Wally Funk’s Race For Space, by Sue Nelson: If there were a prize for titles so bad they’re good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by “Wally” for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women’s program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she’s got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she’ll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it’s a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn’t always sit well together. It’s hella informative, though.
Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, by Deborah Kay Davies: This is one of those curious books that you get sometimes, that exist right smack on the boundary between genres or categories: it’s neither one thing nor the other, though sometimes it also feels like two things at once. Tirzah is growing up in the isolated Welsh valleys in the 1970s, the daughter of parents who adhere to a Christian sect so strict that I’d recommend any survivor of spiritual abuse avoid this title altogether. She’s resilient, and resists the dictates of her elders. There are aspects of her resilience, however, that seem almost like psychotic breaks (and how many young women became either saints or martyrs after reporting similar experiences?): she becomes acutely aware of the natural world, particularly in the form of a mysterious homeless boy called Bran who claims to be the servant of a crow god. When Tirzah becomes pregnant by Bran, it shakes her whole community, and the novel becomes concerned with how Tirzah can be free under these circumstances. Its weaknesses are in the plotting: it simply goes on for too long, focusing on repetitive incidents (Tirzah does some mildly rebellious thing, like go out for a walk; her parents find out; she is shamed; she cries and feels guilty; she gets a second wind of defiance; rinse and repeat). Because of the business with the crow god and wild Bran, there’s a flavour of magical realism (there’s a Welsh myth involving crows and a giant-king called Bran the Blessed), but that never seems to go anywhere, and the ending’s ambivalence about Tirzah’s mental state is less richly open to interpretation than frustratingly vague. Davies’s description of landscapes and her characterisation of young, restless women (especially Tirzah’s mother and her cousin Biddy) are both very good, but the book is too diffuse to have the power it aims for.
The Long Take, by Robin Robertson: The first novel-in-verse on the Man Booker shortlist (I think?) is worthy of the accolade. Robertson’s poetry, qua poetry, has made little to no impression on me, although I read Hill of Doors a few years ago. But The Long Take uses free verse to capture not only a sense of fragmentation and loss, but also the rhythms of the mid-century American city, the trauma of war, and – perhaps most impressively – the techniques of noir filmmaking. Walker, Robertson’s protagonist, is a Canadian D-Day veteran who cannot face going home: he has a girlfriend in the little fishing village from whence he came, but he can’t imagine a world in which she deserves to be burdened with him. First in New York, then in LA and San Francisco, he finds work as a newspaper journalist, chronicling the growth of the cities (which, in LA, is synonymous with slum clearances and the building of highways) and the situation of the homeless men, many of them veterans, who clog the city streets. It’s a tad inconclusive, or rather, the conclusion Robertson reaches is the result of a process that the free verse may obscure slightly: with more words, with more elaboration, we might feel we’ve been with Walker all the way, whereas the effect of The Long Take is rather more a series of vignettes. It might well read differently to someone who knows more about the history of noir. Worth a punt, though.
Heavy, by Kiese Laymon: This is the first of two memoirs by black men that I’ve read in the past few weeks. Laymon’s context is American. He is the child of a single mother from Mississippi, a brilliant woman whose tenacity and academic achievements were matched only by her high expectations for her son and her punishing disappointment (often physically; in the memoir, she strikes young Kiese a lot) when he doesn’t match up. The book is roughly chronological, tracing Laymon’s struggles with weight, addiction, desire, and how best to be a man, from childhood on up to his professorship at Vassar. He is clear and uncompromising about the role that abuse plays in shaping young black men and women: physical abuse, such as his mother hitting him, and sexual abuse, the first scene of which occurs when he is a child in a neighbour’s house where a slightly older girl, Layla, is made to go into a bedroom with three “big boys”. Laymon is queasily but precisely aware of power and coercion even as a very young child, and his strength in this memoir is in showing us how hard it is to win when the body – as they say – really does keep the score. Things fall apart a little near the end; the book as a whole is addressed to his mother, and as he begins to wrap up, the text begins to feel like a monologue, with some of the problems of repetition and obscurity that that suggests. It is, however, an outrageously good and visceral piece of writing, and in its detail, it clarifies so much about black lives in America. (Particularly illuminating is the fact that each of Laymon’s paychecks gets parceled out to more than half a dozen relatives in need, so that despite a regular salary, he often finds himself living hand to mouth.) White people should read this; non-Americans should read it too. Laymon is a clear successor to Roxane Gay.
Handel in London, by Jane Glover: This is going to be the best high-end Christmas book ever. From the joyful cover to the fact that the font isn’t too small, from the canny summaries of every opera and oratorio Handel wrote to the insightful but not distractingly detailed musical analysis, Handel in London might well have been tailored specifically for the genteel-music-lover market, and their Christmas needs. It’s also fun to read about the various difficulties involved in putting on operas in England in the early eighteenth century: they’ve always had an image problem, apparently, as they were generally considered to be too “exotic” and fancy for honest, simple English tastes. (That they were sung in a foreign language seems to have been the primary problem.) Singer drama, meanwhile, takes up a large portion of Handel’s time. (There is that glorious story about Francesca Cuzzoni refusing to perform an aria, to which Handel replied, “Madam, I see that you are a true devil – but I am Beelzebub, chief of devils”, and then threatened to fling her out of a window. Glover also recounts the weirdly manufactured rivalry between Cuzzoni and another soprano, Faustina; the two women appear to have mostly gotten along just fine, until nascent celebrity culture and the press whipped up a story about their being bitter enemies.) If I have one complaint, it’s that, although we get a great sense of what Handel was doing at any given moment in his life (and he was always doing a lot), it’s much harder to imagine what the inside of the man’s head might have been like. But then, his letters just don’t seem to be very revealing, and it’s obvious that he was both brilliant and almost obsessively hard-working. Highly recommended.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney: This is much, much preferable to Conversations With Friends, to my mind. Rooney follows two teenagers from Sligo, Marianne and Connell, as they enter into a secret relationship at school, break up, go to the same university, and spend the next three years on a faintly agonising will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster. The class difference (they meet because Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner) creates a strange power dynamic, but so does the fact that Marianne is considered a social outcast at school, Connell’s physical beauty, her absolute dedication to him, and (only revealed later) her interest in BDSM. That makes explicit what Rooney has been getting at all along: that Normal People is about exploring power imbalances, in ways that are both healthy and not so. (It’s to Rooney’s credit that the BDSM isn’t painted as a Bad Thing per se; what feels icky about it is that we know Marianne feels she deserves no better than violence, as opposed to it being an avenue of exploration and pleasure for her.) The novel reminded me a lot of Belinda McKeon’s Tender, also about two young people at university in Dublin and their painful, tumultuous relationship. I still prefer McKeon’s book because she never looks away, whereas Rooney chooses to illuminate Marianne and Connell through vignettes, but that’s a stylistic thing.
The Life and Times of a Very British Man, by Kamal Ahmed: Ahmed is the BBC chief economics editor, and as such is a pretty well-known name and face. His memoir is not unlike Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish), which was published earlier this year and is just out in paperback now: both Hirsch and Ahmed seek to explore the peculiar feeling of being a light-skinned or mixed-race person in Britain today, with the legacy of violence in the 1970s and ’80s still fresh, but with children for whom Britain will increasingly be a nation of brown faces. Ahmed’s book convinces me less, partly because his interpolation of statistics and political truths into the story of his life feels less organic than Hirsch’s (and Hirsch writes more fluidly), and partly because he subscribes to the idea that we all just need to listen to each other. Technically speaking, of course, he’s not wrong, but his assumption that people can meet each other at a table “as equals” is startling, given that institutional racism very much still exists; people of colour, not only in Britain but also in America and Europe, are under a weight of suspicion, lack of opportunity, lack of generational wealth, lack of access to the establishment, that their white counterparts don’t have to struggle against in quite the same way, even if they’re poor or working-class white people. No one is coming to this putative table to listen to each other without their context. I think perhaps this is a generational thing; people my age seem much more likely to acknowledge that not only are we not all dealt comparable hands, but that addressing that imbalance ought to be an integral part of any kind of policy development.