You’ve probably already worked that out, but just in case: I went to Michigan for a week, didn’t think about book recommendations or blogging once, and felt so refreshed that I’m extending it. Check my Twitter feed (or indeed Instagram) for very short posts about books that I physically can’t stop myself from shouting about. Other than that, I’ll be commenting sporadically on all of your brilliant work, and I’ll be back when I feel less knackered.
More for me than for you; short impressions of what I’ve read in the last fortnight that isn’t 20 Books of Summer.
Lit, by Mary Karr: A devastating memoir of trying to be a poet, keep a failing marriage together, and kick alcoholism. (Two of these things, Karr achieves. The marriage isn’t one.) A little too long given that it doesn’t really acquire a sense of propulsion until the second half, which is when Karr also finds Catholicism–but her writing about faith, particularly faith as an intellectual and inveterate doubter, is electric. One for fans of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.
The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald’s writing is very clear and clean and capable, and also entirely of its time; one wonders whether she’d get published in today’s marketing- and sales-driven environment. The Blue Flower is the love story of the German Romantic poet Novalis and the pre-teen daughter of a business acquaintance, which makes it somewhat tricky to read in 2019, although the narration is never prurient or indeed particularly sexual. Her atmospheric abilities are incredible, though; you do feel you’re in a nineteenth-century German market town on wash day. And Novalis’s odd, ethereal little brother makes the novel memorable all on his own.
The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon: Tremendously fun contemporary urban fantasy, set in an England beset by a plague of clairvoyance and suffering under a repressive regime. Shannon makes Oxford a ghost town controlled by powerful, supernatural beings who are also utter arseholes. (One imagines there’s some not entirely sublimated irony there.) A bit race-y in its plotting, but then that’s why you read a book like this: to be swept away.
Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor: Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe Mistress, The Phantom of the Opera, and Things In Jars.
Joe Country, by Mick Herron: I go back and forth on Herron’s work in the Slough House series; it’s sometimes wickedly funny, with a strong element of self-aware bathos, and sometimes tries too hard for its own good, falling over its own political incorrectness. Joe Country lies on the right side of the line, generally, though I’m starting to wonder if the series is now long enough that new readers will have a hard time starting in the middle.
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: Outstanding. It’s a very short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.
If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?
Last Friday, the shadow panel had a Top Secret Meeting in central London to talk over the shortlisted books and decide on our winner. Since we’d all been discussing each book over email, it didn’t take especially long to decide, but it was still lovely to meet all the other shadow panelists in person, most of whom I’ve known virtually for years but never yet met in real life.
We were also, briefly, joined by a baby and a dog, which raised the level of sheer delight by a large margin.
Anyway, it is with great delight and total unanimity that we can now announce the shadow panel’s winner: The Lucky Ones, by Julianne Pachico.
This book, man. It knocked us all for six—there was general agreement that for an author of any age, let alone a young one, this would be an incredibly accomplished debut. Pachico’s fearlessness in tackling complex, difficult subject matter; the emotional honesty of her characters; and the sheer sentence-level excellence of the writing made this an easy decision. Do pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.
Speaking of which: we have a delightful wee Rafflecopter giveaway for you, if you fancy it! You can enter here using the link above, or on any of the others’ blogs; it’ll run until the official winner announcement on 7 December. If you win, you can choose whichever one of the shortlisted books you would like to be sent to you for free! (UK only, because postage. Sorry, international chums!)
“the modern day”—Impossible to use in a sentence without sounding like a pompous ass.
“dip into”—Also ew.
“sample”—Do you ever sometimes get mental pictures associated with a word? Not, like, sensible word-association, but an image that corresponds with the shape or sound of the letters? “Sample” looks like Uriah Heep to me. That same open-handed cringe.
“well written”—This is meaningless. It’s literally just code for “something I like”.
“plumping for”—Stop. Plumping is for pillows and partridges and bosoms. That’s it.
“truly believe”—Any verb or adjective preceded by “truly”, actually. It is the most craven of modifiers.
“snippet”—Too twee by half.
“chunkster”—Sounds like frat lingo for “hurricane of vomit”. Not even remotely cute.
“brilliant”—See “well written”, above. If it doesn’t actually shine with the light of the sun, or like the facets of a diamond, I don’t wish to hear it described thus.
“thusly”—Apropos of using the word “thus”, above. “Thusly” isn’t a fucking word, cut it out.
“sneak peek”—Yet more ew. This is the verbal equivalent of the weird old-fashioned drawing on the Coppertone bottle where the dog is pulling the little girl’s underwear down and you’re like…the Broadcasting Standards Agency is okay with this?
“sneak peak”—Peaks can’t sneak. That is kind of the point of them. Next.
“peeved”—Goes into the same box as “gosh darnit” and “Land O’Goshen”. The one labeled SWEARWORDS FOR PEOPLE WHO WEAR WHITE TRAINERS WITH JEANS.
“gal”—Inexplicably sinister, like a Dolly Parton bobblehead.
Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.
easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)
weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.
best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.
most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)
most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.
most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.
most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.
breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.
most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.
best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.
up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…
not being comfortable at church but always pursuing a belief in something
Things I really like about Virgin:
- The way it nails fundamentalist Christianity, but from the inside out, so that you see all the seams and the inconsistencies. A lot of writers who skewer this kind of religious atmosphere in their work seem to be setting out to do just that—skewer it—and Lawson’s take is so much more complex. Many of her narrators are raised in fundamentalism, but aren’t necessarily of it, so that you get kids like Conner in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” trying clumsily to woo Ally Kapawski in the half-hour after church when the kids are running around and the adults are being sociable. Ally, meanwhile, is not unaware of Conner’s advances, but instead of being either a “slutty hypocrite” stereotype or a bible-thumper, she’s just massively, entirely disinterested:
So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away, either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next… and then I got out of the car. She followed.
- The way Lawson can take a narrative concept that seem predictable—older man preys on younger girl—and make it special to our eyes by particularising it. Take, for instance, “The Way You Must Play Always”, one of my favourites of the five stories. Here, the “older man” is dying of a brain tumour, and he is not that old, maybe in his late twenties. The young girl is Gretchen, who narrates the story; she is thirteen and the piano student of the older man’s sister. Gretchen is falling in love with the older man, or at the very least obsessed. She finds him a source of endless fascination—not explicitly sexual but not quite not sexual, either—and spends the week in between lessons planning how best to be alone with him for a few seconds. The fact that he makes her touch him is, undeniably, wrong, but Lawson makes us see how wrongness is not incompatible with a huge and shifty complexity. Gretchen does not invite her molestation, but there is something about the whole act that interests her, and that changes the way the reader sees it. It’s uncomfortable to catch yourself reading this way, but also highly unusual for a writer to actually make you do it, as Lawson does.
- The first story, “Virgin”, does this same particularising work with a seemingly predictable narrative: a man cheats on his wife at a party. But it’s not just any man, and not just any wife: it’s Jake and Sheila, they’ve been married a few years, and Sheila won’t let Jake have sex with her. They’ve managed it once; afterwards,
she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”
…He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.”
“No. No. I love you… I just… It’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t, and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”
Sheila is also from a fundamentalist family, is a virgin when she marries, is working through the trauma of childhood sexual grooming by an uncle. The sad bewildered blundering of their marriage is given a counterweight in the mother and child Jake meets in his work as a press officer for the local hospital. The woman has given a lot of money for a mobile mammography unit; she wasn’t born rich, and she has an open, straightforward way of speaking and of being. So does her three- or four-year-old daughter, who, on a visit to Jake’s office,
began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-coloured eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles. …He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.
There’s something so gravely farcical about it, I can’t help smiling every time I read it back. The solemn little girl, the slightly flailing professional man paying her homage, the faintly amused mother watching the scene. The way it could be a parody of the shepherds and wise men visiting the infant Christ, or it could just be an awkward guy and a self-possessed kid, or—best of all—it could be both at once. It all just works so nicely.
Things in Virgin that don’t work quite as nicely:
- Most of the final story, “Vulnerability”, which is long, is set in New York City as an artist falls for her art dealer. The artist isn’t from New York; she’s settled long ago into a life where her husband supports them and she paints and faintly despises or resents him while also loving him while also being exhausted by the whole situation for reasons she doesn’t really understand. She is the sort of character who continually tests the reader’s patience because, Jesus, what does she have to complain about? And yet there’s something about her that’s a little socially weird and deeply observant and, we sense, she’s not just complaining for the sake of it but because something about her life really does feel wrong to her, and it’s easy to understand that. Maybe the story goes on for a bit too long, but it is painfully precise: Lawson draws the lines of a burgeoning affair that’s happening only partly for reasons of attraction or mutual affection or interest with such clarity, such attention to detail.
What I really like about Virgin, though, is something it doesn’t often occur to me to like, because the whole point is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself: her prose is like glass. Totally clear, totally unobtrusive; perfectly capable of style, but generally more elegant than in-your-face. It’s a hard, hard effect to achieve, but it’s what makes these stories both emotionally incisive and gloriously readable.
Many thanks to Natalie Shaw at Granta for the review copy! Virgin and Other Stories is published in the UK on 5 January.