Houses That Haunt: Patchett and Ware

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In post-war Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conway grow up in the ‘Dutch House’, a beautiful building that is ‘open inside’, with huge windows allowing passers-by to look directly through the house and to the views beyond. As adults, they can no longer return to their childhood kingdom, but neither of them can leave it behind; they start sitting outside the house in a car for hours on end every now and again, although they never catch a glimpse of the house’s present inhabitants. There’s something fairy-tale in this exile that sits at the heart of Ann Patchett’s latest novel, The Dutch Houseit reminded me of Lucy Clifford’s horrific cautionary tale, ‘The New Mother‘, in which two children are told that if they do not behave their real mother will go away and be replaced by another mother ‘with glass eyes and a wooden tail’. (Spoiler: they don’t behave, and the story ends with them watching their once-happy home from the outside as the new mother walks within.)

Danny narrates the story of the Dutch House, but Maeve is at its centre; after their mother ran away to India when Danny was very small, she’s taken care of her brother. There’s a sense that Maeve threw herself in the path of this explosion to shield Danny from the worst of its effects; for most of his childhood, despite having no mother and a distant father, Danny feels secure. Maeve’s sacrifice continues into adulthood ( we find out much of what happens to the siblings in later life early on, as Patchett cleverly constructs the novel around a series of flash-forwards) as Danny pursues his education while she takes up a make-ends-meet job at an accountancy firm.

As ever, Patchett balances the emotional crises of her novel perfectly, and while much of The Dutch House is (deliberately) predictable, its power to move doesn’t lie in surprising the reader but in seeing how everything plays out. Nevertheless, as with Patchett’s last novel, Commonwealth, I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed – if only because I know how brilliant she can be. I think Patchett’s writing works best for me when she takes on more unusual subject-matter, as she did in State of Wonderwhereas both her last two novels have felt more familiar, telling long family stories in the vein of Anne Tyler, whom I don’t especially rate. There’s no doubt that The Dutch House is a good novel, but I wonder how long it will stay with me.

I received a proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 24th September.

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I absolutely loved Ruth Ware’s first thriller, In A Dark, Dark Wood, but was rather underwhelmed by the two I’ve read since, The Woman In Cabin 10 and The Lying Game. The Turn of the Key restored my faith in her; this is top-notch modern Gothic, running with a brilliant setting, where a nanny is left isolated in a ‘smart house’ in Scotland with three small children, frightened by both traditional tropes such as the enveloping forest, and the technology that turns lights off when she isn’t expecting it and makes coffee for her in the morning. Ware builds on the setting she created in In A Dark, Dark Wood, where a house with many of its walls replaced with glass panels looked into a creepy woodland, but amps it all up. I usually struggle with modern Gothic because I don’t find old houses that frightening, but the combination of old and new here works perfectly, and allows Ware to pull off some novel twists. She also writes very cleverly, seeding clues from the start but never allowing the plot to feel too contrived. It’s all a little reminiscent of Kate Murray-Browne’s absorbing The Upstairs Roombut scarier.

Do you have any favourite novels about the hold that houses have over us?

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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?

Choose The Year Book Tag: 2003

Thanks for Laura (Reading in Bed) for tagging me for this! The idea is that you select a certain year and look back at the books published in that year. Like others, I’ve used the Goodreads Top 200 list for convenience.

1. Choose a year and say why.

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My Y11 yearbook picture from 2003.

I’ve picked 2003 because it falls on the cusp for me; I turned seventeen in September 2003, so this was really the period when I was moving from teenage fiction to adult novels, but still dipping back into YA here and there! I’ve noticed that the Goodreads Top 200 tends to feature YA quite heavily, so I thought it would be fun to pick a year where I have both YA and adult fiction to talk about.

2. Which books published in that year have you read, or if none, heard of?

I’ve read 24! Almost an eighth of the Goodreads Top 200, although there are some dubious entries (Harry Potter appears twice, as a single book (Order of the Phoenix) and as a series, and I’m pretty sure The Cat In The Hat wasn’t first published in 2003; nor, although I have not read it, was Plato’s Symposium).

I’m not going to discuss all 24, so here are some highlights:

 

  • Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada still infuriates me whenever I think of it because of how Andy is treated for prioritising her career rather than her boyfriend. Said boyfriend is also very stupid because he cannot seem to understand that Andy hasn’t ‘sold out to the fashion world’ but is deliberately doing the internship from hell for one year to hold out for what she really wants to do. The film has a different ending, but is equally, if not more annoying in this respect. Still love it though…
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin is Lionel Shriver’s most famous book but it’s only midlist in terms of quality; my favourites are Double Fault and The Post-Birthday World. It’s a shame that Shriver seems to have become so offensive and shortsighted in recent years, as her writing used to be excellent, and still is when she isn’t ranting about libertarianism.
  • Robin McKinley’s Sunshine is one of my favourite books of all time; a vampire novel that doesn’t fall back on a single cliche, it’s set in a totally convincing alternative world where humans are trying and slowly failing to hold back the dark, but where where there’s still space for good cinnamon rolls, painted motorcycles and used book fairs that yield favourite novels and protective objects. READ IT.
  • Zoe Heller’s Notes on A Scandal is a wonderful portrayal of not just obsession, but loneliness and isolation – the film is very good in some ways but drops the ball badly by making Barbara into a stalkerish lesbian stereotype – no hint of that in the book.
  • Jostein Gaarder’s The Orange Girl isn’t my favourite book by him (I’ll be writing more about Gaarder when I get around to the books in translation tag), but the storytelling is still compelling and it rests on an obvious twist that amazingly worked very well for me as a teenager.
  • Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light (published as A Northern Light in the US and on this list) made me very cross as a teenager and I can’t remember why! I definitely wasn’t a fan of the heroine.
  • Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Choice was a disappointment to me after loving her Alanna, Daine and Kel series; I never warmed to Aly as a character or got over her romance with a bird!
  • Philippa Gregory’s The Queen’s Fool is a very silly historical novel in numerous ways, not least its ahistorical take on gender norms, but I still like its no-holds-barred version of Elizabeth I before she became queen; Elizabeth is so often presented as so saccharine (e.g. in the film Elizabeth, which has her totally innocent of all conspiracy against Mary) this is a nice antidote, even if it goes too far the other way… Along with David Starkey’s Elizabeth, this probably inspired my A Level history dissertation which was on Elizabeth’s involvement in plotting during Mary I’s reign.
  • Eoin Colfer’s The Eternity Code, third in his Artemis Fowl series, is a book I can no longer remember anything about other than its very glittery cover, but has brought back fond memories of the first in the series which was very fun.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is one of the few books on this list I read AFTER the year 2003, and like all her writing, it’s subtle and moving.

3. Are there any books published in that year that sound interesting and would you read them now?

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Very, very few on this list! I’m really only interested in reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor after reading Rachel’s review of it. I suppose I might eventually get round to reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.

4. Most obscure sounding book?

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Looking only at books that don’t fit into obvious categories (i.e. I don’t read romance, so it’s all obscure to me, but I don’t think that makes it obscure in general) I’ve gone for Bill Willingham’ Fables: Volume 2: Animal Farm just because I’m really confused as to what it is! A graphic novel? Here’s the blurb:

Ever since they were driven from their homelands by the Adversary, the non-human Fables have been living on the Farm—a vast property in upstate New York that keeps them hidden from the prying eyes of the mundane world. But now, after hundreds of years of isolation, the Farm is seething with revolution, fanned by the inflammatory rhetoric of Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs. And when Snow White and her sister Rose Red stumble upon their plan to liberate the Homelands, the commissars of the Farm are ready to silence them—by any means necessary!

5. Strangest book cover?

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Yuu Watase’s Absolute Boyfriend has to win this – what is going on here?? To be honest,  this manga novel actually sounds amazing:

Shy high school student Riko Izawa aches for a boyfriend but guys just won’t look her way. Then one day she signs up for a three-day trial of a mysterious “lover figurine,” and the next thing she knows, a cute naked guy is delivered to her doorstep–and he wants to be her boyfriend!

Has Riko died and gone to heaven? The cute naked guy turns out to be smart, super nice, stylish and a gourmet chef. Plus, he looks like a million bucks…. Trouble is, that’s about what he’s going to cost Riko because she didn’t return him in time!

I don’t tend to tag people, but I love this tag, so please have a go if you fancy it and haven’t already done it!

 

20 Books of Summer 2019: A Retrospective

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20 Books of Summer 2019 is over, and for the first time, I read all of my 20 books!

What did I think of the books I read? [Links are to my reviews]. I’ll group them in the same way as I did in 2018. This time, the absolute standouts were Self-Portrait With BoyThe Nickel Boysand ExhalationAll will be strong contenders for my books of the year.

In the second tier are The Island of Sea Women, Happiness, Inland, Friday Black, The Chalk Artist, Queenie and The Good Immigrant USANone of these absolutely blew me away, but they’re still very good books that I’d strongly recommend.

As before, there were a number of books that I enjoyed but about which I had reservations, ranging from more to less serious. These were A People’s Future of the United States, The Untelling, Free Food for Millionaires, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Memories of the Future and Chemistry.

Finally, there were the outright disappointments: All Is Song, Pulp, Starling Days and Winter Sisters.

Interestingly, I have fewer absolute stand-outs than in 2018, but more books in the second tier and fewer in the third, and I would say that this correlates to my reading experience: I enjoyed the challenge more this year. It continues to present the same conundrums for me, though; the first two times I did it, I concentrated on getting through my TBR pile, but the last two times, I’ve deliberately picked books I don’t already have lined up. This has made the challenge easier (because I have more enthusiasm to read these books!) and more fun, but also more expensive… I’ve spent a LOT on books this summer.

Will I do 20 Books of Summer again next year? Yes, but with a twist; now I’ve FINALLY completed it in its original form, next year, I’ll be restyling it as a re-read challenge, and reading whatever twenty books I like as long as I have read them before! This should save me a lot of money and allow me to fit in time for re-reading, which I always wish that I did more of.

Did you do 20 Books of Summer this year? How did it go?

Some Upcoming September Releases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.