Reading Diary: Apr. 2-Apr.8

71tzk8kcqplFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi: Exploring the Nigerian tradition of possession by spirit children (ọgbanje), Freshwater achieves its remarkable sense of, well, freshness, by resolutely avoiding mysticism. Ada’s possession by multiple shadowy presences–two of whom develop distinct personalities: the predatory Asughara, who manifests after a sexual assault in college and who “stands in front” of Ada’s psyche in all of her dealings with men, and the gentle, masculine-presenting Saint Vincent–is presented as spiritual fact. Although Ada’s American friends treat her as though she is mentally ill, Emezi raises the possibility that what afflicts her is not nearly as clear-cut, and that Western psychology is of limited use when coping with gods. Engrossing, disturbing, and well deserving its place on the Women’s Prize longlist.

imageThe Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun: For the first third of this slim German novella, I was getting shades of, of all things, Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle: that same insouciant cheerfulness, the same pithy, suspiciously innocent one-liners. Doris is young, good-looking and on the make. Her small provincial town can’t hold her, and after going through as many of the local men as she can, she heads off to Berlin, hoping to “become a star”. Her story goes to some significantly darker places than Cassandra’s, though Keun never allows Doris to entirely lose her witty, devil-may-care attitude, even if it ends up buried under the weight of disillusionment. Contains insights of real brilliance into the nature of human relationships, and Keun’s own life story is incredible. I’ll seek out more by her.

38720267Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn: Possibly the shortest book in contention for the Women’s Prize this year, van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash uses its bantamweight to its advantage. The story of Alina’s and Liviu’s marriage, and the strain it’s put under when Liviu’s brother defects and the Romanian secret services begin a merciless program of harassment against the couple, its most graphic and terrifying moments last no longer than three or four pages and have greater impact as a result. The opening chapter establishes an expectation of magical realism (Alina’s grandfather, apparently “shrunk” by his wife to keep him safe from the State, has spent years living in a bird cage) that has long been a staple of writing about life under a totalitarian regime, but van Llewyn’s brevity keeps it fresh and new.

queenie-9781501196010_hrQueenie, by Candice Carty-Williams: This has been billed as “the black Bridget Jones”, which is a dynamite comparison, although the idea of a book being “the black version” of another book is uncool. Queenie Jenkins’s relationship with a white man, Tom, has just imploded. (They’re “on a break”.) The novel traces Queenie’s fall–sex with men who hurt her, panic attacks, eviction–and her rise: going to therapy despite her family’s horror, accepting the love of her friends, sassy Kyazike (“Chess. Keh.”) and poshly befuddled Darcy, and slowly coming to terms with her difficult childhood. The writing is less effortless and the shape of the story less subversive than Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, but it’s a deeply relatable novel about a young woman trying to make her own way in a world that doesn’t value her as it should.

Currently reading: Namwali Serpell’s epic multi-generational novel of Zambian families, The Old Drift. It’s scarily good.

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Reading Diary: adventures in the unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.

Reading Diary: Feb. 25-Mar. 3

71a16qvvuyl** spoilers follow** Look at that cover, eh. That’s pretty much what London’s looked like for the past week or so, although it hadn’t started snowing when I picked up The Secret Agent. It’s subtitled “A Simple Story”, which I think is some sort of bleak sarcasm on Conrad’s part, since much of the plot revolves around a young man whom we would now refer to as having learning difficulties. This is Stevie, the brother of Winnie Verloc, a young woman who is married to Mr. Adolf (yes, really) Verloc, a dealer in pornography and also a closet anarchist who has been employed by the Russian Embassy in London as an agent provocateur for thirteen years. The novel opens as Verloc’s handlers inform him that he’s been sleeping on the job, and that they wish him to precipitate some sort of public scare, so that the British government will be more likely to support Imperial Russia’s moves towards authoritarianism. The plan is to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (an attack on the prime meridian! On time itself! What could be more disturbing?) but things go awry and poor Stevie is killed.

The cunning trick of the novel is in the way its focus pivots from Adolf Verloc, whom we think is going to be the protagonist of the piece, to Mrs. Verloc, whose tragedy it turns out to be. Realising that her marriage, which was contracted almost entirely in order to provide Stevie with a safety net in the event of her mother’s death, was actually the instrument of Stevie’s destruction, Winnie murders her husband and then, it is heavily implied, leaps from a cross-Channel ferry to her own death. I’m not wholly convinced by the way that Conrad effects this shift of focus; it works, but it seems very sudden, and the entire novel is profoundly nihilistic in a way that makes one wonder why he thought he was writing it. (An Author’s Preface is included; clearly Conrad came under fire for the supposed immorality of the story, and felt the need to defend his choice. He makes it clear that he didn’t set out to offend, but he doesn’t entirely explain why he thought the story worth telling in the first place.) The prose is quite dense, and requires focus, which will put some readers off, but in its mercilessness, The Secret Agent is not unlike The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and fans of early Le Carre would benefit from reading it.

51wl6eg0jzlHaving been in a bit of a reading funk since the previous week, and having expended considerable mental energy in elbowing my way through The Secret Agent, I picked up something completely different: Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin. It is essentially a rom-com with the part of the matchmaking friend played by two AIs, or rather “machine intelligences”. Jen’s job is to teach one of them, an AI called Aiden; he’s super-efficient but needs help learning how to behave like a human, so Jen spends every day talking to him about books and movies, watching the news with him, expanding his conversational and cultural repertoire. Unbeknownst to her, Aiden has escaped from his “twelve metal cabinets in Shoreditch” onto the Internet, and can now roam at will. In this way, he discovers that she’s broken up with her boyfriend and is sad; he runs the numbers and decides to find her a new man. There’s more to the story, involving another escaped AI, Aisling, and a malevolent one, Sinai, but suffice to say that hijinks, missed connections, and true love with a divorced ex-adman named Tom ensue.

There are issues with Happiness For Humans: it doesn’t manage to totally avoid some gender-reductionism with regards to characterisation, the evil AI is fairly cliched and gets a deeply unsatisfactory (and somewhat disturbing) ending, and Reizin is suprisingly patronising about a) anyone under thirty, and b) computer programmers. But it completely snapped me out of my reading slump: it’s funny and charming, and although there’s what film rating boards would call “mild peril”, we’re never in much doubt that our hero(es) and heroine(s) will prevail. A warm bath book in the dying days of February.

atpacoverAll the Perverse Angels is a book I feel quite personally about, because I inititally came across it about two years ago, when it was still being crowdfunded on Unbound. At the time I was skint, and couldn’t support it financially—but now that it’s been published, I can support it by selling the hell out of it. A dual-timeframe narrative is one of those techniques that either works brilliantly, or fails miserably; Marr manages hers very well, by keeping her point of view characters to two, and by not belabouring the parallels between her present-day protagonist (Anna, a curator recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown precipitated by her female partner’s infidelity with a man) and her past one (Penelope, a first-year Oxford undergraduate in 1887—when female students were just starting to be accepted—has an unfortunate affair with the husband of a don at her college, and discovers true love, and disaster, with a fellow student). All the Perverse Angels isn’t afraid to reflect its difficult themes in its style; Anna’s narration is often just a tiny bit disorienting, as her mental associations run riot, leading her to conflate memories of childhood and the recent past with her present experiences. Marr is also an excellent describer: one of my favourite subgenres of fiction is “books about other art forms”, and the way she writes about paintings had me reaching for my laptop at least once a chapter to see for myself. (Note: Cornelius van Haarlem’s 1588 painting Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured By A Dragon is absolutely horrible enough to cause a panic attack, as it does in the book.) Anyone who loves art and art history, or who is interested in fictional treatments of marriage, fidelity and relationships, should read this.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Three books instead of four in a week represents the slump’s effects, though I’m well out of that. Both Reizin’s and Marr’s books are very new on the market—I’m thrilled to be able to promote them even more assiduously—and I’m equally pleased to have managed a classic that had escaped me til now.

Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.

Reading Diary: Feb. 4-Feb. 9

powerIf there were an all-literature version of Pointless (and now that I’ve mentioned it, why isn’t there? It seems like there should be, possibly in the format of a board game that gets sold mostly to nerds and played mostly at our dinner parties and New Year’s Eve get-togethers), and if you were playing the Books Jeanette Winterson Has Written round, The Powerbook would be the answer you’d most want to give. I had no idea she’d written it; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry have overshadowed it, in my mental survey of her oeuvre. I won’t write too much about it here because I’m meant to be discussing it on Twitter at the end of the month with Amy and Naomi. There are three strands to it, though: a series of narratives about separated lovers (literary, mythological, and historical, such as Lancelot/Guinevere and Francesca/Paolo); a counternarrative about a writer and the married woman with whom she falls in love and with whom she cannot be; and a series of far more gnomic but also more seductive utterances about storytelling, story strategies, personae, and power. I’m not convinced that the abstract and concrete sections of The Powerbook fit together as well as they think they do—especially the early sections involving Ali in Istanbul, which read much more like Angela Carter on an uncharacteristically whimsical day than the rest of the book does—but for those short, almost aphoristic passages alone, I’m glad I read this. Follow our discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ThePowerbook at the end of February (exact date to be announced).

71xeuuzsuolNon-fiction is always harder for me to get excited about, but this came highly recommended, and also has a spot in the top five entries on this list of the top 100 non-fiction books of the 21st century, which I’m using in a casual sort of way to help fill the gaps. It is so very good. Susan Cain’s day job is as a consultant to high-flying businesspeople, mostly helping them to overcome fears like public speaking or giving them skills to negotiate more confidently in the boardroom. Her thesis in Quiet is that one of the most significant factors about a person is whether they are introverted or extroverted, and, moreover, that most people in the Western world are labouring under something known as the Extrovert Ideal, although at least 30% of us, being introverted, are woefully ill-adapted by nature to conform to this ideal. If you are an introvert—especially, I think, if you are an introvert who has learned to project fairly solid social skills—this book will be a revelation to you; I turned the pages with increasing delight and gratitude, thinking This is why I’m so tired after work! This is why I hated working in an open-plan office! This is exactly what I used to feel like in the playground/in the cafeteria/at summer camp! It’s not all my fault!! If you’re not an introvert, statistically you are likely either to marry/date one, parent one, or manage one (or all three) at some point over the course of your lifetime, and Cain’s lucid, insightful book contains some excellent pointers for understanding the introverts in your life. The best thing about Quiet is Cain’s insistence that introverts trying to conform to the Extrovert Ideal can stop running in place; that maybe the way we see the world and handle tasks and respond to stimuli is actually inherently valuable, too, and that extroverts could learn from it. I can see why it’s been lauded to the skies: implementing her suggestions could change corporate culture and increase productivity, but it could also change marriages and families and improve whole lives. (One thing I’d have liked to see more of is an assessment of how the Extrovert Ideal affects men and women differently; how gender and sexual double standards come into play, and so on.)

julian-barnesJulian Barnes. I have decided that he, like his character Susan in this novel, is a member of “a played-out generation”, except he appears to have retained his ability to write a good sentence untainted by the corrosive tang of bitterness. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie: all have fallen, at one point or another, to their own reputations. Barnes, and possibly Graham Swift (I haven’t read a recent enough book of his to know), remain on point: perhaps a touch more melancholic than they were fifteen years ago, or twenty, but on the whole observing the vagaries of later life with more bemusement than rage. The Only Story seems to support this theory: it is about a nineteen-year-old university student named Paul, who, home for the holidays and made to join the local tennis club, meets and falls in love with a married woman of forty-eight named Susan Macleod. It’s not a summer fling, although the total effect of the book, at least on me, is to make the reader wonder whether it should have been. It’s a real, serious, all-in love affair: Susan moves out of her husband’s house, though she never divorces him, and the two live together in London while Paul trains to become a solicitor. The devastation happens by degrees, as Susan sinks into alcoholism so severe that she damages her own memory. Paul leaves her, or, as he puts it, “hands her back” to her daughter’s care, and she dies probably in her early sixties, consumed by dementia and paranoia. It’s not a happy story, so what are we to make of it?

Barnes writes with a kind of aphoristic certainty that asserts itself even when he is pretending to uncertainty, which is appealing, and lends The Only Story the weight of tragedy that it needs. What I keep asking myself, though – and this is true of almost all the books I read now – is, why this story, and why this way? I don’t know what Julian Barnes wants me to make of a hopelessly romantic but strangely cynical and affectless young man who, to save his own sanity, leaves an older woman who has burned all her boats for him. I don’t know what he wants me to make of that older woman, who always seems disturbingly childish, even in her charming qualities (irreverence, constant laughter). Judging from the many times the text touches on the subject, I think his point is largely to do with differences between generations, but what is that to a reader who is of a generation after Paul? Am I to conclude that my parents’ peers fought their parents and thought themselves progressive, just like my own? Is that such a revelation that I really need Barnes to make me think about it? I feel, as a reader, somehow resistant to The Only Story, and I can’t work out whether that’s inherent to the book, or to me. Maybe I’m too young for it.

51sx7hk0uplRuby Tandoh is the literal exact opposite of Julian Barnes: a young queer woman of colour who seems to epitomise millennial values like self-care and not judging other people. I adore her. Eat Up is not a recipe book or a how-to-eat guide or even the radical manifesto that the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, says it is; it’s a series of intelligent, engaged meditations on food and the role it plays in our lives, and the ways in which our relationship to food intersects with cultural narratives about power, privilege, morality, money, class, race, sex, gender, and worth. Of all the things that take up space in my head on a daily basis, food might well be the biggest: in order to feed myself appropriately, I must contend with the intersections of affordability, Type I diabetes, chronic lack of time, my own tendency to use food as a mechanism for unhealthy self-control and self-punishment, and a spectacular sweet tooth. It’s really fucking hard. Reading Tandoh’s words makes me feel understood and reassured. Yes, she says, food is complicated; no, you don’t have to eat perfectly all the time; there isn’t even any one right way to eat. Her asides on social and cultural history are succinct but thorough: the section on the history of the UK chocolate industry, and sections on queer bodies, poor bodies, and the use of food in film, are particularly good. And she does include perhaps two dozen recipes, scattered throughout the book, every one of which looks delicious and quick and affordable. It’s been years since I’ve been so uncomplicatedly excited about cooking, for myself and others.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: For a week which I mostly spent sick and asleep in bed, not bad at all. Better get going with the proofs again next week, though.

Reading Diary: Jan. 14-Jan. 20

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara, is a gorgeous book, set in the drag queen ball scene of New York, from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Angel, our main character, becomes the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, the first house for aspiring Puerto Rican queens (a drag queen house is something like a Formula 1 team, but a thousand times more fabulous, and its members relate to each other like a family). Angel is joined by sassy and beautiful Venus (born Thomas); shy banjee boy Daniel; and skilled seamstress and lost boy Juanito. There’s also Dorian, an even older queen who serves as a mentor and cultural guardian. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish. It’s a tragic book, as one set amongst the gay and trans community during those decades must be: many sisters fall, to the virus or to illegal drugs or to malevolent strangers. It’s also defiantly, spectacularly beautiful, constantly reaffirming the value of the family you choose for yourself. Fans of A Little Life, RENT, and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City will all find something to love here.

51fe1shobzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_And then for something completely different: Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The thing that always surprises me with Greene is how humane he is; for some reason I expect his Catholicism to be curdled and grotesque, like Evelyn Waugh’s, but it always turns out gentle and pitying. This novel follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); he is a man who has lost his dignity, his sense of purpose, almost his humanity; Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is also spectacularly good at suggesting interiority while maintaining firm boundaries between the reader and his characters; we always feel we’re standing somewhat outside of the whisky priest, watching him do things or have things done to him, but as we continue to observe him, our understanding of him grows. It would make a very interesting companion read to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (which I’m afraid I’ve only seen the film of).

isbn9781473661417-detailThe cover of The Wicked Cometh, Laura Carlin’s debut novel, should perhaps have made me wary; anything that’s getting the Sarah Perry/Jessie Burton design treatment is something on which the publisher wants to make the big bucks, and making the big bucks is not always commensurate with flawless prose and editing. The Wicked Cometh begins with about a hundred pages of somewhat overwrought scene-setting, in which we meet young Hester White, the orphaned daughter of a clergyman who now lives with her father’s former gardener Jacob and his wife Meg in a foul slum in London’s Whitechapel. Rumours abound of disappearances: ordinarily steady men, women and children are vanishing, never to be seen again. When Hester is involved in an accident with a carriage, and invited to recuperate (and work as a maid) at the country house of the man who caused the damage, she begins to unravel a horrifying conspiracy. The writing tends to teeter back and forth between melodrama and the kind of flattening present tense that constantly tells a reader how to feel, which hampers attempts to engage with the story. But if you can get past the initial pages and reach the point at which Hester returns to London with her friend and beloved, Rebekah Brock, you’ll make it to the end. The conspiracy is really rather fiendish, if somewhat over-complicated, and I liked that Carlin develops a love story between two women in the nineteenth century as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it (which, in fact, there isn’t.)

cover3A little book to end the week with: I wasn’t sure whether this really counted, but it has its own ISBN, so why not. It’s Calm, one of the Vintage Mini books that comprise excerpts from an author’s larger work on a particular theme. Calm is a 95-page chunk from Tim Parks’s book Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences with Vipassana Buddhist meditation, chronic pain, and spirituality. Parks was raised in a deeply religious household (his father was an Anglican priest), from which he seems to have fled both physically and mentally at the earliest possible opportunity; faith is obviously a deeply vexed issue for him. He writes pitilessly, with great wit and self-deprecation, about his attempts to be more mindful, to meditate better, and about the depths of his despair when a meditation retreat seems to promise nothing but more physical pain and suffering. When, at last (and very briefly) the meditation does work, he writes of his body’s feeling of liberation and release with an illumination and a joy that is reminiscent of mystics like Margery Kempe—and also acknowledges how fleeting such joy must be (his return to discomfort is “liturgy after revelation”). I’d very much like to read Teach Us To Sit Still in its entirety now, and perhaps try to pick up my own meditation or yoga practice again.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A hell of a lot of purple covers and spirituality. Is the subconscious really responsible for things like that?