Reading Diary: Apr. 16-Apr. 22

9780241349199The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins: Frannie, a Jamaican servant in 1820s London, is writing her life history while awaiting trial for the murder of her employers. Part of that history explains her literacy, and the horrifying purpose for which her earlier master in Jamaica educated her. Unfortunately, while we are expected to understand that Frannie has been traumatized by more than the general experience of slavery, Collins doesn’t clarify until the book is very far advanced. The theory behind this decision is clear—Frannie mentions how little white people are interested in the stories of black people unless they are stories of suffering, and Collins chooses to elide the specifics of her protagonist’s suffering to prove the point—but it means the reader is asked for a high level of emotional investment more or less on trust, which is manipulative without being satisfying. I didn’t find the sexual relationship between Frannie and her mistress especially convincing, either. It’s a solid historical crime novel, but not the explosive debut it’s been touted as.

42270835The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: Inspired by recent revelations about the crimes and abuse that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform facility operated by the state of Florida between 1900 and 2011. (It was in the news again last week. TW in the linked article for abuse and murder of children.) Whitehead skilfully uses that cruelty, and the racism that motivates it, to illuminate the conundrum of being black in general. Elwood Curtis, a clever boy who dreams of participating in Civil Rights marches and was due to attend college-level classes in his junior year of high school, must decide whether survival or resistance is more important: his choice inside the institution is the same one that his grandmother has been forced to make on the outside, in an equally corrupt and violent society. The final twist of the plot is perhaps unsurprising, but breathtaking. This, I think–pace Sara Collins’s novel, above–is how to detail suffering without rendering it pornographic. Out in August.

51qboo1lw9l._sx340_bo1204203200_Beneath the World, a Sea, by Chris Beckett: Unlike Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, Beneath the World… is set on Earth, but a weird version thereof, containing a South American region called the Submundo populated by descendants of slaves as well as by humanoid creatures called duendes. These have a disturbing psychic effect on humans when they get too close, and are ritually hunted by the Mundinos, but the UN has now classified duendes as “people” and sent Ben Ronson, a policeman specializing in culturally sensitive crimes, to try and stop the killings. Beckett plays with ideas of the subconscious (allegorized, not terribly subtly, by the Submundo’s underground sea) and of conventional morality (what did the ordinarily buttoned-up Ronson do in the Zona, an area that disappears from a traveler’s memory as soon as they’ve left?) But these ideas are hardly virgin ground; a more interesting and original novel might have resulted from a closer focus on how “personhood” is defined when the subject is clearly organic (as opposed to the more familiar fictional arguments over robot personhood), and on the ramifications of the Submundo’s colonial history.

Currently reading: The Last Chronicle of Barset, the final novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, dealing with Victorian religious and secular politics in a fictitious English county.

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Reading Diary: Apr. 9-Apr. 15

40985726The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell: Phwoaarr. Comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Mitchell are just. Follows three generations of Zambian families, exploring how chance, genetics, and politics draw them together and fling them apart. Family trees are provided at the beginning of the book, but the structure is less a straight line and more a series of looping ellipses, as characters appear and reappear. Encompassing interracial marriage, Zambian independence, Marxism, Afronauts, hair, microtechnology, HIV/AIDS, and social media activism, The Old Drift is an ambitious and emotionally compelling masterpiece. Serpell writes like someone who’s been doing this for decades.

original_400_600Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, by Kate Clanchy: A memoir of teaching at Oxford Spires Academy, where Clanchy runs a phenomenally successful Poetry Group (they’ve won numerous Foyle’s Young Poet awards). She also writes about her time at schools in post-industrial Essex and Scotland, and multicultural London. Clanchy demonstrates how infuriating and patronizing are government decisions re. teaching, a profession of which most of our legislators know nothing, and she’s magnificent on how creative response to literature can ignite a student’s mind–but is tragically ignored now in most schools because it cannot be quantified in a WALT (We Are Learning To…)

51agaxplvnl._sx324_bo1204203200_My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell: My fourth-grade teacher read this aloud to us, and I was instantly enchanted, not just by Durrell’s idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu (all that time to explore, all those hours in which to lie still and just observe), but by his charmingly absurd family: aspiring novelist Larry (aka Lawrence Durrell), gun-mad Leslie, dippy Margo, and long-suffering Mother. Rereading it as an adult, the most immediately striking thing about it is the sheer richness of Durrell’s prose: he’s interested in colour, texture and sound, the “squeak and clop” of oars digging into a silver-blue sea, the noise of cicadas in the cypress trees.

41mnd2bzqu5l._sx320_bo1204203200_The Perfect Wife, by JP Delaney: Lots to say about this psychological thriller with a technological twist, which–like Delaney’s two other psychological novels–has been marketed according to genre rules while sneaking in a high level of literary sophistication, allusion, and experimentation under the radar. Told alternately from the points of view of “Abbie”, a robot powered by artificial intelligence whose builder has designed her to look exactly like his missing-presumed-dead wife, and a third-person plural voice that represents her husband’s employees, a group of Silicon Valley nerds. It’s not perfect: there are several major reveals at the end, one of which is left hanging; Delaney makes stabs at illustrating the machinic nature of Abbie’s mind, but her thought is articulated in a way less linear and logical than any AI would ever be. Still, he admits in his acknowledgments that he didn’t set out to write a techno-thriller, and there’s plenty to unpack here, probably in a longer post soon.

98665Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaillesby Kathryn Lasky: Another in the Royal Diaries series. Particularly notable is the recreation both of young Archduchess Antonia’s personality–fun-loving and kind, but not especially intellectual–and of Empress Maria Theresa’s relationships with her thirteen children, whom she clearly loved in her own way but each of whom was merely a pawn in the Holy Roman Empire’s consolidation and expansion. Lasky renders the young Antonia relatable and even sympathetic, though also motivated by principles that we no longer really recognize: the honour of an Empire, the pride of nobility.

Currently reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a debut about a Jamaican servant woman accused of killing her mistress in 1820s London.

Reading Diary: Apr. 2-Apr.8

71tzk8kcqplFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi: Exploring the Nigerian tradition of possession by spirit children (ọgbanje), Freshwater achieves its remarkable sense of, well, freshness, by resolutely avoiding mysticism. Ada’s possession by multiple shadowy presences–two of whom develop distinct personalities: the predatory Asughara, who manifests after a sexual assault in college and who “stands in front” of Ada’s psyche in all of her dealings with men, and the gentle, masculine-presenting Saint Vincent–is presented as spiritual fact. Although Ada’s American friends treat her as though she is mentally ill, Emezi raises the possibility that what afflicts her is not nearly as clear-cut, and that Western psychology is of limited use when coping with gods. Engrossing, disturbing, and well deserving its place on the Women’s Prize longlist.

imageThe Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun: For the first third of this slim German novella, I was getting shades of, of all things, Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle: that same insouciant cheerfulness, the same pithy, suspiciously innocent one-liners. Doris is young, good-looking and on the make. Her small provincial town can’t hold her, and after going through as many of the local men as she can, she heads off to Berlin, hoping to “become a star”. Her story goes to some significantly darker places than Cassandra’s, though Keun never allows Doris to entirely lose her witty, devil-may-care attitude, even if it ends up buried under the weight of disillusionment. Contains insights of real brilliance into the nature of human relationships, and Keun’s own life story is incredible. I’ll seek out more by her.

38720267Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn: Possibly the shortest book in contention for the Women’s Prize this year, van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash uses its bantamweight to its advantage. The story of Alina’s and Liviu’s marriage, and the strain it’s put under when Liviu’s brother defects and the Romanian secret services begin a merciless program of harassment against the couple, its most graphic and terrifying moments last no longer than three or four pages and have greater impact as a result. The opening chapter establishes an expectation of magical realism (Alina’s grandfather, apparently “shrunk” by his wife to keep him safe from the State, has spent years living in a bird cage) that has long been a staple of writing about life under a totalitarian regime, but van Llewyn’s brevity keeps it fresh and new.

queenie-9781501196010_hrQueenie, by Candice Carty-Williams: This has been billed as “the black Bridget Jones”, which is a dynamite comparison, although the idea of a book being “the black version” of another book is uncool. Queenie Jenkins’s relationship with a white man, Tom, has just imploded. (They’re “on a break”.) The novel traces Queenie’s fall–sex with men who hurt her, panic attacks, eviction–and her rise: going to therapy despite her family’s horror, accepting the love of her friends, sassy Kyazike (“Chess. Keh.”) and poshly befuddled Darcy, and slowly coming to terms with her difficult childhood. The writing is less effortless and the shape of the story less subversive than Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, but it’s a deeply relatable novel about a young woman trying to make her own way in a world that doesn’t value her as it should.

Currently reading: Namwali Serpell’s epic multi-generational novel of Zambian families, The Old Drift. It’s scarily good.

Reading Diary: Mar. 26-Apr. 1

rumblestar-9781471173660_lgRumblestar, by Abi Elphinstone: A novella prequel, Everdark, was written for World Book Day, and perhaps I’d have gotten on a bit better with Rumblestar if I’d read that first. My problems, though, weren’t with confusing plot or unfamiliar characters. Rather the opposite: it sort of felt as though I’d read this story before. Or parts of it in different places. There’s a weedy, wimpy boy; a tough, wisecracking girl; a magical kingdom; an untrustworthy authority figure; an adventure through the very conveniently discrete segments of said kingdom; and some emotional development. It’s all fine as far as it goes, but the emotional development, in particular, is very signposted. And it can’t be good that my favourite part (the drizzle hags, if you’re wondering) felt like they’d have been better if Terry Pratchett had written them…

9780300180282Arabs, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith: An excellent, and enormous (536 pages plus end matter), history of the Arab people (whatever that means; as Mackintosh-Smith shows, the definition is far from clear), from pre-Islamic times right up to the present day. He makes an important distinction between “Arab” and “Muslim”; not all of the former are the latter, and vice versa, although the global spread of Arabs and Arab-ness is due in large part to Islam and the empire won and enjoyed by early caliphs. Mostly, Mackintosh-Smith says, Arabs are defined by their use of the Arabic language. He’s a wonderful guide to it: wry, witty, widely read, and keenly alive to subtleties of dialect and register. One has to make an initial effort with this book, but it turns out delightfully readable, and obviously seminal.

Currently reading: Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, as part of my Women’s Prize longlist reading. It is so far extremely good.

Reading Diary: Mar. 19-Mar. 25

9780691181264The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by François-Xavier Fauvelle: Each very short chapter of Fauvelle’s book takes an archaeological site, artifact, or ancient text as its focus. From these items, he creates what a Literary Review critic called “historical pointillism”, opening tiny windows onto medieval African international relations, piecing together tantalizing stories: the Jewish merchant who impregnated his Indian maid and abandoned her in Somaliland; the Sultan of Mali whose lavish tipping while on hajj crashed the Cairene gold market for thirty years. But Fauvelle is not a storyteller, and frequently stops writing just as these stories begin to pique interest. The Golden Rhinoceros is a great introduction to other work, but sometimes frustrates in and of itself.

9781408890950The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Initially worried that this was going to be some sort of Moshfegh-esque body-grossout fic, I instead found myself captivated by Lucy, an aimless Sappho scholar, and her attempts to find love (or at least, following the advice of her group therapist Dr. Jude, to determine whether love is what she really wants). What you’ll already know about this book is that there’s merman sex in it, which is true, but the merman (Theo) doesn’t turn up until about halfway through the book, and the ending—which Broder handles brilliantly—is hardly a fairy tale. Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness”—the existential void—and her subtly woven backstory induce a kind of shamed empathy: it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century woman who can’t identify, at least a little bit, with this protagonist. I wrote a longer piece on The Pisces here.

9781405926935Sins As Scarlet, by Nicolás Obregón: The second in a series featuring Inspector Kosuke Itawa; the first, Blue Light Yokohama, gives him sufficient traumas to make him abandon life as an official detective, move to LA, where his mother lives, and become a private investigator instead. The plot of Sins As Scarlet revolves around the murder of a transgender woman, who happens to be Itawa’s sister-in-law. Obregón handles the material sensitively, and points to all-too-common lapses in official behaviour, such as the consistent misgendering of the victim by the LAPD. The novel takes an unexpected turn when the US-Mexico border, and the hazard involved in crossing it, becomes relevant to the case. Itawa is a great flawed detective, and Obregón is as deserving an heir to Chandler and his LA noir as I can think of.

91lsfruinzlSpring, by Ali Smith: The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and a lot of her overarching plan with this project starts to come clear. Focusing in part on grieving filmmaker Richard Lease, who has just lost his friend, collaborator and former lover Patricia Heal, and in part on Brittany Hall, a young security officer at a refugee detention center just outside of London, the novel is also dotted with short sections which we’re meant to think of as being authored by Florence Smith, a schoolgirl who seems bafflingly capable of both selective invisibility and holding authority figures to account. As with earlier seasonal quartet installments, the plot is somehow less important than the empathy these characters induce in us. It feels both more hopeful and more emotionally accessible than Autumn (I haven’t yet read Winter).

And two rereads: One, Lucy Mangan’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm, I read last year—my review of it can be found here. I revisited it with the excuse that it constitutes professional development; I’ve now taken on responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books at work, and reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids is proving very enjoyable.

cleopatraroyaldiaries_1_The second is, appropriately, an old childhood favourite. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Scholastic produced a series of books entitled The Royal Diaries. Written in diary format, they were meant to be the adolescent journals of various princesses from world history. There were the obvious candidates, like the ones for Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots; but there was a genuinely global focus, so that the series included diaries from the likes of Sondok of Korea, Kazunomiya of Japan, Weetamoo of the Native American Pohasset tribe, and even some princesses whose names have not come down to us (they were marketed under their dynastic titles instead; there’s one about medieval China entitled Lady of Chi’ao Kuo: Warrior of the South). They were by far the most significant source of my world history knowledge until I entered high school, and frankly, even then I relied fairly heavily on what I had learned from them.

I’ve recently discovered that you can buy pretty much every title for a penny plus shipping through secondhand sellers. My first, and favourite, of these books was Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, so Cleopatra was, of course, my first priority. It’s easy to see why my youthful self loved it: it combines historical detail (the sights and sounds of the markets of Alexandria! The Great Library and the Lighthouse! The pet monkeys and leopards!) with interpersonal conflict (will Cleopatra’s scheming older sister kill her before their father returns? Will her father’s habitual drunkenness jeopardize their ability to negotiate with Rome?) in an immensely appealing way. There’s also a section of historical notes, family trees, and contexualizing pictures at the back of the book; this is where I first learned, for instance, the story of Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet for Julius Caesar, and where I acquired my first inkling of the complicated political nature of her later-in-life love affairs. I can’t wait to choose which one to acquire next.

Currently reading: Abi Elphinstone’s new children’s novel, Rumblestar (see “reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids”, above). So far I’m not totally convinced, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.

A Monthly Book, #3: The Pisces

9781408890950

~~caution: some spoilers ahead~~

The first paragraph of The Pisces nearly wrecked everything for me: featuring the rancid breath and un-self-conscious shit of our protagonist’s sister’s beloved foxhound (named Dominic), it seemed to represent exactly the sort of Moshfeghian abject devotion to the grossness of the body that starts to pall after about two sentences. But then Broder’s protagonist, Lucy, saved everything: “I thought, This is the proper use of my love, this is the man for me, this is the way.” It’s such a weird, sweet(-ish), innocent(-ish) thought to express: wrecked by a breakup she realizes too late she doesn’t want, recuperating in her rich but kind sister’s fancy Venice Beach pad, perhaps a dog can represent a safe locus of all the love she has to give.

It’s something that Broder returns to again and again over the course of The Pisces: who is truly worthy of our love? And how can we stop ourselves from lavishing it on someone who doesn’t deserve it? The way of framing the question is sneaky, because it subverts not only the way women are taught to think about relationships and desire, but many of the connotations of the way The Pisces itself is structured. Lucy, as we learn early on in the novel, has broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Jamie–mostly because an idle threat issued in a moment of frustration took on a life of its own–and has moved to Venice Beach for the summer, nominally to house-sit for her sister, but really to mend her broken heart. We know how this is going to go; it’s how many romance novels, wish-fulfillment tales, are written: a newly single woman escapes to some place where it’s sunny and warm and she doesn’t have to work, spends time and energy recreating herself, and is narratively rewarded for her efforts, at last, with a romantic relationship. But even from the start, Broder is messing with these tropes and with us. Lucy is unemployed because she’s a graduate student trying to finish her thesis, on how to read the textual lacunae in the extant works of Sappho. She is having a difficult time doing this, but she is meant to be doing it; she is meant to be working, and working intellectually. Already, her California beach retreat is shown to be tethered to real life, to responsibility and maturity.

In her romantic encounters with men, too, Lucy has experiences that possess the structure of a classic romance novel, but the import of which is very different. That incongruity forces the reader to reassess traditional perspectives on the situations Lucy finds herself in. There’s an excruciating sequence, for instance, in which she meets a man on Tinder and plans to have no-strings sex in a hotel with him. She buys $300 lingerie, they maintain the fantasy via text, and then the reality–he meant a hotel bar bathroom, not an actual room; the anal that he wants is painful and the attempt swiftly abandoned–reveals how empty and shallow their interactions have actually been. Crucially, Broder is not saying that having no-strings sex in a hotel bathroom is bad in and of itself; what she’s criticizing is the pressure to lavish huge amounts of time, effort and money, in the name of sexiness, upon someone whose fundamental superficiality and indifference to you renders them unworthy of that effort. The reason Lucy’s fellow patients in group therapy are all so spectacularly unable to get over their various issues with intimacy and relationships, likewise, is because all of the energy they’re expending in “self-care” is intended to make them more desirable. It’s not self-care at all; it’s an investment in product development, in the hopes that it will increase that product’s market value.

When Lucy finally does meet someone who seems to be worth it–the sexy merman Theo, who loves giving head–it looks like the romantic payoff we’ve been expecting. Or at least, it does from one angle. From another angle, it looks a little too good to be true: who actually has cosmic-level period sex? Who actually has this level of connection with a lover they barely speak to (or rather, whose dialogue with their lover is only minimally reported)? And in choosing a man who mostly lives underwater, hasn’t Lucy rather conveniently selected another person who is, at best, only half available? (“Available”, as a concept, is something Broder touches upon frequently.) The way the novel ends is confirmation of this more suspicious reading of Theo. He may be hot and good in bed, but he’s also a bottomless pit of need: almost literally, since Lucy discovers that he’s dragged seventeen women before her to the bottom of the sea.

The Pisces, therefore–if you’ll forgive me for mixing my animal metaphors–is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a romance novel that eviscerates romantic tropes; it’s erotica that revels in the awkward; it’s the story of a woman finding herself by, eventually, forgoing her narrative reward of A Man’s Attention (Labeled Love). It’s smart as hell, and not too far below the surface of the irony there’s an acknowledgment of what Lucy calls “nothingness” or “the void” that lends the novel ballast. Is it sexy? Sure. But it’s also sincere, and profoundly unexpected. I wouldn’t be sad at all to see it on the Women’s Prize shortlist.

Reading Diary: Mar. 12-Mar. 18

35436043Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, by Temi Oh: A novel set in a sort of parallel-universe Britain where, by 2012, humanity is sending a small group of carefully selected astronauts to colonize a planet just like Earth, found on the other side of Alpha Centauri. The six teenagers chosen for the mission have trained for years and won’t set foot on the planet, nicknamed Terra-Two, until they’re in their forties. Oh narrates her novel through the eyes of each teenager, a number of viewpoints that feels unnecessary and somewhat garbled. Although Oh has things to say about the weight of leadership and the emotional disadvantages of privilege, Do You Dream…‘s interest in romance and melodrama feels distinctly YA.

91ank2bxbxclThe Runaways, by Fatima Bhutto: Bhutto’s debut novel deals with Islamist radicalization through three characters: Monty, a rich boy from Karachi; Anita Rose, the lowly daughter of a masseuse; and Sunny, a disenfranchised, closeted gay boy from Portsmouth. Of these three, Sunny is the most convincingly and tragically drawn: Bhutto, despite being a child of privilege herself, seems able to fully inhabit and understand the mind of a second-generation teenager living a dead-end life in twenty-first century Britain, neither fully accepted by his white peers nor able to connect fully with other BBCDs (British-Born Confused Desis). She’s excellent on the role of social media in radicalization, the way it offers an illusory form of validation. Monty’s love story and Anita’s trajectory are both less convincing, but the way all three characters come together is breathtaking.

imageNorth and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell: Some amusing soul on Goodreads has described this as “Pride and Prejudice for socialists”, which isn’t too far off base. The story of Margaret Hale, daughter of a Devonshire vicar whose crisis of faith makes him move his small family to Milton, a Northern manufacturing town, and John Thornton, one of the mill owners there, is all about misconceptions, preconceptions, and class snobbery. Unlike Austen’s novels, though–and understand that I love them, so this isn’t a dig at the divine Jane–Gaskell’s writing feels distinctly modern and political in its sensibilities, from the unusual directness of her characters’ dialogue to the frank acknowledgment of class struggle. I’m thrilled to have read this and to have a copy of Wives and Daughters to start soon.

611xe-cdrll._sx316_bo1204203200_Death of an Eye, by Dana Stabenow: Gulped down nearly in one go (five chapters in bed last night, and the rest on the bus this morning), this delightful historical crime novel was just what I needed to reset. Cleopatra VII’s Alexandria is more stable than it’s been for centuries, but that’s not saying much, and when a shipment of new currency is stolen, and the Queen’s Eye is murdered, there’s only one woman trusted to investigate: Cleopatra’s childhood friend Tetisheri, now a partner in her uncle’s business. Sheri’s past–a terrible marriage, a stillbirth, a divorce–is dealt with lightly, but Stabenow never lets us forget that her heroine was forged in adversity. There’s a sweet romance subplot with the sexy ex-soldier Apollodorus, and although the theft/murder resolution is stymied by politics, Stabenow’s grasp of Alexandrian court dynamics is brilliant.

Currently reading: Actually, I’m trying to decide. There are plenty of things on my immediate TBR at home; next up on my work TBR would be The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by Francois-Xavier Fauvelle.