July Superlatives

July’s been a month of changes. I’ve had my 24th birthday, marked my first year with the Chaos, left my job, and committed more concretely to writing my novel. I’ve also read a lot of books: fourteen of them, to be precise, seven of them counting towards #20booksofsummer and two of them on the Man Booker Prize longlist.

most gripping: The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s chunky historical novel about a Parisian soprano whose past comes back to haunt her. It’s long and there are flaws, but it’s a hell of a book, impossible to put down and lushly detailed.

oddly anticlimactic: Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times, a story about a young Jewish hairdresser from Soho who moves to Palestine after WWII. There’s political content – espionage and the handover of the Protectorate from British rule – but it’s under-emphasised, so that the shape of the book is a little uneven.

book that really should have made the Booker Prize longlist: The Tidal Zone, by Sarah Moss. It’s an exceptional novel, taking in its stride stay-at-home parenthood, marriage difficulties, the NHS, mortality, Coventry Cathedral, and much more. Sarah Moss really is a writer to attend to, one of the best novelists working in England today.

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most sadly prescient: Thomas Piketty’s collection of columns for a French newspaper, Chronicles, about European economics, the global recession, Greece, the IMF, and much more. They date from 2012, but Piketty was already predicting the crisis in the Eurozone that led directly to Brexit.

most darkly surprising: Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping. I know her through her novels GileadHome and Lila, which are luminous with worldly spirituality; Housekeeping is much weirder, a story of two sisters raised by their eccentric aunt. Parts of it reminded me a little of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, in its portrayal of a young woman coming undone; you always think something terrible is going to happen.

best family saga: Anne Enright’s Baileys Prize-shortlisted The Green Road. I’m not that keen on Irish family epics, but Enright is a skillful and lucid writer, and this had the virtue of jumping repeatedly through time, which often makes things more interesting.

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most thoroughly disappointing: Raw Spirit, a nonfiction book by Iain Banks in which he visited all (or almost all) of the single malt distilleries in Scotland. It was clearly commissioned in order to give him a kind of junket trip; he’s utterly upfront about that; but he also just struck me as a vaguely unpleasant, highly privileged man who did not think very much about his good fortune, preferring instead to cultivate lads-lads-lads friendships and drive fast cars. I’ll still seek out his science fiction, but gosh what a terrible introduction.

most emotionally complicatedDon’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, the second of Boris Fishman’s novels to be published in the UK. It deals with adoption, immigration, infertility, and the complex currents of a marriage; there’s a lot to unpack in it, and Fishman’s prose is dense and thoughtful.

most evocative: Rosy Thornton’s Suffolk-set collection of short stories, Sandlands. United by themes of history, haunting, and the past’s effects on the future, it’s a marvellous group of stories that demonstrates a deep love for the Suffolk countryside and its people.

most philosophically demanding: The North Water, Ian McGuire’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel of a whaling voyage that descends into the heart of darkness. There are some levels on which I have issues with this book; it’s a prime example of the deeply masculine, aggressive, Blood Meridian-esque school of novel writing, in which men wrestle with great evil and women, if they exist at all, are whores or dead bodies or both. On another level, though, the writing is absolutely top-notch and the plot is so gripping I read it in a day.

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most bewildering: I never know what to do with Flannery O’Connor, morally speaking. The Violent Bear It Away is, like her other novel Wise Blood, a story about a young man who tries to evade Jesus and can’t. It also features extraordinary violence and stupidity and obstinacy. It’s fascinating, especially because it’s not easy to tell what side O’Connor comes down on.

most relevant: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was the only Booker Prize-shortlisted book from last year that I hadn’t read. If Marlon James hadn’t also been on the list, this would, or should, have won: an achingly open, generous-hearted novel about a house full of Indian immigrants in Sheffield, and the visa-wife of one of them, it refuses to give us pabulum for an ending. It is heartbreakingly good.

second most bewildering: The Many, Wyl Menmuir’s short novel (also Booker Prize-longlisted this year!) about a man who moves to a seaside town in Cornwall and finds that the history of the village is darker and more opaque than anyone is willing to admit. It feels like an allegory, but the terms of that allegory are not clear, which makes me wonder whether it wants to be cleverer than it actually is, or whether I’m just suffering from a failure of perception. Anyone else read it and want to help me out?

up next: I’m currently staying at my grandparents’ house, taking care of my grandpa for a few days while my grandmother is in hospital. I brought the collected poems of Dylan Thomas with me, but I can’t brute-force my way through it; it’s too gnarly. So I’ve picked up my old Penguin copy of Middlemarch instead. When I get back to London, I’ve got the rest of #20booksofsummer plus Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and another Booker longlister, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet, waiting for me.

Marlon James’s Booker win is bloody brilliant news

The best man won, y’all. I don’t think anyone is seriously disputing that. Here’s why:

1. A Brief History of Seven Killings is simply an amazing book: polyphonic, violent, emotive, compassionate, unsentimental. Other books on the shortlist were similar in length and ambition, but not one of them had the explosive energy of A Brief History, nor the ability to be unceasingly gripping for all of its 700-odd pages.

2. It suggests that the Man Booker Prize isn’t locked in to staid, standard literary realism. Let’s be honest, this has been a worry for a while. When I reviewed A Brief History, I wrote that I wanted it to win, but doubted that it would because the prize seemed too historically conservative to value a novel like this. The fact that this year’s panel proved me wrong is also great for another reason:

3. It will renew general interest in literary culture. I’ve already had a conversation (impassioned, evangelical) with two of my coworkers, both of whom were a) very interested in the book, and b) confessed that they ordinarily avoid Booker winners like the plague. If this year’s panel had tried, they couldn’t have done better at announcing that the stereotypical insularity of British literary culture needed a shake-up.

The diversity point seems too much like tokenism to mention, but it does please me hugely that another Commonwealth writer has won, and a writer, moreover, who is not interested in the white, middle-class concerns typical of longlisters like Andrew O’Hagan, Bill Clegg and (dare I say it) Anne Tyler. The world wants more varied stories, and there are more varied stories out there to be told. It’s delightful to see the literary establishment finally acknowledging that.

Also, this whole scenario tickles me for some reason. Maybe it’s because his hairband matches her shawl. 

I reviewed A Brief History of Seven Killings in August; you can read what I thought of it here.

July Superlatives

Only seven books this month, which is not bad given that I was socializing heavily every weekend bar the first (she says, trying to make herself feel better…) I was rubbish about reviewing them, unfortunately—only managing two, both at the beginning of the month, unsurprisingly—but I gave you a birthday books post and a Man Booker longlist post, so no complaining.

most unnerving: Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners, which is nothing if not deeply, deeply weird. They sort of reminded me of episodes of The Simpsons, in that each one starts with what looks like the major plot, only for something to happen that creates another major plot, and then sometimes another. They’re also quite happy to be a tad incoherent; you can never really pin down a symbol or a message, the way you can even with other fantastical writers like Angela Carter. I liked that, how clearly they’re the product of a particular imagination, which you don’t have to understand.

most poignant: Just Kids, by Patti Smith. I wasn’t blown away by her prose style, but it was a sincere and, by the end, deeply sad and lovely memoir. You got an excellent sense of how insanely, effortlessly charismatic she and Robert Mapplethorpe both were, and it’s a pretty good period piece, too, describing the New York art scene of the 1970s which is now gone forever.

most disturbing: Knockemstiff, the second book I reviewed this month, a collection of linked short stories by Donald Ray Pollock. It’s like early Cormac McCarthy, or like Daniel Woodrell, in a category I’ve heard referred to as “grit lit”. There’s a lot of prescription drug abuse, alcoholism, and misery, and a tiny grain of what might be hope right at the very end.

most tidily plotted: There’s a bit of room for interpretation here, since several of the books I read in July had intricate or deeply thought out structures, but Will Cohu’s novel Nothing But Grass spans over a hundred years in the same corner of Lincolnshire countryside, and I loved how cleverly he shows the ramifications of events from generation to generation.

Prose Prize: Again, there’s wiggle room, but Light Years, James Salter’s best-known novel, is a really gorgeously written book. The effect is quite deliberate; he’s writing about people whose lives are beautiful and full of friends and love, but simultaneously empty and lacking in meaning. The sense of light and shadow, of color, of texture, and of luxury, that you get from reading the prose is palpable.

most utterly heartbreaking: I can’t remember now how I came across Patricia Smith’s collection of poetry Blood Dazzler, but I must have heard about it somewhere. It takes as its subject the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, and it ventriloquizes such characters as a dog, an old woman, a drag queen, President Bush, the city, and the hurricane herself. It is the sort of book you have to put down every few pages so that you can look out the window and breathe deeply through your nose and not cry. It’s also a very, very significant testimony to the betrayal of the people of New Orleans by the US Government in the hurricane’s wake, and ought to be read for years to come.

my favorite: This isn’t exactly a category, but it’s the best way I can think of to describe Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, which is also about Hurricane Katrina and its effects on poor Gulf Coast residents. Ward’s protagonist, Esch, is a pregnant fifteen-year-old, and the story is told in the twelve days leading up to the hurricane, during which time Esch’s brother’s prized pit bull, China, gives birth to a litter of puppies, and Esch tells the father of her child. There’s a lot about family relationships, mother-love (Esch’s mother is dead; she’s obsessed with the story of Medea, whom she’s reading about for school) and the elemental—things you can’t fight, like a Category 5 hurricane, or loyalty to a family. It won the National Book Award a few years ago and entirely deserves it; it made an excellent companion read with Blood Dazzler.

up next: I’m currently reading Marlon James’s Booker-longlisted A Brief History of Seven Killings (I was in Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street on Sunday and could not resist). I also have to read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber for Shiny—I thought I’d get to that last month, mais non…

London In the Rain

To London a few days ago to meet up with the Revered Ancestress, who was going to be in town anyway for a reunion of her nursing friends from her training at Barts in the mid-1950s. Oxford Tube in the mist of early morning; I dozed most of the way, or as much as I could after I’d finished the coffee which I’d rather unwisely bought from the shop near the coach stop. Met the Revered Ancestress under the big clock at Waterloo and set off with her in a taxi to Barts, which is at the top of Ludgate Hill and very extensive. St. Paul’s is its near neighbour; the dome loomed out as the taxi crawled up Old Bailey, still grey and indistinct with mist (very Bleak House). The entrance to Barts is called Henry VIII Gate–he rebuilt the hospital and gave back its property after the dissolution, a very canny move–and atop it, indeed, a swagger sculpture of the king glares down, his crown perched atop his bonnet.

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I accompanied the Revered Ancestress to the coffee shop in the west wing–the area is arranged around a central square with a fountain, but construction scaffolding obscured much of this–where we met her friends. They are all old now but have still the vitality, the warmth and the quiet cheekiness of women who were subordinate during their training, but after it, had been trained to be in charge. Nursing may be the equivalent of the army in the sense of camaraderie and self-confidence it provides.

One of the nurses, a smooth-cheeked woman called Maureen, is my mum’s godmother. She has had a most extraordinary life: beginning as a nun, leaving the order when she felt they weren’t doing their duty, moving to Stepney (where she had a garden Mum remembers, with hedgehogs!), then to Ireland, where for a while at least she raised alpacas. She is one of the few elderly people I’ve met with whom conversation is immediate. With most others–even the extremely intelligent–one feels as though a thin but strong veil divides them from one, as though they are fundamentally separate, their experiences and existences too far away to be made real. Maureen is not like that; she seems to continue living consciously. When you talk to her, she’s absolutely there. I can’t imagine how much of a loss she was to her order.

They let me have tea with them, and told me stories of their student days, including incidents such as being given a lobster by a fishmonger on Billingsgate. It was already dead and cooked, but they didn’t know how to open it, and resorted to bashing it against the concrete floor of the nurses’ home. Delightfully, none of them could quite recall whether this had worked or not.

After tea they went off to have lunch (naturally) and I was free to wander on my own for a few hours. I went into the hospital museum as my first stop, and read every word of every noticeboard–it beguiled the time wonderfully, and the exhibit cases were full of fascinatingly hideous things, like travel-sized amputation kits complete with handsaw, and pathological drawings of various awful-looking conditions. Unfortunately, when I stepped out again it had begun to pour. It was a horrid splattering city rain, the effect of which is always made worse by gutters and overhanging roofs. I had intended to go into Barts’ Great Hall, but entry was only with a tour and anyway there seemed to be some kind of conference on, so I contented myself with an iPhone photo of the enormous Hogarth paintings which decorate the staircase. They are meant to be of the biblical Pool at Bethesda, and it’s thought that he took some of the hospital’s eighteenth-century patients as models.

As the museum shut at 1:00, I really had to go elsewhere. I put my scarf over my head and tramped through the rain to Barts the Great, the hospital’s parish church. The Revered Ancestors were married there. I got in without paying by mentioning the fact to the man at the desk. It’s a dark and gloomy church, very different indeed from Barts the Less (within the hospital walls), which is, in best Reformation style, all white and quite plain on the inside, except for stained glass which seems to demonstrate the story of the hospital’s founding. A single candle in Barts the Great burned beside the tomb of Rahere, the monk said to be Henry I’s fool, who fell ill on a pilgrimage in Rome and dreamed that he saw an angel ordering him to return home and found a hospital for the care of the poor and ill. This was in 1123; it’s one of the oldest institutions in the country, second to Oxford by only twenty-seven years.

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It was still pouring when I left the church, and the scarf on my head was becoming saturated. I went down towards Paternoster Row and St Paul’s, where so many books were printed, but St Paul’s itself appeared to be closed, or at least I wasn’t allowed in. (“Is no entrance here.” “Sorry, but–the door’s open…” “Yes, is no entrance. Is private event. You must go and enter downstairs, through crypt.” “It looks like the private event might be over now…” “You go through crypt.”) Not feeling inclined to go through the crypt, or indeed to pay money, which would no doubt also have been demanded, I headed back to Ludgate Hill, where I attempted to subtly shed most of my layers and dry myself out. (It was only a partial success; my scarf, now thoroughly defeated, dripped heavily on the floor.)

To occupy the time, I picked up Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the shortest book ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize–it had lost out the night before to Eleanor Catton’s 800+-page The Luminaries, which I haven’t gotten round to yet. The Testament of Mary is very short, very good, beautifully written and terribly sad. I expected not to care much about it, but I find that it’s stuck with me. In it, Mary, mother of Christ, is growing old in exile, afraid for her life if she returns to her former home. She is cared for (if we can use the phrase for a relationship that seems to involve a good deal of bullying) by two of her son’s most passionate devotees, who interrogate her tirelessly in order to produce what the reader suspects are the Gospels of St John and St Mark. Mary has never believed that her son was the Messiah, and the book demonstrates the neverending pain of a mother who loses a child for what she suspects to be no reason at all. It’s a shame, frankly, that it’s not a bit longer, but then it might lose the punch. Of all the Booker-shortlisted books, this was one of the ones that I was least interested in, but I’d really recommend it; depending on your reading speed it will take you no more than an hour or two, and its impact far outweighs its size.

Also, having met up with the Revered Ancestress again and retraced our steps near to St Paul’s (once it had stopped raining), I got a rather lovely picture of it in the sunshine. Autumn is the best season.

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