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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October/November 2019

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October/November 2019

Nick Hornby
8 Snaps

Books Read:

  • Fierce Attachments—Vivian Gornick
  • Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis—Sam Anderson
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad—M. T. Anderson
  • On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons (published in the US as Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child)—Laura Cumming

Books Bought:

  • The Noise of Time—Julian Barnes
  • A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book—John Barton

It has been a couple of years since the Black Mountain Mob, the Las Vegas outfit who won this magazine during a card game, took over from the previous owners, the sweet-natured but naive Polysyllabic Spree. Comparisons are invidious, and it would be unwise to make them; some things (the quality of the toilet paper, for example) are better, and some things are worse: the days when visitors were offered a forty-page herbal tea menu and a dance interpretation of an Old Norse poem are long gone. But in the old days there was a dear old man called Spencer (first name) who worked, assiduously and for very little money, as the in-house historian and statistician. I understand. The Believer is a business now, like Google or Philip Morris, and there is no “need” for Spencer, or for Helge the masseur, or Mia the human rhyming dictionary. Cuts had to be made; I can see that.

I didn’t use Spencer’s services very often, but right now I miss him. I would like to know whether, in any of the fifteen-odd years I have been writing this column, I have ever had a reading month like this one. And he would have been able to tell me immediately. Spencer used to make me assign marks out of twenty-five to each book I read, a figure only ever intended for staff edification, but interesting to flick through when you had nothing better to do. Those stats have disappeared, along with Spencer himself—shot to pieces during a night of drunken target practice. (The stats, not Spencer. I don’t know where Spencer went—probably to The New Yorker.) I actually visited Spencer’s office last time I was in Believer Towers. It was occupied by a young woman called Chelseee La Rouge, who told me she was a special friend of the editor. She seemed nice, but was uninterested in the rich history of this magazine.

Anyway, by my estimate, this is a one-hundred-point column: every book listed in the “Books Read” column to the left  is, in its own way, a classic, although all classics are classics in their own way, I guess; otherwise, they wouldn’t be classics.

I will begin with the oldest book here, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, a memoir published in 1987, and to explain how I came to read it, I need to introduce you to another character who lights up my Believer life, although this one is real. I have come to think of him as the Recommender, a mysterious figure who lives in New York City and suggests a book only when he is absolutely positive that I will love it. He has recommended precisely three books in ten years. The first was John Williams’s Stoner, which was out of print in the UK when he told me about it; a couple of years later, it won the Waterstones Book of the Year Award. He emails, he recommends, he vanishes, and you are left whistling softly and saying to yourself, Who is that guy? I suppose, like Mary Poppins, he has moved on to a reader who needs him more.

Fierce Attachments is an extraordinary, scalding book, with a fraught, bitter, verbally violent, frighteningly truthful mother-daughter relationship running right down its spine. This relationship is lifelong; Fierce Attachments is not a memoir that deals with a particular, defining passage of life. “My relationship with my mother is not good”—note the use of the present tense in a work of nonfiction—“and as our lives accumulate it often seems to worsen…. My mother’s way of ‘dealing’ with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me, she says, ‘You hate me. I know you hate me.’” And when Vivian Gornick tells you that something is “the truth,” you don’t doubt it.

Vivian grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and 1940s with a lot of other Jewish women—there were men around, of course, but this is not about them—in an atmosphere bubbling, boiling with romantic frustration, poverty, sexual disappointment, judgment, grief, political fury. Everything was felt and felt deeply; the feeling gurgled through the tenements like lava. If you are someone who feels mystified and envious whenever you go on Instagram on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day and see emotional tributes to a parent, this is the book for you. There are millions of us who feel completely fucked over by our parents. Millions of you, I should say. By your parents. Not all of mine are dead, although none of the survivors are Believer subscribers. If for some reason you are uninterested in the barbaric and unhappy blood ties that strangle us all, then perhaps you might be interested in community, women, sex, bad marriages, bereavement, or the airlessness of unhappy affairs between men and women. If you’re not, I think you might have got lost. The sports results are at the back of the magazine, and the Dow Jones is about two-thirds of the way through.

There is a neat and perhaps not entirely helpful gender divide between the four books I read this month. The two memoirs, both by women, are about the authors’ mothers; the two books by men are about wars; basketball; sonic booms; wild, unsettled territory. In a desperate attempt to curry favor with women readers, however, I will try not to ghettoize the memoirs. If I follow through thematically, I would be effectively saying, Right, we’re done with the mother-daughter memoirs. Let’s get on with the big stuff. Whereas actually the big stuff is always at home, right? That’s where lives are shaped and shaken. Oh, don’t worry. I know I’m not woke. But I like to think I’ve set my alarm clock, at least.

Boom Town was another tip, by another recommender. He’s a good one, too, but he hasn’t been at it as long as the original recommender, and I don’t get the same sense that he’s lying in wait, rejecting book after book until he gets a clear shot. The other guy is batting three for three, though, so he needs watching. Sam Anderson’s book is about, of all things, the history of Oklahoma City, and it’s a joy: funny, eccentric, brilliantly written, full of endlessly interesting anecdotes that you want to read out to friends. He describes the place as “one of the great weirdo cities of the world, as strange, in its own way, as Venice or Dubai or Versailles or Pyongyang.”

Oklahoma City was born on April 22, 1889. Like, literally. April 22 was not the day when someone decided that a town was a city, nor was it the day when something happened that defined the city. It was not born in some metaphorical way. At noon on that day, nobody lived there. By the late afternoon, it was home to tens of thousands of people. Previously unassigned land, it was made available to all-comers by a symbolic gunshot. The all-comers had gathered at the nearest points they could, and after the shot they rode like hell to stake out their land. At 2 p.m. the first train arrived. By the next morning, there was really no space left to claim. In fact, there was no room for streets, parks, alleys, or squares, so some of these settlers had to be unsettled, much to their chagrin.

Anderson’s book spans only one year in the life of Oklahoma City, but the structure enables him to tell every story worth telling about the place and its heroes: Clara Luper, a badass civil rights activist; Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips; basketball player James Harden; meteorologist extraordinaire Gary England, the first weatherman to think properly about tornadoes.

This is how crazy Oklahoma City is. When Boeing wanted to know what repeated sonic booms did to a city, during its development of supersonic jet travel, Oklahoma City volunteered. In 1964, the citizens of the city were hit with seven sonic booms a day. Children in schools were knocked out when lamps feel from the ceiling onto their heads. Houses shook. Plaster crumbled. People complained and were told by their elected representatives that they were missing out on the opportunity to prove that Oklahoma City was a city of tomorrow. The flights were allowed to continue. In the end, the city was assaulted 1,253 times over six months (“Annoyance increased steadily over the six-month period,” the official report observed), and eventually supersonic flights over the US were banned. Oklahoma City’s tragic desperation to please was all for nothing. I loved this book so much that I am seriously thinking about moving there.

M. T. Anderson (no relation to Sam) is a writer whose career one cannot help but follow with some astonishment. He is, in theory, at least, a children’s author, but I am only just brainy enough to understand him now; I’m not sure I would have coped with his books when I was in my forties, let alone when I was a teen. His novel Feed is a dystopian classic, and his two-volume Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is a dizzyingly ambitious trip through revolutionary Boston. I had somehow missed Symphony for the City of the Dead, but of course Anderson would want to write a nonfiction book for young adults about the creation of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Who wouldn’t?

And it’s quite brilliant—moving, shocking, surprising, informative, and deeply sympathetic. Shostakovich wrote the symphony during the Siege of Leningrad, a time when both of the words for “cannibalism” in Russian, trupoyedstvo (“corpse-eating”) and lyudoyedstvo (“person-eating”), were required: person-eaters were those who actually killed someone for food. In the middle of this siege, with people dying of starvation as they walked along the street, Shostakovich produced a piece of work that came to embody the Russian resistance to Hitler and was used to persuade the Americans to provide military and humanitarian assistance. The Seventh Symphony was performed by starving musicians in freezing venues; the score was smuggled out on microfilm so that the rest of the world could be moved by it. You like books about why art matters? It’s hard to think of an example of art mattering more than it did in that place, at that time. This being the Soviet Union, the story has a heartbreaking ending: in 1948, Shostakovich’s music was banned in the USSR, and he lost all his teaching positions.

Full disclosure: Laura Cumming used to employ me to write for the literary pages of magazines, a long time ago, when I was unemployable. I owe her some kind words about On Chapel Sands, right? OK then. This is an incredible, and incredibly unusual, book about family, secrets, the ruinous sexual shame and hypocrisy of the first half of the English twentieth century. It’s one of the best memoirs I have ever read, just as Fierce Attachments is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful, breathtakingly intelligent, and gripping. If you think I’ve overdone it, it’s because On Chapel Sands is actually an incredible and incredibly unusual book, et cetera, and so on. In fact, I can’t really repay my debt, because it’s too fucking good. She doesn’t need my help.

On Chapel Sands unrolls from an extraordinary piece of family history. In 1929, when Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston, was three years old, she disappeared while she was playing on the beach of her tiny Lincolnshire village, for three days. She was found in a house twelve miles away; nothing bad had happened to her. But the disappearance was a chapter in a complicated story, one that didn’t make complete sense to Betty or to her daughter for decades.

A detective story, then. Well, yes, that, too, but there is so much else. Laura Cumming, daughter of two artists, is an art critic, so On Chapel Sands is also about looking: looking at paintings that serve as prompts, or metaphors, or approximate descriptions (a Ravilious kettle as a metaphor for a 1930s kitchen, a Rembrandt that contains an effective depiction of the low, flat Lincolnshire landscape); looking at photographs that, it turns out, contain missed clues and buried family truths. The central incident, the kidnapping, folds out, and out, and out again, until it covers generations. It’s quite brilliantly done.

If books can be opposites, then On Chapel Sands is the opposite of Fierce Attachments, because Cumming’s book is about the deep, liberating, stimulating love between a mother and her like-minded daughter. Just about every page will make you envious of Laura’s relationship with Betty, presuming you have or had the normal, Gornick-style parental battle zone. There is so much about On Chapel Sands that moves; there is so much about it that educates. It is, and will remain—like all the books described in this issue’s column—a favorite, to be re-read one day, to be recommended to anyone who will listen.

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