Reading Diary: Feb. 10-Feb. 17

10805160Reading Tana French is such an easy pleasure that I can’t go for more than a couple of months without rereading her; a long, tiring week and a gap of half an hour between finishing a paperback and getting home on the bus, and I’m thumbing to my little-used Kindle app, finding one of her books – doesn’t really matter which – and sinking in. Can novels about hideous murders and complicated interpersonal dynamics be soothing? Evidently so.

The nice thing about rereading, which is probably only a surprise to me because I do it so infrequently, is that it gives you a chance to unpack an author’s subtler, cleverer moves. French is the type of author whom I read in great, ravenous gulps; going back and reading for a second or even a third time shows you the parallels, not just in plot but in theme. This’ll make no sense and probably spoil the plot if you haven’t read Broken Harbour, so if you haven’t, look away now; but if you have: the thing that sticks out so hard I should have seen it earlier is how thoroughly French works the mental illness angle. Mick’s sister, Dina, who is, as he says simply, “crazy”; Pat Spain’s diminishing grasp on reality; Mick’s mother’s suicide. This book is all about minds: how they work, how they break, and most of all, why. The hardest thing for Mick to accept is that Dina is mentally ill not because of her childhood trauma, but because she simply is. Madness, and control: Mick’s refusal to accept Dina’s madness as meaningless is mirrored in Jenny Spain’s doomed conviction that, by doing everything right, she can single-handedly keep her family together, and even in Richie Curran’s belief that something can be salvaged from the whole situation by not arresting the murderer. (I’ll leave that much spoiler-free.) It’s not just a brilliant meditation on social pressure and the financial crisis; French, as always, takes it that one step further, to examine the terrible hazards of refusing to give yourself a little leeway, refusing to ask for help.

coverEncouraged by Susan of A Life In Books, who mentioned that Dunmore was of the same generation as Amis, McEwan, Barnes, et al., but rarely got the respect and status that the men did, I picked up Exposure from my grandparents’ bookcases last weekend. I’d read one Dunmore before—her second novel, A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural Orange Prize and which I found arrestingly beautiful, with vivid imagery and a certain disturbing sexiness. Exposure is not quite at the same level of remarkableness, but then it doesn’t have to be; the story it’s telling is very different. It is, briefly put, an early Cold War spy novel, set in 1960 in a London whose adult population still feels haunted by the Second World War. Giles is a Soviet mole in the Admiralty, acquiring material from a complicit superior, Julian Clowde. One night, half-drunk after photographing a sensitive file, he falls down the stairs and breaks his leg. Unable to return the file to the Admiralty before morning, he rings a colleague and former lover, Simon Callington, from the hospital, asking him to collect and return the file. Simon, clocking that Giles shouldn’t have this information in the first place, hides it in his house; his wife, Lily, a Jewish refugee who came to London from Berlin in the late ’30s, finds it and buries it in the garden. Simon is soon arrested for breaching the Official Secrets Act, and the narrative follows him in prison, Giles in hospital, and Lily in the Kentish cottage where she takes their children, for privacy and for safety. So is Dunmore a sort of female Barnes? Well, yes, sort of, but I rather think that gives Julian Barnes too much credit. They both write in the same deceptively affectless prose, and they both write relationship novels. Where Barnes’s flaw might be a dullness tinged with complacency, Dunmore’s might be a tendency towards melodrama. But her ability to capture complex loving dynamics between people is extraordinary: Simon’s vexed relationship with Giles, for instance, or his coded conversation with Lily in a prison visiting room, during which Dunmore shows us how trust and compassion really can make one mind of two. Exposure has a high-stakes story, but Dunmore pulls it off in a way that feels low-key. It’s very good.

cover1It is not going to take very much effort on my part, I suspect, to convince people to read this book. The title, the subtitle, the whole idea, that beautiful cover: it is all immensely appealing. Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading goes from first principles (The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Topsy and Tim) all the way through to secondary school (Sweet Valley HighSummer of My German Soldier) to the point where “childhood” reading starts to blend with “adult” reading (many bookworms will probably start on Austen or Bronte at this point, for instance, and they work just as well for a bookish teenager as for a thirty- or fifty-something). Her tone throughout is dry and very funny, especially in the pen portraits of her family: a driven GP mother who never ceases talking, moving and doing; a nearly silent but deeply thoughtful drama teacher father who is her first source of books; a sister unmoved by books but drawn to computers and engineering; two loving grans (of one of whom Mangan writes, “By the time I knew her, she was Les Dawson”). This strand of the book is counterpointed by sections dealing with the history of what we’d call children’s literature, which starts with the deeply dull (she’s gloriously irreverent) religious rhymes of the mid-eighteenth century and moves through the Golden Age of children’s publishing, taking in John Newbery, Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake – all the good stuff. Not least, of course, there are the bits about the actual books themselves, and these are wonderful. Mangan’s readings of Little Women and Noel Streatfeild, The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland, E. Nesbit and Roald Dahl, feel conversational, intelligent and warm: just what you want when you’re talking books with a friend. And she’s put me on to some hidden gems as well, like Antonia Forest’s school stories, which have a gravitas and emotional intelligence to them that rocket them out of the sphere of Blyton et al. (She also has a rather flattering theory about children who don’t take to Blyton’s books, as I did not, much to my mother’s disappointment: apparently we are generally already at the stage of reading where we don’t need hand-holding with regards to plot and subtext, and find Blyton’s nannying of her readers unnecessary. I’ll take it.) If you liked Susan Hill’s reading memoir, Howard’s End Is On the Landing, you’ll adore this.

71f5lgrfbxlThe main thing about Mother Night is that it’s not one of Vonnegut’s most famous novels, but it is one of his best. It feels like a darker, harsher, more despairing Slaughterhouse-Five, since it engages with similar content (World War II, complicity, survivor’s guilt) but goes just that bit further. Its main character, Howard J. Campbell Jr., is in an Israeli jail awaiting trial for his work as a Nazi propagandist during the war; the novel purports to be his memoirs, edited by Vonnegut. What Campbell reveals in the course of his writing is that he was working as a double agent at the time: his every cleared throat and oddly inflected syllable during his racist radio broadcasts was actually code, smuggling information out of Germany to the Allies over the airwaves. Only three people know this—Campbell, his former handler, and Franklin Roosevelt, now dead—and is it, in any case, a good enough excuse for the hatred that Campbell not only spewed but fomented? Mother Night‘s central concern is responsibility: who shoulders it? Who ought to? How far removed from a killing field must you be to qualify as innocent? Like much of Vonnegut, it’s scarily relevant now. UKIP’s professed shock at the murder of Jo Cox, for instance, and Donald Trump’s reaction to the neo-Nazi rally in my hometown last summer, raised the same questions: how much isolationist, white supremacist, xenophobic rhetoric can you mouth without becoming implicated in the actions of people encouraged by your words? Not much: Campbell gets a scene with his father-in-law, Berlin’s chief of police, where the older man chillingly tells the younger that his propaganda is the thing that has allowed him to accept the years of Nazi rule. The ending isn’t happy, but it’s right.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: An unfortunate lack of proofs, except for Bookworm. Delighted to have been re-introduced to Helen Dunmore, though.

Advertisements

Reading Diary: Feb. 4-Feb. 9

powerIf there were an all-literature version of Pointless (and now that I’ve mentioned it, why isn’t there? It seems like there should be, possibly in the format of a board game that gets sold mostly to nerds and played mostly at our dinner parties and New Year’s Eve get-togethers), and if you were playing the Books Jeanette Winterson Has Written round, The Powerbook would be the answer you’d most want to give. I had no idea she’d written it; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry have overshadowed it, in my mental survey of her oeuvre. I won’t write too much about it here because I’m meant to be discussing it on Twitter at the end of the month with Amy and Naomi. There are three strands to it, though: a series of narratives about separated lovers (literary, mythological, and historical, such as Lancelot/Guinevere and Francesca/Paolo); a counternarrative about a writer and the married woman with whom she falls in love and with whom she cannot be; and a series of far more gnomic but also more seductive utterances about storytelling, story strategies, personae, and power. I’m not convinced that the abstract and concrete sections of The Powerbook fit together as well as they think they do—especially the early sections involving Ali in Istanbul, which read much more like Angela Carter on an uncharacteristically whimsical day than the rest of the book does—but for those short, almost aphoristic passages alone, I’m glad I read this. Follow our discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ThePowerbook at the end of February (exact date to be announced).

71xeuuzsuolNon-fiction is always harder for me to get excited about, but this came highly recommended, and also has a spot in the top five entries on this list of the top 100 non-fiction books of the 21st century, which I’m using in a casual sort of way to help fill the gaps. It is so very good. Susan Cain’s day job is as a consultant to high-flying businesspeople, mostly helping them to overcome fears like public speaking or giving them skills to negotiate more confidently in the boardroom. Her thesis in Quiet is that one of the most significant factors about a person is whether they are introverted or extroverted, and, moreover, that most people in the Western world are labouring under something known as the Extrovert Ideal, although at least 30% of us, being introverted, are woefully ill-adapted by nature to conform to this ideal. If you are an introvert—especially, I think, if you are an introvert who has learned to project fairly solid social skills—this book will be a revelation to you; I turned the pages with increasing delight and gratitude, thinking This is why I’m so tired after work! This is why I hated working in an open-plan office! This is exactly what I used to feel like in the playground/in the cafeteria/at summer camp! It’s not all my fault!! If you’re not an introvert, statistically you are likely either to marry/date one, parent one, or manage one (or all three) at some point over the course of your lifetime, and Cain’s lucid, insightful book contains some excellent pointers for understanding the introverts in your life. The best thing about Quiet is Cain’s insistence that introverts trying to conform to the Extrovert Ideal can stop running in place; that maybe the way we see the world and handle tasks and respond to stimuli is actually inherently valuable, too, and that extroverts could learn from it. I can see why it’s been lauded to the skies: implementing her suggestions could change corporate culture and increase productivity, but it could also change marriages and families and improve whole lives. (One thing I’d have liked to see more of is an assessment of how the Extrovert Ideal affects men and women differently; how gender and sexual double standards come into play, and so on.)

julian-barnesJulian Barnes. I have decided that he, like his character Susan in this novel, is a member of “a played-out generation”, except he appears to have retained his ability to write a good sentence untainted by the corrosive tang of bitterness. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie: all have fallen, at one point or another, to their own reputations. Barnes, and possibly Graham Swift (I haven’t read a recent enough book of his to know), remain on point: perhaps a touch more melancholic than they were fifteen years ago, or twenty, but on the whole observing the vagaries of later life with more bemusement than rage. The Only Story seems to support this theory: it is about a nineteen-year-old university student named Paul, who, home for the holidays and made to join the local tennis club, meets and falls in love with a married woman of forty-eight named Susan Macleod. It’s not a summer fling, although the total effect of the book, at least on me, is to make the reader wonder whether it should have been. It’s a real, serious, all-in love affair: Susan moves out of her husband’s house, though she never divorces him, and the two live together in London while Paul trains to become a solicitor. The devastation happens by degrees, as Susan sinks into alcoholism so severe that she damages her own memory. Paul leaves her, or, as he puts it, “hands her back” to her daughter’s care, and she dies probably in her early sixties, consumed by dementia and paranoia. It’s not a happy story, so what are we to make of it?

Barnes writes with a kind of aphoristic certainty that asserts itself even when he is pretending to uncertainty, which is appealing, and lends The Only Story the weight of tragedy that it needs. What I keep asking myself, though – and this is true of almost all the books I read now – is, why this story, and why this way? I don’t know what Julian Barnes wants me to make of a hopelessly romantic but strangely cynical and affectless young man who, to save his own sanity, leaves an older woman who has burned all her boats for him. I don’t know what he wants me to make of that older woman, who always seems disturbingly childish, even in her charming qualities (irreverence, constant laughter). Judging from the many times the text touches on the subject, I think his point is largely to do with differences between generations, but what is that to a reader who is of a generation after Paul? Am I to conclude that my parents’ peers fought their parents and thought themselves progressive, just like my own? Is that such a revelation that I really need Barnes to make me think about it? I feel, as a reader, somehow resistant to The Only Story, and I can’t work out whether that’s inherent to the book, or to me. Maybe I’m too young for it.

51sx7hk0uplRuby Tandoh is the literal exact opposite of Julian Barnes: a young queer woman of colour who seems to epitomise millennial values like self-care and not judging other people. I adore her. Eat Up is not a recipe book or a how-to-eat guide or even the radical manifesto that the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, says it is; it’s a series of intelligent, engaged meditations on food and the role it plays in our lives, and the ways in which our relationship to food intersects with cultural narratives about power, privilege, morality, money, class, race, sex, gender, and worth. Of all the things that take up space in my head on a daily basis, food might well be the biggest: in order to feed myself appropriately, I must contend with the intersections of affordability, Type I diabetes, chronic lack of time, my own tendency to use food as a mechanism for unhealthy self-control and self-punishment, and a spectacular sweet tooth. It’s really fucking hard. Reading Tandoh’s words makes me feel understood and reassured. Yes, she says, food is complicated; no, you don’t have to eat perfectly all the time; there isn’t even any one right way to eat. Her asides on social and cultural history are succinct but thorough: the section on the history of the UK chocolate industry, and sections on queer bodies, poor bodies, and the use of food in film, are particularly good. And she does include perhaps two dozen recipes, scattered throughout the book, every one of which looks delicious and quick and affordable. It’s been years since I’ve been so uncomplicatedly excited about cooking, for myself and others.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: For a week which I mostly spent sick and asleep in bed, not bad at all. Better get going with the proofs again next week, though.

Reading Diary: Jan. 14-Jan. 20

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara, is a gorgeous book, set in the drag queen ball scene of New York, from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Angel, our main character, becomes the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, the first house for aspiring Puerto Rican queens (a drag queen house is something like a Formula 1 team, but a thousand times more fabulous, and its members relate to each other like a family). Angel is joined by sassy and beautiful Venus (born Thomas); shy banjee boy Daniel; and skilled seamstress and lost boy Juanito. There’s also Dorian, an even older queen who serves as a mentor and cultural guardian. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish. It’s a tragic book, as one set amongst the gay and trans community during those decades must be: many sisters fall, to the virus or to illegal drugs or to malevolent strangers. It’s also defiantly, spectacularly beautiful, constantly reaffirming the value of the family you choose for yourself. Fans of A Little Life, RENT, and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City will all find something to love here.

51fe1shobzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_And then for something completely different: Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The thing that always surprises me with Greene is how humane he is; for some reason I expect his Catholicism to be curdled and grotesque, like Evelyn Waugh’s, but it always turns out gentle and pitying. This novel follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); he is a man who has lost his dignity, his sense of purpose, almost his humanity; Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is also spectacularly good at suggesting interiority while maintaining firm boundaries between the reader and his characters; we always feel we’re standing somewhat outside of the whisky priest, watching him do things or have things done to him, but as we continue to observe him, our understanding of him grows. It would make a very interesting companion read to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (which I’m afraid I’ve only seen the film of).

isbn9781473661417-detailThe cover of The Wicked Cometh, Laura Carlin’s debut novel, should perhaps have made me wary; anything that’s getting the Sarah Perry/Jessie Burton design treatment is something on which the publisher wants to make the big bucks, and making the big bucks is not always commensurate with flawless prose and editing. The Wicked Cometh begins with about a hundred pages of somewhat overwrought scene-setting, in which we meet young Hester White, the orphaned daughter of a clergyman who now lives with her father’s former gardener Jacob and his wife Meg in a foul slum in London’s Whitechapel. Rumours abound of disappearances: ordinarily steady men, women and children are vanishing, never to be seen again. When Hester is involved in an accident with a carriage, and invited to recuperate (and work as a maid) at the country house of the man who caused the damage, she begins to unravel a horrifying conspiracy. The writing tends to teeter back and forth between melodrama and the kind of flattening present tense that constantly tells a reader how to feel, which hampers attempts to engage with the story. But if you can get past the initial pages and reach the point at which Hester returns to London with her friend and beloved, Rebekah Brock, you’ll make it to the end. The conspiracy is really rather fiendish, if somewhat over-complicated, and I liked that Carlin develops a love story between two women in the nineteenth century as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it (which, in fact, there isn’t.)

cover3A little book to end the week with: I wasn’t sure whether this really counted, but it has its own ISBN, so why not. It’s Calm, one of the Vintage Mini books that comprise excerpts from an author’s larger work on a particular theme. Calm is a 95-page chunk from Tim Parks’s book Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences with Vipassana Buddhist meditation, chronic pain, and spirituality. Parks was raised in a deeply religious household (his father was an Anglican priest), from which he seems to have fled both physically and mentally at the earliest possible opportunity; faith is obviously a deeply vexed issue for him. He writes pitilessly, with great wit and self-deprecation, about his attempts to be more mindful, to meditate better, and about the depths of his despair when a meditation retreat seems to promise nothing but more physical pain and suffering. When, at last (and very briefly) the meditation does work, he writes of his body’s feeling of liberation and release with an illumination and a joy that is reminiscent of mystics like Margery Kempe—and also acknowledges how fleeting such joy must be (his return to discomfort is “liturgy after revelation”). I’d very much like to read Teach Us To Sit Still in its entirety now, and perhaps try to pick up my own meditation or yoga practice again.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A hell of a lot of purple covers and spirituality. Is the subconscious really responsible for things like that?

Reading Diary: Jan. 7-Jan. 13

the_devilshighwayhbGregory Norminton’s new novel The Devil’s Highway is not a long book, but it is a full one, resonant with history and myth. Bouncing back and forth between three time periods—Roman Britain, the present day, and a far future of harsh drought and a return to brutality—it stays focused on one place: Bagshot Heath, in Surrey. Here, a young Celt, Andragin, tries to barter for mercy for his brothers by delivering a kidnapped decurion back to his legion; here, Harry, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, bumps into a young girl whose father is determined to preserve the heath at all costs; and here, a pack of feral children led by the ruthless Malk attempts to make it to “the West Cunny”, where, it’s rumoured, there is still rain. Norminton’s evocation of the heath’s atmosphere is superb: this book is less about individual people and their choices, and more about the ways in which a particular landscape can fate us. Each time period is linked to the others by a palm-shaped stone that resembles a crude carving of a woman, and which is so ancient that it’s old even in Andragin’s time. Norminton is a subtle enough writer to leave the connection at that (though we may draw our own conclusions about the relationship between the young Celtic warriors encouraged to their deaths by a religious mystic, and the jihadis whom Harry fights in modern-day Helmand), giving the book a feeling of David Mitchell tinged with Paul Kingsnorth’s aesthetic. The futuristic sections are perhaps the least successful—there’s only so many times authors can rehash wild-child Riddley Walker dialect—but the book as a whole is both bold and delicate, and quite unforgettable.

cover2Equally unforgettable is Afua Hirsch’s memoir/work of cultural analysis, Brit(ish) (can we talk about the genius of that title?), which is out on the 1st of February. Hirsch’s heritage is mixed: her mother is Ghanaian and her father the child of German Jewish refugees. Both her parents had a strong cultural identity of their own, but for Hirsch and her sister, being mixed-race in Wimbledon in the ’90s meant they didn’t belong anywhere. Hirsch is never less than willing to cop to her own privilege as a lighter-skinned black person in Britain: her account of meeting her boyfriend (now husband) Sam, a black man of Ghanaian descent from Tottenham, brilliantly dissects the differences in their upbringings, with Sam constantly focused on achieving professional success because the slightest lapse in concentration might drive him off-course forever, whereas Afua’s achievements at school, university, and the world of work feel like something she’s almost sleepwalked into. But her primary thesis is that, although Britain likes to call itself a “post-racial” or “multicultural” society, this is a national self-image built on a lie: the absolute refusal of white British people to acknowledge a history of deep and terrible institutional racism. She makes an extremely compelling case, citing the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter as upheavals that could only occur because American society has been forthright about the fact that it was founded on racism and slavery. By contrast, British society lauds the abolition of the slave trade, but history curricula and national days of observance rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that for Britain to have abolished a trade in the first place, it first had to participate in that trade; in this case, for over four centuries. Hirsch is also a fantastically engaging writer, leavening rage-inducing statistics with personal anecdote and investigative journalism. Her book ought to help kickstart the conversation Britain so badly needs to have with itself.

51a7rwuy1pl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Speaking of which, Victor LaValle’s novel The Devil In Silver is a real thousand-yard stare right at the heart of the horrors of the American health-care-for-profit system. LaValle is known as a genre writer, but most of The Devil In Silver doesn’t seem like a horror or fantasy novel; much of it is more like a psych-ward version of Orange Is the New Black. Pepper, our protagonist, is a working-class white dude who gets thrown in New Hyde Hospital because the cops who arrested him for beating up his neighbour’s ex-husband couldn’t be arsed to do the paperwork down at the precinct. Pepper’s involuntary admission means he ought only to stay for seventy-two hours, but he takes some medication on his first day, and the next thing he knows, he’s been in for four weeks. The ward, Pepper soon discovers, is being terrorised by a Minotaur-like creature—a skinny old man with the head of a buffalo—who is apparently the Devil. The brilliance of LaValle is in taking the old what-if-humans-were-the-real-monsters twist and shoving our noses so far into the complicated morality of what being human involves that we can see how monsters develop. Casual cruelty amongst nurses and orderlies is prompted by a system that underpays them and finds more value in dead patients than in live ones; madness is a not irrational response to a system that really is out to get you. And LaValle comes down on the side of tenderness and of trying, every time. One character snarls to another, “You can’t save everyone.” The other says—the only line of dialogue he gets in the whole book—”You can help.”

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Two proofs of forthcoming books and one book from my shrinking TBR stack (counted, in this context, as books I’ve bought and have yet to read), all excellent. January’s going really well so far.

2017 In First Lines

Now that I’ve finished the first book of the last month of the year, I can start with all of the usual end-of-year posting. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it (not to be confused with the Best Of Year roundup!)

41fzw72b-lcl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

January: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”—Virgin And Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. The surest sign that my reading has changed this year is that this sentence didn’t especially register back in January, but made me raise an eyebrow high when I reread it two minutes ago.

mirror

February: “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”—Mirror Shoulder Signal, by Dorthe Nors. I remember reading this while walking to work at a restaurant in Pimlico, where I waited tables for a deeply un-fun month and a half. Sharp and fresh and kind of off-kilter; it was on the Man Booker International shortlist for a reason.

91hjwnwu4ul-_ac_ul320_sr200320_

March: “Atop the mud-brick wall stood a man stripped to the waist, with his arms stretched out to the sides as if crucified.”—Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. The pitch-blackest comedy I’ve ever read; a spy novel at once hopelessly enigmatic, deeply pessimistic, and posing the most serious moral questions. It’ll be in my Books of the Year for sure.

41cp6wr0vdl-_sy346_

April: “On Friday, January 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz awoke in an excellent mood.”—The Idealist, by Justin Peters. A biography of Swartz, a programming prodigy (he helped develop Creative Commons at the age of fifteen) and advocate of open source software and the free exchange of ideas. Absolutely essential reading for anyone who reads or uses a computer (so, you.)

china-mieville-the-city-the-city

May: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”—The City and the City, by China Miéville. A phenomenal mindfuck of a book; a riff on urban isolation and solipsism, I think, and maybe also on willful political blindness, plus there’s a great noir plot.

41o52jkmzpl

June: “Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.”—Real Tigers, by Mick Herron. We love Mick Herron at the bookshop; this is the third of his Slough House series, about a department of disgraced MI5 agents. One could wish for slightly fewer wisecracks in this volume, but it’s solid and tons of fun.

cover

July: “The teenagers would fuck it up.”—The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal. Does anyone write about parenthood and intergenerational conflict (and surprising alliances) with more sly, sympathetic wit than Francesca Segal? I doubt it.

613hd74gvwl-_sx316_bo1204203200_

August: “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs.”—Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose. A deeply thought-provoking remix of Mrs. Dalloway, set on the day of the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death.

roughing it

September: “This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.”—Roughing It, by Mark Twain. My dad bought me this when I was home for the summer; Twain is one of his favourite writers, and it was lovely to read it back in London and think of him.

51alrzpefsl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

October: “The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep?'”—The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré. What a first line. Even if you don’t know where you are, you know where you are: somewhere cold, somewhere dark, somewhere not entirely safe.

414bmg28m1l-_sx327_bo1204203200_

November: “At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”—The End of the Day, by Claire North. Read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel; I wasn’t entirely impressed with the occasional melodrama of the book, but the idea is very good indeed (our protagonist, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death) and it’s often a lot of fun.

915lbb148ol

December: “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”—A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towles. What a gorgeous book: tender, tough, and endlessly empathetic. It too will make my Books of the Year without question.

Is this representative of this year’s reading? Not enormously; I read a lot more speculative fiction than this slice suggests, although I think the male-to-female author ratio is about right (pretty close to 50:50). It’s an all-white line-up, which isn’t quite right either; I read some brilliant works by authors of colour this year: David Olusoga, Zadie Smith, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Patrice Lawrence, Kei Miller, Yukio Mishima, Omar El Akkad, Nnedi Okorafor, Kamila Shamsie… (More on some of these in the Books of the Year post.)

What this fragment of my reading does accurately reflect, however, is that I read a hell of a lot of spy novels this year, statistically speaking. Clearly, espionage was this year’s escapism flavour of choice.

What seems to have improved in 2017 is either my ability to choose books for myself more cannily, or my ability to get more out of more varied titles—or, possibly, both. I don’t do star ratings on this blog because I find them at best a crude tool for describing complex things, but Goodreads pretty much makes you use them, and there were a lot of four- or five-star books this year. Long may it be so.

Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: Outlandish Knight, by Minoo Dinshaw

cover

Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

The title for Minoo Dinshaw’s enormous (700-page) biography of Steven Runciman, a noted Byzantine historian of the mid-twentieth century, comes from a Scottish ballad. There is no parallel between the events of the ballad (which comes in many variants but usually involves a woman running off with a knight who reveals himself to be a serial murderer; the woman defeats him through a combination of wit, strength, and sometimes magic) and Runciman’s own life, but Dinshaw admits that he chose it more for what it says about his subject’s taste. Born in Northumberland, Runciman would evince a deep love for and identification with Scotland and the Borders for the rest of his life, and would eventually, through a complicated series of events, become Laird of Eigg. (He went so far as to proclaim himself Scottish, although neither of his parents were.)

Dinshaw’s work is, to put it mildly, comprehensive. He has obviously been through every scrap of the relevant primary sources, including Runciman’s own unpublished memoirs, and his regard for his subject shines through every sentence. In a way, though, this is the book’s downfall. It is, as has been previously mentioned, very long, and although Runciman certainly came into contact with a wide array of interesting people (Eric Blair, Cecil Beaton, Freya Stark, the last Emperor of China, and the Queen Mother, to name but a few), the relevance of his own life is less clear. Dinshaw apparently described Runciman as a “courtly, old-fashioned queer” at the bloggers’ event that the other members of the shadow panel attended; to me, that sentence sums up the difficulty with Outlandish Knight in general, which is that it delineates a society—English, genteel, snobbish, mid-twentieth-century—whose rules are so alien now as to appear almost science fictional. (I told the shadow panel that it’s the same uncanny-valley feeling one often gets when reading Golden Age detective stories; although they mostly avoid explicit sexism and racism, the mores of the characters and the limits of acceptable social behaviour generally seem much more distant and exotic than, say, Dickens or Sterne.)

Dinshaw succeeds most at convincing us of Runciman’s importance, I think, when he emphasises that sense of distance by focusing on the ways in which his subject’s death heralded the end of a whole world. Runciman’s academic interest was in Byzantium, the Eastern and later segment of the Roman Empire, and in late antiquity shading into the medieval period in what is now Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The twentieth century changed these parts of the world drastically, irrevocably, and usually not for the better; one feels it a mercy that Runciman’s death occurred before September 11, 2001, and before he could see what became of the historic homes of the civilisations he had loved. In this sense, Outlandish Knight is a valuable, if melancholy, resource for understanding precisely what has been lost—in terms of approaches to scholarship as well as the business of living—for good and for ill. (Runciman’s sexuality is the one thing he appears never to have discussed with anyone, though his friends seemed aware that he had affairs. It strikes me as a life much like the character Posner’s in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, who says at the end of the play that he’s “not happy, but I’m not unhappy about it.”)

Still, though. Despite the accolades that adorn the front cover, the writing seemed to me to be perfectly fine, but not outstanding. It is a lot more impressive when you realise that Dinshaw is only twenty-eight now and it took him four years to write, but even that provokes me mainly to be impressed with his self-confidence, not necessarily with an undying prose style. I came away from the biography with very little sense of what Steven Runciman might actually have been like: what might have made him laugh, or light up with interest; how he might have gone about making friends or flirting or tackling his work day. For a book this long, that’s a bit alarming.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. Outlandish Knight is published by Allen Lane, and is now available in paperback so you don’t have to murder your wrists.

October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

51alrzpefsl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

blackcloud

most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

71yfgo6gggl

most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

9782265094581

most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

the-lucky-ones

most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.