Archive for category Africa

Best Books of the 21st Century?

OK, I take anyone else doing this kind of list (looking at you, Guardian) as a personal challenge. So I have felt compelled to put together my own selection. Now, seriously, I’m not claiming these are ‘the best books of the century’, that would be silly.

Rather, these are the books from the last almost 20 years that have had a real impact on me, that have stayed with me after I’ve read them, that have offered the most enjoyment, enlightenment, hope – whatever their genre.

When we get to the end of this century (if we do…) the list will look very different. And of course you will disagree with me, and be horrified by both omissions and inclusions, and that’s fine!

I went through the Guardian list and added some of their titles to my long list, but then deleted them again (I’ve annotated the titles below which do still overlap), because I realised that whilst they were good, I’d not given them a thought since reading them, I’d not gone out and bought all of the author’s other books, or prioritised a re-read. All of the titles below have led me somewhere, if you like.

I’ve only allowed myself one per author otherwise certain favourite authors would have squeezed lots of other excellent books out. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order of author’s surname, rather than ranking them because I can’t be doing with that, but I’ve picked out my top three, books I’ve already read several times and will undoubtedly read again, and that I’ve insisted everyone I know reads.

Here we go…

Cath’s top books of the 21st century so far (with all the above caveats and disclaimers):

Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho is my favourite so far of the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight. This one has a jazz theme which is probably why it has a particular place in my heart.

Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. This memoir from a key member of The Slits is just so fascinating, so funny, and at times so desperately sad, that even if I hadn’t been a fan of the band I’d have loved every minute of it.

Naomi Alderman’s The Power is brilliant sci-fi, powerful and chilling. Its ‘book within a book’ structure adds a whole other level, and the writing is superb. The Guardian called it ‘an instant classic of speculative fiction’ and noted how devastatingly it inverts the status quo. Put very simply, what if men were afraid of us?  

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian-British philosopher, based at New York University, himself the epitome of cosmopolitanism. (His father was a leading dissident under the Nkrumah regime in Ghana, and his mother the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps.) Appiah has written elsewhere about political and moral theory, and the philosophy of language and mind. This is a timely, accessible, and vitally important work.

Levels of Life. I haven’t loved the other things I’ve read by Julian Barnes, I’ve felt kind of detached from them. This one did get to me. The book’s three sections seem entirely separate but somehow they’re not, they’re connected in a marvellously subtle and moving way. And the third part will break the heart of anyone who has one to break. (Guardian top 100 title)

Robicheaux: You Know my Name is the 21st in James Lee Burke‘s series of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. It’s so dark, haunted and haunting. The Louisiana landscape and culture is a vital part of the narrative, and the eponymous hero is flawed and fascinating, a good man wrestling with inner demons as well as the bad guys.  

Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is a gripping bit of WWII French history, with a very personal source. Callil (one of the founders of Virago Books) uncovered the story of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix after the death (possibly by suicide) of her therapist, his daughter. Darquier was one of the most repellent figures in Vichy France, a vicious and entirely unrepentant anti-Semite, a fraud and a crook. It’s not just his story, it’s the story of how the Nazi occupation enabled and legitimised the vilest views and the vilest people and its importance goes way beyond the family history it describes.  

Cruel Acts is the latest in Jane Casey‘s splendid series featuring detective Maeve Kerrigan. Maeve is an engaging protagonist, whose internal battles (about status and authority, complex personal and professional relationships), both enrich and complicate the police procedural plotting. These books get stronger and twistier and more compelling as the series continues.

Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others includes the story that inspired the film Arrival, one of my top films of all time, an extraordinarily beautiful bit of sci-fi. These stories are marvellous in their own right – proper philosophical, speculative fiction, with a particular interest (as in Arrival) in language. They’re diverse in style and approach, and whilst ‘Story of Your Life’ stands out, several others challenge it, for the strength of the concept, the beauty of the writing, and the emotional impact. (Guardian top 100 title)

Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club appealed to me straight away. A ’70s adolescence, and the musical references (Hatfield & the North’s album, which gave the novel its title, plus the protagonists’ prog rock aspirations) gave it immense charm for anyone who shared those reference points. Apparently, it contains a sentence of 13,955 words, which I don’t remember even noticing when I read it, though thinking back I can guess when it occurs. It’s not just funny and charming, it skewers the politics of the time, and confronts real, brutal tragedy.

I’ve been reading Stevie Davies since the ’80s, and Awakening is one of my favourites. It’s set in Wiltshire in 1860, just after the publication of The Origin of Species, and it’s about science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion. It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal – but the focus of the novel is on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.

Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is family memoir and art history intertwined. I was lucky enough to hear de Waal talking about this story when he came to Sheffield University to present a gift of a piece of art called ‘fetched home’, the title taken from a poem by Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan on the subject of homelessness and displacement. (Guardian top 100 title)

When I read Emma Donoghue’s Room I could not have imagined it as a film. Of course, it was filmed, and brilliantly, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and it’s hard now to disentangle the book from that film. But I do remember the experience of reading it, of how it did my head in, gradually understanding the world that’s being described, and its terrifying implications.

Fires in the Dark is not what one might expect from Louise Doughty, if one came to it from Apple Tree Yard. This one takes us into the dark heart of the Romani genocide, also known as the Porajmos (the Devouring). Doughty draws the reader into the rich and complex culture of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into the lives of one family and the kumpania to which they belong, and then shows how this world was targeted for destruction.

Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. I could have picked several other Dunmores. I nearly picked her last published novel, Birdcage Walk, but I honestly can’t untangle my response to that from my sense of loss at her death. The Siege stands outside of that, on its own. Its setting is the siege of Leningrad, and it makes that experience viscerally real and moving. (Guardian top 100 title)

Interpreters was Sue Eckstein‘s second novel, and sadly her last – she died of cancer in 2013. It takes us across several generations of a family divided by the past, by what’s hidden and what’s remembered. It’s about memory and loss, and the continued resonance of the last world war. This is subtly done, and has all the more impact for that.

Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no longer Talking to White People about Race is not a comfortable read for one of the aforesaid white people. Fair enough, I don’t expect to be comforted. What I want, and what Eddo-Lodge offers, is insight that I can translate into awareness that can inform what I say and do. Essential reading.  

Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s debut novel, could have been designed to interest me. Jazz, and Nazi occupied France… It’s an extraordinary story, and problematic in some ways, as the Guardian review points out (it’s a very spoilery review, so avoid if you haven’t read the book and want to encounter it unspoiled!). But superbly written, and fascinating.

In The Bitter Taste of Victory Lara Feigel takes us into the ruined cities of Germany after the end of WW2, seen through the eyes of the journalists and writers (Hemingway, Gellhorn, Orwell, West and others) who went out there to try to figure out how to address the challenges of peace, and the complexities of guilt and culpability at all levels. A lot of the accounts Feigel presents were new to me, and truly compelling (and relevant to my research).  

Will Ferguson’s 419 is a thriller, about the kind of scam where a Nigerian prince or such like emails you to say you can have millions if you just let them have your bank details, or send them a bit of cash up front to arrange the deal. It starts with a suicide, an elderly man in Canada. Then the action moves to Lagos and to the Nigerian Delta, and it’s all so much more complex than we might have imagined, as the scam finds its context in the messy politics of Nigeria. Riveting.  

I imagine everyone by now has read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and/or seen the film. Quite right too. When you first read it, that twist takes you by surprise, but when you re-read you’re looking to see just how the writer sets that up so cleverly (rather like when you re-watch The Sixth Sense). It’s an excellent thriller, and it’s not Flynn’s fault if every publisher has jumped on the bandwagon and published endless sub-Gone Girls! (Guardian top 100 title)  

In The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest, Aminatta Forna takes us to Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her childhood, and where her father was imprisoned and executed for treason. It’s both memoir and investigation, a search for truth, and it was a quest that changed her irrevocably.

Broken Harbour is the fourth in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and is really remarkable. It’s an unusual series, in that the main protagonist shifts with each book, so that a secondary character in book 1 becomes central in book 2, and so on. This one is extraordinarily unsettling and quite impossible to put down.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. OK, we all now know that this is J K Rowling. Reading the Harry Potters, one sees her growing as a writer, in confidence and skill, as the series progresses, and her post-Potter work has been excellent. The Casual Vacancy was terrific social satire (or if you’re the Daily Mail, ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’…), and the Cormoran Strike series (this was the first) is complex, often dark, often funny, detective fiction, with the thoroughly engaging duo of Strike and Robin. (The Guardian picked Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

Notes from an Exhibition was the first of Patrick Gale’s that I read, and still a favourite. It uses the device of, literally, notes from an exhibition, a posthumous exhibition of work from throughout an artist’s life, which allows Gale to tell her story in a non-linear fashion through different voices from different parts of that life. What marks Gale’s work out, apart from the beauty and the skill of the writing, is his warmth and compassion for all of his characters, however flawed.

Boneland is Alan Garner’s very belated return to the world of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, published in the ‘60s, which I read as a child and which have stayed with me ever since. Stylistically, Boneland is closer to Garner’s later work, particularly to Red Shift. It’s dreamlike, fragmented, pared back, haunted and haunting.

Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches us about Love is a memoir, a personal account of supporting a parent with dementia. But it’s more than that – it’s a manifesto for the campaign that Gerrard launched, together with Julia Jones, to improve support in hospitals for dementia sufferers and, crucially, to allow their carers to be part of that support, not just ‘visitors’ who can be shooed out as if they’re in the way. This is a tremendously moving book – so close to home that it was almost unbearable at times. But it’s inspiring too, and hugely important.

Sweet After Death is the latest in Valentina Giambanco’s series featuring Seattle Detective Alice Madison. She’s an excellent protagonist, steely and complicated. And there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy). It is one hell of a read, and the series gets stronger with each book.

Andrea Gillies’ Keeper is another dementia memoir, and an exploration of the nature of the disease. It’s often grimly funny as well as sad, but ultimately the latter predominates. Gillies scrupulously records her own naivety, in thinking that they could cope, that love would be enough. And – horrifyingly, given what she does record of her mother in law’s behaviour in the grip of the disease, she says that she held a lot back… There’s no comfort here, if one is caring for someone with dementia, although our experience was much milder, if equally sad, but there’s insight and understanding.

Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets. The Squeeze is no exception.  It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman.  But connect they do.

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, is the history of a crime. What happens when some in the Osage Native American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s turn out to have lucrative oil on their land? Do they get to enjoy financial security? Are you kidding? This is a horrifying coda to the history of genocide against the Native American nations during the previous century, compellingly written and richly fascinating.

The Stone Circle is the latest in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, featuring not a detective but an archaeologist, who’s drawn into criminal investigations whenever old bones are unearthed. Ruth is a brilliant character; she’s clever and funny, she’s not young or gorgeous or slim, but isn’t tortured about any of those things. The other characters are equally well drawn. There’s more than a touch of the Gothic, and the Norfolk landscape is much more than a setting, it’s a pervasive atmosphere. This series is a delight.

Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake tells one hundred years of German history through one house, through its history during decades of staggering and traumatic change, different regimes and bureaucracies, and through the stories of the families who lived there. Harding’s family owned it once, but lost it when the Nazis took power. The Guardian reviewer said that ‘It is Harding’s great achievement that he has painted a large canvas of history, but done so with glinting individual stories. He has persevered in listening to those “quiet voices”.’

Jane Harper’s The Lost Man is another crime novel where the landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist. Harper’s debut, The Dry, won all sorts of awards, and this is actually even better.

In An Officer and a Spy Robert Harris takes us back to the Dreyfus affair, the ripples from which spread out over many decades of French and European history – and still do. The focus is less on Dreyfus himself than on the young officer, Picquart, who despite being as anti-semitic as the next chap, had a sense of fairness and justice that was outraged by the framing of Dreyfus and by the refusal to right the wrong, even after the forger had confessed. Harris is always a great read, and this is a period of history and a subject that fascinate me (reading Proust made me realise how ‘The Affair’ was the Brexit of its day – dividing friends and families, into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard, no middle ground).

Cold in Hand is the penultimate novel in John Harvey‘s wonderful series about Charlie Resnick, who fights crime on the mean streets of Nottingham. We had to wait a further five years for the coda to the series (Darkness, Darkness), but it was worth it. These aren’t stories of baroque serial murders, but of chaotic crimes committed by people with chaotic lives, and Charlie himself is a tremendous creation.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a rarity – a novel whose protagonist has dementia. Maud is coping with her dementia in ways that were very familiar to me – writing herself notes that she then loses, rediscovers later and can’t remember writing, going to the shops and buying tinned peaches because she’s forgotten what she actually went in for. But mainly she’s preoccupied with the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Through the course of the novel we uncover another disappearance, much longer ago and we also see Maud’s grip on memory and reality slipping more and more. This is reflected in her narrative voice – it’s quite a tour de force, touching and often very funny.

If this is a Woman is a tough read, as it should be. It’s historian Sarah Helm’s account of Ravensbrück concentration camp, all of whose inmates were women. Its history is less well known than that of many other camps, and Helm spares us none of the horrors inflicted upon the women, drawing upon the accounts of survivors, several of whom went on to testify at the Nuremberg trials. It’s vitally important, particularly as those survivor voices fall silent, to know what happened there. As the Guardian‘s reviewer said, ‘As you read this 768-page book, it never feels too long. You will the women of Ravensbrück to live’.

Never be Broken is the latest in Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome detective series. It’s probably the best, but I tend to think that of each new addition to the series. As Val McDermid says, ‘it isn’t all about the murders’ – it’s about social divisions, about mental health, about guilt and grief. And murder.

The Various Haunts of Men is the first in Susan Hill’s series featuring detective Simon Serailler. I read Hill’s earlier novels many years ago – Strange Meeting, In the Springtime of the Year and others – and having loved those, and loving crime fiction (that may have become evident already), I seized on these with enthusiasm and was not disappointed. Serailler is an interesting protagonist, and the supporting cast is well drawn. Hill explores issues of faith and morality, and her writing is always subtle and clever.

Mortality was published posthumously, after what Christopher Hitchens himself might have called ‘a long and brave struggle with mortality’ (he hated the rhetoric of ‘fighting cancer’). Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s ultimately uplifting.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is undefinably creepy from the start.  We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. We’re not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from the master of unease, Stephen King. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go is about mortality and humanity. It’s dystopian sci-fi, thoughtful and horrifying. We take a while to realise what’s happening here, because the protagonists can’t tell us – they’ve been fed lies throughout their lives, and continue to be fed rumours and to clutch at seemingly hopeful straws. (Guardian top 100 title)

Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’ collection of brief pieces about various cultural figures (musicians, philosophers, novelists, politicians), made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid. Rather, I felt inspired to go away and read the stuff he’s talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.

In Postwar, the late Tony Judt examined the history of Europe from the end of WW2 to 2005. Acclaimed as one of the best works on modern European history, its breadth is hugely impressive, and as reviewers at the time acknowledged, it’s an achievement that’s unlikely to be surpassed. (Guardian top 100 title)

11/22/63 is one of my favourite 21st century Stephen Kings. I started reading him back in the ‘80s, having been put off for a while by the schlocky covers his books had back then, and by a degree of snobbery on my part. I’ve read them all, I think, and despite having announced his retirement from writing years ago after a serious accident, he’s still producing the goods. (His latest, The Institute, is a cracker.) 11/22/63 explores the idea of going back in time to change a past event. Now what could possibly go wrong with that? (The Guardian picked his brilliant On Writing, which is also well worth reading.)

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is, on one level, a Holocaust memoir.  Otto Dov Kulka was deported as a child to Terezin, and from there to Auschwitz. It is also, ‘Reflections on Memory and Imagination’. It challenges Kulka’s own choice, ‘to sever the biographical from the historical past’, in his previous work as a historian. The book is ‘neither historical testimony nor autobiographical memoir, but the reflections […] of memory and imagination that have remained from the world of the wondering child of ten to eleven that I had once been’.

Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were all published posthumously, as the Millennium Trilogy. Other authors have since expanded the series. Aside from being gripping and complex thrillers, they’re notable for two intriguing protagonists – journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson can’t be blamed for the proliferation of pale imitations since these were published (and filmed), and he could be said to have launched Scandi Noir, which on the whole is A Good Thing. (Guardian top 100 title)

John le Carré has been publishing beautifully written, complex thrillers for decades now. Though he might be thought to be an establishment figure, given his Security Service background, he’s still fuelled by a righteous anger, and nowhere more so than in The Constant Gardener. This deals with the murder of an activist in Kenya, and the uncovering of corruption on a huge scale by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Based on a real case, le Carré says that his plot is pretty tame compared to what actually happened. (Guardian top 100 title)

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an interesting one to place, timewise. Published in 2015, it seems clear now that it was in fact a first draft of, rather than a sequel to, To Kill a Mockingbird. There were controversies about its publication, about whether Lee fully had capacity to approve its appearance. And the narrative itself was troubling, for those of us who’d grown up seeing Atticus Finch as a hero (whether in the pages of the book, or on screen as portrayed by Gregory Peck). In Go Set a Watchman, the reader who loved To Kill a Mockingbird shares the disillusionment and shock of Scout as her idealised version of her father is shaken and fractured. Like her, we move gradually to a deeper, more nuanced understanding. It’s about growing up, really.

Andrea Levy’s Small Island tells interweaving stories of Jamaican immigration to Britain, centred on 1948 but going back to the lives of the central characters (two Jamaican, two British) during the war years. ‘A thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society’, according to the Guardian reviewer. (Guardian top 100 title)

I’ve read loads of Laura Lippman‘s books, all of her Tess Monaghan series (a young, female PI based in Baltimore) and most if not all of her standalone thrillers, most recently Sunburn. Lippman described this one as her first venture into ‘noir’ and ‘noir’ it certainly is. Her work typically features dark secrets but this one is steeped in them, and in obsession, desire, and violence. But she never forgets the humanity of her characters, as messed up as they may be, and the gradual revelation of who they are and how they got here keeps us gripped to the final page.

Black Water Rising is set in the 1980s, in Texas, and its protagonist is a struggling black lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy when he witnesses a crime. Attica Locke is a powerful writer, and the racial politics give it a fascinating context and added tension. There’s a sequel, Pleasantville, set 15 years later. 

I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.

Wolf Hall was the Guardian’s top 21st century book. It doesn’t actually make my top three, but it’s a deserving choice nonetheless. Hilary Mantel is one of the most versatile writers around, and one never knows quite what to expect from her – at least until she began her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since when all of her readers have been focused on the wait for the final volume. To read Wolf Hall is ‘to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes’ – a powerful and immersive experience. (Guardian top 100 title)

The Road is relentlessly grim but extraordinary. Cormac McCarthy forces the reader to inhabit this bleak world, and to accept how it works – ultimately to choose whether and when to trust. Whilst the notion of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is familiar in fiction and film, it’s unusual for the survivor group to have shrunk down to two, parent and child, which ramps up the tension and the terror. (Guardian top 100 title)

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is several novels in one. It’s a pre-war country house story about class and desire and adolescence. It’s a story of war and loss. And it’s the story of a story, about memory and guilt. There’s a revelation at the end which floored and shocked me but which on re-reading made perfect, desolate sense. (Guardian top 100 title)

Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin opens with a scene that neither the reader, nor the young policeman who witnesses it, will forget in a hurry. And when we move forward in time the mystery of that scene, and its emotional fall-out, are still potent and compelling. The follow-up, The Scholar, features the same detective and I will be sure to read that as soon as I can.

Succession is the first in Livi Michael’s trilogy about the Wars of the Roses. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…

China Mieville’s The City and the City combines the police procedural with ‘weird fiction’, with a murder investigation across two separate cities that happen to occupy the same space. It’s a brilliant and unsettling concept, and requires concentration from the reader to hold on to it as the plot develops. It’s worth the effort, the narrative works on both levels (which demonstrates Mieville’s focus and discipline). Is this an allegory, or as the Guardian‘s reviewer puts it, a ‘police mystery dealing with extraordinary circumstances’? Or both?

Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a venture into true crime, the story of notorious serial killer Peter Manuel. She meets the challenge of how to create tension when the outcome of the story is already known, focusing on bit part players, whose perspective is fresh and unfamiliar. The Scotsman’s review said that ‘Above all, it is a story about telling stories. Everyone is a narrator, everyone is literary critic, assessing and judging the veracity and the honesty of the stories that eddy through the book.’ 

Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman is, as anyone familiar with Moran’s writing will expect, proper funny, and proper rude (NSFW, seriously, and NSF public transport too). It’s proper inspirational too, made me want to stand on a chair and cheer, punch the air, as well as laugh (and, at times, made me cry because it’s not all jokey, there’s stuff that hits you where it hurts). The Independent said that How to be a Woman ‘is engaging, brave and consistently, cleverly, naughtily funny’. And Moran also makes the very important point that one can’t change the world whilst wearing uncomfortable undergarments.

I read one of Sarah Moss‘s novels (Cold Earth) a couple of years back and made a note to self to read more by her. Bodies of Light is a brilliant and compelling narrative, set in Victorian Manchester. It went to some dark places; at times I almost didn’t want to go on, I was afraid for the protagonists. There’s a sequel, Signs for Lost Children, and a related title, Nightwaking, which was published before Bodies of Light but can be read at any point in the ‘trilogy’. (BTW, Josephine Butler features in the narrative – if you want to know more about her, read Helen Mathers’ excellent biography.)

Thomas Mullen sets Darktown in 1948 Atlanta, and gives us a pair of fictional black cops – amongst the first of the city’s African-American police officers. These officers had many constraints to work within: they only patrolled African-American neighborhoods, could not arrest white people, and while they were given guns, it was understood that they could not fire them. This is a brilliant crime thriller with a context that makes every detail hum with tension. There’s a sequel, Lightning Men.

As one blurb for Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife puts it, this is the story of Clare and Henry, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. It’s a fresh take on the kind of time travel paradoxes that make one’s head hurt – this makes one’s heart hurt as well. A sequel is in the offing, and Nifenegger’s second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is excellent too.

2006, when The Audacity of Hope was published, seems so very long ago. Barack Obama was still a Senator, and hadn’t yet announced his campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate. It is in many ways his manifesto and thus, as the Guardian reviewer at the time said, cautious in a way that his personal memoir, Dreams from my Father, didn’t have to be. It would be impossible to re-read it now, without hindsight and without the constant horror of the inevitable comparison between this eloquent, thoughtful writer and his successor in the White House. I don’t think I can quite bear to do so. But at the time, apart from setting out Obama’s political priorities and convictions it represented hope – the mad hope that there might be a black PoTUS, someone with integrity and empathy, and what that could mean for the US and the world.

I wasn’t sure which of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels to pick. And I could easily be talked into Instructions for a Heatwave, or her debut, After You’d Gone. But I settled on The Hand that first Held Mine. Her writing is always perceptive and subtle and in this novel she skilfully weaves together two different timelines – the 1950s and the present day – in a haunting study of memory and motherhood.

In Black and British, David Olusoga tells us of a ‘forgotten history’. To some extent this is not so much forgotten as ignored. No one is suggesting that in previous centuries our society was quite as diverse as it is today, but so much more so than it is usually represented – and every time a writer tries to represent the reality, which as Bill Potts says in Doctor Who is ‘a bit more black than they show in the movies’, there are howls of protest and shouts of ‘PC gone mad’. The history is there, and clear, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Olusoga presents so much that is new to me, even though I thought I knew a bit about this stuff, and some of it runs counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. And it’s a delight.  The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.

Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is set in eastern Norway,and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written.  As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.

The first two volumes in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy fall outside the remit of this list, but the third just makes it. The Amber Spyglass (Guardian top 100 title). I re-read the original trilogy some weeks ago, in preparation for the new trilogy (the first volume of which, La Belle Sauvage, is wonderful and the second is due any day now), and they blew me away all over again. This is boldly imaginative fantasy, philosophical and literary, without the narrative ever losing impetus. As Pullman says, ‘the only thing that is interesting about fantasy is if you can use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature’.

The Naming of the Dead is the 16th in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is as stroppy and infuriating as ever (but we wouldn’t want him any other way). The setting is the 2005 G8 summit, and Rankin weaves the events surrounding the summit (protests, the award of the 2012 Olympics to London, and the 7 July London bombings) into this story of murder and corruption.

I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography, Life, because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.

Sally Rooney is just getting started as a novelist, but her first two books have both generated an enormous amount of attention and praise. Normal People is her second – I’ve only read this once though I will undoubtedly go back to it (and will read Conversations with Friends, her debut). The ‘normal people’ of the title are, of course, not quite normal. Connell can pass for normal in his home and school environment, but only by hiding a lot of what he feels and thinks, and away from home he struggles to work out who he is and how he fits in. Marianne is regarded by her peers at school as weird, but comes into her own away from a damaging home environment. Their relationship is compelling and troubling – certainly not a conventional love affair – and Rooney doesn’t let us have a tidy or comfortable resolution.

I came across Liz Rosenberg’s Indigo Hill by chance as a Kindle offer, and loved it. It doesn’t seem to have been widely reviewed, although she’s a fairly prolific writer, with children’s books and poetry as well as novels on her CV. Indigo Hill is about families, secrets and memories – and it’s beautifully written (one might have guessed that she was a poet).

In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes brilliantly and beautifully about the century when ‘classical’ music got difficult. He demythologises without ever dumbing down, and has a gift for the description or metaphor that makes something difficult suddenly clear, and for illuminating the context in which this music was composed. It isn’t, despite the title, about all twentieth-century music – jazz and rock and pop don’t get much of a look in except where they overlap with classical. But one book can’t do everything, and in shedding light on music that is often perceived to be impenetrable, he’s doing something wonderful, particularly for those of us who want to open our minds to it and yet still struggle sometimes.

The Plot against America is Philip Roth’s 2004 venture into alt-history or counter history, where he proposes that the 1940 US election returned Charles Lindbergh rather than Roosevelt to the White House.  Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We see the tragic consequences unfold through one Jewish family (modelled on Roth’s own). Contemporary parallels are all too easy to draw… (Guardian top 100 title)

Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea gives us three stories, three protagonists, and then brings them together in the final part of the novel in ways that one could not have anticipated. With each story the tone changes, and Ryan skilfully takes us from lyricism to black comedy and everywhere in between. (I also loved his earlier The Thing about December. There too is humour and tragedy, and a lonely young man trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it.) ‘Filled with love and righteous anger’, as the Guardian reviewer of From a Low and Quiet Sea puts it.

Philippe Sands’ East West Street weaves his own family history into the development of the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer. 

Looking for Transwonderland is Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria.  She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja).  Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder.   Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division.

I don’t know where to begin with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (Guardian top 100 title). Sebald is at the heart of my PhD thesis, and so trying to say something succinct when I’m so immersed is hard. It also means that a lot of the reviews annoy me quite a bit. I would probably have selected The Emigrants to represent Sebald’s work, but Austerlitz is the only one of his four ‘novels’ that falls within the twenty-first century, and it was his last – he died in a car accident not long after its publication. It’s about time, place and memory, and about a life that intersects with and is shaped by the darkest period of European history. It’s the most problematic of his novels, but endlessly, obsessively compelling.

Les Parisiennes is Anne Sebba’s fascinating account of the lives of women during the Nazi occupation of Paris, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between. Sebba draws on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaves them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were. 

I was drawn to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go at first just for the title.  But then I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.

Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.

Lynn Shepherd’s Tom All Alone’s is the second of her ‘literary’, postmodern crime novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, turned that classic upside down in a most entertaining way. I approached this one with caution because it riffs primarily on Bleak House, the best novel in the English language, and just as I am hypercritical of cover versions of songs I particularly love, so I am sceptical at least about anyone messing with my favourite novels. However, Shepherd recreates the atmosphere of Dickens’ London, even while she subverts his characters. It’s a gripping tale, darker – dare I say, bleaker – than anything Dickens could have published back in the day. There’s a slice of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in here as well.

I’ve read most of Anita Shreve‘s novels, including her last (she died last year) The Stars are Fire. But it had been a while, and when I thought about her work, the one that I knew had to be my choice was The Last Time they Met. There’s a link between this and an earlier work, The Weight of Water, in the central character, Thomas Janes. The Last Time they Met uses a reverse chronologicy to unravel the story of a relationship, and past and present are interwoven skilfully as in so many of Shreve’s books. This one is particularly heartbreaking and I still remember the sense of shock at its ending.

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Guardian top 100) tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black American who died in agony of cancer in a ‘coloured’ hospital ward in 1951. This is about medical and scientific history – but also about race. Henrietta did not know her cells were being taken, nor did her family – and there’s a murky history of black hospital patients being treated as experimental subjects without informed consent. Billions have been made from these ‘HeLa’ cells, which showed extraordinary capacity to multiply and were used around the world to develop new drugs. But Skloot tells the story not just of ‘HeLa’ but of Henrietta’s life and death, and of her surviving children, and their struggles after her death.

I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). Again her warmth and humour permeates every page.

Ali Smith’s Hotel World is glorious.  It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. The Guardian picked her novel Autumn, which I haven’t read, but will.

Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark (Guardian top 100 title) finds hope in activism, and in the notion of the Angel of alternate history. This is based on the angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a man in despair sees what the world would look like if he hadn’t been born. We may never know what difference we made, or might have made.  If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting.  If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped.  We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse. Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can.

Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon is an eloquent and rigorous account of depression. It comes from his own experience of this crippling illness and he tells his own story here, with painful honesty, but also explores the nature of depression, in terms of the science, the sociology, and how it is treated. ‘That Solomon has shaped a richly eloquent testament from his own seasons in hell kindles something like hope’.

I’ve read most, if not all, of Cath Staincliffe‘s work – her Sal Kilkenny PI series, the Scott & Bailey and Blue Murder novels, and her stand-alone titles, which, whilst they centre on a crime, are more concerned with the ripples from that crime as they spread out to victims and perpetrators and families. The Silence Between Breaths is a superlative example. I shall say nothing about the plot, but if you remember to breathe whilst reading it you will be doing better than I did. It’s gripping but also compassionate and moving. I’d highly recommend also The Girl in the Green Dress.

Another of the posse of brilliant young female crime writers whose books have given me so much enjoyment this century is Susie Steiner. Her detective is Manon Bradshaw, who made her debut in Missing, Presumed. What marks Steiner and her contemporaries out is the emphasis on character, rather than just on plot. Manon is a brilliant protagonist, but all of the secondary characters, whether colleagues or victims or their families, are subtly drawn too, with humour and empathy. There’s a sequel, Persons Unknown, and a new Manon title out next year.

The Hillsborough tragedy had a huge impact on me, even though I wasn’t there, and knew no one who died there. That afternoon and evening, watching the casualty count rise, trying to understand, are still so vivid in my memory. Since that day I’ve blogged regularly about it, as the fight for truth and justice for the victims and their families went on. Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now is both a personal account of that day and what followed, and an exploration of the broader picture in contemporary football.

Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found HerRestoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). The Gustav Sonata  is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfection’, which is quite an accolade. The setting is Switzerland during the Second World War, which allows an exploration of the notion of neutrality. This quote, which comes towards the end and gives nothing away of the plot, goes to the heart of things: ‘We have to become the people we always should have been’.

Of all the Sarah Waters novels that I have read, Night Watch in particular stayed with me (The Guardian picked Fingersmith). It’s another tale told in reverse, but the Blitz is at the heart of everything that happens here. Gradually, as the story unfolds, we understand the characters, war and world weary, and the puzzling events that open the novel.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Guardian top 100 title) begins as a historical novel, telling with extraordinary and brutal power of the live of slaves in the American deep south. We’ve been here before, or so we may think. And then Whitehead swerves into a different kind of fiction altogether, without leaving behind the real stories of slaves, masters and abolitionists, but allowing us to see it afresh, from a different angle.

Having read Oranges are the Only Fruit, I thought I knew a bit about Jeanette Winterson‘s upbringing. But whilst that is moving and even devastating, it doesn’t convey the full awfulness, the full damage of that childhood and adolescence. Why be Happy when you could be Normal? pulls no punches. But it also has passages of great joy, particularly as the young Jeanette gains access to books, libraries of books, that open up new worlds to her. The story of her later life is devastating too, but throughout there is humour and self-awareness and compassion. One of the finest memoirs I have read.

And my three top books of the century are:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve read it several times and its impact never lessens. It’s personal, in a way, in that I lived in Nigeria at the time and during the events that she describes. The central characters begin in a period of peace and plenty, academics, privileged members of the wealthy Lagos business community, and ‘expats’. Gradually, as the country descends into pogroms and civil war, everything they have is gradually taken, their homes, their comforts, their food, their security. It’s an intensely powerful narrative – and it’s also about who gets to tell the story.

I love Kate Atkinson‘s work, her Jackson Brodie crime novels and, well, all of it really. But Life after Life is in a class of its own. Her writing is so perceptive, so piercing, often very funny, and often heartbreakingly sad. It’s a contender for my Desert Island book, in that I could conceive of reading it over and over again (alongside the Bible and Shakespeare).

Jon McGregor is an extraordinary author – If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things breaks my heart, no matter how often I read it. Reservoir 13 is not a detective novel, despite the familiar opening scenes – a missing girl, a community in shock, a search. The reader becomes part of the rhythm of time and the seasons which continue to pass whether or not we find her.  The voices and lives of the community interweave – life and death, grief, betrayal, loss, love, warmth, joy. The cliché is that when something terrible happens, ‘life goes on’. That’s what Reservoir 13 is about.  

So there we are. It’s a very personal list – it reflects not only my general preferences (history, crime), but my particular interests (French World War II history, West Africa, music). So literally no one else is likely to pick the same 100 titles. And nor will I, if I repeat this exercise twenty years from now…

If this list turns you on to an author you didn’t know, or a book you hadn’t tried, I’d love to know, and will be absolutely delighted. If I include things you hate, or think unworthy, that’s fine, but no need to tell me, there’s plenty of room for your tastes and mine. Nothing on this list is here because I think it ought to be here, I’m not trying to prove anything, just to share some of the joy I’ve found in reading in the 21st century.

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge Completed

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the final instalment of my reading diary, covering the final four days, along with general reflections on the project, and a full list of everything I’ve read.

 

25 September.  Day 57 – Reading Christopher Hitchens’ cancer memoir, Mortality, I am reminded of a good friend, Jos Kingston, who was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in 2004, and died in 2007.  Reading his words, I was struck that it could have been Jos talking:

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not? … People don’t have cancer: They are reported to be battling cancer.  No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this.  It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. … Whatever view one takes of the outcome being affected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.

I recall Jos saying that she wasn’t fighting cancer, she was negotiating with it.  That if she adapted her lifestyle to conserve energy, reduce stress and maximise general health, it might allow her for as long as possible to enjoy the things she’d always enjoyed – walks in the countryside near her home, music, books.  That worked for her, for much longer than the medics might have anticipated.

I think also, of course, of another dear friend, Tim Richardson, who didn’t manage to confound the initial predictions of ‘how long’, despite chemo.   He too wrote about his experiences, and he started the charity, Inspiration for Life, which I chair, and which raises funds for cancer research and treatment.

Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context.  But I need not have worried about it being gloomy fare.  It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner.  The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s tough to read but somehow uplifting.

hitchens

In total contrast, I’m now reading Harlan Coben’s Home.  This is a late entry in a fairly long-running series, and I’ve read nothing previously by him (though I did see a French film a few years back which it turns out was based on one of his novels, Tell No One).   He’s one of the super best-seller thriller writers to whom I might not normally be drawn  (though see my earlier caveats about not being snooty about so-called genre fiction, which at its best is a long way from merely generic) – but it was a Kindle freebie so worth a punt at that price.    It’s a nice blend between a hard-boiled Chandleresque style, often quite funny even when being pretty brutal, and a more nuanced focus on emotion, trauma, grief and love.   The women are utterly beautiful, the men fit and handsome, and most of them are unimaginably rich, but it’s not without subtlety, nonetheless, and Coben certainly insists that you keep turning the pages, not just to find out the twists and turns of the plot but because he’s made you care about the characters.  I’d happily read more of his.

coben

Also finished Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.  It’s set in eastern Norway,  and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948.   Beautifully constructed, beautifully written.  As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.

petterson

Next: Stevie Davies’ Awakening, and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland.

I’ve read several of Davies’ novels in the past, most recently Into Suez, and always enjoy her writing.  Looking for Transwonderland is a memoir from the daughter of murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa of her return to Nigeria after a decade.

26 September.  Day 58 – Stevie Davies is always a fascinating writer, and this is set in a fascinating period:

Wiltshire 1860: One year after Darwin’s explosive publication of The Origin of Species, sisters Anna and Beatrice Pentecost awaken to a world shattered by science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion; a world of charismatic religious movements, Spiritualist séances, bitter loss and medical trauma.

It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal:

Even dear Mrs Spurgeon confesses that she keeps a close eye on Mr Spurgeon whenever he seems apocalyptically inclined.

Spurgeon (and dear Mrs S) are not the only real historical figures who feature here, but the focus of the novel is on the two sisters, and on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.

27 September.  Day 59 – finished Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria.  She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja).  Her father is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder.   Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division – its ‘jagga jagga’, as they say there.

Treated myself to Jan Carson’s Postcard Stories.  It is, as the title says, a series of micro stories, each sent in postcard form to a friend, from various Belfast locations.  There were originally 362 postcards, and 52 have been selected for the publication. They are funny, poignant, surreal, sometimes all at once.  I do like the idea of teeny tiny stories, almost more than most ‘proper’ short stories which I find sometimes fall disappointingly between two stools.  Cath Staincliffe, whose long-form fiction I’ve been enjoying for years now, publishes some flash fiction on her website, along with poems. And then there’s MicroSFF on Twitter.

And on to Giorgio Bassani’s Italian classic, The Garden of the Finzi Continis.  Published in 1962, its setting is Ferrara, Italy in 1939, as racial laws begin to affect the lives of two Jewish families.  There’s something of Sebald here.

This is the most oblique of Holocaust books. These Jews are affluent, educated, assured, assimilated. They are part of the fabric of Ferrara life and have been for centuries. And yet you know. That’s the saddest thing of all: right from the beginning, you know because the narrator knows. You know they will all be blown away “light as leaves, as bits of paper”; while they don’t. And at the end you, like him, will be bereft.

I’ve been meaning to read this since a fellow student spoke very powerfully about it at a postgraduate colloquium earlier this year, and I’m so very glad I have done.

Off to New York now, in 1943, but there’s no hint of the shadows that linger around the garden of the Finzi-Continis.  This is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another 20th-century American classic that I’ve somehow missed out on reading until now.  I’ve not seen the film, either, so although my image of Holly Golightly is inevitably influenced by that of Audrey Hepburn, I’m not conscious of other differences between book and film.  I was intrigued to read, however, that Capote himself favoured Monroe rather than Hepburn in the role.

 

28 September.  Day 60!   Yes, by midnight tonight I will have finished reading my 60 books.  No sweat, no pressure.

Just finished Jennifer Johnston‘s The Captains and the Kings. This was Johnston’s debut – in which the ‘turbulent history of 20th-century Ireland’ is background to a story of loneliness and isolation, of youth and age.  It’s beautifully written, somehow out of time so that the past – the First World War in which Charles Prendergast fought, and the brother who died at Gallipoli, his shadowy wife, his distant parents – has a firmer reality than the present, such that I wondered when it was set.  There’s a reference to ’55 years ago’ though, so the narrative is contemporaneous with the book’s creation.  It’s a very simple story, in a way, and one where tragedy seems inevitable, but no less powerful for that.  I am certain I read something by Johnston years ago, but cannot remember which – perhaps Shadows on the Skin, or The Old Jest?

johnston

On to my final book.  Laura Lippman is one of my favourite crime writers, both for her stand-alone novels, and for the wonderful Tess Monaghan series about a Baltimore PI.  This is her most recent novel, Wilde Lake.

lippman

And it’s excellent.  Although the plot is complex and twisty-turny, what drives the novel, as always with Lippman, is character.  Families, secrets, memory and the tricks it plays.

The present is swollen with self-regard for itself, but soon enough the present becomes the past. This present, this day, this very moment we inhabit – it will all be held accountable for the things it didn’t know, didn’t understand.

The things we don’t know, the things we don’t understand.

A great way to finish this challenge.

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And that’s it! I guess I could take some time off from reading for a while now, but hey, that’s never going to happen.

From the moment when I could read for myself I’ve read hungrily, ravenously.  I’ve read like it’s about to be made illegal, like I might suddenly lose the facility and words return to the mystifying symbols they were when I was 3 years old.

I read fast, like a hungry person eats.  If I didn’t read fast, I could never have read 60 books in 60 days, of course.  Do I sometimes miss things, details and subtleties, because I’m racing through – yes.  And sometimes I wish I could slow down not just so that I can better savour the book I’m reading, but because I don’t want to run out.  When I was young, I frequently ran out of ‘my’ books – Puffins for the most part, wonderful classics of children’s literature – and headed for my parents’ bookshelves where I encountered adult classics (such as Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Morte d’Arthur) and read and understood what I could, re-reading as I got older and could reach a fuller and richer appreciation.  As an adult, packing for holidays pre-Kindle, I would fill a case with books, realise there’s no room for shoes or toiletries, discard some books and then squeeze them in somehow, because I can’t bear the thought of ending up stuck in a holiday cottage in the rain with nothing to read.   A serious case of abibliophobia.

Even as a child I read critically.  I read Enid Blyton, because her books were ubiquitous, but because I was also reading Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff, C S Lewis, and so many other truly fine writers, I was aware of what she lacked that they had, and I read her in the way that one might read a trashy novel on holiday because it’s the only thing to hand.

But I’ve never rejected something purely because of its genre or a schlocky cover (the latter did put me off Stephen King for a while, but I gave him a try and was instantly and permanently converted).  That would have ruled out so many of the books and writers that I have loved.   I have, though, chucked many a book aside, straight into the charity bag, if its prose clunks, its dialogue is rigid with cliché or its characters are flat and tedious stereotypes.  But everything in this list, in all its rich variety, was rewarding to read.

So this last 60 days has been a blast.  It’s been a source of pressure, particularly when I’ve had unexpected periods when reading has been impossible, and I’ve panicked about falling behind.  It’s been a discipline – in the interstices of the day when I might otherwise faff about on social media or the like, instead, I’ve been reaching for a book, and I hope to keep that up, albeit in a less extreme form.  But most of all it’s been a delight, and writing about the books after I’ve read them has been a pleasure too – it was something I wanted to do to ensure this wasn’t an arbitrary exercise, reducing the books to a number, or even just to a list, and also to force me to pause each time I finished a book, think about it, gather my thoughts and write them down before picking up the next one.

Anyway, here’s the list:

  1. Kate Atkinson – Case Histories (2004)
  2. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  3. Julian Barnes – Levels of Life (2013)
  4. Giorgio Bassani – The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1962)
  5. Alan Bennett – Untold Stories (2005)
  6. Sam Bourne – To Kill the President (2017)
  7. Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Unforgotten Coat (2011)
  8. David Boyle – Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance (2017)
  9. T C Boyle – Talk Talk (2006)
  10. Andrea Camilleri – August Heat (2009)
  11. Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffanys (1958)
  12. John le Carré – The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life (2016)
  13. Jan Carson – Postcard Stories (2017)
  14. Jane Casey – The Last Girl (2012)
  15. Ken Clarke – Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir (2016)
  16. Harlan Coben – Home (2016)
  17. Stevie Davies – Awakening (2013)
  18. Roddy Doyle – Two Pints (2012)
  19. Helen Dunmore – The Betrayal (2010)
  20. Helen Fitzgerald – The Cry (2013)
  21. Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003)
  22. Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (2017)
  23. Patrick Gale – The Whole Day Through (2009)
  24. Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (2013)
  25. Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (2017)
  26. David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017)
  27. Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (2015)
  28. Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
  29. Jane Harper – The Dry (2017)
  30. A S A Harrison – The Silent Wife (2013)
  31. Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms (1929)
  32. Christopher Hitchens – Mortality (2012)
  33. Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (2014)
  34. Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
  35. Jennifer Johnston – The Captains and the Kings (1972)
  36. Andrea Levy – Uriah’s War (2014)
  37. Laura Lippman – Wilde Lake (2016)
  38. Peter Lovesey – The Last Detective (1991)
  39. Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman (2007)
  40. Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (1998)
  41. Daphne du Maurier – Julius (1933)
  42. Livi Michael – Succession (2015)
  43. Caitlin Moran – Moranifesto (2016)
  44. Sarah Moss – Cold Earth (2009)
  45. Fay Musselwhite – Contraflow (2016)
  46. Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood (1952)
  47. Nii Ayikwei Parkes – Tail of the Blue Bird (2009)
  48. Michelle Paver – Thin Air (2016)
  49. Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses (2005)
  50. Caryl Phillips – The Final Passage (1995)
  51. Philip Roth – The Plot against America (2004)
  52. Donal Ryan – The Thing about December (2013)
  53. Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)
  54. Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (2016)
  55. Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project (2014)
  56. Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001)
  57. Tom Rob Smith – The Farm (2014)
  58. M L Stedman – The Light between Oceans (2012)
  59. Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (2016)
  60. H G Wells – The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

I didn’t plan what I would read.  I started by raiding my Kindle and the ‘to read’ pile by my bed, and adding books that friends recommended or lent.  The selection was mainly based on being not too long, not too hard, and not read before – so it’s pleasing to see the variety in the list above.

  • Exactly 50% of the writers are women.
  • 80% of the books are fiction, of the remainder one is poetry, the others are history or memoir.
  • 58% of the writers are new to me.  And what’s best about that is that I will want to follow up most of those, to read all of their stuff.
  • The earliest book on the list is the H G Wells, from 1896.  Slightly to my surprise, over a third are from 2016-2017 and over half from 2010 onwards.  I guess this fits with the bias towards new-to-me writers.
  • Just over half of the writers are from the UK, 9 from the US, 4 each from Australia and from the Republic of Ireland,  2 each from Italy and from Canada, 3 from West Africa, one each from Pakistan, Norway, Turkey.

Stories can make you fly, and over the last 60 days I’ve flown to Pembroke castle in the 15th century, rural Ireland in the 1780s, Wiltshire in the 1860s, Oklahoma in the 1920s, Kanchenjunga in 1935, Ferrara in 1939, New York in 1943, Norway and Switzerland in wartime and the immediate postwar period, Leningrad in 1952, the Caribbean in 1958, Romania in 1989.  I’ve flown to an archaeological dig in Greenland, to the Ghanaian hinterland, to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Oslo and Seattle and Chicago and New Jersey and Sicily.   And into more speculative areas too, dystopian near futures and a mysterious island in the Pacific…  That’s what reading can do for you.

Thanks to everyone who’s supported me in this, who’s lent or suggested books, liked/retweeted my blog posts and updates.  I hope that some of you will now have some books to add to your ‘must read’ list – I’d love to know if so, especially if you read and enjoy something you might not otherwise have thought of.

And thank you most of all to Alan, Ali, Aminatta, Andrea C and Andrea L, Andrew, Ben, Caitlin, Caryl, Christopher, Daphne, David B and David G, Donal, Elif, Ernest, Fay, Flannery, Frank, Giorgio, Graeme, Harlan, Helen D and Helen F, Herbert, Hilary,  Jan, Jane C and Jane H, Jarlath, Jennifer, Jo,  John, Julian, Kate, Ken, Laura, Lesley, Livi, Margaret, Margot, Michelle, Mohsin, Nii, Noo, Patrick, Per, Peter, Philip, Roddy, Rose, Sam, Sarah, Shirley, Stevie, Susan, Thomas, Tom, Truman, and Valentina

60 books

With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss –  you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin.  You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die.  These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone.  (Caitlin Moran, ‘Reading is Fierce’, from Moranifesto)

The world of literature … offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart. (Mary Oliver)

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. (Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby)

So, ten years time, 70 books in 70 days?  Challenge (provisionally) accepted!

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 43-56

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the penultimate instalment of my reading diary, with the final one to follow on 24 September.   I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

 

11 September. Day 43  Finished Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. Brilliant, fascinating, moving.  The narrative was labyrinthine, moving around from Before (before her father was arrested) to After (what happened to the rest of the family after his arrest) but only towards the final pages coming to that terrible truth at the heart of it all – what happened to him  and ultimately how and why he died.  Extraordinary.

On to Livi Michael’s Succession.  I have read most of her adult novels (Inheritance, All the Dark Air, Their Angel Reach) and read to my daughter at least one of her stories about an intrepid and resourceful hamster called Frank.  This one is historical fiction, the first in a trilogy set during the Wars of the Roses.

michael

As a child and a teenager I devoured historical novels.  Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Leon Garfield – each of them in my memory evokes a particular period of history.  Later on I read Margaret Irwin, Edith Sitwell’s books on Elizabeth I (Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive), and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak no Treason.

This last is particularly relevant to the Livi Michael trilogy, and I’m quite excited about reawakening my earlier fascination with this period of history, and rediscovering a writer who I know through novels with a very contemporary setting.

I’m also about to start on Philip Roth’s The Plot against America.  From fictionalised real history to an ‘alternative’ history, in which Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 and Lindbergh becomes President. Intriguingly, it’s an alternative personal history too – the history of the Roth family had events turned out in this way.  I think my first encounter with alternative history was in Joan Aiken’s terrific, gothic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, set in the reign of James III, when a channel tunnel has been built, via which wolves have migrated into Britain in large numbers.   Probably the majority of works in this genre, however, have taken World War II as their setting, positing some crucial moment at which everything changed, allowing a Nazi victory in Europe (and beyond).  The more one knows of the ‘real’ history, the more fascinating (and potentially contentious) this is.

Also on my reading pile (though probably not as part of this project) is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, and positing the rise of a far-right demagogue to the Presidency…  That title was echoed in a film I dimly recall watching, and being horribly chilled by, It Happened Here, subtitled ‘the story of Hitler’s England’.

The Plot… will also, as it happens, be my first Roth.

roth

Caitlin Moran’s piece ‘Reading is Fierce‘ seems especially pertinent in light of this project.*  I allowed myself an unseemly moment of hubris when she mentioned the ‘challenge’ of reading fifty-nine books in five months as a judge on the Baileys Prize (ha!  Try sixty books in under three months, you lightweight!).  But then, there’s this.

And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.  That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure.  Their heads are on fire.  Their hearts are flooding.  With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss –  you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin.  You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die.  These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone.  And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia, or Jamaica Inn, or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them – hiding under the bedclothes, sitting on a bus.

That’s my life she’s writing about, my life with my head in a book, from a four-year-old just graduating from Janet & John to real stories (never ‘just a story’, stories matter, stories can make you fly), to a sixty-year-old powering through novels and memoirs and poems for some daft challenge, reading on buses, in waiting rooms, last thing at night and first thing in the morning.  Singing that ‘unseen, life-changing duet’ with each writer I encounter.  Glorious.

Oh, and I can’t ever ever read Moran’s piece ‘To Teenage Girls on the Edge’ without having quite a big cry. It’s everything I wanted to, tried to, meant to say to my own teenage girl when she was in that place, but said so much better than I ever could.

Ooh, this Livi Michael is good.

12 September. Day 44

A difficult day but in what free time there was, I progressed mightily with Succession. Once one has got one’s head round the Dukes of This and Earls of That (another disadvantage with a Kindle, BTW – Livi Michael kindly provides a cast list at the front of the book, but it’s far more faff to refer to it in an electronic book than in a real one) the narrative is compelling, the characters fascinating (especially the two Margarets) and the writing beautiful.

I’ve always taken the view that any hierarchy of literary merit must ignore the notion of ‘genre fiction’.  There’s good writing, and there’s bad.  There are literary prize winners that are unreadable, ‘classics’ that are turgid and dull, and crime or horror or historical novels that are written with such power and depth that they stay in the mind and the heart long after the last page is turned.  Of course many novels refuse to be categorised, but there are fine writers who are not only unashamed to be part of a genre, but also exploit and transcend the constraints of that genre.  Historical fiction as a genre includes plenty of dross, some of which I read (and quickly tired of) in my teens – but there’s plenty of excellent writing too, and this is a great example.

13 September. Day 45 – Finished Succession.  Obviously given my self-imposed rule about not reading more than one book by the same writer, I can’t go straight on to the next title in the trilogy, but I will look forward to it immensely once this challenge is complete.   Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, those of major players in the events and those of very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles.  And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us.

The Plot against America is splendid.  And chilling.  Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism  in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame.  We’ve seen that very recently on the streets of the USA.

On now to another writer who I’ve loved for many years, and who very sadly died only a few months ago, far far too young, Helen Dunmore.  It’s another historical novel, but much more recent history.  The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege, set in Leningrad after the Second World War, and I’m looking forward to it, and glad that there are still a few of her novels – and all of her poetry – for me to enjoy.

Dunmore

14 September. Day 46 – The Betrayal takes us into the world of Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship, where everyone has learned to speak quietly because there’s always someone listening, where everyone lives in fear of a denunciation or just of coming to the notice of the powers that be, for good or bad reasons.  It reminds me in that respect of another recent read, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter which evokes this atmosphere very powerfully.

15 September. Day 47 – Finished The Betrayal.  Brilliant, beautiful and sad.  It really does evoke that world where ‘they’ can do whatever they want, regardless of truth, regardless of sense, regardless even of self-interest, and you – the ordinary citizen, even the Party official, should the wind change direction – can do nothing to prevent it.   The central characters (who carry over from The Siege) are (as one of the reviews pointed out) perhaps unrealistically beyond reproach.  However, they are vividly and sympathetically drawn, and what Dunmore shows is how their integrity, their courage, their dignity is of so little use to them in the face of paranoid tyranny.   It shows also how hope survives, just.  They told themselves after the siege was over that things would get better.  And despite the betrayal of that hope, there is still a glimmer at the end of the novel.

Next up, from Stalin’s USSR to present-day Turkey, for Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.  

shafak

Also finished The Plot against America.   A couple of the reviews give a spoiler-free flavour of the book:

I called the book ‘astonishing’, but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history – it is presented too plausibly for that – or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What’s astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can’t see what’s happening to it, that isn’t shaken enough. ‘They live in a dream,’ Philip’s father says, ‘and we live in a nightmare.’ (Michael Wood, London Review of Books)

Roth … dramatizes two vast and contradictory principles simultaneously: on the one hand, the susceptibility of American individualism to the cult of celebrity, and of American faith in democracy to a tyranny of the majority, leading to a particular vulnerability to unscrupulous politicians who win widespread popular support and gain a grip on the three branches of government; and, on the other, the distinctively American sense of freedom, stiffening the will to resist such political depravities, a will that’s integral to the country’s values, heritage, and history. The novel’s great tragic power lies precisely in the clash between the two. (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)

The New Yorker piece, notably, is recent (February 2017, whilst the book was actually published in 2004).  It valiantly avoids spelling out the all-too-evident contemporary parallels (particularly given that the current incumbent of the White House drew explicitly on America First rhetoric in his campaign and in his inaugural speech).

16 September. Day 48 – Started two new books.  Three Daughters of Eve has already captivated me.  Its protagonist, Peri, is engaging and fascinating.  We meet her first in the present day, a woman in middle age, attempting to hang on to her self-confidence in the face of an eye-rolling teenage daughter.  Yes, I think we can identify…  But the narrative gets very dark, very quickly.   The setting is not familiar to me – of course I know a little of Turkey’s history and recent events, but not enough, and I look forward to deepening my understanding.

The second new one is The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley.  That’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for ages, and I’m still not 100% convinced it’s ideal bedtime reading, so if it gives me nightmares I might have to swap.  So far, so undefinably creepy.  We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why.  Not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from Stephen King who is the master of unease (he also does full-on gross-out grue, of course, but it’s the unease, the uncanny, the sense of a place being just a bit wrong, that I think he does best).

hurley

17 September. Day 49 – Finished Three Daughters of Eve.  Whilst it’s not short on action, it is preoccupied with questions of spirituality and faith (not only religious conviction but feminism), exploring them through Peri’s ill-matched parents, and through her encounters as a student at Oxford, where she becomes one of the eponymous ‘three daughters’.  Peri is introspective and constantly questioning – she characterises herself as ‘confused’ because she cannot resolve the contradictions she has either inherited or acquired.   Shafak weaves the philosophical debates into personal and political crises as she moves between the different time frames – the present day, unfolding almost real time at a posh Istanbul dinner party, childhood, and student days.  Fascinating.

Treating myself to the new Lesley Glaister, The Squeeze.  Another writer who I’ve enjoyed enormously over the years (along with Livi Michael, Glaister was involved with the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, during the period when I worked there).

18 September. Day 50 – Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets.

Glaister’s territory is suburban Gothic, but unlike Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood, she’s not interested in folkloric excursions into fairy tale forests or the thornier thickets of feminist irony. Her stories, couched in humour and social observation, are firmly rooted in the domestic and mundane. Babies are dropped on floors, young women locked in attics and fathers murdered in their beds, but they are usually polishing off a Pot Noodle in between last breaths.

This novel is no exception.  It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman.  But connect they do.

glaister

Excellent as always, and makes me want to revisit her earlier novels.

Off to Ghana now, where I spent some of my childhood.   Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash.  So this one ticks two boxes, one for genre and one for setting.

parkes

And it’s a delight.  The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories.  Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends.  He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.

19 September. Day 51 – Finished The Loney.  The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith.  There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides.   Is it a horror novel?  It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative:

“you knew something had happened, but quite what it was or why, you weren’t entirely sure.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/11/andrew-michael-hurley-there-is-no-place-more-terrifying-than-your-own-mind

Hurley suspends the story in a limbo between the supernatural and the merely strange: it is not clear whether the fantastic has occurred, or whether characters are mad, or which of these would be worse.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/28/the-loney-andrew-michael-hurley-review-gothic-novel

Now reading The Silent Wife, by A S A Harrison.  This is a psychological thriller, and it’s both Harrison’s debut and her final novel as she died before completing her second.   It was greeted by the inevitable, tiresome cries of ‘this year’s Gone Girl/Girl on the Train‘ – I enjoyed both of those enormously but it’s irritating that we need to pigeonhole everything so that Amazon can tell us that, if we liked x, we will like y.  Not necessarily so.  Anyway, so far it has drawn me in very neatly, so that although I don’t exactly like either of the main characters, I do very much want to know how (as we’re told from the start will happen) Jodi becomes a killer.

harrison

Also reading Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints.  The origins of this collection of short dialogues are interesting, as all of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book.  Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’

doyle

20 September. Day 52 – Finished The Silent Wife.   I didn’t end up liking either Joni or Todd any more by the end of the book than I had at the beginning but contrary to popular wisdom that isn’t essential (did anyone like either of the protagonists in Gone Girl?  Really?), though I was certainly rooting for her rather than him.  Unlike Gone Girl, this isn’t a narrative that depends upon twists – rather it builds its characters and its plot little by little, and whilst both narrators are unreliable, they’re only unreliable in the way that anyone is in recounting their own life.  It’s a very clever, subtle portrayal – we see, little by little, below the beautifully arranged surface of their lives, see the fault lines in their relationship, and in their own pasts, fault lines which open up and engulf them.  Susan Harrison only ventured into fiction in her 60s.  She died of cancer, aged 65, just before her debut novel was published.

Just started another debut novel, Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage.  Published in 1985, it’s set in the late 50s, and tells the story of one family who made the journey from the West Indies to the UK in the hope of a better life.  It’s similar territory to that explored by Andrea Levy in Small Island, published twenty years later, though her immigrants arrived here in the immediate postwar period,  rather than the late 50s.

phillips

Finished Two Pints.  Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).  The two drinkers talk about all the things that two blokes in a pub might talk about.  The missis, the kids, the football, politics, religion, sex – and they mark the passing of various notable people who’ve just died, in ways that manage to be funny, rude and sweary, and often very poignant.  I’ve read lots of his more recent ‘obits’, and I particularly remember the Two Pints tribute to Bowie…

-I remember once, I was havin’ me breakfast. An’ I saw me da starin’ at me. So, I said, ‘Wha’?’ An’ he says, ‘Are yeh goin’ to work lookin’ like tha’?’ I still servin’ me time and, like, I was wearin’ me work clothes. An’ me overalls were in me bag. So I didn’t know what he was on abou’. ‘Get up an’ look at yourself in the fuckin’ mirror,’ he says. I was still wearin’ me Aladdin Sane paint. Across me face, like.
-You were ou’ the night before.
-Not really. Only down the road. Sittin’ on the wall beside the chipper, with the lads. Sneerin’ at the fuckin’ world. But that was what it was like. Bowie was our God.

Off to Italy now for a spot of crime and detection, with Inspector Montalbano.  Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat will be my first Montalbano (and I haven’t seen the TV series either), so I’m looking forward to discovering another new crime writer.

camilleri

21 September. Day 53 – Enjoying The Final Passage.  I keep having to remind myself how young Leila is, when I get frustrated with her for getting entangled with Michael who is so so obviously a wrong ‘un, feckless, faithless and by and large useless.  But she’s hardly more than a child herself, and girls and even grown women who should be old enough to know better do fall for feckless, faithless and useless men. I dare say the reverse is true but surely to a lesser extent – there’s a whole culture of women standing by their men, when the sensible thing would clearly be to kick him out or walk away.  It’s rarely that simple and in many situations – particularly where there’s a child involved – neither of those options may seem possible.  Of course the relationship between Leila and Michael is only one aspect of the novel – the passage from Jamaica to England is what drives it, and that’s powerfully done.  The contrasts are both obvious – from heat and humidity that saps the energy to cold that gets into the bones – and less so. Even though they come from what we would see as poverty, the squalor of living conditions in London horrifies them, the dirt and the broken things that no-one bothers to mend.  It’s a desperately sad account, and hard to see much hope for the future, given where the narrative leaves Leila, so profoundly alone in a strange land.

22 September. Day 54 – Montalbano is delightful.  Despite the heinous nature of the crime being investigated, there’s a great deal of humour in the characterisation and the dialogue.  But there’s another thread running through it, of political commentary:

How had Papa Dante put it?

Ah, servile Italy, you are sorrow’s hostel,

a ship without helmsman in terrible storms,

lady not of the provinces, but of a brothel!

Italy was still servile, obeying at least two masters, America and the Church, and the storms had become a daily occurrence, thanks to a helmsman whom she would have been better off without.

Montalbano cares about justice.  And meantime he spends much of this particular novel stripped to his underwear in the office, with only a small hand-held fan to keep him cool as he navigates witness testimonies, police bureaucracy, corruption and protection rackets.

Two new books to start now:  Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Ali Smith’s Hotel World.

23 September. Day 55 – Neither O’Connor nor Smith is totally new to me.  I’ve read A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Whole Story and other Stories – strangely both collections of short stories, which I tend not to favour.  O’Connor is fascinating – Southern Gothic if one has to pigeonhole her, but she herself responded to those who called her writing cynical or brutal that:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. …When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

Smith’s short story collection was terrific, and I’ve wanted to read one of her novels for some time (especially since hearing and falling rather in love with her on Desert Island Discs a while back).  And Hotel World is glorious.  It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity.  She reminds me in a way of Jon McGregor, whose work I love.  Note to self: read more Smith, and read McGregor’s  latest, Reservoir 13.

 

24 September. Day 56 – Just finished Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow. I’ve taken my time over it – each poem needs to be savoured, not just consumed and then on to the next. There are some astonishing moments here:

From ‘Firewood’:

then we rouse in it

a thing with breath to rage against dim,

to syncopate our undertones, rid the roomscape

of straight edge and flickered repeat.

Or this from ‘Last night’:

             mist rolled in –

a settlement of pale net layered itself

on the hillside opposite, and sagged

into gardens and lanes, bleared terraces

of gable-ends, nestling in to stifle all

but its own rumour, letting only the pin-glow

of street and window lights poke through.

It flattened valleys, lagged farm and woodland,

swallowed Dark Peak and Bradfield’s mound

into a sky white with it, tasted our tongues

as we talked of it, beaded our hair and lashes

Finished Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.  Billed as ‘A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption’, it’s also a comic novel, as O’Connor herself insisted, adding ‘and as such, very serious, for all comic novels must be about matters of life and death’ …  It is certainly very dark comedy, violent and bizarre.  I’m not sure that I would want to immerse myself too often in that world view but it’s brilliant, strange and fascinating.

Just starting two new books, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, a collection of pieces he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, described in a Guardian review as ‘a minor masterpiece of death and delusion in a Nordic land’.  Hmmm, neither would seem to offer much prospect of cheeriness.   Will have to ensure that my final tranche of reading includes some lighter fare.

My final reading challenge blog will probably appear a week today, to allow me to reflect on the project, and on what I’ve read (and to catch up on sleep/eating/other activities which may have to be postponed whilst I read the last few books…).

I can’t believe the end is quite so nigh.  I read 15 books this fortnight, which would obviously be fine if I’d done that well in the previous few weeks, but I fell behind and haven’t fully caught up.  My total now stands at 52, so in the next four days I need to read 8 books.  Of course I can do that.  No worries.  Piece of cake.

 

 

* See also this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/02/mary-oliver-upstream-staying-alive-reading/  and this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/13/rebecca-solnit-faraway-nearby-reading-writing/)

 

 

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 29-42

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

 

28 August. Day 29 – just started these two:

Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). I’m not far into The Gustav Sonata but it is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written.

I haven’t previously read anything by Tom Rob Smith, though we did watch and enjoy London Spy.  So far, so intriguing.

29 August. Day 30 – I’m halfway through!  And more or less on target.

Finished The Gustav Sonata, which is wonderful.  I can’t say too much – except to urge everyone to read it – but this quote, which comes towards the end, gives nothing away of the plot:

We have to become the people we always should have been.

The novel shows us, subtly and movingly, all the ways in which we fail to be the people we should be, fail or are prevented, by our own flaws or by circumstances or by other people.  And gives us along the way some hope.

The Farm  is compelling stuff.  The question the reader is asked from the first page onwards, is who to believe.  Now, for me, this is complicated because we are hearing the voice of a woman whose husband has tried to have her committed, a woman with a disturbing story to tell and who people seem to be trying to silence.  I’m programmed to believe her, given the tragic history of women who have been silenced, or who people have attempted to silence, using claims that they are ‘mad’, gaslighting techniques.  But maybe it’s not that straightforward – if one transposed elements of that narrative to a male voice I would be much more likely to read it as evidence of paranoid delusion.

Started Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, in which he ‘discusses ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things and two people together, and about tearing them apart.’

barnes quote

30 August. Day 31 – I must admit that I went for the Barnes because it was the shortest book within arms’ reach.  I’d read his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which I enjoyed rather than loved, and so I wasn’t eager for this one in the way that I have been to read something new by an author that I’d really fallen for already.  But I’m so glad I read this, and I will read it again, and again, I think.  It’s about the death of Barnes’ wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and it’s beautiful and quietly devastating.

barnes

The Farm was excellent.  A story about stories, and about secrets.  Read it and be repeatedly wrongfooted, as one narrative is undermined and another established, until in turn that too is shown to be unreliable…

Just started David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a historical investigation into the systematic murder of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma.  Kate Atkinson called it ‘a fiercely entertaining mystery story and a wrenching exploration of evil’.

grann 2

31 August. Day 32 – just started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto – ideal to read at night when I’m getting tired and concentration dips.  V v v funny as always, whilst being clear-sighted and righteous.

Moran

More laughs are promised in The Rosie Project.  Now, the words ‘romantic’ and ‘heartwarming’ are usually guaranteed turn-offs for me but the reviews make this one sound worth pursuing, and so many of my other reads have been dark and/or sad.

Simison

1 September. Day 33 – Enjoying The Rosie Project.  The protagonist has a touch of the Sheldon Coopers, it must be said.  It’s odd that, having spent so many years working with physicists and mathematicians, I have met so few full-on Sheldons in real life.  Most of those I have worked with have had bags of humour, self awareness and social skills, not to mention creativity (a remarkable number of musicians, artists, writers).  Nonetheless, Don (the protagonist and narrator) is engaging and the interactions with the decidedly unsuitable Rosie are delightfully funny.

Meantime, Killers of the Flower Moon is as compelling as the best detective novel, and indeed one might be inclined to think the plot a bit overwrought were it not a true story. And a shocking one, even when one is fairly knowledgeable about US history.

2 September. Day 34 – Caitlin Moran in full-on righteous indignation mode is magnificent.   And still extremely funny.  Just been reading her pieces on media treatment of benefits claimants, in the context of Benefits Street, and of the Mick Philpott case.  It might seem incongruous that these pieces originally appeared in The Times, but actually that is absolutely right since her point is that she – as someone who grew up in a family that relied on benefits to get by – is an anomaly in the circles in which she now moves, and in the media to which she now has access, and that most media coverage treats benefits claimants as ‘other’ , whether it is vilifying or pitying them.

3 September. Day 35 – Finished The Rosie Project.  It was delightful – very funny, and touching.  Most of its reviewers were entirely won over but the Daily Telegraph demurred:

For those unaware of Asperger’s syndrome and its foibles, The Rosie Project could serve as a gentle and funny introduction. Those who already understand the condition may object to the moral that mental difference can and must be erased.

Thing is, I don’t think that was the moral.  The moral, surely, was that both parties in a relationship need to accept the other for who they are, quirks and all.  And this was supported by a couple of reviews from knowledgeable sources.  Cees Kan, a Dutch psychiatrist specialising in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders in adulthood, said that:

The great value of this book is its positive message about the possibility of experiencing romantic love despite of autism. Of course it is a challenge to overcome the autistic difficulties, which requires a willingness to think out of the box about how it is still possible to intimately relate to one another. However, I am convinced that it can be done, as I have met many couples that have shown me that they had managed to do so. Patients and their partners often tell me that in treatments too much emphasis is being put on the negative aspects of autism spectrum disorders, while they actually feel more supported and helped by messages which provide them with a positive perspective on their potential possibilities.

And Benison O’Reilly, the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, concurred.  She acknowledges several points in the narrative where she was concerned that the reality of Aspergers would be sanitised or erased, but believes that Simsion avoids these pitfalls.

I loved it.  And for my money, Rosie was at least as annoying as Don.

Have found a Hilary Mantel that I never got round to reading.  No idea why, since I’ve never read a Mantel that I haven’t enjoyed.  Anyway, The Giant, O’Brien is up next.

mantel

4 September. Day 36 – Can’t think why I left an unread Mantel to gather dust on my shelf.  Only just started it but am already captured.

As I was, entirely, by David Grann’s extraordinary account of the Reign of Terror visited upon the Osage people in the 1920s by those who wanted access to their oil wealth. Shocking, and moving.

Just started an Australian crime thriller, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry.  

harper

5 September. Day 37 – The Dry was a terrific read.  The parched landscape, the oppressive heat, the constant awareness of danger from the natural world, and from the inhabitants of the small town, tested almost to destruction by the drought, all are vividly evoked.  The initial explanation of the crime recalls Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ but that’s only the first attempt to unravel what happened, and Harper gives her readers lots of twists and turns, memories recovered, clues uncovered, and a heart-in-mouth finale.

A change of location now, from the Australian outback to Sierra Leone for Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water.   It’s a memoir of her West African childhood, and of the murder of her dissident father.

forna

6 September. Day 38 – Finished The Giant, O’Brien.  It’s a fictionalised account of historical characters from the late 18th century: the eponymous giant (a poet, a teller of tales, who towers over his contemporaries but spends his life crammed into spaces too small to hold him) and surgeon John Hunter (an experimental scientist who finds his profession and its legal and ethical constraints too small to hold him too), and how their paths converge.    John Mullan described this as ‘something more like a fable than a conventional historical novel. The Age of Reason is a time of monsters.’  Mantel’s use of language is extraordinary – from lyrical to brutal in a sentence’s length.

About to start on a permitted re-read (see The Rules, above).  Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I think I read in sixth-form.

7 September. Day 39 – I was sure I’d read A Farewell to Arms, albeit several decades ago. Yet it rings no bells (oblique reference to another Hemingway, which I’m even more sure I’ve read).  Anyway, I am reading it as if for the first time, coming to it afresh.  It’s a powerful depiction of the futility and brutality of war, told in a spare prose and with an immediacy and directness that does not manipulatively demand an emotional response from the reader but is all the more devastating for that.  I admit to a degree of prejudice about Hemingway because I’ve read so much about him being a bit of a dick, but that obviously doesn’t preclude him being a splendid writer!

Meantime am captivated by Aminatta Forna’s memoir.  It triggers so many of my own memories of a West African childhood whilst telling a compelling story of corruption and state oppression.

8 September. Day 40 – I’ve always felt slightly awkward about ‘claiming’ Ghana as part of my heritage.  But it feels as if it is part of me, that childhood spent in Kumasi, and I hope that in using my Ashanti day name, Abena, as part of my Facebook name, I am honouring rather than appropriating that early encounter with a rich culture and history, and a beautiful land and people.  It’s the little details that are the most powerful in my memory.  Aromas, colours, sounds.  The rain hammering on the corrugated iron roof, the red dust of the laterite roads, the ant lions creating their whirlwinds in the sand, the sound of highlife music wafting over from the student residences near our home.

Ghana

Forna’s memoir keeps bringing these details back to me. It’s a lot more than that, of course, but I get emotionally derailed by these madeleine moments.  None more so than Aminatta’s encounter with a fawn, rescued when its mother was killed, which her father brings home.  It was beautiful, and it died.  As was ours, and as did ours, a Duiker.

9 September. Day 41 – The personal connections with The Devil that Danced on the Water extend to the political context too.  We arrived in Ghana early on in Nkrumah’s presidency, and left around the time that his growing paranoia and authoritarianism led to opposition and his overthrow.  Our new home was in Northern Nigeria, where coups and counter-coups led to pogroms and ultimately civil war.  Like Forna, we were too young to understand what it all meant, and have pieced together the history of those turbulent times, seeing our childhood fragments of memory differently in that wider context, understanding things that were baffling at the time.  Of course, I’m not suggesting a true equivalence of experience.  We, as expats in that time and place, were not ourselves at risk.  Forna’s father and his political allies were targets, and he and thus the children too were in real danger.

10 September. Day 42 – Having a(nother) rubbish night’s sleep had the benefit of giving me a bit more reading time this morning, so I finished the Hemingway.  The ending broke me a bit, even though I knew what was coming.  And this bit:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.  Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.

Weeks 5-6  I’ve only completed 8 books this fortnight. I’m still partway through The Battle for Spain, Contraflow, Moranifesto, and The Devil that Dances on the Water. I am thus falling behind on the project – largely due to the necessity of spending significant portions of each day travelling and/or hospital visiting, time when I cannot read.  Things may get easier from now on, and if all else fails I will forego sleep altogether for the last few days and just read, read, read.  I’ve accepted this challenge and I will succeed.

My next bulletin will be on 24 September, covering days 43-56.

Onwards!

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2016 – what the actual??

It’s been a funny old year.  Not so much of the ha ha, either.  Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably?  I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.

Reasons to be Miserable:

Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass.  As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA.  As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan.  I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.

According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless.    The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe.   Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.

With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.

 

I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that.  As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail.  Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said.  They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella.  And so on.  All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament.  How else could it possibly happen?  If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.

The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’.   I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational.  We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it.  My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended.  Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.

trump-obama

This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition.  I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms.  In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.

 

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On the other hand…

The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster.  The behaviour of fans did not.  Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally.  Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.

Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.

Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election.  (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).

Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.

 

If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.

So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.

I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.

In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep.  I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.

If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony.  She stumbled, apologised, and began again.  In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.

 

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8 Decades of Refugees

RW-Twitter-Cover-photo-2We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East.  But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.

In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.

 

In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse.  CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.

1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe.  Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.

Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West.  And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.

In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.

hungary

In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance.  The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.

vietnam 1966

In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population.   On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and  1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.

In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable.  Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire.  In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.

 

great lakes

Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition,  Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.

2016more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

It goes on, and it always will.  There will always be wars, and rumours of wars.  There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change.  There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism.  People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark.  And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open.  Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope.  But we must hang on to it,  nonetheless.

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Migration Matters Festival

Friday 24th June

To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett
10.30am-6pm

Exhibition.

The Scar Test, by Untold
5.30pm-6.15pm

“I came to England, scarred for life.”


Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker
6.30pm-9pm

Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.

Iftar with Open Kitchen
9pm

Food and conversation!

 

 

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One in 113

RW-Twitter-Cover-photo-2One person in 113 worldwide is displaced from home due to conflict or persecution.  That’s the highest it’s ever been.  We’re talking about forced displacement, not people choosing to leave home because they fancy a better life somewhere else.  Warsan Shire’s poem expresses this with immense power:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well


you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

The UNHCR says that Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under its mandate worldwide. Colombia at 6.9 million, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million had the largest numbers of internally displaced people.

Commentators have often shown an uncanny ability to scan the faces of the people in the boats or waiting at border posts and determine where they have come from, and then to use these conclusions to argue that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but economic migrants.   Better to turn to the data gathered by UNHCR.

These tell us that the countries producing the highest number of refugees are, in order,

  1. Syria
  2. Afghanistan
  3. Somalia
  4. South Sudan
  5. Sudan
  6. DRC
  7. CAR
  8. Myanmar
  9. Eritrea
  10. Colombia

One does not have to be an expert on world affairs to be aware that the majority of these countries are, and in some cases have been for many years, riven by vicious civil wars, often spilling over into neighbouring countries.  The accusation that the young males amongst the refugees should be fighting for their country is nonsensical in these chaotic and volatile situations – who should they be fighting with, or against?  An oppressive government or an extremist rebel force?   Often both official and unofficial forces bolster their fighting strength by forcing boys and young men to join them.  In Sudan and CAR there has been at least the threat of genocide, in DRC disease and famine as well horrific violence and rape on an unthinkable scale.  In addition, IS and its affiliates are active in many of these areas.

Given all that, why do we even wonder about the motivations of those who flee?

The other accusation that is often made is that ‘they’ should have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – the nearest safe place – rather than heading to Europe.  Most do.   In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country.

Peace Talk Hopes Raised By Cease-fireBut in these countries, those who have fled genocide, famine, war and persecution find themselves in refugee camps.  These are, by definition if not in practice, temporary holding spaces, transitory, a stop along the road to a place to call home.  They are likely to be desperately short of food and medical supplies, sanitation is often rudimentary at best, and there is little prospect of education for the children.  Many of the countries that host most of the world’s refugees are barely able to support their own citizens.  When we say we are full or that we do not have the resources to support a pitifully tiny percentage of the desperate displaced people who need our help, we are demonstrating our own complacency and ignorance.

Here in Europe we can afford to feed, clothe, house and heal our own AND more.  The statistics tell us that we are not doing our bit, nowhere near.

 

cropped-cropped-Poster-2Migration Matters Festival – Thursday 23 June

Verse Matters – a Feminist Arts Event (19.30 pm) An inclusive, supportive space for poetry, spoken word, storytelling, music and comedy.  Performers include Khadijah Ibrahim, Rae Burgess and Chijioke Ojukwu.

 

 

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