Reading Diary: Jan. 7-Jan. 13

the_devilshighwayhbGregory Norminton’s new novel The Devil’s Highway is not a long book, but it is a full one, resonant with history and myth. Bouncing back and forth between three time periods—Roman Britain, the present day, and a far future of harsh drought and a return to brutality—it stays focused on one place: Bagshot Heath, in Surrey. Here, a young Celt, Andragin, tries to barter for mercy for his brothers by delivering a kidnapped decurion back to his legion; here, Harry, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, bumps into a young girl whose father is determined to preserve the heath at all costs; and here, a pack of feral children led by the ruthless Malk attempts to make it to “the West Cunny”, where, it’s rumoured, there is still rain. Norminton’s evocation of the heath’s atmosphere is superb: this book is less about individual people and their choices, and more about the ways in which a particular landscape can fate us. Each time period is linked to the others by a palm-shaped stone that resembles a crude carving of a woman, and which is so ancient that it’s old even in Andragin’s time. Norminton is a subtle enough writer to leave the connection at that (though we may draw our own conclusions about the relationship between the young Celtic warriors encouraged to their deaths by a religious mystic, and the jihadis whom Harry fights in modern-day Helmand), giving the book a feeling of David Mitchell tinged with Paul Kingsnorth’s aesthetic. The futuristic sections are perhaps the least successful—there’s only so many times authors can rehash wild-child Riddley Walker dialect—but the book as a whole is both bold and delicate, and quite unforgettable.

cover2Equally unforgettable is Afua Hirsch’s memoir/work of cultural analysis, Brit(ish) (can we talk about the genius of that title?), which is out on the 1st of February. Hirsch’s heritage is mixed: her mother is Ghanaian and her father the child of German Jewish refugees. Both her parents had a strong cultural identity of their own, but for Hirsch and her sister, being mixed-race in Wimbledon in the ’90s meant they didn’t belong anywhere. Hirsch is never less than willing to cop to her own privilege as a lighter-skinned black person in Britain: her account of meeting her boyfriend (now husband) Sam, a black man of Ghanaian descent from Tottenham, brilliantly dissects the differences in their upbringings, with Sam constantly focused on achieving professional success because the slightest lapse in concentration might drive him off-course forever, whereas Afua’s achievements at school, university, and the world of work feel like something she’s almost sleepwalked into. But her primary thesis is that, although Britain likes to call itself a “post-racial” or “multicultural” society, this is a national self-image built on a lie: the absolute refusal of white British people to acknowledge a history of deep and terrible institutional racism. She makes an extremely compelling case, citing the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter as upheavals that could only occur because American society has been forthright about the fact that it was founded on racism and slavery. By contrast, British society lauds the abolition of the slave trade, but history curricula and national days of observance rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that for Britain to have abolished a trade in the first place, it first had to participate in that trade; in this case, for over four centuries. Hirsch is also a fantastically engaging writer, leavening rage-inducing statistics with personal anecdote and investigative journalism. Her book ought to help kickstart the conversation Britain so badly needs to have with itself.

51a7rwuy1pl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Speaking of which, Victor LaValle’s novel The Devil In Silver is a real thousand-yard stare right at the heart of the horrors of the American health-care-for-profit system. LaValle is known as a genre writer, but most of The Devil In Silver doesn’t seem like a horror or fantasy novel; much of it is more like a psych-ward version of Orange Is the New Black. Pepper, our protagonist, is a working-class white dude who gets thrown in New Hyde Hospital because the cops who arrested him for beating up his neighbour’s ex-husband couldn’t be arsed to do the paperwork down at the precinct. Pepper’s involuntary admission means he ought only to stay for seventy-two hours, but he takes some medication on his first day, and the next thing he knows, he’s been in for four weeks. The ward, Pepper soon discovers, is being terrorised by a Minotaur-like creature—a skinny old man with the head of a buffalo—who is apparently the Devil. The brilliance of LaValle is in taking the old what-if-humans-were-the-real-monsters twist and shoving our noses so far into the complicated morality of what being human involves that we can see how monsters develop. Casual cruelty amongst nurses and orderlies is prompted by a system that underpays them and finds more value in dead patients than in live ones; madness is a not irrational response to a system that really is out to get you. And LaValle comes down on the side of tenderness and of trying, every time. One character snarls to another, “You can’t save everyone.” The other says—the only line of dialogue he gets in the whole book—”You can help.”

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Two proofs of forthcoming books and one book from my shrinking TBR stack (counted, in this context, as books I’ve bought and have yet to read), all excellent. January’s going really well so far.

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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.

Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: Outlandish Knight, by Minoo Dinshaw

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

The title for Minoo Dinshaw’s enormous (700-page) biography of Steven Runciman, a noted Byzantine historian of the mid-twentieth century, comes from a Scottish ballad. There is no parallel between the events of the ballad (which comes in many variants but usually involves a woman running off with a knight who reveals himself to be a serial murderer; the woman defeats him through a combination of wit, strength, and sometimes magic) and Runciman’s own life, but Dinshaw admits that he chose it more for what it says about his subject’s taste. Born in Northumberland, Runciman would evince a deep love for and identification with Scotland and the Borders for the rest of his life, and would eventually, through a complicated series of events, become Laird of Eigg. (He went so far as to proclaim himself Scottish, although neither of his parents were.)

Dinshaw’s work is, to put it mildly, comprehensive. He has obviously been through every scrap of the relevant primary sources, including Runciman’s own unpublished memoirs, and his regard for his subject shines through every sentence. In a way, though, this is the book’s downfall. It is, as has been previously mentioned, very long, and although Runciman certainly came into contact with a wide array of interesting people (Eric Blair, Cecil Beaton, Freya Stark, the last Emperor of China, and the Queen Mother, to name but a few), the relevance of his own life is less clear. Dinshaw apparently described Runciman as a “courtly, old-fashioned queer” at the bloggers’ event that the other members of the shadow panel attended; to me, that sentence sums up the difficulty with Outlandish Knight in general, which is that it delineates a society—English, genteel, snobbish, mid-twentieth-century—whose rules are so alien now as to appear almost science fictional. (I told the shadow panel that it’s the same uncanny-valley feeling one often gets when reading Golden Age detective stories; although they mostly avoid explicit sexism and racism, the mores of the characters and the limits of acceptable social behaviour generally seem much more distant and exotic than, say, Dickens or Sterne.)

Dinshaw succeeds most at convincing us of Runciman’s importance, I think, when he emphasises that sense of distance by focusing on the ways in which his subject’s death heralded the end of a whole world. Runciman’s academic interest was in Byzantium, the Eastern and later segment of the Roman Empire, and in late antiquity shading into the medieval period in what is now Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The twentieth century changed these parts of the world drastically, irrevocably, and usually not for the better; one feels it a mercy that Runciman’s death occurred before September 11, 2001, and before he could see what became of the historic homes of the civilisations he had loved. In this sense, Outlandish Knight is a valuable, if melancholy, resource for understanding precisely what has been lost—in terms of approaches to scholarship as well as the business of living—for good and for ill. (Runciman’s sexuality is the one thing he appears never to have discussed with anyone, though his friends seemed aware that he had affairs. It strikes me as a life much like the character Posner’s in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, who says at the end of the play that he’s “not happy, but I’m not unhappy about it.”)

Still, though. Despite the accolades that adorn the front cover, the writing seemed to me to be perfectly fine, but not outstanding. It is a lot more impressive when you realise that Dinshaw is only twenty-eight now and it took him four years to write, but even that provokes me mainly to be impressed with his self-confidence, not necessarily with an undying prose style. I came away from the biography with very little sense of what Steven Runciman might actually have been like: what might have made him laugh, or light up with interest; how he might have gone about making friends or flirting or tackling his work day. For a book this long, that’s a bit alarming.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. Outlandish Knight is published by Allen Lane, and is now available in paperback so you don’t have to murder your wrists.

Down the TBR Hole, #2

This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)

unapologeticBook #11: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford

Why is it on my TBR? Look at that subtitle, and consider that I was raised in the Episcopal Church by a Christian mother and an atheist father, that music kept me in churches and chapels for most of my early adulthood, and that my crisis of faith started when I was eight and continues unabated to the present day, such that I now find it impossible to talk about religious belief with anyone at all, so complex and snarled is my relationship to it.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. I go through phases of reading around this topic – liberal theologians trying to sort their own heads out – and I’ll get to Spufford.

Book #12: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallacedavid-foster-wallace-infinite-jest

Why is it on my TBR? I’m both pretentious and ambitious.

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Oh, keep, I think. I really do want to read it.

4110716_458745Book #13: The Flavour Thesaurus, by Nikki Segnit

Why is it on my TBR? Because the concept is fantastic: a compendium of how flavours relate to one another, the idea being that if you understand flavour relationships, your own cooking can be both more inventive and better quality.

Do I already own it? Nope – I’ve come close a few times though.

Verdict: Surprisingly, discard. It is still a brilliant idea and a gorgeously produced book (and the Chaos knows the author and her husband, which makes me feel guilty) – but my cooking at the moment isn’t at the experimental level that would make this book indispensable. If I ever start working from home again (aka writing half the day and pissing about in the kitchen the other half), maybe.

Book #14: Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon9781101594643_p0_v2_s260x420

Why is it on my TBR? Haven’t any idea.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Discard – if I can’t remember why I wanted to read it… It looks interesting enough, but life is short.

gravitys-rainbowBook #15: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Why is it on my TBR? Hmm. There must have been some kind of Pynchon-fever going on at some point, given this and the above.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep. A classic of post-war literature, something I should have under my belt.

Book #16: Independent People, by Halldor Laxness41x7fyx4QtL

Why is it on my TBR? I read about it in Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and thought it looked fantastic. Also, taciturn Icelandic farmers are auto-approved.

Do I already own it? Yes, there’s a copy in my room at my parents’ house.

Verdict: This is a hard one. I’ve tried to read it three times and failed every time. I know Victoria loved it, though. I want to try again.

Book #17: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey oscarandlucinda_cover

Why is it on my TBR? I think I read the blurb and thought it sounded magical – card tricks and floating glass palaces in Victorian Australia! – and perhaps a bit like Possession.

Do I already own it? My parents have a copy with the (unforgivably ugly) Faber cover pictured. 

Verdict: Yeah, keep.

Book #18: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James264

Why is it on my TBR? Acquired a copy for a quid at an Oxfam during university, put it on Goodreads in a vague attempt to keep myself accountable

Do I already own it? Not anymore.

Verdict: Discard, in this particular sense. I’d still like to read it, but I’m not going to try very hard.

21071Book #19: Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama

Why is it on my TBR? See previous TBR Hole post for an explanation of my former obsession with Simon Schama, but I got this one in particular because of an interest in the connection between landscape and cultural history.

Do I already own it? Yes, hurrah.

Verdict: Keep, although it’s difficult to imagine when I’ll have the time to read it—it’s very long and the physical book is huge, as well, so it’s hard to carry.

Book #20: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their breach-of-trustCountry, by Andrew J. Bacevich

Why is it on my TBR? Not at all sure. I must have read a review.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Discard, unless it turns out to be the most important book ever written on the subject. There are a couple of similar titles further down the list, anyway.


Conclusions: A little more success in discarding this time, mostly because I’m either no longer interested in a book’s subject or because it no longer has the relevance to the way I’m living that it used to. This project is helpful, too, in allowing me to realise that being open to reading something without actually making a plan to do so is legitimate.

What do you think—is Henry James indispensable? Should I give up on Halldor Laxness? (I doubt it, but you never know.) How much of Pynchon is worthwhile? Comments much encouraged, as always.

Down the TBR Hole, #1

I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to write criticism recently. I’ve had a hard time finding enough time to read; it’s halfway through the month and I’ve just started the month’s sixth book, which, given monthly totals so far this year, is glacial. So to fill the gaps here, I’m turning to this meme, which I spotted on Jillian’s blog (originally created by a blogger called Lia) and which has the virtue of actually being mildly productive.

It goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)

51i2hbyuo5lBook #1: Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

Why is it on my TBR? Obviously, I want to read all of Dickens’s novels (and I’m getting there! 9 out of 15), but they’re not all listed on my Goodreads TBR. Given the date I added this—February 2013—I suspect I was impelled by a viewing of the film of Nicholas Nickleby. You know, the one with that pretty boy.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep—I’ll own it one day, probably when I decide I’m sick of having mismatched paperback editions of Dickens and just buy a complete set that’s actually attractive.

Book #2: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659, ed. David Norbrook51ni8eb9pql-_sx325_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? David Norbrook was one of my favourite lecturers. Also, there was a time when I thought my academic interest was almost precisely one hundred years earlier than it actually is.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep—I really like Renaissance poetry, its vocabulary of allusion and the tensions between public and private that are inherent in a literature composed mostly by horny courtiers under constant surveillance. Plus it’s at its best when anthologised, and I suspect Norbrook’s is the best of those.

51s6nofzgwl-_sy346_Book #3: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

Why is it on my TBR? I went on a bit of a Graham Greene kick in the summer of 2012; I presume this is a hangover from then.

Do I already own it? I don’t think so.

Verdict? Keep. It’s Graham Greene, for heaven’s sake.

Book #4: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene41znbbtwill-_sx323_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? See above. I’ve had a thing about Brighton Rock for a while, though; it occupies this space in my mind as being about someone properly evil, although I’m not sure that’s actually true.

Do I already own it? Yes! The Chaos has a copy on his shelves.

Verdict? Slightly tricky, this. I tried it last year and simply couldn’t get the hang of it at all. But, again, it’s Graham Greene, and perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough. KEEP!

51v7morcjel-_sx307_bo1204203200_Book #5: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

Why is it on my TBR? Adored Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, enjoyed Beyond Black and Fludd, thought this was worth a go.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep, obviously, oh God this isn’t going well as a culling exercise

Book #6: The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope9780141199863-uk

Why is it on my TBR? I read the entire Palliser series, and the entire Barsetshire series except for this last installment, between 2012 and 2014. I’m a completist, and the Penguin English Library cover is gorgeous.

Do I already own it? Yes! Although it is in my grandparents’ garage in West Sussex.

Verdict: Keep, but maybe this particular version of it can be given away—the entire Barsetshire series was released as Penguin Clothbound Classics and I stare at them daily from my desk at work, wondering how long it will be before I just snap and buy them so that all my Trollopes match and look nice, like adults’ books, instead of the awful mismatched copies that I have now. (It is exactly the same sitch as with Dickens and I do not enjoy it.)

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The FACE on him. #sideeye

Book #7: Essays, by Michel de Montaigne

Why is it on my TBR? I first encountered Montaigne in a high school class called Humanities, which is probably responsible for saving the lives of several hundred bright, desperately bored kids in my hometown (Charlottesville, Virginia). I came across him again as an undergrad. The idea of writing essays—literally, “attempts”—to explore your own soul was hugely appealing.

Do I already own it? Sort of. I own a selected edition, but not the big-ass Penguin paperback that represents the complete version.

Verdict: Sigh. Keep, obviously. I’ve read a few of them and I really like him, as a writer, as a person. It’s just that there are so many.

Book #8: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

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Shiny covers are a bastard to photograph, I guess

 

Why is it on my TBR? My dad got it one Christmas, and it looked comprehensive and interesting.

Do I already own it? No—the plan would be to read it when visiting my parents.

Verdict: Finally, a firm no! I’m sure it’s great, but MacGregor did it as a podcast originally, and I think this is basically just a print tie-in. Unnecessary.

51ejioetspl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Book #9: The Embarrassment of Riches: an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama

Why is it on my TBR? 1: I used to fancy the pants off Simon Schama. (It was an early manifestation of a clear preference for older fellas.) 2: This is precisely the period I’m interested in. 3: Dutch paintings make me want to swoon with joy. 4: Material culture is fascinating.

Do I own it? Nope.

Verdict: Of the four reasons to read it given above, three are still applicable and legitimate, so keep, duh.

Book #10: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut4120yizu-2l

Why is it on my TBR? Astonishingly, I escaped American public high school without ever having read this.

Do I own it? The Chaos might have a copy somewhere, but I don’t think so.

Verdict: I have to keep this, really. There is no reason in the world to decide I’m never going to read it. It’s just one of those books—like The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Tale of Two Cities—that has mysteriously never quite been compelling enough to be next. (But I read A Tale of Two Cities in January, so I bet I’ll get round to this.)


Conclusions: The very earliest stuff on my TBR is stuff I still want to read, either because it’s classic or canonical or because it’s about subjects I’m still interested in. This is kind of a nice thing to know. As we get closer to the present day, however, I fully expect to see the influence of increased exposure to bookish media—blogs, review sites, Twitter, etc.—and a trigger-happy index finger.

Am I wrong about any of these? Is Vonnegut not worth the hassle? Is Graham Greene a waste of time? (No.) Is Neil MacGregor’s book 1000% worth reading? Comments welcomed.

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.

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Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

The Jhalak Prize, pt. 2: Orangeboy and Black And British

9781444927207Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

Marlon can’t believe his luck: he’s a sixteen-year-old Star Trek nerd living in east London, and he’s at a fairground—on a date!—with the gorgeous and desirable Sonya, the coolest girl at school. He’s desperate to impress her, so when she asks him to hold onto her stash of pills while they go on one of the rides, he’s happy to oblige. By the time the haunted house ride ends, Sonya is slumped in the seat next to Marlon, dead. Which makes the police very interested in Marlon. Which is not good, since Marlon’s big brother Andre used to be one of the most notorious drug dealers and gang members round their way—though things have changed since Andre had his car accident and ended up with brain damage. And once the police finish up with Marlon, he starts to get weird calls on his mobile: “Tell Mr. Orange I’m coming.”

From this, Patrice Lawrence weaves an utterly gripping story about being young and scared, about making decisions that you think will protect you but ultimately only drive you further into danger: we understand, even as we mentally shriek Go to the police! at Marlon, why he doesn’t feel that he can. Lawrence invests some of these scenes with menace so convincing that you feel as though you’re reading an adult thriller, not a YA one: there’s a particularly eerie scene in the crowded Westfield mall at Stratford, and when Marlon is attacked by a group of boys from south London, the descriptions of the beating are truly scary. If you have ever wondered what victims of mugging or robbery mean when they mention a sense of violation, reading Orangeboy will give you an idea.

What I particularly like about Orangeboy is how neatly Lawrence sidesteps stereotypes. Marlon’s dad isn’t around, but that’s because he died of cancer. Marlon’s mum is a librarian in Willesden. His best friend is a sassy girl named Tish (short for Titian), whose mother—also apparently a single mum—attends a monthly book club. You can’t dismiss them as “disadvantaged”; they might not have a ton of money, but they’re smart and cultured. It’s easy for any kid, Lawrence is saying, to get off the straight and narrow. You can’t just pin it on skin colour or poverty. There’s always more to the story.

Marlon’s story has a non-disastrous ending, but it’s proof of Lawrence’s skill as a writer that I seriously wondered at several points whether it was all going to finish in tragedy. It’s the best possible kind of book to give a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old: completely non-patronising, and gripping from start to finish. If it represents current YA writing as a whole, maybe I should read more.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f596731f6-ac19-11e6-9d1d-8992545bee51Black and British: a Forgotten History, by David Olusoga

Last year we went to an exhibit at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, a museum I would unreservedly recommend to all of you. We learned about black Georgians like Bill Richardson—a former plantation slave from Virginia who moved to London, became a national boxing champion, and eventually opened his own gym in Leicester Square, where he trained other pugilists. There was a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, entitled “Marriage a La Mode”, featuring several women enthusiastically pursuing a terrified-looking, bandy-legged bachelor; one of these wealthy middle-class ladies is a black woman. That exhibition raised so many questions for me: if black Britons existed before the voyage of the Empire Windrush, who were the first ones? How did they live here? Where did they come from? David Olusoga’s book, published alongside a BBC television series, attempts to answer those questions.

It is fascinating. Did you know, for instance, that there were African Roman legions stationed in York? That an ancient skeleton discovered near Beachy Head belongs to a woman from sub-Saharan Africa, who was buried with grave goods so elaborate and expensive that she was clearly a woman of some means? Did you know that there was a black trumpeter at the court of Henry VIII named John Blanke, that he married a white English woman and had mixed-race children? That racial prejudice of the kind we associate with American history was not echoed in England? (Intermarriage and mixed-race families were pretty much the norm for black Britons up until the introduction of nineteenth-century imperialism; many black Stuart and Georgian men in the British Isles married white women.) Olusoga’s research is deep and thorough, and it is both enlightening and, frankly, scary to read about how relatively quick and recent the turn towards racial prejudice was. It is not an ancient prerogative of Englishmen; it is connected first with plantation slavery in the Caribbean, but there were many court cases brought in London about the legality of planters bringing their “house slaves” back to the UK when they retired. It was the Scramble for Africa—starting only in the 1880s—that made racial prejudice in the UK a national phenomenon.

My only complaint, again, is that the manuscript doesn’t appear to have seen a copy-editor. There are lots of sentence fragments, a couple of verbs that don’t match their subjects; this is a completely natural byproduct of writing a draft, but then someone has to go back and smooth it over, make sure it all lines up. My only guess is that this process was telescoped so that the book’s release would coincide with the television programme, but again, it’s a shame. It is, however, much less intrusive than in Irenosen Okojie’s book previously mentioned (and there are no typos!) And it is not enough of a problem to stop me from heartily recommending this book: both accessible and crammed with information, it is a masterpiece.

This is the inaugural year of the Jhalak Prize, for the best book written by a BAME author in the UK. Both of these books were longlisted; Black and British has made the shortlist.

Orangeboy was published by Hodder on 2 June 2016. Black and British was published by Pan Macmillan on 3 November 2016.