reading and listening

(long-ish, sorry)

Audiobooks! I don’t hate them!

This, it turns out, is what I’m like: I hate the idea of change, I resist it with every fibre of my being, I make up reasons why the new thing won’t work, and then I try it once and really enjoy it. This is where I am with audiobooks now, and where I was with podcasts about six months ago. I always want to read on my commutes and yet – especially this time of year – often find that after a day at work, my eyes are too tired to want to look at marks on a page. Listening to books is a natural solution. My resistance was based on how intensely annoying other people’s voices can be, but listening to Elisabeth Moss narrate The Handmaid’s Tale turned out to be a good introduction: she has a soft-spoken, understated delivery that suits the barely veiled menace of Gilead. Having finished that, I spent some time looking for another title that would work as well, and eventually settled on Stephen Fry narrating a collection of Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. It’ll last me for some time; I’ve completed two of the novels and still have over 60 listening hours to go…

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A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle: The very first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever published, in which we meet both the titular character and his amanuensis and helpmeet, the stolid Dr John Watson. The mystery revolves around the murder of a man in an abandoned house in Brixton, found without a mark on his body and with the word RACHE painted in blood on the wall. (S1E1 of the BBC’s Sherlock perpetrated a nice, sarcastic twist upon this detail: “She was writing Rachel?” a Scotland Yard detective says, skeptically, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock snarls, “No, she was writing an angry note in German – of course she was writing Rachel”, where in the book it is precisely, and improbably, the other way round.) The solution to the mystery, at which Holmes arrives with customary speed, involves revenge for a romantic injustice that occurred decades previously, when both killer and victim were involved with – yes – the early Mormon community of Salt Lake City.

Most of the novel’s Part II is taken up with a flashback narrative of the circumstances that led up to said injustice, which lets Conan Doyle really go for broke with his portrayal of the American West. There’s absolutely no clear reason for him to introduce Mormonism, apart from the natural exoticism involved in describing a foreign sect, and A Study in Scarlet has been challenged in some American schools for showing “anti-Mormon prejudice” (to which one answer might be, well, Brigham Young and his buddies were pretty big fans of polygamy, and they did have a secret police/militia, known as the Nauvoo Legion, so where’s the lie?) This section is much too long and risks losing the reader’s interest, though one wonders what might have happened had Doyle decided to write a Western. (Are fanfic communities already on top of this?) Apart from that, though, the most interesting element of A Study in Scarlet is Holmes, who, on his first outing, is nowhere near such a jerk as he’s been made to appear in subsequent adaptations: a little full of himself, perhaps, but surprisingly warm to Watson, and always ready to laugh at the absurd.

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It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo: One of the season’s offerings from HarperCollins’s new imprint, Harper Via, which focuses on fiction in translation. Borgo is a Venezuelan journalist; this is her first novel. She no longer lives in her home country but in Spain, and has been watching Venezuela descend into lawlessness over the past thirteen years. Some of what she has seen is echoed in the experiences of her protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, whose world falls apart immediately after she buries her mother. Adelaida’s flat is commandeered by a group of violent and clearly working-class women – supposed revolutionaries, though their behaviour is more like that of petty warlords –  who use it as a base to store the food supplies that they are meant to be distributing equally throughout the district. (They are, of course, selling most of it on the black market at ridiculously inflated prices.) Driven from what remains of her home, Adelaida finds shelter in the flat of her neighbour, who happens to have died of a heart attack. She also offers sanctuary to her friend’s brother, Santiago, who has been captured, tortured and raped, and made to join the revolutionary forces, but deserts the instant he gets the chance. Adelaida’s and Santiago’s silent, nocturnal lives – they cannot draw attention to themselves for fear of being found out by the women in the flat next door – make up the bulk of the book, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, until Adelaida at last takes the risk of attempting to impersonate the dead woman, who has family in Spain, and flee the country.

The briefest trawl of Goodreads throws up lukewarm reviews of It Would Be Night in Caracas. A lot of them are in Spanish, which I don’t read very well. The longest one in English suggests that Borgo has, either out of intentional malice or out of culpable ignorance enabled by her own position of privilege as a white Venezuelan member of the property-owning classes, written bourgeois propaganda meant to dupe the English-reading public into supporting action against a democratically elected Venezuelan government. This was not something I considered while reading the book, and I’m glad to have been made to stop and think about it afterwards. As far as the convincing fictional construction of a life under siege goes, Borgo’s nailed it; the novel feels both dreamlike and hyper-real because those are the conditions of emotional and physical stress under which her characters live, and she pulls that off because she can write. (Her journalistic training may help; there’s a straightforward lack of melodrama to her descriptions of suffering that enhances their power.) I would need to know more than I do about Venezuelan history and politics to be able to say whether this feels more like a cynical maneuver, a sincere cri de coeur from an exile, or something in between. But it sure as hell works on a technical level.

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Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout: Strout’s last two books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, defeated me—I tried the first few pages of each and rapidly lost interest. Olive, Again is a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteredge, and either I’ve changed or the book really is in a different league. Here Strout brings together characters from books spanning her entire career; the eponymous Burgess boys make an appearance, as does Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle. But mostly the book is about Olive Kitteredge as she ages, including her second marriage, in her seventies, to the gentle and persistent Jack Kennison. Strout has been working, hard, for a long time now, and it shows in the writing, which has that particular level of finesse that is only possible from someone who has wrestled daily with language and finally come to a deep understanding with it. What is so extraordinary about her work is that—not unlike Willa Cather, now that I think of it—she uses a smooth, almost placid linguistic register as a container for explosive feelings and behaviour. Power dynamics are constantly being assessed and revealed, but never explicitly. The first chapter, which follows Jack Kennison on a drive, includes a scene where he’s stopped and humiliated by a police officer, who may or may not—Jack doesn’t look long enough to know for sure—get an erection during the course of the interaction. It scares us as it scares him, the idea of being at the mercy of someone who is aroused by your unconsensual helplessness. Yet the idea never escapes the boundaries of a restrained, almost formal narrative voice that suits the character and the context exactly. Olive, Again is a magnificent piece of work, and yet, perhaps because of its subject matter—old age and death—it has the feeling of a swan song. I desperately hope it isn’t; Strout may be hit or miss for me, but the hits are good enough that I’ll keep trying her every time she produces something new.

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The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan Doyle: First of all: this book is racist. Sorry. It was written by a British man in 1890 and involves the Indian Rebellion, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny; under such circumstances, casual racism is, regrettably, par for the course. However, the main villain is a white Englishman, giving Doyle only a relatively small window in which to be racist. He must turn his attention instead to what seems to be a staple of the Sherlock Holmes books—the Lengthy Explication Of the Crime By the Villain What Did It, Taking Up At Least the Final Third of the Novel’s Whole Length—and for most of this explanation, racism is blessedly beside the point.

The plot is complex and turns on the theft of some jewels by four men—two Sikhs, a Muslim, and the aforementioned white guy—during the Indian Rebellion, when the countryside is in an uproar and a particularly wealthy Rajah attempts to have his valuables escorted to be guarded by the British at Agra. Instead of ensuring the safety of his possessions, the wheeze backfires spectacularly: the courier accompanying the jewels is murdered and the four men steal, and hide, the treasure. Their crime is found out almost at once and they are all sentenced to lifelong penal servitude in the Andaman Islands, but—crucially—the treasure remains hidden. Our villain, one Jonathan Small, reveals its location to one of the British army officers stationed in his prison, hoping that the man’s desperate gambling debts will prompt him to help Small escape in return for a portion of the loot. Instead, naturally, the British officer absconds with the entire treasure and Small remains incarcerated, until he escapes and befriends an Andaman Islander named Tonga. (More racism occurs here, particularly as Tonga ultimately falls from a boat and drowns as a direct result of Holmes and Watson’s investigation, and their inability to conceive of a black man as anything other than threatening.) Tonga and Small travel to England, track down the man who betrayed Small, and kill him. Collateral damage takes the form of the death of another British officer, a Captain Morstan, who is a fairly good guy as far as this book is concerned, and whose daughter’s desire to find out what happened to her father is the catalyst for the plot. (She falls conveniently in love with John Watson, and agrees to marry him at the end of the book. If it’s hardly the most convincing romance I’ve ever read, it’s a fairly convincing match; they’re both practical, sensible, kind-hearted characters.)

Listening to both of these books in quick succession has allowed me to note Doyle’s evident fondness for a kind of plotting formula. This perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, seeing as they are classic genre novels and genre fiction can be partly defined by a certain level of structural predictability. Still, side by side, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet both have easily identifiable features, the most prominent of which is the Very Long Flashback Monologue From the Villain. In a way, I wonder if this constitutes moral foresight on Doyle’s part, a kind of pre-post-modern attempt to get the reader to empathize with a murderer by understanding their circumstances. In another and more likely way, I think it might just be Doyle indulging his readers’ (and his own) taste for descriptions of faraway lands. It can’t be a coincidence that both Very Long Flashback Monologues (VLFMs from now on) take place in colorfully unstable foreign countries, much like the pre-credits sequence in every new James Bond film. Does anyone know of any work on colonialist tropes in early crime fiction and how/whether this developed along with the genre? I’d be keen to find out more.

also read recently:

  • North Child, Edith Pattou’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon, which is in itself a form of Beauty and the Beast or Cupid and Psyche. It was my favourite as a kid—there’s a talking white bear and an evil troll queen!—and Pattou’s adaptation is beautiful, scary and thrilling. There are too many POV characters (not all of them contribute much to our understanding of the story), but that’s a minor gripe. For strong readers of 10+.
  • The Horseman, the first in Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy, of which I’d already read the second and the third. (Weird, yes, but take from this the fact that you can start reading the books in pretty much any order.) This volume focuses on life working the land on a manor estate in Edwardian Devon, before our young protagonist Leo is (metaphorically) expelled from Eden. It’s just as beautiful—hyper-focused, lyrical, unsentimental about either nature or farming—as the other two. More people should be reading Pears. He knows what he’s about; in fact, he’s so good that attempting to analyze, critique or review his work feels somewhat superfluous.
  • A Man On the Moon, Andrew Chaikin’s now-twenty-year-old history of the Apollo program. I developed a mild obsession with the moon landing this summer, when it was the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 and a lot of media on the topic was being broadcast. Chaikin’s book goes one better by dealing with every mission from Apollo 1—which never flew, because a disastrous fire in the space capsule during a routine test killed all three members of the crew—to Apollo 17, which gave us more information than we’d ever had before about the geology of the moon, and therefore about the history of our own planet. The fact that NASA plans to return to the moon in 2024, with the Artemis program, is intensely exciting; we should be funding these projects, we should be trying to learn more and go further and study what we find. A Man on the Moon is a fantastically readable account of the handful of people who have already done these things, and an inspirational argument for repeating the effort.

a bit of most things

Not everything I’ve read since my last post, but a fair amount of it.

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Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve: An addition to the shelf of books that prove children’s literature need not be any less morally complex, engaging, or surprising than adult books (Philip Pullman’s complete oeuvre also lives there). You no doubt know the premise of this already, from the film: in an ecologically ravaged future, cities have become mechanized and mobile, and the principle of Municipal Darwinism encourages larger settlements to hunt and consume smaller ones. (This accounts for Reeve’s justly famous opening line: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the North Sea.”) Tom Natsworthy, a young apprentice historian, saves a famous adventurer from an assassin and, during the struggle, is flung from the city into the wastelands below. He must team up with a physically and emotionally scarred girl named Hester Shaw, not only to get back to London, but to foil a plot brewing within the city itself that threatens what remains of the world. There’s also a third point-of-view character: Katherine, the sheltered and protected daughter of the man whose life Tom saves, who mounts her own investigation from within the upper echelons of London society.

Both Katherine’s and Tom’s moral arcs bend towards disillusionment and the assumption of responsibility, and Mortal Engines is so good because that development is paced so well. Tom and Hester argue periodically about the legitimacy of Municipal Darwinism, and for more than half the book, Tom cannot quite understand why anybody would want a different system; Katherine trusts in the good faith of the authority figures around her for a very long time, even as she continues to uncover proof of corruption. It’s a realistic depiction of how difficult it is to face the flaws in your own beliefs, and it’s infinitely more convincing than the remarkable readiness of, e.g., Katniss Everdeen to overthrow everything she’s ever known. (Reeve also writes with a restraint and sureness of touch that makes his more emotional sequences unbearably effective: a sudden death near the end of the book is conveyed in a paragraph the rhythmic balance and deftness of which made me cry.) I’ll be reading the rest of the series.

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The Jewel, by Neil Hegarty: Back to adult literature for a bit, with Neil Hegarty’s second novel, which was published on 3 October. It centers around the theft of an almost miraculous artwork: a painting buried with its artist as a shroud, but later exhumed and hung on the walls of a Dublin gallery. It draws the attention of the public for its uncanny freshness: the nature of the materials means the colours should not have remained bright for as long as they have. A short opening sequence is from the perspective of the late Victorian female artist who painted the piece; when it is stolen, the chapters shift between the perspectives of the thief, the specialist tasked with recovering it, and the curator in charge of the robbed gallery. It is, in a way, a novel about a stolen painting, but it is not an art-world heist caper; it is very much more about the lives led by three people brought together by a piece of art that is meaningful to each of them, about what sorts of experiences form a person and how that formed personality can sometimes be blazed away, for an instant, by something other. Probably more to the point, though, Hegarty’s character sketches are precise and painful: the corrosive effect of cynicism on a man’s soul, the revelation of the cancerous depth of abuse in a supposedly loving relationship, the searing trauma of a sister’s death in silent, repressive late-twentieth-century Ireland. Some are more effective than others. I was never quite as convinced by Roisin, the gallery curator, and the story of Ward, the recovery specialist, is by far the most emotionally engaging. But these are quibbles that raise themselves weeks after reading the book; while turning the pages, all of these characters are real. And Hegarty’s prose is just so trustworthy, which is much rarer than it sounds.

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Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, by Colin Grant: Also published on 3 October. Grant is a journalist and Homecoming (or Home Coming; reviews have been published that spell it both ways) is an oral history of black Caribbean-British life from the 1940s onwards. Like many books that use this research method, Homecoming is often not quite clear about when its sources were interviewed, presumably because Grant has visited some of his interviewees multiple times, then cut and shaped their testimony (Svetlana Alexievich’s books are not dissimilar). The book also borrows transcripts from other projects of this kind: from BBC documentaries on the black British experience going back as far as the 1950s, for example, or from memoirs by black British writers. Although this can lead to a kind of historical vertigo, it also has the effect of layering generations of testimony, sometimes in a surprising and enlightening manner; there is a whole chapter dedicated to racist violence in Notting Hill in 1958, but there are also several interviewees who state frankly that Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, ten years later, made little to no impression on their daily lives. It’s one of many salutary reminders in the book that people live, as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Handmaid’s Tale, “as usual”–that patterns we retroactively read as abnormal or catastrophic are often experienced much less dramatically by the people alive at the time. The point is not that racism never existed or wasn’t as bad as news reports suggested; it’s that no two people of Caribbean descent in Britain have experienced the same things in the same ways. Homecoming goes a long way towards challenging the still-prevalent idea of a monolithic racial narrative.

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The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather: Still on a Cather kick, and I think this might be the best one so far, although possibly that’s because it’s about something that fascinates me: namely, the artistic development of a musician. Thea Kronborg grows up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor in Moonstone, Colorado, but her talent as a pianist, and later as a soprano, lead her to Chicago, Germany, New York, and beyond. Cather’s strengths are here in full force: her apparently effortless evocation of the lands of the American West; her subtle and entire grasp of the complications of human character; and her innate understanding that artistry involves sacrifice, and that involves decisions that other people can’t always empathize with. (Thea chooses, for example, not to come home when her mother is dying; if she stays in Germany, she will have the chance to sing the role of Elizabeth in Wagner’s Tannhauser, which becomes her breakthrough role. The people in her life are divided primarily into those who understand this perfectly, and those who never will.) Structurally, Cather thought the novel a failure, and AS Byatt, in her introduction, agrees: she cites what Cather seemed to think of as the weakening effect of the final section of the novel, during which Thea is seen at the height of her career. Cather’s regret is understandable; the novel would be strong enough if it ended just as Thea goes off to Germany, her development as a singer now well underway. This isn’t really a book about success: it’s a book about work, which makes a whole section on success a little redundant. But it’s worth it, just about, to know that the work pays off.

also read recently:

  • Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, undoubtedly the most intelligent and rigorous essay collection on the Internet age, and specifically Internet feminism, that I’ve yet read. Tolentino’s a New Yorker staff writer and she is not content with platitudes about millennial culture or about the deleterious effects of social media on our attention spans; she’s much more interested in dissecting how things happen, what the exact circumstances are that result in malaise, or trolling, or a specific cultural phenomenon. Outstanding.
  • Priests de la Resistance, by Fergus Butler-Gallie, a moving and also charming collection of biographical chapters focusing on religious individuals (mostly ordained or consecrated but some not) who have fought Fascism in the twentieth century. The usual suspects are present (Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), but also some names quite new to me (Sister Sara Salkhazi, Pietro Pappagallo). He also doesn’t just stick to WWII-era resistance, but glances also at the religious foundations of the US civil rights movement. A bit more balance would have been welcome, but maybe that’s for volume three? In any case: an excellent collation of humans who, whatever you think of theology in general, felt themselves called to save lives. We could all do a lot worse than to follow these particular examples.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, my first audiobook in… maybe ever. Our household didn’t really do audiobooks when I was a kid, and I’ve always assumed I’ll find them annoying. This was technically a re-read, since I read it first at fifteen, but this time around, Atwood’s novel felt much more immediate and daring and vital. For a long time I’ve been quietly skeptical of what all the fuss is about, having only faint memories of the book I read twelve years ago, and now – especially thanks to Elisabeth Moss’s dry, softly-spoken narrative style – I get it. Occasionally Atwood shows signs of the slightly too on-the-nose jokes that have started to mar her recent work (“pen is envy”, recently cited by a reviewer of The Testaments, turns up for the first time in The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’m not at all convinced by the likelihood of portmanteaux such as “Prayvaganza” or “Particicution”, although the grim euphemism of “Salvaging” is plausible). But mostly, it’s as fresh and terrifying a guide to the ways in which women can be enslaved – and complicit in the system that enslaves them – as ever.

 

 

 

read recently

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware: I finished this in a day; it is SO readable. A modern take on James’s Turn of the Screw, featuring all our faves (creepy kids, mysterious footsteps, an initially rational narrator with secrets of her own who is progressively broken down by fear), but with some modern twists (the house is old, with a terrible history, but has been renovated to make it a “smart house” which can be run – and also run remotely – via app. YES, horrifying.) I’m not so sure about the ending, which makes some leaps with regards to motive and capacity, but goodness me is it gripping.

 

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Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, by Elizabeth Hardwick: I took this to Paris, because look at that title, how could I take anything else? Much of the criticism seemed outdated, at least in terms of its gender politics, but then, it was written in the ’70s, so it’d be sort of surprising if it wasn’t. The other thing I found tricky about it is that Hardwick’s particular brand of criticism doesn’t involve a lot of textual reference: she writes about the characterisation of Ibsen’s heroines – the terrifyingly empty and amoral Hedda Gabler, for instance, or the somehow untouchably free Nora in A Doll’s House – while rarely making reference to anything they say. The same is true, to a large extent, of the Bronte sisters, who are the subject of the first essay, and of the women both real and fictional whom she discusses in the title essay (including Anna Karenina and Richardson’s Clarissa). Still worth reading for the declarative power of her sentences, and for the essay on Sylvia Plath alone.

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Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick: A brave ten-year-old could handle this, but I’d suggest it for twelve and up, on the whole. Bill, a young English boy, is on a sailing summer course off Gran Canaria when a storm separates him from his shipmates. Drifting in the Atlantic, he comes across another shipwrecked adolescent: Aya, a Berber girl, who is keeping secrets of her own. Bill and Aya’s growing ability to communicate and trust one another is beautifully rendered, as are the stories Aya tells to keep them going (as not-so-subtle but still very moving symbols of the power of narrative to provide hope). Sort of like a junior Life of Pi without all of the clever-clever religiosity. Also a genuinely scary and thrilling survival/adventure story.

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The Truants, by Kate Weinberg: Whether you enjoy The Truants or not probably depends on how well you react to familiarity. When I read the proof blurb by Scarlett Thomas that claimed this was like a mashup of Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, and Liane Moriarty, I wasn’t prepared for how entirely accurate that was: it’s The Secret History set in Norwich with Agatha Christie texts occupying the place that classical Greek culture takes in the former. If you’re keen on genre riffs, and sexily unpredictable men, and the erotics of pedagogy, pick it up. I rather enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll remember much in a month.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather: Willa, my queen. Not much happens in Death Comes for the Archbishop, except for a whole life: that of the titular Archbishop, who’s mostly just a Bishop while we know him. He’s Jean Latour, the first Catholic bishop of New Mexico, and with him is Father Joseph Vaillant, his right-hand man. The friendship between the two men – Latour intellectual and kindly but aloof, Vaillant awkward and ungainly but easy to love – is the most beautiful part of Cather’s novel, although she’s also good on the shifting nineteenth-century politics of the West and Southwest, and describes Native American and Mexican customs with interest and respect. Her prose is like desert air: lucid, invigorating, vivid. *chef’s kiss*

05. Dressed, by Shahidha Bari

Reader, I DNFd it.

Most likely it’s a problem with me, not with Dressed itself. You can hardly fault a book just for not being the thing you wanted it to be. Still, I was really hoping for some fairly specific, example-grounded analysis of garments and styles, and what I got—at least for the first thirty pages or so—was a series of rather superficial, if lyrical, pronouncements. The back cover quote is (for once) illustrative: “Clothes tell our stories, some that we would rather not tell, others that we hardly know ourselves.” As an introduction to a section that delves into specific instances of garments that reveal more than they’re intended to about the person wearing them, that sentence would be okay; still a little dull, but it’d do. As the precursor to several other sentences that are, substantively, exactly like it, it doesn’t convince. Perhaps Bari is more amenable to citing evidence that backs up her statements later on in the book, but life is short, books are many, and I’m never going to get that far.


I don’t intend to replace this in my official 20 Books of Summer list; it’s okay not to finish things. Dressed was published by Jonathan Cape on 13 June.

04. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, by Susannah Stapleton

This rather marvelous book is a mashup of biography, social history, and what for a lack of a better phrase I might call “research thriller”. Susannah Stapleton comes across the figure of Maud West by chance, while idly pondering whether lady detectives had existed during the Golden Age of crime fiction; she’s only thinking about this at all because of a historical missing-persons case that regular historical research had led her to. When she finds Maud West, her interest is piqued by the dearth of information. “The game”, as she winningly puts it, “was afoot.”

Maud West did exist, although she wasn’t born under that name. She opened a private investigation agency in London in 1905 and ran it until just before the Second World War, employing a small staff of hand-selected and rigorously trained men and women as well as undertaking large amounts of field work herself. She wrote “case study” pieces for a variety of tabloids, and filled them with tales of derring-do, often involving white slavers, cocaine smugglers, last-minute ocean liner voyages, and fisticuffs (or, just as often, the well-timed production of a small revolver). Stapleton concludes that West mostly made these stories up–but why? Her business flourished; she tracked cheating spouses, fraudulent salesmen, dishonest cardsharps and country-house jewel thieves. In other advertising venues, she made much of her work amongst the “best sort”; the aristocracy and upper middle classes, in other words. West’s psychology–what she felt she had to prove; the characters she enjoyed playing; her love of disguise (this is borne out by many, many contemporary news features including photographs of West disguised as an old woman, a businessman, a vicar, and so on)–fascinates Stapleton, and the more she digs, the clearer it becomes that the life of this particular private investigator was at least as interesting as any of the cases she worked over the course of her career. Amongst other revelations, and without wishing to spoil anything, West’s life story includes a name change, illegitimacy, and someone who spends forty years masquerading as his own uncle.

Stapleton structures her book brilliantly: excerpts from sensationalist articles written by West are reprinted between chapters. Each chapter is named for a classic crime novel and deals (roughly) with some relevant social issue of the time, like the introduction of women to the Metropolitan police force or the “nightclub panic” of the interwar years, spliced with details of Stapleton’s sleuthing. Quite apart from being an excellent introduction to the Golden Age of crime outside of the pages of fiction, The Adventures of Maud West also functions as a window into the life of a working researcher. Stapleton takes trains from her home in Shropshire to the British Library to read archival clippings; she tracks down out-of-print books to get a sense of how West might have trained herself in investigation techniques; she scans international print databases and calls up descendants. The thrill of the academic chase is a huge part of the book’s appeal–which is really saying something, given that its subject is a woman with such immense willpower, fortitude, and peculiarity of character. A more engaging and intellectually stimulating biography you won’t read this summer.


The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective was published by Picador on 13 June.

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02. Rough Magic, by Lara Prior-Palmer

Lara Prior-Palmer signed up for the Mongol Derby—famously the world’s toughest horse race—on a whim, a month before the start date. Other competitors had been preparing for a year, building their endurance and stamina. She won it. At nineteen, she was the youngest rider, and the first woman, ever to do so. Although her book about the experience is technically, I suppose, a sports memoir(!), what’s most evident throughout Rough Magic is the kind of mental or spiritual transformation she finds herself undergoing. When she starts the race, she’s casual and unconcerned, in it for the fun of spending an August in Mongolia, a why-not kind of person. By the time she’s halfway through, she discovers quite suddenly that she cares. The compelling bones of Rough Magic are the paths she took in her own head to get to that place.

Even, or especially, by her own account, Prior-Palmer is a vague and drifty sort of person. Her family seems to think of her as semi-permanently away with the fairies. But that’s a common disparagement to throw at young women (her father’s friend refers to her as “Avatar”, which she tells us in a way that I think is meant to be ironic and self-aware, but which I actually found quite disturbing–what kind of adult man gives his friend’s kid a nickname deriving from her social awkwardness, then uses it to her face?) In any case, that blinky personality serves to mask more interesting things. One of these is that Prior-Palmer is ambitious, and she acknowledges that she’s been raised to find naked ambition vaguely suspect. Her impetus to win the race comes from being deeply, personally irked by an American woman called Devan, who, only a year older, takes the race with deadly seriousness. Some readers seem to feel betrayed by Prior-Palmer’s immediate antipathy towards Devan, seeing it, I think, as yet another instance of women competing instead of coming together in supportive sisterhood. But it rings very true: there’s little that can spur a person more than seeing herself reflected at a frustrating angle in someone else.

Of course, there’s plenty about the nitty-gritty of the race: the Derby is so difficult in part because it has twenty-five stages and each one is ridden on a different Mongolian pony, which are rounded up into small herds at each checkpoint. Prior-Palmer differentiates each of her mounts with a nickname, which helps the reader keep track as well. She’s great on the confusions of navigating on a seemingly featureless steppe (the GPS tracker is frequently unhelpful), negotiating a place to stay with the local semi-nomadic herders when she gets caught between checkpoints at nightfall, and the cultural cruces that make communication difficult. (She also glances at the particular hazards of being a woman traveling alone, even in a bad-ass competitive way: one local assaults her, and a group of boys attack her pony while she’s riding.) If you’re interested in the logistics of cross-country horse racing, Rough Magic has you covered. But it’s also a very compelling twist on the current crop of memoirs by young women; Prior-Palmer’s psychological growth isn’t often foregrounded, but the reader is ever aware that the Derby is permanently changing her. Very worthwhile indeed.


Rough Magic was published by Ebury on 6 June.

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Reading Diary: May 14-May 20

41940609This is Shakespeare, by Emma Smith: Smith is probably best known as the academic whose recorded lectures form the podcast series Approaching Shakespeare, which you can get from iTunes. (I went to them live, as an undergrad, which is saying something because no English students went to lectures after about third week.) Her book’s thesis is that we should read Shakespeare, not because he’s an immortal genius or whatever the propagandistic nonsense du jour is, but because his plays are weird: they’re gappy, ambivalent, they ask more questions than they answer. Each chapter deals with a single question arising from one of the plays (they’re not all covered here, but there’ s a good spread). Lucid, accessible, and fresh, this would be just as perfect for someone who’s slightly anxious about Shakespeare, as for someone who already loves his work.

41081373Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo: Almost, but not quite, an interlinked collection of short stories: each of the twelve chapters here follows a different woman (mostly black and British), and one of the book’s pleasures is discovering how they’re all connected to and through one another. Evaristo has always had great skill with potentially controversial topics: the generosity she extends to her characters nullifies any charges of bandwagoning when it comes to stories about gender, race, and class. This book in particular demonstrates that black women were fighting and winning these battles many decades before “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts and social media accounts became a thing. In her application of the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner principle, Evaristo reminds me of no one so much as George Eliot.

91at5ojnm-lThe Porpoise, by Mark Haddon: This is the sort of book that the Hogarth Shakespeare project should be trying to produce (interestingly, he was apparently asked to write it for them, and ended up pulling out of the project due to creative differences). Haddon moves from present-day privilege (globally connected aristocratic businessmen certainly have power equivalent to autocratic monarchs) to the ancient Mediterranean to a Tudor London where George Wilkins–Shakespeare’s co-writer on Pericles, the obscure play that this novel engages with–is punished after death for his sins against women. I need much, much more space to write about this (it’ll probably be the focus of my next Monthly Book feature); here, I’ll say only that it’s excellent, the prose crisp, the pace thrilling, the connections between different parts of the novel resonant and moving.

42596091The Dog Runner, by Bren MacDibble: For kids ten and up. Ella and her brother Emery are living through a global emergency: a fungus has destroyed most of the planet’s crops and caused widespread food shortages. When their dad doesn’t come back from an expedition into the city, the two kids set off for Emery’s mother’s house upcountry, along with their three huge dogs. Emery and Ella have different mothers, and Emery’s is of Aboriginal descent. MacDibble deals with blended families and racial difference subtly and well; it’s mentioned when it’s relevant to the story (for instance, Emery’s grandfather, Ba, has used indigenous land management techniques to keep ancient grains alive). Adventurous and thoughtful, with a protagonist both boys and girls can relate to.

Currently reading: About to start either Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin (but not sure I can cope with another chunkster after reading his first book so recently), or Lucasta Miller’s L.E.L., a biography of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, “the female Byron”.