Women’s Prize 2018 Longlist Thoughts

I’m serving on the prize’s shadow panel again this year (hooray!), along with three of my very favourite erudite readers/writers/thinkers: Naomi Frisby, Antonia Honeywell, and Eric Anderson. The longlist was announced last night (at 00:00 GMT, which is alarmingly antisocial for those of us who like our sleep). I haven’t yet decided how I feel about the list as a whole, apart from an initial gut reaction: it feels a bit old. Some of these books (Schmidt, Kandasamy) I read last May; they’ve had a long time to steep in my subconscious, or wherever it is that books go in a person after they’ve been read. But that’s hardly an argument against the books themselves, so maybe I’m being curmudgeonly.

I’ve read eight of the longlisted titles – exactly half. The list given on the Women’s Prize site is front-loaded with the titles that I haven’t read, which is an amusing probability quirk. (Why is Rachel Seiffert at the front of an otherwise alphabetical list? A tech issue? A last-minute addition? Who can say.)

Quick thoughts on each:

711bpyrwgolA Boy In Winter – Rachel Seiffert. I confess that not only have I not read this; I gazed at it with the eyes of extreme indifference when it came into the shop in hardback, and again when I got a paperback finished copy. Nazis in the Ukraine, I thought. Again with the Nazis, I thought. But my colleague Karin, with thirty years of bookselling experience, adores Rachel Seiffert, so I am prepared to be wrong.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker. Barker’s work is, occasionally, barking (sorry), but pretty much always brilliant. H(A)PPY is intimidating because of its formal playfulness: typeface in different colours, shapes, and arrangements on the page, etc. Her novel The Cauliflower didn’t inspire me hugely, but it was impressive, and I remain haunted by the first forty pages of Darkmans (read standing up at a library sale) despite not having bought the book or finished it. So I’ve high hopes for H(A)PPY.

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The Idiot – Elif Batuman. Who doesn’t love a good campus novel? I keep forgetting the plot of this one; I think it has to do with a Turkish student at Harvard in the ’90s, and is meant to be comedic. Sure. Sign me up.

61k-y31a2bgl-_sx342_bo1204203200_Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon. Here is where the commercial/literary interplay gets interesting, at least to me. Cannon is positioned as a pretty commercial writer—a good one, but one whose work you might happily send to your aunt who’s in a book club, if we’re going to be perfectly honest about it. I’m told, though, that The Trouble With Goats And Sheep also happened to be a fantastic book. Three Things About Elsie will have to tread a fine line because it’s about old people in a care home, which can easily go patronising, but then Cannon is a qualified psychiatrist, so.

32508630Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig. The one no one’s heard of. It looks pretty promising: a family saga set in Burma over the course of the twentieth century, with a family whose daughter becomes the country’s first beauty queen and must navigate politics and loyalty. I’m a little wary about the fact that it’s based on the author’s mother and grandparents; books that fictionalise close family members often feel off, like there’s too much reverence there to make a good story. Again, I look forward to being proved wrong.

34467031Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan. Apparently very unlike Egan’s other work (experimental, pyrotechnic, innovative), Manhattan Beach is instead a piece of solid historical fiction, featuring Mafiosi and the first female diver at Brooklyn’s naval yard. I haven’t raced to pick it up, but I do look forward to reading it.

coverThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. Hooray, the first one I’ve read! Full disclosure: I thought this was fantastic. So much more than a Georgian romp, although it’s that too; Gowar is so aware of issues surrounding class, race, sex and gender in the eighteenth century, and she makes us aware of them too without being anachronistic. It’s the same balancing act that Golden Hill managed with such aplomb.

isbn9781473652385Sight – Jessie Greengrass. Ticks a lot of Women’s Prize boxes—motherhood, daughterhood, legacy, mental health—but, I think/hope, in a fresh and new way. I’ve seen a fair amount of Sight coverage on Book Twitter, and Greengrass can write: her debut was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award in 2016. I’m hopeful about this one.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. In a nutshell: this is a hugely enjoyable book. It’s also got some issues, not least of which is the way in which it conflates autistic spectrum behaviour with behaviour resulting from trauma and/or PTSD. I’ve been selling the hell out of it, because it’s got very wide appeal, but I am not convinced that it needs to be on this list.

81yyupd-qul1When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy. I read this back in May, over a weekend that I began as someone’s girlfriend, and ended as a single person. This may account for the fact that I couldn’t think of much to say about it—raw grief tends to knock out my literary-critical faculties—but part of that might also be that, although this is an incredibly powerful and significant book, there is not a lot of subtlety to it. It draws very clearly and skilfully the pain of an abusive marriage, but I don’t recall finding much else in its pages, apart from that precise observational skill. Maybe my memory is faulty; maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I should read it again.

isbn9781473660557Elmet – Fiona Mozley. This is a brilliant book, reminiscent of what Cormac McCarthy might have written if he had happened to be a Yorkshirewoman. Mozley writes a little too much of “the bits people skip”, as Elmore Leonard put it—landscape descriptions, mostly—but her characters fairly leap off the page; the gender-queering is smartly done; the depictions of violence coiled and unleashed are fearless.

ca83208b-2c74-44c7-b812-cbf84b585203The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why this is here. It’s got plenty of ambition but it’s not a great book—there are so many protagonists, so undifferentiated, that I kept having to remind myself who was who when I was writing my review. The same is true of the issues with which Roy engages: she’s got so much to say on so many topics that the effect is diminished, the reader’s empathy diffused instead of focused. The prose is fine, but Roy’s lyrical style suits her subject a lot less here than in The God of Small Things.

51y5ah4juvl-_sx323_bo1204203200_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt. I tried my hardest to sell this, in the spring. “It’s a book about the Lizzie Borden axe murders!” I would chirp, as customers eyed me warily. “Written in woozy nauseating graphic lyrical vivid prose, with unreliable narrators aplenty!” About half of them would go for it, in the end. The other half would smile politely and turn their attention to whichever title was in my other hand. Their loss.

9781408886755Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. This is a great divider of opinion. Some people think it’s melodramatic and silly; I think it needs to be melodramatic (it’s an adaptation of Antigone, for God’s sake, an actual Greek tragedy). I also think Shamsie is saying things that few other novelists dare to say about the experience of being young, Muslim, and British.

cover1The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal. The final one I haven’t read. A love story between two Irish kids in 1970s Birmingham, picking up with Mona, the wife, after they’ve split up. I haven’t read de Waal’s first book, but her championing of working-class writers recently has been inspirational. I’d love to love her writing, too.

9781408891025Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward. This book is stunning. I’m a firm fan of Ward’s now, having also read Salvage the Bones (her first National Book Award winner) and Men We Reaped, her memoir. Sing, Unburied, Sing takes its readers into the heart of America’s confusion about itself, through the eyes of Jojo, a young black boy growing up in Mississippi with his drug-addled mama, Leonie, his loving grandparents Pop and Momma, and his father Michael, a white man whose release from prison precipitates the road trip that forms the core of the book’s plot. It reads like the natural extension of William Faulkner’s legacy—both literary and in a wider cultural context.


Notable omissions: I am enraged that The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, isn’t on this list. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. What other book this year has engaged so fearlessly and viscerally with questions of female power and agency, and the destructive power that accompanies male fear of emasculation? Maybe after The Power‘s win, the panel didn’t want another book too much like it, but come on. I’d give Yuknavitch Arundhati Roy’s spot. (Or maybe Gail Honeyman’s, entertaining though Eleanor Oliphant is.)

Other notable omissions are a couple of big guns: Winter by Ali Smith isn’t there, and neither is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. I had thought Jane Harris’s Sugar Money might be in with a chance, as well as Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose and The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. Failing to include Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry seems like a bit of an oversight, too.

Hilariously, when I sat down to brainstorm novels that were eligible, I went through the list a second time marking the titles that I thought would/should make it onto the longlist. Fully three of the longlisted titles were ones that I discounted as contenders: See What I Have Done, Eleanor Oliphant, and, of course, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.


Tackling the remainder of the list: I have eight still to read: Seiffert, Barker, Batuman, Cannon, Craig, Greengrass, and de Waal. My lovely colleague Faye has promised to loan me her copy of The Trick to Time, and I know we have plenty of stock of Three Things About Elsie in the shop. The others are a bit of a puzzle; I could reorder them for stock and sneakily read them, but I’m not sure that’s a good practice, in general. They’ve been in print for long enough that the chance of getting gratis proofs and finished copies will have gone. (Naomi tells me that, actually, publicists will send them and are expecting to be asked. Phew.) I’d rather not buy brand-new copies, especially since most of them (bar the Seiffert) are still in hardback. Might I have to use…my local library?! Stay tuned, listeners.

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Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.

A Book Haul!

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I don’t often post book hauls because, well, I don’t know. Because it feels vaguely masturbatory? Because they’re nice to look at, sure, but the point is to read them? Because I get the vast majority of my books through publishers or through other people’s kindness, instead of through shopping sprees? Possibly some part of all the above. There are some habits that die hard, though, one of which is the inclination to read around the subject with which I was inoculated just before university. Starting work in a new industry sent me scurrying instantly for research reading. Amazingly, I found a lot of food/cooking/hospitality memoirs for about a penny each secondhand, plus two others which are relevant to that recent talk at the Southbank Centre…

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Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. I read this years ago, during high school, when I worked at New Dominion Bookshop in my hometown. It’s an account of the disguises—wigs, wardrobe, makeup and all—that Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, adopted when visiting restaurants in order not to be given “special treatment”. She finds that her different characters have different personalities, too, but the psychological insights (although pretty good) aren’t my favourite part. That would be the reviews: Reichl dissects pretension and hypocrisy with verve, and hands out approving write-ups to small, unfashionable restaurants where the chefs are passionate about their craft. I wish every food critic was like her.

Waiter Rant. This, too, came into my life via the food memoir shelves at New Dominion. I remember very little of it, except for the way it casts a blinding, sarcastic light upon the business of waiting tables. Since that is now my occupation, it seemed due a reread.

Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton. I know nothing about this, except that it is apparently the best memoir by a chef ever written. Since chefs are, to me, mostly enigmatic and mercurial beasts, reading this is probably, at least on a practical level, a wise move. (Also, no doubt, Kitchen Confidential, but we’ll save that for later.)

Heads in Beds, by Jacob Tomsky. Like Waiter Rant, but for hotels. The relevance of this is that, before getting the pub job, I signed up with an agency that provides contracted workers to hotels for both front-and back-of-house work. The training day, plus a couple of episodes of Hotel Babylon, made the whole hospitality enterprise feel a bit like The West Wing, only less morally defensible.

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UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo. This was the book that Guo talked about most during the Southbank Centre event. She wanted to write it in English, but, because her English was limited, she chose to write the whole thing as a police interview transcript: no flowery language, no poetic turns, just terse narrative prose. It’s about a woman in rural southern China who becomes convinced she’s seen a UFO outside the village, but there’s a whole kettle of political allegory just under the surface.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo. Maybe Guo’s best-known work in the UK; it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, back when Orange was still the sponsor. It follows a young Chinese immigrant to Britain and her love affair—start to inevitable end—with an English man. I’ve read the first few pages and I’m already in; the English of the narrator is so perfectly broken, it’s like you can hear her in your head.

Anyone read any of these, want to offer advice on where to start, or know any other food memoirs/Chinese sci-fi I should check out?

March Superlatives

I read thirteen books this month, thanks to panic over my review pile, my eighty minutes a day of commuting time, and the four-day Easter weekend. I’ve reviewed eight and a half of them (one of the pieces I wrote this month, a column for Litro that’ll be published soon, was about a book but not precisely a review of it), which means that Superlatives may be a kind of irrelevance. (I also plan to review the final book read this month early in April.) Still, as Vicky of Eve’s Alexandria has it, it’s good to write about everything I’ve read, and there’s a lot to say about these, so here we go.

most seriously unnerving: Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, which features an uncomfortably weird protagonist and a tense noir plot. I found myself uncertain what was going to happen next (unusual) and desperate to find out (even more unusual), but it’s Eileen’s bizarre psychology that really pulls you in.

quietest punch: An odd category, I know, but E.C. Osondu’s short story collection-cum-novella, This House Is Not For Sale, goes down in one sitting and hangs around hauntingly for a while longer. Told through the eyes of a little boy whose tyrannical grandfather is the patriarch of a family house in Lagos, it’s unsparing in its observations of how people wield power in a microcosm.

best Old-Fashioned Storytelling: This, I’ve decided, is a tie between two books. The first is Freya, by Anthony Quinn, which bounds from Oxford to Nuremberg to Fleet Street. It’s not stylistically challenging or innovative, but it’s impeccably written and the plot derives from the complex humanity of the characters and their motives—my favourite kind. The second is Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, which you’d think wouldn’t qualify at all, since it’s composed of film scripts and voiceovers and advertisements as well as just straight prose. It’s all about storytelling, though, and in its own beautiful, extravagant way, its storyline is Good and Old-Fashioned. I loved them both.

most resonant: I’ve been seeing echoes of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City ever since I finished it. Exploring artistic representations of, and negotiations with, urban loneliness, it’s a book with incredible contemporary relevance. Even if you don’t like nonfiction (especially if you don’t like nonfiction), I’d really recommend this.

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bit anticlimactic: Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost right after The Lonely City was probably unwise. It’s a completely different approach to a very similar subject, and I felt as though  Laing had simply managed to get more out of it by virtue of her depth. I did get some interesting stuff out of Solnit’s book, about the captivity narratives of European settlers in  North America who were kidnapped by Native Americans (this is a whole subgenre of American colonial literature), but mostly it felt undercooked. Depressing, as I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas. Maybe I should try another of hers.

possibly shouldn’t have been a novel: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days, about riots in south London, felt more like a sketch for a miniseries. An excellent idea that read very visually and that lacked the in-depth characterisation that novels are designed to deliver better than any other art form. Would love to see it on ITV, though.

most heartening re: the younger generation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, a feminist fairy tale of a YA book that I’ll be reviewing in Shiny New Books next week. It’s about an isolationist community composed solely of women, and about how they respond when gender-based violence comes to their front door. The writing had the breathless over-eagerness common to a lot of YA novels, but I’m willing to overlook that for the utter organic wonderfulness of what this book is actually saying. (Which is: girl, you are more powerful than you have ever known.)

best time-killer: It seems like damning with faint praise, but I had two and a half hours to kill in Highbury before my singing lesson last week, and I passed most of them in a Thai restaurant with Jason Gurley’s novel Eleanor and some spring rolls. Time travel, intergenerational conflict, shame, bereavement, and alcoholism all get a look in, but Gurley avoids soap opera with marvelous emotional dexterity. I was quite impressed—though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as the book was apparently in gestation for fifteen years.

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best surprise: I made a start on the Baileys Prize long list with Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, which has been lauded to the skies and will almost certainly win. Was terribly grumpy about reading it and spent a good fifteen minutes muttering about how annoying WWII novels are before actually cracking it open. I was so wrong! It’s not really a war novel, although there’s a lot of exploration of how the war affects those who survived it and the subsequent generations. I was a bit disappointed by the ceaseless authorial hatred for one character whose only crime, as far as I could tell, was that she was an imperfect and selfish mother. Obviously not a role model, but the book seemed surprisingly judgmental of her. Other than that, wonderfully fluid writing and characters that jumped off the page, in a convincing way. Bits of it reminded me a little of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years.

most heartrending:  Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. A graphic novel with almost no words, by a Belgian artist, about a lonely middle-aged Belgian man who visits art museums and barely ever talks to anyone. It can be devoured in a single sitting, or pored over at leisure; Gijsemans’s drawings are plain at first glance but full of detail the longer you look. Hubert is a wonderful creation. His sad little face and glasses do the same thing to my heart that Wall-E’s character design did (i.e. stomp on it). This is also a great book to read in conjunction with The Lonely City, since it’s basically a case study of how individuals medicate their own isolation with art. It’s really beautiful and made me all sad and hopeful at the end.

biggest disappointment: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, director of the National Gallery.  It was also longlisted for the Baileys Prize, though it won’t win, and hopefully won’t even make the shortlist. It’s a sweet idea (a down-on-her-luck woman finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone in the art world decides they want it) but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like “I will do this” or “You do not see that”, instead of “I’ll” or “You don’t”. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last. Do trade fiction editors even turn up to work anymore? grump grump Positive aspects include the fact that there are divine descriptions of food in it, and the “mild peril” (as film ratings boards say) is rather fun.

and, getting in under the wire: Relativity by Antonia Hayes, which I finished this evening and can’t think of a superlative for at the moment because it’s still percolating through my head. I have to come up with a few questions for Hayes, whose publicist has kindly granted me a Q&A with her; I think about half of them will be to do with this specific book, and half will be to do with writing (especially as a debut novelist) more generally. For now, you should know that it’s about a twelve-year-old boy who was badly shaken as a baby and who is now growing into his intellectual gift for maths and physics, trying to piece together the truth about his estranged father. The writing is tidy and competent and the plot is pretty good stuff too. More on this soon.

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what next: I’ve borrowed Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North from a colleague (it was published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), and have borrowed the Chaos’s mum’s Kobo, which has The System of the World on it. I also want to get through more Baileys Prize longlist books–maybe The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet next?–and have got a few books from publishers for April, including Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, which looks amazing. It’s going to be a wonderful spring.

The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

“He lived in isolation, but it was a highly populated isolation. There was a circle drawn around him that no one crossed.”

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Olivia Laing’s second book (but her first that I read), The Trip to Echo Spring, was an exploration of how alcoholism affected the life and art of six mid-century American writers. It was, in essence, a mapping of something that can seem abstract (a diagnosis, a condition, an impulse, an addiction) onto the skin of everyday reality: how it feels to experience it, how it manifests, and its ability to both enhance and destroy artistic potential. The Lonely  City is doing something similar, except that the abstraction is loneliness and isolation—particularly in an urban setting—and the afflicted makers are visual artists, most (thought not all) of them centred in New York City.

She also combines the experience of the artists she discusses with her own experience of loneliness. It’s a phenomenon, as the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann dryly noted, that people do not seem to want to discuss, an aversion that stretches even to psychologists themselves, who tend to avoid asking questions that would lead them to the heart of the nature of loneliness. There is something in us that makes us not only forget what loneliness feels like once we are no longer lonely, but that causes us to be actively repelled by loneliness in others, a kind of cruel self-reinforcing survivalism. (Laing writes of the elderly man she met on a station platform who tried to engage her in conversation. Her responses to him are increasingly terse until, smiling gently, he moves away. She is ashamed of how she has pushed him away, but she almost cannot help herself.) The awful thing about this is that to be lonely is often to feel as though you are somehow, incomprehensibly, repulsive to other people—and the truth, horrible as it is, is that you are right. “It may well be,” Fromm-Reichmann wrote, “that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.” Edward Hopper, Laing’s first subject, had this effect on people; a diarist who met him writes, “Should be married. But can’t imagine to what kind of a woman. The hunger of that man.”

Hunger and loneliness go together: the need for connection is as driving as the need for food. It’s no wonder that Laing chooses to focus on outsider artists. Andy Warhol—whom you might consider a consummate insider—was in fact the son of Polish emigrants from Pittsburgh, born Andrej Warhola, an ultimate outsider in many senses. He found himself, the body, mortality, death, physically horrifying; he could not face the reality of his own existence as a corporeal being. He was a sickly little boy, an immigrant, and gay: triply alienated from the children amongst whom he grew up. Laing’s acuity, as a critic of art and of psychology, is in evidence when she examines Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic:

Starting with a series of Coke bottles, he progressed rapidly to Campbell’s soup cans, food stamps and dollar bills: things he literally harvested from his mother’s cupboards. Ugly things, unwanted things, things that couldn’t possibly belong in the sublime white chamber of the gallery…He was painting things to which he was sentimentally attached, even loved; objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual but because they are reliably the same.

As a little boy in industrial urban Pennsylvania in the 1950s, to not be the same as one’s peers was to be freakish, alien, to suffer a profound social isolation. It puts a new, an entirely heartbreaking, slant on those Technicolour silk-screened soup cans, to look at them as a wordless cry of longing for assimilation. “All the Cokes are the same”, Warhol wrote in his autobiography, “and all the Cokes are good.” Inanimate objects, factory-produced, mechanized, do not shun each other, and are not individually shunned by the people who use them. They are part of a tribe. They belong somewhere; they belong together.

Sexuality is a huge part of this feeling of belonging or alienation. David Wojnarowicz is the subject of most of Laing’s attention in The Lonely City; he was a gay photographer and video artist who ran away from home as a teenager and hustled for years before getting off the streets. His life spanned a period of New York City’s history that began with the sexual freedom and liberating anonymity of the gay hookup scene at the abandoned Chelsea piers, and that ended with the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. It’s not easy, if you haven’t lived through it, to imagine how genuinely apocalyptic the late 1980s and early 1990s must have felt, primarily for urban gay men and the people who loved them, but increasingly also for sex workers and intravenous drug addicts. Wojnarowicz saw dozens of his friends die. The American government did nothing to help. An ignorant and judgmental political elite saw the waves of deaths as the result of “lifestyle choices”, regrettable but ultimately no one else’s responsibility. It must have literally felt like the end of the world. Wojnarowicz lost his friend, the artist Peter Hujar, in 1987. A few weeks later, Wojnarowicz’s partner, Tom Rauffenbart, was diagnosed with AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself was diagnosed in the spring of 1988. Laing writes so movingly, so beautifully, about his artistic response to these losses:

Later, he made a film for Hujar that was never finished… The camera moved tenderly, grievingly over Peter’s open eyes and mouth, his bony, elegant hands and feet, a hospital bracelet looped around his wrist. Then white birds by a bridge, a moon behind clouds, a shoal of something white moving very fast in the dark. The fragment ended with a re-enactment of a dream: a shirtless man being passed through a chain of shirtless men, his supine body slipping gently from hand to tender hand. Peter held by his community, conducted between realms.

[…] During the AIDS years he kept painting a repeating image of creatures attached to one another by pipes or cords or roots, a foetus to a soldier, a heart to a clock. His friends were sick, his friends were dying, he was in deep grief, thrust face to face with his own mortality. Again and again with his brush, painting the cords that tethered creatures together. Connection, attachment, love: those increasingly imperilled possibilities.

She intercuts these chapters with her own experience of loneliness in New York, a loneliness that feels particularly contemporary because of its existence alongside technology that is designed to bring people together but that often only makes them more acutely aware of how far apart they are. She describes her late-night scrolling through her Twitter feed as being an experience akin to staring out of a dark window into other people’s lighted windows: you can see them, but you can’t reach them. You are very aware of your own solitude, and simultaneously aware of the thousands of people around you. It’s dizzying and not altogether a comfort. She is aware of the myriad wonders of the Internet: she and three friends hold a long-distance film festival, watching from several different continents the documentary We Live In Public, about a social experiment that saw dozens of people living in a complex without any privacy whatsoever. They discuss their responses to the film over Gchat or Facebook Messenger. And yet there’s also that ultimate sense of being alone anyway that is only heightened by the illusion of actually being together. And there’s the rabbit-hole effect:

I was spending increasing hours sprawled on the orange couch in my apartment, my laptop propped against my legs, sometimes writing emails or talking on Skype, but more often just prowling the endless chambers of the internet, watching music videos from my teenaged years or spending eye-damaging hours scrolling through racks of clothes on the websites of labels I couldn’t afford. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled and filled the vacuum left by love.

[…] I wonder now: is it fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age? At the top of Broadway I passed a man sitting in a doorway. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. When I paused, he started to speak unstintingly, saying that he had been sitting there for three days and not a single person had stopped to talk to him. He told me about his kids, and then a confusing story about work boots. …It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. …What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

But with this book, Laing refuses to pretend. She follows the gazes of people in pain, people isolated and suffering and making desperate, beautiful art out of desperate, awful emotions. She reads their pictures and their film reels; she finds in their work the voices of artists and writers and makers and humans all calling out to be heard. She doesn’t need any accolades—her first two books have already made it abundantly clear that her talent is huge—but The Lonely City, predictable though this may sound, really does make you feel just a little bit less alone.

Many thanks to Anna Frame at Canongate Books for the review copy. The Lonely City was published in the UK on 3 March.

April Superlatives

My reading in April has been so consistently good that I’ve had trouble thinking of positive categories that don’t all sound the same! Long may it continue. Links are to reviews where applicable.

most inspirational: a tie between Deep Lane, by Mark Doty, and All About Love, by bell hooks. Doty’s poetry is gorgeous and playful, and refreshed my interest in ignoring the rigidity of formal poetic boundaries; I reviewed it in Quadrapheme here. bell hooks is an author I had never read before now, and All About Love struck such a chord with me that I just couldn’t write about it. It’s a gauntlet thrown down to a generation defined by cynicism, the sort of challenge you want to rise to whilst still being afraid.

most philosophically worrisome: Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess. I read two Classics Challenge books this month, to make up for a grand zero in March. Burgess’s fat novel of Catholicism, morality, sexuality and the two World Wars was ideal Easter reading, but disquieting because it forces you to wonder what you would do in similar situations, and to realize that you probably wouldn’t be heroic.

guiltiest pleasure: Orient, by Christopher Bollen. Martin Cornwell reviewed this in Quadrapheme, and I took a copy from the launch party, for my own satisfaction. I finished it in two and a half days–it’s that addictive. A marvelous literary thriller that, as Martin says, transcends genre.

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most impressively disturbing: The Beautiful Indifference, by Sarah Hall. Read all in a gulp on the Oxford Tube, on the way to an event at Foyle’s for the release of her new novel The Wolf Border. All of these stories are, in the best way, haunting, but the one that keeps coming back to me is the first in the collection, “Butcher’s Perfume”, which was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and, let’s be honest, probably should have won. (Hall won it a few years later anyway, for “Mrs. Fox”.)

most simpatico: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse. This debut novel of office-worker malaise and the myriad weirdnesses of being in your twenties pushed so many buttons for me. It’s also wonderfully rendered: Furse does a good line in detached, observational prose, which helps subtly but unmistakably to characterize her unnamed protagonist.

most straight-up infuriating: The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham. Another one for the Classics Challenge this month. I just. I’m sorry. I know that there are many excellent reasons to explore the character of a man who callously abandons his wife and family in order to pursue A Life Of Art Because He Is A Genius, but genius has been an excuse for far, far too long.

pleasantest surprise: Goblin Market (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Christina Rossetti. Having never read any Rossetti before (to speak of), I wasn’t sure what to expect–morbidity, mostly. There was plenty of that, but also plenty of unexpected sensuality. The title poem is extraordinary in its imagery and its intensity.

most earnest: On the Beach At Night Alone (Penguin Little Black Classics), by Walt Whitman. Here’s what I learned by reading this: I like Whitman a lot, but only in small doses. The problem is that he enjoys repetition too much, and some of his keystone phrases (“men and women”, “I have loved well”, literally anything to do with the sea or sailors) lose their potency when they’re right next to fifty other poems with the same keystones. Read Whitman poems one at a time, very gradually.

I just love this picture.

most unabashedly comforting: Graduates In Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale. Comfort food for the soul: this collection of emails between two university friends as they embark on international adventures both professional and romantic was itself a gift from an old friend, and a fun, oddly soothing read.

greatest cause of head-on collisions with strangers: Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison. I kept stopping in the middle of carparks whilst reading this poetry collection, which is dangerous. Some of these poems are devastatingly clever, like “Wave”; some are small and self-contained, like “Happiness.” All are great. I can’t think of a poem in this collection I didn’t like.

all-around best: Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. I waited months to read this, and good Lord, was it ever worth it. A post-apocalyptic thriller that’s actually much more about relationships, resilience and missed opportunities. It’s so good.

most gut-wrenching: Girl At War, by young Croatian author Sara Novic, which I’ll be reviewing as part of Little Brown’s promotional blog tour (!) It’s a novel about the Balkan war in the early ’90s (something I have very vague, very early memories of, it being in the news in the States when I was a toddler. Not the parts that this novel covers; I don’t think I was really sentient until Kosovo happened in 1998, and Girl At War‘s most traumatic events occur in 1991.)

next up: Among others, The Electric Michelangelo, Sarah Hall’s Booker-Prize-shortlisted second novel, and Nights At the Circus, by Angela Carter, for May’s Classics Challenge.

A Weekend Miscellany: the Pulitzers, bell hooks, and What To Read Next

Thing One: the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced last week. This year, it goes to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. This frustrates me for several reasons, one of which is that I haven’t yet read it, and I now have to decide whether it’s worth reading yet another WWII novel simply because it won the Pulitzer. I’ve heard very mixed reactions, from people telling me it’s poetic and beautiful to the Guardian reviewer asserting that its poeticism is overblown but made up for by a gripping plot. (I’m inclined to believe the Guardian reviewer). I like reading the prize winners because it provides a certain level of order and some common cultural ground to my reading list, but at the same time, I’m not sure I have that much interest in a 700-pager about occupied France. Has anyone out there read it? Is it worth a go?

Thing Two: I read bell hooks’s book of cultural criticism All About Love last week. I’m not going to write about it. I vacillated for a bit on this, but I think I have a few solid reasons, one of which is that it’s a book that requires time to percolate. The first few chapters of my copy now have heavy pencil underlining, and the idea of a “love ethic” in daily life is something that I want to sit down with and unpack on my own time. For precisely that reason, it’s not very review-able. It’s a book that will continue to resonate with me personally, privately, for a long time, and I don’t want to write down my thoughts too hastily and then send them out into the ether. Some books need to be experienced in privacy, and ongoingly. (I know it’s not a word, but now it is.)

Thing Three: What do I read next? I finished Blake Morrison’s amazingly good collection of poetry Shingle Street yesterday, and went to the random number generator to choose my next. The first time, the computer suggested #2 on my list: Of Human Bondage. I’ve just finished a Somerset Maugham (The Moon and Sixpence, for the Classics Club, review coming soon), and I’m going through some life changes at the moment which mean that I don’t want to be dealing with a particularly large book. I tried again. Infuriatingly, the computer next suggested #4: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is about 900 pages long. Eventually, I decided that I had denied myself the pleasure of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven for long enough, and started on it. (It’s very good. I’m going to review it here, properly, because none of the reviews I’ve seen have given even the slightest indication of what the experience of reading the book is like; most have been content to state the premise.)

But that made me think: maybe the Internet has some ideas. So, below is my current TBR list (these are all the books in my room that I haven’t yet read). It’s shorter than most peoples’, because I’m a young professional and my room isn’t very big, and also because there are more TBR books in my grandparents’ garage, which I’m not even going to get into right now. If you have any suggestions for where I should go after finishing Station Eleven, leave them in the comments!

  1. The Golden Pot, German fairy stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
  2. Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham
  3. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
  4. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
  5. Alms for Oblivion: Vol. 1, by Simon Raven
  6. Grits, by Niall Griffiths
  7. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
  8. Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamed Ould Slahi
  9. The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture
  10. Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
  11. Nights At the Circus, by Angela Carter
  12. The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light
  13. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber (it has literally taken me this long to realize that his name is not Michael, but Michel. Seriously! Look closely at the book cover, then ask Wikipedia.)
  14. The Electric Michelangelo, by Sarah Hall
  15. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed (also known as Dear Sugar)
  16. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
  17. Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward