Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far

We are halfway through the calendar (well, a little bit over, but who’s counting) and I wanted to take a look back at all I have read and jot down some favourites before I forget them in the end of year scramble. [Instead of the book covers, which I have already used in previous posts about those books, I thought I would include pictures of my two favourite libraries in London instead.]

A noirish picture of Senate House which seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel.

According to my Goodreads counter, I’ve read 75 books so far this year. There have been some periods when I could barely concentrate on reading, when I was too het up with work and personal matters, but on the whole it’s not a bad number, an average of 12.5 books a month. It feels like it’s been a good mix of male and female authors, translated or foreign language books and English language ones, and a broad mix of genres. Here are the books which really stayed with me long after I read them (in chronological order of reading):

César Aira: The Lime Tree

The first Asymptote Book Club title, which I read just in time to ring in the New Year, and gave me a hunger to read more by this author. I love his slapdash style and the way he zooms in on the fine detail, then telescopes out to describe the historical and social issues of his country.

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson – A Rather Haunted Life

This gave me so much insight into the life of one of my favourite authors. Suddenly, a lot of things became clear to me, and, although it was sad, it was somehow not as depressing as the Blake Bailey biography of Richard Yates. P.S. Why do so many writers I admire have difficult relationships with their mothers?

Senate House Library

Michelle McNamara: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Not usually a fan of true crime, which I always feel slightly icky about because of its voyeuristic qualities and because it focuses so much on the criminal instead of the victims. But this book (which has now deservedly achieved higher visibility because of the finding of the killer she describes) gets the balance just right. Yes, it is the story of a woman’s – and a group’s – obsession with a killer who made life in California hell for several years in the 1970s, but it also is compassionate and respectful towards the victims.

Bibhutibhushan Bopadhyandyaya: Aranyak

Another Asymptote Book Club title, an immersive experience of a lost world. It may not be the most flawless book from the storytelling point of view – in fact, it often feels more like anthropological field notes rather than a novel (and I know not everyone finds the two equally fascinating). But there are beautifully nuanced observations (as well as blind spots) and lyrical descriptions of the forests which I loved.

Senate House Library, the Periodicals room.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love

OK, you’re going to think I’m just doing one long advertisement for the Asymptote Book Club, but I’ve honestly been blown away by their selection of books, most of which have pushed me a little beyond my comfort zone (which I like to think is plenty spacious enough already, but there is always room for more). This quietly devastating story about looking for love in all the wrong places had my heart in my throat all the time while reading it.

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters

As a crime novel this may not be quite perfect (I guessed the perpetrator fairly early on, although the author does its best to create a list of suspicious characters), but it is a hard-hitting description of rural life in South Africa, the life that so few tourists get to see. It really helps us to understand the Afrikaner mentality a bit better, and tries not to take sides in the tricky matter of land ownership and race in that beautiful but troubled country. It got me doing more research on ‘plaasmord’ and South African history.

My beloved old British Library reading room, back when it was housed in the British Museum

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London

So grateful the David Bowie Book Club made me reread this one, as it seems to be ever more appropriate to the present-day.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

A debut novel that is the reverse of Cold Comfort Farm, in many ways. Instead of parody of the gloomy, dramatic portrayals of country life, we have a modern take on life in the countryside which seems to not have changed much for the better. Like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, this is both a family story and the description of a very tough way of life, which is being encroached upon by big agriculture and developers. The prose was so poetic and accurate, that I was completely won over.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

I started reading this under the impression that it was a collection of essays rather than a novel, and I’m still not quite sure what it is. But it doesn’t matter. This constellation novel is a jazz improvisation on the subject of travelling, escaping, finding freedom, and it’s the flights of fancy which charmed me.

What books have inveigled their way into your heart this year? And do you think they will continue to claim their spot in your heart until the end of the year?

The modern British Library


19 thoughts on “Half Year Mark: Favourite Books So Far”

  1. The Shirley Jackson biography definitely appeals to me, especially given the fact that I’ve been reading a couple of her books. As you say, gaining an understanding of a writer’s personal life can shed a lot of light on certain aspects of their work, not least their influences and recurring themes. She strikes me as someone who had a lot to say about society’s treatment of outsides or outliers – people who are somewhat ‘different’ from the norm or who don’t conform to traditional expectations.

    1. She has indeed a remarkable eye for outsiders, perhaps because she always struggled to fit in. And she was quite severely agoraphobic during the last few years of her life, which I think explains the very claustrophobic nature of much of her work, especially ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’.

  2. I forget: was Aranyakas part of the Upanishads? Or was it the forest-dwelling part of the Vedas just before them? There were four parts to the Vedas, and it seems to me Aranyakas was the third… Interesting.

    1. I have no idea, honestly, but I know there is an old precedent that the author must be referring to. Definitely forest-dwelling inhabitants in this book, but set in far more modern times (about a century ago).

  3. I first read Down and Out in Paris and London about 35 years ago. Thought it was brilliant, I must read it again.

    1. When I read it ages ago, it felt like he was writing about history (at least in the developed world), but sadly when I reread it, it seemed still quite topical.

  4. Those ‘photos are lovely, Marina Sofia! I could lose myself in those libraries. As for your books, I’m glad you’ve had some really excellent reads. I’m intrigued by the Brynard. I give credit to an author who can portray a place like South Africa in a nuanced way. I think that that one needs to go on my radar!

    1. Isn’t Senate House photogenic? No wonder it appears in so many films. And yes, I would recommend the Brynard, hope that more of the series gets translated.

  5. I love the library pictures – the first one looks very atmospheric! It sounds as though you’ve read some great books so far this year. I’m looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London. I have read and enjoyed most of George Orwell’s other books, but not that one yet.

    1. Senate House is very atmospheric indeed and 1930s or post-war looking, no wonder it appears in quite a few films. I think you will like Down and Out… – it has all of Orwell’s compassion and detailed observation.

  6. 75 books is brilliant, I think I am on 66. I have also enjoyed those Asymptote books, Love especially has really stayed with me, such a heartbreaker of a story. The Shirley Jackson biography does sound fascinating.

  7. You’ve read 75! Well done!

    I’m reading Flights at the moment and really enjoying it.

  8. That’s a lot of good reading (and some really beautiful library pix….) I adore GO as you know and can never get tired of him. Flights is working its way up the TBR – I really do want to get to it soon…

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