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.

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Reading Diary: oh dear, part one

I have read eighteen books since last posting here. EIGHTEEN. This is a ridiculous backlog to deal with, so I will have to do it in chunks, and without spending too long on each book. This post will deal with what I read from mid- to end of August.

s-l225A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): Terrific creepy murder mystery that isn’t, quite; we know who killed whom right from the start. Vine’s narrator, the niece of the murderer, takes us back through her family history in a way that carefully, delicately unwraps the layers of respectability, self-delusion, silence and manipulation that led to violence. It’s not only a fantastic novel about a murder, but a fantastic exploration of the sheer strength of social mores, a strong Exhibit A for the argument that the recent past is more alien than science fiction. Genuinely disturbing without ever once being less than decorous. Magnificent.

9781408898017All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison: Another entry in the category of recently published books described as “timely”, “relevant” and “resonant”. Edie Mather is a farmer’s daughter in 1930s Suffolk. Her knowledge about farm work and rural traditions is eagerly sought by Constance FitzAllen, who is collecting information about Olde Englande for a project whose politically-tinged dubiousness the reader will spot from a mile away. I could have done without the very end, which establishes where Edie is now and explains a few comments earlier on in the book; it felt slightly tacked-on. But Harrison’s writing about the countryside is tactile and unsentimental, and her characterisation is spot-on. Very good indeed.

9780008264314Elefant, by Martin Suter: This is an extremely adorable novel about a Swiss vagrant named Schoch who awakens one morning to find himself faced with a small pink elephant. Initially convinced that the elephant is a manifestation of DTs, he soon finds that it’s real and the product of an unethical biological experiment by a glory-hunting scientist, whom he must thwart at all costs. The beats of the story are hardly unfamiliar, and it’s not high-brow (it reminded me a lot of Jonas Jonasson), but it’s good cute fun.

rachel-kushner-the-mars-roomThe Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner: Man Booker-nominated for good reason, Kushner’s third novel follows Romy Hall, currently in prison for murder, as flashbacks reveal the story behind her crime. Amazingly, none of the reviews I’ve read have compared The Mars Room to Orange Is the New Black, which might be because, despite indulging in melodrama, the latter is often also very funny. The Mars Room isn’t, although the bleakness of its setting in the neon-lit, cigarette-reeking, rain-streaked concrete underbelly of San Francisco is relieved by an ending that suggests, not miraculous deliverance, but the possibility of discovering a good reason to keep living when you don’t have any other choice. Kushner’s also great on dialogue and thumbnail character sketches. Better than The Flamethrowers.

31944750The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, by N. West Moss: Short stories, all of them centered on Bryant Park in New York City and its immediate environs. Moss’s characters are doormen, recently bereaved women, street sweepers, elderly immigrants, research librarians. They may be peripheral to wider society, but they’re central to their neighborhood. It’s a love song to New York, and each story is polished but without preciousness or self-consciousness. I didn’t know Moss’s work before now, and I don’t think she’s available in the UK; this was a birthday present from Literary Uncle.

dear-evelyn_high_rgb-823x1231Dear Evelyn, by Kathy Page: Kathy Page, like Sue Gee and other writers who’ve perhaps been longlisted once or twice for the Women’s Prize, has flown largely under the radar of publishing journalism while also writing damned good books. Dear Evelyn is a novel that takes as its form the study of a marriage, from the bride and groom’s childhoods in post-war south London to their eventual deaths in nursing homes. Page is a magician at evoking a sense of past-ness, and her characterisation is extraordinarily skillful and tender: both Evelyn and her husband Harry can be extremely difficult, but the reader understands and feels for them both. Exceptional work.

a1v3v7j-lzlThere, There, by Tommy Orange: A multi-POV novel whose climactic incident is the Oakland Powwow, where a tragedy occurs (no spoilers; you can guess as much from the jacket copy). As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that every one of the characters we care about will be involved with the Powwow – and are connected to each other – in some way. Orange interleaves sections narrated by none of the characters, or perhaps by all of them, which deal overtly with the painful legacy of Native displacement in America. His writing is so assured, so poetic and so graceful, that these sections don’t feel clunky or shoehorned in, but rather constitute an integral part of the book, articulating clearly what each character’s story can only suggest. Powerful and beautiful, even if there are sometimes too many characters to keep track of.

647121Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor: Essentially, Angel is a study of a terrible person. Angelica Deverell is supremely confident, utterly humourless, and entertains the grandest of delusions about her own importance. From Angel’s first novel, written at the age of fifteen, through her highly lucrative career as an author of popular romantic fiction, to the decline of her popularity and her death unmourned by any but her much-abused companion, Elizabeth Taylor takes us deep into the mind of a character exquisitely uninterested in social niceties. Angel is a writer above all else: not a Booker prize-winning one, by any stretch of the imagination, but one who gets the work done. (To complete a deadline, she has herself locked into her bedroom for a month.) In its black humour and its merciless dissection of an individual, Angel actually reminded me quite forcefully of Muriel Spark.

 

15. Collected Stories, by John Cheever

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

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

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

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

Reading Diary: Mar. 4-Mar. 10

22589334My friend Katie let me borrow her copy of The Arsonist, citing it as one of the best fictional portrayals she knows of a career aid worker readjusting to life in the developed world. Since one of the protagonists of my novel has to deal with just this situation, I was grateful for the recommendation. Sue Miller’s main character, Frankie Rowley, is returning to Pomeroy, New Hampshire, after years as an aid worker in Kenya. Her parents have retired to the house that was historically their summer property, but retirement isn’t going to be a smooth ride—her father, Alfie, is developing dementia, and her mother, Sylvia, must care for him. Meanwhile, someone is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people” in Pomeroy, and Frankie—attempting to find some direction—begins an affair with Bud, the local newspaperman. I’ve read some complaints about the slow development of The Arsonist; I can only assume that this is down to baffled expectations. It’s not a thriller about a firebug, but a portrait of a small town drawn into the discomfort of facing its class divide head on. Pete, the widower from whom Bud bought the local paper, suggests that the problem is due to an increasing sense of equality: in the 1930s and 1940s, his parent’s generation, he suggests, “knew their place”, and no one felt troubled by the distance between year-round residents and the seasonsal families who employed locals as maids and handymen during the summer months. Perhaps it does no one any favours, Pete muses, to pretend as though there are no longer any social distinctions, when a difference in privilege and in wealth is so clear. Thematically, this makes a nice counterpoint to Frankie’s concern about her own privilege as a white expatriate in Africa, someone who was always going to be helicoptered out of a potentially dangerous situation, who didn’t really “belong” there because she could opt out of certain hazards.

Frankie’s and Bud’s romance is maybe a little torrid, but this is mitigated by the fact that it takes so long to get going, and by Frankie’s resistance and awkwardness as she tries to figure out which choices will let her have the most meaningful or fulfilling life. Fulfillment is also a vexed issue for Sylvia Rowley, who resigns herself to an old age spent caring for an increasingly demented husband whom she has long since ceased to really love. Throughout, Miller maintains a firm grasp of emotional beats, the complexities of a long marriage and of claustrophobic communities and of the interplay between a longing for independence and a longing for love. I’m particularly impressed by her understanding of rural communities, the way that things like a Halloween Haunted House at the town hall or a barbeque at the fire station hold such places together. Her work reminds me of Anne Tyler’s.

36262478Michael Andreasen’s debut short story collection, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover, was one of the proofs I was most excited about getting to this month, even though I maintain the pretense of not liking short stories very much. (I say “pretense” because I always end up liking the ones that I read.) Andreasen’s approach to fantasy or magical realism is to infuse fantastical situations with bracing jolts of recognisable modernity, or vice versa. The sailors stuck on a slowly sinking ship, for instance, listen to hip-hop through their headphones, and a child in the first story—set either in an alternate universe or the future—has the distinctly old-fashioned name of Ernest. The most striking element of Andreasen’s work is his skill at engaging a reader’s emotions, even if those emotions conflict. In the title story, for instance, a lovestruck kraken is sinking a ship inch by inch, day by day, convinced that the ship is one of its own kind. The kraken eventually spawns thousands of babies, all of which are murdered by the sailors in an orgy of destruction; at the end of the story, a young sailor on the doomed vessel is found to have kept one infant kraken alive. He pins it—still living—to an effigy of the ship, places a doll version of himself on the deck of the model, and tips it overboard. It’s a profoundly disturbing scene because it forces us to feel so many things at once: pity for a tortured young animal and revulsion at the man who could do such a thing; simultaneous pity and terror for the young sailor and his shipmates and their impending demise; poignancy and horror that humans can keep hoping, even while suffering a slow death. Not all of the stories in the collection achieve such a powerful cocktail of emotion, but they’re all just as weird and engaging.

31937362What does it mean to be an artist? What constitutes art? Does genius excuse monstrosity? These are the questions posed by Tom Rachman’s new novel, The Italian Teacher, out on 22 March. It reminded me, thematically, of The Moon and Sixpence (and it explicitly cites Paul Gaugin’s abscondment to Tahiti and abandonment of his wife and children as an example of the cruelties that artistic genius commits and is excused for). The novel centers on Bear Bavinksy, a charismatic painter of forty or so when we first meet him, in Rome in 1955, with his wife Natalie (nineteen years his junior) and son Charles, known to all as Pinch. Bear might be a genius, but he is also controlling, serially unfaithful, and—the reader begins to notice—a bullshitter. Chronically jovial in public, he alternately manipulates and ignores both his current family and his children from other marriages, and manages to distract most people from noticing that he never says anything of substance; Pinch, who is desperate to be accepted as an artist by his father, interprets Bear’s evasions of direct questions in the way most flattering to himself, until he ages into knowing better. The early part of the book is spent in exploring the ways in which Bear belittles and diminishes Natalie’s artistic talent, but most of the novel is given over to Pinch and the ways in which his father’s fame, and his own thirst for approval, cripple his adult life. Parts of it are terribly sad—Rachman writes a few scenes for Pinch of such utter humiliation that they’re painful to read—other parts joyous. Twentieth century art and art criticism, the terrible void inherent in the knowledge that artistic value is a mere function of consensus, and the anxiety of influence not only from artist to artist, but from father to son: Rachman deals with them all. The Italian Teacher is a deeply engrossing and deeply moving novel.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Several thematic parallels between the three books read this week, most notably dealing with aging and/or dementia-struck parents. It was also illuminating to read The Italian Teacher after All the Perverse Angels; both are intensely interested in the production of art and how its value is determined.

December Superlatives

There is no need for Superlatives in December, I hear you say; didn’t we deal with all that when we did the end-of-year roundup? The answer is nope, we did not! In fact, I’ve barely mentioned any of my December reads on this blog, which is a shame, because almost all of them were great. There were ten of them, a record monthly low for 2017. For some reason I always seem to read less during the holidays, probably because I’m busy being guilted into spending quality time with my family instead.

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most utterly charming: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. Look, I will confess that I was really cynical about this one. A decades-spanning novel focusing on a Russian aristocrat placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks and forced to live in a swanky hotel forever? <eyeroll> But I was very wrong. It’s about writing poetry and drinking champagne, sure. But it’s also about creating order, and structure, and meaning, in environments where such things are discouraged. It’s about adapting to your circumstances, and the importance of bending the rules a little, and the strength of the human mind. It deserves every accolade it’s received. Go read it right now.

best historical fiction: Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn, set in a psychiatric hospital after WWI. Llewellyn has worked with men suffering from PTSD and her novel deals with the birth of the psychological techniques now used to treat the condition: group therapy and CBT. It’s not dissimilar to Pat Barker’s Regeneration—the creation of art plays a major role in rehabilitating some of the men, just as poetry does for Barker’s characters.

most heart-achingly lovely: Five Rivers Met On a Wooded Plain, Barney Norris’s first novel, about five people who are brought together one day by a traffic accident in Salisbury. Norris is the heir to Jon McGregor’s semi-cinematic approach to novel writing. Rita, the flower seller-cum-drug-dealer whose voice starts the book off, is brilliantly drawn, though I think Alison, an army wife writing a diary to the husband on tour whom she desperately misses, is the most acutely observed. The whole thing is gorgeously done.

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the Annual Winter Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s not, I’m afraid, in the first tier of Dickens’s work (for what it’s worth: Bleak House, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend). The grotesquerie is too much, the minor characters are unmemorable ciphers (who can tell me who Abel Garland is?) and the plot is stretched wildly out of shape; near the end, events somehow feel both rushed and plodding. But the diminutive villain, Daniel Quilp, is why this book lives. He’s disturbingly vivid—the threat that he poses has more than a tinge of the sexual, in a way that’s surprisingly overt for Dickens—and he’s totally unforgettable.

most harrowing: White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht. Dealing with two neglected subjects—the haenyeo or female divers of Korea’s Jeju Island, and the experiences of “comfort women” enslaved for sex by the Japanese army during WWII—it’s without doubt an important piece of historical fiction. It will probably be read more for its content than for its style; Bracht’s prose is best described as serviceable. (It’s not bad; it’s just not anything else, either.) Still, I found myself really invested in the story of sisters Hana and Emi, and rooting for both to survive and thrive.

most like inside baseball: Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays, lectures and “occasional prose”. It’s a lot of fun if you’ve read her work (and is there any style to beat the slightly self-conscious mid-century Anglo-American essay style? [well, yeah]), but the collection suffers from repetitiveness if read straight through. You do get a good sense of O’Connor’s obsessiveness, and sense of humour, as a writer and a person, though.

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most exciting debut: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. I straight up loved this. Jonah Hancock is a staid merchant in Georgian London, whose most reliable captain has just sold his entire ship for what he says is a mermaid. Aghast, but needing to recoup his losses, Hancock exhibits the mermaid in a public house, to great acclaim. Its success leads him to the courtesan Angelica Neal, with whom he begins to fall in love… To say more would be to give the whole game away, but here’s a recommendation: anyone who loved Golden Hill or The Essex Serpent will adore this. It’s got spectacularly fluid writing with just the right level of period detail, perfect comic touches, and an atmosphere of total sumptuousness.

best book to read on the sofa on Christmas Eve: An English Murder, by Cyril Hare. A pitch-perfect self-aware reincarnation of the Golden Age murder mystery—complete with enigmatic butler, terminally ill aristocrat, caddish young heir, beautiful ingenue, meddling middle-class woman, country house, white-out, communications breakdown, and cyanide. Hare also deals with the social effects of the English fascist movement after the end of WWII, which feels extremely topical indeed. A real page-turner and very elegantly written too.

warm bath book: At Home In Mitford, by Jan Karon. My mum used to read these books when I was small and my grandparents have the whole series; they’re set in a small town in North Carolina and revolve around the local Episcopalian priest, Father Tim Kavanagh. Karon does actually acknowledge social issues like lack of welfare services, rural substance abuse and addiction, child poverty, and so on, though nothing in Mitford is ever what you might call gritty. Everyone reads their Bible and helps their neighbour, and no one ever swears. It’s all very Southern and very soothing.

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best book to read on the sofa on Boxing Day: A Maigret Christmas, a collection of two novellas (novelettes? They’re quite short) and a short story by Georges Simenon. In the title story, Maigret is importuned into solving the mystery of who broke into his neighbour’s flat dressed in white and red; in the second, a socially awkward police phone operator discovers a pattern in seemingly random crimes all over Paris; in the third, which isn’t really a crime story at all, a prostitute decides to do a favour for a hopelessly naive country girl on Christmas Eve. The second and third are, I think, better stories—they certainly hold your attention more—though perhaps that’s because Maigret was already a well established character when Simenon wrote the first story. In any case, I’ll try a full-length Maigret novel before making up my mind.

what’s next: Two books into 2018 already, and with a goal of reading 190 books this year (to improve on 2017’s tally of 181), I’m having to choose between three proofs of soon-to-be-released novels: Turning For Home, Barney Norris’s second novel, about the legacy of the Troubles; The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch, about which I’ve already heard amazing things; and The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton, set in England at three different points in history. Can anyone recommend one over the others?

Books of the Year: 2017

This year, so far, I’ve read 175 books. That’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve managed to narrow down my top choices for the year to eleven. These are THE books: the ones I can’t stop thinking about, have been recommending for months, and still get something new from, every time I reconsider them. There were many, many others that I loved and thought were brilliant (they’re listed at the bottom of this post). Some titles have been left off on the grounds of ubiquity: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad and The Power were all incredible books which I adored, but they don’t exactly need any more attention or admiration. These eleven are my absolute hands-down all-stars, and some of them, I think, deserve a bit more love. So here they are.

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  1. For A Little While, by Rick Bass. Bass is criminally unknown in this country. He writes the most beautiful, most complete short stories I’ve ever seen: each one is like a novel, feeling full with incident and characterisation and yet never going on for too long. His geography is the American West and Midwest, but unlike other writers of whom he reminds me (Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy) he is unfailingly humane to his characters. Reading him is an absolute treat. (short review)

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2. Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. Speaking of McCarthy, Barry’s novel reminded me of a gay-er, more tender and humane and frankly normal, riff on Blood Meridian. Barry too writes about the violence visited upon Native Americans by whites, but he does so in the context of the US Civil War and as part of the love story between his two male protagonists, Thomas McNulty and John Cole. His sentences are stunning, and he absolutely nails the dynamic of silent, undemonstrative love between men.

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3. Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. My initial impression of this stands: it’s like a Graham Greene novel and an Ian Fleming novel had a baby, then left the baby to be raised by the Coen Brothers. Dark, funny, nihilistic and magnificently disdainful of narrative convention, it’s a spy novel set in 1970s Morocco that manages to completely baffle you half a dozen times. The ending is unforgettable. (full review)

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4. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Of all the books I read this year, this is one of the most sophisticated. Juggling the stories of several young Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, it manages to be an overview of twentieth-century Chinese history, a family saga, and an examination of the ethics of making art under tyranny, without ever losing nuances of characterisation. Good though The Power is, this was my favourite to win the Baileys Prize. (short review)

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5. The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This is the single book that I wish I had pushed on more people this year. It’s a hard sell, because it is about Marzano-Lesnevich’s investigation of the case of Ricky Langley, who is in prison for molesting and murdering a six-year-old boy. She interweaves his story with her own—including her childhood molestation by her grandfather—and creates a compelling, frightening, beautiful book out of it, tackling the meanings of innocence, of justice and of redemption. I think it is utterly stunning.

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6. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. Everyone has been talking about this book. No prize jury has yet seen fit to reward it, which is bonkers; it’s a book with no narrator, which ignores the conventions of the missing-girl genre as well as those of traditional nature writing, resulting in an extraordinarily compelling jigsaw of life in a rural village shaken by tragedy over the course of thirteen years. It takes almost inconceivable skill to write such a thing, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already. (full review)

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7. The Time Of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. This book is absolutely astonishing. Its protagonists are mixed-race (African-American-Jewish) brothers Jonah and Joseph, a concert pianist and an operatic tenor, but it is so much more than an insider’s classical music novel; it is ambitious enough to take on twentieth-century American history, inter-racial marriage, deep questions of belonging and vocation and family and home, and Powers simply writes so intelligently and thoughtfully. (It will also give you a whole Spotify playlist of stuff to listen to, if that’s your jam.) It is now on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. Can’t say better than that.

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8. It, by Stephen King. Rarely, if ever, have I been so pleasantly surprised by a book. King’s exploration of small-town horror and mundane evil is over a thousand pages long, but, reader, they will fly by, I promise you. His sexual politics are awkward and dated, but you can tell he was trying, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author who—at his best—is so damn readable while still keeping rhythm and flow in his prose. Make time for this book. (full review)

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How about this cover. Maybe my favourite of the year.

9. Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The sci-fi book I have been recommending to everyone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Set in an industrially ravaged future city menaced by an enormous flying bear (go with it), it tells the story of scavenger Rachel, who lives with her partner Wick in an abandoned tower block, and who finds a small lump of biotech one day on her searches. She takes it home and names it Borne, and quickly finds that the extent of Borne’s abilities—and his true nature—are way beyond her expectations. It’s a lot of things rolled into one: a suspense thriller, a mother-and-child story, a tale of friendship, a sort of romance. VanderMeer’s imagination, and ability to translate his ideas into strong visuals through prose, is peerless.

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10. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. In the same way, I imagine, as the medical profession thanks its various divinities for Theodore Dalrymple, Henry Marsh, and Adam Kay, so are booksellers offering orisons for the work of Shaun Bythell. At last, someone who is lifting the curtain on the ridiculous/rude/implausible/plain stupid things, customers, and situations that booksellers deal with daily. And you don’t have to be in the industry to appreciate the man’s witty misanthropy. We keep selling out of this in the bookshop, sometimes within the same day of a fresh delivery.

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11. Dodgers, by Bill Beverly. This is one of those books that you almost cannot talk about, because to do so is to disturb the complex feelings of awe and sorrow and emptiness and fullness that settle, all at the same time, upon you once you finish it. It is indisputably a crime novel, but oh it is so much more. East, our protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old lookout at an LA crack house. He fucks up, and is given a chance to redeem himself: take a roadtrip with some other fuck-ups, and his preternaturally brutal younger brother Ty, to assassinate a federal judge in Wisconsin. There is so much brilliant thinking and writing in this, about brothers and violence and despair and choosing the kind of man you wish to be. It deserves to be a classic.

Other books that were incredible: Every one of these titles is something I would urge you to read as soon as you can. Run, don’t walk. Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: viciously funny, insanely clever, on the potential consquences of a surveillance society. Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward: a stunning road trip novel; Ward is a modern William Faulkner. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles: charming and witty, without ever losing intellectual complexity and nuance. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris: if you loved Reservoir 13, this is your next stop; set in Salisbury and utterly breathtaking. English Animals, by Laura Kaye: beat Ali Smith to being the Most Timely Brexit Novel, and also a beautifully written depiction of class/power imbalance and a lesbian relationship. A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna: the dreamiest, oddest Oxford novel ever, taking in thirteenth-century medieval theories of reality and contemporary metaphysics, and really set apart by fantastic illustrations. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead: you know why. Black and British, by David Olusoga: my new favourite history book, dealing with the presence of free Africans in Britain long before the Empire Windrush. The Wardrobe Mistress, by Patrick McGrath: a compelling ghost story set in the freezing winter of 1947, in London’s seedily glamorous theatre world. 2084, ed. George Sandison: some of the best sci-fi of the year, in the best-edited short story collection of the year. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent: brutal and stunning, a contemporary McCarthy mixed with Daniel Woodrell. Balancing Acts, by Nicholas Hytner: engaging commentary on plays and staging, as well as some fun name-dropping; worth reading for his analysis of Othello alone. Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders: it really is the most heartbreaking and risk-taking book, very worth reading. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong: my favourite poetry book of the year, lush meditations on sex and heritage and allegiance. The Power, by Naomi Alderman: reading it is a mental game-changer; you won’t think the same way again. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow: an honest-to-God utopian novel, suggesting that the future might not suck if we work together and use tech productively. Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: a novella about a sexy, cosmopolitan pensioner, the kind of older woman we should all aim to be.

And I have to stop there—I could go on. Have you read any of these? Have I convinced you to pick up any?

2017 In First Lines

Now that I’ve finished the first book of the last month of the year, I can start with all of the usual end-of-year posting. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it (not to be confused with the Best Of Year roundup!)

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January: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.”—Virgin And Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. The surest sign that my reading has changed this year is that this sentence didn’t especially register back in January, but made me raise an eyebrow high when I reread it two minutes ago.

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February: “Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along.”—Mirror Shoulder Signal, by Dorthe Nors. I remember reading this while walking to work at a restaurant in Pimlico, where I waited tables for a deeply un-fun month and a half. Sharp and fresh and kind of off-kilter; it was on the Man Booker International shortlist for a reason.

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March: “Atop the mud-brick wall stood a man stripped to the waist, with his arms stretched out to the sides as if crucified.”—Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. The pitch-blackest comedy I’ve ever read; a spy novel at once hopelessly enigmatic, deeply pessimistic, and posing the most serious moral questions. It’ll be in my Books of the Year for sure.

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April: “On Friday, January 4, 2013, Aaron Swartz awoke in an excellent mood.”—The Idealist, by Justin Peters. A biography of Swartz, a programming prodigy (he helped develop Creative Commons at the age of fifteen) and advocate of open source software and the free exchange of ideas. Absolutely essential reading for anyone who reads or uses a computer (so, you.)

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May: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”—The City and the City, by China Miéville. A phenomenal mindfuck of a book; a riff on urban isolation and solipsism, I think, and maybe also on willful political blindness, plus there’s a great noir plot.

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June: “Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.”—Real Tigers, by Mick Herron. We love Mick Herron at the bookshop; this is the third of his Slough House series, about a department of disgraced MI5 agents. One could wish for slightly fewer wisecracks in this volume, but it’s solid and tons of fun.

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July: “The teenagers would fuck it up.”—The Awkward Age, by Francesca Segal. Does anyone write about parenthood and intergenerational conflict (and surprising alliances) with more sly, sympathetic wit than Francesca Segal? I doubt it.

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August: “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs.”—Johannesburg, by Fiona Melrose. A deeply thought-provoking remix of Mrs. Dalloway, set on the day of the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death.

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September: “This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation.”—Roughing It, by Mark Twain. My dad bought me this when I was home for the summer; Twain is one of his favourite writers, and it was lovely to read it back in London and think of him.

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October: “The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and sleep?'”—The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré. What a first line. Even if you don’t know where you are, you know where you are: somewhere cold, somewhere dark, somewhere not entirely safe.

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November: “At the end, he sat in the hotel room and counted out the pills.”—The End of the Day, by Claire North. Read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel; I wasn’t entirely impressed with the occasional melodrama of the book, but the idea is very good indeed (our protagonist, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death) and it’s often a lot of fun.

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December: “At half past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool.”—A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towles. What a gorgeous book: tender, tough, and endlessly empathetic. It too will make my Books of the Year without question.

Is this representative of this year’s reading? Not enormously; I read a lot more speculative fiction than this slice suggests, although I think the male-to-female author ratio is about right (pretty close to 50:50). It’s an all-white line-up, which isn’t quite right either; I read some brilliant works by authors of colour this year: David Olusoga, Zadie Smith, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Patrice Lawrence, Kei Miller, Yukio Mishima, Omar El Akkad, Nnedi Okorafor, Kamila Shamsie… (More on some of these in the Books of the Year post.)

What this fragment of my reading does accurately reflect, however, is that I read a hell of a lot of spy novels this year, statistically speaking. Clearly, espionage was this year’s escapism flavour of choice.

What seems to have improved in 2017 is either my ability to choose books for myself more cannily, or my ability to get more out of more varied titles—or, possibly, both. I don’t do star ratings on this blog because I find them at best a crude tool for describing complex things, but Goodreads pretty much makes you use them, and there were a lot of four- or five-star books this year. Long may it be so.