March

There was a part of March before the lockdown, and in it, I read a few books. (I also finished one book in March directly after posting my most recent round-up, so I’ll cover that too.)

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Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Before I went to the States, I posted a call on Twitter for recommendations with regards to good airplane books. The resulting deluge of suggestions was lovely but completely un-navigable, so I narrowed it down to two classics that I already owned and knew could keep me occupied for eight hours, Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. Posting about this triggered another avalanche,  this time primarily from middle-aged men, all of whom were very keen to tell me just how Extraordinary An Achievement of the Human Spirit both of those books are. (Yes, Kevin, but is it consistently diverting at high altitude?) One guy was such a strong proponent of Cervantes that I decided to take Dostoevsky, out of spite. Crime and Punishment turned out to be very much not what I expected, though that’s not a bad thing. It’s not particularly dense, for one thing, though it is repetitive. (Once Raskolnikov kills the old lady, he mostly wanders around in cycles of despair and defiance, being sick and getting better, intending to turn himself in and deciding not to.) The oddest thing is that those repetitions make it kind of… funny? In the darkest possible way. It’s like a Coen Brothers movie. Just after the murder, he gets stuck in the old lady’s flat while the two guys renovating the flat downstairs yell at him, and his paralysis is ridiculous, hilarious. At one point he literally hides behind a door to evade his pursuers. It’s absurdist comedy. Also: is there Porfiry/Rasknolnikov slashfic? It may just have been me, but there’s a distinct flavour of erotic sadomasochism/power play in the way they talk to each other. Anyway: weird, worth it, I still like Tolstoy better so far, is there another Dostoevsky novel that might be a good next step?

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The Iliad, by Homer, transl. Robert Fitzgerald: Posting about my struggles with the audiobook version of the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad also drew the exaggerated incredulity of the Kevins of this world, which I suppose I should have expected. Anyway, the fact is that for at least the first 50% of the poem, I was not enthralled. Dan Stevens reads the Fitzgerald edition that’s available on Audible, and he has a lovely reading voice, but even he cannot hide the fact that much of the first twelve books is just names and deaths, going by in a blur too quick to be meaningful. Which I guess is the point—soldiers die in war like Whitman’s leaves of grass, cut down before they can know themselves or their enemy can know them—but twelve books of the stuff is rather a lot. The interventions of the gods, also, seem scrupulously pointless: one intervenes for the Achaeans and they advance, another intervenes for the Trojans and they push back. Again, the futility of war is thoroughly conveyed, but at the cost of being able to invest. Things improve significantly around the time of Patroclus’s death (which comes much, much earlier than you’d think given its emotional weight in the poem), and the final 50% was infinitely more compelling. Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Iliad is seeing how the demands we place on our stories have changed over time; it was clearly conveyed orally to its first audiences and was probably shaped in direct response to their tastes and preferences, so why do we now find that parts of it drag, that the dramatic tension drops and rises in curious places? What’s changed about humans, about the pace at which we live our lives and absorb our stories, or about the events and relationships we find significant?

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The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld: Of all the books for which I’m sad because the pandemic will fuck up their first-week sales, The Bass Rock may be the one for which I’m the saddest. Evie Wyld is a great writer—her last book, All the Birds Singing, was subtle and scary about female vulnerability without sacrificing characterization or style to a political end, and The Bass Rock does the same thing. It has three narrators in three different time frames, but all in the same place, which is a structure easy to do badly, but here done in just such a way as to demonstrate its strengths: it allows us to compare and contrast, to see the ways in which society and landscape pattern peoples’ lives across decades, even centuries, throwing up eerie parallels between otherwise disparate stories. The strongest, I think, is that of Ruth in the 1950s; she is the second wife of a man whose kindness is quickly, dizzyingly, somewhat sickeningly, revealed to be merely the condescension of an everyday misogynist, entitled and thoughtless. The anticlimactic, deflating banality of his awfulness is a key strength of Wyld’s writing. In fact, that now-clichéd fact is everywhere in the book, from the ever-so-slightly-wrong local vicar who takes the children off for sinister excursions, to the boyfriend of the woman in the modern-day sections whose anger flares up when she sets a boundary he deems unreasonable, to the matter-of-fact detachment with which the young narrator of the seventeenth-century sections describes the gang rape and subsequent murder of a young woman denounced as a witch. It sounds po-faced and preachy when I write about it this way, but it’s not, I promise it’s not. It’s funny and queasy and stylish and lives in my head weeks after being read. I think it might be this year’s Ghost Wall. Please, please order it (it was published yesterday, by Jonathan Cape) or put it on hold from your library, and read it.

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Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge: A new book from Hardinge is guaranteed to be a treat. She seems to get darker and more adult as she goes on, and I like it a lot. Her latest is set in an archipelago that was previously ruled over by Lovecraftian gods, horrifying eldritch monsters of the deep that occasionally wrecked islands or devoured ships and who had to be placated by a special caste of priests. Within living memory, all these gods killed each other, and the world is now devoid of divinity, except for the thriving market in “godware”, leftover pieces of their corpses that have strange properties. Hardinge paints the relationship between her young protagonist, Hark, and his best friend Jelt, in shades of grey: we realize pretty early on that their “friendship” is emotionally abusive, as Jelt constantly manipulates Hark into putting himself in danger. There are definite shades of Ursula K. LeGuin here—personal accountability and growth are just as important as saving the world; indeed, the latter relies heavily on the former. It’s also the first time I can remember seeing young adult fiction that deals with emotional abuse between people of the same age who are not in a romantic relationship. I hope it’s the first of many.

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Air, by Geoff Ryman: My attempt to read all of the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners has introduced me to some really incredible science fiction, and Air, which won in 2006, is by no means the least of these. Appropriately, it’s set in 2019-2020, and concerns the coming of a new technology called Air (“like TV in your head”) to the remote Central Asian village of Kizuldah, where people are barely aware of “the Net”, let alone this potentially devastating new world. Chung Mae, the village’s stubborn “fashion expert”, experiences an early test version of Air that kills her elderly neighbour and implants the old woman’s consciousness in Mae’s mind. Realizing how desperately unready her people are, she determines to make them so. Ryman’s smart not to play the situation for laughs on the whole; the book is funny, sometimes, but it’s not laughing at Mae or at her fellow villagers. It’s also the most effectively political book I’ve read for a long time, seamlessly integrating the odd coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and (fictional) ethnic minority Eloi in the same village with the central government’s formal oppression of those same Eloi, an oppression reflected in the tiny, propaganda-riddled quantity of information about them available online (and which an Eloi woman in the village decides to remedy, to her own hazard). Nor can I think of another book that so clearly demonstrates how universal access to information is democratic only in the most sinuous and slippery way, how the division of “haves” and “have-nots” (the book’s subtitle) will persist unless have-nots are specifically taught how to use new tools, and taught without condescension, in ways that they can grasp. It’s an exciting, gripping, hopeful, bittersweet book, and an exceptionally good one.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 1

Upfront disclaimer: This is quite long. Oh well!

It’s been two weeks since my work asked us to start working from home, and it’s taken me this long to get into a headspace where I can start to think about writing anything. The last fortnight has been consumed with iterations of anxiety, uncertainty, and sometimes downright fear: about the stocks of food in my house, about how my employers can keep a book subscription business going remotely, about not seeing my friends, or boyfriend, for God knows how long (he lives across town and I wasn’t with him when the lockdown announcement happened; we can Zoom and FaceTime, but that’s it. I could try to hop on a train, I suppose, but I also count as an immunosuppressed person—type I diabetes, baybee—and that’s almost certainly not a good idea.)

But nothing lasts forever—no state of mind, no public health crisis—and now I can write a little, so I wanted to share what I’ve been consuming recently, in this temporarily topsy-turvy world. Mostly books, because obviously, but some movies, too.

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Last weekend, when we were all working from home but the lockdown hadn’t yet hit, I was halfway through The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. It took me a full week to read it; it’s very long (about 900 pages), and not having a daily commute oddly meant that I had less built-in reading time, plus it was incredibly difficult to focus properly for the first few days (and still is. Twitter, during a crisis of any kind, is a time-and energy-sink like no other.) Once I got into the rhythm of it, though, it was as glorious as I remembered the other two Cromwell books being: just as sharply and minutely observed, just as steeped in the tactile details of the period (no one writes casually about Tudor food like Mantel), just as shockingly funny (her Cromwell has a dry, sometimes capricious wit that Austen might have been proud of), just as attuned to weather and temperature, the powerful weight of religious conviction, the rapidity with which the mood of a room can turn. It’s heartbreakingly good; even as you hurtle towards the end, queasily aware of your A-Level history and knowing what has to happen, you find yourself hoping Mantel has discovered some evidence to the contrary. The final two pages are so stunningly written that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them on English literature and creative writing courses up and down the country in a decade’s time. It’s a magnificent piece of work. I cannot believe that anything else on the Women’s Prize longlist even approaches it, and will also be hoping for a Booker Prize hat trick.

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After that, something completely different: C Pam Zhang‘s forthcoming debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold. (God knows what will happen to the April/May publishing schedule. I think Zhang’s book was meant to be Virago’s lead debut for the spring, which is doubly devastating if it has to be pushed back.) Set during the California Gold Rush of the 1860s, it follows Lucy and Sam, two Chinese-American orphans who set out into the wilderness to find an appropriate place for the burial of their Ba. From this description, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bulk of the book comprises their odyssey, but that’s not quite how it works; their travels together end a quarter of the way through, and the rest of the book consists of an extended flashback narrated by Ba’s corpse (hat-tip, William Faulkner, for all of this), then a flash-forward in time showing Lucy’s life in the town of Sweetwater, and what happens when fiercely independent Sam returns from five years of wandering and shakes things up. It’s an oddly weighted structure, not helped by the persistent present-tense narration; I’m more willing than a lot of people to give the present tense a chance, particularly in historical novels (cf. Mantel), but it also has the danger of imparting a kind of bland weightlessness to events, which is the effect it tends to have in Zhang’s novel. Most of the book feels glassy, not quite there, which may be because the structure prevents us from ever seeing Lucy or Sam bedding down into any one location. Sam’s gender-queerness is intelligently portrayed, particularly as it’s frequently juxtaposed with their beauty, but Zhang doesn’t ever seem able to commit to a pronoun, so you get sentences like “Sam jumps off Sam’s horse”, which is too consistently awkward to be passed off as stylistic. Worthwhile, certainly, but not quite the sum of its parts.

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Yesterday, I finished Olivia Laing‘s new essay collection, Funny Weather: Art In An Emergency. (Another scheduled April release, and a bigger name; what will become of these books?!) It’s one of those round-ups you get once an author has enough columns in various publications to their name; the second section is two years’ worth of short monthly pieces for Frieze magazine, for example. Luckily, unlike most collections of this type, the quality is consistently good, and excellent in places. I enjoy Laing’s writing a good deal more in long form than in short, so her Frieze pieces struck me as occasionally, unavoidably, glib, but an earlier section—biographical and creative appraisals of various 20th-century artists—was a delight. No one else writes about artists with such infectious verve; I now desperately want to read both Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature and David Wojnarowicz’s Close To the Knives, to seek out Agnes Martin’s paintings, to look up Sargy Mann. Her profiles of four creative women—Hilary Mantel (hey!), Ali Smith, Sarah Lucas and Chantal Joffe—reveal her fascination with artistic process and an artist’s psychology: why do writers, or painters, or filmmakers, or sculptors, work the way they do and on the things they do? There’s also a marvelous three-page essay (which I photographed and posted in full on Twitter, because it’s so good) about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of “paranoid reading” versus “reparative reading”: paranoid reading is what a lot of us are doing right now, desperate semi-mindless thumb-ache-inducing scrolling in order to gather the minutest pieces of data about a given situation. Sedgwick suggests an alternative paradigm, one in which the mere revelation of Bad Stuff Happening isn’t prioritized over attempts to process it or make it constructive or beautiful. Much harder to define, this reparative reading, but a really useful idea, at least for me, in the middle of this endless breaking news about Bad Stuff.

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I’m now listening to Michelle Obama‘s memoir, Becoming, which I got from Audible primarily because every woman of a certain age seems to love it and it seemed like something I should be, dutifully, aware of. Guess what? It’s genuinely great so far. She’s warm, gently funny, reflective, generous in her sharing of her family history. The first chapter culminates in an anecdote about her first piano recital at the age of five—she gets stuck because she can’t find Middle C on a piano with a perfect keyboard, having learned to identify it on her great-aunt’s instrument because it’s the key with a big chunk chipped out of it. Really, really enjoyable and lovely; highly recommend if you’re feeling a bit jangly because of all the news.


On to other media: Netflix is great and all (especially now that they’ve got most of Miyazaki’s films on there), but movies are my most infantile medium. The way some people demand only soothing or cosy or already-familiar books, I tend to demand the same of films. I like a franchise; open-mindedness and experimentation is a characteristic of my literary intake, not my cinematic one. I reckon we all need at least one artistic medium that we utilize purely for comfort. Therefore, in these times of turmoil: I bought a Disney+ subscription. It has been the greatest decision.

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My housemate Joe and I watched Coco as our first foray. I’d seen it once before, on Boxing Day two years ago, and figured my weepy response might just have been a result of being in holiday mode. Nope; it is a genuinely emotionally devastating film. It’s also wonderful and heartwarming, visually stunning, astonishingly dark in places, and very funny. It occurs to me that it doesn’t appear to have had much of a cultural afterlife (hah, afterlife): three years after its release, there’s no merchandise or memes or any of the stuff that, e.g., Frozen or Moana or even Inside Out have had. Why? What made this film sink (or sink-ish)? It can’t be because it’s about Mexican culture, entirely voice-acted by Hispanic/Latinx talent and set on the Day of the Dead, surely? (Apparently it is the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico, which is both lovely and heartbreaking: imagine being so starved for representation of your culture that it takes a cartoon to show you yourself.) Anyway, it’s fantastic; whoever wrote it has an incredibly light touch that only increases the emotional impact of each plot twist. Good, good stuff.

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We went for a double bill last night, because it was a Friday: our first screening was of Zootropolis (also released as Zootopia), which I’d never seen. God knows if I was just emotionally unstable and also half a bottle of wine down, but it struck me as utterly hilarious; the sloths in the DMV nearly had me weeping from laughter. The central conceit also allows for consistently brilliant visual gags, mostly to do with scale: the pneumatic commute tubes that deposit tiny, be-suited hamster bankers at their stop, a fox carrying a popsicle twice his size from a shop run by elephants, the fact that terrifying mafia boss Mr. Big is a pygmy shrew. I think this is actually a stronger element of the film than its police-procedural plot and the barely-sub-text about racism and prejudice; that stuff works well enough, but it doesn’t feel especially sophisticated. Watching a scene of a wedding reception, complete with exuberant dancing, before the camera pulls back to reveal that the whole thing is taking place on a tabletop (ringed by bodyguards who are polar bears)? Never not funny.

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For some reason, after we’d had one bottle of wine and finished Zootropolis, we decided to watch Hercules, which was made in 1997 and looks like it. Nevertheless, it’s also got some excellent writing, mostly given to Hades and Meg, both of whom are brilliant, bone-dry sarcasm merchants. It’s especially interesting to rewatch Disney films from this era because things that went right over my head are now smacking me in the face: the way in which Hades is coded both queer and Jewish, for example, or the fact that Meg is so clearly a 1940s comedic heroine, a His Girl Friday for the Bronze Age. The plot itself, of course, takes…liberties…with classical mythology, and the historically rape-y vibes of Zeus, the centaur Chiron and the satyr Philoctetes (who wasn’t a satyr) are either brushed under the rug or erased entirely. On the other hand, this is also the movie that gave us the Greek chorus of gospel singers, which is probably the best analogy in any Disney movie ever, not least because their music is SO. GOOD. (Another fun thing: when the chorus is narrating, as opposed to their actual musical numbers, the style bears a strong resemblance to operatic recitative. I copped on to it in the section that starts “Young Herc was mortal now”, but it’s there all the way through.) The introduction of the characters Pain and Panic is regrettable, and I still don’t understand why Hera is portrayed as hot-pink and sparkly instead of her more traditional characterization as a jealous bitch (with, as far as I know, standard human skin tone), but it’s fun and diverting, the scary bits are surprisingly scary, and the songs are surprisingly good.

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Oh, and I’ve also decided to watch all the way through the Star Wars movies in chronological order, which meant I had to start with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Which is… not a very good movie. Liam Neeson is sexy in it because Liam Neeson is sexy in everything and at all times, but the rest of it is pretty pants. The pacing is weird, it takes an absolute age to get going, Darth Maul is barely in it (though his triple duel with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor at the end is excellently choreographed), Natalie Portman at eighteen really cannot act, and am I the only person who kept looking at every scene Shmi Skywalker was in and thinking, “More of this! Pay more attention to Shmi!” Her emotional experience before the film has been fairly devastating and things only get harder, and Qui-Gon Jinn just… never asks her any questions except for who Anakin’s dad is, and the film doesn’t seem to care? Also, Jar Jar Binks sucks. I know it’s fashionable to hate on him, but the fact is that it is also correct to hate on him, for he is the worst. The only redeeming feature of the film is Queen Amidala’s hair and wardrobe. Bring me this gown at once:

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What are you watching, reading, listening to, to stay sane?

some time later: a proof TBR update

I’m through that proof pile (we can talk about the library books later/never), so here are brief thoughts on each one.

71tn28sidylThe Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (out 6 Feb): I mentioned this a little in the earlier post because I’d actually finished it by the time I wrote that. Initially something of a challenge to hook into (it starts, shall we say, very much in medias res), it becomes more navigable as it goes on, and reveals itself to be the story of Hiram Walker, a slave on a Virginia plantation whose father is Howell, the white owner. Raised as a body man to his own (feckless) white half-brother Maynard, Hiram’s life is one not just of oppression, but of suppression: to survive as a house slave, particularly one so close to the family, he must occupy an intensely lonely and narrow social stratum, where he can fully trust neither his white family (who could sell him at any time) nor his slave one (who might develop resentment of his relatively high status). When Maynard drowns, Hiram is made over to Maynard’s fiancée, Corrine, and discovers that she has been freeing slaves and running a training school for Underground Railroad agents on her immense plantation, fighting slavery from within its own dark heart. She wants him because of a power he possesses, one his African grandmother, Santi Bess, is said to have used to free nearly a hundred slaves. Here is where I struggled a little with Coates’s conception: a supernatural liberating power that relies on harnessing traumatic memory is a brilliantly resonant idea; trauma plays such an insidious and undeniable role in the lives of descendants of enslaved people now that the idea of channeling it towards liberation is irresistible. But in the process, does it diminish or cheapen the efforts made by real Underground conductors, like Harriet Tubman, who appears in The Water Dancer as a supreme wielder of this power? Maybe: after all, enslaved people were not freed by magic. Or maybe not; maybe the metaphor holds and our conceptions of Tubman’s skill, courage and dignity are enriched by the suggestion that she was touched or chosen by something greater. I’m still not sure, though precisely because it raises these questions, I think The Water Dancer deserves to do very well.

81ongunjfrlThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts (out 6 Feb): Roberts is a travel writer whose work has been published in the FT and in Condé Nast Traveler; this is her first book, and takes the form of a quest. On her travels, she has met a world-class pianist in, all of places, the Mongolian steppe, but this musician lacks an instrument equal to her powers. Roberts determines to find her one, and to do so by looking in Siberia, generally known as a land of unforgiving conditions, prison camps, black bread, greasy soup, exile, and misery. But—partly indeed because of the Tsarist, and later the Soviet, exile system—it also contains a surprising amount of culture, left over from times when highly educated and accomplished men and women were sent to the steppe for life. There are many pianos in Siberia. There are concert halls; there are opera houses; there is a ballet company. There are pianos brought for virtuosi to play and abandoned after one or two performances; there are pianos shipped overland by the determined wives of commissars and high-ranking Decembrist exiles; there are pianos in sitting rooms and music schools, played by children and old people and students and housewives. Siberia, it turns out, is intensely musical. There is great charm in Roberts’s descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the history. I personally tend to struggle with books of this nature because their composition seems so patently artificial: there’s a note right at the start of the text to inform us that Roberts has conflated and combined details of three long research trips to make her narrative, and while I understand why a writer might do that, something about it makes me automatically wary of all the detail that comes after. She also hasn’t quite managed to integrate herself into the text in a way that feels…how shall I put this? Generous? It’s hard to describe, but every time Roberts mentions her own reactions to something, you get the sense that the piano hunt is a proxy; what she wants, really, is an excuse to find Siberia. But there is never any acknowledgment of this, even though leads on pianos sometimes disappear for pages at a time. Hard to sum up, then, this book, though it’s also hard not to fall under its spell.

71pecyno-ql._ac_ul320_sr208320_The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott (out 6 Feb. Mild spoilers follow): Elliott’s debut novel for children stars a protagonist with a condition that goes unnamed in her world, but which is pretty clearly Down’s syndrome. In an alt-Scotland, Agatha is a Hawk: her job is to guard the sea wall that keeps her clan isolated and safe on the Isle of Skye. When she makes an honest, but dreadful, mistake, it’s held up as proof of her unfitness for work, and she’s stripped of her duties. Meanwhile, Jaime has a different problem: he’s been assigned a job as an Angler, a deep-sea fisherman, but is scared of the water. He’s also about to be married off to a girl from the neighboring island, Raasay, which is a fate worse than it usually is in children’s books because Skye people have never married; it’s not part of their culture or society. Jaime’s wedding is political—it’s meant to cement an alliance—but also deeply antithetical to everything his tribe has ever taught him, which is just one of the ways in which Elliott intelligently deals with tropes. (How many times have we seen a reluctant-young-bride figure in YA fantasy, as opposed to a reluctant young groom? How many times have we ever seen a boy being made to do things with his body that he doesn’t want to?) Agatha and Jaime—plus Jaime’s new wife, a Raasay girl named Lileas—must pull together when a betrayal sees their entire village abducted by alt-Vikings.

Elliott puts his characters in convincingly perilous and terrifying situations, and he’s not afraid to be realistic about the violence adults are willing to inflict: when a fairly major character is overpowered by the Viking prince whom the three children have managed to capture, their death is both shocking and thoroughly believable. Elliott introduces fantasy through the legend of the former Scottish king, who is said to have bred an army of shadows to carry on his war with “Ingland”, and to have been destroyed by them. The legends, it turns out, are quite true, and Agatha and Jaime will have to be the best versions of themselves—Jaime will need to be brave, Agatha to master her anger—in order to face them. I could have done with more Aggie, actually; I understand why Elliott chooses to intersperse her chapters with ones narrated by Jaime, in order to orient us, and Jaime himself has a rather lovely trajectory to do with his learning that homosexuality is fully accepted in what’s left of mainland society (and I can’t be the only one who’s also reading repressed queerness in his character). But I thought Agatha’s viewpoint was both unusual and strong, and wished for more of it. Luckily, this is the first in a projected series (the second is already written), and the final pages suggest that Agatha’s unusual ability to communicate with animals will drive the plot of the next installment. Hopefully that means she takes center stage on her own.

41vpl1d7djl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski (out 6 Feb): Initially giving the impression of some kind of Aciman/Greenwell love child, Swimming in the Dark doesn’t actually dispel that characterization so much as deepen it. Though I haven’t read Aciman, I don’t think he’s best known for being tremendously political; Jedrowski, on the other hand, is at least as interested in the effect of state repression on the growth and development of two men’s minds as he is in its effect on their romance. Indeed, he makes it clear that the two things are sort of the same. Ludwik and Janusz meet at a camp for university students, meant to teach intellectuals about the joys of toiling on the land—for this is Poland in the 1980s, half a decade away from Lech Wałeşa and Solidarność. They’re irresistibly drawn to each other, Ludwik with a kind of halting nervousness, Janusz with something more like gracious acceptance, and at the end of the camp, they go on a walking holiday together. They become lovers almost immediately, with a sense of utter naturalness and simplicity. Upon their return to Warsaw, they maintain their relationship, but in secret; in communist Poland, homosexuality is up there with sympathy towards the decadent West as the sort of leaning that can get you into serious trouble. Ludwik, who early in the novel acquires a banned copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, is deeply frustrated by this repression. Janusz, by contrast, seems to see it as a necessary evil, the price a gay communist must pay for the satisfactions and rewards of being part of the state. The tension between these mutually exclusive attitudes will eventually render their relationship, and Ludwik’s continued habitation in Poland, impossible: the novel is focalized through his eyes and in retrospect, from the life he leads in New York in the late ’80s, watching news coverage of the revolution in his home country. We are meant, of course, to sympathize more with Ludwik, whose integrity will not be compromised, but Jedrowski is a good enough writer to gesture at the ways in which Janusz may not have made such a bad choice; he has almost certainly survived, his marriage to the fun-loving daughter of a high-ranking Party official both a protection and perhaps a thing enjoyable enough in itself.

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A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher (out 6 Feb): This is the one I’m going to find hardest to talk about, not only because I finished it the most recently and therefore haven’t had time to let my thoughts about it percolate, but because there’s a lot about it that resists summary, though not necessarily analysis. It is, in essence, the story of a political awakening, but where most such stories tend to stop after that moment (the “small revolution” of the title, in one possible reading), Hensher’s more interested in the repercussions, the implications, of changing your mind or refusing to. His protagonist, Spike, and Spike’s partner of many decades, Joaquin, are the only two people from their youthful friendship group who have not deeply compromised their teenage radical principles. Others—like Percy Ogden, erstwhile leader of their gang, who once harangued an Army recruitment officer and now writes smug, condescending columns for a national newspaper, or Eric Milne, now a QC and a lord—most certainly have. Perhaps the worst offender of all is James Frinton, whom Spike recalls as the offspring of a pub landlord and a clinical depressive, smelling of overcooked peas and despair, and who reinvented himself so thoroughly at Oxford that he is now Home Secretary. And yet Spike doesn’t seem quite comfortable with his own integrity. He repeatedly notes, with something like unease, that the word “boyish” is often used of himself and of Joaquin. There is an extent to which moral compromise defines adulthood; if Spike and Joaquin haven’t compromised, how much can they be considered participants in the “real world”? How much do they want to be? (I wonder, also, if Hensher’s choice to make his protagonist a childless gay men is meant to be a gesture towards this as well. Not that I think Hensher is actually saying that a childless long-term homosexual relationship is a form of lifestyle immaturity; but I do think he might be suggesting that the world at large often frames choices like Spike’s in this way.) Anyway. Very interesting, and quite a good introduction to Hensher’s work, I think.


Have you got a proof TBR you’re trying to tackle? How’s it going?

absolutely ridiculous: a proof/library TBR

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On the left: the next six proofs for me to read, all of which (I try to read proofs in order of release date and in the month before they’re published) are out on the 6th of February. On the right: my stack of library borrows, all of which are due back on 26th January. The top three are part of my children’s literature project; the next two are a combination of my Guardian Top 1000 novels project and a half-conceived notion to borrow all the Penguin or Vintage classics off the shelf in order; Celestial Bodies just sort of… fell into my hand, and the final two are Guardian Top 1000 choices from the list’s crime segment, which is statistically the one in which I’m least well read.

Avanti!

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually finished this between the time I took the photo and the time I started writing this post. It’s very reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but uses its sfnal/magical realist conceit in a different, more concentrated manner. I think it will be extremely successful, although I’m still constantly unsure of how I feel about using non-realist conceits in novels that purport to show the pains of slavery. And then I feel unsure of whether I have a right to feel unsure, since Coates has done the thinking and possesses the heritage that gives him the right to tell the story however he likes.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts: One of my relatively rare non-fiction choices. From the press release: “Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos – grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, and humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes[…] That stately instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.”

The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott: A YA adventure set in an alt-ancient Britain where one of the children tasked with guarding a sea wall has Down’s syndrome. She teams up with an un-self-confident boy to journey into a mysterious country of magic and secrets. This sounds amazing, has had terrific reviews, and the last YA title I read published by Walker Books knocked it out of the park (Rules For Vanishing; review here).

Swimmers in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski: This is giving off serious Aciman/Greenwell vibes. Two boys meet in Poland and, over the course of the summer, swim in some beautiful lakes and fall in love. Aahhh. Yes.

A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher: I’m still not quite sure what this is about, but I think it is about a group of friends who, radical in their youth, make compromises with the boring adult world as they age, except for one of them—Spike—who does not, and the effect his refusal to compromise has on his life. I have never actually read a Hensher novel, but a new one seems like the place to start.


And, from the library:

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read Gaiman’s writing for children, though I liked American Gods a lot (and Neverwhere slightly less), so this will be a new experience. The story of a small boy called Bod who is raised by the spectral inhabitants of a graveyard when his entire family is murdered, I’ve heard rumours that it’s somewhat uneven, and am keen to find out for myself. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Skylarks’ War, by Hilary McKay: As a child I tended to gravitate towards fantasy, but warm/familial fiction set a little in the past (a la The Railway Children) was another great love. This seems like that sort of thing, only written by a contemporary author, and was the Costa Children’s Book Award winner in 2018; other than that I don’t know a lot about it but am optimistic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Another children’s fantasy, but this time taking in the art and science of cartography, as Isabella has to leave her island to save her friend. Millwood Hargrave was only twenty-six when this was published and it’s already become a modern children’s classic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe: A short sharp shock of a novel about an unnamed African country’s Minister for Culture, his corrupt and opportunistic ways, and the initially idealistic young student who first challenges, then succumbs to (I think), that life. Of Achebe’s work, I’ve only ever read Things Fall Apart and found it a bit too schematic to genuinely enjoy, but then it’s a general rule that an author’s worst book is the one taught to high schoolers, so maybe this’ll be better. [Penguin Modern Classic]

Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin: I fell in love with Baldwin’s writing through reading Giovanni’s Room last year. Go Tell It…is the semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s disillusionment with the church in which he’s raised, and I can’t wait. [Guardian Top 1000 + Penguin Modern Classic]

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi: Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and the first such to be a translation from Arabic. I finished it this morning; it tells the stories of three Omani sisters – Mayya, Asma, and Khawla – their marriages, and their parents’ marriages; the collision of old and new in a country where slavery was only outlawed in the early 1960s (and persisted in essence for years after it was officially illegal); the collisions of love, honour, poetry and money that make up any good family saga. A worthy winner, I think, and most surprising in its somewhat experimental form, particularly the half-dreaming narration of every other chapter, told by Mayya’s husband Abdallah. Heartily recommended.

Live Flesh, by Ruth Rendell: A man commits a crime, goes to prison, gets out, and recommences the obsession that led him to commit the crime, all over again. A common enough story, but my last Rendell (technically a Barbara Vine) was incredible because of the way the story was told, so I’m hopeful this one will be too. [Guardian Top 1000]

Sidetracked, by Henning Mankell: The only Mankell on the Guardian list and I plucked it off the shelf because, well, he’s solid, right? I’ve been under the impression I’ve read at least one Mankell novel for some time, but I think I’ve just watched enough of the Wallander series (both English and Swedish) to have given me the gist. Anyway, I imagine it’ll be good competent distraction. [Guardian Top 1000]


How should I prioritize these?! I almost certainly won’t get through all the library books before they’re due back, which is fine, and I like being able to do full, in-depth reviews of each book I finish for the children’s lit challenge before moving on to the next one, which tends to slow me down. But I also want to keep a steady pace with the proofs, unless a title is dull or frustrating enough to DNF. Thoughts?

books to look forward to

Forthcoming in January 2020: a bundle of truly excellent new titles, some of which I’ve read over the last few weeks. Let us hope that a good literary start to a new decade is an omen.

9781786331625Long Bright River, by Liz Moore: A genuinely exceptional crime novel, reminiscent of Dennis Lehane and Attica Locke, set in the drug- and prostitution-addled Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington. Our detective protagonist, Mickey, grew up in the area and has seen friends, cousins, neighbours, and her own parents and sister, fall prey to opiate addiction; keeping her patch safe is her biggest priority. Keeping her sister, Kacey, safe is equally important to her, but Kacey is a sex worker and a heroin addict, and Mickey is permanently worried about her. When it becomes clear that a serial killer is targeting Kensington’s sex workers, Mickey has to find the murderer and protect Kacey, even if it means going against orders. Her relationship with her former partner, Truman, is exquisitely drawn, as is her history with her ex-husband; the story of their marriage is an intelligent reinforcement of Moore’s exploration of how structural power is used against women, especially vulnerable ones. Not to be missed.

41uya1dvjtl._sx308_bo1204203200_Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid: I was meant to love this, according to the people I know at its publisher (Bloomsbury), and it almost feels churlish not to have done so. It is a forthright and quite uncompromising look at the shifting dynamics between a liberal white woman who desperately wants to be liked, and the slightly younger black nanny of her children; Reid’s major success is to create an atmosphere where all of the characters are both irritating and sympathetic, where everyone—even those that are more irritating than others, like the white boyfriend who has a history of fetishizing black people—makes at least one valid point about the emotional dishonesty and manipulative behaviour of the other characters. Where it’s not particularly subtle is in the illustration of nanny Emira’s friendship circle, which seems to consist primarily of Sassy Black Girl Friends. Ultimately uneven, but thought-provoking.

imageBraised Pork, by An Yu: Gorgeous cover, no? Despite the red flecks, it’s not especially gory; more than anything, it reminded me of Murakami, which is a comparison I generally dislike but which does occasionally seem applicable. In Braised Pork, a young woman finds her husband dead in the bath, the only clue to his demise being a scrap of paper upon which he has drawn a fish with the head of a man. His widow sets out to find the source of the strange drawing, and finds herself re-examining her own childhood in the process, including her father’s abandonment of their family. For me, the clearly magical realist elements of the novel (the un-dreams she has where she’s swimming deeper and deeper into a black lake in search of the fish man; a long sequence in a remote Tibetan village where an elder has been carving the image for decades) sat uneasily alongside the more prosaic family drama. Like Murakami, Yu’s novel often feels meandering and purposeless, though there no doubt is a purpose. Not my cup of tea, but might well be for someone else.

51licv4b04l._ac_sy400_ml2_The Street, by Ann Petry: Slated for republication by Virago Modern Classics, this was originally published in 1946 and was the first novel by a black woman to sell more than a million copies in America. Like much of what I’ve read from Virago recently, there is a fantastic sense of contemporaneity to it; the story of Lutie Johnson, who tries to keep herself and her son safe and their integrity intact, but who must contend with sexism, racism, and the devastating grind of poverty, is told with a fury so passionate and fresh that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the ink still wet on the page. Petry’s work is clearly a frontrunner for a literary tradition that went on to encompass Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and Tayari Jones.  Frequently skirting melodrama but always redeemed by Petry’s absolutely clear, burning vision, it’s a gripping page-turner as well as a portrait of a woman trying to maintain sanity within a system that has been specifically designed to destroy her.

81wobth2melAgency, by William Gibson: It must be odd to be William Gibson. Society, and technology, has more or less arrived at a point that he wrote about as futuristic during his early career; he’s now indelibly known as a science fiction writer, but Agency—though it has all of the trappings of a techno-thriller and is, certainly, science fictional—is less world-of-tomorrow sf than world-of-three-minutes-from-now satire. It concerns the development of an autonomous AI system, originally created as a form of virtual handler for covert military operations, now stolen by a Silicon Valley firm and marketed as a PA called Eunice. There’s time travel (sort of, in a manner of speaking), and high-speed motorcycle chases, and a remote-control drone shaped like a radiator, and a lot of quick, slangy banter. It’s terrific fun and reasonably clever along with it, though I think Gibson’s ending is optimistic.

9781526607027Threshold, by Rob Doyle: Nothing—no friend’s impassioned recommendation, no innate desire, no travel article—has ever, ever made me want to drop acid and go to a three-day rave at a Berlin nightclub. This book did. Doyle seems to have written a type of autofiction, one in which all he does for at least a decade and a half is travel around Europe, writing in a desultory fashion and taking a lot of drugs. As a human being, narrator-Doyle is faintly insufferable—he’s not good to women and remarkably solipsistic—but of course the relationship of narrator-Doyle to author-Doyle is indirect. Rachel Kushner writes, on the front cover, that she “learned to stop worrying (about what sort of novel this is) and love the narrator”; I never quite loved him, but I did warm to his earnest, encyclopedic  informativeness, and the postcard-from-Europe style of his perambulations around various cities. And no description of the effects of hallucinogens has ever entranced me half so much.


Out later in 2020:

original_400_600The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (6 Feb): I’m ever wary of covers like this one—it’s generally a dead giveaway that the publishers are attempting to ride the Essex Serpent wave, though sometimes (see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock) it pays off. Millwood Hargrave’s first novel for adults (she’s a successful children’s/YA author) is based on the true story of a freak storm that killed forty men off the coast of a Norwegian island in 1617, and the subsequent imprisonment and trials for witchcraft that the women of the island suffered. Its relevance to the modern day is, perhaps, a tiny bit on the nose (yes, men dislike powerful women! Yes, religious mania is a figleaf for controlling sadists!) I was, however, moved by Millwood Hargrave’s description of the physical effects of grief and depression, and by her sensitive portrayal of the central (lesbian) romance. A wonderful historical yarn to curl up with on cold nights.

9781526601094Rest and Be Thankful, by Emma Glass (19 March): Curious, this: Glass’s depiction of a NICU nurse who is overworked, desperately sleep-deprived, and already prone to chronic anxiety and depression is extremely affecting, but also feels very one-note. There is nothing in the book other than the protagonist Laura’s increasing inability to keep herself together, her physical deterioration (red, cracked hands and greasy hair) mirroring her mental and emotional decline. Her boyfriend, who leaves her, is clearly a dickhead, but one also struggles to blame him for wanting more out of his relationship than the miserable zombie he’s currently living with. Hints that Laura is struggling with a deeper trauma hidden in her past go some way towards clarifying her state of mind, but the final-page revelation feels slightly unearned. Perhaps if I read it a second time I would get more out of it.

71zwt2vovwlMy Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (31 March): I put off reading this (the hype! The overt Nabokov, specifically Lolita, intertext! The teacher/student romance thing!) I was, eventually, blown away by it. Russell gets everything so right: the way that English teacher Jacob Strane grooms fifteen-year-old Vanessa, making her feel special and clever, playing on her emotional intelligence to push her into wanting to be “cool” and “mature”, and therefore not reacting negatively when he at last touches her. The way that Vanessa, seventeen years later, struggles with revelations that Strane did this to other students; the way that, as she tells her therapist, she doesn’t see herself as a victim; the way that she has to tell it to herself as a love story—because if it isn’t, how can she bear it? I recognized so much of myself in Vanessa’s reactions and longings that it scared me: if the right (wrong) person had come along when I was fifteen, I was nearly as vulnerable as she was. A lot of girls are. Russell deals with an incredibly difficult, complex subject with the nuance and shading that it deserves, while never being unclear about the dreadful effect Strane has had on Vanessa’s life. Believe the hype.


What are you looking forward to reading in January?

Books of the decade: 2010-2019

Can there be a ten-year period in which more changes than the one between being seventeen and being twenty-seven? Of course everything depends on circumstance and there are anomalies, but it does strike me that this is the decade in which I went from child under my parents’ roof to adult paying my own bills, and what—even assuming the acquisition of a life partner and the possibility of one’s own children—can possibly compete with that for upheaval? So the task of choosing ten books of the decade (and I will limit myself to just ten, this time) feels like not just a commentary on my reading, but on how that reading has shaped and reflected my life.

81thpjdmfnl2010: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It has to be this. 2010 was the year I started university, and Mantel wins it by a whisker; George Eliot (particularly Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss) is close behind. But up until then, I don’t think I had quite realized that it was possible for contemporary fiction to be as rich and dense as what I rather naively and snobbishly thought of as “the classics”. Wolf Hall was the first novel I read that opened my mind to that possibility.

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2011: The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, by Sir Philip Sidney. The vast majority of my reading in this year was for university, and there are lots of reading memories that seem ineradicable, but The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia was perhaps the longest (I also read The Faerie Queene in 2011, mind you). I got through it during shifts at my summer job back home, not even bothering to be surreptitious and read it under the counter. It’s outrageously overcomplicated allegorical pastoral Tudor romance, and yet I found myself entranced.

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Arden Shakespeare editions

2012: Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I know this is a dick move and Desert Island Discs lets you have them for this very reason, but in the summer of 2012, I read every single word that William Shakespeare ever wrote, as well as some he probably didn’t. It took a little less than three months and by mid-July I was starting to dream in blank verse. Nothing else even came close to matching that experience that year.

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2013: The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. An odd and messy year. I graduated, continued living in Oxford, scraped together internships at literary agencies and my old college’s Development Office, and read a fuck of a lot of Terry Pratchett, for no doubt obvious reasons. However, Tanizaki’s extraordinary perception about romantic and social relationships in mid-20th century Japan reminded me forcefully of Jane Austen, and I’ve not stopped recommending this book since.

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2014: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris. This was the year in which I started blogging about my reading more seriously, reading other litblogs, and writing for the now-defunct Quadrapheme, which meant free books and new contacts in publishing house. In amongst the riches, Young God stood out like a hammered thumb: it’s reminiscent of Winter’s Bone in that it’s about a young Appalachian girl who grows up before her time, but it is, if possible, even grittier, bleaker and more disturbing. What a winner.

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2015: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall. The first year in this decade where the winner is hands-down obvious and uncontestable. I was sent this for review and was so smitten, I read it twice in four months: the combination of lush landscape writing with an utterly unsentimental but also un-bleak portrayal of single motherhood fit its subject matter so well. It didn’t just show me what good writing was; it showed me that there are a million ways to live, and most of them are only just now being written into stories.

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2016: The Likeness, by Tana French. Not the first Tana French novel I read, but as I finished that within about a day and turned immediately to this, the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the distinction is fairly academic. And academic is the point in this deliciously clever engagement with The Secret History tropes (overintellectual young people are faced with murder, must navigate treacherous shoals between story and reality; so meta, I fucking love it). It’s my favourite of hers because of the descriptions of the house and the friendship dynamics—she gets into the meat of how people relate to each other—and I read it just as I was beginning work on my own book, which has similar themes.

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2017: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Getting harder now; 2017 was the year I started working at Heywood Hill and my access to books skyrocketed (no longer was it necessary to buy new titles with my own money or indeed even request them half the time; boxes of proofs come to the shop every week). Thien’s Booker- and Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel is a gorgeously written family saga set in communist China, about music and integrity and survival. I rather wish it had won both prizes.

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2018: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. I couldn’t stop talking about this, all year, and all of 2019 too. The first five pages are a devastatingly scary, moving, gut-grabbing experience, and the rest of it—telling the story of teenage Silvie and her father’s increasingly unhinged obsession with neolithic British customs—hurtles, with an extraordinary stop-start combination of sticky tension and humid tedium, towards what feels like an inevitable climax. It’s utterly magnificent and it, too, should have won both the Booker and the Women’s Prize.

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2019: As we know, 2019 was an exceptionally good reading year overall—so good that I couldn’t even narrow my top books down to ten, and had to settle for twenty. There was no one standout title, though, so instead I’m nominating Willa Cather, and the three of her books I read this year. She is an exceptional writer whose evocation of landscape and grasp of psychological nuance makes her feel well ahead of her time. Both Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Song of the Lark are wonderful, not to mention the much lesser-known A Lost Lady: short but perfectly formed and breathtakingly empathetic.

This list, written on a different day, would probably have produced a different outcome—choosing books to represent a whole decade is so subjective a task that the decisions, though not totally arbitrary, often feel balanced on the knife’s edge of how I happen to feel right this minute. All of these are brilliant books, though, and have meant a lot to me over the past ten years.

Do you have any books of the decade you’d like to share?

Books of the year, 2019

This year I revised my reading goals downwards, quite radically, from 200 books to 120. As of this writing, I’ve read 185 books in 2019, which is pretty gratifying. It does present something of a problem, which is that narrowing down the top ten (or whatever) books of the year gets exponentially harder. I’ve done my best anyway. There are more than ten, because it was a good year and I make the rules.

41c8al52l8l._sx331_bo1204203200_Selected Poems of Adrienne Rich. One of the very earliest reads of the year and still one of the best. At the time of reading, I wrote, “On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.” Unbeatable.

9781473639058What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt. Read in a day, on a sofa in a nice flat in Paris while wind howled outside. A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. Both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and it’s continued to haunt me.

 

cover159135-mediumThe Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan. Based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Not one to miss for lovers of historical fiction.

9780857524485The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold. This group biography of the “canonical five” women presumed to have been killed by the same person–known to history as Jack the Ripper–in 1888 is long overdue. Rubenhold gives each woman her own section, exploding sensationalist myths and prejudices with every word. Only one of the five, for instance, was employed as a sex worker; only one (the same one) was under twenty-five. More significant  are the facts that the majority were alcoholics, and separated from a husband. Compassionate and unsentimental, Rubenhold’s description of the trajectories of their lives makes the similarities between these women and the homeless population of modern London painfully clear.

9781786331519Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A magnificent novel about the rise and fall of a rock band in ’70s California, told through the transcripts of interviews for a documentary. Reid nails atmosphere: the drugs, the sex, but also the strangely untouchable, self-centered innocence that permeates this milieu. Daisy Jones could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with added smack problem), but her emotional vulnerability is leavened with grit; Camila Dunne, wife of the lead guitarist, could have been a caricature of a stay-at-home mother, but her integrity is the moral backbone of the book. Reid also has some beautiful, scary things to say about creative collaboration, the hard work of making music, and the ease with which we can fuck up our own hearts.

9781786894373The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch. This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself  for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.

imageNorth and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. Some amusing soul on Goodreads has described this as “Pride and Prejudice for socialists”, which isn’t too far off base. The story of Margaret Hale, daughter of a Devonshire vicar whose crisis of faith makes him move his small family to Milton, a Northern manufacturing town, and John Thornton, one of the mill owners there, is all about misconceptions, preconceptions, and class snobbery. Unlike Austen’s novels, though–and understand that I love them, so this isn’t a dig at the divine Jane–Gaskell’s writing feels distinctly modern and political in its sensibilities, from the unusual directness of her characters’ dialogue to the frank acknowledgment of class struggle.

43206809Things In Jars, by Jess Kidd. Kidd’s third book is set in a familiar Victorian Gothic London, but her elegant, witty prose invigorates the setting. (She is particularly good at the literally birds-eye view; several chapters open from the perspective of a raven, allowing some lovely atmospheric scene-setting.) Our protagonist, red-haired Irish investigator Bridie Devine, is a magnificent addition to the ranks of spiky Victorian ladies in fiction, and her tentative love affair with the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer is conveyed delicately. The is-it-or-isn’t-it supernatural flavour of the central mystery makes this book perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent–and, as a bonus, Things in Jars has an excellently dry sense of humour.

x298Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. Reading this after the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement, my frustration at the composition of that list was refreshed. Luiselli takes a Sebaldian approach to her two-pronged story. One strand follows the journey of a group of migrant children from Mexico as they ride the border freight trains, sleep rough, and–sometimes–die, trying to get to a better life. The second follows the road trip of a married couple who are both audio journalists, and their two children, ostensibly traveling towards the American Southwest in order to produce a story about the migrant children. Luiselli’s philosophical, detailed style occasionally outstays its welcome, but mostly Lost Children Archive is a heartbreaking, fiercely intelligent wonder.

41081373Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo. Almost, but not quite, an interlinked collection of short stories: each of the twelve chapters here follows a different woman (mostly black and British), and one of the book’s pleasures is discovering how they’re all connected to and through one another. Evaristo has always had great skill with potentially controversial topics: the generosity she extends to her characters nullifies any charges of bandwagoning when it comes to stories about gender, race, and class. This book in particular demonstrates that black women were fighting and winning these battles many decades before “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and social media accounts became a thing. In her application of the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner principle, Evaristo reminds me of no one so much as George Eliot.

91at5ojnm-lThe Porpoise, by Mark Haddon. This is the sort of book that the Hogarth Shakespeare project should be trying to produce (interestingly, he was apparently asked to write it for them, and ended up pulling out of the project due to creative differences). Haddon moves from present-day privilege (globally connected aristocratic businessmen certainly have power equivalent to autocratic monarchs) to the ancient Mediterranean to a Tudor London where George Wilkins–Shakespeare’s co-writer on Pericles, the obscure play that this novel engages with–is punished after death for his sins against women. It’s excellent, the prose crisp, the pace thrilling, the connections between different parts of the novel resonant and moving.

91lkpci3gnl-1Shadowplay, by Joseph O’Connor. Set in the Lyceum Theatre in 1878, and with a cast of characters including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Bram Stoker, and (briefly) Oscar Wilde. Fantastically evocative historical fiction with a wide streak of poignancy and an even wider streak of queer desire and anxiety. One for fans of The Wardrobe MistressThe Phantom of the Opera, and indeed Things In Jars.

 

38462._sy475_Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin: An outstanding short novel about a closeted gay American man in Paris, who falls in love with an Italian bartender but abandons him for (he thinks) a respectable life married to a woman. This abandonment has…consequences. Baldwin’s a beautiful writer of sentences–quotable but never sententious–and quite how he lays claim to a reader’s emotions in such a short space and with pretty limited use of interiority is something I’ll only be able to work out upon rereading, if then.

hbg-title-9780349012131-5Corregidora, by Gayl Jones. I read this twice in three months and it revealed more each time. The story of a blues singer and her maternal line’s traumatic intergenerational relationship with the Portuguese slaveholder who owned her ancestors, it’s also about sexuality, femininity, how to make good art, and whether it’s even possible to redeem pain in that way. If you like Toni Morrison, if you aspire to produce any kind of art (but particularly music), if you want to know how other times and places have navigated the path between desire and trauma, read it.

67483723_10214047205910175_1158198541944881152_nOhio, by Stephen Markley. The best post-9/11 novel I’ve ever read: detailed, lyrical, raw, all those book review words. Four high school friends reconverge in their hometown, one night in the early 2010s. They don’t all meet, but that night illuminates the history they share and the path their country has taken since. The Iraq war, Alanis Morrisette, OxyContin, summers at the lake, your boyfriend’s truck, baby lesbians, post-industrial hellscapes, Obama’s election, white supremacists, memorial tattoos, homecoming dances, football games, small-town rumors, the mystery at the centre of existence – Ohio has them all, and all wrapped up in beautiful, headstrong, confident prose. Maybe a little too headstrong at times, but if I have a weakness it’s for stylistic overkill. It worked for me.

to-calais-in-ordinary-time-hardback-cover-9781786896742To Calais, In Ordinary Time, by James Meek. A conceptually brilliant novel set in the 1400s, as a company of bowmen head towards the southern coast of England to join the war against France, and the Black Plague comes up the country in the opposite direction. Told in three different registers that evoke the distinctions in speech between noble, peasant, and clerical characters, it’s never a particularly easy read but never a dull one either, and it deals with sexual and gender expression in a way that feels both extremely contemporary and remarkably sensitive to the time.

eevsk_8xuau0fjzThe Jewel, by Neil Hegarty. Hegarty’s second novel centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. When it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland.

71851293_10214584094972066_9126527404867584000_nOlive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career, but mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. She uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour.  Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t.

This is also the place to mention two authors of whose work I’ve read three instances each this year, and been totally seduced and bowled over by both.

isbn9781473694439Siri Hustvedt. I read the aforementioned What I Loved (probably her most famous), Memories of the Future (her most recent), and A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind (self-explanatory, I should think). All are excellent, if tough and rigorous. Encountering her mind is bracing to one’s own.

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Willa Cather. Astonishingly modern in her lack of sentimentality, yet with the courtly lucidity of a much older era, Cather is long overdue serious attention in the UK, although American readers still know her pretty well. I read three of her novels this year that were new to me: A Lost Lady, Death Comes For the Archbishop, and The Song of the Lark. I still have a copy of My Ántonia, which I first read in middle school and intend to revisit in 2020. All of these copies were old green Virago paperbacks and came from The Second Shelf, which sells rare books and first editions exclusively by women (including, you’ll be pleased but hopefully not surprised to hear, trans women), and which has a shelf full of more affordable things specifically for those who, like me, are slender of purse.

Highly honourable mentions: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, The Snakes by Sadie Jones, Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt, The Terror by Dan Simmons, The Pisces by Melissa Broder, Arabs by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton, Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, The Body Lies by Jo Baker, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, The Horseman by Tim Pears, Collected Ghost Stories by MR James, The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Forthcoming (I hope): best children’s books I read in 2019, and January 2020’s most exciting new releases!