Reading Diary: with clouds descending

It’s ADVENT, season of the best carol ever! It’s also been rainy for the past fortnight (or, at the very best, cloudy all day), so, you know, doubly appropriate.

9780241951439_43Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen: I picked this up on a whim and I’m so glad I did. Karen Blixen moved from Denmark to Kenya in 1913 to run a coffee plantation with her husband (who, magnificently, she fails to mention in this book until after page 300. There are only 336 pages in total, in my edition.) This is a collection of her writing about the farm, her experiences with the Kikuyu people who worked for her and those who didn’t, and with the Masai who lived in the Reserve that bordered her property. It is, of course, a record of a vanished way of life: as a farmer, she shoots any and all lions, which one can hardly imagine a landowner getting away with now. There is also a certain level of paternalism with regards to her musings about “Natives”, even though  she clearly respects the individual men and women who work for her, and they were obviously fond of her. On the whole, though, the impression is of a woman almost totally without ego – she wants to describe Africa, not to foreground her personality – and deeply observant. She is also, to my surprise, highly spiritual; a section late on in the book consists of short segments that often focus on the presence of God in the beauty of the natural world. Her sensibilities are deeply literary and allusive, and as a European aristocrat, she moved casually in the circles of high society (she talks of the Prince of Wales having dinner at her house, and she was extremely close with Denys Finch-Hatton, eventually having an affair with him after her divorce). She could also write with an extreme simplicity and clarity which seems characteristic of her time: “I had a farm in Africa,” the book begins, “at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” That sentence speaks directly to you; it’s rhythmic, even musical. Outstanding.

9781526602121The Flower Girls, by Alice Clark-Platts: Bloomsbury’s Raven imprint started out really promisingly, with work from Laura Purcell, Alex Reeve, Stuart Turton and Eva Dolan making it clear that this was no ordinary crime label. The Flower Girls, unfortunately, is something of a downward turn. It focuses on a crime committed by two sisters, Laurel and Primrose, who lure a toddler away from a playground and kill her, in a manner clearly calculated by Clark-Platts to recall the murder of Jamie Bulger. Laurel, aged ten, is deemed capable of standing trial; Primrose, who is only six, is not. Laurel is found guilty and sent to prison, but nineteen years later, as Laurel’s potential release date approaches, another little girl goes missing in a hotel where Primrose – now living under the name Hazel Archer – is staying with her new partner and his teenage daughter. The novel is hampered by a number of things: there are too many point-of-view characters, nearly every plot point and emotion comes fully explained in case the reader somehow fails to grasp its import, and the twist ending is visible from a mile away. (It’s still horrifying, but being horrified by horrifying things is a reaction based in a reader’s human decency, and does not constitute masterful plotting or pacing.) The entire plot requires a reader to accept that Laurel has made a particular decision for a particular reason, and it is simply not clear enough. There are things Clark-Platts is trying to do and say with which I sympathise, especially things to do with the nature of victimhood, but it’s all a little…I don’t know…clumsy.

foe-9781501127427Foe, by Iain Reid: Foe is a weird book. It starts off as a kind of Black Mirror episode-type story: Junior and Henrietta are apparently happily, if quietly, married, and they live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. One day a man from the government turns up in a shiny car and delivers the news that Junior has been selected as part of an exploratory mission to create a human community in space. It is not possible to refuse. However, Junior is told, his wife will be kept company during his absence by an entirely lifelike replica of him. After this, I expected Foe to split, one narrative strand following Junior as he adjusts to life in orbit (and, presumably, discovers some less-than-savoury secrets about the government’s project), the other following Hen’s adaptation to life with something that looks and behaves in every way like her husband. That did not happen. Instead, Reid keeps the action firmly on Earth and inside Junior’s head; the book is mostly concerned with his reactions to the mysterious government representative who will explain nothing and who eventually moves in with them, the better to conduct permanent surveillance for “research purposes” before the big launch. The reason that Reid maintains this narrow, even claustrophobic focus, becomes clear with the big twist, which is also visible from a mile away. So far, so clever; my problem with the big twist is that it requires us to accept that Hen has acquiesced in—even encouraged—something which has no clear benefit to her whatsoever, as well as enormous potential to damage her. If we are meant to see her as coerced, Junior’s point of view is not objective enough to convey that convincingly. And ultimately, I don’t think that big twist can carry the novel: it happens so near the end that its ramifications are barely gestured at. In a way, Foe might have been better either as a short story (with this plot), or as a novel that really did try to explore what it might be like to live with a robot stand-in husband, or to live among the stars knowing that your wife was at home with a perfect replica of you.

41glscwyk3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_The Last, by Hanna Jameson: The problem with The Last isn’t so much that it can’t decide what it wants to be—thoughtful end-of-the-world novel a la Station Eleven, or classic murder-mystery-in-an-inescapable-environment a la A Christmas Murder—but more that it hasn’t realised it needs to decide at all. It wants to be both, and it can’t be. Set in a hotel in a remote Swiss forest, it focuses on the academic historian Jon Keller, who’s attending a conference when the lights of the world go out. Wisely, Jameson doesn’t spend much time trying to explain the sociopolitical situation that led to global nuclear war; at one point Jon recalls hearing a woman cry, “They’ve bombed Washington” and not even being sure who “they” are, which, in the current political climate of semi-permanent confusion and proliferating news sources, seems much more likely than anyone having a firm grasp of whys and wherefores as the world burns. Keller’s anxiety about his wife (with whom he argued before leaving for Switzerland) and children is nicely judged, and Jameson is good on the way people coalesce around a leader in times of uncertainty. She’s also, refreshingly, hopeful: the community that Keller and his fellow hotel guests find at the end of the novel doesn’t seem to be a trap or a cult, but a genuine attempt to live well in the ruins, even to build a new world. It’s just that there’s a lot going on in The Last, and the murder mystery – despite its interesting philosophical question of whether it’s worth investigating injustice in the midst of a meta-disaster – takes a back seat too often. (And the solution is…let’s not talk about it.)

9780099581666Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre: This is extremely my sort of thing, and gloriously, it did not disappoint. It is a novel about the marriage of Sir Kenelm Digby, famed sailor, alchemist and adventurer in the time of Charles I, and his wife Venetia, the most renowned beauty of her day. Venetia is aging as the novel opens (well, she’s thirty, but obviously in the 1630s that made her past her prime), and Kenelm’s refusal to provide a medical beauty aid drives her—along with several of her friends—into the arms of Lancelot Choice, a convincing quack who prescribes a tonic known as viper wine, distilled from the bodies of serpents which he farms in industrial quantities in his cellar. Eyre melds this historical narrative with what might be called flashes, or glimpses, of the future; Sir Kenelm’s ornamental obelisk at his country home, Gayhurst, becomes a radio mast, the narrative voice conflates his voyages with the space travel that humans will achieve a few centuries hence, and Venetia’s obsession with controlling not only her face, but the production and distribution of her image, is shown to be the forerunner of the modern brand management practiced by celebrities like the Kardashians. Eyre takes advantage of Kenelm Digby’s unique intellectual and historical position: one of the sources she quotes describes him as the single English mind that links the medieval and the modern, just as happy distilling mercury in alembics as he is keen to follow the latest scholarship from Galileo. She figures him, and Venetia, and the age in which they lived, as a kind of conduit, through which the past and the future can mingle. Viper Wine‘s a clever book; it’s also witty and contains some marvelous setpieces, including a voyage in a sort of proto-submarine. Not to be missed.

81zwgr0mpnlHow Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti: Some books are ahead of their times. Some books don’t need to be that far ahead to still be ahead. Such is the case with Heti’s first novel, which was published in 2010 and was well received, but which didn’t create nearly such a stir as Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which followed only seven years later yet which has somehow become a sort of cult novel, a touchstone for young tormented artistic types who find themselves beset by the difficulty of justifying creative endeavour in a world that manifestly doesn’t give a damn how special you think you are. How Should A Person Be?, which is autofiction, is filtered through the eyes of Sheila, who, in her twenties, has gotten married and been commissioned to write a play. The marriage and the play fail, and she meets a painter called Margaux with whom she develops a friendship both intense and somehow laissez-faire. What Rooney has most clearly taken from Heti is the voice: dry, ironic, detached, yet possessed of an increasingly obvious vulnerability. Something about How Should A Person Be? is less annoying to me than Conversations With Friends was, though. Perhaps it’s the sex, which, although Sheila has it with a plainly dreadful human being, is obviously great; I could never convince myself that Rooney’s Frances and Nick were having sex that good. There’s also something to be said for the clean dirt of Heti’s plotting choices: Sheila knows perfectly well that she’s having sex with the divinely awful Israel for bad reasons; they’re both single, so there’s none of the mess of an affair that Rooney’s characters struggle with; and, most importantly, Sheila decides to end the whole thing when it becomes clear that Israel is both stupid and obsessed with humiliating her. How Should A Person Be? is a weird book, but it’s certainly emotionally compelling.

813annxxbmlDream Sequence, by Adam Foulds: I requested this because, you know, Adam Foulds, but I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s the story of two people: one, Henry, is an up-and-coming actor who’s about to break out of the TV period drama circuit with a starring role in a film by a major director; the other, Kristin, is an American divorcée who bumped into him at an airport a year ago, and who has since been consumed by the delusion that they are meant to be together. It’s not anything like the last Foulds novel I read (The Quickening Maze, about the institutionalization of the poet John Clare in the same asylum as Tennyson’s brother Septimus). Foulds is exceptionally talented at putting us inside Henry’s and Kristin’s heads; his insights into the acting industry, particularly into the world of cinema and celebrity, auditioning and waiting to hear back, are brilliant and convincing. Henry’s permanent semi-conscious awareness of his body—hunger, muscle, fasting, lightness, the unusually beautiful structure of the bones of his face—is especially well rendered. In the sections involving Kristin, meanwhile, Foulds climbs into her head such that we not only see her madness, but understand it, intimately; her divorce has cost her a young stepson and the loss of his small, innocent love is something that she keeps coming back to, a hole in her heart that her obsession with Henry cannot fill. The story clearly can’t end well, but Foulds shows tremendous restraint right up to the finish line. Dream Sequence is very good, and very hard to pigeonhole.

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Reading Diary: season of mists

9780008272111The Binding, by Bridget Collins: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this – it’s getting the extremely-pretty-jacket treatment, which experience has taught me is often an early warning of a great idea badly executed – but it turned out to be rather good. The thought-provoking premise is that books are not, as we think of them, made-up stories, but are rather the true memories of a person, magically bound between covers, which a person cannot retain  once they’ve been bound. It functions as a form of confessional and forgetting, and binders are treated with wary respect. But it’s also a power that can be abused, and Emmett Farmer, our young protagonist, is soon plunged into a world of wealth, cruelty, and complicity. Bridget Collins has thought out the implications of her initial idea with admirable thoroughness, and the book’s written in a slightly breathy but perfectly palatable style that’s just the right side of YA. (Emmett’s romantic entanglement with another young man, Lucian, which forms the novel’s emotional core, is mostly responsible for this, I think. It’s nice to read anyway, and although I’m not a gay teenaged boy, from my perspective as a reader Collins seems to write sensitively. She’s especially good on institutional power dynamics, in a relationship as well as in the society that Emmett and Lucian live in.) Released in January, this will be an excellent antidote to the post-Christmas blahs.

5142oysdktl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Something Of His Art: Walking to Lubeck with J.S. Bach, by Horatio Clare: This is based on a “slow radio” series that Horatio Clare presented on Radio 3. I’m new to the concept of slow radio, but it seems not unlike slow television, a broadcasting trend that seeks to reverse frenetic media consumption and bring us all back to the important things in life, like watching seven hours’ worth of Norwegian train journey. Clare’s programs sought to follow in the footsteps of Johann Sebastian Bach, who as a young man walked from Arnstadt to Lubeck in order to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ. (Buxtehude was sort of the Bach of his day. The only excuse Bach ever gave his employers for disappearing for four months was that he wished to learn “something of his art”. Because the record we have is in the third person, it’s unclear whether Bach means his art, or Buxtehude’s, or – more pleasingly – both.) Unsurprisingly, I wanted more Bach and less birdsong, but Horatio Clare is really a travel writer so this seems a slightly unfair demand. He also hints at some truly interesting moments – there’s an especially surreal dinner in a German mountain canteen that used to be a Cold War militarized zone – of which the brevity of this format and project doesn’t allow elaboration. Terribly atmospheric anyway, though.

imageThe Penguin Classics Book, by Henry Eliot: I bought this for myself as a celebratory present after the US midterm elections, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because it’s not like I was singlehandedly responsible for the midterm results, but there you go. It’s a handsome, heavy, clothbound compendium of (and companion to) the Penguin Classics imprint, beautifully illustrated with colour photographs throughout and including little essays and text boxes about the imprint’s early days. E.V. Rieu (whose translation of The Odyssey was the first Penguin Classic ever) edited it for a long time, as did Betty Radice, who seems to have been both marvelously clever and quite wonderful as a person. Little notes on each entry provide pieces of trivia about translators, many of whom were the sort of eccentric academic types that only English intellectual society in the twentieth century could have created and sustained. It’ll also remind you of how much there is in the way of world literature; the texts from antique and medieval Asia, in particular, were often new to me. There are a couple of awkward typos (along the lines of “weak” instead of “week”), which shouldn’t exist at all in a book where so much design effort has clearly been put in, but the production of the object on the whole is first-class. I spent an extremely happy rainy weekend on the sofa with this beast, and if you’re a nerd, you should too.

9781780227344The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell: In the spirit of full disclosure, Antonia is my friend and has – extremely kindly – looked at my nascent book, but neither of these things really has any bearing on the fact that her book is very good. Sixteen-year-old Lalla lives in a London where Regent’s Park is home to a tent city; Oxford Street burned for three weeks, and the British Museum shelters homeless squatters. Food and security are scarce. She has been protected by her parents to such an extent that her conception of the state of England – indeed, the world – is desperately, terrifyingly naive. But her father, Michael, has been making plans for some time, and the shooting of Lalla’s mother forces them, finally, to leave London behind on the heavily provisioned ship that Michael has been stocking for years. The ship is full of people – an elect few, chosen for their ability to hold onto humanity as the world burns – but Michael soon becomes a Messianic figure, and Lalla chafes against his vision for the people of the ship. There are a lot of religious themes and parallels here, with Noah as well as with Christ, the Protestant doctrine of predestination, and the Adam/Eve story (apples constitute a recurring symbol). Lalla’s naivety is infuriating to the reader as well as to the people who surround her, but that is the point: even if she grows up late, she has to grow up, and that means being responsible for yourself, instead of waiting for others to take care of you. The ending is scary, but hopeful, as all points of no return must be.

original_400_6001The Order of the Day, by Eric Vuillard: Vuillard’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel is so short (160 pages) that I feel I’d be justified in making anything I wrote about it commensurately shorter. (Although I realise that, by its grace, I’ve managed to participate in Novellas In November.) It is, more or less, fiction, but you could be forgiven for reading it as a kind of chatty, intimate history; there is no protagonist, and no narrator save for an omniscient voice that has somewhat the flavour of Thackeray’s knowing asides to the reader. The story is of how Germany became the Third Reich: the meeting of industrialists (Krupp, Siemens et al.) who bankrolled Hitler, the bulldozing of the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, the way Germany took over Austrian state mechanisms while retaining a thin veneer of legality, and finally the actual invasion. It reads, in a way, like a piece from an older time; the novel’s interest in the interior lives of its characters is most often demonstrated not by taking us into that character’s head, but by describing that character to us with utter clarity and insight, somewhat as George Eliot does in Middlemarch. Yet it succeeds in being moving, even heartrending, in its descriptions of men who caused terrible damage but whom Vuillard wants us to see clearly. I rather suspect it will be a bit of a sleeper hit.

41g2bnfhi4sl-_sx309_bo1204203200_When All Is Said, by Anne Griffin: Maurice Hannigan is drinking. On a bar stool in a hotel that used to be the country home of the family that employed and abused him, he makes five toasts, one for each of the important people in his life: his son, his wife, his sister-in-law, his brother, his daughter. Because tonight is not going to be like all the other nights; tonight, Maurice Hannigan has a plan. Anne Griffin’s debut novel has more than a touch of the commercial crossover about it, and some of the execution is a little awkward (when are writers going to learn some restraint with speech indicators?), but the book is rescued from mawkishness by being genuinely felt. There has been real sadness in Maurice’s life, as well as real joy. He has not been a perfect husband or father, but he hasn’t been a monster: his obsession with acquiring money and land is revealed to be part of an obsession with avenging wrongs against his family that he has been angry about since he was a boy, and it has affected his relationships as an adult in unattractive ways. But he’s honest with himself and us, and the final chapter—when his greatest decision yet becomes clear—is surprising, moving, and bold. I’ve not read another novel in which the author allows her character the particular type of dignified choice that Griffin gives hers.

9781526601988Loyalties, by Delphine de Vigan: Another very short novel, bordering on novella—192 pages—from a French author, this one by the writer who brought us the queasy stalker autofiction of Based On A True Story. In Loyalties, she dissects the web of lies that children spin for adults, and the willful blindness that adults show to each other. Several characters tell the story: there is Théo, a charismatic eleven-year-old; Mathis, his privileged but easily led friend; Hélène, their teacher, who suspects something but can prove nothing and whose own past may be colouring her judgment; and Cécile, Mathis’s mother, who has found something terrible on her husband’s computer and now finds everything about her life with her family to be in question. Théo is easily the saddest and most convincing of these protagonists: his descent into alcoholism and deception is charted clearly, and without agenda, as stemming from his separated parents’ inability to keep their child out of their quarrel with each other. Mathis’s confusion about what the “right thing” to do might be rings very true, and Hélène is sympathetic, if perhaps too damaged to be totally convincing. Cécile is a curious character, just coming into a sense of who she might be apart from her husband and child; I’d read a whole book about her, though she doesn’t get to do much in Loyalties. It’s a fable, really, not much more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are extremely interesting in themselves.

9781526601025The Redeemed, by Tim Pears: Tim Pears might be British literature’s best-kept secret. (It used to be Sarah Moss, but I think she’s hitting the big time now, despite her lack of prize wins.) The Redeemed is the third in his West Country Trilogy, of which I have only read the second (The Wanderers), but with which I am nevertheless obsessed, and for which I have the profoundest awe. The Redeemed opens with Leo Sercombe, exiled from the estate where his parents worked and which served as his childhood home, having joined up with the Royal Navy and about to see action in World War I. Lottie Prideaux, his childhood playmate and the daughter of the manor, meanwhile, has managed to get herself taken on as a veterinary assistant to Patrick Jago, whose young male assistants are all away at war. Over the next twelve years, Lottie and Leo live their lives, and it’s to Pears’s immense credit that he manages to keep us in suspense about whether they will find each other again, and a way of living that fulfills them, without resorting to cheap tricks of plotting. (He’s not averse to a cliffhanger chapter ending, but he does it with such elegance.) His writing is beautiful—not self-satisfied or self-conscious, but engaging all the senses, plain and clear without being dull, delicate without being precious. The Horseman and The Wanderers described a world that’s now gone; The Redeemed describes that world’s passing, and shows us that a decent world, in many ways a better one, replaced it. Read Tim Pears, please.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: There’s some really cracking stuff coming out in January, of which the Pears and the Vuillard are my top picks. I’m so glad I finally read The Ship, and The Penguin Classics Book is proving an invaluable work resource as well as a fun thing for myself. I seem to have read a fair amount of short books, too (Vuillard, de Vigan, Clare), which is no bad thing for me, as I tend to prefer a doorstop tome.

Reading Diary: of monstrosity

9781925713459The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley: Described on Instagram as “the contemporary feminist Beowulf retelling of my dreams”, this takes the action of the Anglo-Saxon poem and relocates it to a gated community in upstate New York (I suppose it could be Connecticut), Herot Hall. Roger, the man whose family created Herot Hall, and Willa, his wife, are our Hrothgar and Wealhtheow; their earthly paradise is threatened by the presence of Dana Mills and her son, who live in the mountain that looms over Herot’s manicured backyards. Dana is an ex-soldier who fled a never-named Middle Eastern conflict after being captured by the enemy, her beheading staged for the Western media but not actually carried out due to her pregnancy. The liminality of her existence – her death is on tape, but remains unreal – is a brilliant way of translating the terrifying liminality of Grendel’s mother into a modern idiom, as is the heritage of her son, whom she names Gren: his father was (probably) an enemy combatant. It seems likely that he was conceived with Dana’s consent, but that isn’t ever totally clear. Dana is permanently terrified that her baby, her dark-skinned, too-tall, too-big son, will die a victim of the fear of people like the ones who live in Herot; it’s a painfully resonant fear for anyone who pays attention to the news. The tragedy of Beowulf from this point of view is that she’s right, and – as in classical tragedy – all the measures she takes to protect her boy only draw his fate nearer to him. The peril of making ancient tales contemporary, as the editors of the Hogarth Shakespeare ought to know by now, is that while some stories are timeless or universal in a certain sense, all stories arise out of a particular culture and context, and it’s very easy to sterilize the meaning of an old story by over-zealously mapping character names and plot points while forgetting to consider how that story’s conflicts might manifest in the twenty-first century. Headley mostly avoids that, although there are a few details (the train in the mountain – what is it with contemporary retellings and trains?; the fact that the Beowulf character’s name is Ben Woolf) that seem a little on the nose. On the whole, though, The Mere Wife is a phenomenal, brave reimagining of one of Western civilization’s oldest stories; unafraid to target institutional authority, Headley also forces us to question the original poem’s allegiances. It’s the sort of book I didn’t know I was waiting for someone to write.

original_400_600Evening in Paradise, by Lucia Berlin: Berlin’s earlier collection, A Manual For Cleaning Women, is the book that changed my mind about short stories. She uses the raw material of her own life–alcoholism, young sons, constant moving, the American West and Southwest–in stories that constantly circle around similar themes and characters. They are written in startlingly lucid yet straightforward prose, vivid with imagery, often illuminated by a single unexpected word or phrase. Evening in Paradise is the second collection of her work to be published after her death, and it isn’t, by any means, a collection of the second-best; it’s superb. The first two stories, told through the eyes of a child, engaged me the least, but starting from “Andado” (subtitled A Gothic Romance), Berlin’s voice becomes the voice that enchanted throughout A Manual For Cleaning Women. “Andado” features Laura, the daughter of an American businessman in Chile, being used as a sexual pawn to advance her father’s career; a country weekend with a much older man leads to the loss of her virginity (she’s perhaps fourteen), which she takes in her stride, although the reader can see the grooming and calculation behind the seductive gestures. From then on, the stories focus on women who share some aspects of Laura’s background and differ in other ways; they explore sexuality, marriage, the bohemian life, poverty, whether making good art requires you to lead a cruel life. Berlin is simply brilliant; her memoir, Welcome Home, is out next year and I’ll be reading it.

81mglejixklThe House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell: This is the book that The Wicked Cometh wanted to be. Young women are disappearing from London’s East End, mostly orphans and servants that few, if any, will miss. A seamstress throws herself from the top of a lord’s Mayfair townhouse; at the autopsy, a cryptic message is found stitched into her skin. What does it mean? And can young Gideon Bliss–recently arrived in London from his theological studies in Cambridge, but unable to find the mysterious uncle he’s meant to be meeting—work with Inspector Cutter, not only to keep London’s women safe, but to save Angie Tatton, the woman he loves? It’s all very pseudo-Victorian Gothic, but it works beautifully, partly because O’Donnell’s descriptive voice combines detail with restraint and partly because his characterization is so good. Cutter, irascible though fair, calls Bliss a “chattering streak of gannet’s shite”; Bliss, true to his intellectual training, cannot use one word where a dozen might do; even Esther Tull, whom we know only for one chapter, is a person with conflicting desires and duties whose departure from the narrative (and from life) feels like a real loss to the reader. O’Donnell is also frequently funny: there really are elements of Dickens at his best in the dialogue. The plot does, surprisingly, rely upon the supernatural, which is the opposite decision about Gothic tropes to the choice Susan Fletcher makes in House of Glass (see here for my review), and which might put people off. Oddly, though, I rather liked it. Everything about The House on Vesper Sands has such a flavour of ghost story that its payoff is gratifying: for once, an author isn’t messing with our heads or with genre expectations, and in this post-post-modern era, that feels oddly refreshing, especially when it’s so well executed. Highly recommended.

isbn9781787478039A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley: Quercus is overtly positioning this as the next in the long line of “rediscovered classics”; the proof copy lists Suite Francaise and Stoner as forebears in this rediscovery tradition. Kelley’s book comes with a fantastically illuminating essay by Kathryn Schultz that originally appeared in the New Yorker; he was the inventor of the word “woke”, way back in the 60s, and after A Different Drummer his star never quite rose in the way it perhaps ought to have. Partly, Schultz suggests, this is because of his focus: he was writing about white people, their inner lives and reactions to black people, trying to understand them, at a time in American history when Black Power and the civil rights movement were creating an artistic and social milieu that didn’t give a single damn about what white people thought or felt. His daughter recalls that his lack of success didn’t particularly faze him: “he was utterly unafraid”, Schultz quotes her as saying, “of being poor”. A Different Drummer is perhaps a book whose time has come. It’s basically speculative fiction; the book commences with a story told amongst white men about a huge slave, known as The African, who evades being auctioned for several weeks and is the progenitor of the black family known as the Calibans, but the action proper begins with a scene in which Tucker Caliban shoots all his livestock, salts his fields, burns his house, and walks out of the (fictional) Southern state in which he lives, accompanied by his wife and their baby. The entire black population of the state follows suit, and the rest of the novel takes the points of view of various white men, including a small boy and the son of the white family for whom Tucker Caliban used to work, as they grapple with the consequences of losing half the population of the state, and with their own attitudes towards their black neighbours. Kelley writes sentences with the clarity and declarative confidence of Hemingway; his characters are vulnerable and sympathetic even while they express ignorance, prejudice, and–at the very end–bloodthirsty cruelty. (In fact, it’s the very sympathy that Kelley has previously evoked for these Southern farming men that makes the ending so horrible. The reader, especially the white reader, is placed in the same position as thousands, millions, of Americans throughout history: we know these people by name, they’re our neighbours and friends, and yet here they are, masks flung aside, lynching a preacher.) It is a totally brilliant book, one I’ve been thinking about long after finishing the last page.

516oizjigrl-_sx314_bo1204203200_House of Glass, by Susan Fletcher: I’ve already written about this as part of the blog tour that Virago ran to promote the book; you can read what I had to say here. In brief: Fletcher is dealing with Gothic romance tropes (as does Paraic O’Donnell, and, in fact, Lucia Berlin in “Andado”, though Berlin explodes them in a very different way from Fletcher; she chooses not to deceive us before revealing that there’s nothing behind the curtain, but to show us that what’s behind the curtain is so much worse than ghoulies and ghosties for being man-made: the venal pimping of one man’s child to another man, the unequal but queasily exciting exchanges of power and sex that constitute the engine that drives Gothic fiction). Fletcher’s protagonist, Clara, is quite unforgettable, and the book’s engagement with genre ideas makes for not only a gripping story, but a genuinely thought-provoking one. It’ll make an excellent autumn or winter read; pair it with Melmoth or The House on Vesper Sands and you’d have reading sorted for a chilly weekend getaway.

9780701188757Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard: Things I wouldn’t ordinarily read: historical biography, in general. Things I’ll make an exception for: Bess of Hardwick. She was married four times; each marriage served as an opportunity for her to amass more land, build more homes, and acquire more material wealth in the form of plate, textiles, jewellery, et al. With her best-known husband, William Cavendish, she founded the dynasty that became the Dukes of Devonshire. Her final marriage, to the Earl of Shrewsbury, suffered under the strain of Queen Elizabeth’s request that they serve as jailers to Mary, Queen of Scots; Elizabeth clearly trusted the Shrewsburys, and continued to give Bess the benefit of the doubt even when, in her old age, she was maneouvering for advantageous marriages for her children and grandchildren (particularly her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, whose claim to the throne Bess championed). The strength of her will comes across clearly; so does the particular nature of each of her marriages. She seems to have truly loved Cavendish, probably to have been fond of St. Loe (husband number three), and to have loved Shrewsbury before the marriage soured irreparably. (Husband number one died young and it’s not clear that Bess ever really cared much about him; she was married at the behest of her parents, for land consolidation purposes, as most young women of the minor Tudor gentry were.) Her appetite for construction was insatiable; there was a lot of house-building in Tudor England, which, with the dissolution of the monasteries, became one of the most upwardly mobile societies in the history of the world, but it was mostly done by men. Bess was a visionary builder, constantly commissioning work on any one of half a dozen houses. Commanding, tough, and fair, she’s hard not to admire, even if (as Kate Hubbard notes) personal correspondence from this period keeps contemporary readers at arm’s length, unlike letters and memoranda from just a century later.

Thoughts on this batch of reading: Many of these books resonate with each other: Berlin, O’Donnell, Fletcher and Headley are all exploring similar ideas, in very different ways. Even William Melvin Kelley has things to say about human monsters. Meanwhile, Devices and Desires is a standout biography, even though it’s not thematically related to anything else in this post; I’m really glad to have read it.

Reading Diary: RIP XIII and otherwise

It’s the end of October – autumn is really here now, almost winter. It’s dark early. It’s cold. I’ve been back in the UK for less than a week, and already it’s clear: we’re in a different season. On the upside, I guess: stews, scarves, the three-month festival of eating that is Halloween + Thanksgiving (/Friendsgiving) + Christmas + New Year. And books!

A lot of what I read in October qualifies for RIP XIII, it turns out. Here, at last, is the rundown.

9781408896266First, a few things that don’t really qualify, including Georgina Harding’s new novel, Land of the Living. This, I’m afraid, I shall have to be fairly brief about, as I read it before I went away (so about three weeks ago now), but it did serve as my introduction to Harding’s work and a good one it was. It’s a novel about a farmer called Charlie, back in England and married after the end of the Second World War. He was posted in Kohima, and his experiences there haunt him: not just the murder of a lost (or deserting) Japanese soldier, or the deaths of the other members of his platoon, but also the strange period of time during which he gets lost in the mountainous jungle and is rescued by a remote tribe that seems never to have had contact with white people. Harding’s descriptions of the north Indian jungle landscape are the stylistic standout of the book: so lush and evocative, you’d swear you can feel the steam rising from the vegetation. The narration jumps back and forth between Charlie’s time in India and his life now, farming, with his wife Claire. He tells her stories about the war and about foreign places, which she accepts with the incredulous equanimity of an Englishwoman in the late 1940s who, while not a fool, has never been abroad and can’t quite believe in the reality of the people her husband describes to her. Meanwhile, Harding also shows us Charlie through Claire’s eyes: a lovable man but one permanently distanced from his wife, as much by the fact that he’s a man as by his vaster life experience. That narrative even-handedness is what invests the reader; it’s not as though there’s a dearth of WWII novels, but the standouts are the ones that articulate an idiosyncratic kind of war, an individual’s war. Land of the Living is a standout.

isbn9781473679894One of the many joys of bookselling is that moment when a publisher’s rep flips to the next page of their sales catalogue (now usually in PDF form, though I understand they used to be made of Actual Paper) and says something like “Ever heard of this author? No? Well, we’re reprinting their backlist anyway, with natty new jackets, and I’m going to spend the next five minutes trying to convince you to buy every title, despite the fact that you’ve never heard of them and they died in 1987.” That all sounds sarcastic, but it actually sometimes is a joy – who doesn’t want to find a great, underrated author and get in on the ground floor of their renaissance? Pamela Hansford Johnson, it turns out, actually is fairly well known, except by me: she wrote twenty-seven novels, reviewed extensively for newspapers and magazines, and married C.P. Snow. The Unspeakable Skipton seems, at least at first, as though it might be not unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley: an Englishman abroad in Europe makes his living by conning people. The difference is in the protagonists: Ripley is cool and psychopathic, while Skipton is frantic, hotheaded, and pathetic. Convinced of his own genius as a novelist, he lives in Bruges and spends his days writing letters to his long-suffering London editor in defense of his unpublishable manuscripts. In the evenings, he latches on to expatriates and provides various services (procuring and art dealing chief among them) for money. In a way, the vast gulf between Skipton’s conception of the world – his own righteousness and the rest of humanity’s crass ignorance – and the way the world sees him is reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces. Certainly there’s an absurd humour in watching Skipton’s mad antics, although Hansford Johnson is hardly likely to make you guffaw the way Toole is (and she doesn’t want to, either). Mostly, though, it’s a novel about an unpleasant man getting his just desserts from equally unpleasant people. It’s neatly observed, and if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it, but it’s an awfully hard book to love.

412b7oycz4xl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Back to books that qualify for RIP XIII, the next of which was Red Snow, Will Dean’s follow-up to his smash hit Dark Pines, which featured bisexual deaf investigative journalist Tuva Moodyson. (Yes! All those adjectives!) I have to confess I didn’t read Dark Pines, although if it comes anywhere near Red Snow for atmosphere and detail, I can see why it did so well. The pleasure of Dean’s writing is in his ability to convey uncomfortable experience with the authority of one who’s lived it: not only the mental effects of a long, cold, dark, isolated, rural Swedish winter (and he does know about that, because he lives year-round in rural Sweden), but smaller things that contribute to characterisation. Tuva wears hearing aids, and in the cold they become uncomfortable; Dean lets her tell us about that, about the minutiae of her lived experience, in a way that’s dignified and convincing. (It isn’t just Tuva’s deafness that gets this treatment; he remains the only male writer I can think of who has memorialised in print the intense joy of a woman coming home after a long day at work and taking her bra off.) The crime and investigation in Red Snow, oddly, is the least convincing element of the book: there’s an apparent suicide at a liquorice factory, which has been the major employer of the tiny town of Gavrik for generations, followed by a bizarre murder in which the victim’s mouth is stuffed with liquorice and his eyes covered with liquorice coins. The pacing of the investigation (both the police and Tuva’s) is bafflingly slow and circular, readers are expected to sympathise with the family that owns the factory simply because the author and protagonist tell us we should, and the impact of the final revelation is (I suspect) diluted if you haven’t read the first book. Read it for the atmosphere, though, and for Tuva: prickly, curious, and no one’s fool. (RIP categories: mystery/suspense)

51bd3oyemyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I doubt there’s anything I can say about Perdido Street Station that hasn’t been said before. Its impact on the fantasy genre has been so huge, despite the fact that it was published just eighteen years ago, that the aspect of it that seems to have most thrown readers for a loop when it was originally published didn’t have that much of an effect on me: the in- and subversion of genre tropes for which Mieville’s book is so famous has now become largely internalised by the genre itself. In other words, thanks to the fact that Perdido Street Station fucked with its readers’ heads unexpectedly, we now expect fantasy to fuck with our heads. It’s a theory, anyway.

Perdido Street Station is a very long book, although it doesn’t read like one, and there’s a lot going on in it, but once it gets going, it’s mostly about a ragtag bunch of criminals, outcasts and refugees who have to band together to save the city from a nest of soul-sucking menaces known as slakemoths. (They eat, or rather drink, your dreams, and they’re immoderate about it: slakemoths feed by literally putting their enormous tongue in a victim’s face and devouring every part of the brain save for the brainstem, leaving their prey alive but vegetative. They’re basically dementors.) Fundamentally, though, it’s a book about a city: Bas-Lag, which is lovingly mapped and described and explored and traversed throughout the course of the novel. It’s neither medieval London nor steampunk New York, though it’s reminiscent of both; really what it reminded me of was Ankh-Morpork if you drained all the zaniness and replaced it with menace. The comparison is a little unfortunate because it makes Mieville seem po-faced, which he isn’t quite, just serious: about this city, about this story, about story in general, its illusions, the way a person can be misled. His project in the New Crobuzon books, if we extrapolate from this first one, must be to make a world, and indeed Bas-Lag already feels more solid to me than Ul Qoma/Beszel of The City and the CityPerdido Street Station is a phenomenally accomplished start. (RIP categories: urban fantasy)

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French’s first standalone novel, The Witch Elm, flips her usual perspective on crime: instead of filtering the world through the eyes of a detective, she gives us the experience of a victim. Toby Hennessy considers himself a lucky man: he’s got a wonderful girlfriend, he’s just managed to avoid a serious scrape at work with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, he owns and likes his flat, everything has always been okay. All that changes on the night two men break into his place, steal his valuables, and beat him almost to death. Left with potentially life-changing injuries, Toby struggles to recuperate until someone suggests that he move into the old family house, where his bachelor uncle Hugh still lives. Hugh is dying of a brain tumour, and someone needs to be on hand. Toby’s reluctant, but his girlfriend Melissa thinks it’s a great idea, and they move in. All is going well, until a family visit when one of Toby’s nephews finds a human skull hidden in the wych elm at the bottom of the garden. And then old secrets start to come to light… One of my favourite things about Tana French’s writing is how she wrongfoots you. This looks like it’s a murder mystery, and Toby looks like he’s the protagonist because he’s our narrator, but actually it’s a story about privilege, although French never uses that word. Toby is so shaken by his attack because he has never, not once in his whole life, experienced powerlessness or vulnerability, and the moment he sees himself that way, his entire self-conception falls apart. Moreover—and not to spoil anything—the body in the wych elm, it becomes clear, was killed for reasons relating very strongly to privilege and its misuses. The Witch Elm isn’t a novel about Toby at all. I’ll leave you to read it to find out which character is its true center. I highly recommend that you do. (RIP categories: mystery, suspense)

41zz1laegyl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Vonnegut’s one of those writers whose first sixty pages I often find tiresome, but then I bear with it and get invested, and by the end I’m genuinely moved by and emotional about the whole book. The Sirens of Titan is his most overtly science-fictional novel, I think (having not read all of them yet), centering on the richest man on Earth, whose name is Malachi Constant. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the plot by summarising; let it be enough that the book is about free will, futility, war, love, and belonging. As ever with Vonnegut’s books, female characters aren’t mistreated so much as ignored; Beatrice Rumfoord, the woman with whom Malachi Constant eventually has a child (amusingly named Chrono), feels like a character-shaped prop, lacking even the distant, ironized sort of interiority that most of Vonnegut’s male characters are given. Yet she’s not unsympathetic; there are moments when her emotional responses are given narrative priority; and when you consider that this book was written three years before the first James Bond film, its treatment of women starts to look positively progressive. Vonnegut was at best ambivalent about NASA’s space program—he questioned whether it was worth spending money on exploring the stars when there were people starving right here on Earth—and his genre fiction, as well as his more conventionally realist novels, always seems to have this grounded sense of humanity at its core. The Sirens of Titan might be a good introduction to Vonnegut for a neophyte, in fact.

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The Ear, the Eye and the Arm is a children’s/YA novel from 1995, of which no one outside the US appears ever to have heard. My dad brought it home for me in 2001, and it was so entirely unlike any other book I read as a child that scenes and characters from it have haunted the back of the immense broom cupboard that is my reading mind for years. It’s set in Harare, Zimbabwe in the late twenty-second century, which is kind of funny because most of the technological innovations that signal future-ness in the book are standard parts of our daily lives now: holophones (basically FaceTime), robot servants (Alexa). Flying buses and taxis are really the only thing we haven’t got now—oh, and genetically engineered talking blue monkeys. General Makutsi’s three children long for an adventure, and moreover, they want to earn their Explorer badges for Scouts. Their only human servant, a white man whose job is a form of ritualised flattery called Praise Singing (the imagined racial hierarchy of post-colonial southern Africa in this book is particulary interesting to an adult reader), lets them out of the house, but they’re almost immediately kidnapped and brought to a female crime boss known as the She-Elephant, who lives in a toxic waste dump and rules over its population of homeless, outcasts and petty criminals. When the She-Elephant decides to sell them, the children uncover a conspiracy involving a gang known as the Masks, who practice human sacrifice—but not before getting caught up both in an enclave in the middle of the city whose inhabitants live in a traditional African fashion, known as Resthaven, and in the home of the Praise Singer’s mother, a white woman looking for a fat ransom payout. In the midst of all this, eldest son Tendai has to find a role for himself and come to terms with his fear of disappointing his father. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, meanwhile, are the three detectives sent to find the children, each of whom is from a different ethnic background within the nation of Zimbabwe, and each of whom has a supernaturally strong sense: the Ear has supersonic hearing, the Eye has inhumanly good eyesight, and the Arm is both unnaturally tall and an empath. A film ratings board would say that the book has “mild peril” at best, but that seems appropriate for a middle-grade novel. The strong flavour of Afrofuturism and focus on Zimabwe’s spiritual traditions (the ultimate villain is essentially conducting a form of voodoo warfare) makes the book both fascinating and informative, without being didactic. An excellent YA backlist title. (RIP categories: urban fantasy, I guess)

Thoughts on this batch of reading: Almost all of these were fantastic, and it was particularly nice to a) choose my own reading while I was abroad, instead of reading to a schedule imposed by bookselling/my own mad ambition, and b) feel okay about reading a little bit less in a month. It was also nice to find that a lot of what I read fit in naturally with the RIP XIII challenge. I’m now feeling emboldened to seek out additional seasonally appropriate reading, such as the Annual Winter Dickens, some might-be-described-as-Gothic fiction, some Victorian pastiche, and some more (perhaps historical) crime.

Diary, Reading and otherwise

I’ve been at my parents’ house in the States for the last week, which coincided with my brother’s college fall break; we’ve been trying to cram the greatest quantity of Organized Fun into six days. This has involved a lot of visits to vineyards and ciderworks, of which there are about 200 in the state of Virginia, as well as a hike in the nearby Blue Ridge, a movie in the little town where my mother works, and an extended family get-together this past weekend. Both my dad’s parents died within twenty-four hours of each other last month, so it felt particularly important to all be together, and particularly nice that I could take part.

But, books! I don’t think I’ve updated since the beginning of the month, which is shocking. Since the 1st of October, I’ve read ten books – not great, but preparing for and staying with my parents always minimizes the available time for reading. Several of the books I’ve read have qualified for the R.I.P. challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril), too. Here’s the first half of this month’s reading:

the_little_stranger_28film29The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters: It was very difficult to decide how to feel about this: on the one hand, it’s an extremely atmospheric ghost story, set in decaying Hundreds Hall after the First World War and playing on an obsession with class and tradition that manifests itself in the character of Dr. Faraday. On the other hand, as Abigail Nussbaum points out, Sarah Waters makes genre and realism pull against each other, and therefore neither element is totally successful; the ambiguity of the ending is less richly satisfying and more of a frustration as a result, as though Waters simply can’t be bothered to decide. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book is the phrase “the little stranger”: it was a Victorian euphemism for an unborn child, and the entity which knocks from ceilings and scrawls childishly on walls seems to suggest that it is the ghost of Susan, a little girl who died at Hundreds Hall several decades earlier – but there is also a suggestion that ghosts in general are psychic emanations of the people who live in a haunted house, non-physical children, in a sense. It’s the sort of book that will probably need another look. (RIP categories: horror; supernatural.)

51udevpxrxl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: It seems fairly evident, simply from watching the news and following the barest minimum of the relevant folks on Twitter, that the experience of being a person of colour in America now – let alone historically – is so quotidianly bizarre as to almost register as a form of science fiction or surrealism. The literary response to this has varied (but think of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or, maybe more relevantly, of the movie Get Out); from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah comes what seems like a natural response, which is a collection of short stories that take the experiences of various black American characters and make of them an anthology that reads like a series of Black Mirror. “The Finkelstein Five”, the collection’s opening story, concerns the trial of a white man who decapitated with a chainsaw five black children (at least one of whom was as young as seven or eight). Adjei-Brenyah’s dialogue in these trial scenes is flawless; the arguments of white men who murder black children, like George Zimmer, barely need exaggerating. In another story, a young black man works at an amusement park which is actually named ZimmerLand, in which patrons confront and “kill” him on a suburban street. Three linked stories, meanwhile, explore the zombie-like horror of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that has traditionally been America’s busiest shopping day. What makes Adjei-Brenyah’s most successful stories stand out, instead of merely being exercises in grim, heavy-handed satire, is the moral detail of them. ZimmerLand, for example, gives its customers the option of taking a mobile phone or a gun, or nothing, into their scenario; more than ninety percent of them make the choice to take the gun. The young salesman protagonist of the first Black Friday story wants to win the regional sales competition that day because he wants the chance to bring his mother a nice coat for Christmas; the ludicrous violence and twitching bodies are semi-inevitable and so he continues to work that shift, in that mall, in a neat parallel of the violence and destruction behind most American consumerism, even the relatively restrained kind. Adjei-Brenyah is one to watch, I think. (RIP categories: fantasy; horror.)

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The Trespasser, by Tana French: I won’t subject you to too long a dissection of yet another Tana French novel, partly because I read them pretty regularly and partly because I not only reread a second one of her Dublin Murder Squad books this month, but also read her new standalone, The Witch Elm, which I’ll be talking about later. This is only the second time I’ve read The Trespasser; the first was the weekend after my ex broke up with me last year, so my memories of it were pretty patchy, to say the least. It’s not on quite the same level as her best books (Broken HarbourThe LikenessThe Secret Place, for my money), partly because the motive is less interesting: it circles around a girl called Aislinn Murray, found dead in her home, whose entire life seems to be a blank. Only when the detective on the case, Antoinette Conway, remembers that she’s seen Aislinn before – years ago, asking questions about the father who went missing when she was a child and who was never found – do clues start making sense, but they all point to the one place Conway really doesn’t want to go… As always, French is uniquely excellent at differentiating her detectives, making them individuals whose problems are complex and convincing, far from the dysfunction-by-numbers drunk with marital problems that often seems to pass for a detective in this genre. Conway’s got issues – trust and an absent father among them – but she deals with them in her way, and part of her need to put Aislinn Murray’s case to bed stems from a deep personal irritation with Aislinn’s way of handling problems similar to her own. The writing, also as always, is spectacular, a blend of grit and lyricism that works incredibly well for me. Long may Tana French reign, I say. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

imageA Political History of the World, by Jonathan Holslag: It’s nice to think of oneself as an eclectic reader, and I think for the most part I genuinely am, but recently I’ve been experimenting with reading things that really are very off-brand for me, and a three thousand-year history of global diplomacy and warfare certainly qualifies. Jonathan Holslag is a professor of international politics in Brussels, which is both an occupation and a locale that would seem to equip him thoroughly to write this book. For the most part, it’s delightfully informative, covering Asian pre-history and antiquity as well as the obvious Western empires. There’s much less about North and South American civilisations, though Holslag acknowledges, occasionally, peoples like the Olmec and the Maya, with the addendum that the documentary evidence for civilisations in these places is thinner on the ground. (This is probably true, although it seems rather weak sauce.) The main problem, though, is that he covers so much in the way of historical event (kingdom A fought kingdom B; kingdom B, forced to defend against kingdoms C through E, declined until its overthrow by kingdom F, which had been quietly amassing strength for decades) that he leaves little room for analysis or exposition regarding diplomacy, which is, in theory, the purpose of the book. It’s of little interest to know about the vacillations of power amongst kingdoms A through F when the rationale, or the psychology, behind those vacillations remains largely unexplained.

51hnj-b63wl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Likeness, by Tana French: The second of my French rereads this month, and my very favourite of all her books, mostly because it’s set amongst a tight-knit group of friends, postgraduates at Trinity who all live in an old and beautiful house out in the countryside surrounding Dublin. I’m increasingly convinced that one of French’s major themes is the dynamics of friendship: how people develop non-sexual intimacy between themselves, what kind of power that intimacy can hold, the potential danger of it, how far someone might go for people who are neither blood relatives nor romantic prospects. The Likeness also, like The Trespasser, contains a detective convinced that her personal issues are under control, who is forced eventually to confront the fact that those very issues are deeply resonant with her case and might well be affecting her judgment. Some of French’s most beautiful writing is in this, and the final paragraph (as I’m sure I’ve said before) makes me cry every time I read it. (RIP categories: mystery; suspense.)

The second half of October’s Reading Diary should be up in the next few days, so keep an eye out… Are any of you participating in the RIP challenge this year?

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.

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.)