Books, books, books

by Maria on December 2, 2017

Around November, I declare a ban on any new/borrowed books and try and finish all the books I’ve started that year. Slow-going, this year, as I was for some reason unable to read for much of October and November, and lots of the unread pile is non-fiction. Anyway, some highlights of the year, below. Another post to follow on what’s on the Christmas list.

A book that lingered in mind long after I’d finished it was Laline Paull’s fascinating The Ice (The Bees is still one of my favourite books of the last decade, and I pressed copies of it into two more people’s hands this year.) The Ice is set in the very near future, about the friendship between two men who each want to save the last bit of the Arctic. The chapters begin with excerpts from the memoirs and letters of others who have been obsessed with Arctic exploration, drawing out the historic roots of our drive both to explore and exploit.

Recently I listened to a LRB Cafe event podcast with China Mieville from about 2014. He mentioned something about “…extruded-literary fiction product which is about the calm, chapter by chapter decoding of a never very mysterious metaphor to clarify what life is a bit like, and the book ends with a ‘yes, that’s so true’, that is very wise’.” We all pretty much know what that is, when we see it. I can’t be the only one hungry for novels about politics, money, the environment, the movement of people and surveillance capitalism. Laline Paull’s The Ice grapples with several of these, and the world of work, which is quite rarely found in fiction, and the deals individuals make with themselves and the world they find themselves in, and whether we have any business holding onto hope.

But, speaking of extruded literary product, I also loved Rachel Cusk’s Transit and Outline, which takes the whole ‘will this middle class marriage survive?’ epic and does something pleasingly unpleasant with it. These books – not quite novel, not quite memoir – prompted discussion a few years ago about the female confessional and collateral damage. I resisted for a while, but became so immersed I had to re-read them to keep the spell going. Now I keep finding quotes from her printed out on scraps of paper around the house. I must have made them at a weird point in the untidy decay / deep clean cycle in my office. From the reviews, I thought she would be floaty and self-rationalising, but my one-line book journal take on Transit was “V.G. Nicely cruel about writers”.

Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter, which two of my siblings rightly surmised I would like for Christmas – there came a point during this read when I regretted it. I considered dropping it as I had Hermione Lee’s life of Willa Cather, when I realised that Pioneers came from Cather’s white nativist yearnings, and this knowledge threatened to re-arrange her novels in my mind. Gordon’s description of Carter’s prolonged adolescence kept reminding me of my own. But narcissism soon gave way to the sense of a woman grabbing and re-working a most interesting life. It is a wonderful biography and made me return to a couple of Carter’s books.

Another writer biography this year was Claire Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield, a short and perfect look at a thoroughly dislikeable and deeply admirable woman and author.

Daniel Deronda nearly did for me. Two months. His mother, on the other hand, could have carried a 700-page novel on her little finger while dancing across a melting ice crust.

Ian Pears’ Arcadia was a fantastic and thoroughly satisfying time-travel/multiverse yarn, though the last 100 or so pages felt a bit too dense with plot. Ali Shaw’s The Trees, a post-apocalypse set in the UK and Ireland where trees have taken over, was also interesting and enjoyable all the way through.

Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger was scary and compelling – and slightly eerie as I’ve been using similar imagery and material on the idea of the ‘global civil war’ in lectures for a few years – but after promising not to be all about Rousseau, a huge chunk of it was indeed all about Rousseau. (your bag, Chris) And it was just so overwhelmingly, suffocatingly all about men.

I read Brian Moore (first cousin, twice removed, or is it the other way around?) – The Mangan Inheritance – and oh my goodness, the sexual politics were repulsive. I know it’s of its time, etc. etc. but even before the horrifying reveal, the relationship at the heart of it is so dubious. Then again, if it wasn’t, I suppose the book wouldn’t be about anything at all. But still. Ugh.

Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, One Fat One Thin and Veronica were wholly immersive and I can’t, for the purposes of a quick year’s review, articulate what it was like to live with and, in a small way, in these books for weeks. My book journal just says ‘awe-inspiring’. I need to re-read them, but it will not be soon – think ‘awe’ in all senses of the word.

Re-reads this year included The Third Policeman (the footnotes are surprisingly funny when you’re not charging through them to get back to the story), and some Iain Banks. I miss him being around.

Late-to-the-party reads this year included Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, as good and deliciously Victorian as everyone says, and, oh my God, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone… Why did no one tell me about it?!

Beatlebone is kind of sui generis, but the dialogue – both internal and external – is among the best and funniest I’ve ever read. I am probably the last human alive who didn’t know about Beatlebone, but this stood to me, as I had No Idea who it was about, till the very end, and so experienced it as a late 1950s kind of book, not a Swinging Sixties one, which felt in retrospect to have been much more authentic. And oh gods he is so funny and right about small Irish towns.

Despite starting the year wishing away the days till George Saunders’ novel came out, I still haven’t bought it. Something ornery happens when I really want to read something, but it’s doing so well it’s endlessly in hardback. Maybe next year, or perhaps in our library which seems to have escaped imminent closure for another financial year, anyway.

Marian Keyes’ The Break was everything I’d hoped for, funny, contemporary and with Keyes’ gimlet eye for hypocrisy and self-deceit leavened by deep and warm humanity. OK, maybe a little longer than it strictly needed to be, but everyone I know who read this basically cleared two days for it and treated it as both a holiday and a gift. A couple of years ago I asked the head of her publishing house why Keyes is “chick lit”. He said it was just the big thing when she came on the scene, so she got categorised as that. Anyone who reads SF is bored out of their minds by the debate about categories and the snobbery they generate just as night follows day, but it still annoys me that people look down on Keyes. Then again, all who love her love her and fundamentally don’t care.

I should trawl the house for orphan book piles, because there were more. But on the whole it wasn’t a brilliant year’s reading. I feel very cognitively overwhelmed by the volume of information I need to keep in my head, what with work, writing and research. Brains really do have capacity limits, or at least anxiety triggers for added volume.

But the poorish year’s reading is also partly down to the kind of year it has been. I wanted Naomi Alderman’s The Power to be nastier and much more vengeful than it was, and finished The Underground Railroad horribly convinced that a country built on original sin cannot but crumble as it currently is. Christodora made me think that if we had a new AIDS crisis now, the sufferers would simply be walled up behind barbed wire while everyone else amused themselves on youtube or kicking the shit out of immigrants/Muslims/insert slightly less feared group.

Just when the need to dream up alternatives to reality is most acute, it seems harder than ever to escape the psychotic daily (hourly) news cycle. The more we need this imagination thing, the less we seem able to access it.



novakant 12.02.17 at 2:39 pm

Around November, I declare a ban on any new/borrowed books and try and finish all the books I’ve started that year.

Good idea, I won’t make it though. I’ve read “Ordinary Men” (Browning) “Just Mercy” (Stevenson) and “Kant and Cosmopolitanism” (Kleingeld) this year, but have only made sluggish progress on “A Life of Montaigne” (Bakewell), “The Idea of Socialism” (Honneth) and am really trying to finish the last volume of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” .


Dave Maier 12.02.17 at 3:50 pm

I read The Third Policeman this year (along with At Swim-Two-Birds, which I liked a bit better), and I thought the footnotes were the best part! Very Pale Fire. Sort of.


Henry 12.02.17 at 5:02 pm

oh my God, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone… Why did no one tell me about it?!

Some might have mentioned Barry’s work in passing to you last year … (though they can’t feel too superior since they still owes yiz comments on other stuff). For more Barry on small town Ireland, you should try his Little Kingdoms, which has one short story where a man finds a small version of Paradise running a chipper in Clonmel. Also close to home, the eponymous city in City of Bohane is a phantasmagoric mixture of Killorglin and Galway.


Maria 12.02.17 at 6:06 pm

“Some” may even have supplied the actual copy I read and the house I read it in… :-)
So, thank you x3! His other stuff sounds fantastic. I had no idea of the Killorglin link (oh, it must be to do with Puck Fair, I get it.)

novakant, I’m surprised Bakewell’s Montaigne is dragging for you. I was really charmed by it – what with the mix of biography, history and his essays etc. What’s not working? (I am overly impressed by hard books, so figure anyone who can handle Kant…)

Dave – yes, I loved the footnotes this time round. They are their own little book, right there. It’s so long since I read At Swim Two Birds, but I remember laughing a lot and having flashbacks to Irish (Gaeilge) literature classes at school on precisely the kind of stuff it sends up.


Phil 12.02.17 at 11:09 pm

I loved The Third Policeman, footnotes and all, the first time I read it, and I’ve re-read it two or three times since then. I didn’t quite warm to At Swim-Two-Birds, though, and I’ve never gone back to it. Maybe next year.

I disliked The Essex Serpent enough to stop, four or five chapters in, and ask my wife – who’d read it before me – (a) if it got any better and (receiving the answer No) (b) what actually happened. (My reaction to her second answer was a resounding Huh?.) We’re both fans of Victorian fiction – and of On Golden Hill (and, in my case, Mason and Dixon) – so it wasn’t the style that we couldn’t get on with. In fact the book reminded me oddly of China Mieville’s ‘period’ short story “The Design”, although it struck me as far less successful. But I feel like we must be missing something.


Maria 12.03.17 at 8:47 am

I liked the medical bits and science bits.


Adam Roberts 12.03.17 at 2:29 pm

Isn’t Deronda weird? Like: just very odd. Don’t get me wrong: Eliot is one of the few 19th-century writers it’s no hyperbole to call a genius (along with Dickens, Tolstoy … maybe a couple others). But <Middlemarch set her on a particular path, in that it is two novels welded together, after the manner of dodgy used-car-dealers: quite explicitly so, two quite separate ideas for novels, one about Lydgate, one about Dorothea, mashed-together by setting them in the same location. And, somehow, that works exquisitely. So I wonder if Eliot thought: I’ll do that again, a big, 900-page novel that is the fused-together consequence of one novel about an Englishwoman who marries a horrible aristo, and another novel about a man who discovers to his surprise that he’s actually Jewish and, embracing this identity, goes off to agitate for a Jewish homeland. But in this case it doesn’t gel, and instead produces this arresting but bonkers fictive emulsion. Add in hints of ESP and all the kabbalah stuff that Eliot surreptitiously worked-in, and we have a very weird novel altogether.


Maria 12.03.17 at 5:13 pm

YES… It starts out being an eerily prefigured and wonderfully superior Portrait of a Lady, with the green, serpentine Gwendolyn gambling switching her head like a snake, and Daniel rightly transfixed by her. (walking the dog today, I giggled remembering Henry James’ account of being utterly terrified when sitting at Eliot’s feet as he was a young thing and she was the height of her blue-stockinged, national treasure powers) And there is the whole murky stuff about Gwendolyn’s horror of men and maleness, and that weird thing with the tableau vivant and the little chest. And the sympathetic way Daniel out-grows his guardian, morally and intellectually, but how they rub along together, still. All very Middlemarchian. And then it just bogs down completely in the east London scenes and goes away to die, somewhere.

My copy’s introduction was pretty stern about it not being ok to get bored by the 300 very dull pages where Daniel embraces his Jewish identity. It made the case for this being really significant for a major 19thC author to treats British Jews as humans, not comic relief. But … it just kills the novel. I think she over-researched it and just had to jam all of it in (didn’t she learn Hebrew, towards the end of her life?). And then she’s left trying to tie the two different novels together with contrived meetings and coincidences.

Whereas Middlemarch – yes, didn’t that start life as two completely separate pieces of work? – but it has to have been so much easier to mash them together when you can just plant the two protagonists in the same town and rely on everyone essentially running into each other at the Rovers Return, whenever things falter. Far west and far east London, not so much.


novakant 12.04.17 at 4:23 pm

Maria, my lack of progress with Bakewell’s book is purely idiosyncratic as life (e.g. toddler) and work get in the way of my reading constantly. It works surprisingly well with Knausgaard, maybe because his work is also quite fragmented and there are some similarities to my own life. Possibly Montaigne is for quieter times, but I’ll try over Xmas!

I’ve always wanted to read “Middlemarch”


JakeB 12.04.17 at 11:46 pm


do you have any rubrics for when you say, “Oh, the reason I didn’t finish this is because I don’t like it enough to finish it, so I’m quitting now?” It’s getting easier and easier for me just to give up on a book and I’m wondering if I’m on an asymptotic path to never finishing anything . . . .

In any case, I’ll be going to Powell’s bookstore in a few weeks and will be looking for a copy of The Ice; thanks for mentioning it. Already got Beatlebone from the library.


Maria 12.05.17 at 9:16 am

JakeB, I’m the worst of all worlds on that front. If it’s a novel, my completion-anxiety is such that I very often read the first chapter then the last one, then resume reading in order. That way, if I don’t finish at all, I know what the ending was. It’s an awful way to read and does violence to the intent of the author, making me feel even worse..! So don’t take any tips from me.

I have found that since I started keeping a book journal – just one page per month with author, title, whether it’s a re-read, tick for completion and optional one-sentence comment – I’m a bit more likely to finish stuff, especially non-fiction or non-English language works. By recording what I’ve started, it pushes me to at least acknowledge when I’m not going to finish something, too.

I don’t record stuff I read for work, though, which is probably why I have a stack of barely read books on technology.

But truth be told, I hate that I’ve allowed my reading to become another anxiety-source, and you do hear a lot of people become more relaxed about non-finishing as they get older – for good reasons, I think.


Maria 12.05.17 at 9:18 am

novakant, ah, I get it and I hope you didn’t feel scolded. One of my aunts strongly encouraged me to read Middlemarch in my twenties, but I didn’t. I only read it about five years ago, so around forty. I’m a little envious of people who start young and can re-read it in every decade – but hey, when’s the second best time to have planted a tree?


Doug K 12.05.17 at 6:59 pm

thank you, I had not yet read Marian Keyes or Laline Paull but will now. Interview,
“every marriage is a mystery that’s known only to the two people in it”
is one of very few things I am sure is true.

The only book I abandoned this year was Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix, which is odd since usually enjoy his writing. The plot just seemed to wander off independently of any artistic or other considerations and I got tired of following.

Almost gave up on An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad, in the long agonies of Peter Willems, but I have a weakness for Conrad’s purpler prose, which kept me reading. Since he died in 1924 all the novels are available on Project Gutenberg (copyright window closes in 1923) – put them all on the Kindle and re-reading in sequence to see if any new thing emerges. The old things are perfectly fine too.

Re-reading Lawrence Durrell, Alexandria Quartet, is similarly odd to the Brian Moore I guess. The sexual politics are jarring, feels to me a kind of brutality at times: the profound luxury of being able to ignore politics is also startling. This reread was prompted by a Kindle sale. I have a first edition of Mountolive from my parents, an inscription between them from Christmas 1958 in writing I can no longer remember whose it is.

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