Archive for December 9th, 2018

December 9, 2018

October and November Reading

Two months of books! Many of these were read on a week’s holiday in mid-October–I’ve struggled a bit to read since I came back to Delhi.

 

Onjali Q. Rauf, The Boy at the Back of the Class: I was a little nervous of this, as I am of much of the “children’s books about refugees” phenomenon that has become a thing of recent years; it’s understandable, and probably necessary, but raises so many questions about who it is being written about/for/by, and often fails to answer them. Rauf seems to answer those questions clearly–her narrator is a British child who doesn’t know much about refugees, and there’s an expectation of a reader who will learn at the same time; the back of the book contains various teaching materials as well. But Ahmet (the “boy” of the title) isn’t just a sad, silent presence in the book; he often actively participates in the telling of his story to the people he accepts as his friends. And the British characters have complicated family histories–the protagonist is mixed-race and has a grandmother who “ran away from the Nazis”. And it’s not a purely utilitarian “teaching” book; its genuinely funny, there’s material targeted at a more knowing reader (for example, a boy who keeps asking Ahmet if he’s actually the age he says he is; is he sure he’s not older?), and real skill in the way the narrative works to conceal the name and gender of its protagonist without drawing our attention to the fact that it’s doing so until close to the end–think The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler.

(More importantly?,) the book manages to treat racist immigration policy as policy,  not the unfortunate results of individual bad actors, tragic accidents, or people who Just Don’t Understand (though there are a few of those among the wider cast of characters). At one point the children contemplate writing to the Prime Minister for help, and one of them points out that “the Prime Minister was in charge of the government and had probably been the one who told the security guards to lock the gates and sent them her special keys.” It’s a bit of a shame that an appeal to the Queen ends up being part of the solution–Rauf leaves open the possibility that the massive PR campaign that the children unwittingly initiate may be what spurs her to help, but it’s hardly explicit and feels of a piece with British media’s weird habit of treating the royal family as somehow outside/innocent of politics and power. This affront to human dignity aside, The Boy at the Back of the Class is great at getting at the sheer, visceral horror of small, individual acts of racism (the school bully destroying the backpack that Ahmet has carried with him, even as he’s lost his parents and seen his sister and cat die) as well as big, structural ones (that closing the borders means separating traumatised children from their families is something that most adults know, and yet). It’s very good.

 

Esi Edugyan, Washington Black: I made copious notes on this book while I was reading it, and have thus far completely failed to turn them into any sort of coherent response. Reading over them now, though, what I kept coming back to was the centrality to the book of Titch, a white Englishman from the wealthy family that owns the plantation on which the title character, Washington, begins his life. Titch is the committed scientist who first interests Washington in the subject, and is also the first white person to treat him with some level of decency–but far, far from enough. I don’t think Edugyan ever falls into the trap of treating Titch like the Good White Character who appears in so many books about race in the 19th Century–and Washington’s aware that, e.g., “Once he’d finished his papers on aerostation and the treatment of slaves on Faith, I had lost some value for him. I had become, perhaps, too solid, too heavy, too real–an object to be got rid of”. And yet he’s so central, even in the large swathes of the book from which he’s absent–at one point in my notes there’s a plaintive “I wish this whole book weren’t a meditation on the morality of Titch”. In his post about the book, Dan Hartland also discusses Edugyan’s appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where, he says, she described this as a “post-slavery” narrative. This feels crucial to me in reading the book, because one part of facing the history of slavery (and empire more generally, I think) in a post-slavery (however debatable that “post” is) is creating some sort of bearable narrative about the architects and beneficiaries of those systems, with whom one has to continue to share a world. Washington’s preoccupation with Titch makes a lot of sense in that context, as much as I’d love for him to just break free and have more flying machine or marine life adventures. I’m not happy about it (nor, understandably, is Washington’s partner Tanna), and yet some of the book’s most powerful moments are when Edugyan has Washington struggle with his feelings about Titch; the moments where he confronts him in words that he “could hear what a false picture they painted and also how they were painfully true”.

 

Robin Stevens, Death in the Spotlight: I had about a week of conversations with friends that just consisted of us yelling the word DAISY at each other and knowing exactly what we meant. DAISY. I think what has impressed me about this book, beyond imagining how I’d have felt about a tiny 1930s lesbian detective when I was a younger reader, is the fact that Stevens has managed to do this–have a character just say outright that she’s attracted to a girl (and not boys, never, why would you even)–and still retain something more delicate, a more ambiguous approach to feelings and sexuality. This probably requires more space and better thinking but: traditionally single-gender dominated genres like the school story (and the books in this series are sometimes school stories, but even when they’re not they’re stories about a girl writing about her adventures/relationship with another girl) are often read productively as queer because they’re so often about girls looking at and constantly thinking about other girls (or the equivalent, but boys). And I think there’s sometimes an assumption that their ambiguity (about whether that fascination between characters is gay) is a purely result of what could/couldn’t be printed/acknowledged in The Olden Days, and sometimes that’s true–in 2018 you’re still much more likely to get hate mail for writing the bland acknowledgement of a character’s queerness than you are for a long, fraught, yearny thing where no one actually says it out loud. It matters to me that I can read children’s books starring gay characters now, but in my heart I don’t want us to lose the other thing, the ambiguous yearny thing. And we’re lucky that there’s so much richness in Hazel and Daisy as characters, in Hazel’s looking at Daisy (through a lens that’s coloured by her own diffidence, her foreignness, her not-white-ness, her class position, as well as the fact that Daisy is fascinating) and Daisy’s looking at Hazel (in the short stories), so that here we can actually have both ways of talking about desire.

In unrelated observations about the book, I’m glad I had my Ngaio Marsh binge earlier this year; I felt very prepared for a theatre murder.

 

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: I spent quite a lot of my thesis years thinking about portal fantasies and the ways in which they interacted with the spatial politics of the real world. So when Exit West came out I was both eager to read it and angry that I was expected to think about these things some more. When I started reading it, sometime in 2017, it became very clear to me that I didn’t want to at all. A year later, I really enjoyed this. Hamid isn’t an SF writer (except insofar as he has clearly written a book with an SFnal concept, which may be the only meaningful … anyway), and his interests in how the world responds to this book’s novum–that “doors” between random parts of the world may open up so that traditional methods of border control are increasingly unfeasible–don’t entirely fall in the places that mine would. But the later parts of the book in particular, when the world is being reconstructed to make room for its refugees, meant something to me; an active, constructive vision of the future that was a relief to read.

 

Nidhi Chanani, Pashmina: This is a YA graphic novel about an Indian-American girl named Pri (Priyanka), who lives with a mother who constantly evades questions about their family and their past. The discovery of an old pashmina shawl takes her into a fantasy world where she meets a peacock and an elephant and is introduced to an Incredible India! version of India; one that’s constantly disrupted by the shadow of something that wants to communicate with her (and that her two guides are very eager to dismiss). Simultaneously, she visits her family in the “real” India; learns some uncomfortable family history, and as the two storylines merge, something of the history of the shawl, and its connection to Shakti, whom her mother worships. So far this is a familiar enough genre–coming of age, family secrets, learning about one’s heritage, general feminism (there’s an all-women workers’ raid on a factory that pleased me very much). But it feels a little bitty–you can’t help feeling that with a slightly different structure the whole thing would feel more coherent than it does, would make its links more smoothly and without awkward exposition (such as Shakti explaining that “There is too much injustice,” and “That pashmina will allow women to see their choices”). I was thrown by the phrasing “Lord Shakti”, which I’ve never heard before, and couldn’t decide whether the book had chosen to deliberately not comment on the fact that Rohini, the original weaver of the shawl, is liberated from her factory job (as the target of what’s heavily implied to be a sexually abusive boss) by her dream of … working as a domestic worker for Pri’s great grandmother. On the other hand, I did appreciate Chanani’s choice not to do anything with Pri’s dislike of her uncle; a lot of writers wouldn’t have been able to resist resolving that plotline, however unlike the real world such a resolution would be. In short, my feelings were also bitty, and generally lukewarm.

 

Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (eds), The Djinn Falls in Love: Because I love her work, the moment I received a copy of this I jumped ahead to the Kuzhali Manickavel story (“How We Remember You”) and ended up not reading the rest. How that I’ve read the whole thing from beginning to end, I can also reveal that Saad Z. Hossain’s “Bring Your Own Spoon”, set in a future where the cooking and eating of real food is both radical and dangerous, is one of its highlights; the Kamila Shamsie story (“The Congregation”) has the feel of a very good myth. I can’t decide how I felt about Sami Shah’s “Reap”, a horror story told from the perspective of American drone operators surveilling a village in Pakistan, but whatever it was, I felt it viscerally. Some of the stories in here feel a bit gimmicky to me–for example the Claire North story is trying to imitate a particular style of storytelling but comes across as forced and a bit coy. But when this collection is good, it’s excellent–and I really want someone to write the essay on Manickavel and that one large family house that seems to keep recurring in her work.

 

Mahesh Rao, Polite Society: Emma in Delhi has already been done, in the film Aisha, which I’ve never seen but am obliged to disapprove of because when it came out people sang the title song at me a lot. I was excited about this book, because what I’d read of Rao in the past suggested that he’d be good at an Austenesque world–he’s both ruthless about people and extremely amused by them. That latter trait is necessary in Polite Society, because Delhi’s elite (I may be including myself here; my uncertainty about my position within this book’s social world added a lot to my reading*) are unspeakable. Unlike Austen, Rao isn’t able to feel affection for his interfering heroine, and that’s great, because she doesn’t deserve it. On the other hand, he’s able to be gentler (if not kind) to the more vulnerable figures in her orbit–and is never (overtly) cruel enough to the book’s Mr Knightley. I laughed a lot, recognised a lot of stock figures (and sometimes thought I’d recognised individuals); it was good.

 

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin: I bought Kingdoms of Elfin years ago, but my copy has been in storage (in a friend’s garage) for almost a year now. During that year I reread Hope Mirrlees, and read Jeannette Ng, and started work on a paper about England-Faerie international relations (there’s a new Zen Cho in a few months, which I expect to be of some relevance here), and not having access to this book felt like a real absence. Luckily, a new edition has just been published. I’m discussing the book in detail as part of a Strange Horizons book club, but as a preliminary comment, I’m very glad I had that recent Mirrlees read to ground this for me, tonally. I don’t know much about either writer’s life, but I assume they knew of each other, possibly knew each other.

 

Anthony Berkeley, The Poisoned Chocolates Box: I was listening to an episode of the Shedunnit podcast, about classic detective stories, and Berkeley’s name came up a few times. I’m not a golden age expert by any standard, but felt a bit odd that I’d read all the other people mentioned, if not extensively, but never any Berkeley. This is probably his most famous, and with its multiple solutions it doubles as a commentary on the genre in ways that I was very entertained by. Reading the introduction (by Martin Edwards–this edition was one of the British Library Crime Classics) afterwards I discovered that a character I’d been suspecting of all manner of things may have been based on E.M. Delafield, author of the wonderful Provincial Lady books; I’m finding it pleasing to believe that Delafield (gloriously, born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture– “de la field“, you see?) was this splendidly cold and cynical and diabolical in person.

 

*I watched Crazy Rich Asians with a friend a couple of months ago, and we found that watching it as relatively rich and highly privileged but-not-like-that Asians in an Asian capital city put us in an odd position as viewers. Polite Society had a little of that feel for me; even as I read and was amused by these ultra-privileged aliens I was furiously calculating my own place in their world.