wandering_star in 2019
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Looking forward to more good reading, and discussion of books, on Club Read 2019.
I don't generally set myself reading goals (and if I do, I don't stick to them) but I am hoping to read a lot of physical books this year - I'd like to end the year with no more books than fit on my shelves. (I have a lot of shelves, so this is doable, if I mainly read my own books and don't acquire too many more...!)
Top reads of 2018:
Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Circe by Madeline Miller
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers
plus honourable mentions for:
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Tinderbox by Megan Dunn (creative non-fiction)
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (popular science)
It's been a very busy start to the year, both personally and at work, which is why I haven't posted any reviews yet. Also, several of the books I've read so far this year have taken quite a long time to get through - or I haven't been able to get through them at all! In fact I just checked and I have abandoned half the books I have tried to read so far this year - which feels quite a high number. Still, some interesting reads within all that, so here goes with the reviews.
1. The New Spymasters: inside espionage from the Cold War to global terror by Stephen Grey
This purports to be a critical analysis of espionage, mainly focused on developments since the end of the Cold War - the question about what intelligence services are for after 'the end of history' (remember that?) and whether traditional human intelligence can be of any use against a dispersed, often self-radicalised threat, and how it stands up in an age of mass surveillance. It isn't quite that, but it is an interesting and entertaining history, with each chapter focusing on one particular case study to illustrate a wider point.
Trainee spymasters were told to analyse the 'target' and then guess what motive could be exploited to persuade him to become an agent and betray his country or employer. "That's all bullshit," Jim had said. "It never actually works like that. The key thing is to get the guy to betray something, to cross the line. He will work out his own justification." A carefully nurtured recruitment was often based on an unspoken understanding. Human beings had incredible ways of inventing rational excuses for what they did or were going to do, he said.
2. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Unsheltered weaves together the stories of two families, living in the same place at different times. This is not the only thing in common - both families are struggling economically, and have seen their expectations decline; and both live at a time of great national division - our contemporary experience, and just after the Civil War. Climate change is a topic of debate now - and Darwin's theories of evolution were the scientific controversy then.
Barbara Kingsolver is a great writer, but I think in this book she is too close to the subject she is writing about. The Lacuna, which I read last year, was in some ways also a critique of contemporary politics and policies - but because it was actually set in the mid-twentieth century, the critique didn't overwhelm the story. In Unsheltered, the family spend a lot of time talking and arguing about politics, in a way which is probably accurate but not very entertaining.
“That’s true,” Iano said. “You can’t really have civilisation without growth. It would be a zero-sum economy: I have needs, everyone has needs, and the only way I could gain something is to take it away from you.” “Dope scenario, Dad,” Tig said, “only the world is zero sum. When you take stuff out of the land and ocean, that’s taking. You’re just pretending there’s always going to be more, which there isn’t.
3. A Patient Fury by Sarah Ward
Crime. In an apparent murder-suicide, a family is killed - the evidence seems to suggest that the wife killed her husband and child, before setting fire to the house and hanging herself. The detective, however, is sure that there is more to the story.
Perfectly OK but I found the conclusion of the story very annoying -
Connie ended the call and marvelled at her ability to contain her fury. There was an important press conference and she wasn’t even going to be there even though she was here in the station already. If it had been Palmer who was to attend over her, she would have been spitting blood. The fact it was the calm and capable Matthews made it worse, however. She was being sidelined and all because she had dared to challenge the perceived narrative of events. Francesca was going to be paraded throughout the media as a monster, a killer of children, her children, and a mass murderer, and no one seemed to have a problem that there was no evidence whatsoever of why she might have done so.
4. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
This title comes from "The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes", which is a book written by Marina, one of the characters in the novel. It's a book about the social significance of children's clothes - but it could also be a description of herself and her social circle. Marina's father is a renowned public intellectual, and Marina has always coasted on that fact, and on her beauty. Her two close friends, Julius and Danielle, are also working in media, trying to make a name for themselves and to live up to the potential they believe they have.
Meanwhile, Marina's father, Murray Thwaite, is such a lion that everyone has a strong opinion about him - and it's probably this which most drives the events in the book. Murray's nephew is ten years younger than Marina and her friends, but has the same belief that he has a genius which ought to be recognised: his mantra is an Emerson quote, "Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their house and street life was trivial and commonplace." But once he comes to spend time with Murray and his family, he feels out-of-place and discovers that his idol has feet of clay. At the same time, an iconoclastic young Australian is hoping to make a name for himself with a dramatic take-down of Murray - and hires Marina to work on his new magazine.
The book is essentially a depiction of a particular stratum of New York society. It's pretty well-written, but I wasn't very interested in any of the characters - which made the 580 pages something of a slog.
Danielle reflected that growing up, coupling, was a process of growing away from mirth, as if, like an amphibian, one ceased to breathe in the same way: laughter, once vital sustenance, protean relief and all that made isolation and struggle and fear bearable, was replaced by the stolid matter of stability: nominally content, resigned and unafraid, one grew to fear jokes and their capacity to unsettle.
5. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
Richard is a university professor. He's an unemotional type: once, in 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down, he walked across the place where it had blocked his road - a crowd of West Berliners were waiting there to welcome Easterners, but Richard was only interested in finding a shorter route to work, and pushed through them grumpily. Shortly after his retirement, he walks past what turns out to be a protest by asylum seekers, who are asking for the right to stay and work in Germany. He becomes intrigued, and starts to spend more time with the men. At first, it's more of an academic interest, but as he gets to know them, he gets more involved and engaged in their lives. In some ways, he, too, is dislocated - he grew up in a country which no longer exists, and has retired from the job which gave his life shape and meaning.
As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his 'stuff' now exists for his pleasure alone. Sure, some used book dealer will probably take his library, and a few volumes - a first edition, a signed copy - might wind up on the shelf of a bibliophile. Someone who, like him, is permitted to accumulate 'stuff' during his lifetime. And so the cycle will continue. But everything else? All these objects surrounding him form a system and have meaning only as long as he makes his way among them with his habitual gestures, remembering this, remembering that - and once he's gone, they'll drift apart and be lost. That's another thing he could write about sometime: the gravitational force that unites lifeless objects and living creatures to form a world. Is he a sun? He'll have to be careful not to lose his marbles now that he's going to be spending entire days alone without anyone to talk to.
6. The Elusive Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
This is the first book I've read featuring Mrs Pollifax - I'd never heard of the series outside some enthusiastic LT reviews. If you haven't heard of her either, the start of the back-cover blurb tells you all you need to know:
“When Mr Carstairs of the CIA once again had occasion to send Mrs Emily Pollifax off on a secret mission, he honestly thought that it would just be a simple tourist trip to Bulgaria. All she had to do was to smuggle in eight forged passports, craftily hidden away in a specially designed hat in the shape of a bird’s nest. But where Mrs Pollifax was concerned, nothing was ever that straightforward, and before long she found herself embroiled in a frightening international situation.”
This is basically a cosy spy thriller, if you can imagine such a thing - and a delightfully preposterous read.
‘I am wondering,’ said Mrs Pollifax thoughtfully, ‘if Panchevsy Institute’s reputation may not be our greatest asset. In my experience this sort of thing induces carelessness.’ Fixing Boris with a stern eye, she said, ‘After all, if you had a reputation like that - terrifying - what else would you need? You could relax.’
‘Already you are terrifying me ,’ Boris said. He smiled and the effect on his gloomy features was dazzling. ‘I think you must be like one of our witches in the Balkan mountains.’
(By the way, on the cover of my copy at least, Mrs P bears a strong resemblance to Camilla, Prince Charles' wife!)
>10 NanaCC: Thanks! I own one other book in the series, but it isn't that one. I will look out for it.
7. Milkman by Anna Burns
This is a really remarkable book. The story is that of a young woman - known to us only as Middle Sister - growing up in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles (although again, neither of these things are ever named). She only wants to stay out of political disputes, mind her own business, and read - but this is not an environment where someone can mind their own business, even more so once she comes to the attention of a senior paramilitary man, who does what we might now call stalking her (kerb-crawling as she walks home, running alongside her when she goes for a jog) - but she doesn't have that word for his behaviour either. And once it is known that he is paying her attention, the whole society around her makes up its mind that she must be involved with him, and judges her accordingly.
The book is absolutely airless, and the way it does that is through Middle Sister's use of language. The rules are unspoken - so much so that she can't even name them - but they are if anything stronger because of that. Middle Sister tells us about various individuals who tried to ignore the rules or live outside the sectarian disputes, but any attempt to do that is crushed by social pressure - for example, it's the early days of the feminist movement and a group of women tries to set up a small discussion group. They are first visited by the paramilitaries, and then the other women in the community tell the paramilitaries to back off - but only so that they can tackle the feminist group themselves.
Daily life is a minefield too:
There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. … There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames, What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sand. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.
When this won the Booker there was a storm in a teacup over 'difficult books'. I don't really understand this. There's nothing particularly experimental about the structure or the story - it's only the way that language is used, which means that the reader has to think a bit. But it's precisely that which makes the book so powerful. If you want to be harshly critical, I think it could have been a little bit shorter. But I find it hard to imagine that this won't turn out to be one of my books of the year.
Sorry your year has been so crazy. Enjoyed these. I plan to try Milkman on audio and now I’ll be thinking about the language.
>13 AlisonY: I don't remember there being much slang - it's more that there are a lot of words that the narrator never uses (British, Irish, paramilitary, loyalist, republican etc) - sometimes she uses another word (eg the republicans are called 'renouncers') and sometimes she just talks around it.
8. The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker
In The Cauliflower, Nicola Barker applies her trademark experimental style to describing the real life of Sri Ramakrishna - drawing on a lot of the existing texts about his life, his worship and his character.
I am a big fan of Nicola Barker - but I have to say this is not what I expected. It took me a long time to realise that it was her take on a true story, and I spent quite a lot of the book expecting the story to go in a particular direction - which it never did. In fact there is not that much story - if I was going to summarise the book, it basically said 'there was this guy and he had these crazy effects on the people that knew him'. And I am not at all interested in religious belief or mysticism, so learning about Ramakrishna's life was not that gripping for me.
That said, I did enjoy reading this, because I love Barker's deconstructed style so much. It's like a cubist picture - glimpses of Ramakrishna from many different perspectives - with a lot of direct addressing of the reader - and short poems/haikus, as you can see here:
9. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
A historical novel about the unlikely alliance between a hard-working shipping merchant and a high-class prostitute, in Georgian London. One morning, Jonah Hancock's ship's captain returns to London, not with a ship full of goods to trade, but with a mermaid. Hancock is horrified at the loss of his entire investment, but decides to exhibit the mermaid and becomes a sensation. This briefly takes him into high society, where he meets Angelica Neal, trained by one of the most celebrated brothel owners in London, who has unsuccessfully been trying to go her own way. Seeing Hancock as a prudish joke, she demands that he gets her a mermaid of her own - a request that he takes seriously.
There is plenty in this book that I could have liked. In particular, the descriptions of Georgian London are vivid and tactile, and there is a lot of wit in the writing. But there is a central development in the plot (
There is an interesting theme about being a person between two worlds - like the mermaid, both Hancock and Angelica don't quite belong where they have ended up. And both of them, individually, are charming characters. But in the end I found this a pretty frustrating read, as it was almost so much better.
Owing to the rain it is unlikely that many birds are abroad, but perhaps a crow has just crept from the rafters of Mr Hancock’s house, and now fans out its bombazine feathers and tips its head to one side to view the world with one pale and peevish eye. This crow, if it spreads its wings, will find them full of the still-damp breeze gusting up from the streets below: hot tar, river mud, the ammoniac reek of the tannery.
10. Gnomon by Nick Harkaway
Well. How on earth to describe this book? We are in a future, mass surveillance society. A woman, Diana Hunter, has died under interrogation - which in this world means the authorities taking a recording of what is going on inside your brain. An investigator, Mielikki Neith, is called in - not to work out why it happened, but to decide whether the interrogation was justified - whether Hunter was in fact a dangerous subversive or whether she was just an old-fashioned person who wanted to avoid surveillance. Her investigation takes the form of viewing the recordings of Hunter's thoughts - but viewing is too simple a word, when you watch a recording like this, it is immersive, as if you are experiencing all these things yourself. And Hunter, in her desire to resist interrogation, has created multiple narratives within herself, all of which Neith viscerally experiences. Neith has to remember who she is, while trying to make sense of the puzzle the multiple narratives create, and work out how on earth this diminutive old woman had the strength of will - or could it be the training? - to project such well-developed alternative narratives while undergoing the procedure of interrogation.
Or to put it more briefly: like a book form of the film Inception.
A hugely ambitious piece of work, and Harkaway probably pulls it off - but it takes a great deal of concentration and persistence from the reader. I think I basically lost track of what was happening about two-thirds of the way through, partly because the book is so long that unless you are reading it on holiday or something, where you can give it several hours a day, it's difficult to connect the details in the different storylines and assemble a coherent picture. (I was also a bit disappointed that we didn't spend more time in the 'now' of the story, the surveillance society, which I found quite clever and interesting - particularly the element that everyone contributes to surveillance by flagging and tagging anything they see which is worthy of note).
The odds, therefore, are negligible that we live in the origin universe, and considerable that we are quite a few steps down the layers of reality. Everything you know, everything you have ever seen or experienced, is probably not what it appears to be. The most alarming notion is that someone – or everyone – you know might be an avatar of someone a level up: they might know that you’re a game piece, that you’re invented and they are real. Perhaps that explains your sense of unfulfilled potential: you truly are incomplete, a semi-autonomous reflection of something vast.
>16 wandering_star: I just came across mentions of Nicola Barker in Ali Smith's Artful a couple of days ago, and it's got me curious to read something by her, though I'm not quite sure where to start. Looks like it shouldn't be with The Cauliflower. Is there any particular book you'd recommend?
>18 wandering_star: I've been meaning to read Gnomon for a while and your review makes it sound really intriguing. I need to try and get to that one.
>20 valkyrdeath: Good question. I think her best book is Darkmans, but it's definitely not her most accessible - it's 800+ pages and for a lot of the time the reader has no idea what's going on. I remember thinking that reading it was like riding a ghost train with its brake cable cut - hurtling through crazy surroundings with an occasional lighting flash to let you see what's going on. If that doesn't sound appealing, maybe Five Miles from Outer Hope? That's shorter, and a milder version of the style she uses in Darkmans, so it could be a taster.
>21 wandering_star: Thanks! Darkmans was the one I'd been looking at mainly, and I'm definitely curious, but I'm noting Five Miles from Outer Hope too now and I may be more likely to get to that one first given the length.
The Skills: From First Job to Dream Job - What Every Woman Needs to Know by Mishal Husain
I skimmed this, which is why I haven't given it a number (it doesn't count towards the year's reading). Mishal Husain is a journalist working for BBC World TV, and the book is pitched as a self-development book for women in the workplace. It is an odd mix - to me, it read like the notes made for a self-help book, which didn't go through the final edit/polish to make it 'self-help'-y - by which I mean, lots of practical takeaways and checklists etc. So you get a lot of statistics and qualitative evidence about some of the challenges for women in the workplace - from the system and from within themselves - and stories about how Husain or people that she has interviewed respond to them. Maybe that's better than a self-help book which is written to be heavily marketed, and which doesn't give credit to the other people whose ideas have helped to form it. But the bigger problem I had is that so little in this book was new to me. Does anyone really not know about women and imposter syndrome, about negative stereotypes which hamper women in the workplace, about the gender pay gap? And the advice didn't contain new insights either. Build resilience by focusing on what went well, not what went badly. Listening is as important as action. And so on. I really wanted to like this book but I have only saved a handful of paragraphs into my notes.
Malala told me she tries to keep the criticism at a distance. ‘I think it’s very healthy to keep yourself away from negative thoughts and comments, but it is reality that they will come your way. If it is fair criticism that does make sense and is justified with reasons, then look at it and check if you are on the right track.’ But she is also determined not to allow any negativity to hold her back. ‘There are people who won’t accept you even if you are an angel. If you get lost in thinking about that, you will lose focus on your key goal and your key aims.’
11. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Ayoola summons me with these words - Korede, I killed him.
I had hoped I would never hear those words again.
That's the opening to this novel, set in Nigeria. Korede, our narrator, is a hardworking and conscientious nurse. She frequently finds herself cleaning up after her sister, who is her polar opposite: beautiful and irresponsible - including in several cases where men close to Ayoola have ended up stabbed to death. She does it because she is the older sister and she has to look after her younger sibling. But then one day she finds Ayoola flirting with the man that she herself is secretly in love with...
Great set-up, but I felt that having got to that point, the book shied away from really making the most of it. It seems to me there are two possible ways of explaining Ayoola's behaviour -
Because of this I found the book basically pretty insubstantial, and disappointing to read.
12. How to be Famous by Caitlin Moran
The second book in a series (although I didn't realise this when I started it) about Dolly Wilde, a young woman the outlines of whose life have a lot in common with Moran's own (semi-feral childhood in Wolverhampton, moving to London in her mid-teens to work as a music journalist).
It's an entertaining mix of roman-a-clef set in the world of Britpop, and a feminist cautionary tale. For the first part of the book I enjoyed the writing about living in London in those heady years - both the stories which presumably are Moran's own (eg seeing a member of Blur reading a bad review of his own band while sitting in a laundrette) but also the descriptions of what it felt like then:
Britpop songs "…are about the simple brilliance of life in Britain: football in the park, booze in the sun, riding a bike, smoking a fag, fry-ups in a cafe … They have turned everyday life into a jubilee. They have reminded us that life is - above everything else - a party. They have rewired the circuit board. And Britain has fallen in love with this simple promise. To celebrate the everyday glorious. There is a sudden, tremendous hopefulness. All the news is good - the Berlin Wall comes down, Mandela is free, and Eastern Europe has walked out of the Cold War, and into the sunshine. There is a lot of sunshine. When I think back to that time, it feels like it was always sunny … Every week, the radio pumped out more treasure. Every weekend, there was some new, big, anthem to sing."
This then morphs into being about the misogyny of the music industry and of lad culture around that time, via the way that Dolly is treated by a stand-up comedian that she has a one-night stand with. But the book remains funny and uplifting, especially because of Dolly's friendship with an outspoken and outrageous feminist punk who is incredibly cutting, in a very funny way, about the various problems which beset them.
‘This is what will kill Britpop, in the end,’ Suzanne says darkly. ‘An inability to process or express any emotion more complex than, ‘Oi oi, saveloy! Nice tits! Bummer!’
Occasionally patchy but a highly enjoyable and satisfying read.
13. Force of Nature by Jane Harper
Two groups from the same company are on a team-building weekend in a remote wilderness area. One group fails to arrive at the destination on time - and when they do turn up, they are missing one member - and they can't explain exactly what happened while they were trekking through the bush.
The story of the search for the missing person - and the detectives unravelling the story of what happened - is interleaved with episodes from the walk, and we effectively see the tension rising within the team as they realise that they are lost in the impenetrable forest.
‘So we’ve been walking west the whole time?’ Beth said. Since we left the river?’
‘Christ. Yes. I already said.’ Alice didn’t glance up from her phone.
‘Then - ‘ A pause. ‘Sorry. It’s just - if this way is west, then why is the sun setting in the south?’
Every face turned, just in time to see the sun drop another notch below the trees.
This is the second thriller featuring detective Aaron Falk, who is an investigator into financial crimes. In The Dry, he got involved because the crime took place in his home town; in this one, he's involved because the missing person is a key witness in a major case he's working on. They both worked well, but I struggle to see how Harper can find ways to keep linking him into more bloody crimes!
I thought this was a really excellent, gripping thriller with just enough twists. I actually preferred it to The Dry and look forward to reading more of Harper's work.
14. Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
Dr Greta Helsing (recognise the surname?) runs a medical practice in London catering to monsters - "vampires, were-creatures, mummies, banshees, ghouls, bogeymen, the occasional arthritic barrow-wight." So it is she who first realises that someone - or something - is targeting London's monster community, in a nasty - and horribly effective - way.
This book was tremendous fun! I enjoyed the witty writing, the well-imagined magical/monstrous world, and above all the way that a motley crew of allies worked together to take on the nasties.
There had never been much doubt which subspecialty of medicine she would pursue, once she began her training: treating the differently alive was not only more interesting than catering to the ordinary human population, it was in many ways a great deal more rewarding.
15. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
In Part One of Warlight we meet two teenage siblings - Nathaniel and Rachel - living in London shortly after World War Two. Their parents have moved to Singapore for a year, sending them to boarding schools which they can't bear - instead they end up living at home, looked after by their lodger, a mysterious man who appears to operate in grey areas of legality - as do the succession of friends and acquaintances that the children come to know. Somehow, in the way of children, Nathaniel (our narrator) doesn't really question where his parents are or what they are doing - until a shocking ending to Part One makes us realise that something else is going on.
In Part Two, Nathaniel is older, and has dedicated much of his life to understanding what was actually happening during those earlier years. He reconstructs much of his mother's early life - but gaps and mysteries remain.
I found it a little hard to get my head around the structure at first, and work out what the book was really about. But all the way through I loved the writing - the atmosphere and that strange half-legal world that Nathaniel was growing up in.
"Warlight" is a description of the little light that was available to find your way around during the blackout - but it's also about the 'light' (or shadow) that the events of wartime cast over ordinary people for generations. And it's a metaphor for the tiny hints and pieces of evidence that Nathaniel can find to help him understand the truth of what happened. The book is about loss and mystery, family secrets, and the role of parents or those acting as parents in shaping a child's life.
A very interesting read.
I used to sit on the top level of a slow-moving bus and peer down at the empty streets. There were parts of the city where you saw no one, only a few children, walking solitary, listless as small ghosts. It was a tie of war ghosts, the grey buildings unlit, even at night, their shattered windows still covered over with black material where glass had been. The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself. It allowed one to be rule-less. Everything had already happened. Hadn’t it?
16. The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney
This is the story of Sophocles' Antigone, retold in English verse. I am avoiding the question of whether it's a translation or an adaptation - from what I have been able to find out, it's more of a translation than an adaptation, but Heaney worked from an existing translation rather than the original.
Before the play starts, two brothers died leading opposite sides in a civil war. The new ruler Creon decrees that one will be honoured as the rightful leader, the other will be treated as a traitor and his body will not even be buried. Antigone is the sister of the two dead men, and defies Creon to give her brother the burial rites.
Many years ago I read the Jean Anouilh version of this story, and in my memory at least, that play is one where your sympathies switch between Creon and Antigone. Antigone is fiery in her belief that she is doing what is right, and the personal duty of burying her brother properly is the most important thing. Creon argues that as members of the ruling family, they must do what is right for the state, and follow the law rather than their own preferences.
Because of this I was a bit disappointed by this version, where Creon is clearly not acting out of a desire for a wider good, and Antigone is clearly the sympathetic character.
Chorus: I see the sorrows of this ancient house
Break on the inmates and keep breaking on them
Like foaming wave on wave across a strange.
They stagger to their feet and struggle on
But the gods do not relent, the living fall
Where the dead fell in their day
Generation after generation.
Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career ed. Jocelyn K. Glei
Another skimmed book. It's made up of very short chapters, each by a different person and each with one idea about how to work better - a bit like reading a bunch of Harvard Business Review articles. It is aimed at people working in creative and entrepreneurial fields (which does not describe my workplace!) but I found the parts about how to develop your skills, build your network and challenge yourself reasonably useful.
Trying new things requires a willingness to take risks. However, risk-taking is not binary—you aren’t a risk taker or not a risk taker. You’re likely comfortable taking some types of risks while finding other types uncomfortable. You might not even see the risks that are comfortable for you to take, discounting their riskiness, while you are likely to amplify the risk of things that make you anxious. For example, you might love flying down a ski slope at lightning speed or jumping out of airplanes, and not even view these activities as risky. Or you might love giving public lectures or taking on daunting intellectual challenges. The first group is drawn to physical risks, the second to social risks, and the third to intellectual risks.
17. There There by Tommy Orange
The title of this book comes from the famous quote by Gertrude Stein about Oakland, CA - "There is no there there". The book is set in Oakland, among the 'urban Indian' community - Native Americans who no longer live in traditional ways. And so the title takes on a more poignant meaning - it's not just about a soulless city but about what a Native identity means in that context, away from the land and the traditional ways of living.
At first I thought this book was a collection of short stories, episodes in different people's lives - until I realised that the same narrators came back later in the book, and I could see the way that everyone's story was going to intertwine as they all attended the same powwow.
The characters all identify as Native in some way, but they all find that identity a bit challenged - whether it's because they don't 'look' Native, or they are mixed race and feel that they are out of touch with their traditions. There's also a reference to another 'There There' - a Radiohead song, and in particular the lyric, "Just 'cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there", which could I think refer to the way the characters feel unsettled about their identity.
One character secretly dresses up in someone else's powwow regalia, too small for him. He looks at himself in the mirror and thinks, I am dressed up like an Indian... a fake, a copy, a boy playing dress up. And yet - It's important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian.
As another character listens to a (real) band called 'A Tribe Called Red', he thinks, The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it's stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn't pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern?
This is the challenge that Orange has set himself - to tell a story about what it means to be Native American today, fully living in modern America. Really interesting.
18. The Poppy War by RF Kuang
Epic fantasy, set in a world which is clearly modelled on China, with some ancient and some modern elements. Our heroine is a young war orphan, whose family of opium smugglers want to marry her off to a middle-aged government official to ensure he'll turn a blind eye to their livelihood. The only way she can think of to escape is to win a place at the country's top academy, Sinegard, which teaches its students everything they need to run the empire.
I really, really enjoyed Part 1 of this book, which is focused on Rin's arrival at and experience of Sinegard. There are six faculties, from martial arts to diplomacy and history - and the baffling 'Lore', whose master behaves like an idiot among the other masters and doesn't show up for his students.
“I’m Lore Master,” Jiang said. “That comes with privileges.” “Privileges like never teaching class?” Jiang lifted his chin and said self-importantly, “I have taught her class the crushing sensation of disappointment and the even more important lesson that they do not matter as much as they think they do.”
It won't surprise anyone who knows anything about traditional Chinese beliefs that the Lore master actually has remarkable skills, but chooses not to use them within the system of the school. This sets up a beautiful tension between having power and deciding what to use it for.
Unfortunately the rest of the book - in which the country descends into war - throws away this tension, stacks the dice on one side of the equation and just becomes about fighting. So overall, I can't recommend it.
19. My Lot is a Sky: an anthology of poems by Asian women, ed. Melissa Powers and Rena Minegishi
I bought this at an indie bookshop/publishing house in Singapore called Books Actually. They put out a call for commissions for this anthology, so I think that not all of the poets are published elsewhere.
This was one of my favourite bits - from "Not a Dinner Party" by Sherry X Sun (about her parents being sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution):
Exiled to the farthest fold
of the Loess plateau, four fragile hands
born to flourish pens and flick scalpels
hefted rakes that fell
like guillotine-blades on dead river-beds
where the only things that grew
against sunburnt skin.
20. The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
You've heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel, of course. But perhaps you don't know about one of his successors, the Pink Carnation? Eloise, an American graduate student in London, has made it her mission to find out, and one day she stumbles on a fabulous cache of papers...
This is a historical romance, not usually my sort of thing, and I could have happily done without both the romantic parts of the Pink Carnation part, and the really unnecessary frame story (although I think Eloise's story develops through the rest of the series). BUT even so I just found this tremendous fun, a charming romp of historical derring-do and engaging characters. I won't be continuing with the series, but I did enjoy reading this one.
Edouard bowed himself out of the presence of the Bonaparte ladies to chat with some acquaintances, and Amy was about to do likewise, minus the bowing and the acquaintances, when someone cleared his throat behind her. Amy instantly knew just whose throat the sound had issued from. A strong, sun-browned throat she had once seen tantalisingly displayed by an opened collar and loosened cravat. The skin on her arms prickled and her neck ached with the pressure of not turning to look. Oh, blast the man, couldn’t he have even left her a moment to gloat over her good fortune?
21. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
A couple of years into a young couple's marriage, one of them is wrongfully convicted and sent to prison for 12 years. I don't want to say too much about what happens after that, except that this book shows you the same story through several different eyes, making you ache for the plight the couple and those around them find themselves in, and showing you how people might behave in such an extreme situation. Beautifully written, and moving.
'It's not about fault,' I said. But of course there was that nagging voice insisting that being with Celestial was a crime like identity theft or tomb raiding. Go get your own woman, it scolded me in Roy's voice. Other times it was like my father reminding me that 'all you have is your good name', which should have been a joke coming from him. But alongside all the clutter in my head was my grandmother's advice: 'What's for you is for you. Extend your hand and claim your blessing.' I never told Celestial about the voices, but I'm sure she hosted a choir of her own.
>37 wandering_star: I like the art a lot. I'll have to keep an eye out for that one.
>40 RidgewayGirl: I think it's because I often get stuck when I'm not sure how to review a particular book. Once that 'log-jam' is cleared, I feel on a roll!
23. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The first sentence of this book is, "He left the boy outside its own front door". Coming back to this having read the book, I realise it's a significant sentence in two ways.
First of all, it's very stylistically bold to start a book with a sentence which is so puzzling. How can a 'boy' be an 'it'? As it turns out, Ryan (the subject of the sentence) is going into his house with a girl, to have sex for the first time. He is thinking that this will make him a man. So what he is leaving outside the front door is his boyish self - and as soon as he has done that, it's behind him. It's not a person but an inanimate object, hence the 'it'. So that tells you one thing about the book - McInerney has worked on the language until it is compact and powerful - but as a reader, you're going to have to work a bit.
I also think it's stylistically significant, because what it is to 'be a man' is one of the subjects of this book. Young Ryan, so endearing as he crosses the threshold with his girlfriend, develops into a petty criminal, and has to show the world he's a man in other ways. There were more out there like Ryan Cusack, boys half Jimmy’s age for whom reputation was a thing to be taken from someone else. His story is interleaved with many others from the desperate, depressing underworld of the city of Cork - people struggling to get by, living in any way they can, to whom no-one in authority pays any attention until it is too late to help them. People who are trapped in patterns of history, patterns of family or other things you can’t escape.
That makes the book sound more depressing than it actually is - there is a humour and a humanity to the relationships which leaven the bleakness a bit. But only a bit!
I am not sure if this is a recommendation. There were definitely things I liked a lot about this book. But I don't plan to seek out McInerney's other books.
Maureen wasn’t moving but to bring cigarette to mouth. She stared out across the lawn, serene as a cud-chewing cow. Just the right demeanour for the city’s newest reaper: taking the scythe in her stride. Jimmy hadn’t met many new murderers who weren’t bent double by the aftermath, who didn’t puke on their shoes as an epilogue.
24. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett
When Rose discovers she is pregnant, she knows that she cannot stay in her uninspiring marriage. She persuades her priest to give her the address of a home for unwed mothers, asks him to tell her husband that she is gone, and gets behind the wheel of her car. When she arrives at St Elizabeth's, she tells the Mother Superior that she was married but her husband died - but this is what every girl who arrives at St Elizabeth's says, so the nuns assume she is unmarried and think no more of it. Rose intends to give her child away and move on, but after one girl gives birth in the home, she decides that she cannot do that, and she ends up staying on at the home, working in the kitchen as her young daughter grows up.
There are all sorts of lies in this book - the lies the girls tell when they arrive, to explain their condition - the white lies told by one nun who can read the future of the unborn babies - Rose's own lies of omission about her previous life. None of them are badly intentioned - but some of them ripple through the world with unintended consequences.
To be truly brave, I believe a person has to be more than a little stupid. If you knew how hard or how dangerous something was going to be at the onset, chances are you'd never do it, so if I went back I would never be able to leave again. Now that I knew what leaving meant.
25. Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
In the first words of this novel, the famous Brazilian novelist Beatriz Yagoda climbs into an almond tree, taking a suitcase with her. A few days later, her American translator is telephoned by someone who urges her to come to Brazil to find Beatriz (because she is no longer in the tree). Raquel hurries to do so, but when she arrives in Rio she discovers that the man who called her was not a friend or family member of Beatriz' but in fact a loan shark to whom Beatriz owes a lot of money.
This was an easy read, but a fairly insubstantial one. There are hints that Beatriz' disappearance can be solved through clues in her books (for example, the climb into the almond tree is a reference to something which happens in one of her books), just as there are subtle little jokes about the nature of translation, and about the world of publishing. But there isn't enough emotional weight for anything in the book to feel meaningful.
In translation, this kind of dilemma was known as domestication. A translator could justify moving around the objects in a sentence if it made it easier for her audience to grasp what was going on. She could even change an object into something more familiar to the reader to avoid baffling him with something he wouldn't understand. It often occurred with food - with a fruit, for example, that the reader wasn't likely to recognise and therefore whose sweetness he could not imagine.
26. The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst
After seventeen years in prison for killing a young woman, a man is able to demonstrate that a key piece of evidence against him was falsified. Chief Inspector William Wisting was the lead investigator on that case, and so he is suspended pending inquiries into what happened. Wisting wonders how the evidence can have been falsified, and so he starts a bit of digging of his own. At the same time, another young woman has disappeared...
THis is the first William Wisting mystery I have read, and I enjoyed it. (And how refreshing to read a Scandi crime novel which doesn't feature a depressive alcoholic detective and doesn't have an immigration theme!)
27. The Wall by John Lanchester
In a future Britain, climate change has led to rising sea levels and increasingly desperate people trying to cross the seas to safety. As a result, a massive wall has been built around the coast, and every young person has to take a turn at guarding it. We follow Kavanagh, a new Guard, as he starts on the Wall for the first time. The Guards are told that the 'Others' are constantly looking for breaches so that they can come in: and they learn too that for every Other who gets across, one of the Guards will be put out to sea.
Although the book is well-written and the story kept me turning the pages, I found this book disappointing. I think it's because I enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy, and in particular I like the world-building elements of those genres. So when I'm reading about this kind of dystopian future, I expect/hope to keep getting glimpses of the world the story is set in, and the kinds of changes to daily life that the big background change has brought about. There wasn't much of that here - the Guards, the Others, and a bit of intergenerational rage (because the parents of the Guards generation not only never had to work on the Wall, but their behaviour led to the situation the world is now in). So I missed that richness of the world-building.
Home: it didn’t just seem as if home was a long way away, or a long time ago, it actually felt as if the whole concept of home was strange, a thing you used to believe in, an ideology you’d once been passionate about but had now abandoned. Home: the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Somebody had said that. But once you had spent time on the Wall, you stop believing in the idea that anybody, ever, has no choice but to take you in. Nobody has to take you in. They can choose to, or not.
28. Family Album by Penelope Lively
The Harper family grow up in a sprawling Victorian house. Alison is an earth mother (six children!) and seems not to notice that her husband Charles appears to do everything family-related on sufferance. And why is Ingrid the au pair still living there now that the children are growing up? Eventually all six children grow up and scatter around the world, but occasionally they think back to formative events in their childhood, or try and explain their family to their significant other. And that's this book - a series of snapshots which eventually explain the Harpers' life, but also how each of us sees our history in a different way. A perfectly enjoyable read but not very memorable.
Alison is merrily indignant. 'Things aren't meant to go right at weddings - that's part of the fun. It was a lovely day, wasn't it?' She beams up at Charles, who is wearing what his offspring recognize as his expression of contained endurance. It is his Christmas expression; they know it well. He inclines his head in reply to Alison, which might mean anything.
29. The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu
Chapter One: Five girls and their camp counsellor kayak off towards an overnight camping on a remote island, to something which the story's foreshadowing tells the reader will be a terrible experience for them. Then, unexpectedly, the next chapter tells us the life story of one of the girls, from immediately after the camp until adulthood. And that's the structure of the novel: interleaving the story of what happened on the island, with each girl's life over the next twenty years or so. Packing a couple of decades into a chapter means that the stories are told in rather a superficial way and there doesn't seem to be an overarching theme - some of them are more affected by the experience than others, a couple of them meet up again as adults but don't talk about the island.
Everything Siobhan was wearing was brand new: a black fleece she’d chosen for its silver heart-shaped zipper pull, her first pair of hiking boots, even her underwear. She felt a thrilling, terrifying dissolution of self. She was far from her parents, her classmates, anyone who had ever known her. She was curious to find out who she would be.
30. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
This book tells the story of Merlin, from boyhood up to the time when King Arthur was conceived. It sets him in the original time his story was first written about - not the early medieval chivalric period with which we often associate the Arthurian legends, but the fifth century, the Romano-British world.
This is a period which I find really interesting - partly because it was the time when Christianity was taking over from the old religions, and partly because I'm fascinated by the idea of people living in the ruins of advanced technology that they no longer understand - and indeed the young Merlin picks up a lot of information about what is going on at his grandfather's court by spending time under the adults' feet, in the no-longer-used hypocaust which used to heat the floors when the house was a Roman villa.
Stewart's approach to Merlin's powers is interesting too - there is no magic and nothing supernatural happens, but he has visions and sometimes speaks things which become true - although as his power grows there is always the question whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy (as when he prophecies a victory for one side in battle, and the other side lose heart). I enjoyed seeing how she described the things which happened which gave rise to the myths and legends about, for example, finding two dragons fighting, or turning King Uther into the likeness of another man so that he could visit his wife in secret.
All of this made the book a bit more than just a gripping read, although it was that too.
I looked up, and nodded. “You know about him.” It was a conclusion, not a question. “I know he is a priest of the old religion. Yes.” “You don’t mind this?” “I cannot yet afford to throw aside valuable tools because I don’t like their design,” he said. “He is useful, so I use him.
>51 wandering_star: I haven’t read anything by Mary Stewart in many years, but your review brought back fond memories.
>51 wandering_star: I think Colleen and I are of an age - I was just going to say the same thing. I probably read all Stewart's books "back when" and loved them.
31. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
A couple of years ago, this was made into the film Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Either the adaptors did a great job of capturing the mood of the book, or I have a very strong residual memory of the film, because for a lot of the time reading this, I could feel the same atmosphere as I felt in the film - an elegiac feeling and a lot of non-primary colours.
For anyone who missed the film, the story is that a young sales clerk, Therese, is befriended by a glamorous, wealthy middle-aged woman, who turns out to be going through a divorce. Their friendship quickly becomes something more and the two head off on a road trip - although they cannot escape cleanly from the social conventions of the time.
One of the conventions is really brought home to the reader through the character of Richard, Therese's sort-of boyfriend, who is absolutely monstrous in the most mundane way - they have slept together, and so even though Therese now refuses to sleep with him and spends as little time with him as possible, Richard is limitlessly confident that everything will be resolved when (not if) they are married. At one point, after she has left on the road trip with Carol, he sends her a telegram which starts: I HAVE NOT CHANGED. NEITHER HAVE YOU.
But there were other days when they drove out into the mountains alone, taking any road they saw. Once they came upon a little town they liked and spent the night there, without pajamas or toothbrushes, without past or future, and the night became another of those islands in time, suspended somewhere in the heart or in the memory, intact and absolute. Or perhaps it was nothing but happiness, Therese thought, a complete happiness that must be rare enough, so rare that very few people ever knew it.
I’ve enjoyed catching up with your thread. I’m a fan of Jane Harper, too, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the third Aaron Falk novel (the Australian friend who originally put me on to them by passing on the first is coming to stay next weekend, so if I’m lucky she’ll pass on the new one; I know she just read it). My sister went on a team-building camping trip just before Easter. I tactlessly recommended Force of Nature, but then had a re-think and suggested she wait until afterwards (it was just outside Leicester, though, so how bad could it get?)
Milkman was already on my wishlist, but you’ve really made me want to read it. Likewise Warlight.
>55 rachbxl: Brilliant. But even if the external environment is gentler, who knows what's going on within the office politics...
32. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the story of the fall of Troy, narrated by Briseis, once a queen, later Achilles' "prize", awarded to him for the way he fought when sacking her city. If you know the story of the Iliad, you are probably aware of the storyline which her character precipitates, although you may not remember the role she plays (I didn't).
The part of the story I remembered was that Achilles fell out with Agamemnon and stayed sulking in his tent for several days, during which time the battle turned in the Trojans' favour. Achilles' close friend Patroclus fights - and is killed - in Achilles' armour, and Achilles' grief is so great that he returns to the battlefield and kills Hector. I had forgotten that the reason for the argument was Agamemnon demanding that Achilles give him a slavegirl, Briseis.
As a slave, captured in war, Briseis has no say in the matter, of course, and is not even told that others are making a decision about her life. But even when she was a queen, she lived in a society where women were told that they should keep silent, where their views and preoccupations were ignored.
"...in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see out battles - or they prefer not to."
And so, very few women play an active part in the stories which have come down to us - a second silencing. Pat Barker however has done a fantastic job of reimagining what it would actually have been like to be there, living through the events which make up these epic narratives - whether those are the big events like the invasion and destruction of your home, or the day-to-day life of women who are trying to survive their time in the enemy's camp.
Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
I just don’t know how you could do that.
Well, no, of course you don’t. You’ve never been a slave.
(Interesting though that this is still Achilles' story. The grief he experiences at Patroclus' death is more vivid and moving than the sack of Briseis' city, the death of her husband and brothers.)
33. Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald
Florence, the 1950s. Young, aristocratic Chiara falls head over heels in love with Salvatore, an older man, after a chance meeting at a concert. He also falls in love with her - but where she is naive and enthusiastic, he is constantly troubled by how other people perceive him, and spends a long time trying to second-guess the way that he is feeling. As if that wasn't complicated enough, various family members and friends try to help them out, in increasingly counterproductive ways.
Not a huge amount of plot, but a great pleasure to read. Chiara is half-English, which enables Fitzgerald to make some very funny points about the way that the British and Italians see each other. But this is just one element of the poignant comedy of misunderstanding that pervades the novella.
To Chiara I did talk about it. I told her almost everything about myself. Marriage is like the second stage of drunkenness in that respect.
If I dislike a book, normally I just stop reading it. Mostly I think 'this is not for me' rather than thinking it is a bad book for everyone. But I loathed The Bone Clocks so much that I feel compelled to talk about it here.
Basically the story is that there is some sort of supernatural struggle going on, and every dozen years or so, the struggle erupts into the life of a woman called Holly. So each section of the book is several years apart, narrated by a different person, and a combination of naturalistic real-life story interrupted suddenly, and often violently, by the supernatural elements. (This is the case for the first four timelines - which is where I gave up). This is a really clever idea and could have been brilliant - I love this sort of intricate, nested storyline.
In the first timeline, Holly runs away from home, has a couple of supernatural encounters which are wiped from her memory, and winds up picking fruit on a farm until she discovers that on the day that she ran away, her beloved younger brother also disappeared. I liked this timeline.
In the second timeline, Holly is a young woman, working at a ski resort. The narrator is a young man, there with rich friends, who falls for her - but at the same time, the supernatural forces are trying to win him over. There were clunky bits of this, but I was still pretty invested in the story, and curious to see where it would go.
In the third timeline, Holly is married with a young daughter, and the narrator is her husband, a journalist temporarily back from Iraq to attend a family wedding. He finds it hard to make the adjustment from the brutality and poverty he sees everyday to the frothy frivolity of a wedding - so we get multiple flashbacks to Iraq. These are incredibly long and contain every cliché of a war zone. I ended up skipping reading them, because it was so obvious where they were going, and because I hate it when books keep on hitting you over the head with the same message instead of trusting you to work it out for yourself.
In the fourth timeline the narrator is a writer of literary fiction, who keeps being at the same book festivals as Holly (who has now written a bestseller about her brother's disappearance). So now instead of war-zone clichés, we have clichés about the literary life. The final straw was when this narrator paraphrased some of the critiques of his work and they are obviously deliberately also criticisms which could be directed at The Bone Clocks. So self-indulgent.
Truly, dear reader, I could weep. Kingsley Amis boasted how a bad review might spoil his breakfast, but it bloody wasn’t going to spoil his lunch. Kingsley Amis lived in the pre-Twitter age, when reviewers actually read proofs and thought independently. Nowadays they just Google for a pre-existing opinion and, thanks to Richard Cheeseman’s chainsaw massacre, what they’ll read about my comeback novel is: ‘So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’
Bent on avoiding cliché, yet his old-buffer writer character addresses us as 'dear reader'.
At this point I checked out.
This has turned into a much longer review than I intended to write - although it's been a cathartic rant!!
I caught a book bullet on The Price of Salt. I've not seen the movie yet, but the novel sounds great.
I caught a book bullet on The Price of Salt. I've not seen the movie yet, but the novel sounds great (in the UK the book seems to be called Carol as the film is. I hate when a book has different titles in different geographies - it confuses me and the LT Touchstones no end!).
34. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
I bought this by mistake - the book I thought I was buying (a new story set in the world of the Ancillary Justice series) is called Provenance. So I was a bit confused at the start - especially as this is fantasy rather than science fiction! Once I'd worked it out, though, I could settle in and enjoy the story.
The novel has two interlocking storylines - the first is narrated by a god, who resides in a large stone, and is known as Strength and Patience of the Hill. This story starts in prehistoric times and goes through the emergence of humans and the start of their worship of the gods, before linking in to the second storyline, in which a young military officer returns to his home city to discover that his father, the ruler of the city, has disappeared under mysterious circumstances - the officer's uncle is now sitting in his seat of power.
This did not have anything like the complexity (in world-building or story structure) of the Ancillary Justice series, but it was an enjoyable read with some interesting and subtle points about loyalty, morality - and I also liked the element of this world about the interlinkage between humans, gods and power.
(I listened to the audiobook of this, read by Adjoa Andoh, who did a great job).
35. Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein
This is a memoir/book of reportage by an American journalist who worked as a crime reporter for a Japanese newspaper in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. It's a little bit gonzo, but also a fascinating insight into things like the relationship between crime journalists and the police: at the time, crime journalists were expected to build up close relationships with key detectives, by doing things like dropping by their house in the evening with ice-cream for their children or tickets to a baseball game! This part of the book answered some of the questions I had after reading Six Four, with its focus on the bureaucracy around crime-fighting. Adelstein becomes something of an expert on how the Japanese mafia or yakuza operates (this too was really interesting although may be out of date now as the yakuza are a declining force in Japan). Later on in his career, Adelstein comes to understand the dark sides of the sex industry in Japan (rather later than a female journalist would have, I think) and in the end becomes a campaigner against sex trafficking.
Adelstein is actually working for the Japanese-language media, pretty remarkable for a foreigner I imagine - his respect for and learning from some of his Japanese colleagues and counterparts is a nice element of the book.
I was learning a lot from Sekiguchi, most important that it's the time you take when it seems unimportant that is the most important time of all. Sekiguchi, whenever he put a yakuza in gaol, would always pay a visit to the guy's family. He'd check up with them periodically, sometimes even buy them groceries ... He never made the crime and the criminal a personal thing. He was doing his job, and they were doing theirs. The payoff for this extra effort was that when the yakuza returned to their lives outside prison, they were predisposed to leak information to Sekiguchi.
I think this must have been an LT book bullet (a long-ago one, since I got the book in 2012), as I can't think how else I would have heard of it. Anyway, thank you to whichever LTer recommended it.
36. The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe
A collection of essays and speeches. As always in this kind of book, the individual pieces are variable, but the real interest comes from the common themes, which here are twofold - the state of modern Nigeria at the time that Achebe was writing; and the impact of negative perceptions of Africa on the lives and self-perceptions of black people today. Achebe explains clearly how these perceptions of Africa were not "the result of ignorance" but deliberately played up to justify the slave trade and the colonisation of Africa. In the fifteenth century the kings of Congo and Portugal wrote to each other as equals and "royal brothers" (including the King of Portugal at one point defending the severity of Portugal's legal code, in response to a question from the king of Congo); in 1687 an Italian priest wrote "These nations think themselves the foremost men in the world. They imagine that Africa is not only the greatest part of the world, but also the happiest and most agreeable." And yet over two hundred years later, writing about Africans portrayed them as "gyrating and babbling savages".
Colonization may indeed be a very complex affair, but one thing is certain: you do not walk in, seize the land, the person, the history of another, and then sit back and compose hymns of praise in his honor. To do that would amount to calling yourself a bandit; and nobody wants to do that. So what do you do? You construct very elaborate excuses for your action. You say, for instance, that the man you dispossessed is worthless and quite unfit to manage himself or his affairs.
This dehumanisation and oversimplification leads directly to prejudices today. In another essay Achebe comments on a news report about fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The only background material the newscaster gave to flesh out the bald announcement of the fight was that Ethiopia and Eritrea were among the world's poorest nations. And he was off, to other news and other places, leaving me a little space and time to mull over the bad news from Africa. How much additional enlightenment did that piece of information about poverty give the viewer about the fighting or the fighters? Not much. What about telling the viewer, in the same number of words, that Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia until recently? But no. The poverty synecdoche is more attractive and less trouble; you simply reach for it from the handy storehouse of mythology about Africa.
I follow Adelstein on Twitter and when I was in Paris I stumbled upon his works translated in French but after reading your review I'm thinking maybe I should read his works.
>69 lilisin: I thought there were some pretty interesting cultural insights from what he wrote (although obviously you know Japan much much better than I do, so they may not be so new to you).
37. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
A slight change of pace with this one! Nimona is a teenage girl (all sass and mood swings) with shapeshifting powers who turns up at the home of supervillain Ballister Blackheart as his new sidekick. I should say, the castle of supervillain Ballister Blackheart, as this is a medieval universe (Blackheart and his nemesis wear knight's armour, and the village outside is full of half-timbered houses and peasants wearing homespun clothes) - although a medieval universe with science, and fridges, and banks. Nimona's modern teenageness and relish for mayhem make her a challenging partner for Blackheart, who has his own strong moral code. But what if the good guys turn out not to be so good after all?
38. After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun
A massive solar flare knocks out all electronic functioning in most parts of the world - so badly that it will take years to recover the capacity. The only space programme which remains functional is in Nigeria, which was turned directly away from the sun at the time of the flare. That programme is rapidly accelerated, with the goal of bringing back the one astronaut left behind in space when all the systems went down.
Kwesi Bracket, an African-American engineer, moves to Nigeria to oversee the construction of the water tank in which the trainee astronauts will simulate their space mission. Progress is slow, though, as he sometimes has to bribe suppliers to get him the parts that he needs, political support for the mission (and therefore the resources available) waxes and wanes, and after the discovery of an ancient artefact on the site, strange things start to happen to his staff. Hanging over the whole programme, too, is the gradual encroachment of a Boko Haram-like rebel group towards the research site.
I enjoyed this. The world-building was fun - from the way that the US declines into a few wealthy enclaves surrounded by stone age villages - to the animal-inspired tech from malware flies to gecko-phones (which clamber up walls to be closer to a source of solar power). The overall story was great, although to my mind it all got wrapped up very suddenly at the end, which was anticlimactic). The thing which had the most impact on me though was the combination of very high tech and a rebel/terrorist group which rejected all that and operated effectively with much more basic equipment. This was something of a paradigm shift for me. Of course in the future it's much more likely that technical development is unevenly distributed - but I don't think I've read a science fiction book which presented this so vividly before.
The Geckofone allowed you to alternate rapidly between multiple ethnic identities - Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, or even Ijaw and Ogoni - each isolated from the next identity at the root level, meaning that the tribes couldn’t be compromised by malflies, dumb microdrones that hovered around electronics trying to inject malware. The identities were more than avatars, since they changed the inflections of your voice and exaggerated your physical gestures too. It allowed for security and anonymity and in theory served as a defence against violence caused by tribalism.
39. Amateur by Thomas Page McBee
A memoir of a few months in Thomas McBee's life, as he - a trans man - trained for a charity boxing tournament. The chapter titles are a series of questions, from "Am I a real man?", "Am I sexist?" to "What's wrong with losing?" and "Why do men fight?"
Some really interesting stuff in here about masculinity and aggression - whether that's from McBee's own experience - eg about how his body put him into situations that his life history had not given him the training for (because he appeared to other men as a man and therefore someone to be challenged and stood up against) - or from his research about masculinity.
He quotes a paper about the difference between perceptions of masculinity in Denmark and the US - in Denmark, the opposite of being a man is being a boy. In the US, it's being a woman.
That is … where all the trouble starts. If being ‘feminine’ is the opposite of being a man, then many qualities that Americans associate with women (such as empathy, which shows up in boys as well as girls) are not just frowned upon, but destroyed in boyhood. “You’re only a man by not being a woman,” Way told me. “That’s basing someone’s humanness on someone else’s dehumanisation”.
Testosterone does not increase aggression - instead it increases the likelihood that someone would do whatever is needed to maintain his status in the face of challenge. In a situation where you need to be more co-operative, testosterone makes you more generous. But in those research studies, men who were actually given testosterone became more generous, but men who thought they were being given testosterone became more competitive and less effective.
One of the biggest things McBee has to learn as a fighter is to keep coming forward - rather than hanging back and waiting for the fight to come to him.
McBee also points out that the desire to fight comes not when a man feels strong, but when he feels that his position is challenged. I assumed that fighting for my right as a trans man to be seen as ‘real’ would be a big part of this story: but it quickly became clear that all men proving their ‘realness’ did so through fighting the policing and shaming of other men, sadly often by shaming and policing them back.
So - a lot of really interesting stuff here and I think it makes the book worth reading. I can't recommend it wholeheartedly though because I found the style rather wearing. There is quite a portentious style around the 'messages' in the book, the stylistic equivalent of slapping doomy music over the soundtrack when something important is about to happen. I don't think the book needs this - the messages are clear and effective on their own and don't need heavy underlining. But I am still glad that I read it.
40. What Could Possibly Go Wrong? by Jodi Taylor
This is the sixth book in a series about time-travelling historians who repeatedly manage to get into terrible trouble on their jumps back in time. I always enjoy them - and I think this was a good one. The last one I read felt a bit formulaic, but this one somehow didn't - perhaps because of the introduction of a new team of trainee historians, which changed the story just enough.
Before I could make my escape, Mrs Partridge appeared at my elbow and contemplated the scene before her. She said nothing in a manner that conveyed volumes. I said nothing in a manner that I hoped conveyed my complete innocence. She said nothing in a manner that conveyed her disbelief in my complete innocence. I said nothing in a manner that conveyed my hurt at this lack of trust in me.
41. Built on Sand by Paul Scraton
This is a novel about Berlin, and the way that its history is visible on its streets. The narrator (like the author) is not a native Berliner but someone who has moved there, and this is really a series of episodes about the people he knows and their relationship with the city. Some of them have personal history there - others create narratives about the city, through drawing idiosyncratic maps, collecting photographs, writing stories. The narrator (like the author) leads walking tours through the city.
There is a lot of information about the city here - from references to "Grunewald and its colony of villas, where Christopher Isherwood once taught English to spoiled rich-kids", to a description of the avenue of cherry trees which mark some of the route of the Wall (they were sent from Japan to celebrate the Wall's fall).
This makes a lot of sense to me - Berlin is the city I have been to which has the most public marks and commemorations and contemplations of its history. (Jerusalem has a lot of visible history too but it's not consciously laid out in the same way that Berlin's history is). The story of the place is interesting. But it's the only thing in this book - the stories of the people are all about their interactions with the city, and so there is nothing pulling the narrative forward, and this meant that it wasn't always easy for me to pick the book up again. I think this is a book to be read in small doses, by someone who wants to capture the sense of Berlin as a city.
'Have you ever sat at the window on a flight to Berlin?' he asked, after a moment's pause. It never failed to make him marvel, he continued, at the location of the city. Why had they built it there? Viewed from above, its existence made no sense. There was no coastline, no major river. It was part of no ancient trade routes of any consequence. From above, Hobrecht said, when you looked down at this place surrounded by lakes and forests, where the trees seemed to reach into the very city itself as if to remind everyone that they could retake this occupied ground at any moment, it was clear that this was somewhere that had simply been willed into existence. It was here because someone had wanted it to be. Nothing more, nothing less.
Great review of Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, Margaret. I also enjoyed it, and I'll write a review of it sometime this summer.
I've enjoyed catching up on your thread which I'd fallen way too far behind on. I'd been considering whether to read The Poppy War but I think I might give it a miss now, it sounds a shame that the rest of the book couldn't match up to the opening. Note for a War Story on the other hand sounds really good. I'm glad to see a good review of The Silence of the Girls too. And every time I see any mention of Nimona it makes me want to read it again, it's just so much fun. Lots of interesting reviews all round!
42. The Arab of the Future: Volume 1: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Riad Sattouf
A 'graphic memoir' (ie non-fiction graphic novel - but 'graphic memoir' always sounds wrong) about the early years of the author, half-Syrian and half-French, growing up in Libya, France and Syria. It's perfectly engaging but quite light. It may be because Riad was so young in these stories, perhaps the writer was emphasising his innocence and the odd details that he noticed. But I had been expecting something a bit more profound.
43. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
A beautifully written novel about the complex relationships within and between two families - headed by two very different women - the well-off and conventional Elena Richardson, and her tenant, Mia Warren, an artist who works only to support her art, and who is (slightly patronisingly) adopted by the Richardsons, who give her a job in their home. Two things serve to make the relationships even more complicated - the shifting alliances between Mia's daughter Pearl, the four Richardson children, and their mothers - and the locally controversial case of a baby who is on the point of being adopted by a new family, when her birth mother comes to claim her.
A lot to like in this book - the writing, the sympathy given to each character, the very believable way the relationships shift and change. I really wanted to see some of Mia's art! I also enjoyed the way that different metaphors around fire appeared in the book - sometimes it symbolises passion, sometimes destruction, and sometimes the clearing away of what's there to enable something new to happen.
That said, I am not sure that I would be tempted to read it again. There is a lot of interest in watching the story develop, but I don't think I would get more from it the second time around.
She would be famous someday, Pearl was certain; someday her adored mother would be one of those artists, like de Kooning or Warhol or O’Keeffe, whose name everyone knew. It was why part of her, at least, didn’t mind the life they’d always lived, their thrift-store clothes, their salvaged beds and chairs, the shifting precariousness of it all. One day everyone would see her mother’s brilliance.
To Moody, this kind of existence was all but unfathomable. Watching the Warrens live was like watching a magic trick, as miraculous as transforming an empty soda can into a silver pitcher, or pulling a steaming pie from a silk top hat. No, he thought: it was like watching Robinson Crusoe conjure up a living out of nothingness. The more time he spent with Mia and Pearl, the more fascinated he became with them.
44. The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
The second book in the series about King Arthur, following The Crystal Cave (reviewed in >51 wandering_star:). This book takes the story from the birth of Arthur, through his education growing up far from court, to the time that he is revealed as the true king.
Once again I enjoyed the way that Stewart thinks up situations which could really have happened (such as the finding of the sword from the stone). This was not as gripping as The Crystal Cave, and felt a bit like the penultimate film in a long series, where you are getting all the pieces in the right place for the grand finale. But I still enjoyed it and have downloaded the third in the series.
There, beyond the shining pool, the sword lay on its table. From the rock above a trickle of water had run and dripped, the lime in it hardening through the years until the oiled leather of the wrappings, though proof enough to keep the metal bright, had hardened under the dripping till it felt like stone. In this the thing had rested, the crust of lime forming to hide all but its shape, the long slenderness of the weapon and the hilt formed like a cross.
45. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
I think one of the reasons that Arab of the Future felt underwhelming is that it was so closely followed by this incredible graphic novel. Everything about it is remarkable and original, from the visual style to the moving and heartbreaking story. The style first - the narrator of the story is a teenage girl, and the book looks as if it's been drawn in a schoolbook, with the page lines and the binder holes showing through the artwork. Occasionally something else is pasted in - a note or a drawing from somewhere else. Karen (the narrator) loves horror comics and copies their gory covers - she also draws herself as a monster, with sharp teeth sticking out in an underbite, and a slightly Sendakian appeal.
Karen draws herself as a monster partly because she wants to be one - powerful and fearless - and partly because she is excluded by most of society, bullied by the other kids at school, and abandoned by the girl who used to be her closest friend and is now one of the school mean girls. There are other things in her life that she wants to escape from, too - her down-at-heel neighbourhood and the fact that her mother is dying. One of the ways that she escapes is through art, whether that's creating her drawings or visiting the museum with her talented, handsome, self-destructive elder brother.
Interwoven with all this is the story of Karen's mysterious upstairs neighbour, murdered at the start of the story, which inspires Karen to start investigating her life. She finds some tapes in which Anka tells her story - a young Jewish girl, growing up in 1930s Germany, sold into a brothel at an early age, and having to fight to survive.
There is an awful lot going here but I loved all of it. The only downside is that this stops part of the way through the story, and Book 2 is not out until late 2020!
>81 wandering_star: I'm glad to hear this one is good since I bought it a couple of days ago! The art, and the style of it in general, looks amazing. I'm not quite so happy to hear the story stops part way though, there was no indication of that when I bought the book. Now I'm not sure if I want to read it yet or wait for the sequel first.
>82 valkyrdeath: Tricky question! There are a couple of really big overarching questions which aren't resolved, but a lot of smaller ones which are. Personally I am still glad that I read this, even though the unfinished-ness is a bit frustrating. But I think when the second part finally comes out I am likely to read this one again before getting to the second part, so that the whole story is fresh in my mind.
>80 wandering_star: You are making me think about a re-read. I read these in the 1970’s. So many books I want to read.....
Just over here catching up. You are always reading such interesting books. I loved the review of the Achebe.
And glad to see another who has caught on to Jorn Lier Holst—I've read everything I could find, most recently The Katharina Code, late last year. One can tell that the author worked in the field. The other psychologically-healthy detective that comes to mind is Alex Gray's DCI Lorimer (although over the course of the 13 books I began to tire of some of the domestic content).
>84 NanaCC: - I know! I only keep books that I want to re-read but I rarely get to them. In fact when I am trying to purge my shelves, that's usually the place I start because there are books on that shelf which I don't really remember anything about. I don't know if this is the right approach - I kept them because immediately after reading them I thought they were worth re-reading, so perhaps the ones I've forgotten are precisely the ones I should try again!
>85 avaland: Thanks for the Alex Gray recommendation - I haven't heard of those before.
46. Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher
There is a huge genre of mystery/thriller books set in interesting historical time periods. I think the ones that work best are those where the historical context is mainly about daily life, and acts as a background to the story - rather than those which try and illustrate what's happening during that time period, where the book is trying both to be a gripping story and to cram in a lot of historical information (which by its nature is bigger and slower than the mystery part).
Babylon Berlin, which is set in the late Weimar Republic during the Nazis' rise to power, is an example of this kind of book. I've also just pearl-ruled (given up on) a book called The Sultan's Seal, which is set in the late Ottoman Empire and features the debates around the "Young Turks" reform movement.
Babylon Berlin is relatively successful at this as there is a *lot* of thriller - the detective is a Vice cop who spots something strange and starts trying to investigate a murder on the quiet, so you have a very decadent setting (because of his day job), plenty of violence and many twists and turns. But even so I didn't think it really integrated the two parts of the story well. It was an OK read but no more. (I think the TV series of the book might be a better option - it's unlikely that a TV series would keep in more of the historical background than necessary for atmosphere).
It was already dark when Rath reached Küstriner Platz, where even the street-lighting was dimmer than in the city or in Charlottenburg. It almost seemed as if the streetlights were ashamed of what they were obliged to illuminate.
47. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller
I bought this after enjoying the same author's Swimming Lessons, in which the story of a marriage was gradually revealed through the memories of the children and a series of letters written by the wife. In Bitter Orange, the story of a long-ago summer is gradually revealed through the sometimes rambling memories of an elderly lady, who appears to believe that she is talking to someone who was present but peripheral during the events she describes. In that long-ago late 60s summer, the narrator Frances had gone to a crumbling mansion to assess the garden fittings for the mansion's new owner (a wealthy American who bought it sight unseen). Also present are an attractive but troubled couple, Peter and Cara - Peter is there to assess the interior of the house.
There are lots of clues that all is not as it should be, within the marriage and within Cara's state of mind - but mousy, socially awkward Frances falls hard for the glamour and drama within their relationship. The reader knows too that something terrible is going to happen - but when the twist comes it is not only unexpected but unsatisfying. It turns out that
This book was an unhappy combination of lots of elements which I feel like I've read many times before, put together in a slightly unusual way that I didn't like! I don't think I will be seeking out any more of Claire Fuller's books.
We were all standing on the edge that day, at the very rim of the precipice, staring into the void. Something inside us wanted to see what it would be like to jump, just to find out what would happen, an actual physical lurch that seemed so possible, except we all knew that once we had jumped there would be no way back. I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.
48. The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey
Golden age detective fiction. Our detective, Alan Grant (who I realised after finishing the book is also the protagonist of The Daughter of Time, which I loved when I read it as a teenager) has been suffering from panic attacks, and has been forced to take a break from work as a result. He heads up to Scotland for some fishing, but his detective instincts make him idly curious about the backstory to a young man who dies on his overnight train - and eventually his digging yields interesting results.
It was Grant’s experience that it was the irrelevant, the unconsidered words in a statement that were important. Quite surprising and gratifying revelations lay in the gap between an assertion and a non-sequitur. Why had Lloyd said ‘On what?’ He took the problem to bed with him, and fell asleep with it.
49. Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister (The Official Companion to the BBC Series)
I spotted this available cheap for the Kindle, and snapped it up as I have been wanting to know more about Anne Lister since hearing a short outline of her life (she was a C19th minor Yorkshire landowner, best known for her diaries and relationships with women, which were both prolific). I am based outside the UK so haven't been able to watch the recent BBC series based on her life. The person who put the book together is clearly greatly interested in Lister, but unfortunately the book is just a summary of several years' worth of diaries - nothing about the wider historical context, key themes of Lister's life or anything a bit bigger than day-to-day events. At the same time, the summarisation is much less vivid and accessible than Lister's own words - every time the book includes an extract of Lister's diaries the page comes alive.
After dinner she sat down on the sofa. I asked her to put her feet up – ‘Yes – if you will put them up’. I stood by her and after looking for a moment as if I intended the thing, took this kiss to which she made no resistance, and I pressed her lips thrice – once with mine rather open or finding hers so. She merely joked and said she afterwards could not possibly close her lips again after this. It was all fun, and I took notice but sat a proper distance and quietly at her feet.
So - a missed opportunity. I would have preferred either something with a bit more analysis, or something with more of Lister's own voice coming through. I don't think there is a popular biography of Lister available, unfortunately.
50. The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy in which a motley group of people are able to travel between different times and places using maps. This includes mythical places - so the boat is lit by "sky herring" (from a Norse myth explaining the Northern Lights) and the crew have a very handy bottomless bag (from Welsh myth).
The crew make a living picking up things from one time and place which are hugely valuable in another time and place - but the ship's captain, Slate, has a long-term mission. He wants to return to a time before his beloved wife died, to rescue her from her fate. This is known to all the ship's crew, including Slate's daughter Nix. She wants her father to be happy but is uneasily aware that since her mother died giving birth to her, changing her mother's fate might mean ending Nix's own existence.
I *loved* this. The world-building, the characters, the story. Sweet but not saccharine, an easy read but with emotional depths. A lot of fun to read.
Those stars dimmed as we slipped into the Margins of the map, the slender threshold between one place and the next, where India in 1774 ran out and the next shore appeared. Mist rose around us like the souls of drowned sailors, and the only sound was the muted hollow music of waves moving along the hull. Everything seemed calm, but the seas in the Margins were unpredictable—the currents mercurial and the winds erratic—and passage was always rougher the farther afield we traveled. And, very rarely, there were ghost ships in the fog, captained by those who had found the way in, but not the way out. I rubbed some warmth into my bare arms.
>91 wandering_star: i am watching Gentleman Jack on BBC as it rolls out in series form and can confirm that it is an excellent and original programme.
>93 baswood: So glad to hear that, having had glimpses of Anne Lister's voice it would be terrible if her character didn't come through in the TV series.
51. Estoril by Dejan Tiago-Stankovic
The ripples of World War Two, as seen from its edges - in the lives of the guests of the Palácio, a grand hotel on the Portuguese Riviera. At the outbreak of war, the hotel sees the rich and aristocratic as they pass through Portugal on the way into exile or refuge in the New World. Later on people are coming for a short escape, or using neutral Portugal as the location to meet, let's say, interesting contacts (there are several real people featured in the book, including Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ian Fleming and a triple agent who may have been the inspiration for James Bond.
Of course, being a high-end hotel of the old school, the hotel treats all these guests with equal meticulous discretion. But the reader can work out what is happening in the war from the nature of the guests, and snippets of conversation. However, the episodic nature of the story, and the fact that the war is only there in the background, could make it rather emotionless, but for the character of a young boy, Gaby, separated from his parents at the border crossing into Portugal. He arrives early in the war with a suitcase of money and diamonds sewn into his clothes, and knows that he has to wait at the hotel until his parents arrive.
Sidestepping a request to relate a favourite story from his wartime days as the manager of the Palácio, he joked: ‘Please, don’t ask something like that of me. I’m so old that all I remember is what I’ve invented myself.’ He was not prepared to say more. It was useless to try to persuade him otherwise. Mr Black was a hotelier of the old school, whose ethics did not allow for indiscretion, even in retirement.
52. Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun
Another child whose life has been disrupted by WWII narrates Child of all Nations, but 9-year-old Kully has been displaced not by religious persecution but because her father is a dissident writer - and the biggest problems in her life stem from her father's fecklessness. He is a person of huge charisma and little sense of responsibility - he will run up a huge hotel bill, charm a casual acquaintance into lending him the money to pay for it, and then spend that money on buying drinks for all the friends and hangers-on he has acquired in that city. He gets his publisher to send him advances, then drinks instead of writing. There is an extended period in the middle of the book where he has told his publisher that the manuscript is ready (in fact it isn't even started) and so for weeks his wife has to keep pretending that she's come to meet the publisher and simply forgotten to bring the book with her.
This is such a good book. It's short and the writing is apparently very simple, and yet though Kully's eyes, we can see both the charm and irresponsibility of her father, and the heartbreaking way that Kully and her mother have to pretend that their lives are completely normal and fine.
When my mother and me went to collect my father at lunchtime, his eyes sometimes looked as if they had swum far out to sea and weren’t completely back yet. My mother and I are both very good swimmers, but my father’s eyes swim much further than either of us. Often he would send us away again, because he didn’t want to eat anything. A settled life makes it impossible for him to work, and the thought of it disgusts him. We only eat once a day, because that’s cheaper, and it’s perfectly adequate. I’m always hungry anyway, even if I eat seven times a day.
Keun was for a time the lover of Joseph Roth and apparently the character of the father in the book may be inspired by him.
I was trying to remember where I heard of this book, because I was so grateful for the recommendation. I think I may have seen it on instagram, so just the cover and a micro-review. I'm pretty sure I'd not heard of it other than that, which is such a shame - it should be a book that everyone knows about.
53. The Watcher in the Pine by Rebecca Pawel
Having had a grumble in >88 wandering_star: about the shortcomings of mysteries set in interesting historical time periods, here comes one to show how it should be done.
The setting is Spain in 1940. The Spanish Civil War is over but the repercussions aren't. A newly promoted police officer arrives in the village of Potes - much of the centre was destroyed by fire three years previously, and is being rebuilt by the "Devastated Regions Office", that is by Republican prisoners of war. Lieutenant Tejada arrives at a time of some crisis: a man from the village has disappeared, as have some escaped prisoners of war, and a number of supplies from the Devastated Regions store - including, worryingly, dynamite. But Tejada is treated with suspicion not just by the villagers (it had been a Republican stronghold) but also his new colleagues, who have read enough of his file to know that his wife Elena is herself from a Republican family and therefore highly suspect.
This works as a historical thriller because the thriller parts of the story are integrated with the history - and also shown through the relationships between the characters, in particular the slight tension between Tejada and Elena in the way that they automatically respond to the villagers.
Elena's face clouded as they turned back towards the ruined buildings. 'So little left,' she murmured. Tejada remembered reading that the fire that had devastated Potes has been set by the Reds. He felt that not pointing this out to his wife was an act of truly noble self-control. 'We'll rebuild it,' he said, emphasizing the 'we' a little more than necessary.
This is actually the third of a series of four books. I have the fourth, and am looking forward to reading it.
>96 wandering_star: " ... his eyes sometimes looked as if they had swum far out to sea and weren’t completely back yet. My mother and I are both very good swimmers, but my father’s eyes swim much further than either of us."
What an amazing quote and so haunting. I must look for this book. I would also say that whether or not the father's character was inspired by Joseph Roth, it certainly is apt for my idea of his torment.
Always enjoy your thread; there are so many paths here.
>98 SassyLassy: Yes, do! Having not heard of Irmgard Keun before except for the insta-photo of this book, yesterday I saw Ali Smith praising her:
The book that is most underrated
The writers I tend to remind people about, because I know the pleasure they’ll get if they haven’t yet read them, are the great Paul Bailey, the 1930s German writer Irmgard Keun, the new young Scottish writer Helen McClory and the mighty Helen Oyeyemi.
54. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The slogan "well-behaved women seldom make history" is a very famous one, but few know that it came originally from an academic article about ordinary women in early colonial New England. As an act of feminist historiography, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich had found a source which shone a light on unrecorded women's lives - funeral sermons celebrating the lives of pious (well-behaved) women.
Having watched her words take on a life of their own, Ulrich wrote this book to examine the truth of the slogan, touching on the lives of famous and not-so-famous women. There are three figures inspiring the book, all women who 'made history' in both senses - they are famous for what they achieved, and they wrote the stories of women. Christine de Pizan, 15th-century author of The Book of the City of Ladies, Virginia Woolf (and in particular her essay A Room of One's Own), and 19th-century activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Ulrich looks not just at women who became famous, but about what their fame or their history came to represent, and how this changed through time - for example, Joan of Arc becoming an inspiration for women from England, the country she fought so hard against - or the way that during the first Gulf War, when the UAE decided they needed to enlist women to bolster their small armed forces, history was pressed into service:
In a conservative Muslim country that seemed impossible until Sheikh Zayed gave Hessa al-Khaledi, the Emirates' first woman civil engineer, the job of persuading women to enlist. She appealed to history. Potential recruits learned that the Prophet Muhammad's own aunt was the first Muslim woman to kill a man in battle. The state reinforced the lesson by naming the new women's military academy for Khawla bint Al-Muhammad, who rode beside the Prophet in battle.
So there are lots of interesting snippets here. But overall the book is not what I was expecting. Rather than being about women's activism or women's resistance - and other ways to change the world - it is more about how women wind up in the pages of history books, which is a watered-down definition compared to the reaction I have when I listen to the slogan, and also so broad that the book loses a central thread.
I had not realised before that the slogan was so open to different interpretations (one particularly shocking reaction was reported by a woman who had the slogan on her desk - a passing man read it, frowned, pointed to a photo of a woman with a baby and said, "that's how women make history").
55. The Unexpected Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
From the sublime to the ridiculous in my reading! This is the first in the series of Mrs Pollifax novels and the second one I have read. It tells the story of how Mrs Pollifax - an unassuming, retired lady with grown up children and a series of unexciting social obligations - comes to be a spy for the CIA. Her strongest suit is the fact that she does not look in the least like an agent - so she is the ideal candidate for a job which should be low-risk as long as the Agency can find someone with no previous trail back to them. Of course, the job turns out to be less simple than expected, which is when Mrs P's other strongest suit - her tremendous resourcefulness - starts to come in handy.
Basically a cosy spy thriller, if you can imagine such a thing. And great fun.
Quietly, rock in hand, Mrs Pollifax rose from her cot, walked up to Major Vassovic and hit him on the head. To her utter astonishment he collapsed at once, falling to the ground to lie there like a suit of old clothes. "For heaven's sake," she said, staring down at him in fascinated horror. "Good girl," said Farrell, and reaching under the cot for his crutch he hobbled over the look at the major. "Out like a light." "I do hope I didn't hurt his back again," said Mrs Pollifax anxiously. "It was coming along so well."
56. Alan Partridge: Nomad by Alan Partridge (with Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Steve Coogan)
Audiobook, read by Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan)
For those who don't know him, Alan Partridge is a modern-day Mr Pooter (The Diary of a Nobody) - a man gloriously unaware of his own banality and limitations. He's a talk-show host, mainly on local radio but for a short and glorious time with a BBC show, heady days to which he is desperate to return.
Nomad tells the story of a walk that Alan is doing "in the footsteps of his father" - retracing what may have been a significant moment in his father's life - all the way from Norwich to Dungeness, a massive 155 miles. It's not a charity walk - and it's certainly not an attempt to get back on the telly and make a lot of money from spin-off merchandise, how could anyone think such a thing?
Normally I listen to audiobooks when I am out and about. I could not do that with this one because at times it made me laugh so much that I literally (and involuntarily) bent over and made honking sounds. True, it didn't stay at that high water mark all the way through, but the peaks were pretty good.
I don't think you would need to have heard or watched the radio/TV shows/film before in order to appreciate this.
I'll spare you the details, but what follows is a week of tense negotiation via both emails and shouting. I restate my desire to follow in the footsteps of my father, the station restates its desire to refuse, I threaten to call in the union, the station says that’s my prerogative. I remember that I’m not a member of a union and I hate unions. Finally, though, at the eleventh hour (or rather, the fourteenth hour, it’s 2 p.m.), an acrimonious compromise is hammered out. To wit, I am permitted to take the time off, but can do so only as unpaid leave and on the condition that I stop leaving so many ideas in the company suggestion box.
Catching up on your thread. Wow - some really great books / reviews. It's a shame Bitter Orange didn't live up to expectations. At the start of your review I was poised to add it to my Amazon wish list, but by the end I felt your disappointment so will give it a pass.
Some great reading going on here. I had to chuckle at your Mrs. Polifax comments. Those books make me smile, they are so silly and fun. Of course growing up in that timeframe may help me see the humor.
>102 wandering_star: ...because at times it made me laugh so much that I literally (and involuntarily) bent over and made honking sounds. This made me smile. I love it when a book makes me laugh out loud.
Oh, I didn't know there were books! Must look into that. I laughed very loudly watching Alan Partridge on a flight home from Europe to Vancouver one time. I'm sure everyone around me thought I was completely bonkers.
57. In the Garden Secretly, and other stories by Jean Arasanayagam
I actually started reading this (short stories from Sri Lanka) before the terrible Easter Sunday attacks. After those, though, and with the sad news of the reprisals (not just the things which got into the international media, but things like boycotts of Muslim-owned shops), it was particularly sobering to be reminded of the long history of inter-communal tensions.
Published in 2000, these short stories look at the impact of fear, and tension, and civil war on people's lives - whether those are a mixed family (like Arasanayagam's own) knowing that their neighbours are being burnt out of their houses, and wondering when the mob will come for them - to a Sinhalese airman explored a ruined house - to two Tamils travelling the difficult road through the war zone to family or work in the South.
War has its own distinctive language. A 'terrorist' is 'killed'. A 'soldier' 'sacrifices' his life. It's the eternal terminology, brought to fresh life in this current conflict. Who's to decide who is what, what is the difference between them? We're all groping blindly in the jungle, while day by day the war is carried deeper and deeper within, into our innermost beings. We too construct mazes within ourselves, tunnels through which our thoughts and feelings travel. Concealment and duplicity are now natural to us. We create our secret routes and travel through them, never emerging into the light of day.
58. Sand by Hugh Howey
A future dystopia where the world we know has been submerged by sand. It's a lawless, Wild West zone. Sand divers burrow down to salvage what they can from the cities below their feet - other citizens spend their lives keeping wells clear and watching as the constantly-blowing sand swallows up their houses. The story focuses on a family of talented sand divers, whose father disappeared over the horizon to the east many years ago. Every year, on the anniversary of his departure, his children gather close to no-man's land. At least, they are supposed to - but with times so desperate, they can't always make it. This year, the two eldest don't make it. The remaining two expected it of their sister, the most talented sand diver of all - but the eldest son is a no-show - his brothers don't know that he's been working on a very lucrative but dangerous dive. In any case, the second youngest son has determined he will walk into no man's land himself - but then a young woman emerges from no-man's land, sunburnt and dehydrated, claiming to bring news from their father.
The world building in this was great - well imagined, down to the multiple words for sand in different states, the metaphors ("you weren't given packed sand to walk across" = you didn't have it easy); and the technology which enables the old cities to be mined, at great danger to the divers. I liked the main characters and the relationship between them. The story though had two competing storylines - what's happening to the family (and the news of their father) and another story about what's happening in the struggle between different 'governing' forces, which appears to be background context until suddenly it comes right to the foreground and takes over the story. This was a bit unsatisfying and it meant that the storyline at the last minute took a sudden turn and then got wrapped up too quickly.
They were already scrambling for who might have title based on mineral claims, arguing and spilling beer on ancient maps. Rose had seen this play out before. There would be a frenzy of spending all the spoils one hoped to make. This would be followed by the lean times of those same gamblers asking for loans and handouts. People hardly took a breath between these extremes. It was the stagger home of a drunk who could hit every dune on either side as he lurched in a thousand paces what he might've crossed in ten.
59. The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath
Historical novel focused on the wife of Thomas Cromwell. The only thing I have to say about this book is that it was fine. Not cliched, but not particularly original. Not heavy-handed in its use of historical research but not light-touch either. A slap-bang in the middle, two-and-a-half-star read, with nothing to love and nothing to hate. The only thing is that of course it suffers in comparison, sharing a subject with one of the greatest historical novels ever.
As I lay down on my bed another tortuous pain gripped me. I climbed out again and stood clutching the edge of my oak coffer, waiting for the next pain to descend. Servants came running with the draperies and baskets of straw for my chamber. I was hardly aware as Mother and Cat and the maids hung linen drapery over the window, lit candles, thickly scattered straw over the floor. Mother drew the ominous-looking birthing stool she had brought from Putney from an alcove where I had concealed it under folded linen.
60. Reunion by Fred Uhlman
This remarkable novella manages to be about both the intensity of adolescent friendship, and the rise of Naziism, while keeping those two elements in balance. Our narrator, Hans, becomes very close friends with a new boy at school, the aristocratic Konradin. He feels immensely lucky in the friendship - everyone in class wanted to become Konradin's friend - and the two spend increasing amounts of time together. Hans realises one day, though, that he is only ever invited to Konradin's house when his parents are not there, and when confronted about this fact, Konradin confesses that his mother 'hates Jews' and that both parents are deeply unhappy about Konradin's friendship with Hans.
This episode - which takes place almost exactly half-way through the book - changes the friendship permanently. And as Konradin grows older and Naziism takes hold in Germany, the relationship mutates again.
A very powerful read.
When the Zionist mentioned Hitler and asked my father if this would not shake his confidence, my father said, "Not in the least. I know my Germany. This is a temporary illness, something like measles, which will pass as soon as the economic situation improves. Do you really believe the compatriots of Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Beethoven will fall for this rubbish?"
61. Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst
Severed feet are washing up on the beaches near Oslo - and they are all left feet. Could they have anything to do with a series of recent disappearances from a retirement home? Chief Inspector Wisting tries to puzzle the case out, at the same time as his daughter (a journalist) starts a series of interviews with people who are out of prison after serving sentences for murder.
A perfectly enjoyable, if slow-paced, mystery. I didn't think this was as good as the previous one I read by the same author though.
The material gathered was like a smooth surface, but Wisting knew that somewhere underneath there was darkness. It was always there, as it was everywhere. It was just a matter of scraping thoroughly.
62. Problems by Jade Sharma
Maya has problems. Yes. She's a junkie, trapped in a boring marriage with an alcoholic. She's having an affair and an eating disorder. She's not stupid - no, she talks about poetry and literature some of the time. But she is self-destructive, while all the time knowing that's what she is doing to herself.
I'm afraid I have little patience for stories of people making serially dumb life choices, unless there is something which lifts the subject matter - a writer who can make you feel sympathy for your main character, or (thinking of Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson) who is just a brilliant writer. Unfortunately Jade Sharma is neither. There were a few moments of good writing in this book, but mostly I found it a bit annoying.
Eating so little makes your taste buds restless. You crave salt, sugar, hot sauce, mustard, pickles. Your tongue wants to come out of retirement and be alive. Weird food combinations. Using a tomato to shovel spicy mustard into your mouth, and in between, a squeeze of honey. You are basically eating garbage.
63. Epileptic by David B
Another 'graphic memoir', this time about David B's brother’s severe epilepsy, his parents’ desperation in seeking a treatment, and the psychological impact of both of these on David himself.
This is a good example of what graphic novels can do that conventional prose books can't - there is a huge amount of symbolism in the way, for example, that David B pictures his brother's sickness as a monster, menacing not just his brother but the whole family. It's a very harrowing narrative, and the images make it even more disturbing.
64. Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes
Short stories, written and set during WWII. They are quick and enjoyable reads. At first they seem like light social comedies - but then you realise that they are much sharper than that. For example, many show people ironically thriving in wartime, when the danger gives them a purpose, or a way out of their loneliness. Middle-class women retain a stiff upper lip while readying themselves for their husband to leave for the front - only to break down when his shipping out date is postponed at the last minute. And the travails of taking in evacuees crop up in more than one story. Unfortunately the working-class characters are little more than clichés; but Panter-Downes still manages to imagine that they might be as uncomfortable being taken away from home and dropped into a middle-class home, as the homeowner is to host them.
Panter-Downes also wrote the "Letters from London" for the New Yorker for many years, and the story collection is topped and tailed with two of these essays, one from early in the war and one describing the strangely anticlimactic feeling of D-Day. She gives a really interesting and very direct perspective on a time which has been so much fictionalised by later writers.
He looked at her amiably, as though she were a nice sofa. That must be the penalty of the grey hairs, the tired shadows under the eyes, that must be the beginning of getting old. She had noticed it. Young men looked at you as though you were a nice sofa, an article of furniture which they would never be desirous of acquiring.
65. A Start in Life by Anita Brookner
I'm finding it hard to describe this book in a way that conveys what it's like. The plot? An academic in her forties (who would have been described as a spinster at the time) looks back at her childhood and early adulthood, during which her monstrously selfish parents, and her own awkwardness, effectively squashed any chance she had at happiness. That sounds incredibly depressing. But then to say that it's beautifully written, and that I frequently chuckled out loud while reading it, doesn't convey the poignancy of the story.
Perhaps this paragraph will show the way that Brookner balances irony/wit with a story of desperation. Ruth has set her eyes on Richard, a fellow student, and decided to invite him round to dinner as a way of getting to know him better. She can't imagine introducing him to her mother, so she moves out, and plans a grand evening - putting in far more effort than Richard will ever know or appreciate.
Here she reached the heart of her curious distress, for if this evening did not turn out well, did not produce some indication of future progress, did not in fact elicit some sort of plan from Richard, she was devoid of resource for making anything happen to them both in the future. She really did not see that she could take days off and spend her life perusing the Larousse gastronomique in the event of being able to proffer another, identical, invitation. She did not realise that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from. Her father, who could have told her this, did not.
66. The Silo Effect: Why putting everything in its place isn't such a bright idea by Gillian Tett
Gillian Tett is a business journalist (for the Financial Times), but she trained as an anthropologist, which as she says is a discipline which leaves a distinctive lens over your eye.
Wherever you go to work, you start asking questions about how different elements of society interact, looking at the gap between rhetoric and reality, noting the concealed functions of rituals and symbols, and hunting out social silences. Anyone who has been immersed in anthropology is doomed to be an insider-outside for the rest of their life; they can never take anything entirely at face value, but are compelled to constantly ask: why?
She brings this lens to the question of 'silos' in businesses - the way in which different parts of an organisation can fail to work together, because they identify or define the part of the organisation they are in as the most important unit. Her starting point is how the silos in banks, and also in financial regulators, was a significant factor in the financial crisis - the highly risky CDOs which led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, were classified by the banks in a category which meant that the senior management didn't really bother to look at them; and because much of the risk was from non-traditional banks and financial assets, the regulators didn't understand the scale of things either. She suggests that one of the things which finally enabled people to grasp what was going on was the invention of the term 'shadow banking' - which gave people a concept which brought the different pieces together, and terminology to talk about this concept in.
Tett also looks at the impact of silos - and some attempts to break them down - in organisations as diverse as hospitals and police forces as well as businesses like Sony and Facebook.
Interesting and an easy read.
67. Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy
A very detailed account of exactly what happened in the Chernobyl disaster. It starts with the political impetus to deliver rapid power development, which led to short cuts in the building of the reactor, and an environment where no-one was willing to raise any concerns about the plant's operation. It explains the sequence of events that led to the reactor explosion, and the response/clean-up operation - which for a long time did not understand how serious the incident had been, because everyone had been told so much that this kind of reactor couldn't explode, that they assumed that something else had happened (shades of some of the things that Tett wrote about in The Silo Effect). Finally there is a description of the political arguments around the evacuation from the disaster zone, which again led to people being put in danger which they could have avoided. And Plokhy argues that the Chernobyl incident had a key role in driving both the policy of glasnost and people's unhappiness with the Moscow government, which ultimately led to the fall of the USSR.
All this is very interesting but it is absolutely swamped in detail which is not. I don't need to know how many cubic metres of soil were dug out to lay the foundations of the power plant, or the past careers of all the Soviet officials who come into the narrative. A particularly bad example of this is that right after the description of the explosion itself, the next chapter, "Fire", starts with *several pages* of description of what the staff of the local fire station were planning to do over the upcoming long weekend.
This book has won a couple of non-fiction prizes so apparently some people like this sort of thing. But to me, it's an essential skill for a non-fiction writer to know which are the important/interesting parts of the narrative, and not just to put all their research between two covers. I would have got a lot more from a shorter book.
But the best-known cleanup operation conducted by the military took place on the roof of the third reactor of the power plant. Altogether 3,000 officers, reservists, and cadets, under the command of General Nikolai Tarakanov, did the job machines could not do—picking up radioactive pieces of graphite from the roof of the reactor adjoining the damaged Unit 4. Dressed in self-made leaden protective gear, including lead aprons and “swimsuits,” as well as pieces of lead placed to cover the genitalia, they were allowed to stay on the roof for only a few minutes, sometimes even seconds. The task was to get there, grab a piece of radioactive debris with a shovel, run to the edge of the roof, drop off the debris, and run back into the relative safety of the concrete building that housed the reactor. That was done in order to reduce the radiation level on the roof of Unit 3 and make it operational once again.
68. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
A re-read of a childhood favourite. Glad to say that it held up well!
We are in an alternative nineteenth-century England, in the reign of Good King James III. Young Bonnie and her cousin Sylvia are placed in the care of new guardian Miss Slighcarp when Bonnie's parents have to go on a long sea voyage. It doesn't take long for Miss Slighcarp to show her true colours. She dismisses the staff and sells off the children's toys - but that's just the first step. Fortunately Bonnie and Sylvia are intrepid and still have some friends to assist them...
In my memory all the books in this series feature intrepid young girls and boys battling nefarious behaviour. I liked the whole series, including because although set in the same world, the stories don't all feature the same characters - but if you read all of them you start to see overlaps.
69. All Among The Barley by Melissa Harrison
An English village between the wars. Edie is a farmer's daughter. She stood out at school as someone with potential, but now at 14 she has left school and is not quite sure what to do with her time. Her beloved elder sister has got married and moved away - and has concerns and interests which Edie no longer understands. Edie is vaguely aware that her father is worried, but doesn't understand that the farm is failing. She wants to be someone that matters; but she knows that fundamentally she is not “someone who was allowed to say yes and no to things”.
Into this environment comes a writer from London, Constance, keen to learn everything she can about rural traditions - and young Edie becomes fascinated by her, while also uncertain about the impact she will have on the village they live in.
This book has been very well-reviewed, but I didn't love it. It's been praised for its depiction of the countryside and village life, but I am not so interested in that. I thought it was a little bit of everything, and so it spread itself too thin - rural life, 1930s politics, folk witchcraft, Edie's coming-of-age - it ended up less than the sum of its parts.
The truth is, I was useless and defenceless, and Alf knew it. He could smell it on me as a dog smells fear: the strangeness that had plagued me at school, that made me friendless, that left me always at the margins and I knew now always would. He knew all that, and yet he still wanted to walk out with me, I realised suddenly; and everyone said he was such a nice boy, so funny and practical and kind. Yes, it was me who was to blame, after all; he had in the past called me cold and prudish, and I could see from the way I was behaving now that it was true.
70. The Death of Woman Wang by Jonathan D Spence
Narrative non-fiction essays about rural life in late 17th century China. They are based on both historical and contemporaneous fictional sources - from the memoir of a local official, to a famous collection of ghost stories written nearby at the same time (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio) - and the legal codes of the time, which turn out to be fascinating: for instance, if you attack someone who is attacking your parent or grandparent, or kill someone who has killed them, the penalties are light - but only if you do it immediately (a nuance lost on a group of three brothers who plotted to use this leniency to murder someone standing between them and an inheritance). The divorce laws are particularly fascinating. Divorce by mutual consent was possible. Divorce requested by the man, without the woman's consent, was permissible under seven circumstances (including 'lascivious behaviour' and 'talking too much'), but even in these circumstances, the man was not allowed to divorce his wife "if one of these three factors applied: the wife had mourned her husband's parents for three years; the husband had risen from poverty to riches during the time of his marriage; the wife had no family of her own to go to." The amount of social insight you get from those three conditions! An interesting way to shed light on a little-known area of history.
Finally another person who has read this! I also found it overall fascinating although a bit dry at times and I think the book would have been better titled "The Tax Codes of T'an-ch'eng, followed by, The Death of Woman Wang and Other Citizens of T'an-ch'eng". But only Spence could turn tax codes into an astute look at the life in Chinese villages at the time.
Have you read any other Spence? His God's Chinese Son is fantastic about the Boxer Rebellion and then I have The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution on my TBR which looks just as fascinating.
I've enjoyed catching up with your reviews.
>117 wandering_star: I enjoy Anita Brookner's writing too. Sometimes I find it a little too slow and melancholic, but still I can't seem to resist picking up another of her titles when I come across them.
>119 wandering_star: I was really interested in reading your review on the Chernobyl book, as there was a reference to it in a fictional book I read on holiday and it made me think that I'd love to read a book on the Chernobyl disaster to get a fuller picture on this. Glad you took one for the team on this one as it sounds laboriously detailed. I must have a look around to see what other titles I can find on the topic. I'm definitely interested in the political and economic scene setting before the disaster, but I'm particularly interested in the social and geological impact afterwards.
>122 wandering_star: >123 lilisin: Another Spence reader here. Woman Wang was indeed fascinating. I always think of The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci as his "break- through" book in terms of bringing his writing to a wider audience. It's too bad more generalists don't read him, so that when he narrows the focus, they would get carried along.
>123 lilisin:, >125 SassyLassy: A friend of mine audited Spence's classes at Yale - I was very jealous! I read The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci something like 25 years ago, so I don't remember that much of the content, but I do remember it being fascinating and really good. I also read and enjoyed The Search for Modern China - although this is the opposite end of the spectrum from the micro-histories, being a broad historical overview. It turns out I have a copy of God's Chinese Son, according to my LT catalogue anyway - must try and dig it out.
I agree on the title!
71. Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
This is the third of Erpenbeck's books I've read (and my favourite so far). I'm struck by how different the style of each book is, although they share a concern with the way that grand political events affect everyday lives. Visitation tells the story of a lakeside property, somewhere in eastern Germany, and its different owners and residents over the changes of the twentieth century. The owners are not named but are given descriptive titles like 'the architect's wife', 'the Red Army officer' or 'the childhood friend' - and their stories are told in fragments which the reader pieces together, so you get the consequence of an event first, then in another chapter a description of the event from one person's point of view, and then finally the same event from another person's point of view. These stories are interleaved with chapters on what the gardener is doing, which highlights the cyclical nature not just of the year's tasks, but the way that people are driven away or dispossessed of their homeland by new events. Excellent and sometimes devastating.
From her escape to the West until the end of her life she will always keep everything one might urgently need in an emergency on hand in her purse, things such as paper clips, rubber bands, stamps, scraps of paper to write on and pencils. And in her testament she will leave the property beside the lake and the house that unto all eternity will smell of camphor and peppermint - that house that in purely legalistic terms still belongs to her even though it is located in a country she may no longer set foot in without risking arrest - to her nieces and the wives of her nephews. But not to any man.
PS while writing this review I discovered that the original German title is Heimsuchung ("homeseeking") - more poignant than the English title once you've read the novel, although the English title sounds more like an interesting book.
73. Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
A series of interwoven stories set in Bangkok of the past, present and future - from early foreign visitors to future Bangkokites coping with a flooded city (Bangkok is actually sinking at a rate of 2cm per year) - their stories linked together by the fact that they all live on the same spot. I loved this - really conveyed the atmosphere of the city I currently call home.
Those first few weekends, they wound their way around Klong Toey alley markets crowded with stands that sold underwear and sun-dried sea creatures on the same table. They trekked through sois on the Thonburi side of the river, following its gentle turn southward, the murky water mostly invisible behind buildings and homes, until they saw it again through temple grounds. They wormed through dusty new suburbs edging the city outward and up highway tributaries choked with overloaded, market-bound trucks and their spindly sugarcane stalks and deathly silent animals, and when they tired, they hailed a two-rowed passenger truck to return to the city proper.
74. All This I Will Give To You by Dolores Redondo
A writer, Manuel, is interrupted at his work one morning by the police, who tell him his husband has been killed in a car crash. But it turns out that when his husband died, he was in a completely different part of Spain than Manuel thought - and he has a family, and family complications, which Manuel knew nothing about. In fact, he is an aristocrat from a very traditional, almost feudal part of rural Spain. When Manuel goes to collect the body, the local policeman tells him there is something suspicious about the death, but that any scandal connected with the family is always hushed up.
A terrific gothic mystery which is also about themes of family and belonging.
This was actually an Amazon free giveaway a few months ago. Definitely a good choice!
Manuel knew she was about to lie to him. He even had one of those flashes of clairvoyance that reveal the stage machinery that moves the world. The mechanism that mercifully remains hidden from us for most of our lives.
75. Grit by Angela Duckworth
The basic concept behind Grit is the idea that resilience is more important for success than raw talent - it's the ability to keep on practising, or to pick yourself up after a defeat and work to get better. I was familiar with this basic argument from hearing/reading interviews with Duckworth, and I would like to improve my own ability to stick to things, so when I saw this available as a Kindle Daily Deal I picked it up.
Something I often find frustrating in this sort of business self-help book is that the core concept could be understood from an article but is padded out to book length with lots of 'case studies' (which are unconvincing because they are so 100% behind the argument the writer is making) and repetition. That is not the case with Grit. Duckworth develops the argument a lot and includes interesting supplementary research.
Unfortunately, the developed argument was less resonant for me than the short version. Duckworth suggests that one of the things that you need to have this resilience is a sense of wider purpose and passion. I know this is a truism (and to be fair, she argues that you can develop a sense of purpose and passion about whatever you do - it's not that blind 'follow your passion' career advice). But I just don't believe that everyone can have a dedicated sense of purpose or passion - I think it's something which is available to relatively few people. We hear about it a lot, of course, because it's something you need to get to the very top of what you do - so most famous people will have it. But I don't believe that most ordinary people feel like this about anything in their life.
How do grit paragons think about setbacks? Overwhelmingly, I’ve found that they explain events optimistically. Journalist Hester Lacey finds the same striking pattern in her interviews with remarkably creative people. “What has been your greatest disappointment?” she asks each of them. Whether they’re artists or entrepreneurs or community activists, their response is nearly identical. “Well, I don’t really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think, ‘Well okay, that didn’t go so well, but I guess I will just carry on.’ ”
76. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Set in Asia in the aftermath of WWII, this book follows the stories of two men, both of whom fought in Europe and are involved in post-war activity in Asia, one to investigate war crimes from Hong Kong, the other to observe the impact of the bombing in Hiroshima. The fire of the title is the conflagration of war, but also of love - and the long-term impact of both.
The way that Hazzard writes is compelling and moving. I found the book slightly baggier than the previous one of hers I've read, The Transit of Venus - on the other hand, this one didn't make my cry as hard as The Transit of Venus did!
‘I got it back in a box of “effects,” as they call it, when I was in England in ’45. They’d been stored in Lincolnshire, in a barn near Branston where we spent the nights before the battle.’ He said, ‘Getting the box, opening it, I myself as next of kin receiving the pitiful leavings of the deceased. Living the experience that my mother would have otherwise endured. This coat was the first thing, folded on top: like a body. A book, a few letters, socks, handkerchiefs, my good watch, a shaving kit - irrelevant overnight stuff. Through an oversight, I was alive to take charge of these relics, only lacking the letter from the colonel commending my valour. The colonel, who in fact had died alongside me in the action. Things,, Helen, the sad silly evidence of things.’ He said, ‘We’re told that possessions are ephemeral, yet my God how they outlast us - the clock on the bedside table, the cough drops, the diary with appointments for that very day.’ And the meaning ebbing out of them, visibly.
77. The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Jane Harper is an Australian crime novelist, who writes books in which the Australian landscape is almost a protagonist in its own right. In her first book, The Dry, the context for the story is the impact of a long drought on a farming town. Her second book, Force of Nature, involves a group of women who get lost in wild jungle. In The Lost Man, a man dies of heat exposure and thirst - but only a few kilometres from his car which is full of water and other supplies. Is it suicide? If so, what was the reason? Was he driven to it in some way? Or is there something even more sinister going on?
I have enjoyed all of Harper's books but this is the best one yet. I can't wait for her next one.
They lived in a land of extremes in more ways than one. People were either completely fine, or very not. There was little middle ground. And Cam wasn’t some tourist. He knew how to handle himself, and that meant he could well have been half an hour up the road, slowed down by the dark and out of range, but snug in his swag with a cool beer from the fridge in his boot. Or he might not.
78. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
This terrific book tells the story of a British village over thirteen years, starting with the disappearance of a teenage girl whose family is visiting the area. Each chapter covers one year, starting with the events of New Year's Eve (in the first year, a search party is about to set out - the next year, no-one feels it's right to celebrate because of memories of the disappearance - by the third year, the village is having fireworks as usual).
When I realised that this was the structure of the book, I did not expect to like it. It's hard to create compeling characters when you are skirting over a whole village of people in such broad strokes. McGregor somehow manages to do so - choosing exactly the interactions and emotions which gradually reveal a personality to you, over the years.
The book is also about cycles of life, both human and natural. A woman struggles to manage her young children, and other women remember how difficult they found that period of motherhood. Teenagers grow up and leave the village, and their younger siblings become teenagers in their turn. Some things change and some things don't. There are running jokes about the parish council and the controversies over which charity has been chosen to be the recipient of proceeds from the village dance. Over thirteen years the reader comes to understand the village ceremony of well-dressing. Even the tragedy is part of a cycle - it becomes part of the vaguely remembered history of the village, just like the wartime crashing of a bomber on the nearby moor.
I really enjoyed this.
They sat on the pavilion steps and drank the wine, and they asked each other if it was working yet. None of them quite knew how they were supposed to feel. When the wine was finished they’d long stopped talking. Sophie hid the bottle underneath the pavilion steps and they all went home. There was an unexpected warmth in the air and they stumbled against each other more than once. Their voices were louder than they realised.
I'm just back from a trip to Edinburgh for the festival(s) - mainly Fringe this year, although I did manage to make a trip (or pilgrimage?) to the Book Festival shop - which is always an opportunity to browse for interesting books I haven't heard of before. Here's my haul:
Greetings! I'm relatively new to this group and have been gradually working my way through people's threads. I've very much enjoyed going through yours this morning. You certainly have a deft touch with reviews! It's amazing how many interesting (to say the least) books there are to read, as I am a constant reader but among your long list, there's only one that I've also read. That book was Milkman, which my wife read earlier this year and then handed over to me with a demand that I take it up immediately. I was, frankly, quite in awe of the storytelling and the language.
Just a couple of other comments/recommendations:
I'm sorry about your disappointment with The Wall. A very good dystopian near-future novel set in England I read this year is Arkady by Parkick Langley, which I recommend highly.
Also, regarding Babylon Berlin, which also didn't get highest grades from you, I would recommend Philip Kerr's "Bernie Gunther" noir series, which is set just a little bit later, starting just after the Nazis take power. It's very well done, and Kerr (who recently passed away, sad to say) was not shy about taking Gunther into the loftiest ranks of Nazi hierarchy.
I will be looking forward to following along with your reading henceforth. Cheers!
>137 rocketjk: Thank you for your comments and for the reviews, which look great!
79. A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings by Helen Jukes
I thought I was going to learn some interesting things about bees. Instead I learnt all about the author, a young woman who hasn't quite worked out what she is about, and maybe looking after another creature will help with mindfulness or attachment or whatever else she thinks might make things better.
I don't want to be unfair. I did learn some new facts about bees and beekeeping. I also learnt about her friend's socks, her frustrations with her job, and the start of her romance with a new partner. Not really what I came here for.
He treats bees as he treats people, as wild, alive and curious things that move and grow and fly and change as the seasons change around them. I don’t always find that easy; but if the choice is between detachment and the more unpredictable, knotty business of attachment – which lays us open to pain and loss and faulty translation, but also to joy and journeying and fresh meetings? Well, then I know which I choose.
81. Mercury Falling by Robert Edric
At the start of this novel Jimmy Devlin is evicted from the farmhouse he's been living in for several months, as he hasn't paid his rent for any of them. That is the start of a downward slide, as he looks for other ways to make ends meet and falls in with a series of chancers and scoundrels, and falls out in turn with each of them.
Edric is an author I like; his work is always a little bleak, but this one was really bleak beyond the boundaries of what I can bear to read. Also, I couldn't find Devlin sympathetic in the way I sense I am supposed to. The book begins in 1954 and there is a clear theme around the way that British life is becoming increasingly bureaucratic, with more rules and regulation - from bringing in gun licenses to introducing new processes to oversee the management of a borstal. This squeezes the space that Jimmy can operate in. But most of the reason that he is in such a bad way is not that, but his own temper, his desire to revenge himself on anyone he feels has wronged him, his constant looking for an easy solution.
“This the best you got?” he’d asked them. “Who said you were getting best?” Patrick had answered him. And, just as at Duggan’s, Devlin had understood immediately and precisely where he stood. His mother used to say that some men lived their lives like leaves in the wind.
80. This Savage Song & 82. This Dark Duet (the Monsters of Verity sequence) by VE Schwab
The city-state of Verity is divided, following some sort of catastrophic event after which any act of violence brought forth monsters. The Corsai come into existence after non-fatal violence - a brawl or a mugging. Malchai are created by murder, and any act of mass murder leads to the creation of a Sunai. The Corsai eat flesh and the Malchai drink blood, and it's human fear of them which has divided the city. In the South, run by Henry Flynn, people are free but all have to join together to fight the monsters. In the North, Callum Harker has seized control from Flynn - he has a private army to keep the monsters away, but rules the half-city with an authoritarian hand. As the book starts, Harker's daughter is returning from exile/safety outside the city; and to keep an eye on her, Flynn's son enrols at the same school, under an assumed name.
An uneasy truce has been agreed between Flynn and Harker - but there are those in both camps who want a return to violence and the teenagers soon become pawns.
I thought This Savage Song was a terrific, exciting read - in fact as I was reading it I said to a friend that I was surprised it hadn't been made into a film yet, as it would be a great action film, hitting all the notes. (I found out afterwards it's been optioned and I really hope they do a good job of it). This Dark Duet is a much darker affair, with both Kate Harker and August Flynn worried, in their own ways, that there is something monstrous inside them. In fact I'd describe it as something closer to horror than urban fantasy, and accordingly I enjoyed it a bit less.
He’d braced himself, but the difference between the two sides of V-City still caught him in the chest. North City wasn’t a bombed-out shell. Whatever scars it had, they’d all been covered up, painted over. Here the buildings glittered, all metal, stone, and glass, the streets dotted with slick cars and people in nice clothes—if Harker had enforcers on the street, they blended in. A shop window was filled with fruit so colorful it made August want to try it, even though he knew it would taste like ash.
83. The Yips by Nicola Barker
This is an impossible book to review.
It has a huge cast of completely implausible characters, related to each other in ways far too complex for any reader to hold in their head, who converse in demented monologues. The events of the book are… not exactly realistic. There’s an agoraphobic genius tattoo artist who dresses like a 50s pin-up. There’s a woman who’s somehow become convinced that she’s French (she isn’t). A man unknowingly (or maybe not) meets his own son for the first time. A woman is kidnapped and shoved into the boot of a car but doesn’t really mind. One woman finds a new faith, another loses hers. And when all this comes to an end, there is absolutely zero resolution.
So why did I enjoy it so much? I think it’s because you get a sense that the author gloried in the over-the-topness of it all, in creating her cast of grotesques and letting them stretch language and sense to its further extremes.
I can’t really explain it any more than that. If you had to find something serious to say, I think there are themes here around social expectations, the impact of appearances, and the way that people support each other. But really the book is about the style more than the content.
I can see that some people might find the style grating. But I love Nicola Barker’s writing and this book is a great example of it. I don’t think it’s as good as Darkmans, which has real substance grounding the story. But I enjoyed reading it hugely.
Valentine's hands, meanwhile - those mysterious hands, those artistic hands - are moving over his shoulders, then swooping down to his ribs. She feels each rib, individually, plays them like the slight, multicoloured, metal keys of a child's xylophone. His body sings to her touch - not a grand composition of different movements and complex parts (something you might require a full orchestra to produce), but a tiny, reedy, little tune, an inconsequential ditty written for a four-stringed banjo, a battered kick-drum and dented harmonica.
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