Hit and Miss: Two Short Story Collections

Both these books are very green!

I sometimes feel that a particular piece of fiction would have worked better for me had I been in a different mood, but that feeling isn’t usually as acute as it was when I was reading two recent short story collections, Zadie Smith’s Grand Union and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other PartiesI’d pick Machado up one day and come across one of my favourite short stories of recent years, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’; the next, I’d feel baffled by a novella’s worth of redundant, rambling prose in ‘Especially Heinous’, which tries to tell the story of two pairs of dopplegangers split up in the style of episodes of CSI, but is just too clever for its own good. Similarly, Smith’s clever writing could be totally illuminating one moment, as when she writes about the inner psyche of somebody who has come upon sudden artistic success in ‘Blocked’, and lumbering and obvious the next, as in ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’.

To an extent, I expect this of Smith; her stories here have been collected across a number of years and seem to represent two modes of her writing. One is the bloated caricatures of White Teeth and On Beauty, which I always found to be too much, plus the annoying literary references that ran through her book of essays, Changing My Mind; the other is the clean brilliance of her more recent work, NW and Swing Time. Occasionally these two modes sit uneasily together, as in ‘Kelso Deconstructed’, which mixes a realist story about a black man being murdered by racists with surrealist encounters with great black thinkers such as Toni Morrison. Smith is also not afraid to try out new genres, but again, the two speculative stories here are hit and miss; the fantastical parable ‘The Canker’ is probably the best fictional take on Trump I’ve read (some of the contributors to A People’s Future of the United States could learn from this) but ‘Meet the President’, which imagines a virtual future, is wordy and confusing.

I feel even more conflicted about these two collections because it’s obvious, especially with Smith’s stories, that the individual stories I instantly ‘get’ and connect to will seem pretentious and impenetrable to other readers, and vice versa. Looking at reviews of the collection after writing the first part of this post, I can see that even two reviewers for the Times writing two days apart have received it completely differently; one calls Smith ‘an extraordinary talent’ while the other says that the collection is ‘still waiting for lift-off’. Publishers Weekly agrees with me about ‘Meet the President’ and ‘The Canker’ but not about ‘Miss Adele’. A lot of the Goodreads reviews rave about ‘The Lazy River’, which I thought was a cynical and cliched take on modern life.

However, in contrast with Smith, I was really expecting to love Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, and I’m still surprised that I didn’t. In short, most of these stories were too disconnected from reality for me, and seemed to rely too much on Machado’s incredible prose rather than on their own substance. Exceptions, alongside ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, included ‘The Resident’, a nicely unnerving tale of a writer heading for a remote mountain retreat alongside the Girl Scout camp where she was tormented as a child. You never know what’s real and what’s psychological, but there’s enough here for this to be read as a ghost story rather than something that’s just going on in the narrator’s head, and I always prefer the speculative reading. Other stories devolved into strings of lists, especially ‘Mothers’. I’ll keep an eye out for Machado, because she can obviously write; unfortunately, most of these stories reminded me of Karen Russell and George Saunders, but weren’t nearly as good.

Trying to rate these two collections on Goodreads was difficult! For me, they both contain 1 star and 5 star stories. In the end, I gave Smith 3.5 stars and Machado 3 stars because Smith had more hits than misses, and Machado more misses than hits.

 I received a free proof copy of Grand Union from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 3rdOctober.

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Some Upcoming September Releases

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I picked up We Need New Stories, British-Sudanese journalist Nesrine Malik’s first non-fiction book, because I like Malik’s Guardian columns and her Twitter discussions. We Need New Stories aims to challenge six modern myths, ranging from the idea that there is a ‘free speech crisis’ to the argument that ‘identity politics’ is the root of political and social divisions. I read about a third of this book, but eventually found myself losing interest. I agreed with everything Malik was saying, but that was part of the problem; I wasn’t sure if this book was bringing anything especially new to the table, given how well-rehearsed these debates have been already. Her writing also doesn’t translate well to long-form, becoming much too wordy, with run-on sentences and some misuse of commas. This needed to be much shorter and snappier.

We Need New Stories is out on 5th September. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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I’ve read everything that Tracy Chevalier has written, despite the fact that I don’t think any of her novels have been solid hits for me since 2003. (I loved her early novels The Virgin Blue, Girl With A Pearl Earring (didn’t we all?) and The Lady and the Unicorn, but have had issues with everything else she’s written since then – if you’re interested, I’ve written about Burning Bright and Remarkable Creatures here, and New Boy here.) So, for the first time in sixteen years, I can honestly say that I liked a Tracy Chevalier novel. A Single Thread probably has the quietest premise of any of her historical fiction; rather than focusing on an encounter with a famous person* or object, the book follows the story of Violet Speedwell, a thirty-eight-year old spinster who has recently moved away from her elderly mother to seek a measure of independence in Winchester, working in an office and living in a boarding house. When Violet meets the broderers, a group of women embroidering ‘kneelers’ for Winchester Cathedral, she is drawn into their fellowship.

A Single Thread complements other recent and more overtly radical inter-war historical fiction such as Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage by considering the impact of individual women choosing to live their lives differently. A long set-piece where Violet takes a walking tour by herself is especially insightful; Chevalier writes so well about how she is subtly constrained by the reactions of the men around her, from the over-friendliness of a patronising publican to a man who starts following her in a cornfield and clearly means harm. The novel underlines how actions that seem relatively small and apolitical, such as reorganising the secretaries’ office work after one of your colleagues leaves so you can get better pay and an extra heater in winter, add another thread of discourse to a changing world. I found the ending a little disappointing – I’d hoped for something less conventional – but it does work with the overall concerns of the novel. And while a little of Chevalier’s tendency to show her research seeps through in a long bell-ringing interlude, on the whole, the historical setting is handled subtly and evocatively. Delightful.

*one of the embroiderers in the book, Louisa Pesel, was a real person, but this is on a bit of a different level from say, William Blake or Mary Anning.

A Single Thread is out on 5th September. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Jessie Burton’s writing seems to be becoming more mature and more complex with every novel; I felt lukewarm about The Miniaturist but was gripped by The Muse. Her latest, The Confession, is even more compelling. The book switches between two timelines, both equally interesting: in the early 1980s, Elise Morceau, in her early twenties, falls swiftly in love with the older novelist Connie Holden after a chance meeting on Hampstead Heath, and goes with her to LA. Meanwhile, in present-day London, Elise’s daughter, Rose, wants to know more about the mother she can’t remember – Elise disappeared when Rose was a baby – and devises a plan to make contact with Connie after she discovers that Connie was the last person to see her mother before she went missing. Burton writes so intelligently about choosing whether or not to have a child (there’s precious little fiction, especially in this mainstream literary vein, that allows women to choose to remain childless, but The Confession made me realise that we also hear little about why women actively choose to have children. Spoiler – highlight to read. It also lets one of its main characters get pregnant accidentally and choose to have an abortion rather than to keep the baby, which should not be surprising in 2019 but is still barely talked about in novels. End spoiler.) Burton’s concern with the conditions under which women can make art, which preoccupied The Muse, is also an important sub-theme in this novel, and there’s something of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s classic Women Who Run With the Wolves in her depiction of women who feel compelled to drop out of their everyday lives. As with the ending of The Muse, Burton gives into the temptation to spell out the themes of the novel a little too neatly in its last few pages, but this is still a smart, thought-provoking take on how women negotiate emotional ties. Thematically, it chimed beautifully with A Single Thread; both novels consider women who choose to be single, who choose to be with other women, and who choose or do not choose motherhood.

The Confession is out on 19th September. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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Finally, I’ve just started reading Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House (24th September) – I tend to enjoy Patchett’s more offbeat novels more than her ‘family sagas’, but I’m already captivated by the narrator’s voice. Full review coming soon!

What September releases are you especially excited about, or have already read and liked?

20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Friday Black, All Is Song and Free Food for Millionaires

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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of short stories, Friday Black, feels both memorable and familiar. In full satirical mode, Adjei-Brenyah’s writing recalls both Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and, perhaps most strongly, some of the stories in Narissa Thompson-Spires’s recent collection, Heads of the Colored People, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer. These stories dial up the violence to eleven to produce vicious vignettes of racism and consumerism in the contemporary United States. ‘Zimmer Land’, in particular, could have made a great addition to Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited anthology of speculative fiction, A People’s Future of the United States. It recalls the Black Mirror episode ‘White Bear’ in its depiction of a young black man working in a simulation where he has to pretend to be a robber and have white people pretend to murder him every day. While, technically, this story does the same thing as some of the more pedestrian stories from the LaValle anthology, imagining a dystopian future where white supremacy is even more dominant than it is today, it’s saved by its sheer weirdness. Similarly, ‘The Finkelstein 5’, which picks up on the same themes by having a white man claim that he needed to behead five black children with his chainsaw to defend his own family, works because of how it forces us to revisit the only slightly less horrific things that happen in our own world.

Three stories deal with retail: ‘Friday Black’, ‘How to Sell A Jacket as Told by IceKing’ and ‘In Retail’. The first two, which take place in the same savage world where customers literally murder each other to get to goods on Black Friday, could perhaps usefully have been combined into one long piece; together, they’re unforgettable. ‘In Retail’ feels a little repetitive after these two, but I liked the opportunity it allowed for Adjei-Brenyah to show a softer side. ‘The Lion and the Spider’, about a father who keeps abandoning his son and the vivid fantasy worlds the son creates in his head, is also a stand-out, but in a totally different mode from most of the collection; more realist, and more optimistic. However, despite its strengths, this collection felt uneven as a whole because there were a number of stories that I felt didn’t work at all: ‘Lark Street’, ‘The Hospital Where’ and ‘Light Splitter’ were all too absurd and jumbled for my tastes, and ‘Through the Flash’ was only redeemed by its ending. Adjei-Brenyah may not be a consistently good writer yet, but I’ll still be watching out for more work from him.

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Samantha Harvey’s second novel, All Is Song, tries to imagine what might happen if Socrates was teaching in this day and age. It’s told from the point of view of the Socrates-figure’s brother, Leonard, who has come to stay with his older brother William after the collapse of a relationship. Leonard witnesses William’s extraordinary hold over some local students, which will eventually lead him into trouble, and closely studies his brother’s ways and motives. I barely made it through a quarter of this novel, which is a bit of a shocker, as I absolutely adored Harvey’s Dear Thief and The Western WindHaving read a number of reviews and interviews about this book, I think that Harvey was trying to pull off something incredibly difficult here; to produce a novel as luminous and moving as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but centred around a character who is extraordinary, rather than relatively ordinary in the way that John Ames could be said to be. I admire her ambition, but it doesn’t work; William doesn’t seem special in the ways she needs him to be, and rather than achieving Gilead‘s timeless simplicity, the novel feels both chronologically and geographically adrift. However, failing to write as well as Marilynne Robinson is hardly a condemnation of Harvey, and I’m still a huge fan of her later books.

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Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, took her a very long time to write, as she explains in the foreword. And it’s a very long book: following Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants who disapprove of her fecklessness after graduating from Princeton, it expands to encompass the destinies of a number of Casey’s social circle, especially her best friend Ella, who has managed to meet her own Korean parents’ expectations but becomes desperately unhappy. Compared to PachinkoLee’s second novel, which considered the oppression of Korean immigrants in Japan across several generations, this is basically soapy fun. Given its length – 650 pages – I’d expected this to become more of a multi-generational saga as well, delving back into the past of Casey’s parents, but instead it aims for breadth rather than depth. I liked some of the details of Casey’s characterisation, such as her frustration that her most natural talents – sizing people up for clothes at a glance, making elaborate hats from scratch – don’t help her with what she thinks she ought to be doing in life. But on the whole, Lee relies too much on telling us what her characters are thinking and feeling, and the head-hopping is frequently awkward. I’m not sure this was worth sticking with for the amount of time it took me to read; I’d recommend Pachinko instead, despite its also occasionally clunky writing.

For the first time, I read all 20! I’ll be writing a retrospective on my 20 Books of Summer before the challenge ends on September 3rd. If you were also doing this challenge, how did it go?

20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Good Immigrant USA and Fruit of the Drunken Tree

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The Good Immigrant USA, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman, is the American follow-up to Shukla’s previous edited collection, The Good Immigrant, which focused on Britain. Both collections feature a range of essays from immigrants to these countries talking about their own experiences and challenging stereotypes, but for me at least, the two books have a very different feel. The Good Immigrant was more personal and more anecdotal, and it was definitely funnier; while there were, of course, essays that didn’t employ humour at all, many other contributors used it to effect to make serious points, such as comedian Nish Kumar’s ‘Is Nish Kumar A Confused Muslim?’, about becoming a racist meme, and actor ‘Miss L’s’ ‘The Wife of A Terrorist’, which explained how, as a brown woman, she’s always typecast as a traditional Middle Eastern wife, often of a terrorist.

In contrast, The Good Immigrant USA takes a more literary and a less journalistic tone, and many of the essays require more sustained effort, although the effort is repaid. It feels also more wide-ranging, reflecting the US’s racial mix, from Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas’s essay about the history of Argentina’s colonial encounters, ‘Juana Azurdy Versus Christopher Columbus’, to Porochista Kapoor’s meditation on becoming pigeonholed by your ethnic identity, ‘How to Write Iranian-American, Or The Last Essay’. There’s also a didactic earnestness in a few of the essays in this collection that’s missing from their British counterparts: for example, Jim St. Germain’s essay on Haiti, ‘Shithole Nation’. None of this makes one collection superior or inferior, but they aren’t simply transatlantic versions of each other. The Good Immigrant had more of an impact on me, but I think this was partly the result of having read much less about race and immigration when I encountered it.

One feature of The Good Immigrant USA which wasn’t present in The Good Immigrant is the inclusion of essays by white or white-passing immigrants as well as ethnic minorities. This perhaps says something about the two countries’ attitudes to immigration, but I also found this a helpful and interesting addition to The Good Immigrant USA, allowing the writers to explicitly reflect on white privilege while also reflecting the experience of growing up caught between two cultures. Maeve Higgins writes well about the long tradition of Irish immigration to the US (‘Luck of the Irish’), but I was particularly captivated by Jean Hannah Edelstein’s ‘An American, Told’ (I also loved her memoir This Really Isn’t About You), which focused on having a British mother and Jewish father, and growing up between Britain and the US. Personally, having also moved between the two countries, I identified with what she said about not really feeling British or American. Although I fall much more on the British side of the equation, I still sometimes fall through those cracks (as a recent discussion about ‘frowns’ on Twitter reminded me; I’m on the Americans’ side with that one!).

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Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who is from Bogotá but now lives in San Francisco, could easily have contributed (and I suspect, very interestingly) to The Good Immigrant USA. Her debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, draws on her experience of growing up in a gated community in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It focuses on two children, Chula and her sister Cassandra, and the close relationship they develop with their teenage maid Petrona, who is from what they term the invasión, one of the guerrilla-occupied shanty towns that have grown up on the outskirts of Bogotá. As the girls witness the rise of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the violent incidents that surround them, they cling more tightly to Petrona as an emissary from an outside world they do not understand. But their family’s connection with Petrona will also bring them into danger.

Contreras is obviously a gifted writer, and the afterword of this novel, which explains how it links to her own personal experience, is exceptionally moving. Her website says that ‘She is working on a family memoir about her grandfather, a curandero from Colombia who it was said had the power to move clouds’, and I’d absolutely love to read that. Having read only one other novel set in Colombia (Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Oneswhich also kicks off in the early 1990s) this was refreshingly different, in some ways, from what I usually read. However, it also rehashes some familiar tropes about children encountering a conflict that they don’t understand (I thought the novel would have been much more interesting if narrated by the mother), and the pacing is askew, with virtually everything that happens squashed into the last hundred pages. I found myself wondering if Contreras had been tripped up by trying to translate her own childhood into fictional form, and if her life-writing might work better for me. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is effective page-by-page, but I found the book as a whole frustrating.

20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?

20 Books of Summer, #10 and #11: Chemistry and Inland

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Weike Wang’s Chemistry is a weird little book which I didn’t love as much as I think I was supposed to, but nevertheless enjoyed reading. Our unnamed narrator is pursuing a PhD in organic chemistry at a demanding Boston university and struggling with her relationship with boyfriend Eric, who has asked her to marry him. The novel, however, is really about parental pressure, and about dealing with that in the face of US cultural stereotypes about Chinese parents:

There is a new episode of the cooking show and a Chinese American chef is competing… In between rounds, she talks about her upbringing. Her mother was very quiet. Her father was very strict. They expected certain things of her and cooking was not one of them. But here she is… There is then a round of applause from the judges.

But… my mother is quiet like a lot of Asian mothers. And my father is strict like a lot of Asian fathers. And we are unhappy like a lot of Asian families… 

It was the Chinese roommate who first said to me, We are our own worst propagators of these cliches. We are constantly throwing each other under the bus. But I am also angry at these judges. Why encourage this of us, to constantly rebel, without understanding why some of us do not?

From the blurb, I’d expected this to have more to say about both academia and chemistry, although there’s some nice black humour about the former: 

In Arizona, a PhD advisor dies. Authorities blame the grad student who shot him, but grad students around the world blame the advisor. No student can graduate without the advisor’s approval. This advisor had kept the student in lab for seventeen years, believing him too valuable to be let go or simply having gone insane. I think, Kudos to the student for making it to seventeen years. I would have shot someone at ten.

My adviser is more reasonable than that, which is why he is still alive.

Our narrator often refers to scientific metaphors, but she’s as likely to draw from the physics of light or the science of cell structure than chemistry as such. (I know chemistry is also involved in these things, but from the little we find out about what the protagonist is studying, it does seem to be what a school student might think of as chemistry, with mentions of fume hoods and corrosive chemicals). I’m starting to find this kind of quirky, woman-failing-in-academia narration quite familiar – see also Melissa Broder’s The Pisces and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days – but I got enough of a sense of the quietly resisting, dryly funny narrator to keep me going.

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Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was one of my stand-out novels from the last decade, so I approached her long-awaited second novel, Inland, with both excitement and trepidation. The central plot thread of Inland is set over one long, thirsty day in a small settlement called Amargo in the Arizona Territory in 1893. Nora’s husband has failed to return to their homestead with with fresh water, so she’s watching the level of her household bucket inexorably reduce as she curses her three irritating sons, two of whom are also absent, and her housemaid Josie, who’s insisting she’s seen a strange beast out in the gulch. Josie has a habit of conversing with what she calls ‘the other living’, or ghosts, which also annoys Nora, even though she regularly chats with the spirit of her dead daughter, Evelyn, who she believes is bound to their house. In a second thread, Lurie, a Turkish immigrant on the run from the law, joins up with the Camel Corps to travel through the parched West and narrates his life story to beloved camel Burke. These two stories knot together in the final pages of the book, as Obreht soars into a dazzling, stream-of-consciousness ending.

Inland is a slow, immersive and impressive novel. Obreht is such a talented writer; this is a very different book from The Tiger’s Wife, yet the way she conjures up the mindset of the homesteaders in this parched and lonely land is spot-on. She writes so well about a shifting landscape peopled by settlers of all races, from whites to ‘Arabs’ to Mexicans, by Native Americans, and by ghosts. I sometimes struggle with such an obvious supernatural presence in a novel, but Obreht balances it perfectly; the grit of Nora’s narration is leavened by her matter-of-fact dialogues with Evelyn. The campaign that Nora conducts via her husband’s newspaper to try and stop the county seat being moved from Amargo to Ash River, which would leave the settlement even more isolated, is both humorous and tense. There’s something reminiscent of Eleanor Catton’s New Zealand-set The Luminaries in the way that Obreht explores a tight-knit pioneer community with dark things brewing under the surface. However, the main narrative was undercut for me by Lurie’s sections, which I found much less engaging, although I loved the final resolution of his story. Because of this, Inland was a novel that I appreciated intellectually, but didn’t take to my heart in the same way as The Tiger’s Wife.

Inland was part of my 4.5 Star Challenge: unfortunately, this is another book that’s fallen short, as I only rated it four stars. Will any book ever manage to live up to my expectations?!

I received a free proof copy of Inland from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on August 13th.

Three Things… July 2019

It’s ages since I’ve done a Three Things! Borrowed, as ever, from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Terrible, a memoir by poet and short-story writer Yrsa Daley-Ward, falls into the category of prose-poetry that has attracted criticism recently for being easy and vague, and for prizing ‘relatability’ above other artistic considerations. Poets like Daley-Ward, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur have been disparagingly termed ‘Instapoets’ because of their significant social media presence and use of Instagram to highlight their poetry; given that poets nowadays need to be proactive in engaging with their audience, I don’t find this term useful, and nor do I think that using Instagram makes you a less serious writer. Nevertheless, I broadly agree with poet Rebecca Watts’ now infamous piece in PN Review, ‘The cult of the noble amateur’, which focuses on McNish, that McNish’s and Kaur’s poetry is problematic because it is characterised by an ‘open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft’. This assumes, Watts argues, that poems are not ‘deliberately created works’ but naturally occurring outbursts of feeling, and thus positions them as something that ‘anyone could write’. Unfortunately, I felt that Daley-Ward’s memoir, despite some interesting sections, also ended up in this place.

The Terrible is certainly honest, and it is brave in its exploration of childhood and adolescent trauma. Yrsa and her little brother Roo grew up with their Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents in north-west England; their mother was both present and absent in their childhood. ‘I think she loves us a bit,’ the young Yrsa tells Roo, ‘but not as much as other people’s mums.’ Daley-Ward writes well about how she was meant to feel alienated from her own body before she even hit her teens; entering puberty early, being exoticised as a woman of colour, encountering the ‘powerfear’ of men’s sexual attraction to her. At nine and a half, she writes, ‘I longed for smallness; to be petite. To have small hands and feet and no growing pains; no angry lion dreams and definitely no boobs.’ However, these sections are some of the few in the book that are narrated in prose, and are the stronger for it.

As Daley-Ward moves into her teens, she narrates more and more in prose-poetry (which often just feels like confessional, split-up prose) as she recounts her time in sex work and her isolation in the world. After sleeping with a much older man for money and having to hurriedly leave because his daughters are arriving, she thinks ‘He has daughters. He has a family. It does not feel fair that someone so old should have a doting family and someone as young as me should have no-one.’ But most of these chapters feel like words spilt onto the page, too easy, too emotive, often in a manipulative second-person voice:

You

reduce food to 1200 calories

reduce food to 1000 calories

don’t tell anyone what’s happening with Peter

He wants to leave his wife. Oh God.

He says “You’re losing too much weight.

Eat. Please eat.”

 I wonder if the problem with this kind of poetry, as with McNish’s and Kaur’s, is that it’s really written to be spoken rather than read, that on the page we’re only getting part of the performance. But if that’s the case, this memoir needed to be rethought; for me, this doesn’t work in print. Rather than capturing the specificity of Yrsa’s experiences as her more straightforward writing does, it reduces them and makes them trite. I’d like to see Daley-Ward write more consistently in prose, rather than resort to this hybrid form, as it seems to be where her talents lie.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review.

Watching

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People who know me IRL will know I’m a huge Stranger Things fan. The first two series packed a huge emotional punch for me, especially as I watched them in a row when I was having a difficult time back in January 2018. For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things, it’s set in Hawkins, a fictional small town in Indiana, in the 1980s (and never lets you forget it; this is 80s nostalgia writ large). The main focus of the show is a group of friends on the cusp of their teens, one of whom goes missing after a game of Dungeons and Dragons one night, and the strange, traumatised girl they encounter, Eleven, who turns out to have psychokinetic powers. Our heroes soon start to suspect there’s something supernatural going on beneath the surface of Hawkins, and decide to investigate…

[Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 1 and 2 follow.]

After how much I loved the first two series, Stranger Things 3 was a bit of a let-down. Partly, this is beyond the showrunners’ control: the charm of the first two series lay largely in their exploration of the last years of childhood, when you no longer believe in magic but really want to, and as the central cast age into adolescence, this was never going to work in the same way. However, there were other aspects of Stranger Things 3 that I found a bit lacking. A number of the characters became caricatures of themselves. I’ve always disliked Mike, one of the pre-teens, but I hated him with the intensity of a thousand suns this season as he’s pretty much horrible to everybody around him, especially best friend Will and new girlfriend Eleven. Similarly, disillusioned police chief Hopper seemed to be vicious rather than just jaded, and local mother Joyce, who always shouted a lot, seemed to be shouting even more. There was also not nearly enough Will, the original missing person, who for me has always been the heart of the series. Some of the brilliance of the earlier series was still present – I will always adore Dustin, and his alliance with Steve and Robin was inspired – but, overall, I felt like this season of Stranger Things was more schlocky, less scary, and less haunting.

Thinking

I’ve been listening to a brand new podcast, What Editors Want, which is about what publishers look for in an author and book. The first episode, featuring Louisa Joyner from Faber & Faber, was excellent, and it’s nice to get a different take on publishing after having read 1000+ articles on ‘what agents want’. I went to an event with Joyner at the Durham Book Festival where she was talking with three of her debut authors, and I really admire her approach to getting good books to readers. While I disagree with her that there’s no distinction between commercial and literary fiction, I definitely agree that there are a lot of fantastic books that fall into that liminal space.