Reading Diary: Mar. 25-Apr. 7

51vgjyqjsil-_sx324_bo1204203200_It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)

Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.

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The proof cover is nicer than the finished cover, IMO.

Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.

The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.

The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.

51hqy7tubclJodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.

The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.

61s7thv4z7lThe next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.

Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.

33229395The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.

This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.

Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.

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London In the Rain

To London a few days ago to meet up with the Revered Ancestress, who was going to be in town anyway for a reunion of her nursing friends from her training at Barts in the mid-1950s. Oxford Tube in the mist of early morning; I dozed most of the way, or as much as I could after I’d finished the coffee which I’d rather unwisely bought from the shop near the coach stop. Met the Revered Ancestress under the big clock at Waterloo and set off with her in a taxi to Barts, which is at the top of Ludgate Hill and very extensive. St. Paul’s is its near neighbour; the dome loomed out as the taxi crawled up Old Bailey, still grey and indistinct with mist (very Bleak House). The entrance to Barts is called Henry VIII Gate–he rebuilt the hospital and gave back its property after the dissolution, a very canny move–and atop it, indeed, a swagger sculpture of the king glares down, his crown perched atop his bonnet.

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I accompanied the Revered Ancestress to the coffee shop in the west wing–the area is arranged around a central square with a fountain, but construction scaffolding obscured much of this–where we met her friends. They are all old now but have still the vitality, the warmth and the quiet cheekiness of women who were subordinate during their training, but after it, had been trained to be in charge. Nursing may be the equivalent of the army in the sense of camaraderie and self-confidence it provides.

One of the nurses, a smooth-cheeked woman called Maureen, is my mum’s godmother. She has had a most extraordinary life: beginning as a nun, leaving the order when she felt they weren’t doing their duty, moving to Stepney (where she had a garden Mum remembers, with hedgehogs!), then to Ireland, where for a while at least she raised alpacas. She is one of the few elderly people I’ve met with whom conversation is immediate. With most others–even the extremely intelligent–one feels as though a thin but strong veil divides them from one, as though they are fundamentally separate, their experiences and existences too far away to be made real. Maureen is not like that; she seems to continue living consciously. When you talk to her, she’s absolutely there. I can’t imagine how much of a loss she was to her order.

They let me have tea with them, and told me stories of their student days, including incidents such as being given a lobster by a fishmonger on Billingsgate. It was already dead and cooked, but they didn’t know how to open it, and resorted to bashing it against the concrete floor of the nurses’ home. Delightfully, none of them could quite recall whether this had worked or not.

After tea they went off to have lunch (naturally) and I was free to wander on my own for a few hours. I went into the hospital museum as my first stop, and read every word of every noticeboard–it beguiled the time wonderfully, and the exhibit cases were full of fascinatingly hideous things, like travel-sized amputation kits complete with handsaw, and pathological drawings of various awful-looking conditions. Unfortunately, when I stepped out again it had begun to pour. It was a horrid splattering city rain, the effect of which is always made worse by gutters and overhanging roofs. I had intended to go into Barts’ Great Hall, but entry was only with a tour and anyway there seemed to be some kind of conference on, so I contented myself with an iPhone photo of the enormous Hogarth paintings which decorate the staircase. They are meant to be of the biblical Pool at Bethesda, and it’s thought that he took some of the hospital’s eighteenth-century patients as models.

As the museum shut at 1:00, I really had to go elsewhere. I put my scarf over my head and tramped through the rain to Barts the Great, the hospital’s parish church. The Revered Ancestors were married there. I got in without paying by mentioning the fact to the man at the desk. It’s a dark and gloomy church, very different indeed from Barts the Less (within the hospital walls), which is, in best Reformation style, all white and quite plain on the inside, except for stained glass which seems to demonstrate the story of the hospital’s founding. A single candle in Barts the Great burned beside the tomb of Rahere, the monk said to be Henry I’s fool, who fell ill on a pilgrimage in Rome and dreamed that he saw an angel ordering him to return home and found a hospital for the care of the poor and ill. This was in 1123; it’s one of the oldest institutions in the country, second to Oxford by only twenty-seven years.

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It was still pouring when I left the church, and the scarf on my head was becoming saturated. I went down towards Paternoster Row and St Paul’s, where so many books were printed, but St Paul’s itself appeared to be closed, or at least I wasn’t allowed in. (“Is no entrance here.” “Sorry, but–the door’s open…” “Yes, is no entrance. Is private event. You must go and enter downstairs, through crypt.” “It looks like the private event might be over now…” “You go through crypt.”) Not feeling inclined to go through the crypt, or indeed to pay money, which would no doubt also have been demanded, I headed back to Ludgate Hill, where I attempted to subtly shed most of my layers and dry myself out. (It was only a partial success; my scarf, now thoroughly defeated, dripped heavily on the floor.)

To occupy the time, I picked up Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the shortest book ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize–it had lost out the night before to Eleanor Catton’s 800+-page The Luminaries, which I haven’t gotten round to yet. The Testament of Mary is very short, very good, beautifully written and terribly sad. I expected not to care much about it, but I find that it’s stuck with me. In it, Mary, mother of Christ, is growing old in exile, afraid for her life if she returns to her former home. She is cared for (if we can use the phrase for a relationship that seems to involve a good deal of bullying) by two of her son’s most passionate devotees, who interrogate her tirelessly in order to produce what the reader suspects are the Gospels of St John and St Mark. Mary has never believed that her son was the Messiah, and the book demonstrates the neverending pain of a mother who loses a child for what she suspects to be no reason at all. It’s a shame, frankly, that it’s not a bit longer, but then it might lose the punch. Of all the Booker-shortlisted books, this was one of the ones that I was least interested in, but I’d really recommend it; depending on your reading speed it will take you no more than an hour or two, and its impact far outweighs its size.

Also, having met up with the Revered Ancestress again and retraced our steps near to St Paul’s (once it had stopped raining), I got a rather lovely picture of it in the sunshine. Autumn is the best season.

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