January 2022 roundup

January was a slightly disappointing reading month, though looking at my list of books read it’s hard to say precisely why. It’s a good mix of writers I already know and ones new to me, of genre and literary fiction, but somehow it didn’t hit the spot. That’s why I’ve started February with a Penelope Fitzgerald – you just can’t go wrong with her.

Any oddities in this post are likely due to one of my cats repeatedly walking over the keyboard as I try to write it, occasionally deleting chunks of text.

The Singapore Grip, JG Farrell

This is the third of JG Farrell’s thematic Empire trilogy, but for me the weakest. The setting is Singapore on the eve of World War II and Farrell draws a portrait of an out of touch English colonial establishment who can’t see that their time is distinctly drawing to a close. Absurd preparations for a centennial celebration for a local trading house go on as the threat of war grows nearer. The family patriarch who heads the company worries about marrying off his clever daughter and managing his useless son, while ignoring how his and his peers’ fortune is built on brutal exploitation of the local population.

Farrell’s Troubles and his The Siege of Krishnapur are both marvellous, bitingly funny while somehow still entirely serious. This though is almost twice the length of either, and it felt to me like Farrell had left none of his research off the page. The good stuff from previous books was all there – the writing, the keen sense of human folly – but I learned more about troop movements in 1940s Singapore than I suspect I needed to. If you’ve read the others you’ll likely want to read this too, but otherwise it’s not essential.

Weather, Jenny Offill

I called Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation ‘perhaps the best written unmemorable book I’ve ever read.’ On reflection that may have been a sign that I’m not Offill’s reader. Her Weather however was widely and well reviewed and is an interesting example of the recent rise of climate-change influenced fiction.

Weather captures the sense of slow impending apocalypse that is part of the background now of everyday life for many. The narrator, a librarian, is living her life against a backdrop of news reports of political crisis and looming environmental collapse. It’s well written, often funny, and definitely captures something of our moment.

It reminds me of someone I used to work with back when I was a lawyer who started survival prepping for her kid for after the apocalypse (which in the UK is pretty unusual). She was otherwise a normal middle class professional woman, but she just didn’t trust in the future any more. Offill captures that sense of unease – the need to continue buying groceries while wondering if there’ll be a world for your kid to grow up into. At the same time, she remains a writer I struggle to personally connect to so I’ll likely leave her to other readers in future.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, Saad Z. Hossein

This is a fun SF/fantasy novella. An ancient and powerful djinn wakes up after millennia of imprisonment to find himself in an advanced future world he of course doesn’t comprehend. Fortunately, it seems, he meets an elderly Gurkha who is willing to explain to him how this future works and who takes him to a nearby city run by an all-powerful AI. However, the Gurkha has his own agenda and the djinn for all his power might not be the one people should be afraid of.

If you don’t enjoy SF or fantasy this likely won’t convert you, but if you do this is a fun and not too serious tale that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’ll read more by Hossein – there’s always a place for well written light entertainment. Also, great title.

Echopraxia, Peter Watts

This is the hardest of hard SF by a famously bleak writer. It’s the sequel to his widely acclaimed Blindspot, a first contact novel which among other things posits that consciousness may be an evolutionary dead end and one that other intelligent species aren’t troubled by. It’s not a cheery read.

Echopraxia returns to the same world and concerns, but for me less successfully. The main character is something of a passenger as various transhuman and alien entities battle it out at levels of intelligence he simply can’t understand let alone compete with, which is a bit of a problem for this merely human reader. Also, like the Farrell, I had a feeling that too much of the research had made it on to the page.

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez and translated by Megan McDowell

I tend to read short stories on my kindle, often in bed to help me sleep. Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez uses horror as a tool to explore Argentina’s traumas and some of the imagery makes this perhaps not a wholly ideal bedtime companion.

The stories are excellent, well written and with a sense of unease sometimes overspilling into out-and-out horror. In some ways though the horror is a relief – a ghostly visitation may remind us of Argentina’s history of disappearances but a missing street kid is a far more real and present nightmare.

One of the stories is available for free on Granta’s website, here, and there’s a nice review at Tony’s Reading List here. The title story, as he rightly calls out, is a devastating critique of women’s often limited choices. If I had to choose a book of the month this would probably be it. Recommended, but not for the faint hearted.

Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson

I loved Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion both (less so Winterson’s The Daylight Gate). I expected this then to be an early reading highlight of the year for me. There’s definitely a lot here to like: exceptional writing; Winterson’s sharp and slightly puckish sense of fun; and a lovely exploration of how a parent and child can love each other yet still somehow fail to communicate. Despite all that it just didn’t resonate for me on this occasion. I suspect this was me rather than Winterson. John Self, who knows Winterson’s work better than most, has argued here that this is her best novel so I’ve marked it for rereading. (He’s right on Heller by the way – Something Happened is Heller’s best novel.)

Shane, Jack Schaefer

I don’t generally read westerns so this was a departure for me, particularly as I haven’t seen the famous film based on it. It’s the story of a mysterious stranger who comes to a frontier farming community that’s under threat from a big local landowner. Classic stuff, and all narrated by a child old enough to follow events but not always their emotional undercurrents.

The trouble here isn’t the book’s fault, though it is perhaps the fault of the marketing. This is basically young adult fiction, juvenile as it would once have been called. I’d say maybe for a 12-14 year old? It was just too slight and too straightforward to keep my attention and not quite rip-roaring enough to work for me as pulp.

Goodnight Rose, Chi Zijian and translated by Poppy Toland

I chose to end the month with something of a departure, an unknown writer to me (though I think quite an important one in China) and a very different kind of story about a young woman in Northern China who moves to the spare room of an elderly Jewish woman. It becomes an exploration of the treatment and status of women, going to some fairly dark places as it does so but because it stays rooted in sympathetic and interesting characters it’s actually a fairly easy read. It’s cleverly done.

If you’ve any interest in contemporary China I would recommend this, and the angle of (admittedly lightly) exploring the Jewish diaspora in China adds to the interest. It gets perhaps a little unlikely in bringing things to a head, but a little melodrama later on gives the characters something to do and plays into the books themes so it’s not a serious issue.

And that’s it! Onwards and hopefully upwards in February.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “January 2022 roundup

  1. We read Shane at school (I think I was about 11), so yes, I would agree with your assessment of it being YA read.

  2. Hi Max! Too bad January was slightly disappointing, although it looks as though you still read some wonderful things. I love J.G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, although it’s been many years since I read it (my planned re-read has yet to occur). I agree with you that Singapore Grip is the weakest of the three; I definitely wanted to like it more than I did but still, as you say, it has much to offer. Troubles was my favorite, hands down. What a wonderful novel! And did you love that little glimpse of the Major that you got in Singapore Grip, trudgin off IIRC to a Japanese prisone of war camp?
    I know exactly what you mean about Jenny Offill! I read Dept. of Speculation, didn’t expect to like but did and yet — remember nothing about it! Still, she’s a skilled writer and I’ll give Weather a try. Sometime.
    I like fantasy & sci-fi and adore light reads. The Lord of Tuesday and Peter Watts have been duly noted (although with Watts I’ll try Blind Spot first. I don’t usually do hard sci-fi but this one looks good).
    I’ve yet to try Jeanette Winterson. So many books etc.
    Shane I have read, many, many years ago. It was o.k. but . . . aside from the fact I don’t much like westerns (too many John Wayne movies at a far too young age. What can I say? I didn’t get to pick the movies) it was, as you noted, a rather slight story, little more than the usual western trope of the lone gunslinger who does good despite a shady past. I wonder how much harm this myth has inflicted on U.S. culture? I’m afraid that and John Wayne have done us in (LOL).
    I’ve been sitting on the fence about Things We Lost In The Fire; I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to handle it. Maybe I’ll try it next summer, for one of the Spanish lit months..
    Goodnight Rose does sound interesting. On the other hand, it’s facing some tough competition from my big, huge, enormous pile of unread books.
    Hopefully your February reading will set you ablaze with excitement …..

  3. Sorry you’ve had an indifferent month – it works like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Starting off a new month with an old favourite is definitely a good strategy I think – hope February is better!

  4. I loved Troubles and have the others to read yet. Something to look forward to. Hope February will be a better reading month for you.
    Nothing else on the list appeals to me other than the Farrell to be honest. I liked Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit quite a bit.

  5. Lovely to see you posting a monthly reading update (I’ve missed them!), but sorry that January was a little underwhelming for you. I suspect the bagginess of the Farrell really added to that feeling, particularly given your responses to the first two volumes. There’s little worse than looking foreword to a cracking finale only to be let down by superfluous padding…

    Of the others, the Enriquez is the one that intrigues me the most. I may well try the story on Granta’s site – thanks for the link. Here’s to a better Feb – you definitely can’t go wrong with a Fitzgerald!

  6. The is for that warning about Singapore Grip. It’s been on my shelves to read for years and was hoping it would offer the same dark humour as the first two, oh dear, doesn’t look like it’s going to be great.

  7. Thanks Marina, my mistake on that one I think. I can’t really blame the author for reading it at totally the wrong age.

    Janakay, it’s more than a glimpse, he’s a fairly major character through the book! Glad it’s not just me on Offill. Peter Watts website has a load of his short stories free and they’re worth checking out – they include the precursor short story to Blindsight. Hossein has written a couple of full length novels also which I may check out next.

    I love westerns, but the movies. I’ve only read a couple (of which True Grit was probably the best, but then I’ve not read Lonesome Dove yet). I know what you mean though, myths wherever you are are powerful things and not always for good. The stories in Things aren’t too long so they make quick reading, but not comfortable reading.

  8. Kaggsy, sometimes it goes that way. I’ve already read this month though Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (great) and I’m reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s, so I’m taking no risks so far in February.

    Guy, I do think you’d like Troubles and Siege too for that matter. Maybe try The Passion before Cherry if you feel like more Winterson at some point, though as I say there’s those who argue Cherry is her best work.

    Jacqui, I was really looking forward to the Farrell and I suspect you’re right that the bagginess set a kind of tone for the month. The Granta bit is a nice touch by them – a bit of try before you buy.

    Booker, it does have that dark humour, it’s just it has a lot of everything so at times you’re going through quite a lot of background stuff to get to it. I’m certainly not saying don’t read it, there’s lots to like in it, but it’s easily the weakest of the three.

  9. I read the Sexing the Cherry book. Wasn’t mad about it. Loved Troubles so I’m sure I will like the others.

  10. I read Shane in the last few years and enjoyed it. It was surprisingly pacifist so I don’t know what John Wayne made of it. I’m going to try both your SF recommendations. And much as I loved Catch 22 as an anti-war student, I think Something Happened is the better novel.

  11. John Wayne had his moments, movies like The Shootist for example (I love movie Westerns, just not so much book ones). But I take your point.

    Not sure Echopraxia is really a recommendation, but very happy to chat about SF!

    Something Happened is marvellous.

  12. Dare I say, Max, that the only book here that I’ve read is Shane, and I remember quite enjoying it – but that was back in my 20s. I’m not a genre reader and was happy to be able to say I’d read a western. I seem to remember liking its spareness (but maybe I’ve remembered wrongly.)

    I have read Winterson, but not this one.

  13. Dare I say, too, that it is great to see you posting more regularly on books again. I do hope you keep it up this year?

  14. Shane is a good book that I read at the wrong time or age. I’m hoping to keep it up!

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