August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.

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easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)

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most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.

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breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy (best.brother.ever.) and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…

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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.

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

Get down from there, n*****!

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to strike me as an endeavour excellent in theory, but almost invariably doomed in practice. Fundamentally, what you can do and want to do in a play is different from the scope and focus allowed you by a novel. Perhaps more challenging is the balance a contemporary novelist must strike: do they dig deep into the motivations, the emotion and the structure behind one of Shakespeare’s plots—sincerely trying to adapt the story to the present day—or do they hit the high notes, the stuff that an averagely well read person could tell you about the play off the top of their head if you stopped them in the street? Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has been the most successful adaptation so far, and I think that’s partly because she chooses path A; her novel does hit some of the high notes, but she deliberately makes her book an exploration of revenge, bereavement and redemption, as The Tempest is, as opposed to a story about a magician called Prospero who has a daughter named Miranda. Tracy Chevalier, like most of the other Hogarth Shakespeare novelists, chooses path B, which accounts for many of the problems I have with her adaptation of Othello.

My problem with New Boy (and I’ve said this before, if you follow me on Instagram, but it bears repeating) is quite basic: Chevalier chooses to set it in a school playground, to make her Othello character (Osei, or O) an eleven-year-old, and to make the tension of the work entirely contingent upon O’s skin colour. I think these are all serious miscalculations. Othello as Shakespeare wrote him is a successful military veteran who has worked his way up through skill and graft; he is an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman; he is self-conscious about many things, including his blackness, but also his age and his plain manner of speech. When Brabantio, Iago and others call him “the Moor”, they’re indicating his racial difference, but—I would contend—not necessarily in a fashion more derogatory than if he were called, e.g., “the Italian” or even “the Welshman”. (Consider the Welsh jokes in the history plays. Consider, also, that Shakespeare’s other iconic Other, Shylock, is comparatively much more defined by his Otherness: he is “the Jew” by every line he speaks, every action he takes, no matter the weight you place on the “if you prick us” speech.)

But the thing that people remember about Othello is that it’s a play about a black man, and therefore Chevalier places racial difference and racial prejudice at the centre of her novel. This is possible only if she makes it impossible for any of the people young O encounters to form a positive opinion of him, and so she stacks the deck by setting the course of the action over one day, making O a “new boy”—a Ghanaian diplomat’s son at an all-white school—and giving Mr. Brabant (a stand-in for Brabantio) a personality composed of creepy paternalism and barely-veiled white supremacism. But that is not the power dynamic at play between the Venetian Senate and Othello. Venice owes him. The city is in his debt; he has done them a favour. His blackness is barely relevant, because asking foreign mercenaries to lead the Venetian army was standard practice; it prevented the ruling elite from accruing too much military power and attempting a coup. When Venetian characters complain about “the Moor”, they’re latching onto a palpable difference between themselves and an outsider, but it’s his foreignness—not his blackness, and they are two different things—that makes Venice envious and insecure. Chevalier’s constant emphasis on racial prejudice is almost insultingly simplistic, and it leads her to make bizarre authorial choices: she invents a wholly unnecessary older sister for O who becomes increasingly fascinated by Black Power and Black Is Beautiful; she writes O as an instinctive diplomat, which is both untrue to Shakespeare’s characterisation and makes him feel uncomfortably like a puppet for respectability politics; and she writes the line of dialogue at the top of this post (spoken by the enraged Mr. Brabant at the dénouement), which is such a blatant piece of authorial manipulation (Brabant bad! Racism bad!) that it backfires, or it should.

Then there is Ian, who is the Iago analogue in New Boy. Ian hates O because he can see that the other boy has the potential to dethrone him as king of the playground. It’s fairly convincing as far as it goes—thus, sixth-grade politics—but it makes zero sense in the context of reassessing the play. Iago tells us he doesn’t know why he hates the Moor, but he gives two possible reasons anyway: one, he was passed over for promotion in favour of privileged airhead Cassio, and two, he suspects Othello of cuckolding him. Chevalier gestures at both of these reasons, making Ian a feared bully and loner while Casper/Cassio is golden and popular, and giving Ian a brief flash of paranoia when he sees O making his “girlfriend” Mimi laugh. The latter, though, is usually glossed as just that—paranoia—and it’s the former (jealous rage at not being promoted) that tends to seem most plausible. For this to make any sense at all as a rationale in New Boy, O would have to have held some sort of power over Ian for some period of time before the commencement of the action, and Ian would have to feel that O is indebted to him in some way. (Iago’s hopes of promotion aren’t unreasonable; he’s fought with Othello and for him; they were colleagues, even friends.) Since Chevalier can’t do that without breaking the self-imposed unity of time, she has to settle for making Ian a tyrant who is fiercely protective of his own status. In the play, that status is never Iago’s to begin with. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes everything about the antagonist’s emotional baggage; it makes the story a very different story, and it’s not clear to me that the change is an improvement, or even intentional.

It also ascribes a level of cunning and villainy to Ian that I am not sure Iago possesses, let alone an eleven-year-old (cunning and villainous though I am willing to admit they can be). The point of Iago is that he is a master of shaping circumstance, but he is not a planner; he’s a hyena, not a lion. He gets incredibly lucky with the business of the handkerchief, and his mind is quick enough to grasp what he can do with it. He makes blind leaps repeatedly: in goading Othello, in joking with Cassio, he is merely hoping for a certain outcome, not ensuring one. He is a chancer. Ian, on the other hand, gets the same luck dropped into his lap (with a pencil case standing in for a handkerchief), and immediately begins long-term strategic planning. (Well, long-term for sixth grade, which is to say, anticipating afternoon recess.) Iago doesn’t do things like that; he never anticipates what his petty revenge plot might lead to. Ian, on the other hand, really wants to break up O and Dee (the Desdemona character) from the beginning; he really wants Mimi (Emilia) under his thumb; he really wants to seriously damage O, and not just socially—we’ve seen him physically bully enough people by this point in the book, and he too exhibits white supremacist behaviour.

Maybe the problem is this: Chevalier tries to stick too closely to the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot, while also making choices about characterisation and motive that undermine that plot’s power. She gives Ian Iago’s famous non-defense (“I have nothing to say for myself”) more or less verbatim, but she doesn’t make him a convincing contemporary model of a small-minded, jealous, possibly traumatised soldier; instead, he’s an ogre and a child. (She does make him a believable abusive boyfriend.) She gives Dee Italian ancestry—her full name is Daniela Benedetti—presumably in a wink to the original’s Venetian setting, but she doesn’t show us the complex power dynamics at play in her relationship with O, dynamics that encompass so much more than race; Desdemona and Othello are a compelling couple because various imbalances of knowledge, of beauty, of worldly experience, of age, of responsibility, see-saw back and forth between them. For an excellent positioning of Othello in a contemporary setting, I can recommend the National Theatre’s 2013 production with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, set on an army base during the Iraq War. (That production’s treatment of women is also excellent.) If you’re a Hogarth Shakespeare completist, or if you just want to decide for yourself, read New Boy—but its flaws mean that I can’t think of it as a successful reimagining of the original.

June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.

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best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)

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most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.

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The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.

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party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.

The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow

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Every couple of years or so, a contemporary publisher “rediscovers” a classic. Most successfully, this happened to Stoner back in 2013. Now it is the turn of The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow, a 605-page doorstop that reads like something half its size, about the struggles of hill farmer Gertrude Nevels as she adjusts to life as a factory worker’s wife in WWII industrial Detroit. Vintage has just reprinted it, with their inimitable red spine, and if there’s any justice (which, of course, there rarely is), it will see a renaissance like Stoner’s.

It is essentially a novel about culture clash, and about being uprooted. Gertie Nevels is our point-of-view character and heroine: the book opens with her giving her youngest child, Amos, a tracheotomy by the side of the road, while a US Army officer hems and haws about the propriety of giving her a lift to the doctor’s in town. We thus learn two things about Gertie almost immediately: one, she is fearless, not especially sentimental but a mother to the core and completely certain of her own strength; and two, she is a very good carver. She refers to what she does as “whittlin”, but the Army officer notes it as artistic skill; she whittles a tube for her baby’s throat to complete the tracheotomy, a detailed and fiddly piece of work, without trouble. (Dialogue throughout the book is written in Appalachian dialect. Instead of seeming like authorial mockery, this allows Arnow’s characters dignity whilst constantly reinforcing their identity: we can never forget that these are hill people, country people, people to whom urban, 20th-century America is alien.) Gertie is utterly confident in her own demesne. She is strong; she can dig and plant potatoes on her own, chop and haul wood, milk the cow. Her husband Clovis’s periodic absences hauling coal in his truck are not a problem; she is tall and broad, a farmer’s daughter and a sharecropper, and you immediately understand that she could run an entire small farm herself with little difficulty.

The outbreak of war has had a huge impact on their community. (One of the best scenes in the book comes early, when the women of the settlement gather at the general store-cum-post office to await the mail, delivered by ancient Uncle Ansel and his donkey; Arnow beautifully but quietly conveys the crippling anxiety of a community composed almost entirely now of women, some of whom have already lost sons or husbands, others of whom are desperately praying that today isn’t the day they lose theirs.) When Clovis has to leave for a few days for his army fitness assessment, she’s not too worried—surely the army won’t take a farmer?—but then he disappears for weeks, and when she next hears from him, he’s moved to Detroit and found work in a factory. Gertie’s appalling mother (drawn with the same pen as Gwendoline Riley uses on her character Neve’s mother in First Love, a whining, carping, manipulative horror, only in this case with added God-bothering) guilts her into joining him, so she gives up her hope of buying the Tipton Place, uproots her children, and takes the train north.

Almost immediately, it becomes clear that they’ve made a mistake. Reading the Detroit sections of The Dollmaker while flat-hunting alone in London is an astonishingly resonant experience; Arnow describes cramped conditions, poor ventilation, smells, dirt, noisy neighbours, and—most critically for Gertie—an almost total lack of nature. Living in the city creates other disconnects: their furniture and car, Gertie is horrified to discover, have been bought “on time” (credit), and every month seems to drive them further into debt. A block of wood that she has brought with her from home, which she intends to carve into the image of a Christ, is often abandoned for days or weeks at a time: Clovis thinks she can make money selling dolls to women and children in the neighbourhood, and she gets commissions for crucifixes and jointed dolls from wealthier people—her neighbour’s husband’s boss, amongst others.

Money is so constantly in short supply that efficiency, and profit, begin to take over Gertie’s work. She doesn’t want them to—one of Arnow’s strengths is her ability to convince us that Gertie is an artist through and through, not because of any airy-fairy beliefs about the integrity of creating, but because she was born to it, born with the skill and the need to practice it—but Clovis is insistent. The purchase of a jig saw, which enables Gertie and her children to cut pre-drawn two-dimensional shapes out of wood, speeds up the production considerably, but it comes at the expense of hand-carving, and therefore of art. The Nevels children, most of whom adapt speedily to their new circumstances, delight in their “home factory”; it throws Gertie into despair and depression, knowing as she does that the need to pay the bills will trump, every time, the need to make something beautiful and meaningful.

Gertie’s problem – one of Gertie’s problems – is that she is inarticulate. She’s an artist, but a visual, physical, active one; she carves and whittles, hoes and hews. Words don’t come easily or naturally to her. Nor do they come naturally to Clovis, a mechanic whose “tinkering” is the source of mild mockery in their small community. Gertie and Clovis love each other, clearly, at the beginning of the novel, even though they don’t have the words for it; by the end, they barely speak to one another, and have been changed out of all recognition by the new community in which they live.This inarticulacy combines with inherently patriarchal attitudes to create a code of conduct for women that seems designed for their misery: at one point, Clovis becomes anxious when he thinks Gertie is in pain, mostly because she has apparently never given any indication of being physically hurt or ill throughout their entire married life. Though it’s never stated (like so much else in this book), we can surmise that Clovis’s obliviousness to his wife’s ability to feel pain – despite her having given birth at least five times – is partly down to that female code that doesn’t let you “trouble” your husband.

One of the tragedies of The Dollmaker is that it’s a portrait of a marriage which could, in other times, have ended in divorce, as the two parties realise they are simply too dissimilar in what they want and value in life. As it is, Gertie is stuck. By the end of the book, whether she loves him or not doesn’t even matter: she must keep producing, keep paying the rent, keep her children in shoes. The block of wood that she tries to make into a Christ is sometimes mistaken for a Judas; it’s a fitting uncertainty for a book that shows us so brutally how sacrifice can also be betrayal.

#6Degrees of Separation: Shopgirl

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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First up: Shopgirl, a novella by Steve Martin about Mirabelle, a girl who works at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and tries to navigate a love triangle. It was made into a film, which just happened to star Steve Martin as the wealthy, debonair older man.

Another monological Martin vehicle, “Roxanne”, is based on the French play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, about a charming and brilliant swashbuckler whose romantic prospects are scuppered only by the fact that he’s got an enormous, almost disfiguring, nose.

Facial disfigurement is a bit of a phobia of mine; in Tamora Pierce’s young adult novel Trickster’s Choice, the young protagonist Ally deliberately allows her nose to be broken in a fight when she’s captured as a slave, knowing that the uglier she is, the less likely it is that she’ll be bought for sex.

Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet constitute the only books I’ve read so much they’ve fallen apart, save for my copy of Little House on the Prairie, which was held together by packing tape by the time I was six.

A grown-up version of the Little House world is that conjured by Willa Cather, particularly in her gorgeous novel O Pioneers!, about a woman who inherits her immigrant family’s farm on the plains of Nebraska.

My favourite female farmer in literary history (except, perhaps, for Dick King-Smith’s Sophie) is, of course, Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba Everdene (who doesn’t look like Carey Mulligan, jfc, this should be obvious to everyone. In my mind she actually looks a little bit like Mayim Bialik.)

So—from urban ennui to rural angst, from Beverly Hills to fictionalised Dorset via Gascony, the imaginary country of Tortall, and the Midwest! Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month the chain starts with Picnic At Hanging Rock, which I’ve never read…

May Superlatives

The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.

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biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.

hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)

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hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.

most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.

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nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)

most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)

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best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.

oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.

pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)

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most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.

hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)

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biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.

up next: No idea. In any sense.