2019 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2019 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2019, not necessarily first published in 2019.

Highly Commended

I discovered two new favourite authors this year: Nina Allan and Natasha Pulley. I’ve now read both of Pulley’s novels, and three of Allan’s. One novel from each writer has made my top ten books of 2019, but here are the others I read: The Race, The Dollmaker and The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Both Allan and Pulley write speculative fiction, and I’ve found myself increasingly drawn towards speculative and science fiction this year, taking part in #SciFiMonth in November.

I didn’t find that 2019 was a particularly strong year for memoir and non-fiction, but two books stood out for me – Thomas Page McBee’s Amateurwhich was my pick to win the Wellcome Prize 2019, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three WomenInterestingly, both are essentially about the patriarchal constraints imposed by binary gender; McBee describes what it’s like to live as a trans man, while Taddeo interrogates how badly the world responds to genuine female desire. McBee’s subtitle is ‘a true story about what makes a man’, while Taddeo’s could easily be ‘three true stories about what makes a woman’.

I’ve been surprised to see some prominent end-of-the-year lists declare that 2019 was a poor year for fiction, as something that stood out for me this year was that many big-name releases didn’t disappoint! Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier produced arguably their strongest novels to date in The Confession and A Single ThreadTaylor Jenkins Reid’s much-hyped Daisy Jones and the Six was totally absorbing, while Emma Donoghue’s Akin was a slow-burning triumph. Finally, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other was a totally worthy Booker winner, even if I felt that she shortchanged her youngest narrators.

In fiction, I also enjoyed three very different novels that don’t fit into any of the above categories: Lisa See’s story of Korean haenyeo free divers, The Island of Sea Women, which, pleasingly, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2019; Aminatta Forna’s difficult-to-summarise but very moving Happiness; and Naomi Booth’s eco-horror Sealed.

re-read three novels that made a big impression on me second time around (or in the case of Enchantress, probably fourth or fifth time around!): Sarah Moss’s Night Waking, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress From The Stars.

In crime and thriller, I rediscovered Ruth Ware, and was totally captivated by her two latest novels, The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs Westawayboth of which brilliantly mix classic Gothic tropes with a contemporary setting. But frankly, I was spoilt for choice in this genre in 2019, as Erin Kelly released her best novel yet, Stone Mothersand Jo Baker’s The Body Lies introduced a clever meta-level into the familiar story of a murdered woman.

Finally, I admired two adult fantasy novels infused with YA energy: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, about a Yale secretly run by supernatural societies, and Bridget Collins’s The Binding, which will please everyone who loves a gay teenage OTP. Both are also absolutely beautiful hardbacks.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by three authors I had enjoyed in the past. Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil was one of my top ten books of 2018, but his debut, Beasts of No Nation, was simplistic and pointless. Anna Hope’s Expectation was supposed to present three different women reassessing their lives in their thirties, but its characters ended up moving within such narrow bonds, all wanting the same things. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days was muddled, aimless and – oddly, given how much I admired her debut, Harmless Like You – quite badly written.

Two debuts also disappointed me. Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater promised a coming-of-age story set in Sunderland and London, but totally lacked a sense of place. Katy Mahood’s Entanglement was supposed to be inspired by quantum physics but ended up being a very conventional story about two couples over several decades. Both novels were also written in a lilting, quasi-literary style that did nothing for me.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2019!

Advertisement

Ake Book Festival Blog Tour: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Unknown

The Ake Book Festival is one of Africa’s leading international literary festivals, held this year in Lagos, Nigeria from 24th to 27th October. The festival describes itself as follows:

Now in its seventh year, Ake Festival brings together the biggest and brightest names in the world of books from across Africa and the African diaspora. Showcasing the best contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and thinking from Africa, the festival also plays host to film screenings, theatre performances, poetry readings, art exhibitions and dance performances from Africa’s biggest names. Inspiring people to engage with the power of books to inform, enlighten and inspire, Ake Festival provides a platform for debates that challenge African norms, attitudes and traditions.

I was delighted to be asked to review Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other as part of the blog tour for the Ake Festival. (It also feels fitting to be reviewing this novel during Black History Month and just before I’m due to teach my undergraduates at QMUL about post-war black British history!) Since the invitation, events have somewhat overtaken my plans and I’m sure that Evaristo needs no further praise from me, but nevertheless, I wanted to share some thoughts about this hugely deserving Booker winner.

GWO._SL1280_

Girl, Woman, Other tells the stories of twelve black* British women*. (*One of the narrators is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, and another passes as white and is unaware of her black heritage.) The book is divided into four parts and finishes with a triumphant epilogue in which all of the characters come together, whether in body or in spirit. Each part features three narrators who are interlinked: so for example, in the first section, we hear from Amma, her daughter Yazz, and Amma’s close friend Dominique. Not all the narrators in any given section are so neatly tied together, and often part of the fun is figuring out how they’re connected. The book also has an ambitious scope; most of its pages are devoted to Britain from the 1980s onwards, but its narrators’ stories stretch back to the beginning of the twentieth century, refuting any ahistorical assumptions that black British life began with the Windrush generation. As Peter Fryer famously opened his 1984 history, Staying Power: ‘There were Africans in Britain before the British came here’.

The best sections of Girl, Woman, Other are just wonderful, and the impact of the novel as a whole is exhilarating. The book is tied together at its beginning and end by the story of Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright who has Nigerian and Ghanaian parents and who was deeply involved in the black feminist movement of the 1980s; back then, she put on independent pop-up productions at pulled-together venues, but now one of her plays is being put on at the National for the first time, and some of her friends think she’s sold out. It’s a joy to see black second-wave feminism being discussed so seriously and yet so effortlessly in a fictional context through the stories of both Amma and Dominique, and the way in which Evaristo deals with the theoretical conflicts within the movement (‘womanism’, not feminism?; race not gender?; lesbian separatism?) Today, second-wave feminists are so often relegated to tired stereotypes – man-haters who were all elite white heterosexual women – and it was wonderful to see this side of the movement being brought so brilliantly to life.

For me, this novel did occasionally push up against its own limitations: this was most obvious in the voices of the two youngest protagonists, Yazz and Morgan, and in the narrative of Shirley, a conservative secondary school teacher who is apparently based on Evaristo’s mother. While Evaristo is so adept in other chapters at extending her sympathies to characters with contradictory views, I felt that she fell short with these three protagonists in particular. Both Yazz and Morgan slip into woke stereotypes, and Evaristo doesn’t really succeed in fully inhabiting their feelings as well as their thoughts; I wanted to understand their attachments to the ideas that they campaign for as vividly as I felt the emotions of Amma and Dominique. On the other side of the coin, Shirley feels like she’s come from a checklist composed from endless novels about teachers who teach in ‘difficult’ schools, and I think there was a missed opportunity to make her a more nuanced character. Her strategy of selecting certain pupils whom she thinks have the ability to succeed and mentoring them through school – a strategy that another of our narrators, Carol, has benefited from – is problematic in many ways, but I wanted to see Shirley’s side of it. Instead, I was left feeling that no space was left for the reader to sympathise with her, even if we should also want to criticise her assumption that the majority of pupils are hopeless cases.

This isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s still an essential and vital read. As she is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, I wish that Evaristo had been allowed to win it alone. Nevertheless, I’m thrilled that her talent was recognised by the judges, and that sales of this novel have soared even though she had to share the spotlight.

Reading Slump! Some Books That Didn’t Work For Me

This blog has been a bit quiet recently. That’s partly due to term restarting, but also because I’ve been struggling with a lot of my recent reads, and I can’t decide whether it’s my fault or the books’ fault. Here’s some short thoughts on some fiction and non-fiction that has disappointed me. Warning: long!

36554138._SY475_

The premise of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country sounded fantastic (and look at that cover!). Like all sensible people, I find H.P. Lovecraft’s visions of the ‘Old Ones’ genuinely frightening, but am equally disturbed by the racism and anti-semitism that’s pervasive in much of his work. Lovecraft Country promised to bring these two themes together in the story of Atticus, an African-American Weird Tales fan who embarks on a road trip to New England in 1954 to seek out his missing father. However, the horrors that Atticus encounters are not only supernatural but are fundamentally intertwined with the white supremacist violence that he faces as part of his everyday life as a black person in the post-war United States. I don’t think this was inevitable, but I feel a lot of the failures of Lovecraft Country lie in the fact that it wasn’t written by a person of colour. The exploration of violent racist acts committed by the police and other law officials feels weirdly gratuitous, partly due to the frequency and length of their occurrence, and partly due to the way that the black characters simply shrug their shoulders after being chased and shot at multiple times (and not in the sense that they expect this treatment, but in the sense that it seems to be experienced as somehow non-traumatic). The tone, in short, is totally off, and this feels more like a jaunty road trip. If institutional racism, in this novel, is not horrifying, neither are the otherworldly antics of the cult that Atticus and his friends encounter. I abandoned this novel about a quarter way through.

9780349700922

When I was a teenager, I was absorbed by A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’, about a woman who is gradually turning into stone. Much more recently, Sarah Hall’s memorable ‘Mrs Fox’ told the story of a woman who turns into a fox, although from the point of view of her husband. Therefore, the premise of the first full-length story in Nudibranch, Irenosen Okojie’s new short story collection, ‘Kookaburra Sweet’ – which is about a woman who turns into liquorice – wasn’t in itself off-putting. I sometimes think that I don’t like ‘magical realism’, but, even putting aside the problematic ways in which that term has started to be used so broadly (I can’t find the original article I read about this, but here’s one that outlines the arguments!), I’m not sure that’s true; I do like magical realism when it’s done well. Unfortunately, this is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and I don’t think most of the stories that I read from this collection pull it off.

For me, ‘magical realism’ in its broad sense is distinguished from speculative or science fiction, or even from horror, by its lack of boundaries. So, in speculative fiction, strange things might happen but they tend to have a rational explanation, even if it’s impossible; even in horror or ghost stories, there are certain rules that govern the monster’s behaviour (‘don’t stay in the old house overnight’). Magical realism, it seems to me, doesn’t really deal in rules or explanations, because it’s trying to convey reality in a different way. However, for this to work for me, the stories need to feel psychologically real, and that was what was lacking throughout much of the first half of this collection. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’ made such an impression on me because of the horror the central character feels when she realises she’s turning to stone. In contrast, Kara, the woman who turns to liquorice, doesn’t seem too bothered; after her fingers almost melt under the hot water from her taps, she just goes back to what she was thinking about before: ‘Sydney had been a disaster. She was broken by it. Almost.’ While I understand that the story isn’t meant to be read literally, this weird mix of realism and the magical didn’t work for me.

Part of this is due to Okojie’s writing. I read her first collection, Speak Gigantular, when it first came out and remember very little about it other than that it felt under-edited. Much of her writing here also has that first-draft feeling; there are wonderful sentences, but then others that just aren’t very good. Often the similes are just too complicated, as in the opening to ‘Grace Jones’: ‘

‘Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom, onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning… the phone rang, shrill, invasive, demanding. Still on the floor, the wood cold against her skin, she crawled to the receiver tentatively, as if her limbs were tethered to a thread on the earth’s equator, the thread bending and collapsing into the different stages of her life.’

Certain images reoccur in this collection – body parts turn up in unexpected places, things melt, people perform rituals – but there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to it. Some stories conjure up fascinating worlds but then don’t make much use of them, such as ‘Filamo’, set in an otherworldly monastery, and ‘Saudade Minus One (S – 1 = )’, which looks at a future in which children are malfunctioning. The one story of those I read which worked for me was ‘Point and Shrill’; Okojie’s writing is much more restrained, and it allows the eeriness of the story to take centre stage as it moves from naturalism into horror.

I read about half of these stories, but then concluded that this collection wasn’t for me. It reminds me most strongly of a less accomplished version of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, so if that’s your sort of thing, this might work better for you.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 7th November.

image

I 100% thought that I was going to love Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which was billed as a memoir about two sets of parallel experiences of gendered bodies: while Nelson went through her first pregnancy, her trans partner Harry Dodge decided to start taking testosterone and to have ‘top surgery’. As Nelson writes: ‘2011, the summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you, six months on T.’ Nelson is a fiercely intelligent writer, and, to her credit, she writes very clearly and perceptively about issues of queer identity and discourse that can become very difficult to understand in the hands of the wrong person. To an extent, my reaction to The Argonauts is personal: this memoir simply didn’t speak to me and my own life experiences. Nelson is bent on breaking down certain ideas of what it means to be ‘queer’, writing of ‘the tired binary that places femininity, reproduction and normativity on one side and masculinity, sexuality and queer resistance on the other.’ I can see Nelson’s point: there is nothing inherently conformist in getting pregnant and giving birth, and indeed, the ways in which women’s bodies are treated during pregnancy and birth shows how difficult it is for patriarchy to handle female experience. However, I guess I’m just not that interested in what is ‘queer’ and what is not.

Heteronormative society privileges a certain set of experiences that are rooted in material reality, not identity; it prefers (white) women who have relationships with men, who get pregnant and raise children within nuclear families and who conform to feminine norms of behaviour and presentation. Because of the double bind, this obviously doesn’t mean that women who conform to this way of life don’t suffer under patriarchy. But it seems to me that rather than worrying about how to ‘queer’ experiences like pregnancy, we should attend to the power relationships that are leveraged particularly violently against women who don’t conform; women who are of colour, who choose not to have children, who are single mothers or lesbians, who are butch or gender non-conforming, who don’t have relationships with anybody at all. I guess, in short, I’d rather have heard from Dodge than Nelson; his experience of trans and gender-fluid identity shifts throughout the book, and while he uses male pronouns, his take is a bit more complicated: ‘I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it.’  But Nelson’s take on this challenging statement is disappointingly woolly, and can be boiled down to: just listen to what other people tell you about their identity. Well, yes, but if society didn’t impose categories on us regardless of what we have to say about it, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place, and we need to say something about that.

cover170280-medium

Finally, I read Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of working in Silicon Valley in her mid-twenties; I won’t say too much about this one as it isn’t out until next year, but I found that it felt like a good online article that had been stretched out into more than three hundred pages. Weiner has nothing especially insightful to say about tech, and rehearses familiar critiques: the dominance of young white men, the lack of concern for data security, the distance from the ‘real world’. I also found the way Weiner presents herself as totally unrelatable; she seems to think it’s a classic example of millennial drift, but there’s no solid core to anything about this version of her self, and she comes across as unbearably obtuse. You’re probably better off reading her online output; I stopped reading this around the halfway mark.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th January 2020.

Is it me, or is it the books? What books have you struggled with recently? And do you have any recommendations to get me out of this reading slump?

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

imageresizer

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

20190911_123237_resized

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.

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

9780525508809

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?

Wellcome Book Prize 2019: Shortlist Events and Award Ceremony

I’m off to the Wellcome Book Prize award ceremony tonight to find out which of these books has won the prize!

stack_cutout500x500px crop

I went to the Wellcome 5×15 event with a friend yesterday evening at Wilton’s Music Hall, where five of the six shortlisted authors had fifteen minutes each to discuss their work. This was great, as always – if I lived in London, I’d try to go to some non-Wellcome-related 5×15 events, as the format really works for me. Here are some brief thoughts.

20190430_185223

Sarah Krasnostein: ‘Trauma cleaning for Sandra’

Krasnostein gave a very emotive talk on The Trauma Cleanerher biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who has suffered her own personal horrors and now cleans the houses of hoarders, agoraphobics and those who have died and been left undiscovered. It’s clear how much this matters to her. She described how, when she first began the research for this book, her doctor asked her ‘Who would ever want to read that?’ and how this made her more determined to show how we are all connected despite our outward differences. To emphasise this, she used the metaphor of a forest of 40,000 quaking aspens in Utah, which are all linked by the same root system even though they look like individual trunks above the surface (this really is fashionable at the moment!) Krasnostein sees her book as a kind of trauma cleaning for Sandra, doing for her subject what she has done for others. The Trauma Cleaner was our shadow panel winner, and I think it has a good chance of taking the actual prize.

Sandeep Jauhar: ‘Taking away the sudden death option’

In my favourite talk of the evening, Jauhar, a cardiologist, spoke about how his family history of malignant heart disease led him to write his popular medical book, Heart: A History. Like Krasnostein, he encountered some initial resistance to his topic: his eleven-year-old son told him ‘Don’t write a book about the heart. No-one will buy it, because the heart is boring.’ Jauhar told us how the sudden deaths of both of his grandfathers gave him a ‘fear of the heart’, which he saw as both powerful and vulnerable, and how he became obsessed with the organ as a child, adjusting the speed of the ceiling fan so it synchronised with his heartbeat. (He also discovered that if you hooked up an average adult human heart to a swimming pool, it would empty it in a week.) Overall, though, he has come to the conclusion that a swift death from heart disease can be merciful, leaving him with difficult decisions to make about whether to suggest that his patients are fitted with internal defibrillators, which ‘take away the sudden death option’.

Arnold Thomas Fanning: ‘Walking down corridors endlessly’

For those of us who have read Mind on FireFanning’s account of living with bipolar disorder, this talk perhaps had less to offer, as Fanning essentially recounted what he tells us in his memoir. However, he illustrated the talk with a series of pictures of himself from childhood to the present day, which were really interesting to see, and vividly recounted his time in a mental hospital, where he ‘walked down corridors endlessly’ because of his restless energy, and at one point was prescribed sixty different medications over a six-month period. Fanning’s emotional honesty is admirable, and it was lovely to see the delighted reaction from the audience when he announced at the end of the talk that he’s getting married the month after next.

Will Eaves: ‘Understanding the gap between your experiences and someone else’s’

I’m afraid I had many of the same problems with Eaves’s talk as I did with his novel, Murmurwhich chronicles the inner life of a fictional Alan Turing undergoing forced chemical castration after being convicted of gross indecency for having sex with another man. It swung between being profound and pretentious as he meditated on the idea that we can never really understand somebody else’s internal state, and that’s what true sympathy is, offering an interesting counterpart to Krasnostein’s tree metaphor. I was particularly frustrated by the section on time, where Eaves claimed that there is no scientific reason why an equation can’t go backwards rather than forwards;  I wrote ‘ENTROPY’ on my programme and my friend added ‘TWADDLE’. However, Eaves did give us a great potted history of Turing’s life, which will help those approaching Murmur with little knowledge of the subject.

Ottessa Moshfegh: ‘People are vulnerable in having feelings’

Moshfegh spent quite a lot of time talking about what her novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxationis (in her words) not about: namely, how easy it is to get psychiatric drugs in the US, and why that’s a problem. Psychiatrists play on this to get customers, she argued, because ‘people are vulnerable in having feelings.’ Underlining this point, she read the section from the novel where our protagonist first meets Dr Tuttle. However, she stated that, for her, My Year is actually about a woman who ‘does not want to live in this plane of consciousness’ and believes that if she sleeps long enough, all her cells will have forgotten their cellular trauma. Moshfegh presents her protagonist more sympathetically than I had expected from the way she writes about her in the novel, and the talk really made me think again about how to interpret My Year.

Updated 1/5/19: The winner of the Wellcome Book Prize is…

41EJUal8C7L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

I’m not surprised by this result, but I am disappointed. Murmur was my least favourite book on the shortlist and on the longlist. I found it pretentious and unreadable, and Eaves’s discussion of the book has only cemented my opinions. More broadly speaking, I felt it would have been the right moment for a book on trans issues to have taken the prize, which would have pointed to a win for either Amateur or The Trauma Cleaner. Winning this prize will probably garner Eaves a wider readership, but it seems unlikely that many readers will be engaged by Murmur.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

71tZk8KcqPL

One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.

Thoughts on the Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist, 2019

stack_cutout500x500px crop

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist is out!

I’m delighted to see Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur there, which was by far my favourite of the longlisted titles I’ve read so far, although I’m disappointed that Jessie Greengrass’s Sight and Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You didn’t make the cut.

I had mixed feelings about both Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner and Sandeep Jauhar’s HeartThe Trauma Cleaner had chapters of brilliance but seemed to me to lack perspective on its subject, whereas Heart was readable, but forgettable. I suspect the latter has been included to make sure there’s at least one ‘serious medical book’ considering physical illness on the shortlist, as the rest skew strongly towards mental illness and questions about gender identity and transition.

I’ve not yet read Will Eaves’s Murmur, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or Arnold Thomas Fanning’s Mind on Fire. I’m looking forward to the first two – Annabel rated Murmur very highly, and Rebecca’s review of My Year… has persuaded me that it’s something I might enjoy. However, I’m still pretty certain that I won’t like Mind on Fire.

After last year’s female-dominated shortlist and an evenly split longlist, this year the men outnumber the women, with four books by men (including one trans man) and only two by women. Writers of colour get slightly more of a look-in than last year, with two advancing to the shortlist. Themes of sexuality (Murmur) and trans identity (Amateur, The Trauma Cleaner) are really prominent.

I’m looking forward to reading the remaining books and discussing with the rest of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel!

Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Amateur

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979

Thomas Page McBee starts training as an amateur boxer after encountering an angry man on Orchard Street who accuses him of taking a photograph of his car. McBee abruptly finds himself caught up in an alpha-male showdown:

“I was taking a photo of the restaurant in front of your car,” I tried, softening my tone a bit, breaking the rules of the scene. “I want to take my girlfriend on a date there.” I remembered, at the last moment, not to add an upward lilt to the end of my thought.

I saw the flash!” he growled, beyond logic, a man committed to his part… “Give. Me. Your. Phone.”…

I marshalled the self-control to turn and walk away… “Hey!” he shouted… “Asshole!”…

I let an acidic rage bloom… colouring my tone such a ragged mess I didn’t recognise my own voice. “I. Did. Not. Take. A. Picture. Of. Your. Fucking. Car.”

He backed away with his hands up. “Okay, okay,” he mumbled. “Jesus.”

Since his transition, a subject he deals with in his first memoir, Man Alive, McBee has increasingly found himself caught up in situations like these, where he wants to break out of the pattern of toxic masculinity but finds himself instinctively conforming. He might have wanted to become a man, but what kind of man does he want to be? ‘I began this book,’ he writes, ‘because, though I could not articulate it then, I understood that I could not know why I wanted to break that man’s teeth on Orchard Street without understanding, in turn, why he wanted to break mine.’

As a trans man, McBee understands both what it means to be socialised as a woman (the ‘upward lilt’ he has to stop himself adding to the end of his sentences) and how things change once society sees you as male. Voice comes up again and again. At one point, McBee and his brother talk over his sister, Clare, with their ‘jocular camaraderie’ about boxing, even though Clare has been taking boxing classes for years. McBee doesn’t notice what has happened until his girlfriend, Jess, points it out, although to his credit, he later apologises and talks it through with Clare. He also, suddenly, gets listened to at work. ‘Six months into my transition… testosterone made my voice low. Really low. So low that I was almost impossible to hear in a loud bar… But when I did talk, people didn’t just listen; they leaned in. They kept their eyes focused on my mouth, or down at their hands, as if to rid themselves of any distraction beyond my powerful words. The first time I spoke up at a meeting… in my newly quiet baritone, I noticed that sudden, focused attention’.

It’s taken me a while to write about this book because I had such an emotional reaction to it. McBee breaks away from familiar narratives about sex and gender to tell a new kind of story about what it means to be trans, and about what it means to be a man or a woman. I’m obviously not trans, but I identified so strongly with McBee’s discomfort around gender, about his wish to be treated as a man without letting down women – and his conflict about what being ‘like a man’ really meant. It reminded me of a conversation my sister once had on Facebook, about being cat-called in the street. After recounting her unpleasant experience, she wrote about a different encounter in Bristol [shared with her permission]:

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 18.23.55

That’s the thing, I always want to say when I read books like McBee’s. None of us want to be a ‘darling’. We all want to be a ‘mate’, or at least I do. I admire McBee’s strength in dealing with his abusive past, in coming out as trans, and in writing so eloquently about his experiences; but I couldn’t help feeling a little unfairly jealous of him, too, as he travelled towards a place where I can never go. And even though I’m not a man, even though I don’t agree with this sort of behaviour, I could see why he wanted to break the angry man’s teeth; how hard it is to let go of privilege that feels so powerful.

Amateur is incredibly thought-provoking, carefully and precisely written, and ultimately, very moving, and it had better end up on the Wellcome shortlist; in fact, I’d love to see it win.

Thanks very much to Midas PR for sending me a free copy of Amateur for review.

The Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019

EP000677_0062_500x500px_1

I’m delighted to once again be part of the Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel organised by Rebecca, alongside brilliant fellow bloggers Clare, Paul and Annabel. The prize highlights ‘the best new novels, memoirs and non-fiction that illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness’. The longlist was revealed yesterday, and it’s quite exciting! Here are my initial thoughts, organised by theme.

Masculinity and gender identity

amateur-hardback-cover-9781786890979

I’ve had Thomas Page McBee’s memoir of his transition, Man Alive, on my TBR list for a while. I’m still most interested in the first book, but Amateurwhich focuses on McBee training as a boxer, sounds like a fascinating glimpse into the experience of living as a trans man, something that is hugely neglected by the mainstream media, which tends to focus on trans women. I’ve become increasingly interested in what happens to ‘masculinity’ when it isn’t seen as solely a property of those born male – i.e. what it feels like to be a trans man, or a butch lesbian – and Amateur promises to explore this with style.

Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, a trans woman who runs a ‘trauma cleaning’ business, mopping up after sudden death, removing bodies that have lain alone and undiscovered for weeks, and dealing with living people who have taken to hoarding. As Krasnostein describes her, Sandra is ideally suited to this line of work, because she manages to provide ‘a bespoke blend of respect, warmth, humour and interest that establishes a basic human equity’, to all her clients, drawing from her own abusive past. I had mixed feelings about The Trauma Cleaner, which I reviewed here: the scenes of Sandra working with her cleaning clients are vivid and moving, but Krasnostein treads a little too carefully at times when dealing with Sandra’s past.

Finally, Matthew Sperling’s debut novel, Astroturf, promises to explore modern masculinity from the point of view of a man who starts taking steroids to bulk up his physique, and then starts a black-market business of his own. Promising to be ‘brilliantly funny’, I can’t say that this one especially appeals to me, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Memoirs of chronic illness

original_400_600

Jean Hannah Edelstein’s This Really Isn’t About You looks at how she deals with finding out that she’s inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which gives her a higher lifetime risk of certain types of cancer. This has been on my radar for a while, and I’m hoping it’ll be the book about finding your way in life that Meg Fee’s Places I Stopped on the Way Home wanted to be, with the added complication of Edelstein’s genetic inheritance. Very keen to read this one, and I’ve already requested it from my local library.

Arnold Thomas Manning’s memoir, Mind on Fire, deals with his experience of living with manic depression and delusions after experiencing his first episode in adolescence, following the death of his mother. I’m not sure I’ll get on with this one – I struggle with books about mental and physical illnesses where the person’s perception of reality is severely distorted – in other words, I’m happy to read about depression and anxiety but don’t really find it very interesting to read about dementia and schizophrenia. I’m not sure where Manning’s book will fall.

Everyone’s already heard of Tara Westover’s Educated, her account of growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in rural Idaho who didn’t send her to school, so she first set foot in a classroom when she was eighteen. While I liked Educatedfinding it insightful, if uneven, I must admit I’m baffled as to what it’s doing on this longlist. I understand that Westover’s abusive father was probably mentally ill, but the memoir is primarily about Tara’s relationship with her family and how she copes in the outside world. Wellcome’s description, which focuses solely on the theme of education, isn’t illuminating either.

Proper medicine

41Y4zwcn-LL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Sandeep Jauhar’s Heart: A History is another of the titles on the longlist that really intrigues me. Jauhar, director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, has already written two medical memoirs about his own career, neither of which I’ve read, but both of which I want to read now I’ve heard about them! Heart takes a wider view, considering the history of research on the heart and Jauhar’s own family legacy of heart problems. This is one of those books that will definitely give me more flashbacks to GCSE Medicine Through Time.

Will Eaves’s Murmur sounds like important, but very grim reading: it deals with the legally enforced chemical castration of the homosexual mathematician Alan Turing, after he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1952. It promises to explore what ‘great bodily change… does to a person’s mind‘. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to pick this one up, though I’m pleased that Eaves has written it.

Finally, Thomas Abraham’s Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication sounds like it might have a lot in common with last year’s shortlistee, Meredith Wadman’s The Vaccine Race. Unlike Wadman, however, this book focuses on the campaign to wipe out a single disease: polio. While I enjoyed The Vaccine Race, and learnt a lot, I’m not sure I’m especially keen to tackle this one, especially as I imagine there will be crossover between the two.

Medical fictions

9200000096230135

I adored Jessie Greengrass’s Sightwhich I read when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. One of my favourites on a very strong shortlist, Sight forms part of an emerging genre of autofiction, switching between the perspective of a woman pregnant with her second child to the subjects of her medical historical research in the Wellcome Library. Greengrass is especially good on pregnancy and motherhood; I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else as good on the subject.

I’ve been avoiding Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, despite the hype, because I intensely disliked Eileen. It sounds like a very different novel, however, focusing on a young woman’s year spent under the influence of a cocktail of drugs in New York at the turn of the millennium. I’m not sure what’s up with the ironic cover, which is pretty misleading and a big part of what’s been putting me off.

Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, deals with a young Igbo woman, Ada, who is ‘peopled with spirits’, and it’s narrated by the different selves within her. I’m torn about this one: I love the idea of the tension between Nigerian folklore and mental health diagnoses, but I think it’s very unlikely I’ll like something that sounds as surreal as this (and deals with mind-distorting mental illness; see above!) Apparently, this is also trendy autofiction. I’ll probably be reading it simply because it’s one of the two titles I can get at my local library, albeit in e-book form.

So there we go! I’m delighted by the freshness of the shortlist, but sad that there’s still no science fiction or speculative fiction on the list – James Smythe’s I Still Dream and Katie Williams’s Tell The Machine Goodnight were only two of the many novels that I thought could have been interesting contenders.

Have you read any of the books on the Wellcome longlist? Are there any worthy contenders that have been missed off?