Books of the Year, 2020

It’s Christmas Eve. I’m still on the clock for another few hours, but apart from monitoring three inboxes, there’s not much that needs doing. It has been three months since I last posted anything about books, and now is the first time in those three months that I’ve started to feel as though maybe I have the time, energy, or inclination to try.

It wasn’t the year I expected, in a number of ways. I fell in love. There was a pandemic. Both of these things, plus renewed social justice movements in both my home countries, impelled me to read in particular ways, and to forego habitual patterns of book consumption. I read many, many fewer hardbacks and new releases this year, and found myself drawn much more to backlist titles (both fiction and non), filling gaps in my reading knowledge, and increasing the diversity of what I consume and recommend. It’s been a very rewarding year in that sense, and has helped to unshackle me somewhat from an old feeling of constant vigilance: must read the latest release, must know about all the big authors’ newest titles! No, I mustn’t. There’s no real need. If they’re very good, they’ll stick around.

Not that I didn’t read a number of excellent new releases. Some of the best, most memorable books I read this year were from debut authors whose next outing I await with excitement. Others were new releases but were perhaps a second or third foray from authors I already knew. I read a handful of the year’s It Books and, on the whole, was glad that I did.

I can never narrow a list down to ten. I read too much for ten to be reasonable (158 books thus far in 2020; down considerably from last year, but still a decent showing, and many of them excellent). My preliminary list was nineteen titles strong; after being very stern with myself, I managed to highlight six that were absolutely exceptional, that I’ll probably carry with me forever. Those six are below, with the honourable remaining thirteen to come in a later post. All of these are amazing and recommended without reservations.

  1. Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis. Imagine that Olive Kitteredge is a septuagenarian Texan Methodist, then add a survivalist bent worthy of Cormac McCarthy, and you have the outline of Cloris Waldrip, Curtis’s protagonist in this brilliant, heart-bending debut. Cloris is the only survivor of a light plane crash in the mountains of Montana that kills her husband of many decades and the pilot. She must walk out of the hills if she wants to live: no one from the outside world believes there were any survivors, except for tenacious, alcoholic park ranger Debra Lewis. Oh: and Cloris isn’t alone in the mountains. Encompassing theology, sex, grief, and culpability, Kingdomtide asks what we owe to each other, individually and as a community, and challenges the contexts in which we judge one another. It’s also, dryly, quite funny.

2. Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Yes, it is a thousand pages long, and yes, it is all stream of consciousness, and no, there’s more than one sentence (several interludes from the perspective of a mother mountain lion are written in regular, multi-sentence prose), and yes, it really does need to be this long. Ellmann’s protagonist is a home baker who has turned her hobby into a business. The process of circling her head, voyeuristically privy to the themes, symbols and memories to which she frequently returns, is analogous to the lamination of dough for croissants: you genuinely need those many layers in order to build up a broad, rich picture of her state of mind. And when the plot (there is one!) takes a turn for the melodramatic near the end, we realize the significance of everything that’s gone before.

3. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Someone this year tweeted, “Every time I hear a white woman say ‘We’re living through The Handmaid’s Tale‘, all I hear is ‘I haven’t read Parable of the Sower.'” Parable of the Talents is that novel’s sequel, and although I haven’t yet read Sower either, Talents shares its alarming characteristic of feeling like both a prophecy and a history lesson. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. Written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a deeply relevant and necessary way. Profoundly disturbing, and incredibly moving.

4. Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intellectually sophisticated yet accessibly written book of its kind I read this year, or indeed any year. Davis weaves together the histories of feminism, abolitionism, and the labour movement to show the natural interconnectedness of these fights: it’s a primer on intersectionality in action, and on how, when intersectionality fails, its failure is due to a form of short-sightedness that sets everyone back. I found her analysis of the late 19th- and early 20th-century struggle for worker’s rights especially interesting, as those were stories I was less familiar with, but every page of this slim volume contains the names of heroes and heroines both well-known and obscure. Penguin Modern Classics reprinted a beautiful edition of this earlier in 2020, and for people wanting to get their heads around the sociocultural problems that sparked Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is an ideal starting block.

5. In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. This earned an instant place on my Books To Save From Fire shelf. Telling of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, it is simultaneously an excavation of how narrative works in folklore and myth, a revelation of how humans use those same narrative tropes to make sense of our experience, and a gut-wrenchingly immediate yet bruisingly poetic portrait of the betrayal of trust that occurs when abuse does. Machado also weaves in brilliant, shockingly funny pen sketches of friends and family, serious discussions of how lesbian experience is erased in broader conversations about abuse, and digressions on topics such as the queerness of seemingly all Disney villains. Utterly unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and serves as a perfect blend of craft, skill, humour and intellect. It’s particularly hard-hitting for people who have suvived an abusive relationship, although has a lot to offer even readers who have not. (It was also my boyfriend’s favourite book of the year, because he accepts my recommendations and has great taste.)

6. Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. This brand-new retelling of William Caxton’s classic medieval trickster tales, featuring sly Reynard the Fox, pompous King Noble the lion, brutal Isengrim the wolf, stalwart Grimbart the badger, and silly Bruin the bear, amongst many others, is one of the most delightfully playful, erudite, and generous-hearted books I’ve read in a very long time. Glorying in multilingualism, it incorporates slang from Middle English and Middle Dutch, German, French and Latin, and contains wonderful asides, anecdotes, and even recipes in the footnotes. The tales themselves are small miracles: surprisingly dark and violent in places, they reinforce the values of individualism, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and quick wit that we so love in our anti-heroes. Reynard is an unforgettable character, and Anne Louise Avery’s work in bringing his stories to a modern audience would be rewarded with a prize, if the world was just.

There: my top six books from 2020. Magnificent, all of them. I’ve started a new shelf on Goodreads called “breaks your heart and puts your chin up”, and each of these titles deserves its place there. They offer us what we most need right now. Go get them and read them at once!

And, of course, have a very merry Christmas. I’ll be back later with the thirteen(!) runners-up…

Reading Diary: 7 Sept.-13 Sept.

The Short Knife, by Elen Caldecott: This children’s novel is set in a time often ignored by historical fiction writers: early post-Roman Britain, when the Empire has retreated and the physical infrastructure it built is crumbling, but elderly people can remember a time when everything was different. Saxon invaders/settlers/colonialists (pick your favourite noun) are starting to battle it out for land and supremacy with the native British warlords. Caught in this historical maelstrom is thirteen-year-old Mai, who loses her family farm one night to the drunken fury of three Saxons, and who vows vengeance. Her father badly burnt and her older sister Haf hurt in a way Mai doesn’t understand (although the reader thinks they do, given that the novel is intercut with flash-forward scenes nine months later to Mai’s sister giving birth), they make their way to the camp of the local British strongman, Gwyrthaeyr, hoping that ethnic ties (all the native Britons consider themselves kin) will prompt him to help them. All does not go as planned, and Mai finds herself a slave in a Saxon camp, instead.

Caldecott engages gracefully and forcefully with the limited options available to the two sisters. Haf makes herself useful with “honey smiles” and “sweet words”, becoming a storyteller and adviser under the assumption that getting closer to power is the safest place to be. Mai, who is repeatedly told by various characters to “grow up”, doesn’t understand Haf’s strategy, seeing it as betrayal, and takes a more overtly resistant approach, which frequently endangers her. My primary frustration is a stylistic one: to achieve an archaic tone, Caldecott often relies on kenning-like constructions, some of which work well (“infant-small”, “dust-crumbled”) and some of which only get in the way (“bitter-coiled ferns”–why?; “trip-tangled” brambles–that being a defining feature of brambles). But it’s a strong entry for children’s fiction, with engrossing characters, and rarely have I had such a sense of how far back cultural diffusion goes in the history of these islands.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler: You shouldn’t really need me to tell you how excellent this book is, but in case you don’t know: it’s excellent. The premise is that Dana, a Black woman in contemporary California (the novel was written in 1979), finds herself being repeatedly pulled back in time to save the life of her ancestor Rufus Weylin, the scion of a white slave-owning family in Maryland. The first time she meets him, it’s 1815, and they encounter each other again and again over the next few decades, every time his life is endangered and Dana is summoned out of the future to rescue him. Dana’s white husband, Kevin, is also pulled into the past at one point, and his experiences there are–by virtue of the colour of his skin and his gender–very different, although Butler is perhaps fairer than she needs to be in pointing out that Kevin, too, faces dangers in the antebellum South. Perhaps the hardest-hitting element of the novel, though, is Butler’s repeated demonstration of the ease with which enslaved people can be forced into complicity: through a fear achieved by threats of extreme bodily violence and extreme emotional torment (largely because families can be torn apart on a master’s whim at any time). Dana explicitly discusses the idea of complicity more than once, although she also recognizes coercion and rape: her ancestress, Alice Greenwood, is bought by Rufus because he is in love with her, but his love does not extend to permitting her choices about where she sleeps at night, or to freeing her children. (He does dangle the promise of freedom, though, which is partly what keeps Alice in place.) After Kindred, every other time-travel novel feels a little anaemic, a little under-examined. It’s a magnificent piece of work.

recent reading thoughts: I’ve been very slow this month, so far. I’m blaming it on the anxiety of moving and a lot of weekend activities. At the moment I’m nearly finished with Where the Crawdads Sing, which I don’t love, although I’m warming up to it now that the trial has commenced. More on that next week.

Reading Diary: 1 Sept.-6 Sept.

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste: Some books have blurbs that barely touch the surface of their actual contents and concerns. Sometimes this is avoidable, but often it isn’t, and The Shadow King strikes me as one of the latter kind. It is mainly focused on Hirut, one of the Ethiopian women who became soldiers during the country’s war with fascist Italy in 1935, but her military training and experiences are in the background compared with the novel’s interest in her relationship with Aster and Kidane, a couple who previously employed (/owned) her thanks to an unclear but close relationship between her mother and Kidane’s father, and who eventually command her in battle. Consequently, The Shadow King can seem to take rather a long time to get going, and occasionally loses the primary thrust of its story—the Ethiopian resistance to a particular Italian officer, Colonel Carlo Fucelli—in digressions. There are sections told from Fucelli’s perspective, for instance, as well as through the eyes of Ettore Navarra, an Italian Jewish war photographer whose safety from Rome’s increasingly murderous anti-Semitic policies is assured as long as he obeys orders, but who feels increasingly disgusted and torn by the atrocities he is asked to document. (Fucelli, in a Bond-villain-esque but no doubt completely historically accurate fashion, likes to execute Ethiopian prisoners by pushing them off of a high cliff.) Ettore and Hirut, we know, meet again after the war, and a few flash-fowards to 1974 show us the moments leading up to their uneasy reunion.

Mengiste writes with great attention to simile and metaphor, and is especially interested in qualities of light and shadow, but while this sometimes results in moments of great poetic beauty, at other times it simply obscures the action. (There were at least half a dozen instances at chapter endings where I wasn’t sure what had actually taken place and what was simply a character musing). Finally, we hear from the Emperor Haile Selassie, haunted by guilt over his daughter’s death at the hands of her brutal husband, and over his abandonment of his country to live in exile in Bath for six years. In Selassie’s sections, Mengiste’s dreamy style works extremely well, breaking down barriers between sanity and illusion, past and present. The novel is told, I have no doubt, the way its author wanted to tell it, but the sense that it could have been tighter makes me wonder if some of the desired effect has been lost.

Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore: This is not for the faint of heart; the inciting incident of the plot is a brutal rape and beating of a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl, and because the book takes place in West Texas in 1974, you can be assured that justice, in the traditional sense of the word, is not exactly served. However, the book is not so much about the attack on Gloria Ramirez and its aftermath as it is about the lives of the women who live on the edge of the oilfields, their joys and vulnerabilities, the ways in which a boom can mean economic prosperity but also always means increasing numbers of women hurt, missing or dead, as restless and reckless men flood into the area for work. Gloria (or Glory, as she renames herself) opens the book, in a taut and terrifying first chapter where she wakes in the desert and walks away from the truck where her attacker lies drunkenly sleeping, thereby saving her own life. After that, the perspective switches between several other women, some of whom get fairly short shrift: Suzanne Ledbetter and Karla Sibley, for instance, only narrate one chapter each, although through them we understand much more about the putting-on-a-brave-face school of West Texas womanhood, the awful pride and the unspeakable pain. Corrine Shepard, formerly a high school English teacher, is one of the most successful narrators, a spiky and gloriously unlikeable woman in the vein of Olive Kitteridge whose beloved husband Potter, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has just killed himself. The chapter describing the state of Corrine’s and Potter’s marriage after the birth of their daughter—her struggle to go back to work, his reluctance but ultimate capitulation—is perfectly judged, conveying the social and professional limitations of women in the 1950s and the ways in which the era we inhabit blinkers us, even as it also demonstrates that their relationship was unusual, beautiful, and eventually stronger for having been tested. That chapter might be the highlight of the book, though the chapters narrated by Mary Rose Whitehead, a young rancher’s wife who is the first to see Gloria Ramirez after the rape and who is determined to testify in court on her behalf, are also wonderful and frightening. Were I to have a complaint, it might be that the abundance of narrators seems a little unnecessary and can contribute to a sense of un-focus, but then Valentine is not nearly as plot-centric as its blurb suggests, and that is no bad thing. If you liked Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, this should be on your TBR.

Reading Diary: 24 August-30 August

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams: I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the dictionary–a series of entirely invented words scattered throughout its text–becomes her problem, as her boss instructs her to find and remove them before the whole thing is digitized. Winceworth, meanwhile, we learn, is inserting the words as a means of relieving his feelings, both about his place of work and about the enigmatic fiancee of his most unbearable colleague. Williams’s style really carries the book, with a kind of madcap yet melancholy glee, and a glorying in words–not in a wishy-washy oh-the-wonder-of-language sort of way, but in a way that takes a very Edwardian pleasure in precision and elegance. The plot in the contemporary sections becomes increasingly frenetic, but that felt somehow right; both narratives possess a kind of surreal sheen, which led a colleague to compare the book, in a way, to Wodehouse’s work (though much more conscientious and less privileged). I loved The Liar’s Dictionary and found it heartbreaking at the same time; it’s just the right level of weird for me.

Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes: It’s an old adage of criticism that it’s easier to write about something you hated than something you loved. I loved Scabby Queen, and I’m going to try to write about it anyway. It opens with the death of fifty-one-year-old Clio Campbell, who achieved moderate levels of fame as a protest singer in the ’90s and who has just overdosed on pills and vodka in the flat of her long-suffering (and, we realize, taken-advantage-of) friend Ruth. Over the next three hundred pages, various people who entered and exited Clio’s life—her godfather, a music journalist half in love with her, several women who lived in a Brixton squat with her, someone she only met once on a train—give their perspectives on a woman whose relentless political activism and manipulative social charm were both entrancing and infuriating. It’s very rare, especially now, to get a look at both sides of activism, particularly historic activism: the genuineness of early-days-of-a-better-world idealism mixed with what can be a disturbing willingness to sacrifice whatever gets in the way. Innes nails that balance, and nails her portrait of Clio, who becomes increasingly more difficult to sympathize with but also increasingly nuanced: by the end, when her suicide note is revealed, her motives seem simultaneously obtuse and entirely in keeping with what we know of her. I suspect people who remember the ’90s and early ’00s as adults will find even deeper resonances in Scabby Queen’s political aspects. I loved them, but what I loved most was Innes’s brilliance at characterization. Like Daisy Jones and the Six, an oblique approach to a central character through the people whose lives they affected results in something both tough and touching, and utterly without condescension.

The Odyssey, by Homer: I’d never actually read it! Isn’t that weird? It must be the case for quite a lot of people. The stories are so familiar from excerpted children’s versions and adaptations that we feel as though we have. Anyway, I think the primary thing to be aware of while you’re reading is the very different weight and pacing present in the poem. The first four books are about Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who embarks on his own short journey to find out more about where his missing father could be; Odysseus himself doesn’t appear until book five, by which point he’s already lost all of his ships and companions to various disasters and is reduced to telling the tale of his adventures to the friendly Phaeacian court during books nine to twelve. (Interestingly, Doug Metzger suggests on his podcast Literature and History that these books are no more likely to be “true”, within the world of the poem, than any of the other lies Odysseus tells about his origins. I’d contest that, since much of that lying is done in order to protect himself upon his return to Ithaca, which is essentially an occupied territory, but I love the idea: we’ve only Odysseus’s word to say that the Lotus-eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the journey to the underworld, the Cyclops episode, etc., actually happened at all, and he’s a notorious fibber.) They send him back home under escort in book thirteen, and the entire second half of the poem is about him regaining his property, murdering the men who’ve been harassing his wife, and Telemachus’s coming of age.

It’s known as an adventure/travel poem, but it’s very much more, I think, a poem about restitution, espousing a fundamentally socially conservative view of the world’s proper order. (It’s Tom Jones. Or rather, Tom Jones is the Odyssey. Hey!) For all that, it’s much more engaging to me personally than the Iliad was, perhaps because the emotional atmosphere is much more immediately identifiable for a reader who’s never been to war. Be warned: the final books are brutal. Margaret Atwood’s poem A Chorus Line neatly sums up the breathtaking hypocrisy of the murder of the maids (from one perspective; from another, of course—that socially conservative one the poem partakes of—Odysseus is merely ensuring that loyalty to his person and his dynasty, even when they’re not present, is the order of the day. Fascinating how that always seems to involve punishing women. I wonder if the housekeeper Eurycleia, who eagerly provides her returned master with the names of maids who’ve “behaved shamefully” in his absence, was a model for Aunt Lydia.) Anyway, the Oxford World’s Classics edition I read was translated by Anthony Verity and is, from a non-classicist’s perspective, excellent; you get a good sense of the original Greek’s use of repetition, but not so much so that it’s annoying, and thank God Verity does not attempt to match an antique meter or rhyme scheme. If you’re relatively new to antique poetry, I’d recommend this edition particularly: the end notes are also good and there’s a handy index of first names in the back.

Reading Diary: 17 August-23 August

Descendant of the Crane, by Joan He: This ancient Chinese-inspired fantasy novel isn’t my usual fare, but it’ll be somebody else’s cup of tea, without question. Princess Hesina’s father, the king, has just been killed, and she is determined to find out by whom. But with a wily Minister of Rites, a kingdom so terrified of magic that it slaughtered all (spoilers: not quite) of its “sooths” three centuries ago, and invasion threats from the neighbouring country of Kendi’a, finding the murderer is the least of Hesina’s problems. This, in turn, presents the reader with a problem: there are so many plot strands fighting for primacy that it’s difficult to know where to place one’s attention and investment, and He’s characters, while endearing, also perform a lot of cliched actions. Hesina is constantly blushing, gasping, fighting for breath, inwardly cursing, feeling her throat constrict, and so on. (A lot of this overcooked rhetoric is respiratory, now that I think of it. I wonder why authors go for it so often?) The characters’ reactions frequently slow the pace of the action; when the dead king’s tomb is opened, whole paragraphs go by in lavish descriptions of bafflement before we’re told what Hesina and her peremptory love interest Akira are actually seeing. It’s a lot of fun–it reminds me forcefully of the fantasy novel I spent much of my pre-teen years writing, which was sort of equal parts Tolkien, Pierce and Pascal–and it sets up a sequel, which I wouldn’t spurn if it was offered to me, but there’s definitely a sense of too much material, not quite tightly enough controlled.

The Searcher, by Tana French: A new French novel is always cause for celebration. The Searcher (out in November; my copy is from Netgalley) continues her move away from the traditional cop protagonists that characterized her first six books, although it’s kind of a lateral move: here, our investigator is an ex-policeman and an American ex-policeman at that, Cal Hooper, formerly of the Chicago PD. Chicago is fairly notorious for police violence, and Hooper’s experience reflects both the truth and the nuance of that: he has never killed an unarmed young black man, but an incident where his partner nearly does so is ultimately what pushes him into early retirement. A divorce and a move to rural Ireland later, he hopes to find peace and quiet in the country, but is instead recruited by a young kid, Trey, whose brother Brendan has gone missing, and who demands that Cal find out where Brendan is.

The Searcher is as beautifully written as all of French’s books, but what it lacks, for want of a better word, is a sense of intoxication. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The professional detectives in her early books love their job, they live and breathe it, and that sense of drive, passion, righteousness, infuses their appreciation of the world around them and of human relationships within it. As French’s career has matured, her characters’ perceptions have too. Cal isn’t quite the hard-bitten cynic he considers himself, but his understanding of social dynamics, of how we fit in with each other, has less flash and snap than, say, Cassie Maddox’s or even Scorcher Kennedy’s; more resignation and determination. It’s a mystery novel for grownups, this–which isn’t to say that it’s excessively violent or disturbing, but rather that both French and her characters are increasingly interested in how to behave when the right thing and the correct thing are not the same. (Cal and Trey have a fantastic conversation about the difference between etiquette, manners and morals that sums up what I think French is getting at throughout the entire book.) A really promising turn for her. I can’t wait to read more.

In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki: A rather lovely little essay on aesthetics (sort of, I guess?), clocking in at well under 100 pages but published on its own by Vintage Classics. Tanizaki was a 20th-century Japanese novelist who produced, amongst other things, the magnificent The Makioka Sisters, which has always reminded me very strongly of Jane Austen’s work, with its similar cultural context of a high value placed on reputation, limited economic options for middle-class women, and a codified (and coded) set of behaviours, from which deviation cannot be tolerated by polite society. In Praise… is a different beast: here, Tanizaki explores the distinction between a Western prioritization of light (specifically electric light) in design, and a traditional Japanese preference for “the pensive lustre” over “the shallow brilliance”. His arguments are both wide-ranging (he touches on toilet design, the unique properties of jade, why Japanese cuisine really must be eaten by candelight to be properly appreciated, and the allure of half-hidden women in old-fashioned brothels, amongst many other things), and intriguing in their engagement with cultural imperialism: he posits, for instance, that technologies such as mass-produced paper and modern interior lighting would look completely different worldwide had they been invented by the Japanese instead of Westerners (and mainly Americans). It’s a thoughtful and surprisingly profound piece of work; I’m glad I picked it up on a whim.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: This tale of corruption, scandal and decadence is one of those books I constantly thought I’d read (and everyone else seemed to have done in school) but hadn’t actually, until this week. The Penguin clothbound edition is good because it contains the introduction by Robert Mighall from the paperback, which dwells on Wilde’s revisions between the original publication (in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890) and the slightly longer printed-book version (1891). These were largely made in order to tone down the overt homoeroticism of the original material, which, I have to say, is blatant if not absolutely screaming. Basil Hallward, the painter who becomes obsessed with Dorian’s physical beauty, speaks repeatedly of “adoring” him, of being “jealous” and “romantic”; the Mephistophelean Lord Henry Wotton, who turns both Dorian’s head and his soul, mocks Hallward’s devotion in terms that render it explicitly romantic, but clearly desires erotic domination over Dorian himself, and encourages the latter to practice that same domination on other impressionable young men. The interpolated revenge-plot material focusing on James Vane is not especially interesting or good (it feels like the third-rate subplot of a Dickens novel; all the big ones have got one of those), and the scenes in high society… well, I tend not to like those even in Wilde’s plays; here they strike me as simultaneously silly and mean-spirited. The supernatural element of the book (the whole portrait scapegoat thing) is actually the least dwelt-upon, since Wilde is really more interested in philosophizing upon Art, Morals, and the relationship between the two (in Wilde’s ideal world, none). Divertingly grotesque, though.

Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler: I had a rather rough afternoon on Friday and a friend suggested I pick up a YA fantasy novel, which usually soothes and resets me; when I told her I was halfway through this, she described it as “almost laughably the opposite” of soothing, which is true. It takes place during the Moscow show trials of 1936-8, during which Stalin purged most of the historic leadership of the Communist Party—”purge” being a light word for imprisonment, solitary confinement, torment, humiliation, forced confession, and execution. The protagonist here is Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who has done some bad things in his time but who has become disillusioned with Soviet propaganda and ideology as a result of Stalin’s rule, and who is consequently imprisoned. Much of the novel is about Rubashov’s own struggle to determine whether he was right or wrong in his dedication to the Revolution as a younger man: if he was right, the only validation he’ll receive is from posterity, decades after he’s gone; if he was wrong, as he puts it, “I’ll pay.” And pay he does, in the end, as we know he will right from the beginning. The intimacy Koestler achieves in charting his psychological journey, however, is exceptional, disturbing, and moving. The evocation of prison—and particularly the solidarity shown between prisoners, even those who thoroughly disagree with each other ideologically—is perhaps the strongest part of a very strong book: the scenes where Rubashov and his neighbour in cell 402 tap out messages to each other, where Rubashov is initiated into the prison tradition of hammering on one’s cell door in percussive salute each time a fellow inmate is taken away for execution, and where finally Rubashov and 402 have their last conversation, will haunt me for a long time.

Reading Diary: 10 August-16 August

Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, by Johny Pitts: Pitts’s travelogue-cum-social/cultural history won the Jhalak Prize in 2020 for best book by an author of colour published in the UK, and it’s easy to see why. With immense grace, curiosity and goodwill, he spends about six months traveling continental Europe in search of the continent’s black communities, and specifically those who have forged a new identity as hybrid citizens, both African and European. His quest takes him from the alarmingly bleak suburb Clichy-sous-Bois outside of Paris, cynically patronized and abandoned by politicians, to the warmly welcoming bustle of Surinamese cafes and black cultural centres in Berlin, to an altogether more baffling experience in the museum of imperial history in Brussels which elides Belgium’s colonial atrocities altogether. Pitts is rather like a more understanding, less crotchety Bill Bryson; his eye for the spirit of a place, and his ability to convey the essence of an experience, is the same. If he sacrifices Bryson’s frequently snort-worthy comic observations for a rather deeper and more earnest approach to travel, frankly, I don’t mind (especially as the former’s observations often come at the expense of poor people, provincial people, fat people, and/or women; this is a sad thing you notice about Bryson as you get older). Pitts’s respect and, usually, affection, for his subjects’ lives opens doors: a wandering, shouting, apparently mad old African man in Moscow turns out to be a former anti-apartheid activist who last saw his parents forty years previously and knows they were too old then to still be living now. Pitts gains his story by not fleeing or ignoring him, as everyone else in the vicinity does. Afropean is gorgeous and bittersweet, and also provides perfect armchair travel; I can’t speak more highly for it.

Sisters, by Daisy Johnson: I read this in one evening, prompted by the rapturous reviews of two of my colleagues, and found it lived up fully to their praise. It may even be better (for my money) than Johnson’s Everything Under, although, like the former book, it promises an explanation only to complicate things with an ending that again blurs the line between fantasy and reality, fiction and sanity and the supernatural. It focuses on the two titular sisters, July and September, who are as close to twins as it’s possible to be without actually being so: born ten months apart, they both aren’t each other and fiercely identify with each other. This is compounded by September’s need to dominate and control her younger sister: halfway through the novel, we discover that they share a single mobile phone, and they often play a disturbing game called September Says, where July has to hurt herself. Presented to us through July’s eyes, these controlling actions often seem plausible for a time; July has internalized her sister’s behaviour, as so many children do, and understands it as a bond of love. The book opens as the pair and their mother move to a remote house in Yorkshire—where both their abusive, now-dead father and September were born—to escape a catastrophe that has occurred at the girls’ school in Oxford, but there’s something wrong with the house: footsteps where no person can be, shattering lightbulbs, a patch of paint on a wall that both absorbs July’s exploratory finger and explodes outward, pouring ants onto the floor. Body horror and the grotesque are well represented here along with psychological horror and illness, in a manner reminiscent of Shirley Jackson. The denouement, in which we discover what really happened at school, is perfectly paced (I worked it out at just the right moment), and the final few chapters leave a disturbing taste of ambiguity that feels bravely appropriate. A perfect novel for the electric, humid dog days of a difficult summer.

Cane Warriors, by Alex Wheatle: Out in October, this new novel from garlanded children’s/YA author Wheatle takes as its focus Tacky’s Rebellion, a historic slave revolt that occurred in Jamaica in 1760 and shook British colonial confidence so badly that a raft of new, brutally repressive laws were passed subsequently, including a law that outlawed the practice of obeah in the island. Our protagonist is fourteen-year-old Moa, the youngest member of the rebellion (a historical invention, I believe, though probably representative of many other young men who fought with Tacky). Through Moa’s eyes, we understand the fears and motives of the fighters: he is particularly worried for his mother, younger sister, and beloved friend Hamaya, who will soon be of an age to start being sexually abused by slavemasters and white overseers. Tacky (or Takyi), who led the rebellion, was said to have been a king in his village, and he is portrayed as a strong, natural leader here, as is Keverton, Moa’s slightly older friend and fellow fighter. My only reservation was a sense of distance from the characters; I can’t put my finger on what made it so, but it might simply be that I’m not the primary audience for this book, either in age group or in racial heritage. Certainly I think that a YA novel largely narrated in patois and detailing a heroic assertion of independence not habitually taught in schools is exactly the sort of book that publishing needs to champion, and exactly the sort of narrative young readers need to hear, and Wheatle is an accomplished pair of hands.

Reading Diary: 2 August – 9 August

This was a format that worked well for quite a long time a few years ago, and maybe it’ll be a little more manageable than a monthly roundup. It’ll also have the distinct advantage of forcing me to a) post more than once a month, so you won’t forget I exist, and b) corral my thoughts about books fairly recently after finishing them, instead of getting to the end of the month and trying to remember it all at once.

The Habsburgs: the Rise and Fall of a World Power, by Martyn Rady: I read this in proof so unfortunately did not get to glory in the finished edition’s excellent front cover. It’s also not necessarily my usual bag, but I picked it up because I knew a lot of my customers would be keen and I wanted to make up my own mind. And it’s excellent! Rady has about nine hundred years of history to distill into <350 pages, and does so masterfully; the occasional confusion about dynasties (so many Ferdinands!), genealogies, and religious affiliations were mostly easily resolved by consulting the multi-century family trees in the front of the book. (A lot of family-tree typos in the proof copy, though; more “Emporers” than you can shake a stick at. Presumably these have been dealt with in the finished version.) The chapters are a perfect length: long enough to provide an overview of a topic or period, short enough to feel manageable and give a pleasing sense of progress. And although Rady is a historian, not a comedian, he clearly has a keen sense of the ridiculous (such as the attempts to cure a particularly mad scion by forcing him to sleep with the mummified corpse of a saint, which–surprise–did not work). His style is light but not lightweight, witty but not intrusive, and intelligent but highly readable. The topic is also less Eurocentric than I’d imagined: the Habsburgs presided over the first genuinely global empire, with outposts in Latin America thanks to their Spanish connection as well as the occasional foray into Southeast Asia (who knew?!) and Africa (likewise). Highly, highly recommended.

Grace Will Lead Us Home, by Jennifer Berry Hawes: This was my next audiobook choice and it was a very good one – I was guided by the fact that it won an Audie Award for Best General Nonfiction. It is an account not only of the massacre of nine Black worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church in 2016, but of what followed: the national and local responses, the arrest and trial of Dylann Roof, and the incredibly painful journey of the survivors and the bereaved. This last is probably the most powerful element of the book. Although forgiveness was the watchword that got picked up by media when one of the survivors told Roof she forgave him just days later, this was not an easy or a universal response. Particularly tragic is the story of the husband of one of the murdered women, who returned from a merchant marine job halfway across the world and sank into depression, bitterness and apathy without his wife’s leavening presence. You find yourself unable to blame him, really. Roof is described about as objectively as possible—we learn about him through his actions and his reactions to his family and police—but it is highly evident that there is something wrong with him, perhaps undiagnosable, perhaps simply the manifestation of evil. A hard book but a very necessary one, and one that gives dignity and complexity to all of the actors in this horrible episode in American history.

Lot, by Bryan Washington: Washington’s debut connected-story collection focuses on the lives of Black and Latinx characters in Houston, Texas. About half of them focus on a particular young man who goes unnamed, but whose uneasy relationship with his family and his burgeoning sexuality is the focus of most of the stories in this main thread. Others, like “South Central” and “Waugh”, are snapshots of different individuals struggling to maintain integrity—or just survive—in a city beset by gentrification, poverty and racism. “Waugh” in particular is appallingly moving, its protagonist Poke a young prostitute forced to reckon with his pimp and protector’s HIV-positive status. It’s the story in which a cultural emphasis on the implicit, the unspoken or unarticulated emotion, is most evident. Elsewhere, our unnamed narrator’s uber-masculine brother Javi teaches him “what happens to faggots”, his father takes him on a visit to his “plainer than plain” mistress, his sister marries to get out of the neighborhood, and his mother suffers as gentrification forces her to give up the family restaurant. Washington’s prose style is clipped and succinct, which often creates a perhaps unintentional sense of emotional distance, but the final chapter—in which the narrator at last decides to commit to a romantic relationship with a man instead of the no-strings-attached sex he’s allowed himself up til now—holds out a delicate hope for fulfillment that only a rock could fail to find heartrending.

Set My Heart to Five, by Simon Stephenson: The premise here is perhaps cringey to a certain type of reader: in a near future containing “driverless ubers” but no New Zealand (casualty of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, apparently), Jared, a bot who looks exactly like a human but whose brain is a biological computer and who has no emotions, begins to develop feelings, along with a taste for classic movies. Pursued by an incompetent but dogged jobsworth from the Bureau of Robotics, he flees his comfortable, sterile dental practice in Ypsilanti for Los Angeles, intending to write and direct a movie that will change the way the world feels about bots. So far, perhaps, so cute (an impression backed up by Jared’s relentlessly slangy narration: “10/10” and “I cannot!” being but two of his many catchphrases). But what makes this stand out as more than just a big-hearted underdog novel with futuristic set dressing is its obsession, nay its love affair, with film tropes—which are, of course, storytelling tropes—and by way of which Jared comments, both explicitly and unconsciously, upon his own quest. I wrote “underdog” up there, for instance; Jared knows he’s in a quest story, and he knows how the logic of such stories works. He knows that Inspector Ryan Bridges of the Bureau of Robotics is his nemesis, and that (as per RP McWilliam’s Twenty Golden Rules of Screenwriting, a text he treats with reverence) coincidences should only occur in order to create obstacles, not to smooth the hero’s path. This incredible circular knowingness—a story about stories, and who gets to tell them, and how they can be hijacked (there’s a great subplot about an unscrupulous Hollywood producer), which also knows it’s a story, and comments on that, and the comments are both an integral part of the story and reinforce its thematic meaning—is quite brilliant, and further reinforced by form, as sections of the book are typeset to resemble a film script. If this all sounds a bit precious, please trust me when I say that it is not. There is something perfect and painful about Jared’s first viewing of Blade Runner, for instance—quite deliberately a movie about whether robots are people—or about his being reassured that the people sailing on Lake Michigan during inclement weather probably don’t want rescuing, because humans actually enjoy illogical risk. Not to mention his unexpected side trip to Las Vegas with a lonely, self-deluding fellow train traveler (who happens to hate bots), or the way he falls in love. Set My Heart to Five is poignant, funny, light on its feet, and very, very sharp. By the end, I felt—as Jared hears a famous screenwriter say—as though I’d been “f-worded in the heart”; I can’t recommend it more highly.

Remain Silent, by Susie Steiner: This is the third of Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw novels, and may be her last—she was recently diagnosed with what seems to be (going from her Twitter and the Acknowledgments page here) a pretty aggressive cancer. Bradshaw (or Manon, as most everyone in the books calls her) has always been an extraordinary creation: grumpy, dogged, keen on a custard cream, not so keen on buzzwords or bullshit. Here her smallest child is a toddler, her older boy Fly—adopted in an earlier novel—is about to sit GCSEs, her partner may or may not be terminally ill, and she is staring at the settlings, losses and alterations of middle age. The crime, on the other hand, could hardly be more contemporary: a dead immigrant hanging from a tree in Cambridgeshire, a note reading “The dead cannot speak” pinned to his clothing. Because this is a crime novel, of course nothing about it adds up, and of course Manon is determined to get to the bottom of it all. Steiner tells the story in a pretty effective multi-POV fashion, switching from the present (narrated alternately by Manon and by her deputy, Davy) to “Before” (narrated by Matis, best friend of the dead man, and Elise, a local girl whose father is a frothing xenophobe abetted by, and fawningly besotted with, a Nigel Farage analogue). Davy’s presence in the book is an interesting leaven to what could otherwise easily be a one-note political set-up: we know Manon has no time for Little England, National Front bollocks, for she tells us so frequently and forthrightly, but Davy is a white man of precarious status approaching middle age and his internal monologues often muse on the anger he sees in these men. He doesn’t quite agree with them, but he understands them, and in some moments even sympathizes, and through his eyes we can understand them too. Or at least understand how other people can understand. The solution to the murder is actually quite ingenious: it struck me as both believable and appalling, which is no mean feat for crime fiction. The believability rests on Steiner’s work with characterization, which she’s remarkably good at; if there is a slight wobble of “would someone really…?”, it’s covered by the fact that most of the other characters wonder that, too. If this is the last Manon Bradshaw book, it will be a very great loss: she is really one of the most exceptionally idiosyncratic characters—let alone detective characters—currently being written, and I would miss her. Let’s hope she rides again.

currently reading: Afropean, by Johny Pitts, which I am absolutely loving. No wonder it won the Jhalak Prize. More on that next week.

06. The Waters and the Wild, by DeSales Harrison

35576092I’ve always thought Benjamin Britten would have written great music for it, the Yeats poem that gives this book its title:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The poem appears in an envelope addressed to Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst who lives in New York City. Along with the poem—handwritten, in the distinctive block capitals of the woman whom Daniel loved twenty years ago in Paris, who killed herself shortly after they ended their relationship—there is a photograph of Daniel’s former patient Jessica Burke, who died in her bathtub of a heroin overdose. She is supposed to have died alone, but the photograph suggests otherwise; someone else was there, someone who knows Daniel’s life and history, and who is bent on revenge.

Daniel reveals his story through a long confession written and sent to Father Nelson Spurlock, the vicar of the church in New York that conducts Jessica Burke’s funeral. Thus, as Spurlock reads the document, we too discover the secrets that Daniel has been living with, and keeping from his daughter Clementine. By its very nature, the confessional structure is a slow reveal; it takes almost the entire book for us to learn things that Daniel knows from the start. Sometimes it’s too slow. Harrison, like Benjamin Wood, wants us to see this story as somehow special or profound. He uses as many tricks as he can to imbue the narrative with weight: heavy foreshadowing, complex or inverted sentence structure that echoes biblical or poetic phrasing, introduction of religious themes (Daniel’s beloved is on track to become a nun), and of course that Yeats poem. Again, though, I don’t see that it works, and I don’t see why it’s even necessary to reach for it: the particular sins of Daniel’s life, his failures and his lies, are so commonplace and human. They have extreme consequences—a person’s death, a child’s life—but Harrison seems to want to introduce a metaphysical significance to the events of the plot that simply isn’t supported. There is a lot about shame and guilt and God, but these things can and should be invoked and felt deeply by the characters, without necessarily being a moral framework through which the reader ought to perceive the book.

The Waters and the Wild is helped, though, by that confessional structure: you want to read it all the way through because you do—even if frustrated by Daniel’s withholding—want to know what happened in the past, and how it is affecting the present. You want, perhaps most of all, to know his level of culpability: how much is he at fault? He is a thoroughly realised character, seemingly open but concealing much, perhaps because he is deceiving himself. That particular brand of unreliability makes a nice change from the other unreliable narrators of domestic noir, who tend to be alcoholic women. The Waters and the Wild is flawed in conception and execution, but it sets its sights much higher than most other books of its genre.

A Place For Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

cover4Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place For Us, fills a niche that I haven’t seen filled very often, if at all, in mainstream contemporary fiction: it’s a dysfunctional family saga/romance set in the context of a deeply traditional, conservative, Indian Muslim community. Rafiq and Layla were married by arrangement; they have settled in California, they have three children – Hadia, Huda, and Amar – and their lives are pleasant, stable, comfortable. But as Amar starts to grow up, he finds it hard to conform to the life his parents expect of him. Meanwhile, Hadia and Huda are fighting their own battles: whether to wear the headscarf, how best to please their parents, what to do about the boys they fancy. Told mostly in flashbacks from the moment of Hadia’s wedding, to which Amar (now estranged from the entire family) is invited, A Place For Us illustrates how secrets and illusions in a family can develop over years; how easy it can be for a husband not to know his wife, for a mother not to know her daughters.

For the first third of A Place For Us, I was hoping that Mirza was really going to push the boundaries (which, if we’re honest, means I was hoping Amar was going to be gay). Eventually, I realised that she was pushing the boundaries; it is sufficiently controversial, in a conservative household, to be uncertain of your faith, to drink, to smoke, to want to escape. It’s fortunate that Rafiq and Layla, and their community, are never portrayed as oppressive caricatures. As Layla puts it, they want to be able to guide their children, and they can only guide them in what they know. But you don’t have to be a cartoon villain to represent a life that your child doesn’t want, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand how difficult, even impossible, it can be to let go of your expectations for your child’s life. Mirza balances these emotional currents with astuteness and compassion for all sides; although I hate referring to an author’s age as though it means anything, I confess to being floored by envy that she’s achieved this book at the age of twenty-six. It is perhaps too long: establishing the shifting dynamics of the family over years does take time, but it’s hard to believe that every single scene here is essential. Still, A Place For Us is a thoughtful and moving story, demonstrating that, happy or unhappy, most families are more alike than we might care to think.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up my long reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.