Reading Diary: post-hols

9781908906342-217x346Wally Funk’s Race For Space, by Sue Nelson: If there were a prize for titles so bad they’re good, this would surely win. It happens to really be the name of the woman about whom the book is written: Mary Wallace Funk, now in her eighties, has gone by “Wally” for most of her life. Her distinction is that she is one of the highest-achieving members of the Mercury Thirteen, a group of women who were selected for, and underwent, astronaut training in the same way as the more famous (and more male) Mercury Seven. The funding for the women’s program was cut, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and none of those who trained ever made it into space. Funk was an outstanding aviator and has spent much of her life pursuing her dream of being in orbit; she’s got Virgin Galactic tickets, though she fears she’ll die before she can use them. The book itself is an inspirational and infuriating reminder that women in science have always been both pioneering and ignored. Funk is a strange person, with characteristics that seem almost pathological (loud, repetitive speech; constant questions; absolutely no shame about the body, but very awkward when conversation turns to sex and relationships). Sue Nelson is a radio journalist, and the book often reads more conversationally than elegantly; it’s a curious mix of travelogue and biography that doesn’t always sit well together. It’s hella informative, though.

9781786074447Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, by Deborah Kay Davies: This is one of those curious books that you get sometimes, that exist right smack on the boundary between genres or categories: it’s neither one thing nor the other, though sometimes it also feels like two things at once. Tirzah is growing up in the isolated Welsh valleys in the 1970s, the daughter of parents who adhere to a Christian sect so strict that I’d recommend any survivor of spiritual abuse avoid this title altogether. She’s resilient, and resists the dictates of her elders. There are aspects of her resilience, however, that seem almost like psychotic breaks (and how many young women became either saints or martyrs after reporting similar experiences?): she becomes acutely aware of the natural world, particularly in the form of a mysterious homeless boy called Bran who claims to be the servant of a crow god. When Tirzah becomes pregnant by Bran, it shakes her whole community, and the novel becomes concerned with how Tirzah can be free under these circumstances. Its weaknesses are in the plotting: it simply goes on for too long, focusing on repetitive incidents (Tirzah does some mildly rebellious thing, like go out for a walk; her parents find out; she is shamed; she cries and feels guilty; she gets a second wind of defiance; rinse and repeat). Because of the business with the crow god and wild Bran, there’s a flavour of magical realism (there’s a Welsh myth involving crows and a giant-king called Bran the Blessed), but that never seems to go anywhere, and the ending’s ambivalence about Tirzah’s mental state is less richly open to interpretation than frustratingly vague. Davies’s description of landscapes and her characterisation of young, restless women (especially Tirzah’s mother and her cousin Biddy) are both very good, but the book is too diffuse to have the power it aims for.

41jqd2jfmul-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Long Take, by Robin Robertson: The first novel-in-verse on the Man Booker shortlist (I think?) is worthy of the accolade. Robertson’s poetry, qua poetry, has made little to no impression on me, although I read Hill of Doors a few years ago. But The Long Take uses free verse to capture not only a sense of fragmentation and loss, but also the rhythms of the mid-century American city, the trauma of war, and – perhaps most impressively – the techniques of noir filmmaking. Walker, Robertson’s protagonist, is a Canadian D-Day veteran who cannot face going home: he has a girlfriend in the little fishing village from whence he came, but he can’t imagine a world in which she deserves to be burdened with him. First in New York, then in LA and San Francisco, he finds work as a newspaper journalist, chronicling the growth of the cities (which, in LA, is synonymous with slum clearances and the building of highways) and the situation of the homeless men, many of them veterans, who clog the city streets. It’s a tad inconclusive, or rather, the conclusion Robertson reaches is the result of a process that the free verse may obscure slightly: with more words, with more elaboration, we might feel we’ve been with Walker all the way, whereas the effect of The Long Take is rather more a series of vignettes. It might well read differently to someone who knows more about the history of noir. Worth a punt, though.

heavy-9781501125652_lgHeavy, by Kiese Laymon: This is the first of two memoirs by black men that I’ve read in the past few weeks. Laymon’s context is American. He is the child of a single mother from Mississippi, a brilliant woman whose tenacity and academic achievements were matched only by her high expectations for her son and her punishing disappointment (often physically; in the memoir, she strikes young Kiese a lot) when he doesn’t match up. The book is roughly chronological, tracing Laymon’s struggles with weight, addiction, desire, and how best to be a man, from childhood on up to his professorship at Vassar. He is clear and uncompromising about the role that abuse plays in shaping young black men and women: physical abuse, such as his mother hitting him, and sexual abuse, the first scene of which occurs when he is a child in a neighbour’s house where a slightly older girl, Layla, is made to go into a bedroom with three “big boys”. Laymon is queasily but precisely aware of power and coercion even as a very  young child, and his strength in this memoir is in showing us how hard it is to win when the body – as they say – really does keep the score. Things fall apart a little near the end; the book as a whole is addressed to his mother, and as he begins to wrap up, the text begins to feel like a monologue, with some of the problems of  repetition and obscurity that that suggests. It is, however, an outrageously good and visceral piece of writing, and in its detail, it clarifies so much about black lives in America. (Particularly illuminating is the fact that each of Laymon’s paychecks gets parceled out to more than half a dozen relatives in need, so that despite a regular salary, he often finds himself living hand to mouth.) White people should read this; non-Americans should read it too. Laymon is a clear successor to Roxane Gay.

original_400_600Handel in London, by Jane Glover: This is going to be the best high-end Christmas book ever. From the joyful cover to the fact that the font isn’t too small, from the canny summaries of every opera and oratorio Handel wrote to the insightful but not distractingly detailed musical analysis, Handel in London might well have been tailored specifically for the genteel-music-lover market, and their Christmas needs. It’s also fun to read about the various difficulties involved in putting on operas in England in the early eighteenth century: they’ve always had an image problem, apparently, as they were generally considered to be too “exotic” and fancy for honest, simple English tastes. (That they were sung in a foreign language seems to have been the primary problem.) Singer drama, meanwhile, takes up a large portion of Handel’s time. (There is that glorious story about Francesca Cuzzoni refusing to perform an aria, to which Handel replied, “Madam, I see that you are a true devil – but I am Beelzebub, chief of devils”, and then threatened to fling her out of a window. Glover also recounts the weirdly manufactured rivalry between Cuzzoni and another soprano, Faustina; the two women appear to have mostly gotten along just fine, until nascent celebrity culture and the press whipped up a story about their being bitter enemies.) If I have one complaint, it’s that, although we get a great sense of what Handel was doing at any given moment in his life (and he was always doing a lot), it’s much harder to imagine what the inside of the man’s head might have been like. But then, his letters just don’t seem to be very revealing, and it’s obvious that he was both brilliant and almost obsessively hard-working. Highly recommended.

7112zfwmgglNormal People, by Sally Rooney: This is much, much preferable to Conversations With Friends, to my mind. Rooney follows two teenagers from Sligo, Marianne and Connell, as they enter into a secret relationship at school, break up, go to the same university, and spend the next three years on a faintly agonising will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster. The class difference (they meet because Connell’s mother is Marianne’s cleaner) creates a strange power dynamic, but so does the fact that Marianne is considered a social outcast at school, Connell’s physical beauty, her absolute dedication to him, and (only revealed later) her interest in BDSM. That makes explicit what Rooney has been getting at all along: that Normal People is about exploring power imbalances, in ways that are both healthy and not so. (It’s to Rooney’s credit that the BDSM isn’t painted as a Bad Thing per se; what feels icky about it is that we know Marianne feels she deserves no better than violence, as opposed to it being an avenue of exploration and pleasure for her.) The novel reminded me a lot of Belinda McKeon’s Tender, also about two young people at university in Dublin and their painful, tumultuous relationship. I still prefer McKeon’s book because she never looks away, whereas Rooney chooses to illuminate Marianne and Connell through vignettes, but that’s a stylistic thing.

9781408889183The Life and Times of a Very British Man, by Kamal Ahmed: Ahmed is the BBC chief economics editor, and as such is a pretty well-known name and face. His memoir is not unlike Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish), which was published earlier this year and is just out in paperback now: both Hirsch and Ahmed seek to explore the peculiar feeling of being a light-skinned or mixed-race person in Britain today, with the legacy of violence in the 1970s and ’80s still fresh, but with children for whom Britain will increasingly be a nation of brown faces. Ahmed’s book convinces me less, partly because his interpolation of statistics and political truths into the story of his life feels less organic than Hirsch’s (and Hirsch writes more fluidly), and partly because he subscribes to the idea that we all just need to listen to each other. Technically speaking, of course, he’s not wrong, but his assumption that people can meet each other at a table “as equals” is startling, given that institutional racism very much still exists; people of colour, not only in Britain but also in America and Europe, are under a weight of suspicion, lack of opportunity, lack of generational wealth, lack of access to the establishment, that their white counterparts don’t have to struggle against in quite the same way, even if they’re poor or working-class white people. No one is coming to this putative table to listen to each other without their context. I think perhaps this is a generational thing; people my age seem much more likely to acknowledge that not only are we not all dealt comparable hands, but that addressing that imbalance ought to be an integral part of any kind of policy development.

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Reading Diary: oh dear, part three (holiday reading)

I went to Brussels in the middle of this month. There was no real reason to do this, apart from the fact that I had the time to take a week-long holiday, and I fancied going somewhere Abroad, and Brussels happened to be the city to which I could most cheaply transport myself. (£50 each way on the Eurostar. Even Easyjet flights to places like Malta were more expensive.) It was also the first proper, avowed holiday which I have taken alone. As such, I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but I brought five books, the notebook containing the section of my novel that I’m working on right now, and my laptop, and prepared to spend some time figuring out how much tourism vs. relaxation I actually wanted to do.

In the event, I tourist-ed for three and a half days (Grand Place, the Mont des Arts, the cathedral, various chocolatiers, Parc Josaphat, and the Horta Museum) and spent the rest of the week reading in the sunshine on my Airbnb’s terrace, writing in a coffee shop near the Horta Museum and in my Airbnb, taking very long baths, being intimidated by the local butcher, and bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Most importantly, I wrote over a thousand words a day, and finished all the books I brought with me (the last one on the Eurostar home, so my back-up book, Villette, was unnecessary).

61s2b5egxvtl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Frost in May, by Antonia White: The first book ever to be published as a Virago Classic, and (according to Elizabeth Bowen) “not the only school story to be a classic, but…the only one that is a work of art.” Its protagonist is Nanda Gray, whose father has recently converted to Catholicism and who is sent to a Catholic convent school, where she is permanently treated as a second-class citizen, albeit one who might (eventually) be redeemable. The story follows fairly closely the events of White’s own early life, and she captures with the extreme clarity of adolescence (and of trauma) the emotional terrorism visited upon the girls of the school by the nuns. Anyone who has been manipulated by an authority figure will find Frost in May both disturbing and familiar. Nanda’s eventual disgrace is also the mechanism of her freedom, although she may not realise it. This might, now that I think about it, have been very interesting to read alongside Villette, also a school story intensely concerned with surveillance, privacy, and autonomy.

91pgumjkzvlKintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: One of the most challenging, and therefore most instructive, aspects of reading fiction that was not originally designed with a Western market in mind is that there are things Western readers expect with regards to narrative structure and characterisation. When those expectations are swerved, as in Kintu they frequently are, it presents an opportunity to examine the lukewarm reaction this provokes in a reader and to consider how growing up in different cultures affects how we tell stories and what we demand from them. Kintu is the story of a curse placed upon a historic Ganda chief for failing to properly bury his adopted son, who is biologically from another tribe. This curse – or is it simply hereditary mental illness, exacerbated by guilt, poverty, and other factors? – is passed down through generations of Kintu’s descendants to the present day. What I found confusing and alienating about the novel – the interchangeability of characters’ names, the repetition of similar events with minor variations, the assumption of understanding surrounding Ganda social taboos – are clearly the very elements that comprise its strength in the context for which it was written (it was first published by Kenya’s Kwami Trust, sponsored by a leading Kenyan literary journal). This is the sort of thing that #WITMonth, for example, is for: asking you to perform a meta-analysis of the way you evaluate literary success.

9780571347018Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest novel felt particularly apt reading in the week I was in Brussels. Half of it deals with a very contemporary woman whose family and house both appear to be crumbling around her, and who is required to care not only for her new grandson (whose mother has just killed herself) but also for her dying father-in-law. The politics of care – both in the sense of emotional faultlines and in the very real sense of legislation and regulation and the heartbreaking struggles of American people to access healthcare at this point in time – are at the fore here. In the other half of the book, politics and caring are also foregrounded in the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a young schoolteacher who wishes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and who is thwarted by Landis, the man who essentially runs the company town where he lives and works. There are, of course, parallels with the Trump administration: fear of science and experts, dissemination of lies presented as truths, the ability of the rich and powerful to (literally) get away with murder. There is so much going on in both strands of the novel that perhaps elements are short-changed, like Willa’s relationship with her daughter Tig and some parts of Thatcher’s relationship with Mary Treat, the brilliant woman scientist next door who corresponds with Darwin and Asa Gray. But Kingsolver’s central metaphor illustrates perfectly that famous quote about American conflict: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And that, perhaps, the best thing we can do is bring it all down.

41li6jgb7il-_sy445_ql70_Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott: An homage to P.G. Wodehouse (as the subtitle says) has got a lot to live up to, and Ben Schott pretty admirably fills the shoes of the master here; without trying too slavishly to pastiche PGW, he manages those signature goofy similes with aplomb. (My only objection might be that his Wooster is actually not enough of an idiot.) In this outing, Wooster discovers that the Junior Ganymede Club, the organisation of gentlemen’s gentlemen to which Jeeves belongs, has in fact been functioning as an arm of British intelligence for decades, if not centuries: who, after all, is better positioned to acquire information about the great and the good (or not so good) than their butlers? (Though it is not just butlers; the Junior Ganymede, apparently, recruits from all ranks of domestic service. “Pigmen,” as Jeeves notes in one of those delightfully poker-faced asides that Wodehouse himself would be proud to have written, “have been particularly cooperative.”) The plot, such as it is, involves Jeeves and Wooster having to intercept some sort of code on its way to the carbuncular British fascist Roderick Spode, which requires a lot of careening all over the West End. There’s a particularly enjoyable chase scene through the interconnecting doors of Pall Mall’s private clubs: the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the RAC, all are name-checked. For my money, Wodehouse plotted better – he’s madcap but he’s as precise as clockwork, where Schott is a little scattergun – but it feels so churlish to complain when you’re having this much fun.

EDIT: I forgot The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick! Perhaps this is because I’ve been reading it on and off for months, on my phone, in spare moments. As most of you will probably know, it is set in a United States that lost WWII, and is now divided into several zones, mostly governed by the Japanese, who were thrown North America after the war by their victorious Nazi allies. To be perfectly honest, this on-and-off reading technique was obviously bad for this particular book, because when I picked it up properly again, none of it really hung together and I couldn’t work out what the main thrust of the story was, and when the big reveal appeared, the fact that it was so unclear whether we were in a parallel universe or what the mechanism was, exactly, was just intensely irritating. Is there a better Dick? (…shut up.)

Down the TBR Hole, # 4

Time for another round! It has been a very long time since I last played this game. This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.

(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)

living-with-a-wild-god-091531624Book #31: Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Why is it on my TBR? Came across a catalogue listing for it when it was first released; I’m interested in personal writing about faith.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Discard for now; it doesn’t feel like a priority.

Book # 32: Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business in themerchants of culture Twenty-First Century, by John Brookmire Thompson

Why is it on my TBR? Professional interest, natch.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. Definitely still relevant, maybe even more so now that my job is in trade bookselling, not academic publishing (as I think it was when I first saw this title.)

winter's boneBook # 33: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Why is it on my TBR? Recommended by my tutor when I was working on Southern Gothic writing. Also, saw the film and thought it was brilliant.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep. I loved My Absolute Darling so much and I think this might strike the same sort of note.

Book # 34: Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess91bleptewnl

Why is it on my TBR? No idea.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict? Keep – Earthly Powers was outrageously funny and I like the idea of life-of-Shakespeare literary fanfic.

10304270Book # 35: The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, by Mark Kermode

Why is it on my TBR? I do believe I read a review of it over at Eve’s Alexandria, many moons ago.

Do I already own it? Y’all know I don’t own most of the stuff I want to read.

Verdict? Keep. My film knowledge is so poor but I love reading film criticism, especially  of popular modern movies.

Book # 36: The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies81bfeulwksl

Why is it on my TBR? :glances at Eve’s Alexandria again:

Do I already own it? Nah.

Verdict? Keep. Epic multi-stranded narratives about people whose lives are inextricably intertwined by tiny coincidences are my jam.

81shqph22glBook # 37: The Cornish Trilogy, by Robertson Davies

Why is it on my TBR? THIS IS ALL EVE’S FAULT.

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Keeeeeep. This one has “defrocked, mischief-making monks, half-mad professors, gypsies and musical geniuses”. Not to mention, its cover design matches the other one so nicely.

Book # 38: The Salterton Trilogy, by Robertson Daviescover1

Why is it on my TBR? :refuses to answer:

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? This is one I might be prepared to lose, actually. There’s a production of The Tempest in it, which is appealing, but small-town mischief and gossip appeals less. (But! The cover!)

12808190Book # 39: The Emperor’s Babe, by Bernardine Evaristo

Why is it on my TBR? It sounds brilliant: a novel-in-verse about the Sudanese teenage bride of the Emperor Septimius Severus, set in Roman London!

Do I already own it? No.

Verdict? Keep. I am forever picking this up in bookshops and then putting it down again due to distraction or penury.

Book # 40: A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth51dpz64rdzl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? It crops up a lot in lists: of best 20th-century books, Big Read surveys of people’s favourite novels. Also, my friend Ollie read it (while revising for his Finals, the madman) and loved it.

Do I already own it? …Unclear. I did have a copy, but I can’t recall whether it went to the charity shop before I moved, and I haven’t yet completed my personal library spreadsheet (which I have because I’m a neeeeerd, thanks for asking).

Verdict? Keep. Sooner or later I’ll break my leg or go on a twelve-hour flight, and then I’ll need this book.


Conclusions: This particular round didn’t go well as a culling exercise, but it did remind me that I’m going on holiday next month, and what better time to get stuck into books you’ve been meaning to read for years?

TBR Update: Previous rounds of this game have actually resulted in a couple titles getting knocked off the TBR! I read Slaughterhouse-Five last July and The Power and the Glory this January (both are from Round 1). Admittedly, that hit rate is neither high nor rapid.

What do you think? Should I just go for broke and read all three of Robertson Davies’s trilogies? Should I pass on Vikram Seth or Anthony Burgess? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me.) Comments much encouraged, as always.

Reading Diary: from Wednesday to Wednesday

isbn9781408711156Simon Mawer is known as a writer of rather excellent spy novels, many of which are interconnected: The Girl Who Fell From the SkyThe Glass Room and Tightrope all have overlapping characters, and deal primarily with WWII espionage. (I reviewed Tightrope for Quadrapheme when it was released, and was impressed with Mawer’s ability to construct a female spy whose sex didn’t define her, and whose war trauma was acknowledged without being fetishised.) His new novel, Prague Spring, is set during a time that rarely gets treated, at least in the espionage fiction that I see: 1968, in Czechoslovakia, as the titular conflict draws near. Mawer has two sets of protagonists. The first is a pair of English undergraduates named James and Ellie, who are hitch-hiking around Europe and who head to Czechoslovakia more or less on a whim. The second is a British diplomatic official in Prague, Sam Wareham, and a young Czech student, Lenka, with whom he is conducting an affair. These four come into contact with each other about halfway through the book, and one of Mawer’s greatest successes is in showing how insistently social life asserts itself, even as huge political rumblings occur in the background: gigs and meetings and parties don’t stop even as Leonid Brezhnev continues to pressure Alexander Dubček. The espionage element of the plot exists, but is downplayed in favour of exploring political innocence and coming of age. Ellie is a passionate student protester (she was arrested in Paris, which gives her a mystique in James’s eyes), but events in Prague quickly overwhelm her limited and privileged experience of political conflict. The Czechs, meanwhile, experience this disillusionment on a grander scale, as Soviet forces invade the country and crush hopes for a more liberal society. Prague Spring is a much-needed examination of the human cost of repressive regimes, and also a rattling good read.

a1k1al3vf5lThe Golden Age of crime writing is having quite the renaissance at the moment; I presume much of this is down to a desperate desire for escapism on the part of politically left-leaning readers, and a certain level of satisfaction for right-leaning ones in the allure of a simpler, jollier, more British age. Rachel Rhys’s second novel written under that name (it’s the pseudonym of psychological thriller writer Tammy Cohen), Fatal Inheritance, is set just post-WWII and takes place primarily on the French Riviera, where frustrated housewife Eve Forrester finds herself sitting in a solicitor’s office being informed that the last will and testament of Guy Lester, a man she’s never met, has named her as the beneficiary of a quarter share of his beachside villa. Needless to say, Lester’s adult children and wife are furious, but Eve wants to discover the nature of her connection to them, so, despite a barrage of irritated telegrams from her cold and boring husband, Clifford, she remains in France. As she attempts to investigate, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is trying to murder her – and that this might have some connection to a file of old newspaper clippings about a man killed in a London park decades earlier. Fatal Inheritance wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve (I noticed some Mary Stewart, some Du Maurier, some Christie), although it’s not as original or as engaging as any of them: Eve is sympathetic but a bit of a blank, and the ultimate explanation feels a bit anticlimactic. Still, it’s a sunny summer book that practically reads itself. If it’s your sort of thing, it’ll definitely be your sort of thing, if you see what I mean.

17903275I love advice columns. I love the whole concept of them, the placing of your confusion and entanglement into the hands of a kind, sensible stranger who can step back, look at what they’re holding, and tell you the shape of it. Cheryl Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, published at The Rumpus a few years back, is one of the undisputed classics of the genre. I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of some of those columns, before, but I come back to it every few years because Strayed takes people so seriously that it makes me want to cry. She makes their interactions a two-way street: not just some lost soul asking for help, but a conversation in which Strayed shares moments of vulnerability, or of epiphany, in her own life. It helps that she writes with lyrical grace that never falls into the trap of being self-satisfied, and it helps that she has had, by anyone’s standards, a life both tough as hell and outstandingly lucky. She knows whereof she speaks. I used to have a mug that said “Write like a motherfucker” on it, which is a quote from a Dear Sugar column (and to be honest with you, I want that mug back; I’ll buy another someday soon). But my favourite letter is from a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver several years ago, and who is struggling mightily to carry on. It’s a long letter, and the response is long too, but the final three sentences make me weep every time I read them – whether I’m in public or not, whether I’m feeling particularly sad that day or not. I think you, whoever you are, owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of this book somehow and read them too.*

*Okay, okay: there’s a link to that column online here. Read it, and then buy the book.

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Varina is a historical novel about Varina Davis (née Howell), who married Jefferson Davis, the man who was later appointed President of the Confederate States of America. It’s a hell of a task, as a fiction writer, to humanise people whose ideas and ideals are so obviously, now, wrongheaded. The point on which Charles Frazier is to be commended is that he opens his arms to the complexity of this task. Jefferson Davis is here not portrayed as an evil man, but nor are his flaws brushed over: he’s ambitious, somewhat cold, and has a self-martyring streak. Varina is very clever, pretty, combative, and lonely. Her story is told in flashbacks, through conversations with a black man named James who was raised with her children – not as a slave or servant, but as part of her family – during the years of the Civil War. Varina’s and James’s relationship is complicated (did she really pick him up off the streets of Richmond, or is he her child? Is he Jeff’s?) and their conversations involve elusiveness, and illusion, on Varina’s part. All James wants is the truth about his past; Varina either can’t give it to him entirely, or can’t psychologically lose whatever she would need to lose in order to do that. She is a mystery to the reader much of the time, but Frazier is a gifted writer of character and so the result is not a cipher (like Eve Forrester of Fatal Inheritance, see above) but a woman who is enigmatic because she wants to be; not because there’s nothing there, but because there’s too much there. The musings on the rightness or wrongness of slavery that such a book must contain are integrated in a way that feels psychologically convincing. Varina recognises from the age of five that there is something odd about having masters and slaves – not necessarily good or bad, to her mind, but strange. Her observations of Jeff’s relationship to his longtime body slave and friend, Pemberton, acknowledge that strangeness too. Varina, as a novel, is thus both responsible and artful. We can talk about this in fiction, and the job of doing so can be taken up fruitfully by white writers as well as writers of colour, if we can be honest both to the characters and to the history. We must.

Thoughts on last week’s reading: Two new releases, an older title, and a proof of a forthcoming book: that’s a pretty good balance. To have enjoyed three out of four is also not bad, though it’s sad that I didn’t love the only author here that’s new to me.

 

Three Things: July 2018

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With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: Apart from continuing with 20 Books of Summer, and trying to deal with my newly expanded pile of proofs for the autumn, I’ve found time to trawl the archives of Adam Roberts’s blog (or one of them, anyway), Morphosis. Roberts is a writer of SF whose work is weird and erudite and very far up my street: his most recent book is a virtual-reality murder mystery called The Real-Town Murders, but he’s probably best known for Jack Glass, which is apparently a mindfuck, and Yellow Blue Tibia, about a bunch of Soviet science fiction authors whose Stalin-approved group writing project appears to be coming true. Morphosis contains Roberts’s intellectual musings on things as diverse as John Bunyan, Cicero’s De officiis, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One. This is to say, it takes seriously enough to examine critically a combination of high and low culture that I find massively enjoyable, and Roberts always articulates himself with enviable precision and perceptiveness. The whole blog goes as far back as 2013: plenty to explore.

Looking: The view from my sitting room never ceases to delight me. We have two enormous, tall windows—they’re one of the main reasons we took this flat in the first place—and you can see half the street from them, or it feels like it. People with their shopping; a man pushing a buggy; a woman struggling to keep her headscarf tidy against the wind. And the houses: the one opposite us has window baskets and a blue door, and their next-door neighbour has geraniums and begonias spilling out of every window. Especially in the sunshine, to sit here and drink coffee or write or eat breakfast is one of my life’s simplest joys.

Thinking: The other night I was listening to Sheryl Crow’s early album, The Globe Sessions, and her voice was so much more raw and full and stripped-back, all at the same time, than it ever has been in her more “produced” albums, and she was playing the guitar in this strum-and-punch style that feels like the epitome of modern country. And the air in my flat was hot and close, so that I could only bear to be wearing a t-shirt, and all the lights were off but I had a candle burning, and the ice in my drink was melting, and there had been a thunderstorm, and I felt like I’d time traveled back to, oh, 2003, maybe, to one of the muggy Virginia summers of my childhood or adolescence, when everything was lonely and passionate and painful and glorious. Isn’t it strange how music can do that? Music, and the weather. Memory is odd.

15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

51f8igl7ngl-_sx323_bo1204203200_John Cheever has a reputation, an enormous one, as a giant of post-war American fiction. There is a particular social atmosphere surrounding his work. His men mix drinks and travel into New York every weekday morning on the eight-four; his women wear furs and are quietly, desperately, suicidally bored; everyone plays tennis at the club. The sea is never far away. To a large extent these descriptions hold true when you read the actual stories, but there is a surprising extent to which that is not all they are, or not all that Cheever can do. He can, and does, write about poverty: Christmas Is a Sad Season For the Poor, for instance, which features an apartment building elevator operator who spends the entirety of Christmas morning telling everyone he ferries in his elevator how depressing and lonely his day is likely to be. He succeeds in exciting Christian charity in the hearts of virtually all the families in the building, ending up with seventeen hot dinners and mountains of presents. Unable to distribute them all to his children, he gives most of this bounty to his neighbour, who rouses herself and her family to take them, in turn, to an even poorer family. The moral of this story – even whether there is a moral at all – is unclear, although I think the point here is less any particular moral than it is an overwhelming sense of irony, maybe even of futility, not just in this context but of all human endeavour.

He can, and does, write about adultery and cruelty. (Mostly, in Cheever’s world, it’s wives who are abusive to their husbands. Every now and then, as with The Music Teacher, the position is reversed, but Cheever never seems to be on the side of patriarchy at the expense of justice. He rarely appears to take sides at all, but he generally reserves tenderness for those characters who are baffled, vulnerable, or weak, whether they’re men or women.) Many of his stories revolve around a man who takes a mistress. None of his first-person narrators are women, though he writes some stories in the omniscient third person that focus on female perspectives. He was a closeted bisexual, which, although not the only lens through which to read his dissection of middle- and upper-class American sexual mores, is an interesting one. He is frank and fascinated by the hypocrisy of family values, the liberating effect of post-war European travel, the terrible anxiety about mortality and obsolescence that the act of adultery, in this world, is an attempt to assuage.

Philip Roth is quoted on the back of my edition as saying that Cheever writes “enchanted realism”; it’s an interesting expression because it so explicitly repudiates the implications of how I’d say it, which is that he writes a kind of materialist fabulism or fantasia. Frequently, at the end of these stories, miraculous or inexplicable things happen; time shifts and blurs; people appear and disappear. There’s a sense of the uncanny about all of it. This manifests most famously, perhaps, in the late story The Swimmer, whose protagonist Ned Merrill decides to make his way home from a party by swimming in the pools of all the neighbours between the two houses, and discovers when he returns home that he has aged by decades, his fortune has evaporated, his house is shuttered and empty, his family is gone. But there’s also that twinge of eeriness in earlier work: The Sutton Place Story, for instance, which revolves around a little girl who goes missing. When, eventually, she is recovered, she mentions a mysterious lady who gave her bread, but is either unwilling or incapable of saying more. I think it is a story about the moment you first realise that a child is not an extension of yourself, a realisation that strikes the little girl’s parents especially hard precisely because they have been so neglectful of her.

Most significant, though, is that Cheever’s writing is, quite simply, beautiful. He can write a sentence as simple and declarative as Hemingway; he can spin out a string of subordinate clauses as lush and proliferating as (though more dexterous than) anything of Henry James’s. He is profound and superficial at the same time; he can capture frivolity and desperation in the same breath, and follow it up with genuine, foolish, heart-felt love. And his work is suffused, for me, with this sense of light: suburban light, golden light, American light. I’ve wanted to read his Journals for some time, and on the strength of the short stories, his novels are also about to go on my TBR. Marvelous.

Man Booker Prize 2018: What I Got

HOLY HELL, you guys. What a list. Obviously, virtually none of my wishes/predictions made it (except for The Overstory, thank all the gods). While I’m deeply depressed about the lack of Amy Sackville, Elise Valmorbida, Andrew Miller, Nick Harkaway, Joseph Cassara, and Lidia Yuknavitch, amongst others, I’m also impressed at the generic diversity: there’s a graphic novel on there! There’s a crime novel! This is crazy, y’all!

Less pleasing: the lack of ethnic/national diversity. Opening up this prize to the Americans has, as predicted, resulted in a diminishing of Commonwealth writers; there is no one here from Jamaica or Nigeria or India or even Australia. Two Canadians, two Irish writers (maybe three?), and that’s your lot.

Most of the longlisted books I haven’t read, so these are going to be more along the lines of quick impressions than considered analyses:

coverSnap, by Belinda Bauer. Pretty sure Val McDermid is singlehandedly responsible for this being on the list. Bauer’s reputation is high; I’m wondering if she’s a sort of new Tana French. The premise of this – a heavily pregnant woman walks away from her son and her broken-down car on the M5, in search of a pay phone, and is never seen again – is good.

41wnvealv5l-_sx324_bo1204203200_Milkman, by Anna Burns. The cover is stunning. It’s about an Irish woman being stalked by a paramilitary. That’s really all I’ve got on it. It’s relatively new out and I don’t think anyone at the shop has read it, although my colleague Zoe is keen. The Guardian called it Beckettian and said that Burns reveals “the logical within the absurd”, which sounds very Irish.

41lzvtkhukl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso. This is the first graphic novel ever to be on the Man Booker Prize long list and I’m very excited about it. I’ve flicked through the first ten pages and there’s something quietly disturbing and addictive about its atmosphere, already. The artistic style is one that I happen to hate, but that may not matter much.

9781781258972Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan. This is one of my 20 Books of Summer and it’s already so high up my TBR it’s practically tugging my sleeve, so it won’t be long before I’ve read it. A young slave boy’s master disappears on a voyage of exploration, and then…reappears? People have been comparing this to Sugar Money but I have a strong feeling that Edugyan’s book will be better.

In Our Mad and Furious City, by Guy Gunaratne. Five narrators seems like an awful lot of voices for one author to differentiate, but Gunaratne’s ability to ventriloquise the slangy vernacular of young London has been one of the major selling points of this book so far.

cover1Everything Under, by Daisy Johnson. The impression I get from this is that it might be a bit like Penelope Fitzgerald’s book Offshore, only with some mythology mixed up in it, and that is the sort of impression that makes me want to read it immediately. However, Anthony Cummins’s description of it “luridly staging the supremacy of biological fact” waves a red flag. What the fuck does that mean, Anthony?

81z2yt8ghblThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner. Genuinely delighted about this. I was pretty indifferent to The Flamethrowers (although I read it just out of university, when my reading protocols were still tuned to Edmund Spenser wavelengths, so maybe that was my fault), but I think if I’d read this before the announcement, I’d have put it on my wishlist. My colleague Camille loved it.

81j4lg4hk8l1The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh. Now, this I have read, and it is the only title on the list that really baffles me. It’s not a bad book, but then most books aren’t bad books. It’s just derivative, endlessly, and I cannot find enough originality in it to understand why it’s here. The prose is fine. The plot is fine, although it doesn’t really go anywhere. Controlling men are bad. The punishment of women for their existence is physical mortification. *checks watch*

077107378xWarlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje has been the unfortunate victim of my growing reluctance to read established white male writers. I hear pretty good things about this one – a kind of weird Gothic about children abandoned during World War II to a netherworld of vaguely defined criminality. It’s not going to the top of my list, but if there’s a damaged copy in the shop, I’ll take it.

a1lfnmiqzalThe Overstory, by Richard Powers. Richard Powers is exempted from my reluctance to read established white male writers, because he is wonderful. Partly this is because he doesn’t have any problems with writing women and people of colour into his stories. Partly this is because he writes so beautifully that I would be punishing myself by refusing to read him. I’m so happy he’s here.

9781509846894the20long20take_21The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. A novel in verse! How awesome is this! I’ve read some of Robertson’s poetry before – Hill of Doors, I think – which hasn’t stuck in my mind at all, but this was around the same time as The Flamethrowers, so again, that might have been my fault. This is a kind of post-war picaresque in the same vein as Andrew Miller’s new book. I think I’d like it.

71bdwmuhvzlNormal People, by Sally Rooney. Okay, Rooney’s hip and happenin’, we get it, Jesus. You can accuse me of bitterness all you like, you’re probably not wrong. Anyway, this is another novel where I can’t work out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, two Irish kids go to university. Maybe something happens to them while they’re there. Let’s hope so.

cover2From A Low and Quiet Sea, by Donal Ryan. Kind of a novel in short stories, this one, which actually I’m coming round to, as a form. Zoe tells me the first section is “epic” and the other two are less so; if this makes the shortlist I shall make more of an effort to seek it out.


What do you think of this long list? Good weird? Bad weird? Indifferent weird? What would you have liked to see on it? What enrages you with its presence?