Friday, December 21, 2018
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 19: Alisa Alering
Surprised by Happiness
by Alisa Alering
I’m writing this post almost entirely so I can tell as many people as possible about a book I read this year that took me completely by surprise and turned out to be my favorite.
It is Happiness, by the Scottish-Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna. Like many writers and others who spend their days hunched over a keyboard, I have problems with my back. As therapy, I carry a heavy kettlebell up and down the floor of an empty warehouse, hoping to coax my muscles into equilibrium. Because the insides of empty warehouses aren’t spectacularly scenic, I listen to podcasts while I do this, particularly the Guardian Books podcast*. Which is how I found out about Happiness — a book I had never heard of by an author equally unknown to me.
Forna was a guest on the May 1 episode, where she talked about writing the reverse of the ‘Western guy goes to third-world country and observes it from his POV” novel. Then she read an early passage, in which (one of) the main characters(s), a psychiatrist from Sierra Leone who specializes in PTSD affecting civilians in war zones, arrives in London and goes out to dinner in a restaurant alone. Not really an action-packed scene. But when she stopped, my instant reaction was: “I’d read more of that.” This was a point-of-view I wanted to stay with, wanted to know more of what it saw.
So what’s it about? Urban foxes and migrants. Trauma and grief. Compassion and loneliness and unlikely friendships. Cities at night and in the early morning. The plot is driven by a few fairly transparent MacGuffins, which I was more than willing to forgive. Plot isn’t what this book is about, and yet it remained page-turning and consistently interesting. With all my experience of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve read (and the few I’ve written) I couldn’t predict what was coming next, or where it was heading—but I wanted to find out.
In other reading, on a whim this year I decided to read all of the books on the Booker Longlist, whether or not I’m excited about them individually. A sort of arbitrary goal to help shift me from entrenched habits and broaden my horizons. I started with the book I was most intrigued by, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (in which I learned that the plural of ‘octopus’ is not ‘octopi’ but ‘octopodes') and have since made my way through:
• Belinda Bauers - Snap (glad to see a crime novel on the list, sorry it was this one)
• Rachel Kushner - The Mars Room
• Michael Ondaatje – Warlight (what you’d expect from Ondaatje, a solid story packed with nostalgia)
• Richard Powers - The Overstory
I just finished Sally Rooney’s highly-praised Normal People, which I wasn’t expecting to like but am really enjoying. All the talk of how ‘millennial’ it was put me off. But it’s not millennial. It’s human and real and funny and awful, and so well observed.
Next up: Sophie Mackintosh’s (so far) extremely odd The Water Cure.
Honorable mention to Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, which is my audiobook guilty pleasure. I thought I was so over all things Holmes with all of the recent adaptations and wouldn’t be able to face another for ten years at least, but these are so well-done, so well-narrated, so bright and lively and just plain fun, that I look forward to the housework and the exercise that comes with audiobook time.
*This podcast has turned me on to so many excellent books to add to my to-read list: Maria Dahvana Headley’s modern Beowulf retelling, The Mere Wife, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, and of course, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.
Alisa Alering was born in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania where she ran around barefoot and talked to the trees. Her short fiction has appeared in Mythic Delirium, Time Travel Tales, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Flash Fiction Online, and other places. She is a graduate of Clarion West (2011) and winner of Writers of the Future (2013). Her "The Night Farmers’ Museum" was chosen by judge Robert Coover as runner-up for the 2014 Italo Calvino Prize. Her story "Madeleine Usher Usher" appeared in Aqueduct's Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries across the Known Multiverse. www.alering.com | @alering