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‘The Legacy’ by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

I received this book, the first in Icelandic author Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Children’s House’ series, as a very kind gift. The English translation is by Victoria Cribb. It’s a thriller-ish crime fiction, a Nordic murder mystery. It was a particularly thoughtful present as it’s been a while since I last read a book like this.

Predictably, early in the book, there’s a gruesome murder: truly gruesome, Stephen King-ishly horrific—but written more with a twinkling eye than with a desire to frighten the reader. The only witness is the victim’s young child, Margaret, who is traumatised and didn’t see much in any case. Freyja, who is the psychologist in charge of the ‘Children’s House’—a state refuge for traumatised children—becomes a central character in the novel as she supports the police investigation by coaxing information from the seven-year-old. Newly promoted Detective Huldar leads the investigation, feeling out of his depth and as though he must prove himself.

It’s hard to say much more about this sort of book without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that there are more horrific murders and lots of twists and turns. There are a few introverted teenagers who are into shortwave radio, some coded messages, and some questionable sexual relationships. It’s also redolent of Iceland: some aspects of the plot can only work in that singular country.

The plot was well-constructed with genuinely confounding twists. I didn’t guess ‘whodunnit’. There was interesting character development and a dash of insightful social commentary. The writing was atmospheric and engaging.

The Legacy may be the first of Sigurðardóttir’s novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

‘Lessons’ by Ian McEwan

This 2022 novel by Ian McEwan has been in my ‘to read’ pile since its publication, as I’ve enjoyed many of McEwan’s previous works: Saturday, Nutshell, The Cement Garden, The Innocent, The Child in Time, Machines Like Me, and The Cockroach have all previously been mentioned on this site.

I was a little put-off reading Lessons because I’d seen it described as a novel which featured a life story, also reflecting events in society from the late 1950s to the present day. This sort of novel is rarely well-written.

The central character of Lessons is Roland. We meet him aged 14 entering a sexual relationship with his piano teacher, in her mid-20s. From there, we follow him through the rest of his life: through love, marriage, single fatherhood, loneliness, and more. It’s tremendously ambitious and pulls off the trick of feeling genuinely biographical.

Roland is a drifter, someone who reacts to events around him rather than recognising his agency. This is frustrating on two levels. It’s sort of ‘good frustrating’ in terms of providing some narrative bite, but also ‘bad frustrating’, in the total lack of recognition of the background of privilege required to live in that way. If I wasn’t so predisposed by previous work to like McEwan, I’d say this was evidence of a desperate lack of awareness… but having read his previous works, I’m chalking it up to being a satirical choice he’s made with the narrative voice.

I have other nits to pick too. This isn’t a book where every word counts: it’s a baggy novel that felt like it could have been tightened up. In particular, I was frustrated by McEwan’s attempt to make this a sort of ‘state of the nation’ novel by frequently referencing contemporary news events. This could have been mostly excised without loss.

Yet, overall, this was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

‘Yellowface’ by Rebecca F Kuang

This 2023 bestseller has been in my ‘to read’ pile for so long that Wendy ended up beating me to it. Interestingly, we had similar thoughts about it.

The plot concerns a young writer whose more successful friend dies in an accident. The writer steals an early draft of a novel from her deceased friend, works on it extensively, and publishes it to rave reviews.

This plot is not a million miles away from that of The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, which I read and disliked a few years ago. Kuang’s handling of the subject is much better: she weaves in interesting questions about cultural appropriation alongside the more obvious issues of ownership of ideas and the boundaries of authorship. Kuang’s writing is also much more fun, bringing a satirical view of the culture wars with a wry humour, as opposed to The Plot’s ever-building air of tension.

In her acknowledgments, Kuang says that ‘Yellowface is, in large part, a horror story about loneliness in a fiercely competitive industry.’ I agree with that perspective, and I also think that it represents the better part of the book.

However, Wendy and I both found the final section of this book jarring. There was a quite sudden change in the tone of the book, the style of writing, and the characterisation of the protagonist. It was quite peculiar, and rather lessened the impact of the book for both of us. We debated whether this was intentional: was this a comment on what it’s like to read a book which is ‘finished off’ by another author? Neither of us could quite believe that to be true.

This would have been a better book if the final section had stripped away the satire and doubled-down on the moral complexity of its central questions. It’s a book that deserved an ambiguous ending, but had some dodgy black-and-white thriller content bolted onto the end instead. It was a shame… but I still think the book’s worth reading for the first two-thirds. And I liked this quotation:

Writing is the closest thing we have to real magic. Writing is creating something out of nothing, is opening doors to other lands. Writing gives you power to shape your own world when the real one hurts too much. To stop writing would kill me.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

‘The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles’ by Giorgio Bassani

This 1958 Italian novel is set in Ferrara, a town in northern Italy, in the 1930s. I read the 1960 English translation by Isabel Quigly.

The novel centres on Dr Fadigati, who opens a practice in Ferrara. His surgery quickly becomes the fashionable option in town, and Fadigati is widely respected. He is noted to keep his personal life private. As the decade wears on, it gradually becomes known that he is gay, and he finds himself more and more ostracised as a result. At the same time, the Jewish narrator feels increasingly threatened by tightening racial laws.

It’s easy to see why this is an ’important’ book given the topics it covers. It does a good job of illustrating the creeping nature of intolerance, and it felt evocative of a small Italian community.

Yet, I can’t really say that I enjoyed it. It felt a little slow, despite its slim form. It also didn’t feel very reflective in tone, which I suppose must be attributable to the style of writing. I think it might also be one of those books that’s of its time: I suppose my response to a story involving a gay doctor is likely to be different to that of the average reader in 1960.

I don’t really feel motivated to go on to read any of Bassani’s other Ferrara novels, but you may feel differently if you read it.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

‘This Is Europe’ by Ben Judah

This collection of 23 prose stories is based on interviews Judah conducted with people from around Europe. Documentary photographs accompany each story. It aims to build a picture of life in Europe for the ‘ordinary worker’, revealing a diverse community of individuals facing all sorts of challenges in life. Judah’s stories also often reflect life as the COVID-19 pandemic swept Europe; several are stories of refugees fleeing to Europe. Climate change is also a recurring theme.

I’m often intrigued to read about the work lives of others, especially when—like many in this book—the examples are very far removed from my day-to-day experience. It’s fascinating to have an insight into what it is like to take over the family vineyard or to be a pilot who guides cargo ships into harbours. This book provides insight into other worlds that can be found on this continent.

However, it’s taken me about six months to get through this book, which is entirely attributable to the style of writing, which I found very difficult to tolerate on two fronts.

Firstly, Judah writes every single story in the same consistent tone and style. This is a weird choice: when telling different stories from different parts of the continent, you would think it would be natural to vary the tone. For example, I’m sure farmers have particular idiosyncrasies in how they spin a yarn compared to flight attendants. Here, every story is flattened to the same mildly journalistic tone. To me, it feels like that sucks out a lot of the potential pleasure of this book.

Secondly, Judah has an altogether infuriating habit of slipping into the second person for a few sentences now and again. In his afterword, he says that he tried ‘techniques’ to ‘make you feel like any one of these people could be you’, and I think this weird linguistic tic must be what he’s referring to.

This passage provides a good example of Judah using the second person injudiciously:

You tell yourself you’ll never get married.

You tell yourself you know what love looks like.

You don’t expect it to look like a divorced Swedish Finn, who has spent most of his life in Germany, older, with two children over there, giving it a go in Ireland. You also don’t expect them to be called Patrick. Or to be living with his mother in a castle in County Cork.

Maybe it’s my quirk rather than his, but this makes me want to scream: ‘No, I don’t!’

Here’s an example of a random switch from third to second person:

The trolley rattling underneath her.

Her last glimpse of her husband’s face.

You’ll feel much better when this is out.

The doctor smiled. Then the anaesthetist bent over.

The cold gas coming out of the mask.

Count back from ten for me now.

You never make it to seven.

I can only assume that we’re using the second person in the third line as Judah is quoting either the husband or the doctor. I can live with that. But then, by the final line, we’re using the second person for a different reason: presumably as part of Judah’s ‘technique’. It just made me want to fling the book across the room.

Luckily, each of the chapters is a discrete profile of an individual, so it is the sort of book that can be readily appreciated in small chunks.

Despite all of this—and it feels good to get that rant out—I think this book is worth reading. Judah’s stories are varied and thought-provoking, and I think the whole made me feel a little differently about the things that unite people across Europe.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

‘Boulder’ by Eva Baltasar

I came across Julia Sanches’s translation of Eva Baltasar’s Catalan 2020 novel after it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. It’s a short book, just 112 pages. The main beats of the plot are that the female protagonist falls in love with a woman called Samsa, they form a long-term relationship, and Samsa ultimately decides to have a child.

But, really, this is a book which is character-driven rather than plot-driven. As with the title, there are a lot of metaphors about geological formations and processes, reflecting how the emotional landscape in which we all live shifts over time. Despite the allusions to large expanses, the book feels claustrophobic: we’re stuck in the mind of the protagonist, a mind which is narrowly focused on her personal situation. The claustrophobia is leavened by humour, some of it deliciously dark.

This book perfectly evoked the main character’s feelings: it was a perfect marriage of language and emotion. I found the whole thing quite moving.

Some passages I highlighted:

I’m not a chef, I’m just a mess-hall cook, capable and self-taught. The thing I most enjoy about my job is handling food while it’s still whole, when some part of it still speaks of its place in the world, its point of origin, the zone of exclusion that all creatures need in order to thrive. Water, earth, lungs. The perfect conditions for silence.

I can give anything up, because nothing is essential when you refuse to imprison life in a narrative.

I look at her and feel woozy, even though she’s Scandinavian and makes her living from a multinational with blood on its hands. I look at her and she fills every corner of me.

The first person who had the idea of building a pyramid must have been insane. What about the guy who thought it made sense to stick someone in a rocket and shoot them at the stars? Samsa is crazier than the two of them put together.

Small children have the power to impose their happiness on the everyday anxieties of grown-ups. Their power is short-lived, a gold dust that dresses the shoulders and reminds you that you’re more than just an ordinary soldier, a sailor. It’s hardly noticeable. Grown-ups have lost all interest in shiny things. A grown-up is the opposite of a magpie.

It’s not that I think small talk is dumb, it’s that I’m pretty sure it’s more reckless than adopting a pet rat during a plague.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

‘Extremely Online’ by Taylor Lorenz

This book is the story of social media, but rather than concentrating on the platforms themselves, it focuses on the most popular users. This struck me as a good idea: we wouldn’t, for example, try to tell the history of cinema without including the film stars who drew in audiences in the first place, so why are the star attractions often missing from the history of social media?

In Taylor’s own words,

Extremely Online offers a social history of social media.

Having read the book, it turns out that the problem is that social media stars just aren’t that interesting. Honestly, there is only so much I wanted to know about ‘Grumpy Cat’ and Lorenz vastly over-delivers. Even after Lorenz’s four-page explanation, I don’t understand the wider relevance of ‘Dramageddon’, an incident in which some YouTubers famed for make-up tutorials fell out with one another.

Lorenz’s research also often feels limited: it’s as though she buys into the hype a little too much. Grumpy Cat’s story also provides an excellent example of this flaw. Lorenz writes:

In 2016, she joined the cast of the Broadway musical Cats.

This left me wondering: how could a cat play a meaningful role in Cats? A few minutes of searching online reveals that this event was heavily promoted as such, talked up as a ‘Broadway debut’, but turned out to amount to being a ‘guest of honour’ at a single performance. That doesn’t amount to ‘joining the cast’ in any offline, reality-based view of the world, and it’s disappointing that Lorenz reported it in that way.

I enjoyed some sections and observations in Extremely Online. I hadn’t previously considered the argument that the lowering of production standards in television which necessarily accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic—chat shows filmed on Zoom from hosts’ homes, for example—helped online content with similarly low standards to become more mainstream.

I’m left with a better appreciation for the effort and professionalism of people who create social media content and the loyalty they come to command within their audience. Yet, I’d have preferred an analysis which considered the broader societal impact of this new form of celebrity rather than viewing it only on its own over-hyped terms.

Frankly, this book was not what I anticipated, and it failed to pique my interest as much as I had hoped. It might resonate with those deeply entrenched in social media culture, but I question its relevance to a wider audience.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

‘Alone’ by Daniel Schreiber

I read Ben Fergusson’s translation of this book. The original spent almost a year as one of the bestselling books in Germany. For about the first third of the book, I couldn’t understand why: it seemed a bit dry and dull. But this is one of those books which suddenly ‘clicked’ for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the remainder.

The book is a collection of reflections on solitary living and the importance of friendship. Many of Schreiber’s thoughts are inspired by his experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced more people than ever into a state of solitude.

I’ve written previously about my concern that the public health imperative to tackle loneliness risks threatening the benefits of solitude. This has personal relevance to me, as I enjoy a bit of solitude and time spent in my own company. Schreiber’s discussion draws neat distinctions between the two, which I found helpful. I also thought his reflection on how politicians sometimes use ‘loneliness’ as an excuse to push traditional, outdated social values was insightful: I’d never clocked that before.

Schreiber also touches on his experience of depression, albeit somewhat indirectly. Towards the end of the book, he touches on the idea that treatments for depression often focus on promoting a sense of self-efficacy. Schreiber notes that, actually, there is quite a lot in the world that we can’t control, and each of us carries a burden of goals that we know we’re unlikely ever to achieve. He argues that accepting a lack of self-efficacy is, therefore, just as important. I found this insightful: it felt like an equivalent of the loneliness versus solitude debate in a different area of life altogether.

I felt like this book prompted a lot of valuable reflections, and it’s one which I think will continue to provide food for thought for some time to come.

Some highlights:

How can one mourn losses that are ambiguous? How can we say goodbye to what we ourselves find difficult just to name? We want grief to be finite, to have, at some point, an end, but in truth, we grieve, continue our lives, grieve again, grieve anew, continue to grieve, and sometimes losses can be so ambiguous that our grief has no end.

I think that writers like walking so much because it is a good remedy for the dark state of mind that catches up with you, whether you like it or not, when you are working alone at your desk. It is not uncommonly the case that the great depressives of literary history have also been the most enthusiastic hikers.

When you do nothing but put one foot in front of the other, your mind seems to seek new paths. Body, mind and world come together in a new way, open up new conversations.

As the seasons progressed, I often couldn’t say for sure which day, week or even month it was. Somewhere along the line, I stopped noticing how nature was changing around me. It was as if my life had been packed in cotton wool, as if I was stuck in a dense fog that only parted at certain moments to reveal what was actually happening to and around me. One day I noticed that the summer heat had dried everything out, turned the grass yellow and wilted the birch trees. At some later moment in time, I suddenly registered that the drops on my mackintosh felt cooler than usual and that autumn was on its way. At some point I seemed to wake up on one of those walks to find that the leaves on most of the trees had turned and the first crowns were bare.

But, often, these discussions about the ‘loneliness epidemic’ simply mask a wistful longing for the good old times, for traditional social models of marriage and family that for many of us have outlived their relevance. Often, behind these discussions, is a political agenda that fails to recognize our social realities. Significantly, each revival of the prophets of social decline fails to propose that we start fighting loneliness by tackling racism, misogyny, ableism, antisemitism, homo-, trans- and Islamophobia, by addressing the social stigmatization of people living in poverty, all the structural phenomena of exclusion that produce social isolation every day and on a vast scale. The response of those who employ these grand warnings is almost always to invoke the magical power of the nuclear family.

The truth is that even painful emotions can gift us something. It is hard to see this at the time. When one is caught up in them and is doing everything one can to avoid them, one feels, of course, that one would be better off without them. But they often teach us things that we wouldn’t otherwise have learnt.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , .

‘Bellies’ by Nicola Dinan

Animals are often reluctant to show their bellies as they are a soft, vulnerable point for predators to attack. This debut novel by Dinan, aptly titled Bellies, is about people who become close enough to be vulnerable with one another, to show each other their metaphorical ‘bellies’. It’s about the emotional vulnerability the characters allow themselves to experience in their relationships.

The novel centres on Tom and Ming, who take turns to narrate. Tom is a slightly awkward, newly out gay student. Ming is a charismatic young gay playwright from Kuala Lumpur. The two fall in love and move to London together. Things become complicated when Ming decides to transition to living as a woman.

Having just finished reading Jan Morris’s Conundrum, a renowned book on transsexuality, I thought it couldn’t be a coincidence that a couple in the book are called Janice and Morris: it must surely be a reference.

But really, the book is about so much more than the central relationship and certainly about more than transsexuality. It’s a novel about a group of young friends, and it reflects how their relationships and dynamics change as they grow up and take sometimes divergent and sometimes convergent paths through life. In that sense, it reminded me of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, though covering a slightly shorter timespan and with a little less bleakness.

The characters, even the supporting cast, felt real to me, with true human irrationality and unlikability at times. The book is suffused with both humour and tenderness. There is a speech at a funeral in this book, which conjures an image that I think might stay with me for the rest of my life.

Overall, this was a brilliant novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be the first I’ve reviewed this year, but I’m sure it will be one of my favourites of 2024. I’m already thinking of people to recommend it to.

Here are some passages I highlighted. There are quite a few: I really liked Dinan’s turn of phrase and ability to capture a mood or idea in just a few words. She’s an incredible writer.

I’ve censored the first one so it doesn’t become a spoiler.

I’ve been thinking about how the trunks of trees bend and curve when they grow next to each other. Their leaves twist to accommodate each other. Their closeness reads on the shape of them, and you can infer the shape of one from the shape of another. When you know someone and you grow together, your shape and form become theirs. And so even though X is gone, and there’ll never be another X, another friend I’ve know as well or as closely, the impression their life left on me will always be there, and in that sense we haven’t lost them at all.

I shouldn’t use the word crazy, but I feel like I can. In the same way I can call myself a faggot. Sometimes the shoe fits if you put it on yourself.

Amateur pottery always looked shit, fermentation was just a lot of waiting around, and marathons were for people who had something to run away from.

We walk upstairs together towards my room. I look at my messy, unaccommodating desk. Tom hates how my belongings splat over any surface like jam.

Next to Ming’s, my own mind felt flat, a city highway and not a winding road with sharp loops and swerves. Ming’s thoughts seemed an exciting place to be, a lucky thing to experience.

Everyone laughs. The joke’s not even funny, but there is a collective yearning to shift the mood. The shakes in our ribs are enough to connect the empty spaces between the chairs and across the table. The conversation turns light.

‘Do you want to be a woman?’ I asked.

‘I don’t even know sometimes. I think so. But then I ask myself what does living as a man or woman even mean?’ He shook his head. ‘And I tell myself it’s all sexism, but at the same time it’s a sexist world, and those things still mean something, you know.’

I’m not being funny, but I don’t really know what I like or care about any more.

Maybe that’s what people are supposed to do, sponge out the bad, wring out the suffering as much as we can, even if it stains our hearts and hands.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

I’ve been reading ‘Conundrum’ by Jan Morris

They say that reading history is the only way to understand the news. Someone recently, perhaps in a news article, suggested reading Conundrum as an essential text to understand the current hysteria over gender.

Morris died in 2020 at the age of 94: she was of my grandparents’ generation. She is best known as a journalist and travel writer, including the only journalist accompanying Edmund Hillary and colleagues on the first expedition to successfully ascend Mount Everest in 1953.

This book, published in 1974, documents her gender transition. She was born James Morris, the name she used until after her gender reassignment surgery in 1972. There is, by the way, plenty of background colour about her journalistic career, which I found fascinating.

Conundrum is of its time, and some descriptions and gender stereotypes would be considered ‘problematic’ today. It is, nevertheless, beautifully written, and I had no trouble turning the pages.

I’ve sometimes struggled to fully understand the motivation behind transitioning from one gender to another. I’m in the privileged position that it’s something I’ve never been driven to contemplate at any length. Perhaps I undervalue the impact of my gender on my life, and so I find it difficult to appreciate why it’s such a big deal to others. Morris helped me see this differently and understand that—for her—the change and associated surgery were ‘corrective’.

This is an idea I’ve come across before, but something in Morris’s explanation made it ‘click’ for me. I think I appreciated her comparison between the medical ethics of removing a healthy arm and a healthy penis, a perspective I hadn’t considered before. I found myself challenged and enlightened as a result.

I also found Morris’s discussion of the bureaucracy of her change insightful: whether she could remain married, still be a member of her male-only members’ clubs, and so forth. I was struck by how such things were dealt with in the 1970s, mostly with compassion, care and, perhaps above all, consideration for Morris’s feelings.

It feels worlds away from the unpleasant approach of those who seek to divide us in the 2020s. It’s both unimaginable and yet true that half a century later, Ministers of the Crown try to score rhetorical points in Parliament by discussing whether women can have penises. There is no compassion for any individual in suggesting, as a former Home Secretary did at the despatch box, that Sir Keir Starker may run as Labour’s first female Prime Minister.

This New Year’s Eve, perhaps we can hope for the future that our leaders will be better at learning from our past.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

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