I lost my reading mojo last quarter. It has almost (but not quite) returned but it means that my reading slowed right down and I worried that I wouldn’t have much to recommend to you, my dear readers, who I know have been waiting with bated breath, library cards clutched to your chests in anticipation…
Luckily – quality not quantity and all that – what I did read last quarter turned out to be pretty brilliant so here are the books I most enjoyed in July, August and September. They should be added to your To Read pile immediately.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
It’s a slim thing, this novel… or (prose) poem… or whatever it is (it doesn’t really matter). And its brevity means you can read it again and again, or – even better – read it slowly, relishing every word, because Max Porter makes each one work hard.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers tells the story of the aftermath of a woman’s death from the perspectives of her husband (a Ted Hughes scholar), her sons and Crow, a visitor that is both welcome and unwelcome, a bully and crook, a counsellor and protector.
There were sentences in this book so good, I literally (and I’m using the word correctly in this context) punched the air in delight, at least twice. When Crow fights a demon who feeds on grief, a stream of violence spills out, only to be interrupted by Crow’s playful glee: “…splashing in blood and spinal gunk and shit and piss, unravelling innards, whipping ligaments and nerves about joyous spaghetti tangled wool hammering, clawing, ripping, snipping, slurping, burping, frankly loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting and for Crow it was like a lovely bin full of chip papers and ice cream and currywurst and baby robins and every nasty treat…”
“like a lovely bin”! That makes me want to punch the air again.
But even in the grip of grief, in this book, there is warmth and humour:
“I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much, it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.
Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”
I don’t think I will read a better book this year.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Whilst I certainly didn’t love it as much as Grief is the Thing…, I’ve never read anything quite like Swamplandia!. Ava Bigtree and her family of alligator wranglers run the titular amusement park in the Everglades, off the southwest coast of Florida, embracing their alternative lifestyle as make-believe Native Americans. But Ava’s mum (the most famous gator wrangler of them all) dies from cancer – a death so relatively mundane, the adventurous family can hardly believe it – and the family falls apart. With her grandfather packed off to a residential home; her father away “on business”; her brother defecting to rival theme park The World of Darkness; and her sister increasingly obsessed with the occult and dating ghosts, Ava is left to her own devices.
Russell’s prose is rich and dense; I’m going to go there and say it’s swamp-like. It can be wallowed in but can also be impermeable and, although I loved the novel, its originality and some truly brilliant lines, I struggled with Russell’s efforts to sustain the richness of her writing. Just look how many (admittedly wonderful) images she packs in to the last few lines of this paragraph:
“Inside the house was bare wood. Smells bloomed in the dark, a mix of salt and bird droppings and deep rot, but the structure itself was in surprisingly good condition. No Seths, no hawks, no racoons, no trespassing felines. The main room was about three hundred square feet, and the roof was low enough to scrape back the Bird Man’s hat. There was almost no furniture, but what remained was arranged in the patterns you’d expect: a dining table twin beds bunked in an alcove that opened like a walnut mouth behind what had been the kitchen, a small black desk that looked so weak I didn’t even like to rest my eyes on it. Black and white specklings covered the walls, these grim starbursts of mold on the pale wood that made me miss with a random stab my acned brother. A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky: it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once, and lost interest.”
Swamplandia! is worth the effort though. It is fantastical, atmospheric, unsettling and, at times, even funny. If you like to be surprised by a book, this is one for you.
All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
In contrast to my other two recommendations this quarter, All the Light we Cannot See seems fairly traditional in its plotting and style, almost stately in Doerr’s story telling skill. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile; in fact, I was really bowled over by how well crafted this book is.
It is wartime. Marie-Laure, a young blind girl, lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith at a national museum. When the Nazis occupy Paris and demand access to the museum’s most prized artefact, the Sea of Flame, Marie-Laure and her father flee to an elderly relative’s house in Saint-Malo. There, they find that their relative is reclusive and eccentric, an obsessive collector of radio transmitting equipment.
Meanwhile, in Germany, a young orphan called Werner comes to the attention of the Nazi Youth, thanks to his extraordinary talent for fixing things, specifically radios. He is transported to boarding school, where brutality reigns, and trained to use his particular skills to serve the Third Reich.
Inevitably, Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths cross. But the intricate plot to bring them together is enormously satisfying, making this book a real page-turner.
This quarter, I also read:
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
A Golden Age by Tahmina Anam