Reading Diary: adventures in the unknown

71t4woqu2bnlThe Three-Body Problem has one of the most intensely hard-sf covers I’ve ever seen, and although you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, I reckon in this case you’d be pretty safe. Originally written in Chinese, it’s a fascinating read not only because of the mad-as-pants plot, but because Liu is working in a cultural context that Western science fiction, and Western science fiction readers, absolutely do not have. Starting with a scene in which a professor of physics is beaten to death by a group of over-excited teenage Red Guards in front of his young daughter, Liu meticulously constructs a view of the Cultural Revolution from the inside: not just its physical brutality, but the psychological compromises it forced from every Chinese citizen. Decades later, Ye—the little girl who watched her father die—is a radio astronomer at a top secret establishment called Red Base, tasked not with military surveillance of the decadent West, but with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. When Ye intercepts a radio signal that proves alien intelligence exists, she makes a decision that dooms the human race: reasoning that humanity has proved itself incompetent to rule the planet, she invites them to conquer Earth. This is just the first of a trilogy, so a lot of it consists of stage-setting and maneuvering various bits of plot into place. The writing—not unlike some other books I’ve read in translation from Asian languages, most notably Murakami’s work—feels stilted and unidiomatic, which although frustrating makes me think that it must have something to do with the underlying structures of English vs. Chinese. Characterisation often feels like an afterthought: although Ye’s motivation for welcoming alien overlords is fairly obvious and moving, Liu’s portrayals of, e.g., a man whose girlfriend has recently committed suicide, or a highly educated but nevertheless passive wife, rings less true. However, the experience of reading The Three-Body Problem is so unlike that of reading a Western sci-fi novel—especially because Liu’s politics veer towards the libertarian, which is quite different from the Western sci-fi that’s received critical acclaim in the recent past—that it feels worthwhile just for that.

81oxlxekxxlConvenience Store Woman is absolutely as weird, dark and surreal as everyone has been saying. It’s not that there’s any brutal physical violence in it; the strangeness and discomfort comes from our own reactions to Keiko, Sayaka Murata’s protagonist, a woman whose social skills have always been on the idiosyncratic side. We might think of her as autistic, or neuro-atypical, though there’s never any attempt to diagnose her in the book. Indeed, her family and friends seem unable to understand that she’s not just being willfully weird; constant cries of “can’t you be normal?” baffle Keiko so much that, by the time she’s an adult, she’s decided to aim for social acceptance through mimicry. Most of the time, she manages it: scenes in the staff room of the convenience store where she works show us how closely she pays attention to other peoples’ facial expressions, tones of voice, and lexicons, then regurgitates them in order to fit in. But it’s not really enough; after eighteen years of convenience store life, she still isn’t married, and the demands for normalcy are returning with a vengeance. Her solution is to allow a former employee, the lost, lazy and reactionary Shiraha (he’s your basic MRA/incel/”women are factually inferior to men because the Stone Age”), to live in her flat (well, in her bathtub, technically), which makes everyone else believe they’re dating—maybe even approaching marriage. Shiraha is awful, obviously, but the point is that, this way, they might both have half a chance of fitting in. The crisis of the novel, the choice which Keiko has to make, is: can she give up the only identity that has ever made sense to her (that of a convenience store worker) in order to do that? Murata’s ending, while distinctly odd, is odd in the most joyful and true-to-character way; this is not “the new Eleanor Oliphant”, but something much stranger and, therefore, better.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Thomas Page McBee wrote an earlier book, Man Alive, about his transition; this one, Amateur, is about his attempts to learn to box in order to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden. (He did it, becoming the first trans man to box there in the process.) As its subtitle would suggest, this is fertile ground in terms of seeing questions about manhood through the lens of violence, aggression, love, and the moments where those three things can be synonymous, and the moments where they are not. It is, as I said on Instagram, a book about being a good man, and a book about punching someone in the face. McBee is especially good on moments of disorientation, where he sees himself from the outside: not just flashbacks to his changing physique, but also quieter moments when he realises he’s failed to be the ally to women that he thought he was. (There’s a particularly painful moment when he and his brother both talk over his sister despite her knowing more about the topic of discussion. There’s also a thought-provoking incident at the start of the book, where another man tries to start a fight with him on the street. He’s not targeted for being trans; the other man doesn’t register that at all. Rather, McBee sees it as emblematic of a particular kind of male anger, one that lacks the vocabulary to ask to be loved. It acts as something of a catalyst for him in his attempts to discover what kind of man he wants, or needs, to be.) For me, as a woman who has never been either sporty or masculine-presenting, the scenes in McBee’s training gym were like secret dispatches from an alien culture: the men who teach him to hit are also the men who wrap his hands and treat his cuts and pour water into his mouth. At the very end of the book, when he finally comes out to his training coach, he discovers that the coach already knows, and has only been wondering when McBee will trust him enough to say it. The technical stuff about fighting and the more personal, psychological content is beautifully intertwined (and it’s especially nice to know that McBee’s girlfriend Jess, who makes several appearances in the book, usually with a tarot deck nearby, is now his wife). A must-read, and not just for folks interested in LGBTQ writing/issues.

tempestsandslaughter_final-440x655Those of you who grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s may remember Tamora Pierce’s two YA fantasy quartets, The Song of the Lioness and The Immortals; both were what a theorist might call formative texts for me. The latter, featuring a girl called Daine who can communicate telepathically with animals and even inhabit their bodies, also features her mentor and (spoilers!) eventual lover, the mage Numair Salmalin. Tempests and Slaughter (which, by the way, is something like six years overdue) promises to be the first in a series that follows the boy who became Numair: born Arram Draper, his gift for magic prompts his merchant family to place him at the Imperial University in Carthak at the age of ten. So it is very much the sort of thing that will appeal to hard-core Tamora Pierce nostalgia fandom (a group in which I place myself), but does it hold up as an actual book? Mostly, yes. Arram’s two best friends at university, Varice and Ozorne, are familiar: they appear in Emperor Mage, the third Immortals book, and there’s some inherent tension here in knowing their eventual fates, and wondering how those characters go from being fresh-faced, clever young students to the jaded and fated adults we’ve already met. But Pierce is fairly successful at making us care for them in their own rights: Varice’s magic is very feminine-coded, which causes others to underestimate her (she’s good at food and herbs and hospitality), but she’s brilliant and kind; Ozorne, though he has readily apparent faults, is loyal and brave. The strongest part of the book is the university, which is more of a school, since it takes trainee mages as young as ten. There’s an element of Hogwarts-appeal there, and the diverse, eccentric cast of instructors are great fun. The political element of the book involves slavery, which the Carthakis practice without compunction, and which the young Arram grows to realise he cannot support, particularly as Carthaki high society places a great emphasis on gladiatorial games, which are fought entirely by slaves. As a whole, Tempests and Slaughter is too long. One of Pierce’s great gifts in her earlier books was her ability to compress years of plot into 200 pages, but the industry no longer requires brevity of YA literature—not since Harry Potter—and as a result, Pierce here has the freedom to make her point too many times. Still, the earlier books aren’t perfect either, and that’s not going to stop the legions of fans who’ve been waiting for this one.

668282The Driver’s Seat is the first of the books I checked out last weekend from my local library (which I was very excited about). I’ve read some Spark before (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry From Kensington) but didn’t really connect with it, and I have to say that The Driver’s Seat didn’t change that. Luckily, it’s so short and so twisted that it’s impossible to get bored while reading it; never has the metaphor of watching a slow-motion car crash been so apt. Lise, an office worker, takes her first holiday in nearly two decades. She buys eye-wateringly mismatched clothes in a shop, managing to insult the shopgirls while she’s at it, and flies to an unnamed Mediterranean city, perhaps Rome. These activities take up several chapters, and as they unfold it becomes progressively clearer to us that Lise is unhinged: she laughs hysterically at nothing, has a strangely imperious manner, and—most of all—she lies endlessly. In the airport she seems to be trying on identities; one minute she’s telling a fellow passenger that money has always been too tight for a holiday, and the next she’s holding forth like a seasoned traveller on the need to pack light. It’s impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers, so I won’t; suffice to say that you can only read The Driver’s Seat for the first time once. Subsequent readings might illuminate the pattern and structure of the novel, but nothing will ever make a reader forget that plot. It’s macabre and entrancing, impossible to take your eyes off. My problem with it is Lise’s complete lack of interiority. This is quite intentional on Spark’s part—we’re absolutely not meant to understand Lise’s train of thought—and it’s bound up, I think, with her Catholicism. (The grotesquerie of The Driver’s Seat reminds me in very large part of Flannery O’Connor’s work, although O’Connor’s protagonists are pretty much always more readily comprehensible than Lise is.) That particular form of storytelling doesn’t hold much interest for me. I only like O’Connor as much as I do because her characters, though extreme, make sense; they can communicate their own internal logic to us, and while it might not be our logic, we can at least see how they arrive at their conclusions. Spark has no interest in whether Lise makes sense or not. Her world in The Driver’s Seat is meticulously constructed, but cold, and therefore I think it will always leave me so, too.

a1t-uvhpoalDaisy Johnson’s Man Booker-longlisted novel, Everything Under, is also hard to discuss without giving things away. It is, essentially, not a retelling but a re-working of a Greek myth, and once you work out which myth, everything about the plot falls into place. That’s not to say it’s arid or formulaic—it’s the very opposite, wild and fertile and irreverent. Gretel is a lexicographer now, working on updating definitions of words for a dictionary (implicitly the OED, with its offices on Walton Street in Oxford). But she’s haunted by memories of her mother Sarah, whom she hasn’t seen since she was sixteen, and of the summer when a strange boy named Marcus came to stay with them, living in their houseboat on the river Isis. In the same summer, the river was plagued by rumours of a creature that was stealing children from houseboats, sheep from water meadows. Sarah and Gretel called it the Bonak. When Sarah reappears in Gretel’s life, she has to face what really happened back then. That brief summary reduces Everything Under to mere event, though, when the experience of reading it is actually mostly atmospheric. Johnson shifts back and forth between the present day (with Sarah, now suffering from dementia, living in Gretel’s house), the slightly earlier present (as Gretel searches for Sarah), the past as Gretel’s memory, and the past as seen through Marcus’s eyes. Johnson’s smart enough to trust her readers’ ability to follow these chronological jumps, so they’re not signposted, which gives the whole book an appropriate air of fluidity. And that’s very much an overarching theme: the unshowy but persistent strain of gender-bending in Everything Under works to reinforce that, and is worked against by a sense of rigidity that comes from the book’s adherence to the concept of fate and tragic irony. (This will make much more sense if you’ve read it and know which Greek story Johnson is working with.) It’s a beautiful, feral thing to read, by a highly skilled writer.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So many of these books have been about unfamiliar or unusual experiences, transformation, change. It all feels rather interconnected: McBee’s book and Johnson’s dealing with unruly bodies, Murata’s and Spark’s disturbing women, the speculative politics of Liu and Pierce. I like it when that happens.

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17. Goblin, by Ever Dundas

41wf6v2bt7dl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Goblin is a phenomenal book. There.

No, I know, I can’t just leave it there. So: Goblin has flown under the radar a bit. It turned up in places where such books do turn up – in reviews by interesting book bloggers, on the Not the Booker Prize longlist, the occasional mention in a year-end best-of roundup – but there was never, as far as I can tell, much mainstream coverage, apart from a Guardian book-of-the-day review and some pieces in the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman. I’m here to tell you that the neglect of this book was a travesty. It’s a novel set in WWII, during the Blitz, but it’s utterly unlike any other such novel I’ve ever read: scarier, fiercer, and infinitely more successful at conveying how completely and utterly the world has changed over the past seventy years. Like The Madonna of the MountainsGoblin allows the reader to inhabit the essential strangeness of the past.

The title is our protagonist’s name: she has never known another. Her mother hates her, calling her “goblin-runt born blue” and other, less savoury names. Her father is kinder, but ineffective. Goblin finds sanctuary with her older brother David – cool in her eyes, but viciously bullied by neighbourhood toughs – her friends, Stevie and Mac, whom she tyrannizes without much difficulty, and her dog Devil. The great pet massacre – a mass culling of domestic animals that really happened – results in Devil’s death, and David disappears. Goblin articulates her loneliness and her mental distress through intense, surreal, sometimes horrifying imaginative play: the story she invents for David is charming (he has gone, she believes, to be a pirate, and to marry a mermaid), but the voodoo-like creature she constructs to help with her grief over Devil is, if harmless, disturbing: a doll with a shrew’s head, a pigeon’s wings, one clawed foot, and arms made of dried earthworms, whom she names Monsta. She also has visions of various London “characters”: Queen Isabella, who carries her husband’s heart pinned to her dress; Miss Amelia, locked up in Newgate for murdering the orphans in her charge; and the Lizard King, who wept tears of acid for his dismembered wife and took horrible revenge on humans.

It’s extremely difficult to disentangle Goblin’s imaginative capacities, and what we would now call her socioeconomic disadvantages, from the possibility that she has a form of mental illness. In fact, I think that is exactly Ever Dundas’s point. Goblin‘s literary pedigree includes ancestors like Lanark and Gormenghast, books whose magical worlds are composed in roughly equal parts of menace, fertile chaos, and a sense of having been constructed somehow out of the raw materials of consensus reality. The wartime England of, let’s say, Atonement, or of Bletchley Park, did exist, somewhere, but so too did experiences like Goblin’s. Self-sufficient, confident to the point of arrogance, so frequently muddied and tousled that she lives for months as a boy: there is joy in the chaos that surrounds her, but there’s also the gaping hole left by the neglect of parents and by David’s abandonment.

Evacuating herself from London (she hops on a train with children from various schools; the ruse is never discovered), she experiences another form of neglect when chosen to work on a farm run by a couple whose behaviour towards their refugee children moves from distasteful to abusive. But the countryside is also where she finds love, with a beautiful girl named Angel, and friendship, with a piglet that follows her around and whom she names Corporal Pig. Goblin’s queerness is a permanent point of contention throughout her life, but especially in this context: the farmer and his wife attempt an exorcism that looks very much like the torture suffered by Sierva Maria in Of Love and Other Demons. She survives, and escapes back to London, but the experience reinforces her love and trust of animals above humans; her later life as the adopted daughter of two circus performers helps to restore some of that balance, but it can’t make up for what wasn’t there at the beginning.

The crisis of the book is precipitated by the need to look back at the past. In sections set in 2011, Goblin is living in Edinburgh, very elderly but apparently all right. Her best friend, Ben, is a homeless man with a dog of his own, whom she adores because he reminds her of Devil, and they get along together until Goblin is contacted by a Met detective: they need her to return to London and give testimony regarding a crime that they think she witnessed seventy years ago, during the Blitz. Readers will piece together the nature of this crime, probably, fairly quickly, but it’s testimony to the sheer strength of Goblin’s voice, her conviction in the rightness of her own made-up stories, that the crime seems slightly incredible until the very end. It explains much of the preceding book, but it doesn’t hold much weight on its own; in another novel I would say that it feels rushed or underdeveloped, but here I think that’s exactly what’s intended. Ever Dundas has built a character whose own world may be part coping strategy, part untutored brilliance, but whose imaginative strength so far outstrips the reader’s own rationality that we are pulled with her, wherever she goes: even, at the very end, to acknowledging the real nature of her history.

Reading Diary: Mar. 11-Mar. 17

61nyh599hzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”

48398Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.

cover2The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.

35148165The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.

9780008264239Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.

Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.

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.

#6Degrees of Separation: It, by Stephen King

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

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We start with It, Stephen King’s creepy clown horror novel, which I read in May and (to my great surprise) thoroughly enjoyed. I had avoided King for a long time, assuming that he was probably not all that good a writer, and was completely surprised by the fact that, actually, he writes very well. (review)

Virtually the opposite happened when I read my first John Grisham novel, Camino Island; having been proved wrong with King, I had hopes that Grisham would turn out to be a pretty good writer, but these were dashed by page five. Fortunately, it’s a quick read.

My copy of Camino Island was purchased at New Dominion Bookstore in Charlottesville, where I used to work and where John Grisham would often come in to sign (he lives nearby). My current favourite author-signed copy is the paperback of White Teeth that my brother got Zadie Smith to sign and dedicate to me. (It says, “To Eleanor – the joy is in the writing!”, and it makes me teary with happiness every time I even think about it.)

Smith published her first book at twenty-four. Another young publishing phenomenon was Catherine Webb, who now writes as Claire North. I didn’t love her most recent book, The End of the Day (review), although her earlier book The Fifteen Lives of Harry August got a lot of attention and might be worth checking out.

The End of the Day is easily compared to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, but I really got whiplash from reading it so soon after finishing China Miéville’s novel Kraken. Set in London, Kraken starts with the theft of the Natural History Museum’s giant squid, and quickly delves into apocalypse cults, Londonmancers, and the unionisation of magical familiars. It’s also Gaiman-inflected, but with some tongue-in-cheek homage to Lovecraft.

A favourite magical London is the one from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. An enormous tome set during an alt-history version of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on the attempts of the two titular men to revive English magic. It is rich and deep and creepy and wonderful, and you’ll never look at a mirror the same way again.

Finally, another excellent alt-Napoleonic Wars novel (yes, there’s more than one of them!) is K.J. Whittaker’s recent False Lights. Whittaker’s book contains no magic, but in her world, Napoleon wins at Waterloo and installs his brother Jerome on the English throne. Our heroine is the mixed-race daughter of a black British sea captain. It’s got romance and swashbuckling and wit, and is perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier, Rafael Sabatini, or indeed Susanna Clarke.

From small-town American horror to sumptuous historical fancy, via blockbusting crime and literary prodigies; where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, a firm favourite from adolescence which is now a franchise that probably reached its natural end several years ago…

November Superlatives

November started off slow. (Soooo slowwww.) (Sorry, that is a verbal tic of mine that only makes sense to people who have played Grim Fandango virtually to the end, you know, the bit where the little tiny car-driving demons are…anyway.) Two enormous volumes, in almost-direct sequence, took about five days each, and a third wasn’t quite as enormous but still took nearly an entire working week. Luckily, things picked up a bit after that (helped along by a semi-conscious decision to focus on the slimmer books on my TBR pile) and I rounded out the month with 13 books read, including four volumes of nonfiction, which is almost unheard of. Plus, the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel had its final judging meeting, where I got to meet some amazing blogger-friends in real life for the first time!

biggest letdown: The End of the Day, by Claire North. Sorry. I did try to like it a bit more, but there were just so many ellipses, and it became increasingly clear that the book’s thesis was The Great Mundane Miracle Of Existence, which…I mean, nearly four hundred pages and that’s it? It’s a nice commercial fiction/fantasy crossover, and bits of it are very funny—I’ll certainly send it to some customers—but not one for me. (review)

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most brain-stretching: Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon. Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

most grudgingly liked: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney, an exploration of youth and power amongst ambitious artsy twenty-somethings in Dublin that I expected to loathe and instead found myself admiring tremendously. The dialogue is both ridiculously clever and surprisingly poignant. (review)

most pointless-feeling: A 700-page biography that leaves you just as unclear on its subject’s personality as you were at the beginning has missed the mark somehow. Despite its erudition and its writer’s clear love for his subject, this is unfortunately the case of Minoo Dinshaw’s life of Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight. (review)

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darkest: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a novella by Yukio Mishima about a young Japanese boy who plots a horrible fate for his mother’s new husband. If you think teen violence and desensitisation is the fault of video games, think again; this book was written in the ’60s and depicts the most nihilistic children I’ve ever read.

most emotionally engaging: Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which just earned her a second National Book Award. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

most eye-opening: Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann’s nonfiction account of ten Africans who lived free in Tudor England. Kaufmann uses parish records, legal testimony, and Court documents to illuminate the lives of men and women like John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpeter; Reasonable Blackman, an African silkweaver living in Southwark; Anne Cobbie, a successful sex worker who traded on her skin; and, perhaps my favourite, Cattelena of Almondsbury, a “single woman” who lived in a small rural village near Bristol and whose possessions, listed after she died, included a tablecloth and a cow. Read alongside David Olusoga’s Black and British for a whole new take on what historic England might have looked like.

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best support of the sisterhood: A slim book first published in the 1930s by Marjorie Hillis, eventually deputy editor of Vogue, Live Alone and Like It is a delightfully witty, un-self-pitying advice manual for single ladies. It’s rather of its time, but much of it is wonderful (a whole chapter is entitled “A Lady And Her Liquor”, and there’s another on having an affair). Most touching, perhaps, is her firm assertion that a woman living alone is no more likely to be murdered than a woman living with a man, and her advice that, if you are frightened, you must simply lie abed in the dark and think very hard about something else, like your new frock, or what you might say if that nice gentleman you went to the cinema with last week should happen to propose.

sexiest: Come, Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross, a story collection from Peepal Tree Press that I bought on the strength of a single Guardian review. It’s full of stories that range from a couple of paragraphs to a dozen pages, dealing with sex, love, heartbreak, and death. There’s a lot of magical realism—one protagonist, an office cleaner, starts to find abandoned hymens everywhere, which convey to him the sufferings of the women they used to be attached to—and a lot of NSFW stuff, too, which is astonishingly well written. It’s a wonderful collection.

greatest technical skill: Jon McGregor is a must-read author for life, now that I’ve read not only Reservoir 13 but also If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which was published in 2002. Set in the late ’90s, it flips back and forth between an ordinary day on a street in a city neighbourhood, at the end of which something terrible happens, and the present day, where a witness of that event must come to terms with the way her life is now. McGregor is the master of the moving-camera point of view, the sort of thing that Virginia Woolf did a lot, and I don’t know anyone who captures the holiness of mundanity in the way he does. He’s a simply beautiful writer.

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most deserved hype: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which I read in a day, so addictive is the voice of its protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty and works in an office. Every Friday night, she buys a pizza for dinner and two bottles of vodka, which last her the weekend. Every Wednesday, she has a phone call with Mummy, who is locked away somewhere. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Eleanor’s carefully controlled world—and her loneliness—peels away from her, to be replaced with friendship, self-awareness, and, at last, understanding of what exactly Mummy did. It could be sentimental and overworked; instead, it’s tender, restrained and heartbreaking, and surprisingly very funny. I loved it.

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best surprise: Another nonfiction book, Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book, which recounts the life of Civil War heroine Anne Fanshawe through her personal memoirs and papers. Anne’s marriage was delightfully happy—she and her husband Richard seem to have been each other’s best friend—but their loyalty to Charles I and later to his son meant that they lost a lot of money and all of their security in the Royalist cause. Bouncing from country to country as refugees, they buried ten children in eight different locations; Anne suffered six additional miscarriages. Only four of the children she bore survived to adulthood. She was also a total badass who lobbied in court and at Parliament, once bribed a cabin boy for his clothes to use as a disguise, and forged a French visa for herself and her children, amongst other things. Her story is a reminder that the people of the past were still recognisably people, who suffered and loved as we do.

most oh-God-okaayyyy: The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan. It’s a weird, claustrophobic little novella, set in Venice over the length of an English couple’s holiday, that builds to a moment of magnificent what-the-fuckery that’s all the more surreal for having been so meticulously prepared for. It’s a nasty little thing, but one of those perfectly sculpted technical pieces that you have to admire, even if it also makes me feel gross.

up next: I’ve just started A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which is charming and which I’ll take away with me to my grandparents’ for the weekend. I’ve also got The Old Curiosity Shop for my Annual Winter Dickens, plus the endless pile of proofs.