Bookmarks: Some very good books and some very bad sex
A fortnightly look at books and writers
This being the last books column of the year, perhaps a round-up of critics’ choices for the best reads of 2018? The following recommendations come from, among others, the good people at The New York Times, The Times and The Sunday Times of London, the Observer and the Guardian. Hold tight, there’s a pile of titles to get through.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber), which unpacks the emotional relationship between two students in Dublin, was The Times’s novel of the year. “Rooney,” the newspaper said, “has been called the voice of her generation (and she probably is), but her talents are greater than that. Her genius for capturing people with all their self-conceits and occasional virtues puts her in a fine tradition of shape social observation stretching back to Jane Austen.”
Pat Barker revisits The Iliad with her outstanding The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton), giving voice to the women in the epic and turning it “inside out”, according to the Guardian: “Her retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of Briseis, a captured Trojan queen forced to be Achilles’ sex slave, is a furious, necessary companion to Homer’s epic. The violence of battle, casual abuse of women and numinous presence of the gods are all relayed in blunt, everyday language that makes this well-worn story feel fresh and urgent – as well as horrifically relevant.”
For the classicists among us, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey by Homer (Norton) has been praised by The New York Times who said it “matches the original’s line count while drawing on a spare, simple and direct idiom that strips away formulaic language to let the characters take centre stage.”
Brexit has now spawned Brexlit. Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (Viking) is a comic state-of-the-UK survey care of the Trotter family (first introduced in Coe’s The Rotters’ Club in 2001) taking in London metropolitans, PC millennials and, according to The Times, “members of the garden-centre frequenting generation”. More to my liking in comic fiction, though, was Ben Schott’s homage to PG Wodehouse, Jeeves & The King of Clubs (Hutchinson), a breezy romp that pokes fun at fascists (always a good thing) and is a perfect foil for this Trumpish age.
Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home (Faber) turned up on a number of “best of the year” lists. An Australian couple embark on a 1950s car rally around the country in what what seems will be a comic spin in the sunshine. “But,” the London Sunday Times notes, “gradually the free-wheeling jaunt enters darker territory. Location quivers with sombre significance as reminders of atrocities at the core of Australia’s colonial history emerge.”
Closer to home, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu (Oneworld) provides an overview of Ugandan history from the 18th century to the present with the saga of a particularly blighted family.
Two of the more imaginative historical novels to make the “best of” lists were Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail) and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker). The latter is the Times historical fiction book of the year, a tale of a merchant in Georgian London whose quiet, modest life is turned upside down when one of his ships returns from a voyage with an unlikely cargo — a mermaid. The Guardian described it as a “dazzling account of dreams and desire”. The New York Times described Washington Black as “a daring work of empathy and imagination, featuring a Barbados slave boy in the 1830s who flees barbaric cruelty in a hot-air balloon and embarks on a life of adventure that is wondrous, melancholy and strange”.
CRIME & THRILLERS
It was a year of notable debuts, according to the Guardian, including Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Raven), a “mind-bogglingly complex” country house mystery, and Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (Raven), a “Ripleyesque” tale of female insecurity in upmarket Manhattan. It was also a year in which Belinda Bauer’s intelligent crime novel, Snap (Black Swan), made it onto the Booker longlist and put the genre snobs’ noses out of joint in the process.
The latest in Mick Herron’s espionage series, London Rules (John Murray), was another cracker, and “well up to the high standard of its predecessors, with the usual mixture of jokes and jeopardy at Slough House, the place where MI5 careers go to die under the dubious auspices of the wonderfully repulsive Jackson Lamb”, the Guardian said. The Sunday Times described it as the “the best of Mick Herron’s special-needs spies to date”.
CJ Sansom’s Tombland (Mantle), the seventh in the historical crime series featuring the Tudor-era lawyer Matthew Shardlake, was a favourite with many critics. “Historically enthralling as well as bristling with suspense,” the Sunday Times noted, “this is a superlative excursion into Tudor terror.”
The newspaper also heaped praise on Dominick Donald’s debut, Breathe (Hodder), set in a 1950s London beset by a choking smog in which predatory individuals terrorise the city, including the real-life serial killer John Christie, and a more chilling (fictional) individual whose method of murder leaves no trace. The New York Times, meanwhile, has listed as its three best thrillers of 2018: Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (Vintage), which casts Shakespeare’s tragedy as a fast-paced tale of murder and corruption in 1970s Glasgow; Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth), in which Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective is cajoled out of his Mexican retirement to investigate a possible insurance scam; and The Witch Elm by Tana French (Viking), a nervy, obsessive novel — part thriller, part psychological study — about an art gallery publicist and an unsolved murder in his family. NON-FICTION
Michelle Obama’s Becoming (Viking) is the memoir of 2018, according to the London Sunday Times. “She is spirited and sincere and fantastically revealing about what it is to live with such a sense of responsibility, as well as gruelling global scrutiny,” the newspaper said. “Above all, Becoming is a love story, for her husband and her two daughters — and for girls around the world. It is intimate, inspiring and set to become hugely influential.”
Two titles in particular dominated the history books of the year lists. Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts (Allen Lane) was described by The New York Times as “the best single-volume biography yet written” on the man. Max Hastings’s Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975 (Wm Collins) is a masterpiece, according to the London Sunday Times. “Horrifying, compelling, definitive — and quite brilliantly done.”
On to the British monarchy, as we must. For all the acres of print devoted to Harry and Meghan and Wills and Kate, Craig Brown’s rollicking, hilarious and scandalous take on the queen’s late younger sister, Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Fourth Estate) was voted a book of the year by the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and the New York Times, among others. As the Observer’s critic noted: “I honked so loudly the man sitting next to me dropped his sandwich.”
The best by far of all the books thrown up by the turbulence in mainstream US politics is Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown). As the Sunday Times put it: “Compiled after more than 200 interviews, [it] is lively, gossipy, became one of the talking points of the year, and its allegations (including the suggestion that White House staff think Donald Trump is ‘a hopeless idiot’, that he eats McDonald’s to avoid being poisoned, that he strips his own bed for security reasons, and tries to seduce his best friends’ wives) drove the president into a rage. What author could ask for more?”
Another highly recommended political book is Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa (Head of Zeus). The BBC correspondent travels through the continent and shows how the despots and kleptocrats have enriched themselves on the proceeds of oil, gold, diamonds and even cocoa. As the Daily Express noted: “A jaw-dropping tale of greed, corruption and brutality.” Familiar, but nevertheless still shocking, and leaving the reader to ponder why so many liberation heroes should have turned out to be so rotten.
The winner was announced in London late last night, way past this column’s bedtime so, at the time of writing, BookMarks had no idea who walked off with the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award for 2018.
The aim of the award, as we’ve been informed each year since 1993, when the magazine first introduced the prize, is to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction”.
The award has lost a little of its lustre, if I may put it that way, in recent years. This is possibly due to American punctiliousness; perhaps stung by the growing presence of their writers in the competition, the US literary establishment has rounded on the award, declaring it long past its sell-by date.
Writing in the New Republic in 2013, at the time of its 20th anniversary, Laurie Penny slammed the event as “smut-shaming”, an exercise in very British censoriousness that left her queasy.
“Pleasant as it is to point and laugh at other people’s intimate fantasies, there’s something about this spot on the critics’ calendar that makes the skin creep — and it’s not just the eye-watering descriptions of what two people can get up to with one piece of ripe French cheese,” Penny wrote.
“More than half a century since the end of the Chatterley ban, ‘high’ culture still reaches for its smelling salts at the least whiff of sauce.
The squeamish sensibilities that produce the Bad Sex Awards have, in common with commercially produced pornography, the assumption that there is an objective scale by which the goodness or badness of sex may be judged, and a standard script from which one ought not to deviate.
“Priggishness may yet do to literature what pornography has done to cinema — namely, to widen the gap between sexual content and everything else.”
The ubiquity of internet porn, Penny argued, has resulted in a substantially less sexually explicit mainstream cinema. “Nobody,” she wrote, “needs to go to the cinema to see a pair of breasts any more and it is more lucrative for most directors to keep it chaste for a lower age-rating. The result is an increasing divide between sex and the rest of culture: airbrushed limbs and choreographed grinding are permissible but the truly explicit stuff must be kept out of the mainstream, banished to its own shady realm where we can access it with the proper degree of shame and self-hatred.”
To which the Bad Sex Award judges may say, “Steady on! Have you actually read this stuff?”
This year’s seven shortlisted books were:
Scoundrels: The Hunt for Hansclapp by Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevalyan ( Black Door Press); Katerina by James Frey (John Murray); Connect by Julian Gough (Picador); Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker); Grace’s Day by William Wall (Head of Zeus); and The Paper Loves by Gerard Woodward (Picador).
No women made the shortlist. The Literary Review’s Frank Brinkley told The Guardian: “There has been some great bad sex from women in the past but this year men are the prime offenders … There were a couple of women on the nominal longlist, which we don’t publish, but we decided they weren’t bad enough.”
And just how bad was bad enough? The newspaper helpfully offered examples what the judges had to deal with:
“He sucks on the hard nipple.
“He has never done this before, and yet; no, wait, of course, it is totally familiar.
“The first thing he ever did.
“He feels the huge change in meaning, in status; it is as though he had grown up in a single suck. Everything transformed. And yet nothing has changed at all; he sucks at a nipple as he lies on a bed, and it’s eighteen years later, and he sucks at a nipple as he lies on a bed, and his childhood falls away from him like a burned-out booster stage from a rocket. Its fuel used up. He is now in orbit around a different planet.” (From Connect)
“My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.” (Killing Commendatore)
“They stay in this position for a long time, Anna sucking and slurping with the same lazy persistence you’d use on a gobstopper or a stick of rock. Eventually she loses her sense of the context altogether – of what she is doing or who she is with or where they are – and becomes an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness. She looks at the window and wonders how the glass feels encased within its wooden frame, what the shaggy clouds feel like being blown across the sky, what the walls felt like being splattered and smeared with wet paint …” (Kismet)
“His body is slacker than I expected, a small paunch begins at his waist and settles in a downward parabola to his groin. His pubic hair is red. His erect penis is a surprise although I had imagined what they would feel like, read about them, seen them represented on toilet walls and magazines. I didn’t see it before he entered me, but afterwards it is small and sticky and amusing. I want to touch it but I don’t dare. I don’t know the etiquette. He is twenty or more years older than me. This is sex.” (Grace’s Day)
“He was aware that she was making a mewling sound as he put his lips to her tightened nipple and sucked. Her mouth was at his ear, her tongue travelling along its grooves, voice filling it. His mouth tugged at her, extended her, she snapped back, there was a taste of something on his tongue. In his mind he pictured her neck, her long neck, her swan’s neck, her Alice in Wonderland neck coiling like a serpent, like a serpent, coiling down on him. She had found a way through his clothing and her fingers had lightly touched his cock, then slowly began to take a firmer hold. He wanted to cry like a baby. He felt helpless, as though his body had come undone and she was fastening it. He felt as though he was bleeding somewhere. Then he felt powerful, gigantic. He would have kicked a door down.” (The Paper Lovers)
“‘Empty my tanks,’ I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enamelled pepper mill within her.” (Scoundrels: The Hunt for Hansclapp)
THE BOTTOM LINE
“In the end, [Norway’s Magnus] Carlsen was unable to stop one of [Russian Sergey] Karjakin’s innocuous pawns from strolling innocently enough into his malevolent promised land to emerge as an all-powerful, Lady Macbeth, vindictive-as-hell queen at the end of the board.” — The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again by Brin-Jonathan Butler (Simon & Schuster)