Posts Tagged Jon McGregor
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, I’m not seriously claiming these are ‘the best books of the century’, that would be silly, given the randomness of what I’ve read and not read. The Guardian can draw upon the views of a range of reviewers; I can only draw upon my own. Over the course of this century I’ve been working, studying, running a charity, reviewing operas, bringing up a family, listening to music, as well as reading.
Nonetheless, I do read a LOT. Always have done. And 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 Her, Restoration 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 haven’t included an author or a book that you think should be there, do tell me (note that I respond better to recommendations than to reproofs for not having read your favourites!). 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.
Family circumstances make it unlikely I will have time to do my usual detailed breakdown of my favourite TV programmes, books, music and so forth for the year just about to end. I managed the film review, but for now, I will make do with mere lists, and hope to have time at some later point to talk a bit more about why.
TOP TV – not ranked in any way!
- Derry Girls
- Black Earth Rising
- They Shall Not Grow Old
- No Offence
- The A Word
- Killing Eve
- A Very English Scandal
- Star Trek: Discovery
- Agents of Shield
- The Bridge
- The Walking Dead
- Doctor Who
- The Cry
- Secrets of Cinema
- Black Hollywood
2018 in Music
- Songhoy Blues – Resistance
- Bjork – Utopia
- Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet – Illuminations
- Kamasi Washington – Heaven & Earth
- J to Z (BBC Radio 3)
- Tosca (Opera North)
- Don Giovanni (Opera North)
- Madama Butterfly (Opera North)
- Salome (Opera North)
- Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita (Music in the Round)
- Kiss Me Kate (Opera North)
- Silent Night (Opera North)
- Terry Riley – In C
- Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint/New York Counterpoint (Music in the Round)
- Steve Reich – Different Trains/John Adams – Fellow Traveler/John Zorn – Cat o’Nine Tails/Tanya Tagaq – Sivunittinni /George Crumb – Black Angels (Ligeti Quartet)
Books of the Year
- Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
- Naomi Alderson – The Power
- Wendy Mitchell – Someone I Used to Know
- Thomas Mullen – Darktown
- Cath Staincliffe – Girl in a Green Dress
- Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk
- Lawrence Wright – The Looming Tower
- Stephen King – The Outsider
- Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho
- Sarah Hilary – Come and Find Me
- Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race
- Stephen King & Owen King – Sleeping Beauties
- Eva Dolan – This is How it Ends
- Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad
- Paul Dobraszczyk – The Dead City
- Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad
- Caitlin Moran – How to be Famous
- Henry Marsh – Do No Harm
- Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale
- Dervla McTierney – The Ruin
- Keith Richards – Life
And a mention also to the Crucible Theatre production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, and to Philippe Sands’ superb podcast, The Ratline.
Thanks to all who shared these delights with me – the usual suspects (Martyn, Arthur, Viv, Ruth, Liz, Jane).
*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books. I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly. Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.
Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am. So I’ve devised a plan. I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore. I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today. Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics. Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.
A Childhood with my Head in a Book
How to Be a Girl
The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl. It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me. I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf. You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches. I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).
I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.) Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins. Just).
And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.
L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
Travellers in Time
I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past. And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present. Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge, and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge. My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.
In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up). I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons. And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.
I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different. It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions. It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.
Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe
Thresholds to Other Worlds
And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible. Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas. I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism. But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.
Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling. Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously, Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon. Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.
One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.
Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies. Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well. Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.
C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob. Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question. Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.
J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper. Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me. Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world. And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III. I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive. I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II). All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess
Displaced and Endangered
Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.
The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies. It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure. The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother. The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences. An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans). It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats. Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).
All of these books pull their punches to some extent. They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide. And they are right, in my view, to hold back. What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.
Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers
There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary. Here, the extraordinary is very small. So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes, it can live alongside us but without us knowing. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with. What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this. The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.
Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose
Myths & Legends
As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals. Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends. He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur, which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.
Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset
Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi. The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given. My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives). From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids). These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…
H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids
Reading the Detectives
As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading. I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited. Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit. And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.
Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison
If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt. I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.
Adult Life with my Head in a Book
I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction. Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13
For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists. If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it. Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.
I’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel. No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too. Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings. And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.
L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants
Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald. Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…). Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).
Half of a Yellow Sun
This is a brilliant, powerful novel. For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war. Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.
The Womens Room
Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits. It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one. I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more. But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends. French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing. The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t. And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.
Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t. But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes. The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels, and what I watched on TV and at the cinema. They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years. If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know. I still believe in humanity, despite everything.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there. Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966. Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened. But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything. Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities. It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.
The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945
My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary. But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers. She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear. When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her. The simple questions – why did they have to hide? why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary. My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…
Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews. This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour. But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)
I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV. Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal. As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42). It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.
I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson. But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least. I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.
Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land. It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers. Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.
I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes). David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.
All the President’s Men
This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government. The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things… This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story. There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).
So, that’s my ten books… Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me. I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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:
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/)
2012, for me, has been the year of the blog. The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced. I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude. And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views. On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and Diane Magras. To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!
The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out. But my own experience has been entirely positive. Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff. I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew. This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.
So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:
- John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
- Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
- TV : Homeland – plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen. Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics. Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising. The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!). Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
- I’ve been reading Proust. A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond. I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described. There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough. I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
- New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
- First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of – Hans Fallada, Alexander Baron, Haruki Murakami and Wilkie Collins.
- Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak House, but I need not have worried. Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
- Theatre – Geoffrey Streatfeild in both Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
- Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green. Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
- Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.
2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally. The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk. And that justice seems finally to be within reach now. Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.
And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life. The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning. We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.
So – onward to 2013.
No resolutions as such. But anticipations and aspirations –
- Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
- Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
- Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff. Lots and lots.
- Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
- Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
- Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
- Continuing to be an utter geek
- Listening to as much music as possible, with as eclectic a range as possible
- Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
- Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing. Going on and on.
- Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend
Phew! No pressure then.
Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits. Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.