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.

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Having fun isn’t hard

library checkout

I got a library card, y’all! Because, obviously, I don’t have sufficient access to books in every other area of my life.

That’s actually sort of true. It’s easy enough to get hold of new releases from publishers’ reps, and relatively easy (if you’re patient) to acquire titles that are a year to 18 months old (if you wait long enough, there will be a damaged copy somewhere along the line), but backlist stuff is impossible to request, and if the shop doesn’t stock it regularly, there’s not much point ordering one copy and hoping it gets bashed on the way in. So my only way of accessing books that are much older than a decade or so is either to order and purchase my own copy (which I haven’t got the spare income to do for every title that takes my fancy), or to rent them.

Plus, why not support my local library? They’re pretty great: late fines are 17p per book per day (seventeen pence!! Can you get anything in the world for seventeen pence these days?) You can rent a DVD overnight for £2 and a box set for a week for £1.50. They stock CDs (there’s a whole Proms-themed display), and – much to my delight – a totally separate area for kids’ books, a little secret lair for them away from the prying eyes of parents. And they’re a fifteen-minute walk from my flat.

I restrained myself on my first visit, although these titles are due back the day before I go on holiday and there’ll probably be a bit of a binge then. My choices were guided by two things: length (I wanted short books to start with), and the Guardian’s list of the top 1000 novels ever published (I love a list and have been idly crossing titles off this one for ages.)

  • The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark. I’ve already finished this. It’s under “comedy” on the Guardian list, which is an…interesting classification. Very brief, very twisted, rather marvelously constructed. Like much of Spark’s work, it leaves me a little cold; I have such a hard time subscribing to the artificiality of her world. Certainly a kick in the head, though.
  • A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine. Vine was one of Ruth Rendell’s pen names. She gets recommended a lot for fans of Tana French. Really excellent crime novels are worth their weight in gold.
  • Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. This’ll be my first Taylor (as indeed the above will be my first Vine), and the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who writes a romantic novel and baffles her publishers sounds, actually, vaguely Spark-ian.

This means I can start participating in Rebecca’s Library Checkout posts!


Do you use your local library? Were you, like me, initially resistant? How do you deal with wanting to read things that the branch has to order in specially? Patience is not my forte. Tips and tricks much appreciated.

Down the TBR Hole, # 4

Time for another round! It has been a very long time since I last played this game. This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.

(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)

living-with-a-wild-god-091531624Book #31: Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Why is it on my TBR? Came across a catalogue listing for it when it was first released; I’m interested in personal writing about faith.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Discard for now; it doesn’t feel like a priority.

Book # 32: Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business in themerchants of culture Twenty-First Century, by John Brookmire Thompson

Why is it on my TBR? Professional interest, natch.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. Definitely still relevant, maybe even more so now that my job is in trade bookselling, not academic publishing (as I think it was when I first saw this title.)

winter's boneBook # 33: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Why is it on my TBR? Recommended by my tutor when I was working on Southern Gothic writing. Also, saw the film and thought it was brilliant.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. I loved My Absolute Darling so much and I think this might strike the same sort of note.

Book # 34: Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess91bleptewnl

Why is it on my TBR? No idea.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep – Earthly Powers was outrageously funny and I like the idea of life-of-Shakespeare literary fanfic.

10304270Book # 35: The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, by Mark Kermode

Why is it on my TBR? I do believe I read a review of it over at Eve’s Alexandria, many moons ago.

Do I already own it? Y’all know I don’t own most of the stuff I want to read.

Verdict? Keep. My film knowledge is so poor but I love reading film criticism, especially  of popular modern movies.

Book # 36: The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies81bfeulwksl

Why is it on my TBR? :glances at Eve’s Alexandria again:

Do I already own it? Nah.

Verdict? Keep. Epic multi-stranded narratives about people whose lives are inextricably intertwined by tiny coincidences are my jam.

81shqph22glBook # 37: The Cornish Trilogy, by Robertson Davies

Why is it on my TBR? THIS IS ALL EVE’S FAULT.

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Keeeeeep. This one has “defrocked, mischief-making monks, half-mad professors, gypsies and musical geniuses”. Not to mention, its cover design matches the other one so nicely.

Book # 38: The Salterton Trilogy, by Robertson Daviescover1

Why is it on my TBR? :refuses to answer:

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? This is one I might be prepared to lose, actually. There’s a production of The Tempest in it, which is appealing, but small-town mischief and gossip appeals less. (But! The cover!)

12808190Book # 39: The Emperor’s Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo

Why is it on my TBR? It sounds brilliant: a novel-in-verse about the Sudanese teenage bride of the Emperor Septimius Severus, set in Roman London!

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Keep. I am forever picking this up in bookshops and then putting it down again due to distraction or penury.

Book # 40: A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth51dpz64rdzl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? It crops up a lot in lists: of best 20th-century books, Big Read surveys of people’s favourite novels. Also, my friend Ollie read it (while revising for his Finals, the madman) and loved it.

Do I already own it? …Unclear. I did have a copy, but I can’t recall whether it went to the charity shop before I moved, and I haven’t yet completed my personal library spreadsheet (which I have because I’m a neeeeerd, thanks for asking).

Verdict? Keep. Sooner or later I’ll break my leg or go on a twelve-hour flight, and then I’ll need this book.


Conclusions: This particular round didn’t go well as a culling exercise, but it did remind me that I’m going on holiday next month, and what better time to get stuck into books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

TBR Update: Previous rounds of this game have actually resulted in a couple titles getting knocked off the TBR! I read Slaughterhouse-Five last July and The Power and the Glory this January (both are from Round 1). Admittedly, that hit rate is neither high nor rapid.

What do you think? Should I just go for broke and read all three of Robertson Davies’s trilogies? Should I pass on Vikram Seth or Anthony Burgess? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me.) Comments much encouraged, as always.

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.

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Got

HOLY HELL, you guys. What a list. Obviously, virtually none of my wishes/predictions made it (except for The Overstory, thank all the gods). While I’m deeply depressed about the lack of Amy Sackville, Elise Valmorbida, Andrew Miller, Nick Harkaway, Joseph Cassara, and Lidia Yuknavitch, amongst others, I’m also impressed at the generic diversity: there’s a graphic novel on there! There’s a crime novel! This is crazy, y’all!

Less pleasing: the lack of ethnic/national diversity. Opening up this prize to the Americans has, as predicted, resulted in a diminishing of Commonwealth writers; there is no one here from Jamaica or Nigeria or India or even Australia. Two Canadians, two Irish writers (maybe three?), and that’s your lot.

Most of the longlisted books I haven’t read, so these are going to be more along the lines of quick impressions than considered analyses:

coverSnap, by Belinda Bauer. Pretty sure Val McDermid is singlehandedly responsible for this being on the list. Bauer’s reputation is high; I’m wondering if she’s a sort of new Tana French. The premise of this – a heavily pregnant woman walks away from her son and her broken-down car on the M5, in search of a pay phone, and is never seen again – is good.

41wnvealv5l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Milkman, by Anna Burns. The cover is stunning. It’s about an Irish woman being stalked by a paramilitary. That’s really all I’ve got on it. It’s relatively new out and I don’t think anyone at the shop has read it, although my colleague Zoe is keen. The Guardian called it Beckettian and said that Burns reveals “the logical within the absurd”, which sounds very Irish.

41lzvtkhukl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso. This is the first graphic novel ever to be on the Man Booker Prize long list and I’m very excited about it. I’ve flicked through the first ten pages and there’s something quietly disturbing and addictive about its atmosphere, already. The artistic style is one that I happen to hate, but that may not matter much.

9781781258972Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan. This is one of my 20 Books of Summer and it’s already so high up my TBR it’s practically tugging my sleeve, so it won’t be long before I’ve read it. A young slave boy’s master disappears on a voyage of exploration, and then…reappears? People have been comparing this to Sugar Money but I have a strong feeling that Edugyan’s book will be better.

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne. Five narrators seems like an awful lot of voices for one author to differentiate, but Gunaratne’s ability to ventriloquise the slangy vernacular of young London has been one of the major selling points of this book so far.

cover1Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson. The impression I get from this is that it might be a bit like Penelope Fitzgerald’s book Offshore, only with some mythology mixed up in it, and that is the sort of impression that makes me want to read it immediately. However, Anthony Cummins’s description of it “luridly staging the supremacy of biological fact” waves a red flag. What the fuck does that mean, Anthony?

81z2yt8ghblThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner. Genuinely delighted about this. I was pretty indifferent to The Flamethrowers (although I read it just out of university, when my reading protocols were still tuned to Edmund Spenser wavelengths, so maybe that was my fault), but I think if I’d read this before the announcement, I’d have put it on my wishlist. My colleague Camille loved it.

81j4lg4hk8l1The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh. Now, this I have read, and it is the only title on the list that really baffles me. It’s not a bad book, but then most books aren’t bad books. It’s just derivative, endlessly, and I cannot find enough originality in it to understand why it’s here. The prose is fine. The plot is fine, although it doesn’t really go anywhere. Controlling men are bad. The punishment of women for their existence is physical mortification. *checks watch*

077107378xWarlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje has been the unfortunate victim of my growing reluctance to read established white male writers. I hear pretty good things about this one – a kind of weird Gothic about children abandoned during World War II to a netherworld of vaguely defined criminality. It’s not going to the top of my list, but if there’s a damaged copy in the shop, I’ll take it.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Richard Powers is exempted from my reluctance to read established white male writers, because he is wonderful. Partly this is because he doesn’t have any problems with writing women and people of colour into his stories. Partly this is because he writes so beautifully that I would be punishing myself by refusing to read him. I’m so happy he’s here.

9781509846894the20long20take_21The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. A novel in verse! How awesome is this! I’ve read some of Robertson’s poetry before – Hill of Doors, I think – which hasn’t stuck in my mind at all, but this was around the same time as The Flamethrowers, so again, that might have been my fault. This is a kind of post-war picaresque in the same vein as Andrew Miller’s new book. I think I’d like it.

71bdwmuhvzlNormal People, by Sally Rooney. Okay, Rooney’s hip and happenin’, we get it, Jesus. You can accuse me of bitterness all you like, you’re probably not wrong. Anyway, this is another novel where I can’t work out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, two Irish kids go to university. Maybe something happens to them while they’re there. Let’s hope so.

cover2From A Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan. Kind of a novel in short stories, this one, which actually I’m coming round to, as a form. Zoe tells me the first section is “epic” and the other two are less so; if this makes the shortlist I shall make more of an effort to seek it out.


What do you think of this long list? Good weird? Bad weird? Indifferent weird? What would you have liked to see on it? What enrages you with its presence?