Books I’ve read on the left; books still to read on the right.
I am now eight books into #TBR20 – my project to read 20 books from my To Be Read (TBR) pile before buying more.
My first piece of exciting news is that #TBR20 got a mention on the Guardian Books site earlier in January!
In other exciting news, my friend Nicola has launched a books podcast with her friend Holly. #TBR20 gets a shout out in the very first episode. Nicola’s an experienced film critic for BBC radio so the podcast promises to be a well made and entertaining fortnightly look at books. Check out the Bookish Blether tumblr for more information.
7/10 Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link (2005)
Book 7 of my project was a collection of spooky and fantastical stories from American writer Kelly Link.
The nine stories in Magic for Beginners are brimming with fantasy imagery and invention that makes reading them a very visual experience (indeed several reference paintings, both fictional and real). Most often, Link takes adolescents and their coming-of-age struggles, or adults looking back towards youth while stranded in their failed relationships, and sets them against the subtly sinister tensions of off-kilter worlds. Zombies are real, say, or the living and dead can marry, or a TV show character breaks the fourth wall and telephones the protaganist asking for help. The banalities of suburban American life meet the banalities of magic. I adore horror and ghost stories and reading Link I had a strong sense of a writer working passionately with these genres and making them her own.
For me, the stand-out story was Stone Animals, a properly strange tale of a haunted family in a haunted house with a superb opening scene. I also especially liked The Hortlak, about a young man working in a convenience store frequented by zombies (the story creates a sense of subtle dread that turns out to be as much about life’s missed chances as undead customers). The title story Magic for Beginners, about a TV-show-obsessed teenager and his parents’ struggling marriage, is both funny and poignant, and the family and friendship dynamics are beautifully observed.
You can read two stories from the collection free online via the author’s website (Some Zombie Contingency Plans and The Faery Handbag). Link’s next collection of stories, Get In Trouble, is out in February 2015.
21/20 The Known World by Edward P Jones (2003)
Note: I’m listing this as 21/20 because I picked it from my shelves and read it for my book group this month. See my fuller note in the The Rules section at the bottom of the post.
The Known World is set in the antebellum American South in a fictional county of Virginia. Using the death of Henry Townsend, a black man who owned slaves, as a starting point, it depicts the lives of an ensemble of men, women and children marked by the existence of slavery.
The setting (and my edition’s sepia cover) had led me to expect the straightforward storytelling of a genre historical novel, but Jones is doing something different. The novel never truly settles. The death of Townsend takes place in 1855, and the novel ranges across several decades to either side of that date. Often, when characters are introduced, we are told how they will die or given a significant act they will perform decades from the current moment in the prose.
Each character is a complex shading of grey, and each is cast in his or her relationship to God. Often, those suffering find strength in God, and those exacting violence find justification. Some are afraid to leave the small world of Manchester County. Some dream of a wider world – perhaps a more enlightened one.
The great strength of Jones’s prose is how quiet it is. There are no fireworks here – none of the packed, quirky detail of hysterial realism, and no wearisome attention-seeking acrobatics. Jones’s prose is wise rather than clever.
The – very few – moments of rage and violence in the novel curl nastily out of that quiet tone and are more disturbing for it. A man punished and chained alone in a barn studies the sparrows in the rafters of the building (Moses is another slave in the plantation):
He wondered if he would be there long enough for the birds to have eggs, then chicks, to see the chicks grown and then make their own nests. Take straw to the nest, go back for more. To see the grandchildren sparrows become parents. He could wring the neck of everyone on the plantation, it was just a matter of whether to start with Moses or the master. Moses’s neck was thicker. The children’s necks would be the hardest. But over and done with in a snap. He could close his eyes tight with them, with the children, and with the old people. The women would scream the loudest, but God, being the kind of God he was, would give him strength.
This superb novel gives the reader no easy place to rest. There are no clear heroes, only people doing their best to survive. They act sometimes with grace and kindness, sometimes with weakness and malice. There is also no clear present time in the novel, so the legacy of slavery and suffering seems to stand permanently, hidden behind the face of all things. And there is no easy relationship to God. The omniscient view in the novel follows some characters beyond death, but only for a few steps. When Townsend, a black man who owned slaves, dies, Jones writes one of the eeriest scenes I have ever read. As he dies Townsend finds himself climbing into a house, and the house is wrong:
Whoever was renting the house to him had promised a thousand rooms, but as he traveled through the house he found less than four rooms, and all the rooms were identical and his head touched their ceilings. “This will not do,” Henry kept saying to himself…
In The Known World, there is no telling how men might – or might not – be punished for what they do.
8/10 Lost In The City by Edward P Jones (1992)
I had picked Jones’s novel for my book group because I knew I would be reading his debut collection of stories for #TBR20. The stories are just incredible. Jones is phenomenally successful as a short story writer – several of the stories in Lost In The City appeared in the New Yorker and the collection was nominated for America’s National Book Award and won the Pen/Hemingway Award.
In the introduction to the 20th Anniversary Edition I own, Jones writes that he was inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners: ‘I admired Joyce’s bold and evident love of his Dublin people; I knew all the people in that book because they weren’t doing anything different than what black people in Washington, DC, were doing.’
The 14 stories in Lost In The City are realist, and all centred on contemporary Washington DC lives. I enjoyed each of them, but my personal favourite is An Orange Line Train To Ballston. The way he sets the tannoy announcements of a train journey against a woman watching her children chat to a man in the train carriage just seemed absolutely beautiful to me – a perfect evocation of the city.
The moments that moved and stunned me in his stories are powerfully quiet. It’s difficult to quote Jones to convey the experience of reading his stories, since so much of it is subtle and cumulative. In his Guardian series on the short story, Chris Power identifies this as a problem when writing about Chekhov (see the seventh paragraph) and I find it here with Jones. Lost In The City is a remarkable collection, and I very much recommend that you read it for yourself.
Other Fiction Reading
I’ve been reading the New Yorker story every week. A new story appears every Monday. Since I last posted I’ve read The Ways by Colin Barrett, The Crabapple Tree by Robert Coover, Breadman by J Robert Lennon and Inventions by Isaac Bashevis Singer (trans. Aliza Shevrin). I’ve also started reading a classic English novel in the mornings before work (again, one I already own) but I’ll keep the details of that one quiet until I see if I stick with it.
The only cast-iron rule of #TBR20 is that I must read 20 books I own before buying more. I’m also avoiding library loans. I’m focusing entirely on the books I already have. I’m allowing one exception to that library rule each month so that I can keep up with my book group.
I’ve also started picking some novels from my shelves outwith my TBR20 pile. I’ll count them as an addition to my total (so I might end up doing a TBR23 or 24 or whatever). The Known World is the first of these, so it’s 21/20. The 12 books I have left on my #TBR20 pile are all short stories so I’m enjoying adding some novels back into the mix.
Join in on the #TBR20 tag on Twitter, check out my post about TBR20 participants, and give me a shout in the comments – I’d love to hear what you’re reading.