Posts Tagged Rebecca West

Books of the Year 2017

These are the books that have made the most impression upon me, that have made me want to read everything by that author, tweet madly about how wonderful they are and press copies upon everyone I know, during 2017.  Many, but not all, appeared during 2016/17.

Earlier this year I undertook a challenge, to read 60 books in 60 days.  Reader, I nailed it.  I also blogged extensively about the books I read and I don’t intend to duplicate those reviews here, though I will list the books that make my ‘best of’ list which were part of that project.  Quite a few, actually.

One of the first books I read in 2017 was Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. I commented at the time that this was likely to end up being one of my books of the year, and nothing has displaced it.  He made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid, rather, inspired to go away and read the stuff he was 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.

clive james

As always, I found myself reading around various aspects of World War II.

Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s (2016) is a fascinating account, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between, drawing on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaving 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 thought often of Michel Butor’s comment, speaking of his own adolescence in the city, that it felt as though nothing was happening but that the nothing was bloody.


Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory: in the ruins of the Reich (2016) again draws upon contemporary sources (with particular, but not exclusive, emphasis on some of the women writers, reporters and artists – Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Lee Miller, Erika Mann) to paint a vivid picture of the devastation of Berlin and other German cities after the end of the War, and during the Nuremberg trials.  I followed this up with Rebecca West’s near-contemporary first-hand account, A Train of Powder (1955).  Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016) covered this period too, but from the perspective of those who were developing 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.  What makes his account particularly powerful is that he weaves his own family history into that of the architects of the legislation.  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. Adding to this coincidence, I found myself reading in quick succession two other family histories, that of Eva Hoffman, born in Cracow at the end of the war but whose parents survived the war in the Ukraine, near Lwów (aka L’viv or Lemberg), emigrating post-war from Poland to Vancouver (Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language), and then that of Lisa Appignanesi (Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir), an account of how her parents passed for Aryan in occupied Poland before relocating to Quebec.

Still in WWII but behind the Eastern Front, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) lets us hear the voices of the women who fought in the Red Army. Rather than the stereotypes perpetuated by Soviet propaganda or the opposing Western propaganda, we meet real women who did extraordinary things, who confronted not only opposing armies but prejudice from their comrades in arms and commanding officers, and from their families at home. And personal conflicts too – these often very young women fell in love, and mourned the loss of their femininity, and feared whether they would find husbands when the fighting was done.  Alexievich’s book first came out in 1985 but has been expanded to bring in more recent interviews, and material from earlier interviews which could not be published previously.


And another remarkable and compelling history from David Olusoga – Black & British: a forgotten history (2016).  Alongside bits of history that I was familiar with there’s so much that was new, and ran 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.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Webb’s How not to be a Boy, clearly a response to Caitlin Moran’s wonderful How to be a Woman/How to Build a Girl.   It is extremely funny, and – as with Moran’s books – often very moving as well.

webb boy

Other outstanding non-fiction titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003); Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012); David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017).  

When it comes to fiction I resent categorisations by genre, which always somehow end up marking some things as ‘literature’ and others as ‘crime’ or whatever.  However, given the sheer number of crime/thriller/detective novels that I read, it makes sense to group them together.

New discoveries this year include Ben Aaronovitch’s somewhat bonkers urban fantasy detective novel,  Rivers of London (2011).  This is the start of a series, which I have yet to follow up.


I came across Helen Cadbury’s Sean Denton police procedurals, To Catch a Rabbit (2013) and Bones in the Nest (2015) set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping.  I’d only just read them when I heard that she’d died,  an awful loss.  There’s one more Sean Denton novel just out, which I haven’t read yet.


I’ve been binging on various series featuring women detectives and as a result I’ve run out of  several of my current favourites:  Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan (Let the Dead Speak, 2017), Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw (latest one is Persons Unknown, 2017),  Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome (Quieter than Killing, 2017), and Valentina Giambanco’s Alice Madison (Sweet after Death, 2017). They all feature central women characters who are complicated and interesting, tight plotting, intriguing peripheral characters, and an overall plot arc which, whilst it doesn’t prevent each novel from being freestanding, gives a depth to the series if you read them consecutively.

Fortunately, whilst I wait for Casey, Steiner, Giambanco and Hilary to come up with new titles (no pressure, but do hurry up!), I’ve got lots to read by Elly Griffiths, whose The Crossing Places (2009) and The Janus Stone (2010) features not a woman cop but a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway.  I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.

Noah Hawley was new to me as a novelist, but I’d loved his writing for three TV series of Fargo, full of wit and heart and surprises.  His 2016 novel, Before the Fall lived up to the expectations that Fargo had raised.  It’s a thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality.


And a writer new to me but channelling (very convincingly) one of my all-time favourite detective novelists, Dorothy L Sayers.  Four new Lord Peter Wimsey stories from Jill Paton Walsh, a delightful chance to reacquaint myself with Peter and Harriet and Bunter and (oh joy!) the Dowager Duchess, and to see them in the context of world events and radical changes in society.  (Thrones, Dominations (1998)/A Presumption of Death (2002)/The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)/The Late Scholar (2013))

paton walsh

And some fantastic 2017 titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Sam Bourne – To Kill the PresidentJo Furniss – All the Little ChildrenLesley GlaisterThe Squeeze , Jane Harper – The Dry .

Another terribly sad loss this year was that of Helen Dunmore.  I’ve read most of her work over the years, this year alone I read three (The Lie (2014)/Exposure (2016)/The Betrayal (2010)).  I’m grateful for all the pleasure her books have given me, and that there are a few more for me to look forward to reading, including her final novel, Birdcage Walk.

This was the year I finally finished a ten-year project – to read all of Proust.  In French.  Le Temps retrouvé bit the dust in April, and I blogged about it here. 

temps retrouve

Prompted by my University of Sheffield Book Group, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015).


I suspect I’m not the only person with a deep fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a tendency to idolise Atticus Finch, who’d kind of been putting this off, having read some of the reviews (and the controversy about whether Lee genuinely wanted this to be published and/or had the capacity to  make that decision).  I’m glad I did read it, but it’s complicated, and I will be pondering more about this separately, because reading it sent me off on so many different trains of thought.

And finally, after reading another alt. US history (Philip Roth’s The Plot against America) I got round to Sinclair Lewis’s account of a demagogue, ‘vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic’, who wins the Democratic presidential nomination and then the Presidency.  He wins support despite the vulgarity and the lies and the lack of content in his speeches by addressing the people as if ‘he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.’  And he attacks the Press in very familiar terms:

I know the Press only too well.  Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.

It is impossible to read It Can’t Happen Here (1935) without seeing the current incumbent of the White House in the place of Buzz Windrip.  In the run-up to his election, the Guardian analysed the similarities, and the Washington Post compared Trump not only to Windrip but to Philip Roth’s Charles Lindbergh.  We are forewarned.

As part of the 60 books challenge, I read more from long-term favourite writers Stevie Davies (Awakening, 2013), Patrick Gale (The Whole Day Through, 2009), Rose Tremain (The Gustav Sonata, 2016) and Livi Michael (Succession, 2014). I’ve already followed up Livi Michael’s excellent Wars of the Roses historical novel with the rest of the trilogy (Rebellion, and Accession).  I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Garden of the Finzi Continis.  I discovered new writers: Sarah Moss, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Per Petterson, and Andrew Michael Hurley,  amongst others.

This represents only a fraction of what I’ve read in 2017. The 60 books are fully documented, and outside of that project I’ve tried to keep a note as I go along, but I know I’ve forgotten some things (maybe justly, maybe not).  And of course this list represents the best of what I’ve read, the stuff that, as I said earlier, I’ve been evangelical about getting other people to read, and have followed up or plan to follow up with more by the same writer.  I have a policy of not mentioning the books I’ve read (completed or abandoned) which I’ve found tedious, or badly written, or just profoundly mediocre (although if I found something I was reading to be pernicious, dangerous, defamatory or whatever, I reserve the right to make a noise about that).  Generally, though, let other pens dwell on clunky dialogue, cardboard characters and so forth – the world is full of books that give pleasure and enlightenment, that inform and move and delight, and I’d rather talk about them.

Meantime, my ‘to read’ pile never seems to diminish, no matter how much and how fast I read.  Priorities include finishing Anthony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, which I put to one side during my 60 books challenge, and have not yet resumed, and others which I have still to acquire, Coulson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I am, I am, I am (as well as any of her novels I haven’t read yet), and lots more Ali Smith.  Right, better get back to the books…





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In the midst of life, we are in death, etc…

…. and nowhere more so than in the haunting (in so many ways) French drama The Returned which recently left viewers on tenterhooks (or alternatively furious and vowing never to darken its doors again) with a final episode that left more questions than answers, and a long wait for series 2.

The dead return, apparently unchanged (at least initially), and unaware of their deadness.  Camille walks through her front door as if nothing untoward had happened (she’d died in a coach accident a couple of years previously), demanding food and  complaining bitterly that her room has been rearranged.  There’s no overt horror in her re-appearance, which allows a much more subtle take on its effects upon her family.  The pattern is repeated elsewhere as the newly undead attempt to find their old lives and slip back into them, only to be confronted by the fact that other lives have moved on in the meantime.

Where do these revenants fit in, in the literature and mythology of the undead?   They are not ghosts, which tend to be seen only fitfully and not by all, and to have no physical substance – Camille and her fellow returners are absolutely here, physically, ravenously hungry and startlingly randy too.  Ghosts often have a purpose too – like Banquo they are here to shake their gory locks at those responsible for their untimely demise, or to seek a way of resolving their unfinished business in this world – but if these have a purpose it’s not clear what it might be – at least not yet. They are not zombies, whose physical substance has been reactivated without the personality, the mind, the soul (if you will) that previously accompanied it –  an ex-person, reduced to a body and a hunger – these returners know who they were, who they loved, and have the full range of human thought and emotion.

Dramatically, there is much that recalls those stories of individuals believed to be dead, and reappearing unexpectedly to cause consternation and conflict as they try to reclaim their lives (Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Martin Guerre, Rebecca West‘s Return of the Soldier).   However, Rebecca West’s returning soldier and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are not instantly recognisable as the people they once were.  Chabert, who has clawed his way out of a mound of corpses, looks like what his former wife would wish to believe he was, a madman and an imposter.  Those who made their way home across Europe, as he did, over a century later, were often changed beyond recognition too, their health (mental and physical) permanently damaged, skeletal and haunted both by what they had witnessed and by their own survival.  The return of the deportees was a ‘retour a la vie’, and some at least, with care and medical treatment, did begin again to resemble their previous selves.   Like Dickens’ Dr Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after years of incarceration, and gradually establishing a fragile hold on life again.

In The Returned, Camille’s father says to his estranged wife Claire that ‘you prayed for this’ – it’s an accusation rather than a statement, even though in his own way he too had sought a continuing connection with the daughter he’d lost.  That reminded me of the episode of Buffy (‘Forever’, Season 5), where Dawn attempts to use witchcraft to bring back her mother, realising as she hears the footsteps approach the door that what has come back will not be the person she is grieving for.  She breaks the spell, just in time.  This thread is picked up in the following season as Buffy herself crosses back over that threshold between death and life, and feels that she isn’t quite as she was, that she has ‘come back wrong’.

Stephen King explored this too, in Pet Sematary, where the knowledge that one could bring back the deceased is too powerful for the protagonist to resist, even having tested the water, as it were, with a cat (who most decidedly isn’t the creature it was before)

and in the madness of terrible loss and grief does not turn back as Dawn did from bringing back his lost son.   The returned in King’s narrative look and sound almost like themselves.  Almost.  They know stuff though, that they should not know, and they are malign, clearly demonic.  Some of The Returned’s revenants seem to know stuff in the same way and to be able to use their knowledge to challenge or goad the living.  But whether they are on the side of the angels I would not want to say.  Ask me in a year or so, when I’ve seen Season 2.

The Returned‘s revenants were not (despite Claire’s prayers) brought back by the living, they appear to have simply returned.  But throughout literature the appearance of the dead amongst the living has always been associated with a threat – with the terror or destruction of the living, or with the exposure of past crimes and injustices.  Or, at the very least, the confrontation of the living with the trauma of death, in the person of those who have inhabited the liminal space between death and life. Thus neither the unexpectedly alive nor the undead can simply be reintegrated into society, even if the living can accept them.  They haunt us, and are themselves haunted,

What these various narratives address is the sense of unfinished business that is inevitably part of bereavement, and the notion that death is a threshold that might, just, be permeable.  There’s a moment in an otherwise entirely negligible children’s film, Caspar the Friendly Ghost (yes, I know, bear with me) where the dead mother entreats her husband and daughter: ‘I know you have been searching for me, but there’s something you must understand. You and Kat loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business, please don’t let me be yours.’  That one line justifies the existence of the film, for me.  Because so many of these narratives are really about how impossible it is for the living to deal with death.

Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):

I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)

So the unfinished business is not theirs, but ours.  And they come back, in dreams, but we know that their presence is not quite right, that time is out of joint if they are here.  I’ve dreamed so often that my mother is alive.  But never without that sense of unease, which could not be further from the feeling that I associate with her, of warmth and comfort and of being loved.  She has gone, and we haven’t got over it, and we won’t, but we know it is real.

Still, that boundary, that threshold, is always disturbingly present, just on the edge of our field of vision, and so we will continue to be fascinated by the notion that sometimes they do come back, and how that might be, even if it is and will always be the stuff of nightmares.

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