Holiday Reading, or the Lack Thereof

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Part of my US book haul

Usually, holidays are a delightful excuse to do All The Reading. When I went home for two weeks in the middle of this month, though, I… didn’t. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is that I read a lot for my actual job, and I would read at least as much if I weren’t a bookseller, anyway. Another is that I was having a really hard time focusing: my parents live about ten miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia; I went to school there. The intersection where Heather Heyer was murdered by a Nazi is the same intersection where my dad used to pick me up from my weekend job. My best friend was punched in the face by a Nazi that Saturday. It’s one thing to see this in the media; it’s another to see, in the background of the news photos and footage, landmarks as familiar and dear to you as your own hand. A third reason is that, perhaps in order to distract us all from that heinous shit, my parents had me on a heavy schedule of visiting old and new friends, drinking wine in central Virginia’s many vineyards, going to restaurants and art exhibits, and generally Keeping Busy. Reading fell by the wayside a little.

I did read some books while I was there—more on those in August Superlatives at the end of the month. Perhaps more importantly, my dad and I had a Grand Day Out near the end of my visit, which consisted of a ridiculously delicious meal, complete with dessert wine, followed by a tour of downtown Charlottesville’s many bookshops. (I even managed to introduce him to some he’d never been into!) Herewith, a rundown of purchases:

Coding Freedom by E. Gabriella Coleman—from Blue Whale Books (secondhand fiction and general nonfiction; modern first editions; antiquarian Virginiana and maps[!]) I’ve wanted to read this ever since I read The Idealist, Justin Peters’s biography of Aaron Swartz. Coleman writes about the ethics of hacking, free culture, and free/open source software. It’s not particularly technical, so my low code-reading ability is no handicap; it’s heavier on legal and philosophical arguments. It’s also actually on my Goodreads TBR.

Roughing It by Mark Twain—from Read It Again Sam (secondhand general fiction, children’s, huge thriller and sci-fi sections) My dad adores Mark Twain. He has previously told me to read both Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s American and European travelogues. Read It Again Sam’s copy of Roughing It was slightly smaller and in paperback, so the choice was obvious. I’m reading this now and it is simply delightful: detailed, observant, and dryly funny as hell.

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor—from Daedalus Books (If you ever go to Charlottesville, you must go here. It is owned by Sandy McAdams, who has had MS and been in a wheelchair for at least as long as I can remember, and who yet continues to run this three-storey townhouse on the corner of 4th and Market, crammed to the literal rafters with secondhand paperbacks. The place is a labyrinth of treasure.) I’ve loved Flannery O’Connor since I wrote a paper on her short stories at the end of my junior year in high school. That paper got me into Oxford. Since then, I’ve moved from uncritical adulation to a kind of baffled fascination—you can never quite tell what O’Connor thinks, and I’ve started believing that she’s far less healthy and/or generally correct than I previously thought—but her voice is undeniable and addictive. This is a collection of her essays and lectures; irresistible.

The Devil In Silver by Victor LaValle—from New Dominion Bookshop (I worked at New Dominion all through high school. The proprietor, Carol Troxell, was a beloved mentor and role model; when I went to university, she took me to lunch, gave me a pair of pearl earrings and told me never to open a joint bank account with a man. She died very unexpectedly earlier this year, and for a while the shop’s future was in doubt. As of my visit, her husband Robert had hired a manager, Julia, who has done amazing things with the shop stock and generally modernised some of its more antiquated aspects. It’s in good hands.) The best thing to do in a bookshop if you have no particular agenda, but want to buy something, is to go straight to a bookseller, ask them to recommend you one paperback book, and then buy it—no questions asked, no arguments. This is what happened at New Dominion; Robert (not Carol’s husband, a different Robert) recommended The Devil In Silver, an allegorical horror novel set in an insane asylum. I’ve heard of LaValle and I love how Robert described him: as someone working in a Lovecraftian tradition, but whose motivating horror is the fear of institutionalised racism, as opposed to Lovecraft’s fear of the racial Other. Sign me up.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika—from New Dominion Bookshop Because Naomi loved it, and described it as being about “a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour.” Uh, YES.

I also had a Grand Day Out with my younger brother Nick, which resulted in some book purchases. Three of them came from Telegraph Comics, a new art and comic shop downtown which has a great, highly curated graphic novels section: I bought volume 3 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love-story-against-great-odds that features my beloved Lying Cat (and some more naked people), volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by the same writer, which posits a world where all men but one—Yorick—have been killed by a gendered virus, and The Case of the Team Spirit by John Allison, the first collected Bad Machinery story (which you can read here, as well as Allison’s other [brilliant] work). Oh, and I also found a pristine copy of the Arden Shakespeare edition of King Lear for $4 in a junk shop in Ruckersville. Score!

I’ve already read Saga vol. 3 and The Case of the Team Spirit, and am working my way through Roughing It right now—which shall I choose next?

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February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. Two and a half weeks into the new job, and I LOVE it. In week one, I handsold books I’d been raving about on this very blog to real people, which was such a great introduction to the many ways in which bookselling is essentially a practical application of reviewing. At the end of week two, I got the nod to manage our social media accounts on a trial basis until April, which is amazingly exciting. On Monday I went with two colleagues to sell books at an event with brilliant American philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am so bloody lucky.
  2. My grandpa had a mild stroke last week (he’s doing well, home from hospital, and recovering incredibly swiftly), so I went down to visit him and my grandmother over the weekend. They live in a village by the South Downs that’s so ridiculously lovely it’s practically fictional. Everyone there is either a retired brigadier or related to a duchess. My auntie came down too and we had some gorgeous walks with the (horrible little) dogs.
  3. On the other hand, it turns out that working a full week, then handling someone else’s ironing, recycling, dishwashing and phone contract admin for two days, then going back to work on Monday, is tiring.
  4. The other day I had to skip my morning coffee and by 11:30 a.m. had acquired a headache that lasted on and off until 5 p.m. This is Not A Good Sign.
  5. We’re going to France for four days on Friday and I don’t know which books to bring. I have two review copies, Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf, which I will definitely finish in four days. Should I bring them both, or bring one and then knock out one or two of the books on my phone? Or should I bring one of the books I’ve been allowed to take home from work because they’re damaged: Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Dry by Jane Harper, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett? Or should I bring the proof I just got today from a debut author: Larchfield by Polly Clark? SO MANY CHOICES. (Seriously, if you have an opinion, let me know. I need help.)
  6. Right now I’m reading Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning Days Without End, as a buddy read with the indomitable Esther of Esther Writes. (You heard me! Stay tuned.) Holy moly. It’s so dense, the writing is so thick with imagery and none of it is strained or pathetic, and it reminds me of so many different things at once. It reads a little like a more poetic True History of the Kelly Gang, though there are also very light shades of Blood Meridian. It is really superb.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Link back, say hi.

In 2016

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2016, I:

started writing and reviewing for Litro Magazine

navigated the French train system alone

stayed in a chateau owned by a friend of the Chaos, who runs a restaurant there

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hosted my first author Q&A on the blog

decided to reclaim the word “fat”

wrote a series of posts on digital literature (finale coming soon!)

started singing again

attended an underground play

partied like it’s 1944

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started my first novel (I’m now at 74K words)

mourned the results of the EU referendum

welcomed my parents to our London flat for the first time!

walked fifteen miles through London at night in support of breast cancer research

went to Glyndebourne

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left my job

threw a summer drinks party

turned 24

visited St. Ives (and decided to write my second novel about Barbara Hepworth)

bitched mightily about having to walk uphill in Cornwall

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overcame massive social anxiety to go to my very first music festival

participated in a mass read-through of Henry VI, Part 1

sent my brother a postcard at college every week of his first semester

welcomed a goddaughter, Beatrice Illyria

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sang at the Royal Albert Hall

met Carlos Acosta (and decided to write my third novel about ballet dancers)

waited tables during the pre-Christmas period (this is hard)

mourned the results of the US election

got wazzocked with the lay clerks of Westminster Cathedral on Christmas morning

read 141 books

It hasn’t been a good year, though. On a personal level, it has mostly been really pretty good, but posting about how good my year was is solipsistically gross if I fail to include the fact that it has been a bad year in many other ways: for the LGBTQ+ folks in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and their friends and family; for pretty much everyone in Syria; for the women of Ohio, where the state legislature has just pushed through a six-week abortion ban; for a substantial portion of Trump voters who didn’t realise that Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act would make their lives literally unlivable; for the people of Valence and Berlin and Nice and Baghdad and Brussels and Istanbul and Quetta. For Jo Cox’s husband and children. For the families of the 258 black people murdered by police in America this year: Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Laronda Sweatt, Deresha Armstrong.

If you think for one minute that this is in some way not your problem, you’re wrong.

2017: if you want it to be a better year, there’s only one way to go about it—you can’t stop celebrities from dying or TV networks from moving your favourite show. You can give your time, and you can give your money. Here are some ideas:

Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project – I donate to this institution because it’s in my home state. I guarantee there’s something similar near you, or you can give to Planned Parenthood.

Safety Pin Box takes the nice-but-not-exactly-super-effective idea of safety pin allyship and makes it a real thing: your subscription gets you two or three “ally tasks” a month, all of which are directly effective in the fight against white supremacy.

Liberty is England’s premier human rights organisation and it is RIDICULOUSLY cheap to become a member. You can give as much as you want/can afford, but some subscriptions are as little as £1 a month; the highest individual subscription fee is only £15.

Do what works for you. Do something that you’re just a little bit uncomfortable with: a couple of hours a week volunteering, or donating £5 more per month than your budget can absorb without having to change. Or call people out at your school/workplace/kitchen table: it can be just as uncomfortable, and just as important.

Anyway, whatever you do, have a very happy New Year. Onwards!

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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    1. We booked a holiday! Oh my giddy aunt. We’re going to St. Ives for five days in August. It is stupidly expensive and long to get there by train, but who cares? We’re staying in a little flat in the center of town, and we won’t have to do anything all week but there’ll be plenty to do if we get bored. I plan to read and cook and sit in the sun. The Tate, the Barbara Hepworth Museum, and the seaside are all I want. Oh, and maybe some hikes.
    2. I’m still plugging away at JavaScript. I’m trying to do half an hour a day, but it’s hard and it makes me cry a lot (or, if not cry, at the very least wring my hands til my wrists feel loose). I wish it came more easily. This sounds, I know, ridiculously arrogant, but I am just not used to having to work hard at learning something. It fucks with my self-esteem no end.
    3. Saw my friend and former housemate Ollie on the weekend; we went to the National Portrait Gallery. I was especially interested in an exhibition showing photographic portraits of black migrants in England before the Windrush’s voyage in the 1940s. There were some from 1891, when an “African choir” came on tour to London and also visited Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight; they looked so modern, staring straight out of the frame, the photographic techniques good enough by then to capture fine details of their clothing texture, skin and hair. There was another display case of smaller portraits, including some of a band of Pygmies who came to London in 1905, and one of an Ethiopian prince whose father committed suicide upon defeat by the British and who was brought back to England by a military commander called Tristram Speedy. He went to Rugby and to Sandhurst, but died of pleurisy at 18. Such curious, little-known lives.
    4. I bought a little chunky journal on Saturday, after bidding Ollie farewell but before getting the Tube back home. It’s grey with a flower pattern on the front, and only cost £3.99. It feels inviting, but unthreatening, and I like it very much. I’m hoping to re-establish the habit of journaling by hand. So far, it’s working.
    5. My novel carries on apace. I can’t say I write a thousand words a day, but I try to write a little bit most days. I’m slowly discovering what one of my characters is all about; he’s a surprisingly complicated chap, not entirely nice or passive. I’m also approaching a point at which I’m going to have to switch to writing about one of the other POV characters for a while. It stops me from getting bored or stuck in a rut.
    6. Now that the weather is sunny again, I am getting broody about dogs. There was a beautiful wrinkly brown shar pei in the park over the weekend which I literally couldn’t stop raving about. The Chaos asked me why I always have to like “the fugly ones”. It’s because they’re fugly. Fugly dogs are the most beautiful.
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This will never NOT be perfect.

September Superlatives

A better gender balance this month, and less unswervingly miserable! I’ve been much more thoughtful about choosing what I want to read and when, paying attention to my moods and trying not to overwhelm myself with one genre or tone. I’ve been terrible at reviewing, though, again. This is a shame, because it’s not like I don’t have tons of ideas about these books; I just convince myself I haven’t got the time to do them justice. I should just write some stuff, instead, and see what happens.

most unabashedly comforting: Without a doubt, the month’s first selection, Winifred Watson’s 1930s novel Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. I desperately needed something that wasn’t crazy violent/dark/misogynistic/sorrowful/bittersweet, since almost everything that I read in August was at least one of those things. Miss Pettigrew was a perfect solution. The story of a poor spinster who finally blossoms when her temp agency accidentally gives her an assignment with a flighty nightclub singer named Delysia LaFosse, it’s got enough wit and sauce not to be blandly boring (there’s cocaine and premarital sex!), but nothing is actually, you know, upsetting, and everything ends well. There are also some really affecting, poignant pieces of interior dialogue, as Miss Pettigrew talks herself into enjoying life for once. I loved it.

most unexpectedly profound: “Unexpectedly” is a bit of a fudge here, because you can expect sly profundity in anything Terry Pratchett ever wrote. Nonetheless, Going Postal, which features an ex-con man glorying in the birth name of Moist von Lipwig being made to take over the running of the Ankh Morpork Post Office, pushes quite a few buttons, and pushes them with hilarity and wit. As always, the existence of golems—creatures to whom words are supremely important, because without them they wouldn’t function, although it’s also by words that they’re enslaved—threw up a good deal of moral conundrum, as did the revelation that the battle to be waged isn’t between old ways and new tech, but between giving a shit about people and giving a shit about money. It’s not as dark as some of the late City Watch books, but it’s seriously fun.

The other book that fits this description from this month is Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Mr Loverman, about an eighty-four-year-old Anglo-Caribbean grandfather who decides to finally come out as gay, ending his hopeless, loveless marriage of fifty years. Evaristo is a novelist I’d heard of, but never read, and this novel won one of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prizes in 2014. It’s full of humour, and Barry, her protagonist, is certainly no victim; his attitudes are decidedly un-PC and he’s as judgmental as they come. Yet he’s also sympathetic, as we discover what gets sacrificed when you spend your whole life living an untruth. There’s a gravitas to this book that’s belied by its transparent prose; you can read it in a day, but it certainly won’t leave you for a while longer.

most disturbing: Penelope Mortimer (wife of John Mortimer, who gave the world the Rumpole novels) wrote a semi-autobiographical book called The Pumpkin Eater, about the breakdown of a marriage. Her protagonist, Mrs Armitage (we never learn her first name), is married four times by the age of thirty and mother of an ever-growing brood of children. The subtexts of infidelity, control, power dynamics and obsession made me think of it as a cross between James Salter’s Light Years and Ellen Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Certainly the most singular fictional woman I’ve encountered for some time.

most thoroughly engrossing world: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon hooked me without mercy. From a submarine in the North Atlantic to the jungles of Luzon to the Quonset huts of Bletchley Park, not once in over nine hundred pages do you feel as though you’re not fully immersed in everything that’s going on. A dazzlingly intelligent book by a writer who can really, really write (and who is often laugh-out-loud-in-the-queue-for-the-bus funny, which is the true litmus test of literary hilarity.) I plan to read the entirety of his backlist, an honour heretofore reserved in my mind for AS Byatt and Sarah Hall only.

most thought-provoking: China Miéville’s novel Embassytown, about an alien populace, the two-mouthed Ariekei, whose language—or Language—has no referents. There is no way to lie in Language; words don’t represent things, they are the things. From this premise, Miéville spins a world and a plot that follow the implications of that worldview all the way to their conclusions. There are human similes, people who have acted out certain tableaux for the Ariekei in order to enable them to talk about something; there are cloned Ambassadors born and bred to speak Language (it can only be done with two mouths and one consciousness). There is addiction, war, and semiotics. It is one of the most intellectually complex novels I’ve ever read, and Miéville carries it off with very little apparent effort.

oldest friend: Bill Bryson’s majestically funny A Walk In the Woods, a travelogue about attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail with his alcoholic hometown buddy Stephen Katz. It’s partly set in the area I’m from (the Blue Ridge Mountains), and I’ve read it so many times that I know all the jokes, but that’s part of the joy. It’s recently been made into a film, which could be either wonderful or not so.

most topical: After having a guided tour through Mary King’s Close, a sunken medieval alley in Edinburgh, I read Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin, one of his famous detective novels starring DI John Rebus and the city of Edinburgh. Set in the early 1990s, some of the discussions about Scots-Irish religious sectarianism were convoluted and left me rather wishing for an executive summary of some kind, but it was exciting that the murder in the novel takes place in Mary King’s Close and that many of the locations Rankin name-checks were places I had been.

up next: I have about a thousand books which I have promised I will formally review, starting with Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s The Black Country, which I’m halfway through: a poisonous little gem of a novel about a marriage gone badly wrong. I also managed to leave Scotland having acquired six new books, so those are going to have to fit in somewhere…

Airplane Reading

airplane readingLong-distance travelling is a marvelous thing to do for several reasons: it broadens the mind, builds the character, and so on and so forth; but for someone like me, who cannot drive a car, it is marvelous for another reason, which is that when I begin a long-distance journey I do not have to do a single damn thing for several hours. Whether it is a train, a ferry, a coach, another person’s car, or an airplane that is transporting me, I am not responsible for making it go or directing it in any way. All I have to do is get on the right one, and then my work is done. When I go home to the States for Christmas, this is particularly pleasing because it means that I have an eight-hour flight (eight hours, a full workday) to myself. Other people, I have gathered from furtive observation, spend some of these hours watching films, or talking to each other, or sensibly trying to combat the effects of jet lag through sleep.

I read.

You will understand me, I am sure, when I say that packing reading material for eight hours is not a task that ought to be approached lightly. This is partly because I read at an inconveniently high rate of speed. When we were kids, my parents used to take my brother and me to upstate New York to visit family friends who, at the time, lived at West Point. This, too, was a drive of eight hours’ length. I used to bring an entire shopping bag full of books–not just to stow in the boot of the car, but actually into the back seat with me–lest the unthinkable happen and I should finish one thinly-fictionalized retelling of the childhood of a historic European princess before our next rest stop. (These books constituted a large portion of my youthful reading, and also a really embarrassingly large amount of my total knowledge of European history until I was about seventeen.) My point is that I get through books, particularly if there are no distractions. Being sealed in a pressurized metal container is kind of ideal for me in that regard.

Anyway, about three days before any major flight I start to get antsy about airplane reading. The book (I can only really take one on the actual plane) has to be thick, obviously, but not too heavy to be carried comfortably in my shoulder bag. It has to be engaging and very well-written, but preferably not too experimental. At cruising altitude with the very real possibility of a screaming baby, or a dehydration headache, or a personal-space-consuming seat mate, to contend with, you don’t want to be reading something that demands intense focus. (I tried to read Piers Plowman, the thirteenth-century theological dream epic, on a plane once. It was an error of judgment, that’s all I’ll say.) Middlebrow mainstream literary fiction and popular non-fiction tend to work quite well: Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Bill Bryson and Hans Fallada have all been successful choices. (Actually, the Hans Fallada book, Alone In Berlin, gave me nightmares. It’s about a German couple living in Nazi Berlin and forming their own two-person resistance. It does not end happily.)

At the three-day mark before I left the UK to come home for Christmas this year, I was having some difficulty. I had started a book called Lanark, by the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray. It’s on the Guardian’s list of the top 1000 novels ever written, and was also, according to the cover copy and Google, widely considered to be the best Scottish novel of the last century. Unfortunately, I wasn’t enjoying it much. After a week (which for me is basically eternity) I hadn’t read more than sixty pages of the thing. The prospect of being trapped on an airplane with no entertainment other than Lanark (on-board films aren’t generally an option for me, partly because I don’t think they’re any good but mostly because I can’t get the little headphones to work) was distressing. But I also felt a kind of stubborn loyalty to the book. It wasn’t totally uninteresting; it was just very, very odd.

So on the day I flew out, I went to Blackwell’s bookshop in the morning. This was a mistake. At the best of times, Blackwell’s is a trap; around Christmas, corporate strategy is to all but put little dangly lights around the place in the manner of anglerfish, in the hopes of luring you into the jaws of consumerism. I mean to say, three for two deals are fickle friends. I bought three books, because I am a fool and a weakling. (If you’re interested, which of course you are, they were: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.) I boarded the plane with Lanark in my hand luggage and my three back-up options in a Blackwell’s carrier bag.

As so often seems to be the case, my preparations turned out to be entirely unnecessary. I cracked the spine of Lanark before the plane left the runway, and I turned the final page (the five hundred and seventy-third) about half an hour before landing in Washington. This happens more frequently than I would like it to: a book initially unprepossessing suddenly redeems itself and from that point on, finishing it becomes an absolute imperative. I would prefer that either an initially unprepossessing book remained so and I could abandon it without feelings of remorse (this will never happen), or that the book would be prepossessing from the beginning. But very often these days I will begin something which, for the first thirty or sixty or a hundred pages, appears to have only limited merit, but which after that opens up into vistas of innovation or at least of interest. Possibly this is merely the effect of acclimatizing to a very idiosyncratic novel; I couldn’t say.

In any case, I hauled my Blackwell’s books all the way through border control and immigration at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. (formerly the world’s least congenial transportation hub, now perhaps only the second or third worst on the planet due to the introduction of machines that scan your passport for you. The rest of the world adopted these several years ago, but in the land of the free we don’t like to admit that our systems could be bettered in any way, so things like airport efficiency tend to suffer accordingly.) You may be pleased to know that I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last week, so at least it has not been an entirely pointless exercise.

One final observation: airplane books are very much like umbrellas. If you take them, you may not need them, but if you don’t take them, boy will you be sorry. I once got stuck halfway across the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to read but the jacket copy on Selected Letters of John Keats. In the end I gave up and (unable to make the headphones work again) watched the person sitting in front of me watch Despicable Me 2. There are better ways to spend eight hours. Bring enough books, is all I’m saying.