Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.

 

Laura Rereading: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

71NuCzurB7L

Before re-reading: I first read A Visit From The Goon Squad in June 2011, when I was 24, and can only remember two things about it now. One: that it’s told with a crazy variety of styles and narrators, including a chapter composed of Powerpoint slides. Two: that near the end of the novel a man is looking out at the skyscraper that is gradually being erected next to his own building and anticipating how his beautiful view will be slowly blocked out as each storey is added.

A Visit From The Goon Squad is essentially about the arbitariness of time – how things can be so different when only time separates Point A and Point B – so it feels like an especially suitable book to look back on. When I first reviewed A Visit From The Goon Squad, I wrote that it ‘follows the stories of various characters who are loosely linked to each other over a fifty-year period in the USA…a fantastic read’. 

BUT: in my personal reading log I rated it four and a half stars for quality but only four stars for enjoyment, which is a pretty big tell, and my only physical memory of reading this book is getting to the Powerpoint chapter on a train from London to Cambridge, where I was living at the time, and feeling relieved that this meant the rest of the book would go by much more quickly than I had anticipated.

So, after re-reading, perhaps it shouldn’t have been so much of a surprise that I no longer get along well with this book at all. The Powerpoint chapter, which focuses on the power of pauses in rock songs through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl, is still genius. Alison’s brother is obsessed with measuring pauses in rock songs and playing them on loop, so he listens to what is essentially a series of silences that are weightier than if they really were just silence. Their dad, who comes and goes a lot from his important job, doesn’t understand his son’s obsession with pauses, and eventually gets frustrated that he won’t stop going on about them and tells him to stop. At that point, their mum snaps:

Untitled

Honestly, I’m going to keep my copy of this book just so I can read this chapter again, but part of the problem here is that Egan manages to say everything she wanted to say in the rest of the book about why time matters, and hence renders the rest of her novel redundant, which is pretty satisfying on a meta level but not great for her or her readers. This time round, I found the many earlier chapters that focus on the dissipated lives of a group of people working in the music business an irritating slog.

(Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, the book DOES end with a skyscraper being built, which is another nice vignette, returning to the theme of incremental intervals of time leading to an absolute difference:

When he stood close to the middle window and looked straight up, he could see the top of the Empire State Building, lit tonight in red and gold… the squat building their own overlooked had been bought by a developer who planned to raze it and build a skyscraper that would seal off their air and light… And now, two years later, the skyscraper had at last begun to rise, a fact that filled Alex with dread and doom but also a vertiginous sweetness – every instant of warm sunlight through their three east-facing windows felt delicious…

The construction now covered the bottom halves of his windows, its shafts and beams a craggy silhouette beyond which the prong of the Empire State Building was still just visible. In a few days, it would be gone.)

Rating in 2011: ****

Rating in 2020: ***

I re-read A Visit From The Goon Squad as part of a buddy read with Bookish Beck.

Laura Rereading: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

One of my 2020 reading resolutions is to do more re-reading. It’s taken me until February to re-read my first novel of the year, but I’ve finally got started!

51BDMVwSDaL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Before re-reading: I first read this in August 2013, when I was 26. I bought it from Mr B’s bookshop in Bath and then started reading it on one of those fake beaches that some English towns and cities set up, sitting on a deckchair in the middle of the pavement. (As it turns out, this was a PERFECT location to start this novel). However, although I had incredibly fond and vivid memories of the experience of reading Beautiful Ruins, I remembered almost nothing about the novel itself, other than it was funny and had a great cover.

The first time I read Beautiful Ruins, I wrote that the novel is about a meeting between ‘Italian fisherman and hopeful hotelier Pasquale‘ and ‘American starlet Dee Moray [in 1962]… an encounter that [Pasquale] will never forget, even fifty years later. However, Pasquale already has one doomed love affair behind him, separated from his first love, Amedea, and from his son Bruce. In the present day, Claire Silver struggles with her role as a film development assistant, longing to be involved in the production of at least one movie she really believes in; will aspiring scriptwriter Shane’s pitch about the controversial historical figure of William Eddy be the one? Meanwhile, her boss, Michael Deane, has written a failed memoir of his own. A few years earlier, musician and comedian Pat also struggles to restart his career by a last-ditch tour at the Edinburgh Festival, while around the time of Pasquale and Dee’s first meeting, writer Alvis Bender reworks the single chapter of his novel that he has managed to produce over and over again.’

My first review of this novel focused heavily on the idea that it is a ‘complex mess’ of plots, very few of which have firm conclusions, arguing that I enjoyed these loose ends and was actually quite disappointed that Pasquale and Dee’s story was more neatly tied up. I also got quite interested in the different fictional techniques that Walter uses to tell the stories of these different characters – film scripts, war memoirs, pitches and plays. I also emphasised what I still think is the central point of this novel: ‘The parallel stories of ruination traced across the lives of Alvis, Pat and Shane seemed to me to speak most interestingly about the questions raised by Walter’s concept of lives as inevitable “failures”‘.

After re-reading: While I don’t exactly disagree with my previous review of Beautiful Ruins, I was struck by how much better Pasquale and Dee’s story worked for me this time round. The two characters are, as Walter intended, the emotional heart of the novel, and I think, while their story may have the neatest ending, it also provides a great counterpoint to what would otherwise be a too-neat message of the novel: the idea that everyone’s lives are ‘beautiful ruins’. Pasquale makes a key moral choice near the end of this novel that feels both heartbreaking and uplifting, and it was this scene that really struck me when I re-read this book. While Pasquale’s life has not turned out like he planned, I don’t believe it can be seen to be ‘ruined’; he has done what he thought was right, and ends up surrounded by a happy family in his old age.

I’m not sure why I found it so much easier to invest emotionally in Pasquale, in particular, this time around. Maybe I’m simply getting softer in my old age (!!) or perhaps this novel came to me this time round when I felt especially ready to be moved. I think one big advantage of re-reads is that you can match them so much more closely to your emotional mood, partly because there isn’t the pressure of reading a new title and partly because you already have a sense of what they contain. At any rate, I hesitated a little while before reading the final scene of Beautiful Ruins, wanting to make sure that I was in the right headspace to fully appreciate it. 

Rating in 2013: ****

Rating in 2020: ****1/2

 

Little Women (BBC, 2017) vs Little Women (Columbia, 2019)

When the hype for Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women (2019) started to get going, I felt a bit confused. The film was being hailed as a modern take on the classic novel that finally drew out its feminist themes, foregrounded the real, human relationships between the women of the family, and gave both Jo and Amy the credit they deserve. But for me, all of this had already been done – by the stellar BBC television adaptation of the novel in 2017.

Before anyone gets cross, I really liked Greta Gerwig’s film – but I think Vanessa Caswill’s very different adaptation has been unfairly sidelined. So I thought it would be fun to pitch these two against each other. I will only compare things that I care about, so don’t expect this to be in any way fair.

Warning, this post probably won’t make much sense unless you are already familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives!

Meg

Let’s start with an easy one. Meg from 2017 (Willa Fitzgerald) is streets ahead of Meg from 2019 (Emma Watson), and because No-One Likes Meg, it’s so important to get her right. This is down to the acting, but – even though I’m not a Watson fan – I think the script is the crucial factor here. The longer runtime of the BBC mini-series allows Meg to come into her own. Fitzgerald portrays her with a quiet serenity that makes her affectations at the Moffats’ party feel genuinely out of character, and giving her time to talk about her work as a governess – and be snubbed by an English snob, as she is in the novel – means that her desire for pretty things feels less shallow and more understandable. As she moves into adulthood, the harrowing birth scene added in 2017 makes her life feel real and hard rather than merely a heteronormative fantasy that’s there to taunt Jo.

I think that the 2019 film had its heart in the right place with Meg. For example, her line to Jo – ‘just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – indicates that we are meant to see her as a person worthy of respect in her own right, and that Gerwig wants us to recognise that women who choose a traditional path of marriage and child-bearing are not inherently inferior. But I think that the way that 2019 chooses to value Meg is a bit of a misstep, emphasising the need for both sisters to understand each other rather than the true, inherent conflict between their dreams. Meg wants her own home and family; Jo wants her ‘first family’ to remain together forever. Both films are really good at portraying Jo’s anguish at the prospect of losing Meg, but only 2017 actually presents it as the insoluble problem that it is. But because 2017 takes Jo so seriously, it also allows us to feel the pressure that Jo’s expectations put on Meg, with Jo looming in the background of John’s proposal like a forbidding, virtuous angel. Meg is sometimes seen as moralistic, but Jo shows us that she’s actually the sister who holds others to viciously high standards. +1 to 2017.

Jo

Let’s move on to a more difficult one. Yes, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo in 2019 is, I think, better than Maya Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jo in 2017. But, again, this isn’t just down to the two actors, but about the choices made by script and direction. 2019 is the Jo Show, and the character is totally captivating. Gerwig draws out the queer undertones of Jo’s character much more effectively than any other adaptation I’ve seen, and she gets a huge amount of screen time to explore the central tension in her life: that, as she puts it in the most memorable scene of the 2019 film, she doesn’t want to get married but nor does she want to live her life alone. ‘Jo’s Dark Days’ is one of my favourite chapters of Little Women and Good Wives, and 2019 gets that so well. However, if Jo is less striking in the 2017 adaptation, it’s partly because the script has made a deliberate choice to give more time to Marmee and to the other sisters, which strengthens the story as a whole. So 2019 wins, but at a cost. +1 to 2019.

Beth

Maybe nobody likes Meg, but the character I found most difficult in the novel was always Beth – I still find her death totally unmoving except in terms of how it affects Jo. Annes Elwy in 2017 and Eliza Scanlen in 2019 both do an admirable job of making her a little less dull. Both adaptations play up her social anxiety, which helps us to understand the character a little more, but on balance, I preferred the deliberate weirdness of 2019’s Beth, who constructs elaborate tableaux with her dolls at the table and uses the fact of her impending death to get Jo to write her the stories she wants. +1 to 2019.

Amy

Everyone’s supposed to hate Amy, but I always liked her, and both 2017 and 2019 bring Justice for Amy. Both adaptations make the choice to have Amy played by the same actor throughout, which means they both make certain sacrifices. Kathryn Newton (2017) is much more convincing as Young Amy, partly because she gets more screen-time, so although neither version really helps us understand why Amy burns Jo’s book, 2017 gives us more space to explore Amy’s character development after the terrible deed. For example, we get the scene where Amy writes a will, with Laurie’s help, when Beth is sick with scarlet fever, and makes a specific bequest to Jo because she’s sorry about her book and wants to be a better person.

On that note, I really disliked the fact that the 2019 adaptation chose to have Amy in love with Laurie all along, rather than being the self-centred, creative, clever, irritating person she actually is in the first volume. 2019 really wants us to buy into Amy and Laurie, a pairing that a lot of fans find difficult to accept, but because I never had a problem with them in the first place, I never found this to be such a plot hurdle. 2017 handles the pairing more subtly by showing us how Amy and Laurie interact while she’s still a child and he’s still in love with Jo, while 2019 uses its non-chronological structure to intercut shots of the young Amy pining after Laurie while older Amy realises that he’s finally falling for her. Not a fan, bring back selfish Amy please.

However, having said that, Florence Pugh (2019) is so good as the older Amy, and one of the stand-out moments of the film is when she explains to Laurie that while marriage might not be a financial transaction for him, it surely is for her. Some of the assumed modernity of 2019 grated on me, but I can completely believe that this is something that Amy might say to the dissipated and ‘lazy’ Laurie. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Marmee

2019 did not get Marmee. She’s one of the key casualties of its meta approach to the source text, with Gerwig unable to play her deeply held moral beliefs – based on a life of repression and self-sacrifice – straight and instead retconning in feminist statements. As Sarah Blackwood writes in the New Yorker:

Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling. 

One of my favourite scenes in the novel is the scene when Marmee talks to Jo after Amy falls through the ice; partly because it’s one of the few scenes that gives us a glimpse of Marmee as a person. Both 2017 and 2019, unusually, adapt this scene, but I don’t think either of them quite get it right. In the book, Marmee tells Jo: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.” Jo can’t believe it: “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” Marmee explains: “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

In an age where we are told – and rightly so – that rage becomes her, that anger is a positive emotion, that the criticism and belittling of women’s anger, particularly the anger of women of colour, is a tool of the patriarchy, Marmee’s words may feel too anti-feminist to screen, and it’s noticeable that neither adaptation lets her say the full quotation. However, I think that we need to know this about Marmee if we are going to understand her character. Marmee isn’t sweetness and light; she is a mother who cares deeply about her daughters but is still deeply embedded in the society in which she lives. 2019 sees her offering her daughters ‘outs’, suggesting to Jo that her life can be different from the one that Marmee herself has lived. The harsher, less forgiving Marmee in 2017 (Emily Watson) is much more accurate, and much more interesting, and as a bonus, unlike Laura Dern, she doesn’t look like she’s dressed up for a day at the office. +1 to 2017.

Mr March

Mr March is literally missing in action in 2019 even after he comes home from war, with Bob Odenkirk only appearing in a couple of shots (none of which I could find to use for this post). While I slightly admire Gerwig’s determination to make the patriarch of the family ‘not seen and not heard’, this choice undermines the reality of the sisters’ worry about him, and further diminishes Marmee as an independent individual. While Mr March (Dylan Baker) doesn’t have a great deal more to do in 2017, he’s there enough to address these issues. +1 to 2017.

Laurie

I don’t really care about Laurie as a character, except insofar as the way he is presented affects the characterisation of Jo and Amy. 2019’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is much more engaging, but I think 2017’s Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) does a better job of getting across why the essentially conventional Laurie is not right for Jo. Both films handle the proposal scene heartbreakingly well, but 2019 leans harder on the idea that Jo never wants to get married, whereas 2017 is more focused on Jo’s assertion that she does not love Laurie romantically, but may love somebody else in the future. I like 2019’s interpretation more, but I actually found the 2017 version of the scene more convincing. As I’ve suggested, both adaptations also do a pretty good job of setting up Amy and Laurie as a romantic pairing. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Professor Bhaer

I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it? Alcott was cross about having to marry Jo off at the end of Good Wives, so she invented Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older German intellectual who is not conventionally attractive (Mark Stanley, 2017); the pair team up to open a school for boys. Making Bhaer into a hottie (Louis Garrel, 2019) totally undermines that, whatever the meta intentions of Gerwig’s choice, and I’m not sure about the more conventional feminist resolution of having Jo and Friedrich open a mixed-sex school instead of a boys’ school either.

Rewatching the 2017 adaptation, in contrast, made me see why Friedrich is a good match for the Jo presented in this version of Little Women. Jo, as I suggested above, is an idealist who holds other people to her scarily high moral standards, and the person she’s hardest upon is herself. Modern readers find the scene where Professor Bhaer paternalistically criticises Jo’s stories hard to swallow – and this scene isn’t adapted fully in either 2017 or 2019 – but the intention behind his criticism is to show that he believes that these stories don’t represent the moral or emotional truth Jo is capable of writing. The 2017 adaptation gets how important it is for Jo to have someone who believes in her, not as a writer (I never got the sense that Jo was lacking in self-confidence where her writing is concerned) but as a good person. +1 to 2017.

The Civil War

Neither film lingers on the realities of the Civil War or its legacies of white supremacy, but 2019 gives a couple of black characters speaking parts, whereas the only black person in 2017 is a corpse on a stretcher. (If you want to read more about the whiteness of Little WomenKaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in The New York Times is a good place to start). +1 to 2019.

Story structure

2017 tells the story in strict chronological order. 2019 intercuts between Little Women and Good Wives, so, for example, both of Beth’s sickbed scenes are juxtaposed together, and Jo is trying to sell her stories at the start of the film. I admire the idea behind 2019’s out-of-order storytelling, but I don’t think it really works. It makes the film feel even more rushed and choppy, and I’m not sure a viewer who wasn’t very familiar with these two volumes could easily follow it. +1 to 2017.

So meta

Modern Little Women adaptations are always a little bit meta, something that some of the reviews of the 2019 film have missed. (Even the 1994 adaptation shows Jo writing her life story). However, 2019 goes a step further, presenting two potential endings to Jo’s story – one in which she marries Professor Bhaer and runs her school, and one in which, like her creator, she becomes a ‘literary spinster’. This pulls out a lot of the thematic material that is latent in Little Women and Good Wives and gets at some of the ideas raised above about how all of the sisters are stuck in the system, but it does also feed into the suggestion that exceptional women are able to escape. For me personally, the straightforward 2017 adaptation feels more useful to think with, but I have to admit that 2019 has probably brought the tensions at the heart of Little Women to a bigger audience. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

THE VERDICT

2017: 8 points

2019: 6 points

To be honest, we’re lucky to have two such great adaptations of this great novel. However, 2017 wins out for me because I think it’s willing to present the viewer with more difficult material, because it doesn’t aim to wrap everything up with a feminist bow, and because it acknowledges that Marmee, not Jo, is the centre of the story.

Has anyone else seen both these adaptations? What did you think? Or are any of the earlier adaptations closer to your heart?

 

 

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2019

I borrowed this from Diana at Thoughts on Papyrus#SciFiMonth reads are excluded!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

9780747562115

I’ve done a good job winnowing down my TBR pile to 2020 releases, but I ambitiously started a re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and am only a few pages in at the moment (this is solely due to the size of the paperback and not a reflection on the book itself) so I’d like to finish that by the end of the year.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

914ugduvSvL

I’m currently reading Tom Cox’s collection of short stories, Help The Witch, which is left over from my Halloween reading but is beautifully atmospheric and surprisingly funny. A number of the stories have ghostly themes, but Cox is very light touch: as he puts it in his acknowledgements, ‘thank you to ghosts, for maybe being real.’ What he’s especially good on is how places shape our personalities, even places where we only spend a short time. As one of his characters puts it: ‘Human character was more subject to geography than was generally acknowledged. Yet there was a pressure to be the same person people had come to expect everywhere you went.’ Striking woodcuts by Cox’s mother, Jo, add to the overall feel of this collection.

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

I think I nabbed them all on NetGalley!

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year check in tag, I’d like to prioritise Amy Waldman’s A Door in the Earth and Tash Aw’s We, The Survivors. I’d also like to read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments by the end of the year, before I totally miss the zeitgeist.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

51j67S-P0zL

If it’s The Testaments I should probably give up reviewing books! But more likely, I think, looking at my TBR list, is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, which is the one book remaining from my 4.5 star challenge (none of the rest achieved 4.5 stars, so he is my only hope).

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

Yep – I have three main goals:

  • Start 2020 as I mean to go on by reading through all the 2020 releases I have stacked up on NetGalley and don’t think I’ll get a chance to read before then. These are: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara; The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams; A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry; The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue; and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. I also have two proofs from the John Murray Proof Party at the Durham Book Festival to read: Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Year Without Summer.
  • Reframe 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge, so I can read any 20 books I like as long as they’re rereads.
  • In a similar vein, continue my Reread Project.

The Reread Project: The Handmaid’s Tale

In this series of posts, I revisit books that I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion has changed. For the list of upcoming books, see this post. The only other entry in this series so far is To Kill A Mockingbird. This is also a bonus entry for #ReadSciFi month.

The edition I read as a teenager versus the edition I read this time round.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale: Margaret Atwood (1985)

I first read this novel in 2003, when I was sixteen. It wasn’t a set text, but I did read it from the school library. As with To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt that I ‘ought’ to read it and like it, and this may explain some of my hostile reaction. I didn’t dislike Atwood per se at this age: my first book by her had been Alias Grace, which I’d loved (though I liked it less when I re-read it a few years later). But I really didn’t like The Handmaid’s TaleAs I wrote in my review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, when I was a teenager I considered feminism to be outdated. While I may have been more responsive to other feminist dystopias, I remember feeling that Atwood’s vision of a world of handmaids seemed especially contrived and implausible. I felt that I lived in a world where sexual freedom was only becoming more and more widespread; Atwood’s world was supposedly set in the future, but seemed to belong to the past.

***

When I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, I felt like I’d been basically right about it when I was a teenager. In contrast, re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale has been a sobering experience. It’s really good. While these thoughts may bring nothing new to the table for those of you who’ve been reading and discussing the novel for decades, I thought I’d try and say something about why my opinion has changed so drastically.

As a teenager, I was introduced to The Handmaid’s Tale as an Important Feminist Text, having never been told very much about feminism, and I interpreted its story according to what I understood of feminism at the time. Offred was a feminist heroine rebelling against an evil regime – I’m not sure the word patriarchal was familiar to me. In this regime, men were all bad and women were all oppressed, and this reflected the future that Atwood thought we were all heading towards. I believed this was incredibly unlikely. However, I don’t think I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale so much solely because I didn’t see myself as a feminist; I think my misinterpretation of the story Atwood is trying to tell also played into it.

The first thing that struck me about the narrative that we receive in The Handmaid’s Tale on my re-read is how deliberately partial it is – both fragmented, and biased. Offred is, or at least was, a middle-class white woman from a certain kind of liberal background. She’s rather impatient with the radical feminism of her second-wave feminist mother. While she notionally stands for sexual freedom, she isn’t as open-minded as we might expect when her best friend Moira comes out as a lesbian: ‘There was a time when we didn’t hug, after she’d told me about being gay; but then she said I didn’t turn her on, reassuring me, and we’d gone back to it.’ Offred has precious little to tell us about the fate of people of colour in her world; we only learn in the Historical Notes, which detail a conference held by a number of professors hailing from previously colonised countries like India that ‘racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.’

 But once we realise that Offred isn’t an icon, but an ordinary person, and her narrative is intentionally limited, The Handmaid’s Tale opens up. Atwood juxtaposes a number of different understandings of feminism and maternalism, rather than focusing on how the dystopian society of Gilead is Bad and the previous world order was Good. In many ways, the book is a deliberate reckoning with the legacy of second-wave feminism, and with the cracks that were opening up in the movement in the 1980s. Offred, before the coup, takes much of her previous freedom for granted and is somewhat dismissive of her mother’s activism, but also accepts that there were restrictions on life before: that women couldn’t walk freely in the streets alone and were constantly confronted with pornographic depictions of their own bodies. As Atwood herself has commented, Gilead deliberately co-opts some of the tenets of the second-wave feminist movement: for example, in its antipathy to rape and its glorification of women’s ability to bear children. Offred’s relationship to this earlier brand of feminism is poignantly reflected in her realisation of what has happened to her own mother: ‘I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins… I can’t quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energey, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.’

Sex was an important part of Offred’s life before the coup, but is now reduced to ritualistic intercourse with the Commander once a month. When the Commander suggests that this society is better for women, and asks Offred ‘What did we overlook?’, her answer, like the answers of many fictional victims of dystopian societies, is ‘Love… Falling in love’. In her own head, she continues: ‘It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space’. When Offred does embark on a sexual relationship with Nick, she isn’t driven by romantic passion but by a desire to break out of the role she has to play all day every day. Nevertheless, this becomes addictive: ‘I no longer want to leave, escape… I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.’ In The Handmaid’s Tale, love is not positioned tidily as salvation from dystopia but as another way in which women’s wants can both be expressed and co-opted. Atwood’s description of what women get out of reading women’s magazines, which preach the gospel of love, can’t really be bettered: ‘They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities… They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.’

 The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, isn’t a simplistically feminist book but a reckoning with a specific kind of feminist philosophy; and Atwood never lets on what she really thinks. While Gilead may contain some superficially tempting features, the real temptation, underneath the surface, is the world-view of Offred’s mother, which has been both destroyed by Gilead and vindicated in the most disturbing of ways. The novel doesn’t tell us what we should think about sex in a patriarchy, about the narrative of romantic love, or how we walk the line between protection and restriction; but it poses all these questions so well. Because of this, it seems essential to me that it is an unfinished text, and I worry about what The Testaments has done to the parameters that Atwood originally established here, even though I’m now keen to read it. For me, Go Set A Watchman helped to redeem some of the problems in To Kill A Mockingbird, but I doubt that will be the case with this particular sequel.

A personal note: The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in Britain in 1986, the year I was born. I first read it when I was sixteen, the same age as one of the narrators of The Testaments. And now, like Offred, I’m thirty-three. I wonder, if I re-read this novel when I’m twice as old once more, whether it will be a different book again.

 

The Books That Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where my basic assumptions about what makes a good novel comes from, and how both my reading preferences and the themes, structures and concerns of my own creative writing can be traced back to a handful of crucial titles. These are not my favourite books of all time, or the books that I think are the best, but they are books that I once loved or still love. Post inspired partly by Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm!

Early Childhood Favourites (Under 8)

I was a precocious reader (nobody who reads this blog will be at all surprised to hear) and my mum struggled to find me books that I wouldn’t eat up in two seconds and yet would still be appropriate for my age. It’s not surprising that she turned to fantasy. What’s wonderful about all these titles is that they’re books that have lived with me for more than twenty years, enriching my life differently as I get older; they’re books that I didn’t necessarily understand completely the first time I read them, but which have shaped my understanding of story-form on an unconscious level.

enchanted-forest

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, especially the first two titles in the series, Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons, have given me endless pleasure throughout the years. Most importantly, I think their use of twisted fairytale elements made me understand that stories look different from different points of view. Princess Cimorene volunteers to live with a dragon, but has to constantly turn away disgruntled princes who want to rescue her so they can get half her father’s kingdom and her hand in marriage. Rumpelstiltskin is forced, through family tradition, to take the babies of women who can’t guess his name after spinning straw into gold, but he can’t provide for all the children, and he can’t spin gold for himself; he solves the problem by setting up a boarding school and hiring a good lawyer to make it into a charitable trust, so he can spin for charity. Wizards, like the Wicked Witch of the West, can be vanquished by a bucket of soapy water, but don’t forget to add lemon juice, or it doesn’t work. Unlike many favourite children’s books, I honestly feel that these could be read and appreciated at any age, even if you first come to them as an adult.

Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper, about a group of powerful women, called dorans, who strive to live in harmony with the earth, put forward a beautiful and subtly feminist vision of female power, based on Cornish folklore. In that, they share some elements with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet*, especially The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. I didn’t fully understand any of these books as a child, but their descriptions of light and dark magic made a deep impression. Similarly, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, about a female dragon killer, was almost incomprehensible to me at first due to the way it nested stories within stories, but it became my first introduction to this storytelling style. Her Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was more accessible for a seven-year-old. Finally, my mum’s childhood copy of Alan Garner’s A Weirdstone of Brisingamen scared me and delighted me at the same time, and the scene when Colin and Susan are chased through an underground cave system is still an exemplar of how to build up tension.

*There were only four books when I was little…

Late Childhood Favourites (8-12)

Fantasy and speculative fiction continued to dominate my reading during this period (I read plenty of more realistic books as well, I just didn’t like them as much) with the beginnings of some science fiction as well. Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and also a great lesson in how to mix fantasy and reality; it focuses on Marianne, who is confined to bed with a long illness, and who starts to discover that the things she draws come to life in her dreams. Lionel Davidson’s almost unknown Under Plum Lake is a deeply haunting narrative of a boy who discovers a secret world deep under the sea; impossible to summarise, impossible to forget. The last of these three books – they always go together in my mind – is Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl at boarding school in the 1960s who unknowingly swaps places with a girl at the same school in 1918. All these novels have the supernatural, otherworldly quality that I strive for in my own fiction.

All these books were published decades before I was born. On the other hand, there were modern series: so many series! Growing up in the 1990s, very few new books for children or teenagers seemed to be stand-alones. Many of these titles were rubbish, but there were some exceptions. I bought the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and so was a little ahead of the curve; I was enraptured by how incredibly well-plotted it was, and the complex moral universe that seemed to be suggested by its two sequels. Alas, the Harry Potter series jumped the shark for me after book five (see monster rant coming soon), but I still admire the first three books. More satisfying was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which I’ve written about before but will never stop talking about, probably because they had the single biggest impact on my childhood self. This SF series stars a group of teenagers who can change into any animal they can touch and have to use these powers to fight a guerrilla war against an undercover alien invasion that’s infiltrating Earth by taking over human bodies. By the age of ten, I was desperate for books that moved beyond heroes and villains and explored more difficult questions about morality; Animorphs, which ends with our all-American boy hero committing genocide against the main alien antagonists of the series, delivered this in spades. Given that the series is fifty-four books long, plus some sequels, super editions and spin-offs, it obviously varies in quality, but nothing else I read made me think so hard.

This post got too long, so Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon! Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Have you read any of these books? What were your childhood favourites, and how have they affected the way that you read and/or write fiction?

Holiday Reading in the USA, Part Two

39788660

One of the key goals of my trip to the US was to buy a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm, and get it back to the UK (not easy with a very big hardback book and a very limited baggage allowance). As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Tana French’s literary crime writing, and am always trying to recruit people to my cult (my success rate is high). Her first six novels were all focused on detectives working in the Dublin Murder Squad, making The Witch Elm her first stand-alone, although it retains the Dublin setting. Our narrator, Toby, has lived a life that he describes as ‘lucky’ and we might describe as ‘privileged’; as a white, middle-class, straight man, he has no structural barriers to overcome until the moment two burglars break into his flat and beat him brutally, leaving him dealing with neurological disabilities. While still trying to get back on his feet, he goes to stay with his dying uncle Hugo, and reunites with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon. But when a skeleton is discovered in the wych elm in Hugo’s garden, Toby realises that his gilded past might not have been as fortunate as he thought.

While the quality of French’s writing shows no sign of diminishing, I felt that The Witch Elm ranked alongside my least favourite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, rather than with the best; in theme and accomplishment, it’s most similar to French’s debut, In the Woods. One thing that was lacking for me was the interplay of genre and literary conventions that marks out the most brilliant of French’s novels; by discarding the police procedural elements, French ends up writing a much more straightforward literary novel that is more reminiscent of The Secret History and its many imitators  than crime fiction. I missed this tension, which French handles so well – although after reading her first six novels multiple times, I felt that I could almost read the minds of the policemen who interrogate Toby and his family, and found myself wondering which strategies and masks they were using, which was fun 🙂

Moreover, although The Witch Elm’s message about privilege is powerful, I felt it was a bit too clearly spelt out, especially near the end of the novel, when Toby is carefully lectured by Susanna and Leon. Earlier scenes, such as Toby’s attitude to the ‘urban youth’ whose art he is meant to be promoting as part of his job – he sees the whole endeavour as a politically correct racket – make the point about his character much more subtly. Nevertheless, the dissolution of Toby’s very self as he realises he can no longer rely on being seen as a ‘blank slate’ – that he is now being judged by his stammer, his twitches and his pauses – is very well done. Toby can’t understand who he is now he is seen by society as a ‘disabled man’ rather than simply as a person; he’s lost his ability to imagine himself as anything he wants to be, and now can’t imagine himself as anything at all.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before The Start Of Time combines the artificial wombs of Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season with the single-parent babies of Angela Chadwick’s XX to present a series of vignettes across three generations that consider how both new technologies and changing social norms transform child-bearing and child-rearing. This short book is deceptively easy to read, but I felt like little of it was sticking with me; books that jump forward in time like this often end up making the characters’ children and grandchildren into no more than a list of names, a problem that was also obvious in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I liked the fact that Charnock mixed together a series of advances rather than focusing on a single ‘what-if’ scenario, but she didn’t really give herself the space to consider these alternative realities in enough depth.

I came across Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Suttera historical novel about a midwife wanting to train as a surgeon who ends up nursing wounded soldiers in DC in the midst of the American Civil War, on Claire’s blog. The novel is not only hard-hitting but almost tragic, in the Greek sense; Oliveira seems determined to force Mary to a point where she literally has only herself to rely on, where she must completely re-examine the initial determination to receive medical training that drove her to this point. As with Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, I enjoyed reading about a female protagonist who is primarily motivated by ambition and idealism rather than by love, friendship and family, although Oliveira also emphasises Mary’s emotional ties. There are a few annoying tropes -[highlight for spoiler] why does Mary’s unambitious and feminine sister, Jenny, have to compete with her over a man, get married, do nothing, and then die horribly in childbirth[end spoiler] – but the vitality of Mary’s character pulls the novel through.

What next, now I’m sadly back in the UK? I’m enthralled by Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, which I have to call a Calvinist ghost story (thanks to Rebecca for handing on her proof copy!) and am slowly enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, while I found Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body to be an unsatisfactory mix of literary experimentation and chick lit. For peaceful, contemplative bedtime reading, I’m rediscovering some Michael Morpurgo favourites from childhood – Kensuke’s Kingdom and King of the Cloud Forests – and for more unsettling dreams, I re-read a book that haunted my teenage years, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside.

Bookworm, or I Wish I’d Written This

91yIFzGgQKL

Everyone’s been raving about Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, so I feel like I’m already late to the party, even though it was only published a couple of months ago. But anybody who’s not read this yet: I’m here to tell you that it lives up to expectations. Mangan’s tour through the books she read in her childhood and adolescence is absorbing not just because it brings back fond memories of books you’d forgotten you’d ever read (for me: Thimble Summer; Jill’s Gymkhana; Z for Zachariah; Fireweed), but because it somehow recaptures what it felt like to be so transported by a book that you literally didn’t hear the sounds of the outside world. Like Mangan, this got me into trouble as a child; I was once so enraptured by reading Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes at a hellish summer activity holiday that I didn’t hear multiple commands from our bullying course instructor, who was not impressed by my explanation that I hadn’t, in fact, been deliberately ignoring her.

I came for the books but I was just as impressed with Mangan’s loving caricatures of herself and her family. I find it very difficult to come across books that I think are genuinely funny without becoming uncomfortable, repetitive or over-laboured, and Mangan hits the nail right on the head. From her mother, a practical GP who has no time for reading and ‘had gone back to work within ten minutes of giving birth (“Stitch me up! Let’s get on!)’ to her book-buying but very quiet father (‘a man who spoke only when directly addressed and last initiated a conversation in nineteen sixty-NEVER’) to her scientific sister, who was unimpressed by What Katy Did (‘when she reached the end of Coolidge’s tale, she hurled it across the room shouting “Katy did nothing!” before stalking off to finish the kit car she was coding an automated build for behind the sofa.’ Mangan’s portrait of her own child self is equally hilarious, but also thought-provoking: ‘I was about to start school. This is not a good time for a misanthropic, introvert bookworm.’ Quoting Florence King, she writes: ‘Until I began school, I hadn’t realised I was a child. I thought I was just short.’

In many ways, Mangan and I were clearly quite different children. Like Mangan, I spent half of my time reading, sitting next to our Aga in the imaginatively-named ‘Aga chair’, but unlike Mangan, I spent the other half of my time roaming as far away from the house as I could get. In most of the photographs of me after I learned to walk, I’m running away from my parents towards something in the distance (forest; sea; dog). So Mangan’s love of home and the indoors above all else wasn’t the same for me. However, our feelings about school are obviously shared. We also seem to have read almost all the same books, although I often disagreed with her assessments of them – which didn’t affect my enjoyment of Bookworm in the slightest. I dutifully read all the Narnia books as a child but never really liked them, and hate them as an adult, while I was also pretty blind to the charms of The Railway Children (give me the Psammead or the Would-be-Goods), The Secret Garden (would rather read A Little Princess) or even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (I still don’t like weird deviations from reality). While I adored Tom’s Midnight Garden – which I encountered, like many other books, through the BBC’s Jackanory – I loved Charlotte Sometimes and Marianne Dreams, two other weird children’s novels from the same generation, even more. And while I was happy to see Mangan criticise the sentimentality of Anne of Green Gables, I can’t agree that it reads better if you’re an adult – and would like to give her the Emily of New Moon series (or Anne with an E on Netflix).

The book also sparked memories of lesser-known novels that are unsurprisingly not mentioned in Bookworm but which were so important in my childhood. Leaving aside everything I read in the US for now, does anyone else remember The Mennyms, a creepily disturbing series about a household of living rag dolls who have to somehow survive in a world made for humans? Or Vlad the Drac (Jackanory again), a not-very-well-written series about a miniature vegetarian vampire? Or Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky, a children’s SF novel about life on a space station? Or John Christopher’s bizarre The Lotus Caves, set on the moon? Or L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game trilogy, which starts with an evil board game and proceeds with impeccable story structure? Or – more loved than any of the others – Lionel Davidson’s eerie and unforgettable Under Plum Lake? 

Finally (and I could write three times as much about this book) I liked how Mangan dealt with the line between fantasy and reality in children’s literature. The belief that children, even very young children, absorb what they read uncritically has led to lots of very bad takes on what should and shouldn’t be in children’s books. Mangan quite rightly recognises that child (and adult) readers often skip over this line several times in the course of reading a single text, and that simple belief in the complete truth of a book is unlikely even for very young readers. She writes so well about one of my most-loved picture books, John Burningham’s Come Away From The Water, Shirley, which ‘juxtaposes imagination and reality without comment.’ As a child, I believed this book had been my grandmother’s when she was young (it obviously wasn’t as it was first published in 1977 – I suspect it was in fact a gift from my grandmother) and that it was somehow about her (her name was Shirley). It took me a long time to disentangle what was really going on with the book, but at no point did I believe the book was ‘true’ in the same way as other stories about my grandmother were true, even though I didn’t think it was completely ‘made-up’ either.

What was harder to deal with was the idea that books could talk to each other. As a child, I read all of the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (a tremendously popular US series about growing up in early twentieth-century Minnesota) in which the heroine, Betsy, has brown braids and ‘teeth that were slightly parted in the middle’. As a seven-year-old, I became very confused when I read another book (I can’t remember what it was) in which the main character wishes she could have teeth parted in the middle ‘just like Betsy’s from Betsy-Tacy‘. But how did the books know about each other? I knew that Betsy was made up, so why was she mentioned in another book? HOW HAD THIS HAPPENED?

I’ve already written quite enough about Bookworm, and about childhood reading in general, so I’ll stop here, but I’d love to hear about others’ thoughts on this book, or on books read in childhood. What were your favourites? Did they match up with Mangan’s? Have you re-read books you hated as a child that you now love – or books you loved that you now can’t stand? What book did you love that nobody else has ever heard of?

The Reread Project, 2018

isbn9780753818923

Two years ago, I declared my intention to re-read classic books I’d hated as a child or teenager and see if I’d changed my mind. Unfortunately, this project didn’t get very far at the time: I only re-read one book, Harper Lee’s To Kill A MockingbirdTherefore, I’m going to try again in 2018, starting with these five titles:

  1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  2. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  4. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
  5. David Almond, Skellig

It’s interesting to note that two of these titles (Walker and Hardy) were books that I studied for English Literature A Level, and another two (Bronte and Atwood) were books that were often set for A Level at the time I was studying, and hence books that I felt I ought to have read. Similarly, Almond, which I read at a much younger age, was forced upon me because it had won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal for 1998. It is now considered a children’s classic.

Did you love or hate any of these books as a child or teenager? Have you re-read them since?