March 2021 Wrap-Up

Hahahahaha. Well, that didn’t last: I managed two months of reviewing pretty much everything I read, and then this month, it all went wrong.

In my defense, that is because I was reading for, and writing up, an application for an MPhil/PhD programme in English, which consumed a lot of time and brain energy. It also led me to read several academic books in quick succession, none of which I could really adequately review, and to reach mainly (although not entirely) for palate-cleansers in between.

So, this month, I read fourteen books, which is a lot more like the olden days. Of those, I have managed to review one, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Of the rest, five were new releases and/or proof copies: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (a truly wonderful, eerie novel set in Cornwall and based on the true story of three lighthousemen who disappeared without a trace; Stonex’s ability to depict human emotion and her firm grasp on the nature of insanity is never less than bracing); The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (I never read anything billed as “stories and a novella” and good Lord am I glad I made an exception for this, a near-flawless collection on emotional loss and the deceptions of American historio-mythology; my two favourite stories are “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, set during a wedding that doesn’t happen, and the title story, a novella that makes devastatingly clear the cost of being honest about history); Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (a rather broadly drawn but engaging romp through all levels of society, centering on the attempted demolition of a Soho brothel and gentrification of the neighbourhood; Mozley works in types here, and the prose is less remarkable than in her debut, Elmet, but Hot Stew is in a Dickensian tradition of London novels that connect the homeless with the high and mighty and everyone in between; it’s a lot of fun); Harvest by Georgina Harding (the third in a loose trilogy–I’ve read the second but not the first–and a book that grows on you, quietly, the further you read; dealing with the unspoken traumas and losses of a Norfolk farming family which are revealed when Kumiko, the Japanese girlfriend of youngest son Jonathan, comes to stay; Harding moves from perspective to perspective seamlessly and with great empathy, and although the book is certainly a rural tragedy of a sort it never feels melodramatic or Hardy-esque); and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (sadly, mildly diverting but there’s nothing going on here that China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and JRR Tolkien–the latter four of whom are frequently name-checked–haven’t done already, and better; the story of a half-mortal girl discovering her parentage, aided by an eccentric and sometimes violent extra-governmental secret agency, spirits of ancient wells and mountains evoking a deep-time England, etc; it should all be very evocative but Nix never really grounds his setting in a feeling of place: he gets street names and geographies right (down to his booksellers’ headquarters on, ahem, Curzon Street, in a Georgian townhouse, right across from Shepherd Market… looks a lot like home…) but unlike Cooper, Garner, Mieville and Tolkien (at least), he never manages to make me feel as though I understand the spirit of his settings. Which is fatal for a book about topographical magic.) A final, and unexpectedly wonderful, read for March was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1920 novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which Penguin Modern Classics have reissued in one of their lovely eau-de-nil-backed editions; the premise–a middle-aged English bank clerk receives a small inheritance, becomes a missionary in Polynesia, feels a call to convert the inhabitants of the tiny island of Fanua, but makes only one convert, a boy, and finds himself put to “a terrible test”–seemed fertile ground for Graham Greene-ish misery, but Warner is nothing like Greene, nowhere near so predictable in her belief in human wretchedness, and instead the novel is profoundly moving: Mr. Fortune’s friendship with the boy Lueli changes his life, and eventually it is love that compels him to give up his own happiness, because he realizes the damage he will do to the Fanuan way of life if he stays. Quietly stunning and under two hundred pages long; I urge you to give it a go.

Three of the other books I read were for background purposes as I worked up an abstract and then a research proposal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Laura J. Rosenthal (a broad overview of 18th-century literary depictions of prostitutes), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, an anthology of literary and historical essays edited by Ann Lewis and focusing on British, French and Dutch sources, and Mastery, Tyranny and Desire by Trevor Burnard, an in-depth look at the diaries of Jamaican slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood, from whose extensive journal-keeping comes much of what we know about the experiences of enslaved people and Anglo-Jamaican colonialists during the eighteenth century. It’s both genuinely fascinating, and utterly horrifying.

In between, I’ve read two science fiction novels as palate-cleansers: a re-read of Alastair Reynolds’s gripping and entirely inessential Revelation Space, whose failings on the level of character become more obvious the second time around but which still has a pretty compelling mystery at its heart, which rescues it, and Tricia Sullivan’s 1999 Clarke Award-winner Dreaming In Smoke, a planetary colonization novel whose plot is catalyzed by the apparent implosion of the AI, Ganesh, that keeps operational a fledgling human outpost on the fiery planet T’nane. (Verdict: also pretty compelling, though with great lashings of cyberpunk-ish technobabble, which I always find myself having to skim, and a protagonist whose profound insecurity and passivity is both infuriating and a fascinating character choice in a genre where indestructible badass bitches are more the order of the day.) I also reread Adam Roberts’s collection of sci fi and fantasy criticism, Sibilant Fricative, which, like all of Roberts’s criticism, is always amusing and largely illuminating. Finally, I read the short story/novella Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, which is utterly brilliant, revolting and entrancing and poignant and horrific all at once, about a reproductive relationship worked out between future humans on an alien world and that world’s indigenous insectoid race, the T’lic. The story’s thirty pages long and says more about consent, bodily autonomy, love, coercion, and choice than most novels can hope for.

What did this all mean for my self-imposed reading resolutions? Oddly, not everything was a loss: nearly half of this month’s books were nonfiction. Only two were by an author of colour, though (The Office of Historical Corrections and Bloodchild), and only one by a queer author (Hot Stew). No translations, and my progress through the Great Unread stalled entirely (although I enjoyed my rereads). I did, however, set myself the goal of reading “eighteenth-century stuff” and “stuff on sex work” in March, which, I think we can all agree, has been a success. And did I succeed at “generally not stressing myself out too much”? Not really. But that’s an ongoing project.

In April, I’ll have little to do but wait for a reply to my application, so my reading can be a touch more expansive. Certainly, maintaining reading diversity and getting through the Great Unread are still general aims. I’m also enjoying my rereads so much, and usually give rereading so little thought, that I’d quite like to do more of it. Finally, I went hog-wild during a Gollancz 99p ebook sale yesterday and bought eight titles for the price of one, so I really must attempt to justify that by actually reading them. (The first I read was the underwhelming Nix, mentioned above, but most of the others are in the SF Masterworks series – aka classics of the genre – so I expect better things to come.)

I can’t think too much about the fact that it’s been a year since lockdown one. I remember it felt like a strange, hallucinatory holiday – I bought a Disney+ subscription and ordered a lot of sushi and drank a lot of gin, and it was a sunny spring, although a lonely one. That feeling is long gone. We’ll readjust, of course, in a superficial way, once we’re allowed to see our loved ones and go out and about again, but we’ll be experiencing the effects of these two years in a more subtle fashion for a long time, I think.

February 2021 Wrap-Up

We’re two full months into the year now, and in London most of us have spent most of that time isolated from our friends, beloveds, and family. Thank God the weather is improving and the light really is coming back now—I’ve always found February one of the most hopeful months, the month where you start to see genuine seasonal changes, the month that starts dark and ends with sunsets at 5:30 instead of 4:00. It makes all the difference in the world. There are crocuses everywhere at the moment, and I always think of them as late-winter lamps, lighting the way into spring. Maybe soon we’ll be permitted to see each other again, although I wouldn’t trust the Tories to have devised a genuinely safe and sensible roadmap out of lockdown.

Reading is a constant, as ever. I read eight books in February—much less than I’m used to, but that is all part of this year’s intentionality plan—four of which were proofs or finished copies of new releases (A Still Life, Memorial, The Dead Are Arising, and Milk Fed, which I haven’t yet written about). Three came from my own shelves (The Female Quixote, Fanny Burney: Her Life, and Gilead), the latter of which was a reread; one (Tender Is the Flesh) was a new purchase. One of the new releases (The Dead Are Arising) was for review in an external publication.

I seem to have stopped worrying about Goodreads numbers, which is pleasing, although now I worry about writing something about every book I read; I’m currently struggling with Milk Fed, because it said a lot to me, but not necessarily in a way that I’ve yet digested or feel able to interpret. How long is too long between reading the book and writing about it? I tend to try and get something down quite quickly, because otherwise I forget or other books pile up. Alternatively, how little is too little to say about a book that had a pretty big impact on you? I’m not sure.

With regards to my reading diversity and my aims for this month: I’m doing okay on the former. Three of February’s books were nonfiction, two were by and about people of colour, two were by queer authors and/or about queer characters, and one was by and about a writer with chronic illness. Tender Is the Flesh was the only translation I read, which is a bit poor given that I wanted to read more translated work in February, but then it’s also more than I generally manage in any given month. I’m certainly continuing to work through the Great Unread, and I feel as though my choices this month have generally been decided by whim and interest, which is a major win.

For March, I’m going to try to focus on a few areas of reading that are relevant to some projects I have going on: eighteenth-century stuff; stuff on sex work, perhaps including some theory on sexuality, bodies and capitalism; and some more work by chronically ill and disabled writers. I’m still, of course, aiming to read through the Great Unread, maintain reading diversity, and generally not stress myself out too much.

In non-book-related stuff, I’ve started a small contemplative practice for Lent, using Richard Rohr’s book A Spring Within Us: a Year of Daily Meditations. I hope to continue using it all year, but starting in Lent felt appropriate. Rohr’s approach to prayer and to religious belief is the most affirmative, inclusive and compassionate I’ve come across, and he draws from many traditions outside of Christianity as well as strands of thought within it. It’s helping me focus and be more present, I think, and it’s a nice small coffee ritual in the mornings before work starts. I’ve also started working on various applications for grants and prizes (for writing), and postgraduate programmes (in English). A lot of things are underway at the moment and nothing has actually happened yet, but it makes me so happy to a) produce creative, intellectual work, and b) feel as though I’m at least attempting to take control of my life and mold it into the life I really want. Obviously, it’s also terrifying. Your good wishes are much appreciated. My commando-style early-morning supermarket visits have had some excellent results this month, including, amongst others: pork pibil tortillas with pickled red onions, sour cream and coriander; chermoulah-rubbed chicken with cumin and orange-braised carrots; curried parsnip soup; Bengali mustard cod with spiced vegetables; conchiglie with a roasted butternut squash and rosemary sauce; and chicken and plums, marinaded in lemon juice, garlic, honey, mace, Aleppo pepper, and thyme. Food is love, as M likes to say. In less exalted pursuits, Joe and I are still watching The Great Pottery Throwdown and Drag Race UK (UK Hun?!), and tore through all five episodes of Lupin in a weekend. I finished The West Wing and am now filling my ’90s-and-early-’00s-nostalgia-telly slot with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’ve never seen but which I absolutely adore for its combination of campy silliness and willingness to go to surprisingly dark emotional places; it’s very clear that the early series of the new Doctor Who (i.e. the tenure of Ecclestone and Tennant) were influenced by it. (I am very saddened and disappointed by the recent Joss Whedon revelations, but love Anthony Stewart Head and the other men of Buffy even more for speaking up in condemnation, and Charisma Carpenter for her bravery.) And M and I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? last night via Teleparty, which reminded me once again that it’s one of my favourite films of all time, with a soundtrack that’s also one of my all-time favourite albums.

What about you? How do you feel about the covid roadmap in England? Is reading helping at all? What makes you feel the most engaged with life and the wider world? What kind of flowers are you seeing?

January 2021 Wrap-Up

Well, I’ve done it for a whole month so far: chosen books deliberately, read them with care, and written a considered piece on each book before reaching gluttonously for the next. This has involved spending a number of my weekday mornings before work with a coffee and my laptop, slowly coming to and exercising my brain, and I’m so grateful to have carved out that quiet, intellectually creative hour and a half for myself.

As far as selections go, I’m pretty happy with the balance between old and new so far. I read ten books in January, four of which were proof copies, new releases or new reprints (Lightseekers, The Prophets, Dostoevsky in Love and Without Prejudice). Three were from the Great Unread on my shelves (Don Quixote, Water Music, The Summer Without Men), and one of those was a classic. Two were new purchases. I’ve started allowing myself one new book a week (purchased on Wednesdays, delivered on Fridays, just in time for the weekend), and both of January’s choices were great in different ways: Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox and Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. I also finally finished Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat, which I’ve been reading from front to back like a novel for about a year. Her prose fills me with joy, and I’ve been cooking from it more and more too!

With regards to calming down about the Goodreads numbers: I think slowing down my pace of reading, and focusing on writing something analytical about each book, is doing a lot of the work here. I still think about it too much, but I’m not nearly as distressed by the fact that I “only” read ten books in January as I might otherwise have been.

As far as my other reading resolutions go, both Rosenberg and Anders are trans, which is good as I want to explore more trans, nb and GNC authors this year. Femi Kayode (Lightseekers), Robert Jones Jr. (The Prophets), and Nicola Williams (Without Prejudice) are all authors of colour, which goes towards maintaining the racial diversity of my reading. No translations, though, unless you count Don Quixote (which I suppose I should; it was, after all, a good translation.)

For February, my vague aim will be to focus more on authors in translation, to continue working through as-yet-unread backlist titles on my shelves, and to preserve my senses of whim and balance when it comes to choosing my next book.

In non-book-related stuff, I’ve been trying to stay both sane and physically healthy, as we all are. Mostly, for me, the necessary sense of stability comes from routine and ritual. Working out three times a week helps. So does making myself write those book essays, and I’m also trying to write (no matter how small an entry) in my journal every day. Having to plan visits to the supermarket like the Peninsular Campaign has paradoxically led me to cook more (including, amongst other things, Tuscan bean stew, pork rice bowl with green beans, roasted paneer with potatoes, tomatoes and peas, a bacon, leek and bean soup, and slow-cooked Venezuelan beef with red peppers and bay). Going on endless weekend walks is pretty much the only way to see anyone, so I’ve been doing a lot of that (Woodberry Wetlands in Hackney with my best mate today, where I’d never been–it’s historic and lovely, with proper space for nature, and the local area feels like a real little neighbourhood!) M and I can’t see each other in person but we’ve been doing movie dates on the weekends thanks to Teleparty, and are working steadily through Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue. My housemate Joe and I, meanwhile, have been clinging to Junior Bake Off and The Great Pottery Throwdown for gentle, kind-hearted weirdness, and I’ve been blasting through The West Wing (I’m on series 7 now. Santos-McGarry For America!)

What about you? How are you doing with your reading so far this year? How’s your life? What are you enjoying, or not enjoying? Where does your sense of stability come from?

The Prophets

In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.

The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.

One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.

Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:

“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]

“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”

“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.

The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208

This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.

There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.

The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.

2021 Resolutions, reading and otherwise

It’s the reading resolutions we’re all always so interested in, isn’t it? Which is fair enough, and I have a few of those. They tie into a more general purpose for 2021, though, which can be boiled down to: be more intentional. Spend my time more intentionally. Cook, eat, maintain contact with friends, choose and read books, write my own work, develop my career, with a certain level of intentionality, which 2020 seemed to steal from me. I don’t want to drift, and I don’t want to run my engine frantically in place. I want to make choices.

With that in mind, my reading choices this year will be aligned along the following axes:

  1. Read better. Not more, exactly. I already know how many books I can read in a year while maintaining full-time employment; I top out at around 200 and I’m perfectly happy with that. What I’d like to do is cut down even more on the number of books I read out of a sense that they might be professionally useful to me, or otherwise out of un-joyful obligation. (Sometimes obligations are joyful!) I pick up so many titles because I imagine that many of my clients might enjoy a book but want to do some quality control first. It’s not a bad impulse, but it means I spend more of my reading time than I would like following other people’s whims, instead of my own deepest interests. Since I’m not paid for the time I spend reading, this imbalance seems worth addressing.
  2. Find more older books to enjoy. Everything you could describe as “a classic” that I read in 2020–including but not limited to Shirley, The Lonely Londoners, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, My Antonia, East Lynne–I enjoyed immensely. (Actually, not quite: I didn’t love Crime and Punishment or The Aeneid. Still worth it, though, just.) Most of the books I read that were mid-to recent-backlist were also excellent: Zami, A View of the Empire at Sunset, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Air, and The Fifth Season, among many, many others, made big impressions. There’s so much I’m still missing.
  3. Chill the fuck out about the Goodreads Reading Challenge. I’m starting to wonder if I should stop even participating in this, since all it does is engage my competitive perfectionist side. This year I’ve deliberately set my target unprecedentedly low (75 books), so as to feel better when I overachieve. We’ll see if that psychological approach actually works or not. I spent a good fifteen minutes this evening angsting over the need to choose my next read quickly so my stats don’t drop, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic on this one, but I think choosing what to read next will always be fraught.
  4. Keep actively seeking out authors of colour and queer authors. Durrr. I might try and work a few more translations in here, and it’d be good to seek out and support more nonbinary writers, too.

Five things about Don Quixote

My first book of what is supposed to be the best year of all our lives (though so far, I’m not sure) is Don Quixote. In my edition (the Penguin Clothbound Classics one, above), it’s 982 pages long plus endnotes, and I remember trying to read it (in a different edition) at least twice before, becoming bored, and dropping it. Now, at last, I’ve conquered it, and as with a previous nearly-thousand-page-long book (The Last Chronicle of Barset), I’m not sure that a review or even an analytical essay is as useful as a few scattered comments and/or tips, if you’re thinking of scaling this mountain yourself.

  1. The translation matters. Not in the way that you might think, or the way which tends to trip me up with comparisons (“which one is The Best/the most faithful to the original language/the most faithful to the original sense/what should I even be looking for in a translation aaauugghhh helpppp”). Like War and Peace, Don Q has many translators, and the one that’s right for you will depend on what kind of reader you are, the context and background knowledge you bring to the book, etc. However, the translation I read is by John Sutherland, and I would recommend it highly, in large part because it’s one of the few translations that really contributes to a sense that…
  2. The book is funny. I really wasn’t sure about this at first, and I’m not sure Cervantes was either–it takes a while for the characters to become people, and for the humour to kick in. After Quixote’s “first sally” (initial adventure), however, it’s clear that Cervantes decides he’s interested in this delusional hidalgo and his coarse and obnoxious yet truth-telling squire, and from then on they start to develop a relationship and characteristics that form the basis of the book’s best humour. Sancho Panza, the squire, not only develops the habit of speaking in endless and often irrelevant proverbs, but also of a kind of reverse malapropism: Quixote mentions “the estimates of Ptolemy, the great cosmographer”, which Sancho dismisses as “the sexy butts and tomfoolery of a great pornographer”. The translation matters! In another, stuffier or older edition, that level of linguistic playfulness wouldn’t, I think, sound nearly so natural, modern, fresh or irreverent, and therefore wouldn’t be nearly as funny. Obviously there’s also the physical humour (Quixote is frequently tricked into uncomfortable, painful or embarrassing situations, often by women, and Sancho gets beaten up as a proxy for his master more times than you can count), which may be less hilarious to you; I didn’t find myself laughing out loud reading those scenes, although it’s possible they’re funnier read aloud. Which brings me to…
  3. The book may have been intended partly for oral transmission. There’s some evidence for this in the cliffhanger chapter endings and the way that the narrator discusses his storytelling strategy (which is what leads so many people to refer to it as a post-modern book avant la lettre; Cervantes’s narrative persona is extremely self-aware, and throughout the text, there are explicit signposts that it is a text). There’s a lot of repetition and rhetorical embroidery, which looks chunkily intimidating on a page but makes a good deal more sense if you think of someone reading it loud or half-performing the scene; it represents the natural rhetorical padding that humans give to spoken sentences. It also means you shouldn’t feel particularly bad skimming those bits. You can get the gist in the first and final few sentences of a page-long paragraph, and pick up the essentials in the middle, without committing your full attention to every single word–the text is clearly not designed for that level of scrutiny.
  4. Women, poor people and working people are interesting and well-represented here. Many of Don Q‘s past translators have assumed that his devotion to chivalry, although deriving from insanity, represents an aspirational ideal, like the holy fool, and have therefore interpreted him as an uncomplicated paragon of goodness and mercy who is genuinely beset by devils and malice. Sutherland approaches the text in a way that reveals Quixote’s madness as ridiculous, if also somewhat pitiable, and grounded in an old-fashioned paternalism that is repeatedly shown to be silly and impractical. Sancho Panza’s wife (initially referred to as Juana but always subsequently known as Teresa) is a sturdy, pragmatic farmer’s daughter who runs her family’s smallholding intelligently and is very reluctant to be drawn into her husband’s airy hopes of promotion and enhancement. The daughter and maidservant of the innkeeper during Quixote’s first adventure play numerous tricks on him, which are all enabled by his outmoded and deluded view of female innocence and susceptibility. A ruffian named Ginés appears twice in the book, once as a convict and once as the proprietor of a travelling ape and puppet show; both times his ingenuity and quick wit is presented with approbation, while Quixote’s credulousness in both situations leads to chaos and destruction. Women, working people and poor people are generally described with sympathy, and given complexity and agency. It’s a nice surprise.
  5. Don’t worry about the plot. There is one, sort of, eventually (it kicks in during the second half of Part II), but you could just as easily call that an extended episode, one of many. It’s an episodic book by nature, which would make it perfect for dipping in and out of over the course of a longer period of reading, maybe one or two chapters an evening. Mostly, Quixote ventures forth, meets someone or sees something which he grievously misinterprets as requiring his help or input, attempts to fulfill the conditions of knight-errantry, fails, and either chalks it up to the work of malicious enchanters or interprets his failure as a success anyway. Sancho has some kind of misadventure, complains about it, tries to fix his master up as best he can, asks for payment, is rebuffed, and they continue. It’s formulaic, of course, but that’s the point when you’re writing a satire of chivalric romance. And it means the reader need not worry too much about losing track of names or events. Characters do recur, but this is not a tightly-plotted novel by any means, so if you’re not following, don’t worry too much–just keep reading and see what happens.

Worth reading? For my money, definitely. It’s a serious investment of time, but it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously (or, really, seriously at all), and it contains some bittersweet moments of sanity in the midst of complete madness. A joyful ride.

Readers Imbibing Peril, XV

I don’t often participate in reading challenges, having my own unpredictable and eclectic method of choosing my next read according to whim, necessity, and release date, but early to mid autumn is a season that really does seem to demand tailored reading. The R(eaders).I(mbibing).P(eril). Challenge is well suited to this, and in 2020 it’s easier than ever to play. Just read at least one book that could be qualified as mystery, suspense, Gothic, horror, supernatural, thriller, or dark fantasy, between 1 September and 31 October. Easy.

It’s not my absolute wheelhouse as far as genre goes, but I do like being a little creeped out, and have had some great reading experiences at this time of the year in the past, as the temperature drops and streetlamps become golden puddles of sanctuary in between inky pools of night, as winds rise and mists creep and bare branches scrape. I also have a few books already in the house that fit the bill, so I’m excited about joining in this year.

There are two I’ll make a definite commitment to read. One is Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, a contemporary classic about a murder in Soviet Russia that becomes the subject of a cover-up. Really good political crime is such a rare beast that I’m very hopeful about this one. The other is Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s modern-day vampires-in-Stockholm chiller. I started reading it at someone’s house party five years ago (I’m usually better than this at parties, I swear, but I barely knew anyone) and, in retrospect, should have stolen it; it was immediately gripping, with a wonderfully judged air of melancholy, and I’ve wanted to get past page twenty ever since.

A few others are options for when I complete the above two. There’s Stephen King’s The Stand, of course, which is no doubt extraordinary but also incredibly long and could throw a spanner in my reading life for weeks. I’ve also just got hold of Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts, a creepy/grotesque new novel which promises to be all the body horror. Left over from a previous charity shop binge is Mrs. Wood’s sensation novel East Lynne, which I think I’ve ignored for too long. I’m also seeking a secondhand copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady, since I liked The Moonstone so much and have had this one recommended as my next Collins venture by both Twitter and my colleague Zoe. And I’d like to include a volume of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ghost stories, as collected in either In A Glass Darkly or Green Tea, since I read M.R. James’s collected ghost tales this time last year and successfully freaked myself out with them. (I know they’re not meant to be that scary, especially to developed 21st-century sensibilities more accustomed to the Saw movies, but I am the biggest wuss; it does not take much.)

I also read a Dickens novel every late autumn/winter, although I’m running out of ones new to me, and this year will have to choose between The Pickwick Papers, Barnaby Rudge, and Edwin Drood. That doesn’t have to be part of RIP XV, although if it shakes out that way, that’ll be nice too (it’d have to be Drood to count, I think).

You can play too, if you like! Tag #ripxv and @PerilReaders on social media. Happy reading!

In case there was any confusion

Black lives matter.

Trans women are women.

History is constantly being made, not permanently enshrined in statuary.

Everyone has the right to protest injustice.

The canon of literature in English is characterized by the privileging of white, wealthy, cis, usually male, usually straight voices over those of people from historically oppressed or marginalized groups. Everyone working in publishing, bookselling and academia has a moral obligation to decolonize the canon, the curriculum, and their own industries.

I’m not allowed to say this stuff out loud at work, or through professional social media channels, because reasons (involving capitalism and the nature of marketing to our world’s elite). I’m allowed to say it here because it’s my space. These are the politics of Elle Thinks. They are entirely non-negotiable.

holding pattern

I have been intending to write a full-length post on Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder for at least a week. I have also been intending to write up my books of the year, and mulling over the idea of writing up my books of the decade. However, the best-laid plans, etc.: work has gone completely, utterly, resplendently batshit, not only because it is Christmas and Christmas in a bookshop is always mad, but because our bespoke book subscription service got a (small!) write-up in The New Yorker, and it has been huge for us. No one expected it to be quite so huge. Our little three-person team has been working flat out for over a week, needing help from incredibly kind colleagues on other teams, and with no signs of significant slowing anytime soon. Today was the first day since last Monday that I’ve felt I have enough time on my hands during work hours to make myself a coffee and go to the bathroom. (And, obviously, write this.)

I’m really enjoying reading all of your end-of-year posts, when I can, and would like to be commenting on them more – at the moment, clicking “like” must suffice. I’ll do my very best to find some time for my own: I really like the feeling of rounding off each year with a look back at the reading that’s shaped it, and would hate to not do it. I hope you all have lovely, lovely holidays.


me on the radio!


On Monday, I had the opportunity to join Antonia Honeywell—my dear friend, and author of The Ship, a haunting novel about a young girl whose flight from a politically unstable England once felt dystopian and now feels, quite frankly, like today’s headline—on Booktime Brunch, her Monday morning radio show. We talked about the surprise Booker Prize result, bookselling as a vocation, the power of narrative to sway lives (not always in a good way), and—yes—my own book! Interspersed with our chat were twelve tracks that I chose and (mostly) explained. Honestly, it’s a really, really good show: we sound like we’re having a great time and we are. Think Desert Island Discs but with more books. You can listen to it here: