A Sunday Miscellany

I fancy trying this, a blog post format I re-remembered when I went back and read the archives of one of my favourite book blogs (now, alas, defunct/moved to vlogging, which I cannot get into no matter how much I’d like to, and therefore more or less lost to me). It’s just a little weekly reading catch-up, not high stakes, and hopefully more tenable than long review posts.

This week’s largely been consumed with a re-read of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I first (and last) read back in 2015. Cryptonomicon is extremely hard to summarize but is essentially a novel in two strands: the first concerns the development of modern cryptography, cryptanalysis, and digital computing during World War II, while the second (which follows descendants of characters from the first) is set in the ’90s and concerns an attempt by a bunch of hackers-cum-entrepreneurs to create a data haven on a tiny island in Southeast Asia, during which they discover some secrets that have lain dormant since the WWII plot strand. It has been criticized for its style, which involves a considerable amount of info-dumping on subjects like modular arithmetic, Van Eck phreaking, and other such technical concerns. I’m certainly much more alive to the potential irritation of those info-dumps now than I was in 2015, although they don’t personally bother me. I think Stephenson succeeds in creating an authorial voice that, Thackeray-like, sits you down and natters knowingly in your ear, so that the info-dumps feel more like the point in that sort of conversation where the guy at the bar gets excited and starts drawing diagrams on cocktail napkins. (It’s also slightly addictive; most of this paragraph is written in a diluted version of that tone.) But the book is also 810 pages long in paperback, so I can see how this sort of thing might start to pall after a while. It’s certainly murder on the wrists, but I’ve long since given up caring much about that.

I also started Sophie Haydock’s debut novel The Flames, which gives voice to the four women who loved artist Egon Schiele: his sister, sister-in-law, wife, and model. I…did not finish it. I wanted to like it so much, I really did. It was mostly a problem with the pacing, which feels both rushed and dragged out. This is a common issue in contemporary historical novels written in the present tense. That’s a huge generalization, I know (and is not to be taken as being anti-present-tense; the problem is never tense per se, but its method of employment). Still, I have observed it repeatedly. In The Flames, the pacing in each scene, and between scenes, creates disorientation: we are dashed through moments which are clearly meant to have great emotional weight, then pivot to several months in the future for a scene which seems not to advance the plot at all. The book also suffers from a certain flatness of delivery. For instance: Ada, Schiele’s sister-in-law, believes herself to be pregnant and goes to obtain an abortion, for which Schiele (though not in the frame for paternity) pays. At the abortionist’s, her pregnancy is discovered to be illusory, but she doesn’t accept this and runs screaming through the dark and dingy house. In the hands of someone like, let’s say, Malcolm Lowry, this would have been a scene of hallucinatory power and horror; in Haydock’s, unfortunately, it feels dutiful and rote. Oh, the emotion’s all where it’s meant to be; that’s the problem. It’s all very “‘No’, she whispers”. No surprises here. It’s a perfectly readable novel, and many will enjoy it immensely, but I put it down. There are books in the world I haven’t read yet that could take the top of my head off.

I’m currently reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. I’ve avoided it til now, unsure of whether DiAngelo’s centering of white people in the antiracism struggle is useful or problematic. However, I’ve just moved to a borough that is both deep-dyed Tory and a historical bastion of British white flight, and I keep having conversations with people where the sentence “I don’t think this is about race” is uttered by the not-me party. So actually I think DiAngelo’s focus on framing racism in a way that will get past white defensiveness is going to provide me with some useful conversational tools. There’s not a lot here that I haven’t already learned some way or other, but the reinforcement is handy.*

*edited to add: 3/4 of the way through the DiAngelo, I notice that she cites a belief that one “already knows” about racism as an assumption that many white people make in order to excuse themselves from further engagement! So consider me chastened. I never get to stop learning, and trying to do better.

Best Books of 2021

I know, I know, we’re two months into 2022—am I not a bit behind? Well, yes, but it also occurs to me that it’s much easier to determine the books that have stayed with me and those that were nine-days’ wonders after a bit of time has passed and lent some perspective. 2021 was a cracking year for reading and also a huge year personally: I got into a PhD programme for English at Birkbeck and a programme to support emerging writers run by the London Library, I got involved with judging the Barbellion Prize in its second year, and I also moved all the way across Greater London and in with my partner. I also lost a friend and colleague; she died untimely in October, and the awfulness of that loss is still reverberating. And on New Year’s Eve—yes, the last day of the year—I flew home for the first time in three years, and got to be together with my parents and brother for the first time since February 2020. It was a memorable twelve months.

Confessions of the Fox (review here) by Jordy Rosenberg was the book that lit a fire under my ass to write my PhD proposal. Reading and retelling the legend of highwayman Jack Sheppard and his supposed lover Edgeworth Bess through the lens of queer theory and reclamation, with a secondary plot strand that brutally satirizes the corporatization of higher education, it’s bawdy, bold and clever. It’s on this list because there are few singular texts I can point to and say “This changed my life”, but this one did.

Dostoevsky in Love (review here) by Alex Christofi. This biography of Dostoevsky, creatively told by repurposing excerpts from his novels, diaries and letters throughout, has been something of a slow burn. I really, really liked it when I read it, but it’s surprised me how much it’s continued to pop up in my head over the course of the year. I gave my proof copy away when I moved and now I wish I hadn’t. It’s made me want to explore Dostoevsky (of whom I have only read Crime and Punishment and, now, Notes From Underground) much more fully, sparking interest without making me feel locked out, which is what all good biographies should do.

A Still Life (review here) by Josie George. This was a shoo-in for the Barbellion Prize shortlist; I knew I wanted it there before I’d even become involved officially with the Prize. George’s memoir about living with a persistently misdiagnosed disability whose symptoms include debilitating fatigue, pain, mobility and cardiac issues is as far from a misery memoir as it’s possible to be, while also deftly and intelligently avoiding the pitfalls of #disabilityinspo. It could easily have won the Prize proper.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. I’m a little embarrassed by how strongly positive my reaction to this was; I know there are structure and plotting problems, and even on the first read-through, the melodrama became a bit obvious. But I also just loved it for its ambition: a historical plot strand following fictional aviatrix Marian Graves, and a contemporary plot strand following troubled Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter. Shipstead made me believe in the full reality of her characters, in a way few writers manage, and even the length felt more like a luxury than anything else.

The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien. 2021 was the year I kicked back into high gear on my Tolkien obsession, which has been a part of my life since I was ten (though I have successfully hidden it from most people in my adult life). I’d never read The Silmarillion previously, and was hugely impressed with it: it wouldn’t have suited me age ten, but with the help of the Prancing Pony podcast, I enjoyed picking through the development of Middle-earth’s ancient mythology and history immensely. The fact that Tolkien never won a Nobel is, frankly, a travesty. It also reminded me that people who say Tolkien can’t write women only have part of the story; there are many very interesting female characters in The Silmarillion (including Luthien, the only person of any gender to completely overpower the physical embodiment of evil, and Haleth, who leads the defense of her lands and takes up the leadership of her people when all her male relatives fall).

What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle. Our ultimate winner for the Barbellion Prize, and a very worthy one. Narrated by a woman whose granddaughter is D/deaf, it is the first book I’ve read that succeeds in portraying abled people as outsiders; the narrator is constantly aware of her granddaughter’s access to a rich social culture of fellow D/deaf people, and to her own system of home-sign (particular to each individual and as different from official British or American Sign Language as your own pattern of speech is from the Oxford English Dictionary). Beautifully written, full of care and thought, it’s exactly what I hope for in terms of literary representation.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. One of the first things I read after we moved, and deliberately chosen for spooky season. It was perfect. I like Dickens fine, but when he’s annoying he’s really annoying; Collins, at least in The Woman in White, is never annoying. I loved the queer undertones of Marian Halcombe’s characterization, and Count Fosco is brilliantly creepy, the kind of man whose disturbing behaviour is always so isolated and apparently low-key that you can rarely put a finger on it or describe it to someone else. The multi-POV thing worked well for me in The Moonstone and does so again here, but is executed in a more sophisticated way. A winner all round.

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay. This year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner, about a new flu strain that enables people to understand animal communication. Unbelievably unsettling, darkly funny (a zookeeper is nearly killed by a crocodile; after being rescued, she keeps repeating “he said he wanted to play with me”), and with a brilliantly off-the-wall protagonist in foul-mouthed alcoholic grandmother Jean, who is socially isolated by her inability to quite fit into the world of humans. Her relationship with a dingo, Sue, forms the spine of the book, as they embark on a roadtrip searching for Jean’s granddaughter. What haunts me about The Animals in That Country is its devastating lack of sentimentality: humans have constructed much of our collective identity around the ways in which we’re not like animals, and to realize how little most animals care about us in return shakes most of McKay’s characters to their core. The ending is either tragic or pragamatic or both. Highly recommended.

We Are All Birds of Uganda, by Hafsa Zayyan. This has turned out to be one of those books that has an angle for just about any reader: the story of Sameer, a British Ugandan Indian whom we first meet living in London, working in finance, it’s also the story of his grandfather’s second marriage, and the political and personal compromises he made. A family saga, a coming-of-age story, with historical and contemporary strands, set between England (primarily Leeds, not London) and Uganda, full of politics and love (and the ways in which they overlap and inform each other), I have a hard time imagining anyone being totally unable to find a point of interest in it. That, perhaps, makes its ending even more of a jolt; there are two possible interpretations, but only one is likely and artistically coherent, and the darkness of it is surprising, but brilliant.

Other reading highlights of the year included the discovery of Robert Silverberg, whose science fiction novels are wildly inventive and slightly mystical; I read both The Book of Skulls and Downward To the Earth in 2021 and enjoyed them immensely. My two favourite Sarahs, Moss and Hall, each produced a pandemic novel (The Fell and Burntcoat, respectively); they’re not my favourite work from either of them, but they are the only fictional perspectives on the pandemic that I cared to pick up, and even non-major work from them doesn’t disappoint. There were several very enjoyable re-reads, including Emma by Jane Austen (absolutely sparkling, much better in my late 20s than in my early teens) and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (heart-breaking, as always; reminded me how much I love footnoted fiction; also, the Raven King’s roads are so reminiscent of the topographical interiors in Piranesi that I wondered quite how long that second novel had been kicking around in her head…) I also had an excellent holiday week in Devon with my partner and his parents, for which I had determined to take only un-serious books that genuinely thrilled me to contemplate: I brought Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart, The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, Monday Starts on Saturday by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, and the third in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series (truly, a YA lit franchise that could only have existed in the US). I can’t recommend this strategy highly enough; they were all brilliantly satisfying and it enhanced the pleasure of the holiday no end.

Now, two months into 2022, I’m on track for another cracking year of reading, although slightly slowed down by my academic commitments! I know you’ve all done your Books of 2021 long ago, and I’m sorry for disappearing slightly these past few months. I’ll try to be around as often as I have the energy—if the blog posts aren’t coming thick and fast enough for you, I’m probably most frequently on Twitter, at @EleanorFranzen.

June 2021 Wrap-Up

I had another piece of absurdly good news in June, which was that I’d gotten into the London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme. You can read a bit more about it here. It offers free membership to the LL for a year, for research and a work space; mentoring with published writers; peer support in groups with my fellow Emerging Writers (love that, “emerging”, like we’re coming out of a cocoon); and networking and social opportunities. Plus, the incredible gift of knowing that someone else (someones else) took my writing seriously. Hurrah!

It was also a pretty good month for reading, if slightly scattered. I read twelve books, some pretty long.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien: Another reading voyage prompted by the Prancing Pony podcast hosts, and a nice re-read of a book I’d last picked up well over a decade ago. The standard line on The Hobbit is that it’s the goofy, kid-friendly fairytale that Tolkien wrote before he decided to get serious with The Lord of the Rings, and to a certain extent that’s true, but a close re-read brings up plenty of seriousness, in themes like the importance of hope and courage and in the allusions to be found in Tolkien’s etymology. The chapter “Riddles in the Dark” is never not good, is it; never not terrifically creepy. It reminded me of how potentially scary The Hobbit is for a young reader: there are a lot of dark and claustrophobic situations, a lot of caves and mountains and dank unpleasant environments. It stands up magnificently to a re-read.

The Promise, by Damon Galgut: A family drama set in South Africa over several decades; each chapter returns to the farmstead for the funeral of one more family member. The metaphor for the deadening poison of a racist society is clear enough, and the constantly deferred titular promise–that the family’s black maid Salome will be given ownership of the house where she has lived for decades–is not a particularly subtle iteration of that metaphor either. What I enjoyed about it, and what makes me interested in Galgut’s older work, is his stylistic bravura, the way he sweeps in and out of characters’ thoughts and perceptions like Virginia Woolf, the old-fashioned but seemingly effortless cinematic eye of his narration. He can move between characters in a single paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence, without ever fully disorienting the reader. It’s a huge technical accomplishment.

Body of Glass (He, She and It), by Marge Piercy: First published under the former title, now published under the latter; I don’t know why. This won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1993, and is a thoughtful science fictional exploration of artificial intelligence, cyborg humanity, and Jewish history: it is set in an America where most of the population lives in the Glop (gigantic conurbations reaching down the East Coast and across the Midwest), except for those employed and housed by megacorporations. The few exceptions are smaller communities that have made themselves useful; our protagonist Shira returns to one, her hometown, at the novel’s start. Her community is entirely Jewish, and the creation of a cyborg, Yod, to defend the town from physical and cyber attacks is an explicit parallel to the tale of a golem created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the ghetto of sixteenth-century Prague to defend its Jewish population from murderous Christian Czechs. There’s perhaps a little too much sentimentalism about sex and male-female relations for my personal taste, but it’s nearly thirty years old, and ninety percent of the book is thought-provoking enough about religion, science and freedom that for me it was overall a success.

The Fell, by Sarah Moss: Sarah Moss is the only person by whom I would want to read a lockdown novel (with the exception of Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat; both are out in the autumn). The Fell doesn’t reach the heights of Ghost Wall for tension, dread and horror, but I’m not sure anything else Moss writes ever will, and it comes closer than Summerwater did. (And it is also by no means the case that tension, dread and horror are the only aims here.) Following an ordinary single mother, Kate, as she leaves her house for an illicit walk on the fells during a time when she is supposed to be quarantining (a colleague at the cafe where she works has tested positive for coronavirus), The Fell also slips into the perspectives of her teenage son Matthew, her elderly neighbour Alice, and Rob, part of the mountain rescue team that must search for her when darkness falls and she doesn’t return. It’s a novel the experience of which will deepen with re-reading; Kate’s encounter with mortality, for instance, is so subtly seeded with intent that it’s startling to realize she may not want to be saved. Another excellent showing from Moss.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner [spoilers, I guess?]: A summer re-read. I can’t read Faulkner in any other season, I’m not sure why. This time around, the cruel humour of the novel felt more apparent than ever; the Bundren family’s utter haplessness and emotional melodrama is so darkly funny (Anse “mumbling his mouth” and not “begrudging” his dead wife anything; furious bastard Jewel; weird, confused little Vardaman). And yet it does feel cruel to be told to laugh at them. I was particularly unnerved this time by the fate of Dewey Dell, whose very name signposts the only important thing about her–her femininity and fertility–and whose fumbling attempts to procure an abortifacient result in her rape. Why can’t Faulkner and I coexist more easily? I find his writing magnetic and also deeply, deeply disturbing; Flannery O’Connor is the same. I want to argue with them both.

Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, by Mari Ness: Read for the Barbellion Prize, so will say little about it other than a description; it’s a collection of columns that originally appeared on Tor.com about classic French fairytales and their roots in social mobility, resistance to autocratic monarchy, and salon culture. Accessible, smart, and well worth a read for its discussion of some obscurer stories (like “Bearskin”, which I knew almost nothing about!)

America on Fire, by Elizabeth Hinton: A nonfiction examination of the history of Black civil rebellion in America from the 1960s to the 1990s. All of last summer’s books seemed to be aimed at helping white people be less racist, or at least be able to know racism when they see it, and that’s worthwhile, but America on Fire is a different proposition, providing a rigorously researched timeline that gives the lie to any notion that 2020’s protests were new, unprecedented or unwarranted. Hinton describes Black communities in small to medium-sized cities all across America, for decades, taking to the streets or arming themselves for self-protection, and describes merciless campaigns of terror waged by white citizens and police departments. This is really your next step for understanding “how we got to here”: after reading Hinton’s book, you’ll realise we’ve always been here.

The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper: A historical novel detailing the experiences of Amara, a slave in Pompeii’s brothel (known as the lupanar, hence the title). Amara was once a free woman, but her father died in debt and she was sold as a household slave; her master’s jealous wife has had her sold again, as a whore. Much of the novel revolves around her attempts to make more money (through schemes like managing financial loans to desperate women in the town) and gain her freedom. Although Harper can’t inhabit her Roman characters’ mindsets with the conviction of a Renault or a Mantel–I never lost sight of the fact that I was reading a modern historical novel–she does create characters for whom it’s easy to care, much like Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts: It took me a week to get through this 600-page investigative/documentary history of the early years of the AIDS crisis, but that’s not because it’s hard to read. Shilts musters a cast of characters including activists, doctors, politicians, bureaucrats, and private citizens, all of whom give their testimony about the years from 1979 to 1984, when a new disease began to ravage the queer community of America from coast to coast, with no apparent cause or treatment method. Enraging and heart-rending in its depiction of official indifference and political infighting, without which tens of thousands more lives could have been saved, it’s also a portrait of a community that finally found its feet in advocating for its own survival. Shilts himself was diagnosed HIV-positive a year after the book was first published, and died of complications from AIDS in 1994. And the Band Played On is a worthy legacy.

First Comes Love, by Tom Rasmussen: Rasmussen is a non-binary male-bodied person in a relationship with a man, who has always wanted to get married but never really known why. In the chapters of this chatty, funny, often surprisingly deep book, they examine what marriage means when you don’t fit a very narrow “standard”–whether that means gay, nb, polyamorous, or something else. They speak to a woman who married a ghost, to a wedding planner for multi-millionaires, to their friend Gemma from Lancaster. They examine how class, particularly in Britain, determines the tone and aesthetic of a wedding, and the relationship between the unique event of a wedding and the long effort of maintaining a marriage. It’s not always as rigorous in its tone and in avoiding repetition as I’d like, but I was very pleasantly surprised by it and will be passing it on; I can think of many people my age (and not) who would appreciate the questions Rasmussen raises and the way they discuss them.

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather: I keep re-reading this (well, this is the second time in two years) and finding new beauty in it every time. It’s a perfect summer choice, set as it is on the Great Plains of Nebraska, and written as it is with attention to details of season and weather, though without ever becoming enervating in its landscape description. Cather’s narrator, Jim Burden, grows from a young boy to a man in early middle age, looking back on his youth in the West, although like Cather (and like me), Jim originates in the Virginia mountains. But the novel is very oriented towards the plains, and the titular character of My Ántonia, while an individual, is also an archetype, an homage to the pioneer women who came from Germany and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and Sweden and Norway to settle the American West. Reading Cather brings home the combined dignity and humility of the human state; I don’t think I can be clearer on her magnificence.

Emma, by Jane Austen: Another re-read, this time of a novel I hadn’t visited since I was fourteen. Oddly, although I’ve always gotten on pretty easily with most of Austen’s work, Emma managed to repulse me somehow, and I hadn’t sought it out again since first reading. Coming back to it at twenty-eight, it absolutely shines: the characters are drawn without mercy but with terrific good humour, the dialogue and the wit both sparkle, and the whole thing is just a lot more charming than either Persuasion or Mansfield Park, the former of which is gorgeous but very melancholy and the latter of which often seems to put people off Austen with its unappealing heroine. But Emma the second time around? Magnificent. Maybe her best novel of all. I do think that having spent a decade socializing as an adult equipped me much better to find its rich veins of humour and absurdity; teenage me just thought everyone in it was kind of horrible, which is of course true, but not the whole truth.

What have you been reading, or re-reading, in June? Do you have books you can only read in certain seasons? Do you have summery books?

May 2021 Wrap-Up

May! May was a good month. “Good” is a broad word, which we were taught in school never to use in our writing (like “pretty” and “nice”), but May was a good month nevertheless. I read thirteen books, indoor dining and hugs both made a return to our lives, and I got into grad school! (I’ll start with an MPhil and shift to a PhD after two years–I’ll be studying part-time to begin with–on 18th-century literature, specifically literary depictions of sex workers, even more specifically those marginalized by their race and/or gender identity. I KNOW.) Also, it eventually stopped raining.

So, those books. A remarkably high number of them were proofs/reading copies of current hardback releases. Actually, one of those came out in 2019 but it’s still available in hardback so I’m counting it, and also counting it as a dent in the Great Unread: the comedian Sofie Hagen’s memoir Happy Fat, which doesn’t say a lot that anyone who’s done any fat-positive reading won’t already have seen, but which has the great virtue of being funny, and of reinforcing a message that I always, always seem to need to hear. Another was Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, her newest historical-fantasy novel, and also her best; combining time travel, the Napoleonic Wars, speculative history, and a slow-burning love story, its multiple subplots are handled with greater clarity and aplomb than anything she’s yet written. It’s not what you’d think of as a “quick read”, and yet it reads quickly; once I became invested, I couldn’t stop reading til I was done. One was a Barbellion Prize submission, Sara Gibbs’s memoir of growing up as an undiagnosed autistic woman, Drama Queen. (I won’t comment extensively on the Barbellion Prize books other than to register that I’ve read them; I haven’t discussed this with the chair of judges but I have a feeling it’s not the done thing.) There was Assembly by Natasha Brown, which I discussed a little bit with Rebecca and Laura on Goodreads; it’s marketable as a disaster-woman book but I don’t actually think it is; I think it’s a book about the impossibility of winning as a Black British woman under capitalism, how material success is based upon the exploitation of your labour and material poverty only reaffirms your status as a second-class citizen. The plot twist, such as it is, has been called melodramatic, but I think it’s perfect: the stakes are that high, and (without wishing to spoil anything) the book makes it very apparent that checking out completely can easily look like the only solution. As our narrator muses, in a passage that seems to me to encapsulate the book’s whole project, “Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice. Nothing is a choice.” I also read The Dreadful Monster and its Poor Relations by Julian Hoppitt (a history of taxation and spending in the UK from the Act of Union in 1707 to 2010; dry, yes, but more or less comprehensible if very granular, and I’m interested in the British historical economy and how people and governments chose to spend money as imperial ambitions and capacities increased), and The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (as much a love letter to libraries, books, and stories as everyone says it is, with references ranging from Jane Eyre to Norse mythology to The Da Vinci Code, but oddly and problematically disjointed, for me. There’s too much going on, too many characters who want too many incompatible and largely undiscussed things, to hold it all in your head as a singular reading experience, which makes it very unlike Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book to which it has been much compared. It’s addictive, extremely tense in parts, and I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not perfect and not as immersive as I’d hoped.)

With regards to backlist reading: I read two of the Gollancz ebooks from that 99p sale (I’m getting through them!): Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book (very close to being better than just good; personally, I found Willis’s 1990s conception of a 2050s Oxford a lot closer to 1950s Oxford, which is frustrating on an imaginative level–a huge part of one plot strand revolves around being unable to get hold of an academic because he’s on holiday, Willis apparently not having thought of widespread mobile phone usage, and the gender politics amongst the young characters are ridiculously outdated–but the historical strand works well because it relies on our emotional connection to individuals we know will die sooner or later, and it largely earns that emotional connection) and Sheri S. Tepper’s Raising the Stones, which I really enjoyed: gods who are a sentient fungus! A blistering critique of theocratic patriarchy! An acknowledgment of music as a revolutionary force! If the book has a weakness, it’s a total indifference to minimizing point of view; there are dozens of POV characters, though we move fluidly between each of them and the effect is generally that of an omniscient narrator, which is manageable. Still, I thought it was great and will be reaching for more Tepper (especially Grass) in future. I also finished The Silmarillion, with the help of the Prancing Pony podcast; it is decidedly not for casual Tolkien fans, but I definitely came to it at the right time and, like all the richest collections of myth and legend, it contains some very memorable individual stories (the death of Fingolfin; Beren and Luthien, of course; the children of Hurin, also of course). Much to my surprise, women are better represented here than in The Hobbit or LOTR: there are more of them, elves and humans and demigods, and they achieve more in war and in diplomacy (Haleth, for instance, who leads the defense of her lands, and takes up the leadership of her people when all her male relatives fall). Those who believe Tolkien a misogynist might do well to look to the women of The Silmarillion for role models.

More academically, I read Rebecca Gibson’s The Corseted Skeleton: a Bioarchaeology of Binding, for Barbellion Prize purposes (it’s about the physical effects of corseting on women’s bodies and argues that physical transformation should not be interpreted as oppression across the board), and British Women’s Writing in the Long 18th Century edited by Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan, which, well, does what it says on the tin. Most of it probably won’t be that relevant to my own work, but women did sometimes address sex work–as well as, more commonly, the morality of labour, and constructions of race and otherness–in their writing, and I came away from it with at least two new directions of enquiry. So that’s a good thing.

Finally, two rereads: Tana French’s In the Woods (which I reread almost by accident, in snatches on my phone; the final 25% of it as agonizing as ever, I honestly take my hat off to her for being able to sustain the process of writing such emotionally painful scenes as an intimate friendship falls apart. The case is technically solved, but no one wins and justice is not served, and it’s that as well as her delicate, brutal filleting of motive and social performance that makes her such an unusual crime writer, I think), and Jane Austen’s Persusasion (which I think I hadn’t reread since June of 2007?! That can’t be right, but it must be right. Anyway, it holds up. I hadn’t noticed til reading Gillian Beer’s introduction this time around how closely we are tied to Anne Elliot’s perspective, even to the point that when she lowers her eyes, the rest of the scene is reported only in dialogue–we literally can’t see what she can’t see. It explains, I think, why Wentworth sometimes feels oddly colourless. He’s handsome, rich thanks to his own competence, sensible, kind, dutiful, and dryly witty, but he doesn’t have the vast charismatic charge of Darcy, or even the queasily immoral magnetism of a Willoughby or a Henry Crawford; we love him because Anne loves him. Which feels right, I think, in that the book is about becoming sure of yourself, and of your choice of partner, without needing to justify them or hold them up for the quantification and judgment of others.)

To analyse: only one by a person of colour, which is pretty poor. (I started two others–The World Does Not Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott, and Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke–and abandoned both, mostly for the same reason: more surreal/magical realist than I fancied. It’s really not my mode. Also, Lianke’s narrator kept describing a woman’s breasts as being like handsome white sheep. Hard pass.) Quite a lot of nonfiction, though; five out of thirteen, a figure inflated by Barbellion Prize reading. (There are some nominated novels and poetry collections, but I’m not there yet.) Two books by queer authors and/or featuring queer characters (Happy Fat and The Kingdoms), again not great but present. A pretty good balance of frontlist to backlist, and I definitely feel my choices have been largely directed by thoughtful whim.

For June, I have no reading plans, apart from not buying any books, again. I’m moving in late September and am already planning a joyful way of downsizing my book collection, which I’ll tell you more about later. For now, I’ll try to enjoy my last few months of “free reading” before I start the MPhil, which I anticipate will keep me constantly guilty when I’m not working. (I’m really, really excited, though. Honestly, I am!)

And you? Do you have summer reading plans, wishes, goals, hopes?

April 2021 Wrap-Up

With best intentions, it looks as though my New Year’s resolution to write something about every.single.book. has sort of come to its natural end. Oh well. It lasted for two months pretty solidly, which isn’t bad. I refuse to feel guilt or shame. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if constant churning-out of bookish content is really where I want my productivity to lie. It was a useful exercise for a while there, to bring my mind back into shape, but I already work for the book industry eight hours a day, five days a week. Do I really want my leisure hours to consist entirely of free publicity for that same industry? This ambivalence is partly reflected in the way my reading is shifting away from frontlist titles at the moment. We’ll see how this develops over the course of the year.

On to April, a pretty rich reading month in which I read eleven books! Three of these were proofs of new releases: Florence Gildea’s Lessons I Have Unlearned (a cheering and charming slim volume about mental health, eating disorders, and God; it would be difficult to read it from a non-Christian perspective, but as someone who wrestles with God’s existence and a brutally perfectionist self-image, I found it very resonant), Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand (exactly as good as I wanted it to be, though a different animal, and slightly less technically accomplished, than Reservoir 13; it’s a novel in two chunks, really, the first chunk establishing as protagonist Robert “Doc” Wright, an experienced technician assisting scientists and photographers in Antarctica, the second following Doc’s progress after a stroke leaves him with aphasia, and filtered through the eyes of his wife, Anna; emotionally nuanced but sometimes perhaps a bit distant with its readers. Still, writing aphasia–a condition defined by a loss of control over language–is ambitious and difficult, and mostly McGregor does well there), and Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (a strong contender for my book of the year so far, a dual-strand historical novel following Marian Graves, a 20th-century female pilot who disappears, like Earhart, on an attempt to complete a type of round-the-world flight known as a great circle, and Hadley Baxter, a “troubled Hollywood starlet” in the mould of Jennifer Lawrence or Kristin Stewart–she’s become famous by playing the female romantic lead in a franchise adapted from cod-fantasy YA novels, whose fans are portrayed as rabidly unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality–who feels compelled to play Marian in a new, and misleading, biopic, and to find out more about her actual life; Marian’s strand gets more pages, and it’s clear to me that Shipstead preferred writing her, but Hadley is never less convincing than Marian; it’s been months since I read a book that made me believe so deeply in the reality of its characters. The descriptive writing is also phemonenal. It might be a tad longer than strictly necessary, but not a single page made me feel I was wasting my time by reading it. It’s magnificent, and will, I hope, be much loved.)

Two were newly released reprints of older books, both from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. The first, Incomparable World by SI Martin, is a sort of crime picaresque set in 1780s London amongst a community of Black soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution, having been promised freedom from slavery and a new life in England after the war’s end. Martin’s great on atmosphere, noise and muck and mess, the way poverty steals dignity, the necessity of living on the edge, but less good on clear plotting and character differentiation. Still, it’s funny and poignant and provides a much-needed fictional window into a historical experience that remains largely unexplored. The second was The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy, in which zaftig, irrepressible Gloria, and skinny, silent Merle become unlikely companions on an NHS mental health ward in the 1990s. Roy slyly forces us to question whether either of them is actually mad, or whether (as has been the case so often for women, especially poor women and/or women of colour) they’ve been sectioned largely for the convenience of people around them. Gloria sings constantly, talks loudly to everyone she sees, and is secretly grieving her female partner of many years, Josie, whose family’s homophobia has made it impossible for Gloria’s pain to be acknowledged; Merle is traumatized by childhood sexual abuse and a toxic current relationship; both make other people uncomfortable. Their growing friendship, and the journals they keep for the scrutiny of their doctors, reveal the essential unhelpfulness and fluidity of labels like “sane” and “insane”. It’s a genuinely joyful book, and the ending is perfect.

I got through a number of books when I went down to Sussex at the start of the month. Two of these were e-copies of backlist sci fi classics that I snaffled in a buying spree at Gollancz’s 99 p sale (Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, which also counts towards my Clarke Award challenge as it won in 1996; heavy on the cyber-punk and biotech but posing fascinating questions about sentience and authority over life, although its curious structure lets it down by deflating tension every time we move location; and M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which Harrison himself has described as “the crappiest of my novels”, a kind of anti-space opera in which the half-alien protagonist is defined by his passivity and indifference in the face of a potentially world-ending weapon that only he can unlock; I don’t regret reading it, but I’m pleased to hear that he gets better). One was a backlist title gifted to me by my partner (The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, a reexamination of the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld and her husband Stephen–yes, that Courtauld. They lived in Rhodesia because Ginie’s history was too scandalous to keep them in England, which is portrayed as unbearably stuffy and repressed, probably quite accurately; a part of me struggles with being asked to sympathize too heavily with a wealthy white woman for being socially ostracized for being vocally anti-racist, but then, as Treger makes clear, being a “race traitor” in Rhodesia in the 1950s could get you shot.) Two were old copies of books found at my grandmother’s house (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I wrote about at greater length earlier this month, and A History of Harting by Rev. H.D. Gordon, a private-press reprint of a local history of my grandmother’s area originally published in the late 19th century. Absolutely fascinating explanation of topography and human settlement in that part of the world going right back to the Iron Age, when there was a hill fort, and with some exciting, lurid stories of murder, smuggling and land grabs in later centuries. Obviously of very niche interest, but I loved it).

Finally, one of April’s reads was part of a new-paperback buying spree at BookBar on Blackstock Road: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which uses imagination, empathy and analysis to re-present the lives of Black women in American cities in the early part of the 20th century, whose experiments in sexuality, family structure, and earning a living anticipated the 1960s revolution in white social and sexual structures by decades. (There are still four books from this spree I have yet to delve into, but I’m pleased to have read one relatively quickly, instead of leaving the whole pile to languish, as so often happens.)

In terms of reading resolutions, I feel this month was fairly diverse: a number of books by authors of colour, a number of books by or about queer individuals, a respectable sprinkling of nonfiction, some experimental and some “standard”. A good genre spread too: some sci fi, some historical fiction, some contemporary fiction. Though not a whole lot of the latter; this plus the release of the Women’s Prize shortlist yesterday (of which I have read one) makes it clearer than ever that my reading interests are not necessarily making it easy to prioritize frontlist books. Further stagnation on the Great Unread, though. It’s difficult to make room for everything, especially because I really need to start pushing Barbellion Prize contenders to the fore. (I probably won’t discuss those in future reading wrap-ups, apart from acknowledging how many of them I’ve read in a given month. I’m not sure why, but it seems the done thing to keep official prize panel reading to oneself.)

In May, I am going to try not to buy any books. I have my proof pile, my physical-purchases pile, my Gollancz e-purchases (currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, not totally sure about it), the Great Unread, Barbellion Prize submissions… There’s plenty to be getting on with. (I’m also reading, chapter by chapter and at long last, The Silmarillion, which defeated me utterly as a Lord of the Rings-obsessed ten-year-old but which I think I’m finally coming to at the right time. After each chapter, I’m listening to the corresponding episode of the Prancing Pony podcast, which is a chapter-by-chapter deep dive into Tolkien’s work hosted by two very funny, earnest, passionate Americans. I love it. I so rarely fly my true High Fantasy Freak Flag, but consider it hoisted.)

Also: beer gardens and outdoor dining are back! I had a falafel burger and two glasses of wine at a cafe with my best friend last night, then came back home and promptly fell asleep, like an overstimulated toddler. Happy days.

A Glass of Blessings

Having spent the last two-ish weeks more or less on break over Easter, reading quite a lot (six books in twelve days) and writing about absolutely none of it, I’m attempting to get back on the horse with a little bit of commentary (hardly a review or a critical essay) on Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings, which I picked up on a whim at my grandmother’s house (yes, technically I shouldn’t have been there; she’s double-vaccinated, recently widowed, and lonely, I’m single-vaccinated and basically a hermit, we both accepted the risks).

Really, the best way to think of A Glass of Blessings is as a 20th-century Anglo-Catholic version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Like Emma, Wilmet Forsyth is comfortably well off, reasonably clever, and more than a touch bored. (Unlike Emma, she’s already married, to a civil servant named Rodney whom she met under significantly more dashing circumstances when they were both stationed in Italy during the war. One of the recurring themes is a vague, not entirely negative acknowledgment of how much more respectable and staid their lives, and the lives of their old friends, have become, a sense that nothing else can really measure up but an equal sense that perhaps they’ve simply lost the first energies of youth in a way that would always have happened, war or not.) Wilmet’s boredom leads her to take an increasingly active interest in the life of her local parish church, St Luke’s (Rodney does not attend), and to be drawn towards the three priests there as well as her friend Rowena’s rather enigmatic but good-looking brother, Piers. Wilmet’s prejudices, arrogance and blind spots–like Emma’s–lead her to entirely erroneous conclusions about most of these men, as well as about the spotlessly good and pious Mary Beamish, whose friendship she initially discounts but who later proves to be rather more switched-on, and more valuable as a friend, than previously judged. I should add that Wilmet is never drawn as a horrible person or even an unpleasant one–her problem is comfortable certainty, not cruelty, and a certain ability to bend facts to suit her subconsciously desired interpretation–and she is often the vessel for Pym’s brilliant, sometimes off-the-wall observational capacities, which tell just as much against her as against whoever she’s discussing:

Were the invitations always for Father Thames and never for mild dumpy little Father Bode, with his round spectacled face and slightly common voice, who always seemed to be the sub-deacon at High Mass and who had once read the wrong lesson at a carol service? I was sure that Father Bode was equally worthy of eating smoked salmon and grouse or whatever luncheon the hostesses might care to provide. Then it occurred to me that he might well be the kind of person who would prefer tinned salmon, though I was ashamed of the unworthy thought for I knew him to be a good man.

A Glass of Blessings, p. 7

It won’t take the 21st-century reader very long to determine that Piers, far from being secretly and moodily in love with Wilmet, is gay, and that the roommate he takes such pains to avoid discussing is in fact his lover, Keith (who is not only a man but has a detectable Leicester accent, which is possibly more of a transgression). I was both surprised and impressed by the way Piers’s sexuality seems simply to be accepted by all of the main characters; it is never openly discussed, but neither is he socially shunned once Wilmet works it out, and even her husband Rodney seems both to comprehend the situation and to find the two men’s company more amusing than problematic. Perhaps the acceptance is possible precisely because what Piers and Keith are to each other is never spoken aloud, just made obvious through the intimacy of their living situation. I’m not certain how to feel about the portrayal of Keith, who is depicted as a rather motherly figure (though the younger partner of the couple): an excellent interior decorator, tidier, cook and host. He’s clearly meant to stand as a contrast to Piers, who was miserable and an alcoholic before Keith’s influence entered his life, but is it too stereotypical for a gay character? The novel was written in 1958, which makes it interesting that Pym attempts it at all. I do think she succeeds in making Keith a person, as she makes almost all of her characters; his portrayal certainly doesn’t appear offensive, or stigmatizing.

The first few chapters are taken up with finding a new housekeeper for the clergy house, where two of the priests lodge together, and through Wilmet’s intervention, the successful applicant is in fact a man, a Mr. Bason. He is also a talented cook and admirer of beautiful things (in fact something of a kleptomaniac regarding the latter), also queer-coded, and also clearly lower-middle-class at best. Wilmet and her friends, of a different social standing, have no such apparent hunger for beauty or practical ability to create it (though Wilmet does allow as to how she has a talent for flower arranging). A taste for life’s finer things, Pym seems to suggest, is a quality reserved for people who do not know for sure that they can have such things. The difference between Bason and Keith is that the former is a snob, out of a terror of social exclusion, and Keith is not a snob at all; instead he is almost an innocent, remarking wistfully that Wilmet must see lots of trees where she lives. Pym may notice everything, but she is never unwilling to allow sympathy for her characters. She never lets the reader despise them or feel scorn for them, although we may find them dislikable, embarrassing, or pompous, which is why her novels seem to me to have more heart than the phrase “English high comedy”–certainly applicable here–would suggest.

The best character, after Wilmet herself, however, must be her mother-in-law Sybil, who is neither a tyrannical harridan nor an overbearing smotherer. Sybil is cheerfully atheistic, fond of her son and her daughter-in-law (who both live in her house) but by no means entirely occupied with home life. She immerses herself in shopping, lunches, and academic lectures, which is how she comes into contact with the dry but gentle and kind-hearted Professor Root, who becomes a fixture of the Forsyth’s family life. It is apparent to the reader much earlier than it is to Wilmet that Professor Root and Sybil are romantically involved, and the sweet gentility with which these two older people go about courting each other and, finally, deciding to get married, feels like a little cherry to enjoy on top of the delights of the main characters’ doings. The fact that Wilmet is oblivious to it only makes it more delicious.

This is my third Pym novel–I read Excellent Women in 2014 and Quartet In Autumn in 2010, according to my book journal–and I think I’ve finally reached the age where one starts to actually appreciate her. (Quartet in Autumn depressed me, perhaps unsurprisingly since I was eighteen at the time, and I don’t think I fully comprehended Excellent Women; looking back, I read it during a month of extreme upheaval during which I had three different addresses, so frankly it’s a miracle I remember any of it at all.) Where should I venture next in her back catalogue?


A Glass of Blessings was first published in 1958; my edition is a Penguin paperback from 1983, many of the yellowing pages of which have come entirely unglued from the spine and are simply shoved loose between the covers. A very nice contemporary edition is available in the UK from Little, Brown.

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.

Revolting Prostitutes

Eye-catching post title, no? And eye-catching book title. Anyway—this is going to take the form of some reflections upon, and consolidations of, what Molly Smith and Juno Mac lay out in the above.

Smith and Mac are both sex workers, and their stance on the legal status of sex work is that, first and foremost, it should proceed from the standpoint that a) sex workers are working, and b) workers deserve access to labour rights. These are two seemingly straightforward premises, but, as the current global status of sex work demonstrates, they are remarkably difficult ones for politicians and anti-prostitution feminists (a term Smith and Mac use and which I will adopt) to get their heads around. Using interviews with current sex workers and activists all over the world as well as former sex workers, they draw attention to two false figures, the Happy Hooker and the Erotic Professional. They are closely related, and are often used in media pieces by or about sex workers who are among the most privileged in their profession, the “elite” or “high-class” escorts, many of whom say that they love sex work, find it empowering, and don’t think there is any need for further regulation. As Smith and Mac demonstrate, any emphasis on fulfillment misses the point. An individual in the highest rungs of any industry may love their job and find it empowering (or that may all be part of the marketing material, since many elite escorts are selling emotional intimacy and “the girlfriend experience”, as well as sex). That does nothing to change the fact that there are workers of lower status in the industry who require access to labour law. Whether a high-class escort feels empowered by her work or not is irrelevant to the question of whether we should give workers in her industry legal protections from harassment, rape, eviction, and prosecution simply for trying to exist. One would not expect a representative worker in the retail, hospitality or media industry to find their job “empowering”, necessarily; one would expect that they are undertaking work in order to survive, and that they therefore have the right to work reasonable hours, not be harassed by management or customers in their workplace, and not be subject to punitive measures outside of their workplace (such as being arrested themselves simply for, let’s say, looking like a barista, if they call the police to report a crime committed against them). Yet this is exactly what mainstream media and much contemporary feminism tends to expect of its sex workers—that they either claim to represent all sex workers in their empowerment, or be made to represent all sex workers in moral panic-mongering about degradation and “trafficking”.

Trafficking, as Smith and Mac also point out, is a real phenomenon; it is just that it merges into a wider phenomenon, which is that of people smuggling and undocumented migration. In their early chapters, they skilfully demonstrate that the criminalization of sex work is inextricably connected to much wider issues, like the ongoing tightening of borders, the ongoing criminalization of drugs, and austerity policies that drive more and more people into poverty and homelessness, then punish and humiliate them for being poor and homeless. In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that people turn to sex work. (Smith and Mac mostly figure sex workers as women, both cis and trans, which reflects the realities of the industry, but they do acknowledge cis and trans male sex workers, and use studies focusing on them, as well.) Smith and Mac are pragmatic about this, and their proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense, in that they strike at the root of the problem: liquidate borders, decriminalize drug use, reinstate (or instate, in some countries) a proper social safety net, and decriminalize sex work. Using both statistics and anecdote, they demonstrate that in every place where drug use and sex work have been rendered safer (which decriminalization would do), and where so-called “exit programmes” prioritize the needs of workers in giving them money and genuine career development pathways, instead of patronizing them with punitive benefits measures and lower-paid jobs making garments or jewellery, neither drug use nor sex work has increased in frequency; in many places, it has decreased, because workers are no longer in such desperate need; and deaths have decreased substantially.

I say “in every place” where drug use and sex work have been made safer; there is only one country in the world that has pursued full decriminalization, and that is New Zealand. A case study on NZ makes up the final chapter of the book, and interviewed sex workers are palpably more confident in their safety at work, their ability to access labour law, and their security from police brutality and abuse. Police abuse of power is a horrifying constant throughout the other chapters. These explore countries that have fully criminalized sex work; the “Nordic model”, which criminalizes buyers but not sellers, and is not the silver bullet its proponents claim it is (clients who are frightened they will be arrested can demand increasingly unsafe environments and practices from their sex workers, who find themselves less and less able to refuse because they need money, while the client can always choose not to purchase sex from them); “legalization”, which is the model used in Germany and the Netherlands, requires things like registration for sex workers and mandatory health checks, the former of which leaves undocumented migrant sex workers out in the cold and the latter of which is a human rights violation; and full decriminalization, which only New Zealand currently uses and which essentially removes state apparatus, and policing, from the sex industry altogether, except in the sense that police officers are required to protect the rights and safety of sex workers at work in the same way they are required to protect the rights and safety of office workers or waitstaff. Sex workers are safer when they do not have to fear the police, either while a transaction is taking place or afterwards. (The numbers of arrests for “brothel-keeping” in countries that criminalize are ridiculous, and include such people as a sex worker’s pal who lets her crash at their place for a few weeks, and, memorably, a seventy-year-old cleaner in Melbourne, Australia who called an ambulance when a client had a heart attack and was promptly arrested under anti-pimping legislation, thus ensuring, as Smith and Mac write, that no one in any part of Melbourne’s sex industry ever again calls an ambulance for a client or worker in need of medical attention.)

If Smith and Mac sometimes seem to focus on the negative or dangerous elements of sex work, it is not because they wish to shame or stigmatize members of their own community; it is because they wish to draw attention to the fact that workers of any kind, anywhere, have a right to safety and comfort, and that when those rights are ignored, the consequences are devastating and unjust. Putting current sex workers at the centre of the movement for their rights seems so obvious, yet so many policymakers, governments and institutions appear not to understand the principle; Smith and Mac never lose sight of it. As a starting point for anyone interested in the political dimensions of sex work, or in how to reduce harm to vulnerable people, or in the interconnectedness of many of today’s most pressing social issues, Revolting Prostitutes is essential reading.


Revolting Prostitutes was first published by Verso Books in the UK in 2018; my paperback edition is from 2020.

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?

The Dead Are Arising

Over at Litro, my review of The Dead Are Arising is up! It’s a new biography of Malcolm X, nearly 30 years in the making, and although it’s a landmark piece of work, it’s not without its weaknesses. You can read the full review for free here.