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.

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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.

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.

Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich

I’m not a writer, but I am a witness.

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In an attempt both to write about more of the books I read—not just the ones I get for free off of publishers—and to make that process less intimidating, I’m experimenting with different ways of posting, e.g. not always my usual essay. I like the idea of “journaling” about a book; in particular, books that have been released for a while don’t, I think, need to be “reviewed” as much as they simply need to be considered. As always, feedback appreciated.

What I know about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident: It happened in the Ukraine, which was, at the time of the accident in 1986, part of the USSR. Gorbachev was in power. Perestroika had already begun; glasnost, the process of making governance transparent, was directly hastened by the disaster. This occurred, in essence, because a test that was running during maintenance shutdown in the plant’s Reactor Four was allowed to occur in such a way as to make the reactor extremely unstable. A power spike led to overheating, which led to the control rods becoming jammed, which led to an explosion. A graphite fire shot plumes of radioactive material into the air above the plant. This later settled across the surrounding region as radioactive dust.

What I know about Svetlana Alexievich: Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. She is a non-fiction writer, the first (I think?) to win that award. She is Belarusian. In a way she is less a writer than a composer: her books are composed of other peoples’ voices, revealed through interviews. Chernobyl Prayer has three parts, each subdivided into “monologues”. Her art is to arrange peoples’ testimonies, and, one presumes, to be trustworthy, and to ask the right questions in the first place, and to be capable of listening.

You may need to do some background reading if you wish to tackle Chernobyl Prayer; almost all of the information in the first paragraph, above, I gleaned from Wikipedia and the official IAEA report. Alexievich isn’t writing for Western grief tourists (although, of course, in a way, she absolutely is. But she wants you to work for it.) There are no tidy maps or chronologies. Just the voices of people living in a ruined world.

It’s a book you want to quote a lot. I found myself underlining huge chunks, not only because they are tragic or beautiful, but because the people she meets are insightful on things like the Soviet character, too, and the motivations of politicians, and the fact that the people who lived near the reactor were really still peasants, country people, who didn’t understand that just because you couldn’t see radiation didn’t make it unreal.

There are themes that recur. On the implacability of nature, which is beautiful but also, in a way, what makes nuclear disaster so fatally unstoppable:

One morning, I looked into the orchard and there were boars grubbing about. Wild boars. You can resettle people, but not the elk and the boars. And the water takes no notice of boundaries, it flows where it will, over the ground, under the ground.

On the hierarchy of threats (this from a woman who has settled with her husband and child in the ghost country near Chernobyl, fleeing political violence in Tajikistan):

I meet people, they’re amazed, can’t understand it. ‘What are you doing to your children, you’re killing them. You’re committing suicide.’ I’m not killing them, I’m saving them. …This threat here, I don’t feel it. I don’t see it. It’s nowhere in my memory.

It’s men I’m afraid of. Men with guns.

Many people—probably two-thirds of the people Alexievich interviews—compare it to the war. They mean, I think, the Second World War, but it could be any war of the past century. The grannies of Eastern Europe are very used to war. Soldiers forcing them from their homes? Crucial information being kept from them? The destruction of their livelihoods? “It was just like the war”, they say, over and over again. Some of them leap from simile to metaphor: “It was war. We were at war.”

A government filmmaker is struck by the universal need for a role, the way that people cling to a cultural narrative:

I caught myself filming things exactly how I had seen them in the war films. And just then, I noticed I wasn’t alone: the other people involved in all this activity were behaving the same way. They were acting as if they were in everyone’s favourite movie… The tear in the eye, a few words of farewell. A wave of the hand. It turned out we were all searching for some form of behaviour that we were already familiar with. We were trying to conform to something.

There is some discussion of “Slavic fatalism”, a kind of gloomy (it can be cheery, if there’s vodka around) passivity. There is also mention of the way that the government fell back, instantly, into old habits:

They revived the forgotten vocabulary of Stalinism: ‘Western intelligence agents’, ‘spying forays’, ‘sabotage’… Everybody is harping on about undercover spies and saboteurs, rather than iodine prophylaxis. Any unofficial information is treated as enemy ideology…

Clean-up workers are issued lead aprons and masks, sometimes, but the ones who are working on the roof have no protection from the radiation coming up from below. In any case, most people don’t wear their masks—they are heavy and cumbersome, and the work must be done quickly. One man tells of the thirty-six hundred roof workers, how they slept on the ground, on straw taken from hayricks right beside the reactor. “They’re dying now,” he says. “But for what they did… These are still people from a particular culture. A culture of superhuman feats and sacrificial victims.” I have read nothing more chilling about Soviet Communism than this, the recognition that thousands of lives were viewed as worthless. It is not the same thing as the “Blitz Spirit” of pulling together. It is not as if protective equipment didn’t exist; it was simply not considered worth spending on these men. And the men were offered money, a bump up the queue for an apartment or a car, maybe five to seven more years of life, and the promise of postmortem heroism. And that worked. This was only thirty years ago.

And the terrifying ignorance of Party leaders:

In the villages and factories, people from the district committees of the Communist Party traveled around, meeting people. Yet not one of them was capable of giving an answer if they were asked what decontamination was, how children could be protected, or what the coefficients were for radionuclides finding their way into the food chain. Neither could they if asked about alpha, beta and gamma particles, nor about radiobiology, ionizing radiation, let alone isotopes. For them, that was all something from another planet. They gave lectures about the heroism of Soviet people, symbols of military courage, and the wiles of Western intelligence services.

Thirty. Years. Ago.

There is an interview with a man who was on a district committee, and in it, he seems to understand how terribly he and his colleagues failed. But he can’t look at it too directly. He does not want to shoulder the blame. Who can; who could? “It was our duty,” he keeps saying. “We did what we were told to do.”

This, from an engineer, perhaps explains why:

We stayed silent and obeyed orders implicitly, because we were under Party discipline. …That was not because [we] were afraid of losing [our] Party cards, but because of [our] faith. Above all, a belief that we were living in a fine and just society that put people first. Man was the measure of all things. For many people, the collapse of that faith ended in a heart attack or suicide. A bullet in the heart, as with Academician Legasov. Because when you lose that faith, when you are marooned without faith, you are no longer part of something, but complicit in it, and you no longer have any justification.

No longer part of something, but complicit in it: it’s such an articulate phrase, such an exact assessment of how ideology works, and why its crumbling can be such a catastrophe.

And man was the measure of all things. I think for a considerable portion of the twentieth century, we believed this. Why not? We had harnessed the power of the atom. We were programming computers. We had sent men to the moon. We could conquer anything, anything we wanted. And then Chernobyl happened. It wasn’t like Hiroshima or Nagasaki; it wasn’t intentional. It was a terrible accident, and man failed as the measure, and no matter how many men in green uniforms shoveled rubble off the roof of the reactor, they could not pull the particles from the skies, or the rivers, or the grass.

There is absolute rage running through this book; it is a current of fury at the lies and deceit that were fed to the people of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and it is also fury at the helplessness of the people who suffered and continued to suffer. There is almost superhuman love: the testimonies of two women whose husbands were clean-up workers (one comes near the beginning of the book, one near the end) are sobering and painfully beautiful and so sad. And there is this, from one of the children Alexievich interviews:

I want to tell you how my grandma said goodbye to our house. She asked my dad to bring a sack of millet from the pantry, and scattered it over the garden. ‘For God’s birds.’ She collected eggs in a sieve and scattered them through the farmyard. ‘For our cat and dog.’ She sliced up pork fat for them. She emptied all the seeds out of her little bags: carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, her blackseed onions, all the different flowers… She shook them out over the vegetable plot: ‘Let them live in the soil.’ Then she bowed to the house. She bowed to the barn. She went round and bowed to every apple tree.

Chernobyl Prayer is published by Penguin Modern Classics.

A World Gone Mad: the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren

But still—are we doing as much as we should? Posterity will no doubt be the judge of that.

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It is forgivable, I think, to be slightly fatigued by WWII. Especially in the UK, it represents a time and an atmosphere so deeply romanticised as to be almost fictional. The “Blitz Spirit” is invoked by people who want to take the country back to a status quo that never existed as uniformly as they’d like to think; grainy black-and-white photos of wartorn and occupied nations don’t manage to convey very much in the way of individual characters being formed under horrific circumstances. What I liked about the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Swedish children’s classic about anarchic redhead Pippi Longstocking, is that this collection gives us a perspective on the war that Anglo-American education often ignores: that of the Nordic countries, sandwiched between aggressive Germany and bloodthirsty Russia, and in particular that of Sweden, which maintained official neutrality throughout the conflict.

That neutrality is a moral stance, although it pretends not to be one. Lindgren is constantly reminding herself of how lucky they have it: there’s very little food rationing, and their Christmases and birthdays often include veritable feasts. In 1940, she writes,

It’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of the war as here. …To my mind, our rations are so generous that anyone who bought all that we are entitled to would end up in dire financial straits.

Lindgren is more aware than most, one suspects, but even she isn’t free from complacency. The next year, directly after paragraphs describing the “intolerable food situation” in France and Finland, and the public executions in German-occupied Norway, she describes their new flat:

We now have a lovely big living room, the children each have their own room and then there’s our bedroom. …I really don’t want it to get bombed.

It’s a trifle difficult to summon up any sympathy at this point.

A semi-permanent strain in writing about the war, particularly modern-day writing about the war, is the question of how much people knew about the Holocaust and German/Russian atrocities at any given time. Despite the evident presence of Nazi apologism in the UK during the 1940s, it’s obvious that Lindgren is pretty well aware of what’s going on. This is probably at least in part to do with her work at the official government censor’s office: she has access to letters that demonstrate, first-hand, just how bad the situation is in the rest of Europe. Her growing awareness is painful; here’s a snippet from 1941:

A profoundly sad Jewish letter, a document of its time, crossed my desk today. A Jew who had recently arrived here in Sweden sent a fellow Jew in Finland an account of the transporting of Jews from Vienna to Poland. …Some sort of instruction arrives by post and the individual concerned has to leave home. …Conditions on the days leading up to transportation, during the journey and on arrival in Poland were such that the letter-writer didn’t want to describe them. …It is apparently Hitler’s intention to make Poland into one big ghetto where the poor Jews are to perish.

One big ghetto, or one big concentration camp. And here is a section from early 1943:

I wonder what the German people really think and feel, faced with the ‘blessings’ of National Socialism. A deadly war killing the flower of youth; the hatred and loathing of virtually all other nations; horrific assaults on defenceless people; torture both mental and physical of the populations of occupied countries; the informer system; the demolition of family life; ‘euthanasia’ for the incurably ill and mentally deficient; the reduction of love to a matter of basic procreation; and—unless all the signs are deceptive—total breakdown of the German people in the not-too-distant future. It’s simply impossible for many Germans not to have realized how royally duped they’ve been by their Führer.

The euthanasia bit is particularly striking; I wasn’t aware that many people outside of the Nazi regime knew about that at the time, particularly not as it related to the murder of differently-abled people and homosexuals. It’s a clear-eyed and condemnatory paragraph, making it even more horrifying to think about the widespread defense of eugenics in Allied countries.

It all seems so terribly relevant to 2016 in many ways. Here’s Lindgren celebrating a Churchill speech:

So different from a Hitler speech! You’d think everyone would realize that only a man with some kind of mental defect could stand up and make speeches like Hitler.

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ANYWAY.

And this, too, rings true, especially when she writes about the tens of thousands of Finnish, Danish and Norwegian refugees pouring into Sweden, and the anti-Semitism that sometimes greets them:

Recently I’ve been reading in Grimberg’s history of the world about ancient Rome and all the bloodbaths and atrocities, proscriptions and wars of conquest. Reading the papers and coming across the same geographical  names, one simply despairs at how little humanity has learnt in the intervening centuries.

So this is, after all, a useful and interesting addition to the panoply of World War literature published in the West. I only have two complaints about the editing of this particular edition. The first is that Lindgren’s diaries included a lot of press cuttings, newspaper articles, cartoons and the like. In this volume, these are not reproduced; instead, we get italicised précises of their contents. For instance: “Press cuttings. One undated and unidentified: ‘The Allied message to the people of Italy’. Roosevelt and Churchill appeal to them to surrender. …Dagens Nyheter, same day: After the bombing of Rome, petrol is free and loaded vehicles stream out of the city.” It’s not clear why these aren’t simply translated from Swedish like the rest of the book; maybe Pushkin thought that would make the whole thing too long, but at 218 pages it wouldn’t be damaged by a little more bulk, and might help to give the reader a better sense of the timelines of the war on various fronts. The other option would have been to reproduce the articles as facsimiles, though I suppose even in black and white this might have been considered prohibitively expensive.

The other issue, which is more confusing for the general reader, is the lack of footnotes. Lindgren writes about her family without explaining background, which is natural in a personal diary, but when personal diaries are published, explanatory notes are usually included. There are at least two instances where this would have been helpful: at one point she mentions her son’s 17th birthday, then writes of her 13th wedding anniversary a few pages later. This seemed unusually liberal, even for Sweden, in the 1940s, so I had to check out Wikipedia (where I discovered that Lindgren was rather a minx: Lars was fathered by her employer when she was nineteen. She refused to marry the man, and instead married another employer, Sture Lindgren, who was eleven years her senior, in 1931.) A brief footnote would have taken five minutes to write and saved the confusion. Likewise, in 1944 she drops several cryptic hints about having “lost everything”; her marriage seems to be going through a rough patch. The two likeliest explanations, to me, are a miscarriage, or Sture’s infidelity, but again, no note, and this time Wikipedia is no help: they never divorced, and no mention is made of relationship troubles. It’s possible that Pushkin thought Lindgren’s marriage woes simply weren’t relevant to the war, which is what the diaries are mostly about—but they were clearly important enough for her to mention in the diaries in the first place, so I think a reader is owed a little bit of explanation.

Those two niggles aside, this is a wonderful and, in places, heart-rending account of World War II, from a perspective not usually prioritised in historical retellings. Neutrality gives Lindgren an unusual objectivity, while Sweden’s geographical position means her account retains a sense of real urgency and investment in the war’s outcome. (Also, it’s delightful to catch her little asides about the invention of Pippi Longstocking!) Definitely one to look out for, especially as this year of global madness winds down.

Many thanks to Mollie Stewart at Pushkin Press for the review copy. A World Gone Mad was published in the UK on 27 October.

Sandlands, by Rosy Thornton

More and more, as he camped out on the dusty boarded floor that summer and into autumn, he found himself preoccupied by the notion of echoes…

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Another collection of short stories that has been slowly working through my brain, changing my mind about the form: Rosy Thornton’s Sandlands. The short stories that work for me, I find, are the ones that are connected somehow, either through shared characters or by circling around a theme, an image, a repeated idea. Thornton’s stories share a few characters, but mostly what she does in these pieces is address a couple of different ideas from various angles. I’ll structure this review by taking those ideas one by one, and looking at what she does with them.

Firstly: actual ghosts. There are, as Helen at She Reads Novels points out, not many actual ghost stories in Sandlands, but there are many which evoke the past’s presence in the here and now, and one or two which—for my money—do feature spectres. “Mad Maudlin” is told by a researcher working on Suffolk folk musical traditions. She’s viewing film clips of jam sessions in a local pub: one film she took earlier that day, and other rolls from 1979 and even as far back as 1954. As the story progresses, she realizes that one of the singers never seems to change, and bears a remarkable resemblance to a photograph on the pub wall… The narrator’s increasing nervousness is punctuated by italicized snippets from the song that the mysterious woman is always singing, in every clip, a song called Mad Maudlin, about a crazy woman in love with a crazy man. Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys, Bedlam boys are bonny… The ending—perhaps the most overtly horror-movie-like in the collection—gave me little shivers of terror and delight.

Secondly: figurative ghosts. Many of Thornton’s stories are told by two characters, who bounce the narrative back and forth between them. Sometimes the historical voice comes in the form of documents: in “The Watcher of Souls”, Rebecca finds a cache of letters in a tree trunk written by a lovestruck housemaid. Other times, there is no documentary evidence, and we’re left with the perspective that only a fiction writer can give us: getting inside the head of someone who lived long ago. “Nightingale’s Return” sees an Italian man, Flavio, flying to Sussex to seek out the farm where his father, Salvatore, had worked as a kindly-treated prisoner in WWII. Both of them tell the story in turn, and with the perspectives of both, the reader acquires the full knowledge of what happened at Nightingale Farm, which neither Flavio nor Salvatore alone can have. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

Thornton often uses landscape as a touchstone for stories that occur in the same place at different points in time.”All the Flowers Gone” happens in the same stretch of Suffolk countryside near an air force base, but is told by three generations of women in the same family. Lilian, a seventeen-year-old cleaner, cycles along the Tunstall Lane on her way to work at the base. Twenty years later, her daughter Rosa cycles along the Tunstall lane (note the slight difference in the name) on her way to a protest at that same base. And twenty years further on, Rosa’s daughter Poppy (Lilian’s granddaughter) cycles along Tunstall Lane (it’s now become a proper B road) in her capacity as a botanist to look at a rare-blooming flower that someone has found at the base. Again, Thornton juxtaposes the three stories so that, together, we learn something that none of the protagonists individually can know: namely, the fact that the seeds of Poppy’s flowers were scattered by Lilian, mourning the loss of a pilot whom she had loved, sixty years previously. She’s so deft with these reveals, her touch so light, that what could be sentimental is instead achingly tender.

The past is not always benign. In “Whispers”, Dr. Theodore Whybrow, stalled Cambridge academic, moves into a Martello tower in which he is convinced that his subject, a minor Regency poet, must have been stationed during the Napoleonic wars. He gets his mojo back—he starts to write again—but the scenes where he lies on the floor of the tower, wrapped in a blanket, suggest that the past is powerful, that conjuring the dead can move you in ways you didn’t expect:

There was a paradoxical realness and solidity about the voices here, an immediacy—yes, that was the word for it: immediate, unmediated—which recalled with a sudden sharp pang the early days of his scholarship, that quickening of the blood he had thought to have lost. A connection thought severed, rejoined.

More alarmingly still, the academic protagonist of “A Curiosity Of Warnings” finds himself caught up in family history that connects him to the ghost story writer MR James, and to the legendary crown of Raedwald, king of the East Angles. It’s never clear whether his sense of being pursued is down to his own madness or to something truly malevolent, but in a way that uncertainty doesn’t matter and is, indeed, the point: the thing chasing us doesn’t need to be tangible in order to be real. Likewise, in “The Witch Bottle”, newly divorced Kathy and her builder Nick find love with each other only to come up against the intractable history of Kathy’s house: centuries ago, its master was burned to death on his wedding night. A village girl, Patience Spall, was arrested for the crime, tried at the Bury St. Edmunds assizes, and burned as a witch the next day. As in other stories, we hear from Patience in her own words, and it’s left up to us to decide whether the story’s dénouement is really supernatural vengeance, or just a deeply unnerving coincidence.

Perhaps my favourite two stories were the final two, “Curlew Call” and “Mackerel”. Thornton does a beautiful job of elegizing the dying near-past, here represented by two women of the World War II generation. In “Curlew Call”, a young woman moves from London to be a carer for elderly painter Agnes; in “Mackerel”, another young woman and her grandmother swap off points of view (like in “Nightingale’s Return”). “Mackerel” in particular captures this sad strain of being one of the only members of your generation left.

Cancer played games, too, with Ganny’s friend Rebecca; hers was in the kidney and looked to be beaten, Ganny told us, before it came back everywhere at once… With Harry Housego next door, who’d survived the war and German prison camp with nothing worse than the shade of a limp, it was, finally, his heart; his friend Philip Root had fought in the Battle of Britain but died in his armchair at the nursing home in front of Bargain Hunt. Then there was old Rose Wilderspin who nursed her Albert for five whole years before outliving him by less than one… ‘It’ll soon be only me left’, Ganny likes to say, with as much determined pride as sadness.

We’ve met all of those characters in previous stories—Harry, Philip, Rose—most often as young people. It’s like being strangely, casually punched to be catapulted into the present day to discover how they died. And there’s Ganny herself, whose internal monologue tells us she’s been through more pain than her grandchildren will ever realize:

Captured by the Italians in the Peloponnese in ’41, Frank was shipped to Italy and set to work on a farm there. Not much more than a smallholding, he said in his letters, with some scrubby vines and a few olive trees. I kept the letters, even later, after I met Bill; one a week, he wrote me, for almost three years. He was killed joining up with the Allied invaders in the winter of ’44. Funny how things work out. If it hadn’t been for the times, that rush to wed before a tomorrow that might not come, it could have been an Italian farm girl he’d left on her own and pregnant instead of me.

I’ve never been to Suffolk, but even I can recognize that these stories are suffused with a deep love for it: its sandy lanes, its coastal flats, and above all, its people. Rosy Thornton is probably best known for her romantic novels, but going by this collection, she’s a wonderful and thoughtful literary fiction writer too (I hate making that distinction, but it’s hard to articulate in a different way). If you’re holidaying in Suffolk this year, or if you just want a beautiful collection of attention-holding stories, don’t miss Sandlands.

Many thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy. Sandlands was published in the UK by Sandstone Press on 21 July.