The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams: I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the dictionary–a series of entirely invented words scattered throughout its text–becomes her problem, as her boss instructs her to find and remove them before the whole thing is digitized. Winceworth, meanwhile, we learn, is inserting the words as a means of relieving his feelings, both about his place of work and about the enigmatic fiancee of his most unbearable colleague. Williams’s style really carries the book, with a kind of madcap yet melancholy glee, and a glorying in words–not in a wishy-washy oh-the-wonder-of-language sort of way, but in a way that takes a very Edwardian pleasure in precision and elegance. The plot in the contemporary sections becomes increasingly frenetic, but that felt somehow right; both narratives possess a kind of surreal sheen, which led a colleague to compare the book, in a way, to Wodehouse’s work (though much more conscientious and less privileged). I loved The Liar’s Dictionary and found it heartbreaking at the same time; it’s just the right level of weird for me.
Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes: It’s an old adage of criticism that it’s easier to write about something you hated than something you loved. I loved Scabby Queen, and I’m going to try to write about it anyway. It opens with the death of fifty-one-year-old Clio Campbell, who achieved moderate levels of fame as a protest singer in the ’90s and who has just overdosed on pills and vodka in the flat of her long-suffering (and, we realize, taken-advantage-of) friend Ruth. Over the next three hundred pages, various people who entered and exited Clio’s life—her godfather, a music journalist half in love with her, several women who lived in a Brixton squat with her, someone she only met once on a train—give their perspectives on a woman whose relentless political activism and manipulative social charm were both entrancing and infuriating. It’s very rare, especially now, to get a look at both sides of activism, particularly historic activism: the genuineness of early-days-of-a-better-world idealism mixed with what can be a disturbing willingness to sacrifice whatever gets in the way. Innes nails that balance, and nails her portrait of Clio, who becomes increasingly more difficult to sympathize with but also increasingly nuanced: by the end, when her suicide note is revealed, her motives seem simultaneously obtuse and entirely in keeping with what we know of her. I suspect people who remember the ’90s and early ’00s as adults will find even deeper resonances in Scabby Queen’s political aspects. I loved them, but what I loved most was Innes’s brilliance at characterization. Like Daisy Jones and the Six, an oblique approach to a central character through the people whose lives they affected results in something both tough and touching, and utterly without condescension.
The Odyssey, by Homer: I’d never actually read it! Isn’t that weird? It must be the case for quite a lot of people. The stories are so familiar from excerpted children’s versions and adaptations that we feel as though we have. Anyway, I think the primary thing to be aware of while you’re reading is the very different weight and pacing present in the poem. The first four books are about Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who embarks on his own short journey to find out more about where his missing father could be; Odysseus himself doesn’t appear until book five, by which point he’s already lost all of his ships and companions to various disasters and is reduced to telling the tale of his adventures to the friendly Phaeacian court during books nine to twelve. (Interestingly, Doug Metzger suggests on his podcast Literature and History that these books are no more likely to be “true”, within the world of the poem, than any of the other lies Odysseus tells about his origins. I’d contest that, since much of that lying is done in order to protect himself upon his return to Ithaca, which is essentially an occupied territory, but I love the idea: we’ve only Odysseus’s word to say that the Lotus-eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the journey to the underworld, the Cyclops episode, etc., actually happened at all, and he’s a notorious fibber.) They send him back home under escort in book thirteen, and the entire second half of the poem is about him regaining his property, murdering the men who’ve been harassing his wife, and Telemachus’s coming of age.
It’s known as an adventure/travel poem, but it’s very much more, I think, a poem about restitution, espousing a fundamentally socially conservative view of the world’s proper order. (It’s Tom Jones. Or rather, Tom Jones is the Odyssey. Hey!) For all that, it’s much more engaging to me personally than the Iliad was, perhaps because the emotional atmosphere is much more immediately identifiable for a reader who’s never been to war. Be warned: the final books are brutal. Margaret Atwood’s poem A Chorus Line neatly sums up the breathtaking hypocrisy of the murder of the maids (from one perspective; from another, of course—that socially conservative one the poem partakes of—Odysseus is merely ensuring that loyalty to his person and his dynasty, even when they’re not present, is the order of the day. Fascinating how that always seems to involve punishing women. I wonder if the housekeeper Eurycleia, who eagerly provides her returned master with the names of maids who’ve “behaved shamefully” in his absence, was a model for Aunt Lydia.) Anyway, the Oxford World’s Classics edition I read was translated by Anthony Verity and is, from a non-classicist’s perspective, excellent; you get a good sense of the original Greek’s use of repetition, but not so much so that it’s annoying, and thank God Verity does not attempt to match an antique meter or rhyme scheme. If you’re relatively new to antique poetry, I’d recommend this edition particularly: the end notes are also good and there’s a handy index of first names in the back.
A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A very short (95 pages) collection of three essays about monasteries and the monastic life. Leigh Fermor stayed at St Wandrille, Solesmes and La Grande Trappe, as well as spending time looking at the ruins of the Cappadocian rock monasteries. The first two essays, set in the three French foundations, are the strongest, describing what it’s like to live in solitude for a spiritual purpose; though Leigh Fermor has no faith, he acclimatizes to the silence and misses it when he returns to the world. If your mind needs calming, these pieces may help.
The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall: There are people who might say, I suppose, that the final quarter of this book is too slow, or that Hall’s writing about the Lake District seasons, weather and light are too deliberate and descriptive, but I’m never going to be one of those people, because I think she writes like a dream and this is one of my favourite books of all time. I also think that here, some of her previous thematic interests–motherhood, the cycle of birth and death, the natural world and how humans live both in- and outside of it–coalesce in their most sophisticated form yet. An excellent book to read if you need reminding of how well it is possible to write.
I must be living twice: new and selected poems, by Eileen Myles: Myles’s poetry is quite different from Rich’s; her lines are short and jagged, often only three or four words each. Her style of thought is discursive: I often feel lost, reading her, until a vivid observation or connection jumps out. “Peanut Butter” is the poem that brought me to Myles, but the sweary dismissiveness of “On the Death of Robert Lowell” makes me laugh; “Yellow Tulips” is unashamedly happy; the opening of “Mal Maison” is devastating. “And Then the Weather Arrives” is maybe peak Myles: it feels like it’s written in a sort of personal code, but you understand the emotions, if not the details.
What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt: A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. The first half of the book, roughly, deals with the older generation, and the second half with the younger; without any spoilers, Matthew and Mark’s lives turn out very differently. Hustvedt excels at describing the destructive self-delusion of a certain kind of art world denizen. The novel is both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and know it’ll continue to haunt me.
The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck: The next installment in my quest for more poetry. Someone recommended Gluck to me years ago, but it’s taken me this long to read her. I am not sure that I grasp or love her yet. There’s passion in these poems, but it feels like the highly personal and focused passion of a nun; not that it’s anti- or asexual, but that it insists upon the numinous. Does that sound pretentious? It shouldn’t; most of the poems are quite explicitly earthbound, being either from the point of view of a plant or flower (metaphors, I think, for human life), or from a higher point of view that is still occupying itself with earthly things. Curious and transcendent.
Currently reading: I’ve just finished Alix Nathan’s forthcoming The Warlow Experiment.
The Night Tiger, by Yansze Choo: Set in 1930s Malaya (now Malaysia) and dealing with the folklore of weretigers, through the perspectives of Ji Lin, a bright girl working in a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong debts, and Ren, a young houseboy whose white master, Dr. MacFarlane, has just died. Choo slides into cliché sometimes, particularly when she’s writing about Ji Lin’s attraction to her stepbrother Shin, and the solution to the mystery is robbed of being completely satisfying because the characterization of the malefactor(s) is too thin. Ji Lin’s and Ren’s voices are both charming, though.
To the Lions, by Holly Watt: A forthcoming (February) thriller by, and about, an investigative journalist, illustrating the way in which British political and business interests exploit volatile countries—in this case, Libya. The protagonist, Casey, is something too much of a Cool Girl (she’s effortlessly beautiful, a lone wolf and a risk-taker, more afraid to tell a man she loves him than of being executed in the desert), but Watt’s brilliant on the fizzing energy of the newsroom, the dialogue made me laugh out loud more than once, and the plot is a genuine, morally complex page-turner.
Selected Poems: 1950-2012, by Adrienne Rich: On every page, practically, there is a line that reaches into my chest. I choose to love this time for once/With all my intelligence: that one I knew already, thanks to Cheryl Strayed, but what about this: What happens between us/has happened for centuries/we know it from literature//still it happens […] there are books that describe all this/and they are useless. Or this: The woman who cherished/her suffering is dead […] I want to go on from here with you/fighting the temptation to make a career of pain. She wants so much to live responsibly, love responsibly. Probably my new favourite poet.
The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon: An epic stand-alone high fantasy novel from the author of The Bone Season; this is the first of her books I’ve read. Shannon emphatically but subtly foregrounds women in her fantasy world – rulers, knights-errant, pirates, merchants, etc., are more often female than not – and the whole book is casually gay in a way that effectively challenges Western paternalist fantasy tropes. The story itself is fairly standard (dragons, an ancient evil, some business involving a sword and some jewels) but it rips along and Shannon’s writing is excellent: often funny, always genuinely moving.
Currently reading: A Time To Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Wally Funk’s Race For Space, by Sue Nelson: If there were a prize for titles so bad they’re good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by “Wally” for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women’s program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she’s got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she’ll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it’s a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn’t always sit well together. It’s hella informative, though.
Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, by Deborah Kay Davies: This is one of those curious books that you get sometimes, that exist right smack on the boundary between genres or categories: it’s neither one thing nor the other, though sometimes it also feels like two things at once. Tirzah is growing up in the isolated Welsh valleys in the 1970s, the daughter of parents who adhere to a Christian sect so strict that I’d recommend any survivor of spiritual abuse avoid this title altogether. She’s resilient, and resists the dictates of her elders. There are aspects of her resilience, however, that seem almost like psychotic breaks (and how many young women became either saints or martyrs after reporting similar experiences?): she becomes acutely aware of the natural world, particularly in the form of a mysterious homeless boy called Bran who claims to be the servant of a crow god. When Tirzah becomes pregnant by Bran, it shakes her whole community, and the novel becomes concerned with how Tirzah can be free under these circumstances. Its weaknesses are in the plotting: it simply goes on for too long, focusing on repetitive incidents (Tirzah does some mildly rebellious thing, like go out for a walk; her parents find out; she is shamed; she cries and feels guilty; she gets a second wind of defiance; rinse and repeat). Because of the business with the crow god and wild Bran, there’s a flavour of magical realism (there’s a Welsh myth involving crows and a giant-king called Bran the Blessed), but that never seems to go anywhere, and the ending’s ambivalence about Tirzah’s mental state is less richly open to interpretation than frustratingly vague. Davies’s description of landscapes and her characterisation of young, restless women (especially Tirzah’s mother and her cousin Biddy) are both very good, but the book is too diffuse to have the power it aims for.
The Long Take, by Robin Robertson: The first novel-in-verse on the Man Booker shortlist (I think?) is worthy of the accolade. Robertson’s poetry, qua poetry, has made little to no impression on me, although I read Hill of Doors a few years ago. But The Long Take uses free verse to capture not only a sense of fragmentation and loss, but also the rhythms of the mid-century American city, the trauma of war, and – perhaps most impressively – the techniques of noir filmmaking. Walker, Robertson’s protagonist, is a Canadian D-Day veteran who cannot face going home: he has a girlfriend in the little fishing village from whence he came, but he can’t imagine a world in which she deserves to be burdened with him. First in New York, then in LA and San Francisco, he finds work as a newspaper journalist, chronicling the growth of the cities (which, in LA, is synonymous with slum clearances and the building of highways) and the situation of the homeless men, many of them veterans, who clog the city streets. It’s a tad inconclusive, or rather, the conclusion Robertson reaches is the result of a process that the free verse may obscure slightly: with more words, with more elaboration, we might feel we’ve been with Walker all the way, whereas the effect of The Long Take is rather more a series of vignettes. It might well read differently to someone who knows more about the history of noir. Worth a punt, though.
Heavy, by Kiese Laymon: This is the first of two memoirs by black men that I’ve read in the past few weeks. Laymon’s context is American. He is the child of a single mother from Mississippi, a brilliant woman whose tenacity and academic achievements were matched only by her high expectations for her son and her punishing disappointment (often physically; in the memoir, she strikes young Kiese a lot) when he doesn’t match up. The book is roughly chronological, tracing Laymon’s struggles with weight, addiction, desire, and how best to be a man, from childhood on up to his professorship at Vassar. He is clear and uncompromising about the role that abuse plays in shaping young black men and women: physical abuse, such as his mother hitting him, and sexual abuse, the first scene of which occurs when he is a child in a neighbour’s house where a slightly older girl, Layla, is made to go into a bedroom with three “big boys”. Laymon is queasily but precisely aware of power and coercion even as a very young child, and his strength in this memoir is in showing us how hard it is to win when the body – as they say – really does keep the score. Things fall apart a little near the end; the book as a whole is addressed to his mother, and as he begins to wrap up, the text begins to feel like a monologue, with some of the problems of repetition and obscurity that that suggests. It is, however, an outrageously good and visceral piece of writing, and in its detail, it clarifies so much about black lives in America. (Particularly illuminating is the fact that each of Laymon’s paychecks gets parceled out to more than half a dozen relatives in need, so that despite a regular salary, he often finds himself living hand to mouth.) White people should read this; non-Americans should read it too. Laymon is a clear successor to Roxane Gay.
Handel in London, by Jane Glover: This is going to be the best high-end Christmas book ever. From the joyful cover to the fact that the font isn’t too small, from the canny summaries of every opera and oratorio Handel wrote to the insightful but not distractingly detailed musical analysis, Handel in London might well have been tailored specifically for the genteel-music-lover market, and their Christmas needs. It’s also fun to read about the various difficulties involved in putting on operas in England in the early eighteenth century: they’ve always had an image problem, apparently, as they were generally considered to be too “exotic” and fancy for honest, simple English tastes. (That they were sung in a foreign language seems to have been the primary problem.) Singer drama, meanwhile, takes up a large portion of Handel’s time. (There is that glorious story about Francesca Cuzzoni refusing to perform an aria, to which Handel replied, “Madam, I see that you are a true devil – but I am Beelzebub, chief of devils”, and then threatened to fling her out of a window. Glover also recounts the weirdly manufactured rivalry between Cuzzoni and another soprano, Faustina; the two women appear to have mostly gotten along just fine, until nascent celebrity culture and the press whipped up a story about their being bitter enemies.) If I have one complaint, it’s that, although we get a great sense of what Handel was doing at any given moment in his life (and he was always doing a lot), it’s much harder to imagine what the inside of the man’s head might have been like. But then, his letters just don’t seem to be very revealing, and it’s obvious that he was both brilliant and almost obsessively hard-working. Highly recommended.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney: This is much, much preferable to Conversations With Friends, to my mind. Rooney follows two teenagers from Sligo, Marianne and Connell, as they enter into a secret relationship at school, break up, go to the same university, and spend the next three years on a faintly agonising will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster. The class difference (they meet because Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner) creates a strange power dynamic, but so does the fact that Marianne is considered a social outcast at school, Connell’s physical beauty, her absolute dedication to him, and (only revealed later) her interest in BDSM. That makes explicit what Rooney has been getting at all along: that Normal People is about exploring power imbalances, in ways that are both healthy and not so. (It’s to Rooney’s credit that the BDSM isn’t painted as a Bad Thing per se; what feels icky about it is that we know Marianne feels she deserves no better than violence, as opposed to it being an avenue of exploration and pleasure for her.) The novel reminded me a lot of Belinda McKeon’s Tender, also about two young people at university in Dublin and their painful, tumultuous relationship. I still prefer McKeon’s book because she never looks away, whereas Rooney chooses to illuminate Marianne and Connell through vignettes, but that’s a stylistic thing.
The Life and Times of a Very British Man, by Kamal Ahmed: Ahmed is the BBC chief economics editor, and as such is a pretty well-known name and face. His memoir is not unlike Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish), which was published earlier this year and is just out in paperback now: both Hirsch and Ahmed seek to explore the peculiar feeling of being a light-skinned or mixed-race person in Britain today, with the legacy of violence in the 1970s and ’80s still fresh, but with children for whom Britain will increasingly be a nation of brown faces. Ahmed’s book convinces me less, partly because his interpolation of statistics and political truths into the story of his life feels less organic than Hirsch’s (and Hirsch writes more fluidly), and partly because he subscribes to the idea that we all just need to listen to each other. Technically speaking, of course, he’s not wrong, but his assumption that people can meet each other at a table “as equals” is startling, given that institutional racism very much still exists; people of colour, not only in Britain but also in America and Europe, are under a weight of suspicion, lack of opportunity, lack of generational wealth, lack of access to the establishment, that their white counterparts don’t have to struggle against in quite the same way, even if they’re poor or working-class white people. No one is coming to this putative table to listen to each other without their context. I think perhaps this is a generational thing; people my age seem much more likely to acknowledge that not only are we not all dealt comparable hands, but that addressing that imbalance ought to be an integral part of any kind of policy development.
I’ve read eight books in between the most recent few #20BooksofSummer entrants, and, frankly, though I want to say something about each of them, I also don’t have much time. So here are some tiny reviews.
Blackfish City, by Sam Miller
The premise: In a post-climate change world, a floating city is visited by a mysterious woman riding an orca and accompanied by a polar bear, seeking someone she lost decades ago, .
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Blade Runner meets Philip Pullman.
The good bits: Lots of gender diversity, including a non-binary teenage main character. Extremely atmospheric. Wears its influences elegantly.
The bad bits: Somewhat awkwardly written, particularly in the dialogue. Plot uneven: front-loaded with contextless information, conflict resolved in haste and without giving this reader a strong sense of emotional connection to the characters.
Verdict: Three stars (worth reading, but won’t keep a hard copy).
Glass and God, by Anne Carson
The premise: Well, it’s poetry, so there isn’t really one, but the book is divided into several sections, the first of which (“The Glass Essay”) explores the end of a love affair through the lens of Emily Bronte’s life and work.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Maggie Nelson for heteros, if she was also a professor of classics.
The good bits: The images, and the phrasing, of “The Glass Essay” are some of the starkest poetry I’ve ever read. You remember too much,/my mother said to me recently.//Why hold onto all that? And I said,/Where can I put it down?
The bad bits: The other parts of the collection are diffuse to the point of incomprehensibility, although I suspect there’s meaning in them; it’s just hard to break through to.
Verdict: Five stars (I’ve read this before, and I loved it then too.)
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
The premise: The lives of Becky Sharp, a sexy, penniless governess on the make, and her friend Amelia Sedley – a fatally naive young gentlewoman – provide a frame through which to view English high society during the early to mid-nineteenth century.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Well, it’s a classic, so the comparisons should go the other way round really, but the toxic female friendship around which the book revolves is echoed in popular culture from Mean Girls to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; plus, Becky’s strange positioning (partly an antagonist, partly a protagonist) is reminiscent of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.
The good bits: Very funny. Total lack of purple-ness; you never have to wade through Thackeray’s syntax to get to his meaning, as you sometimes do with Dickens or Eliot. Every character drawn with merciless clarity, but also with pity or compassion for their weakness.
The bad bits: Very long. But that’s only really a drawback if you don’t like long books on principle; Thackeray needs it to be long because his plot needs decades.
Verdict: Five stars (this is my favourite book of all time, so that one was a gimme.)
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The premise: Hiero Falk had more raw talent than any other jazz trumpeter of his generation. In occupied Paris, he was taken away and interned, never seen again, presumed dead. Now, his former bandmates – Sid, who believes that he betrayed Hiero, and Chip, who believes Hiero is still alive – set out to find him again.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: The Time Of Our Singing with classical music stripped out and World War II injected into the space where it had been.
The good bits: Emotionally compelling. Characters believably weak and vulnerable. Evocation of Paris under occupation, and of the essence of jazz playing, is exceptional.
The bad bits: Perhaps it could have been more emotionally compelling. Sid does a lot of processing in the modern-day sections, and some of his self-awareness seems to have been arrived at with convenient rapidity.
Verdict: Four stars (have already recommended to many).
The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Christopher Wilson-Lee
The premise: Partly a biography of Hernando Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and his father’s first biographer; partly an account of Hernando’s attempt to build the first truly universal library.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Fans of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, as well as people who get nerdy about the history of information technology, might like this.
The good bits: Some great analogies drawn between the idea of the universal library and the Internet. Hernando Colon’s life also happens to have been rather colourful: he first went to the New World as a teenager, and inherited a lot of his father’s personal drama (and lawsuits).
The bad bits: Not nearly enough about the intellectual connection between universal libraries and the Internet. To me this was the most interesting element of the book, and it felt very under-developed.
Verdict: Three stars (I’ve been sending it out steadily, but haven’t kept my hard copy).
Signs of Life, by Anna Raverat
The premise: A young woman has an affair with a man in her office; her relationship ends badly; her affair ends badly; as she recounts this eventful history, is she telling us the truth?
How I’d (cynically) sell it: Glass and God as prose fiction.
The good bits: I can’t get enough of writing like this: material about destructive relationships, relayed in prose like a recently cleaned window (and, also, like a broken bottle).
The bad bits: I didn’t dislike any of it. You’ll either love this sort of thing or you’ll hate it.
Verdict: Five stars (bought with my own money, now on the shelf of Books To Save From Fire).
Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds
The premise: The Amarantin civilisation were wiped out nine hundred thousand years ago, just as they were on the cusp of discovering spaceflight. Dan Sylveste is determined to find out why, and forges an unholy alliance with the cyborg crew of the Nostalgia For Infinity to do so – but the Amarantin were crushed for a reason…
How I’d (cynically) sell it: A beguilingly written and plotted classic space opera.
The good bits: It’s funny, it’s engaging, the mystery is excellent, and most of the main characters are women (at least one is also of colour).
The bad bits: It’s longer than it needs to be, although the scenic route lets Reynolds write some fun worldbuilding stuff. Also, despite the presence of many female characters, Dan Sylveste is still written as an Asshole Genius Deserving Veneration.
Verdict: Four stars (I raced through it and had a great time. It’s also very well written. Just, ugh, men).
The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
The premise: The end of the Trojan War – Agamemnon’s quarrel with Achilles, the death of Patroclus, etc. – told through the eyes of Briseis, the slave girl over whom the former two famously fall out.
How I’d (cynically) sell it: I’m so tired of people comparing every book that glances at misogyny to The Handmaid’s Tale. This does, however, have the virtue of actually also being a book about sexual slavery. (I wouldn’t compare the two in any other way, though.)
The good bits: Very competently written, as you’d expect from Pat Barker, and absolutely merciless in the way it draws back the veil on ancient societies, war, and the vulnerability of women in those contexts. Hard to read the way Ghost Wall is hard to read (which is to say, in the best possible way).
The bad bits: WHY. ARE THERE SO MANY CHAPTERS. DEVOTED TO THE PERSPECTIVES. OF MEN. At least half the book is through Achilles’s eyes. I understand the need to create variation, but why couldn’t we have had a different female perspective to fulfill that requirement, instead? I was hoping for a panoply of women’s voices.
July: a great month for reading (eighteen [nineteen! I forgot one!] books, somehow, bringing my yearly total up to 116), a very bad month for reviewing. I won’t apologise – moving house tires the mind – but hope that these Superlative entries will be detailed enough to pique interest. I did write one review, for Litro, of Best British Short Stories 2017, which I’ll link to once it’s been posted. Meanwhile, onwards.
most versatile: Francesca Segal’s second novel, The Awkward Age. It is a very well-written modern-relationships novel, centering on Julia—a widowed piano teacher—and her new partner, James; her resentful teenaged daughter Gwen; and James’s resentful, privileged teenaged son, Nathan. Surprising (possibly melodramatic) plot twists involving the teenagers are balanced by the presence of Julia’s former husband’s parents, whose relationship is not without its own interest and is presented with great nuance. I can’t imagine anyone, of any age, reading this book and not being able to get something out of it.
blast from the past: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which I read as a result of bringing it home with me from a visit to my grandparents. I hadn’t read nineteenth-century prose for months, and what struck me about it was how dryly funny Hardy often is, especially when describing character quirks. His “rustics” are better in this than in almost any other of his novels; even the utterly goofy ones, like Joseph Poorgrass, feel convincing, which I’m not sure is the case in, e.g., The Mayor of Casterbridge or even Tess.
best crime novel: Cambridgeshire-set Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. The standout in this book is its DI, Manon Bradshaw, who’s heavily pregnant by a sperm donor and also trying to mother her adoptive son, a young black boy named Fly. (Persons Unknown is the second in a series that starts with Missing, Presumed, which must chart Manon’s and Fly’s relationship from the beginning.) A City banker is murdered in broad daylight; Fly becomes the main suspect. Persons Unknown handles a very specifically British sort of racial prejudice with total sensitivity, and provides some delightful point-of-view characters, including Davy (trying hard to be politically correct, not entirely equipped for the task) and Birdie (a London shopkeeper who becomes embroiled in the case). Loved it.
most haha-YEP: Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running Wigtown’s The Book Shop, The Diary of a Bookseller. What can I say? It’s screamingly funny, helped along by Bythell’s rotating cast of eccentric employees (including Nicky, who is a Jehovah’s Witness, lives in her blue van, and comes to work in the winter dressed in a black snow suit that makes her look like a demented Teletubby), and Bythell’s own dry sense of humour. He’s also great on the day-to-day business of antiquarian and secondhand book selling—traveling to valuations, how to price an old book, and so on—which, as a new bookseller, I like learning about. This is out in September and you really mustn’t miss it.
second most haha-YEP: Living the Dream by Lauren Berry, a novel which slots firmly into the modern-and-knowing-twist-on-the-being-in-your-twenties-novel category that also contains Alice Furse’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere and Lisa Owens’s Not Working. If I had read this a year ago, when I was still at Mumsnet, I would have died of relief that someone had written a funny, relatable book about being bored in strategy meetings and feeling as though you were sort of vaguely failing at life but being too knackered and broke to sort it out. Furse’s and Owens’s books both dig deeper into the potential for real catastrophe in acquiescing to modern life—Berry’s heroines are never in any actual danger of becoming drones, because the narrative demands that they Find Themselves—but it’s a fun addition to the subgenre.
warm bath books: The Well of Lost Plots and The Eyre Affair (in that order, because TWOLP is my favourite), by Jasper Fforde. I refuse to criticise these, okay? I absolutely, unapologetically used these books as gentle, goofy balms to the soul in a challenging week, and therefore have nothing bad to say about them (nor will I ever), except to note that some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but when you’ve got that chapter on the Global Standard Deity and those asides about registered John Miltons and kids trading Henry Fielding bubble gum cards (let alone all the rest of it—Generics! Plotsmiths! Making all the characters from Wuthering Heights attend rage counselling!), it seems churlish to nitpick.
most disappointed to be disappointed in: Meta, no? So I read Attica Locke’s new book, Bluebird, Bluebird (which is out in September, I think) and it was fine: a small-town East Texas-set murder mystery involving the deaths of a black man and a white woman. Locke off her game is better than a lot of writers on top of theirs. But the more I consider it, the more baffled I get: Locke is strangely ambivalent about her protagonist Darren’s character arc, and why, in God’s name, does it end the way it does? That ending comes out of a clear blue sky and it makes no emotional impact whatsoever, because its total strangeness hasn’t really been earned. I may have to write an in-depth review of this to be posted nearer the publication date.
most illuminating reread: I’ve reread Tana French’s books too many times this year. Oh well. After rereading In the Woods, though, I’ve got a better handle on what makes it work so well: her sterling ability to construct a narrator, Detective Rob Ryan, who is—quietly—a complete arsehole. He drops all the hints we need to work this out along the way, but, as with the final revelations regarding the crime, it’s only very late in the day that we put all the pieces together and realise that Rob—although decidedly also a victim of his own history and pitiable in that regard—is truly not very nice. It destabilises much of what we’ve felt for him up til then (he’s also funny, quick-witted and observant, which makes him an appealing narrator), and it gives the book that dark, queasy edge that moves it from good to great.
best debut: What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s book of short stories from Tinder Press. Arimah’s stories really are short, most not more than five pages, but she’s great at getting inside the heads of protagonists who straddle cultures (like the character who’s packed off to her cousins in Nigeria for the summer after a mildly rebellious year in American high school). I was also impressed by her vision in the more speculative stories, like the title one, which posits the existence of professional grief-removers. Can you imagine?
longest overdue: I’ve had W. Somerset Maugham’s massive novel Of Human Bondage on my actual, physical TBR since about 2014. My friend and former housemate Bunter (not his real name) lent/gave it to me back then, and I’ve been putting it off ever since, mostly because of the size. It turns out to be rather wonderful—a young man’s coming-of-age story, so, yes, fairly masculine, but Philip Carey’s club foot gives him a vulnerability that makes him easier to empathise with than many early C20 novels that demand a reader’s adulation for a privileged male protagonist. He has strong emotions and deals with them, for the most part, stupidly, in the way that people in their twenties do. You can’t help wanting things to be all right for him. It reminded me in some ways of David Copperfield, another classic English Bildungsroman.
best anthology: Clue’s in the name: Best British Short Stories 2017, edited by Nicholas Royle at Salt. I’m not usually much of a one for short stories, let alone a collection of stories all by different writers, but Royle’s selection is delightfully coherent; themes of the supernatural and the unspoken, the slightly uncanny and the merely surreal, recur throughout. There are some weak links, but some truly exceptional stories too (Lara Williams’s “Treats”, Daisy Johnson’s “Language”, Rosalind Brown’s “General Impression of Size and Shape”, amongst others.) (review)
best find: My uncle is the only person who reliably gifts me actual books for my birthday, for which I will never cease to be grateful to him. This year he sent me a slim collection of poems by Thomas Lux, called To the Left of Time, and I absolutely love them. Lux’s voice is a little like Tony Hoagland’s, that slightly weather-beaten, over-educated, under-employed, grown-up-farm-boy tone. His odes, especially Ode To the Joyful Ones, are the best things in the book.
best recommendation: After my first Down the TBR Hole post, my brother got in touch with me to tell me to read Slaughterhouse Five straight away. I bought it on Saturday and read it almost in one go. It’s absolutely wonderful. A humane, good-humoured, sweetly resigned war novel that is also utterly clear-eyed about horror and fear and torment. Billy Pilgrim is an everyman with whom I might just be a little in love.
best palate-cleanser: The first Robert Harris novel I’ve ever read, Conclave. Apparently it has divided opinion, but you know what? He can write just fine, plus he can construct differentiable characters in what’s basically an ensemble novel (which is remarkably hard). His ability to make a reader care about moral issues that modern sensibilities mostly ignore is also surprising: the central question of Conclave—how can you tell whether serving God means intervening in something, or keeping your nose out?—requires us to take seriously the faith of the characters, and we do, and that’s an impressive feat for a mainstream contemporary writer.
party to which I’m late: Tove Jansson, just in general. Specifically, The Summer Book, her first novel for adults, which takes the form of a series of vignettes focusing on an old woman and her granddaughter over the course of a summer on their island in the Gulf of Finland. Grandmother is the best-written old woman I’ve ever read, perhaps because Jansson based her heavily on her own mother; she retains an actual personality, complicated and dry and cynical and not always either cuddly or feisty (the default settings for old ladies in fiction). I will be looking for Jansson’s other adult books, as well as reading the Moomin series, in the future.
best short read: Another of Penguin’s Little Black Classics, this time Trimalchio’s Feast by Petronius, a birthday present from AdventureSinCake (formerly known as the Lawyer). It’s an excerpt from a much longer work, the Satyricon, and focuses on an orgiastic party thrown by lonely, narcissistic trillionaire Trimalchio. Because it’s so short, and so absurd, you can read it as a fun interlude, or you can venture down some darker alleys of thought (however rich you are, death is coming for you, and you can’t stave it off with honey-roasted dormice or dancing girls).
second most illuminating reread: Quicksilver, the first of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It is such a long book, and so crammed with incident and information, that rereading is virtually a necessity. I certainly understood more of the plot’s overall shape, and more of the characters’ rationale at various times, than I did the first time around.
[the one I forgot: Such Small Hands, a tiny creepy novella by Andres Barba about a bunch of Spanish girls stuck in an orphanage, who invent a horrendous “dolly” game that ends up, perhaps unsurprisingly, turning violent. The story is shocking, but—and maybe this is just a different approach to psychological realism—not especially moving, since all the little girls speak as one. I think the book might well be too short.]
up next: Various books I’ve said I would review, including Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, and Sarah Franklin’s Shelter. I’ve also got several delightful purchases to get through, including Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier and China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, and need to choose airplane reading for my trip to see family in the States – I’m thinking The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I have in proof, and which appears to be the sort of massive weighty tome about a female writer’s artistic development and vexed relationship to traditional feminine roles that I’ve been waiting for someone to write.
The less said about May, the better, frankly. Or perhaps that’s unfair: it’s been much too busy, but I’ve seen old friends, and family, and done a lot of singing. At the end of the month, though, my personal life has—quite unexpectedly—gone to shit. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s incredibly painful and it means my present, and my future, are in a state of upheaval. I don’t want to talk about it on here, beyond that. I have read 12 books, and my brain is like a wrung-out sponge: reviewing capacities are at a pretty low ebb.
biggest mindfuck: The City and the City, China Miéville’s novel about two cities which, topologically, exist in the same space, but are ontologically not the same places: Beszél and Ul Qoma. Miéville’s said he wants to write a novel in every genre, and this is his noir, with Inspector Borlú our hardboiled detective. As is the case with a lot of his work, the conceit is adhered to with such astonishing tenacity that the sheer comprehensiveness of it mostly makes up for a certain thematic thinness. (After all, if the point of The City and the City‘s overlapping spaces is to illustrate urban alienation, all you need to do that is the conceit itself; you don’t really need to hang a whole novel on it.) Still, I never regret reading a Miéville book.
hardest to discuss: As a bookseller, I can tell you right now that any book about a paedophile is going to be a hard sell. Tench, by Inge Schilperoord, is nevertheless a very compassionate and terribly lucid exploration of the circumstances that surround people who commit this nature of offense, and the ways that they’re so often unsupported, and left to offend again. A heartbreaking but very good book. (review)
hands-down favourite: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers—recommended to me by a colleague—a six hundred-page novel about the musically talented mixed-race children of a black Philadelphian woman and a German Jewish man, growing up in the 1960s. The best novel I have ever read about classical singing, it also encompasses over a hundred years of American racial history. It’s a total knock-out and should be much better known.
most like a feminist rewrite of The Road: There’s one every year now, in the vein of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven. This year it’s Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, an extremely brief and spare book about a woman raising her newborn son alone in a flooded England. The woman (unnamed) navigates the loss of her husband, her home, and everything about her old life with grief, but also with aplomb; the baby, curiously, anchors her. You could read it, I suppose, as an extended metaphor. That might be the most productive way to do it, given that, at the end of the book, the waters recede, the husband returns, and the baby starts to walk—this confluence, I suspect, not coincidental.
nimblest: Let Go My Hand, by Edward Docx, is a book that could have run into a lot of problems: it’s about three brothers unwillingly escorting their dying father to Zurich in a camper van. He intends to take his own life at the Dignitas clinic. On the way, there are emotional and physical reckonings from decades of parenting failures, both standard and particular. Docx avoids every one of the places where he could have bogged down in sentimentality or crassness; it’s a superb piece of work, moving and realistic and often bizarrely funny, with some perfect dialogue. Imagine a Wes Anderson movie, but not annoying. (It’ll probably be a Wes Anderson movie soon, so read it first.)
most rage-inducing: Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir about growing up black and middle-class in white suburban Australia, The Hate Race. It’s just won the Multicultural NSW Award there, which is both heartening (it’s a fantastic book and it deserves prizes) and kind of hilariously ironic (it’s mostly about the appalling racist bullying Clarke suffered as a child in “multicultural New South Wales” barely 25 years ago). (review)
best newcomer: Ocean Vuong’s poetry isn’t completely new to me—I’d read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and a couple other pieces online in Poetry Magazine—but his first full collection is just out in the UK. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an elegiac, sexy, pull-the-rug-out compendium of poems, absolutely unforgettable. “Because It’s Summer” might be one of my new all-time favourites.
oddest: Sudden Death, by Álvaro Enrigue. Fictionalising and retelling the story of a tennis match-cum-duel that was once fought between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, it’s sort of a novel. It calls itself a novel. It frequently digresses, however, to take in historical footnotes such as the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s hair (used to stuff the world’s most expensive tennis balls), the ultimate fate of Anne Boleyn’s executioner (executed himself, his throat professionally slit in a French courtyard), and the conquest of the Aztecs. I think I can see what it’s trying to do, and I think I’m intrigued and impressed. I’m just not quite sure it comes off: partly it’s hampered by its own cleverness, which has Enrigue writing these footnote sections in the tone of a chatty media don, giving the impression that they’ve migrated into the novel from a popular history book.
pleasantest surprise: This is going to sound so weird, but: It, Stephen King’s killer-clown novel. I’d never read Stephen King, and picked this up really on a whim. It turned out to be astonishingly addictive, which for me means that the writing is high-quality and frictionless. It’s also genuinely terrifying—more so when focusing on events that happen to the central group of characters as children; slightly less so when focusing on them as adults and the final reckoning with It, but still pretty good then. I’ll be trying King again. (review)
most hmm: Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World, which is out in June. The idea is cool: a child psychologist with his own issues around nurture and stability is funded by an eccentric billionairess to run a ten-year study called the Infinite Family Project, where ten couples raise their babies communally to see how this affects child development. Our main character, teen single mother Izzy, is delightfully down-to-earth and the way Wilson introduces conflict to the “perfect little world” is pleasingly realistic, but his prose style creates a kind of distance between the reader and the characters; I always felt I was on the outside, looking in. Perhaps that was the point, though I’m still not sure how I feel about it if so.
hardest to read: When I Hit You: Or, Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy, a novel about an abusive marriage between an Indian feminist writer and her passionately Communist husband. The title should tell you why. (This has got nothing to do with the shit thing that has just happened, though.)
biggest relief: Tana French’s most recent novel, The Trespasser, is finally 1.99 on Kindle. It’s the only thing I’ve been able to read since the shit thing happened—I can’t focus enough for anything else—and I should take this opportunity to again state how thoroughly French as a writer has earned my trust as a reader.
I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to write criticism recently. I’ve had a hard time finding enough time to read; it’s halfway through the month and I’ve just started the month’s sixth book, which, given monthly totals so far this year, is glacial. So to fill the gaps here, I’m turning to this meme, which I spotted on Jillian’s blog (originally created by a blogger called Lia) and which has the virtue of actually being mildly productive.
It goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read. (My TBR, by the way, only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have.)
Book #1: Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
Why is it on my TBR? Obviously, I want to read all of Dickens’s novels (and I’m getting there! 9 out of 15), but they’re not all listed on my Goodreads TBR. Given the date I added this—February 2013—I suspect I was impelled by a viewing of the film of Nicholas Nickleby. You know, the one with that pretty boy.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep—I’ll own it one day, probably when I decide I’m sick of having mismatched paperback editions of Dickens and just buy a complete set that’s actually attractive.
Book #2: The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659, ed. David Norbrook
Why is it on my TBR? David Norbrook was one of my favourite lecturers. Also, there was a time when I thought my academic interest was almost precisely one hundred years earlier than it actually is.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict? Keep—I really like Renaissance poetry, its vocabulary of allusion and the tensions between public and private that are inherent in a literature composed mostly by horny courtiers under constant surveillance. Plus it’s at its best when anthologised, and I suspect Norbrook’s is the best of those.
Book #3: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
Why is it on my TBR? I went on a bit of a Graham Greene kick in the summer of 2012; I presume this is a hangover from then.
Do I already own it? I don’t think so.
Verdict? Keep. It’s Graham Greene, for heaven’s sake.
Book #4: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene
Why is it on my TBR? See above. I’ve had a thing about Brighton Rock for a while, though; it occupies this space in my mind as being about someone properly evil, although I’m not sure that’s actually true.
Do I already own it? Yes! The Chaos has a copy on his shelves.
Verdict? Slightly tricky, this. I tried it last year and simply couldn’t get the hang of it at all. But, again, it’s Graham Greene, and perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough. KEEP!
Book #5: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel
Why is it on my TBR? Adored Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, enjoyed Beyond Black and Fludd, thought this was worth a go.
Do I already own it? Nope.
Verdict: Keep, obviously, oh God this isn’t going well as a culling exercise
Book #6: The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope
Why is it on my TBR? I read the entire Palliser series, and the entire Barsetshire series except for this last installment, between 2012 and 2014. I’m a completist, and the Penguin English Library cover is gorgeous.
Do I already own it? Yes! Although it is in my grandparents’ garage in West Sussex.
Verdict: Keep, but maybe this particular version of it can be given away—the entire Barsetshire series was released as Penguin Clothbound Classics and I stare at them daily from my desk at work, wondering how long it will be before I just snap and buy them so that all my Trollopes match and look nice, like adults’ books, instead of the awful mismatched copies that I have now. (It is exactly the same sitch as with Dickens and I do not enjoy it.)
Book #7: Essays, by Michel de Montaigne
Why is it on my TBR? I first encountered Montaigne in a high school class called Humanities, which is probably responsible for saving the lives of several hundred bright, desperately bored kids in my hometown (Charlottesville, Virginia). I came across him again as an undergrad. The idea of writing essays—literally, “attempts”—to explore your own soul was hugely appealing.
Do I already own it? Sort of. I own a selected edition, but not the big-ass Penguin paperback that represents the complete version.
Verdict: Sigh. Keep, obviously. I’ve read a few of them and I really like him, as a writer, as a person. It’s just that there are so many.
Book #8: A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
Why is it on my TBR? My dad got it one Christmas, and it looked comprehensive and interesting.
Do I already own it? No—the plan would be to read it when visiting my parents.
Verdict: Finally, a firm no! I’m sure it’s great, but MacGregor did it as a podcast originally, and I think this is basically just a print tie-in. Unnecessary.
Book #9: The Embarrassment of Riches: an Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama
Why is it on my TBR? 1: I used to fancy the pants off Simon Schama. (It was an early manifestation of a clear preference for older fellas.) 2: This is precisely the period I’m interested in. 3: Dutch paintings make me want to swoon with joy. 4: Material culture is fascinating.
Do I own it? Nope.
Verdict: Of the four reasons to read it given above, three are still applicable and legitimate, so keep, duh.
Book #10: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Why is it on my TBR? Astonishingly, I escaped American public high school without ever having read this.
Do I own it? The Chaos might have a copy somewhere, but I don’t think so.
Verdict: I have to keep this, really. There is no reason in the world to decide I’m never going to read it. It’s just one of those books—like The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Tale of Two Cities—that has mysteriously never quite been compelling enough to be next. (But I read A Tale of Two Cities in January, so I bet I’ll get round to this.)
Conclusions: The very earliest stuff on my TBR is stuff I still want to read, either because it’s classic or canonical or because it’s about subjects I’m still interested in. This is kind of a nice thing to know. As we get closer to the present day, however, I fully expect to see the influence of increased exposure to bookish media—blogs, review sites, Twitter, etc.—and a trigger-happy index finger.
Am I wrong about any of these? Is Vonnegut not worth the hassle? Is Graham Greene a waste of time? (No.) Is Neil MacGregor’s book 1000% worth reading? Comments welcomed.
As I mentioned earlier in the summer, I now have a secondhand bookshop on Amazon, where I sell books—many of them never-opened hardbacks—for cheapsies. I’m currently trying to free up some storage space, and have selected some of the books I’ve had around for a few months to be sacrificed to the Great Gods of Oxfam. They’ll be heading there on Monday… unless one of you wants one or more of them.
These will be on offer from now until Monday (12 September) at 12:00 pm (that’s noon) GMT. Here’s a link to my Amazon bookshop, where you can buy one of them* (or you can buy something else if it takes your fancy. I ain’t fussy.)
*I can’t sell or ship outside of the UK, I’m afraid (taxes make it not worthwhile).
Making Nice, by Matt Sumell – Meet Alby. Natural habitat: a bar; a boat; his bedroom; a broad’s bedroom. Favourite hobbies: starting fights (then losing them); hooking up with broads (then losing them); hating cats (it’s a skill); training Gary the baby bird to be a killer (sort of). Best kept secret: when his mum died it broke his heart and he doesn’t really know what to do about it.
Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal – Fundamentalist Mormonism meets Evel Knievel in a 1970s coming-of-age tale that is all the better for subtly flicking the Vs at gender expectations, and for making religious extremism comprehensible. I really, really enjoyed this and would recommend it highly.
Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas – Thomas is a beautiful poet. He’s gnarly and alliterative, but he is beautiful. “Poem in October”, “Fern Hill”, and “In the White Giant’s Thigh” are probably my favorites for their sensuality and expressiveness.
Summerlong, by Dean Bakropoulos – A story about a marriage falling apart, this one foregrounding problems like debt, boredom, loneliness, and lying to someone you love out of a desire to protect them, and also maybe out of inertia. If you start to miss the warm months as the fall progresses, this will be the book to remind you of them again.
Birth of a Bridge, by Maylis de Kerangal – The mayor of a small Southern California town decides to make his mark by building an enormous bridge, but as workers flood into the area from all over the globe, the legacy of the area’s Native Americans is threatened. De Kerangal is most famous for Mend the Living, her recent novel about the transplant of a heart, and Birth of a Bridge is another almost mythic exploration of human passions and weaknesses.
To be completely honest with you, I got to book #15, and then shit happened—other books I needed to review, holidays, that pesky novel I need to write—so although I’ve read waaaayyy more than 20 books this summer, I am very unlikely to finish the 20 Books of Summer, if you follow me. Still, it’s a super project, very worth attempting, and I’m definitely going to try it again next year! (Plus, because I’ve decided to DNF one of them—I can’t read Dylan Thomas’s collected poems all the way through, sorry—and to not worry about another—a monograph from the Royal Academy on Jean-Étienne Liotard, which I’ll enjoy reading in snatches but which is too bulky to be practical as an everyday book—I only have three books left to read, and I’m sure I can knock those out before the fall is too far advanced…)
Brief reviews follow.
09. When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant
Where I read it: Mostly on the Tube, I think, over about two days.
I liked everything about the premise for this one: Evelyn Sert is an orphaned hairdresser, aged twenty, who decides to move from Soho to the new state of Palestine. Once there, she becomes embroiled with a mysterious man named Johnny, who it turns out is a spy and a student militant, and their romance has serious repercussions for them both.
Things that were great about it: The setting is beautifully evoked. Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ’50s must have been an absolute shock to the system for a girl raised in grey post-war London. The Bauhaus architecture, the café culture, the brilliance of lemons and oranges against the whiteness of the houses; it’s all very well done. Equally, the snobbish attitude of the British wives whose husbands work for the protectorate in Palestine is well conveyed. Evelyn’s job at the salon is dependent on these women continuing to believe that she herself is 100% British, and the awkwardness of trying to conceal her Jewish identity in a place that seems designed to celebrate it is a really nice touch.
Things that could have been better: Everything about the espionage plot, really. Evelyn is quite a passive character, so it makes sense that she should do and know so little, but a) that means we don’t really know her, even by the book’s end, and b) it means that the dénouement comes as rather a surprise. We know Johnny’s up to something, but we hardly know what, and the ending feels a bit unearned.
10. Chronicles, by Thomas Piketty
Where I read it: Over the course of a lazy, hair-twirling, coffee-drinking Saturday.
This is a collection of Piketty’s financial columns which he wrote for a French newspaper. They’ve clearly been released on the back of his success with Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which means a lot of them are out of date. What’s interesting about them, though, is how scarily prescient they appear to a reader in 2016. He’s writing from 2012 about Greece and the IMF, but a lot of what he says about the Euro, and how it can best be stabilized, and what will happen if it isn’t, resonates with alarming clarity in the post-Brexit atmosphere. Essentially, Piketty predicted Brexit too, saying that if the situation in central Europe wasn’t changed for the better by decisive action from the European Parliament—mostly France and Germany—and the IMF, lack of confidence in the European project would be the result. And… yep, that’s exactly what happened.
All of which makes me think that we really ought to be paying attention to whatever Piketty is saying now.
11. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
Where I read it: On the train to Hitchin, where the Progenitors Chaotic live, and on the train back again.
I read this book too fast. In my defense, it’s hard not to. It’s short, the prose flies by. Robinson is known for the beauty and the quasi-Biblical rhythms of her writing, and that’s certainly true; there’s an eerie luminescence that surrounds my memory of Housekeeping that I think is only attributable to that incredible quality in the writing. I don’t remember noticing it much at the time, but I remember it making an impact on me nonetheless.
It is about two orphaned sisters, Ruth and Lucille Stone, and their lives in the Idaho town of Fingerbone. Their aunt Sylvie comes to care for them. Sylvie is not a domesticated creature, even by the somewhat more relaxed standards of our day; Housekeeping, it’s implied, is set sometime mid-20th-century, and the good men and women of Fingerbone hardly know what to do with Sylvie at all. She doesn’t clean. She doesn’t tidy. She’s a hoarder and a wanderer and a wild-haired sprite, a former homeless woman, a rider in railroad cars. Ruth loves this. Ruth clings to her. Lucille doesn’t; she goes to live with a teacher, a woman who has doilies on her tables and a clean, full, well-lit larder. Fearful of being removed by Child Protection, Ruth escapes with Sylvie across frozen Fingerbone Lake, and they both become travelers. Occasionally they pass through the town again, riding the rails.
It’s basically a novel about family, about what home can mean, and as Robert McCrum puts it, “Robinson believes in family.” This is a good book to have read a few months after reading another of her novels, Lila, which also addresses the question of the families we’re born into and the families we choose, or which are thrust upon us, or which we build for ourselves. While Housekeeping has a more overtly dark edge (I spent pages waiting for something cataclysmic to occur; I was amazed that all of the characters got out of it alive), it too is preoccupied with choosing family, with the statements that your choice makes.
12. The Father, by Sharon Olds
Where I read it: Commuting, again. God, this is getting dull.
Poetry is so fucking hard to write about, it tends to put me off reading it, or at least it puts me off reading it for this blog. In brief: this is a collection of poems in which the narrator is a daughter tending to her dying father. He has cancer. Their relationship has not been a positive or a loving one; as Adam Mars-Jones noted in a London Review of Books essay on Olds’s poetry, “the depth of the poems is inversely proportionate to the richness of the relationship. The poet is so attentive to her father’s dying because in his living he so comprehensively refused her.”
So, yeah, not exactly happy stuff, but supremely, superbly powerful. Olds is one of those poets who writes in a manner that looks conversational and absolutely isn’t. She doesn’t do syntactical inversion, heightened diction, alliteration, any of that bag-of-tricks stuff. She just selects and places words so that their context gives them grandeur. I’d love to be able to do it myself. I will never be a poet that good.
13. Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks
Where I read it: On the bus from Crouch End to Finsbury Park, after a marathon OITNB session with my friend Ella, formerly known on this blog as the Duchess.
This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. Iain Banks was commissioned to do a tour of Scotland’s single malt distilleries and write a full-length travelogue detailing his search for “the perfect dram” (see subtitle). It’s a great idea. It’s the sort of thing that editors stopped having the money or the free time to do, circa 2003, which coincidentally is when this book was published. And it’s the kind of all-expenses-paid vanity project that you really, really need to be humble about, if you’re lucky enough to land the gig. Banks isn’t humble. He preens. He mentions that he’s been commissioned, that the whisky is all on his publisher, that none of his junkets are leaving him out of pocket, at least once a chapter.
He also doesn’t really seem to take the brief all that seriously. On the one hand, it’s hard to blame him for this: his descriptive skills are good, but come on, it’s whisky, innit. It’s smokey and peaty and maybe a bit salty and occasionally you can throw in some words like “caramel” or “toasted orange”, but on the whole it’s going to be difficult to describe fifty of the buggers in anything like a distinctive fashion. On the other hand, there were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger. Reading about how they got in trouble (tee hee hee, boys will be boys) for making too much noise in a family hotel after-hours did not make me sympathetic. It didn’t even make me think, “What a legend.” It made me think, “What an arsehole.”
So anyway, long story short is, I’m going to read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and forget that I ever took this irritating detour into their author’s personal life/head.
14. The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor
Where I read it: Literally no idea. Perhaps it gave me amnesia?
Tell you what, O’Connor really doesn’t fuck around with her titles.
This is her second novel. Her first, Wise Blood, had already established her thematic interests: evangelical Christianity, confused young men, violence and grace, the human fear and loathing and rejection of Christ and His implacability. It’s fairly serious stuff; you can’t really go into it half-heartedly. Even if you have issues with Christian belief or are simply an atheist, you need to take on board the premise that these beliefs are significant and important for the people you’re reading about. Otherwise none of it makes any sense at all, and even for me – raised in a church tradition, though not a fundamentalist one – it sometimes gets a bit bewilderingly intense.
The Violent Bear It Away focuses on Francis Marion Tarwater, who was abducted from his family home as a baby by his mother’s brother. Determined to make the little boy into a prophet of the Lord, old Tarwater raises him in a rural backwater and keeps him away from school (by getting him to pretend he’s mentally disabled when the truant officer comes around). When old Tarwater dies, young Tarwater moves to the city in search of his other uncle, and has to determine whether to live as his religious uncle raised him or as his secular uncle wants to make him. It asks a lot of questions about freedom: spiritual, intellectual, moral. O’Connor doesn’t really believe in freedom, or at least not in the way that most of the people reading her probably do. She believes in God, though, in the ultimateness of Him. So it hasn’t got what you might call a happy ending, but it has an ending full of conviction. Reading O’Connor gives me a much stronger sense of what motivated a Joan of Arc or a Thomas Cranmer: the solid reality of that kind of belief.
15. The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville
Where I read it: Lying on the bed, the window open to catch whatever breeze was going in southwest London, the week before my holiday.
Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize for this in 2001, and she followed it up with The Secret River, which means I should really have read her by now. It served both for 20 Books of Summer and for my less formal Women’s Prize project, and, like most of the (relatively) early Women’s Prize winners I’ve read, it was a fantastic surprise.
It follows two awkward people (imperfection, you see): Harley Savage, a museum curator who specializes in textiles, and Douglas Cheeseman, a structural engineer who adores cement. Both are in Karakarook, New South Wales, Harley to advise on the development of a heritage museum and Douglas to oversee the destruction of a historic bridge. Obviously, these are conflicting aims, and the townspeople expect Harley and Douglas to be at loggerheads. To begin with, they are, sort of, but both are at odds with the expectations leveled at them by daily life and society in general, and this brings them together.
What’s brilliant about it: the sheer dedication that Grenville puts into her portrayal of imperfect people. Harley and Douglas go on a “first date” to a genuinely horrible rural greasy spoon café, where they manage to misunderstand one another and second-guess their own reactions to a point that is, frankly, painfully familiar to anyone with even mild social anxiety. Also, I love how she deals with the “woman with a past” trope in relation to Harley, who suffers horrible guilt from something that was 100% not her fault but nevertheless pretty horrible. Grenville is so good at not making her a bombshell or a sex object while also not painting her as a gargoyle or a grotesque (though that’s how Harley thinks of herself.) This is counterpointed by the story of a bank manager’s wife who embarks on an affair with the local butcher, pretending that her marriage is perfect while we know it’s a sham. That storyline ends with a twist that is so tame by today’s Gone Girl standards, and yet so perfectly conveyed in the prose, that I actually gasped. It’s emblematic of the lovely balancing act Grenville achieves throughout the book. And the ending is very joyous.