The last lot of 2015

The end of the year seems an arbitrary but not insignificant marker in the continuum of life, so I realise that I’m putting undue pressure on, but I’m a finisher. After a year of these kinds of round ups, maybe it’s time for a change of tack…

THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK – DORIS LESSING: After stalling with The Good Terrorist, I was surprised to find an early hook. Perhaps it helped that the main character was so easy to identify with, and that the formal challenge of shifting gear as notebooks were traversed was enthralling and stimulating. It’s certainly an ambitious novel, that undermines as it upholds – rangy, intelligent and simply compelling.

THE BREAKERS – CLAUDIE GALLAY: A moody, enigmatic and almost entirely riveting story about a woman transported to the rough edge of the French coast for reasons that become clear – especially after she meets another soul turned up to grieve. A tense read, a ‘coming-to-terms’, and a mystery that’s not so much thrilling as it is dark. The things that make it memorable – the porbeagle, the children and an escape to Paris – are beautiful spots of light in the darkness.

THE FOUNDLING BOY – MICHEL DEON: After a terrific beginning, with cheeky asides from the writer (by far the strongest part of the book), the story of a boy growing up in Normandy just before the second world war dwindles into a romp around with a confidence trickster. Not that it started altogether earnestly, but it seemed to have a bit more weight than it ultimately delivered. Shan’t read the next one…

PACIFIC – TOM DRURY: Another terrific installment of Grouse County, as different again from The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams. Drury just cooks up the tastiest, most plate-licking of all literary dishes that you want to start again as soon as you’ve finished. You can simply never have enough Drury. Question is, am I brave enough the enter The Driftless Area when my heart is in Grouse County?

UNDER MAJOR DOMO MINOR – PATRICK DE WITT: Whilst reading this, I couldn’t help but recall the story I heard about de Witt assessing his writing through the haze of dope. This story lacks the charm of The Sisters Brothers, though it has its fair share of capers and quirk. Whereas Eli is captivating from the start, Lucy takes a bit of warming up, and in the end, his story just wasn’t enough to have me rooting for him. Damned expectations, I say.

THE DRIVER’S SEAT – MURIEL SPARK: What a sharp knife Spark’s writing is, and what a story The Driver’s Seat. The protagonist is a perplexing oddball, going on a bewildering holiday. She’s looking for someone, someone that will complete her fantasy – or destiny – to make this the holiday to end all holidays. A shapeshifter, the character becomes different things in different company, and she drives exchanges with companions wilfully, almost maniacally. The man she ultimately fixes her gaze on has no chance. The backdrop of student riots serves as a poignant reflection of the woman’s self obsession, which leads to her self destruction. Chilling.

THE WOLF BORDER – SARAH HALL: Hall has thrilled me in the past with her almost feral characters, and Rachel begins that way, too: she’s a warden of a pack of wolves in Canada who is enticed to return to the Lake District to manage an ambitious project of re-wilding. Conceiving days before she leaves Canada, Rachel’s story is two-fold: becoming a mother; and getting to grips with hostility that is more political than natural. The setting and the characters sparkle in true Hall style, but the story pulls its punches so that the jeopardy remains too far away to be a threat.

DROWN – JUNOT DIAZ: Diaz’s spell over me holds. Drown is full of stories about people playing against their own character, dealing with hardship and turmoil that is as much internal as it is circumstantial – and yet expertly questioning the extent to which the environment makes the man. Drown is tender, and hones in on critical, formative moments. It also revels in the relationships between daily decisions and long-term situations, making the reader wonder when lightning actually strikes. Fucking glorious.

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP – MARIE KONDO: Some books have a ‘time’ and this book’s time is now, following the painful process I’ve been through of emptying my London flat and condensing my belongings into the size of a shipment. In this mindset – ‘what else can go?’ – Kondo’s book makes great sense. That it is the only thing I’ve ever read to make me question whether I want to keep all my thousands of books is comment enough.

More books read

Vanquishing the Man Booker winners and a Peirene binge feature in the Autumn 2015 batch of nine – and for the delay in posting, I can only blame moving country.

THE FAMISHED ROAD – BEN OKRI: Imagine a dream that keeps morphing and changing, over the course of a fevered, endless night and you’ll about have the measure of The Famished Road. I probably didn’t get it. I know two people who’ve read it – one liked it, the other kept tight lipped whenever I mentioned it. I am still astonished that I finished it.

READER FOR HIRE – RAYMOND JEAN: If you agree that the power of reading is at least in part seductive, then Reader for Hire is a fun adventure about how one reader gets enveloped into the lives of her listeners. If you don’t agree, then the story could be bamboozling, bordering on upsetting. I really enjoyed the reflected intimacy between reader and listener, but found the story overall lacking in depth.

UNDER THE TRIPOLI SKY – KAMAL BEN HAMEDA: An enigmatic, revealing tale that dwells in the temporary confidences and acceptance bestowed on a boy before he starts to stretch towards manhood. A view of a changing culture from ‘under the skirt tails’. Imbued with a sense of melancholy about what may soon be forbidden and with perplexity about why and how people behave as they do.

PORTRAIT OF THE MOTHER AS A YOUNG WOMAN – FRIEDRICH CHRISTIAN DELIUS: This seems to me to be the ultimate portrayal of a moment in time and left me with an affection for Rome that I hadn’t felt when I visited. The observations are tender and the young woman at the centre of it draws the gaze.

HOW TO BE BOTH – ALI SMITH: My copy started with George, who is swimming in the death of her mother. Instantly likeable, compelling and all the more real for her analytical approach to porn, her conversations with her dead mother, her wringing of her own lexicon to suit her new environment – utterly intoxicating. The historical section that follows is light-hearted and breathes magic and play into an era depicted so heavily in fresco. The protagonist becomes something she isn’t, and lives it to great consequence. A long solitary walk in the damp mountain plains could stop my heart bursting. Monumental.

MORE TREES TO CLIMB – BEN MOOR: The title story of this three story collection is the one that captures the charm of Moor’s brand of storytelling whimsy, it centring around tree-climbing championships. Not having experienced these stories in their original form of live performance, I can’t speak to how well they translate, but the stories definitely stand to be read, and the linguistic gymnastics and penchant for the fantastical are evident.

THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE – PATRICK NESS: This is the kind of book that makes me feel a bit more hopeful for the next generation, because it depicts same-sex, first sex, depression, eating disorders and OCD without being about any of those things. It’s an engaging story that’s also super smart: it took me longer to realise that the italicised chapter intros were happening elsewhere in the town than I care to admit!

GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS – MAX PORTER: I can only superlatively gush about this novel, the likes of which you will never have seen before. A hybrid between novel and poem, it’s a document of grief and about how we weave our losses into the fabric of our lives enough that we can carry on. But it isn’t mawkish at all: it’s charming and funny and gross and slippery and honest and wacky and on-the-nail and diverting and playful. Above all playful. Because isn’t that what we do when we lose the very thing that anchors us to the world? We play at living, until we remember how to. READ IT. But not, as Bookseller Crow says, on an e-reader.

SAINT MAZIE – JAMI ATTENBERG: To say this is a smart blend of diary and third person accounts that depicts Manhattan through the start of the 20th century is to not even get close to why it’s GREAT. Mazie’s voice is wholly original and invites deep affection and trust; her situation is fascinating and complex and her approach to it a mixture of the duty-bound and the frivolous. The way that areas of town and even particular buildings add to the cast of characters induces awe. The story so expertly avoids painting Mazie’s charitable actions sentimentally that we should all read it, because you don’t have to be a saint to do good.

WLTM: discovering America through its female writers

I know, I know – I never learn. Anyway, what better way to investigate this temporary place of residence than through its women. Ahem. I mean its women writers. Always interested in challenges with more than one dimension, I thought I could spread my eye kisses across the states… but I need help! Suggestions for women writers from any of the as yet unallocated states below? Throw them at me – in the comments, on twitter, by email or by beautiful old fashioned mail. Oh, and no need to get pissy or strict about state associations – I’m looking broadly for a writer to be born of, or have stayed a length of time in, a state to claim it. This isn’t science, it’s art, alright?

Thanks to @MildlyBitter, @DrBremm, @booksellercrow and @halehroshan for suggestions.

Arkansas – MAYA ANGELOU: Gather together in my name
California – KATHLEEN ALCOTT: The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets
Connecticut – ANN ARENSBERG: Sister Wolf or Group Sex
Florida – ZORA NEALE HURSTON: Their eyes were watching God
Georgia – ALICE WALKER: Now is the time to open your heart
Illinois – EDNA FERBU: So big; JUDITH GUEST: Ordinary People
Maine – ELIZABETH STROUTT: My name is Lucy Barton
Maryland – ADRIENNE RICH: On lies, secrets and silence
Massachusetts – EDITH WHARTON: Ethan Frome; SUSAN AND ELIZA MINOT: Rapture & The Brambles
Michigan – ANGELA FLOURNOY: The Turner House
Minnesota – LOUISE ERDRICH: The Antelope Wife
Mississippi – EUDORA WELTY
Nebraska – WILLA CATHER: My Antonia
Nevada – CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS: Gold Fame Citrus
New Hampshire
New Jersey – CARLENE BAUER: Frances and Bernard
New Mexico
New York – SUSAN SONTAG: In America
North Carolina
North Dakota
Oregon – RACHEL KUSHNER: The Flamethrowers
Pennsylvania – DEVRA DAVIS: When smoke ran like water
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee – ANN PATCHETT: Bel Canto
Vermont – MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN: Almost Famous Women
Virginia – NELL ZINK: Mislaid/The Wallcreeper
Washington – MARY MCCARTHY: The Group
West Virginia

Man Booker victory

“Thirteen books? Piece of cake”

Those are the words that started my Man Booker odyssey. Twitter was still a novelty in 2009, and one day in July that year, I saw in my feed that the longlist announcement was imminent. I thought a longlist would be a utterly bamboozling collection of the finest literature. I was nonplussed by the length of the list. I was also completely unfamiliar with any of the writers on the list. I did what anyone might do in that situation. I decided to read the lot. Six years on, I’ve finally defeated the monster that is the entire list of winners. Six years on, I realise that reading that original 13 – to say nothing of going on to read the 48 winners – is not ‘what anyone might do’.

Six years ago, Labour were still in government. Six years ago, the release of the original iPad was still nine months away. If those things seem incredible, they are nothing to me compared with the journey I’ve been on as a reader. So, before I turned the last page of the last book (The Famished Road), I knew I’d have to do something to make sense of my endeavour, with those books, over that time.

Trouble is, my thoughts and feelings about the books have changed over time. Some of the books I’d read before 2009 without being aware of the prize and its history. Some of the books I can barely remember. Some of the books didn’t seem all that when I read them, but became something much richer and more exciting after finishing other books: the reading, in short, doesn’t stop. So this is an arbitrary time to be making a judgment on so many of those books. Moreover, the more I read, the less I rely on my solitary interpretation. I know my opinion is more robust after talking about a book. I know my feeling can deepen the further away from the reading experience I get. There are also some books that I don’t want to turn the last page of, that I’m not going to be able to ‘assess’ at any remove because the experience of reading is beyond my means to express. So all that? Pinch of salt for what comes next.

I made a schematic, taking inspiration from a map of the underground. I’ve grouped the books according to what I thought the most prevalent theme was. These themes are the lines on the map, and they intersect with books that have more than a single prevalent theme. I then arranged the books so that those I deemed to be ‘better’ featured at the centre (zone 1): the further out, the less impressive. The map features winners and shortlisted books (shortlistees are grey).

BOOKER SCHEMATICThese books exist in their own right and – like many subjective articles – are impossible to compare. But when considered as a batch, some interesting things emerge. Take The Bone People, my hands-down favourite winner, and The Famished Road, the book I was closest to abandoning. The Bone People features a trio – man, woman and child – who have trouble relating to one another in spite of considerable affection. The Famished Road is also about a man, woman and child who love one another but nonetheless find it difficult to get along. Both stories have liberal amounts of violence and intoxication. In both stories the child, a boy, comes from another place and has trouble adapting to the rules imposed on him. Both stories entertain the possibility of there being a spirit world that breaks in on what we think of as reality. Yet the two books elicited reactions in me that were poles apart – and the similarities were not apparent at the time of reading.

Two books with much more obvious links are C. (shortlisted in 2010) and G. (scooping the prize in 1972). I read C. as part of a library event on the eve of the Man Booker announcement in 2010. One of six panellists, my job was to read a shortlisted book and represent it to the audience. I found C. utterly perplexing. The story ranged from the eponymous C’s childhood to his antics during WWII as a pilot and beyond to his explorations in Egypt. Each section was distinct in phase of life and also in aesthetic – from the moss green vignettes of C’s first home, to a grimy, coal-covered London, to the gilded opulence of an Egypt soaked in sun and treasures. I didn’t do the book justice on the night, bemoaning the apparent lack of a driving narrative – especially the lack of follow through on the mysterious death of C’s sister in the opening section – and failing to say that it clearly revealed Tom McCarthy’s visual sensibilities. Some time later, I read G. and the extent of McCarthy’s artistic endeavour was even more apparent. When I studied Fine Art I learned that the definition of ‘contemporary art’ was that which is contextually aware – it often critiques art of the past. C. is a remarkable book in relation to G. It follows the structure established by John Berger (whose own artistic sensibilities are widely known), whose character G. is similarly uncommitted, drifting from one love affair to another, on the periphery of significant moments in aerial history. These books, as companion pieces, are mind-bendingly extraordinary; greater, perhaps, than the sum of the two parts.

It goes without saying that this diagram is a snapshot of my feeling about this collection of prize-winners at this moment in time. I’ve tried to be true to my feelings at the time of entering these books into my book journal, which takes into account how well I enjoyed the reading experience. It’s also a record of some significant moments in my reading life: Midnight’s Children, the first book I remember asking a lot of me, the first book in which I’m actively asked whether I want to trust the fallible narrator; Saville, a book ‘from my neck of the woods’ that I really wanted to like, containing dialect that simply sounded bogus to my ear; Bring Up The Bodies, my first hotly anticipated sequel, replete with expectation anxiety (it was glorious, I was astounded).

The wheels keep turning and this victory is only temporary. Today, a new shortlist will be announced, consisting of six writers whose work I haven’t yet read. But after six years of developing my own taste, the next six books I read will be my own choice and the result of instinct, whimsy and a good chat with my inestimable bookseller Jonathan.

Galley Beggar Short Story Prize

Did you hear the thrilling news? Galley Beggar Press, those champions of short form, have opened a short story prize!

ShortstorycoversmallNow, I wouldn’t put any money at all on predicting the tastes of the judges – Sam Jordison, Eloise Millar, Paul Ewen and Benjamin Myers – but I would bet they like to be surprised and are about as open-minded a bunch of readers as you’ll ever get.

Still, for those unfamiliar with the Galley Beggar thang, here’s a round-up of the stuff of theirs that I’ve read AND LOVED over the last eighteen months (such young love!). It’s impossible to try and classify it, so I won’t bother, but I will draw your attention to this: Galley Beggar aren’t afraid of what it means to be human – and in fact have repeatedly embraced stories about the chaotic, seedy and sometimes implausible ways that we get on with the messy business of living and loving. Theirs is a taste fucking vital and glorious.

You’ve just over 11 weeks to get your stories in, and here’s the link to all the info:

I for one can’t wait for that long-list anthology. Yee-ha!

A summer batch

Books I’ve read whilst the sun has (largely) been shining…

PLAYTHINGS – ALEX PHEBY: A mesmerising and compelling story about Paul Schreber, and aspects of his madness hitherto overlooked. Pheby has crafted the story so finely that the suffered unreality of Schreber can be observed at enough of a distance that the fantasy doesn’t overwhelm the senses. The environment is painted vividly – both the present and the remembered childhood – leading my mind to work overtime trying to line up cause and effect. Unsettling in the extreme and yet utterly captivating. I think my second read will be even more intoxicating!

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT – KENT HARUF: Simply lovely. A story of finding love in advancing years – platonic, romantic and neighbourly. A story about taking chances, and speaking your mind. A story about acceptance and tenderness. Read it, then read how the book came into being. It’ll warm the cockles.

LETTERS HOME – ADICHIE, MILLER, SHAMSIE & TSIOLKAS: Four epistolary shorts, later turned into plays. I didn’t understand the final set of letters, between Eve and her Son, except as an exercise in cruelty. Adichie’s correspondents come to life economically, with a suppressed longing and a reverberating affection. Miller’s investigative missives express friendship, loyalty and a sense of ‘what you ought to know’. Shamsie’s soldier-writers remember shared experiences and hope to bridge the gap of time and space between them, whilst a gap of understanding widens. A smart and affecting collection.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE – ANTHONY DOERR: On the Prez’s summer reading list, no less. It’s a book that’s surprisingly spry for its size, despite the weight of its luminous prose. It is perhaps slightly too beautiful, slightly too neat at the end, but it’s still admirable: the marvel that is radio – invisible waves sharing sounds and thoughts; the blindness of Marie-Laure illuminating the blindness of many other characters; the sumptuous care and dedication between father and daughter. Maybe the problem with all the light, though, is that it seems to float away, as if into the sky.

HUNTS IN DREAMS – TOM DRURY: Concentrating on Charles (Tiny) Darling – the least captivating character from The End of Vandalism for me – Hunts in Dreams spans a single weekend and orbits the Darling family. There’s a wonderful balance between individual preoccupations and the strange bonds that tie families together, and the relationships are painted evenly with both love and strife being textured and nuanced. Drury employs his signature humour in the chapter about goat husbandry to sublime effect.

DIVISION STREET – HELEN MORT: This book of poetry will henceforth go wherever I go. It’s my time – 1980s/90s, my place – Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and captures a sensitivity and bravery that I aspire to. There’s a subtlety and an earnestness that coats everything, and Mort’s blend of awareness and sense of openness means she’s a lass you’d want to furnish with a pint in a cosy Peak District pub.

LEARNING TO TALK – HILARY MANTEL: A terrific companion piece to Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel takes us back to childhood and adolescence, to northern towns and open doors. The texture of it is what I love – texture that’s slightly abrasive, or smooth in the way a scab stretches over broken skin. Like Division Street, it speaks to me of things familiar…

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS – GOHRING GABRIELSEN: Possibly my favourite Peirene yet. Two sisters – warlike, worn-down – share the same house. From the perspective of the sickly and cared-for sister we witness a life of toil and external pressures that the narrator skews into formidable plots. Revealing the epitome of desperate isolation – being dependent, being ‘head’-ridden – the story nonetheless revels in spirit, verve and not a little spite. Potent!

AMERICANAH – CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Pitching this as a love story, when the interaction between the two lovers amounts to less than 20% of the book is a bit of a stretch, but maybe I should take that up with the blurb writer. Adichie prose is elegant, and her characters are terrifically opinionated. I’d have liked more material from the blog that the main character writes about coming to realise she is black.

Fourth gear


HERE AND NOW: LETTERS 2008-2011 – PAUL AUSTER & J. M. COETZEE. I bought this for a friend: he’s into Coetzee, and I had a thing for Auster in my younger days. I was curious about whether it might illuminate our friendship. It didn’t land as I expected (we both wanted Paul’s easy manner, but felt we actually embodied John’s argumentative spirit) but it was an interesting collection of letters with wide-ranging subjects – especially on the nature of friendship.

1Q84 (vol 1&2) – HARUKI MURAKAMI. Lordy. Sentence by sentence, this book was torture. I read it for hefty book club, and was the only person who came to discuss it that hadn’t been compelled to read the final installment of the trilogy (I say final. There is rumour of a fourth). So the language was clumsy, but my main criticism was the strange apathy and bizarre passivity of the main characters Aomame and Tengo. Apparently, this is a phenomenon widely observed in Japan, so forgive me (or don’t) my cultural ignorance. I found it utterly incomprehensible, which got in the way of what might have been an interesting story. Also, ‘we held hands at ten years old and have never loved anybody else’? FFS.

ALL INVOLVED – RYAN GATTIS. Glory be, a novel that not only blew Murakami out of the water, but that would restore anyone’s faith in fiction. All Involved is fucking epic. Set over the six days of the ’92 LA riots, it serves up 17 successive first-person accounts of the black hole of┬ámayhem that opened up whilst the emergency services were stretched thin and largely distracted. The lawlessness seems to go without saying, and the characters – ‘those that just know how it is’ – are either determined to keep a low profile, or seize the opportunity to settle some scores. It is vital, compelling, heart-rending and exquisitely poetic about love, faith and the cities that surround us as cradle and grave. Go listen to him read Ernesto and try telling me that your heart isn’t thumping. Oh, and next time you want my attention? The name’s B-Dawg.

FACES IN THE CROWD – VALERIA LUISELLI. Tricky one, this. I love Luiselli’s command and bravura – employed to great effect in her collection of essays ‘Sidewalks’ – but here, it disarmed me. The story bobs and weaves, tying up writer, narrator and fictional (is he?) subject as a series of beings that have glimpses of one another on subways and sidewalks. The characters become ghosts, and it may have been suggestion, but I felt like one myself when I finished this slim book.

INFINITE HOME – KATHLEEN ALCOTT. What a corker! A charming, edifying and unforgettable story about a confluence of misfits in a Brooklyn brownstone. Infinite Home deals with a plethora of socially difficult conditions – dementia, Williams syndrome, agoraphobia, technophobia, new physical impairment and the fall from (wealthy) grace – upon which, lovingly grafted, are exceptionally mesmerising characters. Alcott’s sentences are, in the words of bookseller Jonathan Main, to die for. One of my favourites:

Paulie asked Claudia, who said, “Friendships are more like oceans than rivers. There are high tides and low tides but not a steady rush. You’re up against a lot of currents, not just one.” Paulie was wordless at that, so Claudia said, “Sometimes people have a hard time looking out of themselves and need to just be alone and listen to all the conversations in their head.”

BARTLEBY & CO. – ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS. Bonkers, and brilliant: a book of footnotes, a book with a ‘missing text’ that playfully investigates the phenomenon of Bartlebyism – the ‘art’ of saying no. Sontag says it best: ‘The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a ‘means’ to something that can perhaps only be achieved by abandoning art’.

THE WEIGHTLESS WORLD – ANTHONY TREVELYAN. I described this, in the breathless moment of finishing it, as an arabian riptide, pulling the reader along for the ride. Starting as the familiar tale of the assistant in thrall to an overbearing boss, The Weightless World wrong-footed me at every turn, challenging every assumption I made about what kind of story it was. The depiction of India is on the nose, and the focal point of an ‘anti-gravity machine’ is a magical vortex that it’s impossible to avoid getting sucked into.

NOW AND AT THE HOUR OF OUR DEATH – SUSANA MOREIRA MARQUES tr. JULIA SANCHES. This book softly treads through the valley of death, charting Moreira Marques’ response to a palliative care village in Portugal. What is most striking about it is the way the writer casts off what she expects to find, and dwells with those for whom death is not the end: those who are left behind.

THE CREATIVE HABIT – TWYLA THARP. This book is not without its tips and trick for a creative life (project boxes helped me enormously six years ago when I started this book), but what’s memorable about it is what a fantastically dedicated and determined artist Twyla Tharp is. I’d want her on my team, any day!