Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

The Lonely City, by Olivia Laing

“He lived in isolation, but it was a highly populated isolation. There was a circle drawn around him that no one crossed.”


Olivia Laing’s second book (but her first that I read), The Trip to Echo Spring, was an exploration of how alcoholism affected the life and art of six mid-century American writers. It was, in essence, a mapping of something that can seem abstract (a diagnosis, a condition, an impulse, an addiction) onto the skin of everyday reality: how it feels to experience it, how it manifests, and its ability to both enhance and destroy artistic potential. The Lonely  City is doing something similar, except that the abstraction is loneliness and isolation—particularly in an urban setting—and the afflicted makers are visual artists, most (thought not all) of them centred in New York City.

She also combines the experience of the artists she discusses with her own experience of loneliness. It’s a phenomenon, as the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann dryly noted, that people do not seem to want to discuss, an aversion that stretches even to psychologists themselves, who tend to avoid asking questions that would lead them to the heart of the nature of loneliness. There is something in us that makes us not only forget what loneliness feels like once we are no longer lonely, but that causes us to be actively repelled by loneliness in others, a kind of cruel self-reinforcing survivalism. (Laing writes of the elderly man she met on a station platform who tried to engage her in conversation. Her responses to him are increasingly terse until, smiling gently, he moves away. She is ashamed of how she has pushed him away, but she almost cannot help herself.) The awful thing about this is that to be lonely is often to feel as though you are somehow, incomprehensibly, repulsive to other people—and the truth, horrible as it is, is that you are right. “It may well be,” Fromm-Reichmann wrote, “that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.” Edward Hopper, Laing’s first subject, had this effect on people; a diarist who met him writes, “Should be married. But can’t imagine to what kind of a woman. The hunger of that man.”

Hunger and loneliness go together: the need for connection is as driving as the need for food. It’s no wonder that Laing chooses to focus on outsider artists. Andy Warhol—whom you might consider a consummate insider—was in fact the son of Polish emigrants from Pittsburgh, born Andrej Warhola, an ultimate outsider in many senses. He found himself, the body, mortality, death, physically horrifying; he could not face the reality of his own existence as a corporeal being. He was a sickly little boy, an immigrant, and gay: triply alienated from the children amongst whom he grew up. Laing’s acuity, as a critic of art and of psychology, is in evidence when she examines Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic:

Starting with a series of Coke bottles, he progressed rapidly to Campbell’s soup cans, food stamps and dollar bills: things he literally harvested from his mother’s cupboards. Ugly things, unwanted things, things that couldn’t possibly belong in the sublime white chamber of the gallery…He was painting things to which he was sentimentally attached, even loved; objects whose value derives not because they’re rare or individual but because they are reliably the same.

As a little boy in industrial urban Pennsylvania in the 1950s, to not be the same as one’s peers was to be freakish, alien, to suffer a profound social isolation. It puts a new, an entirely heartbreaking, slant on those Technicolour silk-screened soup cans, to look at them as a wordless cry of longing for assimilation. “All the Cokes are the same”, Warhol wrote in his autobiography, “and all the Cokes are good.” Inanimate objects, factory-produced, mechanized, do not shun each other, and are not individually shunned by the people who use them. They are part of a tribe. They belong somewhere; they belong together.

Sexuality is a huge part of this feeling of belonging or alienation. David Wojnarowicz is the subject of most of Laing’s attention in The Lonely City; he was a gay photographer and video artist who ran away from home as a teenager and hustled for years before getting off the streets. His life spanned a period of New York City’s history that began with the sexual freedom and liberating anonymity of the gay hookup scene at the abandoned Chelsea piers, and that ended with the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. It’s not easy, if you haven’t lived through it, to imagine how genuinely apocalyptic the late 1980s and early 1990s must have felt, primarily for urban gay men and the people who loved them, but increasingly also for sex workers and intravenous drug addicts. Wojnarowicz saw dozens of his friends die. The American government did nothing to help. An ignorant and judgmental political elite saw the waves of deaths as the result of “lifestyle choices”, regrettable but ultimately no one else’s responsibility. It must have literally felt like the end of the world. Wojnarowicz lost his friend, the artist Peter Hujar, in 1987. A few weeks later, Wojnarowicz’s partner, Tom Rauffenbart, was diagnosed with AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself was diagnosed in the spring of 1988. Laing writes so movingly, so beautifully, about his artistic response to these losses:

Later, he made a film for Hujar that was never finished… The camera moved tenderly, grievingly over Peter’s open eyes and mouth, his bony, elegant hands and feet, a hospital bracelet looped around his wrist. Then white birds by a bridge, a moon behind clouds, a shoal of something white moving very fast in the dark. The fragment ended with a re-enactment of a dream: a shirtless man being passed through a chain of shirtless men, his supine body slipping gently from hand to tender hand. Peter held by his community, conducted between realms.

[…] During the AIDS years he kept painting a repeating image of creatures attached to one another by pipes or cords or roots, a foetus to a soldier, a heart to a clock. His friends were sick, his friends were dying, he was in deep grief, thrust face to face with his own mortality. Again and again with his brush, painting the cords that tethered creatures together. Connection, attachment, love: those increasingly imperilled possibilities.

She intercuts these chapters with her own experience of loneliness in New York, a loneliness that feels particularly contemporary because of its existence alongside technology that is designed to bring people together but that often only makes them more acutely aware of how far apart they are. She describes her late-night scrolling through her Twitter feed as being an experience akin to staring out of a dark window into other people’s lighted windows: you can see them, but you can’t reach them. You are very aware of your own solitude, and simultaneously aware of the thousands of people around you. It’s dizzying and not altogether a comfort. She is aware of the myriad wonders of the Internet: she and three friends hold a long-distance film festival, watching from several different continents the documentary We Live In Public, about a social experiment that saw dozens of people living in a complex without any privacy whatsoever. They discuss their responses to the film over Gchat or Facebook Messenger. And yet there’s also that ultimate sense of being alone anyway that is only heightened by the illusion of actually being together. And there’s the rabbit-hole effect:

I was spending increasing hours sprawled on the orange couch in my apartment, my laptop propped against my legs, sometimes writing emails or talking on Skype, but more often just prowling the endless chambers of the internet, watching music videos from my teenaged years or spending eye-damaging hours scrolling through racks of clothes on the websites of labels I couldn’t afford. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled and filled the vacuum left by love.

[…] I wonder now: is it fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age? At the top of Broadway I passed a man sitting in a doorway. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. When I paused, he started to speak unstintingly, saying that he had been sitting there for three days and not a single person had stopped to talk to him. He told me about his kids, and then a confusing story about work boots. …It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. …What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

But with this book, Laing refuses to pretend. She follows the gazes of people in pain, people isolated and suffering and making desperate, beautiful art out of desperate, awful emotions. She reads their pictures and their film reels; she finds in their work the voices of artists and writers and makers and humans all calling out to be heard. She doesn’t need any accolades—her first two books have already made it abundantly clear that her talent is huge—but The Lonely City, predictable though this may sound, really does make you feel just a little bit less alone.

Many thanks to Anna Frame at Canongate Books for the review copy. The Lonely City was published in the UK on 3 March.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-to-Me Authors Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ’em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten authors whom I read for the first time in 2014. I read a lot of authors for the first time this year; it was a year of exploration and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1. Beryl Bainbridge. My first book of the year, Master Georgie, was also one of the best–rarely have I ever read something so emotionally charged, written with such subtlety and compression. Although I didn’t read any other Bainbridge novels this year, The Bottle Factory OutingAn Awfully Big Adventure and According to Queeney are definitely on my list.

2. Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow is a disturbing, gorgeous book about faith and first contact with an alien civilization. Although it’s less tightly wound than Master Georgie, here Russell also deals with an emotionally charged plot and themes very subtly. It’s a masterclass for anyone who wants to write fiction.

3. Katherine Faw Morris. Young God was without a doubt one of the best books I read this year–possibly the very best. How could it be otherwise? It’s got a thirteen-year-old North Carolina hill-dwelling drug lord called Nikki for a protagonist. She’s motherless, violent and magnificent.

4. Sarah Waters. HOW HAD I NOT READ HER BEFORE. HOW. This is the writer who gave the world the metaphor of a woman who resides in her own skin with a smooth fullness that suggested she’d been poured into it like toffee into a mould. That is a first-class metaphor, you guys.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Author of Americanah, about which I think I raved earlier. Also, gave an interview in which she said she was a feminist and seemed utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone with any sense of human rights might not be a feminist. What a pro.

6. Anne Carson. Anne Carson redrew the boundaries of poetry for me this year. Her collection Glass and God obsessed me in early October the way that life-changing writing does. I also wrote about it for Quadrapheme.

7. John le Carre. The master of British understatement and tragic post-imperial malaise. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this year and started The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. No one writes espionage novels like this guy did.

8. Jane Smiley. For the devastating spin on King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres; I haven’t read any of her other novels and apparently no two are the same, but she too understands how to hold strong emotions in tension with each other, without over-explaining. What an amazing book.

9. David Foster Wallace. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, this spring. (He published it when he was my age. He wrote it as an undergrad, alongside his thesis on Wittgenstein. Bastard.) Broom is ridiculously funny and biting and makes no fucking sense at all. I can’t wait to get Infinite Jest out of storage.

10. Olivia Laing. All people who write and all people who are alcoholics/have ever known an alcoholic/have ever known someone who knew someone who was an alcoholic (by my calculations that covers everyone on the planet) could benefit from reading The Trip to Echo Spring. Her writing is sharp, economical but somehow lush, equally well adapted to describing the innermost workings of John Cheever’s short stories, the dipsomaniacal obsessions of Raymond Carver, or the thoughts and feelings in her own mind as a train takes her across America.