Posts Tagged Stephen King
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 final instalment of my reading diary, covering the final four days, along with general reflections on the project, and a full list of everything I’ve read.
25 September. Day 57 – Reading Christopher Hitchens’ cancer memoir, Mortality, I am reminded of a good friend, Jos Kingston, who was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in 2004, and died in 2007. Reading his words, I was struck that it could have been Jos talking:
To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not? … People don’t have cancer: They are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. … Whatever view one takes of the outcome being affected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.
I recall Jos saying that she wasn’t fighting cancer, she was negotiating with it. That if she adapted her lifestyle to conserve energy, reduce stress and maximise general health, it might allow her for as long as possible to enjoy the things she’d always enjoyed – walks in the countryside near her home, music, books. That worked for her, for much longer than the medics might have anticipated.
I think also, of course, of another dear friend, Tim Richardson, who didn’t manage to confound the initial predictions of ‘how long’, despite chemo. He too wrote about his experiences, and he started the charity, Inspiration for Life, which I chair, and which raises funds for cancer research and treatment.
Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. But I need not have worried about it being gloomy fare. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s tough to read but somehow uplifting.
In total contrast, I’m now reading Harlan Coben’s Home. This is a late entry in a fairly long-running series, and I’ve read nothing previously by him (though I did see a French film a few years back which it turns out was based on one of his novels, Tell No One). He’s one of the super best-seller thriller writers to whom I might not normally be drawn (though see my earlier caveats about not being snooty about so-called genre fiction, which at its best is a long way from merely generic) – but it was a Kindle freebie so worth a punt at that price. It’s a nice blend between a hard-boiled Chandleresque style, often quite funny even when being pretty brutal, and a more nuanced focus on emotion, trauma, grief and love. The women are utterly beautiful, the men fit and handsome, and most of them are unimaginably rich, but it’s not without subtlety, nonetheless, and Coben certainly insists that you keep turning the pages, not just to find out the twists and turns of the plot but because he’s made you care about the characters. I’d happily read more of his.
Also finished Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It’s set in eastern Norway, and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
Next: Stevie Davies’ Awakening, and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland.
I’ve read several of Davies’ novels in the past, most recently Into Suez, and always enjoy her writing. Looking for Transwonderland is a memoir from the daughter of murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa of her return to Nigeria after a decade.
26 September. Day 58 – Stevie Davies is always a fascinating writer, and this is set in a fascinating period:
Wiltshire 1860: One year after Darwin’s explosive publication of The Origin of Species, sisters Anna and Beatrice Pentecost awaken to a world shattered by science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion; a world of charismatic religious movements, Spiritualist séances, bitter loss and medical trauma.
It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal:
Even dear Mrs Spurgeon confesses that she keeps a close eye on Mr Spurgeon whenever he seems apocalyptically inclined.
Spurgeon (and dear Mrs S) are not the only real historical figures who feature here, but the focus of the novel is on the two sisters, and on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
27 September. Day 59 – finished Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division – its ‘jagga jagga’, as they say there.
Treated myself to Jan Carson’s Postcard Stories. It is, as the title says, a series of micro stories, each sent in postcard form to a friend, from various Belfast locations. There were originally 362 postcards, and 52 have been selected for the publication. They are funny, poignant, surreal, sometimes all at once. I do like the idea of teeny tiny stories, almost more than most ‘proper’ short stories which I find sometimes fall disappointingly between two stools. Cath Staincliffe, whose long-form fiction I’ve been enjoying for years now, publishes some flash fiction on her website, along with poems. And then there’s MicroSFF on Twitter.
And on to Giorgio Bassani’s Italian classic, The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Published in 1962, its setting is Ferrara, Italy in 1939, as racial laws begin to affect the lives of two Jewish families. There’s something of Sebald here.
This is the most oblique of Holocaust books. These Jews are affluent, educated, assured, assimilated. They are part of the fabric of Ferrara life and have been for centuries. And yet you know. That’s the saddest thing of all: right from the beginning, you know because the narrator knows. You know they will all be blown away “light as leaves, as bits of paper”; while they don’t. And at the end you, like him, will be bereft.
I’ve been meaning to read this since a fellow student spoke very powerfully about it at a postgraduate colloquium earlier this year, and I’m so very glad I have done.
Off to New York now, in 1943, but there’s no hint of the shadows that linger around the garden of the Finzi-Continis. This is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another 20th-century American classic that I’ve somehow missed out on reading until now. I’ve not seen the film, either, so although my image of Holly Golightly is inevitably influenced by that of Audrey Hepburn, I’m not conscious of other differences between book and film. I was intrigued to read, however, that Capote himself favoured Monroe rather than Hepburn in the role.
28 September. Day 60! Yes, by midnight tonight I will have finished reading my 60 books. No sweat, no pressure.
Just finished Jennifer Johnston‘s The Captains and the Kings. This was Johnston’s debut – in which the ‘turbulent history of 20th-century Ireland’ is background to a story of loneliness and isolation, of youth and age. It’s beautifully written, somehow out of time so that the past – the First World War in which Charles Prendergast fought, and the brother who died at Gallipoli, his shadowy wife, his distant parents – has a firmer reality than the present, such that I wondered when it was set. There’s a reference to ’55 years ago’ though, so the narrative is contemporaneous with the book’s creation. It’s a very simple story, in a way, and one where tragedy seems inevitable, but no less powerful for that. I am certain I read something by Johnston years ago, but cannot remember which – perhaps Shadows on the Skin, or The Old Jest?
On to my final book. Laura Lippman is one of my favourite crime writers, both for her stand-alone novels, and for the wonderful Tess Monaghan series about a Baltimore PI. This is her most recent novel, Wilde Lake.
And it’s excellent. Although the plot is complex and twisty-turny, what drives the novel, as always with Lippman, is character. Families, secrets, memory and the tricks it plays.
The present is swollen with self-regard for itself, but soon enough the present becomes the past. This present, this day, this very moment we inhabit – it will all be held accountable for the things it didn’t know, didn’t understand.
The things we don’t know, the things we don’t understand.
A great way to finish this challenge.
And that’s it! I guess I could take some time off from reading for a while now, but hey, that’s never going to happen.
From the moment when I could read for myself I’ve read hungrily, ravenously. I’ve read like it’s about to be made illegal, like I might suddenly lose the facility and words return to the mystifying symbols they were when I was 3 years old.
I read fast, like a hungry person eats. If I didn’t read fast, I could never have read 60 books in 60 days, of course. Do I sometimes miss things, details and subtleties, because I’m racing through – yes. And sometimes I wish I could slow down not just so that I can better savour the book I’m reading, but because I don’t want to run out. When I was young, I frequently ran out of ‘my’ books – Puffins for the most part, wonderful classics of children’s literature – and headed for my parents’ bookshelves where I encountered adult classics (such as Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Morte d’Arthur) and read and understood what I could, re-reading as I got older and could reach a fuller and richer appreciation. As an adult, packing for holidays pre-Kindle, I would fill a case with books, realise there’s no room for shoes or toiletries, discard some books and then squeeze them in somehow, because I can’t bear the thought of ending up stuck in a holiday cottage in the rain with nothing to read. A serious case of abibliophobia.
Even as a child I read critically. I read Enid Blyton, because her books were ubiquitous, but because I was also reading Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff, C S Lewis, and so many other truly fine writers, I was aware of what she lacked that they had, and I read her in the way that one might read a trashy novel on holiday because it’s the only thing to hand.
But I’ve never rejected something purely because of its genre or a schlocky cover (the latter did put me off Stephen King for a while, but I gave him a try and was instantly and permanently converted). That would have ruled out so many of the books and writers that I have loved. I have, though, chucked many a book aside, straight into the charity bag, if its prose clunks, its dialogue is rigid with cliché or its characters are flat and tedious stereotypes. But everything in this list, in all its rich variety, was rewarding to read.
So this last 60 days has been a blast. It’s been a source of pressure, particularly when I’ve had unexpected periods when reading has been impossible, and I’ve panicked about falling behind. It’s been a discipline – in the interstices of the day when I might otherwise faff about on social media or the like, instead, I’ve been reaching for a book, and I hope to keep that up, albeit in a less extreme form. But most of all it’s been a delight, and writing about the books after I’ve read them has been a pleasure too – it was something I wanted to do to ensure this wasn’t an arbitrary exercise, reducing the books to a number, or even just to a list, and also to force me to pause each time I finished a book, think about it, gather my thoughts and write them down before picking up the next one.
Anyway, here’s the list:
- Kate Atkinson – Case Histories (2004)
- Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
- Julian Barnes – Levels of Life (2013)
- Giorgio Bassani – The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1962)
- Alan Bennett – Untold Stories (2005)
- Sam Bourne – To Kill the President (2017)
- Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Unforgotten Coat (2011)
- David Boyle – Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance (2017)
- T C Boyle – Talk Talk (2006)
- Andrea Camilleri – August Heat (2009)
- Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffanys (1958)
- John le Carré – The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life (2016)
- Jan Carson – Postcard Stories (2017)
- Jane Casey – The Last Girl (2012)
- Ken Clarke – Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir (2016)
- Harlan Coben – Home (2016)
- Stevie Davies – Awakening (2013)
- Roddy Doyle – Two Pints (2012)
- Helen Dunmore – The Betrayal (2010)
- Helen Fitzgerald – The Cry (2013)
- Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003)
- Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (2017)
- Patrick Gale – The Whole Day Through (2009)
- Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (2013)
- Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (2017)
- David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017)
- Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (2015)
- Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
- Jane Harper – The Dry (2017)
- A S A Harrison – The Silent Wife (2013)
- Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms (1929)
- Christopher Hitchens – Mortality (2012)
- Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (2014)
- Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
- Jennifer Johnston – The Captains and the Kings (1972)
- Andrea Levy – Uriah’s War (2014)
- Laura Lippman – Wilde Lake (2016)
- Peter Lovesey – The Last Detective (1991)
- Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman (2007)
- Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (1998)
- Daphne du Maurier – Julius (1933)
- Livi Michael – Succession (2015)
- Caitlin Moran – Moranifesto (2016)
- Sarah Moss – Cold Earth (2009)
- Fay Musselwhite – Contraflow (2016)
- Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood (1952)
- Nii Ayikwei Parkes – Tail of the Blue Bird (2009)
- Michelle Paver – Thin Air (2016)
- Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses (2005)
- Caryl Phillips – The Final Passage (1995)
- Philip Roth – The Plot against America (2004)
- Donal Ryan – The Thing about December (2013)
- Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)
- Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (2016)
- Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project (2014)
- Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001)
- Tom Rob Smith – The Farm (2014)
- M L Stedman – The Light between Oceans (2012)
- Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (2016)
- H G Wells – The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)
I didn’t plan what I would read. I started by raiding my Kindle and the ‘to read’ pile by my bed, and adding books that friends recommended or lent. The selection was mainly based on being not too long, not too hard, and not read before – so it’s pleasing to see the variety in the list above.
- Exactly 50% of the writers are women.
- 80% of the books are fiction, of the remainder one is poetry, the others are history or memoir.
- 58% of the writers are new to me. And what’s best about that is that I will want to follow up most of those, to read all of their stuff.
- The earliest book on the list is the H G Wells, from 1896. Slightly to my surprise, over a third are from 2016-2017 and over half from 2010 onwards. I guess this fits with the bias towards new-to-me writers.
- Just over half of the writers are from the UK, 9 from the US, 4 each from Australia and from the Republic of Ireland, 2 each from Italy and from Canada, 3 from West Africa, one each from Pakistan, Norway, Turkey.
Stories can make you fly, and over the last 60 days I’ve flown to Pembroke castle in the 15th century, rural Ireland in the 1780s, Wiltshire in the 1860s, Oklahoma in the 1920s, Kanchenjunga in 1935, Ferrara in 1939, New York in 1943, Norway and Switzerland in wartime and the immediate postwar period, Leningrad in 1952, the Caribbean in 1958, Romania in 1989. I’ve flown to an archaeological dig in Greenland, to the Ghanaian hinterland, to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Oslo and Seattle and Chicago and New Jersey and Sicily. And into more speculative areas too, dystopian near futures and a mysterious island in the Pacific… That’s what reading can do for you.
Thanks to everyone who’s supported me in this, who’s lent or suggested books, liked/retweeted my blog posts and updates. I hope that some of you will now have some books to add to your ‘must read’ list – I’d love to know if so, especially if you read and enjoy something you might not otherwise have thought of.
And thank you most of all to Alan, Ali, Aminatta, Andrea C and Andrea L, Andrew, Ben, Caitlin, Caryl, Christopher, Daphne, David B and David G, Donal, Elif, Ernest, Fay, Flannery, Frank, Giorgio, Graeme, Harlan, Helen D and Helen F, Herbert, Hilary, Jan, Jane C and Jane H, Jarlath, Jennifer, Jo, John, Julian, Kate, Ken, Laura, Lesley, Livi, Margaret, Margot, Michelle, Mohsin, Nii, Noo, Patrick, Per, Peter, Philip, Roddy, Rose, Sam, Sarah, Shirley, Stevie, Susan, Thomas, Tom, Truman, and Valentina
With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. (Caitlin Moran, ‘Reading is Fierce’, from Moranifesto)
The world of literature … offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart. (Mary Oliver)
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. (Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby)
So, ten years time, 70 books in 70 days? Challenge (provisionally) accepted!
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/)
Inexplicably, the quality press has not yet invited me to name my top reads over the last twelve months, but no matter, I’ll do it anyway.
There is no attempt to rank or compare, or to identify one top title – just to share some of this year’s reading pleasure.
First, Taiye Selasi’s gorgeous Ghana Must Go. Drawn to it at first just for the title, 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.
John Williams’ Stoner had massive word of mouth before I got round to reading it. I was not disappointed – of course the academic milieu that it describes is very familiar to me and that helped to draw me in. But the emotional punch it pulled was unexpected and I rather regretted reading it in public.
I’ve written elsewhere about the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, from John Harvey. I read a lot of detective novels – it was a year of long train journeys – and discovered new writers, notably Ann Cleeves, Laura Lippman, Louise Doughty, Belinda Bauer and Anne Holt, as well as enjoying new stuff from existing favourite Cath Staincliffe. Her Letters to my Daughter’s Killer is powerful stuff.
Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo rocked my world, and Sugar Hall chilled my spine. I read the whole Game of Thrones series, and am eager for more. Other favourites from writers new to me were John Lanchester’s Capital, Patrick McGuiness’s The Last Hundred Days, and Sue Eckstein’s Interpreters. I will seek out more by all of them, though very sadly, Sue Eckstein’s early death means that there is only one more from her to look forward to.
Danny Rhodes’ Fan inspired me to reminisce and ruminate about my relationship with the game of football, and with Nottingham Forest in particular, and Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl both made me laugh uproariously, and moved me to tears. It prompted a blog too.
As well as discovering new writers, I had the delight of reading more by some great favourites. Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt, Stevie Davies’ Into Suez, Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, all very different, and all on top form.
Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary mystery, The Pierced Heart, played beautifully with the Dracula myth, and the set up – a young man travels into the heart of Europe, an older, darker Europe, is welcomed by a mysterious Baron in a castle full of alchemical texts and other, more troubling collections – not only echoes Bram Stoker but reminded me of Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape, about which I hope to write something in due course. And oddly there were echoes of other aspects of The Pierced Heart in Stephen King’s excellent Revival, despite the very different setting. My most recent Doctor Who blog touched on these themes.
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.
Other non-fiction that had an impact on me included Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which I read before I saw Steve McQueen’s harrowing and viscerally powerful film, and Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom, to which I was led by W G Sebald (in the final pages of Austerlitz). There was also Philippa Comber’s fascinating memoir of her friendship with Sebald, Ariadne’s Thread, another future blog, I hope.
Belinda Bauer – Blacklands, Darkside, Finders Keepers
Ann Cleeves – Dead Water, Red Bones, Silent Voices, Burial of Ghosts
Philippa Comber – Ariadne’s Thread
Stevie Davies – Into Suez
Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard
Sue Eckstein – Interpreters
Lesley Glaister – Little Egypt
John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness
Anne Holt – Blessed are Those who Thirst
Dan Jacobson – Heshel’s Kingdom
Liz Jensen – The Ninth Life of Louis Drax
Stephen King – Revival
John Lanchester – Capital
Laura Lippmann – The Innocents, Life Sentences, Don’t Look Back
Patrick McGuinness – The Last Hundred Days
Kenan Malik – The Quest for a Moral Compass
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo; Sugar Hall
Solomon Northrop – Twelve Years a Slave
Danny Rhodes – Fan
Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart
Cath Staincliffe – Letters to my Daughter’s Killer
John Williams – Stoner
…. 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.
Related articles (beware spoilers)
- The Returned (2004) (rantbit.wordpress.com)
- some further thoughts on Colonel Chabert here: https://cathannabel.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/sebald-and-balzac-quests-and-connections/
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.
In response to Stuart Heritage’s article in this week’s Guardian Guide, I have no intention of defending the indefensible (i.e. Twilight). And I haven’t yet seen the first episodes of the new series of True Blood, The Walking Dead, or Being Human – Heritage may, for all I know, be right that all of these have exhausted whatever value they had. However … I do rather mind being stereotyped by my love of these shows. For the record, I do occasionally wear a black t-shirt, but I do not practice witchcraft, do not have either a cat or a Tumblr site (que?) and if I did I would neither dress one as a butler nor call the other Elysian Moonquaver. And I do not accept that I have to choose between dressed up cats and Robert Pattinson or forswearing the whole genre.
I fully intend to continue to despise the wretched Twilight and to regard Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the absolute high points of television drama, and to love True Blood (madly over the top, and, yes, featuring some rather fetching topless men), and the Brit equivalents, Being Human (can it survive the departures of Mitchell, George and Nina?), Misfits (can it continue, after that frankly rather gobsmacking final episode?), The Fades (will there be another series?).
It all goes back to Buffy. Not, for me, to Dracula, or the George Romero zombie films, or Hammer Horror. Joss Whedon‘s show overwhelmed all of the assumptions I’d made on the basis of a silly title (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, anyone?) – just as The Stand disposed of my prejudices against Stephen King. Buffy had some seriously naff special effects, but it was never about that. The scripts were so sharp, so funny, so packed with layers of references that throwaway lines are often key to a more weighty subtext and the characters never lose their plausibility however bonkers the storyline. Through the medium of this fantasy with vampires, demons and all kinds of inhuman creatures, we’re exploring human relationships – teenagers and parents, sibling rivalries, sexual discovery and betrayal, bereavement and loss – in a fantastic context that allows these things to be explored in fresh and unexpected ways, that jolt us with their familiarity whilst we accept a narrative involving an ensouled vampire or a mayor turning into a giant snake. For all the scary stuff (and there are some real shiver down the spine moments) the things that stay with you are the human elements – what Heritage calls ‘the fat streak of humanity’.
I am, in general, less fond of zombies. Vamps – in the worlds created by or inspired by Whedon – are conflicted, capable of both savagery and love, and so can be interesting. Zombies per se are not. As Heritage points out, they basically just shuffle around, slurp brains and shed body parts. However, zombie drama is not fundamentally about zombies, it’s about surviving in an apocalyptic landscape, with a mindless and relentless threat always out there, and about how human beings act together and apart in the face of that. It’s about the fragility of civilisation – it’s no accident that The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later use the same opening dramatic device as Day of the Triffids, as our hero, waking in a hospital bed, is thrown into the midst of the post-apocalyptic chaos without any warning or preparation, and has to try to find allies, and figure out what it takes to survive. The Walking Dead gets its scares from the zombies, but its drama from the beleaguered human protagonists. Buffy required us to learn the plural of apocalypse – she saved the world, a lot – but the zombie drama requires us to face the terror of a world where no one saved us.
Fundamentally, all of these dramas, like Stephen King’s novels, deal with the sense that there is something bigger than the stuff of our everyday lives, and that people are making moral choices in the face of those bigger questions, about which side they’re on. In other words, what it means to be human. To quote the eleventh doctor, ‘Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is’.
Buffy – the best bits: Harvest, Innocence, The Wish, Doppelgangland, Hush, The Body, The Gift, Tabula Rasa, Once More with Feeling, Chosen. See http://slayageonline.com/ for academic takes on the Buffy/Whedonverse.
A very incomplete list of some of my favourite apocalypses not mentioned above: Stephen King – The Mist, Cormac McCarthy – The Road, John Wyndham – The Chrysalids, Chris Marker – La Jetee, Barry Hines – Threads, P D James – Children of Men (and the rather different but also excellent film thereof), Liz Jensen – The Rapture
I find myself – as someone who always has at least two books on the go – currently reading both the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche… and Stephen King’s latest blockbuster, 11.22.63. If I say that these present two very different reading experiences, an ironic ‘who knew?’ would be a reasonable response. However, I invariably find that the things I’m reading in parallel, however different they may be in genre, register, subject matter or anything else, create intriguing connections and trigger, at the very least, random ruminations on the various topics that preoccupy me.
Proust is actually immensely readable, if you let yourself go, let yourself float along on his endless sentences, absorbing it all rather than worrying about what is happening (not a huge amount, in general, it’s not about external events as much as internal processes – the process by which the narrator becomes indifferent to Gilberte with whom he has been in love, for example). One doesn’t pick the book up with the sense of urgency that Stephen King can generate, and one is unlikely to be tempted to skip mealtimes or be late for appointments, or to miss out on sleep in order to read just one more chapter. But you can lose yourself in it, immersed in his world – and it’s also funnier than one might have expected. Obviously Proust is hugely influential on 20th century fiction, not just in France. Butor certainly shows the influence of his style in his labyrinthine sentences – bizarrely, he was criticised for this by the literary establishment, on the basis that the French language demands short sentences. Understandably he referred them to Proust, only to be told, well, Proust is Proust. Taking the view that Butor is Butor, he dumped the draft with the short, pithy sentences for the one that draws you in and takes you on a hypnotic journey where the phrases loop around and around so that the key words and images accumulate more and more power as they resonate with each other.
If everyone agrees that Proust is a great writer, not many have actually read any, let alone all, of his great oeuvre. Stephen King is read by millions, but disparaged by many, even if his critical standing is better than it used to be. He now gets reviews in the quality press, even if most still start with a defence of the coverage being given to this kind of book. It wasn’t always so, and the change is reflected in the book covers – early editions looked tacky, whilst more recent reissues and new titles, have a generally classier look. The schlock-horror image put me off for a long time, and I only read King because a friend told me I must, and lent me The Stand. I didn’t expect to like it. But within a page, I was hooked, and read it straight through, twice. That’s one of his great gifts; right from the start he makes you want – need – to know what happens and, very importantly, makes you care about the people he introduces, so that the compulsion to read on is not just curiosity but an emotional connection.
He’s a hugely talented writer, who can transcend genre, but who for the most part is happy to work within it; a horror writer who can go for the gross-out but whose power resides in his ability to make you connect with his characters, and in his ability to make goodness as compelling as evil. Not all of King’s books are great, but none are less than readable, and many will repay re-reading. He uses the classic horror writer’s trick, of starting with the everyday, the familiar, and introducing something that’s just that bit off key, unsettling. Often this is done by the narrator forewarning us that this apparently mundane event is far from it – in 11.22.63 the trigger is a teacher reading the work of a pupil in his adult learners’ creative writing class. We don’t know how or why this will change everything, but we know that it will do so, and everything thereafter is imbued with this disquiet – a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, to use Freud’s term. It’s a cognitive dissonance – something is both familiar and foreign, and so one is at the same time attracted and repelled.
One thing King does very powerfully is to create a bad place. Derry, Maine, is one such – a town that just isn’t quite right, where this disquiet is manifested in the mutual mistrust of the locals, the desire of visitors to get the hell out as soon as they can, and a feeling that bad things have happened, may be still happening, and are probably just around the next corner. It’s part of King’s fictional geography of Maine, his home state, a trinity to match Lovecraft‘s Massachusetts trinity (Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot on the one hand, Innsmouth, Arkham and Dunwich on the other) and we visit it in many of his novels – he references the plots and characters of those earlier novels often too, so the reader who’s familiar with the opus has an added weight of unease. Interesting in this context to see the new Topophobia exhibition and publication, on fear of place in contemporary art.
I thought of that aspect of King quite often when reading L’Emploi du temps. Butor’s narrator arrives in a northern industrial city, his train is late, and he’s lost his letter of introduction with details of the firm he’ll be working for or his hotel, so on his first evening in the city he gets lost, and ends up sleeping on a bench in the 3rd class waiting room. Obviously this is an inauspicious start, but right from these first pages, there’s the sense that it’s more than that. Jacques Revel is afraid. He’s ‘seized with sudden panic…. for one endless second… overwhelmed by an absurd wish to draw back, to give it all up, to escape’ (Passing Time, p. 8). Later, a colleague, who’s never left the city, tells him ‘there’s something peculiar about this place, something which I’ve never seen satisfactorily described in any story set elsewhere, a sort of permanent dread’ (p. 89). Just like Derry, Bleston is a place where we are in suspense, waiting for the bad things to which everything is leading, and which everything is attempting to conceal, and where ‘even at midday the few passers-by hurry, hugging the walls, humming to themselves with lowered heads as if it were black night’ (p. 90). Something is wrong with Bleston, but unlike King, Butor does not require us to accept a supernatural explanation for this. We’re potentially in the realm of Todorov’s ‘fantastic uncanny’, where the apparently supernatural is subsequently explained as illusion (through dreams, drugs, madness), but we are ultimately left with uncertainty, as the book ends with the narrator’s departure, and his acknowledgement of the lacunae in his narrative. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the classic example of this – the reader is left to ponder whether the governess is delusional, and nothing supernatural has actually happened, or whether the laws of reality have changed as she believes. The French have a higher regard for fantastic literature than we have. Poe and Lovecraft are held in much higher esteem there, and both are present in Butor’s Bleston – Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ has intriguing echoes in not only the supernatural but the detective story aspects of the book, and we also find the Lovecraftian motif of a place where every route out leads back to the place one is attempting to escape – see Ramsay Campbell‘s story ‘The Church in High Street’ for a more recent hommage to Lovecraft in this respect. To quote Revel’s colleague again: ‘Perhaps you’ve already tried to escape, but in that case you’ve only just made a beginning, M. Revel … you’ll be losing more than your way’ (p. 89-90).
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1965)
Ramsay Campbell, ‘The Church in High Street’, Cold Print (London: Grafton Books, 1985)
Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)”’, New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525-48
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898 (London: Penguin, 1986)
Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)
H P Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927 (NY: Dover, 1973)
H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 1999)
Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918(Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1976)