Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Sunday Book: Summer Holiday Reading (of a sort)

As per usual, my suitcase travelling to Italy was 75% Book. Sure, there are these new-fangled gizmos called “e-readers” and tablets and what-have-you but I like a clear, physical statement of priority. I want my holiday to be 75% Book too. I don’t need extra clothes or spare shoes or fancy makeup – when all you’re carrying is two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of plimsolls, your basic toiletries and a supply of clean pants you have room for a travelling library. (Wheels are the key.) And holidays over the last few years have repeatedly proved the superiority of paper books over tablets. No matter how great the battery on your device eventually you will forget to charge it/it will run out at the most inopportune moment. Bright sunshine? No problem. Maybe the Paperwhite has that covered but what about reading on a lilo? Epic gin & tonic spillages? Pickpockets? I think not…

I don’t tend to go for This Summer’s Big Beach Reads but I think I managed to pull off a particularly unlikely combination of books this year. Nothing says poolside reading like essays and violent rape, right? These felt like a very disparate selection of books as I read them, the styles vary wildly, but taken as a whole there are actually some strong connecting themes – race and womanness particularly. Man, it is just such a pleasure to gorge yourself on books in that uniquely holidayish way.

Boy, Snow, Bird – I am on a major Helen Oyemi hit. I read BSB and the impressively weird Mr Fox back to back and White is for Witching is on my To Read list. She’s just great. Lyrical, unpredictable and deeply odd. I love how she plays with folklore and fairytales. BSB twists the Snow White story in small town 1950s America. Boy is the daughter of an abusive rat catcher, Snow is the daughter of the distant man she starts seeing, Bird is Boy's own daughter. There are lots of daughters and strained parental relationships. There is the weight of American racial history and politics and the emotional effects of passing. It is beautiful and slightly surreal and it felt very fresh. More here: the Rumpus review by Anita Felicelli.

Signifying Rappers - The first of many DFW essay collections on my To Read List. I still haven't got around to reading any of his fiction but he is a perfect essayist. I hadn't realised before I picked this up that it was effectively juvenilia - written by DFW with his room-mate when he was still a PhD student in 1989 - and the slim book is scruffy and imperfect but it has its own charms. I mean, it's about rap for one thing and I love me some rap or, rather, I love some rap and I'm interested in its history. The artists and events in the book pre-date by birth! A lot of them were alien to me but I quite liked that. White boys talking about rap is always/almost always kind of ridiculous and at this point DFW still had a tendency towards awkward academic idioms, long words and clumsy ideas, but despite all that the earnestness and enthusiasm is sweet. Ok, so you need to be keen on both rap and DFW to get much out of this but I suspect there's a decent overlap there. Also, it's very short. More here: the Guardian review by Nikesh Shukla.

The Newlyweds - This is closer to "tea towel fiction" than I would generally go for but I had A Reason to read it. Bangladeshi Amina wants to move to the States but can't afford college, even on a scholarship, and American George wants a docile wife. They meet online and the novel chronicles their courtship, Amina's hopes and expectations, the pressures of immigration and the tensions between Amina and both her new husband and her parents in Bangladesh. George is dead weight, he is a boring character and my personal interest in straight white male angst is remarkably low, but luckily we don't spend much time with him. Although it would be easy to do so, the novel rarely veers towards cliché and the characters and the decisions they make feel very human. Of course, this means that most of the decisions are shitty and I spent at least the last third of the book restraining myself from knocking my head against a wall but that's people for you... More here: the NYT review by Mohsin Hamid.

An Untamed State - Roxane! Roxane! Roxane! I pre-ordered this book forever ago and it sat on my coffee table waiting for an opportune reading time. Everything I knew about it suggested that it would need some dedicated time and that it would be ill-suited to Tube reading. This impression was correct and then some! Man, this book is gruelling and traumatic and tragic. Perfect holiday fun really. I doubt there is anyone left on the internet who needs a plot summary but Miami lawyer Mireille is visiting her parents in Haiti with her American husband and toddler when she is kidnapped for ransom. Her father refuses to pay and she is brutally and repeatedly assaulted. That sounds pretty grim and it is but the pacing is excellent and Mireille is very compelling. You know from the first sentence that she survives and, for me, the most moving section was after her return to America and her attempts and failures to respond to her experience. It is a page turner and I cried solidly for at least 25% of the book. That might not sound like much of a recommendation but it's an impressive book.

Broken Homes - No. 4 in the Peter Grant series that I have written enthusiastically about before. I just think they're great. Funny, sharp, quick. London and magic. Actual holiday reading. And, bonus, an impressively realistic, casual depiction of this city's racial makeup. Literary London is so often either White or very tightly focused on a single ethnic community whereas these books look far more like any given bus. My only criticism of this particular title in the series is that it ends on a cliff hanger which bugs me. I have really enjoyed the procedural + development model of the series so far, a discrete adventure/mystery with ongoing character development and long view relationships, and I like to get a clean narrative hit off a quick book. Still, the next one is already out so I just need to track it down.

Treasure Island!!! - Well, this was bat shit crazy. Nice to have an indie press on the list though. This actually came to me via Roxane and the excellent article she wrote on unlikeable heroines (which also yielded the more enjoyable Dare Me). I'll let her summarise... "In TI!!!, an unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with Treasure Island and decides to live by the book’s core values as she sees them: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, HORN-BLOWING. She is completely self-obsessed and never considers the consequences of her actions as she selfishly moves through the world and tries be more like Jim Hawkins—as she ultimately tries to create her own adventure. [...] The wit is sharp, perfectly executed, and the tone is relentless and consistent from the beginning of the novel until the end. Levine is as committed to the narrator and the depths of her narcissism as the narrator is to Treasure Island. Each time you think the narrator has reached the apex of self-absorption and narcissism, she discovers new heights. Each time you think she might show her family or Lars a little compassion, a little tenderness, she stays the course. There is no redemptive arc here." I can't say that I enjoyed the narrator's psychotic behaviour or her disregard for others in the same way that Gay did but there is a gender imbalance in representations of obsessive destructive arseholes in fiction so bring it. More here: the HTMLGiant review by Roxane Gay.


  1. Adding all of these to my ever growing to-read list

  2. Boy, Snow, Bird is on my to-read list that now fills up 7 pages on Amazon. Sigh. I agree with you on vacation reading. You should definitely have a backup "real" book available, even if you are bringing your e-reader filled to the brim with books because that might go on the blitz and the plane won't have a regular electrical outlet and only a DC outlet (who even has those anymore???)