20 Books of Summer 2022: The Rereading Version

20-books

I’m having a go at Cathy’s (746 Books) 20 Books of Summer challenge for the sixth year running! The challenge starts on Wednesday 1st June and finishes on Thursday 1st September.

 However, this year I’m FINALLY doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and turning it into a rereading challenge. My only rule is that I must read 20 books that I have read before. Other than that, I’m going to allow myself to choose the books as I go along.

I love comparing Past Me’s and Present Me’s thoughts on books, so I’ll either check in with earlier reviews of the titles I choose, or, if I didn’t review them at the time, I’ll make sure to write down a few thoughts before I begin my reread. (Often what I remember from books is totally random, e.g., the only thing I recall from Barbara Kingsolver’s classic The Poisonwood Bible is to stick your elbows out if you’re at risk of getting crushed in a crowd, so you get lifted up rather than pushed down…)

Are you doing 20 Books of Summer 2022? Would you ever be tempted to throw some rereads into the mix?

Have you reread anything especially good recently?

On the other hand, have you ever reread a book and found it disappointing?

February Superlatives

Again, the Superlatives format is borrowed from Elle.

The Best Book I Read This Month Was…

9781529017236.jpg

…Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield, which I thought was hauntingly beautiful, and gets my second five-star rating of 2022. My review is here. I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…

9781526612007

… A Still Life by Josie George. As much as I wanted this memoir of chronic illness to be for me, it was not for me. I’m sorry about this, because I know how much Elle and Rebecca liked this book, but I could not get on with the narrative voice, especially in the present-day sections. I’d recommend Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay instead.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I Read This Month Was… 

41whhB9bGgL

… Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, which was an impulse purchase from Forum Books. I loved Tsui’s exploration of swimming clubs, abalone divers, desperate swims for survival and public pools.

My Favourite Reread This Month Was… 

9780857867971-uk

…A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I named this as one of my favourite books of the decade (2010-19), but I was worried it wouldn’t hold up on a re-read, especially as I didn’t like Ozeki’s latest, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Thankfully, it did. My original review and my most recent thoughts are here.

The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was… 

56179337

… Sisters of the Forsaken Stars by Lina Rather; for me, one of those rare sequels that was actually better than the first book. Sisters of the Vast Black had a brilliant premise, focusing on an order of spacefaring nuns piloting a ‘liveship’, or a ship constructed from the body of a creature that seems to be adapted for this purpose. However, the pacing was off; the last third felt rushed and cliched compared to the thoughtful, contemplative story that preceded it. Sisters of the Forsaken Stars is much better-paced and more morally complex, although there were characters and themes that I thought could still have benefited from more page-time. I would have particularly liked to hear more about Gemma, who left the order in the last book to be with her girlfriend but is still struggling to ‘be in the world’ after years of being a nun, and is especially struggling with physical intimacy. This is the kind of thing we don’t hear much about in fiction, and although all the beats of Gemma’s character growth are present and correct, I just wanted to spend more time living through this with her. Nevertheless, great SFF.

The Best Thriller I Read This Month Was… 

58536005._SY475_

… Ellery Lloyd’s The Club. After a proliferation of thrillers that place unlikely ‘twists’ above all else, sacrificing characterisation and plausibility for the sake of potentially surprising the reader, The Club was a welcome change. My review is hereI received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 31st March.

The Book That Grew Most On Me As It Went Along Was… 

9781529118667

… We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan. I was a little dismayed by the first couple of chapters of this debut; the writing felt simplistic and clunky, and characters had a tendency to tell other characters things they would already know. However, as the story unfolded, I started to appreciate the way Zayyan gradually layered complexity onto this unpromising beginning. I especially liked the portrayal of the two central protagonists. Sameer is a lawyer living in England who returns to Uganda to explore his heritage; his family, Ugandan Asians, were forced to flee the country in 1972 (Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill also explores this episode in British colonial history). Interspersed with Sameer’s story are letters from his grandfather, Hasan, written as the crisis unfolds in 1970s Kampala. Both Sameer and Hasan ultimately have to negotiate their positioning between their own exploitation by British colonialists and present-day racists and their relative power compared to black Ugandans; both, arguably, also possess unexamined male privilege. Zayyan does not exult nor condemn either man, but lets the reader see them as they are. This book never quite took off for me because of the problems with its prose, but I admired Zayyan’s depiction of faith, morality and racism.

The Book I Had Most Mixed Feelings About This Month Was… 

9780356515649

…The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, first in a fantasy trilogy set in a world inspired by Indian epics. I loved the three female protagonists, Priya, Malini and Bhumika, and enjoyed the atmospheric and original worldbuilding. But the male PoVs were underdeveloped (the most interesting and complex male character, Aditya, did not get to narrate); for me, this gave the book a stop-start feel, as the pace slowed to a crawl whenever a male character took the stage then sped up again when a female character returned. It’s also overlong, especially towards the end, when an obvious ‘reveal’ is dragged out for all it’s worth, and I never really believed in the romance between Priya and Malini, much as I love lesbian representation.

The Most Forgettable Book I Read This Month Was… 

9780571371303

…These Days by Lucy Caldwell. Set during the devastating Belfast Blitz of 1941, These Days focuses primarily on two middle-class sisters: 21-year-old Audrey, who has recently become engaged and is already having doubts, and 18-year-old Emma, secretly in love with another woman who, like her, works for the ambulance service. Their mother, Florence, also gets a significant sub-plot, as she reflects back on a long-lost love and forward as she wonders whether her life is essentially over: ‘How is it, she sometimes thinks, that this is her life, that here she is, a wife of twenty-two years this September, mother of two adult daughters, of a baby son already matching her for height?… It isn’t, she hastily thinks, that she’s unhappy, nor ungrateful with her lot: just bemused, she supposes, that this has turned out to be it.’ There are also snippets of narration from other characters: most notably, a brilliant, vividly rendered football match from the point-of-view of the sisters’ younger brother, Paul.

These Days is, in some ways, refreshing, and it’s certainly very well-written; not only does it highlight a lesser-known Blitz, but Caldwell’s writing manages to make familiar details from many, many World War Two novels feel immediate again. We feel the sudden loss of whole streets and landmarks and the fear of seeking safety in an air raid shelter that itself becomes a target. I also liked the subtle characterisation of Audrey and Emma, and the way that they are not set against each other. However, in other ways, it’s very familiar; it rehearses some stereotypical tropes about homosexuality, and I found the inclusion of perspectives from outside the family circle distracting. This seemed to be a gesture towards encompassing the working-class as well as the middle-class experience of the Blitz, but became a bit tokenistic. In particular, the narrative arc of ‘Wee Betty’, one of the family’s servants, is very sentimental.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out on 3rd March.

December Blogging Break and Rereading Month

November has been an incredibly busy and productive reading and reviewing month. I read all but two of the 12 books in my November Reading Plans (one, Learwife, I abandoned; and I’m still waiting in the library queue for Open Water). Then I managed to read another 7 books on top of that, for a total of 17! Even though a lot of these were novellas, this is still a pretty good month for me.

After that marathon, I’m feeling a bit burnt out. Part of it is that, sadly, very few of those 17 books were books that I unequivocally enjoyed. I loved two essay collections: Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days and Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst eds. Writing The Uncanny. I also thought Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees was hugely impressive.

But as for the rest… there were a few with moments of brilliance, like Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, which I thought was overwritten but still had some genuinely interesting things to say, or Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank Youwhich had a couple of wonderful stories, or Touring the Land of the Dead in Maki Kashimada’s eponymous collection, or the essay on emojis in Namwali Serpell’s Stranger Faces. Apart from these, though, I feel a general sense of underwhelm about the rest of my month’s reading, much of which is already expressed in my reviews this month (The Fell, NetGalley Reads, The Haunting Season, SF Month, SF Novellas, More Novellas), but which I also felt about books I read and haven’t reviewed, like Tanya Byrne’s Afterlove and Emily Bernard’s Black Is The Body. At this point, I think that part of this problem is me as well as the books.

Therefore, I’m declaring December a blogging break and a rereading month. I’m reading three new-to-me books at the moment – Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper and The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – but after I finish those, I’m going to only reread books I have already read until the Christmas presents come in! I’d like to take a break from reviewing, too, but hopefully will write something up about this rereading experience after I’d finished it. And of course I’ll be back to review my 2021 reading and make 2022 reading plans at the end of December!

Do you have any particular reading plans for December?

Does a rereading challenge appeal to you?

If you’ve been doing #NovellasInNovember and/or #SciFiMonth, have you discovered any gems?

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?