A round-up of recent reading

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read lately…

EclipticBenjamin Wood, The Ecliptic (2015)

Benjamin Wood’s first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, explored themes of creativity and obsession. He returns to those themes, and takes them further, in The Ecliptic. We first meet Elspeth Conroy in the 1970s at Portmantle, an invitation-only refuge for artists who have become creatively blocked. The arrival of a mysterious teenage musician leads Elspeth’s past to catch up with her – a past we delve into, learning of her development as a painter, and how she ended up going to Portmantle. There’s a running theme of creativity becoming an all-consuming force in artists’ lives, a theme which gains its most powerful expression late in the novel, in quite an unexpected way. I’ll let you find out the rest for yourself…

Irenosen Okojie, Butterfly Fish (2015)

Published by Jacaranda, Irenosen Okojie’s debut is a kaleidoscopic novel which focuses primarily on Joy, who is trying to cope with the death of her mother Queenie. The figure of a mysterious woman appears in Joy’s life and photographs, and Joy finds herself fascinated by a bronze warrior’s head that belonged to her mother. Okojie weaves in other narrative strands, including one set in 19th century Benin, Nigeria (from where the bronze bust originates), and one examining Queenie’s arrival in London from Nigeria in the 1960s. Parallels and connections emerge, forming Butterfly Fish into an intriguing whole.

Raymond Jean, Reader for Hire (1986)
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (2015)

The second in Periene’s Chance Encounter series, and rather different in tone from White Hunger. At a friend’s suggestion, Marie-Constance places an advert in the paper, offering to read aloud to others in their own home. Her first client is a disabled boy named Eric; after she reads him a rather macabre section of a Maupassant short story, Eric is disproportionately affected, scared out of his wits. Marie-Constance has this ability, to evoke the deep effect of what she reads in her listeners – as she and others increasingly discover. The prose of Reader for Hire reflects this: the viewpoint stays close to Marie-Constance, so the book begins and ends with her life as a reader; and it feels quite sharply episodic, each chapter its own little story. All in all, a charming celebration of reading.

Hawthorn

Melissa Harrison, At Hawthorn Time (2015)

At Hawthorn Time is, first and foremost, a novel of the modern English countryside: its chapters are headed with field notes, and images of the rural landscape run through its pages. Though the eye of narrative may be focused upon human characters, there is always the sense that they are defined by their interactions with the countryside. Melissa Harrison’s four main characters have different relationships with the country: Jack, a former radical protester, wanders across the land, both in close connection to it and yet somehow apart. Young Jamie is the rural native struggling with the realities of trying to make a living. Howard and Kitty are the urban incomers, whose marriage frays at the seams as they try to find their place. Their lives intertwine with each other and the landscape, heading towards the tragedy that, from the beginning, we know has been coming.

Jonathan Pinnock, Take It Cool (2014)

The last book I read by Jonathan Pinnock was a story collection, Dot Dash. This one is different – a non-fiction account of the author’s search for a reggae singer named Dennis Pinnock. The chapters rotate through three strands: Jonathan’s attempts to contact Dennis and the people who knew him; reviews of Dennis’s singles; and the author’s research into his own family history. Reading this book felt rather like eavesdropping, particularly as I don’t know much about reggae (I didn’t listen to any of the mentioned while I was reading, as I found it interesting to maintain that distance – I guess I can rectify that now). But Take It Cool tells an intriguing story, whatever your immediate interest in its subject matter. Published by Two Ravens Press.

Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

Reading round-up: late October

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To keep Breathing (1989)

I enjoyed reading a collection of Janice Galloway’s short stories a few years back, and so was pleased when my book group selected her first novel for this month (as luck would have it, I couldn’t then make the meeting – bah!). It’s the story of Joy Stone, who is sent into a spiral of depression by events that we only gradually piece together as we follow her through daily life and a stint in hospital. Galloway’s novel is written as a collage of documents, from diary entries to magazine snippets to marginal notes – a technique that mirrors the fragmentation of its protagonist. I think it’s a shame that this book seems not to have made as many waves in its day as (say) The Wasp Factory did, because Galloway deserves to read much more widely than she is.

Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: How To Be a Public Author (2014)

The latest book from Galley Beggar Press is ‘written’ by the aspiring author Francis Plug, who documents his meetings with winners of the Booker Prize. Paul Ewen gets the voice of his narrator just right: earnest, and trying just that little bit too hard; whether or not that becomes annoying is probably down to the individual reader. Although Francis Plug starts off as simply amusing, as the novel progresses we start to see the desperation that lies underneath the character’s facade. There’s something of Graham Underhill about Plug; and, like Nat Segnit’s book, there’s an underlying weight and melancholy that leads to a tragicomic ending.

SchumacherJulie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members (2014)

And here’s another novel about someone in the literary world which has a bitter twist beneath its comic surface. It’s the collected correspondence of Jason Filger, a professor of creative writing and literature, who writes copious letters of recommendation for his students (on paper, through the mail) and finds himself feeling increasingly out of step with the world around him. Filger’s letters reveal the absurdities of his world: students having to apply for ever more menial jobs; his department being squeezed out by those of more lucrative subjects; his own obsession with championing  work of one particular student while others find that elusive success. Dear Committee Members takes a particularly sharp and bracing turn towards the end, which makes you see the book in a new light. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Julie Schumacher’s work in the future.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Any Other Mouth (2014)

A collection of short stories (published by Freight Books) which, the author says, are 68% true and 32% fictional – though only she knows which is which. Anneliese Mackintosh takes us through various events in her alter ego Gretchen’s life – a precarious family life in childhood; discovery and calamity at university; grief, happiness and more in adulthood. There’s a wonderful range of style and tone in Mackintosh’s stories; it seems beside the point to single out particular pieces, when it’s the totality of Any Other Mouth which really impresses. The intensity that Mackintosh achieves across the whole collection is really quite something.

Slavoj Žižek and Srećko Horvat, What Does Europe Want? (2013)

I read this book (published by Istros Books, who specialise in works from South East Europe) following my call on Twitter for recommended essay collections. It’s one of those occasions where the subject is not a natural fit for me – I’ll be upfront in saying that I’m not into politics and don’t know that much about it – but I read What Does Europe Want? out of curiosity and will find some way to respond to it.  Žižek and Horvat are philosophers from Slovenia and Croatia respectively; in these essays, they explore the present and possible future of Europe and the EU. All I can really say is that I appreciated the authors’ style, and found plenty to think about.

Critchley

Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre (2014)

This is the second title from Fitzcarraldo Editions (following Zone), a short piece that blurs the line between autobiographical essay and fiction. Philosopher Simon Critchley describes how he was sent boxes of unpublished papers belonging to his old friend and teacher, the French philosopher Michel Haar, who had recently died. Amongst the various documents, Critchley found writings on the Renaissance memory theatre: a created space containing images meant to represent all knowledge. He also found an astrological chart which appeared to foretell his own death – which led him to an inevitable conclusion. Critchley’s book reflects on memory, permanence and obsession; and becomes ever more intriguing as the relative security of the essay form gives way to the uncertainty of fiction.

Open Thread: recommended essay collections

I’ve been thinking about trying some essay collections, so I asked on Twitter what people would recommend. I got so many good responses that I wanted to share then, so I’ve put them together on Storify here. There are also a few tweets that I wasn’t able to add to the main story:

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions – and, if you have any favourite essay collections, please feel free to recommend them in the comments.

Reading round-up: mid May

Time for another look at some of the books I’ve been reading recently…

Andy MillerAndy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously (2014)

With all the business of work and family, Andy Miller had read only one book for pleasure (The Da Vinci Code) in three years; then he found a second-hand copy of The Master and Margarita, and started reading:

…borne aloft on Bulgakov’s impassioned words, I felt the dizzying force of books again, lifting me off the 6.44, out of myself, away from Mrs Atrixo [a fellow-commuter of Miller’s who would manicure herself on the train] and her hands. How had I lived without this? (pp. 30-1)

Spurred on by that feeling, Miller made a list of fifty books he’d always meant to read (and that he’d told people he had read, when he hadn’t), and challenged himself to read them; The Year of Reading Dangerously is his account of that time. Some of the books he likes, some he doesn’t; but Miller is always entertaining when he writes about them, and there’s always a keen sense of how personal this reading is to him.

Reading this book reminded me of Eleanor Catton’s idea of literature as encounter, because that’s very much what Miller is describing here (indeed, he and Catton make some of the same points). This volume isn’t a list of ‘fifty books you must read’; it’s the story of one person rediscovering what he loves about books, and finding a place for them in his life. It’s an inspiring piece of work.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is published in the UK by Fourth Estate, and will be published in the US by Harper Perennial on 9 December.

Oscar Coop-Phane, Zenith Hotel (2012)
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (2014)

Now this is an example of how important social media can be for translated books and small publishers: Zenith Hotel (published by Arcadia Books) comes covered in quotes from bloggers, bookshops and other people on Twitter (it even bears the #translationthurs hashtag created by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog). And if all that praise wasn’t enough to raise a sense of expectation, there’s also the fact that Oscar Coop-Phane was only 24 when he won the French Prix de Flore for this, his first novel.

What we have in Zenith Hotel is a short (not even 100 pages) portrait of a day in the life of a prostitute named Nanou, and her clients. With great economy, Coop-Phane depicts a succession of men, each with their own individual situations and concerns; but makes clear that, when they go to their appointment at the Zenith Hotel, each man is no more (or less) significant than the rest. Tying the book together is the world-weary voice of Nanou, who refuses to tell us much about herself: the most important thing is what’s happening now, and what she needs to do to keep going. Ros Schwartz’s translation creates fine distinctions between these characters whom we glimpse briefly but clearly, underlining the subtlety of Coop-Phane’s work.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (2012)

This was a choice for my reading group, one I was looking forward to as my first experience of reading Dave Eggers. I don’t know quite what I was expecting – probably the kind borderline fabulism that (rightly or wrongly) I tend to associate with McSweeney’s – but it wasn’t what I got. A Hologram for the King is the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged consultant who has travelled to Saudi Arabia in the hope of making the business deal that will turn his work and life around – if only the King would turn up so Alan can make his presentation.

I gather that this book is written in a plainer style than is usual for Eggers (the literary equivalent of an acoustic set, perhaps); I think the sparseness does have its moments, but not as many as I’d hope for. I appreciate the parallel Eggers creates between the difficulties of Alan’s personal life and the USA’s economic situation, but… A Hologram for the King just never really came to life for me. Still, I would like to try reading Eggers again one day; hopefully this title was just a blip.

A Hologram for the King is published in the UK by Penguin.

Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)

My reading group also recently started a science fiction offshoot, for which this was the first choice. I hadn’t come across book or author previously, though it’s a YA title that I would have been roughly the right age for at the time of publication, and it’s the sort of book I would have read. I think the teenage me would have liked The Giver very much; but the adult me still enjoyed it.

Lois Lowry starts by briskly outlining some of the contours of her fictional world. This is an enclosed community where everything is highly structured, even growing up: every year, there’s a ceremony at which children are given the appurtenances of the next phase of their lives; until they reach Twelve, when age no longer matters and they begin the ‘assignment’ which will occupy them for the rest of their lives. Relations between children and adults in the same family unit may seem oddly distant, and there are clear hints that some catastrophe happened in the past; but this society appears to work well enough. Our protagonist is Jonas, who at Twelve is sent to The Giver, an old man who will pass on the community’s memories – suffice to say, there’s a reason most people don’t remember them.

I liked The Giver for its crispness of telling, and its thoughtfulness on issues of individuality and conformity. There’s also a wonderful shift of perception halfway through which I was nowhere near predicting. I think the book is let down slightly by its ending, which is a little too abrupt – not so bad in the context of the four-book series which The Giver begins, but it leaves this volume feeling unbalanced on its own terms. My teenage self would have wanted to read on.

The Giver is published in the UK by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Anna Jaquiery, The Lying-Down Room (2014)

This is the first in a new series of crime novels set in Paris, written by French-born and Australia-resident Anna Jaquiery. Commandant Serge Morel investigates the grisly murder of an elderly woman, a case which will lead him into the past of Soviet Russia – all while his father is slowly succumbing to dementia, and there’s turbulence in his personal life. Jaquiery balances the different elements of her novel well, and the historical thread adds an interesting dimension. All in all, the Morel series is off to a good start with The Lying-Down Room.

The Lying-Down Room is published in the UK by Mantle.

Reading round-up: early March

Rebecca Hunt, Everland (2014)

EverlandThe author of 2010’s Mr Chartwell returns with a tale of polar exploration. In March 1913, three men embark on an expedition to an uncharted Antarctic island which is being dubbed ‘Everland’ – a journey that we know won’t end well, as we’ve already seen others of their ship’s crew go after the men a month later, and find only one alive. In 2012, the men’s expedition has become famous, and three researchers set out from their base on their own trek to Everland. Over time, the two expeditions start to parallel each other – subtly at first, then more overtly, in terms of both events and the frictions that develop within each group. Hunt places her characters in a situation where they’re trapped by their environment, then uses the parallels between the two groups to underline just how much they are trapped.

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (2014)
Translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe

Born in 1937, Tamara Astafieva became a television editor for the Soviet press agency, Novosti. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays (and the occasional poem) sent by Astafieva a few years ago to an old acquaintance, British TV director Michael Darlow (who also provides linking commentary throughout). Born in Siberia illuminates a time and place in history that I personally didn’t know about; and Astafieva comes across as a bright, charismatic personality who is a pleasure to meet through the pages of her book.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

This was my book group’s latest choice: the tale of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist working in Indochina, and the idealistic American Alden Pyle, who believes that the  war can be ended with a ‘third force’. Reading The Quiet American was an unusual experience for me, as I saw the film back in 2002, but don’t remember much about it; so the book kept snagging on shadowy memories. I often find it difficult to get into books written in the 1950s and earlier (I don’t know why; a cultural distance that’s hard for me to cross, perhaps); and this was true for Greene’s novel to an extent – though I appreciated its nuanced exploration of morality; and the ending could still shock me, even though I knew what was coming.

Carlos Busqued, Under This Terrible Sun (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

I said to myself that I would only buy an e-reader if I felt that I were truly missing out on ebooks that I wanted to read. I finally reached that point when I started hearing about publishers like Frisch & Co., a Berlin-based who specialise in digital works in translations; and my first electronic title is one of theirs.

Under This Terrible Sun (the first novel by Argentinian writer Busqued) begins as Javier Cetarti – who does little more than lounge around his apartment watching documentaries – learns that his mother’s lover has killed her, and Cetarti’s brother. The bearer of this news, Duarte, has an idea to cash in on a life insurance policy, and Cetarti is happy to play along. But Duarte has darker motivations than Cerarti realises. Busqued’s novel works almost by stealth: the characters will drift along for a while; then something sinister or violent will intrude – unbidden at first, then with growing tension, until… ah, but that would be telling.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (2013)

Flamethrowers

In 1977, Reno (not her real name, but it’s as much as we’ll get) heads east on her motorcycle to New York, where she becomes involved in the art scene. A relationship with an Italian artist leads her to Milan, where a more political revolution is taking shape. The Flamethrowers is a long novel, dense with incident; yet in some ways Reno’s narrative voice remains detached from it all. Kushner‘s novel reflects on performance, and finds it in all the worlds through which Reno moves – and not always to the good. The ending manages to be poignant, chilling and optimistic all at once.

Emma J. Lannie, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (2014)

Mantle Lane Press is a new small publisher focusing on short volumes by writers with an East Midlands connection. This, Mantle Lane’s second book, is a set of eight short stories by Derby-resident Emma J. Lannie. Lannie’s stories are snapshots of characters at key emotional moments, and are shot through with flashes of myth or fairytale. So, for example, ‘Rapunzelled’ sees a girl caught in the shadow of her photographer sister as they go on a shoot in an abandoned tower; while the narrator of ‘Not Gretel’ wanders through the forest, leaving her old life behind, in search of… something. This book is an intriguing start to Lannie’s career, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Reading round-up: early February

Roelof Bakker & Jane Wildgoose, Strong Room (2014)

A new project from Roelof Bakker, the artist-photographer behind the 2012 anthology Still, presented as  a stapled booklet fastened with a crocodile clip. Like the earlier anthology, Strong Room contains a selection of Bakker’s photographs of the vacated Hornsey Town Hall; but, where Still was perhaps more about space, this collection is focused on detail, and how physical objects can be both permanent and transient.

The images in Strong Room are close-ups of objects in the Town Hall: the torn upholstery of chairs in the council chamber; boxes of nuts and bolts in the maintenance room; document files in the strong room. It seems to me that Bakker is highlighting that the context in which these objects mattered has gone, and what’s left is their abstract detail.

Alongside Bakker’s photographs is a short piece in which writer Jane Wildgoose describes an instance of requesting an old document from a medical library. It seems a fairly unremarkable act, but Wildgoose uses it to reflect on themes of past and present, virtual and physical: using the electronic technology of her laptop to call for a hefty leather-bound tome which is handled with great care. Wildgoose’s text approaches the same issues as Bakker’s photographs from a different angle; all adds up to a thought-provoking whole.

Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)
Translated from the Hungarian by Daphne Hardy

This was my book group’s most recent selection, and it generally went down well. I was undecided after reading Darkness at Noon as to whether it was a book for me, and I’m still not sure after our discussion. This book is the tale of Rubashov, once a high-ranking official in his country’s governing Party, now imprisoned and interrogated as a traitor to the regime. Koestler’s depiction of a show trial is grimly effective, with reference to people being executed for holding the ‘wrong’ opinions on seemingly trivial subjects, and Rubashov being inexorably worn down. I still suspect that Koestler’s prose is a bit too clinical for me to experience its full force; but, then again, that detachment is part of the point. I’m glad I read Darkness at Noon, though; and I wouldn’t have read it if not for the book group.

Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark (2014)

In Vienna of 1899, eminent psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is intrigued by his latest case, a girl he calls Lilie, who claims to be a machine. Some years later, young Krysta is living in a strange new place, where she befriends a boy named Daniel, whom her uncle insists is not a real child. Gradually, the two stories intertwine, as Josef tries to find out more about Lilie, and Krysta’s world grows darker. Along the way, Granville reflects on different ways in which people may put stories to use: to justify terrible prejudices, but also as a source of hope and (literal) escape. And the closing revelation is of the sort that makes me feel like reading the novel again, to see what else there is to find.

Antti Tuomainen, The Healer (2010)
Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (2013)

In a Helsinki beset by the effects of climate change, poet Tapani Lehtinen searches for his missing wife, Johanna. He learns that Johanna, a journalist, was researching ‘The Healer’,  a serial killer targeting those he deems responsible for climate change, with the aim of ‘cleaning up’ society’s ills. Tapani starts to wonder whether Johanna’s work took her too close to The Healer. There’s an interesting sparseness to the atmosphere of Tuomainen’s novel, but overall The Healer doesn’t quite work for me. The near-future setting doesn’t seem to add much (there is a subtext comparing the encroachment of climate change to Tapani’s personal situation, but I don’t find it to be carried through), and the resolution of the mystery plot is corny.

Mother Mother

Koren Zalickas, Mother, Mother (2013)

Things are not going well for the Hurst siblings. The eldest, Rose, disappeared in her last year of school. Violet attacked her brother, Will, and has been sent to a psychiatric institution. Will, who has autism and epilepsy, is looked after and home-schooled by his mother, Josephine, who obviously knows best for him – doesn’t she? But now Violet is receiving letters from Rose, who appears to be happily settled in a new life; and child protection officers are calling on Josephine… The ghastly truth of what’s really happening in the Hurst household is only gradually – and effectively – revealed in an interesting debut novel from Koren Zalickas.