February Bookshelf: Finches and Flamethrowers

“And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky – so the space where I exist, and I want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I am writing this on the evening of World Book Day, which I celebrated by finishing my novel on the way to work and having nothing to read for the rest of the day or for my commute home; an uncommon horror. It will auto-publish tomorrow, International Women’s Day, and I’m tickled to realise that, completely by accident, all of my February books have been by female writers. Come to think of it, so were all of January’s and most of December. It used to be the case, when I was an undergraduate and by virtue of curriculum writers who didn’t care for or about women, that most of the books I read were by pale, stale, male authors. I’m gratified to realise how diversified my bookshelf has become since then.


In particular I’ve really enjoyed discovering writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland since I moved here. I picked up Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home in Dublin’s gorgeous Winding Stair on a whim – I definitely wasn’t supposed to be shopping, but I’d wanted this book for a while and can never walk past a sexy bookshop. I’m so pleased I did. This collection of fiercely contemporary short stories are set in a thoroughly modern Belfast; one which I, an import to the city, recognise intimately. Rare is the short story collection that I’m inclined to read beginning-to-end but there’s something about Erskine’s sweet home as depicted in Sweet Home that made me drawn in to something bigger. These stories stand alone, but they also weave together. Sweet Home is going to get the highest compliment from me of insisting that friends borrow it and accept it as a gift, just so I’ve got plenty of people to talk about it with. My standout story was ‘Locksmiths’: so much unsaid, so much roared. The literary scene here is so exciting just now. I can’t wait to see what comes next.


Next up is the first in a double bill by Rachel Kushner. I had The Mars Room on my Christmas list this year but it must’ve fallen out of the sleigh because I had to buy it myself. No matter: I don’t regret it. This was such a quick read, almost compulsive. The comparisons to Orange is the New Black (the TV show: I can’t speak for the memoir, which I haven’t read) are entirely apt. The Mars Room is truthful and warmly empathetic about the reality of the lives of incarcerated women and the men who orbit them. It’s also about poverty, the kind of drowning, inescapable poverty that robs your plans from you. Do not read if you need a pick-me-up, but absolutely do read if you need a shot-in-the arm story which is sassy, immersive, and absolutely emotionally investing.


The second Kushner book I read this month (indeed ever) was The Flamethrowers, purchased as a pick-me-up on a sad day entirely on the strength of The Mars Room. It’s a much tighter, more compact novel, which runs counter to its sprawling geography. The book moves breathlessly from a Soho gallery to a Roman chateau, all on a grimy motorbike. I found The Flamethrowers slightly more difficult to crack than The Mars Room, but no less rewarding when I’d gotten about a third of the way in. I’m not a person who is inclined to keep pushing through a book I’m not enjoying, and it’s fair to say The Flamethrowers was more of a struggle at first than I’d usually tolerate. But I did think the book was admirable in its scale and economy. A worthwhile read, if not a particularly easy one.


Here is where I make a confession: I absolutely love true crime. There is nothing I find more cathartic than watching a grisly documentary with a huge bag of popcorn, followed by a wikipedia and reddit deep dive on theories attached to the case. Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, co-hosts of my favourite true crime podcast My Favorite Murder, argue that true crime is a useful method of exorcising one’s anxieties in a safe way. It’s an idea I like. I have a slightly obsessive nature, and it’s absolutely in my nature to pick at a scab of anxiety in order to find the root and inspect it for answers. It’s no surprise, then, that the late Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is right up my scary dark alley. I’ll Be Gone is not only about the obsessions of the notorious East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (dubbed by McNamara the Golden State Killer when it became apparent that the two villains were one and the same); it’s also about the obsessions of McNamara herself, a woman so possessed by her need to identify the mystery creep that she made it a career. To an extent I can relate: what’s a PhD but a series of escalating obsessions? I’m not ashamed to admit I cried at Patton Oswalt’s epilogue in tribute to his late wife. An arrest was made last year in the case. I’m sure she would have loved to see her work paid off.


Finally, the book I can’t believe it took me so long to read. I can’t even blame anyone else: everyone who has ever spoken to me about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has sung its praises in the highest possible terms. I loved The Secret History, but was always daunted by the sheer size of Tartt’s more recent work. How wrong I was to delay! The Goldfinch is instant, lasting gratification, a narrative tour de force that articulates the anxiety of shame and loneliness better than anything I’ve ever read. When I was a teenager – and a ginormous dork – I would make mixtapes for book characters I loved, as if we were courting and I wanted to impress them. For the first time in fifteen years, I made a playlist. When I finished, I read online that a film version is coming out this year, and I simultaneously can’t wait and am filled with apprehension – but it’s in good hands.

I’ve already made a start on my TBR list for March. And it’s mostly women writers. Fire up the library card.

Bonus shot of the aforementioned sexy Winding Stair bookshop!

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