June Superlatives

Hard copies read in June 2020

June has been the month of the most conscious reading I’ve done for a very long time. This probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation. It’s become very clear to me that, although I attempted to recommend diverse books in my professional life before now, I must make the decentralisation of whiteness a central tenet of my bookselling practice. To do that, I must also make it a central tenet of my reading practice—not to mention which, stories by Black authors (and authors of colour more generally) must be read for their own sake. And we—bloggers, booksellers and readers—need to encourage the industry to publish more of them, making sure they’re not all centered on racism (because… you know… everyone’s life and narrative is bigger than that). The more representation there is in the book world, the healthier and more creative it is.

best coming-of-age story: Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. This reminded me so strongly of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, centering as it does on young Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants in New York, and her attempts to break free of the familial and societal expectations that bind and devalue her. It’s a huge shame that it’s now out of print; my copy is an old Virago edition. Bring it back, Virago!

loudest wakeup call: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Hardly the most fun read, but without a doubt, this has laid the foundation for much of my self-education this month. Alexander’s thesis is that mass incarceration has created a tacit racial caste system that functions much as Jim Crow laws used to, but without public acknowledgment. Drawing examples from recent political and legislative history, Alexander’s argument is convincing, thorough, and extremely alarming.

best random acquisition: The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph. The U Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, which I’m signed up to; usually I don’t read them, but this one seemed extremely apt. Ralph conducted an oral history/anthropological survey of people—mostly African-American men—who have experienced torture at the hands of the Chicago PD over the course of forty years. It’s a tough read, and sometimes repetitive (he structures most of the book as a series of open letters), but it’s illuminating about the struggles that people in a particular region have been engaging in for years, without any national media coverage. (And it’s made quite clear that Chicago can’t be the only place in the Union where this occurs.)

most outside my reading habits: Managing Up, by Mary Abbajay. A weird one: this is essentially a business/self-help tome about how to work with different types of managers. I’m interested in career development, but I tend to be quite resistant to books of this nature, especially ones that demand behavioural adaptation from the person already in a position of less (or no) power. Still, it certainly provided food for thought. Abbajay does distinguish between a manager who just doesn’t communicate the same way you do, and a manager who’s actively abusive or dangerous (she has no time for the latter and encourages people whose bosses are abusive to leave asap, thank goodness).

greatest potential (not bad as it is, but…) : Mr Atkinson’s Rum Contract: the Story of a Tangled Inheritance, by Richard Atkinson. Atkinson’s attempt to trace his family back through several centuries of British history is fascinating, if overlong and occasionally bogged down in details of eighteenth-century scams. Still, the thing that’s most interesting about it is the fact that many of his ancestors were slaveowners, holding significant estates in Jamaica. The timing of this book intrigues; had it been published even a month later, I wonder if Atkinson’s publishers would have asked him to address this shameful legacy more directly. Instead, though he does engage with it, it’s on a fairly superficial level, the general attitude being that this was not a great thing, but without dwelling much on the details. Still, what it does do is drive home how many perfectly average middle-class families in Britain today have benefited from the slave trade. It’s not just peers and merchant princes who need to take a good hard look at their own houses.

most illuminating: Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, by Akala. There’s been a surge in purchases of nonfiction by Black authors about contemporary racism, and it can be a little tricky, I think, to navigate the options. If you pick just one of these books to read, make it Natives. Akala is a poet, singer and lecturer; his guide through British racist history, especially the legacy of empire, is both accessible and revelatory. I truly didn’t expect to learn much I didn’t already know, and found myself humbled instead. There’s a reason Natives is already a contemporary classic.

best London novel: The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon. A brilliant, funny, poignant novel chronicling the experiences of the first wave of West Indian immigrants post-WWII, focalized mostly through the eyes of generous but world-weary Moses Aloetta. Other characters include the romantic Sir Galahad and the roguish Nigerian survivor, Cap. The writing is beautiful, a melange of dialect and so-called Standard English that captures the rhythms of thought and time passing. There’s a particular ten-page section describing summer in London that made me miss the freedom of hanging out in parks more than anything else in this shitty pandemic season yet.

most darkly comedic: A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes. Himes’s first detective novel is so funny and so dark that it reminds me of the Coen Brothers (he’s also often compared to Chandler). Featuring a mendicant cross-dressing nun, the theft of some gold ore that may or may not exist, and the detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (who appear in smaller parts here than in subsequent entries in the series), A Rage in Harlem invites us both to mock and to celebrate the innocence of its protagonist, clumsy Jackson, who can’t believe his woman Imabelle could do him wrong even when presented with the most suggestive evidence otherwise. It was made into a movie with Forest Whitaker, Robin Givens and Danny Glover, which I’d love to see—particularly the hearse chase scene. (You heard me.)

best reimagining: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Rhys’s famed “prequel” to Jane Eyre retells the story of Bertha Rochester in her own words (including the fact that “Bertha” is a name assigned to her by her husband; she is born Antoinette). Dealing persuasively and furiously with inequities of skin colour, gender, sexual expression and money, Wide Sargasso Sea is a short but very deep text; the fact that I never studied it in an educational institution is extraordinary to me, given the challenge it poses to concepts like elite storytelling, narrative closure, and teleology. It’s also incredibly beautifully written, its register slipping between a kind of Joycean tracing of the movements of consciousness and a more constructed, linear storytelling mode. (This slippage occurs not only when Antoinette narrates, but also in Rochester’s sections—the effect of the Caribbean on his soul is not itself corrosive, though his reactions of fear, rejection, and adherence to known hierarchies certainly are.) It’s a gem of a book, one to reread.

least-known (to me) history: The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, by Yasmin Khan. The Great Partition served as my entry point into the history of British colonialism in South-east Asia, for which I’m glad, though I’d like to see (or be made aware of—if you know any, recommend me some!) more books about the experience of first-generation Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the UK. My primary takeaway from Khan’s book is that the Hindu/Muslim divide and subsequent violent religious nationalism was not a natural one; it was identified and stoked by British colonial officials, who could not conceive of the rivalries that did exist but were divided along different lines. Instead, by imposing their own expectations of faith-based conflict upon residents of the subcontinent, colonial officials created a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear and tensions between religious communities contributed to, essentially, an arms race, which exploded bloodily in the summer of 1947. I also learned that the Radcliffe line, which created both West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), was drawn by a Briton who had never been to the regions in question, was not a cartographer or politically aware, and had spent about ten days in India, in total. The staggering arrogance of the project needs no further elaboration.

most likely to be a modern classic: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This book made history by becoming the first number 1 nonfiction book in the UK by a Black author. I listened to it on Audible and thought it was an excellent addition to the canon of nonfiction on contemporary racial issues, but although there’s huge value in Eddo-Lodge’s explicit focus on raising the consciousness of white people (racism, after all, is so often viewed as a “BAME problem” whereas it is in fact quite clearly a white-person problem), I found myself preferring Natives on the basis of its depth of historical research. Both, I think, clearly have broad commercial appeal, which is an important thing, and if Eddo-Lodge’s book gets more white people (especially in the publishing industry) to evaluate their own racism and complicity in racist structures, it’ll have done what it set out to do.

most terrifyingly prescient: Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Butler was a prophet; of this I am quite convinced. The first book in her Earthseed series, Parable of the Sower, was out of print earlier this month, so I ordered the second, which is comprehensible on its own. Butler describes an America ravaged by economic hardship and religious fundamentalism, electing a hard-line right-wing fundamentalist soi-disant “Christian” named Andrew Jarrett Steele, who promises to make America great again. Steele’s supporters attack the self-sufficient community that our protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has created in an effort to propagate her own religion, Earthseed, which teaches that God is change and that humanity’s destiny is to leave Earth and populate the stars. For anyone who loved The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the too-close-to-reality dystopia you should be reading; written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a way that Atwood’s novel tended to elide. Profoundly disturbing—I’ve been thinking about it for a fortnight—and incredibly moving.

best psychological profile: The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper. I love literary true crime, and manage to find about one book a year that really answers to that description. The Arsonist is about the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia in 2009, which killed 173 people and left many more homeless. A suspect was quickly arrested on suspicion of lighting the fires: Brendan Sokaluk, whose defense team struggled to represent him because he is both autistic and intellectually disabled, and frequently seemed not to understand what was happening to him. Hooper examines what happened the day the fires started, the major players in the arson investigation, and Sokaluk’s already difficult life (he’d had trouble at work, and lived in a house his parents had bought for him, where he could be regularly checked in on), as well as what happened after he was arrested. The result is an in-depth piece of investigative journalism, dealing with mental health stigma and the evisceration of industry in Victoria as well as the social and environmental consequences of the fires. It’s perfect for fans of Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief or Susan Orleans’s The Library Book.

most entirely unexpected: Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin. It seems to me as though a lot of narratives around queer self-acceptance and religion establish those two things as being completely incompatible. And I can see why: religious fundamentalism is frequently characterized by its cruelty towards, and rejection of, queerness. Yet Baldwin’s typically gorgeous novel embraces both things: his young protagonist, John, fears his stepfather’s harsh and disapproving (and heteronormative) God, but the penultimate scene in the book is the beautiful, transcendent vision of the divine that John finally receives, and in his dialogue with an older boy at the very end, we are given to understand that although John may appear to turn his back on the church by embracing his queerness, the truth of that revelation—that he is a child of God and much loved—will never cease to be. In addition to John’s perspective, we hear from his mother, stepfather, and aunt in a central section that completely opens up the reader’s perspective on these characters. I’d read one Baldwin before (Giovanni’s Room) and, as previously, was utterly blown away by the quality of his thought and writing. Which one next?!

most political use of humour: Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, which reminds me strongly of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the way it mobilizes magical realism and dark comedy to criticize political actors. It tells the story of Aburiria, governed by a corrupt and self-aggrandizing dictator known only as the Ruler, who decides to build a new Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. A large cast of devout Christians, government ministers, police officers and businessmen is anchored by Kamiti, a beggar who initially adopts the role of a witch doctor as a joke but finds himself inextricably entwined with the fate of the nation, and Nyawira, the political radical with whom he falls in love. Hilarious, compelling, and a clear argument for Thiong’o as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

June 2020’s e- and audiobook intake

May Superlatives

This is the first post I’ve created with WordPress’s newly structured Editor, so bear with me if it’s weirdly formatted. It all seems mostly, roughly intuitive, but who can say? Anyway, May 2020: a pretty good reading month. Fewer books, but quite possibly many more pages—I read some chunksters, not all of which flew by, but all of which were incredibly rewarding. One of them, actually, is on my list of candidates for Books of the Year (I’m creating that as I go this year, in the hope of having an easier time choosing when December rolls around). Thirteen in total, only seven of which were physical books; photo of them below, collage of ebooks and audiobooks in middle and at end of post. Let’s get into it!

best classic: One of the few remaining Charlotte Brontë novels I hadn’t yet read, her historical novel Shirley. I think it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that nineteenth-century novelists wrote historical novels that were also set in the nineteenth century; Shirley is about industrial labor and romantic pragmatism in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic wars, as new laws devastate the area’s woollen mills. It feels surprisingly hard-nosed even for C.B., who, for my money, is the most ruthless Brontë by a long way. But, as I think I mentioned before, it features a female friendship that doesn’t collapse over a man or even revolve around him most of the time, and that’s refreshing.

slowest burn: This, by the way, is a good thing. The one thing everyone knows about Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is that it’s long. Having read it, the reason for the length is obvious: it’s a stylistic choice that reveals character, a buildup of childhood memories, musical earworms, film and literature references, a constant circling around specific but initially, apparently, random events that reveals this woman’s inner self to us, a building up of layers like the lamination of dough for croissants (she’s a baker). And despite the fact that it’s nearly 1000 pages long, the final 100 pages are nail-biting. Literally, genuinely, edge of your seat stuff. They never say that in the reviews.

most reflective of my own obsessive brain: Okay, this is a weird category, but it’s no weirder than me finishing The Only Plane in the Sky last month and immediately using my free Audible credit to download Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda. It won the Pulitzer, and I can see why, as it’s very thorough, but listening to it also clarified how much easier this kind of nonfiction is for me to read than to listen to. It’s a complicated story, there are a lot of names, dates and places, and the chronologies are decades-long. Once we got to the ’90s, it was easier to keep track (presumably because a lot of those names are more familiar to me: bin Laden, Mohamed Atta, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and so on), but the cumulative effect of listening to this was probably more atmospheric than concretely educational.

most overdue recommendation: Pretty sure my friend Jon recommended The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, to me over a decade ago. I’ve had an ebook version for a while—it’s on the Guardian Top 1000 novels list as well—and turned to it in a sf-y mood. It’s a rather brilliant metaphor for America’s involvement in Vietnam: Earth soldiers are engaged in an interstellar war with aliens called Taurans, but the effects of relativity mean centuries pass for every month or so they spend on campaign. I wanted more about the general social implications of this (how do you continue to fund and wage a war when most of the civilian population have never even seen a veteran?), but it’s a novel about soldiering, not politics, and as far as I can tell without having ever been a soldier, from that perspective Haldeman nails it. Fair warning: it has that kind of whiplash fake-future-feminism you get from a lot of older sci-fi (women serve as soldiers and are supposedly treated as equals, but it’s also illegal for them to refuse to have sex with anyone. Cool!)

most eclectic: Lots of my customers like to describe their tastes as “eclectic”. They virtually never really are. If they were, they might be more open to books like Ken Hollings’s The Space Oracle, which I find myself utterly unable to describe in any genre terms whatsoever. It’s nonfiction, but that’s where my certainties end. It’s definitely mostly astronomy, but sometimes it’s history and sometimes it’s mythology and sometimes it’s kind of, maybe, alchemy? It’s more or less an exploration of how different world cultures have used the ordering principles of the night sky to impose order on life, but Hollings uses unfamiliar names for the members of the zodiac, which immediately throws off all the things you think you know. Really interesting, really weird.

best emotional break: I suppose this is an odd takeaway from a memoir about the incredibly difficult life of cattle farmers in Ireland, particularly given that the author of The Cow Book, John Connell, is perpetually at loggerheads with his father. But it did feel like an emotional break. The concerns of farming are concrete and visible, unlike many of our current anxieties: will the calf die? Will the weather break? Will the cow conceive? There’s a slightly sadboi energy to Connell’s writing that occasionally irritates (he uses “for” instead of “because” a lot, which I’m only really willing to accommodate in writing from at least fifty years ago or in poetry), but it’s a thoughtful, melancholy read, which I appreciated.

most obvious influence: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is… well… the first time machine in literature! Certainly the first to use the phrase, and without doubt a foundational text of the time travel canon. I was surprised by its brevity, and by how basically flimsy the story is (and that the Time Traveller’s tale, which makes up the bulk of the novella, never loses its quotation marks at the start of each paragraph), but Wells’s theorized split in the future of humanity, where the effete, beautiful and useless Eloi are the prey of the bestial, subterranean-dwelling Morlocks, and both are descendants of homo sapiens as we currently know the species, says some dark, dark things about the direction of late Victorian/early Edwardian thought about class division. (To be clear: I’m not saying Wells thought the poor were Morlocks. I’m just saying, he doesn’t seem to have had much optimism about upward mobility.) A fascinating, if brief, book.

most annoyingly good: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, which I would much prefer not to have enjoyed, but which instead I have to admit is extremely compelling in its account of how languge both reveals a person and constrains them. And not just in the generic literary-fiction sense, either; Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, is an Irish ESL teacher in Hong Kong, and her detailing of which words are used in what contexts and with what implications are so precise, they feel like evidence for use in an essay. She skewers class, gender, nationality and sexuality with this level of attention. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to Sally Rooney, and I can see why, but I prefer Dolan: she acknowledges the peculiarities, the oddness, of her characters in a way that Rooney never does, and it makes their odd behaviour feel, perversely, more realistic.

best premise: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. In an alt-Johannesburg, there’s a condition called Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism. No one can explain it, but if you do something bad (not necessarily criminal, but definitely morally wrong), you get an animal sidekick – silent, ever-present, inseparable from you. Think kind of noir Pullman. Our heroine Zinzi has a Sloth. You also get a gift: hers is finding lost things. When she takes the kind of case she never takes—missing persons—she’s in at the deep end of a story involving the South African music scene, traditional medicine, and very unscrupulous people. This won the Clarke Award; my last Clarke winner was Air, by Geoff Ryman, which was a more ambitious and more moving novel than Zoo City, but this is a seriously fun noir/sf mashup, the pace never lets up, and Beukes’s prose—while occasionally overegged—usually hits just the right tangy/salty notes. Grand stuff.

closest to stealing Tana French’s crown: No one will ever actually do that. But We Know You Know (formally published under the much more evocative and relevant-to-the-actual-plot title Stone Mothers), by Erin Kelly, comes near. Dealing with the aftermath of a terrible event that occurred in a now-closed hospital, and the effect it has on three lives when it’s brought up many decades later, the book is not just a crime thriller, but a merciless filleting of the systems and prejudices that conspired (and still do) to imprison and punish the vulnerable—particularly women—and how the repercussions of traumas incurred in those systems are generations-deep.

best historical escapism: The Architect’s Apprentice, Elif Shafak’s novel of sixteenth-century Istanbul, master builder Sinan, and one of his apprentices, Jahan, who appears in the Ottoman court as the keeper of a white elephant, Chota, sent as a gift to the Sultan. I’ve said before that I want to like Shafak’s work more than I do; there’s a stylistic inelegance and tendency to rely on cliché that often deflates her writing for me. The Architect’s Apprentice suffers from these flaws, but somehow the historical setting seems to absorb them more easily, making it feel more naturally like a long fable or picaresque. Highly enjoyable, though, for its energy and charm, and the way it explains gaps in the record (Sinan and his chief western rival Michelangelo having never met or even corresponded, for instance).

best audio choice: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, a memoir exploring Stott’s childhood in the Exclusive Brethren, a very strict Christian sect that became a cult in the ’60s and was rocked by a sex scandal in the ’70s. Stott’s father, who had been a pillar of their EB community in Brighton, pulled the family out then, and the book is something of an attempt to lay his ghost (Stott uses this metaphor herself) after he dies several decades later. It’s beautifully written, a thoughtful, curious, compassionate and fascinating account of religious mania but also of her family history and her father’s character. She has, apparently, written at least two novels as well, though this is what won her the Costa biography prize in 2017; her fiction must be well worth seeking out.

best sunshine thriller: Conviction by Denise Mina, although that makes the book sound popcorn-y and it’s not. Focusing on a woman who decides to do some investigating of her own when a true crime podcast mentions a man she was once friends with, there are a few melodramatic moments that stretch credulity, but they’re swallowable because Mina writes really capably, and because of the voice of the protagonist she’s created. Overt polemics are few and far between, but make no mistake, this is an intensely political novel disguised as a Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick. That just screams summer to me.

currently reading: On audio, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; and just about to start an old Virago paperback of Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall.

April Superlatives

Book posts are back! Just as Superlatives for now, but who knows what the future holds?

In April I read 10 print books (pictured above) and 4 ebooks, plus listened to 2 full audiobooks (most of which pictured below), which makes 16 in total. The anxieties and slow progress of March have been replaced by a rejuvenation of reading mojo, albeit not a noticeable diminishment of more generalized worry. But I don’t think I’m alone in that.

gateway drug: Michael Christie’s family-saga eco-drama Greenwood started slowly, but quickly compelled me to read on, as it leapfrogs backward into the tangled and hidden histories of a family whose destiny is irrevocably entwined with trees: whether tapping them for sap to sell, cutting them down for timber that fuels the growth of a business empire, or protecting the last stand of virgin growth-forest in the world, only a few decades into the future. A tad melodramatic for my taste, but definitely did the trick.

biggest time-warp: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays started out as columns in The Times, but lovely Persephone Books collected them and put them between beautiful dove-grey covers. Reading them is like experiencing a mad, but not unpleasant, dream, where the correct preparation of Lobster Newburg (eh?) is discussed alongside deeper moral questions (“choosing well is one of the most difficult things in a difficult world”).

most delightful surprise: Briarley, by Aster Glenn Gray, which was my very first ever romance novel and which shocked me by being absolutely excellent. It is a m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in an English village during WWII, featuring a bisexual vicar whose daughter is volunteering for the war effort, and an arrogant landowner who’s been turned into a dragon for his heartlessness. Gray incorporates the classical references you’d expect educated men in the ’40s to have at their fingertips, along with Biblical and literary ones, and the whole tone of the novella is both wistfully fable-like and muscular. Gorgeous, and funny.

best disguise: I’m awarding this to Mistresses by Linda Porter for being, basically, quite enjoyable fluffy chapters on the lives of the major mistresses of Charles II, cunningly hiding in the form of a group historical biography. She does provide political and historical context, and of course the fates of mistresses often parallel the fates of administrations, factions, and fashions, but it’s not highly academic by any means.

steamiest surprise: My second foray into romance was the equally delightful, well-written and tender, but also waaayyy hotter, The Duke I Tempted by Scarlett Peckham. I implore you, look past its cover and the title and what is surely a pseudonym, and consider: an ambitious, proud woman trying to make a career as a botanical gardener in a world that despises working women; an emotionally damaged nobleman who can only find the emotional release he needs at the hands of a professional domme; a marriage of convenience; profound misunderstanding; and the beauty of what is possible when people really try with each other. It’s so good on BDSM dynamics without being anachronistic (at least not in any ways that stuck out to me), and I’m so glad I read it.

most fun reread: Two rereads this month, the jolliest of which was Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I still find her pacing, especially in the latter third of the book, a little confusing; things seem to happen very quickly but without much consequence, and in the whole chapter where Sophie goes to visit the king, nothing advances. It’s still really fun, though, and the movie is now on Netflix (though I know it’s quite different!)

most anticipated: Sarah Moss’s new novel, Summerwater (not out til August). It’s good, of course—she literally can’t write a bad one at this point—though it doesn’t maintain its sticky tension the way Ghost Wall does. I’m not sure it’s trying to; the reason it loses that claustrophobia despite being set in a small place over one day is that the point of view bounces from character to character each chapter, and what it doesn’t have in dread it makes up for in its miniaturized characterization, each new voice convincing.

best proof that “old” =/= “classic”: The 1830s bestseller Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, which takes 600 pages to tell a pretty straightforward story of a young boy who grows up to be a highwayman, his life of crime, the woman he falls for, and their eventual happy ending. It’s not terrible, and there’s value in being able to see that Bulwer-Lytton is aiming for effects that Dickens manages not long after with infinitely more panache and individuality (poor and elderly grotesques with funny accents! Parentage shrouded in mystery!) But the fact that it’s now out of print (after a brint stint as one of a short-lived Penguin series of Victorian Bestsellers) is really a mercy.

second-best surprise: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which I started listening to basically on a whim and found myself really sucked into. She’s such an appealing narrator/protagonist: she’s not into politics at all, her self-presentation as a driven, conscientious rule-follower is rueful and funny, and to start with she’s not all that into Barack either. Her dedication to her kids and family life also goes down very well: she’s smart and educated, and has no intention of being a smiling doll-wife, but she also unashamedly loves being a mom. I liked her a lot just from listening to this. The hype is real.

most frustrating: I really wanted to like Holly Watt’s follow-up novel, The Dead Line, which sees her investigative journalist protag Casey Benedict chasing a story about illegal surrogacy in Bangladesh. And for much of it, I did; it’s a page-flipper, even though it’s too long. But there’s a certain authorial sympathy extended to the white British women who constitute the market for this illegal surrogacy and who don’t care how many vulnerable people are hurt as long as they get their baby at the end of it. I think it was meant to be even-handedness, which is admirable in theory—there’s a lot of emotional territory to be explored—but instead it felt like an attempt to equate their sufferings with those of the women forced to carry their babies, and that sits very, very badly with me indeed.

best popcorn books: Two thoroughly trashy YA novels from a series that I was obsessed with as a pre-teen, Fearless FBI: Kill Game and Fearless FBI: Agent Out, by Francine Pascal. Fearless FBI is a follow-up series to Fearless, which is about a teenage girl “born without the fear gene” (teh sciencez!) living in New York who just kicks everyone’s ass vigilante-style because she can. Very ’90s, very girl-power, lots of violence and sexual tension. I was not allowed to read them and therefore had to borrow them in secret from my best friend. In Fearless FBI, our protag Gaia has just graduated from Stanford and joined the FBI (in the first book’s first scene, she saves everyone from a suicide bomber at her college graduation because of course that’s a natural venue for a domestic terrorist). These were written around 2005, and there are definite efforts to integrate some more sophisticated gender politics, but they flounder because Pascal is clearly a lot more comfortable in the “RESPECT WOMEN, YOU DOUCHE [round-house kick] THAT’S RIGHT, GIRLS CAN BE CUTE AND DANGEROUS” zone. They’re quite bad and joyfully these two of the series (vols 1 and 3) are available in ebook form. (Vols 2 and 4 are not, which is a huge disappointment; please get on that, Simon & Schuster, kthanks.)

biggest splash of cold water: After chewing through two of those in one weekend afternoon, I elected to read something more sensible and settled down with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian satire on Taylorian management principles and totalitarian (Soviet) society, We. It’s not masses of fun, and it’s pretty misogynistic, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise with things written in the mid-20th century but somehow always is. Not dissimilar to Brave New World (though We came first and Huxley denied the influence), with its classes of citizens, strictly regimented timetables and regulated sexuality, and brutal repression of dissidents. Worth reading if you’ve exhausted Huxley and Orwell, though. It wasn’t published at all until three years after it was written, and then only in English; its first publication in Russian took three more decades.

wait, no, this was the biggest splash of cold water: The audiobook of Garrett M Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: an Oral History of 9/11. It is, as the title would suggest, sombre. But it’s also incredibly well done; a full cast reads the interviews, which are interleaved with each other and arranged in roughly chronological order, so we get a section called Tuesday Begins followed by Checking In, The First Plane, First Reactions in DC, American Airlines Flight 77, The Military Responds, and so on. It feels like nothing so much as being physically inside a multi-part documentary. The amount of work that went into the writing of the book—fifteen years—let alone the recording, is phenomenal. Did it make me tear up several times? Absolutely, yes. Did it leave me with a profound sense of hope? Also, absolutely, yes. Good to read about acute disasters during a chronic one, in a way.

best reminder to reread more: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, which I read at about thirteen and hadn’t revisited since. Liz Dexter (on Instagram I accidentally said it was Clare from Years of Reading Selfishly, I’m so sorry!) prompted me to read this again along with her, and it’s so good. Cather was one of my authors of the year in 2019; in My Ántonia, the story of a Bohemian (Czech) immigrant girl and her family in the American West, her landscape descriptions and her gifts of empathy and grace are on full display.

most alarmingly topical: Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig, an 800-page novel about… a global pandemic. (There’ll be no spoilers here, but let’s just say the ultimate revelation about the pandemic’s source is fairly chilling.) Good, clean, page-turning fun; not as profound as it thinks it’s being, and Wendig has one of my least favourite writing tics (“And with that, [character’s name] [some kind of synonym for “moved out of shot”: “walked away”, “left”, “departed”, “closed the door”, you name it]). It’s kind of sub-The Stand (mind you, I like Stephen King). But absolutely great for this moment in time, if what you want to do with this moment in time is stare into the abyss of it.


currently reading: Shirley, the major Charlotte Brontë novel I hadn’t yet gotten to. (I don’t count The Professor.) For nineteenth-century depictions of industrial unrest, I have to say, I find Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South both more sympathetic and less preachy, but Shirley is very readable and moreover is primarily about a close female friendship that doesn’t sour (or hasn’t yet) over a man, which is great.

April 2020 e-and audiobook collage

March

There was a part of March before the lockdown, and in it, I read a few books. (I also finished one book in March directly after posting my most recent round-up, so I’ll cover that too.)

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Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Before I went to the States, I posted a call on Twitter for recommendations with regards to good airplane books. The resulting deluge of suggestions was lovely but completely un-navigable, so I narrowed it down to two classics that I already owned and knew could keep me occupied for eight hours, Crime and Punishment or Don Quixote. Posting about this triggered another avalanche,  this time primarily from middle-aged men, all of whom were very keen to tell me just how Extraordinary An Achievement of the Human Spirit both of those books are. (Yes, Kevin, but is it consistently diverting at high altitude?) One guy was such a strong proponent of Cervantes that I decided to take Dostoevsky, out of spite. Crime and Punishment turned out to be very much not what I expected, though that’s not a bad thing. It’s not particularly dense, for one thing, though it is repetitive. (Once Raskolnikov kills the old lady, he mostly wanders around in cycles of despair and defiance, being sick and getting better, intending to turn himself in and deciding not to.) The oddest thing is that those repetitions make it kind of… funny? In the darkest possible way. It’s like a Coen Brothers movie. Just after the murder, he gets stuck in the old lady’s flat while the two guys renovating the flat downstairs yell at him, and his paralysis is ridiculous, hilarious. At one point he literally hides behind a door to evade his pursuers. It’s absurdist comedy. Also: is there Porfiry/Rasknolnikov slashfic? It may just have been me, but there’s a distinct flavour of erotic sadomasochism/power play in the way they talk to each other. Anyway: weird, worth it, I still like Tolstoy better so far, is there another Dostoevsky novel that might be a good next step?

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The Iliad, by Homer, transl. Robert Fitzgerald: Posting about my struggles with the audiobook version of the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad also drew the exaggerated incredulity of the Kevins of this world, which I suppose I should have expected. Anyway, the fact is that for at least the first 50% of the poem, I was not enthralled. Dan Stevens reads the Fitzgerald edition that’s available on Audible, and he has a lovely reading voice, but even he cannot hide the fact that much of the first twelve books is just names and deaths, going by in a blur too quick to be meaningful. Which I guess is the point—soldiers die in war like Whitman’s leaves of grass, cut down before they can know themselves or their enemy can know them—but twelve books of the stuff is rather a lot. The interventions of the gods, also, seem scrupulously pointless: one intervenes for the Achaeans and they advance, another intervenes for the Trojans and they push back. Again, the futility of war is thoroughly conveyed, but at the cost of being able to invest. Things improve significantly around the time of Patroclus’s death (which comes much, much earlier than you’d think given its emotional weight in the poem), and the final 50% was infinitely more compelling. Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Iliad is seeing how the demands we place on our stories have changed over time; it was clearly conveyed orally to its first audiences and was probably shaped in direct response to their tastes and preferences, so why do we now find that parts of it drag, that the dramatic tension drops and rises in curious places? What’s changed about humans, about the pace at which we live our lives and absorb our stories, or about the events and relationships we find significant?

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The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld: Of all the books for which I’m sad because the pandemic will fuck up their first-week sales, The Bass Rock may be the one for which I’m the saddest. Evie Wyld is a great writer—her last book, All the Birds Singing, was subtle and scary about female vulnerability without sacrificing characterization or style to a political end, and The Bass Rock does the same thing. It has three narrators in three different time frames, but all in the same place, which is a structure easy to do badly, but here done in just such a way as to demonstrate its strengths: it allows us to compare and contrast, to see the ways in which society and landscape pattern peoples’ lives across decades, even centuries, throwing up eerie parallels between otherwise disparate stories. The strongest, I think, is that of Ruth in the 1950s; she is the second wife of a man whose kindness is quickly, dizzyingly, somewhat sickeningly, revealed to be merely the condescension of an everyday misogynist, entitled and thoughtless. The anticlimactic, deflating banality of his awfulness is a key strength of Wyld’s writing. In fact, that now-clichéd fact is everywhere in the book, from the ever-so-slightly-wrong local vicar who takes the children off for sinister excursions, to the boyfriend of the woman in the modern-day sections whose anger flares up when she sets a boundary he deems unreasonable, to the matter-of-fact detachment with which the young narrator of the seventeenth-century sections describes the gang rape and subsequent murder of a young woman denounced as a witch. It sounds po-faced and preachy when I write about it this way, but it’s not, I promise it’s not. It’s funny and queasy and stylish and lives in my head weeks after being read. I think it might be this year’s Ghost Wall. Please, please order it (it was published yesterday, by Jonathan Cape) or put it on hold from your library, and read it.

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Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge: A new book from Hardinge is guaranteed to be a treat. She seems to get darker and more adult as she goes on, and I like it a lot. Her latest is set in an archipelago that was previously ruled over by Lovecraftian gods, horrifying eldritch monsters of the deep that occasionally wrecked islands or devoured ships and who had to be placated by a special caste of priests. Within living memory, all these gods killed each other, and the world is now devoid of divinity, except for the thriving market in “godware”, leftover pieces of their corpses that have strange properties. Hardinge paints the relationship between her young protagonist, Hark, and his best friend Jelt, in shades of grey: we realize pretty early on that their “friendship” is emotionally abusive, as Jelt constantly manipulates Hark into putting himself in danger. There are definite shades of Ursula K. LeGuin here—personal accountability and growth are just as important as saving the world; indeed, the latter relies heavily on the former. It’s also the first time I can remember seeing young adult fiction that deals with emotional abuse between people of the same age who are not in a romantic relationship. I hope it’s the first of many.

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Air, by Geoff Ryman: My attempt to read all of the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners has introduced me to some really incredible science fiction, and Air, which won in 2006, is by no means the least of these. Appropriately, it’s set in 2019-2020, and concerns the coming of a new technology called Air (“like TV in your head”) to the remote Central Asian village of Kizuldah, where people are barely aware of “the Net”, let alone this potentially devastating new world. Chung Mae, the village’s stubborn “fashion expert”, experiences an early test version of Air that kills her elderly neighbour and implants the old woman’s consciousness in Mae’s mind. Realizing how desperately unready her people are, she determines to make them so. Ryman’s smart not to play the situation for laughs on the whole; the book is funny, sometimes, but it’s not laughing at Mae or at her fellow villagers. It’s also the most effectively political book I’ve read for a long time, seamlessly integrating the odd coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and (fictional) ethnic minority Eloi in the same village with the central government’s formal oppression of those same Eloi, an oppression reflected in the tiny, propaganda-riddled quantity of information about them available online (and which an Eloi woman in the village decides to remedy, to her own hazard). Nor can I think of another book that so clearly demonstrates how universal access to information is democratic only in the most sinuous and slippery way, how the division of “haves” and “have-nots” (the book’s subtitle) will persist unless have-nots are specifically taught how to use new tools, and taught without condescension, in ways that they can grasp. It’s an exciting, gripping, hopeful, bittersweet book, and an exceptionally good one.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 1

Upfront disclaimer: This is quite long. Oh well!

It’s been two weeks since my work asked us to start working from home, and it’s taken me this long to get into a headspace where I can start to think about writing anything. The last fortnight has been consumed with iterations of anxiety, uncertainty, and sometimes downright fear: about the stocks of food in my house, about how my employers can keep a book subscription business going remotely, about not seeing my friends, or boyfriend, for God knows how long (he lives across town and I wasn’t with him when the lockdown announcement happened; we can Zoom and FaceTime, but that’s it. I could try to hop on a train, I suppose, but I also count as an immunosuppressed person—type I diabetes, baybee—and that’s almost certainly not a good idea.)

But nothing lasts forever—no state of mind, no public health crisis—and now I can write a little, so I wanted to share what I’ve been consuming recently, in this temporarily topsy-turvy world. Mostly books, because obviously, but some movies, too.

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Last weekend, when we were all working from home but the lockdown hadn’t yet hit, I was halfway through The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel. It took me a full week to read it; it’s very long (about 900 pages), and not having a daily commute oddly meant that I had less built-in reading time, plus it was incredibly difficult to focus properly for the first few days (and still is. Twitter, during a crisis of any kind, is a time-and energy-sink like no other.) Once I got into the rhythm of it, though, it was as glorious as I remembered the other two Cromwell books being: just as sharply and minutely observed, just as steeped in the tactile details of the period (no one writes casually about Tudor food like Mantel), just as shockingly funny (her Cromwell has a dry, sometimes capricious wit that Austen might have been proud of), just as attuned to weather and temperature, the powerful weight of religious conviction, the rapidity with which the mood of a room can turn. It’s heartbreakingly good; even as you hurtle towards the end, queasily aware of your A-Level history and knowing what has to happen, you find yourself hoping Mantel has discovered some evidence to the contrary. The final two pages are so stunningly written that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them on English literature and creative writing courses up and down the country in a decade’s time. It’s a magnificent piece of work. I cannot believe that anything else on the Women’s Prize longlist even approaches it, and will also be hoping for a Booker Prize hat trick.

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After that, something completely different: C Pam Zhang‘s forthcoming debut novel, How Much of These Hills is Gold. (God knows what will happen to the April/May publishing schedule. I think Zhang’s book was meant to be Virago’s lead debut for the spring, which is doubly devastating if it has to be pushed back.) Set during the California Gold Rush of the 1860s, it follows Lucy and Sam, two Chinese-American orphans who set out into the wilderness to find an appropriate place for the burial of their Ba. From this description, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bulk of the book comprises their odyssey, but that’s not quite how it works; their travels together end a quarter of the way through, and the rest of the book consists of an extended flashback narrated by Ba’s corpse (hat-tip, William Faulkner, for all of this), then a flash-forward in time showing Lucy’s life in the town of Sweetwater, and what happens when fiercely independent Sam returns from five years of wandering and shakes things up. It’s an oddly weighted structure, not helped by the persistent present-tense narration; I’m more willing than a lot of people to give the present tense a chance, particularly in historical novels (cf. Mantel), but it also has the danger of imparting a kind of bland weightlessness to events, which is the effect it tends to have in Zhang’s novel. Most of the book feels glassy, not quite there, which may be because the structure prevents us from ever seeing Lucy or Sam bedding down into any one location. Sam’s gender-queerness is intelligently portrayed, particularly as it’s frequently juxtaposed with their beauty, but Zhang doesn’t ever seem able to commit to a pronoun, so you get sentences like “Sam jumps off Sam’s horse”, which is too consistently awkward to be passed off as stylistic. Worthwhile, certainly, but not quite the sum of its parts.

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Yesterday, I finished Olivia Laing‘s new essay collection, Funny Weather: Art In An Emergency. (Another scheduled April release, and a bigger name; what will become of these books?!) It’s one of those round-ups you get once an author has enough columns in various publications to their name; the second section is two years’ worth of short monthly pieces for Frieze magazine, for example. Luckily, unlike most collections of this type, the quality is consistently good, and excellent in places. I enjoy Laing’s writing a good deal more in long form than in short, so her Frieze pieces struck me as occasionally, unavoidably, glib, but an earlier section—biographical and creative appraisals of various 20th-century artists—was a delight. No one else writes about artists with such infectious verve; I now desperately want to read both Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature and David Wojnarowicz’s Close To the Knives, to seek out Agnes Martin’s paintings, to look up Sargy Mann. Her profiles of four creative women—Hilary Mantel (hey!), Ali Smith, Sarah Lucas and Chantal Joffe—reveal her fascination with artistic process and an artist’s psychology: why do writers, or painters, or filmmakers, or sculptors, work the way they do and on the things they do? There’s also a marvelous three-page essay (which I photographed and posted in full on Twitter, because it’s so good) about Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of “paranoid reading” versus “reparative reading”: paranoid reading is what a lot of us are doing right now, desperate semi-mindless thumb-ache-inducing scrolling in order to gather the minutest pieces of data about a given situation. Sedgwick suggests an alternative paradigm, one in which the mere revelation of Bad Stuff Happening isn’t prioritized over attempts to process it or make it constructive or beautiful. Much harder to define, this reparative reading, but a really useful idea, at least for me, in the middle of this endless breaking news about Bad Stuff.

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I’m now listening to Michelle Obama‘s memoir, Becoming, which I got from Audible primarily because every woman of a certain age seems to love it and it seemed like something I should be, dutifully, aware of. Guess what? It’s genuinely great so far. She’s warm, gently funny, reflective, generous in her sharing of her family history. The first chapter culminates in an anecdote about her first piano recital at the age of five—she gets stuck because she can’t find Middle C on a piano with a perfect keyboard, having learned to identify it on her great-aunt’s instrument because it’s the key with a big chunk chipped out of it. Really, really enjoyable and lovely; highly recommend if you’re feeling a bit jangly because of all the news.


On to other media: Netflix is great and all (especially now that they’ve got most of Miyazaki’s films on there), but movies are my most infantile medium. The way some people demand only soothing or cosy or already-familiar books, I tend to demand the same of films. I like a franchise; open-mindedness and experimentation is a characteristic of my literary intake, not my cinematic one. I reckon we all need at least one artistic medium that we utilize purely for comfort. Therefore, in these times of turmoil: I bought a Disney+ subscription. It has been the greatest decision.

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My housemate Joe and I watched Coco as our first foray. I’d seen it once before, on Boxing Day two years ago, and figured my weepy response might just have been a result of being in holiday mode. Nope; it is a genuinely emotionally devastating film. It’s also wonderful and heartwarming, visually stunning, astonishingly dark in places, and very funny. It occurs to me that it doesn’t appear to have had much of a cultural afterlife (hah, afterlife): three years after its release, there’s no merchandise or memes or any of the stuff that, e.g., Frozen or Moana or even Inside Out have had. Why? What made this film sink (or sink-ish)? It can’t be because it’s about Mexican culture, entirely voice-acted by Hispanic/Latinx talent and set on the Day of the Dead, surely? (Apparently it is the highest grossing film of all time in Mexico, which is both lovely and heartbreaking: imagine being so starved for representation of your culture that it takes a cartoon to show you yourself.) Anyway, it’s fantastic; whoever wrote it has an incredibly light touch that only increases the emotional impact of each plot twist. Good, good stuff.

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We went for a double bill last night, because it was a Friday: our first screening was of Zootropolis (also released as Zootopia), which I’d never seen. God knows if I was just emotionally unstable and also half a bottle of wine down, but it struck me as utterly hilarious; the sloths in the DMV nearly had me weeping from laughter. The central conceit also allows for consistently brilliant visual gags, mostly to do with scale: the pneumatic commute tubes that deposit tiny, be-suited hamster bankers at their stop, a fox carrying a popsicle twice his size from a shop run by elephants, the fact that terrifying mafia boss Mr. Big is a pygmy shrew. I think this is actually a stronger element of the film than its police-procedural plot and the barely-sub-text about racism and prejudice; that stuff works well enough, but it doesn’t feel especially sophisticated. Watching a scene of a wedding reception, complete with exuberant dancing, before the camera pulls back to reveal that the whole thing is taking place on a tabletop (ringed by bodyguards who are polar bears)? Never not funny.

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For some reason, after we’d had one bottle of wine and finished Zootropolis, we decided to watch Hercules, which was made in 1997 and looks like it. Nevertheless, it’s also got some excellent writing, mostly given to Hades and Meg, both of whom are brilliant, bone-dry sarcasm merchants. It’s especially interesting to rewatch Disney films from this era because things that went right over my head are now smacking me in the face: the way in which Hades is coded both queer and Jewish, for example, or the fact that Meg is so clearly a 1940s comedic heroine, a His Girl Friday for the Bronze Age. The plot itself, of course, takes…liberties…with classical mythology, and the historically rape-y vibes of Zeus, the centaur Chiron and the satyr Philoctetes (who wasn’t a satyr) are either brushed under the rug or erased entirely. On the other hand, this is also the movie that gave us the Greek chorus of gospel singers, which is probably the best analogy in any Disney movie ever, not least because their music is SO. GOOD. (Another fun thing: when the chorus is narrating, as opposed to their actual musical numbers, the style bears a strong resemblance to operatic recitative. I copped on to it in the section that starts “Young Herc was mortal now”, but it’s there all the way through.) The introduction of the characters Pain and Panic is regrettable, and I still don’t understand why Hera is portrayed as hot-pink and sparkly instead of her more traditional characterization as a jealous bitch (with, as far as I know, standard human skin tone), but it’s fun and diverting, the scary bits are surprisingly scary, and the songs are surprisingly good.

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Oh, and I’ve also decided to watch all the way through the Star Wars movies in chronological order, which meant I had to start with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Which is… not a very good movie. Liam Neeson is sexy in it because Liam Neeson is sexy in everything and at all times, but the rest of it is pretty pants. The pacing is weird, it takes an absolute age to get going, Darth Maul is barely in it (though his triple duel with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor at the end is excellently choreographed), Natalie Portman at eighteen really cannot act, and am I the only person who kept looking at every scene Shmi Skywalker was in and thinking, “More of this! Pay more attention to Shmi!” Her emotional experience before the film has been fairly devastating and things only get harder, and Qui-Gon Jinn just… never asks her any questions except for who Anakin’s dad is, and the film doesn’t seem to care? Also, Jar Jar Binks sucks. I know it’s fashionable to hate on him, but the fact is that it is also correct to hate on him, for he is the worst. The only redeeming feature of the film is Queen Amidala’s hair and wardrobe. Bring me this gown at once:

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What are you watching, reading, listening to, to stay sane?

some time later: a proof TBR update

I’m through that proof pile (we can talk about the library books later/never), so here are brief thoughts on each one.

71tn28sidylThe Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (out 6 Feb): I mentioned this a little in the earlier post because I’d actually finished it by the time I wrote that. Initially something of a challenge to hook into (it starts, shall we say, very much in medias res), it becomes more navigable as it goes on, and reveals itself to be the story of Hiram Walker, a slave on a Virginia plantation whose father is Howell, the white owner. Raised as a body man to his own (feckless) white half-brother Maynard, Hiram’s life is one not just of oppression, but of suppression: to survive as a house slave, particularly one so close to the family, he must occupy an intensely lonely and narrow social stratum, where he can fully trust neither his white family (who could sell him at any time) nor his slave one (who might develop resentment of his relatively high status). When Maynard drowns, Hiram is made over to Maynard’s fiancée, Corrine, and discovers that she has been freeing slaves and running a training school for Underground Railroad agents on her immense plantation, fighting slavery from within its own dark heart. She wants him because of a power he possesses, one his African grandmother, Santi Bess, is said to have used to free nearly a hundred slaves. Here is where I struggled a little with Coates’s conception: a supernatural liberating power that relies on harnessing traumatic memory is a brilliantly resonant idea; trauma plays such an insidious and undeniable role in the lives of descendants of enslaved people now that the idea of channeling it towards liberation is irresistible. But in the process, does it diminish or cheapen the efforts made by real Underground conductors, like Harriet Tubman, who appears in The Water Dancer as a supreme wielder of this power? Maybe: after all, enslaved people were not freed by magic. Or maybe not; maybe the metaphor holds and our conceptions of Tubman’s skill, courage and dignity are enriched by the suggestion that she was touched or chosen by something greater. I’m still not sure, though precisely because it raises these questions, I think The Water Dancer deserves to do very well.

81ongunjfrlThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts (out 6 Feb): Roberts is a travel writer whose work has been published in the FT and in Condé Nast Traveler; this is her first book, and takes the form of a quest. On her travels, she has met a world-class pianist in, all of places, the Mongolian steppe, but this musician lacks an instrument equal to her powers. Roberts determines to find her one, and to do so by looking in Siberia, generally known as a land of unforgiving conditions, prison camps, black bread, greasy soup, exile, and misery. But—partly indeed because of the Tsarist, and later the Soviet, exile system—it also contains a surprising amount of culture, left over from times when highly educated and accomplished men and women were sent to the steppe for life. There are many pianos in Siberia. There are concert halls; there are opera houses; there is a ballet company. There are pianos brought for virtuosi to play and abandoned after one or two performances; there are pianos shipped overland by the determined wives of commissars and high-ranking Decembrist exiles; there are pianos in sitting rooms and music schools, played by children and old people and students and housewives. Siberia, it turns out, is intensely musical. There is great charm in Roberts’s descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the history. I personally tend to struggle with books of this nature because their composition seems so patently artificial: there’s a note right at the start of the text to inform us that Roberts has conflated and combined details of three long research trips to make her narrative, and while I understand why a writer might do that, something about it makes me automatically wary of all the detail that comes after. She also hasn’t quite managed to integrate herself into the text in a way that feels…how shall I put this? Generous? It’s hard to describe, but every time Roberts mentions her own reactions to something, you get the sense that the piano hunt is a proxy; what she wants, really, is an excuse to find Siberia. But there is never any acknowledgment of this, even though leads on pianos sometimes disappear for pages at a time. Hard to sum up, then, this book, though it’s also hard not to fall under its spell.

71pecyno-ql._ac_ul320_sr208320_The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott (out 6 Feb. Mild spoilers follow): Elliott’s debut novel for children stars a protagonist with a condition that goes unnamed in her world, but which is pretty clearly Down’s syndrome. In an alt-Scotland, Agatha is a Hawk: her job is to guard the sea wall that keeps her clan isolated and safe on the Isle of Skye. When she makes an honest, but dreadful, mistake, it’s held up as proof of her unfitness for work, and she’s stripped of her duties. Meanwhile, Jaime has a different problem: he’s been assigned a job as an Angler, a deep-sea fisherman, but is scared of the water. He’s also about to be married off to a girl from the neighboring island, Raasay, which is a fate worse than it usually is in children’s books because Skye people have never married; it’s not part of their culture or society. Jaime’s wedding is political—it’s meant to cement an alliance—but also deeply antithetical to everything his tribe has ever taught him, which is just one of the ways in which Elliott intelligently deals with tropes. (How many times have we seen a reluctant-young-bride figure in YA fantasy, as opposed to a reluctant young groom? How many times have we ever seen a boy being made to do things with his body that he doesn’t want to?) Agatha and Jaime—plus Jaime’s new wife, a Raasay girl named Lileas—must pull together when a betrayal sees their entire village abducted by alt-Vikings.

Elliott puts his characters in convincingly perilous and terrifying situations, and he’s not afraid to be realistic about the violence adults are willing to inflict: when a fairly major character is overpowered by the Viking prince whom the three children have managed to capture, their death is both shocking and thoroughly believable. Elliott introduces fantasy through the legend of the former Scottish king, who is said to have bred an army of shadows to carry on his war with “Ingland”, and to have been destroyed by them. The legends, it turns out, are quite true, and Agatha and Jaime will have to be the best versions of themselves—Jaime will need to be brave, Agatha to master her anger—in order to face them. I could have done with more Aggie, actually; I understand why Elliott chooses to intersperse her chapters with ones narrated by Jaime, in order to orient us, and Jaime himself has a rather lovely trajectory to do with his learning that homosexuality is fully accepted in what’s left of mainland society (and I can’t be the only one who’s also reading repressed queerness in his character). But I thought Agatha’s viewpoint was both unusual and strong, and wished for more of it. Luckily, this is the first in a projected series (the second is already written), and the final pages suggest that Agatha’s unusual ability to communicate with animals will drive the plot of the next installment. Hopefully that means she takes center stage on her own.

41vpl1d7djl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski (out 6 Feb): Initially giving the impression of some kind of Aciman/Greenwell love child, Swimming in the Dark doesn’t actually dispel that characterization so much as deepen it. Though I haven’t read Aciman, I don’t think he’s best known for being tremendously political; Jedrowski, on the other hand, is at least as interested in the effect of state repression on the growth and development of two men’s minds as he is in its effect on their romance. Indeed, he makes it clear that the two things are sort of the same. Ludwik and Janusz meet at a camp for university students, meant to teach intellectuals about the joys of toiling on the land—for this is Poland in the 1980s, half a decade away from Lech Wałeşa and Solidarność. They’re irresistibly drawn to each other, Ludwik with a kind of halting nervousness, Janusz with something more like gracious acceptance, and at the end of the camp, they go on a walking holiday together. They become lovers almost immediately, with a sense of utter naturalness and simplicity. Upon their return to Warsaw, they maintain their relationship, but in secret; in communist Poland, homosexuality is up there with sympathy towards the decadent West as the sort of leaning that can get you into serious trouble. Ludwik, who early in the novel acquires a banned copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, is deeply frustrated by this repression. Janusz, by contrast, seems to see it as a necessary evil, the price a gay communist must pay for the satisfactions and rewards of being part of the state. The tension between these mutually exclusive attitudes will eventually render their relationship, and Ludwik’s continued habitation in Poland, impossible: the novel is focalized through his eyes and in retrospect, from the life he leads in New York in the late ’80s, watching news coverage of the revolution in his home country. We are meant, of course, to sympathize more with Ludwik, whose integrity will not be compromised, but Jedrowski is a good enough writer to gesture at the ways in which Janusz may not have made such a bad choice; he has almost certainly survived, his marriage to the fun-loving daughter of a high-ranking Party official both a protection and perhaps a thing enjoyable enough in itself.

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A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher (out 6 Feb): This is the one I’m going to find hardest to talk about, not only because I finished it the most recently and therefore haven’t had time to let my thoughts about it percolate, but because there’s a lot about it that resists summary, though not necessarily analysis. It is, in essence, the story of a political awakening, but where most such stories tend to stop after that moment (the “small revolution” of the title, in one possible reading), Hensher’s more interested in the repercussions, the implications, of changing your mind or refusing to. His protagonist, Spike, and Spike’s partner of many decades, Joaquin, are the only two people from their youthful friendship group who have not deeply compromised their teenage radical principles. Others—like Percy Ogden, erstwhile leader of their gang, who once harangued an Army recruitment officer and now writes smug, condescending columns for a national newspaper, or Eric Milne, now a QC and a lord—most certainly have. Perhaps the worst offender of all is James Frinton, whom Spike recalls as the offspring of a pub landlord and a clinical depressive, smelling of overcooked peas and despair, and who reinvented himself so thoroughly at Oxford that he is now Home Secretary. And yet Spike doesn’t seem quite comfortable with his own integrity. He repeatedly notes, with something like unease, that the word “boyish” is often used of himself and of Joaquin. There is an extent to which moral compromise defines adulthood; if Spike and Joaquin haven’t compromised, how much can they be considered participants in the “real world”? How much do they want to be? (I wonder, also, if Hensher’s choice to make his protagonist a childless gay men is meant to be a gesture towards this as well. Not that I think Hensher is actually saying that a childless long-term homosexual relationship is a form of lifestyle immaturity; but I do think he might be suggesting that the world at large often frames choices like Spike’s in this way.) Anyway. Very interesting, and quite a good introduction to Hensher’s work, I think.


Have you got a proof TBR you’re trying to tackle? How’s it going?

absolutely ridiculous: a proof/library TBR

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On the left: the next six proofs for me to read, all of which (I try to read proofs in order of release date and in the month before they’re published) are out on the 6th of February. On the right: my stack of library borrows, all of which are due back on 26th January. The top three are part of my children’s literature project; the next two are a combination of my Guardian Top 1000 novels project and a half-conceived notion to borrow all the Penguin or Vintage classics off the shelf in order; Celestial Bodies just sort of… fell into my hand, and the final two are Guardian Top 1000 choices from the list’s crime segment, which is statistically the one in which I’m least well read.

Avanti!

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually finished this between the time I took the photo and the time I started writing this post. It’s very reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but uses its sfnal/magical realist conceit in a different, more concentrated manner. I think it will be extremely successful, although I’m still constantly unsure of how I feel about using non-realist conceits in novels that purport to show the pains of slavery. And then I feel unsure of whether I have a right to feel unsure, since Coates has done the thinking and possesses the heritage that gives him the right to tell the story however he likes.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts: One of my relatively rare non-fiction choices. From the press release: “Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos – grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, and humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes[…] That stately instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.”

The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott: A YA adventure set in an alt-ancient Britain where one of the children tasked with guarding a sea wall has Down’s syndrome. She teams up with an un-self-confident boy to journey into a mysterious country of magic and secrets. This sounds amazing, has had terrific reviews, and the last YA title I read published by Walker Books knocked it out of the park (Rules For Vanishing; review here).

Swimmers in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski: This is giving off serious Aciman/Greenwell vibes. Two boys meet in Poland and, over the course of the summer, swim in some beautiful lakes and fall in love. Aahhh. Yes.

A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher: I’m still not quite sure what this is about, but I think it is about a group of friends who, radical in their youth, make compromises with the boring adult world as they age, except for one of them—Spike—who does not, and the effect his refusal to compromise has on his life. I have never actually read a Hensher novel, but a new one seems like the place to start.


And, from the library:

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read Gaiman’s writing for children, though I liked American Gods a lot (and Neverwhere slightly less), so this will be a new experience. The story of a small boy called Bod who is raised by the spectral inhabitants of a graveyard when his entire family is murdered, I’ve heard rumours that it’s somewhat uneven, and am keen to find out for myself. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Skylarks’ War, by Hilary McKay: As a child I tended to gravitate towards fantasy, but warm/familial fiction set a little in the past (a la The Railway Children) was another great love. This seems like that sort of thing, only written by a contemporary author, and was the Costa Children’s Book Award winner in 2018; other than that I don’t know a lot about it but am optimistic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Another children’s fantasy, but this time taking in the art and science of cartography, as Isabella has to leave her island to save her friend. Millwood Hargrave was only twenty-six when this was published and it’s already become a modern children’s classic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe: A short sharp shock of a novel about an unnamed African country’s Minister for Culture, his corrupt and opportunistic ways, and the initially idealistic young student who first challenges, then succumbs to (I think), that life. Of Achebe’s work, I’ve only ever read Things Fall Apart and found it a bit too schematic to genuinely enjoy, but then it’s a general rule that an author’s worst book is the one taught to high schoolers, so maybe this’ll be better. [Penguin Modern Classic]

Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin: I fell in love with Baldwin’s writing through reading Giovanni’s Room last year. Go Tell It…is the semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s disillusionment with the church in which he’s raised, and I can’t wait. [Guardian Top 1000 + Penguin Modern Classic]

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi: Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and the first such to be a translation from Arabic. I finished it this morning; it tells the stories of three Omani sisters – Mayya, Asma, and Khawla – their marriages, and their parents’ marriages; the collision of old and new in a country where slavery was only outlawed in the early 1960s (and persisted in essence for years after it was officially illegal); the collisions of love, honour, poetry and money that make up any good family saga. A worthy winner, I think, and most surprising in its somewhat experimental form, particularly the half-dreaming narration of every other chapter, told by Mayya’s husband Abdallah. Heartily recommended.

Live Flesh, by Ruth Rendell: A man commits a crime, goes to prison, gets out, and recommences the obsession that led him to commit the crime, all over again. A common enough story, but my last Rendell (technically a Barbara Vine) was incredible because of the way the story was told, so I’m hopeful this one will be too. [Guardian Top 1000]

Sidetracked, by Henning Mankell: The only Mankell on the Guardian list and I plucked it off the shelf because, well, he’s solid, right? I’ve been under the impression I’ve read at least one Mankell novel for some time, but I think I’ve just watched enough of the Wallander series (both English and Swedish) to have given me the gist. Anyway, I imagine it’ll be good competent distraction. [Guardian Top 1000]


How should I prioritize these?! I almost certainly won’t get through all the library books before they’re due back, which is fine, and I like being able to do full, in-depth reviews of each book I finish for the children’s lit challenge before moving on to the next one, which tends to slow me down. But I also want to keep a steady pace with the proofs, unless a title is dull or frustrating enough to DNF. Thoughts?

books to look forward to

Forthcoming in January 2020: a bundle of truly excellent new titles, some of which I’ve read over the last few weeks. Let us hope that a good literary start to a new decade is an omen.

9781786331625Long Bright River, by Liz Moore: A genuinely exceptional crime novel, reminiscent of Dennis Lehane and Attica Locke, set in the drug- and prostitution-addled Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington. Our detective protagonist, Mickey, grew up in the area and has seen friends, cousins, neighbours, and her own parents and sister, fall prey to opiate addiction; keeping her patch safe is her biggest priority. Keeping her sister, Kacey, safe is equally important to her, but Kacey is a sex worker and a heroin addict, and Mickey is permanently worried about her. When it becomes clear that a serial killer is targeting Kensington’s sex workers, Mickey has to find the murderer and protect Kacey, even if it means going against orders. Her relationship with her former partner, Truman, is exquisitely drawn, as is her history with her ex-husband; the story of their marriage is an intelligent reinforcement of Moore’s exploration of how structural power is used against women, especially vulnerable ones. Not to be missed.

41uya1dvjtl._sx308_bo1204203200_Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid: I was meant to love this, according to the people I know at its publisher (Bloomsbury), and it almost feels churlish not to have done so. It is a forthright and quite uncompromising look at the shifting dynamics between a liberal white woman who desperately wants to be liked, and the slightly younger black nanny of her children; Reid’s major success is to create an atmosphere where all of the characters are both irritating and sympathetic, where everyone—even those that are more irritating than others, like the white boyfriend who has a history of fetishizing black people—makes at least one valid point about the emotional dishonesty and manipulative behaviour of the other characters. Where it’s not particularly subtle is in the illustration of nanny Emira’s friendship circle, which seems to consist primarily of Sassy Black Girl Friends. Ultimately uneven, but thought-provoking.

imageBraised Pork, by An Yu: Gorgeous cover, no? Despite the red flecks, it’s not especially gory; more than anything, it reminded me of Murakami, which is a comparison I generally dislike but which does occasionally seem applicable. In Braised Pork, a young woman finds her husband dead in the bath, the only clue to his demise being a scrap of paper upon which he has drawn a fish with the head of a man. His widow sets out to find the source of the strange drawing, and finds herself re-examining her own childhood in the process, including her father’s abandonment of their family. For me, the clearly magical realist elements of the novel (the un-dreams she has where she’s swimming deeper and deeper into a black lake in search of the fish man; a long sequence in a remote Tibetan village where an elder has been carving the image for decades) sat uneasily alongside the more prosaic family drama. Like Murakami, Yu’s novel often feels meandering and purposeless, though there no doubt is a purpose. Not my cup of tea, but might well be for someone else.

51licv4b04l._ac_sy400_ml2_The Street, by Ann Petry: Slated for republication by Virago Modern Classics, this was originally published in 1946 and was the first novel by a black woman to sell more than a million copies in America. Like much of what I’ve read from Virago recently, there is a fantastic sense of contemporaneity to it; the story of Lutie Johnson, who tries to keep herself and her son safe and their integrity intact, but who must contend with sexism, racism, and the devastating grind of poverty, is told with a fury so passionate and fresh that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the ink still wet on the page. Petry’s work is clearly a frontrunner for a literary tradition that went on to encompass Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and Tayari Jones.  Frequently skirting melodrama but always redeemed by Petry’s absolutely clear, burning vision, it’s a gripping page-turner as well as a portrait of a woman trying to maintain sanity within a system that has been specifically designed to destroy her.

81wobth2melAgency, by William Gibson: It must be odd to be William Gibson. Society, and technology, has more or less arrived at a point that he wrote about as futuristic during his early career; he’s now indelibly known as a science fiction writer, but Agency—though it has all of the trappings of a techno-thriller and is, certainly, science fictional—is less world-of-tomorrow sf than world-of-three-minutes-from-now satire. It concerns the development of an autonomous AI system, originally created as a form of virtual handler for covert military operations, now stolen by a Silicon Valley firm and marketed as a PA called Eunice. There’s time travel (sort of, in a manner of speaking), and high-speed motorcycle chases, and a remote-control drone shaped like a radiator, and a lot of quick, slangy banter. It’s terrific fun and reasonably clever along with it, though I think Gibson’s ending is optimistic.

9781526607027Threshold, by Rob Doyle: Nothing—no friend’s impassioned recommendation, no innate desire, no travel article—has ever, ever made me want to drop acid and go to a three-day rave at a Berlin nightclub. This book did. Doyle seems to have written a type of autofiction, one in which all he does for at least a decade and a half is travel around Europe, writing in a desultory fashion and taking a lot of drugs. As a human being, narrator-Doyle is faintly insufferable—he’s not good to women and remarkably solipsistic—but of course the relationship of narrator-Doyle to author-Doyle is indirect. Rachel Kushner writes, on the front cover, that she “learned to stop worrying (about what sort of novel this is) and love the narrator”; I never quite loved him, but I did warm to his earnest, encyclopedic  informativeness, and the postcard-from-Europe style of his perambulations around various cities. And no description of the effects of hallucinogens has ever entranced me half so much.


Out later in 2020:

original_400_600The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (6 Feb): I’m ever wary of covers like this one—it’s generally a dead giveaway that the publishers are attempting to ride the Essex Serpent wave, though sometimes (see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock) it pays off. Millwood Hargrave’s first novel for adults (she’s a successful children’s/YA author) is based on the true story of a freak storm that killed forty men off the coast of a Norwegian island in 1617, and the subsequent imprisonment and trials for witchcraft that the women of the island suffered. Its relevance to the modern day is, perhaps, a tiny bit on the nose (yes, men dislike powerful women! Yes, religious mania is a figleaf for controlling sadists!) I was, however, moved by Millwood Hargrave’s description of the physical effects of grief and depression, and by her sensitive portrayal of the central (lesbian) romance. A wonderful historical yarn to curl up with on cold nights.

9781526601094Rest and Be Thankful, by Emma Glass (19 March): Curious, this: Glass’s depiction of a NICU nurse who is overworked, desperately sleep-deprived, and already prone to chronic anxiety and depression is extremely affecting, but also feels very one-note. There is nothing in the book other than the protagonist Laura’s increasing inability to keep herself together, her physical deterioration (red, cracked hands and greasy hair) mirroring her mental and emotional decline. Her boyfriend, who leaves her, is clearly a dickhead, but one also struggles to blame him for wanting more out of his relationship than the miserable zombie he’s currently living with. Hints that Laura is struggling with a deeper trauma hidden in her past go some way towards clarifying her state of mind, but the final-page revelation feels slightly unearned. Perhaps if I read it a second time I would get more out of it.

71zwt2vovwlMy Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (31 March): I put off reading this (the hype! The overt Nabokov, specifically Lolita, intertext! The teacher/student romance thing!) I was, eventually, blown away by it. Russell gets everything so right: the way that English teacher Jacob Strane grooms fifteen-year-old Vanessa, making her feel special and clever, playing on her emotional intelligence to push her into wanting to be “cool” and “mature”, and therefore not reacting negatively when he at last touches her. The way that Vanessa, seventeen years later, struggles with revelations that Strane did this to other students; the way that, as she tells her therapist, she doesn’t see herself as a victim; the way that she has to tell it to herself as a love story—because if it isn’t, how can she bear it? I recognized so much of myself in Vanessa’s reactions and longings that it scared me: if the right (wrong) person had come along when I was fifteen, I was nearly as vulnerable as she was. A lot of girls are. Russell deals with an incredibly difficult, complex subject with the nuance and shading that it deserves, while never being unclear about the dreadful effect Strane has had on Vanessa’s life. Believe the hype.


What are you looking forward to reading in January?

vital details

It was such an ordinary evening, but every detail of it would matter; every detail would become vital.

Wed Wabbit, Lissa Evans. 2017.

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Lissa Evans had my heart with Old Baggage, a novel for adults about a suffragist’s attempt to impart meaning to her life after the battle for the vote has been won, which came out in 2018. Seeing that Wed Wabbit was released just a year before that only increases my sense of admiration. How talented do you have to be to produce not only a heartwarming, unsentimental, brilliantly angry and complex adult novel, but also a heartwarming, unsentimental, brilliantly angry and cacklingly hilarious children’s novel, within the space of two years? Pretty bloody talented.

Our heroine is ten and a half-year-old Fidge (her mother named her Iphigenia, and her little sister Minerva; her father acquiesced on the condition that he be allowed to give the children unfussy nicknames, so they are Fidge and Minnie). She and Minnie live with their mum. Their dad, a firefighter, died (of cancer or a similar terminal illness) a little over a year ago, a fact with which Fidge is struggling: she hasn’t let anyone hug her since then. Minnie, age four, is going through something of an obsessive stage: her favourite animal is a stuffed red velvet lapine to whom she lispingly refers as “Wed Wabbit”, and her favourite book, which Fidge is obliged to read over and over again, is a nauseatingly cheery and reductive story entitled The Land of Wimbley Woos:

The first picture showed a group of happy-looking Wimblies. Each was a different colour, but they were all shaped like dustbins with large round eyes and short arms and legs, and they radiated a sort of idiotic jollity. Fidge turned the page and continued reading in a bored, rapid mutter.

“Yellow are timid, Blue are strong, Grey are wise and rarely wrong. Green are daring, Pink give cuddles, Orange are silly and get in muddles. Purple Wimblies understand The past and future of our land.”

“Wead it pwoply, with expwession,” commanded Minnie.

Fidge is a tough cookie, but she is looking forward, with heartbreaking intensity, to an impending outdoor-activities holiday. On a last-minute shopping trip into town the day before, her mum’s slowness combined with Minnie’s need for the latest Wimbley Woos book causes them to be too late to buy the flippers that Fidge so desperately wants. Mutinous with resentment, she kicks Minnie’s beloved Wed Wabbit—intending only to take out her frustration—directly into traffic. Minnie runs out after him, and…well, no, it’s a children’s book. But she is hospitalized, and Fidge—now wracked with guilt—sent to stay overnight with her Uncle Simon, Auntie Ruth, and cousin Graham. Graham is hopeless, apparently terrified of everything and overprotected by his parents but convinced of his own superior intellect, “large and pale, like a plant that has been heavily watered but kept in the dark”. While Fidge is there, there’s a thunderstorm, and something extremely odd happens. In Evans’s own, deliberately hand-wavey explanation,

Fact: when Fidge had thrown all Minnie’s toys down the stairs at Graham’s house, the thing that had happened next—the huge soundless static explosion—must have somehow churned them together, and who knew what might—

Yes: Fidge, and Graham, and all of Minnie’s toys (including a pink and purple elephant named Ella and a bright pink diamanté mobile phone that makes a very annoying sound when it rings), and Graham’s “transitional object” (a plastic promotional carrot from a supermarket, which his rather dippy parents are hoping will serve as a locus for all of his fears and help him cope with change), are in The Land of the Wimbley Woos. And not just in a generic sense, either: they are, specifically, in Minnie’s copy, and therefore in Minnie’s version of Wimbley Land. (The Purple Wimblies, upon all of which she has drawn moustaches in felt-tip in her copy of the book, are moustachioed here.) Much more problematic, though, is the fact that Wed Wabbit is also in the book—and here, in what is clearly some corner of Minnie’s fearful and confused psyche, he is extremely powerful. In fact, he has overthrown the Wimbley King (who doesn’t mind, mostly because his greatest ambition is to be left alone), and established himself as a vast (literally; everything is bigger in Wimbley Land, so Wed Wabbit is about twenty feet tall) and terrifying dictator.

Well, terrifying to the Wimbley Woos, anyway. When Graham and Fidge first meet this tyrannical incarnation of Wed Wabbit, the inherent ridiculousness of the situation brings them together for the first time:

“WIMBLEY LAND HAS BEEN WUN IN A WEGWETTABLE WAY, BUT NOW THE TIME OF WECKONING HAS COME,WEQUIWING A BWEAK FWOM THE PAST AND A CWACK DOWN ON TWEATS AND WELAXATION. IT WILL TAKE AN EXTWEMELY STWONG STWUGGLE TO WIGHT THESE WONGS AND I—”

Graham let out a huge snort, and Fidge found she couldn’t hold back any longer and they were suddenly both yelping with helpless, uncontrollable laughter—Graham doubled up, Fidge with tears actually running down her cheeks.

(That’s not a formatting error above, by the way; Wed Wabbit speaks in 62-point all-caps.)

In order to depose Wed Wabbit, Fidge and Graham—plus Ella, the carrot (who demands to be referred to as “Dr. Carrot”, despite Graham pointing out that the “DR” printed on her base stands for “Douglas Retail”, the name of the shop where the vegetable promotion was occurring), a plucky Pink Wimbly and a somewhat long-winded Grey Wimbly—must bring all the Wimblies together to take out the Blues, who serve as castle guards.

Honestly, I’m nearly 1000 words into the review and we’ve just about sorted the meat of the plot. Wed Wabbit pretty much defies description in that regard, but in the best possible way. It is an intensely weird premise and there is no point in pretending it is not—but then, Evans knows, and is entirely uninterested in, its level of weirdness. The mechanism by which Fidge, Graham and the toys get into Minnie’s book—much less get out again—is never explained and hardly dwelt upon. Wed Wabbit isn’t about believable world-building; it’s about using the structure of a quest narrative (free Wimbley Land from tyranny!) to intelligently parallel an arc of internal emotional development. Both Fidge and Graham need to let go of something that is holding them captive: Fidge, her refusal to give or receive hugs (which here are metonyms for affection and the vulnerability that comes with being demonstrative), and Graham, his terror of everything and his belief in the superiority of intellect above pragmatism or kindness. Both of them, in other words, have their own Wed Wabbits lurking in their hearts.

For the most part this is fairly subtly done (at least, I imagine a ten-year-old wouldn’t necessarily twig). There is one moment, I think, where Evans slightly overplays it:

“But why?” asked Graham. “What does he get out of it? OK, so he’s the boss and the whole country’s terrified of him, and everyone rushes about obeying his orders, but he’s stuck in the castle, he never gets out, he never does anything or talks to anyone or has any fun or…” He suddenly became aware that Dr. Carrot was looking at him in a significant way. “What?” he asked defensively. “You’re not trying to say that’s like me, are you?”

Why, yes, yes indeed.

Fidge’s turn, when it comes, is better managed: having done what they believe necessary to defeat Wed Wabbit, she realizes one final thing is in order, and—reluctantly—hugs him. Instantly, he shrinks, colour returns to Wimbley Land (amongst other things, he has been draining everything to white), and good governance is restored. (Not, mind you, by the re-installation of the Wimbley King. The Oldest and Wisest of the Grey Wimblies, who has by now learned the art of brevity, is elected ruler in his stead.)

Fidge and Graham’s personal quests, though a hook to hang the rest of the book from, are not really the funny bits. Those are mostly to do with the Wimblies, who can only communicate in the singsong rhyme scheme of their book, and whose self-conceptions are entirely based around the assumption that each color Wimbly is only good at one thing. (This is, in fact, key to the strategy that ends up overthrowing Wed Wabbit, but I won’t spoil everything for you.) The rhyming provides almost infinite opportunities for wit, and Evans takes full advantage of them. The Wimbley King’s apathy, for instance, is delightfully articulated by the fact that he frequently can’t be bothered to think of end rhymes:

“Sorry, I didn’t hear your question./This muesli’s rather good./Bim bestion.”

When Wimbley Land is freed, it’s not just from Wed Wabbit, but from the shackles of trochaic tetrameter. A Pink Wimbly thanks Fidge in the structure of a limerick:

“But it’s us who can’t thank you enough/We know that your journey’s been rough/For such a brave fight/Your talents were right/You’re clever and stubborn and tough.”

“It wasn’t just me,” said Fidge.

A Purple with green blotches clapped Graham on the back.

“One straw is so weak,” it bellowed. “But take and weave a handful—/Such strength together!”

“That didn’t rhyme,” said Fidge.

“Blank verse,” said Ella.

(I think, actually, it’s a haiku.)

The strength of Wed Wabbit, therefore, isn’t necessarily in its plot: even though describing it takes ages and sounds quite mad, it’s in the service of a not-so-unusual story, about how to find strength at moments when you feel weak, about how to make friends and move through fear. Where it shines is in its complete dedication to being batshit, its ability to convince us that yes, of course, a four-year-old’s idea of a terrible dungeon would indeed include squashy bananas and warm milk with a skin on it, because those are the things she hates. That’s what makes it, not just a good children’s book, but a good book, like Pixar doesn’t just make good movies for kids but good movies in general. In fact, I’d quite like to see Pixar adapt this.

stories with happy endings

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.

The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket. 1999.

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Oh, Lemony Snicket, how did I love thee, back when I was a mere tiddler reading through the non-YA section of my school’s library (and furious because my mother would not give me a note permitting me to read the YA books until I had turned ten). The Bad Beginning, book one of his A Series of Unfortunate Events, doesn’t quite count as a 21st-century children’s novel, but the largest portion of the series was published after 2000 (it ended in 2006 with the splendidly named thirteenth installment, The End), so I am counting it towards my goal of reading through this list. Really, to be a completist, I should read the whole series, but I already did read it, when it came out, and the point of the challenge is primarily to expose myself to new children’s fiction, so The Bad Beginning will suffice.

You may or may not know the premise of the series, which is that three resourceful and much-loved children—Violet, an inventor; Klaus, a reader; and Sunny, the baby, who likes biting—are orphaned in a mysterious house fire. The terms of their parents’ will stipulate they must to be sent to live with a relative, and thus their woeful adventures begin. In The Bad Beginning, the relative who takes them in is the “short-tempered, demanding and bad-smelling” Count Olaf, whose house is covered in pictures of eyes and who is obviously scheming to get hold of the vast fortune that the Baudelaire children will inherit as soon as Violet comes of age. He is, or calls himself, an actor, and concocts a plan that involves marrying Violet, under the guise of her performing an ingenue role in a play that conveniently culminates in a wedding ceremony. The children manage to foil the plot, but Olaf and his associates escape, and their parents’ executor must find a new relative for them to live with. Cue book two…

Today’s tiddlers probably come to the misfortunes of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire through either the mostly dreadful Jim Carrey movie of 2004 (rescued only by the performance of Jim Carrey, which is excellent), or the more recent Netflix adaptation. This is something of a shame, because Snicket’s style is so inimitable, and such a delight. As with most things loved in childhood, I worried that a revisit as an adult would disappoint; it did not, not in the slightest. From the patently false authorial name and bio (“Lemony Snicket was born in a small town where the inhabitants were suspicious and prone to riot. …He is considered something of an expert by leading authorities.”) to the slightly off-kilter urban layout of wherever it is the Baudelaires live (there’s a meat district and a banking district, but also, unremarked-upon, a sculpture district), to the tone that effortlessly combines world-weariness with a knowledgeable avuncularity, Snicket’s world has lost none of its charm. Part of that is that he, and the book that he’s writing, seems to know its antecedents: numerous asides, and a curious blankness or vagueness to the wider world beyond the direct experiences of the Baudelaire children, make it quite clear that there’s an element of fable, or even allegory, at work.*

*footnote: I would argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes increasingly allegorical as it goes on, at least up to about book seven; the children are dumped with a procession of unsuitable relatives, each of whom personifies a fatal weakness of character that allows Count Olaf to continue menacing them. It’s not dissimilar to medieval allegorical adventures: each failed guardian constitutes an obstacle, or a test. But that’s somewhat outside the remit of this review.

Back to the tone: one of the things this series is famous for is its in-text (and in context) definitions of words. Snicket does this for the first time on page two:

…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley—the word “rickety”, you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse”—alone to the seashore…

It’s such an intelligent way of enriching the text without making it inaccessible that one is surprised by how novel it feels. I can’t think of any children’s book that I read before Snicket that did this, and can’t really think of many after, either. And it’s not just for didactic purposes; quite often it’s funny, either by defying our expectations about what words need clarifying (“…his voice faking—a word which here means feigning—kindness”), or by being outrageously context-specific (again, this happens more often in the later books, and usually takes the form of “translating” Sunny’s non-verbal gurgles).

If The Bad Beginning was no more than some entertaining wordplay (one more I can’t resist: the sham play written to conceal the marriage is supposedly by “Al Funcoot”, which, although this is never actually said, is a delightfully crap anagram of “Count Olaf”), it’d still be fun. But its real power—Snicket’s real power—is that there is menace, handled with a lightness of touch that only enhances the effect. Consider, for example, this moment between one of Olaf’s henchmen and fourteen-year-old Violet:

Nobody paid a bit of attention to the children, except for the bald man, who stopped and stared Violet in the eye.

“You’re a pretty one,” he said, taking her face in his rough hands. “If I were you I would try not to anger Count Olaf, or he might wreck that pretty little face of yours.” Violet shuddered, and the bald man gave a high-pitched giggle and left the room.

The eye contact, the touching of her face—perhaps most of all, that “high-pitched giggle”—it’s terrifying. Snicket is too well aware of his young readers to be quite explicit about the sexual nature of the threat that Olaf poses to Violet, but reading as an adult, it is absolutely clear. More on a child’s level, perhaps, is the fact of Olaf’s unpredictable physical cruelty. He strikes Klaus across the face, knocking him to the floor; he puts Sunny in a birdcage; and once he has the children’s money, he’ll kill them. In many ways he is a cartoonish villain, but always a thoroughly believable one.

The only fault I might ascribe to The Bad Beginning is that it lacks some of the baroque elements of later installments in the series; there’s nothing in it to match the empty lift shaft in The Ersatz Elevator or the terrifying climax of The Miserable Mill. Even the allusions and wordplay are muted in comparison: there is, of course, the fact that the Baudelaires’ executor is named Mr. Poe and his horrible sons are named Edgar and Albert, and that he works at Mulctuary Money Management, but that is about as much as we get. In comparison to later books with characters such as the fashionable Esmé Squalor or the tyrannical headmaster Nero (obsessed with his violin), it’s a little thin. (I suspect I still haven’t worked out all of the references in these books.) But as the first in a long series, it contains all the seeds of later brilliance. Not such a bad beginning, after all.