Reading Diary: Feb. 12-Feb. 18

a-woman-looking-at-men-looking-at-women-9781501141096_lgA Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, by Siri Hustvedt: A magisterial collection of essays on perception, gender relations, and painting, amongst other things. Hustvedt has had a lively interest in the mind for many years; she introduces the book as a series of attempts to resolve (and thereby reject) CP Snow’s “two cultures” dichotomy. The first section–mostly cultural criticism, including essays on Pina Bausch and Knausgaard–doesn’t require much specialist knowledge. The second and third, which focus more heavily on neuroscience, particularly on what’s known as “the mind-body problem”, require concentration. By no means an easy book, but one that has made me think and will reward rereading.

9780857524485The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold: This group biography of the “canonical five” women presumed to have been killed by the same person–known to history as Jack the Ripper–in 1888 is long overdue. Rubenhold gives each woman her own section, exploding sensationalist myths and prejudices with every word. Only one of the five, for instance, was employed as a sex worker; only one (the same one) was under twenty-five. More significant  are the facts that the majority were alcoholics, and separated from a husband. Compassionate and unsentimental, Rubenhold’s description of the trajectories of their lives makes the similarities between these women and the homeless population of modern London painfully clear. I’ve written a longer piece on this here.

the-library-book-9781476740188_lgThe Library Book, by Susan Orlean: Orlean’s been a staff writer on The New Yorker for over twenty-five years, which explains why this book reads so much like an extended New Yorker article (and even makes reference to one that I’ve found haunting since first reading it, about maybe-falsely-convicted-of-arson Cameron Todd Willingham). That’s not necessarily bad, but The Library Book tries to do a lot simultaneously: provide a history of the LA Public Library, be a series of profiles on the people who work there now, and investigate the fire that destroyed half the collection in 1986. It’s engaging, but its sense of purpose often falters.

15782397Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett: Managed to completely forget that I read this over the weekend, which isn’t to say it’s unmemorable. The prose is intentionally limited (mostly); to emphasize or intensify, a word is repeated (so we get a lot of “cold cold” and “big big”). It’s Beckett’s reflection of a society that has developed on an exoplanet and descended from only two people, a criminal who crashlanded a stolen ship there and the policewoman who followed him and chose to remain on the planet instead of facing probable death in an attempt to return to Earth. Theologically and sociologically, Beckett’s created something fascinating, but the emphasis on innate masculine innovativeness and drive leaves a slightly unpleasant aftertaste.

91tsteow54lLanny, by Max Porter: I’m not disputing that Porter writes well. His first novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was a linguistic knockout, and an emotional one as a direct result of that expressiveness. Lanny convinces me a little bit less–it’s a story about a strange, ethereal boy whose parents have moved the family to a commuter village in the Home Counties, and who catches the attention of the village’s resident guardian spirit/Green Man archetype, known in legend as Dead Papa Toothwort. The central section, driven by a frantic search for missing Lanny, is gripping and terrifying reading, but I’m not sure what the ultimate purpose or thesis of the book is. The countryside is brutal and weird? Strange children usually turn out fine?

Currently reading: I’m about to start Nick Coleman’s Voices, a compilation of essays about famous musicians (Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and my beloved Joni Mitchell among them).

Advertisements

Reading Diary: Jan 29-Feb. 4

a-time-to-keep-silence_1024x1024A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A very short (95 pages) collection of three essays about monasteries and the monastic life. Leigh Fermor stayed at St Wandrille, Solesmes and La Grande Trappe, as well as spending time looking at the ruins of the Cappadocian rock monasteries. The first two essays, set in the three French foundations, are the strongest, describing what it’s like to live in solitude for a spiritual purpose; though Leigh Fermor has no faith, he acclimatizes to the silence and misses it when he returns to the world. If your mind needs calming, these pieces may help.

51kp-nb0hjlThe Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall: There are people who might say, I suppose, that the final quarter of this book is too slow, or that Hall’s writing about the Lake District seasons, weather and light are too deliberate and descriptive, but I’m never going to be one of those people, because I think she writes like a dream and this is one of my favourite books of all time. I also think that here, some of her previous thematic interests–motherhood, the cycle of birth and death, the natural world and how humans live both in- and outside of it–coalesce in their most sophisticated form yet. An excellent book to read if you need reminding of how well it is possible to write.

9781781257364_2I must be living twice: new and selected poems, by Eileen Myles: Myles’s poetry is quite different from Rich’s; her lines are short and jagged, often only three or four words each. Her style of thought is discursive: I often feel lost, reading her, until a vivid observation or connection jumps out. “Peanut Butter” is the poem that brought me to Myles, but the sweary dismissiveness of “On the Death of Robert Lowell” makes me laugh; “Yellow Tulips” is unashamedly happy; the opening of “Mal Maison” is devastating. “And Then the Weather Arrives” is maybe peak Myles: it feels like it’s written in a sort of personal code, but you understand the emotions, if not the details.

9781473639058What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt: A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. The first half of the book, roughly, deals with the older generation, and the second half with the younger; without any spoilers, Matthew and Mark’s lives turn out very differently. Hustvedt excels at describing the destructive self-delusion of a certain kind of art world denizen. The novel is both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and know it’ll continue to haunt me.

31v6x3y3mql._sx286_bo1204203200_The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck: The next installment in my quest for more poetry. Someone recommended Gluck to me years ago, but it’s taken me this long to read her. I am not sure that I grasp or love her yet. There’s passion in these poems, but it feels like the highly personal and focused passion of a nun; not that it’s anti- or asexual, but that it insists upon the numinous. Does that sound pretentious? It shouldn’t; most of the poems are quite explicitly earthbound, being either from the point of view of a plant or flower (metaphors, I think, for human life), or from a higher point of view that is still occupying itself with earthly things. Curious and transcendent.

Currently reading: I’ve just finished Alix Nathan’s forthcoming The Warlow Experiment.

Books of the Year 2018: nonfiction

I didn’t manage to finish this before midnight, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we? (Except perhaps, just briefly, to note that I read WAY more nonfiction this year than ever before. This is definitely to do with getting proofs from the shop, so that I could experiment with genres that were relatively new to me, and find out what I liked, without having to spend a lot of money on a potentially disappointing experience.)

cover2Brit(ish), by Afua Hirsch. A thoughtful, intelligent and nuanced exploration of what it’s like to be a non-white person in Britain. Hirsch is mixed race, but she grew up in a middle class London neighbourhood, with ballet lessons and books. Her husband is descended from Ghanaian immigrants and grew up in a much less privileged part of town. Both of them experience daily racism, but in very different ways. Without a doubt the most eye-opening memoir I read all year. Especially relevant given that the current trajectory of Britain’s population is heading towards the country being primarily mixed-race.

cover1Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, by Lucy Mangan. Mangan’s memoir of the books she loved as a child is funny, self-deprecating, nostalgic, and super-informative, blending memory with interesting snippets about the history of children’s literature (a genre that barely existed until the Edwardians came along). It reminds the reader, of course, of the books they loved as a child—E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Chalet School, The Worst Witch—but also introduces them to new authors: Antonia Forrest, for instance, was completely unknown to me, but Mangan rates her school novels for pre-teen girls so highly that I’m keen to track them down.

814ysf3sdjlThe Secret Barrister, by The Secret Barrister. When I first read this, I said it was probably going to be the best nonfiction I read in 2018, and although it’s encountered some stiff competition (specifically the two books immediately below), it’s still a strong contender. The Secret Barrister is an anonymous lawyer/blogger who has written a passionate, articulate, knowledgeable screed about the state of Britain’s criminal justice system, and how important it is to preserve the right to a fair trial. What’s revealed is scary, but even scarier is the reminder that courts aren’t just for petty thieves: anyone could get dragged into a legal case, so it’s imperative for us all that justice function properly. (Spoilers: it doesn’t.)

coverThe Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Containing elements of true crime, natural history, psychological study, and memoir, this reads like an extended New Yorker essay in the best possible way. Johnson takes on the weird case of Edwin Rist, a music student who in 2009 stole hundreds of priceless bird skins from the Natural History Museum’s storage facility in Tring, Hertfordshire. Why Rist did it, and the people he targeted as buyers for the skins—men heavily involved in the obscure world of Victorian fly-tying, which often requires rare bird feathers—are the focus of Johnson’s investigation. Fascinating, disturbing, and incredibly well written.

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel. A beautiful book about beautiful books. De Hamel takes twelve medieval manuscripts, and guides us through them: not only the pages themselves, their historical context and a rough summary of the manuscripts’ journeys over time to wherever they’re now housed, but also the experience of viewing each of them, whether that’s in the Royal Library at Copenhagen (bright, open, cheery) or the Pierpont Morgan library in New York (officious, fussy, mistrustful). In many ways it’s like The Feather Thief; a skilled writer takes an obscure subject and makes it mesmerising.

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979Amateur, by Thomas Page McBee. McBee’s first memoir, Man Alive, was about his FTM (female-to-male) transition; Amateur takes one experience—training for a charity boxing match at Madison Square Garden—and builds around it a web of thoughts and ideas on manliness, violence, and how those two things are connected in contemporary Western society. It’s neither dry nor academic, in either sense of the word; if anything, it’s a case study, a deep dive into the tension McBee feels as he becomes part of a community of men who care deeply for each other whilst also learning how to hurt each other. Complicated, nuanced, very thought-provoking.

original_400_600Handel In London, by Jane Glover. More than anything, this biography of Handel, which focuses on his working life in the theatres of London, is fun. It conveys the sense of constant movement, of liveliness, that characterises both Hanoverian England and the music that Handel himself wrote. Glover doesn’t shy away from musical analysis—she’s very good at showing us just how brilliant a composer Handel was—but she understands the appeal of backstage secrets, and there are plenty of tidbits on the challenges and joys of running an eighteenth-century opera company, complete with unreliable singers. Sheer brainy delight.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard. Hubbard’s biography of Bess of Hardwick is also a brainy delight, though instead of “fun”, I might use the word “awe-inspiring”. Bess, four times married and acquiring new wealth, particularly in the form of property, with each marriage, was Tudor England’s grand matriarch. Her political instincts were sometimes ropey (though, amazingly, she never fell out of favour with Elizabeth I), but she’s best known as a builder: some of the houses she commissioned still stand. Hubbard tells her story—that of a woman in a man’s world—with skill and flair.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, ed. Henry Eliot. An ideal sofa companion for a dreary day, and you’ll want to store it on a low shelf for frequent reference in any case. It contains entries on every single book currently published by the Penguin Classics imprint, as well as an index of former PCs that have been allowed to fall out of print. I’d have liked a bit more analysis on that decision-making process, and a bit more musing on what makes a classic at all, but this is full of information and beautifully produced. It deserves to become a classic in its own right.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen. For sheer brilliance of prose, Karen Blixen would top this list by a country mile. Out of Africa is a memoir of Blixen’s years running a coffee farm in Kenya, and it is written in the most balanced, elegant, often quietly amusing sentences I have read for some time. There is something old-fashioned and hospitable about the book; it wants you to sit down and listen, not so that Blixen can talk at you, but so that she can share something precious to her. She describes a world now long gone—and ultimately, I think, rightly so—but there is love shining from every word of this gorgeous book.

Extremely honourable mentions: Quiet, by Susan Cain; The Language of Kindness, by Christie Watson; A Spy Named Orphan, by Roland Phillips; Kings of the Yukon, by Adam Weymouth; Wilding, by Isabella Tree; The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee; The Ravenmaster, by Chris Skaife; A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie.

Reading Diary: long and short, or, God and sex

28191591Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (out in Feb): This outrageously good-looking book is also outrageously long: well over 600 pages in proof. It is also only the first in a projected trilogy, entitled Dark Star, focusing on African mythology. Neil Gaiman’s puffed it as an African Tolkien with flashes of Angela Carter, which actually doesn’t seem too far off. It focuses on a mercenary known only as Tracker, whose prodigious gift for finding and following scent is mostly used to hunt down debtors and shiftless husbands until he is recruited to find a missing boy who might just be the rightful heir to the throne of the kingdom. James frames most of the narrative as a story told under interrogation, presumably to keep us in suspense about how Tracker comes to be imprisoned as a result of his quest, but for long stretches of time it’s easy to forget about that. Chronological leaps, a profusion of characters, and the aforementioned sheer length of the book meant that for a fair fraction of its pages–maybe a fifth to a quarter–I was reasonably confused about what was happening and whose side we ought to be on. Luckily, I think that’s exactly the reaction James intends; he wants people to need to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf over and over again. And for all that it’s baggy, it’s also intense and immersive; I read it over four days and could barely stand having to do other things like sleep and go to work. The book is rich in brilliant imagery–a city built in the trunks and branches of enormous baobab trees; a fish the size of an island; murderous spirits who walk on the ceiling–and much of that is imagery that white readers won’t be automatically familiar with. James also does Tolkien one better by making (gasp!) explicit sex, and explicit queerness, part of his world. Black Leopard won’t be for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience.

51zSm5C7lWL._SX326_BO1204203200_The Hook, by Raffaella Barker: Books like The Hook fascinate me because they are clearly the products of skilled professionals, and yet they would be virtually unpublishable if anyone tried to sell them to an editor tomorrow. The Hook was first published in 1996 and there must have been something in the water in English literature in the ’80s and ’90s, because those decades are full of books like this, where–it seems–the author is just telling us a story. How crazy that sounds now! How crazy that it sounds crazy! It’s not that The Hook has no plot; au contraire; the minute we meet eighteen-year-old Christy and learn that her mother’s just died, she’s dropped out of sixth form, her father’s bought a trout farm in the countryside, and she’s met a man named Mick at a bar, we know bad things are afoot. Maybe it’s just that Barker appears to be writing without an agenda. She does tell a story about a young woman being led astray by an older man who is not all he says he is, and let down by the people who ought to be protecting her, but it’s hardly #MeToo territory. There is nothing in the narrating voice that forces us to see the novel’s events in a political light or even in the light of wider society. I can’t decide whether that makes it incredibly subtle and delicate in a way that publishing is missing out on now, or whether The Hook simply has…well…no hook. Or maybe a bit of both. Has anyone else read Barker? What do you think?

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace: Crace is an atheist, but this book–maybe the one for which he’s best known–reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy (and he never goes by the name Christ, being referred to by the narrating voice always as “Jesus”). The “devil” is a man named Musa, a merchant, wife-beater, and, later, a violent rapist, whose near-fatal fever is unwittingly cured by Jesus on his first night in the desert. The caves of quarantine are not as deserted as he would like; others are in them, seeking other things. Aphas, an old man, wants a cure for his cancer; Shim wants the enlightenment that he believes he’s entitled to; Marta wants to get pregnant; Miri and Musa are there simply because the caravan in which they were traveling left them behind. Throughout the novel, characters wrestle with what they want. Crace shows us that desire is often better left unfulfilled: one of the primary questions of the book is whether everyone would have been better off if Musa had not been miraculously cured. And yet Crace’s vision doesn’t seem so bleak, at least not to me. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast–no one could–but Musa seems to see him at the end of the book. In a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead, and it’s suggested that Musa’s inveterate storytelling habit becomes the catalyst for the New Testament narrative that we know now. Meanwhile, Marta and Miri’s friendship and eventual emancipation is, for me, the most Christian element of the book: two people finding comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. It’s a gorgeous piece of work.

the-dreamers-9781471173561_lgThe Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker (out in Feb): This is exactly the sort of science fiction that will receive extremely positive mainstream press attention and high sales; like Station Eleven, another of that kind, it deals with the fall-out of a world-changing event, not so much with the nature or provenance of that event itself. In a small college town in California, students start falling asleep. They’re not in a coma–they’re just sleeping–but nothing will wake them up. Brain scans reveal that they’re dreaming, and not only that, but they’re dreaming more vividly, with more intense cerebral activity, than any normal person. Thomspon Walker follows several point-of-view characters (a few more than she needs to, although she keeps an omniscient narrator throughout, so that pesky problem of differentiating voice doesn’t arise): an isolated freshman named Mei; the idealistic and unusual boy she falls in love with, Matthew; one of her professors, who left his wife for another man decades ago; another college student, Rebecca, who becomes pregnant just before succumbing to sleep; a young couple, Annie and Ben, and their newborn baby, Grace; and two little girls whose father is a doomsday prepper. On the whole, I agree with other assessments I’ve seen of The Dreamers around the Internet: the style is lovely and languid, there’s a bit too much fetishizing of babies and breeding, and everything that’s written about Rebecca’s situation reads painfully like an anti-abortion manifesto. I’d quite like to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, which deals with similar issues and won the Clarke Award in 2012; The Dreamers, meanwhile, is diverting and interesting while you’re reading it, but has faded fairly quickly from my memory.

51FE8d3qeHL._SX287_BO1204203200_The English Gentleman’s Mistress, by Douglas Sutherland: This was published in the late ’80s by Debrett’s (yes, that Debrett’s), and constitutes a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature guide to that most peculiar inhabitant of high society, the gentleman’s mistress. In many ways, it’s funny and charming and contains some cracking anecdotes, including one meant to illustrate the difference between Frenchmen and Englishmen, in which one Frenchman casually informs another that he is sleeping with the latter’s wife, only to be met with “Oh yes? Tell me, is she any good at it these days?” In many other ways, it’s a startling reminder that the late 1980s were as rampant with gross sexism as the late 1880s: women are referred to as mares, for instance, with all of the sexual value judgments that the word implies, and this is clearly not a world in which any sensible woman would prefer having a career to being “kept”. A weird, often enjoyable, often really distressing little volume. I’m glad I have it, if only for self-educational purposes.

27220616Devotion, by Ros Barber: In the near future, just after the death of Richard Dawkins, moves are afoot to reclassify religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. In this climate, Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of April Smith, a ninteen-year-old woman who has committed a religiously motivated act of mass murder. Logan himself is struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter Flora in a skydiving accident; his grief is threatening to destroy his marriage, as his wife–Flora’s stepmother–is increasingly stymied by his inability to communicate his pain. Meanwhile, in the course of investigating April’s condition, Logan comes across a charismatic researcher named Gabrielle Salmon, who offers both him and April the chance to undergo a procedure that, she claims, will allow them to experience direct contact with the divine.

The ideas in Devotion are in many ways more compelling than the characters whose actions are meant to express those ideas: Logan is frustrating, selfish and self-pitying, while the event that drove April to murder is at best predictable, at worst a reduction of female pain to an inevitable origin in sexual trauma. I’m also uncertain about Barber’s portrayal of faith. She writes about it in a way that seems to see only three options: crazed, God-talks-to-me fundamentalism, pure atheism, and a kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” state that manifests in a vague, fuzzy feeling of one-ness with all life. There are many other ways of experiencing what is generally referred to as the divine–there is an enormous distinction between “religious faith” and “religious fundamentalism”–and it would have been refreshing to see some more acknowledgment of that; it’s still so rare in mainstream literary fiction. Devotion is absolutely worth reading, though, even if it only goes halfway, and I’m slightly surprised that it was never on the Clarke Award shortlist.

9781783526215Don’t Hold My Head Down, by Lucy-Anne Holmes (out in Feb): The subtitle should make it pretty clear why I was interested in this. Holmes hit her mid-thirties and became aware–after a disappointing wank to Internet porn–that she wasn’t having nearly as good sex as she wanted. So she made a list (slow sex! A bit of kink! Maybe some bum stuff! Full-body orgasms!) and set off to see what she could find out about how to bang better. It’s a fun read, certainly, but much of it feels (and I accept that it’s very easy to criticize) a bit…basic? Not in terms of the sex she has–Holmes does more stuff in the name of let’s-see-what-this-is-like than I ever have–but in terms of the tone and the attitude, which is all a bit jolly-awkward-Bridget-Jones-falling-into-a-mud-puddle-whoopsy-I’m-such-a-silly-tit. There is a lot of caps lock. There are many exclamation points. A writer can’t help the person that they are, but I was hoping for something that I’d be able to connect to on an emotional level a bit more. Instead I found myself repeatedly thinking “for Christ’s sake, woman”, not helped by the fact that Holmes meets a man halfway through the book and ends up entering a serious relationship with him, eventually having a baby. Perhaps that’s meant to be a happy ending, but it did rather close off some avenues of exploration. Maybe I’ll have to write my own version of this book.

7B0DFC0F19-347A-4F63-B619-6C84B99E8F6F7DImg400John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead: Before this I’d only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead’s reputation preceded him: he’s versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that’s on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he’s said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he’s been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there’s this much going on?

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So much God stuff! So much sex stuff! An extremely long book and several pretty short ones! Also, I love how excited I’ve been by reading the paperbacks that I chose for myself in Crouch End a few weeks ago (in this batch, that was The HookQuarantineDevotion, and John Henry Days).

Reading Diary: with clouds descending

It’s ADVENT, season of the best carol ever! It’s also been rainy for the past fortnight (or, at the very best, cloudy all day), so, you know, doubly appropriate.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen: I picked this up on a whim and I’m so glad I did. Karen Blixen moved from Denmark to Kenya in 1913 to run a coffee plantation with her husband (who, magnificently, she fails to mention in this book until after page 300. There are only 336 pages in total, in my edition.) This is a collection of her writing about the farm, her experiences with the Kikuyu people who worked for her and those who didn’t, and with the Masai who lived in the Reserve that bordered her property. It is, of course, a record of a vanished way of life: as a farmer, she shoots any and all lions, which one can hardly imagine a landowner getting away with now. There is also a certain level of paternalism with regards to her musings about “Natives”, even though  she clearly respects the individual men and women who work for her, and they were obviously fond of her. On the whole, though, the impression is of a woman almost totally without ego – she wants to describe Africa, not to foreground her personality – and deeply observant. She is also, to my surprise, highly spiritual; a section late on in the book consists of short segments that often focus on the presence of God in the beauty of the natural world. Her sensibilities are deeply literary and allusive, and as a European aristocrat, she moved casually in the circles of high society (she talks of the Prince of Wales having dinner at her house, and she was extremely close with Denys Finch-Hatton, eventually having an affair with him after her divorce). She could also write with an extreme simplicity and clarity which seems characteristic of her time: “I had a farm in Africa,” the book begins, “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” That sentence speaks directly to you; it’s rhythmic, even musical. Outstanding.

9781526602121The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts: Bloomsbury’s Raven imprint started out really promisingly, with work from Laura Purcell, Alex Reeve, Stuart Turton and Eva Dolan making it clear that this was no ordinary crime label. The Flower Girls, unfortunately, is something of a downward turn. It focuses on a crime committed by two sisters, Laurel and Primrose, who lure a toddler away from a playground and kill her, in a manner clearly calculated by Clark-Platts to recall the murder of Jamie Bulger. Laurel, aged ten, is deemed capable of standing trial; Primrose, who is only six, is not. Laurel is found guilty and sent to prison, but nineteen years later, as Laurel’s potential release date approaches, another little girl goes missing in a hotel where Primrose – now living under the name Hazel Archer – is staying with her new partner and his teenage daughter. The novel is hampered by a number of things: there are too many point-of-view characters, nearly every plot point and emotion comes fully explained in case the reader somehow fails to grasp its import, and the twist ending is visible from a mile away. (It’s still horrifying, but being horrified by horrifying things is a reaction based in a reader’s human decency, and does not constitute masterful plotting or pacing.) The entire plot requires a reader to accept that Laurel has made a particular decision for a particular reason, and it is simply not clear enough. There are things Clark-Platts is trying to do and say with which I sympathise, especially things to do with the nature of victimhood, but it’s all a little…I don’t know…clumsy.

foe-9781501127427Foe, by Iain Reid: Foe is a weird book. It starts off as a kind of Black Mirror episode-type story: Junior and Henrietta are apparently happily, if quietly, married, and they live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. One day a man from the government turns up in a shiny car and delivers the news that Junior has been selected as part of an exploratory mission to create a human community in space. It is not possible to refuse. However, Junior is told, his wife will be kept company during his absence by an entirely lifelike replica of him. After this, I expected Foe to split, one narrative strand following Junior as he adjusts to life in orbit (and, presumably, discovers some less-than-savoury secrets about the government’s project), the other following Hen’s adaptation to life with something that looks and behaves in every way like her husband. That did not happen. Instead, Reid keeps the action firmly on Earth and inside Junior’s head; the book is mostly concerned with his reactions to the mysterious government representative who will explain nothing and who eventually moves in with them, the better to conduct permanent surveillance for “research purposes” before the big launch. The reason that Reid maintains this narrow, even claustrophobic focus, becomes clear with the big twist, which is also visible from a mile away. So far, so clever; my problem with the big twist is that it requires us to accept that Hen has acquiesced in—even encouraged—something which has no clear benefit to her whatsoever, as well as enormous potential to damage her. If we are meant to see her as coerced, Junior’s point of view is not objective enough to convey that convincingly. And ultimately, I don’t think that big twist can carry the novel: it happens so near the end that its ramifications are barely gestured at. In a way, Foe might have been better either as a short story (with this plot), or as a novel that really did try to explore what it might be like to live with a robot stand-in husband, or to live among the stars knowing that your wife was at home with a perfect replica of you.

41glscwyk3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_The Last, by Hanna Jameson: The problem with The Last isn’t so much that it can’t decide what it wants to be—thoughtful end-of-the-world novel a la Station Eleven, or classic murder-mystery-in-an-inescapable-environment a la A Christmas Murder—but more that it hasn’t realised it needs to decide at all. It wants to be both, and it can’t be. Set in a hotel in a remote Swiss forest, it focuses on the academic historian Jon Keller, who’s attending a conference when the lights of the world go out. Wisely, Jameson doesn’t spend much time trying to explain the sociopolitical situation that led to global nuclear war; at one point Jon recalls hearing a woman cry, “They’ve bombed Washington” and not even being sure who “they” are, which, in the current political climate of semi-permanent confusion and proliferating news sources, seems much more likely than anyone having a firm grasp of whys and wherefores as the world burns. Keller’s anxiety about his wife (with whom he argued before leaving for Switzerland) and children is nicely judged, and Jameson is good on the way people coalesce around a leader in times of uncertainty. She’s also, refreshingly, hopeful: the community that Keller and his fellow hotel guests find at the end of the novel doesn’t seem to be a trap or a cult, but a genuine attempt to live well in the ruins, even to build a new world. It’s just that there’s a lot going on in The Last, and the murder mystery – despite its interesting philosophical question of whether it’s worth investigating injustice in the midst of a meta-disaster – takes a back seat too often. (And the solution is…let’s not talk about it.)

9780099581666Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre: This is extremely my sort of thing, and gloriously, it did not disappoint. It is a novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day. Venetia is aging as the novel opens (well, she’s thirty, but obviously in the 1630s that made her past her prime), and Kenelm’s refusal to provide a medical beauty aid drives her—along with several of her friends—into the arms of Lancelot Choice, a convincing quack who prescribes a tonic known as viper wine, distilled from the bodies of serpents which he farms in industrial quantities in his cellar. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Eyre takes advantage of Kenelm Digby’s unique intellectual and historical position: one of the sources she quotes describes him as the single English mind that links the medieval and the modern, just as happy distilling mercury in alembics as he is keen to follow the latest scholarship from Galileo. She figures him, and Venetia, and the age in which they lived, as a kind of conduit, through which the past and the future can mingle. Viper Wine‘s a clever book; it’s also witty and contains some marvelous setpieces, including a voyage in a sort of proto-submarine. Not to be missed.

81zwgr0mpnlHow Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti: Some books are ahead of their times. Some books don’t need to be that far ahead to still be ahead. Such is the case with Heti’s first novel, which was published in 2010 and was well received, but which didn’t create nearly such a stir as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which followed only seven years later yet which has somehow become a sort of cult novel, a touchstone for young tormented artistic types who find themselves beset by the difficulty of justifying creative endeavour in a world that manifestly doesn’t give a damn how special you think you are. How Should A Person Be?, which is autofiction, is filtered through the eyes of Sheila, who, in her twenties, has gotten married and been commissioned to write a play. The marriage and the play fail, and she meets a painter called Margaux with whom she develops a friendship both intense and somehow laissez-faire. What Rooney has most clearly taken from Heti is the voice: dry, ironic, detached, yet possessed of an increasingly obvious vulnerability. Something about How Should A Person Be? is less annoying to me than Conversations With Friends was, though. Perhaps it’s the sex, which, although Sheila has it with a plainly dreadful human being, is obviously great; I could never convince myself that Rooney’s Frances and Nick were having sex that good. There’s also something to be said for the clean dirt of Heti’s plotting choices: Sheila knows perfectly well that she’s having sex with the divinely awful Israel for bad reasons; they’re both single, so there’s none of the mess of an affair that Rooney’s characters struggle with; and, most importantly, Sheila decides to end the whole thing when it becomes clear that Israel is both stupid and obsessed with humiliating her. How Should A Person Be? is a weird book, but it’s certainly emotionally compelling.

813annxxbmlDream Sequence, by Adam Foulds: I requested this because, you know, Adam Foulds, but I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s the story of two people: one, Henry, is an up-and-coming actor who’s about to break out of the TV period drama circuit with a starring role in a film by a major director; the other, Kristin, is an American divorcée who bumped into him at an airport a year ago, and who has since been consumed by the delusion that they are meant to be together. It’s not anything like the last Foulds novel I read (The Quickening Maze, about the institutionalization of the poet John Clare in the same asylum as Tennyson’s brother Septimus). Foulds is exceptionally talented at putting us inside Henry’s and Kristin’s heads; his insights into the acting industry, particularly into the world of cinema and celebrity, auditioning and waiting to hear back, are brilliant and convincing. Henry’s permanent semi-conscious awareness of his body—hunger, muscle, fasting, lightness, the unusually beautiful structure of the bones of his face—is especially well rendered. In the sections involving Kristin, meanwhile, Foulds climbs into her head such that we not only see her madness, but understand it, intimately; her divorce has cost her a young stepson and the loss of his small, innocent love is something that she keeps coming back to, a hole in her heart that her obsession with Henry cannot fill. The story clearly can’t end well, but Foulds shows tremendous restraint right up to the finish line. Dream Sequence is very good, and very hard to pigeonhole.

#6Degrees of Separation: The Outsiders

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

231804

We start with The Outsiders, which I read as a kid—my dad must have brought it home for me. I don’t remember much about it, but the main character is named Ponyboy, which is hilarious, and it’s something to do with teens in gangs.

81yf15ngyel

Another book whose title follows a “The Plural-Nouns” formula is Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, which introduces us to a group of talented kids at hippie summer camp, and then tracks their lives over the next few decades.

13748

At one point in The Interestings, a character whose employees are killed in the September 11 terrorist attack promises to pay their families the salaries that they would have earned. In Julie and Julia, Julie Powell’s decision to cook her way through Julia Child’s magnum opus is catalyzed by her misery in her job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation—formed to distribute $10 billion in federal funds in order to rebuild areas destroyed by the attack.

51nji6kvjrl

Meryl Streep, of course, stars in the movie version of Julie and Julia. She also plays the Clarissa Dalloway character in the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which is itself a triptych that updates Mrs. Dalloway and looks at Virginia Woolf’s own life.

51fec4gkqml-_sx328_bo1204203200_

The Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999. That year, the nonfiction prize was won by John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, a book collecting his writings on American geology. McPhee is a criminally underread writer, at least in the UK and right now; he was a staff writer for the New Yorker for years and is one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary writers of nonfiction.

91f9wnethjl

My godfather is a geologist. I have never seen him read a book, but he used to come and take me on roadtrips when I was young. We’d drive out to some backwater of rural Virginia in search of cool rocks, or just to the local plant nursery for something to put in his garden. Once he turned up unexpectedly, and I forgot to put my book down before I got in the car with him. It was Anna Karenina.

51y-fqmv2wl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

I used to reread Anna Karenina every spring, before deciding that I should just do an Annual Spring Russian Read. (Sometimes I forget.) I also have an Annual Winter Dickens, which I forget less regularly. Last year it was The Old Curiosity Shop, which I’d rank firmly in the middle tier of Dickens novels, mostly because half of it is unnecessarily manipulative padding. (Incidentally, if any of you have opinions on which Dickens book should be my next, please choose from the following options: Barnaby Rudge, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, Martin Chuzzlewit, Edwin Drood.)

From teenage greasers to gambling granddads, via hippie nerds, lifestyle blogging, Woolfian musings, geology, and Russians: where will your 6 Degrees take you? Next month is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, which is my favourite book of all time, so hooray!

Reading Diary: oh dear, part two (pre-hols)

Continuing with my desperate catch-up (I WILL write words about every book I read this year, I will do it if it kills me) with four titles I read at the beginning of September, before starting my holiday.

81yf15ngyelThe Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: It took two and a half goes to get into this, for some reason, but when it finally clicked for me, it was superb. Wolitzer takes a group of smart, talented teenagers who all meet at a kind of hippie artistic summer camp in the 1970s, and catapults them forward in time, mapping the ways in which their relationships to each other, and to other people, change. I’m a real sucker for writing about other art forms, and also for books about friendship groups developing (as opposed to static friendship groups, as in The Secret History, although I love that too in its place), so The Interestings really did it for me: Wolitzer perfectly grasps the unpredictability of adult life, and the tenacity of youthful love. One to look up.

9780008307929The Ravenmaster, by Christopher Skaife: One of the more delightful memoirs of the latter half of the year (it’s out in October). Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and more specifically, the one in charge of the Tower’s ravens: legend has it that their departure will cause the kingdom to fall. It’s obviously not true (the Tower didn’t have ravens at a point in the ’40s, and we won the war, didn’t we?), but Skaife takes great joy in describing his daily routine, the awe-inspiring intelligence of corvids (they’re about as clever as a five-to-seven-year-old human child), and the Tower’s many myths and legends. I got to go on a private tour of the Tower with him, thanks to his publishers, and can confirm that he really is as jolly and eager to share knowledge as the book makes him appear. Follow him on Twitter, and pick this up for any history buffs, Anglophiles and/or bird-lovers you know this Christmas.

37281873The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp, by Sarra Manning: I wang on a lot about how Vanity Fair is my favourite novel of all time and Becky Sharp is perfection (I hate being asked about favourite novels, but it’s as close to a truthful answer as I can provide). So Sarra Manning’s update of the book was destined to be read as soon as the proof was available on NetGalley. As far as rendering Thackeray’s events and characters contemporary goes, Manning does a flawless job: Becky and Amelia now meet on a reality TV show, Amelia’s father is an investment banker whose disgrace comes when he’s found to have made some dodgy deals, the Crawleys are an acting dynasty (Dame Matilda Crawley is clearly modeled on Maggie Smith, down to her role as the purse-lipped matriarch of an ITV costume drama about an aristocratic family), and Becky’s dazzling rise to fame is boosted by sponsored Instagram posts and charity fashion shows. Is the writing on Thackeray’s level? Nope. Does it matter? Not at all. Great, intelligently executed fun, and hopefully will push people to seek out the original too.

51v5sxwoybl-_sx324_bo1204203200_A Field Guide to the English Clergy, by Fergus Butler-Gallie: The community of Anglican priests is well-known for having more than its fair share of weirdos. Fergus Butler-Gallie draws back the curtain on some prime historical specimens. The back cover lists, for example, the Reverend Edward Drax Free, whose reaction to the attempts of his congregation to oust him for (amongst other things) repeated public drunkenness and stealing the lead from the church roof to sell for scrap was to lock himself in his study with “his favourite maid, a brace of pistols, and a stack of French pornography”. Eccentricity doesn’t mean awfulness, though; there’s a great charm in the vicar who insisted upon traveling only by horse (which he named Sabbatical, so that his secretary could quite honestly tell callers that the good reverend was “away on Sabbatical”), or in Launcelot Fleming, Bishop of Portsmouth, who once commandeered a Navy helicopter when he was late for services. Another one for the Anglophile, Anglican, or, indeed, eccentric of any persuasion, come Christmastime.