#6Degrees of Separation: The Slap

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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First up: The Slap, a book I didn’t read when it came out but which made a lot of waves. I gather the controversy derives from the book’s opening chapter, in which an adult man slaps a child who isn’t his own at a barbeque. This is something I have frequently been tempted to do (though never done), which leads us to…

Sarah Hall’s incredible novel The Electric Michelangelo, about an early twentieth-century tattoo artist and his love affair with one of his customers, a woman who asks him to cover her entire body in tattooed eyes. (I’ve been batting around the idea of a tat for years, and not yet committed. But I wanna.)

The tattoo of an eye is the distinguishing mark of the major villain, Count Olaf, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series also features three siblings named Violet (a gifted inventor), Klaus (a voracious reader with a photographic memory), and Sunny (who likes biting, and, eventually, cookery).

One of Snicket’s authorial gimmicks involves expanding a young reader’s vocabulary by defining tricky words within the context of the story. The only other book I’ve read with an eye to its vocabulary was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which we read in school and for which we were required to make word lists. I learned “lugubrious”, “catarrh” and “unctuous” this way.

I’d actually encountered “unctuous” the previous summer, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. It’s the word Rowling uses to describe Igor Karkaroff, headmaster of Durmstrang, the Eastern European magic school whose students come to participate in the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts.

Where do you go from Harry Potter? Everywhere, or nowhere: it’s curiously self-contained, but influences all children’s literature that comes after it. But I have one out: I met J.K. Rowling in February 2014, and at the time, I was reading This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. It’s part of a commissioned series called Writers and the City, and I identified with the city’s psychic resonance in Cartwright’s life, long after he’s finished his degree and moved away.

C’est tout! Next month the chain starts with Shopgirl, by Steve Martin.

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

Me in Shiny New Books: A Novel Calling

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I wrote a new feature for Shiny New Books’s Bookbuzz section this month! It’s the first installment of a series entitled A Novel Calling, where people write about the books that they feel were written just for them—that resonate strongly with their lives or experiences or tastes somehow. My offering starts as follows:

In February, I read an advance proof copy of Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt, and although I’d never seen a word of it before, it felt somehow familiar. She wrote about everything I cared about: poetry, music, a faith that is rooted in but not identical to religion, France, chronic illness (her daughter has cystic fibrosis, I have type I diabetes), the curious experience of having a partner who is significantly older than you are. It was brilliant and disorienting; I felt as though Stevenson were living my life, albeit from a slightly different angle. It was like seeing a water-blurred reflection in a pond: not quite the same, but very, very similar. I loved reading Love Like Salt, but some of the things that Stevenson included in it cut so close to the bone that I almost couldn’t bring myself to review it. I identified with it so closely that telling anyone about it felt like reviewing myself, then asking people whether they agreed.

I discuss three other books, too; if you’d like to know what they are, you can find out by reading the rest of the piece.

Books I’m Thankful For

It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday. As per usual, I sort of forgot about it until the beginning of this week, so I haven’t made an American-style feast to assuage my homesickness and feed all of my friends. Maybe next year. (I say this every year.)

Last Thanksgiving sucked. I was alone, in a house I’d only moved into the month before, in a job I couldn’t stand; my mother was about to start radiotherapy and I was an ocean away from her; my writing was stalling. My whole life felt like it was stalling. I wrote a Facebook post about the things I was grateful for–to be essentially healthy (despite having a chronic medical condition), to have functioning limbs and eyes and lungs, to possess a house and a job at all, to have a family that loved me. It got a lot of likes, but it didn’t make me feel much better. Instead, that night, I cried, and I read.

I read Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, which is the first in the trilogy known as His Dark Materials. It’s less philosophically angsty, less aggressively atheistic, than the other two, but it’s magically clever, with images that haunt and hold you: a golden compass. A polar bear in steel-blue armour. A narrowboat nosing through the fens. It distracted me, it charmed me, and I was utterly, utterly thankful for it.

In that same spirit, here are some other books for the existence of which I’m grateful: because they provided coping strategies, because they opened my eyes, or because they entered my life when I most needed them. They’re not all my “favorite” books or the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re the ones that I owe something to.

The Song of the Lioness quartet, by Tamora Pierce.

These are (or were until my dad cleaned out the bookshelves in my old playhouse) absolutely essential comfort reading for the holidays. Alanna of Tortall is a kick-ass warrior protagonist, but she’s also sexually active and empathetic: neither the Manic Pixie Dream Girl nor the dreaded Strong Female Character gets a look-in here. The first books that suggested bravery as an ideal to emulate.

Still one of my favorite covers of all time.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

All I would read when I was ten or so; I don’t think I touched another book for months. I obsessed over them, whispering the proper nouns to myself, feeling the sound of them in my mouth: Earendil, Morgoth, Galadriel, Lothlorien, Fangorn. Years and years later, I’d study Anglo-Saxon poetry and realize quite how much of it Tolkien jacked, but during my early adolescence, the magic of Middle-earth was entirely unspoiled for me. It was immersion on an unprecedented scale; I’d never before entered so fully and willingly into someone else’s world.

A Dog So Small, by Philippa Pearce.

Very situation-specific, this. I was thirteen when the Heathrow airplane hijacking scare happened, the day before we were due to fly home and four days before I was due to start high school. We were delayed for forty-eight hours: scared, thirsty, heat-struck, impatient, and confused by inadequate communications. I was terrified I’d miss the start of freshman year (I was an unbearably nerdy little twerp). I spent those two days reading aloud to my brother (who was then eight) this book by the author of Tom’s Midnight Garden. The book is about a dog so small it fits in peoples’ pockets. I’ve no idea where it came from, and I think we left it on the plane, because we couldn’t find it once we got home. It’s difficult to conceive of a situation in which I could possibly have been more grateful for a book; I’ve always entertained the notion that, like Mary Poppins, it came to us when we needed it.

Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl.

This was the book that taught me, when I was seventeen, that I could feed myself. It’s impossible to overestimate the force of that revelation to a habitually overweight, diabetic teenager. Suddenly it became clear that not only was it okay not to be a size zero (that, indeed, you could be successful and happy without that), but also that I could take charge of what I put in myself. I could cook what I wanted to eat, and eat what I cooked. Mind-blowing. Of course, this did not stop me from massively fucking up the first thing I cooked from this book (a seared sea bass recipe of which the less said the better, except to mention that fish sauce and fish paste are not the same thing). But it did put my feet on a path that led to empowerment and autonomy and self-acceptance, which, when you’re seventeen, is everything.

Tender, by Belinda McKeon.

Read this past spring. I am grateful to it because, of all the books I have ever read, none so clearly and immediately evoked my frame of mind post-breakup as this one did. McKeon had it. It was like she had been there. I hadn’t been at all well, mentally, and her protagonist, Catherine, with her doomed obsession for her best (gay) friend James, echoed to precision all the things I had thought and felt. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to know that you may have been mad, but you’re not alone in your madness. Tender did that for me.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture.

Sometimes you’re grateful for things not because they make you happy or comforted, but because they smack you in the face with a (metaphorical) mackerel and remind you to wake the fuck up. That’s what this report did. I hold a passport from a country that engaged in extrajudicial punishment of prisoners being held on charges that were frequently not articulated to them; those punishments often escalated into torture, which was only very thinly rationalized, and the CIA lied about it, repeatedly and deliberately, to other branches of government and to the media. If I’d ever had any lingering innocence about the essential benevolence of Western democracies, this report exploded it, and that’s as it should be.

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed is, as my friend JonBoy would say, “a genuine goddamn treasure”. She is the former advice columnist for the Rumpus (writing under the pseudonym Dear Sugar), and Tiny Beautiful Things is her collected works. It is impossible to explain how important, how radically compassionate, these columns are unless you have read them. Without judgment, without sentiment, with infinite love and patience and knowledgeability, Strayed tells her readers what they already know they must do to be the best versions of themselves that they can hope to be. She is neither unrealistic nor discouraging. I once described her as your best friend, your coolest teacher and your big sister all rolled into one, and I stand by it. Everyone in the English-speaking world ought to be grateful for Tiny Beautiful Things.

Top Ten Books to Revisit From Childhood

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten books from my childhood that I’d like to revisit.

1. The Horse and His Boy, by CS Lewis. The same goes for all the Chronicles of Narnia except for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which gets enough attention. The Horse and His Boy is the stand-out of the series because it’s set not in Narnia but in a neighbouring country, Calormen. Shasta’s flight from his adoptive father with the talking horse Bree is adventurous and exotic–one might say “exoticizing”, in fact, because Lewis has been frequently accused of anti-Muslim sentiment in this book. Which is why it would be particularly interesting to read again, now, with an adult awareness.

2. The Alanna and Daine books, by Tamora Pierce. I’ve talked about these before, and I’ll talk about them again. They’re the best books I can think of to give to the little girl in your life, whether she be angry, shy, or somewhere in between. The stories of Alanna, who at eleven disguises herself as a boy to learn the skills of knighthood at the palace of the King of Tortall, and of Daine, who is half-mortal and can speak to and through animals, are not only cracking fantasy; they’re also political thrillers, wonder tales, and accounts of friendship and loyalty. They’re beyond great.

3. A Murder For Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner. I barely remember any of this, but what vividly stayed with me was the idea of a girl (disguising herself as a boy, again–there’s some thematic coherence here) becoming a chorister at York Minster in the late sixteenth century. Alice, a witness to her father’s murder and afraid that his killers were agents of the Queen, becomes Pup, one of the minster’s choirboys. This, plus seeing a Charlotte Church concert on PBS at a young age (don’t mock; my tastes matured), was what set me on the path to choral singing.

4. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge is the kind of author you give to children who are already hooked on the mid-century Enid Blyton “jolly good” aesthetic. If your kids are very keen on their Xboxes, they won’t like or understand anything she wrote. But if they like the idea of running away from a mean grandmother to find ultimate acceptance with an eccentric uncle, his one-legged gardener, and the unraveling of a very bucolic English mystery, then they’ll love her. I was in the latter camp.

5. The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Another one that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, this is the story of six urban children whose obsession with Ancient Egypt leads them to play a game where they imagine themselves to be Egyptians; eventually the game seems to be bleeding over into reality. We did Ancient Egypt for practically our entire second grade year at school, but I must have thought the book was too spooky because I’m not sure I ever finished it. I’d love to go back and read it again.

6. Feeling Sorry for Celia, by Jaclyn Moriarty. This probably qualifies more as a YA book than a children’s book. Set in Australia, it’s about Elizabeth, a high schooler whose only friend, Celia, begins to drift away from her. It deals with some impressive issues–emotional manipulation, mental health, self-hatred and self-doubt–without ever losing its light touch. I particularly love how Elizabeth’s own insecurities about how other people see her appear in the forms of letters from institutions such as the Association of Teenagers.

7. Glinda of Oz, by L Frank Baum. For some utterly bizarre reason, I read and reread this over the course of the fourth grade. I haven’t the slightest idea why, other than that it was weirdly thrilling: there was an underwater city enclosed by a giant bubble, an evil queen whose name sounded like a hunting cry, a super bright pink cover, and some evocative line drawings by way of illustration. It would be illuminating to go back and read it again, if only to try and work out why it obsessed me so.

Absolutely matchless early noughties cover design, too.

8. Fearless, by Francine Pascal. “A girl born without the fear gene”–childhood wish fulfilment, check. There are about seventeen thousand of these books and they constituted my introduction to young adult literature. Kickboxing! Sex! Cigarettes! New York City! The very act of reading them was an orgy of rebelliousness. How I would love to go back and do it all again.

9. The Cuckoo Tree, by Joan Aiken. And all of the other books that feature the incomparable Dido Twite, but this is probably the best. Set in an alternative England where James III is on the throne and the “Hanoverian faction” plots to replace him, all of the books are masterpieces, but I particularly loved The Cuckoo Tree because its opening scene is in a carriage traversing the South Downs, where my grandparents live. It’s sort of like Jamaica Inn for kids. Phenomenal.

10. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. The more I think about our assigned reading at primary level, the more I appreciate the way we were stretched by our nerd-school’s ethos. I would never, off the top of my head, consider recommending this book to a nine-year-old. And yet it was one of our choices for summer reading when I was nine, and I read it, and loved it. It’s heavy. There’s poverty in the New York Irish community, a fading marriage, parents who play favorites, and a really horrifying attempted rape scene. (At nine, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t recognize this for what it was, although it still thoroughly creeped me out.) But Francie, our heroine, and her mother Katie, as well as her father Johnny and brother Neeley, always shine through as real characters, who feel and suffer and work hard to survive. It’s just a wonderful book. I’m sure I still have a copy at home in Virginia…

February Superlatives

I read eleven books in February, which is pretty decent for someone with a full-time job in the shortest month of the year. As I’m trying to get into writing something, even a small something, about most of the things I read, I thought I’d try this: a sort of mini-awards for all the books I’ve read in each month. It’ll make sense, I promise (/hope). Like high school senior superlatives–most likely to succeed and so on–only less shit.

most oddly anticlimactic: It’s a tie between Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. I wanted so badly to be blown away by both of them. Chandrasekaran was writing on the mismanagement of the initial (2003) US occupation of Iraq, and Baghdad’s Green Zone in particular, while Gay is now more or less the Internet’s foremost feminist, as well as being consulted on virtually every other societal/cultural issue, especially those involving race, gender and sexuality. The books were almost guaranteed to be exceptional, only, with both of them, I kept having an odd “is this it?” feeling halfway through a sentence. Both books, I think, suffered from having started out life as a collection of separate pieces which were then forced together to make a whole. Bad Feminist is still marketed as a collection of separate essays, but no one seems to have sat down with them to work out which bits are repetitive, which are flabby, which aren’t pulling their weight, and so on. It’s a real shame; I’d still like to read Gay’s recent novel, An Untamed State.

most physically nauseating: Far and away, the honour goes to Edward St Aubyn’s short, vicious novel Never Mind. It encompasses one day in the life of five-year-old Patrick Melrose, who is on holiday in the South of France with his aristocratic parents, alcoholic doormat Eleanor and sadistic abuser David. If you have ever been in an abusive relationship or know someone who has, do not read this, or read it very carefully; St Aubyn is perfect on the dynamics of domination and control, which, although I admire the technical and emotional skill required, makes the reading experience sickening. I was going to read the three sequels straight afterwards, but just couldn’t face them. Maybe one a month.

most like a ‘90s indie teen movie, only with Mennonites: There can really only be one contender for this: A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews, which is about Nomi Nickel, whose strictly religious upbringing has caused both her mother and sister to rebel and leave, and who is considering doing the same herself. One of the curious things about this book is that nothing really happens in it. It’s all about charting the progression of someone’s mindset from idly thinking about something to being determined to do it, and not in an intense, Macbeth sort of way. But Nomi is a charming protagonist: intelligent, impatient, and kind of just done with everything. Very good.

most unabashedly comforting: A tie, between The Wind In the Willows and Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, both of which I read whilst having a long weekend with my grandparents at their house on the South Downs. The Wind In the Willows basically defines my childhood: there was an animated film made in about 1994, with such voice talent as Alan Bennett (Mole), Michael Palin (Rat), Rik Mayall (Toad) and Michael Gambon (Badger), and I watched that thing hundreds of times. About ninety-six percent of the dialogue and narration is lifted directly from Kenneth Grahame’s original text, so re-reading the book is almost like having a nostalgic audio track of the film in my head. Not to mention that the writing is simply beautiful without ever tipping into sentimentality. God bless the Edwardians. (Adrian Mole is, I should hope, self-explanatory.)

most impressively disturbing: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber. This has also been made into a film, starring Scarlett Johanssen, which I would like to see, although I am a little worried that it will be too violent to enjoy watching much (I’m squeamish about on-screen blood, though reading about it is okay.) It’s a hard book to discuss because there’s a huge spoiler which occurs fairly early on, but I can say that it flips a reader’s idea of “normal” in the way that the best speculative fiction (or indeed any sort of fiction) does, and that I had to lie down for a bit after finishing it.

most ludicrously enjoyable: No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon, which is a novel that partakes very much of the 1066 And All That school of historical interpretation. It reads like what would happen if Terry Pratchett decided to do a mash-up of the life story of Shakespeare. There is an ongoing subplot about a potato, and another, smaller subplot about Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak. Reading this is the very definition of “nerding out”, and it’s great.

Tudor potato

most apt reading for a cough syrup fugue state: Both of the books I’ve been sent for review this month, oddly: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader, and The Well, by Catherine Chanter. The Anchoress is about a young woman in thirteenth-century England who decides to become, essentially, a hermit, and the repercussions of her decision; The Well is part murder mystery, part eco-thriller, and part domestic drama. I slightly preferred it, out of the two, although it is slightly longer than it ought to be. Both of these were ideal for sick reading, focusing as they do on altered states of consciousness, memory loss, visions, hallucinations, etc. And I’ll be reviewing them at the end of the month in Shiny New Books!

most straight-up infuriating: Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. This was February’s Classics Club read for me, and it is very racist. Yes, it was written in the seventeenth century, when this sort of thing was par for the course; and yes, it is easy and enjoyable to analyze other elements of the work; and yes, the racism is in part what makes this a valuable window into the development of Western attitudes towards Africans and slavery. But it also makes for rather eyebrow-raising reading. More on that when I post a full Classics Club review, later!