Summer by Ali Smith

September 21st, 2020

“I wanted to send you an open horizon,” one character writes to another in this book (121). They’ve never met; they may never meet. The character doing the writing is a teenager who is 1) worried about climate change, 2) protective of and infuriated by her sometimes-difficult/provocative younger brother, and 3) dealing with life in England in 2020, with Brexit and COVID-19 and lockdown and remote schooling. The recipient of the letter is an immigrant, probably/possibly still in a detention center, though Sacha, the letter-writer, doesn’t know for sure. She writes, anyway: about the arrival of the swifts in England as the start of every summer, about how “if you were to open a swift, metaphorically of course, the rolled-up message they carry inside them is the unfurled word SUMMER” (119). Summer is that open horizon, at least in imagination or memory, though summer is also heat and stink; another character thinks about how “the whole season is like the smell round a garbage truck as it moves through the city and like you’re stuck on a bike behind it going way too slowly down a too-narrow street” (100). It’s “the briefest and slipperiest of the seasons,” the one that “won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called perfect or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed” (290).

In Summer, characters and themes from the prior three books in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet recur: there is a lot about family, and memory, and art; we get wordplay and arguments and news clips and politics. And connection, by chance or by choice. Late in the book, a different character talks about having “a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always the choice we’ve got” (364). So: summer, the sky wide, birds and stars overhead: possibility, even amidst everything.

This second installment in the “Thursday Next” series is as fun and funny as the first, and I was delighted to read about Thursday’s continued adventures. In this one, there’s a found Shakespeare play, a lost husband, and several near-death experiences, as well as time travel, travel into various books, and an all-too-brief reappearance of Spike, Swindon’s SpecOps agent dealing with vampires, werewolves, and the undead in general. And in this one, Thursday learns about the world of Jurisfiction: agents focused on protecting literary integrity, much like her own LiteraTec SpecOps division, but from within books rather than outside them. There’s a lot of great detail to do with that side of the plot: Miss Havisham and the Cheshire Cat make appearances, and footnotes figure as a means of communication; Thursday even has an appointment in a Kafka work. There’s great detail in general, actually: at one point Thursday’s at an art exhibition and sees “a model of a matchstick made entirely out of bits of the houses of Parliament” (236), which totally cracks me up. Also: I love Thursday’s whole family, especially her dad but also her uncle and brother and grandma—the latter of whom is 108 years old and at one point explains that she “got mixed up with some oddness” when she was young and “can’t shuffle off this mortal coil” until she’s “read the ten most boring classics” (134)—the only problem being that she can’t figure out which ones they are.

I really enjoyed this collection of eighteen stories about love/relationships, which my boyfriend checked out from the library back in February, and which I’d been meaning to read for months now, since the night when he was reading it and I somehow ended up grabbing the book and reading the story “Rufus” (which is narrated by a dog and is simultaneously funny and poignant) aloud to him. It took me a while to get back to the rest of the book, but I’m glad I finally did. The stories range in length and form (one is a rhyming poem that’s a valentine/anti-valentine; another is a list of bullet points), and some are naturalistic while others have fantastical elements. There’s one about a couple who are stressed about planning their wedding, in a world that is almost ours but definitely isn’t: there’s mention of a family dinner at an Olive Garden and a trip to a Rite Aid, but a lot of the plot revolves around how everyone expects their wedding to have more sacrifices to the Stone God than they were planning on. (That story, “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,” was one of my favorites.) There’s another that features a theme park called Presidentland and some poorly-thought-out genetic engineering, and another in which a door to a theorized “anti-universe” doesn’t have the results the narrator expects. I like these weirder stories a whole lot, and I like the writing style throughout the book, with sentences like this: “Dorothy quickly whittles the word “furious” into a verb and furiouses at me” (27).

Or something being described like this: “Kind of as a joke and kind of for real, the way eighteen-year-olds do everything” (90).

Or this: “Every conversation was punctuated by long awkward silences—but punctuated the Spanish way, so every sentence was followed by a long awkward silence and preceded by the same awkward silence upside down” (186).

Also: I totally love the last story, which is a play on a misspelled sign about a store being closed, and which describes a day as “a moment, a twenty-four-hour trick of the light” (242). And I totally totally love that the story called “Missed Connection – m4w” was originally posted on Craigslist.

I first read The Eyre Affair in 2014 and didn’t love it at the time (I felt like it was too plot-driven, too zany) but this time around it was exactly what I was in the mood for, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series at some point sooner rather than later. As previously noted, this book is set in an alternate England where time travel is possible and literature is Extremely Important. Thursday Next is a special agent in the LiteraTec department, dealing with forgeries and manuscript thefts, and the theft of a manuscript that’s a very big deal is what sets the plot of the book in motion: Martin Chuzzlewit has been stolen. Thursday finds herself in pursuit of the suspect, Acheron Hades (a supervillain who faked his own death in years prior); her genius uncle Mycroft and his newest invention, the Prose Portal (which lets a person enter a work of literature) end up being part of the story as well. Hades’s idea is to use the Prose Portal for purposes of extortion: if he or his henchmen enter an original manuscript and harm one of the characters, all the copies of the book in the world will change as the original manuscript is altered. And he’s not just interested in Martin Chuzzlewit: his next heist is to steal the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, at which point things get really personal for Thursday, who has her own connections with that book and its characters.

I think part of why I enjoyed this book more this time around (aside from being pretty happy to read for plot and humor, at the moment) is that I watched the National Theatre production of Jane Eyre online in April, so the characters and world of that novel were fresh in my mind in a way that they definitely weren’t when I first read The Eyre Affair. Because of that, I think I was better able to enjoy the way that the events of this book shape the plot of Jane Eyre in Thursday’s world. And all the details I loved from my first read still made me grin: pet dodos created via cloning kits, kids trading bubblegum cards with Henry Fielding characters on them instead of baseball players, Baconians proselytizing door to door, a production of Richard III that’s acted entirely by audience members and features audience participation in the style of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and more.

For me, Normal People wasn’t immediately absorbing in the way that Conversations with Friends was—maybe partly because of the third-person narration of this book as opposed to the first-person narration of that one—but once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down, even as some of the narrative choices made me squirm. The chapters of Normal People alternate between focusing on Marianne and Connell, schoolmates from a small town in the west of Ireland who both go to Trinity in Dublin for university. Though their social lives in high school don’t overlap (by which I really mean: Connell has a social life; Marianne is an outcast) and they’re from different backgrounds (Connell is the kid of a single mother who cleans for a living; Marianne’s family has money—and Connell’s mom cleans their house) they end up becoming friends, and then end up having sex, though Connell makes a point of not wanting anyone at school to know. Their relationship ends up being an on-and-off thing that continues while they’re at Trinity; they keep miscommunicating and messing up, but they also keep finding themselves drawn to each other. The book captures the intensity of their connection really well, the way that their private interactions let them make a separate space for themselves, away from everyone else, but also how that separateness can cause problems. (Early in the book, there’s this: “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him” – and I think the narrative explores the appeal of and the problems with that.) On the subject of narrative choices that made me squirm, I’ll just say that I’m tired of the novelistic trope of female submission being tied to a traumatic family life and/or deep insecurity. But I do really like Rooney’s prose style, in passages like this:

In the afternoon it started snowing, thick gray flakes that fluttered past the windows and melted on the gravel. Everything looked and felt sensuous: the stale smell of classrooms, the tinny intercom bell that sounded between lessons, the dark austere trees that stood like apparitions around the basketball court. The slow routine work of copying out notes in different-colored pens on fresh blue-and-white lined paper. (17)

Or this:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way gray stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic. (261)

The Starless Sea is a sprawling book full of stories, and it’s about stories too, about how stories work, though for a novel about how stories work I think I prefer Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. As a book in which to lose myself right now, though, The Starless Sea was a total delight. I like Erin Morgenstern’s writing for the lush descriptions, the startling and perfect images: this is definitely more of a setting-driven book than a plot-driven or a character-driven one, and I’m fine with that. I mean, there is also a lot of plot: Zachary, a grad student who studies video games, finds a mysterious book in his university library, and is shocked to find that he’s in the book, though it seems older than he is. The book leads him, eventually, to a vast subterranean library, which used to be full of visitors but is now nearly empty. Figuring out why the library is the way it is leads him to other stories, which interconnect in various ways. There are quest elements and fairy tale elements and video game elements, and there’s danger and romance and humor, but I was really there for things like: a hallway in which doorknobs hang on ribbons from the ceiling; a dumbwaiter that can bring you any kind of food or drink you ask for; a candy that is also somehow a story—that makes you taste/experience a story in some weird synesthetic way; a lavish party in another time in an ornately-decorated ballroom; a whispering hallway that tells stories; a boat that is itself partly made of stories. And oh, sentences like this: “A dense forest of cherry trees in full bloom fills the cavern, all the way up to the edge of the river. Twisting tree roots disappear below the surface of the honey while stray blossoms fall and float downstream” (366).

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl was such a delight to read: it’s a magic-realist picaresque journey from the middle of country to one coast and then the other, set in early-1990s queer social circles, with a protagonist who has the ability to change his body from male to female, and in other ways as well. It’s smart and funny and poignant and I enjoyed following all of Paul’s adventures, from college in Iowa City to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to Provincetown to San Francisco, and I also liked the way that Lawlor intersperses fairy-tale interludes with Paul’s story: a Hansel and Gretel story, a selkie story, a Little Red Riding Hood story, and others. I also love how many great little details there are in this book—the track list of a mix tape Paul makes, how a girl sends Paul a postcard that quotes “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich, how Paul’s friend Jane thinks about writing a paper only using theorists with last names starting with the letter B, how Paul goes on an acid-fueled disquisition about cover songs. And the writing, gah, I’m so into prose like this: “Paul watched the traffic lights change from red to green in the blue-gray dusk. The contrast made him think of Nan Goldin photographs and he wanted to tell someone, to marvel at the beauty with someone at whose beauty he could also marvel” (319). A cold night is described as “the blue night of snow and streetlights, air like paper cuts” (12). And then near the end of the book there’s this, when Paul is walking in San Francisco, “looking up at the attic windows and roofs of renovated Victorians, the treetops, a congregation of pigeons on the web of train wires over Market Street, the big western sky” (353).

Howards End by E.M. Forster

January 25th, 2020

I read Howards End after seeing Matthew Lopez’s play “The Inheritance”—which is in part a homage to this book that uses a lot of the elements of its plot, except transposed to modern New York/with the majority of the characters being gay men. I think seeing the play (which I loved) enhanced my enjoyment of the novel: it was interesting to read the novel already knowing a lot of the plot, and interesting to see the places where Lopez chose to structure his story differently from Forster’s original. As far as the novel itself, there were parts I loved and parts I found to be a slog. I love the moments of humor in Forster’s writing, as when he describes one character as having “one of those moustaches that always droop into teacups” (110) and another character as being “one of those who name animals after the less successful characters of Old Testament history” (120-121). Near the beginning of the book, there’s a great funny description of two of the main characters, the sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel, attending a concert with various relatives/other people: the way Forster describes each character’s thoughts and behavior, the way everyone’s inside his or her own head in some way, is perfect. And I like the way Forster considers big themes: what to do about the gulf between rich people and poor people; what to do about the gulfs that can arise between friends or family or partners; what it means to connect, or to fail to connect, with other people or with a place, or what it means to succeed or fail at connecting the disparate elements of a personality or of life; what it looks like to make a life with other people; what we owe to others. (These are themes Lopez explores in his play, too, and it was interesting for me to think about the similarities and differences.) I like other things, too—how Forster describes arguments as “inevitable at the time, incredible afterwards” (18); how Helen fervently proclaims that “personal relations are the real life, for ever and ever” (23) (and how Margaret, later, makes that true in practice); and this, about Helen and Margaret being close again after a period of estrangement: “And all the time their salvation was lying round them—the past sanctifying the present; the present, with wild heart-throb, declaring that there would after all be a future” (255).

Permission by Saskia Vogel

January 15th, 2020

Much of this novel is narrated by Echo, who’s in her mid-twenties and grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, though she now has her own apartment in LA. She’s adrift: she started acting as a teen and has been trying to build a career in it, but she’s not been getting any parts lately; she has an ongoing hookup situation with a dude who’s a musician who lives with his parents, but finds herself thinking about her high school best friend, Ana, who she had been hooking up with when they were in school together (until Ana’s dad walked in on them), but from whom she’s now estranged. We don’t get a sense of the shape of Echo’s normal daily life—her routines or lack thereof, her friends or lack thereof—because her life is up-ended near the start of the book by her father’s unexpected death. She goes to stay with her mom in her childhood home, and the two of them are stuck in their grief (not that her parents’ marriage had been particularly happy; not that anyone in the family seems like a particularly easy person). Meanwhile, she meets Orly, who’s in her thirties and has just moved in across the street with a slightly older male housemate, Lonnie, also known as Piggy. It turns out that Orly works as a dominatrix, which intrigues Echo, and a lot of the book ends up being about Orly and Echo’s quick/newfound intimacy, and also the strain that this puts on Piggy, whose normal routines are interrupted by Echo’s presence. The writing is lush and often lovely, but there is a whole lot of unease in this book. I like the descriptions of the coastal California landscape, though: the threat of earthquakes, but the beauty of whales; jasmine and honeysuckle and roses; jacaranda blossoms. And I like how Echo is trying to figure out how to navigate desire and grief, and how part of doing that, for her, is finding comfort in the physical in a way different from what she’s known in the past. Also: the final two pages of this book, in which Echo goes to the beach at night, are so beautiful and so good: such a perfect ending, not a resolution but a sense of possibility, of more.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

January 8th, 2020

I really liked Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown when I read it in 2015, and I think I felt similarly about The True Queen: I felt that the plot took a while to get moving, but once things picked up I was totally there for it. The True Queen starts with two girls, Sakti and Muna, finding themselves washed up on a beach on the island of Janda Baik after a storm. They have no memories of their lives other than their names, and end up living with a witch named Mak Genggang, who has a habit of taking in strays, especially magical ones. Sakti, it turns out, has a lot of magical talent, though Muna doesn’t seem to—though it seems like maybe she used to/maybe it was taken from her. When Sakti wakes up one day with a hole through her body (not a wound, just an absence of flesh), the girls figure they’re cursed, and end up deciding they need to go to England to try to get the curse lifted. But on the way there, Sakti disappears in Fairy/the Unseen Realm, meaning that Muna ends up in England alone, desperate to figure out how to rescue her sister from whatever surely-terrible fate has befallen her. Muna needs help, though, and appeals to Prunella Wythe, the Sorceress Royal, and to Prunella’s friend Henrietta Stapleton, who teaches at the school for magiciennes that Prunella runs. Adventures ensue, along with Fairy-related political intrigue, and I find the setting (Regency England with magic, the Unseen Realm with its Fairy Court and imps and dragons) to be lots of fun. I like, too, the way that the book explores agency and self-determination and questions of loyalty and family and friendship.