November 17, 2014

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess

(I was a bit nervous about the title of Kandasamy’s new book. “Gypsy” is a term with a huge and uncomfortable history, and I’m sometimes surprised by how many people who are otherwise careful about language will still throw this one around casually. I don’t think Kandasamy is using it casually; as I understand it within the book it’s a reference to the Narikuravar.)

I’ve only read scraps of Kandasamy’s poetry before; in the later stages of this book there’s a control over the prose that feels like it comes from poetry but that I haven’t seen before in the little of her work that I’ve read.

A version of this piece was in last week’s Hindustan Times.


There’s so much about narrative, about the process of turning lives and events into story, that we take for granted. It’s easy to forget that books and narrative formats mold stories into particular shapes, that the truth, to whatever extent such a thing exists, is only available to us mediated through those shapes.

Yet this is a useful thing to remember, perhaps particularly so when we’re writing about real people and happenings. Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is a novel about the (real) events of the Kilvenmani Massacre of 1968, but it’s also a novel about the process of narrating those events. The book is divided into four segments and in the first two, “Background” and “Breeding Ground” the author treats us to a range of ways of telling a tale. We are never allowed to forget that this is a story that is being told to us; Kandasamy (assuming the narrator and the author to be the same, as dangerous as that may be) will stop, restart, reflect on her narrative choices as she is making them, address her readers directly to inform them that they will not be getting what they expect. Occasionally she will parody the style of the propaganda from one side or the other of the conflict between the landlords and the exploited labourers. The Gypsy Goddess exists in a world of readers who watch viral internet videos (“Is there a single story? No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.”), who read widely, who have seen the impossibility of telling stories paraded before them in the past, and who know that it is not a new idea, and Kandasamy acknowledges this as well.

“How does this work of art seek to declare itself? It plagiarizes the most scathing criticism, it prides itself on its ability to disappoint. Why bother about the pain of accomplishing something and arriving somewhere, when failure has been made a flashy trophy in its own right?”

It’s a criticism that the book accepts as valid even if, by pre-empting it, it puts the reviewer in something of a double bind. This sort of self-referential, self-critical writing can become a closed circuit, too focused on its own mechanics to say anything about the world outside it. Which is fine, in some cases, but Kandasamy has chosen for her subject a story that does, for sound political and moral reasons, need to be told more often; and a story that deserves not to be crowded out of the book (and subsequently out of reviews like this one) by the literary pyrotechnics of the author. It’s in this unresolvable clash of writerly ideals, the reporter’s duty to bear witness versus the 21st century novelist’s need to re-examine the act of telling, that The Gypsy Goddess situates itself. Failure is inevitable.

Kandasamy does eventually come to the narrative that we (by this time, somewhat guiltily) crave; in the latter half of the book she tells it effectively and well. “Battleground” and “Burial Ground” form a powerful account of events, with lyrical writing saved from becoming treacly by being undercut with anger. And—this is where the earlier sections pay off—having dwelt so much on structure earlier, we are rarely in danger of losing the critical distance that the author has demanded of us.

A project like this one is never going to work; that is part of the point. Every criticism that the book has already made of itself is valid, and I’d add to that the complaint that a book that sets out failure as a goal renders itself invulnerable to any pointing out of flaws. But there’s something compelling about a political story (and that a story of a massacre) that refuses to sweep the reader up in its narrative. The Gypsy Goddess sets out to do the impossible and (naturally) does not succeed, but it’s the sort of ethical, ambitious failure that we need more of.



November 14, 2014

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them and J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy

Though it’s not really that much about Boully’s book, since I can only speak of it slantwise. Always useful to be reminded of how big and lonely and yearny a book Peter and Wendy is, though.

From a recent column.


There’s a play, first performed over a century ago in 1904, and a book, first published in 1911, that is about two children and the inevitability and horror and okayness of growing up. The book is named after both of the children, but it (and the play as well) is really about the girl. It begins with the revelation that a two year old girl cannot stay two forever, and it ends with her, an adult, no longer “gay and innocent and heartless” and aching a little for it. The girl is the plot. But everyone forgets her.

I feel a great deal of anger on behalf of Wendy Darling. Possibly more than is merited by the side-lining of a fictional character.

Because of course J.M. Barrie’s most famous work was originally published as Peter and Wendy. And then it was Peter Pan and Wendy, and so over the course of a few title changes Wendy was eventually as cast out of the title as she is from Neverland.

Of course this is all about sex, and not just in the sense that everything ultimately is. Peter and Wendy (I will stubbornly continue to give it that title) emerges from a nineteenth century in which the image of the child is fetishized, in which childhood and desire and death are all tied up in one another in complex (and to this twenty-first century reader often disturbing) ways. The book may begin when Wendy is two years old, but the main action of the plot can only occur when she is on the cusp of adulthood, playing at “mother” in the knowledge that that is a fate that will be hers, about to be banished (and the book always makes it a banishment) from the nursery to a bedroom of her own. Peter is one of Wendy’s pretend children, but also her pretend partner. Peter is surrounded by girl-women who want him to be something other than “a devoted son”; Wendy, Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, even the mermaids. Everyone desires Peter in his unchanging, unsatisfying youth—even Captain Hook spends an unreasonably long time looking at his sleeping form. Everyone desires Peter and it’s easy to see why he, rather than Wendy, is the iconic figure (Wendy does at least give her name to the “Wendy Hoboully-merely-cover-largeuse”). And yet. That long line of generations of women, growing up and passing through Peter Pan’s life as a line of indistinguishable “mothers” before passing the mantle on to daughters of their own. It’s a compelling image, and an upsetting one. I can’t help but think that the heart of the book is Wendy.

Which is only one of the reasons that Jenny Boully’s Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Stalking Toward Them is as stunning as it is. Taking its title from the moment of the pirates’ first appearance in Peter and Wendy, Boully’s short book picks up, plays with and refracts everything in the original that is unsettling and intense, all its sex and death and yearning—and of course Wendy is at the heart of it. It’s hard to know what to call this; a monologue or a critical essay or a prose poem or a remix (quotes from Barrie’s novel make up a sizeable part of the text). It’s a joy to read aloud, but we’re never allowed to simply sink into the flood of words—in part because the doubled/split format doesn’t permit this. There are two parallel and intertwined texts here; Boully divides her pages horizontally as if the lower text functioned as a footnote, but sometimes the footnotes overwhelm the “main” text. You’re forced as a reader to read the two simultaneously, holding both in your head at once.

The result of this is a connection with the original work that is multifaceted and intuitive and very hard to write about. It’s a reminder of the ways in which complex texts work, of the sheer volume of meaning contained in a work, that these meanings can be contradictory or unrelated and still sit together in our heads. It’s the adaptation Wendy Darling deserved.




November 2, 2014

October Reading

October 2014 really could have been better. But it did involve some quite good books, which are the only thing in its favour.


Rick Riordan, The Blood of Olympus: At this point I have trouble keeping the plots of these books straight in my head, but they are generally enjoyable and satisfying and nice in ways that not enough things are.

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette: I have a couple of thoughts on this, probably best left for a future column. It is not among the better Streatfeild/Scarlett books I’ve read.

Courtney Milan, The Duchess War: A friend and I exchanged a couple of casual text messages about Courtney Milan and the next thing I knew I was involved in a large twitter book club reading (in my case and that of some others rereading) the first book in this series. I stand by my belief that Milan has grown into a better writer as the series has progressed; but I’m willing to test this by reading all the books again, obviously.

Meena Kandasamy, The Gypsy Goddess: Review to come.

Monica Byrne, The Girl in the Road: For various reasons that don’t belong in a reading round-up I’m hesitant to write much about this book. But I am genuinely impressed by it, I’d love to see more of Byrne, and I’ll be disappointed if this doesn’t show up on the Clarke shortlist next year.

Deirdre Sullivan, Improper Order: Sequel to Prim Improper, which I wrote briefly about a couple of months ago, and which made me very happy. This series is managing to be very funny and sweet and also to deal with bereavement in ways that give it its full due; it’s a difficult balancing act and yet it is clearly working.

Garth Nix, Clariel: I’m not sure Clariel is good; from a genre perspective it’s fascinating. I have about half a review’s worth of scribbled notes that should probably be turned into something more substantial.

Angela Thirkell, Pomfret Towers: The last book by Thirkell that I read was charming but made me uncomfortable on many levels–and not in good ways. This is far more to my taste; Thirkell’s still ruthless with her characters’ flaws, but the book as a whole is far kinder, far less snobbish, and less obsessed with people’s antecedents (High Rising’s treatment of its Jewish and Irish characters was a huge part of my discomfort with it) than the earlier one. Plus the shy, awkward main character is the sort-of heroine and doesn’t end up with the handsome heir to the title.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Things We Found During the Autopsy: I’d read many of these before in the various venues in which they appeared, but a new collection is a lovesome thing. Manickavel is still weird, and still funny, but it’s the overwhelming sense of anger transmuted into bitter laughter that has made them so powerful to me this time.

Jenny Boully, Not Merely Because of the Unknown that was Coming Towards Them: A short piece on this soon, which I’ll be expanding from the column. I’ve been wanting to read this for three years now, and it is gorgeous.

Patricia McKillip, Ombria in Shadow: Read in order to follow the discussion at the Strange Horizons book club. I’ve loved the few things by McKillip I’ve read in the past and I loved this. More thoughts at that link, and for those who’d like to follow future book discussions, next month’s book is Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre: A reread, for work-related reasons. I don’t think I’d read it properly since my first year at university, ten years ago, and it was fascinating to see how much I’d changed as a reader in that time. Still great.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Also a reread, also for work. I don’t think I’m ever really going to be a fan.



October 27, 2014

Nitasha Kaul, Residue

A short review, because it was originally meant to be for a newspaper. I haven’t been able to resist the urge to add more quotes to this version. Friends who happened to be around me (in person or over the internet) while I was reading the book will recognise some of them.



Leon Ali is a Kashmiri Muslim with a British passport, named after Trotsky, searching for the revolutionary father who went missing in Berlin in the 1980s. Keya Raina is an academic from a family of Kashmiri Pundits, who is caught up in Leon’s search for his father. Nitasha Kaul’s Residue moves between England, Germany and India in the months after 9/11 and centres itself on the mystery of Mir Ali’s disappearance.

It’s hard to say much that is new about the experience of being brown-skinned in the post-9/11 Western world, or about being Muslim in India post-December 1992, or even about the displacement that so many with ties to Kashmir feel; or how these issues tie in with larger questions of home and belonging and memory. Kaul’s choice to focus her novel around a central puzzle is a wise one as it imposes a particular narrative structure upon what might otherwise have been a set of not-very-original musings on identity. The manuscript was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, and it’s narratively ambitious, with its switches from first to third person and between past and present, an extended section in which Leon becomes Nobody and travels across Berlin on public transport (with maps included).

But Residue is badly let down by its prose. Far too often Kaul mistakes detail for insight; insignificant actions are described step-by-step, as when we’re told that Keya “connecting her laptop to a wireless network […] checks her university email”. We’re shown academic meetings where people say things like “Moreover, she had verified extenuating circumstances on one exam at least”. Weirdly enough, the text occasionally mocks Keya for speaking in just this way, so that it would be possible to read it as self-aware, if only we were not subjected to this sort of thing throughout the novel. Brand names, book titles, film directors all show up frequently as signifiers, but don’t add much weight. This isn’t writing that trusts the reader to do any work—when Kaul’s characters make a joke it must be followed by “I jest”. We’re offered lots of descriptors, often to the point of redundancy (“booming, sonorous voices”). So worried is the prose that it will not be understood that we’re given summaries of things that have just happened—at one spectacular moment, as the protagonists discover through conversation that they both have Kashmiri roots and have lived in Delhi and the UK, Kaul ends by having Leon think “we realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England”—for the benefit of the reader who has somehow found this too complex to grasp the first time around.

[Dropping the whole passage in here because I can.]

‘You grew up in India,’ I say neutrally, tone between a statement and a question.

‘Yes, I was born in India, though I have lived in England for many years now.’

Then she adds, ‘I am actually from Kashmir, but I grew up mostly in Delhi. You?’

‘I am from Kashmir too, though I was born in England. Like you, my city has been Delhi.’

We realize we are Kashmiris who grew up in Delhi and live in England.

‘So we are both from the same state in India, grew up in the same city, have connexions to the same country, and now meet in Berlin. That is some coincidence!’

This is not merely a question of aesthetics (if aesthetics are ever “merely” anything). Residue positions itself, both in terms of its subject matter and by having its characters frequently pontificate, as a serious novel of complex ideas. What these complex ideas are it’s hard to discern; I find it hard to believe that we’re expected to take Keya seriously when she has thoughts like this: “Keya formulates a statement: modernity was enabled by a mutation of speed”, or when she contemplates discussing French philosophy with a random Frenchman on a plane “but desisted. He didn’t seem intellectual and may not know,” and yet it seems the book does expect us to see these as deep thoughts.

Perhaps some continental philosophy would have been a good idea, if only for some of that famous prose. Very little can be achieved in the way of complexity if a book cannot trust its readers to follow a sentence.



October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.



Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.



October 7, 2014

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe

From last weekend’s columnthing.



Marriage is hell for Zuleika, sold off far too young to be the bride of a rich man. The daughter of immigrant shopkeepers in London, Zuleika has spent her early life wandering freely around the cosmopolitan city with her best friend Alba. All that is changed when she is eleven, when the wealthy Felix comes into her life offering her father business deals; her father, still not fluent in the language, more interested in his son than his daughter, needing the financial benefits of an alliance with Felix, accepts the offer. Zuleika finds herself trapped in his house, in a loveless marriage and desperately unhappy except when she can escape to spend time with her two close friends; the cynical housewife Alba and the more romantic transwoman Venus. And then she falls in love, and this changes everything.

Two things are not particularly evident from this summary. The first is that Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is a novel told entirely in verse. The second is that it is set in the London (Londinium) of around 200 CE.

In her acknowledgements Evaristo mentions Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, from which she first realised that people of African descent had been living in Britain at least since the Roman occupation. Narratives of history that are presented to us even today (Fryer’s book was published in 1984, Evaristo’s in 2001) tend to elide the ways in which people have always travelled, mingled, shared culture, crossed supposedly rigid boundaries. Fiction that includes characters who do this may be panned for being unrealistic. Authors of fantasy novels based on medieval Europe will give interviews explaining that their lack of non-white characters merely reflects the world as it was at the time. Attempts to redress these assumptions aren’t always taken well; witness the recent hostility directed at the blog Medieval POC ( merely for providing evidence that Europe before the Enlightenment was more culturally diverse than people might believe.empbabe

Evaristo’s book opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde—“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. To me it seems clear that this is a conscious writing back, wielding historical fact (the book was written when the author was writer in residence at the Museum of London) to create a world in which the very scope of the Roman Empire means that people from all over the world are present in Londinium.

And this is best done through language. Evaristo combines Latinised words and phrases with colloquialisms and the rhythms of contemporary speech to create something joyous and alive. Often it’s seamless, as when Zuleika rants about “the city of Roma which everyone/ went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis”. At other points it draws attention to itself: Zuleika’s father calls Felix “very benignus gentleman, sir […] a boost to oeconomia most welcome, sir”. No opportunity to (cod-) Latinise is missed (“futuo-off, you little runt”) and there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes it’s beautiful. “And then it rained, it rained et pluviam,/ et pluviam et plurimam pluviam”.

The language adds to the sense of historical and contemporary London as being the same space, inhabited by the same sorts of people and concerns, so that Alba’s thinness can be due to either anorexia or worms, and characters can slip seamlessly into cockney rhyming slang. This sense isn’t necessarily historically accurate either (cities do not transcend time) but it’s a necessary corrective to the dominant narrative, as well as making for gorgeous prose.

With all this challenging of received history, it’s easy to overlook that there’s a domestic story of marriage and love and heartbreak in the middle of all of this. We’re never allowed to, with Zuleika, entirely romanticise her relationship with the Emperor. We know that this is going to end painfully; with her friends, we see most of the signs before she does. It doesn’t matter though because what matters is what love does to Zuleika, setting her free as a poet and a person, even as that person edges closer and closer to death. Her lover may not see her (“Somewhere over my left shoulder,/ had appeared an audience. All the men/ in my life did this, as if their words/ were too important for my ears alone.”) but to the reader he only counts as a necessary step to Zuleika’s love poetry anyway.




October 6, 2014

September Reading

At least September was a better month for reading than August.


Nitasha Kaul, Residue: Review forthcoming, but I really did not think much of this.

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, The Pinhoe Egg, Mixed Magics, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week: I helped organise, then attended and presented a paper at, a conference on Diana Wynne Jones. It was exhausting and I rather assumed I’d be quite happy not to think about DWJ for a good few months after. Naturally, in the week or so following, I reread all the Chrestomanci books, and out of order. All still great, but now I’m having all these thoughts about The Pinhoe Egg and it turns out I could probably think about DWJ forever.

Ava Chin, Eating Wildly: Review here. I enjoyed this.

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity: Review forthcoming. Mixed feelings, but there’s that Adam Roberts story and it is perfect, and there are E.J. Swift and James Smythe being pretty good at this writing thing too.

Susan Scarlett, Peter and Paul: I’m still failing to work out what this reminded me of. Weirdly moralistic, considering that Scarlett was a pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild. But I suppose that’s genre appropriate, and I did genuinely enjoy it.

E. Nesbit, The Story of The Treasure-Seekers, The Wouldbegoods: Always charmed by these, love Nesbit forever, etc. Perhaps I can make time to reread the Psammead books soon as well.

Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Sylvester, Pistols for Two, The Foundling, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch, The Talisman Ring: I was exhausted and sick and retreated into Heyer. Where is the Talisman Ring caper movie we deserve?

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe: I’ll have a piece on this on the blog in a day or so. The book is excellent, obviously.

Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders: This seems to have got some good reviews, which suggests that I am failing at reading it because I thought it was dreadful; inconsistent in voice, weak of plot, and generally poor on multiple levels.

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me: I’ll have a piece on this on the blog soon also. It is not as perfect a thing as The Suffragette Scandal (but what could be?) but I enjoyed it anyway.

Deirdre Sullivan, Prim Improper: I bought this because the author is a) funny on twitter and b) compared to Anna Carey (who is great), and read it on a sick day and it was exactly what I needed. Just very kind and funny about adolescence and other people and rats and death.


September 24, 2014

Ava Chin, Eating Wildly

This past weekend’s column. I enjoyed the book, but also look how pretty the cover is.



Late in Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, a radio producer asks the author why she forages. Momentarily hesitant, she explains that foraging reminds her “that the world is a generous place […] I know that plants will always sprout in the spring, become lush in the summer, and then grow dormant in the winter. And the following year, it’ll happen all over again.”

Chin’s book, in large part a forager’s handbook, does make the world seem a particularly generous place. Parks in New York yield fruit and herbs and a huge variety of mushrooms; Eating-Wildly-covereven in the more populated parts of the city it is possible to find unknown treasures. Even in the winter nature provides; dandelions sprout serendipitously, or a little effort reveals a spread of field garlic. Chin is the author of a blog on urban foraging for the New York Times and she is at her best when she portrays the world as busting with life, all interconnected, and ready to share that bounty with those who care to look. Organised loosely around the seasons, each chapter is dedicated to some new (or rediscovered) food that Chin finds in the course of her journey. Many chapters end with simple recipes using the food stuff in question, while others explain a technique, like the drying of mugwort leaves or how to create a spore print to identify a mushroom. With an index, a bibliography and a short list of other resources, Eating Wildly is very much a book about food, about the process of finding it and thinking about it and consuming it.

But it is also a memoir. This is not unusual for a book about food; food and the ways in which we think about it tend to be deeply emotive. Over the course of the book we see Chin work out her complicated and loving relationship with her grandmother, the end of one long-term relationship and various attempts to begin another, her difficulty in coming to terms with the father who abandoned her, and most of all her relationship with her mother. The narrative skips back and forward in time, jumping from memory to memory, many of which are food-centred. Those set during the author’s childhood are particularly well done—Chin doesn’t simplify, or downplay the hurt that people who love one another are capable of inflicting upon each other.

It is in its contemporary storyline that Eating Wildly stumbles. One danger of writing a personal memoir intertwined with a foraging diary is that in trying to turn these two strands into a unified whole the things that are strongest about them may be rendered secondary to the larger narrative. There are moments when the story of Chin’s foraging experiences and that of her emotional journey come together in genuinely moving ways—as it does when, leaving the hospital where her grandmother has died she comes across the mulberry tree for which she’s been hunting across the city. But often the book’s structure is a little too obvious; it’s all too clear what this chapter’s big revelatory moment will be, and the text is eager to make the connection between what Ava learns in one sphere and how the resulting lesson might be applied to the other—as when an encounter with a hive of bees reminds her that there can only be one “Queen” in her partner’s life. The neatness of this intertwining makes it all a little too pat, as if Chin’s emotional life could be fixed entirely by a year’s experiences. Some of the rawness that made the earlier sections work is lost.

At its best, Eating Wildly is moving as a memoir and fascinating as a food book. In its weaker moments it provokes some rolling of the eyes. And the wild mushroom, fig and goat cheese tart looks amazing.



September 23, 2014

Changes, Announcements

Or just one change and one announcement really, and by now most of those who are interested in/affected by it have probably seen it.

I’ve spoken here before about how important Strange Horizons has been to me as a fan, for the things it publishes as well as for providing me with a community of readers that feels more like home than anything else I’ve found in SF fandom. A huge part of that has been due to the work of the reviews editors – (in the time I’ve been reading the magazine) Niall Harrison, then Abigail Nussbaum.

Abigail is stepping down as reviews editor at the end of the year, and the reviews will be passed on to a team of people. Maureen Kincaid Speller will be Senior Reviews Editor, and (this is my big announcement bit) she’ll be working with me and Dan Hartland. We (we!) are also hoping to find someone to do media reviews (details here).

What this means is:

a) I get to work with people I like and respect (and if you’re not already reading Dan’s and Maureen’s criticism you should be) on something I really care about.

b) Abigail will hopefully have more time to write for us (if you’re not already reading Abigail’s criticism you should be).

c) I will shortly be having a minor crisis about Being Good Enough.

d) This is going to be great!

September 23, 2014

Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library

One of the things that’s interesting about Grant’s kindle single is the way in which the lines between how we talk about physical books[1] and ebooks are constantly crossed by its format and subject. As I say below, pieces of this length are probably financially more feasible in ebook form, and yet it’s mostly about physical books, and has a (electronic) cover that deliberately invokes a very specific print publishing tradition. I think what I was going for in this week’s column is that this makes it particularly interesting to see how the book is read; in what ways it can be (or resists being) co-opted into the various conversations around books-vs-ebooks (and indeed the discourse that puts that “vs” there at all). And the ebook format allows us access to some of that information about how it’s being read/used in unique ways.

I think instead I come across as crotchety and annoyed that other people are highlighting the WRONG things.

(They are, though.)



I find it very easy to be very annoyed by the sort of people who rhapsodise over the smell of books (you can now buy a perfume that claims to capture this) or the feel of them, or the magic space that is a bookshop. I love rooting through second-hand bookshops, but I always want to wash my hands afterwards; I do most of my book-buying online; sometimes I’ll even walk into a bookshop and look at what’s on offer and not want any of it. It feels often as if the idea of books (of being the sort of person who reads) is more important than the fact of them—I don’t recognise myself in the culture that produces such things as the cringeworthy “date a girl who reads” meme. Occasionally someone will tell me that they can’t read ebooks because they require the physical presence of a book, and perhaps this is really true for them; but I find myself wondering how many books they buy and read per year, whether they have magic houses and space-time-continuum-defying shelves, whether they ever move across the world (or just down the road) and have to confront the sheer weight of books. I’m probably displaying all manner of prejudice in doing so, and yet.

One of the several advantages of reading Linda Grant’s short piece I Murdered My Library as an ebook (perhaps the most obvious is that pieces of writing this length are much more feasible in a world where we have ebooks) is that the Kindle usefully marks for you not only the sentences that you yourself have noticed and highlighted, but the things that a number of other readers have. And so I know that here as well, readers have been most moved by things like “you cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books”, or “reading wasn’t my religion—it was my oxygen”. At one point nearly an entire page bears the dotted underline that tells me that other readers have been here before me (in this the whole thing resembles a much-used library book). The only part of the page left un-annotated until I highlight it myself is a section where Grant speaks of a specific author, Jean Rhys, and it’s the most moving thing there.

Because when Grant writes about books it’s clear that she’s very aware of the weight of them, in the metaphorical as well as the purely physical sense. She can speak of Rhys and make me teary; she can also speak of the usefulness of knowing that Tom Stoppard once wrote a novel (“Lord Malquist and Mr Moon was the literary equivalent of the Wonderbra for the intellectually pretentious students of the seventies”). Physical books can be charged with meaning and personal history; reading and owning books can be oppressive to the point that it’s possible to feel hatred.

On the subject of ebooks Grant is pragmatic; some things aren’t available as ebooks, sometimes technology fails, much of the time it’s a relief to have lots of reading material in one tiny device (“[and it] feels more intimate, like a shelled animal carrying its home on its back”). Paper books can be burnt or pulped or thrown away and it’s a sad necessity and/or a tragedy; “but you can’t kill books” (she quotes Amos Oz).

And yet, and yet. “It is death that we’re talking about. Death is the subject”. A library is a bigger idea than the individual books of which it’s made; and it’s at the point when Grant resigns herself to the impossibility of her library and discards most of it, that the book begins and ends. The moment of the murder. You can feel the suppressed horror rising through the book; Grant’s last words are “what have I done?”



 [1] See Raghu Karnad’s “booksing” piece, also Kuzhali Manickavel on maybe not wanting to fondle/sniff/lick/have sex with secondhand books that smell weird.