November began in Florence with friends, and then on the ninth I flew to Chicago, where I still am, with friends, so a great month, with travel and books and good company. I read thirteen books, and I have a lot to say about them.
Creativity, John Cleese (2020)
A short book about getting your head in the right space to be creative, not the problem I actually have, but interesting to read about. Ideas are the easy bit for me, but I’d recommend this to people who find them the hard bit. It claims to tell you how to tell if something is a good idea, but in fact it doesn’t. Still, a fun to read, short, maybe valuable for some people.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell (2010)
Gosh this was good. Historical novel, possibly edge of fantasy, set among the Dutch traders in Japan in 1799, and Japanese people, and other people who are there. It’s one of those books you dive right into, utterly immersive, complex characters and lots of them, a whole place and time and multiple different sets of axioms beautifully demonstrated. Very satisfying to read. It also has excellent female agency, and multiple POC of different cultures. This was urged on me by friends, and I was initially reluctant but completely wrong, it’s great. If you like historical fiction at all, read this. And it’s not just set in a historical period, though it is that, it’s also about history, how we are all part of it and making it, caught up by it and affecting it at the same time. It’s a historical novel in service of history. I’ll definitely be reading more Mitchell.
Ibid: A Life, Mark Dunn (2004)
Deeply disappointing novel told in the form of merely the footnotes for a lost work, but not really sustaining that as well as it might, and actually kind of boring. I loved his Ella Minnow Pea so I was expecting to enjoy this much more than I did. It’s about a man born with three legs who invents deodorant… There’s a kind of mismatch of weight of what Dunn is doing, neither the comic nor the tragic really work and neither one becomes anything more than itself.
Remember Me?, Sophie Kinsella (2008)
When she’s on form, Kinsella is terrific, and this one is definitely on form. Lexi hits her head in 2004, and when she wakes up it’s 2008 and she has lived those years but can’t remember them, and now she’s married and has a high-powered job and has lost touch with her old friends and she’s scrabbling to keep up, some of the changes are so good and some are so bad. Excellent book, funny, clever, effective, and even if the whole thing is medically implausible it’s carried through well. But more than that, what it’s really about is how much growing up people do in their twenties, how many choices they make, how a 28-year-old self can barely be recognised by the 24-year-old version when you hit it at a leap and haven’t done the changing day by day. We have a lot of stories about how kids and teens grow up, but not much about the next step, so this is really unusual for focusing on that and what it means.
Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, Harry Kemelman (1966)
Second Rabbi Small mystery, this time with Yom Kippur. Again slight, again better for the glimpse of time and place than for the mystery, but the mystery is what makes it work. I will probably carry on reading these but without any degree of urgency. Mysteries, especially older mysteries, are satisfying in the way order is disrupted and restored, and the way they see life and death. There’s also an interesting evolution of who can be the detective—these books have a rabbi detective, in the 1960s, and that in itself makes them interesting, But what’s really interesting is the way you have the microculture of the congregation within the wider US 1960s culture, and then, with the events and the mystery, the different worldview and axioms that the rabbi brings to the unravelling of the mystery. In both these books there’s a moment of suddenly seeing through the other end of the telescope as Rabbi Small activates his learning, and that’s really neat.
The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson (2018)
Non-fiction book about a guy who stole a lot of stuffed rare and extinct birds from a museum to make salmon lures. The book dives into the culture of salmon fly-tying, and of Victorian fashion and collecting, and of the heist, the trial, and the motives of the thief. Detailed and surprisingly fascinating.
Father, Elizabeth von Arnim (1931)
On her deathbed, Jen’s mother makes her promise to look after he father, and she does, until he remarries and Jen tries to claim her freedom, in a cottage in the country, at the age of thirty-three, in 1931… Beautiful ironic use of point of view, very funny, and a really interesting consideration of the question that bothered people a lot between the wars of how (whether) middle-class women could possibly live independent lives. There is a romance. There are a lot of family dynamics including bullying. This is not a fluffy novel, and though it’s a really enjoyable read it’s also part of a conversation that Gaudy Night is part of, and A Room of One’s Own and Rose Macauley. Really a lot of this was clearing ground for economic independence and equality, even if it doesn’t glance at the lives of actually working women. But it’s also a book that made me smile a lot, and want to read bits aloud.
Everfair, Nisi Shawl (2016)
I’ve had this book on my Kindle waiting to be read since it came out in 2016, because I love Shawl’s work but I wasn’t quite braced for a steampunk fantasy about the Belgian Congo. It’s great, it’s a very very good book, well researched, well done, but there is so much pain in the source material that it is a challenging book to read. It’s exactly the kind of thing we as a genre need to be doing, and a better kind of alternate history, that says not only that African history is valid for speculation (I mean duh!) but that things could have been, should have been, better. Terrific characters, and lots of them. It has the kind of rough edges to be expected from an accomplished short story writer’s first novel, but it’s an excellent and important book and I recommend it highly.
Settling Scores: Sporting Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (2019)
Another British Library Crime Classics collection of Golden Age mystery short stories, this one united around the loose theme of sport. The quality varies, of course, but overall a great set of stories with good variety. I really enjoy these, sometimes for the ritual laying out and unravelling of who killed who and why, and sometimes for the glimpses of lost worlds.
Going Down Fast, Marge Piercy (1969)
Re-read. It’s a long time since I’d read this early Piercy, not a favourite, but I thought it would be interesting to read about the gentrification of Chicago while I was in Chicago. It’s tempting to say that nothing has changed, but of course it has, everything has changed, and yet is still the same in some essential ways. Still not a favourite, but it has its moments, and it’s interesting to see Piercy reaching towards both the social and political issues she would deal with so well in later work, and feeling her way towards feminism. If von Arnim’s Father is late first-wave feminism, this is very early in the second wave. Another fascinating moment on that moving line. Chicago still sucks for African-Americans though, with dice still loaded against them in infuriatingly institutional ways that should have changed more since this book was written. Looking at those two axes of progress in the fifty years since Piercy wrote this is depressing.
The Folding Knife, K.J. Parker (2010)
Hey, I have figured out why I love Parker so much, despite my real and objective problems with the books! They are fantasies of logistics. Nobody does that. There’s a paragraph in this book about how /a military thing/ couldn’t happen because they didn’t have enough draft horses, so they bought a mine and took the pit ponies, and then they didn’t have enough carts so they got the shipyard to build carts, and the carts the shipyard built were way better than normal carts, so the protagonist makes a note to set up a cart-making factory when he next has a free moment. If that delights you, read this book. If you’re frowning at this, and wondering how anyone would want to read it and couldn’t I just go and fill in a spreadsheet or play Civ, then don’t bother. Military, sieges, logistics, bizarre ideas about what love means and how it affects humans, why yes, this is a Parker book, nor am I out of it. Also mildly notable for being a fantasy republic, something we don’t see enough of.
The Split, Laura Kay (2021)
Lesbian romance novel, also contains running and a cat, mildly fun while turning the pages but a bit wan in retrospect. Good realistic father-adult daughter relationship. Set mostly in Sheffield.
Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford (2021)
Literary novel that will probably win a lot of literary prizes. This is a very good book that made me think a lot of meta things. Spufford is an excellent writer, I’ve raved here about his non-fiction, and I very much enjoyed his first novel Golden Hill. Light Perpetual focuses on five people who were killed as children in a V1 blast on page 1, and their lives as if they had lived, jumping through time so we see them all as kids, young adults, middle-aged adults, and so on, from 1949 to the present. Different things happen to them, and we see them in glimpses, without the gaps being filled in. This is a great way to write a book, and indeed it is the way Daniel Abraham wrote The Long Price Quartet—first one A Shadow in Summer, (2006).
Thinking about Light Perpetual and The Long Price Quartet together caused me to see in focus a fascinating thing about the difference between a lot of literary fiction and genre fiction. Genre fiction, and some other kinds of fiction too, is in service of something. Much literary fiction is showing us some human lives, here they are, in the real world, some moments lovingly observed. The Long Price books show us the world being changed. Light Perpetual just shows us some people in this world through some time. Genre fiction has metaphysics, or politics, or an idea, or so help us logistics, that is larger than the lives of the characters and the incidents of the plot, and that the book itself is in service to.
If you read back through this post I’ve done my best to articulate what each book here is about, in this sense, in a way that’s separate from the moments it covers. What it’s about, what it is in service to. And in that sense, Light Perpetual isn’t quite in service to anything. It’s hollow where Piercy burns with political passion and Shawl wants to show us how African history could have been different and better, and Mitchell is showing us the specific way history is a wave we break, and von Arnim is engaging with possibilities for how women can live independently, as if we were people, and Kemelman is showing us how the Talmudic worldview affects the way people see the world. Yes, there are people like Spufford’s excellent characters, yes this history of place and time happened, yes, some people are schizophrenic and some bulimic and some are chancers who are truly moved by opera…but… Maybe Spufford’s thesis is that five extra people make no difference, or that the difference they make makes no difference?
I wish I’d read a Charlotte M. Yonge this month, because her books are directly and specifically about how people live, and in service of God, and maybe that’s what Spufford wants to be doing, but if so it seems to me he’s only gesturing towards it, leaving it deliberately unclear, non-committal, lacking conviction. There are five kids we’re told died, and then we’re shown their grown lives in the world, and… so what? I know I’ve been doing nothing but complain about it, but really I like this book, it’s really beautifully written, it’ll probably win the Booker Prize, and yet I want to leap on it and shake it and do the Heimlich maneuver and make it be about something. Anything. Because it’s so good, and in the end that’s not enough.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two collections of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections, a short story collection and fifteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her novel Lent was published by Tor in May 2019, and her most recent novel, Or What You Will, was released in July 2020. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal. She plans to live to be 99 and write a book every year.