Reading Diary: Feb. 10-Feb. 17

10805160Reading Tana French is such an easy pleasure that I can’t go for more than a couple of months without rereading her; a long, tiring week and a gap of half an hour between finishing a paperback and getting home on the bus, and I’m thumbing to my little-used Kindle app, finding one of her books – doesn’t really matter which – and sinking in. Can novels about hideous murders and complicated interpersonal dynamics be soothing? Evidently so.

The nice thing about rereading, which is probably only a surprise to me because I do it so infrequently, is that it gives you a chance to unpack an author’s subtler, cleverer moves. French is the type of author whom I read in great, ravenous gulps; going back and reading for a second or even a third time shows you the parallels, not just in plot but in theme. This’ll make no sense and probably spoil the plot if you haven’t read Broken Harbour, so if you haven’t, look away now; but if you have: the thing that sticks out so hard I should have seen it earlier is how thoroughly French works the mental illness angle. Mick’s sister, Dina, who is, as he says simply, “crazy”; Pat Spain’s diminishing grasp on reality; Mick’s mother’s suicide. This book is all about minds: how they work, how they break, and most of all, why. The hardest thing for Mick to accept is that Dina is mentally ill not because of her childhood trauma, but because she simply is. Madness, and control: Mick’s refusal to accept Dina’s madness as meaningless is mirrored in Jenny Spain’s doomed conviction that, by doing everything right, she can single-handedly keep her family together, and even in Richie Curran’s belief that something can be salvaged from the whole situation by not arresting the murderer. (I’ll leave that much spoiler-free.) It’s not just a brilliant meditation on social pressure and the financial crisis; French, as always, takes it that one step further, to examine the terrible hazards of refusing to give yourself a little leeway, refusing to ask for help.

coverEncouraged by Susan of A Life In Books, who mentioned that Dunmore was of the same generation as Amis, McEwan, Barnes, et al., but rarely got the respect and status that the men did, I picked up Exposure from my grandparents’ bookcases last weekend. I’d read one Dunmore before—her second novel, A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural Orange Prize and which I found arrestingly beautiful, with vivid imagery and a certain disturbing sexiness. Exposure is not quite at the same level of remarkableness, but then it doesn’t have to be; the story it’s telling is very different. It is, briefly put, an early Cold War spy novel, set in 1960 in a London whose adult population still feels haunted by the Second World War. Giles is a Soviet mole in the Admiralty, acquiring material from a complicit superior, Julian Clowde. One night, half-drunk after photographing a sensitive file, he falls down the stairs and breaks his leg. Unable to return the file to the Admiralty before morning, he rings a colleague and former lover, Simon Callington, from the hospital, asking him to collect and return the file. Simon, clocking that Giles shouldn’t have this information in the first place, hides it in his house; his wife, Lily, a Jewish refugee who came to London from Berlin in the late ’30s, finds it and buries it in the garden. Simon is soon arrested for breaching the Official Secrets Act, and the narrative follows him in prison, Giles in hospital, and Lily in the Kentish cottage where she takes their children, for privacy and for safety. So is Dunmore a sort of female Barnes? Well, yes, sort of, but I rather think that gives Julian Barnes too much credit. They both write in the same deceptively affectless prose, and they both write relationship novels. Where Barnes’s flaw might be a dullness tinged with complacency, Dunmore’s might be a tendency towards melodrama. But her ability to capture complex loving dynamics between people is extraordinary: Simon’s vexed relationship with Giles, for instance, or his coded conversation with Lily in a prison visiting room, during which Dunmore shows us how trust and compassion really can make one mind of two. Exposure has a high-stakes story, but Dunmore pulls it off in a way that feels low-key. It’s very good.

cover1It is not going to take very much effort on my part, I suspect, to convince people to read this book. The title, the subtitle, the whole idea, that beautiful cover: it is all immensely appealing. Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading goes from first principles (The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Topsy and Tim) all the way through to secondary school (Sweet Valley HighSummer of My German Soldier) to the point where “childhood” reading starts to blend with “adult” reading (many bookworms will probably start on Austen or Bronte at this point, for instance, and they work just as well for a bookish teenager as for a thirty- or fifty-something). Her tone throughout is dry and very funny, especially in the pen portraits of her family: a driven GP mother who never ceases talking, moving and doing; a nearly silent but deeply thoughtful drama teacher father who is her first source of books; a sister unmoved by books but drawn to computers and engineering; two loving grans (of one of whom Mangan writes, “By the time I knew her, she was Les Dawson”). This strand of the book is counterpointed by sections dealing with the history of what we’d call children’s literature, which starts with the deeply dull (she’s gloriously irreverent) religious rhymes of the mid-eighteenth century and moves through the Golden Age of children’s publishing, taking in John Newbery, Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake – all the good stuff. Not least, of course, there are the bits about the actual books themselves, and these are wonderful. Mangan’s readings of Little Women and Noel Streatfeild, The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, E. Nesbit and Roald Dahl, feel conversational, intelligent and warm: just what you want when you’re talking books with a friend. And she’s put me on to some hidden gems as well, like Antonia Forest’s school stories, which have a gravitas and emotional intelligence to them that rocket them out of the sphere of Blyton et al. (She also has a rather flattering theory about children who don’t take to Blyton’s books, as I did not, much to my mother’s disappointment: apparently we are generally already at the stage of reading where we don’t need hand-holding with regards to plot and subtext, and find Blyton’s nannying of her readers unnecessary. I’ll take it.) If you liked Susan Hill’s reading memoir, Howard’s End Is On the Landing, you’ll adore this.

71f5lgrfbxlThe main thing about Mother Night is that it’s not one of Vonnegut’s most famous novels, but it is one of his best. It feels like a darker, harsher, more despairing Slaughterhouse-Five, since it engages with similar content (World War II, complicity, survivor’s guilt) but goes just that bit further. Its main character, Howard J. Campbell Jr., is in an Israeli jail awaiting trial for his work as a Nazi propagandist during the war; the novel purports to be his memoirs, edited by Vonnegut. What Campbell reveals in the course of his writing is that he was working as a double agent at the time: his every cleared throat and oddly inflected syllable during his racist radio broadcasts was actually code, smuggling information out of Germany to the Allies over the airwaves. Only three people know this—Campbell, his former handler, and Franklin Roosevelt, now dead—and is it, in any case, a good enough excuse for the hatred that Campbell not only spewed but fomented? Mother Night‘s central concern is responsibility: who shoulders it? Who ought to? How far removed from a killing field must you be to qualify as innocent? Like much of Vonnegut, it’s scarily relevant now. UKIP’s professed shock at the murder of Jo Cox, for instance, and Donald Trump’s reaction to the neo-Nazi rally in my hometown last summer, raised the same questions: how much isolationist, white supremacist, xenophobic rhetoric can you mouth without becoming implicated in the actions of people encouraged by your words? Not much: Campbell gets a scene with his father-in-law, Berlin’s chief of police, where the older man chillingly tells the younger that his propaganda is the thing that has allowed him to accept the years of Nazi rule. The ending isn’t happy, but it’s right.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: An unfortunate lack of proofs, except for Bookworm. Delighted to have been re-introduced to Helen Dunmore, though.

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#6Degrees of Separation: Picnic at Hanging Rock

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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We start off with Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay, which I’ve never read but which was something of a sensation in the ’60s and ’70s, a novel about the disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls on a school outing. I gather that the central mystery is never really resolved, though apparently Lindsay wrote a revelatory final chapter which was published separately. It sounds a bit rubbish.

My favourite disappearance story this year – and one of my favourite books of the year so far, full stop – has been Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s a tender, nuanced portrait of a small community where a young girl disappears while on holiday with her parents; McGregor returns to the village over the course of thirteen years, finding both change and continuity with each passing year. It is a beautiful book, and highly recommended. (review)

Another “thirteen” book is Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In each chapter, she discusses a technical aspect of the novel form: voice, characterisation, length, and so on. In the final section, she writes notes on one hundred books that she read as part of her project to determine what defines a novel. It’s an excellent resource both on a technical level and for people who want a basic reading list of classics and contemporary classics.

One of the books I read because it was in Smiley’s compendium is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. A society novel about three Japanese sisters and their family’s difficulties in marrying them all off, it reminded me strongly of an east Asian Jane Austen, with equal biting wit, satire, and observation. (review – a very old one! I was so cute in 2013.)

I recommended The Makioka Sisters to a very well-read customer recently, along with Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, about a pair of Catholic priests who travel to Japan at a time when Christianity is illegal. They end up serving an underground community of believers, but at great risk both to themselves and to their flock. The book’s emotional core is the choice between renouncing one’s faith publicly in order to save the innocent, or remaining technically faithful to God but condemning others to die.

Martin Scorsese directed a nerve-wracking film of this book last year. He also directed “Hugo”, a gorgeously shot if slightly incoherent movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s stunning children’s novel about a boy who lives in a railway station, befriends a pioneer of early film, and tries to fix an automaton left to him by his father.

So: from Edwardian Australia to steampunk Paris, via contemporary Yorkshire, mid-century Osaka, and post-Shimabara Japan. Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Pride and Prejudice, which ought to provide a lot of jumping-off points…

#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.