(I don't know where this newfound enthusiasm is coming from, and suspect it is related to lack of progress in other areas, but let's not scrutinise it too closely)
Some Books I Have Read This Summer:
Emile Zola - La Bête Humaine
Ah, Zola. Who would want to be a character in a Zola book? The likelihood of ending up horribly dead/maimed or otherwise ruined is even higher than in Scandinavian crime drama, or in the village of Midsomer and there is no prospect of escape or redemption, because Zola, like Lady Gaga, or Jean Calvin, believes you are Born This Way.
In La Bête Humaine (spoiler alert) there is: endless domestic violence, stabbing, graphic train crashes, people throwing themselves under trains and falling to their death whilst fighting on a train, which then runs away, out of control, across the countryside to Certain Disaster. The moral of the story is, surely: do not take trains. It is all a metaphor for the Second Empire though, so that's ok. I actually really love La Bête Humaine, partly because at both ends of the train track it follows, it's set around places I know, partly because it feels really modern with all the death 'n' shagging and also because it has some great suspense filled passages about guilt and the impulse to confess and your fate being in someone else's hands. There's a really brilliant bit in a tiny flat near St Lazare in the depths of winter where the fire burns down and dawn starts to break as one character confesses something to another who is entertaining uncontrollable thoughts of slitting her throat, which still kept me slightly breathless on this reading, even though I know how it ends. Also: let us not ignore the faint, smug holiday superiority that comes with rereading a 'classic'. LOOK AT ME, BEACH PEOPLE. NO TASTELESS DREARO-PORN FOR ME, OH NO, BRAINS I HAZ EM.
Leanne Shapston - Swimming Studies
I am a bit worried that this one will turn out to be the kind of thing I inadvertently soak up like a sponge and reproduce in style, if not content, in everything I write in the next few weeks. Lists. Lots of slightly edgy, present tense descriptions. Elegant, careful descriptions of very prosaic things. Apart from that wholly narcissistic concern, it's great: Shapston writes about her relationship with swimming, from her teenage years as an Olympic hopeful and professional, to the present day, and whether and how it's possible to build a different relationship with water and swimming, away from the imperatives of faster, better, stronger. She is a really very good writer and even though it is quite a slight subject, it's beautifully described. I read it and thought 'fuck, this is a bit like how I inchoately hoped my cake book would be, but really, really isn't'. Yes, it's all about me. It is a very beautiful object, this book, too because Shapston became an artist and illustrator (yes, she is annoyingly multi-talented) and there are lots of her painting in it, as well as things like photographs of many of the swimming costumes she has worn in her life, which is odd, but rather fascinating.
Chris Cleave - Gold
Oh look, two books about 'sport' (ish), how almost topical. This is absolutely the book to read if you are missing the Olympics, because it is about, well, the Olympics. And cycling. And rivalry and the pressures of professional sport and also about having a sick child. It is quite gripping, and I defy you not to be imagining Victoria Pendleton and Anna Meares in the main roles. It is not as breathtakingly, must-keep-reading, as Cleave's last two, I thought, but he always tells a great story in a hugely engaging way.
If Wishes Were Horses - Susannah Forrest
You won't, I think, enjoy this if you aren't (or weren't at some point) into things equine, but if you are, it's really rather great: a scholarly, but also personal, look at why girls and women are so drawn to horses, stuffed with history and field trips and reminiscences. I especially liked the description of looking out of car windows at fields and imagining you were on the back of a horse, galloping across them, jumping each hedge as it rushes past, because of course I did that when I was little and still occasionally do, if someone else is driving. I didn't realise how universal it was until I read this book. There was a really interesting bit about fear and danger too, and - like the Shapston - it's really good on that theme of drifting away from something, giving up, letting go, but still having unfinished business with it. We could almost count that as three sports books. It is a veritable literary Olympiad. Quick, let's have some food, with:
Ian Kelly - Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef
This was for research purposes, because Carême is the godfather of fancy, vertiginously piled French patisserie. I estimate that two thirds of the books is composed of lists of foodstuffs and menus. They are great foodstuffs though and they make your lunch of pitta bread and turkey look a bit flaccid and lacking in ambition. 'Where' I find myself thinking as I stare balefully at yet another tin of tuna 'Is my LIFESIZED VENETIAN GONDOLA CAKE? WHERE IS MY SWAN FRITTER?' I am not sure I learned much about Carême as a person, and it rushes pretty much straight into the bit where he's already famous when I wanted to know more about how he got there, but I suppose you can't do much if you just don't have the material, which I think must have been the case.
Laura Lippman - The Innocents
I used to read all Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan books, because (i) I love a half-decent detective series with characters you can care about (ii) Especially if the detective talks about food a lot; and (iii) There is a nice strong sense of place (Baltimore here), cf Donna Leon, Camilleri, Dibdin (why are they all Italian?). If you can recommend any more of these, I am highly in favour. Incidentally, I have long been convinced that there would totally be scope for creating a lovely new Brussels one, some kind of nice-though-troubled Américain and Half and Half loving, grizzled old detective, bringing bent Eurocrats and dodgy Molenbeek drug kingpins to justice, whilst regularly stopping to eat good meals and drink good beer and have a shitty private life. I cannot do important things like: plot, so I don't think I can do it, but I wish someone would.
Anyway, I had sort of forgotten about Lippman for a few years, then I read an article about her and how she's married to Him What Made The Wire and went and found a new one. It is not a Tess Monaghan story, it is one of those stories about kids who did something awful when they were little. Or didn't. But might have. And how it turns out afterwards. There are a lot of those around, aren't there? See also: The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood which was heavily recommended by lots of people earlier this year and is indeed very gripping on a similar subject.
I actually think this is better than the Tess Monaghan books (in fact, TM has a tiny cameo near the end): it's full of carefully drawn, compelling characters and the grisly incident at the heart of the story is kept really nicely elusive, shifting, with a sort of weird, undefined second person narrator in some sections so you don't quite know who is telling the story and whether you can trust it. It is distinctly lacking in feel-good, however, and packed with rather sad, lost people.
It also reminded me of:
Gillian Flynn - Sharp Objects
Flynn's Gone Girl is another one of those Books of the Summer that everyone has recommended, and I did really enjoy it: it's an ingenious, twisty, noir thriller, no question. I read this one afterwards, in my enthusiasm and it's another - very - dark story about a girl going back home to a small town and re-engaging with nasty stuff from the past, like the Lippman. It gets a bit baroquely loony towards the end and the younger sister character is batshit implausible, but not enough to stop it being highly entertaining.
There have been others. I have forgotten them or they were so pulpy I am pretending to have forgotten them. What has been your best book of the summer so far?
(Incidentally, I find Alex Heminsley's Pinterest board an excellent - if ruinous - place for new book recommendations)