Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)

Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

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20 Books of Summer, 2018 edition

20-books-of-summer

Okay, I’m in, I’m in. With one day to go til the start of the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I have decided to go for it. My current outstanding TBR consists of 19 books; it seemed serendipitous. The challenge is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, and is quite simple: choose a list of twenty books (or fifteen, or ten), then read and review them between 1 June and 3 September. (I’m expecting to be able to supplement this list with other titles, obviously.)

Herewith, my choices, in absolutely no order at all:

  1. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. Because its recent presence on Netflix made me read a review of the book, which prompted me to buy it. (review)
  2. Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Bought this in York four months ago because !cyberpunk! and have yet to read it. (review)
  3. The Madonna of the Mountains, by Elise Valmorbida. Life for Italian women in the 1920s seems to have been another world, honestly.
  4. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison. I’m really here for creepy thrillers about vengeful(?) women this summer, plus that Yeats allusion is a winner. (review)
  5. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas (out 7 June). History/memoir about the life and journeys of the Roma in Britain. Le Bas grew up where my grandparents live. (review)
  6. A Station On the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood (out 28 June). Wood’s first two books were outstanding, and this seems like a darker version of Let Go My Hand. (review)
  7. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller (out 23 August). An English officer suffering from battle trauma flees the Napoleonic Wars and is pursued by relentless authorities. This kind of thing is my jam.
  8. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan (out 30 August): A young slave’s master disappears on a natural history expedition…then reappears again. Again, my jam.
  9. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson (out 6 September): Women in MI5 during the war, the claims of the past, whatever, it’s by Kate Atkinson, on the list it goes, next.
  10. Wilding, by Isabella Tree: Memoir about re-wilding Knepp Castle’s estate. Ecology, agriculture, and, I imagine, a little bit of heritage nostalgia.
  11. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea: The story of a pianino made for Chopin in Majorca, and what happened to it, interwoven with the story of Chopin’s 24 Preludes.
  12. May, by Naomi Kruger: A dementia novel, but one that looks more thoughtful than previous entries in the genre. From Seren, a small Welsh publisher. (review)
  13. A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence: Canadian schoolteacher resigned to spinsterhood falls in love for the first time. This is the sort of quiet mid-century fiction I often avoid, and then, after reading it, regret having avoided.
  14. Goblin, by Ever Dundas: This came out of nowhere to end up on quite a few “best-of” lists at the end of last year. Blitz London, eccentric girl, animals, dual timelines. Sure.
  15. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell: The subtitle is “vanishing religions of the Middle East”, which both sounds fascinating and tells you all  you need to know.
  16. This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart: I have somehow never read any Stewart, and this is a sort of Tempest re-telling set on Corfu. It screams “summer!!!!”
  17. Empire of Things, by Frank Trentmann: The history of modern consumerism, from the fifteenth century to now. I’ve been interested in material culture for ages.
  18. Collected Stories, by John Cheever: Again, have somehow escaped reading Cheever. Another thing that screams “summer!!!” is dysfunctional American suburban families.
  19. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley: My colleague Camille raves about this; steampunk magical-realism-esque with an adventurous edge.
  20. Wild card! (I have no doubt at all that I will unearth at least one other book in my house that I ought to have read by now.)

These are mostly either advance/proof copies, or damaged copies of titles from work that would otherwise be recycled. The only two that I’ve purchased are Altered Carbon and Neuromancer. As above, I’m expecting to get through more than this in three months, but these are the must-read titles of this summer. Wish me luck! (You can find Cathy’s home post about the challenge here; my reviews will go in their own category, which you can find in the nav bar at the top of my home page, and this master post will contain links to all my reviews, too.)

Dragon Lords, by Eleanor Parker

51cfbybnhcl-_sx307_bo1204203200_If you were to choose a book to be reading in public with the deliberate strategic purpose of getting the number of the guy who works in your local Indian takeaway, it is unlikely that you would choose this one, but truth is stranger than fiction and I must therefore tell you that that is exactly what happened when I wandered into the curry house on Crouch Hill holding a copy of Dragon Lords. “The history and legends of Viking England” is quite an enticing subtitle, so perhaps that had something to do with it; it was certainly a major factor in my requesting a reading copy of this from the publisher’s rep. It’s also a slightly misleading subtitle, since Dragon Lords is both more focused and less conclusive than an overview of late antique/early medieval British history might be. I think it might be a book version of Parker’s doctorate (she’s now a tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford), which is no bad thing, though it meant re-accustoming myself to writing that isn’t necessarily for a general audience.

Dragon Lords is primarily interested in early medieval narratives about Anglo-Danish interaction. (Sexy!) Since there were multiple waves of Danish/Viking conquests, the history is not nearly as straightforward as the phrase “Anglo-Danish” makes it sound; the conquerors of one generation became the naturalised inhabitants of England, and the people conquered, in the next round of organised invasion. Intermarriage and cultural diffusion happened, as they always do, and the resulting culture was a whole lot of things rolled into one: pagan-Christian, Anglo-Saxon-Danish-with-a-splash-of-Norman. Naturally, the stories that this motley culture told itself over several hundred years—about where it came from, and why—also changed: sometimes a Dane is a good Christian king, sometimes he is the leader of a band of ravening, monk-murdering sea-wolves.

Because Parker’s emphasis is on the continuity (or not) of narrative elements, the sheer accumulation of detail can sometimes be difficult to follow. In the second chapter, for instance, she follows the trail of a mysterious figure called Ragnar Lothbrok, who appears in Anglo-Danish narratives in all manner of guises. Sometimes he’s a thug with many sons, murdered at the hands of the King of Mercia and avenged by his children; sometimes he’s a more innocent figure, a stranger in a strange land betrayed by a jealous courtier. It’s impossible to make any concrete assertions about the historical figure (or figures) that might have been behind the Lothbrok stories—he’s like Robin Hood or King Arthur—but Parker’s greatest asset as a writer is her curiosity, and that carries the reader a long way, too. (My particular interest in Viking Britain is literary, and I especially enjoyed her long section on the early verse romance Havelok the Dane. There are also some interesting sections on stories, or story elements, that Shakespeare clearly drew upon when he was writing Macbeth and Hamlet.) Dragon Lords is unashamedly niche, but if you want to know more about pre-Conquest Britain—and trust me, there are hundreds and hundreds of years’ worth of eventful, exciting, violent history there—this is for you.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

A Place For Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

cover4Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place For Us, fills a niche that I haven’t seen filled very often, if at all, in mainstream contemporary fiction: it’s a dysfunctional family saga/romance set in the context of a deeply traditional, conservative, Indian Muslim community. Rafiq and Layla were married by arrangement; they have settled in California, they have three children – Hadia, Huda, and Amar – and their lives are pleasant, stable, comfortable. But as Amar starts to grow up, he finds it hard to conform to the life his parents expect of him. Meanwhile, Hadia and Huda are fighting their own battles: whether to wear the headscarf, how best to please their parents, what to do about the boys they fancy. Told mostly in flashbacks from the moment of Hadia’s wedding, to which Amar (now estranged from the entire family) is invited, A Place For Us illustrates how secrets and illusions in a family can develop over years; how easy it can be for a husband not to know his wife, for a mother not to know her daughters.

For the first third of A Place For Us, I was hoping that Mirza was really going to push the boundaries (which, if we’re honest, means I was hoping Amar was going to be gay). Eventually, I realised that she was pushing the boundaries; it is sufficiently controversial, in a conservative household, to be uncertain of your faith, to drink, to smoke, to want to escape. It’s fortunate that Rafiq and Layla, and their community, are never portrayed as oppressive caricatures. As Layla puts it, they want to be able to guide their children, and they can only guide them in what they know. But you don’t have to be a cartoon villain to represent a life that your child doesn’t want, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand how difficult, even impossible, it can be to let go of your expectations for your child’s life. Mirza balances these emotional currents with astuteness and compassion for all sides; although I hate referring to an author’s age as though it means anything, I confess to being floored by envy that she’s achieved this book at the age of twenty-six. It is perhaps too long: establishing the shifting dynamics of the family over years does take time, but it’s hard to believe that every single scene here is essential. Still, A Place For Us is a thoughtful and moving story, demonstrating that, happy or unhappy, most families are more alike than we might care to think.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up my long reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.

Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)