Reading Diary: all the stuff that’s not #20booksofsummer

Believe it or not, I have been reading things that aren’t #20booksofsummer, and I’m reliably informed that some people miss the reading diary format. So here’s a longer roundup post for y’all; I’ll continue to write reviews that count towards the challenge as individual posts.

35207298Femme noir beach read, I see you! I see you so hard! Sunburn is Laura Lippman’s latest book, and given how minutely it dissects the ways in which men can be manipulated by women using patriarchal entitlement as a weapon, it’s the closest thing I’ve read to a successor to Gone Girl. Our protagonist, Polly, has walked out on her dying marriage to Gregg and her toddler daughter, Jani. We first meet her in a bar in Belleville, Delaware, a nowhere-town that comes to life only during beach tourist season. She soon takes up with Adam, a regular at the bar who quickly becomes the chef, but Adam is hardly an ideal summer fling: he’s a private investigator who’s been hired to find her, by someone who’s not Gregg. Meanwhile, Polly is trying to keep more than one layer of secrets about her past under wraps… It’s been two and a half weeks (?) since I read this, and honestly, much of the plot has already left my head (though I can at least recall that it’s got insurance fraud and arson). The reason to read it is Polly, who can twist men (always men; women never like her) around her little finger, but who has also had such a rough shake from life that the more we learn about her, the more we think she deserves whatever she can garner for herself. Lippman’s plotting sags a little in the third quarter, but the tightness of the denouement makes up for it. This should be at the top of the stack of paperbacks next to your sun lounger.

9781509818402The Wonder is not a book that fears to wear its allegiance on its sleeve: its central character, Lib Wright, is a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who has seen active service in the Crimea, and she is intellectually dedicated to the rigours of the scientific method. She is therefore both uniquely prepared for, and uniquely disadvantaged to play, the role that she takes on at the start of the book: to keep a two-week, twenty-four-hour watch on a young Irish girl who claims to have been living on air (or, as she puts it, “manna from heaven”) for the last four months. Ireland in the 1880s is still so deeply enmeshed in the twin grips of rural poverty and the Catholic Church that Lib finds herself totally alone in her skepticism: the local priest, Mr. Thaddeus, waits for proof of a miracle, while the half-cracked elderly village doctor is convinced that Anna represents the first step in humanity’s evolution into something superhuman (“perhaps reptilian”, he suggests). It’s only when Mr. Byrne, a journalist from Dublin, enters the village that Lib has an ally, but time is running out for Anna… The Wonder isn’t perfect; Donoghue hammers home the price of superstition, making even supposedly educated people into credulous caricatures. The ending, too, although deeply satisfying in a certain emotional sense, is a little neat. The chances of a happy ending to this sort of story are so slim, after all. What saves the book from mawkishness is Donoghue’s ability to get us desperately invested in the truth: as Rebecca rightly notes, the geographical isolation of the setting makes The Wonder almost a locked-room mystery, and the satisfaction of figuring it out is compelling.

9781408880364At a christening party in Los Angeles, Albert Cousins kisses his host’s wife. What might have been a mildly embarrassing social faux pas becomes much more when Beverly Keating divorces her husband and marries Bert, moving across the country to live with him in Northern Virginia, nearer his parents. Complicating the situation are Bert’s and Beverly’s children, a multifarious brood who sometimes get along, sometimes don’t. A tragic accident one summer haunts the whole extended family; years later, Franny Keating, whose christening party was the scene of the initial forbidden kiss, is grown up and working as a cocktail waitress, having dropped out of law school. At the bar where she works, she meets Leon Posen, a Great American Writer clearly imagined in the vein of Roth or Bellow. Her family’s story becomes the plot of Posen’s comeback novel, and the repercussions of this second betrayal follow her and her siblings for decades to come. Ann Patchett’s grasp of family dynamics and the way people speak to each other is majestic; Commonwealth has a large cast of characters, complexly interrelated, but for the most part Patchett keeps them all clearly differentiated. The book is an exploration of what families owe to one another, and of where, if anywhere, the boundaries of “family” can be drawn. Franny and Posen’s long-term relationship is drawn exceptionally well: a long chapter during which friends from the publishing industry impose on Franny’s hospitality for weeks at a time reveals so much about the inequalities of age, wealth, and social capital that will eventually capsize their lives together. I’d rather read Patchett on dysfunctional families than Franzen, any day: she’s funnier, and kinder.

91yjoatbknlThe Burning Chambers is brain candy, there can be no question, but it’s the sort of brain candy that does you no harm. It is set during sixteenth-century France’s Wars of Religion, in the old medieval town of Carcassonne and in the city of Toulouse. Although religious conflict does play a role in the plot, the real story is about the heritage of our heroine Minou. (This, I am told, is the equivalent of naming an English character “Pussy”, with all of the same connotations. Whoops.) She is a classic romantic-adventure protagonist: gutsy and morally sound without being moralising, remarkably openminded regarding an individual’s freedom to worship as they see fit, bookish but not intellectual, and possessed of a single defining physical characteristic (mis-matched eyes. Her love interest, Piet Reydon, has another standard iteration of this: red hair.) Minou and Piet are caught up in the machinations of the evil cleric Valentin, once Piet’s best friend at university, now a zealot whose interest in maintaining the iron grip of Catholicism is motivated less by religious passion than by a lust for worldly power. He all but rubs his hands together and cackles, á la Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (He also has one distinguishing feature, a streak of white in an otherwise-black head of hair.) And Valentin is entangled with a woman who has never met Minou, but who, for reasons we slowly come to learn, wants her dead. It all sounds quite ridiculous and indeed, it is—the denouement, which involves an enormous pyre in the middle of a mountain forest, becomes almost farcical as various characters run in and out of the scene—but it works. Mosse keeps all of her plates spinning, never seeming to lose each character’s place in the plot; her action scenes are exciting and fast-paced, just begging the eye to fly down the page; and she’s done her research. Minou’s politics might be conveniently progressive, but sixteenth-century Carcassonne comes to life in Mosse’s brisk but detailed prose.

51qzl0d3hbl-_sx308_bo1204203200_“Progressive” is not the word anyone would use to describe the politics of the characters in Cressida Connolly’s After the Party. Focalised through the memories of one woman, Phyllis Forrester, the book is a dissection of the Sussex “county set” in the late 1930s, and particularly of the upper-middle-class people who believed passionately in the values being preached by the British Union of Fascists. The word “fascist” is never used; nor are the names of Oswald Mosley or Diana Mitford, as far as I could see, but that is, self-evidently, who and what they are. The book’s marketing is slightly misleading, in that it emphasises a tragic death that occurs after a party held by a local couple, and Phyllis’s sense of responsibility for it; that event does have some significance, but it is not the reason why she goes to prison, which is the other thing that we know about almost from the outset. What Connolly seems to be doing—and it’s not at all clear to me whether she means to do this or not—is inculcating in the reader a sense of sympathy for the average British fascist, the sort of people whose analogues in Nazi Germany were spending these years “just following orders”.

Although I had no idea that members of the Union were interned in the early 1940s without trial or explanation—and although that is a horrifying thought, particularly as many of those imprisoned were profoundly low-level and did little more than file reports or make tea, while far more senior organisers and theorisers were left alone—there is something about the very attempt to make British fascism palatable, or understandable, or even mildly sympathetic, that I pull strongly against. It does not advance the cause of global peace and dignity, in these days, to dehumanise your opponents; I understand that, and I appreciate that Phyllis is so very human a character, slightly weak, slightly bored, clinging to fascism well after it’s fashionable because without it, all the losses of her life will have been for nothing. But I am very wary of what a conservative or right-wing book review page (The Spectator, perhaps) could do with After the Party, very wary of anything that lends itself to the interpretation that we should all hug a fascist. The past eighteen months have made it abundantly clear that Phyllis Forrester’s time is not over and gone; last Sunday, supporters of Tommy Robinson marched in London; and to ask one group of people to try and understand the humanity of another group that refuses to extend that same dignity to them is revolting and absurd. That’s not to say that those adjectives apply to After the Party—it’s an extremely nuanced novel, and literature abounds with protagonists whose personal convictions the reader finds appalling (Humbert Humbert, anyone?)—but it is, without a doubt, a book that could only have been conceived and written in this particular way by someone in a position of significant relative privilege.

36237273From boom times to penury: The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware’s latest novel, opens on our protagonist Harriet—known as Hal—trudging through rain and wind with a fish and chips she can’t really afford under her arm. Hal does tarot readings on Brighton pier: she inherited the booth from her mother, who died in a hit-and-run accident three years ago. Now twenty-one, Hal has unwisely taken money from a local loan shark, and is in desperate need of three thousand pounds before his steel-toed-boot-wearing enforcers come around. So when a case of mistaken identity results in a letter from a lawyer’s office in Penzance, referring to her as the beneficiary of her grandmother’s will, she decides she might as well use her cold-reading techniques to see what she can get. When it turns out that the bequest isn’t just a few thousand pounds, but most of the estate, Hal realises she has two choices: confess now, or stay in it for the long haul. She chooses, of course, the latter, but things at Trepassen aren’t what they seem, and she finds herself unraveling a conspiracy of silence that stretches back decades. This is the first of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve read (a shocking admission given how well they go down at Heywood Hill), and it’s highly impressive. It’s so easy to lose the thread of thriller plotting, particularly when your subgenre is psychological intrigue, where so many of the significant plot points happen inside characters’ heads, but Ware never does: there’s always that sense of forward momentum, no scenes that feel like they’re treading water. Tarot, and the interplay between superstition, fate, and self-determination, is woven through the book: is life something Hal can navigate for herself, or does the past determine the present? Ware deals with these questions subtly, and creates a protagonist whose constant calculations are made necessary and sympathetic by the precariousness of her situation. Very good stuff indeed.

Thoughts on recent reading: All female authors, all highly readable, and a surprising recurrence of themes around lost or thwarted heritage. Quite pleased with the summer’s start.

Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.

Reading Diary: Mar. 4-Mar. 10

22589334My friend Katie let me borrow her copy of The Arsonist, citing it as one of the best fictional portrayals she knows of a career aid worker readjusting to life in the developed world. Since one of the protagonists of my novel has to deal with just this situation, I was grateful for the recommendation. Sue Miller’s main character, Frankie Rowley, is returning to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, after years as an aid worker in Kenya. Her parents have retired to the house that was historically their summer property, but retirement isn’t going to be a smooth ride—her father, Alfie, is developing dementia, and her mother, Sylvia, must care for him. Meanwhile, someone is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people” in Pomeroy, and Frankie—attempting to find some direction—begins an affair with Bud, the local newspaperman. I’ve read some complaints about the slow development of The Arsonist; I can only assume that this is down to baffled expectations. It’s not a thriller about a firebug, but a portrait of a small town drawn into the discomfort of facing its class divide head on. Pete, the widower from whom Bud bought the local paper, suggests that the problem is due to an increasing sense of equality: in the 1930s and 1940s, his parent’s generation, he suggests, “knew their place”, and no one felt troubled by the distance between year-round residents and the seasonsal families who employed locals as maids and handymen during the summer months. Perhaps it does no one any favours, Pete muses, to pretend as though there are no longer any social distinctions, when a difference in privilege and in wealth is so clear. Thematically, this makes a nice counterpoint to Frankie’s concern about her own privilege as a white expatriate in Africa, someone who was always going to be helicoptered out of a potentially dangerous situation, who didn’t really “belong” there because she could opt out of certain hazards.

Frankie’s and Bud’s romance is maybe a little torrid, but this is mitigated by the fact that it takes so long to get going, and by Frankie’s resistance and awkwardness as she tries to figure out which choices will let her have the most meaningful or fulfilling life. Fulfillment is also a vexed issue for Sylvia Rowley, who resigns herself to an old age spent caring for an increasingly demented husband whom she has long since ceased to really love. Throughout, Miller maintains a firm grasp of emotional beats, the complexities of a long marriage and of claustrophobic communities and of the interplay between a longing for independence and a longing for love. I’m particularly impressed by her understanding of rural communities, the way that things like a Halloween Haunted House at the town hall or a barbeque at the fire station hold such places together. Her work reminds me of Anne Tyler’s.

36262478Michael Andreasen’s debut short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, was one of the proofs I was most excited about getting to this month, even though I maintain the pretense of not liking short stories very much. (I say “pretense” because I always end up liking the ones that I read.) Andreasen’s approach to fantasy or magical realism is to infuse fantastical situations with bracing jolts of recognisable modernity, or vice versa. The sailors stuck on a slowly sinking ship, for instance, listen to hip-hop through their headphones, and a child in the first story—set either in an alternate universe or the future—has the distinctly old-fashioned name of Ernest. The most striking element of Andreasen’s work is his skill at engaging a reader’s emotions, even if those emotions conflict. In the title story, for instance, a lovestruck kraken is sinking a ship inch by inch, day by day, convinced that the ship is one of its own kind. The kraken eventually spawns thousands of babies, all of which are murdered by the sailors in an orgy of destruction; at the end of the story, a young sailor on the doomed vessel is found to have kept one infant kraken alive. He pins it—still living—to an effigy of the ship, places a doll version of himself on the deck of the model, and tips it overboard. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene because it forces us to feel so many things at once: pity for a tortured young animal and revulsion at the man who could do such a thing; simultaneous pity and terror for the young sailor and his shipmates and their impending demise; poignancy and horror that humans can keep hoping, even while suffering a slow death. Not all of the stories in the collection achieve such a powerful cocktail of emotion, but they’re all just as weird and engaging.

31937362What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? These are the questions posed by Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, out on 22 March. It reminded me, thematically, of The Moon and Sixpence (and it explicitly cites Paul Gaugin’s abscondment to Tahiti and abandonment of his wife and children as an example of the cruelties that artistic genius commits and is excused for). The novel centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter of forty or so when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known to all as Pinch. Bear might be a genius, but he is also controlling, serially unfaithful, and—the reader begins to notice—a bullshitter. Chronically jovial in public, he alternately manipulates and ignores both his current family and his children from other marriages, and manages to distract most people from noticing that he never says anything of substance; Pinch, who is desperate to be accepted as an artist by his father, interprets Bear’s evasions of direct questions in the way most flattering to himself, until he ages into knowing better. The early part of the book is spent in exploring the ways in which Bear belittles and diminishes Natalie’s artistic talent, but most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Parts of it are terribly sad—Rachman writes a few scenes for Pinch of such utter humiliation that they’re painful to read—other parts joyous. Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all. The Italian Teacher is a deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Several thematic parallels between the three books read this week, most notably dealing with aging and/or dementia-struck parents. It was also illuminating to read The Italian Teacher after All the Perverse Angels; both are intensely interested in the production of art and how its value is determined.

2017 In First Lines

Now that I’ve finished the first book of the last month of the year, I can start with all of the usual end-of-year posting. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it (not to be confused with the Best Of Year roundup!)

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January: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”—Virgin And Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. The surest sign that my reading has changed this year is that this sentence didn’t especially register back in January, but made me raise an eyebrow high when I reread it two minutes ago.

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February: “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”—Mirror Shoulder Signal, by Dorthe Nors. I remember reading this while walking to work at a restaurant in Pimlico, where I waited tables for a deeply un-fun month and a half. Sharp and fresh and kind of off-kilter; it was on the Man Booker International shortlist for a reason.

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March: “Atop the mud-brick wall stood a man stripped to the waist, with his arms stretched out to the sides as if crucified.”—Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. The pitch-blackest comedy I’ve ever read; a spy novel at once hopelessly enigmatic, deeply pessimistic, and posing the most serious moral questions. It’ll be in my Books of the Year for sure.

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April: “On Friday, January 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz awoke in an excellent mood.”—The Idealist, by Justin Peters. A biography of Swartz, a programming prodigy (he helped develop Creative Commons at the age of fifteen) and advocate of open source software and the free exchange of ideas. Absolutely essential reading for anyone who reads or uses a computer (so, you.)

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May: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”—The City and the City, by China Miéville. A phenomenal mindfuck of a book; a riff on urban isolation and solipsism, I think, and maybe also on willful political blindness, plus there’s a great noir plot.

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June: “Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.”—Real Tigers, by Mick Herron. We love Mick Herron at the bookshop; this is the third of his Slough House series, about a department of disgraced MI5 agents. One could wish for slightly fewer wisecracks in this volume, but it’s solid and tons of fun.

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July: “The teenagers would fuck it up.”—The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal. Does anyone write about parenthood and intergenerational conflict (and surprising alliances) with more sly, sympathetic wit than Francesca Segal? I doubt it.

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August: “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs.”—Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose. A deeply thought-provoking remix of Mrs. Dalloway, set on the day of the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death.

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September: “This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.”—Roughing It, by Mark Twain. My dad bought me this when I was home for the summer; Twain is one of his favourite writers, and it was lovely to read it back in London and think of him.

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October: “The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep?'”—The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré. What a first line. Even if you don’t know where you are, you know where you are: somewhere cold, somewhere dark, somewhere not entirely safe.

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November: “At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”—The End of the Day, by Claire North. Read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel; I wasn’t entirely impressed with the occasional melodrama of the book, but the idea is very good indeed (our protagonist, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death) and it’s often a lot of fun.

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December: “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”—A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towles. What a gorgeous book: tender, tough, and endlessly empathetic. It too will make my Books of the Year without question.

Is this representative of this year’s reading? Not enormously; I read a lot more speculative fiction than this slice suggests, although I think the male-to-female author ratio is about right (pretty close to 50:50). It’s an all-white line-up, which isn’t quite right either; I read some brilliant works by authors of colour this year: David Olusoga, Zadie Smith, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Patrice Lawrence, Kei Miller, Yukio Mishima, Omar El Akkad, Nnedi Okorafor, Kamila Shamsie… (More on some of these in the Books of the Year post.)

What this fragment of my reading does accurately reflect, however, is that I read a hell of a lot of spy novels this year, statistically speaking. Clearly, espionage was this year’s escapism flavour of choice.

What seems to have improved in 2017 is either my ability to choose books for myself more cannily, or my ability to get more out of more varied titles—or, possibly, both. I don’t do star ratings on this blog because I find them at best a crude tool for describing complex things, but Goodreads pretty much makes you use them, and there were a lot of four- or five-star books this year. Long may it be so.

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman

“You want to adopt, adopt a child from a place that you know.”

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Maya and Alex Shulman-Rubin live in New Jersey with their adopted son, Max. Alex’s parents, Eugene and Raisa—Soviet Jewish emigrés who have built their food import business into a small empire—live nearby, popping over to socialize and cook. Maya’s parents are still in the Ukraine; she doesn’t see them often, but she’s happy enough in the States, working as a radiologist and caring for her family. Until Max turns eight and starts behaving strangely: running away, sitting in streams, collecting grass. The Shulman-Rubins begin to worry. How much do they really know about their son—where he came from, what strange heritage might be surfacing? All they have to go on are the parting words from Max’s birth mother, eighteen-year-old Laurel from Montana: “You’re the mother,” she tells Maya. “You will raise him as you see fit. But I want to ask you for one thing… Please don’t let my baby do rodeo.”

As Max’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic (though never violent), Maya decides the only way to lay their fears (and any ghosts there might be) to rest is to take Max back to the land of his birth. She doesn’t drive, so although Alex is reluctant (an understatement; he thinks it’s a terrible idea), the three of them set off together on a road trip from New Jersey to Montana, hoping to find some answers.

It’s a quixotic premise, and the book continues in that vein. What Maya seeks (it’s all about her; Alex is sort of a background character) is not clear, to her or to anyone else, and least of all to the reader. The developing strain on their marriage is obvious, and its source is, in large part, Maya’s inability to pin down what she wants out of this trip or how she plans to go about getting it. Alex is a much preciser man, though also a martyr: happy to retain the moral upper hand by passive-aggressively submitting to his wife’s every demand, no matter how patently illogical it seems to him. The second chapter of the book details how they meet and marry, and it was that chapter that pulled me into the story: everything that happens to the Shulman-Rubins is a direct consequence of their visa-marriage, when Maya and Alex are twenty-three, barely old enough to know what they’re doing. One of the clevernesses of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is that it details how romantic youthfulness can curdle, over time, into frustration with each other’s weaknesses. Maya is spontaneous, warm, and enigmatic, sure, but she’s also irresponsible, self-centered, and indecisive. Alex is rational, solid and sensible, but he’s also controlling, dismissive, and a coddled mama’s boy. Spend enough time with them, and you’ll find them just as infuriating and hurtful as they clearly find each other. You’ll also probably be just as invested.

What did surprise me about the book as a whole was the general attitude to adoption that the characters displayed. Maya and Alex adopt Max as an infant in 2004, and the main action of the book takes place in 2012. Yet Eugene Rubin, Alex’s father, has lines like these:

“Of course those parents sprang him on you the way that they did… And got away without ever telling you why. Rodeo?” He laughed in an ugly way. He was finally saying things he had kept back because he was kind. “What is that? A lie. But you ate it.” He stared at Maya and bellowed, “What didn’t they tell you?”

That’s an extreme example, of course, but the first chapter’s set-up—that Max is a problem child—relies on similarly odd, and seemingly outdated, ideas about child development. Eugene and Raisa are horrified to learn that Max sleeps not in his bed but on the floor, and that he collects and labels types of grass, and that he has been lobbying his parents to let him sleep outside in a tent. This, and his running away, are the indicators of delinquency that the reader is given. At no point does anyone suggest that this is basically fairly normal eight-year-old behaviour: the testing of social norms and boundaries, the collector’s obsessiveness, the experimentation with leaving the comforts and bonds of home. I’m pretty sure that my eight-year-old brother—as biological and non-adopted as they come—loved tents and catalogued his possessions, too, and running away isn’t exactly unheard of, either. Sure, Max gets pretty far; and sure, mothers worrying about their bonds with their adopted children is also not unheard of. But it strikes me as odd that the Rubins take these things as a definitive proof that there is a Problem that needs to be Solved. The same is true of Eugene’s argument about the birth parents, one that Maya repeats in internal monologues. Why would a pair of eighteen-year-olds give up a newborn? Aren’t there obvious reasons (not enough money; not enough stability; not enough maturity) without having to look for something sinister?

Maybe we’re meant to feel this bewildered by the main characters. Maybe this is part of us understanding that the immigrant experience in America is one that turns you around, makes you an outsider all your life even as you seek to assimilate, changes your perceptions of who you are and what you can expect from other people. It’s a strength and weakness of the book that I honestly can’t decide whether this is the case.

Fishman’s writing is impossible to fault, especially in its descriptive sections. He writes with precision about the emotional currents between fighting people; he writes sex well; he writes perfectly about the landscape of the American West:

The sign, its blue uncannily matched to the head-beating blue of the sky, was in the shape of the state. The circle at its heart divided, inversely, into snow-capped peaks rising above a lemony sun. But the sky was so general in every direction over the prairie they had been crossing, which was so flat it looked pressed with an iron, that she would not have been surprised to see the sun rolling along the fields rather than up in the heavens.

There is an interesting hitch in the rhythms of his prose, a slight obliqueness, that is like the written equivalent of a trace of a foreign accent: hard to track, hard to identify, nevertheless making itself known. It means that sometimes you have to reread, particularly the words that encircle dialogue, to grasp the logistics of a scene, or the mechanics of a complex emotion. It’s an enriching way to consume a book, though it is time-consuming.

There is always a vague spectre of disaster hanging over the road trip that comprises the book’s second half, although what species of disaster it might be is left up to the reader to theorize. The ending is ambiguous, but hopeful: Alex and Maya’s marriage will endure, though it won’t ever be the same; their love for their son is unchanged. And the meaning of “don’t let my baby do rodeo”? It would be cruel to give it away (though Fishman leaves this, too, a little ambiguous), but there’s a metaphor there: rodeo is about wrestling and wrangling, about asserting control, about putting yourself in the way of terrible harm—life-changing injuries or even death—in order to master something larger than yourself. It’s exhilarating and invigorating, but it is also violent, masculine and aggressive. Max’s birth father, Tim, was crippled by a bull in a rodeo at the age of eighteen. It’s the prayer of every mother: don’t let my baby do rodeo. Don’t let my baby come to harm. Don’t let my baby’s heart harden against the world. Don’t let my baby be hurt.

Many many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo was published in the UK on 14 July.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter

…friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

Thus does Max Porter describe Crow, an atavistic bird-figure who appears to a grief-stricken man and his two small sons in London as they struggle to cope with the death of the woman who was wife, mother, and whole world to them. There is no explanation for Crow’s appearance, but, like all the best fictional nursemaids, he promises to stay until they don’t need him anymore. Except he is hardly of the gently-mischievous school of Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee; Crow is scatological, messy, crude, and anarchically poetic:

Oi, look, trust me. Did I or did I not faithfully

deliver St Vincent to Lisbon. Safe trip, a bit of liver,

sniff, sniff, fabric softener…Did I or did I not carry the hag

across the river. Shit not, did not. Sing song blackbird

automatic fuck-you-yellow, nasty, pretty boy, joke,

creak, joke, crech, joke. Patience.

He speaks in explosive free verse, and the other narrators of the book, Dad and Boys, also speak in a form laid out like poetry. “Boys” refers to both of the children; they’re a unit, although we know there are two and they’re differentiated in the narrative, one of them older and a little bit cruel, one of them younger and a little bit more vulnerable. It’s never really clear which one is which, though, and one of the sections near the end suggests that the combined narration is designed to throw us off, that both boys are equally vulnerable and equally prone to acting out: “One brother sat quietly inside the brother/bits and tried hard but felt angry. It’s me./I had a difficult few years, now I’m fine,/but I’m quiet and I’m unsentimental…I’m either brother.” Dad is easier to get a handle on: he’s a Ted Hughes scholar, “terminally uncool”, earnest and thoughtful. (“I am trying,” he tells us about halfway through the book, “to entertain the notion of Crow a bit less since I read a book about psychotic delusions.”)

I’ve read Grief Is the Thing With Feathers twice now, and I still don’t know where to start talking about it. It’s the sort of book that both demands to be thought about and makes it difficult to crystallize those thoughts. Noting this on Twitter, I got a reply from Max Porter himself (!), who informed me that coherence is vastly overrated. Good.

It’s never entirely clear what Crow is. Sometimes he seems to be a figment of the father’s imagination, a physical manifestation of his grief, as when the boys think they can overhear the two of them fighting: their father sobbing, the crow crawking. But Crow exists outside of the father, too, because the boys interact with him separately. If he’s a representation of grief, he’s the combined grief of the whole family. At other times, he seems to have an independent existence: he talks about how much he likes waiting for the boys and their father to come home in the evenings, the enjoyable silence of the empty house. He’s mischievous and disgusting. He has his own bad dreams. He defends the children, as well as nettling their father. He’s an emotional gadfly, a bit like Emma Thompson’s character in Love Actually when she orders Liam Neeson, as a griefstruck widower, to buck up: “No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time.”

The father does–metaphorically, at least–cry all the time. The book is painful and gorgeous to read because it’s merciless about grief. Grief hurts like hell. Grief is relentless. Grief is mean. Absolute absence is one of the hardest concepts on earth to get your head around, and Porter evokes it with precision:

She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)…

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

The sharpness of pain subsides: in flash-forwards, we learn that the father has a few girlfriends (though he never remarries), that the boys become men with beloveds and children of their own. But the existence of that pain never goes away; it just changes, mutates, and Porter gets that too, the doggedness of the bereaved.

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.

That surrender to the longevity, the permanence, of grief is all the more beautiful because it’s not really a choice: you can’t decide to stop missing someone. You can only decide how, or whether, to incorporate that missing, that impossible longing, into yourself. The Dad character is heroic not because he’s a perfect father, either before or after his wife’s death (hint: he is categorically not perfect), but because he manages this: the integration of agony into his life.

If this book were just a taxonomy of sorrow and acceptance, it would still be an arresting, impressive book, but it wouldn’t be such a good one. The reason it’s good is because it’s also funny. There’s a story (I won’t quote it here, it’s too good not to be read in context) about the father meeting Ted Hughes as a starstruck young man, which made me squirm and then laugh out loud with joy. The boys are brilliantly outlined: cheeky, vulnerable, half-wild. You get a frisson of alarm at their dangerous games, but you also recognize the parent/child script and its familiarity is amusing:

We balanced on the back of the sofa and/dive-bombed onto the carpet and Dad/shouted You think that doesn’t damage/your knees but it does and when you/are my age you will have serious knee/problems OK, and I will not push you/round in a cart like sad beggars and if you/think I’m lying you should have seen/your grandmother’s knees, ruined…/We stopped listening and kept on leaping.

This is a book about a very twenty-first century family, so there’s not much focus on afterlife. The mother is dead and that’s pretty much all there is; Porter never talks about God, and neither does Crow. But, for my money, the most affecting part of the book (apart from the ending, of course, which I’ll leave to you to read) is when Crow, in his only moment of true mercy, offers the father a glimpse of an answer about where his wife is now. He never claims that it’s a true answer; he simply makes it a possibility, and possibilities lead to hope, and hope is what enables people to integrate grief into their lives.

“If your wife is a ghost, then she is not wailing in the cupboards and corners of this house…”

“No?”

“No. Trust me, I know a bit about ghosts…She’ll be way back, before you. She’ll be in the golden days of her childhood. Ghosts do not haunt, they regress.”

I look at Crow… “Go on then. Tell me.” […]

He sits as still as I have ever seen an un-stuffed animal. Dead still…

“Right… p p p, yes ooh hold on, paradiddle parasaurolophus watch with mother hang on, ignore that, here we go… Playdates! Red Cross building, parquet floor, plimsolls. Brownies. Angel biscuits. Chase, I mean, tag, catch, you know. Rope swings. Her dad’s massive hands. Rock pools (Yorkshire?). Crabbing, nets, sardines, hiding, waiting…”

We sit in silence and I realise I am grinning. I recognise some of it. I believe him. I absolutely blissfully believe him and it feels very familiar.

I once lost someone that I loved to an early and catastrophic death. I don’t know what I believe, but I like, very much, the thought of him back in his childhood, in some small non-literal residual echoing faint sort of way. For its articulation of that idea alone, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is an exceptional, moving book: not easy, but oh, so worth it.

Thanks very much to Faber Books for the review copy!