Durham Book Festival 2019: Part Two

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I was back at Durham Book Festival this Saturday, this time in the beautiful surroundings of St Chad’s college chapel, to take in two more literary events. First, I attended a Northern Showcase with fiction writers Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota – both have recently become assistant professors of creative writing at Durham University, which is broadening its traditional remit by now offering an MA in Creative Writing.

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I haven’t yet read anything by Booth, but I was compelled by the two readings she gave from her most recent novel, Sealedwhich is set in an analog of the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, where a pandemic disease is affecting people’s skin, causing it to seal over any openings in their bodies. (She also spoke about her debut novella, The Lost Art of Sinking, which emerged from her academic research on fainting in literature and explores the story of a woman who wants to keep passing out.) As with Louise Doughty’s talk, writing horror was a prominent theme in the conversation – Booth explained that she finds writing a productive way to work out the things that bother her anyway. She quoted the US writer Eula Biss, saying that the central question of citizenship and motherhood is ‘what we do with our fear’, and that she was interested in exploring what Timothy Morton calls ‘dark ecology’ and how we are enmeshed with the natural world. She sees the novel as a work of ‘eco-horror’ that she hopes will get across the message that environmental contamination doesn’t just happen ‘out there’ but also in our own bodies, citing the work of Australian writer Rebecca Giggs.

In contrast, Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways was one of my favourite books of 2016, so it was delightful to return to the novel and to hear Sahota discuss it, along with his debut, Ours Are the Streets, which I still haven’t read. My review of the novel is here.

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The final event I attended at the festival was a reading by the festival laureate, poet Raymond Antrobus. My friend suggested attending this event and I wasn’t familiar with Antrobus’s work before, so it was great to hear him read from his recent collection, The Perseverance, which won the Ted Hughes prize, as well as some more recent poems. As a deaf poet, Antrobus writes a lot about hearing and deafness, and the first poem in this collection, ‘Echo’, explores this theme in relation to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – he spoke about finding out that Gaudi saw cathedrals as containers for holy sound, a place to experience sound as angels would, and how he wasn’t sure if he could be included in this. He also talked about using BSL in his collection, and how different signs have had different meanings to BSL-fluent readers. Two poems on, respectively, teaching poetry in men’s prisons and on the shooting of a deaf man, Daniel Harris, by US police were especially powerful. Antrobus’s relationship with his dad, who recently died, is also a key theme of this collection, and he talked about being read to by his dad as a child and misunderstanding how to say his own name, because he could only hear half of it.

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Cheltenham Literature Festival 70th Anniversary Blog Tour: Cygnet by Season Butler

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2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, held this year from 4th to 13th October. As I live Up North, I’m unfortunately unable to attend, but I was excited to be asked to host an exclusive extract from Season Butler’s debut novel, Cygnet. Butler is speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday 4th October.

Cygnet, according to the publisher, is about a Kid who ‘doesn’t know where her parents are. They left with a promise to come back months ago, and now their seventeen-year-old daughter is stranded on Swan Island. Swan isn’t just any island; it is home to an eccentric old age separatist community who have shunned life on the mainland for a haven which is rapidly sinking into the ocean. The Kid’s arrival threatens to burst the idyllic bubble that the elderly residents have so carefully constructed – an unwelcome reminder of the life they left behind, and one they want rid of.’

I’m always interested in inter-generational conflict and speculative fiction, so this sounds like something I would enjoy!

Here’s the extract:

I open my eyes to the churning of the waves outside. They don’t rest, so I don’t sleep well either. I really should be used to it by now. At least it’s sunny. I try to use the thought to power my move out of bed and into my clothes and off to Mrs Tyburn’s house for work. To be honest, I preferred it last week when it rained every day. Rain in big wet slaps, the kind of rain you only get on islands, out to sea. On dark mornings there’s a reason why it’s hard to get up, an actual weight in the air to fight, something real to run from, to hide your face from. Today it’s clear and the light is coming through my window like the blond arm of a Christmas card angel. But fuck you, I don’t want to go.

The clothes I washed yesterday should be dry by now, out on the clothesline strung between two trees in the back yard. I don’t have a lot to choose from clothes-wise now that it’s summer, so I do laundry kind of a lot. It’s too hot for most of the clothes I packed to come here, when I thought this would only be for a week or two. That’s what my parents said when they left me on my grandmother’s old folks’ island – just a week or two, a month at the most, and we’ll come get you. My mother kissed me with those purple-brown lips of hers and said, ‘We’ll be right back, hold tight.’

Those dickheads are always late.

And the old folks, the Swan Island Swans, are past caring whether I have anywhere to go. Most of them didn’t care in the first place, were reluctant to agree to my coming here at all. By now they just want me gone.

Walking through the house, it’s easy to ignore the mess I’ve left. There’s a path from the stairs and into the kitchen and to the back door where that too-bright morning becomes big and real and takes over my field of vision. When I close my eyes, I can make the ocean sound like a city. Swells of traffic and millions of voices that flow together into a murmur. I walk towards it as if to an overpass at the edge of a highway. Normal people don’t live like this.

I open my eyes and try to judge how close to the edge I can go. I stop a couple of yards shy of the edge and look over into the waves. From my bed it didn’t sound this bad. I almost managed to pretend that I had dreamt it. No such luck. Another few feet of the cliff are gone. The end of the yard is a booby-trap, something out of a cartoon. There’s no ground under the grass, nothing underneath to support your weight, just a drop into the constant traffic of the waves against the rocks. Fresh rock and soil and dangling roots like the nerves of an extracted tooth are exposed along the C-shaped underside of the cliff face. One of the trees, a dogwood, clings to the cliff-side at a desperate angle, four-petalled blossoms shivering in the wind. It looks like it’s still falling. I can’t see the other one at all. My dogwood tree at the bottom of the sea.

One, two, three, four. A few more steps and I could end this. Five, six, seven, the end.

Shit. Oh, shit, Mom, where are you?

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Has anyone read Cygnet? What were your thoughts?

Hit and Miss: Two Short Story Collections

Both these books are very green!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

Some of My Favourite Short Stories

I read a lot of short stories, but I feel like they rarely get the recognition from me that they deserve because it’s unusual that a whole collection is so good as to, say, make it into my top ten books of the year (Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Runaway, George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove are honourable exceptions). They also aren’t eligible for the Women’s Prize, which is the book prize I follow most consistently. Therefore, I thought I would highlight some of my favourite short stories. If I can find online links to the stories, I’ll include them, so you can read along!

General/Literary Fiction

  • Alice Munro: ‘Red Dress – 1946’ from Dance of the Happy Shades. This might seem like an odd choice; it’s one of Munro’s earliest stories and probably feels slight next to some of her later work. But it so perfectly inhabits adolescence, and the last line is both determinedly low-key and unforgettable. You can read the opening of this story here.
  • Nafissa Thompson-Spires, ‘Suicide, Watch’ from Heads of the Colored PeoplePretty much the only story I’ve ever read that has managed an effective satire about excessive use of social media. Read it here.
  • Matthew Kneale, ‘Powder’ in Small Crimes in an Age of AbundanceStarts with a middle-ranking lawyer who feels he has been overlooked for promotion since achieving the rank of salaried partner and goes to some bizarre places. Many of the other stories in this collection are also worth reading.
  • Lionel Shriver, ‘The Standing Chandelier’ in Property [also published as a stand-alone]. Shriver at her worst is unreadable; Shriver at her best is unforgettable. I also liked ‘Kilifi Creek’ in the same collection, which is thematically remiscient of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
  • Michel Faber, ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’ from The Fahrenheit Twins. I’ve never forgotten this simple story, in which a man unknowingly experiences the best moment of his life. Read it here.
  • Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from The Beautiful Indifference. Again, pretty much everything in this collection is amazing, but I loved this evocation of a small and brutal Cumbrian town.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ from The Thing Around Your Neck. In an otherwise undistinguished collection, this story about writing your own life as a Nigerian woman stood out, prefiguring Adichie’s magnificent Americanah. Read it here.
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘The Nominee’ from You Think It, I’ll Say ItI loved this short story about Hillary Clinton, and can’t wait for the novel-length version. Read it here.
  • Lauren Groff, ‘Ghosts and Empties’ from Florida. Such an evocative collection, and this story, about a woman walking the streets of her neighbourhood, has stayed with me. Read it here.
  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, ‘The Lion and the Spider’ from Friday BlackThis isn’t really representative of Adjei-Brenyah’s speculative satire, but it’s such a moving story.

Speculative and Science Fiction

  • Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ from Stories of Your Life and OthersMade famous by its film adaptation, Arrival, ‘Story of Your Life’ pulls off what I thought was an impossible plot-line (I saw the film first, and thought the twist was ridiculous) in Chiang’s characteristically cerebral style. Read it here.
  • George Saunders, ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ from Tenth of DecemberBrilliantly surreal and utterly horrifying, like many of Saunders’ imaginings. Read it here. I also loved ‘Sticks’ from the same collection, which is so short it’s almost flash fiction, and yet so powerful.
  • Karen Russell, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ from Vampires in the Lemon GroveLet’s face it, I could have chosen any story from this wonderful collection (apart from that weird one where the presidents are all horses). The titular story is both deliciously weird and so grounded. I mean, how can you not like a story where a vampire feeding from a lemon describes it as ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’?
  • Alice Sola Kim, ‘Now Wait For This Week’ from LaValle et al ed., A People’s Future of the United StatesI’ve been raving about this already, but it’s just so good, cleverly inverting the Groundhog Day conceit, and you can read it here.
  • Ted Chiang, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ from ExhalationNo apologies for putting Chiang on the list twice; he just writes such good SF short stories. This one made me sad, because I will never write time travel as well as Chiang does, and happy, because he gets it so right. His ‘Story Notes’ on this story also perfectly sum up the time travel genre in a paragraph. Basically, he’s a genius. Read it here.
  • Daisy Johnson, ‘Starver’ from Fen. A girl turns into an eel against the backdrop of an eerie fenland landscape.
  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ from What It Means When A Man Falls From the Skyin which a mother’s yarn baby starts to unravel; read it here. I also loved the titular short story from this collection, about ‘grief collectors’ during a time of war, but thought it would have been even better expanded into a novel.
  • Kirsty Logan, ‘The Rental Heart’ from The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Many of the stories in this folklore-inspired collection felt a bit insubstantial to me, but I loved this tale of clockwork hearts that get passed around and broken. Read it here.
  • Jen Campbell, ‘Bright White Hearts’ from The Beginning of the World In The Middle of the NightAgain, most of the pieces in this collection didn’t quite work for me, for similar reasons to Logan’s, but this story about a woman working at an aquarium was poetic and memorable. Read it here.
  • Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, from Her Body and Other Parties. I haven’t read the rest of the collection yet but I loved this story, which imagines a world where women are gradually becoming insubstantial.

Ghost and Horror

  • M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’, from Collected Ghost Stories. And now for something completely different. I’m not a massive fan of M.R. James, but I love this terrifying story of demonic pursuit, which you can read here. I also like his ‘The Tractate Middoth’, set in the stacks of Cambridge University Library, which are just crying out for ghost stories.
  • T.E.D. Klein, ‘The Events on Poroth Farm’ which I encountered in American Supernatural Tales. Technically, this is a novella, but I’m having it anyway because it is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It also provides a crash course in American supernatural fiction.
  • Garth Nix, ‘The Creature in the Case’, published as a stand-alone for World Book Day in the UK. To throw in a bit of YA, this is another frightening story of supernatural pursuit (I’m sensing a theme here) that takes place in the same universe as Nix’s Old Kingdom novels.

This got LONG – apologies! What this indicates to me is, although I also read a lot of speculative and science fiction in novel form, I especially enjoy speculative and SF short stories; this isn’t surprising, given the history of this genre. Ghost and horror stories also tend to work better for me in short form. The favourite stories that don’t fall into these categories tend to be slices of life that say something about power structures, either societal or within a particular friendship group or family, or which are especially evocative on landscape. Historical fiction is, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally absent.

What are your favourite short stories or short story collections? Do you tend to have different genre preferences when you read short stories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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