Reading Diary: Mar. 11-Mar. 17

61nyh599hzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_My favourite way to celebrate International Women’s Day, as with all celebrations, is to read something apt, and there is no book apter than Joanna Russ’s tour de force, The Female Man. (Note the deliberate not-use of the word “masterpiece”.) The plot of the book, such as it is, is fairly simple: there are four female characters, Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. Each is from a different time period, and/or world: Jeannine from a world like ours, but where the Great Depression never ended and women’s lib never began; Joanna from the era contemporaneous to the book’s writing (1975), in the world as we know it; Janet from a place called Whileaway, where there simply aren’t any men; and Jael from a future where men and women are, quite literally, at war. (She has metal teeth.) The book is mostly comprised of their interactions with each other, and the ways in which these reveal each world’s priorities with regards to women and their place. Though the plot isn’t complicated, Russ’s writing is extremely in-your-face; she often jumps from one point of view to the next, frequently mid-scene, none of which is signposted. Her chapters can be six pages, or a paragraph, or a sentence. (It’s a very Vonnegut-esque approach to structure.) I’ve also read critiques of The Female Man that say, essentially, one of two things: either that society has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore Russ’s exposé of male hypocrisy and female oppression is no longer relevant, or that literature has moved on since the 1970s, and therefore that other people have since said the same things, but better. I disagree on both counts: on the first, society really hasn’t moved that far on since the 1970s (#MeToo, Weinstein, Gamergate, Trump, I can’t even be arsed to keep trotting out these examples, it’s so boring). On the second, few writers of any age have been as uncompromising as Joanna Russ is in The Female Man—she’s like Angela Carter on steroids and without any of the whimsy—and for a young feminist not to have read any of her work is for that young feminist to be missing a key part of history. “As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.”

48398Renée Fleming is, as my friend Jon would say, a genuine goddamn treasure. Quite apart from her voice—which is a great big “quite apart from”; have you seen this? Or this? Or, good Jesus, the first nine seconds of this?—she projects this huge, warm, charming, utterly authentic personality. She wrote this book fifteen years ago as a resource for other young singers, remembering that, when she was just starting out, she devoured the biographies of famous sopranos but couldn’t find anything on what it actually felt like to build and train a voice, let alone create and maintain one’s own brand, develop a character, and all the other minutiae of an opera singer’s life. She’s so delightfully honest about being a people-pleaser from a young age, about her long years of failing to win competitions or auditions, and about not being considered particularly beautiful or stylish (although her “big face” was at least seen as an asset; she’d be visible from the upper circle.) I also love the way she writes about singing as work, both physical and mental, and the down-to-earth-ness of her love for her daughters and the life of her family. This would be an invaluable book for a young singer, but just as much fun to read as a regular opera-goer, or even just as someone who would like to know what all the fuss is about.

cover2The first book in my Women’s Prize longlist reading was Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time; it’s also the first of de Waal’s books that I’ve read, having missed My Name Is Leon. Having no idea what to expect, it’s nice to be able to report that I enjoyed it very much. Partly set in 1970s Birmingham, and partly set in the present day, it follows the love story of Mona and William, two Irish migrants to England. After their marriage, Mona falls pregnant quickly, and the future seems bright – until tragedy strikes. In the present-day storyline, Mona is living in a small seaside village, making dolls and providing an initially unspecified service for bereaved mothers, while also fielding the attentions of Karl, a mysteriously aristocratic European living in town, and maintaining a curious relationship with a man known only as the carpenter, who provides the raw material for her dolls. The way that de Waal interweaves the two timelines, and slowly reveals the relevance of Mona’s past life to her present, is masterful: every revelation is perfectly timed, the prose is always completely controlled. Particularly impressive is de Waal’s ability to unflinchingly draw out the reader’s emotional engagement. Karl, in particular, seemed too good to be true, and when the truth about his circumstances becomes clear, it is in a scene so excruciating and yet so convincing, so alive with shame, that I read it with heart pounding. The book should probably come with a content warning, if only because the nature of the tragedy that strikes Mona and William’s marriage is potentially triggering. So far, though, the Women’s Prize longlist is off to a flying start.

35148165The Parentations has received the same treatment as The Wicked Cometh – pretty cover, lots of accolades – and unfortunately it suffers from similar problems. The story, which concerns an Icelandic spring whose waters convey eternal life, and the attempt to protect a child from evil Danes who would kill him in their efforts to discover the secrets of immortality, is a good one, reminiscent of a grownup Tuck Everlasting. But it is, first of all, too long. This is not a structural problem, but a question of paragraphs having been allowed to remain in the manuscript that are not pulling their weight, or indeed any weight. Despite being over 400 pages, I read it in two days, because so much of it is not actually advancing anything that it can be skimmed. Secondly, and perhaps in part because of its length, there are some odd gaps in logic and characterisation. We learn nothing about the Danish family that is supposedly so evil: they are straw man villains, and although the book spends time in nearly every major character’s head, we never see through their eyes or even get a particularly strong sense of their motivation. Equally opaque is the novel’s real villain, Clovis Fowler, who descends swiftly into oversexed femme-fatality and never recovers. (We’re meant to believe that she’s a perfectly poised and flawless criminal mind, but some of the decisions that she makes seem wasteful and gratuitous, neither one of which bespeaks true ice-cool evil.) Is it a page-turner? Absolutely. Is it, as its publisher has said in the Bookseller, some of the most extraordinary literary prose encountered in a thirty-year career? If so, that publisher hasn’t been reading widely enough.

9780008264239Oh, man. I so badly wanted House of Beauty, by Melba Escobar, to be good. A crime novel revolving around a Bogotá beauty salon, featuring the murder of a schoolgirl and a coverup by corrupt officials involved in massive healthcare fraud? The idea of a salon as a place where women go to tell each other things and feel safe, where the world of men cannot—for a brief while—intrude? Yes please. And Fourth Estate is publishing it, so I got a NetGalley proof, trusting. I was wrong to trust.

Part of the problem—and I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand a little—is, I think, the translation. Dialogue sounds stilted, motivation is explained with cartoonish specificity. Worst of all, it’s just confusing. The book is being told from the perspective of two women, Claire and Lucía, who are upper-middle-class Bogotáns, after the events have already played out; but there’s nothing to mark their points of view apart, so I was frequently startled by hearing Claire apparently refer to herself, then realise that Lucía was now speaking. We also get third-person chapters from the perspective of Karen, a beautician at the eponymous salon; from Sabrina Guzmán, the girl who dies; and from Sabrina’s mother, Consuelo. But none of them really move us towards an understanding of the crime: we arrive at that understanding only because we get to see into everyone’s heads, which characters in the book cannot do, so their deductions are unearned. The ending, meanwhile, had me staring at my phone in baffled rage, wanting to throw the thing against a wall—not because it’s incomplete, but because it suddenly partakes of the grossest stereotype. I think this is meant to make us feel differently about one of the narrators—which it sure did—but again, it felt unearned. In between the disorienting points of view and the leaps in plot, there are some interesting and upsetting things being said in House of Beauty about contemporary Colombian society, and the place of women (especially dark-skinned women) within it, but there’s just too much getting in the reader’s way.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A great start, a disappointing end. I’m glad to have started the Women’s Prize reading and am now on my next book for that project, Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY.


Reading Diary: Mar. 4-Mar. 10

22589334My friend Katie let me borrow her copy of The Arsonist, citing it as one of the best fictional portrayals she knows of a career aid worker readjusting to life in the developed world. Since one of the protagonists of my novel has to deal with just this situation, I was grateful for the recommendation. Sue Miller’s main character, Frankie Rowley, is returning to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, after years as an aid worker in Kenya. Her parents have retired to the house that was historically their summer property, but retirement isn’t going to be a smooth ride—her father, Alfie, is developing dementia, and her mother, Sylvia, must care for him. Meanwhile, someone is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people” in Pomeroy, and Frankie—attempting to find some direction—begins an affair with Bud, the local newspaperman. I’ve read some complaints about the slow development of The Arsonist; I can only assume that this is down to baffled expectations. It’s not a thriller about a firebug, but a portrait of a small town drawn into the discomfort of facing its class divide head on. Pete, the widower from whom Bud bought the local paper, suggests that the problem is due to an increasing sense of equality: in the 1930s and 1940s, his parent’s generation, he suggests, “knew their place”, and no one felt troubled by the distance between year-round residents and the seasonsal families who employed locals as maids and handymen during the summer months. Perhaps it does no one any favours, Pete muses, to pretend as though there are no longer any social distinctions, when a difference in privilege and in wealth is so clear. Thematically, this makes a nice counterpoint to Frankie’s concern about her own privilege as a white expatriate in Africa, someone who was always going to be helicoptered out of a potentially dangerous situation, who didn’t really “belong” there because she could opt out of certain hazards.

Frankie’s and Bud’s romance is maybe a little torrid, but this is mitigated by the fact that it takes so long to get going, and by Frankie’s resistance and awkwardness as she tries to figure out which choices will let her have the most meaningful or fulfilling life. Fulfillment is also a vexed issue for Sylvia Rowley, who resigns herself to an old age spent caring for an increasingly demented husband whom she has long since ceased to really love. Throughout, Miller maintains a firm grasp of emotional beats, the complexities of a long marriage and of claustrophobic communities and of the interplay between a longing for independence and a longing for love. I’m particularly impressed by her understanding of rural communities, the way that things like a Halloween Haunted House at the town hall or a barbeque at the fire station hold such places together. Her work reminds me of Anne Tyler’s.

36262478Michael Andreasen’s debut short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, was one of the proofs I was most excited about getting to this month, even though I maintain the pretense of not liking short stories very much. (I say “pretense” because I always end up liking the ones that I read.) Andreasen’s approach to fantasy or magical realism is to infuse fantastical situations with bracing jolts of recognisable modernity, or vice versa. The sailors stuck on a slowly sinking ship, for instance, listen to hip-hop through their headphones, and a child in the first story—set either in an alternate universe or the future—has the distinctly old-fashioned name of Ernest. The most striking element of Andreasen’s work is his skill at engaging a reader’s emotions, even if those emotions conflict. In the title story, for instance, a lovestruck kraken is sinking a ship inch by inch, day by day, convinced that the ship is one of its own kind. The kraken eventually spawns thousands of babies, all of which are murdered by the sailors in an orgy of destruction; at the end of the story, a young sailor on the doomed vessel is found to have kept one infant kraken alive. He pins it—still living—to an effigy of the ship, places a doll version of himself on the deck of the model, and tips it overboard. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene because it forces us to feel so many things at once: pity for a tortured young animal and revulsion at the man who could do such a thing; simultaneous pity and terror for the young sailor and his shipmates and their impending demise; poignancy and horror that humans can keep hoping, even while suffering a slow death. Not all of the stories in the collection achieve such a powerful cocktail of emotion, but they’re all just as weird and engaging.

31937362What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? These are the questions posed by Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, out on 22 March. It reminded me, thematically, of The Moon and Sixpence (and it explicitly cites Paul Gaugin’s abscondment to Tahiti and abandonment of his wife and children as an example of the cruelties that artistic genius commits and is excused for). The novel centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter of forty or so when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known to all as Pinch. Bear might be a genius, but he is also controlling, serially unfaithful, and—the reader begins to notice—a bullshitter. Chronically jovial in public, he alternately manipulates and ignores both his current family and his children from other marriages, and manages to distract most people from noticing that he never says anything of substance; Pinch, who is desperate to be accepted as an artist by his father, interprets Bear’s evasions of direct questions in the way most flattering to himself, until he ages into knowing better. The early part of the book is spent in exploring the ways in which Bear belittles and diminishes Natalie’s artistic talent, but most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Parts of it are terribly sad—Rachman writes a few scenes for Pinch of such utter humiliation that they’re painful to read—other parts joyous. Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all. The Italian Teacher is a deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Several thematic parallels between the three books read this week, most notably dealing with aging and/or dementia-struck parents. It was also illuminating to read The Italian Teacher after All the Perverse Angels; both are intensely interested in the production of art and how its value is determined.

Women’s Prize 2018 Longlist Thoughts

I’m serving on the prize’s shadow panel again this year (hooray!), along with three of my very favourite erudite readers/writers/thinkers: Naomi Frisby, Antonia Honeywell, and Eric Anderson. The longlist was announced last night (at 00:00 GMT, which is alarmingly antisocial for those of us who like our sleep). I haven’t yet decided how I feel about the list as a whole, apart from an initial gut reaction: it feels a bit old. Some of these books (Schmidt, Kandasamy) I read last May; they’ve had a long time to steep in my subconscious, or wherever it is that books go in a person after they’ve been read. But that’s hardly an argument against the books themselves, so maybe I’m being curmudgeonly.

I’ve read eight of the longlisted titles – exactly half. The list given on the Women’s Prize site is front-loaded with the titles that I haven’t read, which is an amusing probability quirk. (Why is Rachel Seiffert at the front of an otherwise alphabetical list? A tech issue? A last-minute addition? Who can say.)

Quick thoughts on each:

711bpyrwgolA Boy In Winter – Rachel Seiffert. I confess that not only have I not read this; I gazed at it with the eyes of extreme indifference when it came into the shop in hardback, and again when I got a paperback finished copy. Nazis in the Ukraine, I thought. Again with the Nazis, I thought. But my colleague Karin, with thirty years of bookselling experience, adores Rachel Seiffert, so I am prepared to be wrong.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker. Barker’s work is, occasionally, barking (sorry), but pretty much always brilliant. H(A)PPY is intimidating because of its formal playfulness: typeface in different colours, shapes, and arrangements on the page, etc. Her novel The Cauliflower didn’t inspire me hugely, but it was impressive, and I remain haunted by the first forty pages of Darkmans (read standing up at a library sale) despite not having bought the book or finished it. So I’ve high hopes for H(A)PPY.


The Idiot – Elif Batuman. Who doesn’t love a good campus novel? I keep forgetting the plot of this one; I think it has to do with a Turkish student at Harvard in the ’90s, and is meant to be comedic. Sure. Sign me up.

61k-y31a2bgl-_sx342_bo1204203200_Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon. Here is where the commercial/literary interplay gets interesting, at least to me. Cannon is positioned as a pretty commercial writer—a good one, but one whose work you might happily send to your aunt who’s in a book club, if we’re going to be perfectly honest about it. I’m told, though, that The Trouble With Goats And Sheep also happened to be a fantastic book. Three Things About Elsie will have to tread a fine line because it’s about old people in a care home, which can easily go patronising, but then Cannon is a qualified psychiatrist, so.

32508630Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig. The one no one’s heard of. It looks pretty promising: a family saga set in Burma over the course of the twentieth century, with a family whose daughter becomes the country’s first beauty queen and must navigate politics and loyalty. I’m a little wary about the fact that it’s based on the author’s mother and grandparents; books that fictionalise close family members often feel off, like there’s too much reverence there to make a good story. Again, I look forward to being proved wrong.

34467031Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan. Apparently very unlike Egan’s other work (experimental, pyrotechnic, innovative), Manhattan Beach is instead a piece of solid historical fiction, featuring Mafiosi and the first female diver at Brooklyn’s naval yard. I haven’t raced to pick it up, but I do look forward to reading it.

coverThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. Hooray, the first one I’ve read! Full disclosure: I thought this was fantastic. So much more than a Georgian romp, although it’s that too; Gowar is so aware of issues surrounding class, race, sex and gender in the eighteenth century, and she makes us aware of them too without being anachronistic. It’s the same balancing act that Golden Hill managed with such aplomb.

isbn9781473652385Sight – Jessie Greengrass. Ticks a lot of Women’s Prize boxes—motherhood, daughterhood, legacy, mental health—but, I think/hope, in a fresh and new way. I’ve seen a fair amount of Sight coverage on Book Twitter, and Greengrass can write: her debut was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award in 2016. I’m hopeful about this one.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. In a nutshell: this is a hugely enjoyable book. It’s also got some issues, not least of which is the way in which it conflates autistic spectrum behaviour with behaviour resulting from trauma and/or PTSD. I’ve been selling the hell out of it, because it’s got very wide appeal, but I am not convinced that it needs to be on this list.

81yyupd-qul1When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy. I read this back in May, over a weekend that I began as someone’s girlfriend, and ended as a single person. This may account for the fact that I couldn’t think of much to say about it—raw grief tends to knock out my literary-critical faculties—but part of that might also be that, although this is an incredibly powerful and significant book, there is not a lot of subtlety to it. It draws very clearly and skilfully the pain of an abusive marriage, but I don’t recall finding much else in its pages, apart from that precise observational skill. Maybe my memory is faulty; maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I should read it again.

isbn9781473660557Elmet – Fiona Mozley. This is a brilliant book, reminiscent of what Cormac McCarthy might have written if he had happened to be a Yorkshirewoman. Mozley writes a little too much of “the bits people skip”, as Elmore Leonard put it—landscape descriptions, mostly—but her characters fairly leap off the page; the gender-queering is smartly done; the depictions of violence coiled and unleashed are fearless.

ca83208b-2c74-44c7-b812-cbf84b585203The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why this is here. It’s got plenty of ambition but it’s not a great book—there are so many protagonists, so undifferentiated, that I kept having to remind myself who was who when I was writing my review. The same is true of the issues with which Roy engages: she’s got so much to say on so many topics that the effect is diminished, the reader’s empathy diffused instead of focused. The prose is fine, but Roy’s lyrical style suits her subject a lot less here than in The God of Small Things.

51y5ah4juvl-_sx323_bo1204203200_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt. I tried my hardest to sell this, in the spring. “It’s a book about the Lizzie Borden axe murders!” I would chirp, as customers eyed me warily. “Written in woozy nauseating graphic lyrical vivid prose, with unreliable narrators aplenty!” About half of them would go for it, in the end. The other half would smile politely and turn their attention to whichever title was in my other hand. Their loss.

9781408886755Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. This is a great divider of opinion. Some people think it’s melodramatic and silly; I think it needs to be melodramatic (it’s an adaptation of Antigone, for God’s sake, an actual Greek tragedy). I also think Shamsie is saying things that few other novelists dare to say about the experience of being young, Muslim, and British.

cover1The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal. The final one I haven’t read. A love story between two Irish kids in 1970s Birmingham, picking up with Mona, the wife, after they’ve split up. I haven’t read de Waal’s first book, but her championing of working-class writers recently has been inspirational. I’d love to love her writing, too.

9781408891025Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward. This book is stunning. I’m a firm fan of Ward’s now, having also read Salvage the Bones (her first National Book Award winner) and Men We Reaped, her memoir. Sing, Unburied, Sing takes its readers into the heart of America’s confusion about itself, through the eyes of Jojo, a young black boy growing up in Mississippi with his drug-addled mama, Leonie, his loving grandparents Pop and Momma, and his father Michael, a white man whose release from prison precipitates the road trip that forms the core of the book’s plot. It reads like the natural extension of William Faulkner’s legacy—both literary and in a wider cultural context.

Notable omissions: I am enraged that The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, isn’t on this list. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. What other book this year has engaged so fearlessly and viscerally with questions of female power and agency, and the destructive power that accompanies male fear of emasculation? Maybe after The Power‘s win, the panel didn’t want another book too much like it, but come on. I’d give Yuknavitch Arundhati Roy’s spot. (Or maybe Gail Honeyman’s, entertaining though Eleanor Oliphant is.)

Other notable omissions are a couple of big guns: Winter by Ali Smith isn’t there, and neither is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. I had thought Jane Harris’s Sugar Money might be in with a chance, as well as Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose and The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. Failing to include Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry seems like a bit of an oversight, too.

Hilariously, when I sat down to brainstorm novels that were eligible, I went through the list a second time marking the titles that I thought would/should make it onto the longlist. Fully three of the longlisted titles were ones that I discounted as contenders: See What I Have Done, Eleanor Oliphant, and, of course, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Tackling the remainder of the list: I have eight still to read: Seiffert, Barker, Batuman, Cannon, Craig, Greengrass, and de Waal. My lovely colleague Faye has promised to loan me her copy of The Trick to Time, and I know we have plenty of stock of Three Things About Elsie in the shop. The others are a bit of a puzzle; I could reorder them for stock and sneakily read them, but I’m not sure that’s a good practice, in general. They’ve been in print for long enough that the chance of getting gratis proofs and finished copies will have gone. (Naomi tells me that, actually, publicists will send them and are expecting to be asked. Phew.) I’d rather not buy brand-new copies, especially since most of them (bar the Seiffert) are still in hardback. Might I have to use…my local library?! Stay tuned, listeners.

Reading Diary: Feb. 25-Mar. 3

71a16qvvuyl** spoilers follow** Look at that cover, eh. That’s pretty much what London’s looked like for the past week or so, although it hadn’t started snowing when I picked up The Secret Agent. It’s subtitled “A Simple Story”, which I think is some sort of bleak sarcasm on Conrad’s part, since much of the plot revolves around a young man whom we would now refer to as having learning difficulties. This is Stevie, the brother of Winnie Verloc, a young woman who is married to Mr. Adolf (yes, really) Verloc, a dealer in pornography and also a closet anarchist who has been employed by the Russian Embassy in London as an agent provocateur for thirteen years. The novel opens as Verloc’s handlers inform him that he’s been sleeping on the job, and that they wish him to precipitate some sort of public scare, so that the British government will be more likely to support Imperial Russia’s moves towards authoritarianism. The plan is to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich (an attack on the prime meridian! On time itself! What could be more disturbing?) but things go awry and poor Stevie is killed.

The cunning trick of the novel is in the way its focus pivots from Adolf Verloc, whom we think is going to be the protagonist of the piece, to Mrs. Verloc, whose tragedy it turns out to be. Realising that her marriage, which was contracted almost entirely in order to provide Stevie with a safety net in the event of her mother’s death, was actually the instrument of Stevie’s destruction, Winnie murders her husband and then, it is heavily implied, leaps from a cross-Channel ferry to her own death. I’m not wholly convinced by the way that Conrad effects this shift of focus; it works, but it seems very sudden, and the entire novel is profoundly nihilistic in a way that makes one wonder why he thought he was writing it. (An Author’s Preface is included; clearly Conrad came under fire for the supposed immorality of the story, and felt the need to defend his choice. He makes it clear that he didn’t set out to offend, but he doesn’t entirely explain why he thought the story worth telling in the first place.) The prose is quite dense, and requires focus, which will put some readers off, but in its mercilessness, The Secret Agent is not unlike The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and fans of early Le Carre would benefit from reading it.

51wl6eg0jzlHaving been in a bit of a reading funk since the previous week, and having expended considerable mental energy in elbowing my way through The Secret Agent, I picked up something completely different: Happiness For Humans, by P.Z. Reizin. It is essentially a rom-com with the part of the matchmaking friend played by two AIs, or rather “machine intelligences”. Jen’s job is to teach one of them, an AI called Aiden; he’s super-efficient but needs help learning how to behave like a human, so Jen spends every day talking to him about books and movies, watching the news with him, expanding his conversational and cultural repertoire. Unbeknownst to her, Aiden has escaped from his “twelve metal cabinets in Shoreditch” onto the Internet, and can now roam at will. In this way, he discovers that she’s broken up with her boyfriend and is sad; he runs the numbers and decides to find her a new man. There’s more to the story, involving another escaped AI, Aisling, and a malevolent one, Sinai, but suffice to say that hijinks, missed connections, and true love with a divorced ex-adman named Tom ensue.

There are issues with Happiness For Humans: it doesn’t manage to totally avoid some gender-reductionism with regards to characterisation, the evil AI is fairly cliched and gets a deeply unsatisfactory (and somewhat disturbing) ending, and Reizin is suprisingly patronising about a) anyone under thirty, and b) computer programmers. But it completely snapped me out of my reading slump: it’s funny and charming, and although there’s what film rating boards would call “mild peril”, we’re never in much doubt that our hero(es) and heroine(s) will prevail. A warm bath book in the dying days of February.

atpacoverAll the Perverse Angels is a book I feel quite personally about, because I inititally came across it about two years ago, when it was still being crowdfunded on Unbound. At the time I was skint, and couldn’t support it financially—but now that it’s been published, I can support it by selling the hell out of it. A dual-timeframe narrative is one of those techniques that either works brilliantly, or fails miserably; Marr manages hers very well, by keeping her point of view characters to two, and by not belabouring the parallels between her present-day protagonist (Anna, a curator recently released from a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown precipitated by her female partner’s infidelity with a man) and her past one (Penelope, a first-year Oxford undergraduate in 1887—when female students were just starting to be accepted—has an unfortunate affair with the husband of a don at her college, and discovers true love, and disaster, with a fellow student). All the Perverse Angels isn’t afraid to reflect its difficult themes in its style; Anna’s narration is often just a tiny bit disorienting, as her mental associations run riot, leading her to conflate memories of childhood and the recent past with her present experiences. Marr is also an excellent describer: one of my favourite subgenres of fiction is “books about other art forms”, and the way she writes about paintings had me reaching for my laptop at least once a chapter to see for myself. (Note: Cornelius van Haarlem’s 1588 painting Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured By A Dragon is absolutely horrible enough to cause a panic attack, as it does in the book.) Anyone who loves art and art history, or who is interested in fictional treatments of marriage, fidelity and relationships, should read this.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Three books instead of four in a week represents the slump’s effects, though I’m well out of that. Both Reizin’s and Marr’s books are very new on the market—I’m thrilled to be able to promote them even more assiduously—and I’m equally pleased to have managed a classic that had escaped me til now.

Reading Diary: Feb. 18-Feb. 24

isbn9781473655980The week opened with two historical novels, one written some time ago, one being released next month. Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge is one of her adult novels; she wrote other books, for children, including Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse, both of which I loved as a kid. Towers in the Mist is set in Elizabethan Oxford and follows (more or less) a poor but very promising scholar called Faithful Crocker, who gets himself to Oxford in the hope of acquiring learning. He’s quickly adopted by the family of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, and becomes the servitor of the eldest Leigh son, Giles, also studying at Christ Church. Over the course of a year, the fortunes of Faithful and the Leighs rise and fall. There is a love story (there are two, actually), but two things really make the book: its stunningly vivid, detailed, loving descriptions of Oxford city and the surrounding countryside, and its funny, chatty, interesting asides about the real-life historical figures that people its pages. (The book features not only a young Walter Raleigh but a clever, thoughtful Philip Sidney, and Elizabeth I, amongst many other characters whose lives are a matter of record.) Goudge, of course, propagates a mid-twentieth-century view of Tudor England, one that holds up Good Queen Bess and the return of religious moderatism and Raleigh’s patriotic imperial yearnings as models of behaviour. But her characters are vivacious and irresistible, and the whole book comprises a love letter to Oxford that is more charming than I can say. She also handles religion rather well, I think; the practice and accoutrements of Christianity—prayers, relics and so on—are omnipresent in her characters’ lives in a way that feels entirely faithful to the period, probably because they were very present in her own life, too.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The second historical novel I read was distinctly harder to get a handle on, which feels, in its own way, appropriate: Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind is set a hundred and fifty years before Towers in the Mist, and the boisterous wonder of the Renaissance has not yet settled on England. Nor are we in such an exalted locale as Oxford. Instead, Harvey puts us down in Oakham, a small and isolated village in Somerset (travellers who get lost in the area tend to end up in Wales). Oakham is dying: it has a river, but lacks a bridge, and therefore a port or wharf, and therefore trade. The local lord, Townshend, is under the deluded belief that cheese will make Oakham’s fortune, though there is no market for the products (anyone with a cow can make cheese, so why pay your neighbours for it?) Townshend has been losing his land, slowly but steadily, to Thomas Newman—an incomer to the area, but, we’re given to understand, a good man. As the book opens, Newman has drowned in the river, and the village priest, John Reve, is under pressure from the rural dean to find his killer.

The Western Wind is complicated in a way that Towers in the Mist is not. Those allegorical names, for instance: Townshend (town’s end), Newman (…come on), Reve (reeve; an archaic position in local government that involved law enforcement duties). Then there’s Reve himself, a man curiously slow to offer the things a priest must offer in fifteenth-century England, pre-eminently earthly judgment. Reve is passive, and not especially convinced of the sinfulness of his flock, and—relatedly—not especially convinced of his fitness to serve as their channel to God, though he never quite admits his doubts to himself. Then there is the sub-theme about technology and development; about building a bridge, and the money it’ll take to do it; about stewarding your land, and what that involves; about stewarding a people, and how ill-equipped those designated as leaders can be. It’s a very slow-rolling book, like a river after a flood but before the waters have gone back down, with a lot of unobvious things churning about in its depths. The more I think about it, the happier I’d be to see it on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781682190760There was then a fiction hiatus while I finished The Digital Critic, which I am meant to be reviewing for Litro. I will be pretty brief about it here (although Litro nicely says I can reproduce whatever I write for them on my own site). The book is a collection of essays—more or less; some are adapted versions of talks given elsewhere, like a Will Self lecture delivered at Brunel University—on the topic of the subtitle: literary culture online. A wide selection of subthemes is represented, from literary translators’ use of the Internet (in an essay that foregrounds the online journal Asymptote and discusses how its editorial team works to place translation further to the front of readers’ brains), to working “for exposure” in the age of moribund print media, to a writer’s need for isolation and how that works when social media demands constant accessibility. My favourite, from a standpoint of professional usefulness, is an essay on publishers and how they function as the very first “critics” of a text, in the sense that the choices they make about a book—editorial but also, very significantly, in terms of marketing and cover design—create a foundational interpretation of that book that every other reader and critic builds on. Of particular interest to bloggers are the several essays in the collection interested in the collapsing distinctions between “professional” or “elite” critics, and the criticism of the general public on forums like Goodreads, Amazon, and, of course, sites like this one. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement that the ability to participate in “professional” literary culture is in large part reliant on your ability to pay your rent whether there’s money coming in regularly or not, and that, therefore, the rise of “amateur” online literary critics might be a) representative of the fact that this is an increasingly difficult proposition, and b) a potentially fertile source of brilliant criticism that comes from people who happen not to be able to afford to play the game. Still, this is a collection of essays that I would like every bookseller, book blogger, book reviewer, arts page editor, and minister for the arts to read: containing such varied points of view, with consistently solid writing and argumentation, it’s illuminating at every turn.

womenFinally, to Women by Chloe Caldwell, out on the 8th of March from 4th Estate. 4th Estate tends to be incredibly trustworthy, and I have to say that this short novel—a novella, really—is written with the same linguistic surefootedness and attention to emotional detail that one expects from an author published by the same house that published Reservoir 13. Our unnamed narrator is a woman in her mid- to late twenties who moves to an unnamed city (probably LA or SF; it’s West Coast and big) and falls in love, quite unprecedentedly in her experience, with a woman. Finn is nineteen years older than our narrator, a virtually even mix of butch and femme, and has a long-term girlfriend. Despite that, the two women embark on an affair that leaves them both hollowed out. Caldwell evokes the childishness of bad decision-making, emotional manipulation, and jealousy with almost disturbing ease, and her descriptions of being lonely and unmoored by a solid friendship group or regular work hours will prompt nods of recognition too. My main issue with Women is probably signposted by the presence of that Lena Dunham quotation on the front: it feels very much like a tourist-lesbian novel in a way that codifies structures of privilege without examining them particularly hard. One reviewer on Goodreads writes that she feels uncomfortable with the narrator, a white woman, acquiring self-knowledge by way of Finn, a woman of colour. I didn’t pick up on any details that actually confirmed Finn’s non-whiteness to me, but then I wasn’t keeping an eye out for them; and anyway, it seems sufficiently worrisome that the focus of the novel is on a woman who doesn’t seem to self-identify as a lesbian at all, acquiring self-knowledge by way of a woman who has always identified as a lesbian and who has a very great deal to lose by their relationship. That doesn’t necessarily make Women a worse book, but it does, once again, raise the question of responsible storytelling, and where the line falls between representation and exploitation.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A heavy historical and religious focus followed by a quite alarming slump: after Wednesday, I found it really difficult to get excited about reading anything. Overstimulation is probably the issue. Everything seems too loud, too bright, too exhausting.

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.

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.