Reading Diary: Apr. 9-Apr. 15

40985726The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell: Phwoaarr. Comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Mitchell are just. Follows three generations of Zambian families, exploring how chance, genetics, and politics draw them together and fling them apart. Family trees are provided at the beginning of the book, but the structure is less a straight line and more a series of looping ellipses, as characters appear and reappear. Encompassing interracial marriage, Zambian independence, Marxism, Afronauts, hair, microtechnology, HIV/AIDS, and social media activism, The Old Drift is an ambitious and emotionally compelling masterpiece. Serpell writes like someone who’s been doing this for decades.

original_400_600Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, by Kate Clanchy: A memoir of teaching at Oxford Spires Academy, where Clanchy runs a phenomenally successful Poetry Group (they’ve won numerous Foyle’s Young Poet awards). She also writes about her time at schools in post-industrial Essex and Scotland, and multicultural London. Clanchy demonstrates how infuriating and patronizing are government decisions re. teaching, a profession of which most of our legislators know nothing, and she’s magnificent on how creative response to literature can ignite a student’s mind–but is tragically ignored now in most schools because it cannot be quantified in a WALT (We Are Learning To…)

51agaxplvnl._sx324_bo1204203200_My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell: My fourth-grade teacher read this aloud to us, and I was instantly enchanted, not just by Durrell’s idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu (all that time to explore, all those hours in which to lie still and just observe), but by his charmingly absurd family: aspiring novelist Larry (aka Lawrence Durrell), gun-mad Leslie, dippy Margo, and long-suffering Mother. Rereading it as an adult, the most immediately striking thing about it is the sheer richness of Durrell’s prose: he’s interested in colour, texture and sound, the “squeak and clop” of oars digging into a silver-blue sea, the noise of cicadas in the cypress trees.

41mnd2bzqu5l._sx320_bo1204203200_The Perfect Wife, by JP Delaney: Lots to say about this psychological thriller with a technological twist, which–like Delaney’s two other psychological novels–has been marketed according to genre rules while sneaking in a high level of literary sophistication, allusion, and experimentation under the radar. Told alternately from the points of view of “Abbie”, a robot powered by artificial intelligence whose builder has designed her to look exactly like his missing-presumed-dead wife, and a third-person plural voice that represents her husband’s employees, a group of Silicon Valley nerds. It’s not perfect: there are several major reveals at the end, one of which is left hanging; Delaney makes stabs at illustrating the machinic nature of Abbie’s mind, but her thought is articulated in a way less linear and logical than any AI would ever be. Still, he admits in his acknowledgments that he didn’t set out to write a techno-thriller, and there’s plenty to unpack here, probably in a longer post soon.

98665Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaillesby Kathryn Lasky: Another in the Royal Diaries series. Particularly notable is the recreation both of young Archduchess Antonia’s personality–fun-loving and kind, but not especially intellectual–and of Empress Maria Theresa’s relationships with her thirteen children, whom she clearly loved in her own way but each of whom was merely a pawn in the Holy Roman Empire’s consolidation and expansion. Lasky renders the young Antonia relatable and even sympathetic, though also motivated by principles that we no longer really recognize: the honour of an Empire, the pride of nobility.

Currently reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a debut about a Jamaican servant woman accused of killing her mistress in 1820s London.

Advertisements

Reading Diary: Mar. 26-Apr. 1

rumblestar-9781471173660_lgRumblestar, by Abi Elphinstone: A novella prequel, Everdark, was written for World Book Day, and perhaps I’d have gotten on a bit better with Rumblestar if I’d read that first. My problems, though, weren’t with confusing plot or unfamiliar characters. Rather the opposite: it sort of felt as though I’d read this story before. Or parts of it in different places. There’s a weedy, wimpy boy; a tough, wisecracking girl; a magical kingdom; an untrustworthy authority figure; an adventure through the very conveniently discrete segments of said kingdom; and some emotional development. It’s all fine as far as it goes, but the emotional development, in particular, is very signposted. And it can’t be good that my favourite part (the drizzle hags, if you’re wondering) felt like they’d have been better if Terry Pratchett had written them…

9780300180282Arabs, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith: An excellent, and enormous (536 pages plus end matter), history of the Arab people (whatever that means; as Mackintosh-Smith shows, the definition is far from clear), from pre-Islamic times right up to the present day. He makes an important distinction between “Arab” and “Muslim”; not all of the former are the latter, and vice versa, although the global spread of Arabs and Arab-ness is due in large part to Islam and the empire won and enjoyed by early caliphs. Mostly, Mackintosh-Smith says, Arabs are defined by their use of the Arabic language. He’s a wonderful guide to it: wry, witty, widely read, and keenly alive to subtleties of dialect and register. One has to make an initial effort with this book, but it turns out delightfully readable, and obviously seminal.

Currently reading: Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, as part of my Women’s Prize longlist reading. It is so far extremely good.

Reading Diary: Mar. 19-Mar. 25

9780691181264The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by François-Xavier Fauvelle: Each very short chapter of Fauvelle’s book takes an archaeological site, artifact, or ancient text as its focus. From these items, he creates what a Literary Review critic called “historical pointillism”, opening tiny windows onto medieval African international relations, piecing together tantalizing stories: the Jewish merchant who impregnated his Indian maid and abandoned her in Somaliland; the Sultan of Mali whose lavish tipping while on hajj crashed the Cairene gold market for thirty years. But Fauvelle is not a storyteller, and frequently stops writing just as these stories begin to pique interest. The Golden Rhinoceros is a great introduction to other work, but sometimes frustrates in and of itself.

9781408890950The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Initially worried that this was going to be some sort of Moshfegh-esque body-grossout fic, I instead found myself captivated by Lucy, an aimless Sappho scholar, and her attempts to find love (or at least, following the advice of her group therapist Dr. Jude, to determine whether love is what she really wants). What you’ll already know about this book is that there’s merman sex in it, which is true, but the merman (Theo) doesn’t turn up until about halfway through the book, and the ending—which Broder handles brilliantly—is hardly a fairy tale. Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness”—the existential void—and her subtly woven backstory induce a kind of shamed empathy: it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century woman who can’t identify, at least a little bit, with this protagonist. I wrote a longer piece on The Pisces here.

9781405926935Sins As Scarlet, by Nicolás Obregón: The second in a series featuring Inspector Kosuke Itawa; the first, Blue Light Yokohama, gives him sufficient traumas to make him abandon life as an official detective, move to LA, where his mother lives, and become a private investigator instead. The plot of Sins As Scarlet revolves around the murder of a transgender woman, who happens to be Itawa’s sister-in-law. Obregón handles the material sensitively, and points to all-too-common lapses in official behaviour, such as the consistent misgendering of the victim by the LAPD. The novel takes an unexpected turn when the US-Mexico border, and the hazard involved in crossing it, becomes relevant to the case. Itawa is a great flawed detective, and Obregón is as deserving an heir to Chandler and his LA noir as I can think of.

91lsfruinzlSpring, by Ali Smith: The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and a lot of her overarching plan with this project starts to come clear. Focusing in part on grieving filmmaker Richard Lease, who has just lost his friend, collaborator and former lover Patricia Heal, and in part on Brittany Hall, a young security officer at a refugee detention center just outside of London, the novel is also dotted with short sections which we’re meant to think of as being authored by Florence Smith, a schoolgirl who seems bafflingly capable of both selective invisibility and holding authority figures to account. As with earlier seasonal quartet installments, the plot is somehow less important than the empathy these characters induce in us. It feels both more hopeful and more emotionally accessible than Autumn (I haven’t yet read Winter).

And two rereads: One, Lucy Mangan’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm, I read last year—my review of it can be found here. I revisited it with the excuse that it constitutes professional development; I’ve now taken on responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books at work, and reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids is proving very enjoyable.

cleopatraroyaldiaries_1_The second is, appropriately, an old childhood favourite. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Scholastic produced a series of books entitled The Royal Diaries. Written in diary format, they were meant to be the adolescent journals of various princesses from world history. There were the obvious candidates, like the ones for Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots; but there was a genuinely global focus, so that the series included diaries from the likes of Sondok of Korea, Kazunomiya of Japan, Weetamoo of the Native American Pohasset tribe, and even some princesses whose names have not come down to us (they were marketed under their dynastic titles instead; there’s one about medieval China entitled Lady of Chi’ao Kuo: Warrior of the South). They were by far the most significant source of my world history knowledge until I entered high school, and frankly, even then I relied fairly heavily on what I had learned from them.

I’ve recently discovered that you can buy pretty much every title for a penny plus shipping through secondhand sellers. My first, and favourite, of these books was Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, so Cleopatra was, of course, my first priority. It’s easy to see why my youthful self loved it: it combines historical detail (the sights and sounds of the markets of Alexandria! The Great Library and the Lighthouse! The pet monkeys and leopards!) with interpersonal conflict (will Cleopatra’s scheming older sister kill her before their father returns? Will her father’s habitual drunkenness jeopardize their ability to negotiate with Rome?) in an immensely appealing way. There’s also a section of historical notes, family trees, and contexualizing pictures at the back of the book; this is where I first learned, for instance, the story of Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet for Julius Caesar, and where I acquired my first inkling of the complicated political nature of her later-in-life love affairs. I can’t wait to choose which one to acquire next.

Currently reading: Abi Elphinstone’s new children’s novel, Rumblestar (see “reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids”, above). So far I’m not totally convinced, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Reading Diary: Mar. 5-Mar. 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Diary: Feb. 26-Mar. 4

isbn9781473694439Memories of the Future, by Siri Hustvedt: I know autofiction is cool now but even the examples that I like tend to annoy me; Hustvedt’s new novel didn’t, partly because her narrator is looking back on her life as a young woman in New York City instead of narrating it as she experiences it, and partly because her focus is mostly outward. She writes about “S.H.”‘s mysterious neighbour, Lucy Brite, and the people she meets in the city, and assesses those experiences from her perspective as an older, savvier woman (particularly about gender relations.) S.H. is explicitly interested in how her memories of the past are sometimes contradicted by, e.g., her journal entries (some of which are reproduced as part of the text). It all really works.

9781786331519Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid: A magnificent novel about the rise and fall of a rock band in ’70s California, told through the transcripts of interviews for a documentary. Reid nails atmosphere: the drugs, the sex, but also the strangely untouchable, self-centered innocence that permeates this milieu. Daisy Jones could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with added smack problem), but her emotional vulnerability is leavened with grit; Camila Dunne, wife of the lead guitarist, could have been a caricature of a stay-at-home mother, but her integrity is the moral backbone of the book. Reid also has some beautiful, scary things to say about creative collaboration, the hard work of making music, and the ease with which we can fuck up our own hearts. Out on March 7; don’t miss this.

9781784742867Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, by Toni Morrison: A collection spanning forty years that has either been ill-edited or not edited at all. Editing Morrison might be intimidating–she won the Novel Prize, ffs–but that, particularly with established authors, is what publishers are for. The collection has been arranged so as to make it embarrassingly obvious that Morrison often recycles whole paragraphs from one public speaking engagement to the next–and you know what, everyone does that, it’s neither unexpected nor a crime–but when at least three essays in the first section, none of which are long, all feature a paragraph that starts “Excluding the height of the slave trade, the mass movement of peoples is greater now than it has ever been”, you can forgive a reader for feeling mildly insulted. There are also no citations for most of the texts Morrison quotes. Up your game, Chatto & Windus.

Currently reading: Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel. So far I’m finding it stylistically easier than many of her earlier books, and loving the atmosphere of oblivious strangeness she builds around her mother/daughter protagonists, Perdita and Harriet. (I’m ALSO reading The Terror, by Dan Simmons, which is sort of The Thing meets Cherry Apsley-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.)

Three Things: February 2019

february

With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’ve read SO MUCH NONFICTION this month, it’s unreal. (Okay: four books out of a probable fourteen. But it feels like a lot.) Three of them I read back to back: Hallie Rubenhold’s historical group biography The Five, which I wrote a longer post on here; Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which combined investigative journalism with cultural history in a most engaging way; and Siri Hustvedt’s essay collection A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women, which deals with neuroscience, philosophies of perception, art history, and gender relations, amongst other extremely erudite things. The fourth, Nick Coleman’s Voices, provided an overview of 20th-century pop and rock music that’s proving extremely useful for the novel I’m currently reading: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six, about a (fictional) ’70s band.

I also feel as though my reading has had a lot of internal coherence and resonance this month; What I LovedIn the Full Light of the Sun, and A Woman Looking At Men… all dealt with the creation and value of art, while Voices and Daisy Jones and the Six have the connection mentioned above; The Warlow Experiment and The Five both made me think about class oppression, albeit in different centuries; The Warlow Experiment even had some resonance with Chris Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning novel Dark Eden, which I also read this month, in that both involve deliberate scientific experimentation, and both have characters who are trying to wrap their minds around a form of experience that has hitherto been totally alien to them.

Looking: Two things here, one high-brow and one low. To start with the latter: I rapidly became obsessed with Netflix’s new superhero series The Umbrella Academy and binged it in a week. It has many weaknesses–the dialogue is often pedestrian, and the pacing is glacial–but its aesthetic, which might be best described as Wes Anderson meets Quentin Tarantino, works remarkably well for me. I’m particularly fond of the lugubrious hitman-with-a-conscience Hazel (played by Cameron Britton, who really rocks facial hair), and his romance with diner waitress Agnes (played, with absolutely no fuss, by Sheila McCarthy, who’s 30 years older than Britton; I’d love to know if this age difference is in the original comics, and if so, fuckin’ awesome). I also love the way that teenage actor Aidan Gallagher nails the mannerisms of a world-weary 58-year-old time-traveling assassin trapped inside his own 13-year-old body. (It’s…look, it’s complicated.) Ellen Page is fantastic as the permanently snubbed youngest sibling Vanya, the only member of her superhero family without any discernible powers–she exudes sadness and passivity in a manner that makes her both sympathetic and annoying–and John Magaro, who plays her way-too-fast-moving love interest, has the extraordinary ability to be ineffably creepy while doing and saying things that appear to be nothing but charming. I can’t bloody wait for season 2.

(The high-brow is that I went to a Pinter double-header with my brother for his birthday: we saw A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter, the latter of which starred Martin Freeman and Danny Dyer, who work together brilliantly. They were my first Pinter plays and I do get what all the fuss is about; his repetitive dialogue-writing style works a scene or a mood the way bakers work dough, over and over again, so that you get new layers of meaning with each repetition.)

Thinking: I should have written something by now about my predictions for the Women’s Prize longlist, and I haven’t, and probably won’t, and I’m SORRY, okay. (On the other hand, I finished the first draft of my novel two weeks ago, so it’s not like I’ve been slacking.) Anyway, I’m still planning to shadow the Women’s Prize, along with (hopefully) Eric Anderson of Lonesome Reader and author Antonia Honeywell. Stay tuned; the official longlist is announced on the 4th.

Reading Diary: Feb. 19-Feb. 25

918lz8piowlVoices, by Nick Coleman: An exploration of the pop and rock singers whose sound has meant something to Coleman, an established music journalist. They’re not necessarily the most technically adroit or conventionally beautiful voices, but they’re the ones that have connected somewhere deep in his gut. His writing is both off-the-wall (the first chapter includes extended musing on a putative race of post-apocalyptic ant-men and their likely reaction to the music of Elvis Presley and Little Richard) and effectively personal (there’s a beautiful section on watching a friend have a panic attack to the sounds of Joy Division). Really worthwhile – now I have a playlist.

9781784742553The Snakes, by Sadie Jones: An impressively sinister slow-burner of a novel about a couple whose plan to take a few months out goes immediately awry when they visit wife Beatrice’s brother Alex at his non-functioning hotel in France. Jones is terrifically, and terrifyingly, perceptive on the emotional claustrophobia of wealthy families, on the warping effects of dishonesty in a marriage when both partners come from very different social backgrounds, and on the frustrating culs-de-sac of  French bureaucracy and law. The ending explodes in completely unexpected violence–which will divide opinion–but I think it’s a brave authorial choice. Also, it’s impossible to put down.

Currently reading: Memories of the Future, by Siri Hustvedt, the only autofiction I’ve read that, so far, isn’t making me obscurely want to punch someone.