, no footnotes, not even a back-cover blurb. The effect is to make the text immediate and fresh. You’re approaching something on your own that would normally be mediated for you through academia. For some readers, I imagine, it is their first time in years—perhaps ever—interacting with a non-contemporary text simply, on its own terms.

I bought two other Little Black Classics along with the Rossetti (extracts of Walt Whitman’s poetry, entitled On the Beach At Night Alone, and a collection of the medieval Persian poet Hafez under the enticing name The nightingales are drunk), but Goblin Market was a brilliant place to start because that freshness, that sense of coming to the text without mediation, was particularly vivid. I had barely read Rossetti; “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” hardly counts, and the other two poems of hers I knew were from my senior high school English class, where we had covered them in five minutes and moved on to other things. At Oxford, while we covered Victorian fiction and criticism and two major poets (Tennyson and Browning), the tutors roundly ignored her. So I knew almost nothing. I had few expectations, other than those adjectives mentioned above: morbid, romantic, devotional. They were fulfilled, but more adjectives crowded in as I read: playful. Contemporary. Clever. Earnest. Pathological. Painterly. And, oddly, sexy.

Goblin Market is a long poem and takes the form of a cautionary tale. There are two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. Both have golden hair and pale skin and inexplicably absent parents, as fairy tale sisters often do. Of an evening, they while away the hours by a stream in a dell near their house. Both hear the crying of goblin men, fruit-sellers and tempters. Lizzie resists and flees back to the safety of the house; Laura cannot resist, and eats. From then on she is cursed, restless and depressive, desperate for another taste of the goblin fruit, and Lizzie takes it upon herself to rescue her sister from the spiritual slough into which she has sunk.

So far, so Victorian, with its correlation of fruit or food with sexuality, desire, and excess, which, naturally, must be punished. Where Rossetti stands out is in the sensuality of her descriptions. The list of fruits that the goblin-men are hawking piles up like the fruits themselves; combined with the dactylic rhythms of the meter and the truncated lines, it gives a sense of voluptuous, almost breathless abundance:

Plump unpecked cherries,

Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Wild free-born cranberries…

Come buy, come buy.

And when Laura decides to stay behind in the glen, we know that she’s doomed long before she does, because the poetry tells us so, again in the most extraordinarily sensual manner:

Laura stretched her gleaming neck

Like a rush-imbedded swan,

Like a lily from the beck,

Like a moonlit poplar branch,

Like a vessel at the launch

When its last restraint is gone.

I mean, sorry, but that is hot. Not just for the neck imagery, although that’s part of it; it’s also the way Rossetti works her rhymes, abaccb, so that you think you know what’s coming and then there’s the final couplet with “launch/gone”, which don’t rhyme at all, although “gone” echoes back to “swan”, so there’s resonance but no predictability. It’s startlingly good. (There’s also the imagery of a woman as a ship without restraints, which is hot in yet another way.)

Her religious poetry lacks these febrile similes, but there’s an absolute assurance to them, especially the one called “Up-Hill”, which ends with a couplet that seemed familiar: “Will there be beds for me and all who seek?/Yea, beds for all who come.”

The certainty of the hope of heaven is fortunate, because almost all of the other poems are about death, or a pathological melancholy whose sufferers can find respite only in eternal sleep. The one which touched me most, however, was in an oddly different vein, a bit like Philip Larkin’s poem about the hedgehog. It’s entitled “A Frog’s Fate”:

Contemptuous of his home beyond

The village and the village pond,

A large-souled Frog who spurned each byeway

Hopped along the imperial highway.

It’s thoroughly charming. (“A large-souled Frog”! Of course.) The story ends badly, as stories tend to do for wildlife who insist on sharing roadspace with humans and their wheeled transport, and the frog’s dying “sob” or “croak” is a remorseful one: he should have stuck to the byeways. Rossetti’s final two stanzas turn the story into a meditation on the obliviousness of the great to the reality of the lives of little people—the wagoner who killed the frog was humming “A froggy went a-wooing” as he did so: “A hypothetic frog trolled he/Obtuse to a reality.” I really can’t decide what this reminds me of. Emily Dickinson in a playful mood, perhaps? Yet for all its light irony, it’s a terribly sad poem.

The final selection in the pamphlet is a series of nursery rhymes from Sing-Song, a collection Rossetti published in 1872. They start out weird: “Our little baby fell asleep,/And may not wake again/For days and days, and weeks and weeks,/But then he’ll wake again.” One imagines an ellipsis instead of a comma after the third line; we’re certainly being made to contemplate a baby whose sleep is the sleep of death. There’s sweetness: “My baby has a mottled fist,/My baby has a neck in creases;/My baby kisses and is kissed,/For he’s the very thing for kisses.” But it’s almost entirely overshadowed by falling leaves, ruined nests, caged linnets, and—finally—a grave: “Why did baby die,/Making Father sigh,/Mother cry?” Not at all the sort of things you’d be singing to your own infant. Who the intended audience could possibly have been is unclear. It reminds me, overall, of a comment one character makes in AS Byatt’s Possession, of a Victorian female poet partly modeled on Rossetti: “She doesn’t like children.” I don’t think Rossetti really did, either.

I’m glad to have been introduced to her this way, though. It allows one to make up one’s own mind about the poet and their work, which in some ways is intimidating but in others is a delightful freedom. Christina Rossetti may not have liked children, but I like her: for her fearless subject matter, for her clearly uneasy relationship with sexuality, for the wildly imaginative and colorful pictures that she paints with words. Goblin Market is a wonderful, haunting little pamphlet.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-to-Me Authors Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ’em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten authors whom I read for the first time in 2014. I read a lot of authors for the first time this year; it was a year of exploration and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1. Beryl Bainbridge. My first book of the year, Master Georgie, was also one of the best–rarely have I ever read something so emotionally charged, written with such subtlety and compression. Although I didn’t read any other Bainbridge novels this year, The Bottle Factory OutingAn Awfully Big Adventure and According to Queeney are definitely on my list.

2. Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow is a disturbing, gorgeous book about faith and first contact with an alien civilization. Although it’s less tightly wound than Master Georgie, here Russell also deals with an emotionally charged plot and themes very subtly. It’s a masterclass for anyone who wants to write fiction.

3. Katherine Faw Morris. Young God was without a doubt one of the best books I read this year–possibly the very best. How could it be otherwise? It’s got a thirteen-year-old North Carolina hill-dwelling drug lord called Nikki for a protagonist. She’s motherless, violent and magnificent.

4. Sarah Waters. HOW HAD I NOT READ HER BEFORE. HOW. This is the writer who gave the world the metaphor of a woman who resides in her own skin with a smooth fullness that suggested she’d been poured into it like toffee into a mould. That is a first-class metaphor, you guys.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Author of Americanah, about which I think I raved earlier. Also, gave an interview in which she said she was a feminist and seemed utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone with any sense of human rights might not be a feminist. What a pro.

6. Anne Carson. Anne Carson redrew the boundaries of poetry for me this year. Her collection Glass and God obsessed me in early October the way that life-changing writing does. I also wrote about it for Quadrapheme.

7. John le Carre. The master of British understatement and tragic post-imperial malaise. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this year and started The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. No one writes espionage novels like this guy did.

8. Jane Smiley. For the devastating spin on King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres; I haven’t read any of her other novels and apparently no two are the same, but she too understands how to hold strong emotions in tension with each other, without over-explaining. What an amazing book.

9. David Foster Wallace. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, this spring. (He published it when he was my age. He wrote it as an undergrad, alongside his thesis on Wittgenstein. Bastard.) Broom is ridiculously funny and biting and makes no fucking sense at all. I can’t wait to get Infinite Jest out of storage.

10. Olivia Laing. All people who write and all people who are alcoholics/have ever known an alcoholic/have ever known someone who knew someone who was an alcoholic (by my calculations that covers everyone on the planet) could benefit from reading The Trip to Echo Spring. Her writing is sharp, economical but somehow lush, equally well adapted to describing the innermost workings of John Cheever’s short stories, the dipsomaniacal obsessions of Raymond Carver, or the thoughts and feelings in her own mind as a train takes her across America.

In 2013, I have

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2013, I have:

climbed a fell

taken a Virgin train first class, for free (!)

given a speech at Burns Night

done four live radio broadcasts from Manchester, over a week during which, apart from the broadcasts, I did nothing except revise medieval dream poetry and watch baking shows with the Duchess

learned to lay a fire

gotten naked–for the children (and it’s not often you hear someone say that) (aka participated in the naked calendar produced by ExVac, Exeter College’s own charity which takes disadvantaged children for a week’s holiday in the spring vac)

woken up at 5:30 a.m. for May morning

drunk red wine in a mortarboard

This happened.

This happened.

contemplated suicide

revised for Finals

worn a corset in public

commissioned a dress

sat Finals

been trashed

graduated from university

applied to do postgraduate work, and been rejected, and been devastated about that, and then been kind of okay with it

swum naked in the Adriatic

danced in an Italian bar until two in the morning

Fano

sung Bruckner motets for bewildered but enthusiastic Italians, also at two in the morning

read seventy-nine books (beginning to end)

bought twenty-three secondhand books

met Philip Pullman, and chatted about The Faerie Queene with him

watched all three series of Game of Thrones

moved house

become identifiable by sight at Gloucester Green book stall

walked on the North York Moors

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become unwittingly hooked on The Great British Bake Off (shoot shag marry: shoot Mel and Sue, shag Paul, marry Mary. Obviously.)

written eighteen different cover letters for job applications

interned in London, twice

joined Pottermore, and done absolutely nothing on it

discovered that the five-year plan I thought I had isn’t actually the five-year plan I want, and changed it accordingly

laughed so hard I spat water all over the kitchen

cried so hard I couldn’t see the next day

landed a job

gone out every night in a week

...and they all had red eye, The End

…and they all had red eye, The End

created a graph in Microsoft Excel

started to write poetry again, and submit it

won a mention in the Southwest Review’s poetry competition

cooked a Christmas dinner

flown home for the first time in a year

bought alcohol without being carded (in the States, no less)

started to realize that you can be happy and uncertain at the same time.

skeptical amiability

skeptical amiability

Happy New Year’s, you guys. I hope that Santa brought you everything you asked for, that your New Year’s Eve is safe if not sober, and that the coming twelvemonth (a word that needs bringing back) is good to you!

Happy New Year from (most of) L'Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who's taking the picture)

Happy New Year from (most of) L’Auberge Anglaise! (missing Darcy and Half Pint, who’s taking the picture)