Books on my bedside table: Q4 2019 and Q1 2020

Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light - hardback book cover on floor boards

It’s been a strange few months for reading. I finished the first draft of my new book, Islands of Abandonment, at the start of February, after months of nocturnal living and occasional minor breakdowns. Then – well – the pandemic happened. Suffice to say, I’ve felt my capacity for recreational reading to be lower than normal. Still, somehow I managed to read a fair number of books that I loved and wholeheartedly recommend, so here goes:

Fiction
Outline and Transit // Rachel Cusk: The first two books of the highly-acclaimed Outline trilogy. Each takes the form of a series of conversations – with a colleague, a stranger on a plane, a difficult neighbour, her hairdresser – as the protagonist is largely present as a negative, bar her sharp, analytic comments in response to her interlocutor’s offerings. Despite its cool affect and barely-there plot (or perhaps because of it) the books are spellbinding, and powerful in their own understated manner. So acutely intelligent, so readable.

Weather // Jenny Offill: I came nervously to this, because her last novel Dept. of Speculation is one of my favourite books of all time. Was delighted to find that same unpretentious profundity, that quick wit, that macabre obsession. So easily digestible, in its fragmentary form. I read it in an afternoon, then reread it the next day. Who knew the end days could be so dryly amusing? I didn’t feel it to have the same gut-punch emotional intensity of the previous book, but I loved it nevertheless.

The Plague // Albert Camus: Completely coincidentally, I got onto a ‘plague fiction’ reading jag last year before Covid-19 swept the world. I know Camus’ The Plague to be allegorical, yet I still haven’t been able to get the opening section out of my head: the way the city residents grab at life, filling the bars and restaurants in the early days of the quarantine. How, as boredom sets in, they sit smoking at cafe tables, complaining about their lost loves. And all the time, out of sight, the death toll rises…

Follow Me to Ground // Sue Rainsford: Bewitching fable set in an unspecified contemporary-era period, in which two not-quite-human, ageless healers live on the edge of a village. When the younger of the two falls for a local man, and attempts to turn him into one of them, all hell breaks loose. Elements of magical realism, elements of body horror. A concise, elegant, haunting story that dragged me under.

Cleanness // Garth Greenwell: Unmissable new book from Greenwell, which is a novel that unfolds by way of episodic vignettes. Personally, I found the sections that dealt with sex and our darker desires most powerful – recalling Mary Gaitskill’s writings on submission: compliance as liberation. Greenwell says he thinks of himself as more of a poet than a novelist, and certainly Cleanness is infused with a poet’s sensibility.

Sabrina // Nick Drnaso: I don’t often read graphic novels, but have tried to be more open to them after meeting Beijing-based comic artist Krish Raghav at MacDowell last year. Sabrina was longlisted for the Booker a few years ago, and my partner Rich pressed it into my hands. It’s about the aftermath of a horrible murder, conspiracy theories and paranoia, and I read it in a single sitting. It’s so good, honestly, read it right now.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House // Shirley Jackson: I love Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ but only just got to her most famous novels. Read these on my phone in the dark of a bunk room in a hostel in Estonia during a research trip, and kept myself awake several nights running. Each deeply disturbing in its own way, both wholly immersive.

The Kindness of Strangers, Amsterdam and Solar // Ian McEwan: McEwan’s books are excellent to listen to as audiobooks. They tend to a be a nice length for long journeys, and combine strong plotting (which I find essential, if I’m to keep my focus on the book while I’m driving) with incisive portrayals of emotional states. Every so often there’s a description of a character’s way of thinking that’s so brilliant I have to rewind the recording by thirty seconds to listen to it again, and then I do it again. The Kindness of Strangers was McEwan’s second book; it’s a story about a couple who fall into an ominous, sexually charged relationship with an older couple while on holiday. It’s interesting to see how McEwan’s writing developed between this book (which is dark and absorbing, but less deep) and the later books Amsterdam (fantastic characters, particularly loved a passage about the newspaper editor who wonders whether he ever really exists except in relation to other people—although the ending was daft) and Solar (exceptionally good, can’t fault it, 10/10).

A Lovely Way to Burn // Louise Welsh: The first in the ‘Plague Times’ trilogy. A shopping channel presenter finds herself on the trail of her partner’s murderer as a deadly pandemic takes hold. It’s an interestingly constructed book – the pandemic acting as an incidental backdrop to a crime thriller. This is its strength and weakness both: strength, for its unusual nature, marking it apart; weakness, because, the deadly pandemic seems much more crucial and pressing than the crime the protagonist is seeking to solve. What’s one more death, given the massive death toll and utter dissolution of law and order? I found her motivation and focus difficult to accept. Still, I enjoyed it.

Neon in Daylight // Hermione Hoby: Cerebral debut novel set in New York, told through the eyes of three interlinked characters: a ballsy rich kid making money from the weirder end of the Craigslist personal ads; her father, a washed-up author of a cult 90s novel; and a goody-goody British 20-something who befriends the first and seduces the second, while learning how to cut loose and enjoy herself. Full of longing, self-censure and self-discovery.

Exquisite Cadavers // Meena Kandasamy: A slim, experimental book: a novella about a mixed-race couple in London, with a secondary strand of memoir that unfolds in the form of annotations in the margins. Kandasamy seeks to disentangle the link between fiction and reality, after the reception to her previous novel When I Hit You was dominated by references to her status as a domestic violence survivor. The experiment is bold and intellectually challenging; the reading experience quite disorientating—the brain seeking repeatedly to grasp onto something solid, only to find it giving way. Interesting.

Fiction in progress: 
The Mirror and the Light // Hilary Mantel (could not love this more, just what I hoped for); 10:04 // Ben Lerner (clever and enjoyable, I lost momentum through no fault of its own, will return to it); Salt Slow // Julia Armfield (brilliantly dark and imaginative, I’m savouring each story by consuming them one at a time); The Electric State // Simon Stålenhag (beautiful, atmospheric post-apocalyptic graphic novel, which I have been perusing like an art book); Super Sad True Love Story // Gary Shteyngart (always a favourite among interviewees on Five Books – really enjoying it so far, dipping in as the mood takes me).

Nonfiction
Priestdaddy // Patricia Lockwood: Such a funny, clever, moving memoir of growing up in the shadow of a mercurial, unorthodox father. Lockwood has the witty comebacks you always wish you had to hand, and the cut-to-the-quick mind of the autodidact. I’d read anything she wrote.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia // Sophy Roberts: I was lucky enough to get a proof copy of this wonderful travelogue-slash-history, in which the travel journalist Roberts searches Siberia for a baby grand piano for her concert pianist friend in Mongolia, and in doing so charts a fascinating period of Russian imperial history, when classical musicians performed in all sorts of unlikely backwaters to huge popular acclaim – and, latterly, when composers amassed in the gulags, and entertained local villages.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey // Robert Macfarlane: A new book from the patron saint of nature writing. Having climbed the highest heights in Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane now dives down to the lowest of the lows. He goes caving in limestone caverns deep underground, rattles through salt mines under the sea in carts and stumbles across (literal) underground subcultures in the Paris catacombs, all interwoven with learned digressions into geological epochs and classical conceptions of the underworld. What can I say? Macfarlane is a most remarkable writer.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee // Casey Cep: An unusual blend of true crime and literary biography. Shortlisted for the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize, and coming highly recommended from the chair of the judges Stig Abell when I interviewed him, it tells a remarkable true story of a murderous pastor in the American South, and the To Kill a Mockingbird author’s attempt to write about him, having contributed so much to Truman Capote’s true crime classic In Cold Blood.

The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism // Kyle Chayka: I read this ahead of an interview with Chayka for Five Books (forthcoming), and found it very interesting and engaging. It explores the links between the current fad for ‘minimalist’ living – think Marie Kondo and her ilk – with the Minimalist artists of the 1960s, and previous iterations of minimalist thought, including far eastern aesthetics and religion, and Stoicism.

Footprints // David Farrier: A nonfiction search for “future fossils” – or, how the human race will be preserved and remembered in the distant future: the physical trace we will leave in the geological record (all manmade iron, for example, will revert to pyrite), long-life pollutants like nuclear waste and micro-plastics, and the impact we make on other species on this planet, due to mass extinctions and climate change. Plaiting together complex science with cultural history, Footprints is an ambitious, well-written book, dense with mind-blowing facts. My favourite sections were the discussion of the US nuclear ‘priesthood’ concept, which suggests that knowledge of radioactive waste must be handed down like superstition between the ages, and the bit about the experimental poet writing Euridyce and Orpheus lyrics into the DNA of bacteria.

Animal Languages // Eva Meijer: Read this as research for an essay for Prospect on animal-human communication research. Meijer is a philosopher, and this is where the book is strongest. I studied animal communication at university so was familiar with much of the content, but it was a good refresher, if a little thin on caveats. I felt she over-claimed on what had been achieved, but nevertheless her commentaries on animal welfare and consciousness, in light of what we now know about animal intelligence, were compelling.

Wasteland: A History // Vittoria di Palma: I dipped in and out of this beautifully illustrated coffee table book, but have now read most of it and can highly recommend it. Deeply researched cultural history on the changing concept of ‘wasteland’ – which in the 17th century was a very widely applied term, often used to refer to peatland or marsh (and other habitats we now consider to be ecologically significant). Important reminder that much of what we believe to be self-evident about the world around us is in fact culturally specific.

Autonomous Nature // Carolyn Merchant: I so enjoyed her book The Death of Nature that I came back for more. This is a shorter book, which alternates between accounts of various natural disasters and a history of how the concept of nature has changed over millennia. A good ‘expansion pack’ for the earlier book, although not as weighty in itself.

Business for Bohemians // Tom Hodgkinson: I saw the US literary agent Anna Sproul-Latimer recommending this for writers on Twitter, so picked up the ebook, and it is very useful: a sort of idiot’s guide to basic business principles for the artistically inclined, with a natural fear of management/marketing/business plans. I knew quite a lot of it already, having been self-employed since 2012, but nevertheless it was still useful in terms of getting in the right mindset.

Nonfiction in progress
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency // Olivia Laing (a collection of essays and art criticism, perfect for reading in short bursts when one is feeling a bit brain-fried. Particularly enjoyed the piece on the abstract expressionist/Minimalist artist Agnes Martin, who I recently discussed with Kyle Chayka, above)Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time // Jay Griffiths (I’ve been reading this in slivers for months, as every page is full of mind-bending tidbits about how different cultures name – and, perhaps, conceive of – time, and needs to be savoured); Notes from an Apocalypse // Mark O’Connell (skim-read for an interview, but now re-reading properly as it is so interesting and timely).

 

Drama
Antigone // Sophocles: I haven’t read many of the Classics, only contemporary ‘updatings’, and was inspired to give Sophocles a go because I love the writing of poet-Classicists Alice Oswald and Ann Carson so much. As is so often the case with intimidating things, it was nowhere near as difficult as I expected. I read it aloud with my partner, which is a lovely way to consume any play. My mid-year resolution is to expand my knowledge in this area. There’s a box-set of Penguin’s ‘Little Black Classics’ at my local library, so that’s where I’ll be when everything reopens after the lockdown.

Lungs // Duncan Macmillan: Modern (2011) play about a couple tussling over whether they should bring a baby into a world facing climate disaster. Invigorating to see this familiar argument played out with all of its emotional, political, climatological aspects; it echoed the recent conversations of many real-life couples I know.

 

Poetry
The Beauty of the Husband // Ann Carson: Another text that benefitted from being read aloud. I’d read and re-read the opening pages, spinning my wheels, then one evening hit on it in exactly the right mood and swallowed it whole. An intoxicating blend of the obscure – needing to allow it to wash over you, its images forming in the air and then evaporating – and entirely accessible and direct. (“All in all my husband was a man who knew more / about the Battle of Borodino / than he did about his own wife’s body, much more!”) It’s very funny, and then suddenly touches a live wire, and you are zapped to your core. (I fixated upon a line in part IX, when the schoolgirl is seduced ; Carson likens the girl to Persephone, taken “down to a cold room below / while her mother walks the world and damages every living thing.” Oof.

Deaf Republic // Ilya Kaminsky: Modern epic, set in a(n unspecified?) post-Soviet republic during a period of uprising. The townspeople affect deafness as an act of disobedience. It’s raw and powerful and violent, with moments of tenderness and sensuality. Deserves all its accolades and more.

Poetry in progress
Currently dipping in and out of Elizabeth Bishop‘s complete poems, and preparing to drop headlong into Ann Carson’s Red Doc>. I’ve just ordered and eagerly await Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, which was recently recommended to me by Jessica J Lee.

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