Two Utopias: Thoughts on Walkaway and Naondel

These two books are, on the surface of it, about as different as you can imagine. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow, is resolutely for adults (with a lot of graphic sex); Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff’s follow-up to last year’s Maresi, is, despite its girth, a middle-grade YA novel. Walkaway believes in the power of technology to save us; Naondel places its faith in earth magic and the maternal life force. Walkaway is profoundly, almost giddily, optimistic about human nature; Naondel shows us a humanity that is near uniform in its brutality. And yet for all these polarities – sci fi vs. fantasy; adults vs. kids; positivity vs. cynicism – the two books have some striking similarities, and even their differences are illuminating.

9780765392763Both are about the drive, and the overwhelming need, to create utopias. Doctorow opens his book by introducing us to three characters: Hubert “Etcetera” Espinoza, so called because he has nineteen first names; Seth, Hubert’s slightly fratty but basically harmless friend; and Natalie, the scion of a minor branch of Toronto’s wealthy Redwater family. Hubert and Seth meet Natalie at a party (in one of the book’s many delightful coinings, it is a “Communist party”, where enterprising youths use 3D printing and microbial biology to create free dance floors, free speakers, and—crucially—free beer out of “feedstock”, useless industrial leftovers in an abandoned warehouse). At the end of chapter one, the party is crashed by drones directed by the forces of “default” society; one of Natalie’s friends, Billiam, falls fatally from a catwalk; Hubert, Seth and Natalie end up in the house of Natalie’s father, uber-capitalist Jacob Redwater; and the three of them, fueled by Natalie’s disgust over her family’s privileged arrogance and Hubert’s knowledge of other options, choose to “go walkaway”. Apparently, eighty years in the future, this will be a possibility: to join huge communal groups of people who don’t want to live in the wage slavery of late capitalism (where the rulers are not the 1%, but the .001%), and who use advances in 3D printing, network programming, and genetic modification to build lives for themselves.

The other way of living, in this world—the “default” way—is exactly like how we live now, but worse: go into deep hock to acquire degrees that are all but meaningless; reach age sixty-five without ever shaking the word “assistant” from your job title; live in constant terror of eviction or joblessness. Domestic servants in the Redwater household are hired on an ad hoc basis through an app—much in the way that catering and hospitality agencies provide workers now—meaning that the maid or the gardener is rarely the same person twice. It’s not the sort of world that values anyone, other than absolute zillionaires. The appeal of rejecting it is obvious.

34035652Naondel, meanwhile, is set in a country that clearly doesn’t belong to our world but which, judging from linguistics and economy, seems to be an amalgam of Arabic and Japanese culture. (This is a problem in itself, opening the novel up to charges of both exoticising and demonising Eastern cultures and their attitudes towards women. The Big Bad character is a brutal poisoner and rapist named Iskan ak Honta-che, which made me think of nothing so much as the rapey desert warlord in Game of Thrones.) In Karenokoi, very few people are both good and powerful. Power, by definition, corrupts. Turtschaninoff shows us a world where it’s not just the men who are evil, either; Izani, Iskan’s mother, is cold and cruel to her grandsons, while Lehan, the younger sister of a main character, is so infatuated with Iskan that she actually—albeit unknowingly—helps him to victimise another woman.

The whole novel is the foundation story of the Red Abbey on the island of Menos, where the first book, Maresi, was set. In Maresi we saw that kind of utopian, matriarchal society in action, and cheered as it destroyed a threat from outside. In Naondel we see why it’s necessary: the only place for women in Karenokoi is a subservient one. Interestingly, though, Turtschaninoff’s attempts at creating diversity among her characters cause a continuity problem. Several of the women who eventually escape from the dairahesi (harem) of Ohaddin Palace are from other cultures: there’s a woman from a nomadic tribe with strong spiritual connections to the earth, another from a tree-dwelling people who has the power to control others’ dreams. When they escape—as we always know they will—why don’t they make for one of these lands, where women and their powers are revered or at least respected? One suspects that it’s because the mechanics of Turtschaninoff’s plot demand otherwise. They have to settle the island of Menos and establish the Red Abbey; we knew from the moment we opened the book that it would end this way. To make that happen, we get a bit of authorial hand-waving that acknowledges the problem without digging into it, which limits the book’s success.

Anyway. Both of these countries, clearly, are ruled by total bastards. The establishment of a utopia is the only way out of their uncompromising and dehumanising systems. But here Doctorow and Turtschaninoff part ways again. Doctorow’s bastards are, by definition, a minority, and a tiny minority at that. Pretty much everyone whom our hero/-ines meet in walkaway is compassionate, sensible, and positive about their ability to make a difference. They collectively embody the covered-dish principle, which Doctorow explains within the book itself: after a catastrophe, do you go over to your neighbour’s house with a covered dish of food, or a shotgun? If you choose the dish, even a neighbour who chose the shotgun is more likely to put it down and offer you some food in return. If you choose the shotgun, it’s very unlikely that things will end well for anyone. Walkaway is about people who believe fiercely that taking a covered dish is the right thing to do, and who make the right choice most of the time. When an aggressive inhabitant of a walkaway community tries to create a formal hierarchy, he’s stymied because people there simply abandon the place, rather than live under someone again. When police besiege another community near the end of the novel, they’re defeated in part by their own innate goodness: those who are trapped mobilise the Internet to find relatives of the policemen who are also walkaways, then broadcast appeals from police’s siblings, parents, and children, targeted at individual cops. Without fail, this causes them to drop their weapons. You may find this beautiful, or unbelievable, or – as I did – both; but there’s no doubt that it gave me more hope, post-election, post-Brexit, post-Westminster and Stockholm and Syrian gas attack, than anything more overtly political I’ve read in the past year.

Naondel, by contrast, doesn’t allow us to believe in the innate goodness of anyone other than our heroines. They are somewhat complicated, but their morally dubious acts are always implicitly justified: Kabira, the eldest, taunts her mother-in-law with breathtaking cruelty as the old woman lies dying, but she has endured decades of taunts in her turn, and has been denied access to her children. Orseola, the dreamweaver, is exiled from her home for a major social taboo, but her outburst stems from the fact that she is untrained in her craft, and frightened of her own power. Sulani, the warrior, murders people left, right and centre, but she is a warrior and—it’s implied—that’s just what warriors do. Outside of this circle, we actually see very few characters, and the minor ones—like the eunuch guards of the harem—are at best indifferent to the suffering of the women. At worst, they’re either mustache-twirlers (like Iskan, who all but cackles), or—as in the case of Iskan’s other concubines—vain and stupid.

This is largely down to the fact that Turtschaninoff’s gender politics are broad-brush. It makes a certain level of sense. She’s writing for middle school girls, who are just becoming aware of the fact that, yeah, people will judge you for literally anything, and, no, it doesn’t seem to be like that for boys. Unfairness is the engine that drives Naondel—at points I found myself becoming furious—and to be given a book that not only provokes anger, but legitimises it, is a big deal for a twelve-year-old girl. Doctorow’s utopia takes the opposite approach. It is almost post-gender. None of the major characters have long-lasting cishet relationships; they’re all either L, G, B, T, Q, or I, and relationship drama is kept at an absolute minimum. Crucially, cishet identities are most reinforced by people who oppose walkaway culture: by Jimmy, the guy who attempts to create hierarchy in a community by tearing down their best programmer for being female; and by Jacob Redwater, whose wife and daughter live in a world of gilded privilege but almost no real freedom.

I prefer Doctorow’s vision, probably appropriately: I’m an adult, and his gender politics are adult too. Naondel is still a book I’d recommend heartily to middle-grade kids and their parents; it has important things to say. I would just take care to balance it with something like Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet. For all her faults, Pierce at least recognised that women were capable not only of creating their own retreat from the world, but also of engaging with its injustices head on.

Thanks very much to Chrissy at Head of Zeus and Tabitha at Pushkin Press for the review copies. Walkaway will be published in the UK on 25 April; Naondel was published in the UK on 6 April.

 

6 Degrees of Separation: Room

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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First up: Room by Emma Donoghue, the story of a young woman who is abducted, imprisoned, and impregnated. We see it all through the eyes of the son she has with her captor—Jack, who until he is five years old believes that the room where they live is all that there is.

How you feel about Room depends on large part on how authentic you feel Jack’s voice is. I liked it (many others didn’t), but another book with utterly convincing child characters is The Light Years, the first entry in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s sprawling Cazalet Chronicles, which tells the story of an extended upper-middle-class English family before and during the Second World War. It is much less sentimental Downton-esque pablum than it is an illuminating and moving look at what life used to be like, and how in many ways the emotional beats of life in the ’40s were the same ones we experience now. It’s also (The Light Years in particular) very funny.

The Light Years is a book I often recommend to people who tell me they’ve enjoyed Barbara Pym. Excellent Women is probably her most famous, centering on a group of Anglican church ladies in a small English village. Great on group politics and genteel rivalry.

Pym came back into fashion after her books spent many years under the radar. Pushkin Press tends to perform the same service for writers, often from Eastern or Central European countries, who haven’t had as much press as they should have had in the West. Stefan Zweig has perhaps not been quite as obscure as some others, but the recently republished edition of his The World of Yesterday has definitely pushed him further into the public consciousness.

Another Pushkin Press book that I reeeally want to hit the big-time is Sand (review), by Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s basically John Le Carré as directed by the Coen Brothers in one of their blacker moods, and it’s insanely good.

Herrndorf’s book has the opposite of a false bottom: a huge twist comes far too late in the day for it to be anything other than the real ending. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (review), while the twist is less huge, achieves the same effect with its ending, finally establishing how we’re meant to feel about a character who’s been giving off mixed signals since the beginning.

And that’s all, folks. Next month the chain will start with Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. And tonight, I’ll post my personal Baileys Prize shortlist, so stay tuned. HURRAH.

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”

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Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

Two New Books From Pushkin Press

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

the place you come from is a place you can never return to

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Sonja is forty and has never learned to drive. Now, living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of Swedish crime fiction into Danish, she’s going to learn. But the project doesn’t start out well—her instructor, Jytte, barks instructions and makes her anxious—and when she asks to switch instructors, she’s landed with the driving school owner himself, Folke, a man of disconcertingly present sexuality. Nor is all going well in other parts of Sonja’s life: her sister, Kate, won’t return her phone calls; her parents are rapidly aging in a rural part of Denmark that seems to be dying along with its old farming inhabitants; and her oldest friend, Molly, is drifting further and further away from her.

If that makes this sound like a romantic comedy or a fluffy piece of relationships fiction, it’s not. It isn’t full of gloom, either, though: the prevailing mood of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a kind of gentle melancholy. Sonja constantly drifts back in her thoughts to the safe place at the centre of her parents’ rye field, where she loved to hide. She fantasises about the huge skies of the countryside, the whooper swans. She tries to find green spaces in Copenhagen that will satisfy her need for landscape: “it looks like a piece of wilderness, but it isn’t, it’s Valby Park.” What the book seems to be trying to explore is how a woman—a person, really, but Sonja’s womanhood is important, I think—can come adrift. It’s not dramatic; she isn’t drinking too much or spending too much money or wandering around talking to herself. But she is very, very lonely nonetheless.

Nors works at showing us that loneliness through clean, clear, present-tense sentences. She isn’t verbose, though we get no sense of superhuman restraint in the prose either; it doesn’t feel minimalist, although it sort of is. In a way this makes it difficult to write about: I can sense the details of the book slipping from my memory, though I read it less than a week ago. The ending, though, is perfect: hopeful without sentimentality, allowing for love but not equating love with magic. And the love comes from a most unexpected place, one that made me smile with surprised delight. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

For A Little While, by Rick Bass

as much grace in the laying down as in the building up

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Rick Bass is all but unheard of in this country. In America, when I worked as a bookseller in high school, we would sell a couple of his books every month or so, but it has taken his name a long time to reach these shores. Pushkin Press’s collection of selected and new short stories from his pen is one of the best books I have read for a very long time; I’m hoping that it helps him make his name here, and I’m also going to be tracking down more of Bass’s work, for the beauty of his writing on the sentence level as well as the beauty of his ideas.

He writes mostly about people in the South and West and Southwest: the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, mountainous or forested regions where hunting and logging are part of daily life, Alabama during the oil boom. These are places where people live near to the earth. Bass stands out, as a writer of such places, because he does not allow for despair or tragedy to intrude into a story where it has no right to be. Again and again, he creates situations where people are vulnerable—lonely, desiring love, reaching out for something, asking. Many of them reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s setups, but whereas O’Connor will inevitably tip the story into scorn at grotesquerie and what seems like a kind of mean-minded divine punishment for presumption, Bass’s touch is gentle, generous, loving.

In “Field Events”, one of my favourite of the stories, two brothers who excel at the shot put adopt an enormous young man called A.C., intending to train him to greatness. Their sister, Lory, is a miserable schoolteacher: her students are disinterested and often cruel to her, and she is chronically depressed. She falls in love with A.C., and he with her: his hugely muscled body cradling her tiny frame in a sitting room armchair when she can’t sleep. If this were O’Connor, you would be bracing yourself hard, waiting for the point at which A.C. mugs Lory and abandons her, crushing her heart. But that point doesn’t come. Bass is more interested, I think, in observing the strangeness of reality than in creating a philosophical structure, and that makes his stories more beautifully, lopsidedly convincing.

And he can imbue his prose with a weightiness that, somehow, does not embarrass. He describes the natural world—trees and game and snow—in vivid, serious detail. “Her First Elk” is a story about a young woman named Jyl whose first solo hunt kill is an elk stag. Hunting, for her, is tied up with the memory of her beloved father, now dead. She is helped to skin and cure the elk by two elderly brothers, Ralph and Bruce. There is a mythic element to this story that would not feel out of place in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but look how much less irritating Bass is than McCarthy:

Bruce poured a gallon jug of clean water over Ralph’s hands and wrists to rinse the soap away, and Ralph dried his hands and arms with a clean towel and emptied out the old bloody wash water, then filled it anew, and it was time for Bruce to do the same. Jyl marveled at, and was troubled by, this privileged glimpse at a life, or two lives, beyond her own—a life, two lives, of cautious compentence, fitted to the world; and she was grateful to the elk, and its gone-away life, beyond the sheer bounty of the meat it was providing her, grateful to it for having led her into this place, the small and obscure if not hidden window of these two men’s lives.

The prose uses some of the same tricks as McCarthy’s, but uses them sensibly (the mild archaism of “anew”; the faint ecclesiasticism of “into this place”), and we feel not daunted or halted but let in, like Jyl, to a small and obscure window. I am so grateful to Rick Bass for writing these stories, I cannot tell you. He has written novels, too; I will be seeking them out.


For A Little While was released in the UK on 2 February; Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be released in the UK on 23 February. Many thanks to the publicity folks at Pushkin Press for the review copies!

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

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January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

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February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

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March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

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April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

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May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

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June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

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July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

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August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

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September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

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October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

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November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

A World Gone Mad: the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren

But still—are we doing as much as we should? Posterity will no doubt be the judge of that.

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It is forgivable, I think, to be slightly fatigued by WWII. Especially in the UK, it represents a time and an atmosphere so deeply romanticised as to be almost fictional. The “Blitz Spirit” is invoked by people who want to take the country back to a status quo that never existed as uniformly as they’d like to think; grainy black-and-white photos of wartorn and occupied nations don’t manage to convey very much in the way of individual characters being formed under horrific circumstances. What I liked about the wartime diaries of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Swedish children’s classic about anarchic redhead Pippi Longstocking, is that this collection gives us a perspective on the war that Anglo-American education often ignores: that of the Nordic countries, sandwiched between aggressive Germany and bloodthirsty Russia, and in particular that of Sweden, which maintained official neutrality throughout the conflict.

That neutrality is a moral stance, although it pretends not to be one. Lindgren is constantly reminding herself of how lucky they have it: there’s very little food rationing, and their Christmases and birthdays often include veritable feasts. In 1940, she writes,

It’s become completely clear to me that, as things stand, there’s no country in Europe left so untouched by the impact of the war as here. …To my mind, our rations are so generous that anyone who bought all that we are entitled to would end up in dire financial straits.

Lindgren is more aware than most, one suspects, but even she isn’t free from complacency. The next year, directly after paragraphs describing the “intolerable food situation” in France and Finland, and the public executions in German-occupied Norway, she describes their new flat:

We now have a lovely big living room, the children each have their own room and then there’s our bedroom. …I really don’t want it to get bombed.

It’s a trifle difficult to summon up any sympathy at this point.

A semi-permanent strain in writing about the war, particularly modern-day writing about the war, is the question of how much people knew about the Holocaust and German/Russian atrocities at any given time. Despite the evident presence of Nazi apologism in the UK during the 1940s, it’s obvious that Lindgren is pretty well aware of what’s going on. This is probably at least in part to do with her work at the official government censor’s office: she has access to letters that demonstrate, first-hand, just how bad the situation is in the rest of Europe. Her growing awareness is painful; here’s a snippet from 1941:

A profoundly sad Jewish letter, a document of its time, crossed my desk today. A Jew who had recently arrived here in Sweden sent a fellow Jew in Finland an account of the transporting of Jews from Vienna to Poland. …Some sort of instruction arrives by post and the individual concerned has to leave home. …Conditions on the days leading up to transportation, during the journey and on arrival in Poland were such that the letter-writer didn’t want to describe them. …It is apparently Hitler’s intention to make Poland into one big ghetto where the poor Jews are to perish.

One big ghetto, or one big concentration camp. And here is a section from early 1943:

I wonder what the German people really think and feel, faced with the ‘blessings’ of National Socialism. A deadly war killing the flower of youth; the hatred and loathing of virtually all other nations; horrific assaults on defenceless people; torture both mental and physical of the populations of occupied countries; the informer system; the demolition of family life; ‘euthanasia’ for the incurably ill and mentally deficient; the reduction of love to a matter of basic procreation; and—unless all the signs are deceptive—total breakdown of the German people in the not-too-distant future. It’s simply impossible for many Germans not to have realized how royally duped they’ve been by their Führer.

The euthanasia bit is particularly striking; I wasn’t aware that many people outside of the Nazi regime knew about that at the time, particularly not as it related to the murder of differently-abled people and homosexuals. It’s a clear-eyed and condemnatory paragraph, making it even more horrifying to think about the widespread defense of eugenics in Allied countries.

It all seems so terribly relevant to 2016 in many ways. Here’s Lindgren celebrating a Churchill speech:

So different from a Hitler speech! You’d think everyone would realize that only a man with some kind of mental defect could stand up and make speeches like Hitler.

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ANYWAY.

And this, too, rings true, especially when she writes about the tens of thousands of Finnish, Danish and Norwegian refugees pouring into Sweden, and the anti-Semitism that sometimes greets them:

Recently I’ve been reading in Grimberg’s history of the world about ancient Rome and all the bloodbaths and atrocities, proscriptions and wars of conquest. Reading the papers and coming across the same geographical  names, one simply despairs at how little humanity has learnt in the intervening centuries.

So this is, after all, a useful and interesting addition to the panoply of World War literature published in the West. I only have two complaints about the editing of this particular edition. The first is that Lindgren’s diaries included a lot of press cuttings, newspaper articles, cartoons and the like. In this volume, these are not reproduced; instead, we get italicised précises of their contents. For instance: “Press cuttings. One undated and unidentified: ‘The Allied message to the people of Italy’. Roosevelt and Churchill appeal to them to surrender. …Dagens Nyheter, same day: After the bombing of Rome, petrol is free and loaded vehicles stream out of the city.” It’s not clear why these aren’t simply translated from Swedish like the rest of the book; maybe Pushkin thought that would make the whole thing too long, but at 218 pages it wouldn’t be damaged by a little more bulk, and might help to give the reader a better sense of the timelines of the war on various fronts. The other option would have been to reproduce the articles as facsimiles, though I suppose even in black and white this might have been considered prohibitively expensive.

The other issue, which is more confusing for the general reader, is the lack of footnotes. Lindgren writes about her family without explaining background, which is natural in a personal diary, but when personal diaries are published, explanatory notes are usually included. There are at least two instances where this would have been helpful: at one point she mentions her son’s 17th birthday, then writes of her 13th wedding anniversary a few pages later. This seemed unusually liberal, even for Sweden, in the 1940s, so I had to check out Wikipedia (where I discovered that Lindgren was rather a minx: Lars was fathered by her employer when she was nineteen. She refused to marry the man, and instead married another employer, Sture Lindgren, who was eleven years her senior, in 1931.) A brief footnote would have taken five minutes to write and saved the confusion. Likewise, in 1944 she drops several cryptic hints about having “lost everything”; her marriage seems to be going through a rough patch. The two likeliest explanations, to me, are a miscarriage, or Sture’s infidelity, but again, no note, and this time Wikipedia is no help: they never divorced, and no mention is made of relationship troubles. It’s possible that Pushkin thought Lindgren’s marriage woes simply weren’t relevant to the war, which is what the diaries are mostly about—but they were clearly important enough for her to mention in the diaries in the first place, so I think a reader is owed a little bit of explanation.

Those two niggles aside, this is a wonderful and, in places, heart-rending account of World War II, from a perspective not usually prioritised in historical retellings. Neutrality gives Lindgren an unusual objectivity, while Sweden’s geographical position means her account retains a sense of real urgency and investment in the war’s outcome. (Also, it’s delightful to catch her little asides about the invention of Pippi Longstocking!) Definitely one to look out for, especially as this year of global madness winds down.

Many thanks to Mollie Stewart at Pushkin Press for the review copy. A World Gone Mad was published in the UK on 27 October.