What to read when you have Covid

… or just generally feeling very poorly and brain-foggy, struggling to concentrate. The answer seems to be: a tale about a giant rabbit, a biography and historical crime fiction set in Cracow.

I will spare you the long rant about how my younger son and I got Covid from his school, and how run-down we have both been feeling over the past week or so. Initially, I tried to console myself that, although my plans for a writing holiday somewhere else than within my own four walls had come to nothing, I would at least recline gracefully in various strategic places around the house and read all day.

Alas, turns out that pounding headaches and severe nausea are not conducive to long bouts of reading, certainly nothing too serious or challenging. Here are the books that worked for me in this situation, and which might work for you if ever need a balance of page-turning yet educational, lightness and darkness.

Antti Tuomainen: The Rabbit Factor, trans. David Hackston

I have said before, many times, how much I enjoy Tuomainen’s blend of comedy and pathos, his insight into the lives of ordinary, ‘loser-type’ people who are then confronted with rather extraordinary events. In this book, we are with the first person narrator, Henri, a financial actuary who is a whizz with figures but not so great with human relationships – and certainly no fan of the absurdities of corporate life. He is fired from his job for being a ‘dinosaur’, i.e. refusing to play along with the latest corporate fad. The author has great fun skewering office life, and, in a time when so many of us have been working from home and therefore have started questioning the absurdity of enforced mingling and teamwork, his words cannot help but resonate with us:

… I didn’t like our open-plan office. It was noisy, full of distractions, interruptions, banalities. But more than anything, it was full of people. I didn’t like the things so many others seemed to like: spontaneous conversations, the continual asking for and giving of advice, the constant cheap banter. I didn’t see what it had to do with demanding probability calculations.

Funnily enough, just as I started reading this book, I caught up over Zoom with an old mathematician friend of mine who now works as a financial risk modeller or actuary or something, and he expressed many of the same sentiments about corporate speak, so clearly Henri is extremely well observed. He is painfully honest and earnest, the kind of person who could be infuriating in real life, but ends up being rather endearing in fiction.

Henri unexpectedly inherits an adventure park from his brother, who seems to have been mixed up in some unsavoury affairs. Nothing could be further from Henri’s mind than to run an adventure park and make it thrive against all the odds, yet he finds himself doing unbelievable things to keep his employees happy, the park solvent and the loan sharks breathing down his neck less dangerous. Along the way, he makes many mistakes, demonstrates naivety but also an unexpected amount of cunning; he also discovers he has a heart after all, even if it refuses to delve in sentimentality.

This has the trademark Tuomainen deadpan humour, as well as nailbiting moments and a big, big heart. There is also the joy of a cat named Schopenhauer, which gives the author an opportunity to riff on the notoriously pessimistic philosopher’s assertion that our is the ‘the worst of all possible worlds’.

Life isn’t a loan; it is a payment fraud. It is a project, lasting on average seventy-five years, whose sole aim is to maximise our own stupidity. And yet, that’s exactly what we seem to crave. Look at the choices we make. If we are healthy, we make ourselves ill by smokng cigarettes, drinking alcohol and over-eating. If we want to bring about societal change, we vote for options that make our situation worse. When we should be thinking about what is rational, people start talking about how they feel… The most successful people are those who talk the least sense and blame everybody else for it.

The frequent rants against so many facets of contemporary life (like fine dining, for instance) reminded me a little of John Boyne’s recent The Echo Chamber. However, The Rabbit Factor is much, much better, because it really has a plot, the humour seems effortless and never reaches the level of desperately farcical, and the rants are never overblown, exaggerated or repetitive. They are Finnishly restrained, and all the more powerful for it.

Artemis Cooper: Elizabeth Jane Howard – A Dangerous Innocence

I vaguely knew Howard’s biographical details, particularly of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, but, having recently read the Cazalet Chronicles, I was interested in finding out more. I was astounded to discover what a tumultuous life she had and how many of those details she incorporated into her novels. What is particularly interesting is that she was obviously such a bundle of contradictions: an impulsive beauty with acting aspirations, a shy observer of social interactions who aspires to make notes and use it all in her writing, an anxious, somewhat idealistic young woman with an intense home-making instinct who longs for lasting love and friendship, that she had to divide out all of her thoughts and experiences among at least three different characters in her Cazalet series (Louise, Clary and Polly respectively).

I find it hard to reconcile her self-aware, witty writing and deep insight into human nature with her apparent oblivion in real life to the nuances of human behaviour. As her stepson Martin Amis is quoted as saying in this book: ‘I’ve always thought that was one of the mysteries about Jane: the penetrating sanity on the page, but when she’s off the page, she’s actually not that clever with people.’ She seemed to have a desperate fear of being abandoned or unloved, an incredible neediness, which made her life choices at times very questionable indeed. Yet she was able to analyse them with such clear eyes in her writing.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or the Torn Curtain, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Cracow in 1895/96 is a city desperate to pretend it’s not provincial, but an important cultural capital within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Zofia Turbotynska, wife of an anatomy professor at the Jagiellonian University, is an exemplary housekeeper but her restless mind is never content with just accepting facts at face value. When her servant Karolina is found dead, violated and stabbed, on the riverbanks just outside Cracow, she wants to find the true perpetrator and chivvies the police along to perform their duties. Not content with their lacklustre obvious findings, she doggedly pursues the case and learns a lot about poverty and prostitution, human trafficking and corruption in the process. Above all, she learns about herself and sees society with different eyes.

I love that about Zofia: she is a bolshy, inquisitive Miss Marple type, but she is a character that is still unfolding and developing. She has hitherto unquestioningly accepted some of the ideologies and beliefs of her age (about socialists or fallen women or Jews), but she is beginning to realise that the truth is much more complicated than portrayed in the newspapers or society gossip.

There is a lot of gentle humour about Zofia’s social pretensions and attempts to keep up with the good society of Cracow, but there is educational historical detail too, and many parallels to be drawn with the present day (particularly with East European girls being trafficked to Western Europe). Coincidentally, I have also been watching the TV series Paris Police 1900, which is a much starker, more violent recreation of the ‘good old days’ but presents a similarly darker underbelly underneath an affluent, apparently respectable society. There is an added link to the TV series, which features the historical Alphonse Bertillon, police inspector and forensics specialist, who introduced anthropometry and mugshots to identify criminals. In this book, both Zofia and a police commissioner Jednorog are enthusiastic about the scientific advances in detection thanks to Bertillon’s methods, which were spreading beyond the French borders at the time.

What is particularly invigorating, of course, is the modern eye of the two authors, and their tongue-in-cheek accounts of Zofia’s frame of mind on occasion make her very relatable indeed to a contemporary audience, yet without ever making her feel too far out of step with her century: a clever balancing act.

It occurred to Zofia that she had had quite enough of all these self-pitying men by now, blaming everyone but themselves for thier problems. It was usual to say that women become hysterical… but meanwhile Zofia found that it was chiefly the men in her environment who were prone to this affliction.

The two (male) authors who write under the Maryla pseudonym are Jacek Dehnel, a wrier, poet and translator, and Piotr Tarczynski, a translator and historian, which explains that happy marriage between plot, language and historical detail. It was an instant love affair for me and I look forward to many more books in this series.

Incoming Books (and Their Sources)

I think you all know by now that I am very weak-willed when it comes to books. I have periods of almost feverish book acquisition, followed by periods of… more moderate consumption. Abstention is rarely, if ever, possible. So I thought it would be interesting (at least for myself, if for no one else) to see what are the reasons for recent acquisitions. What are the drivers for my book choices? Alas, in many cases, I read a review and then rush so quickly over to buy the said book that, by the time the book arrives in the post, I have forgotten just where I first saw it mentioned, but I suspect most of the initial impulse came from Twitter.

Barbara Demick: Her latest book, Eat the Buddha, about life in Tibet under Chinese rule, has been out since summer of 2020, but I only recently came across a review of it in Asia Nikkei. When I heard about her previous books (about North Korea and Sarajevo), I thought she sounded exactly like the kind of anthropologist I wanted to become, delving deeper beneath the headlines but investigating people’s current problems and lives. Perhaps investigative journalists are the anthropologists of today, if they have the luxury of spending time in those communities. So I went on a bit of a spending spree and got all three of her books: Besieged (about Sarajevo), Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) and Eat the Buddha.

Yulia Yaklova: Punishment of a Hunter – I saw Poppy Stimpson, the publicist from Pushkin Press, talk about this one on Twitter (or maybe I saw it on the translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s feed) and was intrigued by the 1930 Stalinist Russia setting in Leningrad (written however by a contemporary Russian writer). So I immediately asked Poppy for an ARC, and she kindly sent me one. I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, as well as a lot of their other publications.

Catherine Fox: Angels and Men – This one comes a little more out of the left field. I was jubilating on Twitter about my older son going off to study at Durham, and one of my friends, Con Martin, who blogs as Staircase Wit, mentioned this book, which is set in a northern cathedral town (obviously Durham). I have only passed through the town twice, once as a tourist, once for university open day, so want to get more of a feel for the place, and what better way to do it than through fiction.

Joy Williams: Breaking and Entering – The American writer Joy Williams has a new book out Harrow, which is all post-apocalyptic and dark. I read some contradictory reviews about it, but I also read that most people thought some of her earlier work was well worth reading, and quite a few raved about this particular one: ‘Two young married drifters break into vacation homes in Florida. Ferocious and perfect.’

Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer – This is quite a funny story. I had read many enthusiastic reviews and recommendations about this from fellow writers, so much so that I was convinced that I had bought it. I went to search for it on my bookshelves recently and discovered that no, I did not own it. Mad scramble to get hold of a copy, as it has that wonderful approach to ‘writing craft’ that Lucy Caldwell also advises: ‘When you cannot figure out how to do something in writing, read examples from writers who do it well and try and figure out how they make it work. Then develop your own solution.’

H.P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror – To my utter surprise, this was a request from my younger son. He hasn’t been much of a reader in recent years (perhaps GCSE English didn’t help), but he read Orwell’s 1984 over the holidays and then tried The Call of the Cthulhu by Lovecraft and was eager to read more. I found this edition in Waterstones Gower Street, which is snugly and fortuitously placed halfway between my place of work and the Tube station.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or The Torn Curtain – I have mentioned this before: as part of Noirwich, I attended the interview with the two (male) Polish authors and their translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and was so intrigued by the concept and the charisma of the authors, that I had to get my own copy.

Ann Quin: Berg – I first heard Quin mentioned on Backlisted podcast, made a note of the name and planned to search for her in the Senate House library. Then I saw several people whom I follow on Twitter also mention her: Charlus Kinbote aka TotheHappyNone recently bought several of her books, David Hering has been doing a Quin readathon in September, and there was a review of about her books being reissued in the Sydney Review of Books.

Not visible on the pile above are the books I downloaded on my Kindle recently. Quite a few of them are because I know the authors in real life and want to follow their latest releases. That is the case for the following:

  • Rebecca J. Bradley: Seconds to Die (Rebecca is the organiser of our Virtual Crime Book Club and I’ve been following her blog and her work for 7-8 years now)
  • Nikki Dudley: Volta – I attended a writing for Mums workshop with Nikki, and she was a wonderfully encouraging tutor for experimental fiction, but this is a bit of a departure for her, as it’s a psychological thriller.
  • Claire Dyer: The Significant Others of Odie May. I met Claire virtually during lockdown, as she is one of the organisers of the Poets’ Cafe in Reading (which went online for a while). I have always appreciated her poetry, but this book is crime fiction.
  • Matt Wesolowski: Deity. I’ve met Matt at several Orenda events or crime festivals, and have read all the books in the Six Stories series, with the exception of this one.

Last but not least, I do try to get books from the library as well. I am currently reading (and very much enjoying) Tokyo Redux by David Peace. I have also requested (and am on the waiting list) for Magpie by Elizabeth Day and hope to read the most recent Louise Penny soon. After spending September binge-reading the Cazalet Chronicles, I wanted to find out more about their author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, so I just borrowed a biography written by Artemis Cooper. The best thing about libraries, however, is the haphazard finds while browsing the shelves, and I came across a book by Freeman Wills Crofts: The Groote Park Murder. A Golden Age crime author who appears in the British Library Crime Classics series (especially in anthologies), he has also been favourably reviewed by trustworthy blogger friends such as Fiction Fan (with one exception), Booker Talk and Classic Mystery Blog.

Clearly, most if not all of my impulsive physical book purchases are a result of recommendations by people whose opinion I trust, i.e. bookish Twitter and blogger friends. Articles in literary journals only serve to reaffirm (and justify) my decision.

I also want to support writer friends and acquaintances, and although I don’t much like Amazon and don’t want to order physical products from them, I know that buying e-books at least helps their Amazon ranking. (I should also make more of a habit of leaving reviews on Amazon, rather than just Goodreads or my blog)

Finally, when it comes to libraries, I can afford to be more adventurous and rely on serendipity, knowing that if I hate a certain book, I can just return it without any fuss or expenditure. Sadly, the local libraries are getting less and less adventurous, with a tendency to spend their limited budget only the sure-fire bestsellers or literary prize winners. Still, I suppose that saves me from having to buy any of those… More money left for the smaller, quieter, quirkier books, authors and publishers.