Books on my bedside table, Q2 and Q3 2019


My new year’s resolution to post quarterly about my reading diet went forgotten in June (as were most of my resolutions). However, I did keep track, so here’s a list to cover my reading-for-pleasure since March.

Some of the below were consumed as audio, after I made a decision to cut down on podcasts-listening in favour of audiobooks. Some people might quibble over whether that counts as ‘reading,’ but I think: sure, why not? There are no rules. Where the audiobooks were in themselves notable, I’ve mentioned that below.

I enjoy writing these notes, as I find it helps me digest and retain what I’ve read. I also love to chat about books. If we’ve crossed literary paths, or if you have a recommendation, then please drop me a line on Twitter.

The Peregrine // J A Baker: A true classic of British nature writing, which I’ve only just gotten around to reading. Beautiful, meditative, meandering – slashed through with the fresh violence of the hunt:

Their rapid, shifting, dancing motion had been so deft and graceful that it was difficult to believe that hunger was the cause of it and death the end… as thought the hawk had suddenly gone mad and had killed the thing it loved. The striving of birds to kill, or to save themselves from death, is beautiful to see. The greater the beauty the more terrible the death.

The Peregrine condenses ten years of sightings into a single year’s diary entries, a glittering work of synaesthetic descriptive bravura. The sky is “peeled white”, sparrows rise in “warning puffs”… Just great.

Trick Mirror // Jia Tolentino: This debut book of essays from the New Yorker writer was ubiquitous on social media and internet literary publications for a time, and happily it lived up to the hype. Very of the moment, and I think it transcends the moment too. Really it’s a book about the media’s reflection and refraction of the human condition. One or two essays fell flatter than others (I’m thinking, particularly, of her discussion of female protagonists in fiction), but her dissections of her own ambivalence about, and complicity in, our age of personal branding and ‘self-optimisation’ (see extract here), were outstanding.

Homing // Jon Day: Cor, what a strange and excellent book. It’s a memoir of pigeon fancying and starting a family, and though that may sound like an odd combination it all ties together beautifully. I reviewed it for Prospect here: “endlessly interesting and dazzlingly erudite.”

The Journalist and the Murderer // Janet Malcolm: A book I should have read years ago, but was just as bitingly insightful as I had been promised. It focuses on a court case between a convicted murderer and a true-crime writer, who was found to have betrayed the murderer’s trust in the compiling of his book. But the case itself is merely a hook for Malcolm’s examination of the deal-with-the-devil every journalist – and every subject – knowingly enters into when he or she embarks on such a project. “Every journalist… knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she argues at the outset. “[H]e is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” I read it, accidentally, in conjunction with a novel that portrayed a fictional journalist wrestling with the same dilemma – see ‘Scrublands’, below – which was like hearing the discussion in surround sound.

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret // Craig Brown: Fabulous. I don’t read many biographies, but this book came highly recommended by Elizabeth Taylor of the National Book Critics Circle. Written in short snippets – some of which are imagined realities which never came to pass – Brown, a brilliant satirist, paints portrait of a privileged and troubled woman seen from many angles: as vivacious as she is stern, as glamorous as she is isolated, and never anything less than outrageously outré. Worth the cover price for this account of her daily routine alone:

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The World I Fell Out Of // Melanie Reid: I’ve always loved Melanie Reid’s writing. This book describes her experiences after a life-altering injury rendered her tetraplegic, expanding upon her award-winning Spinal Column slot in The Times’ Saturday magazine. Moving, unflinching and often profound, she does not shrink away from the unpleasant realities of living with paralysis – all of which makes the glimmerings of hope and acceptance all the more powerful.

Three Women // Lisa Taddeo: I read this the second it came out, as did most bookish women I know. And I have since had a lot of conversations about the issues it raises. I didn’t wholly relate to any of their thought processes, and I also felt their own sexual agency – especially that of the two older subjects – was underplayed, even undermined by the author. However, it is certainly a remarkable work of immersive reporting, gives unusual depth of insight into complicated human interactions, and offers a huge amount to mull over and debate, which in my opinion is a sign of a good book.

The Beechwood Airship Interviews // Dan Richards: An unusual and interesting book, effectively an anthology of interviews with prominent British artists (of all mediums) on the subject of art-as-a-way-of-life, strung together by a thread of memoir. Read during my residency at the Jan Michalski Foundation, where – living in close contact with six other writers – I was thinking a lot about the different ways in which we all motivate ourselves to work.

The Death of Nature // Carolyn Merchant: This was recommended to me by the installation/environmental artist Portia Munson, who I met at MacDowell, and I’m so glad she did. It’s an incredible work of scholarship – very dense in places, best read in concentrated chunks with a pen for underlining (yes, a pen, so sue me) – that dissects various concepts of nature from antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and into the modern era. It is full of fascinating tidbits. (For example: during the Renaissance, it was widely believed that metal grew like a fungus beneath the earth, and replenished itself after being ‘harvested’ in mines).

A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch // Sanam Maher: I was sent a proof copy of this book from the author. It’s a study of Pakistani social media star Qandeel’s rise and untimely death at the hands of her own brother in an honour killing. It was a disconcerting but utterly enthralling insight into the artifice of social media fame, and how one trouble woman became a lightning rod for all Pakistan’s (and, in a sense, the wider world’s) complex feelings about women unafraid to express their sexuality.

The Sixth Extinction // Elizabeth KolbertHorrifying but brilliant, a most remarkable work of reportage and science writing. Meticulously reported and intelligently stitched together. It won a Pulitzer in 2015, and rightly so.

Holy the Firm // Annie Dillard: I’m a huge Dillard fan, as I mentioned last time. In this slim and meditative work there is, as always, that raw sensuality of her natural descriptions, plus her distinctively Transcendental tone and theological musings. (“There are two kinds of nun, out of the cloister or in. You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer…”). She’s funny and often poignant. This book, I felt, lacked a firm frame to hold its shape, but I take any opportunity to bathe in these waters.

Me Talk Pretty One Day // David Sedaris: Short, humorous biographical essays by the American humorist. The audiobook (read by the author, who is a brilliant, deadpan performer, and including several recordings of his live storytelling shows) is a perfect accompaniment to housework or short drives. Standout stories in this collection: ‘The Youth in Asia’ (which I’d actually already heard on This American Life) and the title story, about learning French in Paris.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance // Angela Duckworth: I came to this educational psychology/self-help book after it was recommended on Five Books. Essentially she argues that learning to stick at things is far more important than academic ability or natural ‘talent’. (A good way of doing this is by having children take up a hobby and commit to it for at least two years, so they learn to weather the inevitable issues that come up.) Her passion is contagious, and of course it’s important to learn to take the rough with the smooth. But I could not help thinking of Izabela Wagner’s Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos and the desperate grind of violin prodigies training for many hours a day, for years, in return for a slim chance of making it as a solo performer: “For every ten students, one will attempt suicide, one will become mentally ill, two will become alcoholics, two will slam doors and jettison the violin out the window, three will work as violinists, and perhaps one will become a soloist.” Are the ‘failures,’ who have worked themselves into the ground, lacking in ‘grit’? Or is failure an inevitable function of competition? Duckworth’s shrine to stickability felt like a long, well-argued way of asserting that we can have anything we want, if you just keep trying. For many people – for many reasons – that simply isn’t true.

This is Marketing // Seth Godin: I read this before interviewing the marketing guru for Five Books. A bit like Duckworth’s Grit, it is more concerned with communicating a vision than in imparting specific advice. But, as someone who instinctively shrinks from anything explicitly labelled ‘marketing’, it was a useful exercise. It also had the best, most pithy explanation of what a ‘brand’ is and means that I’ve read. (“Nike doesn’t have a hotel. But if it did, you would probably have some good guesses as to what it would be like. That’s Nike’s brand.”)

The Mars Room // Rachel Kushner: Wowow, I loved this book. I swallowed it whole one weekend, listening to the audiobook while sanding the floor in my new house. Probably the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s about a woman in prison for killing her stalker, and flashes back and forth from jail to the events that led to this point. The Mars Room should be tragic; instead it’s ballsy and raw and brilliant.

The Testaments // Margaret Atwood: Eagerly awaited in this house, I have had the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale on preorder since I first heard of it. But I had some mixed feelings about The Testaments, probably more because I hold the original text in such high regard than because of any deficiencies in this new book. I wrote a review for Five Books, which you can find here.

All Among the Barley // Melissa Harrison: Gorgeous pastoral novel – or rather, an anti-pastoral. It centres upon a glamorous outsider who idealises the ‘traditional values’ of a village community in 1930s England. The reality of rural life is more complex – and the visitor’s motivations suspect. A deeply atmospheric book, full of dread, ill-omen and splashes of sunlit, windthrown beauty. It reminded me of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Sunset Song (1932).

Harmless Like Me // Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Thoughtful, carefully calibrated story about a reluctant artist mother and her unhappy art dealer son, which won the Betty Trask Prize a few years ago. I enjoyed it a great deal. All Rowan‘s characters are deftly sketched, and not always flatteringly – but with a huge amount of compassion. Atmospheric and strangely uplifting, without ever playing on sentimentality.

Fleishman is in Trouble // Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I enjoyed this book a lot, in the same complicated way that I enjoy autofiction. (See my discussion of the form with Olivia Laing over on Five Books – in which I touch on my unease around it, and the difficulty of reading it in a sophisticated way.) And I guess this might qualify as autofiction, at least in part – it being a novel about a divorcing middle-aged man narrated by a middle-aged female magazine writer, who argues that she has learned to tell stories through the prism of a man for the story to be accepted as ‘universal.’
Fleischman is in Trouble is clever and sharp, and contains no small amount of sex; I whipped through it in a couple of days. It reminded me of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, both of which I also enjoyed ‘in a complicated way’ because of how they manipulated the reader: having one bond with a male protagonist, then throwing one’s loyalties into disarray by turning focus upon his wife (and in this case, both his wife and a female friend). All three authors did it cleverly and with nuance. In Fleishman is in Trouble, Brodesser-Akner added a new layer of complexity. Very good, very interesting too.

Scrublands // Chris Hammer: Superior thriller about a reporter piecing together the events that led up to a tragic mass shooting in drought-struck New South Wales. I picked it up based on its Amazon reviews, and on the basis of having enjoyed Jane Harper’s outback noir. It has an unbelievably complicated plot, but I like that sometimes, and Hammer’s hopelessly conflicted protagonist offers an excellent case study into the difficulty of living as an impartial observer, and the moral and professional crises faced by investigative journalists.

The City and the City // China Mieville: A police procedural like no other, set in an alternate world where twin city-states each exist upon the same site, requiring their citizens to live in denial of the others’ existence. Weird, absorbing, spectacularly imaginative.

Its Colours They Are Fine // Alan Spence: Loved this. A collection of interconnected short stories set in 1950s/1960s working class Glasgow, full of life and humour. Alan (who is currently the Edinburgh Makar) and his wife opened a vg bookshop very close to my old flat on Montrose Terrace in Edinburgh, I highly recommend dropping in and buying a copy from the author directly.

Housekeeping // Marilynne Robinson: Melancholic period piece about two orphaned sisters and the relatives deputised to bring them up – ending with Sylvie, an eccentric, footloose aunt who has heretofore lived an unapologetically transient lifestyle: ”I was reassured by her sleeping on the lawn, and now and then in the car,” explains Ruth, the elder sister: “It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.” A very intriguing character study – although the audiobook (read by Becket Royce) injected an odd sing-song quality to Robinson’s immaculate prose, which detracted somewhat.

Train Dreams // Denis Johnson: Recommended by Dan Richards (see The Beechwood Airship Interviews, above) when I interviewed him on the subject of landscape writing. It’s a slender slip of a book, full of the epic landscapes and taciturn manly-men of the American West at the turn of the 20th century.

Ghost Wall // Sarah Moss: Another slender novel, about a family and a group of students re-enacting life in an Iron Age village as an act of ‘experimental archaeology.’ Shivers with a tension that spills over spectacularly in the final pages.

The Tidal Zone // Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall sent me spinning off searching for more by Sarah Moss, and I also enjoyed this cautious, fearful novel through the eyes of an academic turned stay-at-home-dad whose oldest daughter one day suddenly collapses at school, after her heart – inexplicably – stops.

The Remains of the Day // Kazuo Ishiguro: Listened to as an audiobook read by Dominic West. The book, a pitch-perfect exercise in understatement, combined with his masterful reading brought me, repeatedly, to tears. Quietly devastating.

The Valley at the Centre of the World // Malachy Tallack: Thoughtful novel that flits between the lives of the residents of a remote island hamlet. Notable for its use of Shetlandic dialect in dialogue – and how these verbal manifestations act as markers of class, age and relative worldliness. Tallacks asks (implicitly) for us to reconsider what it means to live well, and how the whole world might be held in a tiny windlashed microcosm.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation // Ottessa Moshfegh: I loved this strange, spiteful and stylised book. The flat affect was vivifying in its horror, and reminded me of Less Than Zero in its anaesthetised listlessness.

Eileen // Ottessa Moshfegh: I thought I might have taken on too much by reading one Moshfegh after another – to start with, I felt I was merely weathering the grimness. But pace built inexorably, the eponymous Eileen came rising up fully formed, and the ending thrilled without ever lapsing into schlock. Brilliant.

Supper Club // Lara Williams: Sharp debut novel which follows a group of millennial women as they embark upon a transgressive art project: a secret society whose members eat and drink and dance until they collapse, with the intention of putting on weight and learning to live unapologetically. The book takes an interesting form, folding food writing and recipes into the mix, reminiscent of Ephron’s Heartburn. Sensuous, gluttonous, joyful and a little unsettling; a celebration of hedonism, but a warning too.

Queenie // Candice Carty-Williams: Everything I’d read suggested this would be a Bridget Jones’s Diary feelgood farce – but though it shares some superficial similarities (charting the romantic travails of a young woman in London), it’s a far darker book. Queenie deals with domestic abuse, violent sex, panic attacks and racism; with the help of her friends and (after a fashion) her British-Jamaican family, she rebuilds her life. More gruelling than expected, but very heartwarming and funny in parts – particularly the sections starring her lovable, fast-talking, motley gang of friends she dubs ‘the Corgis.’

Semiosis // Sue Burke: ‘First contact’ science fiction novel shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, which is very good at highlighting books with both literary merit and the mind-expanding qualities of sci-fi. It’s about a colony on another planet whose founders have big, utopian ideals – but soon encounter a form of intelligent plant life with the power to influence human thought and behaviour, and turn it to its own ends.

My Sister the Serial Killer // Oyinkan Braithwaite: Booker longlistee, which is very entertaining. Set in Lagos, a senior nurse struggles to rein in her gorgeous, sociopathic sister with black widow tendencies. Fantastic dissection of female/male power dynamics which never feels preachy or pretentious.

Bad Behaviour // Mary Gaitskill: Short fiction collection bought after reading Gaitskill’s (remarkable) post-#MeToo novella ‘This is Pleasure’ in the New Yorker. Very racy, very clever, and includes the story that spawned Secretary (the edgy 2002 romcom). The book is darker, and very focused on the mindset of the masochist. Highlight: ‘A Romantic Weekend’, about the awkward failure of a couple to connect either sexually or emotionally during a tense mini-break. Bitter and slickly rendered.

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off // Liz Lochhead: Sharp, wry, imaginative. This 1987 play is celebrated here in Scotland and I can see why. I hope to see a revival someday soon.

Glass, God and Irony // Anne Carson: The first poem sequence ‘The Glass Essay’ completely floored me, even more so than Autobiography of Red, which I read (and adored) a few months ago. It’s about heartbreak, retreat, complicated family relationships and the mysterious Emily Brontë (who brings all these themes together rather well – “She knows how to hang puppies, / that Emily”).

No Map Could Show Them // Helen Mort: I loved this collection, an examination of gender and the outdoors that pays tribute to pioneering female mountaineers. Mort pokes fun at the irritations that come with being female-while-climbing, and offers an ode to ‘Bob,’ the male onlooker who pops up to offer unsolicited advice at every juncture. I also enjoyed her tips on body conditioning: “Mine is the Shackleton diet, you eat / your boots.”

Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems // Gary Snyder: Known as ‘the Thoreau of the Beat Generation’, Snyder was a poet and translator who also worked as a trail-builder, sailor and fire-lookout. His American poetry is full of backcountry imagery I recognise and love (“lost ponies with / Dragging saddles— / and rocky sure-foot trails”); the second element of the book – translations of classical Chinese Buddhist poetry – open up a whole new world.

Dart // Alice Oswald: I went on a real Alice Oswald reading-jag after joining the Scottish Poetry Library and finding almost her entire backlist among their lending-out titles. Dart was a beautiful idea (a journey down the length of a river, narrated by those she meets along its banks – their voices braided together) executed admirably. Built from the same understated profundity of found art and verbatim theatre.

Memorial // Alice Oswald: Read immediately after Dart – in fact, my partner and I took turns reading it out to each other. It’s a brilliant reinterpretation of the Iliad, stripping away the main narrative and instead presenting a roll call of the dead – 200 fallen soldiers. Hypnotic. Also, in the cover notes, came across the most wonderful Ancient Greek definition: enargeia, a “‘bright unbearable reality’ (the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves).” Made me wish I were a Classicist.

Falling Awake // Alice Oswald: A more traditional-in-form collection of poems, but vividly imaginative. I have not been able to get the strange and haunting ‘Village’ out of my head – a disorienting stream of consciousness or consciousnesses, phrases and throwaway comments strung together to create an almost-incoherent babble that, like a half-overhead conversation, still fills you with unease. I must have reread it a dozen times.

so many names in this place not many of us left
living on the last we can find can you hear this
somebody out peering out not me noticed the least likely
   the very soul of respectability
eating something in the cemetery not rats I hope are you listening


Reading now:

Lanny by Max Porter

The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

Antigone by Sophocles (I told you I’d been inspired to Classicism)

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