October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.


tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.


up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

Birthday Books!

I’ve read some bloody good books since writing about Knockemstiff, including James Salter’s portrait of a dissolving twentieth-century marriage, Light Years; Blood DazzlerPatricia Smith’s extraordinary collection of poetry on Hurricane Katrina (some of it told from the hurricane’s point of view…), and Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, also about the events leading up to the hurricane in the life of a fifteen-year-old pregnant girl living in poverty on the Gulf Coast. I would recommend every single one of these books without hesitation to nearly everyone–they are all That Good. But I’ve fallen down a bit on reviewing, because the past two weeks have been profoundly chaotic and busy, and I had a birthday! I got a LOT of books, and I figure the best way to wipe the slate clean is to do a book pile-post (everyone loves one of those!), and then pick up with reviews again.

birthday booksFrom the top:

Imagine My Surprise: Unpublished Letters To the Daily Telegraph. Casanova and Princi gave me this, along with a card that had rhyming couplets and the word “twat” in it, which means they come pretty close to Winning At Birthdays. There is nothing more gloriously, incomprehensibly English than the rejected complaint letters from readers of the Telegraph. If you don’t understand what “Disgusted in Tunbridge Wells” means, then this book’s not for you; if you do, it’s a gem.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. From the Duchess, this is a gorgeous edition of the Winifred Watson novel about a middle-aged spinster who thinks she’s landed a short-term governess job, only to find that she’s working for a nightclub singer instead of a bunch of undisciplined children. Their unlikely friendship, and the slow blossoming of Miss Pettigrew’s spirit, makes for a gently lovely novel.

Go Set A Watchman. Also from the Duchess; who DOESN’T know what this is about by now? A very anticipated read, although my expectations are cautious.

The InheritorsFrom dearest Dubai-dwelling Loch Hess Monster, who has been trying to evangelize this book to me for about a year! A fictionalization of the meeting of Neanderthals with homo sapiens, it is what William Golding should be known for, instead of that choirboy horror show Lord of the Flies.

The Complete English Poems of John Donne. An early birthday present from Darcy–I haven’t got all of these in one volume, so this is handy and lovely all at once. Oh, Donne. Always and forever one of the gatekeepers to my heart.

Diary of Witold Gombrowicz. I came in at around two in the morning on the day of my actual birthday, because we’d had the office summer party the night before, and I tripped over this enormous Amazon package sitting on my front doorstep. I carried it upstairs, ripped it open, and found this: the 800-page diary of one of the major figures of twentieth-century Polish literature, none of whose works I have ever read. It was, of course, from Literary Uncle.

Le ton beau de Marot. An extraordinary tome by Douglas Hofstadter (he who brought you Godel, Escher, Bach), about translation and language systems. I’ve started it: he writes in meter, semi-intentionally. It will, without a doubt, be one of the most interesting things I ever read in my life.

And something I bought myself as a weird little treat:

Eloquent JavaScriptYes, really. I took a programming class YEARS ago and was really interested by it, but I was the only girl and the instructor was discouraging and…you know the story. This was sold to me as being one of the most comprehensive, and comprehensible, guides to beginners’ programming on the market, and the first few pages haven’t disappointed–the author has a marvelous chatty style. I like it already.

So, a wonderful birthday all around (including a joint celebration with Papa Bear down the pub, ft. the Duchess, Bunter, Casanova, Princi, the Lawyer aka AdventureSinCake–many of our old favorites, and quite a few new ones too.) What to read next? Apart from the above mentioned, there is also The Shore by Sara Taylor, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, The Holy and the Broken by Alan Light, and Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, on my shortlist of potential new reads. Someone help me make a decision…


Top Ten: Books On My Spring TBR Pile

All of these are sitting on my bedside table right now, in a teetering pile. I hope they don’t fall over.

Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison: because I read his poem “Happiness” in the Guardian books review and thought, Any poet whose idea of happiness involves sitting in the garden with a Thomas Hardy novel and some damson jam on toast is worth investigating further.

Congo, by David Van Reybrouck: because my uncle has worked there for the past four?five? years, and it’s a very complex (and dangerous) country, and Van Reybrouck writes almost novelistic journalism, in the best possible way.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse: because apparently its depiction of twenty-something office-worker malaise is second to none, and I am in a life stage where I can appreciate that aesthetic.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: because, as an American citizen, this is stuff I ought to make the effort to know about. Also because they went to all that trouble to write it.

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi: see above. I think this will provide a very interesting counterpoint to the Senate’s official report, and I will hopefully be able to write an article for Quadrapheme on the benefits of reading private and public documents side-by-side.

Grits, by Niall Griffiths: because I bought it ages ago and it’s about hardbitten Welsh people in the ‘90s and why on earth not.

All About Love, by bell hooks: because bell hooks. Srsly. Why haven’t I just read this damn book already. (Answer: I’m sort of afraid of it. Which is a great reason to start.)

Alms for Oblivion, by Simon Raven: because I gather it’s a bit like A Dance To the Music of Time for the mid-to-late twentieth century. Also because the front cover is psychedelic and I like that. (I actually do make book-buying decisions based on things like this, sometimes.)

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth: because Bunter gave it to me for Christmas, and he managed to read all eighteen zillion pages of it while revising for Finals, so I’ll be damned if I can’t read it under normal circumstances.

The Moon and Sixpence, by W Somerset Maugham: because Bunter (again!) lent it to me, and I need to give it back to him, and it’s based on the life of Paul Gaugin, who, in case you didn’t know, ran away from his wife and family in Paris to become a painter in Tahiti. It’ll be my Classics Club read for March, hopefully.