June Superlatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reading 101

Vulture did a feature on “beach reads” this week (which I stumbled upon by way of Vintage Books’s Twitter feed). Whoever wrote the piece identified three things a book needs to be a good beach read: “narrative momentum, a transporting sense of place, and ideally, a touch of the sordid.” Just so, I thought, applying these criteria in quick succession to the books I have mentally begun to select for the six-hour train journey to (and subsequent five days in) St. Ives next month. John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama passed the tests with flying colours, as anything by Le Carré would. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Marking Time, the second of the Cazalet Chronicles? Sure – one out of three at least (a transporting sense of place), and the turmoil of family relationships in war provides, I think, a touch of the sordid, even if the book itself is tasteful in the extreme. Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World? Hell yes to all of the above.

I realized, at that point, that there were plenty of books, new and old, which I’ve already read this year that would be absolutely cracking beach reads – not silly or fluffy, nor harrowing and dark, but absorbing, well paced, atmospheric. Hence this: a list of books I truly think cannot be beaten for this year’s holiday reading.

NEW BOOKS

Clinch, by Martin Holmén (my review)

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A sexy retro-noir about a bisexual ex-boxer in 1930s Stockholm, searching for a murderer in order to clear his own name. It’s sharp and surprising, and the setting is perfectly rendered. I called this “the thinking person’s beach read, as long as you don’t mind a little blood and bonking”, an assessment which I stand by unreservedly. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (20 Books of Summer review forthcoming)

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If you know nothing about opera, this’ll convert you; if you do know about opera, you won’t be disappointed. (A very rare combination, that.) Lilliet Berne, former pioneer girl, equestrienne, and courtesan, now a soprano in the France of Napoléon III, retells the story of her life to determine which figure from her past now threatens her. Narrative momentum: A- (it’s long, though compelling). Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

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You know as well as I do that this was never NOT going to be on this list. Recently widowed Cora Seaborne, an amateur naturalist, moves to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter with her young son Francis, in search of a mythical creature that might provide a geological “missing link”. The friendship that ensues with Aldwinter’s vicar, William Ransome, and his family, will challenge everything that both Cora and Will thought they knew about faith, knowledge, and love. It’s beautiful historical fiction that takes its characters seriously as people, in the way of Wolf Hall and Possession (two other favourites). Narrative momentum: A+. Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A+.

OLD(er) BOOKS

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

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My parents took me on holiday to the North York Moors after I graduated from university. I had no job prospects, had just broken up with my uni boyfriend, and was sinking into acute depression. I read this, and was miserable. That I still remember Gormenghast so vividly is a testament to how great it is: a Gothic fantasy about a seemingly endless castle, an evil kitchen boy, murder most foul and strange rituals beneath the moon… It’s one of the most original things I’ve ever read. Narrative momentum: A- (points deducted for length, but you won’t care, honestly.) Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

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I actually read this on a winter holiday, not a summer one, but it’s utterly absorbing: for the long train journey from Oxford to Manchester it was perfect, and it even kept me busy on the long flight from Manchester to America, too. (The chapters are short, which helps.) Trollope’s merciless (and epic) portrayal of venal capitalists ruining everyone else’s lives in Victorian England may feel a little too topical at the moment, or it may serve as reassuring proof that other times and places were not necessarily any better, and in some ways were a great deal worse. Narrative momentum: A-. Transporting sense of place: A. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (my 20 Books of Summer review)

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The “hook” is that it’s about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky—art, adultery, politics, cooking—in Mexico during the 1930s; the perspective is that of the young man who becomes cook and secretary to their households, Harrison Shepherd. It also follows Shepherd’s later life in America, and the destructive effects of the Communist witch-hunts. I described it as “lush” and “vivid”, which it most certainly is. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

Anyone else read any of these? How does your projected (or already-achieved) holiday reading stand up to the supposed criteria?

 

 

Aside

Recently someone asked me for a book recommendation after finishing Anna Karenina…

…and I can’t remember who it was! I think the request came via WordPress, but I’ve gone back through my comments and I can’t find it.

In any case, mystery person, if you liked Anna Karenina, here’s where you can go from there:

To other European adultery novels

The two most famous are Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, and the slightly less well-known Effi Briest, by Thedor Fontane. Madame Bovary is, as I recall, mildly infuriating because Emma Bovary is so bloody difficult; Effi Briest, on the other hand, is short and totally fascinating because it has so much to say about the idea of “Prussian rectitude” and how silly and destructive it is to live your life by an overarching patriotic standard that has no room to accommodate the needs and wishes of the individual. Also, Effi is a terrific heroine. She’s calm and composed throughout, even in her final illness, and although she dies (of course), her husband actually dies first, which, in the context of an adultery novel, basically means she wins.

To other novels about the Russian aristocracy

I’ve not read very much Russian literature, but try Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for further depictions of young men trying to implement political and agricultural reforms against the prejudices of their elders (like Levin in Anna Karenina). There’s also Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which will deliver a similar sort of sweeping love story. (Bonus: you can watch Keira Knightley starring in the films of both Doctor Z. and Anna Karenina, and decide whether you’re more convinced by her Lara or her Anna. Or neither.)

To more Tolstoy

You can read War and Peace, obviously, if you like. I’d recommend making some sort of chart for the characters, though. He also wrote a novella called The Kreutzer Sonata, which I bought for $3 from a secondhand bookshop in Maine when I was fifteen because I’d heard it referred to as a “disturbing psychosexual drama”. It was less dirty than I had been hoping, but it’s got the whole passion/death complex that Anna Karenina has in spades.

I hope this finds whoever asked me about it…terribly sorry for forgetting the circumstances/identity of the questioner!

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This is my absolute favourite Anna Karenina cover. Look at how that face combines beauty, wealth, and haughtiness, without seeming actually unpleasant. It’s brilliant.