November Superlatives

November started off slow. (Soooo slowwww.) (Sorry, that is a verbal tic of mine that only makes sense to people who have played Grim Fandango virtually to the end, you know, the bit where the little tiny car-driving demons are…anyway.) Two enormous volumes, in almost-direct sequence, took about five days each, and a third wasn’t quite as enormous but still took nearly an entire working week. Luckily, things picked up a bit after that (helped along by a semi-conscious decision to focus on the slimmer books on my TBR pile) and I rounded out the month with 13 books read, including four volumes of nonfiction, which is almost unheard of. Plus, the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel had its final judging meeting, where I got to meet some amazing blogger-friends in real life for the first time!

biggest letdown: The End of the Day, by Claire North. Sorry. I did try to like it a bit more, but there were just so many ellipses, and it became increasingly clear that the book’s thesis was The Great Mundane Miracle Of Existence, which…I mean, nearly four hundred pages and that’s it? It’s a nice commercial fiction/fantasy crossover, and bits of it are very funny—I’ll certainly send it to some customers—but not one for me. (review)

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most brain-stretching: Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon. Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

most grudgingly liked: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney, an exploration of youth and power amongst ambitious artsy twenty-somethings in Dublin that I expected to loathe and instead found myself admiring tremendously. The dialogue is both ridiculously clever and surprisingly poignant. (review)

most pointless-feeling: A 700-page biography that leaves you just as unclear on its subject’s personality as you were at the beginning has missed the mark somehow. Despite its erudition and its writer’s clear love for his subject, this is unfortunately the case of Minoo Dinshaw’s life of Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight. (review)

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darkest: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a novella by Yukio Mishima about a young Japanese boy who plots a horrible fate for his mother’s new husband. If you think teen violence and desensitisation is the fault of video games, think again; this book was written in the ’60s and depicts the most nihilistic children I’ve ever read.

most emotionally engaging: Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which just earned her a second National Book Award. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

most eye-opening: Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann’s nonfiction account of ten Africans who lived free in Tudor England. Kaufmann uses parish records, legal testimony, and Court documents to illuminate the lives of men and women like John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpeter; Reasonable Blackman, an African silkweaver living in Southwark; Anne Cobbie, a successful sex worker who traded on her skin; and, perhaps my favourite, Cattelena of Almondsbury, a “single woman” who lived in a small rural village near Bristol and whose possessions, listed after she died, included a tablecloth and a cow. Read alongside David Olusoga’s Black and British for a whole new take on what historic England might have looked like.

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best support of the sisterhood: A slim book first published in the 1930s by Marjorie Hillis, eventually deputy editor of Vogue, Live Alone and Like It is a delightfully witty, un-self-pitying advice manual for single ladies. It’s rather of its time, but much of it is wonderful (a whole chapter is entitled “A Lady And Her Liquor”, and there’s another on having an affair). Most touching, perhaps, is her firm assertion that a woman living alone is no more likely to be murdered than a woman living with a man, and her advice that, if you are frightened, you must simply lie abed in the dark and think very hard about something else, like your new frock, or what you might say if that nice gentleman you went to the cinema with last week should happen to propose.

sexiest: Come, Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross, a story collection from Peepal Tree Press that I bought on the strength of a single Guardian review. It’s full of stories that range from a couple of paragraphs to a dozen pages, dealing with sex, love, heartbreak, and death. There’s a lot of magical realism—one protagonist, an office cleaner, starts to find abandoned hymens everywhere, which convey to him the sufferings of the women they used to be attached to—and a lot of NSFW stuff, too, which is astonishingly well written. It’s a wonderful collection.

greatest technical skill: Jon McGregor is a must-read author for life, now that I’ve read not only Reservoir 13 but also If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which was published in 2002. Set in the late ’90s, it flips back and forth between an ordinary day on a street in a city neighbourhood, at the end of which something terrible happens, and the present day, where a witness of that event must come to terms with the way her life is now. McGregor is the master of the moving-camera point of view, the sort of thing that Virginia Woolf did a lot, and I don’t know anyone who captures the holiness of mundanity in the way he does. He’s a simply beautiful writer.

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most deserved hype: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which I read in a day, so addictive is the voice of its protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty and works in an office. Every Friday night, she buys a pizza for dinner and two bottles of vodka, which last her the weekend. Every Wednesday, she has a phone call with Mummy, who is locked away somewhere. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Eleanor’s carefully controlled world—and her loneliness—peels away from her, to be replaced with friendship, self-awareness, and, at last, understanding of what exactly Mummy did. It could be sentimental and overworked; instead, it’s tender, restrained and heartbreaking, and surprisingly very funny. I loved it.

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best surprise: Another nonfiction book, Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book, which recounts the life of Civil War heroine Anne Fanshawe through her personal memoirs and papers. Anne’s marriage was delightfully happy—she and her husband Richard seem to have been each other’s best friend—but their loyalty to Charles I and later to his son meant that they lost a lot of money and all of their security in the Royalist cause. Bouncing from country to country as refugees, they buried ten children in eight different locations; Anne suffered six additional miscarriages. Only four of the children she bore survived to adulthood. She was also a total badass who lobbied in court and at Parliament, once bribed a cabin boy for his clothes to use as a disguise, and forged a French visa for herself and her children, amongst other things. Her story is a reminder that the people of the past were still recognisably people, who suffered and loved as we do.

most oh-God-okaayyyy: The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan. It’s a weird, claustrophobic little novella, set in Venice over the length of an English couple’s holiday, that builds to a moment of magnificent what-the-fuckery that’s all the more surreal for having been so meticulously prepared for. It’s a nasty little thing, but one of those perfectly sculpted technical pieces that you have to admire, even if it also makes me feel gross.

up next: I’ve just started A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which is charming and which I’ll take away with me to my grandparents’ for the weekend. I’ve also got The Old Curiosity Shop for my Annual Winter Dickens, plus the endless pile of proofs.

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June Superlatives

Ten books in June, hurrah! Two of them were for Shiny New Books, and two were very long. One—the CIA torture report—took me over a week to read, what with all the flipping between text and footnote, and trying to fill in the many blacked-out redactions. I haven’t had any real disappointments in reading this month, which is a great delight, although some books (White Teeth, Outline) made me wonder if I’d get more out of them on a second visit. And, oddly, I started Nights At the Circus and got bored on chapter three. Why is this happening?? I’m going to try again soon. Still, this seems a good beginning to summer.

most physically nauseating: a toss-up, obviously, between Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects and the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The Senate Report isn’t actually physically nauseating, although there are sufficient descriptions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to upset a fine sensibility; it is, however, by far the most comprehensively disturbing document I’ve read in years. Sharp Objects did, on the other hand, make me feel queasy, which is part of its observant brilliance.

most intriguing: The Nightingales Are Drunk, Penguin Little Black Classics’ collection of poems by the medieval Persian Hafez. He is to Persia what Chaucer is to England, and the selection was so brilliant, it made me want to learn and read more of his work.

all-around best: How to be Both, by Ali Smith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, since it won the Baileys Prize, this is a wonderful book. It’s composed of two sections–one set now in Cambridge, and one set in the 1500s in Italy–and your copy can have either one of them printed first. It affects the way you read, which helps Smith to make a greater point about the way we absorb art, the way art or artists are valued (the Italian section has a lot to do with being paid properly for a fresco), the way that the creative impulse has been used over centuries as a guerrilla tactic to reveal the cruelties and iniquities of those who have power over the weak, and, most poignantly, grief over the loss of a parent. It’s impossible to do justice to it in a summary, which is perhaps why I didn’t review it. Read it.

most envy-inducing: This has got to be Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a book she wrote when she was about my age. Absurdly unfair though that is, the book has a terrific, mature, knowing, omniscient, fatalistic voice; I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a reader or a critic when it first came out. Like a firework exploding in your face, I imagine. I don’t always agree with Smith’s assumed stances; much of her work at least appears to champion a bizarrely conservative worldview. But the writing is top notch.

most gruesome: Again, my two Shiny New Books reads pair very nicely with each other. One, Tim Clare’s novel The Honours, is an adventure story with questions of mortality and the demands of true courage and sacrifice at its heart, starring a thirteen-year-old heroine whom we first meet as she is about to pull the trigger of a sawn-off shotgun. The other, Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, is about working in a California crematorium and the American funeral industry and attitude towards death. They’re both not for the squeamish, but they both achieve moments of true beauty and significance. Reviews go up on Shiny at the end of next week!

most perfect for the moment: I read Cheryl Strayed’s collection of Dear Sugar columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, at precisely the right time. I needed that voice: loving, firm, irreverent, humble, like your big sister, your coolest teacher and your best friend all rolled into one. I’ve been trying to write a review of it for a week and can’t. It is simply the most beautiful book; I cried a little, and giggled aloud, and finished it feeling ravaged but peaceful.

guiltiest pleasure: Only guilty because it is a reread and I don’t do many of those, but Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border gave me the same sort of feeling as Tiny Beautiful Things, oddly enough, and I wanted to read it again once I’d finished Strayed’s book. So I did, and was seduced anew by Hall’s physically evocative landscape writing, her honesty and vividness about sex and personal relationships, and her ability to do pen portraits. What a bloody excellent book it is. I shall be livid if the Booker Prize committee disagrees.

the Tin Man prize for technical brilliance: This is an unfair category—things that are technically brilliant are also, of course, perfectly capable of having heart (unlike the Tin Man)—but it struck me as a good name. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline made the Baileys shortlist, and I can see why: told through the eyes of a recently divorced creative writing instructor on a summer course in Athens, it revolves around ten different conversations, and we learn about the instructor mostly through what other people say and how she reacts to it internally. It’s a well executed structure and it reveals a good deal about conversation: how some people dominate, how that looks different when the dominator is a man and when it’s a woman, the reasons people choose to talk or to stay silent, the needs that people reveal. Unfortunately I’m an old-fashioned fan of plot, which Outline hasn’t got much of. But it’s a strangely still, transcendent book; reading it is like waking up from a midday siesta on a Mediterranean holiday, that odd sense of disorientation. It’s certainly impressive, though I’m not surprised it didn’t win.

next up: I’ve been looking at some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos recently and I’m now keen to read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her time with him. I also have to read Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things to review in Extra Shiny (coinciding with the paperback release). Also, the random number generator is again insisting that I read A Suitable Boy, which I really don’t feel I have the concentration for at the moment. Anyone want to help out? Pick a number between 1 and 14 at random and leave it in the comments…