Swing Hammer Swing! (Vintage Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Margot Livesey

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I had just begun Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & The Light in March when the pandemic started and at first it seemed the novel would last as long as COVID-19.  The early pages have a dreamy quality that mirrored the initial days of lockdown.  Then suddenly I realized that Thomas Cromwell was no longer entirely in control; he was making a bad decision and another bad decision.  The last hundred pages had me pinned to the sofa as he hurtled towards his doom.

 
 

I grew up seventy miles from Glasgow where Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain is set but I felt as if he were showing me a world I’d never seen before, a childhood version of the gritty city of James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late and Jeff Torrington’s Swing, Hammer, Swing.  From the moment I read about Agnes, Shuggie’s mother, giving her friends Playtex bras, I was captivated. 

 

Eva’s Man must have been shocking when Gayl Jones published it in 1976, and it remains so.  Set in a prison, the narrative moves back and forth between present and past, dream and memory, as Eva recalls the days she spent in Carter’s apartment waiting for her period to end so they can make love.  Jones’s lyrical, evocative prose brilliantly conveys Eva’s feelings of being trapped.   

 

With my friend Andrea Barrett, I went on a Willa Cather spree.  I reread Death Comes for the Archbishop and My Ántonia and then headed into new territory with The Song of The Lark: Cather’s portrait of the young woman as an artist.  After that I read two luminous short novels: Lucy Gayheart and A Lost Lady.  Cather is so good at creating indelible characters – who will ever forget the boy that slices open a woodpecker’s eyes? – and vivid landscapes: the streets of Chicago, the prairie, the mesas.   

I’m a great admirer of Danielle Evans’s first collection, so I was very happy to get my hands on The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories.  I love these high stakes contemporary stories, like “Boys Go To Jupiter” which describes what happens to a young woman after she’s photographed wearing a bikini made of the confederate flag.  In the title story the protagonist travels around leaving notes of clarification on plaques and kitschy souvenirs and a bakery’s Juneteenth display.  Wonderful! 

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