Reading Diary: reviews in brief

I’ve read eight books in between the most recent few #20BooksofSummer entrants, and, frankly, though I want to say something about each of them, I also don’t have much time. So here are some tiny reviews.

41ytm2ralil-_sx331_bo1204203200_Blackfish City, by Sam Miller

The premise: In a post-climate change world, a floating city is visited by a mysterious woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, seeking someone she lost decades ago,  .

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Blade Runner meets Philip Pullman.

The good bits: Lots of gender diversity, including a non-binary teenage main character. Extremely atmospheric. Wears its influences elegantly.

The bad bits: Somewhat awkwardly written, particularly in the dialogue. Plot uneven: front-loaded with contextless information, conflict resolved in haste and without giving this reader a strong sense of emotional connection to the characters.

Verdict: Three stars (worth reading, but won’t keep a hard copy).

31h4vpzmjvl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Glass and God, by Anne Carson

The premise: Well, it’s poetry, so there isn’t really one, but the book is divided into several sections, the first of which (“The Glass Essay”) explores the end of a love affair through the lens of Emily Bronte’s life and work.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Maggie Nelson for heteros, if she was also a professor of classics.

The good bits: The images, and the phrasing, of “The Glass Essay” are some of the starkest poetry I’ve ever read. You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently.//Why hold onto all that? And I said,/Where can I put it down? 

The bad bits: The other parts of the collection are diffuse to the point of incomprehensibility, although I suspect there’s meaning in them; it’s just hard to break through to.

Verdict: Five stars (I’ve read this before, and I loved it then too.)

61lyilc0sfl-_sx305_bo1204203200_Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

The premise: The lives of Becky Sharp, a sexy, penniless governess on the make, and her friend Amelia Sedley – a fatally naive young gentlewoman – provide a frame through which to view English high society during the early to mid-nineteenth century.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Well, it’s a classic, so the comparisons should go the other way round really, but the toxic female friendship around which the book revolves is echoed in popular culture from Mean Girls to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; plus, Becky’s strange positioning (partly an antagonist, partly a protagonist) is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

The good bits: Very funny. Total lack of purple-ness; you never have to wade through Thackeray’s syntax to get to his meaning, as you sometimes do with Dickens or Eliot. Every character drawn with merciless clarity, but also with pity or compassion for their weakness.

The bad bits: Very long. But that’s only really a drawback if you don’t like long books on principle; Thackeray needs it to be long because his plot needs decades.

Verdict: Five stars (this is my favourite book of all time, so that one was a gimme.)

11076123Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

The premise: Hiero Falk had more raw talent than any other jazz trumpeter of his generation. In occupied Paris, he was taken away and interned, never seen again, presumed dead. Now, his former bandmates – Sid, who believes that he betrayed Hiero, and Chip, who believes Hiero is still alive – set out to find him again.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: The Time Of Our Singing with classical music stripped out and World War II injected into the space where it had been.

The good bits: Emotionally compelling. Characters believably weak and vulnerable. Evocation of Paris under occupation, and of the essence of jazz playing, is exceptional.

The bad bits: Perhaps it could have been more emotionally compelling. Sid does a lot of processing in the modern-day sections, and some of his self-awareness seems to have been arrived at with convenient rapidity.

Verdict: Four stars (have already recommended to many).

9780008146221The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee

The premise: Partly a biography of Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and his father’s first biographer; partly an account of Hernando’s attempt to build the first truly universal library.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Fans of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, as well as people who get nerdy about the history of information technology, might like this.

The good bits: Some great analogies drawn between the idea of the universal library and the Internet. Hernando Colon’s life also happens to have been rather colourful: he first went to the New World as a teenager, and inherited a lot of his father’s personal drama (and lawsuits).

The bad bits: Not nearly enough about the intellectual connection between universal libraries and the Internet. To me this was the most interesting element of the book, and it felt very under-developed.

Verdict: Three stars (I’ve been sending it out steadily, but haven’t kept my hard copy).

71agbivj1slSigns of Life, by Anna Raverat

The premise: A young woman has an affair with a man in her office; her relationship ends badly; her affair ends badly; as she recounts this eventful history, is she telling us the truth?

How I’d (cynically) sell it: Glass and God as prose fiction.

The good bits: I can’t get enough of writing like this: material about destructive relationships, relayed in prose like a recently cleaned window (and, also, like a broken bottle).

The bad bits: I didn’t dislike any of it. You’ll either love this sort of thing or you’ll hate it.

Verdict: Five stars (bought with my own money, now on the shelf of Books To Save From Fire).

revelation_space_cover_28amazon29Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds

The premise: The Amarantin civilisation were wiped out nine hundred thousand years ago, just as they were on the cusp of discovering spaceflight. Dan Sylveste is determined to find out why, and forges an unholy alliance with the cyborg crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity to do so – but the Amarantin were crushed for a reason…

How I’d (cynically) sell it: A beguilingly written and plotted classic space opera.

The good bits: It’s funny, it’s engaging, the mystery is excellent, and most of the main characters are women (at least one is also of colour).

The bad bits: It’s longer than it needs to be, although the scenic route lets Reynolds write some fun worldbuilding stuff. Also, despite the presence of many female characters, Dan Sylveste is still written as an Asshole Genius Deserving Veneration.

Verdict: Four stars (I raced through it and had a great time. It’s also very well written. Just, ugh, men).

coverThe Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The premise: The end of the Trojan War – Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, the death of Patroclus, etc. – told through the eyes of Briseis, the slave girl over whom the former two famously fall out.

How I’d (cynically) sell it: I’m so tired of people comparing every book that glances at misogyny to The Handmaid’s Tale. This does, however, have the virtue of actually also being a book about sexual slavery. (I wouldn’t compare the two in any other way, though.)

The good bits: Very competently written, as you’d expect from Pat Barker, and absolutely merciless in the way it draws back the veil on ancient societies, war, and the vulnerability of women in those contexts. Hard to read the way Ghost Wall is hard to read (which is to say, in the best possible way).

The bad bits: WHY. ARE THERE SO MANY CHAPTERS. DEVOTED TO THE PERSPECTIVES. OF MEN. At least half the book is through Achilles’s eyes. I understand the need to create variation, but why couldn’t we have had a different female perspective to fulfill that requirement, instead? I was hoping for a panoply of women’s voices.

Verdict: Four stars (it’s still bloody good).

 

Advertisements

Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)

Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.

November Superlatives

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

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

gnomon-tpb

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

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

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

51vaguqo9fl

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

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

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

1449967

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

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

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

34200289

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

51incy25vgl-_sx355_bo1204203200_

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

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

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

Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: Outlandish Knight, by Minoo Dinshaw

cover

Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

The title for Minoo Dinshaw’s enormous (700-page) biography of Steven Runciman, a noted Byzantine historian of the mid-twentieth century, comes from a Scottish ballad. There is no parallel between the events of the ballad (which comes in many variants but usually involves a woman running off with a knight who reveals himself to be a serial murderer; the woman defeats him through a combination of wit, strength, and sometimes magic) and Runciman’s own life, but Dinshaw admits that he chose it more for what it says about his subject’s taste. Born in Northumberland, Runciman would evince a deep love for and identification with Scotland and the Borders for the rest of his life, and would eventually, through a complicated series of events, become Laird of Eigg. (He went so far as to proclaim himself Scottish, although neither of his parents were.)

Dinshaw’s work is, to put it mildly, comprehensive. He has obviously been through every scrap of the relevant primary sources, including Runciman’s own unpublished memoirs, and his regard for his subject shines through every sentence. In a way, though, this is the book’s downfall. It is, as has been previously mentioned, very long, and although Runciman certainly came into contact with a wide array of interesting people (Eric Blair, Cecil Beaton, Freya Stark, the last Emperor of China, and the Queen Mother, to name but a few), the relevance of his own life is less clear. Dinshaw apparently described Runciman as a “courtly, old-fashioned queer” at the bloggers’ event that the other members of the shadow panel attended; to me, that sentence sums up the difficulty with Outlandish Knight in general, which is that it delineates a society—English, genteel, snobbish, mid-twentieth-century—whose rules are so alien now as to appear almost science fictional. (I told the shadow panel that it’s the same uncanny-valley feeling one often gets when reading Golden Age detective stories; although they mostly avoid explicit sexism and racism, the mores of the characters and the limits of acceptable social behaviour generally seem much more distant and exotic than, say, Dickens or Sterne.)

Dinshaw succeeds most at convincing us of Runciman’s importance, I think, when he emphasises that sense of distance by focusing on the ways in which his subject’s death heralded the end of a whole world. Runciman’s academic interest was in Byzantium, the Eastern and later segment of the Roman Empire, and in late antiquity shading into the medieval period in what is now Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The twentieth century changed these parts of the world drastically, irrevocably, and usually not for the better; one feels it a mercy that Runciman’s death occurred before September 11, 2001, and before he could see what became of the historic homes of the civilisations he had loved. In this sense, Outlandish Knight is a valuable, if melancholy, resource for understanding precisely what has been lost—in terms of approaches to scholarship as well as the business of living—for good and for ill. (Runciman’s sexuality is the one thing he appears never to have discussed with anyone, though his friends seemed aware that he had affairs. It strikes me as a life much like the character Posner’s in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, who says at the end of the play that he’s “not happy, but I’m not unhappy about it.”)

Still, though. Despite the accolades that adorn the front cover, the writing seemed to me to be perfectly fine, but not outstanding. It is a lot more impressive when you realise that Dinshaw is only twenty-eight now and it took him four years to write, but even that provokes me mainly to be impressed with his self-confidence, not necessarily with an undying prose style. I came away from the biography with very little sense of what Steven Runciman might actually have been like: what might have made him laugh, or light up with interest; how he might have gone about making friends or flirting or tackling his work day. For a book this long, that’s a bit alarming.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. Outlandish Knight is published by Allen Lane, and is now available in paperback so you don’t have to murder your wrists.

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.

41cp6wr0vdl-_sy346_

Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

Journeyman + The Violet Hour

April was so efficient a reading month that May was bound to be a bit slower by comparison; literally almost anything would have been. I’ve read nothing but review copies this month so far, and have still only finished four books in twelve days (and written reviews of two of them). So as not to fall behind, I’m putting my reviews for both Journeyman and The Violet Hour into the same post. They’re not desperately similar books, but, like many literary pairings, the more you think about them in conjunction with one another, the more they seem like two different ways of dealing with the same thing.

9200000056198535

Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski (Granta)

After Daredevils, Bojanowski’s protagonist Nolan reminded me a bit of Jason, in the way that he’s an essentially good man who is often (though, crucially, not always) defined by his passivity. This isn’t Bojanowski’s first novel, but it’s the first of his that I’ve read, and it strikes me that he’s very much a writer of themes. That isn’t to say he doesn’t do them well—the integration of plot points into the service of theme is generally elegant and often slyly surprising—but you can bet your boots that when something does happen in this book, it will be resonant in more ways than one.

It starts as it means to go on. The title is a reference to Nolan’s occupation: he’s a journeyman carpenter. But it’s also, very pointedly, a reference to his identity: he’s a journey-man, one who is always moving, always packing up and heading on. “What’s that saying?” his brother Chance sneers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Nolan’s MO for life, it seems, is to get the hell out of Dodge whenever it starts to look too much like reality—commitment, mortality, what-have-you—is closing in. When he visits Chance in California, it’s meant to be a courtesy call, but he loses his truck and Airstream trailer in an accident and finds himself stranded there, unwillingly putting down what you might start to call roots.

Western literature’s original journey-man is Odysseus (technically I guess it’s probably Gilgamesh, but POETIC LICENSE), whose character becomes defined by war to the extent that he can’t bring himself to just go back home. He has to keep having adventures, keep escaping death, keep being larger than life. Nolan’s relationship to war is much more ambivalent, but equally haunted. The book is set in 2007 or 2008, a time when the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were real and present to almost every American, and especially to young men of fighting age. Nolan has not enlisted, and neither has Chance. Meanwhile, their father—a shadowy but hugely influential figure in their lives—was a veteran of Vietnam, about which he never spoke. At one point Nolan mentions the way in which participating in war demarcated adulthood for the men of previous generations; now, even those who’ve seen combat are not so much purified and matured by the experience as they are deeply, deeply fucked up. Additionally, since that participation is optional, it’s not clear what can come to take its place. Both brothers are dogged by a feeling of having failed in some way obscure but profound. Chance is an obsessive, writing a thousand-page novel about a Russo-Japanese naval battle and pursuing a serial arsonist in the little town of Burnridge. (Burn-ridge, get it?) Nolan works in construction, represses most of his feelings of guilt and lost-ness, and runs like hell from anything that might tether him.

We’re meant to fear the repressed man—we’re taught that his bottled-up emotions will one day explode, most likely in violence, and probably all over us—but in Journeyman, it’s not Nolan’s repression that’s frightening; it’s Chance’s behaviour. Unstoppably loquacious, clearly unhinged, he babbles about conspiracy theories and death and meaning and consequences; he assaults a man in a pizza parlor in the belief that he is defending civilisation; he is transported to rage by the next door neighbour’s teenaged daughter’s loud music, and pours bleach on their lawn. His mania is precisely the sort of thing that the tidy facade of suburban northern California is meant to hide. But instead of joyous anarchy, it suggests a man who’s come loose from the moorings of his community, even from sanity. Bojanowski’s ending, which is quietly redemptive but far from saccharine, reinforces that: the importance of committing to a place, to people. Of not keeping yourself isolated in the universe.

The Violet Hour, by Katie Roiphe (Virago)

29909449

The other day, I was killing time in a Pret and this old woman came up to me and asked if she could sit at my table. There was another seat free and I wasn’t waiting for anyone, so of course I told her that she could. She sat for a moment, then asked what I was reading. Normally when people ask what you’re reading, they either don’t really care, or they’re mad. Choosing not to commit myself by speaking, lest she was either one, I held up the book so that she could see the front cover. “Great Writers at the End”, she read the subtitle aloud. “I knew a great writer once,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked. I still had one finger in the book, marking my place.

“You probably won’t know her,” she said slowly. She wasn’t that old, really, but she had the face of a smoker and her eyes were rheumy and the words came slowly out of her mouth in the way that I’ve heard words come from people who are on heavy medication.

“Try me,” I said.

She shrugged. “Doris Lessing?”

We talked for forty minutes. Her name was Hetty. Her father had been a South African journalist, had known Mandela. They came to this country when she was five. She seemed to have moved in rarefied circles. She told me she was bipolar. Some of the celebrities she said she’d met were probably lies—she couldn’t explain, for instance, how she knew Paul McCartney or Audrey Hepburn—but some of it was, I think, the truth. She’d nannied for Eric Idle’s children. She had written songs. She sang a fragment of one for me. Her voice was low and sweet, the kind of voice that the 1960s and ’70s liked.

This isn’t really, I know, a review of The Violet Hour, but in a tangential sort of way it is a nod to the sort of thinking that Roiphe’s book provokes. She writes about famous authors just before their deaths, and about how death pervaded their lives and their arts. Many of them were obsessed, fearful of it or romanticizing it or both. Dylan Thomas thought he was dying at thirty and returned to the idea constantly. Susan Sontag refused to discuss her cancer diagnosis; her personal mythology, her exceptionalism, had no room for mortality. John Updike tried to keep death at bay, all his life, with illicit sex: affairs were proof of life. Maurice Sendak was perhaps my favourite of all the featured writers (though to me he is more an artist): his long-undiscussed sexuality, his long-term partner Gene, his dogs, his adoptive son. He seems to have been mischievous, cantankerous and generous in equal measure.

I would have liked to see Roiphe focus more on the work of each writer: their lives and personalities are reasonably interesting, but more judicious close reading of passages would have been nearer to my heart. The work, after all, is what distinguishes them. But there is something extraordinary anyway in hearing about their childhood brushes with disease and disaster, their neediness or their fearlessness or their posturing in the middles of their lives as well as at the ends of them. “All deaths are the same,” Roiphe writes, and that’s what I won’t forget from her book. Hetty, who seemed to have tangoed with greatness, was now a woman with faded curly hair and a slightly trembling hand, drinking coffee across from me on Kentish Town Road and telling me stories. She was just a person, just a human, who would die. I was a young, hungry, sharp-elbowed woman, listening to her voraciously, and I was just a person, just a human, who would die. I’ve met two or three very famous people in my life, and every single one of them, when I looked them in the eye, was just a person. Just a human, who would die. Roiphe quotes George Bernard Shaw, who, as usual, is both pithy and correct: “Don’t try to live forever; you will not succeed.” Nothing wrong with that, this book says.

Thanks very much to Natalie Shaw at Granta, and Grace Vincent at Virago, for the review copies. Journeyman and The Violet Hour were published in the UK on 5 May.