November Superlatives

November started off slow. (Soooo slowwww.) (Sorry, that is a verbal tic of mine that only makes sense to people who have played Grim Fandango virtually to the end, you know, the bit where the little tiny car-driving demons are…anyway.) Two enormous volumes, in almost-direct sequence, took about five days each, and a third wasn’t quite as enormous but still took nearly an entire working week. Luckily, things picked up a bit after that (helped along by a semi-conscious decision to focus on the slimmer books on my TBR pile) and I rounded out the month with 13 books read, including four volumes of nonfiction, which is almost unheard of. Plus, the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel had its final judging meeting, where I got to meet some amazing blogger-friends in real life for the first time!

biggest letdown: The End of the Day, by Claire North. Sorry. I did try to like it a bit more, but there were just so many ellipses, and it became increasingly clear that the book’s thesis was The Great Mundane Miracle Of Existence, which…I mean, nearly four hundred pages and that’s it? It’s a nice commercial fiction/fantasy crossover, and bits of it are very funny—I’ll certainly send it to some customers—but not one for me. (review)

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most brain-stretching: Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon. Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

most grudgingly liked: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney, an exploration of youth and power amongst ambitious artsy twenty-somethings in Dublin that I expected to loathe and instead found myself admiring tremendously. The dialogue is both ridiculously clever and surprisingly poignant. (review)

most pointless-feeling: A 700-page biography that leaves you just as unclear on its subject’s personality as you were at the beginning has missed the mark somehow. Despite its erudition and its writer’s clear love for his subject, this is unfortunately the case of Minoo Dinshaw’s life of Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight. (review)

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darkest: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a novella by Yukio Mishima about a young Japanese boy who plots a horrible fate for his mother’s new husband. If you think teen violence and desensitisation is the fault of video games, think again; this book was written in the ’60s and depicts the most nihilistic children I’ve ever read.

most emotionally engaging: Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which just earned her a second National Book Award. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

most eye-opening: Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann’s nonfiction account of ten Africans who lived free in Tudor England. Kaufmann uses parish records, legal testimony, and Court documents to illuminate the lives of men and women like John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpeter; Reasonable Blackman, an African silkweaver living in Southwark; Anne Cobbie, a successful sex worker who traded on her skin; and, perhaps my favourite, Cattelena of Almondsbury, a “single woman” who lived in a small rural village near Bristol and whose possessions, listed after she died, included a tablecloth and a cow. Read alongside David Olusoga’s Black and British for a whole new take on what historic England might have looked like.

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best support of the sisterhood: A slim book first published in the 1930s by Marjorie Hillis, eventually deputy editor of Vogue, Live Alone and Like It is a delightfully witty, un-self-pitying advice manual for single ladies. It’s rather of its time, but much of it is wonderful (a whole chapter is entitled “A Lady And Her Liquor”, and there’s another on having an affair). Most touching, perhaps, is her firm assertion that a woman living alone is no more likely to be murdered than a woman living with a man, and her advice that, if you are frightened, you must simply lie abed in the dark and think very hard about something else, like your new frock, or what you might say if that nice gentleman you went to the cinema with last week should happen to propose.

sexiest: Come, Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross, a story collection from Peepal Tree Press that I bought on the strength of a single Guardian review. It’s full of stories that range from a couple of paragraphs to a dozen pages, dealing with sex, love, heartbreak, and death. There’s a lot of magical realism—one protagonist, an office cleaner, starts to find abandoned hymens everywhere, which convey to him the sufferings of the women they used to be attached to—and a lot of NSFW stuff, too, which is astonishingly well written. It’s a wonderful collection.

greatest technical skill: Jon McGregor is a must-read author for life, now that I’ve read not only Reservoir 13 but also If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which was published in 2002. Set in the late ’90s, it flips back and forth between an ordinary day on a street in a city neighbourhood, at the end of which something terrible happens, and the present day, where a witness of that event must come to terms with the way her life is now. McGregor is the master of the moving-camera point of view, the sort of thing that Virginia Woolf did a lot, and I don’t know anyone who captures the holiness of mundanity in the way he does. He’s a simply beautiful writer.

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most deserved hype: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which I read in a day, so addictive is the voice of its protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty and works in an office. Every Friday night, she buys a pizza for dinner and two bottles of vodka, which last her the weekend. Every Wednesday, she has a phone call with Mummy, who is locked away somewhere. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Eleanor’s carefully controlled world—and her loneliness—peels away from her, to be replaced with friendship, self-awareness, and, at last, understanding of what exactly Mummy did. It could be sentimental and overworked; instead, it’s tender, restrained and heartbreaking, and surprisingly very funny. I loved it.

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best surprise: Another nonfiction book, Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book, which recounts the life of Civil War heroine Anne Fanshawe through her personal memoirs and papers. Anne’s marriage was delightfully happy—she and her husband Richard seem to have been each other’s best friend—but their loyalty to Charles I and later to his son meant that they lost a lot of money and all of their security in the Royalist cause. Bouncing from country to country as refugees, they buried ten children in eight different locations; Anne suffered six additional miscarriages. Only four of the children she bore survived to adulthood. She was also a total badass who lobbied in court and at Parliament, once bribed a cabin boy for his clothes to use as a disguise, and forged a French visa for herself and her children, amongst other things. Her story is a reminder that the people of the past were still recognisably people, who suffered and loved as we do.

most oh-God-okaayyyy: The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan. It’s a weird, claustrophobic little novella, set in Venice over the length of an English couple’s holiday, that builds to a moment of magnificent what-the-fuckery that’s all the more surreal for having been so meticulously prepared for. It’s a nasty little thing, but one of those perfectly sculpted technical pieces that you have to admire, even if it also makes me feel gross.

up next: I’ve just started A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which is charming and which I’ll take away with me to my grandparents’ for the weekend. I’ve also got The Old Curiosity Shop for my Annual Winter Dickens, plus the endless pile of proofs.

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6 Degrees of Separation: Fates and Furies

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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  1. This month we start with Lauren Groff’s bestselling Fates and Furies, which I have not yet read but which is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s loving marriage. Except halfway through the perspective shifts, and we realise all is not as it seems…
  2. Fates and Furies was shortlisted for the 2015 National Book Award. The winner of that award was Adam Johnson’s collection of short stories, Fortune Smiles, which focuses on (amongst other things) technology, politics, and relationships.
  3. The title story of that collection is reminiscent, in its East Asian setting and flavour of surreal weirdness, of Haruki Murakami. The only novel of his that I’ve read all the way through is The Wind-Up Bird Chroniclewhich features dream sex, spaghetti, and a cat named after the protagonist’s brother-in-law.
  4. My favourite fictional cat has got to be Behemoth, the whisky-drinking, cigar-smoking, pistol-toting kitty from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
  5. I read most of The Master and Margarita in a Heathrow departure lounge on the way home for Christmas one year. Another year, in the same place, I read Hans Fallada’s bleak novel of resistance to Nazism, Alone In Berlin, which I would not recommend as airplane reading, to put it lightly. It is good—beyond good; almost essential—but extremely disturbing.

From a deceptive American marriage to the deepest questions of personal responsibility in mid-century Germany, via surrealist Japan and satirical Russia: a better geographical spread this month, though still quite Eurocentric. Does anyone have a different favourite fictional cat? I thought about Dinah, from Alice in Wonderland, or Tabitha Twitchit of Beatrix Potter, or, of course, Mrs. Norris from the Harry Potter series…

06. The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos

51ekjmutwolWhere I read it: in bed at the end of a very, very busy weekend in June seeing my parents and brother

I’m on book 13 of 20 Books of Summer, but I’m way behind on reviews (even though I’m keeping them brief!) so here’s another one.

In 1703, the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts was raided by a French and Indian war party. The town’s Puritan minister, John Williams, was taken captive along with his wife and their five children. Mrs. Williams, heavily pregnant, died en route to Canada;   John Williams was ransomed two and a half years later, and most of his children too were eventually returned to him. Only one was “unredeemed”: Eunice, five years old at the time of her capture, remained with the Mohawks. The Unredeemed Captive is about Williams’s attempts over many decades to free his daughter—to redeem her not only physically (by bringing her back) but spiritually (by reinculcating in her the Puritan traditions of her childhood). Expeditions to release her, negotiations between French Canadian and colonial English governments, intelligence from fur trappers and merchant traders: all were in vain. Eunice forgot how to speak English within a few years of her capture, converted to a frontier form of Catholicism, married a young Mohawk, raised children with him, and above all—when finally located and visited by what remained of her family—refused to return to Massachusetts.

It’s a fascinating premise, and John Demos, a Yale historian, tells it with due attention to historical context. The French and Indian wars are a complicated and frankly bewildering time in American colonial history; the fact that they occurred pre-Revolution, also, means that they tend to be glossed over during American school history classes. I knew virtually nothing about them beyond the fact that they had happened. Demos digs deep into the implications of Eunice’s captivity: because French Canadians had developed a level of co-existence with Indian tribes and, in some communities, lived together with them, the world into which Eunice was plunged was one of what the Puritans regarded as spiritual heresy. By forgetting her catechism in favour of the pagan-tinted Catholicism of Frenchified Mohawks, not only was John Williams’s daughter lost to him in this life; she was lost to him in eternity, as well, unless he could retrieve—redeem—ransom her. The connotations of all of those words are not accidental.

Demos uses contemporary sources to excellent effect: sermons, letters and diaries feature heavily, particularly those of John Williams and his son, Eunice’s brother, Stephen. He  acknowledges the problem with relying on the written word—that we cannot know what Eunice thought or felt—though there is one surviving letter from her, and he analyzes its text with a thoughtful tenderness that suggests a true investment in his subject. Elsewhere, he freely admits to speculation, and writes sections in italics that describe turning points in the drama: the trek to Canada, the marriage of Eunice with her Mohawk husband, the meeting between Eunice and her father after many decades, and what might have been going through her head.

If the novelistic approach here clashes with the slightly dry facts and figures in other places (Demos ensures that if we’re confused by the vagaries of the French and Indian wars, it’s not for lack of information), I’m willing to give it a pass: the book is so illuminating on a period I know so little about, and so generous in its examinations of how the religious, social, and political currents of a whole world affect the beliefs and actions of individuals. It is, in short, the kind of book that tells a story, situated within a wider context (Demos admits freely that he likes history for its storytelling potential). It approaches history in the same way as my best teachers did at school: as a way of making sense of people.

The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos (New York: Papermac, 1996 [1994])

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

I knew one day I would stop and he would keep on going, but until then nothing could tear us apart.

Just Kids is a memoir by Patti Smith, whose most famous soubriquet is “the godmother of punk”, about her romance and friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. It is mostly set in a New York City of the ‘60s and early ‘70s that no longer exists, an artistic subculture whose portrait makes it clear that American society suffered a debilitating, game-changing onset of cynicism and materialism from the 1970s onward. Given this, you might think that enjoying Just Kids requires a more-than-passing acquaintance with punk rock, bohemian romanticism, or Mapplethorpe’s photography. Fortunately, that’s not true. All you need to be touched and charmed by this book is half a heart.

Smith is a romantic, and her style remains utterly untouched by self-consciousness or irony. She describes her childhood, full of conspiracies and storytelling contests among her many siblings, as sincerely as I’ve ever read any account of childhood; the only real trauma she writes about is her friendship with a slightly older girl who was dying of leukaemia. Transfixed by the other girl’s pretty belongings, the young Smith waits until she’s asleep before stealing a pin from her jewellery box. In a reckoning so swift and Catholic that it feels like an outtake from Joyce’s Dubliners, the other girl dies two days later, and Smith, consumed with guilt and shame, is given all of her belongings.

She’s not the type to dwell on misery, though. Sometimes this means that Smith’s interiority isn’t clear—when she nurses Mapplethorpe back to health in the  Chelsea Hotel, for instance, she describes conditions of the utmost squalor and despair, yet her own reactions never really register in the observational prose—but most of the time it’s what enables her to get through life. She bears an illegitimate daughter at the age of nineteen, gives her up for adoption, and leaves teacher training college, feeling called to be an artist in New York City. There’s something extraordinary about her singlemindedness; the very idea of asserting that you are going to be an artist in New York is, by now, so profoundly clichéd that I felt inclined to roll my eyes, but Smith was and is completely sincere. There’s something beguilingly innocent about her conviction. She arrives in the city in the summer, and her friends at Pratt are less helpful than she had hoped; nothing daunted, she sleeps in Central Park for weeks, eats next to nothing, and is apparently quite content.

It’s Mapplethorpe who changes everything for her. The story of their meeting is like a fairytale: they encounter each other once (in the apartment of a friend), twice (at the bookstore where Smith finds a job, Mapplethorpe buys a Persian necklace that she’s long coveted for herself), three times (trying to extricate herself from a potentially unsavoury date, she recognizes him across the street and begs him to pretend to be her boyfriend). It’s that third time that does it; they walk around the city until three in the morning, talking, pouring out their hearts. Smith’s prose when she writes of that night is, perhaps, a little precious:

He responded that the drawing was symbolic of his own commitment to art, made on the same day. He gave it to me without hesitation and I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust. We looked at books on Dada and Surrealism and ended the night immersed in the slaves of Michelangelo.

But it’s a rare human indeed who can step outside of their own feelings about the first person they loved, and I suspect that Smith’s earnestness here reflects the general innocence of her time. They really were kids.

The flipside of innocence and childlike purity, of course, is vulnerability and naivete. It seems to have characterised the ‘60s, this sort of ridiculous sincerity, and I found myself struggling with it in Just Kids because my cultural context means that I see it as self-indulgent. Smith has a pot-induced dream, for instance, about the lost papers of Arthur Rimbaud being in a leather case underneath a tree in the Abyssinian desert, on the basis of which she plans a journey to Ethiopia to find these papers and publish them back in the States. Wisely, no bookshop or publishing house will give her an advance to do this, which, even in retrospect, she seems to find baffling. Likewise, she meets Jimi Hendrix on the stairs at a party and is subjected to his vision of hundreds of international musicians playing in a field—not playing the same thing, you understand, just playing their own songs—in a bid to find, amongst the cacophony, what Hendrix calls “the language of peace”. “You dig?” he asks her, at which point my eyeballs could control themselves no longer and floated unstoppably heavenwards in my skull.

Mapplethorpe remains a beautiful (that much is undeniable; the self-portraits he took are the kinds of things that make your heart shudder like a stalled car) yet ultimately unknowable and in some ways deeply selfish presence. While he and Smith are still sleeping together, he “hustles” for money to make their rent, but Smith and the reader both know that he’s also exploiting the excitement of coming to terms with his sexuality—which would be great if he wore a condom. As it is, he catches gonorrhoea, which has implications for Smith as well. Likewise, social capital is important for Mapplethorpe in a way that it never is for Smith (she tells us that she tends to eat with her hands, which is a pretty sweet confession). He loves rising in the galaxy of New York talent, making friends with the director of the Met, going to dinner parties on the Upper West Side; Smith is profoundly uncomfortable in that atmosphere, and Mapplethorpe never seems to notice or to address it with her. She writes, perhaps defensively, that he supported her work fully, but we never actually see that happening; she never writes a scene where he does so.

The ending, though—that affected even my leathery, cynical, millennial heart. Just before Patti leaves New York with her husband-to-be Fred Smith, Mapplethorpe photographs her for the cover of her first, and iconic, record Horses. Her writing is elevated to a stark loveliness from this point to the end of the book, and this made me want to cry:

The light was already fading. He had no assistant. We never talked about what we would do, or what it would look like. He would shoot. I would be shot.

I had my look in mind. He had his light in mind. That was all.

[…] I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra-style. I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.

“It’s back,” he said. He took a few more shots. “I got it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

He took twelve pictures that day.

Within a few days he showed me the contact sheet. “This one has the magic,” he said.

When I look at it now, I never see me. I see us.

Smith lives in Detroit and has a son; she is pregnant with her second child, a girl, when she learns Mapplethorpe has been diagnosed with AIDS. She and her husband, Fred, fly and drive back and forth between New York and Detroit over the next year. It’s a long goodbye, although for a while the reality of this doesn’t hit any of them. When Mapplethorpe’s long-time patron and partner Sam Wagstaff dies, though, and then with the death of Andy Warhol, something changes:

“He wasn’t supposed to die,” Robert cried out, somewhat desperately, petulantly, like a spoiled child. But I could hear other thoughts racing between us.

Neither are you.

Neither am I.

If that doesn’t send cold shivers of recognition down your spine, I don’t know what will.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Mapplethorpe and Smith were famous, or that they were artists, or that they knew famous people. What matters—the real reason this book was written—is that they were two wildly magnetic people who loved each other, and despite the quotation at the top of this article, it wasn’t Smith who stopped and Mapplethorpe who kept on going; it was, with sad and awful irony, the other way round.