In January 2018, I wrote a post about a reading challenge I had set myself for 2018: to read 18 books (or other texts) that fitted into 18 categories. Unlike the challenge I did in 2017, these were categories which I set for myself: I set out to fill the gaps in my usual reading habits. I also aimed to use my skills and opportunities, and to read works in a wide variety of different formats: printed books, a computer screen, recorded song, a smartphone, and ink on thousand-year-old vellum.
Here are the results. It has turned out to be something of a long post, so I have broken it up into three parts. Today’s post is about books that I have gathered together into a tenuously-held-together category called …
14: A book that is nominated for a prize in 2018: Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
For a while, it seemed as if this book was recommended to me every time I went into Waterstones, but I didn’t bite. As with many other books I read this year, it was my local book exchange that put it into my hands, and I decided to give it a go, not yet realising that it was the winner of the 2018 British Book Awards. My copy is a bit bashed up, with a massive scar down the front, and stuck back together with Sellotape. I wasn’t happy about that (insofar as one can be unhappy with a free book), but as I read, I realised that my damaged and mended copy was pretty appropriate for the wounded heroine I found within its pages.
The blurb and the opening suggest something a bit like a light romance about a stiff, uptight woman who needs to learn to relax and love – except for the casual mention on the first page that, when she was offered her job, she had a broken arm and a black eye. Not all is as it seems in the world of Eleanor Oliphant. The unique and sometimes irritating narrative voice – very formal, somewhat puritanical – takes a little time to get used to (although, once I had done so, I found myself internally monologuing à la Oliphant for about an afternoon). Out of touch with popular culture, living alone, with no friends and a strange relationship with her absent mother, Eleanor reluctantly has her life changed by the man from the IT department who comes to fix her computer one day. Little by little, she is drawn into his life, that of his family, and of an elderly man whom they assist. And little by little, we see that Eleanor is not completely fine: this secretive, sometimes unreliable narrator occasionally mentions the terrible scarring on her face, a former relationship, how her mother inhabits her mind completely, and someone else whose name she cannot even mention.
This book is paired in my mind with another novel I read this year, Clare Fisher’s All the Good Things, another tragic/hopeful story with a narrator who conceals things, who has been left to grow up alone but is kept above water (barely) by the help of her friends, and who also has a difficult relationship with her mother (albeit one which ends up very differently). If forced to choose would probably say that I preferred All the Good Things, but so what? Read them both.
15: An album by a great twentieth-century singer-songwriter: Joni Mitchell, Blue
As part of this Book Challenge, I wanted to include texts that are delivered in different ways and via different media. So I wanted to include song, too; I wanted to look for a great lyricist, modern but from a time when the value of the full-length album was indisputable. (Now that we have Spotify, do fans still think in terms of listening to albums, or simply individual tracks?) I imagined an acoustic guitarist, probably but not necessarily American, probably from the 1970s, someone I perhaps had a little knowledge of, although I ruled out anyone whose work I was already reasonably familiar with, such as Leonard Cohen.
A bit of internet searching brought me to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, released in 1971 and widely regarded as one of the best albums of all time. I tried to borrow it from my local library, as I wanted to be able to leaf through the CD sleeve notes and take a good look at the artwork (isn’t that a part of the album, too?), but their copy had apparently gone missing, so I resorted to Spotify. You can find the lyrics on Mitchell’s website here. While ‘My Old Man’ and ‘Carey’ are probably the ones which have remained in my mind the most, with their catchier and more recognisable melodies, my favourites are ‘Little Green’, ‘Blue’, and ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’.
The album takes its name from the fifth track of ten, but the blues resonate through the earlier tracks: in ‘All I Want’, the first track, the singer and her lover ‘both get so blue’, in ‘My Old Man’, the lover ‘keep[s] away my blues’; but in ‘Little Green’, blue is the colour of the girl’s eyes, and the colour of hope is green: ‘You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed / Little green have a happy ending’. Like so many of the songs on this album, it’s vague and allusive, but this useful article by Sean O’Hagan tells me it is about the daughter whom Mitchell gave up for adoption (and would be reunited with in 1997).
As O’Hagan writes, the lyrics on this album were more personal and confessional, were poetic and descriptive, and redefined the role of the singer-songwriter; it was this album that made Mitchell a star. The allusive kind of storytelling told in these songs (for example, ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’) feels incredibly normal now (I think of Alanis Morrisette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie; you can probably substitute more contemporary examples), but it may well have been new and radical in 1971. It’s first-person, rhymeless, introspective writing which tells little stories about relationships, focusing on the little details, but in a vague, fuzzy way that suggests you had to be there; it’s little encounters in dark cafés with Wurlitzers, sitting in parks in Paris.
Blue is a restless album. The wind comes from Africa; the singer can’t sleep. She wants to go to Amsterdam, to Rome. The very first words of the album are ‘I am on a lonely road and I am traveling … Looking for something, what can it be’. She gets on a flight, but wishes she hadn’t. She longs for California, longs for Canada (each of these is marked by the leap of an octave, reminiscent of the Canadian national anthem); in ‘River’, the Christmas weather is just a chance to get onto the frozen river and skate away. The very ending of the album is about still waiting, waiting in ‘a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away / Only a phase these dark café days’, with an inconclusive chord that anticipates leaving (but not quite yet). Richard has moved on, ‘married to a figure skater’ (one who didn’t get onto a frozen river and skate away), but she hasn’t.
We look in through the misted-up window of the Café Blue, wondering.
16: Some online fan fiction: entitled, fear in the afternoon
I’ve never read any fan fiction before. I’m slightly older than the generation who grew up knowing the Internet as a mainstream experience – I first used it when I was sixteen, near the end of the 1990s – so I didn’t have Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, or any of the various places that teenagers go to be together and to create things. This century feels like a very different world. I’m sure many teenagers of my generation wrote stories and poetry, sketched and painted, took photographs and wrote songs, but most people’s probably didn’t go beyond a tiny audience, or have any audience at all – I know that my little stories and poems, scribbled in tiny writing into my diaries, never went beyond myself. And as much as these meant to me, I think the fear of being seen to be pretentious, of being seen thinking that someone my age could create something, would have been a pretty big barrier to letting my work go any further.
So it’s very hard to imagine what it must be like to grow up with these things. Not merely to live in a world which has always been connected, but one in which young people can create things in public, and become well-known for their work, and for that to be a normal, natural thing to do. Fan fiction is a part of this phenomenon: at least, I assume it is mostly, though not exclusively, written by teenagers and twenty-somethings. And it’s a part of what readers have always done. Wondering what happened after the hero and heroine walked off into the sunset; wondering what would happen if a minor character got to tell their own story. Medieval literature was driven by this process: what if the Fall of Troy was told from a different perspective? What if, as my friend Katharine Handel explores in this article, you could tell the stories about Christ himself that the gospels leave out?
I had heard about An Archive of Our Own, a website where writers of fan fiction can come together and share their work, tagged and sorted not just by the source material that it is based on, but also by their themes and characters. I’m not really up to date with whatever is fannish now, but I do like the Harry Potter novels. Eventually I came across a category called ‘Good Aunt Petunia’, and as I was somewhat moved by the portrayal of Harry’s unkind aunt in the final book in the series, I was intrigued enough to look into it, and settled upon a three-part fanfic called fear in the afternoon by a writer called ‘entitled’, who is into Harry Potter and Star Wars.
This is an alternative-reality fanfic, which changes what happens in the canonical works. In principle, I prefer the kind of story which works with the constraints of the official novels, and explores what is not said in them, but that is just a personal preference of mine. At any rate, it is lovely to see poor Petunia, the witch’s sister, the left-out one, get her due. Having found her baby nephew Harry abandoned on the doorstep, Mrs Dursley is sympathetic where her husband is not; ultimately, she leaves him and moves to Darlington with Harry and her own son Dudley, and raises them with Remus Lupin’s help and with their knowing that Harry is part of the wizarding community. Although Harry ends up entering Hogwarts two years late, the rest of the story is essentially books 3 to 7 told from the perspective of Petunia: not a witch, and yet accepted into the wizarding world. When she tells Harry that a colleague’s brother, a psychologist, has worked with ‘strange’ people, he answers, ‘Strange like me?’ To which Petunia responds, ‘Yes, strange like us.’ That could have made a good alternative title for the story.
Fear in the afternoon occasionally hits the wrong note, and there are one or two little contradictions and oddities; but I loved the exploration of Petunia’s inner world. She misses her sister, and cares about both of her boys. Harry’s letter home, in Chapter 2, and her interspersed explanations to Dudley, was particularly well-imagined. And the story is full of little homely details – an evening spent watching terrible TV game shows as a family, Harry’s magical green fingers – and gentle humour, as when Petunia first meets Sirius and can only describe him using the kind of language found in the kind of trashy romance novels that she would never actually read, of course.
I love the idea of fan fiction and would like to read more of it, although it must be hard to find the kind of thing that you like. It’s also something of a community endeavour, which, again, I love the idea of, but in practice would struggle to find a place in. For me, books have always been private pleasures, a silent dialogue between me and the book (or me and the author as I imagine him/her), because no-one ever seems to see the things that I see, and like the things that I like. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I loved the epilogue, which nobody else ever seems to, and disliked the revelations about Dumbledore’s past. But of the things which I did like about the book, one was the discovery that Aunt Petunia had a softer side, that she too had once yearned to be part of the wizarding world; and now, thanks to ‘entitled’, I know that I am not alone.
17: Some experimental fiction: Jon Bois, 17776 (What Football Will Look Like in the Future); Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
I’ll admit it: I started reading 17776 in 2017 and invented this category solely to give me the impetus to find it again and finish it this time. ‘Experimental fiction’ probably wasn’t the right phrase for it: maybe ‘online multimedia fiction’ would have been better. Anyway, a friend of mine posted a link to this on Facebook some while ago, and I ended up having to scour my internet history in order to find it again; but it was definitely worth the search.
At first glance, it is just another article on the American sports news website SB Nation, but as you scroll through, the text begins to fall apart. Something is terribly wrong. Something is terribly wrong.
The page melts into a somewhat retro-looking calendar beginning in March ’43 (1943? 2043?), marking time for a conversation enacted in brief bursts upon its pages. The effect is genuinely creepy: where are these people? Who are they? Or what are they? Please answer me, one calls, and receives no response. The reader’s job is to scroll down through the calendar, month after month, year after year, and piece together what is happening. (For the full experience, I recommend listening to unsettling new-age music as you read this chapter, e.g. Transoceanic’s ‘Getting to Delta’ and John Morton’s ‘She Really Had to Go’, both available on Spotify.)
What would humans do if there were no death, no problems to overcome, but life away from Earth cannot be achieved? In the year 17776, all ills have ceased, and humans occupy themselves with endless games of American football, the rules of which have been changed beyond all recognition, and beyond all hope of winning or losing a game. It is upon such a world that our narrators look down: the interplanetary space probes Voyager Nine, Voyager Ten, and JUICE, the last of which is not set for launch until 2022.
Although some of the more sport-oriented parts were relatively uninteresting to me, I loved the multimedia method in which this story was told: plain text, calendar spreads, images, YouTube videos, gifs, Google Earth, and the odd bit of elevator music. The three probes also have a great deal of personality, which keeps the story interesting: Nine is anxious, Ten kind, and JUICE is flippant and preoccupied with odd human things. Like Lunchables.
The humans, on the other hand, live in a world of endless, pointless games, where there is no real reason to get anything done in a hurry, but everyone is tranquil. Is this heaven, hell, or purgatory?
But what if inner space turns out to be just as vast and void as outer space? At some point throughout the year, I found myself browsing book threads on AskReddit and kept coming across references to an experimental novel called House of Leaves, which several readers recommended and some had been genuinely chilled by; Steven Poole, the Guardian‘s reviewer, became so lost in it that he consumed it in one gulp.
The core of the story concerns an award-winning photojournalist, Will Navidson, who documents his family’s purchase of a new house by setting up cameras in every room and interviewing his friends and family about the experience. Soon afterwards, however, physical space begins to come apart: firstly the house turns out to be slightly larger on the inside than on the outside, then hallways start to spring up where there was previously nothing, and finally a spiral staircase opens downwards into a dark void seemingly deeper than the earth itself. The Navidson Record, the film which Navidson makes of his experiences, has apparently become a cult classic, and a huge academic industry has grown up to endlessly discuss it and the interviews with him and his partner Karen Green, analysing them from every cultural, psychological and sociological angle possible – or so we are led to believe from the stack of writings left by an old man called Zampanò, whose final days were consumed by the creation of a definitive account of The Navidson Record on unnumbered little pieces of paper, which are found lying around his dead body by Johnny Truant, a young apprentice tattooist who becomes curious about the story and starts to assemble Zampanò’s writings. Like the old man before him, Truant becomes obsessed with the Navidson story to the point that it consumes his life.
Danielewski’s narrative style reflects the endless labyrinth of Navidson’s house. The text sprouts footnotes, which themselves lead to footnotes, often themselves annotated by Truant, and the reader has to work a bit to keep track of their position in the book. One chapter fragments completely, with Zampanò’s endless lists occupying different areas on the page, running backwards, forwards, and appearing in mirror-image on the reverse of the page (perhaps Zampanò used a pen which bled through to the other side?). Other chapters consist of nothing but a few sentences at the bottom of each page, creating an atmosphere of silence and loneliness. In some editions, the word ‘house’, in any language, is always printed in blue; even in the monochrome edition I read, ‘house’ appeared in greyish text, slightly offset from the rest of the text.
To begin with, Truant’s irrelevant interjections, usually about the women he and his friend pick up, are a needless distraction, while the relentless academic interrogation of the film is far better integrated into the real story of Navidson and the house. However, as the book progresses, Truant’s preoccupation with the story begins to reflect Zampanò’s own obsession, as well as the academics’ analysis, in a way that reminded me of ‘The Zahir’, a story by Jorge Luis Borges, whom Steven Poole namechecks. I won’t pretend to have become as absorbed by the book as Poole did, still less as Zampanò and Truant do, but it was one of the more interesting and unusual books that I read this year.
18: A book about London: Zadie Smith, NW; Craig Taylor, ed., Londoners
For years now I have heard good things about Zadie Smith, but not quite got around to reading any of her novels. Although I had imagined I would read her well-known White Teeth, or the more recent Swing Time, I spotted NW on the shelves of my local library, and it fitted perfectly into the London category.
This 2012 novel follows the lives of four people – Leah, Keisha (later known as Natalie), Felix and Nathan – who grew up in the same estate in north-west London: the title refers to the NW postcodes covering that area of the city. In its early stages, it is narrated in a way that suggests rather than spelling out what is happening from one moment to the next, forcing the reader to infer what is happening. I suppose it is a kind of modernist style – this informative review by Ron Charles in the New York Times mentions that Smith was inspired by Virginia Woolf – but I found it difficult to get into for a long time; in particular, I struggled to follow the plotline about the two men. However, I enjoyed it a great deal more when, about halfway through the novel, the style abruptly changes as Keisha/Natalie comes centre stage: her story, from childhood to the present day, is told through 185 brief vignettes, each one very simple and straightforwardly-narrated, about her friendship with Leah through the years, her education and career and family life, resulting in her professional success and movement into a more middle-class neighbourhood. The novel’s end, however, is less straightforward, indicating serious problems in the characters’ relationships which are left without resolution.
As Ron Charles says in his review, this book demands an attentive reader. Perhaps it will get a more attentive re-reader in me one day.
Craig Taylor’s Londoners was one of the first books that I bought when I moved to the city in January, but it took me until July to actually start it. Edited by a Londoner of Canadian origin, this book is a collection of monologues by people from all walks of life, with all kinds of relationships to the city: those who live here, work here, visit here, and make it run, and above all one man simply known as Smartie, whom Taylor interviews three times, who morphs from East End kid to City stockbroker to DJ to black cab driver, though his continued presence in the book is not remarked upon.
The format of the book makes it an ideal read on a short commute, and the Tube-line coloured stripes across the cover pretty much destine it for reading on the London Underground. Rather gratifyingly, I was reading the chapter by the woman who does the Tube announcements just as I was standing on an Underground train on my way to work one morning, although, as the book was published in 2011 and each line seems to have a different announcer, I couldn’t be sure that it was the same person.
Although occasional contributors give in to the temptation to sum up London and fit people into pigeonholes (‘everybody is violent and everybody is rude and everybody is willing to fucking kill everybody for the smallest thing…’: Rob de Groot, antique clock restorer), the strength of this book is how it mostly avoids these simplistic stereotypes and shows the great diversity of the city.
Bonus category: Twitter microfiction
As a bonus, this year I discovered the wonders of Twitter microfiction – short stories that can be told in 280 characters or fewer. If you are on Twitter, check out this list that I have put together. In particular, do read this beautiful, poetic thread for the twelve days of Christmas by T. R. Darling (@QuietPineTrees). Enjoy!
So that is it for 2018’s reading challenge. I am grateful to my local libraries, and to the anonymous people who donated to my local book exchange: I hope that they, or other anonymous people, also enjoyed the books that I gave away. I plan to keep up reading and blogging about my reading in 2019, although perhaps doing it in a bit of a different way. Watch this space, and have a happy new year!