Reading Diary: Mar. 4-Mar. 10

22589334My friend Katie let me borrow her copy of The Arsonist, citing it as one of the best fictional portrayals she knows of a career aid worker readjusting to life in the developed world. Since one of the protagonists of my novel has to deal with just this situation, I was grateful for the recommendation. Sue Miller’s main character, Frankie Rowley, is returning to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, after years as an aid worker in Kenya. Her parents have retired to the house that was historically their summer property, but retirement isn’t going to be a smooth ride—her father, Alfie, is developing dementia, and her mother, Sylvia, must care for him. Meanwhile, someone is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people” in Pomeroy, and Frankie—attempting to find some direction—begins an affair with Bud, the local newspaperman. I’ve read some complaints about the slow development of The Arsonist; I can only assume that this is down to baffled expectations. It’s not a thriller about a firebug, but a portrait of a small town drawn into the discomfort of facing its class divide head on. Pete, the widower from whom Bud bought the local paper, suggests that the problem is due to an increasing sense of equality: in the 1930s and 1940s, his parent’s generation, he suggests, “knew their place”, and no one felt troubled by the distance between year-round residents and the seasonsal families who employed locals as maids and handymen during the summer months. Perhaps it does no one any favours, Pete muses, to pretend as though there are no longer any social distinctions, when a difference in privilege and in wealth is so clear. Thematically, this makes a nice counterpoint to Frankie’s concern about her own privilege as a white expatriate in Africa, someone who was always going to be helicoptered out of a potentially dangerous situation, who didn’t really “belong” there because she could opt out of certain hazards.

Frankie’s and Bud’s romance is maybe a little torrid, but this is mitigated by the fact that it takes so long to get going, and by Frankie’s resistance and awkwardness as she tries to figure out which choices will let her have the most meaningful or fulfilling life. Fulfillment is also a vexed issue for Sylvia Rowley, who resigns herself to an old age spent caring for an increasingly demented husband whom she has long since ceased to really love. Throughout, Miller maintains a firm grasp of emotional beats, the complexities of a long marriage and of claustrophobic communities and of the interplay between a longing for independence and a longing for love. I’m particularly impressed by her understanding of rural communities, the way that things like a Halloween Haunted House at the town hall or a barbeque at the fire station hold such places together. Her work reminds me of Anne Tyler’s.

36262478Michael Andreasen’s debut short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, was one of the proofs I was most excited about getting to this month, even though I maintain the pretense of not liking short stories very much. (I say “pretense” because I always end up liking the ones that I read.) Andreasen’s approach to fantasy or magical realism is to infuse fantastical situations with bracing jolts of recognisable modernity, or vice versa. The sailors stuck on a slowly sinking ship, for instance, listen to hip-hop through their headphones, and a child in the first story—set either in an alternate universe or the future—has the distinctly old-fashioned name of Ernest. The most striking element of Andreasen’s work is his skill at engaging a reader’s emotions, even if those emotions conflict. In the title story, for instance, a lovestruck kraken is sinking a ship inch by inch, day by day, convinced that the ship is one of its own kind. The kraken eventually spawns thousands of babies, all of which are murdered by the sailors in an orgy of destruction; at the end of the story, a young sailor on the doomed vessel is found to have kept one infant kraken alive. He pins it—still living—to an effigy of the ship, places a doll version of himself on the deck of the model, and tips it overboard. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene because it forces us to feel so many things at once: pity for a tortured young animal and revulsion at the man who could do such a thing; simultaneous pity and terror for the young sailor and his shipmates and their impending demise; poignancy and horror that humans can keep hoping, even while suffering a slow death. Not all of the stories in the collection achieve such a powerful cocktail of emotion, but they’re all just as weird and engaging.

31937362What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? These are the questions posed by Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, out on 22 March. It reminded me, thematically, of The Moon and Sixpence (and it explicitly cites Paul Gaugin’s abscondment to Tahiti and abandonment of his wife and children as an example of the cruelties that artistic genius commits and is excused for). The novel centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter of forty or so when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known to all as Pinch. Bear might be a genius, but he is also controlling, serially unfaithful, and—the reader begins to notice—a bullshitter. Chronically jovial in public, he alternately manipulates and ignores both his current family and his children from other marriages, and manages to distract most people from noticing that he never says anything of substance; Pinch, who is desperate to be accepted as an artist by his father, interprets Bear’s evasions of direct questions in the way most flattering to himself, until he ages into knowing better. The early part of the book is spent in exploring the ways in which Bear belittles and diminishes Natalie’s artistic talent, but most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Parts of it are terribly sad—Rachman writes a few scenes for Pinch of such utter humiliation that they’re painful to read—other parts joyous. Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all. The Italian Teacher is a deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Several thematic parallels between the three books read this week, most notably dealing with aging and/or dementia-struck parents. It was also illuminating to read The Italian Teacher after All the Perverse Angels; both are intensely interested in the production of art and how its value is determined.


Women’s Prize 2018 Longlist Thoughts

I’m serving on the prize’s shadow panel again this year (hooray!), along with three of my very favourite erudite readers/writers/thinkers: Naomi Frisby, Antonia Honeywell, and Eric Anderson. The longlist was announced last night (at 00:00 GMT, which is alarmingly antisocial for those of us who like our sleep). I haven’t yet decided how I feel about the list as a whole, apart from an initial gut reaction: it feels a bit old. Some of these books (Schmidt, Kandasamy) I read last May; they’ve had a long time to steep in my subconscious, or wherever it is that books go in a person after they’ve been read. But that’s hardly an argument against the books themselves, so maybe I’m being curmudgeonly.

I’ve read eight of the longlisted titles – exactly half. The list given on the Women’s Prize site is front-loaded with the titles that I haven’t read, which is an amusing probability quirk. (Why is Rachel Seiffert at the front of an otherwise alphabetical list? A tech issue? A last-minute addition? Who can say.)

Quick thoughts on each:

711bpyrwgolA Boy In Winter – Rachel Seiffert. I confess that not only have I not read this; I gazed at it with the eyes of extreme indifference when it came into the shop in hardback, and again when I got a paperback finished copy. Nazis in the Ukraine, I thought. Again with the Nazis, I thought. But my colleague Karin, with thirty years of bookselling experience, adores Rachel Seiffert, so I am prepared to be wrong.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker. Barker’s work is, occasionally, barking (sorry), but pretty much always brilliant. H(A)PPY is intimidating because of its formal playfulness: typeface in different colours, shapes, and arrangements on the page, etc. Her novel The Cauliflower didn’t inspire me hugely, but it was impressive, and I remain haunted by the first forty pages of Darkmans (read standing up at a library sale) despite not having bought the book or finished it. So I’ve high hopes for H(A)PPY.


The Idiot – Elif Batuman. Who doesn’t love a good campus novel? I keep forgetting the plot of this one; I think it has to do with a Turkish student at Harvard in the ’90s, and is meant to be comedic. Sure. Sign me up.

61k-y31a2bgl-_sx342_bo1204203200_Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon. Here is where the commercial/literary interplay gets interesting, at least to me. Cannon is positioned as a pretty commercial writer—a good one, but one whose work you might happily send to your aunt who’s in a book club, if we’re going to be perfectly honest about it. I’m told, though, that The Trouble With Goats And Sheep also happened to be a fantastic book. Three Things About Elsie will have to tread a fine line because it’s about old people in a care home, which can easily go patronising, but then Cannon is a qualified psychiatrist, so.

32508630Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig. The one no one’s heard of. It looks pretty promising: a family saga set in Burma over the course of the twentieth century, with a family whose daughter becomes the country’s first beauty queen and must navigate politics and loyalty. I’m a little wary about the fact that it’s based on the author’s mother and grandparents; books that fictionalise close family members often feel off, like there’s too much reverence there to make a good story. Again, I look forward to being proved wrong.

34467031Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan. Apparently very unlike Egan’s other work (experimental, pyrotechnic, innovative), Manhattan Beach is instead a piece of solid historical fiction, featuring Mafiosi and the first female diver at Brooklyn’s naval yard. I haven’t raced to pick it up, but I do look forward to reading it.

coverThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. Hooray, the first one I’ve read! Full disclosure: I thought this was fantastic. So much more than a Georgian romp, although it’s that too; Gowar is so aware of issues surrounding class, race, sex and gender in the eighteenth century, and she makes us aware of them too without being anachronistic. It’s the same balancing act that Golden Hill managed with such aplomb.

isbn9781473652385Sight – Jessie Greengrass. Ticks a lot of Women’s Prize boxes—motherhood, daughterhood, legacy, mental health—but, I think/hope, in a fresh and new way. I’ve seen a fair amount of Sight coverage on Book Twitter, and Greengrass can write: her debut was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award in 2016. I’m hopeful about this one.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. In a nutshell: this is a hugely enjoyable book. It’s also got some issues, not least of which is the way in which it conflates autistic spectrum behaviour with behaviour resulting from trauma and/or PTSD. I’ve been selling the hell out of it, because it’s got very wide appeal, but I am not convinced that it needs to be on this list.

81yyupd-qul1When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy. I read this back in May, over a weekend that I began as someone’s girlfriend, and ended as a single person. This may account for the fact that I couldn’t think of much to say about it—raw grief tends to knock out my literary-critical faculties—but part of that might also be that, although this is an incredibly powerful and significant book, there is not a lot of subtlety to it. It draws very clearly and skilfully the pain of an abusive marriage, but I don’t recall finding much else in its pages, apart from that precise observational skill. Maybe my memory is faulty; maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I should read it again.

isbn9781473660557Elmet – Fiona Mozley. This is a brilliant book, reminiscent of what Cormac McCarthy might have written if he had happened to be a Yorkshirewoman. Mozley writes a little too much of “the bits people skip”, as Elmore Leonard put it—landscape descriptions, mostly—but her characters fairly leap off the page; the gender-queering is smartly done; the depictions of violence coiled and unleashed are fearless.

ca83208b-2c74-44c7-b812-cbf84b585203The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why this is here. It’s got plenty of ambition but it’s not a great book—there are so many protagonists, so undifferentiated, that I kept having to remind myself who was who when I was writing my review. The same is true of the issues with which Roy engages: she’s got so much to say on so many topics that the effect is diminished, the reader’s empathy diffused instead of focused. The prose is fine, but Roy’s lyrical style suits her subject a lot less here than in The God of Small Things.

51y5ah4juvl-_sx323_bo1204203200_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt. I tried my hardest to sell this, in the spring. “It’s a book about the Lizzie Borden axe murders!” I would chirp, as customers eyed me warily. “Written in woozy nauseating graphic lyrical vivid prose, with unreliable narrators aplenty!” About half of them would go for it, in the end. The other half would smile politely and turn their attention to whichever title was in my other hand. Their loss.

9781408886755Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. This is a great divider of opinion. Some people think it’s melodramatic and silly; I think it needs to be melodramatic (it’s an adaptation of Antigone, for God’s sake, an actual Greek tragedy). I also think Shamsie is saying things that few other novelists dare to say about the experience of being young, Muslim, and British.

cover1The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal. The final one I haven’t read. A love story between two Irish kids in 1970s Birmingham, picking up with Mona, the wife, after they’ve split up. I haven’t read de Waal’s first book, but her championing of working-class writers recently has been inspirational. I’d love to love her writing, too.

9781408891025Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward. This book is stunning. I’m a firm fan of Ward’s now, having also read Salvage the Bones (her first National Book Award winner) and Men We Reaped, her memoir. Sing, Unburied, Sing takes its readers into the heart of America’s confusion about itself, through the eyes of Jojo, a young black boy growing up in Mississippi with his drug-addled mama, Leonie, his loving grandparents Pop and Momma, and his father Michael, a white man whose release from prison precipitates the road trip that forms the core of the book’s plot. It reads like the natural extension of William Faulkner’s legacy—both literary and in a wider cultural context.

Notable omissions: I am enraged that The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, isn’t on this list. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. What other book this year has engaged so fearlessly and viscerally with questions of female power and agency, and the destructive power that accompanies male fear of emasculation? Maybe after The Power‘s win, the panel didn’t want another book too much like it, but come on. I’d give Yuknavitch Arundhati Roy’s spot. (Or maybe Gail Honeyman’s, entertaining though Eleanor Oliphant is.)

Other notable omissions are a couple of big guns: Winter by Ali Smith isn’t there, and neither is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. I had thought Jane Harris’s Sugar Money might be in with a chance, as well as Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose and The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. Failing to include Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry seems like a bit of an oversight, too.

Hilariously, when I sat down to brainstorm novels that were eligible, I went through the list a second time marking the titles that I thought would/should make it onto the longlist. Fully three of the longlisted titles were ones that I discounted as contenders: See What I Have Done, Eleanor Oliphant, and, of course, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Tackling the remainder of the list: I have eight still to read: Seiffert, Barker, Batuman, Cannon, Craig, Greengrass, and de Waal. My lovely colleague Faye has promised to loan me her copy of The Trick to Time, and I know we have plenty of stock of Three Things About Elsie in the shop. The others are a bit of a puzzle; I could reorder them for stock and sneakily read them, but I’m not sure that’s a good practice, in general. They’ve been in print for long enough that the chance of getting gratis proofs and finished copies will have gone. (Naomi tells me that, actually, publicists will send them and are expecting to be asked. Phew.) I’d rather not buy brand-new copies, especially since most of them (bar the Seiffert) are still in hardback. Might I have to use…my local library?! Stay tuned, listeners.

Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.

Reading Diary: Feb. 4-Feb. 9

powerIf there were an all-literature version of Pointless (and now that I’ve mentioned it, why isn’t there? It seems like there should be, possibly in the format of a board game that gets sold mostly to nerds and played mostly at our dinner parties and New Year’s Eve get-togethers), and if you were playing the Books Jeanette Winterson Has Written round, The Powerbook would be the answer you’d most want to give. I had no idea she’d written it; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry have overshadowed it, in my mental survey of her oeuvre. I won’t write too much about it here because I’m meant to be discussing it on Twitter at the end of the month with Amy and Naomi. There are three strands to it, though: a series of narratives about separated lovers (literary, mythological, and historical, such as Lancelot/Guinevere and Francesca/Paolo); a counternarrative about a writer and the married woman with whom she falls in love and with whom she cannot be; and a series of far more gnomic but also more seductive utterances about storytelling, story strategies, personae, and power. I’m not convinced that the abstract and concrete sections of The Powerbook fit together as well as they think they do—especially the early sections involving Ali in Istanbul, which read much more like Angela Carter on an uncharacteristically whimsical day than the rest of the book does—but for those short, almost aphoristic passages alone, I’m glad I read this. Follow our discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ThePowerbook at the end of February (exact date to be announced).

71xeuuzsuolNon-fiction is always harder for me to get excited about, but this came highly recommended, and also has a spot in the top five entries on this list of the top 100 non-fiction books of the 21st century, which I’m using in a casual sort of way to help fill the gaps. It is so very good. Susan Cain’s day job is as a consultant to high-flying businesspeople, mostly helping them to overcome fears like public speaking or giving them skills to negotiate more confidently in the boardroom. Her thesis in Quiet is that one of the most significant factors about a person is whether they are introverted or extroverted, and, moreover, that most people in the Western world are labouring under something known as the Extrovert Ideal, although at least 30% of us, being introverted, are woefully ill-adapted by nature to conform to this ideal. If you are an introvert—especially, I think, if you are an introvert who has learned to project fairly solid social skills—this book will be a revelation to you; I turned the pages with increasing delight and gratitude, thinking This is why I’m so tired after work! This is why I hated working in an open-plan office! This is exactly what I used to feel like in the playground/in the cafeteria/at summer camp! It’s not all my fault!! If you’re not an introvert, statistically you are likely either to marry/date one, parent one, or manage one (or all three) at some point over the course of your lifetime, and Cain’s lucid, insightful book contains some excellent pointers for understanding the introverts in your life. The best thing about Quiet is Cain’s insistence that introverts trying to conform to the Extrovert Ideal can stop running in place; that maybe the way we see the world and handle tasks and respond to stimuli is actually inherently valuable, too, and that extroverts could learn from it. I can see why it’s been lauded to the skies: implementing her suggestions could change corporate culture and increase productivity, but it could also change marriages and families and improve whole lives. (One thing I’d have liked to see more of is an assessment of how the Extrovert Ideal affects men and women differently; how gender and sexual double standards come into play, and so on.)

julian-barnesJulian Barnes. I have decided that he, like his character Susan in this novel, is a member of “a played-out generation”, except he appears to have retained his ability to write a good sentence untainted by the corrosive tang of bitterness. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie: all have fallen, at one point or another, to their own reputations. Barnes, and possibly Graham Swift (I haven’t read a recent enough book of his to know), remain on point: perhaps a touch more melancholic than they were fifteen years ago, or twenty, but on the whole observing the vagaries of later life with more bemusement than rage. The Only Story seems to support this theory: it is about a nineteen-year-old university student named Paul, who, home for the holidays and made to join the local tennis club, meets and falls in love with a married woman of forty-eight named Susan Macleod. It’s not a summer fling, although the total effect of the book, at least on me, is to make the reader wonder whether it should have been. It’s a real, serious, all-in love affair: Susan moves out of her husband’s house, though she never divorces him, and the two live together in London while Paul trains to become a solicitor. The devastation happens by degrees, as Susan sinks into alcoholism so severe that she damages her own memory. Paul leaves her, or, as he puts it, “hands her back” to her daughter’s care, and she dies probably in her early sixties, consumed by dementia and paranoia. It’s not a happy story, so what are we to make of it?

Barnes writes with a kind of aphoristic certainty that asserts itself even when he is pretending to uncertainty, which is appealing, and lends The Only Story the weight of tragedy that it needs. What I keep asking myself, though – and this is true of almost all the books I read now – is, why this story, and why this way? I don’t know what Julian Barnes wants me to make of a hopelessly romantic but strangely cynical and affectless young man who, to save his own sanity, leaves an older woman who has burned all her boats for him. I don’t know what he wants me to make of that older woman, who always seems disturbingly childish, even in her charming qualities (irreverence, constant laughter). Judging from the many times the text touches on the subject, I think his point is largely to do with differences between generations, but what is that to a reader who is of a generation after Paul? Am I to conclude that my parents’ peers fought their parents and thought themselves progressive, just like my own? Is that such a revelation that I really need Barnes to make me think about it? I feel, as a reader, somehow resistant to The Only Story, and I can’t work out whether that’s inherent to the book, or to me. Maybe I’m too young for it.

51sx7hk0uplRuby Tandoh is the literal exact opposite of Julian Barnes: a young queer woman of colour who seems to epitomise millennial values like self-care and not judging other people. I adore her. Eat Up is not a recipe book or a how-to-eat guide or even the radical manifesto that the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, says it is; it’s a series of intelligent, engaged meditations on food and the role it plays in our lives, and the ways in which our relationship to food intersects with cultural narratives about power, privilege, morality, money, class, race, sex, gender, and worth. Of all the things that take up space in my head on a daily basis, food might well be the biggest: in order to feed myself appropriately, I must contend with the intersections of affordability, Type I diabetes, chronic lack of time, my own tendency to use food as a mechanism for unhealthy self-control and self-punishment, and a spectacular sweet tooth. It’s really fucking hard. Reading Tandoh’s words makes me feel understood and reassured. Yes, she says, food is complicated; no, you don’t have to eat perfectly all the time; there isn’t even any one right way to eat. Her asides on social and cultural history are succinct but thorough: the section on the history of the UK chocolate industry, and sections on queer bodies, poor bodies, and the use of food in film, are particularly good. And she does include perhaps two dozen recipes, scattered throughout the book, every one of which looks delicious and quick and affordable. It’s been years since I’ve been so uncomplicatedly excited about cooking, for myself and others.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: For a week which I mostly spent sick and asleep in bed, not bad at all. Better get going with the proofs again next week, though.

Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

9780241982884One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.


Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.

Reading Diary: Jan. 14-Jan. 20

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara, is a gorgeous book, set in the drag queen ball scene of New York, from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Angel, our main character, becomes the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, the first house for aspiring Puerto Rican queens (a drag queen house is something like a Formula 1 team, but a thousand times more fabulous, and its members relate to each other like a family). Angel is joined by sassy and beautiful Venus (born Thomas); shy banjee boy Daniel; and skilled seamstress and lost boy Juanito. There’s also Dorian, an even older queen who serves as a mentor and cultural guardian. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish. It’s a tragic book, as one set amongst the gay and trans community during those decades must be: many sisters fall, to the virus or to illegal drugs or to malevolent strangers. It’s also defiantly, spectacularly beautiful, constantly reaffirming the value of the family you choose for yourself. Fans of A Little Life, RENT, and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City will all find something to love here.

51fe1shobzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_And then for something completely different: Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The thing that always surprises me with Greene is how humane he is; for some reason I expect his Catholicism to be curdled and grotesque, like Evelyn Waugh’s, but it always turns out gentle and pitying. This novel follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); he is a man who has lost his dignity, his sense of purpose, almost his humanity; Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is also spectacularly good at suggesting interiority while maintaining firm boundaries between the reader and his characters; we always feel we’re standing somewhat outside of the whisky priest, watching him do things or have things done to him, but as we continue to observe him, our understanding of him grows. It would make a very interesting companion read to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (which I’m afraid I’ve only seen the film of).

isbn9781473661417-detailThe cover of The Wicked Cometh, Laura Carlin’s debut novel, should perhaps have made me wary; anything that’s getting the Sarah Perry/Jessie Burton design treatment is something on which the publisher wants to make the big bucks, and making the big bucks is not always commensurate with flawless prose and editing. The Wicked Cometh begins with about a hundred pages of somewhat overwrought scene-setting, in which we meet young Hester White, the orphaned daughter of a clergyman who now lives with her father’s former gardener Jacob and his wife Meg in a foul slum in London’s Whitechapel. Rumours abound of disappearances: ordinarily steady men, women and children are vanishing, never to be seen again. When Hester is involved in an accident with a carriage, and invited to recuperate (and work as a maid) at the country house of the man who caused the damage, she begins to unravel a horrifying conspiracy. The writing tends to teeter back and forth between melodrama and the kind of flattening present tense that constantly tells a reader how to feel, which hampers attempts to engage with the story. But if you can get past the initial pages and reach the point at which Hester returns to London with her friend and beloved, Rebekah Brock, you’ll make it to the end. The conspiracy is really rather fiendish, if somewhat over-complicated, and I liked that Carlin develops a love story between two women in the nineteenth century as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it (which, in fact, there isn’t.)

cover3A little book to end the week with: I wasn’t sure whether this really counted, but it has its own ISBN, so why not. It’s Calm, one of the Vintage Mini books that comprise excerpts from an author’s larger work on a particular theme. Calm is a 95-page chunk from Tim Parks’s book Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences with Vipassana Buddhist meditation, chronic pain, and spirituality. Parks was raised in a deeply religious household (his father was an Anglican priest), from which he seems to have fled both physically and mentally at the earliest possible opportunity; faith is obviously a deeply vexed issue for him. He writes pitilessly, with great wit and self-deprecation, about his attempts to be more mindful, to meditate better, and about the depths of his despair when a meditation retreat seems to promise nothing but more physical pain and suffering. When, at last (and very briefly) the meditation does work, he writes of his body’s feeling of liberation and release with an illumination and a joy that is reminiscent of mystics like Margery Kempe—and also acknowledges how fleeting such joy must be (his return to discomfort is “liturgy after revelation”). I’d very much like to read Teach Us To Sit Still in its entirety now, and perhaps try to pick up my own meditation or yoga practice again.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A hell of a lot of purple covers and spirituality. Is the subconscious really responsible for things like that?

Reading Diary: Jan. 7-Jan. 13

the_devilshighwayhbGregory Norminton’s new novel The Devil’s Highway is not a long book, but it is a full one, resonant with history and myth. Bouncing back and forth between three time periods—Roman Britain, the present day, and a far future of harsh drought and a return to brutality—it stays focused on one place: Bagshot Heath, in Surrey. Here, a young Celt, Andragin, tries to barter for mercy for his brothers by delivering a kidnapped decurion back to his legion; here, Harry, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, bumps into a young girl whose father is determined to preserve the heath at all costs; and here, a pack of feral children led by the ruthless Malk attempts to make it to “the West Cunny”, where, it’s rumoured, there is still rain. Norminton’s evocation of the heath’s atmosphere is superb: this book is less about individual people and their choices, and more about the ways in which a particular landscape can fate us. Each time period is linked to the others by a palm-shaped stone that resembles a crude carving of a woman, and which is so ancient that it’s old even in Andragin’s time. Norminton is a subtle enough writer to leave the connection at that (though we may draw our own conclusions about the relationship between the young Celtic warriors encouraged to their deaths by a religious mystic, and the jihadis whom Harry fights in modern-day Helmand), giving the book a feeling of David Mitchell tinged with Paul Kingsnorth’s aesthetic. The futuristic sections are perhaps the least successful—there’s only so many times authors can rehash wild-child Riddley Walker dialect—but the book as a whole is both bold and delicate, and quite unforgettable.

cover2Equally unforgettable is Afua Hirsch’s memoir/work of cultural analysis, Brit(ish) (can we talk about the genius of that title?), which is out on the 1st of February. Hirsch’s heritage is mixed: her mother is Ghanaian and her father the child of German Jewish refugees. Both her parents had a strong cultural identity of their own, but for Hirsch and her sister, being mixed-race in Wimbledon in the ’90s meant they didn’t belong anywhere. Hirsch is never less than willing to cop to her own privilege as a lighter-skinned black person in Britain: her account of meeting her boyfriend (now husband) Sam, a black man of Ghanaian descent from Tottenham, brilliantly dissects the differences in their upbringings, with Sam constantly focused on achieving professional success because the slightest lapse in concentration might drive him off-course forever, whereas Afua’s achievements at school, university, and the world of work feel like something she’s almost sleepwalked into. But her primary thesis is that, although Britain likes to call itself a “post-racial” or “multicultural” society, this is a national self-image built on a lie: the absolute refusal of white British people to acknowledge a history of deep and terrible institutional racism. She makes an extremely compelling case, citing the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter as upheavals that could only occur because American society has been forthright about the fact that it was founded on racism and slavery. By contrast, British society lauds the abolition of the slave trade, but history curricula and national days of observance rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that for Britain to have abolished a trade in the first place, it first had to participate in that trade; in this case, for over four centuries. Hirsch is also a fantastically engaging writer, leavening rage-inducing statistics with personal anecdote and investigative journalism. Her book ought to help kickstart the conversation Britain so badly needs to have with itself.

51a7rwuy1pl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Speaking of which, Victor LaValle’s novel The Devil In Silver is a real thousand-yard stare right at the heart of the horrors of the American health-care-for-profit system. LaValle is known as a genre writer, but most of The Devil In Silver doesn’t seem like a horror or fantasy novel; much of it is more like a psych-ward version of Orange Is the New Black. Pepper, our protagonist, is a working-class white dude who gets thrown in New Hyde Hospital because the cops who arrested him for beating up his neighbour’s ex-husband couldn’t be arsed to do the paperwork down at the precinct. Pepper’s involuntary admission means he ought only to stay for seventy-two hours, but he takes some medication on his first day, and the next thing he knows, he’s been in for four weeks. The ward, Pepper soon discovers, is being terrorised by a Minotaur-like creature—a skinny old man with the head of a buffalo—who is apparently the Devil. The brilliance of LaValle is in taking the old what-if-humans-were-the-real-monsters twist and shoving our noses so far into the complicated morality of what being human involves that we can see how monsters develop. Casual cruelty amongst nurses and orderlies is prompted by a system that underpays them and finds more value in dead patients than in live ones; madness is a not irrational response to a system that really is out to get you. And LaValle comes down on the side of tenderness and of trying, every time. One character snarls to another, “You can’t save everyone.” The other says—the only line of dialogue he gets in the whole book—”You can help.”

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Two proofs of forthcoming books and one book from my shrinking TBR stack (counted, in this context, as books I’ve bought and have yet to read), all excellent. January’s going really well so far.