Reading Diary: Mar. 12-Mar. 18

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading Diary: Mar. 5-Mar. 11

original_400_600Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi: I’m never totally sure what to do with Oyeyemi’s fiction; she evades rationality by a hairsbreadth in a way reminiscent of Kelly Link. Harriet Lee is a refugee of sorts from the country of Druhástrana, which has no Wikipedia entry. Living in London with her daughter Perdita, she’s forced to retell and reconsider the story of her past as Perdita gets older and demands answers to her heritage. This makes it sound like an immigrant-family allegory, but the effect is far more fantastical; Harriet’s stories of her childhood suggest a fairytale country located on a vaguely European continent but inhabited entirely by black people, and the gingerbread of the title is clearly magical. The novel’s relentless coyness is a little wearing by the end, but most of the time, Gingerbread entrances even as it baffles.

60f6a5e6a4035e1655cd07638642fbafee4bCala, by Laura Legge (DNF @ 82 pages): I may have bounced off this book so hard because I was reading in snatched five-minute bursts; my colleague Faye has been reading it in longer sittings and getting through it more easily. The comparisons to The Water Cure are reasonable (though I think Cala is somewhat more original), but the difference is that Euna, our protagonist, leaves the closed and oppressive environment of her community by page sixty. However, there’s an opacity to the prose that frustrates forward movement, and the occasional gleams of poetic lucidity that break through are more incongruous than illuminating. Possibly a case of wrong reader or wrong time, or both. Anyway, I’m trying to break myself of the habit of finishing things that aren’t appalling but that I’m not enjoying much, so I put it down.

9781786894373The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch: This, mes enfants, this is how you write a book. More specifically, it is how you write a book about your life, your life that is so fucked up from start to finish, your father who abused you and your mother who drank her way to blankness and your gift for swimming and the way you wrecked yourself  for years and found writing and found sex with women and found pain as expiation and found men and lost men and lost a baby and eventually made a home. Yuknavitch is certainly not “likeable” throughout, and occasionally her self-destruction becomes frustratingly repetitive, but she writes like a demon and there is one chapter – the one where she and her first husband try to scatter their stillborn daughter’s ashes – that made me cry on the bus, that ought to become a staple of auditions as a dramatic monologue. If you love Cheryl Strayed, don’t miss.

9780857503916The Terror, by Dan Simmons: A 900-page novel about an Arctic expedition is, I know, not going to be everyone’s kettle of fish. Even less so if you add an element of supernatural horror in the guise of a mysterious thing that is stalking the men of the ships Terror and Erebus from out on the pack ice; trapped in their boats for two winters, the men are all but helpless. There’s an argument to be made that The Terror is too long, and that the introduction of a supernatural element is unnecessary given the genuinely horror-movie qualities of life when you’re shipwrecked in the Arctic. (Do you know what it’s like to die of scurvy? It’s like something out of Clive Barker.) I, however, think that Simmons is trying to do something larger – to make a point about the arrogance of imperial exploration – and even if it’s sometimes a tad obvious, both the horror plot (what is that thing?!) and the “realist” plot (will the food stores last?) compelled my curiosity. (Great piece on it here by Sady Doyle saying all the things I’d like to say.)

9781408890073Circe, by Madeline Miller: The first Women’s Prize longlisted book I’ve read after the announcement, and one I enjoyed a good deal more than Miller’s Prize-winning debut, The Song of Achilles. In her second book, she’s learned emotional restraint: the slightly breathless, soapy quality of Achilles’s and Patroclus’s doomed romance is replaced by Circe’s independence and the knowledge that her time with Odysseus is borrowed at best. Perhaps the most interesting parts of this story are its beginning – Circe’s childhood as a minor daughter of the Sun Lord, Helios, and the million petty cruelties of his court – and its end – providing what I think is a non-canonical but highly satisfying fate for Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, as well as for his son Telemachus and Circe herself. I wouldn’t be sad to see this on the shortlist, unless the longlisted titles I haven’t yet read are all outstanding.

Currently reading: I’ve just started Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, a space-exploration novel by the terrifyingly young (twenty-five) and talented Temi Oh.

Reading Diary: Feb. 26-Mar. 4

isbn9781473694439Memories of the Future, by Siri Hustvedt: I know autofiction is cool now but even the examples that I like tend to annoy me; Hustvedt’s new novel didn’t, partly because her narrator is looking back on her life as a young woman in New York City instead of narrating it as she experiences it, and partly because her focus is mostly outward. She writes about “S.H.”‘s mysterious neighbour, Lucy Brite, and the people she meets in the city, and assesses those experiences from her perspective as an older, savvier woman (particularly about gender relations.) S.H. is explicitly interested in how her memories of the past are sometimes contradicted by, e.g., her journal entries (some of which are reproduced as part of the text). It all really works.

9781786331519Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid: A magnificent novel about the rise and fall of a rock band in ’70s California, told through the transcripts of interviews for a documentary. Reid nails atmosphere: the drugs, the sex, but also the strangely untouchable, self-centered innocence that permeates this milieu. Daisy Jones could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with added smack problem), but her emotional vulnerability is leavened with grit; Camila Dunne, wife of the lead guitarist, could have been a caricature of a stay-at-home mother, but her integrity is the moral backbone of the book. Reid also has some beautiful, scary things to say about creative collaboration, the hard work of making music, and the ease with which we can fuck up our own hearts. Out on March 7; don’t miss this.

9781784742867Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, by Toni Morrison: A collection spanning forty years that has either been ill-edited or not edited at all. Editing Morrison might be intimidating–she won the Novel Prize, ffs–but that, particularly with established authors, is what publishers are for. The collection has been arranged so as to make it embarrassingly obvious that Morrison often recycles whole paragraphs from one public speaking engagement to the next–and you know what, everyone does that, it’s neither unexpected nor a crime–but when at least three essays in the first section, none of which are long, all feature a paragraph that starts “Excluding the height of the slave trade, the mass movement of peoples is greater now than it has ever been”, you can forgive a reader for feeling mildly insulted. There are also no citations for most of the texts Morrison quotes. Up your game, Chatto & Windus.

Currently reading: Gingerbread, Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel. So far I’m finding it stylistically easier than many of her earlier books, and loving the atmosphere of oblivious strangeness she builds around her mother/daughter protagonists, Perdita and Harriet. (I’m ALSO reading The Terror, by Dan Simmons, which is sort of The Thing meets Cherry Apsley-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.)

Reading Diary: Feb. 19-Feb. 25

918lz8piowlVoices, by Nick Coleman: An exploration of the pop and rock singers whose sound has meant something to Coleman, an established music journalist. They’re not necessarily the most technically adroit or conventionally beautiful voices, but they’re the ones that have connected somewhere deep in his gut. His writing is both off-the-wall (the first chapter includes extended musing on a putative race of post-apocalyptic ant-men and their likely reaction to the music of Elvis Presley and Little Richard) and effectively personal (there’s a beautiful section on watching a friend have a panic attack to the sounds of Joy Division). Really worthwhile – now I have a playlist.

9781784742553The Snakes, by Sadie Jones: An impressively sinister slow-burner of a novel about a couple whose plan to take a few months out goes immediately awry when they visit wife Beatrice’s brother Alex at his non-functioning hotel in France. Jones is terrifically, and terrifyingly, perceptive on the emotional claustrophobia of wealthy families, on the warping effects of dishonesty in a marriage when both partners come from very different social backgrounds, and on the frustrating culs-de-sac of  French bureaucracy and law. The ending explodes in completely unexpected violence–which will divide opinion–but I think it’s a brave authorial choice. Also, it’s impossible to put down.

Currently reading: Memories of the Future, by Siri Hustvedt, the only autofiction I’ve read that, so far, isn’t making me obscurely want to punch someone.

Reading Diary: Feb. 12-Feb. 18

a-woman-looking-at-men-looking-at-women-9781501141096_lgA Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, by Siri Hustvedt: A magisterial collection of essays on perception, gender relations, and painting, amongst other things. Hustvedt has had a lively interest in the mind for many years; she introduces the book as a series of attempts to resolve (and thereby reject) CP Snow’s “two cultures” dichotomy. The first section–mostly cultural criticism, including essays on Pina Bausch and Knausgaard–doesn’t require much specialist knowledge. The second and third, which focus more heavily on neuroscience, particularly on what’s known as “the mind-body problem”, require concentration. By no means an easy book, but one that has made me think and will reward rereading.

9780857524485The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold: This group biography of the “canonical five” women presumed to have been killed by the same person–known to history as Jack the Ripper–in 1888 is long overdue. Rubenhold gives each woman her own section, exploding sensationalist myths and prejudices with every word. Only one of the five, for instance, was employed as a sex worker; only one (the same one) was under twenty-five. More significant  are the facts that the majority were alcoholics, and separated from a husband. Compassionate and unsentimental, Rubenhold’s description of the trajectories of their lives makes the similarities between these women and the homeless population of modern London painfully clear. I’ve written a longer piece on this here.

the-library-book-9781476740188_lgThe Library Book, by Susan Orlean: Orlean’s been a staff writer on The New Yorker for over twenty-five years, which explains why this book reads so much like an extended New Yorker article (and even makes reference to one that I’ve found haunting since first reading it, about maybe-falsely-convicted-of-arson Cameron Todd Willingham). That’s not necessarily bad, but The Library Book tries to do a lot simultaneously: provide a history of the LA Public Library, be a series of profiles on the people who work there now, and investigate the fire that destroyed half the collection in 1986. It’s engaging, but its sense of purpose often falters.

15782397Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett: Managed to completely forget that I read this over the weekend, which isn’t to say it’s unmemorable. The prose is intentionally limited (mostly); to emphasize or intensify, a word is repeated (so we get a lot of “cold cold” and “big big”). It’s Beckett’s reflection of a society that has developed on an exoplanet and descended from only two people, a criminal who crashlanded a stolen ship there and the policewoman who followed him and chose to remain on the planet instead of facing probable death in an attempt to return to Earth. Theologically and sociologically, Beckett’s created something fascinating, but the emphasis on innate masculine innovativeness and drive leaves a slightly unpleasant aftertaste.

91tsteow54lLanny, by Max Porter: I’m not disputing that Porter writes well. His first novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was a linguistic knockout, and an emotional one as a direct result of that expressiveness. Lanny convinces me a little bit less–it’s a story about a strange, ethereal boy whose parents have moved the family to a commuter village in the Home Counties, and who catches the attention of the village’s resident guardian spirit/Green Man archetype, known in legend as Dead Papa Toothwort. The central section, driven by a frantic search for missing Lanny, is gripping and terrifying reading, but I’m not sure what the ultimate purpose or thesis of the book is. The countryside is brutal and weird? Strange children usually turn out fine?

Currently reading: I’m about to start Nick Coleman’s Voices, a compilation of essays about famous musicians (Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and my beloved Joni Mitchell among them).

Reading Diary: Feb. 5-Feb. 11

dwexiozxcam1lcdThe Warlow Experiment, by Alix Nathan: Nathan’s novel is based on a true story: in 1793, a Mr. Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live in solitary confinement underground for seven years, without cutting his nails, hair, or beard, keeping a journal of his thoughts. The advertisement was answered by one man, a labourer with a wife and a large number of children. Nathan skillfully integrates the class upheaval occurring in England at the time, and the voice of John Warlow, the semi-literate ploughman who takes up the offer, is poignantly and viscerally rendered. Out in July and not to be missed.

61aijqs-bml._sx323_bo1204203200_In the Full Light of the Sun, by Clare Clark: Clark’s enormous but addictive new novel fictionalizes an art-world scandal that rocked 1930s Berlin regarding the authenticity (or not) of several dozen recently discovered Van Gogh paintings. Clark’s three point-of-view characters are Emmeline, an aspiring young artist; Julius, an art historian whose reputation is on the line; and Frank, a Jewish defense lawyer. The plot is over-complicated–there are too many names to remember and not enough clarity regarding the details of the fraud–but Clark’s most memorable character, the charismatic and manipulative art dealer Matthias Rachmann, is a real success.

Currently reading: A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, by Siri Hustvedt (a brilliant collection of essays on the mind-body problem, art, and gender relations; she’s one of the most intelligent writers I know), and Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett (which makes an interesting counter-read to the Hustvedt, given that it’s a Clarke Award-winning science fiction planetary romance/exploration drama which also partakes of alarming gender essentialism).

Reading Diary: Jan 29-Feb. 4

a-time-to-keep-silence_1024x1024A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor: A very short (95 pages) collection of three essays about monasteries and the monastic life. Leigh Fermor stayed at St Wandrille, Solesmes and La Grande Trappe, as well as spending time looking at the ruins of the Cappadocian rock monasteries. The first two essays, set in the three French foundations, are the strongest, describing what it’s like to live in solitude for a spiritual purpose; though Leigh Fermor has no faith, he acclimatizes to the silence and misses it when he returns to the world. If your mind needs calming, these pieces may help.

51kp-nb0hjlThe Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall: There are people who might say, I suppose, that the final quarter of this book is too slow, or that Hall’s writing about the Lake District seasons, weather and light are too deliberate and descriptive, but I’m never going to be one of those people, because I think she writes like a dream and this is one of my favourite books of all time. I also think that here, some of her previous thematic interests–motherhood, the cycle of birth and death, the natural world and how humans live both in- and outside of it–coalesce in their most sophisticated form yet. An excellent book to read if you need reminding of how well it is possible to write.

9781781257364_2I must be living twice: new and selected poems, by Eileen Myles: Myles’s poetry is quite different from Rich’s; her lines are short and jagged, often only three or four words each. Her style of thought is discursive: I often feel lost, reading her, until a vivid observation or connection jumps out. “Peanut Butter” is the poem that brought me to Myles, but the sweary dismissiveness of “On the Death of Robert Lowell” makes me laugh; “Yellow Tulips” is unashamedly happy; the opening of “Mal Maison” is devastating. “And Then the Weather Arrives” is maybe peak Myles: it feels like it’s written in a sort of personal code, but you understand the emotions, if not the details.

9781473639058What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt: A totally brilliant book, following the friendship between two men–painter Bill and art historian Leo–and the intertwining of the lives of their families, including Leo’s wife, Bill’s first and second wives, and their two sons: Leo’s Matthew, and Bill’s Mark. The first half of the book, roughly, deals with the older generation, and the second half with the younger; without any spoilers, Matthew and Mark’s lives turn out very differently. Hustvedt excels at describing the destructive self-delusion of a certain kind of art world denizen. The novel is both intellectual and terrifying; I found it hard to sleep after finishing it and know it’ll continue to haunt me.

31v6x3y3mql._sx286_bo1204203200_The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck: The next installment in my quest for more poetry. Someone recommended Gluck to me years ago, but it’s taken me this long to read her. I am not sure that I grasp or love her yet. There’s passion in these poems, but it feels like the highly personal and focused passion of a nun; not that it’s anti- or asexual, but that it insists upon the numinous. Does that sound pretentious? It shouldn’t; most of the poems are quite explicitly earthbound, being either from the point of view of a plant or flower (metaphors, I think, for human life), or from a higher point of view that is still occupying itself with earthly things. Curious and transcendent.

Currently reading: I’ve just finished Alix Nathan’s forthcoming The Warlow Experiment.