Down the TBR Hole, #1

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.)

51i2hbyuo5lBook #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 Norbrook51ni8eb9pql-_sx325_bo1204203200_

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.

51s6nofzgwl-_sy346_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 Greene41znbbtwill-_sx323_bo1204203200_

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!

51v7morcjel-_sx307_bo1204203200_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 Trollope9780141199863-uk

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.)

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The FACE on him. #sideeye

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

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Shiny covers are a bastard to photograph, I guess

 

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.

51ejioetspl-_sy344_bo1204203200_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 Vonnegut4120yizu-2l

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.

Flash Book Sale!

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).

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Highly attractive stripey vase not included

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.

09-15 of 20 Books of Summer

20 Books of Summer Collage

I made this collage on Picmonkey and I am so ridiculously proud of it

WHOOPS.

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.

book_2909. 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.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-70710. 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.

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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.

978022409002512. 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.

51n8dqdd2wl13. 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.

18071176-_uy200_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.

4125be3z3vl-_sx310_bo1204203200_ 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.

When I Lived in Modern Times, Linda Grant. (London: Granta, 2011 [2000])

Chronicles, Thomas Piketty. (London: Viking, 2016)

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. (London: Faber & Faber, 2005)

The Father, Sharon Olds. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009 [1992])

Raw Spirit, Iain Banks. (London: Arrow, 2004 [2003])

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007 [1960])

The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville. (London: Picador, 2002 [2001])

July Superlatives

July’s been a month of changes. I’ve had my 24th birthday, marked my first year with the Chaos, left my job, and committed more concretely to writing my novel. I’ve also read a lot of books: fourteen of them, to be precise, seven of them counting towards #20booksofsummer and two of them on the Man Booker Prize longlist.

most gripping: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s chunky historical novel about a Parisian soprano whose past comes back to haunt her. It’s long and there are flaws, but it’s a hell of a book, impossible to put down and lushly detailed.

oddly anticlimactic: Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times, a story about a young Jewish hairdresser from Soho who moves to Palestine after WWII. There’s political content – espionage and the handover of the Protectorate from British rule – but it’s under-emphasised, so that the shape of the book is a little uneven.

book that really should have made the Booker Prize longlist: The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss. It’s an exceptional novel, taking in its stride stay-at-home parenthood, marriage difficulties, the NHS, mortality, Coventry Cathedral, and much more. Sarah Moss really is a writer to attend to, one of the best novelists working in England today.

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most sadly prescient: Thomas Piketty’s collection of columns for a French newspaper, Chronicles, about European economics, the global recession, Greece, the IMF, and much more. They date from 2012, but Piketty was already predicting the crisis in the Eurozone that led directly to Brexit.

most darkly surprising: Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. I know her through her novels GileadHome and Lila, which are luminous with worldly spirituality; Housekeeping is much weirder, a story of two sisters raised by their eccentric aunt. Parts of it reminded me a little of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, in its portrayal of a young woman coming undone; you always think something terrible is going to happen.

best family saga: Anne Enright’s Baileys Prize-shortlisted The Green Road. I’m not that keen on Irish family epics, but Enright is a skillful and lucid writer, and this had the virtue of jumping repeatedly through time, which often makes things more interesting.

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most thoroughly disappointing: Raw Spirit, a nonfiction book by Iain Banks in which he visited all (or almost all) of the single malt distilleries in Scotland. It was clearly commissioned in order to give him a kind of junket trip; he’s utterly upfront about that; but he also just struck me as a vaguely unpleasant, highly privileged man who did not think very much about his good fortune, preferring instead to cultivate lads-lads-lads friendships and drive fast cars. I’ll still seek out his science fiction, but gosh what a terrible introduction.

most emotionally complicatedDon’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the second of Boris Fishman’s novels to be published in the UK. It deals with adoption, immigration, infertility, and the complex currents of a marriage; there’s a lot to unpack in it, and Fishman’s prose is dense and thoughtful.

most evocative: Rosy Thornton’s Suffolk-set collection of short stories, Sandlands. United by themes of history, haunting, and the past’s effects on the future, it’s a marvellous group of stories that demonstrates a deep love for the Suffolk countryside and its people.

most philosophically demanding: The North Water, Ian McGuire’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel of a whaling voyage that descends into the heart of darkness. There are some levels on which I have issues with this book; it’s a prime example of the deeply masculine, aggressive, Blood Meridian-esque school of novel writing, in which men wrestle with great evil and women, if they exist at all, are whores or dead bodies or both. On another level, though, the writing is absolutely top-notch and the plot is so gripping I read it in a day.

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most bewildering: I never know what to do with Flannery O’Connor, morally speaking. The Violent Bear It Away is, like her other novel Wise Blood, a story about a young man who tries to evade Jesus and can’t. It also features extraordinary violence and stupidity and obstinacy. It’s fascinating, especially because it’s not easy to tell what side O’Connor comes down on.

most relevant: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was the only Booker Prize-shortlisted book from last year that I hadn’t read. If Marlon James hadn’t also been on the list, this would, or should, have won: an achingly open, generous-hearted novel about a house full of Indian immigrants in Sheffield, and the visa-wife of one of them, it refuses to give us pabulum for an ending. It is heartbreakingly good.

second most bewildering: The Many, Wyl Menmuir’s short novel (also Booker Prize-longlisted this year!) about a man who moves to a seaside town in Cornwall and finds that the history of the village is darker and more opaque than anyone is willing to admit. It feels like an allegory, but the terms of that allegory are not clear, which makes me wonder whether it wants to be cleverer than it actually is, or whether I’m just suffering from a failure of perception. Anyone else read it and want to help me out?

up next: I’m currently staying at my grandparents’ house, taking care of my grandpa for a few days while my grandmother is in hospital. I brought the collected poems of Dylan Thomas with me, but I can’t brute-force my way through it; it’s too gnarly. So I’ve picked up my old Penguin copy of Middlemarch instead. When I get back to London, I’ve got the rest of #20booksofsummer plus Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and another Booker longlister, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet, waiting for me.

May Superlatives

May started slowly, but finished fast, and every book I read was worthwhile. That’s as much as you can ask for, really. I read all of my pre-pub review copies first, which is a strategy that seemed to work well enough (at least I met all of my review obligations); I’m going to try it again in June. The bank holiday weekends (both of them) were lovely and needed. The month itself was hard: bereavement, work. Still, I feel incredibly happy. It might be pouring now, but the summer is coming.

best backlist author: I’d only ever read one of Daphne DuMaurier’s books before now (Rebecca, obviously, at school), but My Cousin Rachel has convinced me that she was a proper genius. The story of a woman who may or may not have murdered two rich, controlling husbands, and who may or may not be planning to murder a third hapless young man, our narrator, Philip—it messes with your head unmercifully and it is brilliant.

most unexpected ending: That belonging to Shawn Vestal’s debut novel Daredevils, which managed to shake off tropes about boys and girls in a way that really delighted me. For a novel set in the 1970s about oppressive midwestern Mormons, it inspires in its reader a terrific sense of freedom.

best state-of-the-nation book: Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski, which links the construction of tract homes to the unnameable malaise sweeping America in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and makes both phenomena echo in the lives of construction worker Nolan and his reporter brother, Chance. I think on Twitter I called it the first book I’d read about an American man in a long time that didn’t make me loathe said man. A real gem, in fact.

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I much prefer the US cover, for once

aptest timing: Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, subtitled Great Writers at the End, which I read the week after my uncle died. I’d have preferred more analysis of each writer’s body of work, but I still appreciated it for its careful, methodical examination of other people’s deaths, and attitudes towards death.

most epic: LaRose, Louise Erdrich’s fifteenth novel. It spans 170 years and tells the story of LaRose Iron—given up as a surrogate son to the family of the boy his father kills by accident—as well as the story of his family and Ojibwe heritage. In a way, it was almost too epic: I found it difficult at times to track the reasoning behind Erdrich’s introduction of a new theme or character or episode. Then again, this kind of alien-ness in a reading experience is one of the major reasons to read outside of your comfort zone of race and gender and class and nationality.

most violent: Martin Holmén’s Clinch, a noir thriller set in 1930s Stockholm and published by Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint. I’m not sure how convinced I was by the actual trajectory of the crime, sleuthing, and final revelation, but I’ve only just realized that, because I was so utterly seduced by the blood, the sex, and the cool knowingness of our protagonist, Harry Kvist. I’d nominate this as the thinking person’s beach read this summer.

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most pleasant surprise: One of my work colleagues told me, in conversation, that her favourite book was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. I’d never read it (I tried in high school, but I generally find Eastern European writing, especially by men, to be a curious combination of the intimidating and the outrageously boring—mostly because of what I see as a sort of dramatic indulgence in the style)—anyway, she lent it to me, I read it, and by God, I was moved. I actually cried a bit at the end (the bit with the dog, for those of you who’ve read it.) I can heartily recommend this one as a beach read too, though for totally different reasons: it asks the sort of questions that we only have time to answer when we’re on holiday.

most harrowing: Human Acts, the second novel by Han Kang to be translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith. (Kang and Smith won the Man Booker International Prize in May! Hurrah.) It focuses on the Gwangju massacre of students and labour rights demonstrators in 1980, and on its aftermath. It’s very quiet but extremely affecting: the  night I finished it, I dreamed of murder. Worth reading, even if you ordinarily shy away from tough stuff.

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party to which I was late: Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Floodread in advance of The Essex Serpent‘s release in June. Borrowed from a different work colleague (they’re good, my colleagues!)—I was expecting something rich, strange, and excellent, and I got it. The story of a heatwave, a case of mistaken identity, and a strange house whose inhabitants all seem to be expecting our protagonist, with plenty of Biblical and Old English references along the way (which delighted me no end), it reads like a slow-burning horror film which turns into a drama of simple human sadness. I’m even more thrilled for The Essex Serpent now.

most one-sided story: This isn’t meant to be a criticism or a declaration of allegiance, but obviously Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. They are very beautiful and they give me a lot of hope for free verse as a poetic strategy, and they were very good to read after reading Plath’s poetry. Simultaneously, they are only one-half of the sum total of the memories of their marriage, and you can see the partiality in places. In particular, Hughes seems to both accept and promulgate an autobiographical reading of “Daddy”. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong; it’s worth remembering that Plath herself identified the speaker of “Daddy” as a fictional construct, though of course she may not have been entirely truthful there either.

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second most pleasant surprise: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I have to say, knowing that it was narrated by a Japanese teenager, I was expecting it to be a bit twee and tedious. Mais non! It is about quantum physics and the autonomy conferred by suicide and losing your home and intertextuality and Buddhism and terrorism and all sorts. It is vaguely reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, and ridiculously enjoyable.

straight-up best: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel. Set in the late 1800s (some time after the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, so probably the ’90s), it moves back and forth from London to Aldwinter, a small Essex village, following Cora Seaborne, a widow and keen amateur geologist, and Luke Garrett, the arrogant surgeon who’s in love with her, and Francis, her probably autistic son, and the Ransomes, a vicar and his beautiful, kind, sickly wife. That makes it sound deeply Victorian and stodgy; it is not. This book is sexy and upsetting and, in places, Gothic; it made my heart pound and it made me sad and it made me laugh aloud and it stopped me in my tracks with its accuracy: the way Cora comes to terms with her dead husband’s abuse, the selfishness of wanting people to like you. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m afraid I can’t sell it more articulately, really. It’s very beautiful and sly and surprising. Please go and read it at once.

what’s next: I’m currently reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, a journalistic non-fiction study of eviction in Milwaukee, which is breaking my heart. Next up for review is Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland, from Granta Books, which I think will be fascinating: the black middle classes are often invisible in America, their experiences not considered sufficiently picturesque perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading it.

 

April Superlatives

April was a shockingly good month for reading: I finished sixteen books. Chunking four books from my TBR at a time seems to really work! On the downside, I’ve realized that I have so many books requested from publishers to review that it’s been impossible to review anything that I’ve read outside of that. I’m going to cut down severely on publisher requests after next month (not much I can do about it now because May’s pre-pubs have already been sent to me)–but focusing on the books I really want to read, as opposed to the books I think I might as well accept for review, is something I’m looking forward to.

most thought-altering: Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall. A genuine dystopia, for once (people tend to use the word when they mean “post-apocalyptic” or even just “bad”, but Hall’s novel really does feature a repressive, terrifying government, one that tries to control the population by forcibly implanting coils in all women of reproductive age.) The story of our heroine’s escape, life on a rebel collective, and eventual militarization is fascinating, disturbing, and totally up-ends the things you think you believe about human behaviour.

best UK publishing debut: Foreign Soil, by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A collection of short stories that utterly blew me away, each one perfect and containing a novel’s worth of emotion and development in a tiny space. It feels like such a cliché to call them “gem-like”, but that’s the word my brain wants to use. Buy it and read it, and buy Clarke’s next book too.

most unexpected surprise:  A Month With Starfish, Bev Jackson’s memoir of her month spent on Lesbos volunteering to aid refugees. It’s such a humane and generous book, making both the refugees and the volunteers real people, instead of nameless, faceless statistics or stories on the news. Really worth reading if you can get hold of it; it’s £6.99 on Kindle.

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most thoroughly comforting, a warm bath of a book: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. Oh how I loved this. There’s an interspecies lesbian romance, a human with dwarfism in love with an AI, plenty of fascinating galactic diversity, and a basically happy ending. It’s written with utter control and limpidity, and it made me happy like a good ensemble-cast TV show makes you happy. [insert Firefly reference here]

best thriller: The Turning Tide, by Brooke Magnanti. Complex thriller from former escort Belle du Jour, whose Diary of a London Call Girl was my guilty pleasure throughout university (but especially just before Mods.) It turns out she can write fiction, too. Maybe a little too complex (there are several different plot strands, not all obviously related), but I enjoyed it hugely; it’s topical, political, and socially aware.

best teenager: The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney. Five people in Cork’s criminal underbelly–a gangster, his mother, a prostitute, a teenage drug dealer, and his alcoholic dad–are connected over the years. On the shortlist for the Baileys Prize and I’m hoping it wins. Ryan Cusack is the best, most complicatedly believable teenager that I’ve read for years.

most disillusioning: The Exclusives, by Rebecca Thornton. Two best friends are awful to each other at boarding school, then must reconcile 18 years later. You will never look at boarding schools the same way again.

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party I was late to: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Deservedly a classic. It’s written in quite a portentous, old-fashioned style, but the story of Ged, who needs to learn the limits and responsibilities of his immense power, is never going to get old. And yes, I object to the erasure/belittling of women’s magic, but. It’s still a good book. I read the other two in the original Earthsea trilogy, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, at the start of the bank holiday weekend. Their ethos is one of balance and goodness and maintaining equilibrium, and it’s really quite beautiful.

true love: Selected Poems of Sylvia Plath. I love her. I love her frightening, visual imagination, and the way motherhood repels her as well as attracting her, and I love how she wrote through madness. I just love her. The end. (I’ve mentioned before that someone should set “Daddy” to music, and I’ll say it again. Same goes for “Tulips”, I think.)

most evocative: The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan.  In the grip of a global winter, a lost young man, a single mother, and a transitioning teenager find friendship and love with each other in a Scottish caravan park. Fagan is good on atmosphere and the effect is quite lovely, although the book as a whole feels anti-climactic somehow.

most engrossing: I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in two days, glued to the sofa and twiddling my hair breathlessly through most of a Saturday.  I’ve always loved Kingsolver, but this novel–the one that made her name, about an evangelical missionary’s family in the Congo in 1959–is really something else. Transcendent, and highly recommended.

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most disturbing: Cynthia Bond’s Ruby, a tale of Satanism and the rape and murder of children in East Texas. It is beautiful and moving but it is also incredibly dark. Also, if you are a woman, you may have difficulty trusting any men at all for up to forty-eight hours after reading it. Sorry. (Also, Becoming/Unbecoming, a graphic novel memoir by an artist called Una about growing up in Yorkshire under the shadow of the Ripper murders. It’s about so much more than that, too; it’s about what happens when a culture hates women, and thinks they deserve all the violence meted out to them. I am very glad it is not the 1970s anymore, although I’m sanguine about the amount of hatred and violence that remains.)

most formally playful: The Cauliflower, by Nicola Barker, is a fragmented novel that explores the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a late nineteenth-century Indian guru who was thought to be God. It’s a very self-aware, constructed novel, and its reputation preceded it, so I expected it to be deeply annoying. Instead, it was very amusing and a little disturbing, shaking your ideas about how the public performance of faith works. Good stuff.

up next: After the bank holiday, I’ll need to read Shawn Vestal’s Daredevils, from ONE Pushkin, to review (it’s supposedly a combination of Mormons and motorcycles). I’ve also got Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters lined up for soon afterwards.

 

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. We are getting a weekly veg box. Yes. Truly. I am now an official member of the unbearable young urban professional elite, and I’m not even sorry. I am only excited at what I will be able to cook over the next week with today’s delivery of butterhead lettuce, chestnut mushrooms, purple sprouting broccoli, red peppers, onions, and swiss chard.
  2. I made panettone bread and butter pudding (not the panettone bit, we bought that from the Italian caff downstairs) on Sunday night. The custard split, slightly, because I took my eye off it for LIKE ONE SECOND. But it was still pretty good, and apparently just as good cold.
  3. Last week I used Facebook to do a Very Scientific Survey of my employed friends: I asked them whether they’d rather be bored but peaceful at work, or busy and stressed. Most of them said busy and stressed, which is fascinating: the debilitating long-term effect of stress is (hilariously enough) one of the things that worries me the most about modern living. It’s also interesting because I think lots of people don’t work as well as they could: they don’t have enough to do, or they have too much to do, or they feel they need to be seen working without actually doing anything effective. Basically, work culture seems really skewed and weird to me and I’m trying to figure it out. My ideal, as I said on that thread, is “happily and consistently occupied”, but it seems very difficult to find a formal, full-time, salaried position that provides such a level of work. Feast or famine seem far more common.
  4. Media Diversified has been retweeting and promoting this for an age (an Internet age, mind you, which is, like, two weeks), and yet a petition to save a Soho art-house cinema STILL has more signatures. I’m 100% behind the salvation of Soho art-house cinemas, but for the love of God, can we start taking rape perpetrated by UN peacekeeping forces seriously? That would be great. Really, really great.
  5. There’s a wedding in August that I’m going to, and I haven’t been to a wedding for over a decade, and I have no fucking clue what to wear. I’m probably going to have to buy something new. Any advice? I’ve been lurking on Torrid’s Instagram feed and there are some really nice sundresses with contrasting jackets, but I’m short so I’d probably need to get wedge sandals, too.
  6. A guy wiped out his entire company (and some other peoples’ companies, too) with one line of bad code. edit: Actually, he didn’t. It was a marketing hoax. But a weirdly prescient once, since a website hosting company then “deleted part of the Internet” not seven days later. Moral: BACK YOUR SHIT UP, YOU LOT.
  7. Has any composer ever set Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” to music? I was reading her Selected Poems last week, and it just seemed like the sort of poem that Kurt Weill, for instance, could have made a really chilling, incredible song out of.
  8. My brother was crowned Prom King (and his girlfriend, Prom Queen) last weekend. This is simultaneously hilarious and mind-blowing. I did high school so incredibly poorly (I barely spoke to anyone for three and a half years) that it seems particularly miraculous that I should actually be related, in any way, to a Prom King. The kicker is that he’s not even a football jock; he’s a smart, hilarious theatre kid with a talent for music and drawing and mountain biking. He’s also about 7,000 times nicer than I am.