Reading Diary: post-hols

9781908906342-217x346Wally Funk’s Race For Space, by Sue Nelson: If there were a prize for titles so bad they’re good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by “Wally” for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women’s program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she’s got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she’ll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it’s a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn’t always sit well together. It’s hella informative, though.

9781786074447Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, by Deborah Kay Davies: This is one of those curious books that you get sometimes, that exist right smack on the boundary between genres or categories: it’s neither one thing nor the other, though sometimes it also feels like two things at once. Tirzah is growing up in the isolated Welsh valleys in the 1970s, the daughter of parents who adhere to a Christian sect so strict that I’d recommend any survivor of spiritual abuse avoid this title altogether. She’s resilient, and resists the dictates of her elders. There are aspects of her resilience, however, that seem almost like psychotic breaks (and how many young women became either saints or martyrs after reporting similar experiences?): she becomes acutely aware of the natural world, particularly in the form of a mysterious homeless boy called Bran who claims to be the servant of a crow god. When Tirzah becomes pregnant by Bran, it shakes her whole community, and the novel becomes concerned with how Tirzah can be free under these circumstances. Its weaknesses are in the plotting: it simply goes on for too long, focusing on repetitive incidents (Tirzah does some mildly rebellious thing, like go out for a walk; her parents find out; she is shamed; she cries and feels guilty; she gets a second wind of defiance; rinse and repeat). Because of the business with the crow god and wild Bran, there’s a flavour of magical realism (there’s a Welsh myth involving crows and a giant-king called Bran the Blessed), but that never seems to go anywhere, and the ending’s ambivalence about Tirzah’s mental state is less richly open to interpretation than frustratingly vague. Davies’s description of landscapes and her characterisation of young, restless women (especially Tirzah’s mother and her cousin Biddy) are both very good, but the book is too diffuse to have the power it aims for.

41jqd2jfmul-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Long Take, by Robin Robertson: The first novel-in-verse on the Man Booker shortlist (I think?) is worthy of the accolade. Robertson’s poetry, qua poetry, has made little to no impression on me, although I read Hill of Doors a few years ago. But The Long Take uses free verse to capture not only a sense of fragmentation and loss, but also the rhythms of the mid-century American city, the trauma of war, and – perhaps most impressively – the techniques of noir filmmaking. Walker, Robertson’s protagonist, is a Canadian D-Day veteran who cannot face going home: he has a girlfriend in the little fishing village from whence he came, but he can’t imagine a world in which she deserves to be burdened with him. First in New York, then in LA and San Francisco, he finds work as a newspaper journalist, chronicling the growth of the cities (which, in LA, is synonymous with slum clearances and the building of highways) and the situation of the homeless men, many of them veterans, who clog the city streets. It’s a tad inconclusive, or rather, the conclusion Robertson reaches is the result of a process that the free verse may obscure slightly: with more words, with more elaboration, we might feel we’ve been with Walker all the way, whereas the effect of The Long Take is rather more a series of vignettes. It might well read differently to someone who knows more about the history of noir. Worth a punt, though.

heavy-9781501125652_lgHeavy, by Kiese Laymon: This is the first of two memoirs by black men that I’ve read in the past few weeks. Laymon’s context is American. He is the child of a single mother from Mississippi, a brilliant woman whose tenacity and academic achievements were matched only by her high expectations for her son and her punishing disappointment (often physically; in the memoir, she strikes young Kiese a lot) when he doesn’t match up. The book is roughly chronological, tracing Laymon’s struggles with weight, addiction, desire, and how best to be a man, from childhood on up to his professorship at Vassar. He is clear and uncompromising about the role that abuse plays in shaping young black men and women: physical abuse, such as his mother hitting him, and sexual abuse, the first scene of which occurs when he is a child in a neighbour’s house where a slightly older girl, Layla, is made to go into a bedroom with three “big boys”. Laymon is queasily but precisely aware of power and coercion even as a very  young child, and his strength in this memoir is in showing us how hard it is to win when the body – as they say – really does keep the score. Things fall apart a little near the end; the book as a whole is addressed to his mother, and as he begins to wrap up, the text begins to feel like a monologue, with some of the problems of  repetition and obscurity that that suggests. It is, however, an outrageously good and visceral piece of writing, and in its detail, it clarifies so much about black lives in America. (Particularly illuminating is the fact that each of Laymon’s paychecks gets parceled out to more than half a dozen relatives in need, so that despite a regular salary, he often finds himself living hand to mouth.) White people should read this; non-Americans should read it too. Laymon is a clear successor to Roxane Gay.

original_400_600Handel in London, by Jane Glover: This is going to be the best high-end Christmas book ever. From the joyful cover to the fact that the font isn’t too small, from the canny summaries of every opera and oratorio Handel wrote to the insightful but not distractingly detailed musical analysis, Handel in London might well have been tailored specifically for the genteel-music-lover market, and their Christmas needs. It’s also fun to read about the various difficulties involved in putting on operas in England in the early eighteenth century: they’ve always had an image problem, apparently, as they were generally considered to be too “exotic” and fancy for honest, simple English tastes. (That they were sung in a foreign language seems to have been the primary problem.) Singer drama, meanwhile, takes up a large portion of Handel’s time. (There is that glorious story about Francesca Cuzzoni refusing to perform an aria, to which Handel replied, “Madam, I see that you are a true devil – but I am Beelzebub, chief of devils”, and then threatened to fling her out of a window. Glover also recounts the weirdly manufactured rivalry between Cuzzoni and another soprano, Faustina; the two women appear to have mostly gotten along just fine, until nascent celebrity culture and the press whipped up a story about their being bitter enemies.) If I have one complaint, it’s that, although we get a great sense of what Handel was doing at any given moment in his life (and he was always doing a lot), it’s much harder to imagine what the inside of the man’s head might have been like. But then, his letters just don’t seem to be very revealing, and it’s obvious that he was both brilliant and almost obsessively hard-working. Highly recommended.

7112zfwmgglNormal People, by Sally Rooney: This is much, much preferable to Conversations With Friends, to my mind. Rooney follows two teenagers from Sligo, Marianne and Connell, as they enter into a secret relationship at school, break up, go to the same university, and spend the next three years on a faintly agonising will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster. The class difference (they meet because Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner) creates a strange power dynamic, but so does the fact that Marianne is considered a social outcast at school, Connell’s physical beauty, her absolute dedication to him, and (only revealed later) her interest in BDSM. That makes explicit what Rooney has been getting at all along: that Normal People is about exploring power imbalances, in ways that are both healthy and not so. (It’s to Rooney’s credit that the BDSM isn’t painted as a Bad Thing per se; what feels icky about it is that we know Marianne feels she deserves no better than violence, as opposed to it being an avenue of exploration and pleasure for her.) The novel reminded me a lot of Belinda McKeon’s Tender, also about two young people at university in Dublin and their painful, tumultuous relationship. I still prefer McKeon’s book because she never looks away, whereas Rooney chooses to illuminate Marianne and Connell through vignettes, but that’s a stylistic thing.

9781408889183The Life and Times of a Very British Man, by Kamal Ahmed: Ahmed is the BBC chief economics editor, and as such is a pretty well-known name and face. His memoir is not unlike Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish), which was published earlier this year and is just out in paperback now: both Hirsch and Ahmed seek to explore the peculiar feeling of being a light-skinned or mixed-race person in Britain today, with the legacy of violence in the 1970s and ’80s still fresh, but with children for whom Britain will increasingly be a nation of brown faces. Ahmed’s book convinces me less, partly because his interpolation of statistics and political truths into the story of his life feels less organic than Hirsch’s (and Hirsch writes more fluidly), and partly because he subscribes to the idea that we all just need to listen to each other. Technically speaking, of course, he’s not wrong, but his assumption that people can meet each other at a table “as equals” is startling, given that institutional racism very much still exists; people of colour, not only in Britain but also in America and Europe, are under a weight of suspicion, lack of opportunity, lack of generational wealth, lack of access to the establishment, that their white counterparts don’t have to struggle against in quite the same way, even if they’re poor or working-class white people. No one is coming to this putative table to listen to each other without their context. I think perhaps this is a generational thing; people my age seem much more likely to acknowledge that not only are we not all dealt comparable hands, but that addressing that imbalance ought to be an integral part of any kind of policy development.

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Reading Diary: oh dear, part three (holiday reading)

I went to Brussels in the middle of this month. There was no real reason to do this, apart from the fact that I had the time to take a week-long holiday, and I fancied going somewhere Abroad, and Brussels happened to be the city to which I could most cheaply transport myself. (£50 each way on the Eurostar. Even Easyjet flights to places like Malta were more expensive.) It was also the first proper, avowed holiday which I have taken alone. As such, I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but I brought five books, the notebook containing the section of my novel that I’m working on right now, and my laptop, and prepared to spend some time figuring out how much tourism vs. relaxation I actually wanted to do.

In the event, I tourist-ed for three and a half days (Grand Place, the Mont des Arts, the cathedral, various chocolatiers, Parc Josaphat, and the Horta Museum) and spent the rest of the week reading in the sunshine on my Airbnb’s terrace, writing in a coffee shop near the Horta Museum and in my Airbnb, taking very long baths, being intimidated by the local butcher, and bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Most importantly, I wrote over a thousand words a day, and finished all the books I brought with me (the last one on the Eurostar home, so my back-up book, Villette, was unnecessary).

61s2b5egxvtl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Frost in May, by Antonia White: The first book ever to be published as a Virago Classic, and (according to Elizabeth Bowen) “not the only school story to be a classic, but…the only one that is a work of art.” Its protagonist is Nanda Gray, whose father has recently converted to Catholicism and who is sent to a Catholic convent school, where she is permanently treated as a second-class citizen, albeit one who might (eventually) be redeemable. The story follows fairly closely the events of White’s own early life, and she captures with the extreme clarity of adolescence (and of trauma) the emotional terrorism visited upon the girls of the school by the nuns. Anyone who has been manipulated by an authority figure will find Frost in May both disturbing and familiar. Nanda’s eventual disgrace is also the mechanism of her freedom, although she may not realise it. This might, now that I think about it, have been very interesting to read alongside Villette, also a school story intensely concerned with surveillance, privacy, and autonomy.

91pgumjkzvlKintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: One of the most challenging, and therefore most instructive, aspects of reading fiction that was not originally designed with a Western market in mind is that there are things Western readers expect with regards to narrative structure and characterisation. When those expectations are swerved, as in Kintu they frequently are, it presents an opportunity to examine the lukewarm reaction this provokes in a reader and to consider how growing up in different cultures affects how we tell stories and what we demand from them. Kintu is the story of a curse placed upon a historic Ganda chief for failing to properly bury his adopted son, who is biologically from another tribe. This curse – or is it simply hereditary mental illness, exacerbated by guilt, poverty, and other factors? – is passed down through generations of Kintu’s descendants to the present day. What I found confusing and alienating about the novel – the interchangeability of characters’ names, the repetition of similar events with minor variations, the assumption of understanding surrounding Ganda social taboos – are clearly the very elements that comprise its strength in the context for which it was written (it was first published by Kenya’s Kwami Trust, sponsored by a leading Kenyan literary journal). This is the sort of thing that #WITMonth, for example, is for: asking you to perform a meta-analysis of the way you evaluate literary success.

9780571347018Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest novel felt particularly apt reading in the week I was in Brussels. Half of it deals with a very contemporary woman whose family and house both appear to be crumbling around her, and who is required to care not only for her new grandson (whose mother has just killed herself) but also for her dying father-in-law. The politics of care – both in the sense of emotional faultlines and in the very real sense of legislation and regulation and the heartbreaking struggles of American people to access healthcare at this point in time – are at the fore here. In the other half of the book, politics and caring are also foregrounded in the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a young schoolteacher who wishes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and who is thwarted by Landis, the man who essentially runs the company town where he lives and works. There are, of course, parallels with the Trump administration: fear of science and experts, dissemination of lies presented as truths, the ability of the rich and powerful to (literally) get away with murder. There is so much going on in both strands of the novel that perhaps elements are short-changed, like Willa’s relationship with her daughter Tig and some parts of Thatcher’s relationship with Mary Treat, the brilliant woman scientist next door who corresponds with Darwin and Asa Gray. But Kingsolver’s central metaphor illustrates perfectly that famous quote about American conflict: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And that, perhaps, the best thing we can do is bring it all down.

41li6jgb7il-_sy445_ql70_Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott: An homage to P.G. Wodehouse (as the subtitle says) has got a lot to live up to, and Ben Schott pretty admirably fills the shoes of the master here; without trying too slavishly to pastiche PGW, he manages those signature goofy similes with aplomb. (My only objection might be that his Wooster is actually not enough of an idiot.) In this outing, Wooster discovers that the Junior Ganymede Club, the organisation of gentlemen’s gentlemen to which Jeeves belongs, has in fact been functioning as an arm of British intelligence for decades, if not centuries: who, after all, is better positioned to acquire information about the great and the good (or not so good) than their butlers? (Though it is not just butlers; the Junior Ganymede, apparently, recruits from all ranks of domestic service. “Pigmen,” as Jeeves notes in one of those delightfully poker-faced asides that Wodehouse himself would be proud to have written, “have been particularly cooperative.”) The plot, such as it is, involves Jeeves and Wooster having to intercept some sort of code on its way to the carbuncular British fascist Roderick Spode, which requires a lot of careening all over the West End. There’s a particularly enjoyable chase scene through the interconnecting doors of Pall Mall’s private clubs: the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the RAC, all are name-checked. For my money, Wodehouse plotted better – he’s madcap but he’s as precise as clockwork, where Schott is a little scattergun – but it feels so churlish to complain when you’re having this much fun.

EDIT: I forgot The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick! Perhaps this is because I’ve been reading it on and off for months, on my phone, in spare moments. As most of you will probably know, it is set in a United States that lost WWII, and is now divided into several zones, mostly governed by the Japanese, who were thrown North America after the war by their victorious Nazi allies. To be perfectly honest, this on-and-off reading technique was obviously bad for this particular book, because when I picked it up properly again, none of it really hung together and I couldn’t work out what the main thrust of the story was, and when the big reveal appeared, the fact that it was so unclear whether we were in a parallel universe or what the mechanism was, exactly, was just intensely irritating. Is there a better Dick? (…shut up.)

Reading Diary: oh dear, part two (pre-hols)

Continuing with my desperate catch-up (I WILL write words about every book I read this year, I will do it if it kills me) with four titles I read at the beginning of September, before starting my holiday.

81yf15ngyelThe Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love. One to look up.

9780008307929The Ravenmaster, by Christopher Skaife: One of the more delightful memoirs of the latter half of the year (it’s out in October). Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and more specifically, the one in charge of the Tower’s ravens: legend has it that their departure will cause the kingdom to fall. It’s obviously not true (the Tower didn’t have ravens at a point in the ’40s, and we won the war, didn’t we?), but Skaife takes great joy in describing his daily routine, the awe-inspiring intelligence of corvids (they’re about as clever as a five-to-seven-year-old human child), and the Tower’s many myths and legends. I got to go on a private tour of the Tower with him, thanks to his publishers, and can confirm that he really is as jolly and eager to share knowledge as the book makes him appear. Follow him on Twitter, and pick this up for any history buffs, Anglophiles and/or bird-lovers you know this Christmas.

37281873The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, by Sarra Manning: I wang on a lot about how Vanity Fair is my favourite novel of all time and Becky Sharp is perfection (I hate being asked about favourite novels, but it’s as close to a truthful answer as I can provide). So Sarra Manning’s update of the book was destined to be read as soon as the proof was available on NetGalley. As far as rendering Thackeray’s events and characters contemporary goes, Manning does a flawless job: Becky and Amelia now meet on a reality TV show, Amelia’s father is an investment banker whose disgrace comes when he’s found to have made some dodgy deals, the Crawleys are an acting dynasty (Dame Matilda Crawley is clearly modeled on Maggie Smith, down to her role as the purse-lipped matriarch of an ITV costume drama about an aristocratic family), and Becky’s dazzling rise to fame is boosted by sponsored Instagram posts and charity fashion shows. Is the writing on Thackeray’s level? Nope. Does it matter? Not at all. Great, intelligently executed fun, and hopefully will push people to seek out the original too.

51v5sxwoybl-_sx324_bo1204203200_A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie: The community of Anglican priests is well-known for having more than its fair share of weirdos. Fergus Butler-Gallie draws back the curtain on some prime historical specimens. The back cover lists, for example, the Reverend Edward Drax Free, whose reaction to the attempts of his congregation to oust him for (amongst other things) repeated public drunkenness and stealing the lead from the church roof to sell for scrap was to lock himself in his study with “his favourite maid, a brace of pistols, and a stack of French pornography”. Eccentricity doesn’t mean awfulness, though; there’s a great charm in the vicar who insisted upon traveling only by horse (which he named Sabbatical, so that his secretary could quite honestly tell callers that the good reverend was “away on Sabbatical”), or in Launcelot Fleming, Bishop of Portsmouth, who once commandeered a Navy helicopter when he was late for services. Another one for the Anglophile, Anglican, or, indeed, eccentric of any persuasion, come Christmastime.

 

 

Reading Diary: adventures in the unknown

71t4woqu2bnlThe Three-Body Problem has one of the most intensely hard-sf covers I’ve ever seen, and although you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, I reckon in this case you’d be pretty safe. Originally written in Chinese, it’s a fascinating read not only because of the mad-as-pants plot, but because Liu is working in a cultural context that Western science fiction, and Western science fiction readers, absolutely do not have. Starting with a scene in which a professor of physics is beaten to death by a group of over-excited teenage Red Guards in front of his young daughter, Liu meticulously constructs a view of the Cultural Revolution from the inside: not just its physical brutality, but the psychological compromises it forced from every Chinese citizen. Decades later, Ye—the little girl who watched her father die—is a radio astronomer at a top secret establishment called Red Base, tasked not with military surveillance of the decadent West, but with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. When Ye intercepts a radio signal that proves alien intelligence exists, she makes a decision that dooms the human race: reasoning that humanity has proved itself incompetent to rule the planet, she invites them to conquer Earth. This is just the first of a trilogy, so a lot of it consists of stage-setting and maneuvering various bits of plot into place. The writing—not unlike some other books I’ve read in translation from Asian languages, most notably Murakami’s work—feels stilted and unidiomatic, which although frustrating makes me think that it must have something to do with the underlying structures of English vs. Chinese. Characterisation often feels like an afterthought: although Ye’s motivation for welcoming alien overlords is fairly obvious and moving, Liu’s portrayals of, e.g., a man whose girlfriend has recently committed suicide, or a highly educated but nevertheless passive wife, rings less true. However, the experience of reading The Three-Body Problem is so unlike that of reading a Western sci-fi novel—especially because Liu’s politics veer towards the libertarian, which is quite different from the Western sci-fi that’s received critical acclaim in the recent past—that it feels worthwhile just for that.

81oxlxekxxlConvenience Store Woman is absolutely as weird, dark and surreal as everyone has been saying. It’s not that there’s any brutal physical violence in it; the strangeness and discomfort comes from our own reactions to Keiko, Sayaka Murata’s protagonist, a woman whose social skills have always been on the idiosyncratic side. We might think of her as autistic, or neuro-atypical, though there’s never any attempt to diagnose her in the book. Indeed, her family and friends seem unable to understand that she’s not just being willfully weird; constant cries of “can’t you be normal?” baffle Keiko so much that, by the time she’s an adult, she’s decided to aim for social acceptance through mimicry. Most of the time, she manages it: scenes in the staff room of the convenience store where she works show us how closely she pays attention to other peoples’ facial expressions, tones of voice, and lexicons, then regurgitates them in order to fit in. But it’s not really enough; after eighteen years of convenience store life, she still isn’t married, and the demands for normalcy are returning with a vengeance. Her solution is to allow a former employee, the lost, lazy and reactionary Shiraha (he’s your basic MRA/incel/”women are factually inferior to men because the Stone Age”), to live in her flat (well, in her bathtub, technically), which makes everyone else believe they’re dating—maybe even approaching marriage. Shiraha is awful, obviously, but the point is that, this way, they might both have half a chance of fitting in. The crisis of the novel, the choice which Keiko has to make, is: can she give up the only identity that has ever made sense to her (that of a convenience store worker) in order to do that? Murata’s ending, while distinctly odd, is odd in the most joyful and true-to-character way; this is not “the new Eleanor Oliphant”, but something much stranger and, therefore, better.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Thomas Page McBee wrote an earlier book, Man Alive, about his transition; this one, Amateur, is about his attempts to learn to box in order to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden. (He did it, becoming the first trans man to box there in the process.) As its subtitle would suggest, this is fertile ground in terms of seeing questions about manhood through the lens of violence, aggression, love, and the moments where those three things can be synonymous, and the moments where they are not. It is, as I said on Instagram, a book about being a good man, and a book about punching someone in the face. McBee is especially good on moments of disorientation, where he sees himself from the outside: not just flashbacks to his changing physique, but also quieter moments when he realises he’s failed to be the ally to women that he thought he was. (There’s a particularly painful moment when he and his brother both talk over his sister despite her knowing more about the topic of discussion. There’s also a thought-provoking incident at the start of the book, where another man tries to start a fight with him on the street. He’s not targeted for being trans; the other man doesn’t register that at all. Rather, McBee sees it as emblematic of a particular kind of male anger, one that lacks the vocabulary to ask to be loved. It acts as something of a catalyst for him in his attempts to discover what kind of man he wants, or needs, to be.) For me, as a woman who has never been either sporty or masculine-presenting, the scenes in McBee’s training gym were like secret dispatches from an alien culture: the men who teach him to hit are also the men who wrap his hands and treat his cuts and pour water into his mouth. At the very end of the book, when he finally comes out to his training coach, he discovers that the coach already knows, and has only been wondering when McBee will trust him enough to say it. The technical stuff about fighting and the more personal, psychological content is beautifully intertwined (and it’s especially nice to know that McBee’s girlfriend Jess, who makes several appearances in the book, usually with a tarot deck nearby, is now his wife). A must-read, and not just for folks interested in LGBTQ writing/issues.

tempestsandslaughter_final-440x655Those of you who grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s may remember Tamora Pierce’s two YA fantasy quartets, The Song of the Lioness and The Immortals; both were what a theorist might call formative texts for me. The latter, featuring a girl called Daine who can communicate telepathically with animals and even inhabit their bodies, also features her mentor and (spoilers!) eventual lover, the mage Numair Salmalin. Tempests and Slaughter (which, by the way, is something like six years overdue) promises to be the first in a series that follows the boy who became Numair: born Arram Draper, his gift for magic prompts his merchant family to place him at the Imperial University in Carthak at the age of ten. So it is very much the sort of thing that will appeal to hard-core Tamora Pierce nostalgia fandom (a group in which I place myself), but does it hold up as an actual book? Mostly, yes. Arram’s two best friends at university, Varice and Ozorne, are familiar: they appear in Emperor Mage, the third Immortals book, and there’s some inherent tension here in knowing their eventual fates, and wondering how those characters go from being fresh-faced, clever young students to the jaded and fated adults we’ve already met. But Pierce is fairly successful at making us care for them in their own rights: Varice’s magic is very feminine-coded, which causes others to underestimate her (she’s good at food and herbs and hospitality), but she’s brilliant and kind; Ozorne, though he has readily apparent faults, is loyal and brave. The strongest part of the book is the university, which is more of a school, since it takes trainee mages as young as ten. There’s an element of Hogwarts-appeal there, and the diverse, eccentric cast of instructors are great fun. The political element of the book involves slavery, which the Carthakis practice without compunction, and which the young Arram grows to realise he cannot support, particularly as Carthaki high society places a great emphasis on gladiatorial games, which are fought entirely by slaves. As a whole, Tempests and Slaughter is too long. One of Pierce’s great gifts in her earlier books was her ability to compress years of plot into 200 pages, but the industry no longer requires brevity of YA literature—not since Harry Potter—and as a result, Pierce here has the freedom to make her point too many times. Still, the earlier books aren’t perfect either, and that’s not going to stop the legions of fans who’ve been waiting for this one.

668282The Driver’s Seat is the first of the books I checked out last weekend from my local library (which I was very excited about). I’ve read some Spark before (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry From Kensington) but didn’t really connect with it, and I have to say that The Driver’s Seat didn’t change that. Luckily, it’s so short and so twisted that it’s impossible to get bored while reading it; never has the metaphor of watching a slow-motion car crash been so apt. Lise, an office worker, takes her first holiday in nearly two decades. She buys eye-wateringly mismatched clothes in a shop, managing to insult the shopgirls while she’s at it, and flies to an unnamed Mediterranean city, perhaps Rome. These activities take up several chapters, and as they unfold it becomes progressively clearer to us that Lise is unhinged: she laughs hysterically at nothing, has a strangely imperious manner, and—most of all—she lies endlessly. In the airport she seems to be trying on identities; one minute she’s telling a fellow passenger that money has always been too tight for a holiday, and the next she’s holding forth like a seasoned traveller on the need to pack light. It’s impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers, so I won’t; suffice to say that you can only read The Driver’s Seat for the first time once. Subsequent readings might illuminate the pattern and structure of the novel, but nothing will ever make a reader forget that plot. It’s macabre and entrancing, impossible to take your eyes off. My problem with it is Lise’s complete lack of interiority. This is quite intentional on Spark’s part—we’re absolutely not meant to understand Lise’s train of thought—and it’s bound up, I think, with her Catholicism. (The grotesquerie of The Driver’s Seat reminds me in very large part of Flannery O’Connor’s work, although O’Connor’s protagonists are pretty much always more readily comprehensible than Lise is.) That particular form of storytelling doesn’t hold much interest for me. I only like O’Connor as much as I do because her characters, though extreme, make sense; they can communicate their own internal logic to us, and while it might not be our logic, we can at least see how they arrive at their conclusions. Spark has no interest in whether Lise makes sense or not. Her world in The Driver’s Seat is meticulously constructed, but cold, and therefore I think it will always leave me so, too.

a1t-uvhpoalDaisy Johnson’s Man Booker-longlisted novel, Everything Under, is also hard to discuss without giving things away. It is, essentially, not a retelling but a re-working of a Greek myth, and once you work out which myth, everything about the plot falls into place. That’s not to say it’s arid or formulaic—it’s the very opposite, wild and fertile and irreverent. Gretel is a lexicographer now, working on updating definitions of words for a dictionary (implicitly the OED, with its offices on Walton Street in Oxford). But she’s haunted by memories of her mother Sarah, whom she hasn’t seen since she was sixteen, and of the summer when a strange boy named Marcus came to stay with them, living in their houseboat on the river Isis. In the same summer, the river was plagued by rumours of a creature that was stealing children from houseboats, sheep from water meadows. Sarah and Gretel called it the Bonak. When Sarah reappears in Gretel’s life, she has to face what really happened back then. That brief summary reduces Everything Under to mere event, though, when the experience of reading it is actually mostly atmospheric. Johnson shifts back and forth between the present day (with Sarah, now suffering from dementia, living in Gretel’s house), the slightly earlier present (as Gretel searches for Sarah), the past as Gretel’s memory, and the past as seen through Marcus’s eyes. Johnson’s smart enough to trust her readers’ ability to follow these chronological jumps, so they’re not signposted, which gives the whole book an appropriate air of fluidity. And that’s very much an overarching theme: the unshowy but persistent strain of gender-bending in Everything Under works to reinforce that, and is worked against by a sense of rigidity that comes from the book’s adherence to the concept of fate and tragic irony. (This will make much more sense if you’ve read it and know which Greek story Johnson is working with.) It’s a beautiful, feral thing to read, by a highly skilled writer.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So many of these books have been about unfamiliar or unusual experiences, transformation, change. It all feels rather interconnected: McBee’s book and Johnson’s dealing with unruly bodies, Murata’s and Spark’s disturbing women, the speculative politics of Liu and Pierce. I like it when that happens.

Reading Diary: from Wednesday to Wednesday

isbn9781408711156Simon Mawer is known as a writer of rather excellent spy novels, many of which are interconnected: The Girl Who Fell From the SkyThe Glass Room and Tightrope all have overlapping characters, and deal primarily with WWII espionage. (I reviewed Tightrope for Quadrapheme when it was released, and was impressed with Mawer’s ability to construct a female spy whose sex didn’t define her, and whose war trauma was acknowledged without being fetishised.) His new novel, Prague Spring, is set during a time that rarely gets treated, at least in the espionage fiction that I see: 1968, in Czechoslovakia, as the titular conflict draws near. Mawer has two sets of protagonists. The first is a pair of English undergraduates named James and Ellie, who are hitch-hiking around Europe and who head to Czechoslovakia more or less on a whim. The second is a British diplomatic official in Prague, Sam Wareham, and a young Czech student, Lenka, with whom he is conducting an affair. These four come into contact with each other about halfway through the book, and one of Mawer’s greatest successes is in showing how insistently social life asserts itself, even as huge political rumblings occur in the background: gigs and meetings and parties don’t stop even as Leonid Brezhnev continues to pressure Alexander Dubček. The espionage element of the plot exists, but is downplayed in favour of exploring political innocence and coming of age. Ellie is a passionate student protester (she was arrested in Paris, which gives her a mystique in James’s eyes), but events in Prague quickly overwhelm her limited and privileged experience of political conflict. The Czechs, meanwhile, experience this disillusionment on a grander scale, as Soviet forces invade the country and crush hopes for a more liberal society. Prague Spring is a much-needed examination of the human cost of repressive regimes, and also a rattling good read.

a1k1al3vf5lThe Golden Age of crime writing is having quite the renaissance at the moment; I presume much of this is down to a desperate desire for escapism on the part of politically left-leaning readers, and a certain level of satisfaction for right-leaning ones in the allure of a simpler, jollier, more British age. Rachel Rhys’s second novel written under that name (it’s the pseudonym of psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen), Fatal Inheritance, is set just post-WWII and takes place primarily on the French Riviera, where frustrated housewife Eve Forrester finds herself sitting in a solicitor’s office being informed that the last will and testament of Guy Lester, a man she’s never met, has named her as the beneficiary of a quarter share of his beachside villa. Needless to say, Lester’s adult children and wife are furious, but Eve wants to discover the nature of her connection to them, so, despite a barrage of irritated telegrams from her cold and boring husband, Clifford, she remains in France. As she attempts to investigate, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is trying to murder her – and that this might have some connection to a file of old newspaper clippings about a man killed in a London park decades earlier. Fatal Inheritance wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve (I noticed some Mary Stewart, some Du Maurier, some Christie), although it’s not as original or as engaging as any of them: Eve is sympathetic but a bit of a blank, and the ultimate explanation feels a bit anticlimactic. Still, it’s a sunny summer book that practically reads itself. If it’s your sort of thing, it’ll definitely be your sort of thing, if you see what I mean.

17903275I love advice columns. I love the whole concept of them, the placing of your confusion and entanglement into the hands of a kind, sensible stranger who can step back, look at what they’re holding, and tell you the shape of it. Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, published at The Rumpus a few years back, is one of the undisputed classics of the genre. I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of some of those columns, before, but I come back to it every few years because Strayed takes people so seriously that it makes me want to cry. She makes their interactions a two-way street: not just some lost soul asking for help, but a conversation in which Strayed shares moments of vulnerability, or of epiphany, in her own life. It helps that she writes with lyrical grace that never falls into the trap of being self-satisfied, and it helps that she has had, by anyone’s standards, a life both tough as hell and outstandingly lucky. She knows whereof she speaks. I used to have a mug that said “Write like a motherfucker” on it, which is a quote from a Dear Sugar column (and to be honest with you, I want that mug back; I’ll buy another someday soon). But my favourite letter is from a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver several years ago, and who is struggling mightily to carry on. It’s a long letter, and the response is long too, but the final three sentences make me weep every time I read them – whether I’m in public or not, whether I’m feeling particularly sad that day or not. I think you, whoever you are, owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of this book somehow and read them too.*

*Okay, okay: there’s a link to that column online here. Read it, and then buy the book.

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Varina is a historical novel about Varina Davis (née Howell), who married Jefferson Davis, the man who was later appointed President of the Confederate States of America. It’s a hell of a task, as a fiction writer, to humanise people whose ideas and ideals are so obviously, now, wrongheaded. The point on which Charles Frazier is to be commended is that he opens his arms to the complexity of this task. Jefferson Davis is here not portrayed as an evil man, but nor are his flaws brushed over: he’s ambitious, somewhat cold, and has a self-martyring streak. Varina is very clever, pretty, combative, and lonely. Her story is told in flashbacks, through conversations with a black man named James who was raised with her children – not as a slave or servant, but as part of her family – during the years of the Civil War. Varina’s and James’s relationship is complicated (did she really pick him up off the streets of Richmond, or is he her child? Is he Jeff’s?) and their conversations involve elusiveness, and illusion, on Varina’s part. All James wants is the truth about his past; Varina either can’t give it to him entirely, or can’t psychologically lose whatever she would need to lose in order to do that. She is a mystery to the reader much of the time, but Frazier is a gifted writer of character and so the result is not a cipher (like Eve Forrester of Fatal Inheritance, see above) but a woman who is enigmatic because she wants to be; not because there’s nothing there, but because there’s too much there. The musings on the rightness or wrongness of slavery that such a book must contain are integrated in a way that feels psychologically convincing. Varina recognises from the age of five that there is something odd about having masters and slaves – not necessarily good or bad, to her mind, but strange. Her observations of Jeff’s relationship to his longtime body slave and friend, Pemberton, acknowledge that strangeness too. Varina, as a novel, is thus both responsible and artful. We can talk about this in fiction, and the job of doing so can be taken up fruitfully by white writers as well as writers of colour, if we can be honest both to the characters and to the history. We must.

Thoughts on last week’s reading: Two new releases, an older title, and a proof of a forthcoming book: that’s a pretty good balance. To have enjoyed three out of four is also not bad, though it’s sad that I didn’t love the only author here that’s new to me.

 

16. Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan

9781781258972Looking at that cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Washington Black was a sort of steampunk adventure, perhaps a kind of abolitionist The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s not, though; apart from the dubious legitimacy of the flying machine on which Washington Black effects his escape from plantation slavery in Barbados (and, to be honest with you, it’s hardly a deus ex machina given that it promptly crashes mid-storm), everything about Esi Edugyan’s second novel is straight historical fiction. What’s remarkable about it is the sense of constant slight peculiarity that pervades the novel’s atmosphere: this is the nineteenth century and the slave trade and the racism that we know, but there’s more to see, more to experience, than hackneyed literary tropes. Like Washington, anyone reading this book must prepare to be surprised, not just once but repeatedly: by the way people can be so simple and yet so complicated; by the curious twists of fate.

Washington is lifted (quite literally) out of his life as a Barbadian slave by the brother of his sadistic master. Christopher, or Titch, as he insists that Wash call him, is a gentleman but also an amateur naturalist. An amateur does things for love. The pain and the irony of Titch’s and Wash’s relationship is that Titch, though intelligent and far more humane than his vile brother, still sees Wash as a tool or a means to an end. That Wash happens to have artistic skills, and a scientific mind, does not make him less of an object; he’s just an object that Titch respects. Wash is young, though, and because he’s been removed from the rough love of Big Kit, the slave woman who raised him, he is desperate for something to fill that empty place of affection. When the two of them are separated, in an Arctic snowstorm (long story; there’s a lot of travelling), it’s the idea that Titch has abandoned him that haunts Wash for decades. Much of the rest of the story involves his attempts to find his former master, and his struggles to find a place in the world, while remaining permanently haunted by a particular episode of violence just before he left the plantation and by the reward his former master placed on his head.

Love comes in the form of Tanna Goff, a mixed-race young woman whose father is an eminent marine naturalist. Wash becomes Goff’s artist and assistant in an attempt to get to know Tanna better. The complex implications of everyone’s racial identity in this household are left unspoken but profoundly acknowledged. There’s an ambiguity to Wash and Tanna’s relationship, too: she’s strong and clever and loving, and he loves her, but can they ever be enough for one another?

That Edugyan packs all of this in to a novel that is also an adventure story is testimony to how carefully she picks and chooses what to depict. An encounter with an octopus that takes a shine to Wash isn’t just a natural history caper; it’s another instance of the interplay between affection and power. Titch’s determination to construct his flying machine comes – despite his progressive thoughts – at the expense of his brother’s slaves, who are diverted from their regular labour to carry materials at his whim. There’s always a sense that there are two levels to the book: the signifiers, if you will (plot events, character actions), and the signified (what those events and actions reveal, or represent). Edugyan avoids heavy-handedness by having an inherently interesting story and by creating Washington Black himself, a boy it’s impossible not to feel for. It’s an excellent piece of work.

15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

51f8igl7ngl-_sx323_bo1204203200_John Cheever has a reputation, an enormous one, as a giant of post-war American fiction. There is a particular social atmosphere surrounding his work. His men mix drinks and travel into New York every weekday morning on the eight-four; his women wear furs and are quietly, desperately, suicidally bored; everyone plays tennis at the club. The sea is never far away. To a large extent these descriptions hold true when you read the actual stories, but there is a surprising extent to which that is not all they are, or not all that Cheever can do. He can, and does, write about poverty: Christmas Is a Sad Season For the Poor, for instance, which features an apartment building elevator operator who spends the entirety of Christmas morning telling everyone he ferries in his elevator how depressing and lonely his day is likely to be. He succeeds in exciting Christian charity in the hearts of virtually all the families in the building, ending up with seventeen hot dinners and mountains of presents. Unable to distribute them all to his children, he gives most of this bounty to his neighbour, who rouses herself and her family to take them, in turn, to an even poorer family. The moral of this story – even whether there is a moral at all – is unclear, although I think the point here is less any particular moral than it is an overwhelming sense of irony, maybe even of futility, not just in this context but of all human endeavour.

He can, and does, write about adultery and cruelty. (Mostly, in Cheever’s world, it’s wives who are abusive to their husbands. Every now and then, as with The Music Teacher, the position is reversed, but Cheever never seems to be on the side of patriarchy at the expense of justice. He rarely appears to take sides at all, but he generally reserves tenderness for those characters who are baffled, vulnerable, or weak, whether they’re men or women.) Many of his stories revolve around a man who takes a mistress. None of his first-person narrators are women, though he writes some stories in the omniscient third person that focus on female perspectives. He was a closeted bisexual, which, although not the only lens through which to read his dissection of middle- and upper-class American sexual mores, is an interesting one. He is frank and fascinated by the hypocrisy of family values, the liberating effect of post-war European travel, the terrible anxiety about mortality and obsolescence that the act of adultery, in this world, is an attempt to assuage.

Philip Roth is quoted on the back of my edition as saying that Cheever writes “enchanted realism”; it’s an interesting expression because it so explicitly repudiates the implications of how I’d say it, which is that he writes a kind of materialist fabulism or fantasia. Frequently, at the end of these stories, miraculous or inexplicable things happen; time shifts and blurs; people appear and disappear. There’s a sense of the uncanny about all of it. This manifests most famously, perhaps, in the late story The Swimmer, whose protagonist Ned Merrill decides to make his way home from a party by swimming in the pools of all the neighbours between the two houses, and discovers when he returns home that he has aged by decades, his fortune has evaporated, his house is shuttered and empty, his family is gone. But there’s also that twinge of eeriness in earlier work: The Sutton Place Story, for instance, which revolves around a little girl who goes missing. When, eventually, she is recovered, she mentions a mysterious lady who gave her bread, but is either unwilling or incapable of saying more. I think it is a story about the moment you first realise that a child is not an extension of yourself, a realisation that strikes the little girl’s parents especially hard precisely because they have been so neglectful of her.

Most significant, though, is that Cheever’s writing is, quite simply, beautiful. He can write a sentence as simple and declarative as Hemingway; he can spin out a string of subordinate clauses as lush and proliferating as (though more dexterous than) anything of Henry James’s. He is profound and superficial at the same time; he can capture frivolity and desperation in the same breath, and follow it up with genuine, foolish, heart-felt love. And his work is suffused, for me, with this sense of light: suburban light, golden light, American light. I’ve wanted to read his Journals for some time, and on the strength of the short stories, his novels are also about to go on my TBR. Marvelous.