The Summer Without Men

I’d read three of Siri Hustvedt’s books before this one: What I Loved, which haunts me in the best possible way with its intimations of conceptually-artistic murder and child death; Memories of the Future, a Woolfian excavation of a woman’s recollections of early adulthood in New York City; and A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, a brilliant but dense collection of essays on art, sex, and neuroscience. I was told to expect lighter fare with this, and I can see why: that Jane Austen comparison (from the Daily Mail, no less—boak), the jaunty readeress on the front cover, a plot that promised to retread old midlife-marriage-crisis ground. Mia Fredericksen, a middle-aged moderately successful experimental poet, is told by her husband Boris, a neurobiologist, that he wants “a pause” in their marriage in order to pursue a relationship with a much younger French colleague. Mia experiences a brief bout of psychosis, and a stay in hospital, then goes back to a Midwestern town where her mother is now in an assisted living facility to recover for the summer. There she becomes embroiled in the social drama of several twelve-year-old girls to whom she teaches a poetry workshop; befriends her neighbour Lola, a twenty-six-year-old woman with two small children and a deeply unstable, angry husband; discovers the subversive art produced over many decades by one of her mother’s friends in the facility, Abigail; and tries to come to terms with the possibility that her marriage is over. Sounds a bit like Frederick Backman or Joanna Cannon, right? Charming. Inoffensive. A trifle twee.

Noooo. No no no no no.

Hustvedt’s work is intensely metatextual and allusive; always has been. It makes perfect sense that Mia, a poet and professor, should have quotations at her finger’s ends. Throughout the book, she refers, inter alia, to the works of: Emily Dickinson, George Trakl, Alice in Wonderland, Friedrich von Klinger, a whole sublist of mad poets (“Torquato Tasso, John Clare, Christopher Smart, Friedrich Holderlin, Anontin Arnaud […], Edna St Vincent Millay […], Anne Sexton, Laura Riding, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, John Berryman, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz…”), Jane Eyre, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Tom Lehrer, the Book of Job, Soren Kierkegaard. That’s only the first fifty pages. I just flicked through; there’s something every two or three pages or so. There is also, consistently, the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, which Mia’s mother’s book club is reading and discussing. Persuasion, of course, is known best for being Austen’s most middle-aged novel, a book in which youthful mistakes and arrogance, and the pain they cause, are not ignored—the effects of Anne’s initial rejection of Wentworth are not undone—but in which a second chance, another choice, is made possible. (It’s Austen’s version of Shakespeare’s late romances, her Tempest or Winter’s Tale, perhaps.)

Hustvedt is a sophisticated enough writer not to suggest that better worlds are likely, but she does offer chances. The girls to whom Mia teaches poetry are not all natural readers or writers, and the one who is—Alice—is shunned and bullied for being what the other girls incoherently refer to as “stuck up”. What they mean is that Alice’s feelings are strong and external; that she makes herself vulnerable; and that the sight of her vulnerability in conjunction with her access to imaginative (if overheated) self-expression is enraging, that it makes them want to hurt her. Mia’s method of dealing with this crisis, when it comes to a head, is to force all of the girls into writing accounts of the debacle from each other’s points of view. It looks, at first, like the old, hoary notion that fiction fosters empathy, but that’s not Mia’s purpose, or Hustvedt’s:

By Thursday it was obvious that a tacit script had already been written, and the children had thrown themselves into their own melodrama with gusto. Alice lost something of her stature as a romantic heroine, but her suffering was acknowledged by all, and she entered the lives of her tormentors with such zeal that by Friday, Nikki cried out, “Oh my God, Alice, you like being the mean one!” […] The story they all took home on Friday was not true; it was a version they could all live with, very much like national histories that blur and hide and distort the movements of people and events in order to preserve an idea. The girls did not want to hate themselves, and, although self-hatred is not at all uncommon, the consensus they reached about what had happened among them was considerably softer than [“homo homini lupus“].

The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, p. 201

The way to start over again, then, in life, is to tell a different story. What I love Hustvedt for is that she never says that. She just has her characters doing it. Mia, for instance, runs through Boris’s many tics and quirks and downright thoughtless habits, and those are stories; she also tells herself differing versions of the same tale when her daughter Daisy reports that Boris is now living in a hotel: he has broken up with The Pause, The Pause has broken up with him, they’re still together but the apartment isn’t big enough so they’ve moved in to a hotel, they’ve mutually broken up, none of the above. Her ability to cope with her life is determined by her ability to narrativize it. The same is true of Abigail, her mother’s friend. It transpires that she has spent much of her adult life making entirely unobjectionable-looking needlepoint pieces which, on further inspection, contain secret unseemlinesses: a button is the knob of a door that opens onto a scene of cavorting naked women, or flying Hoovers, or flaming female dragon-monsters. Abigail was in love with a woman but married a man—a man who failed her—and it is not hard to start drawing parallels between her story and Persuasion and Austen’s biography and the long history of furious, hidden, secret female art.

Mia’s metatextual playfulness extends to the very book we’re reading. She is its author as well as its subject, we are given to understand. As with all of Hustvedt’s work, Virginia Woolf’s ghost hovers when it comes to discussions of time and the fictional representation thereof:

How to tell it? asks your sad, crack-brained, crybaby narrator. How to tell it? It gets a bit crowded from here on in—there’s simultaneity, one thing happening at Rolling Meadow, another at the Arts Guild, another at the neighbouring house, not to speak of my Boris wandering the streets of NYC with my confused Daisy on his heels; all of this will have to be dealt with. And we all know that simultaneity is a BIG [sic] problem for words. They come in sequence, always, only in sequence, so while I sort it out, I will refer to Dr. Johnson.

Ibid., p. 134

It’s not a light book; it’s just not heavy. It’s a Trojan horse for deep levels of thought about time, cause and effect in relationships, action, structure, narrative. It is, in other words, not far from what my friend and former colleague Faye means when she talks about “soft metafiction”. I already know it’ll be a book to revisit.


The Summer Without Men was published in 2011; my copy is from Sceptre.

The Prophets

In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.

The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.

One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.

Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:

“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]

“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”

“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.

The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208

This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.

There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.


The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.

Water Music

~~contains spoilers, but don’t let that stop you~~

In 1795, Ned Rise is trying to make a bit of money by producing a live sex show in a London tavern. Mungo Park, meanwhile, is on his first expedition into Africa, bankrolled by Sir Joseph Banks and the aristocratic subscribers of the African Association, trying to be the first European to see the Niger River. Rise and Park are the twin poles of Water Music, TC Boyle’s debut novel (published in 1981). In usually-alternating chapters, we see them succeed and fail, following each man through years of misadventure. They will meet in Africa, on Park’s second expedition, but their lives run in curious parallel, often almost but not quite overlapping. An additional strand details the tribulations of Park’s fiancée and then wife, Ailie Anderson, who waits for years for him to come home and marry her, only to lose him to Africa a second time when Banks et al. commission him to find the Niger’s source in the early 1800s.

Water Music reminds me a good deal of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, though less single-mindedly scientific and with a less overt thesis. It is tremendously diverting, scurrilous, funny, sad, but one of the most significant criticisms I’ve seen leveled at it is that it seems not really to have a point; that it’s an incredibly virtuosic performance for no real purpose, other than to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with a book being merely entertaining, especially when it’s done this well, though when it’s done this well, one can’t help feeling that it could have accommodated more meaning. However, having finished the book, it’s apparent that Boyle does pull out a thematic conclusion. Rise and Park, having come together only one hundred pages before the end of the book, are forced into situations that change them: Rise for the better, as he suddenly develops a clear-eyed sense of other people’s characters and his own capacities and responsibilities, and Park for the worse, as the relentless pursuit of their expedition down the Niger by indigenous Africans turns him from a naive, excitable young man into a naive, infuriated one, his soul crabbed by racist hatred and megalomania. When, in the book’s final pages, they are faced with almost certain death, Rise at last rises (haha) to the occasion, preventing Park from murder and narrowly saving his own life (for probably the fifth time) in the process.

Rise’s miraculous ability to escape death is threaded throughout the book. As a baby, he’s saved by a mysterious harridan who reappears periodically in the narrative, haunting and mocking, perhaps a personification of street London itself. Fleeing an abusive master who mutilates him to make him a more convincingly crippled child beggar, he’s taken in by a kindly clarinetist named Barrenboyne who trains and feeds him, though Barrenboyne is shot and killed in a duel with a black man over a racial insult (who is later revealed to be Mungo Park’s first and best guide through Africa, Johnson). Jumping into the freezing Thames to escape justice when the police break up his live sex show, he should drown, but instead washes up at a fish shed in Southwark, where two brothers take him in. Sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for a death pinned on him as murder by the vindictive landlord of the raided tavern, he wakes up coughing on a dissecting slab, not a cadaver after all. Thrown down a well, locked up in a prison hulk, sent to the malarial swamps of the Goree as free labour, Rise survives time after time after incredible time. So does Park, curiously: we first meet him as a tortured prisoner of the Moors, but he endures many more tribulations–flash floods, crocodile attacks, curious cannibals, territorial leopards, Moors again–before his final voyage down the Niger. The two men are defined by their tenacious relationship with existence. At one point, wedged into a well several feet from the bottom so that his friend Boyles can take his turn sleeping on the ground, Rise wonders whether he really did die on the scaffold and everything since then has been hell; Park, wedged into the fork of a tree to avoid ravening nocturnal predators, wonders something similar. Boyle draws these connections lightly and many dozens of pages apart, making him a good deal subtler than Dickens, of whose work Water Music is also reminiscent (though really the aptest comparison would be Hogarth, with his etchings and engravings teeming with faces and bodies, grotesque and gorgeous, drinking, spitting, swearing, laughing, eating, pushing each other over. And indeed, the front cover of this edition is a Hogarth painting.)

If we didn’t already know that this was the debut novel of an aggressively clever young man, the style would make it clear. Water Music is defined by its frenetic energy, which is partly what makes it difficult to detect a purpose to its narrative: it can be hard for an author to maintain a thematic throughline when they’re so busy hopping up and down. Detail and abundance are the watchwords here, and never once does Boyle’s energy flag. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a brief (for this book) history of Johnson, the guide. It is on page ten of my edition:

Concerning Johnson. He is a member of the Mandingo tribe, they who inhabit the headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal rivers and most of the Niger valley as far as the city of legend, Timbuctoo. His mother did not name him Johnson. She called him Katunga–Katunga Oyo–after his paternal grandfather. At the age of thirteen, Johnson was kidnapped by Foulah herdsmen while celebrating the nubility of a tender young sylph in a cornfield just outside his native village of Dindikoo. The sylph’s name was Nealee. The Foulahs didn’t ask. Their chieftain, who took a fancy to Nealee’s facial tattoos and to other features as well, retained her as his personal concubine. Johnson was sold to a slatee, or traveling slave merchant, who shackled his ankles and drove him, along with sixty-two others, to the coast. Forty-nine made it. There he was sold to an American slaver who chained him in the hold of a schooner bound for South Carolina. The boy beside him, a Bobo from Djenné, had been dead for six days when the ship landed at Charleston.

Water Music, p. 10

And here, for comparison, is a passage from page 419:

And so here they are–guideless, cowryless, goodsless, anchorless, their clothes in rags and their bodies devastated with disease, sunburn and culinary fatigue, the current carrying them where it will, the water level dropping as the dry season advances, sandbanks lapping at them like tongues, humped white rocks protruding from the sickly wash of the current like picked ribs, mites, flies, ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes biting, the odor of dead fish and exposed muck so rancid and oppressive they can hardly breathe–here they are, overjoyed, celebrating, heading south.

Ibid., p. 419

Not an ounce of the hyperactive drive from the first pages has been lost. Clauses pile on top of one another like waves. It’s not always forward movement–Boyle loves to circle, as in between the two dashes above–but it doesn’t stagnate. It’s like a spun penny that never falls over. I would argue that Boyle doesn’t need 438 pages to tell this story, and that his stylistic exuberances are in large part responsible for the book’s unnecessary length, but I’m also not sorry to have read a single one of those pages.

I haven’t even gotten to Ailie, the woman and then wife whom Park abandons again and again, or Fanny, the much-loved chambermaid who sacrifices herself to a sadomasochistic young lord who is obsessed with her, in order to ease Ned Rise’s time in prison. Neither of them has quite what you would call a happy ending. Ailie glimpses happiness with a man she’d previously rejected, but a sort of vision recalls her to her responsibilities, and although she never sees her husband (or brother, who accompanies him on his second expedition) again, she spends the remaining decades of her life determinedly fostering the cult of Mungo Park, the great lost explorer. Yet she also loses her youngest son to the lure of exploration, and in our final glimpse of her, she seems drowned in despair: Africa, empire, conquest, has destroyed nearly everyone she has ever loved. Fanny, meanwhile, dies a terrible death: sex-trafficked into Europe, kept half-unconscious by laudanum (to which she becomes addicted), repeatedly gang-raped for years by an aristocratic group of sex-cultists, she escapes back to England with her toddler son after a particularly violent orgy, but loses him. Penniless, friendless, she falls from Blackfriars Bridge, even as Rise continues to search for her. It is difficult to read these passages. Ailie starts off spirited and bright, funny, sarcastic, impatient; Park’s self-centeredness and inability to trust his wife with the truth makes her life a waste, and renders her a husk of her former self. Fanny is beautiful, good-natured, and brave; the choice she makes for her man brings her nothing but humiliation, pain, shame and death. What are we to make of this, other than to nod in recognition as, once again, patriarchal societies that fundamentally despise women end up destroying them? They are very skilfully rendered sections, and there is no doubt that the 1790s and early 1800s were not forgiving times for women whose lives did not follow the prescribed track; it’s just that we do already know this. Is dwelling on the point realistic, or cruel? Hard to say.


Water Music was first published in the US, by Little, Brown, in 1981. My edition was published by Granta in 1998.

Lightseekers

~~might contain spoilers, depending on how you define spoilers~~

Femi Kayode’s debut crime novel is set in Nigeria, to which his protagonist Philip Taiwo has just returned after an academic stint in America. Taiwo is hired by eminent businessman Emeka Nwamadi to find out what happened to his son, Kevin—although not in the usual way, since what happened to Kevin and two other boys, an hours-long beating followed by necklacing with a burning rubber tyre, was caught on video and is all over the Internet. Everyone knows who was in the mob that killed the Okriki Three. What no one knows, and what Taiwo has been hired to find out, is why.

I wanted to like this much more than I did, which is disheartening. The story is promising, but the writing is very average. Take, for instance, this pulse-pounding cliffhanger:

Has he been shot?

Or maybe, I’m the one who has been.

I can’t seem to figure this out as I start falling into blank, endless space.

Three single-sentence paragraphs in a row, one of which ends in the lumpen “has been” and starts with the O RLY?-inducing phrase “Or maybe”, colloquialism in “can’t seem to figure this out” that adds to a sense of inconsequence instead of to a meaningful statement about the character’s informal nature, and “blank, endless space” to finish, which is double redundancy. It’s fine; it’s readable; it’s not exciting. At another point, the narrator muses, “For the second time today, I am left alone to wonder who the real villains are in the Okriki Three tragedy.” Hmm! Perhaps we should complicate our opinions of several main characters!

This would be less galling, I think, if Taiwo weren’t a psychologist. A psychologist protagonist never convinces unless they are at least two steps ahead, which Taiwo is not. (After his wife is irritated when she sees him talking to an attractive woman who’s helping him with the investigation: “To say I’m perplexed is an understatement. Women are strange!” Pal…)

What Lightseekers does have going for it, however, is that it is entirely set in a black African community that is not represented as a monolith. There are divides—class, wealth, education, urban vs rural, expatriate status—that matter in Nigeria as Kayode describes it in a way that race absolutely does not. Those complicating factors are inherently interesting. Kayode also deals persuasively with the effects of social media on communities; I might have been less convinced by his conclusions a few years or even a few months ago, but it’s more obvious now than ever that bad actors can exploit, channel, and even create, aggression and hatred.


Lightseekers is published by Raven Books on 4 February, 2021.

Books of the Year, 2020

It’s Christmas Eve. I’m still on the clock for another few hours, but apart from monitoring three inboxes, there’s not much that needs doing. It has been three months since I last posted anything about books, and now is the first time in those three months that I’ve started to feel as though maybe I have the time, energy, or inclination to try.

It wasn’t the year I expected, in a number of ways. I fell in love. There was a pandemic. Both of these things, plus renewed social justice movements in both my home countries, impelled me to read in particular ways, and to forego habitual patterns of book consumption. I read many, many fewer hardbacks and new releases this year, and found myself drawn much more to backlist titles (both fiction and non), filling gaps in my reading knowledge, and increasing the diversity of what I consume and recommend. It’s been a very rewarding year in that sense, and has helped to unshackle me somewhat from an old feeling of constant vigilance: must read the latest release, must know about all the big authors’ newest titles! No, I mustn’t. There’s no real need. If they’re very good, they’ll stick around.

Not that I didn’t read a number of excellent new releases. Some of the best, most memorable books I read this year were from debut authors whose next outing I await with excitement. Others were new releases but were perhaps a second or third foray from authors I already knew. I read a handful of the year’s It Books and, on the whole, was glad that I did.

I can never narrow a list down to ten. I read too much for ten to be reasonable (158 books thus far in 2020; down considerably from last year, but still a decent showing, and many of them excellent). My preliminary list was nineteen titles strong; after being very stern with myself, I managed to highlight six that were absolutely exceptional, that I’ll probably carry with me forever. Those six are below, with the honourable remaining thirteen to come in a later post. All of these are amazing and recommended without reservations.

  1. Kingdomtide, by Rye Curtis. Imagine that Olive Kitteredge is a septuagenarian Texan Methodist, then add a survivalist bent worthy of Cormac McCarthy, and you have the outline of Cloris Waldrip, Curtis’s protagonist in this brilliant, heart-bending debut. Cloris is the only survivor of a light plane crash in the mountains of Montana that kills her husband of many decades and the pilot. She must walk out of the hills if she wants to live: no one from the outside world believes there were any survivors, except for tenacious, alcoholic park ranger Debra Lewis. Oh: and Cloris isn’t alone in the mountains. Encompassing theology, sex, grief, and culpability, Kingdomtide asks what we owe to each other, individually and as a community, and challenges the contexts in which we judge one another. It’s also, dryly, quite funny.

2. Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Yes, it is a thousand pages long, and yes, it is all stream of consciousness, and no, there’s more than one sentence (several interludes from the perspective of a mother mountain lion are written in regular, multi-sentence prose), and yes, it really does need to be this long. Ellmann’s protagonist is a home baker who has turned her hobby into a business. The process of circling her head, voyeuristically privy to the themes, symbols and memories to which she frequently returns, is analogous to the lamination of dough for croissants: you genuinely need those many layers in order to build up a broad, rich picture of her state of mind. And when the plot (there is one!) takes a turn for the melodramatic near the end, we realize the significance of everything that’s gone before.

3. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler. Someone this year tweeted, “Every time I hear a white woman say ‘We’re living through The Handmaid’s Tale‘, all I hear is ‘I haven’t read Parable of the Sower.'” Parable of the Talents is that novel’s sequel, and although I haven’t yet read Sower either, Talents shares its alarming characteristic of feeling like both a prophecy and a history lesson. 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. Written by a Black American author twenty-five years ago, it also engages closely with racism and cultural imperialism in a deeply relevant and necessary way. Profoundly disturbing, and incredibly moving.

4. Women, Race and Class, by Angela Y. Davis. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most intellectually sophisticated yet accessibly written book of its kind I read this year, or indeed any year. Davis weaves together the histories of feminism, abolitionism, and the labour movement to show the natural interconnectedness of these fights: it’s a primer on intersectionality in action, and on how, when intersectionality fails, its failure is due to a form of short-sightedness that sets everyone back. I found her analysis of the late 19th- and early 20th-century struggle for worker’s rights especially interesting, as those were stories I was less familiar with, but every page of this slim volume contains the names of heroes and heroines both well-known and obscure. Penguin Modern Classics reprinted a beautiful edition of this earlier in 2020, and for people wanting to get their heads around the sociocultural problems that sparked Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, this is an ideal starting block.

5. In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. This earned an instant place on my Books To Save From Fire shelf. Telling of Machado’s experience of domestic abuse within a lesbian relationship, it is simultaneously an excavation of how narrative works in folklore and myth, a revelation of how humans use those same narrative tropes to make sense of our experience, and a gut-wrenchingly immediate yet bruisingly poetic portrait of the betrayal of trust that occurs when abuse does. Machado also weaves in brilliant, shockingly funny pen sketches of friends and family, serious discussions of how lesbian experience is erased in broader conversations about abuse, and digressions on topics such as the queerness of seemingly all Disney villains. Utterly unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and serves as a perfect blend of craft, skill, humour and intellect. It’s particularly hard-hitting for people who have suvived an abusive relationship, although has a lot to offer even readers who have not. (It was also my boyfriend’s favourite book of the year, because he accepts my recommendations and has great taste.)

6. Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. This brand-new retelling of William Caxton’s classic medieval trickster tales, featuring sly Reynard the Fox, pompous King Noble the lion, brutal Isengrim the wolf, stalwart Grimbart the badger, and silly Bruin the bear, amongst many others, is one of the most delightfully playful, erudite, and generous-hearted books I’ve read in a very long time. Glorying in multilingualism, it incorporates slang from Middle English and Middle Dutch, German, French and Latin, and contains wonderful asides, anecdotes, and even recipes in the footnotes. The tales themselves are small miracles: surprisingly dark and violent in places, they reinforce the values of individualism, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and quick wit that we so love in our anti-heroes. Reynard is an unforgettable character, and Anne Louise Avery’s work in bringing his stories to a modern audience would be rewarded with a prize, if the world was just.

There: my top six books from 2020. Magnificent, all of them. I’ve started a new shelf on Goodreads called “breaks your heart and puts your chin up”, and each of these titles deserves its place there. They offer us what we most need right now. Go get them and read them at once!

And, of course, have a very merry Christmas. I’ll be back later with the thirteen(!) runners-up…

Reading Diary: 1 Sept.-6 Sept.

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste: Some books have blurbs that barely touch the surface of their actual contents and concerns. Sometimes this is avoidable, but often it isn’t, and The Shadow King strikes me as one of the latter kind. It is mainly focused on Hirut, one of the Ethiopian women who became soldiers during the country’s war with fascist Italy in 1935, but her military training and experiences are in the background compared with the novel’s interest in her relationship with Aster and Kidane, a couple who previously employed (/owned) her thanks to an unclear but close relationship between her mother and Kidane’s father, and who eventually command her in battle. Consequently, The Shadow King can seem to take rather a long time to get going, and occasionally loses the primary thrust of its story—the Ethiopian resistance to a particular Italian officer, Colonel Carlo Fucelli—in digressions. There are sections told from Fucelli’s perspective, for instance, as well as through the eyes of Ettore Navarra, an Italian Jewish war photographer whose safety from Rome’s increasingly murderous anti-Semitic policies is assured as long as he obeys orders, but who feels increasingly disgusted and torn by the atrocities he is asked to document. (Fucelli, in a Bond-villain-esque but no doubt completely historically accurate fashion, likes to execute Ethiopian prisoners by pushing them off of a high cliff.) Ettore and Hirut, we know, meet again after the war, and a few flash-fowards to 1974 show us the moments leading up to their uneasy reunion.

Mengiste writes with great attention to simile and metaphor, and is especially interested in qualities of light and shadow, but while this sometimes results in moments of great poetic beauty, at other times it simply obscures the action. (There were at least half a dozen instances at chapter endings where I wasn’t sure what had actually taken place and what was simply a character musing). Finally, we hear from the Emperor Haile Selassie, haunted by guilt over his daughter’s death at the hands of her brutal husband, and over his abandonment of his country to live in exile in Bath for six years. In Selassie’s sections, Mengiste’s dreamy style works extremely well, breaking down barriers between sanity and illusion, past and present. The novel is told, I have no doubt, the way its author wanted to tell it, but the sense that it could have been tighter makes me wonder if some of the desired effect has been lost.

Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore: This is not for the faint of heart; the inciting incident of the plot is a brutal rape and beating of a fourteen-year-old Mexican girl, and because the book takes place in West Texas in 1974, you can be assured that justice, in the traditional sense of the word, is not exactly served. However, the book is not so much about the attack on Gloria Ramirez and its aftermath as it is about the lives of the women who live on the edge of the oilfields, their joys and vulnerabilities, the ways in which a boom can mean economic prosperity but also always means increasing numbers of women hurt, missing or dead, as restless and reckless men flood into the area for work. Gloria (or Glory, as she renames herself) opens the book, in a taut and terrifying first chapter where she wakes in the desert and walks away from the truck where her attacker lies drunkenly sleeping, thereby saving her own life. After that, the perspective switches between several other women, some of whom get fairly short shrift: Suzanne Ledbetter and Karla Sibley, for instance, only narrate one chapter each, although through them we understand much more about the putting-on-a-brave-face school of West Texas womanhood, the awful pride and the unspeakable pain. Corrine Shepard, formerly a high school English teacher, is one of the most successful narrators, a spiky and gloriously unlikeable woman in the vein of Olive Kitteridge whose beloved husband Potter, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis, has just killed himself. The chapter describing the state of Corrine’s and Potter’s marriage after the birth of their daughter—her struggle to go back to work, his reluctance but ultimate capitulation—is perfectly judged, conveying the social and professional limitations of women in the 1950s and the ways in which the era we inhabit blinkers us, even as it also demonstrates that their relationship was unusual, beautiful, and eventually stronger for having been tested. That chapter might be the highlight of the book, though the chapters narrated by Mary Rose Whitehead, a young rancher’s wife who is the first to see Gloria Ramirez after the rape and who is determined to testify in court on her behalf, are also wonderful and frightening. Were I to have a complaint, it might be that the abundance of narrators seems a little unnecessary and can contribute to a sense of un-focus, but then Valentine is not nearly as plot-centric as its blurb suggests, and that is no bad thing. If you liked Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, this should be on your TBR.

Reading Diary: 24 August-30 August

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams: I hadn’t read Williams’s debut story collection, Attrib., but everyone I knew who did read it thought it was fantastic. The Liar’s Dictionary is a dual-timeline novel set in the offices of an eccentric fourth-rate enyclopaedic dictionary in the present day, and during its heyday a little over a hundred years ago. Our contemporary protagonist, closeted-at-work intern Mallory, never becomes aware of the identity of perpetually-belittled Peter Winceworth, but his lasting contribution to the dictionary–a series of entirely invented words scattered throughout its text–becomes her problem, as her boss instructs her to find and remove them before the whole thing is digitized. Winceworth, meanwhile, we learn, is inserting the words as a means of relieving his feelings, both about his place of work and about the enigmatic fiancee of his most unbearable colleague. Williams’s style really carries the book, with a kind of madcap yet melancholy glee, and a glorying in words–not in a wishy-washy oh-the-wonder-of-language sort of way, but in a way that takes a very Edwardian pleasure in precision and elegance. The plot in the contemporary sections becomes increasingly frenetic, but that felt somehow right; both narratives possess a kind of surreal sheen, which led a colleague to compare the book, in a way, to Wodehouse’s work (though much more conscientious and less privileged). I loved The Liar’s Dictionary and found it heartbreaking at the same time; it’s just the right level of weird for me.

Scabby Queen, by Kirstin Innes: It’s an old adage of criticism that it’s easier to write about something you hated than something you loved. I loved Scabby Queen, and I’m going to try to write about it anyway. It opens with the death of fifty-one-year-old Clio Campbell, who achieved moderate levels of fame as a protest singer in the ’90s and who has just overdosed on pills and vodka in the flat of her long-suffering (and, we realize, taken-advantage-of) friend Ruth. Over the next three hundred pages, various people who entered and exited Clio’s life—her godfather, a music journalist half in love with her, several women who lived in a Brixton squat with her, someone she only met once on a train—give their perspectives on a woman whose relentless political activism and manipulative social charm were both entrancing and infuriating. It’s very rare, especially now, to get a look at both sides of activism, particularly historic activism: the genuineness of early-days-of-a-better-world idealism mixed with what can be a disturbing willingness to sacrifice whatever gets in the way. Innes nails that balance, and nails her portrait of Clio, who becomes increasingly more difficult to sympathize with but also increasingly nuanced: by the end, when her suicide note is revealed, her motives seem simultaneously obtuse and entirely in keeping with what we know of her. I suspect people who remember the ’90s and early ’00s as adults will find even deeper resonances in Scabby Queen’s political aspects. I loved them, but what I loved most was Innes’s brilliance at characterization. Like Daisy Jones and the Six, an oblique approach to a central character through the people whose lives they affected results in something both tough and touching, and utterly without condescension.

The Odyssey, by Homer: I’d never actually read it! Isn’t that weird? It must be the case for quite a lot of people. The stories are so familiar from excerpted children’s versions and adaptations that we feel as though we have. Anyway, I think the primary thing to be aware of while you’re reading is the very different weight and pacing present in the poem. The first four books are about Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who embarks on his own short journey to find out more about where his missing father could be; Odysseus himself doesn’t appear until book five, by which point he’s already lost all of his ships and companions to various disasters and is reduced to telling the tale of his adventures to the friendly Phaeacian court during books nine to twelve. (Interestingly, Doug Metzger suggests on his podcast Literature and History that these books are no more likely to be “true”, within the world of the poem, than any of the other lies Odysseus tells about his origins. I’d contest that, since much of that lying is done in order to protect himself upon his return to Ithaca, which is essentially an occupied territory, but I love the idea: we’ve only Odysseus’s word to say that the Lotus-eaters, Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the journey to the underworld, the Cyclops episode, etc., actually happened at all, and he’s a notorious fibber.) They send him back home under escort in book thirteen, and the entire second half of the poem is about him regaining his property, murdering the men who’ve been harassing his wife, and Telemachus’s coming of age.

It’s known as an adventure/travel poem, but it’s very much more, I think, a poem about restitution, espousing a fundamentally socially conservative view of the world’s proper order. (It’s Tom Jones. Or rather, Tom Jones is the Odyssey. Hey!) For all that, it’s much more engaging to me personally than the Iliad was, perhaps because the emotional atmosphere is much more immediately identifiable for a reader who’s never been to war. Be warned: the final books are brutal. Margaret Atwood’s poem A Chorus Line neatly sums up the breathtaking hypocrisy of the murder of the maids (from one perspective; from another, of course—that socially conservative one the poem partakes of—Odysseus is merely ensuring that loyalty to his person and his dynasty, even when they’re not present, is the order of the day. Fascinating how that always seems to involve punishing women. I wonder if the housekeeper Eurycleia, who eagerly provides her returned master with the names of maids who’ve “behaved shamefully” in his absence, was a model for Aunt Lydia.) Anyway, the Oxford World’s Classics edition I read was translated by Anthony Verity and is, from a non-classicist’s perspective, excellent; you get a good sense of the original Greek’s use of repetition, but not so much so that it’s annoying, and thank God Verity does not attempt to match an antique meter or rhyme scheme. If you’re relatively new to antique poetry, I’d recommend this edition particularly: the end notes are also good and there’s a handy index of first names in the back.

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