Reading Diary: Apr. 7-Apr. 14

32508630It’s been a long time since I read a book about which I feel so completely ambivalent as I do about Miss Burma. It is based on the lives of Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandmother, and opens with a prologue detailing the success of Louisa Bension (Craig’s mother) as a contestant in the Miss Burma pageant. The fact that she wins it, as the daughter of a Jewish man and a Karen (pronounced Kar-EN) minority woman, is held up by General Aung San as proof that the new independent Burmese regime, no longer under British rule after WWII, offers opportunities to members of all ethnic groups. Most of the rest of the book, however, is told in flashback; we go right back to the beginning of the marriage between Louisa’s parents, Khin and Benny, and follow them through Burma’s long civil war/genocide against the Karen people. Their marriage waxes and wanes; imprisonment, torture, and abandonment leave their mark on the relationship, which eventually deteriorates into mutual infidelities, mistrust, and coolness, even as Khin and Benny build a business empire together.

Like several other books on the Women’s Prize longlist (When I Hit You and, in some ways, Sight), Miss Burma makes more sense to me as creative non-fiction than as a novel. Craig is constrained by the events that actually occurred, and the work that she puts into characterising Khin and Benny early on comes to nothing when she skips several years in a single sentence and then presents us with characters who appear to have changed almost beyond recognition during that skipped time. It’s not that this doesn’t happen to traumatised people; it’s that if you want readers to believe your fiction, you need to show them some level of consistency. Biography and memoir, perversely, don’t require nearly as much verisimilitude: those genres, unlike fiction, do not need the reader to believe that things happened, because they can mobilise primary and secondary sources to prove what did. Meanwhile, the skip into Louisa’s point of view near the end is actually not as jarring as some reviews led me to believe, but her sections feel under-served: she gets far fewer pages than her parents, and the action stops at a point that, while not completely nonsensical, doesn’t feel obvious, either.

Thematically, Miss Burma is ambitious: the persecution of the Karens and the persecution of Jewish people around the world are linked by Benny’s decision to become a member of the Karens, irrevocably throwing his lot in with his wife’s people and putting a target on his own back during the genocide that follows the Second World War. Craig doesn’t follow this line of thought very closely, though; unlike Do Not Say We Have Nothing, another novel about how families splinter under political pressure, the big ideas aren’t seamlessly integrated into the plot, but rather are mentioned every few chapters by one character or another, presumably so that we don’t forget about them whilst reading about affairs or escapes through moonlit jungles. For readers who want their reading to teach them something, Miss Burma will probably be a hit; but such readers could have been just as well served with a biography/memoir blend. For others, including me, the book feels like something of a letdown, and it’s not at all clear why it should be on the Women’s Prize longlist.

9781925498523I can’t remember now where I first read a review of The Trauma Cleaner, but it was so immediately fascinating that I determined to get my hands on a copy as soon as it was available in the UK. It is a non-fiction account of the life and work of an Australian woman named Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male, and who – after an extremely varied life – now runs a service called STC Cleaners. When a murder or a suicide occurs indoors; when someone dies and isn’t found for weeks; when social services has a hoarder on their hands: these are the times when Sandra’s team is called in. Police departments and paramedic teams do not provide cleaning services: they get folks like Sandra to do it for them.

This involves an incredible amount of patience, persistence, humanity, compassion, a blend of firmness and sweetness. That Sandra possesses these qualities makes her uniquely good at her job. Sarah Krasnostein, the journalist who wrote the book, follows her from case to case, noting the way that she talks down one client, a registered sex offender; bolsters another, a compulsive hoarder with three children who are no longer permitted to live with her; instantly wins the trust of another, an old woman who was once brilliant and now lives in a nest of old water bills and groceries liquefying inside the plastic bags they were bought in because she no longer has the energy to put them away. The gruesome details of the jobs that Sandra has taken on form part of the book’s appeal, of course, but so, in large part, do the psychological tactics that she adopts for each client. Much of what Sandra and her team are doing, Krasnostein notes, is acknowledging pain. No one becomes a compulsive hoarder, or dies alone in their flat of a drug overdose or a gunshot wound, without the push of serious mental suffering. Sandra sees that suffering, and does something about it.

The other half of the book, interwoven with the clients’ case studies, is Sandra’s own story of pain. Adopted as a baby boy by a couple in Victoria, Australia, she was immediately pushed aside when her adoptive parents realised they could still have their own biological children. She (at that point still a male, referred to in The Trauma Cleaner as Peter) suffered an abusive childhood, married – very young – a woman, had children with her, began visiting gay bars, was found out, left her family, and began living full-time as a woman. She supported herself mainly as a sex worker, and completed gender reassignment surgery in (I think) the ’80s. When she and another sex worker were assaulted and raped, she pressed charges; their rapist was not only tried, but convicted and imprisoned. Krasnostein impresses on the reader what a remarkable thing this was, how deeply unlikely that, in the cultural climate of Australia in the 1980s, a transgender prostitute might win a rape case. But Sandra did.

The only weakness of this book is that Krasnostein removes herself from it to an extent that makes little sense: she’s generally not a presence, which feels right, but occasionally interjects in the first person, in ways that suggest she might have an emotional connection to Sandra’s work that would have been worth sharing. (We learn, for instance, that her mother left the family when she was very young, leaving her with a permanent sense of abandonment.) The book started out as a long essay online, and perhaps could have used just a touch more rigour when being given a bigger skeleton. But it is engrossing and inspirational and quite beautiful; anyone who enjoyed The Fact of a Body would do well to get hold of The Trauma Cleaner.

coverAlthough it’s subtitled “Detective Stories From the World of Neurology”, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm, is really a series of case studies of epilepsy. “Detective stories” isn’t too far off, though: all stories of diagnosis are stories of detection (which is why House is so weirdly addictive, and also maybe why Hugh Laurie’s character in it has the substance abuse and anger management/personal life issues that we expect from our noir detectives; discuss.) In twelve chapters, each focusing on one of O’Sullivan’s patients, we get glimpses of epilepsy symptoms that are rare, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and sometimes not epilepsy at all. At the very least, Brainstorm is a very illuminating book about what seizures sometimes look like, and the ways in which they can be completely misinterpreted by the public. One of her patients, for instance, gets a kind of localised Tourette’s; his seizures involve swearing and spitting. If he has a seizure in public, he risks not only disapproval and embarrassment, but arrest. (I wanted more of this from O’Sullivan, actually. She doesn’t, for example, acknowledge that her black male patients face a much higher chance of being arrested, injured or killed for displaying abnormal social behaviour.)

As in The Trauma Cleaner, there is a certain level of voyeuristic fascination in O’Sullivan’s case studies that drives readerly interest. We learn about August, a bright young woman whose seizures make her compulsively bolt from rooms and across streets; Maya, an elderly Nigerian woman who suffers blackouts and sometimes finds herself miles from home; Wahid, whose family paid thousands to various local healers and pastors before his condition was diagnosed not as spirit possession but as epilepsy. O’Sullivan is simultaneously compassionate and objective about each of her patients: she clearly cares for their well-being, but also strives to view the evidence as thoroughly and impartially as possible. Her notes on the development of technology used in diagnosing neurological problems – CAT scans, MRI and fMRI machines, the merits and demerits of brain surgery – are informative, detailed and accessible. Sometimes there’s a slight stiffness to the prose, but she’s a doctor who writes, not a professional poet, and it’s a small price to pay for the rest of the book’s informativeness and optimistic outlook on the future of neurology.

9781408893302And back to fiction for the end of the week. Happiness is the first novel by Aminatta Forna that I have read, but on the basis of it, I’d like to read some of her earlier work. It reminds me of nothing so much as a cross between Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border (one of my most beloved books) and John Lanchester’s Capital: Forna melds observations about urban wildlife, and the irrational levels of fear and hate that city-dwelling humans direct towards animals, with wider commentary on the invisible interconnections of all the people who share space in a metropolis. There are two protagonists: Jean, an urban wildlife biologist whose marriage disintegrated because her husband wanted more of her time than she was willing or able to give, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who works with international victims of war trauma. Attila is in London for a conference; Jean is there on a grant that sees her gathering data on urban foxes for Southwark Council. They meet cute(-ish), when Jean bumps into Attila on Waterloo Bridge, and continue to collide over the course of a week, as Attila tries to ease the demented old age of a former lover, Rosie, and to locate his missing nephew Tano, who fled his home in Elephant and Castle when his mother was wrongly detained on an immigration charge.

There is a rich history of London novels, and Forna draws on a lot of techniques that were first introduced by great writers like Dickens and Woolf, particularly the almost cinematographic sweep that plunges us from one mind or life into another. My favourite of these is when she tracks the movements of foxes. One of Jean’s study cohort is fed by a kitchen porter at the Savoy Hotel, who plays a part later in finding Tano; the leftovers that fox consumes originated in a meal which, Forna says in passing, now resides largely in the belly of a hedge fund manager, currently in a taxi heading west. It’s a nice sharp swoop, in and out, and it perfectly captures those interconnections that I mention above, and how, in a large city, it’s easy not to know those connections exist. The characters are also drawn with skill and compassion: Jean is like an older version of Rachel, the protagonist of The Wolf Border, in her passionate dedication and her bemusement at negative reactions to wildlife. Attila is one of the most embodied characters I’ve ever read: as a Guardian review says, we’re always aware of his size and height, the space he takes up, his love of dancing. The network of street sweepers and hotel doormen that the pair mobilise to spot foxes, and to find Tano, are given names and histories and tics. They feel like real people, reticent and flawed as real people sometimes are.

My only real complaint is the number of comma splices in my proof copy; there are dozens per page. Hopefully Forna’s proofreader is a bigger fan of the semicolon and the full stop. Other than that, Happiness is a brilliant spring read: colourful, detailed, hopeful, a breath of fresh air. (It also makes a good corollary to The Overstory.)

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A longer commute means more time to get through books! I’m finally working my way through spring proofs, and a recent spate of three-star reads is receding into the distance. Hooray.

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Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

9780241982884One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.

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Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.

Reading Diary: Jan. 21-Jan. 27

41klibrdf1l-_sx307_bo1204203200_I’m not certain why the cover design for Christie Watson’s memoir The Language of Kindness is so abstract; there is certainly nothing abstract or theoretical about the endlessly challenging work of nursing that she describes in this book. Falling into the profession as a seventeen-year-old, Watson bounces all over the place through the course of her career: from mental health wards to geriatric care homes, to working with learning-disabled adults, to oncology and paediatric intensive care. She writes with great tenderness and insight about the toll that the job takes on you; about nursing children who die, and what it is like to wash and prepare their bodies before their parents can come to see them; what it is like to go to their funerals. She writes about the stresses of having few resources and little sympathy, either from the government or from the general public. She writes about her own father’s death from cancer and the way in which his nurse, Cheryl, became more than a professional, something closer to family. Cheryl is there at her father’s funeral. Watson has actually written two novels, but the style of her memoir is stripped-back and matter-of-fact, which both suits the subject matter and emphasises the simple appallingness of human vulnerability, which it is the nurse’s job to dignify and comfort. This isn’t out until May, but I will be recommending it to absolutely everyone. As Watson says, we never know what will happen to us, to people we love; we never know when we might be the ones sitting in the waiting room or propped up in the hospital bed, in need of care and compassion and kindness.

410dmcvxpsl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Mick Herron has made a trademark of writing espionage fiction that features dry sarcasm. His characters’ banter flirts constantly with being too much, usually but not always coming down on the right side of the line. London Rules is his fifth book featuring the “slow horses” of MI5: no-hopers, alcoholics, fuck-ups and dickheads who have been reassigned to a bureaucratic hellhole in Aldersgate Street called Slough House in the vague hope that they’ll resign and save the Service the trouble of firing them. Jackson Lamb is the head of this dubious team; veteran readers of Herron will know and love him, although loveable is the last word you’d use to describe the man, whose characterisation is generally conveyed by his propensity to fart, drink, smoke, swear, eat takeaways, and make profoundly politically incorrect comments to everyone around him. This is mostly justified by the reader’s awareness that, although Lamb is a disgusting boor, he’s also shrewd and loyal: he usually knows what’s going on before his superiors at Regent’s Park do, and, unencumbered by political ambition, can often make better and faster decisions. One doesn’t necessarily read Herron for the plots, which are usually flashy but shallow; London Rules is a decent stab at plotting, though, with the most shocking opening since Slow Horses. (It also borrows from that book’s clever reversal of our expectations about what can be allowed to happen in developed nations vs. developing ones.) Spook Street, the book before this in the series, was a return to form after two lesser outings, and London Rules suggests that Herron remains on the top of his fairly specific game.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift is an utterly brilliant book hampered by a fairly terrible title; you’d think, to look at it, that it’s a kind of Celtic romance involving a dreamy, windswept woman who spends a lot of time gazing out to sea. It’s actually based on an event that really happened: a Barbary pirate raid on the Westman Islands of Iceland in 1627. We know from historical sources that among those captured were the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, his heavily pregnant wife, and three of their children. Egilsson’s memoir of the voyage, his brief time as a slave in Algiers, his release on a mission to beg for ransom from King Christian IV of Denmark (then the colonial ruler of Iceland), and his return to his home, was a major source for Magnusson’s book. What she tells us, though, is the story of Egilsson’s wife, Ásta Thórsteinsdottir, a literate and strongwilled (if impractical) woman whose myriad losses—her liberty, her husband, each of her children in one way or another—ought to have floored her. Magnusson’s success is in balancing on a line that could easily tip her into anachronism or sentimentality. Ásta is clever and resourceful, but believably powerless: her owner in Algiers, although he begins to have feelings for her, is never capable of seeing her as anything more than a mere woman, inherently confusing and irrational. Her agonies over religion are also beautifully conveyed: as the wife of a Lutheran priest, albeit one who has been known to tell tales of the elves and the hidden people, she is in a particular bind when it comes to the potential conversion to Islam of her small children. Her fear that she will not only be separated from them in this life, but in the next, is piercingly convincing. And Magnusson’s prose never falters, never slides into awkward phrasing or excessive lyricism, even maintaining a light, dry humour that doesn’t feel out of place. What an exceptional and moving fiction debut this is.

35323055Force of Nature, meanwhile, is a follow-up to Jane Harper’s much-lauded debut of last year, The Dry. It is, if anything, even better than its predecessor. The premise is great: Alice Russell, a corporate bully and soon-to-be whistleblower, goes missing on a teambuilding exercise, hiking in the remote Giralang Range. Not only is she about to provide crucial documentary evidence of her company’s involvement in money laundering, but the Giralang Range is also where serial killer Martin Kovac stalked, abducted and murdered four women twenty years ago—women who look alarmingly like Alice. (He is an invention of Harper’s, but echoes the real-life “backpacker murderer” Ivan Milat.) Aaron Falk, the taciturn cop who headed up the investigation in The Dry, has been handling Alice’s evidence against her employers, and gets caught up in the operation surrounding her disappearance. Harper uses flashbacks to excellent effect throughout the book, alternating past with present as we learn more about the events leading up to Alice’s vanishing. The real strength of the book is its emphasis on the pressures brought to bear on women—especially mothers—in high-achieving environments, and the way that pain can echo through generations if parents and children fail to communicate adequately with one another. It’s been a while since I read The Dry, but Force of Nature feels like an altogether subtler book, with a sadder, more human ending. It’s an excellent, rock-solid crime novel. If Jane Harper can keep knocking these out, I’ll keep reading and recommending them.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Every single one of these books was a proof, which feels a little imbalanced; I mustn’t forget to read backlists. I’m pleased that one was nonfiction, though.

Reading Diary: Jan. 14-Jan. 20

cover121907-mediumThe House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara, is a gorgeous book, set in the drag queen ball scene of New York, from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. Angel, our main character, becomes the mother of the House of Xtravaganza, the first house for aspiring Puerto Rican queens (a drag queen house is something like a Formula 1 team, but a thousand times more fabulous, and its members relate to each other like a family). Angel is joined by sassy and beautiful Venus (born Thomas); shy banjee boy Daniel; and skilled seamstress and lost boy Juanito. There’s also Dorian, an even older queen who serves as a mentor and cultural guardian. Cassara’s prose is so evocative; he effortlessly summons the smells and sounds and sights of a world most of his readers will know nothing of—the piers where kings, queens and johns cruise and mingle; Times Square strip joints; bars on Christopher Street—and his dialogue is perfect, witty and human and liberally sprinkled with Spanglish. It’s a tragic book, as one set amongst the gay and trans community during those decades must be: many sisters fall, to the virus or to illegal drugs or to malevolent strangers. It’s also defiantly, spectacularly beautiful, constantly reaffirming the value of the family you choose for yourself. Fans of A Little Life, RENT, and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City will all find something to love here.

51fe1shobzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_And then for something completely different: Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. The thing that always surprises me with Greene is how humane he is; for some reason I expect his Catholicism to be curdled and grotesque, like Evelyn Waugh’s, but it always turns out gentle and pitying. This novel follows an unnamed “whisky priest”, an ordained man on the run from the authorities in a Mexican state where Catholicism and the priesthood have been outlawed. The priest’s fugitive condition is set against that of Padre José, who has succumbed to the government’s demand that ordained men enter marriage. José is constantly shamed and belittled by children and by his new wife (formerly his housekeeper); he is a man who has lost his dignity, his sense of purpose, almost his humanity; Greene portrays him as you might a confused dog. The whisky priest, meanwhile, is a weak man and a bad Catholic, but in his final acts, in his attempts to encourage kindness and love, he redeems himself. Greene is also spectacularly good at suggesting interiority while maintaining firm boundaries between the reader and his characters; we always feel we’re standing somewhat outside of the whisky priest, watching him do things or have things done to him, but as we continue to observe him, our understanding of him grows. It would make a very interesting companion read to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (which I’m afraid I’ve only seen the film of).

isbn9781473661417-detailThe cover of The Wicked Cometh, Laura Carlin’s debut novel, should perhaps have made me wary; anything that’s getting the Sarah Perry/Jessie Burton design treatment is something on which the publisher wants to make the big bucks, and making the big bucks is not always commensurate with flawless prose and editing. The Wicked Cometh begins with about a hundred pages of somewhat overwrought scene-setting, in which we meet young Hester White, the orphaned daughter of a clergyman who now lives with her father’s former gardener Jacob and his wife Meg in a foul slum in London’s Whitechapel. Rumours abound of disappearances: ordinarily steady men, women and children are vanishing, never to be seen again. When Hester is involved in an accident with a carriage, and invited to recuperate (and work as a maid) at the country house of the man who caused the damage, she begins to unravel a horrifying conspiracy. The writing tends to teeter back and forth between melodrama and the kind of flattening present tense that constantly tells a reader how to feel, which hampers attempts to engage with the story. But if you can get past the initial pages and reach the point at which Hester returns to London with her friend and beloved, Rebekah Brock, you’ll make it to the end. The conspiracy is really rather fiendish, if somewhat over-complicated, and I liked that Carlin develops a love story between two women in the nineteenth century as though there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it (which, in fact, there isn’t.)

cover3A little book to end the week with: I wasn’t sure whether this really counted, but it has its own ISBN, so why not. It’s Calm, one of the Vintage Mini books that comprise excerpts from an author’s larger work on a particular theme. Calm is a 95-page chunk from Tim Parks’s book Teach Us To Sit Still, about his experiences with Vipassana Buddhist meditation, chronic pain, and spirituality. Parks was raised in a deeply religious household (his father was an Anglican priest), from which he seems to have fled both physically and mentally at the earliest possible opportunity; faith is obviously a deeply vexed issue for him. He writes pitilessly, with great wit and self-deprecation, about his attempts to be more mindful, to meditate better, and about the depths of his despair when a meditation retreat seems to promise nothing but more physical pain and suffering. When, at last (and very briefly) the meditation does work, he writes of his body’s feeling of liberation and release with an illumination and a joy that is reminiscent of mystics like Margery Kempe—and also acknowledges how fleeting such joy must be (his return to discomfort is “liturgy after revelation”). I’d very much like to read Teach Us To Sit Still in its entirety now, and perhaps try to pick up my own meditation or yoga practice again.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A hell of a lot of purple covers and spirituality. Is the subconscious really responsible for things like that?

September Superlatives

Quite a lot going on in September, all of it good—more writing, more walking, more singing, more seeing dear friends whom I don’t see often enough. Work is very busy, and I have two new colleagues to help me in the bookshop, and I have just started working on our bespoke subscription service, with new clients of my own. Not many reviews this month, but 17 books read, and a sense that, going into winter, I may just preserve my sanity. An unexpected gift, that: I don’t fare well in the dark season.

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most uneven: Mark Twain’s travelogue Roughing It, which is partly set in Nevada, Utah and California Territories (where he originally went to accompany his brother, who was appointed to a government position in Nevada), and partly in Hawaii. Twain is amusing as ever (if a little distressingly casual) on Mormon society and the surreal bubble of Western gold prospecting, but he’s also breathtakingly racist about Chinese labourers in California Territory, and things don’t improve when he meets native Hawaiians. Worth reading, but hardly essential.

most incendiary: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, longlisted for the Booker Prize, which retells Sophocles’s Antigone with a British Muslim family front and center. Dutiful daughter Isma, bold and beautiful Aneeka, and radicalised, immature Parvaiz play out a story that feels inevitable, but ought to be read by everyone interested in current debates about the West’s role in creating a new generation of terrorists. (review)

best fun: K.J. Whittaker’s False Lights, the tagline of which is the intriguing “What if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo?” Featuring Cornish separatist rebels, Napoleon’s brother Jerome on the English throne, and a mixed-race heroine (not to mention another particularly wonderful depiction of a working-class woman whose capacity for military strategy wins her the Duke of Wellington’s respect), it’s like a glorious mashup of Frenchman’s Creek and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (but without the magic.)

most stylish: My Cat Yugoslavia, the debut novel from Pajtim Statovci. Examining the psychic fallout from the war in Kosovo through the eyes of Bekim, a Kosovan Muslim resettled in Finland as a child, it’s an elegant, if sometimes slightly self-conscious, treatment of the lingering traumas of conflict. (review)

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best atmosphere: That of immediately post-war London in Patrick McGrath’s The Wardrobe Mistress. It’s set in the notoriously cold winter of 1947, and follows Joan Grice, who runs the wardrobe department at the Beaumont Theatre, as she mourns the death of her famous actor husband, known to all as Gricey. The revelation that Gricey had a secret life—one that was almost diametrically opposed to his domestic life with her—drives Joan to the brink of madness. McGrath writes with beautiful restraint and finely calculated tension; it’s a masterpiece.

sheerest delight (and most inspirational protagonist): Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. This is not exactly news to anyone who reads Naomi’s blog, but good Lord is this novella ever charming, cheering, and a bit of a kick up the ass. Dr. Morayo da Silva, Manyika’s protagonist, is in her eighties and still lively, sharp, and sexy. (A young chef, seeing her dancing, gets a little hot under the collar, despite knowing she’s his grandmother’s age.) Manyika doesn’t ignore the painful elements of aging, but she has also written the only elderly female protagonist I’ve ever read whom I wouldn’t actually mind becoming. What a gem.

most addictive: Munich, Robert Harris’s new book. I had never read a single Harris book until July, when I finally bought the paperback of Conclave because I was going to be on a train and what if I happened to finish the book I already had in my bag OH NOES. It turned out to be great, and Munich is even better. While sticking to the historical record of what happened in 1938 when Chamberlain and Hitler met and signed the Munich Agreement, Harris also gives us the perspective of two men—one in the British government, one in the German—who try to persuade Chamberlain of the real danger. Harris succeeds as no other novelist has in conveying Britain’s desperation not to start another war, and somehow, knowing from the start how it will end doesn’t diminish the tension.

best surprise: This year’s Booker Prize dark horse, Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. Initially this seemed rather Cormac McCarthy Does Yorkshire, but in the end it’s much more than that: a siren song of violence and independence and rage. There are shades of Winter’s Bone and My Absolute Darling and the queasy individualism of Paul Kingsnorth’s novels in the story of bare-knuckle fighter John and his children, gentle Daniel and hard-as-nails Cathy. It’ll be interesting to see what Mozley does next.

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biggest disappointment: Dunbar, Edward St. Aubyn’s reimagining of King Lear for Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. In this case, the failing is partly that of the utterly mediocre prose, but mostly due to a lack of moral scope: Dunbar isn’t a tragic figure because he isn’t an Everyman. (Neither is a king, you might say, to which I would reply that Lear is humanised through his madness, and also—crucially—through subtle choices made by every actor who plays him. Dunbar, meanwhile, is simply an aggressive and deeply unpleasant media mogul who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break: a bizarre choice on St Aubyn’s part that utterly removes his protagonist from our sympathy.) I may write a full review of this, if my brain ever stops feeling like a wrung-out dishtowel every evening after work.

best short story collection: And only short story collection, but it’s difficult to phrase what I want to say about 2084, edited by George Sandison, which is that it’s an almost flawless assembly of stories, all explicitly set in the eponymous year as part of a project conceived as a response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the ultimate assimilationist technique among refugees to haute couture-induced lunacy, from drowning cities to a bonkers future youth dialect that draws on Doge memes (“Such approach! Very arriving!”), these stories are never less than fully committed to their visions of the future, and the writing is never less than sterling. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

most thought-provoking: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor, an Afrofuturist novel(-la?) about genetically modified speciMen (the book’s word). I liked it okay, but not more than that, and the reason that’s thought-provoking is because my lukewarm response had a lot to do with the rhythms of the prose. Okorafor’s sentences are shaped in a way that clearly owes much to African and oral storytelling beats, and I find that hard to deal with in written work. The fact that The Book of Phoenix has revealed this prejudice means, of course, that it’s done its job.

most LUSH: John Banville’s new novel and sort-of sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, Mrs. Osmond. It follows Isabel Osmond, née Archer, as she tries to free herself from the horrendous, controlling marriage to which Henry James condemns her. As a technical achievement it’s stunning; attempts to mimic late-C19 prose often end badly, reading as parody or pastiche, but Banville’s control and intelligence means that he manages precisely to ventriloquise a Jamesian style (albeit a slightly less thicket-y one). I’ve never seen anything like it.

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most quietly devastating: The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. It would read well in conjunction with Do Not Say We Have Nothing; Barnes is more interested in his ideas than his plot, whereas Madeleine Thien manages to integrate the two, but Barnes has equally interesting things to say about how artists (specifically musicians) survive under tyranny, and the intellectual compromises that survival requires.

most surreal: I’ll Sell You a Dog, by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Set in Mexico City and narrated by foul-mouthed, cheekily lecherous pensioner Teo, it covers mid-century Mexican art, Marxism, young love, disappointment, intellectual pretension (embodied by his apartment complex’s reading group, who pay a young boy to ferry their copies of Proust around in wheelbarrows), and tacos. I read it in a day and walked around feeling a bit cross-eyed for a while afterwards.

warm bath book: Every month must have one, apparently. It’s often a reread. This month there were two: one was Lirael by Garth Nix, which was about 99p on the Kindle store, so I bought it and read it on my phone. I’ve loved Nix’s Old Kingdom series from childhood, and I especially love Lirael because, for the book’s first half, its painfully shy heroine works in an enormous magical library. Swoon.

The other was Alanna: the Song of the Lioness, which is part of the new Puffin Originals series of “classic” YA. It’s actually the first two books in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet, bundled together. The story of a girl who wants to be a knight in the fantasy realm of Tortall, and disguises herself as a boy for eight years to do it, is also a childhood favourite. As an adult, it’s easier to see where Pierce relies on heroic exceptionalism and a wide-eyed “who, me?” attitude in her heroine, but they’re still great stories.

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most defiant of genre convention: Jane Harris’s third book, Sugar Money, which is out this week, tells the story of two Martiniquais brothers, slaves to the French priests who run the island’s hospital. They are charged with returning to Grenada and “stealing back” the forty-two slaves left there when the French were defeated by the English several years ago. Harris doesn’t saturate readers with baroque depictions of violence, as, say, Marlon James or Colson Whitehead do (though there is some); her time period is about a hundred years earlier, and what she conveys best is the way that coming to adulthood, as a slave, means a psychological reckoning with your own powerlessness.

up next: In general life, October holds a trip to Liverpool to sing at the cathedral there, a trip to Canterbury for my cousin’s hen weekend, and my housemate’s book launch. (He’s an academic and has just done a book on Bloomsbury’s cultural effect on the rest of London. Buy it!) In reading, I’m about to finish The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and I’ve got a million proofs from work, and I went book shopping over the weekend because I guess I’m some kind of masochist, and…you know, I’m definitely set.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Today I went to the hospital for a diabetes clinic appointment. I have them every three months or so. I try not to think about them too much. I try not to think about being diabetic too much. It’s been the case for twenty-one years, so there’s not much point in dwelling on it. Clinic appointments stress me out, especially in a large hospital instead of the smaller outpatient centre I attended as a kid. They’re often embarrassing or frustrating, or both: navigating the brusque guy on the ward desk; peeing in a cup; answering inane NHS questionnaires on an iPad; waiting in an ugly, humid room with a bunch of other broken humans; all these things make me want to claw my skin off. That’s even before we get to the part where I have to be weighed, or where a diabetic nurse has the chance to scold me for lax attitudes to medicating, or where a dietitian tells me, for the seven thousandth time, about food groups.

This time, I didn’t get a nurse; I got a consultant. She was young, and kind, and smart, and she didn’t push me. At some point, when she went away to check something with the phlebotomist, something new happened: I started crying. When she came back, I tried to stop, and to apologise. “I’ve had this for twenty-one years,” I said. “I should be able to—” and then stopped. The doctor looked at me and said, gently, “Do you know how common depression and anxiety are amongst diabetics? Especially ones who’ve had it since they were children? I see this all the time.”

And to my own surprise, I looked up and said, “I’m so angry.”

The long and the short of it is that there’s counselling available, and I’ve asked for a referral. The NHS may be cumbersome and bureaucratic, but it came through for me today. It’s taken me this long, but it’s time to sort some things out. If you feel the same way, but you’re scared or uncertain, take this story as a good omen. People pay their taxes for this; for you; for me.

2. Relatedly: I hope you all voted Labour.

3. You know that “one like = one fave book” Twitter meme that’s been going around? I did it through my work Twitter account (@HeywoodHill). It was what you might call successful.

4. I did one from my personal account too. You know, if you want to.

5. Many congratulations to Naomi Alderman for winning the Baileys Prize with The Power! I can’t say that I’m surprised, or indeed disappointed, although my personal favourite was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, for the sheer high-level thinking that it displays at every turn. But The Power is a terrific, deserving, and very timely winner.

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Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is hosted by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Pop in, say hi.