September Superlatives

Quite a lot going on in September, all of it good—more writing, more walking, more singing, more seeing dear friends whom I don’t see often enough. Work is very busy, and I have two new colleagues to help me in the bookshop, and I have just started working on our bespoke subscription service, with new clients of my own. Not many reviews this month, but 17 books read, and a sense that, going into winter, I may just preserve my sanity. An unexpected gift, that: I don’t fare well in the dark season.

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most uneven: Mark Twain’s travelogue Roughing It, which is partly set in Nevada, Utah and California Territories (where he originally went to accompany his brother, who was appointed to a government position in Nevada), and partly in Hawaii. Twain is amusing as ever (if a little distressingly casual) on Mormon society and the surreal bubble of Western gold prospecting, but he’s also breathtakingly racist about Chinese labourers in California Territory, and things don’t improve when he meets native Hawaiians. Worth reading, but hardly essential.

most incendiary: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, longlisted for the Booker Prize, which retells Sophocles’s Antigone with a British Muslim family front and center. Dutiful daughter Isma, bold and beautiful Aneeka, and radicalised, immature Parvaiz play out a story that feels inevitable, but ought to be read by everyone interested in current debates about the West’s role in creating a new generation of terrorists. (review)

best fun: K.J. Whittaker’s False Lights, the tagline of which is the intriguing “What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?” Featuring Cornish separatist rebels, Napoleon’s brother Jerome on the English throne, and a mixed-race heroine (not to mention another particularly wonderful depiction of a working-class woman whose capacity for military strategy wins her the Duke of Wellington’s respect), it’s like a glorious mashup of Frenchman’s Creek and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (but without the magic.)

most stylish: My Cat Yugoslavia, the debut novel from Pajtim Statovci. Examining the psychic fallout from the war in Kosovo through the eyes of Bekim, a Kosovan Muslim resettled in Finland as a child, it’s an elegant, if sometimes slightly self-conscious, treatment of the lingering traumas of conflict. (review)

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best atmosphere: That of immediately post-war London in Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s set in the notoriously cold winter of 1947, and follows Joan Grice, who runs the wardrobe department at the Beaumont Theatre, as she mourns the death of her famous actor husband, known to all as Gricey. The revelation that Gricey had a secret life—one that was almost diametrically opposed to his domestic life with her—drives Joan to the brink of madness. McGrath writes with beautiful restraint and finely calculated tension; it’s a masterpiece.

sheerest delight (and most inspirational protagonist): Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. This is not exactly news to anyone who reads Naomi’s blog, but good Lord is this novella ever charming, cheering, and a bit of a kick up the ass. Dr. Morayo da Silva, Manyika’s protagonist, is in her eighties and still lively, sharp, and sexy. (A young chef, seeing her dancing, gets a little hot under the collar, despite knowing she’s his grandmother’s age.) Manyika doesn’t ignore the painful elements of aging, but she has also written the only elderly female protagonist I’ve ever read whom I wouldn’t actually mind becoming. What a gem.

most addictive: Munich, Robert Harris’s new book. I had never read a single Harris book until July, when I finally bought the paperback of Conclave because I was going to be on a train and what if I happened to finish the book I already had in my bag OH NOES. It turned out to be great, and Munich is even better. While sticking to the historical record of what happened in 1938 when Chamberlain and Hitler met and signed the Munich Agreement, Harris also gives us the perspective of two men—one in the British government, one in the German—who try to persuade Chamberlain of the real danger. Harris succeeds as no other novelist has in conveying Britain’s desperation not to start another war, and somehow, knowing from the start how it will end doesn’t diminish the tension.

best surprise: This year’s Booker Prize dark horse, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. Initially this seemed rather Cormac McCarthy Does Yorkshire, but in the end it’s much more than that: a siren song of violence and independence and rage. There are shades of Winter’s Bone and My Absolute Darling and the queasy individualism of Paul Kingsnorth’s novels in the story of bare-knuckle fighter John and his children, gentle Daniel and hard-as-nails Cathy. It’ll be interesting to see what Mozley does next.

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biggest disappointment: Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s reimagining of King Lear for Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. In this case, the failing is partly that of the utterly mediocre prose, but mostly due to a lack of moral scope: Dunbar isn’t a tragic figure because he isn’t an Everyman. (Neither is a king, you might say, to which I would reply that Lear is humanised through his madness, and also—crucially—through subtle choices made by every actor who plays him. Dunbar, meanwhile, is simply an aggressive and deeply unpleasant media mogul who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break: a bizarre choice on St Aubyn’s part that utterly removes his protagonist from our sympathy.) I may write a full review of this, if my brain ever stops feeling like a wrung-out dishtowel every evening after work.

best short story collection: And only short story collection, but it’s difficult to phrase what I want to say about 2084, edited by George Sandison, which is that it’s an almost flawless assembly of stories, all explicitly set in the eponymous year as part of a project conceived as a response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the ultimate assimilationist technique among refugees to haute couture-induced lunacy, from drowning cities to a bonkers future youth dialect that draws on Doge memes (“Such approach! Very arriving!”), these stories are never less than fully committed to their visions of the future, and the writing is never less than sterling. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

most thought-provoking: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, an Afrofuturist novel(-la?) about genetically modified speciMen (the book’s word). I liked it okay, but not more than that, and the reason that’s thought-provoking is because my lukewarm response had a lot to do with the rhythms of the prose. Okorafor’s sentences are shaped in a way that clearly owes much to African and oral storytelling beats, and I find that hard to deal with in written work. The fact that The Book of Phoenix has revealed this prejudice means, of course, that it’s done its job.

most LUSH: John Banville’s new novel and sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond. It follows Isabel Osmond, née Archer, as she tries to free herself from the horrendous, controlling marriage to which Henry James condemns her. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style (albeit a slightly less thicket-y one). I’ve never seen anything like it.

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most quietly devastating: The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It would read well in conjunction with Do Not Say We Have Nothing; Barnes is more interested in his ideas than his plot, whereas Madeleine Thien manages to integrate the two, but Barnes has equally interesting things to say about how artists (specifically musicians) survive under tyranny, and the intellectual compromises that survival requires.

most surreal: I’ll Sell You a Dog, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Set in Mexico City and narrated by foul-mouthed, cheekily lecherous pensioner Teo, it covers mid-century Mexican art, Marxism, young love, disappointment, intellectual pretension (embodied by his apartment complex’s reading group, who pay a young boy to ferry their copies of Proust around in wheelbarrows), and tacos. I read it in a day and walked around feeling a bit cross-eyed for a while afterwards.

warm bath book: Every month must have one, apparently. It’s often a reread. This month there were two: one was Lirael by Garth Nix, which was about 99p on the Kindle store, so I bought it and read it on my phone. I’ve loved Nix’s Old Kingdom series from childhood, and I especially love Lirael because, for the book’s first half, its painfully shy heroine works in an enormous magical library. Swoon.

The other was Alanna: the Song of the Lioness, which is part of the new Puffin Originals series of “classic” YA. It’s actually the first two books in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, bundled together. The story of a girl who wants to be a knight in the fantasy realm of Tortall, and disguises herself as a boy for eight years to do it, is also a childhood favourite. As an adult, it’s easier to see where Pierce relies on heroic exceptionalism and a wide-eyed “who, me?” attitude in her heroine, but they’re still great stories.

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most defiant of genre convention: Jane Harris’s third book, Sugar Money, which is out this week, tells the story of two Martiniquais brothers, slaves to the French priests who run the island’s hospital. They are charged with returning to Grenada and “stealing back” the forty-two slaves left there when the French were defeated by the English several years ago. Harris doesn’t saturate readers with baroque depictions of violence, as, say, Marlon James or Colson Whitehead do (though there is some); her time period is about a hundred years earlier, and what she conveys best is the way that coming to adulthood, as a slave, means a psychological reckoning with your own powerlessness.

up next: In general life, October holds a trip to Liverpool to sing at the cathedral there, a trip to Canterbury for my cousin’s hen weekend, and my housemate’s book launch. (He’s an academic and has just done a book on Bloomsbury’s cultural effect on the rest of London. Buy it!) In reading, I’m about to finish The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I’ve got a million proofs from work, and I went book shopping over the weekend because I guess I’m some kind of masochist, and…you know, I’m definitely set.

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July Superlatives

July: a great month for reading (eighteen [nineteen! I forgot one!] books, somehow, bringing my yearly total up to 116), a very bad month for reviewing. I won’t apologise – moving house tires the mind – but hope that these Superlative entries will be detailed enough to pique interest. I did write one review, for Litro, of Best British Short Stories 2017, which I’ll link to once it’s been posted. Meanwhile, onwards.

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most versatile: Francesca Segal’s second novel, The Awkward Age. It is a very well-written modern-relationships novel, centering on Julia—a widowed piano teacher—and her new partner, James; her resentful teenaged daughter Gwen; and James’s resentful, privileged teenaged son, Nathan. Surprising (possibly melodramatic) plot twists involving the teenagers are balanced by the presence of Julia’s former husband’s parents, whose relationship is not without its own interest and is presented with great nuance. I can’t imagine anyone, of any age, reading this book and not being able to get something out of it.

blast from the past: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which I read as a result of bringing it home with me from a visit to my grandparents. I hadn’t read nineteenth-century prose for months, and what struck me about it was how dryly funny Hardy often is, especially when describing character quirks. His “rustics” are better in this than in almost any other of his novels; even the utterly goofy ones, like Joseph Poorgrass, feel convincing, which I’m not sure is the case in, e.g., The Mayor of Casterbridge or even Tess.

best crime novel: Cambridgeshire-set Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. The standout in this book is its DI, Manon Bradshaw, who’s heavily pregnant by a sperm donor and also trying to mother her adoptive son, a young black boy named Fly. (Persons Unknown is the second in a series that starts with Missing, Presumed, which must chart Manon’s and Fly’s relationship from the beginning.) A City banker is murdered in broad daylight; Fly becomes the main suspect. Persons Unknown handles a very specifically British sort of racial prejudice with total sensitivity, and provides some delightful point-of-view characters, including Davy (trying hard to be politically correct, not entirely equipped for the task) and Birdie (a London shopkeeper who becomes embroiled in the case). Loved it.

most haha-YEP: Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running Wigtown’s The Book Shop, The Diary of a Bookseller. What can I say? It’s screamingly funny, helped along by Bythell’s rotating cast of eccentric employees (including Nicky, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, lives in her blue van, and comes to work in the winter dressed in a black snow suit that makes her look like a demented Teletubby), and Bythell’s own dry sense of humour. He’s also great on the day-to-day business of antiquarian and secondhand book selling—traveling to valuations, how to price an old book, and so on—which, as a new bookseller, I like learning about. This is out in September and you really mustn’t miss it.

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second most haha-YEP: Living the Dream by Lauren Berry, a novel which slots firmly into the modern-and-knowing-twist-on-the-being-in-your-twenties-novel category that also contains Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere and Lisa Owens’s Not Working. If I had read this a year ago, when I was still at Mumsnet, I would have died of relief that someone had written a funny, relatable book about being bored in strategy meetings and feeling as though you were sort of vaguely failing at life but being too knackered and broke to sort it out. Furse’s and Owens’s books both dig deeper into the potential for real catastrophe in acquiescing to modern life—Berry’s heroines are never in any actual danger of becoming drones, because the narrative demands that they Find Themselves—but it’s a fun addition to the subgenre.

warm bath books: The Well of Lost Plots and The Eyre Affair (in that order, because TWOLP is my favourite), by Jasper Fforde. I refuse to criticise these, okay? I absolutely, unapologetically used these books as gentle, goofy balms to the soul in a challenging week, and therefore have nothing bad to say about them (nor will I ever), except to note that some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but when you’ve got that chapter on the Global Standard Deity and those asides about registered John Miltons and kids trading Henry Fielding bubble gum cards (let alone all the rest of it—Generics! Plotsmiths! Making all the characters from Wuthering Heights attend rage counselling!), it seems churlish to nitpick.

most disappointed to be disappointed in: Meta, no? So I read Attica Locke’s new book, Bluebird, Bluebird (which is out in September, I think) and it was fine: a small-town East Texas-set murder mystery involving the deaths of a black man and a white woman. Locke off her game is better than a lot of writers on top of theirs. But the more I consider it, the more baffled I get: Locke is strangely ambivalent about her protagonist Darren’s character arc, and why, in God’s name, does it end the way it does? That ending comes out of a clear blue sky and it makes no emotional impact whatsoever, because its total strangeness hasn’t really been earned. I may have to write an in-depth review of this to be posted nearer the publication date.

most illuminating reread: I’ve reread Tana French’s books too many times this year. Oh well. After rereading In the Woods, though, I’ve got a better handle on what makes it work so well: her sterling ability to construct a narrator, Detective Rob Ryan, who is—quietly—a complete arsehole. He drops all the hints we need to work this out along the way, but, as with the final revelations regarding the crime, it’s only very late in the day that we put all the pieces together and realise that Rob—although decidedly also a victim of his own history and pitiable in that regard—is truly not very nice. It destabilises much of what we’ve felt for him up til then (he’s also funny, quick-witted and observant, which makes him an appealing narrator), and it gives the book that dark, queasy edge that moves it from good to great.

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best debut: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s book of short stories from Tinder Press. Arimah’s stories really are short, most not more than five pages, but she’s great at getting inside the heads of protagonists who straddle cultures (like the character who’s packed off to her cousins in Nigeria for the summer after a mildly rebellious year in American high school). I was also impressed by her vision in the more speculative stories, like the title one, which posits the existence of professional grief-removers. Can you imagine?

longest overdue: I’ve had W. Somerset Maugham’s massive novel Of Human Bondage on my actual, physical TBR since about 2014. My friend and former housemate Bunter (not his real name) lent/gave it to me back then, and I’ve been putting it off ever since, mostly because of the size. It turns out to be rather wonderful—a young man’s coming-of-age story, so, yes, fairly masculine, but Philip Carey’s club foot gives him a vulnerability that makes him easier to empathise with than many early C20 novels that demand a reader’s adulation for a privileged male protagonist. He has strong emotions and deals with them, for the most part, stupidly, in the way that people in their twenties do. You can’t help wanting things to be all right for him. It reminded me in some ways of David Copperfield, another classic English Bildungsroman.

best anthology: Clue’s in the name: Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle at Salt. I’m not usually much of a one for short stories, let alone a collection of stories all by different writers, but Royle’s selection is delightfully coherent; themes of the supernatural and the unspoken, the slightly uncanny and the merely surreal, recur throughout. There are some weak links, but some truly exceptional stories too (Lara Williams’s “Treats”, Daisy Johnson’s “Language”, Rosalind Brown’s “General Impression of Size and Shape”, amongst others.) (review)

best find: My uncle is the only person who reliably gifts me actual books for my birthday, for which I will never cease to be grateful to him. This year he sent me a slim collection of poems by Thomas Lux, called To the Left of Time, and I absolutely love them. Lux’s voice is a little like Tony Hoagland’s, that slightly weather-beaten, over-educated, under-employed, grown-up-farm-boy tone. His odes, especially Ode To the Joyful Ones, are the best things in the book.

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best recommendation: After my first Down the TBR Hole post, my brother got in touch with me to tell me to read Slaughterhouse Five straight away. I bought it on Saturday and read it almost in one go. It’s absolutely wonderful. A humane, good-humoured, sweetly resigned war novel that is also utterly clear-eyed about horror and fear and torment. Billy Pilgrim is an everyman with whom I might just be a little in love.

best palate-cleanser: The first Robert Harris novel I’ve ever read, Conclave. Apparently it has divided opinion, but you know what? He can write just fine, plus he can construct differentiable characters in what’s basically an ensemble novel (which is remarkably hard). His ability to make a reader care about moral issues that modern sensibilities mostly ignore is also surprising: the central question of Conclave—how can you tell whether serving God means intervening in something, or keeping your nose out?—requires us to take seriously the faith of the characters, and we do, and that’s an impressive feat for a mainstream contemporary writer.

party to which I’m late: Tove Jansson, just in general. Specifically, The Summer Book, her first novel for adults, which takes the form of a series of vignettes focusing on an old woman and her granddaughter over the course of a summer on their island in the Gulf of Finland. Grandmother is the best-written old woman I’ve ever read, perhaps because Jansson based her heavily on her own mother; she retains an actual personality, complicated and dry and cynical and not always either cuddly or feisty (the default settings for old ladies in fiction). I will be looking for Jansson’s other adult books, as well as reading the Moomin series, in the future.

best short read: Another of Penguin’s Little Black Classics, this time Trimalchio’s Feast by Petronius, a birthday present from AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the Lawyer). It’s an excerpt from a much longer work, the Satyricon, and focuses on an orgiastic party thrown by lonely, narcissistic trillionaire Trimalchio. Because it’s so short, and so absurd, you can read it as a fun interlude, or you can venture down some darker alleys of thought (however rich you are, death is coming for you, and you can’t stave it off with honey-roasted dormice or dancing girls).

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second most illuminating reread: Quicksilver, the first of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It is such a long book, and so crammed with incident and information, that rereading is virtually a necessity. I certainly understood more of the plot’s overall shape, and more of the characters’ rationale at various times, than I did the first time around.

[the one I forgot: Such Small Hands, a tiny creepy novella by Andres Barba about a bunch of Spanish girls stuck in an orphanage, who invent a horrendous “dolly” game that ends up, perhaps unsurprisingly, turning violent. The story is shocking, but—and maybe this is just a different approach to psychological realism—not especially moving, since all the little girls speak as one. I think the book might well be too short.]

up next: Various books I’ve said I would review, including Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, and Sarah Franklin’s Shelter. I’ve also got several delightful purchases to get through, including Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier and China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, and need to choose airplane reading for my trip to see family in the States – I’m thinking The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I have in proof, and which appears to be the sort of massive weighty tome about a female writer’s artistic development and vexed relationship to traditional feminine roles that I’ve been waiting for someone to write.

January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

6 Degrees of Separation: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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  1. We start this month with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson’s thriller featuring cult favourite heroine, hacker Lisbeth Salander. The book was made into a movie—well, two, one of them starring Noomi Rapace.
  2. Rapace’s been in another thriller film based on a book, “The Drop”. It was originally a short story by Dennis Lehane called “Animal Rescue”, but he turned it into a novel after the film came out. The film features Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, and is really pretty good.
  3. Lehane is the patron of a US publishing imprint, Dennis Lehane Books, which first published Attica Locke. Her novel The Cutting Season, about a contemporary murder on a meticulously preserved Louisisana plantation, delves deep into racism, power, and self-interest in America.
  4. I lent The Cutting Season to the Chaos’s mum, who’d read Locke’s earlier book Black Water Rising and enjoyed it. She, in return, lent me Sense and Sensibility, the Joanna Trollope version: a reboot of Austen’s original that is possibly the most successful entry so far in the contemporary-versions-of-Austen enterprise.
  5. Trollope is a descendant of THE Trollope, Anthony, who is most famous for his Barchester and Palliser Chronicles: two six-book series that map out English political and social life in the nineteenth century. One of my favourites, however, is the stand-alone The Way We Live Now, an alarmingly relevant novel in the 21st century, about unscrupulous financier Melmotte and the dangers of blind trust.
  6. The incomparable David Suchet played Melmotte in the BBC’s adaptation of Trollope’s novel; Suchet is most famous, however, for playing Hercule Poirot in the seemingly trillions of Agatha Christie adaptations. My favourite is Evil Under the Sun, set on Burgh Island in Devon, which can only be reached at low tide in a contraption called a Sea Tractor.

We didn’t move around much in terms of genre—nearly all crime thrillers— and we mostly stayed in England. I think the connections were pretty good this time, though!

A White Night, by Charlotte Mew – in Daughters of Decadence

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~~caution: here be a spoiler for a single story~~

In 1993, Virago published a collection of short stories by women writers of the 1880s and 1890s, edited by Elaine Showalter, a prominent feminist scholar. Now, twenty-three years later, they’ve reissued the collection. It’s not a time period that speaks to me much; when I learned about the tail end of the 19th century in high school history classes, I got the Gilded Age of American industry, monopolies, philanthropists, presidents with eccentric facial hair, and prolonged but indecisive military excursions in Latin America. Photographs of the period look somehow older than photographs from thirty years previously. The women wear hats of ludicrous width and all appear to be sucking on lemons; the men are frequently top-hatted titans of capitalism, and almost never looking directly at the camera. It is not a period that represents itself with the lush brightness of the mid-19th century, or the filthy vivacity of the 18th, or the political intrigue of the 17th.

And yet, as Showalter’s introduction to the collection points out, there was a lot going on in this fin de siecle as regards women, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their more general social position. We think of decadent writers and artists as men–Wilde, Beardsley–and the same is true of this era’s serious literary authors: think of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Yet at the same time, there was an explosion of writing, mostly in the form of short stories, from women. They were published in periodicals like Vogue and Lippincott’s and The Yellow Book, most of which don’t exist any more. They were by and about “New Women”, creatures of sometimes ambiguous sexuality, authors of unrecognized genius, complex thinkers. They terrified critics, who referred to them dismissively as vain “erotomaniacs”. One of them was Charlotte Mew, whose short story A White Night I was asked to review by the Virago publicity folks.

A White Night is brief and deeply disturbing. Our narrator, Cameron, is on holiday in Spain with his sister Ella (we can’t really call her our heroine, though Showalter, heroically, refers to her as such in the collection’s introduction) and Ella’s new husband King. They visit a rural hill town and, at Ella’s insistence, go exploring in the twilight. The action doesn’t really start until they enter a large parish church attached to a convent and get locked in by accident. It’s much too late for anyone to hear them banging on the door and shouting, so they’re eventually resigned to spending the night there, until, around midnight, their uneasy rest is disturbed by a parade of monks, followed by a woman and two priests. A long ritual ensues which is completed by the live burial of the woman under a flagstone before the altar. Cameron does not intervene, and actively prevents King from doing so, although when the monks leave the church, they attempt to find the gravestone in the darkness. Day eventually dawns, they realize their labours are hopeless (they’ve managed to find the stone but can’t pry it up again), and they leave the church with Ella, speechless and horrified, in tow. Telling the story to the British Consul produces only a kind of bureaucratic shrug, and they leave Spain within twenty-four hours. Cameron notes, as a final aside, that this episode still haunts Ella’s dreams, and that she has “never forgiven him” for his objectivity and detachment about it.

What are we to make of that same detachment? Cameron’s refusal to intervene to save the woman is the most inexplicable part of this story: he is moved and horrified by the scene unfolding before him and yet there is something about the woman’s demeanour that makes him feel as though saving her would be wrong. “She had, one understood, her part to play,” he tells us, and goes on to describe with a sort of relish her face’s inscrutable expression:

It was of striking beauty, but its age? One couldn’t say. It had the tints, the purity of youth…but for a veil of fine repression which only years, it seemed, could possibly have woven. And it was itself–this face–a mask, one of the loveliest that spirit ever wore. It kept the spirit’s counsel… Only, as she stood there, erect and motionless, it showed the faintest flicker of distaste, disgust…She was at last in full possession of herself. The flicker of distaste had passed and left her face to its inflexible, inscrutable repose.

So for Cameron, at least, this is a face that possesses a certain power, a face that has agency. He uses other words in conjunction with her (“proud surrender”, “magnificent disdain”) that give us similar impressions. We are not meant to see her as a victim. She has entered the church screaming, but Cameron keenly notes (with what authority, it’s unclear) that the screams are mere “physical responses”, in other words instinctive reflexes; her face looks unmoved.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. My initial instinct was to trust it. Cameron later writes that “she lies, one must remember, in the very centre of the sanctuary… It was this honour, satisfying, as it did, some pride of spirit or of race, which bore her honourably through.” The woman’s value is high in his estimation because of her honourable conduct, her perfect performance of acquiescence. She acquits herself, in other words, like a man, but not so much like a man that she ceases to be passive and therefore womanly. Threatened women gain male approval by being thoroughly aware of their own impending doom, and accepting it stoically. (Do you see what I mean about this being a disturbing story?)

The monks, likewise, are dealt with not as individuals but as one blurred indistinct entity. There’s a superficial distinction between them, but their actual personhoods fade into insignificance because they are all together, all a crowd:

Some of the faces touched upon divinity; some fell below humanity; some were, of course, merely a blotch of book and bell, and all were set impassively toward the woman standing there. And then one lost the sense of their diversity in their resemblance; the similarity persisted and persisted till the row of faces seemed to merge into one face – the face of nothing human – of a system, of a rule. It framed the woman’s and one felt the force of it: she wasn’t in the hands of men.

Except, of course, that she both is, and isn’t: Mew creates in this scene a brilliant representation of patriarchy, a system or rule composed of the faces of ordinary people who are in themselves neither saints nor devils. No monk or priest puts the woman in the grave that opens before her: she walks into it and lies down on her own. But she has been brought by those faces before her to a state where she can do that to herself. Perhaps it is not only a picture of an oppressive system, but a picture of what would later become known as “internalized misogyny”, the scorn and devaluing of women by other women, the self-hatred that a woman pours into herself.

King, the husband, is moved to try and help (perhaps he is trying to be the punning “white knight” of the title), but Cameron stops him; Cameron himself sees only the theoretical and the symbolic sides of the experience, considering it “a rather splendid crime”. It’s only Ella who remains troubled by the episode, and this, Cameron suggests, is because of her damned silly woman’s irrationality:

She refuses to admit that, after all, what one is pleased to call reality is merely the intensity of one’s illusion.

Men of Cameron’s time and class can afford to believe that reality is an illusion, because in many ways, for them, it is. Women – of almost any time, any class – have never been able to indulge in this kind of sophistry, because reality touches them too forcefully. Can you say to a woman of the late Victorian era who was never taught anything of biology or anatomy that her experience – maybe involving terror, force, pain – on her wedding night was “the intensity of her illusion”? Can you tell a woman who has been buried alive that her suffocation is not real? Maybe Ella is the heroine of this story, after all: she understands the significance of what she has seen, even if no one else does.

Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. Daughters of Decadence was published in the UK on 4 August.