Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)

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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.

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.

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.)

51ajq2m9stl-_sx321_bo1204203200_

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

220px-a_history_of_the_world_in_100_objects_book_cover

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.