Reading Diary: Mar. 5-Mar. 11

original_400_600Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi: I’m never totally sure what to do with Oyeyemi’s fiction; she evades rationality by a hairsbreadth in a way reminiscent of Kelly Link. Harriet Lee is a refugee of sorts from the country of Druhástrana, which has no Wikipedia entry. Living in London with her daughter Perdita, she’s forced to retell and reconsider the story of her past as Perdita gets older and demands answers to her heritage. This makes it sound like an immigrant-family allegory, but the effect is far more fantastical; Harriet’s stories of her childhood suggest a fairytale country located on a vaguely European continent but inhabited entirely by black people, and the gingerbread of the title is clearly magical. The novel’s relentless coyness is a little wearing by the end, but most of the time, Gingerbread entrances even as it baffles.

60f6a5e6a4035e1655cd07638642fbafee4bCala, by Laura Legge (DNF @ 82 pages): I may have bounced off this book so hard because I was reading in snatched five-minute bursts; my colleague Faye has been reading it in longer sittings and getting through it more easily. The comparisons to The Water Cure are reasonable (though I think Cala is somewhat more original), but the difference is that Euna, our protagonist, leaves the closed and oppressive environment of her community by page sixty. However, there’s an opacity to the prose that frustrates forward movement, and the occasional gleams of poetic lucidity that break through are more incongruous than illuminating. Possibly a case of wrong reader or wrong time, or both. Anyway, I’m trying to break myself of the habit of finishing things that aren’t appalling but that I’m not enjoying much, so I put it down.

9781786894373The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch: This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself  for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.

9780857503916The Terror, by Dan Simmons: A 900-page novel about an Arctic expedition is, I know, not going to be everyone’s kettle of fish. Even less so if you add an element of supernatural horror in the guise of a mysterious thing that is stalking the men of the ships Terror and Erebus from out on the pack ice; trapped in their boats for two winters, the men are all but helpless. There’s an argument to be made that The Terror is too long, and that the introduction of a supernatural element is unnecessary given the genuinely horror-movie qualities of life when you’re shipwrecked in the Arctic. (Do you know what it’s like to die of scurvy? It’s like something out of Clive Barker.) I, however, think that Simmons is trying to do something larger – to make a point about the arrogance of imperial exploration – and even if it’s sometimes a tad obvious, both the horror plot (what is that thing?!) and the “realist” plot (will the food stores last?) compelled my curiosity. (Great piece on it here by Sady Doyle saying all the things I’d like to say.)

9781408890073Circe, by Madeline Miller: The first Women’s Prize longlisted book I’ve read after the announcement, and one I enjoyed a good deal more than Miller’s Prize-winning debut, The Song of Achilles. In her second book, she’s learned emotional restraint: the slightly breathless, soapy quality of Achilles’s and Patroclus’s doomed romance is replaced by Circe’s independence and the knowledge that her time with Odysseus is borrowed at best. Perhaps the most interesting parts of this story are its beginning – Circe’s childhood as a minor daughter of the Sun Lord, Helios, and the million petty cruelties of his court – and its end – providing what I think is a non-canonical but highly satisfying fate for Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, as well as for his son Telemachus and Circe herself. I wouldn’t be sad to see this on the shortlist, unless the longlisted titles I haven’t yet read are all outstanding.

Currently reading: I’ve just started Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, a space-exploration novel by the terrifyingly young (twenty-five) and talented Temi Oh.

Advertisements

08. The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

51vdoyi9zgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_It’s really hard to sum up The Bedlam Stacks. We start in 1859. Merrick Tremayne used to smuggle plants out of colonial Asia for the East India Company, but now, thanks to a badly injured leg, he has been sent home to Cornwall. He is quietly stewing in the family manse, relegated to a bedroom at the top of three flights of stairs despite his injury and unable to do anything at all without the approval of his older brother, when he receives a letter: the East India Company wants him back. Malaria is on the rise in India, and it’s bringing down too many colonial administrators; there is a way of treating it, with quinine, but the supply is tightly controlled. Merrick’s job is to find a rumoured forest of cinchona trees, from which quinine is made, in the highlands of Peru; he is to take cuttings from the plants and bring them back to London, so that the East India Company can grow its own supply. Initially dubious, he is convinced to take the job by an old friend, Clem, and Clem’s wife Minna, both of whom will be accompanying him. But the situation in Peru is far stranger than Merrick imagines: his guide, Raphael, is a Catholic priest, but rumours swirl around him of stone saints and mysterious wild men, and an uncrossable border in the forest…

There’s also a city perched on a natural bridge spanning a river, the columns of stone criss-crossed with streams of obsidian from an ancient volcanic eruption, so that sunshine on the river is refracted by the glass, causing the water to boil. There’s luminescent pollen that infuses a whole rainforest. There’s irresistibly funny dialogue, first between Merrick and Clem and then between Merrick and Raphael; both friendships are fractious, but witty. In fact, the relationships between all of the characters are so convincing, and so endearing, that I kept imagining the book as a mini-series, something cast and shot with the same sort of mindset that produced the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Pulley excels at creating a sense of the alien, and because the book is set in 1859, there is a sense of slippage between the merely foreign and the truly supernatural; the mysteriousness of The Bedlam Stacks is that, for a long time, the reader is never sure whether the oddness Merrick encounters is just a result of the limitations of mid-Victorian knowledge. I described it earlier as part David Mitchell, part Haruki Murakami; like those writers, Pulley’s version of the fantastical is a kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncanniness. That her book understands the political ramifications of the phenomena it describes, particularly when its characters belong to an era and nation convinced of its own right to commit rapacious conquest, brings me back to comparisons with Strange and Norrell, though I think, like Clarke, Pulley could have committed herself more thoroughly to exploring the power dynamics that she draws attention to. Perhaps most to the point is the fact that I simply could not put The Bedlam Stacks down: it’s suspenseful, the writing is more than competent, the jokes land every time. Really marvelous.

Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

cover1

The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

isbn9781473667792

More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

ursula20flight20cover

Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

9780008253066

Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.

Reading Diary: Mar. 11-Mar. 17

61nyh599hzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”

48398Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.

cover2The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.

35148165The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.

9780008264239Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.

Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.

Reading Diary: Mar. 4-Mar. 10

22589334My friend Katie let me borrow her copy of The Arsonist, citing it as one of the best fictional portrayals she knows of a career aid worker readjusting to life in the developed world. Since one of the protagonists of my novel has to deal with just this situation, I was grateful for the recommendation. Sue Miller’s main character, Frankie Rowley, is returning to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, after years as an aid worker in Kenya. Her parents have retired to the house that was historically their summer property, but retirement isn’t going to be a smooth ride—her father, Alfie, is developing dementia, and her mother, Sylvia, must care for him. Meanwhile, someone is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people” in Pomeroy, and Frankie—attempting to find some direction—begins an affair with Bud, the local newspaperman. I’ve read some complaints about the slow development of The Arsonist; I can only assume that this is down to baffled expectations. It’s not a thriller about a firebug, but a portrait of a small town drawn into the discomfort of facing its class divide head on. Pete, the widower from whom Bud bought the local paper, suggests that the problem is due to an increasing sense of equality: in the 1930s and 1940s, his parent’s generation, he suggests, “knew their place”, and no one felt troubled by the distance between year-round residents and the seasonsal families who employed locals as maids and handymen during the summer months. Perhaps it does no one any favours, Pete muses, to pretend as though there are no longer any social distinctions, when a difference in privilege and in wealth is so clear. Thematically, this makes a nice counterpoint to Frankie’s concern about her own privilege as a white expatriate in Africa, someone who was always going to be helicoptered out of a potentially dangerous situation, who didn’t really “belong” there because she could opt out of certain hazards.

Frankie’s and Bud’s romance is maybe a little torrid, but this is mitigated by the fact that it takes so long to get going, and by Frankie’s resistance and awkwardness as she tries to figure out which choices will let her have the most meaningful or fulfilling life. Fulfillment is also a vexed issue for Sylvia Rowley, who resigns herself to an old age spent caring for an increasingly demented husband whom she has long since ceased to really love. Throughout, Miller maintains a firm grasp of emotional beats, the complexities of a long marriage and of claustrophobic communities and of the interplay between a longing for independence and a longing for love. I’m particularly impressed by her understanding of rural communities, the way that things like a Halloween Haunted House at the town hall or a barbeque at the fire station hold such places together. Her work reminds me of Anne Tyler’s.

36262478Michael Andreasen’s debut short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, was one of the proofs I was most excited about getting to this month, even though I maintain the pretense of not liking short stories very much. (I say “pretense” because I always end up liking the ones that I read.) Andreasen’s approach to fantasy or magical realism is to infuse fantastical situations with bracing jolts of recognisable modernity, or vice versa. The sailors stuck on a slowly sinking ship, for instance, listen to hip-hop through their headphones, and a child in the first story—set either in an alternate universe or the future—has the distinctly old-fashioned name of Ernest. The most striking element of Andreasen’s work is his skill at engaging a reader’s emotions, even if those emotions conflict. In the title story, for instance, a lovestruck kraken is sinking a ship inch by inch, day by day, convinced that the ship is one of its own kind. The kraken eventually spawns thousands of babies, all of which are murdered by the sailors in an orgy of destruction; at the end of the story, a young sailor on the doomed vessel is found to have kept one infant kraken alive. He pins it—still living—to an effigy of the ship, places a doll version of himself on the deck of the model, and tips it overboard. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene because it forces us to feel so many things at once: pity for a tortured young animal and revulsion at the man who could do such a thing; simultaneous pity and terror for the young sailor and his shipmates and their impending demise; poignancy and horror that humans can keep hoping, even while suffering a slow death. Not all of the stories in the collection achieve such a powerful cocktail of emotion, but they’re all just as weird and engaging.

31937362What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? These are the questions posed by Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, out on 22 March. It reminded me, thematically, of The Moon and Sixpence (and it explicitly cites Paul Gaugin’s abscondment to Tahiti and abandonment of his wife and children as an example of the cruelties that artistic genius commits and is excused for). The novel centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter of forty or so when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known to all as Pinch. Bear might be a genius, but he is also controlling, serially unfaithful, and—the reader begins to notice—a bullshitter. Chronically jovial in public, he alternately manipulates and ignores both his current family and his children from other marriages, and manages to distract most people from noticing that he never says anything of substance; Pinch, who is desperate to be accepted as an artist by his father, interprets Bear’s evasions of direct questions in the way most flattering to himself, until he ages into knowing better. The early part of the book is spent in exploring the ways in which Bear belittles and diminishes Natalie’s artistic talent, but most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Parts of it are terribly sad—Rachman writes a few scenes for Pinch of such utter humiliation that they’re painful to read—other parts joyous. Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all. The Italian Teacher is a deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Several thematic parallels between the three books read this week, most notably dealing with aging and/or dementia-struck parents. It was also illuminating to read The Italian Teacher after All the Perverse Angels; both are intensely interested in the production of art and how its value is determined.

September Superlatives

September! A thoroughly mixed bag: meteorologically, professionally, literarily. I finished ten books, which is okay, and felt good about eight of them, which is also okay. The air has been getting steadily less warm, although today was the first day I actually felt cold outside. I’ve taken a part-time job in a gastropub round the corner from our flat, which is exciting—they’re giving us training! I’m learning to pull pints and carry three plates at once!—but also, of course, intimidating, and forcing me to rethink myself in a way that will hopefully be healthy (did I ever expect to be working in a pub at this stage of my life? I did not.) The book is coming along steadily; I’m handwriting some of it, which is going better than I thought it would. Roll on October!

least my thing: Unsurprisingly, this accolade goes to Diary of an Oxygen Thief, an anonymously published English translation of a book originally released in Amsterdam in 2006. The foul misogyny I was expecting was mostly replaced by narcissism and alcoholism, so although it could have been much worse, it was still a bit of a chore.

lolly-willowes1-723x1024

most delightful: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel about a maiden aunt whose eventual move to the countryside to start her own life is the catalyst for a pact with the devil. I like how gradually the plot moves; we get to know Laura, or “Aunt Lolly”, so well that when the devil eventually does come a-calling (surprisingly late in the book), we care all the more about her happiness.

most evocative: Deborah Levy’s incredible novel Hot Milk, which makes heavy use of symbolism and allegory but which also says “summer” in a way few other novels I’ve read this summer actually have. Set in desert-like Almería, Spain, it deals with hypochondria, sexuality, mothers and daughters, and responsibility. I liked its bizarre unpredictability, loved its woozy prose. I’d be happy if it won the Booker Prize.

most surprisingly enjoyable: I hadn’t expected to dislike Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but I’d expected to find the politics much more obviously unpalatable. Instead, I found right-wing military philosophy that struck me as more juvenile than malevolent. I think I still prefer the film, mostly for reasons of pacing; the book drags a little.

unlikely_cover_uk_pb_2016_6_30

warm bath book: Defined either as “one you could read in the bath” or “one that functions like a warm bath”. In this case—Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event—both are true. It’s a novel based on the real events that happened in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1950s, where three planes crashed en route to Newark airport in the space of three months. There’s plenty of domestic drama too, and although Blume’s prose is occasionally ungainly, it’s ultimately a lovely, life-affirming read that doesn’t shy away from tackling huge questions.

best romp: Obviously, Love and Freindship [sic], a collection of Jane Austen’s juvenilia. It’s so rewarding to see how she developed from her very earliest writings to the work she was producing in her late teens: sharp and witty from the beginning, but the wit gets ever more pointed as she goes on. Lady Susan is a miniature masterpiece. It’s the early stuff, though, like The Beautifull Cassandra and Frederic and Elfrida, that makes me giggle: heroines get rat-arsed on port wine and steal bonnets, men are so useless that they forget who they’re married to. It’s great.

most illuminating: iO Tillett Wright’s memoir, Darling Days, about growing up semi-feral on the Lower East Side. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had a difficult family life; who’s experienced parental alcohol or drug abuse, who’s grown up “alternative” or who’s been through the juvenile courts system, you need to read this book. It will tell you everything you need to know about the effect it has on a kid, and it will also show you that it is possible for kids to survive and thrive into adulthood even under the craziest of circumstances.

most aptly timed: Not Working, by Lisa Owens, for obvious reasons. Seriously, though, this is a fantastic novel. I was braced for something a bit brittle, a bit vapid or over-privileged. Instead, the sadness, the humour, and the bravado of this book absolutely knocked me out. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing; I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for Lisa Owens’s future work.

cljqzwaukaac_jg

most disturbing: Angela Carter is always going to win “most disturbing”, isn’t she? Not necessarily bad disturbing, just…disturbing. You know. Anyway, I read The Magic Toyshop this month, which apes the traditions of Victorian novels (beautiful young orphaned heroine, big bad uncle, mysterious cousin, etc.) and produces, out of material that we think we know, a wholly strange concoction. This book has got atmosphere by the bucket-load; you feel so grounded in its reality, reading it, and yet simultaneously enchanted. My favourite Carter to date, I think.

most disappointing: I hate to say this, but: Michael Hughes’s The Countenance Divine. I was expecting, if not quite Neal Stephenson, at least Stephenson-adjacent, and you can’t really blame me: the plot summary is that, in 1999, a programmer working on a fix for the Y2K bug becomes entangled with a tradition of millennarianism involving Jack the Ripper (in 1888), William Blake (in 1777), and John Milton (in 1666). Sounds phenomenal, no? And yet. The execution is so inconsistent (the sections set in 1999 are written in especially dull tones), and none of the book’s internal logic is really conveyed to the reader. Also, it features what has to be the drippiest Messiah EVER. (Unless the actual Messiah isn’t the character just referred to… Doesn’t change the rest of the book, though.) Oh, and either the Apocalypse in this book actually does rely upon horrific violence against women, or Hughes hasn’t sufficiently explained the reasons a reader should resist this interpretation. Which is such an old, and boring, story.

up next: I’m currently reading Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer who’s been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez with absolute justice. When I finish it, I’ll review The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam, coming out from Granta this week.

Before the Feast, by Saša Stanišić

On this day the night wears three liveries: What Was, What Is, What Is Yet To Be.

Fürstenfelde: a small village (“population: decreasing”), somewhere in Germany. The year: probably about now. The feast: a traditional celebration of St. Anne’s Day, featuring food, drink, singing, an auction, and the occasional burning. The night before the feast: a time of quiet anarchy. Anything could happen, and in Stanišić’s novel, anything does. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the book brings disparate characters together in peculiar situations; over the course of a single night, twelve hours at most, lives are revealed in miniature, destinies faced and changed, and yet history—and the village—marches inexorably on. In its combination of the fantastic, the menacing and the inexplicable, it reminded me of nothing so much as A Midsummer Night’s Dream filtered through the uncanny lens of Welcome to Night Vale.

Like both of these works, Before the Feast is an ensemble piece, although (more like Shakespeare) we end up invested in each of the many characters we meet. Frau Kranz is an eighty-nine-year old painter; Herr Schramm, a suicidal veteran who, every time he is reintroduced to us, comes with an entire potted history of his career; Anna, an eighteen-year-old orphaned girl who may or may not be burned at this year’s Feast; Lada, the local tough guy, and Silent Suzi, his tattooed, mute best friend; Johann, the sixteen-year-old apprentice bell ringer, and his mother Frau Schwermuth, who suffers from terrible depression and jealously guards the village archives. There are several chapters told through the eyes of a vixen looking futilely for food for her cubs. There are also, and increasingly as the book goes on, stories from local history: the archive is broken into on this night before the feast, and from that breach, no matter how much Frau Schwermuth might like to protect and suppress them, stories about the village’s past begin to leak out.

There are patterns to the stories. Most of them are to do with death: murder and then judicial murder, accidents and jealousies. A vixen features in several of them, as do girls called Anna. We can guess that a small village over many hundreds of years will experience similar situations over and over again; it’s not out of the ordinary that so many of the events recorded in the archives resonate with one another. But, put all together, it makes you aware of how powerful it is to know that you are in a place where death and life and stories have followed the same tracks for so long. Before the Feast is neither marketed nor written as a horror book, but it’s still, in this sense at least, deeply scary.

The fact is that many people were hanged from that oak tree over the centuries, and we sometimes feel so angry that we’d like to have the whole field covered with cement, not because we’re angry with the field and the oak tree, but because apart from Frau Schwermuth no one’s interested. There isn’t even a plaque about it anywhere.

Keeping track of regional and national history is difficult in a place that has experienced changes on a grand scale. Fürstenfelde has been part of the Empire, governed by Nazis, swallowed by the GDR, then ushered into the chilly light of capitalism at the end of the Cold War. Herr Schramm, “former lieutenant-colonel in the National People’s Army, then a forester, now a pensioner and also, because the pension doesn’t go far enough, moonlighting for Von Blankenburg Agricultural Machinery”, is our link to the shifting political and cultural landscapes of the recent past, the twentieth century. His days in the army are remembered with a mixture of unsentimental boredom and inexplicable longing. Herr Schramm didn’t enjoy his military service, exactly, but when we meet him in the book, he doesn’t feel he has much left to live for. And yet in Fürstenfelde, though the narrating voice makes casual asides about the days of the war and of communism and of hunger, we get the distinct impression that not all that much has ever changed:

More people die than are born. We hear the old folk as they grow lonely and the young as they fail to make any plans. Or make plans to go away. In spring we lost the Number 419 bus. People say, give it another generation or so, and things won’t last here any longer. We believe they will. Somehow or other they always have. We’ve survived pestilence and war, epidemics and famine, life and death. Somehow or other things will go on.

Even young Johann Schwermuth, the teenage bellringer desperate to lose his virginity, is one of a long line of bellringers and apprentices stretching all the way back to the dawn of the village’s existence.

Given this long historical perspective, it makes sense that Stanišić chooses to write most of the time in the first person plural. I can only recall seeing this once before, in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Virgin Suicides. In that book, the “we” pronoun represents the boys of the neighborhood, who long after the Lisbon sisters in a collective pubescent fashion; in Before the Feast, the “we” is the population of the village itself, though it doesn’t represent any of the specific people in it. Nor is it the land that speaks; “we” unites the villagers without making one of them a spokesperson. It’s the subconscious of this group of people, the collective awareness and shared experiences and beating heart of a small rural community that anyone who has lived in one will recognize immediately.

In one of the sections from the village’s history, Stanišić directly addresses the question of how this shared experience gets turned into memory and transferred down generations, so that eventually people who never lived through an event know it as a story:

Who writes the old stories? Who erects a memorial to fear? Who traces the furrows for sowing seed with a rake?

Who tells us what we ought to know?

Who tells us what we know?…

A fire comes and it’s all gone, all of it. Who writes the story of the fire? Who writes the old stories? Who takes that job on?

…Someone. Someone writes the stories. Someone has always written them.

There are characters who are lost in this book. Frau Schwermuth’s midnight wanderings, fueled by mental instability and chronic depression; Frau Kranz’s late-night attempts to paint a final picture; Herr Schramm’s vaguely suicidal impulses; Anna’s insomnia that drives her to lace her trainers on and run—none of them, you might think, have been particularly well served by Fürstenfelde’s stories, no matter how old and wise and pedigreed they are. I think Stanišić’s point is that people may have many centuries of history to draw upon, but it doesn’t make them any less individuals, who ultimately have only their own discretion to aid them. History can be used as a guide, but your past can’t—or at least shouldn’t—make decisions for you. The best you can do is to be canny about the lessons you learn from it.

Be heroic in keeping order. Know morals and manners so that you can change them (know your rights as well as your duty).

Be heroic with your memory by admitting honestly what has been done.

Be heroic and know that heroes cannot always be heroes; there are many other things to do.

Thanks very much to Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copy.