November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin

There were also things we didn’t talk about, not even to each other. The things we couldn’t explain, but just did.

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~~here be (one or two) spoilers~~

Jan de Vries is a student at Sint Ansfried, an elite performing arts high school, when he meets Dirk Noosen. He is a pianist; Dirk is an actor. “I saw him several times before I even knew his name,” he tells us. “He was like a new word that, once learned, you heard spoken everywhere.” That is the reader’s cue to be aware that this book is going to be about charisma, about power, about the ways in which the charismatic behave that make them, at best, dubious idols. It’s also, because of this, highly relevant to the book I’m currently writing, which also wrestles with questions of charisma, school days (or adolescence in general) and power games.

Well. Reading School of Velocity has made me think two things: a) thank God someone else has written a book about this, it’s obviously possible; and b) bollocks, maybe I shouldn’t bother; how can I improve on this?

For this review I shall take a leaf out of Naomi‘s book and write, overtly, about what made this book so effective for me.

Thing one: the setting

Reviewers talk about setting a lot; often, I think, more than is necessary, because setting is very rarely “a character in its own right”. If you’re talking Wuthering Heights or, I dunno, Wolf Hall, or Ordinary People, then yeah, sure, but otherwise, setting isn’t always that big a deal. What I liked very much about School of Velocity is the mysteriously seamless way in which Rubin places the action in the Netherlands. He doesn’t drop a whole lot of place names, but he situates his characters in their provincial home town, and later in the city of Maastricht, so coolly and confidently that I thought he must hail from thereabouts. Evidently he doesn’t, which makes me wonder how on earth he managed such casually intimate descriptions of the place.

Thing two: the pacing

Really good authors know how to fast-forward. Rubin covers whole years of friendship in a couple of pages, with smartly structured montage flashbacks like this one:

During the years at Sint Ansfried, I must have had my own classes, spent time alone practising, spent lunches by myself, and I remember leaving Dirk’s house on Saturday afternoons, which means I must have spent the rest of the weekends away from him. But I cannot pick out a memory from those years that does not find Dirk by my side. We spent what felt like years at the movie theatre… We listened to experimental music in record shops and in his room and went to watch bands play in bars and small clubs. We walked every street in Den Bosch, where he lived, and Vught, where we cut classes, something we did with increasing frequency, ducking out of math and languages and going to sit in a cafe to talk, argue, laugh.

When, at the end of the novel, he tells Dirk it’s been thirty years since they saw each other in Maastricht, the reader is as vaguely surprised as Dirk is. Thirty years? Really? Well, that went by quickly.

Thing three: the descriptions of Jan’s illness

Jan and Dirk, as you might have guessed, stop speaking to each other at some point after they graduate from high school. It doesn’t quite happen slowly—they don’t call or write to each other at all during that first term at university. At Christmas, Dirk calls from America to say he’s spending the holiday with his girlfriend, leaving Jan, who’s turned down an invitation from his parents in anticipation of spending time with Dirk, alone on Christmas Day.

For a long time—years—this seems, both to Jan and to us, reasonably normal. Jan meets a girl, Lena, who believes in his playing. His career begins to take off. But he begins to develop strange auditory hallucinations: kettles boiling, buzz saws, roaring waves. The music that he ordinarily hears in his head just before a performance is transformed into something dissonant and violent. It begins to affect his playing. It begins to affect his sanity. He doesn’t tell Lena.

Thing four: the ending

It is, to be short, spot on. Jan’s quest to see Dirk again, to recapture the magic and the headiness and, yes, the romance of their school days, is doomed from the start. The savvy reader knows it, but still hopes, horribly, desperately, pathetically, as Jan hopes, that something can be salvaged from the wreckage. Dirk’s disappointingly ordinary life—his reversion to Sint Ansfried, where he is now the head of the drama department—is our first warning: promises don’t always come true. Potential isn’t always realised. Dirk’s kind of charisma, his flamboyant irreverence, doesn’t necessarily go down well in the real world, the adult world. For Jan to seek it out again and believe that it is the key to his salvation is at best immature; at worst, it romanticises the past in a way that could stunt him for good. Indeed, when he does find and reunite with Dirk, the terms of that meeting are so unexpected that he cannot recover.

Thing five: the title

School of Velocity is the name of a set of piano pieces by Carl Czerny, designed to help train pianists in passage work by exercising them at different tempi. It’s also a clever reference to the games of chicken that Dirk and Jan play on their bikes—who can cycle the furthest with their eyes shut? Dirk claims to be able to count thirteen; Jan only manages twelve. And, not least, it suggests the philosophy that gets Dirk—who is, we suspect, more lonely and conflicted than Jan ever realises—through school and early adulthood. Go faster; be louder; never stop moving. But Dirk doesn’t die young: he burns out. And perhaps it’s Jan, in the end, who suffers most from adhering to the School of Velocity.

It’s a small and compact book, this one, a square shape easily hefted in the hand, slipped into a purse (or, dare I say it, a Christmas stocking). Its subject matter may look obscure—classical piano playing isn’t everyone’s bag—but at its heart, it’s about huge and basic emotions: insecurity, friendship, need, sex. It delivers all of this in elegantly readable prose, efficient and yet deeply moving. I loved it. I hope, this season, it receives the attention it deserves.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. School of Velocity was released in the UK on 21 November.

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, by Boris Fishman

“You want to adopt, adopt a child from a place that you know.”

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Maya and Alex Shulman-Rubin live in New Jersey with their adopted son, Max. Alex’s parents, Eugene and Raisa—Soviet Jewish emigrés who have built their food import business into a small empire—live nearby, popping over to socialize and cook. Maya’s parents are still in the Ukraine; she doesn’t see them often, but she’s happy enough in the States, working as a radiologist and caring for her family. Until Max turns eight and starts behaving strangely: running away, sitting in streams, collecting grass. The Shulman-Rubins begin to worry. How much do they really know about their son—where he came from, what strange heritage might be surfacing? All they have to go on are the parting words from Max’s birth mother, eighteen-year-old Laurel from Montana: “You’re the mother,” she tells Maya. “You will raise him as you see fit. But I want to ask you for one thing… Please don’t let my baby do rodeo.”

As Max’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic (though never violent), Maya decides the only way to lay their fears (and any ghosts there might be) to rest is to take Max back to the land of his birth. She doesn’t drive, so although Alex is reluctant (an understatement; he thinks it’s a terrible idea), the three of them set off together on a road trip from New Jersey to Montana, hoping to find some answers.

It’s a quixotic premise, and the book continues in that vein. What Maya seeks (it’s all about her; Alex is sort of a background character) is not clear, to her or to anyone else, and least of all to the reader. The developing strain on their marriage is obvious, and its source is, in large part, Maya’s inability to pin down what she wants out of this trip or how she plans to go about getting it. Alex is a much preciser man, though also a martyr: happy to retain the moral upper hand by passive-aggressively submitting to his wife’s every demand, no matter how patently illogical it seems to him. The second chapter of the book details how they meet and marry, and it was that chapter that pulled me into the story: everything that happens to the Shulman-Rubins is a direct consequence of their visa-marriage, when Maya and Alex are twenty-three, barely old enough to know what they’re doing. One of the clevernesses of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is that it details how romantic youthfulness can curdle, over time, into frustration with each other’s weaknesses. Maya is spontaneous, warm, and enigmatic, sure, but she’s also irresponsible, self-centered, and indecisive. Alex is rational, solid and sensible, but he’s also controlling, dismissive, and a coddled mama’s boy. Spend enough time with them, and you’ll find them just as infuriating and hurtful as they clearly find each other. You’ll also probably be just as invested.

What did surprise me about the book as a whole was the general attitude to adoption that the characters displayed. Maya and Alex adopt Max as an infant in 2004, and the main action of the book takes place in 2012. Yet Eugene Rubin, Alex’s father, has lines like these:

“Of course those parents sprang him on you the way that they did… And got away without ever telling you why. Rodeo?” He laughed in an ugly way. He was finally saying things he had kept back because he was kind. “What is that? A lie. But you ate it.” He stared at Maya and bellowed, “What didn’t they tell you?”

That’s an extreme example, of course, but the first chapter’s set-up—that Max is a problem child—relies on similarly odd, and seemingly outdated, ideas about child development. Eugene and Raisa are horrified to learn that Max sleeps not in his bed but on the floor, and that he collects and labels types of grass, and that he has been lobbying his parents to let him sleep outside in a tent. This, and his running away, are the indicators of delinquency that the reader is given. At no point does anyone suggest that this is basically fairly normal eight-year-old behaviour: the testing of social norms and boundaries, the collector’s obsessiveness, the experimentation with leaving the comforts and bonds of home. I’m pretty sure that my eight-year-old brother—as biological and non-adopted as they come—loved tents and catalogued his possessions, too, and running away isn’t exactly unheard of, either. Sure, Max gets pretty far; and sure, mothers worrying about their bonds with their adopted children is also not unheard of. But it strikes me as odd that the Rubins take these things as a definitive proof that there is a Problem that needs to be Solved. The same is true of Eugene’s argument about the birth parents, one that Maya repeats in internal monologues. Why would a pair of eighteen-year-olds give up a newborn? Aren’t there obvious reasons (not enough money; not enough stability; not enough maturity) without having to look for something sinister?

Maybe we’re meant to feel this bewildered by the main characters. Maybe this is part of us understanding that the immigrant experience in America is one that turns you around, makes you an outsider all your life even as you seek to assimilate, changes your perceptions of who you are and what you can expect from other people. It’s a strength and weakness of the book that I honestly can’t decide whether this is the case.

Fishman’s writing is impossible to fault, especially in its descriptive sections. He writes with precision about the emotional currents between fighting people; he writes sex well; he writes perfectly about the landscape of the American West:

The sign, its blue uncannily matched to the head-beating blue of the sky, was in the shape of the state. The circle at its heart divided, inversely, into snow-capped peaks rising above a lemony sun. But the sky was so general in every direction over the prairie they had been crossing, which was so flat it looked pressed with an iron, that she would not have been surprised to see the sun rolling along the fields rather than up in the heavens.

There is an interesting hitch in the rhythms of his prose, a slight obliqueness, that is like the written equivalent of a trace of a foreign accent: hard to track, hard to identify, nevertheless making itself known. It means that sometimes you have to reread, particularly the words that encircle dialogue, to grasp the logistics of a scene, or the mechanics of a complex emotion. It’s an enriching way to consume a book, though it is time-consuming.

There is always a vague spectre of disaster hanging over the road trip that comprises the book’s second half, although what species of disaster it might be is left up to the reader to theorize. The ending is ambiguous, but hopeful: Alex and Maya’s marriage will endure, though it won’t ever be the same; their love for their son is unchanged. And the meaning of “don’t let my baby do rodeo”? It would be cruel to give it away (though Fishman leaves this, too, a little ambiguous), but there’s a metaphor there: rodeo is about wrestling and wrangling, about asserting control, about putting yourself in the way of terrible harm—life-changing injuries or even death—in order to master something larger than yourself. It’s exhilarating and invigorating, but it is also violent, masculine and aggressive. Max’s birth father, Tim, was crippled by a bull in a rodeo at the age of eighteen. It’s the prayer of every mother: don’t let my baby do rodeo. Don’t let my baby come to harm. Don’t let my baby’s heart harden against the world. Don’t let my baby be hurt.

Many many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo was published in the UK on 14 July.

Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal

It wasn’t so horrible. Nothing ever is.

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Loretta is a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl, bored out of her wits in Short Creek, Arizona, circa 1974. All that keeps her going is the illicit thrill of sneaking out of the house to meet her forbidden boyfriend, Bradshaw—although Bradshaw, who’s both a good deal older and a good deal dumber than Loretta, is starting to lose a bit of his shine, too. He’s convinced they belong together and wants to run away; Loretta, with a shrewd sense of his myriad character failings, has been putting him off. As it turns out, she doesn’t have to decide whether to stay or go, because she’s caught by her father at the end of chapter one. Her parents, horrified by her rebelliousness (and, really, by what they see as her harlotry), decide to solve the problem by marrying her to Dean Harder, a fellow Mormon albeit one with a more fundamentalist bent: Loretta will be his second wife.

Not long after their marriage (which, Dean promises Loretta’s father, won’t be consummated until she’s sixteen; the quotation above is from the night of Loretta’s sixteenth birthday, after Dean comes to her room to assert his marital rights), Dean’s father dies. Estranged from his siblings for much of his life, Dean moves his wives and children back up to Idaho to assert his right over the family farm. There, Loretta will meet Jason, Dean’s nephew, and events will bring them—along with Jason’s part-Shoshone friend, Boyd—to taking the drastic step of running away from their own lives.

You could be forgiven for expecting those two paragraphs to comprise the first forty or so of the book’s pages, and for the rest of the novel to follow Loretta, Jason, and Boyd on their picaresque road adventure. That’s not how Shawn Vestal structures his novel, though. He’s much more interested in getting us to understand how people manage to live like this, how the weight of community expectations and disappointed hopes and pure dumb venal humanity makes people what they are. He’s interested, too, in subtly but constantly undermining our beliefs about characters. Loretta, for instance, is (obviously) young and good-looking, but she’s neither a self-conscious Lolita nor an airhead. She is, instead, world-weary (without actually being worldly) and analytical. Here she is assessing Bradshaw on page eight:

He loves to be listened to. He loves to tell her about the way he handled something, the way he has put someone in their place. He is telling her about his new boss, the turf farmer from St. George… His laugh is like a chugging motor. Why does he think she wants to hear this?

Jason, meanwhile, is a kid whose genuine innate sensitivity wars with his genuine innate cowardice. Neither is a good trait for an Idaho farm boy in the ’70s. He really does hate violence—a local cull of the pesty jackrabbits, using baseball bats, makes him physically sick—and we as readers are sympathetic towards that. Yet he also bottles important decisions, time and again, and even he is enmeshed in a block-headed patriarchal view of the world that leaves him utterly confused when he “rescues” Loretta only to find that she is the one who knows what she’s doing.

There are, as well, several chapters narrated from the point of view of Ruth, Dean’s first wife. There are only two or three of them; they’re isolated pockets of narrative, and they give us a wholly different picture of Ruth from the one that Loretta sees. They show us how such hardness, such impenetrability, can be developed—through childhood trauma, through the establishment of boundaries that identify her and her family as members of the persecuted and oppressed. (She is a survivor of the 1953 raid by the US government on the Short Creek Mormon community; you can dislike polygamy as much as the next person and still be deeply unimpressed by the way that raid was handled.) The final chapter of Ruth’s shows us the choice she made that led to Dean, shows us her determination and grit and, yes, her analytical character, in a way that reminded me of no one so strongly as Loretta. Ruth is what Loretta might have been, might still be, unless she finds a way to escape, to live outside of expectation.

In between chapters narrated from Jason’s and Loretta’s point of view, we get first-person monologues from Evel Knievel. This is less irrelevant than it sounds; Jason idolizes him. Indeed, when we first meet Jason, he’s driving with his grandfather (the one whose death precipitates Dean’s move back to Idaho) to see Knievel jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle. The jump fails, although Knievel survives. In fact, if you read Knievel’s Wikipedia entry, you’ll come to the conclusion that the majority of his career consisted of failures which he happened to survive. It was part of his appeal: people came to see him dare the impossible, but they also came to hope that they’d see him die. This idea—that failure, as Knievel puts it, is when you don’t try to get back up—has implications for the rest of the book. Jason is a failure, for much of it, because he doesn’t fight back, doesn’t speak out or stand up against the injustices he knows are occurring in the Harder household and at school where his friend Boyd is the butt of regular racist bullying. He’s a classic Good Guy (unlike Knievel, whose monologues include an anecdote about him beating a “faggoty” journalist half to death with a baseball bat): not actively bad or destructive, and possessed of the belief that this entitles him, metaphorically, to a cookie.

In Jason’s case, the cookie is Loretta, and one of the things that made me really, really like Daredevils—perhaps the major deciding factor—is that he doesn’t get that cookie. When the three of them run away, it’s Boyd whom Loretta is interested in (although even that is temporary), and Jason cannot square this with the reality that he’s been taught to expect from movies and television:

It has all gone wrong so quickly… She is the one flirting with Boyd. She is the one who has not looked at him with any kind of special look, any sign whatsoever… It has all been her. He keeps telling himself that he is her rescuer—because that is who he is supposed to be, that is how the story goes—and yet it has always been her.

Fifteen is not a bad age to be learning that the story does not always go the way you think it goes, although I will confess to feeling a slight pang for Jason. It is embarrassing, to be young and convinced that life is just like fiction, and to bump up for the first time against the fact that it is not, at all. He is old enough, mature enough, to be vaguely embarrassed, but he is not quite old enough or mature enough to take his ego out of the equation.

And this, from Loretta, made me want to fist-pump, with the way that Vestal captures the resigned disappointment of a very young woman who already knows that it’s a rare man indeed who won’t let you down:

She had come tonight thinking what a nice boy Jason was, what a simple clean thing, and that he and she were a team, whatever that meant, and she had thought maybe it meant something. Perhaps it would grow, this fresh, clean thing. But soon enough she saw Jason’s irritation with Boyd, saw his confusion and jealousy, and realized he was simply another part, as was Boyd, of the wide world that looked at her and wanted to turn her into something of theirs.

Loretta doesn’t have time for this, for them; she is way ahead of them already, and eventually they realize it. In Daredevils, she’s the real daredevil, the one who ends up driving into the dawn with barely any money or possessions, but with the infinite freedom of a soul that owes no one anything.

Many thanks to Tabitha at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Daredevils was published in the UK on 5 May.