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Book Round-Up #01
Everything I read in January 2022
Bonus content alert!
I want to start providing some wider content for your all that isn’t just the short fiction I’m writing, but some thoughts on the books that I am reading. Some snappy reviews so that you can get to grips with what’s inspiring me, get some good recommendations, and just have a conversation about reading.
Treat it like a book club, and I hope you’ll share as much with me as I do with you.
I’ll post these in the first week of every month, covering the books (or book, depending on my reading productivity) I read in the previous month and keep them on a different section of the website so as not to make it confusing.
If you only want to read my fiction, head here for the archive - I won’t blame you.
Last but not least, a really warm welcome to all the new subscribers! We’ve really exploded since the New Year, with over 50 people joining the club in the last week alone.
Okay, enough of that.
Here’s everything I read in January.
Book Round-Up #01
The Best Short Stories 2021 - The O. Henry Prize Winners, Edited By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The first book I read in 2022 was this collection of short stories, winners of one of the most prestigious short fiction prizes. The stories, twenty in total, were selected from over one thousand submissions, by the series editor, Jenny Quigley and Adichie. Their subjects stretch from race to astronomers’ romances, from the sexual abuse of Harvey Weinstein to a dramatisation of true events in which a fire burned an orphanage to the ground in 1943. It’s wide-ranging. You get the picture.
The emotional reaction is equally wide-ranging. They are immensely funny, profoundly sad, moving and anger-invoking. I can’t cover all the stories in the book, but a couple of my favourites include:
Two Nurses, Smoking by David Means - an account of conversations between two nurses over their fag breaks. The story develops as the two grow closer together, bonding over their experiences, and a climax in which one nurse makes a horrifying but utterly believable revelation about their past.
And then bursts into tears.
What more could you want?
From Far Around They Saw Us Burn by Alice Jolly - that story I mentioned about the orphanage. Yeah, it’s powerful. Imagine a life in which you are too scared to flee a burning building because your religious beliefs dictate that nobody - not even someone saving you from a hellish, fiery death - should see your naked body. It evokes a sense of the oppression of religion without theorising on the subject in any way whatsoever. It’s just filled with life.
Anthony Doerr’s The Master’s Castle - a hilarious account of life as an astronomer, and an idea of romance twisted all out of proportion by an obsession with the stars. It’s very creative. It’s fun. It’s got the same sense of the unfulfilled life as the timeless Stoner by John Williams. And it’s different. It’s just different.
And Color and Light by Sally Rooney - I have to confess to having never read anything by Sally Rooney until now. Not Normal People. Not the new one, whatever that’s called. Never even considered it, for no particular reason. But this story, I absolutely loved. It’s about a teen boy who works in a hotel in some far-flung town, and a girl, introduced to him by his older brother, who finds him intriguing. The girl escapes him in many ways with her somewhat erratic decisions in her life. It has an amazing sense of new, enigmatic romance and a great understanding of expectation, of what could be in the story, without delivering exactly what the reader wants, when they want it. Exceptional awareness and understanding of her readers.
Oh, and before we move on, the book’s worth reading for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s introduction alone. She writes in the wake of her father’s death, and what unfolds in just a couple of pages is an explanation of what makes fiction great, its life-giving qualities, and its way of helping us through grief.
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
After the collection of modern shorts, I delved back to the sixties with Joan Didion’s novel set in the backdrop of the hippy world we have all seen in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Inherent Vice (just me?), Mad Men, and all the millions of other things set in that period, with its loosened morals, drug-induced vendettas and a Hollywood world of doing before thinking and living purely within the moment.
I read this after learning of Didion’s death, which came just a handful of days before Christmas. The book shows a tiredness and sickliness left in the hearts of the people who came through the sixties without an idea of what comes next - realising that their now isn’t a now on its own, but a now that is the result of yesterday. Or put more plainly: the people in this world are dealing with the consequences of their often reckless decisions in the past. It paints a picture of glamour fading, like a shiny studded suit that looks cool on stage but tacky and shredded in the backstage rooms after the show. It covers a lot of interesting political issues about women and their relationship with ‘powerful’ men, and their roles in societies - of which the idea was clearly changing during that time.
A must-read if these topics are for you.
Even if the cover art might raise a few eyebrows on the train…
Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties
Having finished Didion’s novel, I wanted to get back to short fiction. After all, that’s what I’m publishing here for you all twice a month. So, I figured, there’s no better education.
If any of you have read anything by George Saunders (who also publishes a wonderful newsletter on writing, called Story Club), like Lincoln In The Bardo, you will know he’s an excellent writer. World-class. Anthony Veasna So, the author of the short collection Afterparties, was a student of Saunders’s at Syracuse University - a very highly-regarded creative writing programme in the United States. Many of its students go on to become published writers. So’s first publication is a collection centered on what it means to be Cambodian-American, how Cambodia’s history affects the lives of its descendants growing up in California, as well as what it’s like being gay in the modern world, and family politics.
It’s an extremely humanising collection of stories, as well as profoundly funny, surprising, and witty. The book could almost be a novel, as though all the stories were drawn from one life, and there does seem to be some sense of progression and development among the characters in the book. You feel this is an author seeking answers about himself - about who he is and what has made him - as well as communicating to the outer world.
There’s an added sense of importance in the work that comes from the knowledge that So died of a drug overdose in December, 2020. His literary talent will linger for a while yet, but his works will be limited to this collection and a few other pieces that may be published posthumously. You can’t help but feel it’s a real loss for literature.
It definitely speaks to the generation of Instagram, of tech bros living in the Bay Area, and some of the issues being grappled with by young people across the world.
If that’s your bag, then get involved.
Dune, Frank Herbert
Last but by no means least, I read Dune in January. I saw the film last year having not engaged with the series before (I’m not, generally, a big fan of Sci-Fi). I picked this up on a recommendation from a few friends in discussion about the film, and felt it was something worth giving some time to.
I think, and I don’t say this lightly, this is my favourite of all the books I read in January, and my favourite read for a good six months (I can’t remember a book I was gripped by this much since A Gentleman In Moscow).
In terms of Sci-Fi, it has everything: spaceships, travelling between worlds, curious people with special powers (like seeing the future), a powerful and enigmatic emperor, and weapons that do really cool, lasery things.
Sure, that’s fun.
But it definitely has something more. I know that, because I’m generally a skeptic and this got me. There is a lot of meaning to be found in it depending on the lens through which it is consumed. Reading the book through a religious lens: there is a fascinating sense of religiosity about the Fremen population, the politics of religion, tribalism and fanaticism, and the way leaders can bring whole populations to actions they may never have pursued otherwise. Through a socioeconomic lens, it has great geopolitical dynamics: the battle over the scarce resource in the spice, the value of water in a place where it is rare, and the symbolism attached to that rarity; the archaic and monarchic obsession with bloodlines...
These are themes that could be drawn out in any contemporary work or historical fiction.
It really transcends genre while also typifying one.
I didn’t even know that was possible.
I cantered through the whole book in a week, and would gladly pick up Dune Messiah and all the other books tomorrow if I had them at home!
So, that’s everything I read in January. Have you read any of these? Do you agree with my assessment or deeply disagree? (I’d much prefer the latter response.)
If you haven’t read any, will you? Let me know! The comments section awaits.