November Superlatives

November started off slow. (Soooo slowwww.) (Sorry, that is a verbal tic of mine that only makes sense to people who have played Grim Fandango virtually to the end, you know, the bit where the little tiny car-driving demons are…anyway.) Two enormous volumes, in almost-direct sequence, took about five days each, and a third wasn’t quite as enormous but still took nearly an entire working week. Luckily, things picked up a bit after that (helped along by a semi-conscious decision to focus on the slimmer books on my TBR pile) and I rounded out the month with 13 books read, including four volumes of nonfiction, which is almost unheard of. Plus, the Young Writer of the Year Award Shadow Panel had its final judging meeting, where I got to meet some amazing blogger-friends in real life for the first time!

biggest letdown: The End of the Day, by Claire North. Sorry. I did try to like it a bit more, but there were just so many ellipses, and it became increasingly clear that the book’s thesis was The Great Mundane Miracle Of Existence, which…I mean, nearly four hundred pages and that’s it? It’s a nice commercial fiction/fantasy crossover, and bits of it are very funny—I’ll certainly send it to some customers—but not one for me. (review)

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most brain-stretching: Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon. Set in a near-future Britain where surveillance is total and civil order is maintained by a System that occasionally hauls in potential dissidents for a full mind-read, Gnomon follows a detective assigned to a case when a woman dies in custody. In the files of the dead woman’s consciousness, she finds four other minds that aren’t meant to be there… Mind-bending, inventive, wondrous, and very, very funny.

most grudgingly liked: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney, an exploration of youth and power amongst ambitious artsy twenty-somethings in Dublin that I expected to loathe and instead found myself admiring tremendously. The dialogue is both ridiculously clever and surprisingly poignant. (review)

most pointless-feeling: A 700-page biography that leaves you just as unclear on its subject’s personality as you were at the beginning has missed the mark somehow. Despite its erudition and its writer’s clear love for his subject, this is unfortunately the case of Minoo Dinshaw’s life of Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight. (review)

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darkest: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, a novella by Yukio Mishima about a young Japanese boy who plots a horrible fate for his mother’s new husband. If you think teen violence and desensitisation is the fault of video games, think again; this book was written in the ’60s and depicts the most nihilistic children I’ve ever read.

most emotionally engaging: Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which just earned her a second National Book Award. It’s a road trip novel; it’s an examination of American racism and history; it’s modern-day Faulkner, lyrical and elegiac. Jojo, our young narrator, will stay with you for a long time, as will his strong love for his baby sister Kayla and his mother Leonie’s desperation to bring her boyfriend Michael home from prison. An utterly stunning book.

most eye-opening: Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann’s nonfiction account of ten Africans who lived free in Tudor England. Kaufmann uses parish records, legal testimony, and Court documents to illuminate the lives of men and women like John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpeter; Reasonable Blackman, an African silkweaver living in Southwark; Anne Cobbie, a successful sex worker who traded on her skin; and, perhaps my favourite, Cattelena of Almondsbury, a “single woman” who lived in a small rural village near Bristol and whose possessions, listed after she died, included a tablecloth and a cow. Read alongside David Olusoga’s Black and British for a whole new take on what historic England might have looked like.

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best support of the sisterhood: A slim book first published in the 1930s by Marjorie Hillis, eventually deputy editor of Vogue, Live Alone and Like It is a delightfully witty, un-self-pitying advice manual for single ladies. It’s rather of its time, but much of it is wonderful (a whole chapter is entitled “A Lady And Her Liquor”, and there’s another on having an affair). Most touching, perhaps, is her firm assertion that a woman living alone is no more likely to be murdered than a woman living with a man, and her advice that, if you are frightened, you must simply lie abed in the dark and think very hard about something else, like your new frock, or what you might say if that nice gentleman you went to the cinema with last week should happen to propose.

sexiest: Come, Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross, a story collection from Peepal Tree Press that I bought on the strength of a single Guardian review. It’s full of stories that range from a couple of paragraphs to a dozen pages, dealing with sex, love, heartbreak, and death. There’s a lot of magical realism—one protagonist, an office cleaner, starts to find abandoned hymens everywhere, which convey to him the sufferings of the women they used to be attached to—and a lot of NSFW stuff, too, which is astonishingly well written. It’s a wonderful collection.

greatest technical skill: Jon McGregor is a must-read author for life, now that I’ve read not only Reservoir 13 but also If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, which was published in 2002. Set in the late ’90s, it flips back and forth between an ordinary day on a street in a city neighbourhood, at the end of which something terrible happens, and the present day, where a witness of that event must come to terms with the way her life is now. McGregor is the master of the moving-camera point of view, the sort of thing that Virginia Woolf did a lot, and I don’t know anyone who captures the holiness of mundanity in the way he does. He’s a simply beautiful writer.

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most deserved hype: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which I read in a day, so addictive is the voice of its protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty and works in an office. Every Friday night, she buys a pizza for dinner and two bottles of vodka, which last her the weekend. Every Wednesday, she has a phone call with Mummy, who is locked away somewhere. Slowly, over the course of the novel, Eleanor’s carefully controlled world—and her loneliness—peels away from her, to be replaced with friendship, self-awareness, and, at last, understanding of what exactly Mummy did. It could be sentimental and overworked; instead, it’s tender, restrained and heartbreaking, and surprisingly very funny. I loved it.

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best surprise: Another nonfiction book, Lucy Moore’s Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book, which recounts the life of Civil War heroine Anne Fanshawe through her personal memoirs and papers. Anne’s marriage was delightfully happy—she and her husband Richard seem to have been each other’s best friend—but their loyalty to Charles I and later to his son meant that they lost a lot of money and all of their security in the Royalist cause. Bouncing from country to country as refugees, they buried ten children in eight different locations; Anne suffered six additional miscarriages. Only four of the children she bore survived to adulthood. She was also a total badass who lobbied in court and at Parliament, once bribed a cabin boy for his clothes to use as a disguise, and forged a French visa for herself and her children, amongst other things. Her story is a reminder that the people of the past were still recognisably people, who suffered and loved as we do.

most oh-God-okaayyyy: The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan. It’s a weird, claustrophobic little novella, set in Venice over the length of an English couple’s holiday, that builds to a moment of magnificent what-the-fuckery that’s all the more surreal for having been so meticulously prepared for. It’s a nasty little thing, but one of those perfectly sculpted technical pieces that you have to admire, even if it also makes me feel gross.

up next: I’ve just started A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, which is charming and which I’ll take away with me to my grandparents’ for the weekend. I’ve also got The Old Curiosity Shop for my Annual Winter Dickens, plus the endless pile of proofs.

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Beyond Poe and Lovecraft: Scary Stories by Not-White Guys

The end of October means the approach of Halloween, which means that in the book-reading corner of the Internet, everyone is sharing their favorite creepy reads. In this as in most other areas of Western culture, white dudes comprise a disproportionate part of the feted canon. It’s not that writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stephen King and Wilkie Collins (to name but a few) aren’t good; they absolutely are. But the problem is that any fool can find them. Making a list with these guys on it isn’t exactly hard. It’s not like people of colour have never written ghost stories, so why don’t they get onto lists? Herewith, nine of the creepiest, most supernatural books by black American, black African, South American and Native American writers. I’ve tried to stick with ones that I’ve read, or at least ones by authors whose other work I’ve read, but I’d love any additional recommendations, particularly by Asian authors…

Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Obviously. A baby murdered by her mother to save her from a life of slavery haunts the family that she never knew. A classic, and skin-crawlingly scary to boot: it’s not so much the supernatural elements, more the knowledge that the horrors of slavery that Morrison’s heroine Sethe lives through were real.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri. Set in colonial Nigeria, this novel won the 1991 Booker Prize and is the story of a “spirit-child”, Azaro, who tries to break a promise to the spirit world. The way that our physical reality slips and slides into a metaphysical reality is where Okri derives the creepiness.

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi. In a similar vein, The Icarus Girl is about a little girl, Jessamy, from a biracial family, who discovers that her new best friend, TillyTilly, might be more than imaginary, and less than well-meaning. As a writer, Oyeyemi’s interest in the sinister potential of tradition and folk tale to shape our lives has continued to develop–her most recent novel, Boy Snow Bird, transplants that interest to New England.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. It is about a young black amnesiac female vampire, I don’t know what else you can possibly want. (Oh: polyamory. There’s also polyamory.)

Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston lived in Haiti and participated in voodoo ceremonies there, which she wrote about in this book. Atmospheric, accurate, and utterly without voyeurism—Hurston wasn’t just observing, but taking part—it’s dark and fascinating.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola. I’m not sure why Gabriel Garcia Marquez has such a monopoly on “magical realism”, because the African writers on this list are chock-full of it. Tutuola’s novella draws on Yoruba folk legend to tell the story of an alcoholic trawling the realms of the dead for his long-lost bartender, and meeting some rather horrible people along the way.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. An epic of a witchy family in Latin America over three generations; like One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the passivity of the inhabitants of Macondo, and with more interesting women.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. The story of Robert Johnson, supposedly the world’s greatest blues guitarist, who was said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play, drives this haunting, heartbreaking novel about a group of guys (and two girls) from a Native American reservation who decide to form a rock band. You could call this magical realism too: Johnson and Big Mom, the local medicine woman/facet of Godhead, slide in and out of the story, although our protagonists are mostly pretty firmly planted in the real world. (Read this even if you’re not interested in a creepy/magical/supernatural Halloween-y type experience. It’s an exceptional book.)

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A Kafkaesque black comedy about a man who claims, out of exasperation with his neighbors, to be a wizard, only to find that he’s threatened the supremacy of his homeland’s tinpot dictator. The weird, shifting realities in this book mirror the horrors of Beloved: this stuff is scary not because it’s supernatural, but because it actually, unbelievably, happens.

I’m moving to London (at last!) on Saturday, and packing all this week, so I may not see you back here before end-of-the-month superlatives. If not, I hope you have a safe and hyperglycemic Halloween.

May the Grand Pumpkin visit you all.